Bethany Nowviskie

  • Published: Mar 13th, 2010
  • Category: higher ed

on compensation

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I have felt troubled, lately, by the number of tenured and — to a much lesser degree, tenure-track — faculty (pardon me, friends, all!) whom I’ve heard whining about the “uncompensated” time they spend on their digital humanities scholarship. They are not talking about the sorts of unpaid service many of us render every day in support of the digital humanities community: time spent planning conferences and other gatherings, serving on advisory and executive boards for various projects and digitally-oriented professional societies, advising graduate students and junior colleagues not our own, inserting scholarly voices into commercially- and institutionally-driven conversations about the transformation of our cultural archive in the electronic age, and offering methodological training or building resources meant to bootstrap other scholars in their ability to engage meaningfully with digital objects and processes.

No. That’s all good work — necessary, important work, and it’s work that I have chosen to undertake, in my non-tenure-track, library-based position on the “administrative and professional faculty” of the University of Virginia, to the detriment of my ability to focus on my own research and writing. I don’t waste time, but time periodically wastes me. To someone who trained as a humanities scholar at a large research institution, a role like mine can feel like a reversal of the natural order of things. I work on “my” scholarship at off hours — stolen weekend mornings in coffee shops, or late at night — and spend most of my energy on service, the consuming category of activity against which graduate students and assistant professors are warned, and which I find — in all regards — richly rewarding.

But that’s not what I’m talking about.

The digital humanities community has, fruitfully, expanded to embrace a wider array of scholarly disciplines and incorporate more fully a broader range of highly-educated professionals employed in alternative academic roles. Part of this expansion has been to draw in established scholars who were not active in the first waves of humanities computing. These people, in some cases, have never felt the joy and terror of Extreme DIY — the do-it-yourself default stance many of us learned to adopt in the early days of the Web, when the only way to engage with humanities tools and resources was, first, to build them. It’s important to stress that “hacking as a way of knowing” remains a strong and vital thread in the digital humanities, even as prêt-à-porter software and digital resources have become predominant. (Some of these tools and archives evolved from early experiments and production activities in scholar- and librarian-led humanities labs or university presses, but others are purely the product of commercial interests.)

Perhaps the attitude toward “work” I find disappointing in some members of this new DH wave comes from a lack of experience in defining a digital humanities problem and then building tools and datasets from scratch to address it. (That’s an activity much like traditional editorial work and bibliographic scholarship — which has also been, in recent decades, though certainly not always, or even in the memory of some of our senior colleagues in English departments, an activity marginalized and denigrated as akin to “service.”) Or perhaps a certain turn of mind kept those people away from our more risky, Wild West days in the first place. It is also entirely possible that the tendency I have noticed in some established scholars new to the digital humanities — a tendency to view what I would consider to be their own, deeply intellectually engaging research and scholarship as “uncompensated work” insofar as it employs digital tools and methods — stems from causes mysterious to me as they exist outside my own experience in the academy, or beyond the quirks of my own work ethic.

Whatever. It’s deeply weird.

Although it’s tempting to draw a comparison to archival research and bibliographic scholarship done at one’s own institution, for which no academic would expect special compensation, it would be disingenuous to elide the aspects of digital humanities scholarship that are mechanical and time-consuming. We’ve come a long way, baby, but a great deal of our work still requires a level of encoding and markup, data entry and digitization, processing and editing, metadata provision, or munging and transformation that demands close attention to detail and a willingness to invest time. But if that is “service” work, it is most often work done in service to one’s own research, and within sight of a community of practice that has defined itself not in terms of angle brackets, but in the relation of algorithm to interpretation. If it is “uncompensated work” in the sense I most often hear that phrase used — for, say, time spent in the summer or around the margins of a faculty member’s teaching duties on collaboration with the staff of a digital center to forward the scholar’s personal project — then I clearly fail to understand the basis on which our colleges and universities compensate their tenured faculty.

More worrying would be if it is time spent in intensive consultation and collaboration with digital humanities “staff” that falls into the mental category of “uncompensated labor.” This collaboration can involve personnel attached to DH labs, centers, and central services (including classified staff, non-tenure-track faculty, librarians, full-time and contract IT professionals, graduate consultants, and post-docs) as well as paid graduate students, hired by departments or through grant funds expressly to work on the faculty member’s project. Digital humanities staff are generally highly trained and often deeply educated in one or more disciplines. They are literate in humanities resources and modes of inquiry, and experienced (to a degree highly uncommon in scholars who have worked primarily within one disciplinary silo) in working across disciplines and with a variety of methods: tools, standards, languages, approaches. The most intellectually-engaging collaborations I’ve had over the course of fifteen years in the digital humanities have been in — shall we say — mixed company, where practitioners brought deeply-invested scholarly and professional perspectives to the work, and yet their experiences in cross-disciplinary collaboration equipped them to appreciate differing assessments of validity and different reward structures. So much for staff. Working closely with students as apprentices and collaborators on DH projects, on the other hand, fits what I consider to be the teaching and research mission of higher education.

A recent essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education responded to a piece by Thomas H. Benton (William Pannapacker) on the “Big Lie About the ‘Life of the Mind’.” The Benton article frames scholarly work — especially in the academic lifestyle as understood by prospective graduate students from “families that believe in education, that may or may not have attained a few undergraduate degrees, but do not have a lot of experience with how access to the professions is controlled” — less in terms of disinterested inquiry and celebration of knowledge, and more “about the implicit promise of the life of a middle-class professional, about being respected, about not hating your job and wasting your life.” The response, “Neither a Trap nor a Lie,” by James Mulholland, compares, in some useful ways, the decision to pursue academic work to the level of fearlessness and passion commonly accepted as underlying a decision to pursue a career in the arts. Mulholland’s essay is troublingly condescending, though, to the degree that it pits craft and trade against a definition of “the life of the mind” as “a professional position that has a unique relationship to work.” What is this unique relationship? It’s undefined, but Mulholland shares an anecdote of a summer spent slumming it with the housing and maintenance division of his undergraduate alma mater: “They outlined an alternate life in which I became an electrician, got paid to learn my trade, and, if I was lucky, owned my own business. They made a persuasive argument for a life I had never before imagined. But I didn’t want to be an electrician. I wanted literature to be my work.” Readers of the essay who have not, with Mulholland, succumbed to the flattering refrain of “the life of the mind,” and its implicit assumption that other lives are less mindful, may feel uncertain about the exact terms of the “work” this author embeds in act of professing literature — or even the degree to which “literature” is the object of the work or its praxis.

“Literature” is certainly not a rubric for measurable labor in the way that employers of digital humanities staff must account for it. And even there, we differentiate — necessarily, sometimes reluctantly, and, at our best, ethically — among measurements of time and effort devoted by staff in differing professional categories. (Julia Flanders of Brown University will be taking up the notion of “time worked” in an essay in a forthcoming open access collection on and by humanities scholars employed within the academy, but off the tenure track.)

What’s my point? It’s that adequate “compensation” — the presumed answer to that lament I’m hearing more and more, about “uncompensated time” spent by faculty working on their own digital humanities projects — will remain elusive until we can begin to pin down more precisely the nature of all of our work, and the ways in which we are rewarded for it and it rewards us. I’m not holding my breath, but I would venture to predict that the pressure on faculty to shift for themselves with regard to the digital humanities will only increase as staff salaries are frozen in higher ed (prompting departures among classes of employees whose skills can command real money elsewhere) and as positions go unfilled or supporting workforces are deliberately reduced.

For teaching and research faculty, the question is the same as it ever was: what constitutes valid labor in the academy, deserving of reward, and how much of what we must do as responsible teachers, researchers, and colleagues, will go “unrewarded?” This is, of course, a canard that sheds its feathers in every aspect of our working lives and the institutions that support them. Interestingly, faculty commonly direct frustration on this matter to the offices of deans and provosts, while upper administration maintain that power to change or better exploit the system rests wholly with the faculty. (In the digital humanities realm, the editorial boards of organizations like NINES and Vectors have taken the provostial view to heart and are offering paths to robust peer review, scholarly validation, and publication for a variety of born-digital and digitally-edited content.) But the lament of the un-fellowshipped summer digital humanist is fundamentally most troubling to me because of what it says about the intellectual status of my brand of humanities scholarship — the work I admire, participate in, and promote in my own shop, in my primary professional societies, at formal and informal conferences, and in action-oriented conversation. As much as condescension toward craft and trade labor makes my skin crawl, I recognize that many faculty will draw an inherent distinction between the knowledge work they have traditionally performed and the production or shaping of systems, or of things. But it’s with a sinking sensation that I listen to this talk of “uncompensated time.” We’ve done a poor job of articulating the real work of humanities computing — the foundational work of modelling and knowledge representation; of engagement with theory through method; and of transforming the way we teach, think about, preserve, and make accessible our cultural heritage in the context of technological and societal shifts — when time spent in devoted labor within the digital humanities doesn’t even get a slightly unsavory, complicitly elitist pass under the rubric of “the life of the mind.”

Creative Commons License This site uses a heavily modified version of Bryan Helmig's Magatheme. Work at by Bethany Nowviskie is always CC-BY. Want to know why? The falling letters are by Wayne Graham. He kindly made them to replace a set I designed in Flash in the late 1990s and had in place for more than 17 years. Not a bad run! Ave atque vale.