eternal september of the digital humanities

Here’s where I am. It’s nearly Hallowe’en, and kids have settled into school routines. I have little ones in my own house and big ones in the Scholars’ Lab — the youngest of whom are newly, this year, exactly half my age. Other kids are dead, and it’s still bothering me a good deal. Mornings in Virginia feel cold now, and acorns are everywhere underfoot. We’re tracking leaves inside.

It’s a melancholy way to begin a post, but it situates us.

It’s October 2010 in the social scene of the digital humanities, and (yes, I’m feeling wry) our gathering swallows Twitter in the skies.

I tweet a lot. It’s a mixture — the writing and the reading — of shallow, smart, and sweet. I answer lots of email, too, lots of messages from strangers asking questions. We’re doing a good job, my team, and people are asking how. I stuck my neck out on a thing or two, and people are asking why, or for more. This fall, I worked with friends to launch a website that I’m proud of — which is for strangers, asking questions. I’ve stopped answering to the phone.

There’s a bit of a joke around the SLab, about the degree to which the boss-lady is not service-oriented. It’s funny (as they say), because it’s true. But it’s only true insofar as I let it be — and most local colleagues realize that I put on this persona consciously, as a useful corrective or (at least) a countering provocation to that strong and puzzling tendency I have noted as a scholar come to work in libraries: the degree to which the most beautiful quality of librarianship — that it is a service vocation — becomes the thing that makes the faculty, on the whole, value us so little. Service as servile. The staffer, the alternate academic, the librarian, the non-tenure-track digital humanist, as intellectual partner? Not so long as we indulge our innate helpfulness too much. And not so long as we are hesitant to assert our own, personal research agendas — the very things that, to some of us once expected to join the professoriate, felt too self-indulgent to be borne.

Continue reading “eternal september of the digital humanities”

uninvited guests: regarding twitter at invitation-only academic events

[Subsequently published in Hacking the Academy.]

Over the past several years, I have been privileged both to attend and to help plan a number of invitation-only conferences, institutes, and symposia related to my field, the digital humanities. I use the word “privileged” not because of the exclusivity of these events, but because I know from personal experience how very hard their organizers work to set conditions leading to meaningful experiences and outcomes.

In recent weeks, I’ve attended two private events — UVa’s Shape of Things to Come conference, on scholarly editing and matters of sustainability (#uvashape), and the Re:Enlightenment Exchange (#reenx), a set of dialogues hosted by NYU and the New York Public Library. On Wednesday, I’m heading to another invitation-only gathering, Playing with Technology in History (hashtag TBD: #pastplay?), and we’re gearing up at my shop, the Scholars’ Lab, to host a second round of our NEH-funded training program, the Institute for Enabling Geospatial Scholarship (#geoinst) — by application only; deadline long passed. I’m also helping to organize the 8th annual meeting of the Mellon-supported Scholarly Communication Institute this summer (#sci8-to-be).

Most likely, you’re not on our guest list. Continue reading “uninvited guests: regarding twitter at invitation-only academic events”

day of digital humanities

Just a quick post to say that I participated again this year in the Day in the Life of the Digital Humanities “community publication project,” along with these fine folks. This is becoming an annual exercise in which digital humanities scholars and practitioners of all kinds document the ins and outs of a typical day.

My own blog posts and pictures are here, at the somewhat ominously named “Day of Bethany Nowviskie“. Some other folks from the Scholars’ Lab contributed, too: Kelly Johnston, Joe Gilbert, and Wayne Graham.

I’ve been peeking in on the RSS feeds, and am looking forward to reading day-in-the-life posts from many, many friends and not a few strangers all over the world. You can also get a snippet-y sense of the activity by watching the #dayofDH hashtag on Twitter.

on compensation

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. Continue reading “on compensation”

#alt-ac: alternate academic careers for humanities scholars

[Update and disclaimer, 2013: This post was the seed of #Alt-Academy, an edited collection and grassroots publishing platform at MediaCommons. In its initial iteration, in the summer of 2011, the project featured two dozen contributions by 33 fantastic authors. New editors have joined #Alt-Academy and fresh content is forthcoming. Because people continue to link to this post as shorthand for the emergence and naming of the #altac “movement” (so called–not by me!), I want to preface it with a link to something else I’ve written, in an attempt to explain the term: “Two and a Half Cheers for the Lunaticks.” If you are writing one of the many articles critiquing current uses of the term, I hope that you will pause to read that contextualizing post, and what I say here. In brief: in 2009, when we started using it, “alternative academic careers” was a pointed push-back against the predominant (and in fact only) phrase, “non-academic careers.” “Non-academic” was the label for anything off the straight and narrow path to tenure — even if that position were, say, in an academic library, a writing center, a university-affiliated research group or cultural heritage organization. I felt it diminished humanities scholars who continued to use their skills in and around the academy, and I was concerned that it discouraged grad students from contemplating new paths. “Non-academic” is also, frankly, most of the world. At a moment when Twitter was emerging as a tool for academic community and labor organizing, it was helpful to have a more specific hashtag through which a relevant group could share info, become visible, and begin to agitate for better working conditions. It’s in fact a terrific accomplishment for the alt-ac community that today we hear the opposite refrain: the term “alternative” is not expansive enough, and it suggests we play second fiddle. “This shouldn’t be ‘alt’-anything,” the complaint goes. “This work is central. It’s obviously valid. In fact, it’s the mainstream.” I agree that the term may have outlived its usefulness (and am certainly disappointed that it has been co-opted by people selling “coaching” services to under-employed academics, or reading it without reference to our early work as a reification of class difference and a brain-dead brand of jobs-crisis “solutionism”). But I will observe that “alt-ac” in its early years was extremely valuable in community-building, in jump-starting conversations about authentic graduate education reform and the more subtly exploitative aspects of academic labor (that extend beyond and function in tandem with adjunctification), and in legitimizing the decisions so many humanities scholars have made, to contribute to the larger mission of the academy in ways oblique to their formal training and complementary to the professoriate. The “alt” in “alt-ac” was never meant to evoke an “oops! Plan B” moment for grad students, or suggest escape hatches be built on the backs of other professions — but rather to gesture at the alternative academy that we must construct together, from the margins to the center and back again.]

About six weeks ago, I left a swanky DC hotel feeling pretty good. The Scholarly Communication Institute, an 8-year old Mellon-funded project for which I serve as associate director, had just concluded a two-day summit with a some of the most interesting institutional thinkers and do-ers in the humanities: leaders from CHCI, the international consortium for humanities centers and institutes, and from centerNet, its energetic digital counterpart. For SCI, this gathering culminated a process that had begun in the summer of 2008, when we hosted an event on humanities centers as sites for innovation in digital scholarship. After a January meeting in Tucson (where grapefruit were ripe in the hotel courtyard) and a series of less paradisiacal conference calls and proposal drafts, the two groups were now poised for meaningful collaborative action. There was a palpable sense in the room that the plans we were hatching could change the way business is done in the humanities, digital and otherwise. In fact, something like a five-year program was emerging, and the two groups had outlined a series of co-sponsored ventures, joint meetings, and big-picture goals.

Happiness makes me obnoxious on Twitter. Before I packed up my laptop, I tapped out two messages:

“SCI-sponsored CHCI/centerNet meeting is winding down. Stay tuned for announcements from the two groups working jointly in the new year.” [X]

“& struck again by dues-paying crap I skipped in deciding against tenure-track jobs. How many junior faculty sit in on discussions like this?” [X]

Continue reading “#alt-ac: alternate academic careers for humanities scholars”