toward a new deal

A New Deal for the Humanities[This is the cleaned-up and slightly expanded text of a talk I gave last week, at a University of Illinois symposium on the future of the humanities at state-funded, US-based research universities. My paper was called “Graduate Training for a Public and Digital Humanities.” The organizers of the symposium, Gordon Hutner and Feisal G. Mohamed, framed its goals in a New Republic essay and positioned the event deliberately between two significant anniversaries: of the Morrill Act, establishing land-grant universities in the US, and the GI Bill, extending higher education to the American under-classes.]

Today, some 20 years after its first formulation, there is little question of the validity of Jerome McGann’s core and repeated argument: that we humanities scholars and publics stand before the vast, near-wholesale digital transformation of our various and shared cultural inheritance. This transformation – more properly, these remediations – are fully underway. They open new avenues for the work of the liberal arts in all of its spheres: for our ability to gain access to, to analyze and interpret, and most importantly to vouchsafe to future generations, the words, images, sounds, and built and material objects that crystalize in our archives and which we so carefully position to refract little, mirror-like understandings of what it has meant, for the blink of an eye, to be human. 

Any remediation of both the fixed and fluid forms of past human culture poses opportunity for humane reflection. This is because remediation, at its heart, is selective transformation – lossy and additive, a process of scholarly editing and interpretation – requiring the careful attention not only of content specialists, but of specialists in technologies of information, past and present, and in knowledge representation: people invested in the curation of things and the transmission of culture. Ideally, these are people who deeply appreciate the objects under their care, who can amplify the faint voices still rattling around in them, and who know every trick to facilitate new understandings from old stuff. These are people who extend contextual, materialized, and historically-situated knowledge to contemporary audiences, and create spaces in which those moderns can talk back to the past.

But it’s not all about engagement with history. Culture does not stop, and the cultural heritage enterprise is therefore both Janus-faced and Argus-eyed – which is to say, interestingly monstrous. New communications technologies and art-forms generate a deluge of information in the present moment. And this born-digital flood pours into one welling up from our digitized past. It’s a condition that requires the archivists among us to develop fresh modes of humanities data collection, comparison, and preservation, waist-deep in an unending stream – a stream in part directed by our publics, by the audience-participants who co-create and channel it. As scholars, our present moment invites us to examine, and to reject or embrace, modes of distant reading, newly available in a “big data” age. We experiment with our macroscopes, even as we to pay close and careful attention to the smallest of stories – and to too many metaphors and monsters at once – as we have always done.

No-one, I’ve said, seriously questions the validity of McGann’s assertion that we stand at a technological and scholarly brink. But the growing question of the past two decades has been of our grasp of the depth and breadth of the gulf before us, and of our readiness – both as individual, free scholarly agents and as a federated, broad, and unwieldy system of public higher education – to mobilize and properly equip the next generation of scholars and specialist practitioners to move into its reaches – actively, capably, confidently.

The engagement of the next generation of scholar-practitioners is crucial not just because of the positive opportunities for interpretive scholarship that come with digital inquiry at scale, or with the knowledge-producing revelation of the unfamiliar that researchers invariably experience when confronted with a single artifact at its moment of digital conversion or re-formation, deformation. And it’s crucial not only because it allows us to build new publics for the humanities, and ensure our citizenry has access to its treasure-houses, now and into the future. No. The reason we must educate scholars and specialists in the application of digital methods to humanities questions, and must equip them to craft digital tools and platforms of their own is this: the conversion and culling of artistic and cultural content, and the wholesale re-structuring of the terms under which humanities scholarship can be conducted will happen, with or without them. McGann’s direst warning (taken up by students and adherents like Johanna Drucker and Andrew Stauffer) does not go far enough. It has been this: “Expert scholars, engage, or librarians and academic IT staff will do it for you.” As a humanities researcher and a librarian working in IT – even one who watches with concern as independent library holdings are converted to costly and ephemeral licensed content, and as the “medium-rare” print collections of the 19th century are weeded or transported away – I say: losing control to thoughtful, struggling librarians and in-house information technologists? You should be so lucky.

Instead – as pointed out by Siva VaidhyanathanAlan Liu, David Golumbia, and many others – privatized, politicized, and so-called neoliberal forces, residing both beyond and (complicitly or uneasily) within the academy, already possess and work to re-frame our research infrastructure. They are, in fact, the forces with which librarians and humanities-trained IT staff struggle – and against which we should more often work together. These forces diminish the capacity of our faculty, weaken its agency, and drive commercial and instrumental decisions that bear upon the things we hold in common and hold dear: preservation and access, the ethics and practice of teaching and learning, and the shape and scope of our infrastructure for scholarly communication and humanities data, big and small.

We do stand at the edge of a gulf. It’s one that most of us will not enter or cross. But our challenge (and one from which, on the whole, humanities faculty have shamefully turned away) is to replace ourselves as men and women of letters with the cohorts called to construct brilliant architectures within that space – called to construct a new habitat for the liberal arts, to develop its new habitus – to build and to fight, or be lost.

If we are to face that challenge, we must ask painful questions. We must ask ourselves what messages about the future we overtly send to devoted students of the humanities in the year 2013? And what systemic or perhaps even unintended guidance do we offer a generation that looks to us for mentorship and models? Graduate programs, taken as an aggregate, urge hordes of students down a single, well-trodden, and vanishingly narrow employment path. Do we honestly believe they’ll continue on that track? Do we believe that all of them should? Of the ones who attempt to go where we are sending them, how many will arrive? When? And in what condition, at what cost? In what relation to the unlucky majority – in a system in which the odds become more akin to luck than merit? Are we content with those odds – with our returns on investment – when we regard our protégés both as individuals and as a collective? Why are we, on the whole, so hapless in our engagement with this problem? Why so willing – as evinced through our daily actions in graduate teaching and counseling – to squander public resources, institutional energies, and private lives? Put more kindly: what factors inhibit us, as leaders in State-supported higher education, from pointing out the varied spaces, beyond and within the academy, where the public so clearly needs its scholar-practitioners to labor and explore? Why do we herd humanities doctoral students down a single road at all? And, finally – because unproblematic solutions would have been implemented long ago – what challenges or even dangers will we face if we do resolve to reconfigure our training practices to outfit the humanities more appropriately for journeys and projects ahead?

Five years ago, I co-opted a throw-away term used by a friend to describe his oddball career as an “alternative academic,” and began writing, organizing, and convening conversations at the heart of the “alt-ac” movement. For me, this was an awareness-raising activity, meant to provoke conversation among PhD-holding professionals working off the straight and narrow path to tenure – though not as struggling adjunct instructors or what we euphemistically call independent scholars, the only non-tenure-track academic identities that seemed then normative in humanities discourse. And yet so many people held hybrid positions – like my own. In addition to my duties as a librarian and digital humanities center director, I research and publish in my field, volunteer my time to a number of scholarly professional associations, mentor students, and sometimes teach. By the time I defended my dissertation in the country’s top-ranked public English department, in 2004, I had known for several years that I would not pursue tenure-track employment – yet, by late 2009, the only common descriptor for my full-time, non-tenure-track faculty job was… non-academic. By pointing out the incongruity of the term in social media, I struck a nerve – or perhaps connected some dots.

#Alt-Academy, the open-access collection of 24 essays that followed, framed the exploration of alternative academic careers as a voluntary and valid choice (though rarely an easy path) for scholars motivated to work in fields like digital humanities research, scholarly communication, higher ed administration, and cultural heritage. The #Alt- in our title was not a signal of divergence from the scholarly mainstream, but of solidarity with it. And the publication had a dual audience. First, it spoke to humanities scholars considering or actively pursuing careers that would call on their training in far more practical ways than their academic mentors had likely anticipated. And humanities faculty were themselves our second audience – people who had long, through perhaps unthinkingly, conveyed a damaging message about the status and desirability of alt-ac careers, both to their protégés and to their colleagues, deans, and provosts. The negativity that faculty still overwhelmingly broadcast about work in public humanities and cultural heritage travels down to students through the academic hierarchy in numerous and unsubtle ways, which I don’t need to rehearse.

But it’s worth pointing out that the message travels laterally and upward as well – most notably in our continued, striking complicity with the basing of departmental rankings on outmoded notions of student “placement.” When we permit academic departments to be ranked and valued on their tenure-track faculty placements, we encourage our colleagues and academic leaders to see all other paths as roads to perdition. Why would we set up signposts there? Why would we widen and tend those ways? When we rank and value academic departments on their tenure-track faculty placements, we deeply inscribe the message that careers in the public and digital humanities – in libraries, museums, and archives, in private foundations or public agencies of the arts and humanities, or in technology and administration – are a distant second or third option: a ratty safety net for middling scholars who have tried and failed.

Half a decade on, although the problem of rankings and attendant, internalized value-statements has not been addressed, grad students are in a slightly different place. The many professionals who’ve embraced alt-ac’s reframing of the “non-academic,” and describe their vocations as callings, in compelling ways far beyond the original publication act of #Alt-Academy, demonstrate a richness of possibility our collection only gestured at. The blossoming of worldwide inter-professional humanities conferences and unconferences (like the annual Digital Humanities gathering and grassroots THATCamp movement) puts an increasing number of scholars and students into contact with library, museum, and humanities technology professionals whose working lives are differently structured, but who share intellectual interests and research problems. In casting a spotlight on contingent labor in the academy, groups like the Modern Language Association have illuminated options beyond adjunct teaching. And while the academic job market continues ever poor, the twittering blogosphere in which it is lamented and dissected goes strong. Open conversations about the former, within the latter, serve to de-stigmatize work off the tenure track.

So does organized action. With Mellon Foundation funding through the Scholarly Communication Institute, CHCI (the international Consortium of Humanities Centers and Institutes) has begun partnering with centerNet, a worldwide band of digital humanities centers, to develop pilot programs for training graduate students in and for the digital age. At the same time and through the same SCI support, the Scholars’ Lab established its Praxis Program and has begun to develop an international Praxis Network. The former is a concentrated pedagogical experiment at the University of Virginia, and the latter is its super-set: a showcase of in-progress, new-model structural approaches to humanities methods training.

As a model and experiment, the UVa Praxis Program is extra-curricular – embedded in the Scholars’ Lab, a working DH center – and collaborative in nature; indeed, in some ways it is self-consciously about the challenges to interdisciplinary and inter-professional collaboration in a university setting. Now in its third year as a cohort-based internship program, Praxis attempts to be critically-informed and generative of positive, concrete interventions or thought-experiments in particular areas of humanities discourse and technology. These interventions operate within a specific theoretical horizon and are based in projects rather than prose. The six graduate fellows chosen annually for the program come together as a single team, across disciplines (so far representing eight different academic departments at UVa), to build a humanities toolset or undertake a shared venture. Their work is iterative and public, expressive of a core value on open access and open source, and broadly-pitched rather than narrowly specialist. The Praxis Program also situates itself in a world in which every discipline must engage self-consciously with theories and practices of information design – that is, with knowledge representation.

It’s a quirky program, and perhaps only replicable in part. But by turn, our larger Praxis Network means to inspire administrative thinking toward local, programmatic responses. It provides mix-and-match templates. Eight programs, like-minded to our own but differently structured, form the core of the Network. They have come together from public and private institutions across the US, Canada, the UK, and New Zealand and include: the University of Virginia, Duke University, Michigan State University, the CUNY Graduate Center, Hope College, Brock University, University College London, and the University of Christchurch. Each of the Network’s programs seeks to produce students who can engage deeply with humanities research problems at either the undergraduate or graduate level. The six graduate programs mean to produce expert scholars, capable of working at the forefront of their fields – and yet are not allergic to a whiff of what other schools might consider vocational training.

So we do not lack for models or experiments. Nor do we want for pronouncements. Among professional organizations, the American Historical Association, for instance, has invited its members to support public history as a possible first choice for graduate students, urging No More Plan B. The MLA has charged a task force to recommend measures for doctoral study reform in departments of modern language and literature. And the word from higher ed commentators is now less often taken as a totalizing, conversation-ending “Just don’t go,” than as an exhortation to go smarter, go deep. All of these things make it easier for grad students of the humanities to admit it – even just to admit it – when they begin to form a more expansive conception of their futures than their academic departments may be set up to support. These developments make it harder for the notion that academics can “fail,” or careers be “thrown away on service,” so neatly to compute.

And it’s not just junior academics who seek alternate opportunities. In my own department, search committees have ceased being surprised to see tenured humanities faculty apply for professional librarian and DH staff positions. Our applicants include capable, successful scholars who tell me they’ve seen what can be accomplished in their current roles, that they’ve grasped the brass ring, and are now keen to lead the academic enterprise in different ways. Department chairs have flirted with us. And we are not alone. High-profile moves by respected scholars like Kathleen Fitzpatrick (from Pomona College to a position as director of scholarly communication for MLA) and Dan Cohen (from George Mason University to directing the Digital Public Library of America) mark a broader shift, which has seen quieter circulation of humanities faculty into libraries, museums, professional associations, centers and institutes, and foundations and agencies for many years. Come on in, they say – the water’s fine.

Perhaps I belabor my point, that individual and systemic status-seeking has served as a prime inhibitor to our disciplines’ investment in a more public-spirited mission for graduate education. But just as humanities computing had its start as a research endeavor in institutions like Virginia, Maryland, Nebraska, Michigan State, and Illinois – places perhaps less bound by tradition or more prone to take a reputational risk than their private counterparts – so, too, might a new call originate: for public schools strong in the humanities and conscious of their obligation to the common good to prepare students for broader-based work in digital cultural heritage.

The message we’ve sent to several generations of humanities grads (“a tenure-track job at an R1 or a prestigious liberal arts college is success; all else is failure”) is akin to the ones we too clearly send ourselves: that the academy is a contest; that grad programs should compete not in the tangible skills they provide to students, but in the heft of their citation networks, the superiority of their placement rankings, and the degree of their prestige. That it’s permissible to create a binary training system in which our students become super-stars or waste product. That it’s valid to call “impact” the totting-up of publications in dwindling formats for narrowing, sub-disciplinary audiences. That 21st century humanities disciplines are more about the cultivation of private sensibility than about the instigation of public action. That it’s in any way okay to measure institutional value by ranking our ability to self-replicate.

I speed toward an end. We’ve struggled today, at the New Deal symposium, with the question of whether we should imagine the humanities as a problem-solving enterprise. Let’s say we do seek to invest in a more public-spirited mission for graduate education in the digital age. We will quickly discover that problem-solving lies squarely in our domain. I’ll offer a few obvious problems here.

First: the problem of personnel. Who among us is best positioned to provide grounded training in digital tools and methods for students on a McGannian mission? Not, in large part, the humanities faculty we now recruit and tenure, who are not rewarded for (and often are actively warned against) engaging in the kind of work that leads to expertise in digital methods. How might we we judiciously adjust those norms? Ought we to? If so, how quickly? In the meantime, if we push this teaching duty (as the Praxis Program does) to the humanities-trained but differently-experienced alt-ac staff already working among us, we encounter equally formidable challenges.  Have there been losses among the gains of their practical experience? Have they been too long absent from daily scholarly discourse and pedagogical advances in their disciplines? Have they developed tacit understandings and unexamined practices that – to be fully considered and conveyed to students – would require an encouragement of elucidation and space for reflection not commonly allotted them in their working lives? How will we overcome structural problems relating to the involvement in teaching and collaborative research of people working in libraries, presses, administrative offices, humanities centers, and campus IT – to their intellectual property rights, for instance, or to the ways their labor is accounted for and rewarded? How will we ensure, in other words, their ability to contribute without being exploited?

Next, are the jobs even there? (The answer, in short, is mostly no, not to the extent the work requires: but I will make a ridiculous and deadly-serious proposal on this score momentarily.) And where the jobs are there, can we see a call like mine anything more than the colonization of the territory of schools of library science and information, whose teachers and students actually know what they’re doing? Humanities programs must not step into and painfully disturb these areas, without adequate reflection on what they might and might not bring to the table. Thoughtful engagement by agencies like ACLS and CLIR are key, and institutions that have an enviable opportunity to foster and resource partnerships among local humanities and I-school faculty should lead the way.

In the meantime: the demographics are bad. Imbalances in gender, race, class, and ethnicity among people working in tech-oriented humanities fields have arguably reinforced a digital archival focus on canonical texts and reified homogenous perspectives. Who is privileged to speak, produce, experiment, and create change with new media and new technology? These imbalances stem, of course, from disasters in public, secondary STEM education – a problem humanities scholars at public institutions lazily and self-defeatingly figure as being out of higher ed’s control. (Frustratingly, we shift and shirk our collective responsibility for getting at the root of the “pipeline” problem, at the same time we too frequently waste our energies on infighting over its after-effects – its impact on high-end humanities research culture.)

Further: are we crazy to valorize hybrid, mix-and-match, alt-ac employment models at a moment when adjunct labor runs rampant and administrative bloat casts shadows everywhere? Has, I’ve heard Martha Nell Smith suggest, the rise of DH centers employing humanities professionals outside the structure of academic departments contributed to the erosion of tenure? To be sure, the organization, academic focus, and leadership of these centers, and the level of “contingency” of individual alt-ac positions within them varies widely. And the tenure concern of a collectivist imagination will not rest overmuch in protections for the individual – in employment stability at the solitary-scholar level – as in the public-spirited protection of a committed institutional, residential faculty, fully embedded in a community where it can develop and pursue its own agendas. Already, too many outspoken digital scholarship staff members are collaborators on controversial projects and unprotected exercisers of academic freedom. Can we move that needle, perhaps through policy revisions and the deeper inclusion of alt-ac professionals in institutional governance structures? Should we create more of these positions before we do?  Where can we look for models?  Is the trade-off here – chiefly, our ability to position a greater ratio of scholar-practitioners where they can serve archival and public humanities missions within universities – worth the institutional and private risk?

Some have sensed a related danger: that over-eager promotion of (capital-DH) Digital Humanities fosters administrative misunderstanding of the role of technology vis-à-vis research and teaching in the liberal arts. DH has, in recent years, been taken by some as an aggressive new academic discipline, rather than as what most longtime practitioners agree it to be: a loose and uneasy constellation of evolving, often incongruent methods. (Witness the recent, anomalous posting of ill-defined professorships in Digital Humanities and equally surprising surprise, a cycle or two later, that more such unicorns are not called for.) Even the understanding I have long held of DH as an international community of practice – dating to the smallish, everyone-knows-everyone joint ACH/ALLC conferences I began attending in the late 1990s and early 2000s – falters under conditions of rapid expansion and increasingly rich diversity of method.  Are we helping our deans, provosts, chancellors, and politically-appointed governing boards to “get it,” – or has our own eagerness for funding, mild social media celebrity, and a modicum of glitz distracted us as they’ve moved quickly, taking our willingness to experiment with new research methods as an opening for solutionist tech meant to increase pedagogical efficiency, perform strategic dynamism, and strengthen the brand?

These questions are closely tied, in public research institutions, to the robustness of public support.  Last fiscal year, a mere 5.8% of the University of Virginia’s total budget came from state general fund appropriations. Most recent numbers show the Commonwealth of Virginia funding UVa students per capita at a rate of $9,445. By comparison, that is well under half the per-student funding provided to UNC Chapel Hill or Georgia Tech. Adjusting for inflation, Virginians have seen a 51% drop in per-student state support since the year 1990. What technê will help us communicate our value to the acknowledged legislators of our worlds, and regain and leverage public funds? Are MOOCs the thing with feathers? What would it take for humanities faculty to clarify to administrators our seeming shared understanding – that MOOCs are wholly inappropriate for pedagogy in our disciplines – and yet find appropriate ways to piggyback on their juggernaut energy in science and engineering? For instance, might we position them as something akin to popular documentaries, to be used by our communications offices and leadership to direct political goodwill toward research universities as amplifiers of a public cultural and educational mission? (Call this a new Ken Burns effect.)

And one last, dark concern. When I began working in new-model humanities education and alt-ac advocacy several years ago, I felt I was fighting for the current generation of grad students. At the local level, the conviction holds. In the Scholars’ Lab, we work for the betterment of the individuals who come our way – laboring as they do within systems that are broken and can wound them. We want to broaden their options and help them build the technical and conceptual skills that will enable their active engagement with the humanities well into its digital future. We hope to render them more capable of constructing new systems and resisting inappropriate ones, from whereever they may land. Most days, we’re not sure if we work in preventative medicine or the ER.

But as we field questions from scholars and administrators who find inspiration in our Praxis Program and seek to replicate it elsewhere, I grow troubled. Graduate students at the University of Virginia already enter the job market with a competitive advantage. If the kind of thing we do at the Scholars’ Lab spreads far and wide as a chief response to the problem – that is, if efforts in humanities education reform focus not on deep structural and curricular interventions, but on increasing the capacity of malingering PhD programs to produce alt-ac staff alongside scores of freeway flyers and a few lucky college professors – at scale, ours is no longer a nutritive or life-saving exercise. System-wide, our work would become palliative: hospice care for the humanities.

So please do not confuse the sharing of stop-gap, renegade, extracurricular, and tacked-on models for methodological training, or the advocacy you may encounter here and there, for bettered working conditions for alt-ac professionals, with a suggestion that conventionally-structured PhD programs can become viable pathways to alternative academic careers. We need a bolder and broader answer – maybe even originating from outside our universities. I think we do need a New Deal for the Humanities. We need a government WPA for jobs creation in the GLAM sector, to fill our galleries, libraries, archives and museums with devoted and deeply scholarly workers at the digital brink.  Public humanities in the second decade of the 21st century needs its own WPA Library Extension Program – its Historical Records Survey, its Federal Writers Project. We need our WPA Museums Projects, our New Deal Archaeology. To weather and guide the digital transformations ahead, public humanities today needs its Federal Project Number One.

Think of the consequences of such a thing – and not alone for the stuff, for the objects of digital curation and research – but for surrounding social and economic systems. Re-tooling higher education to support large-scale WPA-like GLAM subsidies might beautifully require the pushing-down of serious humanities concentration and training to the undergraduate level – in the way that engineering schools, education schools, and nursing schools prepare college students for meaningful and marketable careers. Imagine history, literature, language, and anthropology programs so competitive that matriculation would require students to pass the equivalent of a “pre-med’s” Organic Chemistry. The expectation that public and digital humanities job preparation would require facility with interpretation and languages of various sorts, comfort with ambiguity, and a broad basis of humanistic learning on which to build, might lead to open rebellion against the SOL-driven public K-12 education that sends us students so unprepared. What would it take to motivate humanities faculty to join public lobbying organizations such as the National Humanities Alliance, which could focus efforts to articulate our startling need, gather data for analysis, and compellingly present the economic feasibility of major investments in cultural infrastructure at this moment in time? (For one thing, we could handily change the self-defeating internal evaluation criteria driving our junior colleagues to avoid work that smacks of service.)

Barring a real New Deal, we need to give our undergraduate students less of a raw one, in the form of better counseling. A symposium like this one should call for a grassroots movement among faculty, to push most would-be humanities PhDs instead toward masters-level programs that will refine their ability to do digital cultural heritage and provide excellent career counseling in such fields. (These exist already, and where they do not could be developed in concert with schools of library and information science, business schools, Ed schools, and schools of public policy and Law). We should charge our colleagues not to let advisees slide toward overcrowded and bootless professor prep. And we should ensure that this does not read to administrators and funders as a diminishment of our PhD programs – but rather a right-sizing and re-focusing of them, so that they can better produce the brilliant, much-needed future faculty who will join and revitalize the professoriate at replacement levels, not at a glut. We need to acknowledge that we make the adjunct crisis by making adjuncts – and that we are losing control of our humanities archive and infrastructure at its most critical moment since the birth of print – by not asserting control.

There are dangers and complexities plainly inherent in embracing a new attitude toward graduate humanities education, with all of its sequelae and the conception of a generational “project” for scholar-practitioners it implies. But it would be more dangerous to ignore the issues that drive us to that embrace. Our cultural heritage is being remediated and winnowed out, with or without humanities expertise. The public university is being reshaped in response to corporate and political pressure, with or without the placement of our own in positions of influence within those zones. Our elected officials and fellow citizens are assessing of the value of the humanities – based on the stories and the data we make available to them, and the degree to which we help these things inspire and capture their imaginations.

The digital and public future of the humanities will play out as it may – with or without concerted action from us. Let it be with.