two & a half cheers for the lunaticks

The 2012 convention of the Modern Language Association saw two deeply thoughtful #alt-ac roundtables — one on jobs in the digital humanities and another on systemic, corporate, and institutional responses to a broader “future of alternative academic careers.” I moderated the second panel and participated in the first. Both, in their ways, spoke to a remarkably changed environment: to altered employment conditions in the academy, to the humanities as they have entered the digital age, and to a moment in which hybrid scholar-practitioners and non-traditional academics are becoming more visible, and more desperately needed. This is a rough blending of remarks I made in the two sessions.

By “alt-ac,” a growing community speaks not of “alternatives to academic employment,” but rather of “alternative academics” – “alt-academics,” that is, in the way that alt-country music has a bit of rockabilly and folk mixed in – or old Usenet discussion groups would signal a fringe twist on their subject-matter with an “alt.” preface. I chose #Alt-Academy as the title for a recent MediaCommons publication — a collection of essays and personal narratives on the subject — because, taken together, our 32 authors were really gesturing at “an alternative academia” in the way that writers create speculative fiction or works of alternative history. Continue reading “two & a half cheers for the lunaticks”

it starts on day one

Here’s a modest proposal for reforming higher education in the humanities and creating a generation of knowledge workers prepared not only to teach, research, and communicate in 21st-century modes, but to govern 21st-century institutions.

First, kill all the grad-level methods courses.

Kill them, that is, to clear room for something more highly evolved — or simply more fruitful — to take their place. Think: asteroids clobbering dinosaurs. Choking weeds ripped from vegetable gardens. The fuzzy little nothings and spindly cultivars in this scenario, squinting cautious eyes or uncurling new leaves into the light, are:

  • those research methodologies and corpora (often but not exclusively gathered under the banner of the “digital humanities”) that address hitherto unanswerable questions about history, the arts, and the human condition;
  • and the new-model scholarly communications platforms we can already recognize as promising replacements to our slow and moribund systems for credentialing and publishing humanities scholarship and archiving the cultural record on which it is based.

What do these critters need to grow up? The same thing our colleges and universities so desperately need: a generation of faculty and alternative-academic scholar-practitioners who have been trained to work in interdisciplinary contexts and who can not only take advantage of computational approaches to their own research, but who have been instilled with enough of a can-do, maker’s ethos that they feel empowered to build and re-build the systems in which they and future students will operate.

Continue reading “it starts on day one”

announcing #Alt-Academy

Readers of this blog will know that, for more than a year, I have been working with a group of wonderful people to bring an edited collection collection of essays and a distributed, online community into focus.  (You can see some of my past #alt-ac writing here, or follow the conversation on Twitter.)

Today, I’m very pleased to announce the release of #Alt-Academy, an open-access collection of essays, dialogues, and personal narratives on the subject of alternative academic careers for humanities scholars:

Initial contributors include Willard McCarty, Julia Flanders, Anne Whisnant, Rafael Alvarado, Julie Meloni, Lisa Spiro, Doug Reside, Tanya Clement, Hugh Cayless, Tom Scheinfeldt, Amanda Gailey, Dot Porter, Joe Gilbert, Wayne Graham, Eric Johnson, Dorothea Salo, Sheila Brennan, Jeremy Boggs, Sharon Leon, Brian Croxall, Arno Bosse, Miranda Swanson, Joanne Berens, Amanda Watson, Patricia Hswe, Amanda French, Christa Williford, Suzanne Fischer, Patrick Murray-John, Vika Zafrin, Shana Kimball, and James Cummings.  Gardner Campbell and Tim Powell will provide invited commentary in the coming weeks, and the project’s general editor is Bethany Nowviskie.

As a MediaCommons project, #Alt-Academy takes a grass-roots, bottom-up, “publish-then-filter” approach to community-building and networked scholarly communication around the theme of unconventional or alternative (“#alt-ac”) careers.  24 essays and multimedia contributions are currently available under a Creative Commons license. See our “Welcome” and “How It Works” pages to learn how you can comment, contribute, or volunteer to edit an #Alt-Academy cluster.  Continue reading “announcing #Alt-Academy”

where credit is due

This is the unedited text of a talk I gave today at the NINES Summer Institute, an NEH-funded workshop on evaluating digital scholarship for purposes of tenure and promotion. It references and builds on a (considerably less obnoxious) essay I wrote for a forthcoming issue of Profession, the journal of the MLA, and which was provided to NINES attendees in advance of the Institute. The cluster of articles in which the essay will appear includes work by Jerome McGann, Kathleen Fitzpatrick, Tara McPherson, Steve Anderson, and Geoff Rockwell and was edited by Laura Mandell, Susan Schreibman, and Steve Olsen.

Evaluating Collaborative Digital Scholarship (or, Where Credit is Due)

So, as you’ll divine from the image on the screen, [SLIDE: awkward family photos] today I’m addressing human factors: framing collaboration (an activity that often happens across class lines in the academy) within our overall picture for the evaluation of digital scholarship.  I’m pulling several examples I’ll share with you from my contribution to the Profession cluster that Laura and Susan made available, and my argument may feel familiar from that piece as well.  But we thought it might be useful to have me lay these problems out in a plain way, in person, near the beginning of our week together.  Collaborative work is a major hallmark of digital humanities practice, and yet it seems to be glossed over, often enough, in conversations about tenure and promotion.

I think we can trace a good deal of that silence to a collective discomfort, which a lot of my recent (“service”) work has been designed to expose — discomfort with the way that our institutional policies, like those that govern ownership over intellectual property, codify status-based divisions among knowledge workers of different sorts in colleges and universities.  These issues divide DH collaborators even in the healthiest of projects, and we’ll have time, I hope, to talk about them.

But I want to offer a different theory now, more specific to the process that scholars on tenure and promotion committees go through in assessing their colleagues’ readiness for advancement.  [SLIDE: skeleton reading Baudelaire] My theory is that the T&P process is a poor fit to good assessment (or even, really, to acknowledgment) of collaborative work, because it has evolved to focus too much on a particular fiction.  That fiction is one of “final outputs” in digital scholarship. Continue reading “where credit is due”

mambo italiano

(Below, you’ll find remarks I contributed to an MLA panel discussion from which a case of pneumonia kept me away. The text was read in my absence by Steve Ramsay. I’d like to thank Steve, not only for that, but for cheering me through my disappointment at missing the conference by providing the earworm I now pass on to you. And here’s a promise: when I stop coughing and get my breath back, I’ll record the talk — and sing like I was a-gonna, at MLA.)

This is a call, in a session on the “history and future of the digital humanities,” for us to take instead a steady look at our present moment. I will offset immediately any concern that the intervention I mean to make in today’s conversation is as grim as we are perpetually reminded Our Present Moment to be, by telling you that these remarks are being published on my blog under the title, “Mambo Italiano,” complete with links to a clarion-cutesy Rosemary Clooney, an offensive clip from The Simpsons, and some French guy dancing with low-rent Muppets.

I’m at home in bed. Your grim reality at present, at the 2011 MLA convention, is that shockingly few of the job-seekers you’ll meet this week in elevators and at cash bars have a prayer of securing the stable faculty positions for which they have trained. Still others have been made to feel ashamed of discovering divergent desires on what was meant to be a straight and narrow path to tenure. A look toward the future of digital humanities requires that we be clear-eyed about the crisis facing our graduate students and the hundreds of unemployed and under-employed academics attending this conference right now — and about the impact their working conditions and career trajectories may have on DH and on the broader humanities.

To these people, and to faculty in a position to shape the graduate curricula that produce more and more of them, I say:

Hey goombah!
I love-a how you dance rumba.
But take-a some advice, paisano,
Learn-a how to mambo.
If you gonna be a square, you ain’t-a gonna go nowhere.
Continue reading “mambo italiano”