New job, same school! (Same office, even!)

View from window with trees and blue sky.
Never gonna give you up, beloved office window! I fought hard for this! (Used to be Chris Kelty’s! [I did not kick him out.])
I can never keep my mouth shut, so this announcement already made the rounds on social media, but I’m really excited about my remodeled job title: as of July 1, I’m an assistant professor of Information Studies and Digital Humanities (still at UCLA!). For those who care about such things, the appointment is 100% in IS, but I’ll continue to do half my teaching for the DH program.

I’m really happy. I’ve always loved my job at UCLA, but over the last few years, I’ve grown increasingly invested in a couple of research projects: the first, on the way data works under supply-chain capitalism; and the second, on what “data” means for the humanities more broadly. My new position will give me the time and resources I need to work on these projects. I’ve always felt very close to the i-School at UCLA — both to the people and to the questions they’re asking. It’s a really good fit.

When I came to UCLA for my job interview, Todd Presner, who became my boss, told me that the job I was interviewing for seemed to make sense for someone to hold for about five years. Five-and-a-half years later, that seems about right to me. I wasn’t really sure where I’d go after that time elapsed; I came close to moving into a higher-level administrative job, but in the end, I felt pulled to research and teaching.

I’m just really, really glad I had that option, and really glad I get to do it at UCLA, a place I genuinely and cheesily care about a lot. I’m very grateful for the mentors I’ve had to help me figure out how to navigate all this, and especially for Todd (who hates it when I say this).

Best of all: UCLA will be replacing “my” position as coordinator of the DH program, although I know they won’t be looking for a Miriam clone. I’m extremely excited about what it will mean to bring in someone with different and fresh ideas about DH. You can see, I think, that this is a pretty significant investment in DH at UCLA, and I think it will be good for all of us.

Here and There: Creating DH Community

Thanks a million to the University of North Texas’s Spencer Keralis for inviting me to come speak at Digital Frontiers, a great conference in Northern Texas! I’m having an excellent time. Here’s the talk I gave today.

Around springtime, when universities are making offers for jobs that start in the fall, I tend to get a few similar emails. I’m junior enough that I know a lot of people just leaving grad school (whether it’s library school, a Ph.D. program, or a master’s program) and as universities continue to build DH centers, these people are getting snapped up to help spark DH activity elsewhere. So around May, they’re emailing me (and probably a lot of other people, too) to ask: Where do I start? What do I need to know?

I’ve been frank, as you may know, about what I think of taking someone fresh out of grad school, giving her a temporary gig, and expecting her to be the sole torchbearer for some amorphous DH initiative. In brief, it’s a bad idea, for a lot of different reasons. It’s not fair to the person you’re hiring, who will spend her entire tenure trying desperately to impress you at this impossible task so she can keep her job. And it’s not fair to your university community, which deserves continuity, focus, and the attention of someone who cares about the big picture.

But a number of people have good gigs that involve an element of community-building. And there are also a lot of people who’ve been working in libraries or other units for some time and are newly tasked with the responsibility of building interest in and capacity for digital humanities on their campus.

So for awhile now, I’ve had a mental list of things that I tell my friends who are getting started on the job of starting a DH initiative on their campus. If at all possible, I try to do it over a drink. This work is not easy, and it’s very sensitive, and I’ve only learned what I know by making terrible mistakes.

So in a minute, I’ll give you that list of suggestions for building and sustaining a digital humanities community at a university. Continue reading “Here and There: Creating DH Community”

What Alt-Ac Can Do, and What It Can’t

This is a cleaned-up, lightly edited version of a talk I gave on November 22, 2013, as part of a panel on “Digital Humanities and the Neoliberal University” at the American Studies Association annual meeting in Washington, D.C. 

Our original proposal for this session read like a lot of attempts to grapple with controversy in the digital humanities. “Is digital humanities complicit with the neoliberal impulse in the modern university?” it asked. “Some say it is, citing A, B, and C. Others say it isn’t, citing X, Y, and Z.” The framework, if unoriginal, had the benefit of being easy to write.

My copanelist Natalia Cecire pushed us to think beyond this cliché. “Let’s start with the premise that it is complicit,” said Cecire, citing Alan Liu’s “Where is Cultural Criticism in the Digital Humanities?” “Else why would it be so obviously attractive to the neoliberal university? Let’s start with that and talk about what we then do.”

Borrowing Natalia’s framework, I want to complicate a discourse about labor that has emerged from and become identified with the digital humanities. The term for this work is “alt-ac,” which stands for “alternative academic.” ((My critique is not altogether new. Liana M. Silva aired some of these concerns in April. Martha Nell Smith has levied similar critiques of DH centers’ hiring practices, and Bethany Nowviskie has dealt with a number of these concerns in “Toward a New Deal.” I am moved and inspired by this vision of a WPA for the humanities, but I feel that my fundamental objection to some of the rhetoric about alt-ac — that it rests on the flawed assumption that the academic jobs crisis is caused by an overproduction of Ph.D.s — has yet to be answered.)) Jason Rhody, a senior program officer for the NEH’s Office of Digital Humanities, coined the term in 2009 to describe the scholarly work performed by many of us in and in the orbit of the academy who do not hold traditional faculty jobs but do perform scholarly labor. ((For a history of alt-ac and a snapshot of how graduate programs might equip students for these jobs, see the excellent “Humanities Unbound: Supporting Careers and Scholarship Beyond the Tenure Track,” prepared by Katina Rogers for the Scholarly Communication Institute.))

Continue reading “What Alt-Ac Can Do, and What It Can’t”

Notes on DH and sharing your work

Backlit keyboard with a key labeled "Share"
Creative Commons-licensed photo by Niklas Wikström.

These are notes and links for a talk I’m giving on digital humanities and sharing your work at the University of California, San Diego, on November 5, 2012.

DH projects I discuss

Continue reading “Notes on DH and sharing your work”

The digital humanities postdoc

In the last few years, I’ve noticed a certain kind of job ad appearing with more and more frequency. I think of it as the “make digital humanities happen” postdoctoral fellowship. Often based in a library, these positions’ descriptions include some combination of “liaison,” “catalyst,” and “hub,” with a heavy dose of coordinator syndrome thrown in. The person is meant to generate enthusiasm for DH among faculty, perhaps serve as a consultant, and head up a new DH initiative. I do understand why a postdoc is attractive to institutions.

  1. They know that faculty like talking to people with Ph.D.s.
  2. They’re not sure they want to go all-in on DH, and thus the built-in term limits of the postdoc make sense.
  3. They want someone young and hungry, willing to take direction, with a lot of ideas and energy.
  4. Often, the source of funding for this position is insecure; perhaps it’s provided by a grant.

I’d like to suggest that this particular kind of postdoc, except under very special circumstances, is not, in fact, a postdoc, but a temporary staff position. A postdoc, I maintain, should be characterized by some combination of generous mentorship and/or the freedom to do one’s own research. Many of these postdocs provide neither; indeed, in some cases, the hiring institution has not even worked out who this person will report to.

Who gets to say what a postdoc is? I do. We all do. A “postdoctoral fellowship” is what we collectively agree that it is, and I say that we should hold employers to some standards. For whatever reason, a “postdoc” sounds more prestigious than “employee with no job security.” Let’s call it what it is.

There are good DH postdocs out there, definitely, but they do not involve being dropped, resource-less, to serve as a “catalyst” in an institution with no DH activity.

Institutions considering hiring a “make DH happen” postdoc, should I think, reconsider. Not because it ain’t right, which it ain’t, but because it won’t work. A postdoc, no matter how committed, ingenious, and entrepreneurial, cannot just make digital humanities happen at any institution. This piece, by Stephen Ramsay, mirrors my feelings on the subject very well.

If you yourself are offered this kind of postdoc; well, that’s complicated. The job market is what it is, and one doesn’t always have the luxury of haranguing one’s hiring institution. Here’s what I recently advised someone who emailed me with this question:

If you do decide to pursue this job, I recommend, first of all, that you read this piece, by Bethany Nowviskie. I can attest to the truth of everything she says. In addition, given the particulars of the job you describe, I would:
  1. Get the library to define your reporting and evaluation structure. Who’s your boss? Who are your colleagues? How will your work be evaluated?
  2. Negotiate for some amount of time (20%, for example) to be devoted to your own research.
  3. Campaign for professional development resources, including training, conference travel, and research travel. Be explicit that this conference travel will not necessarily be to the American Library Association; it may be to the MLA.
  4. Inquire as to the possibility of this becoming a permanent job. How will this happen, and when will you know? Sometimes EOE guidelines require that a library advertise a job, even if it’s been “promised” to you. Be sure that this is not the case for you, and get it in writing. Hell, get everything in writing.
  5. Ideally, your professional development would include site visits to other institutions with successful DH initiatives. These were definitely the most educational, useful things I did as a postdoc.
Be clear that you require these things so that you can do a good job. Because you do.
As the Library Loon says, “Be wary of postdocs in the library not because they’re Ph.Ds, not because they don’t hold MLSes, but because they’re on one- or two-year contracts.”

Why I went (back) to the AHA

Last week I attended the American Historical Association’s annual meeting in Chicago. Although I’ve always thought of myself as a historian, I hadn’t been to an AHA meeting since my first year of grad school in 2004. In part, I hadn’t been going because I’m affiliated with so many disciplines that it’s difficult to keep up with all the meetings. But I also hadn’t been going because I wasn’t sure what the AHA would do for me. I won’t be interviewing there, since I’m not applying for teaching jobs, and playing the big-conference game (pretending not to notice the thousands of ways people behave disrespectfully to each other) has started to seem unnecessary to me.

I did go back, though, for a few reasons. First, I’m embarrassed to say that I’ve only recently come to understand how scholarly societies might be important sites of change within the academy. In my mind, AHA, MLA, SCMS, and their ilk were bureaucratic prestige-machines, awarding prizes and manning the gates for the old guard.

Continue reading “Why I went (back) to the AHA”

Leaving Emory, joining UCLA

Image of the U.S., with the states of Georgia and California highlighted and connected by a dotted line in the shape of a heart.
Illustration by Carrie of the Here & There Shop, who is a pleasure to work with. Click on the image to commission your own print!

I’m equal parts delighted and heartbroken to say that I’ve accepted a new job. As of February 10, I’ll be the digital humanities program coordinator at the University of California, Los Angeles. January 13 is my last official day at Emory. The decision to accept the job was really difficult — I love being at Emory, I love the library, and I love my colleagues. I’m so proud of what we’ve done together. Still, this new position is a significant opportunity for me: the chance to shape a growing program in California, the state where I grew up and which I care about deeply.

I’ll spare you the weepy theatrics, except to say that I feel really fortunate, both for the opportunities Emory has offered me and for the new opportunity I’ve been afforded.

Thoughts on the Scholarly Communication Institute

Scholarly Communication Institute logo

Last week I was really fortunate to attend the Scholarly Communication Institute 9 at the University of Virginia. This was the final in an annual series of meetings designed to provoke discussion (and action) about the way scholarship is produced, consumed, and disseminated.

The roster of attendees was impressive, and I was decidedly junior. Consequently, I spent a lot of time listening (though I happily made some presumptuous statements when invited).

I sort of saw my role there as attempting to represent the interests of those of us in lower-ranking, sometimes tenuous, academic positions: the postdocs and grad students of the world.

Continue reading “Thoughts on the Scholarly Communication Institute”

What I Do All Day

It’s been about seven months since I started at Emory, and sometimes I feel a world removed from my life as a grad student in New Haven. My day-to-day life has changed in a thousand different ways: I have new colleagues, new friends, a new kind of work.

Collection of name tags
My collection of name tags continues to expand

I sometimes have trouble explaining my work to other people, so, for the benefit of my family and friends, as well as for other grad students and academics who might be considering alternate academic careers, I thought I’d talk a little about what it’s like to be doing what I do.

What do I do? My job title, “Postdoctoral Fellow,” doesn’t really tell you anything. My job, really, is to help build a new digital scholarship program for Emory, from the ground up. There are two of us dedicated to working on this (though we’ve called on a lot of people for help).

Continue reading “What I Do All Day”