Reflections on my digital materiality and labor class

Group photo on top of One Wilshire.
DH150 on the roof of One Wilshire. Photo by Craig Dietrich.

I was really glad to get the chance to teach a special topics course on Digital Labor, Materiality, and Urban Space last quarter. I’ve been thinking about this class for years, and the syllabus is the (imperfect) culmination of lots and lots of reading and thinking.

In the event, the class was terrifically generative and fulfilling — for me, and, I hope, for the students. While the memory of the class is still fresh, I wanted to jot down a few notes about some new-ish (for me) elements I introduced into this class, and how well I thought they worked.

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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.))

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Training grad students for a new scholarly landscape

Here’s what I just said about graduate student training at a workshop (with Daniel Chamberlain, Mary Francis, Tara McPherson, Leslie Mitchner, and Patrice Petro) on “the changing profession” at the Society for Cinema and Media Studies annual meeting:

As we watch the academy change around us, I think it’s becoming clear to us that the way we prepare grad students has some inadequacies. We talk about preparing them for the job market, but I think we’re all aware that calling this crisis a “market” — implying that there’s some basic equity between supply and demand — is becoming increasingly perverse. I know you’ve seen good, smart, hardworking people washed up on the rocks. I know I have.

What can we do, as the ground shifts underneath us, to prepare these people whom we care so much about? By now, it should be obvious that it is no longer humane or sufficient to tell ourselves that our best students will get jobs. This is a fiction that helps us sleep at night.

But neither is it humane or sufficient to simply despair. So I offer four suggestions:

We need to get serious about tracking statistics about our students once they graduate. What kind of labor are they doing, how secure is it, where is it happening? Entering students need to be able to make better-informed decisions about the programs they choose.

We need to start seeing that caring about our grad students requires caring about the issue of adjuncts and other casualized labor in the academy. We need to see that this is part of mentoring, too.

We need to start countenancing the possibility that not all students will want to be professors. I want to be careful here, because I know not all students will want to follow a path like mine. But you might be surprised at how many grad students are quietly curious about other kinds of jobs. We need to help graduate students see that these paths are OK, too, and part of helping them to see this is visibly taking seriously the intellectual labor of other academic professionals in our orbit — the librarians, archivists, technologists and others.

Finally, I would like to see a reconsideration of methodological training for our students. Students are highly aware that they need different kinds of skills — digital skills, collaborative skills, administrative skills, budgeting skills — and we should see it as our job to meet these needs. For reference, I offer the example of the Praxis Program, at the University of Virginia, where graduate students work in teams alongside developers and administrators to accomplish projects collectively.

I know you’re here because you care about your students, and I know we’ve all been doing everything we can to prepare them for this new landscape. What I hope to say, more than anything, is that truly advocating for grad students requires understanding and intervening in the larger academic ecosystem.

Teaching HTML & CSS

Image depicting basic components of an HTML tag

This week I twice taught a two-hour workshop introducing Emory people (students, faculty, and staff) to the very basics of HTML & CSS. The workshop was called How a Website is Born: The Very Basics of HTML & CSS, and here’s how I described it:

Ever wondered how a website goes from an idea to the Internet? In this workshop, designed for absolute beginners, we’ll explain what HTML and CSS are and show you how you can get started making your own website.

I’d initially thought I might be a little crazy to try to teach introductory HTML and CSS in two hours, but in the event, things went relatively smoothly, and both times we ended up with about a half-hour to spare. I wanted very much to teach the workshop because HTML and CSS were my own first experience looking under the hood of any kind of interface, and it was quite powerful for me. I was excited to show others that coding isn’t as hard as they might think.

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Some basic things you should know about being in a Ph.D. program

"Cloister, Glasgow University," by _skynet

Disclaimer: This post is not about the politics of humanities Ph.D. programs, the ethics of these arrangements, or whether you should go to grad school in the first place. But if you haven’t already looked into this and you’re thinking of going to grad school, you need to do your homework on this stuff. Start here.

A few days ago I had a nice phone conversation with a recent college graduate who was thinking about applying to Yale’s Film Studies program. Talking to her reminded me of my first year or so as a grad student at Yale, and what I remember most is just all-consuming confusion — the ubiquitous sensation of doing the wrong thing, and, worse, of not knowing what the right thing was.

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PowerPoint as a mode of knowledge production

I think about PowerPoint a lot, and judging by the reams of blog posts, screeds, and instructional books on the topic, I’m not the only one.

The interesting thing about PowerPoint is that it’s not that new. Well, PowerPoint is, relatively speaking (the software package emerged in 1980), but the basic idea — the slide presentation as a way to convey specialized knowledge — has been around a really long time.

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Making room in the academy for everyone: Margaret Price on kairotic space

Photograph of an array of rainbow-colored pencils
"Pastel-Colored Pencils," by Pink Sherbet Photography

Last week, I went to see the rhetorician and disability studies scholar Margaret Price lead a discussion about her new book, Mad at School: Rhetorics of Disability and Academic Life. I was curious for a lot of reasons. Mostly, I’ve been interested in disability studies lately, for the simple reason that I keep learning stuff that makes me say, “Huh. I never thought of it that way.” And isn’t that really what the best scholarship does?

Anyway, I took a lot away from Price’s talk, which was about finding ways to accommodate and acknowledge psychiatric difference in the academy. The concept that’s especially stuck with me is something that Price calls “kairotic space.”

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Anatomy on film: the imaginary archive

Frame from Circulatory System (1924)
Frame from Sarnoff's Circulatory System (1924)

A lot of my research is on medical filmmaking: films that physicians and other medical professionals made for each other. It turns out that there are a lot of these. Doctors have been making movies since the invention of the medium.

I’m fascinated by a strain of thought that recurs frequently in discussions of anatomical films. Here’s an example from 1919:

The films of the Surgeon General’s Library will be available to teachers in the army and medical schools and the profession, just as the books in the Surgeon General’s Library are for study and reference.¹

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