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.”

12 thoughts to “The digital humanities postdoc”

  1. Well put, Miriam. What you’re articulating here is what I’ve taken to calling “the postdoc problem” in my mind. The problem with postdocs is that they are proliferating while permanent positions for these post-ies are not.

    I think I’ve got a bit too much to say about this for just a comment. I’ll try to follow-up with a real post soon.

  2. I’ve got another solution. Make those positions real and permanent. Like mine. You can do a lot more if your position has that sense of permanence, as you can really impart institutional change and set things into motion over a longer term.

    We just had our outgoing class presentations, and out of fifteen students, one was a completely digital-born Flash-designed project and 3 of which were interesting uses of Prezi. Those projects drummed up some serious interest from even our most skeptical faculty, many of which subsequently told me they either wanted to spend more time with the digital-born project, learn how to use Prezi, or expand the use of the digital in their own work. I have been here three years now and it has taken that amount of time to not only build momentum in our institution, but also to create relationships with faculty where they are more comfortable taking risks and exposing themselves. If two-year termed people had come and gone, I don’t think we would be making the kind of progress or instilling the kind of buy-in we have. Also the students from one cohort to another are influencing each other, and they can tell one another about experiences they have with me over time, increasing their risk taking as well, which is particularly important because it really is students who will drive this kind of evolution in graduate programs like ours. You can’t build those kinds of relationships and instill a sense of institutional commitment if the second half of your postdoc is spent looking for your next job.

  3. In addition to the professional development mentioned here, I would make a strong case for more generalized personal development, including training in organizational dynamics, personality assessment, team building, leadership development, and interpersonal conflict resolution. At Emory, we use the Birkman Method a lot on the administrative side of things and I frequently find myself wishing that the academic side were more open to such tools. They can be helpful in promoting self-understanding, in putting names to behaviors, and in specifically calling out stress behaviors. As a supervisor, it helps you to understand how your staff are motivated and what they need from you to be happy and productive.

    If you may make the leap to the IT side of a shop, knowledge of service management (we use ITIL) is increasingly a marketable skill.

  4. Excellent post and lots of great points. And … from the point of view of an administrator in a large research library, I have to admit that I’m not sure what to do. We want to make the positions permanent too, but we can’t do that if we don’t have the funding. We have to abide by the University’s HR policies about posting jobs when they convert from temporary to permanent, and no amount of bargaining on you the part of the “post-doc” is going to change that. And I can’t very well provide a “post-doc” with time off for their own research, and extra professional travel if my budget doesn’t allow me to do that for the rest of my professional staff.
    That said, we (the royal “we”, meaning lots of research libraries) often have great projects, with short-term funding, that would be ideal (from our point of view) for new PhD. I like to think the work would likewise be rewarding in lots of ways for a new PhD. How do we make these jobs attractive? I get why we shouldn’t call them “Post-docs”; and in fact, we (the specific “we”) haven’t ever done that (to my knowledge). But it is tempting, because we know that calling it a “post-doc” makes it more attractive and makes it look better on the CV when the position ends and the person goes back on the market.
    So, what do we do?
    (As I write this, I realize the answer is probably to simply be as honest and clear in the job announcement as possible, and trust that the right match will happen …which is what we do.)

  5. Chris, thanks so much for posting. It’s so useful to hear the employer’s perspective, and to begin to understand the bind you’re in, too. I do believe (though many may disagree) that postdocs can provide a useful, mutually beneficial function, particularly for Ph.D.s who are transitioning from traditional academic training to other kinds of careers. Since we don’t get this kind of training in grad school, it makes a lot of sense to give young Ph.D.s the chance to try their hand at something new for a few years, with appropriate guidance and mentorship.

    It does seem to me, though, that there’s a difference between what you’re describing — a discrete project with a well-defined role for a Ph.D. — and some of the more ill-conceived job ads I see. The bind that some of these postdocs find themselves in when they finish up is that, on the one hand, permanent staff jobs for Ph.D.s are not appearing at the same rate as postdocs. And on the other hand, by taking a postdoc that’s basically a staff position, Ph.D.s have excluded themselves from eligibility for regular faculty jobs because they have nothing to point to — no book, no articles, no nothing — to explain what they’ve done over the last couple years. I think defining a role on a project, something important and meaningful, with a nice title, could make a big difference for postdocs by helping them to explain what they’ve been doing to future employers.

    On Twitter, you said you were concerned that the library might not employ Ph.D.s who could mentor postdocs, but I don’t see why a mentor has to be a Ph.D. I’ve really valued the advice and assistance I’ve gotten from people within the library. And I wonder, too, if a mentoring relationship might be arranged with a faculty member outside the library, who could help the postdoc maintain ties with the academic community and, at the very least, invite the postdoc to departmental events. What a difference this would make!

    I don’t think we need to monitor the quality of postdocs so much to protect the precious Ph.D.s as to protect the quality of academic labor in general. I think it sets a dangerous precedent for libraries to have disposable employees rotating in and out, with or without mentorship or places to go afterward.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.