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.”