Blog Post

So You Want a DH Job? Interviewing, Pt 2

Yesterday I blogged about how flustered and frustrated I was at MLA this year to have three separate people from three major universities where hiring was being done aggressively complain about the quality of some Digital Humanities job candidates, not on paper but in their self-presentation at interviews.  In one case, I'm sure there was some prejudice against the field.  In the other two cases, it was non-DH scholars who were highly, even assertively receptive to the field and fostered students, undergrad and grad, in this area.  My frustration was in realizing, belatedly, that HASTAC should be taking up the challenge of multi-disciplinary DH career building.   We need a forum, where those in different disciplines can talk about what does or does not work at an interview for a promising DH scholar.   We will do that, but I deeply regret it's taken so long.   I plan on getting this off to a start, for anyone lucky enough to have MLA fly backs (return interview visits on campus), with some advice of my own--and here's the original post for anyone who wants to refer to it:


First an anecdote.   Although I technically wrote my dissertation on Ambrose Bierce (it will surprise some readers that I actually have three Bierce books---lots of people, including me, don't really pay attention to my Bierce phase!), I wrote a fast and abominable dissertaton so I could have the degree in hand and concentrate on the project that had me on fire intellectually but that no one even had a name for back then.   Recently, when Oxford University Press reissued the Expanded Edition of that book, Revolution and the Word:  The Rise of the Novel in America, Duke did me the honor of holding a forum on it (not a lot of books in literature are reprinted over a decade later) and President Richard Brodhead (also an Americanist by profession) joked that I had "invented the 18th century."   It was his typically witty way of saying that no one--really, no one--in the field was writing anything like that book at the time.  Bob Darnton was working on print culture and the beginnings of mass printing for the French Revolution and I was doing something similar for the American Revolution, but my "canon" was mostly uncatalogued books that I was finding in the bat- and mouse-filled attics of obscure New England historical societies.  I was recovering actual readers of these books, from their marks in the books and then their papers (also mostly uncatalogued), in order to understand the dispersion of literacy with the new cultural products of the steam powered presses, machine made ink and manufactured paper, and to theorize cultural representations in populist print culture, including issues of race and gender, that were not as articulate in the new and, at the time, much disputed and debated and delayed new Constitution of the new Republic.    Okay.  You with me?


That's a big, big topic but the debate that had historians in this tiny new field all excited was something called "signing non-readers."   In trying retrospectively to determine literacy, a lot of us were giving papers on the phenomenon (documented in 18th century America or contemporary Israel and some other locations too) of those who could write beautifully elaborate signatures on official documents (such as immigration papers) but who were functionally illterate.  I remember going on about this to one of my dissertation advisers, Bernie Rosenthal, with heat and excitement (I no longer remember what my position was on signing non-readers but, at the time, it was all that mattered), and he interrupted me and said:  "Cat, no one cares."   I was stunned at the time, but, when you are creating a new field (most of the books I wrote about had not been reprinted in 200 years and no one had heard of any of them), you have a big enough challenge without getting lost in the detritus and in-field debates.   Thank you, Bernie Rosenthal, wherever you may be now.  You were right (as usual), and I'm so glad you cared enough to tell me the truth about signing non-readers:  No one else but me and a handful of other specialized eighteenth century literacy scholars cared.  It took me three years to get my first tenure-track job, in what was the worst job market for academics until last year's collapse of the economy and support for higher education.   If I had been yattering on about signing non-readers in every interview, I might never have had a career.


This long, personal history has always resonated for me, through all the shifts and turns of new cutting edge approaches, theories, interests, topics, interdisciplinary approaches, and everything else in my field over the course of what is now a long career.  I bet a hundred or maybe two hundred doctoral students have heard me quote Bernie's "Cat, no one cares" as I've admonished them to be the translator from their specialization to a larger field, to think big, to aim high, and not to repeat, in a job interview, the intra-field squabbles, controversies, or issues.  "Cat, no one cares."   Bernie Rosenthal's words echoed in my ears yet again as not one, not two, but three different people--powerful people in the field--were asking me about how some DH candidates had gone astray and why they were so insistent on trumpeting their coding ability or even (the metonymic way it was presented to me) their self-definition, "I know HTML mark up."    Yes, yes, you do.  And once upon a time, I could prove, beyond a shadow of a doubt, something or other about signing non-readers.  Harsh as it may seem, I'm going to quote Bernie again:  "Cat, no one [but you] cares."


That is rule #1 of all job interviews but especially if the subfield you are in is just on the verge of becoming a major field within an established one:  the job candidate has to move beyond any internal issues, debates, concerns of the new field, taking the whole argument up a level, and serving as a translator between the new field and existing ones.   You have to explain your field not in the shorthand of other practitioners but in the way you would to your mom or your grandfather or your next door neighbor.   What's exciting about it in general terms that will spark their interest?   Even better, what do you know that they are interested that looks different--that is changed--by your specialized research and practices?   In an interview, since the interviewer has the position and you need one, your job (and this is true for any job) is to make your research interests so vital and so central to the position that needs to be filled in that department that your interviewers leave thinking they have to have you on their faculty, that they need what you do in order to be better themselves.  Nothing about my signing non-readers made a bit of difference in any English department.   Changing the canon and the starting place for what constitutes American studies, making the evolution of a technology central to the existence of a whole new genre, tying the conception of a nation to a whole body of literature no one knew about, and making an argument about the relationship between technological innovation and social and cultural changes:  that got me my first job.  


What is the equivalent Big Think "pitch" in Digital Humanities?  There are so many of them I barely know where to begin, but how about we start with the foundational ones of HASTAC.   Here's make-believe scenario.  It's stilted and a bit outlandish as a "pitch" that works but it is intended to give you, the interviewee, ideas about how you can take your own work up several notches in order that you can find some common points of interest between yourself and your interviewers, none of whom may even share your knowledge or assumptions or experience of what DH is.   You have to make it clear that you actually do share a large body of knowledge, assumptions, and experience on which you can build out that unique body of knowledge that you will bring to the job:


SCENARIO:  A hotel room, MLA, for a job advertised as 19th century American literature with additional field expertise in Digital Humanities:

 Interviewer (hostile, or at least challenging) question:  So is there really anything new and important about so-called Digital Humanities?

Interviewee (take a deep breath, don't be defensive) answer:   Thanks for asking!  Yes, there is so much new and important and I'd love to have the chance to show you at greater lenght.  But, for starters, we Digital Humanists are finding serious ways to teach, learn, and do research that best suits this historical moment.   The field is based on principles of technological and cultural transformation.  We are crossing the great divide of "thinking" and "making," exploring new forms of pedagogy that better suit an interactive, customizing, collaborative, and process-oriented mode of informal learning enabled by the Internet and the World Wide Web, and we are even forging across the great divide of the so-called "two cultures" of the sciences and the humanities.  [And now here comes the wheel and turn]:  One reason I feel so lucky to be working in Digital Humanities is that it makes the work we all do in English Departments [or history or information science or media studies] so instantly and obviously vital not only to students but to our colleagues in other departments, disciplines, and schools.  Some of the Digital Humanities projects I've been fortunate to work on are even accessible to the general public, and make the work we do available.  For example, when I'm working on the Emily Dickinson Civil War correspondence and poetry with my mentors and colleagues at MITH . . .


Okay!  You are there.  Big picture.  Big importance.  Saving the department.  Saving the field.  Saving the university.  And an immediate and direct tie-in to something everyone knows (Emily Dickinson in this made-up example) and everyone can see is valuable.   You are the missing link, between the central corpus of the field and something new--and, beyond that novelty--something vitally important to in the imperiled world of English Departments and higher education today.  


I'm using this one example because i think specifics speak more suggestively than generalizations--but virtually every Digital Humanities project I can think of is susceptible to this kind of "translation."   It is the exercise that should be performed in the job letter, performed in the interview, and performed in one's job talk.   It is a lesson one never forgets, right up there with, "Cat, no one cares."   When you are a translator, people care a lot about your research and interests.  You help them understand why they should care.


Okay, okay, I can almost hear the Twitter streams huffing away, "But Digital Humanities is not a new field!  How dare Davidson dismiss our history."   (I can hear Bernie's retort to that, can't you?)   Suffice it to say, you and I, dear reader, know that Digital Humanities as a field has been around a long time, long enough to have its own vibrant division at NEH.   Digital Humanities does not feel "new" to any of us who have been working in it for a long time.  At Duke, I began working with faculty in computer science, music, art, literature, and library science to create our ISIS (Information Science + Information Studies) program in 1998.   That's not new anymore.  But if you say that at a job interview, you fall immediately into the "signing non-reader" or the "I know HTML" or "I do my own programming" or "I do mark up" category of self-designated irrelevancy.  That it is not new to you or your mentors is precisely beside the point if it is new to your interviewers.  


That's the thing about an interviewer.   No one intrinsically cares about what you care about.  That is not why they are holding the interview.  In the end (hard as it may seem) those three days locked in a hotel room at MLA, interviewing person after person, are not about you.   Those days are about finding the very best person who will contribute the most to the interviewer's department and university.  Those interviews are about finding the best colleague, the person who will share the burden, mentor the students, add a new life and sparkle to the hallways.   Hmm, someone once said it quite well:  "Ask not what the department can do for you.  Ask what you can do for that department."   Something like that.   Internal field disputes (signing non-readers or you-have-to-write-your-own-code-to-be-a-Digital Humanist) don't contribute to the needs and life of a department----unless you are fortunate enough to be hired by a Digital Humanities center.  


Now, that, a specialized job in a specialized unit, is a different matter, a different kind of pitch, a different kind of tie and translation from you to them.  We'll take that one up in another blog post sometime.





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