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DH Jobs: Getting Beyond the "Life Raft or Trendy Fad" Debate

DH Jobs: Getting Beyond the "Life Raft or Trendy Fad" Debate

Pick the best answer. DH jobs are:

A.      Definitely everywhere! “A bastion of hope for Humanities scholars,” I’ve called them before at parties.

B.      Most places, right?

C.      Some places…kinda?

D.      Quickly receding into a job market graveyard after a glorious but brief vogue.

This question might be difficult to answer because all of these narratives have gotten traction in recent years, from sources both nervous and gloating. But perhaps other lines of inquiry surrounding the DH job market might be more fruitful than pure existential speculation. I’ve looked into DH job postings from the MLA and AHA lists ranging from 2014 to the present, and tried to read the language in them carefully, attempting to do more than just make tally marks. (Though I did make tally marks. Who can resist a good tally?) Accordingly, what I offer below is not so much a statistical analysis of the current DH job market as a brief close reading of trends in the current DH job market. The irony of this project description has not escaped me. I’m embracing it.

(For those interested in a more numbers-based breakdown, I’ve also included a table at the bottom of this post that outlines some of my findings from the most current job postings.)

Trend #1:  Validation

Roopika Risam’s 2013 essay "Where Have All the DH Jobs Gone?" summed up one of the biggest DH market trends she noticed on the MLA Job Information List that year this way: “If the current ads on the JIL are any indication, academic hiring and the sources where we find jobs are engendering very specific (and limited) definitions of what a DH-er is: a field-specific literary scholar with a secondary interest; a Rhetoric and Composition specialist with digital or technical leanings; and only rarely, the DH specialist.”

This tendency to locate DH alongside other specialties still exists, but the number of purely DH jobs is on the rise and is even beginning to outstrip the kind of combo-pack position Risam described. (Risam counted 3 primary DH positions in the MLA JIL the year her essay came out; I’ve counted 14 so far this year and ads are still being posted.) (Yes, I know, I said this isn’t a statistical analysis. It’s just a tiny little bit of one for this bullet point.) While some of these openings are for postdoc fellowships, many are for tenure track professors whose expertise in DH is their main responsibility, not half of their main responsibility.

The fact that many DH jobs are still not primary DH jobs, though, may or may not strike a DH scholar as problematic. While it does seem to indicate institutional unwillingness to fully embrace and acknowledge DH as a field, it also allows faculty members to use their full range of expertise and to continue exploring intersections between their subject interests and their methodological interests.

Trend #2:  Progressivism

Even among institutions that combine DH with another field, job ads are placing DH in a larger institutional narrative of cutting edge-ery and hipness. Departments post whole paragraphs extolling their recent developments in DH growth. They group their interest in DH scholarship along with scholarship in queer theory, ecocrit, disability studies, and digital media/cultures. They emphasize grand designs that they have for the new hire to increase their department’s visibility and credibility in the DH community. Again, goals like these can be read in many ways. To some extent, departments might be placing a too-heavy burden on the shoulders of a new hire. At the least, though, this language indicates that many departments are interested in DH expansion, not just checking DH off a box.

Trend #3: Confusion

“Emails…sending emails, receiving emails, deleting emails…the web…clicking, double clicking…”, says tech-illiterate new hire Jen in the pilot episode of the British comedy series The IT Crowd as she tries to give her inscrutable corporate boss convincing proof of the skills she has that make her fit for a position in the company’s IT department. Her boss un-sarcastically responds, “Well, you certainly seem to know your stuff!” Many people who compose jobs ads for DH positions seem to know roughly as much about what skills a DH practitioner might have as Jen’s boss. For a very surprising amount of job postings, no specific DH skills are mentioned at all. Although almost any other tech-based job in the world would come attached with specific required tech skills, DH faculty job postings are often written by people who aren’t exactly sure themselves what those skills even are.

Other times, postings will just list every possible kind of skill a DH practitioner might conceivably have. To take one real example: “mapping, network analysis, data visualization, data mining, data literacy, digital scholarly editing, ITEP, big data, data science methodologies, creative applications, content management systems, programming or scripting languages, markup languages, database systems, data curation, and digital pedagogy.” The DH Librarian I intern with at my home institution saw this list and gave a knowing chuckle; according to her, a candidate who possessed skills in all of these domains would truly be the Ur-DH scholar, the Chosen One foretold (by Franco Moretti, maybe?).  (For more on this, see Ernesto Priego’s essay "Various Shades of Digital Literacy".) So we can probably conclude that institutions with postings like this intimidating one might actually be intimidated themselves when it comes to figuring out which DH skills are most important or desirable; considering DH’s lack of a fixed definition (sort of like queer theory - once it’s nailed down, it’s not it anymore), setting out clear qualifications for it isn’t always easy.

This fluidity can become opportunity for DH job seekers, though. It seems that in many cases DH scholars can carve out their own niches, lay stake to their own particular research interests; with such little preconceived idea of what their research should look like, it seems that they could likely be granted a fun amount of autonomy if they can sell the value of their plans to hiring committees.

The question of whether DH jobs can “save” the humanities job market is perhaps not the right one to be asking. No matter what percentage of the job market goes to DH hires, the market still isn’t big enough to accommodate all the scholars actually being awarded PhDs. Furthermore, getting a simple count of how many DH jobs are offered in any given year is not a straightforward task, considering the different levels of primacy given to DH work in job postings. However, I don’t think this should be taken as a sufficient indicator that departments are starting to turn their backs on the “fad”; the trends I’ve noticed indicate that departments still see DH as an exciting, attractive field, even when they might not totally understand what it is. And, of course, academic faculty positions are only one kind of career that a humanities PhD - and especially one with the additional flexibility and knowledge that a DH practitioner has - can get.

Note: The following tables present data I’ve compiled from the current MLA Job Information List as well as the AHA job post website. These listings are for jobs for next academic year, so they are still being added to. Therefore, this data is not yet complete - it was last updated on January 17, 2017. Also, I can’t promise that someone else making a similar tally wouldn’t come up with slightly different numbers because sometimes the phrasing of these ads can make it difficult to know which one of these groups I should place an ad into. For those interested, feel free to compare this (still ongoing) tally to Risam’s 2013 data by following the link given above to her essay. For those humanists in other fields, please don’t be offended by my English/History exclusionism; these are just two of the fields with the easiest and readiest job lists to consult.


Purely DH Jobs 14
Combination Jobs (e.g. "African American Literature/DH Assistant Prof." 8
DH as a desired secondary interest (e.g. "Candidates with experience in one of the following fields will be given preference...") 40
Rhetoric/Comp Jobs with Emphasis on Digital Methodologies 17

AHA Career Center Data

Purely DH Jobs 3
Combination Jobs 3
DH as a desired secondary interest 15



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