First, a few caveats. This post is my way of responding to a series of conversations happening at my institution and conversations overheard at a recent digital humanities conference--conversations about the state of digital humanities and the state of the academic job market. From these few conversations, which in no way reflect a the field as a whole (this I understand), from these few conversations, I've come to understand that there may be a misunderstanding with administrators and academics (in my experience mainly administrators) who are less familiar with the field, misunderstandings about what digital humanities means for those on the academic job market. In fact, I've heard the same line repeated several times by several different people: "don't worry, you're doing digital humanities now. You're experience on the market will be different." I'd like to think a bit more about this assumption and think about why this is the opinion driving administrators, scholars, and graduate students to privilege the field and the success of the field on the job market over "traditional" applicants (again not the feeling on the whole, but a feeling that is present at my institution and others I've visited).
Let's begin with the general assumption: if you are a digital humanist, you will be, in general, more successful on the market than others who don't do what you do. The assumption, I believe, is based on the fundamental expectation that digital humanists are in demand, that there is a growing market for digital humanities and digital media scholars, and that the field is new and exciting and more attractive for schools who are willing to spend money hiring in an area that is proving it can compete, finically, with the sciences. This particular view has been expressed by a number of administrators where I work and it's not that the assumption is incorrect, the number of digital academic positions on this years' job list is greater than last year. The recently announced cluster hire for digital humanists at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln is another sign that there is a need for scholars who are working in our field. As institutions and labs dedicated to digital humanities scholarship increase, there will be a significant focus on new hires in the digital humanities.
While this all may signal a growing interest, it's not like we haven't been here before. Every year the market changes. What institutions need changes rapidly from year to year. Areas of scholarship that dominated the market one year saw a sharp decrease the next. Take for example the case of early modern studies. Job postings this year are triple what they were last year, while medieval studies positions have dramatically decreased when last year they dominated the market listings. My problem with this assumption is that it doesn't take into account the nature of the academic job market and, more importantly, this view is really tied to a second assumption: your success on the market will be determined by your field of study on not on you, or market needs.
The market is the market, no matter what. Though there might be an increase in digital humanities hires this year, or next year, "doing" digital humanities does not guarantee success on the market. The market is still driven by institutional needs and wants, but that doesn't mean that "anyone" will do. The larger problem with the drive towards digital humanities, especially the drive I am witness to at my institution, is that, especially when students are concerned, it places an unrealistic cache on digital humanities research. Here are two examples, one from an administrator and one from a graduate student: admin, "the only ABD students who will be successful at placing in R1 schools will be someone who 'does' digital humanities"; grad student, "my chair said I should think about digital humanities because there are a lot of jobs right now in DH."
Granted, one could make the argument that this is the view of a few individuals who do not understand the field and are trying to market themselves and market students as best as they can to help them be successful in a tough market economy. Yes, this may be true, but even the views of a few individuals could signal an increasing misunderstanding of what digital humanists do and what that work means to the market. The point being, that we must reconsider placing the hopes of future success on any one area of study and that the only way to ensure failure on the market is to flood the market with applicants who are unprepared for the realities of digital humanities scholarship (let's not forget that most hiring committees will have one or two scholars who will not hire anyone just because they say they do DH, but will be looking to hire scholars whose work is inherently tied to digital studies and scholarship that shows it fits the institutions needs).
Ultimately, my problem with placing so much pressure on the success of digital humanists on the market ensures that administrators, faculty, and graduate students will not pressure institutions to make other opportunities available while training is occurring. It makes it the responsibility of the market to reward applicants and to place value on the scholarship it rewards with interviews and tenure-track job offers. It also reinforces the institutionalization of who is successful and who is not based on market value. This particular position has already proven to be detrimental for humanities at all levels.
When Princess Leia sent her message to Obi-Wan Kenobi, she placed her hopes and the entire hopes of the alliance on the Jedi master and on the power of the force. Sure, it worked out, mostly, but not because the force had the power to do what was needed, but rather because peopled believed in the force, they invested their lives, and their future to learning and being one with the force. Maybe then the way to rethink the position of digital humanities on the job market is not to place hope on the field. Digital Humanities will not save us from the empire that is the academic job market, but investing in digital humanities in other ways, alt-ac jobs, post-docs, grad fellows will continue to build infrastructure that is essential for the success of current and future scholars. This is something digital humanities knows well and is the foundation of the field, but it's a major lapse in the promotion of the success of the field and those who are in the field. This must change.