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"Help Me Digital Humanities, You're My Only Hope!"

"Help Me Digital Humanities, You're My Only Hope!"

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.  




You bring much light (instead of heat) to the discussion on the future of humanities and the job market and trends for the "present" and into the future. One of the issues that fascinates me about the academy (and maybe this is primarily the R1's) is the sustained pressure, motivation, desire, elevation, and rewarding of all things associated with the following bread crumb trail to "success" in many fields  - and I wonder if DH is in the same stream?

1) innovative disseration (Ph.D.) >> 2) Supervisory Committee connections to colleagues at other institutions >> 3) publications/books etc "out of the gate" and prior to going on the market 4) maybe a post-doc to beef up the CV, 5) hired by institution that wants maximum impact (overnight) from the new hire, 6) reduce teaching load to focus on scholarship to ramp up for RPT process, 7) hope that their are schoalrship outlets (journals, pubishers) that embrace the edge work in DH, 8) external reviewers love the "new" DH scholarship, 9) RPT committee sees value in the "edge work", 10) the CV full of pubs leads to the extramural grants/fellowships, 11) one becomes a rock star in the sub-field that will lead the way - and one gets offers from poaching (other) institutions, 12) you are named the editor to the journal "Digitial Humanaities", 13) an endowed Chair waits for you at X institution and you cultivate the next generation of scholars who lead the way in the revitalization of the humanities as a complement to the science that has dominated the cerebralsphere of the academy. 

The key to this is # 7 - which the life blood of the currency for the academy - and for engaging dialogue, discussion, and dialectics. # 7 then leading to # 10 

It will take infrastrcuture to light the fuse of any rocket - that wants to take off and bring new energy into a field that - (pardon the pun) - humanity needs so much - and more than ever.

Scott Wright





Hi Scott,

Thanks for the great response.  It's difficult not to see the field being constructed by and relying on the same structures that determine success in the humanities (especially when the ultimate goal is institutional and international recognition through research projects and tenure track jobs).  This has been the point of contention for the recent issues with the @occupyMLA twitter account.  The members behind the account made the mistake (I believe) of devaluing alt-ac jobs, but it did signify a problem that I think you're pointing out and that is that the "values" of success, the infrastructures that determine success, are still the same.  @occupyMLA felt that they shouldn't have to settle for anything other than the T-T job they worked so hard for and I think that's because we still rely on that vision of success to motivate students to finish and go on the market.  It's definitely a recipe for failure and we need to make sure that we don't instill those values of success as the golden mark for DH.  

Your first point, the innovative dissertation is a perfect example.  Though we've been encouraged to experiment with innovative dissertations, we haven't done anything to deal with schools that only accept written material in the job packet; this forces me to "flatten" my project for the market (a hold over of the privilege position placed on traditional textual dissertations).  Most institutions don't even have a way to deal with innovative dissertations.  My department has no rules, but the thesis office will make me follow a computer science model for the dissertation and not a humanities model.  That is not in itself a bad thing, but it forces me to revise based on a single model when my dissertation supports several models.

I do think that there are a number of attempts to slow this institutionalization of market success as a standard as the field grows and becomes entrenched in the grips of disciplinarity, but a lot more needs to be done.


- Shawn


One of the issues about determining success is to first ask “What do I want out of life?”  Once I know the answer to that question, I can then plot my own course for success; a path that might not follow the bread crumb trail that will lead me to being a rock star.

While I sometimes fantasize about what it would be like to be a rock star in my field, I do not really desire such “success.”  Instead, I love impacting student lives at the community college at which I teach.  I particularly appreciate the ability to mentor students who are considered marginal: students on academic probation, athletes, working students, students who do not have strong family support, first generation college students, and so forth.  Rock star status would interfere with my doing the work I love.

Another issue is that we need to be comfortable with the risks as well as the benefits of our decisions.  Market forces are one consideration.  With a degree in American studies, I have a harder time fitting into the silo mentality of academia.  It would have been much easier for me to have found a position where I just a scholar in English or history or religious studies.  Few postings are for joint appointments and there is no such position at the school at which I teach.

I am not an expert in the realities of a Digital Humanity degree that did not exist when I was a graduate student.  While I would love my college to hire a colleague with such a background in either of the two departments in which I teach, I suspect that without a strong digital humanities advocate on a search committee, it will be the scholar who needs to show how his/her background will work for the department.  Of course, that is the reality for any search is a dwindling job market.

A final issue I want to address is the fact that too often those of us who take a more creative approach to our educations do not fit in well with established procedures.  People just do not know what to do with us and, at times, the rules and regulations (such as the type of dissertation model) can hamper good work.  I find that by accepting the reality of this situation—something I have not always been able to do—makes it easier for me to maneuver in a world that needs an organization like HASTAC.


Hi everyone! A few comments:

First, I think it's importatnt to figure out what is intended by "digital humanities" in this context.

  1. Digitally-realized entities such as digital texts, categorization systems, creation of XML schemata, creating metadata for digital texts, creation of a portal or directory, acquisition of digital texts, transcription, collaboration platforms, creation of digital scholarly editions, etc. These are not likely to have expressions in the traditional formats such as books, papers, posters, conference presentations.
  2. Scholarship about digital culture, online identities, gender, class, ecnomics, social organization, etc., This can be published in the traditional formats.

Items in (1) will probably in generally not be recognized as scholarship relevant to tenure and will probably, except in extraordinary circumstances, be viewed a positive when making hiring decisions. This is in accord with the view that preparing materials for scholarship is not as significant as producing "content." Editing a volume of essays, a critical edition, transcribing notes, translation, e.g. are not usually highly valued. Also, many of these projects will be understood to be primarily for education or as a general-use resource. There's a small chance that you can explain much. 

There are two different cases to consider regarding items in (2.) First, so long as they are peer-reviewed or deemed acceptable in some other kind of external review, eg., winning a grant, hiriing and tenure committees will ttreat them more or less the same as they do their print counterparts. Second, works, no matter what the medium, that do not fit into any particular discipline or sub-discipline will be regarded negatively. Hiring committtees want to hire someone who will get tenure, and to get tenure, your work has to be seen as contributing to the discipline of the department you are in, e.g., English Literature, Sociology, etc. Tenure committees will probably not attempt to judge the quality of your work, counting peer review publication as the central mark of whether your work is of adequate quality. If you can't show evidence of having done work that's in your official discipline, you won't get tenure.

Regarding "rock stars," if you are at the highest level, it probably doesn't matter what you do, beccause someone will hire you or tenure you, depending on where you are in your career.  I've never been able to tell if what "rock stars" do is really better than what other people do. My suspicion is that they are usually not especially good, but that hype and rumor have created a frenzy that will cause people to ignore what the person does anyhow. If you are not at this stratospheric level, the considerations about digital works I raise above probably will be a problem at the tenure process, even if your department regards you as being a digital rock star.

It would probably be useful to look to biological science and medical research to think about ways to deal with the "alternative dissertation." Nowadays, people are expected to make their data and various other "supplemental" material available with the dissertation, and more generally, to accompany any form of published research. The DRYAD project ( is an interesting project from our point of view. 

For now, the safest approach is to make sure that whatever digital work you do can be described in one of the usual outlets or have results that can be published in them. Get an NEH grant or tenure and then you can do whatever you want.

Finally: if digital projects are important to you, considering going to an information science, department, a communications department, a library, or as an educational technology specialist. These are great jobs, and what you do will be highly valued no matter what.