¶ 1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 (The title of this post is attributed to John Guillory, “Professionalism: What Graduate Students Want,” Profession (1996): 91–99 (91), which was also used to preface the book chapter “Acculturation and the Digital Humanities Community” by Geoffrey Rockwell and Stéfan Sinclair.)
¶ 2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 When Paul Ford published his article What is Code? last year, I was all for it. At the time, I was volunteering with a Code for America chapter, which promoted the adoption of civil technology in local communities. We were working to grow our chapter numbers and reach out to many different communities, from programmers, to students, to community activists. I remember re-tweeting Ford’s article quite enthusiastically, in awe of its interactivity, its deep dive into the world of software, and its humility. In reading the article again for this week’s reading, I remembered one point Ford made:
¶ 4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 I spoke with some friends in their 40s who had spent careers in technology. I was complaining. I said, “I mentor some millennials, and my God. Every job is a contract position. Nothing comes with health care. They carry so much debt.” They looked at me with perplexity. It took a moment, and then one of them said: “Not if they can code.”
¶ 5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 …Programming as a career can lead to a rewarding, solidly middle-class existence. If you are inclined and enjoy the work, it’s a good way to spend time, and if you work for and with good people, it can be very fun–even the dry parts have something to teach you. Of course this is true of any place where smart people work. If your situation is lousy, you can probably find another job more easily than, say, a writer.
¶ 6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 What attracted me to this article last year was that it represented, for me, a detailed manifesto on how to code to make a living. A seemingly stable, middle-class living. And I do associate that allure with my own efforts this semester to learn about the methods and tools of digital humanities: to adopt new skillsets to appear more employable within academia and outside of it. Within the digital humanities, this rhetoric (or at its extreme Apple-like hard-sell approach) is nothing new. As Rockwell and Sinclair write in 2012:
¶ 7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 …digital humanities is a field that is potentially broader than the academy. The jobs available to graduates already include non-academic jobs or #alt-ac (or alternative academic) jobs. The question is how digital humanities programs can prepare students for a breadth of careers including academic careers.
¶ 8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 This rhetoric exists even in articles that aim to critique the digital humanities rather than professionalize it. For example, a Slate article from 2014 urged readers not to obtain a Ph.D. solely to become a digital humanist, but at the same time encouraged the adoption of technical skills to gain employment on and off the tenure track:
¶ 9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 The real advantage of training in the digital humanities, she [Roopika Risam] argues, is helping students look ‘beyond the tenure track job,’ possibly outside of academia altogether…. One way to salvage what will otherwise be your eventual entrée onto a jobless hellscape might be to “disrupt” your Eliot (George, T.S., whichever) and start using technology to analyze, distribute, or supplement your research.
¶ 10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 My perspective on digital humanities and employability is colored by my position as a Millennial in an uncertain job market; my status as a master’s student who may want to pursue a Ph.D. in the future; my professional background working with Ph.D. students anxious about their job prospects. That being said, I do think that digital humanities, in its emphasis on technical skill-building, project management and collaboration, buys into the discourse that Ph.D. students (and perhaps master’s students) will develop transferable skills that will evolve into a variety of career paths. I also think that this particular discourse is problematic for myself and my own curiosity towards digital humanities as a discipline, even though I bought into it. This passage, from the LA Review of Books article, Neoliberal Tools (and Archives): A Political History of the Digital Humanities), starts to explain why:
¶ 11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 …the Digital Humanities social movement seeks to prove that a humanities education is beneficial to job seekers by reinventing that education as a course of training in the advanced use of information technology. It unavoidably also suggests that other approaches in the humanities fit less well into the contemporary university, because the implied measure of success is economic.
¶ 12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 I had hoped (and perhaps still have hope) that adopting digital humanities methods towards qualitative and interpretivist approaches in political science would perhaps make my future research agenda more publishable; that I could access additional funding streams through university digital humanities initiatives that wouldn’t otherwise be available to me; and that even if I decided to not pursue a career in academia, the technical skills would give me an edge in my previous field of non-profit administration or even enable me to change fields. I’ve come to see that digital humanities itself functions as another asset for me, personally, rather than an end goal. Producing worthwhile scholarship in the public, digital, or academic spheres is a long journey that can’t be remedied with Python or Git tutorials. This week’s readings, along with my revisiting of “Neoliberal Tools,” reminded me that attaching “digital” to “humanities” or any other academic field comes with its own challenges in the job market, complicating the hard-sell approach.
¶ 13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 Particularly, I identified with Wendy Hui Kyong Chun’s contribution in the 2016 edition of Debates in the Digital Humanities and her critique of the “vapid embrace of the digital” that can be equated with “cruel optimism, to borrow from Lauren Berlant. Chun calls back the digital humanities’ “alleged promise to save the humanities by making them and their graduates relevant, by giving their graduates technical skills that will allow them to thrive in a difficult and precarious job market.” She quickly dispenses with that promise with some blunt advice speaking as former engineer: that learning the basics of GIS, statistics, or scripting (and just the basics as taught to English majors in digital humanities programs” will not make you competitive against a growing number of engineers and computer scientists trained at home and abroad. The “blind embrace of DH” leads universities, faculty, and staff to believe that challenges faced in the job market results from a mere lack of technical knowledge, not “an economic system that undermines the future of our students.”
¶ 14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 Chun proposes a few cursory solutions to make this “alleged promise” turn into a “bright side” for digital humanities: to collaborate further with sciences and engineering; to solve problems such as education and global change; to not forget the role that “failed DH tools” still played in opening doors in the field. The “economic system” problem Chun points out seems intractable. One possible response, rather than solution, I found in the “Neoliberal Tools” piece gave me the slightest amount of hope. At a digital humanities conference last year, media scholar Deb Verhoeven, bravely, called out the men present in the session:
¶ 15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 0 You have made a world designed around ensuring your own personal comfort, but it’s not comfortable for many, many other people. […] This is not about issuing another policy advisory for “inclusion.” This is not about developing a new checklist to mitigate your biases. And its definitely not about inviting a token female speaker to join you – this actually needs to be about your plans to exit the stage. This is not about learning how to do it better next time – this is about you leaving before there’s a next time. […] This is about letting other people in by letting go of your privileged position.
¶ 16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 0 The authors call this idea “unlikely” and even “laughable,” and I do understand their view that Verhoeven’s proposal won’t correct the “structural and institutional conditions” perpetuating digital humanities today. But speaking as a potential re-entering scholar, as a woman of color, there must be ways for people outside the normal representation of digital humanities to “occupy the positions that get to speak,” in Verhoeven’s words. I have to believe that if I were to continue down this path of becoming a digital scholar, that the position I end up occupying might not even exist in the job market today. I can only hope that the digital and academic spaces for worthwhile scholarship continue to expand and make room for others, and not merely rely on singular digital projects and tools.