digital humanities Higher Education

digital humanities' risks

Last week, Kathleen Fitzpatrick wrote for the Chronicle on her advocacy of digital humanists doing the "risky thing." Her recommendation was suitably qualified by the injunction that it is the responsibility of more senior scholars and dissertation advisors to encourage and defend the risky choices made by graduate students and assistant professors. I think risk is a good word here and ultimately this is all about risk tolerance. Is it risky to produce a digital dissertation or compose digital scholarship? Yes, it is. I don't care who says they'll have your back. As the expression goes, if you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen. Because the reality is, in my experience, that the risks don't end once you get the Phd or the job or even tenure. I suppose one can hope that "one day" doing digital work will be as ordinary as doing conventional scholarship, but I would suggest that if that is your hope then you are in the wrong line of work. 

I would anticipate that doing digital work will mean taking professional risks for the next two or three decades (assuming anything that vaguely resembles the humanities lasts that long, which is a significant gamble in itself in my view). Put differently, I've been doing digital work since 1995, and I haven't seen the risks diminish very much. Yes, it is true that a dozen years ago it was risky and unsual to teach in online environments (and now it isn't). It's true that publishing in an online journal was more risky 10 years ago than today. But being digital today isn't about using Blackboard or publishing your essay in an online journal. It's about being at the digital frontier. It's about imagining college curriculum in a world of social media, mobile technologies, and virtually free content. It's about multimedia scholarship, vast databases, and crowdsourced/collaborative research. It's about developing an online academic identity and then living there. 

Think about the risk of this blog. Nearly 900 posts and closer to a million words than a half-million, going back eight years. How many books or articles could I have written instead? I started this blog before I had tenure. The conventional advice would have suggested I focus on writing articles. Did I think that my colleagues would have my back? Hardly. To the contrary, my blog pissed people off. Now, at my new job at UB, I have no idea what my colleagues might think of my blog or even if they read it. I would guess that they don't. I certainly don't write this blog with any particular concern about my colleagues or dean or president or graduate students reading it and getting angered. After all, we don't have to agree with each other, and as long as I am not making personal attacks or airing dirty laundry then I don't believe I'm violating any professional responsibilities (not that airing dirty laundry or whistle-blowing can't be appropriate… I just understand how people might get angry about it).

Anyway, my point is that writing this blog has been a risk. It's less of a risk now, but it is still a decision to put my efforts in one direction rather than another. However, when I start to get mercenary about it, I think of my blog as marketing. Many people read my blog. Probably more than have read this article in Kairos or this article in Enculturation, let alone other articles that might be in harder to find places. As I've mentioned before on this blog, many more folks I meet at conferences mention reading my blog than reading an article or my book. That's fine with me. What that says is that this is how I communicate my views to the scholarly community. And if you really want to know more or want it delivered in a more scholarly way then my vita is only one click away (though I do need to update that sucker).

Getting back to Fitzpatrick's argument, she observes that

Too many young digital humanists find themselves cautioned away from the very work that got them hired by well-meaning senior colleagues, who now tell them that wacky digital projects are fine on the side, or once the work necessary for tenure is complete.

In giving that advice, we run the risk of breaking the innovative spirit that we've hoped to bring to our departments. And where that spirit isn't broken, untenured digital scholars run the risk of burnout from having to produce twice as much—traditional scholarship and digital projects—as their counterparts do.

I agree with this. I think that departments do need to give this kind of support. And some certainly will. However, it will always still be a risk. Unless three digital humanists who do work similar to yours have been tenured before you in your department, it will be a risk, regardless of what anyone says.

On the other hand, not doing digital work is another kind of risk. To be perfectly blunt, while it certainly isn't necessary to compose a "digital dissertation," if you're entering graduate school in the humanities this year, I think you're taking an incredible risk if you don't develop some significant digital proficiences as both a scholar and a researcher. The specifics of those proficiencies will depend on your field, but, seriously, when you imagine higher education in 7-10 years (i.e. when you're on the job market), do you really think working with digital technologies will be optional? Exactly what kind of undergraduate entering college in 2020 do you think won't require an education grounded in digital information and literacy?

Do we think that MLA is going to move its offices to Amish country?

Now if one wants to argue that English departments are far too traditional for that, that they won't change that quickly, that they'd rather fail than change their character in such a way, well, I'm inclined to agree with you. I imagine most English deparments will fail in the next two decades. Why not? That's the risk they quite obviously want to take. And it's a free world (sorta). They vote on their hires. They make their strategic plans. When the dust settles on those departments, there will still be a need to teach digital literacy and communication, to bring a humanistic perspective to the digital world. 

In the end, for young scholars, there's risk wherever you choose to go, traditional or digital. So I would suggest following your passion.


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