Back in the winter, I was lucky enough to find out about the roundable that Daniel Powell was putting together to discuss the role of graduate students who are participanting in large-scale digital humanities projects. The roundtable happened this afternoon at Congress, as part of the SDH-SEMI sessions, and included me, Daniel (UVic), Tara Tompson (UVic), Alyssa McLeod (UVic), Andy Keenan (U of T) and Matt Bouchard (U of T). And as Ray Siemens, among many others, said at the end of our 90-minute discussion, this was one of the most positive, hopeful, laughing, collaborative, and inspiring panels about the state of the profession he’d ever witnessed. Lots of the credit for that goes to Daniel, but lots of it also goes to the excitement and positive energy that characterizes so many DH practitioners, and the field itself. So what did we talk about? And what conclusions did we come to?
1) DH gives us hope. The majority of us considered ourselves both English and DH students—either we were doing concurrent but largely separate DH and traditional English research projects, or were doing literary projects that had a DH component—and since the hiring rate in English is so dismal right now, the feeling that we had other/more options helped stave off some of the angst and hopelessness that so plagues the field right now.
2) But that’s not enough. As we discovered in our conversation, none of us—even Andy and Matt, who have technical knowledge and practical application skills up the wazoo—feel like the work we’re doing in DH as graduate students is enough to get us to the place that we need to be in order to be successful on the job market as DH candidates. A lot of that is because of the divide I mentioned in point 1: we’re literary scholars, and since DH isn’t our core area of practice, we’re less confident about it. We also have to continually justify spending time on it, when it isn’t the research that’s actually going to get us a degree in hand. But we talked about ways to overcome that, like going to play RailsForZombies after we’ve written all we can write for the day, signing up for MITx courses in programming when they open in the fall, pressuring our programs to accept PHP as our second language requirement, and attending DHSI/DHWI. And as Aimee Morrison reminded us, job postings aren’t the be all and end all—hiring committees often don’t know exactly what they’re looking for when they post them, or they’ve posted Frankenstein ads because they’re trying to satisfy a divided search committee. Apply anyway. Just because you aren’t a fully-trained database programmer doesn’t mean that you aren’t what they’re actually looking for.
3) We as graduate students are responsible for what we ask of and take from our DH work, just as our supervisors and PIs are responsible for trying to give us good, varied, and useful work. Let’s face it: RA work, in DH or outside, is often what we termed in our discussion “donkey work,” which in DH is often the same thing as “code monkey” work—the boring, repetitive, isolating work like photocopying, coding, scanning, etc. Some administrative work falls into this category too. It’s unglamorous but necessary, and sometimes only tangentially related to DH as we normally think of it. It’s also problematic for graduate researchers in DH, because getting stuck doing this work day in, day out, with little chance to grow, develop, practice new skills, or learn about the greater workings of large-scale DH projects means that we’re simply not prepared, on graduation, to enter the DH job market. And that doesn’t have to be the case. So as students, we are responsible for advocating for varied, stimulating, and meaningful work, just as our supervisors are responsible to ensure that work is being given to us. Even if it just means that every RA on a project switches roles quarterly.
4) In Aimee Morrison’s words, you need to do twice the work for half the credit. I’m speaking back to point 2. You need to write a dissertation AND put together a digital edition. You need to learn French AND Python. You need to attend ACCUTE AND SDH-SEMI. You need to read Macbeth AND McGann. Yes, it sucks, but at least for now, those are the conditions of being in a dual-focus field like digital humanities—you’ve gotta do the digital and the humanities. Luckily, as Ray Siemens informed us, early career DH professors seemingly have a lower burnout rate than traditional humanities scholars. It’s something, but it’s not enough. If DH is the skill set that departments are looking for, it is also the responsibility of those departments to train us in DH as part of our degrees, for credit, and in the time allocated for our graduate work. If DH is the new theory/research skills/etc., it should be treated as such.
5) We need to start thinking more about what our DH training is for. Just about all of us agreed that we need to be thinking—and we are thinking—about how to take our DH training out into the world beyond academia. But we can’t do it on our own—the field as a whole, and our departments in particular, need to start thinking about how to help us position ourselves on the non-academic job market, and how to help us articulate our skills and knowledge in ways that make sense in the non-academic world. This is of particular importance for terminal MA students, like Alyssa, who may be coming to the degree specifically in order to work outside of academia, but it applies just as much to PhD students. We can’t rely on academia to have jobs for us when we’re done.
6) We need to think more about the relationship between our research and our DH work. Ideally, as with any RA work, the work we’re given will intersect in some meaningful way with our own research interests. We can do more to advocate for work that does so, but we also need to do more thinking about the often artificial split between “intellectual” research and “hands-on” work. I don’t know about you, but I can’t do good work unless I’ve properly researched and theorized how I’m going to do it, and so breaking down that distinction can help us find meaning and purpose in work that might otherwise seem removed from what we think of as academic pursuit.
7) Back to point 1: we are lucky. We are lucky to be working in a field that gives us so many opportunities to learn and develop our skills. We are lucky that there are a number of no- or low-cost ways for us to do so, alongside the paid RA/editorial work from which we learn so much. We are lucky that there are jobs in DH, even if there aren’t in our primary fields. We are lucky that, unlike the “state of the profession” discussion of the Canadian Historical Society in the room next door, our discussion wasn’t all doom, gloom, and whining. There’s a lot of angst and anxiety about being an academic right now, but being a part of the DH community seems to be shielding some of us from the worst of it.
I’m grateful for Daniel for putting this panel together and inviting me to be on it, as I’m grateful to the great crowd of DH folks who packed into a tiny classroom to discuss these issues openly and generously for 90 minutes. We’ll be having a very similar roundtable at Exile’s Return in Paris, and I’m very much looking forward to engaging with the EMiC community on these same issues when we get there. It’s a conversation that we need to have, and to keep having, if the graduate students of today are going to become the digital humanists of tomorrow.
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