Digital Humanities and the unsung entrepreneurs of academia
Interviews from the recent series by the Los Angeles Review of Books called The Digital in the Humanities have been filling up my news feeds of late, and they have re-kindled familiar conversations about the field. Although I left academia several years ago, I still believe strongly in the importance of the work being done by researchers, librarians and other scholars to integrate new technologies into our study of the cultural record. I even took the principles I learned in DH with me to start my own business, where I help companies with large repositories of data to streamline their workflows, and to create new products from their holdings. If I get to work with a university program, or a DH Center, then my work is even more fulfilling. But my days as a participant in the world of promotion and tenure are long gone.
It’s an interesting experience for me to watch these conversations play out from a distance, and I find myself musing about the enterprise from a different perspective. If there are people out there who still don’t believe that digital tools and methods can enhance our understanding of the past, present, and future of our society, then I believe they will never be convinced. Those people will retire eventually, and they’ll be replaced by younger, more engaged and well-rounded scholars (who will hopefully not be relegated to years of adjuncting hell, but that’s a rant for another day). Digital Humanities is here to stay, and I, for one, will remain a devoted cheerleader.
The entrepreneurial activities of the DH professor
Beyond the ‘definitional’ conversations about the state of the field, and the fascinating research being published daily, there is an intriguing new system of work emerging for humanities professors and library science professionals — and it looks strikingly entrepreneurial. Keep in mind that most of the professors working in DH today were trained in the traditional methods of their discipline, often in departments that were not welcoming to their digital “experimentation.” These professors did a lot of the work on their digital projects on their own time, in addition to the usual teaching and research that was required in their programs. And even as DH gained more and more acceptance (and later, caché in some fields) those researchers still had to apply for grants, manage their projects, and negotiate with their department or college for resources — this on top of the teaching load assigned to them, the publication regimen required for promotion and tenure, and the performance of other compulsory service components of their job. Running a DH project is like juggling a full-time job and managing your own startup; one that has to survive an intensely beaurocratic and political academic landscape. The experience can be brutal, but it can also be intensely rewarding.
On DH Centers as startups
Many universities have organized the DH efforts of their faculty and staff into Centers (see, for example, the Center for Digital Research in the Humanities, at UNL). Pooling resources for these hard-working researchers is an excellent idea, and it usually attracts more grant opportunities and better resources for higher-caliber projects. But the irony, to my mind, is that DH professors are often appointed as directors of these centers. Let me be clear: this is in no way a critique of the excellent work being done to lead these impressive centers by faculty members. However, I think it is worthwhile to take some time to evaluate the system as it has developed so far.
There is little-to-no training given to humanities graduate students on how to manage a business. As seen before, many professors learn on the job, by diving in and finding their way — becoming principle investigators of a project, hiring student workers, learning to manage a large grant or budget. The Director of a DH center is required to be a specialist in a given discipline, an accomplished DH researcher, and still act as the CEO of what equates to a mid-sized company. You may have gotten into your work as academic to study visual culture in medieval Europe, but you just might find yourself overseeing the construction or renovation of your new office space, approving press releases, managing (and hiring) your staff, and spending most of your days in meetings with the provost and deans. And that is a success story.
I find this fascinating. We don’t usually think of professors as entrepreneurs, because there is the illusion of security provided by their home institution. They have a full-time job, right? Not necessarily. When universities are cutting back on tenure-track appointments, and keeping junior scholars on temporary, adjunct status, that illusion becomes pretty thin. Starting a DH project on the side is a way of being more marketable as a candidate, and widens the options of jobs available. And even though we are training those graduate students in methodology and pedagogy, the skills they may need to thrive will be the kind learned in an M.B.A. program. I have wonder if there could be some balance —more formal information for graduate students about life as a professor, and perhaps a tad less credentialism when it comes to hiring directorial staff. Even as I write the sentence above, I can hear the arguments forming against those suggestions.
Tell me your stories
I invite comments from my friends in academia: does this ring true to your experience? And for those of you running a project or a DH Center — how did you gain the skills you needed to make it successful? What knowledge or mentorship would have helped you on your own path?
**UPDATE**: A colleague just reminded me of this excellent paper on the topic, which I read about year ago, and should be cited as foundational reading for this post. Everybody, go read Dean Irvine, “From Angel to Agile: The Business of Digital Humanities,” Scholarly and Research Communication Vol. 6, No. 4 (2015).