On Bubbles, or This Time It’s Different

This week Inside Higher Ed stirred the DH pot with a thinly-evidenced piece suggesting that we’re in the midst of a “Digital Humanities Bubble” which is supposedly about to burst. As someone who has spent nearly eight years struggling to fill a range of alt-ac, tenure-track, and tenured digital positions, while simultaneously trying to retain the good people we already have at RRCHNM, this comes as welcome news!

If only.

Since 2006 I’ve been party to over a dozen hires in digital and “traditional” history, and in every single one of those cases, the market dynamic in digital searches has been profoundly different from traditional ones. Whether there’s rapid or modest growth in digital history positions is kind of beside the point; the “bubble,” such as it exists, is relative in the sense that there simply aren’t enough candidates to fill the positions we already have, let alone the ones that may or may not be created in the future.

I first began thinking about this issue systematically after Bethany Nowviskie published her “Asking for It” piece in February, itself a response to the OCLC’s report, “Does Every Research Library Need a Digital Humanities Center?” Like Bethany I found the premise of the original report odd, but my sense was that one could just as easily answer the question, “You can’t have one anyway.” For years we’ve all been increasingly competing over the same, barely growing pool of qualified candidates. The only way a new center can find plausible people is to hire them away from somewhere more established, with tenure, etc., and there simply aren’t enough qualified people out there.

If we’re going to talk about a job market, we need to look at both parties, the buyers and the sellers. The IHE piece and its disenchanted sources assume that the sellers, here candidates, look something like they do in the humanities academic job market writ large. In other words, that there are hundreds of them for every open job, and so “one or two new positions” created at “many institutions” will have no discernible effect. But in digital history, at least, that’s simply not the case.

After some near misses with a research faculty hire and a few developers in my first years at RRCHNM, the first truly alarming example of this dynamic came to my attention in 2008–2009, when we ran the search that ultimately hired Fred Gibbs. Even with a deliberately vague description of “digital history“1 and a fairly desperate openness to what that might entail, we were barely able to assemble a slate of three plausible2 finalists, a mix of history and English PhDs.3

Over and over since then, in complete contrast to the hundreds of applicants we might get for a non-digital position, most of whom are entirely plausible, we see an order of magnitude fewer applicants for digital positions. Take just the last four tenure-track and tenured searches in which I was involved over the past two years:

  • U.S. and the World: 153 applicants, 100+ plausible
  • RRCHNM Director: 11 applicants, 4 plausible
  • Nineteenth-Century Europe: 129 applicants, 90+ plausible
  • Digital History: 13 applicants, 4 plausible

In other words, if you are “digital” and not completely full of shit, you are probably already a finalist.4

And so while the digital humanities may not “save the humanities” or even “save humanities jobs” — and I’m still not sure where those straw-man claims originated — it certainly appears that it can dramatically improve one’s chances of landing a history job. I present to you what is, of course, anecdotal evidence. But at least it’s evidence, and I’d love to hear more about what others are actually finding on the hiring side of things, and how it compares to our experience.

  1. Assistant Professor, Digital History. George Mason University, Department of History and Art History invites applications for a tenure-track Assistant Professor position in digital history. The successful applicant will be expected to manage a range of projects at Mason’s Center for History and New Media and to teach digital methodology for the department. []
  2. Plausible” is a slippery term of course; here I’m using it in the most generous possible way, that the candidate actually demonstrates the bare minimum expertise in the position’s field to teach and conduct research. As in, not a crank or random applicant. []
  3. And it is no coincidence that the other two finalists are currently very much employed in extremely good jobs. []
  4. Given these very tiny pools of candidates, it’s no surprise that even people who are entirely full of shit still wind up in “digital humanities” positions. []

A Digital Humanities Tenure Case, Part 3: Decanal Retention

After some turbulence at the college committee level, my tenure case reached my dean in the spring. Here’s what he had to say about “some” — that’s the college committee’s own wiggle word — determining that digital projects should be considered “major service activity” rather than research:

Although [Zotero] might appear as simply a technical advance, in fact the three outside reviewers consulted on this part of the case repeatedly note that it is a deep and important intervention into scholarly debate. Zotero depends on an understanding of the research techniques in the humanities and contributes mightily to their improvement. Zotero is thus a scholarly work because it makes significant methodological advances.

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A Poorly Reasoned Suicide Note

Whenever I encounter the research of newly minted PhDs (or the researchers themselves, often at conferences), invariably my first step is to retrieve the relevant dissertations on ProQuest or the researcher’s institutional repository. Over the past few years I’ve run across a handful of cases where I couldn’t locate the dissertation; in each case I’ve contacted the historian in question, who have all provided me with some variant of the same explanation: “I don’t want to be scooped by someone before I write my book.” To me this is insane reasoning: not only does it quite obviously harm the field’s state of knowledge by limiting access, it naively assumes that the researcher is protecting herself from theft by hiding her findings rather than by publicly and preemptively asserting ownership over them, which is precisely what we do with intellectual property.

And now the AHA has gone ahead and attempted to institutionalize this insanity.
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We Are All Managers

When my wife attended an orientation session for her first post-college job, the human resources representative supplied helpful tips for developing “manageatorial” career skills. This felicitous neologism — it wonderfully conjures the image of a janitorial executive — has provided a reliable punch line for two decades; Daniel Allington’s recent jeremiad against digital humanities offers yet another opportunity to trot it out.
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A Digital Humanities Tenure Case, Part 2: Letters and Committees

After my tenure presentation and with the unanimous vote of my department, my department’s RPT committee and our chair prepared additional letters to send the file up the food chain to the college-level promotion and tenure committee. These letters were embarrassingly favorable, and based on the excerpts they included from outside readers, those letters too offered overwhelming support for tenure. The college-level committee, however, wasn’t so easily fooled. Voting 10–2 in favor of my case, largely on the basis of my monograph in French history, here’s what the committee members had to report on the digital side of my portfolio:

The committee also recognized his considerable work at the Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media as it relates to projects such as Zotero and the substantial funds he and his collaborators have raised to help sustain them. Some on the committee questioned to what degree Dr. Takats’ [sic] involvement in these activities constitutes actual research (as opposed to project management). Hence, some determined that projects like Zotero et al., while highly valuable, should be considered as major service activity instead.

To recap: Conceive projects? Service. Develop prototype software? Service. Write successful grant proposals? Service. Write code? Service. Lead developers and designers? Service. Disseminate the results of the project? Service. I certainly hope program officers from Mellon, Sloan, IMLS, and NEH aren’t reading this post, because I suspect they would be more than a little dismayed to discover that they’ve been funding “major service activity.“
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