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.

For someone who’s adamantly not a digital humanist Allington certainly seems to know quite a bit about these soulless managers. He writes, for example, “Humanists today are less likely to be technologists than managers of technologists. Why do something for yourself when what you will be rewarded for is having found the money to pay someone to do it for you? And how can you find time to learn a programming language anyway, when your core competence is fluency in the language of grant applications?”

To highlight just a few of his specious claims:

  • He fantasizes that digital humanities project budgets are artificially inflated to be “conveniently expensive” and that we willfully ignore opportunities to reduce costs.
  • He imagines that humanities funding serves as a university profit center, when unlike in the sciences it’s particularly likely to come from private foundations which typically don’t contribute a cent in indirect costs back to the university administration.
  • He characterizes DH technical staff as casual labor akin to adjunct faculty or worse, when vast majority of our developers and staff at my institution and at peer DH centers are salaried university employees who are not fired when a contract runs out (and in fact can’t be). The few contract developers we have are not regular employees by their own choice.

The whole post was so off-base I initially dismissed it as sour grapes, thinking he was simply feeling left out of what he imagines is a club of “successful players of the funding game.“1

After reading his extensive followup exchange with Stephen Ramsay, however, it became clear that Allington is writing from within a framework that digital humanists understand all too well from the other side of the fence, with their (often self-congratulatory) rhetoric of collaboration. And it is this aspect of his argument that deserves the closest scrutiny, and not because it marks Allington as an outsider, as he would like us to believe. Allington doesn’t appear to be antagonized so much by digital humanities in particular as by the notion that individual humanists should be dependent on anyone other than themselves. In response to pointed questioning from Ramsay about higher education’s essential vast array of human infrastructure arrayed to support professors like Allington, Allington declares, “What I disagree with is your assertion that these people are managed on my behalf. They aren’t.” In a later comment he adds, “Absolutely none of them acts at my behest – not because there’s anything democratic about the whole organisation but because each of us is contracted to provide a service. I provide one service, they provide others.”

Allington not only denies that DH is collaborative: he effectively denies that collaboration exists anywhere in academia across the faculty/other divide. Any relationships that span this divide are, by his definition, managerial, perhaps because Allington cannot imagine a relationship where the “humanist” (professor?) is not the boss of the programmer.

Allington thus declares himself unambiguously as not just an outsider in a system with interests utterly unaligned with his own, but someone who works above this system. To engage with that system is to dirty the hands and become manageator… er, managerial. Whether or not this system exists anywhere outside Allington’s imagination is irrelevant: the key point is that these interests have nothing to do in particular with digital humanities. He’s simply using a very big club (“managerial” academia is bad) to attack a very small problem (digital humanities is irritatingly “trendy”). I thought that the Enlightenment had freed us to start valuing the hands as well as the mind, but maybe it was just the pretext for totalitarianism. It’s easy to get confused.

Of course no scholar, humanist or otherwise, works wholly independently. What threatens this sense of independence isn’t really the oversight of project staff, it’s the dependence on outside funders, academic administrators, publishers, etc. Becoming a mere link in a Great Chain of (Scholarly) Being can never appear as gratifying as imagining oneself an academic hermit cultivating genius in exalted isolation.

Ultimately the fatal flaw in Allington’s argument isn’t that he dislikes digital humanities; it’s that he positions himself as if he is in the aggrieved minority, under ferocious assault from the grant wizards of DH and their administrative masters. And yet the collective experience of anyone who has ever undertaken any digital academic research points overwhelmingly in the opposite direction, that is to say that traditional scholarship is rewarded while digital work is universally undervalued or misunderstood. One can certainly sympathize with Allington’s irritation with the grandiloquent promise of the digital humanities, but there’s a very wide gulf between the echo chamber of Twitter and the backroom shenanigans of tenure and promotion committees. The latter, to date, are certainly more likely to find themselves in Allington’s camp than anywhere else.

  1. We meet on Thursdays. []
  • I think you’re mostly on-target here, but Allington isn’t totally wrong when making claims like: “characteriz[ing] DH technical staff as casual labor akin to adjunct faculty or worse, when [the] vast majority of our developers and staff at my institution and at peer DH centers are salaried university employees who are not fired when a contract runs out (and in fact can’t be). The few contract developers we have are not regular employees by their own choice.”

    RRCHNM and its peers are special (and awesome). Temporary positions for developers in DH are the default case in my experience, where we’re brought in to achieve the aims of a grant and then let go at the end. It’s not as bad as the adjunct faculty situation: the terms are usually clear, the salaries (usually) much better, and I don’t think developers are naive about these kinds of jobs. It’s the nature of the business that software development is a rather migratory affair.

    There *is* a structural problem in DH that there’s not much of a career path for devs (and frequently no money allocated for professional development). There’s a risk that we won’t be able to stay in the business once we get older and more experienced (and more expensive!), and that DH development will succumb to the stereotype of software dev being a young person’s game only. I think that’s something that centers like yours go a long way toward combating, but its something for DH-interested academia in general to consider too. Where do people like me go when we grow up? :-)

    The “conveniently expensive” part isn’t completely wrong either—projects do tend to conform to the bounds of what funders will pay for. But it’s a bit backwards. You more often cut back on what you promise to do because of what an agency will fund than the opposite. I think it is often the case that it’s not obvious where to find relatively small amounts of money at many institutions. The NEH startup grants are brilliant in this regard, but very competitive, obviously.

  • Sure, but it’s equally unfair to pin all of these problems on DH “managers.” To the extent that DH forces academics to confront the world of other people’s wages and benefits and career development, I would argue that that’s good and humanizing for scholars, not just distracting. In the case of adjunct faculty one can certainly make the case that university bean counters are dismantling tenure-track positions to save dough. I haven’t yet seen anyone make an analogous argument about DH developers, that they’re somehow eating away at the solid positions on offer elsewhere. If anything, the world of DH is significantly more permeable to “outsiders” than the traditional humanities, where we in all likelihood wouldn’t even be having this delightful exchange! But just because it’s messier and less than perfect, that’s no reason to write off the entire endeavor, as you obviously agree.

  • Agree completely. He’s clearly got a model and allows it to color everything he observes in looking at DH. It’s permeability is indeed one of the great (and different) things about DH. I do think there’s a risk that as it congeals into a “real” discipline that aspect will fade away, and that there are some tendencies in that direction in what Stephen Ramsay identifies as DH II. But I think Allington has identified a bunch of things that are risks and genuine concerns and recast them as real and deliberate malicious actions. *That’s* really where he goes off the rails.

  • @hcayless: I would argue that’s really a general problem in academia at large. I used to support a group of neuroscience labs and fairly regularly heard complaints about the lack of a tool-builder career path since at some level everything had to fit within the traditional publication & grant cycle. I think that pattern needs to be addressed at the level of a major foundation or funding agency committing to fund long-term efficiency improvements which would benefit an entire field.

  • @Chris: yeah, I wouldn’t ever argue it’s a particularly DH-centered problem, only that DH might be able to do something about it.

    Even in industry, there’s not necessarily a career path for developers qua developers—you either go into management or consulting. Almost nobody stays a developer until retirement. There are all kinds of reasons for this, that include the difficulty of evaluating developer effectiveness (most of the things you can measure are poor surrogates, like lines of code written or time spent in the chair), burnout, and ageism.

    DH centers and labs can act as a counterweight to this tendency, and provide ways for developers to grow. They can be places where the faculty/staff divide isn’t so absolute. Libraries often manage this reasonably well (though there is certainly a librarian/non-librarian divide).

    Put it this way: as part of my current job, I write software, I design and implement software architectures, I consult; I write grant proposals, I lecture occasionally, and I sometimes write articles. I only get evaluated on (and, technically, paid for) the first three. I’d like it if the rest was officially part of my job too. None of this is due to oppression by my (excellent) colleagues, it has to do with the way the institution structures its positions.