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. []