Is there anything that promotes introspective hand-wringing like the heady mix of tenure, promotion, and the digital humanities? The Journal of Digital Humanities recently explored this issue, and especially interesting contributions by Mark Sample and Katherine D. Harris offer retrospective looks at the role played by the digital humanities in their happily-ending tenure cases.
I’d like to go a bit further in raising the curtain on what’s unnecessarily viewed as a secretive and mysterious process, particularly when it involves digital humanities. Some of this mystery stems from the fact that there just aren’t that many people seeking tenure yet on digital grounds. But much of it is self-inflicted, because candidates are reluctant to disclose what’s happening, except perhaps after the fact like Mark. I’m going to raise the stakes by describing my case while it’s still very much unfolding. Since it would be unrelentingly dull to narrate the entire affair in real time (see timetable below), I decided to wait until now, around the halfway point, to begin posting.
“The world needs ditch diggers too.” –Judge Smails, Caddyshack (1980)
At last week’s Digital Humanities Luxembourg (DHLU) symposium, a common refrain could be heard in nearly every presentation: “I’m only a historian.” Uttered apologetically at the beginning of a number of presentations, after two days it became the object of parody and ultimately comprised part of organizer Frédéric Clavert’s excellent concluding remarks. But despite the snickering each time it was heard, there was little investigation of what was behind this phrase. I think it actually reveals something important about the state of DH, perhaps especially in Europe but hardly exclusively so.
As a historian I like to think that I’m comfortable with the idea of fields dying. Maybe they’re reborn and live to fight another day (like diplomatic history, or so we all keep hearing), and maybe they never really die at all (like quantitative history, safely entrenched at Paris 1-Sorbonne).
But what about the old workhorse geographic fields like, say, French history? Unless you are Natalie Davis, being a French historian over the last five decades or more probably meant that you, well, went to France to do your research. And why did you go? You told your department chair and your grant funders and your colleagues that you had to get to the archives and the libraries, of course. But let’s be honest here: French historians don’t go to France to get to the documents. Instead we wed ourselves to documents that just so happen to be found only in France, “forcing” us to go there, usually when the weather there is super great, or at least super crappy at home. That’s why we became French historians in the first place. There are a few exceptions to this rule: the handful of self-loathing sad sacks we all know who hate wine and cheese and cigarettes, but this is no time to be cruel. Continue reading
While I am squarely in the “don’t-go” camp when it comes to graduate study and the inevitable nightmarish job search, I also recognize that I am the extremely fortunate recipient of very good professional advice all along that rocky path. Roy Rosenzweig provided some of the best such wisdom, and few days go by at CHNM when we don’t try to channel his common-sense pragmatism. Roy drew on decades of experience in the machinations of department politics and hiring, and he knew exactly where job candidates should focus their energy. In the spirit of Roy’s intellectual generosity — and perhaps in the hope that you’ll be inspired to repay it in more tangible ways — I’d like to share a bit of it here, at least as it has remained preserved in magnetic amber for the past four years. It might not look like much, but it’s pure gold — it worked for me and the only other person with whom I’ve ever shared it.
Other than very minimally expanding my original transcript into more readable prose, what follows is pure Roy, though the footnotes are mine.
The talk should not be read but should be very well mapped out. It needs to finish on time. It needs to be directed at people outside your field (i.e. Americanists, etc.) who have not read any of your work. The talk needs to show relevance and importance of work outside of field, i.e. “why should i care about this?” It needs to have enough substance to generate questions. How you handle questions is the real test.
The class lecture rarely sinks a candidate and is never the deciding factor in favor of one. The bar will be lower for you if you don’t have much teaching experience. You should aim to do something solid that doesn’t require too much work or preparation. It should be at an appropriate level: maybe just slightly advanced (i.e. include “something for the grown-ups”). It should involve some amount of interaction – ask questions, show an image – but do not be disappointed if students don’t get very enthusiastic. It should be the appropriate length, not run over or end terribly short.
You need to give people a narrative about yourself. You need to show your desire to be at the hiring institution.
That’s it. After you’re hired, please contribute generously.
Rob Townsend recently published some fascinating analysis of historians’ usage of digital content and tools. I think the overall takeaway message has to be unequivocally grim: historians are not, by any stretch of the imagination, actively engaging with new materials and methods. Before I dig into the study, let me say that any criticism which emerges is in no way directed at Townsend, who teases out a remarkable amount of valuable data from a group that comes across as not only reluctant to adopt technology but often deeply suspicious of it.
Townsend’s analysis is divided into three key areas: user type, tool usage, and online publishing. I’m just going to look at tool usage here since those results intersect most closely with my own research interests. That said, I’m going to do away with the original analysis’s categorization according to user type, which when represented graphically tends to paint a rosier picture of technology usage than is in fact the case. Continue reading