Why you shouldn’t be a digital humanist

So, it is the end of the official workday in that the official day ends when I leave campus. On mondays, because I teach from 4-6 pm, the official work day gets a little long. I leave the house at 8:20 am, arrive at my desk at 9:05 am, leave work at 6:05 pm, and walk into my apartment at 7 pm (depending on DC traffic and whether WMATA is running well).

Unlike most days where I use my commute to triage email or read whatever strikes my fancy, today I thought I’d put together a few thoughts that have been rumbling around in my head for the last few weeks in the form of a top 5 list.  I think they are most appropriate here on the #dayofdh where people are blogging, tweeting, photo-posting, you name it, to reveal the work that they do as digital humanists. I’m unsurprised that a tremendous number of my dh colleagues are spending their times in meetings, completing what my colleague Trevor Muñoz calls “administrivia”, or just trying to move their project goals forward. I’m so pleased that more the labor of DH is being unveiled for others to see. I wish we were open more than one day a year about all the work that goes into being a digital humanist.  I want that openness because I want to put forth a couple of thoughts that I test drove last week during an invited talk at Clemson. (You can harass @sjappleford for the audio feed of the talk if you want to hear more).

So here we go, 5 reasons why you might not want to be a digital humanist:

5) You will spend a tremendous amount of time being asked to “define digital humanities”. And no matter how much you want to grow the number of digital humanists, it can make you feel like a little piece of your soul is dying every time you need to answer the question.

4) It is quite likely that at least once a month (if not more frequently), someone will call, email, or tweet you, asking if you can just take the time to help them figure out how to (fill in your favorite word here: build a center, start a website, blog, make the printer work, send this email, solve OCR). And they’ll ask for you to do it for free, because well, digital humanists are nice people.

3) You ARE expected to understand technology. And no, I’m not saying you must learn programming languages. I’m saying that you need to understand what technology can and can’t do…stay up to speed on changes in technology. And understand the how the decisions that you make impact what you can do. This may sound mean, but if you can’t check your email, set up a basic database, or click install on software packages on your own….you should think twice about the digital humanities as a place for you.

2) Digital Humanities isn’t the promised land of money and resources. I say again, becoming a digital humanist doesn’t give you any more or less ability that your “traditional” colleagues to get money or resources. There are just as many battles for resources (technologies, personnel, infrastructure, funding) in the digital humanities as there are in “traditional” humanities. In fact, after 8 years as a digital humanist and another 5 prior to that as a “traditional” humanist, I can tell you the resource battles in DH are even more vociferously waged….and the field is getting more and more crowded every day. Today, NEH announced the results of its Digital Humanities Start Up competition and a number of others…..many were disappointed. And that disappointment is just going to grow. There is no formula to win outside money so unless you win the lottery and give it all to your DH project, you are going to have to get down in the muck of fighting for resources (no matter how nice everyone is about the fight).

1) It isn’t about making something once. Sometimes, when I talk to new digital humanists, there is an unspoken thread underlying their comments: “if you build it they will come.” Yea, we get to build it….after we plan it out, build it, customize it, break it, iterate it, beat it with a stick…you get my point. Most digital humanities projects involve actually iterating your development. If you think you build something once and then it exists forever (no matter how complex or simple), you shouldn’t be a digital humanist. We iterate, build, rebuild, write, re-write, and all but dig up completed projects over and over again. The lifespan of most digital project is short…and much shorter than the life of that book sitting on the library shelves.  If you’re planning to hold onto this project for the rest of your life, you’ll have to build it again and again as the technology changes…or at least figure out a preservation strategy to make the initial project accessible 20 years from now.

and finally, the one that doesn’t even make the list because it is more important than anything I’ve said thus far:

You shouldn’t be a digital humanist if …..Your university administrator, department chair, or any other person or entity tells you that is where the money/tenure/prestige/etc are. The most dangerous thing right now in digital humanities isn’t the debate over programming languages, the competition for resources, the inability for DH to coalesce around one definition….It is that more and more scholars are “being” digital humanists not because they are invested in digital tools, resources, methodologies, and approaches but because their university tells them they need to be. Sometimes that gets wrapped up in discussions of the future of education (anyone want a MOOC, anyone? anyone?). Sometimes it gets wrapped in rhetoric about jobs (“where’s your DH chapter/article/project/class?”). And most troublingly, sometimes it gets wrapped up with the business of the University (digital humanities as the revenue-generating division of the humanities.) No matter the rhetorical position, you shouldn’t be working in a field you don’t believe in as a scholar, researcher, staff member, student, etc. Digital humanities isn’t a fall back discipline. It is a complex undertaking that can be alternately rewarding and frustrating.

So, if you find yourself on this list, you might want to at least pause for a moment and ask yourself “Do I really want to invest in the digital humanities?”


(originally posted at Day of DH 2013)


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