Evaluating Digital Humanities Beyond the Tenure Track Part 1: For Employees

This post (and its partner post on Evaluating Digital Humanities Beyond the Tenure Track Part 2: For Employers) continues a series of blog posts from the MLA Committee on Information Technology about evaluating work in the digital humanities. (See Amanda Visconti’s post on digital dissertations and Shawna Ross’s explanation for the series.) I’ve taken on the task of writing about evaluating the work of “alt-ac” and other digital humanities professionals not working in traditional tenure-track roles.

To a great extent, evaluating the work of these positions is the same as evaluating the work of anyone else–good scholarship is good scholarship, from any source. But the less-charted paths of Digital Scholarship Specialists and Digital Humanities Librarians can lead to some specific issues and points of tension, which I want to address here. I think there’s a lot more discussion to be had on these issues as we work towards fuller guidelines, and I’m hoping this will be only the first part of the conversation. Please reach out to me (or to the CIT) with additional ideas!

Some Types of Digital Humanities Professionals

This is not a complete list, but here are some roles which anecdotally seem to show up frequently. Many positions will include some combination of these roles:

  • Program Coordinator/Administrator
    • Key Skills: Organization, vision, experience working with a range of people (including students)
    • Common Needs: Stipend funding for students, staff time, funds to offer for research and software, people to collaborate with, opportunities for continued professional development to keep skills and knowledge up-to-date
    • Evidence of Success: Robust program development (tracked by people impacted or through projects emerging from the program), greater awareness of DH program on campus and beyond, successful student and/or faculty projects
  • Teaching-Focused Scholar-Practitioners
    • Key Skills: Pedagogy, knowledge of accessibility of DH tools, creativity in classroom teaching
    • Common Needs: Lower administrative loads, research funds for students
    • Evidence of Success: Innovative student projects, high interest in courses, strong teaching portfolio
  • Research and/or Teaching Support/Librarians
    • Key Skills: Knowledge of digital humanities scholarship and trends, understanding of academic publishing for digital projects, pedagogy
    • Common Needs: Opportunities for continued professional development to keep skills and knowledge up-to-date, funding for workshops and other programming, people to collaborate with
    • Evidence of Success: Robust program development, strong partnerships emerging with other parts of the institution, successful student and/or faculty projects
  • Researchers
    • Key Skills: Theoretical and practical knowledge of digital humanities trends, interesting project ideas, understanding of academic publishing of digital projects
    • Common Needs: Dedicated time for research, colleagues/community of practice, funding for continued professional development and to attend MLA (many of these roles are post-docs)
    • Evidence of Success: Traditional or non-traditional academic publication, project development
  • Developers
    • Key Skills: Technical/coding ability, knowledge of existing DH trends and techniques, data security and FERPA
    • Common Needs: Time for developing specific tools as well as general exploration, job security (some of these roles are contractor roles), connection to colleagues to determine needs, time and resources for testing, clear credit for labor (especially if students)
    • Evidence of Success: Useful tools or websites shared with community

If you’re in one of these roles, what else do you need? What else serves as evidence of success? If you don’t identify with one of these roles, how would you characterize your position?

 

For Employees (and Would-Be Employees): Issues in Hiring and Promotion

I spent more time with these sections in the partner post on Evaluating Digital Humanities Beyond the Tenure Track Part 2: For Employers, which might also be helpful for individuals interested in learning more about institutional priorities. I know it was a meaningful transition for me to shift from thinking about what I could (and couldn’t) do to thinking about what the institution was looking for. If you realize that the college or university actually needs particular kinds of support and if you can figure out what it is, it’s much easier both to shape a convincing application for the job and to know why you’d want the job in the first place. That said, there are a few tips for individuals I definitely wanted to mention:

Hiring

There’s been a ton written about how to figure out what you want to do and how to shape your materials to make yourself competitive for those jobs, so I’m only going to touch briefly on this topic. If you’re new to the idea of working outside the tenure-track and want to explore your options, a great place to start is the MLA Connected Academics Program website. (There’s also a detailed and impressive toolkit for departments and faculty members.) As someone in digital scholarship, you have the advantage of being in one of the more popular careers for academics off the tenure track. One particularly useful practice is collecting and close-reading job ads for positions that interest you, even before you’re ready to start applying–I personally found the Vitae, HERC, and HASTAC job lists useful. I’d also recommend the MLA Connected Academics resources on Networking, which approaches the practice from a thoughtful, approachable perspective.

Promotion

For some positions, there will be a relatively clear path to promotion, but that’s probably the exception rather than the rule. And that can feel a little disorienting to job applicants more used to the idea of shifting from Assistant -> Associate -> Full. But the more varied promotion paths off the tenure-track can also offer some opportunities and advantages. Once you have a good sense of what you actually enjoy and are good at (which is much easier to figure out in a job than in graduate school), you can work to make your own job include more of that.

There are basically three ways to tweak your job responsibilities. If you just started a new job, you’ll want to settle comfortably into your own position and earn some goodwill by doing it well before you try to do too much shifting.

1) Stay at your institution and in your position, but slightly shift your job emphasis: Volunteer to take a leadership role in projects that appeal to you, or ask to start your own project that lets you do more of what you care about. Obviously, all jobs will be a balance between things you really love doing and things that just have to get done, but I’ve found that there are usually quite a few opportunities to get more involved in projects you care about.

2) Stay at your institution but change your job title: If you’re launching a large project or otherwise assuming new responsibility, it can be a good moment to reconsider your job title and duties at your institution. I’ve seen this sometimes occur when a co-worker leaves and responsibilities get adjusted, or sometimes when an employee has another job offer, etc.

3) Move to a new institution: Sometimes, the path to promotion is at another institution. I’m in an urban area and I’ve noticed that it’s relatively common for people working in libraries to shift from one local institution to another, and it’s rather nice overall; it helps form a stronger network within the profession as a whole as you get to know people from a range of institutions. 

For digital humanists, what are other stories of your tenure and promotion?

Many thanks to my colleague Alicia Peaker for all her help brainstorming topics for these posts and members of the CIT for their feedback on drafts!

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