Evaluating Digital Humanities Beyond the Tenure Track Part 2: For Employers

This post (and its partner post on Evaluating Digital Humanities Beyond the Tenure Track Part 1: For Employees) 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!

For Employers: Common Tension-Points in the Job Cycle

While I want to give some general guidelines that work for all institutions (Hire someone great! Give them a promotion!), the job cycle and the choice of best candidate is likely to be very specific to your institutional needs. Below, I’ve tried to identify a few questions which might shape the decision-making process at various points in the job cycle. The goal is to set criteria for evaluating your digital humanist’s labor which matches the institution’s goals, and ensure that your hires have the resources essential to achieving that success.

Basically, it all boils down to the question, What would an awesome success look like? You don’t want to have your professional sinking all of their time into organizing student tutors if you really want them to bring in a big grant or build a flashy physical space. Being as explicit as possible about what the institution values will help professionals shape their time accordingly. See the partner post on Evaluating Digital Humanities Beyond the Tenure Track Part 1: For Employees for some possible roles digital humanists hold, and example criteria for success.

Hiring

Is there a specific need that this role has to meet? You might be looking to replace someone, fix a specific problem, or start something new–or you might be looking for a combination of all three. Having a clear sense of the expectations of this role–even if the expectations are just something general like, “We’ll build our profile and will attract more students to humanities majors” or “We’re worried that comparable schools are doing this and we need to catch up”–can help shape your job ad and evaluations of the candidate.

How does this role fit into any institutional goals or mission statements? Digital humanities programs need to be specific to the culture of the institution. If the institution is teaching-centered, look for a professional who has experience working with students and build that into the criteria for success in their role. If an institution is focused on social justice, consider whether the professional’s role can include public-facing work and activism.

Where will this position live in the institution? Digital humanities professionals can work for libraries (in various departments), in Professor of Practice teaching roles, in standalone Centers, and more. Sometimes the program lives between departments. One place isn’t necessarily better than another, but an explicit sense of where the person fits in the institutional structure, where their budget is coming from, to whom they report, and who needs to sign off on decisions will help avoid confusion further down the road. See the partner post on Evaluating Digital Humanities Beyond the Tenure Track Part 1: For Employees for descriptions of some places digital humanities roles can live.

Do we want someone to coordinate/build our programs, or someone to do research and build new tools? Either way, you’ll want to make sure that any new hires have time in their schedules and appropriate funds to accomplish these goals, and to make sure that the expectations for success are clear.

Do we want someone in the research or teaching worlds, or both? Since digital humanities professionals can live in various areas of the university, it can be helpful to state whether the expectations for the role are primarily to assist in classrooms, with faculty research, program development, etc.

Do we want someone to teach? Teaching requires time for preparation and evaluation outside of the classroom, so it’s important that if you’re anticipating that your hirees will teach classes, you lighten any administrative loads accordingly. (At least 9 hours a week of prep time for a 3 hour class is a good guideline, so altogether a single class can fill up to 12 hours a week of a professional’s schedule.)

How permanent is this role? Since many schools are developing digital humanities programs with help from a grant, it’s not uncommon for digital humanities professionals to be hired into term-limited positions. If that’s the case, ensure that the digital humanities professional can remain competitive. That means time to continue developing research, funding to attend conferences, and so on. If you want someone who is able to commit full-time to a program, consider building in a plan to ultimately fund their position through the institution, even if the first few years are covered by grants. It’s very easy for a program to falter when the program organizer gets a new position if they haven’t been given the opportunity to build it into the structures of the institution.

Do we have realistic expectations? While I’ve known some amazingly skilled digital humanities professionals who are able to do astounding things with limited resources, there are a few things that even the most talented person needs in order to build and sustain a program. It often doesn’t take a huge investment into expensive software or hardware; the more essential features of a well-supported program may well take the form of student stipends, staff time, and/or professional development.

 

Promotion

Again, this will vary based on the institution’s own promotion procedures for whatever department the digital humanities professional is housed in (i.e., library, teaching and learning, humanities center), but some questions to consider include:

Is the path to promotion similar to comparable positions in the institution? DH programs may be smaller than others or housed between departments, and there may be less opportunity to, for example, take on a supervisory role when someone else leaves. If this is the case, are there other ways to reward success and retain a worker? (Perhaps in terms of a change of job title, more flex time, etc.)

Who will evaluate this person? DH professionals often have somewhat unusual supervisory relationships. It’s also worth thinking whether the supervisor is familiar with the digital humanities. The MLA Committee on Information Technology has various resources on the subject, including the Guidelines for Evaluating Work in Digital Humanities and Digital Media, which might prove to be a useful starting point for supervisors who are less familiar with what digital humanities work looks like.

Are the responsibilities commensurate with the job title? One relatively common model for Centers is a tenured faculty director with a staff Assistant or Associate Director. That can work fine, but sometimes the status does not reflect the actual levels of responsibility or engagement. Clarity and accountability can be helpful here.

What counts as professional development? One of the joys (and challenges!) of this type of job is that employees have to keep learning all the time in order to keep their skills up-to-date. As an employer, think about how much flexibility you’re able to give digital humanities professionals in terms of access to new tools, conference funding, or time to develop their own research.

If you’re an employer, what points of tension are we missing? What sort of information/guidelines would help you evaluate the work of your digital humanities employees?

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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