Thursday, December 31, 2009


In between shortening my lifespan by doing a crazy yardwork project this week, I've been following with interest the tweets from #MLA09. A couple of items of interest were that Digital Humanities has become an overnight success (only decades in the making), the job market (still) reeks, and there are serious inequities in the status of non-faculty collaborators in DH projects. None of this is new, of course, but it's good to see it so well stated in a highly-visible venue.

I'm more than ever convinced that, despite the occasional feelings of regret, I made the right decision to stop seeking faculty employment after I got my Ph.D. DH was not then, and perhaps still isn't now, a hot topic in Classics. It is odd, because some of the most innovative DH work comes out of Classics, but, as I've said on a number of occasions, DH pickup in the field is concentrated in a few folks who are 20 years ahead of everyone else. It's interesting to speculate why this may be so. Classics is hard: you have to master (at least) a couple of ancient languages (Latin, Greek at least), plus a couple of modern ones (French and German are the most likely suspects, but maybe Italian, Spanish, Modern Greek, etc. also, depending on your specialization), then a body of literature, history, and art before you can do serious work. Ph.D.s from other disciplines sometimes quail when I describe the comps we had to go through (2 3-hour translation exams, 2 4-hour written exams, and an oral—and that's before you got to do your proposal defense). It may be that there's no room for anything else in this mix, and it's something you have to add later on. Virtually all the "digital classicists" I know are either tenured or are not faculty (and aren't going to be—at least not in Classics). It's all a bit grim really. A decade ago, if you were a grad student in Classics with an interest in DH, you were doomed unless you were willing to suppress that interest until you had tenure. I don't know whether that's changed at all. I hope it has.

The good news, of course, is that digital skills are highly portable (and better-paid). The one on-campus interview I had (for which I wasn't offered the job) would have paid several thousand (for a tenure-track job!) less than the (academic!) programming job I ended up taking. And as fate would have it, I ended up doing digital classics anyway, at least until the grant money runs out.

So I wonder what the twitter traffic from APA10 will be like next week. Maybe DH will be the next big thing there too, but a scan of the program doesn't leave me optimistic.


Eric Lease Morgan said...

This is sad to hear, and I sincerely feel for you.

At the same time, I do not think the existing communities really see the potential of the digital humanities (DH). Computers are able to compare & contrast so much faster than humans. (I didn't say "better", just faster.)

I believe your skills in digital humanities can be applied in libraries to a greater extent. If libraries were to collect more full-text, digital content, then library "catalogs" could implement digital humanities computing techniques to allow the user to not only find books, but analyze them as well. Consider subscribing to the Code4Lib mailing list to get up with hackers in Library Land:

Unknown said...

@Eric: No need to be sad (although I do appreciate the sentiment). The academic career abandonment was 9 years ago, and most of the scars have healed. In fact, I work for a library now (NYU's Digital Library Technology Services group), and I am subscribed to Code4Lib, though I'm usually a lurker there.