Graduate Training and the Digital Humanities

On Sunday, Kathleen Fitzpatrick wrote an article for The Chronicle, titled “Do ‘the Risky Thing’ in the Digital Humanities”, that got some significant play in the Twittersphere. Fitzpatrick argues: “As mentors to younger scholars, it is our responsibility to ensure that they can do the risky thing, knowing that someone’s got their back.” So what is the ‘Risky Thing’ exactly? Fitzpatrick points to dissertations that are presenting their arguments in an innovative form, such as incorporating video and maps built with GIS tools. This is somewhat vague, but that’s O.K. – The innovations occurring in the ‘big tent’ of the Digital Humanities are diverse because of the wide range of disciplines and experiences that DH practitioners hail from. Fitzpatrick urges grads to find support for their ideas in order to improve their marketability while simultaneously urging faculty to support digital projects and hire DH practitioners.

Natalia Cecire’s thoughtful response, “It’s not “the job market”; it’s the profession (and it’s your problem too)”, concludes with a hard-hitting and excellent point: “Digital humanities has become important to “the job market” exactly insofar as it is causing major shifts in the institutions of the profession. These shifts are political. And if you are in my profession, then they are your concern.” These political shifts have everything to do with the increasing number of jobs that include a digital humanities component and the disciplinary practices these hires bring to their work. Cecire connects the dots between the budget crisis in humanities departments, the shattered myth of an academic meritocracy, and the perils of having DHers forget about the ‘H’.

Yesterday, Karen Kelsky wrote about how the dearth of good PhD advising has allowed her to make a living selling it. Grads might not need another reminder that poor advising exists, but if we combine the insights of these three articles an increasingly grim picture emerges. We need good ideas, support, and professional awareness, but these things are in short supply.

Yet, we can also take some hope and wisdom from these pieces. If we are honest with ourselves, we are already doing ‘the Risky Thing’ by attempting to find gainful employment in academia. In this light, Fitzpatrick’s advice isn’t so much about a gamble, but developing meaningful contributions in your field. Abstract this from any digital context (and it is often healthy to do so), and we are really talking about finding our place in the humanities. The Cultural Heritage Informatics Fellowship at Michigan State is designed to provide grads with practical and analytical skills in computing technologies. Fellows are urged not to ask ‘how can I incorporate GIS into my project?’, but instead ‘what do I want to explain and what digital tool can help?’. This allows grads to develop their DH interests by finding a worthwhile message and medium rather than adding glitter to a resume for the job market.

These sorts of fellowships are not widespread, and herein lies the political. Grads must be proactive and practical about incorporating digital training into their studies and digital tools into their research. We have to push for what we want, and we have to have good reasons or wanting it. This means getting support for ideas from senior faculty and administrators who may need to be ‘sold’ on it. It also means thinking very hard about how digital approaches affect our relationship with sources, data, people, and the politics inherent to all academic research.

[Image by Flickr user MDMA and used with Creative Commons License]

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