Space for Hire: Alternate Careers in Academic Inter-Spaces

As the Associate Director of "Digital Cultures and Creativity," a new undergraduate program in the honors college at the University of Maryland, College Park (UMD), I hold a non-faculty position. I am staff. My degrees were appropriate training for my job. I have an M.F.A. in fiction from the University of Virginia and a PhD in English literature from UMD with a focus on digital and textual studies. I was trained in the digital humanities by doing project work and text encoding at the Institute for Advanced Technologies in the Humanities and the EText Center at UVA, in private industry developing projects such as Early English Books Online (EEBO) and Proquest’s Historical Newspapers project, and continuing that work at the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities (MITH) at UMD while I worked on my PhD and taught in the English department. In my current position, I create curriculum, teach, research and write, consult with students on projects, and perform administrative duties within what I am calling “inter-spaces” in the university. These are sites of academic interdisciplinary and professional work that happens primarily outside of traditional departmental space. This piece contextualizes and defines two specific inter-spaces in which this work takes place (honors colleges and digital humanities centers) in terms of general trends in the academy towards restructuring, interdisciplinary work, and professionalism outside of tenure-track choices.

I. History: crisis in the humanities and the response

The very nature of humanistic study and of the profession which conducts it has been the focus of much recent debate around the “crisis” in academia. This debate is by no means new. The turn into the new millennium sparked the conversation about knowledge production in the humanities into a firestorm of conferences, talks, presentations, articles, chapters and special journal issues by many humanities scholars seeking to define not only the question of what humanists do in the university, but also matters of professionalism, or how we produce and value our work. The debate constellates among a variety of needs but many of these are the same practical concerns that directly affect #alt-ac scholars in our current, shaky economy, namely: decreased enrollment in humanistic studies; limited opportunities for publishing and therefore promotion; and, finally, a glut of PhDs in a time of decreased numbers of faculty positions.

Two significant critiques are pertinent to discussion of humanistic study in general and modes of professionalization within humanities departments in particular. Many, including the panelists at a 2004 MLA Presidential Forum entitled “The Future of Humanities,” agree that the crisis in the academy is in part the result of a perception (by funding sources, institutions, scientists, the general public, and even some humanities scholars themselves) that knowledge production in the humanities is less significant than that in the natural and social sciences. In his opening remarks to the panel, Robert Scholes claimed that “while insisting on the real differences between scientific and humanistic learning, humanists need to use the sciences more and to explain more clearly to scientists what we are doing and why we are doing it” (8). As this introduction might portend, participants of the forum followed suit with arguments that define knowledge in relation to how it is valued in the sciences— with that value evinced in terms of institutional resources, support from funding agencies, a more robust scholarly publishing system, and a greater pay-off in cultural currency. Louis Menand introduces his discussion with an anecdote about the apparent cultural currency even the most “outrageous” scientific theories (such as string theory) receive in comparison with humanities scholars who are expected merely to “confirm common sense” (“Dangers Within and Without” 10-11). It seems from these arguments that perceptions about the humanities stem in part from the misperception that humanistic knowledge is only about process or argument, whereas in the sciences it is about results and products -- a misperception that ultimately leads to reductive theories about both disciplines and a reduction in institutional or financial support for the former.

Responses to these criticisms come in many forms, but what is most relevant for a discussion of inter-spaces in the academy are two themes that emerge often in terms of new directions for resolving the crisis in the humanities: “interdisciplinarity” and “professionalization”.

The professional humanities scholar’s needs have been articulated time and again in forward-thinking terms regarding interdisciplinary work. Geoffrey Harpham contends that humanists are by nature interdisciplinary when they “understand their actual and potential contributions to knowledge as a whole and even to the culture at large” (21). Barbara Herrnstein Smith claims that there is a constant dialogue among humanists who increasingly deal with the natural sciences through their “findings and theoretical elaborations or their associated technologies and social and cultural interfaces.” Scientists, she maintains, must answer to the “well-articulated alternative accounts and related epistemologies (largely constructivist and pragmatist)” of historians, sociologists, and philosophers (18). With the exception of Stanley Fish who calls interdisciplinarity a “nonstarter” and contends that work should begin within a given discipline’s desire to articulate its own objectives (only then to be “taken up by someone with a project a million miles from ours,”) most scholars describe interdisciplinary work as a crucial aspect of strengthening the humanities in the academy (375, 377).

On the other hand, many who see interdisciplinary work at the very heart of humanistic inquiry also see weakened systems for academic professionalism as the gravest issue in the crisis. In more recent writings, Menand focuses specifically on the crisis and its relationship to scholarly training and the professionalization of faculty. In particular, he sees concern about interdisciplinarity as symptomatic of “a displaced anxiety about the position of privilege that academic professionalism confers on its initiates and about the peculiar position of social disempowerment created by the barrier between academic workers and the larger culture. It is anxiety about the formalism and methodological fetishism of the disciplines and about the danger of sliding into aimless subjectivism or eclecticism” (The Marketplace of Ideas 123). Jerome McGann has come to a similar conclusion which he noted recently in a plenary talk at the conference “Online Humanities Scholarship: The Shape of Things to Come”. Acknowledging a hard road ahead for scholarly publishing and libraries, he maintains that interdisciplinarity and economic instability are not the primary causes of crisis. The primary issue is political, institutional and infrastructural. “Money isn’t the problem,” he writes, “it’s the symptom of the problem of setting university policy at a time when humanities faculties are uncertain of both their public and their intramural position” (“Sustainability”).

In particular, “academic service” is a much maligned and poorly understood aspect of academic professional life. Though once highly esteemed, “service” is a term usually relegated to onerous administrative duties or pesky, custodial technology assistance in the classroom or library. Unfortunately, professional organizations have historically done little to ameliorate any misperceptions. For instance, the American Historical Association (AHA) and the College Art Association (CAA), offer little concerning the term “service” in their recommendations for tenure and promotion. The most often cited document of the Modern Language Association (MLA) concerning the definition and evaluation of academic service was written in the 1990s (though the MLA has recently updated its recommendations). Even fifteen years ago, the MLA report acknowledges that “[o]ver the last few decades, the traditional triad of research, teaching, and service has increasingly become a hierarchy, ranked in order of esteem” (“Making Faculty Work Visible” 1). Little has changed. In the 2010 AHA recommendations concerning tenure and promotion, “service” is defined in abstract terms that do little to help readers negotiate its assessment. In the AHA report, “service includes the administrative work necessary to create robust programs and vibrant connections to the community” (“Tenure, Promotion, and the Publicly Engaged Academic Historian” 2). In the CAA's recommendations for promoting art historians (adopted 1996, revised 2009), service similarly goes undefined but it is triangulated into three different areas of abstraction covering “community,” “professional,” and “departmental” needs. The fact that these professional organizations simultaneously poorly define and disregard “service” may help to explain why it is at times difficult to attract #alt-ac scholars to the inter-spaces of the university -- places where the interplay of teaching, research, and academic service is necessary and valued.

This background is essential to a conversation about inter-spaces for #alt-ac scholars, because anxieties about the humanities underlie recent PhDs' attitudes toward "undesirable" jobs outside of academic departments. But what do we—the #alt-ac community—have to do with this state of things, or with what Latour calls “states of affairs” (232) other than, for some of us, to lament our curtailed opportunities to join the fray? What is our concern with this anxiety and uncertainty?

McGann notes that the elephant in the room, from his perspective, is sustainability. From my perspective, we are talking, in this collection at least, about what I see as the trunk of that elephant: the sustainability of professional scholars who work within the academy but are not faculty in departments, who are trained in the mandates of the academy (in teaching, research, and service) but who are not performing these skills within one academic discipline. What do we have to do with it? Opportunities for #alt-ac work are opening up in new inter-spaces, in fissures on the university grounds as ivory towers teeter towards seeming collapse.

II. Inter-spaces for hire: honors colleges and digital humanities centers

Instead of exclusions, fissures, and crises, I’d like to switch metaphors: to gatherings, assemblies, and opportunities. I’d like to offer for consideration university inter-spaces as an arena where #alt-ac scholars can use their advanced training to gather, to assemble, and to create opportunities within the academy. Bruno Latour uses the term “gathering” to signify what he calls “a thing, an issue, inside a Thing, an arena” that results from “a multifarious inquiry launched with the tools of anthropology, philosophy, metaphysics, history, sociology” (246). He posits that it is the humanist critic’s job to “assemble” these features and to offer “the participants arenas in which to gather” (246). To begin to discuss the kind of work that #alt-ac scholars do in inter-spaces, I’d like to work with alternate definitions for the traditional university triad of teaching, research, and service. Instead of these, I would like to posit “intellectual work” and “academic and professional citizenship” as the work that happens within university inter-spaces -- in part because these terms are introduced in the 1996 MLA recommendations “Making Faculty Work Visible: Reinterpreting Professional Service, Teaching, and Research in the Fields of Language and Literature” as sites of academic work in the university rather than “discrete categories of faculty work or distinct roles of faculty members.” Instead, the terms “intellectual work” and “academic and professional citizenship” are “the places where faculty work occurs or is disseminated. Such places include classrooms, committee meetings, the Internet, scholarly conventions, journals, community boards, and so on” (3; emphasis added).

Where are these academic inter-spaces for #alt-ac scholars? As McGann asks, “if the quotas are lifted and these persons come into the university, where do they live? The answer is: outside the departments and traditional faculties” (“Sustainability”). The terms “intellectual work” and “academic and professional citizenship,” are useful however, in that they can describe sites where faculty often work (“classrooms and committee meetings”), but they also describe sites where faculty and #alt-ac scholars work together (“classrooms, committee meetings, the Internet, scholarly conventions, journals, community boards, and so on”). These are the university spaces where what Louis Menand calls the “academic” world of departments and disciplines and professors is often more closely aligned with other “non-academic” professions which see their “purpose as something larger and more various than professional reproduction” or “the academic intellectual status quo” (Marketplace 154). In other words, these are sites where interdisciplinary work and academic professionalization often co-occur, where the intellectual work and academic training of #alt-ac scholars is valuable and valued professionally.

A. Interspaces: honors colleges

Honors programs in American universities have a history that extends back to the 1930s. Honors colleges are a more recent trend in public universities that began during the recession of the 1980s. Universities considered this smaller, more college-like space within the larger university a good mechanism for attracting high-caliber students who might ordinarily choose a more intimate private education. Most important for this discussion, provosts and deans began creating honors colleges from the perspective that these spaces were inherently interdisciplinary and revolutionary. In contrast to the Great Books curriculum of honors programs of the fifties and sixties, Ted Humphrey, the founding dean of Barrett Honors College at Arizona State University, describes “the nature of an honors education” as one that fosters “moving from a disciplinarily embedded program to a college that organizes honors opportunities for the institution as a whole” (18). Today, 68.6% of honors colleges exist outside of the academic departments and are centralized within their university's structure (Sederberg 28), a fact which encourages Davis Baird, Dean of the South Carolina Honors College, to postulate that the college provides more than an opportunity for greater “lip service” to interdisciplinary work; rather it is “the vehicle for making it happen. From new courses, to tracks of study, to actual degree programs” (151). Because the honors college is situated centrally within a school's infrastructure and can function as a hub for interdisciplinary initiatives, leaders of an honors college often work to create movements and tectonic shifts within the university. Humphrey describes the leadership of such colleges as those who are “committed to changing institutional culture” (22).

Many #alt-ac scholars have found positions within honors colleges that fulfill their professional interests and for which they are uniquely trained as educators and researchers. Indeed, most universities are committed to equipping honors colleges with credentialed academics. Gary Bell, founding dean of the honors college at Texas Tech University, argues that “Ph.D.-holding college administrators” are crucial because they bring credibility, but they also bring experience with the particular demands of academia. In addition, Bell argues that the honors college experience is a useful place for training scholars in the kind of interdisciplinary work and structural redevelopment that universities need right now: “Assistant or associate deanships are substantial prizes, and in an increasingly professionalized honors environment, honors college leadership can now chart a career path that could mean an ultimate deanship, and perhaps other academic positions of equal or greater rank” (Bell 153). Robert Pepperman Taylor, dean of the honors college at the University of Vermont sees “service-learning programs, prestigious scholarship advising, or the general promotion of multi-disciplinary educational experiments” as the future work of honors college administrators and staff, while Bell call this inter-space “the home for cross-disciplinary orphan institutes or centers” (Taylor 107; Bell 151).

The Honors College at the University of Maryland, College Park opened its doors in the fall of 2010. The Honors program has been a part of the university for forty-three years, since its founding in 1966. Like most honors programs, it was interdisciplinary by nature. Originally, General Honors was a four-year program with a thesis required in an area different from the student’s major. During the recession in the late 1980s, the program was restructured into a two-part program: for the first two years, students took interdisciplinary seminars; the second two years were for departmental honors classes. A year ago, the current provost, Dr. Nariman Farvardin, made a call for proposals to the different colleges to come up with two new interdisciplinary “themes” within the developing new Honors College. Two new themes are launching with the new Honors College: the Entrepreneurship and Innovation Program (EIP), sponsored by the Maryland Technology Enterprise Institute (Mtech) and the A. James Clark School of Engineering and Faculty; and Digital Cultures & Creativity (DCC), sponsored by the College of Arts and Humanities and co-sponsored by the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities (MITH), the Computer Science Department and the School for Information Science. These represent exciting opportunities for interdisciplinary teaching and learning. These also offer opportunities for revolutionizing the structure of the university and the role #alt-ac scholars can play in a changing environment.

For instance, at the time of this writing, no digital humanities departments exist in the United States. Scholarship in the digital humanities demonstrates that inquiry enabled by modes of research, design, preservation, dissemination and communication relying on algorithms or online networks for processing data deepens and advances knowledge in the humanities. This is a field or a mode of inquiry that engages a wide range of disciplinary perspectives and is represented by programs of study that inflected by—but not necessarily called—Digital Humanities. Some argue it constitutes a method. Others insist it should occupy its own department. The fact remains that it is very difficult for universities to justify creating a digital humanities department or tenure-track lines primarily for digital humanities scholars when this mode of inquiry can mean so many things to so many people. This fact also makes traditional hiring channels rare. As the Associate Director of DCC, my position is a staff position and part of the work I do is to create and coordinate the inter-space in the university where the collaborative research and education that comprise digital humanities can happen. A program like Digital Cultures & Creativity creates opportunities for #alt-ac scholars like myself in the digital humanities because ours is inter-disciplinary work that requires alternate modes of professionalization. My work entails thinking about what scholars do in the arts and humanities, in computer science, and in information science from the perspective of the work we need to do to produce culturally literate and critically savvy students. My position within the honors college represents a unique opportunity for professional "alternative academic" work in the university. And the professional training that prepared me for this points us toward another inter-space in the university and more opportunities for intellectual work and academic professionalization: digital humanities centers.

B. Interspaces: digital humanities centers

To paraphrase a 2008 Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR) report, a digital humanities center is a physical or virtual space, centrally located, in which humanities research is engaged with new media technologies (“Survey of Digital Humanities Centers in the United States”). As with honors colleges, the “central location” belies a certain inter-departmental positioning that puts digital humanities into the inter-space of the academy and makes these venues, like more traditional humanities centers, important locations for humanities scholars trained in the intellectual and professional work of academia. Much like honors colleges, humanities centers emerged in the 1980s as a response to the changing landscape of scholarship on campus, from one that was siloed in departments to one that was more interdisciplinary. Likewise, as honors colleges are again seeing a rise in popularity because of the changing economic landscape, so are digital humanities centers increasing in numbers as the nature of research is changing through new technologies, new modes of communicating, and new global online communities. 

Digital humanities centers provide scholars with invaluable academic professional training such as experience in creating and working on grant-funded research projects. They have flourished in a difficult economy. In 2006, the American Council of Learned Societies issued a report on cyberinfrastructure for the humanities and social sciences, Our Cultural Commonwealth (2006), which recommends that federally-funded agencies support universities in their attempt to create and support digital humanities centers. To this end, in 2008, the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) formed the Office of Digital Humanities (ODH) and in the same year the level of attention, discussion, and financial support made available to such centers increased dramatically (“Survey of Digital Humanities Centers in the United States”). This generous support continues through funding agencies such as CLIR, the Institute for Museum and Library Studies (IMLS), the Mellon Foundation, and NEH, among others. Just as outside scholarly publishers determine the value of scholarly monographs, these agencies offer tacit accreditation that has engendered a level of trust within the larger community. This trust encourages various kinds of groups to collaborate with scholars at funded centers, including other smaller centers or initiatives, libraries, museums, or commercial entities like Google or Microsoft. As a result, smaller and newer centers such as the Center for Digital Humanities (CDH) at the University of South Carolina and the digital library initiative at Emory University are gaining support from their local universities. Further, there is a movement toward supporting centers that serve tribal and two-year college communities currently excluded from the benefits of digital technology but uniquely placed to support field work and local community projects. An example of this would be the digital archive of endangered Native American languages now centered at the American Philosophical Society. With more local systems of support and evaluation, unknown or fledgling digital projects also garner trust or imprimatur from agencies, which in turn attracts the attention of #alt-ac scholars who seek to engage academic citizenship or intellectual work in these areas of study. Currently, digital humanities centers and initiatives are a steadily expanding inter-space for these #alt-ac scholars, who gain invaluable experience in project management, funding and resource allocation, and matters of sustainability and professional development from a variety of humanistic perspectives.

Beyond facilitating cutting-edge research and training scholars in hands-on project management skills, digital humanities centers are uniquely placed to engage the changing pedagogical needs of the university. On the one hand, digital humanities centers profit from their interaction with students of all levels. In his recent and thorough study, “The Landscape of Digital Humanities,” Patrik Svenssson notes that “complex, multimodal, interactive and networked expressions in the humanities . . . are more common . . . in undergraduate education than in faculty research” (para 132). On the other hand, department deans interested in including digital scholarship as part of the curriculum benefit as well. An #alt-ac scholar within a digital humanities center is often versed in advanced digital research as well as theory and can design and teach undergraduate and graduate level classes that require a unique hybrid of theory and praxis. For instance, one model for this work embodied by Matt Jockers, an “embedded” Academic Technology Specialist (ATS) in the English Department at Stanford University. There, he is a consultant who helps other faculty and staff use technology for research and teaching. Trained with an English PhD, his position evolved from a primarily service position to one in which he teaches “a variety of undergraduate and graduate DH courses for the department, leading a research group that explores macro-analytic approaches to analyzing large literary corpora, and running a small text-mining lab” (personal correspondence). It is clear that #alt-ac scholars have a variety of opportunities for staying engaged with academic professional work within inter- and traditional-academic spaces.

II. Conclusion: a cautionary note about #alt-ac careers and the digital humanities

The emergence of desirable university jobs for #alt-ac scholars interested in pursuing intellectual work that incorporates academic and professional citizenship is a positive trend. As a cautionary note, however, it should be said that fissures opening and towers falling make for a messy environment in which to work.

Patrik Svensson sees the perspective afforded by the digital humanities as offering “a large scope” with “substantial impact and broad engagement,” often relating “to the development of the humanities at large, a discussion of the traditional humanities disciplines, and sometimes a call to action” (28). On the other hand, Katherine Hayles warns that “if the Digital Humanities were to spin off into an entirely separate field, the future trajectory of the Traditional Humanities would be affected as well,” calling these changes “a political as well as an intellectual issue (qtd. in Svensson 17). Why political? As Cathy Davidson implores us to realize, messiness is the reason humanist studies are significant in the first place:

In a time of paradigm shifts, moral and political treachery, historical amnesia, and psychic and spiritual turmoil, humanistic issues are central — if only funding agencies, media interests, and we humanists ourselves will recognize the momentousness of this era for our discipline and take seriously the need for our intellectual centrality. (Davidson 2008, 715, qtd. in Svensson)

Heralding the momentousness of the era, we see that digital humanists do get funding and do receive media attention, but we fall short in recognizing the elephant that remains: sustainability.

On the other hand, tackling issues of sustainability is part of our intellectual work as professional academic citizens in the inter-spaces of the university. For instance, much #alt-ac work needs to be done in the digital humanities from within the inter-spaces created by change. Sarah Toton’s position as Digital Scholarship Strategist at Emory University reflects a space to focus on such tensions. On the one hand, she is enthusiastic about serendipitous encounters in which “faculty team up with interested librarians, graduate students, programmers, and archivists to produce innovative digital projects on a one-off basis;” on the other hand, she is dubious about the practice in the long-term: “While this model offers room for creativity and innovation, it lacks definition as well as long-term sustainability. The individuals ‘doing’ digital scholarship remain individuals: outliers in academic discussions and producers of innovative scholarship that few tenure review boards can effectively evaluate” (personal correspondence).

That fact that academic infrastructure needs building and restructuring is not a bad thing (in fact it’s a good thing!) as long as university administrators create a dedicated space from which to do it. Jerome McGann reminds digital humanists that our “hodgepodge character is darkly eloquent, signaling a grave and now widely registered instability in humanities research education,” but that signaling change is not enough. “Second, and far more troubling,” he writes, “the community of scholars has played only a minor role in shaping these events” (“Sustainability”). One tacit result of expanding the sites for teaching and pedagogy in the university to include inter-spaces such as honors colleges and digital humanities centers is an expanded pool of future educators who have PhDs or at least work experience both in the humanities and are trained in interdisciplinary methods. Mark Tebeau, who founded the Center for Public History & Digital Humanities, notes the significant role that interdisciplinary digital humanities scholars must play as active academic professionals: 

Many of our partners are aware of advanced training programs and their demands in other fields--library science, history and the humanities, as well as in non-profit management because they hire staff with degrees in these areas. And, it is largely through staff expertise and training that professional disciplinary practices become part of organizations and institutional memory. I would venture to say that our partners lack of familiarity with what constitutes the digital humanities has to do with the fact that there are relative few and only recent models for training in the field (personal correspondence).

In a space in which “professional disciplinary practices become part of organizations and institutional memory,” #alt-ac scholars have the opportunity to become professionalized in a sustainable culture as active academics who understand the significance of their intellectual work in the world outside of the academy.

Reflecting on issues of change and sustainability in academia, McGann writes that “we have been like marginal, third-world presences in these momentous changes—agents who have actually chosen an adjunct and subaltern position” (“Sustainability”). In contrast, #alt-ac scholars have the opportunity to choose academic inter-spaces that are “adjunct or subaltern” to traditional departments but are still sites where professional and intellectual development and attention to sustainability actually happens, sites situated in the center of fissures, where #alt-ac scholars are agents of change.

Before I conclude, I think a level of transparency about my present location is necessary: My PhD is in English Literature and my M.F.A. is in fiction, my job is in the honors college at the University of Maryland and my field is in the digital humanities. What does that mean for my research and my perspective on interdisciplinary work, professionalism in the humanities, and this article? Writing this piece from this perspective makes it particular to my experience but it may be generalized to the extent that the digital humanities, like many other academic fields, is inherently interdisciplinary and is not well represented or supported by traditional forms of scholarly publication and academic promotion. The work of the digital humanities can be distilled in a monograph, but it could also become a multi-media, multi-modal, electronic scholarly edition, a database, an encoding standard, a geo-located map of multi-media installations, or a hypertext novel, to name a few instantiations. Or, it can be, as it is in my case, work based in creating curricula and opportunities for undergraduate and graduate students who are becoming versed in an exciting range of disciplinary perspectives: the arts and humanities, computer science, cultural studies, information studies, new media studies, and communication. Though my background provides the backbone for the examples I use in this discussion, I believe that the interdisciplinary and collaborative inter-space in which I have found myself as the administrator of an honors college program is a location where all humanists find themselves these days, especially those who are not “disciplined” into a particular department in the university.

Works cited:

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 McGann, Jerome. “Culture and Technology: The Way We Live Now, What is to be Done?” New Literary History 36 (2005): 71-82. Print.  

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Svensson, Patrik. “The Landscape of Digital Humanities.” 4.1 (2010): n. pag. Digital Humanities Quarterly. Web. 12 Aug. 2010.

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Toton, Sarah. Letter to the author. 9 March 2010. Email.

Zorich, Diane. A Survey of Digital Humanities Centers in the United States. Washington, D.C.: Council on Library and Information Resource, 2008. Web.

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