Help Wanted: A (Tenure-Track) Cyborg Manifesto

My approach to this question is both pragmatic and personal, but hopefully it speaks to the lived realities of the sort of Boolean “AND” integration that Jason Rhody points to in his response.  The (slightly modified) question I’m currently grappling with is “What are the differentiations and intersections between a job in media studies and the digital humanities?”  It’s vital to consider how these fields are diverging and converging, but we also need to begin furthering the conversation about how to institutionally value and support an evolving vision of media studies informed and inflected by the digital humanities.

After receiving my Ph.D. in Critical Studies from USC in 2011, I took a position as a Mellon Digital Scholarship Postdoc in the Center for Digital Learning + Research at Occidental College.  This fall, I’ll be joining the Film and Media Studies faculty at ASU as a tenure-track Assistant Professor.  These positions, while similarly focused on the cultural impact of digital technologies, are vastly different in scale and substance.  My commitment to multimedia argumentation and technopedagogy will need to be adapted, not abandoned, as I move from a SLAC environment to the largest public University in the country.  I’m equally unwilling to abandon the digital humanities affordances (the embrace of open, born-digital, and transformative scholarship; the emphasis on collaboration across disciplines and institutions; the ethos of “productive failure”) I’ve only begun to explore.

Erin Copple Smith has offered some concrete strategies towards “Making Online Labor ‘Count’ for the Tenure Case”.  The questions that inevitably populate media studies conference roundtables on the digital humanities about how to document, frame, balance, and value emergent or invisible forms of labor are daunting and aren’t going away.  Those who are committed to a cyborgian future for media studies need to be asking a different set of questions, ideally during phone interviews and campus visits.  Does your tenure and promotion committee have a system in place for evaluating digital projects or multimodal scholarship?  Would you be willing to negotiate terms in my contract to make space for innovative scholarship?  And those on the other side of the table need to be ready to answer.

Many of us are ready to do the risky thing and there are a growing number of allies in media studies ready to have our back.  But it’s not enough.  In the DH tradition, we need to share tools and ideas that will help wed the social reality of the tenure-track model to the s/f potentials of media studies as a discipline, even as we continue to search for a common language and move beyond dualisms.

Image on front page by The Year of Mud and available on Flickr. 


Thanks for the link to Kathleen Fitzpatrick's article and considerations on what DH scholars should be producing. In thinking about major projects, many institutions still do not accept digital dissertations. Some scholars may only be entering digital production modes as they begin their careers as associate professors. This would mean that the institution they will be working at would need to be even more supportive. Thanks for reminding graduate and post-doc students of the right questions to ask as we enter the job market.

I have to confess that, as the editor of MediaCommons, I continue to get the question of 'how do I count this towards tenure?' and the answer, I feel, will continue to be that it depends on the institution.

Thanks for the comment, Jamie.  I love (and love to share) Kathleen's article, but I'm increasingly struck by the fact that it was written in 2011.  Two years later, I think you're right that "what counts" will continue to depend on the institution.  So, the bad news is that I don't think there's been much movement beyond the advice Kathleen is giving.  The good news is twofold:

1.  As more digital media and culture jobs open up (and there were quite a few this year), we have an opportunity/excuse to raise these questions and help shape the conversation.  I can only speak to my experience, but all the institutions that I interviewed with were really open to discussing these issues (or, at the very least, open to opening the conversation).  Because I raised some of these questions in my phone/skype interviews, they actually built elements into my campus visit (from meeting with the T&P committee, to scheduling time to chat with those working in digital centers or on digital projects), which I deeply appreciated.  

2. Some of the comments below helpfully suggest ways we might begin to translate the labor of digital scholarship into frameworks that even the most traditional scholars can relate to (e.g. the citation), and how established spaces like MediaCommons (or Antenna, or Flow) might support those efforts. 

I hope this post conveys that defining "what counts" needs to depend on all of us: the institution, the digital humanist or media scholar experimenting with new research/writing modalities, and the platforms emerging to support this scholarship.   

Suzanne, thanks for your candid reflections on these issues that are very important to us junior scholars who want to include digital work in our tenure dossiers. 

As you point out (citing Fitzpatrick), there are wonderful mentors out there who can offer advice and "have our backs." What I'd like to see is the broader field of Media Studies cite more -- much more -- of the Digital Humanities work that is being produced.

Critical Commons, developed by Steve Anderson, is a heavily used digital resource by film and media instructors and makes an argument about pedagogy and fair use. Why do I see it cited in so few places? If you find value in a resource like Critical Commons or the project I co-direct, the Media History Digital Library, please find a way to reflect this fact in your writing, digital scholarship, or footnotes. Although it may seem small, this process of citation and recognition is one of the best ways to legitimize DH work in our field.

One other perk of more citations and scholarly attention is that it would free up the creators of these projects from writing so many articles where we simply re-state in prose what we did using code. Under the current system, creating digital projects that "count" toward tenure feels like double the work -- first you have to build something, then you have to publish an essay describing it.



This is an incredibly important point, Eric, thank you.  I routinely sing the praises of spaces like Critical Commons or archives like the Media History Digital Library to colleagues and in my classes, but your comment is an important reminder that these "invisible" citational moments aren't enough.  I also worry that "service" is becoming an increasingly amorphous category to conceptually house these works, when it doesn't adequately reflect or respect the intellectual and technological and temporal labor involved.

The other issue here is that they're collective enterprises, and I'd argue that the question of "what counts" is always already bound up with "who gets credit" when it comes to large scale digital projects.  I vividly remember a talk in which Kathleen Fitzpatrick (who is clearly my spirit animal on this issue) bluntly defined the digital humanities as "doing twice the work for half the credit."  Per your example, the accompanying peer-reviewed journal article is where the "credit" lives, and where these projects "count," and that's an untenable model if we want to encourage robust and sustainable digital media studies projects.     

Suzanne, your brief post raises a large number of issues that junior scholars need to think through before signing the coveted contract. In our SCMS workshop, Eric Faden highlighted how he negotiated the "terms" of his video-based scholarship insofar as how pieces would correspond to more traditional formats (length, circulation, showings, etc.) within his contract, heading off controversy beforehand. But we also need to ensure that jobs remain open to new formats & discoveries that might be hard to plan ahead of time - is there a way to carve out a space for experimentation with the new and risky within your expected duties? Too often, people like you are hired specifically to bring new formats and topics to a department, but then there is no room for newness within traditional structures, curriculum, support opportunities, and measures of success. More than anything, it seems like jobs must be open to openness, willing to consider newness and risk as values, not obstacles.

Jason, I really appreciated with your post last week, because I frequently struggle with the same questions about self-identification and scholarly identity on this topic.  Your comment raises a related issue, which is what happens when the job description implies a digital scholarly identity that the department or institution isn't ready to fully support.

I so admire the public and vocal stance you've taken on open access publishing, it's something I also feel strongly about.  But, because I know that it's easy for a junior scholar's publishing politics to get overwhelmed when we're in dire need of that line on our CV, I'd suggest we confront similar issues when it comes to enacting Eric's advice.  It's great advice, but the road to a tenure-track position is rough, and when/if we get that contract, most of us just want the ink dry.  If, like Eric, you've already conceptualized the type of work you want to do, that negotiation becomes possible.  But, as you rightly note, that's not always realistic.  I'm not 100% sure what shape my research will take, or what will shape my research, as someone working on contemporary shifts in television fandom and digital culture.  It's scary enough negotiating the contract without having to lock yourself into a non-traditional research plan you haven't completely committed to (or know that you'll have access to the human and technological support to execute).

Am I going to try to make room?  Sure.  But it's easy for me to say that now.  Check in with me in December, or next May.   

Great post, Suzanne (and some wonderful responses as well). Sometimes I feel as though those of us who create digital scholarly platforms and playgrounds designed for experimentation with new modes of scholarship, archiving, pedagogy, etc. need to do a better job with backing the scholars we ask to participate in these endeavors. It often seems as though scholars are left to negotiate the value and validity of online works with their home institutions without much clarity about how the work is actually valued and validated by the digital hosts who invited them in the first place. To be less esoteric, it was absolutely no problem for me to get my institution to count the work I do with MediaCommons because I co-created a well-trafficked hub full of scholarly experimentation done by thousands of other participants. There is high institutional reward for me, but not necessarily for MediaCommons' contributors, which makes it challenging for us to build and sustain community. In order for posts like Suzanne's to "count" in some meaningful way, maybe MediaCommons ought to be less vague about how it counts for us. Maybe we need to provide clearer citation criteria, per Eric's suggestion. Perhaps part of the problem is that folks are not only uncertain about how to cite an IMR post, but also that a lack of clear ownership on our parts of its scholarly and pedagogical merit places it in that murky "does it really require citation?" terrain? While I think that different online scholarly experiments have different goals, criteria, and modes of evaluation (often unstated), there might be something gained in banding together to craft a clear statement of how our various contributors participate in scholarly activity. For this work to count at our individual institutions, it needs to be better accounted for by the digital hubs that rely upon scholarly contributors to take these "risks."

Thank you, Avi!  That applies both to creating spaces like MediaCommons (I'm also a big fan of MediaCommons Press), and for thinking about how these spaces can further support the scholars who populate them.  I think hubs of digital scholarship can have our backs as ably as colleagues and mentors.

I'm completely torn on this issue.  Because, really, what makes this experience "count" for me isn't my post, but the conversation it provokes.  So many of these platforms are about fostering dialogue (which, when you think about it, should always be the goal of scholarly output), but so much of what "counts" is monologic (at least in form, if not content). There are the logistical questions, such as where do I put this post on my CV, or how do I cite this post?  But, for what might be gained from framing these spaces in more conventional, comprehensible terms, we don't want to quash what makes the space unique.  

I think that having some compelling data to bring back to our institutions about how our ideas are circulating in these new spaces, and the potential impact that might have on (re) shaping the field, is a good start.  I know the value of spaces like MediaCommons, but would love some support in conveying that value to unfamiliar short, I'd love to see/use that statement!

One way that I try to voice support for such project & non-traditional sites in publishing is within the tenure review process. When I went up for tenure, I touted my blog & digital publishing as an important part of my portfolio, and then shared that statement on my blog. I similar have participated in MLA's workshops on evaluating digital scholarship, as I discussed here.

But one of the ways that I've participated in this validation process that is fully invisible is through external review letters. Whenever I review somebody's dossier who has done online publications or other digital scholarship, I always highlight it as an important part of their profile. But that's only ever read by a small committee, which makes it harder to have a broader impact. So in the spirit of sharing, here's an anonymized excerpt from one such letter - after praising the candidate's blog, I wrote:

Additionally, I firmly believe that within the contemporary media environment, the best way for a scholar to boost their reputation is to maintain a vibrant online presence, putting their work and ideas out there for people to discover and engage with. XXX does this in a way that allows her to explore various writing voices and get feedback for ideas in progress, as well as developing scholarly networks across subfields and different regions. I have no doubt that without her active online writing, XXX would have a less significant reputation and it would take longer for readers to discover the value of her scholarly publications.

While such statements won't make or break a career, it's important those of us who can iterate the importance of non-traditional scholarship do so, and share our efforts!

(And thanks for launching such a great conversation, Suzanne!)

Great post Suzanne! I'm also enjoying this comment thread.

Working in an English department that still has a fairly traditional approach to what counts as scholarship (print publications and *some* online publications, if they are well established or linked to a print publication), I have had to negotiate a balance between doing the kind of work that will *count* towards my tenure requirements (print pubs) and the kind of work that I think has the most impact in my field because of its ability to generate constant dialogue feedback (online pubs like this one). In this way, I feel like I have been building 2 competing CVs over the last 6 years.

 Now that I have tenure, and have the opportunity to vote on the tenure and promotion cases of my colleagues, I look forward to championing more *non traditional* scholarship so that future colleagues won't need to cultivate dual CVs.

Thanks for the comment, Amanda, I think this is an issue many can relate to.  I'm also headed into an English Department, so I am going to need to adapt a similar, "balanced" approach.  What gives me hope, and is clearly reflected in this comment thread, is that I do think we're experiencing a sea change in media studies and related fields where there are enough junior faculty getting tenure who understand alternative modes of publishing and value public scholarship, enough senior faculty who are willing to go to bat to support junior faculty doing this work, and platforms like this one that are growing established and looking to play their part in supporting/legitimating this labor. 

I vividly remember, a few weeks after starting my current postdoc position, hearing Kathleen Fitzpatrick state that doing DH often means doing twice the work for half the credit.  I hope, like you, that we won't have to continue to cultivate dual CVs, especially when our work (like the best scholarly output) is most productive when it's troubling these binaries.

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