Practitioner's Art: the Masters Degree in Humanities

Most conversations on the changing landscape of scholarly production still center around three letters that sit at the core of labor, publication, and peer-review: Ph.D. But what opportunities are available at universities and cultural heritage organizations for faculty and staff without doctoral degrees? Is the traditional research-training route still a requirement for leading work in the digital humanities? By examining collaborative roles, avenues for scholarly production, and opportunities for professional advancement available to those without doctorates who nonetheless pursue careers in and around the academy, we reveal the benefits and pitfalls of working without a Ph.D. in higher education.

As Melissa Terras discussed in her plenary address to the Digital Humanities 2010 conference in London, the ingrained nature of the Ph.D. is “a real issue in Digital Humanities. There is no clear route to an academic job, and no clear route to Ph.D., and there are a lot of people at a high level in the field who do not have Ph.D.s. Yet increasingly, we expect the younger intake to have gone down that route.” The capacity of non-Ph.D.s to contribute to digital academic output stands in tension to the academy’s de facto stance of gate-keeping scholarly production to "doctors only."

Below, three practitioners —Eric Johnson, Social Media Librarian at Thomas Jefferson's Monticello, Wayne Graham, Head of Research & Development at the University of Virginia Library’s Digital Research & Scholarship department, and Joseph Gilbert, Head of the Scholars’ Lab at the University of Virginia Library—describe their own experiences as case studies of Master’s degree holders working in the digital humanities.  Each of these personal narratives echoes the need for re-examination of the criteria for evaluating scholarly contributions and authorial credentials in light of the renewed emphasis on praxis—making, doing, and creating—offered by the digital humanities.

Case Studies

Eric D. M. Johnson

I knew late in my undergraduate career that I would be going to graduate school but that it was unlikely that I would pursue a doctorate—at least not right away. I was a history major at the College of William & Mary in the early 1990s, just as history doctoral programs were experiencing another of their regular enrollment gluts thanks to a thin job market.  I had earned adequate grades, but nothing great, and I recognized that I would be “just another guy” even if I were to be accepted into a doctoral program.

But I did want to carry on with my study of history. My plan at the time was instead to earn a Master’s with an eye towards a career in museum education. I didn’t want to teach in a traditional classroom; I had worked in interpretive settings for several summers and was interested in the possibilities of public history, a field I saw as sharing my preference for focusing on collaboration, service, and purpose over the inward focus and reification of process that seemed to be so much the norm in traditional academia. I wanted to make my mark in such an open, collaborative, practical field.

In the Master’s program in U.S. history at George Mason University, I managed to strike a balance between the academic grounding I still felt I needed, in case I should change my mind and go after a traditional doctorate, and the practical experience I wanted, in order to stay on in public history. My coursework was quite traditional, culminating in my decision to write the optional thesis which would prepare me for any future dissertation work. Meanwhile, my employment focused on non-traditional education and interpretation: I worked at the Valentine Riverside museum and in public services at the Virginia state archives. One day a week I interned in the special collections of the Museum of the Confederacy.

Later, the need for steady income and benefits led me to a full-time job in the government documents department of the University of Richmond library, where I worked with federal documents and took shifts at the main reference desk. This was also the first position I had in which website development was an official part of my job. Two years later, I moved to the university career center, where I would spend seven years managing its library and website, adding database and web interface skills to my repertoire.

In the early 2000s, after a dozen years in the field, I had come to realize how much I enjoyed working in library settings. It scratched much the same itch as museum education: work in a learning institution surrounded by people interested in the life of the mind, creative problem-solving, collaboration, service, a focus on outcomes. I was interested in learning the theory behind the practice I had undertaken for years, so I decided to head back to school to earn a second Master’s degree, this one in library and information studies. This was a field tailor-made to my personal interests: public service, information-seeking and reference work, technology, scholarship. It had the added bonus of crystallizing a career path.

By the time I finished, I was working at the Jefferson Library at Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s historic home, as the organization's library services coordinator. New appointments followed, first as Web Services Librarian and then as Monticello’s social media manager. History, technology, information management—all combined in an institution (the museum library) that is a collaborative environment dedicated to serving learners. A perfect place.

So why didn’t I go after the Ph.D.? The short answer is that I didn’t need it to reach my career goals. Early on in my undergraduate studies I imagined myself moving straight into a doctoral program and skipping blithely down the traditional academic path. But later self-reflection led me to realize that that wasn’t really the life I wanted, at least not yet. I wanted to be involved in education, yes, but not so much at the mercy of forces so far out of my control: the vagaries of the academic job market, tenure, academic politics.

I was intrigued at the possibilities offered by other learning institutions (museums and libraries) and in the exercise of nontraditional skills such as web design and social media. Traditional doctoral programs showed no signs of rewarding these talents that I valued highly, so it wasn’t hard to conclude that the doctorate was not then the path for me. Of course, that decision doesn’t preclude the possibility of tackling a Ph.D. later: I may yet develop a call to dive deeper into some field of choice with the goal of giving back at an academic institution. I deeply honor my family, friends, and colleagues who hold doctorates, especially envying them their highly-specialized knowledge of their chosen fields.

Having worked in and around the academy for many years—in university settings proper, at archival institutions, and in special museum libraries—what kind of relationship do my two Master’s degrees give me to the scholars and other academic staff with whom I work?

The reaction I receive is fairly audience-specific. To scholars, my library degree gives me an entrée into the academic world; librarians play a familiar role in scholarly production. Unlike many of my other Master’s degree-holding colleagues within and outside the digital humanities, I generally don’t experience the tension of explaining my place in their world; librarians are familiar animals and our role in the academic universe is largely understood. In the best relationships, I respect our visiting academics for their content expertise while they respect me for my knowledge of the myriad tools and resources that help them in their research at our institution.

When I am acting in a capacity with which traditional scholars may be less familiar or comfortable, such as when I approach them to participate in social media endeavors, my library degree provides a point of familiarity while my M.A. in history assures them that I have grounding in the content and practices they value. Many times, I have bridged the distance from traditional scholarship to new media by first assuring the scholars of my bona fides and my commitment to traditional scholarly goals. They are then more ready to hear me out when I suggest practices that may help them achieve those goals in new ways.

In addition to these more traditional scholars, when assessing my relationship with the academy I should mention colleagues who aren’t traditional faculty. Speaking broadly, I find that among such colleagues my degrees are seen as positive ends to themselves—proof of achievement and dedication on my part rather than as needed bridge-building tools. Fellow librarians appreciate the library degree as proof of my commitment to upholding professional practices and standards; the history degree is a bonus that not only further grounds me in my chosen content field but makes me more competitive from a career perspective. Other colleagues—departmental secretaries, development staff, curatorial staff, digital humanists at fellow institutions, etc.—view the degrees as relevant or not depending on the particular vagaries of our professional relationships. Truthfully speaking, most probably don’t even consider academic credentials—our relationships are based on the services we render to one another within the confines of our jobs; either we’re good at them or we’re not, either we’re helpful or not, credentials be damned.

I fell into the world of digital humanities by accident rather than design. Like so many digital humanists, I’d picked up related skills (in my case web design and database programming) along the way without specifically planning to apply them in my career. But apply them I did, as employers learned that I had these skills. Doing web and database work in a library dedicated to the history of Thomas Jefferson and his era perforce made me a practitioner of the digital humanities—a term that I did not encounter until the lead-up to the first THATCamp in 2008.

There is a lot of similarity between public history and the digital humanities. The “Scrappy Quotient” of each is high, by which I mean that the practitioners in those fields are more willing to expend effort in creative problem-solving in the face of obstacles -- while keeping a specific result in mind -- than I find to be the norm in other areas of the traditional humanities. The “Collaboration Quotient” is likewise high in each, perhaps because these fields were interdisciplinary from the very start; digital humanists need help from software and hardware experts, programmers, information specialists, and user interface designers, while public history grows out of the work of museum curators, interpreters, academic historians, and learning specialists. Nobody in those fields can function in a vacuum.

Because of this spirit of collaboration and of scrappiness, I find the generosity of the two fields to be outstanding: rare is the digital humanist or public historian who is curled into a self-protective, exclusive, scholarly ball, unwilling to share code, lessons learned, or a beer. They actively seek the company of their peers in many fields, always open to the possibility of learning from or teaching something to others. And because of this ethic of egalitarian knowledge sharing, these fields are rich soil for the holder of the Master’s degree.

Save, perhaps, in one way. The digital humanities do share one thing with traditional academic humanities; the reputation economy is very strong indeed and is actively nurtured by its leading practitioners. I have found that the principle movers and shakers in the digital humanities are almost without exception holders of doctorates, most often employed in academic institutions (or doing their best to be so). I wonder then at the parallel between the traditional means of scholarly reputation management—the ongoing process of book and article publication and conference appearances—and that of the leading digital humanists, with their steady contribution of blog posts, tweets, and conference appearances.

I feel very little tension in pursuing my day-to-day work as a librarian or social media specialist—beyond the regular deadline- or project-induced stresses of any work place. This stands in contrast with the special stress that I do feel when I can’t free up the time to manage my reputation as a digital humanist through tweeting or blogging about my work to inform my digital humanities peers of my efforts. This kind of active self-promotion seems to be normative in both traditional academia and the digital humanities. The doctorate looms large in both; it is unclear, though, if that is a cause-effect relationship or if there is another explanation altogether. Perhaps it is simply the nature of the online environment in which the digital humanities move that encourages such active reputation-building.

I don’t have to tell fellow librarians of my work at the reference desk—though I may certainly choose to do so—but if I don’t inform the digital humanities world of my latest social media initiatives I feel I am in danger of losing my place at the table. Very little popular credit accrues for the practicing digital humanists who may not have time to step back to present their work for an audience of their peers in the field because they’re too busy working for their colleagues in their institutions or their public audiences. I don’t have to take time to reinforce my work among my library colleagues. It sometimes appears as though the audience for digital humanists is often, in a curious way, other digital humanists; in contrast, the audience for librarians is generally not other librarians.

Master’s degrees are practical degrees, at least in my experience. They are particularly good for those who want to be around academia or learning institutions but aren’t interested in being subject to the rigors of tenure or the uncertainties of the academic lifestyle or marketplace. Because they remain by definition more generalist than are the specialist doctorates, they strike a good balance between theory and content on the one hand, and hands-on practice on the other. Professional degrees in particular create an instant recognition, an instant role—to be sure, this can be a limitation as much as it can be an opportunity. Within learning institutions, master’s degree holders make good collaborators, bridge builders, and service providers, with enough grounding in the specialty field that interests them to talk to the true specialists while remaining engaged with the larger project or institution.

Evaluation becomes tricky, though, for these practical-minded bridge-building collaborators. How is their effort “scored” by supervisors and colleagues? If they remain in the trenches solving problems as part of a larger group working together, how does a supervisor tease out their particular contributions? Their sense of worth—and their professional evaluation—needs to come from their institutional colleagues and their successful service to their audiences; managing reputation among peers at other institutions can become a distraction if not carefully governed. Until assessments are grounded not only in the scholarly output of single individuals but in evaluation of the efforts of teams of people working towards a shared goal, I would wager that the work of most digital humanists and other collaboration-oriented academic service professionals won’t be considered to hold much intrinsic value in the academy. This is a true shame. In the alternate academic world posited by this #alt-academy collection, though, the story is different: with so much evaluation stemming from service rather than output, collaboration and group contribution are often evaluated as a positive good. There may be some lessons to be had here.

Wayne Graham

I remember the excitement that characterized my first experiences in academia. I was finishing my honors work at the Virginia Military Institute in analyzing the growth of a small community on the early Virginia frontier. I had spent months in the county courthouse in a gray blouse (a monstrosity of a nineteenth-century wool military uniform still worn at military academies) researching how land was transferred between generations. My advisor, Col. Turk McCleskey, had attended William and Mary and was encouraging me to investigate the school as well to continue my academic pursuits. After meeting Professor James Whittenburg at a conference, I knew that William and Mary's program was a perfect fit for my interests and approaches to history.

While at William and Mary, I undertook an internship with the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation’s Department of Historical Research. During the late 1990s' push to digitize cultural material, the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation had received a grant from the Mellon Foundation to see if, given start-up funding, a well-known organization with large research libraries (the foundation had been writing architectural and archaeological reports on Williamsburg since the 1940s) could sustain the further digitization of their collections on a subscription model like JSTOR. As a lowly intern, my part was to work on the transcription and markup of primary research reports using the Text Encoding Initiative (TEI) standards in SGML for one semester and, because I had some experience with databases, work to develop a web interface that would allow people to research in an existing database of collections: an exciting opportunity to learn from and work closely with some of the brightest thinkers in my field.

My Master’s degree took one year to complete, a schedule which gave students little less than a semester to decide if academia is the right career path for them and impress the faculty that they had a strong research project. To assist in decision-making, many of the faculty at William and Mary held a series of very frank discussions with students about what a tenure-track position means, the sacrifices one would need to make with regard to family, and some of the very difficult hurdles that lay in the way. Conversations often centered around the importance of thesis and dissertation topics, as this is what one would expect to be writing about for about the next 15 years, in various formats, until one had received tenure. More than just picking the right topic, the right conferences, and the right advisors, several faculty spoke about the impact of the choice to pursue a tenure-track faculty career on one’s family.  When it neared time to make the difficult decision to pursue a Ph.D., I was given the opportunity to take on a full-time position with the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, continuing my work on the digitization project, and also helping to bring all of the research reports, probate inventories, manuscripts, and other primary documents that lay squarely within my research interests together in a web site.

Excited by the prospect, I jumped at the opportunity to stay on at the Foundation, telling myself I would be in an even better position after a couple of years of “real” work as a historian to apply to a Ph.D. program. What I quickly discovered about myself was that, while I really liked history, I loved working with computers. When I started working at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, we used very rudimentary tools (Microsoft Notepad and the JADE SGML processor) to encode and validate our SGML documents. The work was slow, laborious, and very error-prone. I was primarily responsible for digitizing the extant York County Probate Inventories for the seventeenth-century. These had been transcribed and typed on an earlier project, and stored in three-ring binders. Because they were an important piece of my thesis work, I wanted to come up with a more efficient way to get them into electronic form, rather than just re-type the entire run of court documents. In my first scripting experience, I procured a scanner and some OCR software that could only produce Microsoft Word documents, and strung together a series of macros to facilitate Text Encoding Initiative (TEI) markup. The desire to improve the production and dissemination of historical materials would stay with me throughout my career. Over time, I was placed in charge of the group’s servers, which eventually lead me to seek some more formal training, and Microsoft was aggressively marketing certification program. I took the coursework to become a Microsoft Certified Database Administrator (MCDBA), which taught me how to set up robust database-driven systems. As the project continued to reach its goals, the Foundation was hopeful of renewed funding from the Mellon Foundation but, as is always a risk with soft-money jobs, the funding was not renewed. While the Foundation was committed to continuing the project, the uncertainty of my job’s status prompted me to begin investigating other options.

The timing of these events ruled out the possibility of applying to a Ph.D. program, and colleagues encouraged me to put my name in to several different agencies. The library at William and Mary was looking for a person to help administer their computer systems. After a several nerve-wracking weeks, I finally got a call offering me a position at William and Mary’s Earl Gregg Swem Library as a systems administrator, which I was eager to accept. The very next day, I got a call from a contractor offering me a position as a database administrator. The pay was significantly better (nearly twice what the state institution was offering), but only guaranteed for two years. Remembering what it felt like to be on soft money and being familiar with the William and Mary Library, the opportunity to be around interesting people and the stability of the academic job ultimately won out over more money, a long commute, and the need to start seeking other work soon after beginning.

When I began at the Swem Library, the building was going through a major renovation that would greatly increase the number of publicly-available computers, as libraries attempted to re-envision how they supported scholarship in the 21st century.  Given this emphasis on technology, one of my first tasks was to improve the library’s web presence.  Beginning with rudimentary applications written in ColdFusion, I started to build a dynamic web presence for the Library and continued to develop my skills as a systems administrator and programmer. Along the way I made many mistakes but often had no one to turn to when I ran in to difficulty developing, improving, and deploying code. Relying on William and Mary’s education benefits, I took some math courses and some computer science courses to develop my programming skills and learn new approaches.

Over time, my position began to shift from a primarily systems-support role, to more application development and integration. I thought it would be a good idea for the library to establish a digitization center that could not only have a lab with some scanners for student and faculty use, but also more robust equipment that could support digitization requests for the library’s special collections and rare manuscripts, including its robust collection of Thomas Jefferson’s correspondence. While this effort ultimately failed to gain financial support, the library was able to start a new internship in digital history that would expose students at the Master’s level to the tools and techniques of digital history. My experience with the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation had been hugely positive, and I wanted to do something that could help train historians in new methods, and also help fund another graduate student. I conceived the internship to train students to use TEI standards to encode documents and also work on database development, web design, and other projects that would expose them to new techniques and methodologies they could use in their academic careers.

It was around this time that the library started to think about changing my position from a staff position to a faculty position. The thought was that, given the increasing amount of work I was doing with faculty, and in support of faculty projects, changing my employment classification would be advantageous, both in giving me weightier credentials when working with faculty members for whom such things mattered, and in signalling a shift in the way in which the library operated. The MLS was really what separated the librarians from staff, and I did not have that particular degree. However, what I did possess was a set of very specialized skills, and a vision for what was possible in the online environment, which was seen as equally important.

Based on my experiments coding in an academic setting, I started gaining some recognition in technical circles. After writing a series of blog posts on how to use the emerging Facebook API, I was approached to write a technical manual by APress publishers. At the time, the Facebook API was not well-documented and was changing weekly. Unlike the reflective, research-based style of academic writing I was trained for, in writing this book I described and provided code examples for unusual API behaviors, only to find that Facebook would either fix or remove the “feature.” I was literally writing a book that was becoming outdated while I wrote it! The shifting landscape of technology provided a unique writing challenge.

At the same time, I was also becoming more deeply embedded in the institution’s high-end computing efforts. The university hired a new director of computational computing who had a nice budget to build a computer graphics lab, and I was able to start working with computer graphics, with the maintainers of our high-performance computing cluster on scientific visualization using tera-scale data, and generally have lots of fun in new areas of computation. Likewise, despite my position at a small institution, the emergence of open-source communities allowed me to connect with many like-minded individuals interested in working on some of the same projects I was. My first open source project was with Mozilla's Mycroft, and I later became deeply involved in the VuFind project sponsored by Villanova University, helping to build better ways to discover and  access library holdings.

Working on these projects was fun and eventually led me to rethink my career priorities and explore new employment opportunities. After some soul searching, I realized that what I loved most about my job was working with faculty and students to collaborate on research projects. This ultimately led me to the difficult decision to leave William and Mary to take on a new position at the University of Virginia’s Scholars’ Lab. Having the opportunity to work with faculty and help advance their research into new areas was very appealing to me. I appreciated the Scholars’ Lab’s vision for the future of scholarship—particularly as it intersected with new geospatial methods—and I was excited to work with a skilled group of programmers.

Today, as head of the Scholars' Lab Research and Development team in the University of Virginia Library’s Department of Digital Research and Scholarship, I spend my time working with faculty and library staff on innovative projects pushing the boundaries of humanities and social science research in new and exciting ways. However, I still am occasionally asked if I will pursue a Ph.D. I have to say that since I entered graduate school in the humanities, my research interests have become more diverse than traditional graduate education seems to allow. Not only am I interested in more traditional quantitative analyses of community development on the colonial frontier, but also how new methods, derived from work in computer graphics, computer science, and mathematics, can add to the scholarly interpretation of these communities. Unfortunately, I have just not found the right fit between experimental methodological approaches and traditional historical research in traditional roles within the academy.  Clearly, if I had attempted to become a tenure-track faculty member, I would not have been able to have many of the valuable experiences I have had at this point in my career. I would be working on finishing my book for tenure right now rather than engaging in activities normally reserved for senior faculty members, such as speaking at major society conferences, participating in large grant-funded projects, and pushing the boundaries of what digital scholarship can be.

Joseph Gilbert

When I graduated from Vanderbilt University in 2004 with a degree in English and Computer Science, I was (and remain), as a potential Ph.D. student writes to Michael Bérubé, one of those people who "Really Cares About Literature." Though I had obtained marketable programming skills as a CS student, the thought of a cubicled life producing uninteresting code for an uncaring corporation seemed unthinkable and frankly intimidating, despite the real interest some computer science topics—artificial intelligence, in particular—provoked in me.  At the request of a favorite professor, I met with a kind and forward-thinking Director of Graduate Studies who stunned me with facts about the abysmally low rate of success for job-seeking Ph.D. candidates. I was taken aback but not dissuaded: job markets could change, after all, and could someone with such a deep and abiding love of literature really ever be happy in another role?

I would hear the Vanderbilt professor’s words echoed on my first day of graduate school when my new Director of Graduate Studies, welcoming a large class of many M.A. students and a select few Ph.D. candidates to the University of Virginia's English Department, warned us to only undertake the study of literature for its own sake and not with the hope of future employment as a professional literary critic.  Those words were a bit more alarming the second time around.  As one in the sea of Master's students and not of the chosen few Ph.D. students whose stipends our tuition helped subvent, the financial realities of graduate school were made as tangible as the slim margin for success, defined nearly always as a tenure-track position.

Much of my graduate school experience was quite traditional: 20th-century poetry became my main area of interest, and my Master's thesis on American poet Wallace Stevens was entrenched in the kind of high theory to which some believe the digital humanities stand in opposition.  In my second semester at UVA, however, I had the great pleasure of taking a class from Jerome McGann, one of the founding fathers of humanities computing.  McGann and his colleagues at "Applied Research in Patacriticism" were completing work on a beta version of IVANHOE, an interpretive literary and textual studies “game,” and I spent the semester employing ludic strategies to formulate a play-acted critique of Blake, Rossetti, and others. While my focus was neither on textual studies nor on 19th-century works, the iterative, playful approach to technology and humanities research would revolutionize how I thought about scholarship both off- and online.

As influential as my experience in McGann's class was, another opportunity proved even more formative: my work as a student assistant at the University of Virginia Library.  Beginning as simple opportunity to make some money while in school, my time with the circulation, reference, and government documents public service departments revealed a exciting professional culture of which I was previously unaware.  Put simply, librarians were smart and nice, a combination less visible (though certainly extant) in the high-tension environment of an academic department.  Librarians could act as forces for active change, as well: connecting scholars with salient troves of information and enabling work that would be impossible without their expertise.

After a year-long stint at a local record store, the appeal of the collegial yet intellectually-grounded life of the library seemed paradisiacal, and I was fortunate to find entry-level work in coordinating public service at a new library space dedicated to digital research and scholarship: the Scholars’ Lab.  After purposefully escalating my involvement with digital projects by conducting outreach efforts and increasing my technical know-how, I became a primary liaison to our teaching faculty collaborators.  Thanks to the support of Donna Tolson—my predecessor as Head of the Scholars’ Lab—and Bethany Nowviskie, Director of Digital Research and Scholarship at the Library, I took on a larger leadership role and eventually applied for and was promoted to head the Scholars’ Lab.

At the Scholars' Lab, we emphasize service, not servitude, to our scholarly community.  We express this commitment to service through teaching (both in the classroom and one-on-one) and collaborative work on scholarship.  For projects led by teaching faculty, like Herbert Tucker's For Better for Verse and Alison Booth's Collective Biographies of Women, I provide regular technical consultation and project management. Through my work on these projects, I've come to realize that making—creating, shaping, and coding new digital projects and experiences into being—offers an artisanal opportunity to add to the scholarly record.  This is an opportunity that, for me, provides a sense of satisfaction greater than that of mental or written deliberation alone.

In addition to the pleasures of collaboration and creating on the web, the prospect of interdisciplinary work in challenging new areas, such as the Scholars' Lab's deep involvement with spatial tools and methods, provides a breadth of personal improvement and an ongoing education not always present in an academic culture that thrives on specialization.  The ability to inhabit a number of methodological spaces helps diversify scholarly possibilities, as well.  Creating means of accessing and using historic maps and geospatial data through our Geospatial Data Portal and Spatial Humanities site, and visualizing the shifting boundaries of United States counties over time are unexpected new ways I've been able to help push the boundaries of digital humanities scholarship forward—ways that would not have come to be at all without the strongly collaborative and grounded-in-practice approach of groups like ours.

Of course, the old goal of a doctorate degree hasn't entirely faded from my mind. In the past, I've believed (as does Al Franken's Stuart Smalley character), that "I'm good enough, I'm smart enough, and doggone it, people like me!"  Shouldn't I, then, strive to obtain the highest degree available in the humanities?  In short, not when such a degree takes the better part of a decade to complete, is financially untenable, and provides the small number who complete the journey with meager and uncertain rewards.  If you're lucky, you can get paid to do what you love, but loving something—history, literature, art—isn't an occupation in and of itself.  For me, a career teaching composition at a four-year university or literature classes at the high school or community college level—academic positions commonly held by Ph.D.s off the vanishing tenure track—is a less interesting route than the one I’ve taken, and the Ph.D. more a nod to a scholarly landscape that is quickly eroding than a measure of my own ability.  I have the too-rare opportunity to help people discover and investigate our cultural history every day and collaborate with world-class scholars on interesting research questions.  In many ways, the creative and service opportunities available in a practitioner’s role remove my concern over reward and renown: I'm trading an anxiety about prestige for the satisfaction of a job well done.

Final Thoughts: Strangers Among Us

“Some frightful influence, I felt, was seeking gradually to drag me out of the sane world of wholesome life into unnamable abysses of blackness and alienage […]” [1]

In his novella The Shadow Over Innsmouth, pulp horror writer H. P. Lovecraft depicts a small town whose inhabitants have been transformed into grotesque, amphibious creatures through interactions with an alien race and oaths to their strange gods.  In Lovecraft’s tale, the narrator, investigating the infested town, later comes to realize that he, like so many of the town’s residents, has been irrevocably tainted, is transitioning into something not quite human. He eventually goes insane. 

A similar fear of irreversibly turning from what we believe we are—critically thinking, interpretive humanists—into something other and alien—mechanistic, technophilic positivists—informs the academy’s resistance to take up digital methods of scholarship and fully embrace the hybrid professionals that facilitate those new methods.  We worry about distinguishing ourselves from the (non-existent) horde that employs technology for technology’s sake and fret that over-engagement with digitally grounded methods will divorce us from our conception of what scholarship is.

Trepidation over the new and the other makes us cling to our own old gods: the traditional dissertation, the Ph.D. degree, and the tenure track.  In truth, giving ourselves wholly over to the restrictive, multi-limbed system William James termed the “Ph.D. Octopus” is more distorting—and Lovecraftian—than we fear the alternative to be.[2]  So many of us are fit to make, shape, and create, to do scholarly work, but our “spontaneity” (or freedom) of thought and action, which James believed vital to the future of scholarship and something our universities must preserve, is stifled, either by our own feeling of inadequate formal affirmation or others’ respect for the “title-giving machine.”[3]  Perhaps the latter believe that we can trust the “fit…though few” who have trod the Ph.D. path to keep the faith of the humanities’ core values through the oaths of years of study, dissertating, and publishing in print. Perhaps they believe that, by narrowing scholarly activity to those few, we have protected the quality and character of academic output.

David Brownlee offered another perspective at the 8th annual Scholarly Communication Institute held in July 2010, saying: “What humanistic scholarship is is what humanistic scholars do.[4]  Incorporating new tools and methods into the various humanities disciplines need not alter who we are as scholars or who is able to contribute since our scholarship itself is self-defining.  No psychological or philosophical cliff over which we might tumble exists in Brownlee’s model, nor will amphibious non-doctors comfortable in both scholarly and technological environments transmogrify fellow academics into uncritical beings.  By creating opportunities for practitioners with Master’s degrees or other non-doctoral qualifications to participate deeply in the scholarly process, the academic record can be invigorated with new methods and perspectives while remaining, self-definitive, distinctly humanistic in its approach.

[1]Lovecraft, H. P.  The Shadow Over InnsmouthThe Call of Cthulu and Other Weird Stories.  Ed., Joshi, S. T.  Penguin Classics.  1999.

[2]James, William.  “The Ph.D. Octopus.”  Writings 1902-1910.  Ed. Kuklick, Bruce.  p. 1111.  Library of America.  1987.

[3]James.  p. 1118.

[4]Personal notes, Joseph Gilbert.  Scholarly Communication Institute 8 [conference].  Charlottesville, VA. July 15, 2010.

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