Locating labor

Labor was a big theme of last week’s Women’s History in the Digital World conference. How to discover, analyze, and reclaim women’s invisible labor. How to incorporate the labor of conversation within the digital humanities—yakking rather than, or in addition to, hacking. How to find support, at the top and bottom, to nurture digital humanities work in general and produce projects.

A recurring theme—present at this conference, and perennially discussed elsewhere1—was the specific issue of academic institutional support, or lack thereof. I see similar conversations in groups of public historians and archivists, though folks working outside of the faculty, or outside of academic institutions in general, do not have the same sets of concerns (e.g. tenure committees, course loads) as academics. WHDigWrld15 trended very academic.2 The experiences of full professors, varyingly contingent faculty, postdocs, grad students, and undergrads bring different perspectives, opportunities, and limitations to performing digital humanities work. While I feel comfortable using the umbrella term “academic,” it’s very important to be mindful of the wide variation of roles gathered beneath that umbrella, some drier than others.3

I had a brief conversation with someone who had attended the first WHDigWrld conference two years ago. She was encouraged because last time, there was more anxiety about finding support to get projects started. This time around, there was discussion of complete (or significantly underway) projects and questions about how to make projects sustainable. I noted that a lot of the labor referenced at this conference was being performed by students or students who transitioned to (poorly) paid workers, but agreed that it was trending in the right direction. (And certainly Rebecca Laroche’s pedagogical point—intellectual work is labor, it requires expertise, it has been done in ways you may not be aware of, and you yourself are performing it—is underscored when students are able to secure funding, with the validation and practical benefits money brings.)

But to return to the core point: more digital humanities work is being produced. That begs the question of what work—and whose work—it is replacing.4

Is this just a case of everyone being a digital humanist now? The tools are available, sources are available digitally (and, increasingly, primary sources are born digital, though that’s obviously less relevant to medievalists than those working in the liminal space between “history” and “current events”). Maybe some people can’t get the hang of them, but that’s sort of like saying they can’t get the hang of Thursdays: whether read as charming self-deprecation or close-minded privilege, it doesn’t change the fact that Thursday is right there on the calendar.

Is this a generational shift? And I don’t mean generation in the Boomer/Gen X/Millennial sense, but rather in terms of cycles of professional theory and methodology. Of course, there is overlap: you will be immersed in the theory of the moment you are in school. That can map pretty well to age, especially among historians who want to train for academic positions and are likely to progress in a pretty traditional manner, getting hooded comfortably in advance of the age when they could run for President. (With a significant gap between my Bachelor’s and Master’s, I had a different perspective on the river I was swimming in.) But regardless of the theories and methodologies ascendant at the time of training, professional practice changes, and not just because of attrition. So are there just a lot of DH projects because it’s a “turn”? Or is this a departments-versus-centers thing? In other words, digital humanities as something distinct from history-with-DH-methodology?

What are the percentage of new versus established scholars working in digital humanities, and what percentage of their work falls into that category? On the one hand, it seems like it should be possible to get statistics. On the other hand, part of the problem with digital humanities is categorization. Deciding what “counts” as digital humanities work could be as fraught as getting it to count for tenure committees…although that might be a useful metric. Ask people to self-report projects they worried wouldn’t impress the committee, and that might be a good stand in for DH work in the academy, or at least work that was perceived as risky or non-traditional. From there, drilling down to figuring out who was performing the work (including finer-grain articulation, like undergrads doing transcription in service of a larger undertaking) and under what auspices (grad student research, post-doc in a center, full professor in a history department) would be comparatively easy.5

And then there’s the question of work product. If someone is working on a DH project, what are they not working on? Are DH projects replacing articles and monographs? (And if there’s a straightforward correlation—a particular type of mapping project equals two articles, based on likely alternate production—might that help with evaluations of scholarly production?) Or is it more complicated? History, as pointed out in Clair Bond Potter’s keynote, is a field that has traditionally privileged the solitary creator (or the myth of the solitary creator). DH work doesn’t strictly have to be collaborative, but trends that way. Might the opportunity cost of DH projects be more tangled: instead of mapping project equals two articles, is it more like mapping project equals half an article, a three month delay for another, but a significant footnote for a third? Is the corporate headcount mode—in which an individual’s time is sliced between various responsibilities and departments—more useful than (my perception of) the academic mode of departmental allegiance, subdivided by the trifecta of teaching/research/service responsibilities? (People with experience in academia, please chime in.)

We’re getting a sense of what we gain with digital humanities projects and labor. I’d like to get a sense of what we’re losing, too. A willingness to make that trade might be the strongest argument for the value of digital humanities work.


  1. A reference both readily at hand and easily available in a fixed form is Ruth Mostern’s “Student-Authored Digital Atlases and Digital Humanities Genres” presentation at the Penn DH Forum in 2013. But really, just mention institutional support (monetary and otherwise), evaluation of projects, legitimacy of digital projects versus traditional work products like monographs, etc., in any group of random digital humanists and collect your own anecdotes of practitioner anxiety. 
  2. WHDigWrld15 is an unwieldy abbreviation, but I typed it a lot as a hashtag so it is, at least temporarily, second nature. And speaking of the hashtag, there was a lot of tweeting, and Greenfield’s planning to do some storifying in the near future. 
  3. A sizable caveat is the fact that I’m coming at this from the U.S. perspective, whereas scholarship—digital and otherwise—can and should be a transnational endeavor. I did attend a session devoted to international questions, with Jennifer Redmond pointing out the cultural differences to be accounted for even between countries that share a language and P. Ray Murray raising issues particular to the Global South, while Joyce Goodman interrogated little details like the meaning of time and space. But the footnote version: my U.S. perspective is a sizable caveat. 
  4. And I am going to use “replacing” as a fuzzy-but-probably-accurate term, in part due to AHA data on the profession, particularly this handy dandy Ph.D conferral chart. (U.S. perspective again.) I think it’s a reasonable stand-in for academic historians, and since history is the slice of humanist pie of particular interest to me and the conference, that’s where I’m looking. While higher education is a nuanced topic and there’s no data for the past several years, for my purposes the main take away is that program enrollment over the past few decades involves rolling hills rather than jagged cliffs: even a “surge” constituted only a 7.8% increase in history Ph.Ds. 
  5. Does such data already exist? I’m aware of institutions, individuals, and organizations highlighting projects, but it feels kind of like anecdata. Not unuseful, but differently useful from a big pile o’ quantitative data. If such data doesn’t already exist, would anybody be interested in a) seeing it, b) collaborating on the contents of the survey, and c) signal-boosting and associated tasks? 
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