DH: Getting it in Writing

July 26, 2011

McGill Mid summer isn’t the most useful time to post advice about negotiating academic job contracts, but I’ve promised several people I’d write something about the language that I requested to have added to the relatively standard appointment contract at McGill. After moving to McMaster in 2004 I regretted not insisting on having something about DH added to my appointment letter, especially since getting the letter changed after it’s signed is nearly impossible (well, unless you’re also holding an offer from elsewhere and negotiate a retention package, which is precisely what happened). McMaster is actually a very progressive institution in terms of digital humanities and new media research/creation (thanks to the blood, sweat and tears of several pioneers), but it can still be useful and comforting to have something in writing in one’s contract (if your institution doesn’t have favourable tenure and promotion guidelines, you might want to start building a case by consulting the MLA guidelines for evaluating digital work).

Here’s the language that made it into my appointment contract:

The Faculty of Arts recognizes that Digital Humanities is a highly collaborative field where knowledge and innovation develop both through conventional modes of scholarship (peer-reviewed publications, conference presentations, etc.) and through building of scholarly digital resources (including specialized software for the humanities).

Needless to say, this language wouldn’t work for every digital humanist, but I had two main objectives: 1) to emphasize that – unlike most research in the humanities – digital humanities work tends to be highly collaborative and the standard of single-author publications is not only irrelevant but in many cases counter-productive; 2) that part of digital humanities scholarship is building stuff, not to the exclusion of more widely recognized forms of scholarship, but potentially on equal footing (though the onus is still on us to argue and document how stuff we build is worth scholarship).

Although getting this language into my contract was a significant moral victory, it would be very naïve to suppose that the battle for valuing digital humanities scholarship stops there. To extrapolate from my own circumstances a bit, tenure, promotion and annual review committees are still likely to be composed of individuals who are more accustomed to traditional metrics of assessment, and – let us always remind ourselves – assessing digital humanities scholarship can be a challenge and is difficult to generalize into neat formulae. I think we want to make a case that co-authorship is different than how it’s commonly perceived in the sciences – in some cases a co-authored journal article may be worth a full article per author, in other cases it may be worth a straightforward proportion, and other times maybe yet another calculus is more appropriate. Assessing digital humanities projects is likely even more ad hoc. Again, the onus is on us to document and argue how are digital humanities work should be assessed. I actually think this additional responsibility will become one of the most significant defining characteristics of digital humanities scholarship. Very few people like documenting, but we need to get used to it and better at doing it.

I’d like to finish by saying that negotiating a contract is a weird and wonderful time – you’re elated that you’ve been offered a job and now you apparently enter into a perverse psychological battle of chicken to see how far you can get. Actually, I suspect most people under-negotiate (maybe in part because we’re (relieved) academics, dammit, not sales people). My advice, for what it’s worth, is to be respectful and realistic, but to try to create the best possible situation at the start. With the appropriate caveats and legal disclaimers, I would say that if you’ve been offered a job, they want you and you have more leverage than you may have for quite some time. I’ve never heard of anyone requesting something and then finding out that they’re no longer being offered the job – they may decline your request, but it’s worth asking. If you stay away from issuing ultimatums, you’ll know when you’ve pushed far enough.

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