Digital Craft and Humanistic Perspectives Beyond Academia

September 24, 2013


This post is a short position paper drafted for an event entitled The Future of Graduate Education and Training in the Humanities (hosted by IPLAI and funded by a SSHRC Knowledge Synthesis Grant).

 Digital Craft and Humanistic Perspectives Beyond Academia

In every graduate course I teach there comes a moment, usually fairly early in the term, that I’ve come to think of as the Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde sequence, where students witness their professor transform from a relatively affable soul who praises the merits of his profession (autonomy, flexibility, intellectual stimulation, etc.) to a curmudgeonly spoilsport who describes in painstaking detail nearly certain disillusionment and the realities of an ever-bleaker academic job market. Actually, Hyde usually comes first, followed by a meek and unconvincing Jeckyll.

This whole performance probably comes too late for students who are already in a graduate program (which is partly why I do variant for prospective graduate students, including in some of my undergraduate courses), but hey, better late than never.  And even though Graduate Studies: Just Don’t Do it has practically become a genre piece, particularly in the blogosphere, I’m always struck by how many students tell me I’m the first to have discouraged them from pursuing their studies even though they are perfectly capable.

Truth be told, it breaks my heart to discourage students from pursuing their studies. The desire to devote years of one’s life to the study of a field is admirable, and it’s all the more courageous when the job prospects at the end are far less certain. Discouraging students from pursuing academic careers may seem like an implicit repudiation of the profession and indeed of my own identity, but it’s not. I love my job, but I’m telling students: don’t count on an academic job as a reward for your travails (in other words, don’t consider me as a model) and don’t count on your studies to prepare you for easy access to non-academic jobs.

I do concede that a small fraction of graduate students may attain the kind of tenure-track job that they’ve been encouraged to dream of. I also point out that pursuing studies can most certainly be its own reward, even though a humanities PhD is at best a mixed blessing on the non-academic job market. But ultimately, I have seen far too many very bright, very promising and very disappointed individuals flounder on the academic job market or bounce around between precarious and low-paying academic jobs; I can’t in good conscience continue on with business as usual. We know that job markets go in cycles, but the increased precariousness in labour in general (inside and outside of academia) and the continued erosion of popular esteem for the humanities, conspire to make me doubtful that things will turn around anytime soon.

In spite of my negative view of pursuing an academic career, I’m a fervent proponent of the value of the humanities, including the need for stronger and more diverse humanistic voices in contemporary debates too often dominated by techno-scientific perspectives. I’m one of the coordinators of the 4Humanities collective, an advocacy group that has produced The Humanities Matter! infographic, among several other initiatives. All sectors of society need people with a humanities background and we need to become more effective at explaining why that is the case.

I want graduate studies in the humanities to be professionally viable and personally fulfilling for students, but I believe we need some fundamental shifts in the way we do business (while remaining realistic about the nature and pace of change in academia). The following are some of the aspects of graduate education that I think are in most urgent need of consideration:

  • We need to avoid the mentality of academic self-propagation – graduate studies should not focus on producing more academics, we should assume the norm is to form students for non-academic jobs (much as we do at the undergraduate level).
  • We need to better valorize the masters as a terminal degree – these aren’t the academic dropouts, they are super-graduates who have chosen not to further specialize.
  • We should explore an enhanced masters (or other designation) that fills an enormous gap between the short masters and the long doctorate.
  • We should, through example, encourage students to think of the value of their humanities knowledge, to be able to express it to others, and in some cases to imagine entrepreneurial opportunities for their expertise (have students feel empowered to create a job rather than searching for one).
  • We need to set a higher standard of digital literacy for humanities programs in simple recognition that graduates will be searching for employment in an information age (and more generally participating in a digital society).
  • We need to provide far more opportunities for humanities graduate students to become creators of content beyond text-based academic scholarship – producing such tangible works (digital or otherwise) can be valuable in a portfolio and lead to the development of differentiating skillsets on the job market.
  • We need to disrupt the dominance of the classroom-centric, multi-course per term format which seems to persist far more out of bureaucratic habit and convenience than pedagogical soundness. An alternative model is the “block plan” at Quest University, where students take intensive three-week courses. Graduate students might be expected to spend several consecutive days absorbing the more relevant and thought-provoking materials available, from published articles and monographs to blog posts and online videos. There may even be room for a MOOC-like component to provide some core concepts in highly produced and polished form (yes, as heretical as it may sound, I do believe that some aspects of knowledge in the humanities can be fairly neatly packaged, especially in a hybrid model where there are also more intensive small-scale interactions).

It may seem hypocritical to even contemplate creating a new graduate program given the strong reservations that I’ve expressed above, but – be it through delusion, wilful naïveté or creative optimism – I do believe that the digital humanities offer a potentially useful way of balancing the strengths of the humanities with the development of more immediately marketable competencies (please let’s not be afraid to be marketable, we don’t have to compromise our humanities ideals or sell our souls to do so). Alternatively, rather than create an entirely independent (and siloed) program in digital humanities, it would probably be preferable – though far more politically exhausting – to integrate the digital humanities into existing humanities graduate programs. Either way, it’s crucial to recognize some important characteristics of the digital humanities in the current context.

First, students are usually starting from scratch for the digital components (as a result of shortcomings of undergraduate programs). This is not merely a continuation of undergraduate studies in literature, history, philosophy or another discipline, it is an entirely new approach with new theories and methodologies that need to be explored and apprehended. It takes time and practice.

Second, the digital humanities often privilege research-creation though the conceptualization and development of digital resources (digital editions, databases, analytic tools, visualization interfaces, etc.). The technical competencies required to create interesting and useful resources are significant, akin to learning to master carpentry or chess. It’s a craft that is learned with great patience and persistence; it’s a craft where instincts are developed slowly through trial and error.

For these reasons and others it seems to me that a lab-based model of project-based apprenticeship is the most likely to succeed for digital humanities graduate education. Students would learn to prepare, plan, manage, collaborate, develop, test, refine, share and reflect on digital projects in the humanities. Beyond the benefits of the humanistic insights gained, the technical skills acquired and the additions to a multimedia-rich electronic portfolio, many of those project-based skills are relevant (and often neglected) life skills both inside and outside of academia.

If students are fully aware of the real risks and realities of pursing graduate studies in the humanities and still wish to do so, then Dr. Jeckyll will welcome them with open arms.

2 Responses to Digital Craft and Humanistic Perspectives Beyond Academia

  1. Adrian Miles on September 25, 2013 at 12:29 pm

    The honours program I designed and currently run in a School of Media and Communication is lab based as you describe, though none of the students come from lab based disciplines (they’re humanities students). Three lab themes, interdisciplinary, very successful for the students in relation to outcomes and experience.

  2. Anne McGrail on September 25, 2013 at 4:26 pm

    I spent last year teaching 1/3 of my sophomore-level literature classes in what I called our “DH Lab,” and was astounded at the level of engagement and interest among the students. Some grumbling about losing out on some of the discussions in order to make time for the 50-minute labs, but the synthesis projects at the end of each term convince me that such experiences for lit students will begin to addresss what you rightly call the “shortcomings of undergraduate programs.”