Digital Humanities Research

Six Months In: Taking Stock of my Situation

It will be six months next week since I started my position as Digital Scholarship Coordinator at Bucknell University. The experience has been, by turns, exciting, exhausting, exasperating, and metaphorically exsanguinating. Ultimately, though, it’s been exhilarating (all right – I’ll stop with the alliteration now). In the process of trying to make sense of what’s going on here, what it means for me, and what I mean to the digital scholarship initiative at Bucknell, I’ve had to deconstruct myself, rebuild myself, and think a lot about what I do and why I believe in it. I’ve looked at the DH community with which I’ve aligned myself and reached out to friends and colleagues in ways both beneficial to the university and necessary for me. I’ve been hyperconscious of what it means to write about this in public spaces at the same time I encourage my colleagues to demonstrate transparency in their work. That disparity is ridiculous and untenable if I’m going to do anything meaningful here or be honest with other colleagues who are considering jobs like these (here I take my cue from Miriam Posner, whose Inside Higher Ed piece, “The Jobs We Want” I found to be cathartic and anxiety-inducing1 and by Julia Flander’s piece “Time, Labor, and “Alternate Careers” in Digital Humanities Work” in Debates in the Digital Humanities, which somehow snuck up on me when I wasn’t looking.)2

These are my feelings, observations, hopes, and realizations about my position, my expectations for digital initiatives at Bucknell and for the Digital Humanities more broadly.

  • I really like it here in Lewisburg. I have a year lease on a house out in farm country; it’s beautiful and peaceful and a bit unexpected – it never occurred to me that roosters actually crow at dawn. And it is sublime to walk my dog at night and see such clear night skies that the stars appear just above the tree line. This morning it’s snowy, grey, serene. A good day for writing.
  • I enjoy working at a small liberal arts college. I appreciate the … manageability … of it, the sense of community (even if it is somewhat dysfunctional at times) that I didn’t find at larger R1-ish institutions. At the same time, my other experience at a LAC was as an undergraduate many years ago; there’s a profound difference between what you see as an eighteen year-old student and what you see as an employee.
  • I am as glad as I am uncomfortable to be in this curious space called “alt-ac.” Yesterday a colleague at another university told me I was in the vanguard of these types of positions. She’s right. There’s an almost alarming (in the sense that it’s happening so fast) line of institutions that are either in the process of or planning to put in place professionals whose mandate is to establish and manage some form of on-campus digital presence. While many of these positions continue to be postdoc in nature, there is an increasing bump in permanent contract positions.
  • At the same time that Bucknell is eager to brand its initiative “digital scholarship” (in line with many other similar endeavors) I’ve become more open about my identity as a Digital Humanist. It can be awkward – a discussion with a faculty member in Engineering revealed a surprising (to me) jealousy about a perception of privileging the Humanities over STEM in this way. I was careful as I pointed out that STEM is so very privileged now that such a jealousy might be a bit of an overreaction. I have no issue with the idea of inclusiveness, and I’ve wrestled in the past with how humanistic are the Digital Humanities anyway, and will do so again next summer at the DHSI Birds of a Feather session on “Where Are We Going and Who Is With Us?” But I’m a Digital Humanist, dammit, and I need my institution to appreciate that I can use that identity to their advantage.
  • As I’ve said to friends, I’ve been surprised to find that – on the whole – faculty are more receptive to the idea of the digital than I would have expected them to be. That receptiveness comes in many forms, from being digicurious to incredible eagerness and facility to experiment in the classroom as well as in their research; on the whole they are ready to listen and consider and engage. I had girded myself for much more resistance.
  • I have to be more patient. It is important that I remember that curiosity and readiness to engage does not necessarily equate with immediacy. Faculty have book contracts that need to be honored. Departments have to identify and allocate resources and personnel. Libraries must consider support priorities and sustainability. In my eagerness to gain traction, I have to remember to hold myself back and listen when someone says, “I need to think about this.”
  • On a related note, I have to retrain myself to think beyond the immediate. The past ten years for me have been ones of constant upheaval and anxiety. I walked away from an industry with which I’d been associated since I graduated from Lafayette. I upended my life and applied to grad school, moved to Canada, realized that a Masters program doesn’t necessarily lead to a Ph.D. program at the same institution, moved again, realized that a Ph.D. doesn’t necessarily lead to a tenure-track position, accepted a postdoc, moved again, stayed on the job market for three more years, moved again, and ended up here. For the longest time this fall I couldn’t figure out why I felt so frantic; it was only a few weeks ago that I realized this idea of permanence – even semi-permanence – is something that had been gouged out of me.
  • There is an alarming disparity between types of professional scholars that plays out on a daily basis here. Some faculty are incredibly and even hurtfully dismissive. Whether this comes from a place of arrogance or insecurity I don’t know, but I’m not sure how to absorb or deflect it. But staff colleagues can do the same thing. I live in a liminal space with which both groups seem to take issue. And since I have an unfailing ability to trip up in moments that require infinite tact, I find myself triggering more moments of tension than I should. I want to be respected and validated for what I’m trying to do. I think I just have to keep doing it and hope for some modicum of respect from some quarters. The validation is on me.
  • The patience and derisiveness I identified above play out in terms of trust. I’ve always thought of myself as a pretty trustworthy person. I’m committed and enthusiastic, I try to demonstrate by example, I talk about and believe in collaboration. But those qualities, or my self-perception of them, do not immediately equate with trustworthiness. I have to remember and remember again that I am an unknown quantity and represent something peculiar to people at an institution that prides itself on its traditional approach to education. I think that means – at least to the people in the Library & IT division for whom I work – that I need to prove myself in terms of delivering on the evolving (and often amorphous) ideas of outreach and faculty development. On the faculty side I *think* it means that I have to model and show by doing – hopefully my research and publication agenda will demonstrate that I am a fellow traveller. To everyone I need to present as the opposite of threatening. At the same time, I need to tone down my enthusiasm (as a colleague pointed out) and emphasize my professionalism and perspicacity. Somehow I have to embody gravitas.
  • I miss the classroom. I miss working with students. I need to get back to that place. I will, but I’m starting to itch for it. And honestly, I can’t keep talking about digital pedagogy if I’m not teaching in some capacity.
  • There have been moments of real satisfaction, such as this past week, when Katie Faull and Param Bedi attended the Herrenhausen Conference on Digital Humanities in Hanover, Germany. It was tremendous to get dispatches back as they (Katie in particular) figured out for themselves what these forms of engagement can do for their work, as well as for Bucknell; and how welcoming this community can be. I’d be lying, though, if I didn’t confess that I was envious of their experience and the opportunity to be a part of it. I’ve needed a dose of that community lately.
  • There have been moments of real disappointment, especially as I realize that the ways in which I negotiate the digital in my research are not really appreciated here. At least not yet. Bucknell is eager to point to its support for spatial thinking. I think spatially. But the projects and digital publications with which I am personally engaged are all in process, and that process doesn’t reveal itself immediately. It can be opaque. I don’t have a deliverable in a time when the tangible and the immediate are prized. The texts I am editing are all in mark-up land. The mapping that I do is incidental and does not fit neatly into a geo-rectified story map. My engagement with temporo-spatial concepts is oblique. It is also difficult to accept that my research projects and publication agenda must remain extracurricular to my job, even while the modeling I referred to above requires that I draw on personal experience to convince potential adherents and collaborators of the validity and importance of digital scholarship.
  • While my colleague Andy Famiglietti and I prepare to open the Digital Scholarship Center next semester, I think a lot about obsolescence: both in the sense of the long-term commitment of Bucknell to this initiative – and to me – and in the sense that Jacque Wernimont pointed to in her posting to the Humanist listserv, when she asked whether, “we need to be creating something that will last forever (or even for a long while). Is there no way that Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s notion of planned obsolescence might be helpful even when thinking about institutional structures?”3 27.343 Learning from the DHO. September 14, 2013.] Indeed. How do (should?) I anticipate my own dispensability?

All of this comes at the end of a long week in which I experienced moments of excitement and angst. I’ve questioned my value here, and had that value questioned. I was in a classroom (albeit briefly) and engaged in really heady discussions about things intellectual and professional. I came home last night deflated, only to Skype with Janelle Jenstad about the work I’m doing with her on the Map of Early Modern London project relating to my ISE edition of Henry VIII.  Janelle will be coming to Bucknell in March to talk about her research and MoEML just before we head to New York to give our paper “Mapping Toponyms in Early Modern Plays with MoEML and the ISE.” She is a wonderful and generous scholar, and I hope that by bringing her here I will be able to emphasize that nuanced, long-term engagements with digitally-reliant subject matter truly are very much in line – both pedagogically as well as in terms of research – with Bucknell’s “teacher-scholars.”

I hope by the end of the next six months some of the points of anxiety and unease will be alleviated, but I know, too, that all jobs in all industries offer moments of excitement and angst, and that if I should choose to reflect again come June, the list might well include some other tensions not yet envisioned. Until then, I need to remember to be patient, to be professionally enthusiastic, to grow a thicker skin, to be glad that I am a Digital Humanist at a time when the Digital Humanities are so truly coming into their own. And I need to remember to keep one eye on the horizon while keeping the other on what’s immediately ahead of me. Things are moving fast and will probably get faster. And that is a good thing for which I am grateful.

  1. Posner, Miriam. “The Jobs We Want.” Inside Higher Ed. December 4, 2013.
  2. Flanders, Julia. “Time, Labor, and “Alternate Careers in Digital Humanities Work.” Debates in the Digital Humanities. Matthew K. Gold, ed. University of Minnesota Press, 2012. Print Edition (online.)
  3. Humanist Listserv Subject: [Humanist

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