There was a point in my digital humanities learning development when I knew that I wanted a DH job, and was trying to sort out what I could do to make getting one more likely. I wasn’t sure whether I could compete with students coming from more established DH programs, working closely with leading DH scholars — or at least, I couldn’t somehow magically give myself quite the same sort of training I was seeing elsewhere. I did think about what it would take to really go toe-to-toe, and I thought I might somehow manage it — but I also thought it might make me exhausted and miserable and ill; and I was cynical enough to doubt whether search committees would look twice at me anyways. Becoming knowledgeable about infrastructure was my workaround; a wager that studying the conditions, questions, desires, strategies, and anxieties related to DH program development and infrastructure at the University of Washington would help me be successful on the job market. It was a gamble. More than once, people asked me whether I wouldn’t be better off if I just focused on finishing the dissertation. More than once, I worried about whether I would be able to secure funding for another full year, funding that would allow me to keep working on the diss, but also allow me to do what I thought of as a self-designed internship in institutions and infrastructure.
What I discovered was that working with infrastructure was exactly what I wanted to do: looking at systems and how people reacted to and moved through them, adjusting the systems so that they would work better for the people involved, building new parts, or transforming existing parts into something different. I still struggle — I’m still learning — to articulate what it feels like to work with infrastructure, and why I like it so much. I like that there are constraints (which vary with context); I like that there are people, whose emotional energy is affected by the constraints (and can also shape constraints). I like that there are additional variables (some historical, others wild cards); and all of these have to be balanced and played against each other. To me, working with infrastructure feels very much like working with music (which I did intensely as a child and teenager).
Still, a year ago I couldn’t have written that last paragraph, because I was still growing into my chosen skill set. My CLIR postdoc was my sixth year of doing digital humanities, but it was the first time I’d gotten to do DH full-time, rather than on top of dissertating and teaching, and it was still a test of what officially working with infrastructure (and infrastructure challenges) would feel like. One moment of the fellowship stands out in my memory. In December, I was preparing to team-teach an undergraduate DH course with my colleagues from the Sherman Centre, and I was worried that some aspects of it were under-planned — but I seemed to be the only one who was concerned, so I didn’t push it. As it turns out, I should have been more vocal. The course ended up being fine; it just had the chaos that first iterations often do (perhaps especially when multiple instructors are involved). It was in that failure to speak, and realization that I should have spoken more forcefully, that I mark as the transition from being a grad student doing DH in a contingent position, to something else.
I’m not sure that the transition matters for anyone but me. (I would be the last person to suggest that graduate students’ efforts are somehow less genuinely DH just because they haven’t yet completed their dissertations). To me, though, it felt like the difference between a dress rehearsal and an official performance. As ephemeral as that distinction is, it mattered to me.
I applied for three positions in 2015. One job I didn’t get, and I’ve never been so happy to have not gotten a job, because the person who got it became a fast friend, and I’m not sure how we would have met otherwise. The second job I didn’t get resulted in a conversation with someone whose work has shaped mine in important ways, and having that conversation was useful and exciting. The third job I applied for is the one I just finished my first month of, as the Digital Humanities Librarian at the University of Miami, and every day of work has felt like a validation of the previous six years’ choices and risks.
As lovely as the fulfillment feels, I’m also aware of things that I haven’t figured out yet — most of all, how to write about what I do, and where that writing ought to go. I’m all too aware of not publishing DH-focused articles in journals or books. Often that’s because the work I do feels fairly personal and sensitive: I work with people, and we work together, but it doesn’t feel right to treat them as case studies or subjects. And on a related note, whenever I’m working with people, I’m also working with institutions (sometimes an institution is a whole school; other times it’s a department, or a college, or a combination of the three), and I’m usually working on figuring out the systems that are in place, how they run smoothly or roughly, and how I can work with them. Often I’m trying to change something about them, or about how people navigate them; and even when I’m making tiny changes, calling attention to them is often the very last thing I want to do. Much of the time, increased attention hinders more than it helps.
That said, I can’t hide entirely behind those reasons for not writing, because I freely admit that I’m uncomfortable as an academic writer. Mainly this is lingering guilt at how long it took me to figure out the genre of the dissertation and write it. I got through, and I learned something, but the lesson still feels more awkward than cathartic. Last spring, I read some articles in journals related to my dissertation research, and what jumped out at me was how small and precise the arguments were, and how much they contrasted with my dissertation chapters, which were like bursting suitcases in comparison. For the first time, I started to be able to think about what smaller and more precise versions of my own arguments might look like, instead of feeling like I always needed to fit more in to be good enough.
In 2016, my goal is to build on that epiphany, both in regards to writing about DH and infrastructure and eighteenth century poetry. My watchword for the year is “revision.” It has direct relevance to writing, but I’m also thinking of it as “re-vision.” Forgive me the cheesiness of it (or don’t — I don’t care!) — but having had the lucky fortune of plans and gambits succeeding, I have a lot of discovering to do about my current environment, and what I might work towards in the future.
This was a watershed year; those don’t happen often. Besides working hard, I was supported by friends and mentors in numerous ways. In having plans pay off, I learned to listen to and trust my instincts* (a significant thing in a world where women are encouraged to second-guess themselves or look to men for guidance.) I don’t know what the future will bring, and a lot of things about it frighten me — but I’m glad to have made it this far.
* This does not mean that trusting my instincts will always lead to success, as I’m well aware.