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How do you solve a problem like doctoral education in the humanities? (Part 2) | How do you solve a problem like doctoral education in the humanities? (Part 2) – Paige Morgan

Paige Morgan

How do you solve a problem like doctoral education in the humanities? (Part 2)

See also: Part 1.

Since writing the first part of my response, I have:

  1. participated in the “DH for Chairs and Deans” workshop at DHSI, facilitated by Ray Siemens and John Unsworth; and
  2. attended a plenary session, and follow-up discussion on the spectrum of graduate student employment at the ADE/ADFL meeting; as well as having the opportunity to talk about DMDH with attendees during an informal coffee hour.

Several people wondered why I took a course on digital humanities for administrators. Here’s why: my experience as a practitioner, building projects from scratch, is only one angle on the field. If I’m going to teach new courses and create new programs, then what I’m doing is infrastructure development. Infrastructure and logistics are the province of administrators – and thus, it’s vital that I understand their perspectives.

I’m going to be circumspect about the ADE/ADFL workshop in this post, but I came away from it hopeful, and with three specific impressions:

  • People are thinking about the challenges of time-to-degree and the job market from a number of different angles, depending on their background and experience.
  • The problems of PhD employment and graduate education are national/international, but the solutions are often highly local/regional.
  • The attendees of the ADE/ADFL are all too aware of the fact that many aspects of the reforms proposed (as well as new aspects of humanities scholarship generally) are a hard sell; and they are trying to find a way to make them an easier sell; or at least, to lessen the chances of people dismissing new ideas right from the start.

The second of these impressions is worth more discussion – but I’ll save that for future posts.

I left feeling encouraged about the dialogue that the Report was promoting, and grateful to the Task Force for the work that they put into creating it.

The first part of my response was about concerns with the Report’s framing of graduate students as learners and departments as authorities in the context of new modes of scholarship. This second part is about concerns with logistics.

The report recommends great shifts in the way that schools conceptualize graduate scholarship and career preparation – but spends little time discussing how such shifts are to be made. Even if solutions are highly local, there are several issues that will benefit from more visibility and transparent discussion. One of the most important things that I have learned from studying digital humanities is that thinking about how something will be accomplished matters a great deal. I have learned, too, that it is important to speak up early, rather than late. Maybe the Task Force is already thinking about these things: after all, they have been thinking about logistics for longer than I have.

That said, here are the aspects of the Report that most concerned me:

1)    the recommendation to “reimagine the dissertation,” potentially as a “Web-based project that gives evidence of extensive research” (14). To be fair, this isn’t the only format that the report recommends, but it is given prominence by a paragraph above it on the same page:

Some doctoral students will benefit from in-depth technological training that builds their capacity to design and develop research software. Some will require familiarity with database structures or with digitization standards to facilitate the representation and critical editing of documents and cultural artifacts online. Still others will need to add statistical literacy to their portfolios. Still others will need to understand the opportunities and implications of methods like distant reading and text mining. Programs should therefore link technology training to student research questions, supporting this training as they would language learning or archival research and partnering where appropriate outside the department to match students with relevant mentors or practicum experiences. Because all doctoral students will need to learn to compose in multimodal online platforms, to evaluate new technologies independently, and to navigate and construct digital research archives, mastery of basic digital humanities tools and techniques should be a goal of the methodological training offered by every department. (emphases mine)

There are four points I want to make about this paragraph, in conjunction with the idea of the dissertation as Web-based project:

a)      Many of the skills mentioned (database structures, digitization/metadata standards, statistical literacy) are things that could be acquired by taking courses in other departments, such as Computer Science or Informatics. However, access to such courses may require prerequisites. At the University of Washington, for example, two of the classes that humanities graduate students might want to take are CSE 373: Data Structures and Algorithms and CSE 414: Introduction to Database Systems. These classes are both intended for non-CS majors; and both require 9 credits of prerequisites (which is to say, two full courses). I took one of the two prerequisite Intro to Programming courses in 2009, and found it very useful. I didn’t take the second prereq or further courses because at the time CSE 373 and 414 didn’t exist – and I would have needed to take four prerequisite courses before enrolling in a database course. Though prerequisites may be 100-level courses, intro programming classes nearly always come with a substantial time commitment, as Tara L. Andrews describes here.

b)      Some digital projects can be built with an existing platform, like Omeka or Scalar, or with an existing programming language, like Python. Other digital projects require much more coding work up front, because the research question isn’t quite like anything that has been done before. In either case, a substantial component of project development involves choosing a platform, testing and evaluating it, and tinkering – or sometimes changing to a new platform.

Platform choice knowledge is incredibly important for anyone who is going to be competent and adaptable as a humanist working with tech, performing the sort of work described by the task force in the paragraph above. But you won’t find introductory courses in platform choice in most CS Departments, because the structure of CS degrees isn’t project-based the way that digital humanities learning has been project-focused in recent years. Even if Intro to Platform Choice were offered in CS/Informatics departments, I’m not certain that it would be a course that would work as a cross-departmental partnership course. This is simply because platform choice for us involves a number of interpretive stakes that are grounded in the humanities, and frankly, not a concern for people who don’t identify as humanities scholars.

c)      Projects – especially projects that “develop new tools and techniques” (13) — often require money and multiple collaborators. The availability of collaborators is often also a question of money. Few grants exist for graduate students to build digital projects. And while many research universities have staff support from libraries and IT departments designated for faculty (and sometimes staff), this support is usually exclusively for faculty – and explicitly not for graduate students. By support, I mean both technical knowhow, troubleshooting support, and bandwidth in university/library repositories. Theoretically, a grad student could access these resources by making their supervisor the PI for a project – but that choice is problematic in terms of IP, and the fact that the project is the student’s, rather than the supervisor.

The report advocates for “the whole university community” to be involved in graduate education, identifying “librarians, information technology staff members, museum personnel, administrators, and others who can support graduate students in familiarizing themselves with digital humanities, nonacademic career paths, and other specializations that doctorate recipients pursue” (17). This recommendation sounds wonderful – but the framing suggests that these staff members are readily available and eagerly waiting to help graduate students – when in fact, almost every staff member that I know is juggling already considerable workloads.

d)      The diss as proto-book has been a dominant research format because it fits into the professional cycle for academics. The diss becomes the scholar’s first project at their new job, and is an artifact that can usefully be built upon or turned into essays. How do the alternative forms of the dissertation fit into this cycle? What components would need to be included in any alternative dissertation project (whether digital or not) in order to make it compatible? This is an important question both for students aspiring to academic jobs, and for those considering jobs outside of academia.

These three concerns add up to a recommendation: don’t make the dissertation into a web-based project that has to reach a “finished” point for graduation. Instead, what if the goal were for students to emerge from Ph.D. programs with a dissertation, and a rough project concept and plan that would include something like the following. I say “something like” because this could be adjusted in a number of different ways. It could even be a chapter, or appendix, to a more traditional dissertation project:

  • A prospectus identifying the project scope, stakes, potential audiences, copyright specifications, and stages of development. Essentially, this is information that might be further revised for future grant applications.
  • One or more tiny test versions of the project in different platforms
  • One or more curated small data sets to develop in the future.

These materials would be fuel for a future project, i.e. a second project after the dissertationàbook. (I am reliably informed that search committees like to hear that potential new hires have second projects). Or else, they would be fuel for a future project, if the candidate is aiming to work in an environment with a different professional cycle. Admittedly, I seem to be proposing that candidates do more work in addition to the dissertation, which may seem like a strange suggestion when time-to-degree is such a concern. But I am unconvinced that the Ph.D., as reimagined by the Report, could be completed in 5 years without an almost miraculously well-planned degree program (or a degree program at one of the universities with already well-established courses). What I am trying to imagine is an intermediate step that would be achievable for universities without existing DH faculty and courses.

This approach – developing a skeletal project — would have several advantages. It would start preparation for future grant applications (a skill that many academics have to develop whether or not they are digital humanists.) It would be conducive to creating classes or seminars focusing on topics like audience research and cultivation, grant and funding sources, copyright issues, etc., publicity – all of which are larger than any single project. Several of these topics might be combined into one or two departmental seminars, and because they transcend individual projects, such seminars could support cohort development.

I think this is especially important because having a cohort to learn with when you’re acquiring new knowledge can make a huge difference. But some types of new knowledge (i.e., thinking about audiences, copyright, publicity) encourage knowledge sharing and cohort development. Other types of new knowledge (i.e., plenty of coding/programming) encourage you to sit alone in your office testing and retesting, and maybe tearing your hair out as you go, talking with as few people as possible until you get the code right, so that your entire evening won’t have been a waste of time. I’m being flip – but: coding knowledge is often less applicable when shared (unless people happen to be working on similar projects in similar environments) – so it’s not necessarily as good at creating cohort relationships. Many aspects of the intellectual work that the Report describes would benefit from strong cohorts, and students could begin learning about this work while putting together a skeletal project just as well as if they were trying to put together a finished one.

What I’m proposing is an adjustment to the Report that would emphasize and value the experiential learning that goes into project development – not just the project itself, and its completion. I’m suggesting this because the experiential learning is more important – and probably more durable – than any project itself. Focusing on the learning by making the goal a rough/skeletal project would encourage experimentation and allow students to make mistakes – both of which are inescapable aspects of web-based project development. Too much emphasis on finishing encourages shoving mistakes out of the way in the desperate dash towards something that works.

I have another reason for suggesting that graduate students would benefit from having a skeletal project, rather than a finished one, and it involves infrastructure and logistics. The environment in which a project is built – the infrastructure that it is built on – are central to the project itself. (This is familiar territory for people who work in book history or textual studies.) The more finished a project is, the more it’s tied to certain infrastructure requirements. The less finished it is, the more flexible and adaptable it can be. In many ways, what might be most valuable to a future employer would be a skeletal project, ready to be locally customized, and a creator who has developed enough adaptability knowledge/skills to be able to advance the project in its new environment.

As with so many aspects of this report, there is more that I could say — but it makes more sense to me to discuss this further in future posts.

2)    The other recommendation concerned me is that “when departments redesign programs, we urge them to consider … the possible forms of non-course-based activities designed to expand the repertoire of student competencies, literacies, and experiences” (13)

I am one of the founders of a non-course-based activity (the Demystifying Digital Humanities workshop series, http://www.dmdh.org), which was designed specifically to expand graduate students’ literacies and competencies. Many people have been very positive about DMDH – so much so that more than once, someone has said something like “But we don’t need classes if we have your workshops: couldn’t you just expand and have more graduate students attending and teaching?” The people who say things like this mean well, and I feel a bit reluctant to highlight their comments as problematic. I wouldn’t if I didn’t think it were absolutely necessary; and I understand that their suggestion is itself a measure of their confidence in our curriculum. However, the DMDH workshops are a stopgap measure to encourage independent learning; not a full program. When Sarah and I created them, we knew how easy it would be to lose people who felt overwhelmed, so we took drastic measures: namely, we committed to no homework, so that our participants would be less likely to think “Oh, I haven’t done the reading, I shouldn’t go.” (I’ve written a bit about those drastic measures here, in a talk I gave on digital humanities microclimates at RMMLA 2013). We have good attendance – but that’s in part due to a carefully run publicity campaign consisting of the briefest reminders possible in order to not add any more weight to the burden of exhaustion that most graduate students are carrying around with them.

My point: departments need to be extremely careful about their use of (and dependence on) non-course-based activities for the development of new literacies and competencies. There’s more that’s worth discussing about the Report’s perspective on this – specifically, I’m thinking about the assertion that “teaching opportunities should be conceptualized above all in terms of the needs of graduate students’ learning” (16). I quite agree with the spirit of the recommendation, but wonder how it intersects with the undergraduate curriculum, since undergrads are the primary audience for grad students teaching. Can we think about ways that graduate students might teach each other – or teach faculty – for credit, that is, without simply stacking on non-course-based activities?


I hope that the points above make it clear why I said originally that I found the Report “both great and problematic.” I stand by that assessment, though I am becoming more optimistic about much of the dialogue that is currently taking place. None of the discussions that I am reading in various places would be occurring if the Report did not exist; and that is to the great credit of the Task Force. As I think about what they have said, I continue to learn, as I have now for several years. My concerns are less about the ideas of the report, than about how they can best be implemented.

Here is my final question. What steps will the MLA take next in order to support these recommendations, and help Ph.D. programs implement them?

I am of course aware of the various guidelines that have been created – for Evaluating Work in Digital Humanities and Digital Media, and for Institutional Support of and Access to IT for Faculty Members and Students. I appreciate those guidelines – and yet, I remember very clearly how opaque they were to me as a fairly new digital humanist, even 3-4 years back – so I wonder how they read to other academics who are new to digital humanities. I think that alone, the guidelines are far from sufficient to help departments make the transitions that have been proposed. Making such transitions will involve careful thinking about scaling up, and making incremental changes that support further adjustments.

Having finished my Ph.D., and developed two digital projects on the side, I feel like I know a fair amount about this type of thinking – and the more I’ve learned, the more I’ve been able to learn. But here’s the catch: that learning has come through very different activities than the traditional learning/research that went into my dissertation. Some of it has come from events like DHSI at UVic, and DHOXSS at Oxford. An immense amount of it has occurred through spending time on social media, most notably, Twitter, following and participating in various conversations. Sometimes these conversations led to external links, including blog posts and peer-reviewed articles – but other times, the discussions were solely Twitter-based. Learning to contribute to them was an adjustment in itself.

My awareness about the process and mechanisms through which I have learned lead me to argue that becoming a practitioner of digital humanities – or becoming a program which trains students to become practitioners – is not about deciding that it is the right thing to do, or that it will better prepare students for the job market. Instead, doing digital humanities is about having access. Not just access to tools, not just access to guidelines for evaluation, not even just access to Twitter, or to MLA Commons. What is needed is access to perspectives and guidance that help students and faculty make strategic choices (often small, but significant) about how to invest their time and energy.

The body of digital humanities scholarship, considerable as it is, doesn’t always help much with this accessibility issue. Intensive events like DHSI can be tremendously important – but you can no more learn your way around this particular accessibility issue from one week at DHSI than you can learn to program in a week.

In the first part of this response, I emphasized the importance of open dialogue between departments and graduate students – and the importance of departments listening to graduate students. That’s still true. But equally true is the emphasis that the Report puts on good mentorship from faculty and departments. High-quality mentorship is absolutely dependent on the MLA (and its members) finding ways to improve the access issue. Otherwise, as fraught as graduate education in the humanities seems now, I fear that it will only become more so. And the population that is most likely to feel the impact of any associated chaos (and whose degrees are at stake) are the graduate students. (Although, as I noted previously, it seems to me that the suggestions put faculty in a position of feeling vulnerable as well).

That last paragraph is a rather somber note to end on, so instead, let me close with a more hopeful thought. Access can feel like an incredibly difficult challenge to deal with. Sometimes it is – the difficulties aren’t just felt; they’re real. However, problems of access are often partially or wholly solvable, once they are directly confronted. The biggest stumbling block is sometimes hesitation to confront the problem, or a mistaken conclusion that nothing can be done. Finally: the sensitivity to access, and willingness to think about infrastructure and logistics is not external to the academy: it is intrinsic to the business of maintaining college and university departments as successful learning environments. The agility and adaptability that the Task Force sees as vital to the humanities Ph.D. degree are qualities that are not just valuable to the “alt-ac” track, but to departments themselves – and so I echo the authors of this response to the Report in their call for alt-ac integration, and an expanded vision of intellectual labor in the humanities.


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