No plan b for the humanities?

This is a video I recently stumbled across on the site xtranormal, a site that allows people to create their own animated videos. The video expresses concerns about the future of the humanities and graduate training in the humanities. Do you share any of these concerns? What do you think about the general message?

Video, “There will be no Plan B for the humanities.”

(“Plan B” refers to so-called ALT-AC, or alternative academic careers. This topic was most recently addressed by American Historical Association president Anthony Grafton and Jim Grossman in “No More Plan B: A Very Modest Proposal for Graduate Programs in History.”)

Information infrastructures and future directions in digital scholarship

Any attempt to understand the impact of digital technologies and the digital medium must take into consideration the underlying processes that support, regulate, and structure computers and the Internet. Human interaction with technology is more than a simple reciprocal exchange between technology and the human mind; it is an interaction between the user and a series of systematic actions undertaken by the technology per the guidelines set forth by an array of programmers, developers, corporations, and governments. These guidelines, which form the layers of the informational infrastructure of the Internet, are the result of a desire for access to certain kinds of content and the business models that evolved in an attempt to control access to content. Every technology possesses a history, and the most recent studies of digital technology and the Internet increasingly acknowledge that the history of computers and the Internet constitute a vital component in understanding not only the impact of these technologies, but the long-term implications of them as well. In Tim Wu’s The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires, Jonathan Zittrain’s The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It, and John Palfrey and Urs Gasser’s Born Digital: Understanding the First Generation of Digital Natives each author approaches their subject with a keen awareness of the ways a historical examination of computers and the Internet can inform understanding of the processes and structures that frame human interaction with technology and the digital medium. This awareness brings a complexity and thoroughness to their analyses that many previous studies of the impact of technology lack.

Of all the authors, Wu is the most historically-oriented. In the book’s introduction he writes that he disagrees with technoutopian visions of the future as well as the “insistence that we are living in unprecedented times.” Instead, he asserts, “the place we find ourselves now is a place we have been before, albeit in different guise” (Wu, 14). He states that one of the goals of his work is to provide an account of the development of technologies in times past so that the future can be made better. This is particularly important, he argues, given the increasing significance of information in society, the role of the Internet in purveying information, and increasing societal reliance upon the Internet for access to information. Wu focuses on the relationship between content, content providers (especially as they relate to issues of access), and informational infrastructures. He examines this relationship via historical trends in the emergence and development of a variety of technologies, including radio, telephone, film, television, and the Internet. His thesis consists of two parts: first, that certain patterns exist within the development technologies and that these patterns offer useful insight into the future of the Internet and, second, that whatever the future of the Internet and information may be it depends “far less on our abstract values than on the structure of the communications and culture industries” (Wu, 13).

Wu utilizes a concept he calls the Cycle as a framework for understanding the development and structuring of technology over time. It is highly derivative of Joseph Schumpeter’s theory of creative destruction, which holds that innovation and economic growth reinforce one another and therefore the destruction of stagnant ideas is necessary for economic vitality. Wu only credits Schumpeter with “inspiring” the Cycle, arguing that Schumpeter’s theory does “not account for the power of law or the government to stave off industrial death” (Wu, 28). This is a key point for Wu and one of the more valuable aspects of his work. His history of twentieth century technologies reveals that the involvement of corporations and governments has been crucial to both the shaping and the success of radio, telephone, film, television, and the Internet. At the same time, however, corporations and governments have also restricted the development of technology, typically as a means of minimizing their economic risk and establishing control and dominance over the ways the public accesses and utilizes technologies. Wu provides many examples of this practice, but his explication of AOL Time Warner’s efforts to dominate the Internet offers a lesson digital humanists should bear in mind when creating for the Web.

As Wu explains, Time Warner attempted to build and purchase the means to control content and access to content on the Internet. Time Warner and other cable companies recognized the importance of the Internet as source of content and worked to buy up Internet companies so that they could also control the distribution of content. Time Warner united with AOL, which had already positioned itself as an Internet Service Provider and creator of content. But AOL expected its users not only to access the Internet via AOL but also to access only the content on the Internet AOL made available to them via its “walled garden,” a closed digital environment controlled and managed by AOL. AOL Time Warner’s attempt at vertical integration eventually failed because it utilized a business strategy that ignored the nature of the Web. The essential structure of the Web is open; therefore AOL Time Warner’s assumption that its users would be satisfied with access to only part of the Internet was both misguided and short-sighted. Companies such as Google have since created quite successful horizontal structures in keeping with the openness of the Web. The methods of the digital humanist must likewise be as horizontal and open as possible if digital scholarship is to garner recognition and be sustainable.

Zittrain’s work builds upon Wu’s emphasis on the significance of informational infrastructures and processes in influencing human interaction with the Internet. Zittrain focuses on a concept very similar to Schumpeter’s theory of creative destruction: “generativity.” Generativity, Zittrain explains, refers to a system that enables users to create new content without relying upon assistance or input from the original creators of the system. Interaction with technology, in this sense, takes place on a two-way basis: users are free to both interact with content and create content without the intervention of the original creators of the technology. Zittrain asserts that generativity is the key to innovation and creativity on the Internet, and he worries that generativity may disappear in favor of minimized maintenance requirements for the personal computer and increased online security. Zittrain agrees that undesirable and criminal exploitation of the Internet’s flexibility and openness must be stemmed, particularly if generativity is to be preserved. He believes sentimentality about the Internet’s “intentional inaction…may be self-defeating:”users will continue to demand greater protections online and reduced maintenance requirements, therefore discussions about the future of the Internet and personal computers should focus on ways to meet these demands while simultaneously preserving and promoting as much openness and generativity as possible. Zittrain offers several suggestions for ways to solve this “generative dilemma” (Zittrain, 165; 36).

Zittrain rejects Internet appliances such as Kindles and gaming devices, as well as hosted environments such as Facebook and Google Maps, as too restrictive. One cannot program a Kindle, for instance, and the use of hosted environments such as Google Maps is bound by terms of service that the hosts can change at any given moment. Zittrain likewise rejects the idea that the Internet should contain a combination of closed and open appliances and services, as he believes this will lead to the restriction of generativity to a much smaller segment of the population (namely to professional developers). He argues: “We ought to see the possibilities and benefits of PC generativity made available to everyone, including the millions of people who give no thought to future uses when they obtain PCs, and end up delighted at the new uses to which they can put their machines” (Zittrain, 165). The more people with access to machines and services they can manipulate, experiment, and create with, the more innovation and diversity of innovation that will result. Zittrain cites two projects he is involved with, herdict and, as examples of ways to combine a measure of regulation with popular online action to simultaneously promote greater online security and openness. Digital humanists must also consider security if their work is to be sustainable, and much can be achieved to this end through collaboration with individuals in the technical know, but Zittrain’s arguments regarding generativity hold the greatest value for the Digital Humanities. Digital scholarship that is created transparently and is interactive in nature is more likely to spur just the sort of innovation and experimentation that can support a healthy online environment while also encouraging greater engagement between scholars and the public. Palfrey and Gasser offer some observations on human interaction with technology that can similarly aid the efforts of digital humanists.

Palfrey and Gasser examine the habits of so-called “digital natives” in an attempt to determine how digital technologies and the Internet are changing human notions and standards of privacy, collaboration, and the consumption of information. They define digital natives only as persons born after 1980. Palfrey and Gasser’s failure to offer any qualifications in terms of the varying levels of access to and usage of digital technologies and the Internet constitutes a serious flaw in their conception of digital natives, yet their observations contain some value. Employing a tone that is often cautionary, Palfrey and Gasser not only assert that humans possess the ability to adapt to technology but also that adaptation is a positive rather than a negative response. They point to the jarring transformations that accompanied industrialization and urbanization as an example of a time when adaptation aided people’s abilities to cope with an emergent social order. This provides some useful historical context for their arguments. But the majority of their discussion is general in nature; each of the topics is examined in broad terms and far more observations are made than arguments.

Palfrey and Gasser raise the typical questions about younger generations’ more open definition of privacy, greater willingness to provide personal information without consideration of the long-term consequences, resistance to control of their online experiences, exposure to ever larger quantities of information, tendencies to view information and knowledge as equivalent, and inclination to skim and multi-task rather than concentrate on deep immersion on a single task or subject. Much of this contains nothing new or particularly groundbreaking. But the authors also acknowledge the emergence of large collaborative movements to create and share on a scale not seen in the offline environment. Digital technologies and the Internet promote creation, collaboration, and sharing in ways that engage the interests and talents of a wide variety of users. If digital scholarship is created in such a way that it takes advantage of the essential structure of the Web and the benefits of horizontal, open-source programs, coding, and platforms, it may be possible to build a form of scholarship that is not only interactive and sustainable but inspiring as well.

*This essay was written in the haze of finals week for a seminar with Professor Will Thomas, HIST 946: Interdisciplinary Readings in the Digital Humanities. The syllabus for this course can be found here.

“Careers in History in the 21st Century: The Job Market and the State of the Field,” UNL History Department Workshop Notes

Below are my notes from a workshop I attended yesterday afternoon. In addition to gaining some valuable insight into the current job market and the application process, I was very pleased to hear our department express its enthusiastic support for both academic and non-academic career paths for history graduate students. This is something the UNL History Graduate Students’ Association, of which I am currently serving as president, has recently been working to encourage greater faculty discussion of. Our department chair, Professor Will Thomas, offered an overview of recent research into the production and job placement of history PhDs over time and discussed the many ways individual history graduate students can work to maximize their job opportunities. I have included links to some items on the handout Dr. Thomas provided.

Department Workshop, “Careers in History in the 21st Century: The Job Market and the State of the Field”


Upcoming department workshops:

  • January 20th – “Using the New Blackboard to Teach”
  • March 30th – research forum with Dr. Jessica Coope
  • April 27th – “Teaching Online”

Dr. Tom Smith, “Numbers and All That”

  • finished at UNL in 2006, on the job market for 5 years while working in the field in a host of different positions, now has a tenure-track job at Chadron State College
  • 165 and then 80 applicants for a single position at Chadron State College on two occasions
    • need ways to distinguish oneself from other applicants
  • asks what the students think of the UNL HIST 990 course on pedagogy, Special Problems of Teaching History
    • can point to this in applications → say something specific about your pedagogy to show you have studied it, are aware of the literature, and are making use of it in your teaching – useful even when applying for research one universities
  • “Your Field and Change” – stay aware of where your field is and where it’s going
    • keep your eye on job ads and descriptions throughout your academic career (H-NET)
    • so many applicants do not write to the job ad
    • even after your professional training is finished, you will need to keep up on the latest trends and adapt to them (e.g. Atlantic history → transnational history → transnational history with attention to the Pacific in particular)
    • invest yourself in secondary fields → e.g. Digital History, Public History
    • Dr. Smith emphasizes that he believes transnationalism is “here to stay” BUT warns applicants not to appear “too trendy” → be certain to emphasize that you are well-rooted in traditional history training and methodology
  • “Cutting Edge” or “Get ‘Er Done” – get your research done → need to have cutting-edge research to get published but might also have something “more manageable” that you can get into print before finishing your dissertation – 2 or 3 items at a time
    • cutting-edge project to be emphasized in in-depth conversations with interviewers
  • “The Good Fit” – a code phrase for whether or not you are a personality match for the department you are applying to
    • a judgment not just based on research and teaching but how much people believe they can get along with you → so be pleasant and know something about the department you are applying to – try to get a feel for the culture ahead of time
  • Dr. Smith thanks his advisors – Dr. Timothy Mahoney and Dr. James Le Sueur – for supporting him throughout his entire application process – writing many, many letters of support and also states that he is very proud of his graduate education here at UNL

Dr. Will Thomas

  • has handouts for us with articles to read
  • segue to job market “largely construed” – says we need to start talking and thinking about a variety of job options for academics
    • discusses Anthony Grafton’s piece “No More Plan B” – breadth of what graduate training provides and what jobs grad students can get outside the Academy
      • plan = successful careers, not about “plan A” and/or “plan b” → asks how we can get to helping you get a successful career (your advisor central to this)
  • Dr. Thomas states that, when he was in grad school, he did not immediately think he would go into the Academy → had been teaching and planned to go back to teaching
    • in his program, non-academic careers not discussed (thinks this needs to change) BUT he had a very supportive advisor
    • we need to train broadly and be a department that is willing to think about the non-academic (ALT-AC) department more broadly – “hybrid careers”
  • centrality of advising
  • thinks History is well-positioned and perhaps better-positioned in terms of other humanities departments in enabling students to gain skills that can translate into many different areas (AND that this is an extraordinarily positive thing)
  • gives us the handout
  • starts with Robert Townsend’s piece, “NRC Report Provides Data on History Doctoral Programs” and Anthony Grafton and Jim Grossman’s “No More Plan B: A Very Modest Proposal for Graduate Programs in History”
    • serious decline in jobs advertised (see figure 1 of Townsend’s piece) – about have as many jobs advertised within the past several years
    • BUT over last 20 years, the number of full-time faculty has risen in the 604 registered academic institutions → Townsend believes this is because “history is popular, history is something that institutions value, across a wide range of institutions”
    • need to pay attention to these trends AND discuss how to distinguish ourselves in the broader job market
  • NRC (National Research Council) reports on PhD production within the U.S.
    • NRC rankings have a lot to do with internal funding arrangements, impact departments
    • in the field of history, about 126 PhD granting institutions → these are ranked by the NRC – most recent report published 6 months ago: UNL “not really that high” but “at the very top of the fourth quartile” which is “not a bad place to be” when looking for jobs → 4th quartile producing best job placement figures for their PhDs
      • UNL wants to move up but our institution in particular works hard at placement of its PhDs – though points out that this NRC report only counts academic jobs
    • started the conversation, especially at the AHA, about what certain institutions are doing for their PhDs
    • (1) prepare for hybrid careers, different career trajectories, (2) advisor-advisee relationship needs to be “intentional” on both sides and long-lasting, (3) internships – need to demonstrate your “self-sufficiency” as an applicant (motivated to work to improve your c.v.), (4) more proactive about researching the current job market
    • anticipates a lot of discussion on this topic at the AHA in Chicago

Q & A session:

  • Robert Jordan asks about criteria in application that helps make one person make it from “one pile [of applications] to another”
    • Dr. Thomas answers that there are different “cut off points” and different stages at which one is eliminated; one of the first stages is whether your letter and c.v. fits with the job ad; second stage has a lot to do with how you express yourself and your research in your writing and how your advisors support you (in their writing and representative of your field)
    • Dr. Tim Mahoney agrees very much with Dr. Thomas on the point of one’s research and ability and method of articulating one’s research that is the focus; states that grades/transcripts are not really the focus at this level AND the teaching statement; if your advisor writes at length about your research – is invested in your research – this is impressive to those evaluating your application (urge your professor to take the time to print out a separate letter to the chair of the evaluating committee)
    • Dr. Jim Le Sueur notes that truly need to pay attention to the job description – crucial to determining which individual will fit the best; also something to be said for investigating the institution one is applying for (be as specific and tailored as possible in your application); states that he worked with Dr. Smith to tailor the discussion of Dr. Smith’s research in the reference letters); MUST have an advisor you trust to do what you need to do – MUST be on the same page (or switch advisors or think about a non-academic job)
    • Dr. Jeannette Jones states that, to her, the cover letter is particularly important in an application – don’t try to make your work fit if it clearly doesn’t → this is pretty obvious; spend time on the ones where you know your work fits
  • Megan Benson asks for a discussion of community college jobs
    • Dr. Thomas cites Dr. Kurt Kinbacher as a great example of a recent grad to obtain a job at a community college → community colleges as “vibrant,” great places; (1) Kinbacher’s dissertation stood out – did not “play it safe” on his dissertation, has one of the single highest downloaded dissertations on Digital Commons → received a lot of attention for this; (2) non-tenure track teaching “less damaging” to one’s application than adjunct teaching, when one is seeking a tenure-track position; Kinbacher was employed on Dr. Thomas’ Railroads and the Making of Modern America digital project and other unique positions that made him stand out
  • Chris Rasmussen asks about the “damage done” by working as an adjunct
    • Dr. Thomas states that he hesitates to use this phrase, though will speak to it since Grafton does in his piece; Mellon Foundation promoting research fellowships – cites this as an example of something that can be useful for your application in the “intersticial period”
      • not advancing a research agenda if teach an adjunct course here and there and your research is central to the strength of your application
    • Dr. Mahoney recalls UNL having three-year adjunct positions and his own experience working while seeking a tenure-track job BUT was also working to establish connections, a network that could generate a group of individuals who could speak on his behalf about his contributions to their institutions; advises people to always attend workshops when one has the opportunity and keep pushing ahead with the research, even if you are only able to do it by burning the midnight oil after a full day of teaching
    • Dr. Le Sueur also emphasizes the importance of continuing to publish
  • Megan Benson asks what to do about having an advisor who supports your research but not necessarily your personal decisions about job applications
    • Dr. Smith defers on the topic, as he states that he has no personal experience with this
    • Dr. Thomas notes the importance of having other advocates on your side; role of advisor absolutely crucial – returns to the point of needing to have that trust in one’s advisor and if the trust is not there, may want to rethink that connection → it’s your career, you are not being “acted upon,” you have choices here
    • Dr. Le Sueur states that when he was job-hunting, one of his advisors did not have the expertise he thought they needed to represent him on the job market so Dr. Le Sueur sent his dissertation out to a leader in the field, making a connection that was very valuable to him in his applications
      • Andrea Nichols asks about how a letter from outside your institution of study would look when your application is being evaluated
        • Dr. Jeannette Jones says it depends on where one is within their career → directly out of school, of course you need to have letters from your institution; different when 2 or more years outside of your program of study – someone you met at a conference and is familiar with your work, sees this as perfectly okay
        • Dr. Thomas concurs with Dr. Jones on this point
  • I ask about various ways to demonstrate one’s “self-sufficiency” as an applicant
    • Dr. Thomas notes that this varies a lot from one institution to another and one field to another; cites example of Digital Humanities – looking for experience and contribution to the field as a graduate student; more and more places engaging with portfolio representation of work – example of demonstrating self-sufficiency with regard to DH: listing one’s technical sufficiency and expertise on one’s c.v. (Jason Heppler’s c.v. As an example); skills acquired over time, where those skills are certified, showing that you are doing some work on your own outside your graduate training
    • Dr. James Garza highlights the importance of networking – need to take your job as a graduate student seriously, be proactiv, look for opportunities your advisor may not know about
    • Dr. Thomas picks up on Dr. Garza’s point about networking – check out and talk with others at archives when you are researching, find out what they are working on
    • Dr. Garza: if going to a conference that your advisor will be at, ask for introductions to people within your field; notes that his advisor and he are very close to this day – continues to work with his advisor on things; also be aware of what other schools you are competing against → What other institutions are producing scholars in your field?
    • Dr. Thomas returns to Grafton’s point about the breadth within the market and ivy league institutions contributing barely 15% of teaching positions (not quite the “stranglehold” that it once was, though ivy league institutions remain quite hierarchical in their hiring – hire mostly other ivy leaguers)
  • Dr. Jones asks about students pursuing pre-doctoral fellowships in terms of applicants
    • Dr. Mahoney states that anyone who shows initiative and interest in being where scholars are is “a plus” – Dr. Thomas agrees (e.g. ACLS fellowships very significant) – think about positioning oneself for things such as this as they are very valuable and distinguish one
    • Dr. Jones says start applying for these when your dissertation proposal has been approved and is underway → helps you hone your work in a way writing alone cannot
    • Dr. Thomas notes that in the search the department is currently conducting, the top 25 applicants all have had at least one full year fellowship → prestigious mark as a scholar
    • Dr. Le Sueur adds that every one of the final candidates for the German position last year was in a fellowship when being interviewed for the position

Links to handout items:

A good archivist goes a long way

And so do reasonable archive policies. After the Thanksgiving holiday, I took a trip down to the small town of Pittsburg, Kansas to conduct some research for my dissertation at the Leonard H. Axe Library. Of particular interest to me was the library’s Special Collections Department‘s holdings on Julius Wayland. Julius Augustus Wayland (1854-1912) was a renowned socialist in his day. He was the founding editor of the newspapers The Coming Nation and Appeal to Reason and also helped found the Ruskin Co-operative Association, a utopian colony in Tennessee. If you recognize Wayland’s name at all I imagine it’s in association with Appeal to Reason, as this was the paper that hired Upton Sinclair to do an investigative piece on the meatpacking industry in Chicago. Sinclair, of course, later became famous for penning a novel based upon his work–The Jungle.

Wayland committed suicide in 1912, but he lived a life that is representative of the experiences of many 19th century radical reformers. He was inspired by the major works of Laurence Gronlund and Edward Bellamy, who both advocated a “softened” form of socialism that emphasized brotherly cooperation over class division and conflict as the solution to the ills of a society experiencing jarring transformations. This “softened” socialism, often termed Christian socialism due to its adherents’ rejection of atheism and reliance on Christian rhetoric to promote their beliefs, appealed to many 19th century American social reformers. Christian socialism was not only much more palatable given the negative popular associations attached to socialism; it was also viewed by adherents as a means to make society more just, return Christianity to its “proper” place in society, and redirect the United States to its “true” path.

I could babble on about all of this for quite some time–it IS my passion after all–but my primary purpose in writing this post is actually to discuss how grateful I am that the institution I visited had such a capable and helpful archivist (Mr. Randy Roberts) AND some very reasonable policies with regard to their materials. It is one thing to locate an institution with the materials one needs for their research and quite another to arrange a visit, actually find all the materials one needs, be able to examine all the materials thoroughly, and be certain one has not overlooked anything. Research funding is crucial. All scholars know that without funding, one is extremely limited in the scholarship she or he is able to produce (and hence the jobs she or he is eligible to obtain). I was fortunate enough to secure some funding for my trip and naturally wanted to make the most of it. I was able to do so (1) because Mr. Roberts was kind enough to sort through and pull materials he believed would be of interest to me and (2) because the library has a liberal policy regarding the use of digital cameras in its archives.

Experience has taught me that it is always a good idea to communicate with a librarian or archivist at the institution one intends to visit well in advance of the actual trip. At large, busy institutions sometimes the best one can do is e-mail or speak with an intern, assistant, or student worker, but whenever possible one should attempt to make contact with an experienced archivist or librarian. When I visited the Newberry Library in Chicago, for example, I was able to gain the contact information of a leading archivist through a mentor. This turned out to be critical to the success of my trip, as the materials I wanted to examine were completely uncatalogued and required the inside knowledge of an archivist to locate. For my visit to Pittsburg State’s Leonard H. Axe Library, I communicated with Mr. Roberts several times in the months leading up to my visit and when I arrived he had most of what I needed waiting on a cart for me to review. Most institutions–particularly the smaller ones–appreciate any enthusiasm about their collections. Treating Mr. Roberts with a great deal of respect and constantly expressing my gratitude for assistance certainly didn’t hurt either. Enthusiasm, humility, and professionalism can go a long way in aiding the budding scholar in her or his research.

I was also very pleased (and relieved) that the Leonard H. Axe Library permitted the use of both laptops and digital cameras in its Special Collections Department. Both were instrumental in enabling me to sift through all of the materials I needed in the time–and with the money–I had available. Many archival institutions still forbid the use of cameras, fearing either damage to their materials or that allowing visitors to photograph their holdings will lead to wholesale “bootlegging” of the past. I suppose both these fears are not entirely unfounded. There are certainly materials that ought not be handled or imaged in the original, save by trained professionals, and there are probably some dishonest researchers out there who would be unscrupulous in their use of imaged materials. Think of the stories of archive visitors tearing relevant pages out of books to take them home or making notes in the margins of centuries old tomes. I am nonetheless suspicious of the claim that allowing researchers to bring their digital cameras into the archive will spell the end of archives as we know them. Will some abuse the images they were allowed to capture? Yes, certainly, but these individuals will likely be made to answer at some point and find not only their professionalism but also their trustworthiness as a scholar in question. Does this mean all researchers are to be relegated to the status of would-be thieves and that scholars in training are to be limited to only those items they can read and take notes on in the time they are seated in the archive, pencil and paper in hand? Surely not. Surely there is some middle ground. I for one hope that every institution I visit in the journey toward my dissertation is one that does all it can to promote the best use of its materials by supporting the needs of its scholar visitors.