At the ACH/ALLC joint conference at the University of Glasgow, Scotland, July 2000, the Association for Computers and the Humanities (ACH) Executive Session was devoted to a panel discussion on the general questions of the job market for Humanities Computing. The panel was interested in opening the questions to the community as a whole, considering both academic and non-academic employment opportunities, and paying attention both to the needs of professionals in an emerging field (especially young professionals), and to the needs of academic programs including departments, electronic text centers and libraries, in securing the services of skilled and able faculty and staff.
One of the many pleasures of the HUMANIST listserv is its dependable rotation of features such as “new on WWW” or “conference calls” or “notes and queries”. One such category, which appears more often than “Pokemon ethics” but less often than many would like is “jobs”; and although I have a job, I still find myself resisting the primal rush of anxiety and adrenalin that once spurred me to pluck that item first out of any pack of Humanist postings.
I want to do two things in my time today: first, I want simply to assert that such a thing as a humanities computing job market does indeed exist, in much the same way that others have argued that humanities computing itself exists as an intellectual discipline (or interdiscipline). Second, I want to contend that an organization such as ours could and should be playing a role in defining the terms of that job market. One initial caveat: I will be talking mainly about academic jobs of one sort of another, as that is the setting I'm most familiar with. Others here will be speaking about humanities computing jobs in industry.
So let's take the first claim, that there is such a thing as an academic humanities computing job market. I'd like to read some excerpts from job postings that have appeared on Humanist in the last year or two:
For a job managing an electronic text and image center in the library of an American research university:
For project and development officers at a venerable humanities computing unit:
For a small, private college in the American mid-West:
For a faculty appointment in humanities computing in a university English department:
I think these samples go some way towards establishing the reality of a humanities computing job market as such. Note, for example, the unusual circumstance of a research library offering to swap the MLS for an MA in a humanities discipline; or the search for a faculty candidate who can teach in both English and computer science. These are jobs that simply did not exist a decade ago. At the same time, it seems clear that the humanities computing job market, to the extent that it is represented by these quick samplings, is still a pretty rough and tumble place. For example: the technical qualifications for the English faculty position roughly match those for the library job. The instructional technology job at the small, private college in the mid-West and the staff positions in the humanities computing unit at “one of the world's most famous universities” both explicitly define their relationship to their institutional constituencies as one of support. The tenure-track faculty position and the instructional technology job each include teaching responsibilities (though only one requires a PhD). Both the staff in the humanities computing unit and the candidate for the English faculty search (but not the instructional technologist) are expected to perform research (though again, only the faculty job asks for the doctorate). The point is that at the moment the humanities computing job market is contingent and malleable, with, on the one hand, jobs manifesting comparable duties and responsibilities classified and funded in a variety of different ways, while on the other hand jobs situated in some very heterogeneous environments often demanding strikingly similar qualifications and skill sets.
So what can or should an organization like the ACH do in such an amorphous environment? The North American job market for English literature is largely regulated by the Modern Language Association, which publishes a much-anticipated Job List four times a year (this is now electronic, by the way), and whose annual convention at the end of December is the traditional venue for first-round interviewing. There is, as most of you know, a dearth of academic appointments in literary studies these days, and after vocal lobbying by its Graduate Student Caucus, the MLA has begun to take a more proactive role — surveying, for example, the extent to which institutions rely on part-time and adjunct instructors as opposed to full-time, tenure-track faculty. It's difficult to gauge the extent to which an organization like the ACH (whose resources are clearly more modest) ought to seek to emulate the role of the MLA, not least because jobs in humanities computing are so often subsumed by larger organizations like the MLA (for faculty positions in English) or the ALA (for the growing number of digital library jobs). But I do believe there are some concrete things that the ACH — as an interdisciplinary organization serving an interdiscipline — can start doing. Here are two brief proposals:
To conclude. The humanities computing job market is an issue of immediate importance to a significant portion of this organization's current membership, and, almost by definition, to all of its future membership. The job market has direct bearing on the growing interest in developing undergraduate majors in digital media (who will teach the courses?) as well as graduate programs in humanities computing (what will degree-recipients from those programs do with themselves?) Finally, as I suggested earlier, the job market is a leading indicator of how humanities computing is being conceived and defined at the highest institutional levels. The job market is, in short, an extremely focused and concentrated manifestation of much broader concerns of our organization. I'd like to thank Allen Renear and the ACH Executive for putting this discussion before the membership today.
If most of what I say is anecdotal and speculative, I think that's appropriate because I think this issue of the “Humanities Computing Job Market” is so wide open, at the moment, that the way it takes shape is very much up to us. Nothing is predetermined. There is said to be an old Chinese curse, meant to dismay the inept: “May you live in interesting times.” But times of danger are also times of opportunity, and what makes our times particularly interesting is that there are so many ways we can go with this. If we do it right, I think that by addressing questions of “finding work” within the wider questions of what we're here for and why are we in this business, what we do can be of great benefit both to ourselves as individuals and to the wider enterprise of Humanities Computing.
The other comment I'd like to make in starting is that anecdotal and speculative is about right, because our knowledge about all this is so partial. Of course, this is the fundamental dilemma of anyone looking for gainful employment: how do we know all of what we have to know, about what opportunities are out there, how to prepare for them, how to connect with them? I can't give answers to that, but I can contribute the observation that we are in a place right now where this dilemma is a shared one: it is not only the job seeker that suffers from partial knowledge. We know that looking for a job is looking for something, but what it is, we don't know before we find it, and it is only out of faith that there is something out there at all that we can go forward. But it is also those of us who have jobs to offer who have, especially now, only partial knowledge. Not only do we not know how to get people to fill the slots we have — the word “qualified” hardly does justice to what we want — but also, we don't know how to get for them what they want or what we want for them. Everything, right now, is up in the air. The only thing we can say for sure is, there is plenty of work to do.
But things are even more complex, and the field of possibilities is even wider. My perspective as someone who has, not long ago, “crossed the line” into the private sector, may be instructive. Just within the last few months, I've met an English professor from a small college in the small town where I live, who's jumped the fence to work managing the creation of “educational content” for a large telecommunications firm that wants to stamp its brand on the web; and I've heard of another, a Composition and Rhetoric professor friend of my sister's, who is now “Communications Director” for a web startup in Chicago. With a title like that, she could be doing anything and everything from web site design to marketing and PR to strategy.
Crossing the line doesn't have to be what it used to be, and isn't. No longer does someone who gets a job in the private sector have to give up intellectual interests, or pursue them only in an “extracurricular” way. Across industry, in small and large companies across the board, cutting edge research is now focused on problems we have made our specialty: the analysis, creation, organization, management, and understanding of information assets, particularly text-based information assets in electronic form. They need us really badly; what is more, they are beginning to figure out that we are who they need. They like Humanists because we have broad exposure to information in various forms and for various purposes; we know about research; we have good communication skills (in particular, skilled teachers are worth their weight in semiconductors); we can think at high levels of abstraction and, not infrequently, “out of the box” (or at least out of their box).
Now, this increasing demand for us provides great opportunities to the profession as a whole. It even begins to be possible for Humanists in the private sector to maintain an engagement with the Humanities Computing community: we can all read HUMANIST, and there's no particular reason we should not be seeing colleagues from the private sector, whether it's from a small Internet startup or from IBM or Sun Microsystems, showing up at ACH/ALLC conferences. And we should be encouraging this, and encouraging our students to be getting these jobs: it can only enrich the profession to have people crossing the lines. Yet this development conversely poses particular challenges to the academic professions. I can relate to two sides of this: the particular challenges of libraries, e-text centers, departments who are looking for technical people to fill in a gap, and the broader challenges of academic institutions at large, who are facing the need to invest in this discipline and see it flourish within as well as outside the walls.
For those who have positions to be filled, faced with immediate needs to fill them: first and most important is to understand that this is (as Julia Flanders put it to me) a seller's market: that skilled professionals now have options. Structure the job packages accordingly, with respect and out of consideration for the skilled professional's need for career advancement and a chance to make an impact and contribute meaningfully. This means work where we are respected as peers in the core work of Humanities research, not merely technical assistants, whose responsibility it is, somehow, not just to take instructions dutifully, but more basically, to insulate others and keep them safe from the challenges and interests of our work. In particular, I personally hear alarm bells ringing when I see a job posting telling me they want someone to provide “support.” Not only do I cringe because it bothers me that it isn't simply taken for granted that a scholar, or information professional, would naturally spend a fair amount of energy providing support (what else does an academic professional do, anyway?); but also, it sends a signal to me that in the position being described, I would be called on to answer demands for a particularly intensive kind of intellectual work — one-on-one training and technical consultation, for sometimes apprehensive or reluctant students at all levels of skill and authority — but without a mandate or the resources to see that the basic work can get done well and sustainably, by holding courses, setting up user support networks, building resources: all worthwhile activities (it is generally recognized), but which have sometimes taken a back seat to the need to act more immediately. I don't want to be, primarily, a firefighter, there to stop the gap and make it unnecessary for others to take responsibility for their own work; more generally, I am less interested in any job I see to be reactive, rather than proactive.
To put things this strongly (and we could go on about this kind of thing) may be a combination of the reflex of the weary (we have all provided so much “support”), and the sudden fierceness of one who finds out that, lo and behold, the job seeker can afford to hold out. Of course, this advantage translates directly into a new problem faced by anyone seeking to hire people, fill positions: It may seem to leave the institution stuck between two demands, who needs the person (actually, to judge from some of the listings, they need more than one person, and generally a range of mixed talents and expertise that is rarely found in one body), but who cannot give this superperson everything. In this context, I think my advice for both sides can be the same: hold out.
For the job seeker, hold out for the job, the scope you feel you need. This is a seller's market, and there is no particular need for you to rush. Take the time to do the work that takes you into things you feel are personally meaningful. Build a web site; get engaged in the conference circuit. When you put stuff up on the web, put stuff up you know to be significant, not just something someone else told you was cool. Remember that it is people, nothing else, people and the work you do for people, that will take you further. But you will find them when you figure out what it is you have to offer of your own.
For the school, program or department looking to fill those gaping openings, you too should hold out. The people you need are out there, if we can work to build them, find them and attract them — the work is good work, and must be framed as good work: people will want to do it. But you also need to adopt some of that fierceness for yourselves and take it up the line to your chairs, deans and administrators, letting them know that the only way to deal with this scarceness and this partial knowledge, is to give these programs latitude to participate in defining their own scope and contribution; thus the people hired to work in them, need to be taken seriously as professionals, allowed scope to develop themselves (even making a few mistakes) and the programs they are so important to. In part, this means being willing to hire people who may not have every single skill on the list made up by that committee. But they should have enthusiasm, initiative, eagerness to learn, ideas of their own.
So holding out can be a good thing. In conclusion, I have one final observation. In this wide world of possibilities, we need to keep in mind that desperation is our enemy, but imagination is our friend. Desperation is our enemy, because it limits us, makes us think we have to settle for something less. Imagination is our friend because it shows us that this isn't necessary, and more important, shows us how it isn't necessary, shows us the way forward to something more. Sure, we have to be realistic. But reality, about now, is pretty exciting.
My career in humanities computing, if anything so brief and haphazard can be termed a career, has spanned what I believe are three formative stages in the development of a humanities computing job market as we now see it. When I was first introduced to the field of humanities computing, in 1993, the people I met were from a generation of pioneers. They were not “from” humanities computing — they had arrived there by their own efforts to do something they found compelling, and they had started their journey before the safe haven even existed.
I regarded my own entry into the field as a lucky accident, and I could see that the same accident had befallen a number of people my age at about the same time. We amounted to a second generation, distinct from the first in that we found a field already in existence, albeit somewhat ad hoc and with its boundaries quite open and permeable. We had some skills that would prove useful in this field, but we had to learn a lot on our own, either on the job or by putting together an idiosyncratic educational program of our own. Above all, we liked the escape from traditional disciplinary boundaries, the opportunity to work in an area where so much remained to be discovered, the kinds of resourcefulness and improvisation that were required of us.
Looking now at the job market in humanities computing — indeed, at the very fact of there being a “job market” — I can see that a third generation is emerging, for whom the situation is much less raffish and free-wheeling. These new people are emerging from formal training programs with coursework or even degrees in information science, in humanities computing, in digital media. They are applying for jobs which expect them already to have these courses and skills, and they are competing within a large and growing pool of highly skilled and well-qualified people. Credentials, which formerly played little role in a field without formal training programs or a substantial workforce, are now assuming a far greater importance. The corollary of this shift is that what we might call humanities computing skills are now quite widely distributed throughout a range of jobs: jobs in publishing, graphic design, library science, publicity management, so that the demand for these skills (and the programs that teach them) is all the higher. There has perhaps never been a better time — from the standpoint of employability — to be in humanities computing.
A few observations about my job and the niche it represents within the market as a whole. First, it is not a highly specialized job: I direct a medium-sized text encoding project, and I am a consultant with the Scholarly Technology Group at Brown University, both of which require a range of work from managerial responsibilities through grant-writing, research, and various kinds of hands-on practical work. STG itself is a flexible combination of academic consulting, research projects, and industry consulting and research. Like me, STG is poised within what I think of as a second-generation model of humanities computing research, in that it takes a fairly opportunistic approach to staffing and to the development of job profiles. This characterization deserves some glossing; what I mean by it is that STG operates on the assumption that the hardest and most valuable thing to find is smart, capable people, and that training and specific skills can always be learned on the job. Indeed, given the speed at which the field is changing, the most current and relevant skills one has are likely to have been learned on the job. It is not a model that relies much on credentialling or on regular pipelines of qualified candidates (certificates, degree programs, other similar employers) but rather on the kinds of lucky accidents that produce people with the right improbable blend of skills and interests.
The politics of this niche are instructive. STG's projects straddle the academy, the larger educational world, and the domain of industry, and its intellectual commitments also represent a kind of straddling. We attempt to bring the values of the academy (intellectual rigor, standards and open-source approaches, long-term thinking) to industry-wide projects such as electronic books, and we also attempt to bring a kind of entrepreneurial immediacy and practicality to academic projects. For those who see “pure research” as a desirable activity, this blending may seem less than ideal in several ways. For some, the admixture of industrial or entrepreneurial methods seems de facto to threaten both the intellectual purity — the impartiality — of research, and the freedom to experiment without reference to specific practical goals or final products.
For groups like STG, “industry” is not the only term against which “research” is positioned; equally potent is the question of “support”. Like all universities, Brown has a substantial need for user support along the lines of fixing equipment, doing system updates, installing and maintaining software, and the like. STG's most significant act of self- definition, in effect, has been its effort to establish the limits of its relationship with these activities. This is particularly true because when STG was founded, the need for these services was large and obvious, an easy foothold, and the need for the kinds of research STG aimed at was by no means as clear.
Along these two axes — the research-industry axis and the research-support axis — value seems clearly to be located at the research end, to judge from the ways that jobs are designed, paid, and evaluated. And this value is not evident merely in the tangible rewards attached to research, but also to its position within the intellectual economy. There is a sense in which we cannot quarrel with this; the pleasures of autonomy, of exploration, of invention, are quite real, and no amount of critical perspective will simply nullify them. But we need to keep perspective on what it is we are valuing: an intellectual luxury made possible for a few by division of labor, not a higher calling for which only a few are equipped. Research is not “pure” through some innate quality, but because it takes place within an environment where the impurities are being taken care of by someone else — typically someone who is less well paid. This is by no means an argument against research, pure or otherwise. It is instead a reminder that when we envision jobs in this area, we need to envision the entire system — all of the activities and services which form the organism, not just the ones we particularly like.
People seeking academic jobs in humanities computing might be interested in how at McMaster we have gone about writing job ads and what we are looking for when reviewing applications. Here is a short list from the handout passed out in the session [see the file GRhandout.pdf] of the parts of typical job ads and what they can mean for the applicant.
As a general comment I would say that the hard thing to do is to document and demonstrate ability to strangers. Many applicants who would be interesting simply don't have any evidence for their abilities. If you are planning to look for a job in humanities computing you should consider how you can start documenting the knowledge you have acquired informally so that it will show up in your application. This could involve getting copies of projects you helps with, or it may involve taking on short projects that can be listed in your application. For example, teaching a one day hands-on workshop in your department so that you can show that you have teaching experience, or designing a WWW site for an event so that you have another item for your portfolio. Choose the projects you work on in your last years at graduate school so that they will reflect your abilities. Negotiate the right to represent yourself as a contributor any time you volunteer your computing skills to a project. Finally, write down what you have done while you do it so that you have the details at hand later. Here is a check list that was on the handout I prepared for the session.
A caveat: this is an outsider's perspective.
Markup technologies are coming to be, and have a future as, as a key formalism and enabling technology within the scope of Humanities Computing.
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