Category Archives: alt-ac

Has anyone seen a sheep?: Ada Lovelace Day Tribute to Deb Verhoeven

This Ada Lovelace Day I want to stop and thank a woman who is making the Digital Humanities Community a more just and scholarly place: Deb Verhoeven.

I have had the extraordinary privilege of working with and for many amazing women in DH.  In fact, I would consider my intellectual DH heritage to be distinctly (if not unusually) matrilineal.  These amazing women gave me the gift of their experience [Elli Mylonas], their wisdom [Julia Flanders], their diplomacy [Kay Walter], their technical skill [Bess Sadler], and their example [Bethany Nowviskie].

Deb gave me something else.  Deb gave me her anger.

When Deb stood on the stage at DH2015 and asked the crowd “Has Anyone Seen a Woman?” Something in me uncorked.

The first days of that conference had been stultifying for me.  It was my first real experience with the sexism so many others have felt in DH for so long.  I was sick of the double takes from colleagues (senior and junior) when they heard my title: Associate Director of the Center for Digital Humanities at Princeton (really? You?).  I was sick of being ignored by men while they talked over me and mansplained my areas of expertise (technical and administrative, even feminism).  I was sick of everything, including the community that had always felt like my intellectual home.

Then Deb took the stage and called for a reckoning.  She called out the “Parade of Patriarchs” that we had all witnessed the day before as white men, one after another, took the stage to start the conference.  She called out the systems we participate in that somehow always manage to privilege men over women.  And then she proposed a series of concrete solutions that male colleagues could and should take to ensure equity in the field.

And the crowd went wild.  As I jumped to my feet to applaud, so did so many of my fellow DHers – women AND men.  It was a big room, but I could clearly see Glen Worthey near the front on his feet cheering.  And I thought: Yes.  We can fix this.  The system is rigged, but WE CAN HACK IT.

I managed to introduce myself to Deb before I left Australia; we had a beer in a converted church.  I followed her on Twitter.  I friended her on Facebook.  I read her amazing theoretical work on databases [“Doing the Sheep Good“], which I cannot believe no one suggested to me while I was working on my dissertation.  And through Twitter, Facebook, and her scholarship I met a lot of sheep.

By the time I saw her a year later in London, it felt like we had known each other for much longer than a year.  We took a break and vented over coffee when things got too insane.  We attended the Diversity Track at DH2016 in Krakow (why a separate track, seriously?). She and my husband had great conversations over pierogi.  Basically, we had a blast.

And over the past year I have been finding my own voice as an activist as well as a diplomat.  It sounds different than Deb’s, but I hope it harmonizes.  And I am so pleased to be among a digitally connected diaspora of more amazing DH women: Roopika Risam, Amy Earhart, Padmini Ray Murray, Élika Ortega, Melissa Terras, and so many more.

So thank you, Deb.  Before I met you I was mad as hell.  But now, I won’t take it anymore.

For the Love of it?: Alt-Ac Reflections on finishing the PhD

When I was a bright-eyed and enthusiastic undergrad, I applied to PhD programs in history.

I have a very strong memory of sitting in my future advisor’s office and asking him the  most important question I could think of:  “What, in your opinion, makes a good dissertation?”

He responded immediately: “Passion.  Passion is what separates so-so research from the real stuff.  Being passionate about your work is what will make you a great scholar and will drive you to produce a truly great dissertation.”

11 years later, I have finally finished my dissertation.  Go ahead and read it if you like.  It’s called Republicans of Letters: the Early American Foreign Service as Information Network, 1775 – 1825.  It’s freely available.  I don’t believe in embargoes.  And, in the final analysis, I’m pleased with what I wrote.

But where was I?  Ah yes.  Passion.

I have no doubt that my adviser completely believed (and clearly lived by) his words.  They just didn’t work for me.  I would offer a different list:

Dedication. Persistence. Scheduling. Selfishness. Ambition.

These are what finally drove me to finish my PhD.  Ok.  That’s a little overwrought.  The real reason I finished was that Bethany Nowviskie told me: “Jean, everything you want to do will be easier if you finish your degree.”

Whether we like it or not, the academy is a very hierarchical place.  And getting a PhD puts you much closer to the top of that pyramid than almost any combination of skill-set, personality, and experience probably ever will.

Getting a PhD doesn’t mean that you are smarter, more insightful, or even more disciplined than other people.  And it certainly doesn’t mean you are more qualified to teach.  But it does mean you have done something most sane individuals do not attempt.  It’s like running a marathon.  You don’t have to do it.  But if you do, you want to tell people about it and get credit for all those long hours of running when no one was chasing you.  And other marathoners welcome you into their club, because, to paraphrase Captain Mal Reynolds, “Lady, you are my kind of crazy.”

This doesn’t mean that everyone looking to have an alt-ac career needs a PhD.  Or that everyone who has started a PhD program has to finish it.  Leaving grad school can be the best choice for your life and your career.  If I hadn’t been so close to finishing, I would never have bothered.  But I was, and my personality is what it is, so I finished.

And there are lots of good reasons to go to grad school.  Ironically, all the training I received to pursue my alt-ac career came *because* I was a graduate student, accepted into a program whose sole stated goal was to train me to become a tenure-track professor.  I could get hired on The Dolley Madison Digital Edition because I was a graduate student. My cherished fellowships at Scholars’ Lab and NINES were reserved for graduate students.

And I learned a great deal about early American history along the way.  I cannot speak to other graduate programs, but the great benefit of a PhD in American history is that it makes you put your events in context.  There is some fantastic popular history out there, and some of my favorite scholarly treatments of early America were written by people without PhDs.  But so often the journalist or professional non-fiction writer will miss a crucial part of the larger stage their actors stand on.  As someone who works on the oft-misused “Founding Era” of American history, I can’t count the number of times I have wanted to pull a talented writer of popular history aside and make him read for comps before publishing another word.

So what is the “value” of a PhD?  IMHO: it doesn’t matter if in the end you go alt-ac, trad-ac, or non-ac.  The value of the PhD is what you make of it.  If getting a PhD gets you closer to your goals, then go for it.  If sticking out a program that is making you miserable has no discernible benefit, than take the gems you have wrested from the earth and build a better life for yourself.  And don’t let anyone look down on you for doing what is best for you.

And if you lose the passion, well, then you lose it.  Somedays it just goes away.  Other days it comes back. But that doesn’t mean you’ve failed and it doesn’t mean you can’t finish, and finish strong.  It just means that you are running an intellectual marathon, and your second, or third, or fourth wind is coming a little late.

Back in those days of brighter eyes and naive (but not entirely misplaced) enthusiasm, I attended a seminar on Applying to Graduate School in History, held by the History Department of my alma mater, the University of Chicago.  During the panel, one of the faculty members said something that, at the time, made no sense to me:

And for pity’s sake, don’t write in your personal statement that you “love history.”  We [faculty] don’t “love” history.  We love our wives, our girlfriends.  We love fishing.  History is our job.  Take history seriously as your job and you will do well.  But don’t love it.  Love something better.

Now that I am finished with my dissertation I am embarking on a “personality reclamation project,” which consists of going back to all the hobbies I abandoned in graduate school: hiking, jazz piano, Spanish literature.

I do love history.  But I need to see other disciplines, and I think she respects that.  I also need to spend time with my husband, and with mountains, and playing Oscar Peterson, and reading Odas Elementales, and oh yeah, being the Associate Director of the Center for Digital Humanities at Princeton.

As I start to advise graduate students, particularly those intrigued by alt-ac careers, I hope I can give them a sense of safety and stability.  That their worth as human beings is completely distinct from anything their advisers can say about them (be it good or bad).  I would never talk someone into leaving their program, but I want them to know that staying the course is their choice.  And if they choose to leave (for whatever reason), it does not reflect poorly on them nor will they lose the skills they have gained.

And as I advise undergraduates, I will ask them all the hard questions that angered me so much when I stubbornly told everyone I met that “I was going to be a historian.”  Because even if they can’t answer the questions, they need to hear them.  Because the job market has changed and tenure-track has be to your Plan B.  And because there are so many ways to be a historian.

So, at the end of the day — What’s love got to do with it?

Who you calling untheoretical?

I’m sorry. I need to vent. If you think you will be offended, continue at your own risk. You have been warned.

Several weeks ago, the whole Digital Humanities Theory, or Hack vs. Yack, debate sprung to life once more with a post by @ncecire. I have since read several other posts on this issue, calling for more communication, more give and take, more attention to political realities between Theory and DH.

However, I find many of the comments in these pieces insulting to those of us who work on DH projects. I doubt this is intentional, but I feel the need to defend the theoretical work already being done, while looking forward to incorporating even more ideas. Debate is good. In the academy, debate over terminology is inevitable yet often productive. So here is my rant:

I am sick and tired of people saying that my friends, my colleagues, and I do not understand or care about theory.

Every digital humanities project I have ever worked on or heard about is steeped in theoretical implications AND THEIR CREATORS KNOW IT. And we know it whether we are classed as faculty or staff by our organizations. Libraries and other groups involved in DH are full of people with advanced degrees in the humanities who aren’t faculty, as well as plenty of people without those advanced degrees who know their theory anyway. Ever heard of #alt-ac? The hashtag is new; the concept is not.

I have attended physical weeks of meetings to discuss terminology for everything from personal status (Do we label someone a “slave” or “an enslaved person?” If we have an occupations list should we include “wife,” if so should we include “husband?” What about “homemaker?”) to political structures (When do we call something an “empire?” Is “nation” an anachronism in this period?). I’ve seen presenters grilled on the way they display their index — and heard soul searching, intellectually rigorous justifications for chronological, thematic, alphabetic, or randomized results.

Just this week I was presenting The Early American Foreign Service Database and got the question “So where is the theory in all of this?” Before I could answer with my standard, diplomatic but hopefully though-provoking, response a longtime DHer called out “The database is the theory! This is real theoretical work!” I could have hugged her.

When we create these systems we bring our theoretical understandings to bear on our digital projects including (but not limited to) decisions about: controlled vocabulary (or the lack thereof), search algorithms, interface design, color palettes, and data structure. Is every DH project a perfect gem of theoretically rigorous investigation? Of course not. Is every monograph? Don’t make me laugh.

I have spent so much time explaining the theoretical decisions underlying Project Quincy, that I wrote a program to allow database designers to generate color-coded, annotated, interactive database diagrams in the hopes that more Humanist Readable documentation would make all our lives easier. (The program is called DAVILA.)

One of the most exciting things about DH is the chance to create new kinds of texts and arguments from the human experience. Data structures, visualizations, search tools, display tools . . . you name it . . . are all a part of this exploratory/discovery process.

So it’s time for me to stop ranting and, in the best of DH tradition, DO SOMETHING.

If we as DHers are creating something new, then I believe our vocation includes teaching others how to read our work. If someone looks at The Early American Foreign Service Database and doesn’t see the theory behind it, maybe I need to redesign the site. Maybe those color-coded, annotated diagrams should be more prominently displayed. Maybe I need a glossary for my controlled vocabulary. I wrote DAVILA, but the download only parses one kind of schema. Maybe I should write some more.

I’m going to stop talking (for now.) But, I’ll end with a tweet from Matthew Kirschenbaum, a great practitioner and theorist of DH: “More hack, more yack, and please, cut DH a little slack. We’re just folks doing our work.”

Alt-Ac: The First Month

On August 1 I joined Brown University as their first Digital Humanities Librarian. This job is a dream come true. I was hired to help cultivate Digital Humanities projects by working with faculty, students, and staff, and serve as an ambassador for the great digital work already being done by the Brown University Library. I am also Brown’s new English subject librarian. I’ve decided to blog about my transition from history PhD student to library staff in the hopes that it might help others who are considering making the transition themselves. If future posts on this topic would be of interest, just let me know.

/* alt-ac is short for Alternate-Academic, referring to those of us with graduate level training in the Humanities who have chosen to work in non-tenure track positions within the academy, often (but not exclusively) in university libraries and Digital Humanities positions. To learn more, head over to Bethany Nowviskie’s blog. */

My first month at Brown has been an interesting combination of diving in head first and learning the ropes. On the DH front: I’ve already started working on a few longstanding projects, helping out where needed. I’ve met with faculty who are interested in starting new projects. And, anyone who knows me will not be surprised to learn that I’ve begun a DH Project Documentation survey, which consists of interviewing everyone in the library who is currently working on a DH project and documenting the project to date (goals, accomplishments, work remaining, technical specifications, etc.)

On the Librarian front: I’ve been learning the library’s systems for acquisitions, collection development, gift appraisal, and cataloging. I’ve joined the Exhibits Committee (group of librarians who coordinate the Library’s physical exhibit spaces). I’ve met with a faculty member who wants to set up an exhibit in one of the Library’s museum spaces next year. My office is right off one of the main study areas in the Library so several people have come in with reference questions and several more have called my office after finding me on the phone tree. All my colleagues have been extremely helpful and patient as I learn how to do this better. Seriously. I’m not just saying that in case some of them find my blog.

All in all it’s been a busy month! But getting back to the question of transitioning from graduate school to full-time staff . . .

Honestly, one of the biggest changes is simply having a 9-5 job. I was certainly busy at the University of Virginia, but I worked from home and set my own schedule. I’m enjoying having an office and a place where I can focus my energies, but when I get home I’m basically wiped. Hopefully this will change as I get more used to the schedule. For now, I’m drinking too much coffee and trying to remember I need to be in bed by 11pm. I was originally going to post this last night, but at 11:30 I still wasn’t done. Two months ago I would have pushed on and posted at 1am, but these days I can’t sleep in to compensate for a late weeknight.

Another change relates to my not-quite-finished dissertation. I’m working on it after hours at the office before driving home, usually spending 1 – 1.5 hours a day. It’s hard to find tasks that work well in that timeframe for where I am in my work cycle. Despite my occasional use of #scholarsprints on twitter, I typically write in 2 hour chunks. Though I still have a ways to go in pages and workflow, I’m finding that I like (and even look forward) to working on my dissertation to a degree that I haven’t felt in years.

As a closet generalist in a PhD program, I quickly tired of my favorite subject in all the world simply because it was all I did. Day in. Day out. All history. All the time. Now that I work with a number of disciplines and projects, I find myself looking forward to spending time with my Early American diplomats. Assuming I got to bed at 11pm the night before, working on the dissertation is more like a treat at the end of the day than a looming anxiety.

Finally, and this may be hard to express, there has been a change in how I relate to the people I work with on a day-to-day basis. I contributed and consulted on several DH projects at UVA, but always in the capacity of a graduate student who happened to be around. Sometimes the project was a summer job, sometimes consulting was part of my fellowship, sometimes I just had conversations with people who wanted a sounding board for their ideas. What I do at Brown hasn’t been all that different thus far, but my opinions have more weight and the activation energy required to turn one of my suggestions into a plan of work is much lower than last year.

It’s gratifying, but also somewhat intimidating, how quickly some of my ideas have taken off, so I am being very careful about what I suggest. The DH Documentation Project, for example, was something I suggested at the end of my second week. Within five days it had become one of my primary goals for the year, and I was assigned to interview dozens of people. If I had suggested something like that as a graduate student, I can’t imagine things would have moved that fast (assuming the project ever got started).

The best part of the job, however, is getting to help people. This is what I missed most in graduate school, where I often struggled with the feeling that I wasn’t a productive member of society (which may account for my decision to develop open source software). In my new position I help people, whether faculty, students, or fellow staff, all day long. Like I said at the beginning, a dream come true.