Is Digital Humanities Adjuncting Infrastructurally Significant?

Kathi Inman Berens (kathiberens@gmail.com), Portland State University, United States of America

The question of when “digital humanities” will drop the “digital” modifier and become “humanities” has special resonance for adjunct instructors. Digital humanities senior scholars might bridge the gap between tenured working conditions and adjunct working condition when crafting field infrastructures: not just because adjuncts merit both employment protections and what I call “microbenefactions” (more on that below), but because adjuncts are the invisible mass of humanities faculty buttressing every kind of institution, from community college to elite research-1 university. Adjuncts shoulder the humanities enterprise, teaching the general education classes that free researchers to pursue critical questions that advance the field.

This talk examines the infrastructural causes of DH adjunct invisibility and proposes two remedies: to motivate DH adjunct self-identification by convening DH adjunct-specific prizes and bursaries; and to invite senior DH faculty to perform “microbenefactions” that cost little effort and give adjuncts access to prize-worthy work opportunities or other benefits, such as renewable funding.

When “digital” humanities becomes just humanities, what’s to stop “adjunctification” from converting DH tenure lines into part-time or other tenure-ineligible work, as has happened pervasively in other sub-specialties? In 2012, Stephen Ramsay problematized DH as “the hot thing.” It's a skepticism shared by many in the field, including panelists of the DH 2017 Conference panel “Challenges for New Infrastructures and Paradigms in DH Curricular Program Development,” which openly wondered whether graduate students were well served by DH certificate programs. 1 Miriam Posner notes that DH’s “sexiness” today obscures the “widespread understaffing” of many DH initiatives.” 2 This is an analog to adjunctification, the “shortsighted” boom/bust cycles of “soft” money quickly depleted which then require maintenance with a precarious budget. Amy Earhart has documented the unsustainability of early DH passion projects, websites whose hand-built archives rusticate when the faculty author retires or moves institutions. 3 Startups are sexy, but maintenance is not. When today’s senior DH faculty retire in ten or twenty years, what infrastructures of care will be in place to stop those vacated tenure lines from being converted to part-time positions? The gender politics of “sexy,” “hot” DH cast a pall over the field when one factors in that the majority of adjuncts are women. “As a woman of color,” Liana M. Silva wonders, “I am especially interested to know what the women in contingent ranks look like. According to the Education Department’s 2009 report, 51.6 percent of contingent faculty are women. The same report says 81.9 percent of contingent faculty are white. To what extent is contingent labor a problem for white women? Or, from another angle, to what extent is this a white labor issue, where class is meant to trump race?” 4 These questions about race, gender and contingent labor are digital humanities questions.

Awarding DH Adjuncts

In its mentoring, promotion, and awards structures, the humanities professoriate is legacy-bound, oriented to a tenure system that pertains to only one quarter of people working in the field. 5 If, as James F. English contends in The Economy of Prestige, the key indicator of any contemporary cultural phenomenon entering the mainstream is the creation of a prize (2), then perhaps it is time for digital humanists to create criteria of DH excellence specific to DH adjunct working conditions because adjuncting is the instructional mainstream. Doing so would motivate adjunct DHers to identify their work as DH and contribute recognizably toward DH research and pedagogy field development. Lack of access to an adjunct-specific DH prize reinforces adjunct invisibility, making it highly unlikely that even very good research will attain the recognition necessary to vault the scholar out of adjuncting. Most of the seven DH adjuncts I interviewed don’t necessarily identify themselves as “digital humanists” because they are not hired specifically to teach DH, though their methods are consistent with DH pedagogy practices. 6 “Imposter syndrome” is intensified by employment insecurity and DH definitional heterogeneity. 7

How to give adjuncts access to prize-worthy work opportunities? Senior scholars are key. In my talk, I will discuss microbenefactions senior scholars gave me when I adjuncted (2011-2014). Those invitations gave me access to nationally-visible projects and let me train myself in techniques that are now a core part of my tenure track job.

“Microbenefactions” is a term I invented to signify the opposite of microaggressions. They are small actions that shift the balance of power, the order of operations, that give adjuncts access to prestige or information otherwise inaccessible to them. Note that I use the singular here: “an” adjunct. These acts of inclusion are do-able as a one-off or in the course of a given term, not the Herculean efforts of adjunct advocates such as New Faculty Majority President Maria Maisto, Adjunct Nation, and the PrecariCorps collective who publish PrecariTales, 300-500 word anonymously authored adjunct stories. 8

Unlike state-mandated employment protections, microbenefactions are individual and hyperlocal. They layer adjuncting’s transactional dyad with the more branching, collegial conceptualization of value typical of tenure-track employment. This is human-centered DH infrastructure. We acknowledge that humans are not widgets, and that DH teaching is not a dissemination of knowledge. The medium is the message. If the medium is adjuncting, then the message our students imbibe is that learning is transactional. Microbenefactions disrupt neoliberal infrastructure that shrinks learning and collegiality to transactions.

What is a microbenefaction? It’s action by a tenured or tenure-track scholar who

  • writes funding for adjunct salary into grant proposals
  • advises and mentors adjuncts
  • seeks input from adjuncts about student-centered pedagogy
  • aids adjuncts in finding university resources or paid extra work
  • invites adjuncts to meetings
  • co-authors with adjuncts
  • doesn’t eliminate adjunct applications when deciding awards and honors
  • authorizes support for adjunct professional development, such as conference travel
  • pays to license adjunct-authored course materials after the adjunct leaves the institution
  • writes letters of recommendation for adjuncts

Microbenefactions enact DH’s ethical ambit, which the Global Outlook::Digital Humanities special interest group articulates as a recognition “that excellent work is being done around the world,” 9 even in elite first-world institutions that rely on adjunct labor but largely eliminate that labor from tenure and promotion consideration.


Appendix A

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  2. ______. “Want to Save the Humanities? Pay Adjuncts to Learn Digital Tools” in Disrupting the Humanities: Digital Edition, 05 January 2015, http://www.disruptingdh.com/want-to-save-the-humanities-pay-adjuncts-to-learn-digital-tools/. Accessed 27 November 2017.
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Notes
1

See the DH 2017 panel abstract here: https://dh2017.adho.org/abstracts/176/176.pdf. Ryan Cordell pointedly observes in published version of his DH 2017 talk that “completing the hours required for our robust [DH graduate] certificate program requires students to decide their path almost immediately upon admission, and the decision to pursue the certificate dictates very particular routes through the larger Ph.D. program.” See Cordell’s “Abundance and Usurpation While Building a DH Curriculum” posted to his blog: http://ryancordell.org/research/abundance/

2

Miriam Posner, “Money and Time,” http://miriamposner.com/blog/money-and-time/

3

Earhart, Traces of the Old, Uses of the New.

4

Liana M. Silva: https://chroniclevitae.com/news/1017-how-many-women-are-adjuncts-out-there; National Center for Education Statistics 2009 report to which Silva refers: https://nces.ed.gov/pubs2011/2011150.pdf See also: “Women as Contingent Faculty: The Glass Wall,” published by the American Association of University Professors http://archive.aacu.org/ocww/volume37_3/feature.cfm?section=1 and New Faculty Majority’s “Women and Contingency” project: http://www.newfacultymajority.info/women-and-contingency-project/

5

“Adjunctification” is well documented by adjunct advocacy organization like New Faculty Majority and Adjunct Nation; professional groups such the AAUP and the Modern Language Association (2014); intra-university studies such as George Mason’s, which surveyed 240 GMU adjuncts and “has been hailed as the most comprehensive study of a university’s contingent faculty working conditions to date” (2014); trade journals like Inside Higher Education and The Chronicle of Higher Education; and the popular press. I am struck by The Atlantic Monthly’s occasional series (2013-present) that features titles like “There’s No Excuse for How Universities Treat Adjuncts” and “The Cost of an Adjunct.” See also Kathi Inman Berens and Laura E. Sanders, “DH and Adjuncts: Putting the Human Back in the Humanities.”

6

A note about method. My university’s Human Subjects Research Review Committee determined an IRB was not required for me to conduct informational interviews with adjuncts. I used a common set of questions with each adjunct. The conversations veered to the specifics of their own particular cases.

7

The authors of the “Alternate Histories of DH” panel note in their abstract: “Matthew Kirschenbaum’s identification of the digital humanities in 2014 as a ‘discursive construction’ that ignores the ‘actually existing projects’ of the field set the stage for scholars to rethink how the digital humanities conceptualizes its work and its history (‘What Is’ 48). More recently, in the introduction to Debates in the Digital Humanities 2016, Matthew Gold and Lauren Klein use the scholarship of Rosalind Krauss who, in 1979, described art history as emerging as ‘only one term on the periphery of a field in which there are other, differently structured possibilities.’”

8

https://precaricorps.org/about/true-stories/ The pinned story at time of writing details an adjunct who’s taught at the same university for ten years and has been hired to revise materials for a large enrollment course. One chair made sure she got paid the first lump sum; the replacement chair didn’t with the second, and she’s still waiting with “no recourse except to wait.” The Twitter hashtags #AdjunctLife and #RealAcademicBios also gather adjunct (but don’t curate) stories.

9

Global Outlook::Digital Humanities is a special interest group of the Alliance of Digital Humanities Organization. See http://www.globaloutlookdh.org/