Precarious Labor in the Digital Humanities

Christina Boyles (, Trinity College, United States of America and Carrie Johnston (, Wake Forest University, United States of America and Jim McGrath (, Brown University, United States of America and Paige Morgan (, University of Miami, United States of America and Miriam Posner (, UCLA, United States of America and Chelcie Rowell (, Boston College, United States of America

While crucial progress has been made toward the equitable distribution and acknowledgement of DH labor, important work remains to be done to address and amend the overarching precarious nature of labor in the digital humanities. Many DH practitioners find themselves in situations that require both specialized and general knowledge, as well as a vast—and outlandish—technological skill set. In a field that relies heavily on grants and temporary positions, many of the people who occupy DH positions find themselves juggling the impossible task of keeping up with advances in technology, advising stakeholders from divisions across campus, researching, writing, and teaching, often without the security of long-term employment.

Ranging from mid- to early-career, the speakers comprising this panel have navigated myriad DH positions—staff, tenure-track faculty, contingent faculty, postdoc, graduate student, administrator, programmer, and librarian—and can speak to the expectations and pitfalls of digital humanities labor. Panelists include a tenure-track faculty member in Library & Information Science, a Digital Scholarship and Subject Specialist Librarian, a Digital Scholarship Coordinator in a university’s IT department, a Digital Humanities Research Specialist in a university library, a Digital Humanities Librarian, and a Postdoctoral Fellow in Digital Public Humanities. This panel is largely an outgrowth of each panelist’s efforts at her home institution and within her academic organizations to make DH labor more visible, to rethink standards of evaluation for digital scholarship, and to generate relationships that address the ethical dimensions of collaborative labor in the digital humanities.

Each of the six panelists will speak for ten minutes, allowing for thirty minutes of discussion among panelists and audience members. Taken together, the panelists’ talking points indicate an emerging pattern in DH labor: the expectation of the novice practitioner or early-career scholar to act as an expert. The panelists agree that reorienting some of our collective focus away from cultivating digital technologies and projects and onto mentoring digital practitioners is a step in the direction of mitigating these unrealistic expectations and, in the long-run, generating more sustainable methods and practices around DH labor.

Of digital humanities research methods, Tara McPherson warns, “Our screens are cover stories, disguising deeply divided forms of both machine and human labor. We focus exclusively on them increasingly to our peril.” The central goal of this panel is to initiate conversations about these “deeply divided forms of human labor” in the digital humanities, often neglected in favor of creating more DH projects. These divisions take many forms: the lack of ethnic, cultural, and economic diversity among DH practitioners; the contingent nature of DH positions; the exploitation of digital laborers within and beyond classrooms; and the challenging or outright dismissal of the value of digital humanities scholarship by tenure and promotion committees. In keeping with the conference theme, Bridges/Puentes, we aim to bridge these divides in DH through a better understanding of the precarious nature of labor of DH—its causes and manifestations—which in turn will generate better practices in creating DH positions and mentoring DH practitioners.

Paper 1: Miracle Workers (Miriam Posner, UCLA)

Alex Gil has identified the “miracle worker” as a particular kind of digital laborer, one who is expected to cover a range of roles, responsibilities and projects with a minimal amount of resources, support, and compensation. Miracle workers are expected to be competent scholars, accessible tech support, patient project managers, and more. When Alex created an “Open Directory of Miracle Workers” in digital humanities, almost 150 people added their names to this list, suggesting that this particular kind of labor is unfortunately endemic to academic environs.

The risk of such a model is that it limits the ability of the “miracle worker” to implement significant and lasting change on campus. As Miriam Posner notes, “When we choose not to invest in our own infrastructure, we choose not to articulate a different possible version of the world.” In other words, due to a lack of human and fiscal support, the “miracle worker” often is unable to challenge traditional modes of scholarship that may be ineffective or even harmful. This occurs both with infrastructure—like understaffing, limited resources, and/or tools that reinscribe Eurocentric biases—and with day-to-day operations—including consulting with faculty and staff and making presentations to administrators. It may be difficult, or even impossible, to find time to transform the digital humanities environment of an institution by identifying appropriate resources, developing and supporting innovative projects, or encouraging the use of new, more ethical, digital tools and contexts if a “miracle worker” is expected to serve a wide range of campus needs. And while there has been compelling digital scholarship that has modeled itself on more traditional forms of knowledge production like the scholarly monograph or journal article, collaborative, public-facing, and iterative digital scholarship proves challenging in environments that encourage “miracle worker syndrome” because they tend to privilege the monograph at the exclusion of digital work.

Examples of this abound throughout academia. One example is the tenure-track faculty member required to print hard copies of born-digital scholarship far afield from the monograph, whose portfolio may be read by a department and/or an administration with no clear guidelines for how to refer or promote the employees they hired to “do” digital work. Another is the graduate student encouraged to situate herself within digital humanities by completing unpaid labor in addition to a traditional dissertation, or by taking on part-time positions. Yet another is the DH librarian/coordinator whose success is measured in terms of grants received and projects completed, rather than the quality of her digital labor, relationship-building, or program management.

While several humanities departments and professional organizations have taken steps to develop guidelines for professional evaluation of digital labor, these recommendations are not always implemented, or they may not serve the varied forms of academic labor beyond the tenure-track model. As such, they do little to alleviate the plight of the “miracle worker” or her precarity. Doing so would require transformative change that upends the hierarchical value-model of academia by both acknowledging and valuing the work of those precarious positions.

Paper 2: Flipped Mentorship (Carrie Johnston, Wake Forest University)

This paper will address the lack of conversation on and effort around mentoring “miracle workers” in DH positions once they are hired. DH labor is a relatively new addition to the higher-education workforce, and often positions such as “Assistant Professor of Digital Humanities,” “Postdoctoral Fellow in Digital Scholarship,” and “Digital Scholarship Coordinator” have little in the way of clear expectations, guidelines for contract renewal, or institutional knowledge about the position.

The outsized expectations placed on DH positions create a mentorship paradox, in which the new hire—often an early-career scholar—is responsible for supporting multiple digital scholarship endeavors and advising more advanced scholars than herself. The mentor framework is therefore flipped, as the newcomer must take the lead in shepherding digital projects from early stages to finished products and providing proof of the staying power of DH on her campus.

This presentation will call attention to this flipped mentorship framework, highlighting the ways it requires many DH laborers to act as administrators, despite the fact that they are not trained for or paid to do such high-level work. They are often expected to start and run a digital humanities program on campus, advocate for themselves and the resources necessary for their program in meetings with high-level administrators and representatives from large granting agencies. Even if these positions are funded by permanent salary lines, these jobs are still tenuous due to the reality that there is insufficient support built in to to help the faculty or staff member navigate the idiosyncrasies of a new institution and to negotiate the tricky landscape of higher education.

In addition to bringing attention to the flipped mentorship framework, this presentation will offer potential ways to amend and to avoid multiplying this problem. In particular, it will outline conditions that must be attended to and in place before creating new DH positions and DH programs, and prior to hiring faculty and staff to fill DH positions. Better anticipating and charting specific technological, staffing, and academic requirements—from sufficient server space, to student-facing support for classroom projects, to new standards of evaluation for digital scholarship—will create the necessary conditions to build generative, sustainable DH labor practices on campus.

Paper 3: Public/Digital Humanities (James McGrath, Brown University)

Many digital humanities projects have argued that their work is designed or intended for general audiences or specific publics beyond communities residing within the institutional structures of higher ed: teachers and students in K–12 classrooms, users of particular social media networks, groups who embrace particular identities or geographic affiliations (among others). But the labor involved in attending to the needs for community outreach, interface design, user experience, accessibility, and other factors essential to making the metaphorical bridges materialize between these projects and their desired audiences is often precarious, underpaid, or even missing completely from the planning and implementation stages of these projects. Wendy Hsu argues that “we should think of public humanities work as a process, not a product” and that “we should do more to include the public at earlier phases of our work” (‘Lessons on Public Humanities from the Civic Sphere’). If we agree with this sentiment (and similar ones raised by Sharon Leon, Steve Lubar, and other practitioners of public and digital humanities), and if we share in the desire of grant-funding organizations like the National Endowment for the Humanities to create “Digital Projects for the Public,” then how might these investments in publics also require new forms of labor and collaboration?

Building on experiences doing digital public humanities work in both an English department (as a graduate student) and in a public humanities center (as a postdoctoral fellow), this presentation argues that the rhetorical aims of digital projects that seek to collaborate, serve, educate, or otherwise inspire particular publics must inevitably transform the material realities of how these projects are created, staffed, designed, and circulated. In North American academic contexts, these kinds of projects are generally supported by major grants or staffed by contingent labor like graduate students or postdoctoral fellows in humanities departments. While masters programs in public humanities (such as the one at Brown University) or public history (such as those at American University or Northeastern University) have created or collaborated on projects that seek to collaborate or engage with digital contexts, and certificate programs in Digital Public Humanities (such as the one offered by George Mason University) demonstrate the generative potential of pairing digital humanities and public humanities aims and methodologies, these initiatives are restricted in many ways by their short timelines, by a lack of practitioners or available sustainable resources for public or digital projects, or by the privileging of more traditional academic forms of cultural production like journal articles, conference papers, thesis papers, coursework.

This presentation highlights the implications of introducing more varied forms of practitioners and labor into humanities departments, drawing on experiences collaborating with individuals (oral historians, public librarians, community archivists, filmmakers) and creating alternate forms of knowledge (crowdsourced archives, digital art installations, augmented reality tours). In order to reach particular publics as potential collaborators, audiences, participants, and even creators and instigators of digital projects, we must reimagine the forms and networks that our production of knowledge have traditionally inhabited.

Paper 4: Sustainability in the Digital Humanities (Christina Boyles, Trinity College)

Issues surrounding long-term planning and sustainability have long haunted digital humanities initiatives. For example, in 2009
Digital Humanities Quarterly published a special cluster on what it means to be “Done” with work in our field. Strangely, the word “labor” only appears once in the entire corpus of writing completed for that cluster. In the time since its publication, digital humanities practitioners have become more cognizant of the benefits of creating work with an ending in mind: many grants now require that projects document plans for long-term preservation and sustainability, and institutions with digital scholarship hubs residing in libraries frequently design and support projects that store materials in digital repositories (when available). But the impact of these planning procedures does not always result in projects and procedures that are conscious of ethical forms of labor. Planning for long-term preservation may be seen by faculty members or graduate students more as outsourced labor for librarians than collaborative work; documentation protocols may fail to account for future audiences whose labor proves essential to a project’s afterlife; contingent labor, by nature of its contingency, may depart a project without attending to its long-term needs (due to graduation, or the loss of available funding, or institutional re-structuring, among other factors). But an inattention to impact on dimensions of labor seems to persist; like the 2009
DHQ overview on endings and afterlives, a 2014 white paper by ITHAKA on “Sustaining the Digital Humanities” only mentions the word “labor” once in its entire overview of issues related to sustainability.

This presentation argues that collaborative methodologies and models of shared authority inevitably benefit planning for long-term preservation and sustainability. That being said, these modes of collaboration require renewed attention to where and how forms of labor and modes are described and valued on digital humanities projects. Julia Flanders has described the ways terms like “efficiency” and “productively” are selectively and voluntarily deployed and circulated in descriptions of academic forms of labor, and she observes the ways faculty labor is generally privileged at higher institutional, financial, and social levels despite the fact that “the vast preponderance of actual
work involved in creating humanities scholarship and resources is not done by faculty.” In some institutional contexts like the ones Flanders describes, resources for sustainability and preservation may be allocated, but the lived professional realities of the laborers invested in these methodologies may be undervalued, held separate, or under-utilized by faculty members and students interested in digital humanities scholarship. And an increase in the visibility of available resources for digital research does not address potential concerns about the value of library and archival expertise on the topics of preservation and sustainability. How can we incorporate these kinds of labor and the practitioners who value this work earlier and more authoritatively in digital project development? Where should ethical imperatives towards sustainability similarly influence ethical forms of collaboration between seemingly-disparate forms of academic labor?

Paper 5: Hybrid Positions, or 2-for-1 DH Labor (Chelcie Rowell, Boston College)

For some time now academic libraries have embraced a liaison model in which subject librarians support the research, teaching, and learning of specific academic departments. Many libraries have also responded to the changing needs of their campuses by hiring functional specialists in areas such as copyright, GIS, and data management. Still others combine subject specialist and functional specialists into one hybrid position, such as “DH and English Librarian,” often filled by a person trained as a librarian with an MLIS degree who may or may not have an additional advanced degree in a discipline. The precarity of these positions stems not from their lack of permanence, but rather from the multiple demands placed on the person in this role. Not only must she navigate the changing field of librarianship in the relatively new position of “DH Librarian,” but she must also continue to fulfill the more traditional expectations of a liaison librarian, such as building collections, conducting information literacy class sessions, performing outreach, and answering reference questions. These hybrid positions are therefore not hybrid at all, but rather a combination of the job responsibilities of two or more positions.

Library administrators often market the people in these hybrid roles as collaborative equals in faculty-directed digital scholarship projects, and indeed, they could be. Nevertheless, this is an outsized expectation for many reasons, the first being that the DH Librarian does not have the luxury of focusing on one research project at a time, but must juggle a variety of projects brought to her from a range of faculty with different methodological approaches and specializations. And while training in librarianship cultivates knowledge indispensable to scholarly digital projects (metadata creation, data curation, research methods, archival principles), librarians enter these collaborations on unequal ground due to long-standing, rigid hierarchies in academia that subordinate librarians’ broad expertise in project development to faculty researchers’ disciplinary knowledge.

Librarians’ labor is also at risk of being rendered invisible due to the quantitative models for tracking and evaluating library workers’ performance. Recording the number of interactions with faculty, for instance, is an insufficient way to capture the variety of interactions (both in-person and virtual) that are required of a collaborative, long-term scholarly project. Just as the systems for evaluating tenure and promotion cases for faculty are often incompatible with digital humanities scholarship, so are the systems for evaluating librarians’ performance.

Therefore, if library administrators invest resources in new positions such as “DH Librarian” (or add this title to existing job titles such as “English Librarian”), they must also invest resources in reimagining how to capture evidence of successful efforts to build campus DH community and capacity, how to empower the individuals who occupy those roles to effectively manage their portfolio of projects and responsibilities, and how to revise the evaluation methods for librarians called upon to collaborate on long-term digital scholarship projects.

While this paper highlights problems stemming from hybrid functional-subject specialist positions in academic libraries, it resonates with other papers on this panel, as many of these challenges are shared by librarians and junior faculty who are appointed as assistant professors or digital scholarship coordinators. For both of these kinds of “miracle workers,” outsized expectations add up to precarious labor.

Paper 6: Delivering on the Deliverables (Paige Morgan, University of Miami)

Many digital humanists in centers or libraries—interdisciplinary positions that cater to multiple departments—are expected to demonstrate the products of their digital labor to high-ranking administrators and stakeholders on a consistent basis. As such, they often are on tight and over-extended timelines to produce high-quality digital scholarship that will prove their value to the institution and demonstrate evidence of the success the institution’s investment in digital humanities. To do so, many digital scholars are implicitly encouraged to cut corners in order to meet the unrealistic demands of the organization, or to compensate for faculty members’ lack of experience scoping projects. When due attention is given to the project development process, the DH specialist in charge may be discredited or regarded as an unhelpful collaborator because she does not achieve project milestones in a timely manner or she has “failed” to deliver a completed product that met faculty members’ expectations, whether or not they were realistic. Although stakeholder enthusiasm for digital humanities may be considerable, institutions are still learning how much and what sort of work is necessary to bring a project to completion effectively, sustainably, and without considerable exploitation. Even supportive and practical administrators may find that they vastly underestimated the work involved—but cannot provide more needed support without more evidence of success in the form of finished projects.

Such behavior places an overemphasis on the product rather than the process—resulting in the elision of the work around relationships developed, skills acquired, tools tested, and/or infrastructure created to produce a project. While prototypes and completed projects are certainly impressive, they cannot be sustained without these other, equally important, skills. Both building a project and developing the skills, policies, and partnerships needed to sustain energy and activity around it take significant time and training. Few DH specialists receive this guidance during their coursework and are therefore expected to acquire these traits upon hire. A further complication is that many long-running DH projects may involve navigating complex and fractious partnerships between departments and faculty members—and specialists may be in the difficult position of trying to quell squabbles and keep participants happy without having the authority to set boundaries that would be beneficial to the library, center, or department where they are housed. While the specialist may work “miracles,” if the miracles come at the cost of burnout, then stakeholders’ understanding of the labor necessary to achieve success and plan effectively for future endeavors is badly warped.

Many entities—whether libraries, centers, or departments—hope to become leaders in DH within their local campus communities and beyond. But what is required, not just to “make DH happen,” but to make a particular entity a leader? This paper will explore the pressures that such goals place on DH specialists, as well as how pressure to deliver success shapes practices around collaboration within library/center project teams; and will offer suggestions for rethinking institutional strategy that could lead to better shared expertise and less precarity in the risk of specialist burnout.

Appendix A

  1. Gil, A. (2016). 74 and counting. Open Directory of Miracle Workers. Tweet.
  2. Gil, A. “Open Directory of Miracle Workers.” Google Sheet.
  3. Hsu, W. (2016). Lesson on Public Humanities from the Civic Sphere. In Gold and Klein (eds),
    Debates in Digital Humanities. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016.
  4. Flanders, Julia. (2012). Time, Labor, and ‘Alternate Careers’ in Digital Humanities Knowledge Work. In Gold (ed),
    Debates in Digital Humanities. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
  5. Kirschenbaum, M. (ed) (2002).
    Digital Humanities Quarterly 3(2).
  6. Maron, N. and Pickle, S. (2014). Sustaining the Digital Humanities: Host Institution Support Beyond the Start-up Phase. Ithaka S+R.
  7. McPherson, T. (2012). Why Are the Digital Humanities so White? or Thinking the Histories of Race and Computation. In Gold (ed),
    Debates in Digital Humanities. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
  8. Posner, M. (2016). Money and time. Blog post. 14 March 2016.
  9. Posner, M. (2012). The digital humanities postdoc. Blog post. 7 May 2012.

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