Digital Digs (Alex Reid)

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an archeology of the future
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digital nonhumanities… excerpt

11 January, 2014 - 13:37

At work on the third chapter in my book this break, titled “digital nonhumanities.” Here is a brief excerpt discussing Alan Liu’s 2013 PMLA article “The meaning of the digital humanities,” along with Matthew Jockers and Ted Underwood. The point here is fairly straightforward. The mainstream humanities’ objection to digital methods is the belief that it represents a scientistic faith in machines that is really incompatible with the humanistic traditions that Liu calls its “residual yearnings for spirit, humanity, and self—or, as we now say, identity and subjectivity.” Critical theory builds on these yearnings as I discuss below. Either way though, the argument against the digital is that it places an uncritical faith in the capacities of machines, on what Liu calls the fallacy of separate human and machine orders. My point is that the critique of DH relies upon the exact same fallacy. As such, the real “crisis” represented by DH (at least potentially) is not that it values machine over human but that it might actually move beyond the human-machine divide into a new ontological order…

The complaints often lodged against the digital humanities accuse its practitioners of overlooking the lessons gained from critical theory in terms of understanding the dynamics of ideology, power, and other, variously named cultural forces in shaping knowledge. Another, more Latourian approach would investigate the many actors operating in the formation of digital humanities research. Liu notes this as well, writing that a science and technology studies approach would recognize that “any quest for stable method in understanding how knowledge is generated by human beings using machines founders on the initial fallacy that there are immaculately separate human and machinic orders, each with an ontological, epistemological, and pragmatic purity” (416). Instead Liu suggests that digital humanities methods, like those in the sciences, require “repeatedly coadjusting human concepts and machine technologies  until  (as  in Pickering’s  thesis about ‘the mangle of practice’) the two stabilize each other in temporary postures of truth that neither by itself could sustain” (416). For Latour this coadjusting is not flaw; instead it is precisely the way in which knowledge is constructed. For Liu, however, such processes put the humanities in a crisis, where “humanistic meaning, with its residual yearnings for spirit, humanity, and self—or, as we now say, identity and subjectivity—must compete in the world system with social, economic, science-engineering, workplace, and popular-culture knowledges that do not necessarily value meaning or,  even more threatening, value meaning but frame it systemically in ways that alienate or co-opt humanistic meaning” (419). This is a familiar story, at least as old as Matthew Arnold, in its identification of the technoscientific world as a threat to humanity, but it is more interesting in this context as it would seem that the humanities here suffer from the same “initial fallacy” as the sciences in seeking a separation from machines. Perhaps it is not so much the sciences that ignore the role of machines in the “temporary postures of truth” that they produce as it is the contemporary humanities with their faith in the truth revealed through theory. If the fallacy of separate human and machine orders is rejected, then neither the traditional humanistic yearning nor its more progressive, contemporary, theory-driven version appear less mechanistic in their methods than those of the chemistry laboratory. In other words, while on first glance, the difference between the digital humanities and its print-based predecessors may appear to be the employment of technologies in the production of knowledge, this appearance relies upon a mistaken belief that humans and machines are ontologically and epistemologically separate. It is possible that the digital humanities might offer a method to move beyond this fallacy and abolish the divide between humans and nonhumans on which the humanities has been traditionally established, though it would be premature to suggest that the field is doing this now.

At the same time, it is reasonable to hypothesize that the sites where the digital humanities is weakening this divide would also be sites of controversy with the print humanities. For literary studies, Ted Underwood argues that a quantitative approach generates controversy primarily “because it opens up new ways of characterizing gradual change, and thereby makes it possible to write a literary history that is no longer bound to a differentiating taxonomy of authors, periods, and movements” (2013: 16). Underwood explains that evolutionary patterns of gradual change contradict the contrastive study of literary periodization that have defined the disciplinary paradigms of literary study. How is periodization connected to the fallacy of separate cultural/human and natural/machinic orders? The analysis of large collections of texts representing decades of literary production and the resulting detection of patterns of influence, development, or evolution suggests that literary production operates across networks that exceed the scale of individual human authors. While postmodern literary theory has diminished the role of the author that was already less prominent in the discipline, given the “intentional fallacy” of New Criticism, than it is in mainstream culture, there remains, in the extrinsic, cultural interpretations of literature, some exceptional, agential role to be played by the authorial subject. Even if the author’s role is overdetermined by culture, it remains on the cultural side, as opposed to the natural/nonhuman side, with its capacity for immanent change as opposed to an obedience to transcendental, natural laws. Periodization is evidence that symbolic action is a uniquely human trait; it is evidence of the ontological divide between humans and others. As Matthew Jockers remarks following his own digital-humanistic investigation, “Evolution is the word I am drawn to, and it is a word that I must ultimately eschew. Although my little corpus appears to behave in an evolutionary manner, surely it cannot be as flawlessly rule bound and elegant as evolution” (171). As he notes elsewhere, evolution is a limited metaphor for literary production because “books are not organisms; they do not breed” (PAGE?). He turns instead to the more familiar concept of “influence.” However, influence also reasserts the human/nonhuman divide. Certainly there is no reason to expect that books would “breed” in the same way the biological organisms do (even though those organisms reproduce via a rich variety of means). If literary production were imagined to be undertaken through a network of compositional and cognitive agents, then such productions would not be limited to the capacity of a human to be influenced. Jockers may be right that “evolution” is not the most felicitous term, primarily because of its connection to biological reproduction, but an evolutionary-type process, a process as “natural” as it is “cultural,” as “nonhuman” as it is “human,” may exist. Regardless of whether one is convinced by such are argument about literary history (and even Jockers and Underwood remain skeptical), it is evidence that the controversy the digital humanities presents lies not in its assertion of the ontological divide between humans and nonhumans, or more precisely in its preference for the measurement of machines over the interpretation of humans, but rather in its erasure of that divide.

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going to graduate school in English

7 January, 2014 - 11:29

Probably the last in this series of posts surrounding the MLA silly season. While senior grad students, recent phds, and others prepare for their job interviews, another crop of potential graduate students are entering the pipeline. A recent post from The Little Professor  responding to some Facebook comments from Michael Berube, suggests that graduate programs should cover the expenses of their students’ job searches (e.g. going to MLA). It’s not really a practical suggestion, but I think her more general point was that doctoral programs should take more responsibility for the relationship between the size of their programs and the job market.

This raises a different question for me though: who has responsibility to whom and for what when it comes to graduate programs?

As many have quickly pointed out, departments do not typically set their own enrollment targets. Now if one wants to make the argument that it is unethical for there to be English majors or graduate programs because they do not lead to jobs, then I suppose we can make that argument. However this applies as equally to the BA or MA as it does to the Phd. It’s just that there is zero expectation of a specific career coming out of the BA or MA. If we want to make an ethical argument to defy institutional enrollment targets for doctoral programs and accept the consequences, then why are we ok with BA or MA programs? Maybe we should shut the whole thing down on ethical grounds. Of course we don’t because we believe that the study of English is good unto itself, even if it doesn’t lead to a particular job.

Why does that change when we get to the doctoral program? The answer is that it doesn’t, at least not at first. You get into graduate school on the basis of your success as an English BA, you submit your best undergrad essay, and you write about your interest in some literary topic. Typically you don’t write about your desire to do the job of a professor: working with students, sitting on committees, responding to student writing, etc. In other words, entering graduate school in English isn’t about pursuing a professional goal; it’s about pursuing an intellectual interest. And then the first two years of graduate school are just a super-charged version of undergraduate life (plus teaching if you’re a TA). One takes classes, reads books, sits in seminars, and writes seminar papers. There’s more reading and longer papers. There’s a higher quality expectation, probably, and also probably more theory. The content shifts a little, but the practices are much the same. How many graduate students pick a field based upon an analysis of the demands of the job market? How many pick courses based upon some understanding of the expertise valued on the job list? I would say the answer is not many.

My point is that typically there is little professional turn in the first two years of an English doctoral program. Students continue to pursue their intellectual interests without giving much thought to how those connect to a professional life, just as they did as undergraduates, and graduate programs and faculty facilitate this through the curriculum they offer. Then we get to the qualifying examinations where students really need to decide on an area of specialization. This is clearly a professionalizing decision as the exams should launch the dissertation project which will in turn define one’s job qualifications. Again though, how many students look at the market and select a specialization based on job trends? And do we even recommend that they do? I would say that we don’t. Instead, the commonplace wisdom is that one must select a field that one truly loves if one expects to complete the dissertation and do well.

It’s a strange piece of advice despite its common sense appeal. As this Chronicle piece from last summer reports, only 50% of entering graduate students complete their doctoral degrees (you can also look at this quantitative data from the PhD Completion Project). Furthermore, even looking at the long-term data, only 50% of those phds get tenure track jobs, and then one would have to ask what percentage of those get tenure. So, given the 7-10 years it takes to finish a dissertation and land a tenure-track job, and add to that the six years before coming up for tenure, we might say of the class of 2014 that somewhere by 2030 hopefully 1 in 5 will have tenure. That’s assuming the job market rights itself, undergrads keep majoring in English, tenure doesn’t disappear, etc., etc. Now those chances may not seem promising, but given that completion rates have never been much better than 50%, the chance of an entering grad student getting tenure at some point has probably never been much better than 1 in 3. So that’s the other part of the argument for pursing what you love, because if you’ll be spending 10-15 years on something that has a very good chance of leading nowhere professionally then you better love it.

It would be interesting to see a survey of incoming graduate students in English to see what they know about their chances on the job market. It’s hard to imagine that they don’t have some sense of the challenges of the job market, but maybe I’m wrong. My guess is that they aren’t making these kinds of economic, cost/benefit decisions. I know I didn’t. I was making a clearly anti-careerist move in going to grad school. I was consciously rejecting the idea of pursuing a corporate job. When I got married (to another grad student), neither of us ever thought we’d be able to buy a home. To that point, we’d both lived slacker, GenX lives as temp employees and students; we weren’t thinking about some other kind of life. Now of course we have that other life. (My wife never completed that program though she has had a successful academic career and is now in pursuit of a different phd, so I suppose the two of us reflect the statistics fairly well.)

On university/department end though, the decisions are all economic. Admissions decisions reflect the demand of applicants, the enrollment priorities of institutions, and the way universities are ranked. If you really wanted to change the way graduate school functioned, then you’d pressure the American Association of Universities to make retention, completion, and placement rates for graduate programs a significant criteria for membership. I know AAU and Middle States pressures for retention and time-to-degree at the undergrad level have made my university sit up and pay attention. What if instead of admitting 10, graduating 5, and placing 2 or 3 I said you have to take those 10, graduate 8 and place 5? You could try admitting fewer students, but only if you really knew which 2 or 3 to cut (which isn’t that easy). Would you change your tactics from pursuing what you love to something more strategic? Would you alter the curriculum to reduce the shock of moving from course-taking to dissertating?

My point is that if there were top-down pressures from the AAU or federal granting agencies to improve performance on the graduate level then this would eventually result in changes in graduate curriculum and the culminating activity we call the dissertation. I don’t know if such pressures will ever arise. And I’m not sure how they would affect incoming graduate students who would enter far more pragmatic programs than they do right now. Or even if such pressures would shape undergraduate programs at least for those who want to pursue graduate degrees.

I even wonder if this is what we really want (and by we I mean both graduate students and faculty). Would we want to create programs were 1 in 2 students ended up getting tenure someday (instead of 1:4 or 1:5) if it meant creating more lock-step programs, restricting the fields and methods students enter, requiring students develop skills demanded by the job market and so on? And if we don’t want to do what is necessary to get better results, then should be stop complaining about the results we do get?


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what’s the relationship between tenure track hiring and adjuncts?

4 January, 2014 - 08:49

Perhaps it’s just the MLA season, but the it’s the time of year when the dearth of tenure-track jobs and the exploitation of adjuncts often come up in the same sentence. So what’s the relationship between the two? I offer that as an honest question. I’m not sure if there is a national answer to it, if the answers are unique to kinds of institutions (research, liberal arts, community colleges, etc.), or if they are entirely local. We all know that over the last 25 years or so that the number of tenured/tenure-track (TT) faculty have declined and the number of adjunct/non-tenure track (NTT) faculty have increased. It would seem to make sense that hiring TT faculty would therefore reduce the number of NTT faculty. As the director of a first-year composition program, I work with a lot of NTT faculty. Really all the NTT faculty in our department teach writing, either composition or journalism, and the latter are primarily full-time professional journalists in the region.

Here are our current stats. A little over 40% of our composition courses are taught by adjuncts; the rest are taught by TAs, which is a different issue. Of those adjunct sections, more than half are taught by former TAs. That is, our TAships last five years, but hardly anyone finishes in that time frame, so they often take on adjunct positions for a year or two before finishing. We have seven other adjuncts and two NTT faculty who serve administrative roles in the composition program.

So here’s my point. My department is making two TT hires this year: one associate and one assistant. How will these hires impact the number of adjuncts working in the department? It will not. In terms of our reliance on adjuncts, it doesn’t really matter how many TT faculty work in my department. I imagine this is true at virtually every department. You tell me. If your department has grown in the last decade, has that reduced the number of adjuncts employed? Maybe if we decided to hire a TT journalism professor that would make a difference on that end, but not for composition, which is where 90% of the adjuncts work. And while these are local numbers, I think this is a fair description of the role of adjuncts in English departments nationally.

This semester we have 44 adjunct compositions sections, 32 TT-taught undergrad literature classes, and 14 TT-taught graduate classes. To keep these proportions and eliminate adjuncts, about 50% of TT teaching would need to be composition. If we viewed supporting our former TAs as adjuncts as a worthy cause and only wanted to eliminate the long term adjuncts (which wouldn’t make them happy, btw), then composition would be 30% of the teaching, or about 1 course per year for the standard 2-2 load. Of course it would require a significant amount of hiring, probably a 30% increase in faculty. To cover our extra 40 sections a year, we’d need at least 10 TT faculty.  It’s an interesting though purely hypothetical question: would the typical R1 English department faculty member agree to teach composition on a regular basis in exchange for more hires? And then there would be the question of hiring and retention. Of course we want the very best hires; we want to compete for hiring with the best departments in the country. How would this teaching requirement affect our competitiveness? Would the labor-intensive work of teaching FYC (outside of one’s disciplinary specialization) affect junior faculty in terms of their research productivity? Who knows? It’s all hypothetical because hiring would never happen that way.

In addition, there would be a real disciplinary problem and this has something to do with English or maybe the humanities in general. My sense is that elsewhere in the university it is not so unusual to have classes assigned to you and be asked to teach a fairly standard curriculum. In English though it would be simply impossible to ask TT faculty to teach composition from a standard syllabus. Instead, we would inevitably get some kind of writing about literature course. Whatever de/merits we might assign to such a course, it wouldn’t be a composition course.  And this is an expanding problem, where undergraduates not only can benefit from the conventional academic writing composition course but also could use courses that address oral presentation, digital literacy, and writing in the disciplines/professions. We’re only spinning further away from the disciplinary expertise of the typical English professor. You could hire a new class/department of TT professors to teach these courses, but now we’re talking about a real explosion in hiring as you couldn’t have a department of faculty teaching only general education courses. It would mean new majors, new graduate programs and so on. Again, no one is making that investment to solve this problem.

The realistic alternative, and the one that is implemented in many places, is creating full-time NTT positions that have respectable salaries (though not as respectable as TT positions). As far as I can tell this makes sense for us. SUNY has “clinical” faculty that have their own ranks, right up to clinical full professor. There’s no tenure, but there are multi-year contracts. However, if that is the best idea, then it only is further evidence that TT hires don’t impact adjunct hiring, at least not in English. What it tells us is that adjuncts do work in our departments that is considered non-disciplinary. If that weren’t the case, there’d be TT faculty teaching composition in my department (or yours) this semester, just as there are such faculty teaching introductory literature courses.

I wouldn’t assume that the way things work in English or locally in the various departments in which I’ve worked would describe the general adjunct situation in academia. Adjuncts do lots of different things. However that’s probably just another reason to argue that TT hiring can’t be seen as a general solution to adjunct hiring. Any university will require more faculty to teach introductory writing than it requires to research it (or teach more advanced writing/rhetoric curricula). The problem right now is that we have so many literary studies job applicants who find themselves in these composition adjunct positions. They don’t want to be there and they don’t really want full-time NTT comp teaching jobs either. If there was going to be a permanent class of NTT writing faculty as a regular feature of universities, then they would have to be filled by people who wanted those jobs. Assuming they paid well enough, were secure enough, and had some opportunity for advancement, I don’t see why this couldn’t be possible. But it wouldn’t be the same people who are now on the market for TT jobs in literary studies. Those just aren’t the jobs they spent the last decade trying to get.

I suppose where I’m ending up is thinking that we aren’t going to get very far in addressing the inequities of adjunct life by fighting for more TT jobs, at least not in English. Instead, we should focus on making a career of writing instruction into a viable professional life.

Categories: Author Blogs

job market woes and curriculum reform

1 January, 2014 - 16:31

From “The Professor is In” and “Blogora,” the ongoing conversation over the responsibility of tenure-track faculty for the adjunct situation and the job market. The former makes an argument for the privileged position of tenure-track faculty, comparing tenure-track privilege to white privilege. I don’t really care to make an assessment of that argument here. I will note, as I am sure others have, that the end game desired for the former is more tenure-track positions and fewer adjuncts. I’m fairly sure the analogous argument (which would be what–more white people?–) isn’t made. The argument for more tenure lines is basically an argument for more money.  No one is arguing that we cut tenure line pay, increase teaching loads, and put everyone on the tenure-track (or eliminate tenure and give everyone multi-year contracts). Hell no. After all, what is tenure without the much disparaged “privilege” that accrues to it? Still, that’s fine. It’s an argument for more investment in the humanities. OK, what do we get in return for the investment?

Maybe the answer is more single author monographs that sell a couple hundred copies. Maybe but that assumes that there will also be investment to keep those publishers afloat. More realistically the answer is that humanities faculty hires are tied to a student demand for the curriculum they offer. My sense in English is that adjunct faculty are very heavily tied to the teaching of FYC. That is, there aren’t a lot of adjuncts teaching upper division literature courses or even introductory literature courses. In some places, tenure line faculty teach FYC; in others they don’t. Regardless, I think it is fair to say that in English the process of adjunctification has been linked in no small way to the curricular separation of FYC from the rest of the department.

My point is that if one wanted to reduce adjuncts in English, the only way to do it would be to have tenure track faculty teach more composition. That is unless, of course, they managed to offer other courses that students wanted to take. But these are two sides of the same problematic coin. In my 20 years or so experience in English departments, literature faculty generally don’t view teaching composition as part of their profession.  (That’s fine; it probably isn’t.) Instead, they view their teaching responsibility as tied to their field experience (who wouldn’t?), which means teaching in a particular literary period. They already do that, and the student demand for such courses is what it is. More of the same won’t increase demand. So whether one is teaching composition or some other course beyond what is currently being offered, one is asking faculty to teach courses outside their field. Now one could hire new faculty in a very different field that might attract new students (that would be a risk one could attempt), but that would still mean changing a department’s culture. Even if a given professor isn’t teaching a foreign course, the rise of a foreign curriculum is just as disturbing, maybe more so. I’ve seen that first hand as well.

Besides that doesn’t do much to help the grad students being trained in the original field.

So there’s the vicious circle in a nut shell. “Privileged” tenure-line faculty are trained in a specialized disciplinary field to teach courses in that field and train grad students in that field. In my experience, the majority of such faculty would rather go down with the ship than change this arrangement. I’m not saying those are the only options, but given the choice, I’d say I hope you have a life vest (or better yet that you not get on the ship). Changing would certainly take some of the shine off of that “privilege.” But, in general terms, the answer to our problems is deceptively simple.

If you want more money, start doing something someone will pay more money for.

Of course it’s not so easy to figure out what that thing is that we should be doing. We always want to say that the humanities shouldn’t be tainted by such market-driven concerns, that it shouldn’t strive to be useful. That’s fine, until the humanities also starts clamoring for more money for more faculty. Then the humanities has to make some argument to someone about its worth, and ultimately that’s going to come down to students taking classes. Create a demand for curriculum and create a demand for faculty.

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