A hacker in every history department: an intelligent radical's guide to the digital humanities.

Author:Potter, Claire Bond
Position:Report
 
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Are most college professors likely to be replaced by underpaid adjuncts that manage hundreds of students online? It seems so. Humanities departments that are already adjunct-heavy see their universities experimenting with substituting Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), taught by highly paid stars at major research institutions, for surveys and other foundation courses. Could the adjunct crisis get worse than it is? Sure it could, according to the United States Department of Labor (DOL), which projects that although higher education will continue to move away from tenure-track work, "opportunities are expected to be good for part-time or adjunct professors." The DOL also projects that some fields, such as health specialties and nursing, will experience better job prospects than others, such as the humanities" (emphasis mine). My own field, history, is expected to gain only 4,000 jobs over the next decade, many of which will be neither full-time nor tenure track. (1)

Many historians, and other humanists, lay partial responsibility for this unfolding disaster at the door of the Internet. "Anybody who pays attention to the vast literature on educational technology should be familiar with the term unbundling," historian Jonathan Rees writes. "Educational reformers use it to connote the kind of division of labor and specialization that Frederick Taylor adored. Why should anybody provide content for their classrooms, they ask rhetorically, when the best professors in the world can be piped in via the Internet?" Although most MOOCs currently rely on peer grading, that will change if they are integrated into credit-bearing degree requirements. If it is hard to imagine low-cost graders being recruited from a global labor pool of debt-ridden humanities graduate students and jobless Ph.D.s, further immiserated by the loss of the piece work they currently perform, don't worry: Amazon's Mechanical Turk has pioneered a model called "crowd working" in which home workers with a wireless connection (known as "Turkers") lowball each other for intellectual or mental labor, earning as little as $2.00 an hour. (2)

Could technology turn the next generation of college humanities professors into highly educated menial laborers? Perhaps, if this is what intellectuals will agree to become and students will agree, or are forced, to accept as teachers. It is easy to imagine the dystopia of pre-packaged humanities courses being sold over the Internet, credit by credit, because they already are: not just by for-profit entities like the University of Phoenix, but also by statewide public university systems. In February 2014, the state of Tennessee announced a plan to use $34 million of state lottery profits to eliminate tuition in the state's public community colleges and technical schools, a budget increase that hardly seems sufficient for such a bold move. Will expanding on-line learning for all of Tennessee's campuses also be on the agenda? Probably: Tennessee already offers undergraduate degrees and technical certification online through its Regents Online Campus Collaborative. This has been the trend: Political and corporate commitments to expanding higher education through methods that make faculty work redundant, or cheap. (3)

But this is not where technology has to take us. Digital humanities scholars know that computers make us smarter, more creative and less replaceable by machines working alone. (4) We also know, as historian Ann Little, infers, that the problem with MOOCs is not technology. They disseminate knowledge on a massive scale, but they also reproduce the worst features of traditional pedagogy in their scale, impersonality and lack of pedagogical connection. MOOCs "feed the lie that reduces teaching to lecturing, and the misapprehension that we are indifferent to our audience, caring nothing about their comprehension, confusion, or questions," Little argues, noting (as many others have) that the students for whom on-line learning is the most affordable and accessible choice are often the students who are least likely to succeed in any educational setting without personal help. (5)

Now imagine an alternative to this scenario of deprofessionalization: historians not yelling at the kids in the back row to put their cell phones away, but answering questions that are being projected on the class Twitter feed at the front of the room. Imagine a historian working in computer labs with students to map Olaudah Equiano's long journey from slavery to freedom. Imagine hackers with history Ph.D.s in actual history departments who understand how to evaluate them for tenure and promotion, not squirreled away in a center or institute where they only talk to other hackers. Imagine scholarly and archival projects that are "born digital," requiring highly technical preservation and maintenance by historians trained to the task. In other words, imagine computerized teaching and scholarship as a source of new well-paid university jobs that preserve and promote the humanities.

Now imagine a digitally trained scholar in every humanities department, one who connects students and colleagues to their counterparts--and emerging jobs--in science, engineering, business, politics and media, to move the humanities out into a world suffused with the digital. Some universities are beginning to grasp this vision. For example, in fall 2014, the University of Southern California is rolling out a five year program funded by the Mellon Foundation to expand multi-media literacy, digitize archives and give conventionally trained Ph.D.s the training in digital humanities (DH) that could make them eligible for such work. (6)

For many of us, digital technologies have not only been intellectually renewing, they have provided openings for radical scholarship and scholarly interventions that simply do not exist in the academic world we have inherited. Social media--Facebook, Twitter, and blogging have become particularly generative spaces for questioning the academic status quo, exchanging ideas about radical scholarship and pedagogy, and creating space for democratic exchanges between faculty across lines of status, field, and institution. In 2006, as part of my desire to speak more bluntly about the conservatism of the academic enterprise, I started a blog, Tenured Radical, whose title riffed off of the culture wars rhetoric of the 1980s and 1990s, justifying cuts in academic jobs (specifically, the title of Roger Kimball's Tenured Radicals: How Politics Has Corrupted Our Higher Education, 1990). (7) Since then, I have acquired close friends and collaborators who are appointed at public and state universities, community colleges, and Christian colleges, who are on renewable contracts, who are more than full-time adjuncts, and who are graduate students.

These conversations have changed me. But a funny thing happened on the way to the blogosphere. I became persuaded, entirely by accident and without training, that digital technology had the power to radicalize my pedagogy and scholarship as well as my professional networks and non-scholarly writing. I learned that the vast majority of digital humanists have been, like me, predominantly autodidacts with traditional doctoral educations. We are also people who often have a keen sense of what the humanities ought to be as a twenty-first century intellectual practice that can democratize access to knowledge. I noticed something else as well: too often my colleagues reflexively viewed codex-based humanities as a treasured "high" culture by comparison to digital humanities' "low" and middlebrow cultures. At best, the traditional humanities provide content for digital environments that pander to people who will no longer read books and students who write in a strange argot that evades grammar, spelling, punctuation and good manners: "Hi r u going 2 be in office hours 2day?"

They could not be more wrong. Integrating digital literacy into doctoral educations could not only save the humanities, it could be part of a strategy to make Ph.D.s employable outside the academy and, in the process, revitalize full-time academic jobs. It would allow us to argue for new academic lines that articulate, rather than gesture to, the links between a humanities education, global public life in the digital age and twenty-first century work. At the same time, training doctoral students as hackers would give sophisticated humanities scholars the vision and skills to work in cultural and political jobs where both the digitally illiterate and those without sophisticated cultural training are increasingly unemployable. Finally, what if politicians could not rely on a steady stream of unemployable Ph.D.s to renew and refill the adjunct army? If humanities scholars had clear and viable employment options outside the university, higher education would be forced to compete for, rather than exploit, our teaching labor.

Putting a digital scholar in every humanities department could help academics become intellectually and economically flexible in an educational policy environment where the word "flexibility" has become the property of the bosses: an argument for employing practitioners in higher education rather than cultivating tenured or permanent, teaching faculty. (8) Making the hacker's primary characteristic--the capacity and desire to change to meet new challenges--a characteristic of all humanities departments might be the reform that helps our work regain its social and economic value. In other words, it may be time (to paraphrase DH scholars Dan Cohen and Joseph Scheinfeldt) to hack the academy. (9)

Fears that technology could destroy intellectual employment, even in its currently beleaguered state, are not outlandish. Technology has "unbundled" forms of middle-class labor as different as book selling, nursing and the law. (10) Technology has also facilitated unwelcome changes in the university workplaces that we associate...

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