Credential Creep in the Digital Humanities

Contributed by Amanda Gailey, Dot Porter
May 06, 2011
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Careers & Credentials

In a 1903 issue of Harvard Monthly, William James decried “The PhD Octopus,” the disturbing trend among American colleges of requiring a PhD—even one in an unrelated field—of anyone hired to teach. The degree was not an accurate indicator of a candidate’s merit as a teacher, James felt, and was simply “a sham, a bauble, a dodge, whereby to decorate the catalogues of schools and colleges.” He warned that the vanity of requiring unnecessary degrees would, over time, devalue the degree itself, distract capable teachers from their work or dissuade them from entering the profession altogether, and contribute to the personal destruction of PhD students who really had no business in their programs.

Over a hundred years later, as we face an academic buyer’s market that consigns untold numbers of PhDs to poorly compensated, teaching-intensive jobs that offer no incentives for serious scholarship, James’s concerns seem both eerily prescient and quaint. The PhD Octopus proved a PhD juggernaut, and nothing seems likely to reverse its course.

Until recently, though, the digital humanities seemed a sanctuary from these trends. Provided you had found a way to enlist in a digital humanities project, you stood a good chance (relative to your fellow students) of landing a rewarding job somewhere in academia. Sadly, this seems to be less the case with every passing year. As two professionals who have benefited from the relative egalitarianism of the digital humanities, we are disturbed by what we see as increasing gatekeeping within the field. Specifically, we have observed two trends that we fear have begun to threaten the relatively open and egalitarian tradition of digital humanities. First, job advertisements are now more likely to require formal credentials and specific skills. More and more job postings require advanced degrees in the humanities, presumably as evidence of the applicant’s well-roundedness, educability, and potential for creative thinking, yet they simultaneously require very specific technological proficiencies that indicate the hiring committees have little faith in the applicant’s ability to learn on the job. Second, as digital humanities has moved increasingly into the mainstream in the US, institutions widely regarded as prestigious have begun to participate in the field. In itself this is a welcome development, but we predict that degrees from these institutions will be overvalued in comparison with universities that have longer and stronger records of work in digital humanities.

The PhD Octopus

Both of us are often approached by students interested in careers in digital humanities, and until recently we have advised them to consult current job advertisements to learn what kinds of skills and educational credentials an employer will likely require. What they will find if they look these days, though, is an often bewildering, idiosyncratic laundry list of skills and degrees generated by hiring committees who, likely lacking background in the field themselves, seem to study the particulars of DH professionals they know rather than sensibly considering the general skills the job requires. Other times, the reader must wonder whether gratuitous credentials, such as the PhD for entry-level or even temporary jobs outside of academic departments, stem from the committee’s inability to see past their own training, or even worse, are tacked on because any employer hiring in this job climate has the luxury of requiring superfluous credentials while usually failing utterly to offer commensurate rewards. In short, our study of digital humanities job postings has found that the answer to the question, “Why do search committees require the PhD” is often not “because they should,” but “because they can.”

We have canvassed two decades of job advertisements in digital humanities looking for hiring trends. We have not attempted a thorough, quantitative study of every job posting in the field, but have read through a large random sampling to get a sense of trends. Our admittedly unscientific survey has revealed that job postings seem to fall into three categories: 1) professorial positions; 2) librarian positions; and 3) technical or research positions. Professorial positions prioritize research and teaching, and are often housed within traditional departments such as English or History. Almost all of them require a PhD, which seems entirely appropriate (given that we are living in the era James foretold). Librarian positions tend to involve digitization and metadata development and analysis. These jobs usually require the MLS/MIS degree, which we also see as appropriate. The third category includes some positions that are exclusively or almost exclusively technical. Others within this category are more administrative or research-focused, including positions to liaise with librarians and faculty and to develop digital centers.  Within this third category, which includes many entry-level jobs in digital humanities, the degree requirements vary wildly, even within subtypes. They range from requiring a bachelor’s in computer science to a master’s in the humanities or library science to a PhD in a variety of fields, in addition to a largely unpredictable array of specific programming knowledge and administrative experience.

Humanist, an international listserv for people interested in any aspect of digital humanities, has been posting job advertisements since 1989, when most of us had never heard of the internet, much less humanities computing. Unsurprisingly, the job ads in 1989 were written broadly: one asked for experience in computing, specifying only “extensive knowledge of computer archiving, with skills in programming and relevant systems management,” and asked that the applicant be in some way familiar with the topic of the archive. The only other ad from this year asked for a bachelor’s degree in an unspecified field along with “a minimum of three years computing experience, one of which must be in management, preferably in a higher education environment.”  We might attribute the vagueness of these ads to the rarity of applicants qualified to work in humanities computing positions in the late 80s. Interestingly, though, this trend generally held through the 90s and the early oughts. Certainly there were exceptions, such as one ad from 1990 that sought a candidate with a PhD in philosophy, a degree in computer science, management skills, and preferably some experience in academic editing and desktop publishing. In exchange, this polymath would earn the princely sum of $30,000 a year.

Unfortunately, such job ads have become increasingly common in the last five years. As a rough measure, we looked at the occurrence of the word “PhD” (and various permutations) within the bodies of posts to Humanist, and found that by 2007 “PhD” was occurring on the order of five times more frequently than in 2000: not a definitive statistic, but evidence that the community is talking about PhDs a lot more than it was a decade ago. The trend seems to hold within job ads, where the PhD requirement often ranges from a perfectly reasonable component for a faculty position in the humanities to an irrelevant credential that disqualifies competent applicants from the pool and stands as a poor surrogate for the combination of skills that are necessary for the job but only rarely taught in graduate programs.

Even job advertisements that do not require the PhD frequently require too many credentials. Sometimes these are lists of assorted technical skills; other times the job seems to have been designed to cover every professional task and office odd job not managed by current staff. For example, a recent post seeks a candidate with a graduate degree in American history and proficiency in XML/TEI to manage both a digital archive and an unrelated print journal. The successful applicant could look forward to a two-year halftime position that would pay just over $18,000 a year.

Even if we allow for draconian market forces, employers do themselves a disservice by specifying too many credentials. As James wrote of his contemporaries, “Certain bare human beings will always be better candidates for a given place than all the doctor-applicants on hand; and to exclude the former by a rigid rule, and in the end to have to sift the latter by private inquiry into their personal peculiarities among those who know them, just as if they were not doctors at all, is to stultify one's own procedure.” Excessive and irrelevant credentials make the stack of applications shorter, but they also likely filter out some of the most suitable candidates.

Further, the ethical failure of the over-credentialized job advertisement is significant. At best it risks expending institutional resources on poor recruitment. At worst it directly advises young, skilled, and vulnerable young people to put off their financial security and family planning to seek expensive credentials that have limited currency beyond academia and may lead to part-time, temporary, benefitless employment.

Creeping Ivy

Alongside our concern with the gradual increase in required degrees and technical proficiencies we've described, we worry about a less quantifiable trend in DH hiring: the encroachment of elitism. Over the past few decades, digital humanities in the United States has developed into an energetic, collegial, and exciting field largely in spite of, and not because of, the involvement of the nation’s most elite universities. There are clear exceptions to this trend: some schools, such as Stanford, the University of Virginia, and Brown, made significant and early contributions to the field. But many early proponents of digital humanities were less renowned institutions. George Mason University started its Center for History and New Media in 1994; the University of Kentucky began the Collaboratory for Research in Computing for the Humanities in 1998; the University of Maryland founded its Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities in 1999; and the University of Nebraska, which founded its E-Text Center in the late 90s and its Center for Digital Research in the Humanities in 2005, was hiring faculty involved in digital humanities in 2000. Unperturbed by the lack of enthusiasm at universities with higher reputations, these institutions invested in digital humanities.

As digital humanities has received more press, some of the nation’s leading institutions have begun to get on board. In February of 2010 a group of admirably proactive graduate students at Yale received funding to stage a conference called “The Past’s Digital Presence.” At the conference, one of the keynote speakers remarked that the event served as a “watershed moment” in digital humanities. Indeed, he was right if he meant that the involvement of graduate students at an Ivy League university signified that decades of work elsewhere had finally convinced some of the last venerable holdouts that digital humanities is worth pursuing. A less charitable reading of his comment, though—that digital humanities has finally made it now that these formerly uninterested schools are involved—may leave digital humanists at universities with a longer history in the field feeling a bit like the Little Red Hen. We hope that as the nation’s more illustrious institutions become involved in digital humanities, the nature of the field, which has historically been significantly shaped by big public universities and held good prospects for their students and staff, is respected in hiring decisions.

Recommendations

We believe that digital humanities has thrived on a spirit of entrepreneurship and egalitarianism that, sadly, has not been palpable in the traditional humanities perhaps since James lamented credential creep at the turn of the last century. Digital humanities has served as a model not just for new ways of thinking about old texts, but for new ways of organizing academic labor in the humanities—a model in which humanists collaborate with each other and with librarians and publishers, in which ambitious junior faculty can shape major research initiatives, and in which talented people lacking formal credentials or a vaunted pedigree could forge careers that would be impossible in the traditional humanities. We believe that committees tasked with creating DH positions would do well to value the spirit that has helped make this new work worth hiring in. To that end, we offer the following suggestions.

  1. Are you advertising for a faculty position in digital humanities within a traditional department, such as English or History? If so, the PhD is an entirely appropriate requirement, of course, but be willing to do your homework on these applicants more than may be customary for more orthodox faculty positions. The usual pedigrees don’t apply here.
  2. Are you advertising for a faculty position or leadership position in a digital center or newly-created department? Consider making an advanced degree a preferable but not required credential, and leave open what the degree may be and in what area. Describe the responsibilities of the position and ask applicants to make clear to you how their educational and career backgrounds have prepared them to meet those responsibilities.
  3. Are you advertising for a midlevel or entry level staff position or programming position? Do not require an advanced degree, and do not be overly specific about what the degree must be in. Some humanities or library science students have developed excellent programming skills, either in formal coursework or through other educational or work experiences. These people may not only be able to tackle your programming needs competently, but will bring with them a valuable understanding of the context of the work, and have the potential to develop their careers at your center. Don't be needlessly specific about required technical proficiencies. A well-rounded applicant with related proficiencies will be able to pick up the specifics of your position while bringing a healthy diversity in his or her approach to the job.

These considerations may stop short of the admonishment of James, who insisted the duty of the university is to “guard against contributing to the increase of officialism and snobbery and insincerity as against a pestilence.” We hope, though, that they will help to protect a healthy impulse within the digital humanities community, attract good people to the field without expecting needless sacrifices from them, and allow hiring committees to find their best candidates.