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Announcing the Open Peer Review of My “Failure”

A piece of printed paper with a red 'FAIL' stamped on it, with the rubber stamp and ink pad sitting nearby.

How’s that for a clickbait title?
tl;dr: You can now do open-peer review on something Quinn Warnick and I wrote, https://digitalpedagogy.commons.mla.org/keywords/failure/.

Way, way back in what feels like forever ago—and perhaps it was given my two new jobs since then—I attended the 2012 MLA Convention in Seattle. That convention was notable for a number of things for me, including a panel that I co-organized with Kathi Inman Berens on “Building Digital Humanities in the Undergraduate Classroom”; a talk that I gave on #altac and the digital humanities; and the publication of Debates in the Digital Humanities. Note that I didn’t have anything to do with the latter, but it’s a book that changed the field and Minnesota was kind enough to buy pizza for the small but growing DH contingent at the MLA.

Also at that convention, I ended up in a conversation about digital pedagogy and the lack of books on the subject, which was thrown into sharp contrast by the appearance of Debates. The happy result is that in the months that followed I found myself engaged on the advisory board of what eventually became titled, Digital Pedagogy in the Humanities: Concepts, Models, and Experiments. The editors who steered the project—Rebecca Frost Davis, Matthew K. Gold, Katherine D. Harris, and Jentery Sayers—felt that a publication on digital pedagogy probably shouldn’t be limited to print as it simply didn’t respect the medium of the discussion. And fortunately, they were able to place the project with a press that agreed: the Modern Language Association using its tremendous MLA Commons platform. The result will be a book-like publication that is open access and allows for the presentation of original assignments and student work in relation to those assignments.

Even early on in the process, the editors knew that they wanted to organize the volume by keywords that were central to digital pedagogy. Those who contributed keywords would curate pedagogical artifacts and materials in relation to their term. I was both amused and flattered when I was asked by the editorial team to tackle “failure.” It was only a couple of years since I had flailed and failed very publicly in the pursuit of a job and I had since given talks and written articles about failure of one sort or another. It seemed like the FAIL meme had come home to roost and that I should embrace it.

I might have embraced it a little bit too hard at first, and I failed to make much progress in pulling together my thoughts on “failure.” But last November, I had the pleasure of being invited to speak at Virginia Tech by wonderful Quinn Warnick, whom I had met at the DH Conference in 2013. (Kids, never let people tell you that networking won’t pay off.) Our conversations over my time in Blacksburg led me to think that Quinn could be an ideal person to fail with, and we began to discuss what failure meant in the context of our own teaching and that of people we admired. Eventually, we decided that there were four types of failure in digital pedagogy:

  • the technical glitches we have all experienced in our teaching, when something just doesn’t work
  • the difficulties students have in implementing tools that are functioning just fine
  • when students are directed to find failure in others’ work as an opportunity to do better in one’s own, like peer review
  • failure as an epistemology, where students are asked to fail on purpose

Along with articulating how we saw failure working in the classroom, we found assignments or experiences that responded to each of these tiers of failure. We wrote them up and sent it off to our editors.

I’m now proud to say that Quinn’s and my keyword has appeared as part of the open review process for Digital Pedagogy in the Humanities. From now until 18 January 2016, you will be able to tell us exactly how well—or how badly—we failed at describing “failure.” (Consider it a Tier 3 exercise!) Please join in the conversation and let us know what you think: https://digitalpedagogy.commons.mla.org/keywords/failure/.

Image credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/phobia/2308371224/ / https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

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New Job; or Come for the People, Stay for the Projects

I’m thrilled to announce that in July of this year, I’ll be joining the team at Brown University’s Center for Digital Scholarship where I will be the Digital Humanities Librarian. In this position I’ll continue to help imagine, design, and carry out digital research projects in conjunction with faculty and graduate students. Some of this work will be in connection with the newly awarded $1.3-million grant from the Mellon Foundation for long-form digital publications in the humanities and humanistic social sciences. Since big data can often be a red herring, I will also continue to advocate for the value of small, short-term research projects. Finally, I will partner with colleagues in developing and deploying innovative digital pedagogy.

With this new position, I will be leaving Emory, where I have worked in one form or another for 12 of the last 13 years. (During that other year as I taught at Clemson, I continued to haunt the stacks at the Woodruff Library.) I’m proud of the work that colleagues and I accomplished during the last five years as we created the Digital Scholarship Commons (DiSC) and now the Emory Center for Digital Scholarship, which includes large projects like the Battle of Atlanta and small ones like Tweeting #OWS. What’s more, I’ll be here long enough to put the finishing touches on Belfast Group Poetry|Networks, which Rebecca Sutton Koeser and I have been working on for close to three years. Significant work is underway on other projects that I’ve helped design, such as “Schooling Donald Allen,” an exploration of the networks in and around mid-twentieth-century American poetry using the materials in the Raymond Danowski Poetry Library, and “Hacking Haiku,” which traces networks, allusions, and places in the work early modern female haiku diarists in Japan. Alongside these big projects, I’ve appreciated the chance to spearhead a number of small, undergraduate-driven projects in the courses that I’ve taught in the English Department over the last four years. I’ve learned over and over again that the computer-assisted pattern-recognition and interpretation of the digital humanities can operate at all sorts of different scales.

I think it’s telling that my work—as is the case with so many others in digital humanities—has been and will continue happening in the context of a library. Since libraries ultimately preserve knowledge, it’s critical that librarians be involved with researchers and others in the creation of 21st-century scholarship. But as anyone who has done research knows, libraries aren’t just the endpoint for research, they are where research begins. One needs the stacks and the databases when getting a new project underway, of course. Yet more and more, I think people come to the library not for the materials but for the people, as Virginia Tech’s Brian Mathews put it following a talk I gave there in November 2014.

I’m headed to Brown for the people, and I hope that people at Brown start coming to look for me soon.

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Announcing “Looking for Signposts” at #Alt-Academy

Herewith, the second quick update post.

A New Cluster at #Alt-Academy

A few weeks ago, on 27 January 2014, I was pleased to join Katina Rogers in announcing a new phase of #Alt-Academy. The open-access collection edited by Bethany Nowviskie first went live in the summer of 2011 and included essays that sought to define “alt-ac” as a concept of labor, employment, and identity within the realm of higher education. I contributed an essay to that original collection that discussed how one went about finding and applying for alt-ac positions, as well as discussing how I personally coped with the “failure” of not being on the tenure track. Myself notwithstanding, #Alt-Academy is an important collection because it was a first attempt to make visible a type of work that many of us found rewarding and as intellectually stimulating as the tenure track. The success of the intervention was such that “alt-ac” continues to be a handy term of art, as seen by the upcoming CALS Symposium at Penn State on the subject where Bethany, Patricia Hswe, and I, among others, will have the pleasure of presenting.

In 2012, I pitched Bethany on an idea for a new cluster of content to be added to the collection. I’d found in the intervening years that the thing people inevitably wanted to know about my position was how I’d got to my job from a very traditional PhD program. Indeed, my essay in #Alt-Academy along with the others in its cluster was intended to highlight the process of “Getting There.” I proposed to Bethany that people curious about alt-ac might need still more signposts, and she agreed. After announcing a CFP in 2012, I began collecting proposals and then several essays in the beginning of 2013.

And somewhere in there is where the reality of an alt-ac job cropped up: it took me far longer to edit the essays than I had thought it would, and while I made some progress it was going to be some time before they were all ready to be published.[1] In the fall of this last year, Katina let me know that she would be taking over general editorship at #Alt-Academy from Bethany. As Katina and I began collaborating, she proposed that I not try to get all the pieces ready to go at once but instead publish them on a rolling basis, and this is exactly what we launched.

The new cluster, “Looking for Signposts” features five essays out of the gate by Kim Yates, Andrew Asher, Daveena Tauber, Maureen McCarthy, and Katina herself. I also wrote a new introduction for the cluster. Spoliler: in it, I confess that our signposts aren’t quite what you’re looking for in the collection. Since alt-ac paths tend to be highly idiosyncratic, what we end up doing is simply bearing witness to the possibility of alternatives. As uncommon as that still is within the academy, I’m pleased to say it’s becoming more and more common.

I’m very grateful to the authors who contributed to this cluster—both those who have been published and those who are yet to come. And I’m also thankful to Bethany and Katina for the help that they’ve provided me along the way. And since we hope to be releasing new essays about every quarter, I suppose I better get back to work!


[1] It turns out that being in an alt-ac job is also why this post is kind of late. Between teaching my class this semester, all I could manage for the launch in January was tweeting and giving +1s to Katina’s post.

 

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Methods and More for “Beyond the Digital” at MLA 2014

cross-posted from ACH.org 

On Friday, January 10 from 5:15-6:30pm in Sheraton I at the Sheraton Chicago, the ACH will sponsor a session (#402) at the Modern Language Association’s Convention.

Earlier this year, the ACH put out a call for papers on the subject “Beyond the Digital.” In recent years, an increasing number of sessions at the MLA have been devoted to the digital humanities. As we wrote in the CFP, however, what is sometimes forgotten is that the output of digital analysis is not itself the goal; rather, such analysis is a means to an end, and that end is the interpretation of a text or corpus (understood widely). The goal of the ACH’s session, then, is to re-establish this understanding and conversation, defamiliarizing the conversation about the digital and making it re-familiar to the larger body of MLA participants.

The panelists’ brief talks will offer interpretations of texts, language, literature and/or literary history that definitely began with a digital approach. But—and this is crucial—we have asked our presenters to focus not on their methods but instead on the interpretations they have reached as result of their digital praxis.

And yet: since method is crucial for the work these scholars have been doing, the ACH still wanted to make information about their methods available to those who might be curious. Consequently, we have asked the panelists if each of them would write a post for the ACH to explain some of the process they used in starting the project—the tools, approaches, and methods of interpretation.

We are pleased to present posts from all seven of our panelists today:

Given the two different purposes of the posts and the presentations at the MLA—method and interpretation, respectively—the former will likely contain very different content from what you hear in Chicago. We realize that scholarly work is always a conflation of method and interpretation, but since the goal of the panel is to underscore how digital work is qualitatively compatible with “regular” interpretive literary studies it seems worth the imposition of the false binary. In the end, the post and panel presentation taken together are what should be might consider the complete version of the scholarship.

We hope that you will join us at the MLA (Friday, January 10 from 5:15-6:30pm in Sheraton I) or follow along via Twitter at the hashtags #mla14 and #s402.

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Two Job Markets in Every Pot: My Platform for the MLA Executive Council

Earlier this year, I sent Rosemary Feal, the Executive Director of the MLA, a direct message via Twitter. In the last couple of years I’ve had the chance to get to know her as we’ve spoken together on panels and as I’ve served on the MLA’s Committee on Information Technology (CIT). In this DM, I suggested that the MLA should host a job fair alongside the academic job interviews that take place at the annual Convention. I followed up with the observation that if the MLA needed to hire someone full-time to implement this strategy, well…I knew a guy.

Her reply came a few days later and not in the way that I expected. Instead of an offer of employment or (as was much more likely) a good-natured jibe about my need to show up to the Convention first, she instead conveyed the news that I had been invited to stand for election to the MLA’s Executive Council. I was both flattered and floored. As noted on the Association’s Governance page, the Executive Council “has fiduciary and administrative responsibility for the association” and works in partnership with the Executive Director and all of the MLA staff to steer the organization according to the concerns of its members, all 27,736 of them [PDF].

As I said, I was completely surprised by the invitation. But at least I already had the beginnings of a candidate statement. Here, then, are the 250 words that I could include in my platform, with some links thrown in to contextualize things:

I am a former adjunct who now works off the tenure track building digital humanities projects and programs. My experience—shared with countless others—suggests that the MLA must lead graduate education reform that includes thoughtful preparation for nonprofessorial employment. The MLA must help its members believe about themselves what we say about our undergraduates: that the study of languages and literatures prepares one for many careers.

On the Executive Council, I will work to introduce something new at the annual convention: a job fair with government and private-sector exhibitors. In so doing, the MLA will put its imprimatur on nonacademic outcomes for graduate training, which will help individual departments institute the changes necessary to reimagine graduate studies.

Concurrent with this expansion of what graduate training means, the MLA should expand how it conceives of its membership. At present, our association is largely composed of those who research and teach modern languages and literatures. We must reframe the organization to represent and advocate for those who have studied these subjects in the past. Those in other career paths need to feel not just welcome but valued as continuing members of the MLA.

Once we expand representation, the MLA will be better able to demonstrate the many outcomes of an education in language and literature because our members will be everywhere. By making visible the many pathways available to those trained in modern languages, we will show the public and ourselves the usefulness of a humanities education.

In the four months since I wrote this statement, I’ve been thrilled to see that the MLA, along with the American Historical Association, is continuing, as a Chronicle headline puts it, to “chip away at [the] taboo of nonacademic careers.” The MLA’s Task Force on Doctoral Study is just one example of such efforts. If elected to the Council, I’ll advocate for the above-mentioned job fair and ever-increasing attention to pathways beyond the professoriate. Making all alternative careers—and not just alternative academic jobs—part of the discourse during graduate study will help those who work outside the academy understand that their work makes sense within the context of the MLA.

But it turns out that 250 words are not enough to adequately capture everything that I would have liked to say about the MLA. The Association must absolutely continue to work for equitable working conditions for all those who work in academe, which includes graduate students and adjuncts. It’s critical to remember that faculty working conditions are student learning conditions. The MLA must do all that it can—and constantly ask whether it can do more—to change what has become the status quo in higher education. We must also think about those who work alongside faculty. To this end, I’m proud to have worked with the MLA’s CIT to revise the Association’s Guidelines for Information Technology Access and Support for the Modern Languages. These guidelines make it clear that it’s a responsibility of scholars to “recognize academic technology staff members as vital collaborators.”

As a result of my service on the CIT, I will also work to find ways to allow the MLA to make more of its data open. One example of this might be the Job Information List, which was made free to all users this year. There are good reasons why not all MLA resources can be made open in this way, but many kinds of data might be made available for research. The result could be explorations about the history of the profession and scholarship similar to the analysis of PMLA that Ted Underwood and Andrew Goldstone undertook and reported on in December 2012.

I do hope to be elected. I’m excited about continuing to serve the MLA which is a forward-thinking organization with great leadership. So if you’re into people who have gone on record as being very enthusiastic about the Convention, please consider voting for me. I’m interested to respond to any questions you might have for me. Comment here, on Twitter, or on MLA Commons!

And then vote!

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