There’s No Success Like Failure and Failure is No Success at All

Jim Grossman’s day-long presentation was a thoughtful and very thorough account of the current state of PhD training in the humanities and an equally well-considered plan to improve career outcomes for humanists, especially those who end up in the vast contingent labor pool on which universities depend. At the heart of his talk were two key ideas. The first was that the problem is not one of oversupply. He rejected the commonly expressed argument that the answer to the shrinking number of tenure track faculty jobs is to shrink PhD programs, refusing the logic of tackling the statistical disparity between academic jobs and PhD’s on the supply side. Instead, he advocated shifting the conversation to what he calls “under-utilization” and redefining those outcomes that PhD programs identify as “successes.”

For me, at least, the virtue of this term is that it identifies the tragedy of the many talented, well-trained, smart and ambitious people who end up stuck in the vast pool of exploitative adjuncting jobs, shuffling around in the only slightly less cruel VL, VAP pipelines, or holding on to academia in other temporary jobs. Finding better outcomes for these people is, I think, the key to Grossman’s other main point, that we need to redefine success. In my mind the key to doing so is to switch metrics – instead of measuring success in terms of how many people get tenure track jobs, we ought instead to define success in terms of measurable declines in the number of folks stuck in the pool of academic contingent labor.

Chris Potter, used under Creative Commons 2.0

Chris Potter, used under Creative Commons 2.0

At GSU’s history department, we have tons of room for improvement on this statistic. Our PhD’s are twice as likely as those from other universities to end up on the margins of university teaching: almost 33% of our PhD’s are toiling outside the tenure track several years after earning their degrees. Nationally the average is about 15%. We are, frankly, below average both in terms of getting students onto the tenure track AND at getting them out of the contingent labor pool. Moreover, the percentage of our PhD’s who are employed “outside the professorate” is also below average.

When we think about improving these numbers, I think we should be honest about the fact that increasing our “placement” of students in the tenure track is going to be very difficult,not because of the quality of the program or students here but because the number of tenure lines is in free-fall and because history is a particularly hierarchical hiring discipline, with a very small handful of programs holding near monopolies on the market. There are, of course, strong arguments to be made that faculty and professional organizations ought to be putting real effort into reversing at least the first of those trends. I personally find the AHA’s readiness to concede the point that improving opportunities within academic is doomed a bit disappointing, even as I understand that the decline of the academic job market is caused by very well-entrenched and formidable economic, political, and social changes that, frankly, don’t look like they are going to do much besides worsen in the near future. Despite these trends, I think there is a case to be made that developing a distinctively focused PhD program at GSU may, at least on the margins, help our students do better on the traditional job-market by giving their education a focus and an angle that will differentiate them.

More significantly, we can and should be doing much better at providing an education that can take people out of the contingent labor pool and into other forms of professional employment. As Grossman emphasized, many of these jobs are within the university, in the form of (in truth still scarce) technology focused “alt-ac” jobs, or the much more common administrative jobs which modern universities seem to generate in nearly limitless supply. Putting aside questions about the relationship administrative bloat and the decline of tenure track lines, administrative work is a growth field with several advantages for history PhD’s. Universities value PhD’s, for one thing, and more than a few of us are in graduate school because we enjoy the atmosphere and perks that come from being employed by a university. Moreover, and I say this as someone who has spent a lot of time over the past six years working with administrators at GSU, much of the work they do is both immensely important, intellectually satisfying, and engaged (albeit at different levels) with questions of research, pedagogy, and activism that most PhD candidates love.

Grossman made several specific recommendations designed to ease pathways into this kind of work, such as floating the idea that PhD funding packages should include semesters devoted to academic work. This is a good idea, but I think the kinds of program we are looking towards, in particular the project management aspects of the SIF program, go even further in preparing PhD’s to perform administrative work. It’s also worth noting that there is no reason for current grad students in the department to wait on the department to build these skills. The university is full of options, both volunteer and paid, for grad students to engage with administrative work. Very few currently do so, in part because they are socialized to consider such work as a sideline that takes away from their “real” work.

Outside the academy, jobs abound, but we have a problem here of graduating students who feel unprepared for any work other than teaching. I hear this again and again from friends in the program. Many of these people will find themselves trying to hang on, working for peanuts teaching survey courses over and over before they find a path to work that better compensates them for their high level of training.  One of the critiques of the project of building pipelines out of the academy is that it contributes to the commodification of intellectual life and the neo-liberalization of the economy. These are not entirely groundless critiques, but it is equally true that the way we (both at GSU and nationally) are training our grad students NOW leaves many of them trapped in low-wage, contingent labor sectors of the university world, and thus that they are already victims of those very forces. It is these folks, the 33% who are hanging onto the margins of academia, are those whom we are most failing, and who stand to benefit the most from redefining success.



Update from the Hoccleve Archives: Completing a 30 year old project

This semester, the Hoccleve Archive team has been steadily progressing towards a major goal, creating a searchable Lexicon out of a set of computer files, known as the HOCCLEX files, that were created over three decades ago. For a bit of perspective, consider that the work stations for cutting edge humanities computing projects at their creation looked like this.

By Autopilot - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

By Autopilot – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,


First created in the early 1980’s as part of what was at the time a pioneering effort to bring computing power to humanist research, the HOCCLEX files are also a fascinating piece of the history of what we now call the Digital Humanities.  It is that story I’d like to sketch today.

The HOCCLEX files were developed in the early 1980’s by Peter Farley, working under the auspices of an editorial team lead by D.C. Greetham. They contain semi-diplomatic transcriptions of the poetry found in Hoccleve’s three surviving holograph manuscripts (Huntington MS HM 111, Huntington MS HM 744, and Durham MS Cosin V.III.9). Each word in the transcription has been marked with a Middle English root form and tagged for grammatical and syntactical data including person, number, and part of speech. The original purpose of the HOCCLEX files was to create the raw data for a lexicon of the holograph manuscripts. Greetham proposed to use this lexicon to identify preferences in Hoccleve’s holograph manuscripts that could be used to normalize spelling variants and resolve accidentals in a critical edition of the Regiment of Princes, Hoccleve’s major poetic work. In a very real sense, the HOCCLEX files were the core of Greetham’s proposed edition, the key piece of the puzzle that he hoped would allow him to combine a Lachmannian base-text approach with a copy-text editorial approach.¹ Moreover, they were the medium through which Hoccleve’s authorial intentions, as displayed in the holograph poems, could be discerned and transferred to the Regiment, which survives in numerous manuscripts, but not in Hoccleve’s hand.

Greetham’s work proceeded far enough for him to publish several articles outlining how the HOCCLEX files would be used, and to inform Charles Blyth’s 1999 TEAMS teaching-edition of the Regiment. regiment-of-princes

However, Greethams’ proposed critical edition failed to materialize. After 1999, the HOCCLEX files, their purpose seemingly spent, might easily have been lost. Fortunately, Blyth kept not only the computer files but a wealth of materials, including microfilmed copies of most of the Hoccleve manuscripts and over 6000 handwritten collation sheets. In 2009, Blyth donated these items to Elong Lang, and they now serve as the core archival resources of the Hoccleve Archives project.

Over the past several years, SIF fellows have been working to make the HOCCLEX files accessible to scholars and to recreate the Hoccleve Lexicon in a more robust and, most importantly, public form. Unfortunately, the files were formatted for a now-lost piece of custom software, making them difficult to view and of limited view as working texts. In the first semester of the SIF program, back when we had essentially no clue about how to organize workflows, personnel, and projects, a team of SIFs successfully converted the
original HOCCLEX files into .TXT files, making them accessible to modern computers in a standardized format. An .XML transform soon followed. This transformation allowed us to make a teaching edition of the holograph poems available on our website, a simple, but useful edition that makes the poems accessible to students.

Since the creation of the original files, their potential utility has been amplifed by the subsequent coming of the digital age. Greetham’s original conception for the lexicon was to create a tool that would largely work behind the scenes to inform a printed critical edition. In contrast, our aim is to take advantage of the  internet to bring the Lexicon to life in a digital format where it can serve as a public tool. As a web-based resource, the Lexicon, populated with data from the original HOCCLEX files, can function as a fully searchable and browseable research tool of use to Hoccleve scholars, students of the Middle English language in general, and serve as a key archival resource available to collaborators on the largest goal of the Hoccleve Archive, a digital critical edition of the Regiment.
Our goal this semester has been to create this resource, and  (knock on wood here) we are on the brink of successfully launching a prototype. The computing team, with vital help from Jaro Klc, have created a JSON search capable of retrieving data from queries, and a user-interface is well on its way. The initial prototype will be limited in some respects – most notably, it will display an untranslated version of the grammatical mark-up, so parts of speech searches will unfortunately display in such user-friendly forms as ” ‘v1#adj%prp'” or “‘n[??FORM?CHK]'”. This is, ironically, because the mark-up language has proven as stubborn as the archaic computer files to parse, for reasons that (double irony alert!) have to do with authorial intention. The HOCCLEX files contain almost 250 different abbreviations for parts of speech, some of which are easy enough to understand, but many of which are ambiguous ( ‘n#propn[NOT-MED]’), seem to be human errors ( ‘ende’) or are just plain head scratchers. Unless we can find the key to them, we may need the services of a seriously talented linguist/grammar nerd to help us replace the abbreviations with more user-friendly terminology. As someone who is always looking for the angle of what is humanist about the digital humanities, here you have it: in the end, we need not only computing skills but the lowly skills of a grammar nerd, much less valued in society, but crucial to the success of our project.

sample display for a search of the term "wommen" in the HOCCLEX

sample display for a search of the term “womman” in the HOCCLEX

That is an issue for another day, however. It’s a humbling and amazing thing to be working on a project that was started before most of the team members assigned to it were even born. In the meantime, the internet has made its powerful presence felt in the horizon of possibility that guides us. What began as an essentially private database, certainly one that would inform public documents and which gave rise to peer-reviewed articles, but which nevertheless stayed behind the scenes because there was no easy means to make it public, will soon be accessible by students and scholars around the globe thanks to the power of the web.


¹ D.C. Greetham, “Normalisation of Accidentals in Middle English Texts: The Paradox of Thomas Hoccleve,” Studies in Bibliography 38 (1985): 127.

Scattered Thoughts on the First Career Diversity Event of the Year



As the kick-off for our year of career diversity events, funded by grants from the American Historical Association and the National Endowment for the Humanities, we decided to put recent graduates who are working outside the academy front-and-center, and the first opportunity to shape our efforts. On the evening of Sept. 20th, we hosted a two hour panel discussion with four recent Humanities PhD’s, three from GSU, and one from Emory.

The lively discussion, held in front of a large audience of around fifty current graduate students in the humanities and faculty, began with each panelist sharing their pathway from PhD candidate to employment in the business world. These were remarkable for their variety. Two panelists decided while in graduate school that an academic future was of little interest to them. One of these made this decision early enough to tailor her PhD towards career in user experience/design. The other produced a “straight” history PhD, but with an aim towards a work as a researcher and writer. One of our panelists spent a year working a prototypical ‘alt-ac’ job before moving into the private sphere, while our final panelist, who just graduated this spring, competed successfully on the academic and non-academic market, choosing a non-academic position as a technical writer.

© Tomas Castelazo, / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

© Tomas Castelazo, / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

Over the course of the conversation, the discussion ranged from the intensely practical to the abstract. Nuts and bolts issues such as shaping resumes from C.V.’s, self-branding, identification of skills and interests, the mechanics of headhunters and recruitment, took up a significant amount of our time. However, we also discussed more philosophical issues, such as how and to what extent working outside the academy might qualify as “humanistic” work.

There were, in short, a ton of great things to take away from the event. For me, a nearly-finished PhD candidate who will be hitting the academic, alt-ac and non-academic markets in the coming months, the pragmatic advice about converting C.V. lines to resume lines (something we hope to blog about on these pages in the near future). As a co-director on the NEH planning grant and a member of AHA planning committee, I was particularly struck by several themes that emerged from the panel.

  1. All of our panelists were very happy to have earned their PhD’s and believed that it added great value, personally and professionally, to their lives. None wished retrospectively to have spent their years in grad school doing other things.
  1. A recent white paper on PhD’s in humanities noted that they weren’t sure if humanities PhD’s were succeeding because of or in spite of their training. The resounding answer from our panel was that they were succeeding BECAUSE of their PhD’s.
  1. The “traditional” ideas of the skills taught to humanists, writing, research, communication, ability to synthesize large amounts of data into a coherent argument or thesis, to discern pattern and variation, have real value on the market place.

Obviously a panel of four is a small sample size, but the panel’s clear consensus that the kinds of transformations needed in our programs are not of the tear-it-down -and-start-over variety, nor do they indicate any inherent and significant friction between an “academic” and a “vocational” model for training humanists. This is good news for people like me who believe strongly in the humanities and appreciate the strengths of traditional academic training.

CC0 1.0 Universal (CC0 1.0), public domain

CC0 1.0 Universal (CC0 1.0), public domain

It’s also a hopeful sign for people (again like me) who think we could be doing more, but who appreciate the difficulties of making deep reforms in large universities, which have multiple constituencies, plenty of room for bureaucratic infighting, and are on the whole a conservative and change-resistance institutions.

This is not to say, however, that real transformations aren’t required. Many of these reforms are cultural. For instance, we know that 50% or more of humanities PhD’s end up outside the academy, yet their fate continues to be considered novel and outside the norm. All of our panelists insisted, quite rightly and with pride that they were not unicorns or oddballs. They were, in fact, decidedly normal outcomes. All of them, however, reported that while in graduate school they perceived their interest in non-academic jobs as shameful, second rate, and best-kept as a secret. This stigma is unsurprising, as it figures heavily in the literature on reforming graduate education, and is a real problem that needs to be addressed. Some of it may be more perceptual than real. My conversations with faculty suggest that in fact many of them understand and respect students who pursue non-academic careers: yet I also know from talking to graduate students that few of them are getting this message. This points towards a cultural transformation that our planning process will need to address. Events like our panel, which bring alumni back to university as part of our community, can help to do so.

More tangibly, the panelists pointed towards a number of other tweaks in their training that they believe would have helped them transition out. Several mentioned wishing they had been encouraged to take a class or two in the business school or in other departments to diversify their knowledge basis. This is of course, technically possible in the current system, though it is not widely encouraged and might have “outed” them as people interested in pursuing careers in business. We are currently working on a DH certificate program that would open the door to diversification, primarily through exposure to technology. We might consider adding a few courses from the business school into that program. A second thing panelists wished for was greater opportunities for internships and better links between their departments and industry. This is very much on our radar and is a major piece of our grant.

Finally, a number of panelists mentioned how much they would have benefited from the opportunity to engage in collaborate work. One panelist, who was a SIF, or Student Innovation Fellow, (a program that features prominently in our NEH grant) spoke of the value of her exposure as a SIF to collaborative, high-tech research projects. I am a SIF myself, and have been interested for several years in the opening that program seems to offer for humanists to become conversant enough with computing, coding, and other high-tech fields to act as an intermediary across the techie/non-techie divide. It was striking to me that several of our panelists worked at exactly this intersection, as what they called “process & people” managers who spent their time working around very complex computing projects. Their personal experiences and sense of the larger dynamics of the market suggest that creative, resourceful and driven peoples such as those who complete PhD’s in the humanities have immense value on the marketplace if they are able to speak with and for our colleagues in computer science. This kind of career, which often involves project/product management, is exactly the type of add-value that the SIF program seems to me to offer humanists.





The Politics of Virtual Representation

It’s been a whirlwind couple of weeks for me, with lots of travel. The big journey was a dissertation related conference in France, where I had the good fortune to spend three days in the company of a large number of folks interested in the relationship between colonialism and indigenous sovereignty and to spend a week immersed in the museums of Paris. Readers of this blog, however, will likely be more interested in an earlier sojourn, to Drew University in New Jersey to present on the SIF at a major conference on the future of graduate training for historians.

The response my paper received suggests to me that we are on the right track with our ideas about how the SIF could fuel a reimagining of graduate school.

In fact, I was struck by how comparatively ambitious the most audacious version of our plans, notably the proposal we recently submitted to the NEH, really are. This was both encouraging and, in a way, discouraging, as it brought to the surface the heavy lifting we will have to do to achieve our goals, and the many potential obstacles in our way.

But there is also great promise. Unsurprisingly, 3D Atlanta, the showpiece of the SIF, garnered lots of interest – and it is the historical aspect of that project, in particular its implications for the politics of historical representation, that I want to write about today. After my panel, I had a long discussion with James Grossman, executive director of the AHA, and Kolleen Guy, a professor of history at UT San Antonio, about VR as a historical tool.


We began by talking about the limitations of VR – the way it promises a “virtual” experience, but may not be able to recreate the smells, sounds, and tactile experience of the past. Some of these, notably the soundscape of the city, seem technicallly possible, while others – the smells for instance – are not yet to my knowledge feasible. Either way, they point to the need for great attention to detail, which I think is clearly on the minds of those building the city. Certainly, previous blogging about getting the night sky correct, for instance, suggests this.

On a theoretical level, however, it suggests the need to think carefully about how to seek authenticity and close recreation while avoiding presenting what will necessarily remain a recreation. This issue becomes particularly acute once the game like aspects of the project begin to come on line, and the static cityscape becomes a platform for historical narrative.

We talked extensively about the politics of the representation within VR. For example, I broached the slightly anachronistic, but interesting possibility, that 3D Atlanta could serve as a slightly anachronistic setting for a “game” based on the 1906 race riots. What, we wondered, would it be wise or unwise to portray. To achieve a maximum of historical accuracy, one would need to be frank about the extent of racialized violence, including the murder of several African Americans. Because of the intensity of VR representations, narrating these events would pose massive and thorny problems. Do you include racial slurs in the soundtrack, do you depict lynchings? If so, how do you do so tactfully and how do you try to control the representation? If not, are you avoiding the hard truths of one of the city’s most historically significant events?

Historical re-enactment of the old fashioned kind has found itself on occasion beset by exactly this question. Colonial Williamsburg, for instance, held a recreation of a slave auction several years ago, to much criticism. Representing slavery at Williamsburg remains a live issue in ways that textual representations are not. Few historians blanch from detailing the horrors of slavery in print, but when staged visually, they acquire new types of power that pose huge issues about what and how to represent. Yet, as a place like Williamsburg clearly reveals, slavery and race are also issues which must be represented. Certainly, any historical representation of Jim Crow Atlanta must have the courage and tact to take on the city’s pervasive racism directly. But this will be a high risk representation and speaks to the vital need for careful thought and historical input when the project transforms from a static to a dynamic environment.

Chance versus Planning in SIF projects

One of the charming features of the SIF’s development is the haphazard way it has accumulated projects to work on. We were founded with the idea of being a labor force for faculty with ideas that needed implementation. This open-ended mission contributed to a fellowship program that has helped projects coming from disciplines all across the university, from English and History to Physics and Geosciences and the School of Public Health. This disciplinary agnosticism has been a virtue, and I think it has helped push all of us in the program into interdisciplinary work and perspectives. I can also be a tool to endear us to multiple aspects of the university by spreading our impact into as many areas as possible, and it can easily and fairly be seen as contributing to a kind of grass-roots, democratic impulse within the university, as ideas from faculty and lecturers bubble up in a refreshingly protean kind of way.

However, it has also contributed to certain problems within the SIF. Last year in particular, there were disjunctions between the projects we were supporting and the workforce we had. This has gotten better this year – but it still seems to me that we have some projects (3D Atlanta, for instance) that are over-supplied and others that are under supplied (anything involving video, for example). I think it has also contributed to our continuing willingess to take on more projects than is wise, some of which are pretty vague and do more to foster a sense of chaos than anything else. And, as our meeting with the CS SIF’s last week seemed to indicate, the more projects we have going at any one moment, the more difficult it becomes to coordinate work on them so that we achieve steady progress towards completing them. So, a couple of advantage of a more deliberate process for choosing SIF projects would be better capacities to match labor to needs, and increased ability to coordinate labor across projects.

Moreover, if the SIF evolves in the training directions that we have been outlining in our NEH grant application, we will be changing from an organization that works on projects generated from the outside into one that generates its own projects (albeit in consultation with others). On the whole, I think these will be positive changes insofar as they represent more intentional design. This is something about which Michael Crow has written in his work on the New American University. This is not the time or place to go into the complex merits and problems of Crow’s vision for the future of universities, but one thing I think he is correct in pointout is the importance of active design in education, especially in the area of interdisciplinary work. Ideally, a SIF project should exhibit a high level of intentional design, so that it can produce value not only to the university and/or the faculty involved, but also maximize the learning opportunity it presents to the SIF fellows who will work on it.

SIF at the Crossroads


This March, historians from around the country will be gathering at Drew University to discuss the state of graduate education in the field. Like many disciplines, particularly (but by no means exclusively) in the humanities, history departments have been burdened for years by aging graduate curricula and cultural expectation that the American Historical Association called (10 years ago!) “striking for its narrowness,” still based on academic job market conditions from the middle of the twentieth century.

The conference, “Crossroads: The Future of Graduate History Education,” will bring together people interested in revamping the now very dated ways historians are trained. Many of the conference panels will likely focus on broadening training, so that historians will be better able to compete for jobs other than Assistant Professor, and on finding ways to shape the desires of graduate students, whose career aspirations have been found to narrow as they progress through graduate school as they absorb the values of an institutional culture that considers outcomes other than the professorate as failure.

As readers of my blog know, these are issues with which I have been concerned for some time, and I have been arguing on the SIF blog and to anyone who will listen at GSU that the work we are doing as SIF’s can serve as a model for the kinds of reforms that are needed in the discipline. In March, I’ll be taking these thoughts on the road, and presenting a paper on this topic at the Crossroads Conference. I’ll be exposing our work to a national audience, highlighting the value of collaborative project work as part of our graduate training. And, I’ll be talking about my ideas of how the SIF, working in concert with potential curriculum changes under the proposed Digital Humanities MIS/Certificate Program, a concerted push by various organs and offices of the university can encourage grad students to think about their career options in new ways. Most importantly, I’ll have the privilege of learning from dozens of other people from around the country who are thinking their way through problems in graduate education. I would like to thank GSU’s CII for helping to fund my trip.

On campus, Brennan and I (with significant help from Denise Davidson) have also been working on campus to push these dreams a little closer to reality, and have drafted an application for a new grant program being offered by the NEH to seek funding for to spend a year planning how to best tie the SIF into humanities departments at GSU. This is a project full of possibilities and of pitfalls. If we receive the grant, it will also raise fundamental questions about the nature of graduate education and the SIF program.

Allow me to cite just a couple of examples. Graduate training in history is built around the completion of a thesis or dissertation, both of which are defined as long pieces of writing demonstrating primary and secondary source research and competence with the basic writing and analytic skills of the field. The traditional dissertation provides an excellent format for demonstrating this skillset, but if the department becomes open to students whose work occurs in the context of collaborative digital humanities projects, the format of a dissertation will need to be changed. This is not about cheapening the degree and its requirements – the planning and execution of a full-scaled DH project is easily on a scale and degree of difficulty comparable to writing a few hundred pages. But, its product has, quite literally, no way to count within the host of boxes that we have to check off in order to receive our degree. So, one transformation that the SIF as a model might pose is “what is a dissertation?” And when you ask this question, you are treading into a highly charged area, likely to set off serious fireworks at a faculty meeting. But without this reform, you can’t meaningfully train digital humanists, and you will continue to poorly serve students who seek employment outside the academy by forcing them to produce, as the pinnacle of their portfolio and the culminating demonstration of their skills, a work whose form doesn’t match their aspirations.

A second issue has to do with the nature of the SIF. It has been my observation that the aims of the SIF project have become somewhat split: we function in an unstable space somewhere between a labor force that helps professors put technology in their classrooms, and thus as a kind of defacto edutech team who help others achieve pedagogical goals, and as the objects of a pedagogical intervention exploring what it means to be a student and what the experience of university training (whether as honors undergraduates or grad students) should be. As anyone who has ever taught knows, there is no necessary contradiction between these things: indeed, getting the student to be the teacher is an exemplary pedagogical trick that has clear parallels with understanding SIF’s as both subject and object of pedagogical innovation. I would say that on the whole, this split identity has served us well and continue to do so. But, when we start daydreaming (as I often do) about the SIF as a platform for graduate education, we pull it a little further from its initial orientation as a support for undergraduate education. I believe both ends of the SIF can co-exist and in fact can in many cases work together in concert. We already mix undergrad and grad students in our working teams, where they have chances to learn from each other, and we support projects – like the Hoccleve Archive, for example, with aspirations that are both rigorously scholarly and “academic” in the sense we might associate with graduate training, and directed back towards the undergraduate classroom. But, in a potential world where the SIF is tied directly and explicitly into the structure of graduate education, more of the SIF’s attention and resources would need to be focused on its graduate component. This seems likely to raise significant questions and tensions about its overall purpose that we will need to address.

Using the Tech We Have: A Plea for the more Sharepoint

Perhaps the greatest strength of the SIF program is its emphasis on collaborative work. Yet it is also one of the great challenges of the program – especially as all of us working on the SIF are fulltime students, many deep in the process of writing dissertations or a thesis, or are honors undergrads talking full course loads. This poses immense logistical hurdles even to schedule a meeting, let alone to find working rhythms that work for everyone and that keep our projects progressing in a timely manner. That our projects are dynamic, and that new projects (such as the GSU growth map or the entire SIF outreach effort, which has steady and predictable components but is also designed to be continuously evolving) and new directions, not to mention the steady stream of unexpected technological issues that can arise at a moment’s notice. Keeping everything moving requires a lot of management work, and I think it is fair to say that the SIF has gotten much better this year at project managing. But I also think it is fair to say that there is still room for improvement – and I say this as something of a mea culpa as well as a general observation, as I am managing several projects in the SIF.

There are a lot of big picture points that I could make here, but it’s late in the semester and my desire for abstraction is low. Instead, I want to make a much more nose-to-the-ground type of observation, and argue that we should all be making greater use of one of our most underutilized assets, SharePoint. It’s not very pretty to look at, and it’s a bit clunky to use, but nevertheless we should be using it more. Every semester, Justin asks us to do so – and yet, most of the SharePoint project sites remain essentially empty or populated only with a few abandoned posts and other digital tumbleweeds. This is a shame, as I know I spend way too much time emailing people, trying to keep documents straight, and asking for updates on progress on tasks. If, for instance, everyone was using the tasks to their full potential, it would be much easier for project managers to assess whether things are running on time and figure out how to correct things that have gotten off track. It would also, perhaps, help SIF’s keep the small tasks they need to do in their heads, keep the actual logistics of who is doing what in which project straight, and remind them of what they need to do to keep projects going. The Yammer feed, another lightly used feature of SharePoint, could become a place where ideas and information are shared broadly among all SIF’s – in the process advancing what I think is an important, but oft neglected aspect of the fellowship – that it should be teaching us how to think about and talk about pedagogical and technological issues in higher education and society.

I’m not trying to cast blame or throw stones – my own use of SharePoint is sporadic and has become more so as the environment there becomes more tomblike, and there are a few teams (3D Atlanta and GSU Growth Map come to mind) that seems to be using SharePoint at least somewhat. I also recognize that using it adds another layer of stuff into everybody’s schedules. Yet if doing so would help us all get things done more quickly it would be worth it. If it could help solve some of the documentation problems that still plague our work (SIF outreach has spent a pretty ridiculous amount of time this year simply trying to find out what current and previous are up to), it would be worth it. And, if it could get us talking about the bigger picture on occasion, it would be worth it.

The value of long-term projects

This is the latest in a series of posts on graduate education in the humanities and how the SIF program could facilitate efforts by GSU to apply some of its growing recognition for innovation in undergraduate education to problems to its graduate programs. For previous posts on the topic, click HERE.


This spring, the Mellon Foundation and American Historical Association launched a “Career Diversity and the History PhD” initiative. Four universities, Columbia, University of New Mexico, UCLA, and the University of Chicago, were awarded $1.6 million to train historians for work outside the academy, and develop diverse career options for graduates who face increasingly poor prospects in the overcrowded, adjunct-filled world of collegiate teaching. The selected schools and the programs they will be funding offer a glimpse into the state-of-the-field of graduate education reform in the humanities, and – ultimately- into how much work remains to be done.

The University of Chicago seems to be using the money largely to run training workshops. You can see the 2015-16 schedule of events here. In all honesty, the list of fall 2015 events is pretty uninspiring and seems overwhelmingly oriented towards traditional jobs: it includes workshops on CV’s, campus interviews, teaching statements, and job talks. Don’t get me wrong, these are all important things that departments should be doing, but it’s hard to see how this pushes the idea of “career diversity” very far.

The University of New Mexico is emphasizing interdisciplinary work. Its website describes partnerships with law, business, engineering, and the health sciences, and an internship program designed to put the writing and thinking skills of historians to work in nonacademic settings. They are also building a career services office for their grad students.

A career placement center is also important to UCLA’s plans for the money. UCLA will hire a Postdoctoral Graduate Career Officer” who will run workshops and otherwise help grad students get internships in museum’s, non-profits, and businesses while they are in school, and seek employment afterwards.

I’m probably being a bit unfair here (the real value of these projects is hard to glean from the short descriptions on their websites) but three of these boil down to workshops, counseling, and internships. This is good stuff and nice to see. The internships in particular could be very valuable and are, of course, hard to assess from a remove. But, the workshop model – particularly when it comes to skills in digital humanities – strike me as a skin-deep level reform for several reasons, not least that workshops tend to work best at the introductory level and seldom result in actual mastery of skills. Hour long or half-day trainings in GIS or data visualization are a good start, but they can’t actually teach you enough to claim competence or even familiarity with new technologies, let alone teach you how to use them to design and build projects that use them effectively.

More interesting to me is Columbia’s pilot project, which is using a portion of its money to fund innovative graduate student work, include oral histories, blogging, and the development of a historically-oriented app. The best part about Columbia’s projectis that is provides students with the opportunity to actually develop something tangible. But in the end, as cool as these projects are (and they are cool), and as useful as the work they produce is (and it is useful, it strikes me that they suffer from problems of scale. First, because the funds to produce the work are available only to 2-3 students each semester, which necessarily limits their impact, and second because they fund tiny projects – with budgets of a $1000-$2000 and timelines of a few month’s work performed by presumably 1 already busy grad student.

It’s a pity that GSU didn’t apply for funding under the initiative, because the SIF program seems to me to offer a way out of the non-work of workshops and the scale problems of Columbia’s efforts. It’s by no means there yet, but the SIF could serve as an important lynch-pin of efforts at GSU to revamp graduate education in the humanities. My utopic vision of a future-SIF is as a kind of collaborative makerspace for long-term projects, involving teams of grad students working with real budgets to engage in meaningful, perhaps transformative, work in the digital humanities and pedagogy. The SIF already funds a number of historically-minded programs, most of which would benefit from the involvement of actual historians, and could easily fund several more. Imagine if the history department were to contribute a few of its GRA funding lines to allow students to “intern” at the SIF program for a year, where they could be put to work adding metadata to historical photographs, building 3-D Atlanta, transcribing annotations from 18th century almanacs, or creating content modules for the Online U.S. History Survey. In this environment, and under the guidance of SIF fellows, they could gain deep skills as digital humanists, working with programmers, graphic designers, and videographers while slowly becoming one themselves. Ideally, work as a SIF would “count” within the departmental structure – whether as a replacement for course work (students working on the U.S. history survey might be able to use it as an assignment in 7050, the pedagogy seminar), to satisfy a language requirement, and perhaps in certain cases as components of dissertation work.

To the history department, the benefits would be tremendous, as the SIF has funding, staff, and technical know-how that the department simply lacks. This would allow the department to institute curriculum changes that it otherwise would struggle to support, and might perhaps clear a path towards new degree programs such as a MA or certificate program in digital history. Grad Students would gain valuable skills, and not just technical ones, as the SIF provides (or could provide) real professional experience in management and supervision, team-building and collaboration, budgeting, grant-writing, and project management on a large scale. These are highly transferable skills of value in all kinds of enterprises, and they are hard to gain in a discipline that still favors individual work.

As the SIF continues to develop, we need to be building bridges into departments and encouraging conversation about how the SIF could transform graduate education.

Digital Curation at the Almanac Archives

1813vs_copy1_coverTo kick off the year’s blogging, I thought I would highlight one of the lesser-known SIF projects, the Almanac Archive. The Almanac Archive seeks to build a virtual collection of British almanacs published between 1750-1850. These incredibly popular texts (along with the bible one of the most likely books for any given person to read and use) are incredibly rich and diverse sources for scholarship in many fields. Designed to be useful, almanacs included a vast array of information about civic and political events (the dates of university terms, holidays and feast days, significant historical events) and the natural world (including tide tables, zodiac charts, eclipses). And used they were. One of the neat things about almanacs is that they often show signs of active use and engagement, in the form of reader annotations and marginalia, noting for instance particularly unusual weather events, which days crops were planted or harvested, and otherwise interacting with and personalizing the text.


recording the birth of a horse ( (detail)


The goal of the Almanac Archive is to make a large number of these texts- and the annotations they contain — accessible to scholars in a single location. At the core of the project is building a database that will link to digitized almanacs owned by research libraries in the UK and North America, with the goal of providing digital access and finely-tuned search capabilities to negotiate and use this assemblage.

The project is cool on a number of levels, but what I want to focus on here is how it will cut across institutional collections to create a pan-institutional resource. A lot of institutions own these books -they were, after all, extremely common – but to the extent they have been digitized their digital surrogates are spread out in widely different internet archives. For instance here and here.  Do any of these particular almanacs contain annotations? The only way to know is to skim each individually.

Even with the help of google, locating digitized almanac, let alone collating them, is no small task, and one of the virtues of a content-focused archive such as the Almanac Archive is that it can bring specific types of texts into a single collection, even though the originals and their surrogates are widely scattered. This in and of itself is no small help to researchers, but the Archive is not just a link farm. The database we’ll be hosting will allow people to search through multiple collections simultaneously, allowing you to easily view, say, all the digitized almanacs from a specific year, or specific title, or which contain information specific to a particular region in Britain and so on. Moreover, in keeping with the Archive’s emphasis on how readers interacted with their almanacs, you’ll also be able to search for specific types of annotations across all the almanacs in the database. So, if you want to look for children’s drawings, notes about the weather or personal finances, you’ll be able to do so in one fell swoop. To my mind, this is the answer to a question posed at our first team meeting last week: what value can a digital archive add to a physical archive, beyond ease of access? The archive will make searches possible across institutional boundaries and in ways that exceed are not possible using the metadata available in conventional card cataloging and digital surrogates.

It’s also going involve a considerable amount of active curation, which brings me back to my favorite topic, the SIF and graduate education. Annotations will need to be transcribed, bibliographic information will need to be compiled, and real critical thought and attention will be required in order to generate the database. Who will perform this labor? If you ask me, this is exactly the kind of work that graduate students could perform in a refocused graduate humanities curriculum that places greater emphasis on collective, long-term project work and on producing MA’s and PhD’s with real experience in the digital humanities.

Reimagining Graduate Education in the Humanities through the SIF Program

Last Friday, a panel of SIF fellows presented at the CIE Conference on Pedagogy. Due to some issues with time management on our panel, my remarks ended up being abbreviated considerably. So, I thought I’d throw them up here:

“Reimagining Graduate Education in the Humanities through the SIF Program”

A few weeks ago, I was attending a meeting of the GSU/GPC consolidation implementation committee. These meetings are usually nose-to-the-grindstone affairs, so I was surprised when the topic of innovation in higher education turned into a major part of the discussion. Among the participants in the little mini-debate that broke out on that topic was President Becker who made the comment that technology itself was not innovation. To illustrate this, he pointed to the strides GSU has made in lowering its number of drop outs and in helping students get their degrees in a shorter period of time. This progress was based in part on software that allowed GSU to track and identify students who were falling behind and in need of intervention from advising. But, as Becker pointed out, other universities who had purchased the same software had not seen the results from it that GSU had. As Becker put it, this is because innovation is the “marriage of process and technology.” He credited GSU’s success less with the software – important as that was — than with building a process to use the technology in efficient ways.

Now, President Becker knows more about higher ed than I ever will. But, I would like to amend his statement just a little, to emphasize that hidden inside the idea of “process” is the idea of labor. So, I would expand Becker’s definition just a bit and emphasis that technology + process + skilled human labor = innovation. That term – labor – is an important one, not least because of the importance universities themselves place on their societal role as the creators of skilled laborers. And this brings me around to the SIF and to the point I would like to make today, which is that at least potentially the biggest contribution the SIF program might offer to pedagogy at GSU is not at the level of undergraduate education, but at the level of graduate education where the SIF program’s model of collaborative work between professors, academic professionals and graduate students could facilitate a broader transformation of graduate education in the humanities at GSU that would make our PhD and MA students more capable of performing the kinds of labor that are emerging, for better or worse, at the forefront of what the work of an “academic” will look like in the future.

It is no secret that graduate education in the humanities is in a deep labor crisis caused by structural transformations of higher education. From the perspective of a graduate student are an overproduction of PhD’s and a steep decline in the number of jobs available to them. These are big socio-economic issues associated with the neo-liberalization of the university that unfortunately I have time only to mention in passing, but they in part they are also pedagogical problems because graduate education in the humanities – certainly in my discipline of history – remains configured around producing graduates who will be competitive for tenure-track faculty jobs, even though in the decade between 1998-2009 (and thus right at the beginning of a number of terrible years on the job market) just 51% of history PhD’s were able to find tenure-track appointments. For a university like GSU, which is still very much building its national reputation, the numbers are even worse.

Yet, it is tenure-track work, and especially tenure-track work at research oriented universities, that dominates the professional training of humanists. In the last few years, as the late recession made trend-lines impossible to ignore, there has been a vigorous conversation in history departments, at the MLA, across the pages of the Chronicle and Inside Higher Ed, about the need to reimagine graduate training to better reflect the changing nature of academic work, which is increasingly likely to value those who can combine content knowledge with technical abilities. Faculty and professional organizations are well aware of the urgent need to redesign PhD programs – the MLA and AHA have both issued main reports to that effect within the last couple of years. Some of the basic goals of such a reimagining are clear. They include a greater emphasis on teaching, a core skill that is not always emphasized in graduate training, and the development of curricula oriented towards non-academic jobs (in history these might include jobs in the government or at think tanks or “public history” jobs at museums or historical societies) or so-called “alt-ac” jobs within the academy. Crucially, many of these kinds of jobs call for technological chops not conventionally offered as part of the graduate curriculum – even teaching, I would suggest, is increasingly a skill that demands technical as well as pedagogical skillsets. At the national level, concrete efforts to figure out how to integrate these new types of skills into doctoral programs have been spotty at best, and are just beginning to make their way into graduate education at the level of program design and pedagogy.

GSU ought to be in a good position to lead on these issues. For one thing, we already have a student body that is ready, even eager, to receive training for “non-traditional” jobs. A 2014 survey by the GSA found that 41% of GSU grad student respondents (most of whom were PhD students) intended to pursue non-academic careers after graduation. Moreover, GSU’s modest national reputation gives us a certain advantage: we have less of an investment in the old-model of training and thus less to lose by engaging the shifting nature of academic labor. While GSU humanities departments already emphasize teaching to a considerable degree, and the CII and CIE help provide teacher training workshops across the university on the whole, the curriculum in the humanities looks similar to that at most PhD granting institutions in that it remains oriented towards the tenure-track work that relatively few of its graduates will be able to secure. Perhaps for this reason only 20% of grad students in the GSA survey believed their department was providing adequate resources to prepare them for careers outside the academy, so it is clear that much work remains to be done.

Some of the roadblocks to deeper reform of the curriculum are laudable commitments to the deep content mastery that is at the core of PhD work. Some are less principled, including concerns among faculty who might lose students or courses in a new curriculum, and to a kind of guild-like commitment to doing things the way they’ve always been done. One of the SIF’s advantages is that it exists outside the departmental structure, and thus can side-step some of these fights. Another advantage of the SIF is that it draws on a unique configuration of talents and perspectives and can help fill a knowledge gap that I think suggests that departments are not necessarily the best place for implementing the kinds of strategic rethinkings that seems called for. Many departments, the history department at GSU, for instance, have few faculty with experience in computer programming, GIS, data visualization, or content module creation and thus little ability to transmit those skills or to help graduate students envision or evaluate work drawing on them. Moreover, because the humanities –perhaps especially history- are less oriented towards collaborative work than other disciplines – grad students often have little chance to gain exposure to administrative, budgeting, and supervisory skills.

My point is that the structure of departments in the humanities – combined with their relatively low visibility in the university – can make it difficult for them to generate the funding, staffing, and program building architecture to implement meaningful projects of appropriate depth for graduate work. In contrast, these are all things the SIF program excels at and ultimately where it’s most far reaching implications may lie. The SIF represents in embryo, exactly the kind of pedagogical program that graduate education in the humanities desperately needs because it provides a model for developing skilled labor at the intersection of technology and content knowledge. Already, it has brought together two dozen grad students from across GSU from disciplines ranging from computer science, the fine arts, religious studies, history, anthropology, the business college, English, and computer science. Some SIF fellows came to the program with technical skills that have been developed through engagement with faculty research and exposure to the demands of undergraduate teaching, others – such as myself – came with more traditional academic skills that have been stretched and developed by having to reimagine classroom instruction as a hybrid event, the enlightenment as a subject of film and visual media, and primary source work and textual interpretation as crowd-sourced phenomenon. All of us have worked in interdisciplinary teams and on projects that demanded that we approach research and pedagogical problems from new, sometimes uncomfortable perspectives.

The work we are doing can serve as a platform through which the meaning of graduate pedagogy can be rethought because it sits at the intersection of technology + process + labor to produce innovation. As I see it, the promise of the SIF is that it could mature into a pedagogical makerspace, a development vehicle for innovation in instruction and a training-center that counted among its core “products” a cadre of graduate students trained in making large scale pedagogical projects possible. This benefits the university on a number of levels. First, SIF fellows provide the labor that is fueling several dozen projects across the university, many of which would literally not exist without the labor SIF fellows provide. Second, by providing a framework in which we can learn to perform this labor, the SIF is producing graduate students with very specialized skillsets that will equip them to succeed in a higher-education ecosystem that is increasingly oriented towards those who can combine content mastery with technical dexterity.

By way of conclusion, I would like to suggest a couple of ways in which this vision of the SIF program might become a reality. First, the SIF program should open an official dialog with DGS’s about pedagogical issues in graduate education and about the role the SIF program could play in addressing them. One immediate fruit of these conversations would be better identification and recruitment of SIF’s as DGS’s could help identify students mostly like to benefit from, and benefit the SIF program. It is also possible that with more coordination, departments might be able to help fund the SIF program by allowing some GTA/GRA stipends to be used to support SIF work. For example, the current project to create an online version of the US History survey could easily be assigned a TA or two out of the available pool to contribute to the work. Lines of conversation with individual departments might also help departments and the SIF coordinate on broader issues of curriculum and disciplinary training.

Second, the SIF could better orient itself towards providing its fellows with the philosophical and educational background to talk about their work in other than technical terms. For example, those of us working on classroom based projects would benefit from a structured forum and common reading list designed to allow us to translate our experiences as SIF’s into teaching philosophy statements and would also benefit from the assignment of “research” time designed to allow us to pursue background knowledge relevant to our projects. This might be accomplished by ramping up the SIF blog and by assigning one or more SIF’s to schedule events and organize reading groups and administrate the educational side of the program. Finally, and this is perhaps another task that SIF fellows could help accomplish, the SIF program should develop the ability to track its graduates, both to demonstrate its success as a labor program and as a way of exploring and fine-tuning its project work.