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Starting to Do More for Contingent Faculty

I was at DHWI, wondering when and where I will be able to use these skills again. Turns out, MITH is doing something to help contingent faculty. 

January 13, 2013

Last week, I attended the Digital Humanities Winter Institute (DHWI), learning the Modernist Commons interface that I will be using to create critical digital editions of translations of Anne Hebert’s poetry, using the archival research I accumulated from my dissertation research. As we work through the interface and start talking about the “what’s next” questions, I am struck with the realization that I know so little when it comes to the digital humanities. The Ignite session and the Million Syllabi Project Hackathon certain reinforced that I am still in the gestational phase of my DH development.

The problem, of course, is that I have no idea when I will have the time to move from gestation to … whatever the next phase of development is (biology was never my strongest subject). I can barely keep up with all the tools that are available, let along figuring out how to use them properly and effectively for my needs. I have no idea how to “hack” anything; I understand encoding, but have zero knowledge of programming languages or concepts. I’ve learned a great deal at both Digital Humanities Institutes (and the DH Commons workshop before the MLA) but the knowledge fades when I am unable to practice and play once the semester starts.

This is, largely, because I am contingent faculty with a heavy teaching load and zero institutional support for my research and professional development in this area. In fact, it’s difficult to even convince the higher-ups at my institution that these are valuable skills for my teaching. There is no time. Short of quitting my job and starting another graduate degree (as I have aged out of just about every postdoctoral opportunity), I don’t hold out hope that I will ever be able to build anything (which for some is the only true sign of being a part of DH).

We need to start doing more to support contingent faculty in their long-term career goals. Even though the MLA enjoys pulling out the statistic that about 50% of contingent faculty are satisfied with their positions, that leaves the OTHER HALF decidedly not. My questions at the MLA almost always had to do with contingent faculty and how they can be helped to make the transition in Alt-Ac positions or into a new/different/emerging field. The idea that we just simply need to fend for ourselves while the university continues to profit from our under-compensated labor, fueled by our sense of either devotion to the profession or desperation is unacceptable and ethically suspect. I’m not so naïve as to think that our pay will be miraculously raised, but there are tangible benefits that universities (and the larger community who claim to be horrified by the working conditions of contingent faculty) can provide.

Neil Fraistat, director of the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanties (MITH), overheard me saying these things at the reception on Thursday night and approached me to share the different events that MITH is doing and that are open and available to students, faculty, and staff, contingent faculty included. The first is the Digital Dialogues series, but more interestingly to me is the Digital Humanities Incubator, which is an opportunity for staff and faculty to learn about DH “through a series of workshops, tutorials, ‘office hours,’ and project consultations.” Of course, this doesn’t solve the problem of time, but it does provide a value resource for those who are interested in learning more about DH or even get involved in campus projects/collaborations.

I hope that other DH centers make an effort to reach out to contingent faculty, to let them know that the services and sessions are as available to those of us. The fact that they are may seem obvious, but for contingent faculty, it isn’t, as we are continually being reminded, both implicitly and often explicitly, that we often aren’t included or welcome. So reach out to contingent faculty and let them know they’re welcome.

Contingent faculty, don’t be too afraid to ask. 


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