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  • Against Mentoring
  • Elizabeth Losh (bio)

Mentoring can be a problematic term. According to Google's Ngram Viewer, the word mentoring, despite its associations with unselfish activities, seems to be roughly correlated with the rise of neoliberalism and its associated focus on human capital. Of course, I do not accept broad generalizations that the digital humanities promote a neoliberal agenda, because such conspiracy theories often marginalize alternative variants of the digital humanities that could be placed at the center rather than the periphery of the field.1 But I do think that the concept of mentoring often normalizes assumptions that an autonomous homo economicus should be the prime mover in the academy. After all, a mentor is supposed to adopt a role that mixes the personal and the professional, and as such, a mentor is expected to perform affective labor. Although affective labor is often undervalued, it provides essential maintenance on which institutions depend.2 I do not doubt that such affective labor is important, but I worry that investing too much authority in mentoring roles has a tendency to concentrate power rather than to distribute it, especially since mentoring opportunities are often so unevenly distributed in academe, particularly in largely "alt-ac" fields like the digital humanities.

Recent cultural conversations about sexual harassment have also aired troubling allegations against leading figures in the digital humanities. Even in cases where there might be reasonable doubt about wrongdoing, it is important to recognize that mentoring can be paternalistic at best and abusive at worst. In the close and necessarily shared quarters of a digital humanities lab or other limited access, technology-rich spaces, confinement can be obvious, but the small cohorts of digital humanities work groups can also magnify inequities in power. Although whisper networks may provide informal warnings about persistent predatory behavior, not everyone is included in these cautionary communication loops, and the fear of displeasing influential career mentors can undermine a participant's abilities to avoid or resist violations of personal boundaries. In other words, the same "niceness" that supposedly characterizes the digital humanities can be oppressive.3 [End Page 685]

Instead of using the term mentoring, I suggest focusing on five attributes modeled by those who have mentored me in my own digital humanities career: hospitality, generosity, reciprocity, foresight, and responsibility. Based on my personal observations, similar practices and processes also seem to be at work in the Digital Humanities Caucus of the American Studies Association, which has undertaken a collective process of radical redesign in recent years. The caucus now offers a more capacious range of opportunities for newcomers to the field, which model the equity, criticality, and interdisciplinarity of the profession's goals. For example, caucus members have initiated an ambitious schedule of events at the annual convention to facilitate a more inclusive business meeting, boost attendance at lightning talks to spotlight more types of projects and participants, and host one-on-one consultations about DH works-in-progress, with a focus on pragmatic problem-solving and preemptive advice about platforms, sustainability, and ethics. Throughout the year members have organized more meet-ups with allied groups working on feminist DH, queer DH, and Black code studies. The caucus also challenged the initial review process for digital projects at this journal and suggested different procedures to avoid perpetuating elitism or canonicity. I would argue that the strong commitment to collectivity that the caucus has embraced demonstrates the power of the five attributes that I argue can offer an alternative to the normative mentoring model for supporting digital humanities work.


Hospitality can be an important virtue in digital humanities work, because so much of the intellectual community constituted by interactions online through distributed networks is sustained by live events, such as workshops, institutes, and conferences. However, hospitality needs to be imagined broadly to recognize that many prospective digital humanities practitioners might be caregivers or experience food insecurity. Travel to and accommodations at prestigious international locations can be unaffordable for precarious workers excluded from the ranks of stable and tenurable employment.

As a group of digital humanities practitioners, members of FemTechNet often opened up their homes to be spaces for networking and consciousness-raising, where food, rest, wireless connections...


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