- Precarious Labor and the Digital Humanities
We want to believe that we can be agile and innovative, like Silicon Valley says it is, by making DH run with short-term grants, app contests, and temporary labor. We want to have a sort of Uber-style sharing economy for DH-research. But this is not how one supports careful, enduring scholarship and teaching.—Miriam Posner, "Money and Time"
Despite the money and prestige that seems to come with the label, digital humanities is a field that relies on grants and temporary positions to establish credibility on campuses. As a result, DH laborers are frequently precarious across institutions. They occupy a startling range of positions: administrators, adjuncts, postdocs, graduate and undergraduate students, tenure-track and contingent faculty, librarians, archivists, programmers, IT and edtech specialists, consultants, museum curators, artists, authors, editors, and more.
Members of the American Studies Association Digital Humanities Caucus, who work across other precarious fields like African American studies, disability studies, ethnic studies, feminist studies, and more, recognize the many ways in which the value of our labor has been challenged, taken for granted, dismissed outright, or explained away as at best a fad or at worst the manifestation of neoliberalism in its most craven form within the humanities.1 These experiences have motivated us to make forms of digital labor and the agents behind this labor more visible, to create standards of evaluation that help practitioners and nonpractitioners define and describe the value of digital scholarship, and to sustain generative relationships that address the ethical dimensions of collaborative labor on digital humanities initiatives. It is our hope that this conversation can contribute to building solidarity with other precarious workers across the academy. [End Page 693]
The Precarity of DH in and beyond American Studies
Within American studies, students and faculty members interested in digital scholarship encounter many situations where support for digital labor could be greatly improved. While there has been compelling digital scholarship in American studies that takes a traditional form, collaborative, public-facing, and iterative digital scholarship proves challenging in environments that privilege the monograph. Consider the tenure-track faculty member required to print hard copies of born-digital scholarship far afield from the monograph, whose portfolio may be read by a department and an administration with no clear guidelines for how to promote the employees they hired to "do" digital work. Consider the graduate student encouraged to situate herself within digital humanities by completing digital projects in addition to a dissertation, taking on part-time positions, or even paying for additional credentials. While several humanities departments and professional organizations have taken steps to develop guidelines for professional evaluation of digital labor, these recommendations may not serve the varied forms of academic labor beyond the tenure-track model. How do we help members of the community interested in more creative or multimodal endeavors or forms—films, exhibitions, games, documentaries, oral histories—demonstrate the institutional and professional value of their labor to audiences who do not find its importance self-evident?
Scholars looking for collaborators or material resources on campus may find their work challenged by the conditions of labor created by understaffing, particularly if a single employee is expected to serve a wide range of campus needs. Digital scholarship in American studies often involves the labor of experts who institutionally reside elsewhere on campus. Many of these individuals work in libraries, where they may collaborate with American studies students and faculty members. Others may be former American studies students who earned library degrees or gained employment in traditional or "alt-ac" roles. While some of these employees work in supportive environments where their time and expertise is valued or where their contributions to digital scholarship are visible and documented, this is not always the case. For example, Leigh Bonds and Alex Gil note that many experts in digital scholarship "have been given the mandate to coordinate and support digital scholarship at our institutions without being part of a fully-staffed center or institute" and are expected to operate as "miracle workers" on campus, performing as scholars, tech support, administrators, project...