New Wine in Old Skins: Why the CV needs hacking

Likewise, no one pours new wine into old wineskins. Otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and both the wine and the skins are ruined. Rather, new wine is poured into fresh wineskins. – Mark 2:22

Since the time of my first foray into digital humanities as a newly minted graduate working on a project to catalog history museum websites (yes, in 1996 you could actually make a list of every history museum with a website, about 150 at the time), most discussions about careers in digital humanities have centered around questions of how to convince more traditional colleagues to accept digital work as scholarship, to make it “count” for tenure and promotion, that is, to make it fit into traditional structures of academic employment. This has been a hard sell because, as Mills has pointed out, the kind of work done by digital humanists, no matter how useful, interesting, and important, often just can’t be made to fit the traditional definitions of scholarship that are used to determine eligibility for academic career advancement. No amount of bending and squeezing and prodding and poking is going to help the new square pegs of digital humanities fit the old round holes used to assess traditional textual scholarship.

Having seen their older colleagues struggle though stages of denial, anger, bargaining, and depression, a new generation of digital humanists (some of us) is coming to accept this situation. Rather than fighting to have its work credited within the existing structures of academic career advancement, it has instead decided to alter those structures or replace them with ones that judge digital work on its own merits. This new generation is hacking the academy to create new structures more natively accepting of digital work. These new structures—as imperfect and tenuous as newly forked code—can be seen in the job descriptions and contract arrangements of many in the alt-ac crowd.

Yet however much we have hacked academic employment to better accommodate digital work, at least one structure has remained stubbornly intact: the CV or curriculum vitae. For the most part our CV’s look the same as our analog colleagues’. Should this be? Isn’t this pouring new wine into old wineskins? Aren’t we setting ourselves up for failure if we persist in marketing our digital achievements using a format designed to highlight analog achievements? The standard categories of education, awards, publications, and so on (see this fairly representative guide from MIT [.pdf]) sets us up for failure. If we are going to market our work effectively we need to come up with a new vehicle for the construction of professional identity.

There is nothing immutable about the CV. As far as I can tell from a few hours research, the CV in its current form emerged in the late 19th century and early 20th century, right around the time our modern disciplines were consolidating the academy. The OED dates the first use of “curriculum vitae” to mean “a brief account of one’s career” to the turn of the last century (“Anciently biography was more of a mere curriculum vitæ than it is now,” New Internat. Encycl. III. 21/2, 1902). The British term, “vita,” appears just about the same time. A quick search of the “help wanted” pages of a few major American newspapers yields a similar result for the first use of the term. A December 3, 1908 advertisement in The Washington Post asks:

HELP WANTED—MALE: IN A PATENT OFFICE—YOUNG GERMAN, HAVING passed schools in Germany; salary $30 to start, gradually increasing. Send curriculum vitae to G. DITTMAR, 702 Ninth st. nw.

Considering its importance in shaping the modern academy and constructing the modern notion of the scholar, there is little (very little, in fact; I couldn’t find anything) written on the CV. Yet even from this very cursory bit of research we can say one thing definitively: the CV is a social and historical construct. It hasn’t always existed, and it is not an essential ingredient for the successful creation and dissemination of scholarship. Erasmus didn’t have one, for example.

I’m ready to accept that the successful operation of the academy requires a vehicle, even a standardized vehicle, for constructing and communicating scholarly identity. But it doesn’t have to be, and hasn’t always been, the CV—certainly not the one we were told to write in grad school. The CV is a platform for constructing and communicating professional achievement and identity, and like any platform, it’s hackable.

So, I say we need, and can build, a new CV, or whatever you want to call it. But what does this new CV look like? Here are at least some of the criteria a new vision for the professional identity document should meet (I use the word “document” here simply as a shorthand, not to suggest the format or material existence this new thing should take):

  1. Its primary presentation should be digital. A print version of the document may exist, but it should be born digital to make best use of the special qualities of digital media, which undoubtedly will do a better job of representing digital work than the analog technologies of print. We should look to discussions around the notion of e-portfolios in the educational technology community for ideas.
  2. It should eschew the visual hierarchies that privilege print scholarship in the traditional CV. Specifically, the vertical orientation that inevitably puts digital work below analog work should be eliminated.
  3. It should adequately represent collaborative work. You should be able to put a collaborative product (a website, a software project, an exhibit) on your CV without diminishing your colleague’s contributions but also without feeling guilty about listing it under your name. We need a better way to represent group work.
  4. It should credit processes as well as products. Put another way, we need to elevate activities previously relegated to the category of “service” in our career presentations. Much of the real work of digital humanities involves project management, organization, partnership building, network building, curation, and mentoring, and these processes need to be credited accordingly. The development and implementation of new ways of working constitute significant achievements in digital humanities. New methods should be credited equally with new modalities of scholarship.
  5. It should be used. If digital humanists create these new documents, but persist in using their old paper CV’s to apply for jobs, it will be doomed to fail.

There are surely other criteria this new document should meet. Let’s brainstorm in comments and start helping help ourselves.

Why Digital Humanities is “Nice”

emoticon One of the things that people often notice when they enter the field of digital humanities is how nice everybody is. This can be in stark contrast to other (unnamed) disciplines where suspicion, envy, and territoriality sometimes seem to rule. By contrast, our most commonly used bywords are “collegiality,” “openness,” and “collaboration.” We welcome new practitioners easily and we don’t seem to get in lots of fights. We’re the Golden Retrievers of the academy. (OK. It’s not always all balloons and cotton candy, but most practitioners will agree that the tone and tenor of digital humanities is conspicuously amiable when compared to many, if not most, academic communities.)

There are several reasons for this. Certainly the fact that nearly all digital humanities is collaborative accounts for much of its congeniality—you have to get along to get anything accomplished. The fact that digital humanities is still young, small, vulnerable, and requiring of solidarity also counts for something.

But I have another theory: Digital humanities is nice because we’re often more concerned with method than we are with theory. Why should a focus on method make us nice? Because methodological debates are often more easily resolved than theoretical ones. Critics approaching an issue with sharply opposed theories may argue endlessly over evidence and interpretation. Practitioners facing a methodological problem may likewise argue over which tool or method to use. Yet at some point in most methodological debates one of two things happens: either one method or another wins out empirically or the practical needs of our projects require us simply to pick one and move on. Moreover, as my CHNM colleague Sean Takats pointed out to me today, the methodological focus makes it easy for us to “call bullshit.” If anyone takes an argument too far afield, the community of practitioners can always put the argument to rest by asking to see some working code, a useable standard, or some other tangible result. In each case, the focus on method means that arguments are short.

And digital humanities stays nice.

THATCamp Groundrules

After giving my “groundrules” speech for a third THATCamp on Saturday, I realized I hadn’t published it anywhere for broader dissemination and possible reuse by the THATCamp community.

So here they are, THATCamp’s three groundrules:

  1. THATCamp is FUN – That means no reading papers, no powerpoint presentations, no extended project demos, and especially no grandstanding.
  2. THATCamp is PRODUCTIVE – Following from the no papers rule, we’re not here to listen and be listened to. We’re here to work, to participate actively. It is our sincere hope that you use today to solve a problem, start a new project, reinvigorate an old one, write some code, write a blog post, cure your writer’s block, forge a new collaboration, or whatever else stands for real results by your definition. We are here to get stuff done.
  3. Most of all, THATCamp is COLLEGIAL – Everyone should feel equally free to participate and everyone should let everyone else feel equally free to participate. You are not students and professors, management and staff here at THATCamp. At most conferences, the game we play is one in which I, the speaker, try desperately to prove to you how smart I am, and you, the audience member, tries desperately in the question and answer period to show how stupid I am by comparison. Not here. At THATCamp we’re here to be supportive of one another as we all struggle with the challenges and opportunities of incorporating technology in our work, departments, disciplines, and humanist missions. So no nitpicking, no tweckling, no petty BS.

One Week, One Book: Hacking the Academy

Dan Cohen and I have been brewing a proposal for an edited book entitled Hacking the Academy. Let’s write it together, starting at THATCamp. And let’s do it in one week.

Can an algorithm edit a journal? Can a library exist without books? Can students build and manage their own learning management platforms? Can a conference be held without a program? Can Twitter replace a scholarly society?

As recently as the mid-2000s, questions like these would have been unthinkable. But today serious scholars are asking whether the institutions of the academy as they have existed for decades, even centuries, aren’t becoming obsolete. Every aspect of scholarly infrastructure is being questioned, and even more importantly, being <em>hacked</em>. Sympathetic scholars of traditionally disparate disciplines are cancelling their association memberships and building their own networks on Facebook and Twitter. Journals are being compiled automatically from self-published blog posts. Newly-minted Ph.D.’s are foregoing the tenure track for alternative academic careers that blur the lines between research, teaching, and service. Graduate students are looking beyond the categories of the traditional C.V. and building expansive professional identities and popular followings through social media. Educational technologists are “punking” established technology vendors by rolling their own open source infrastructure.

“Hacking the Academy” will both explore and contribute to ongoing efforts to rebuild scholarly infrastructure for a new millenium. Contributors can write on these topics, which will form chapters:

  • Lectures and classrooms
  • Scholarly societies
  • Conferences and meetings
  • Journals
  • Books and monographs
  • Tenure and academic employment
  • Scholarly Identity and the CV
  • Departments and disciplines
  • Educational technology
  • Libraries

In keeping with the spirit of hacking, the book will itself be an exercise in reimagining the edited volume. Any blog post, video response, or other media created for the volume and tweeted (or tagged) with the hashtag #hackacad will be aggregated at hackingtheacademy.org (submissions should use a secondary tag — #class #society #conf #journal #book #tenure #cv #dept #edtech #library — to designate chapters). The best pieces will go into the published volume (we are currently in talks with a publisher to do an open access version of this final volume). The volume will also include responses such as blog comments and tweets to individual pieces. If you’ve already written something that you would like included, that’s fine too, just be sure to tweet or tag it (or email us the link to where it’s posted).

You have until midnight on May 28, 2010. Ready, set, go!

Briefly Noted for May 13, 2010

Yet more evidence big associations have lost the plot: watch nine sessions of AAM online for only … $300?!? — The American Association of Museums (AAM) has announced that it will host its first “virtual conference” during this year’s annual meeting in Los Angeles. I understand AAM’s motivation here. They’re surely hoping to recover some of the revenue all big associations have been losing in recent years. AAM is an important institution, so that is an important project. But maybe someone can explain the value proposition of this particular solution to me from a consumer’s perspective. Why would I pay $300 for live web video and chat (when I know can get plenty of that at zero cost through Ustream or Justin.tv plus Twitter) or for post-conference access to recorded video (when YouTube and iTunesU offers content of similarly high quality for free)? I’m not saying the content of the live conference program will be anything but excellent and well worth any time spent on it. But in an age when all of this can be (and is being) done for free, why shell out $300 bucks for it?

Where's the Beef? Does Digital Humanities Have to Answer Questions?

The criticism most frequently leveled at digital humanities is what I like to call the “Where’s the beef?” question, that is, what questions does digital humanities answer that can’t be answered without it? What humanities arguments does digital humanities make?

Concern over the apparent lack of argument in digital humanities comes not only from outside our young discipline. Many practicing digital humanists are concerned about it as well. Rob Nelson of the University of Richmond’s Digital Scholarship Lab, an accomplished digital humanist, recently ruminated in his THATCamp session proposal, “While there have been some projects that have been developed to present arguments, they are few, and for the most part I sense that they haven’t had a substantial impact among academics, at least in the field of history.” A recent post on the Humanist listserv expresses one digital humanist’s “dream” of “a way of interpreting with computing that would allow arguments, real arguments, to be conducted at the micro-level and their consequences made in effect instantly visible at the macro-level.”

These concerns are justified. Does digital humanities have to help answer questions and make arguments? Yes. Of course. That’s what humanities is all about. Is it answering lots of questions currently? Probably not really. Hence the reason for worry.

But this suggests another, more difficult, more nuanced question: When? When does digital humanities have to produce new arguments? Does it have to produce new arguments now? Does it have to answer questions yet?


 

In 1703 the great instrument maker, mathematician, and experimenter, Robert Hooke died, vacating the suggestively named position he occupied for more than forty years, Curator of Experiments to the Royal Society. In this role, it was Hooke’s job to prepare public demonstrations of scientific phenomena for the Fellows’ meetings. Among Hooke’s standbys in these scientific performances were animal dissections, demonstrations of the air pump (made famous by Robert Boyle but made by Hooke), and viewings of pre-prepared microscope slides. Part research, part ice breaker, and part theater, one important function of these performances was to entertain the wealthier Fellows of the Society, many of whom were chosen for election more for their patronage than their scientific achievements.

Hauksbee's Electrical Machine Upon Hooke’s death the position of Curator of Experiments passed to Francis Hauksbee, who continued Hooke’s program of public demonstrations. Many of Hauksbee’s demonstrations involved the “electrical machine,” essentially an evacuated glass globe which was turned on an axle and to which friction (a hand, a cloth, a piece of fur) was applied to produce a static electrical charge. Invented some years earlier, Hauksbee greatly improved the device to produce ever greater charges. Perhaps his most important improvement was the addition to the globe of a small amount of mercury, which produced a glow when the machine was fired up. In an age of candlelight and on a continent of long, dark winters, the creation of a new source of artificial light was sensational and became a popular learned entertainment, not only in meetings of early scientific societies but in aristocratic parlors across Europe. Hauksbee’s machine also set off an explosion of electrical instrument making, experimentation, and descriptive work in the first half of the 18th century by the likes of Stephen Gray, John Desaguliers, and Pieter van Musschenbroek.

And yet not until later in the 18th century and early in the 19th century did Franklin, Coulomb, Volta, and ultimately Faraday provide adequate theoretical and mathematical answers to the questions of electricity raised by the electrical machine and the phenomena it produced. Only after decades of tool building, experimentation, and description were the tools sufficiently articulated and phenomena sufficiently described for theoretical arguments to be fruitfully made.*


 

There’s a moral to this story. One of the things digital humanities shares with the sciences is a heavy reliance on instruments, on tools. Sometimes new tools are built to answer pre-existing questions. Sometimes, as in the case of Hauksbee’s electrical machine, new questions and answers are the byproduct of the creation of new tools. Sometimes it takes a while, in which meantime tools themselves and the whiz-bang effects they produce must be the focus of scholarly attention.

Eventually digital humanities must make arguments. It has to answer questions. But yet? Like 18th century natural philosophers confronted with a deluge of strange new tools like microscopes, air pumps, and electrical machines, maybe we need time to articulate our digital apparatus, to produce new phenomena that we can neither anticipate nor explain immediately. At the very least, we need to make room for both kinds of digital humanities, the kind that seeks to make arguments and answer questions now and the kind that builds tools and resources with questions in mind, but only in the back of its mind and only for later. We need time to experiment and even—as we discussed recently with Bill Turkel and Kevin Kee on Digital Campus—time to play.

The 18th century electrical machine was a parlor trick. Until it wasn’t.

 

* For more on Hooke, see J.A. Bennett, et al., London’s Leonardo : The Life and Work of Robert Hooke (Oxford, 2003). For Hauksbee and the electrical machine see W.D. Hackmann, Electricity from glass : The History of the Frictional Electrical Machine, 1600-1850 (Alphen aan den Rijn, 1978) and Terje Brundtland, “From Medicine to Natural Philosophy: Francis Hauksbee’s Way to the Air-Pump,” The British Journal for the History of Science (June, 2008), pp. 209-240. For 18th century electricity in general J.L. Heilbron, Electricity in the 17th and 18th Centuries : A Study of Early Modern Physics (Berkeley, 1979) is still the standard. Image of Hauksbee’s Electrical Machine via Wikimedia Commons.

Briefly Noted for May 6, 2010

Two Reviews of NARA Civil War Exhibit — Last week The Washington Post and The New York Times each reviewed the National Archives’ new Civil War Sesquicentennial exhibit, Discovering the Civil War. I haven’t seen the exhibit yet myself, but I’d characterize both reviews as “mixed.” Hat tip: Lee White of the National Coalition for History.

The Economist Weighs in on CopyrightThe Economist newspaper makes a very nice, very concise case for copyright reform in a recent leader, arguing for a return to Queen Anne’s statute of 1709-10, “An Act for the Encouragement of Learning, by vesting the Copies of Printed Books in the Authors or purchasers of such Copies, during the Times therein mentioned.”