Found History

by Tom Scheinfeldt

"Soft" [money] is not a four-letter word

| 4 Comments

I will be the first to say that I have been, and continue to be, extremely lucky. As I explained in an earlier post, I have managed to strike a workable employment model somewhere between tenured professor and transient post-doc, expendable adjunct, or subservient staffer, a more or less happy “third way” that provides relative security, creative opportunity, and professional respect. The terms of my employment at the Center for History and New Media (CHNM) may not be reproducible everywhere. Nor do I see my situation as any kind of silver bullet. But it is one model that has seemed to work in a particular institutional and research context, and I offer it mainly to show that fairness doesn’t necessarily come in the form of tenure and that other models are possible.

Taking this argument further, I would also argue that fairness does not necessarily come in the form of what we in the educational and cultural sectors tend to call “hard money,” i.e. positions that are written into in our institutions’ annual budgets.

Of course, the first thing to admit about “hard money” is that it doesn’t really exist. As we have seen in the recent financial crisis, especially in layoffs of tenure-track and even tenured faculty and in the elimination of boat-loads of hard lines in library and museum budgets, hard money is only hard until someone higher up than a department chair, dean, or provost decides that it’s soft.

The second thing to acknowledge is that the concept of “hard” versus “soft” money really only exists in academe. If those terms were extended to the rest of the U.S. economy—the 90+ percent of the U.S. labor force not employed by institutions of higher education (although government may be another place where this distinction is meaningful)—we’d see that most people are on “soft” money. My wife has been employed as lawyer at a fancy “K Street” law firm in Washington, DC for going on six years now. She makes a very good living and is, by the standards of her chosen profession, very successful. And yet, you guessed it, she is on soft money. If for some reason the firm looses two, three, four of its large clients, her billing and hence the money to pay her salary will very quickly dry up, and the powers that be will be forced to eliminate her position. This is true for almost any job you can point to. If revenues do not match projections, layoffs occur. One can debate the justice of particular layoffs and down-sizings, but without wholesale changes to our economy, the basic rule of “no money in, no money out” is hard to deny.

Indulge me for a moment in a bit of simile. In some ways, CHNM is very much like any other business. At CHNM we have clients. Those clients are our funders. We sell products and services to those clients. Those products and services are called digital humanities projects. Our funder clients pay us a negotiated price for those products and services. We use those revenues to pay the employees who produce the products and services for our clients. To keep the wheels turning, we sell more products and services to our clients, and if an existing client doesn’t want or need what we’re selling anymore, we either find new clients or change the range of products and services we offer. Failing that, we will have to start reducing payroll.

How is this situation any different or worse than any other sector of the economy? If people stop buying Word and Excel, Microsoft will have to find something else to sell people or layoff the engineers, designers, project managers and other staff that make MS Office.

I understand that so crass an analogy to corporate America will make many people unhappy. The idealist in me recoils from the notion that the academy should be treated as just another business. Yet the pragmatist in me—a side that is certainly stronger than it would otherwise be from dealing for so long with the often very practical, hands-on work of digital humanities and the frequent sleepless nights that come with the responsibility of managing a budget that supports nearly fifty employees—thinks it foolish to reject out of hand employment models that, however imperfect, have worked to produce so much and provide livelihoods for so many. (Indeed, the democrat in me also has to ask, what makes us in academe so special as to deserve and expect freedoms, security, and privileges that the rest of the labor force doesn’t?)

Therefore, in my book, “soft money” isn’t necessarily and always bad. If it funds good, relatively secure, fairly compensated jobs, in my book soft money is OK. CHNM has several senior positions funded entirely on soft money and several employees who have been with us on soft money for five, six, and seven years—a long time in the short history of digital humanities.

What isn’t OK is when “soft” equals “temporary” or “term.” This, I readily acknowledge, is an all too frequent equation. Many, if not most, soft money post-doc, research faculty, and staff positions are created upon the award of a particular grant to work on that grant and that grant alone, and only until the term of the grant expires. I make no bones that these defined-term, grant-specific jobs are inferior to tenure or tenure-track or even corporate-sector employment.

At CHNM we try to avoid creating these kinds of jobs. Since at least 2004, instead of hiring post-docs or temporary staff to work on a particular grant funded project when it is awarded, where possible we try to hire people to fill set of generalized roles that have evolved over the years and proven themselves necessary to the successful completion of nearly any digital humanities project: designer, web developer, project manager, outreach specialist. Generally our people are not paid from one grant, but rather from many grants. At any given moment, a CHNM web designer, for example, may be paid from as many as four or five different grant budgets, her funding distribution changing fairly frequently as her work on a particular project ends and work on another project begins. This makes for very complicated accounting and lots of strategic human resource decisions (this is one of the big headaches of my job), but it means that we can keep people around as projects start and end and funders come and go. Indeed as the funding mosaic becomes ever more complex, when viewed from a distance (i.e. by anyone but me and a few other administrative staff who deal with the daily nitty-gritty) the budget picture begins to look very much like a general fund and staff positions begin to look like budget lines.

Perceptive readers will by now be asking, “Yes, but how did CHNM get to the point where it had enough grants and had diversified its funding enough to maintain what amounts to a permanent staff?” and I’ll readily admit there is a chicken-and-egg problem here. But how CHNM got to where it is today is a topic for another day. The point I’d like to make today is simply that—if we can get beyond thinking about project funding—soft money isn’t essentially bad for either the people funded by it or the institution that relies on it. On the contrary, it can be harnessed toward the sustainable maintenance of an agile, innovation centered organization. While the pressure of constantly finding funding can be stressful and a drag, it doesn’t have to mean bad jobs and a crippled institution.

Just the opposite, in fact. Not only does CHNM’s diversified soft money offer its people some relative security in their employment, pooling our diversified grant resources to create staff stablity also makes it easier for us to bring in additional revenue. Having people in generalized roles already on our payroll allows us to respond with confidence and speed as new funding opportunities present themselves. That is, our financial structure has enabled us to build the institutional capacity to take advantage of new funding sources, to be confident that we can do the work in question, to convince funders that is so, and in turn to continue to maintain staff positions and further increase capacity.

CHNM is by no means perfect. Not all jobs at CHNM are created equal, and like everyone in the digital humanities we struggle to make ends meet and keep the engine going. In a time of increasingly intense competition for fewer and fewer grant dollars, there is always a distinct chance that we’ll run out of gas. Nevertheless, it is soft money that so far has created a virtuous and, dare I say, sustainable cycle.

Thus, when we talk about soft money, we have to talk about what kind of soft money and how it is structured and spent within an institution. Is it structured to hire short term post-docs and temporary staff who will be let go at the end of the grant? Or is it structured and diversified in such a way as to provide good, relatively stable jobs where staff can build skills and reputation over a period of several years?

When soft money means temporary and insecure, soft money is bad. When soft money facilitates the creation of good jobs in digital humanities, in my book at least, soft money is OK.

[Note: This post is part of a draft of a longer article that will appear in a forthcoming collection to be edited by Bethany Nowviskie on alternative careers for humanities scholars.]

[Image credits: Denni Schnapp, identity chris is.]

4 Comments

  1. Tom, thanks for an informative post. The type of structure that you describe at CHNM sounds exactly like the set-up in the quango or think-tank world, which has been working on a similar “corporate nonprofit” model for years (places like the Urban Institute, Rand, or EPI).

    There seems to be one difference, though. Where those organizations create knowledge for the same government agencies that fund them — EPI reports on tax policy go to the Treasury, etc. — that would not seem to be the case for an institution like CHNM, which takes funding and turns it into goods for a different set of people. The “clients” you describe are not the same as the end users, in other words, and in this CHNM’s mission would seem to be more like an academic department than a corporation.

    It sounds like that tension can be negotiated, but do you think it might put a cap on the genera applicability of the halfway model, at least for digital humanities organizations?

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