May 27, 2010

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.


  1. This is exactly why I do not seriously consider any employers who do not check out my online CV – it’s much more representative not only of my past work, but of my personality and what sort of organization I might fit best in.

    The static CV should just be a foot in the door, both in academia and in corporate-land.

  2. We can’t expect the vulnerable to initiate this movement. If I hand in a digital C.V. with my scholarship applications I’m not going to get funded.

    I already know my applications get passed over because my C.V. doesn’t contain a peer reviewed journal article – though my websites draw thousands of academic visitors each month and my magazine articles reach tens of thousands.

    If this is truly going to work, an institution like CHNM should be supporting it by requiring job and workshop applications to be submitted in a format as you have described above.

    My “One Week, One Tool” application included a traditional C.V. by requirement.

    The vulnerable have to eat, so they have to play the game. The strong can change the rules.

  3. I certainly agree with the idea that the CV should evolve into a new digital form. But to echo Adam’s concern:

    How can a digital CV become a useful tool until the underlying problem of how to give academic credit for digital work is solved? If digital work is not acceptable, then expecting to receive credit via a digital CV might only compound the problem.

    I suspect that the solution for the short- and mid-term is find a way for analog and digital CVs to coexist and complement one another. An analogy might be the relationship between e-books and print books, neither of which has supplanted the other.

    How might an analog and a digital CV complement one another? At the minimum, they need to reference one another, with the digital CV providing a copy of the analog CV, and the analog CV urging the reader to look at the digital CV online. Perhaps another way to integrate them is to use the digital CV to provide full-text of works cited in the analog CV, while rethinking the categories of the analog CV as you suggest.

    In any case, we need good examples of digital CVs that actually work. Two examples I’ve seen: Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s promotion dossier and Patrick Murray-John’s experiments using Omeka as a CV.

  4. This post has good timing. I was just planning to turn a class portfolio into my CV. One thing I am considering, which all resumes in the future will probably have, is to try to make it “multimedia.” A CV online can include video, audio and even interactive elements, which make the old paper resumes outdated. I’m surprised people these days don’t bother automatically putting their URL for their “online portfolio” on their business cards.

    I like the suggestions here. I’m going to use them. Thanks.

  5. >”just can’t be made to fit the traditional definitions of scholarship that are used to determine eligibility for academic career advancement”

    And then try to get it onto a standard university job application form, and past that “first filter” of a Human Resources drone who just bins all the applications without a PhD…

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