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Graduate Education, DH, and the Digital University

Posted by on Tuesday, January 26, 2021 in DH Center Blog.

By Wendy Timmons, Mellon Graduate Student Fellow for the Digital Humanities 2020-2021, CMAP, Department of German, Russian, and East European Studies

Just as with any other institution or aspect of our lives, the coronavirus pandemic wreaked havoc on the university. Whether the university will ever return to “normal” – and whether that’s what established and incoming academics want in the first place – is a question for another time. Daily life was and continues to be disrupted as professors and teaching assistants scrambled to convert courses into online and hybrid formats. Classrooms across the country were outfitted with plexiglass shields and gutted of desks to ensure social distancing – after all, some students and instructors desire to attend classes in person, to escape uncomfortable, unsafe, and distracting home lives. Students living in dorms are shuffled around from one building to another, often needing to find last-minute housing when they are exposed or tested positive for the virus. The Spring and Fall semesters of 2020 were entirely uncharted territory for students, instructors, and staff alike. While we might feel more comfortable with our new, digital university, 2021 is already shaping up to be just as chaotic and uncertain as 2020. If we learned anything from the past year, it’s that we need support; we need it for ourselves, and we need to provide for others. Graduate students, in particular, need some extra TLC.

For those of us who straddle the student/faculty divide – graduate students – we find our best laid schemes going awry. Archival research is more difficult to conduct than ever before, especially if the plans included international travel. This isn’t to discount the efforts of archives to digitize, but for those of us whose desired materials have not yet been converted into zeroes and ones, archives are no more accessible than they were before the pandemic. Research in labs is a risk for our colleagues, friends, and loved ones in the sciences. The expectations put upon us as instructors have changed, and our connections with our students are largely dependent on our ISPs and on video conferencing software. Work-life balance has never been so out of reach: as we distance ourselves from loved ones and friends who pass away (from COVID and other causes) or get married or have babies; as rent forgiveness dwindles and electric bills soar; as spouses, partners, children, and pets underestimate our workloads; as work invades the home. Some universities attempted to compensate for lost research time and extenuating circumstances by granting graduate students extra funding, and communities of scholars are banding together to help new scholars navigate this predicament.

2020 was the year that the university went digital – albeit imperfectly – and as such, digital humanities scholars got a chance to flaunt their tech skills and demonstrate just what this young discipline is capable of, especially in service of understanding our ongoing crises. (And of course it doesn’t end in 2020 – check out what is being done with EXIF data from Parler posts surrounding the storming of the Capitol last week!) Here at Vanderbilt, the DH center has made productive use of fellow’s meetings, lectures from other institutions, and working groups to facilitate conversations about DH and its important role in the pandemic, in US-American politics, and in the academy. As we DH scholars prepare for a new calendar year, those of us currently in or entering the academy ought to reflect on 2020’s many difficult lessons, so that the university of 2021, and of the years yet to come, is more equitable and more accessible. DH and graduate students should, moving forward, make the most of their symbiotic relationship. As graduate students continue to push the university in general and DH in particular to research and teach in new, more socially just ways, DH can push graduate students to elevate their research with new, exciting tools, as well as help them/us to have more enriching careers.

There are a lot of reasons graduate students supplement their studies with digital humanities. Some of it is purely practical, as their university may simply not offer a graduate degree in digital humanities, and so the DH part of graduate education is grafted on to the Master’s degree or PhD in the form of a certificate. For some, doing extra work outside of the home department is a way of hedging one’s bets; certificates, fellowships, dual-degree programs are all ways to have a little extra something for the CV, in the hopes of securing that white whale, the tenure-track position. And for most, this extra work is a way of pursuing something they/we already enjoy, just in a more professional way. What each of these reasons for participating in DH reveals is that DH is necessarily interdisciplinary and rarely for the education of anyone other than graduate students. DH can and should serve graduate students by advising them and by providing new professional opportunities outside of and within the university.

An example from German Studies shows how established scholars can help graduate students navigate the post-COVID academy. No one can say for sure what the future of the university looks like; tenure was already disappearing from many job postings. Nowadays, finding a position in the first place is the real challenge. At the beginning of the Fall 2020 semester, German Studies scholars looked warily at the job postings wiki, where a single – non-tenure-track – position had been listed, and had not been joined by other positions for months. (The Digital Humanities job postings wiki didn’t look much better.) The Diversity, Decolonization, and the German Curriculum (DDGC) committee, already known throughout German Studies for its social justice work for the betterment of the discipline, met with students and faculty for town hall meetings throughout the semester. The multifaceted discussions were by no means easy (e.g. is graduate school a viable option for anybody in any discipline when secure, well-paying positions aren’t guaranteed to anybody? Is it ethical to recommend graduate education given the academy’s current crises?), but, speaking from personal experience, knowing that there are established scholars who care about the precarity of graduate education and who are willing to engage with controversial, difficult topics goes a long way. Knowing that these same folks are reviewing graduate student applications to their programs is also comforting. DH scholars could certainly do something similar; fellows’ meetings here at Vanderbilt have already touched upon the practical application of DH on social justice and political issues, and faculty have expressed interest and sympathy in the particular struggles that graduate students have encountered.

To return to my home department as an example: German Studies has a long, complicated history as a discipline in US-American universities (you can read more here); job availability fluctuates based on national relations. German Studies can be an interdisciplinary venture but typically, scholars in this discipline are expected to orbit around a core “German” research interest (literature, media, film, etc). Another interest from an adjacent discipline is frosting on the cake. My sense is that DH, as a newer discipline by contrast, is interdisciplinary in another sense, in which scholars take DH back to their home departments. I can apply what I have learned at fellowship meetings and in Comparative Media courses to German Studies (e.g. by researching German media objects, by mapping German cities, by tabulating words in German literature, by creating data out of German objects) – applying German Studies to these other disciplines is considerably more difficult (what is “German” about DH? What can German-language literature reveal about DH? What German data can be created out of DH?). The interdisciplinary relationship between DH and German (and probably other disciplines, too) is asymmetrical, providing only so much room for the interlocking kind of study we might expect from overlapping disciplines. What can graduate students do to maximize their experience as interdisciplinary scholars (without overloading on coursework and extracurricular projects)? What do faculty on recruitment boards actually want from an interdisciplinary scholar in the first place?

Let’s enter 2021 prepared to tackle these difficult conversations. The coronavirus pandemic will eventually come to a long-desired end, and the longevity of the post-pandemic university will rely on scholars with fresh perspectives, who are willing to be flexible, to make their courses accessible, to conduct research that enables social justice and empowers our students.