A DH Dossier

On May 2 I learned that I have been recommended for tenure and promotion at Northeastern University. This was certainly welcome and gratifying news: the milestone to which I have been working, arguably, for more than a decade. In the current academic climate, however, it is a sobering milestone as well. The casualization of academic labor continues unabated. Legislatures and college presidents alike seem intent on disappearing whole swathes of American universities, particularly their humanities, whether because they falsely believe free speech is in crisis or because they falsely believe humanities majors are economic mistakes. On cynical days, I worry that my generation of scholars will be the last to enjoy relative academic freedom, or to remember the university as something more than vocational training. Even on my optimistic days, I work to remember that as a tenured faculty member at a private American university, I will be privileged well beyond what I deserve—meritocracy myths notwithstanding—and in ways I should seek to extend to others, including those working outside the tenure track at my own institution.

A DH Dossier

While keeping these much bigger issues in mind, there are a few smaller but important points I want to make at this moment. I was hired at Northeastern under a cluster hire in the digital humanities, and I was the first member of our English or History departments to apply for tenure and promotion with a DH-focused dossier. Though I am co-author of a book in progress, that book was not the centerpiece—or even a substantial part—of my tenure dossier, which instead comprised articles, grants, and digital projects. From the moment I started at Northeastern, I took part in a series of conversations with my chairs, deans, and others in our administration about what my dossier would include, and why projects such as Viral Texts should be weighed as primary scholarly outputs rather than only as vehicles for other forms of publication. In these conversations I was buttressed by the work of the many colleagues who developed guidelines for evaluating digital scholarship for the MLA and the AHA, as well as by my dean, my chair, and my departmental colleagues who took on a revision of our local tenure guidelines so they would better reflect the possibilities of digital scholarship.

Importantly, I did not have to do double the work—write a stellar book and develop a substantial digital project—in order to meet my department’s tenure and promotion guidelines. Some might see this fact as further testimony to the humanities’ erosion, but I see it as evidence that the hard work of so many over the past decades has in fact borne fruit, and that a more humane assessment of digital scholarship is becoming possible. Even after we signed our book contract for Going the Rounds, it was important to me that the book in progress not be central to my tenure dossier because I wanted my dossier—the dossier my university worked with me to make possible—to also help make DH dossiers possible for scholars coming after me, whether at Northeastern or elsewhere. In my teaching, research, and service statements I tried to discuss my DH work as natural and necessary, weaving it throughout my statements without calling it out too explicitly as anything other than “a semi-normal thing.” It was important to me that my projects and collaborative work not require special pleading, but instead that they constitute the central evidence proving the urgency of my case.

Offers of Assistance

I published my dossier’s research, teaching, and service statements on this blog so that other scholars can use them as models, and I volunteer any of my other materials for such use. I mean it: if you are a scholar (particularly, but not exclusively, working in DH) and you would benefit from a model as you prepare your T&P dossier, yearly merit evaluation document, or something else along those lines, email me and I will send you any or all of my materials for reference. Beyond templates, if you would benefit from advice about how to talk about your DH work or teaching in these contexts, I am happy to offer what advice I can. One thing I learned during my T&P process was just how much these processes are determined not by individual institutions, but by their senses—not always correct—of what other institutions are doing.

There has been a chicken and egg problem for many regarding digital scholarship and teaching, as institutions all worry about being the first to codify new forms and approaches. Going forward, then, I am happy to be the chicken or the egg. Which is to say, if you are a junior scholar making a case for digital scholarship and teaching at your institution, I urge you to point to my dossier and promotion as an example if doing so might help sway colleagues and administrators. I am grateful that Northeastern decided—though not without some hiccups along the way—to lead in its recognition of DH work and I hope others might benefit by looking to my case as one precedent.

In Gratitude

Before closing this post I wanted to acknowledge a few people central to my T&P process. I worry—indeed I know, with regret—that I will miss someone essential. If that happens and you’re reading this wondering why your name isn’t mentioned, I can promise it was only a lapse of memory and not an intentional slight.

In preparing my dossier, I was fortunate to learn from exemplars working in digital humanities such as Amy Earhart, Sharon Leon, and Jeffrey McClurken, among others. They generously volunteered their materials and advice, and I sincerely hope I can pay their generosity forward.

At Northeastern I have benefited immeasurably from the mentorship and advocacy of Elizabeth Maddock Dillon, as well as the guidance of my former chair Laura Green. I am also deeply grateful to Marina Leslie, who may not realize how much I have valued her steady advice and encouragement. I’ve benefited immensely from many rambling brainstorming sessions in the NULab with Ben Schmidt about matters both practical and esoteric.

Mostly, however, I want to acknowledge the scholars without whom I would have no dossier at all: my collaborators. I was immensely fortunate in the forsight of future colleagues who, as members of a cluster hire committee, thought that my research might dovetail with David Smith’s, if they could manage to bring us both to Northeastern. They did, and it did, beginning even before either of us formally began our contracts here. Viral Texts would not be possible without David, nor would Oceanic Exchanges or the side projects that have grown from these. I am privileged beyond measure to have a collaborator so thoughtful and invested in both questions of computational modeling and historical discovery. In brief, I would have an entirely different career had our paths not crossed, and I am every day grateful to him that they did.

Next I want to thank the graduate collaborators central to Viral Texts, Oceanic Exchanges, and Our Marathon. These projects would not have been possible without their work, insights, and inspiration—I owe them more than I could repay. If I list all of their contributions this post will grow too long, but I want to thank especially Abby Mullen, Kevin Smith, Jonathan Fitzgerald, Jim McGrath, Alicia Peaker, Kristi Girdharry, David DeCamp, Elizabeth Hopwood, Thanasis Kinias, Lara Rose, and James Parker. Without these scholars I simply wouldn’t have had a dossier to submit. Thank you all for your curiosity, creativity, intellect, and immense patience with me over the past six years.