“Doing” the Digital: Panic and Persistence

“Doing” the Digital: Panic and Persistence

When I met other GC students this year and it came up that I was a Digital Fellow, most would respond with a question much like: “should I be doing that?” Will the academy have any room for them if they don’t “do” digital? I’m moved to explore a facet of this (understandably) digital anxiety. After two rewarding semesters as a Digital Fellow (and a few drafts of this final blog post), it seems clear that we’ve become accustomed to thinking about ways to network people together– and projects like the CUNY Commons do that astoundingly well– or to create new ways to spread information about our programs and events. Often the discussions about the academic job market inadvertently create a panic about the role of the digital in graduate education: young scholars question the need to “do” digital– or proclaim their undying ambivalence to it. Can we more frequently flip the script?

What about targeted ways to help students do what they need to do, better? Through our workshop offerings this semester, I began to get a picture of the stressed grad student who understands technology as just one more obstacle: something else to do, to update, to synch, to learn, to follow, to choose, to password-protect. Many students arrived to our workshops frazzled and exhausted by the demands that technology makes on their lives. They were curious most of all to know how to cut through all of the weeds and choose the digital tools best for their scholarship and their frazzle. GC students traditionally juggle many hats—while the focus on fellowship packages and teaching loads is crucial, there are many levels of student success that can be directly improved through new digital technologies. This is a contribution that the GC could make uniquely and inexpensively.

One of the texts that could be instructive here is one that we read in the early days of the fellowship: Bethany Nowviskie’s “it starts on day one.” Nearly eight months later, I still agree with the bulk of her argument, particularly the thread that suggests that many overly general first-year methods courses could be replaced with newly envisioned and far more useful courses. However, I was also struck by the amount of resources that she proposes be funneled towards curricular changes. While she points to many needs in this area, at the GC I see some programs making these changes on their own; the Theatre program is inviting more and more guest speakers to confront issues of open access publishing, new research methods, grant-writing, and the thorny question of alternative academic jobs—not always #alt-ac, as some of these jobs live in administrative areas of theatre or cultural policy, or dramaturgy in entertainment fields.

I wonder how we can step into the next phase of the DigitalGC by streamlining some of the day-to-day difficulties of being a graduate student within CUNY, a system with nearly 260,000 students? Is there a way, for example, to create more useful resources for GC students seeking adjunct teaching opportunities across campuses? Should there be online advice portals and resources areas for students with questions about academic conferences? Maybe there’s some way to better facilitate the process of students finding appropriate courses for their interests, in order to buttress interdisciplinary goals at the GC? I dream of online publishing platforms that allow students to share drafts of papers with other students before they submit them to journals, video portfolio systems that they can use to rehearse presentations, and interactive resources for students at the dissertation completion and submission phase. Databases and coordinated systems could help students find the faculty publishing new work in their subfields, or those looking for assistants, and programs could offer students free and individual consultations with a digital coach who will help them build an online scholarly profile or portfolio. At the end of the day, regardless of curricular changes, much of the work required to succeed throughout a graduate career holds the potential for digital interventions, and they can remake the experience of being a graduate student. That, to me, is a version of what it means to think about “day one.”

By way of an example: during job interviews, every committee that asked me about the “digital” focused on its applicability in the classroom; this is, I suspect, a reflection of both the limited interest of my interviewers in digital topics, as well as the realities of the academic job market– many of my interviews were with lectureships and postdocs that emphasized teaching and not scholarship. And luckily, I was prepared for those questions; at CUNY, I began teaching as an adjunct in Communication Studies on day one, and held a Communication Fellowship from nearly day one. Both of those experiences, through a variety of means and mechanisms, gave me ample experience in the language and methods of digital pedagogies. Score.

However, the Digital Humanities jobs and postdocs I considered applying to required my digital scholarship to be in a far advanced place from where it is, if I was to propose a long-term scholarly digital project. I awoke to digital applications of my dissertation project too late, and tried teaching myself ARC GIS at the worst possible time—when I needed to be writing the thing. The digital technologies then stood to represent a place of panic and procrastination, not a new way of looking at my material—although I thought I potentially had that, too. But I was so inexperienced with finding data sets that could be useful to me, and had so little comfort with mapping tools, that four or five years into a PhD program was the wrong time to embark on such a project. I spoke with a mentor at the time, and she responded quizzically to my fruitless quest to use ARC GIS in my dissertation: “what you need to be doing is writing a book.” Not ignorant to the growing demands of the field, she knew that a dissertation wouldn’t cut it; a book that was suitable for possible publication would. I was worried about its digital elements, even though I didn’t yet have the know-how to put those into action. Given the realities of my knowledge base, she was right. Even given the realities of the job market, she was right.

But making an incursion into the field of the digital humanities is very different from having an online identity, which is (I think) what some of the panicked GC students looking to “do the digital thing” felt they needed. Figuring out new modes of scholarly communication is very different from developing the ability to make meaningful contributions within digital scholarship, let alone building new tools to do so. To really understand this split, I would recommend reading Luke Walter’s essay in Debates in the Digital Humanities. Luke’s piece starts with the context of the humanities in U.S. public higher education (general fiscal austerity: rising class sizes, elimination of departments and programs, and abandoned searches for faculty positions) and then moves to the strange ascendency of the subfield of the Digital Humanities. This should be required reading for many graduate students (especially in the humanities) who envision a monolithic wave of digital change sweeping across the university. Things are indeed muddled, but clarity will be hard-won through persistence, individual and institutional.

One challenge is therefore for universities to become even better at mentoring and advisement: encouraging specializations, identifying strengths in their students, making strong referrals across the GC, and assisting in strong choices from day one. Can the digital help us get there?

photo credit: *katz via photopin cc

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