Better Answers: What are “Digital Humanities” and “Alt-Ac”?

Yesterday I presented on a panel in Katherine Eggert’s professionalization seminar for graduate students in English literature at CU-Boulder. I talked about my experience on the job market this past year and the steps that led to the postdoc position I will begin in the fall with Dartmouth’s Neukom Institute for Computational Science. On my handout, I mentioned “Digital Humanities” and “DH” a number of times as well as “alt-ac” to refer to a job I applied for and did not get — Director of the Albert Greenfield Center for the History of Women’s Education at Bryn Mawr. My presentation, in general, gave advice for how to apply for a postdoc and what to expect during that process.

Deep in the Q&A session, I got two questions that surprised me:

  1. What is Digital Humanities?
  2. What is alt-ac?

These questions caught me off-guard because I work from within the Digital Humanities and with a wide group of colleagues who all know, or who I would expect to know, about alt-ac jobs. My answers were sufficient for a quick conversation, but these topics deserve more real estate than that — hence this post. The questions were also very good nudges to remind me that these fields and expressions are discipline-specific and new scholars need to know about them since they are emerging (or already emerged) issues in our shared Humanities fields. The introductions that follow are just introductions. (For DH in particular my “further reading” recommendation list would be long. That’s a blog post for another day.)


What is “Digital Humanities”?

  • Wikipedia entry: The Digital Humanities are an area of research, teaching, and creation concerned with the intersection of computing and the disciplines of the humanities. Developing from the fields of humanities computing, humanistic computing,[2] and digital humanities praxis (dh praxis[3]) digital humanities embrace a variety of topics, from curating online collections to data mining large cultural data sets. Digital humanities (often abbreviated DH) currently incorporate both digitized and born-digital materials and combine the methodologies from traditional humanities disciplines (such as history, philosophy, linguistics, literature, art, archaeology, music, and cultural studies) and social sciences [4] with tools provided by computing (such as data visualisation, information retrieval, data mining, statistics, text mining) and digital publishing.
  • Digital Humanities and What It’s Doing in English Departments” (Matthew Kirschenbaum). Excerpt: “At its core, then, digital humanities is more akin to a common methodological outlook than an investment in any one specific set of texts or even technologies. We could attempt to refine this “outlook” quantitatively, using some of the very tools and techniques digital humanities has pioneered. For example, we might use a text- analysis tool named Voyeur developed by Stéfan Sinclair to mine the proceedings from the annual Digital humanities confrequencies or collocate key terms or visualize the papers’ citation networks. We could also choose to explore the question qualitatively, by examining sets of projects from self-identified digital humanities centers. at the University of Maryland, where I serve as an associate director at the Maryland Institute for technology in the humanities, we support work from “Shakespeare to Second Life” as we’re fond of saying: the Shakespeare Quartos archive, funded by a joint grant program administered by the United Kingdom’s JISC and the NEH, makes a searchable digital facsimile of each of the thirty-two extant quarto copies of Hamlet available online, while the Preserving Virtual Worlds project, supported by the Library of Congress, has developed and tested standards and best practices for archiving and ensuring future access to computer games, interactive fiction, and virtual communities. Yet digital humanities is also a social undertaking. It harbors networks of people who have been working together, sharing research, arguing, competing, and collaborating for many years. Key achievements from this community, like the Text Encoding Initiative or the Orlando Project, were mostly finished before the current wave of interest in digital humanities began.” (56)
  • Digital Humanities” (Matthew K. Gold) entry in Johns Hopkins Guide to Digital Media

Digital Humanities at CU-Boulder:

  • We have a Digital Humanities Task Force in the Libraries that works on developing DH at CU-B.
  • The Computer Science department has a series of events that are often relevant to DH and they have a mailing list you can subscribe to for announcements.
  • Digital Art and Textuality Alliance (DATA): “DATA (Digital Art and Textuality Alliance) is a collaborative, interdisciplinary research initiative focused on emerging forms of practice-based research at the interface of electronic writing, digital art, cultural technics, new media theory and new modes of scholarly publishing. The research initiative was founded by University of Colorado Professors Mark Amerika (Art and Art History) and Lori Emerson (English). As part of their research mission, the members of DATA have been building two practice-based research labs in the digital arts and humanities: the TECHNE practice-based research lab in digital art located in the Visual Arts Complex and the Media Archaeology Lab (MAL) located on Grandview.”
  • Media Archaeology Lab (Lori Emerson, Director): “Founded in 2009 and based at the University of Colorado at Boulder, the motto of the Media Archaeology Lab (MAL) is that “the past must be lived so that the present can be seen.” Nearly all digital media labs are conceived of as a place for experimental research using the most up-to-date, cutting-edge tools available. By contrast, the MAL – which is the largest of its kind in North America – is a place for cross-disciplinary experimental research and teaching using obsolete tools, hardware, software and platforms, from the past. The MAL is propelled equally by the need to both preserve and maintain access to historically important media of all kinds – from magic lanterns, projectors, typewriters to personal computers from the 1970s through the 1990s – as well as early works of digital literature/art which were created on the outdated hardware/software housed in the lab.”
  • The Stainforth Library of Women Writers is a DH project that I collaborate on with CU-Libraries. We are building an electronic version of a 19th-century library that contained a vast and important collection of women’s writing dating back to the 15th century. If you are interested in learning more about this project email me ( I would love to walk you through what we’re doing and how we’re doing it.

DH Resources on the Web, esp. for grad students:

  • Be a HASTAC Scholar: Apply in the fall to be a HASTAC Scholar and blog about your work in relation to teaching, computing, and the humanities. I have been a HASTAC Scholar and I loved it. “The HASTAC Scholars program is an innovative student community. Each year a new cohort is accepted into the program, and the Scholars come from 75+ universities, and dozens of disciplines. We are building a community of students working at the intersection of technology and the arts, humanities and sciences. As HASTAC Scholars, we blog, host online forums, develop new projects and organize events. Much of our work here centers around rethinking pedagogy, learning, research & academia for the digital age. Join us!”
  • Join HASTAC (Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Alliance and Collaboratory): “HASTAC is an alliance of more than 13,000 humanists, artists, social scientists, scientists and technologists working together to transform the future of learning. Since 2002, HASTAC (“haystack”) has served as a community of connection where members share news, tools, research, insights, and projects to promote engaged learning for a global society. Issues of access and equality are as important to HASTAC’s mission as the latest technological innovations; creative contribution is as important as critical thinking. Keywords representing this perspective include: learning and teaching, education design, digital humanities, media, communication, social engagement, and the collaborative workplace. We are dedicated to sharing information, ideas, and practices about the future of learning.”
  • Find a DH Mentor: I highly recommend that if you are interested in learning more about DH or working on a DH project in order to gain experience and knowledge of the field, you may want to find a mentor in the field to work with. The Association for Computers and the Humanities and DHCommons have teamed up to offer a mentorship program. Follow these steps to find your mentor.
  • Browse/Read Digital Humanities Quarterly: a major peer-reviewed academic journal in the field
  • Browse DHCommons: Find DH Projects to work on or look for collaborators for your own project. Here you can get a sense of what DH projects are active right now. “DHCommons, an initiative of centerNet, is an online hub focused on matching digital humanities projects seeking assistance with scholars interested in project collaboration. This hub responds to a pressing and demonstrable need for a project-collaborator matching service that will allow scholars interested in DH to enter the field by joining an existing project as well as make existing projects more sustainable by drawing in new, well-matched participants. Additionally, DHCommons helps break down the siloization of an emerging field by connecting collaborators across institutions, a particularly acute need for solo practitioners and those without access to a digital humanities center.”
  • Twitter: Create a Twitter account and search for “digital humanities” and/or “DH”. You will find a large number of scholars, librarians, computer scientists, and organizations related to this field. Follow and join the conversation.

 What Is “Alt-Ac” and what does it stand for?

“Alt-Ac” refers to “Alternate-Academy” track, or non-tenure track jobs that are within the larger Academy “orbit” in traditional academic institutions, like universities and colleges, but also in other kinds of organizations or institutions that study and produce cultural knowledge, as libraries, museums, humanities organizations, and presses. To read more, see this very thoughtful and evolving e-book project: #alt-academy: A Media Commons Project

“The #Alt-Academy project features contributions by and for people with deep training and experience in the humanities, who are working or are seeking employment — generally off the tenure track, but within the academic orbit — in universities and colleges, or allied knowledge and cultural heritage institutions such as museums, libraries, academic presses, historical societies, and governmental humanities organizations.

The work of such institutions is enriched and enabled by capable “alternative academic” humanities scholars. Although they are rarely conventionally-employed as faculty members, the people contributing to this site maintain a research (or R&D) and publication profile, and bring their methodological and theoretical training to bear every day on problem sets of great importance to higher education. For some, keeping their considerable talents within — or around — the academy can be more difficult than making a switch to private-sector careers. Class divisions among faculty and staff in higher ed are profound, and the suspicion and (worse) condescension with which so-called “failed academics” are met can be disheartening.

For all that, we love our work. Many on the #alt-ac track will tell you about the satisfaction of making teams (and systems, and programs) work, of solving problems and personally making or enabling breakthroughs in research and scholarship in their disciplines, and of contributing to and experiencing the life of the mind in ways they did not imagine when they entered grad school. This site is for them, and for the next generation of hybrid humanities scholars — people who are building skills and experience in precisely those areas of the academy that are most in flux, and most in need of guidance and attention by sensitive, capable, imaginative, and well-informed #alt-ac scholar-practitioners.

Founding editor Bethany Nowviskie describes the genesis of the #alt-ac project in her introductory essay, “Two Tramps in Mud Time” and talks more about the phrase “alternative academic” here (hint: it’s really about an alternative academia, a new imagination for the systems in which we operate), — while coordinating editor Katina Rogers describes work we are doing to discover more about the current make-up of the community and its needs.

Readers may also be interested in resources to be found at projects like the Versatile PhD and GradHacker. You can follow ongoing conversations about alternative academic careers marked with the “#alt-ac” hashtag on Twitter, and see a list of some of our twittering community members.”

For an Alt-Ac job search:

Resources for an Expansive Job Search: Humanities and Social Sciences: “This page includes a mix of sites that discuss larger issues involved in converting graduate training in the humanities or social sciences to a nonacademic career, and sites that include job listings.  Because individuals’ career trajectories can be so varied, a big part of successfully transitioning from graduate school to satisfying employment involves plugging into the broader conversation about the wide range of careers actually pursued by those with this training.  While many of these resources are specifically geared to some of the problems faced by those with Ph.D.s, much of their advance is relevant and valuable to those with master’s degrees who either seek employment, or who are considering continuing to the Ph.D.”

As always, I invite comments and additional links to resources.

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Day of DH 2014 and The Annual Monitor

Day of DH 2014 has come and gone, but as always, there are blog posts and tweets to mark it. This year I spent the majority of the DoDH writing my dissertation chapter on nineteenth century libraries, which is a media history project and not at all a DH project. However, I have Stainforth data research queries to work on almost every day and The Annual Monitor was an important scenario to think through.

Here is the blog post on The Annual Monitor research for the Stainforth project. And here you will find my Storify for Day of DH 2014. I will likely post the Annual Monitor bit on the Stainforth blog as well.

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Guest lecture, 1-27-14, “Digital Curation” grad seminar (Mél Hogan, JOUR6871)

I tailored this guest lecture about the Stainforth Library of Women Writers project for Mél Hogan’s graduate course in digital curation (JOUR6871). You will find my slides below. Students came from a variety of departments and, in this course, will build their own archives in WordPress. One important point I wanted to make was to convey the way that the Stainforth project thinks about the archive in contrast to the way traditional humanist scholarship makes use of archives. I also emphasized a theory of the digital archive as creating versions of and access to textual artifacts.

During and following the presentation, we had a very productive discussion about the form of archives. We asked: Can we think of artifact dispersal as not necessarily a negative, but perhaps just another iteration of the life of the archive? How are archives affected by the gender of their contents and historical gendering of spaces, like the gentleman’s library (versus the lady’s dressing room)? How do we assess the value of artifacts archived if different collections assign different values? Are all archives “nutty” (we said) in their own way — meaning, they all collect for a certain reason and impose that meaning on their collection? How can we design an interface that will make the Stainforth digital archive more participatory and annotatable (sp?) for users — instead of just files and images to look at? (Mél and others — please insert comments for ideas and questions that I missed. Thank you!)

Useful links (slides below are just images):

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Stainforth Library of Women Writers Exhibit at MLA 2014, in Inside Higher Ed

Here is a link to the digital exhibit I made for the recent presentation at MLA on Saturday, December 11, “Digital Humanities from the Ground Up” (session 528). Click on the image of our TOC to go there:

Screen Shot 2014-01-14 at 8.35.57 AM

The Stainforth exhibit at MLA appeared in an Inside Higher Ed article that covered recent Digital Humanities sessions at MLA14, held in Chicago this past weekend. Clearly, I should have tattooed our project URL to my right arm.

Stainforth demo at MLA in Inside Higher Ed

Stainforth demo at MLA in Inside Higher Ed

The article covers the diverse content and popularity of DH sessions at this year’s MLA, and it notes that more scholars now understand that the digital tools and practices driving their research are DH practices and are important to present to their colleagues as DH methodologies. The article also touches on the “Digital Humanities from the Ground Up” session in which the Stainforth collaborators presented as well as the session that followed, which covered the evaluation of digital projects for tenure and promotion.

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Filed under Conference paper, Digital, Library Work, News, Pedagogy

I’m proud to be a contributor to The Johns Hopkins Guide to Digital Media, edited by Lori Emerson, Ben Robertson, and Marie-Laure Ryan. My entries include “Book and Electronic Text” and “Markup Languages.” It will be available in March 2014, and it can now be pre-ordered on, which is awfully exciting. (I just pre-ordered one as a holiday gift to myself — gift-wrapped, with a note.)


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November 27, 2013 · 6:50 am

Just In: President’s Fund for the Humanities Award

Team Stainforth just received a $3,000 award from the President’s Fund for the Humanities. The award will support the transcription of the Rev. Stainforth’s manuscript into our database. This populated database is the foundation of our digital archive project and it is a prerequisite step that enables further development of the visualizations that are some of our desired outcomes: the digital recreation of Stainforth’s library and mapping the networks of women writers’ publishers, printers, and subscribers, for the works held in the Stainforth library. The award will also fund a teacher (me) to train Stainforth team members in the fundamentals of TEI and to establish the archive’s encoding guidelines.

What better way to start Fall Break (or at least a work week in a quieter-than-usual library) than with such good news?

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Preparing for MLA 2014 Presentation on the Stainforth Project in “Digital Humanities from the Ground Up”

In early January 2014, Team Stainforth will travel to Chicago to present in the session, chaired by Amy Earhart (Texas A&M), “Digital Humanities from the Ground Up.”  (Please join us if you will be at MLA or in Chicago at this time: we are session #528, Saturday, 11 January, 12:00 noon–1:15 p.m., Chicago VIII, Sheraton Chicago. Other presenters will include: Benjamin Doyle, Northeastern U; Heather Froehlich, U of Strathclyde; Kristi Girdharry, Northeastern U; Amanda Licastro, Graduate Center, CUNY; Michael Lin, UCSB; Benjamin Miller, Graduate Center, CUNY; Paige Morgan, U of Washington; David Tagnani, Washington State U, Pullman; Amanda Visconti, U of Maryland.) Team Stainforth is thrilled to have the opportunity to present in such a forum and to learn from the other projects in our session.

To learn the basics of the Stainforth Project and our team members, read this blog post, a talk I gave at the 2013 CU Digital Humanities Symposium.

Our team meets this morning to hatch our plans for this work-station style presentation — a format that is new to me, but that I think offers a lot of possibilities and creativity, especially for a DH project. The goal of Earhart’s session is to explore how DH projects are integral to student research and scholarly output at the graduate or undergraduate level. With this in mind, we aim to show how the Stainforth project enriches my dissertation (indeed, it feeds a chapter) but, I think more importantly, we will also show how my dissertation is only a small part of this long-term project that has so much to offer CU-Boulder and its networked learning communities.

In fact, one of the challenges that we face as project managers is to design this digital resource so that it will help answer research and teaching questions that none of us have posed yet for our respective fields. In other words, we’re thinking ahead toward the students that will learn from this project in the future. If we are to do this, one writing project — in this case, my dissertation — cannot be the focal point. And, indeed, it is not.

The primary goals that drive the Stainforth project are, for me:

  • To better understand the relationship between women authors, their books, the circulation of their work, and the men that collected these volumes in the early-to-mid nineteenth century. One gentleman, Reverend Stainforth, owned what is most likely the largest collection of women’s writing in the mid-nineteenth century. How did these women authors and their works benefit from Stainforth’s collection? Did he ever circulate his collection? Why did he only collect works by poets and playwrights and leave out the women novelists that enjoyed so much publication in the early nineteenth century?
  •  To build a new kind of digital archive, research resource, and teaching tool — one that provides access to the texts within it written by women, but that also provides physical bibliography data and visualizations of what his library looked like, based on the shelf-marks for each book in his catalog. Book-men of the nineteenth century were not only or always readers of their collections’ contents; they also obsessed over the physical qualities of their books, the history of print, and the order of books in their libraries.  Our project will offer access to a digital version of this historic library, and such a portal into a book-collector’s private collection needs to offer access to a digital object’s bound form as well as its textual content. (This part of the project dovetails with my interest in using Special Collections and book history to teach literature.)
  • To create a digital archive that offers a counter-view to the only other published record of this collection: Sotheby’s auctioneers’ catalog, a list created to dismantle this historic collection of women’s writing in 1867, after Stainforth’s death. This catalog is currently available in a digital format, published by Gale and part of the Sabin Americana 1500-1926 collection. The auctioneer’s catalog overwrites the value of each author’s book with the lot value determined by Sotheby’s staff.
  • To use this long-term project as an opportunity to teach undergraduate and graduate students about Digital Humanities work by offering a hands-0n practicum based at CU-Boulder.

Here is a Prezi that I made that outlines what I envision as a multi-modal workspace interactive presentation.

Screen shot 2013-11-22 at 8.33.20 AM

Click on the image to visit this Prezi

For a workstation, I imagine offering participants many avenues to explore this project, such as

  • the chance to try out our transcription form,
  • to examine the Stainforth manuscript pages that are the seeds for this whole project,
  • to learn about the Reverend Stainforth–the 19th-century book collector whose 6,000 volume collection of books by women authors is the foundation of our project,
  • to read an essay about how this manuscript and DH project fold into my dissertation on late-Romantic era legacies of the picturesque and media invention,
  • to learn about our plans for encoding and visualizations, and
  • to offer feedback, reactions, ideas, critique

Let’s see what the rest of the team comes up with. Updates will follow as we continue to think and work.

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