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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