This post was co-authored with Brandon Walsh and originally posted on the Scholars’ Lab blog on October 10, 2019.
Early this summer, we (authors Brandon and Amanda!) planned a post about job search materials, but finishing up the draft got delayed by several weeks. In the intervening time, a small Twitter debate on the subject of academic job advice occurred, and we ended up holding off this post for a few months while discussing how to do it well.
The debate in question: someone shared the job advice they generally give students on the academic job market, and folks responded with frustrations about the prescriptiveness, privilege, and goals of the academic job advice genre. Since then, we’ve also appreciated inspiring work being done on the topic by Hannah Alpert-Abrams. The Academic Job Market Support Network that she spearheads shares a lot of the spirit behind what we intended to do with our job search materials, so we’re taking this as an opportunity to revisit the post we had planned. We have both uploaded cover letters from our pasts to the AJMSN (Brandon’s letter here and Amanda’s letter here), and we talk a bit about our reasoning below. We’ll offer some general thoughts about job searches in digital humanities, and annotate each other’s cover letters. We thought the latter might be a useful exercise beyond just sharing them.
Framing an academic job search exclusively in terms of handy tips undervalues the degree of luck that goes into any search. Do these things, such advice seems to suggest, and the just and right meritocracy will reward you with a job. But the academic job market is anything but just, and anything but a pure measure of merit1. The same is true, of course, for job markets beyond academia. Digital humanities job searches, be they for faculty positions or otherwise, suffer from the same issues. Internally we’ve had a lot of conversation about how to share job advice with our students. We’re frequently called upon to do so, and we want to do it well. So we thought it worth sharing a few of the things we try to consider below. Keep in mind, of course, that this is not an exhaustive list.
The academic job market is not identical with all job markets in academia. There is a range of different careers that engage in intellectual work, careers that might be called alt-ac (though there are good reasons for not using that term to describe them). Paths to these careers are often just as obscured as paths to professorships, and resources for how to navigate these types of job searches are scarce. Resources for finding and thinking about these kinds of careers are one of the key things we can provide students.
Students need our support. In particular, refusing to share resources about job searches, even if the act is well meaning, can reinforce privileged access to those same materials. Our initial reason for writing this post was that we noticed we were repeatedly sharing the same cover letters with folks looking for work. We found ourselves wondering how many other people at UVA or elsewhere might not know to ask for such resources.
Offers to aid in job searches, on and off the tenure track, are better when they go beyond lists of advice. In particular, we try to help folks think through backup plans and suggest talking with a career center as part of the conversation about how to seek positions in the digital humanities. We try to speak from our own experiences but also to recognize our own limitations as resources. We do not have all the answers, but we still might be able to help in some way.
Student support like this necessarily includes emotional labor. For us (the authors), this has proven unavoidable. In conversations we try to emphasize that the student is smart enough and good enough for this work, that the job market is not a reflection on them, and that our current jobs are the results of luck in a lottery system (where every time you win a lottery it makes winning future lotteries a bit more tipped in your favor…). The fact that we have jobs does not necessarily mean our advice will be helpful (CW for war: see e.g. Abraham Wald on survivorship bias2). In short, it is not enough to tell students that they need do X and Y in order to be successful. In the Lab we believe these conversations need to engage with the messy work of what the job search entails.
Advice about any job market should come with a frank discussion about all the factors involved in being offered a job (i.e. how many factors are out of candidates’ hands), and about the precarious nature of employment in the field that the particular position may or may not play into.
We’re not sure how we share our cover letters given this context, but it still seems worth doing; we’re going to continue advising the local students who work with us, and we’d like to help students who are elsewhere if we can. Some of the ways we try to make our advising do more good than harm include:
Below, each of us shares the text of one of our cover letters for the other to annotate. The comments below reflect what we’ve tried to do when we have served on hiring committees and reviewed cover letters: avoid the stuff we feel we shouldn’t evaluate on, and what we do look for. Of course, these should be taken with a grain of salt. Our hope is that sharing the letters in this format will offer a bit more insight into how we think about DH job searches. It’s also worth noting that we each clearly read for different things. Similarly, other people serving on DH hiring committees might look for different things. We’ll focus on the hiring experience for:
While our comments below are about our cover letters, you might be interested in checking out other hiring and school info we’ve shared: Brandon’s job talk for his current role, Amanda’s job talks for her current role (with links to job talks shared by three other scholars as well!) and her previous faculty role; and Amanda’s doctoral defense talk, advice about defense talks, and literature/DH PhD exams list and advice. We’ve added the cover letters to an existing effort to gather and contextualize job materials led by Hannah Alpert-Abrams on Humanities Commons—check out their files page for other cover letters, various types of written statement, etc.
We started working at SLab on the same day and were not involved in the hiring of each other, so all comments are views from outside the search committee. You can check out the full cover letters on Humanities Commons, and reading them in full first might be useful: Brandon’s cover letter and Amanda’s cover letter. You might wish to compare these to how the job ads described these roles: Head of Graduate Programs and Digital Humanities Specialist Assistant or Associate Professor. In what follows, we intersperse inset text of our letters with short, bulleted lists of comments from the other person.
Brandon’s cover letter, notes by Amanda
I am writing to apply for the position of Head of Graduate Programs in the Scholars’ Lab at the University of Virginia. As an alumnus of both the Praxis Program and the Graduate Fellowship in Digital Humanities, I have a deep appreciation for the Scholars’ Lab’s commitment to experimental forms of collaborative, project-based pedagogy.
I believe that my own extensive teaching record and my experiences as a digital humanities developer and project manager, all of which are shaped by my understanding of the Scholars’ Lab’s values, make me uniquely qualified for this position.
Student mentoring has been my first priority for the duration of my career.
I have taught a number of digital humanities workshops and classes, but I am proudest of my recent work as co-administrator of the Undergraduate Digital Humanities Fellows program at Washington and Lee University, where I currently serve as Mellon Digital Humanities Fellow. This initiative attempts to adapt the principles of the Praxis Program to a liberal arts context by allowing undergraduates to engage in collaborative research projects of their own design. I serve in both supervisory and technical roles in this program, and my daily tasks range from scoping student projects to teaching technical lessons on GitHub or programming concepts in PHP. During the past year, I have worked with humanities students to design and implement digital archives, editions, and storytelling projects through a combination of hands-on training and mentoring.
I recognize that the vitality of a program depends upon a student community that extends beyond the bounds of the fellowship years, so I have created an outreach plan that builds our student network by having fellows visit other courses and mentor others as digital experts. This student community can – and should – contribute to life beyond the walls of the academy: this year I am piloting a program that sends our fellows to a local High School AP Computer Science class to collaborate on digital projects. Drawing on the lessons I learned during my own training, my efforts always aim to teach the person not the material. Helping students to find the confidence to speak, act, and sometimes fail productively in public in roles like these is as important to me as any temporary success afforded by a project.
As a member of Washington and Lee’s digital humanities faculty committee, I have helped to develop the school’s digital humanities curriculum, which aims to provide students at all levels of expertise with an intellectual and practical understanding of innovative digital work. In particular, I have focused on collaborations that raise the skillsets of my colleagues as long-term investments in growing our resources. Working with Professor Sarah Horowitz and a student researcher on her interest in text analysis, for example, has led to both a co-taught class on digital history as well as a co-authored open access textbook. The book is, foremost, a pedagogical exploration, an attempt to write an accessible introduction to digital text analysis for complete newcomers. The writing of this textbook was also, in itself, a teaching exercise: the writing process required Professor Horowitz to learn version control and Markdown in addition to a number of text analysis techniques. These experiences were part of a larger experiment that I spearheaded in collaborative writing and publishing that has led to invitations for presentations and workshops at DLF and Bucknell Digital Scholarship with our Digital Humanities Librarian. As an experienced project manager and digital humanities developer, I also offer an advanced skillset to augment my teaching.
I served for several years as the project manager of NINES, and I have given invited talks on project development at the University of Michigan, SUNY New Paltz, the University of Central Florida, and the Center for Networked Information. I have consistently worked to supplement this supervisory experience with the skills necessary to implement projects myself. During my time at Washington and Lee, I have deployed and maintained three Rails applications, supervised Omeka customizations, and designed text analyses in Python, in addition to carrying out my own research in machine learning and sound studies. These skills will allow me not only to lead workshops on the technical aspects of digital humanities research, but also to supplement the resources of the Scholars’ Lab by providing technical support to fellows myself.
I know first-hand how transformative the right interventions can be in the lives of graduate students. The Scholars’ Lab’s commitment to equipping students at all levels for both the kinds of careers that they will find and the intellectual provocations they can make in the digital age has shaped my own thinking, and it continues to inform all of my work. I see this position in the Scholars’ Lab as the perfect opportunity for me to help others learn as I once did, and to use my skills and experiences to extend the excellent work of the Scholars’ Lab’s fellowship programs. I look forward to discussing the great potential of the position with you.
Amanda’s cover letter, notes by Brandon
Dear Purdue University Libraries team, I'm a digital humanist with an Information M.S. (University of Michigan), new Literature Ph.D. (University of Maryland), and over eight years as a professional DH web developer and public-focused DH scholar, working since 2009 in multiple staff roles at the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities (MITH). I write to apply for the Digital Humanities Specialist role.
As an example of my work, my recent dissertation project is InfiniteUlysses.com—an interface that brings scholars, teachers, and readers of all backgrounds together in annotating and discussing a challenging book, personalizing the annotations displayed to any given reader by their backgrounds, interests, and needs. Infinite Ulysses achieved sizable impact for a literature dissertation, with over 13,000 unique visitors during its first month of open beta. The challenge of helping everyone feel empowered to participate in the humanities drives my research and project design.
Successfully completing a non-monograph dissertation taught me how to champion others embarking on digital scholarship, both in educating their colleagues on their digital work, and in the practical aspects of project design, technical learning, and planning for the full life cycle of the project. I dealt with this last—DH long-term thinking and digital preservation—as MITH's Webmaster, auditing our two servers full of projects, files, and databases ranging back to 1999, and in my training and experience doing digital preservation work with MITH's early e-lit collection.
My work has always been interdisciplinary in both topic and methodology. A few of my diverse past DH projects include: * Co-organizing the first digital humanities and games unconference (THATCamp Games) * Developer on the "Making DH More Open" team's Braille Wordpress plugin * Data visualization and topic modeling of Digital Humanities Quarterly to explore DH citation networks (recipient of the inaugural ACH Microgrant) * Team teaching and design of a DH course for UMD's Digital Cultures and Creativity undergrads * Librarian-aimed user testing and documentation for BitCurator's archival digital forensics tools I offer excellent communication, teaching, and presentation skills, and am especially deft at research use of social media (over 2,000 Twitter followers) and blogging (over 22,000 unique blog visitors to date). I’ve worked in a number of pertinent roles: as a librarian and digital archivist, university teacher and student, web developer, and DH center staff, as well as alongside others in these roles. This background gives me inside experience of the different needs and values of these important scholarly constituents. After working on interdisciplinary teams for six years at one of the world's top digital humanities research centers, I'm a skilled translator between tech and non-tech colleagues, and my research best thrives through collaboration.
I'd love to discuss how my background in digital humanities service, training, research, and building would complement the Purdue University Libraries' learner-centered mission! Thank you for your time and consideration.
The coiner of the word “meritocracy” intended it to ridicule the very ideas folks now use the term to convey. ↩
I remember seeing a tweet recently where someone connected the infamous image of the bullet hole locations on the surviving planes to listening to some kind of job advice selectively—maybe listening to folks who got hired about what not to ask during interviews? If you know who tweeted this and wouldn’t mind, please let me know so I can cite them (@literature_geek on Twitteremail@example.com). It’s important to record where ideas came from, even in smaller things like this post. ↩
Brandon’s title has been expanded over the course of his work here; at the time of hiring, it was “Head of Graduate Programs”. ↩
We thought this be more broadly useful to students than the cover letter for her current job, as that fits leaving a faculty role to direct a lab, rather than locating one’s first post-PhD job. ↩