December 16, 2019 by Amanda Visconti

Digital humanities job talks: some case studies

This post is co-authored with Brandon Walsh and was originally posted on the Scholars’ Lab blog on December 16, 2019.

To follow up on sharing and annotating our past cover letters for DHy academic jobs, in this post we share how we’ve thought through past job talk prompts and the experience of giving the resulting presentations. (To learn more about Brandon’s practical workflow to drafting and memorizing talks, check out his post on DH public speaking! To learn about Amanda’s workflow, prod her to finally publish a now-too-long post about DH and public speaking anxiety before 2020 ends…)

Before you dive in, though, you may wish to read our October 2019 blog post “How We Talk and Write about DH Jobs” if you haven’t already. Well intentioned academic job advice can be and often is harmful—so in that post’s “Slightly Better Job Advice, Take Two” section, we discuss how we’re trying to share what we know about job searches in a way that affirms any readers as valued peers and scholars, just as they are. We hope sharing our experiences here can be useful and not overly prescriptive. Our perspectives are shaped by our own particular contexts, and we trust that readers will know their own circumstances - and what will work for them - better than we do. With this in mind, we share the following in the hopes that resources and transparency about our own thinking on the process of preparing for job presentations can help others getting started.

Brandon:

I should note outright that my experience pertains to giving job talks for what might be called alternative academic positions in DH working in libraries. And, while I have seen a number of presentations by job candidates for a range of library positions, I have always wondered how my own background and experiences affect how I evaluate candidate presentations. For example, I do not have a library degree: I did my graduate work in literature before coming to work in libraries, and this different orientation undoubtedly shapes how I view job presentations and prepare for them. When applying for any position, it’s a good idea to talk with someone who is familiar with that discipline or field so that they can give you a sense of the generic expectations that your audience will bring to your presentation. I would not take any of my thoughts on job talks as prescriptive in the least. Your mileage will vary. But I remember my own experiences as a student felt largely as though I was trying to approach a job presentation without any context or sense of how to think about them. Hopefully seeing how I do so can help someone in the same position formulate their own approach.

We’re often raised to think of writing and, by association, presentations, as having a clear and direct point. But, to me, the difficulty with alt-ac job talks is that they often seem to address a number of different issues at once. When I prepare one, I try to think of the presentation as working to convey a few things:

  • my response to a prompt
  • my experience
  • my understanding of the job
  • my vision for the position

You can find the job talk for my current position as Head of Student Programs in the Scholars’ Lab on my website. As I discuss elements of that job talk below, readers might find that full text helpful for context.

Prompts

Many positions that ask you to give a presentation will also give you some kind of prompt for the job talk. To a greater or lesser degree depending on the audience, they will expect you to respond to it. For my position as Head of Student Programs in the Scholars’ Lab, I was given a prompt that broadly addressed education in digital humanities:

What does a student (from undergraduate to doctoral levels) need to learn or experience in order to add “DH” to his or her skill set? Is that an end or a means of graduate education? Can short-term digital assignments in discipline-specific courses go beyond “teaching with technology”? Why not refer everyone to online tutorials? Are there risks for doctoral students or the untenured in undertaking digital projects? Drawing on your own experience, and offering examples or demonstrations of digital research projects, pedagogical approaches, or initiatives or organizations that you admire, make a case for a vision of collaborative education in advanced digital scholarship in the arts and humanities.

I had a lot of feelings about this prompt, as you can imagine. As Amanda mentions below, prompts are often abstract and vague because they are not written with any particular candidate in mind. By trying to offer something for everyone, they sometimes seem intentionally amorphous so that anyone can find a way to latch onto the material. But this means that a prompt can go anywhere, really, and trying to devise a response to it can feel very difficult. So my first point of advice is simply that the difficulty with the prompt is not you! It’s a strange genre, and recognizing this can hopefully help begin to mitigate feelings of imposter syndrome.

In my case, I remember feeling pretty convinced that every question on my prompt could be its own talk. There was just so much to work with, so many topics to address! In the face of this issue, I explicitly framed my own talk as only responding to the first question listed - “What does a student (from undergraduate to doctoral levels) need to learn or experience in order to add “DH” to his or her skill set?” I thought responding to all pieces of the prompt was an impossible task, and I leaned into a talk that did more with less. For what it’s worth, I remember one person approaching me after the presentation and softly noting that I had not responded to all of the questions in the prompt (but they still appreciated the talk). Fair enough, but I did what made the most sense to me. Noting the parts of the prompt you will or won’t address can be a useful way of articulating the intentionality of your response for the audience, and it can also be useful for people in the audience who might not be as familiar with the text of the prompt. After all, in an open job talk you are likely to have some members of the search committee in attendance as well as those who might be more removed from the search process.

Like Amanda describes, I framed my response to the prompt as a critique of it. In essence, I argued that framing DH education as about acquiring a set of skills would undercut the prospect for DH pedagogy to make real, transformative change in the lives of students and institutions. There were a few reasons I took such a perpendicular approach to the question. I had worked in the Scholars’ Lab as a student, so I had some sense of the philosophy of the institution at which I was interviewing. I knew at least a portion of the room would be open to the kind of critique I wanted to offer. For better or worse, I also wanted the talk to show the kind of hire I would be. In other words, I didn’t want to present myself as having one set of views at the interview stage only to be hired and reveal myself to have a set of opinions and beliefs that wouldn’t fit with the institution. If the search committee was looking for someone who really thought of DH education in terms of skills acquisition, I was not that person. They would not be happy with me in this position, and I would not be happy trying to act in it. Better, I thought, to get it all out there. Like Amanda says below, it’s worth noting that not all candidates have the comfort and privilege of being able to make a decision like this as part of the interview process. The approach worked for me, but it might not work for others in different situations. You best know your own circumstances. I do think it’s worth trying to use the hiring process to suss out in small ways the kind of environment in which you would be employed and whether you can be happy there, but you don’t necessarily need to use your job talk to do it.

Experiences

The audience for a job talk is going to show up to learn about you and your qualifications in relation to the job for which they’ve brought you in. This can be tricky, as in a public talk the audience will contain a diverse range of people. The search committee can be expected to have spent time with your CV and cover letter, but, while those documents are typically circulated in advance, you cannot assume that everyone at a public talk will have given the same attention to those documents. So, while you don’t want to wholly reiterate your background, you do need to share some of your qualifications. I think of this as an opportunity to contextualize some of your experiences in a richer way so that your work can play for the whole audience regardless of how familiar they are with your work.

By richer context, I mean that a job talk is a good place to take the things listed on a CV, select two or three, and deploy them in service of a larger vision for the position (more on that below). What did you learn from working with X? How does Y connect to the kinds of work you will be doing at institution Z? I often find it useful to pick a few things from my background and ask “so what?” of them repeatedly until I feel that they stand on their own as a self-reflective moment in the talk. You can use an otherwise boring and rote listing of experiences to show an audience how you will work in a position by reflecting on the work you have already done. In the Scholars’ Lab talk, I talked about my work at WLUDH, a coursebook I was co-writing with a faculty collaborator, and my experiences with curriculum design. But examples like these wouldn’t stand on their own - I thought of them as evidence in the larger argument I was making about how I think about DH teaching. Another way to think about all this: in an essay, you are likely to cite other authors or texts as you make your argument. In job talks I think of the evidence as potentially drawing from either your own experiences or other example projects/texts in DH. By weaving these together, your job talk can show both your personal qualifications and your sense of how your work connects to the broader field.

Understanding

To some degree, the audience will expect you to signal that you know what the job will entail. It’s always difficult to know exactly what the day to day life at a place will be like, and most of the time a candidate won’t actually make it to the job talk stage if their understanding of the position is in question. But conveying your understanding of the position can help nonetheless. I often tell students to think of it as a roleplaying challenge. You have imperfect knowledge of what the position will be like, but you have evidence from websites, projects, descriptions, and postings. Search committees are always trying to imagine each candidate into the position. Why not meet them halfway and start to imagine yourself into the position in your job talk? There are, of course, ways to do this poorly - I would not go into a talk saying “I will entirely transform everything in my first week. Only I have the solutions to your problems.” You will never have all the answers. Furthermore, positions always have pressures and needs that are difficult to perceive from the outside, and it can be useful to acknowledge that. I like to offer this formulation: “Given that I know you are working on X, I would take my experiences with Y to work towards Z with you all.” Syntactically it’s not actually a formula I would recommend, but as an exercise in thinking it can get you in the direction of good thinking about yourself in relation to a job. In that way, you’re making transparent the kind of thought process that you will bring to the position. And you’re helping the search committee by shaping the imaginative exercise of hiring for them.

To do this well, you’ll need to do research on the position but also the institution. If the position has existed before, what kind of work did they previously do? What kind of projects did they take on? Does the job description appear to be different in some way from that previous body of work? The institution can also offer clues: libraries, small liberal arts colleges, and cultural heritage institutions (to name a few) each carry with them certain assumptions about the work that they do, and these categories can offer evidence for you as you start to determine what kind of work the place values. You might also look at projects undertaken, grants and new initiatives that might be in process, recent hires, and the like. Some institutions might even offer explicit statements of values that you can explore. The Scholars’ Lab, for example, has published a series of charters describing how we think about our work. I had the benefit for my presentation of having worked with the Scholars’ Lab as a student. So I knew something of how they thought of themselves, and I similarly tried to frame my interest in working with DH students towards progressive, transformative reform in higher education. But I only knew the Scholars’ Lab from the student’s perspective - I had to make a lot of educated guesses about how they thought of their work and their students.

One further thought: applying for jobs can be especially scary as a student. It’s all too easy to think, “I am a PhD student in literature! What do I know about institutional collaboration for DH education?” But you probably know more than you think! You’ve likely experienced a number of these issues from the student side, so you actually have valuable experiences with them. Many administrators are desperate to get student voices on a range of issues, and your direct experience can provide a useful perspective when combined with research about the other sorts of stakes, pressures, and questions that the position might engage with. It’s just a matter of imagining yourself from the other side.

Vision

This point is not one that I’m sure is required by the generic conventions of general DH staff jobs. Lots of people leave it off. But it is an element that I often think about, and I know that, of the job presentations that I’ve attended, all of the ones I considered the best included some sense of a vision for the work they will do. I was trained that a piece - be it an essay or a talk - should have an argument to it. So it’s difficult for me to imagine preparing a job talk that doesn’t also offer an argument, a philosophy, a vision for the work. In the context of the Scholars’ Lab talk, I explicitly framed the position I was applying for as someone who thinks past and beyond the prompt I was given. This was my closing sentence:

Foremost, then, I see the Head of Graduate Programs as someone who takes the lists, documents, and curricula that I have discussed and connects them to the people that serve them and that they are meant to speak to. This person is one who builds relationships, who navigates the prepositions of my title.

I presented a vision of the position as one that fundamentally cared about the people and their development more than the skills associated with digital humanities. For me at least, it’s important that a talk say something, even in a genre as strange as a job presentation. “Vision” can be a big baggy term with little meaning to it. But you might approach it by asking a series of questions of yourself - why is this position important? what do I see as the fundamental role of this position? What are the top three verbs I would associate with this position? How can I frame this position as being vital to the mission of the institution? A job description answers the “what” of a position - what about the “why”? In trying to work in a sense of your philosophy for the work, you’re helping a search committee to further imagine what kind of a colleague you would be. I think it will also make for a more engaging job talk. And that job talk is also likely to be easier to write if you’re engaged with the topic of it!

One last note on DH / alt-ac public speaking. In some disciplines it is common to read your talk. Job presentations often seem to be done from notes instead. I try to operate somewhere in the middle. For my longer presentations I write my talk, memorize as much as I can, and then give some version of it more or less off the cuff but with the talk in front of me for reference. The result is something that is bloggable, has a shape to it, is more engaging than reading from a paper, but more polished than a presentation fully off the cuff. I’ve written about this elsewhere if you want more detail about my process for preparing for talks. It feels a bit idiosyncratic, but it could work for you as well.

Amanda:

My job talk thoughts are biased toward the roles I’ve given a candidate’s talk for—tenure-track faculty roles (interdisciplinary lab; library with digital humanities focus) and the SLab co-director role (library staff). You might also wish to check out talks from others who’ve applied to related DHy and library roles for more approaches—Lee Skallerup Bessette, Celeste Tuong Vy Sharpe, and Chris Bourg—or visit the Academic Job Market Support Network on Humanities Commons, a forum created by Hannah Alpert-Abrams where folks have uploaded a variety of humanities-related job materials.

Responding to job talk prompts, in general

You’ll likely be given a prompt to reply to via your talk. In both of the talks shared below, I took a mild risk in explaining why I was responding a bit differently than probably expected to each prompt. I’ll talk about the privileges that allowed me to take these small risks below; if you do not have those privileges, you’ll probably want to respond more directly to prompts than I did, yet still with some changes from how you might answer the prompt if, for example, someone asked you the same thing during Q&A or a panel interview. That is: a job talk prompt is intended to be something that each candidate should be able to answer, and is thus often fairly abstracted and open to interpretation. Sometimes, creating a question that will work for all candidates results in a franken-prompt containing multiple questions.

This might just be a question of how you frame your response to yourself, but my recommendation is to not treat this as you would an essay question on a test: no one is scoring you for explicitly mentioning or responding to the letter of each question in a prompt. An explicit answer to all portions of a prompt can be fine, but it can also make for a poorly structured, hard to listen to talk. I’ve found it more useful to use the prompt as a prompt, rather than as a question—that is, a suggestion of topics your audience might want to know your thoughts on. (In combination with the HR-approved job ad, it might offer more specific clues to local contexts or challenges you could ask about…) I try to give a talk that shares both the philosophies guiding my professional practice and very specific examples from my past work as illustrations. What your audience may remember is whether your talk presented you as 1) someone up to the job’s tasks, and 2) someone who would be a good and healthy addition to the local community. I’m guessing most people won’t even notice, much less care, if your talk isn’t an explicit response to the prompt.

Below, I’ll discuss how I worked through a response to the prompts for two of my past successful job talks, and then comment on the structure and contents of each talk.

Scholars’ Lab Managing Director Talk

You can read the full text and slides of this talk here.

The talk prompt was:

The digital has the potential to be a disruptive force in humanities scholarship, giving scholars the means to critique, reimagine, and transform ideas, theories, material artifacts, and even interpersonal relationships. Using examples from your own collaborations with faculty, graduate students, and staff, please discuss how this disruption can be successfully embodied in scholarly inquiry, as well as in the cultivation of people and organizations.

I was recruited to apply to this job while working in a comfortable role (tenure-track library faculty) with some stellar colleagues and local resources, so it was safe for me to take some risks in my interview. Because paying my rent did not depend on receiving a job offer, I was able to pay more attention to whether the role would be good for me, to be more open about my values and what I wanted in a workplace. So when something in the prompt made me uncomfortable, I decided I wanted to speak to that from the very start of my talk. This turned out well, but could have gone badly, had I failed to convince the audience of the worth of my perspective, or offended the folks who wrote the prompt (assumedly, these were the folks on my search committee and/or folks I’d be reporting through).

The prompt wasn’t explicitly positioning “disruption” as a positive force, but that assumption felt at least implicit enough (disruption allowing reform, wanting that to be “successful”) that I was uncomfortable not speaking specifically to the problems with that. (Part of my reaction was from past experience giving a job talk at a “demo or die” pro-language-of-disruption institution, and my discomfort about how that place’s mixture of amazing colleagues but also very shiny resources temporarily pushed me more toward more disregard for the harms of disruption.) I’ve learned that most terms invoke both positive and negative possibilities:

Valuing openness does harm to cultural practices intended for limited access (see e.g. Traditional Knowledge labels’ approach to this issue) Speaking at a highly abstracted level about “diversity” or “social justice” can disadvantage acting on specific harms including racism and classism. In Data Feminism, Catherine D’Ignazio and Lauren Klein discuss a number of terms that connote “imagined objectivity” and alternative terms that better “strengthen real objectivity”, e.g. “ethics” => “justice”, “bias” => “oppression”, “fairness” => “equity” (I learned this from Neil Selwyn’s review of their book)

I want to avoid the harm often done in the name of “disruption” treated as a context-less good. And I knew that Scholars’ Lab had a history of publicly valuing many of the same things I valued, e.g. from reading the staff charter, and appreciating staff’s tweets and conference talks. So my approach wasn’t actually a huge risk, but enough had recently changed in terms of the lab and library’s staff and work that if those values had shifted unbeknownst to me, I would probably be able to choose not to work there without harm to my livelihood. And I was applying to co-direct the lab, so there was more space to safely share thinking that might be a change to the institution’s current values.

This is all to say, the first sentence of my SLab job talk was: “My digital humanities is not disruptive.” I won’t repeat the rest of my talk, as the first few slides explain why I diverged from the prompt, how I thought about the positive potentials of DH. I did respond to the part of the prompt that indicated what the desired outcomes of (a positive definition of) disruption were to them, and in particular noted that people were mentioned multiple times (relationships, specifics examples of collaboration, organizations). After defining what my definition and goals for DH were against a negative read of “disruption”, I spoke to the prompt’s emphasis on people by structuring the rest of my talk around two examples of people-centric work (my Infinite Ulysses participatory edition, and founding the Digital Humanities Slack).

Attending to the people behind scholarship was a way for me to give the audience a sense of how I might be as a colleague. In my talk, I cited people who impacted how I think and work, regardless of the format (book, article, tweet, panel discussion, lunch conversation, something someone pointedly didn’t say) and regardless of if that person identifies as a scholar. If they contributed to how you think, you should cite them.

But I need to mention privilege again: Some people think less of you for having co-authors or other collaborators, as if that shows your effort was smaller rather than greater. If you aren’t read as male, some people may assume you didn’t do the coding or other technical work on your DH project. If you’re hurting for a job and/or already have other biases working against how people treat you, you might need to be more emphatic about your individual contributions to scholarship.

In this job talk, I tried to speak to people who value or assume different things than me, e.g. folks who would appreciate an explicit discussion of how something functions as scholarship, rather than assuming that people recognize the work behind Infinite Ulysses or the DH Slack as scholarship. And given I’ve had some experiences that are likely to be construed as academic success, like my dissertation project being cited in The New York Times, I think it’s reasonable to make sure your interviewers know about that—even if you’re kind of uncomfortable with that being seen as a metric toward whether you should be hired. But I also spoke to things I was proud of that others might not value or see as relevant to scholarship, like receiving emails from a variety of non-faculty strangers happy about discovering my DH project. Interviewing necessitates anxiety, and it’s a privilege to be safe and comfortable sharing some pieces of yourself during a job visit—but I’ve found myself happiest after interviews, including an interview where I did not get offered the job, when I felt I brought and shared more of my full self during the process.

(I was basically going to rewrite Brandon and my post about how to share our job-market knowledge without prescriptively reinforcing classist, sexist, etc. notions of individual value and what counts as scholarship, so instead I’ll just link to that post again—I learned a lot from the discussions we had before deciding to continue blogging our past job search experiences and advice, and we tried to capture those ideas about a more just and affirming way of supporting jobseekers in that post.)

Purdue Tenure-Track Faculty DH Specialist Talk

You can read the full text and slides of this talk here.

The talk prompt was:

Digital humanities and the research library: opportunities and challenges for academic libraries and librarians. Draw upon your experience and knowledge as well as citing research literature in library/archival/information science, and/or disciplinary literature relating to digital humanities. (Audience: Libraries staff and faculty)

As with my SLab job talk, I quibbled mildly with this prompt, and explained why at the start of the job talk:

There are already many recent voices defining what the digital humanities (or DH) is, what a library does, and exactly how much DH and libraries overlap as academic fields. I didn’t want to rehash those debates, so I put together an online Zotero bibliography with bunch of pertinent readings, which you can access via [tinyurl.com/dhlibraries](https://tinyurl.com/dhlibraries). You’ll also be able to find any work I cite in this talk there…Pulling together over fifty works defining DH and libraries, and strategizing this combination, wasn’t difficult."

Instead, I wanted to focus on what DH might look like locally, given how I’d function if hired:

 It was harder to find case studies of the specific, day-to-day tactics of successful combinations of DH and libraries. So, in wanting to discuss the specific question of DH library service today, I’ll try to give some specific examples, spoken and on screen, of the types of events, workflows, and services I’m envisioning. I’d like to focus on what both the strategy and the tactics of a user-focused service ethic look like, when combined with 1) the digital humanities commitment to collaboration, and 2) recognizing scholarship in all areas of professional practice.

A small thing, but I like that I included an explicit reference to caring about timekeeping while outlining my talk (“I’ll be talking for around 15 minutes, after which we’ll have a lot of time for discussion”) to help the audience pace their attention.

Now that I know that community, I think the audience would have appreciated more time spent on what DH is and what the arguments about DH and libraries are than I gave them. It’s hard to gauge that, or know who will be at your talk! I think I did okay by defining what DH would look like locally if I were hired, but sharing a few specific projects that show the breadth of what DH can be would have improved the talk. I’d recommend focusing on what DH is to you, and what you hope for DH to be (inspired by Élika Ortega).