There’s been some buzz on Twitter today, coming out of the Digital Humanities Summer Institute (DHSI), about the increasing centrality of the digital humanities. William Pannapacker, who blogs for the Chronicle, notes:

This is a development guaranteed to scare the bejeezus out of any number of job applicants, I would suspect, not just those who self-identify with English. Like a lot of technology-oriented discussions, though, what will undoubtedly happen is that differences among fields will be elided, panic will ensue, and the fear generated will far outweigh any sort of perspective. A few thoughts:

I honestly believe that changing your department through the hiring process is a horrible strategy, with two exceptions. I have been in a department where there were a huge number of hires over the course of about 2 years, because of an early retirement outlay on the part of the school. Faced with turning over a significant portion of the department, departmental hiring priorities could actually be a good strategy. The only other exception I can imagine is if you’re looking to change what the department will look like 10 or 15 years down the road. But expecting a new hire to perform like a magic wand–ding! our department is now digital!–is a little insane.

A “no DH, no interview” kind of strategy places the burden for departmental change on those people least able to negotiate (much less question or resist) it, the as-of-yet-unhired colleagues. I don’t doubt that there are folks out there who would welcome that challenge and succeed at it, but engage in this little thought-experiment: imagine a fully-DH-ified department. Now measure the distance between your department and that one, honestly adding up all of the equipment, maintenance, and faculty, staff, and student training costs. Don’t forget to kick in the 2-3 years it will take to get all of the curricular changes approved. Oh, and the dedicated IT staff that you’ll have to draw upon. Add all that stuff up and then ask yourself: are you going to give all that time and all those resources to the person(s) you hire?

This is not to suggest that it’s not a good idea for departments to begin that process, because I think that it is. I don’t think of technology as an “area” to be “covered” with a single faculty member, though, nor do I believe that candidates can afford to be willfully ignorant of the various developments that are gathered under the DH umbrella. (In fact, I wrote about this, once upon a time.) But I do think that asking one’s applicants to commit to DH, to the point that it becomes a deciding factor, is problematic, unless the department has already thought through its own commitment and acted upon it in significant ways. Frankly, if a department can’t be bothered, then what business do they have requiring it of job candidates?

I can imagine DH expectations playing out in several different ways:

The buzz: Because it’s sexy for the time being, I suspect that DH will become another in a long list of buzzworthy ideas that some candidates will be able to exploit, armed with little more than a glossary of terms. Some candidates will be able to talk the talk, and even impress committees who are looking for DH without knowing exactly what it looks like.

The DH chapter: It wouldn’t shock me to find that some programs will start expecting their doctoral students to have a “DH chapter” in the dissertation, in the same way that our field has the “pedagogy chapter.” Insofar as this encourages them to consider carefully their project’s (digital or pedagogical) implications, this isn’t a horrible thing. Insofar as it will feel like a vestigial tail, pinned to the dissertation without much thought about how it actually might affect the rest of the project, this is a horrible thing. It will improve some projects and derail others.

The techie: I suspect that a number of departments will fold DH into their departments as though it is simply another speciality to be covered. I’d like to believe that, in 10+ years, we’ve gotten away from the “you know about computers; could you come see what’s wrong with my printer, young colleague whose tenure committee I’ll be on soon?” The academy often moves more slowly than I’d like to think it does, though.

I do hold out some optimism that there will be departments that get it right, that are able to rethink how they do things. Those departments would be flexible enough to account for the different kinds of work that a DH scholar/teacher might engage in, and foresighted enough to provide that person with the support that s/he needs to do those things. They would see their hire as part of a long-term, infrastructural plan to re-envision their department (and perhaps their college). And they would see it as something that is a part of their own expectations as well, not simply another job requirement to pile upon the newbie.

It would be unfair not to mention that I do believe that, in a lot of cases, rhetoric and composition has gotten it right with respect to computers and writing, our particular brand of DH. I think that there are a lot of programs out there that do a good job of preparing their students when it comes to technology, regardless of whether or not it’s their research interest.  And it’s here that the parallel with pedagogy strikes me as pertinent: you don’t have to count pedagogy among your primary research interests to care about teaching and to do well at it; increasingly, I think technology is functioning the same way, and that’s a good thing.