Response to Scheinfeldt’s “Third way”

Not sure if this is the kind of blogging we are doing on this site … but I had kind of a visceral reaction to Scheinfeld’s “Toward a Third Way: Rethinking Academic Employment” AND since I have trouble with blog-writing motivation I thought I’d channel some of my fiery reaction here.

Scheinfeldt raises an important point: the work done by digital humanists doesn’t fit with current models of academic employment. In particular, he is concerned with tenure – that most lauded, most prestigious form of academic employment. So, he asks: what are we (in the digital humanities) to do?

Instead of exploring the potentially democratizing effects of work in the digital humanities (the potential for de-commodification of knowledge, creating space for more people to access and produce/contribute to knowledge) he essentially argues that we need to surrender DH work to the market. He says he cringes when he realizes this is what he is arguing, but he argues it anyway. If only we could get rid of the conservative, stuffy job security tenure provides we could create an environment where those who excel at digital humanities work will rise to the top and convince everyone of their value. REALLY??

Scheinfeldt identifies real problems with tenure that really do need to be addressed, namely that the expectations for work which help you to achieve tenure are outdated, and that tenured positions are disappearing. He says – most Americans (“the 99%”) don’t have job security but are probably able to keep their jobs if they are good at them – why should academics think they’re special? This is soooo not the point. EVERYONE should have job security, and the University is one of those public institutions where a high degree of job security once existed. This makes it an important site of the struggle to defend job security as privatization and marketization encroach on all sorts of public institutions. To surrender to these forces would be a disservice to workers everywhere (not an act of solidarity, as Scheinfeldt perversely suggests). In the true style of a “third way“, he uses language familiar to the left (rejecting hierarchies! smashing conservatism!) while making fundamentally right-wing arguments.

There are, of course, important problems with the fact that only an elite crew of University workers get the type of job security that tenured faculty get. So the task should be to get that job security for everyone – to insist that DH “work” AND “scholarship” be paid on par with other faculty, to refuse to let universities rely on poorly paid insecure adjuncts (who Scheinfeldt is quick to distance himself from), to reject grant-to-grant funding models which infringe on the ability of workers to dictate the direction of their work. The production of knowledge suffers when it is surrendered to the market. And the “prestige” and “value” of DH work won’t come from convincing higher-ups to change their minds, it will come from winning demands for equal pay. Librarians don’t feel “depressed and embarrassed” because their positions are not prestigious, they feel that way because they are undervalued in pay (which also explains why their positions are not considered prestigious in case that is, in fact, felt to be the root of the problem). Just because the jobs of many prestigious Americans (Scheinfeldt cites lawyers) are vulnerable to losses suffered by the firm doesn’t mean theirs or anyone else’s should be. By this logic, we should all be joining the race to the lowest common denominator: no job security, and instead trying to work “creatively” with the scraps we are thrown (which Scheinfeldt insists we can and should do by trying to make grant-based funding, an inherently insecure form of funding, work for creating “relative” security. No thanks!).

Scheinfeldt characterizes the desire many have for tenure as an issue of people with PhD’s “flattering [their] biases and self-image.” I say it is much more complicated than this and has much more to do with a concern for material well-being (hello, we have debts!)(and so does everyone else!). Perhaps inadvertently, Scheinfeldt provides us with a great example of the potentially dangerous role DH could play in accelerating and intensifying the neoliberalization of Universities. I think we need to insist on imagining other ways to do things.

6 thoughts on “Response to Scheinfeldt’s “Third way”

  1. Erin Glass

    really appreciate this post, bronwyn. would love to hear your thoughts (here or in class) re how the digital humanities might assist “de-commodification of knowledge.”

  2. Luke Waltzer (he/him)

    This is exactly the kind of blogging we should be doing on this site. Thank you. Hopefully others will be able to read this and bring their thoughts to class today.

    I agree with much of what you’ve written here; indeed, all of this was on the table when Tom (who is a very good dude, a friend, and a friend of CUNY’s) spoke to the CUNY DHI a couple years ago. I also think that much of what Tom writes is correct: tenure is on the decline, and we, as burgeoning academics, need to be okay with considering ourselves productive academics if it’s something that we can’t or don’t want to attain. The way to be okay is to explore, embrace, and create alternative models of academic employment. I agree that we can and should fight to protect our work from the forces of the market. There are a range of ways to do that — CHNM certainly provides a model that gives a helluva lot back to the public whose funding supports it.

    But, what are the implications of these new employment structures? You’re on to something when you note the employment instability; but what impact do these contexts have on the specific types of work that we do? That as much as anything propelled our choice of this piece for this week– how do think about how contexts impact our productive processes? How do the pressures those contexts create impact the work we do?

    Looking forward to talking all this through with you all this afternoon-

    1. Julie Fuller (she/her)

      Sorry for this very late and poorly thought out post…just wanted to weigh in the conversation.

      The question of how the pressures of context impact our productive process is an incredibly pertinant one and this article offers an intriguing (and clearly controversial) response to that issue. While I agree with the objections Bronwyn raised in relation to Scheinfeldt’s ideas, I am interested in the solution that CHNM has pursued in response to the context of having to rely upon grant-based funding to support DH work. This pressure resulted in hiring based on broadly applicable skills (at the level of productive process) rather than the demands of an individual project. Yes, there is a problem with employment instability as Bronwyn points out, but CHNM’s solution suggests that the impact of context doesn’t necessarily have to be limiting to the productive process. Some of these pressures might allow us to adopt a different relation to our own productive processes. Perhaps it is worth riding out some kinds of instability as we try to work out what this different relation may be (though we certainly shouldn’t settle for instability as a long-term form of “relative” security).

      On a side note, I am finding it difficult to hash out this question of context and productive process even as I write this. I am trying to think alternately about how our productive processes might impact (help to reframe, alter, upend) existing contexts–however a lot of the work we do seems to be so enmeshed in certain contexts like funding and employment that this alternate doesn’t appear feasible to even consider. Hmmmm….

  3. Bronwyn Post author

    Good questions!! I was thinking after I wrote this about what directions DH could take us that aren’t the ones Scheinfeldt mapped out – something about creating structures/contexts of employment that facilitate openness and risk taking and dialogue which is challenging and subversive – I guess I just don’t see those grant-to-grant, unofficial/insecure DH positions as facilitating that kind of work because they require you to produce “outcomes” that are quantifiable within existing frameworks. or something. I look forward to discussing it in class! oh yeah, and Luke, I do appreciate the context – I am jumping on what I assume is going on, without actually really knowing the dynamics of these projects – I would love to hear more.

  4. Jennifer Stoops

    Thanks for this post, Bronwyn. I, too, felt uneasy with the sense of inevitability in Scheinfeldt’s piece – how the decline of tenure suggests that emergent academics must adapt to insecure prospects and contingent labor policies if they want “to work”. Sink or swim. It seems that the issue at hand is really the inability to agree on criteria by which to evaluate worth. Although tenure in higher ed is quite different from tenure in K-12 ed, this same failure to agree on criteria by which to evaluate teachers has led to the fiasco in New York City that pits the UFT against Bloomberg and against Cuomo. In order for teacher evaluations to be acceptable to Bloomberg, a certain percentage that measures a teacher’s “effectiveness” must be computed using student test scores (among other criteria). The language Bloomberg uses betrays all of his business-minded ideologies: by “weeding out” “bad” teachers, evaluations promise efficiency. The union, on the other hand, while not opposed to ultimately dismissing teachers who have been evaluated fairly and compassionately by multiple measures and by their educator peers, prefers language that outlines how struggling teachers can improve. My suspicion is that the work that educators and researchers do has become so devalued in this neoliberal climate that it’s nearly impossible to conceive of alternate systems/models of employment, hence the increasing commodification of knowledge and the taxing work of de-commodifying it. Forging partnerships with librarians and archivists might be a viable third way for freshly minted PhDs, but how can we conceive of quality, meaningful, and bold public education for youth that doesn’t somehow offer job protection to embattled teachers?

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