Category Archives: Contexts and Practicalities

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tenure that really do need to be addressed, namely that the expectations for work which help you to achieve tenure are outdated, and that tenured positions are disappearing.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.