School starts in three weeks, and as I’ve told anyone who will listen, I am ready. “It’s going to be so hard, but I’m so excited,” I say. “What’re you going for again?,” the woman cutting my hair asks. “American studies,” I reply. The familiar blank look. “It’s a lot like American history, more culture I guess, but I’m actually in southern studies really, and I do quite a bit of oral history type stuff and I’m getting into digital humanities,” I explain, “Basically what I did as an undergrad.” The same blank look and I wonder if I don’t deserve it, just for another reason. After all, the same institution, same department, same professors; what else should I do but do as I’ve been doing?
This is what I wrote in my application: that should I be admitted into their new PhD program, I basically continue my undergraduate trajectory–devote myself wholly (And god! So vaguely! But what else can you do in the beginning?) to the study of southern history through the mediums of digital humanities and oral history. But that was last fall, and here I am staring down August, having paid my seat deposit and filled out my tax forms. In the last twelve months, I have read the essays and the articles. And of greater concern, had the conversations with professors, parents, friends–some simply apprehensive, others more harsh, and others just plain practical–about why I’m doing this. “I just want to remind you there are other things to do with a degree in American Studies besides become a professor.” “You’ll never find a job! Remember: History PhDs can apply to American Studies jobs, but American Studies PhDs can’t apply to History jobs!” And then, repeatedly, “Have you considered just getting an MA first and teaching for a while?” It seems from the onset the greatest obstacle of the PhD is not the teaching load, the exploitation of graduate labor, or even the dissertation, but the inevitable struggle that comes post-degree.
But since acceptance, it has not been my intention that following the PhD, I enter the tenure-track market. While I’m familiar with the benefits (and increasingly really value tenure as one of those things that makes university so different, it going hand in hand with academic freedom and institutional autonomy as part of the social contract it has with the public, yada yada), I know there are too many troubles that plague that street, mostly that it’s a tough left turn to make onto that street. I am just twenty-one, but I’m thinking ahead five and more years down the road. The horror stories of the quest for tenure-track that most terrify me aren’t the rejection stories, but how the constraints of such a position can interfere with the personal aspects of your life. I am paralyzed with fright imagining having to tiptoe around department chairs, fitting in being married and having children around teaching loads and finally getting that research grant. From the beginning, when PhD was a dreamy word I dropped in a meeting with a professor (who subsequently planted the seed in my mind), I hoped the degree would take me to a position with the flexibility and freedom to chart my personal life while still holding onto my scholarly ambitions. So the dream becomes alt-ac, an administrative position that would still allow me the pursue the research, teaching, writing, and engagement that come automatically with being faculty, this time without the frightening pressure of planning the birth of your kid around your next sabbatical (if your body will even let you wait that long).
Then why go through with the PhD at all? If the career you want can usually be attained with an MA, then why not save yourself at least three years and more than a few wrinkles off your brow and take the customary route? I have never been one to be content with mediocrity, a tenant that the academy is also quite well known for. It was the fear of mediocrity, not failure, that kept me up at night in college (and sent me to the library at 8AM the next morning). I’ve been told by the ones that gave me the harsh and practical advice that grad school is the place to go if you’ve got a superiority complex that needs breaking. I suppose that’s true: place a group of young (but getting older all the time and horribly self-aware of that fact) scholars all foaming at the mouth to get that fellowship, that research position, that grant, and then, at the end, one of those three positions in the field open this year, and you’ll end up with a lot of broken hearts, heads all filled with the thought that becomes the broken-hearted mantra, “I’m not good enough.”
I do not wish to say that my choice to pursue and tailor myself for alt-ac comes from the belief that I am not and will not be good enough to pursue tenure-track, but rather that my research interests already display an inclination towards a career in university administration. In my last semester of undergrad I worked on two oral history projects: “Oral History and the Public University,” and “‘Courage of Conviction’: Speaker Ban Then and Speaking Out Now.” Both examined the purpose and value of higher education by exploring the relationship between the University of North Carolina and its home state, drawing on North Carolina’s contemporary politics and history for a comprehensive perspective. Through that divine angle of history, for the first time, I began to make sense of why I took such pride and anxiety in attending a public university. And since graduating, I’ve spent my time off-work getting a better grasp of what issues have, do, and will face a public university, concerning myself, though I was no longer a member of the university community, with rising tuition, the state budget (Speaking of, when will they finally figure that out? How many months has it been?), and the adjunct crisis (and yes, I’m in the corner where I believe it’s truly a crisis). I won’t waste time listing all the problems facing public universities (and UNC in particular), but will say that those problems are the new things that keep me up at night and send me to Davis Library the next day.
I know the reason I was accepted into the American Studies program at UNC was not my marvelous thesis (I didn’t write one), my long relationship with the program as an undergrad (I jumped ship and graduated a year early), or my stellar volunteer work (a handful of internships and a smattering of jobs across the Triangle, but none longer than six months). It was that I wanted to pursue digital humanities as the medium for my research, more than I did as an undergrad, and at UNC, by great and divine intervention (for me, at least), the DH program is housed under the roof of American Studies. For me, the greatest facet of doing DH work is making publicly available the work of the university. Likewise, my favorite lofty responsibility of the public university is the role of the public servant, promising, as UNC does, to “extend knowledge-based services and other resources of the University to the citizens of North Carolina and their institutions to enhance the quality of life for all people in the State.”
Just as I am excited reading the mission statement of the public university, I am excited in a similar fashion by the possibilities allowed by the dissemination of the hallowed possessions of the university. Digital technology, that is, creating projects, tools, and works that will put the contents of all the learnin’ that scholars store away (For what? Winter?) in the hands of a public, who may not even realize that they’re hungry for it, is amazing to me. That’s the remarkable thing about digital projects–because it’s still relatively uncharted for your average folk with a personal computer, your audience is probably not aware of its power and possibilities. At first, I loved using the old DH joke when people asked, “What is digital humanities?,” replying “The first rule of Digital Humanities Club is don’t ask what digital humanities is.” But now I really explain what it means to me, often just leaving it at: Would you take the ten hours to read a book if you could take twenty minutes and glean the major lessons from a website?
But until now, I’ve never been deep into the digital side of digital humanities. It was easy for me to drop my eyelids at talk of the future of XML and new WordPress plug-ins. Now though, I’m ready to learn all that computer-heavy work that will come along with the research. To put in the effort to acquire those skills will require more than learning code, but throwing off the belief I’ve carried a long way: I’m not a computer person. Oh yes, I’d say, give me the literal manuscript, let me breathe in the dust from these maps rather than plant me in front of the digitized version on the Web. But god help me now, when I discover the ease and excitement of finding new projects online. The projects that leave me restless and (admittedly) jealous, are the ones that examine the social trends and historical lessons in such forms that non-academic people, a constituency that I found myself part of post-graduation, want to look at and use to their benefit. To educate and provide services for the public–it’s the mission of the public university. And it should be for all digital humanists too.
Merging these two interests–public higher education and digital humanities–and coming into this PhD already knowing this, sends me straight into the arms of alt-ac, of which, I am so happy to know, there already exists at UNC (arms, that is). But you haven’t even started coursework! You’ve never written a thesis! Both true, but only as true as the realities of academic job market. Alt-ac is not the end all, be all solution to my personal but not at all individual career crisis, but it’s a starting place for my future degree to build upon.
My current boss made a joke in explaining to one of her friends why I’d be leaving in the fall: Charlotte is going to spend the rest of her life trying to make other people care about what she cares about. I laughed and said, “Yeah, that about wraps it up.” But it doesn’t have to be that way. What I want to study is what people already care about, and I want to do it in such a way that I come out on the other side with the ability to affect change at a university feeling, without any sort of mitigation, proud of my PhD, never letting it become a liability but a valued asset. Here goes something.