As I write this, universities worldwide are shutting down in-person classes (or instruction altogether) and urging undergraduate students to leave. For the moment, libraries are typically remaining open, and instructional support and IT staff are working non-stop to support teaching arrangements that are getting implemented on a day’s notice. Next week, public schools throughout the region will be closed, and with them, preschools and daycares. We’ve long spoken of the “crisis” in the humanities and higher education more broadly, but it’s never carried the immediacy of the present moment.
The urgency of so many decisions with large consequences -- from conference cancellations that might push organizations into insolvency, to who will continue to be paid if classes and campus life come to an abrupt end -- makes this a strange moment to pause and reflect on a cause such as Multilingual DH. Addressing linguistic representation in an always-porous and nebulously-defined interdisciplinary community hardly seems worth thinking about. But we now live in a world where universities feel forced to take drastic measures, and it seems naive to think that the current circumstances are best modeled as an aberration, from which we’ll soon get back to normal. We may be done with “normal” as we thought of it a month ago.
There is no reason to expect that the circumstances underpinning the advocacy for Multilingual DH will radically change for the better in whatever configuration of things we end up with on the other side of the current crisis. On the contrary, if there is an expectation that instructors -- including adjuncts -- must be able to respond to radically altered pedagogical circumstances with minimal notice and no extra time or pay to reconfigure their courses, there is even less incentive to take on the extra work necessary to make the DH classroom more welcoming, supportive, and useful for students who work in languages other than English. There is almost never a moment where instructors make a deliberate choice to exclude these students: most Anglophone scholars in the Anglophone world just don’t realize how badly text-based DH methods can break for non-English text. (And, let’s face it, a majority of DH methods intersect with text somehow, be it image metadata or geocoding.) Outside the Anglophone world, while scholars are generally more aware of the linguistic issues at play, resource constraints are again an impediment to doing anything to address those issues, at least for languages other than the national one(s) and English.
Since 2019, and building on work throughout the last decade (e.g. the GO::DH “whisper campaign” led by Élika Otega at DH 2014), a loose network has formed under the umbrella of “Multilingual DH”, to advocate for the DH community to pay greater attention to language as a crucial consideration in pedagogy and research. There are other pieces that I and others have written with practical tips for how to better support work in languages other than English, particularly in the classroom. Those pieces are important, practical, and insufficient: putting them to use takes time and labor, and most DH instructors don’t have much of either to spare. At the same time, good intentions don’t change anything for students. What’s missing from the conversation is a case for why this matters enough to be worth the effort. What are the stakes for non-English (or non-national-language) DH students? My own experience limits me to making this case within the US academic system, and I’ll leave it to others to do the same in their own national institutional contexts. I could find numbers to serve as scaffolding for these stories -- numbers of grad students, placement rates in TT positions, language lecturer openings -- but I don’t believe that numbers are what’s lacking. Most instructors would not be moved to radically change their pedagogical routine by statistics. It’s comfortable to write off the stories I’m about to share as “frustration with the job market”, the less-cataclysmic cousin of the well-established “quit lit” genre. DH, like Moscow, does not believe in tears. But I’m posting these stories as a follow-up to conversations at the Scholars’ Lab 2020 Feminist DH Symposium, and the ongoing work of DH-WoGeM. I believe they have value, more so than employment statistics, and may help bridge the gap between good intentions and taking action for Multilingual DH.
But first, some background context on the job market for non-English literatures, and the backup plan that lurks as the default fallback.
The horrors of the academic-literary job market send ripples through academic Twitter every year when the MLA job list comes out, augmented by cross-referencing the Academic Job Wiki. But the steeply-declining lines on the visualizations that quickly emerge from this data are coded in the terminology of the MLA. Wring your hands as you look at the state of “modernist” jobs! Feel your stomach sink at the state of “19th century”! Consider what your prospects might be like if you had, instead, chosen to focus on ethnic studies, the only thing to show gains recently. Meanwhile, those of us working with non-English literature in the US sit back and watch, bemused. No one is making visualizations of our jobs; we know how many tenure track literature jobs were open this year in our language, and we may be able to count them on one hand. We certainly can if we feel we can be so choosy as to limit the options to a combination of language and time period.
The only data voluminous enough to chart might be language lecturer positions -- and there, it depends on your language. Perhaps, though, not for long? A 2019 Chronicle of Higher Education article did look at those numbers, and they call into question the viability of language teaching as a go-to fallback plan for non-English literature grad students: “Higher education, in aggregate, lost just one such program from 2009 to 2013. From 2013 to 2016, it lost 651.”
It’s hard to convey to someone who’s only worked on English what it looks like to take on a language lecturer position. It is tempting to draw a parallel with teaching freshman reading and composition classes, for the shared predictable tedium. But reading and composition courses are primarily filled with native or fluent speakers, capable of communicating -- if awkwardly -- adult-level thoughts and ideas. Imagine running a composition course with adults who have the communicative capacity of a 2- or 3-year-old. If 18-year-olds’ opinions on Socrates or Ayn Rand are tiring year after year, consider how much more tiring it would be to instead be limited to discussions of weekend plans or favorite foods. And yet, language teaching remains a fallback sanctuary for non-English literature scholars unable to find tenure track jobs in literature. In these roles, the “lucky” ones can teach a “content course” from time to time, involving literary texts longer than language-student-friendly short stories, and maybe even in something you’re interested in -- albeit probably in translation. For the unlucky ones, the closest they get to literature is directing a strange sort of theater consisting of stilted dialogue read by the student-actors from a textbook as they stumble over pronunciation and cadence. Imagine writing a dissertation on Virginia Woolf, then spending your life teaching Beginner and Intermediate Dutch.
Why do it, especially when many language lecturer positions are contingent, with no promise of long-term employment nor even a guarantee about the number of courses available to teach? Language lecturing is, in a sense, the original alt-ac career track: for some people it’s a comfortable long-term fit if they can string pieces together for long enough, and for others it’s a soul-killing reminder of what you don’t have. And what there is even to have continues to shrink: non-English literatures are on the cutting edge of the changing priorities of universities. Meanwhile, fairytales run rampant. Many non-English literature scholars even know someone firsthand who has lived the dream. And departments will freely proffer these stories in lieu of currency (or health insurance). We have a language lecturer position open now… with the heavy implication that taking on this underpaid, overworked role is your opportunity to prove yourself worthy in anticipation of the near-future retirement of elderly Prof. X in that department, who works in your language and perhaps even your speciality. They don’t even have to say it: they know what applicants will read into the situation.
And it’s true that sometimes it does work out. The language lecturer pours their love and labor into the job, going to every departmental event, finding time to publish by working late nights and weekends once the grading is done. They manage to be compelling and beloved by students all across the board: the students who want to be able to talk to their grandmother, the ones that signed up because it sounded cool or they were into the music, film, or literature produced in that language, the native-speaker athletes guaranteed to get good-enough grades to stay on the team. Prof. X retires, the lecturer goes through the motions of the interview process -- awkwardly performing that ritual with their own colleagues, as if they were a stranger. And then the lecturer is hired into a tenure-track position and lives happily ever after.
Or do they?
The intersection of promotion and tenure with DH is fraught territory in any field. Still, for the MLA, there’s been 20 years of work dedicated to evaluation guidelines for digital scholarship: the first version was adopted in 2000. Over the last decade, more disciplinary societies have developed guidelines, to the point where this kind of advocacy work is neither surprising nor remarkable. While MLA may see itself as a kind of parent organization for all literatures, English and otherwise, the fact remains that many non-English language departments look to other organizations for guidance: the organizations centered on the language or region in question. Area studies organizations are far less likely to have stepped up to endorse and advocate the MLA guidelines, let alone develop anything that takes into account the peculiarities of the field.
A good friend from college was fortunate enough to get a tenure-track job in a non-English literature at a university. Their child was a toddler when they moved for this job. Their kid has grown up in a supportive community there. Over the summer, this friend and I talked about the sorry state of DH and tenure in their field. It was that kind of summer -- at DH 2019, I also spoke on a panel about how more cross-Atlantic connections will be essential for developing a pool of reviewers who might make it possible for Slavists doing DH to get tenure. But it all ended the same way: my friend and I decided we would keep thinking and talking about what DH would mean for their tenure case. Meanwhile, the Slavists and I ran a workshop in September, and a few panels and a workshop at the national convention in November. We sighed about the “Future of the Field Campaign” where the word “digital” is conspicuously absent. But in neither case did we do anything.
Three weeks ago, I found out my friend didn’t get tenure. The explanation seems more closely linked to administrative mishandling, opacity, and fundamentally broken processes than anything connected directly to DH. But the fact remains that DH was a key part of what they brought to the institution, and that aspect of their scholarship and service contribution was not meaningfully evaluated or treated as relevant.
For three weeks now, I haven’t gotten through the night without a bad bout of insomnia.
The night after I found out, I lay in bed crying at 4 AM. What happens now for this friend? Will they even be able to find another job? How do they explain to their kid what will happen to the only life this kid has known? And why do we keep feeding people’s lives to this system that works only on its own narrow logic, and casually discards anyone who doesn’t fit?
The image that came to mind, that morning, was of a frozen mountain pass. How many frozen corpses lie beneath the snow -- people who tried to make it across, but just vanished quietly? How do we make it stop? Over the summer, one of the things I struggled with was that it’s harder to make a case for change on hypotheticals. “You have to put digital scholarship evaluation in place… just in case someone needs them.” We don’t know the names of the people who didn’t make it over the pass, or where they’re buried. But what if this time, people raised a ruckus? What if we made an example out of my friend, and said THIS PERSON HERE is the reason we need this, and have needed this for a long time, and we’ll call you to account for not doing what more and more others have done to make it possible for their junior scholars to make it over the mountain pass? If we lit a flare, would others in need find us? Maybe, then, this loss wouldn’t be for nothing. Even if they can’t secure another job, maybe they could be the cause of change. I think of the Donner party, which resorted to cannibalism when crossing the Sierra Nevada mountains -- gruesome, but some people did make it through by making the most of the deaths of others.
The system as it stands is no less gruesome. We have to stop eating our friends.
Keep in mind, the decision about whether to become an object of cannibalism or disappear quietly into the snow is an outcome of the best-case scenario. You can win the lottery, and still have very high odds of losing everything trying to get tenure as a non-English DH person.
But what happens if you don’t win the lottery?
Last winter, I taught a non-English DH course. It was exhilarating and exhausting: the only prerequisite was a reading knowledge of a language other than English, and students brought with them seven: Chinese, German, Italian, Japanese, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish. The class was very hands-on, which meant preparing up to seven different data sets and tutorials for each class session. (All the materials are up on GitHub, and formed the beginning of the Multilingual DH resource guide.)
I was completely wiped out at the end of 10 weeks, but inspired by my students and the experience. There had been some rough spots, some things to revise next time, but I felt I had managed to prove that a functionally “intro to DH” type course that centers linguistic diversity was actually possible, and I had begun to pave a path for the next person to try it, even if that next person would be me.
But the day the quarter ended, a dear friend who had been working as a visiting language lecturer, with the understanding that a tenure-track position in their specialty would come open in the same department, learned they did not get the tenure-track job. It’s a situation so common as to render the details unimportant. They had poured everything into the department, done everything right, proven themselves as a reliable and innovative colleague, and it wasn’t enough… in contrast to an ABD described, simply, as “brilliant”.
I went with my husband—a joint PhD in Linguistics and Slavic Languages & Literatures who left academia after not getting the last tenure-track job ever open in his specialty in the US—to take our friend out for drinks. We got home and I fell apart, sobbing in the kitchen, unable to exorcise from my mind ghosts of possible futures, imagining each one of my students with the same stricken expression as I’d seen on our friend’s face. “I don’t know how I can keep doing this!” I said of my job, a DH alt-ac dream job, gulping the words through tears. “How can I be part of this system, when this is how it ends?” “Better you than someone who doesn’t think about it,” replied my husband.
We all need to think about these things. You can oppose the neoliberal framing of digital humanities, and still acknowledge that DH can provide students with a skill set that they can use to pay the rent, as an alternative to adjuncting or language lecturing. You can face precarious employment yourself, and still teach students skills that they can use to pursue a different path. You can advocate for more tenure lines, and recognize that the students in your classroom today may not be the beneficiaries if you succeed. Non-English DH means resilience, and that resilience, in most cases, will have to manifest itself in alt-ac jobs or outside the academy altogether. The effort you put into helping your students persevere through the challenges of applying DH methods to non-English languages may have a bigger impact than you realize in helping them figure out their next step, and making ends meet until they get there.