I was recently asked a difficult question, and I thought it might be worthwhile discuss it here: the question related to the employability of digital humanities students after graduation. This question will often garner a range of responses. For many in traditional disciplines, the question can be dismissed as a mere nuisance or greeted with a mixture of pained looks and silence. I believe this question can be the guiding principle of humanities education. I believe there is no contradiction between employability and a humanities degree, but the question was posed to me in a DH context. So, just what is the employability of undergraduate digital humanists after graduation? I took a few minutes to query the community and search the forums, and I’ll just go ahead and list my findings here. While I hope the information I provide can be useful to faculty and administrators formulating similar answers, I also hope this post can help shape decisions of prospective students as they decide their majors at Behrend and beyond.
The question was posed to me with an article from the Harvard Business Review that claimed technology jobs were in decline. Why then would we train humanists with technical skills? It seemed to me that the authors were misinterpreting their data. While the authors claim that technology jobs have been on the decline from 2001-2011, they curiously forgot to mention how the economic crisis in 2008 skewed their data. As many DHers know so well, the devil’s in the details. There is simply not enough context to make much of their argument. I was, however, struck by the nice visualization they provided. The designer who produced the visualization is an excellent example of the kind of graduates we are trying to produce. Catherine Mulbrandon has a degree in Economics and a Master’s degree in Interaction Design. She now makes a living as a designer and consultant and has published a very well reviewed book of her work in March of 2013. Her website can be found here. She has a blend of field specific expertise and technical skill that can be so impressive. I believe our graduates would be capable of all this with a four year undergraduate degree. But optimism does not get you a job.
So, if we can’t be blindingly optimistic about our students’ employability, let’s look at the data. There isn’t currently an answer to the question regarding employment prospects because DH programs have not been around long enough to be on the radar of employers. There is some early evidence that DH is becoming more widely known, however. As DH gains a broader cultural awareness, I think employers will be ready to understand the skills young DHers will have. In some ways, however, the employment argument for a DH focused program is the same as any humanities program. Our graduates possess superior communication and analytical abilities than their peers in technically focused disciplines. These soft skills allow our graduates to be more flexible in the workforce. There is, thankfully, good evidence to support that this is true. 4humanities.org is an advocacy group that collects real data on the impact of the humanities. They have even made a great info graphic that distills their findings. I’ll attach it to the bottom of this post, but you can also find it here.
I am also happy to report that there is growing consensus in the DH community regarding training. Simply put, a DH focused program should work to layer skills based training with a critical sensibility that is able to holistically solve problems. The University of Virginal Library (in association with the Scholars’ Lab, a long running DH center) has recently published a comprehensive report on curricular development and careers beyond the academy. You can find a link to it here. While their study is focused on higher education, their findings can be modified to describe an undergraduate experience. There is a complementary report from UVa’s IATH available here.
Bill Pannapacker at Hope College has done the best at putting similar recommendations into action on the undergraduate level. His Mellon Scholars Program is an excellent model for undergraduate training in DH. Pannapacker, you might recall, wrote the rather controversial article “No DH, No Interview” in The Chronicle a few years ago. There are other individual examples of success from throughout the community (many more than I can list in this post!). Cathy Davidson at Duke has developed an excellent employer focused model of training. The DHInitiative at Hamilton College is offering a good opportunity as well. There is a strong anecdotal evidence that students of DH programs get jobs. This evidence is collecting around the term Alt-Acadamy (or #alt-ac for short), which is a new employment line after graduation that fills the roles adjacent to faculty and researchers in universities and libraries. These alt-ac positions are often service oriented within the academy, but students are able to use the field specific training while boosting the ranks of research projects.
DH also has the potential to offer something to humanities students that has long been the norm in other fields: internships. Internships, particularly paid internships, continue to be a great opportunity for students to study and gain work experience toward the completion of their degree. There is a real opportunity, for example, to link our programs with law schools. Prelaw undergraduates would be well served by the computationally assisted techniques offered in a DH program. Alongside parainstitutional job opportunities that are associated with digitizing public and corporate collections, there are a whole host of government based information retrieval and storage positions that would be well suited to critically minded humanists. It is no secret that our society is increasingly data driven, and our archives are being digitized at a rapid rate. I think this transition will be better served by well trained humanists.