On Post-Baccalaureate Residencies

Today is my last day as Five College Post-Baccalaureate Resident in Digital Humanities.

Let’s do the numbers: I’ve worked for Five College Digital Humanities for three years, over which I’ve assisted around fifteen faculty and staff projects, supervised sixteen student fellows, taught three January-term classes, submitted around a hundred check requests, sat in a dozen or so Steering Committee Meetings, been on three or four hiring committees, ran a floating gallery, improved my tech skills by several orders of magnitude, given five talks, administered an unspeakable number of Slack rooms, and overseen the production of around thirty gigabytes of video, audio, and other media.

These numbers are neither impressive nor remarkable in the scale of what knowledge labor looks like in 2016, but they do strike me as constituting an unusual spread of activities in academia for someone fresh out of undergrad. My time with Five College Digital Humanities has been singularly rewarding, particularly for the ways that I’ve been given free rein to build my job in whatever way made sense at the time, and as I’ve come to the end of this last year, a number of administrators, faculty, and students interested in this admittedly weird hybrid job have asked me to put together some thoughts on what post-bacs actually do, and what others might want to think about doing when putting together jobs such as mine. So, dutifully, and because I’m a sucker for a writing prompt, here are some thoughts!

When I started this job fresh out of undergrad in the summer of 2013, neither I nor most anyone I met had a clear idea what it was supposed to be. Five College Digital Humanities had existed for a couple of years, and had focused originally on funding faculty and staff projects. It was an insular program by design, one tasked with slowly building capital for itself and the digital humanities as a practice more generally. The idea of a “post-bac” was never a part of the original grant; the Steering Committee at the time dreamed it up, in concert with a more tradition post-doc position, as a way to fulfill, if not in exact letter at least in spirit, the grant’s goals of increased research presence and community engagement.

My initial job description was a masterstroke of purposeful vagueness, and is, I think, worth sharing here:

…[Y]ou will collaborate with students, faculty members, librarians and information and education technology staff members from multiple campuses on a range of projects engaging digital technology in the study and teaching of the humanities…Your work will include helping to shape conceptual approaches to scholarly questions, but also assisting in the application of digital technology. In addition to collaborating on selected current projects, you will be expected to undertake an independent project during the appointment.

This is a tall order of a job, and one that puts a tremendous amount of trust in someone who, by definition, doesn’t really know that much about anything! I was the first post-bac that a Five College grant had hired, and while each of the campuses had some precedent for hiring recent grads in various capacities, none had taken such a research- and skills-development focus as my job. My day-to-day work was always in negotiation depending on the grant’s priorities, extant projects, and whether or not we had other post-bacs working with us. My first year was a tectonic one for the grant: we started branching out beyond just funding faculty and staff projects through our student fellowship program; we got a seriously larger website off the ground; we laid the groundwork for hiring more post-bacs in the two years to come; and we switched out faculty Directors and numerous Steering Committee members. In all of these expansions, retractions, and shifts, I became a kind of brain trust for the grant, keeping track off all the moving pieces. I knew who was doing what kinds of work on each campus; I knew how to connect people doing parallel things. I had the time and the wherewithal to schedule meetings, make sure catering showed up when it was supposed to, and take on mentoring student fellows. It made sense: I was the only person whose full-time pre-occupation was Five College Digital Humanities. Everyone else had day jobs.

By the second year, we had hired two more post-bacs with more specialized focuses: Kim Bain, a masterful events orchestrator, took over running our speaker series and pooling some of the student-facing energies with me; and Mariel Nyröp (who at the time of this writing is staying on another year with 5CollDH) joined us as a technologist. From a labor perspective, this was crucial. As 5CollDH expanded, my day-to-day work was beginning to consume the time I ordinarily had blocked off for research projects. At first, this didn’t feel like a big deal—the research was just one component of the job, and it was natural that its day-to-day place would wax and wane. But it became clear that not only was the workload really threatening to eclipse the research, it was in fact the research that made the job useful, interesting, and worth having. Bringing on more post-bacs allowed us to split the administrative work in such a way that research could once again occupy a larger part of all of our time—to help us “shape approaches to scholarly questions” in the digital humanities not just for us personally, but for the Five College community more generally.

We grew to see the job more and more as a true residency—a temporary way-station through which our practices as scholars, artists, or whatever kind of workers and thinkers we might imagine ourselves to be, could grow and deepen. Marisa Parham, the current faculty Director of 5CollDH and my boss for the last two years, called this the “CV Test.” When any project or new task emerged for us, we asked ourselves if and how it was articulable on a CV in a way that was useful to us. This test was useful not only to usefully demarcate what kinds of work we should or should not do, but also to help us find articulable skills and experiences within even mundane tasks. I now know not only how to operate a web server: I can explain the fundamentals to you and get you set up with a website of your own in one short meeting. I know how to plan a symposium, wrangle participants, and make sure everyone gets paid on time. And I know how these and other “administrative” skills are imbricated in the work of research—how organization, execution, and articulation are the bedfellows of exploration, theory, and experimentation.

The CV Test also usefully demarcates the duties of a post-bac as distinct from other kinds of college staff. A post-bac, unsurprisingly, commands lower pay than the average staff member. It’s therefore unsurprising that deans and other administrative types like post-bac residencies for the real benefits both for graduating students and a campus’ bottom line. Post-bacs are a potentially abundant source of cheap labor—a pool of workers who have the advantage of knowing the institution intimately but who also can be paid lower than normal staff. This is, of course, only a salient reading when post-bacs perform the same duties as administrative tasks—something that the CV Test protects against. The CV Test focuses the residency on forward propulsion, asking the post-bac, her supervisors, and the program more generally to grapple constantly with the question of “where are we going?” Furthermore, it protects against the devaluation of permanent staff, who, by the very nature of their jobs and the permanence of their contracts, will always be able to perform their duties more effectively than someone who’s coming in for a year or two (or three).

So what now? I’m moving on from this gig to seek my PhD in English at the University of Maryland, College Park, where I’ll work with Matthew Kirschenbaum, Neil Fraistat, and lurk around the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities while researching the history of media. It’s not exactly what I thought I’d end up doing when I started undergrad, back when my English major was something that I did to make the Theater & Dance major feel just a little more serious. And even then, it wasn’t an English major about technology—it was about Serious Books by Serious People, contemporary weirdos with Big Ideas about Things. And then I slipped into film studies (I mostly loved theater because I loved movies, after all)—and then I slipped into media and technology studies (if you told seven-year-old me that I could study video games in college…)—and then I got an email about Five College Digital Humanities in the late spring of my last year of undergrad (sent, I’m pretty sure, by the Theater & Dance Department!), and threw my hat into the ring.

Three years later, I owe this position for giving me the time, mentorship, and trust to test a variety of different waters—for giving me the apprenticeship in the other side of academia than undergrad simply can’t (and frankly shouldn’t). More of us should have the opportunity to muck around for a couple years and get paid doing it. I have been tremendously, unreasonably lucky in that regard. And as more post-bac-style jobs crop up for recent grads, I hope that they take the fashion mine did: research-focused, with strong mentorship, and just the right amount of freedom.

revision history for this page