Breadth and Depth in DH Professional Development

Posted in: scholars lab  alt ac  curriculum  digital humanities  pedagogy 
Crossposted to the Scholars' Lab blog.

I’m going to try to re-enter blogging by intentionally writing short pieces more regularly. Bear with me as I try to find a voice in this new, shorter format. I’ll be breaking things that might otherwise be longer pieces into small nuggets that cover a single topic and then linking them together.

I thought I would start off by documenting some tools and ideas that I regularly use in conversations with students, beginning with how I discuss the range of DH careers with interested students. These talks often start with one key question: what kinds of jobs are out there?

There are several ways to approach to the topic, but I usually start conversations about careers in DH by drawing a very simple diagram: two axes, with the x-axis labeled as breadth and the y-axis as depth. The constellation of work involved in any given digital humanities position can be described in terms of a relationship between the two.

  • Breadth: generalized work across many different DH topics or methods
  • Depth: deep focus on a particular DH topic or method

All DH positions will ask you for some combination of these two variables, and any particular position will ask for a specific configuration of skills keyed to these axes. There is, of course, a degree of tension between the two categories: expertise tends to come at the sacrifice of generalized knowledge. Put another way, you can’t possibly know everything about everything (some jobs do ask this of you - a major red flag). I intend no value judgement in any direction with this way of thinking. Depth does not correlate to value or intellectual rigor: a position asking for specific expertise is not inherently better than one asking for broad surface familiarity. They’re just different.

To help students through this way of thinking, I then pull up our own staff page and chart a few positions along these axes. A couple examples at the extremes:

GIS Specialist - depth

We have two GIS specialists in our Lab that work on digital mapping needs for the entire university. These are perhaps the best examples of highly specialized positions because they quite literally have a particular area of focus on the title. The bread and butter of these kinds of positions entails deep work on a small number of methods. Another good example might be a DH developer hired to work on a specific DH grant project with a particular tech stack. If you’re hired as a developer for a Ruby on Rails project, your work will likely be primarily in Ruby on Rails.

DH Librarian - breadth

By contrast, some positions are more likely to be pulled in many directions and asked to know a little about a lot of things. A librarian usually provides support to whatever researchers come through the door. For example, I am not an expert in digital archives or digital mapping, but I know enough about these methods to have introductory consults with people and point them towards the right tools. There are others with more expertise I can send them to if they need further help. While I do have my own specialties (digital pedagogy and text analysis), my position also involves a mix of administrative, teaching, and development work and asks me to have surface-level knowledge of many areas. That work is often quite general, skewed towards breadth as opposed to depth.

Of course, most positions are likely to be murky, in the vast grey area between the two extremes. Faculty positions in digital humanities are perhaps instructive in this way. I would characterize these positions as rewarded by deep expertise and focused work in a smaller selection of topics. A DH faculty member might, say, work extensively on digital mapping and seek funding to that effect. But, at the same time, a faculty member might be called upon to design a DH curriculum or read DH grant applications on a broad array of topics. There is a push and pull between breadth and depth, each with their own rewards and risks as they pertain to the tenure and promotion process.

The tension between breadth and depth is further inflected by a range of other variables. The institution offering a job will affect its scope, as a library will have a different portfolio of work than, say, an art museum. Scale is another important factor: the larger an institution’s staff, the more likely it is for positions to be more highly specialized.

As with all binaries, this one breaks down under too much scrutiny. But I’ve still found it to be a useful starting point for getting students to think through the different types of futures for which they might prepare. My general advice to students is to think about how they might map themselves onto the axes of breadth vs depth. They should not feel compelled to be experts in everything, as they may get so lost in the pursuit of deep knowledge in one field that they never move on to another. By the same token, if there are one or two fields that really interest them, it’s okay to dive into those areas, rather than positioning themselves as generalists. In fact, I encourage students to select those topics and methods that they will approach in depth and distinguish them those from those that only require familiarity. This approach can help to make the process of professional development more manageable. And when trying to prepare for any given DH job ad they might find a student can ask: how broadly does this job ask me to go? In what directions?