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FROM PHD TO LIFE

Transition Q & A: Paige Morgan, digital humanities librarian

By JENNIFER POLK | April 11, 2016

Paige Morgan earned her PhD in English with a certificate in Textual Studies from the University of Washington. Her research focused on how 18th century English poets adapted to the changing economic conditions and systems for publishing. She is currently the digital humanities librarian at the University of Miami. You can find her online here and at Visible Prices, or via Twitter at @paigecmorgan. You can also email her.

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What did you hope for in terms of employment as you completed your PhD?

My hopes changed a lot over the course of the PhD. Over time, I realized how little I’d known or understood when I started. Like many Humanities graduate students, my decision to pursue a PhD was influenced by my undergraduate experience. What I realized was that I’d pursued a PhD because I saw being a professor as the most meaningful way of making a difference in the world, or alternately, the only way that I could make a meaningful difference in the world. There’s a bit of ivory tower elitism in that perspective, but there’s also a lot of patriarchal socialization: on a subconscious level, teaching in a university was the only sort of leadership role that I could imagine for myself. It wasn’t that I had consciously rejected other roles as somehow inappropriate; it was that I’d been so conditioned that I’d never once imagined them for myself.

From where I am now, that seems shocking. As I worked on my PhD, I became aware of how important administration was in academic environments. So much happened based on various systems, and how well they worked. Some of these systems were concrete bureaucratic processes (i.e., how new courses went from idea to reality); others were highly abstract (i.e., the social networks and communication patterns in a department, or in a larger faculty/college the systems that influence how/whether various things happen). I’d been gaining experience with clerical/administrative problem-solving since my sophomore year of college, and in the 4 years I’d worked between undergrad and graduate school — but only midway through graduate school did I start to see that work as a particular area of expertise that I had, and as meaningful leadership, rather than just support.

That mental transition was one part of what influenced my post-grad employment hopes. The other main influence was that I’d started incorporating digital humanities into my research focus (18th and 19th century English poetry and economics). One result of getting interested in DH when it was still pretty new (around 2009) was that I learned a lot about the administrative/political work in getting it started/building program infrastructure. Not only did I learn a lot, I discovered that I found this sort of work awfully satisfying. I started hoping for some sort of job that would let me continue to do that work, though I wasn’t sure whether it would be in a discipline-based department, or in an alt-ac area (libraries, centers, etc.). It wasn’t that I wanted to leave my more traditional poetry-focused research behind, but I suspected that I would find the pressures of the tenure-track to be stressful in a way that would be unproductive for me. I’d realized that I was more productive when I was working as part of a team – so I was hoping for a job that would let me do that. I really didn’t feel like I could be picky, though.

What was your first post-PhD job?

A two-year postdoctoral fellowship at the Sherman Centre for Digital Scholarship in Mills Library at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, which I started in September 2014. The Sherman Centre had existed for two years, but needed someone to help develop relationships with departments (including humanities and social/natural sciences), grow activity, and create sustainable processes around digital humanities and digital scholarship research. I saw the fellowship as a great place to test out the skills and opinions I’d developed while finishing my PhD at the University of Washington. I was pretty sure that my perceptions were on target, but I’d never had the opportunity to transfer them from one environment to another and test them, and I needed that test. I also hoped that the position would help me sort out more specifically what sort of position I wanted to land in permanently. I hadn’t ruled out departments, but for several reasons, a library-based job was looking appealing. I wasn’t terribly enthusiastic about pursuing another degree, though, unless someone else was paying me to do it — so I hoped that the fellowship would also help me learn more about what it meant to work in a library, what sorts of concerns libraries were grappling with, and how I might be able to fit my own skills and expertise into a library environment.

What do you do now? (How did you get this job?)

Since December 2015, I’ve been the digital humanities librarian at the University of Miami. I hadn’t anticipated leaving my postdoc three-quarters of a year early, but last June, when I saw the UM job ad, I was struck by how much it looked like a good fit for the sort of development work that I’d been doing at McMaster (a mixture of collaboration, teaching, advocacy, and experimenting). Some DH/DS librarian jobs required more programming experience than I had (Hydra/Islandora/repository-specific programming; or just way more advanced experience with Python/Javascript/HTML/CSS). The latter are all things that I have some experience with, but not the experience of working with them day-in and day-out, and I thought that competing for those positions would be a long shot, where as the Miami gig sounded like they wanted someone who could do social infrastructure design and emotional labor. Applying was supposed to be my test-run at the library market, to learn more about how to present myself (and whether it was realistic to aim at library gigs without an MLS/IS degree). But the further I got in the process, the more it became clear that it was a really good fit: we had similar strategies and compatible visions about what successful development might look like, as well as the challenges and areas of ambiguity that were ahead. I’ve been here three-and-a-half months now, and it is both exactly what I expected and it stretches me in new ways every week. I love it on a level that really requires dancing GIFs from Hamilton to express.

What kind of tasks do you do on a daily and weekly basis?

This can vary quite a bit, depending on what’s going on, and that’s one of the things I like about the job. I have a lot of consultations, where I’m helping someone develop their skills working with a particular tool, or figuring out what tools might allow them to make progress answering their research question, or strategizing about what the short and long-term development of a particular project will involve. Consultations are one of my favorite parts of the job because they vary so widely: one person is working with social networks in James Joyce; another person is working with the 1870s Congressional hearings about voter intimidation in the southeastern US.  Sometimes consultations are challenging, because there’s no guarantee that I’ll have an immediate or certain answer to the person’s questions — but that’s important, because I try to model the process of thinking through and researching the answers.

Whenever I’m working with someone in a consulting capacity, my goals are to help them feel like they’re not working alone, and to help them see all the different things that they might do with whatever they’re learning, so that the time they invest feels well-spent.

The University of Miami is currently building up its digital humanities training resources, and I’m very much involved in that process. There are multiple disciplinary departments involved, as well as the library, so right now, I’m learning about what sorts of resources and expertise we have, and thinking about how those might fit together in a useful way that will prepare our students and be a positive experience for the faculty as well. Figuring that out involves listening to people, and also thinking about what our local interests and skills add up to: what is the particular flavor of digital humanities at UM? How do we merge that local spin on DH with best practices for training that are emerging nationally and internationally?

This semester I’m co-teaching a graduate DH methods and theory class, as well as running the Demystifying Digital Humanities workshops that I developed at the University of Washington in 2012. I’m running a lot of little events and programs in order to gather data — not just about people’s needs and interests, but also to find out how people’s schedules work, what the social dynamics are between different groups. Almost every detail is something I can use when I’m planning for the future.

What most surprises you about your job?

So far, very little, except that it is precisely the sort of job I hoped would exist for me, back in 2011-12. That I actually predicted and planned correctly surprises me a lot.

What are your favourite parts of your job?

All of it! But if I have to pick something, it’s the fact that I’m working with a large group of people with different backgrounds and levels of experience, all of whom are committed to working together on this. If I want to think through an idea, there’s no shortage of people to road-test it with. I love being part of a good team.

What would you change about it if you could?

Not a single thing.

What’s next for you, career-wise?

Despite the fact that so much of what I’ve described above sounds rather rosy and idyllic, I have a lot of work to do, much of it in two particular areas. One of those areas is professional writing, which I have a fair bit of anxiety about. Some of that is residual scarring from a bad experience in grad school, some of it is struggling to figure out where I ought to be trying to publish the things I want to write. The end result, though, is that I’m not publishing much. While my promotion track doesn’t require publication the way that some librarian faculty jobs do, and certainly not the way that tenure-track departmental faculty jobs require it, I still feel the need to improve my own record and credibility as a DH scholar, and publishing is definitely my weak point. My uncertainty and anxiety manifests in that I don’t even manage to submit things (I just procrastinate and find “more important stuff to do”); so as I told my mentor a couple of days ago, even if I submit a bunch of stuff and it’s all rejected, that will be tremendous progress from where I am right now.

The other area is my slow-moving DH project, Visible Prices (VP). It was the project that got me into DH in 2009, and since then I’ve made huge progress on it — figuring out the best platform, understanding the specific challenges and milestones ahead. Inching along on VP has been really stellar job training — but I’ve also had to push it to the back-burner several times, because there were other activities that were strategically more important (for example, in summer 2015 I spent a full month focusing on the project — but then back-burnered it on notification that I was a finalist for my current job). Every time I’ve set Visible Prices down, I’ve known exactly why, and known it was the right decision — but that hasn’t stopped me from feeling guilty about my slowness on it. Now that I’m off the job market, and anticipating being in one place for several years, and in a department where what I learn as I work on VP is likely to be applicable to other projects (because VP is a linked open data project, and linked open data is of great interest to libraries), I really want to push forward on it in a substantial way.

In the interest of transparency, I should also add that I’m where I am because of hard work, the support of good friends, privilege and an awful lot of luck. I don’t assume that the future is set, smooth and easy from now on. In a tiny corner of my mind, I’m always watching: both for things that could prove disastrous to my current situation, and things that could help me plan a new direction, if I needed one. I don’t assume that things will always go my way; I do feel moderately confident of my ability to adapt to dramatically different circumstances as long as I don’t pretend they’ll never ever happen. Always expect the Spanish Inquisition, or at least, imagine what you might do when it arrives unexpectedly.

What advice or thoughts do you have for post-PhDs in transition now?

Think about what you want, and what sorts of activities make you feel energized and content. Maybe doing this involves thinking back to your favorite aspects of grad school (or of another job); maybe it involves doing some values assessments to find a particular direction that you want to investigate further. (Values assessments can feel rather hokey, and alternatively, rather dangerous if your inner censor is telling you something like “you don’t have ANY options! How dare you try to choose anything?!” — but I really do believe that figuring out what you want is key to moving forward. Here are a couple of assessments that I might use.)

Figure out how willing you are to change in order to get what you want. That sounds drastic, so let me explain further. I don’t mean that you’re going to transform from a bird to a fish, or from a post-PhD to a social media superstar, overnight — don’t expect that of yourself. That said, post-PhDs (and pre-PhD grad students) are under pressure from a wide range of external sources and voices, all saying that we have to change into this or that. Personally, I quite dislike those voices, and don’t find them particularly helpful, even when I’ve been aware that change was necessary. I find it much easier to change when I am deciding what aspects of myself I’m going to alter (whether temporarily or permanently), and why. As an example: I used to be terribly shy and reticent to speak up all at department events, let alone to propose some sort of event or activity. But a couple of years into grad school, it started to look to me like the people who could speak up and have ideas got to do cool stuff. At first I thought that maybe if I just worked harder at my studies, I’d get the same opportunities…but it became clear that that wasn’t going to happen, unless I got off the sidelines and started putting myself forward. That meant letting go of some aspects of my self-image, as well as being aware that I was transitioning, and figuring out how to take small steps that would get me there, and being extra-observant about what worked, and what didn’t.*

There’s another side to this as well: I was aware that I could have worked towards a different sort of change; one that would have helped me fit into the community of people who were really focused on theory (the University of Washington was and is a very theory-heavy program). I thought about making that change, and experimented a little, but it too involved changes to my sense of self, and to my surprise, I was far more reluctant to make those changes than I was to work on my shyness.

Changing yourself is a very personal thing, so I’m hesitant to suggest that what worked for me will work precisely the same way for someone else.** I am certain, however, that change is easier when it’s the result of an internal decision, rather than some sort of external voice — both in terms of the process, and in terms of figuring out what specific things you’re changing. And knowing what you want is essential to being able to figure out what kind of changes you might want to experiment with. For what it’s worth, Virginia Valian’s essay “Learning to Work” was really useful to me, and I highly recommend it.

* I do want to avoid sounding like I’m suggesting that everyone needs to be more extroverted (advice that I hear often, and which I think is well-intended but often more aggravating than helpful). Learning how to be “less shy,” or to put it differently “more involved in having ideas and turning them into realities,” didn’t mean just talking more in public, or going to more crowded networking events, which I often find too noisy to be at all useful. Instead, it meant listening, and paying attention to other people’s interests, to figure out who might be receptive to ideas I had, who might also be interested in similar topics, etc., who I could get to know better and would want to know better, not necessarily because they were well-placed, but because I could see that we had similar perspectives, etc.

** The question of change (and how much it can accomplish)  is also very much a question of intersectional privilege, and while there isn’t space here to go into that, I do want to acknowledge the very real complexities that exist.

ABOUT JENNIFER POLK
Jennifer Polk
Jennifer Polk is a career coach and writer. She earned her PhD in history from the University of Toronto in 2012. For more information and resources, check out her website: FromPhDtoLife.com.
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