Labor in the Digital Humanities

A Roundtable

Co-Sponsored by the MLA Committee on Professional Rights and Responsibilities
MLA Committee on Information Technology



This roundtable will engage labor issues raised by the practice of the digital humanities. By practice we mean the day-to-day, week-to-week work that is done by a variety of individuals to create digital objects that are then in turn worked upon by others (scholars, students, readers, users of every sort and kind). For the purposes of this roundtable digital objects under discussion may refer to something as technically complex as Nines or the William Blake Archive; or it may refer to an online class created by an individual teacher. Among the issues that may be raised are those having to do with the way credit is assigned for the work done; who has intellectual property rights in the digital object; how prestige is shared (and symbolic capital accumulated) among workers; among labor and management; the distinctions made by institutions between tenure track, non tenure-track, and other categories of employees all of whom may be working on the same project but who may have considerable differences in rates of pay, benefits, and job security; how authority and autonomy are managed between labor and management--who reports to whom? Questions relating to the use of the labor of graduate and undergraduate students; the use or potential use of outsourced labor on digital projects. Merely suggesting to employees that labor could be outsourced is a powerful psychological tool for keeping down wages, refusing or degrading benefits, creating a climate of fear and uncertainty. Another possible question turns on what "workplace" means when a work site may be distributed across continents--what does outsourcing mean when there is no one "origin point?" Is outsourcing being encouraged by certain funding models? What are the working conditions among people laboring together (even if dispersed) like? How much digital labor is also union labor? Non union labor? We may also be interested in discussing possible health and safety issues that can be associated with labor in the digital humanities, for instance, repetitive motion injuries like carpal tunnel syndrome.

It is our hope that the roundtable will help clarify these issues and raise more questions for further discussion. We invite your questions and ideas now for discussion in January. If you want to contribute any, please send them to William Thompson, the roundtable moderator, and he will provide them to the panelists so they may prepare for them.

The MLA Committee on Information Technology has a tradition of trying new things with technology. This year we are experimenting with bringing in speakers from distant locations. Mark Childs will joining the roundtable from the UK via Skype.

Mark Childs is a Teaching Development Fellow for Elearning at Coventry University in the UK. Over the past 12 years he has worked on close to 30 projects involving technology-supported learning; at Coventry and in previous posts at the Universities of Wolverhampton and Warwick.

Although having worked with a range of technologies, including digital repositories, podcasting, video and audience response systems, Mark Childs' specialism is learners’ and educators’ experience of synchronous communication platforms. The majority of his work has been with drama and theatre studies, conducting webconference-based performance workshops and managing the Theatron project in Second Life, which created simulations of theatrical spaces. He also recently worked with Birmingham Royal Ballet in using virtual worlds for set design. His PhD on learners’ experiences of virtual worlds focused on the role of presence in effective learning through the creation of virtual body identities and schemata.

Mark Childs is currently working on publications on identity, theatrical spaces and ethics in virtual worlds, and continues to frustrate editors by failing to explain the terms “steampunk” or “furry”.

Tanya Clement is the Associate Director of Digital Cultures & Creativity, an honors program at the University of Maryland, College Park (UMD) and a Research Associate at the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities (MITH). She has a PhD in English and an MFA in fiction. She has published articles on the digital humanities in several books and on text mining and Gertrude Stein in Literary and Linguistic Computing and is the editor of In Transition: Selected Poems by the Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven at Kathleen Fitzpatrick is Professor of Media Studies at Pomona College and co-founder of the digital scholarly network MediaCommons. She is author of The Anxiety of Obsolescence: The American Novel in the Age of Television, published in 2006 by Vanderbilt University Press, and of Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy, forthcoming from NYU Press and available for open peer review online at MediaCommons. Amanda French  is currently THATCamp Coordinator at the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University, where she helps people all around the world organize scholarly “unconferences” on humanities and technology. One of her primary professional interests is in teaching digital methods to the next generation of humanities scholars, an interest she has pursued both for the Digital History Across the Curriculum project at NYU and as a Council on Library and Information Resources Postdoctoral Fellow at NCSU. She earned her doctorate in English from the University of Virginia in 2004, where she encoded texts in TEI for the Rossetti Archive and the Electronic Text Center. Her dissertation is a history of the villanelle, the nineteen-line poetic form of Dylan Thomas's "Do not go gentle into that good night"; she is currently at work on a book titled Here is a Verbal Contraption: The Art of Twitter. Carl Stahmer has been working as a Digital Humanist since the mid 1990s, when he began constructing the Romantic Circles website (, which he continued to co-edit until 2009. In addition to creating and maintaining a host of academic websites, he has also worked as a computer programmer and system architect for a variety of governmental, academic, and commercial technology initiatives over the past twenty years.

Stahmer has served as the Associate Director of the Maryland Institute for Technology and the Humanities at the University of Maryland, as a member of the Advisory Board of the Networked Infrastructure for Nineteenth-Century Studies (NINES), and as Director of Technology for Lynchinteractive Inc., where he was lead developer and system architect for a variety of internet-based, advanced data-integration solutions, including medical, distance learning, and government information systems. His research has been funded by various organizations and institutions, including National endowment for the Humanities, the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the University of California Humanities Research Institute, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and the British Society for Eighteenth Century Studies.

Stahmer currently holds a Research Scientist Appointment at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where he serves as Associate Director of the English Broadside Ballad Archive (

William Thompson (moderator) is an Associate Professor at the Western Illinois University Libraries where he works at the Reference Desk, when not providing bibliographic instruction, or acting in his capacity as vice president of the campus chapter of the University Professionals of Illinois, the union representing the faculty and academic staff at WIU. Professor Thompson became interested in the labor issues surrounding the digital humanities while at the bargaining table. Subsequent history has done nothing to decrease his interest or his concern. His next publication is a chapter in Coming Out From Behind the Desk, a book about the experiences of gay librarians.