Disrupting Student Labor in the Digital Humanities Classroom

Text of my talk “Disrupting Student Labor in the Digital Humanities Classrom” on March 11, 2016 at Rice University.

Abstract: Crowdsourcing labor and crowdfunding capital are two pillars of the new innovation economy. While these models have worked well for projects ranging from citizen science to music production, bringing crowd-think into the academy, and particularly the classroom, can be ethically fraught. Digital humanities pedagogy involving students contributing to faculty projects or producing durable work products is particularly vulnerable to abuse and misuse. Based on my contribution to the forthcoming Disrupting the Digital Humanities collection, I will offer a critique of these practices and offer ideas on how to avoid ethical pitfalls.

[SLIDE 1: TITLE] Thank you, Lisa Spiro and the Humanities Resource Center, and Dara Flynn and Kathy Weimer from the Rice University Libraries for this opportunity to share this work.

[SLIDE 2: Disrupt DH] These remarks are drawn from my contribution to Disrupting the Digital Humanites, edited by Dorothy Kim and Jesse Stommel and forthcoming later this spring from punctum books.

[SLIDE 3: Bubbles] Disrupting the Digital Humanities seeks to rethink how we map disciplinary terrain by directly confronting the gatekeeping impulse of many other so-called field-defining collections. The editors’ vision for this collection is that it will work “to push and prod at the edges of the Digital Humanities — to open the Digital Humanities rather than close it down. Ultimately, it’s exactly the fringes, the outliers that make the Digital Humanities both lovely and rigorous.” The project seeks to break the term disruption free from the gated communities of high tech and entrepreneurship, and restore to it the rowdy spirit of critical race studies, feminist studies, and queer theory. This intervention is allied with the #pocoDH and #TransformDH movements that seek to intrude on gatekeeping practices in the discipline of the digital humanities that preserve the nationalistic, racist, classist, misogynist, and heteronormative forces that are at the heart of both canon formation and the academy itself.

This kind of disruption is disturbing to some in the emerging discipline. For as contributor Roopika Risam reminds us, a disruption is an interruption, a forcible event that rends or bursts asunder, causing a violent dissolution, a forcible severance.

[SLIDE 4: The Deficit Internship] It is in the spirit of this that I offer what follows, in which I describe a practice that I believe merits forcible severance from our collective pedagogical praxis: the use of uncompensated and uncredited student labor in the digital humanities classroom.

[SLIDE 5: Chairs] On digital humanities panels at conferences ranging from the Modern Language Association, to the Digital Library Federation Forum, to the Alliance of Digital Humanities Organizations’ annual conference, and the Texas Conference on Digital Libraries, I’ve been struck again and again by how glibly panelists describe how they incorporate the grunt work of a digital project into a syllabus and have their students do it as part of a class. Under the rubric of “skills building,” these comments are usually met with nods of knowing approval by attendees. If an audience member or a fellow panelist questions the legitimacy of this practice they are piously dismissed both in the room and on social media, a circling of the wagons that  reflexive and unreflective. This behavior on the part of a DH in-crowd (in particular those who have attempted to focus the conversation on recognition of digital work for tenure and promotion), derives from a collective defensiveness driven in part by a very real desire to ensure that digital work within the humanities is valued and recognized. But it also emerges from a willing and necessary capitulation to the logic of what Richard Grusin describes as “bottom-line economics and the need for higher education to train students for jobs[,] not to read literature or study culture.” Digital projects have the potential to allow faculty to have their neoliberal cake and teach literature and history too, and any criticism of the practices that support digital projects is rejected out of hand.

But the economic motivation goes further than simple pandering to shifts in administrative priority away from producing thoughtful citizens and toward making corporate minions. This same community has promoted a misperception on the part of university administrators that digital humanities projects will bring in big money. And in the maker culture fostered by the National Endowment for Humanities Office of Digital Humanities, the ability to bring in grant money has been a key point for those fighting for recognition of informatics projects for tenure in humanities departments.  And it is the fact that there really isn’t much money out there to support these projects creates a culture of scarcity in which some faculty have found it both expedient and necessary to short circuit the mechanisms of the student labor economy by incorporating student labor into the classroom. This shift makes student labor invisible to the institution in terms of counting the costs of digital projects. But more importantly, this student labor is largely uncredited and unpaid.

When labor on digital projects shifts from the official student labor economy, which is governed at least nominally by both university Human Resources and by the rules set forth by the U.S. Department of Education, any protections students may have in official employment disappear. Under the rubric of “skills building” faculty provide just enough training in code, content management, and style sheets for students to contribute some basic programming, write content for blogs and wikis, transcribe manuscripts and primary source documents, or develop visualizations and design for faculty projects. Students that come to the classroom with skill in computing, design, or even statistics face an undue burden compared to their classmates both in terms of supporting their less technically savvy peers and in terms of what the instructor expects them to contribute to the project.

In this scenario, faculty get the benefit of free labor on their projects. Free, that is, to the faculty. Students still pay tuition for these courses, making them not just unpaid internships, but deficit internships subsidized by student loan debt accrued by the students. If faculty can’t get federal money to support their research, this is a back door to getting its equivalent, and students foot the bill in both their labor and their future debt burden.  Further, the practice of using student labor in the classroom is naturalized into the fabric of digital pedagogy, and some large scale collaborative projects provide active mechanisms for the effacement of student labor.

[SLIDE 6: History Engine] One example of this is the History Engine, “an educational tool that gives students the opportunity to learn history by doing the work – researching, writing, and publishing – of a historian.” A collaborative project of the University of Richmond and a number of liberal arts colleges, the Engine is structured around a database of student-authored “Episodes” describing moments in history. These episodes are assigned as part of courses at participating institutions, and the Engine provides sample assignments, lesson plans, and style guides for completing the essays in accordance with the site’s standards. As an example, let’s look at the episode describing the Keating-Owen Child Labor Act of 1916.  The episode is tagged with metadata including the date of the episode, location, topic tags, and the course and institution which produced the essay. There is no metadata field for author, and author is not a searchable term in the site’s advanced search function. In the process of producing work for the site, work which students are “fully aware that future classrooms will engage with and critique,” the student author is erased and anonymized. While the site claims it is providing students with the experience of writing and publishing as an historian, it is in fact structured to ensure that students’ contributions are unidentifiable.

What this amounts to is an undergraduate student paying for the privilege of contributing their work anonymously to the project. Students at U.S. institutions participating in the History Engine pay an average of $954 per credit hour, and as much as $2200 per credit hour to contribute, without credit, to the database. Whatever the pedagogic value of these small episode essays may be, one lesson the students must certainly internalize is that their work does not belong to them, and can be subsumed silently by a larger entity. This is great preparation for the corporate world, but it seems we should be having a more nuanced conversation about intellectual property with students we hope to cultivate as future scholars. While the Engine purports to help students “learn history by doing the work … of an historian,” the way the site treats the products of that work complicates the relationship between labor and pedagogy. The Engine remains in use in classrooms and continues effacing the labor of its student contributors, with episodes from an “Intro to Digital History” course at University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, published as recently as May 21, 2015.

[SLIDE 7: The Networked Machine ] It is sometimes argued that the use of student labor in the classroom operates as a form of crowdsourcing (that is certainly the discursive angle taken in the History Engine documentation), and crowdsourcing has been a popular if unevenly successful method of doing digital humanities work. But crowdsourcing operates under specific conditions of informed consent and volunteerism which labor in the classroom cannot support.

[SLIDE 8 Bubbles] Along with crowdfunding, crowdsourcing has emerged as one the twin pillars of the neoliberal entrepreneurship economy. It is broadly accepted that the term was first coined in 2006 by Wired columnist Jeff Howe to describe “The new pool of cheap labor: everyday people using their spare cycles to create content, solve probflems, even do corporate R & D.”  Crowdsourcing deploys an instrumentalist ethic toward those contributing their labor – note the word “cycles” in Howe’s description, a term describing the fundamental steps a CPU performs to execute commands. Crowdsourcing dehumanizes individual contributors, reducing them effectively and affectively to anonymous components in a networked machine.

Despite the benefits companies and other organizations can derive from crowdsourced labor, one of the essential assumptions of crowdsourcing from Howe’s first elaboration of the term, is that “The crowd produces mostly crap.” As Howe describes it, “Any open call for submissions – whether for scientific solutions, new product designs, or funny home videos – will elicit mostly junk. Smart companies install cheap, effective filters to separate the wheat from the chaff.” Paradoxically, one of those filters is the crowd itself, as “a networked community … ferrets out the best material and corrects errors. Wikipedia enthusiasts quickly fix inaccuracies in the online content.”  There’s something a little utopian about the notion of crowdsourcing being a sort of self-healing system in which the crowd fixes errors the crowd produced, but on some level the benefit received by the project or organization outweighs the crap generated by the user base, otherwise the practice would long since have died out.

Even under ideal conditions of pure volunteerism crowdsourcing is not without its ethical pitfalls. Jonathan Zittrain, co-founder of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard, argues that there is a “Tom Sawyer syndrome” involved in crowdsourcing labor “in which people are suckered into doing work thinking that it’s something to be enjoyed,” and criticizes the gamification aspect of crowdsourcing in which contributors are given points or badges for recognition within the volunteer community in lieu of compensation. Other critics focus on issues of data privacy and data integrity that crowdsourcing input and analysis of research data may involve. In the humanities, linguistics scholar Julie McDonough Dolmaya argues that the use of crowdsourced labor for translation devalues this work and lowers the “occupational status” of professional translators. This critique offers an analogue for the devaluation of labor in the humanities at large: does, for example, the History Engine devalue the work of historians by shifting the labor of content production onto anonymous student authors? The staff and teachers involved in the Engine would likely argue that it does not, but what if these student-authored texts were cited instead of other scholarly works? How much authority do project administrators want the entries to accrue, and how much does this anxiety contribute to the decision to keep the texts anonymous?

[SLIDE 9 Amanda Fucking Palmer: A Cautionary Tale] Even under what appear to be the most clearly voluntary of circumstances, when the social contract of a crowdsourcing engagement seems obvious to the participants, the practice is not exempt from the criticism that crowdsourcing devalues professional practice. One of the most visible examples of this is the controversy that erupted in 2012 around Amanda Palmer’s invitation to musicians in towns visited by her tour to play onstage for free.

[SLIDE 10: Amanda] In August 2012, Palmer posted a call on her blog for “professional-ish horns and strings for EVERY CITY to hop up on stage with us for a couple of tunes” and in return, “we will feed you beer, hug/high-five you up and down (pick your poison), give you merch, and thank you mightily for adding to the big noise we are planning to make.” This had been Palmer’s practice for years. Her punk cabaret act The Dresden Dolls relied in part on volunteer musicians when touring. She toured Australia in 2008 with The Danger Ensemble, four performance artists and a violinist who traveled with her for room and board, and they passed the hat at each gig. Palmer espouses an ethic of sharing and giving-what-you-will developed in her years busking as the 8-Foot Bride in Harvard Square, or playing her ukulele for change, and elaborated in a 2013 TED talk and her 2014 book The Art of Asking.

What was different about the Grand Theft Orchestra Tour was that Palmer had just completed a wildly successful Kickstarter campaign to support the recording of the LP Theatre is Evil and the tour to promote the record. The campaign was supported by 24,883 backers and raised $1,192,793 – the highest-grossing musical campaign on the platform at the time. These funds were intended to cover recording and distribution costs for the record (Palmer has self-released her work since her acrimonious split from Roadrunner Records in 2010), and to pay a salary to the core band that would accompany her on tour. Professional musicians were outraged and blasted her website with comments decrying her use of volunteer players. Industry heavy hitters including producer Steve Albini weighed in against Palmer. Albini published a particularly vitriolic post on the message board for his studio Electrical Audio, which was reproduced on Pitchfork and subsequently went viral. The crux of the arguments against Palmer, aside from those that just called her an idiot or worse in a downward spiral of grotesque misogyny, was that by asking musicians to pay for free, when she was perceived to have the resources to pay them, devalued professional musicianship. Palmer found herself on the defensive, explaining her request to the New York Times, and claiming, “If you could see the enthusiasm of these people, the argument would become invalid … They’re all incredibly happy to be here.” Palmer wrote on her blog that none of the volunteer musicians dropped out, but she ultimately moved money from the Kickstarter campaign around and paid those who played with her on the tour.

For Palmer and her proponents, including if not especially the musicians who stuck with her, volunteerism, community, and informed consent were more important than the perceptions of their critics. For the critics, the threat to professionalization and the devaluing of the labor of musicians trumped the social contract between Palmer and her community. The parallels between the Palmer controversy and what I’m critiquing in the DH classroom should, I think, be fairly obvious. In both cases a practitioner relies on unpaid labor to complete a project for which funding is available to compensate that labor. What may not be so obvious is why I empathize with Amanda Palmer, and reject out of hand the professors who use student labor in the classroom.

Palmer and the musicians who chose to play with her were operating within a social contract in which both perceived a benefit to themselves and agreed to participate under conditions of informed consent. The musicians knew in advance the situation they were entering into and did so willingly, eyes open. Despite the economic disparity between Palmer and the musicians who volunteered for her (the fact that Palmer had accounted for the entirety of the Kickstarter funds – which were also given willingly under conditions of informed consent – for the operation of her business and her brand notwithstanding), Palmer had absolutely no power to coerce or compel labor from these musicians, and articulated no expectations beyond those in the original call: show up early, practice a little, play your hearts out, get some beer and hugs.

[SLIDE 11: Wave] Conversely, student labor in the classroom is never not coerced. Other critics of student labor in the classroom suggest that alternate assignments could be offered in lieu of project-oriented or public facing work. While this may be possible if students are able to share their own work as part of the assignment, I believe that under circumstances where students are expected to work on a professor’s project, even if an alternative assignment is offered, students will feel coerced to participate in the professor’s project, or that students choosing the alternative project will be penalized for not contributing. The power dynamic of the classroom is such that student choice in this situation cannot be unequivocal, and that faculty objectivity will always be suspect. Miriam Posner in collaboration with her students at UCLA recently developed “A Student Collaborators’ Bill of Rights” which articulates these principles quite clearly: “It’s important … to recognize that students and more senior scholars don’t operate from positions of equal power in the academic hierarchy. In particular, students’ DH mentors may be the same people who give them grades, recommend them for jobs, and hold other kinds of power over their futures.”

The social contract of the professor-student relationship only allows for limited roles in which the two parties may operate ethically: teacher-student, mentor-mentee, and sometimes employer-employee. In the teacher-student relationship, the professor is responsible for imparting information, knowledge, and skills as defined by a syllabus and course description, and evaluating student work according to an established rubric. The student is responsible for attending class, completing reading and other assignments as described in the syllabus, and demonstrating subject mastery in exams or assignments to meet the requirements defined in the grading rubric. The student (or his proxy in the form of scholarships, grants, or other financial aid) is paying to participate in the course, and while I strenuously resist the neoliberal notion that students are customers engaging in a classroom-based market transaction, the fact that students are paying at least implies that their labor in the classroom, including intellectual property for the work they produce, should belong to them at the end of the day

In the teacher-student relationship, the student has the right to expect that his work is evaluated fairly and that he retains intellectual property and will receive attribution for the work he produces. If these expectations cannot be met, then the social contract of the classroom has been violated. A grade is neither credit nor compensation. The mentee should not be expected to contribute to the professor’s research or project to receive mentorship, unless other arrangements for compensation and credit are made. And even if the employee is paid, he has a right to receive credit for the labor he performs on a project.

[SLIDE 12: Soft Solutions] The neoliberal university is an easy straw man on which to blame inequities in the treatment of student labor, since it is the values of the neoliberal university that drive both the culture of lack and the shift from a pedagogical to a consumer model. But it is individual faculty who are responsible for the content of their courses and their conduct toward their students, and those most able to report on violations of the social contract of the classroom are also those most liable to be subject to these depredations. As Posner and her student colleagues note, “Students may not feel entirely comfortable raising objections to certain practices if they feel these objections could endanger their academic or career prospects;” an understatement if ever there was one.

[SLIDE 13: Justice is Gone] Therefore it is up to the community of digital humanities practitioners to acknowledge and engage constructively with this problem. In a positive sense, as a community we can adopt and endorse the principles outlined in the Student Collaborator’s Bill of Rights and work to socialize them throughout our institutions, much as many of us have striven to advocate for the principles of open access, or the guidelines for professional collaboration outlined in the Collaborators’ Bill of Rights. We can develop and share resources for constructively encouraging students to produce durable public work in the classroom, and for engaging student labor in digital projects in a way that is meaningful to students, as well as to the faculty. One outstanding example of this is the Perseus Project which incorporates student-translated texts into its database. The Perseids platform “offers students an opportunity to produce original scholarly work, which they can then list on their resumes in the context of a job search or when seeking admission to graduate school.” Student translators are credited by name, and the site provides durable URIs to student work which can be incorporated into C.V.s or e-portfolios. The Perseus Project offers a model of digital pedagogy that combines academic rigor with technical innovation, allowing students to produce durable products demonstrating their skills and to receive equally durable credit for their labor.

But positive methods are unlikely to have a universal impact on the misuse of student labor in the DH classroom. Regardless of the adoption of principled declarations like the Student Collaborators’ Bill of Rights by organizations or institutions, there will always be faculty who can justify using student labor in the classroom. In those cases, negative remedies may be necessary. The Collaborators’ Bill of Rights includes the provision that “Funders should take an aggressive stance on unfair institutional policies that undermine the principles of this bill of rights.” A similar approach should be taken in fostering the ethical use of student labor (which is not addressed in the Collaborators’ Bill of Rights). But if we as a community have to wait for funders, particularly those most invested in promoting the maker culture that has produced these practices, to intervene, we’re already lost. Faculty members, librarians, administrators and staff should actively promote the principles of ethical student engagement described by Posner and her collaborators, going so far as to establish Provost-level policies governing this behavior with serious implications for tenure, promotion, and eligibility for Principle Investigator status for violations. This may seem extreme, but students learn what’s permissible in the academy and in society from how they are treated in the classroom. Students who experience the anonymization and devaluation of their labor in the classroom will be well equipped to justify labor alienation in their careers as leaders in business, industry, and the academy. This is not a future I want to see and am eager to resist, though it may well be already inevitable.

If, as the DH true believers contend, digital humanities is the future of the humanities and the academy, we as a community have a responsibility to our students and ourselves to ensure the future DH produces is one we all can live with.



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