Am I an academic?

Yesterday’s post by the excellent Danah Boyd has me wondering. Boyd a researcher at Microsoft Research New England (on the blogroll to the right as “apophenia”), yesterday blogged about her answers to the question, “Am I an academic?” Boyd’s description of scholarly life in a research lab is fascinating; her description of the academic life is harrowing–but it doesn’t describe my life as an academic.

I don’t mean simply that I find academic life more enjoyable than you’d guess from Boyd’s description, though that’s true. I mean something more fundamental: the whole complex of institutional structures, professional incentives, and teaching environments that Boyd evokes arises from an assumption that being an “academic” means teaching at a research university. And that assumption pervades most writing about the digital humanities. When I see descriptions of how academics teach, or do scholarship, or hold office hours, or do most anything else, writers almost never capture my experience at a liberal arts college. Or my mother’s experience at a branch campus of a community college. Or my dad’s experience at a small liberal arts university. Or my brother’s experience at a New England preparatory academy. We all have advanced degrees in the humanities, and we’re all, I think, academics.

One aim of this blog, then, is to enter conversations about teaching, scholarship, and the digital humanities from an unusual institutional position. I teach at Grinnell College, an institution fundamentally unlike the research universities I attended but also unlike my parents’ institutions and other types. Grinnell is small (about 1500 students), rural, Midwestern, highly selective, well endowed, teaching-oriented, and increasingly dedicated to interdisciplinarity and faculty-student research collaborations in all fields.

Teaching at Grinnell, I have no graduate students but terrific, ambitious undergrads. No immediate colleagues (in British Romantic literature) but a strong sense of interdisciplinary collaboration. No research library but skilled, flexible librarians. Good funding for scholarship but demanding institutional service obligations.

How do new models of networked teaching and scholarship translate to such an environment? In these new ways, can I be an academic, too? Let’s see.

1 Comment

Seth · August 26, 2009 at 6:30 pm


I look forward to your posts. I read a lot of Economists blogs, like digitial media most popular ones tend to be at R1 institutions. Perhaps it is because for people like us at teaching schools it is hard to get a following because we aren’t at a well connecting place. It become demotivating to write a blog that not as many people read so no blog stars are at small schools. Or maybe its more motivating when you get thousands of hits a day. It could also be that potential blog stars were more likely to end up at R1 schools.

I wonder if a small liberal arts school looking to up its reputation (not Grinnell) but say something outside the top 100, might do well to really encourage their faculty to blog and communicate via digital media. Try to recruit potential blogging faculty. It would garner lots of free press and get the colleges name up there.

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