Bethany Nowviskie

  • Published: Oct 15th, 2010
  • Category: higher ed, twittering
  • Comments: 14

eternal september of the digital humanities

Tags: collaboration, digital-humanities, libraries, scholarly-communication

Here’s where I am. It’s nearly Hallowe’en, and kids have settled into school routines. I have little ones in my own house and big ones in the Scholars’ Lab — the youngest of whom are newly, this year, exactly half my age. Other kids are dead, and it’s still bothering me a good deal. Mornings in Virginia feel cold now, and acorns are everywhere underfoot. We’re tracking leaves inside.

It’s a melancholy way to begin a post, but it situates us.

It’s October 2010 in the social scene of the digital humanities, and (yes, I’m feeling wry) our gathering swallows Twitter in the skies.

I tweet a lot. It’s a mixture — the writing and the reading — of shallow, smart, and sweet. I answer lots of email, too, lots of messages from strangers asking questions. We’re doing a good job, my team, and people are asking how. I stuck my neck out on a thing or two, and people are asking why, or for more. This fall, I worked with friends to launch a website that I’m proud of — which is for strangers, asking questions. I’ve stopped answering to the phone.

There’s a bit of a joke around the SLab, about the degree to which the boss-lady is not service-oriented. It’s funny (as they say), because it’s true. But it’s only true insofar as I let it be — and most local colleagues realize that I put on this persona consciously, as a useful corrective or (at least) a countering provocation to that strong and puzzling tendency I have noted as a scholar come to work in libraries: the degree to which the most beautiful quality of librarianship — that it is a service vocation — becomes the thing that makes the faculty, on the whole, value us so little. Service as servile. The staffer, the alternate academic, the librarian, the non-tenure-track digital humanist, as intellectual partner? Not so long as we indulge our innate helpfulness too much. And not so long as we are hesitant to assert our own, personal research agendas — the very things that, to some of us once expected to join the professoriate, felt too self-indulgent to be borne.

I’ve written about these things. Others have, too. And — even though service under any banner is undervalued in the academy, and a fully-fledged digital humanities center administratively embedded among library services is a rarity — near and far, DH stays nice. (Just think: how many other academic disciplines or interdisciplines work so hard to manifest as “a community of practice that is solidary, open, welcoming and freely accessible” — a “collective experience,” a “common good?”)

Here’s the irony. And it’s how we’ll move from a dwindling Virginia October to the eternal September of the digital humanities.

If, on the local scene, I strive to give a habitation and a name to the administrator (yes, even that!) as driven intellectual partner — for outreach and service to the DH crowd, I’m your girl. The kinds of things I volunteer to organize and do (hosting training institutes, grad fellowships, and friendly un-conferences, helping raise the big tent, and providing signposts or lacing bootstraps for bootstrapping), together with my role as VP and Outreach Chair for the ACH, put me in a position to observe and appreciate the depth of generosity in DH. A truly remarkable and frankly heartwarming percentage of the digital humanities community gives unstintingly of its precious time in these ways, solely for the purpose of easing the path for others. And it’s not all organized initiatives. To a degree I have not noted before, the DH community has become conscious that we operate in a panopticon, where our daily voicing of the practice of digital humanities (and not just on special days — every day) helps to shape and delimit and advance it. That voicing operates wholeheartedly to welcome people and fresh ideas in, if sometimes to press uncomfortably (one intends, salutarily) against the inevitable changes they will bring. Some of us take this unending, quotidian responsibility too seriously.

I hear, and hear about, our back-channel conversations.

“Eternal September” is a notion that comes from Usenet culture — the early peer-to-peer newsgroups and alt.* discussions that were, for many of us, an introduction to networked discourse and digital identity. Because Usenet activity centered around colleges and universities, a large influx of new students each September had disruptive effects on its established, internal standards of conduct, or netiquette. About thirty days in, newbies had either acclimatized to Usenet or they had dropped away, and the regular roiling of September could be left behind for another eleven months. As the mid-1990s approached, Internet access became more common and less metered by the academic calendar. Once AOL began offering Usenet to its subscribers, September was eternal.

The Wikipedia article for Eternal September reads “See also: Elitism.”

I mention this because I am not unaware of the awkwardness of my position. I have worked in humanities computing for fourteen years. I direct a department dedicated to digital scholarship, I’m a steering or program committee member or executive councillor or associate director of several DH groups, and an officer of (arguably) its primary professional society. My dissertation and almost all of my publications and public presentations have been in the area of digital research, scholarship, and pedagogy. (Still, I still have a hard time thinking of myself as a DH insider, or as part of the establishment. This comes, I’m sure, of a profound respect for the two living generations of computing humanists under whom I trained — and because I matured in the field before Twitter and THATCamp made everybody instant pals.)

That said, I am positioned to hear the private rumblings of many of the people most inclined — indeed, perhaps most known for their inclination to be generous to colleagues in the digital humanities, old and new, and that over the course of years and sometimes decades. I also hear from some I’d consider new to this field, but experienced in ways that make them sensitive to the tides of online collectives. What I most hear is a tension between goodwill and exhaustion — outreach and retreat. I’m sympathetic to the weariness of these people, treading water, always “on.” I feel it, too. But it’s their voicing of frustration and possible disengagement that alarms me.

DH is not in Usenet’s eternal September, precisely. That is, truly rude or tone-deaf or plainly infelicitous tweets, comments, and postings are few enough that they’re of little import, even when they grate. I also remain hopeful that we’ll soon figure out, among so many bright and sensitive readers, the right balance of promotion for our programs (large or small) with genuine expressions of enthusiasm for our work — the rhetoric of always-on. And, for the most part, niceness itself is catching (which may be part of the problem). Fatigue will come in waves, to different segments of the networked community at different moments. So it goes. But the Eternal September of the digital humanities most threatens to exhaust us all when our newer colleagues, who are most visible online, make two assumptions: they think that all of this is new; and they think that the current scene is all there is.

Most of us are newer and more insular than we realize.

What does it mean to practice as digital humanists? Some cold mornings, I don’t care. We are here to help each other figure it out along the way — by enacting community, building systems of all sorts, doing work that matters in quarters predictable and unexpected. We are devoted now like nothing I’ve seen before. But have you begun to sense how many good people are feeling deeply tired this autumn?

Some of you are hiding it. Some of us should take a breath.

Tags: collaboration, digital-humanities, libraries, scholarly-communication

14 Responses to “eternal september of the digital humanities”

  1. spacer
    Eric Johnson
    on Oct 15th, 2010
    @ 11:57am: 

    I’m struck by how familiar your post–or at least its tone, or perhaps most properly the place I think it’s coming from–sounds to me. It reminds me, of all things, of what I hear from a lot of friends and acquaintances of mine who are clergy: how does one sustain an ethic of service without simply burning out? That’s the concern I hear here–how do we keep DHers from suffering burnout, and not just individually but collectively?

    Nobody can survive being “on” all the time. This is true at micro (service desk staffing) and macro (career arc-scale) levels. What we need are systems in place to care for the caregivers (if you will). There is a growing movement among ministerial sorts to put such systems in place: insistence on taking full vacations away from their congregations, on getting professional ed opportunities to travel to conferences, on making one another aware of when they have gone too far down an unhealthy road. The same sort of approach has to take place in any field of practice based largely on service to others.

    Your post here is a crucial first step–the articulation of the problem. The most likely successful “resolution” will come from both the support of colleagues and of the users of your/our services. Engaging the former comes from posts like this one–a clear statement of the problem, already generating empathetic support. And engaging the latter involves the proactive management of expectations. We librarians and other service providers know this drill well: you have to build in the expectation from the get-go that you aren’t *always* available, because sometimes work has to be done behind the scenes (and sometimes self-care has to take priority). If the requirements of your service point are such that service be always available, staffing structures need to be put in place that keeps specific staffers from burning out. It’s a question of how we shape our individual and institutional practices for the long haul.

    Taking this kind of approach isn’t a nice-to-have, either: it’s a must-have for service-oriented groups and organizations, because otherwise they just won’t last over the long haul. It’s all well and good to burn bright, but as Eldon Tyrell tells us, the light that burns twice as bright burns half as long (“and you have burned so very, very brightly…”). It’s simply good management practice to make sure that doesn’t happen.

    Call it DH wellness.

  2. spacer
    Sheila Brennan
    on Oct 18th, 2010
    @ 9:23pm: 

    Hi Bethany,

    I definitely feel and see a lot of burn out. The DH work is hard to turn off, to stop, to release, to finish, to put aside. Additionally, I find that when I do tune out the Twitters or slow down in responding to emails and forums, I feel incredibly guilty for not staying on top of things. Yet, I’m trying to disconnect in little bits and battling my guilt.

    The other reality is that most folks already have many jobs–some related to DH work, some not, and the DH work doesn’t stop. We don’t get a summer off to do something different, in fact our summers are often busier. For those of us who rely on grants, we are doing tons of work to make deadlines, and funders require a lot in order to get that money (we are very grateful that they give, believe me!). We’ve built some great projects and are working on other great projects. But there isn’t a break, and things break when you least expect them: like a project you launched 5 years ago and it needs to be fixed or at least dealt with because the interwebs never sleep.

    After all of that complaining, the reason that I’m doing what I do and that others do this work is that we really enjoy it most of the time. This matters. And the culture in which most of us work is open and encouraging and supportive. This matters a lot.

    Eric makes some really great points, about managing expectations, and we can learn from others dealing with this type of stress.

    I think that we all need to learn to say no a little more (in a nice way, of course), and to be realistic about what we can all fit into a week. Sharon posted this article, from Zen Habits, over the summer, with some good strategies for saying no:

    So Bethany, the next time I ask for something, feel free to say, \No, I can’t.\

    Then, mountain/beach retreats for us all.

  3. spacer
    on Oct 19th, 2010
    @ 4:40pm: 

    Eric and Sheila have offered wonderful comments on aspects of burnout (avoiding it, recovering from it, etc) but I want this comment to be less about you (because really, as much as you use yourself as the entry point to the difficult conversation, in true Nowviskie fashion this post isn’t about you) and more about us—the collective. The hive mind. The Borg. Whatever people want to call us, the loosely affiliated group of people trying to do good work with computing, humanities, students, scholarship.

    I’d like to focus on your statement at the end of your post: “But the Eternal September of the digital humanities most threatens to exhaust us all when our newer colleagues, who are most visible online, make two assumptions: they think that all of this is new; and they think that the current scene is all there is.”

    I’ve been sitting here and I’ve tried to come up with some sort of witty comment either about Nicholas Carr or Scylla and Charybdis (couldn’t decide) but what I really want to say is that people—especially those new to the field/concept of DH, and regardless of their already-established position in (alt-)academic hierarchy—should open their eyes and look around a little. It doesn’t take a PhD to figure out that reinventing the wheel just gets us a bunch of wheels—nothing to actually move. And that’s what I see: a lot of people reinventing wheels because they haven’t done the legwork and haven’t realized “digital humanities” didn’t just spring fully formed into existance at the 2009 MLA Convention. They do just see the “current scene” and take it at face value, never really looking any deeper than the tweetstreams of that significant population of kind, generous souls (experts in this field) who have adopted methods of public broadcasting and/or public teaching and mentoring because that’s how they roll. And it’s no wonder these kind, generous souls go through periods of introspection or downright exhaustion, and end up carrying around more negative feelings than positive ones. One problem with humanists is that we’re human.

    Newbies would be wise to understand this “next big thing”—digital humanities, humanities computing, whatever you want to call it—is over sixty years old. That’s a lot of history, relationships, progress, and failure to (sometimes willfully) ignore when inserting oneself into a conversation. As if that’s not enough, although it may be shocking to some to consider, people have been using technology outside of academia to work on conceptually similar projects as people are thinking up inside academia. And the library and information science folks? They’ve been struggling with issues of data storage, retrieval, and display for longer than many people outside their field ever gives them credit for—and that’s a problem, too. I haven’t even begun to mention the computers & writing and new media or media studies folks—these are all fields in which people have long drawn borders and fences around (for sound institutional/funding reasons, I am sure) but in which people are doing great work that’s as much “digital humanities” as anything else.

    My point, inasmuch as I have one, is that if I were someone who knew my history, the intersections and interdisciplinary relationships, how things worked and so on, I’d be pretty damn tired of the same questions over and over—and not because I necessarily answered them or said yes or put myself out there, but just because I could see them. In that situation, I’d likely wonder “Where did we go wrong? We built these systems and processes and methods and relationships but no one seems to start there. Everyone’s looking for the easy way in.”

    That makes me sad, and I didn’t even have anything to do with those projects.

    Bethany, you said that on some cold mornings you don’t care what it means to practice as digital humanists. Well, on cold mornings, warm mornings, and in fact any morning of any temperature that I manage to wake up, I don’t care. I do care about “enacting community, building systems of all sorts, doing work that matters in quarters predictable and unexpected,” and I care that anyone who has something to offer has a seat at that table. But I also care about rigor; not every half-baked idea about a cultural artifact or twelve that involves a computer should have praise heaped upon it. I also don’t think 8th-place little league teams should get awards either, so maybe take that with a grain of salt.

    Right then. I still don’t really have a point. Just a lot of mixed emotions that, as you know, don’t often spill beyond the backchannel. Not that mine necessarily should, but someone’s should—all those people fighting for their positions, their funding, their recognition, their respect while also performing online as everyone’s personal #lazyweb? Say something.

  4. spacer
    Stuff Digital Humanists Like: Defining Digital Humanities by its Values
    on Dec 2nd, 2010
    @ 4:37pm: 

    [...] some similar assumptions in its commitments to open access, open source, and collaboration. As Bethany has said elsewhere, “how many other academic disciplines or interdisciplines work so hard to manifest as [...]

  5. spacer
    The (DH) Stars Come Out in LA « Matthew G. Kirschenbaum
    on Jan 13th, 2011
    @ 6:45pm: 

    [...] Yet the kind of tensions (and challenges) Beth Nowviskie gestures toward in her remarkable “Eternal September” post from a few months back are also very real, and at some level deeply related to stardom and [...]

  6. spacer
    Au Début
    on Feb 1st, 2011
    @ 1:10pm: 

    [...] education. (For some more erudite words than mine on that topic, see Bethany Nowviskie’s Eternal Sunshine of the Digital Humanities and David Wedaman’s Look Like Your [...]

  7. spacer
    A Digital History of the Digital Humanities » THATCamp CHNM 2011
    on May 26th, 2011
    @ 11:45am: 

    [...] an understanding of how it fits in with others’.  And part of this, too, is a response to the broader notion that newer practitioners of the digital humanities–which in many ways is all of us–are [...]

  8. spacer
    on Aug 26th, 2011
    @ 10:15pm: 

    Are we maxing ourselves out in DH? @nowviskie: New post: Eternal September of the Digital Humanities

  9. spacer
    This is What I Do |
    on Nov 27th, 2011
    @ 10:22pm: 

    [...] anymore; many of the conversations I would see every day fell squarely (and incessantly) in the “eternal september” realm, and I don’t find that particularly productive. All of this work? Keeps me busy. Helps [...]

  10. spacer
    DH and Comp/Rhet: What We Share and What We Miss When We Share | The Lapland Chronicles
    on Jan 7th, 2012
    @ 10:11pm: 

    [...] fact that DH, too, has what Bethany Nowviskie has called an “eternal September” – a constantly refreshed group of newbies who seem to emerge and ask the same sorts of basic [...]

  11. spacer
    don’t circle the wagons « Bethany Nowviskie
    on Mar 4th, 2012
    @ 3:33am: 

    [...] so many carefully-reasoned and well-researched formal essays, they seemed awfully, well, bloggy. “Eternal September of the Digital Humanities” was a maudlin autumnal piece from 2010, in which I looked at the growing pains of the DH community [...]

  12. spacer
    The Most Wonderful and Hopeful Article I Read as a Graduate Student |
    on Apr 4th, 2012
    @ 6:59am: 

    [...] As an outsider to the field/subfield/whatever, I spend very little time these days listening to Digital Humanities & related folks. Because several of my closest friends are theorists/practitioners in the field/subfield/whatever, it’s inevitable that I hear something about what’s Going On, and rare is the day that I don’t mentally refer back to Bethany Nowviskie’s post “Eternal September of the Digital Humanities”. [...]

  13. spacer
    Today’s adventures in yak shaving: gritty realities of working with code for PhD students | Paige Morgan
    on Apr 19th, 2012
    @ 5:24pm: 

    [...] I’m pretty strongly inclined towards the second answer — not just for understanding possibilities, but also for understanding limitations, and generally, to be able to appreciate what devs do, and to be a *good* collaborator. In terms of seeking collaborators, I’ve felt a bit limited by a couple of tensions. The major one is time: VP isn’t my job; and it’s only recently that it’s been formally recognized by my university as an important part of my work. (This is not to say that my dissertation director hasn’t been encouraging; he has.) But the time I have to work on it is limited by the pressures of both dissertating and teaching; and I’m not sure that those make *me* a good collaborator, or that there’s an obvious way to become a better one. My prospective collaborators, many of whom would be undergraduate and graduate students, have schedules that are no less fraught. And they see themselves as needing money, more than intellectual credibility or CV lines. Nor do I want to contribute to the whole Eternal September phenomenon. [...]

  14. spacer
    Theory is dead, long live theory! - Alex Gil | Alex Gil
    on May 2nd, 2012
    @ 7:02pm: 

    [...] to ensure we are not saddled with unnecessary burden from folks who would see us as the help, eternal september and all. I suggest we turn the tables and recognize that discourse provides us with a service. [...]

Leave a Reply

Click here to cancel reply.



Bethany Nowviskie writes here on the digital humanities, #alt-ac and graduate training, textual criticism, libraries, and scholarly communication. This page also houses a traditional vita and information on projects and software. Nowviskie is President of the ACH, Director of Digital Research & Scholarship (including the Scholars' Lab) at the University of Virginia Library and Associate Director of the Scholarly Communication Institute. Her muse, according to Willard McCarty, "is one angry B."


I am deliberately scaling back on travel this academic year. Major lectures and events include: a keynote on the Scholars' Lab at the University of Tokyo, an invited talk on digital materiality at the MLA Convention's Presidential Forum; Neatline workshops at the Universities of Maryland and Virginia, and various appearances during a stint as a Lansdowne Visiting Scholar at the University of Victoria in Canada. I will also teach a Rare Book School course and chair the annual Digital Humanities conference in the summer of 2013.


  • fight club soap
  • why, oh why, CC-BY?
  • announcing #Alt-Academy
  • a skunk in the library
  • reality bytes


  • the evaluation
  • resistance in the materials is neither affiliated with the authors of this page nor responsible for its contents. This is a safe-cache copy of the original web site.