Please don't call me a miracle worker.
December 17, 2017
Last week, a new Digital Libraries Federation working group was announced for “miracle workers,” Thanks to Alex Gil and Leigh Bonds for their work in getting the group started and off the ground and running; and their willingness to accept feedback from members on the name. The iterative nature of DH is likewise something that I value. And to be clear: using the label jokingly is one thing; formalizing it in any sort of institutional context has different effects. i.e. digital humanities and digital scholarship librarians who are often tasked with accomplishing monumental goals with minimal support. The miracle worker label emerged (as I understand it — others may have experienced it differently) during the start of the current wave of DH, around 2007-2010. As universities (administrators, deans, chairs, professors, etc.) became more aware of digital humanities and interested being able to say that they were “doing it,” people made some monumental requests of folks (often folks in libraries) to make DH happen — and various people stepped up, and broke new ground — and in doing so, helped to lay the ground for the community of practice that constitutes digital humanities and digital scholarship today. The community of library-based people doing DH that emerged during those years has always been alert to labor issues, As evidenced by still-relevant pieces like the Collaborators’ Bill of Rights and Miriam Posner’s commentary on the ‘make DH happen postdoc’ role, among too many other pieces to name, and more ephemeral commentary in social media spheres. and indeed, my own career has been shaped by their work in positive ways, and for that, I am immensely grateful.
While I understand the tongue-in-cheek use of the “miracle workers” label and Alex and Leigh’s intentions in invoking it, and while I fully support the creation of a DLF working group in order to have more formal discussions of the labor and support for library people doing DH I feel strongly enough about it that I think it’s worth explaining my discomfort publicly. Setting aside the name of the group entirely, my reasons for resisting the term are fairly central to my practice as a librarian and as someone working to build and support digital humanities & scholarship infrastructure. The situations I describe below recur in mentoring conversations, consultations, and informational interviews, and it seems useful to articulate them here because I continue to think through them in the course of my work, and expect to continue discussing them with my colleagues.
I spend a fair amount of time explicitly disabusing people of the idea that I am any sort of miracle worker. If what I do is make miracles, them it’s much harder to teach and mentor faculty and students who are acquiring new skills, because they’re intimidated by the mystification around the process.
If the processes I’m engaged in have been mystified, then it’s harder to work towards integrating them into coursework in departments, because the dominant connotations they carry are “new!”, “different!”, and “unfamiliar!” Faculty resist because they see them as dramatic changes, rather than subtler ones that still incorporate long-standing critical and methodological practices. When I try to explain otherwise, faculty who see me as a miracle worker cut me off in my first sentence to say “Oh, don’t bother explaining – I can never understand all that tech stuff.”
Miracles don’t fit well into budget requests. If administrators think of what I do as miracle working,This is neither maliciousness nor stupidity; processes strongly associated with enthusiasm and pixie dust rarely enter into people’s heads when they’re thinking about everyday things that need money. then they tend to assume that there’s no point in even asking whether I can develop a suitable plan and budget for a new initiative. The exception to this are initiatives that are especially high-profile and flashy – but because they’re seen that way, the planning tends to emphasize the things that generate buzz, rather than what opportunities might exist to reach new areas of communities in ways that are genuinely inclusive and thoughtful of those communities’ needs in more than just a short-term way. I also especially want to push back against suggestions that accomplishments and improvements focused on inclusivity and justice are in any way ‘miraculous.’ Planning is also less likely to dwell on how to accomplish flashy initiatives in a way that is non-exploitative of the people involved. Or how to make the initiative sustainable.
Frequently, when an initiative has strong connotations of being new and miraculous, the folks leading it may do very little advance planning on the basis of “we’ve never done anything like this before, so we can’t plan for it; we just have to see what happens and figure it out!” It is quite true that new initiatives can’t be planned exactly, but there is a real and valuable skill of developing and documenting skeletal plans that map out parts of the process that are experimental and parts that are not. This sort of skeletal plan helps communicate with individuals, units, and departments who will almost certainly be involved so that they can plan more effectively, and adapt with less stress than would be inevitable otherwise. Such skeletal plans also help support post-mortem reflective conversations that will often reveal no requirements for pixie dust, but instead resources and time commitments that are in no way foreign to annual budgets. (Even when actually fitting them into the budgets is difficult.)
If people think of me as a miracle worker, then they are more likely to attribute my success not to “alchemy, wizardry or magic,”Miriam Posner, ‘We can teach women to code, but that just creates another problem’, The Guardian, 14 March 2017 instead of mastery and expertise in a particular area. This in turn affects whether people are likely to see specific approaches and practices that I use as things that could be more widely adopted in the library, and whether they see me as developing knowledge and experience that could allow me to advance in my career… or just as a convenient magic wand to wave around.
Moreover, when projects are being facilitated by me-as-miracle-worker, people tend to assume that I can take care of all their problems (in fact, that I have already figured out the solutions). Because I’ve already sorted the problems, people might not tell me about them until the last minute – though in fact, plenty of those problems don’t have quick or easy solutions, and might be quite new to me, or to an institution. I might be able to find solutions Usually ‘I’ in this case means ‘we,’ because last-minute solutions involve coordinating with one or more colleagues who have expertise in various complex processes. I would be less successful and more exhausted in my role without them. – but many people don’t even recognize that labor and coordination was involved in solving the problem – it’s just another miracle.
If I see myself as a miracle worker who is worthy of an official label, then I explicitly position many of my colleagues as non-miracle workers who are less cool and less special than I am. When I do this, I’m socializing myself to see them as people whose expertise is less important than mine, and making it less likely that I’ll ask questions of them that help me understand how their processes and tools work. At the same time, I’m making it less likely that they’ll approach me with information that I might need, but not be aware of. After all, a miracle worker probably already knows. And no one wants to waste a miracle worker’s valuable time. Subtle and unintentional as these choices may be, they combine to add tension to the already challenging work of developing new initiatives and projects.
If I call what I do miracle working, rather than some less value-laden label, then I invite and encourage credential creepErnesto Priego, Various Shades of Digital Literacy: The New Digital Divides, 22 October 2012 and questions about what expertise/experience is enough for someone to consider themselves cool enough to be a miracle worker. While it’s possible to wave away the coolness barrier in some situations and say “Of course you’re good enough to join our club!”, in many cases, these coolness barriers intersect with structural inequalities that discourage women, people of color, non-cis and/or non-heterosexual people I see awareness of coolness barriers and other intangible obstacles as especially important given that the library profession is still 88% white, and ongoing problems around whiteness in DH/DS. from seeing themselves as the target audience. I will note that it is just as possible for a single individual to have an exclusive coolness barrier as it is for a group to have one. DH miracle worker circles start losing out right away, as soon as a person who has particularly deep knowledge in one or two areas/tools assumes that a group isn’t for them because they don’t identify as a generalist miracle worker.
When I feel like I need someone to acknowledge me as a miracle worker, And I do feel that quite keenly on some days. I’ve learned that I need to pay attention to the feeling: what caused it to flare up, and why; what would make me feel recognized; and whether there’s an action I should take in response. That action might be a brief conversation with my supervisor about some aspect of work; or it might just be making a record of the event in my personal log so that I can be aware if the trigger is part of a recurring pattern. Though there’s always some action I need to take, in every case so far it has been something other than getting more people to acknowledge me as miraculous.
Codifying the miracle worker label through an institutional group, even a grass roots one, seems to me to make “miracle worker” more synonymous with DH/DS methods – and intentionally or not, doing that reinforces the tech privilegeOne of the best statements I heard at DLF this year came from the Ally Skills workshop taught by Bess Sadler and Mark Bussey: ‘If you have tech privilege, work to end tech privilege.’ that’s already associated with DH/DS. Having miracle-worker levels of tech privilege should not be a qualification for participating in conversations (let alone working groups) about creating positive action around problems of labor and low resources – even if the qualification is illusory and unintended. This is especially true as DH and DS continue to grow, such that other librarians who may not have DH or DS in their job titles begin supporting it – and find themselves similarly vulnerable to many of the same problems that DH/DS librarians face (whether of low resources or misconceptions about the labor required to accomplish something). I want to be able to work and plan with those colleagues without anything that suggests their status is somehow less than mine.
And that is why I prefer not to be called a miracle worker. I am very grateful to Sarah Shreeves for encouraging me to speak up about the miracle worker label when I expressed my initial concerns about it.