Taking the Alt-Ac Route

I am not where I thought I’d be. A year ago I’d have told you that right about now I’d be frantically writing my dissertation, trying to get an article out, and desperately looking for professorial jobs in contemporary theology and/or continental philosophy. Instead, I’m still working on my dissertation (not quite as frantically as I perhaps should), but I’m mostly being a digital humanities developer in the Scholars’ Lab at U.Va. Instead of reading book after book of theology on a daily basis, I read a lot of documentation for programming languages. Instead of hours each day writing theology deeply conditioned by years of reading Heidegger, Barth, and Jüngel, I’m writing, at the moment, rather a few lines of Javascript. Within the next few weeks I’m hoping to make that Coffeescript instead. Why write var repeatedly when you don’t need to? Instead of days and nights spent moving between coffeeshops, library tables, and my own apartment, I sit (or stand) at my desk in the Scholars’ Lab offices for about eight hours a day, taking an occasional break from the space to work somewhere else in the library or go to a meeting in Clemons.

It’s a different pattern of life and work, one I had not expected. And it has been quite a transition since I started working in May. Those first few weeks settling in and working eight hours days, with few breaks, were exhausting. But it’s also been rather a lot of fun, learning new languages, working collaboratively on projects, and simply being around brilliant and engaging people every day.

How or why am I here though? Why not continue on the path I spent seven years on, aimed at the traditional professoriate? The quick and easy answer is the job market and the changing character and organization of universities, both of which are frequent topics in the news these days. The more difficult answer is about a changing sense I have of my own broad interests and what type of work can be satisfying. As a Teaching + Technology Support Partner at U.Va., then more significantly as a Praxis Fellow here in the Scholars’ Lab, I began working with technology first within the pedagogical sphere and then more broadly within the academic world. I began to see the possibilities of use of different technologies within academic research, teaching, and scholarly communication. As a Praxis Fellow, I then realized that I really enjoy working with the technology itself, specifically, coding. The type of systematic and problem oriented thinking that you engage in when coding is remarkably similar to the type of thinking one engages in with dogmatic or systematic theology. Then, in the process of building Ivanhoe, writing the code began to be the thing I most wanted to do out of all the things I was doing (dissertating, TAing, and so forth), and it was fulfilling each day to do narrow, concrete work and see the results.

Now, a little bit of success and enjoyment with coding is not necessarily enough to spur a whole-sale career change. It is enough, though, to raise questions and possibilities about shifting the path just a bit. In the Scholars’ Lab, I am a digital humanities developer. That means I code, but it also means I think about what it means to do research in the humanities and will, over time, work with faculty and graduate students to help them with their own research. Because I am lucky enough to be in the Scholars’ Lab, it also means I do research of my own and I speak with the excellent people here in the lab, all with their own interests and specialties. Together, we compose a cadre of scholarly practitioners deeply interested in our own fields, in the larger state of humanistic inquiry, in the development of innovative research methods and tools, and in graduate education. From that standpoint, while my daily routine might look quite different from expected, the place where I am is not so far off the path of the traditional academic. In that case, while I am not where I thought I’d be, I am also not not where I thought I’d be.

I am a digital humanities developer in the Scholars' Lab and a Ph.D. candidate in philosophical theology, writing a dissertation examining vulnerability at the intersection of theological anthropology and neuroscience. After years working heavily in theological ontology and metaphysics, I have a burgeoning interest in Javascript application frameworks, the role of the humanities in public discourse,…

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