Milking the Deficit Internship

by Spencer D. C. Keralis

“…and when justice is gone, there’s always force.” ~ Laurie Anderson, “O Superman (For Massenet)”

That labor in the academy is unequal is well and frequently documented. The divisions and inequities in responsibilities and compensation between administrators (and/especially coaches) and faculty, between tenure-track faculty and adjuncts, between faculty and staff, and between academic, professional, and institutional staff run deep and wide in every institution.

Underlying and hidden by these divisions amongst salaried and hourly employees of the university is the student labor economy, without which the wheels of the neoliberal university would grind to a halt. In positions funded both by institutional money and federally funded financial aid in the form of Work Study, students, even those in skilled technical jobs, are generally paid at or just above minimum wage. Right or wrong, this is a truth of the university that is well established, and many digital humanities projects with the funding to do so participate in the student labor economy.

However, in the culture of perpetual lack fostered by the NEH-ODH and other funders, and by the misrepresentation on the part of digital humanists that digital projects bring in big money, 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,1 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.

Neoliberal ideals of promoting skills building and in-class collaboration allow faculty to benefit from 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 in no small part by 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.

There has been very little scrutiny of these practices. When faculty casually mention in conference presentations that they have succeeded in getting students to pay for the privilege of contributing to their projects, it is generally met with nods of knowing approval from audience members. Anyone challenging the practice is swiftly and piously silenced both in the room and on social media by the DH in-crowd who reflexively and unreflectively circle their wagons in defense of any challenge to the maker culture and its attendant manners and mores to which they are so firmly hitched. #pedagogicalvalue and #computationalthinking become the DH equivalents of #alllivesmatter or #notallmen, protecting positions of privilege and foreclosing the potential for scrutiny, much less discussion, of architectures of power that permit the exploitation of students.

And make no mistake; student labor in the classroom is not crowdsourcing. Crowdsourcing, the fantasy of “cognitive surplus” that along with crowdfunding serves as one of the twin pillars of the innovation economy, relies on a social contract of volunteerism and informed consent that is simply not possible in the classroom.2 Student labor in the classroom is never not coerced. Under any circumstance in which students are expected to work on a professor’s project, even if an alternative assignment is offered, there is always the risk that students will feel compelled 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.

Other critics of the labor economy of the digital humanities have offered soft solutions to what has the potential to be an intractable problem. For example, the “Collaborators Bill of Rights” attempts to address inequities in credit and compensation between professionals, but does not address student labor.3 In collaboration with her students at UCLA, Miriam Posner 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.”4 In the teacher-student relationship, the student has the right to expect that his work is evaluated fairly, that he retains intellectual property for his work, and that he will receive attribution for the work he produces. If these expectations cannot be met, then the social contract of the classroom has been violated.

Faculty members, librarians, administrators and staff should actively promote the principles of ethical student engagement described by Posner and her collaborators. But there will always be those who can personally justify the use of student labor in the classroom to advance their projects, and their own careers. These faculty teach their students the normalcy of the anonymization and devaluation of their labor, making graduates 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 as the electronic arms of digital projects embrace the humanities classroom it may well be already inevitable.

Thus it becomes imperative that when soft solutions like the Bills of Rights fail, stronger remedies must be sought with serious implications for tenure, promotion, and eligibility for Principle Investigator status. Violations of students’ rights to credit and compensation for their labor in and out of the classroom must be taken seriously by departments, universities, and ultimately by funding agencies.  But if we as a community wait for funders, particularly those most invested in promoting the maker culture that has produced these practices, to intervene, the battle for ethical labor practices in the humanities classroom is already lost.

[1] See U.S. Department of Education Student Financial Aid handbook Vol. 6, Chapter 2, “Operating a Federal Work Study Program,” for example.

[2] Clay Shirky. Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age. New York: Penguin Books, 2010.

[3] Collaborators’ Bill of Rights. Off the Tracks: Laying New Lines for Digital Humanities Scholars.   

[4] Haley Di Pressi, Stephanie Gorman, Miriam Posner, Raphael Sasayama, and Tori Schmitt. “A Student Collaborators’ Bill of Rights.” UCLA Digital Humanities.


Spencer D. C. Keralis is Research Associate Professor and Digital Humanities Coordinator with the Public Services Division of the University of North Texas Libraries. Spencer is the Founding Director of Digital Frontiers, a conference and community that brings together the makers and users of digital resources for humanities research teaching and learning. Spencer’s current research focuses on representations of children and animals in antebellum American literature and material culture.

[Image “Empty Spaces?” by flickr user Giampaolo Macorig]

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