Don’t Call Me

Sean Takats, history professor and director of research projects at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, posted yesterday the second part of his ongoing documentation of his tenure case at George Mason University. If you haven’t read it and you work in digital projects, are a tenure-track faculty member, or just care about educational labor, you should drop what you are doing now and read it. He ruminates on how a large part of his scholarly portfolio—his digital research with all that it entails—was devalued by the review committee evaluating him for tenure and promotion. They ultimately voted 10-2 in favor of his case.

Takats’ call to recognize project management as a key research activity strikes a very strong and emotional cord for me. He writes:

“Although the committee’s let­ter effec­tively excludes “project man­age­ment” from con­sid­er­a­tion as research, I would argue that it’s actu­ally the cor­ner­stone of all suc­cess­ful research. It’s project man­age­ment that trans­forms a dis­ser­ta­tion prospec­tus into a the­sis, and it’s cer­tainly project man­age­ment that shep­herds a mono­graph from pro­posal to pub­lished book. Fel­low human­ists, I have some news for you: you’re all project man­agers, even if you only direct a staff of one.”

In part, this resonates because part of my responsibility at the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities as Assistant Director is to shepherd research projects from their niggling initial moments (those late night bright ideas) to full-fledged functional agendas that result in a variety of digital and traditional scholarly products. A large amount of my time is spent aiding others (my colleagues, the students I teach, and the faculty and staff I engage with) to make their research endeavors successful.

Quantifying that work on a c.v. for a tenure case is very difficult. How do you turn those conversations where you help guide someone else in their vision into a supportable, citable, product? Bethany Nowviskie and others have pointed to project charters and such as a way to capture that labor. I’m all for these formal agreements. But what about all that work that goes in before a project is ever solidified? How do we capture the scrum of idea work that may or may not ever manifest in a grant-funded project (the holy grail of DH) or book length publication (the holy grail of tenure track faculty)?

More broadly, Takats’ post resonates because I think that claiming to be a project manager in the academy is a route to perceived (and often very real) servitude and drudgery. I’ve made this claim publicly before. Takats is right that project management is a cornerstone of successful research and should be valued. But the reality is that the labor structure that the academy is based on looks upon project management as something that is an entry-level position—more advanced than being an undergraduate student but less advanced than any tenure-track faculty job. Project managers are common in the business world where they can be both highly valued and highly paid based on their skills and experience. In many academic institutions, however, project managers are perceived as obstructionist bureaucrats that interfere with the educational and research mission of the university. They get the buildings built and those crazy campus initiatives off the ground, but they aren’t in the classrooms or putting together some new research or theory. They are there to do the boring work that is not “important” or “exciting” enough to warrant a faculty member’s attention. They are structural grease — not the builders themselves. And in the context of ongoing debates about who can call themselves “DH Practitioners” this has real implications for people’s careers.

I’ve been a project “manager” that makes the wheels run. I assigned tasks, checked them off, and managed everyone elses’ agendas. In some rooms, being titled “project manager” meant that my opinions, voice, and labor wasn’t recognized as valuable. I was there to take notes, make sure everyone did their job, and move things along. I wasn’t there to do the work of being a scholar: shaping the goals, methods, approaches, and products. I wasn’t supposed to critically think about how or if we were achieving our research goals. I wasn’t supposed to dream of how one project could lead to the next. And even when I was allowed to dream about research futures, it was recommended that senior members of project teams should lead the next stage so that they could ease the way in gathering resources and getting support. And that is valuable, don’t get me wrong. Some of those senior people are awesome at using their positions to aid us junior folk. After five years working as a digital humanist, though, the need for senior faculty to aid and protect junior scholars still has me concerned. I’m concerned because often times junior scholars are the ones doing this work but due to University rules or academic culture they get relegated to second place in their own research.

Every once in awhile, I’m in one of those meetings where I end to being the manager who metaphorically gets coffee (a.ka. schedule all the meetings, do the follow up, make the engine run, and, yes, literally order the coffee and snacks) instead of being treated as an equal collaborator and colleague. I’ve gotten adept at reading which club in my bag to pull out in those moments. I’ve got a Ph.D. The people mention that to in meetings often recognize the men in the room as Dr. this and Dr. that or Mr. so-and-so but when referring to me call me by my first name. “Actually, I’m Dr. Guiliano” is the call and response to that behavior. Usually, that pulls them up short, as if my gender and age predispose me to be less valuable than anyone else in the room. These are people looking for labor to get them to where they want to go; not collaborators who are seeking true partnerships where all members of the team are elevated to be better researchers, teachers, and scholars. They want someone to make their website, schedule their meetings, and write their grant applications; not argue about the meaning, scope, scale, and conclusions that get included in the project. Sometimes, though, the academic degree that I spent over a decade earning through hard work and copious amounts of blood, sweat, and tears and demonstrating my intellectual value doesn’t aid me getting treated as a collaborator. I shouldn’t need a degree to be recognized for my thoughts. But let’s be real, it definitely eases the way.

I’ve been accused, in those cases where I confront the inequality of labor and assignments, of being “too emotional”. “It isn’t personal. You just have to recognize that you are good at organizing, motivating”….choose your adjective here. Being told that the best of my abilities are checking off to-dos, scheduling meetings, ordering lunches, and such offends me. Am I good at those things? Yes, I am. I was good at those things when I was a 17 year old summer employee for a local government agency. I was good at those things when I was a student at various institutions around the US. And I’m still good at those things now. They are part of what makes me a somewhat successful scholar. But just because I am good at it doesn’t mean that I actually want to spend my time doing those things.

Simon Appleford and I were teaching a project development course earlier this semester for the Digital Humanities Winter Institute, which I co-direct with Trevor Muñoz. One of the students asked me why the course was “project development” when so much of what we were talking about was “project management”. The student asking the question was a junior scholar who has been engaged in what I call “Shadow-PI” work. Shadow-PI work is what happens when a junior scholar has an idea that a faculty member finds interesting or significant but that, due to University rules, the scholar cannot lead when the project is submitted for external or even internal funding. Lots of Universities have these rules, often with no explanation why junior scholars must be relegated to secondary members of the team publicly. Our shadow-PI scholar wanted to know why “project manager” wouldn’t work as a title and why s/he might want to avoid being cast as a good “project manager”. These junior scholars—usually graduate students and professional staff— end up leading the project, doing the scholarly work, and acting as the engine moving the project forward, but they have to create alternative titles for their c.v.’s. Often they get listed as project managers or coordinators for projects that they rightly should be listed as primary investigators.

For all the reasons listed above, I argued that the scholar should avoid the term “project manager”. I explained that s/he should be listed as “Co-Director” or “Lead Investigator” regardless of what the University bureaucracy had listed for external funding purposes. The work s/he was doing was more than just greasing the wheels of the project. S/he was the originator, shaper, and intellectual leader of the effort. That work manifested in getting meetings scheduled; but it also manifested in getting the right people identified to be part of that meeting, prepping them to be amenable to the agenda that s/he held, and strategically guiding discussions to achieve the goals s/he had for the project. As Takats notes, project management can be very intellectually engaged and is always valuable in creating a successful project. Mark Sample has just expanded this quite eloquently in his blog.

At a moment when jobs, but especially good jobs, are hard to come by, using the term “project manager” in reference to oneself is like trying to run a two hundred meter race with crutches. You’ve likely already lost the race before it has even started just by the pure fact that your opponents look at you with crutches and know that you are injured. You are still a world-class runner but you’ve started behind everybody else just by the perception that you’ve got to throw down the crutches to get the race started.

I use the term “project developer” to refer to what I do everyday. The work that Takats points out as valuable for researchers and that should be considered in tenure-track cases needs to get done. But the word “developer” is, for me, more organic. It connotes a project still being conceived, shaped, and grown rather than something clearly thought out that just needs to be guided to completion. For me, it is the difference between starting a roller coaster (a.k.a being the one triggering the ride along the pre-determined route) and building the roller coaster as you go along (a.k.a changing the schematic of the project in development).

All of this is a really long way to say “Please don’t call me a project manager.” I’m a scholar, a historian, and a project developer. And sometimes, I get the coffee. I just prefer not to because, well, I don’t even drink coffee.

Leave a Reply