Today I am inaugurating an extended series of posts on the question of how digital scholarship should “count” in the ways that things count at colleges and universities. As more and more scholars do work in the digital environment they are expecting this work to count toward tenure, promotion, and other types of formal evaluation (in the hiring process, for instance). It is because I have attended numerous conference sessions and meetings over the past several years where this topic has come up (often in very passionate ways), that I have decided to write this series.
The other motivation for the series was an email I received from a friend and colleague whom I respect very much taking issue with something I wrote after my experiences at our THATCamp unconference here at CHNM. In that post I said that one reason why historians doing digital work find it difficult to receive full credit for their digital work (as opposed to other things they do like publishing a book or an article, teaching a class, or providing service to their institution) is that historians are a fussy and conservative tribe generally resistant to innovation.
My friend’s email suggested that this sort of name calling (his formulation, not mine) would only set back efforts to convince historians to accept digital work as “scholarship” on a par with other forms of scholarly work. I’m standing by my characterization of my tribe as fussy and conservative when it comes to innovations–after all, it’s worth remembering how hard it was for women’s history or cultural history to be accepted as a valid approaches to historical scholarship.
But, having said that, I do think that something needs to be done–something other than complaining about my colleagues. This series of posts is my attempt to move the conversation forward a little.
It seems to me that the first step is to define what we actually mean when we say that digital work should “count” in higher education.
At most colleges and universities around the United States (and to varying degrees elsewhere in the world), there are three domains of activity that faculty members engage in–research, teaching, and service. Most of us have to turn in an annual report that is organized into three sections corresponding to these domains. And in varying ways at various campuses, what can be claimed in each domain is defined by the institution or by departments. Sometimes, those things that count are defined in union contracts. Sometimes they are defined as they come up. In short, there is no standard practice in academia, other than to generally rely on research, teaching, and service as the main categories for faculty evaluation.
Then we get into the thornier issue of how activity in each of these domains is evaluated. Here we see even more variation in practice from one campus to another, from one department to another. What “counts” at one place, is ignored or even penalized at another. At one institution research trumps all, while at another, teaching is the coin of the realm. In some history departments it is enough to have published a book, while in others that book needs to be published by some relatively short list of prestigious presses. Context is everything in this discussion.
Does this mean it is hopeless to even take on the issue of how digital work might fit into such a heterogeneous set of practices?
By no means.
In the history business, we have a very informal and fluid set of standards for determining what is and isn’t meritorious. We all know that an article published in a journal judged to be prestigious is probably more praiseworthy than one published in a backwater journal with little or no reputation. And we know that a book published by a university press that has a great reputation is almost surely better than one published by a press no one has ever heard of.
Or at least we think we know these things.
Whether book or article X published by a prestigious journal/press is actually better than book or article Y published by a journal/press we’ve not heard of is an open question. But we assume in advance that X is probably better than Y.
And not without good reason. Those things submitted for publication to a prestigious press/journal are more likely to go through a more rigorous peer review and editorial process than something published in an underfunded and little known press or journal. And the competition to publish in the prestigious venues is keen–submissions of lesser quality get weeded out.
And thus it has been for generations.
As long as historians produced scholarship that was in a form that fit neatly into this model–books or journal articles published after a peer review process–all was well and the system functioned fairly smoothly. Then digital technology invaded the cozy confines of our discipline and things got a lot more complicated.
In the next post in this series, I’ll consider the ways that digital media have complicated and will continue to complicate this system that has served us reasonably well for so long.