Should Grants Count?

Not long ago I wrote a series of posts about digital scholarship and whether or not digital work should “count” in the classic sense of counting on American college campuses, i.e., for promotion and tenure. Because digital scholarship is very difficult to pull off without external funding, it’s a reasonable question whether or not writing grants and getting grants should count as well? After all, you can’t do one (digital scholarship) without the other (funding).

For an answer to this question, don’t ask the AHA’s Professional Division.

As Rob Townsend reported on the AHA’s website, the Professional Division recently responded to a query from a department chair who was being pressured by his administration to count grant funding the same as an article in a peer reviewed journal. The response of David Weber, the vice president leading the Professional Division, was (to my mind anyway) very unhelpful.

In the first paragraph Weber argues that the receipt of a grant is an honor and recognition of past achievement, not the same thing as the “completion of a project,” which Weber defines unequivocally in only two ways–a book or a peer reviewed article. As he writes, “past achievement is past and scholarly promise is not scholarship.” But, of course, one could just as easily argue that a book or an article was also a “past achievement” and no indication of “future promise” (for Weber an important part of scholarship).

He adds, “I think we all know senior scholars who have received fellowships for specific projects but who failed to complete them. I once had a colleague who received a coveted Guggenheim to finish a book. He never did.” But, of course, one could just as easily say, “I think we all know scholars who published a book, got tenure, and never did another lick of scholarly work.”

I guess it’s not clear to me how winning a highly competitive grant is somehow less of an indication of future promise than an article or a book.

Weber goes on to say, “Grant monies in the humanities are notoriously tight, and the major competitions receive many hundreds, or even thousands, of applications every year. This means that in a given year, large numbers of high-quality, deserving applications are rejected. Should a scholar who tries for a prestigious grant and narrowly misses out, or is named an alternate, be penalized in the same way as his/her colleagues who never even bother with grant applications?”

But don’t we penalize those scholars who write “high-quality, deserving” books or articles who fail to find venues for publication of their work? Speaking as an East Europeanist, I can testify to the fact that publishing opportunities in my field are likewise “notoriously tight” and that in any given year many high-quality and deserving books fail to find a publisher, much to the consternation of colleagues who have read the work and know how good it is. Somehow I doubt the Professional Division would advocate rewarding these scholars for doing such good work, but not getting it published, despite the fact that the decline of academic publishing has made it so difficult to get published in what are known in publishing circles these days as “marginal fields.”

I wholeheartedly agree with Weber that institutions of higher education should resist the trend toward metrics for evaluation of scholarly merit. Like Weber, I think it’s the quality of the dossier that matters, not the quantity of what’s in it according to some defined counting scheme.

But to disqualify the effort of those who write significant grants as somehow nothing more than a “past accomplishment” is to reject the very logic of his own argument. To provide some perspective on what I’m talking about, let’s examine a case I know very well–the writing of a major NEH grant for a digital project.

Three years ago, two colleagues and I wrote the grant that funded our project Making the History of 1989. This grant was funded by the NEH with an initial grant of $180,000 plus a $10,000 matching requirement for a total of $200,000 once we raised the matching funds. The narrative for the grant runs 20 pages and when the entire document with all of its associated appendices, budgets, and workplans comes in at around 150 pages. When I came up for tenure two years ago, part of my dossier was evidence that, with my to colleagues, I had written successful grants (I left out the ones written but unfunded) totaling $730,000.

But this, apparently, is not an essential activity of a scholar–at least not in history. In biology, physics, mathematics, engineering, psychology, and plenty of other fields–just not history. Or at least, so says the AHA’s Professional Division.

Clearly, those of us in digital humanities have more work to do when it comes to convincing the AHA that digital scholarship is something completely different and needs to be examined on its own terms, not on the basis of how it is or is not like a book or an article.

9 thoughts on “Should Grants Count?

  1. PhDinHistory

    I think the grants you have received are more of an exception to the general pattern. I have received a few grants and the applications usually had to be no more than 3 to 10 pages. I agree with you that the major grant you received was worthy of consideration for tenure. But I think the AHA statement needs more nuance, not complete rejection. Is there a dollar amount that separates the minor and the major grants in history? Would anything beyond $50,000 or $100,000 be considered a major grant?

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  3. Larry Cebula

    David Weber sounds like a disappointed grant seeker.

    And yet he is right that grant writing is not scholarship. Scholarship is the discovery and dissemination of new knowledge.

    I write a lot of grants. A Teaching American History grant proposal for one or two million dollars consists of a 25 page narrative and another 50-75 pages of supporting documents–not just vitae and letters of support but also budget and budget narrative, new syllabi, samples of work, and on and on. The effort of putting together such a proposal is about the same as writing a scholarly article.

    But it isn’t scholarship, it is service. The ancient trio of scholarship, teaching, and service still seems to cover everything we academics do. Grant writing is service. If the grant produces some marvelous new digital humanities product, that end product is scholarship.

    Now, if institutions are serious about digital humanities perhaps they need to put more of an emphasis on grantsmanship in tenure and promotion decisions.

  4. Mills Post author

    I completely agree that grant writing is “not scholarship”, but is it an important part of a scholar’s work, and so therefore an intrinsic part of some forms of scholarship–just as publications are? Significant digital scholarship isn’t really possible without the funds, just as significant work in biology, chemistry, physics, etc., are not possible without significant funding.

    But it is also true that within the sciences there are different expectations with regard to funding. If one was doing, let’s say particle physics, the size of grants required for basic research is completely out of scale with what might be required of an ornithologist working on a species common in his or her local area. Both scholars need funds to conduct their basic research, but the expectations are simply different.

    Those engaged in the digital humanities need money to get their work done and so can’t pursue that particular line of scholarship without funding. Thus, grant writing (and grant getting) are as essential to their work as travel to an archive is for more conventional historical scholarship. Both are required intermediate steps on the way to the final product(s).

    What bothered me about the AHA statement was that it rejected the notion of grant-getting as having anything to do with scholarly work…a nice perk, sure, but not scholarly activity. That way of thinking leaves digital humanists on the outside looking in.

  5. Steve Barnes

    Hey, Mills,

    Glad you noticed this piece, too. I was also annoyed by it. I think I disagree, though, that grant writing is not “scholarship”, or at least I would disagree that it is “service.” If we are dividing all of our work into scholarship, teaching and service, then isn’t everything that is part of the process of producing the end product (whether it is a book, article, digital project–whatever) including the grants that are necessary to get to that end point part of “scholarship”? I consider “service” to be those things that I do to “serve” the community–whether the university, the field, the profession–but grants that are intended to support my research are intended to serve my scholarship. Am I wrong?

    Similarly, by the way, a grant to support teaching would fall under teaching, no?


  6. Marjorie McLellan


    Good to see you raise this issue. Having written a few NEH grant proposals, I would argue that the narrative for an NEH Public Programs itself is a form of scholarly work–often a mix of synthesis, discovery and applied scholarship. Implementation grants required a great deal of specificity up front (in long appendices as well as narratives) to justify the expenditure on the actual production/publication. The funded grants should be included and assessed as part of one’s body of scholarship; on the other hand, the productions that result may well be considered and evaluated as the equivalents of articles, edited collections of essays, textbooks, or monographs.

    History departments have lists of what will “count”–the lists are often quite specific but short. I’ve served on promotion committees in departments outside history where every product–grants, articles, etc.–has a numerical value. The total number allows one to apply for promotion and, at that point, the quality of the work is assessed by outside evaluators and the promotion committee. I never saw this process become simply about the numbers although I’m sure that’s possible. Other departments add “national reputation” as a criteria for promotion to full professor–receiving an NEH grant seems like one way to assess “national reputation”.

    The profession benefits from both initiatives and graduate programs in public history, history education and now digital history. Grant funded projects contribute to the reputation of the department as well as to support for graduate students.

    I wish I had the magic formula for this one; if, as a starting point, historians could be more flexible in providing constructive, respectful support of their colleagues’ work, we can all move forward. Almost as much as more open promotion criteria, I would love to never hear again “not an historian” said dismissively in regards to those who do the hard, collaborative work to obtain grants or whose work is interdisciplinary, applied, or digital.

  7. David J. Weber

    Mills Kelly’s recent posting on whether grants should count in promotion and tenure gives a false impression of the Professional Division’s recent advisory.

    In its letter, the Division was responding to a query about whether receipt of a grant should be regarded by administrators as equivalent to the publication of a scholarly article in a peer-reviewed journal. But through selective quotation, Professor Kelly offers a rather distorted view of what the letter actually said. He asserts, for instance, that we “disqualify the efforts of those who write significant grants as somehow nothing more than a ‘past accomplishment.’” A fairer reading would note that we focused our attention on simple-minded quantification (1 grant = 1 scholarly article), but also observed that grants should count: pointing out that “The winner of such an award deserves recognition by that scholar’s employer” and that “How a fellowship or grant should count in a dossier should necessarily vary with the scholar, the project, and the goals of an institution.”

    Professor Kelly asserts that when the Professional Division talked about “completion of a project” that the Division’s letter defined a project “unequivocally in only two ways—a book or a peer reviewed article.” Once again, a fair reading of our statement would show that we offered a more nuanced perspective. We said that a completed project is “usually a manuscript or publication,” deliberately using the word “usually” to leave room for other modes of disseminating scholarship beyond books and articles, such as museum exhibitions or electronic media. We even gave examples of other kinds of projects, noting that “Some grants may also be awarded to individuals or groups for projects that disseminate scholarship and that result in program development, civic engagement, community outreach, or innovations in teaching.”

    Professor Kelly subsequently devotes a paragraph to the difficulties of finding a publisher in certain fields and concludes that “somehow I doubt the Professional Division would advocate rewarding these scholars for doing such good work, but not getting it published.” Professor Kelly’s doubts notwithstanding, we explicitly stated that recognition should be given to “a manuscript or publication” precisely because we recognized the difficulty of publishing books in some fields.

    Professor Kelly says “it’s not clear to me how winning a highly competitive grant is somehow less of an indication of future promise than an article or a book.” We never suggested that a book or an article is a better indication of future promise than a grant. We did say that a grant is “usually a sign of worthy past achievement and of scholarly promise.” We simply suggested that a grant is a means to fulfill that promise and that completion of the project for which the grant was awarded should have more weight in tenure or promotion decisions than the grant itself.

    In the end, it is only Professor Kelly’s selective reading of the letter that casts a shadow of doubt over the value of grants and other forms of scholarship to the discipline.

  8. Mills Post author

    Hi David:

    Thanks for the detailed response to my posting about the Professional Division’s public response on the AHA website. I’ll certainly retract the part of what I wrote where I said that the Professional Division considered “only” articles or books as evidence of the completion of a project. But I think we can both agree that “usually” almost always means “only” at most departments of history around the country. And, as I wrote in my series “Making Digital Scholarship Count” in this blog, I agree that something needs to come out of the grant for us to call it scholarship.

    As for the rest of my reading of the Professional Division’s letter, I’ll stand by what I wrote. I still think the letter positions the Division as largely (clearly not only as you wrote here) supporting a fairly traditional view of what it means to be a scholar. At least, that’s what the letter on the AHA website seems to be saying. It would have been nice to see some of this clarifying language about “other modes of disseminating scholarship” in the letter itself. Too often tenure and promotion committees default to what they see as the common and accepted practices of a discipline. Right now history as a discipline is in a state of significant flux and so I think we need to be careful to not reinforce more limited notions of scholarship that made sense 20 years ago but no longer make as much sense as they did.

    Thanks again for adding your perspective here.

    All the best,


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