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.