Tag Archives: Digital Scholarship

Making Digital Scholarship Count (2)

In my previous post in this thread, you may have noticed that I used the term “digital work” rather than “digital scholarship.” My choice of words was in no way accidental. Digital work encompasses everything historians do in the digital realm–scholarship, teaching, and service. “Digital scholarship” is a precisely defined (or should be precisely defined) subset of “digital work.”

Thus, if we are going to argue that digital work should count in higher education, we need to define how this work counts in each of the three main domains of scholarly activity. This was something I had to wrestle with myself not too long ago when I came up for tenure here at George Mason. If you care to read my tenure statement, you can see how I parsed the digital work that I do across the categories. Thus, for instance, I claimed my work on large digital projects such as World History Sources and Women in World History as “applied research on student learning and technology” rather than as the equivalent of the book I published in 2006.

In my formal presentation to my department, I argued that these projects were roughly equivalent to a collection of essays that one might edit. After all, these two projects included dozens of essays (and hundreds of website reviews) by scholars of World History that I and my colleagues had to solicit, edit, and then publish. And taken together, these two projects won the American Historical Association’s James H. Robinson Prize, so they must have had some merit.

That I even had to make the case that they were roughly equivalent to something we already know well is evidence of how difficult the problem is.

Before we can even begin to claim that something called “digital scholarship” should count in the research domain of our professional lives, we would do well to define exactly what constitutes “scholarship.” Here, I think we have an easier task. In almost any discipline one cares to name scholarship has the following characteristics: It is the result of original research; it has an argument of some sort and that argument is situated in a preexisting conversation among scholars; it is public, it is peer reviewed; and it has an audience response.

There are exceptions, of course. A novel, a collection of poetry, a work of art, or a piece of music may all count as scholarship in certain contexts. But by and large, the characteristics I’ve described hold for most forms of scholarship.

This means that for digital scholarship to be scholarship it has to have all of these characteristics. But, as Stan Katz said in an interview I did with him for this series, digital scholarship “is a new form of scholarship.” In other words, we need to stop trying to pound the square peg of digital scholarship into the round hole of analog scholarship.

We’ll return to this crucial issue later. But for now, I think it’s easier to define what digital scholarship isn’t than to define what it is–especially because as we’ll see, it is an inherently moving target.

I think we would all agree that a course website or a series of lectures created in one’s favorite slideware program do not constitute scholarship. They may well be very scholarly, but on any campus I can think of, this sort of work falls clearly and unequivocally into the teaching domain.

Where it gets trickier is when we consider digitization projects–whether small in scale, or massive, like the Perseus Project or the Valley of Shadow. Each of these excellent and heavily used projects offers scholars, teachers, students, and the general public unique access to their content. But, as Cathy Davidson at HASTAC told me in an interview for this series, “the database is not the scholarship. The book or the article that results from it is the scholarship.” Or, I would add, the digital scholarship that results from it. In other words, I’m not willing to limit us to the old warhorses of the book or scholarly article.

I also want to emphasize that I have tremendous respect for the scholars and teams of students and staff who created these two projects–both of which I use often in my own teaching. But I also have to say that I don’t think either project can be considered “scholarship” if we use the definition I’ve proposed here.

Why not, you might well ask? The reason is fairly simple in both cases. Neither project offers an argument. Both are amazing resources, but neither advances our understanding of particular historical questions. They make it possible for that understanding to advance in ways that weren’t available before, but as Davidson says, it is what results from a project like these that is the scholarship. Thus, for instance, the article published by Valley of Shadow creators William Thomas and Edward Ayers —An Overview: The Differences Slavery Made: A Close Analysis of Two American Communities,American Historical Review, 108/5 (2003)–rises to the level of scholarship in our working definition.

In my next post, I’ll try to get to the heart of the matter–what would digital scholarship actually look like?