Tag Archives: Peer Review

THATCamp and All That

I’m at THATCamp today and tomorrow at CHNM, where we have more than 70 people interested in digital humanities all gathered in an “unconference” where the interests of the group determined the topics and schedule for the day. As a historian, I don’t think I can express how happy I am that the participants are not reading papers. If the AHA meetings were anything like this, the membership would actually start to think that sessions were worth attending.

The first session of the day that I attended was a wide-ranging discussion of teaching and digital humanities. Because I arrived late (the hazard of attending a conference/camp in your home town), I can’t really say too much about the discussion. But toward the end the discussion turned to how to make digital work “count” toward tenure and promotion in the ways that more conventional things (books, articles, student end-of-semester evaluations of teaching) count.

This business of “counting” seems to come up over and over and over at any gathering of people trying to innovate in higher education. It happens when people interested in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning come together. It happens when people working in digital humanities come together. And I’d be willing to bet that it happens when people doing service learning or field studies come together.

If there were an easy solution to this problem, we’d have come up with it already. I wish I could be more optimistic, but in history at least, I think we’re still a full scholarly generation (10-15 years) away from digital history actually “counting” the ways that other scholarship counts. Why? Reference my earlier comment about historians reading their papers at conferences. We are perhaps the most conservative and fussy tribe in academia. And until we, as a community of scholars, decide to be less fussy, less conservative, people on this particular part of the cutting edge of our discipline, this kind of work just isn’t going to “count” the same way a book or a peer-reviewed currently do.

And so, we’re doomed to keep expressing our angst about it all for at least another decade. But once more of us sit on tenure and promotion committees, things will change…slowly, because we’re historians. But change they will.

The Archives Wiki

[This post appeared originally on the collaborative blog hist.net.]

The American Historical Association has created an Archives Wiki that allows historians to collect and share information about archives around the world in a wiki format.

The Archives Wiki project is built on the MediaWiki platform and aims to leverage the collective knowledge and experience of historians and other archive users to create an important resource for anyone planning archival research. Registered and validated users can create entries on any library that they choose, or can elaborate current entries.

This latter feature is one that researchers will find especially useful, because it permits researchers to create up to the minute updates on what is (or isn’t) happening in a particular archive. Almost every researcher has had the experience of going to an archive, only to find that the collection he or she wants is being reindexed, or that the archive has closed for the week (or the month!) for renovations. If this project takes off, as I suspect it will (especially among younger researchers), then those planning a visit to a particular archive can know what is happening at their destination in something like real time. This alone makes the project worth participating in.

Already the site includes information on more than 100 archives, mostly in the United States. Sample entries in this newly created project include the American Library of Congress and the German Historical Association in Washington, D.C. Neither of these entries is anywhere close to complete and users of the site are encouraged to dive right in and add to, edit, or change these entries, or to create an entry on their own favorite archive.

This project is in its earliest stages and so it is difficult to assess how well it will work. But I certainly hope that scholars beyond the shores of North America will join in and add to the growing store of information in this project.

Can Higher Education Be Open Source? (2)

Yesterday I speculated that the open source model in the software world is going to undermine the basic delivery system for higher education in the United States (and perhaps elsewhere). Today I want to consider what, exactly, a transformed system of education might look like.

What is the purpose of the college degree? It seems to me that there are several: to provide some assurance that the degree holder has mastered some body of knowledge (at least as much as we would expect from four years of college); to provide access to a more or less privileged elite called the alumni; and to provide a convenient stopping point on the way to even greater mastery of some body of knowledge. College has to end at some point, so why not after 120 credits?

There are many impediments making it difficult to complete those 120 credits and one of the chief problems that students complain about is the fact that “My university doesn’t offer a course in X” or, in the same vein, “I need to take Latin American nationalism before I graduate, but Professor Y is on leave this whole year!”

So imagine an open source solution to either of these problems. The weary student, trying desperately to graduate on time, finds out that Princeton, or Stanford, or the University of Missouri-Rolla offers that course in X that she needs, or that Professor Y’s PhD adviser is teaching a course on Latin American nationalism, and that these courses are available, in their entirety online–lectures, study guides, reading lists, paper assignments, the works.

So, our enterprising student goes to the chair of the history department and says, “I’ve found an open source solution to my problem.” Aghast, the department chair protests, “But you won’t have actually taken the class.”

But what if our enterprising student did everything for the class, including writing the papers, doing all the reading, watching all the lectures, etc., etc.? Couldn’t someone in the history department grade those papers? Maybe even give her an exam?

Or, alternatively, the history department might say to its majors that they needed to demonstrate mastery of some certain set of content and that they could do so in two ways: the traditional method of taking some number of history courses, or the open source method of acquiring a body of knowledge and being tested on it. If our enterprising student passes the history departments exam(s), then she earns her degree. If not, then it’s back to the books.

It’s a crazy idea, I know, largely because it’s such a blend of old school and new media. Once upon a time, not that long ago, before universities became knowledge guilds, students “read” a subject and were examined on it. If they passed, they graduated. But “back in the day” (as my students are so fond of saying) readers in history at University X were limited to the professors who taught there. Tomorrow’s students will have access to a virtually unlimited number of professors.

It’ll never work, right?

Ah, but it does. I think it’s safe to say that the legal profession is pretty conservative when it comes to professional qualifications. But four states (California, Vermont, Virginia, and Washington) allow would-be attorneys to take the bar exam without ever having attended law school. Aspiring attorneys in those states have to “read the law” with a judge for some period of time, but then can take the bar and if they pass, they are attorneys.

So, it turns out my proposition is not so radical after all…All we need is a history department (and a university) willing to embrace open source education as an option, and our enterprising student can craft an amazingly exciting educational experience.

At the AHA — Sanctions Needed

The American Historical Association needs to figure out a way to start imposing sanctions on departments that do what I just witnessed at the annual meeting’s headquarters hotel.

In the section on interviewing in the Association’s Guidelines for the Hiring Process,  point #4 reads: “Interviews should take place in a professional setting. The AHA strongly urges institutions interviewing at the AHA annual meeting to use the facilities provided through the Job Register.”

The last time I checked, a table in the hotel lobby Starbucks at 8:00 a.m. with about 30 people standing in line and watching is not a “professional setting.” I have no idea which history department was guilty of forcing some poor graduate student or recent PhD to humiliate herself by answering questions about her research and her teaching while dozens–dozens–of people looked on (all of us trying not to look). If it wouldn’t have made a bad situation worse, I would have insisted on a business card from one of the people involved so that I could name them and thus shame them.

Over the years I have seen interviews take place in hotel lobbies or in restaurants off site, but never, ever in the lobby coffee shop during the busiest hour of the day. Whoever those two historians were who were conducting that interview were doing one of the most unprofessional things I’ve seen in more than 15 years in this business.

Sanctioning departments is not easy for professional associations that depend on paying members to finance their budgets, but I submit that the AHA has no business allowing members to use the platform of the annual meeting to engage in such unprofessional conduct. If I had a magic wand, I would bar that department from participating in the annual meeting, or any other AHA sanctioned activity (including publication in the American Historical Review or Perspectives) for one year.

One might argue that to sanction an entire department would unfairly penalize others in that department who were not in attendance at the meeting. My response to that is that departments share collective responsibility for their hiring practices and so should suffer the consequences of the choices they make.

Everyone who has been through the job market in history knows how chaotic, irrational, and stressful it can be. To suffer the humiliation I just witnessed, though, is simply beyond the pale.