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March 11, 2014

Unfinished Thoughts on Digital Scholarship, Evaluation, and the Academy

Clearly, the digital turn has initiated (or perhaps expanded on, in the eyes of public historians) a shift in the way we approach, create, and share our work. Many historians are taking advantage of the fact that online tools now allow for search across vast pools of digitized content and recombinant sources from a single location quickly and efficiently. Others are utilizing various open-source and proprietary web applications—some outwardly historical, some not—that enable our students and ourselves to produce richer, more manipulable and interactive multimedia forms. And many scholars, especially public historians, recognize just how important the open web is in making the past more useful to a wider audience. Sure, technological pitfalls, steep learning curves, questions of authenticity, and pedagogical challenges exist, but the positive outcomes outweigh the negative, right? Well, apparently numerous historians and other academics have yet to fully embrace the digital revolution, or at least express varying levels of skepticism toward its democratizing potential and ability to transform the ways we account for historical scholarship.

Recent articles by Sheila Cavanagh and Bethany Nowviskie in the Journal of Digital Humanities (both English PhD’s), do a good job of illuminating—what I think—are some of the core issues for, let’s say, “junior” and “senior” scholars navigating today’s academic landscape. Both pieces evoke something of a power struggle between senior, tenured faculty used to negotiating our customary forms of mentoring and evaluation—like the closed-door, outcome-oriented tenure review processes most departments engage in—and junior,┬ánon-tenured faculty and alternative academics working on a range of non-linear digital projects that are inherently collaborative, multivalent, and openly accessible. Both of these articles call into question the very purpose of scholarly knowledge production in this ever-changing digital moment.

For starters, Sheila Cavanagh views this power struggle as one between senior faculty who do not really work in digital spaces, but maintain control over established processes of tenure promotion and peer review. Consequently, their willingness to stay behind or their inability to transcend the curve on technological scholarly advancement has inadvertently reinforced an academic landscape that serves to obstruct new, creative, and collaborative attempts to modernize our disciplinary practices. Recognizing the dire need for reformed modes of scholarly evaluation and advising, she argues that those empowered to actually make the requisite changes are failing to acknowledge the gravity of the situation. As a result, junior faculty are increasingly finding themselves “caught in a period of institutional and disciplinary transition.” Without a system in place that properly measures, develops, and supports their online scholarship, they are left to believe that building digital portfolios will not lead to meaningful professional advancement. Conversely, digitally-inclined senior faculty, protected by their tenured status, are able to enjoy the “privilege” of engaging in online scholarship without the attendant fears and anxieties that come with guaranteeing job security in the present arrangement.

Likewise, Bethany Nowviskie finds the current system of tenure and promotion to be woefully inadequate when it comes to evaluating the openly accessible, collaborative, and multimodal work that digital humanists produce. However, this is not because senior faculty are looking to preserve their privileged standing (i.e. the freedom to create digital works without fearing misguided criticism from tenure committees or the freedom to harness the institutional resources necessary to produce worthwhile digital scholarship), but because tenure and promotion committees are looking for the wrong markers of intellectual quality and rigor as they go about considering works of digital scholarship. According to Nowviskie, we should not be evaluating final outputs and products, per se, but determining whether digital projects exhibit “an evolving and continuous series of transformative processes.” As she goes on to argue, works of digital scholarship are hardly ever singular or finished projects and tenure promotion committees need to recognize that. These projects are constantly being “re-factored, remade, and extended” by a number of stakeholders, many of whom exist beyond the walls of the academy. In turn, this greatly complicates our sense of “responsibility and authorship and readiness for assessment.” Because the current system of tenure and promotion fails to provide appropriate models for reviewing digital work (a lot of it being unfinished and ongoing), we are, in effect, compelling junior scholars to engage in scholarly practices that elide the “cooperative networks of production” they worked to establish and participate in, all for the purposes of meeting a seemingly arbitrary set of evaluative criteria that misses the point of doing this kind of work in the first place.

I do not know what the best answer is when it comes to revising our antiquated modes of scholarly assessment or peer review (the latter of which, I recognize, I have hardly touched on in this piece). As an emerging historian who is eager to produce digital work that both informs and supplements traditional modes of scholarly communication, I find it more than a little disheartening that university history departments have yet to standardize an inclusive model for evaluating digital humanities research/projects/endeavors. Perhaps a good place to start the conversation is by reviewing and responding to the suggestions offered by Todd Presner and others in this Fall 2012 issue of the Journal of the Digital Humanities.

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One response to “Unfinished Thoughts on Digital Scholarship, Evaluation, and the Academy”

  1. Ruth Jones says:

    I’m wondering if there might be some parallels in other disciplines that have already embraced technology. I suspect it took awhile for the early adopters to convince the slow adopters to change. That might provide enlightenment in terms of understanding how acceptance of a new model of evaluating scholarship might evolve in the history departments.

By Will Tchakirides | RSS | © 2012 under a CC BY 3.0 license

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