The Challenges of Digital Scholarship

A Report on the MLA Preconference on Evaluating Digital Work for Promotion and Tenure

[This is a guest post by Adeline Koh, an assistant professor of literature at Richard Stockton College, New Jersey. Her research and teaching interests are in postcolonial literature and theory, 20th century British literature, African and Southeast Asian literature, global feminist theory, and the digital humanities. She is currently the director of The Stockton Postcolonial Studies Project, an online magazine on postcolonial studies and the digital humanities. Find her on twitter at @adelinekoh. -GHW]

The call to seriously consider forms of new media such as blogging, YouTube and Twitter as part of academic scholarship is growing louder and louder. In the wake of the January Modern Language Association meeting in Seattle, Kathleen Fitzpatrick (@kfitz), the director of the MLA office of scholarly communication, blogged that people are writing in larger volumes and frequency, but in new digital forms such as email, blog posts and twitter: “I would argue that the challenge we face today in our encounter with the digital future of our fields does not come from a media culture, or a student population that refuses writing; instead, it lies in the need to recognize that the forms of writing that engage so many today are writing, and to figure out how to put those forms to work for us, rather than dismissing them as inherently frivolous and degraded.”

Fitzpatrick urged academics to consider how these forms of writing should extend past the classroom to change our understanding of scholarship for the 21st century. If we do, how will we evaluate these new forms of scholarly exchange for tenure and promotion?

This report will focus on four main issues that arose in the MLA preconference workshop on evaluating digital work for promotion and tenure run by Susan Schreibman (@schreib100), Alison Byerly (@alisonbyerly), Stephen Olson, Katherine Rowe and Victoria Szabo (@vszabo). This was the third iteration of the workshop. The first two were offered at the 2008 and the 2009 MLA meetings.

1. Educate Your Audience

Scholars with digital projects often need to explain both their work and to justify the field of the digital humanities itself. The workshop leaders reiterated many times, Make your committee’s work easy, and they will love you for it.

While this task might seem daunting, Alison Byerly reminded candidates that the goal of all scholarship should be to make a scholar’s work knowable to relevant colleagues and committees. Byerly encouraged junior scholars to think about building a review case around the question of audience: “A key aspect of review is audience. Who are the peers you are trying to reach? Who are the peers who are qualified to judge your work? Your institution will rely on these peers. You create and define your peers through your work, by addressing their interests. You are responsible for educating your audience.” Candidates should negotiate their digital projects as part of their tenure plans as early as possible, to create a hospitable environment for their work.

2. Understand that Digital Projects are Diverse

Reviewers may find the diversity within digital projects confusing. While online peer-reviewed publications and scholarly electronic editions can be assessed along traditional review guidelines, other projects require divergent evaluation structures. These projects can range from digital tools (e.g. geospatial mapping literary tools), or tools for fine textual analysis (e.g. Carnegie Mellon’s Docuscope which helps scholars scan literary texts for irregular patterns that are commonly missed by the human eye), video-books (e.g. “Learning from YouTube“, published by MIT press) and blogging for scholarship (e.g. Jason Mittell’s (@jmittell) blog JustTV) .

Whatever the project, they have to be made accessible to promotion and tenure committees. Scholars should make sure that the review committee has access to computers with the software needed to view the project. The workshop leaders also suggested the use of Anthologize, a tool for creating e-books out of blog posts, for presenting scholarly blogs to review committees in a more traditional format.

3. Document Your Role in Collaborative Projects

Traditional humanities scholarship rewards the solitary endeavor (such as the single-authored monograph) and looks askance at collaboration (e.g. edited volumes), but many digital humanities projects are often collaborative in nature. This translates to an ethos of sharing and collegiality in these environments, but the multi-author aspect of these digital projects may cause problems during evaluation.

The main issue: committees will ask exactly how much the candidate has contributed to the project. Scholars are urged to actively document their work at different stages of the project to make clear what their contribution has been, and to examine the sciences to borrow models for evaluating collaborative work.

4. Explain Changing Forms of Peer Review

Digital scholarship is increasingly putting competitive pressure on the existing peer review system as scholars start to experiment with alternative forms of review. At a session on the future of peer review, Aaron Barlow argued that “blind peer review is dead. It just doesn’t know it yet.”

One of these alternative forms of review is “post-publication” rather than “pre-publication” review. In “post-publication” forms of review, academics disseminate ideas freely on the internet first, then engage with comments as a type of “peer review” that exists “post-publication.” This occasionally results in eventual revision and publication in traditional scholarly venues. Some academic publishers are starting to experiment with this new form of peer review: in 2010 and 2011, guest editors Katherine Rowe and Sarah Werner (@wynkenhimself) of Shakespeare Quarterly placed some essays online, solicited specific peer reviewers and comments from the Internet, and used the result of this open review system to make judgements about what essays eventually to publish in what became the Fall 2010 (Rowe) and Fall 2011 (Werner) journal issues. Similarly, NYU Press published the entirety of Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s book Planned Obsolescence online before publishing it in hard cover in 2011.

Should junior scholars blog their book projects? Will this inhibit them from getting book contracts later? Will their blogs count as scholarship? Workshop participants argued that blogging a book project would associate ideas with the junior scholar’s name. One participant even compared transitioning from a blog to a book to a dissertation to book. In short: we are on the brink of a tipping point in history, where blogging is going to become the norm for the initial exchange of ideas. This can be summarized in THATCamp Coordinator Amanda French’s (@amandafrench) tweet: “A totally non peer-reviewed blog post I wrote is cited in @melissaterras‘s Happens quite often. BLOG, PEOPLE.” In other words, blog your work, but start a discussion with your committee on the challenges and changes to the peer review system.

Conclusion: The Politics of Gatekeeping

Gaining widespread acceptance for digital scholarship is still a daunting task. William Pannapacker (@pannapacker) published a Chronicle report at the end of the MLA on “Twitter as Scholarship” that received some vitriolic comments on how this represents the “trivialisation” of academic exchange. This is a sentiment that extends to many digital projects.

At the core of the anxiety caused by these new forms of scholarship is the politics of gatekeeping. These new projects demand that review committees learn a new set of skills, language, jargon and criteria for determining what constitutes merit.

These challenges are both important and productive. They encourage new, heated and serious debate as to what constitutes standards of excellence in the humanities. The answers to these questions cannot be easily answered, and require the interrogation of many of our long-held beliefs about value and relevance. By challenging us to rethink our notions of merit, digital work will ultimately lead to strengthening our understanding and configuration of the profession.

Additional Resources

The MLA preconference workshop leaders provided links to some useful resources. This includes an open access wiki containing all notes handouts and case studies from the workshop. Scholars may find some of the language used by authors from the individual case studies useful in presenting their work.

Other useful links include the MLA guidelines for evaluating work with digital media, the MLA statement on electronic journals and the 2011 issue of the Profession containing many articles on evaluating digital scholarship and is freely available online. Readers may also find the NINES Summer Institute Guidelines to Evaluating Digital Scholarship and the ACLS Report on cyberinfrastructure in the humanities and social sciences informative.

Other helpful links:

[Creative Commons-licensed flickr photo "Rainbow Phoenix Tutu" by D. Sharon Pruitt]

Return to Top