Thinking Digital with External Review Materials

For many, the academic tenure process begins over the summer. Even if your institution’s internal review process and material submissions seem to be lurking months away in August or September, the process of preparing for and submitting materials for external review is likely already underway or on the summer to-do list. Just picking a list of external reviewers can be a challenge: Nels wrote a great post a few years ago discussing the process of selecting appropriate reviewers, and Karen Kelsky has a great advice post on external tenure letters (as well as a post addressing what to do in the event of a negative review.) But the challenges don’t end after letter writers are chosen and agree to the review: depending on your institution, you may receive extensive guidance on the exact format of materials to send to these reviewers, or you might be on your own.

Scholars such as myself working in experimental and born-digital formats have an additional challenge in this process: representing work that is meant for interaction can be challenging when compiling a traditional binder. Many universities have moved to digital tenure processes, which comes as a relief to those of us working in these forms, although the emphasis on PDFs can present similar hurdles. If your institution offers flexibility in external review materials, this can be an opportunity to make sure such work is showcased in a clear and accessible digital format. Sherman Dorn’s classic post on applying for tenure cautions: “This is not the place to write your postmodern novel or to force your senior colleagues to learn how to navigate your uniquely-constructed website. (Yes, electronic documentation is possible, but it should be organized in a way that’s easy to understand.)”

This is important and daunting advice: if you have material that lends itself to digital presentation, building a web-based interface can be a straightforward way to organize external review materials. One of the best examples of this approach I’ve seen is Cheryl Ball’s WordPress-based Academic Portfolio: she also created a video discussing her motivations for using a digital portfolio, and its value to allowing the evaluation of multimodal and other nontraditional scholarship. Contacting scholars in your field from other institutions who’ve recently gone through the tenure process (or forming a support group with fellow tenure-seekers in the same year!) is a great way to find examples relevant to your own work, as due to publication copyrights such materials are often password-protected or locally shared.

If you’re thinking of building a portal or WordPress site for your external review materials, keeping Dorn’s caution of easy to understand navigation in mind is crucial. Consider both usability and accessibility. As I worked on preparing my own simple hypertext index page for my materials, I decided to use Google’s Material Design, which offers a standardized set of best practices, icons, and components that will already be very familiar to web users. I particularly recommend Materialize, a front-end framework based on Material Design that makes it easy to construct simple responsive pages — there are a number of WordPress themes already available based on Material Design. Ethan Marcotte’s article on responsive design with frameworks is a worthwhile read if you want to get deeper into the design.

This emphasis on organization also applies to working in more traditional digital formats –a hyperlinked, clearly indexed set of PDFs is much easier to navigate than a giant PDF document with page number references, for instance. I highly recommend getting several people to try to navigate your external review materials before you send them out, even if the format seems straightforward or conventional.

Have you prepared external review materials for showcasing digital or non-traditional work? Share your tips in the comments!

[Lego computer flickr photo by Matt From London shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

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