Yesterday, I gave a talk for Emory University’s Center for Faculty Development and Excellence at an event called “Scholarly Writing in the Digital Milieu.” Since my slides seemed to strike a chord when I shared them, I thought I’d post the talk itself.
The talk is based on an article I wrote for a journal and is a meditation on the challenges that I, as a new tenure-track faculty member, consider in relation to digital scholarship.
For an excellent piece on specific strategies for evaluating digital scholarship for tenure, I recommend Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s talk, “Evolving Standards and Practices in Tenure and Promotion Reviews.”
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I’m going to talk a bit about the difficulties of doing digital humanities scholarship in the academy right now.
Double-blind peer review processes remain the gold standard for validating scholarly work. The value accrued by scholarship has traditionally flowed mono-directionally from peer review. In the hierarchies that govern academic hiring and tenure and promotion practices, the single-authored monograph from the distinguished scholarly press sent out for review upon completion occupies a position of prominence. Among shorter forms, the academic journal provides readily legible markers of academic quality.
Yet, for scholars working in digital formats or within digital humanities, conventions governing the gatekeeping of “scholarly” work feel increasingly mismatched to the digital milieu. Therefore, digital scholarship requires consideration of the factors distinguishing it from print scholarship, along with a new approach to validating scholarship that emerges from and respects the specificities of digital work.
Rethinking peer review in the age of digital academe goes beyond questions of medium or platform to a question of epistemology. “Digital scholarship” is not simply print scholarship gone digital but raises questions of genre and gives rises to its own conventions.
One of the first interventions of digital platforms for academic work came from “e-journals,” or born-digital academic journals. E-journals engendered many responses, from skepticism to excitement, accompanied by concern that the digital would decrease scholarly merit – as though there were little distinction between an academic journal online, with a review board and review process, and a blog. Yet, many e-journals reproduce the hierarchies and values of print knowledge, relying on traditional notions of what academic work looks like.
However, scholarly publishing has responded to the affordances of the digital: we have seen greater interest in open access and a boom in new journals using digital platforms to distribute articles ahead of the publication lags that accompany born-print journals, as well as platforms like Scalar that integrate digital scholarship and public commentary.
“Digital scholarship” is its own animal, a chimera that defies the conventions of print scholarship. Three principle differences between digital and print scholarship in the humanities require a radical revision to how we review and assess scholarly production and to how scholarly work accrues value: digital scholarship is often collaborative, digital scholarship is rarely finished, and digital scholarship is frequently “public.”
While creation and distribution of print knowledge in the humanities is usually a solitary task, digital scholarship is often collaborative, challenging the familiar image of the print academic in her hermitage, toiling in obscurity. Greater frequency of collaboration in digital scholarship is a function of platform. Producing digital scholarship requires us to draw not only on the interpretive skills in which we were trained but a range of skills we may not possess, particularly as they pertain to the use and development of digital components of scholarship. Moreover, digital scholarship requires perhaps the most valuable of commodities for academics: time. Since digital scholarship has questionable value for tenure and promotion, those of us who work in the digital milieu must steal time from work that’s more likely to get us tenure or promotion to advance our projects. These challenges are even more acute for those of us with higher teaching loads and fewer institutional resources to support our research. Despite the efficiency of combining skills and human capital, collaboration, while expected in scientific or social science fields, raises concerns within the humanities, particularly over how to evaluate individual contributions to collaborative projects for tenure and promotion.
The adage for born-print scholarship is that it is never finished – it is abandoned. While this is true of digital scholarship as well, digital projects may exist in phases, may be perpetually in-progress, and may never have an acceptable stopping point. The end point for digital scholarship is frequently a moving target, and there is often no single event in the process of creating digital scholarship that is comparable to the act of submitting a manuscript for review. Therefore, digital projects require new approaches to linear conventions of scholarly time. For example, completion of a phase of a digital project may be an appropriate moment for evaluation. Yet, such assessments will unlikely be the conferral of a mark of scholarly validation on the project but the source of additional information and feedback that might, in turn, be folded into the next phase of the project. Further, digital projects are difficult for search committees or tenure and promotion committees to compare to print scholarship because a CV line identifying a digital project cannot adequately communicate the amount of intellectual labor the project represents and digital projects may require ongoing efforts for sustainability and preservation, whereas books and articles are presumed to be finished.
Although more academics have taken to blogging and social media, scholarship in the humanities relies largely on private labor. Public components of print scholarship are prescribed by academic ritual: invited talks, symposia, conference panels. Conversely, digital scholarship, particularly projects engaging web-based infrastructure, often become public early in development. This is in part because of the affordances of a web presence for digital work, the orientation of digital humanities work towards praxis, and the fact that many tools and platforms are web-based. Whereas a scholar producing a print article can delay making the work public for as long as she wishes, there is often relatively less agency for the digital scholar. Differentials of privacy and publicness for print and digital scholarship cleave to the levels of status and prestige they accrue. Print scholarship, usually not open access, lives within academic spaces, behind gatekeepers like paywalls, databases, and library archives. Its privacy is guaranteed by barriers that accrue capital for distributors. Conversely, digital scholarship may be relatively more easily available, without the mediating force of transactional capital preventing access. The monetary barriers to accessing print scholarship accord it quantifiable financial value – albeit one that provides returns for the gatekeeper rather than the author – and with financial value print scholarship accrues intellectual value. Thus the “publicness” of digital scholarship grants it relatively less value in the academic machine.
Based on these descriptors, digital scholarship threatens to displace a benign sort of academic who does not trouble the value and status of print knowledge and who reproduces the fetishism of print that undergirds academic disciplines. The digital scholar, then, is a radical actor, part of a growing trend in academic discourse prevalent enough to require rethinking of the production of academic value.
There are, in fact, ways to make the value of digital scholarship legible to tenure and promotion committees and to search committees. For example, tracking citations, grants, and usage statistics demonstrates engagement with digital projects in a way that is not necessarily available for print scholarship. On the DHCommons editorial board, we are working to develop a review journal for digital projects that takes into account the specificities of digital scholarship. Anvil Academic, a partnership between CLIR and NITLE, is pioneering a platform for digital publishing that would be an indicator of peer review for digital projects. Efforts continue to define evaluation for digital work. Perhaps the most important insight when encountering digital scholarship, however, is to attend to the particulars of the digital – the possibilities for collaboration, new approaches to completion, and its public nature – viewing these not as limitations but affordances.