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What Counts in the Historical Profession?
January 23, 2012 - 11:04am
The 126th Annual Meeting of the American Historical Association featured nearly two dozen sessions featuring work in ‘digital history’ as well as a THATCamp that remarkably included over one hundred participants. By comparison, two years ago in San Diego the self-identified digital historians managed to fit around one table at a restaurant.  One should be careful in drawing too many conclusions from just numbers, but clearly more historians are practicing a form of research, teaching, and collaboration that adopts the prefix ‘digital’. What is more contested and unclear is how colleagues view this work and, crucially, how it is counted towards hiring and tenure and promotion. This post is a way of introducing a document collaboratively produced by attendees of THATCamp AHA that calls for a reexamination of what counts in the historical profession.
The AHA’s iteration of The Humanities And Technology Camp (THAT) followed an ‘unconference’ format: informal, collaborative, and productive with no papers or panel discussions. Many first-time participants brought exciting questions, perspectives, and challenges to the meetings; two interesting reflections on THATCamp AHA include Andrew Hartman’s skepticism of ‘digital utopianism’ and Miriam Posner’s excellent response. Several participants suggested panels on promotion and graduate training, so attendees held a combined session on the topics. After discussing the challenges of acceptance for digital work and difficulties in modifying graduate curricula, several participants worked collaboratively over the following week to produce a document titled “A Call to Redefine Historical Scholarship in the Digital Turn.” The call reads as follows:
The addition of the term “digital” to the humanities signals an exciting turn spurred by both technological change and an expanded understanding of scholarship. The unprecedented number of sessions focusing on digital scholarship at the 126th Annual American Historical Association in Chicago indicates that historians are active participants in a digital revolution promoting interdisciplinary, open, and collaborative scholarship. Practitioners of digital history are producing excellent models of research, pedagogy, and public engagement. Some models unsettle our understanding of units of scholarship, such as the monograph, while others fall into the recognizable forms of journal publications and edited volumes. The encouragement and recognition of this work by peers has been important to fostering more innovation that will continue to change the field.
Digital tools are transforming the practice of history, yet junior scholars and graduate students are facing obstacles and risks to their professional advancement in using methods unrecognized as rigorous scholarly work. Their peers and evaluators are often unable or unwilling to address the scholarship on its merits. Opportunities to publish digital work, or to even have it reviewed are limited. Finally, promotion and tenure processes are largely built around 19th-century notions of historical scholarship that do not recognize or appropriately value much of this work. The disconnect between traditional evaluation and training and new digital methods means young scholars take on greater risks when dividing their limited time and attention on new methods that ultimately may not ever face scholarly evaluation on par with traditional scholarly production.
Six years ago the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS) reflected: “We might expect younger colleagues to use new technologies with greater fluency and ease, but with more at stake, they will also be more risk-adverse. . . . Senior scholars now have both the opportunity and responsibility to take certain risks, first among which is to condone risk taking in their junior colleagues and their graduate students, making sure that such endeavors are appropriately rewarded.”# Historians have responded to these difficulties by challenging promotion and tenure processes within their own institutions, developing graduate programs that train scholars in digital practices, and by experimenting with new models of peer-review in publishing.
These early adopters face difficulties in having their digital scholarship properly assessed and valued for promotion and tenure. The faculty of UCLA's Digital Humanities program have noted difficulties stemming from the fact that digital projects may not look like traditional academic scholarship. They stress that “new knowledge is not just new content but also new ways of organizing, classifying, and interacting with content. This means that a major part of the intellectual contribution of a digital project is the design of the interface, the database, and the code, all of which govern the form of the content.”# Therein lies the conundrum: the “digital turn” in the humanities is opening up exciting opportunities for complex digital scholarship, graduate programs are beginning to instruct students in the theories and methods of digital history, and institutions are hiring tenure-line faculty to pursue this new genre of scholarly communication but a concomitant evolution of the customs and standards of valuing and assessing this new model scholarship has not developed apace. Or, as the UCLA digital humanities scholars contend, “digital scholars are not only in the position of doing original research but also of inventing new scholarly platforms after 500+ years of print so fully naturalized the ‘look’ of knowledge that it may be difficult for reviewers to understand these new forms of documentation and intellectual effort that goes into developing them.” “This,” they say, “is the the dual burden—and the dual opportunity—for creativity in the digital domain.”#
Nearly two decades ago, an AHA ad hoc committee on redefining historical scholarship noted: “The AHA defines the history profession in broad, encompassing terms, but is that definition meaningful as long as only certain kinds of work are valued and deemed scholarly within our discipline?”# We are asking the American Historical Association to again take up this question, with the ACLS’s observation in mind, and begin paving the way for evaluating digital methods and training. It is essential that the AHA demonstrate leadership to encourage these solutions and to provide guidelines for a widespread institutional definition of what counts as scholarly work in the profession. An ad hoc community would be instrumental to help achieve the following:
Gather and assess data on the state of digital scholarship in the profession, such as a survey of digital humanities centers that engage in historical research, institutions that teach digital history curriculum, and a general survey of department members including chairs, directors of graduate study, faculty, and graduate students.
Evaluate the existing tenure and promotion practices of departments and their ability to recognize and fairly evaluate digital scholarship
Encourage departments to evaluate how they are training graduate students to practice or evaluate digital scholarship as a part of their regular graduate program
Issue guidelines for the evaluation of digital scholarship similar to the Modern Language Association’s 2007 “Report of the MLA Task Force on Evaluating Scholarship for Tenure and Promotion.
The merits of digital scholarship in the historical profession demand that we again ask what counts.
We are asking for signatures in support of this call to the AHA’s Research division to form an ad hoc committee to provide guidelines for recognizing digital work in tenure and promotion. Please, visit the Google Doc to add your signature at the bottom.




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