Tenure in a Digital Era

MLA and humanities consortium start effort to be sure scholars up for promotion receive fair evaluations of electronic contributions -- and to give peer review a needed update.
May 26, 2009

Among the "horror stories" Rosemary Feal has heard: Assistant professors who work in digital media and whose tenure review panels insist on evaluating them by printing out selected pages of their work. "It's like evaluating an Academy Award entry based on 20 film stills," said Feal, executive director of the Modern Language Association.

Such horror stories abound. Even as the use of electronic media has become common across fields for research and teaching, what is taken for granted among young scholars is still foreign to many of those who sit on tenure and promotion committees. In an effort to confront this problem, the MLA and a consortium called the Humanities, Arts, Science and Technology Advanced Collaboratory have decided to find new ways to help departments evaluate the kinds of digital scholarship being produced today. The MLA ran a program for department chairs at last year's annual meeting in which chairs were given digital scholarship to evaluate, and that will take place again this year.

MLA and HASTAC (as the humanities consortium is known, with the acronym pronounced "haystack") are preparing guides (in the form of a wiki, an early version of which may be found here, but which will move to the MLA site) that will offer guidance for departments on approaches used by various colleges to evaluate digital scholarship, resources available to scholars wanting to get a take on some project, and policies that could be adopted to assure the fair treatment of those coming up for tenure.

In many respects, organizers of the effort say, this shift isn't just about the digital era, but about tenure committees being forced to learn much more about candidates and how their work was evaluated than has been the norm for decades. So many tenure decisions have been made on the basis of assuming that a university press has a sound peer review system -- and one that can be relied upon -- that tenure has been outsourced, some say. Now, new models of scholarship are forcing these committees to closely consider how they know a candidate is producing good work.

"A big part of the problem is that for the past 50 years, what people have done on promotion and tenure committees is to say 'OK, this was accepted by Cambridge University Press. I don't need to read it because I know it's quality,'" said Laura Mandell, a professor of English literature at Miami University and incoming chair of the MLA's Information Technology Committee. "That's been the shortcut we've been using. In the past, we have been paying presses to do our promotion decisions."

The MLA has been raising concerns for years now on the overreliance of departments on monographs as the primary measure of a junior professor's scholarship. The association's 2006 report on tenure and promotion explicitly called on departments to be more open to scholarship that is digital or in other ways differs from the norm of a traditional book. Feal characterized the current effort as one of "turning theory into practice" by making sure departments have the tools to evaluate digital scholarship.

One reason for the new effort is that shifts in publishing may make it impossible for a growing number of academics to submit traditional tenure dossiers. With many university presses in financial trouble and others -- notably the University of Michigan Press -- turning to electronic publishing for monographs, there will be fewer possibilities for someone to be published in the traditional print form that was once the norm for tenure.

While those working on the effort stress that this is a work in process (and one they hope will evolve as more scholars become evolved), several themes were consistent in discussions with those playing roles in the project:

Material shouldn't be judged inferior when it is identical to traditional work in every way except medium. To those involved in this effort, the "easy questions" involve scholarship that is essentially the same except for being digital. If a university press publishes a monograph in digital form only, or if a peer reviewed journal shifts from print to online, there should be no presumptions that anything has altered the quality, they said.

"That should be a given now," but unfortunately that isn't always the case, said Timothy Murray, director of the Society for the Humanities and a professor of comparative literature and English at Cornell University. He recounted a senior colleague recently telling him that the shift to digital would create inherent sacrifices in quality, and Murray said it was important for the MLA and others to rebut that view.

New systems are needed to evaluate scholarship that is unique in digital form. This is the greater challenge, participants said, but must be confronted now. In his career, Murray say, he has curated multimedia art, founded an archive of new media art, and moderated an electronic discussion list, among other activities. "We need to find ways for these kinds of efforts to be acknowledged and recognized," he said. Murray noted that he moved into such activities after winning tenure and producing the kind of traditional form scholarship that leads to tenure, but that the generation of new Ph.D.'s shouldn't have to wait to pursue digital scholarship.

One way to reach faculty traditionalists, Murray noted, may be to show that they in fact have a tradition of evaluating scholarship that deviates from the strict monograph model, and that such deviation hasn't hurt the peer review process. For example, he noted that scholars who edit a critical edition of a literary work are doing a different kind of work from someone who writes a literary analysis of that work -- but that both can receive credit during reviews.

Peer review matters -- and needs to involve people who understand the work. Feal and others stressed that their push is not against peer review, but against the idea that it involves only written reports about scholarship in printed form. "Peer review has only one essential characteristic -- and that is distinguished experts in the field doing the evaluation. That's it," she said. She noted that she was recently asked to submit a "video statement" on her evaluation of a language consortium.

Feal also said that good peer review differentiates between exemplary and poor scholarship, but that these determinations must come from people who understand the field. People who work with technology today face some of the challenges faced by the pioneers of women's studies, ethnic studies and other fields that came into prominence in the 1960s and 70s. "It's very often incumbent on individual scholars to make the case that their work has a history, has standards, that there are experts who can help in the process," she said. "We have often seen scholars say 'I don't understand this field. This field didn't exist when I was a Ph.D. candidate.' "

The new MLA-HASTAC effort wants to publicize the existence of and encourage the development of more peer review entities that focus on digital work in the humanities. One such effort seen as a model is NINES, which is a Web site with links to peer review digital resources of various kinds in nineteenth-century studies. The editorial boards that conduct the reviews don't just understand technology, but are grouped by traditional scholarly categories (in this case, there are separate boards for Americanists, Romantics and Victorians). While the scholarship is all online, the editorial structure resembles what one might find in a traditional journal or academic department, with experts reviewing their own areas.

Mandell said she would like to see digital journals let the world know about the scholars who make editorial decisions -- and about rejection rates. These factors confer authority on traditional journals and in this way peer review can bolster digital scholarship as well, she said.

Digital work doesn't fall neatly into teaching vs. research categories. Many tenure review procedures are based on an assumption that a junior professor's work can be divided easily into teaching, research and service. Feal noted that one of the exciting aspects of the new digital projects being created is that they advance scholarship and create teaching tools at the same time. Professors shouldn't be forced to pick between one category and another. Similarly, those involved in this project say that some college departments just categorize anything digital as service, a solution seen as unsatisfactory because many of these project are in fact focused on scholarship and teaching, and because service typically doesn't count for much in tenure reviews.

Leaders of the MLA-HASTAC effort stressed that they were not "anti-book" and indeed those involved have published in both traditional and non-traditional ways. Rather, they said that it was inherently unfair to have younger scholars being evaluated by people who may not understand their work or its media -- and it was unrealistic to expect tenure committees to evaluate digital scholarship without some education. "We're trying to help people figure out what you do with digital objects that need to be evaluated," Mandell said.

Part of the process -- in addition to sharing the horror stories -- will be noting success stories. Some colleges and departments are already doing a good job of such evaluations, and they need more attention, Mandell said. She noted that when she was promoted to full professor, which traditionally would have taken place upon completion of a book, she was advanced for her work as editor of a peer-reviewed scholarly project, The Poetess Archive.


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