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In evaluating digital humanities, enthusiasm may outpace best practices

The Promotion That Matters
January 4, 2012

On the eve of the Modern Language Association’s annual convention, the cachet of the “digital humanities” has permeated the academic mainstream so conspicuously that one hesitates to put the words in quotation marks.

Self-appointed humanities ambassador Stanley Fish counts “upward of 40 sessions” with a digital theme. Writing in The New York Times, Fish says this technological renaissance has, for many humanists, supplanted postmodernism as the great, nebulous redeemer of their long-suffering professions. Digital mavens are the toast of the National Endowment for the Humanities, as data-mining has brought scientific clout to literary and historical analysis and virtual representations promise to make humanities topics more accessible and immediate to nonacademics.

This is all to say that digital humanities have “arrived,” for all intents and purposes — save a very important one: tenure and promotion.

According to a new series of essays by prominent digital humanists, commissioned by the MLA journal Profession and made freely available in advance of this week’s convention, humanities disciplines have acknowledged (to the point of redundancy) the need for a system for evaluating professors whose output is nontraditional and erected on the strange soil of the digital landscape.

But practical change has come more slowly. While the work of digital humanists increasingly is seen as indispensable, it also remains impenetrable to most of their colleagues who sit on tenure committees, say the Profession essayists.

Important parts of the theoretical foundation have been poured — by the College Arts Association, the American Historical Association and the MLA itself, as well as by various manifesto-writing individuals. Yet “a broad shift toward the acceptance of digital work may still be more imagined than real, particularly when it comes to promotion and tenure,” write Steve Anderson and Tara McPherson, professors of cinematic arts at the University of Southern California.

And so the classic criticism of academic humanities — that they spend more time navel-gazing than solving tangible problems — turns out to be applicable to how academic departments have approached the problem of how to account for the merits of those who do the majority of their writing in the post-postmodern language of computer programmers and network architects.

Geoffrey Rockwell, a professor of philosophy at the University of Alberta, recalls going to bat for a colleague whose tenure evaluation had come up. Rockwell says he had prepared to petition the committee to take his colleague’s digital work seriously, only to find that he was preaching to the choir; the committee members all had copies of a 2006 MLA task force report that advocated for an inclusive view on digital humanities scholarship.

“I discovered I had prepared the wrong case,” Rockwell says. “The problem was no longer convincing others that digital work should be scholarly; the problem was that colleagues are unsure how to evaluate digital work…. Colleagues and chairs are willing to entertain the case theoretically, but in practical terms they don’t know how to get started....”

Tenure committees still balk when evaluating digital humanists, says Rockwell: not for lack of will, but of methodology.

There is the immediate problem of assessing the quality of a candidate’s “published” work. The dominant mode in humanities scholarship over the last 50 years has been criticism, point out three other contributors — Susan Schreibman, of Trinity College (Dublin), Laura Mandell, of Texas A&M University, and Stephen Olsen, of the MLA — in the introduction to the Profession essays.

A committee of humanist scholars who cut their own teeth critically analyzing texts might be ill-equipped to bring those skills to bear in assessing “those works that address their audience differently, that often have no beginning or end and are therefore frustrating to read,” says Rockwell. Not all digital humanities projects function this way, but many works in the subgenus of “hypermedia and new media works” — such as interactive and game-based research and learning tools — “are a nightmare to review and publish because they are experimental and because they are often technically idiosyncratic,” says Rockwell.

Digital humanities projects can differ from traditional critical vessels not only in the sense of being nonlinear or software-based, but also by making their theoretical arguments implicitly rather than explicitly, note Anderson and McPherson, who also co-edit the digital humanities journal Vectors. They point to Critical Commons, an open-source, user-generated archive of film clips with accompanying text and voiceover commentary, which Anderson developed and opened in 2009. By requiring users to overdub criticism that “substantively transforms or re-contextualizes the original work,” Critical Commons provides both a platform for sharing humanities research and a workaround to copyright proscriptions that normally would hinder scholars from sharing the primary sources.

“When evaluating Critical Commons as an academic resource, some might conclude that the platform is a pedagogical or advocacy project,” Anderson and McPherson write, “but such an evaluation fails to understand that, in its very design, the platform enacts an argument about the importance of fair use for intellectual inquiry and also undergirds an emerging paradigm of open research.”

Beyond assessing a scholar’s finished work (it is worth noting that one theme of digital scholarship is that it is often never “finished”), traditional humanities scholars might have a hard time gauging the scholarly chops of their digital colleagues because the process of creating a game, or tool, or database is foreign to them. “They are being asked to evaluate a type of scholarship they haven’t had any experience creating, and they can’t therefore imagine the research done to create it,” says Rockwell.

Deciding whether to keep a faculty member on staff for life, or to elevate her to a position of greater authority in her department, involves not just reflecting on their completed portfolio but also having some sense of what kind of work she can be expected to do over the course of her appointment, says Rockwell.

“That is hard,” he says, “when you don’t have the experience to assess what digital humanists are doing.”

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