Getting (Digital) Respect

April 30, 2012

Vague expressions of support for digital work aren't enough today when it comes to evaluating faculty members. That's the clear message of new guidelines issued by the Modern Language Association on how digital contributions should be evaluated in hiring, tenure and promotion decisions.

"Institutions and departments should develop written guidelines so that faculty members who create, study, and teach with digital objects; engage in collaborative work; or use technology for pedagogy can be adequately and fairly evaluated and rewarded," says the MLA guidance. "The written guidelines should provide clear directions for appointment, reappointment, merit increases, tenure, and promotion and should take into consideration the growing number of resources for evaluating digital scholarship and the creation of born-digital objects. Institutions should also take care to grant appropriate credit to faculty members for technology projects in teaching, research, and service."

And the guidelines make clear that digital work may not always fit neatly into one traditional box of a faculty member's portfolio, and that departments need to be flexible. "Because many projects cross the boundaries between these traditional areas, faculty members should receive proportional credit in more than one relevant area for their intellectual work," say the guidelines.

Faculty members in humanities disciplines have been pioneers in many forms of digital scholarship and teaching. But many have complained for years that some of their departments don't have a clue how to evaluate such work, and that some senior scholars are downright hostile to it. Many have urged disciplinary groups to issue statements such as the one that the MLA has now released, hoping to guide departments into giving fair credit for this work.

The last statement from the MLA on this topic was nearly 12 years ago. But the association has been pushing for more discussion of these issues. In this year's edition of Profession, an MLA journal, a series of essays addressed the topic, with several of them calling for formal systems to assure appropriate evaluation for digital work. In one of the essays, Steve Anderson and Tara McPherson, professors of cinematic arts at the University of Southern California, write that "a broad shift toward the acceptance of digital work may still be more imagined than real, particularly when it comes to promotion and tenure."

The MLA guidelines urge departments and other review panels to do four key things in evaluating digital scholarship:

  • "Delineate and communicate responsibilities." When departments are seeking job candidates who work in digital media, "explicit reference to such work should be included in job descriptions, and candidates should be apprised of their responsibilities relative to this work," the guidelines says. "When candidates wish to have digital work considered an integral part of their positions, the department should make clear to candidates at the time of hiring its expectations for such work and for the candidate’s productivity, its responsibilities in supporting such work, and how it plans to give recognition to the work."
  • "Engage qualified reviewers." Professors who produce digital work "should be evaluated by persons practiced in the interpretation and development of new forms and who are knowledgeable about the use and creation of digital media in a given faculty member’s field." This is such an important principle, the guidelines suggest, that "at times this may be possible only by engaging qualified reviewers from other departments, divisions, or institutions."
  • "Respect medium specificity." Panels evaluating scholarly work scholarly work "should foreground medium specificity by reviewing faculty members’ work in the medium for which it was produced. For example, born-digital and Web-based projects are often spatial, interactive, iterative, and networked. If possible, they should be viewed in electronic form, not in print or as snapshots of dynamic behavior."
  • Track accessibility issues. "Search, reappointment, promotion, and tenure committees have a responsibility to comply with federal regulations and to become and remain informed of technological innovations that permit persons with disabilities to conduct research and carry out other professional responsibilities effectively," the guidelines say.

Those applying for jobs or promotions also have responsibilities in the process of assuring fair evaluation of digital work, the guidelines say. They encourage faculty members to ask for evaluation and support, and to negotiate over how their work will be judged.

In particular the guidelines call on those working in digital media to explain "the results, theoretical underpinnings, and intellectual rigor of their work." These professors are urged to make clear that they are "prepared to be held accountable to the same extent that faculty members in other fields are for showing the relevance of their work in terms of the traditional areas of teaching, research, and service."

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