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Jim Grossman

American Historical Association

Textbooks, congressional testimony, media appearances, historical gaming—the American Historical Association is urging universities to accept more types of work from candidates for hiring, promotion, tenure and other benefits.

It’s a development historians say follows movement—particularly within the field of public history—toward broader recognition. That field involves work regarding national parks, museums, documentaries, archives and historic preservation.

“Historians who were being hired in academic positions to act as public historians were essentially, you know, serving two masters,” said Gregory Smoak, immediate past president of the National Council on Public History.

Smoak said their work as public historians “simply did not count for promotion and tenure. It was devalued in the academic rewards system, and there was even a previous American Historical Association group that worked on this back in the ’90s.”

He said he has seen “incremental” progress since a 2010 report. But he has also had young colleagues dissuaded from certain work “by the fear that they won’t finish that book.”

“More and more we are trying to express the value of the humanities to communities,” he said. “And, more and more, people are saying, ‘I would love to do that kind of work, and if I do that kind of work it could be a career killer.’”

The American Historical Association’s new “Guidelines for Broadening the Definition of Historical Scholarship,” approved by the association's council in January and published in the latest edition of its Perspectives on History magazine, suggests this broadening not just for public history, but history over all. The guidelines aren’t specific on the important question of how to assess these various kinds of output for tenure, promotion and other decisions, but, they say, “there is no reason such work cannot be peer-reviewed after publication.”

“In most history departments, ‘scholarship’ has traditionally and primarily encompassed books, journal articles and book chapters, and papers presented at conferences,” writes Jim Grossman, the association’s executive director, in the magazine. “The weight and significance of each of these vary considerably by institution. The most valued coin of the realm remains not just the book—especially for early and midcareer scholars—but a particular kind of book known only in academia and scholarly publishing as a ‘monograph.’”

“Accessibility too often matters too little, and writing for a broader audience can even be viewed as a negative,” Grossman writes.

“Historical work that lies outside the frame often includes activities most likely to influence public policy or enhance the presence of historians in public culture,” he writes.

Grossman, an outspoken critic of attempts to curtail schools’ teaching of shameful aspects of U.S. history, writes that “If we believe that historical thinking and knowledge should inform public policy, then we need to make our work accessible to policymakers and influencers.”

He told Inside Higher Ed his work toward this broadening predates recent Republican actions, but he said recent controversies around history education “certainly remind us how important it is for historians to be working in a wide variety of genres to better communicate with the public.”

“This broader landscape of historical scholarship might now include [but is not limited to] textbooks, official histories, reference books, op-eds, blog posts, magazine articles, museum exhibitions, public lectures, congressional testimony, oral history projects, expert witness testimony, media appearances, podcasts and historical gaming,” he writes. “Rather than attempt a comprehensive list of genres, the guidelines proposed here are intended to be expansive and flexible enough to accommodate forms we have yet to anticipate. What the forms thus far envisioned have in common is that they can be peer-reviewed after the work has been disseminated.”

Asked what is meant by “historical gaming,” Grossman said, “I’ll be quite honest: I’m not sure.”

“This is a new landscape of historical work,” he said. “Historians have started being advisers to and creators of online games that are historical in their nature. Obviously, a lot of what you see out there I would not describe as scholarship, but it clearly has become possible to do scholarship in that way.”

“We write in a certain type of narrative style, some of us, where our goal is for the reader to enmesh themselves in the experience that we’re writing about,” he said. “And digital historical scholarship has been able to take that to another level, that experience, but gaming allows people to participate or to try to understand what it would be like to participate.”

“I have no idea how to evaluate it,” he said. “What we’re trying to say to departments is consider it. Let’s not rule things out until we understand better what they are.”

The guidelines do caution against certain ways of evaluating these perhaps more popular forms of history.

“With some exceptions and the occasional time lag, the impact of work directed toward scholarly audiences usually aligns with quality,” Grossman writes. “This is not necessarily true for publicly engaged scholarship, whose influence sometimes derives more from marketing, sensational modes of presentation, catering to prejudices, financial resources and other factors unrelated to quality. Evaluation that considers public impact should, in all cases, include scrutiny of how such impact was attained, and maintain the standards of scholarship equal to those expected of other eligible formats.”

University history departments are at different stages of responding to these guidelines. The University of Michigan at Ann Arbor and Indiana University at Bloomington say they have already made recent moves toward broadening what’s considered in promotion and tenure.

Jessica Elfenbein, chairwoman of the University of South Carolina’s history department, said, “We have an old and storied public history program now in its 48th year, so we have been aware of a lot of these issues.”

“Because we’ve done the work for so long, it has infused at least to some degree the culture of this department,” Elfenbein said. She said the department was in the midst of reviewing its promotion and tenure guidelines anyway, and it’s considering the new American Historical Association recommendations.

Melissa Feinberg, chair of Rutgers University at New Brunswick’s history department, said discussing the recommendations “is something that I want us to embark on, but I’m not sure how long it’s going to take for us to come to some kind of decision or consensus.”

Feinberg also said that, with promotion and tenure rules, it’s not her department that makes the final decision. There are higher levels of the university involved.

“I don’t want to imply that those bodies would not be receptive, it’s just we haven’t investigated that,” she said.

There are big questions, she said, around the association’s endorsement of post hoc peer review. She noted that, in the traditional process, the university solicits outside experts to review the already peer-reviewed publications of candidates in those experts’ fields, so those expert reviewers’ reports are feedback on top of peer review.

As for where her department currently is, she said, “We try to consider the full scope of a candidate’s work, so we consider everything. So we don’t exclude anything, is what I’m saying, and we definitely would take into account all of the work that someone has done. What we have not done is thought about someone who is maybe exclusively producing work that is kind of outside the traditional venues of scholarship.”

“To support such publicly engaged and/or policy-oriented work,” Grossman wrote, “history departments should give it appropriate scholarly credit in personnel decisions. Not doing so diminishes the public impact of historians and cedes to others—observers less steeped in our discipline-specific methods, epistemologies and standards—the podium from which to shape the historical framing of vital public conversations.”

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