Should Digital Scholarship "Count" Towards Tenure?
This morning I received a very interesting email from Mills Kelly (http://edwired.org/) of George Mason University asking if I would be willing to be interviewed for a piece on digital scholarship. I'm delighted Mills is doing this and will be happy to talk. But I'm not sure everyone will be happy with my answers. In fact, when I went back and re-read this blog, I wasn't happy with it. So this is a REVISED VERSION. (And I should mention that I had a great conversation with Mills who will be doing a series of blog posts on Edwired on this topic.)
This revision is a little less in the loose-lipped bloggy style and (somewhat) more serious in focus. Fewer sports metaphors too. I hope this is more helpful to those who are slogging their way through tenure. It is a complicated, frustrating, opaque, and sometimes unfair process, and I don't want my flippancy to make it any more painful. So this is "Should Digital Scholarship 'Count' Toward Tenure REDUX." I've left in some of my frustration with the form of the argument (and I do find it very frustrating) but I hope this is more useful to those who could use some guidance.
I don't like the question "Should digital scholarship count for tenure?" Not because I need to be convinced of the worth of "digital scholarship." I've spent the better part of the last decade championing all forms of digitality. Rather, I'm not sure I believe in the broad-stroke category "digital scholarship" especially when people are talking about "counting for tenure." I'm not sure I know what it means, even, or what is implied by such an undifferentiated category. I don't believe "scholarship," in and of itself, should always count for tenure. There's a whole range of value in a word like "scholarship." So, by extension, I can't simply say that "digital scholarship" should or should not count. As with all factors leading to tenure, it depends on whether it is good or not. And "good" is not very easy to define.
What I would say, emphatically, is that excellent scholarship should not be excluded from a tenure file simply because the form of its production happens to be electronic. If the scholarship is refereed by scholars in the field and deemed publishable, if it has impact and meets the highest professional standards, it is hard to think of what possible, rational argument could be made against it counting in the way its equivalent paper-version would count. Scientists often publish in journals that exist only on line. We have plenty of models out there that have been accepted in a range of disciplines where no one has problems distinguishing "excellent" from "okay" scholarship simply because its mode of production happens to be electronic.
But I suspect there is something more lurking behind a statement like "digital scholarship should count for tenure" and that lurking and defensive tone is what I want to address today. There's so much excellent scholarship in digital form that might well contribute to a tenure file. There is also much worthwhile digital scholarship that is a huge service to the profession, but that may not be equivalent to "the monograph" when it comes to tenure but might be equivalent , say, to other scholarly forms that count in other ways. And, finally, there's a lot that is digital that I simply would not call "scholarship" at all. This blog, for instance. It reports on lots of things--in recent months, neuraesthetics, dyslexia, digitality and social class, digital divide, neural plasticity, collaborative thinking, synesthesia, and also discarded shoes, focaccio, Obama, dieting, friendships. I actually don't believe ANY of those postings--not the new work I'm doing on neural plasticity or the jocular "Typology of Discarded Shoes"--should "count" as scholarship. As I've said before, since no one referees this blog, since no one even proofreads and copyedits it (thank you again for your patience, dear readers!), since it doesn't come with footnotes or any of the other scholarly apparatus respected in our peer community, then it might count as a very loose version of public scholarship and therefore it might go in the "service" column of my own professional portfolio. Within existing rules of tenure, I could not and would not presume to make a case for this blog as "digital scholarship." And, conversely, I like the rhetorical and formal freedoms of blogging. I like the fact that, for me, this is a way to write without the conventions of "scholarship" that I adhere to in my professional scholarly writing.
So back to our question: Does digital scholarship count? Sure. Does it count towards tenure? Depends on what you mean by digital scholarship and depends on what your particular university happens to require for tenure. I personally hate those "count" arguments since my entire career, long before there was digitality, I have heard such arguments made in a tone of professional plea bargaining. "Counting for tenure" needs some serious deconstructing. One version of that sentence sometimes translates as: "I didn't do what I was supposed to do according to all the documents about tenure I've been reading for the past six years. I did something else. Now I'm up for tenure. And I'm worried."
There is reason to be worried. It's almost impossible to change the rules for tenure at the same time that you yourself are up for tenure--at least not by yourself! You may, during those long assistant professor years, decide you don't want to do what you are supposed to do. That's fine. It's also risky. Tenure, institutionally, means that you are certified and guaranteed a job by a peer community that exists by having done what it is supposed to do. (NB: Lots of folks get by without doing what they are supposed to do and others don't succeed even when they meet the requirements: tenure is a humanly fallible system, like the rest of life, and sometimes it is tragically, horribly unjust: again, like the rest of life. I would be the last person to defend the "fairness and impartiality" of tenure at all times and all institutions. At other times and in other contexts, I have voiced many arguments, qualms, and protests about the tenure system. But that's a different conversation than the present one.)
Here's the bottom line. Realistically (not utopically) speaking, it is the tenured who decide what "counts" for tenure. That may be unfair, but don't become an academic if you don't like it because it's not likely to change soon, although many of us have tried. Tenure is based on peer review and peers are those who have been tenured within the system. Sounds circular, doesn't it? It is. Does that mean I believe institutional change is impossible? Hardly! I've spent my entire career fighting for and succeeding in making different kinds of institutional change. But it is not easy. Do I believe that a junior scholar on the way to tenure is going to "change" the tenure rules? Not. That's like saying you need not only to qualify for the Olympics by leaping over the high bar but you also need to build the high bar and decide what you think is a good height for this year's contest, as if previous contests hadn't already established all those rules, regulations, and high marks to beat.
My point with this analogy (and I'm sure thre are much better ones out there) is that no one can be expected to both make it over the bar for the first time and invent the sport. If there are changes to the sport, they likely will come from those who have already gone over the bar and, with that behind them, are now evaluating what might work best to ensure excellence in the future. Or, as Kim Christen notes in her comment and I respond in mine below, the impetus for change can come from brave junior faculty who work collectively to convince their senior colleagues it's time for a change. (If you can't convince the fogeys, you are in trouble since, typically, it is only the already-tenured who can vote on your tenure.)
The sports analogy is interesting because, in fact, rules change all the time in sports. And so do rules for tenure, even though (frustratingly!) our rules tend to be both generated by peers within a field (basketball, football, English Departments, etc.) but also with variations specific to a particular institution. There's no profession-wide rule book, no profession-wide court of appeal, no profession-wide set of certified referees who attend to every tenure decision in a black-and-white striped shirt and with a whistle at the ready.
And maybe that is a good thing. Tenure is as variable as the institutions that grant tenure. If you are lucky enough to have a job offer at a small liberal arts college with an excellent reputation within the state versus at an Ivy League university that prides itself on having the finest Anthropology Department in the world, one thing you need to do is think about the kind of career you want. There is nothing intrinsically better about one job than the other--but the path toward tenure and the professional life you lead will be dramatically variable at each institution. What "counts for tenure" will vary drastically at each institution, too. If you don't know that when you decide on one rather than the other, you probably have been missing a whole lot about the profession you are entering because it's hard to go a day in academe without being reminded, in subtle and not so subtle ways, that it is a profession that is based on reputation. That is its stock and trade. No one is more thin-skinned than an academic who feels his or her reputation isn't being properly attended to. It's one of the weirder qualities in our profession and outsiders are shocked to encounter it (I call it the "Umbrage Factor") whenever they spend any extended time with us.
Reputation is (according to American Heritage Dictionary) "the general estimation of a person or thing held by the public." I.e. "what counts." The key term is "the public" and there are many different kinds of publics. In the case of tenure, publics are those deciding whether you qualify for tenure (the circle again). So, if the reputation of my small liberal arts college is that we care about our students, we will probably expect our faculty to teach a 3-3 load, will want them to be having lots of office hours and outings with the students, maybe dinners and other extracurricular activities, seminars and independent studies, and lots of travel abroad and so forth. Teaching will "count" a lot. Being a good colleague will "count" a lot. Scholarship will "count" but probably not as much--and certainly not as much as it will "count" in the Ivy League university which bases its on the scholarly accomplishments admired by peers at peer institutions. "Peer" in academe is the same as what the dictionary calls "by the public."
You shouldn't be taking a tenure-track job and making tenure at that institution your career goal without realizing what the specific tenure requirements are of the position you are taking and gauging whether you are on the right career path for that particular job. That doesn't mean you can't change the place, but it's a lot of dedicated work and, no matter how worthy the change, it requires sympathetic senior colleagues. I've been at institutions where I was a fish out of water, and institutions where they seem to like the way I'm swimming. I can make change at the latter. At the former, not a chance.
So let's go back to the question of whether digital scholarship should count for tenure. It's not a matter of counting or not counting, which implies a value judgment on whatever you are calling "digital scholarship." Rather, the judgment is the one peers have determined as the particular bar you have to leap over for your tenure. Even getting over that bar is not automatic (injustices happen all the time, for a variety of personal, political, and intellectual reasons). But if you decide to not even try to go over that bar, but to set yourself a different one, then, as I have said, consider getting tenure a miraculous accident. Maybe that's not the way it should be, but that's the way it is. Not just about "digital scholarship" but about all the choices you make on your career path.
If I sound exasperated it is because I've been hearing the "X should count for tenure" line my entire career. Long before digitality even existed, I've heard this line. Over my career, I've heard people say, "why doesn't community work and activism count for tenure"? Or, "I write a newspaper column [or a trade book] that reaches far more people than my scholarship ever will; why can't journalism count for tenure?" Here's another old form of the argument: why do we need a book? Couldn't three long and important articles reach more people and count more? (At one point, Rutgers University even allowed Ph.D. candidates to write three long pieces in different genres as an "alternative" to writing a monograph-length dissertation. I don't know if that still exists but it obviously didn't take hold profession-wide.) Or, another one I've heard: why doesn't my novel count toward tenure? Why doesn't editing a journal count for tenure. I've even heard this in disciplinary terms: why shouldn't my article on hip hop in Sengal in a cultural studies journal count towards my tenure as a twentieth-century poetry scholar in my traditional French Department?
Well, all those things might count in some way at some institutions. Some of those things certainly should count. That's different than you thinking about what to include in a tenure file at your university. And my big Mentor Advice is make sure you know what the rules are at your institution considerably before you're putting your file together. You can try to change the rules, but you better know them.
Tenure isn't a right. It is a set of peer-derived, evolving standards, variable hugely across place and time. So when I'm asked if "digital scholarship should count for tenure" I don't know what that means. Tenure where? And what kind of "digital scholarship"? Does that mean publishing in electronic journals that are peer reviewed? Then if the esteem and the quantity are comparable to that required by the field in print journals, then perhaps you are talking about merely a formal difference and then the case is arguable. Physicists have made that change long ago and, in fact, their electronic journals are often more rigorously peer-reviewed than previous print journals.
But substituting an electronic for a print form is not the only thing meant when people talk about "digital scholarship counting." Do they mean blogging? I have argued, in my own blog, that blogs should certainly count in the way activism and "public service" and "service to the profession" count---but not as peer-reviewed scholarship. Do they mean making data bases and archives? Then that should count the way a print bibliography or encyclopedia would count. Or other forms of data-based scholarship or compendiums count--indexes, taxonomies, dictionaries, encyclopedias, anthologies, scholarly editions, edited collections, etc. All of those are great. But if you at an institution that wants a monograph published by a university press, none of those "count" and it does not matter if they are produced on paper or electronically. It is not the form (digitality) that is the issue but the reputational emphasis placed on being able to make an extended, supported, field-changing booklength argument.
"Should digital scholarship count for tenure" is such a lumping, gross, and undifferentiated question that it embeds its own resentments. Start deconstructing the parts and the granularity, as scientists say, reveal continuites and then also new challenges.
I'm very happy to talk about the ways different kinds of (digital or otherwise) scholarships might count in different ways towards a tenure portfolio. I'm not willing to lump resentments. My best mentors warned me to do a "both/and" . . . and I warn my students the same. Do the new, do the daring . . . and also do what you need to do to qualify for tenure at the particular institution if the only thing that will make you happy in life is tenure at that institution. If you are not wedded to that institution, then you and only you can decide if you want to take the risk of trying something that isn't in the rules---or of trying to change the rules. And, if you wish you had had the courage to try to make institutional change but didn't, then vow that, the minute you have tenure, you will dedicate yourself to doing all you can to work with your colleagues to help change the rules. It's the best possible way of being able to live with yourself for all the things you had to do on the way to tenure that you didn't like doing. It's great psychologically for you, and great for those who come after you (although, of course, they will have other things that they will want to "count" for tenure).
Lifelong employment (i.e. tenure) is a powerful (and increasingly rare) reward in any career. I personally believe it is the duty of everyone who has tenure to work to ensure that the system is as fair and flexible as possible for those who come later. One feature of that flexibility is, most certainly, to consider new forms of publishing, new kinds of scholarship, and to think of their impact and importance and to think together about how they should "count."