Blog Post

How Can A Digital Humanist Get Tenure?

What counts for tenure for those in the digital humanities?  This is a persistent question in any new field (not that digital humanities is "new" at this point but its methods are  not the "scholarly monograph published by a university press" widely recognized by colleagues in many traditional humanities departments). So what does count?  How? And why?  What can a progressive, forward-looking, serious, well-meaning deparment do to rethink its own standards for excellent teacher- scholars making their way through the tenure track (or seeking to get into it) whose work is in the burgeoning and important field of digital humanities?  Who has succeeded already? How are rules and norms changing?  Where are there guidelines to new practices?  


Recently a former student of mine, approaching tenure time in an English department at a major state university, wrote to me and a number of other digital humanists to ask these questions.  Specifically, she asked if we knew of any digital humanists who had been tenured largerly or exclusively from multimedia work published digitally.  Her university was interested in "precedents."    We were able to supply her with the names of a number of distinguished digital humanists who had published both electronic and "paper" scholarship, who had been rewarded for their efforts and who are public figures in the digital humanities (i.e. they've written eloquently about digital humanities so giving their names was no secret but, rather, in keeping with their public purpose in their excellent work).   She also asked about other information that she might compile for her university about tenure and the digital humanities.  

Please note:  I've edited out comments about those "coming up" for tenure or promotion in order not to prejudice any case but have included some success stories.  Anyone who wishes to add their stories and names are greatly encouraged to do so.

She posed this question to myself, Dan Cohen,  Kathleen Fitzpatrick, Tara McPherson, and Ken Price.    The informal, email responses of these colleagues in digital humanities are so useful that I asked permission to reprint them here, in their undigested informal format, so others might edit them as needed and make use of them as and where appropriate.   We hope others will also add to the comments section below,  ideally adding other examples, other useful bits of information that others on the job market or coming up for renewal, tenure, or promotion  might use in their dossiers: 


USC has recently revamped its tenure + promotion guidelines to include digital scholarship.  Info on this process is in a CHE Op Ed here:

The manual itself is here but the language specific to digital work is scattered throughout:

Mark Sample was appointed to Assoc. with tenure at George Mason partly on the basis of digital work and on teaching w/ a DH emphasis (although Mason has a very progressive 'tenure for teaching' policy I've not seen elsewhere.)

David Silver was promoted to Assoc. based on a good deal of 'hands-on' work, including his work on the Center for Cyberculture Studies and other public humanities library projects.

Stephen Ramsay, University of Nebraska-Lincoln was tenured in advance of his book coming out, so it is possible Nebraska seriously 'counted' his digital work (perhaps Prof. Price can speak to this?)

Sharon Daniel was promoted to full at Santa Cruz based partly on digital work (she is in an arts + theory program.)



There may be other cases of examples in this wider list of "making
digital scholarship count" links I often circulate to dept chairs and
deans: - from an NEH institute on the topic
at UVA (see right column for specifics) - see the section on this
near the bottom


UCLA's faculty guidelines were linked to from HASTAC:

University of Nebraska's Guidelines:

Where the AHA started this June, with many other links:

At George Mason, everyone in digital history has been evaluated based
on their digital work--from websites to tools to research.





Would someone mind correcting Steve Ramsay's information? For one of our top dudes in the field, it would be nice to get it right:


Stephen Ramsay, University of Nebraska-Lincoln



Hi there.   In 2003, I created the first web-based ethnography for my research with the Yoeme people of Mexico and Arizona.   (  The chair of my then department (IU's Folklore Department), sent the site to a selection of peer reviewers.   He specifically asked them to comment on their approximation for how to think of this work within the older model of Service/Teaching/Research, with the latter's notion of "original scholarship."  After the letters were received, a merit and promotion committee deteremined that the website was approximately the value of three or four peer-reviewed articles, if not more. That site helped me recieve tenure a few years later at UCLA. Both of my departments, at IU and at UCLA, have clear statements supporting innovative design and media work as scholarly and intellectual.   I mention some of the ways that departments are making such work count in this article:   And I'm releasing a new digital project in a early 2013 that will be in large part my case for "full professor" next Fall.  I just thought I'd add to the conversation here. 


It would be very helpful if others who have earned tenure or promotion based on digital projects would use this space to communicate.   It's how the field grows.  Thanks for your attention.


At Georgia Tech, the Ivan Allen College's guidelines on qualifying work for tenure read as follows:

Creative Work may include published papers, books, software, patents, art productions, or other relevant examples. The nature of the creative work must be appropriate to the individual’s discipline.

In my experience serving on P&T committees at levels above the unit, our institution is very willing to consider any type of material, and given the non-traditional nature of many of our fields and schools a good deal of conversation in P&T meetings involves asking and answering questions about what sort of research venues and formats are appropriate. Faculty and administrators have a very open mind about all that.

To be honest, I'm not sure if I earned tenure and promotion from digital work. I do digital work, and I also do "traditional" work. I earned tenure and promotion based on the impact of creative work, which is the standard at Georgia Tech, with the assumption that such work is subject to a peer-review process. 

It should go without saying that I support the principles being discussed here. However, I worry that I'm not sure what anybody's talking about when they say "digital work." It could mean anything from online journals to original digital creative work. And everything in between. And I'm not sure we are doing ourselves any favors in the long-run by focusing revisions of P&T based on digital work, rather than altering P&T practices to focus on impact and thereby to become format-agnostic. After all, who's to say ten years from know we won't want to count more tangible artifacts as creative work. I'm serious—I've been advocating for just that sort of creative practice.

Naturally, digital works are the ones in most immediately obvious need of addition to overal P&T rosters. But let's keep our eye on the ball, which should be focused on the outcomes of research. In some cases, of course, the formats are so intimately related to the outcomes that their very nature counts as research. This is often the case in DH work, but not always, and we want to keep our wits about us.




Thanks, Cathy, for starting this important thread! I wonder if there would be any productive way to compile a parallel collection of resources and examples related to tenure *denials* for those whose dossier rested significantly on digital scholarship (by which I mean work that is necessarily networked, richly mediated or interactive, not just published in electronic journals). I sometimes worry that the stigma associated with denial results in those cases being less visible and therefore it's difficult to know whether institutions that have progressive policies on paper are following them in practice. I only suggest this in the event it could be framed productively (and I'm not sure it could) in support of future tenure cases and the proactive implementation of new or existing policies. (Steve Anderson, USC)


Thanks, Cathy, for inviting folks to comment on this topic. Reading through this, I can see that @IanBogost has already done a great job articulating more-or-less what I was going to say. In particular, he wrote:

"And I'm not sure we are doing ourselves any favors in the long-run by focusing revisions of P&T based on digital work, rather than altering P&T practices to focus on impact and thereby to become format-agnostic."

I think this notion of being "format-agnostic" is really the key point here. Scholars should be judged on the quality and impact of their work, not the format. I'm a bit leery about the idea of privileging one format over another -- even for analog formats (5 points for a book, 2 points for an article, and that sort of thing). Shouldn't a great article be worth more than a mediocre book?

Of course, this makes the work of the P&T committee a bit harder. With multiple formats in play (including digital ones), they will have to carefully examine and understand the scholar's work and its impact. They can't outsource this task to a press. They will have to make a measured, qualitative judgement rather than a quantitative one ("1 monograph + the right publisher + 2 articles = winner!"). But, of course, qualitative review is at the heart of the humanities, isn't it? (Right?)

This is such a useful thread.  "Format agnostic" is a great concept---I am sure one day "digital" will be redundant (if it isn't already) preceding "humanities" but then, in just about any field I can think of, adjectives almost always end up having historical rather than pertinent modifying impact in the future.    What seems to me important here is being able to have something that one might forward to a P and T committee that points to this being a lively, avid discussion---to me, that is partly what defines a field.   If I were chairing a P and T committee for someone in digital humanities, I would do what I do for ANY file:  create as full a picture of the candidate's contribution to the state of scholarship as possible, focusing on all the dimensions of the work and how they relate, and analyzing what the impact might be on moving the field forward.   For most, that is a combination of media and formats--including talks on panels, invited presentations, and other forms of engagement.   The success stories usually combine that story of field contribution with another story about excellent, pro-active contribution to one's colleagues and university, to one's program, and of course to the lives of one's students (in the classroom but also in the wealth of enrichments--sponsoring lecture series, independent studies, hosting local workshops--that are also part of being not just a teacher but a teacher who is leading the way to a career path for students. 


One comment above wants horror stories.  No P and T committee needs to hear negatives.  There are enough of those in the air.   And individuals who are inspired by fear, are welcome to pursue them.  I'm not that person.  I don't even watch scary movies!    I personally like to see how others have gone on a path to success and that helps me find my own way.   And I should mention sometimes the horror stories are institutional and often are about the rigidity or opacity of an institution--and blamed on externals such as "we don't do digital" but are really about institutional culture.  Sometimes denials are much more about individual personalities.  For the record, I know and admire Steve Anderson and have been a supporter.  He is not the first person I have admired at his institutiion who has been turned down (and the others that shocked me were not in digital humanities).  For example, there are several scholars of color who would argue race or racialized politics were the issue for them, not a digital component of their work.   It's almost impossible to dissect, especially without being a local participant, and it gets difficult to argue that a individual or even a number of individuals who face a certain decision did so because of their field.  In class action suits, I believe the word is a "pattern"--has there been a pattern of people being turned down because of their field.   


On the other hand, as with a legal case, you can build a positive case on precedent.   You find comparable examples and positive outcomes and build a case that the field has changed, that other institutions of similar stature have changed their criteria and made positive determinations based on changing conditions... with the implication being that, if they can, so can we.


And the motivation of my former student who asked this question was to provide her committee with some of those positive practices and examples that they could follow up on, by some noted authorities in the field.   I am very grateful to all those above who contributed their names and their ideas as this thoughtful discussion itself will be helpful for those up for tenure and promotion.


Tara McPherson mentioned my tenure case in her email to Cathy (quoted above), and I wanted to chime in with a bit more context about my particular situation. As Tara noted, George Mason University has a new tenure policy that allows candidates to go up for tenure either on the basis of "genuine excellence in research" or "genuine excellence in teaching." In either situation, the other criteria are also held to a high standard (for example, "genuine excellence in teaching" also demands "highly competent research").

I went up for tenure on the basis of my teaching--really, the scholarship of teaching and learning, as I have long treated my teaching as an object of study and scholarship, which I should share publicly and which others can contest, build upon, or simply learn from. Among Mason's other criteria for genuine excellence in teaching is the question of impact, which Ian and Brett have already mentioned. Specifically, the criterion is worded this way: "Evidence of teaching and learning impact beyond the classroom." This statement is followed by a number of possible examples. But what I want to emphasize is that the form (or platform) by which the impact is made is left intentionally open-ended. Books, articles, blogs, talks, digital projects, teaching portfolios--all of these could count as evidence. The criteria is indeed platform agnostic.

I don't mean to say that my tenure case was straightforward because GMU had this policy. In fact, I believe I was one of the first professors to approach tenure through this route at George Mason, and certainly within my department. I was a test case, a guinea pig. Therefore, as strong as a candidate as I might have been for "genuine excellence in teaching," I wanted to make sure all the other aspects of my tenure case were unassailable.

This is where my case gets especially interesting, as much of my research with literature, new media and videogames has taken unconventional forms. To name one example, 10 PRINT CHR$(205.5+RND(1)); : GOTO 10 is a book from a university press (forthcoming from MIT Press), which I'm sure made all the people on my committee go Yay! But it's also collaboratively written with 9 other people (Ian among them)--and not as individual chapters each written by a separate author as in an edited collection, but as a kind of wikified hive mind in which it's nearly impossible to say who wrote what, a fact which I'm sure made my campus RPT committee go Wha? Furthermore, its methodological premise rests upon a close reading (Yay!) of a single line of computer code (Wha?). I'm not sure how to generalize from this example in a way that's useful to others, other than to say if you do do unconventional work, do it with verve and confidence, and work with a good team.

As for the digital work in my research portfolio, it ranged from peer-reviewed essays in electronic journals to playful remixes of other people's scholarly works to blog posts that I argued (following Kathleen Fitzpatrick's work) were subject to post-publication peer review. In these examples and the others I could share, the key principle is, again, impact. And what's important for any candidate is to demonstrate that impact, with evidence.

What counts as evidence of impact deserves a post of its own. For now, I'll say that everything worked out for me and even turned out better than I had hoped for. I am fortunate to be at an institution that pays more than lipservice to innovation. For example, in my dean's recommendation for tenure he explicitly mentioned the impact of my blogging, and he noted:

…because Dr. Sample openly engages readers in comments, this constitutes an effective and new form of public intellectual work. For these new types of publications, whose spontaneity is their hallmark, prior review must give way to subsequent analysis, and in this Dr. Sample has excelled.

Even better was my provost's recommendation for my tenure and promotion. While I had gone up for tenure on the basis of genuine excellence in teaching, the provost recommended (and the president approved) my tenure for both genuine excellence in teaching and genuine excellence in research--a welcome recognition of the digital scholarly work I have done and will continue to do.

As I said, I'm fortunate to be at George Mason University. It's an impressive research institution that is open to new forms of scholarly communication and places a premium on teaching where it counts. That said, I wouldn't recommend my own particular tenure path to most people yet, unless they like risk. I took a gamble. I pursued what I wanted to pursue, and in a way that made the most sense to me. But it was a gamble. As I wrote in my tenure portfolio, "I have staked much of my scholarly worth in new modes of digital writing, collaboration, and publishing." It paid off for me, and I hope that by writing publicly here--and elsewhere, in future blog posts--I can help to lower the stakes for the generation of faculty members behind me.


Apologies for the miscommunication! I'm really not interested in horror stories, but I do think negative patterns should be recognized as well as positive ones. The Chilling Effects database, for example, is about documentation and accountability for practices that are otherwise thought to be isolated and idiosyncratic. If framed productively, I think such accountability, visibility and collective intelligence could help identify things to guard against as well as the best practices and excellent, positive exemplars that are appearing here.


I disagree that DH is a field, but here:

Please tell tenure-track and graduate students wondering this same question to research all the other precendents in digital writing studies/rhetoric-composition/computers-and-compsition studies. 




Mark, Thank you so much for this wonderful, inspiring, detailed, instructive story.  I hope you are planning on sponsoring a HASTAC Scholar this year---it would be such a great allegory of intergenerational mentoring if you could.  (Deadline's not until September 24!)


Thanks to everyone else for these great comments.   I tend to agree that DH is not a "field" but then I write a lot about the history of fields and they all change so much that crossing boundaries and morphing over time is, to my mind, almost definitional for a field (or a non-field).   The ones that ossify, dwindle.   And disappear.  Evolution?


I've corrected the error in the original informal email exchange.  Thanks for pointing it out, Katherine.  That's what crowdsourcing is for! 




I think Steve is right on (and brave) to suggest that upcoming tenure candidates compare notes with each other and tenured digital types. This is calling out for an anonymized and annotated collection such as the Chilling Effects site run by Wendy Seltzer and other legal eagles from around the country.

Joline Blais and I got tenure on the basis of digital scholarship five years ago, so we decided to give back to the community of (especially younger) scholars trying to craft a tenure case from bits and bytes. We publicized our revised tenure criteria and white paper, entitled "New Criteria for New Media," here on HASTAC back in 2010.

These criteria were subsequently published in Leonardo, where they became the most downloaded article of that MIT journal. Since then, we heard privately from a half-dozen people whose universities adapted or cited these criteria in awarding promotion or tenure.

It's great to hear from newly minted Associate Professors whose university committees have extracted their heads from the sand long enough to warm to digital scholarship. For those who haven't--and Steve's case shows there are plenty of viable candidates at the mercy of outdated criteria--New Criteria for New Media includes an array of arguments and examples demonstrating the relevance and influence of new media on today's academic research.


This is a great resource, this comment, Jon.  Thank you.