Blog Post

Week #7: Rewriting History Post Monograph

(apologies for the late submission)

Since the late 1990s, if not before, the potential for digital technologies to change the nature of the academic monograph have been a subject of excitement-- and skepticism-- in the academy. The first major foray into exploring this potential for history was the Gutenberg-e project. The brainchild of Robert Darnton, who was at that time president of the American Historical Association, the project competitively selected new dissertations to be digitally published (and enhanced) as new models for the scholarly monograph. A recent article outlines the complicated and troubled history of the project [1], which produced some great digital scholarship, all of which is now available freely at http://www.gutenberg-e.org/index.html.

I won't get into the details of the project, but I will use the Gutenberg-e experience to frame some of the key issues in moving toward a new kind of historical scholarly communication (article, monograph, post-monograph, etc.) that takes advantage of the possibilities offered up by the digital. As someone who is interested in the history of the book, I recommend the Gutenberg-e article as a useful corrective to sometimes lofty ideas of upending the academy. Change isn't impossible but it doesn't happen fast, especially in academia!

What does a new model of scholarly communication look like?

A primary complication of any discussion of this topic is that we are often talking about a wide range of possibilities from traditional linear narratives in e-book formats to exploded arguments that are networked with a rich array of digital media to works that use visualizations to actually make an argument. The range of possible tools and formats is wide and growing every day. And yet our mental model of scholarship is tied very closely to familiar forms of print publishing: monographs and articles.

Clearly, we aren't going to settle on one definition of digital scholarship, but a more sophisticated understanding of the range of possibilities will be necessary as we move toward new modes of expressing historical argument. Some interesting item to consider:

  • The American Historical Review's recent call for submissions for Best Digital Article. [http://www.indiana.edu/~ahrweb/Digital_Article_Prize.pdf] The editors are seeking versions of the "short form" of historical argument of approximately 6,000 to 8,000 words in which "digital tools and modalities of the work must contribute substantially to the argument presented by the author." It must be "distinguished by "...certain qualities that are impossible in print." The call for submissions outlines what some of the major ways a work can move beyond print, including interactivity, multi-modality, and database and network connectivity. Is it useful to call this a digital article? What do you think it should be called?
  • Many universities are moving fast toward electronic theses and dissertations, but that does not mean a wholesale adoption of a full range of digital possibilities. Could this be one way that we inch toward a fuller embrace of digital tools and modalities in dissertations? Do you see this happening at your institutions?

When will scholarly evaluative systems adapt?

The AHA and AHR deserve a lot of credit for trying to push scholarly societies forward on this front. The Gutenberg-e project tried to use the authority of the AHA and Columbia University Press to enable new scholars to publish in new modalities and still get appropriate 'credit' toward tenure and promotion. The Seaman and Graham article describes how complicated that turned out to be. Many projects published by Gutenberg-e had to be published in some kind of print format in order to be considered for tenure cases.

Some journals review digital projects. Reviews in History [http://www.history.ac.uk/reviews/] covers books, as well as digital projects and digital collections. In recent weeks, published reviews have covered a DH project and a commercial collection of digitized primary sources.[2] These are both important reviews, but perhaps they also reflect the fuzziness of distinctions between online resources. More digital work being reviewed is a good thing, but there is a lot of work to do in integrating alternative metrics into how we prove the impact and importance of our work.[3]

We see lots of graduate students (like us) interested in the digital humanities, but it is really those with tenure who have the greatest ability to push the limits of our current evaluative structures. They can develop the digital articles for the AHR, and explore new modalities without endangering their career. For those just starting out, the history monograph remains king. It appears risky, but not impossible, to start out as an academic historian with full engagement in the digital world. I don't think you have to ignore the changing publishing environment or forgo the possibilities of new modalities, but you still need to have that first book in you. It may be that the mainstream path, at least for now, is the "monograph and" avenue. The monograph and online database, and a digital project, and an archive of video, etc.

Costs & expertise

Beyond the impediments of peer review systems, the cost and expertise associated with developing robust digital scholarship provide other challenges. Gutenberg-e seriously underestimated the costs and expertise required to develop the next generation of scholarly monograph. Any of us who have been involved in digital projects know how easy it is to go over schedule and over budget, as well as to envision a project well beyond our current technical ability. Most digital articles already featured by the AHR (published 2000-2005) [4] were the product of large teams of people, led by senior scholars in most cases. New software applications are making things easier for people working more or less on their own, and younger scholars may have more facility with programming (or be willing to develop it).

Still, when I read through the current AHR call for submissions, I wonder. It seems likely that the winner will be a tenured scholar with access to a digital humanities technical team, either through grant funding (internal or external) or through a position as part of a DH center. Based on my experience there are many scholars interested in doing innovative digital work, but most need help and that help costs money. The recent announcement of Amherst College Press, a new scholarly press that will publish open access, only in electronic format, is a project to watch. First, it is a scholarly press with no expectation to generate revenue. Second, it promises “multimedia capabilities unavailable at other academic presses” and “a readership heretofore unimaginable.” [5] Gutenberg-e was somewhat hamstrung by efforts to make it generate revenue. If the Amherst project succeeds, it could be a model that shakes up traditional print monographs and  presents a different model for supporting new modalities. Does it promise support in the development of “multimedia capabilities” or should book proposals come with the technical aspects already in place? Is it possible to support such publishing without generating any revenue?

Conclusion

I hope you don’t find this blog post too negative. As we in the HASTAC Digital History group know, there is all kinds of exciting stuff happening out there. There are institutions that are very supportive of new scholarly modes of communication, and it gets easier and easier for an individual or small group to create really interesting digital work. If I have focused primarily on structural obstacles, it is only that I am keen to temper any technological determinism that portrays our field or any field as moving seamlessly into a post-monograph digital world.
The opportunities are tremendous, however, particularly the opportunity to broaden our reach into the world. Historians today write for other historians, and academic reward structures promote this insularity. Popular histories are written by journalists mostly, and academic historians love to gripe about them. Open-access digital scholarship isn’t a cure-all for reconnecting historians with the public (and of course some historians have been engaged with the public all along), but open-access use of new modalities has the potential to draw in new audiences. Crowd-sourcing and participatory technologies have the ability to bring new audiences into the actual construction of new knowledge, too. And of course, digital modalities allow us to create arguments and demonstrate with evidence in ways that were never before possible.

I would love to hear more from the rest of group. Some questions that are on my mind:

How is your academic program engaging with new forms of scholarship?

What examples of ways the field is changing intrigue you?

What journals are reviewing digital scholarship? What societies are offering prizes? (I have focused on a very small number of examples.)

 

NOTES:

 [1] John T. Seaman Jr. and Margaret B. W. Graham. "Sustainability and the Scholarly Enterprise: A History of Gutenberg-e." Journal of Scholarly Publishing 43, no. 3 (2012): 257-293. http://muse.jhu.edu/   (accessed Dec. 10, 2012).

 [2] The French Book Trade in Enlightenment Europe, 1769–1794. Mapping the Trade of the Société typographique de Neuchâtel,  http://www.history.ac.uk/reviews/review/1355 , and Nineteenth Century Collections Online, http://www.history.ac.uk/reviews/review/1359 .

 [3] I'm not well versed in altmetrics, but here are some things to read: Altmetrics: A manifesto, http://altmetrics.org/manifesto/ . ImpactStory FAQ, http://impactstory.org/faq .

 [4] AHR Digital Projects: http://www.indiana.edu/~ahrweb/projects.html . Many of the links are dead, but I have notified the editors and they are working on it. Link persistence-- another common complication in the digital world.

 [5] Amherst College Press FAQ, https://www.amherst.edu/library/press/faq


 

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2 comments

Hi Erika,

I think you're definitely right that academia's wheels grind exceeding slow. One other aspect that you alluded to that will have to change if DH work is to take on the same significance as the monograph is collaborative credit. It seems that right now, in order to get a job, or to finish a dissertation, you need to be the single author on a large monograph. As you rightly pointed out, though, the people getting the DH prizes and such are people who work on a team. 

It's also difficult for graduate students to get collaborators, since their projects are usually relatively specialized, and of course, other grad students are working on their own single-author projects. Sometimes grad students work on professors' projects, but they almost never (I don't know of any instances) work with other graduate students on large degree-fulfilling projects. 

In other words, I see acceptance of collaborative work as equally indicative of one's skills as something that will have to change if digital humanities is going to change the field.

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Hi Erika,

Thanks for a great post. Your blog brings up a number of questions and I think that Abby hit one of the big ones right off. Collaboration isn't often rewarded. I was wondering, however, if there would be more room for collaboration in methods classes--especially if they begin to incorporate digital tools. While a graduate-level methods course may only last a semester and thus shortchange a project, it could serve to teach students valuable skills while engaging them in a collaborative process that continues even after the class ends. I think in this case, students wouldn't worry so much about not working on their individualized research as they would gaining valuable skills since that would be the point of a methods class anyway. Just a thought.

Another thought I had while reading the post was about the visualization of information typically read in a linear format. This past semester at Duke there was a presentation on Scalar which is a tool one may use to publish in a non-linear format as well as add different forms of media to a project. While I enjoyed the presentation, I found it hard to imagine publications in a non-linear form because, well, how do you keep track of the argument? I realized that part of the challenge is that we have been trained to think linearly and one begins to feel lost when format is not easily recognizable. It makes it harder to deconstruct the argument. But, perhaps it is just a matter of learning how to think differently about information and the way it is portrayed visually...

 
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