Blog Post

Assessing Work on Digital Projects for Hiring and Tenure: Discouraging Young Scholars?

One of the longest-running digital projects at the University of Iowa is the Walt Whitman Archive, a rich and constantly-growing interactive collection of Whitman’s life, letters, manuscripts, writing, criticism, recordings, and any and all digital (or digitizable) material on Walt Whitman.

The Whitman archive is a fabulous example of what a digital archive can achieve (really--if you haven't checked it out yet, have a look). It's also spectacularly collaborative. The archive is co-directed by Ed Folsom, Roy J. Carver Professor of American Literature at the University of Iowa, and Kenneth M. Price, Hillegass University Professor of American Literature at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Not only is it directed from universities nearly 300 miles apart, but the archive also lists 25 current contributors, 86 former contributors dating back to 1995, and a ten-person advisory board.

I had a chat with Dr. Folsom a couple of weeks ago about current digital humanities projects on campus. As Melody Dworak and I have covered, Iowa is in the middle of a digital humanities cluster hire, and recently launched the Digital Studio for the Public Humanities. Dr. Folsom is far ahead, however, having launched the first iteration of the Whitman Archive in 1995 (I emphasize: 1995. Ten years before YouTube, nine years before Facebook, three years before Google). Our conversation (which I’m kicking myself for not having recorded) turned to the question of hiring in the digital humanities.

The main question: How can you ask a scholar to face traditional methods of assessment for hire or tenure decisions (papers and books published) while also asking for work on a substantial digital project?

The difficulty with the academy’s slowness in catching up with digital project assessment is that the hiring and tenure processes may discourage graduate students and young scholars from getting deeply involved in digital initiatives. We all only have so much time for our own work, and if we *know* we’ll be assessed on publishing, but only *may* be assessed on a digital contribution... then getting deeply involved in a digital project may become a luxury that only established academics can spend time on. On a resume, a digital project may be the icing on the cake, but—if we want it to flourish—it should be the cake itself.

A second consideration: even if you do manage to vault questions of traditional academic output, how do you hire and assess someone based on their digital work, when major digital projects are, by nature, highly collaborative? As Dr. Folsom pointed out, even asking for a “percentage” of contribution to a digital project (did you contribute half? A third? One-fifth?) is fallacious: if you hadn’t completed your part, the project as a whole might be missing something, be something different, or entirely nonexistent. So how do you summarize your contribution to a hiring committee that may be unfamiliar with how much work it takes to put together a database? (or even what that means?)

I’m curious what the HASTAC community thinks about this. Have you been affected by these sorts of considerations? Are you at a school that seems to be handling the transition to digital scholarship particularly well? What do you think?



This dialogue is so important, and I know there are people out there who have far more insightful comments about this than the ones I offer below.  Thanks for getting this discussion rolling in the context described above. It dovetails with Ernesto Priego's recent post.

In the sciences, collaboration is the norm. As I understand it, the lead researcher gets top billing on published papers. The other researchers or authors are listed in the order of their contribution to the project. To be sure, the head researcher doesn't always do as much research on a paper, but perhaps it's understood by assessors that those listed second and third on the list made significant contributions.

That might be one way to determine who gets credit for a project and how much. But this system doesn't account for projects where members contribute equally to it.

What we all agree upon is that digital projects need to hold as much weight as books and articles. And, we need to figure out really soon the standards by which we assess those projects. Which standards are relevant will vary among disciplines within the humanities, so history departments will have different ways to assess than English departments. In world of modern languages, the MLA might establish a task force or committee to come up with those standards and once that's done, endorse it to English departments. 

It seems like there's a place for badges here, too.



Ah, I hadn't considered how the sciences work/publish collaboratively (d'oh!)...

"Which standards are relevant will vary among disciplines within the humanities, so history departments will have different ways to assess than English departments"--sounds like a crazy amount of work. Given how archives seem to (?) cross history and lit and be fairly interdisciplinary, am I lumping things together too much to say that if physics, bio, and medical papers are published with a similar collaborative attributions, couldn't history, English, and gender studies?

Do they all need separate guidelines, given that so much of what we do is pretty interdisciplinary, and that two papers within the same "discipline" may be farther apart from each other more than two papers that happen to be in different disciplines? 


Thank you, Katherine, for this post! I think Elizabeth summed up my understanding of the general response in a sentence -- "What we all agree upon is that digital projects need to hold as much weight as books and articles" -- and also the main problem of assessment. As a member of the CU-Boulder pool of DHers, I'm part of a university that is just now making a blueprint for an ICMJT School (Information, Communication, Media, Journalism, Technology), and my dissertation advisor, Lori Emerson, wrote a very useful blog post for thinking about this (this post is the 2nd in her series of 2 so far). There are two things Lori talks about that I think are germane here.

(1) She cites 2 studies that have sets of suggestions for evaluating digital scholarship. One is a white paper called "Digital Humanities Scholarship: Recommendations for Chairs in Language and Literature Departments" by Alison Booth, Pamela K. Gilbert, Steve Olsen, Brad Pasanek and the NINES/NEH Summer Institute Group" (2011). The other is a report -- the result of a workshop sponsored by the NEH and MITH on professionalization in digital humanities centers called, Off the Tracks—Laying New Lines for Digital Humanities Scholars held on January 20th and 21st, 2011. The workshop was led by Tanya Clement and Doug Reside, and the list of participants is substantial.

I read the NINES white paper a while back, but right now I would like to read the NEH/MITH report and compare the two.

(2) Lori talks about the need for dedicated spaces to help support these projects, and this is smart. In my utopic imagination, the Whitman Archive has its own capacious, teched-out work room with digital art projecting on the walls -- lines from Leaves of Grass. While it may not be this dreamy, I imagine that the WWA at least has an office space. Most digital projects, I imagine, do not have a dedicated work space or facility to support the project as well as collaboration. I've worked on several, and the "workroom" tends to be wherever personal laptops live. While dedicated digital project workspace isn't a component of assessment for promotion per se, it is one mark that an institution recognizes the importance of such projects, enough to provide real estate for them. I was lucky enough to work in the University of Denver's C3 Digital Studios during a workshop this summer, and I can tell you first hand (though this may seem obvious): great space + motivated people collaborating in that space = productivity. It will be interesting to see if CU-Boulder creates this kind of space, what kind of projects, collaboration, and assessment standards will follow. Or if the projects and positive assessments have to come first -- and the space will follow.

Finally, if the ICMJT School comes to be (oh I hope so!), and the space comes with it, I hope there will be ways for those of us who are doing DH work from myriad departments in the Humanities (I'm in English) to be an affiliate and benefit from the collaboration, space and technology, and expertise therein. That is to say, that universities often associate (or limit) spaces and resources to particular "schools" and for that to help promote quality and assessment of digital projects in a variety of Humanities sub-disciplines, the School and its space need to buck exclusive university models that, for example, may limit certain computer lab use by department and by degree (undergrads vs. grads).



Oops, I responded in the wrong spot. See below! :)


Thanks for all the links! This is a fabulous amount of material to read through... just briefly, though, I wanted to agree with the assessment that physical spaces are *helpful*. (Come to think of it, I don't think that the WWA does have its own room--the Walt Whitman Quarterly Review does, though, so perhaps they share it?)

Interesting that for-profit companies and corporations have received lots of attention for how they design/create space for their workers to collaborate in (Google comes to mind: here, they proudly state that their workspaces have "very few solo offices." I had always thought the the prof's office is such a standard thing, but... is that purely cultural? I hadn't thought of it in these architectural terms before, but I tend to get much more accomplished in spaces like coffeeshops, where the atmosphere is that of everyone working together, even if on separate projects. (Granted, I can't get anything done in our grad commons space... but perhaps if there were a shared designated *work*space...)

Sorry to get onto a bit of a tangent--but I am interested in design, so the idea that academics seem so far behind on effective design/architecture to create working spaces... I suppose we're not so far behind the curve, though, given how ubiquitous cubicle farms remain in field like publishing.