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?