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Hiring, firing, & evaluating digital humanities scholarship -- a convo at THATCamp AAR/SBL

Hiring, firing, & evaluating digital humanities scholarship -- a convo at THATCamp AAR/SBL

If an academic can be un-hired, fired, or asked to resign because of a “tweet” or a blog post, can we find a way in the humanities to hire, promote, or offer tenure to academics for the same? 

This was one of the more provocative questions posed, and discussed, at a roundtable talk at the most recent THATCamp at the AAR/SBL Annual Meeting in Atlanta, GA two weeks ago. 

Overview of #THATCampAARSBL

THATCamp stands for The Humanities And Technology Camp and the AAR/SBL Annual Meeting (professional and academic organizations in the study of religious studies and biblical literature, respectively) played host to the user-generated unconference for religious and biblical studies academics to set the agenda for discussion and work in the area of digital humanities. 

The sessions at the day-long unconference ranged from topics such as using Google engrams in your research to talks of tech in the classroom and podcasting religious studies topics successfully. I was honored to present my own collaborative work on Augmented Reality Criticisms (ARCs) with the TRACE Program at University of Florida. 

Overall, the quality of the content was impressive and the event created an interdisciplinary space where scholars from multiple disciplines and perspectives could share in ways that few other venues afford. Cheers to the organizers for putting on such a wonderful unconference and helping us all play a part in advancing the field! 

From my perspective, the key conversation from the day was whether, and if so how, to count digital scholarship toward hiring, promoting, and offering tenure in the academic world. 

Counting Digital Scholarship Toward Academic Advancement?

While the recognition of the value of digital scholarship is increasing and there is an awareness that the context of humanities research is changing quickly and deeply due to advances in digital technology there are no broadly agreed upon or applied standards for the professional evaluation of digital scholarship.

Certainly, the humanities have seen a spike in digitally innovative practices in the last decade with various scholars doing valuable work in the realm of digital humanities. However, the lack of formal evaluation procedures and attendant academic incentives (you know, like jobs, promotions, and the elusive “beast of tenure”), in the words of the American Historical Association (AHA), “discourages scholars at all levels from engaging with the new capacities. It also prevents the profession, and the departments in which it is grounded, from creatively confronting ways in which […] knowledge increasingly will be created and communicated.”

The THATCamp AAR/SBL conversation floated from the discussion of digital publishing and material/visual culture in existing dissertations and works to the evaluation of digital scholarship in publications such as the Journal of the American Academy of Religion. For me, there were two important points raised, from opposite ends, that need serious consideration as this discussion, hopefully, moves forward: 

1) Upholding academic standards. Although it might go without saying, it is vital that we do not “dumb down” the standards to accept, evaluate, and reward digital scholarship in hiring, promoting, and providing tenure for humanities scholars. Digital humanities work must also be given the level of respect that traditional academic scholarship receives and thus needs comparable,a= and stringent, evaluative measures. 

This means that departments and institutions that choose to evaluate digital humanities projects (from blogs to digital research designs) should subject them to serious academic review and not base assessment on popularity. Often, such appraisals are camouflaged under markers of “impact” in the public sphere. 

While I agree that impact is important judging projects based principally on their reach is akin to judging a scholar on whether or not their book sold a certain number of copies. The popularity of a publication or project is not directly indicative of the seriousness, or even the value, of research and we cannot let it guide our evaluation of digital humanities scholarship. 

With that said, it should be part of the conversation, because from my view one of the principal benefits of much digital humanist’s work is its broad audience and public value.

2) Defending the democratic digital. Related to the prospect of digital humanities scholarship having an impact in the public and popular spheres, it is also paramount that in judging digital humanities work we should not “copy/paste” the same standards for “traditional” academic scholarship (journal articles, books, etc.). This is vital for two reasons. 

First, the scholarship is different. Because digital humanists are sometimes dealing with different media, audiences, and outcomes it is not appropriate to evaluate their work according to the standards for a different set of means, market, or end product. Furthermore, digital humanities work is often more collaborative and interdisciplinary and many P&T committees already struggle with considering such efforts in traditional realms of scholarship. 

Second, one of my favorite aspects of my digital humanities work is the degree of play it involves and the democracy of the conversation. Through digital humanities work (blogging, social media, ARCs, digital-based ethnography, etc.) I am able to work in different streams and produce work for variant audiences than I normally would in my traditional academic research. It is liberating to engage the public and have more “fun” in doing work that is not required by my principal investigations. It is already intimidating enough to know that my tweets could end my career when they are not being evaluated as part of my “serious scholarship.” What would happen if they were fair game? That could be both blessing and curse. 

For this reason, I would want to see three categories of work and evaluation moving forward: scholarship that is digitally-based and contributes to public discourse without evaluation, scholarship that is digitally-based and affords some form of academic legitimization, and scholarship that is more “traditional” and is appraised accordingly. 

Conclusion

As can be deduced from the above, the conversation surrounding the production, and evaluation, of digital scholarship in consideration of academic advancement is still in its early days. Nonetheless, parsing through how to value and evaluate digital humanities research is both a fascinating and increasingly necessary, conversation with attendant cautions and incitements. 

The critical element is that your institution and/or department initiate the discussion. You might consider using this blog or the guidelines provided by the AHA as you do so. No matter what, it is vital that more programs and academics start the dialogue, because digital scholarship continues to emerge as a viable and valuable field of research in the humanities as the quality and quantity of presentations at THATCamp AAR/SBL testifies.

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