The Generation Game

The AHA recently announced the formation of an ad hoc committee to produce standard guidelines for evaluating digital scholarship. It is hoped that the guidelines will allow professional recognition of new scholarship in a way that can become codified within the tenure process. The committee is a veritable who’s who of digital humanities worthies—all with an excellent track record of traditional peer-reviewed scholarship and engagement with a variety of digital media. When this committee speaks, it will command attention.

This is an important step forward for the profession; having a rigorous set of guidelines for evaluation will serve as an important starting point for encouraging recalcitrant colleagues and administrators to take digital scholarship seriously. But there is one thing that is also notable about the committee—not to put too fine a point on it, it is rather old. All the scholars are safely tenured. Where are the voices of the new generation, of the digital natives?

The rationale behind the committee’s composition is clear—a committee designed to get university administrators to change tenure evaluation needs to have status. A committee comprising the untenured would too easily be written off as enthusiasts wanting to pass off less rigorous work as worthy scholarship. That would be a waste of a worthy initiative.

At the same time, however, a committee comprising only the tenured runs the risk of erring too much on the other side. How we view digital scholarship depends significantly on the way we perceive peer review. Some digital initiatives are clearly similar in form and publishing to traditional peer-reviewed production. Others aren’t, and my concern about the committee is that by not including untenured scholars, it may place undue emphasis on evaluation procedures that look similar to peer review, when more radical solutions should also be on the table.

The new committee is not the only example of the AHA looking to more established scholars to define digital scholarship. Last year, a roundtable on web ethics invited four scholars to talk about tone and engagement on academic blogs, All four great scholars; all four tenured. That meant that the discussion sounded too much like gatekeepers wanting to protect their own discourse at the expense of others. That there was an inherently “right” way of doing things, and that the AHA should step in to provide guidelines to make sure that this way was enforced. But if new forms of disseminating scholarship are to work as effectively as possible, it needs to tap into the creativity of digital natives.

For all that academia is dominated by liberal voices, the academy itself often acts in very small-c conservative ways. It takes a long time for a generation of gatekeepers to be removed. This has the benefit of ensuring, for the most part, that obviously ephemeral or faddish concerns don’t find their way into hiring and promotion practices. They have the downside of failing to reward creativity until a point when it’s too late.

That is a particular problem when thinking of digital scholarship. Indeed, it’s telling that it’s 2014 and the AHA hasn’t produced standards like these earlier. (Timothy Burke, a member of the committee, has been running his blog since my first term as an undergraduate!). But the forms of presentation opening up to scholars versed in the digital humanities are varied and manifold and don’t easily conform to the peer-reviewed monograph and article status.[1] Peer review is a valuable process, but it’s not the only process that can lead to good scholarship. The more varied the voices involved in creating standards for evaluating digital scholarship, the better.

I’m not calling for the committee to be reshaped radically. I do think, though, that instead of a committee of 8 tenured scholars, a committee of 10, with 2 or 3 untenured members, would be a good way of ensuring that the voice of the generation that is engaging most consistently with digital media will be heard in a more constructive way. Being able to consider the viewpoint of those hoping to gain tenure through their digital scholarship—and giving them a voice at the table—would go a long way. After all, this is important and necessary work.


[1] Take Ben Schmidt’s animated map of 19th century whaling. It’s engaging, entertaining, and a large scholarly undertaking—but how is that going to fit into the traditional model of evaluating scholarship?

5 responses

  1. Ken, I think this is a really important point to consider. Considering that, at least it seems to me, untenured or junior historians are the ones working most in digital mediums, I don’t see why they should be shut out of the process. Though it seems unlikely the composition of the committee would be changed now, it is surely something to keep in mind for the AHA as they continue to think about the future of the academic profession and should serve to remind junior historians that they should feel free to constructively critique the results of the committee.

  2. I actually disagree on this particular point. As a junior scholar myself (in rank if increasingly less in age), I am keen to include our voices in discussions about how digital scholarship may shape the profession both inside and outside of the college and university setting. We should advocate for the serious treatment of digital scholarship in its many forms and wherever it may originate.

    But that’s not the point of this particular committee. To my mind, the committee is actually charged with a relatively clear goal in trying to lay out guidelines for tenure and promotion related to digital work. As far as I know from my experience in interacting with a variety of institutions, none includes junior faculty in determining the standards for tenure and promotion. Or to put it another way, junior faculty are not typically allowed to set the terms on which they apply for P&T. Seen in that light, I actually think the credibility of this committee would be diminished rather than enhanced by the inclusion of junior scholars. I’m not sure that this is necessarily a good thing, but given the specific parameters within which the committee was charged, it seems appropriate.

    I’d add as an aside that part of my reaction comes as a counter-reaction to the critiques I saw on social media, many of which started from the assumption that this committee would be responsible for all things digital history, and therefore should include any number of things: junior scholars, someone from CHNM, people from outside the academy. A “digital history committee” certainly should include those people (though I’m not as certain that someone from CHNM needs to be involved in every single effort that AHA undertakes in the digital realm). But this committee isn’t that.

    If anything, I would have preferred that the list include people from a broader range of institutions, representing a wider array of requirements for tenure based on research, teaching, and service. But we shall see what they produce!

  3. Pingback: La partida generacional (eng, Opinión)

  4. Reblogged this on and commented:
    This is an older blog post by Ken Owen at The Junto, but it addresses how digital scholarship should be treated by university tenure committees. This is an important, but Owen argues that the AHA needs to think about more than just tenured faculty. Owen believes that the AHA should a few untenured faculty to the discussion. I wonder if this entire debate will be mooted by circumstances beyond the AHA or universities control.
    Universities are increasingly moving away from tenured faculty. Adjuncts and instructors are replacing retiring faculty at a number of institutions. As a rule, adjuncts and instructors do not receive much support to attend research conferences and have little time to publish research. Additionally, the cost of professional societies and conferences will be out of the reach for many of these people. The real question is whether or not the entire system of professional societies, journals, conferences and academic presses are sustainable long term. I know that most faculty cannot imagine a world where numerous history associations, journals and academic presses disappear, but that increasingly appears to a potential future for the history profession. Digital scholarship may very well become the primary option for academic scholarship.


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