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. 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.
 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?