Sydni Dunn

Staff Reporter at The Chronicle of Higher Education

Digital Humanists: If You Want Tenure, Do Double the Work

Full 01062014 kraftwerk

As interactive databases and open-access online journals fill academic dossiers, one question continues to be discussed: What happens when the scholars who build them come up for tenure?

It’s clear that timeworn tenure incentives—those that reward monographs published by prestigious university presses, say, or a series of individually written journal articles—aren’t a good fit for digital work.

So scholarly groups and universities with an interest in digital humanities are stepping up efforts to establish alternatives. But consensus is still a long way off. At many institutions, enthusiasm about the trending field is outpacing progress in rethinking the evaluation process.

This leaves digital humanists in a difficult position: convinced that their scholarly work is worth doing but unclear on what it will get them, careerwise. Some scholars who do digital work have found so-called alt-ac, alternative academic, careers, working at universities but off the traditional tenure track. But for those who want to stay on that classic track, a digital-only portfolio is a gamble. To play it safe, they are putting in overtime to satisfy the traditional requirements of an evaluation process that hasn’t caught up to their digital work.

In fact, many digital humanists who have successfully navigated the promotion process agree that the most reliable way to impress a tenure committee is to mix traditional work with the technological.

“We want to push the boundaries, but it’s hard to disrupt the expectations,” says Matthew K. Gold, an associate professor of English and digital humanities at the City University of New York’s College of Technology and Graduate Center. “So, unfortunately, going this route of creating digital projects still requires twice as much work.”

First, some good news: Earning tenure and promotion for digital scholarship is no longer a left-field idea, says Victoria E. Szabo, an assistant research professor of art, art history, and visual studies and program director of information science and information studies at Duke University. A growing number of digital humanists are moving up in the academy.

At the annual convention of the Modern Language Association, this month in Chicago, Szabo, a member of the group’s Committee on Information Technology, assembled a panel that can attest to that. A discussion titled “Evaluating Digital Scholarship: Candidate Success Stories” was to convene Gold, Cheryl E. Ball, Kari M. Kraus, Adeline Koh, and Alex Gil—all scholars who have secured tenure or promotion on the basis, at least partially, of their digital scholarship.

The MLA, for its part, is trying to create more success stories. It has joined the American Historical Association and an array of academic commenters, like Geoffrey Rockwell and Bethany Nowviskie, in offering guidance on how to assess digital scholarship.

The recommendations advise making expectations clear to candidates; asking faculty members familiar with digital work to participate in the review; accepting the work in its original, electronic form and not only, for example, as printed screen shots; and staying informed about technological innovations that help people with disabilities to conduct research, among other principles.

But, as the advocates of digital work will tell you, those broad guidelines are not hard-and-fast rules.

“The pace of technological change makes it impossible for any one set of guidelines to account completely for the ways digital media and the digital humanities are influencing literacies, literatures, and the teaching of modern languages,” the MLA guidelines warn. “A general principle nonetheless holds: Institutions that recruit or review scholars working in digital media or digital humanities must give full regard to their work when evaluating them for reappointment, tenure, and promotion.”

Meanwhile, some universities trying to build out their digital-humanities programs, such as Emory University and the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, are leading their own efforts to clearly define what’s at stake with tenure and promotion.

According to a policy adopted in November, Emory’s College Humanities Council will evaluate digital humanities by reviewing digital projects in their electronic forms, working with tenure candidates to understand the extent and nature of their projects, and ascertaining the relationship among the “form, design, and medium” of the projects.

“We’re at a very different place than we were in 2009,” says Brian Croxall, a digital-humanities strategist and lecturer of English at Emory.

When departments and professors have the same objectives, communicating about digital scholarship can seem pretty easy. Kari M. Kraus, an associate professor in the College of Information Studies and the department of English at the University of Maryland, is a case in point.

Kraus, who began in her tenure-track post in 2007 and was promoted in the spring of 2013, was not required—or even encouraged—to have a published book, she says. Although she listed both traditional and nontraditional scholarship in her dossier, she felt she was able to expand her scholarly repertoire “by not being tied to the book model.”

But Kraus, whose focus is new media, digital preservation, game studies, transmedia storytelling, and speculative design, may be an exception that proves the rule. Her tenure home was in Maryland’s information-studies school, so most of the readers deciding her academic future were familiar with digital work.

Her department’s tenure requirements also varied greatly from those of the English department, which expects more text-driven application materials, she says.

Kraus’s experience is a demonstration: It is up to individual university departments to decide how digital work should be weighed, and reward systems vary on the basis of the nature of the institution.

That remains true, Croxall says, even now that most academics are willing to understand and support digital work.

“For people in the digital humanities, it’s no longer a question of, ‘Will my institution count it?’” he says. “It can get counted. It just might involve a bit more work on your part than what you would like.”

Adeline Koh, an assistant professor of literature and director of digital humanities at the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey, began her tenure-track job in 2010 and received tenure and a promotion in 2013. (Her title will be upgraded for the next academic year.) For both tenure and promotion, she says, the experience was welcoming and supportive.

But it wasn’t all about her digital work, which includes projects like Trading Races, a historical role-playing game designed to teach race consciousness. The job description for her literature professorship didn’t include a digital-humanities component, she says, so she listed her projects as a supplement to her traditional publications and discussed them in her interview. The panel focused more on her printed material, she says, but her digital work was also recognized.

Gold, who won tenure at CUNY not long ago, felt a similar need to focus on his more traditional work. “Like many scholars working at this interstitial moment, I hedged my bet by doing a project, getting grant money, and publishing about the project,” he says. But “there’s hope that eventually the digital projects alone will count toward the research side of tenure-and-promotion portfolios.”

That’s a long way off, says Cheryl E. Ball. Many scholars still have to justify that their work is even worth assessing.

It’s something she knows well. When Ball, now a Fulbright scholar at the Oslo School of Architecture and Design, in Norway, began teaching at Illinois State University, in 2007, she introduced the idea of digital portfolios to the administration.

Ball, whose focus is rhetorical activities and genres in digital media and publishing contexts, made the argument for digital work and portfolios for years before the tenure committee gave her the OK to submit the college’s first electronic dossier. Her unconventional application earned her tenure and a promotion, but those rewards didn’t come without some challenges.

“The day before my portfolio was due, I realized that in order for them to read some of my work”— which was in WordPress, the blogging software—“readers would have to right-click and download the plug-ins,” she said. “I knew many of the readers wouldn’t know how to right-click. I completely panicked, and I wrote 10 pages of reading instructions.”

And still there were misunderstandings, she says with a laugh. “I got a lot of sideways glances because of doing a portfolio that way.”

Ball, editor of Kairos: A Journal of Rhetoric, Technology and Pedagogy, an online peer-reviewed, open-access publication, later shared her experience on the web, posting the letter she had written to her administration outlining the importance of a digital portfolio, along with tutorial videos to help other digital humanists get their work included.

“My goal now,” she says, “is to help the larger digital humanities realize there is precedence and research in this type of work. We get upset when people don’t value our work, but we need to explain to them why they should.”

Image: Kraftwerk, the original digital humanists, slaving over an electronic portfolio.

Join the Conversation


Log In or Sign Up to leave a comment.