Digital Scholarship and Tenure

This subject has come up again on Inside Higher Ed with some good comments from rhet/comp digital media scholars–Cheryl Ball, Will Hochman, and Heidi McKee. I think there are several ways to look at this issue.

If you are a graduate student or assistant professor specializing in digital rhetoric, you clearly have a great deal at stake personally in arguing for the validity of the work you are doing. Actually this is a challenge every grad student or asst. prof faces, regardless of specialization, but with digital media the rhetorical situation is notably different because one is doing work that is substantively different, in both form and content, from the work of the faculty hiring, tenuring, and/or promoting you. The IHE article reports on efforts by MLA and HASTAC to educate such faculty so that they are better able to make these evaluations.

This is how I look at digital scholarship. In the short term and for individuals, the arguments that we make today about the validity of digital scholarship are important. And for those reasons, they are worth making. But in the broader view, the success, failure, and general form digital humanities scholarship will take will have little to do with these arguments.

Digital scholarship will succeed for the same reason that we no longer share our research by writing letters to other members of our disciplinary societies (as would have been common in the 17th century). We will teach digital literacy (or electracy or whatever you want to call it) because it will be culturally necessary, and the shape of that digital literacy will no more be determined by academics than print literacy was. Certainly there will be specific disciplinary discursive practices within digital media, just as there are such practices within print literacy. But the book, the page, the paragraph, the linear argument–the fundamental features of print literacy–emerge from broader material, technological conditions. And while I think there's great digital scholarship out there and I admire the work done by my digital rhetoric colleagues, I believe we are still very much in the horseless carriage era.

What do I mean by this? Right now I think we are in a kind of make-work situation in English Studies scholarship and perhaps beyond that as well (though I am less familiar beyond our discipline). I write a 6000 word article. A relatively small number of editors and reviewers read it. Eventually it gets published somewhere, where it probably gets read by a few people, probably has little impact on them (since there are dozens of other articles out there to read), and probably doesn't get cited. It's not that much different from digging a hole, having someone certify I dug it to approved specifications, and the filling it in.

Now that article represents more thorough scholarly work than what appears on this blog, and it has been vetted by experts, but what difference does that make if few people read it? We don't write things to be read; we tend to write them to be published. Publishing is the end result, which if you think about it makes almost no sense. On the flip side, publishing here is worthless in itself. If no one reads this, then I'm largely wasting my time. Many blog detractors would say that's exactly what I'm doing.

But I say we have to answer this question:

Is the point of humanities scholarship to participate in the production and communication of humanistic knowledge, or is it to demonstrate a certain level of mastery or academic reputation?

Certainly one could say the answer is "both," and to an extent the two goals could be complementary, but I think our current situation demonstrates the limits of their complementarity. Digital scholarship doesn't solve this problem. Technology isn't a solution here. In fact, the spread of digital journals might even exacerbate the condition of make-work scholarship. As such, I believe we will find the answer to how digital scholarship ought to work in our discipline when we can re-balance this equation.

There is no going backward. Print publication makes less sense everyday. Online PDF or web journals with articles that look like print essays are, at best, short term solutions, and at worst, failures of intellect, imagination, and guts. We will move forward when we can recapture the lost exigency of humanities research through digital media by using networks to increase access, encourage collaboration, and foster conversations. When we discover the genre of digital humanistic scholarship it will likely no longer be necessary to have these conversations with tenure committees.