On Tenure in Digital History
To the Editor:
Making a case for tenure in digital history or public history is a difficult path. Making a case for tenure in digital, public history may be the most difficult. These forms of scholarship do not lend themselves to established assessment structures, hence the AHA’s 2015 Guidelines for the Professional Evaluation of Digital Scholarship by Historians. The forms of their arguments challenge the way the field produces knowledge, which is why a set of 27 scholars developed the Digital History & Argument White Paper of 2017. Additionally, the forms of labor that make such projects possible are often collaborative and cross boundaries within and across institutions, hence the focus on co-authorship and teams. Such conditions can make committing fully to digital, public history a precarious project when it comes to tenure. It is why defaulting to producing a book in order to shore up tenure is a completely reasonable project.
To suggest that a book and a multi-institutional, large-scale, multi-year DH project with substantial funding from a foundation is a case for tenure in digital, public history should be deeply alarming (“Getting Tenure with Digital History: How One Scholar Made His Case,” April). A book published by an academic press should be sufficient for a faculty member to receive tenure in a department wedded to traditional assessment structures. A leadership role such as a co-director in a large-scale DH project peer-reviewed through external grants and articles should be sufficient to receive tenure in a department committed to supporting new forms of scholarship. To need both is a ratcheting up of expectations and academic output that makes the bar so high that this case actually risks hurting digital historians. Who beyond those at a highly resourced R-1 would be positioned to produce a book and a large-scale, nationally recognized DH project? More importantly, why would we want this to be a reasonable expectation of scholarly output in the field?
The case presented in LaDale Winling’s article is anything but a case for tenure for digital historians. It actually makes a digital history project an addition to a book, which therefore still centers the book as the main form of scholarship in the field. Matt Delmont wrote in Perspectives in 2016, “I am tired of offering graduate students and untenured faculty the same advice I would have received a decade ago: ‘Finish the book and get tenure before doing a digital project.’” If we were to follow Winling’s case, we would have to say, “Finish the book and digital project and get tenure,” and then focus entirely on digital projects. This would definitely be a step backward.
LaDale Winling responds:
I am in full agreement with Professor Tilton’s caution that we must not merely ratchet up expectations by adding digital scholarship to existing standards of print scholarship. There must be an incremental process of institutional change to incorporate digital publication in evaluations of tenure and promotion.
University of Richmond
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