Features

“Does It Count?” Scholarly Communication and African American Digital History

Matthew Delmont, November 2016

Ghana’s independence made the front page of the Pittsburgh Courier on March 9, 1957. Credit: Black QuotidianIn February 1926, the Philadelphia Tribune praised the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History and its founder, Dr. Carter G. Woodson, for initiating Negro History Week. “It is essential to the future growth of the Negro race that we become acquainted with our past,” the Tribune’s editors wrote. “Teachers, preachers, professional men, in fact every class is called upon to make special efforts to get better acquainted with the background of their race.” The Tribune encouraged readers to write Woodson for materials about African American history: “The investment of a two cents stamp will be the best investment you ever made.”

Not only does this editorial show how Negro History Week grew from ambitious but humble origins (it expanded to Black History Month in 1976), it also foreshadows the AHA’s Guidelines on the Professional Evaluation of Digital Scholarship by Historians. As the guidelines note, “digital history in various forms often represents a commitment to expanding what history is, and can do, as a field as well as the audiences that it addresses.” From the two-cent stamps in Woodson’s era to digital modes of communication today, generations of historians have sought to reach people beyond the academy and transform what counts as legitimate work. Scholars of African American history and culture, in particular, have long felt a sense of urgency about disseminating their research to multiple communities. Today, Keisha N. Blain, Kim Gallon, Jessica Johnson, Mark Anthony Neal, Angel Nieves, Marisa Parham, and many others are using digital tools and methods to carry on this tradition.

If scholars of African American history are called to communicate to audiences beyond the academy, we are also called to build institutions and networks to support this work.

In this spirit, I created the website Black Quotidian: Everyday History in African-American Newspapers, which may serve as a case study in what it means for a digital humanities project to “count” as scholarship. During the first phase of Black Quotidian, each day I post at least one black newspaper article from that date in history, accompanied by brief commentary. Launched on Martin Luther King Jr. Day this year, the project will include more than 365 posts and more than 1,000 media objects by January 2017. So far, over three dozen undergraduates, graduate students, professors, and independent scholars have contributed guest posts. After a year of daily posts, I will write analytical essays drawing on black newspapers and other multimedia sources, and develop thematic groupings and navigational options to allow readers to explore this research.

Black Quotidian uses Scalar, an open-access, multimedia web-authoring platform that enables authors to assemble images, videos, maps, and other media and to juxtapose these resources with text. Visitors to Black Quotidian can read news coverage from the black press while also watching or listening to contemporaneous musical performances, athletic events, or political speeches that are difficult to describe textually. Using Scalar, Black Quotidian conveys the sounds, sights, and movements that are so important to African American history.

One question about Black Quotidian that I am frequently asked is “Does it count?” The answer is complicated. In my recent promotion review, my department mentioned Black Quotidian and my other digital projects in passing, and my dean praised them. But it was clear that they viewed this scholarship as supplementary to my monographs and peer-reviewed articles. Nonetheless, as a tenured faculty member with traditional publications, I have been able to dedicate time to the project regardless of whether it counts.

This isn’t true for many emerging historians, including graduate students, contingent faculty, and untenured scholars. As the jointly authored 2012 “Call to Redefine Historical Scholarship in the Digital Turn” (which encouraged the AHA to appoint a digital history task force) recognized, “The disconnect between traditional evaluation and training and new digital methods means young scholars take on greater risks when dividing their limited time and attention on new methods that ultimately may not face scholarly evaluation on par with traditional scholarly production.”1 My experiences with the tenure and promotion process at an elite liberal arts college and a public research university are in line with these concerns.

But in other ways, Black Quotidian does count. As Lara Putnam noted in the April 2015 Perspectives on History, “handcuffing scholarly dissemination” to the academic monograph “imposes opportunity costs” in terms of “collective knowledge,” “individual careers,” and “historians’ place in public debate.” One reason I started Black Quotidian was to explore different modes of dissemination, given that I was not yet ready to take on a new book project and was frustrated with writing and publishing peer-reviewed journal articles (given how few people read them). Researching and writing short daily posts has reinvigorated my relationship to scholarship. Amazing stories live in the archives of black newspapers, and it is fun to share several hundred of them with online audiences.

I have come to view scholarly communication, via Twitter and elsewhere, as an everyday process rather than something that happens intermittently, at conferences or through articles and books. Black Quotidian is changing how I think about, write about, and teach African American history. I expect my next book to be better for my experiments with research and scholarly communication. From this perspective, Black Quotidian and similar digital projects count by fostering or renewing a sense of scholarly curiosity.

Digital projects should not be a unique privilege of tenured faculty. Scholars writing dissertations, revising first books, or creating public history projects could benefit from using digital tools to draft, prototype, or remix their research and writing. Rather than being seen as time spent away from doing what really “counts,” digital work has the potential to make scholars more creative, inquisitive, and precise. Indeed, the AHA’s guidelines for digital scholarship call for digital historians to be more self-reflective than their analog peers: “For their part, scholars who embark upon digital scholarship have a responsibility to be as clear as possible at each stage of conceiving, building, and sharing that scholarship about the implications and significance of using the digital medium for their contribution to the scholarly conversation.” This suggests that by using digital tools and methods, historians must engage explicitly with what it means to be a historian—a valuable practice for scholars at every level.

I hope that tenure does not remain the only horizon for what it means for digital projects to count. 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.” I would rather encourage them to create the kinds of scholarship they want to see in the profession and in the world. This is difficult in a field where many scholars are first-generation PhDs and have little space to veer from traditional paths through the academy. Institutional support for African American digital history practitioners and projects is particularly important in this regard. The University of Delaware’s Colored Conventions project and the University of Maryland’s Synergies project, for example, are helping to redefine the relationship between digital humanities and African American history. Similarly, digital skills workshops are now a robust part of the annual Association for the Study of African American Life and History conference. If scholars of African American history are called to communicate to audiences beyond the academy, we are also called to build institutions and networks to support this work.

I do digital history because my goal is to contribute to what scholars, students, and ordinary Americans know about African American history. Over 8,000 people visited the Black Quotidian site in its first seven months. While this would be modest for a commercial website, the project has likely already reached more people than any of my academic journal articles. For me, Black Quotidian counts because Scalar makes it possible to share primary sources about events and people—such as basketball and tennis star Ora Washington, Ghana’s independence, Cleveland businessman and hairdresser Wilbert Black, and civil rights activist Victoria DeLee—with popular audiences in ways that simply are not possible in traditional print forms.

Digital history represents a new way to continue traditions that have long been important for scholars of African American history and culture, as well as scholars working on LGBTQ, Native American, Latina/o, and Asian American history. These traditions include being creative and resourceful in terms of methodology, and communicating knowledge beyond the academy. Woodson’s vision of scholarly communication, promoting history one mail-order pamphlet at a time, remains valuable in our digital age. The questions about how digital projects count for hiring, tenure, and promotion are crucially important, but I hope that we will also see the conversations prompted by the digital turn as a continuation of earlier efforts to expand the boundaries of what history is and can be.

Matthew Delmont is a professor of history at Arizona State University. In addition to Black Quotidian, he is the author of three books, Why Busing Failed: Race, Media, and the National Resistance to School Desegregation; Making Roots: A Nation Captivated; and The Nicest Kids in Town: American Bandstand, Rock ’n’ Roll, and the Struggle for Civil Rights in 1950s Philadelphia. He is currently working on a book tentatively titled To Live Half American: African Americans at Home and Abroad during World War II.