A Digital Humanities Tenure Case, Part 2: Letters and Committees

After my tenure presentation and with the unanimous vote of my department, my department’s RPT committee and our chair prepared additional letters to send the file up the food chain to the college-level promotion and tenure committee. These letters were embarrassingly favorable, and based on the excerpts they included from outside readers, those letters too offered overwhelming support for tenure. The college-level committee, however, wasn’t so easily fooled. Voting 10–2 in favor of my case, largely on the basis of my monograph in French history, here’s what the committee members had to report on the digital side of my portfolio:

The committee also recognized his considerable work at the Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media as it relates to projects such as Zotero and the substantial funds he and his collaborators have raised to help sustain them. Some on the committee questioned to what degree Dr. Takats’ [sic] involvement in these activities constitutes actual research (as opposed to project management). Hence, some determined that projects like Zotero et al., while highly valuable, should be considered as major service activity instead.

To recap: Conceive projects? Service. Develop prototype software? Service. Write successful grant proposals? Service. Write code? Service. Lead developers and designers? Service. Disseminate the results of the project? Service. I certainly hope program officers from Mellon, Sloan, IMLS, and NEH aren’t reading this post, because I suspect they would be more than a little dismayed to discover that they’ve been funding “major service activity.“

Levity aside, I want to focus on the committee’s disregard for project management, because it’s here I think that we find evidence of a much broader communication breakdown between DH and just-H, despite the best efforts to develop reasonable standards for evaluating digital scholarship.

Although the committee’s letter effectively excludes “project management” from consideration as research, I would argue that it’s actually the cornerstone of all successful research. It’s project management that transforms a dissertation prospectus into a thesis, and it’s certainly project management that shepherds a monograph from proposal to published book. Fellow humanists, I have some news for you: you’re all project managers, even if you only direct a staff of one.

Reductio ad absurdum aside, why this disparagement? One colleague of mine suggests that this neglect of lab work is the inevitable result of my university’s decision in 2006 to cleave off the College of Science from the Humanities and Social Sciences. As a result, our college committee is highly unlikely to include many members who have lab experience. Because that sort of collaborative, multi-layered work is unfamiliar, it gets lumped in my case under the category of “service,” which — let’s not kid ourselves — is nothing more than academia’s equivalent of “other.”

More generally speaking it’s clear that this college committee views “research” through a narrower lens than does our own faculty handbook. There you’ll find a qualitative component that’s admirably broad in scope:

Scholarly achievement is demonstrated by original publications and peer reviewed contributions to the advancement of the discipline/field of study or the integration of the discipline with other fields; by original research, artistic work, software and media, exhibitions, and performance; and by the application of discipline– or field-based knowledge to the practice of a profession.

And the handbook also suggests a degree of quantitative assessment: “There should be evidence that the candidate’s contributions have significant influence on colleagues at other institutions in this country, and where applicable, abroad.”

College committee members, in contrast, considered only my peer-reviewed traditional publication to count as research. Of course, digital work often goes through many stages of peer-review: at the funding stage, with published reviews and awards for the finished project, and in my case through the solicitation of formal assessments of my corpus by peers. And its potential for significant influence on colleagues at other institutions is often orders of magnitude greater than that offered by traditional publications. In the eyes of committee members, however, this sort of review and impact should not count at all. And notably, the committee makes no effort to describe what sort of digital work in my portfolio (or not in it) would merit consideration.

The chilling effect of this stance can’t be overstated: by suggesting that my digital work should not count as research, they’re effectively claiming that no one’s digital work should count. Why? Because my tenure portfolio includes contributions at nearly every conceivable level of digital scholarship, from principal investigator all the way to coder. Much well-founded concern exists within the digital humanities about whether scholarly credit is shared equitably among contributors — we find Bethany Nowviskie in the JDH and the Faircite project more broadly fearing a scenario where the pie is carved up only for the benefit of project leaders. But what if there is no pie? If we’re going to limit ourselves to using traditional modes of scholarly dissemination as a proxy for “research” at RRCHNM’s home institution, then we send a powerful signal discouraging digital research projects elsewhere, at any level.

  • Adam Crymble

    This is an incredibly frustrating post to read, but I’m glad it wasn’t accompanied by a failed application. I find it interesting that I’ve never actually heard of any of the people on that committee, but just about everyone I know has at least heard of your work. Sometimes I even name-drop it and mentioned I worked on it for a few months to sound hip (do kids still use that word?).

  • Sean,

    Yeah, I did read your post. 😉 Thanks for doing this — it is actually quite valuable to hear first-hand accounts of this stuff. Your discussion of “what is ‘research’?” is a really central question that warrants more discussion. A lot of DH T&P issues boil down to how one defines research.

    The recent CLIR report on Computationally Intensive Research (disclosure: I funded it) talks about that a lot and more-or-less calls for a redefinition of what “research” really is in the humanities. (That report is here: http://www.clir.org/pubs/reports/pub151 )

  • This was disappointing to hear — I echo Adam Crymble, though, in saying I’m glad it at least wasn’t a failed application. In my mind (or more likely my imagination) GMU is supposed to be a leader in this area, so it is all the more disheartening to hear about a review committee there so blatantly devaluing DH work. It makes me continue to wonder how, particularly as a graduate student, to overcome this problem. How do we make sure that in fostering better communication between “DH and just-H” we’re not just talking past each other?

  • This is indeed a nightmare scenario. While it could be worse–the vote might not have gone your way–it’s chilling to know it *would* be worse without that history monograph.

    I struggle to understand this situation, which exists across higher ed but is especially frustrating in the context of a school that (as Adam notes) has a reputation as progressive in this regard. My night thoughts run to the larger, chronic, systemic problems that produce these acute symptoms. I often wonder if there’s any way to fix these problems besides tearing the whole system down and building a new one.

    Thank you for writing this post. It’s a brave act and I admire you for it.

  • Thank you for writing up this concise account of the college committee comments and vote. It’s disappointing to read, but I’m also heartened by the fact that more who are doing DH are getting tenure and will be sitting on these committees. I was told to educate those who were deciding on my work, but some have resisted that education or denied its feasibility. It’s too bad that the conversation about DH work and authority didn’t happen earlier than inside a very important meeting that defines your career.

    This is all to say, especially to those who are now in graduate school and doing DH, there’s a larger contingent of DHers in administrative positions than there were 5 years ago. We’re making slow progress, but it’s progress nonetheless.

  • Thanks for posting this. I come out of the field of computers and writing and do a lot of DH work now, and I have to say I’m still a bit flummoxed by the print bias that begins at the dissertation and doesn’t seem to have an end in sight (a bias I still see evidence of in C&W and DH surprisingly). I’ve been gently (and not so gently) counseled by senior colleagues to play the game and publish only in print until I get tenure and then do any kind of research I want and advocate for those coming up behind me, but I consider myself a digital scholar and think that working in the media I study is an important part of my research agenda. I list my DH projects alongside my digital and print publications on my CV. When it became clear that this was not going to be a successful approach at one institution I chose to leave and found another position at an institution that is much friendlier to my approach (as evidenced by successful T&P cases with similar research profiles). I sigh when I read this–although I lift my fist in triumph that your department got it. Baby steps…

    And don’t even get me started on the issues surround collaborative research and T&P…

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  • I’ve been on that committee. You have to recuse yourself when people from your own dept,. come up, which is part of the problem

    You’re right to be aggrieved, but wrong about collaborative work. Lots of the departments and programs within our college take collaborative work as the norm, and recognize stuff that looks more like “project management” than research. Criminal justice for. ex.

    The problem with the committee is that different disciplines have really varying sense of what counts. Some department s stress publishing a book. Some members of that committee, when I was on it, were openly contemptuous of books and insisted articles were the only thing that counted. I had to argue surprisingly strenuously for digital work–it was far from well understood and the larger context had to be explained.

    I would not take the dissenting votes to heart–there’s a lot of for want of a better term could be called “symbolic” or protest voting that goes on, especially when the case is impeccably strong, as yours was.

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  • A. Sara

    I am glad that this case might draw a line between DH and H to the Committee.

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