A Digital Humanities Tenure Case, Part 1: “The Talk”

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Is there anything that promotes introspective hand-wringing like the heady mix of tenure, promotion, and the digital humanities? The Journal of Digital Humanities recently explored this issue, and especially interesting contributions by Mark Sample and Katherine D. Harris offer retrospective looks at the role played by the digital humanities in their happily-ending tenure cases.

I’d like to go a bit further in raising the curtain on what’s unnecessarily viewed as a secretive and mysterious process, particularly when it involves digital humanities. Some of this mystery stems from the fact that there just aren’t that many people seeking tenure yet on digital grounds. But much of it is self-inflicted, because candidates are reluctant to disclose what’s happening, except perhaps after the fact like Mark. I’m going to raise the stakes by describing my case while it’s still very much unfolding. Since it would be unrelentingly dull to narrate the entire affair in real time (see timetable below), I decided to wait until now, around the halfway point, to begin posting.

Although the timetable and most of the requirements aren’t unusual at my university, let me open by very briefly explaining the year-long process. Here’s how it works:

  • May – Tenure dossier submitted to outside readers and department (statement, CV, publications)
  • October – Tenure presentation to department
  • November – Department vote and department RPT committee letter to Chair
  • December – Chair’s letter to college RPT committee
  • January – College RPT committee vote and letter to Dean
  • February – Dean’s letter to Provost
  • March – Provost’s letter to President
  • April – President’s letter to Board of Visitors

At first glance it’s a long slog, but in reality there’s very little work required on the candidate’s side. The tenure statement is effectively one’s CV, trimmed and set in eight pages of prose. It took me no more than a couple of hours to write and edit (and incorporate the helpful feedback of a few colleagues — you know who you are). The one area where our department differs from many others is in the additional requirement for an oral presentation to supplement the dossier. This twenty-minute talk (followed by forty minutes or so of discussion) essentially involves a further distillation of the tenure statement, now delivered in conversational tone and punctuated by slides. That’s pretty much it.

Despite these modest requirements, I found it exciting to present my work to the department. For starters, it was a great bookend to the job talk I gave back in 2006 when I claimed I was going to write and publish a book, especially with that book already on the shelves. And of course I could tell them about my current “traditional” project on tropical medicine. But most important, I viewed the talk as an opportunity to explain and advocate for digital scholarship in general, since it’s so different from traditional modes of scholarly output. As I had hoped, the digital half of my presentation sparked considerable interest and discussion, especially on the topics of collaboration and funding. I didn’t work from a prepared text, but here are some key excerpts from my notes:


  • we all collaborate, but depth and breadth in DH unusual for humanists (scale)
  • at RRCHNM: directly written grants, supervised, researched, and coded software with dozens of people
  • indirectly literally thousands more: 20,000 forums contributors to date to Zotero. and millions of users. this is hugely different from our traditional reach and impact.


  • success creates its own problem. how to sustain projects indefinitely?
  • have brought in and spent millions of dollars of grant funding as a primary investigator (PI) and project director, but eventually the cash always runs out, and never funds sustainability.
  • not like writing a book or article, and then it’s the library’s problem
  • partly done via scale and size. community can look after itself (zotero users handle most support on forums and on twitter; random contributors doing code, citation styles, translation of interface into forty languages)
  • partnering with external and int’l institutions where funding might be better
  • most important: generating own, ongoing funding, with Zotero
    • 5 years since assumed day-to-day leadership
    • money and business side handled by a non-profit founded with Dan, Tom, and other academics
    • doing much, much more with less
  • might sound prosaic, but we’re offering important model for other projects, institutions, and the field as a whole.
    • this funding model sustains other RRCHNM projects like Omeka, not just Zotero
    • especially critical with federal funding in crisis.

In other words, I argued that “my” DH projects were really the fruit of the labor and genius of dozens of direct collaborators and thousands, even tens of thousands more virtual ones. And I quantified the incredibly high cost of sustaining digital projects, and the weighty responsibility of doing so indefinitely. The reaction to these claims was notable. Although home to RRCHNM, my department is by no means universally digitally inclined. Indeed a few years ago I overheard a colleague state unequivocally that it was “unimaginable” to grant tenure on the basis of “something like Zotero.” Nonetheless, the Q&A that followed my talk dispelled any doubts I might have had about my department’s support for digital research. Not only did I see no resistance in the audience to the idea of collaboratively developed software as scholarship, there was considerable enthusiasm and curiosity about how these projects operated.

Despite the significance of RRCHNM’s work, there’s no denying that by having a solid corpus of traditional scholarship I’m making my case a lot easier to swallow. I’m certainly not alone here: Dan Cohen had the same luxury when he was up for tenure five years ago. And yet I decided to frame my research as equal parts digital and traditional, with each side informing the other. I’ll explore how this approach is working out (and not working out) in a future post. If I’ve left unanswered questions at this phase, please feel free to ask in the comments.

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