Review by Korey Jackson
Alison Byerly, Middlebury College
Kathleen Fitzpatrick, MLA
Katherine A. Rowe, Bryn Mawr College
Early on Thursday morning I attended the MLA pre-conference workshop on Evaluating Digital Work for Tenure and Promotion. Kathleen Fitzpatrick opened the session with an introduction to the new networking site MLA Commons—a platform that promises to offer social media warp and weft for humanities scholars looking to combine forces around disciplinary questions and challenges. I’m excited by the prospects of the platform and heartened that there’s already a group of dedicated folk discussin’ and fightin’ the good fight of appointment, promotion, and tenure (APT) for all kinds of publishing—digital, print, and otherwise.
The meeting was organized as a workshop in which participants discussed examples of digital work and how it should be presented before APT committees. We were presented with three different case studies: First up was Jason Mittell describing Complex TV, a MediaCommons-hosted exploration of the development of the genre of serialized television. This was followed by an overview from Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman of her blog/social networking site Sounding Out. And last, we heard from Rachel Buurma discussing her work in developing the Early Novels Database.
With each case study we were asked how as reviewers we might assess the material in question. The dominant theme of our table’s (and many others’) confab was the need for good translation: situating the digital project within a larger field-specific conversation and motivating its particular digital form (why a website/blog/interactive social space and not, say, a book or journal article?). Senior faculty participants with committee experience emphasized that candidates have more power in this process than they might think. Foremost is the power of telling a good story–providing a clear dossier narrative that addresses questions of scholarly contribution and formal innovation, as well as pointing to external reviewers who can present digital work to more traditionalist committee members. These are crucial responses to the “how should this count?” question.
The most profound takeaway, however, was a point made by co-presider Alison Byerly, who said this: left to their own devices, individuals have more capacity for change than the institutions that house them. It seems like an obvious point: institutions are the central site for socio-cultural (and disciplinary) replication. The whole point of institutional (and disciplinary) standards and guidelines is self-preservation; and self-preservation is an inherently conservative process. Which is why the dreaded phrase “we’ve always done it that way” is so resolutely plural…and so aggressively past tense.
But what’s odd, says Byerly, is that you can strike up a conversation with any appointment, promotion, and tenure committee member and they’d say (off the record) that, yes, so-and-so candidate’s digital project or blog or multimedia/mulitmodal text should absolutely count as a formal publication. In the same breath, though, the same committee member would say that, no, there’s no way the department would back this claim. And heaven only knows the rampant levels of dismissiveness that would come spitting out of college admin offices.
The point is that if there’s a roadblock to moving beyond conversations about how to reform APT decision-making and toward actually changing policies, it’s a mind-forged one: the presumption of conservatism “out there” reinstates conservative decision-making by individuals. But standards are made and governed and changed by individual actors, at the atomic level, and not by some amorphous institutional body politic. It seems we’re (still) at the beginning of a movement that will (eventually) give rise to changing standards and recommendations. But we’re also at a point in the timeline of change where real bravery is needed, where thinking individually, not institutionally, is paramount.
Or better: we’re at a point where good dossiers are not only those that are chockablock with top tier journal articles and a book contract from one of five university presses; we’re at point where the candidate can, through the hard work of translating her dossier—motivating and contextualizing the (still) strange landscapes of computational methods, or multimodal interfaces, or the creation of social networking platforms—bring round the committee to a place of support.
And this hard work of translation doesn’t have to be borne by the candidate alone. As Jason Mittell and Roger Whitson speculated, having a “group that could help translate” digital work to the language of the institution would be a powerful step in the right direction.
Brief selfish plug time: Anvil Academic, in conjunction with groups like the MLA (and now MLA Commons) aims to provide just this needed translational pathway from the digital project to the APT committee member, the external reviewer, the dean, the provost. One of our central goals is to help reframe work that is unorthodox, that is strange and new and good, not as a variation on the status quo, but as crucial scholarship; and, more particularly, as scholarship that deserves to call itself a publication not because it simply replicates or analogizes the processes involved in formal publication, but because it reimagines these processes at a time when they desperately need reimagining.
So, yes, engaging in the crafting and vetting of DH work for appointment, tenure, and promotion is still up to brave individuals—candidates and reviewers alike. But such bravery is made easier knowing that extra-institutional organizations (particularly digital publishers) are committed to having the individual’s back…not only in theory but also, as we hope to show, in practice.
[Note: part of this review originally appeared as Beyond the Dark: Evaluating Digital Scholarship @ MLA at anvilacademic.org.]
Korey Jackson is an ACLS Public Fellow working as the Program Coordinator for Anvil Academic, a publisher of innovative digital humanities scholarship.