AHA Forming a Task Force on Digital Scholarship

In January, Prof. Douglas Seefeldt, my friend Alex Galarza, and myself, along with the support and advice of many others, co-authored an open letter to the American Historical Association asking them to take up the issue of assessing digital scholarship. At the end of January we were informed that the issue was being placed on the agenda for the AHA council’s mid-year meeting at the beginning of this month. I’m thrilled to see the announcement today that the AHA is establishing a task force on digital scholarship. I think it’s an important issue for the AHA to address, so I will eagerly watch how things unfold going forward.

For posterity, here is the full text of the letter (which you can also find on Google Docs):

A Call to Redefine Historical Scholarship in the Digital Turn

This document is a product of many of the exciting changes discussed below. It was the product of a session at THATCamp AHA that included graduate students, tenured and non-tenured faculty, and librarians. These participants continued their conversations at the physical conference and afterwards on the web. They have read, discussed, and edited this proposal to the AHA’s Professional Division and Research Division to ask them to call for the AHA Council to appoint a task force to survey the profession as to the place of digital historical scholarship in promotion and tenure and graduate student training and to recommend standards and guidelines for the profession to follow.

The addition of the term “digital” to the humanities signals an exciting turn spurred by both technological change and an expanded understanding of scholarship. The unprecedented number of sessions focusing on digital scholarship at the 126th Annual American Historical Association in Chicago indicates that historians are active participants in a digital revolution promoting interdisciplinary, open, and collaborative scholarship. Practitioners of digital history are producing excellent models of research, pedagogy, and public engagement. Some models unsettle our understanding of units of scholarship, such as the monograph, while others fall into the recognizable forms of journal publications and edited volumes. The encouragement and recognition of this work by peers has been important to fostering more innovation that will continue to change the field.

Digital tools are transforming the practice of history, yet junior scholars and graduate students are facing obstacles and risks to their professional advancement in using methods unrecognized as rigorous scholarly work. Their peers and evaluators are often unable or unwilling to address the scholarship on its merits. Opportunities to publish digital work, or to even have it reviewed are limited. Finally, promotion and tenure processes are largely built around 19th-century notions of historical scholarship that do not recognize or appropriately value much of this work. 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 ever face scholarly evaluation on par with traditional scholarly production.

Six years ago the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS) reflected: “We might expect younger colleagues to use new technologies with greater fluency and ease, but with more at stake, they will also be more risk-adverse. . . . Senior scholars now have both the opportunity and responsibility to take certain risks, first among which is to condone risk taking in their junior colleagues and their graduate students, making sure that such endeavors are appropriately rewarded.”1 Historians have responded to these difficulties by challenging promotion and tenure processes within their own institutions, developing graduate programs that train scholars in digital practices, and by experimenting with new models of peer-review in publishing.

These early adopters face difficulties in having their digital scholarship properly assessed and valued for promotion and tenure. The faculty of UCLA’s Digital Humanities program have noted difficulties stemming from the fact that digital projects may not look like traditional academic scholarship. They stress that “new knowledge is not just new content but also new ways of organizing, classifying, and interacting with content. This means that a major part of the intellectual contribution of a digital project is the design of the interface, the database, and the code, all of which govern the form of the content.”2 Therein lies the conundrum: the “digital turn” in the humanities is opening up exciting opportunities for complex digital scholarship, graduate programs are beginning to instruct students in the theories and methods of digital history, and institutions are hiring tenure-line faculty to pursue this new genre of scholarly communication but a concomitant evolution of the customs and standards of valuing and assessing this new model scholarship has not developed apace. Or, as the UCLA digital humanities scholars contend, “digital scholars are not only in the position of doing original research but also of inventing new scholarly platforms after 500+ years of print so fully naturalized the ‘look’ of knowledge that it may be difficult for reviewers to understand these new forms of documentation and intellectual effort that goes into developing them.” “This,” they say, “is the the dual burden—and the dual opportunity—for creativity in the digital domain.”3

Nearly two decades ago, an AHA ad hoc committee on redefining historical scholarship noted: “The AHA defines the history profession in broad, encompassing terms, but is that definition meaningful as long as only certain kinds of work are valued and deemed scholarly within our discipline?”4 We are asking the American Historical Association to again take up this question, with the ACLS’s observation in mind, and begin paving the way for evaluating digital methods and training. It is essential that the AHA demonstrate leadership to encourage these solutions and to provide guidelines for a widespread institutional definition of what counts as scholarly work in the profession. An ad hoc committee would be instrumental to help achieve the following:

  • Gather and assess data on the state of digital scholarship in the profession, such as a survey of digital humanities centers that engage in historical research, institutions that teach digital history curriculum, and a general survey of department members including chairs, directors of graduate study, faculty, and graduate students.

  • Evaluate the existing tenure and promotion practices of departments and their ability to recognize and fairly evaluate digital scholarship Encourage departments to evaluate how they are training graduate students to practice or evaluate digital scholarship as a part of their regular graduate program

  • Issue guidelines for the evaluation of digital scholarship similar to the Modern Language Association’s 2007 “Report of the MLA Task Force on Evaluating Scholarship for Tenure and Promotion.”5

The merits of digital scholarship in the historical profession demand that we again ask what counts.

Originally drafted and signed by,
Alex Galarza, Michigan State University
Jason Heppler, University of Nebraska - Lincoln
Douglas Seefeldt, University of Nebraska - Lincoln

Further edited/signed by,
Brian Sarnacki, University of Nebraska - Lincoln
Robert Voss, University of Nebraska - Lincoln
Michael J. Kramer, Northwestern University
Brandon Locke, University of Nebraska - Lincoln
Peter Alegi, Michigan State University
Chad Black, University of Tennessee, Knoxville
Heather Munro Prescott, Central Connecticut State University
Brian Rutledge, Cornell University
Miriam Posner, University of California, Los Angeles
Larry Cebula, Eastern Washington University, Cheney
Leslie C. Working, University of Nebraska - Lincoln
Gretchen A. Adams, Texas Tech University
Amanda H. Forson, Loyola University Chicago and Dominican University
Gary J. Kornblith, Oberlin College
Naoko Shibusawa, Brown University
Melissa Bruninga-Matteau, Yavapai College
Brenda Elsey, Hofstra University
Sharon M. Leon, Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, George Mason University
W. Caleb McDaniel, Rice University
Kristen D. Nawrotzki, Pädagogische Hochschule Heidelberg, Germany
Frederic L. Propas, Instructor, San José State University
Allen Dieterich-Ward, Shippensburg University
Angel David Nieves, Hamilton College


NCPH whitepaper

CDRH guidelines on evaluating digital scholarship

AAHC tenure guidelines

MLA taskforce evaluating T&P

1993 AHA ad hoc committee redefining scholarly work

Promotion & Tenure Criteria for Assessing Digital Research in the Humanities,”

Todd Presner, “How to Evaluate Digital Scholarship,” UCLA’s Digital Humanities program (September 2011) white paper recently circulated on HASTAC, accessed November 6, 2011.

  1. Our Cultural Commonwealth,” report by the ACLS Commission on Cyberinfrastructure for the Humanities and Social Sciences, 29 July 2006. ↩︎

  2. Todd Presner, et al. “How to Evaluate Digital Scholarship,” UCLA’s Digital Humanities program (September 2011) white paper recently circulated on HASTAC website, accessed November 6, 2011. ↩︎

  3. Presner, et al. ↩︎

  4. Redefining Historical Scholarship: Report of the American Historical Association Ad Hoc Committee on Redefining Scholarly Work,” December 1993, accessed 2012-01-09. ↩︎

  5. Report of the MLA Task Force on Evaluating Scholarship for Tenure and Promotion,” Profession (2007), accessed 2012-01-11. ↩︎