Micah Vandegrift and Stewart Varner’s contribution to the Journal of Library Administration special issue on digital humanities in libraries offers readers a wonderful exploration of some key texts for digital humanities scholars as well as connections to how those works can inform the work of librarians (Vandegrift and Varner 2013). The article is full of suggestions on how to build up resources and make yourself visible to potentially interested colleagues. They close with a charge to all of us to remember to take our work beyond the walls of the library in order to foster collaborative practices.
Their article is a welcome addition to the discussions on how to work alongside rather than work for researchers, and I thank them both for writing it. I want to take a moment to address one factor that is implicitly present yet never directly addressed in all of the authors’ suggestions: the promotion and tenure requirements for faculty, particularly faculty outside the library.
Many junior faculty and graduate students are taking up digital humanities projects both to explore intellectual interests and to help define their professional persona. But the tenure and promotion framework through which these emerging scholars will be evaluated is firmly rooted in a number of traditions that stand in almost direct opposition to the processes and products of digital humanities work.
Take the outside reviewer component of the tenure review process. Oftentimes faculty going up for review are required to compile a list of full professors in their field of study; in some cases this list is further restricted to full professors at American institutions. This can present certain challenges to scholars who are in emerging fields, to those whose work has been more fully supported in other parts of the world, or to those whose projects are interdisciplinary in nature and not easily assigned to one field of thought over another. To further complicate the process, scholars will routinely find that whomever they have worked with before as advisor or co-creator cannot serve. The attempt to ensure some measure of objectivity is understandable here, but it also serves to discourage academic partnerships by emphasizing the more traditional “conversation” of single author articles and monographs.
Many of the potential collaborators with which we interact are facing outside pressure to do the opposite of what Mr. Vandegrift and Mr. Varner’s piece requests.
Along with this, faculty also have the frequent pressure to produce a scholarly monograph from an appropriately prestigious academic press. We in the humanities, broadly speaking, still place a great deal of value in the scholarly monograph, certainly more than some other fields. While there is plenty to be said for altering promotion and tenure requirements, that is a conversation to be had elsewhere. Here, I would simply like to point out that many of the potential collaborators with which we interact are facing outside pressure to do the opposite of what Mr. Vandegrift and Mr. Varner’s piece requests. Faculty members are tacitly or explicitly encouraged to work alone and publish in traditional channels in formats that are easily recognizable and associated with a major field of study.
That is not to say that they have to listen or that we have to work in service of those goals. Scholars in the sciences have explored how to build up a career founded on collaborative projects (Zucker, 2012) and have reminded us to ensure that any data from collaborative work is freely and openly available (Koepsell, 2010). Education scholars have written on how distance education work is viewed for promotion (Simpson, 2010) and the ways that service projects combine with research tasks for tenure (Reybold and Corda, 2011; Demb and Wade, 2012). What connects these disparate scholars is a charge to investigate the factors that shape one’s professional scholarly life, and it is the continuation of that investigation and discussion that best serves scholars as they continue to engage in digital humanities work.
It is important to talk with graduate students and faculty members and any potential collaborator about how the work will fit into their larger research agenda and how that agenda will be positioned when they go on the market or when they come up for review.
Websites like dh+lib allow us a space to push against a suggestion of solitude and tradition because people have pushed for more expansive understandings of the processes and products of scholarship. But in the midst of that pushback, I think it is important to talk with graduate students and faculty members and any potential collaborator about how the work will fit into their larger research agenda and how that agenda will be positioned when they go on the market or when they come up for review. These conversations need not serve as a warning against taking on innovative projects. Instead, they can provide a way to build a partnership through a shared awareness of what work needs to be done and how to best position that work for future benefit for yourself and the scholarly community. Your home institution will of course have unique factors to consider in regards both to resources for digital humanities work and to promotion and tenure. The more that you can understand about both, the more informed your discussions with collaborators can be.