What Constitutes Historical Scholarship in the 21st Century?

Earlier this week I was alerted via Twitter to an incident that demonstrates an unfortunate disconnect between the historical scholarship of digital historians and what some members of various university committees charged with determining tenure for school faculty consider “historical scholarship.” Sean Takats, a history professor at George Mason University and director of research projects at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, outlines the story on his blog The Quintessence of Ham (great name, by the way!)

I am still new to the Digital History game, but I know enough to know that if you’re going to involve yourself in the history profession going forward, Dr. Takats is someone you need to familiarize yourself with. To my understanding, he helped design the popular researching program Zotero, which he still oversees and directs today. I myself use Zotero to help organize my sources when engaging in research projects, and it’s been extremely helpful in organizing all of my resources for my thesis on the Indiana Grand Army of the Republic. The program does a lot more than organizing sources, but I haven’t taught myself how to use those tools yet.

Dr. Takats recently went before the Faculty Governance committee at George Mason to determine whether he would be granted tenure. The story ends happily, as the committee voted 10-2 in his favor, but it appears as if the primary reason he won tenure was because he wrote a book on French Enlightenment cooking. There is nothing wrong with this, but one gets the impression that the gravity and importance of Takats’s work in digital humanities may not have been fully understood by some in the committee. To wit:

The com­mit­tee also rec­og­nized [Takats] 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.

So a monographical study is considered “research,” but digital work is considered “service,” which may not meet the standards for obtaining tenure. This discrepancy is questionable at best. The Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media is the foremost institution for digital humanities in the United States and its contributions to the world of digital history have fundamentally altered the way we look at and educate people about history. Their work is most definitely historical scholarship based on sound “research.” Sure, the “research” probably involved things historians didn’t necessarily have to deal with in the past: computer programming, code, GIS, metadata, digital preservation, etc. Yet it demonstrates the harsh reality that the types of “research” historians will undertake in the future will undoubtedly incorporate these elements. We won’t be researching the past the way we did in the 19th century.

A new publication called The Journal of Digital Humanities recently published a collaborative letter to the American Historical Association (AHA) calling for a redefinition of what constitutes “historical scholarship.” Here’s an excerpt:

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.

This issue directly affects all of us in graduate school. I am writing a master’s thesis that will be roughly 70-100 pages, but I am also helping to create a digital project about travel in Indianapolis this semester (more on that in the future). If I were to be in Takats’s position twenty years from now, would such a digital project be taken seriously by a tenure committee? Would it be addressed on its scholarly merits the same way a book is?

The question of impact also merits attention. Academics and the universities in which they work want people to take history seriously, and digital history has the potential to make a strong impact on the general public’s relationship with the past. Within the next year, will my master’s thesis or my digital project garner more interest? As much as I want my thesis to be read and taken seriously by a large audience, I am going to predict that a much higher number of people are going to visit my Indianapolis travel website. Likewise, Takats’s Zotero program is used by almost every single student in the IUPUI public history program. I don’t think any of us own his book on French cooking, although I know for fact that a few of my cohorts would find that very interesting (myself included). The point is that digital projects garner larger audiences that may not have as much of an interest in reading thesis papers, scholarly journals, or academic monographs.

Looking forward, I will be curious to see how the standards of historical scholarship will change for graduate-level students and faculty seeking tenure. For programs like public history–where we are being trained to actively engage with the public in a non-academic setting–how will universities incorporate digital history into the curriculum? How will they help to create digitally literate graduates? Will there be room for the traditional thesis paper in one’s academic training, or will digital projects completely overshadow the curriculum? (or will it remain status quo?)  When looking at the credentials of a historian, will people look at the number of books a historian has written or the number of digital projects he or she engaged in? (or both?)

If projects like Zotero continue to be considered service projects by university leadership groups, then I’m worried that our colletive definition of historical scholarship will stymie further developments with digital history. Digital humanists will lose resources, funding, or support for projects that are vital to the entire humanities profession because they will not receive the academic support needed to push these projects forward. I have a feeling it will take more time for some academics to understand and adapt to dh, but we are already running short on time. We need a redefinition of historical scholarship NOW.


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