Digital Humanities and Professional Advancement

This afternoon I’m getting together with some of my colleagues from the arts, social sciences, and humanities to discuss the place of digital humanities in professional advancement both on campus and in our disciplines more broadly. The meeting will occur under the auspices of the Working Group in Digital and New Media and be the first attempt to use the standing of our group on campus to address pressing concerns facing scholars working in digital and new media. The goal is to identify key issues that impact all of our positions on campus and to produce a white paper for administrators, the university senate, and colleagues over the winter months.  We hope to pay particular attention to potential limitation in existing tenure, retention, and promotion policies that could discourage or inhibit the advancement of scholars active in the digital humanities. Since our group includes members from across campus our focus will naturally be broad.

Assembling a sensible list of concerns facing scholars who work primary in the digital realm is difficult. The issues range from the very basic – like very limited understanding of the differences between digital and print projects – to the more complex: inconsistent infrastructural support, uncertain attitudes toward collaboration, and the lack of established metrics to evaluate scholars who work heavily in the digital realm.  We do not have a plan or a list of priorities for the meeting (in part, the goal of the meeting is to establish a list of priorities as we move forward), but I’ll offer my own list of things that should be on the agenda.

1. Institutional Support. The greatest problem facing digital humanities (and I include digital history and archaeology in this group) is the lack of institutional support. On the one hand, with any new approach to organizing and producing knowledge, a lag between institutional adaptation and the development of the field is to be expected. On the other hand, the humanities have traditionally received only modest funding for research. This has become particularly problematic for digital humanists since much of their work relies upon (relatively) expensive technologies (hardware and software), access to specialists, and resources for developing new collections of research material. In the hard and applied sciences, start up grants would help to defray these costs and these are often funded from “indirect costs” produced from grants awarded to more established scholars. There are fewer resources for such start up funds in the digital humanities (although they are not entirely absent), in part, because there are very few indirect costs produced from traditional humanities research. In order to generate a pool of funds to support digital humanities start-up costs, the institution must make the initial investment. And for the institution to make this investment, they must see the potential for a return.

The primary problem with the lack of start up funding in the digital humanities is that it delays the production of scholarship by new faculty or faculty new to the digital humanities. As a result, new faculty in the digital humanities must spend time securing resources and building infrastructure for their own research and this delays the ability of faculty to be competitive for external grants, for example, and to produce material for their own internal advancement.

To have a successful group of scholars in the digital humanities, a greater investment in sustaining infrastructure and in early career support for faculty with digital research needs.

2. Collaboration. Synergy is one of the newest watchwords at the University of North Dakota. From what I can gather, it refers to collaboration on campus that produces more energy than it expends. Fortunately, the digital humanities has long relied upon dynamic synergies to meld traditional concerns of scholars in literature, history, and archaeology with digital technology. This combination has then produced new approaches to long-standing problems and opened up new venues for scholarly and creative inquiry. Collaboration, however, has not always squared with traditional scholarly approaches in the humanities. Co-authored research, grants, and co-directed projects often stand at odds with traditions of solitary scholarly work, and this has challenged departments as they seek to evaluate new collaborative ventures in the humanities.

As scholars engaged in collaborative synergies, we have a responsibility to educate our colleagues as to the nature and challenges of collaborative scholarship in the humanities. In doing this, we have the opportunity to create new paradigms of collaboration that are less dependent upon this generated in the hard and applied sciences. In particular, we can advocate approaches that downplay the key role of a single “primary investigator” and demonstrate how scholars can contribute to projects in ways that deserve equal credit.  Moreover, we can advocate for policies on campus that both reward and facilitate collaboration in scholarship and teaching across departments, programs, and colleges, as well as on the national and international level.

3. Publishing Problems. Perhaps the most practical issue facing scholars in the digital humanities is the impact of digital scholarship on traditional modes of publishing. In a simplest sense,digital humanists regularly produce scholarly and creative works (video, databases, electronic texts, et c.) that are incompatible with or fall outside the traditional limits of print scholarship. More importantly, perhaps, they are often asked to develop their own means of dissemination, review, and preservation of these scholarly work (and at institutions that lack a substantial digital infrastructure the problems of dissemination and preservation of digital work are particularly acute).

More importantly for individual scholars, the criteria for evaluating digital scholarship and creative work remains in the state of flux. Digital, peer-review journals are now sufficiently well regarded outlets for born digital and new and multimedia publications. Unfortunately these kinds of publications are only suitable for a tiny fraction of the output from digital scholars who increasingly work in media and genres that do not necessarily have a tradition of peer review or do not measure their impact through traditional methods of citation tracking.

As with all emerging academic areas, scholars in the digital arts and humanities have a responsibility to educate their colleagues and institutions about the challenge they face and the opportunities that their work provides. Producing a ‘white paper’ from the Working Group in Digital and New Media will be a local step toward making the University of North Dakota a better home for scholars in these exciting new fields.

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