Doug  Seefeldt

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  • Not There Yet: History Departments, Tenure, and Digital History Scholarship

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    I am proposing a general discussion that might morph into a writing session on the topic of tenuring the new generation of digital historians. As we know, the humanities are currently experiencing the exciting changes proffered by the digital turn as some disciplines, like English, are out in front leading the charge, others, like history, are late adopters, pushing back hard at the attendant cultural changes. As a tenure-track Assistant Professor at a research university currently up for promotion and tenure, I have been experiencing the disconnect between progress (“let’s hire a digital historian!”) and tradition (“how can we possibly grant tenure to a file that is so different than what we had to do?”). This is not to say that history is bereft of digital visionaries, obviously as even a cursory glance at this year’s AHA program will attest, there have been several bright lights leading us down the primrose path by their scholarship, the tools they have developed, and the students they have trained. I for one have been the happy beneficiary of being in that light at both UVa and UNL. However, most all of the first (and probably second) generation were either tenured when they took up digital history or were granted tenure with files that included a monograph that represent the kind of traditional scholarship that P&T committees could recognize.

    In contrast, the files of those of us who are following their lead are much different. While not void of print, these files do not feature the monograph as the primary locus of the scholarly product created during the probationary period. We have digital history archives filled with research materials that are heavily marked-up and associated in sophisticated ways, we have visualizations of historical questions that we build with an ever-evolving set of tools, we have successful peer-reviewed grant applications from highly competitive agencies, and we have a real, not simply rhetorical, track record of true collaborative research that reaches across different departments on campus and into the library. It is my experience that our faculty peers in history—both those who support our digital work and those who do not—are not in a good position to evaluate the merits of our work when it comes time for promotion and tenure review. There are many factors that contribute to this situation, from individual scholars being unable or unwilling to address the digital scholarship on its own terms to the dearth of venues to publish born digital work or even have it reviewed (every academic journal reviews books but only the JAH reviews “web sites”?), to the very customs of the P&T process that are built around 19th-century notions of historical scholarship. But as Cathy Davidson said in her HASTAC keynote, the digital is transforming the humanities and that we must take hold of the technologies of this historical moment to create institutional change.

    Let’s discuss this topic and perhaps conclude by drawing up a brief statement of how we expect the discipline of history to change to adapt to value and reward the new model scholarship that they want us to engage in. This sort of “digital historians bill of rights” would be extremely valuable for those who will find themselves negotiating the terms of their hires into history departments and their annual and reappointment reviews. It’s time to bring our discipline in line with the 21st-century humanities world even if have to skip a century to get there…

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