What I thought of the readings:
This week’s readings echo many topics addressed in past weeks, such as the need to acknowledge collaborative work, the benefits of open access, and the need for academia to “count” digital history or public history work (as opposed to only the scholarly monograph) towards tenure and promotion.
Addressing the need for new modes of peer review, authorship, and publication, Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s Planned Obsolescence brings a sense of urgency to these concerns by tying them to existential threats to the humanities: She links the “fundamentally conservative nature” of academia not just to the inability for younger or more technologically savvy scholars to get their work recognized, but to society-at-large’s dismissal of the university in general and the humanities in specific. In other words, by resisting digital technologies and all the new modes that come with it (open access, open peer review, rethinking of intellectual property rights), academia is further isolating itself from public life, and therefore confirming the public’s misconception that scholarship (especially the humanities) is not worthy of public interest, respect, or funding. For Fitzpatrick, academia must take responsibility for communicating its worth to the public, and embracing new technologies and forms of communication is a fundamental step. Moreover, Fitzpatrick emphasizes that academia does not have a choice in whether to adapt to the new technological landscape or to remain in its conservative bubble: Change is inevitable and academia must react.
In publishing his born-digital article for the American Historical Review, William Thomas experienced both the fundamentally conservative nature of academia addressed by Fitzpatrick and the benefits of embracing new modes of review and publication. It is interesting that the summary of the digital article which appeared in the print version of the journal was mistaken by some scholars as the “real” version of the work. Among reviewers of the digital version, there seemed to be a fundamental misunderstanding of the difference between simply publishing text on the web and creating a dynamic digital history project. Aside from (rightly) criticizing the gimmicky use of Flash or other convoluted navigation features, reviewers saw the digital project as having “no argument” due to its lack of linearity and the perceived abdication of authorial control. For Thomas, these obstacles in having his work accepted by historians show that we need new conventions for “reading” in the digital medium.
In “Re-Visioning Historical Writing” Dorn and Tanaka also address the need for new modes of historical reading and writing. Dorn emphasizes that digital projects reveal history to be more than just a “polished argument about the past.” Rather, history is a messy proposition which involves many voices, contradictions, and narratives, perhaps best suited to a hypertext, dynamic, ever-evolving presentation rather than a static, linear narrative presented in a monograph or journal article. Tanaka also cautions against fixating on the “correct” interpretation of the past rather than a heterogeneity of interpretations. He proposes that the evolving role of the historian will involve corralling a multitude of data in a skilled and reliable way, rather than simply mastering knowledge in a specific area of expertise and presenting that knowledge in an authoritative way. (For me, this sounds a lot like the job description of librarians–professionals who constantly need to justify their worth to students, funders, and sometimes even scholars.)
Related to the above authors’ calls for openness and change in academia is the Working Group on Evaluating Public History Scholarship’s guidelines for fair and transparent evaluation of public history faculty. Again, these guidelines show that change is already upon us, and academia must adapt in order to promote not only fairness to scholars but continuing relevance to the outside world.
The act of commenting on Open Review actually brought up many of the issues addressed by the essay itself. I found myself wondering whether my comment could actually be useful to the writers, who are subject specialists and have much higher academic credentials that I do. I also wondered who would be responsible for reading my comment and for what period of time it is actually useful to receive further commentary. Reading the essay and making a brief comment on one paragraph did not feel to me like terribly helpful or legitimate peer review. As was said in the essay, different levels of engagement would be required for open review to be feasible, such as a certain number of reviewers being committed to reading the entire work as well as making granular comments. I do like the idea of opening up works to the scrutiny of any interested commenter, but wonder if it could be difficult for authors and editors to cut through the noise to be able to respond to truly useful recommendations.
I have to admit that I was a bit stumped when it came to developing my own guidelines for evaluating digital history scholarship, not least of all because I am really not familiar with the process of evaluating even traditional scholarship for tenure or promotion purposes. Therefore, I did some Googling and found various example of guidelines, such as those provided by the American Association for History & Computing, based on guidelines by the MLA. Both sets of guidelines seem fairly comprehensive, focusing not only on the responsibilities of the reviewers, but on the responsibilities of the candidates in advocating for themselves. Although candidates are advised to document and explain collaborative relationships, one aspect I thought these guidelines left out was the responsibility of reviewers to fully understand the collaborative nature of digital projects and to seek methods for fairly evaluating this work. Also, while these guidelines are more general, there are a few specific actions on the part of reviewers I thought could be added:
- Consider the audience for a digital project; it may not be directed toward scholars, but toward the public, undergraduates, etc.
- Attempt to explore the digital project through various paths, as the full story of the project may be best communicated through various trials and revisits
- Evaluate design as an aspect of the project’s argument, thesis, or purpose
- Take user feedback into account if the project has been opened to the public
- Understand that the project may be ongoing and evolving, rather than in a final or a static state
What do you think of these recommendations?