Thoughts on Blogging for Tenure

04Jan12

I recently was contacted by Stephen Olsen from the MLA, who is coordinating a pre-conference workshop entitled “Evaluating Digital Work for Tenure and Promotion: A Workshop for Evaluators and Candidates” taking place on the 5th of January at this year’s convention. For the session, they are organizing a number of case studies of digital work that they will discuss in terms of how a promotions committee or reviewers would approach them, and my blog was suggested as a possible example. (As it turns out, the suggestion came from my Provost at Middlebury, Alison Byerly, who is participating on the workshop – and I know how fortunate we are not only to have top administrators who are humanists, which I believe is somewhat rare in talking with colleagues elsewhere, but who are also interested & engaged in thinking about new forms of scholarship.)

Stephen asked me to answer a number of questions about my perceptions about blogging and other digital work concerning tenure & promotion issues. He pointed to my “Birthday Blogging” post where I had discussed the value of the blog to my career, and I highlighted a couple of other posts that raise these issues, such as the unusual history of my Mad Men essay and the excerpt from my own tenure self-evaluation where I frame my digital work. But he asked one question that got me thinking & writing: although I post most of my essays on this blog, some might “take the position that the final product (or goal) of this work is still a traditional print publication, and that’s what the profession should continue to evaluate and reward.  How would you respond to that?” I wanted to share & expand upon that response publicly here.

I’m very torn about the question of blog (or the more descriptive term “digital self-publication”) as end-goal vs. step along the way to traditional print or peer-reviewed online publications. I generally follow the model of working toward traditional publications supplemented by blog versions. In the case of my Mad Men essay that will not be published traditionally, I think its function as an online publication is self-rewarding, with the conversation & readership generating value rather than serving as a line on a C.V., a position that’s easy for me to embrace post-tenure with a good number of traditional publications. However, I can imagine situations where a junior scholar might want to tout a self-published piece (or portfolio of a digital project) as part of their dossier – that would raise questions that I don’t have definite answers about. I’ve collaborated with Kathleen Fitzpatrick on MediaCommons and have been inspired by her scholarship on academic publishing, and firmly believe in the value of publish-then-filter forms of open-review, but I don’t believe that a self-hosted blog is necessarily the best venue for such publications – obviously anyone posting comments to my blog knows it’s my turf, and I can edit or delete comments as I please. I would think that the “review” that happened in the comment thread of my Mad Men piece would be seen by a review committee as substantive & suggestive of the piece’s scholarly value (if not uniform embrace), but the context of it being on my own blog would be important to consider.

Here’s what I would hope would happen for reviews of candidates with a blog or other digital work as part of their dossier (and this is how I’d mentor my junior colleagues or evaluate such dossiers as an internal or external reviewer): the candidate needs to make the contexts of their digital work incredibly clear, explaining the relationship between this mode of publication to other forms, in terms of audience, subsequent versions, parameters for review, goals for why they pursue such forms, etc. If there is a peer review aspect, the candidate needs to clarify exactly how that works and how evaluators might understand the review functions – that might be explaining that it’s a traditional blind review journal published online, an open-review site like MediaCommons, or a self-hosted comment thread like on a blog. The more clarity of context that the candidate can bring to their own work, the better, as we should assume that a candidate understands their own publishing platforms better than a review committee or external reviewers – and I think this is a way that junior faculty can educate more senior faculty & administrators as to why digital publishing can be a scholarly asset.

For review committees or external letter writers, it is essential to try to understand the context for every item in a dossier as presented by the candidate. Ideally, we would approach new formats with an open mind, not trying to apply the standards of older forms onto new platforms (unless we’re invited to by the candidate). We should try to evaluate the content of every piece regardless of its publication or review status, and then try to understand the contexts that provide some evidence of its value to the field. When review material like open-review discussions or comment threads are available, we should read them as well, in the context of the platform as framed by the candidate. We cannot rely on outsourcing evaluation to unseen blind reviewers and assuming that if a university press or established print journal has published something, its value is assured—nor should we assume the opposite, that the lack of traditional review & publication is evidence of lacking value. And when a candidate does embrace digital publishing, we should make the case for its value—to quote one review I did for a candidate who maintains a blog: “I believe his blog has helped him establish a solid reputation within media studies as an emerging scholar. While self-published commentary is not “tenurable” work per se, I do believe it is part a broader part of a scholar’s commitment to disseminating knowledge and promoting critical engagement with culture, and as such should be commended and encouraged.”

I think another question that reviewers should ask about a candidate’s dossier (and candidates should be mentored to address in their self-evaluations) is how well they seem to understand their own publishing possibilities and rationales. That means decentering the assumed norm that the proper measure should be a book and/or series of scholarly journal articles; instead, we should be treating each dossier more holistically to evaluate not just the content of someone’s research, but their appropriate choice of publication venues and modes. For many candidates, that will be the conventional forms of books & articles, but we should also expect that such candidates justify those choices as more than just defaults. If the university press book is the best way to reach a project’s ideal readership, then explain why; if another format is better, make that case. I think this is particularly important when the topic and/or method is potentially multimedia, whether dealing with audio-visual material as analytic object or digital methodologies – the reasons why a print book/journal is the best way to disseminate such scholarship seem more tied to precedent & norms than actual best practices for scholarly dissemination, and candidates should either be honest about those pressures & concerns, or reviewers should be open to the riskier forms of digital publication.

This shift raises a question for me that I have confronted a couple of times as an external reviewer: do you call attention to a candidate’s lack of engagement in digital publishing venues? I’m torn on this. On the one hand, I do believe that if an institution expects its faculty to move their field forward, then faculty need to be engaging in every appropriate form of scholarly dissemination; for a media scholar especially, online distribution has many assets that print lacks. We need to dismantle the norm that print publishing is all that counts, and one key way to do that is to expect candidates to have a broader scholarly profile – raising the question as an external reviewer is a good way to put it on an administration’s agenda. On the other hand, as an external reviewer, you have no idea how a candidate was mentored nor what the internal norms of an institution might be – you don’t want to create a red flag for an otherwise strong candidate for lacking publishing innovations that their department may have expressly discouraged. As an external reviewer of someone who you think meets your own expectations for rank, a guiding principle is “first do no harm,” as the politics of a review can always grasp onto any negative comment as a wedge. Thus I’ve refrained from calling attention to a lack of digital work, even in a couple of cases where I really wished the candidates had been more public and innovative in publishing their work.

Stephen also asked me about metrics for blogs, and how I measure the perceived value & circulation of posts. I mentioned WordPress’s internal stats, trackbacks, Google Alerts, and the like, but added an important qualifier. I do think that metrics need to be understood comparatively in relation to other sites, but there are issues with generating any uniform standards: I know that my topic of contemporary television is likely bound to generate more traffic than a more historical and/or obscure research area, so “popularity” needs to be contextualized. Likewise, a subfield with a robust online presence is bound to have more links & networking than one where a scholar is charting newer terrain for their specialty. And as my own site shows, readership grows over time, so we cannot expect a new site to instantly generate traffic & links.

One last issue I want to raise – it’s important that there be institutional support for digital publishing in a scholar’s institution, and that the review process account for such support or its lack. For instance, I hope to do a digital app version of my newest book to incorporate multimedia elements; however, I have little development support at Middlebury to help me accomplish this, so I need to either learn it myself (taking time & resources that will likely be unrewarded & unavailable) or outsource development at my own expense. Obviously no institution can provide support for everyone’s unique needs, so it’s important to build connections across institutions or provide internal funding to supplement the resources available locally. I think this is a role that a large scholarly organization like MLA could help facilitate, connecting scholars with support staff & developers across institutions, or offering funding streams (or advice for finding them) to enable innovative development.

In the end, it’s great that a huge organization like MLA is serving as a leader in discussing these issues rather than representing an entrenched status quo (as well as hiring forward-thinking people like Kathleen to help lead reforms). But of course the irony is that a face-to-face workshop at a convention is such a traditional, limited-access format that doesn’t leverage any of the technologies that they’ll be discussing to open up the conversation to a broader array of participants – it’s great to have such workshops, but there need to be opportunity to involve more participants & voices. Hopefully this post, and others from people addressing similar issues (please share relevant links!), will broaden out the conversation, building on the ideas raised tomorrow in Seattle – and I welcome comments below to continue the conversation.

Update: after posting this, I discovered that the MLA had recently published a set of essays about evaluating digital scholarship, and made them free to download. Check it out…

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6 Responses to “Thoughts on Blogging for Tenure”

  1. 1 Katherine Rowe

    Terrific post, Jason. I find it particularly thoughtful on the challenge reviewers face as we grapple with the fact that institutional support for digitally-engaged scholarship and publishing — both resources and the receptiveness of local scholarly cultures — varies so widely across institutions. I wanted to highlight a sentence towards the end of your post that seems crucial to me in this regard:

    “[I]it’s important to build connections across institutions or provide internal funding to supplement the resources available locally. I think this is a role that a large scholarly organization like MLA could help facilitate, connecting scholars with support staff & developers across institutions, or offering funding streams (or advice for finding them) to enable innovative development.”

    Inevitably, the transformations of scholarly communication that we are experiencing now (and that external reviewers and tenure committees are grappling with) are going to be uneven. The cost of that unevenness is particularly high for non-tenured faculty and for those at smaller or less-well-resourced institutions.

    This is a concern that a number of organizations have been focusing on recently — NITLE and centerNet, as well as the MLA Committee on IT. One effort seeking to address it, that I think is very promising, is a matching service of expertise, projects, and interested scholars, DHCommons (http://dhcommons.org/welcome-0), currently launching as a centerNet initiative, seeking to foster the kinds of cross-institutional collaborations you describe. The key goals here are not only to facilitate collaboration across institutions but to establish a structure of competitive micro-grants that would support small-to-mid-size development initiatives at under-resourced institutions — and (by virtue of peer-reviewed competition) make such efforts more legible at key moments of reappointment and review.


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