Academia, Not Edu

Last week’s close attention to open access, its development, its present state, and its potential futures, surfaced not only the importance for both the individual scholar and the field at large of sharing work as openly as possible, with a range of broadly conceived publics, but also some continuing questions about the best means of accomplishing that sharing. As I mentioned last week, providing opportunities for work to be opened at the point of publication itself is one important model, but a model that may well have occluded our vision of other potential forms: the ease of using article-processing charges to offset any decline in subscription revenue possible as previously paywalled content becomes openly available is so apparent as to have become rapidly naturalized, allowing us to wave off the need for experimentation with less obvious — and less remunerative — models.

Among alternative models, as I noted, is author-originated sharing of work, often in pre-print forms, via the open web. Many authors already share work in this way, whether posting drafts on their blogs for comment or depositing manuscripts in their institutional repositories. And recently, many scholars have also taken to sharing their work via Academia.edu, a social network that allows scholars to build connections, get their work into circulation, and discover the work of others. I’m glad to see the interest among scholars in that kind of socially-oriented dissemination and sharing, but I’m very concerned about this particular point of distribution and what it might mean for the future of the work involved.

Here’s the crux of the matter:

The first thing to note is that, despite its misleading top level domain (which was registered by a subsidiary prior to the 2001 restrictions), Academia.edu is not an educationally-affiliated organization, but a dot-com, which has raised millions in multiple rounds of venture capital funding. This does not imply anything necessarily negative about the network’s model or intent, but it does make clear that there are a limited number of options for the network’s future: at some point, it will be required to turn a profit, or it will be sold for parts, or it will shut down.

And if the network is to turn a profit, that profit has a limited number of means through which it can be generated: either academics who are currently contributing their work to this space will have to pay to continue to access it, or the work that they have contributed will somehow be mined for sale, whether to advertisers or other interested parties. In fact, Academia.edu’s CEO has said that “the goal is to provide trending research data to R&D institutions that can improve the quality of their decisions by 10-20%.” Statements like this underwrite Gary Hall’s assessment of the damage that the network can do to genuine open access: “Academia.edu has a parasitical relationship to the public education system, in that these academics are labouring for it for free to help build its privately-owned for-profit platform by providing the aggregated input, data and attention value.” The network, in other words, does not have as its primary goal helping academics communicate with one another, but is rather working to monetize that communication. All of which is to say: everything that’s wrong with Facebook is wrong with Academia.edu, at least just up under the surface, and so perhaps we should think twice before commiting our professional lives to it.

The problem, of course, is that many of us face the same dilemma in our engagement with Academia.edu that we experience with Facebook. Just about everyone hates Facebook on some level: we hate its intrusiveness, the ways it tracks and mines and manipulates us, the degree to which it feels mandatory. But that mandatoriness works: those of us who hate Facebook and use it anyway do so because everyone we’re trying to connect with is there. And as we’ve seen with the range of alternatives to Facebook and Twitter that have launched and quickly faded, it’s hard to compete with that. So with Academia.edu: I’ve heard many careful, thoughtful academics note that they’re sharing their work there because that’s where everybody is.

And the “everybody” factor has been a key hindrance to the flourishing of other mechanisms for author-side sharing of work such as institutional repositories. Those repositories provide rigorously protected and preserved storage for digital objects, as well as high-quality metadata that can assist in the discovery of those objects, but the repositories have faced two key challenges: first, that they’ve been relatively siloed from one another, with each IR collecting and preserving its own material independently of all others, and second, that they’ve been (for the obvious reason) institutionally focused. The result of the former is that there hasn’t been any collective sense of what material is available where (though the ARL/AAU/APLU-founded project SHARE is working to solve that problem). The result of the latter is that a relatively small amount of such material has been made available, as researchers by and large tend to want to communicate with the other members of their fields, wherever they may be, rather than feeling the primary identification with their institutions that broad IR participation would seem to require. So why, many cannot help but feel, would I share my work in a place where it will be found by few of the people I hope will read it?

The disciplinary repository may provide a viable alternative — see, for instance, the long-standing success of arXiv.org — but the fact that such repositories collect material produced in disciplines rather than institutions is only one of the features key to their success, and to their successful support of the goals of open access. Other crucial features include the not-for-profit standing of those repositories, which can require thoughtful fundraising but keeps the network focused on the researchers it comprises, and those repositories’ social orientation, facilitating communication and interconnection among those researchers. That social orientation is where Academia.edu has excelled; early in its lifespan, before it developed paper-sharing capabilities, the site mapped relationships among scholars, both within and across institutions, and has built heavily upon the interconnections that it traced — but it has not primarily done so for the benefit of those scholars or their relationships.

Scholarly societies have the potential to inhabit the ideal point of overlap between a primary orientation toward serving the needs of members and a primary focus on facilitating communication amongst those members. This is in large part why we established MLA Commons, to build a not-for-profit social network governed and developed by its members with their goals in mind. And in working toward the larger goals of open access, we’ve connected this social network with CORE, a repository through which members can not only deposit and preserve their work, but also share it directly with the other members of the network. We’re also building mechanisms through which CORE can communicate with institutional repositories so that the entire higher-education-based research network can benefit.

Like all such networks, however, the Commons will take time to grow, so we can’t solve the “everybody” problem right away. But we’re working toward it, through our Mellon-supported Humanities Commons initiative, which seeks to bring other scholarly societies into the collective. The interconnections among the scholarly society-managed Commonses we envision will not only help facilitate collaboration across disciplinary lines but also allow members with overlapping affiliations to have single sign-on access to the multiple groups of scholars with whom they work. We are working toward a federated network in which a scholar can maintain and share their work from one profile, on a scholar-governed network, whose direction and purpose serve their own.

So, finally, a call to MLA members: when you develop your member profile and share your work via the Commons, you not only get your work into circulation within your community of practice, and not only raise the profile of your work within that community, but you also help support us as we work to solve the “everybody” problem of the dot-com that threatens to erode the possibilities for genuine open access.

Opening Up Open Access

It’s Open Access Week, and as befits the occasion, I’m starting it this morning by thinking about what we’ve accomplished, what obstacles we’ve found — or even, if I might dare to whisper, created — and what remains to be done in order create full commitment among scholars and researchers to getting their work into circulation in the most free, open, and equitable ways possible.

The last several months have been quite interesting in humanities OA land: we’ve seen the launch of exciting initiatives such as the Open Library of the Humanities and Luminos, plus the first round of competition for a joint Mellon-NEH Humanities Open Book Program (not to mention a wide range of other Mellon-funded OA projects). At the same time, there seems also to have been an uptick in approaches to humanities scholars by somewhat shady-looking publications claiming an interest in publishing their work (for a fee) or asking to add them to a (somewhat random) editorial board. For many scholars, sadly, the latter cast a long shadow, making it that much harder to persuade them of the value to their work that OA might provide.

I have been wondering of late about the extent to which the problem is the degree to which our thinking about the goals of OA has gotten derailed by our focus on the business model of OA — and even worse, by a more-or-less exclusive focus on one particular business model that can simply be taken up without the need to reconsider the purposes or values of scholarly communication. Shifting costs from the reader side to the author side creates hardly a ripple in the system, as witness the speed and fluidity and commitment with which the most problematic corporate journal publishers have absorbed this shift into their regular practices.1

Having said this, however, I must admit that I feel a bit implicated in that derailment-by-business-model, as my early interventions into thinking about OA in the humanities very much focused on gold OA, on making publications freely and openly available at the source. And I do still think that there are ways of implementing gold OA publishing models — perhaps especially around monographs — that might be more equitable and should be further explored.2 But I worry that this singular focus on making publications freely available might have prematurely foreclosed a set of larger discussions about the broader circulation of scholarship in general.

In some of the early open access meetings I attended, in fact, I found myself arguing with a few other participants who insisted that we were headed in the wrong direction, and that we needed to be thinking about green OA, on the author side of making things freely available — primarily through repository deposit — rather than on the publisher side. But the longer I think about it, the more I have come to believe that what I had in mind in the creation of free-and-open publications bears more in common with repositories than it does with the dominant mode through which OA has been taken up by corporate publishers. My all-too-nascent idea, after all, was based on my experiences with MediaCommons, which led me to hope that groups of scholars could take control of the systems through which they publish by creating collective, cooperative, scholar-organized and -governed publications on open networks.

And some of that has happened. The Open Library of the Humanities, notably, was founded by two humanities scholars who are working closely with the scholars who operate the journals under its umbrella.3 And, of course, MLA Commons is a platform developed by a scholar-governed society on which members are encouraged to develop and share new projects with the field in a wide variety of ways.

But there’s been comparatively slow uptake on this end of the open access spectrum, and it’s worth considering why. On the one hand, there is the fact that publishing requires work, and comparatively few scholars have the time or inclination required to move some of their “own” work aside in favor of working on publishing’s machinery, whether by building their own publications or supporting others through the publishing process. That sort of work isn’t, by and large, what we trained for, and perhaps more importantly, it isn’t the kind of thing for which we get credit.4

Even more, there is the question of prestige: scholars continue to publish in venues that have established imprimaturs, and in venues that they have no editorial hand in, because those two factors continue to be privileged by the various review mechanisms up the chain. Scholars need to persuade internal and external review committees that their work has been selected through an impartial, rigorous review process, and all the better if the name of the organization that runs that review process resonates. But of course publishing collectives are capable of being just as (if not more) rigorous, and scholarly associations like my own can provide not just an imprimatur for those collectives but also access to the many other members in the field that the collectives would likely want to reach.

So the question that remains for me is what will be required in order to motivate scholars to take the lead in forming such collectives. Much of the OA movement has focused on a hearts-and-minds campaign of sorts, working to convince individual scholars that open access to their work is not just good for the work but also key to intellectual forms of social justice. But I think, in the coming years, we need to pay as much attention to shifting the requirements of those review mechanisms up the chain, whether institution- or funder-based, in order to persuade them that impact and prestige might not necessarily correlate, that rigor need not necessarily require distance, and that all publications — from the individual scholarly blog to the most carefully edited monograph — demand to be evaluated on their own terms, with an understanding of the possibilities each presents for the increase in knowledge we all seek.

Oh, this this this:

I’m increasingly feeling that the old debates (what’s a reasonable cost, green vs gold, hybrid vs pure) are sterile and misleading. That we are missing fundamental economic and political issues in funding and managing a global scholarly communications ecosystem by looking at the wrong things. And that there are deep and damaging misunderstandings about what has happened, is happening, and what could happen in the future.

Cameron Neylon, “The Political Economics of Open Access Publishing: A Series”

Recalibration

Today has been a day filled with making progress on a slew of different writing projects, adding a paragraph to this one, reviewing some comments on that one, thinking about some ancillary materials to go with another. It’s also been filled with email, and report outlining, and note-taking.

In fact, it’s been the kind of day that often makes me think “shoot, I didn’t get any writing done at all today,” when honestly, if I had a Fitbit for my keyboard, keeping track of the number of words I produced, I’d probably be nearing my daily goal.

Which is to say that, given the realities of job and life and priorities and such, my goals could use a bit of recalibration. Little steps here and there represent progress, if perhaps not on the path that has been most clearly marked out in my head. Honoring that progress as progress is probably important for my general sense that things are still moving, however it may appear.

The same holds for this space. As you may have noticed, I’ve gotten a bit active here again of late, but not in the big think-piece way I used to be. I have neither energy nor inclination for that kind of work. What’s happening here is small, bits and pieces of thoughts, things I’m reading and seeing, stuff I want to remember. But so far, at least, it’s having the effect of re-engaging me, making me look at the world like a person who wants to share parts of it, and sometimes even has things to say about it. And that’s perhaps the best of what this space, and my writing, have ever done.

PMLA

One of the added responsibilities that has come to me with my new position is serving as managing editor of PMLA. In that capacity, I work with our staff on facilitating the review process, and I work with the journal’s editor and editorial board as they make their selections and discuss other matters.

So far, one of the best aspects of this work is that I’m getting a chance to read the essays that will be going before the board at its next meeting, and it’s just lovely to be in close contact with the exciting work that’s going on across our fields. I’m delighted to have this opportunity, and I’m looking forward to everything I’m bound to learn in the process.

Communities

[Crossposted from The New York Academy of Medicine’s Center for the History of Medicine and Public Health, which has published a cluster of posts previewing a panel I’m presenting on at the AHA.]

The overwhelming tendency toward openness in digital networks presents both opportunities and challenges for contemporary scholarship, and in particular for the traditional structures that have facilitated and disseminated scholarship such as membership-based scholarly societies. Some of the challenges are obvious, and have been discussed in many other fora. The increasing demand for free access to products around which revenue models have long been built, for instance, challenges organizations to reinvent their fundamental orientation toward their stakeholders. For scholars, the network’s openness presents an increasing potential for information overload and an increasing difficulty in finding the right texts, the right connections, the right conversations at the right time.

All of these challenges are of course balanced by opportunities, however, as the network also presents the possibility of greatly improved access to scholarship and more fluid channels for ongoing communication and discovery amongst scholars. These opportunities suggest that an important role for scholarly societies will be in facilitating their members’ participation in these networks, helping to create new community-based platforms and systems through which their members can best carry out their work. Insofar as scholarship has always been a conversation — if one often conducted at a most glacial pace — the chief value for scholars should come in the ability to be full participants in that conversation: not simply getting access to the work that other scholars produce, but also having the ability to get their work into circulation, in the same networks as the work that inspired it, and the work that it will inspire. For this reason, the value of joining a scholarly society in the age of the network is less in getting access to content the society produces (the convention, the journal) than in the ability to participate.

However, this opportunity points toward a deeper, underlying challenge, for societies and scholars alike: building and maintaining communities that inspire and sustain participation. This is nowhere near as easy as it may sound. And it’s not just a matter of the “if you build it, they won’t necessarily come” problem; problems can creep up even when they do come. Take Twitter, for instance, which developed a substantial and enthusiastic academic user base over a period of a few years. Recently, however, many scholars and writers who were once very active and engaged on Twitter have begun withdrawing. Perhaps the drop-off is part of an inevitable evaporative social cooling effect. Perhaps at some point, Twitter’s bigness crossed a threshold into too-big. Whatever the causes, there is an increasing discomfort among many with the feeling that conversations once being held on one’s front porch are suddenly taking place in the street and that discussions have given way to an unfortunate “reign of opinion”, an increasing sense of the personal costs involved in maintaining the level of “ambient intimacy” that Twitter requires and a growing feeling that “a life spent on Twitter is a death by a thousand emotional microtransactions”.

Gartner Hype Cycle

What is crucial to note is that in none of these cases is the problem predominantly one of network structure. If we have reached a “trough of disillusionment” in the Twitter hype cycle, it’s not the fault of the technology, but of the social systems and interactions that have developed around it. If we are going to take full advantage of the affordances that digital networks provide — facilitating forms of scholarly communication from those as seemingly simple as the tweet to those as complex as the journal article, the monograph, and their born-digital descendants — we must focus as much on the social challenges that these networks raise as we do on the technical or financial challenges. To say, however, that we need to focus on building community — or more accurately, building communities — is not to say that we need to develop and enforce the sort of norms of “civility” that have been used to discipline crucial forms of protest. Rather, we need to foster the kinds of communication and connection that will enable a richly conceived panoply of communities of practice, as they long have in print, to work in engaged, ongoing dissensus without reverting to silence.

[Image: Gartner Hype Cycle, by Jeremy Kemp. Shared under CC BY-SA 3.0 license. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hype_cycle#mediaviewer/File:Gartner_Hype_Cycle.svg]

Evolving Standards and Practices in Tenure and Promotion Reviews

The following is the text of a talk I gave last week at the University of North Texas’s Academic Leadership Workshop. I’m hoping to develop this further, and so would love any thoughts or responses.

I’m happy to be here with you today, to talk a bit about evolving standards and practices in promotion and tenure reviews. Or, perhaps, about the need to place pressure on those standards and practices in order to get them to evolve. Change comes slowly to the academy, and often for good reason, but we find ourselves at a moment in which uneven development has become a bit of a problem. Some faculty practices with respect to scholarly work have in recent years changed faster than have the ways that work gets evaluated. If we don’t make a considered effort to catch our review processes up to our research and communication practices, we run the risk of stifling innovation in the places we need it most.

I want, however, to start by noting that most of what I am proposing here is intended to open a series of issues for discussion, rather than presenting a set of answers to the problems. Every university, every field, indeed, every tenure case brings different needs and expectations to the review process; it’s only in teasing out those needs and expectations that you can begin to craft a set of guidelines that will adequately represent your campus’s values and yet be supple enough to continue to represent those values in the years to come.

So first, a bit of recent history around these issues, before I move to the kinds of issues I believe we need to be considering with respect to tenure processes. In 2002, then-president Stephen Greenblatt sent a letter to the 30,000 members of the Modern Language Association, alerting them to a coming crisis in tenure review processes. The failing fiscal model under which university presses operate, he noted, was resulting in the publication of fewer and fewer scholarly monographs, a reduction being felt most acutely in the area of first books; as a result, work that was of perfectly high quality but that did not present an obvious market value was in danger of not finding a publisher. Unless departments were willing to think differently about their review processes, recognizing what the “systemic” obstacles facing all of scholarly communication, Greenblatt argued,

people who have spent years of professional training — our students, our colleagues — are at risk. Their careers are in jeopardy, and higher education stands to lose, or at least severely to damage, a generation of young scholars.

In considering what might be done, Greenblatt noted that

books are not the only way of judging scholarly achievement. Should our departments continue to insist that only books and more books will do? We could try to persuade departments and universities to change their expectations for tenure reviews: after all, these expectations are, for the most part, set by us and not by administrators. The book has only fairly recently emerged as the sine qua non and even now is not uniformly the requirement in all academic fields. We could rethink what we need to conduct responsible evaluations of junior faculty members.

There are some things that might bring one up short here: for instance, Greenblatt’s acknowledgement that the book is not “uniformly the requirement in all academic fields” of course masks the degree to which the book-based fields are outliers in the academy today. But nonetheless, those fields’ reliance on the book as the gold standard for tenure was becoming, for a host of reasons, problematic, and thus Greenblatt urged departments to reconsider their review practices, as they

can no longer routinely expect that the task of scholarly evaluation will be undertaken by the readers for university presses and that a published book will be the essential stamp of a young scholar’s authenticity and promise.

Departments, in other words, must step forward and establish means of determining for themselves where appropriate evidence of a young scholar’s “authenticity and promise” lies.

In the years following this letter, the MLA created a task force charged with examining the current state of tenure standards and practices and making recommendations for their future. That task force issued its final report in December 2006, presenting a list of 20 recommendations, supported by nearly 60 pages of data and analysis. Their recommendations included things like:

The profession as a whole should develop a more capacious conception of scholarship by rethinking the dominance of the monograph, promoting the scholarly essay, establishing multiple pathways to tenure, and using scholarly portfolios.

And:

Departments and institutions should recognize the legitimacy of scholarship produced in new media, whether by individuals or in collaboration, and create procedures for evaluating these forms of scholarship.

And:

Departments should conduct an in-depth evaluation of candidates’ dossiers for tenure and promotion at the departmental level. Presses or outside referees should not be the main arbiters in tenure cases.

And:

Departments and institutions should facilitate collaboration among scholars and evaluate it fairly.

None of these recommendations seem terribly controversial, and yet here we find ourselves. Over seven years have passed since the task force report; nearly twelve have passed since the Greenblatt letter. And by and large, standards and practices in tenure and promotion reviews have changed but little. By and large, the book remains the gold standard in what are still referred to as “book-based fields,” and departments still find themselves stymied when it comes to evaluating digital work, collaborative work, public work, and the like.

It would not be unreasonable to ask whether Stephen Greenblatt was simply being a bit alarmist in the sense he conveyed of an impending crisis for the faculty. We do not appear to be surrounded by a lost generation of scholars whose prospects were damaged by our continued adherence to the book standard in the face of university press cutbacks — and yet, given that faculty who are not awarded tenure leave our midst, and that we are not haunted by the lingering specters of unpublished books, it’s possible that the damage is nonetheless being inflicted, just in a way that we are able to keep outside our awareness. One clear, if anecdotal effect of our refusal to change, however, may well be precisely how much we have stayed the same; I have been told by several junior faculty members, and have heard the same thing at second-hand from many others, about having been counseled by senior colleagues that they should put aside their more experimental projects and focus on the traditional monograph until tenure is assured. The counselor is generally well-intentioned, wanting to help his or her junior colleague have as frictionless an experience of the review process as possible. But the outcome, too often, is that the junior faculty member is either made risk-averse or, in a positive sense, ushered into the more reliable reward channels of the ways that things are usually done, and as a result never returns to the transformative work originally imagined. And that disciplinary lockdown then gets transmitted on to the next round of junior colleagues. And so we continue, as a field, to rely on the monograph as the gold standard for tenure, and we continue to find ourselves baffled by the prospect of evaluating anything else.

This is not to say, however, that there has not been change — even in the most hide-bound of book-based fields — over the last twelve years. Scholars today are communicating with one another and making their work public in a range of ways that were only beginning to flicker into being in 2002. Many faculty maintain rich scholarly blogs, either on their own or as part of larger collectives, through which they are publishing their work; others are working on a range of small- and large-scale corpus building, datamining, mapping, and visualization projects, all of which seek to present the results of scholarly research and engagement in rich interactive formats. Projects in a wide range of digitally-inflected fields across the humanities, sciences, and social sciences are both using and developing a host of new methodologies, both for research and for the communication of the results of that research. And these projects are not just transforming their fields, but also creating a great deal of interest in scholarly work amongst the broader public.

And yet I visited a university last fall whose form for the annual professional activities report asks faculty members to list their (1) book publications, (2) peer-reviewed journal articles, (3) major conference presentations, and so on, finally getting to “web-based projects” somewhere just above volunteer service in the community. It’s just a form, of course, but in that form is inscribed the hierarchy of what we value, as evidenced by what we actually reward in our evaluation and merit review processes. And if we are going to take web-based work as seriously as traditionally published work, we need to manifest that in those reward systems.

However, I do want to be clear about something: What I am arguing here today is not that digital projects of whatever variety should be treated as the equivalent of a book or a journal article. In fact, attempting to draw those equivalences can get us into trouble, as digital work demands its own medium-specific modes of assessment. Digital projects are often radically open, both in their mode of publication and their mode of peer review; they are often process-oriented, without a clear moment of “publication” or a clear completion date; they are very frequently code-based, and often non-linear, in ways that require that they be experienced rather than simply read. And too often review processes eliminate that possibility; not only do our forms rank web-based work as unimportant, but our processes require that such work be printed out and stuck in a binder. This is clearly counter-productive; we cannot continue evaluating new kinds of work as if it has been produced and can be read just like the print-based work we’re accustomed to.

But what I’m after here is not a new set of equally rigid processes that better accommodate the particularity of the digital. Rather, our review processes need to develop a new kind of flexibility — in no small part because developing a set of criteria that perfectly deals with all of today’s forms of scholarly communication will in no way prepare you for tomorrow, or next year. The fact of the matter is that scholarly communication itself is in a period of profound change, profound enough that change itself is the only certainty. And so we need guidelines that will enable the faculty and the administration together to locate the core values that we share and to establish processes that will take each case on its own terms, while nonetheless proceeding in ways that can be fairly applied to all cases.

In considering such a transformation, I believe that we need to begin by thinking differently about what it is we’re doing in the tenure review process in the first place. We have long treated the tenure review, and to a lesser extent the review for promotion to full, as a threshold exercise: an assessment of whether the candidate has done enough to qualify. The result, I believe, is burnout and disgruntlement in the associate rank. There’s a reason, after all, why The Onion found this funny, and it’s not just about the privileges of lifetime tenure producing entitled slackers.

onion

Assistant professors run the pre-tenure period as a race and, making it over the final hurdle, too often collapse, finding themselves exhausted, without focus or direction, depressed to discover that what is ahead of them is only more of the same. The problem is not the height of the hurdles or the length of the track; it’s the notion that the pre-tenure period should be thought of as a race at all, something with a finish line at which one will either have won or lost, but will in any case be done. I believe that we can find a better means of supporting and assessing the careers of junior faculty if we start by approaching the tenure review in a different way entirely, thinking of it not as a threshold exercise but instead as a milestone, a moment of checking in with the progress of a much longer, more sustained and sustainable career.

Here’s the thing: We hire candidates with promise, expecting that their careers will be productive over the long term, that they will engage with their material and their colleagues, and that they will come to some kind of prominence in their fields. The tenure review, at the end of the first six years of those careers, should ideally not be a moment of determining whether those candidates have thus far done X quantity of work (that is, that they have done enough to earn tenure, and can safely rest), but rather of asking whether the promise with which those candidates arrived is beginning to bear out. Let me say that again: beginning to bear out. The question we are asking, at tenure, should not be whether the full potential of a candidate has been achieved, but whether what has been done to this early point in a career gives us sufficient confidence in what will happen over the long haul that we want the candidate to remain a colleague for as long as possible. In order to figure that out, the questions we ask about the work itself should not — or at least should not only — be about its quantity; rather, we should focus on its quality. And there are a couple of different ways of thinking about and assessing that quality: first, through the careful evaluation by experts in the candidate’s field, and second, through an exploration of the evidence of the impact the candidate’s work is having in his or her field.

Such a focus on impact might help us more fairly evaluate the new kinds of digital projects that many scholars today are engaged in. But they also might encourage us to reassess a range of forms of work that have not been adequately credited in recent years. In fact, I would argue that the reforms that we need in our tenure review processes are not just about accommodating the digital at all. We also need to acknowledge and properly value forms of intellectual labor that have long been done by the faculty but that for whatever reason have gone undervalued. In my own area of the humanities, such work includes translation, or the production of scholarly editions, or the editing of scholarly journals. These are forms of work that have long been part of academic production, but that have by and large been treated as “service to the field.” And yet — just to pick up one of those examples — what more powerful position in shaping the direction of a field is there than that of the journal editor? The impact of such an editor across his or her term is likely to have a far greater and far longer-lasting influence on his or her area of study than any monograph might produce — and yet only the monograph, in most institutions, will get you promoted.

This is just one of the kinds of problems that we need to encounter. But again, I want to emphasize that it’s not enough simply to add “digital work” or “journal editing” to the list of kinds of work that we accept for tenure and promotion, not least because the impulse then is to apply current standards to those objects: are there kinds of journals that “count,” and kinds that don’t? Does the journal have to have a specified impact factor? I’m sure you can imagine more such questions — questions that I’m convinced lead us in the wrong directions, toward increasing rigidity rather than flexibility. Instead, I want to head off in a different direction. In the rest of my time this morning, I want to sketch out a few of the ways that our thinking about the review process might change in order to help produce the results we’re actually aiming for. The new ways of thinking that I’m urging today may require us to give up our reliance on some relatively easy, objective, quantitative measures, in favor of seeking out more complex, more subjective qualitative judgments — but I would suggest that these kinds of complex judgments about research in our fields are the core of our job as scholars, and that we have a particular ethical obligation to take our responsibility for such judgments seriously when they determine the future of our colleagues’ careers. This different direction will also require us to think as flexibly as we can about how our practices should not only change now, but continue to evolve as the work that junior scholars produce changes.

So, I want to float a number of principles meant to instigate some new ways of thinking about the tenure standards and processes of the future. Though these are pitched as imperatives, they are not specific practices, but rather considerations for the creation of practices. First:

(1) Do not let “but we don’t know how to evaluate this kind of work” stand as a reason not to evaluate it.

Many disciplinary organizations have been hard at work developing criteria for evaluating new kinds of scholarly work. For instance, the MLA’s Committee on Information Technology developed such a set of best practices for the evaluation of digital work in MLA fields back in 2000, and has recently updated those guidelines. The CIT has further created an evaluation wiki, which includes information such as a breakdown of types of digital work. And, perhaps most importantly, the CIT has led a series of workshops before the annual convention designed to give department and campus leaders direct experience of the kinds of questions that need to be asked about digital work, and the ways that such evaluation might proceed. In conjunction with that workshop, the CIT has produced a toolkit. And the MLA also has guidelines for the evaluation of translations, and guidelines for the evaluation of scholarly editions, among other such guidelines.

And this is just the MLA. Other scholarly organizations have done similar work on the sorts of nontraditional projects that are appearing in their own fields. And several universities have developed their own policies for how such work should be evaluated, including Emory University and the University of Nebraska at Lincoln.
So there are excellent criteria out there that can be used in evaluating many non-standard kinds of scholarly work. Review bodies, from the department level up to the university level, must familiarize themselves with those criteria and put them to use in their evaluations.

(2) Support evaluator learning.

Despite the existence of these excellent criteria for evaluating new work, however, many faculty, especially those who have long worked in exclusively traditional forms, need support in beginning to read, interpret, and engage with digital projects and other new forms of scholarly project. This need is of course what led the MLA’s committee on information technology to hold its pre-convention workshops; similar kinds of workshops have been held at the summer seminars of the Association of Departments of English and the Association of Department of Foreign Languages, and at NEH-funded summer workshops. On the local level, you might enlist the scholars on your campus who are doing digital work or other forms of nontraditional scholarship in leading similar workshops for the faculty and administrators who play key roles in the tenure review process.

(3) Engage with the work on its own terms, and in its own medium.

Supporting evaluators in the process of learning how to engage with new kinds of work is crucial precisely because the work under review must be dealt with as it is, as itself. If I could wave my magic wand and eliminate one bit of practice in tenure and promotion evaluations, it would probably be the binder. More or less every year I hear reports from scholars whose work is web-based but who have been asked to print out and three-hole-punch that work in order to have it considered as part of their dossiers. Needless to say, eliminating the interaction involved in web-based projects undermines the very thing that makes them work. As the MLA guidelines frame it, “respect medium specificity” — engage with new work in the ways its form requires.

(4) Dance with the one you brought.

In the same way that the work demands to be dealt with on its own terms, it’s crucial that tenure review processes engage with the candidates we’ve actually hired, rather than trying to transform them into someone else. While it’s tempting to advise junior scholars to take the safer road to tenure by adhering to traditional standards and practices in their work, such advice runs the risk of derailing genuinely transformative projects. Particularly when candidates have been hired into positions focused on new forms of research and teaching, or when they have been hired because of the exciting new paths they’re creating, those candidates must be supported in their experimentation. In creating that support, it’s particularly important to guard against doubling the workload on the candidate by requiring them both to complete the project and to publish about the project, or worse, to complete the project and do traditional work as well. This is a recipe for exhaustion and frustration; candidates should be encouraged to focus on the forms of their work that present the greatest promise for impact in their fields.

(5) Prepare and support junior faculty as they “mentor up.”

My emphasis on supporting the candidates that you have doesn’t mean those candidates won’t need to persuade their senior colleagues of the importance of their work. Scholars working in innovative modes and formats must be able to articulate the reasons for and the significance of their work to a range of traditional audiences — and not least, their own campus mentors. In theory, at least, this is the case for all scholars; it’s the purpose that the “personal statement” in the tenure dossier is meant to serve. For scholars working in non-traditional formats, however, there is additional need to explain the work to others, and to give them the context for understanding it. That process cannot begin with, but rather must culminate in, the personal statement. Throughout the pre-tenure period, candidates should be given opportunities to present their work to their colleagues, such that they have lots of experience explaining their work — and ample responses to their work — by the time the tenure review begins. They also need champions — mentors who, having examined the work and coming to understand its value, will help them continue to “mentor up” by arguing on behalf of that work amongst their colleagues.

(6) Use field-appropriate metrics.

Every field has its own ways of measuring impact, and the measures used in one field will not automatically translate to another. A colleague of mine whose PhD is in literature, and who began her career as a digital humanist, now holds a position that is half situated in an English department and half in an information science department. Her information science colleagues, in beginning her tenure review, calculated her h-index — and it was abysmal. The good news is that her colleagues then went on to calculate the h-indexes of the top figures in the digital humanities, and discovered that they were all equally terrible. Metrics like the h-index, or citation counts, or impact factors simply do not apply across all fields. It’s absolutely necessary that we recognize the distinctive measures of impact used in specific fields and assess work in those fields accordingly.

(7) Maybe be a little suspicious of counting as an evaluation method.

We tend to like numbers in our assessment processes. They feel concrete and objective, and some of them are demonstrably bigger than others. The problem is that we tend only to count those things that are countable, and too often, if it can’t be counted, it doesn’t count. But as qualitative social scientists — much less humanists — would insist, there is an enormous range of significant data that cannot be captured or understood quantitatively. Citation counts, for instance: such metrics can tell us how often an article has been referred to in the subsequent literature, but they can’t tell us whether the article is being praised or buried through those citations, whether it’s being built upon or whether it’s being debunked. So while I’m glad that problematic metrics like journal impact factor are gradually being replaced with a more sophisticated range of article-level metrics, I still want us to be a bit cautious about how we use those numbers. This includes web-based metrics: hits and downloads can be really affirming for scholars, but they don’t necessary indicate how closely the work is being attended to, and they aren’t comparable across fields and subfields of different sizes. If we’re going to use quantitative metrics in the review process, they need careful interpretation and analysis — and even better, should be accompanied by a range of qualitative data that captures the reception and engagement with the candidate’s work.

(8) Engage appropriate experts in the field to evaluate the work.

It is, by and large, the external reviewers that we have relied upon to produce the qualitative assessment of the tenure dossier. These experts are generally well-placed, more senior members of the candidate’s subfield who are asked to evaluate the quality of the work on its own terms, as well as the place that work has within the current discourses of the subfield. Where candidates present dossiers that include non-traditional work, however, we must seek out external reviewers who are able to evaluate not just the work’s content — as if it were the equivalent of a series of journal articles or a monograph — but also its formal aspects. These experts can and should also uncover and evaluate the specific evidence of the work’s impact within the field. In the last couple of years, a couple of colleagues and I have all had the experience of being asked to undertake a review of a tenure candidate’s digital work, and have been specifically asked by those campuses to account for the technical value of that work and the significance that it has for the field. This kind of medium-specific review is, I would argue, necessary for all forms of nontraditional work: a candidate whose dossier includes translation should have at least one qualified external reviewer asked to focus on the significance of the translation; a candidate whose dossier includes journal editing should have at least one qualified external reviewer asked to focus on the significance of that editorial work for the field.

(9) But do not overvalue the judgments of those experts.

The external reviewers that are engaged by a department or a college to assess the work of a candidate are often the best place to evaluate the quality of that work, its place within the subfield, its significance and reception, and the like. But all too often these reviewers are called upon — or take it upon themselves — to make judgments that are outside the scope of their expertise. It would be best for us to refrain from asking, or even specifically enjoin, reviewers from indicating whether a candidate’s work would merit tenure at their institution, or whether a candidate is among the “top” scholars in their field. Such comparisons rely on false equivalences among institutions and among scholars, and they are invidious at best.

Even more, departments must use the judgments of those experts to inform their own judgment, and not supplant it. Departments know the internal circumstances and values of the institution in ways that external reviewers cannot. And while the members of a departmental tenure review body might not be experts in a candidate’s specific area of interest, bringing in such experts cannot be used absolve them of responsibility for exercising their own judgments, including engaging directly with the candidate’s work themselves.

(10) Avoid (or at least beware) the false flag of “objectivity.”

The desire to externalize judgment — whether by relying upon quantitative metrics or on the assessments of external reviewers — is understandable: we want our processes to be as uncontroversial, as scrupulous, and therefore as objective as possible. And there are certain subjective judgments — such as those around questions of “collegiality” or “fit” — that should not have any place in our review processes. But aside from those issues, we must recognize that all judgment is inherently subjective. It is only by surfacing, acknowledging, and questioning our own presuppositions that we can find our way to a position that is both subjective and fair. This is a kind of work that scholars — especially those in the qualitative social sciences and the humanities — should be well equipped to do, as it’s precisely the kind of inquiry that we bring to our own subject matter. And in this line, I want to note that the external judgments that we seek from outside reviewers are no more objective than are our own. If anything, external reviewer testimony itself requires the same kind of judgment from us as does the rest of the dossier.

Moreover — and I have a whole other 45-minute talk focusing on this issue — we need to acknowledge that “peer review” is not itself an objective practice, and therefore an objective marker of quality research. And there isn’t just one appropriate way for peer review to be conducted. Many publications and projects are experimenting with modes of review that are providing richer feedback and interaction than can the standard double-blind process; it’s crucial that those new modes of review be assessed on their own merits, according to the evidence of quality work that they produce, and not dismissed as providing insufficiently objective criteria for evaluation.

(11) Reward — or at least don’t punish — collaboration.

Along those lines: I have been told by members of university promotion and tenure committees that an open peer review process, or other forms of openly commentable work, would doom a tenure candidate because anyone who participated in that process would be excluded as a potential external reviewer. The intent again is objectivity: any scholar who has had any contact with the candidate’s work, or has engaged in any communication with the candidate, or has participated in any projects with the candidate, could not possibly be “objective” enough to evaluate the work.

This is on the one hand the kind of adherence to the false flag of objectivity that I think we need to get away from, and on the other a highly destructive misunderstanding of the nature of collaboration in highly networked fields today. I understand the impulse, to ensure that the judgment provided by an external reviewer is as focused on the work as possible, without being colored by a personal relationship. But there are degrees, and we need to be able to make distinctions among them. At my own prior institution, the line was one about personal benefit: if potential external reviewers stand to gain directly in their own careers from a positive outcome in the review process — a dissertation director who becomes more highly esteemed the more highly placed his former advisees are; a co-author whose work gains greater visibility the more her partner’s career advances, and so forth — such reviewers should obviously not be engaged. But other levels of interaction should not disqualify reviewers, including co-participants in conference sessions, commenters on online projects, and so forth. We need to recognize that a key component of impact on a field is about those kinds of connection: we should want tenure candidates to be developing active relationships with other important members of their fields, to be working with them in a wide variety of ways. Such relationships should be disclosed in the review process, but they should not be used to eliminate the reviewers who might in fact be the best placed to assess the candidate’s work.

The key thing, again, is that the tenure review should be focused on assessing the impact that the candidate’s work is beginning to have on its field, and the confidence that impact to this point gives you about the importance of the work to come. Each aspect of the standards and processes that you bring to the tenure review process should be reconsidered in that light: are the measures you are using, the evaluators you are engaging, the ways the work is being read or experienced, are all of these aspects producing the best possible way of assessing a career in process, and the most responsible way of considering its future.

I want to close with one crucial question that remains, however, and it’s a big one. This process of change is huge, and wide-ranging, and it strikes at the heart of academic values. Who will lead it? I do not know the situation at your institution well enough to say that this is definitively true here, but I will say that I know of institutions where administrative initiatives to reform processes like tenure and promotion reviews are met with faculty resistance to having standards imposed on them, and yet when faculty are tasked with beginning such reform they often disbelieve that the administration will listen to them. Which is to say that among the things that has to be done in this process is creating an atmosphere of trust and collaboration between faculty and administration, such that the work can — and will — be done together.

This is not an easy. It’s not just a matter of changing a few phrases in the current guidelines to permit consideration of new kinds of work. But I firmly believe that a real investment in envisioning a new set of tenure standards and practices can have a transformative effect on our campuses, opening discussions about scholarly values, promoting innovations in both research and teaching, and supporting the new ways that scholars are connecting not just with one another but with the broader public as well. I look forward to hearing your thoughts about how such a process might go forward.

Tools and Values

I’ve been writing a bit about peer review and its potential futures of late, an essay that’s been solicited for a forthcoming edited volume. Needless to say, this is a subject I’ve spent a lot of time considering, between the research I did for Planned Obsolescence, the year-long study I worked on with my MediaCommons and NYU Press colleagues, and the various other bits of speaking and writing I’ve done on the topic.

A recent exchange, though, has changed my thinking about the subject in some interesting ways, ways that I’m not sure that the essay I’m working on can quite capture. I had just given a talk about some of the potential futures for digital scholarship in the humanities, which included a bit on open peer review, and was getting pretty intensively questioned by an attendee who felt that I was being naively utopian in my rendering of its potential. Why on earth would I want to do away with a peer review system that more or less works in favor of a new open system that brings with it all the problematic power dynamics that manifest in networked spaces?

In responding, I tried to suggest, first, that I wasn’t trying to do away with anything, but rather to open us to the possibility that open review might be beneficial, especially for scholarship that’s being published online. And second, that yes, scholarly engagements in social networks do often play out a range of problematic behaviors, but that at least those behaviors get flushed out into the open, where they’re visible and can be called out; those same behaviors can and do take place in conventional review practices under cover of various kinds of protection.

It was at this point that my colleague Dan O’Donnell intervened; by way of more or less agreeing with me, Dan said that the problem with most thinking about peer review began with considering it to be a system (and thus singular, complex, and difficult to change), when in fact peer review is a tool. Just a tool. “Sometimes you need a screwdriver,” he said, “and when you do, a hammer isn’t going to help.”

Something in the simplicity of that analogy caught me up short. I have been told, in ways both positive and negative, that I am a systems-builder at heart, and so to hear that I might be making things unnecessarily complicated didn’t come as a great shock. But it became clear in that moment that the unnecessary complications might be preventing me from seeing something extremely useful: if we want to transform peer review into something that works reliably, on a wide variety of kinds of scholarship, for an array of different scholarly communities, within a broad range of networks and platforms, we need a greatly expanded toolkit.

This is a much cleaner, clearer way of framing the conclusions to which the MediaCommons/NYU Press study came: each publication, and each community of practice, is likely to have different purposes and expectations for peer review, and so each must develop a mode of conducting review that best serves those purposes and expectations. The key thing is the right tool for the right purpose.

This exchange, though, has affected my thinking in areas far beyond the future of peer review. In order to select the right tool, after all, we really have to be able to articulate our purposes, which first requires understanding them — and understanding them in a way that goes deeper than the surface-level outcomes we’re seeking. In the case of peer review, this means thinking beyond the goal of producing good work; it means considering the kind of community we want to build and support around the work, as well as the things we hope the work might bring to the community and beyond.

In other words, it’s not just about purposes, but also about values: not just reaching a goal, but creating the best conditions for everyone engaged in the process. It’s both simpler and more complex, and it requires really stopping to think not just about what we’re doing, but what’s important to us, and why.

If you’ll forgive a bit of a tangent: I mentioned in my last post that I’d been reading Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz’s The Power of Full Engagement, which focuses on developing practices for renewing one’s energy in order to be able to focus on and genuinely be present for the important stuff in life. I only posted to Twitter, however, the line from the book that most haunted me: “Is the life I am living worth what I am giving up to have it?”

At first brush, the line produces something not too far off from despair: we are always giving up something, and we frequently find ourselves where we are, having given up way too much, without any sense of how we got there or whether it’s even possible to get back to where we’d hoped to be.

But I’ve been working on thinking of that line in a more positive way, understanding that each choice that I make — to work on this rather than that; to work here rather than there; whathaveyou — entails not just giving up the path not taken, but the opportunity to consider why I’m choosing what I’m choosing, and to try to align the choice as closely as possible with what’s most important.

In the crush of the day-to-day, with a stack of work that’s got to be done RIGHT NOW, it can be hard to put an ideal like that into practice. And needless to say, the opportunity to stop and make such choices is an extraordinary privilege; thinking about “values” in the airy sense that I’m using it here becomes a lot easier once things like comfort, much less survival, are already ensured.

But this is precisely why, I think, those of us in the position to do things like create new programs, or publications, or processes, need to take the time to consider what it is we’re doing and why. To think about the full range of tools at our disposal, and to select — or even design — the ones that best suit the work that is actually at hand, rather than reflexively grabbing for the hammer because everything in front of us has always looked like a nail.

So, an open question: if peer review is genuinely to work toward supporting our deeper goals — not just getting the work done, but building the future for scholarship we want to see — what tools do we need to have at our disposal? What of those tools do we already have available, even if we’ve never used them for this purpose before, and what new tools might we need to imagine?

On the Working Vacation

As I posted a while back, I’ve been on an extended European trip this summer, beginning with several conferences, followed by a pretty blissful four-week stint in Prague. As week four begins today, and as I see this trip beginning to draw to a close, I’ve been reflecting a bit on how it all went, and how to carry some of this feeling with me back home.

When folks have asked me lately how my vacation has been, my instinct has been to say “great! It’s been super productive!” Which causes people to blink, or shake their heads, or otherwise give me the you’re doing it wrong look.

Perhaps it’s true that I’m doing it wrong. I’ve never been terribly good, though, at doing the things one is supposed to do on vacation or on a trip to a new place. I’m not a sight-seer. I don’t feel compelled to visit the national landmarks and museums. I do, however, like to sit still, to let myself really be where I am, and to let my brain wander where it will. Where it will wander, when given the chance, is often to reading, or writing, to new projects or new directions for in-process projects.

For this reason, for me, the “working vacation” is not a contradiction in terms, not a capitulation to the always-on logic of the new economy. It’s one of the best ways for me to retreat from the busyness — or the business — of the day-to-day and focus on the things that matter to me, whatever they might be.

My time in Prague has been a working vacation in a most literal sense: most of my time has been charged as vacation, but some of it has been charged as remote working. I’ve kept up with a much-streamlined version of the things going on in my office, I’ve handled some small much-delayed tasks, and I’ve used the rest of my remote working time to focus in on one large day-job project of the sort that I would never have been able to get to during the normal 9-to-5, a substantive chunk of writing that required distance just to get space on my agenda.

The rest of my time has been spent on my own projects. I’ve drafted an essay, I’ve begun sketching out another one, and I’ve read a lot. And for the first time in eons, I’ve found that reading scholarship has been just as much fun as reading fiction.

I’ve had fantastic meals, and I’ve slept a ton, and I’ve spent time hanging out with friends and watching television series that I missed. But being able to be just selfish enough about my time to restart my reading brain again has been really exciting. That self-directedness has made this time both enormously restorative and enormously productive — and perhaps productive precisely because it was so restorative, and restorative precisely because it was so productive.

In a week, I’ll be returning to the more socially-oriented aspects of my job, and I’ll undoubtedly discover just how much of the usual business my colleagues kept out of my inbox while I was gone. I’m grateful to them for that, and to my boss for the willingness to negotiate this working vacation with me. I’m looking forward to returning to the office with renewed energy — and hoping to find ways to maintain the space for creative thought that I’ve had the luxury of rediscovering this month.

Getting Back to (My Own) Work

One would think, this many years and books and articles into a writing career, that I might have solved the getting-started problem by now. Or if not the getting-started problem, then at least the keeping-going problem. Not so much, though.

When I was a faculty member, writing often got back-burnered during the semester. Not always intentionally: I’d plan time in my schedule to do some bits of reading and writing intended to keep my projects moving forward, but gradually that time would be overcome by teaching work, chairing duties, committee obligations, and the like. I’d find myself at the end of the semester, at last facing open space in my schedule, and I’d think Okay. Where was I? And inevitably the need to get my bearings in the project again took longer than I wanted, heightening the sense that my limited work time was still being sucked away by things beyond my control.

My current situation is only somewhat different. I’m in a 12-month position now, and while my calendar doesn’t ever really reach those points of hiatus at which all the other obligations fall away, I do have the extraordinary luxury of time away during the summer, a combination of vacation and remote working that allows me to turn my focus at least in significant part back to the thing I refer to as “my own work.”

The challenge I’m facing today, however, is trying to remember what my own work is, and this is where I think I’ve completely blown it in my second year in my new position. My running joke, when people ask me about how my transition to the new job has gone, has been to say something about the shock of finding oneself in a 12-month, 9-to-5 gig after 20 years on the academic calendar, but then to point out that, by way of compensation, I’ve discovered this thing called a “weekend.”

It always gets a laugh, especially among academics: the notion of the weekend is a crazy luxury. Two full days to do whatever you want with! And you get them every week! And that doesn’t even take into account the fact that most of my evenings belong to me as well. Very often, in fact, work can be contained within work hours — an amazing concept, that.

During my first year in the new gig, I worked hard to protect my evenings and weekends, and I mostly did a good job of it, primarily because I was so exhausted from the intensity of the 9-to-5 days. In year two, I’ve found myself a little better adjusted to the rhythm of the days, but (perhaps as a result) I feel as though I’ve gotten declining benefits out of my weekends. A good bit of the problem is totally self-induced: I’ve travelled way too much lately, and a lot of that travel has of necessity spilled over into evenings and weekends. And then there’s been the deluge of personal stuff that has taken up out-of-office time: apartment stuff, moving stuff, life stuff.

So there are perfectly understandable reasons for it, and yet I find myself here, facing a small window in which I can focus my attention largely on writing, with zero sense whatsoever of where I am, and what I should be doing.

Don’t get me wrong: I have a list of small writing projects that need to get done in the next few weeks, articles and chapters that I’ve promised people, the obvious stuff to turn to first. The question, though, is about the overall direction of my writing. Back in October, I sketched out two potential Big Projects that I imagined working on — but now, eight months later, I feel so distant from that moment and those sketches that I cannot imagine being able to pick either project up and get going.

I’m sure that over the next several weeks I’ll either remember what it was I wanted to work on or imagine a wholly new project. My challenge to myself for the coming year, however, is to keep that project in sight. I do not want to convert my evenings and weekends wholesale into just more work time, doing away with the benefits of the 9-to-5 schedule without the compensations of the academic life to balance their loss. But on the other hand, if I can make that work more genuinely “my own” — writing that I’m doing entirely for myself, writing that’s energizing rather than draining, writing that’s even fun — I’m hoping that I might be able to find the motivation to keep it moving forward outside of work.

This post is mostly meant to help me jumpstart finding my focus and generating that motivation, but any suggestions or strategies you’d like to share in the comments would be oh-so-gratefully received…