Evaluating Scholarship for Tenure and Promotion
In recent years many humanities scholars have been concerned by the crisis in scholarly publishing. This crisis revolves about the dramatic decrease in the number of humanities monographs being purchased by libraries, the financial difficulties faced by many university presses, the increasing challenges faced by junior scholars in the humanities getting a manuscript accepted by a prestigious publisher. In December 2006 The Modern Language Association issued the lengthy report MLA Task Force on Evaluating Scholarship for Tenure and Promotion [PDF]. A primary charge of the task force was “to examine current standards and emerging trends in publication requirements for tenure and promotion in English and foreign language departments in the United States.” The charge was clearly a response to the scholarly publishing crisis and specifically to the difficulties of junior faculty having monographs published by respected publishers, the monograph being still widely considered a sine qua non for attaining tenure. A complementary charge was to investigate the factual basis behind perceived concerns that types of scholarship other than single-authored monographs were not being properly recognized by those making tenure/promotion decisions and to make “recommendations to address the changing environment in which scholarship is being evaluated in tenure and promotion decisions.” To fulfill its charge, the task force conducted numerous interviews, read many documents and reports, and consulted with a number of committees and organizations. The major data-collection tool employed was “a spring 2005 online survey of 1,339 departments in 734 institutions across the United States covering a range of doctorate, master’s, and baccalaureate institutions. The response rate to the survey (51% of all departments and 67% of all institutions) provided a solid basis for the task force’s analysis and recommendations.”
Among the numerous issues addressed by the task force was the potential expansion of the definition of scholarship, and specifically the role of scholarship in electronic media. The report acknowledged that a very diverse range of digital scholarship was now pervasive in the humanities and was fundamentally changing both the production and distribution of much scholarship. Accordingly, it was necessary, according to the task force, that such new scholarly endeavor must be recognized as legitimate and that “appropriate standards, practices, and modes of evaluation” are applied to it. However, findings revealed that inexperience in evaluating digital scholarship is widespread: “Even more troubling is the state of evaluation for digital scholarship, now an extensively used resource for scholars across the humanities: 40.8% of departments in doctorate granting institutions report no experience evaluating refereed articles in electronic format, and 65.7% report no experience evaluating monographs in electronic format.” On a more positive note, the report states that a majority of departments regard digital scholarship as “important”, i.e. creditable, rather than “not important” when evaluating for tenure and promotion. Nevertheless, there still remain a sizable, though smaller, proportion of departments that consider it “not important” in this process.
The report’s findings document that digital scholarship presently does not play a major role in tenure and promotion decisions. This partly reflects the numerous departments that do not yet have adequate experience with evaluating scholarship in this format. This inexperience poses a potential problem, according to the report. Junior faculty members may be disinclined to risk publishing in digital formats unless they have a distinct assurance that such work will receive serious consideration in tenure/promotion processes. It’s a chicken and egg question. Which comes first, the faculty member’s creation of the digital scholarship or the department’s/institution’s recognition of the value of digital scholarship and clear criteria for its evaluation for tenure and promotion? However, the report is quite explicit:
Nevertheless, in evaluating scholarship for tenure and promotion, committees and administrators must take responsibility for becoming fully aware both of the mechanisms of oversight and assessment that already govern the production of a great deal of digital scholarship and of the well-established role of new media in humanities research. It is of course convenient when electronic scholarly editing and writing are clearly analogous to their print counterparts. But when new media make new forms of scholarship possible, those forms can be assessed with the same rigor used to judge scholarly quality in print media. We must have the flexibility to ensure that, as new sources and instruments for knowing develop, the meaning of scholarship can expand and remain relevant to our changing times.
This MLA report is concerned with many more issues than that of the definition of the role of digital scholarship and the latter’s place in the evaluation of tenure and promotion. It is an important document that may help bring about what many see as urgently needed changes to the production, dissemination, and evaluation of humanities scholarship. Arguably the most significant part of this report are the twenty recommendations the report makes to address the “complex situation” of evaluating scholarship for tenure and promotion “before it becomes a crisis”. The report is accessible from the MLA’s web site [PDF].