Academic Service in a Digital Age

Mills Kelly has written that “Digital work encompasses everything historians do in the digital realm–scholarship, teaching, and service.” He goes on to make a case for why digital scholarship should “count” as scholarship.

I’d rather take a moment to talk about service.

It’s old news to say that many digital humanities projects suffer from lack of acknowledgement by the gatekeepers of academia (read: tenure committees, hiring committees, etc).

Partially, this reflects simply an inability or unwillingness to change how things have always been done before. Or from legitimate concerns about the digital peer review process.

However, a part of this situation stems from the need to think about the activities of scholars within the bounds of established categories (e.g.: Service, teaching, and scholarship).

It is relatively easy to associate online teaching with other forms of teaching, but outside of clearly pedagogical examples, much digital activity is difficult to categorize.

A great deal of the digital activities that scholars perform should perhaps be thought of as service.

For example, the maintenance of a professional website or blogsite could be considered a professional service activity. When Jeremy Young commented on Kelly’s piece to propose that a scholarly blog such as Kelly’s could perhaps count as scholarship, Kelly countered that “I would be more inclined to place this blog in the category of ‘service to the profession.’”

I agree with Kelly on this point.

Blogs can serve a number of purposes. A central purpose is simply the maintenance of a digital identity for the blogger–an important task but perhaps not “service to the profession.”

However, a more service-oriented aspect of blogging is highlighted by Alex Sayf Cummings and Jonathan Jarrett:

For those not engaged in scholarship but interested in the author’s material, a blog may be an intercession with the Academy for those who cannot participate themselves. This can be used by writers as advertising for the academic endeavor as a whole, for the field of history large or small or as a chance to correct misapprehensions, but it also requires a reciprocal attempt to engage at an accessible level.

In other words, blogging serves as a form of public outreach.

One of the best examples on the web of this form of academic blogging is Africa is a Country. Go ahead. click the link. I’ll be here when you get back.

Correcting misapprehensions, as Cummings and Jarrett recommend, is central to the goal of Africa is a Country: “We deliberately challenge and destabilize received wisdom about the African continent and its people in Western media.”

This is not scholarship in the sense of advancing new ideas to be consumed by the scholarly community. It is scholarly service, however, in that it is outreach to a wider community of internet users interested in Africa.

Kelly offers two other examples of digital projects that, while useful to many scholars, are not in themselves scholarship: the Perseus Project and The Valley of the Shadow. Since Kelly wrote “Making Digital Scholarship Count” in 2008, newer examples of similarly hard-to-define projects have no doubt been born.

As Kelly notes, these cannot truly be considered “scholarship” in the sense that the word is generally understood as “Neither project offers an argument. Both are amazing resources, but neither advances our understanding of particular historical questions.

So if not scholarship, what are these projects?

Ideally, the simple answer would be that they are longterm digital projects, which is a category of scholarly action distinct from pre-digital activities.

However, this answer will only be sufficient when digital projects of these sorts are acknowledged and respected by academic gatekeepers, when they “count.”

But presenting them as a new form of service activity does not solve the problem either because service activities do not count for much when it comes to tenure and promotion.

This is an old problem. Service to the department and the profession is both an important aspect of professional life and a timesuck that can prevent scholars from completing and publishing their research in a timely manner, which ultimately is what tenure committees care about. (Check out this article on the gendered aspects of this dilemma, or this specific example)

Digital projects, or rather the fact that digital projects don’t “count,” exacerbate this already unbalanced situation. They are simultaneously enormous timesucks, count for very little according most official gatekeeping, and a critical direction to pursue for the sake of the future of the profession.

What is the answer? There is no easy answer.

But I do think that the emphasis on research, which inevitably sidelines teaching, service, and digital projects, is problematic on a number of levels. Besides the contradiction I have mentioned here, it fails to represent the actual activities and priorities of many talented academics or to encourage digital projects through which the field can adapt and grow.

2 thoughts on “Academic Service in a Digital Age

  1. Jodie, I really liked your suggestion to use blogging as a way to get something like a seminar paper out into the world. I am sure plenty of scholars write seminar papers that are well researched and interesting, but never really get the legs underneath them to become a journal article. Once the seminar papers are done though I wonder if we will find certain projects more blogable than others and how we might determine that.

    • Thank you. Which seminar papers I could experiment with is something I’ve put some thought into recently. I think it would be best if it was one that had some sort of visual element, be that images, video clips, graphs, or maps. Not that an entirely non-visual paper could not be turned into an interesting blog post, but since the internet encourages visual communication the transition might be easiest if the paper was already visual in some way.

      As for content, I think ideally it would be on a subject that represents who I am as a scholar. So I’m more likely to post one of my papers on comics or children’s books than I am to post a paper I forced myself to write for an economic history class. Both because the papers in which I was actually interested are probably a better quality and because I want readers to be able to get a picture of who I am as a scholar, which is after all a large part of the point of this whole digital identity endeavor.

      I also wonder where the best place to put it would be. Break it up as a series of blog posts? Summarize like mad to make it one really solid blog post? As a separate page, maybe a subpage under projects? I’m leaning towards this last.

      Also, how much rewriting is appropriate/needed? Should it be rewritten in a casual internet tone? Or would it be effective as is, intended for a scholarly/semi-scholarly audience? The tone I typically use for papers isn’t terribly formal in the first place as I strive to write in the style that I like to read, but it is still more formal than your average blog post.

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