Revisionists and tenure standards: adventures of public and digital historians

The readings for this week that stimulated my interest the most were the Engaged Historian White Paper and Report.  Both the White Paper and the Report speak to public history issues that are quite pertinent to what we have discussed in class thus far: what exactly constitutes public/digital history, how does one go about evaluating these forms of scholarship, and how does academia need to modify its current standards to ensure that historians whose scholarship is mainly in the digital or public realm are not penalized for doing there jobs when the tenure committee comes calling?  As doctoral student working in the field of public history, I obviously agree wholeheartedly with reports overall recommendations that established communication of job expectations, of completed projects accomplished goals (and the presentation of these goals in some type of public forum), and the inclusion of critical standards for evaluation should be paramount objectives.

However, despite similarities in the evaluative process, there are differences in the situations between public history and digital history that these articles throw into stark relief, even if they do not do so explicitly.  One particularly important distinction that bears some further elaboration is one that Megan made in her post for this week, that public history “has a larger group of practitioners” and thus the scholarship can be evaluated by curators, National Park historians, et all.  What this point hints at is that public history may simply have a more tangible or at least easier to evaulate end product than its digital colleagues. It also doesn’t hurt that for all the good points the White Paper makes about the need to consider different types of scholarship as part of the tenure assessment process, public historians have also produced a remarkable amount of traditional monograph scholarship.  To cite just a few examples, John Hennessy, chief historian at the Fredericksburg National Battlefield ( and well known for his excellent Civil War blog “Bull Runnings”) has also written the classic work on the Second Battle of Bull Run.  Matthew Pinsker runs NEH funded workshops for high school teachers on Slavery and the Underground Railroad, and has also authored Lincoln’s Sanctuary; Abraham Lincoln and the Soldier’s Home.  Gary B. Nash is best known for his scholarship on the American Revolution, but also spent a considerable amount of time helping to establish national standards for social studies.  I should make it explicit here that this is a fact, underutilized in the report,  simply strengthens the White Papers point–scholars should not have to produce full monographs in order to be considered for tenure.

Perhaps the most important point in the article is one that should be applied to judging the merits of digital history as well; the need for the creation of a separate category (apart from research, teaching and service) to judge “community engagement.”  Rightly pointing out that part of the problem derives from the “growing influence of the university research model,” the paper recommends the altering of contracts to allow for different teaching loads for professors who are actively and constantly engaged in the community through their historical scholarship.  The same should be true for digital history.  Websites that foster community engagement (not sure how one defines “foster community engagement” at the moment, but that is another problem for another day) often require a high degree of maintenance while providing often stimulating a similar amount of public interest.  As the White Paper points out, the lack of these separate categories point to the striated nature of judging historical scholarship and identifies the creation of standards for peer review of public history (recognizing of course that peer review in regards to public history often takes place outside of traditional mediums like academic journals), and perhaps most importantly in its implications for digital history, the need for flexibility and openness to broader definitions of old ideas (“the discovery, exchange, interpretation, and presentation of ideas about the past,” for example).  Only when openness to broader interpretations of the disciplines admittedly rigid and mildly archaic notions of what constitutes scholarship becomes more widespread can we hope to see the large scale change public historians, digital historians, and frankly probably most younger academic historians have identified as needing to take place for the discipline to continue to remain relevant.



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One response to “Revisionists and tenure standards: adventures of public and digital historians

  1. Scott,
    I agree with you and Megan that “historian” includes a broad range of job descriptions located in many different venues. Holding everyone to a “one size fits all” format for tenure / promotion (via the single-authored monograph) fails to recognize the unique strengths that different people in different jobs bring to the community of history scholarship. Having said that, should historians splinter into job specific groups, each with its own set of professional standards and criteria for advancement and recognition? I do agree that some people have certain skill sets that check the block of traditional standards, but as we are learning, there are so many other skills to bringing history to the public beyond just the book that (in Chris’s words) thrill the 10 other people enthralled by that dissertation topic but have little influence on the vast majority. Tailoring standards, in a way, may force historians be become better multi-taskers and branch into different areas like service, community engagement, or digital applications. Broadening our standards for excellence to encompass many facets and tailoring each program to focus on particular strengths like engaging with the public, or publication, or creating an exhibit (physical or digital), we allow more chances to excel. The question remains, “who” is the one in charge of implementing these changes? Do we look primarily to the historical societies, to the funding organizations, or to the academy for leadership? Perhaps this question of “who” is why for each of those suggested changes in the Working Group report there are many intended audiences – too hard to identify the one who needs to take the lead. You’ve raised some great points to include in the discussion!

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