Catching up

An important and characteristic part of any day of digital humanities (in my experience at least), is catching up. The next couple of blog entries will discuss different parts of my day–which despite my initial misgivings turned out both to be relatively typical and not entirely devoid of digital work!

Venerable Institutions and the New Media

My Day of Digital Humanities was spent on the road–not an unusual occurrence, though of course not a daily one. I flew down to New Haven for the meeting of the Council of the Medieval Academy of America, whose “Digital Initiatives Advisory Board” I chair with Dot Porter.

Like most scholarly organisations, the Medieval Academy is struggling with the question of how to function in the new digital world. Unlike many, it is not facing pressure to make its journal, Speculum, open access. So the question is not necessarily how to discover revenue while giving away what has traditionally been seen as the main membership benefit of membership in the organisation. But with increasingly amounts of research in the discipline being published in non-traditional ways the Academy is interested in deciding how to fit new types of digital publication into its organisation and mandate.

And of course there is the web page. While scholarly organisations seem to fret about their web pages the way middle class professors fret about their waistlines, in the Academy’s case, the site is starting to age. It’s current design was put together before robust content management systems became cheaply and widely available, and most maintenance is carried out by hand–by people whose primary interests and skills do not lie in coding. the site both now looks old-fashioned and is very difficult to maintain. A request for a sub-domain for the Academy’s very active Graduate Student Caucus, proved surprisingly difficult to answer: the current (temporary) solution the staff came up wit was to register a new domain name for the graduate students that closely resembles the current main Medieval Academy domain name: medievalacademy.gsc.org (the URL is currently parked).

At the meeting of the Council I presented on the activities of the Digital Initiatives Advisory Board over the course of its first year of existence. Unfortunately we’ve been less active than we hoped: we continued the basic business of the sub-committees that were merged to form the DIAB (an Electronic Editions Advisory Board and a Committee on Electronic Resources).

Amongst the highlights of the year had been an interesting poster session we organised at the International Medieval Congress at Kalamazoo: in contrast to most poster sessions, which ask for new material, for this session we asked for posters from people who were presenting papers in other sessions at the conference. The idea was to produce an overview of all the digital work presented at the sprawling Kalamazoo conference, allowing speakers and audience members to pursue discussions they had begun in sessions, or simply to catch up with papers they’d been otherwise unable to attend. With a free open bar in the next room to tempt people away, we still managed to hold an audience of somewhere around 30 for the full two hours devoted to the (unfortunately dry) poster reception.

The Digital Humanities came back at the council meeting towards the end when a report was presented by an ad hoc committee that had been looking into the Academy’s web presence. This committee made a number of recommendations for specific changes to the site, but after some discussion it was agreed that the question of the Academy’s web presence involved a number of very significant questions of workflow, authority, and institutional purpose–in addition to specific editorial or technical questions. The whole question has been turned over to the DIAB for consideration–an exciting problem for the accomplished Digital Humanists who serve on that committee to consider over the course of the summer and fall!

My own feeling is that we need to take advantage of this opportunity to rethink the Academy’s digital relationship to its community entirely: why do we have a web site? why do people go to it? how can we make the Academy a centre for what is in essence has been for many years an analogue equivalent of a social network or community of practice. Through my work with various organisations (the TEI, Digital Medievalist, and of course the Academy), I’ve become increasingly convinced that membership in scholarly organisations is driven more by a need to belong than by specific membership benefits. That is to say that I join an organisation like the Medieval Academy for much the same reason I might contribute to the American Public Broadcasting System (PBS): to express my membership in the larger community, and my support for the organisation’s goals, rather than in order to acquire any specific membership benefit.

(For those of you who don’t know PBS, the organisation is a television network that broadcasts its content for free, but depends on membership and corporate donations for its operating revenue. When you contribute to the PBS, you often receive some kind of gift, but the actual cash value of the gift is much less than your donation. Moreover, donating to PBS does not actually gain you preferential access to the organisation’s main product–its television programming. All PBS programming is available to all, regardless of whether or not they have donated to the station.)

Digital Medievalist

I’d brought my fourteen-year-old son Bouke down to New Haven with me, both to see my Alma Mater (I was a grad student at Yale) and because I was planning to take him down to New York later in the week as a birthday present, since I was otherwise going to be away on his birthday. We’d scheduled a tour of Yale for after the academy meeting, but a piece of Pizza from one of my old student hangouts didn’t sit well in my son’s stomach (kid’s today! “In my day we had to eat bad pizza at every meal and be happy for it too!”). So we spent the afternoon in our hotel room.

Which was just as well, because I’d forgotten that I had a Digital Medievalist editorial meeting scheduled for 2pm Eastern. Bouke’s illness meant that I could show up on time and looking organised! It truly is an ill wind that blows no man good.

Digital Medievalist is an on-line community of practice that a number of Digitally active researchers and students of Medieval Studies founded about five years ago. It has a relatively large (500+ members) mailing list, dm-l@uleth.ca; a news-server that is increasingly the source of record for announcements about new projects, calls for papers, vacancies, and the like in our discipline, and a scholarly journal.

This meeting (held on Skype chat) was of the editorial board. The Digital Medievalist journal has recently been reorganised with a new editorial board, workflow, and focus. In addition to the usual maintenance tasks that come up in our biweekly meeting (always held on chat–in part, I think, to level the playing field between native and non-native speakers of English on the board), this meeting covered a number of new initiatives we are considering: a new programme of attempting to conduct reviews of “non-traditional” publications (e.g. websites and other things that are self-published or have otherwise traditionally failed to receive attention from reviewers in scholarly journals); the introduction of a new column in the journal (modelled in part on my column over the last several years at Heroic Age; and a determination of some themes we want to pursue over the next couple of issues.

Interestingly, a strong theme developed in the course of this relatively long (2 hours) meeting: the question of academic reward and the Digital Humanities. Why do people publish Digital Humanities work, and what to they get out of it?

Samuel Johnson famously claimed that “No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.” You might think at first that most academics are blockheads. While many of us who are lucky enough to have found jobs at Universities are paid in part to conduct research by our employers, very few of us are paid directly for our writing by the academic journals and presses that publish our work (indeed, in the case of monographs, we often are required to partially support the costs of publishing our books). If you are a graduate student, new post doc, or independent scholar working without a University affiliation, the situation seems even stranger: in those cases you are not even paid by a university to conduct the original research, let alone publish your results.

So why do academics continue to research and write? And why, if you run a journal, do they decide to publish with you?

Digital Medievalist is built on the theory that the currency that supports most academic writing is primarily prestige. When I was a graduate student and post-doc, and hence both conducted and published my research at my own cost, the economic benefit I received from my writing lay in the prestige I received from publishing my work in well-respected journals: the more refereed articles I had in my CV, the more likely I was to get a job that would pay me to carry out my future research. At Digital Medievalist, therefore, we are very careful to ensure that our submissions are both carefully vetted (our rejection rate is usually around 70% and almost nothing gets accepted without significant, referee-driven revision) and that this vetting is very public: we announce the names of referees who recommend acceptance on the front page of the article and always clearly distinguish between refereed submissions, such as articles, and non-refereed submissions, such as reviews of other works.

This just raises the question, however, of why anybody would write reviews? In job searches and promotion hearings, scholarly reviews count for relatively little. In the case of junior scholars who have perhaps not yyet had much time to publish much peer-reviewed research of their own, reviews indicate active participation in the discipline and can be decisive in applying for scholarships or positions. In the case of more senior scholars, reviews are barely taken into account in promotion or hiring decisions.

But reviews are less valuable than peer reviewed articles in terms of their prestige, they are more valuable in a sense that Samuel Johnson would understand: you get actually receive a concrete economic benefit when you write a review of a traditional academic work–a copy of the work itself. Since some academic books can cost several hundred dollars, this reward is occasionally quite significant; and even if the book in question is relatively inexpensive, a free copy of the book in exchange for a review usually looks like a pretty good deal anyway: to write a review, you need to pay attention to the book in question (many academics are terrible procrastinators, if they are not facing a deadline)… and you can always use the money you saved on this book to buy another.

In trying to get reviews of non-traditional publications such as self-published, free, and open access websites, however, Digital Medievalist is going to be eliminating this primary attraction for writing reviews. Reviewers of scholarly websites gain no economic benefit, since the work they are reviewing is available for free. My own belief is that we will discover that reviewers also write for altruistic reasons–to support good work in their field, to help the field develop as a whole, to share their own insights. But we will need to pay careful attention as we start this new programme, both that we are able to attract good work from our (now seriously under-paid) reviewers and that different kinds of rewards do not creep into the system unnoticed (e.g. examples of self-promotion, or other types of close associations between reviewers and publishers).

A second aspect of this problem, which we hope to discuss more in a thematic collection of articles for our 2011 issue involves the question of how research in the Digital Humanities is itself rewarded by the profession in job searches and promotion. I mentioned in my definition of the Digital Humanities that I sometimes wonder if it is not in relation to the traditional humanities what Big Science is to traditional small labs. The way we work in the Digital Humanities–in groups, often focussing as much on method as on results–can be quite foreign to traditionally-trained humanities scholars. And the result can be that committees staffed by such traditional scholars can have difficulty evaluating (and crediting) the efforts of Digital Humanists’ participation in even quite major Digital projects. While there has been some attention to this in recent years from major organisations like the MLA (and while I have to confess that my own experience with such committees has been relatively benign), we all know of people who have not received adequate credit for the work they have done on large collaborative projects.