Today, on the final day of Rebuilding the Portfolio: Digital Humanities for Art Historians, we are discussing scholarly communication. I think it’s the most important topic we’ve covered.
One of our guest instructors is Joan Fragaszy Troyano, who opened the day with a discussion of communication in art history.
When Joan asked our participants to describe the “viable” forms of scholarship in art history, she identified one of the key questions in digital humanities at the moment: what counts?
Within the DH community, most things count. DHers (as I tend to call them) are often open-minded about new forms of expression. Seldom would you hear, “Well, that’s interesting, but it’s not scholarship.” Of course, we aren’t any more accepting of bad scholarship than anyone else, and will quickly point out when a work fails to demonstrate the principles of good scholarship in a field. But we rarely think of the medium as the hinge on which scholarship turns.
Unfortunately, DHers are not the only group whose opinion matters. When submitting your work to an instructor, a dissertation committee, a library, a journal, a publisher, a conference, a tenure committee, a hiring board, or any of the other gatekeepers of scholarship, you will be subject to their definitions of what counts. And they seem to care about the medium.
In a previous post, I insisted that I intend to produce a digital dissertation, and acknowledged the risks that come with that decision. In a three-part series, Sean Takats recorded his tenure case and the debate about whether his work on Zotero should be considered “actual research (as opposed to project management).” Sean was awarded tenure after the dean declared Zotero as scholarly, but he wondered whether such intervention should be necessary.
At George Mason University (and likely many other universities), all dissertations must be submitted to a Format Review conducted by Dissertation and Thesis Services. Their guidelines state, “We prefer to receive documents in Word, if at all possible, but we will also accept PDFs.“
Not only do they insist on a medium (text), but also the file type (.doc) unless you absolutely must use (.pdf). Do you want to include a video in your dissertation written for film studies? Too bad. Embed a static image in the PDF.
Perhaps they are open to alternatives, but I’ve seen nothing in their policy to suggest openness. I’ve only heard some murmurs and secondhand discussions. They are, however, abundantly clear about the importance of their review:
And, once again, please be aware that this step is MANDATORY. In order to be eligible to graduate, you must submit your document for a Format Review, and we must approve it. If you do not go through the Format Review process, and if we do not inform you that your review is over, you will not be eligible to graduate.
One important step in my dissertation process will be discussing the format options with that office. And the department chair. And maybe the dean. And maybe the provost.
But this post isn’t just about me. This is just one case of policy that doesn’t show flexibility when deciding what counts. In dissertations, it seems, text on paper counts. Other media do not count. In Sean’s case, a huge humanities project like Zotero almost didn’t count, until the dean decided it counted. Every year, students, applicants, and employees who work with digital tools, produce digital content, and use digital methods will face these hurdles of what counts. And I can’t figure out why.
I can’t imagine why anyone would insist that only text counts as scholarship. Are the practices of any discipline inseparable from and wholly reliant on text?
If not, why do attitudes and policies about what counts as scholarship insist on text?
If true, I despair for the future of scholarship as a pursuit.
Non-traditional theses or dissertations such as whole works comprised of digital, artistic, video, or performance materials (i.e., no written text, chapters, or articles) are acceptable if approved by your committee and graduate program. A PDF document with a title page, copyright page, and abstract at minimum are required to be submitted along with any relevant supplemental files.
*Note: there are many good posts, articles, and essays about this topic on the web. I’m adding to the noise, hoping we’ll be noticed. Thank you to Celeste Sharpe for her comments on this post.