That Doesn’t Count 2

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.

*Edit: Thanks to JJ Bauer, who pointed out UNC’s simple solution to the problem. This paragraph:

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.

2 thoughts on “That Doesn’t Count

  • Gina McDaniel Tarver

    Thanks for blogging about this issue. I understand your great frustration. I do think much of the problem is generational. Academe is full of people who are trained, embedded and deeply invested in more traditional ways of doing things. Don’t despair, though, but realize that change will take time. Academe is (right now, as I see it) like a huge ship. You can steer it in a certain direction, but it will take time for the ship to actually change course, due to the sheer size. (The very opposite of how quickly things can move and change in the digital world.) It is crucially important, as you already have grasped, to keep making noise about it, to keep pushing for changes, no matter how small or big. We can and will (eventually) change the culture, but it will take those of us who are invested in the changes demonstrating what change can accomplish and getting into positions of power, or convincing those who are in positions of power already to support new and more flexible policy (which might be more difficult). You will play an important role by demonstrating that digital projects have a seriousness and rigor that is equal to old forms, and that furthermore such projects can contribute to knowledge in new, different, and powerful ways. Keep up the good fight, and we will prevail!

  • Jhennifer Amundson

    Spencer, I hear you. Your post brought back a vivid memory of waiting in a hallway with dozens of other people for hours, waiting to have our theses format-checked by one of the people who were assigned that awful task. Once ushered in, I had to sit and watch this guy measure the font, the spacing, the margins. . .
    And while most of our discussion today was based on how “real” scholarship is judged and deemed “worthy,” I wonder too if the diss. issue is about how do we store something that can’t be filed? Maybe if you got some advocate librarians on board, you could quickly solve the logistical problem, and then just face the content/method problem–which is a problem because you’re asking people to think differently.
    Keep rattling the cage; eventually it has to collapse. And hopefully will do so soon enough so that you can deposit your diss. before you have to retire!
    Best to you, JAA

Comments are closed.