Peer review, uneasiness, and #GradDH

In Planned Obsolescence, Kathleen Fitzpatrick discusses potential futures of peer review. While discussing Noah Wardrip-Fruin’s experiment in peer review, she explains:

In the end, he notes, “the blog commentaries will have been through a social process that, in some ways, will probably make me trust them more” (Wardrip-Fruin). Knowing the reviewers’ reputations, and seeing those reputations as part a dynamic process of intellectual interaction, produces the authority of the comments, and will thus affect the authority of the book that Wardrip-Fruin finally publishes.

Reading this reminded me of Jean Bauer’s JDH article “Who You Calling Untheoretical?” In the article, Bauer argues that the theory brought to bear on digital projects inflects the project as a whole—from vocabulary to color choices. It is up to the project creators to make the theoretical choices visible, but it is also the responsibility of those “reading” the projects to recognize the ways that “the database is the theory.” What fascinates me, however, is how Bauer handles the process of revision of the blog post for republication in JDH. She explains in a note prefacing the piece:

[A note from the author: This blog post, as a piece of prose, is very much of the moment when it was written. Likewise its reception has been based on its tone as well as its content. So, rather than take this chance to revise the piece, I have decided to annotate the original text in the style of a documentary editor, although I have only annotated my own text, leaving the text of my commentators, Chris Forster and Jeremy Boggs (see below), alone. Aside from a few minor, silent corrections for editorial consistency, all new and supporting material can be found in the footnotes or set off by square brackets.]

There is no doubt that the article is better for including the comments. Through the conversation in the comments, among other things, Bauer usefully works through her deployment of the term “theory” in the post, and takes stock of work role big-T Theory has enabled in the humanities in the past. The choice to make this thinking-through visible to the reader of JDH makes a case for the value of the publish-then-review model that Fitzpatrick argues for in PO. The social process of the argument is laid bare, and thus Bauer’s piece is trusted more (at least by me). The type of publishing JDH allows looks a lot like what Fitzpatrick argues for:

For this reason, peer review needs to be put not in the service of gatekeeping, or determining what should be published for any scholar to see, but of filtering, or determining what of the vast amount of material that has been published is of interest or value to a particular scholar.

But republishing existing content in an electronic journal (as JDH, in part, is designed to do) isn’t the only model. Rather, there are simple aggregators—like Digital Humanities Now—using curators to gather and promote “good content.” Ultimately, I think both of these models are important and necessarily separate. While I’m sure it is an honor to have a blog post selected to the “Editor’s Choice,” I don’t think that it would warrant a line on my CV in the same way publication in JDH would. Obviously these are not mutually exclusive. And maybe I am wrong.

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I’m in the process of completing a reading list for the first of my comprehensive exams. To refrain from getting into excruciating detail, let’s say my list is focused on archival and encoding methodologies as they are taken up in DH. During some the conversations with Prof. Cordell this semester, I’ve expressed concern over the amount of blog posts on this reading list. My concern was not a concern about the influence of these pieces. Rather, these included influential blog posts like Stephen Ramsay’s “On Building,” and Bethany Nowviskie’s “On the origins of ‘hack’ and ‘yack.’” Pieces around which particular debates in the field solidified, important pieces. My concern, instead, was for how all of these blog posts will be judged when I finalize and submit my reading list and exam. How will the department look at these pieces?

In a pragmatic (though not at all progressive) way, I have help in this regard through other publication venues. Ramsay’s idea is taken up in his article with Geoffrey Rockwell in Debates in the Digital Humanities, and Nowviskie’s piece has been (slightly) revised and published in the most recent issue of JDH. These provide citations for my exam and reading list that look more conventional. Funny, though (as Prof. Cordell pointed out at the time), that I would feel uncomfortable with the citing the blog posts. Indeed, it is the (original) blog forms of these arguments that circulated most widely, that are most influential. While this is true, I think part of my concern is the way my list looks compared to some of my peers completing more traditional literary exams. This unease with the new and different recalls the comment discussion in the “credentialing” section of Planned Obsolescence, which I include a screenshot of here:

Screenshot 2014-11-11 at 12.03.08 PM

The pressure on junior faculty to publish in conventional ways is palpable to anyone who has worked on a DH project. The conservatism that results affects the graduate students on whose labor these projects (partially) depend. Junior faculty need to publish a monograph, or at least several journal articles in top journals in their field (however that comes to be assessed). At Northeastern, we’ve seen the dark side of this first-hand. Last year, three feminist scholars in the College of Social Sciences and Humanities were denied tenure, despite the support of their departments, chairs, and dean. Predictably, all three (two by reputation and one I knew first-hand) were known to be strong mentors for graduate students. Unfortunately this is not something that seems to help a tenure case. Junior faculty need to be protective of their time inasmuch as they feel pressure to publish in traditionally-valued ways. While these professors were not DH practitioners, all were interdisciplinary scholars pushing the boundaries of their respective disciplines. This does not bode well for the kind of interdisciplinary, collaborative, and evolving work taken up in DH. This is not a new conversation, Roopika Risam mentions this in her ada article, “Rethinking Peer Review in the Age of Digital Humanities

Beyond project directors or principal investigators, other participants – programmers, graduate students, interns – often play critical roles in the creation of digital scholarship but traditional citation and reward structures of academe are not configured to acknowledge these contributions.

Indeed. And while I’m excited about the attention being paid to rethinking peer review for DH scholars, I am more interested (selfishly, perhaps) in the way this will affect graduate students. My colleague at Northeastern, Jim McGrath, has recently been trying to bring additional attention to graduate work in DH by asking graduate students to document their labor through the Twitter hashtag, #GradDH (check out his presentation slides from a recent presentation on graduate labor at UConn’s Scholars’ Collaborative). This is an important conversation that will become increasingly relevant here at Northeastern. Some of us graduate students working in DH intend to defend non-traditional dissertations in the next few years. Many spend a significant time working on faculty-led DH projects that are not directly related to our own research. The less fortunate (often) obtain outside work to bolster our inadequate stipends.

To be clear, I don’t intend to criticize our faculty here; however, the realities of grant-funded research make it difficult for graduate students, especially new students, who came here to do DH work. There simply isn’t enough work for everyone who wants to be involved. How can we be supported? How do we advocate for a model institutional support, perhaps like that of the Praxis Program at the Scholars’ Lab? How can we, as graduate students, garner support (financial and professional) for grad student-led projects? How can interdisciplinary collaboration amongst graduate students be facilitated?

In some ways, these are good problems. It means that the role of DH at Northeastern is shifting from the fringe (at least in the English department). It is silly not to expect some dissonance as new modes of scholarship are integrated into the institutional milieu.



Thanks for your post, Kevin. Your writing and Fitzpatrick’s represents the kind of #realtalk that I needed to read. Seriously though, your post is honest about larger issues in academia and in our department that have been on my mind lately. I think you should present a version of it for the grad student labor symposium next year.

Liz- I appreciate the encouragement. I was actually just thinking about your Neatline exhibit about your article and how interesting that would be for a grad labor symposium–visualizing your labor around this project as you moved through your MA and into your PhD. This, in turn, gets me thinking about proposing a poster session for the symposium. Especially considering the amount of digital work going on, a poster session might be a nice way to get more grad students involved (from multiple institutions).

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