THE Scholarly Web - 14 March 2013

Weekly transmissions from the blogosphere

March 14, 2013

“When does service become scholarship?” asks Mark Sample, associate professor in the department of English at George Mason University, Virginia, in his “Sample Reality” blog.

“When does anything - service, teaching, editing, mentoring, coding - become scholarship?” he continues. “My answer is simply this: a creative or intellectual act becomes scholarship when it is public and circulates in a community of peers that evaluates and builds upon it.”

Professor Sample explains that the threshold of scholarship has been on his mind because of two recent events at his university. First, during a department discussion, one faculty member asked if the “enormous amount” of outreach activities carried out by the English department counts as “public humanities” - a term used to define work that engages the public in conversations on topics such as history, philosophy, popular culture and the arts.

“I suggested at the time that the public humanities revolves around scholarship. The question, then, is not when does outreach become the public humanities? The question is, when does outreach become an act of scholarship?”

The department discussion was a “low-stakes affair”, Professor Sample says, “but the anxiety at the heart of this question - when does anything become scholarship? - plays out in much more consequential ways in the academy”.

The second event causing the issue to play on Professor Sample’s mind was a colleague’s application for a tenured position at the university. Although the application was approved, Professor Sample was angered by the “devastating attitude” of some of the approval committee’s members towards work in the digital humanities.

The colleague in question was Sean Takats, director of research projects for the university’s Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media. In his own blog, The Quintessence of Ham, Professor Takats outlines his disappointment that his digital work was considered not scholarship but a “service activity”. He quotes a letter from one of the members of the approval panel: “Some on the committee questioned to what degree Dr Takats’ involvement in these activities constitutes actual research (as opposed to project management).”

Professor Takats is not impressed. “Conceive projects? Service. Develop prototype software? Service. Write successful grant proposals? Service. Write code? Service. Lead developers and designers? Service. Disseminate the results of the project? Service,” he writes.

Professor Sample says he sees the situation as “a crisis that extends beyond the digital humanities”.

The solution, or “at least one prong of a solution”, is for faculty who have already “survived the gauntlet of tenure to work ceaselessly to promote an atmosphere that pairs openness with critical review, yet which is not entrenched in any single medium - print, digital, performance, and so on.

“We can do this in the background by writing tenure letters, reviewing projects, and serving on committees ourselves,” he writes. “But we can and should also do this publicly, right here, right now.”

Send links to topical, insightful and quirky online comment by and about academics to chris.parr@tsleducation.com

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