I ‘attended’ the AAA’s webinar on ‘the future of publishing, promotion and tenure,’ which required me to wake up at 4:00 am on Saturday. I’ll admit, I didn’t even figure out how to get the Live Office slideshow until about 15 minutes before the session wrapped, but I do feel like I got the gyst of the whole thing and have listened again more carefully when not in a sleep-induced fog. Although the webinar suggested many possible lines of discussion, here I want to focus on one possibility: can we combine online publication including anthro-blogging with something resembling peer review for the purpose of promotion and tenure?
I’ll tell you the punchline now: I’ve got a plan.
The webinar brought together three scholars I really admire: Don Brenneis (UC Santa Cruz), former President of the AAA, among other things; Brian Foster (U Missouri), currently the Provost at Mizzou, so also very familiar with the way that publishing fits into academics’ careers; and Richard Handler (U Virginia), who in addition to being terribly accomplished is also my former advisor and first anthropology teacher!
The webinar has been covered very well by Tobias Denskus at the weblog, Aidnography, in his post, ‘AAA Webinar on Promotion, Tenure & Publications’ so I’m not going to describe the whole webinar. If you want to check it out, the audio and the slides are available at the AAA’s website: Webinar on Promotion & Tenure and Publications. Moreover, there’s already a really lively discussion going at the AAA’s blog at The future of AAA publishing: Opening a conversation that has some pretty substantial comments on the key issues that accompany online publication, including citation metrics (see the wonderful discussion by John Hawks and response by Don Brenneis) and the danger of the ephemerality of online publication (Jason Baird Jackson helps to lay out the issues and possible remedies).
Look, again, I’m not going to rehash all that is discussed, but I think you’d be crazy not to check out at least Tobias’s summary and the discussion on the AAA weblog if you’re interested in the future of online publication, especially in what the AAA is doing. The conversation is a great one to be having, and I hope that the AAA expands and refines its webinar format – this could be a fantastic forum for intradisciplinary discussion. I’m sorry I’m going to miss the session in Montreal on the subject and hope we get some concrete steps, but I’m not ready to sit back and just wait and hope. I hope you’ll join me in an ‘immodest’ proposal to get thing strated.
Is online writing relevant for promotion?
One of the participants in the webinar sent in a question by text (it’s not preserved on the AAA website) about blog writing to the panel, but the time was really too short at the end of the session, so the question got answered only briefly. It’s the last one on the audio recording, so you’re going to have to listen until the end, unless you trust my admittedly quick and dirty transcription.
Ed Liebow: ‘We have one more question… Wondering if there have been conversations about peer review of blogs and other forms of digital publishing…’
Brian: ‘…I don’t know….’ [more words, but that’s the sense]
Richard: ‘…Promotion and tenure committees do make a distinction between what they consider to be non-scholarly blogging versus scholarly publication. And in particular, some scholars are aligned with political organizations of the right or the left which provide them with these kinds of fora, and then the judgment gets made, “well, we’re not going to count that material because that’s being produced for another purpose,” which is political work.’
I suspect that Richard is right, even though I don’t like it. For some of our senior colleagues, blogging is likely placed in the same overarching category with writing commentary or letters to the editor in local papers: at best, ‘non-scholarly’ or ‘outreach,’ at worst, well, something ‘being produced for another purpose’ and vaguely dodgy.
As Tobias describes, the issue seems to be ‘peer review’ (and ‘quality control’): ‘It’s all about peer-review. I didn’t do a statistical analysis, but my guess is that it was the most used technical expression in all three presentations’ (Tobias Denskus). Foster and the others point out that peer review is an essential function of journals and academic presses, validating the quality of research and scholarship. But the longer they got me talking, the more I thought about how we could hack this particular part of the academic promotion process.
Post-publication peer review and the local dynamics of promotion
Two facts in particular get highlighted during the webinar that I think we need to bring together (and since all three participants weave in and about these topics, it’s hard to pin down credit to any one of them for brining them up).
The first is that not all ‘peer review’ is the type that happens prior to publication in journals or with academic presses. Brenneis, for example, contrasts pre-publication peer review, what he calls ‘expert’ review on his slides (‘for want of a better word,’ he adds as a caveat), and ‘crowd’ review post-publication. Use of metrics to discuss scholarly impact, which is something we’re really seeing in Australia (as Brenneis really points out), is also a type of post-publication peer effect which we’re increasingly forced to deal with here, as all the presenters describe.
The second point is about promotion itself. Handler offers a sustained discussion of the ‘local’ perspective on publication, focusing less on the publishing environment or the future of journals, and instead discussing the impact of communication technologies on individual scholars’ careers; or, as he puts it, how ‘new media and scholarly communication’ factor into hiring, tenure, and promotion. Handler insists that new technologies will interact with existing social structures of tenure and promotion — ‘where the action is,’ as Goffman said (as does Handler).
Handler really emphasizes that local departments as representatives of national institutions (or international scholarly communities) exert enormous influence over universities’ hiring and promotion practices; universities have to depend on departmental assessment unless departments have proven themselves undependable, ambivalent or otherwise untrustworthy. In his experience, administrators were ‘referees’ in the sports sense, but the departments really did the work of evaluating and making recommendations.
From Handler’s description, we can see that new communication technologies could very easily influence promotion and tenure far more in three ways: 1) as the panel suggests and Handler makes explicit, the AAA could come out with a clear statement of the state of our field, including support for online writing as a valuable contribution to anthropology; 2) departments themselves could make the argument for the value of new forms of publication, including blogging, when they put forward recommendations in hiring or promotion; or 3) outside letters of reference (and maybe even the candidates’ dossiers themselves) could make an effective case for the value of online writing.
What the AAA can do, according to Handler, is the first option:
AAA can perform a useful service by adopting a clear statement of its approach to scholarly publishing and assessment, and then developing a regular channel to communicate this to all colleges and universities which employ anthropologists on their faculty.
Will the AAA do this? If they do, will they write a statement that sufficiently captures the vitality and changing importance of online writing, both as scholarly communication and outreach? I don’t know. Between you and me, I’d like to be optimistic, and the webinar itself is a good sign. But I don’t want to just wait around and count on it.
Even institutions that are very responsive to new opportunities and changes in the publishing environment are struggling to keep pace with the way things are changing. In a recent column, for example, Paul Krugman discusses how the way intellectual labour happens in economics has sidelined peer-reviewed journals, reducing them to a kind of intellectual ‘tombstone’ for new ideas. This portrait would suggest economics, like so many fields, would also struggle with the straight-jacket of rigid metrics for assessing scholars’ work.
The second possibility is that departments could start to make the case strongly to university administrations that online publishing had value, either as outreach to the non-academic community or as scholarly work (at least in some cases) with its own merit. I suspect that most departments are more likely to focus on online writing as outreach, classifying it with the non-academic services that academics render to the community and public relations of the university. It’s not a great solution, as some online writing is, in fact, quite legitimate academic work, and in some areas of anthropological discussion, as in economics, the action has moved on line.
The third possibility is that we start intervening in the process ourselves through the outside letter of reference. Handler describes the importance, but also the problems of letters of support in promotion and tenure during the webinar:
Outside letters of recommendation are absolutely central in the process of scholarly evaluation and tenure at promotion time…. These letters of recommendation are another part of scholarly communication. We don’t think of them as such: they’re sort of informal, they’re sort of private, they’re sort of beneath the radar… But they can be absolutely critical in these moments of tenure review. … So we’ve got this very funny situation where, at the moment of promotion and tenure, hastily written letters of recommendation weigh almost as much as peer reviewed publications. [Not a perfect transcription, but a long shot, but this isn’t peer reviewed -- yet.]
Even with all their flaws, these letters are ‘at the heart of promotion and tenure,’ Handler makes clear. Moreover, committees and universities are ‘quite willing to adapt’ to the standards of the various disciplines and subdisciplines.
From my own experience in writing these sorts of outside letters, they are quite clearly a form of post-publication ‘peer review’; external referees for tenure and even members of our own home departments primarily read or review your published stuff, and then write evaluations. Even when the reviewer knows the candidate, there’s a fair chance that writing the reference will require catching up, so a kind of ‘expert post-publication’ peer review is built into the promotion process.
An immodest proposal (not an indecent proposition)
This discussion suggests a plan of action; we don’t have to wait for the AAA to make blogging count in our professional lives. Handler implies that we should form a body of virtual peers, participate actively in making the case for the value of online anthropology and for each other’s work. Why wait for the AAA to write the statement that folks at Savage Minds, Open Anthropology, Zero Anthropology, Anthropologi, Culture Matters, and a host of other places are likely positioned better to write? Odds are they’re going to have to come to the most prominent online writers anyway because they know we’ll let ‘em know if they get it wrong.
But we can also act locally, serving as a body of peers for each other’s reviews. As an online anthropology writer on Neuroanthropology, and commenter and participant in discussions in lots of online forums, you may very well be precisely the sort of person who is my ‘peer’ if you’re reading this. So why not crowd source our letters of reference to make the case for the importance of our online publishing?
So my immodest proposal is this: we start helping each other put together our dossiers for job application, promotion, and tenure right now, that make clear the value of online writing. We need to start well in advance, because crowd sourcing for this likely needs a bit of lead time. Instead of occasionally writing an ‘attaboy!’ or a ‘thanks, mate!’ on each other’s weblogs, we could take the time to write a paragraph about what each other’s writing online means to us, its significance, and our evaluations of each other, as peers in the community of online writers. We stick up for each other, and ask openly if we need help to prove that our work has an audience.
Let’s call them ‘endorsements’ because they won’t be full letters. Rather, we would be contributing a paragraph or a few choice lines to a statement that the candidate would have to pull together to describe the impact of their online writing. I’ve seen these sort of amalgamated statements work extremely well in proof of teaching ability and applications for teaching awards; why not make it part of the proof of our publication output?
Handler points out that outside letters are sometimes ‘unreliable’; the ‘reference inflation’ in the US is really screwing up the global scene for reading references. They are so extravagantly positive that even the slightest suggestion of balance can actually wind up being a case of damning someone with insufficiently lofty praise. So, preferably, an endorsement would be concrete and fact based, such as, ‘Before I teach new research in my Human evolution class, I always consult John Hawks to see if he’s identified issues with the research,’ or ‘My department circulated and discussed Alex Golub’s post on X,’ or ‘I recommended one of our MAA students consult Krystal D’Costa’s posts, and she wound up citing four of them in her thesis because they were so clear and helpful analytically.’
I wouldn’t recommend, ‘she’s in the top three online bloggers,’ but try to describe how online writing gets used in the way that other traditional academic outputs do. (That joke about top three bloggers will only be marginally funny if you’ve listened to the webinar.)
I can think of dozens of you out there right now for whom I would be honoured to write an endorsement. I’m sticking my hand up right now to volunteer to write on your behalf if you’re doing the good work of bringing anthropology to the intertubes, writing interesting stuff. Not just the heavy hitters, like Chris Kelty, Alex Golub, John Hawks, Lisa Wynn, Jovan Maud, Krystal D’Costa, Dienekes Pontikos, ‘Pamthropologist,’ Dina Mehta, Ryan Anderson, Max Forte, Jason Antrosio, our own Daniel Lende, but also people who have made smaller but significant contributions, especially early career scholars who risk more by devoting time to sharing their thoughts freely.
What I’m suggesting is that we start to get networked and cooperative about helping each other get employed and promoted (if you’re reading this, I’m assuming you are some part of the far flung community that reads, writes and discusses anthropology online). —Sisters, we should be doing it for ourselves!— And I’m raising my hand to volunteer to help and to test online support of my own case for promotion next year, when I seek promotion to Associate Professor.
Admittedly, I’m already effectively ‘tenured,’ so I’m not risking much, but I think we need to build precedents for writing on behalf of each other, even if we only know each other virtually. But I’ll be applying for promotion by July or so of next year, and I will document the process, share this part of my portfolio as a sample, and, to the extent that it is possible, I’ll share the feedback I get and outcome of the effort so that it becomes part of the community’s knowledge of how to squeeze blogging into promotion and tenure.
I’m actually not the most e-savvy fella on the planet, so one caveat is that this might already be going on, and I’m just not clued in (don’t put that in a letter of reference for me if you’re just realizing that I’m not clued in, by the way). But I suspect that it’s not widespread enough.
If you’ve said something nice about me in the past, I may come and shake you down for a brief endorsement (pretend you’re not in your office if you hear me knocking and don’t want to participate). As I’ve pointed out in earlier posts, I’m a former door-to-door salesman, so I have no shame. And no inhibitions about being pushy, or about failing at this attempt.
If you want to help me out with an endorsement or comment on my writing, please feel free here. Or wander over to my little-used personal site, to a page I’ve put up especially for this purpose. And don’t be afraid to ask me to come visit your site and do the same!
In addition, I think we need to be scrupulous about citing weblogs if an idea or inspiration comes from a post, both in our online writing and in formal publications. John Hawks has mentioned that this is an issue in Ryan Anderson’s Anthropologies project, and I think he’s write; no one else will take seriously these works as citable, academic works if we ourselves do not.
American Anthropological Association, Webinar on Promotion & Tenure and Publications.
Tobias Denskus, AAA Webinar on Promotion, Tenure & Publications, Aidnography.
Paul Krugman, Our Blogs, Ourselves, The New York Times.