Is History Falling Behind the Times? Survey and Conference of Midwest Schools Offer a Warning

Robert B. Townsend, February 2004

A survey of faculty at midwestern research universities and a related conference of deans and provosts at those universities cast fresh attention on history's place in the larger universe of scholarly publishing. By situating the discipline of history in the broader context of higher education and holding it up to the practices of other disciplines, both the survey and the administrators indicated that the standards and conventions of our field may be falling out of step with those who hold the purse strings in higher education.

Researchers for the Committee on Institutional Cooperation (CIC), composed of the Big Ten schools (Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Michigan State, Minnesota, Northwestern, Ohio State, Penn State, and Purdue) and the University of Wisconsin, surveyed faculty in three disciplines at their member schools. They sought to assess the extent to which the monograph is a requirement for tenure, and the openness of scholars in fields like history to alternative forms of scholarship, such as journal articles and digital publications. The resulting report, "The Book as the 'Gold Standard' for Promotion and Tenure in the Humanistic Disciplines," singles out history as a field uniquely wed to the monograph as the mark of a true scholar.1 The authors of the report observe that, "Of the three faculty groups we studied, historians insist on the scholarly monograph as an essential piece of a faculty member's promotion and tenure portfolio."

This supports our own findings (see the article, "A Survey of Tenure Practices in History," that history departments across the nation treat the monograph as a de facto requirement for tenure, even if it is not formally required by the institution itself. The CIC survey suggests that departments in our field tend to avoid consideration of changes in this area, for fear of falling out of line with other history programs. The CIC report draws particular attention to our discipline, quoting one historian, for instance, who said, "No one can step out in front without paying attention to other schools [we] compare ourselves to." The report also quotes another historian who said (in response to Modern Language Association President Stephen Greenblatt's letter to college administrators recommending a move away from the scholarly monograph in tenure decisions), "My initial reaction to Greenblatt's letter was, when they decide to change the requirements at Harvard you can come talk to the rest of us."2 On December 2, 2003, the CIC sponsored a "Summit on Scholarly Communication in the Humanities and Social Sciences" to consider the report and discuss the issues. The discussion there offered little comfort to a field firmly wedded to the print monograph, which often seemed to be marginal to their conversations. The administrators participating in the summit largely focused on the dissemination of scholarship through journal articles and other forms of electronic publication.

When the print monograph was mentioned at all, it was often held up as part of the problem. As one dean observed, to general assent, "a book bought by 125 libraries and six individuals is not an efficient way to communicate knowledge." So the issue of readership and the need to extend scholarship beyond the academy became a recurring topic of concern. In the process, the administrators at the meeting generally looked beyond the print monograph and emphasized three other problems—developing and sustaining an adequate system of peer review, making sure that scholarship is widely disseminated, and ensuring that it is properly archived. As often as not, this brought the discussion around to the question of how the digital environment changes the procedures and processes for tenure and promotion at their universities, and the way scholarship will be distributed and paid for in the future.

On this point, the CIC report again gave particular attention to the history profession, noting that the field is making only tentative steps in considering the implications of electronic publishing. They note that, "a large percentage of respondents reported that they didn't know if their department had formally considered how to evaluate electronic publishing," and cite a recent survey that found "that only six percent of History departments have a 'formal, written policy for assessing technology-related activities in the tenure, promotion, and review process.'" However, a number of the administrators at the summit seemed uncertain in their own minds about how to integrate electronic publications into tenure and promotion considerations, and spent part of the day discussing mechanisms for doing so.

Most of the administrators present indicated that part of the solution to these questions, now and in the future, was economic—more money would need to change hands to support these new and changing functions in the academy. But beyond that point of consensus, there was little agreement about where these funds might come from, and to whom they should be distributed. At this level, the administrators' discussions addressed the issues from the perspective of a larger corporate enterprise, one in which a field like history is but a small part. Some suggested that giving more money to libraries would make them better repositories for this scholarship; others suggested additional subsidies to university presses might make them better producers of such work. A couple of deans suggested that giving additional purchasing funds to individual faculty would allow them to become the arbiters of scholarly merit, when they used those dollars to buy "the best works in their field." The only clear point of consensus seemed to be the need for better communication among the various institutional components in the university community—particularly between university presses and library and academic administrators. They lamented that too often they share the same campus but never speak to each other about common problems.

An important aspect of this discussion centered on the question of who "owns" the scholarship produced at these universities. A few of the deans and provosts averred that universities are the true producers—and therefore the proper owners—of research produced by faculty at their institutions. A good deal of time was spent on discussing how the universities might digitize this work and make it available widely and cheaply, to reduce the strain on the libraries at these institutions, which are struggling to keep up with the costs of journals.3

In the end, the conference produced many more questions than answers. But historians should take note of the framework and range of these conversations, as an indicator of changing attitudes in higher education.

—Robert B. Townsend is assistant director for research and publications at the American Historical Association.

Notes

1. The full report and methodology of the survey is available online at http://lrc.lis.uiuc.edu/reports/cic/CICBook.html.

2. Stephen Greenblatt's letter is available online at the MLA's web site at http://www.mla.org/scholarly_pub and on the Chronicle of Higher Education web site at http://chronicle.com/jobs/2002/07/2002070202c.htm.

3. For more on this, see the discussion in Robert B. Townsend, "The Future of Scholarly Publishing," Perspectives (October, 2003), 32.