What counts as historical scholarship?

I occasionally interact with assistant professors who teach at research universities. They are often worried about meeting the requirements of tenure. They wonder if their articles have been published in journals that were “prestigious” enough. Will their monographs with university presses meet the tenure requirements of their institutions? Will they need another book? What about the edited collection they are working on? Will it count towards tenure? Are they wasting too much time writing op-eds, articles for magazines, and blog posts. What counts as scholarship?

One of the most freeing things about working at a small liberal arts college devoted to teaching is that I do not need to conform to narrow definitions of scholarship. When I filed for tenure at Messiah College (now Messiah University) The Way of Improvement Leads Home (University of Pennsylvania Press) was under contract, but it had not been published yet. I had published an article in The Journal of American History and I was brainstorming with my co-editors about the book that would become Confessing History. This was more than enough for tenure at Messiah, a school that defines scholarship through the Boyer categories. (Ernie Boyer is a Messiah alum).

With the exception of The Way of Improvement Leads Home and The Bible Cause (published with Oxford University Press), little of what I have published would count for tenure at an American research university. Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction was one of three finalists for the George Washington Book Prize, but it was written for a public audience and published with a religious publisher. Why Study History? was designed as a textbook. Believe Me was also written for a public audience. Confessing History was published with an academic press (Notre Dame), but I doubt the subject of the book (“Christian faith and the historian’s vocation”) would excite a research university tenure committee.

I have also spent a significant part of my career lecturing, blogging, leading history teacher seminars, and writing op-eds and magazine articles. Messiah University rewarded me with the title “Distinguished Professor” for my work in this area, but if I was a member of a history department at a research university this work would not help me obtain tenure. Perhaps such activity would count as “service,” but it would certainly not count as “scholarship.”

I thought about all of these things as I read Jim Grossman’s recent column at Perspectives on History. Grossman is Executive Director of the American Historical Association. Some of you may also know him as our first guest on The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast.

Here is a taste of Grossman’s piece, “The Diffusion of Knowledge: Toward a Wider Definition of Scholarship”;

Beyond conventional publication, various other modes of historical work elicit appreciation or applause but are too often dismissed as mere popularization, and hence a distraction from “real scholarship.” These endeavors include but are not limited to op-eds, blog posts, magazine articles, museum exhibitions, public lectures, congressional testimony, oral history projects, expert witness testimony, media appearances, and podcasts. Some of these could lie within the blurry boundaries that encompass public history, and hence worthy enhancements to a CV, but inadequate as central qualifications for promotion without also the requisite standard monograph and traditional scholarly articles. 

The AHA, in collaboration with the Organization of American Historians and the National Council for Public History, has already approved a report recommending full academic recognition of “publicly engaged and collaborative scholarship,” but within a separate frame as public history, rather than on the same plane as more traditional modes of creating and disseminating useful knowledge. I am thinking in this column more along the lines of the AHA’s guide to considering digital scholarship in professional evaluation and the scholarship of teaching and learning in history. In each of these cases, the Association has promoted broadening our notions of what constitutes legitimate and valuable scholarship. Indeed, the considerable efforts of the AHA and the Modern Language Association to legitimate digital scholarship suggests that it’s easier to convince some of our colleagues to value new methods than to validate work many historians have been doing for a long time.

For many of our colleagues, the obstacles to further expanding these boundaries lie in defining and evaluating quality. This is not unreasonable; metrics are indeed essential to evaluation. Some op-eds could not have been written without the author’s training as a historian; others fall into the category of informed punditry or commentary whose content and method bears little relationship to historical method or expertise. Some might be historical and qualify as scholarship but are poorly executed. Still, there is no reason such work cannot be peer reviewed after publication as part of a promotion process. This principle would extend to any format that creates a product, whether written or preserved in other media. A history department can readily adapt its standards of quality and quantity to any mode of diffusing knowledge, just as we have different criteria for evaluating books, articles, and digital scholarship. 

Read the entire column here.