Earlier this week, the AHA’s Perspectives on History site published an article from LaDale Winling entitled “Getting Tenure in Digital History: How One Scholar Made His Case.” Dr. Winling presents arc of his career in the history department at Virginia Tech, from his hiring in 2011 to his tenure case in 2017. He suggests that candidates working in digital and public history have to balance the politics of their departmental and institutional expectations and the larger expectations of one’s historical field and subfield. Undoubtedly that’s true, given the fact that a candidate for tenure must make a case to outside qualified readers so that an internal group of scholars in the tenure home and institution can rely upon those evaluations in their judgment on the case.
Beyond this basic reality, midway through his article, Dr. Winling makes some generalizations about the larger fields of both digital and public history that I find problematic:
There are few models for historians earning tenure based on digital or public work, especially at research universities. The classic examples of the digital history world—the Ayerses and Cohens—mostly took on their digital work after tenure or in addition to their tenure books. There are a few more examples in the public history world, but we are still in the first generation of scholars who joined the faculty after Anthony Grafton and Jim Grossman acknowledged that it was time to think about and begin valuing public history.
The numbers of scholars gaining tenure with digital history and public history work grows every day, but they are already substantial cohorts. The notion that the paths taken by Dan Cohen and Ed Ayers represent “classic examples” seems odd since they are such different cases. Cohen and Ayers are from different generations.