Fanning the Flames:
Tenure and Promotion and Other Role-Playing Games

Janice R. Walker

University of South Florida

Computers and Writing and Value

As tenure and promotion committees become willing to grant credit for the work done online, as long as it can be fit into existing categories of scholarship, we need to consider not only how we can make it fit, but also how attempting to make it fit will affect the future of the work itself. How do we "fit" work in MOOs and MUDs or hypermail forums or online journals such as Rhetnet into existing categories? Many academics see online work, especially work in synchronous communication, only as "conversation" and not as "scholarship," and, as many of them once did with cultural studies, take an "unashamedly elitist" attitude toward online work in these types of spaces. Like, popular culture, online work is often "deplored for its deficiencies -- for its lack of 'moral seriousness' or of aesthetic value" (Turner 43).

Perhaps part of the reason for this dismissal of much online work can be traced to the fact that the "text" in these spaces is not inscribed in any permanent medium. Each foray into the Cyberworld can confront the reader or researcher with an entirely new text. Ethnographies, too, as components of cultural studies' approach to studying the text of a culture -- a "living text," as it were -- because of their non-replicability and the often ephemeral and contradictory nature of the lived experience, are sometimes viewed with disdain. Like hypertext, societies and individuals simply refuse to remain fixed. So, too, even more permanently inscribed texts of popular culture -- TV and music and films and books and magazines -- although preserved on various recording devices, are often viewed as too ephemeral or too lacking in seriousness to be considered as worthy subjects of study. Throughout all of this, there seems to run the thread that somehow what "counts" are only words preserved on paper. What, then, happens when more of our texts become transitory, as Agrippa: A Book of the Dead" so poignantly expresses in its refusal to even exist after it has been read?

At a recent meeting of "Jesters" at DaMOO, John Towell argued that only those studies published in peer-reviewed journals (whether online or in print) can be considered "serious studies." Since, according to Gary Olson, "[P]ublished works are the currency with which we purchase tenure, promotion, salary increases, and the respect of colleagues" (50), setting clear guidelines as to what counts as scholarship and what does not is mandatory. The process of print publication determines what is valued by what is published, with editors, publishers, and peer reviewers serving as "gatekeepers" (Parsons 7). However, such gatekeeping is also a "form of information, or knowledge, control" (15). Parsons argues, however, that this is not the same thing as censorship: "[C]ensorship is the deletion of objectionable material, a process quite different from selection. If publishers did not have the right of selection, they would, in effect, become clerks, publishing everything that entered the gate" (15).

In a way, what Towell and Parsons are arguing is that the formal process of peer-reviewing and editorial selection will decide for us what we should value. In this same vein, a philosophy professor at the University of Evansville has created a World Wide Web search engine called Argos designed to act as a sort of "peer reviewer" of information, a guardian of what is "valuable" online:

Argos is the first peer-reviewed, limited area search engine (LASE) on the World-Wide Web. It has been designed to cover the ancient and medieval worlds. Quality is controlled by a system of hyperlinked Internet indices which are managed by qualified professionals who serve as the Associate Editors of the project. . . . The overall quality of Argos is, therefore, determined by a system of peer-review. This system is based on an "accreditation" model of legitimating resources, rather than a "referee" model. We have chosen to do this, because accreditation models are designed for works, institutions, etc. that change over time and that may, in the process of their change, fall below certain standards. The Associate Sites accredit other sites by including them in their indices; when, and if, these sites fall below the standards established by the Associates, they are removed from the Associate Site and, at the same time, from the Argos search window.

In the case of this search engine, what is valued is that which is returned. We are accumulating online, then, a sort of electronic "canon" of works deemed important enough, or scholarly enough, or acceptable enough, to be included, mirroring what the print world has accomplished through the peer-review and publication process.

According to Seth Katz,

[I]t is easy to see how publishing in an peer-reviewed online periodical is equivalent to publishing in a peer-reviewed print journal. But many activities do not readily fit into one category, or else do not clearly fit into any of them. Thus, computer-related work poses a threat to the traditional modes of evaluating academic work.

However, David Gillette disagrees that online periodicals can even be evaluated along the same lines as print:

[W]eb publications are fundamentally different from print, requiring separate evaluation. What needs to be reconsidered is not whether on-line publication is as good as printed publication, but whether the tradition-bound, print-based standards for tenure evaluation need to be revised so they are more in line with the goals of what most people consider to be true scholarship, learning and teaching.

Whether we accept online publications as the equivalents of print ones or not, the peer-review process, the process of selection, has the potential to be also a way of selecting the ideas that we lend credence to in academia. Serious work that is "unpopular" can be stifled if it doesn't "fit in," and online work that doesn't "fit" can be ignored for purposes of academic credit. Since the nature of the Web right now is that anyone can publish, we now have the opportunity to open up the conversation to those who might otherwise be silenced. Admittedly, much of what is published online may be tripe; however, important work that cannot be forced into traditional modes is also being done here. But how can we expect to justify this in traditional terms?

Right now, the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) Instructional Technology Committee is in the process of developing a formal statement to address tenure and promotion policies and technology (Doherty). As such organizations begin to consider how to include online work in tenure and promotion decisions, it is imperative that we take an active part in the process. However, as we do so, we need to consider carefully just how far we are ready to go. Attempting to define what we are doing online before we are ready to define it can force us into a position of simply re-inscribing traditional scholarship online; attempting to "fit" things like MOO conversations and Hypermail forums into traditional categories may be far too much like attempting to fit the proverbial square peg into the round hole; and attempting to redefine scholarship itself at this juncture may actually stifle our discovery of how scholarship is likely to evolve in the face of changes prompted by electronic media. So, how do we argue for the value of online work for purposes of tenure and promotion?


J. Walker, 1997.
Last modified 21 February 1997.