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Rethinking Scholarship: SPUs And The History Profession

November 19, 2007

The traditional view of scholarship in the history profession is that publications “count” only when they are either peer-reviewed articles or books. The preferred medium is paper. This kind of scholarship brings tenure to assistant professors and recognition from the establishment.

But a number of concerns have arisen about this modus operandi in recent years. For instance, the work of public historians involves exhibits, guiding tours, and making specialized scholarship accessible to the proverbial man or woman on the street. Is this work somehow less legitimate because it does not necessarily involve paper publications? Does scholarship only count when it is aimed at other historians?

And what of the internet? How do weblogs, online exhibits, and H-Net editing help with regard to the profession? What if you review books for an online magazine? Is that venue less important? What if your article is published by a journal that only exists online? What if you’re interested in making your lecture available via podcast? And what if each of your weblog posts are reviewed by fellow historians prior to publication?

The truth of the matter—right now—is that none of this non-article and non-book work counts. Running the most professional weblog on the planet, or being the most active, engaging H-Net editor, have little currency with regard to gaining tenure or recognition from established historians.

How can this change? Nothing will happen overnight, but small movements are possible. I would like to suggest that the history profession borrow an idea from the sciences, from medicine in particular: SPUs, or Smallest Publishable Units. I ran across the concept in William Chace’s recent book, 100 Semesters. [1]

If the profession would organize a way to recognize the power of shorter historical pieces, this would radically help in forwarding the cause of those who do professional work in online mediums.

Many important e-mails, for instance, are generated by H-Net conversations. If someone proposes a helpful idea that receives a great deal of attention via H-Net, shouldn’t that idea receive professional recognition? If someone contributes to an H-Net book forum, shouldn’t that count?

The number of history books published each year easily outstrips the ability of the profession’s print publications to keep up. Wouldn’t it be productive to count one’s online reviews, either via weblog or H-Net, for tenure credit and in hiring processes?

If history departments and professional history organizations would formally recognize these kinds of work—SPUs—then perhaps non-paper work would be invigorated.

Peer review of these formats is not a problem in an H-Net setting. Editors control and review the content, so all conversations and contributions there are at least minimally peer reviewed.

But what of weblogs and online magazines? Should professional historians abandon those venues merely because the profession hasn’t found an efficient way to recognize that kind of work? And isn’t that work public history, at least?

Should the mode of presentation affect the legitimacy of solid historical work? Is not a medium legitimate when the profession declares it so?

We need to find a way to give incentives to established and aspiring historians in the electronic sphere. SPUs can help. If we do nothing, both H-Net and other online forums will suffer from the lack of participation by professionals.

Let’s make all good historical work “count” somehow. – TL

[1] William Chace, 100 Semesters: My Adventures as Student, Professor, and University President, and What I Learned Along the Way (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006), 135.

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