Rigor on the Line

The other day, Jesse Stommel tweeted about public work not being counted for tenure, and that the qualifications for awarding tenure should be changed.

The conversation of tweets that followed included an elaboration, stating that we need to “think more broadly about the locations of scholarship. Public, open-access should be seen as rigorous.”

Perhaps the Twittersphere does not provide an adequate public, open-access space within which Jesse could articulate just what “rigorous” means. As a troll-devil’s advocate I would ask: how many multi-tweet posts and shortened URLs would be sufficient to provide rigor context of Twitter? Can tweets themselves be accorded the status of rigorous?

Among scholars, rigor is an attribute that gets passed from productions to their authors. Rigor is often associated with a demonstration of effort, which generates symbolic capitol. An adequate demonstration merits accolades such as acknowledgment by peers, greater  opportunities for production and promotion. These may include references to or republications of journal articles, awards and grants, a tenure-track position or even tenure itself. So what is the nature of this attribute?

My doctoral advisor’s conception of rigor took the form lengthy publications that demonstrated immense scope and profound depth through hundreds of pages, voluminous notes and references to works in multiple languages (usually French, German, Italian, Greek and English). He expected authors to be functional, if not fluent, in these languages. The production in question usually took the form of a tome created over the space of a decade or more that established the scholar’s contribution to the field. For examples of rigorous scholarship, my advisor counselled me to pay attention to the works being produced by the periodic meetings of the group gathered by Enrico Castelli at the University of Padova, Italy. Together, working simultaneously in multiple languages, they produced some of the most important volumes of continental philosophy about religious topics available. These works are often overlooked, however, since they are not available online in English.

If a scholar today produces something online, need it analogously demonstrate the rigor of scholarship in the twentieth-century? How would rigor be demonstrated? There can still be peer-review of open, online journals, but grey areas seem to appear with other online productions.

Perhaps there are more avenues, but I can think of three approaches that online productions establish recognition for themselves. None, I think, amounts to conventional conceptions of scholarly rigor. First is establishing recognition within a scholarly community. Blogs, tweets and personal websites are productions that can be aimed to engage scholarly publics. Engaging other scholars – especially in multiple languages – may help establish international standing in a given field of study. Second is creating widespread recognition. The use of social media, such as Twitter, may enable the engagement of wider publics – academic, institutional, governmental, multilateral and corporate –  at regional, national and international levels. Third is getting there first: They might even enable a scholar to quickly stake ownership in contested fields to an idea, method, theory, process or outcome. Where scientists have raced to have their findings copyrighted before others, opting for that sort of agility is particularly unprecedented in humanities scholarship.

A rigorous strategy that combines these three approaches can establish something possibly more useful for today’s scholar. Strategically engaging multiple publics with a social media campaign has potential to create a valuable brand-name within and beyond conventional scholarly avenues and institution. Publishers most certainly appreciate scholars with these sensibilities. Like successful football teams, scholars with strong public media profiles are more likely to be integrated into a university’s own social media strategy, thereby boosting enrolments and institutional brand recognition.

All of this requires effort, and as the University of London’s School of Advanced Studies found, any academic production must be combined with a focused and innovative social media campaign to garner recognition (such as an invitation to TED). Scholars who deploy such a strategy may be compelled to shift their energies from activities that conformed to past generations’ conceptions of rigor or the current expectations for the accolades of grants or tenure. I suppose all of this depends upon which community is recognizing a scholar’s commitments and energy.

(Photo Credit: HTSABO)