Academic professional associations are playing key roles in making sense of the changes being wrought upon intellectual life and academia by the advent of digital publishing and media. As gatekeepers and upholders of standards they inject important notes of critique and caution into the too often hype-filled world of digital humanities. And by pronouncing on such things as citation practices and evaluation techniques they can help everyone navigate in the quite uncharted waters in which we find ourselves. So every year I read with great interest the statements by the candidates for leadership positions in the American Philological Association. Here’s my short annual round-up of where things seem to be going, based on the candidates’ statements. For further background and context, see last year’s post.
At the moment, the APA has nothing like the Modern Language Association’s Guidelines for Evaluating Work in Digital Humanities and Digital Media. The American Historical Association has been proactively sponsoring discussions about digital methods in the research and teaching of history at its annual conference. This is not really happening at the APA either, so far. The focus for the APA has been the building of some kind of online gateway or portal to knowledge about the classical world. A substantial amount of money was raised to make this happen. But the vision is still very much under negotiation.
Marilyn Skinner, a Latinist and candidate for APA President, puts it as follows:
With the Gateway Campaign concluded, designing and implementing the digital portal that was its primary objective is now the APA’s most immediate internal challenge. The recent establishment of a “Cabinet” to weigh strategic planning initiatives will be crucial for setting organizational policies. Studying, in collaboration with other academic societies, the feasibility of a Digital Latin Library Project giving access to all Latin texts presently available on the Internet is a welcome first practical step, because on-line availability of scholarly editions of ancient Greek and Roman primary sources is an essential need. The APA President and the Board of Directors must play major roles in furthering discussion of how this digital gateway is to be structured and what features will most greatly benefit all its users.
John Marincola, a Greek historian and the other candidate for President, sounds a note of caution regarding large digital initiatives:
As many have noted, the success of the capital campaign offers new opportunities for the APA; but it’s important to remember that the APA has only a small (if very dedicated) staff, and relies greatly on the work of its officers, committees, and members. So even with this new endowment, we need to proceed carefully with projects that make sense for an organization of our size. The current state of technological change mandates a flexible approach, since today’s innovations can be outdated two years hence. That means that we must be committed but nimble.
The key unresolved question is that of audience. Is the gateway to serve scholars, who want reliable textual editions (as Skinner says), or is it for students, who want reliable but concise scholarly information about topics they are interested in? Marincola is undoubtedly right that in the long run the APA is just not staffed in a way that would allow it to make a better Perseus, or a better version of the classical articles in Wikipedia.
What can the APA contribute? Probably not vast new reference works or digital tools. That’s Gregory Crane’s job, and he’s got some very exciting and well-funded new initiatives on the way. What the APA can contribute is something that digital humanities desperately needs: peer review. Solid, rigorous peer review is the something that digital projects need, that print publications have as a matter of course, and that consumers of digital projects would rely on to tell the wheat from the chaff. Only peer review will ensure the long-term rise in quality of digital projects, and motivate scholars to spend time on open-access digital projects.
Yelena Baraz, a candidate for the Publications and Research Committee, seems to understand this:
On the one hand, it would be useful to produce a set of guidelines for members (to be updated regularly) about the status of various existing publishing venues. On the other hand, the committee may well wish to be proactive by drawing up a plan for the kinds of ventures, both digital and traditional, that it thinks should be promoted and by seeking out partnerships to help do so.
This seems to see digital publishing as analogous to print journal publishing, with “venues” that need to be monitored. But she’s got the right idea: quality control, guidance. Laurel Fulkerson, the other candidate for the Publications and Research Committee, while she acknowledges that “the world of publishing is changing, drastically,” is more inclined to try to find ways to safeguard the status of the traditional monograph.
At the same time, most authority figures in academia (e.g., tenure committees) remain attached to physical manifestations of research, and many of us like writing books, so it is imperative not to overanticipate the pace of change. To me, the discontinuation of the monograph series is regrettable, and, if it does not make sense to bring it back, I would be very interested in replacing it with a series whose scope is very clearly defined, and well-promoted.
Fulkerson is of course right that many of us like writing books. Me too! There’s no either/or proposition here. But the overwhelming preference for books among academics has a lot to do with the lack of regular channels of peer review for non-books, and the associated quality control, editing support, and prestige that go with that. When it come to the APA’s own journal, TAPA, she talks rather vaguely of “blending more traditional [journal articles] with more innovative ways of making scholarship available.” But to focus on the delivery method (paid print vs. open electronic) is to mistake the central role of the professional association: not to anticipate and manage publishing trends, but to foster networks of peer review for scholarship, no matter how it appears.
So what would I like to see? MLA-style guidelines, for sure. More talk at the national meetings, as with the AHA, definitely. But I think the best thing the APA could do is to create a digital brand, kind of like what Anvil Academic is trying to do more broadly in different humanities fields. No massive funding scheme needed, just a merry band of hard-nosed scholars willing to be honest about which digital projects are worthy to be issued under the APA name (whatever that name ends up being–a name change is also on the ballot).