Main »

Types Of Digital Work

Back to MLA Digital Work Home

This section is a list of types of digital work with brief discussion of how it can be evaluated.

Online Reviewed Publication | Electronic Edition | | Specifications or Standards | Research Tool | Hypermedia or Hypertext | Instructional Technology or CALL | Research Blog

Online Peer Reviewed Publication

The least controversial type of digital work is the peer reviewed online article in a web journal like the Digital Humanities Quarterly. Where the processes of peer review are comparable to those of a print journal it is safe to assume that quality is potentially equivalent to that of print. Further, an online article can be easily read by internal evaluators without having to learn about a different scholarly medium – just print it out and ignore the venue. There are, however, issues of credibility and persistence of online materials, but those are not issues of quality so much as the suitability of the venue. Some would argue that because of the accessibility of online publications, new scholars should publish online so their ideas are widely read and critiqued. Senior scholars whose ideas are more mature and summative should, on the other hand publish in print, so their work is preserved over the long term.

Scholarly Electronic Editions

One of the most useful contributions of digital humanists has been to create online scholarly electronic editions of resources of interest from historical documents to literary works. While there are many electronic versions of classic literary texts, often put up in a bout of enthusiasm by students, scholarly electronic editions represent significant careful and informed work that can be accessed widely. The work of the electronic editor is not trivial – he or she has to make a series of decisions informed by knowledge of the context and original about what to show and hide, how to enrich the material, and how to represent it online. The opportunities and fluidity of the electronic form mean the editor must master two fields, the intellectual context of the work and current practices in digital representation. Ironically, if the editor gets the form right so that the electric version can be searched and easily read, no one will notice, and their delicate work will be unappreciated in evaluation, but this is true of translation and editorial work whatever the medium. The real issue here is that editorial work is viewed as of less value than theoretical work.


One of the least appreciated contributions is the work of developing guidelines, standards, and specifications. To the untrained eye this looks like service work on a large scale. I prefer to think of it as an Oulipean art – that of designing constraints that encourage controlled innovation. Specifications are, after all, a system of suggestions as to what you should and shouldn’t do. They make possible a potential literature, in this case electronic scholarship. And, in the case of guidelines like those of the Text Encoding Initiative, they present a theory of text in a form that has real consequences. If they aren’t confused (and there are poor specifications) then they instantiate and communicate a theory about what the potential for an electronic representation is. The problem with specifications is that they aren’t reviewed the way other work is. In some cases specifications are reviewed by standards bodies as they become standards, but the specifications are usually commissioned by the standards body – the politics of review are different from academic peer-review. Most innovation around encoding happens within organizations and projects and is reviewed by the organization.

Research Tools

If specifications are an implementation of a theory of content, tools are an implementation of potential method. Tools present a theory of the practice of research in a form that others can practice methods. They say something like “it is useful to do this in this way so we have facilitated this practice in this way.” One of the constraints and opportunities of the digital is that it forces us to be concrete when we imagine potential representation and method. Everything on the computer is formalized which is not to say that the entire man-computer processes are formalized. To create a tool is to have to choose a particular theory of practice, think about it, explore its consequences, and formalize parts of it. In the humanities we are not used to having to take a concrete stand on methods that can be tested by others. More to the point, in the humanities we are suspicious of methods since Gadamer, and therefore reluctant to stabilize method in tools for fear that then practices will freeze and be imposed.

One way to think about a tool is to think of it as a potential answer to a type of question. The concordance as a tool suggests a type of question, namely, “what are the passages where a word appears?” The concordance privileges this question by enabling a potential answer as a practice of interpretation. Tools are types of solutions looking for people wanting to ask the right questions. Further, a tool proposes a particular view of the results, for example, a sequence of concording passages, as a new reading of the question. Tools therefore instantiate hemeneutical positions about what questions are important and what interpretations should look like with a concreteness that aims for transparency. Tools can be designed naively, without attention to their hermeneutical presuppositions, but they can also be theorized well. The problem is that a well designed tool often disappears before the work of using it to think through a text, and that makes a tool hard to evaluate as a contribution in itself. Its theory is erased by its use. Like specifications, tools are not typically reviewed, but used. What would a review of a tool look like? Unlike the review of a monograph, what typically gets reviewed in the development of a tool is the grant proposal to build it – the description of potential, not the finished implementation. The cost of a tool lies in its development (and maintenance), not its publication, so review has to happen earlier and there is little incentive to review after the funds have been spent. While there has been discussion about reviewing tools, without the incentives built into the economy of publication, such reviews will never have the gate-keeping role they have in print. What does seem to work is competitions or juried exchanges where tools are compared and recognized as solving a problem.

Hypermedia and Hyperfiction

There is a whole class of new media work that is “born digital” in the sense that it is authored on and for the computer. These works take advantage of the networked computer as an alternative medium and they cross the rhetorical spectrum from creative work to instructional work. Many of these works, especially those on the web, take advantage of the non-linear and hypertextual potential of electronic literature which is why I am gathering this diverse literature under the rubric “hypermedia”. Many of these works are experiments in creative writing with interactivity and can only be viewed if you have access to a particular server or the right configuration of equipment. Others are playful and game like, but again need particular configurations. All in all, they are a nightmare to publish or review, in part because they are original in original ways. Most are therefore either made available online or self-published as there is no viable publishing and review mechanism.

Instructional Technology, Computer Assisted Instruction (CAI), and Computer Assisted Language Learning (CALL)

Information technology is much more widely used by colleagues for the delivery of teaching than for the delivery of research. While most colleagues publish their scholarship in print, they are probably using instructional technology in their teaching, even if it is only e-mail, a web page, or a university-run course management system (CMS) like Moodle. Thus most colleagues have some experience with creating and using information technology for teaching to draw on when evaluating instructional technology contributions by others. The problem with the evaluation of digital instructional technology work is not experience, or for that matter the digital, but, of course, the more general problem of the importance of teaching and the relationship between teaching and research. Despite almost universal lip-service to the importance of both, in my experience, tenure and promotion, though not annual assessment, is almost entirely about research. Teaching comes into the tenure evaluation if a colleague’s student evaluations are terrible or if we are trying to find reasons to keep a colleague who does terrific service, but whose research output isn’t enough. There is one exception, and that is the scholarship of pedagogy, or the instructional work that is presented as research. This paper is not going to deal with the evaluation of teaching as teaching, digital or not, but we do have to recognize that instructional work can be research, especially in instructionaly challenging fields like language instruction. Often called the scholarship of pedagogy, computer assisted instruction projects, if they are designed and run like research, can yield results that can be shared as scholarship including digital scholarship.

Research Blogs

Blogs are an emergent form for the academy. They are particularly hard to evaluate since they don’t resemble any traditional academic form. A good blogger (or team of bloggers) however, do a great service to the community by tracking a field and commenting on it. The better blogs will include short reviews, announcements, interesting interventions and notes about timely matters like exhibits. Blogs, as I have learned, take habits of attention. Each post might take half an hour to an hour to research and post. They may appear to be light and quick, but the good bloggers acquire a voice and engage an audience. In some ways running a blog is like moderating a discussion list. How often does Willard McCarty post a provocative note to HUMANIST to promote discussion? The work of facilitating the conversations we value in the humanities should not be dismissed as service. It is possible the most lasting academic work of this age will be the social networking that allows others a voice. This is comparable to the work of translation or editorial work where transparency leads to illegitimacy – if you do such a good job that no one notices you then no one things you are doing good work.

Back to MLA Digital Work Home



edit SideBar

Page last modified on July 22, 2009, at 05:22 PM - Powered by PmWiki