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Author: Deborah Lines Andersen
Title: Academic Historians Revisited
Publication info: Ann Arbor, MI: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library
September 2003

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Source: Academic Historians Revisited
Deborah Lines Andersen

vol. 6, no. 2, September 2003
Article Type: Benchmark

Academic Historians Revisited

Deborah Lines Andersen

Benchmark: a standard by which something can be measured or judged. [1]

.01 A Survey

In winter 2003 I sent a survey to academic historians on the four New York State University Center campuses at Albany, Binghamton, Buffalo, and Stony Brook. These were the same departments I had surveyed in 1995.  [2] My intent was to see how far these individuals had come in their use of digital resources. The survey included questions about their use of digital resources for teaching and research. Additionally, I wanted to know about the effects of technology in the tenure, promotion, and review process.

Rather than looking at statistical responses for various questions, this essay is a reading and qualitative analysis of the comments that historians made about their use of technology, and its effects upon their teaching, research, and promotion. Since the Journal of the Association for History and Computing publishes papers on digital technologies, and publishes them in an electronic format, it is critical that the journal and the American Association for History and Computing pay attention to how historians are using digital technologies and to what barriers exist for more fully using this digital medium to broadcast research about digital applications in history. Insofar as there are academics who are unknowledgeable, or worse, fearful about using information technologies, the journal has a role to play in educating historians, their departments, and their tenuring committees.

Since the survey questions were divided into areas of teaching, research, and promotion, this essay begins with those findings. The next section deals with the differences in findings between the 1995 and 2003 surveys. Finally, there are policy issues for departments, universities, and this journal that surface from this qualitative analysis, and that point toward future research in the field.

.02 Teaching and Technology

The teaching and technology question asked:

Please comment upon any changes that the digital resources mentioned in this survey have made in your teaching over the course of the last several years.

Twenty nine survey respondents answered this question. Answers included statements about the World Wide Web, email, classroom presentations, and assigned readings. One individual stated, "My teaching has been totally transformed."

World Wide Web. Whereas in 1995 no faculty member on the four university center campuses had launched a web site, in 2003 this was one of the primary teaching applications mentioned. One historian noted, "I now use a web site in just about every undergraduate course." Others noted the use in class of images that come from the web, directing students to the web for materials for assignments, creating course web pages with syllabi and study sheets, creating web-based seminar newsletters for students, finding course materials on the web, and using textbook publishers' web sites as the basis of some assignments. Several mentioned that they are using web materials more and more each year. One historian responded, "I've been able to keep purchase of printed books to a minimum," while another remarked,

Latin texts can be acquired free for advanced courses, making these more attractive; readings for lecture courses are increasingly on the web.

Email. There was general consensus that email allowed more contact with students. Some faculty members thought this was a good idea, encouraging more interactive discussions among students and faculty, and, in one case, allowing the professor to provide class notes through email attachments. Whereas one respondent felt that email provided more convenient communication, another stated,

Just knowing that these things exist, but that I don't have time, money, or skills to use them, increases the stress of the job. In general, student use of email (rather than talking after class) means that teaching takes more time per week than it used to. In other words, no positive impact (yet), only more work.

Classroom Presentations. Faculty members mentioned the use of PowerPoint and visual images from the web in their teaching as two improvements that came about as a result of digital resources. One individual added that he used videos in his classroom and found that "word processing makes it easier to compose multiple choice exams." Two respondents mentioned plagiarism—one that it was easier to find sources, while the other stated,

Not much change, mainly because I do not find time enough to become sufficiently familiar with resources. Student Internet access has compelled me to monitor essays more closely, since they can be easily secured online.

Assigned Readings. Professors were generally happy with their ability to assign web resources. One stated, "I was able to put a wider range of materials on electronic reserve for students" (a password-protected library system that creates reserve reading web pages for classes at the university). Individuals seemed to prefer the web reserve to paper reserve that required students to go to the library and that limited access to the number of paper copies available. On the down side, one noted,

I have been able to assign primary sources from the web instead of requiring students to go to library reserve on a frequent basis. Students unfortunately think, however, that research on the web is sufficient (when it is not). I find that fewer take the trouble now to go to the library.

There continues to be a definite struggle between history professors who want students to use the library to find important materials and students who are pressed for time, technologically sophisticated, and adroit at finding materials from their dormitory room computers.

.03 Research and Technology

The research and technology question asked:

Please comment upon any changes that the digital resources mentioned in this survey have made in how you conducted or presented your research over the course of the last several years.

In 1995 the faculty I interviewed said that lack of travel time and funds, coupled with the inability to ascertain at a distance the relevance of materials, were three of the most difficult aspects of finding primary and secondary resources for their research. The responses on this 2003 survey indicated movement toward using the World Wide Web in dealing with just these information problems.

Information Resources. Respondents expressed a variety of quotable views about digital resources and their research.

More primary sources available through the web have helped with accessibility (reduced travel time).

I save a lot of time by checking catalogues in advance to see if the libraries I use have what I need to read.

Simplifies and eases the search for published journal literature through such a variety of search engines. Also provides much information about numerous archival collections.

I have used the web for bibliographical information, dates for manuscripts, information on newly discovered materials, and to supplement my research in general.

Much easier access to bibliographic information and books (from Russia, etc.) for sale. Events at other universities.

It is now much easier to learn about relevant books and articles not in my library and get them through ILL [interlibrary loan].

Online library catalogs have made it easier for me to look things up from home.

These respondents displayed knowledge of search engines, online library and archival catalogs, online university calendars, and materials offered for sale online. They noted new ways of identifying titles for interlibrary loan requests, and described changes in work patterns that allow them to do library and archival research at home. Again, it was apparent that historians are moving more and more toward using digital resources in their academic work. This is not to say that all historians are making use of these digital resources, but it does indicate that some percentage is changing the way in which it works—moving toward online access to resources.

Databases. The historians in this study included lists of specific databases that they found useful in their work. They did not indicate that they had changed what they were producing—scholarly research. Nonetheless, there was a change from the 1995 study in the way they worked—moving to digital sources as the benefits of those sources became clear.

Databases like J-STOR, America: History and Life, Poole's Plus, and Archives USA have made a massive difference. Research is not only easier, it is more comprehensive, because search engines allow you to find a needle in a haystack.

For my research, I rely tremendously on databases (e.g., RLIN, Lexis-Nexis, America: History and Life), on article/journal collections, on web catalogs and finding aids for archives, for scouting out funding sources, etc.

EEBO (Early English Books On-line) makes primary research accessible to me in my office—for 16th Century amazing—speeds up my work.

In 1995 one historian told me that America: History and Life was of little use in his research because it did not deal with his research subject and the indexing was not good enough to find articles that might contain helpful information without reading every single one. He relied on his own journal subscriptions. This research did not clarify the issue of why historians now, at least in small numbers, stated that they are using history databases for their research. The answer seems easier for primary source materials, such as EEBO, that are now available online but were not available eight years ago. For journal databases the question of "why now?" is more complicated. Has subject access gotten better? Are historians better at accessing electronic information? Are libraries providing more guidance in the availability and use of these materials? Are graduate and undergraduate students teaching faculty members about these resources? These are questions whose answers need to be left for another study. These responses represent a change in the behavior of some historians over these eight years. It is also worth noting that one respondent indicated "scouting out funding sources" through databases. Given that humanists are traditionally short of research funds, this use of digital resources for research bears watching.

Scholarly Groups. Historians have notoriously been solo workers, rarely collaborating in a scholarly world where departments hire a range of individuals to teach various aspects of history so that one might be the only French 17th Century or Asian history expert in the department. One respondent discussed collaboration—enabled by digital resources, as a positive aspect of his conducting and presenting research today.

[Digital resources] have enabled exploration of dedicated scholarly groups and web sites that are useful to my research. Have facilitated communication, scholarly projects, and sharing of work with other scholars.

Could this be the start of more collaboration, brought on by scholars' ability to communicate with other Asian or 17th Century French researchers? One out of 44 respondents is not enough to suggest that a trend is afoot. Nonetheless, this phenomenon bears watching.

Despite these statements about the positive effects that information technology could have in the research process, there were still several history professors who were more neutral in their views. Five respondents stated that there had been no changes in their research. Another stated that he was, "still pretty mired in the print world," while another said, "I still prefer books and a real library."

.04 Tenure and Technology

Tenure and technology was divided into those individuals who said they were tenured (27) and those who said they were not (10)—leaving seven who did not answer these questions. Those who were tenured responded to the following:

Did your use or lack of use of digital resources make any difference in your tenure and promotion process? If so, how?

For most of the respondents to this section (24 of the 27) their tenure happened too long ago for digital resources to be an issue. They either said "no" to this question, or replied with statements such as, "Tenure too long ago for relevance," or "I got tenure 21 years ago before this current technological revolution." Word processing was an issue for two respondents. One said that it made putting together his tenure file a lot easier, and another stated, "I could have used word processing"! Only one tenured professor spoke about a different digital resource in his tenure and promotion process: "Promotion committees wanted to see my web site." This respondent did not elaborate upon the effect that viewing his web site had on his tenure and promotion process. This section did point out that senior faculty, with one exception in this study, have not personally experienced evaluation of research and teaching with a digital component included. In the future, as assistant professors come up for tenure they will either be evaluated on traditional, paper-based criteria, or tenure, promotion, and review committees at the departmental, school, and university levels will have to come to grips with how digital resources make a difference in the promotion process.

The last question, directed to untenured faculty, shed some light on this issue. These remaining ten individuals responded to the following question:

If you are not yet tenured, do you believe that your use or lack of use of digital resources will make any difference in your tenure and promotion process? If so, how?

Fewest people responded to this question—not surprising since there were only 10 untenured faculty in the respondent pool. One emeritus professor thought this is where he should respond since he was no longer in the cohort of active faculty in his history department! One respondent said, "No," it would make no difference, while a second said, "I hope not." One individual stated that, "I believe the use of digital resources is encouraged by my university. It is a topic to be included on my faculty report." Another two had more pessimistic views about tenure and technology.

My use would probably hurt me because it would take time away from my research, and it might not help my teaching.

No. Tenure based overwhelmingly on my published research. Relatively little weight will be given to teaching and probably little or no weight to the use of digital resources (as it should be).

The parenthetical "as it should be" is confusing. It is unclear whether he meant that little or no weight should or should not be given in deciding tenure cases. This confusion of one individual underlines a major policy issue in tenure and promotion cases in the humanities—should weight be given to the use of digital resources, and if so, how?

Finally, one candid respondent did little to straighten out confusion:

I have no idea—it's (tenure) a big mystery.

If tenure is "a big mystery" for even one historian in this study, then it behooves universities, departments, and individual faculty mentors to make policy explicit, educate junior faculty about the process of tenure and promotion, and initiate university-wide discussions about the role that digital resources should play in the scholarly life of the university. Eight years after the original survey there is greater use of digital resources on these four university campuses, but still, it would appear, a dire need for clear statements about how this use fits into the academic portfolios of individual faculty members.

.05 Change over Eight Years

Demographically, little had changed in the eight years between studies. In 1995 there were 94 faculty members across the four campuses. The number increased to 96 in 2003. Full professors had risen from 44 to 48 percent of the total. Associate professors had declined from 40 to 34 percent and assistant professors increased from 16 to 18 percent of the cohort of history faculty on the four campuses. Female history faculty members rose from 26 to 32 percent in those eight years.

The 1995 survey had a higher response rate—64 percent, as compared to the 44 percent response rate of the 2003 survey. Given that the first survey was my dissertation work, that I also interviewed faculty members on their campuses, and individually handed out second and third copies of the survey to malingerers, it is not surprising that the first survey returns were higher. A 44 percent response rate (42 individuals) nonetheless yielded a wealth of information about use of digital technologies, barriers to that use, and, for the purposes of this column, the use of digital technologies for teaching, research, and promotion.

In the aggregate, the change over eight years was a move to more use of digital resources for both research and teaching, with the emphasis being on teaching. Historians in this study are now looking more like their colleagues in the social sciences, although one might hazard a guess that social scientists are also jumping quickly on this "moving express train."  [3] Younger faculty members—those who have yet to gain tenured status, appear to be faced with the dilemma of doing what is safe, or forging ahead and hoping that digital scholarship will be rewarded when they come up for tenure. Like the findings of the 1995 survey, it seems that tenured faculty members have less to lose if they spend time on technology. It is the cohort of untenured faculty that is most recently out of graduate school, probably most technologically savvy, but caught between using skills and waiting until tenure to use them. Given the speed of change in the world of information technology, waiting seven years means having to learn an entirely new set of skills upon becoming an associate professor. This seems a waste of talents and time on the part of junior faculty and the university.  [4]

.06 And the Future

These findings represent a benchmark for the use of digital technologies, in 2003, by a cohort of academic historians in a state university. Some historians here have indicated that there is a change in the way they do their work. This is not to say that they indicated publishing research in e-journals (one did mention publishing reviews in e-journals) or on CD-ROM, or through interactive media sites (no one did). The kind of digital work that historians mentioned was not earth shattering, but showed that they were starting to appreciate the benefits that they could get—in time, ease of access, variety of materials, communications, and expense (through not traveling to unnecessary locations). The survey also highlighted the fact that more and more historical materials are making their way to the Internet so that they can be used by historians and their students.

Based upon these qualitative and anecdotal findings, universities are faced with a need to educate junior faculty about the tenure and promotion process, to make explicit the part that digital technologies should play in that process, and to inform promotion committees about cutting edge technologies that could bring new research and teaching methods to their campuses. In the information age it is peculiar that academic institutions should find even a portion of their faculties fearful of using digital methods of scholarship. This is inefficient, counterproductive and counter-intellectual.

The journal is in a unique position of disseminating information about digital scholarship and doing that dissemination in a digital format. We should be worried that there are academics fearful of publishing here because e-journal articles will not be counted when they come up for tenure and promotion. The journal should be a major force in promoting digital scholarship and in helping academic historians to learn new methods. At the same time, the journal must take a role teaching review committees about the cutting edge technologies that make digital historians a vital resource on university campuses. The challenge is to stop preaching to the choir, the readers of this journal who know how to access and use electronic information, and to reach individuals and committees, changing their behaviors and their mindsets by providing dynamic guidelines and strong examples of best practice in the field.

.07 An Invitation

In the next few months I will complete a quantitative analysis of the 2003 survey, followed by a comparative study of the differences between the 1995 and 2003 findings. My research hypothesis is that there will be subtle shifts toward the use of digital technologies in the research and teaching practices of this cohort of historians. Furthermore, another study in five or eight years will show the continued uptake of digital scholarship in this academic field.

It would be informative to conduct this same research longitudinally at other state schools, or at private universities that might have specific differences in funding patterns or digital policy. Perhaps there are similar issues to be discovered in middle school or high school venues—looking at how digital technologies are disseminated and used in a variety of kindergarten through twelfth grade environments. The original survey is available here to anyone who would like to undertake this research.  [5] The journal, and this author, would be very interested in your findings.

.08 Notes

1. "Benchmark," American Heritage Dictionary, 4th ed., 2000.

2. Deborah Lines Andersen, "Academic Historians: Electronic Information Access Technologies and the World Wide Web: A Longitudinal Study of Factors Affecting Use and Barriers to that Use," Journal of the Association for History and Computing 1 (1). <>

3. See Thomas Dublin, "Labor History on the World Wide Web: Thoughts on Jumping onto a Moving Express Train." Labor History 43(3): 343-356 for a history professor's view of this issue.

4. See Deborah Lines Andersen and others, Digital Scholarship in the Tenure, Promotion, and Review Process. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, forthcoming fall 2003 for a discussion of the issues involved in creating digital scholarship, and in using that scholarship to support tenure and promotion decisions.

5. The survey instrument. <link to the original survey instrument>