“Making it Count”: The Case for Digital Scholarship in Asian Studies

By Tristan R. Grunow, Yale University

As one of the most trying and uncertain academic years in memory finally comes to a close, we as academics, educators, and researchers face a still more daunting task: surveying the current situation with an eye towards the long process of rebuilding. Things look bleak, without question. Many institutions have announced hiring freezes through next academic year, while others have taken the alarming steps of furloughing over 40,000 faculty and staff and permanently shutting down entire departments. Even tenure no longer promises the security it once did. Some observers have declared the current crisis an “extinction event” from which academia may never fully recover. And, to be sure, there will be many tough choices ahead: some institutions may be forced to close for good, and many academics might decide to pursue new academic-adjacent or non-academic careers. In short, academia may indeed never look the same. 

Yet, with reflection upon the dire situation around us, we have a unique opportunity to come together as a community to rebuild academia anew from the ground up—to realize an academe that is more responsive to global crises; is more inclusive of new scholars, approaches, and methods; is more accessible to both scholars and non-academics around the world; and is more open to new forms of professional contribution. Already there have been calls to use the current crisis to resurrect the public university through a renewed commitment to public engagement and an increase in public funding. At the same time, Joy Connolly, president of the American Council of Learned Societies, has called for scholars to collectively rethink tenure and promotion requirements to allow more flexibility in determining “what counts in the circulation and production of knowledge.” As these arguments suggest, now is not the time for incremental adjustments, but for fundamental changes in how we understand the basic components of academia: our roles as teachers, our productivity as scholars, and our community outreach as public intellectuals. We now have a chance to radically reshape our profession. As Paula R. Curtis put it so powerfully in a recent #AsiaNow post, “if not now, when?” If academia will never look the same again, then we must work together to ensure that the new form it takes embodies a lasting change for the better.

In the spirit of starting conversations about what our new academic social space will look like, I propose that now is the time for us in Asian Studies to stake a claim by embracing more prominent public-facing roles as scholars through digital scholarship. The coronavirus pandemic has already forced us to “go virtual,” for better or for worse. And now with millions of new users signing up for MOOCs, Cambridge University being just the first school to plan moving all classes online through summer 2021, and roughly 33% of schools contemplating virtual instruction in the fall, there is no indication that the recent wave of online activity will recede anytime soon. There have even been suggestions that colleges prepare for an exclusively online fall or adopt a HyFlex model. This is not to say that online teaching can or should replace the learning environment achieved in the classroom, but to suggest that we as scholars take advantage of digital media to broaden our reach beyond our classrooms, campuses (or Zoom closets!), to collaborate with scholars around the world, and to engage global audiences. 

Visibility on social media like Twitter or Facebook is just the beginning. Virtual conferences and roundtables can be accessible to scholars around the world and include more voices in a way impossible in crowded and rushed in-person annual meetings. Public-facing digital outputs like open-source journals, research platforms, academic blogs, podcasts, online curricula, virtual courses, and teaching resources can circulate academic research to both academic and non-academic audiences anywhere. To be sure, there are many in the field of Asian Studies who have already fully embraced Digital Humanities, both in terms of research tools and outputs. In Japanese studies alone, scholars associated with Digital Humanities Japan and the Japanese Association for Digital Humanities have pioneered the introduction of digital methods in research, while the North American Coordinating Council on Japanese Library Resources and others have collaborated in the production and aggregation of dozens of public-facing digital platforms. But one fear preventing more scholars from engaging digital methods and platforms is that these projects “won’t count” when it matters most: on the job market, or when it comes time for tenure and promotion review.

Asserting a more public role for Asian Studies, and indeed, academic disciplines more broadly, must start with recognizing public-facing and digital projects as scholarly contributions valuable in their own right, not merely as “distractions” from more traditional forms of productivity, or something “extra” to be done only after tenure. Our recent pivot to online teaching should put to rest any question regarding the importance of high-quality digital materials and accessible teaching resources that make distance learning possible. Now more than ever, we must acknowledge the essential labor performed by librarians and digital content curators to produce the online materials that enable us to maintain the rigorous learning environments that our institutions and our students demand. But it does not stop there. We must take up Joy Connolly’s call to rethink how to best recognize and evaluate these contributions when it comes to hiring decisions and tenure and promotion requirements that still privilege traditional print scholarship. Here we can take a cue from peer professional organizations like the American Historical Association, whose Guidelines for the Professional Evaluation of Digital Scholarship by Historians make clear that new forms of digital scholarship “in the judgement of the AHA, are no less deserving of professional evaluation than print scholarship.”

Needless to say, this raises questions about the criteria used to assess digital scholarship and to make it “count.” If we are concerned with metrics or “impact,” does a podcast with 1,000 downloads from all around the world count as much as a print article with only a few dozen? What about a teaching resource that attracts millions of unique users a year, a viral Twitter thread with hundreds of thousands of impressions, or a blog post with 50,000 hits? How do we evaluate the process rather than the product when the hundreds of hours of work that went into a project was spent programming, editing content, or generating visualizations, rather than photographing or copying documents in an archive? If we consider peer-review to be the standard for all academic work, then shouldn’t there be more widespread and rigorous peer review for digital projects? In this regard, venues like the Digital History Reviews section of the American Historical Review and the new Reviews in Digital Humanities platform offer promising templates. But, in the end, we cannot simply evaluate new modalities of scholarship based on old models. Digital media allows scholars to engage with and contribute to the field in ways that do not conform to, and sometimes even bridge, the traditional categories of research, teaching, and service. As radical as it sounds, the question we should be asking is not how to make digital scholarship “count” within the traditional frameworks, but how to reshape those frameworks to make room for digital scholarship.

We all have a role to play in making digital scholarship count. Individual scholars should advocate for each other and for raising the profile of digital projects. Public universities should take seriously their public mandates to engage and educate their broader communities, as many small colleges already do. Finally, AAS, I might suggest, can signal its commitment to supporting digital scholarship with two key steps. First, AAS could form a committee of scholars to draft its own official guidelines for evaluating digital scholarship and recommendations for hiring and tenure review considerations. Peer organizations like the AHA have already done this for both digital scholarship and public engagement, as has the Modern Language Association with its own Guidelines for Evaluating Work in Digital Humanities and Digital Media. Second, the AAS could promote the peer review of digital projects through a regular Digital Asian Studies review section of the Journal of Asian Studies. As a professional organization committed to advancing all academic disciplines and the study of Asia through international exchange, AAS can now lead the way in making Asian Studies more responsive, inclusive, and accessible throughout the world by embracing digital scholarship.

As the field of Asian Studies collectively rolls up its sleeves to begin the arduous task of rebuilding, we now have a chance to reconstruct the field not as it once was, but as we want it to look in the future. The new wave of digital scholarship is already here. Now let’s get to work making sure it counts.

Tristan R. Grunow is an historian of modern Japan and Associate Research Scholar at the Council on East Asian Studies at Yale University. In addition to organizing the Meiji at 150 Project, co-curating the Meiji at 150 Digital Teaching Resource, and co-organizing the Hokkaidō 150 workshop and digital platform at the University of British Columbia, he also produced the Meiji at 150 Podcast and is now producing the Japan on the Record podcast. He would like to acknowledge the influential input of over a half-dozen scholars active in digital humanities and digital outputs both within and without Asian Studies, and to sincerely thank them for their insights. He owes special thanks to Carla Nappi for her thoughtful feedback, and to Paula R. Curtis and Jooyeon Hahm for commenting on earlier drafts. He can be contacted at tristan.grunow(at)yale.edu.

Image by fancycrave1 from Pixabay.