Getting Tenure in Digital and Public History, as a Non-Man

Getting Tenure in Digital and Public History, as a Non-Man

Sharon Leon

Earlier this week, the AHA’s Perspectives on History site published an article from LaDale Winling entitled “Getting Tenure in Digital History: How One Scholar Made His Case”. Dr. Winling presents the arc of his career in the history department at Virginia Tech, from his hiring in 2011 to his tenure case in 2017. He suggests that candidates working in digital and public history have to balance the politics of their departmental and institutional expectations and the larger expectations of one’s historical field and subfield. Undoubtedly, that’s true given the fact that a candidate for tenure must make a case to outside qualified readers so that an internal group of scholars in the tenure home and institution can rely upon those evaluations in their judgment on the case.

Beyond this basic reality, midway through his article, Dr. Winling makes some generalizations about the larger fields of both digital and public history that I find problematic:


There are few models for historians earning tenure based on digital or public work, especially at research universities. The classic examples of the digital history world—the Ayerses and Cohens—mostly took on their digital work after tenure or in addition to their tenure books. There are a few more examples in the public history world, but we are still in the first generation of scholars who joined the faculty after Anthony Grafton and Jim Grossman acknowledged that it was time to think about and begin valuing public history.



The number of scholars gaining tenure with digital history and public history work grows every day, but they are already substantial cohorts. The notion that the paths taken by Dan Cohen and Ed Ayers represent “classic examples” seems odd since they are such different cases; Cohen and Ayers are from different generations.

Ed Ayers began his work on his first major projects before there was even a web on which to publish it. He belongs to the generation of digital historians including Steven Brier, Josh Brown, Susan Smulyan, Jan Reiff, Roy Rosenzweig, and others.

Dan Cohen, a dear friend and collaborator who left a full-time position in a history department in 2013, belongs to the next generation with many of the rest of us. Cohen made a case for promotion and tenure that balanced traditional publications and digital products. Because I was sitting in the room when Dan made his public case for tenure in 2007, I can distinctly recall that it included his wonderful first book, but also a host of digital history projects including ECHO, SurveyBuilder, H-Bot, the September 11 Digital Archive, and Zotero. His digital work was a coequal part of his case and he presented it proudly as such. Significantly, since that day in 2007, many people have made their tenure cases in exactly the same way—I certainly did.

Furthermore, and strangely for the context of the article, Dr. Winling points to a Perspectives article from Anthony Grafton and James Grossman in the fall of 2011 about the profession needing to take work outside the academy seriously as a jumping-off point for making space for a generation of tenured public historians. Rather than being a launching point, Grafton and Grossman’s article came at the tail end of a period of serious collaboration between representatives of the AHA, the OAH, and NCPH to craft a report on the status of, and recommendations for tenure and promotion for, publicly engaged academic historians. All three organizations adopted that report in 2010 and it has proven to be a great leverage point for public historians in academic departments. But, that report was, in fact, only one step in many long years of struggle.

A perusal of the over 1,600 members of the National Council on Public History, which is approaching its 40th anniversary in 2020, will provide a substantial list of faculty at research universities who have gotten tenure as public historians and not all after 2010. One need only look at the faculty at Arizona State University, IUPUI, Louisville University, Middle Tennessee State University, Oklahoma State University, the University of Illinois Chicago, the University of Massachusetts, the University of South Carolina, the University of Utah, West Virginia University, and others to find scholars and programs with deep histories and many tenured alumni. Additionally, new public historians are being tenured every year. I know this is true because I have served as an outside reviewer for numerous cases.

I point out these communities and issues not to suggest that getting tenure doing digital or public history is easy—it is not. Far too many of our colleagues in history departments across the country dismiss this work out of hand because it does not take the forms to which they are accustomed. That is a problem; one that we all need to continue to work against.

I would suggest that the way to do that is to make strong arguments for the work on its own terms as digital or public work, rather than to frame it in any way that would suggest it is ancillary or supplemental to the “real history” of monographs and articles. More importantly, there are many people who have successfully negotiated this process and who are available to serve as models and as external readers. There is an even larger cohort of people who were not tenured as digital or public historians, but who have since developed the skills and depth to evaluate those promotion cases. We can only hope that that community of scholars continues to grow.


Regardless of the issues I have with Dr. Winling’s article, I might not have even noticed it fly by in my Twitter stream if he had not tagged me in a series of tweets amplifying and framing the piece:

Here, Dr. Winling frames digital history as a male-dominated field while acknowledging that there are a number of non-male digital historians whose work he knows, including mine. This positioning set me back some. If Dr. Winling knows this work, how had he presented the field so narrowly in a piece that was intended to be a model to up-and-coming scholars? To envision the field as dominated by Ayers-Cohen-Grossman-Grafton is to miss a tremendous amount of work over the last twenty-five years, regardless of the gender of the producer.

In the past several years, I have done some work on exploring why women have been erased from the first ten years of digital history work on the web. There are lots of reasons, none of them good. There is no excuse to continue to perpetuate this erasure, which is exactly what Dr. Winling did (and, in fact, acknowledged—which I appreciate).

This perpetuation has two possible causes: 1) it suggests a problem with citation politics where scholars are systematically ignoring the work produced by people who are not (white) men or 2) it suggests a lack of research where scholars are unaware of the breadth and depth of the field. Either way, those who frame the field this narrowly are engaging with a grossly thin slice of the historiography. It does a disservice to the scholars whose work they are overlooking and it does a disservice to the students who are learning to frame the field in these ways.

To suggest the imbalance of this framing, I asked for women who are doing digital history or digital public history work to identify themselves.[1]


Take a look at the responses, the retweets, and responses to the retweets. The uptake was wide and deep, and understandably flowed outside the narrow bounds of academic rank.

As always, it’s worth remembering that we are all here, doing the work, and we have been for decades.

  1. I should also clearly acknowledge that I goofed in the way I framed my call: asking for women to represent and overlooking all the N.B., trans, and queer folks who don’t identify that way.


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Making Sense of Digital Humanities Copyright © 2022 by Sharon Leon is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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