E-Lit Exhibit at MLA; Exhibits, Peer Review, and What Counts

Dene Grigar (Electronic Literature Organization, ELO, Board Member), Lori Emerson, and Kathi Inman Berens are the curators for the E-Lit Exhibit and Performance (installed, with an online component and an additional exhibit of mobile e-lit) as part of the MLA Convention.* This exhibit is the first of its kind for MLA. The E-Lit Exhibit is extremely important as an exhibit/event in itself. It’s also extremely important as an example/model for future exhibits with MLA and for all who are interested in how changes in scholarly communication are affecting the humanities, how to support scholarly work outside of silos (field-specific and over-separation of research, teaching, and service), and what counts as scholarship.
See details for the E-Lit Exhibit on the ELO site and the E-Lit Exhibit site, including the E-Lit Reading location for January 6 from 8-10:30pm. The ELO and E-Lit Exhibit sites provide a great deal of context and information regarding the E-Lit Exhibit itself (or themselves with the performance and physical, online, and mobile exhibits) and as a model for others.
ELO has created an abundance of exemplary work, including materials on preservation of digital art/scholarship with Born-Again Bits, Acid-Free Bits, and related publications. ELO’s digital preservation publications offer a model for how a scholarly community can contribute to and create a culture of data/digital preservation that directly supports scholarly research, teaching, and service. The need to have a community that is aware of the needs and requirements for supporting and preserving their materials comes up fairly frequently in discussions of digital/data curation. Physics, mathematics, and astronomy often given as examples of good communities and ELO’s work proves the e-lit community to also be a model community for this work. ELO folks are also working on the ELMCIP project, which is Electronic Literature as a Model of Creativity and Innovation in Practice (see these presentation slides). Given ELO’s extensive work in developing a sustainable community that creates models to support other scholarly communities, the E-Lit Exhibit is certain to offer another important model for other scholarly practices.
The E-Lit Exhibit serves as a model for creating exhibits as scholarship/research (curatorial work, artist contributions), teaching (student contributions to the exhibit; teachers and students who will use the exhibit as a teaching resource), and service (public outreach, public scholarship, community engagement). In doing so, it presents an excellent example of the best of public scholarship in showing how scholarly work can exceed the seemingly simple divisions presented by most Promotion and Tenure (P&T) guidelines that break work into three separate categories: research, teaching, and service. The E-Lit Exhibit is an excellent example of making scholarship count in terms of impact, return on investment, engagement, and all of the other work that scholarship ideally endeavors to achieve.
In addition to making the work count, I’m wondering how the E-Lit Exhibit will be “counted” for P&T. P&T guidelines in general count creative and research works as well as presentations/performances so the presenters for the Performance/Reading section have work that is countable as performances/presentations as well as e-lit which is countable as creative/scholarly works. How those are counted depend on the field and institution, and MLA has the Wiki for the Evaluation of Digital Work to assist with developing an evaluation and measurement process at the institutional level. Individual institutions have created such guides as well (e..g; Texas A&M’s IDHMC: the Initiative for Digital Humanities, Media, and Culture).
I’m specifically interested in how the entire E-Lit Exhibit will be counted. This may the wrong question – I’m not familiar enough with how artistic fields normally count exhibits and I’m not sure what has been or is being established by ELO or others for the E-Lit Exhibit. If my question has some validity, then I’m interested to find out how the E-Lit Exhibit will be counted as a work on its own and how the attribution/inclusion/mention of the works included in it,  which are evaluated/counted as individual works, will be handled. Will the E-Lit Exhibit be peer-reviewed as an exhibit? If so, what are the guidelines for this peer review, what group is doing the peer review, and can others use this model? Recently, Brown’s Women Writers Project (WWP) released a whitepaper explaining how scholars can work with them to develop online exhibits, the peer review process for the exhibits, and how the exhibits are a form of scholarly publication. NINES and 18thConnect similarly offer supports for the peer review of digital scholarship including online exhibits. All of these focus on peer review as a core component, as does research in scholarly communications (e.g.; Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s brilliant work including Planned Obsolescence and works like How Professors Think).
From my limited perspective on this, it seems like it would be beneficial to have the E-Lit Exhibit peer reviewed by MLA and for MLA to support the peer review of all exhibits within the MLA Convention. The E-Lit Exhibit is the first of its kind, so something like this could be useful to encourage the development of future exhibits for the MLA Convention and for exhibits as a more commonly undertaken scholarly work. The benefits of having more exhibits would include the benefits of public scholarship overall in terms of making the scholarship count for impact, engagement, and so on.
If something like this was to happen, I’d be very interested in knowing how the peer review process would be done and how the exhibit would “count.” Would there be a recommended equivalency for the evaluation given by the editorial board to the peer reviewers? And/or, would the peer reviewers be asked to state their own recommended equivalency? Is the idea of an equivalency irrelevant? Is the idea of an equivalency useful in explaining how exhibits should be “counted” at the institutional level for P&T, annual activity reports, and communicating scholarly standards across different fields? What standards from museums and exhibit-focused fields would be included or relevant (e.g.; “Statement on Museum Exhibit Standards” from the Organization of American Historians; “Standards for Museum Exhibitions and Indicators of Excellence” from the American Association of Museums? Would more humanities journals start to include space for exhibit reviews (more on exhibit reviews in Anne Salsich’s “Collaboration: Paradigm of the Digital Cultural Content Environment”) and, if so, what form would the exhibit reviews take (would they be anything like the summative, informal peer review of an exhibit hall in the Mammal Study Hall Report)?
I’m excited to see the E-Lit Exhibit and to see what and how it serves as and informs a model for similar forms of scholarly work.
* January 4, 2012: I originally had incorrectly identified ELO itself as holding the E-Lit Exhibit in the first sentence of this post instead of the curators.  In writing about counting and measurement for academic work, correct and full attribution is clearly needed. I apologize for the misstatement. My thanks and and apprecitation for this correction go to Dene Grigar.