Back to the Future

For some months, I’ve had a project on hold, one that I wish I’d had the time, the energy, the funding, and the general wherewithal to push forward much sooner than I have, but… haven’t. My leave is now coming up, just around the corner, and I’m hoping to come back to this plan, to make it some kind of actuality. I’ve been spurred into revisiting this plan today by a couple of John Holbo’s posts at the Valve, in which he first clarifies some of the positions that he took in the recent Slate article, “Attack of the Career-Killing Blogs” and then goes on to ponder what a possible future for the academic blog — one in which it is taken seriously as a mode of scholarly publishing — might look like.

What I’ve been pondering for some time has been the start-up of an electronic scholarly publishing model that would bring together the kinds of in-process thought produced by the best of academic blogging, an open-access repository of humanities work on the PLoS model, and a peer-reviewed electronic imprint for the publication of monograph-length work in the humanities, both of a traditional text-based form and of a born-digital form. I’ve published a brief note about this possibility in a recent issue of Cinema Journal (that link takes you to the html version of the article on the Project Muse site, which will of course only work if your institution is subscribed; otherwise, one might hope that somebody snagged the pdf for you and put it somewhere you could get at it). This note, alas, does more to sketch out the problem with the crumbling system of academic publishing we currently face than it does to imagine a new system.

After that note got written, I turned my attention first to editorial board building (and managed to get some fabulous folks to agree to help out, at least in theory) and then to fund-raising — and that’s where everything ground to a halt. My institution, in the person of my dean, got interested in the project, but asked for some revisions to the proposal that I was circulating, revisions that would have dramatically changed the nature of the project that I was imagining, effectively turning it into an all-electronic university press. To metaphorize the character of those changes: imagine that you decided that you weren’t getting enough vegetables, and so you contacted a few pals and said, hey, why don’t we pool in together and form a co-op through which we could maybe get some local farmers to deliver us organic produce once a week or so; it wouldn’t cost much, and we’d be able to support earth-friendly growing practices and independent farmers in the process. And somebody catches wind of this plan and says — wow, yes, what this town totally needs is a reliable outlet for organic produce, but the way to do that is get Whole Foods to open a store here.

Well, okay. Whole Foods is a fabulous thing, don’t get me wrong. But I’m not in the metaphorical grocery store business. In fact, part of my hope in founding what amounts to a P2P open-access scholarly commons is to get outside the corporatized structures that govern scholarly communication today. So this interest from the Powers that Be around here, while both encouraging and flattering, had the inadvertent (or perhaps totally vertent, but unfortunate) effect of bringing my planning to a screeching halt.

The time has come, however, to move forward, and so for the last couple of weeks I’ve been trying to decide on a next action. And today, John’s posts have encouraged me to pick up and go already. So perhaps a good place to begin would be — on the model of The Valve and Office Hours and others — with a group blog that could be used by the folks I’ve gathered into a tentative editorial board to do some imagining, as well as some virtual construction work. Now that I think of it, I’ve been imagining this project on the model of an online academic Habitat for Humanity, in which one’s ability to live (or publish) in the virtual space is financed, at least in part, by one’s work on the space (in terms of design, programming, peer-review, and etc). So perhaps I do a quick install in the ElectraPress domain, which I’ve been sitting on for some time, of something on the order of Drupal, put out the virtual hammers and nails, and see where we can get?

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