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Blogs as Serialized Scholarship

Over the last two installments of this series, I’ve thought a bit about the relationship between scholarship, seriality, and the unpopular, all of which thinking has been headed toward a consideration of what the blog can contribute as a mode of serialization for scholarship.

There’s been a fair bit written over the last several years about the blog as a return to serial form in publishing, particularly connecting recent political blogs to the periodical essays of the 18th century, including those in publications such as the Tatler and the Spectator.[1] Similarly, a bit of research has been done on potential connections between the blog as a narrative form and early novelistic modes such as the epistolary narrative.[2] There’s clearly something in these kinds of connections that it’s worth noting: the more our technologies change, the more, it seems, we return to familiar patterns in many of the things we do with them.

And so it is with scholarly communication. Many commentators look at what’s going on with digital scholarly publishing today and focus on transformation, even revolution. Now we have computers, and networks, and everything will be different! And of course the digital does bring with it some quite particular affordances, but many of our engagements with it seem to return us to an incunabular mode that resembles the experimentation that resulted from the adoption of other, earlier media forms. It’s not just that the more things change, the more they stay the same; rather, the more things change, the more we’re driven back into a set of first principles that help us figure out what the new things are.

So one might look at a new forum for scholarly communication like In Media Res, for instance, in which groups of scholars post brief media clips and commentaries as a means of opening discussion about issues in contemporary media in something a bit closer to the time register of the media itself. In this, of course, there are profound differences from the modes of scholarship that have become conventional: in print and its analogues, quotation from the media has to take the form of ekphrasis; the analysis of a given text is expected to tend toward completion rather than provocation; and the passage of time between the circulation of the primary text and the composition — not to mention publication — of the study of it provides room for careful contemplation. A forum like IMR brings the primary text and the commentary on it much closer together, both in format and in time, producing an emphasis on the contemporary that only digital networks can fully support.

Like the blog, however, IMR isn’t a wholly new form, but rather one with precursors and precedents. In its focus on direct, ongoing scholar-to-scholar communication, this kind of forum might bear something in common with the seminar. In the seminar, we present a text and argue about it, and then present a related text, arguing about it and its relationship to the first one. The explorations we conduct across multiple sessions are additive; we know not to foreclose the discussion of each text or topic, but instead to let each resurface and linger throughout the series of conversations.

In contrast with the conversational structure of the seminar, we tend to think of scholarly writing as working toward conclusions, and by the time we present those pieces of writing to our colleagues, we expect them to have achieved some kind of resolution. This wasn’t always so, however. The divergence between the direct, communal kinds of exploration we undertake in a seminar and the discrete, closed form of the journal article mask their common origins in the letter-based correspondence among scholars in the early Enlightenment. The first modern scholarly journals came into being as a means of broadening and systematizing such correspondence, and in the process, gradually replaced a sense of ongoing exchange with one of formal conclusion.[3]

In this sense, today, when a scholar with a blog writes a bit about some ideas-in-process, receives some feedback in response, returns with further ideas, reiterates, and so on, we can glimpse once again the seriality that has always been at the heart of scholarly production. That seriality has lingered in the progression from more informal to more formal modes of communication through which scholars develop and share their work, moving from discussions and working groups, through conference papers and drafts circulated to colleagues, to publications, which are themselves sometimes revisited and revised as journal articles develop into longer projects.

So is the blog merely an everything-old-is-new-again eternal return? One thing that might make the scholarly blog different is the shift it produces from an implicit, buried acknowledgment that scholarship’s serialization practices are based on multi-directional exchanges to an explicit emphasis on such exchange. Letters, after all, are meant to be responded to, just as seminars are meant to facilitate discussion. Journal articles bear traces of their history as turns in an ongoing, if slow-paced, conversation, but forms like blogs and forums like IMR allow us to foreground again the conversational aspect of scholarly communication.

If we’re going to reap the benefits of such foregrounded conversation, however, we’ve got to be prepared for some unintended outcomes. Some of our established ways of doing things might not mesh perfectly with structures that emphasize open exchange. We might find, for instance, unexpected participants in our conversations, and we might find those conversations taking directions that we can’t entirely control. We might find pieces of writing that we think are concluded instead being re-opened and held up to unexpected kinds of questioning. We might find ourselves revisiting and revising work well after we thought we were done with it.

My last post, for instance: a colleague shared a link to the post on Facebook, and the conversation that took place there included a comment about my too-casual shorthanding of the Frankfurt School’s at times elitist understanding of the popular. The point is an excellent one, and indicates the kind of issue that often surfaces in the speed and compression of a blog post (which its detractors love to note), but also gestures toward the ways that our thinking about the critical past might shift and develop over time. Discussions like that one push me to think through what it was I was actually after in my reference, and why I automatically grabbed for the Frankfurt School in labeling it.

Of course, there is a problem with that Facebook discussion: I only got to see it because I’m friends with its initiator. For all of the obvious and extremely important reasons having to do with privacy, I can’t share that conversation as it actually took place with you. And because it didn’t happen here, it won’t be part of the record of this series of posts, or part of the official genealogy of my thinking about scholarship, popularity, and seriality.

All of which is to acknowledge that these new forms, as they proliferate, present us with some serious challenges. How do we gather and represent the conversations through which scholarly ideas develop? How do we decide when pieces of writing should be revisited and when they are successfully, or even unsuccessfully, concluded? And — always the 64-thousand-dollar-question of scholarly communication, this — how do we credit ideas that arise from these discussions?

The question of credit is a pressing one for many of us, and particularly for those of us who value open discussions in new scholarly forms, as we are likely to find ourselves spending increasing amounts of time responding to others, leaving less time available for our own stuff. As we are all too aware, we still work in an academy that emphasizes the singular, and in many fields the solo, contribution to scholarly discourse; we get credit for the things that we produce that are original, that are ours alone, rather than for our responses to the work that others do, or the things that are ours in a collective sense. Even in the seminar, participants receive only marginal credit for their ongoing discussions; what counts is the seminar paper, the single-authored (and, usually, single-readered) end product.

If newer forms of serialized scholarship are genuinely to succeed, these forms will need to be accompanied by modes of academic evaluation — not to mention valuation — that fully appreciate multi-vocal, ongoing exchange.

I expect that my next forays in this series will begin to turn toward such questions of evaluation. That I’m not entirely certain about that — that some other thought may interpose itself along the way — is part of what excites me about the contribution that serialized forms like blogs might make to scholarly communication. Forms such as these — much like the seminar — begin to provide us with means of capturing thought in the act of being produced. Paul Krugman has famously suggested that by the 1980s, the circulation of working papers in economics had already transformed the field’s journals into the “tombstones” of scholarship [4]; while I don’t want to argue that humanities journals are similarly becoming mausoleums, I would agree that they increasingly contain the markers of thought that once took place. We need forms, and values, that capture thought in the process of happening, recording thought’s own seriality.

  1. Osell, Tedra. “Where Are the Women?: Pseudonymity and the Public Sphere, Then and Now.” S&F Online 5, no. 2. Special Issue, “Blogging Feminism: (Web)sites of Resistance” (Spring 2007). http://barnard.edu/sfonline/blogs/osell_01.htm.
  2. Fitzpatrick, Kathleen. “The Pleasure of the Blog: The Early Novel, the Serial, and the Narrative Archive.” In Blogtalks Reloaded: Social Software Research and Cases, edited by Thomas N. Burg and Jan Schmidt, 167–86. Vienna, Austria: Auflage, 2007.
  3. On this history, see Kronick, David A. “Devant Le Deluge” and Other Essays on Early Modern Scientific Communication. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, 2004.
  4. Krugman, Paul. “Open Science And The Econoblogosphere.” The Conscience of a Liberal, New York Times online, January 17, 2012. http://krugman.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/01/17/open-science-and-the-econoblogosphere/.

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  1. You may want to take a look at what’s happening in law. That is a field in which traditional peer review has NOT operated. Law reviews are run by law students, who decide what gets published. Peer review as we know it for other fields does not exist. Perhaps that is why, I have been told, blogs by well-respected, usually senior law professors have taken on the importance they have in the field as a mode of scholarly communication. Each such blog becomes, in effect, a self-authenticating and branded mini-journal representing the work of one scholar and the feedback to it. Could this model catch on elsewhere, or do the unique conditions in law make it likely only to thrive there?