Advice on Academic Blogging, Tweeting, Whatever

Over the weekend, something hashtagged as #twittergate was making the rounds among the tweeps. I haven’t dug into the full history (though Adeline storyfied it), but the debate has raised questions about a range of forms of conference reporting, and as a result, posts and columns both old and new exploring the risks and rewards of scholarly blogging have been making the rounds. Last night sometime, Adeline asked me what advice I have for junior faculty who get caught in conference blogging kerfuffles – which I take as standing in for a range of conflicts that can arise between those who are active users of various kinds of social media and those who are less familiar and less comfortable with the new modes of communicating.

This was far too big a question to take on in 140 characters, and I didn’t want to issue a knee-jerk response. I’m still piecing together my thoughts, so this post will no doubt evolve, either in the comments or in future posts. But here are a few initial thoughts:

1. Do not let dust-ups such as these stop you from blogging/tweeting/whatever. These modes of direct scholar-to-scholar communication are increasingly important, and if you’ve found community in them, you should work to maintain it. (And if you’re looking for better connections to the folks in your field or better visibility for your work and you aren’t using these channels, you should seriously consider them.)

2. Listen carefully to these debates, though, as they will tell you something important about your field and the folks in it. If there are folks on Twitter who are saying that they are less than comfortable with some of its uses, or if there are blog posts exploring the ups and downs of blogging, you might want to pay attention. There’s a lot to be learned from these points of tension in any community.

3. Use your blog/twitter/whatever professionally. This ought to be completely obvious, of course, but the key here is to really think through what professional use means in an academic context. In our more formal writing, we’re extremely careful to distinguish between our own arguments and the ideas of others — between our interpretation of what someone else has said and the conclusions that we go on to draw — and we have clear textual signals that mark those distinctions. Such distinctions can and should exist in social media as well: if you’re live-tweeting a presentation, you should attribute ideas to the speaker but simultaneously make clear that the tweets are your interpretation of what’s being said. The same for blogging. The point is that none of these channels are unmediated by human perspective. They’re not directly transmitting what the speaker is saying to a broader audience. And the possibilities for misunderstanding — is this something the speaker said, or your response to it? — are high. Bringing the same kinds of scrupulousness to blogging and tweeting that we bring to formal writing are is key. [Edited 12.55pm. Bad English professor!]

4. Make your tweets and blog posts your own. As I understand it, some of the concern about the tweeting and blogging of conference papers has to do with intellectual property concerns; does a blog post about a presentation undermine the claims of the speaker to the material? The answer is of course not, but if you want to avoid conflict around such IP issues, ensure that your posts focus on your carefully signalled responses to the talk, rather than on the text of the talk itself. This is the same mode in which we do all of our work — taking in and responding to the arguments of others — and it should be recognizable as such.

5. If somebody says they’d prefer not to be tweeted or blogged, respect that. Whatever your feelings about the value of openness — and openness ranks very high among my academic values — not everyone shares them. While I have a hard time imagining giving a talk that I didn’t wish more people could hear, I know there are other scholars who are less comfortable with the broadcast of in-process material. And while I might like to nudge them toward more openness, it’s neither my place nor is it worth the potential bad feeling to do so.

And finally:

6. Relax. People are going to freak out about the things they’re going to freak out about. If you’re working in a new field, or in alternative forms — if you’re really pushing at the boundaries of scholarly work in the ways that you should — somebody’s not going to like it. Always. The thing to do is to make your argument as professionally as you can, to demonstrate the value of the ways that you’re working — and then to get back to work. Doing your work well, and being able to show how your work is paying off, are the point.

That’s what I’ve got at the moment. What am I missing?

Two Things

One super-depressing (not least for how close to home it hits):

Imagine a small, developing country of perhaps 3 million people. Like many other small developing countries, our imaginary nation is rich in natural resources, its economy has prospered on the export of agricultural crops and benefited from the revenue generated by petroleum production, refining, and support services. Its history, like some of its counterparts in the developing world, reflects a constant structural economic weakness covered by a colorful culture, truly creative and charming people, and an often dramatic sequence of past events. Civil wars, civilian uprisings, and the failure to compete with more dynamic and successful nations have left our country with a small, wealthy, interbred, and interconnected elite, a growing entrepreneurial middle class, and a large much less prosperous population of rural residents and urban poor.

Riven by cultural conflicts generations old and struggling with an archaic political system, the country periodically falls into the hands of populist demagogues and petty tyrants. In between, often when prosperity strikes, the country’s significant group of responsible leaders seeks to enhance legal and institutional structures to improve its ability to attract and retain internationally competitive economic enterprises, but the periods of responsible leadership fade fast, and the nation reverts to a pattern of clientele government, backroom deals, and populist rhetoric.

Over all, its population remains significantly less educated relative to its peers in nearby nations, although a structure of incentives and subsidies support good education for the children of the growing middle class and the political and economic elite. Other groups of citizens struggle through underfunded and inadequate schools, and those who survive often find themselves excluded from post-secondary opportunities by weak academic preparation and high cost….

One which gives me hope:

We believe in the power of the Internet to foster innovation, research, and education. Requiring the published results of taxpayer-funded research to be posted on the Internet in human and machine readable form would provide access to patients and caregivers, students and their teachers, researchers, entrepreneurs, and other taxpayers who paid for the research. Expanding access would speed the research process and increase the return on our investment in scientific research…

Go sign onto the latter. And if you live in the “small, developing country” of the former, speak up, and prevent the populist demagogues and petty tyrants from undoing the programs and services its people deserve.

Open Access at 10

I’m really happy (if mildly tired) to be writing from Budapest, where (like Cameron) I’m honored to participate in a meeting on the tenth anniversary of the Budapest Open Access Initiative. It was this gathering, ten years ago, that gave a name to the growing sense that the content produced as a result of scholarly research can and should circulate freely in the age of the Internet. We’ve come together to discuss what’s been learned over the last decade, as well as the directions for the next decade.

As I told someone yesterday, I’m simultaneously surprised that it’s already been ten years and that it’s only been ten years; the discussions that took place in Budapest a decade ago have had such an impact that it seems at one and the same time as if their ideas have always been in circulation and as if they have only just been introduced.

Needless to say, it’s auspicious that this anniversary meeting is taking place at a moment of widespread discussion about the value of public access to the products of scholarly research. Personally, I’m also thrilled that this discussion broadly recognizes the value of such open circulation of the products of humanities research as well as that of the sciences, and that there is serious consideration being given to the particular challenges that different subsets of the academy face in the transition toward more open models of communication.

I’ll hope to report more thoughts as the meeting progresses, and will look forward to bringing what I learn back with me, as we continue thinking through the future of scholarly communication in the humanities.

I’ve just posted the following response to Stanley Fish’s comments about my book; they should be up once they’re moderated through. In the interim, and for the sake of keeping this comment visible long after it’s drowned in a sea of commenter crankiness, here’s what I said:

This is a fascinating discussion of the shifts taking place in scholarly communication today; thanks to Prof. Fish for his exploration of new digital modes of scholarship. I’m honored that he’s engaged with my book so avidly and want to add a few brief thoughts to this conversation.

First, as several have noted, the project went through an open peer review process, and remains available online. The print version serves a key role, however, as a form of reverse compatibility with those in the academy who have not yet made the transition to networked reading.

But I want to note that I don’t entirely believe that “long-form scholarship… needs the interdependent notions of author, text, and originality.” Rather, I believe that scholarship circulates through a particular interpretive community, a concept I draw from Prof. Fish’s important intervention into assumptions about the fixed nature of texts and meanings. To this point, that interpretive community has relied on notions like originality to give meaning to its communications. I do not argue that these things are going away in the digital age, only that they are changing, as the interpretive community of scholars changes.

There is much resistance to such change from those in established interpretive communities. But changes are underway, and it is crucial for all scholars today — not just those working in new forms, but also those hiring and promoting them — to understand how new forms create new kinds of engagement.

Hey, Why the Silence?

So, you may have noticed that there’s a significant gap in the archives here, roughly corresponding with the summer. And you may have asked yourself, gee, is kfitz on vacation?

Not exactly.

The period of my absence roughly corresponds to the period during which:

1. I flew from New York to California, and began the process of weeding out my stuff, getting rid of about half of it, packing up the other half, and shipping it to New York, while also figuring out how to get two cats moved, selling my car, and preparing my condo to be rented out. And then flying back to New York and packing up my sabbatical studio and moving that stuff into my new apartment, and then waiting for the California stuff to arrive and unpacking and settling in.

And then:

2. I started a new job, at the Modern Language Association, leading the new office of scholarly communication.

Anyone who has started a new job recently, much less one that’s actually a pretty serious change of career path in disguise, will recognize that though item 1 sounds more exhausting, item 2 has been much bigger and more stressful. The vast majority of that stress has been of a very positive sort: I’m in a fantastic new environment, learning amazing new things and getting to work in really productive, collaborative ways with wonderfully supportive colleagues. Nonetheless, I go home at the end of the day with my brain stuffed to bursting with new thoughts and possibilities, daunted by the need to figure out what’s been going on in the organization for the last 40 years (and why) and by the enormous, exciting, important charge I’ve been given in thinking about its future.

Part of what’s kept me so quiet, both here and (to some extent) on Twitter has, in other words, been a little bit of exhaustion; most of the time when I haven’t been actively working, I’ve found myself lying on my sofa, recharging in preparation for the next day’s work. It’s fantastic work, but this much learning takes a lot of energy. And while it’s true that I probably spend fewer total hours working than I did as a professor, almost all of those hours are spent in my office, dressed like a grownup, at minimum available to talk with other dressed-like-grownups people and a seriously high percentage of the time in actual meetings with them. The change from spending a huge number of my working hours alone in my home, not having to talk to anyone, cannot be underestimated. All that learning, and all that collaboration, has left me feeling as though I’ve done all the communicating I need to do.

But there’s been another change, one that’s more subtle but perhaps more important, one that I’m still trying to sort out how to manage. As a tenured professor, I operated wholly protected by principles of academic freedom. Not only was I able to speak my mind, but I was expected to do so. And the costs of expressing a controversial or — heaven forfend — incorrect opinion were fairly low: somebody would pipe up in the comments and tell me I’m full of beans; I would either agree or not; life would march on. Because, as a faculty member, it was understood that I never spoke for anyone other than myself.

Now, however, that line is blurred. When I write here, or post on Twitter, or speak at a conference, am I writing or posting or speaking for myself, or for the MLA? Even if I issue a disclaimer, can my own position ever be fully separated from that of the organization? The risks involved in my expressing an obnoxious or wrong opinion are just that much higher: someone, somewhere, will note my title and will pass on that the MLA has taken that position.

It’s an extraordinary benefit and a huge responsibility: when I speak, I am supported by the weight of an enormous and important organization. But I also carry that weight, and every time I open my mouth, it has seemed to me, I run the risk of creating trouble for the organization. I am, in ways I have not previously had to be, responsible for something larger than myself.

After having given it a lot of thought, however, I’ve decided that I need to relaunch my public presence; the benefits to the MLA of having my voice out here, arguing on behalf of change in scholarly communication, are far too important to let slip — even when I’m wrong; even when I float an idea that everyone hates. Maybe even especially then, because I need to hear back why I’m wrong, why everyone hates my idea, what alternative directions I should consider.

So, with the blessings of my awesome boss (hi, rgfeal!), I’m starting back up here again. And I hope that I’ll be able to post (way) more frequently than I have lately, to think through some of the things that I’m learning and the questions that the organization is facing as we move increasingly into the digital.

So that it’s been said: Opinions expressed on this blog are my own, and no one else’s but my own. I’m entirely responsible for them, for better or for worse.

That having been said: the move is done, and the transition has settled down. Let the communication resume.

Moves and Updates

The news is starting to make its way out there: I’m thrilled to announce that I’ll be joining the Modern Language Association this July as the Director of Scholarly Communication. In this role, I’ll be leading a new office that will expand upon the existing book publications program, exploring new modes of publishing and exchange in order to support the changing needs of MLA members in the twenty-first century.

Pomona College, where I’ve been a member of the faculty for the last thirteen years, has generously granted me a leave of absence in order to explore this opportunity. My feeling is that it’s an extraordinary opportunity not just for me but for the profession at large — the MLA, which has been a leader in addressing the changes facing the academy today, will be thinking head-on about the future of scholarly publishing, supporting member initiatives and experiments and helping to shape the vibrant and creative ways that scholars will be communicating in the coming years.

There’s lots to be done before I get started — not least, moving to New York early this summer — but I’ll look forward to exploring the possibilities for this new office and its programs as we go forward.

On Open Access Publishing

[The following article was originally published by the Society for Critical Exchange in January 2010; alas, that version has been overrun with spam comments, making further discussion of or linking to it unlikely. I’m thus republishing it here, in the interest of having a copy that’s viable into the future.]

Raising the idea of “open access publishing” among contemporary scholars produces an immediate and sometimes surprising set of responses, ranging from enthusiasm to anger to befuddlement. The open access movement has a wide range of proponents and an often entrenched opposition, and the depth of feeling on both sides often leaves those scholars in between scratching their heads, wondering exactly what the deal is.

A huge part of the confusion arises from the proliferation of misinformation and mythology around the notion of open access; opponents of open access alternately argue that making all scholarship available for free will destroy the economic model of the publishing industry, making it impossible for anything to get published, and that doing so will simultaneously undermine peer review, turning all scholarship into vanity publishing, allowing just anything to get published. Neither of these things is true; open access publishing does not necessarily mean making everything available free of cost, nor does it necessarily imply the absence of peer review processes. It doesn’t mean that scholars lose control of the copyright of their publications (from a certain perspective, we’ve long since given that away, but that’s a matter for another article), and it doesn’t mean that plagiarism will become more prevalent.

What does it mean, though? Why have a number of colleges and universities, including institutions as varied as MIT, the University of Kansas, Trinity University, and Oberlin College recently passed resolutions mandating the open access availability of the work of their faculty members? Why have similar initiatives failed at other institutions? And what’s actually at stake in such decisions?

Far more in depth histories and analyses of the open access movement are available — including John Willinsky’s The Access Principle and Gary Hall’s Digitize this Book!, among others — but in what follows I hope to present one reading of the issues at play in the debates around open access, and my own argument for the reasons that scholars and publishers alike should support and participate in open access publishing.[1]

The open access movement in contemporary scholarship began in large part with the sciences, as a response to the predatory practices of certain commercial journal publishers. By the early 1990s, a small number of large commercial publishers had acquired most of the top journals in many fields and had begun developing a range of profit-oriented pricing structures, including bundling together large groups of journals to which libraries are required to subscribe in order to gain access to the key journals that they actually want. Because of these practices, many less-affluent institutions in the U.S. — much less those institutions in developing nations — have become unable to afford to provide access to the most important research being done in what have come to be known as the STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics). And, of course, scholars without official ties to a subscribing institution, including independent researchers and un- and under-employed faculty members, are often unable to access that scholarship as well.[2]

Open access publishing thus has its origins both in an economic imperative, to ensure that our institutions aren’t bankrupted by the commercial interests in the scholarly communication chain, and in an ethical imperative, to ensure that less affluent institutions and individual scholars without institutional support are able to gain access to current research. That ethical concern is heightened by the prevalence of public funds used in the development of this research, including funds provided by federal granting agencies. Grantors such as the National Institutes of Health have begun requiring scholars to publish or deposit their work in open-access venues as a condition of funding. Beyond such requirements supporting the public’s right of access to research for which it has paid, however, proponents of open access publishing also call upon scholars to consider the funding and support provided to research by their own institutions, which are then charged exorbitant subscription rates to buy back the products of the research that they have supported.

These concerns have been somewhat slower to develop in humanities-based fields than they have in the sciences, primarily because the monopolistic practices of STEM journal publishers haven’t affected humanities and social science journals to quite the same degree.

Yet.

There are signs that we need to be paying attention, however; when Wiley recently acquired the rights to publish the American Anthropological Association’s journals (the association’s prior contract with the University of California Press having expired), the publisher proceeded to double the subscription fee for a number of the major journals[3] — an indication that commercial publishers do see the potential for profit in “softer” fields.

Beyond the economics of the matter, however, scholars in the humanities should of course be held to the same ethical obligations as those in the sciences; though the products of our research may not always appear to be as crucial to the health and well-being of diverse populations, our work nonetheless has potentially profound implications for popular discussions about the politics of cultural representations, about the meaning of human interactions, and so forth.

We in the humanities often resist opening our work to the broader public, fearing the consequences of such openness — and not without reason. The public at times fails to understand our work, and, because the content of the work seems as though it ought to be comprehensible (you’re just writing about books, or movies, or art, after all!), isn’t inclined to wrestle with the difficulties that our work presents; their dismissive responses[4] give us the clear sense that the public doesn’t take our work as seriously as, say, papers in high-energy physics, which few lay readers would assume their ability to comprehend without some background or training. As a result of these doubled misunderstandings, we close our work off from the public, arguing that we’re only writing for a small group of specialists anyhow. In that case, why would open access matter?

The problem, of course, is that the more we close our work away from the public, and the more we refuse to engage in dialogue with them, the more we undermine that public’s willingness to fund our research and our institutions. Closing our work away from the public, and keeping our scholarly conversations private, might protect us from public criticism, but it can’t protect us from public apathy, a condition that is, in the current economy, far more dangerous. This is not to say that such openness doesn’t bear risks, particularly for scholars working in controversial areas of research, but it is to say that only through open dialogue across the walls of the ivory tower will we have any chance of convincing the broader public, including our governmental funding bodies, of the importance of our work.

All of that having been said, it’s evident that the economics of humanities-based publishing is quite different from that in STEM fields, and many of the misapprehensions preventing the broad acceptance of open-access publishing derive from that difference.

To back up a bit: there are two primary avenues through which open-access publishing is being developed. First, what has been called the “green” road to open access, self-archiving in institutional and disciplinary repositories. Under this model of open-access publishing, which is what is covered by most of the institutional mandates referred to above, scholars agree to deposit copies of their published articles in online archives associated either with their institution’s library or with their field.

Such archives are surrounded by clouds of misinformation, however; some argue, for instance, that self-archiving mandates will prevent scholars from publishing in top-tier journals (thus endangering tenure and promotion bids). In fact, most journals permit some measure of self-archiving, whether of post-prints (the manuscript of an article as edited for print) or of pre-prints (the manuscript of an article as submitted for print).[5] And it’s arguable that scholars have the responsibility to demand that those publishers and journals that don’t, as yet, permit self-archiving change their policies.

But there are other anxieties surrounding self-archiving that demand address as well. Some scholars are concerned that material that hasn’t been subjected to peer review can be deposited in such archives, thus undermining the quality control of institutional repositories generally; others are concerned that making published material available through self-archiving will have the effect of undermining already declining journal subscription figures; still others are concerned that archives needlessly complicate citational practices, by providing multiple avenues of access to published work. None of these concerns are borne out by the facts, however. Material in institutional repositories can and should be labeled as “pre-print” or “post-print,” thus giving a clear indication of its status with respect to peer review and, where possible, directing the interested reader to the final, published version of the text, with its appropriate citation. Such links to journals, and the discoverability of material published in them via institutional repositories, may in fact help promote purchases of articles, issues, or subscriptions from publishers once desirable content has been found. And projects such as the Open Archives Initiative’s OAI-PMH protocol for harvesting the metadata provided by institutional and disciplinary repositories is increasingly making such archives interoperable, and their contents more easily discoverable.

And let this be said clearly: increasing the discoverability of one’s work on the web, making it available to a broader readership, is a Good Thing, not just for the individual scholar but for the field in which she works. The more that well-researched, thoughtful scholarship on contemporary cultural issues is available to, for instance, journalists covering those issues for popular venues, the richer the discourse in those publications will become — increasing, not incidentally, the visibility of institutions of higher education, and their importance to the culture at large.

Beyond self-archiving, however, lies what has been referred to as the “gold” road to open access: journals that are published online in a freely-accessible form. Such journals are surrounded by similar forms of misinformation — most notably, that they aren’t peer reviewed, and because they are made available for free, they must therefore be intellectually valueless, both of which assumptions are patently untrue — but the greatest concern that they raise for scholars and publishers is their economic model. After all, publishing still costs money, and if the journal’s subscribers aren’t financing it, who is?

Part of the reason for such concern has been the visibility of the Public Library of Science project; this non-profit open access publishing project launched its first journal, PLoS Biology, in October 2003, followed by several more such journals, all of which employ rigorous peer review and have developed high rankings in terms of selectivity and scholarly impact. However, the funding model for these journals, as for many other open-access journals in STEM fields, is author-pays, which is to say that authors are charged at times hefty page fees in order to publish their articles. PLoS Biology, in fact, charges $2900 in page fees to an author whose work is selected for inclusion in the journal.

Such a model works in the sciences, in large part because page fees have long been a part of the culture; scientists have for quite some time written publication costs into their funding proposals, and funders have agreed that the cost of publication should be funded as part of the cost of doing research. Transplanting such a model to the humanities will simply never work, as the vast majority of research in these fields is either self-funded or funded, directly or indirectly, by the scholar’s home institution; moreover, grants coming from agencies supporting humanities research are generally so small that there’s no room available for publishing costs.

This is only a problem, however, if “author-pays” is the only viable business model for open access journals — and it’s simply not. Many journals in the humanities have published in a free and open fashion since the early days of the web; the electronic book review, for instance, was founded in 1994, and has been in continuous, open publication since. Kairos, likewise, has been in open, online publication since 1996. And Open Humanities Press publishes a range of open-access, peer-reviewed journals online.[6] Journals such as these generally operate on very limited budgets, cobbling together a range of kinds of support, including grants from funding bodies and staff/in-kind support from the journal’s host institution. But much of the support that such journals rely upon is volunteer labor — unpaid editors and reviewers, volunteer designers and coders, and so forth.

This situation isn’t all that different from more traditional, publisher-based models of journal production; whether the end result is distributed by commercial or university presses, the support that those entities provide to a journal’s editors is generally slim at best. Economist Theodore C. Bergstrom argued this point in his 2001 paper, “Free Labor for Costly Journals?,” advocating that scholars refuse to publish in overpriced commercial journals. I, however, want to espouse a more radical position, and argue for what strikes me as the most important reason for scholars to espouse open-access publishing: reclaiming the value of our labor for the profession itself. I want to suggest, as I conclude this essay, that it isn’t just ethically incumbent on us as scholars to publish in open-access venues, but in fact to create more open-access publications, and more systems for their support. These systems might include new public or foundation-based granting agency programs specifically designed to support open-access publications. They might include more consortial agreements among universities to create and support open-access publications. And they might include the development of new tools to assist in the labor that goes into journal production, such as the Public Knowledge Project’s open-source project, Open Journal Systems, which helps to create a workflow that reduces a journal editor’s reliance on technical personnel and expensive web production.[7]

But the key point is that we need to take back our publications from the market-based economy, and to reorient scholarly communication within the gift economy that best enables our work to thrive. We are, after all, already doing the labor for free — the labor of research, the labor of writing, the labor of editing — as a means of contributing to the advancement of the collective knowledge in our fields. We should value our labor sufficiently to ensure that we, our institutions, our colleagues, and our students, have full and perpetual access to the results of our work — and promoting the development of open-access publishing venues, and contributing all of our work to them, are the best ways to meet that ethical imperative toward the widest possible distribution of the knowledge that we produce.

[1] I focus in what follows on journal and journal-like publishing, largely because of its role in the origins of the open access movement, but discussion of and projects supporting open-access book publishing are on the rise; see, for instance, the work of the National Academies Press, Rice University Press, and Open Humanities Press, and projects such as the Open Monograph Press, among many others.

[2] Contrary to some assumptions, the interlibrary loan (ILL) service of a smaller institutional or public library is not an adequate substitute for such direct access; though faculty at larger institutions rarely see the cost directly, ILL is not a free service, and many institutions are required to pass those charges on to the user.

[3] See Kelty, Christopher M. et al. “Anthropology of/in Circulation: The Future of Open Access and Scholarly Societies.” Cultural Anthropology 23.3 (2008): 559-588.

[4] For evidence of such dismissive responses, one might see the annual stories about those wacky papers being presented at the MLA.

[5] The SHERPA/RoMEO project maintains an extensive list of the copyright and self-archiving policies of publishers.

[6] An extensive list of open access journals may be found at the Directory of Open Access Journals project.

[7] A list of journals using Open Journal Systems is available on the PKP website.

Does Tenure Undermine Academic Freedom?

A compelling argument that it does, at See Also…, with a particularly interesting concluding suggestion:

A less-obvious solution is to reverse the tenure clock. New hires have seven years of tenure, starting their first day on the job. Aside from gross negligence, they are untouchable. They can follow their ideas wherever they lead. After seven years, tenure is revoked.

Such an interesting thought experiment. What bravery might that initial seven years of untouchability produce? What creativity would it inspire? And how would our expectations for the post-tenure period change if our careers began in an environment of risk-taking?

<rant>

Things are getting a bit under my skin right now. Maybe it’s exhaustion; yesterday’s travel went as smoothly as it possibly could, with some real cushiness along the way, but it was still a long day, and the time zone change is kicking my butt. I’m prone to being a bit crankier than usual, it’s clear.

That said, there are a few common threads in the ways that academics talk to one another about the profession that often drive me up a tree (weird idiom, that), and they’re getting to me worse than usual right now.

One of these is the “academic administration = dark side” motif. There are a whole range of valid critiques to be launched at the administrative bloat that most institutions have undergone in the last couple of decades, and it’s certainly true that many of those administrations have often fostered, if not wholly created, adversarial relationships with the faculty. But the suggestion that a faculty member who agrees to serve as chair or who moves into a deanly position has automatically “gone over to the dark side” just irritates the hell out of me. There are jobs at the interface of the faculty and the administration that simply have to be done, and if good people either don’t want to do those jobs or, having elected to do those jobs get alienated from the faculty by being told that they’ve become part of the evil empire — well, then we deserve the bad administration that we get.

Another of these threads, and the precipitating reason for this rant, is the annual round of “MLA as circle of hell” griping. There are absolutely some horrific aspects of the MLA experience, to be sure. The job market experience is a miserable one, even at the best of times, and these are clearly not that. And the combination of the job seekers’ anxiety and the superstars’ aura produces a kind of miasma of despair that hangs over the hotel lobbies, clogs the elevators, and drives everyone into the bars.

I get that. I really do. But I’ve also had some of the most amazing conference experiences of my life at the MLA, and automatically equating the conference with its most painful aspects can only result in a most counterproductive form of self-fulfilling prophecy. Believe that the MLA is a miserable experience thoroughly enough and you’re bound to have a miserable experience.

Even more, thoughtlessly engaging in the kinds of organizational trash-talking that in fact inherit a great deal from the “administration = dark side” motif — the MLA as an organization is somehow malign, and its staff working against our interests as scholars and teachers — is both unfair and ignorant. I’ve served for the last year and a half on an extremely labor-intensive MLA committee, and I’ve also done a bit of informal consulting with the organization and its staff over the last few months. And I’ve been consistently impressed by several things: the degree to which the staff attempts to put the expressed needs of the membership first; the incredible poise and generosity of the staff under direct confrontation by some genuinely assholish members of the organization; the real flexibility of the organization when presented with concretely articulated desire for change.

All of this goes to say that both the conference and the organization are precisely what we make of it. Some folks have argued that the conference would be much improved by separating it from the job market; the MLA is not only not opposed to such an idea, but is actively listening to suggestions, and thinking in an active way about what the conference will become when interviews go the inevitable video-conference way of things. Some of us griped a lot about the lack of internet connectivity at last year’s conference; those concerns got passed through committee channels, and the MLA has committed to providing wireless access on a test basis for the next two years. Some people have complained about the incredible tedium of paper-reading sessions, and the MLA has responded by actively promoting innovative modes of presentation.

That last, however, is evidence of our own responsibility for making the conference what it is: the organization has had a real uphill battle in getting scholars to take on those innovative modes. We claim to hate the way things are, and then we cling, kicking and scratching, to the status quo.

So: if you haven’t come to the MLA for years because you believe it to be a nightmarish experience, you might rethink that; the conference isn’t at all what it used to be.

And: if you have been to the last few MLAs and aren’t seeing the changes you’d like to see in the conference, you might figure out how you can make those changes happen, instead of simply complaining.

But in any case, I would really like the MLA-bashing to cease. The conference is imperfect, but it’s what we make of it. And given all the bitching that we do about it, it’s little wonder that the mainstream media finds the conference ridiculous enough to write about every year: we give them all the ammunition they could possibly need.