Sustainability

As we’ve just announced, the MLA is grateful to have received a generous grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation in support of the next phase of our work on Humanities Commons. I’m personally grateful as well, both to have had the opportunity to work with an amazing team (about whom more in a moment) on this project over the last five years and to have been given the opportunity to continue that work from my new position at Michigan State University.

Our goal for Humanities Commons is to build an open access, open source, not-for-profit network that is focused on the needs of scholars and practitioners in the humanities, helping them share their work with one another and with the world. Humanities Commons is committed to an ethic of collective, collaborative, sustainable development, and this next phase of our work is focused on just that. Over the course of the next year, we will work with a group of prospective partner societies to produce a comprehensive business and sustainability plan to ensure the network’s future, as well as a governance model that will ensure that the network’s sustaining partners have oversight of its operations and a voice in its future development.

Real sustainability, after all, isn’t just about revenue generation and cost recovery. It’s about relationships, about personal and institutional commitment, about the willingness to work together toward long-term means of ensuring that the platforms we build today will not just survive but evolve with our technologies and the people who use them.

We want to thank our partner societies in the pilot of Humanities Commons — the Association for Jewish Studies; the Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies; and, as of later this week, the College Art Association — for their willingness to build those relationships in the service of this new network. And we want to thank the organizations that have agreed to participate in this year’s planning process, about whom more in the very near future.

But we also want to thank the more than 4000 members who have joined Humanities Commons since we launched in December, for helping us create and promote a community of scholars, for scholars, by scholars.

And most of all, I personally want to thank the Humanities Commons team. The team of course includes my fabulous colleagues at the MLA, who have brought an astounding creativity, commitment, and spirit of member service to building a truly sustainable scholarly communication network for us all: Nicky Agate, Head of Digital Initiatives; Eric Knappe, Head of Web Development; Ryan Williams and Leo Fulgencio, Web Developers; Anne Donlon, Community Manager; and Caitlin Duffy, our social media maven. It also includes some amazing collaborators: Matt Gold, Boone Gorges, and the rest of the CUNY GC team who brought us Commons In A Box; Barbara Rockenbach, Mark Newton, Rebecca Kennison, and the rest of the Columbia University Libraries team past and present who have energetically participated in the development of CORE; Benn Oshrin, Scott Koranda, and the rest of the Spherical Cow Group for their work on the identity management system that makes this federation possible.

It has been a privilege to get to be part of this extraordinary collaboration, and I very much look forward to seeing where the next year leads us.

PMLA

One of the added responsibilities that has come to me with my new position is serving as managing editor of PMLA. In that capacity, I work with our staff on facilitating the review process, and I work with the journal’s editor and editorial board as they make their selections and discuss other matters.

So far, one of the best aspects of this work is that I’m getting a chance to read the essays that will be going before the board at its next meeting, and it’s just lovely to be in close contact with the exciting work that’s going on across our fields. I’m delighted to have this opportunity, and I’m looking forward to everything I’m bound to learn in the process.

Giving It Away: Sharing and the Future of Scholarly Communication

The last talk I gave at MLA 2012 was a keynote for the Council of Editors of Learned Journals, the text of which is below. I’d love any feedback you might have to offer.

Giving It Away: Sharing and the Future of Scholarly Communication

As you might guess from my title, this presentation focuses in large part on questions of open access as they might affect our thinking about the future of scholarly communication. “Open access,” I’m sure I don’t need to tell you, is a fraught concept among both scholars and publishers, one beset by a lot of misunderstandings, both intentional and unintentional. Arguments circulate out there saying, for instance, that open access will open the floodgates to a lot of bad scholarship, when in fact open access publishing is perfectly compatible with peer review, and there are many OA journals that are more selective than their closed-access counterparts. There are folks who argue that open access is financially unsustainable, or even, as has been suggested by the recent proposal of the Research Works Act in Congress, an unreasonable infringement on publisher income, when in fact a range of new models for open access publishing are coming into being, and several of the major commercial journal publishers have recently announced new OA ventures, which they of course would never do if they hadn’t found a business model in it somewhere. On the other hand, there are equally misguided convictions out there that open access publishing is free; clearly that’s not so. What I am hoping to do in this talk, however, is to shift our thinking about open access, for the moment, from a focus on costs to a focus on values, though without entirely leaving behind the overwhelming and at times quite grim economic realities by which we’re surrounded.

To begin, a bit of background: discussions of the possibilities for new open publishing models began online in the early 1990s, as a number of scientists and librarians recognized that the growth of the Internet made possible the free and open reproduction of scholarly literature. This is not to say that, even then, there was a conviction that OA publishing could be done for free; it was apparent to all of the players in these discussions that there would be continued costs involved in the production of the scholarly literature, but it was equally apparent that the costs of that literature’s reproduction online would trend toward zero. Experiments such as Paul Ginsparg’s pre-print server for papers in high-energy physics (which of course later developed into arXiv) as well as open challenges to the escalating subscription costs of STEM journals by projects such as BioMed Central and Public Library of Science began to suggest that there might be another path. Stevan Harnad pushed these discussions into the open by submitting what he called a “subversive proposal” to an email list in June 1994, in which he pointed out that “the scientific journal and the scholarly monograph are threatened by rising costs, rising output, and constrained academic budgets. The most painful paradox is that in the interests of science, the law of the market cannot be allowed to function. An item with a very small market may yet be the indispensable link in a chain of research that leads to a result of high social value.” This is, in effect, the problem of the “long tail” in scholarly publishing; in traditional publishing, a few bestsellers provide financial support for the much less popular items on the list, those items down the tail that are extremely important to someone, though they’re unlikely to reach a terribly large audience. The problem for us is that scholarly publications are all tail; practically the only audience for the stuff is the same group of scholars who are producing it – and yet, as Harnad pointed out, for those scholars, the work is indispensable. One means of escaping this paradox, Harnad suggested, was the creation of globally accessible electronic self-deposit archives of scholarly articles – the foundation of today’s institutional and disciplinary repositories.

Over the years that followed Harnad’s provocation, the guiding principles of the open access movement began to be articulated, leading to the Budapest Open Access Initiative published in 2002, which gave the movement its name. Following behind the Budapest initiative were the June 2003 Bethesda Statement on Open Access Publishing and the October 2003 Berlin Declaration on Open Access to Scientific Knowledge. Together, Budapest-Bethesda-Berlin defined the agenda for open access scholarly publishing:

By “open access” to this literature, we mean its free availability on the public internet, permitting any users to read, download, copy, distribute, print, search, or link to the full texts of these articles, crawl them for indexing, pass them as data to software, or use them for any other lawful purpose, without financial, legal, or technical barriers other than those inseparable from gaining access to the internet itself. The only constraint on reproduction and distribution, and the only role for copyright in this domain, should be to give authors control over the integrity of their work and the right to be properly acknowledged and cited. (BOAI)

“Open access,” that is, means free access not just in the sense of “gratis,” work made available without charge, but also in the sense of “libre” – work that, subject to appropriate scholarly standards of citation, is free to be built upon. This is the cornerstone of the scholarly project: scholarship is written to be read and to influence more new writing.

And this influence is the coin of the realm for scholars; the more influence that scholarship can produce, the better. Though lingering in the background of these early declarations was an awareness that open access publishing has the potential to “[give] authors and their works vast and measurable new visibility, readership, and impact” (BOAI), early mobilization around open access focused on the damage that a small number of corporate publishers who were accumulating vast numbers of scholarly journals were doing to university library budgets, as well as on the profound international economic inequities that functioned to create a growing divide between the information haves and have-nots. Open access presented the potential for scholars to help bridge this divide, serving not only their own interests in getting their work into broader circulation, but also serving the public good; as the Budapest Open Access Initiative put it,

An old tradition and a new technology have converged to make possible an unprecedented public good. The old tradition is the willingness of scientists and scholars to publish the fruits of their research in scholarly journals without payment, for the sake of inquiry and knowledge. The new technology is the internet. The public good they make possible is the world-wide electronic distribution of the peer-reviewed journal literature and completely free and unrestricted access to it by all scientists, scholars, teachers, students, and other curious minds. Removing access barriers to this literature will accelerate research, enrich education, share the learning of the rich with the poor and the poor with the rich, make this literature as useful as it can be, and lay the foundation for uniting humanity in a common intellectual conversation and quest for knowledge. (BOAI)

It’s hard not to be moved by the idealism of a statement such as this, and easy to see why the movement’s impact accelerated from here. The tenth anniversary of the Budapest Open Access Initiative is rapidly approaching; in the intervening decade, the open access movement spread through a dramatic increase in the number of OA journals (the “gold” model of open access), including the very public mass resignations of a number of editorial boards of closed-access journals, who then joined together to start new publications online. Additionally, the open access movement over the last decade was profoundly expanded through a growing number of institutional and disciplinary repositories (the “green” model of open access), as well as an increasing number of institution- and funder-based mandates requiring the deposit of the products of research done under their auspices. (It is of course those mandates that the Research Works Act seeks to attack.) By this past November, at Berlin 9, the ninth annual conference associated with the Berlin Declaration and the first to be held in the U.S., 34 North American signatories had endorsed the declaration and agreed to uphold its principles, including more than 20 colleges and universities. These signatories collectively produce a powerful demonstration of the expansion of U.S. commitment to facilitating open access, a commitment that can be seen at the national level in the recent White House Request for Information on Public Access to Digital Data and Scientific Publications.

[Here I noted that the deadline for responding to this RFI was upcoming — today, in fact — and urged the attendees to make their opinions known.]

Though these conversations, like the White House RFI, have to this point been overwhelmingly dominated by the sciences, the Berlin 9 conference took on as part of its focus this year the impact of open access on the humanities. While our fields bear certain interests in common with the sciences, there are a few important differences as well. The most obvious of these is a radical difference in funding systems and levels. Scientific research is all but impossible to conduct without large-scale grant funding, and scientists have long been able to write publishing costs into their grants. As a result, the business model for open access scientific publishing was relatively clear: shift from a reader-pays to an author-pays model. Easy-peasy. In the humanities, however, not only is the available funding generally too low to accommodate significant publishing charges to authors, but the vast majority of research is either supported by the scholar’s institution or is self-funded.

It’s for that reason that I’m not standing here suggesting that a large-scale transition of humanities publishing to an open access model would be easy; it wouldn’t. Humanities publishing faces a set of financial constraints that are daunting at the best of times, and crushing in times of economic retraction. As I argue in Planned Obsolescence, it is of course perfectly well possible to make scholarly publishing profitable; the Wileys and the Elseviers have certainly managed it, but they’ve done so at the direct expense of our universities. For not-for-profit scholarly publishers to follow the commercial publishers’ lead would for a range of reasons I explore in the book be a disaster. Those presses can’t be beaten at their own game, as the large conglomerates that operate them will always be able to conduct business more efficiently, and more ruthlessly, than the university should want to do. But nor can we simply hand over the business of scholarly publishing to them to operate; as John Thompson noted in Books in the Digital Age, in times of economic slowdown “commercial logic would tend to override any obligation [such companies] might feel to the scholarly community” (98), leaving nothing to stop them from eliminating academic publishing entirely, if it ceases to pay. So we can’t beat them, and we can’t join them; what we can do is change the game entirely. And it’s for this reason that I want to argue that, despite the serious difficulties involved, a transition to open access publishing might be desirable – desirable enough that rather than ending our conversations with the seeming insurmountableness of the financial obstacles, we should instead start figuring out what it will to take to get around them.

One thing that makes open access publishing so desirable for the future of scholarly communication is the increased impact that openly distributed scholarship is able to have, and study after study shows that open-access literature – whether that published in “gold” OA journals or that deposited in “green” OA archives – is more cited than is work published in traditional closed venues. In addition to facilitating traditional researcher access, however, openly published work can also reach a much broader range of readers – students and instructors at undergraduate teaching institutions and at secondary schools, for instance, as well as folks who work outside academia entirely. Open-access scholarship has the potential to reach a broad spectrum of potentially interested publics.

We in the humanities often resist opening our work to these publics, fearing the consequences of such openness – and not without reason. The world at times fails to understand what we do, and, because our subject matter 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 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 which 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 across the boundaries of the academy, the more we undermine that public’s willingness to fund our research and our institutions. As Kathy Woodward put it so brilliantly on Friday, the major crisis facing the funding of higher education is an increasingly widespread conviction that education is a private responsibility rather than a public good; we wind up strengthening that conviction when we treat our work as private, by keeping it to ourselves. Closing our work away from non-scholarly readers, and keeping our 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. And let me say this clearly:  increasing the discoverability of scholarly 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.

Even more important than its ability to foster this kind of impact, however, is the fact that open access publishing is far more in keeping with the core values of the scholarly enterprise. And this is where I really want to focus our attention, and where my title comes back in: giving it away. The notion of “giving it away” as I’m using it here comes to me from David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, and its rendering of the ethos of Alcoholics Anonymous:

Giving It Away is a cardinal Boston AA principle. The term’s derived from an epigrammatic description of recovery in Boston AA: ‘You give it up to get it back to give it away.’ Sobriety in Boston is regarded as less a gift than a sort of cosmic loan. You can’t pay the loan back, but you can pay it forward, by spreading the message that despite all appearances AA works, spreading this message to the next new guy who’s tottered in to a meeting and is sitting in the back row unable to hold his cup of coffee. The only way to hang onto sobriety is to give it away (344)

This requirement of passing on what has been learned has its origins in the program’s twelfth step, in which the recovering alcoholic carries the message to others who need it. The sharing that this sense of “giving it away” invokes – the loan that can never be paid back, but only forward – includes that sharing done at meetings, telling one’s own story, not as a means of self-expression, but rather as an act of generosity that enables the addict to transcend the self. “Giving it away” is thus a profoundly ethical mode of engaging with others in need; more than that, in Infinite Jest, “giving it away” becomes the only means of escaping the self-destructive spiral of addiction and self-absorption that constitutes not an anomalous state, but in fact the central mode of being in the contemporary western world.

What I want to argue is that this sense of “giving it away,” of paying forward knowledge that one likewise received as a gift, functions well as a description of what should be the best ethical practices of scholars and educators. We teach, as we were taught; we publish, as we learned from the publications of others. We cannot pay back those who came before us, but can only give to those who come after. Our participation in an ethical, voluntary scholarly community is grounded in the obligation we owe one another, an obligation that derives from what we have received.

Like the stirring sense in the Budapest Open Access Initiative of “uniting humanity in a common intellectual conversation and quest for knowledge,” this kind of idealism is all well and good, but it doesn’t adequately account for an academic universe in which we are evaluated based on individual achievement, and in which prestige often outstrips all other values. Surveys conducted both by Ithaka and by the Center for Studies in Higher Education at UC Berkeley indicate that “a fundamentally conservative set of faculty attitudes continues to impede systematic change” (Ithaka): scholars choose to publish in those venues that are perceived to have the highest influence on their peers, and that influence is often imagined to increase with exclusivity. The more difficult it is to get an article into a journal, the higher the perceived value of having done so, of course – but this sense of prestige too easily shades over into a sense that the more exclusively a publication is distributed, the higher its value. If we were simply to give our work away, it seems, its value would quickly trend toward zero.

This is, at its most benign, a self-defeating attitude; if we prize exclusivity above all else, we should not be surprised when our work fails to circulate. And in fact, it is when our work fails to circulate that its value declines; as Dave Parry has commented, “Knowledge which is not public is not knowledge.” It is only in giving it away that we truly produce knowledge; it is only in escaping our self-absorption as a field, and instead of talking amongst ourselves, sharing our ideas with others, that we can pay forward the loan that we have been so generously given. Such an approach to our work, I would argue, requires less of a change than it might initially sound; all of the players in the scholarly communication chain – authors, reviewers, editors, publishers – are always engaged in a process of “giving it away”; it’s just a matter of how and to whom. As a journal editor put it Thursday in the discussion at the session on the future of peer review, the entire enterprise runs on an engine of generosity. None of our work can ever truly be for profit; when we try to profit from it ourselves is precisely when we lose most profoundly.

Publishing is never free, of course; it either costs us in dollars or in labor (and often both), and sustainability in scholarly publishing has often been equated with the need to produce revenue based on the sale of publishing’s products. As I’ve argued at length, however, the current system of scholarly publishing is already not sustainable for most not-for-profit organizations, and some of the ostensible solutions – such as handing journals over to the commercial publishers who seem to have found a viable profit model – are only making things worse. One might see here the cautionary tale of a fellow humanities scholarly organization that, facing a budgetary crisis, contracted with a commercial publisher to distribute its journals. That organization received a nice bit of income in the short term – but the commercial publisher involved immediately more than doubled the institutional subscription fees for the journals involved, ensuring that more libraries would be forced not to carry those journals, and thus reducing the potential impact of the work published in them. And needless to say, however much the organization involved earned in this exchange, the corporate publisher earned more.

So rather than giving our work away to corporate entities that will profit at our expense, might we instead find a way to make a virtue of our market failures? What if we understood sustainability not as the ability to produce revenue, but the ability to keep the engine of generosity running? What if we were to allow the engine of generosity on which so much of the enterprise runs to affect the final point of distribution, if we were to embrace the gift economy of scholarly communication and make a gift of our work to others? What might happen if outreach, generosity, giving it away were our primary values?

Such ethics need not be economically unsustainable. Larry Lessig has argued at length that the most successful potential business model of the digital age is not the sale of closed, proprietary content, but instead the “hybrid” model under which so much of contemporary online communication operates: the production of content is freely done by users; the distribution of content is provided equally freely by the company; but the company charges for certain kinds of services surrounding that content, whether premium tools for engaging with that content or additional space for storing that content or what have you. This so-called “freemium” model underwrites services including Flickr, Dropbox, WordPress, and a range of other internet-based communication tools. In all of these systems a basic level of access is provided for free, while value is created through services or tools; with Flickr, for instance, the value the company provides comes not from the site’s wealth of photographic content – users provide that, and are able to do so through a basic level of service available for free – but instead in providing access to a suite of tools that allow users to share, tag, search, connect, and so forth. The value in the system, which users are willing to pay for, is the means of interacting with the content, rather than the content itself. Such a model works best for user-generated content – and of course all scholarly communication is “user-generated,” created to be shared, producing the most substantive benefits for its authors when its distribution is as broad and as open as possible.

I want to return to the sense that I mentioned a few minutes ago in which all of us in the scholarly communication chain are always engaged in the process of “giving it away”: scholarly authors write in order to get their ideas into circulation within their fields, and, like many musicians today, are paid not for their publications but for their performances, whether in the classroom or on the lecture circuit. But it is not only scholars who give their work away: peer reviewers do so as well. In journal publishing, reviewers provide their services on a purely volunteer basis; the only compensation comes in the ability to help shape the future of the fields they care about. Bonnie Wheeler has noted the mounting difficulties, of course, in getting reviewers to do this work, and it appears that under the current system, reviewer resistance is bound to grow. There is a strong movement afoot encouraging peer reviewers to reserve their volunteer labor for publications that make the results of that work freely and openly available; if the journal publishing system runs in part on the engine of reviewer generosity, it would serve us well to respond to that generosity by paying it forward.

The system also runs on the engine of editor generosity; journal editors, as you all know better than anyone, donate tremendous amounts of time and effort to enabling and improving communication within their fields, usually with a bare minimum of reward and increasingly without institutional support. What would it be to pay forward such editor generosity, and to create an environment in which the value created by such editors, as well as the values they espouse, were allowed to proliferate?

Similarly, not-for-profit publishers are committed to facilitating the circulation of the products of scholarly research, but are constrained by the need to do so sustainably if they are to survive. What would it be for such publishers to create systems within which authors, reviewers, and editors were able to pay forward what they have received, to give their work to one another and to the public beyond? What would it be for publishers to give all of that content away, and to focus their work on developing advanced services for interacting with that content, and with the community?

Making such a transition from a focus on content-for-sale to a focus on services and tools cannot be made without similar generosity on the part of our foundations and our federal granting agencies. Those granting agencies are beginning to think about how they might support scholarly communication as it becomes more open, but those agencies can only do so much; we have to be sure the engine they help us build can continue to run. As such, universities must “recognize,” in the words of a recent Ithaka report, “that publishing is an integral part of [their] core mission and activities,” and respond by supporting those engines of generosity on their campuses, knowing that such generosity will be paid forward in increased visibility, and increased goodwill. Donald Hall has argued that the future viability of higher education requires that we collectively reclaim the intellectual growth fostered in the academy as a public good rather than a private responsibility. If we ask this of our institutions, and our funders, we must also ask it of ourselves.

There are financial realities that must be acknowledged in all of this, and I don’t want to minimize the difficulties of grappling with them. But in all such discussion about such financial realities, I cannot help but remember something Michael Jensen of the National Academies Press once told me. The NAP makes all of its publications freely and openly available on the web, producing revenue by selling print versions of that content. Admittedly, NAP has probably lost revenue that it could have obtained if it had refrained from giving the work it publishes away online – but it has gained significantly in visibility, in discoverability, and in goodwill. As Jensen said, when I asked him about this model, the press’s mandate is to make as much of its work available as freely and openly as it can while still breaking even. And this is the ethos that I would love to see become the guiding principle for scholarly communication more generally.

How much can we make freely and openly available in this fashion? How might we reimagine the production of revenue in scholarly communication from a basis in the sale of content to a basis in the provision of services? How can we work together to reorient our perspective from costs to values? How might openness allow us to better engage not just with one another but with the world around us, treating that world not just as an object laid open to our masterful scrutiny, but instead as a complex conglomeration of agents both able and entitled to enter into conversation with us? What if we were to recognize that the only way to hold onto the knowledge we have – and to help higher education and the communities within which we work to thrive – is to give it away?

Networking the Field

Hi, my name is Kathleen Fitzpatrick. You may remember me from such conventions as the MLA, and from articles such as hey holy cow Stanley Fish wrote a whole bunch about my book.

Ahem.

It has been a head-spinning few days, needless to say. But I’m starting out today by posting the first of the talks I gave at the MLA, as part of Russell Berman’s presidential forum entitled “Language, Literature, Learning.” Any responses or comments would be greatly appreciated

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Networking the Field

I’m extremely pleased to have the opportunity to talk a bit today about the ways that digital communication practices are reshaping the fields of language and literature. These changes are of course at the heart of my book, Planned Obsolescence, just out from NYU, as well as at the heart of the work I’ve been asked to do in the new MLA office of scholarly communication, where we’re exploring the degree to which digital publishing and new forms of social media will affect our means of conducting and exchanging our work as scholars and instructors. A fair warning: I tend to think of my role within the organization – only half seriously – as being “chief transformation evangelist,” and so what I’m presenting today is significantly less research-oriented than it is polemic, the main thrust of which is this: the profession is already entirely digital. What remains is for us to catch up with what that digitality means, and how it means.

Anxieties about the effects of digital media abound: it’s too often taken as read that the technologies that facilitate such easy communication are causing our actual communication skills to deteriorate. There’s little new in this; any media theorist confronted with a narrative about the deleterious effects of new modes of communication will happily point to Plato on the “forgetfulness” that the technology of writing would produce in the souls of those who learn it, or even Alexander Pope’s sense of print as a “scourge” for learned souls. It has always been so: new technologies are perennially imagined to be not simply the enemy of established systems but in fact a direct threat to the essence of what it is to be human. Similarly, change in language is always taken for deterioration. Today’s text messaging is undermining spelling and grammar, and Twitter is replacing critical thought with soundbites. And everyone knows that the kids today are managing to graduate from college without knowing how to write.

There is, as there always is, a kernel of truth in these anxieties. Our students’ ways of knowing, as much as their ways of communicating, are absolutely in flux – just as are our own. But, as is always equally true, a too-close focus on the change that makes us anxious can cause us to miss other important things that are also happening. Such blindspots are apparent, for instance, in the National Endowment for the Arts’s 2004 report, Reading at Risk, which famously put forward a “a detailed but bleak assessment of the decline of reading’s role in the nation’s culture,” presenting compelling survey data that indicated that “[f]or the first time in modern history, less than half of the adult population now reads literature, and these trends reflect a larger decline in other sorts of reading” (vii).  The conclusions drawn by the report underscore a set of very conventional anxieties about the contemporary media landscape: the decline in reading uncovered by the report is not just a value-neutral shift in forms of information consumption, but rather “an imminent cultural crisis” (xiii), given the ties the report draws between literary reading and forms of active citizenship vital to a thriving democracy.  While the report is careful to stipulate that “no single activity is responsible for the decline of reading,” it nonetheless argues powerfully for the role of various forms of electronic media, including television, video games, and the internet, in contributing to the decline.

Such, in any case, is the conventional wisdom, which the NEA revisited and reaffirmed in its 2007 followup, To Read or Not to Read. But such apparently overwhelming evidence of reading’s decline in American life might run the risk of blinding us to signs of literary culture’s continued proliferation, including the increasing number of devices and platforms and services through which we read today. The field of the literary continues to expand, even if its forms are changing in ways that might make it more difficult to recognize and more difficult to understand. Even the NEA at last began to acknowledge this diffusion of the forms that the literary has taken in contemporary U.S. life when, in its 2009 update, Reading on the Rise, the agency noted that a great deal of reading is taking place online, even if it stopped well short of admitting that digital reading is of equal value to that of books.

Coming nearly a decade into the 21st century and 15 years into the internet’s popularization, this extremely belated acknowledgment that reading online is reading reveals something of the failures in conventional thought about the changes in literacy in the digital age. These failures can be seen in Reading at Risk, which in amongst all of the panic raises but fails to account for one curious bit of data: “Contrary to the overall decline in literary reading,” the report notes, “the number of people doing creative writing – of any genre, not exclusively literary works – increased substantially between 1982 and 2002. In 1982, about 11 million people did some form of creative writing. By 2002, this number had risen to almost 15 million people (18 or older), an increase of about 30 percent” (22). In other words, even before the spread of blogs and Facebook and Twitter and Tumblr, more people in the U.S. were doing more writing than ever before – and the opportunities for such writing, and for sharing this writing with others, have simply exploded since 2002.

Given this explosion, I would argue that the challenge we face today in our encounter with the digital future of our fields does not come from a media culture, or a student population, that refuses writing; instead, it lies in the need to recognize that the forms of writing that engage so many today are writing, and to figure out how to put those forms to work for us, rather than dismissing them as inherently frivolous and degraded. This is a challenge that many faculty today are meeting in their classrooms, by experimenting with individual and group blogs, with Twitter, and with other forms of social, networked communication, often to great effect. These modes of engagement with online writing often work, in to give students a sense of audience, of writing as an act of communication and critical exchange, that far exceeds that produced by the research paper; online, their words are subject not just to the scrutiny of a single evaluator, but to that of a broader group of readers engaged in thinking about the same questions. However formal or informal the location of the writing may appear to us in comparison with the properly MLA-formatted research paper, the act of communicating on an ongoing basis with a broader audience – practicing over and over the art of staking out a position, presenting evidence, engaging with counter-arguments – or frankly, even just the art of being interesting and amusing – can only help produce better writers, and clearer thinkers, in any venue.

This seems obvious enough. But the need to understand these new, networked, often less-than-formal modes of writing as writing applies equally to us and our own work. The horror that greets the idea of taking a blog seriously as a locus of scholarly writing – or even more, the idea of taking Twitter seriously as a form of scholarly communication – reveals a serious misunderstanding of the nature of those forms: what they are, and what can be done with them. The standard dismissal of Twitter as a scholarly tool suggests that no serious argument can be made in 140 characters, and there’s of course a real truth to that. But that dismissal betrays a failure to engage with the ways that scholars actually use Twitter today, and the things that can be done in those 140 characters: scholars share links to longer pieces of writing; engage in complex conversations in real time, with many colleagues, over multiple tweets; and more than anything, perhaps, they build a sense of community. This community is ready with congratulations and sympathy, and is eager to share jokes and memes, but it’s also ready to debate, to discuss, to disagree. More than anything, it’s ready to read – it’s not just a community of friends but a community of scholars, an audience for the longer work in which its members are engaged.

And it must be acknowledged that some of that longer work is taking place not in books and journals but on blogs. Many scholars today are publishing significant chunks of their writing in informal venues online, whether as a means of getting feedback on work in progress or as an alternative channel through which an author can reach an audience more quickly and directly. There may be work that cannot be done in the form of blog posts – there may be times when a scholar can benefit from the format of the journal article or the discipline of the book – but that the blog might not be everything does not mean that it is nothing. It is a mode of communication, of engaging with an audience, that must be taken seriously on its own terms. The blog has never been just a forum in which one can gripe about the travails of day-to-day life, whatever the conventional assumptions about it might suggest; the blog instead provides an arena in which scholars can work through ideas in an ongoing process of engagement with their peers. That spatial metaphor – the arena – is much to the point here: really grasping how something like a blog might serve scholarly communication requires understanding that a blog is not a form, but a platform – not a shape through which are extruded certain fixed kinds of material, but a stage on which material of many different varieties – different lengths, different time signatures, different modes of mediation – might be performed.

I have no doubt that many scholars experience a kind of reflexive horror at the thought of everyone having their own platform, or channel, if you prefer a broadcast metaphor; we’ve all already got too much to keep up with without everyone being free to publish whatever random thoughts happen to occur to them. But imagine for the moment what our writing lives might be like if we did each have our own platform. What if you were able to subscribe to a particular scholar, following her work over time and engaging with her as it comes into being? What if she followed your work as well, and the conversations you had around your shared work were able to produce more new collaborative projects? What if others were able to follow those conversations in process, providing additional input as you worked? What if those conversations produced a community of scholars that you trusted, a community that you could rely on to alert you to new work by new scholars to whom you ought to start paying attention? What if communities of scholars like this were able to say to one another the academic equivalent of hey, I’ve got a trunk of costumes, and we can use my uncle’s barn: let’s put on a show!? What kinds of performances might we develop on such a flexible, dynamic communication platform?

There are of course better and worse ways to use all of these writing platforms; there are pointless Twitter accounts, and there are bad blogs – just as there has always been, if we’re willing to admit it, no shortage of pointless journal articles and bad books. The difference is that in the age of print, in which access to publishing platforms was controlled, scholars came to associate the conferral of distinction with the moment of publication; the fact that a text existed meant that somebody somewhere thought it worthy of attention. In the age of the open platform, distinction is no longer associated with publication, but instead with reception, with the response produced by a community of readers. In order to take the work that is done on the web seriously, on its own terms, we need to understand how communities of scholars engage one another on such platforms, how they respond to the work published there, and how those responses generate more, better work. What we know to be true of our students is equally true of ourselves: the work we do gets better with practice, as more regular informal communication with one another leads to more meaningful formal communication, and a wider audience leads to broader engagements and better feedback.

That wider audience is at one and the same time a crucial aspect of the web’s open publishing platforms and a key component of what makes many scholars nervous about them. Open platforms like blogs and Twitter enable scholarly work to reach a broader reading public, but they also allow that broader public to respond, a prospect that can be quite anxiety-producing – no less for us than it is for our students. But if the crisis that has plagued scholarly publishing for the last several decades – not to mention the ostensible crisis that many pundits have noted to exist for the humanities in general today – has in some sense been produced by the relative smallness of the audience for our work, then doing that work in the open, where it can be seen, is a crucial step. If we reach out to a broader audience, by encouraging intellectual exchange with readers and writers beyond the academy, we have the potential not just to help our own work in and of itself, but to help the academy more broadly in its attempts to communicate its continuing importance to contemporary society. If we’re brave enough to engage directly with the public, we might have the opportunity to demonstrate a bit more about what it is that we do, and why what we do matters.

That communication requires an open platform, and it requires an openness to speaking a language with which a generally educated public can engage. And here we might begin to see creeping in a version of the concerns expressed about text-messaging’s degrading effect on teen writing abilities; is the network destined to dumb everything down? Will a scholarly blog inevitably turn into scholarship-lite? Of course not. But in the same way that writing on a networked platform has the potential to get our students to think seriously about audience, it presents that same potential to us: we could all stand to think about audience as well – what readers we want to reach, when, and why. There is a time and a place for highly professionalized language, for difficulty, and there is equally a time and a place for drawing more general readers into our discussions. Like our students today, we need to be fluent in multiple vernaculars, and we need to be able to translate our ideas across them.

Networking the field, by connecting scholars and their work through digital platforms, will no doubt have some disruptive effects: it will disrupt our assumptions about how distinction is created; it will disrupt our sense of when it’s appropriate to release new work; it will disrupt the ways that we traditionally engage with one another. But allowing these disruptions to be as productive as possible requires that we let go of our anxieties about them, that we understand that scholarly communication via these new platforms is scholarly communication, and that we allow these new platforms to teach us new ways of reading and writing together, in the open.

It’s 4.25 am in Seattle, and I’m about to head to the airport, on my way home from MLA 2012. It was an amazing convention — I’ve rarely felt more energized about the opportunities ahead for the field, not to mention the amazing people working in it. I’m really thrilled to get to be a part of it all.

I’m planning to post the two formal talks I gave at the convention here in the next couple of days. I’ll look forward to keeping some of the conversations that began over the last few days alive in the coming weeks.

We began 2012 yesterday in keeping with tradition, by doing a lot of lying around and recovering. We’d had a late night, which was made doubly late by my downstairs neighbor’s rockin’ party, which rocked on until 3.30 am. So there were naps and movies, and that was more or less the sum of the day.

Today, however, we’re back at it: the agenda includes both attempting to get my final presentation for #mla12 into reasonable enough shape (where “reasonable enough” equals being able to refrain from embarrassing myself in the event I don’t get any more time to work on it) and getting myself more or less packed and ready to fly out on Monday.

Here’s hoping that these two days bode well for the year to come: rest, relaxation; productivity, focus.

I’ve spent the last two days in a meeting of the MLA Program Committee, thinking about, among other issues, the future shape of the convention — the new kinds of sessions we want to encourage; the new kinds of issues we want to take on. We’ve got some exciting plans in formation, but I’m curious about your convention experiences: what are the best sessions you’ve attended that didn’t use the standard paper-reading format?

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.