Ten

I nearly missed it. Again.

Today is the tenth anniversary of my first post here at Planned Obsolescence. 1484 posts later, I’m still here, and I’m thrilled to say that, given the renewed energy of things around here over the last month-plus, I think this thing might have a future.

I’ve been thinking a bit about where I was ten years ago, where I am now, and the many amazing things that have happened inbetween. I failed to publish a book, and then not only published it but wrote and published one that grew out of the difficulties of not publishing that first one. I mumbled something about founding a digital scholarly press, and then actually wound up co-founding a virtual scholarly society of sorts, and then found myself working on the digital contexts of a very actual scholarly society. I worried about getting tenure, then not only got it, but got promoted a second time, and then — well, I’m not sure I’ve entirely walked away from the whole shebang yet, but I certainly find myself at that particular crossroads.

It’s been an astonishing ten years. I’ve accomplished way more than I thought I ever could. And the thing that’s clearest to me is that none of it would have happened had I not acted on that weird impulse to start a blog. It was an exercise in immediate gratification, trying to get work in front of an audience sooner rather than later, but its rewards have extended much further than I would have believed.

Reviews of Planned Obsolescence

I’ve been prompted, at last, to update this blog’s about page to reflect more information about the book that shares its name, by the appearance this morning of a review in the Los Angeles Review of Books. I’m thrilled that this fantastic non-profit magazine, which “combines the great American tradition of the serious book review with the evolving technologies of the Web,” has chosen to pay attention to my book. I hope that a fruitful dialogue ensues!

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.

Today’s (Apparently) the Day

According to Amazon, at least: today is the day that Planned Obsolescence has been released!

The link above is to the paperback version; here’s a link to the Kindle edition. And it’s the existence of the Kindle edition that makes the whole “release day” thing so amusing (to me, at least).

I got my first copy of the paperback about four weeks ago now. Granted, I got it the very day it arrived at the press, and it does take a couple of weeks for Amazon to get its first shipment, to get that shipment into its system, and to get ready to start shipping them out. So while I kinda expected them to update the book’s page from listing a November 1 release date to reflect its in-stock-ness before now, I wasn’t terribly surprised that it didn’t happen.

But… the Kindle edition. Has also been there, more or less ready to go. Folks even pre-ordered it! And apparently are receiving it today. Virtual copies of my book are zipping out across the WhisperNet, arriving like presents in people’s digital libraries.

Which is completely awesome, of course, but it does make me wonder: November 1 was not intended by NYU Press to be an official laydown date; there was no publisher-enforced embargo on sales, or reviews, or anything else before that. And given that one of the virtues of the Kindle is that you can have that text right now, why hold it back? Why turn what was meant to be an estimate by the press into an official release date?

It makes today pretty nifty for me personally, but I’m wondering whether it makes any kind of sense otherwise.

On the Scholarly Press, the Manual of Style, and Intellectual Property

Stuart Shieber posted an interesting and troubling analysis a few days ago of the recommendations of the Chicago Manual of Style with respect to open access publishing. The upshot of these recommendations appears to be “fight it,” or at least “limit the threat it poses to publishers’ ownership of the materials of scholarship.” As Shieber points out, there’s no small irony in the fact that

the book is owned by a university (The University of Chicago, as stated in three copyright notices on each page) filled with faculty and students whose interests are not best served by this kind of short-term profit-maximizing attitude.

And yet, there’s the problem: while The University of Chicago claims ownership of the Chicago Manual of Style, that ownership comes through the intermediary of the University of Chicago Press. And the press, like nearly all US-based university presses — which is to say that I’m not particularly picking on Chicago here; this could have happened at any such university press that happened to be the publisher of such an influential style guide — isn’t part of the university, except in a most nominal sense. The existence of the press is meant to confer a kind of prestige on the university, but, as I discuss in chapter 5 of Planned Obsolescence, the trend over the course of the second half of the twentieth century and the first decade of the twenty-first has been to so severely attenuate the relationship between the press and the institution that, for all intents and purposes, most presses are now independently operating non-profit corporations that sometimes happen to reside on university campuses.

Over the course of those decades, most university presses successfully fought off the stigma of being seen as “vanity” publishing operations by professionalizing — turning away from local authors in favor of a field-based publishing model, seeking the “best” work being produced nationally and internationally. The result was increased prestige, and increased income from sales — but that last has proven to be a double-edged sword. Because university presses are no longer seen by their institutions as serving in-house needs, and because they now appear able to generate income from the broader academy, most such presses have had the financial support provided to them by their universities slashed, making them increasingly dependent upon commercial income and decreasingly a part of the broader university culture.

The result, as we see in the open access section of the Chicago Manual of Style, is, perhaps of necessity, a wholly commercial understanding of their function, their products, and their ownership thereof. The press’s survival might seem to depend upon it. And because of that understanding, Chicago, which one might in previous editions have understood to be addressing both authors and publishers, has here clearly announced its partisanship: it is a volume intended to serve publishers, and not the authors those publishers publish, or the universities those authors populate.

And that’s fine. I’m not here calling for a boycott of Chicago style by open access publications — if anything, Chicago could stand to learn from their example — but I do want us to look carefully at the financial implications for all of our universities of the style guide’s having staked out such a position with respect to scholarly publishing and intellectual property. And I want us to recognize that there is another way.

It’s not an easy option, to be sure: it’ll be resisted by everyone involved, from established presses to university administrations to scholars themselves. And there are lots of complexities that I haven’t fully worked out here, of course. But there are a few very basic, if massive, changes that can help get us out of this mess:

  1. Every institution that requires its faculty to publish needs to develop a scholarly publishing service. It might not necessarily be an entirely in-house, single-institution operation — it might be productive to think about consortial publishing arrangements paralleling our current library consortia — but every institution must have a publishing system of some sort.
  2. Those publishing systems must focus on publishing the work of the faculty at that institution, re-creating the connection between the publisher and the institution that has been allowed to deteriorate over the last several decades.
  3. All of the work published through these services must be released in open access form, saving our libraries from the slow death by budgetary strangulation they’ve been suffering, and making the work available to all students, scholars, and interested members of the public. The point of all this publishing, after all, is making the scholarship public; the more freely it can circulate, the better.
  4. Because of that open access imperative, the university publisher — once again genuinely a university publisher — must be fully supported by its institution. If it can find ways to recuperate some costs, perhaps through the sale of print-on-demand editions of work or through other specialized services, so be it, but the university cannot abdicate its responsibility with respect to supporting scholarly publishing, any more than it can expect the library to become self-supporting.

The first question, of course, is about the press once again coming to be seen as a vanity outfit: I can hear the cries of what about peer review? The bottom line here, of course, is that peer review is already the responsibility of scholars, though it’s currently facilitated by publishers; under a model such as this one, scholars will only be required to acknowledge and take charge of that responsibility. University publishers should of course continue to facilitate peer review, but will likely be best served by doing so openly, curating the kinds of crowd-sourced conversation that can genuinely help an author improve a text and that can give us a more detailed sense of the impact an author’s work is having on the field.

There are many, many other questions to be asked about a system like this one, some of which I take up in Planned Obsolescence, but the key point here is clear: as long as university publishing is beholden to the bottom line, it cannot serve the needs of the university community. Only in radically changing the relationship between the publisher and the institution can we set aside the misguided questions about ownership that Chicago has gotten caught up in, and instead genuinely meet the ethical imperatives of open access to knowledge that the university ought to serve.

[Update, 6.34am: edited to fix link problem.]
[Update, 5 Jan 2011, 7.04am: reverted to older version to fix WP iPhone app format hosing, and re-corrected spelling of Stuart Shieber’s name.]

The Future of the University Press

My friends at MPublishing have released a new issue of the Journal of Electronic Publishing, guest edited by the director of the University of Michigan Press, Phil Pochoda, and including extremely insightful essays from a number of key thinkers in contemporary scholarly publishing. Jen Howard reports on the issue for the Chronicle, thinking through the issue’s collective implications.

I’m very pleased to see that so many of the predictions and recommendations contained in the JEP issue align with my own, from the final chapter of Planned Obsolescence. It’s my expectation that there will be fewer of what we currently think of as “university presses” in the coming years, as the failure of the press-as-revenue-center model spreads, but that there will be a great increase in university publishing services, as more and more institutions realize that if they are going to require their faculty to publish, they’ve got to take responsibility for providing the means of publication. These publishing services are, true to that label, likely to focus more on a broad range of services and less on producing physical objects for sale. And they’re going to have to be supported, at the faculty level, by real innovation in thinking about how published work is evaluated, and at the administrative level, by an actual functioning budget rather than an expectation of cost recovery.

All of the essays in the JEP issue are worth attending to; I hope that faculty and administrators will do so, and will press these conversations forward.

Talk at the Hemispheric Institute

One of the first things I’m doing here at NYU, now that classes have started up and things are underway, is giving a talk at the Hemispheric Institute, as part of our celebration of the launch of a new MediaCommons project, The New Everyday (about which more very shortly). Details are on the flyer at left, which can be clicked for a more readable version.

The talk will provide an overview of both Planned Obsolescence and the genesis of MediaCommons as a means of thinking through the social and institutional changes within the academy that the full embrace of digital scholarly publishing will require.

If you’re in New York, I’d love to see you there.


To Read: How Not to Run a University Press

In the category of things that I used to post to the blog that now land on Twitter instead: the link. In an effort to maintain a better archive for myself, I’m experimenting with moving these things back here again.

Today, Chris Kelty’s post on Savage Minds, “How Not to Run a University Press (or How Sausage Is Made)”. In this post, Kelty thinks through the reported demise — or, more accurately, the institutional doing-in — of Rice University Press. Among the issues he raises, perhaps the most significant is the university’s refusal to understand that publishing requires actual labor and financial support:

If you judge the experiment in digital publishing on these facts, it’s sure to look like a failure, but the failure is not in the vision or ideas articulated by the press, but a simple failure to maintain good business judgement. It speaks volumes about how university administrators and many others (including many academics) see academic publishing: as something where no labor is required, only a great big print-a-book machine, a warehouse and some stamped envelopes.

This assessment resonates strongly for me, as in chapter 5 of Planned Obsolescence I focus on the role of publishing within the university, and the university’s responsibilities with respect to publishing. My fear is that universities will take on this responsibility without committing resources to it, assuming (as Rice appears to have done) that because the new mode of publishing is digital, it must be cheap.

The fact is that while the costs involved in publishing can be reduced in some areas, the costs of labor cannot — and, if anything, digital publishing requires more, and more kinds of labor.

This is perhaps not the moment at which institutions want to hear that they have to make additional investments in something that feels optional, but they really need to hear this:

  • If you expect your faculty to publish, you must provide the means for them to do so.
  • If you expect scholarly publishing to turn a profit, or even break even, you may want to stop holding your breath.
  • If you allow commercial entities to take over scholarly publishing, because they can afford to do so, you must expect their predatory, monopolistic practices to encroach on the access you have to your own faculty’s work, and to diminish the impact that their work can have both inside and outside the academy.

There is no solution to this conundrum except for institutions to recognize that they must become responsible for supporting scholarly communication, and that this support will require treating the technologies and the labor involved in publishing as part of the institution’s infrastructure.

Revisions: On Multimodal Scholarship

I’m finishing up the revisions on chapter 2 today, and have been thinking about the section “from text to… something more.” I’ve expanded my thinking about multimodal scholarship a bit, including the addition of these paragraphs:

Resistance to allowing scholarly production to take non-textual form runs deeply in many fields, and particularly in those that have long reinforced the divide between criticism (art history, literature, media studies) and practice (studio art, creative writing, media production). But one of the explicit goals of many media studies programs over the last ten years has been finding a way within the curriculum to bridge the theory-practice divide: to give our production students a rigorously critical standpoint from which to understand what they’re doing when they’re making media; to give our critical studies students a hands-on understanding of how the forms about which they’re writing come into being. And yet it remains only the rare scholar who brings criticism and production together in his or her own work ‚Äì and for no small reason: faculty hired as conventional scholars are only rarely given credit toward promotion for production work; faculty hired to teach production are not always taken seriously as scholars. In fields such as media studies, we are being forced to recognize, one tenure case at a time, that the means of conducting scholarship is changing, and that the boundary between the “critical” and the “creative” is arbitrary, if it exists at all. My colleague Alex Juhasz, for instance, has written critically about YouTube but has also done a tremendous amount of work on YouTube, work that is inseparable from the critical analysis. Eric Faden, in a slightly different vein, is a film scholar working almost exclusively in the form of the video essay. In the coming years, more and more scholars in fields across the humanities will be taking up such unorthodox means of producing scholarship, in order to make arguments in forms other than the textual. Other scholars, including Tim Anderson and Tom Porcello, are working on audio in audio form, and in digital media studies, the list of scholars both writing about and producing interactive work includes Ian Bogost, Mary Flanagan, Noah Wardrip-Fruin, and too many others to name here.

Numerous possibilities exist for these future argument forms across the humanities: exciting historical work is already being done in digital form, through the production of interactive archives and exhibits; visual anthropology has long used documentary film production in ways that other scholars in the field might adopt. Scholarly analysis, in other words, can take the form of video, producing a visual response to a cultural object or phenomenon; it might take the form of audio, layering sound in order to focus our attention on that which we ordinarily miss in the world around us; it might take the form of an interactive game, in which we encounter an interpretation of a scenario in the rules that govern it. It’s not too much of a stretch, after all, to argue that if authorship practices have changed, the very nature of writing itself has changed as well ‚Äì not just our practices, but the result of those practices.

What other examples of specific scholars or more general scholarly methods might I include here? I need to keep this section fairly tight, but I don’t want to overlook anything that would make the point that much more clear.