Reader Response, in Theory

In my last post, on blogs as serialized scholarship, I noted that a colleague of mine had posted a link to a prior post on Facebook, resulting in an interesting conversation that I regretted not being able to share. That inability is in fact two problems, not one: first, a technical problem, and second, a social one.

The technical problem has everything to do with Facebook’s hoovering action: it’s very easy to share material into Zuckerberglandia, but very, very hard to share it out. This is on the one hand a good thing, given concerns about privacy and the personal nature of a lot of what gets shared on Facebook; things people post there often spread further than they expect, given the friends-of-friends phenomenon, and if those things were easily able to leave the FB platform, they would have the potential to do even more damage to their unwitting posters.

On the other hand, the closedness of Facebook has produced some significant problems for folks who are trying to produce open discussions of ongoing work. Bloggers who have been at it for a while have noted a recent decline in commenting, and while that decline may have begun with the popularity of RSS feeds (which abstract the content of blog posts from their web presences, encouraging reading without interaction), it has accelerated with the privatization of discussion on platforms like Facebook. When a friend shares a link there, it’s only natural to discuss the link with that friend, in that environment, rather than discussing the text with the author, on the author’s site.[1]

This is, of course, not exclusively a Facebook issue; links posted on Twitter often produce tweeted responses, and other platforms like Google+ (yes, there actually are some people active there) have similar effects. While this proliferation of platforms has enabled many internet users to find the right spots for the discussions they want to have, and the right groups with which to have them, it’s had a diminishing effect on the kinds of discussion that, at my most idealistic moments, I continue to believe that blogging can produce. The problem is that in order for blogs to be the fruitful platforms for serialized scholarship that I imagine, their authors need to engage — and need to be able to engage — with the responses that their posts produce.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that all responses must be contained within any given blog post’s comments; if you look at the comments on my last post, you’ll see that most have come in from Twitter, and a few others are pingbacks from other blogs. Twitter’s relative openness (an openness that is extremely fragile, and that Twitter has recently begun to close off in various ways) and the extremely porous design of blogs allow their conversations to be aggregated in ways that both support small communities of practice and engage related groups in a dispersed and yet connected network (hey!) of conversations. So there’s a link on my seriality post to Collin Brooke’s fabulous post on “surreality”, generated by a link on his post to mine; similarly, the link in my last clause will produce a link on his post to this one. We can sustain a conversation with one another in this way, while nonetheless keeping our own contributions on our own preferred platforms.[2]

Facebook, again, disrupts that ability, both technically and socially. There’s no mechanism through which my blog post can aggregate FB links or comments, and there are no real norms for when and how it’s acceptable to reproduce FB discussions in other spaces. Frank Kelleter, the colleague who linked to my post on unpopularity, encouraged me to share the discussion that it produced here, but without getting similar permission from his interlocutor, I’d be uncomfortable responding to comments other than his own. That interlocutor would probably grant permission if I asked, but the need to ask highlights some of the issues that new platforms create for the flow of scholarly discourse. We do not need to ask permission to respond to one another’s publications, but assume that it’s okay to do so as long as appropriate credit and citation are given; linking to one another’s blog posts has followed this pattern. It has generally been considered good form to ask the author before citing unpublished work, however, including personal communications, and referring to comments on privatized platforms like Facebook appears to fall more into that model.

This all seems fairly obvious, as I write it, and yet it’s important for the development of networked platforms for scholarly communication that we think together about whether the norms we’re working within, and the mechanisms supporting those norms, are in fact what’s best for the work we’re doing.

Blogs as Serialized Scholarship

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Unpopular

This post revolves around two jokes that I’ve heard of late, each of which has been stuck in my head since I heard it. The first joke, as I noted in part 1 of this series, surfaced in a fantastic workshop on “popular seriality,” discussing television series, film sequels and remakes, and serialized novels, against which scholarship was nominated as the key form of “unpopular seriality.” Conveniently, I was at the workshop to discuss forms of serialized scholarship, but this joke raised what seemed to me a few pressing prior questions: Need scholarship be unpopular? What kind(s) of popularity might scholarship attain? What might popularity do for scholarship? And what might such a scholarship do for our notions of the popular?

That at least a couple of people in the workshop in Göttingen made the connection between unpopular seriality and scholarship — and that so many more found the association funny — indicates the degree to which we feel unpopular as scholars, producing work that we feel passionately about but that no one else seems to want. That sense of being unpopular carries for many of us haunting undertones of our nerdy adolescences, as if we were doomed to find ourselves yet again the smart outcasts in a culture that only values athletic prowess, or better still, money. And we are, at least in a broad sense, unpopular: the much-discussed crisis in scholarly publishing is at least in part a crisis of audience, as too few people buy the stuff for it to have a market sufficient to make its distribution a profitable enterprise.

It’s not without reason, then, that the initial discussion of what an unpopular seriality would constitute circled around questions of marketability: what keeps scholarship outside the realm of the popular, from this perspective, is precisely its uncommercial — even anti-commercial — orientation. In its unpopularity, it was suggested, scholarship finds protection from the pressures of the economic.

My initial response, however, was to resist this sense of scholarship as being somehow protected from the forces of the market: just because the work we produce as scholars may not have commercial value does not mean that it exists outside economics. What we do may not be conventionally lucrative, but it does operate within a realm of exchange that remains unquestionably material: it doesn’t pay off in money from direct sales, but it does produce salaries, paid lecture invitations, and the like. It’s a peculiar market, but it is a market, and as in most markets, the (attention-)rich get richer, and the (attention-)poor are faced with varying kinds of declining support.

Our unpopularity, then, isn’t a badge of economic purity, or a marker of freedom from caring what the world thinks of us. We have embraced it as if it were such a marker, however, as if popularity would somehow taint the work that we do. And much as many of us claim to seek the role of public intellectual, we too often sneer at the popularity of those who achieve this stature. Popularity, this suggests, requires a dumbing-down for the masses; work that is popularly consumed cannot conceivably be good.

This tie between the popular and mass consumption bears with it resonances of the Frankfurt School; popular culture in this sense — that culture which is popularly consumed — must of necessity contain within it an element of mass deception. And perhaps there is good reason for scholarship to avoid such associations with popularity; criticality requires rejecting what the majority wants to hear. Scholars must be willing and able to say the unpopular thing.

On the other hand, as post-Frankfurt media scholars have argued, the association of the popular with mass consumption overlooks the sense in which popular culture should be considered to be that which is popularly produced — that which arises from, rather than that which devolves upon, the “people.” In more recent media scholarship, the culture that is so produced is assumed to be less the texts themselves — the “people” are in no literal sense running around producing blockbuster movies or television series — than the meanings and pleasures that derive from popular engagement with those texts. Culture is less the texts themselves than what is made from the texts. And popular culture becomes popular not because it’s forced onto the masses, but because actual people have found some kind of connection with it.

That we hold our work back from this latter kind of popularity, from the potential of popular connection to it — and that to some extent, at least, we do so intentionally — strikes me both as selfish and misguided. It serves us, on whatever level, to believe the public, however construed, to be incapable of responding to our work.

This belief is the unspoken base layer required in order for the second joke with which this post is concerned to be funny. The second joke runs like this: at another conference I recently attended, a speaker discussed the broadening possibilities that should be made available for humanities PhDs to have productive and fulfilling careers other than those on the tenure track, in the course of which the phrase “public humanities” was used. After the talk, I overheard a couple of senior academics discussing the possibility, with some bemusement.

Senior Academic 1: I take the point, but I don’t think it works in all fields. There’s long been a “public history.” But can you imagine a “public literary criticism”?
 
Senior Academic 2: Chortle. The very idea.

I’m still not sure why the idea of public literary criticism is laughable. It has, after all, long existed, not just in the work of several of academia’s more visible and vocal figures (excuse the autoplay in that last link; excuse also the elision of many others who might have been linked to as well), but also in publications both long-standing and more recently developing (not to mention this or this or this or this or often this). If anything, public literary culture — including criticism — seems to be experiencing a period of extraordinary fertility. Is there money to be made in it? Probably no more than there is in public history, no. But is there work to be done? Unquestionably, yes.

If we reconsider the question of the popularity of scholarship from this perspective — in which there is perhaps not a market to be sold to but instead a public to be engaged with — we might begin to think more seriously (as Anne Helen Petersen has recently done) about what we might gain in the creation of such a popular engagement for our work.

I do not mean to suggest that everything we do should be done in public, or that everything we do needs to be universally accessible. There is a time and a place for experts to engage with one another, in formats and languages that are peculiarly their own. But there is also good reason for us to think seriously about doing more of our work in public, and even more importantly with the public, to understand that some portion of what we do not only can be but must be popular.

Next up in this series: how that popularity might be supported through the form of the serial.

Unpopular Seriality

Last week, I had the pleasure of participating in a workshop on “Popular Seriality” put together by Jason Mittell, Frank Kelleter, and the Popular Seriality research unit at the University of Göttingen. The workshop was relatively small, and so it produced a great set of conversations among scholars working on contemporary television series, twentieth-century film sequels and comic book series, nineteenth-century serialized novels, and more.

In a panel discussion at the end of the first day, someone asked, if the workshop was focused on aspects of “popular seriality,” what would constitute unpopular seriality?

“Scholarship,” someone immediately joked.

Needless to say, this struck home. I’ve written some about the blog as a return to serial form in publishing, focusing on its relationship to early forms that the novel took. Others have connected blogs doing public, political work to the periodical essays of the 18th century, including those in publications such as the Tatler and the Spectator.

In both cases, these arguments address the conventional notion of the popular, exploring the comparatively new platforms for unfolding narrative or argumentation in direct engagement with a public, however broadly understood. And in some ways, these arguments acknowledge the more politically inclined senses of popular culture as encompassing less that distributed to the people (which is more properly “mass culture”) than that arising from them; in both the blog as periodical and the blog as serial narrative we find authors able to make their way around entrenched mechanisms of production and distribution in order to get their writing directly to readers.

So I’ve been pondering what it is that makes scholarship “unpopular seriality,” and the role that blogs might be playing, and might continue to play, in helping us begin to rectify this situation. I’m going to write a bit more about this over the next few days — serializing the process of thinking through the question, because I can imagine several different directions for this exploration, and I want to give each of them enough time and space to play out.

That’s one of the ways that the blog can support serial scholarship, right there.

MediaCommons Receives Mellon Grant to Study Open Peer Review

[crossposted from MediaCommons.]

As was reported in the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Wired Campus yesterday, MediaCommons and New York University Press have together been given a $50,000 grant by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation in support of a year-long study of peer-to-peer (P2P) review. We are thrilled to have this opportunity to take what we have learned from our experiments at MediaCommons Press, as well as experiments conducted by other scholarly networks, and assess the state of open peer review in the humanities today.

We are in the process of assembling an advisory panel composed both of scholars who are invested in experimental, open modes of scholarly communication and of scholars whose work is well-positioned in more traditional publishing forms. This advisory panel will join us for a series of meetings at which we will investigate and assess a range of experiments in reviewing practices, finally helping us to produce a white paper in which we will:

1) assess the value and shortcomings of P2P review for the evaluation of scholarship;
2) develop a roadmap for scholars and publishers, articulating criteria and protocols for conducting P2P review that are both rigorous and flexible enough to apply across disciplines;
3) identify the technical functionalities necessary to support these protocols; and
4) assess tools and platforms currently available for online peer review, and consider whether their functionalities will support our proposed protocols.

The project will be managed by MediaCommons co-editors Kathleen Fitzpatrick and Avi Santo, NYU Press assistant director and editor-in-chief Eric Zinner, and NYU program officer for digital scholarly publishing Monica McCormick.

We look forward to reporting here on our progress as our work proceeds.

Fair Use

The Library of Congress has just this morning issued its statement of exemptions to the portions of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act that forbid the circumvention of DRM and other technological measures intended to prevent access to or copying of digital materials. These exemptions are issued every three years; last time out, the exemptions allowed film and media studies professors to crack the content scrambling system (a.k.a. CSS) on DVDs in order to rip short clips to make compilations for classroom use. This seemed at the time like an awfully restricted exemption — literally only film and media studies profs (no profs in other fields, and no students), literally only in order to create compilations of clips for use in the classroom (not for use in critical writing) — but it struck me then that the statement might be the thin end of the wedge.

And so it appears to have been. The exemption on the cracking of CSS now extends to all instructors and students [Correction: see Timothy Yenter’s comment below; the extension includes all instructors but only students in film and media studies courses], and the “educational uses” now include critical commentary and documentary production, as well as the exceptionally broad category of “non-commercial videos.” Whether this gets taken to mean that fan vids will be recognized as falling under the exemption remains to be seen, but the chances seem to me to be high.

This is already pretty amazing, and yet, as they say on late-night infomercials, “but wait! There’s more!” The LOC has also declared that programs that allow the jailbreaking of a cell phone in order to install “lawfully obtained” applications is legal, as is the following:

Computer programs, in the form of firmware or software, that enable used wireless telephone handsets to connect to a wireless telecommunications network, when circumvention is initiated by the owner of the copy of the computer program solely in order to connect to a wireless telecommunications network and access to the network is authorized by the operator of the network.

If I’m reading that correctly, I think that unlocking a “used” phone has now just been made legal as well. The question of what constitutes “used” here is open, I think — is the iPhone I purchased new but have now had for a year “used”? — but I think the way has been paved for users to connect their handsets to their network of choice. Ars Technica correctly, I think, understands these two provisions as a direct kick in the teeth to Apple; it will be interesting to see how the company responds.

And, as if that weren’t enough, the LOC has also declared that circumventing DRM in order to activate the text-to-speech function of e-books for which the function has been disabled is now permitted, as is circumventing DRM in order to make e-books usable by “screen readers that render the text into a specialized format.” I’m not exactly sure what that last means — is it now legal for me to crack DRM on my Kindle app books in order to port them into iBooks? — but there seems to be at least a recognition that lawfully obtained digital texts should be readable in the purchaser’s choice of formats.

All of these provisions come with the caveat that where there are other means of accomplishing the same thing (getting video clips; getting e-books with the audio component enabled), consumers must take the route that does not require circumventing DRM, but where there is no other way, the position seems to be that those who have legally purchased texts and objects protected by DRM have the right to break those systems for purposes that would otherwise fall under the category of fair use.

These exemptions promise to have an extraordinary impact on the kinds of media scholarship that can be published over the next few years; projects like In Media Res, which has long led with its jaw on the fair-use front, now have a certain measure of legal protection working in their favor. But these exemptions will be up for review in three years, so media scholars, students, and practitioners who care about their ability to access and use the legally-obtained media texts with which they work need to make wise use of the time, demonstrating to the LOC what can be done with such free access. And we need to continue to lobby for further expansions in our rights to access the primary sources with which we work.

Against Anonymity

I’m a bit off the grid for the next several days, but wanted quickly to draw your attention to an article by Jeffrey Di Leo published a couple of days ago at Inside Higher Ed, entitled “Against Anonymity”. The article makes the general case that anonymity should be used only sparingly in academic life, and that while we claim that it allows for greater honesty and fairness in assessments, it instead hinders such assessment in some cases by enabling cowardice preventing free and open dialogue. This is an argument I’ve been making about peer review — that whatever benefits anonymity might provide, it does far more harm than good in preventing open exchange. As Di Leo suggests,

Anonymity in manuscript review allows reviewers to disengage from dialogue. It of necessity keeps the author of the manuscript outside of the dialogic process.

I recognize that any transition to open review processes will be bumpy, but I increasingly believe that we as scholars have to be willing to take responsibility for the assessments we make of others’ work, to make those assessments in the open where we are held accountable for them, and to make those assessments part of a process of constructive conversation.

Blegging: Preservation

I’m deep in the thick of the chapter I’m writing on issues of preservation for digital scholarship, and am feeling fairly acutely the extent to which these issues have not been on my radar before now, so I need to ask for your help, particularly the digital librarians among you.

While there are a number of extremely important reports that have been published around these issues of late (see, for instance, the Blue Ribbon Task Force interim report, “Sustaining the Digital Investment,” the MITH white paper “Approaches to Managing and Collecting Born-Digital Literary Materials for Scholarly Use”, and the ARL report, “Safeguarding Collections at the Dawn of the 21st Century”, among others), I’m focusing the chapter around a few particular projects of which I could really use a deeper sense.

What I’m looking for is critical accounts of the histories of the histories of projects such as TEI, COinS, DOI, and LOCKSS, accounts that both convey the development and administration of the programs as well as any lingering issues with which the projects need to contend. I’ve found some basic stuff about each project, but if there are particularly good resources out there, I’d love to hear about them!

[Ed: Just critical accounts of the histories of the projects, not critical accounts of the histories of the histories. Not enough coffee yet…]

Must Read: HASTAC/MLA Rethinking Tenure Guidelines

Cathy Davidson has an excellent post up at HASTAC thinking about the meaning of tenure and ways of imagining valid tenure standards for an increasingly interdisciplinary future. Along the way, she announces that HASTAC will be working with the MLA on reimagining tenure guidelines, and that they hope to work with other disciplinary organizations as well.

But the key moments of her post come after that announcement, as she ponders what the basis for tenure decisions ought to be:

The basic question is not have you published that book. The fundamental question is, based on one’s first six or seven years in the profession, is one likely to be a lifelong, energetic, idea-filled, responsible, creative, innovative contributor to the profession, even when the Damocles’ Sword of tenure is no longer swinging above.

And:

How in the world can a “floor” requirement ever predict future performance? That is, if you establish a quantitative measure, such as one book for tenure, two books for full professor, what in the world are you saying about future contributions? You achieve the measure and then you stop? Really? Is that the ideology of tenure?

The point of the tenure evaluation is supposed to be using a scholar’s past performance as a predictor of continuing performance — on some level, the existence of the first book is meant to stand in for all the future books that will follow. For too many scholars, though, the book requirement becomes a literal end in itself, a finish line that, once crossed, leaves the scholar without future direction or motivation.

So what if we were to say, forget the book, or whatever number of articles one were to set, and instead focus the standards for tenure on the demonstration of an active, ongoing research agenda? How many different forms might meet these new standards? What new kinds of scholarly engagement might we foster?