“You know, the question isn’t whether we’re going to have to do hard, awful things, because we are. We all are. The question is whether we have to do them alone.”
Kate Braestrup, in Krista Tippett, Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living
For the last week, I have been less than a page away from finishing a draft of the chapter on reading (see the overview for more on that), but found myself unable to press forward. The reasons are all too evident: it suddenly felt way too precious to be writing about the transformative potential of reading in helping build a more empathetic, engaged relationship between the academy and the public sphere in the face of what still feels to me like the most colossal breakdown in not just empathy but the most basic forms of mutual recognition and comprehension in my lifetime.
But this morning I forced myself through it. Those last two paragraphs will likely be subject to serious revision, of course, as will much of what precedes them, as I need to take a few giant steps back from the project as a whole and make sure that it’s working toward the right goals, for the right reasons. I am beginning that process by turning my attention to research toward the chapter on listening, in the hope that it might help me not only push this project forward but also start shaping for myself a way of being in the world that we seem to have made.
My intent is to share some of that research as I go, though I have a lot to process — we all have a lot to process — and doing so in public feels more than a little dangerous right now. But it’s important, and I’m not going to let myself back down from this. I hope that you’ll be willing to join me.
I am wanting desperately to find some still place to regroup, but I have to keep moving: I have to pack and get myself to the airport and go home, where I have to prepare for some beloved guests who will be arriving from the U.K. and all I can think of is the hundreds of ways I need to apologize to them, and to all of us. I am sick at heart, and sick to my stomach, contemplating where we find ourselves today.
In November 2004, I was teaching an Introduction to Media Studies class, and the morning after, my students and I talked about the degree to which the election results signaled a desperate need for media literacy. The outcome of that election, I told them, did not give me hope, but it did give me purpose.
I am trying to find myself in that sense of purpose again, but it’s going to take me a bit longer to process what last night suggests for my current project, about the possibilities for real communication across the borders of the academy, for generosity in the face of dismissal and divisiveness.
In 2004, I felt that I might have a lot that I could teach. Today, I cannot help but feel like I have much, much more to learn. And it’s not going to be easy, or pleasant. But — and this is as much an exhortation to myself as it is a declaration — I will not run away from this.
The text below is a revised version of a talk I gave at the University of Richmond this spring. It’s the first bit of writing toward my very much in-process project, Generous Thinking: The University and the Public Good. I suspect that a modified version of it will wind up serving as an introduction to the larger project, but I’m early enough in this thing that I wouldn’t be surprised to be wrong about that entirely.
Responses are not simply welcome but strongly desired.
I have been working — painfully slowly, but nonetheless working — on a new project for something that is showing every sign of turning into a book. I’m still in the phase in which the thing is a bit hard to discuss, as I’m really figuring out what it’s all about on a day-to-day basis. But it finally occurred to me (another one of those “light dawns over Marblehead” moments that have characterized so much of my career thus far) that given the extent to which my last book argued for new scholarly practices including a willingness to show our process, blemishes and all, and given the extent to which the new project is all about the possibilities that might open up for scholars not just in doing more of their work in public but in doing more of that work in conversation with the public, well, I might take a bit of my own advice and open the thing up a bit.
Consider this the start of a conversation, a call in hope of response.
I’m beginning today with the project overview, below the fold. Later this week, I’ll post the first chunk of the project itself, derived from a talk I gave this spring at the University of Richmond. And I hope that more pieces will follow as I dig further into the guts of this thing. Those pieces are likely to be fragmentary, more question than answer — but then, that’s how some of the best conversations begin.
Over the years, I’ve posted a lot here about running, from chronicling my marathon training to pondering my deep ambivalence (if not flat out reluctance) about the act. Like writing here, I’ve stopped and started and stopped again, and issued myself new directives to get going once more.
This is a different sort of post, in which in which I am trying not to make myself do anything but instead to accommodate myself to the current situation, and to motivate myself to make as much of it as I can. It’s attempting what Tara Brach describes as the start of a process of recognition and acceptance, a moment of looking around and saying, “Oh, it’s like this.”
The situation is this: my left knee has been acting up for the last several months, mostly in a mid-grade way but at a couple of points acutely enough that I took to my bed with an ice pack, pretty worried that I might have actually damaged something. I finally persuaded myself to go see a sports medicine doctor and get it checked out. And of course, just like when you take your car to the mechanic, it wouldn’t make the noise. Or, rather, it did make the noise (“wow, that’s a lot of crackling,” my doctor said) but it didn’t hurt, it didn’t stick, it didn’t threaten to buckle. So she pushed and prodded and said that there didn’t appear to be anything structural wrong with it, and she sent me off for x-rays.
Which, as I should have known to expect, showed a bunch of arthritis. She sent me a prescription for physical therapy, and she advised me to lay off the high-impact exercise, at least for the time being. “I’m not saying you can’t run ever again,” she said. “But for now.”
My physical therapist, however, was a good bit more solidly in the running-is-over camp. And I’m finding myself there as well. It’s partially because the thing going on in my knee seems to be degenerative, and as the PT said, it can’t be reversed or even really stopped. But it’s also partially because it gives me permission to stop bashing my head against that particular wall. Deciding that running is over lets me stop feeling bad about not running, and about not wanting to run, and it opens up some space for me to focus on doing some other things.
So for the last few weeks I’ve been all about the stationary bikes at my gym, and I’ve even taken a few spinning classes. (I’ve also been advised to back off on those until we strengthen things around my knees a bit — but that feels like something to look forward to.) And I’m doing my PT and working with a personal trainer to try to strengthen more generally.
I wanted to write about this today because it feels a bit emblematic, capturing something about how I’ve been trying to approach change over the last few years, finding ways not to fight the things that can’t be fought, ways to hold onto the meaningful parts of the past and to let go of what cannot be. It’s a mode of being in the world that I’m trying to bring to my work as well: recognizing, for instance, that whatever writing I’m doing is likely to go way more slowly than I want it to, and that my wanting it to go faster won’t change that. And that recognition — “Oh, it’s like this” — is the first step toward figuring out how to make the most of the slowness.
I have been working for the last year-ish on a new long-form writing project. The project is proceeding slowly, mostly because of time limitations.1 But it is proceeding, which is something I need to remind myself of right now.
I need the reminder because I am in the process of trying to produce a project overview, which is something I thought I’d already done. I kind of did; I started the project by producing what I thought of as a proto-prospectus, which I shared with a few friends for comment. I then wrote and delivered a talk that might serve as a first draft of an introduction to the project as a whole, and this summer I dove into work on one of the project’s central chapters. So I’ve managed to produce a fair bit of material, which is great.
But somehow the existence of that material is getting in the way of my ability to describe this project formally. My proto-prospectus feels far too informal and ill-formed; my draft introduction gets far too caught in the narrative weeds; the central chapter… well, it’s only about a third done, and in part because I felt like I’d lost the thread of the work the chapter was supposed to be doing. So if I’m going to produce the project overview I need, it’s going to require me to put everything I’ve already done aside and start fresh, in a blank document, telling the project’s story as best I can.
It occurred to me this morning that perhaps one of the reasons I feel such difficulty maintaining a grasp on this project and its through-line is that I haven’t been talking about it much — or here, frankly at all — and so haven’t worked out its points in dialogue with friends. I’ve avoided that in part because it just felt too early, and thus too risky, to go public with these ideas.
But I’m having to remind myself that Planned Obsolescence did not begin its life as a book project. Long before it began to take that shape, I did a lot of thinking-out-loud on this blog; it was only much later that the various pieces began to coalesce as something larger than what they’d been.
I’m not sure why I expected things to be different this time. Perhaps because I’m now advanced enough in my career that I figured I should know how to do this in a more systematic, more conventional, more independent way. Or perhaps there is something embedded in that seniority that has made me if not exactly risk-averse then perhaps nervous about showing uncertainty in public.
I should know better. A willingness to show that uncertainty is not only a key part of the scholarly process in which I want to engage, it’s a cornerstone of the argument I’m trying to make.
It’s not entirely a surprise that I’m having to learn this lesson again; this blog is filled with instances of me relearning and remembering and trying to remind myself of things I’d somehow managed to forget. But here I am, again, reminding myself, again, of the purposes that this space has served for me for the last fourteen years.
I’m starting again, again, both in this space and on this project. And I will hope for the opportunity to talk with you about the ideas I’m working on in the weeks ahead.
I’ve just finished a bit of tinkering around here. I’m hoping, of course, that the desire to tinker might signal an imminent desire to actually write new things that might warrant a refreshed platform. But that, as always, remains to be seen.
I have just had one of those moments in which writing about the reasons I’m having trouble writing the thing I’m trying to write just made the thing I’m trying to write become far more clear. As in previous such instances (c.f. the opening of the authorship chapter in Planned Obsolescence), the problem being explored in the piece of writing and the problem of doing the writing are pretty intimately intertwined. Someday I would love to remember that before my anxieties about why this thing is so hard to write become quite so pronounced.
Last week’s close attention to open access, its development, its present state, and its potential futures, surfaced not only the importance for both the individual scholar and the field at large of sharing work as openly as possible, with a range of broadly conceived publics, but also some continuing questions about the best means of accomplishing that sharing. As I mentioned last week, providing opportunities for work to be opened at the point of publication itself is one important model, but a model that may well have occluded our vision of other potential forms: the ease of using article-processing charges to offset any decline in subscription revenue possible as previously paywalled content becomes openly available is so apparent as to have become rapidly naturalized, allowing us to wave off the need for experimentation with less obvious — and less remunerative — models.
Among alternative models, as I noted, is author-originated sharing of work, often in pre-print forms, via the open web. Many authors already share work in this way, whether posting drafts on their blogs for comment or depositing manuscripts in their institutional repositories. And recently, many scholars have also taken to sharing their work via Academia.edu, a social network that allows scholars to build connections, get their work into circulation, and discover the work of others. I’m glad to see the interest among scholars in that kind of socially-oriented dissemination and sharing, but I’m very concerned about this particular point of distribution and what it might mean for the future of the work involved.
Here’s the crux of the matter:
When scholars use academia dot edu are they aware that they are providing their data to a for-profit venture capital backed company?
— Seth Denbo (@seth_denbo) October 19, 2015
The first thing to note is that, despite its misleading top level domain (which was registered by a subsidiary prior to the 2001 restrictions), Academia.edu is not an educationally-affiliated organization, but a dot-com, which has raised millions in multiple rounds of venture capital funding. This does not imply anything necessarily negative about the network’s model or intent, but it does make clear that there are a limited number of options for the network’s future: at some point, it will be required to turn a profit, or it will be sold for parts, or it will shut down.
And if the network is to turn a profit, that profit has a limited number of means through which it can be generated: either academics who are currently contributing their work to this space will have to pay to continue to access it, or the work that they have contributed will somehow be mined for sale, whether to advertisers or other interested parties. In fact, Academia.edu’s CEO has said that “the goal is to provide trending research data to R&D institutions that can improve the quality of their decisions by 10-20%.” Statements like this underwrite Gary Hall’s assessment of the damage that the network can do to genuine open access: “Academia.edu has a parasitical relationship to the public education system, in that these academics are labouring for it for free to help build its privately-owned for-profit platform by providing the aggregated input, data and attention value.” The network, in other words, does not have as its primary goal helping academics communicate with one another, but is rather working to monetize that communication. All of which is to say: everything that’s wrong with Facebook is wrong with Academia.edu, at least just up under the surface, and so perhaps we should think twice before commiting our professional lives to it.
The problem, of course, is that many of us face the same dilemma in our engagement with Academia.edu that we experience with Facebook. Just about everyone hates Facebook on some level: we hate its intrusiveness, the ways it tracks and mines and manipulates us, the degree to which it feels mandatory. But that mandatoriness works: those of us who hate Facebook and use it anyway do so because everyone we’re trying to connect with is there. And as we’ve seen with the range of alternatives to Facebook and Twitter that have launched and quickly faded, it’s hard to compete with that. So with Academia.edu: I’ve heard many careful, thoughtful academics note that they’re sharing their work there because that’s where everybody is.
And the “everybody” factor has been a key hindrance to the flourishing of other mechanisms for author-side sharing of work such as institutional repositories. Those repositories provide rigorously protected and preserved storage for digital objects, as well as high-quality metadata that can assist in the discovery of those objects, but the repositories have faced two key challenges: first, that they’ve been relatively siloed from one another, with each IR collecting and preserving its own material independently of all others, and second, that they’ve been (for the obvious reason) institutionally focused. The result of the former is that there hasn’t been any collective sense of what material is available where (though the ARL/AAU/APLU-founded project SHARE is working to solve that problem). The result of the latter is that a relatively small amount of such material has been made available, as researchers by and large tend to want to communicate with the other members of their fields, wherever they may be, rather than feeling the primary identification with their institutions that broad IR participation would seem to require. So why, many cannot help but feel, would I share my work in a place where it will be found by few of the people I hope will read it?
The disciplinary repository may provide a viable alternative — see, for instance, the long-standing success of arXiv.org — but the fact that such repositories collect material produced in disciplines rather than institutions is only one of the features key to their success, and to their successful support of the goals of open access. Other crucial features include the not-for-profit standing of those repositories, which can require thoughtful fundraising but keeps the network focused on the researchers it comprises, and those repositories’ social orientation, facilitating communication and interconnection among those researchers. That social orientation is where Academia.edu has excelled; early in its lifespan, before it developed paper-sharing capabilities, the site mapped relationships among scholars, both within and across institutions, and has built heavily upon the interconnections that it traced — but it has not primarily done so for the benefit of those scholars or their relationships.
Scholarly societies have the potential to inhabit the ideal point of overlap between a primary orientation toward serving the needs of members and a primary focus on facilitating communication amongst those members. This is in large part why we established MLA Commons, to build a not-for-profit social network governed and developed by its members with their goals in mind. And in working toward the larger goals of open access, we’ve connected this social network with CORE, a repository through which members can not only deposit and preserve their work, but also share it directly with the other members of the network. We’re also building mechanisms through which CORE can communicate with institutional repositories so that the entire higher-education-based research network can benefit.
Like all such networks, however, the Commons will take time to grow, so we can’t solve the “everybody” problem right away. But we’re working toward it, through our Mellon-supported Humanities Commons initiative, which seeks to bring other scholarly societies into the collective. The interconnections among the scholarly society-managed Commonses we envision will not only help facilitate collaboration across disciplinary lines but also allow members with overlapping affiliations to have single sign-on access to the multiple groups of scholars with whom they work. We are working toward a federated network in which a scholar can maintain and share their work from one profile, on a scholar-governed network, whose direction and purpose serve their own.
So, finally, a call to MLA members: when you develop your member profile and share your work via the Commons, you not only get your work into circulation within your community of practice, and not only raise the profile of your work within that community, but you also help support us as we work to solve the “everybody” problem of the dot-com that threatens to erode the possibilities for genuine open access.