Experimentation and expertise in web-based scholarship

I’m in Batavia NY for the SUNY Conference on Instructional Technologies and finally found some reliable wireless (I hope) in the hotel lobby about 100 yards of the interstate. So I’m going to try to catch up on some blogging about last week’s Computers and Writing conference in Athens, GA.

As you may know, I’m co-editor of the Praxis section of Kairos, and we held a workshop for prospective authors last Thursday and also unveiled our latest issue. You may also know that several of my colleagues are hard at work on a significant redesign of the website. There’s an interesting tension in the goals the journal identifies for itself:

  1. Publish scholarly "webtexts" that make use of the web’s possibilities of design, linking, and media.
  2. Support scholars in doing this.
  3. Establish the journal (and online scholarship in general) as serious intellectual work equivalent to scholarly publication in more traditional formats.
  4. Provide leadership for the field in online publishing practices (e.g. use of standards, design, etc.)

So here’s the tension. Many times we publish webtexts by scholars who are inexpert web designers. Indeed, I doubt there are more than a handful of rhet/comp scholars whose expertise in web publication matches their expertise in the field. As a result one can easily end up with good scholarship and mediocre design. Generally, in order for scholarship to be "good" it really needs to meet the rhetorical expectations of traditional print media in terms of argumentation, citation, evidence, etc., and then you shoehorn that into an online format. Now, technically it is possible to produce something "experimental" that doesn’t follow the scholarly expectations of print, but if you do that then you are not stepping out into a realm of zero discursive expectations. No, you are stepping into a realm of web design or video or audio podcasting or whatever media it is that you’re creating. As such, you can experiment by making video-based scholarship, but it had better be good video. Otherwise, it’s just amateur hour all around: amateur video and amateur scholarship. Or at least that’s how it comes off.

When Kairos began in 1996, none of these genres existed for anyone. Experimentation not only made sense, it was inevitable. This is no longer true. In 2008, we don’t need to invent a genre for online intellectual discourse. We can see it everywhere from hundreds of online journals to Salon to you name it. It isn’t hard to recognize. Perhaps it is a little depressing how much it resembles print, but that doesn’t change the fact that we have a genre. I would add though that the resemblance to print is actually fairly superficial, and what makes online scholarship so potentially powerful is what can take place "beneath" the surface of the screen.

That said, there are still many possibilities for further development in online publication. We’ve hardly reached the end of the road! It’s just that I wonder if a different strategy is now called-for in pursuing the development of new scholarly practices that allows for a laboratory where experiments are undertaken and a more familiar forum for discussing those experiments. That is what if we thought of this more in terms of scientific experimentation than artistic experimentation? In fact, if you think about it, even avant garde artists required more traditional formats from the manifesto to art criticism to evaluate and disseminate their work (as well as argue for its cultural value).

I suppose the bottom line is this. As I was sitting in the workshop, watching the faces of those prospective authors, I couldn’t help wondering if the time had come to develop new practices at Kairos. This doesn’t have to mean going all the way to publishing word docs and pdfs. Instead I think it means providing leadership in online scholarship by showing what editors can do with the familiar discursive practices of our field.

Ultimately, as cool as experimentation can be, what will be valuable will be practices that can be replicated by hundreds of scholars.

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