why do we write to each other?

I was thinking about this question when I came across this post from Kathleen Fitzpatrick about her next planned scholarly project on the challenges of academic publication. Her project sounds important and interesting. It’s clearly a major question facing all academics. It’s also, in my view, integral to composition, since, in the end, "academic discourse" is some distilled version of the writing we do as scholars.

My question is maybe less serious and certainly less thought out. But I’m thinking about the hundreds of articles and dozens of books written each year. I wish I could recall where I saw this statistic, but less than 10% of articles in the humanities are ever cited. It begs the question of who reads them and why.

I know why we write them–for jobs, tenure, promotion, etc.–but what is the point? To maybe write that one article or book that will get you noticed and lift you into the community of read (and cited) academic authors?

30 short years ago, maybe even 20 or 15 years ago, the article made some sense. In 1993, what was the best way I had of discovering the thoughts and works of my colleagues? I could go to conferences, but you can only absorb a little bit in a few days. I had to read articles, books, and such. It was really the best means available.

Now that is so far from the truth, and it has happened overnight in academic terms. I can work as easily with a dozen colleagues at a dozen institutions as I can with colleagues on my campus. We could actually do something, not just collaborate on an article (again), but go beyond that and put our research into action, connect with our forgotten audience of mainstream culture, and so on.

I am all for making digital, electronic, networked scholarship count. But I see this as a half-measure. We need to recognize that scholarship existed as a way to share knowledge at a distance when the best you could hope for was someone to respond in six months or a year or longer. It was the best way we had to work together.

If we can realize the potential for networked collaboration we can thoughtfully address real problems quickly enough for our response to matter, and we can build things that people will actually use. I’m not suggesting abandoning scholarship. Of course not. I suggesting expanding it into new realms of possibility.

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