building imaginary scholarly platforms

I ended my last post conceiving of journals as a scholarly platform and wondering if another kind of platform, beside the kind invented over 100 years ago, might be better. To raise this question, the first step, as they say, is admitting one has a problem. What kinds of problems might exist with humanities article publication?

  • Economic/marketplace problems: who wants to pay for this work?
  • Access problems: perhaps a product of economic problems
  • Audience/citation problems: even those who have access don’t appear to use it
  • Over-production problems: publication is driven by the demands of tenure/promotion rather than rhetorical exigencies related to the content of the research itself

But the fundamental question is whether or not articles (and monographs) remain the best way to share and build research. This question is perhaps most visible in the digital humanities where much of the scholarly work–building databases, applications, etc.–bears only a secondary relationship to articles (i.e. you can also write articles about the work). For example, in my own nascent field of digital rhetoric (or new media rhetoric sometimes), the ostensible goal (briefly put) is to understand how emerging digital media technologies participate in rhetorical/compositional practices across the spectrum of cultural spaces (my own tendency has been to think about pedagogical/scholarly spaces). Said differently, it seems fairly obvious to me that people struggle regularly with living/communicating in digital spaces. Can humanistic research help to address that problem? No, it ain’t saving-the-world kind of stuff, but it’s a living. Anyway, my point is does my publishing a couple 5-8000 word essays on the subject every year really represent the best way I can go about meeting this problem. That’s the kind of question you’d have to ask about your own research. The most important thing to realize here is the way that the genre in which you are writing shapes the nature and scope of your research. In the end there is no natural way that scholarly work should be done. We can seek out the obvious joints were knowledge might be divided, but those joints have not formed through some transcendent process. That is, if we had something other than the journal article as our primary genre, we’d have different articulations, different joints. At the same time, one cannot, shouldn’t really, ignore the communities that have developed. So let’s say that I started with the approx. 1,000 faculty and grad students that make up the computers and writing community. (I’m just taking a guess at that number, but you might ask yourself how many people make up your specialization.) Those are the people that make up the primary audience for the journal articles we write. Right now, there are maybe a half-dozen journals primarily focused on this field (e.g. Kairos, Computers and Composition). Then there are a couple dozen journals, I’m guessing, within the larger discipline of rhetoric and composition, where one might find computers and writing articles (e.g. CCCC, JAC, Composition Studies,  etc.). Finally there are also journals that are more rhetoric than composition oriented (yes, the two are different, most notably in that rhetoric as a discipline tends to be less pedagogically oriented and includes more faculty from Communications departments). That’s another set of journals where one can certainly find digital rhetoric being published. I would say that computers and writing is more composition-oriented as a field, but there are digital rhetoricians, such as myself, who overlap. Of course there are a large number of potentially overlapping fields, but I want to focus on these approx 1000 people. Is there a better way for 1000 people to communicate with one another than across a couple dozen journals? The answer is obviously yes. It is as obvious as the remark that we don’t publish to communicate; we publish to get credit. That’s a problem we can only solve by deciding to solve it, so I’ll set that one aside. There’s a more important point here, which is that if there was a common platform for every scholar and student in my field, then I think it would become clear that continuing to publish in this article genre doesn’t make a tremendous amount of sense

If the 1000 in my field where on the same platform, what might we do better than we do now?

  • Collaborate on undergraduate and graduate curriculum
  • Serve as a real-time community for those students
  • Form research groups to respond to exigent circumstances (e.g. MOOCs)
  • Build and study large data sets
  • Construct disciplinary tools
  • Speak as a collective voice to others beyond our discipline

None of this would mean that we wouldn’t publish or that the publications wouldn’t be peer-reviewed. And if one wants to argue that one should publish outside the silo of one’s field/community, then I agree. It doesn’t happen much now, but I agree it should. A platform like this might actually make those external messages more powerful.

But we can think about this at an even larger scale. Both NCTE and MLA report having 30K+ members. Both, by coincidence, are about the same size as my university (if you count students, faculty, and staff). Also, by coincidence, this is roughly the number of folks working for Google. Obviously in a corporate structure it is easier to get everyone moving in the same direction, and in academia we have a strong history of intellectual independence. But there’s really two sides to that independence. On the one hand there is “academic freedom,” which is designed to protect scholars from political backlash and perhaps from the pressures of the marketplace. On the other hand there was an unavoidable independence created by our relative isolation (which is what necessitated journals and conferences in the first place). The second is no longer relevant. And regarding the first, individual academic freedom has always relied on collective action, on the group affirming the protections of the individual, and thus has always been tempered by things like peer review and tenure cases. The purpose of the journal/conference is to create a sense of discipline/community, to foster paradigms: in other words, to get us moving in the same direction as part of the same conversation.

One could imagine MLA Commons as a step in this direction, or CUNY’s Commons-in-a-Box which is the platform on which it operates. Clearly the technology is there. It’s simply a matter of having the will to move in this direction. But who can imagine a discipline, or a university, of 30K working together in such a fashion? Is that what this is? A failure of imagination? Or do we really believe spending years writing a book that sells a couple hundred copies is a better use of our time? Or spending $1500 to deliver a paper to a dozen people? Or writing essays for collections or journals that never get cited? Which approach seems to make more sense for communicating to the larger public the value of the work we do?#plaa{display:none;visibility:hidden;}

3 thoughts on “building imaginary scholarly platforms

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  1. All good questions that have been around a long time. One thing that struck me about what you’re thinking about here is at the end with something like the MLA Commons. One of the thing that has always frustrated me about the computers and writing community is there’s no organization to speak of. Here’s another example of where if that organization existed, we could talk more about some kind of space/site that might be a place for the group to work together.

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    1. Well, what do you think it would take to create one? I suppose it would start with 7Cs. It would be a matter of someone with enough institutional support (and personal interest) to set up a site getting that groups blessing. Also I suppose one would turn to the TechRhet listserv, since that’s much the same group. If I wasn’t a WPA with a ton of admin duties already, I could almost imagine taking a stab at it.

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      1. Sorry I didn’t respond sooner. Holidaze….

        There have been some efforts in the past, but one of the conditions of the computers and writing community (I don’t know if this is a strength of a weakness) is a lot of the people who are “movers and shakers” seem to be against anything that is too organized for some reason.

        But I don’t know, there might be an opportunity to bring it up again at something like the 7Cs. I’m happy to follow and support, but I’m not to terribly interested in taking the lead. So stab away and I’ll be behind you.

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