Alone in the Archive, Together in Google Docs

Those of us in the Transatlantic Gothic seminar submitted our archival research papers today. The assignment asked us each to choose one of the course texts and investigate its afterlife and reception by doing research in library databases and other primary sources. We did not sign up for specific texts, nor did we discuss our research questions in the confines of the class. It was a purely private exploration, just me and the archives and digital databases.

Once the papers were safely submitted to the professor (uncontaminated by secondary source materials or, apparently, the influence of others), she encouraged us to post our completed papers in the Sakai class forum so that other students in the class can read them. Finally, we devoted a few minutes at the end of class for is to share the scope of what we found.

Even that gesture toward sharing and commenting on each other’s work is more than in some grad courses.

Although grad students are frequently together—in seminar, in our super-tight cubicle offices—we often read and write alone.

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Scrolling through a document, all alone.

 

In Planned Obsolescence, Kathleen Fitzpatrick argues for a significantly more open and collaborative reading and writing community. She writes about “new conversational publishing practices”* in digital forms and shows that our obsession with being original and proprietors of our intellectual property are keeping us from adopting these new means of sharing and publishing our work. We need to see that “some of the most important work that we can do as scholars may more closely resemble contemporary editorial or curatorial practices, bringing together, highlighting, and remixing significant ideas in existing texts rather than remaining solely focused on the production of more ostensibly original texts.”

I crave this. I love the open exchange of ideas on this blog, from comments and suggestions on my writing from colleagues, and from the forwarding of a link or title of an article that someone I respect thinks would interest me.

But currently, those mechanisms for collaboration and sharing my writing happen only because I seek them out, extracurricularly. I sometimes feel sheepish asking a friend (see especially the ever-compassionate Katie Wright and bad-ass Carolyne King) to take the time to read a paper I’m writing in order to give me feedback. I ask myself, How good should it be before I ask them to offer reader reaction? Some of this is pride—I don’t want to waste anyone else’s time with my shitty first draft. I want my ideas to be somewhat formed before someone other than me opens my document. And yet I don’t want to wait until I’m so far into the drafting process that a nudge or wrist slap from a reader I respect can’t shift my thoughts in a more productive way.

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This is a video of a cat helping a dog open a door. It’s a metaphor.

While much of the time I spend reading and writing is, by necessity, alone time, the most invigorating and momentum-building work I do comes when I am challenged by another writer responding to / critiquing / pushing back against / extending / asking me to clarify my ideas.

I resolve to seek out ways to make my writing more public (I admire scholars who draft in public like Dr. Michelle Moravec and those who blog like Frederick Coye Heard), and in doing so, making myself vulnerable to criticism. I also commit to making sure that I, too, engage in helping my peers create, strengthen, and share their writing with a broader audience.

Together, I believe that we can set a new model for ourselves of inculcating helpfulness. As Fitzpatrick writes in her conclusion, “the new communication systems that we develop for networked environments” are scary, but they’re also “generative,” and we must be willing to continue remaining open to the discomfort of “instability, of the frighteningly uncertain, of the wide-open and new.” It feels weird, it feels scary, and it doesn’t always feel good, but we’ve got to do a better job of embracing more open and collaborative/conversational means of writing, commenting, editing, and publishing.

*I have a Kindle version of the text and don’t have page numbers. I’m sorry.

8 thoughts on “Alone in the Archive, Together in Google Docs”

  1. Janel,

    This isn’t necessarily a push back against you specifically but also against Fitzpatrick, as I struggled with this question while reading her text: why do we absolutely NEED to, as you say, “do a better job of embracing more open and collaborative/conversational means of writing, commenting, editing, and publishing”?

    Now, that’s mainly a rhetorical question; I know why we SHOULD make a more concerted effort to be collaborative, love each other yet hate each others’ drafts, drink coffee under beautiful sunsets, and live happily ever after. It’s simple: peer responses can enhance drafts/final products/never-final products/whatever.

    But what is someone like me to do, someone who values writing and reading ALONE and oftentimes finds peer review something I’d rather make my first-year writing students do than engage with myself? Are people like me another sort of academic “zombie” that refuses to die and feeds off the collaborative progress that the rest of academia is purportedly trying to make/embrace?

    Probably, and I expect I’ll get tons of flak for this comment, but I’m not going to apologize!

    1. There is something in Chris’ resistance to peer review that has a really important message here–our composition time is frequently alone time, at least in terms of spatial and embodied aloneness, and I think it has more to do with just the way some people (like me, who rarely shares his drafts) operate cognitively. As people in the downstairs office (and now some poor souls in the upstairs office) know, however, there is definitely a generative property to those long, joke-littered diatribes about stuff we’re working on. I get the impression, like Moravec, I could draft in *digital* public in the same way I might draft in a coffee shop–it’s public, but the public isn’t interrupting me while I’m typing to ask questions. I’m not so hung up on the SFD as I am on the interrupting peer reviewer who’s too early to get it or too late to be of any use (something I’m glad Janel identifies).

      So, Chris, you really do not have to apologize, since I’m pretty sure your iconoclastic question just made me create a meaningful distinction between collaboration at different stages of composition and the difference between embodied aloneness and actual intellectual isolation.

  2. Janel,

    I also absolutely love the kind of idea-exchange we can do here on the blog. This is the kind of community that I imagined when I applied to grad school. I think that Fitzpatrick really gets at the heart of this, too, when she reminds us that collaboration is not just about co-writing drafts but it’s about being involved in the development of ideas.

    Chris,

    In my opinion, good ideas are tested ideas. They can come under scrutiny and not fall apart. Thus when Fitzpatrick re-imagines a collaborative community she sees it as a place where we can skip that long process of waiting to respond to published books and articles and instead jump to the good stuff (commenting on the ideas in process).

  3. Janel,

    This post resonated so much with me– and not first because I completely agree that working in the archives is a peculiarly isolating experience. Don’t get me wrong, there’s something totally invigorating about the ability to encounter primary texts without having someone else already frame them for you. It opens up interesting possibilities that I’m not sure I would have seen otherwise. But it is also very scary to try to piece together an argument about the archives without getting feedback from other people who are engaged in similar work. I really felt like I was shooting in the dark with the gothic archival paper.

    I also love the idea of devoting more time to, and opening up new venues for, collaboration within the academy. But I do wonder a little about how we can do so in a way that isn’t an overwhelming burden in terms of labor and time. I already struggle just to accomplish my own work as a graduate student and teacher. It seems to me that if we want to create more opportunities for collaboration and exchange, particularly for graduate students, these need to be supported institutionally. It’s difficult to “take away” from content-based seminar time, I know, but wouldn’t it have been cool if we’d had the opportunity in class earlier to with each other about our archival research? Just moving the alloted time from an after-the-fact report to an in-progress discussion We insist on making time for this type of work in undergraduate writing courses– why shouldn’t we value it as much (if not more) in a graduate context?

    Just some thoughts. Really enjoyed this post!
    Kiley

  4. Janel,

    I am interested in the distinction you make between having someone read a draft either too early OR too late. I completely agree with you that I am hesitant to share my shitty first draft, but I know the more revision I do (and the closer the deadline comes), the less likely I am going to be able to perform an actual re-VISION and not simply a rearrangement/reemphasis.

    Relatedly, I wonder how fruitful the forum posts in gothic class were. I like the idea of sharing work, but because these are not works in progress (at least not explicitly), I wonder how much can be gained by critiquing them.

    I also wonder whether you see a difference between the comments peers give you and the comments advisors/professors give you in terms of your own revision process. For me, I will revise according to a professor/advisor at any stage of a draft, but I only find peer review to be a motivator during the initial nascent stages of an idea.

  5. Thanks for the shout out. I will say that all scholarship is produced in collaboration, but some people have more access to collaborators than others. I began #writinginpublic because my alt-ac years had left me in a strange spot, midcarrer, but without the usual group of friends/colleagues with whom I could share drafts. The process is also meant to push back against impostor syndrome, especially in women, that no writing is ever “good enough.” I’d love to have you join the Feminist Scholars Digital Writing group (1 week) this summer http://bit.ly/1lJnndH

  6. Janel,
    I really enjoyed this post. I’m a fan of the concept of “public drafting.” I’m that person who will be editing, adding to, and otherwise changing a paper as much as two or three years after I’m done with it either because i find new information, or I manage to convince myself it wasn’t good enough (see: this past weekend). I would so value the ability to keep my drafts in a place where others can give feedback, constructive criticism, and pointers, as well as an easy way to keep track of the different iterations of my work.

    Like you said, writing and editing alone can get lonely. Without others’ input, we can also end up rethinking and re-examining the same concepts so many times that we can’t remember what the original point was in the first place. Just out of curiosity, what do you find to be the best ways to encourage peers to share their work in a wider audience? How often do you run into people who are compulsive revisers, and what seems to be the best way to bring them out of that cycle?

  7. Janel
    I like the idea of sharing ideas, getting feedback, influencing and being influenced in the middle of the way of creating a new work. However, I find a kind of over-enthusiasm about collaborative digital writing in Fitzpatrick’s approach that sounds a little bit Communistic to me. She encourages authors to think about communities and collective achievements instead of being constantly worried about their individual voice; or this is the way I read her. That over-enthusiasm bothers me and reminds me of the parts of history in which communities were worshiped by individuals who chose not to be worried about their individualities any more. And we all know the results.

    By the way, I can find page number in my PC Kindle by clicking on the table of contents, the last item is Page or Location. I hope it helps.

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