Academic/Online Writing/Responding: A Bricolage

In reading Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s Planned Obsolescence, I found myself most drawn to her chapter on authorship and the ways in which she is forwarding some of the ideas we discussed last week in relation to Lessig’s Remix.

As academics, we generally (and in turn tell our students) that there is a “right” way to critique scholars with opposing viewpoints in one’s own written work (with respect, fairness, tact, etc.). Likewise, most people would acknowledge that there is an etiquette to what sorts of comments are “appropriate” to online writing, images, video, etc. (trolls and flamers not withstanding). Yet, if we consider Fitzpatrick’s proposition that “we come to accept remix as a mode of scholarly authorship, a form of academic bricolage” (79 in Kindle), what then would the hybrid responses to such hybrid texts look like? Naturally, there are some blogs or other online publicity organs associated with scholarly journals that do allow for some amount of commenting, but I cannot think of any online journal in Victorian studies (my field) that does anything more than approximately reproduce the print journal format in pixelated form—they embrace a new technology without also embracing any of its other affordances in soliciting reader responses.

Fitzpatrick notes that it is “important to recognize that even if we never return to an article and revise it after it’s been published online, the article’s meaning will nonetheless shift and change depending on the ways that other writers interact with it” (71 in Kindle). She admits elsewhere that this is of course true of most texts, but with online texts there is the expectation that this sort of shifting, negotiating, and revising will not only happen, but will do so to a visible extent and under the eyes of a readership that will proceed to not only comment but sometimes even steer the conversation.

So then, a thought experiment: just for a moment imagine a combination of the scholarly/online modes of response, for instance, a scholarly article that allowed “comments” akin to the form of say, those on a YouTube video. Anyone would be able to see that so-and-so many people gave a piece a thumbs up or thumbs down, what people had to say about it specifically, as well as what conversations/conflicts it generated (whether thoughtful or not)—to a certain extent, perhaps this is what we have been doing all along in our class blog/Twitter feed. In any case, this approach would likely generate some productive comments, but might also…not (as is so often the case with even the most seemingly innocuous videos).

A Spirited Internet Debate
The future of academic discourse?

To give an example from YouTube (which happens to be oddly fitting in light of Fitzpatrick’s discussion of academic publishing as an “undead” form): in response to the “Bring out your dead” scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, one commenter going by the moniker TheFalafelRaptor responded “46 people aren’t dead yet but got thrown into the cart anyways,” which anyone who has spent any amount of time on YouTube recognizes as a fairly standard template response (taking the number of people who have given the video a thumbs down—46 in this case—and combining it with some statement that relates to the fact that these users did not align themselves with what most other people liked about the video). Yet, imagine the uproar if academic texts were treated in this way: “46 people aren’t ready to remix with Lessig.” I find myself halfway between horror and amusement at the thought.

Perhaps this type of mash-up is not quite what Fitzpatrick (or Lessig) had in mind in advocating for bricolage or remix, particularly as it pertains not only to the creation of texts. But what about responses to them? And why not?

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5 thoughts on “Academic/Online Writing/Responding: A Bricolage”

  1. Petra–

    Your post reminds me of one of the qualms I had about using the #4C14 to participate in twitter discussions. It’s not that I thought that I (or others) would produce the type of commentary you discuss here, but rather that twitter to me seems very off the cuff-ish. It’s a place where you share your immediate thoughts on something. And, like you point out, off the cuff comments can be both unproductive and unthoughtful.

    Even with thought and an effort towards productivity, though, I wonder if the audience stakes aren’t just too high. Aware of my own limited master’s level knowledge of my field, I’m not certain that I would want my thoughts on a particular topic to go out to the public domain for everyone (especially high ranked scholars) to read.

    All of this is to say that I agree with you: I think that a completely open commenting system could have disastrous results.

    1. Heather–

      I totally agree with your assessment of the following the #4C14 feed last week; I did check in quite frequently, but I’ll admit that I never felt that I had a comfortable enough grasp on the conversation to “stick my oar in.” As Joe pointed out in his update from CCCC, it must be hard for the person tweeting to pay attention while still conveying cogent bits of the conversation to remote audiences, AND for the remote audience to get anything close to an understanding of more than a fraction of the talk being tweeted about. Our own experiment of “live-tweeting” the class a few weeks ago for Janel stuck at home was surely similar. While I, as a present participant, did enjoy it as a sort of in-the-moment-summary-cum-verbal-reaction-gif, I can imagine that a remote participant might feel more than a little lost or like they were on the outside of a string of “inside jokes” (actual inside jokes notwithstanding).

      And yes, the idea of someone fancy judging me on the quality of my off-the-cuff assessments/comments is absolutely as terrifying getting those sorts of comments from others on any of my work. I guess that’s a double-bind of trepidation. Maybe we all just need to learn to hold ourselves and others to slightly lower standards of coherence in admittedly “unfinished” modes of writing?

  2. I feel like the whole thing with responding comes down to academics tending to take themselves quite seriously within their community, and in regards to the rest of the world. I think that there is a place for informal, entertaining academic discussion that is still professional and factual- it’s just a matter of where to construct it.

    The thumbs up/thumbs down system sounds just like what Fitzpatrick discusses in the section about self-policing in peer review (I can’t find the exact page right now). I guess I’d be curious to think about what makes academic publishing so much more special than other writing and why they CAN’T have a system like the upvote/downvote one. What makes the academic system so much better than other areas of publishing (particularly digital publication) that they limit the reviewing to themselves? I know that’s not a very well-formed idea, but I do wonder about that.

  3. Petra,

    I shudder to think of youtube style comments on my own writing…At the same time – I do love the honesty of that style of commenting. What I’m also interested though in this style of peer review is the sense of responsibility (obligation) authors (posters, bloggers) feel in responding to comments. There is a need to defend (explain further, readjust your stance) that can be overwhelming. On the one hand, I think that these conversations can be highly productive and can help us further our own projects. On the other, I can imagine things getting overwhelming fast.

  4. Okay, you had my attention at “Bricolage”. There are definitely some affordances that the web, in general, makes that academic discourse is not, at the moment, suited for. As you point out, someone responding a-la-Youtube would be the most horrible/hilarious/nonproductive thing. However, one might imagine that the quality of responses on Youtube are a result of its target audience–literally anybody who can see or hear or get wifi–where academic discourse, even on the internet, would probably attract a smaller, more specific audience. Academic discourse already has its Youtube trolls (and they have degrees!), but because the audience is highly specific, the type of troll is highly specific. So even if academic discourse had its Youtube–which I argue it really hasn’t found yet–the trolls on that will be as annoying to us (and no more annoying) than the trolls of Youtube are to the general Youtube userbase. So I think you’re right to qualify our traditional fears with the idea of “why not?”, knowing that some neat things might just happen in the mash-up.

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