Fastwrite: Since we did not meet together last week, I’d like us to spend some time thinking about the work we did online. Please jot down a few lines about what most interested, provoked, or amused you about:
Miller, Fitzpatrick, and the Undead of Academic Writing
Fastwrite: Find a passage in one of the following texts that helps you formulate a question for Richard Miller (and the rest of us):
Your x6s, and the various texts mentioned in them.
Your proposals will count as x7 and will be due on Tues, 4/08, at 11:59. Unless people feel uneasy about doing so, I suggest that they be posted online, so you can get feedback and advice your colleagues in seminar as well as me.
Your proposal should address the following issues:
What texts or other materials do you plan to work with?
What question or problem will your writing address?
What sort of format are you imagining working in? (E.g., WordPress, Tumblr, video, podcast . . . )
Can you identify a text that could serve as an approximate model for the sort of piece you’d like to compose?
What questions do you have at this point for me and your colleagues?
A proposal is not a contract. I expect that your ideas for your piece will evolve over the next several weeks. Your aim for now should formulate a sense of your project in terms that are specific but open to revision, that describe what you want to do in ways that allow the rest of us to offer you advice.
Tues, 4/08, 11:59 pm: Post your digital essay proposal to this site.
Thurs, 4/10, 11:59 pm: Post advice and feedback to those proposals you feel you can help with.
Fri, 4/11, class: Be ready to discuss Christopher Johnson’s Microstyle.
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).
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?
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.
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.
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.
In the introduction to her text Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy, Kathleen Fitzpatrick develops a striking metaphor for how academic publishing currently operates and the stagnant form of its major product, namely the monograph: “The scholarly press book is, however, in a curious state, one that might usefully trouble our associations of obsolescence with the ‘death’ of this or that cultural form, for while it is no longer a viable mode of communication, it is, in many fields, still required in order to get tenure. If anything, the scholarly monograph isn’t dead; it is undead” (4).
As Fitzpatrick points out, and as I’m sure many of us are aware, zombie culture is huge these days. Just look at the popularity of zombie-centric texts like World War Z by Max Brooks and its subsequent film adaptation directed by Marc Forster, or the AMC series The Walking Dead, based on the comic-book series of the same name. And of course there’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies because who doesn’t want a little brains with their Jane Austen?
But I digress. Fitzpatrick expresses some concern for “how far we want to,” and I’d add can, “carry this metaphor,” yet she nonetheless carries it further, stating that “contemporary academic publishing is governed by a kind of zombie logic” that “might be read as indicating that these old forms refuse to stay put in their graves, but instead walk the earth, rotting and putrescent…” and she goes on, consciously carrying the metaphor to its absurd limit (4).
But however hyperbolic Fitzpatrick’s metaphor may be, I find it to be extremely apropos, given her interest in working toward “a good replacement for the scholarly monograph,” which she asserts does not yet exist because we don’t “seem particularly inclined to allow the book to become a ‘niche’ technology” (5). Her point is well-taken: we cannot expect to survive a textual zombie apocalypse if we don’t create and arm ourselves with the appropriate accoutrements that would open up a can of academic whoop-ass.
One of the key facets of her argument is that perhaps we need to revise our notions of the kind of scholarly work that is sufficient for receiving tenure because scholars are no longer creating monographs as we once knew them; quite the contrary, their projects are increasingly multimodal and “creative” in ways that dramatically challenge universities’ motto of “‘We Have Never Done It That Way Before,’” which Fitzpatrick reiterates countless times throughout her text.
Aside from how scholars are more frequently muddying the “genre” of the “scholarly monograph,” I’d argue that there is another lingering ideology that is essentially the brains-ripe-for-chomping that perpetuate zombie texts: our assumption that texts, either in print or in digital forms, are almost always read not just from cover-to-cover but also in chronological/sequential order. Discussing her findings from her experiment where she posted a manuscript version (sorrynotsorry for the reliance on a print-specific term) of Planned Obsolescence on MediaCommons, Fitzpatrick glosses this assumption when she attempts to make sense of the breakdown of page visits. She admits that “reading online is perhaps a bit more partial and broken-up than we might prefer…but we also know at least anecdotally that most readers of scholarly texts do not in any literal sense actually sit down and read them start to finish” (192-3). Rather, we read them almost as if they were a buffet, scanning the table of contents and indices for what looks appetizing—essentially which portions of that author’s/those authors’ brains we’d like to pick at.
Thus, we can’t assume that “a ‘pure’ reading process” actually exists, especially in light of how our “web-browsing techniques” are often “fragmented and adulterated” (193), yet it definitely seems like we still do on some level.
Hence our reliance on the printed scholarly monograph.
In a digital environment where we can easily get link-happy and click around haphazardly until our hearts’ content or, as Kylie mentioned in her x1 post, we get through all the tabs we currently have open in our browsers, how can we use this fragmented process of reading to our advantage in reconceptualizing the kinds of long-playing texts, to borrow a music term, we value in the academy? Is there a way that we can use the “persistent ephemerality” of the blog form in creating texts that withstand “planned obsolescence” with a bit more panache?
Disclaimer: As Chris points out below, Fitzpatrick addresses some of these issues in her conclusion. As per the prompt, this was an “in progress” post. I look forward to reading how she explains these issues in the conclusion.
As someone who went from being a “lit” person to a “comp” person within a literature focused graduate program, I am perhaps hyper-aware of the differences between the two branches of English studies. That said, I do think these differences are significant enough that it is problematic to discuss lit and comp as if they were the same field with the same values and guiding principles. More troubling, is when we make generalized claims about “the humanities” as if we can say anything about this nebulous category that would equally apply to the various disciplines caught within the overgeneralized net.
When reading Fitzpatrick’s work, I found her tendency to overgeneralize about the humanities to distract from her otherwise compelling argument. This tendency was particularly irksome because Fitzpatrick herself notes the problems of such a generalization. When discussing the online journal Philica, she notes that “the site suffers from a too-general mode of organization; the ‘humanities’ as a whole . . . represents a single field” (40). Her phrasing (“suffers from”) and her use of scare quotes shows her resistance to discussing humanities as a category, yet it is this specific type of categorical organization that guides the rest of her argument.
I realize that my issue with this generalization sounds a bit nit-picky (which is a technical term), but I think that the issue I point to has larger ramifications in the applicability of her argument. For instance, when discussing the potential problems of empirical study, Fitzpatrick claims that “the values of the humanities are largely uncountable” (47). The importance of empirical studies within composition studies aside, what exactly are these “values of the humanities”? Do philosophy, history, and writing centers all share the same values? We could make broad claims about how they all work to better the interiority of students, but then are we saying that the sciences don’t do this?
I suppose my larger point is that I think Fitzpatrick’s argument is more relevant and urgent to some sub-fields of the humanities than it is to others. While Fitzpatrick claims that many disciplines need to rethink their cultural relevancy and work to combat the public disdain for their irrelevancy (13), I believe that this need is far more urgent for some divisions of the humanities than it is for others.
Moreover, I think that if Fitzpatrick had waded through some of these over-generalizations, her argument would have been able to include more practical solutions. While I found her argument to be very compelling (when applied to certain contexts), I found myself continually wondering about how realistic her ideas were. While I want to believe her that it would be possible to make reviewing a requirement for publication and that this would then lead to “greater diversity of opinion and a greater distribution of the labor” (47), in such general terms it comes across as a utopian dream and not a practical solution to a very real problem academia is facing.
While this is probably the textual equivalent of multitasking, I’m going to attempt to respond to Dr. Harris’ observations about critical discourse on twitter, since it actually has a lot to do with what I want to respond about regarding Fitzpatrick. This will all hopefully fit together in a moment.
As simple as it seems, I don’t think the technical allowances of Twitter allow for one-off critical discourse, particularly not when that critical discourse is actually critical. It’s easy to say, on Twitter, that “I really like what this scholar is doing here bit.lylink #tweet #epic”, but rather intensely more challenging to compose a response which might take issue–as my own stilted interactions with Tom Standage show. It’s impossible to fit Joe’s sentiment about the big-name panel in a tweet, particularly when he needs to spend more time on careful wording than concision. “Big-Name Panel was so TEDIOUS #4c14 #yawn #probablyshunnedforever” is not a satisfactory critical response, but it’s impossible to say “Saw Big-Name Panel, which was well-selected, but disappointing. Want to know more about Panelist’s ideas on [Issue-at-Hand], particularly when it comes to [Academic Soap-Box Issue] #4c14 #bigname” without pulling a + or a “(1/2) (2/2)”, which simply wastes more precious characters and risks dissolution in the sea of hashtag-filtered responses.
The perpetual personal surveillance that Twitter builds in doesn’t help, as a person can find your tweet about them even if you didn’t @ them. Twitter is all credentialed gossip, but none of the gossip can stay gossip, and the credentials can quickly become an albatross.
Twitter seems built primarily for praise, forwarding, or snark. Academic publication, as Fitzpatrick frequently points out, is built for analogous, but strategically different aims (11). Rarely is our praise unqualified (see: all of our blog posts on every author), but academic forwarding, (genteel) snark, and idea development are key–which is precisely why the current academic publication system hardly works better for these purposes than Twitter. Joe can’t tweet that the big name panel was tedious in the same way he can’t really publish a book out of Duke University Press about how tedious the panel was entitled [Big Name Panelist] is Silly. The peers are watching, and the credentials are at stake. An uncareful move might make Joe’s economy of reputation go the way of the Russian actual economy–and thus, academic speech has developed both an “ethical obligation to listen” (43), a means of gatekeeping (Peer Reviewed Publications), and a discourse based more on precision and diplomacy than concision (which is wonderful, but also not suited to microblogging). (For more thoughts on publishing, see Katie’s x5 post and all the comments on it regarding a new system of credentialing, funding, and publication not wholly unlike some of Fitzpatrick’s suggestions).
Fitzpatrick points out that this existing system of credentializing is necessary but restrictive–for instance, the abuse of institutional sponsorship to propagate outdated ideologies is protected by this system–and a more Twitterian, algorithmically-based system is similarly restrictive “bean counting” (47) reminiscent of the disastrous evaluation policies of No Child Left Behind (collective shudder). The disqualification of these open systems wholesale–emblematic in the early-2000s institutional dismissal of Wikipedia even as that publication does not employ this system–is not unlike the myth of Read Only culture I mentioned last week: it is, as Fitzpatrick put it, an artifact of an obsolescence-phobic “political project aimed at intervening in contemporary public life, perhaps with the intent of shoring up a waning cultural hierarchy” (2).
That’s why I’m glad Fitzpatrick gestured towards hybrid systems–while I still plan on writing monographs, it’s nice to think someday I might be able to write an article and put it out on the web for academics to read (since my field has no 100% applicable journal) and still have that publication “count.” Unlike Twitter, the web generally is not structured as to preclude academic forms of writing, and the fact that we tend to ignore that potential institutionally is disappointing. If the academic publication industry is a “zombie” system, shuffling along in an unsustainable fashion, academic writing in *form* and *aim* is less a zombie than (oh boy here we go) a cyborg–something not necessarily integrated with current technology that might be enhanced or reformulated to include it without particular difficulty.
Like the technophobic antagonists in every “Good Cyborg” story ever, though, we have to get over our institutional fear of this technology if we want it to work.
My point, oddly, is this: the fact that Dr. Harris has no way to properly critique a panel for being tedious or nonproductive is already indicative of the serious problems facing not only academic discourse and publication, but the system of institutional influence and credentials that might allow the abuse of power by those who benefit from being able to be boring on big-name panels.
Case and point: last year I attended a conference on a prevailing issue in academia, and a very powerful, established academic (and Federal Funding magnet) gave a keynote speech on the issue. The speech was a tedious patchwork of outmoded ideology, institutional policy nonsense, statistics from the 1990s, and clearly-appropriated ideas on a series of projected slides. At the end, a room full of normally semi-revolutionary academic activists clapped.
I’ll be interested to start our conversation next Friday by hearing about your impressions of our “virtual”—and admittedly diffuse—class this week. What impressions did you have of the #4c14 twitter feed? How satisfying (or not) was it to discuss Lessig through the medium of posts and comments alone?
Let me offer two quick thoughts about attending the conference while trying to keep in touch with this group. First, I both enjoyed tweeting the conference and found it distracting. It’s very different from simply taking notes, which are a far more expansive genre, both in terms of how much you can say and their expressive range. Which leads me to my second thought: I attended one session which I did not tweet, because it was a “big-name” panel that I found very annoying when it wasn’t simply tedious. But the conference twitter feed did not seem the right forum to make such a remark (and still retain a number of people as friends). Which in turn made me think about what seem some pretty striking limits of Twitter as a space for critical conversation.
From a distance, I was struck by the tepid responses to Lessig. Upon rereading him, I think I can see and feel why. Lessig is important for his advocacy of an open culture and his critique of expanded copyright. (I think for many of us oldsters he was the person to make that argument.) But his tone now feels off—more combative, more dichotomizing, less willing to recognize and build from the non-RO aspects of our culture. (In that vein, I continue to find Standage’s emphasis on continuities appealing, even if he doesn’t like TV.) My hunch is, then, that for the purposes of this class, we can probably acknowledge what Lessig contributes and move on.
Which will be, to my mind, toward a much more engaging book. I am reading Fitzpatrick’s Planned Obsolescence for the first time and enjoying and admiring it immensely. So I’d like us to try to read through the whole of her book for Friday—but given that I am only halfway through it myself, I’ll understand if you need to make an “in progress” post on Tuesday. (Remember that our new deadline is 11:59 pm.)
This will be a free response, but I suspect it might prove useful and interesting if you can scan Richard Miller’s text2cloud (or some other online academic writing you admire) in relation to Fitzpatrick’s book. In any case, please keep in my mind that we will have Richard in seminar with us on Friday, and that he will giving a public talk on Thursday afternoon (3:30, 111 Memorial). Richard is a very engaging speaker; you’ll want to hear him if you possibly can, and I will be counting on you have some questions and thoughts for him in class.
I apologize for the impromptu and rambling form of this post. It is being composed directly in the text box at a lunch table in Indianapolis. That is, of course, precisely the sort of thing I warned all of you never to do—but I felt it was urgent to connect. I look forward to seeing all of you in person next week!