The MLA’s discovery of “digital scholarship”

Let me first explain why I have such a big chip on my shoulder about all this.  In summary:

  • I’ve had some kind of web site where I’ve published various scholarly and non-scholarly things since about 1994.
  • I can’t remember if this was in 1995 or 1996, but somewhere in there, I was one of the first members of the editorial board of Kairos, one of the first if not the first completely web-based and multimedia-oriented “journals” for work on computers and writing.
  • I published my dissertation online (along with the more traditional paper format, of course), also in 1996.  That site has been visited thousands and thousands of times, and while I am quite sure most people stumble across it and leave, I do get an email once in a while about it, folks at conferences tell me they’ve read parts of it once in a while, it gets cited here and there, etc.
  • In 2001, I gave a presentation– at the MLA convention in New Orleans no less!– titled “Where Do I List This on My CV? Considering the Value of Self-Published and Maintained Web Sites.”  This was part of a panel on digital scholarship put together by Todd Taylor and that featured myself, Bump Halbritter, and (the clear “headliner”) Gary Olson.  We had quite a large crowd as I recall, though I will confess it was the only thing I went to that year at the conference– the French Quarter was too close.
  • In 2002, I published an essay version of this in the then brand-new CCC Online.  A few years after that, I was disappeared by NCTE, a result of sloppy handling of online scholarship by NCTE, a practice that is, IMO, continuing (but that’s a different post, really). In any event, in 2007, I published  “’Where Do I List This on My CV?’ Considering the Values of Self-Published Web Sites, Version 2.0” in Kairos.
  • Also in 2007, I went ahead and self-published my failed ultimately rejected by the publisher textbook project, The Process of Research Writing.  And one of these days, I’m going to create a “new edition” based on this one and try to market it myself, but that too is a different post.

So I have experienced a few things about digital scholarship first-hand.  In fact (and I realize this is rather egotistical of me to even admit), the first thing that irritated me about the special section on “Evaluating Digital Scholarship” in the MLA’s Profession 2011 was the fact that no one cited me let alone barely anyone in composition and rhetoric in general or computers and writing particular, two fields/disciplines/groups  that a) have been working on issues of digital publishing for decades, and b) I  thought were areas of interest in English studies and thus MLA.  Though maybe not.

I agree fully with Cheryl Ball’s editorial in Kairos on much of this, and I am sure Cheryl has read and thought about this special issue more carefully than I am likely to anytime soon.  From what I have read at this point, the articles here are pretty good and potentially useful for edifying the clueless those who haven’t contemplated the changing patterns in scholarly publishing in English studies.  I do find it insulting that the introduction pretty much lumps my entire field into “other” as far as MLA is concerned, and there is also for me a bit of a helplessly haughty tone, kind of like the asleep at the wheel captain of that ship that crashed in Italy who has suddenly realized there might be some kind of “sinking problem.”  But this isn’t exactly new.

(Not that NCTE or Kairos has all of this digital/multimedia scholarship stuff completely figured out either, I should point out.  But that too is a different post, and probably the ultimate topic of my CCCCs presentation in St. Louis.  Stay tuned).

I did want to bring up two other issues that are different from what Cheryl and others have brought up.  First, at no point in time (at least as far as I can tell) is there any questioning of what exactly it typically takes (in terms of scholarship) to get tenure.  The assumption seems to be that to get tenure, professors in literature (and other “English” related fields) need to publish a book, that this is a universal standard, and that this is more or less the way it should be.  Thus the crisis in evaluating digital scholarship:  how can we make sure this stuff is as rigorous as a book?  Second, the assumption here seems to be that academic “books” (and their related counterpart, academic “journals”) are going to disappear completely and in the very near future, everything is going to be hyper-this and multimedia-that.

Both of these assumptions are ridiculous.

I’ve been a graduate student or faculty person at four different universities since 1988, and while none of these places have been particularly “prestigious” or “important,” I can name dozens of tenured faculty at these places who have not published a book or much of anything else.  I can point to many other institutions where this is also the case.  To quote myself from version 2 of the “Where do I list this on my CV?” piece:

Perhaps this is so obvious that it goes without saying, although perhaps this is something that is not said enough. I don’t think the variable nature of scholarship (and teaching and service, for that matter) is made clear enough to Ph.D. students as they prepare for academic careers; it certainly wasn’t made very clear to me. I recall the horror stories of the publish-or-perish phenomenon, of assistant professors who had books published by good presses and were still denied tenure. The picture that was painted by my advisors made me think that tenure at most schools was a fifty-fifty proposition, at best.

The fact of the matter is that this happens almost exclusively at Carnegie Classification Research I or Research II institutions, or it happens in situations that probably have more to do with complicated politics and personalities than it does with publications. The vast majority of community colleges, colleges, and universities in this country are not research institutions and do not have the same notions about what does or doesn’t count as scholarship for the purposes of tenure, review, and promotion. Yet this reality is routinely ignored in documents that offer advice and guidelines for tenure, promotion, and review.

And, as a slight tangent to that, because a lot of places like EMU consider lots and lots of different things as “scholarship,” I would argue it is these more common and less prestigious institutions that are ironically on the “cutting edge” when it comes to digital scholarly work.

As to the demise of books and journals:  paper is going away, not books and journals.  I don’t think I’m going out on much of a limb in predicting that it will not be long before there is no point in the paper version of academic journals when the PDFs are available through various databases, and when the vast majority of books will be read on kindles, iPads, and other devices.  (And I wait anxiously for Apple’s “GarageBand for Textbooks” announcement, too. That has the potential to shake up this whole “book” thing even more– or not.)

But so what?  The shift from scroll to codex didn’t end books– just changed them.  The same with the advent of print and paper as a medium.  Or let me put it this way:  I will believe this grand transition to something truly different when scholars stop turning to electronic (albeit refereed) journals like Kairos in favor of self-published web sites (especially for the purposes of tenure and review), when people like David Weinberger are invited to speak at a symposium at U of M based on his blog and not his book, and when Kathleen Fitzpatrick (and others) encourage PhD students take risks in a series of tweets or write about the end of publishing in academia on a wiki and not a book.

I do not believe this grand transition is going to happen, and, I have come to believe, it shouldn’t and it can’t happen.  I don’t have time to go into all this now, but I think there is an intrinsic value to a finished, uneditable or commentable and “object-like” (even if it is an electronic one) state of a text.  Not everything should be “in progress” and “in discussion” all the time.  And I am also convinced that all rhetorical situations– like so many other things– must come to some kind of end, and I think that end is print.  Or, in an electronic age, “print.”



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