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Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy

from product to process

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 The first of the shifts that I want to discuss has to do with the status of the texts that we produce when we write, including their very shape and structure. We are all attuned to the form of the book review, the essay, the article, the book, but digital publishing has thus far produced a number of new forms, none of which comfortably fit in our old structures. The blog, for instance, is arguably the first successful web-native electronic publishing platform,[2.10] one with a number of structural elements that cannot be replicated in print, and one that therefore encodes different expectations than do print texts. A perfunctory bit of background, for those still unfamiliar with the form: “blog” is a neologism drawn from a contraction of “web log,” a term first used to designate the web journals kept by a number of active web-surfers, logging and commenting on their online finds. “Blog” has since come to refer to a wide range of ongoing web publications in an equally wide range of genres, all of which bear in common frequently updated entries that appear on the published page with the newest posts up top, receding into the past as one scrolls down the page.[2.11] Blogging has developed from a mildly peculiar and somewhat self-regarding web-publishing practice limited to a small sector of the techno-elite into a surprisingly widespread phenomenon, thanks in part to a number of free software packages and services that make blogging no more difficult than writing itself. Blogger, the first of those tools, was released in October 2000; by July 2008, Technorati.com was tracking the activity on 112.8 million blogs.[2.12] Among those blogs, the type and level of discourse vary greatly: some blogs are exclusively personal journals, while others are focused on politics or other aspects of the public sphere, and many are in fact a blend of the two; some blogs are single-authored while others are the works of groups; some blogs exclusively publish text while many others include other forms of media. And, of course, some blogs are “good,” while others aren’t. None of this variation should distract us from the key point: the rapid spread of blogs and the relative robustness of their platforms should suggest that their tools might be useful to a range of potential, specialized digital publishing modes.

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 Among these tools, that most commonly associated with blogs is the ability of readers to comment on entries, creating multi-vocal and wide-ranging conversations; another such tool is the link, whether standard HTML links created within blog entries in order to comment on other web-based texts or the links automatically generated and transmitted by blogging engines in order to leave an indication on a linked-to text that it has been commented upon elsewhere (known as “trackbacks” or “pingbacks”). I’ll discuss both commenting and linking a little later in this chapter, and will further explore the implications of such tools for new textual structures in the following chapter. For the moment, however, I’d like to focus on a third feature provided by some blog engines, as well as by other web publishing platforms such as wikis, and how it might affect our thinking about the life of scholarly writing online: versioning.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 1 All three of these features — commenting, linking, and versioning — produce texts that are no longer discrete or static, but that live and develop as part of a network of other such texts, among which ideas flow. Of these features, however, versioning may in some ways be the most disconcerting for traditional authors, including academics, whose work lives have been organized not around writing as an ongoing action but rather writing as an act of completing discrete projects. In part this emphasis on the completeness and stability of written texts developed in conjunction with the ideas subtending the modern literary system discussed earlier; one of the assumptions that the technologies, implementations, and organizations surrounding print publishing have produced is that any text that comes into our hands, whether a book or a journal, is present in its entirety and will be consistent from copy to copy. We further assume that any changes made to the text in further printings will be corrections or emendations meant to bring the printed text into line with the author’s or publisher’s intentions; changes more substantive than these, we assume, will be revisions of a sort labeled by the publisher as a “second” or “revised” edition. We rely on such stability as a sign of a text’s authority, and where it doesn’t exist, the resulting oddities often become themselves the object of scholarly investigation.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 2 There’s another factor, however, one perhaps peculiar to academic authorship, that puts additional pressure on completion as the most significant moment in the writing process. Only at the point of completion, after all, can our projects at last attain their final purpose: the entry of a new item on the CV. This emphasis on the academic version of the bottom line — evidence of scholarly “productivity” that must be demonstrated in order to obtain and maintain a professorial appointment — brings a distinctly Fordist, functionalist mode of thinking to bear on our work as writers. Bill Readings, in The University in Ruins, calls attention to the ways that the metaphor of “production” in scholarly life transforms the university into “a bureaucratic apparatus for the production, distribution, and consumption of knowledge” (163), whose purpose rapidly degenerates from the knowledge that is produced to the fact of production itself: “Produce what knowledge you like, only produce more of it, so that the system can speculate on knowledge differentials, can profit from the accumulation of intellectual capital” (164). Such functionalism, however, cannot become so endemic to our institutions without being reflected in our individual approaches to the work we do as members of them. Lindsay Waters links the emphasis on scholarly productivity to the crisis in academic publishing, arguing that “there is a causal connection between the corporatist demand for increased productivity and the draining of publication of any significance other than as a number” (6); Waters goes on to indicate that the loss of “significance” produced by this emphasis on productivity is not just about the status conveyed by scarcity, but in fact about quality:

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 1 The problem of ridiculous articles by humanists was caused partly by the vast increase of the numbers of publications that humanists (and all academics) are expected to perpetrate on paper or on one another as talks at conferences. It all sounds like a world gone wrong, but the problem is not limited to the humanities. We are experiencing a generalized crisis of judgment that results from unreasonable expectations about how many publications a scholar should publish. (18)

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 Writing has, in this view, been reduced from a process of discovery and exploration, a process of communication, to a system for the assembly of more and more new products. If this is the case, and if the result is, as Waters claims, that many scholars feel “more and more like the figure portrayed by Charlie Chaplin in the film Modern Times, madly and insensibly working to produce” (45), it is little wonder that many of us experience unresolved anxieties about our writing. As long as we are in the process of writing, we have not yet completed it, and without completion, we cannot get credit for what we have produced; we haven’t accomplished anything. We must put a close to our texts, put them into print, and walk away, not least in order to move onto the next project.

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 But being “done” with a project published online runs to some extent counter to the network’s open-endedness.[2.13] What made blogs so immediately popular, both with readers and with writers, was the very fact that they changed and developed over time, existing not as a static, complete text but rather as an ongoing series of updates, additions, and revisions. This is of course to be expected of a journal-like format, and might easily be compared to any form of periodical or serial publication; the blog as a whole remains relatively constant, even as new “issues” or posts are added to it. But the fact that a blog’s readers return again and again in order to find those new posts might encourage us to ask whether there is something in the structure of digital authorship that privileges and encourages development and change, even beyond the obviously diachronic aspect of the blog’s structure. When web pages are not regularly updated and attended to, after all, they’re subject to rapid degeneration: aging styles, outdated standards, and worst, perhaps, “link rot.”[2.14] Such ephemerality makes it arguable that the unspoken contract between the author and the reader of a piece of digital text is radically different from that between the author of a book and its reader; rather than assuming that the text is fixed, complete, and stable, the reader of a digital text may well assume otherwise. As Clifford Lynch suggests, we do not yet fully understand what “reader expectations about updating published work” will be (Lynch); will the assumption come to be that a text must be up-to-date, with all known errors corrected, reflecting new information as it comes to light, in order to maintain the “authority” that print has held? Sites such as Wikipedia seem to indicate a growing assumption that digitally published texts not only will but should change over time. Digital text is, above all else, malleable, and the relationship between the reader and the text reflects that malleability; there is little sense in attempting to replicate the permanence of print in a medium whose chief value is change.

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 On the other hand, allowing a text to grow and change over time shouldn’t — and needn’t — efface earlier incarnations of a text by simply overwriting them with newer versions. Versioning preserves the history of a text, allowing it to live and breathe while maintaining snapshots of the text at key moments, as well as the ability to compare those snapshots, permitting readers to approach a text not just in a finished state, but throughout its process of development. That ability to focus on process may well lead to new modes of criticism; as Luca Toschi has argued, “[t]he true task” involved in the creation of the sort of “genetic criticism” he calls for, which explores the coming-into-being of a piece of literature, “is to return to the fixity of a written text a third dimension, of movement and of transformation” (200). This third dimension, which demands a publishing format that is able to support change while maintaining the history that makes the change visible, can best be provided through the implementation of versioning in our publishing technologies, and an attention to process in our writing. As Carla Hesse suggested in the mid-1990s, well before any but the very first blogs had been established,

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 What appears to be emerging from the digital revolution is the possibility of a new mode of temporality for public communication, one in which public exchange through the written word can occur without deferral, in a continuously immediate present. A world in which we are all, through electronic writing, continuously present to one another. There is, I would like to suggest, something unprecedented in this possibility of the escape of writing from fixity. What the digitalization of text seems to have opened up is the possibility for writing to operate in a temporal mode hitherto exclusively possible for speech, as parole rather than langue. (32)

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 This “continuously immediate present” of writing could allow our writing projects, and our conversations around those projects, to develop in a more fruitful, more organic fashion.

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 2 But this will require a fairly radical shift in our understandings of what it is we’re doing as we’re writing, because if our texts are going to continue to grow even as they’re published online, we’re going to need to be present in those texts in order to shepherd that growth — perhaps not forever, but certainly for longer than we have been with traditional print publishing. This thought will make many of us nervous, in part because we already have difficulties with completing a project; if we have the opportunity to continue working on something forever, well, we just might. On the other hand, would that necessarily be such a bad thing? What if we were freed — by a necessary change in the ways that we “credit” ongoing and in-process work — to shift our attention away from publication as the moment of singularity in which a text transforms from nothing into something, and instead focus on the many important stages in our work’s coming-into-being? What if we were able to think of our careers as writers in a more holistic sense, as an ongoing process of development, perhaps with some key moments of punctuation, rather than solely as a series of discrete closed projects, the return to the scene of which — whether in order to reveal changes in one’s thinking about something one once committed to print or to take old material in new directions — seems somehow vaguely scandalous? Such abilities would no doubt lead to work that was better thought-through, more “significant,” in Waters’s sense, but in order to take advantage of those abilities, we will first have to learn to value process over product, and to manifest that value in our assessments of one another’s work.

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 Even more frighteningly, perhaps, we’ll have to become willing to expose some of our process in public, to allow our readers — and our colleagues — to see some of the bumps and false starts along the way. This, I will confess, is the aspect of my argument that I find the most alarming, and yet as soon as I admit to my own anxiety, I have to recognize that, through my blog, I’m already doing some of this in-public work. Many of the ideas in this text, for instance, were first articulated in somewhat nebulous blog posts, clarified in discussions with commenters, expanded into conference papers and lectures, formalized into articles, and revised into chapters. That process was absolutely key to the project’s formation: I didn’t at all have the sense, as I wrote those early blog posts, that I was embarking on a book-length project; I only knew that I had a small, persistent question that I wanted to think a little bit about. Having formulated an initial stab at one possible answer, having been disagreed with, supported, and encouraged by my commenters to think in more complex ways about the issues I’d presented, only then was I able to recognize that there was more to be said, that there was something in the ideas to which I was compelled to commit myself. Without the blog and the inadvertent process of drafting in public to which it led me, none of the ideas in this text could have come together.

13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 This is not to say, of course, that every stage of this project was conducted in front of an audience, or that every academic blogger has experienced the same relationship between the in-public work of the blog and the more traditionally private work of scholarly writing. In January 2008, I spoke on a conference panel with fellow academic bloggers Laura Blankenship (of Geeky Mom) and Timothy Burke (of Easily Distracted), and each of the three of us presented a very different perspective on the relationship between blogging and scholarship: my talk (which was a stage along the way toward chapter 3) focused on the technical and social possibilities that new modes of blog-based publishing might present for the drafting and revision processes; Tim’s explored a typology of projects that he argued would be good candidates for blog-based drafting (as well of those that wouldn’t); Laura’s reported on the process and results of drafting her dissertation on a blog.[2.15] Despite the obvious similarities in these talks, however, each of us drew slightly different conclusions in thinking about the kinds of projects, the stages within those projects, and the circumstances in which some mode of writing-in-public might be beneficial. Tim and I, for instance, saw public drafting as a potential means of creating a robust, open-access scholarship for an already established community of peers within a field, while Laura, writing her dissertation in relative isolation, was able to create community through her drafting process, building a support network of colleagues she wouldn’t otherwise have had. And each of us had developed slightly different boundaries between our selves, our blogs, and our scholarship, with slightly different senses of what material we’re willing to reveal, and in what state.[2.16]

14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 2 My interest in the possibilities that versioning could present for shifting our focus in writing from product to process is thus not meant to suggest that every author need expose every draft of every sentence online, in real time. What constitutes a “version,” and at what stage it is made public, will be, and indeed ought to be, different for each author. But approaching our writing from the perspective of process, thinking about how ideas move and develop from one form of writing to the next, and about the ways that those stages are represented, connected, preserved, and “counted” within new digital modes of publishing, will be necessary for fostering work that takes full advantage of the web’s particular temporality. Everything published on the web exists, in some sense, in a perpetual draft state, open to future change; we need to recognize both the need this creates for careful preservation of the historical record of the stages in a text’s life and the equal importance for authors of approaching our work openly, thinking about how our texts might continue to grow even after they’ve seen the light of day.

  • So argued Howard Owens on his blog: “Blogs are arguably the first web-native publishing model, so it only makes sense that blogs would provide a template for how to publish online” (Owens), as did Michele Tepper well before that, in the September 2003 issue of netWorker, describing blogs as “perhaps the first native publishing format for the Web” (20). This point always seems to be made with “arguably” inserted, as I have done, which suggests that the idea has managed to enter the conventional wisdom without anyone ever having done an empirical study to back it up. Interestingly, I posed the question of support for such a statement on my own blog, and provoked in return a compelling discussion about what the true value of blogging’s “firstness” would be and about the erasure of Usenet from histories of the digital in the wake of the web. See Fitzpatrick, “Again with the Blegging” and “Blogging.”
  • See Walker for a good basic definition of the blog.
  • See “About Us,” Technorati. Blogger Matthew Baldwin in a recent interview claimed that “blogs are so ubiquitous these days that announcing you write one is like announcing you have a liver” (Stallings). They are perhaps not quite that ubiquitous, but they’re close.
  • On this tension in digital scholarship, see Kirschenbaum, “Done”; see also Brown et al, “Published and Yet Never Done.”
  • This of course bears enormous consequences for the preservation of digital texts into the future; I’ll discuss these issues in chapter 4.
  • Not at all coincidentally, all three of us also blogged the panel: see Fitzpatrick, “Scholarly Collaboration”; Burke, “Liveblogging NITLE”; Blankenship, “Scholarly Collaboration.”
  • Dozens of other academic bloggers have written about the relationship between the public mode of blogging and the more traditionally private, formal mode of producing scholarship. See, as only one example, John Holbo’s comment, made in the course of discussing a draft of a paper about the relationship between blogs and scholarly publishing, which he was preparing for the 2006 MLA, in which he indicates the usefulness, for him, of finding “SOME draft, penultimate, suitably developed — that needed a good knocking about. And the best place to get that these days, for me, is on the web. Post a draft. Get responses. Make improvements. The fact that then there is generally some artifactual record of the knocking-about is a plus, not a minus,” and goes on to argue that “One thing that electronic publication could conceivably end is the FINALITY of the book. This is a delicate point, because you have to preserve an inviolable archival record of what was written. But it ought to be possible to create version 2.0 of your book, in response to criticism, if version 2.0 would really be a lot, a lot better” (Holbo).
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    Source: http://mcpress.media-commons.org/plannedobsolescence/two-authorship/from-product-to-process/