Scholarly communication and liberal education

Today Middlebury College hosted a panel discussion on digital technology’s impact on scholarly publication, with a focus on liberal education.  What follows are my liveblogged notes, lightly edited.

First, the panel began with each participant describing their relevant background and work.

Jason Mittell, Kathleen Fitzpatrick, Alison Byerly, Katherine Rowe.

Jason Mittell, Kathleen Fitzpatrick, Alison Byerly, Katherine Rowe.

Kathleen Fitzpatrick (MLA; formerly Pomona) outlined her path towards working on scholarly communication.
It began by her blogging about peer review and technology, which led to a collaboration with the Institute for the Future of the Book. Together they persuaded McKenzie Wark (New School) to publish his book Gam3r 7h30ry on the Web for commentary, developing the CommentPress WordPress plugin to facilitate discussion. Fitzpatrick then used the process to publish her own book, Planned Obsolescence.  Her continued work led to her current position as the MLA’s director of scholarly communication.

Katherine Rowe (Bryn Mawr) described her experiment in open peer review. She edited an issue of Shakespeare Quarterly (61:4 (2010)) which used the Web to solicit feedback from scholars and the public. (Cf our NITLE blog post)

Jason Mittell (Middlebury) is currently producing a new book, Complex TV. This appears in sections on the Web, appropriately enough, as the book’s subject is serial narrative. Feedback tends to be granular, rather than global.

Alison Byerly (Middlebury) offers a dean’s perspective, noting that scholarly experimentation will inevitably be slotted into assessment mechanisms.  Two questions often arise: what is the format of a digital work, and what does it tell us about scholarship?  Chief academic officers and peer faculty are still looking for qualified assessors, which may speak to the strength of digital collaboration.

Next the panel took questions and comments from the audience.

Q: How can scholarly cope with the problem of volume? The digital world represents more venues, more comments, more content, all without the prioritization systems offered by traditional publication.

A:Digital technology certainly allows for an increase in volume. Some online review processes offer rich and useful feedback.  This includes drawing attention to the mechanisms and content of scholarship, which is needed by young scholars.  Some online projects can elicit a larger amount of feedback, either from more scholars, the public, or both – “blending scholarly expertise and public accountability.”  “Open review processes surface debates in the field.”  The role of the editor changes, having to be open to more points of view.  Arguments can become more robust.

Q: How do you solicit new voices [for online discussions]?

A: First, some proportion of scholars are active on social networks.  Mittell as an author cultivates an audience; MediaCommons as publisher also performs this audience-building function.  Fitzpatrick describes soliciting individuals for initial feedback to seed subsequent conversation, followed by a broader campaign: posts to listserves, Twitter.  Other people spread the word across other media.  Commentators often shared information about themselves, which helped Fitzpatrick understand the audience.  Rowe described interacting with younger scholars to help shape her strategy based on their needs.

Q: Did Rowe ever ban anyone?

A: No.  She did delete spam.  Some scholars asked to edit comments for typos.

Mittell adds: online discussion lets him better understand the review process, to have a better conversation.  Rowe cites Fitzpatrick describing online review as a speeded-up version of print-based peer review.  Rowe adds that some scholars are already active in social media spaces; “what we’re feeling now is the lag of traditional media.”  Byerly describes her recent book as having impact before it appeared in print.  Indeed, everything she wanted to accomplish in writing happened before it was published (in print).  “The norm is lagging behind the types of scholarly publications happening in real time.”  Rowe responds that her audience is migrating towards the digital, away from print.

At this point I had to leave.  Which is unfortunate, because the discussion was brilliant.

(cross-posted to NITLE Techne)

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7 Responses to Scholarly communication and liberal education

  1. McKenzie Wark says:

    My collaboration with the Institute for the Future of the Book was independent of, and predates, their work with Kathleen. My working with them was Ben Vershbow’s idea.

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  2. Thank you (belatedly) for the correction, McKenzie.

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