Re-Imagining Scholarly Communication

This is a republishing of an article I wrote for the Strange Bedfellows project.  The original url is here.

Re-Imagining Scholarly Communication

Yesterday I attended a conference at UTSC titled “Re-Imagining Scholarly Communication“.  The keynote speaker, Kathleen Fitzpatrick, spoke mainly on scholarly communities revolving around ideas of peer review and Stefan Sinclair focused mostly on the history and strength of web-based digital scholarship applications in Canada however an interesting commonality they shared was a proposal to think beyond the journal article as “the” form of scholarship in academia.

In regard to Kathleen’s subject, peer-review, I think that this concept is especially pertinent due to “the age of blog” and thanks to projects like Strange Bedfellows.  “Scholarship”, as it is defined by the academy provides a necessary kind of compression and, as Kathleen notes, a selective lens on the massive amount of knowledge being produced.  However, while I believe that these restrictions have their place, I do not think that the essay can or should be limited to the glowingly polished journal article. There is an ever growing number of scholars, an ever lessening ratio of journal article opportunities, and an ever decreasing amount of money per submission.  (Please excuse my generalizing here.)  In addition, the nature of the essay cannot be merely represented in scholarship as perfect bundles of text.  As one of the professors in my undergraduate liked to remind us, to “essay” is really to assay, or to try, to experiment, to proof an idea.[1]

I have never gotten perfect marks on anything I have written but it was not until my MA that I truly understood what that meant; through my essays/experiments in writing, I began to think much more broadly and deeply than I had before (even while complaining about writing them).  However, this was not only due to being forced to sit down and explicate my ideas.  It was also thanks to reading widely about all aspects of my essay topic and my field in general.  I think that this latter portion actually provided me with the most benefit and so I do not want to debase a foundation for scholarship in writing, per se.

It is the role of the journal article, not the process behind it, that I think must be “re-imagined” and revisited.  This is where projects like Strange Bedfellows come in.  I think that a blog post can very easily be thought of as a kind of micro-article.  It can provide all of the scholarly force, with less of the scholarly bloat, in a medium that is much more available to audiences within academia and without.  In fact, what began as a chore when I began my own research blog a few years ago has turned into an inspirational pursuit for me.  I have come to find joy in being able to talk about many different topics, usually as they come up in my day-to-day routine rather than being stuck with the same text I have been editing and reediting for days.  And yes, although some of my blog posts may be half-baked and thinly constructed, I do not feel like I have wasted time.   I am still engaging in traditional scholarly exercises even if my own post may turn out as an intellectual dead-end; a result which I think is well matched with the definition of an “essay”.

Stefan’s talk also had a profound impact on me since one of my main focuses for the last few years has been on web-based scholarly applications and visualizations.  His point comes at a particularly poignant time in my mind.  Lately I have spoken to many younger scholars and many are working on tenure applications among many other things.  What I have found from these interviews is a dilemma in which any interest in the digital is almost universally smothered by the academy’s/the field’s/the department’s inability to cope with digital scholarship as a recognized form of scholarly activities.  In essence, this means that a whole generation of new scholars are forgoing the digital completely in favor of established, tenure-awarding activities, i.e. journal articles.

One of my principal tenets throughout my winding path through the digital realm is a firm adherence to scholarly sources that academics have been using for years and re-appropriating the information within a digital environment.  The purpose of this is two-fold: first, the end-result of the digital project is recognizably scholarly in nature; second, the liberation of information from a strictly text-based structure means that it can be further adapted and used in other projects.  That is the idea in theory at least.  However, the inherent problems in academic departments and diminishing funding sources mean that tenure-track positions are both hard to find and hard to secure.  Anyone in position to get one would be a fool to compromise their application’s success by spending their highly demanded time on pursuits that did not benefit that application.

I think that Kathleen and Stefan have hit upon an issue which, at first sight, may look innocent but is actually the threshold to significant effects on the nature of academia.  The journal article has its place and its time and it should be highly revered due to amount of work it demands.  However, expanding scholarship to accept and integrate the digital, whether in textual or application-based form, will not degrade the prestige of the former.  Instead, such acceptance could only brighten the accomplishment of publishing a journal article while also providing an inlet for new information, ideas, and scholarship-driven “essays”.

[1] OED: “essay”. <http://www.oed.com.myaccess.library.utoronto.ca/view/Entry/64470?rskey=nPaf0c&result=1&isAdvanced=false#eid>

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