Publishing Conventions?

[Post from The Scholar Electric, new blog of the CCPD (Computers and Composition Digital Press) on 17 May 2011.]

I was delighted to contribute to the new CCDP blog for many reasons, not least of which is my high regard for the press’s creators who have been so integral in advancing the need for active and critical engagement with emergent technologies. Indeed the recent blossoming of the digital humanities only serves to highlight the work that digital rhetoricians and composition scholars have long been engaged in carrying out.

I have been a bit removed from the field of rhetoric and composition for the last six years or so, given that my faculty appointment is in cinema. In fact, this year was the first CCCC I have been to for many years since I typically attend SCMS (Society for Cinema and Media Studies), which also convenes in spring. This year, however, I presented at both SCMS and CCCC and the issue of digital publication, naturally, arose at each.

The issues surrounding digital publication are obviously quite numerous and they raise questions that many of us have been grappling with for years: Will digital presses help cure academic presses, which, unable to recoup the cost of publishing highly specialized monographs, are failing? How does one assess and jury digital work? What about fair use and copyright when media is added to words? Should the move to digital publications come from senior scholars or from graduate students and junior faculty?

The bigger question of course, is which conventions of academic publishing associated with books should be applied to digital scholarship and which should simply be abandoned. Several examples arose at a CCCC panel The New Work of the Digital Book in Composition Studies (N.04), as panelists Cheryl Ball, Ryan Trauman and Debra Journet discussed some of the obstacles they’d encountered in creating a digital anthology for CCDP. Two of these I find particularly striking and they center on issues surrounding peer review and those of indexing and archiving digital work.

Cheryl Ball noted that peer review is untenable when one considers media elements like video where the face of the author is often shown narrating the argument, and this proved an obstacle to their process. And I firmly believe that the jurying of work for publication is one of the strongest features of the academic process, and further, that if digital scholarship is to be taken seriously by traditional academia, it must be juried. Still, clearly our peer review practices have not kept pace with the affordances of the digital.

Indeed, several experiments in public review of academic texts online have commenced over the past few years. In 2006, the Institute for the Future of the Book partnered with McKenzie Wark and designed an interface to place drafts of his book GAM3R TH3ORY, on the if:book site in paragraph size chunks to which readers were invited to add their comments. Harvard Press, having already issued a contract for the book, played along. Although McKenzie exhausted himself responding to the onslaught of commentary, he noted how valuable the feedback proved as he completed the manuscript. And while there have been several forays into this type of public peer review since then, GAM3R TH3ORY, remains a remarkable example in that the emphasis was not only on the public commentary, but also on the very structure of a book-length text and how it might be reimagined.

Shortly thereafter, the Institute created ComentPress, a WordPress plug-in designed to allow comments of large texts at the paragraph level. Projects that have attempted open peer review using CommentPress have served to shed light on the process itself, seeding great conversations along the way. Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s Planned Obsolescence includes a chapter with an overview of the history of peer review (defined as “the assessment of manuscripts by more than one qualified reader, usually not including the editor of a journal or press”), which, it turns out, is more akin to censorship than to quality control. Likewise Noah Wardrip-Fruin used Comment Press in tandem with conventional manuscript submission processes with his book, Expressive Processing. Based on the experience, he concludes that blind reviews actually hampered his efforts at revision since weighing the often-disparate and conflicting comments one receives, is aided when one has a sense of the commenter’s expertise.

If anonymous reviewer commentary is simply less helpful, anonymous authorship is downright impossible, as Cheryl noted in the example with which I started. Even if the video elements included in an article do not reveal the author (as most of mine do not), masking one’s identity is problematic logistically speaking. For instance, I tend to stream video from the Internet Archive when I publish with it, and recently I had an article due to a digital journal; in order to keep the review blind as is the journal’s policy, they suggested I create a dummy account at the Internet Archive. I have a long standing IA account and really would hate to both waste its resources and complicate matters in that way—authoring with video is far more time consuming than with words alone and added these steps significantly increase that workload.

And it just felt wrong.

What sort of authoring practices are we promoting when we insist that an author mask her identity at every step? Often the type of contextualizing one must do to make a strong argument necessitates some hint of one’s scholarly or institutional identity. Moreover, this trend suggests a type of removed distance and disinterest masquerading as objectivity. Scholars should care deeply about their work (logos, pathos and ethos!). This is not to say that a publication should not be rigorous, but simply that such rigor is often achieved when authors disclose their subject position and, by explaining their methodology, defend their approach. Further, as the digital sphere evolves at lighting speed, the scholarly mission ought to be to transform and shape the terms of the discursive field, rather than merely critiquing it from the sidelines. This requires affiliating ourselves in writing. I see this as an ethical imperative.

I think it’s worth noting an older example of this public peer review using digital media—in anticipation of her 1998 keynote to the CCCC, Cindy Selfe sent a draft around to various listserves, asking for feedback. At the time I was a graduate student  in a computer pedagogy seminar, making my first web pages. I was quite taken with this move of Cindy’s, finding it to be equal parts daring, humble, and intellectually generous. It was typical of both the collaborative nature of the community of computers and writing, even as it presaged these more recent efforts that signal the blossoming of the digital humanities.

In text-based digital work, the logistics of peer review are more straightforward—whether it’s public or done behind the scenes, one can use text to responds to text. This gets muddied when we had media elements: not only is it difficult to give feedback toward revision, it’s hard to index and archive pieces that use the registers of sound, image and video in addition to words.

Again, this issue arose at the CCCC panel, The New Work of the Digital Book. Ryan Trauman showed a very cool interface he’d designed for indexing this anthology, one that did not simply adopt the static index of the codex. His interface looked great and it’s certainly one I’d want to use, but it’s also programmed in Flash, which renders it problematic in terms of both its deployment on various mobile devices (the Apple-Adobe feud rears its ugly corporate head) and it also becomes non-repeatable such that it’s got to be reprogramed for each use. I’d like to use it, but really I can’t. Moreover, Flash does not allow one to include distinct urls for each component it houses, and this significantly hampers functionalities when one wants to point to a specific section of a larger piece. Flash is also not terribly text-friendly so it prevents web indexing even as its updates have become more and more frequent over the last few years making older versions difficult to access. Having published several Flash pieces myself, I am alert to this concern and am always looking for an alternative.

For all of these reasons then, I spend a lot of time looking for the perfect digital platform for media-rich work. I am especially interested in applications created by academics for academics, rather than those emerging from corporate interests: what is under the hood matters. To that end, I recently published a piece in Scalar, an emerging application created by the Vectors team and the Alliance for Networking Visual Culture. This piece, Filmic Texts and the Rise of the Fifth Estate, was published in the International Journal of Learning and Media in February, just on the heels of Alex Juhasz’s Learning From YouTube, the video-book published by MIT Press in a prototype of Scalar (It’s worth noting that the IJLM is also published by MIT Press.) There are all kinds of reasons for loving Scalar, from the nuanced relationship between text and media elements it allows, to the blog-literate WYSIWYG, and I’ve written about them within the article For my purposes here then, I want to highlight one element of Scalar: the functionality that allows many visualizations of both a single “page” as well as a larger “book” or “article”. While some of the views are programmed in Flash the developers programmed a new visualization view in HTML5 just this past week. The screen capture below gives a quick visual of the possibilities:

The field of rhetoric and composition studies is so wonderfully adept at reflecting critically on pedagogical practices, and interrogating received wisdom about the nature of academic literacy and argument. This same lens desperately needs to be trained on the processes of publishing at the pragmatic, but more importantly, at the philosophical level. We can then decide which conventions ought to be carried forward and which should simply be shed, their usefulness having long since passed.

Critical inquiries such as this have the potential to update our work, and indeed to transform it in really exciting ways.


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