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On the digital transformation of the literary, and on the need for "doing our work in the open"

A commentary on Kathleen Fitzpatrick's article "Reading (and writing) online, rather than on the decline"

The latest issue of the MLA's annual Profession is only available in print, and only for paid-up members; this highly restricted circulation contrasts ironically with the arguments for open access and digital platforms made by one of the essays in this issue: Kathleen Fitzpatrick's "Reading (and Writing) Online, Rather than on the Decline." Fitzpatrick's main argument is that online reading doesn't augur the end of literacy, the devolution of the brain, or the decline of civilization, as is too often claimed; rather, that online reading is diversified, and flourishing - and that teachers and researchers of English and literary studies better get hip to this fact.

In surveying the prevailing statements of anxiety over the "fate" of reading under the ascendancy of digital media, Fitzpatrick nicely sums up everything I ever want to say when encountering any statement of hostility or suspicion to new media as new media (which repeat throughout popular discourse like a broken record).

Anxieties about the effects of digital media abound: it's too often assumed that the technologies that facilitate such easy communication are causing our actual communication skills to deteriorate. There's little new in this; media theorists, confronted with a narrative about the deleterious effects of new modes of communication, have long pointed to Plato on the "forgetfulness" that the technology of writing would produce in the souls of those who learn it … It has always been so: new technologies are perennially imagined to be not simply the enemy of established systems but in fact a direct threat to the essence of what it is to be human. For this reason, declarations of cultural decline always bear complexly submerged ideological motivations. (42)

This. Say this, every time someone complains about how texting or Twitter or Tumblr are leaving the youth illiterate, or melting their brains, or otherwise shredding the social fabric.

So, having established that reading and writing are not dying but rather flourishing online, Fitzpatrick then argues it's our responsibility as teachers and scholars to understand the digital transformations of reading and writing, to take them seriously, and to approach them pedagogically. Echoing previous arguments by other digital Humanities scholars like Alan Liu, Fitzpatrick reminds us that "the field of the literary continues to expand, even if its forms are changing in way that might make it more difficult to recognize and more difficult to understand" (43). There's a veiled alert here for traditionalists who refuse to see the scholarly or pedagogical value in literature's digital transformations: it's not the Internet - it's you. Fitzpatrick does acknowledge there are important differences in both how people read online, and what people read online; but she connects the much-hyped "interactivity" of click-and-browse reading to well established theories of reading as active and selective rewriting (for instance, Barthes' "death of the author" thesis) - and she suspends judgment on these differences posed by online reading, encouraging us to approach them not with anxiety but with the curiosity that is supposed to define us as scholars.

Fitzpatrick goes on to discuss the implications, affordances, and opportunities of an open-minded approach to the digital literary for students and teachers alike. For the former, she identifies the functional and critical uses of learning and practicing the skills of the "read-write web":

The greatest challenge we face today in our encounter with the digital future of literacy does not come from a media culture or a student population that refuses writing. Instead, it lies in the need for members of traditional literary culture to acknowledge that the forms of reading that are done online today are reading and that the modes of writing that engage so many are writing. These forms and modes can help support the literacy we value, if we can find ways to work with them instead of dismissing them as inherently frivolous and degraded. This is a challenge that many instructors today are meeting in their classrooms, by experimenting with individual and group blogs […] and with other forms of social, networked communication, often to great effect. These engagements with online writing often work to give students a sense of audience, of writing as an act of communication and critical exchange, that far exceeds what can be produced by the research paper. Online, writing is subject not just to the scrutiny of a single evaluator but also to that of a broad group of readers engaged in thinking about the same questions. However formal or informal the location of the writing may appear to us in comparison with the properly formatted research paper, the act of communicating on an ongoing basis with a broad audience, practicing over and over the art of staking out a position, presenting evidence, engaging with counterarguments - or, frankly, even just the art of being interesting and amusing - can undoubtedly help produce better writers and clearer thinkers in any venue. (46)

Fitzpatrick's claims here are corroborated by several sources and studies, especially the tk:link Stanford Study of Writing. The anecdotal evidence of my own teaching and that of several colleagues is further support, and not at all unusual evidence to be found at open and traditional universities alike, these days. The critical insight here is that writing online offers students both higher stakes and higher purpose for their writing, when the writing is being shared with an audience beyond the instructor doing the marking. The unknown size and disposition of the online audience can be a source of understandable anxiety for those first venturing into the read-write web, and I've felt that anxiety myself, having made my share of uninformed or ill-advised posts, and having been compelled to defend academic freedom and thwart the occasional troll in online discussions. Thankfully, though, I've been fortunate, for the most part, to find an audience that - while largely anonymous, sometimes unpredictable, and constantly shapeshifting - tends to shows genuine interest and a preference for reasoned discussion over trolling and flame wars.

I think university instructors have an obligation to at least test-drive if not occupy social media and read-write web platforms, as a resource for and medium of teaching, as well as research. Especially in my role as faculty member in an open university (where the only campus is virtual: the institution's social network), I have come to use such communication tools more and more in teaching, and to believe educators must remain open and receptive to new tools and their affordances, to achieve our public-service, public interest mandate. If our students' prospective employers expect them to learn new ICT tools, we should not only expect the same, but also teach the critical capacities of these tools, not merely their dominant, conventional uses.

The tools of digital communication and representation are going to stop neither changing nor proliferating; accordingly, staying abreast of them needs to be seen by academics neither as busywork nor as distraction, but instead as professional development of a kind now critical to the social function and mission of higher education. And not just for teaching, but for research too, and especially for its dissemination. Or - to re-gender that masculinist term - should that be its ovulation or gestation? "The need to understand these new, networked, often less-than-formal modes of writing as writing exists as much for scholars as it does for students," writes Fitzpatrick, who goes on to imagine an online model of scholarly community as a networked alternative to the established model of face-to-face conferences and print publishing:

How might the idea of a community of readers and writers working with and responding to one another influence our ideas about how communities of scholars might best conduct their work together? The horror that too often greets the idea of taking a blog seriously as a locus of scholarly writing - or the idea of taking Twitter seriously as a form of scholarly communication - reveals a serious misunderstanding of the nature of those forms, what they are, and what can be done with them. […] The significance of this community should not be underestimated. After all, if there were ever a mode of writing meant to be dialogic, it's scholarly writing. (47)

The "horror" that Fitzpatrick describes illuminates an important context of the perennial hostility with which authorities vested in old media greet the new: its distinctly gender-coded context. The perennial hostility to new media is not just technical or economic, but patriarchal; if its roots don't extend quite as far back as Plato (though Jacques Derrida's reading of Plato's phallogocentrism suggests it well might), they reach at least as far back as the conjoined emergence of professional authorship and copyright, in the early eighteenth century. As historicized by Mark Rose, the emerging profession of the writer was predominantly represented by starkly contrasting figures of paternity and promiscuity, with their corresponding moral valences. In contrast to the prevailing image of the writer as the "begetter" or "father" of the book (a trope that Mary Shelley majestically perverted in famously describing her novel Frankenstein as her "hideous progeny"), Rose notes the development of a negative counterpart to that image, that of "the writer as whore […] related to anxieties about the ‘unnatural’ proliferation of signs rather than the ‘natural’ generation of real things" (38). Anxieties, that is, related to that period's own transformations of reading and writing under the early political economy of print cartels. This figure of "whorish" authorship and "promiscuous" publication was refracted through nineteenth-century patriarchal anxieties about the dangers that romance-reading were purported to harbour for women (anxieties parodied in Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey), and has persisted in successive transformations of genre, especially those seen as ephemeral or disposable (e.g. pornography), and successive media innovations, especially those deployed theough the employment of women, often as “temps”: recall Grant Allen’s “typewriter girl” (1897), or Anthony Trollope’s “young women at the telegraph office” (1877), or the uncannily disembodied yet sexualized intermediary role of the telephone operator - a "the feminine problematic of receptivity and the place of reception" (Ronell qtd. in Davis). As feminist scholar Suzanne Kappeler remarks, there is "something 'sexist', certainly faintly (softly) pornographic in the idea of mass circulation" (27).

In light of this historical and cultural context, the scholarly “horror” over taking social media seriously as fora for scholarly exchange and modes of knowledge production encodes a politics at once neo-Luddite and patriarchal. Granted, it is a somewhat submerged politics, and so it may come as a surprise to the otherwise progressive-minded scholars who thus inadvertently espouse it in justifying their particular reservations over the interface between scholarship and social media. And -reflexive recoil and its deep gender politics aside - there are of course many legitimate reasons for harbouring reservations about this interface. Like the fact that many digital platforms and services are provided by transnational corporations whose priority is not public education but private profit. Or like the argument that digitization all too often represents the replacement of labour by capital. In advocating that scholars and especially Humanities scholars take social media seriously, I don’t mean to suggest these media are a magic bullet for resolving the chronic problems of higher learning, or the biggest thing since Gutenberg. These tools have their limits as well as their affordances, as Fitzpatrick acknowledges:

There is certainly work that cannot be done in the form of the blog post - there are times when a scholar can benefit from the format of the journal article or the discipline of the book - but that the blog might not be everything does not mean that it is nothing. It is a mode of communication, of engaging with an audience, that must be taken seriously on its own terms. (48)

To take social media seriously as vehicles for scholarly teaching and research, then, means recognizing how these technologies are redistributing scholarly capital. In the milieu of rarefied print publishing, Fitzpatrick reflects that "we came to associate the conferral of distinction with the moment of publication"; however, in the milieu of "the open platform" of digital distribution, "distinction is associated no longer with publication but with reception, with the response produced by a community of readers" (49). I'm not sure the difference is yet decisive; traditional print journals - in my field, the PMLA for instance (or Profession, for that matter) - still carry a formidable prestige, whether or not they provide Open Access, that newer Open Access journals are still struggling to establish. On the one hand, the OA movement is helped in this struggle by institution and grant agency policies that mandate Open Access, and by the increasing scholarly and popular dissatisfaction with copyright maximalism (as expressed in the Elsevier boycott and the protests against SOPA and ACTA). On the other, the OA movement is hindered not just by the routinized stigmatization of new media but also by predatory and scam journals that exploit and so compromise Open Access discourse. In their wide circulation and subscription, prestigious print journals still perhaps enjoy higher rates of reception, or otherwise more meaningful reception, than do OA journals that may be publicly free online, but insufficiently exposed or promoted. And all this is to say nothing as yet of far less formalized platforms like blogs, which are also not refereed.

Or at least, not refereed in the same way that scholarly journal articles are refereed. Scholarly blogs and other social media might instead be said to participate in "open refereeing": the open responses of readers, anonymous or otherwise, to work posted online. Open peer review has been experimentally tested by some traditional journals, most notably by Nature in 2006; and Fitzpatrick has also submitted her own book, Planned Obsolescence, to open peer review, a process, as she documents in the article, of republishing the print book in an online platform that enables user commentary on any and all parts of it. For Fitzpatrick, experiments in open peer review, and the capacities of scholarly blogging and social networking more generally, constitute one compelling solution to the "crisis in the humanities" that she reads as "a problem of audience - too few people buying books in the humanities, too few students studying the humanities, too little public funding for the humanities." Scholarly blogging, she argues, means taking the "crucial step" of "doing our work in the open" - for a general as well as a scholarly audience, for readers, writers, and users both inside and outside academia. I concur with and commend Fitzpatrick's arguments, and I share her sense of scholarly blogging and related open digital Humanities work as a form of public intellectual engagement now vital to the Humanities in general, if not to academia in general.

On the personal front, scholarly blogging is different things at different times, but always worthwhile, I find, as open-ended research process. Sometimes it's just good for thinking out loud, for parking and commenting on sources and links, or even for practicing research writing regularly. It's a great way to announce and publicize new publications (especially those that are themselves digital and openly accessible). Sometimes blogging can form the kernel of a larger project; I recently had occasion to revisit and expand a 2010 blog post for what's now a chapter in a forthcoming book. Other times, the scholarly blog is a great place to leave passages that you may have had to cut while editing an article, but still think are worth sharing. I've also made extensive use of the university's social network for developing and teaching courses, socializing collegially with colleagues and students, and fulfilling various service obligations.

On the broader institutional front, the culture of university research is increasingly receptive to scholarly social media use: it makes publicly funded research more publicly accessible; it serves "knowledge mobilization” criteria; and it's an increasingly important form of building and maintaining research networks. And most importantly, there are our current and future students to consider. Some students will be looking at an open university like mine and assuming that, as a twenty-first century distance-education university, it must boast faculty who are at least familiar with ”web 2.0” tools. Other students will be looking at an open university like AU in the hope its faculty can help teach them how to use these tools. I intend not to disappoint them in these eminently reasonable expectations; in addition, our mandate to reduce barriers to access to education compel me to meet if not exceed these expectations. The twenty-first century "knowledge economy" workplace is receptive to and in need of potential employees adept in using social media productively. Moreover, this century's precarious and embattled civil society is receptive to and in need of critical thinkers adept in using social media in the service of social justice. As Fitzpatrick says:

Like our students today, we need to be fluent in multiple vernaculars, and we need to be able to translate our ideas across them. In the process, we'll undoubtedly find that claims that no one outside the academy is interested in our work are significantly overstated.

Works Cited

Davis, D. Diane. "Confessions of an Anacoluthon: Avital Ronell on Writing, Technology, Pedagogy, Politics." jac: A Journal of Composition Theory 20.2 (2000): 243-281. Rpt. in U Texas

Fitzpatrick, Kathleen. "Reading (and writing) online, rather than on the decline." MLA Profession (2012): 41-52.

Kappeler, Susanne. The Pornography of Representation. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1986.

Rose, Mark. Authors and Owners: The Invention of Copyright. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2002.