Review by Alex Reid
Mark Sample, George Mason University
Douglas M. Armato, University of Minnesota Press
Kathleen Fitzpatrick, MLA
Frank Kelleter, University of Göttingen
Kirstyn Leuner, University of Colorado-Boulder
Jason Mittell, Middlebury College
Ted Underwood, University of Illinois-Urbana
This roundtable collectively addressed practices of social media in scholarly work, broadly defined as “serial scholarship.” Each speaker presented briefly and the session then turned toward conversation. Douglas Armato began by offering a publisher’s perspective, explaining the benefits of working with authors who are established bloggers or otherwise have built online audiences for their work. Counter to the typical perception that publishers might be averse to work previously published online, Armato cited the benefits of working with authors with a practiced writing style and a strong sense of the audience to whom they are writing (both common traits of academic bloggers). Kathleen Fitzpatrick followed and discussed her interest in scholarship, seriality, and the unpopular (a subject she has addressed on her own blog). Fitzpatrick pondered the role academic blogs and other social media (such as the emerging MLA Commons) might have on changing scholarly behaviors. Kirstyn Leuner discussed her experiences as a graduate student blogger, particularly her role as a HASTAC scholar. Jason Mittell recounted his experience with serial publishing chapters of his manuscript in progress on a WordPress site. Ted Underwood described the unique role blogs play in his area of specialization, topic modeling: the relatively new nature of this area and its interdisciplinarity mean that blogs are often the best sites for sharing information with fellow scholars. Finally, Frank Kelleter appeared via Skype to offer a cautionary perspective on the limits of serial scholarship’s ability to deliver on the careful deliberation that traditionally characterizes our work.
The roundtable articulated a clear separation between work that is impactful and work that establishes credentials. That is, it seems obvious that serial scholarship reaches a larger audience of scholars, students, and a general public than traditionally published articles and monographs, which serve to credential academics. However, this division is further troubled by issues of quality, which are also familiar to the larger practices of social media. A blog may reach a wide audience, but its quality is rarely vetted, and the blogging style—shorter and written more quickly than the typical journal article for example—does not allow for the level of analysis found in more traditional forms. Of course, as counterpoint, one might ask what is the value of even the most carefully written and erudite piece of scholarship if it is hardly read and never cited. Regardless, everyone on the roundtable appeared to agree that blogging was not likely to replace traditional academic genres or become a major form of academic credentialing.
As valuable as the conversation was, in my view, I think it glossed the major issues with serial scholarship. The first point is that serial writing, blogging most prominently, intersects with one’s other writing practices. Even though as writers we are able to moderate our style and discourse from one genre to another, blogging will lead one to see writing differently. Perhaps this could be posed as a question of judgment. If blogging changes academic writing, does it make it better or worse? But more powerfully, serial scholarship can lead to a change in values. As such, while it is unlikely that serial scholarship will be mistaken for traditional academic writing, it is more likely that serial practices will shift the values we place on scholarly work. The second key concern has to do with audience and scholarly community. As Armato observed, serial scholars create connections with their readers that are valuable for publishers. I would take this further to suggest that this feedback can shape research. In the traditional model, the scholar’s obligation is to the subject matter and perhaps to the secondary scholarship in her field. For MLA-type scholars this is a mostly fixed body of work (even if the scholarship does continue to grow) when one is writing a book. And even though there are authors behind the texts, the task is to respond to texts, not people. Although some sense of audience awareness lies behind writing in one’s disciplinary discourse, there is rarely much sense of audience working in academic writing. To the contrary, a strong rhetoric approach to audience, something necessary for serial scholarship, is nearly frowned upon in traditional academic discourse. After all, even when our audience is in the room with us at a conference, we hold up a piece of paper to shield our vision of them. How much more clearly could one send the message that our concern lies predominately with the text and not the audience? Again, it might be the case that serial scholarly practices could lead to what I view as a much-needed shift toward audience awareness in our work.
I understand the panelists’ reticence to push these matters and their attempt to offer a more measured view of the role serial scholarship might play. I share their skepticism in terms of expectations for changing academic behaviors and their caution in offering social media as a panacea for the woes of academic publishing. Academic writing habits are deeply ingrained in our colleagues to point where academic inquiry and writing practices cannot be distinguished from one another. Yet, if we cannot manage to see how we can continue, or even expand, our scholarly practice by adopting new composing practices, then we will soon face a situation where our scholarship is wholly out of step with the communication practices of the culture surrounding us. How then will we claim to be the site where our students will develop the literacy skills they require? These questions are perhaps too large to place solely on serial scholarship, but our response to these practices is part of this larger challenge.
Alex Reid is an Associate Professor and Director of Composition and Teaching Fellows at the University at Buffalo where he studies digital rhetoric. He is the author of The Two Virtuals: New Media and Composition and the co-editor of Design Discourse: Composing and Revising Professional Writing Programs. He blogs at Digital Digs (alex-reid.net).