When Does Service Become Scholarship?

February 8th, 2013 § 59 comments § permalink

When does service become scholarship?

When does anything—service, teaching, editing, mentoring, coding—become scholarship?

My answer is simply this: a creative or intellectual act becomes scholarship when it is public and circulates in a community of peers that evaluates and builds upon it.


Now for some background behind the question and the rationale for my answer.

What counts as the threshold of scholarship has been on my mind lately, spurred on by two recent events at my home institution, George Mason University. The first was a discussion in my own department (English) about the public humanities, a concept every bit as hard to pin down as its two highly contested constitutive terms. A key question in the department discussion was whether the enormous amount of outreach our faculty perform—through public readings, in area high schools, with local teachers and lifelong learners outside of Mason—counts as the public humanities. I suggested at the time that the public humanities revolves around scholarship. The question, then, is not when does outreach become the public humanities? The question is, when does outreach become an act of scholarship?

The department discussion was a low-stakes affair. It decided the fate of exactly nothing, except perhaps the establishment of a subcommittee to further explore the intersection of faculty work and the public humanities.

But the anxiety at the heart of this question—when does anything become scholarship?—plays out in much more consequential ways in the academy. This brings me to the second event at Mason, the deliberations of the College of Humanities and Social Science’s Promotion and Tenure committee. My colleague Sean Takats, whom some may know as the Director of Research Projects for the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media and the co-director of the Zotero project, has recently given a devastating account of the RPT committee’s response to his tenure case. Happily, the college committee approved Sean’s case 10-2, but what’s devastating is the attitude of some members of the committee toward Sean’s significant work in the digital humanities. Sean quotes from the committee’s official letter, with the money quote being “some [committee members] deter­mined that projects like Zotero et al., while highly valu­able, should be con­sid­ered as major ser­vice activ­ity instead.”

Sean deftly contrasts the committee’s impoverished notion of scholarship with Mason’s own faculty handbook’s definition, which is more expansive and explicitly acknowledges “artis­tic work, soft­ware and media, exhi­bi­tions, and per­for­mance.”

I absolutely appreciate Mason’s definition of scholarly achievement. But I like my definition of scholarship even more. Where does mine come from? From the scholarship of teaching—another field, like digital humanities, which has challenged the preeminence of the single-authored manuscript as the gold standard of scholarship (though, like DH, it doesn’t exclude such forms of scholarship).

More specifically, I have adapted my definition from Lee Shulman, the former president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. In “Taking Learning Seriously,” Shulman advances a persuasive case for the scholarship of teaching and learning. Shulman argues that for an intellectual act to become scholarship, it should have at least three characteristics:

it becomes public; it becomes an object of critical review and evaluation by members of one’s community; and members of one’s community begin to use, build upon, and develop those acts of mind and creation.

In other words, scholarship is public, circulating in a community that not only evaluates it but also builds upon it. Notice that Shulman’s formulation of scholarship is abstracted from any single discipline, and even more crucially, it is platform-agnostic. Exactly how the intellectual act circulates and generates new work in response isn’t what’s important. What’s important is that the work is out there for all to see, review, and use. The work has been made public—which after all is the original meaning of “to publish.”

Let’s return to the CHSS committee’s evaluation of Sean’s work with Zotero. I don’t know enough about the way Sean framed his tenure case, but from the outside looking in, and knowing what I know about Zotero, it’s not only reasonable to acknowledge that Zotero meets these three criteria of scholarship (public, reviewed, and used), it’d take a willful misapprehension of Zotero, its impact, and implications to see it as anything but scholarship.

Sean notes that the stance of narrow-minded RPT committees will have a chilling effect on digital work, and I don’t think he exaggerates. But I see this as a crisis that extends beyond the digital humanities, encompassing faculty who approach their scholarship in any number of “unconventional” ways. The scholarship of teaching, certainly, but also faculty involved in scholarly editing, the scholarship of creativity, and a whole host of public humanities efforts.

The solution—or at least one prong of a solution—must be for faculty who have already survived the gauntlet of tenure to work ceaselessly to promote an atmosphere that pairs openness with critical review, yet which is not entrenched in any single medium—print, digital, performance, and so on. We can do this in the background by writing tenure letters, reviewing projects, and serving on committees ourselves. But we can and should also do this publicly, right here, right now.

10 PRINT “10 PRINT SOON IN PRINT”

April 27th, 2012 § Comments Off § permalink

I’ve had a sneak preview of MIT Press’s Fall 2012 catalog, and I’m delighted that the boldest project I’ve ever worked on is in there. The title is 10 PRINT CHR$(205.5+RND(1)); : GOTO 10 and it just gets crazier from there.

Ten authors.

Working by wiki style collaboration.

Studying one line of code.

For a thirty-year-old computer.

I’ll say more about 10 Print in the coming weeks, but for now, I just want to admire my co-author Casey Reas’s brilliant cover.

Cover to 10 PRINT (MIT Press, 2012)

The digital humanities is not about building, it’s about sharing

May 25th, 2011 § 28 comments § permalink

Radiohead CrowdEvery scholarly community has its disagreements, its tensions, its divides. One tension in the digital humanities that has received considerable attention is between those who build digital tools and media and those who study traditional humanities questions using digital tools and media. Variously framed as do vs. think, practice vs. theory, or hack vs. yack, this divide has been most strongly (and provocatively) formulated by Stephen Ramsay. At the 2011 annual Modern Language Association convention in Los Angeles, Ramsay declared, “If you are not making anything, you are not…a digital humanist.”

I’m going to step around Ramsay’s argument here (though I recommend reading the thoughtful discussion that ensued on Ramsay’s blog). I mention Ramsay simply as an illustrative example of the various tensions within the digital humanities. There are others too: teaching vs. research, universities vs. liberal arts colleges, centers vs. networks, and so on. I see the presence of so many divides—which are better labeled as perspectives—as a sign that there are many stakeholders in the digital humanities, which is a good thing. We’re all in this together, even when we’re not.

I’ve always believed that these various divides, which often arise from institutional contexts and professional demands generally beyond our control, are a distracting sideshow to the true power of the digital humanities, which has nothing to do with production of either tools or research. The heart of the digital humanities is not the production of knowledge; it’s the reproduction of knowledge. I’ve stated this belief many ways, but perhaps most concisely on Twitter:

DH shouldn't only be about the production of knowledge. It's about challenging the ways that knowledge is represented and shared.
@samplereality
Mark Sample
The promise of the digital is not in the way it allows us to ask new questions because of digital tools or because of new methodologies made possible by those tools. The promise is in the way the digital reshapes the representation, sharing, and discussion of knowledge. We are no longer bound by the physical demands of printed books and paper journals, no longer constrained by production costs and distribution friction, no longer hampered by a top-down and unsustainable business model. And we should no longer be content to make our work public achingly slowly along ingrained routes, authors and readers alike delayed by innumerable gateways limiting knowledge production and sharing.

I was riffing on these ideas yesterday on Twitter, asking, for example, what’s to stop a handful of of scholars from starting their own academic press? It would publish epub books and, when backwards compatibility is required, print-on-demand books. Or what about, I wondered, using Amazon Kindle Singles as a model for academic publishing. Imagine stand-alone journal articles, without the clunky apparatus of the journal surrounding it. If you’re insistent that any new publishing venture be backed by an imprimatur more substantial than my “handful of scholars,” then how about a digital humanities center creating its own publishing unit?

It’s with all these possibilities swirling in my mind that I’ve been thinking about the MLA’s creation of an Office of Scholarly Communication, led by Kathleen Fitzpatrick. I want to suggest that this move may in the future stand out as a pivotal moment in the history of the digital humanities. It’s not simply that the MLA is embracing the digital humanities and seriously considering how to leverage technology to advance scholarship. It’s that Kathleen Fitzpatrick is heading this office. One of the founders of MediaCommons and a strong advocate for open review and experimental publishing, Fitzpatrick will bring vision, daring, and experience to the MLA’s Office of Scholarly Communication.

I have no idea what to expect from the MLA, but I don’t think high expectations are unwarranted. I can imagine greater support of peer-to-peer review as a replacement of blind review. I can imagine greater emphasis placed upon digital projects as tenurable scholarship. I can imagine the breadth of fields published by the MLA expanding. These are all fairly predictable outcomes, which might have eventually happened whether or not there was a new Office of Scholarly Communication at the MLA.

But I can also imagine less predictable outcomes. More experimental, more peculiar. Equally as valuable though—even more so—than typical monographs or essays. I can imagine scholarly wikis produced as companion pieces to printed books. I can imagine digital-only MLA books taking advantage of the native capabilities of e-readers, incorporating videos, songs, dynamic maps. I can image MLA Singles, one-off pieces of downloadable scholarship following the Kindle Singles model. I can imagine mobile publishing, using smartphones and GPS. I can imagine a 5,000-tweet conference backchannel edited into the official proceedings of the conference backchannel.

There are no limits. And to every person who objects, But, wait, what about legitimacy/tenure/cost/labor/& etc, I say, you are missing the point. Now is not the time to hem in our own possibilities. Now is not the time to base the future on the past. Now is not the time to be complacent, hesitant, or entrenched in the present.

William Gibson has famously said that “the future is already here, it’s just not very evenly distributed.” With the digital humanities we have the opportunity to distribute that future more evenly. We have the opportunity to distribute knowledge more fairly, and in greater forms. The “builders” will build and the “thinkers” will think, but all of us, no matter where we fall on this false divide, we all need to share. Because we can.

(Radiohead Crowd photograph courtesy of Flickr user Samuel Stroube / Creative Commons Licensed]

Fight Club Soap, Sold by SD-6

June 10th, 2010 § 3 comments § permalink

Bethany Nowviskie has aptly summed up the current standoff between the University of California system and the Nature Publishing Group as a case of fight club soap. Bethany explains the metaphor much better than I can (I urge you to read her post), and she boils it down with even more economy on Twitter: “Fight club soap = our own intellectual labor sold back to us as a costly product.” As Bethany elaborated in another Twitter post, it’s an allusion to “overpriced soap [in the movie Fight Club] marketed to rich women, made from [the liposuctioned fat of] their own bodies.” In the case of Nature and other scientific journals with premium subscription models, it means “universities buying back the labor they already paid for.”

As news about the conflict was making the rounds, Tom Scheinfeldt noted that the “Nature Publishing Group is a division of Macmillan, the company that played hardball w/ Amazon over ebook pricing.” Inspired by Bethany’s pop culture metaphor and Tom’s observation about the corporate structure of the NPG, I recalled a scene from the first season of JJ Abrams’ television series Alias. Secret agent Sidney Bristow has begun working as a double-agent for the CIA, trying to take down SD-6, the spy organization Sidney works for and which she thought was a legitimate government entity—but which, it turns out, is a criminal organization. In the second episode, “So It Begins,” Sidney draws a map of SD-6′s structure for her CIA handler, Michael Vaughn:

Sidney naively believes her diagram represents the entirety of SD-6. To Sidney’s dismay, however, Vaughn reveals that her legal pad rendering is a tiny piece of a much larger organization:

This is honestly the only scene I remember from five seasons of Alias. For some reason it stuck with me through the years. Perhaps because I see that larger map as a metaphor for all of JJ Abrams’ work—incomprehensible conspiratorial structures bound to collapse under their own weight.

Why am I digging out the metaphor of SD-6 now?

Because this is how the publishing industry looks (minus the criminal activity, mostly).

If we were to draw a corporate map of the Nature Publishing Group, it would look more like Michael Vaughn’s intricate diagram than Sidney Bristow’s crude—I’d say quaint—sketch.

The Nature Publishing Group is owned, as Tom points out, by Macmillan. But who owns Macmillan? The answer is Verlagsgruppe Georg von Holtzbrinck—the Georg von Holtzbrinck Publishing Group. I won’t list all of what Verlagsgruppe Georg von Holtzbrinck controls here, but it includes many of the biggest names in publishing: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Palgrave Macmillan, Picador, Tor, Bedford/St. Martin’s, and of course Nature and a host of other academic journals.

Aside from realizing after all these years that Alias was a send-up of corporate America rather than some post-Cold-War spy drama, there is an important conclusion to draw here.

[pullquote align="left"]We have privatized the distribution of knowledge. We have blackwatered knowledge.[/pullquote]

Thinking about the relationship between Nature and the sprawling multinational corporation that owns it reveals the extent to which we have privatized the distribution of knowledge. We have blackwatered knowledge. Knowledge that should belong to the people and universities that produced it.

The government has increasingly outsourced many services to private outfits like Blackwater, KBR, and Halliburton; in the same way, universities, colleges, and libraries have let go of whatever tenuous grasp they once held over their intellectual property. Public and private institutions of higher learning have ceded control to profit-driven enterprises like the Nature Publishing Group, EBSCO, and Reed Elsevier. And like SD-6, whose tentacles are wide-reaching yet difficult to trace, these publishers ruthlessly dominate their respective markets, leaving students, researchers, librarians, and journalists few alternatives.

Yes, I have just likened the publishing industry to a fictional criminal organization. The real question is, what are you going to do about it?

Loud, Crowded, and Out of Control: A New Model for Scholarly Publishing

March 6th, 2010 § 6 comments § permalink

Yesterday Dan Cohen, the director of the Center for History and New Media and my colleague at George Mason University, posted a thoughtful piece describing a major problem of scholarly publishing (and of book publishing more generally). Dan suggests that while the “supply” of written work has changed with the advent of digital collaborations, academic blogging, and interactive projects, the “demand” side—what readers, publishers, and rank and promotion committees expect—remains stubbornly resistant to change. To illustrate the dominant attitude of “most humanities scholars and tenure committees” toward digital work, Dan quotes a fantastic quip from John Updike:

[quote]The printed, bound and paid-for book was—still is, for the moment—more exacting, more demanding, of its producer and consumer both. It is the site of an encounter, in silence, of two minds, one following in the other’s steps but invited to imagine, to argue, to concur on a level of reflection beyond that of personal encounter, with all its merely social conventions, its merciful padding of blather and mutual forgiveness.[/quote]

I love this Updike passage. It’s so perfectly stated that I find myself nodding in agreement even as I recoil on the inside. We need go no further than the second sentence to see some of most pernicious misconceptions influencing what Dan calls the demand side of the publishing.

Reading a book, Updike says, is an encounter, in silence, of two minds.

Look at each of these three phrases. (1) An “encounter”? Well, that’s a nice vague noun and seems to include all sorts of interactions between reader and writer, but at its heart it’s an empty word that tells us nothing about the many ways this interaction can proceed: it can be sly, brutal, coy, frustrating, angry, joyous. The encounter can be all of those things, sometimes all at once. But more importantly, in new forms of publishing, the encounter can be something that you wouldn’t call an encounter at all. It can be a dance, an assault, a performance, a collision, a celebration. Using “encounter” to describe what can happen between reader and writer privileges one form of interaction, the most staid, monologic, conservative one at that.

Now what about (2) the “silence” in which this encounter supposedly occurs? Okay, yes, that’s how a lot of people read, but again, “silence” elevates one form of reading above all others. Let’s call it “polite” reading. What Updike really means by “in silence” is that any argument or meaning-making on the reader’s part must occur silently, safely firewalled far away from the writer. Safely firewalled far away from the rest of the world for that matter. The idea of a writer who either coaxes or bludgeons his or her readers into submissive silence would be abhorrent to most academics, yet that is the way the current social contract of scholarly publishing works. Peer review and letters to journal editors are merely other forms of polite reading. We applaud them as civil discourse, but in fact they are mechanisms to maintain a tolerable level of noise—by which I mean relative silence.

Finally we arrive at (3) the “two minds” involved in the silent encounter. Let’s break this phrase down even further. Two? Two? I’m not even going to bother to mention the value of collaborative research and writing, let’s just focus on Updike’s romantic vision of the relationship between a novelist and his or her reader. Two minds? What a sad, impoverished view of the world of letters. Even when it’s a single author and a single reader, more than two minds are always involved. Reading is a social activity. It is always a social activity, even when done quietly at night in an empty house. There are social contexts to writing, social contexts to reading. They are both situated activities—situated within a broader world, both requiring a wide range of supporting structures in order to exist in the first place. As for “mind,” I can appreciate that Updike sees reading and writing as intellectual endeavors, abstracted from our daily existence in the physical world. But I also couldn’t disagree more. We all know that writing is a physical activity, but we forget that reading is one too. Reading is an embodied activity. We read from within our bodies, our itching, bleeding, aging, page-turning, button-clicking bodies. Updike’s focus on the mind merely reflects that common scholarly view of the “life of the mind.” Which is just a way of ignoring the physical world.

I’d like to suggest that one way to begin changing what readers expect from scholarly publications is to deliberately invert each of these aspects of Updike’s formulation. We need texts that are loud, crowded, and out of control. We need to recognize the richness of what could count as a scholarly “encounter.” We need to encourage the opposite of silence—clamorous, public, raucous, messy discourse. We need to remember that two minds means essentially never mind; the true power of scholarly discourse lies in multiple voices, multiple bodies.

Are these changes even possible? Ian Bogost recently notoriously faulted the humanities for despising humanity, but I personally have hope. Even if it’s due to deeply ingrained habits of self-preservation, the humanities will have to change. But doing so requires an engagement with all those facts of the real world that most of us read books and retreat to libraries to escape from. Most of us don’t despise humanity so much as fear it, especially our own humanity. In an odd turn of events, it’s the affordances of the digital world that may help us renew our presence and involvement in the analog world. We have the means now to write in ways scholars could only ever dream about. So, write to be heard, write to be written back to, write to readers who are living bodies with voices of their own. Write to the crowd and let the crowd write back. Write publicly and publicly write. Write.