The Work of Scholarship in the Age of Digital Reproduction

Introduction

Who, What, and How

My title makes an appeal to humanities scholars who are uncertain about the survival of time-honored, print-based scholarly practices in the digital age of information abundance and attention deficits.

The argument laid out before you concerns not only the eponymous subject matter of the work of scholarship in the age of digital reproduction, but also the potential for undergraduates to make original contributions to humanities research. My focus on undergraduate participation is likely to appeal to a smaller subset of humanities scholars who are eager to involve students in research in their fields. Yet this more narrow focus is, in fact, a gesture toward a wider audience. Because undergraduates qualify as “non experts,” my emphasis on their participation is tied to a crucial component of my agenda: re-imagining humanities scholarship in the digital age to involve a broad public of experts and non-experts—and in the process, to dislodge hierarchies that currently divide these constituencies.

Hence my publishing here, on Atavist, a digital storytelling platform geared toward “a new genre of nonfiction, a digital form that lies in the space between long narrative magazine articles and traditional books and e-books” (qtd by Butler). Can a work of scholarship in the age of digital reproduction inhabit such a free, open space?

So much for the subject matter and platform, and on to methodologies. Like a three-legged stool, my argument rests on three methodological principles for humanities scholarship in the digital age:

1. bibliography,2. design, &3. collaboration.

The ideas I am about to unfold are not original to me. Rather, I will gather and arrange arguments made by scholars whose writings inspired me as I began my own path from a solid grounding in print-based scholarship and pedagogy into the uncharted terrain of digital humanities. In curating other scholars’ ideas here, I am effectively doing the work of bibliography, gathering sources on a subject and arranging them in an accessible, intelligible form.

Design is crucial to this effort. If I am going to capture and hold your attention, so that you ignore the new message alert that just popped up on the smartphone, tablet, or laptop on which you are reading, then I must deliver these ideas in a stylish, easily navigable, minimalist, and immersive format that reduces distractions and rewards concentration. (Thanks, Atavist.)

Collaboration will ensue when you use the comment function to critique my argument and make suggestions about how it might be refined and improved. Based on your suggestions, I will make corrections and improvements, so that this argument will remain a living, changing, unfolding statement of principles and practices concerning the work of scholarship in the age of digital reproduction.

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WORKS CITED

Butler, Kirsten. “7 Platforms Changing the Future of Publishing and Storytelling.” Brain Pickings. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 Oct. 2015.

From Print Culture to the Digital Age

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The tectonic shift from print culture to the digital age is transforming practices of reading and writing, turning a once solitary endeavor into an interactive, multimedia activity. The shift is also affecting scholarly practices, albeit more gradually. Humanities professors, rooted as we are in print-based traditions and methodologies, tend to approach the digital revolution with attitudes ranging from healthy skepticism to horror. The popular “blog,” for example, seems the antithesis of the thoroughly researched, well-reasoned, expertly vetted analysis that we expect in academia.

As Scott Pound explains in “The Future of the Scholarly Journal,” these expectations arise from a system for producing and disseminating scholarly knowledge that dates back to the seventeenth century and is rooted in print cultural practices and values such as individuality, permanence, hierarchy, linear thinking, scarcity, and depth. According to this model, a lone scholar painstakingly researches and writes an academic book that takes years to prepare and requires the approval of two experts in the field before being published by a prestigious university press, issued in hard copy for $100+, purchased primarily by academic libraries, and reviewed in subscription based, peer-reviewed academic journals read only by professionals in the field.

The digital age has ushered in a new system for producing and disseminating knowledge, and with it, alternative practices and values such as collective intelligence; networks; divergent, lateral, systemic thinking; abundance; and breadth (Pound). In this model, anyone with access to a computer can publish online about any topic—climate change, You-Tube, Twitter, or twerking; research questions can be crowd-sourced on sites like Ask.com; community members can submit content to online bulletin board systems such as Reddit; and the general public can contribute to the expansion and regulation of free, open-access informational resources like Wikipedia, where you can learn about any subject in minutes, click on links, and surf across the World Wide Web to related (and unrelated) sites. 

The typical scholarly response has been to resist the tide of information abundance, as Pound explains: “For the most part, the scholarly community has managed to artificially maintain its traditional grounding in information scarcity through hefty subscription rates, low acceptance rates, and slow mechanisms for vetting research.” Innovation in scholarly vetting procedures can a slow, arduous, and painful process, as Nick D. Kim’s cartoon shows.

But not all scholars resist the change. Pioneers in digital studies have begun to utilize digital tools and platforms for academic writing and research, with promising results. These innovators recognize that in the scholarly enterprise, as in book publishing, we must avoid simply relocating print-based practices to the digital realm. In this regard, we can take lessons from non-academics like independent writer, designer, and publisher Craig Mod:

Everyone asks, “How do we change books to read them digitally?” But the more interesting question is, “How does digital change books?” (2)

Academics may be similarly inclined to wonder, “How do we change our scholarship to publish it digitally?” But the more interesting question is: “How does digital change scholarship?” Rather than simply uploading our articles as PDFs, we must put our minds and imaginations to the task of using digital platforms to invent new methods and forms of scholarship—forms capable of presenting long and deep inquiry, fostering intellectual exchange, and maintaining rigorous standards of peer review.

Kathleen Fitzpatrick, co-founder of the digital scholarly network MediaCommons, is a leader in the effort to adapt digital tools and platforms to serve the highest standards of scholarly inquiry and communication. “The blog is not a form but a platform,” she argues, explaining that the blog is not a genre that precludes sustained analysis or concentrated attention, but a “stage on which material of many different varieties—different lengths, different time signatures, different modes of mediation—might be performed” (48).

“The blog is not a form but a platform.”

El Ponderoso platform shoe, “The Heights of Fashion: Platform Shoes Then and Now,” Mint Museum, Charlotte, NC.
El Ponderoso platform shoe, “The Heights of Fashion: Platform Shoes Then and Now,” Mint Museum, Charlotte, NC.

The next two chapters discuss two different applications of blog platforms for academic research involving undergraduates. The first emphasizes the importance of bibliography and the second, the importance of design. But despite the difference in emphasis, both case studies reflect the three methodological principles of bibliography, design, and collaboration. And both offer models that you can adapt to involve your students in original research in your field using digital tools and platforms.

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WORKS CITED

Fitzpatrick, Kathleen. “Reading (and Writing) Online, Rather Than on the Decline.” Profession (2012): 41-52. Web. 15 Sep. 2013.

Kim, Nick D. Peer Review Cartoon. Strange-Matter Archive. Web. 13 Oct. 2015.

Mod, Craig. “Post-Artifact Books and Publishing.” @craigmod (June, 2011). Web. 15 Sep. 2013.

Pound, Scott. “The Future of the Scholarly Journal.” Amodern. N.p., n.d. Web. 27 Mar. 2015.

Sapiens de Mitri, Nichola. “Studying at Starbucks.” (2013). Creative Commons licensed. Web. 13 Oct. 2015.

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