DISCOURSE as quilting

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remnant 16: “a riskier, less tidy mode of scholarly production”

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Two online pieces jump out at me in a way that may seem unrelated at first:

For me, the pieces speak to the Brave New World of scholarship that has swept over and past academia, while most academics weren’t paying any attention.

The online world, often marginalized as “social media,” of blogs and Twitter has sprung up, evolved, and become relevant—even influential—without the blessings of the powers that be within academia—the faculty status committee and all the trappings [1] associated with tenure and promotion, that nefarious [2] world called “scholarship.”

So in the cusp of April (the cruelest month) and May in 2013, Sean Reardon, an academic and scholar, posts what the NYT has deemed a “commentary”; yet, the piece is anchored throughout by statistics, research, and his expert analysis of what all that evidence means. Reardon is doing the heavy lifting of the public intellectual, but this is being carried out online—thus, comments are posted and the piece gains a momentum of sharing through Twitter, Facebook, and a whole host of engines for distribution that is driven by Reardon’s dear readers. [Not his department chair, not his colleagues, not his university, not a panel of peer-review, but his dear and patient readers from all walks of life.]

I will venture onto a pretty study limb here and add that this NYT piece from Reardon will garner more readers, impact more thought, than most of his recent scholarly publications [3] in quite a few years. I have had pieces online at the NYT and The Atlantic, and can attest to the seemingly never-ending ripple effect of having had my work published (although only virtually) in both.

And this leads to Germano’s piece about readers and a question I have come to ask quite often: If an academic publishes in a peer-reviewed journal and no one reads it, does it really matter? [4]

Germano opens with a very writerly thing to claim (as opposed to a scholarly thing to say [5]):

Go ahead. Keep working on your book. But before you finish, I hope you’ll consider a modest proposal. Your book will never be entirely yours—it can’t be. Because the book you’re writing needs an important collaborator: the reader.

Today our paradigms for scholarly writing may never have seemed less paradigmatic, our disciplinary affirmations never less comforting. Yet professionalism remains tied to the idea of confirmation through writing.

Traditionally, the scholar has been allowed to seek “the idea of confirmation through writing” within an insular and somewhat hollow mechanism of authority—faculty status committee, peer-reviewed journals. In effect, the incestuous echoes of scholars writing to, for, and against scholars. And for the most part, that structure was built quite sturdy, essentially sound-proof so that no one outside the fortress of academia and scholarship could hear even if anyone wanted to [6].

I sit here this morning about to venture into my every-other-year duty as a professor, the self-evaluation. It has taken me almost a dozen years to understand what this process means, and how best to go about it. That has been an adventure filled with fits and starts, most of which I find tedious and unproductive (higher education is a passive-aggressive world in which those expectations that are most vital to any professor’s success are also those things “which must never be uttered”; even that those things which must never be uttered is never uttered).

And part of that self-evaluation will once again include my own self-advocacy linked to a larger advocacy that the public work of a scholar deserves a place in the academy, and I don’t mean a token sidecar. For some, if not many of us, public intellectual work existing almost exclusively in the non-peer-reviewed virtual world is our best and most effective work.

But only if we concede Germano’s recognition of the role of the reader:

And yet there’s a paradox here. Even if scholarly publishing may be in trouble, readers—even scholarly readers—aren’t. In fact, readers may never have been more important in the ecology of knowledge production….

New reading conditions make old questions even more important: Whatever we write is for readers, or it’s nothing at all. Do we write as if we mean to welcome readers? And what do we want to happen after the handshake and the hello?

The traditional model of scholarly production is based on scrupulous research methods and well-documented results. But that same model, especially as applied to the job of writing a first scholarly book, has also tacitly endorsed a principle of precise and modest display. Nothing too flashy, nothing too speculative. The reader’s presence has respectfully been acknowledged, but not often actively engaged.

That’s how we’ve done things these past 30 years. But our writing protocols need to change now, in part because the digital environment increases potential visibility and exposure. Let me propose here a controlling metaphor: We’ve been writing snow globes.

And as Germano acknowledges, the life of the academic/scholar is nothing if not a quest for avoiding mistakes, controversy, or disturbing in any way the land-mine littered territory of most importance, other people’s scholarly turf. One misstep and there goes the foot to stand on when you seek tenure and/or promotion. The culture of fear is palpable:

Scholarly books, especially first ones, are a paranoid genre—their structure assumes that someone is always watching, eager to find fault. And they take every precaution against criticism.

As we fear, so we write. Fearful writing is different from covering the bases. It’s building a glass wall around one’s project so that the reader can look at but can’t disturb the pleasant scene within.

It’s no surprise that the snow-globe book doesn’t do much. It can’t. There’s nothing to grab onto, no space for the reader to get into the text and texture of the argument. There may not even be an argument, or a thesis, or a claim, or even a very good, almost entirely coherent half-an-idea.

Academe has been in the snow-globe business for years. The problem here is not the specificity of research but the intention of the finished product. Inward-looking, careful to a fault, our monographs have been content to speak to other monographs rather than to real, human readers.

Traditional scholarship is not just insular and spawned from fear; it is moribund, static, defunct—dust-covered as those scholarly books neatly catalogued in library stacks around the world where most of the hardback sales go to rest like sarcophagi in rarely visited museums.

While we often hear warnings about the Brave New World of the Internet—emails exist forever, Facebook posts exist forever—we tend to fail to recognize that the virtual world being permanent because of the infinite replications is a type of living, a type of evolution that rises above paper-based publications that literally begin to deteriorate the moment they are produced.

And thus, Germano’s argument:

I’m advocating for a riskier, less tidy mode of scholarly production, but not for sloppiness. I’m convinced, though, that the scholarly book that keeps you awake at night thinking through ideas and possibilities unarticulated in the text itself is the book worth reading. It may be that the best form a book can take—even an academic book—is as a never-ending story, a kind of radically unfinished scholarly inquiry for which the reader’s own intelligence can alone provide the unwritten chapters.

Or as I have been exploring, discourse as quilting. And now I seek you, reader, to join the cause.

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[1] By “trappings,” I mean definition 1, not 2:

  1. The outward signs, features, or objects associated with a particular situation, role, or thing: “I had the trappings of success.”
  2. A horse’s ornamental harness.

[2] In the blur of drafting, I misspelled “nefarious” (the red line told me thus) so I copied my version, pasted it into google, and was rescued.

[3] Mostly peer-reviewed and published in hard-copy print form (in the real and not virtual world).

[4] With my apologies to trees everywhere falling in the woods without a precious human their to verify and make real that falling. We are a self-centered, navel-gazing species, humans.

[5] As Ernest Hemingway admitted, “Writing, at its best, is a lonely life.” But while the writer toils in solitude in order to reach out to the world, the scholar often wallows in solitude as if the world doesn’t exist (and even worse, as if the world is beneath him/her).

[6] And so we have the life of the sad professor, as the lyrics to R.E.M.’s “Sad Professor” detail: “everyone hates a sad professor./I hate where I wound up./dear readers, my apologies”:

Written by plthomasedd

April 28, 2013 at 1:32 pm