• College Ready Writing

    A blog about education, higher ed, teaching, and trying to re-imagine how we provide education.


Alternatives to the Academic Essay

What if the academic journal article ceased to exist? 

August 18, 2015

Last month (oh hello beginning of the semester) a colleague on Twitter asked the provocative question, what if the academic journal article disappeared completely as a genre? What would happen?

I invite you to explore the series of tweets she shared and the responses she received (linked above), because it’s an interesting thought experiment: how do we conceptualize something new when the journal article format is so embedded in our cultures within academia?

Note how she didn’t suggest getting rid of peer-review (that is a thought experiment for another day), but the genre and the style of the 20 or 25 page journal article. We can still have peer-review without the journal article, can we not? But it would seem to get into the same challenges and problems I hear from academics when I suggest alternatives to the essay or exams in the classes they teach – I don’t know how to evaluate them.

Of course, when we think about the purpose of a journal article (or an essay-type assignment in our classroom), it can quickly become clear that a journal article isn’t necessary for us to clearly communicate and effectively argue or prove a central thesis. There are other ways to show our work, our thinking, our research, our results.

None of this is new, but it hasn’t quite caught on in academia, where we are still left asking the question, what if we got rid of the journal article? One journal that I have long admired and often cited is Kairos, which has long been publishing “articles” that are born digital. Check out the recent Alice in Dataland (which isn’t typical for Kairos, but so cool). Recently, Nic Sousanis wrote his dissertation, now available from Harvard University Press, as a comic. The publishing platform Scalar was created to make it easier to publish networked academic arguments, first for the journal Vectors but has spiraled into a number of other projects, like this piece on Conceptualizing Transmedia Scholarship.

As we imagine alternatives to the dissertation and the monograph, we should also be imagining alternatives to the scholarly journal article. There is precedence. As I have recently argued elsewhere, there cannot only be one way to communicate scholarly knowledge.

As I move into a new field, I marvel at the fact that even though there is no tenure-track, there is still pressure to publish scholarly articles. I’m in the midst of learning the format, the canon, the process, and the places to publish. And because it is new to me, I am wondering, is this the best we can do? Is this the only way? Could we not take these platforms being developed, these formats that already exist, and figure out a way to use them for our own scholarly communications? Or even create our own standards?

I think we can. I hope so. 


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