A recent series of three blog posts by Kathleen Fitzpatrick chimed nicely with two things I am thinking about these days: how scholars can best share their ideas in a digital age (and what the decisions scholars make will mean for libraries as we rejigger positions and allocate resources) and how I’m going to pull off a conference we’re holding this October on Nordic women crime writers. Event planning is not in my skill set (hey, my idea of a perfect wedding is eloping), but I’m really excited about putting readers, writers, and scholars together to see what happens.
Those two issues may seem totally unrelated, but in my Rube-Golbergesque research agenda, they are intimately connected by springs, rubber bands, and the odd bit of duct tape. One of the reasons I bridle when publishers say everyone who needs research publications already has access to them (apart from its insulting ludicrousness) is that too often we settle for false assumptions about both our work and the intellectual curiosity of the public. The walls of our gardens assume there is a natural barrier between the way we academics think and what ordinary people care about. This, to me, is a way of proclaiming ourselves a special class of useless.
Though Kathleen Fitzpatrick has long explored ways that new technologies can support scholarly practices, her recent series was sparked by a joke at a workshop on seriality in popular culture. After discussing popular seriality, the question arose: what would be an example of unpopular seriality – to which someone instantly replied “scholarship.” And that inspired her to engage in some seriality herself, blogging about the issues the joke uncovered.
Scholars think their work is, by definition unpopular for a number of reasons. It’s too radical and threatening to the bourgeoisie! too refined to be dumbed down for the masses! or just too nerdy to interest anyone outside a tiny circle of obsessives. Fitzpatrick overheard a couple of academics say that it’s fine to talk about “public history,” but clearly there is no such thing as public literary criticism. That attitude drives me bonkers. Here’s news for those who think nobody reads, and if they do, they’re doing it wrong: ordinary people read voraciously, and often read with great insight, which they share generously with other readers all the time. Why that is news we don’t want to hear is beyond me.
Another weird thing: academics often claim scholarship, unlike popular culture, isn’t shaped by crass market forces. In the next breath, they’ll argue that we can’t change anything about the way we publish so long as our livelihoods depend on tenure.
I think I’ll just let that sink in. And move on without further comment.
Okay, so Fitzpatrick writes about the way that “new” forms of scholarly engagement such as blogging really are old-school scholarship. When we step back from the contemporary material form it takes (conference papers, journal articles, monographs) and look past the practices that have grown up around the role those things play as tokens of individual productivity, and think about what we are really doing – contributing to an unfinished, ongoing conversation – then blogging isn’t such a new thing after all. It’s a way of making those conversations (and the unfinished nature of knowledge) material. She writes, “we need forms, and values, that capture thought in the process of happening, recording thought’s own seriality.”
Sometimes enthusiastic supporters of open access make it sound as if revolution is imminent, that technology and the failing economics of scholarly production will give birth to something completely novel. This argument, understandably, makes traditionalists nervous about what we might lose, anxiety that is inflamed by silly claims that peer review depends on corporate publishers. That kind of disruptive, destructive change is not what I think is happening. I think we're simply trying to figure out better ways to share ideas more widely.
I’m cheered by what Kathleen Fitzpatrick has to say, and by what Bethany Nowviskie has written about libraries and the digital humanities as enduringly valuable. If I didn’t think scholarship matters in the real world, if I didn’t think it has lasting value, then my job as a librarian, working with students who mostly will not become academics, would lack all meaning.
I’m not worried. As Nowviskie said, “Existential threats don’t scare us. We’re librarians.”