Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Academic Publishing, A Personal History, Part 2: To the Blogosphere and Beyond

Rather than pick up the story of my involvement in academic publishing where I left off in the first post, in 2006 or so after having published several long articles in PsyArt, I want to go back to the 1990s and pick up some email action. That was quite important, both for the conversations, and the people I met through those conversations. It remains an important part of my digital mix, though not so important in the overall flow of things.

Listserves: Memetics and Evolutionary Psych

Judging from the email I’ve got stashed on my computer, I joined a memetics listserve in the middle of 1997. As you may know memetics is the study of memes. I don’t know who coined the term “memetics” but Richard Dawkins coined the term “meme” as the cultural analogy to the biological gene. As I was and remain very interested in cultural evolution it was natural that I join that listserve.

An email list is not, of course, a formal means of academic publication nor is it even informal publication comparable to blogging. It’s a conversation, or can be, but not like face-to-face or telephone. On a listserve you typically have many people who receive messages but do not themselves make comments. And that means that, when you do make a comment to the list, you have no idea what most of your audience is thinking—which, of course, is just like ordinary print publication or, for that matter, digital publication as well. But the overall dynamic is one of interaction, so you and your interlocutors are, in effect, putting on a show for an undisclosed population of lurkers. Listserve conversation are also notorious for degenerating into flame wars, but that’s neither here nor there for the purposes of this post. It’s just something that happens.

But you can also have useful conversations. The memetics list gave me a good sense of the state of play in the memetics world, which is a peculiar one. Though the idea was hatched by a card-carrying academic of high order, Richard Dawkins, and has a small following in the academy (e.g. Daniel Dennett among others), it hadn’t gained traction in the academy back then—the late 1990s—and still hasn’t. Perhaps it’s a superb idea that’s just too “out there” for hide-bound academics, or perhaps it’s not such a good idea. Myself, I’m somewhere between those two views.

Which is neither here nor there. Given that THAT’s how things went, much of the discussion took place between people of very different intellectual backgrounds and experience, with only a few of us being card-carrying academics—and, of course, though I may carry a card, I do so only as an independent scholar not as a member of this or that faculty. That makes for an interesting and often challenging environment, as it’s very difficult to carry the day by pulling rank. In that environment the only rank you have is what people give you. Institutions don’t much matter, unless of course, you grant them status.

Which could lead into an interesting discussion of the role of status and expertise in discussions. But that too would be a distraction at this point. Suffice it to say that I believe that, on the whole, it’s a good thing that people with varying levels of expertise can have such discussions even if it does have its frustrations.

One of the people I met on the listserve—I think that’s where I met him, though I’m not sure—is Tim Perper. Like me, Tim’s an independent scholar. He was trained in genetics and molecular biology, held jobs in industry and academia, and went independent so he could study and publish on human courtship in a broad interdisciplinary way ranging from ethnographic observation, through literature, to complex dynamical systems.

Tim and I became friends and colleagues on that listserve. Later on he would introduce me to manga and anime, which I decided to study. He also introduced me to Howard Bloom, a brilliant man who’d been in public relations in pop music (Michael Jackson had been one of his clients) and at some point decided he wanted to spend his time thinking about human culture and the universe and everything. Which he’s done. His work lacks the kind of rigor that would make it deeply useful to me but it’s full of fascinating anecdotes and Bloom himself has attracted a considerable popular following. And, wouldn’t you know it, it’s through him that I got the contract on Beethoven’s Anvil.

Thanks, Howard!

It was during this period that I spent half a year teaching that online course in African-American music that I mentioned in my earlier post. That too was an email affair.

So we have one medium, email, and two very different institutional uses, credit-carrying course work in one case, open-ended discussion in the other. Neither was a vehicle for academic publishing, but both were and are vehicles for communicating ideas. Online education has grown considerably since then, and the platforms are considerably more sophisticated now, including full video and automated grading of tests.

Listserves remain as well. I dropped the memetics listserve, or perhaps it just died. But I remain on an evolutionary psychology listserve, one that had been started by Ian Pitchford (who sold it several years ago). That listserve is long past its glory days and I rarely post anything to it; but it continues to be a useful source of information about the current literature. I am subscribed to several other listserves, but only one of them is particularly active, one for trumpet players.

Enter the Blogosphere: The Valve (plus Graffiti and Animation)

Now, let’s pick up the story where the previous post had left off. I’d been publishing long, complex, and very specialized articles in PsyArt: An Online Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts. Meanwhile, the blogosphere had erupted.

How do I get in on that action?

During that period an old teacher of mine, Bruce Jackson at SUNY Buffalo, was publishing an occasional online rag he called Buffalo Report (which ceased a few years ago). He posted notice of an upcoming discussion that sounded interesting to me. The discussion was to be around and about an anthology called Theory’s Empire, which was critiquing the body of work that had become known as Theory in literary studies. This discussion was to be held at a group blog called The Valve.

I decided to check it out. Once the discussion got started I waded right in, making comments right and left, as it were. To be sure, I hadn’t read Theory’s Empire, but I had little trouble following the posts and the discussions as I more or less knew what they were about. And, it turned out, I knew things that most of the discussants did not.

I had been an undergraduate at Johns Hopkins when the French landed, and I did my graduate work at SUNY Buffalo, which was well stocked with French Theory. I’d seen the birth of the intellectual movement which was under consideration in this online confab. I found myself telling stories about what it had been like in the old days. A novel, and bemusing, role for me.

In time I was asked to become a contributor to The Valve. I jumped at the chance. I did so not merely because it gave me a platform where I could reach an audience of academic literary folks and fellow travelers. A platform, yes. But more so, a forum for interaction.

I figured that, if I wanted to communicate my ideas to an audience of academic literary folks, I needed to get in there and find out what kinds of ideas they were willing and able to hear. Conversation was the only way to do that.

At the same time I found my way to American Airspace, the blog of Michael Bérubé, an English professor at Penn State who had established himself as a public intellectual commenting on politics and disability, though not so prominent as such figures as Cornel West, Steven Pinker, or Richard Dawkins.

I became a regular commenter at Bérubé’s joint. Michael kept up an exhausting schedule, posting once a day during the week (in addition, of course, to his normal academic duties and his family life). Some of this posts were quite substantial, “long-form” as the idiom has it. For awhile he ran a very useful series of posts on literary theory, aka Theory. He also posted on sports, music, movies—pop culture in general—and about his son, Jaime, who has Down syndrome (hence Bérubé’s interest in disability studies).

And then there was the great online show trial for his friend, Chris Clark, on charges of an obscure and vaguely specified nature, an event that defies description, though I’ve tried to do so in The Great Show Trial of Two-Ought-Ought-Six. It was staged in the name of the We Are All Giant Nuclear Fireball Now Party (WAAGNFNP) and involved a cast of 10s, if not 100s (or 1000a including lurkers), over several weeks at the end of 2006. It was an online Saturnalia the likes of which the web tubes have never seen since.

Which is to say, it was a lot of fun. And that’s useful to know, that the internet can be fun.

It was about that time, the Great Show Trial, that I became interested in graffiti. So I set out to photograph graffiti in my neighborhood, downtown Jersey City, and posted photographs online. I did so, not so much because I wanted others to see them, but because I wanted graffiti writers to see them and help me to identify the artists.

Which they did. There is a large online community of graffiti writers and people interested in graffiti. No sooner is a piece of graffiti painted than a photograph shows up on the web and people can see it around the world.

There are online communities of all kinds. Some ephemeral, some quite serious and long-lasting (so far). The graffiti community is quite diffuse, as is the animation community, which I found as a consequence of becoming interested in anime, thanks to Tim Perper. But I’m also interested in animation in general, Disney in particular. And so I found my way to Mike Barrier’s site.

Barrier, though not trained as a scholar, is perhaps America’s premier historian of animation, having published a major history, Hollywood Cartoons, and a biography of Walt Disney, The Animated Man. Beyond that he’s done a wealth of primary research in the form of numerous interviews with major figures in animation, many of which are on line, and he’s trolled through the archives here and there (including the Library of Congress), publishing some of that material online as well.

I’ve had a fair amount of correspondence with Barrier, and he’s published a few of my essays on his website. I value his opinion of my work; he’s an invaluable source of insight and crap detection. Like Tim Perper, he’s become a colleague, though I’ve only met him once face-to-face (I’ve seen Tim several times as he lives in Philadelphia, which isn’t far from Jersey City, where I live).

In general, the online animation world is rich. There is, of course, a lot of fan material. But many animators maintain websites and blogs and Barrier is by no means the only one to post primary resource material online–interviews, letters, story boards, shooting scripts, drawings, and so forth. There’s quite a bit of it. I’d hesitate to call it a scholar’s paradise but a jungle, yes. A wild jungle full of animation-related stuff, much of it of interest to serious scholars of animation.

Such a world simply didn’t exist before the flowering of the web in the past decade and a half. While there is some academic interest in animation and cartoons, there isn’t much, not compared to the interest in literature or even live-action film, and much of that interest is fairly recent. There are probably a few animation research centers here and there, but, I’d venture, the online world is currently the richest source of readily available research materials and discussion about animation. This world couldn’t exist without the internet.

The National Humanities Center: On the Human

Meanwhile, back in the conventional academic world, the National Humanities Center had sponsored an interdisciplinary project designed to create dialogs between humanists and scholars in the newer psychologies and in evolutionary biology. The project, On the Human, had three components: fellowships for scholars in residence at the center in North Carolina, a series of lectures by distinguished senior scholars in a variety of disciplines that took place from 2006 to 2009, and series of online discussions that ran from 2009 to 2012. Each discussion was focused by an invited essay, but the discussion itself was open to anyone.

Just as I jumped at the chance to wade into discussions at The Valve, so I waded in on these discussions as well. In time I was invited to contribute an essay to the series, which, of course, I was glad to do. I chose cultural evolution as my topic and my rather longish essay, Cultural Evolution: A Vehicle for Cooperative Interaction Between the Sciences and the Humanities, appeared on July 1, 2010.

During the run-up to that essay I tried an experiment. I wrote a series of background essays which I posted both at The Valve and at my personal blog, New Savanna. Each of these essays expanded on some issue that I discussed in my essay for On the Human, which could then be linked to those background essays. When I’d finished those essays I gathered them together into a single PDF which I then posted as a working paper on my page at the Social Science Research Network (SSRN), which I’d previously used only for essays I’d published in the formal academic literature. That PDF turned out to be 64 pages long and have over 30,000 words, a small monograph.

The Blogosphere and Beyond

And THAT has now become my routine practice. In some cases I’ve simply gathered a variety of related posts into a single PDF. But in other cases I would start posting on a topic with the intention of gathering a number of posts into a single document.

I did that in 2011 with a series of posts on Apocalypse Now, another series on Heart of Darkness, a third series on Latour’s Reassembing the Social, and a fourth series on Disney’s Fantasia (though I’d begun that series a couple of years before with two or three posts intended as one-offs at the time). Earlier this year (2012) I’ve gone the same route with Disney’s Dumbo and with a whole bunch of posts occasioned by object-oriented ontology.

That last bunch started out in 2011 as various more or less independently conceived posts. In July of this year, however, it became apparent that I needed to go beyond commenting on other scholars’ philosophical ideas. I needed to elaborate ideas of my own. At that point I knew I would be gathering subsequent posts into PDFs. As it turns out, I’ve created several PDFs out of this material and will be creating a few more.

On the one had I have what I think of as the mainline of posts, which bears the central argument. As of this moment that mainline is not complete. I have two more posts in mind to complete it, though it’s possible that I’ll need to write more. But there are a lot of related posts that are off the mainline, as it were. I’ve been bundling some of them as well.

Thus, from the mainline I’ve created a PDF specifically about literary criticism: Literary Criticism 21: Academic Literary Study in a Pluralist World. I’ve also ‘published’ two collections of side posts: Reading with Graham, A Working Paper on the Emptiness of Counter-Factual Criticism and an OOO Conception of the Text, and Ontological Cognition: A Working Paper. When I finish the mainline I will, of course, bundle those posts into a document (which will include the posts I’ve bundled into Literary Criticism 21) and I’ll create a number of subsidiary PDFs as well.

As far as I’m concerned, this is a new mode of academic “publishing”—or at least the publishing of serious ideas. I put publishing in quotes because this is not, of course, formal academic publishing through an academic press, the journal literature, or peer-reviewed conference proceedings. Those working papers I’ve placed at SSRN have no standing in the formal academic world. They don’t exist. But then neither do I.

None of these online publications has the full array of comparative discussion and citation that is typical of formal academic publication on film and fiction. Yet, though these working papers lack full scholarly apparatus, they’re considerably more refined than working notes. My working notes are for me only, to remind me of this and that, to allow me to work out this or that idea. As such I take no pains to present them in a way that would be intelligible to others. But blog posts, no matter how informal, are intended to be read by others, and so are the working papers I derive from them.

Still, they ARE working papers and their relatively informal nature would be a tough sell for formal publication. But they’d be a tough sell on other counts as well.

For one thing, a number of them aren’t of a length suitable for any of the standard formats, a problem I discussed in my first post, and a number of them are also problematic because of their illustrations. In particular, the PDFs discussing movies (Apocalypse Now, Fantasia, and Dumbo) have way too many frame grabs for any form of print publication. And yet those frame grabs present the primary material, the film imagery. Forcing the reader either to rely on an inevitably faulty memory or to come up with the films themselves would just get in the way of effective comprehension.

Beyond that, there’s the fact that so much of the work simply doesn’t fall within existing conceptual boundaries. Now, the fact is that, from my early publication on semantic networks in MLN (Modern Language Notes) up through the essays I published in PsyArt, I have found places willing to accept deeply speculative work. It’s a bit of a slog, but venues do exist, though the typical publication schedule is a pain. However, at this point in my career it’s not clear what publishing in such venues gets me.

Yes, it gets me quality points, but how important are they to a scholar who doesn’t operate within academia? Nor is it at all obvious that such publishing gets me readers. And that’s what’s important, no?

When I make posts to New Savanna I know whether or not anyone reads them, though I don’t know who my readers are unless they post comments. And when I post documents at SSRN I know whether or not anyone downloads them. Again, I don’t know who downloads them, but I at least I know that someone was interested enough to download them.

That’s more information than I’ve ever gotten out of formal publication in the academic literature.

And So? Five Animated Features

The major point of this story, the one told in my first post and continuing on into this one, is simple:
In the past 15 years the internet has afforded me an intellectual life that would have otherwise been impossible for me operating as an independent scholar.
While it has changed the lives of scholars within the academy, I suspect the change is not so dramatic. Many of course ignore the online world, except perhaps when it comes time to search for books and research articles or to send an email or two to colleagues. Those who embrace the technology get more from it, but it’s not the difference between night and day. Even as they embrace the technology, they still have the benefit of discussions with colleagues on the ground and at conferences (yes, I COULD go to conferences, but I can’t afford to). And they get to teach students, which is a mixed blessing, but a blessing nonetheless.

Without the internet I’d have none of those things. With it I can contact just about any scholar I wish, and have done so. Many have replied and entered into correspondence. It’s safe to say that my intellectual productivity during the past 15 years is higher than it would have been without the internet. For me, the difference is comparable to that between night and day.

To be sure, only some of that productivity has been captured by institutions that give me standing within academia. But there HAS been some of that, enough to put a patina of legitimacy on my CV. As for all that other work...Well I can always set about working it up in forms that would make it publishable in the formal journal literature, but I’m in no rush to do so. I’m more likely to seek publication of a book through an academic press, but I won’t go about writing that book in the way I would have 10 or 15 years ago.

Here the difference between academic publishing and trade publishing is important. I got a contract for Beethoven’s Anvil on the basis of a proposal and a writing sample. That’s how trade publication of non-fiction works. Academic publishing is different. There you have to submit a complete manuscript.

So, how do I intend to produce a complete manuscript? I’ll start by blogging. That certainly wouldn’t work for many projects, but for the one I’m currently considering it will.

The project I’m thinking about is a book about animation: Five Animated Features. I’ve already blogged a great deal of material on Fantasia and Dumbo, two of the features I want to consider. I’ve got more material on those films than I would want to use in the book. That means I’ll have to edit the material down, and that’s always a good thing to do.

I’ve also written some posts on Porco Rosso and Ratatouille, two of the other films I want to cover. I plan to do more blogging on both of those films, and initiate blogging on Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence, the fifth film I want to cover. At the same time I will, of course, be posting other pieces on film, animation, methodology, animals, and so forth. I figure that in half a year or a year, perhaps more, I’ll have blogged the whole territory I want to cover in the book. At that time I’ll sit back and see whether I have what I need to edit it down into a coherent book.

We’ll see.

Beyond that I note that, at long last, the institutional nature of the academic world is changing, and with it, academic publishing. I make no predictions about how that will work out 10, 20, or 50 years from now.

But, it WILL be different, it really will.

Who knows, it may even be more open to new ideas, though that will require explicit norms encouraging novelty. We’ll see.