4. Working in Public

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 “If democracy is to mean anything at all, then experts and laypeople have to solve complicated problems together. First, however, they have to overcome the widening gulf between them.” —Tom Nichols, The Death of Expertise

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 I started blogging in 2002, fairly early in the academic scheme of things. I’d just finished the long process of rewriting the thing that had been my dissertation, turning it into my first book, and I was feeling a little stifled: all that work, years of work, were encapsulated in a Word document that existed on my hard disk, in several backups, and nowhere else, and there seemed the very real possibility that no one might ever read it. And then I stumbled across the blog of a friend from grad school who had moved out of a teaching position to work for a web-based company. His blog was funny and erudite, exploring recent books and culture and bits of anecdote. And it had an audience. People read it, and I knew they read it because they left brief comments responding to and interacting with the author, offering their own thoughts and amplifying his. And I thought, wow, that’s it.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 My blog, Planned Obsolescence, which I started out of the baldest desire to get someone somewhere to read something I wrote, wound up doing something more interesting than I expected: it didn’t just build an audience, but also built a community. I found a number of other early academic bloggers, all of whom linked to one another, commented on each other’s posts, and responded at greater length with posts of their own. Among those bloggers were a small cluster of folks who came out of literary studies—the Wordherders, a blogging collective whose platform was provided by a grad student at the University of Maryland, who worked at the Maryland Institute for Technology and the Humanities: Jason Rhody. Jason and the other Wordherders (including Lisa Rhody, George Williams, Chuck Tryon, Kari Kraus, Matt Kirschenbaum, and Vika Zafrin, among others) became my first real online colleagues, and we remain connected today.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 Those relationships, which opened out into a growing network of scholars working online, were crucial to me as an assistant professor at a small liberal arts college on the far, far end of the country. I had spent the previous few years feeling isolated, my work by and large unknown, and I could not figure out how to make the intellectual and professional connections that might help my writing develop and find an audience. Planned Obsolescence helped build those connections—and it appears that posts I published there were the first pieces of my writing to be cited in formal academic settings. The blog was read, by people in my field, and by people in other fields altogether.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 Fast-forward to the moment in 2009 when I’d just finished the draft of my second book, not-so-coincidentally entitled Planned Obsolescence. The thing I was supposed to do—the thing our usual processes provide for—was to send it off to the press, which would commission two or three experts to review it and suggest improvements before publication. I did that, of course, but my press also agreed to let me post the draft online for open comment.

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 I’ve gotten asked a lot in the years since about that decision, whether it was worth the risk and how I managed to work up the courage to release something unfinished into the world where anyone could have said anything about it. My answers to these questions are not wholly satisfying, I fear; the truth of the matter is that the risks really didn’t figure into my thinking. What I knew was that there were a lot of folks out there, in a lot of different kinds of jobs in a wide range of fields, with whom I’d had productive, engaging interactions that contributed to the book’s development, and I really wanted to hear their thoughts about where I’d wound up. I trusted them to help me—and they did, overwhelmingly so.

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 It must be acknowledged that this was 2009, not 2018—a much more idealistic, open, trusting hour in the age of the Internet. The events of the last few years, from GamerGate to the 2016 presidential campaign and beyond, have made the risks of opening one’s work up online all too palpable. But my experiences with the blog, with the book manuscript, and with other projects I’ve opened to online discussion, nonetheless leave me convinced that there is a community, real or potential, interested in the kind of work I care about, willing to engage with and support that work’s development. And—perhaps most importantly today—willing to work on building and sustaining the community itself.

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 This chapter focuses on the ways that working in public, and with the public, can enable scholars to build that kind of community, both within their fields, with other scholars in different fields, and with folks off-campus who care about the kinds of work that we do. By finding ways to connect with readers and writers beyond our usual circles of experts, in a range of different registers, and in ways that move beyond enabling them to listen to us to instead allow for meaningful response, we can create the possibilities for far more substantial public participation in and engagement with the humanities, and with the academy more broadly. We can build programs and networks and platforms that do not just bring the university to the world, but that also involve the world in the university.

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 1 There are, of course, several real obstacles that have to be faced in this process. Some of them reflect the shifting and proliferating communication platforms that we use today. Blogs, for instance, do not receive quite the same focus that they did in the early 2000s, and their posts do not receive the same kinds of comments. In part, this decline in attention comes as the result of what a friend of mine refers to as “catastrophic success”; there is such an overwhelming number of blogs and blog-like online publications today that the audience is of necessity dispersed, fragmented, and distracted. The relative drop in blog-based interaction can also be traced to the decline and death of a few related technologies that kept readers aware of what was happening on their favorite sites, most significantly Google Reader. And that drop has been exacerbated as the discussions that blog posts engendered have in many cases spun off of the blogs themselves and onto Twitter and Facebook and other networks where readers engage with one another rather than with the author. As a result, online communities of readers and writers are unlikely to develop spontaneously, as they did in the early 2000s; instead, we need to be deliberate in reaching out to potential readers and participants where they are, finding ways to draw them, and ourselves, back into sustained conversation.

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 And of course the nature of internet discourse has changed in recent years as much as has its location. Trolls are not a new phenomenon, by any means, but they certainly seem to have multiplied, and the damage that they can inflict has escalated. In the weeks before I started drafting this chapter, an assistant professor had received numerous rape and death threats based on a political website’s mischaracterizations of a column she published online; an adjunct faculty member was fired by her institution for remarks she made in a televised interview with a particularly goading host; and an associate professor was suspended for sharing a controversial online article on Twitter, using a blunt phrase drawn from the article as a hashtag in the process. Taking one’s work public can involve significant risk—especially where that work involves questions of social justice that are under attack by malevolent groups online, and especially for already marginalized and underrepresented members of the academic community who open up engagement with an often hostile world.

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 I do not have the answers to these problems; though I have worked on the development of a number of online communities, I do not have a perfect platform to offer, and I do not know how to fix the malignant aspects of human behavior. I am convinced, however, that countering these destructive forces will require advance preparation and focused responses; as Tressie McMillan Cottom has argued, the attacks are an organized effort, and academics must be organized, too (“Academic Outrage”). Ensuring that public discourse about our work remains productive will require a tremendous amount of collective labor, and the careful development and maintenance of trust, in order to create inclusive online communities that can be open to, and yet safe in, the world. But there are three other challenges as well, challenges that are less about the state of the internet and more about the ways that we as scholars do our work, and ways that we can draw a range of broader publics to that work, that I want to dig further into in what follows.

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 The first is the need to ensure that the work we do can be discovered and accessed by any interested reader, and not just by those readers who have ready entry to well-funded research libraries. It should go without saying that it is impossible for anyone to care about what we do if they cannot see it. And yet, perhaps because we assume we are mostly writing for one another, the results of our work end up overwhelmingly in places where it cannot be found—and even if it is found, where it cannot be accessed—by members of the broader public. Making our work more available is the first step in creating a richer connection with readers outside our inner circles, readers who might not only care about what we do but be encouraged to support it.

13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 The second step lies in ensuring that the work is accessible in a very different sense: not just allowing readers to get their hands on it, but enabling them to see in it the things that they might care about. Academic writers often resent the ways that the work they do gets mainstreamed without appropriate credit in popular publishing venues (one might see a discussion of this phenomenon, and its accompanying resentment, in Amanda Ann Klein and Kristin Warner’s “Erasing the Pop-Culture Scholar, One Click at a Time”), but a key part of the problem is of course that those academic writers do not do the mainstreaming themselves. We ought to be thinking about ways to ensure that we communicate our arguments—and especially those arguments with broad public interest or implications—in order to engage readers where they are, rather than always forcing them to come find us, in our venues and on our terms.

14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 Finally, and perhaps most importantly, if we hope to engage the public with our work, we need to ensure that it is open in the broadest possible sense: open to response, to participation, to more new thought, more new writing, and more kinds of cultural creation by more kinds of public scholars. In other words, we need to think not just about the public’s potential consumption of the work that is done by the university, but also about potential new modes of co-production that involve the surrounding communities in the work of the university. These rich, ongoing collaborations might serve as a style of work that our universities can fruitfully model for the rest of our culture: new modes of interaction, new forms of public engagement, and new kinds of writing not just for but with the world.

15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 3 My focus in this chapter, then, is on the ways that we might facilitate greater public interaction for scholars and scholarship. To some extent, this involves making the work that scholars do more publicly accessible, and to some extent, it involves helping scholars understand the potential for their work to enter into dialogue with a range of publics. In part, then, I want to expand the ways we distribute scholarship today, but I also want us to think about the ways that scholars address that scholarship to one another and about the communities that we form in the process. When I say that scholars’ work might address or engage a broader set of publics, I do not mean to suggest that there is no place for internal exchange among field-based experts; there is, and should be. But there should also be means for the results of those exchanges to become part of the larger cultural conversations taking place around us. And when I indicate the multiplicity of that “broader set of publics,” I mean to steer us away from a sense of the public’s singularity. I do not mean that our work needs to address or engage everyone, at all times; rather, different aspects of our work might reach different publics at different moments. Knowing how to think about those audiences—and, indeed, to think about them not just as audiences, but as potential interlocutors—is a crucial skill for the 21st century academic.

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Source: https://hcommons.org/4-working-in-public/

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