Public Engagement

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 1 All of this stems from our willingness to engage the public with our work, a willingness that offers much to our advantage where it exists, but that cannot be taken for granted. If we publish our work in ways that enables any interested reader to access it, that work will be more read, more cited, creating more impact for us and for our fields. Making our work more openly accessible enables scholars in areas of the world without extensive library budgets, as well as U.S.-based instructors and students at undergraduate teaching institutions and secondary schools, to use it in their own work. Making our work openly accessible also allows it to reach other interested readers from across the increasingly broad humanities workforce who may not have access to research libraries. Expanding our readership in these ways would seem an unmitigatedly good thing.

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 2 Any yet, we must acknowledge the ways in which we resist opening our work to broader publics and the reasons for that resistance. Many of us keep our work confined within our own discourse communities because we fear the consequences of making it available to broader publics—and not without justification. There are times at which (and topics on which) the general public seems determined to misunderstand us, to interpret what we say with focused hostility or, nearly as bad, utter dismissiveness. Because the subject matter of much of the humanities and social sciences seems as though it should be accessible, our determination to wrestle with difficult questions and our use of expert methods and vocabularies can feel threatening to many readers. They fail to understand us; we take their failure to understand as an insult. (Admittedly, sometimes it is, but not always.) Given this failure to communicate, we see no harm in keeping our work closed off from the public, arguing that we’re only writing for a small group of specialists anyhow. So why would public access matter?

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 3 The problem, of course, is that the more we close our work away from the public, and the more we turn away from dialogue across the boundaries of the academy, the more we undermine the public’s willingness to support our research and our institutions. As public humanities scholars including Kathleen Woodward have argued, the major crisis facing the funding of higher education is an increasingly widespread conviction that education is a private responsibility rather than a public good. We wind up strengthening that conviction and worsening the crisis when we treat our work as private, by keeping it amongst ourselves. Closing our work away from non-scholarly readers, and keeping our conversations private, might protect us from public criticism, but it cannot protect us from public apathy, a condition that may be far more dangerous in the current economic and political environment. This is not to say that working in public doesn’t bear risks, especially for scholars working in politically engaged fields, but it is to say that only through dialogue that moves outside our own discourse communities will we have any chance of convincing the broader public, including our governments, of the relevance of our work.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 3 Increasing the discoverability of scholarly work online, making it available to a broader readership, has potential benefits not just for the individual scholar but for the field in which she works. The more that well-researched, thoughtful scholarship on contemporary cultural issues is available to, for instance, journalists covering those issues for popular venues, the richer the discourse in those publications will become—increasing, not incidentally, the visibility of institutions of higher education and their importance for the culture at large.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 Beyond the ability of openly distributed scholarship to foster this kind of public impact, however, is the fact that engaging readers in thoughtful discussions about the important issues we study lies at the core of the academic mission. It is at the heart of our values. We do not create knowledge in order to hoard it, but instead, every day, in the classroom, in the lecture hall, and in our writing, we embrace an ethic that I’ve come to think of as “giving it away.” This idea comes to me from David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, and its rendering of the ethos of Alcoholics Anonymous:

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 Giving It Away is a cardinal Boston AA principle. The term’s derived from an epigrammatic description of recovery in Boston AA: ‘You give it up to get it back to give it away.’ Sobriety in Boston is regarded as less a gift than a sort of cosmic loan. You can’t pay the loan back, but you can pay it forward, by spreading the message that despite all appearances AA works, spreading this message to the next new guy who’s tottered in to a meeting and is sitting in the back row unable to hold his cup of coffee. The only way to hang onto sobriety is to give it away…” (344)

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 1 This requirement to pass on what one has learned has its origins in the program’s twelfth step, in which the recovering alcoholic carries the message to others who need it. The sharing that this sense of “giving it away” invokes—the loan that can never be paid back, but only forward—includes that sharing done at meetings, telling one’s own story, not as a means of self-expression but rather as an act of generosity that enables the addict to transcend the limitations of the self. “Giving it away” is thus a profoundly ethical mode of engaging with others in a community based around a common need. More than that, though, in Infinite Jest “giving it away” appears to be the only means of escaping the self-destructive spiral of addiction and self-absorption that constitutes not an anomalous state but rather the central mode of being in the contemporary United States.

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 1 This sense of “giving it away,” of paying forward knowledge that one likewise received as a gift, functions well as a description of the best ethical practices of scholars and educators. We teach, as we were taught; we publish, as we learn from the publications of others. We cannot pay back those who came before us, but we can and do give to those who come after. Our participation in an ethical, voluntary scholarly community is grounded in the obligations we hold for one another, obligations that derive from the generosity we have received.

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 1 Like the stirring sense in the Budapest Open Access Initiative of “uniting humanity in a common intellectual conversation and quest for knowledge,” this kind of idealism is all well and good, but it of course doesn’t adequately account for an academic universe in which we are evaluated based on individual achievement, and in which prestige often overrides all other values. I will explore the institutional responsibility for and effects of that bias toward prestige in the next chapter; here, I want to think a bit about its effects on the individual scholar, as well as that scholar’s role in perpetuating this hierarchical status quo. Surveys conducted both by Ithaka S+R and by the Center for Studies in Higher Education at UC Berkeley reach the same conclusion: “a fundamentally conservative set of faculty attitudes continues to impede systematic change” in our scholarly communication system (Schonfeld and Housewright 2). Scholars choose to publish in those venues that are perceived to have the highest influence on their peers, and that influence is often imagined to increase with exclusivity. The more difficult it is to get an article into a journal, the higher the perceived value of—and the rewards for—having done so. This reasoning makes a certain kind of sense, of course, and yet the prestige that it relies upon too easily shades over into a sense that the more exclusive a publication’s audience, the higher its value. If we place our work where “just anyone” could see it, it seems, its value would be significantly diminished.

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 1 This is, at its most benign, a self-defeating attitude; if we privilege exclusivity above all else, we should not be surprised when our work fails to circulate. But it is of course when our work fails to circulate that its value truly declines; as David Parry has commented, “Knowledge that is not public is not knowledge.” It is only in giving it away, in making it available to the publics around us, that we produce knowledge. Only in escaping the confines of our individual selves and sharing our thinking with others can we pay forward what we have been so generously given. Approaching our scholarship with this generosity in mind, however, requires less of a change than it might initially sound. As Peter Suber and the Budapest initiative noted above, one of the key determinants in making open access possible is that most of the players in the scholarly communication chain have always been engaged in a process of “giving it away”: authors, reviewers, scholarly editors, and others involved in the process have long offered their work their work to others without requiring direct compensation. The question, of course, is how we offer it, and to whom.

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 1 In fact, the entire system of scholarly communication runs on an engine of generosity, one that does not just evade but utterly confounds market values, demonstrating the ways in which private enterprise can never adequately provide for the public good. So rather than committing our work to private enterprise, signing it over to corporate entities that profit at higher education’s expense, might all of the members of the university community—researchers, instructors, libraries, presses, and administrations—instead work to develop and support a system based on our highest values? What if, for instance, we understood sustainability in scholarly communication not as the ability to generate revenue, but instead the ability to keep the engine of generosity running? What if we were to embrace scholarship’s basis in the gift economy and make a gift of our work to the world?

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 1 I want, however, in asking those not entirely rhetorical questions, to be certain to distinguish between this gift economy and the generous thinking that underwrites it, on the one hand, and on the other, the injunction to work for free produced by the devaluing of much intellectual and professional labor within the so-called information economy. A mode of forced volunteerism has spread perniciously throughout contemporary culture, compelling college students and recent graduates to take on exploitative unpaid internships in order to “get a foot in the door,” compelling creative professionals to do free work in order to “create a portfolio,” and so on. And of course there are too many academic equivalents: vastly underpaid adjunct instructors, overworked graduate assistants, an ever-growing list of mentoring and other service requirements that fall disproportionately on the shoulders of junior faculty, women faculty, and faculty of color. Turning professional positions in scholarly communication, such as the managing editor of a journal, into the kind of un- or under-funded service opportunities that mostly devolve onto early career scholars—perhaps especially where those positions are accompanied by the promise of some hypothetical future reward resulting from the experience—is not generosity; it’s exploitation.

13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 6 Labor, in fact, is the primary reason that I resist the notion that all scholarly publications can be made available for free online. While the scholarship itself might be provided without charge, the authors have by and large been paid by their employers or their granting organizations, and will be compensated with a publication credit, a line on a c.v., a positive annual review outcome. Reviewers are rarely paid (almost never by journals; very modestly by book publishers), but receive insight into developing work and the ability to shape their fields and support their communities by way of compensation. But there is a vast range of other labor that is necessary for the production of publications, even when distributed online: submissions must be managed and tracked as they are sent out for review; authors must be communicated with; accepted articles must be copyedited and entered into content management systems and proofread; websites must be hosted and designed and promoted. But this labor too often remains invisible. As Martin Eve has pointed out, in the academic environment, labor that we consider professional is credited, and so “[i]f we are to accurately appraise the labours that we claim to value and want to continue in any open-access environment, then we need to give credit where it is due.” We also need to understand that labor as professional and compensate it accordingly.

14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 3 Where I am asking for generosity then—for giving it away—it is from those who are fully credited and compensated, those who can therefore afford to be generous: those tenured and tenure-track faculty and other fully-employed members of our professions who can and should contribute to the world the products of the labor that they have already been supported in undertaking. Similarly, generosity is called for from those institutions that can and should underwrite the production of scholarship on behalf of the academy and the public at large. It is our mission, and our responsibility, to look beyond our own walls to the world beyond, to enlarge the gifts that we have received by passing them on to others. Those of us who can afford to support generous practices in scholarly communication must commit to making our work as publicly, openly available as possible, and we should commit to supporting and sustaining the not-for-profit organizations that work to help us do so. Doing so requires that we hold the potential for public engagement with our work among our highest values, that we understand such potential engagement as a public good that we can share in creating.

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