Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Coming out as a Digital Academic

The object of the book is changing. This has happened before.  Bounded manuscripts replaced the papyrus scroll. From stacks of bounded paper, we turn to the e-book. In this digital age, we are experiencing the written word in new mediums: online, on phones, via Kindles and IPads.  As the technological medium changes, we should consider, how might this shift affect the content of books and our human relationship with these forms?
I come at this question from an academic’s perspective. My job over the next couple years is to write and publish a scholarly book. As I prepare for this task, I must pause to consider what it means to write and publish a book in an age when many of my generation read and engage predominantly online.  When I imagine my dream book, it is a multimedia project that includes images and streaming video in addition to text. This is not possible in the print form. Yet, the emerging forms of e-books suggest that this multimedia form is not only plausible, but welcomed by a large reading community online.  But, would my imagined e-book receive credit in the academic community?  Would it help or hinder my academic career?  The answers to these questions will inevitably change and it is my hope that by the time my book is ready for the press, the academic atmosphere has warmed to digital mediums of publication.

Over at So Fake It’s Real, Jim McGrath considers this “changing physical and commercial landscape of publishing.” McGrath examines the emerging market of “singles,” essays sold for a couple dollars through Kindle and IPad apps. Kindle describes “singles” as “exceptional ideas--well researched, well argued, and well illustrated--between 5,000 and 30,000 words.”  These “singles” may provide a necessary new venue for academic publishing.  As a graduate student I’ve been trained to express my ideas in the “long form,” in expansive essays interwoven with complex arguments and illustrative points, supported by research and copious citations. But what place does this form have outside the classroom? 
MIT professor Sherry Turkle believes “one of the problems is that we have lost our respect for the fact that some arguments really do take what they call ‘the long form.’  Some arguments really do take a book.” Part of the problem Turkle identifies is that due to mediums like email and texts, “we start to ask ourselves questions of each other that we can give a quick answer to.” This creates “a degradation even in the quality of what we’re asking and answering because we’re expected a quick response.”  The academic community is known for its love of complex questions and even more complex answers. We like to explore and measure the depths of the universe. The expression of that scholarly search often necessitates the elaborate “long form,” whether in the form of an essay, report, or proof.   This “long form” seems contrary to the 140 character expressions of Tweets and status updates. Yet, these forms are not necessarily in conflict. Rather, they are multiple ways of engaging with human thought, and scholars should utilize the vast range of forms currently available online to share their ideas.
For instance, while reading on the Kindle, you have the option to highlight and mark the text with notes, like with print. Unlike print, however, you can immediately share your notes with others.This could allow scholars to share their ideas in real time.  Audiences can follow the process of their favorite scholar’s work, reading and engaging with the text along with them.

Imagine the possibilities for using this in the classroom, or in the prerelease of a book. Scholars could follow up their live reading of books with their analysis in the form of “singles.” This direct public engagement could radically open up academic thought and practice to a wider reading community.
There remain many obstacles in the way of academic e-publishing.  McGrath raises concerns about the current lack of peer-review and vetting in online publication.  At Inside Higher Ed, Alexandra Juhasz, who recently published the videobook Learning from YouTube, recounts the many difficult lessons learned in the process of digital publishing.  Juhasz believes
Scholarly considerations of digital culture stay offline at the peril of obsolescence and the cultural cost of trained experts excluding themselves from timely and critical current debates of serious importance. I believe in the scholarly book, and celebrate its continued support. I am also certain that scholars’ voices need to be central to the larger and ever more relevant conversations occurring about and on the Internet and believe that these will need to be supported as well. My first-step attempts to write fully online will certainly seem laughable in the near future.
The state of that near future is in many ways in our hands. What will we choose to read in the near future? In what forms will we choose to write?  We must consider our place in the formation and continuation of culture. What kind of culture are you making every day? These questions are no longer in the exclusive terrain of the scholar, but are opened up to a wide engaging public. In the digital age, we can all think, write, and share. It is up to you how that happens.

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