Online Academics: Questions for Grad Students

This is a post about an issue near and dear to our hearts as bloggers and blog-readers: digital authorship, authority, and recognition. Kathleen Fitzpatrick, author of Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy, spent two days at Lehigh University. September 12th, she gave a presentation called “The Future of Authorship: Scholarly Writing in the Digital Age” and September 13th, she spoke informally with grad students and faculty. Here’s some food for thought based on her visit.

Fitzpatrick started out with the basics: what kinds of authorship do we as academics value, and why? We value work that is done on an individual basis, thus making it simpler to claim ownership and award credit for the work produced in a final, polished product: I wrote this journal article, did all the research and drafts myself, gave credit through proper citations, and went through the process of revision and peer review and, finally, publication. Lots of people are involved in this process, from the other authors cited in the article, to the editorial board and anonymous peer-reviewers. But we don’t see those names on the by-line.

And this is Fitzpatrick’s point. With so many people involved, we recognize that an article is not published by the author alone, even if we pretend this is the case in our C.V.s and tenure reviews and job applications. Fitzpatrick argues that reading and writing are social activities and are continuing to become even more social through digital media forums like online journals, blogs, social media, twitter, etc. She claims that we need to rethink the ways that we share information through technology, how we reach and interact with an audience, how we control (if, indeed, we should) quality and authority, and how we give credit for all the labor that goes into commitment to an online community. We need to consider the process as much as the final product, if not more so, in order to benefit from the development of an idea through over time, which is what makes online work so exciting. One of the last points with which she ended her talk was the emphasis on the spread of knowledge for its own sake, in order to let it grow and expand into different forms and fields. Make it as accessible as you can. Certainly, none of us are in it for the money, after all.

I don’t consider myself to be hugely involved with all the newest technologies associated with digital information, and things like “open access” are still mysterious to me (and, I’ll admit, I’m still trying to figure out how to best use Twitter, both personally and professionally). Yet, I am involved with blogging (obviously), as we all are and, like many grad students, have been published more online than in print. I love the idea of sharing my thoughts and knowledge with others without worrying so much about polishing them into full-blown articles. Fitzpatrick’s idea of watching a project develop over time is an appealing notion because it gives you a more three-dimensional sense of a scholar and allows you to see the different angles of his or her interests. I also think the immediacy of the internet can be an incredible benefit if used with caution. Sometimes the process of conventional publication takes so long that the information can be all but obsolete by the time it reaches the people who need it. I also like that I don’t feel like I have to make any ground-breaking claims when I share this information. Many of my fellow bloggers have written on very similar topics in the last year, and many other forums of all different kinds have discussed the idea of digital authorship. But we don’t all read every blog out there (couldn’t, in fact), so ideas of absolute originality are a little more fluid. I will not claim to be saying anything completely new here. And that’s okay! I love reading blogs as well as contributing to them for all of these reasons.

Two important questions pertaining to grad students came up during Fitzpatrick’s informal seminar. The first engages with the amount of prestige required to take risks like digital publishing in academics and to convince a conventional academy that such online contributions count towards anything. As we all know, grad students have no prestige. Should we be taking these risks in such a tenuous job market? Should we be putting energy and time into online projects and collaborations if it could be spent on more conventional types of publication? All the “self-help” books on grad school, academics, and writing for publication that I’ve read have either ignored the possibilities of the online world altogether or advised young academics to stay away from them because they don’t “count.” Certainly, there are many problems with being able to publish anything instantly, the least of all being plagiarism, quality control, and authority. It’s refreshing and comforting to hear an established academic say that, yes, blogs and online publications can count and count for quite a lot at that. As Fitzpatrick says, reading, commenting, and keeping up with blogs and other online forums is also time-consuming and a lot of work, but these communities couldn’t exist without the interactive, conscientious, “peer” participant. We all, even by the act of sharing and commenting on online work, claim some part in its continued existence. Such activities create a new kind of credit for work by helping to get a writer’s name out there and recognizable, which can open up so many other opportunities. These kinds of activities should be taken seriously because they are serious! That being said, they are still not taken seriously on a job application, which, as I understand it, still credits conventional print publication (in addition to many other things, of course) and will do for quite some time. Fitzpatrick’s advice is to work towards a balance of traditional and more innovative publications and academic activities: online exposure can lead to name recognition, but it all comes down to that C.V.

One of the online authorship issues that grad students in my department have been worried about is the potential complications caused by publishing dissertations online, and this was our second question. Our university automatically publishes all dissertations (and theses) in an online, open access depository, with the option of a one-year embargo. We’ve been concerned about the possibility of being denied publication because our work would already be available through this open access forum, and we have heard horror stories of this happening. One year is certainly not long enough to get something published. However, Fitzpatrick posits this as another positive opportunity to get your name out in order to lead to other publications. I, myself, have cautious, mixed feelings about this related again to prestige qualifiers. I’d be interested to hear what others think about the idea of mandatory open access and what discussions have occurred in your departments about it.

The relationship between academics and digital possibilities is a huge and ongoing conversation, and I’ve really only summarized the ideas Fitzpatrick shared with us and added a (very) few of my own anxieties about online academic networks and forums. I’d like to end by inviting you to participate in this conversation with me. What have you heard about the pros and cons of online publications, blogs, and forums? How much do you value your own participation in such forums as either readers or participants? And the big question: how do we get such activities to “count,” IF we think they should count, in our current positions as grad students? What other issues complicate this question for you?

Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s Blog

2 thoughts on “Online Academics: Questions for Grad Students”

  1. I love this post, Laura, and I want to underline the point about how participating in digital communities and blogging can open the door to other opportunities associated with more traditional forms of academic prestige. But I also want to say that I will definitely recommend that you include your blogging for this site on your CV! I was working with a colleague (not at Lehigh) on his materials recently, and loved seeing the subheading “Public Scholarship” on his CV under publications–this was where he included his work contributing to a scholarly blog. I also suspect that this kind of public scholarship will become increasingly important for academics in our increasingly constricted job market.

  2. Thanks, Jenna! That’s how I feel, too! And, honestly, it’s really gratifying to have those little moments of feeling like you have something to share with a larger community as you’re working on this huge dissertation project that seems to take forever. Like Fitzpatrick said, that moment of completing a big project is a great cause for celebration, but it really helps morale to have those tiny moments, too. I’ve been struggling with how to include blogging on my C.V., and I think I had it under “Service,” but “Public Scholarship” PERFECTLY describes it! I will definitely add that section!

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