The future of academic writing?

Avi Santo

Old Dominion University, Norfolk, Virginia, United States

[0.1] Abstract—Contemporary academic debates about online publishing raise important questions about the future of scholarly writing practices as more academics begin to explore the multinodal and participatory digital environment, seeking not only to study it but also to engage in the praxis and community building it makes possible. Through exploring why media studies scholars might choose to participate in online endeavors like In Media Res, I want to show how digital interactive technologies might enable a rethinking of the forms and functions of scholarly writing.

[0.2] Keywords—Academic publishing; Knowledge communities; In Medias Res; MediaCommons

Santo, Avi. 2009. The future of academic writing? Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 3.

1. Digital publishing and the changing face of scholarship

[1.1] Contemporary academic debates about online publishing raise important questions about the future of scholarly writing practices as more academics begin to explore the multinodal and participatory digital environment, seeking not only to study it but also to engage in the praxis and community building it makes possible. Through exploring why media studies scholars might choose to participate in online endeavors like In Media Res (, I want to show how digital interactive technologies might enable a rethinking of the forms and functions of scholarly writing.

[1.2] Many scholars now have their own blogs and actively use these spaces to comment on emerging practices, engage in conversations with colleagues, students, and curious Web surfers, and work through their intellectual processes in public. By emphasizing the critical process over its finished product and by engaging in open discussion while works are still in progress, they create new forms of networked, cross-disciplinary, and collaborative scholarship and teach critical thinking and digital literacy skills in new ways. Other scholars are beginning to experiment with multimediated essays, scholarly gaming initiatives, and fan/activist mash-up efforts, rewriting the grammar of academic publishing in the process. Still more are trying out their material on new audiences, searching for ways to engage in conversations with nonacademic communities instead of ignoring, critiquing, or lecturing them. This last approach poses a disciplinary challenge, as online communities may resist hierarchical forms of knowledge formation. In other words, scholarly writing online must not only form its arguments differently but also, perhaps, repurpose argumentation as conversation, with the academic recast as a member of a community, stewarding and participating in discussions, rather than as an expert explaining the community to itself.

[1.3] In many ways, the symposium element of Transformative Works and Cultures attempts to offer a space where multiple members of a community, some of whom are academics while others are not, are given equal opportunity to address one another. One of the premises guiding TWC's mission is that fandom and academia are not mutually exclusive communities (though they have often been encouraged to think of themselves as such). In recognizing the intersection of overlapping identities, TWC offers scholars the opportunity not only to address nonacademics, but to engage them as fellow cultural citizens. It allows academics to write as netizens, not just about them.

[1.4] In most cases, though, academic reward and incentive systems do not yet take into account digital forms of scholarly endeavor. As Kathleen Fitzpatrick has astutely noted in her post to The Valve (, even as avenues of traditional academic publishing continue to decline and digital models become vital as both alternative sites of publication and innovative modes of scholarship, the academy has continued to dismiss online initiatives as not meeting the "rigorous" standards needed for tenure and career advancement. A new paradigm of peer review is needed, one that serves the needs of not only the institution and the discipline, but the wider community as well.

[1.5] Quite simply, we must reevaluate our modes of scholarly engagement and processes for credentialing expertise in a digital world. By continuing to value—and to romantically idealize—a secluded writing practice, media scholars fail to engage with communities that associate credibility with the foregrounding of ongoing and cumulative process rather than finished product. This has not only handicapped innovative scholarship and the development of peer networks but also alienated many nonacademics, who view the work that results as undemocratic and condescending. The end result is a growing disconnect between scholars and the public they serve, precisely because the process of critical analysis is made to seem proprietary and removed from everyday experience.

[1.6] Academic assessments of credibility continue to emphasize virtuoso performances of individual intellectual achievement (in the classroom, conference panel, or journal article) over communally built knowledge. We need to change this hierarchical display of expertise to meet the criteria for digital credibility. Media scholars should seek to be stewards of conversation rather than purveyors of knowledge. Yet in order for academics to assume leadership roles within larger communities of activists, citizens, consumers, and producers, we must first be willing to be members of such communities, and we must recognize that nonacademic forms of knowledge are often articulated quite differently from academic forms. This model promotes building knowledge networks out into "alternative" communities (from an academic point of view), and such networks would be a revitalizing addition to the ways in which academic knowledge is currently disseminated: that is, primarily through genealogies of scholars and scholarship created by the master-apprentice model that prevails in the humanities academy today.

[1.7] Presenting work in progress is a critical part of fostering participant cultures and emergent knowledge communities. Allowing work to become "lost" or embedded in the fabric of an ongoing conversation, in which lateral connections between existing ideas and fresh contributions are the norm, is essential if academic scholarship is to once again fulfill its role of provoking critical discourse and encouraging diverse perspectives.

[1.8] Moreover, if we want to teach our students to be critical thinkers and writers, we must be willing to show them our own missteps and struggles, not just the finished results. We must be willing to prioritize the process and progression of critical thought over its finished product and show students the mechanisms through which finished works are created, so that they can evaluate and learn from them, as well as the works themselves. Doing so would illuminate the critical process, which is often shrouded from them. By foregrounding the process and inviting feedback from myriad communities at an earlier stage than the traditional blind peer review, we might make transparent the development of critical writing, encourage increased sharing and critical discussion within those communities, and expose students to both the pains and rewards of critical analysis.

2. Changing models in practice: In Media Res

[2.1] In Media Res (IMR) is one of several emerging sites that experiment with new approaches to scholarly writing in the digital era. It is currently the most visible project created by MediaCommons, a networked scholarly environment being developed by Kathleen Fitzpatrick and myself, in collaboration with the Institute for the Future of the Book (IFB). MediaCommons is attempting to reimagine what academic publishing and scholarly review processes might look like in the digital age. Kathleen and I, with the support, encouragement, and enthusiasm of Bob Stein and Ben Vershbow at the IFB, first began to map out what this environment might look like after a workshop organized by the IFB and the Annenberg School at USC in May 2006 to address problems with the current state of academic publishing. MediaCommons and IMR were first introduced at the Flow conference in October 2006, and our editorial board was formed soon afterward. The MediaCommons Web site was recently redesigned, thanks in part to a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

[2.2] Though MediaCommons was initially envisioned as a digital scholarly press, we quickly realized that academics publishing in a digital environment required not only new modes of writing, but also new ways of thinking about the functions of scholarly writing. Thus we reconceptualized MediaCommons as a scholarly network dedicated to shifting the focus of scholarship back to the circulation of discourse by transforming what it means to publish in a digital environment. MediaCommons is dedicated to making the process of scholarly writing and publishing visible and to encouraging authors, editors, and readers to engage one another throughout. In so doing, we hope that new scholarly processes and forms of writing will emerge, at once collaborative, multinodal, open-ended, and multidirectional. We are currently seeking further funding from the Arthur Mellon Foundation to develop and test an online peer-to-peer review protocol that we hope will become the standard in evaluating online scholarship. The grant is coauthored with NYU Press.

[2.3] IMR is published every weekday and is dedicated to experimenting with collaborative, multimodal forms of online scholarship. Each day, a different media scholar curates a 30-second to 3-minute clip accompanied by a 300- to 350-word impressionistic provocation. IMR offers scholars opportunities to engage in both new ways of writing and new ways of thinking about writing in a digital environment. IMR also regularly hosts theme weeks, which are designed to generate a networked conversation between curators. All the posts in that week will thematically overlap, and the participating curators agree to comment on one another's work.

[2.4] We use the title curator because like a curator in a museum, a scholar who posts on IMR is repurposing an object (in this case, a media object) that already exists and providing context through commentary, which frames the object in a particular way. Our goal is to promote an online dialogue among scholars and the public about contemporary approaches to studying media. Curatorial notes are purposely short because they are intended to enable a lively debate in which the sum total of the conversation will be more valuable than any one particular voice.

[2.5] To date, we have had 361 original curatorial posts to the site from 236 different contributors, including some of the top scholars in the field of media studies. In May 2009, IMR received 8,907 unique visitors (287 per day), averaging 2.67 visits each to the site, for an average of 719 visits per day.

[2.6] IMR recently added to and improved the site's features. We are in the process of adding a feedback feature that will allow curators to get a better sense of how their posts are being used (for example, in research projects, in classroom activities, for intellectual stimulation), which is a necessary step in establishing the legitimacy of these forms of scholarship in the eyes of institutional review boards. We are also developing a customization tool that will allow teachers to create password-protected versions of IMR posts that can be incorporated into lessons. The tool will allow teachers to add lesson-specific questions and prompts for their students.

[2.7] If you are interested in curating a post for In Media Res or have any questions, please do not hesitate to contact me.