The Work of Scholarship in the Age of Digital Production

Mina Loy, the artist at the heart of this inquiry, was an inveterate visionary, ever seeking new and better designs in art and life. In her 1917 poem “Songs to Joannes,” for example, she pauses in the middle of the biting satire of a failed love affair to envision more satisfying outcomes:

We might have lived together
In the lights of the Arno
Or gone apple stealing under the sea
Or played
Hide and seek in love and cob-webs
And a lullaby on a tin-pan

And        talked till their were no more tongues
To talk with
And never have known any better (59)

In “Songs to Joannes,” social conventions and personal inhibitions prevent the couple from fulfilling these ardent visions. Yet undaunted, Loy breaks out of poetic conventions, eliminating punctuation and splitting syntax, in order to encourage her readers not to be so constrained.

Today, a century later, inspired by Loy’s reimaginings of possibilities for human connection and intimacy, we ask how we might break out of the conventions of scholarly publication in order to design new forms of communication with you, our readers. How might digital tools alter our scholarly methods and processes, allowing us to work together rather than alone or in competition? How might digital platforms transform the print forms we traditionally use to share our research with others? How might we bring pleasure, play, and more “tongues/to talk with” into the work of scholarship? Mina Loy: Navigating the Avant-Garde explores these questions, seeking new and better designs for scholarship in the age of digital production.

In principle a work of scholarship has always been reproducible. Published arguments could always be imitated. Reprints were issued for students in practice of their discipline, by masters for diffusing their works, and, finally, by third parties in the pursuit of gain. Digital production of a work of scholarship, however, represents something new. The “born digital” work of scholarship cannot simply reproduce print books in electronic formats; it must transform scholarly processes and products. A complete redesign is in order.

From Print to Digital

Consider how the tectonic shift from print culture to the digital age is transforming practices of reading and writing, turning a solitary, contemplative endeavor into an interactive, multimedia activity. The shift is also affecting scholarly practices, albeit more gradually. Humanities professors, rooted as we are in print-based traditions and methodologies, tend to approach the digital revolution with attitudes ranging from healthy skepticism to horror. The popular “blog,” for example, seems the antithesis of the thoroughly researched, well-reasoned, expertly vetted analysis that we expect in academia.

As Scott Pound explains in “The Future of the Scholarly Journal,” our expectations arise from a system for producing and disseminating scholarly knowledge that dates back to the seventeenth century. According to this model, a lone scholar researches and writes an academic monograph that takes years to prepare and requires the approval of two experts in the field before being published by a prestigious university press, issued in hard copy for $100+, purchased primarily by academic libraries, and reviewed in subscription based, peer-reviewed academic journals read only by professionals in the field.

Table showing shift from print to digitalWhereas the print model of scholarly production puts on premium on the values of individuality, permanence, hierarchy, linear thinking, scarcity, and depth, the digital age ushers in new systems for producing and disseminating knowledge, as well as alternative practices and values such as collective intelligence; networks; divergent, lateral, systemic thinking; abundance; and breadth (Pound). Today, anyone with access to a computer can publish a blog; research questions can be crowdsourced on bulletin board systems such as Reddit; and the general public can contribute to the expansion and regulation of free, open-access informational resources like Wikipedia, where you can learn about any subject in minutes, click on numerous links, and surf the World Wide Web to related (and unrelated) sites.  

The typical scholarly response has been to resist the resulting tide of information abundance, as Pound explains: “For the most part, the scholarly community has managed to artificially maintain its traditional grounding in information scarcity through hefty subscription rates, low acceptance rates, and slow mechanisms for vetting research.” Innovation in scholarly vetting procedures can a slow, arduous, and painful process, as Nick D. Kim’s cartoon shows.cartoon by Nick Kim

But not all scholars resist the change. Kathleen Fitzpatrick, co-founder of the digital scholarly network MediaCommons is a leader in the effort to adapt digital tools and platforms to serve the highest standards of scholarly inquiry and communication. “The blog is not a form but a platform,” she argues, explaining that the blog is not a genre that precludes sustained analysis or concentrated attention, but a “stage on which material of many different varieties—different lengths, different time signatures, different modes of mediation—might be performed” (48). Fitzpatrick and other digital humanities (DH) pioneers have begun to utilize digital platforms for academic writing, with promising results.

For example:

These innovators recognize that in the scholarly enterprise, as in book publishing, we must avoid simply relocating print-based practices to the digital realm. In this regard, we can take lessons from non-academics like independent writer, designer, and publisher Craig Mod:

Everyone asks, ‘How do we change books to read them digitally?’
But the more interesting question is, ‘How does digital change books?’ (2)

Academics may be similarly inclined to wonder,

‘How do we change our scholarship to publish it digitally?’
But the more interesting question is: ‘How does digital change scholarship?’

Rather than simply uploading our articles as PDFs, we must put our minds and imaginations to the task of designing new methods and forms of digital scholarship—forms capable of presenting long and deep inquiry, fostering intellectual exchange, and maintaining rigorous standards of peer review.

Digital Design

Design is fundamental to the work of scholarship in an age of digital production. Just as books need readers, digital tools and media need users. But digital resources must pay more attention to design as a mediating element of reading. Every literate reader knows how to read a book, but the conventions for reading online are still forming and changing as more sophisticated digital tools enable new modes of presentation and communication. Multimedia journalism such as John Branch’s Snow Fall (NYTimes.com) and David Boeri’s Bulger on Trial (WBUR.com) provided inspiration for our project, demonstrating that online reading of long-form narratives is not only possible but potentially more engaging than print—when sufficient attention is given to design.

To capture and hold readers’ attention in an era of information abundance, Richard Lanham argues, we must focus on style:

The devices that regulate attention are stylistic devices. Attracting attention is what style is all about. If attention is now at the center of the economy rather than stuff, then so is style. It moves from the periphery to the center. Style and substance trade places. (Economics of Attention, xi-xii)

Academics are unlikely to accept such a tradeoff of substance for style, however, and for good reason: accuracy of data and quality of interpretation remain paramount in scholarship, so much as that stylish delivery may be viewed with suspicion. “Traditionally, academic writing has derived much of its authority from its explicitly anti-rhetorical stance, its relative indifference to audience, and its refusal of style,” Pound argues, insisting that “such a model can only exist in the context of information scarcity.” In this era of information abundance, scholars can no longer afford to be indifferent to audiences or to neglect style. But rather than subordinating substance to style, as Lanham argues, we must wed style and substance and focus our attention on matters of design. 

Après la Marne, Joffre visita le front en auto (After the Marne, Joffre Visited the Front by Car), by Marinetti, 1915

Just as the historical avant-garde deployed aesthetic design to disrupt conventional ways of reading and seeing, scholars today must use UX (user experience) design to defy habits of web surfing by creating an immersive online environments for reading complex verbal-visual texts and long-form scholarly narratives. UX design refers to the process of enhancing user satisfaction by improving the usability, accessibility, and pleasure provided in the interaction between the user and the resource. Creators of online content must use UX design to attract, orient, and reward users with a satisfying, even pleasurable reading experience, so that navigating an online resource can be as intuitive, immersive, and pleasurable as reading a good book. If the humanities are to thrive in the age of digital production, then design must move to the forefront of our scholarship.

 

Hannah Hoch, “Bouquet of Eyes” (1930)

Sections in this chapter: