When I was finishing my first book, John Durham Peters gave me some excellent advice. Paraphrasing Walter Benjamin, he said that texts are never finished. They are simply abandoned. It was exactly what I needed to hear at the moment, but it’s also something I’ve reflected on many times since then, especially as my work has cut across historiography, new media, and now ethnography. I love starting new projects and investigating new areas—and that means being able to leave old projects behind.
The recent Culture Digitally posts by Jeff Pooley and C.W. Anderson suggest that one of the main broken areas of new media scholarship has to do with publication and speed. Our examples are out of date before our articles appear in the journals to which we submitted them. Our books suffer even worse fates. Both authors suggest the problem is the speed with which our objects of study—digital media—change. Both also point to the dilemmas faced by academic authors and presses as the world of academic publishing changes. . . slowly. And both suggest that iterated versions and new digital platforms would be one set of solutions to this problem.
I’m going to do the historian thing here and suggest that generations of scholars before us have also had to solve publication problems. The Benjamin quote is as relevant today as it was in 2003, or the 1930s when Benjamin was still writing.
There are two issues that appear together for Pooley as a kind of sauce spread over our work: our objects go out of date and our officially sanctioned publication venues are slow. Today’s “not another paper about MySpace!” is yesteryear’s “not another paper about Madonna!” And it takes awhile for our work to get out. These are separate problems, with separate institutional ramifications, that get mixed together in our everyday experience.
Media scholarship in journals and books, at least on the contemporary moment, has pretty much always been out of date, and often out of place to boot. Research-based work on political economy and popular culture has especially had this issue: companies are constantly in terms of what they own and do, and things go in and out of fashion a lot faster than even the latest theory. Scholars have developed a number of strategies for dealing with the different temporalities of scholarship and life, and that in fact is important for our students to learn about. Take four canonical examples that still frequently appear on media studies syllabi (do a search for these and “media studies syllabus” if you don’t believe me): Stuart Hall’s “Encoding/Decoding,” Raymond Williams’ Television; Dick Hebdige’s Subculture: The Meaning of Style; and Pierre Bourdieu’s Distinction. All of these were originally published in the 1970s and reference social worlds vastly different from the ones our student inhabit. Two of them refer to the UK, one to the US, and one to France, which means students everywhere else need to make some adjustments. Why are these texts still being taught if they are so out of date? The answer is simple: the ideas in them transcend the examples, and even where the conclusions no longer obtain, the questions they ask might be useful for students to ask today. To be sure, treating them as timeless social science theories would be a disservice: Hall’s Encoding/Decoding model is tied to the inaccessibility of television production in the 1970s; an account of the same politics around news today would have to think very differently about production. The same could be said for Raymond Williams’ Television which ends with a wonderfully dated and predictive chapter on cable: students today need to be asking what happens to television when its delivery systems are so variegated. Bourdieu’s classical music aesthetes have been replaced by a host of other categories, from omnivores to hipsters—in some places. Hebdige’s notion of subculture isn’t going to work the same way when outsiders in vastly different spaces can find one another.
Dated examples in readings are not a problem. They are unavoidable when the reference is popular culture, current events or new media. They can be used to teach students about the specificity of their (and our) own moment; and they provide an opportunity to teach students that intellectual work is an ongoing process and conversation of which our students can be a part. And for those of us who teach work that has a heavy theoretical component, the problem gets doubled as theoretical frames go in and out fashion. The hermeneutic turn yields to everybody-loves-materialism, and the bibliography has to change for that as well. Scholarship has to be read in its intellectual moment, as well as its cultural moment.
One place where this is most manifest is in the old version of versioning. At least at public research universities, publication expectations ramped up in the 1980s and 1990s. One solution for a subgroup of humanists and social scientists, was to publish multiple versions of the same essay in different outlets. You might see the same paper in several journals, tweaked a little each time (or not at all), and then later anthologized in a book of collected essays. In some circles, this was expected, respected and rewarded. In others, this was seen as needless duplication. But it was a kind of versioning, and some authors took it very seriously as a way to revise and perfect their arguments. Others simply aimed to increase their publication count at the time of annual review or promotion, which we can count as cynical or pragmatic. Today with search functions working so well, anyone reprinting their work would do well to mark that clearly on their CVs.
The old fantasy of scholarship is timelessness, and Anderson is right to skewer it. As Lisa Gitelman has written, the most common page on the internet is the 404 error. But it has been joined by the fantasy of our age, driven in part by the economic cycles of new media industries that we study: we fantasize that we can be up to date and hip. If 1950s television was sold with the idea of liveness, of being plugged into a common culture, the promise of immediacy is now more thoroughly distributed and disseminated through endlessly proliferating hardware, apps, and ways to connect. We are sold the promise that everyone can be up to date, all the time, anywhere they go.
If timeliness is a mathematical limit we can only ever chase, publication speed is a real issue. Many of my tenured friends have one or another story of an edited volume taking so long to come out that their essays were rendered out of date in the meantime. Predictions about the future sometimes came true in the interstices between submission and publication. Trends go out of fashion, then retro. Decades and centuries change. Journals are just as bad sometimes: I once waited over a year to learn that my essay “wasn’t a good fit” with a journal’s mission.
We normally frame this as an issue of journal backlogs, reviewer load, and the like. But there exist many alternatives for the author who wants to get something out right away. This website is part of a large number of outlets where authors can publish quickly on topics of current relevance. No, they are not refereed journal articles and no they are not likely to be evaluated in the same way by tenure committees, But they can have real value and impact in intellectual conversations. And some sites, like FlowTV and Sounding Out! publish work that is regularly taught in university classrooms.
As the risk of sounding too obvious, something is clearly out of joint when the most important things a scholar writes, the things that might influence conversations, get cited, and get taught, appear in venues that are automatically discounted by backward-thinking tenure committees that still focus on journals and books as the only or most important publication outlets.
Partly, this is simply a matter of educating tenure committees and updating written tenure requirements (where they exist!), which is itself a slow process. As a tenure reviewer, I make sure to spend some time explaining the importance and specificity of online publication outlets when evaluating dossiers, so that if readers don’t understand them, they at least have language to explain them. Not all outlets are the same or should “count” the same—that’s where reviewers come in. But it is also a matter of educating scholars themselves: we have different forums and formats and should learn to use each of them for what they are best at doing.
Even in the world of academic journals and presses, speed isn’t a total or unitary phenomenon: some journals and presses are faster than others. There are also a growing number of journals that do not conform to the old paper issue and printing-limits paradigm. The International Journal of Communication has a considerably faster publication turnaround than paper journals. First Monday and other online new media journals can also turn around submissions quickly. Not all online open access journals work this way: Computational Culture seems to move at a more customary publication speed. But some do, and authors who want to get their work out quickly would do well to pay attention. They might also consider prioritizing these journals in their peer review practice. Open access has major funding and labour issues to resolve before it’s a permanent solution to the old publication system, but it deserves our support and contributions. Books are another story. I often tell first-time authors that once a book appears, it will be as if it had always existed. Academic presses can be slow, but a book is also a slow process for most of us. Their timescales are such that speed might not be the only virtue to consider…with the exception, of course, of the first book and the tenure clock, where speed is too directly tied to employment.
There is another bottleneck in our publication process rarely commented upon but absolutely central to the speed issue: reviewers. In some medical and science disciplines, the expected review turnaround is two weeks. In our field, this is never the case: six weeks is the shortest I’ve seen, and in practice it’s run considerably longer. This is a culture problem. In most cases, a request for a review comes in, a reviewer accepts, and the manuscript sits somewhere until the deadline comes, at which point the reviewer springs into action (or the editors start pleading) and the review goes in. We could, collectively, decide that we will simply move to shorter time windows for review. We aren’t busier than doctors or scientists—we just organize our time differently. For my part, I have committed to having only one unreviewed book manuscript manuscript in my inbox at a time. This means I say no more often, but hopefully it will lead to me turning things around a lot faster for authors. Given that most of the reviews I accept are from first-time authors, this is especially important.
Let us end, then, with the virtue of abandonment. As scholars, we get better by learning new approaches and subjects. To do that, we need to let go of old projects. Letting go also means we can later return and rethink, though over time, the project will start to feel like the work of someone else…because that is what it becomes as we age and keep working. Scholars who write something that is widely read, taught, or cited are routinely asked to comment on ideas they may have last seriously considered decades ago. They have a chance to revise and rethink. People also revisit old ideas in new work. It is already part of the process. We can return to things we abandon.
The “freedom” to keep old work up to date is dangerous. It is like the freedom to check your email before bed or work from the beach, or the labour-saving technologies in Ruth Schwartz Cowan’s More Work For Mother. If such a system were instituted, versioning and constant updating might come to be expected. We already have so many forces that push us into occupying a “position in the field” or worse, a “brand.” Do we really want to be captive to our old work as well? To me, this sounds more like a nightmare than a dream. Sure, we should allow scholars to explicitly “version” their publications since they are already born digital, whether or not we choose to pretend that there is still a primacy of print. But we must also let scholars walk away from their projects. More than that, we should encourage it. Abandoning work has probably done more to advance scholarly conversation than any other single act by academic writers.