Media Scholarship and Digital Time

The recent Culture Digitally essay by Jeff Pooley on iterative article editions as a solution to the problem of digital speed has attracted a lot of attention, and rightly so. Unlike a lot of the nonsense peddled by gurus looking to disrupt higher education, Pooley’s piece speaks to a lived problem for many in the communication and media studies wing of the academy. This problem, as Pooley puts it, is the problem of digital time:

by the time we [media scholars] share our research with each other it’s already out of date. If scholarship is a cooperative enterprise—something like an ongoing conversation—then the multi-year delay from research to published article makes for a stilted exchange. The reality that we’ve labored to understand is already history.

There is nothing in Pooley’s essay I would specifically disagree with, and I think his solutions—particularly his notion of the iterative article—are exactly on point. We ought to start building these technical systems immediately, or rather, should have started five years ago. Instead, I worry that following the letter Pooley’s advice without first critically arming ourselves to question the imperative of speed runs the risk of sacrificing too much autonomy to the rapacious god of digital production. Even worse, it might accidentally diminish the one thing that academic scholarship contributes to 21st century digital culture – its deliberate, even wonderful tardiness. There are, in other words, digital affordances to the absurdity of the journal production process we can use for our own intellectual ends, ends that are consonant with the larger purposes of scholarship even if they seem ridiculous on their face.

I often tell my friends: the one thing professors get to do that no one else does is to think slowly. We are not the best writers. We may not be read by millions. We might not always even be the best teachers or inspirers of young minds. But we to get paid to take the long view, and we’re one of the few professions for whom this is true, even in the breach. And the very absurdity of the journal or book production process, the painful time required for peer review, proofing, production, distribution, can help us fortify ourselves to take the long view if that is our desire. Every time we write something for a printed journal we are literally forced to ask: “will this still be relevant by the time it finally emerges from peer review? What can I to make it more so relevant by the time it shows up on a library bookshelf? Can I broaden its scope, its’ analytical frame, or its time horizon? Is there a way to assure that it won’t be laughed at by undergraduates in ten years, or at least make it less likely?”

Pooley alludes to this when he [notes that] “just because a study looked at a now-dead social network doesn’t mean that its analysis is thereby vacated. Concepts generally out-live the data that they interpret, and the resonant ones can circulate for decades.” The problem for both Pooley and myself is that the idealized model of scholarly production discussed above breaks down in two important ways: when we face hiring and tenure committees, and when we teach our undergraduate students. Since teaching and getting promoted lie at the heart of day-to-day professorial concerns, it is worth discussing how Pooley’s suggestion provides an important mechanism for coming to practical terms with lived scholarly reality.

The first problem is that, while slow scholarship might be valued in the abstract, more and more young faculty are judged according to the simple metric of rapid intellectual productivity. For better or worse, at least one peer-reviewed single-author publication is now often required to even get hired at a university in the first place, something that would have seemed patently absurd to many of those scholars now doing the hiring. And continued academic productivity is, of course, the sine qua non of tenure. For all of us under this kind of publication pressure, the iterative article would be a welcome step forward. It would satisfy the demands of tenure and provide some small hedge against the absurd feeling that pervades re-reading 2007 articles about Dodgeball.

As far as the impact of digital technology on undergraduate teaching goes, this is one of the few areas in which we can say we honestly live in the best of all possible worlds. The sheer amount of public-facing scholarship – in places like the New Inquiry, Atlantic OnlineNieman Lab, and other publications helpfully listed by Pooley in his piece—means that the wired-in communications professor never need assign another journal article or course reader in an upper-level media class again if she doesn’t want to. This is good four our undergraduates and for the environment, if not for University Reprographic Services.

Neither of these complications represents the pure ideal of the academic good life, however. And so to me what is interesting about the current state of digital media scholarship is not that Pooley and I have any deep and fundamental disagreement. We do not. Rather what is interesting is that he and I, coming from such different staring points (Pooley an intellectual historian, I an ethnographer of digital production) have roughly converged on similar solutions to the problem of digital time with only a slight but important shift in emphasis. This convergence, I think, says something meaningful about the purposes of the scholarly enterprise in the digital age. And at the risk of being self-indulgent, this is the topic on which I’d like to conclude.

An anonymous advice-giver recently penned the following self-referential words in the online magazine The Awl:

Will this web page even exist in four years to be mocked? Probably not. Perhaps it’ll be archived on somewhere, or it’ll be deep in the old archives of FaceMedium. It doesn’t matter. All things turn to dust.

These are the wise words of someone who has observed the ephemeral nature of digital culture from the very earliest days of the World Wide Web, but the sentiment behind them applies even more forcefully to academics. A central (if secret because it is so embarrassing) drive within academia stems from the tension between the desire for intellectual immortality and the profound awareness of intellectual insignificance. Many researchers harbor a secret dream of being read in ten, twenty, one hundred, even one thousand years. This notion is fostered at a young age by our first exposure to the millennia-long “scholarly conversation,” and simultaneously shattered by our first trip to the undergraduate library (which was, once upon a time, made up of printed books you had to go and physically collect yourself). Entering the library it is impossible not to be overwhelmed by the magnitude of unread material, and pity the young freshman with dreams of intellectual fame who then sees the stamp “last checked out October 3, 1971” on the back page of a faded volume.

We all want to be the scholars who have penned one of the few papyrus scrolls saved from the destruction of the Alexandria Library and carried off to posthumous fame. None of us, of course, will ever be that scholar. But it is this tension between the ideal and the reality of the academic life that, like many professional callings motivates good and solid work. How this calling can survive the accelerating nature of our digital object of study is a fundamental question for all of us. It is too important to be delegated to technological systems alone. For in the end, slowness can be good, and the obduracy of ridiculous systems can help fortify our ideals when all else fails.

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