Lady bug poised on the end of a thumb
02
Apr
2015

Making a Space for the Digital and the Scholarly: The Editor as Teacher

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Written by
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Reviewed by Adam Heidebrink-Bruno and Chris Friend
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Lady story” by Sanna R; CC BY-SA 2.0

The Scholarly and the Digital

This article is part of a series addressing the issue of scholarly and academic recognition of digital work. The goal is to investigate how digital work is regarded and produced in today’s academy. The discussion is ongoing — see all articles in this series or the original call for papers that prompted them and consider adding your voice to the conversation.

On a beautiful June morning, I hurried through the streets of Bloomsbury to the University of London. These streets carry a great deal of imaginative and emotional resonance for me, layers of time and story. I think of Virginia Woolf and her luminous conjuring of a London morning in Mrs. Dalloway. Maybe she hurried like this to give a lecture, a lecture not unlike the one that formed the kernel of A Room of One’s Own. That book makes a space for the play of ideas; when I teach it I suggest to my students they might strive for the same kind of openness, the same kind of playfulness, the same kind of light handling of heavy questions I see Woolf performing there.

The hurrying was more out of nerviness than out of a concern for time. I was heading to the annual board meeting for the organization that had just made me the new editor of its scholarly journal The Space Between: Literature and Culture 1914-1945. Part of my charge in accepting the job would be to transition the journal from print to digital, and at this meeting I was to present my proposal for doing so. This transition was deemed necessary due to cost; producing a print journal for an organization of several hundred members and fewer library subscriptions was not sustainable. This probably sounds familiar to anyone who belongs to a professional organization, subscribes to a scholarly journal — or doesn’t, opting out because the costs are prohibitively high, hiked over a number of years by groups and presses that serve a necessary purpose but find it harder and harder to do the work for their members and subscribers due to the roiling economic state of scholarly publishing.

While the board recognized the economic necessity of the change, however, it was worried about the credibility of an online, open access journal: Would promotion and tenure committees take it seriously? Would the process of peer review be compromised? Would we be damaging the prospects of emerging scholars?

At the same time that I appreciated the concerns of the board and felt the necessity of responding in a serious, informed, and intellectually robust way, it struck me that it is often economic exigency that drives the move to digital for so many of our organizations and publications. The catalyst for change is not necessarily a desire to share the ethos of dialogue and collaboration that has shaped some new forms of peer review and publication in the digital space. Nor is it necessarily the desire to take advantage of new forms of scholarly communication and community-building made possible by changing technology.

The established scholars that populate this board, and others, are well-versed in the ways of institutions; they know the landscape, they know the signposts, and they want to provide the best maps possible for emerging colleagues. They see their role in professional organizations or on advisory boards, in the best cases (mine included), as one of mentorship. They might be fearful that by providing a digital-only venue for emerging scholars to publish their work, they are not fulfilling an obligation to mentor, to provide those vitally important opportunities for quality publication in a responsible, useful way. And they are concerned that if digital-only is all our journal has to offer, we might lose out on excellent new scholarship to other journals that can provide that all-important file in the conventionally acceptable format for a P & T committee.

But what if I, too, had the opportunity to mentor? To educate? Perhaps by taking on a position as editor of a digital scholarly journal, I can fulfill a pedagogical role for the contributors to the journal, for those who offer organizational and professional support, and for our audience. I can use the epistemological positions and the tools made available through open access, collaborative peer review, and digital communication to foster productive scholarly work for my colleagues — and to teach others the value of this endeavor for individuals, our institutions, and our organizations. I can help create a community and teach others how to participate.

Many of the concerns surrounding the digital and the scholarly are familiar to me. Prior to taking on the editorship of The Space Between, several years ago, I ran an online, open access journal for the scholarship of teaching and learning in English studies for another organization. I sat through a lot of board meetings for a lot of years listening to members talking about how we were sending a message that we didn’t value the scholarship of teaching and learning because we were publishing it in a “lesser” venue: digital didn’t “count.” It wasn’t “real.”

Never mind that online, open access publication meant our members (many from economically strapped “teaching institutions”) could benefit from the scholarship of each other by having valuable research and good ideas for pedagogy made readily available. Looking back on it now, it strikes me as deeply ironic that this resistance to open access and the ways digital could make the scholarly possible in new ways was manifesting itself in debates around a journal devoted to teaching. The ethos of dialogue and collaboration that is a part of good teaching, and that should be part of the digital dissemination of scholarship (especially on teaching), was not visible. The digital was seen as hindering the scholarly, not fostering it.

Furthermore, I didn’t do enough back then to facilitate such a vision from my position as an emerging, untenured scholar. One of the ways I went about addressing the issue was to try to create an online journal that looked as much like a traditional, analog journal as possible, going through three redesigns, each meant to closely replicate a print journal. I made sure to share rates of rejection at annual board meetings as a metric for “rigor,” as well as PDF downloads as a metric for “reach.”

What I was witnessing, and complicit in, was what Dan Cohen has characterized as a problem with the social contract of scholarly publication. What is required to counter the less constructive elements of this contract is the “influenc[ing of] the mental state of the scholarly audience” in order for the demand for new forms of dissemination to match the supply. It angered me to sit in a room and listen to the board charged with supporting the journal talk about how the publication was not legitimate, that open access meant less-than, that “digital” and “scholarly” were mutually exclusive terms–that “digital” might even dilute, even threaten “scholarly.” This stance struck me as devaluing the work I was doing as editor, and devaluing the work of our colleagues in the scholarship of teaching and learning. At the same time, I quite frankly didn’t know enough about the terms of the contract, much less how to alter it.

This was several years ago, and perhaps the landscape has changed. Perhaps our understanding of the social contract surrounding publication in the humanities, or the transmission of knowledge in the digital context has changed. Perhaps as someone with a little more experience, not to mention now occupying the highly privileged position of full professor as well as editor, I have a better, or at least new, understanding of my role in running a digital journal.

I have come to see serving as the editor of a scholarly journal not only as facilitating the communication of new knowledge in the discipline through peer review and publication. The shifting of this work to the digital context has helped me see that those of us holding such positions have the opportunity to transform that social contract via the teaching of new forms of literacies, to put it in terms so helpfully articulated by Bonnie Stewart. Stewart says scholars need to rethink their work as existing as part of and in process through networks, rather than only beholden to institutions (like professional organizations, or boards, or universities, or committees). To do this means to be able to deploy a certain set of literacies that allow the understanding of and participation in networks: process-focused, accessible, creating peer-to-peer ties, community-sourcing, a fundamental rethinking of audience. I see this as a kind of working in public, for a public. I see it as scholarly community-building as well as scholarly communication.

In this regard, my work as an editor is pedagogical in two respects:

First, it is pedagogical in the ways Jesse Stommel and the editorial collective of Hybrid Pedagogy envision peer review. In their articulation of peer review as a form of love, as a means of collaborating in deep relationship and ethical recognition, they write that “peer review is an opportunity to learn and teach simultaneously.”  I’ve written about this here, and reflected on the ways I have benefited as an author.  But as an editor, I want to enact the same ethos of collaboration that I have experienced in my best encounters with publication, and that Hybrid Pedagogy elucidates in this humane vision. (I see this in MediaCommons and The Comics Grid as well, two other publications with which I’ve had the privilege to work, and which are serving as models for my own labors.)

Second, though, I want to think of my job as editor as being a teacher. The position of editor becomes not that of gatekeeper but instead calls for a pedagogical imperative, demands the teaching of the kinds of literacies Stewart talks about. Can I use this position of privilege to also serve a pedagogical function? I imagine the transition of our journal from print to digital as a teachable moment, not just the putting up online of traditional articles in carefully designed PDFs meant to appease the demands of P & T committees, but as an opportunity to show other scholars how to work in public, how to create meaningful peer relationships around scholarship and scholarly communication, how to play in the digital space in much the same way Virginia Woolf modeled the play of ideas in her Room.

As an editor, I will advocate for that kind of play. But I will also advocate for my peers, my writers, my readers, my community. I will advocate for new forms of scholarly communication that interact with and dialogue with each other. The Space Between will have multiple, modular spaces that will facilitate conversation and process around scholarship. Authors will be able to submit pieces in process in a kind of commons to get feedback from those who would be their audience. Articles will come with teaching resources to enable faculty to bring new scholarship into the classroom—and then those teachers can share their thoughts on the intersection of pedagogy and research in one of the blog channels that will be devoted to such conversations. And always, the space of the journal will be as fluid as a city street, agile and responsive to ongoing contributions and calls—demands—for new forms of engagement from our audience. It will value what our authors want to say about their scholarship in whichever form best enables them to share their work.

This vision of our journal as a collaborative space for engagement and community, as a site of real peer interaction and conversation around scholarship, is what I proposed to the board that summer day in London. I seek to wed the digital and the scholarly, to use one to foster and flourish the other, and to provide real evidence for the value of the entire process. In my editor-as-pedagogue position, I think I can bridge the space between the digital and the scholarly — even erase it. I think I can show, through the valuing and sharing of the work of my colleagues, that they are in fact one and the same.

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2 Responses

  1. Pingback : Technology in Higher Education | Samantha Blickhan

  2. Pingback : (Soft-)Launching The Space Between | Janine Utell

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