Martian Codicology, or How to Think About Books: A #digped Discussion

“While the form of the ‘book’ is now going through a period of general upheaval, and while that form now appears less natural, and its history less, transparent, than ever, and while one cannot tamper with it without disturbing everything else, the book form alone can no longer settle–here for example–the case of those writing processes which, in practically questioning that form, must also dismantle it.” ~ Jacques Derrida, Dissemination, trans. Barbara Johnson

Kris Shaffer and I have been playing a game lately; it’s called “Martian codicology.” The idea behind the game is to pretend you’re an interstellar visitor to Earth. You understand books as a concept, one with resonance in your own planetary culture, but you don’t know a lot about the kinds of books we have here on this one. What would such a person think about the books we’ve made, about the socio-economic and regulatory structures that have accreted around them, about libraries?

We’ve been playing Martian codicology because it’s fun, but also because adopting an alternative perspective and persona lets us look with new eyes at these objects we simultaneously love so passionately and take so thoroughly for granted. Gazing through the eyes of the Martian codicologist, Kris could observe how “the [print] textbook is the ultimate canon: a fixed tome of knowledge, shared across institutional boundaries, with the authority to dictate pedagogical decisions and arbitrate student success.” Similarly, I found a place from which to begin thinking about the history of the book as a series of trade-offs — e.g., between spoken and written language, between Latin and the vernacular, between text and image, between manuscript and print — in which we have given up, sometimes knowingly, sometimes unintentionally, the affordances of one mode, medium, or technology in order to realize the potential of another.

For a while now, it has been an open secret Kris and I are guiding Hybrid Pedagogy‘s foray into long-form digital publishing. Following the lead of projects we admire such as Punctum Books, Press Forward, and Hacking the Academy, we are trying to be mindful of how our work fits in the larger ecology of academic publishing. Just as Hybrid Pedagogy the journal has provided space to experiment with open access, alternative peer review, and the “voice” of pedagogical authority, Kris and I hope Hybrid Pedagogy Publishing will explore the potential and the limits of digital publication, while prompting us to re-examine all of our assumptions about how academic publishing works–who can be an author, who are her readers, who gets paid, who pays, for what, and how?

We hope you’ll join us for our next round of Martian codicology, where we consider these questions and others. What do you love about books? What do you hate? When is a book not a book? Is the book really a user interface? Should digital publishers be trying to make digital books, or should we be trying to make a new kind of thing altogether?

Enter the fray on Twitter under #digped on Friday, June 6, at 12:00pm EDT. Check out to see when to join us in your time zone. If you have suggestions for future topics, tweet them to @slamteacher or @hybridped. And continue the discussion in the comments.

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