Comments more than welcome. Due to increased traffic volume, spam filter is set on high, but I will fish your comment out of moderator limbo!
Thanks to William G. Thomas III, I was invited to sit on a panel sponsored by the Association for Computers and the Humanities, Blogging and the Future of Scholarship, at the American Historical Association meeting on Saturday, January 3, 2015: 10:30 AM-12:00 PM in Gramercy Suite A (New York Hilton, Second Floor).We are a roundtable and leaving a FULL HOUR for conversation so please join Clay Risen, New York Times, Sara Georgini, Boston University and Jonathan VanAntwerpen, The Henry Luce Foundation, and me!
#writinginpublic twitter archive
It’s a scenario familiar to most academics; the cursory thanks with accompanying reports of blind reviewers who point out the errors of one’s ways. If lucky, the scholar gets a chance to correct course and “revise and resubmit,” but often it’s move along and submit elsewhere. One has only to bring up the subject of a painful rejection to have colleagues pour out accounts, some decades old, of the sentences that still sting (and I can recount with the best of them trust me – my favorite “has made what is an interesting subject quite dull” which hurts many many years later).
Ours is a field full of rejection.
I’ve written about why I write in public before. By writing in public I mean simply that I draft in the open web my academic writing. What began as a nod to the feminists I study who tore down the curtain between public and private worlds became a longer experiment. Since the fall of 2012 I’ve published five projects in this way moving between google docs with comments, my blog, and platforms designed for interactive reading, like Scalar and Commentpress (thanks to the amazing folks at Reclaim Hosting who migrated my wordpress site and handled set up for me).
Googling myself I learned that #writinginpublic has been described as an “extreme sport” and “scary,” although some people definitely felt me, embracing the “messy process” and grasping that it’s about “more than the comments.” I don’t know if #writinginpublic is the future of scholarship, but I do think it offers some concrete benefits. (I should also note that I separate my writing in public, which is eventually headed toward a published academic format such as an essay or book, from my blogging, which is far more free form.)
The first piece that I wrote in public was for AcWriMo in November of 2012 and it was motivated as much by a desire for public accountability as it was by the process I’d been contemplating. The essay Looking for Lyotard began as a conference paper I’d done at the start of sabbatical. When I realized it was not going to fit into my book, I turned it into an essay for an open access journal. It was accepted with requests for some revisions that had to be done quickly. What I am trying to say is that the stakes were fairly low. I got some good feedback that made the piece stronger especially from Noel Jackson and Janine Utell.
A few months later I saw a call for Subjecting History, an open access anthology described as “a collaboration between professional scholars and the public.” I had more parts of my book manuscript that I knew had to go and I immediately thought of a complicated public performance art piece called The Life and Times of Donalidina Cameron. It involved some of the artists who inspired writing in public and that seemed a serendipitous place to start. The essay drafted from start to finish in google docs got several hundred clicks, but even more importantly, a few readers, particularly Janine Utell and Jeremy Antley engaged so deeply that I had to find a way to acknowledge them, leading to my first footnotes that incorporated the process of writing in public.
When Subjecting History went online as a comment press site (now in publisher limbo), it excited some criticism. That led to another round of writing in public, in this case an exchange with Mark Tebeau. He and I had an interesting conversation via our blogs, and I incorporated his remarks along with those of Kristen Nawrotzki, co editor of the born digital, open review anthology Writing History in the Digital Age, into my process essay that accompanies the chapter in Subjecting History.
Subjecting History was a sort of hybrid publication, because in addition to the open review by the public, we still had blind peer review. Their comments were no more or less helpful than those I received from the public, but the process of interacting with readers was far more satisfying. Because I enjoyed it so much, I did it again for “Performing Prehistory: Would you rather be a goddess or a cyborg?” yet another orphan part of my manuscript, this time in response to a call for submissions from N. Paradoxa, an intriguing journal that is a sort of hybrid between a women’s liberation periodical and an academic publication. The editor, Katy Deepwell, alone reviews submissions, so the peer review on that piece came from the feedback I got while writing in public.
While writing in public was going well, I was frustrated with google docs as a platform. I had been intrigued by Scalar, an online publishing platform sponsored by Mellon and a few high profile academic presses, but had to wait to get in as a beta user. When I saw a call for papers from the Fembot Collective’s open access journal Ada: A Journal of Gender, New Media, and Technology for a special issue devoted to queer feminist media praxis, I hatched a plan along with Alex Juhasz, section editor for media projects in the special issue, for an experimental piece in Scalar.
By this point, I had a well-established community on Twitter following writing in public. Unghosting Apparitional Lesbian History had over 700 clicks pre-publication and I got feedback along the way that shaped everything from the content to the form, from many many people who I acknowledged. Even better, readers added comments that became part of the project itself.
Ada relies a a multi-level open peer review process. That involved several sessions where I shared a screen with the reviewer and watched her navigate through the project. I don’t even know how to describe what that felt like. Accustomed to the experience of mailing off an essay and then months later getting an anonymous review, it was incredibly rewarding to watch someone interact with my work and to hear her comments as she read. At that point I was a complete convert to both writing in public and open review, however, the profession I’m in has lagged far behind.
That left me in something of a quandary for my last orphan piece from the book still in progress, one that I felt a very strong commitment to the artists to at least try to get into a high profile journal. I had been writing the piece in public over the course of almost three years from initial tweet to blogging and finally into a full blown essay. I decided to use this piece as a test case for the limits of writing in public since some journals now have explicit statements that they will not consider any submission that is available on the web. Since I’d been working on the piece for several years, many versions existed in google docs, but for the submission, I created new version of the essay.
I submitted it to a tier I journal and was surprised to have the piece reviewed very quickly. The blind peer reviewers confirmed one of my fears about the structure of the essay (although not without a few of those jabs that sting about the content) and the piece was rejected. I spiraled into the usual impostor syndrome hole of shame and shelved the piece until I got an email from a prominent scholar who had corresponded with me when I’d first started writing it in public. She was citing my work in her book. Was what audiences always asked me about going to happen? Was I getting scooped on my own research? I panicked for about five minutes, but then calmed myself down. Someone citing your work is what you want to happen in academia and her book was very different than my essay. It became the impetus I needed to quickly revise the piece and submit it again.
I wish I had the end of the story here, but alas as of my last correspondence, no final decision has been made by that journal. What I can say is that writing in public has not precluded completed work from being reviewed (twice now) by tier I journals.
What lessons have I learned from two years of writing in public?
1. As conference abstracts appear on the web and tweeting occurs from conferences, for better or worse, many academics have some unfinished work on the internet. Right now it seems that writing in public is still seen as an experimental form. Many people who are just starting careers or who aspire to very high profile jobs seem reluctant to expose anything less than perfect. I respect that even as I understand that the rewards far outweigh the risks for me. The day I put up the book blog I got a query from a publisher about it. After two years of writing in public and getting published, invited to speak places, and awarded grants, I can assure you that yes, you can be less than perfect in public and still succeed in academia.
2. People read but seldom comment. That can be un-nerving, especially if you track where visitors are coming from and get an idea of who is reading. Theoretically it could actually inspire more impostor syndrome moments. I’ve gotten pretty good at letting go, especially as I realize how seldom I comment on things that I read. I’ve had far better results with Twitter, asking people specific questions about something I wrote. Sometimes I port that conversation over to the writing in public site. I’m still experimenting with ways to engage readers, but ultimately writing in public is a process for me that has moved beyond reader interaction.
3. Writing in public may be brave, foolish, or crazy, but at least a few people have attempted it. I found myself on pinterest, tumblr and several blogs. The feminist impulse for writing in public finds its fruition when someone else’s impostor syndrome is alleviated.
4. I anticipate that the future of historical scholarship will include blind review journals and books, as well as various forms of online writing. Historians love their monographs and nothing is going to change that, but I do think that the open review manuscript may catch on. It makes far more sense to get peer feedback while writing than to complete a manuscript first only to find out that someone had a great suggestion that would improve a big chunk of it. All academic writing is a collaborative effort of the author with first readers, reviewers, and editors. Writing in public prioritizes this collaboration.
there have been some requests for updates to this piece specifically to the fate of the article under submission. It has been seven months since I received any correspondence. I think it is safe to say the piece has been rejected despite no notification of such. As I recently advised someone who queried me about her decision to write in public – do it because you want the experience, but realize that much of academia is not quite sure what to do with this process.