#writinginpublic

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 TimesSara 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.

Writing in public

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.

 

28 comments

  1. This is what also fascinates me–as a frequent clicker but infrequent commenter. Can we also talk about reading in public? Conversing/commenting in public? Time and generosity of scholarly communities? I may not be at your panel so I ask here!

  2. not sure if I understand you correctly, but do you mean the back and forth conversations that take place say on Twitter or Facebook?  It is a HUGE act of scholarly generosity for people to take time to comment on work in any forum which is why with permission I usually move the comments from Twitter to the Writing In Public platform I’m using at the time.

    1. Actually, this leads me to a lot more questions, so I’ll try to explain further. I think it’s obvious but maybe deserves future discussion — “Writing in Public” also requires thinking through what it means to read in public and online, and to comment in public. So I’m interested in how all these acts have to function for the writer in public to get the most out of the practice, perhaps?

      Your note about conversations happening elsewhere–not just on the comments screen–interests me because of the way that social media can be a part of this, if you’re willing to mediate. Even if you argue “ultimately writing in public is a process for me that has moved beyond reader interaction,” I look forward to talking about reader engagement in our future conversations!

       

      1. I guess I sort of worked through this in the beginning when I’d get ALL these clicks and FREAK that no one was commenting, and then think GAH people hate my work.  I spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to engage readers before the Scalar project but Alex Juhasz really helped me to understand that if you use reader comments as a metric you could end up feeling very sad.  Even her Learning From Youtube which has TONS of clicks generated relatively few comments.

        That got me thinking about what I really wanted from Writing in public, and eventually I came to two conclusions.  1. a few really good commenters, who tend to be people who gravitate to the subject for whatever reason, are all I really need.  2. the act of writing in public as a method of demystifying academic labor just needs readers not necessarily commenters :)

        Also really hoping that you can come to session to make these point :)

      2. On the flip side, I’d love to know what readers think about the investment made in commenting, especially those people who have read and commented! It is a HUGE act of generosity.

        1. tricia matthew @triciamatthew

          I tend to comment when I have something really specific to offer or if I’m asked a specific question.
          6:21 PM – 29 Dec 2014

          tricia matthew

          @ProfessMoravec I’m ideologically aligned with your research goals but not a historian so I’m more a user/consumer than critic.
          6:28 PM – 29 Dec 2014

          in response to tweet

          #writinginpubilc if u comment, Y do you? It is time taken in already busy schedules!
          3:14 PM – 29 Dec 2014

  3. I find the process of writing in public both exciting an intimidating. As I work in a field that is currently “hot” in history, there is an element of competition in everything I write and read.  I would also worry about the problem of not being able to publish pieces that are been available online, although I wonder how editors are going to keep track of it all with their already busy schedules.  I know several journals have started plagiarism checking articles, which might mean your writing in public will show up.

    I am also very complicit in the read-but not comment. It often takes me time to digest what I have read and then I forget to go back to comment.

    I would also ask, related to the first point about competition, how WIP shapes citations and possible student plagiarism? Have you found your work in TurnItIn or other databases?

    1. so yes, someone somewhere does appear to have submitted a dissertation based on my work.

      For me, the idea that someone is going to steal my work is there (I can’t lie) but something that I force myself to push back against.  I write about contemporary activists that I WANT written into the historical records.  I’ve got two decades or so head start on most people and the likelihood that anyone would write like I’d write about my topic is not high (since I’m sort of interdisciplinary).  Also in a strange way I feel like writing in public gives me a first dibs, like even if someone else does publish before me, I still have staked my claim?

      More than that though, I feel like the risk is offset by the citations I’m getting from the work that is put online.

       

  4. I’m sorry that I’ll miss the discussion at AHA. I, too, am writing and publishing in public through CommentPress, stampingamericanmemory.org, and have been publishing my talks–sometimes with just cursory notes. But, I think it is really important for us all to make visible our thinking, our processes, and help others to discover them. For example, when I hear someone is going to write about writing in public, I can very quickly point them to your work, Michelle. One of the advantages, I find, to writing in public, is that it is very easy to trace and track my writing, since it’s time-stamped through WP. So that if someone tries to “steal” any of my work, I can easily show that mine came first. Given the topic of my current long-form work, I”m not worried. But, given the rise in digital history and humanities discussions, I do want some of this published somewhere.

  5. I think commenting might be a bit like attending a panel at a conference. You read/listen, absorb, think, enjoy the scholarship, but you don’t always have a comment/question right away.

    I do think that by training academics are pretty generous, and we’ve been trained to think that commenting on other’s work is part of our job. If only there was a measure to put in our annual evals for work on commenting on blogs/tweeting as equal to reviewing for a journal/press or serving as a panel comment at a conference.

  6.  

    in response to

     

    1. yes to both!  The drafting in public is important to provide opportunity logistically for collaboration at a point when it can matter (which is what I think Mark and Kristen meant in the exchange referenced above. Psychologically there is something about seeing a “completed” looking argument and yet still feeling empowered to comment.  While that is the model for (blind) peer review that commentary is more akin to judgment, rendering a verdict on the outcome, rather than attempting to assist the development (although obviously really good peer reviewers do the latter).

  7. This is the most inspiring passage I’ve read in weeks. I have often given up on projects because the isolated nature in which they were conceived proved to become demotivating. Further, I have put more pressure on myself to perform in the isolated private sphere in order to break into the public, peer-reviewed journal. One reaches a point in pressure-filled isolation when she simply cannot compose sophisticated thoughts and prose.

    To imagine a venue in which my work is already out there, open to comments and criticism, is to embrace liberation.

    Thank you.

    In solidarity,

    Stephanie

    1. Thanks for commenting!

      I have found a certain sort of strange liberation in letting my messy work be free, as well as encouragement to let myself stretch further than I ever thought possible.

      I don’t know what would happen if someone left a comment along the lines of  “you work sucks and you should give up now,” but I suspect that the positive feedback and encouragement I’ve received would outweigh it.

      I’m glad you too a moment to share your reaction.

      Michelle

  8. It’s lovely to learn that you have received a great deal of positive feedback. This has me thinking of ways in which I can incorporate it into my future work and classes. Have you ever had a student write in public, digitally speaking, and outside of the privacy of education software such as Moodle, WebCT, Blackboard, etc.

    1. So far undergraduate students have produced written work, somewhat in progress to a lesser degree in public (how is that for prevaricating?)

      I have two current digital projects done with students.  We decided on one to append “beta” to the project (http://clarke.rdigitalh.org/) while they were working, which remains still there, and for the other we placed on the home page an explanation of the process (http://chapel.rdigitalh.org/)  as they wrote and developed the website.

      I work with students from a close-by graduate program and so far none has written in public.

      I do know of graduate students who are #writinginpublic as they have graciously shared their work with me.

      The process works for me.  I try to share the potential pitfalls and benefits as people have asked, but I abstain from making recommendations (which comes up frequently of course).

      I’d love to know if you do use it in class how it works!

       

      thanks Michelle

    1. you and me both! So far no rejection or acceptance.  I don’t really know WHAT to think at this point as my last communication was in NOVEMBER and indicated that the paper was going forward in the review process.

  9. This paragraph makes me want to know more about the virtues and weaknesses of given platforms for writing in public.

    Also, and perhaps more immediately important for me, I want to know more about the process. Is there a distinction between “writing in public” and “live writing”? That is, I can imagine that with a platform like google docs, you were “live writing” so that readers could follow every click of your keyboard–as if it were a performance. My (small) understanding of WordPress is that you would post paragraphs after you wrote them. Is this correct?

    Also, assuming my understanding above is correct, inquiring minds want to know how much you polish behind the scenes before you post something.

    1. You got it precisely.  Google docs facilitates live writing but has many platform glitches once you get to a certain length.  The commenting is sort of awkward given the ever evolving interface that seems to change weekly.  
       

      In this site I write in the web interface and periodically hit publish. As you page through the book site you will see I don’t polish at all, unfinished sentences, notes, typos, they all remain there for the world to see.  I wish there was a way to make the drafting more legible to the reader.  On the back end of wordpress is the function of page revision history but readers can’t see that.  On the plus side, commentpress captures beautifully the input of readers.

  10. I’m developing a ton of questions about process and implications for my class to discuss. I will post the class discussion plan on my blog and try not to pester you with them all as they roll into my head.

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