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On Scholarly Communication and the Digital Humanities: An Interview with Kathleen Fitzpatrick

Photo of a class in radio technology at Radcliffe College 1922. Retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.

In Brief: At Temple University Libraries (TUL), librarian Fred Rowland began conducting interviews and sharing them as streaming audio through TUL’s website in 2007. The following interview transcript with digital humanities scholar Kathleen Fitzpatrick offers insight into her work and a discussion about the future of scholarly communication. An introduction has been added to the interview, which addresses both the transcription process and the implications of using digital media to make more scholarship available to a wider audience beyond academia.

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In 2007, librarian Fred Rowland started recording and sharing his own interviews with students, scholars, and practitioners on the Temple University Libraries website. The interviews are noteworthy not just for the reasons any interview would be, but because they capture some of the creative intellectual energy that circulates through an academic institution on a regular basis. They are furthermore conducted by a librarian, which is not typical. To give a sense of what the interviews accomplish, consider Rowland’s discussion with the editors of the journal n+1. When the editors visited Temple University to talk about their experience starting a print journal in the midst of the online transformation of the early 2000s, Rowland made arrangements to sit down and talk with them on record about their work. His n+1 interview offers unique insight into the formation of a significant publication at a particular historical moment. It also serves as a record of what transpired on the occasion of their visit. Indeed, something similar would need to be said for each of the many interviews Rowland has conducted over the course of the last eight years; a growing body of work that merits further consideration.

In 2015, Rowland’s interviews continue to offer high quality, original content from the front lines of research and publishing. From the perspective of a fellow librarian, his interviews can be seen as an example of professional and scholarly engagement.  He asks smart questions of a diverse cohort of academics whom we might not otherwise encounter. My interest in his work, and the desire to transcribe it, developed alongside the expansion of his outreach. Gradually, my interest took the form of a concern, first about the findability of the interviews via keyword searching online, and later about their longevity as potentially valuable primary documents. How is anyone going to find these interviews? And how long are the audio files going to last? In my opinion, such rich dialogue should be transcribed and published in order to increase access to it, in order to make it easier to cite should anyone wish to reference its contents, and in order to preserve it as part of the historical record.

Though it is tempting to see the transcribed interview as simply another way of accessing the same content, it is important to draw a distinction between the audio recording and the transcription. The meaning of the original interview slips and slides at each stage of editing and through the transformation from one medium to the next. Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s participation in the interview transcribed and published below is an example of the engagement she encourages scholars to make outside the peer-review process. She is concerned that the current grip of peer-review on tenure, promotion, and recognition prevents humanities scholars from taking advantage of the innovative and creative possibilities of new technologies.

By participating in informal interviews such as the one that follows, scholars would likely lose some control over their message as it passes from one form and audience to another (although Fitzpatrick’s participation as a reviewer in this publication helps ameliorate that effect here).  As she explains during her conversation with Rowland, scholars get a little nervous when moving outside traditional venues for just this reason. Reliance on the monograph has always offered humanities scholars the illusion of control as their work is likely to reach but a small coterie of like-minded academics and enthusiasts who share a similar background and orientation.

Digital media and the Internet have the potential to expand the audience of scholarly work beyond the confines of the academy, if only scholars are willing to work towards such developments. This is both an exciting and unsettling prospect. In order to breathe new life into the humanities and reach wider audiences, scholars will need to learn to negotiate these uncertain and ambiguous encounters. Given the longstanding relationships between librarians and scholars, the academic library becomes an important pivot-point in this process of engagement between the world of scholarship and wider communities of interest. Librarians have a long history of building personal and professional relationships that encourage conversations across communities, and the academic library is increasingly becoming a hub of publishing support and expertise. As they make the work of scholarship available to wider audiences, academic libraries can play an essential role in loosening the grip of traditional peer-review on the career choices of scholars.

Around the turn of the century, with two decades of experience in the book trade, and a privileged perspective on the rise of the Internet, Rowland began working as a librarian in classics, philosophy, religion, and economics. His interviews take place in his small, modest office, decorated with books, family photos, a few Buddhas, and a bust of Shakespeare. Though it is understood that recordings of the interviews will be posted to his blog on the Temple University Libraries website, it is important to recognize there is no audience at the time of recording, making each interview a rather intimate scholarly conversation between author and librarian. The two participants respond to physical and verbal queues in order to develop a sense of shared meaning. The author provides greater or lesser details and explanations depending on her intuitions and assumptions of the librarian’s knowledge and understanding. In relative terms, this is an impromptu encounter for a scholar, more dance than lecture.

Once the interview is over, the editing begins, as Rowland prepares the conversation for an audience. A preliminary effort is made to remove verbal prompts, hiccups, and pauses. Unnecessary signals of agreement or understanding are truncated and digressions deleted. Though Rowland does not go out of his way to shorten his interviews, the audience’s brief attention span must be considered. Once the edited recording is posted online, the encounter has already been stripped of some of its context, and, short of some kind of pre-publication agreement, the scholar’s message is increasingly dependent upon the kindness of strangers.

The audio introduction Rowland provides before the interview is an additional opportunity to layer in a meaning over which the author has no control. The text of the blog post adds yet another layer. The move between forms of media – from audio recording to transcript – is one more step, and arguably the longest, away from the original encounter. As with the audio editing, accuracy in transcription involves finding some further balance between recording every utterance in all of its detail and stripping out the more detailed idiosyncrasies of speech that may be considered irrelevant. As more of the context is stripped out in transcription, however, what remains of the conversation that took place in Rowland’s office? As Fitzpatrick goes to read the following transcript, one can imagine her thinking at various points that she should have finished this thought, or rephrased that question, or taken the time to explain some important background information.

Scholars, who pride themselves on accuracy, precision, and message control, and whose careers are so dependent on reception by peers, might be anxious and reluctant to enter a wider cultural orbit. The intervention that Kathleen Fitzpatrick advocates is actually much greater than engaging in a few interviews. She and her colleagues are working to influence the scholarly publishing environment in ways that make alternate venues such as blogs and podcasts more respectable as a means of scholarly recognition. In this interview she discusses her experiences with the communities that form around blogs and her experiments in peer-to-peer review. Not only do these forms make scholarly work available to the wider public and encourage its response, but they do something more novel in terms of scholarship. They show the scholar’s work in process, as fragments, that precede the finished product in the form of a book or journal article. Instead of the monograph springing fully formed from the mind of the scholar, we begin to see the building blocks, like a painter in her studio.

If this ethos in scholarship takes hold, we will see an increasing emphasis on the processes – the conversations, the blind alleys, the preliminary judgments and analyses – that are currently obscured from view. The scholars who have agreed to interviews with Rowland over the past eight years should be congratulated on their willingness to open up their scholarship to the public. It is one very small but important step in transforming the relationship between the academy and the wider world. Kathleen Fitzpatrick has been particularly gracious and generous through this whole process, a fine example of the engagement she advocates for her peers in academia.

The following interview between Rowland and Fitzpatrick took place on March 7, 2013, at Temple University, before Fitzpatrick gave a lecture at the Center for the Humanities entitled “The Humanities in and for the Digital Age.” It provides an introduction to her work, her two books The Anxiety of Obsolescence: the American Novel in the Age of Television and Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy, as well as a discussion about the meaning of the digital humanities, the crisis in publishing, the history of peer review, and what’s in store for the future of scholarly communication. In discussing these topics, Rowland and Fitzpatrick address an array of philosophical questions pertaining to the Internet’s effect on the human brain, the status of attention, what counts as knowledge, our notions of the author and the text, and the history of reading. Rowland’s references to recent books, such as Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains and Robert Darnton’s The Case for Books: Past, Present, and Future, add substantially to the conversation.


Audio of Interview

Fred Rowland (FR): Kathleen Fitzpatrick is the Director of Scholarly Communication at the Modern Language Association and a visiting faculty member in the English department at New York University. Her graduate work was concentrated in contemporary American fiction and media studies, resulting in her first book, The Anxiety of Obsolescence: The American Novel in the Age of Television, which analyzed the anxiety and vested interests surrounding the purported demise of literature. She began a blog shortly after completing Anxiety of Obsolescence called Planned Obsolescence, because she was, as she writes in the introduction, “left with the detritus of many smaller ideas that demanded a kind of immediacy, and yet seemed destined to fade into nothingness” (Planned 7).

At the invitation of scholars at the Institute for the Future of the Book, she participated in the founding of the online collaborative called MediaCommons, which, in the words of its website, is a community network for scholars, students, and practitioners in media studies promoting the exploration of new forms of publishing. Her work on her blog and MediaCommons led to her second book, Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy, a fascinating and incisive look at the future of publishing and scholarship in the academy. Kathleen Fitzpatrick gave a lecture at the Center for the Humanities at Temple on March 7, 2013, entitled “The Humanities in and for the Digital Age.” Before her talk she kindly stopped by my office to discuss her work in scholarly communication and the digital humanities. I am Fred Rowland. [1:44]

FR: Kathleen Fitzpatrick, thank you very much for speaking with me.

Kathleen Fitzpatrick (KF): Well thank you for having me.

FR: I was wondering if you would just talk a little bit about your first book, The Anxiety of Obsolescence: The American Novel in the Age of Television. What is it about, and what were you trying to accomplish? [1:59]

KF: Well I had been hearing for years, as long as I could remember, that the novel was a form under threat, that the novel was this dying form that no one was paying any attention to anymore. And that new forms like television or film or what have you were taking over the cultural brain space. And so what I was interested in was less trying to figure out whether that was true or not. I sort of began from the presupposition that it was not actually true, because there are more novels published every year than there ever have been in history. Instead, I was trying to figure out why we claim that the novel is a dying form and what purposes those claims serve. And what I found the longer I looked into the question was that the claim of the novel’s obsolescence serves to protect it in a certain way from the onslaught of these new forms. It sort of creates what I like to refer to as a cultural wildlife preserve. [3:02]

FR: Yes, what do you mean by that exactly?

KF: It’s a protected space within which we can understand that this threatened form deserves some kind of special treatment. It needs to be protected in order to preserve the heritage of our culture as it has been practiced for centuries. As you can hear in that kind of rhetoric, this notion of cultural heritage and preservation, often what we’re talking about is a fairly conservative impulse. To protect the old from the encroachment of the new. So what I was really interested in in this volume is attempting to think about what that new was.  And what kinds of dangers the novel felt like it was being threatened by. [3:55]

FR: And the authors, who are the authors you were dealing with?

KF: In that book I am primarily dealing with Thomas Pynchon and Don Delillo. But a host of associated authors, who are working in that same postmodern vein, are also thinking about the ways the cultural landscape in the United States is changing in the period of television’s onset.

FR: You give one example, and this was a fairly well known example, because it broke into the public space, about a certain conflict that developed on Oprah. I remember that, but I wasn’t really paying attention at the time. How does that feed into your book and your argument about these tensions?

KF: This moment of conflict that you’re talking about is of course the kerfuffle between Jonathan Franzen and Oprah Winfrey (Fitzpatrick, Anxiety 1-2). When Oprah had extended an invitation to Franzen to appear as part of her book club, she had adopted The Corrections as one of the book club’s books. And Franzen said something pretty unfortunate in an interview not really expecting it to get around in the way that it did. And it seemed to indicate that Oprah’s audience was not the kind of audience he was hoping that The Corrections would reach, and that he was kind of uncomfortable having the Oprah seal of approval on the cover of his book. And Oprah’s response was to disinvite him and to end that period of the book club’s conversation with The Corrections.

There was this tremendous brouhaha that came up around this. Everybody felt like they had to take sides. Either Franzen was absolutely right, and we were seeing the encroaching commercialization of literature…

FR: The downfall of literature… [5:48]

KF: Absolutely, and the ways that corporate media was really encroaching on the space of free expression. Or, there were the folks who were defending Oprah by noting that Franzen’s approach to understanding literature was a fairly elitist one and that his description of Oprah’s audience was dismissive at best.

FR: Especially since she did get a lot of people to read good books. [6:12]

KF: Exactly. So I don’t entirely take a side in that debate, although I am clearly in the course of the book more interested in the kinds of opening up of the audience that television is able to perform in the ways that Oprah is able to bring people to the book who wouldn’t have been there otherwise. But I think it’s a really emblematic moment of exactly this conflict between television and the literary. [6:46]

FR: This got me wondering about a book I read recently called The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. It’s a fairly good book, which I really enjoyed, and it was recommended to me by someone else here on campus. The author describes how he was able to get away from his iPhone and his Facebook and his various electronic accounts. He moved with his family to a very pristine environment in Colorado to write this book about the Internet. He presents a lot of scientific information about how the Internet is rewiring our brains. And it is very interesting. But when I read something like this I also think to myself of my mother telling me as a young boy “don’t sit too close to the television because it will ruin your eyes,” or because it will do this or that to you. And so I wanted your opinion, you know I also think about when the Web first became widely available there were just real Millennial expositions on how the Internet and the Web were going to transform everything. They were going to make democracy break out all over the world, they were going to destabilize all of the powerful forces. So it seems like you’ve got, on the one hand, the utopian dreaming, and now there’s sort of a dystopian feeling creeping in here. Although there’s some true stuff to what he writes. [8:29]

KF: It is undoubtedly true that the Internet, that our iPhones, that all of the different forms of technology that we’re surrounded by change the ways that we interact with the world. It is unquestioned. But the degree of that change, and whether it’s actually rewiring our brains, I think, is really under question. There are other folks who are writing about this same kind of question. I think of Cathy Davidson, for instance, who recently moved from Duke University to CUNY. She suggests that the mode of the Internet’s distribution of attention – rather than having the sort of deep focus that long form print has long had, the ability to think in nonlinear, connected, more distributed ways – is highlighting different kinds of skills that students and workers today really need to develop in order to cope with multiple information streams at multiple times.

So all of this suggests that, yes, the Internet is producing different modes of learning and different modes of thinking, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. My sense is that, as you say, these kinds of anxieties about what the Internet is doing to us are very, very familiar. They’re very much the same as the concerns about what television was doing to us. Television was turning us all into couch potatoes, television was disconnecting us from one another, etc. All of those kinds of things. And yet, none of that seems to really have borne out. The American public hasn’t entirely dissociated itself from reality, it hasn’t become any lazier than it used to be. [10:28]

FR: This was particularly a strong feeling for me, because my father actually locked the TV away in the closet during the school week when I was growing up. He would bring out the TV, we would be waiting for him to get home on Friday evening so he could unlock the TV…[laughter]

KF: Literally unlock the TV, that’s great…

FR: It’s very interesting now with my own kids and their devices that just seem, no matter what you try to do, they seem to proliferate, because there’s always at least one or two really good reasons why you should have these things. [11:14]

KF: I got asked a question not too long ago that I thought was really important in this regard about teaching in the age of all of these divergent information streams constantly coming in. I was asked you know in this kind of environment, how do you command student attention? And all I could think was that attention really is not something to be commanded.

FR: Yes, you’ve never been able to command attention… [11:40]

KF: Exactly, it’s something to be channelled. What we’re learning from the Internet is the increasing ability to channel attention in multiple ways in different forms at different times.

FR: Yes, so in your book, in both of your books, you treat both anxiety and obsolescence. But they are in relatively different contexts. In the first book, you describe it as literary criticism. By the time you get to your second book it’s clearly something else. You’re talking about scholarly communication, the digital humanities. How did you get from the first book to the second book? I know that you had a blog called Planned Obsolescence. Could you talk about this transformation? [12:45]

KF: Sure. The Anxiety of Obsolescence, the first book, was published in 2006, but I finished writing the book more or less as we know it now in June 2002. At that point, I thought ridiculously optimistically it was going to be about a year and a half before the book would be read by anybody. And I had all of these ideas that were left over and stirring about from having finished the book. So I thought I am going to start one of these blog things that I’ve been hearing about. And I’m going to put some of these ideas out there and see if I can get conversations going. And very quickly, at least by academic terms, I really did get those conversations going. I developed an audience, I found other academic bloggers, there was a real community that developed around these blogs. And it became a real source of energy and engagement, and the development of really fun work. [12:43]

At the same time all of that’s going on, I’m trying to get this book published. And I had had interest in the manuscript a few years before from some academic presses that I really was excited about the possibility of working with. They had told me as soon as you’re done with the manuscript, send it on to us and we’ll take a look. And when I did in June 2002 when I finished up the manuscript, all of those presses that had previously been interested came back and said we still love this project, and we’d love to publish it, but we just can’t afford to right now.

FR: It was right after the Internet bubble collapsed. [14:18]

KF: Exactly. And I started discovering that it wasn’t just those presses. They weren’t unusual in the university press landscape at that point. Everybody was in this same kind of circumstance in which they were having to scale back the numbers of titles that they were publishing, they were having to think of things other than sheer quality in order to make publication decisions. And this put a great difficulty in the path of authors of first books, authors who did not already have track records with university presses. So instead of taking a year and a half for people to get their hands on this book, it ended up taking four years. [15:01]

It was in the process of attempting to get that book published, while keeping this blog, that I started thinking about what scholarly communication was becoming, what it could be if it were all online in the form of a blog, and why we still need the book and what the book might become as we go forward. So I started at first writing on my blog about it, then writing some extended articles, and then the next thing you knew I woke up one day and realised that everything I had been doing was developing into the book, Planned Obsolescence. [15:36]

FR: So I guess did this surprise you, the path of your career?

KF: [Laughter] It did. It was not an expected path. Looking back on it, it makes perfect sense.

FR: Right, you were dealing with those issues in Anxiety of Obsolescence. Were you at any point concerned for your career, because you were going from a recognized academic field, literature, into something that is interesting, it’s exciting, it’s developing, but as far as tenure decisions, that kind of thing? [16:15]

KF: Sure, I had always been a little bit fringey even within literary criticism. I was working on contemporary fiction, which was very popular with the students, I’ll put it that way, but it had less purchase within English departments per se. Even more, I was working on this media studies stuff. I mean, what did television have to do with English departments?

FR: And then, you studied television in terms of literature in your first book, but were you studying television outside that, in more general terms?

KF: Television as television? My position at Pomona College was joint between English and Media Studies, and so I was teaching classes that were focused on television in American culture and focused much more directly on the media per se. [17:04]

FR: I spoke with somebody who studies film here [at Temple University]. Since my children watch TV, and I try to limit it, but they certainly do watch it. What I found with my son watching TV was that he would really engage with some of these shows and he really enjoyed some of these shows. And I asked her [this person at Temple University], my question to her was, is there something going on when you watch TV that’s more than just passive absorbing of information, because what I saw and what it seemed like I was seeing was a real engagement with the content that was not wholly pernicious. [17:45]

KF: Absolutely!

FR: And so the same questions are going on with the Internet with people spending time and absorbing things from the Internet. The questions do seem to be very similar in many respects.

KF: Absolutely, going back to this whole couch potato idea. We have this idea that the process of watching television is a wholly passive one. We lie back and the story comes at you. But it’s never been that passive. Because it’s always been about sharing television with someone. Talking with your family, talking with your friends; kids reenacting television shows on the playground. There’s always been this kind of activity around it. So I think that similarly we think of the Internet as being populated by bloggers in their pajamas in the basement. And in fact there’s real substantive intellectual and communal engagement that takes place in all of these networked spaces. [18:45]

FR: How would you define the digital humanities?

KF: For me it has to do with the work that gets done at the crossroads of digital media and traditional humanistic study. And that happens in two different ways. On the one hand, it’s bringing the tools and techniques of digital media to bear on traditional humanistic questions. But it’s also bringing humanistic modes of inquiry to bear on digital media. It’s a sort of moving back and forth across those lines, thinking about what computing is, how it functions in our culture, and then using those computing technologies to think about the more traditional aspects of culture. [19:34]

FR: Okay, good. Your first chapter in Planned Obsolescence is about peer review. When it comes to scholarly communication, peer review is what holds everything together, or prevents real changes in the system. Could you give us a little background on how peer review developed?

KF: Sure. You’re absolutely right that peer review is the lynchpin in all of this. When we were in the process of beginning to found new digital scholarly communication networks online, the first question everybody asked is what are you going to do about peer review?

Peer review has a couple of different histories that get told. One of which, the most common that you’ll hear, is that at a certain point in its past the Royal Society of London, which had developed the first recognizable academic journal, Philosophical Transactions, made the decision that it was going to send everything that was being considered for publication in Philosophical Transactions out to be reviewed by at least two members of the academy prior to its inclusion. And this is sort of the moment that gets described as being the onset of peer review. [20:47]

There is another history that Mario Biagioli unfolds in his study of peer review, which is to say that peer review doesn’t actually begin with the Royal Society of London or with journal publications, that there is an earlier form that takes place around the printing of books in the first place. And that in England in particular in order to receive royal permission to print books the printer of those books had to take responsibility for the content in them. And so the crown passed to the printer this royal imprimatur, this royal approval to print this kind of material under the assumption that the printer would not allow anything that was libelous or heretical to pass through its processes. And so the first form of peer review, Biagioli argues, was in fact a mode of censorship. That controlled the material that was being produced so that it wouldn’t anger the crown. [21:51]

But what happens is that when the Royal Society gets founded, that imprimatur passes to the Society and the Society agrees that nothing that it publishes will have any endangering aspects to the crown. And so one of the forms that this form of censorship morphs into is peer review, instead of the sort of external censoring official governmental control over what’s being produced; instead it’s sort of internal self-policing. And so Biagioli comes to suggest that peer review is a profoundly Foucauldian mode of creating discipline. And literally discipline as we understand it in that Michel Foucault sense, but also discipline in the sense of the academic structuring of knowledge. Knowledge comes to be regulated through the form of peer review. And in this way it comes to seem that peer review is not just about filtering potential material that can be published for quality, but is instead about policing the boundaries of what can be considered knowledge. In that respect, the Internet poses great challenges…[23:19]

FR: Yes…

KF: …to the nature of peer review. And not simply because anybody can publish anything, right, anybody who knows how to produce a little HTML, or who can get their hands on a decent web editor, can post whatever they want to on the Internet provided they’ve got access somewhere. It’s also that there is this potential explosion in thinking about not just knowledge, but also who gets to produce that knowledge and what  qualifies as knowledge, and who gets to decide what is knowledge.

So one of the things that I’m thinking about in Planned Obsolescence in that particular chapter on peer review is whether the mode of peer review that has long been established within the academy – pre-publication gate-keeping, that kind of makes sure that everything that gets published is the best material, and sort of selects for quality and makes sure that things have certain kinds of quality control around them – whether that can at all function online, or whether the attempt to reinstate that pre-publication gate-keeping in online spaces, like with online journals, saying that we’re going to have rigorous peer review before we release any articles, is in fact working counter to the Internet’s best mode. [24:45]

FR: So you’ve done a lot of writing, but also you’ve done work online in trying to change the reliance on traditional peer review. Can you talk about your experiences with your book Planned Obsolescence in releasing it for pre-publication peer-to-peer review, and tell us what that is?

KF: I had been working for some years prior to finishing up Planned Obsolescence with an online network called MediaCommons. At the point when I was working with NYU Press planning on publishing Planned Obsolescence, it was clear to the press that I was going to want to do something with the book online. And they were thinking, my editor was thinking, that maybe I would want to have a blog alongside it, or to kind of prepublish little bits of it or something like this. And what I suggested was that since I was making this argument about the way that peer review best functions online, I should actually sort of at least put my metaphorical money where my mouth was, and try it out. [25:53]

So we posted the entire text, the draft of the manuscript, the entire thing with the exception of the conclusion, which had not yet been written, on MediaCommons, in our MediaCommons press area. It’s a blog-based structure but it runs with a plug-in called CommentPress that allows for paragraph by paragraph commenting. We posted the entire thing there and opened it up to online commenters, asking explicitly for feedback to help me with the revision process. At the same time that this was going on, the press sent the manuscript out for traditional peer review as well, knowing that the process was going to have to be approved by the editorial board, and that it would have to meet some traditional standards. [26:42]

But I was interested in having both modes of review available because I wanted to do a little bit of comparison between them and see what kinds of differences they produced.  The open review online was an extremely exciting process. I got a lot of engagement from a lot of great people. I had a lot of voices participating in that review process who would never have been called upon in a traditional review process, and yet who provided me with absolutely crucial feedback. [27:13]

FR: How many comments did you get?

KF: Oh gosh, it was just shy of 300, I think, from about 45 unique commenters, which I was very pleased with. And among those commenters there were several members of the library community, for instance, who would never have been called upon to serve as peer reviewers and yet there is a crucial chapter in the book that focuses on library issues. And they were able to help me really significantly improve that chapter. [27:42]

At the same time, I got these two traditional peer reviews, which were both fantastic. Really careful, sensitive readings of the book as a whole, that did a lot of really deep thought about the book’s structure and about parts that were working better than others and so forth. And what I finally came to discover in this process was that the openness of the online review allowed for many more voices, allowed for discussion amongst those voices, so people argued amongst each other, and not just with me, and it allowed me to contextualize those reviews, because I knew who the reviewers were. I didn’t ask them to sign their names, but they did. So I had context for understanding the comments they were making and knew how to interpret and how to connect different ideas. On the other hand, the comments were very, very local. They were focused on specific issues within the text, and there weren’t really comments about the overall structure of the text. And then there were places where there were no comments whatsoever. Because people don’t tend to comment online to say “I totally agree. This is exactly right.” So I had no idea how to interpret silence. Did it mean that everything was fine? Did it mean that everything was so bad that no one was going to embarrass me by saying so? [29:12]

FR: Or did it mean that people just didn’t read those parts?

KF: Exactly. Whereas with the two traditional reviews, they did deal with the entirety of the book. And I knew that when they said chapter 3 was fine, that chapter 3 was fine. So what we were able to take from this is the sense that we need to develop a mode of online review that allows for the best aspects of the open review that we did, but that still allows for the development of this holistic picture as well, something that can deal with the entirety of the text at the same time.

FR: Interesting, and are other people doing this? [29:50]

KF: Yes, actually MediaCommons has since engaged in a number of different experiments with folks who are interested in using these open review processes, including we did a couple of different experiments with the journal Shakespeare Quarterly

FR: And can you tell us what those are? [30:07]

KF: The first was for a special issue on Shakespeare in new media. The special editor for the issue, Kathy Rowe, posted a select number of essays from that special issue for the same kind of open review that we used on mine, but with a few sort of tweaks in the process. They went out to a very specific set of reviewers asking them to come to participate, they had a very defined period during which commenting would be open, and then comments were closed at the end, and so forth.

We have a couple of authors right now who are in the midst of open review experiments on MediaCommons; Jason Mittell with his book Complex TV, and Aram Sinnreich who is working on a book called The Piracy Crusade. And both of them have chosen, rather than as I did, posting the entirety of the book online all at once, they have been releasing the texts chapter by chapter, seeing if an audience can be built over time that can then follow through and will develop some cumulative thoughts as it goes. MediaCommons and NYU Press jointly received a grant from the Mellon Foundation last year to conduct a study of open review practices and develop some sort of best practices for folks who want to conduct experiments like these. We submitted our white paper draft to this kind of open review process as well. And now the final open review paper is available on the MediaCommons website. [31:52]

FR: Okay and just a little bit about MediaCommons and how it developed?

KF: It developed out of a lot of the blogging that I had been doing right around the time that  I was trying to get the Anxiety of Obsolescence published. I wrote this one blog post in particular that had me thinking out loud about what a scholarly communication network that looked more like blogging might do for us. And I ended up getting an email message from Bob Stein, who is the director of the Institute for the Future of the Book, saying “we’ve been thinking about this and we really want you to come talk to us.” And I thought, “oh my gosh, really?” And it was amazing. I went and had this series of meetings with the folks at the Institute, and out of the course of those meetings came MediaCommons. The Institute was absolutely fundamental to establish… [32:48]

FR: They’re at NYU?

KF: Yes, they’re connected with NYU. MediaCommons has since sort of developed its own independent existence. It’s still at NYU being housed by the NYU Library’s Digital Library Technology Services group. It has a network of scholars, students, activists, practitioners, all working in the area of media studies. We have a number of different projects that our editorial board has developed and it has been extremely exciting. It’s been around for about 6 years now. [33:24]

FR: How does moving more scholarship into web-based formats destabilize our notions of the author and the text? When we talk about peer review, it’s not just an abstract argument, it’s also the bread and butter of academics, right? They get tenure through peer review, they get promotions to full professor through peer review. This is a very unsettling notion when people’s lives and livings are in the mix. What does this do to the author and the text?

KF: There are some serious changes that are at least potential for the ways that we understand the author and the text. The changes in the nature of the text seem obvious to us. Texts can become nonlinear online, they can include media objects online, they can be interactive, they can be code, they can be… [34:25]

FR: And there’s also this sense that they never end…

KF: That’s one of the crucial things for our understanding of the author, because we understand the author to be someone who produces discrete, finished, complete, perfect texts. We only see the end result of a long process.

FR: It’s a product, it’s a thing… [34:45]

KF: It is a product, right. I believe that the longer we work in these online spaces the more we are going to start understanding the act of authorship as being a process, rather than as the production of products. It’s going to be something that’s more ongoing, more fluid, more collaborative. And we’re going to understand our relationship to the texts that we’re producing as being something that is more ongoing and that doesn’t have quite the beginning and end that we come to expect. [35:20]

FR: This is interesting from the standpoint of teaching at the university and dealing with students who are writing papers, because the interactive part of scholarship is really something students have trouble grasping. They never see it, although professors will – and they should do this – get up and talk about who is this person responding to in this work? And I think the difficulty for a young student is that they see a book written out by a single author and it really takes some work and some experience to realize that every argument the author is making, he or she is responding to what somebody else has said, or these ideas that are out there. This would be really useful for students who would be able to engage and see by example that these conversations are going on. [36:26]

KF: And I think that seeing by example is absolutely crucial, not just to understanding how conversations develop across authorial lines, right, that everyone is always responding to someone else. And therefore any single author text is always collaborative in ways that are sort of belied by the single author’s name on the cover. But also that, you know, I have taught writing for a long time, and have many colleagues who of course do a lot of teaching of writing. And I often hear colleagues frustrated with students’ difficulties in understanding the process of revision as deeply as they would like. They get frustrated that students come in and they just sort of did surface corrections, rather than really rethinking the ideas and the format and presentation of the ideas in the text. And I think, in no small part, that’s because we never model the process for them, right, we never show them that we start out in a totally different place from where we end up in working on an essay ourselves. If we were to show them some of that process, show them the bad first draft, and then all of the work that happened in conversation leading to the next draft, and then the polishing that happened in order to get to the final thing, students might have less of a sense of these ideas just sort of springing forth in full essay format with proper citations. [37:56]

FR: You have sort of the romantic notion of the author, the genius that just has this inspiration….

The scholarly monograph seems to have been in crisis for decades. Given the pressure that scholarly publishing, and I’m thinking here mainly in terms of the humanities, the pressure that scholarly publishing is under, are you surprised that the monograph, as it’s currently understood in humanities publishing and scholarly publishing, hasn’t changed more than it has?

KF: I’m not entirely surprised. I mean, you are absolutely right that university press publishing has been existing in a constant state of crisis certainly since the ‘70s if not before. The monograph hasn’t changed for a couple of different reasons. There are profound forces keeping it looking exactly like it is. One of them is university presses and their extremely constrained budgets. In order to do something different there has to be a lot of research and development. There has to be a lot of exploration. There has to be a lot of experimentation. And that kind of experimentation really requires the folks doing the experimenting to at least admit the possibility of failure. But I think the other part of this, the university presses are only one player in this entire chain of producing the scholarly monograph and keeping it looking exactly like it is.

A far more important player in that process is the faculty. Right, the folks who are writing these things. And it’s in no small part the tenure review process, which persuades even faculty who want to experiment, who want to do something unusual, who want to produce a digital archive, or want to produce something interactive online, to kind of reign those experimental ideas in and force them between covers in print, because that’s the only thing that anybody believes will get them tenure. And it’s really going to require a serious change in the ways that individual faculty and departments and colleges and universities on the whole approach their understanding of what counts as the large-scale work of scholarship in the humanities in order for the humanities monograph to become something other than what it is. Presses feel utterly constrained by faculty desires. Faculty desires are utterly constrained by the tenure process. And we end up just not changing anything. [40:46]

FR: Can you imagine alternatives to the scholarly monograph? What would you…?

KF: Yes, I think there are lots of alternatives already out there. There are some really amazing projects that are being done out of digital humanities centers, like the Scholars’ Lab at University of Virginia, like the Center for History and New Media at George Mason, like the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities at the University of Maryland. I could go on and continue naming digital humanities centers that are all over the place. But you see projects that are bringing together digitized corpora of particular authors and texts, or that are doing certain kinds of scholarly editing work around particular authors, or that are doing deep text mining and visualization projects around the incredible quantity of digitized material that exists out there now. [41:45]

There are projects that are being built in new platforms like Scalar which allows for multi-modal argumentation that can move fluidly across text and video and audio and image and other kinds of media forms that are being published openly online. All of these are really phenomenal alternatives, and I think more and more of them are developing everyday. One of the challenges is getting the folks who are reviewing these projects to recognize that they are works of scholarship, that they are being produced in different ways, that they may be being produced collaboratively, they may not have beginning and end dates, they don’t have covers that sort of demarcate the borders of the text, but they are a similar kind of work, they are the act of scholarship. [42:37]

FR: In some of your recent talks and articles you make interesting arguments for opening up humanities scholarship to the wider world beyond academia. Can you talk about that?

KF: Public intellectual work, I think, is something that a lot of scholars in the humanities feel deeply ambivalent about. On the one hand, we all sort of want to do that kind of work, to reach out to the public, to have a greater public engagement for the kinds of work that we’re doing. But on the other hand, it feels like this very scary endeavor, in no small part because a lot of the criticism that the humanities have come in for, since the 1980s in particular…

FR: The culture wars? [43:20]

KF: The culture wars, exactly. On the one hand, there’s this common sense that the public doesn’t understand or appreciate why it is we do the work we do. I mean, you’re just reading books, how can you take all this too seriously. You’re reading too much into things, as people will say. And there are the political conflicts that come up around a lot of humanities work as well. So it feels like there’s this great danger in putting work out to the world where it can be openly criticized and misunderstood.

So we hold it back and kind of keep it to ourselves and communicate only with other experts. But in so doing, we end up convincing the public that there’s nothing serious going on in the humanities, that in fact if you want to think about what’s going on seriously in higher education today, it’s all STEM research. It’s wonderful that we have a president right now who is really invested in increasing higher education opportunities across the United States, but if you listen to what’s coming out of the White House it’s all STEM, STEM, STEM.

FR: Science, technology… [44:27]

KF: The humanities simply don’t exist. To some extent, I really believe that opening work in the humanities up to the public can help break down that wall, can help remind everyone what the humanities is doing, why it matters, what we have to share with the world in teaching about our culture, and the ways that individuals engage with it. So I do believe that it’s absolutely crucial that we start doing a better job communicating with the public in order to get that work out there. [45:00]

FR: Robert Darnton wrote an essay in his book, The Case for Books: Past, Present, and Future, it’s a collection of his essays, and I can’t put my hands on the individual essay or the quote that I’m thinking of,  but when I read this I was fascinated. It was a description of a person, I think it was a women, and this person was in early modern Europe, maybe around 1600, and he described her as really using books as sources that she could just sort of dip into for little bits and pieces of information. There was no sense in the way he was describing it that this person saw the book as a complete entity, as we’ve just been discussing it. And so I was wondering, could you talk a little bit about the history of reading and how our assumptions about that history might prevent us from thinking clearly about reading on the Internet? [46:08]

KF: I am far from an expert on the history of reading. I would really want to direct people who are listening to this to Robert Darnton, to other people like Leah Price, who are much more fully engaged with that universe of research than I am. But I will say that there are moments in the history of reading at which we can see very clearly that our ideas or idealized notions about what it is to read a book, to sit down as an individual by yourself and engage in a long sustained fashion with a text, starting at the beginning and working through to the end, have not in fact always been the same. There have been other modes of thinking about what it is to read; reading out loud, reading in public spaces, reading in groups, reading bits and pieces of things, picking things up and putting them down…

FR: For a quote…

KF: Absolutely, and there is a wonderful bit of work by Roland Barthes, and now I can’t remember which book it comes out of, but he makes the argument about what had been seen as the practices of the bad reader, the reader who skips and jumps around in the text, as being, in fact, the empowered reader. This is the reader who is engaging in what he refers to as the process of tmesis, right, who is picking up various ideas from the text, who is doing what she wants with them, who is skipping around at will, and who is really on some level writing the text herself.

FR: By active synthesis… [47:45]

KF: Exactly, and so the description that Barthes presents of this reader is very much like the description of the user of the Internet, who is following links and moving around and not really behaving in a disciplined fashion, starting at the beginning of something and working her way through to the end. But is instead following paths of association that are about the branches of knowledge that she is trying to produce. So I think this mode of reading that feels so undisciplined and dangerous to us is not about a loss of the powers of concentration, right, it’s not about something that’s been done to us by television or the Internet. It’s not that we no longer know how to sustain our concentration, it’s instead that we now have a technology that actually works with our powers of association, with the way that thought works, in a much more fluid fashion.

FR: Yeah…

KF: And I think it is a crucial moment of liberation to realize that we can let ourselves follow these associative paths. And in fact, one of the sort of negative stories that gets told about readers on the Internet, following a chain of links and then not knowing how they got where they were going, and never having really found the thing that they were looking for. In fact, we’re developing better and better technologies that allow us to gather the material that we need to pull the ideas together in ways that allow us to do better synthesis, that keeps track of those pathways that we followed to get where we’re going. [49:26]

FR: You have a recent article called “Reading (and Writing) Online, Rather Than on the Decline” (available from Profession 2012) and it deals with some of the things we’re talking about right now. But I just spliced or grabbed some quotes from that and I thought I would read them out to you and let you comment on them, okay? So here we go. [49:47]

“Reading has never been a straightforward means of downloading meaning constructed by an author in a reader’s brain. Digital platforms call attention to the degree to which reading is a communal process rather than an individual activity. The relationship between writers and readers online has become less focused on the one-way broadcast of information and more productive of a multi-dimensional conversation that takes place within a community” (45).

So…? [50:19]

KF: This is exactly the thing that we’ve been talking about across this conversation. That we have this romantic notion that the author produces an idea and conveys that idea perfectly into the brain of the person who is reading the text. That the reader perfectly obtains that idea and processes it in exactly the way that the author intended, should the author have done his job perfectly. And, in fact, it’s never been that straightforward. The possibility of misreading has in fact been the norm. And the reader has always been free to do with the bits and pieces of the text what he or she will.

So digital platforms really sort of call attention to this. To the act of bringing together ideas, to the act of interpretation, and particularly to the act of the creation of community between author and reader, and among readers in the act of engaging around a text. One of the things that the Internet adds most explicitly to this development of reading across its history is that it’s become profoundly a read-write medium. Readers online expect, on some level, that there will be comments available, and that they will be able to respond if they want to. If they don’t want to respond in the comments on the text that they’re reading, they can go to their own blogs and grab quotes and respond to them and have a conversation within their own communities about the things that they’re reading. [52:01]

And it’s that process of the seamless movement from reading to writing, and then back again, that I think has really distinguished the Internet in a whole lot of ways. Now there are precursors for this, of course. In earlier eras the development of the commonplace book, the commentary, and so forth.

FR: Which is oral culture, right? [52:24]

KF: Exactly, the seminar. All of this has been about the process of creating new texts around existing texts. [52:33]

FR: How do you think university presses will change in the next ten years? And do you think they should survive, or what are your thoughts? You’ve dealt with a bunch of them…

KF: I think university presses serve an absolutely crucial role for scholars in the production and dissemination of certain kinds of work. The reason university presses came into being had to do with the fact that scholars in the humanities were producing these monograph books and commercial presses didn’t want to publish them because there wasn’t a sufficient market. The university saw its responsibility as being facilitating the communication of the work that was going on within its faculty to the outside world. And so universities formed presses and they started distributing the work that was being done originally by their own faculty on their campuses to other campuses. And so the university press was born. [53:37]

But the university press over the course of the first half of the twentieth century morphs into this odd relationship to its campus, in which many university presses are now understood to be revenue centers on their campuses. They’re required at minimum to break even. There are even presses that are required to actually contribute back to their universities. There are university presses that are seen as being fully businesses that just happen to function with the university name. And I believe that those university presses serve an absolutely crucial role in the dissemination of scholarship, because they are this locus of not-for-profit communication of the work that is being done by scholars in the humanities.

But I think that those presses need to develop, and this is not something that the presses haven’t been trying to do, trust me, and I understand how difficult this is. But they need to develop a different relationship to the universities that house them. The universities really need to understand their responsibility, once again, with respect to the dissemination of scholarship. I also think that university presses need to develop a much more symbiotic relationship with, for instance, libraries, with information technology centers on campus, with academic departments, with the other aspects of what’s going on on campus, that might help fully integrate them into the life of the institution in a way that makes them see very clearly at the heart of what it is the institution does. But that would also sort of alleviate some of the wheel reinvention that has to happen with university presses now because they are adjunct to the campus, rather than being a part of the campus. [55:26]

FR: And what role do you see academic libraries playing in this whole publishing ecosystem?

KF: Well it’s clear that libraries have a crucial role to play. There are increasing numbers of library publishing ventures that are springing up on campuses across the country. There are many libraries that are in fact developing really intimate relationships with their university presses. In some institutions, the press has been brought in fully under the library. In some, there’s just a deep partnership between them. I think that libraries have a certain amount of room for experimentation with new forms of scholarly production and dissemination, because many libraries have technology centers where that kind of research and development work gets done.

Many libraries have been working on institutional repositories that have allowed them to sort of gather and disseminate the work that’s being done by the faculty on their campuses, just like those original university presses were intended to do. So I believe that rather than doubling efforts across the library and the press, increasingly we’re finding libraries and presses working in a kind of symbiosis, really thinking about how together they’re producing a range of forms of communication for faculty who really need it. [56:51]

FR: Finally, in your introduction to your book Anxiety of Obsolescence, you mention that you grew up reading literature and watching TV and you never saw these as incompatible. So, to end our interview, I was just wondering, what were some of your favorite TV shows growing up?

KF: Oh boy, you know, if I think back on childhood television watching experiences, and you may remember this one, having had your television unlocked on the weekends, I will inevitably think back to what seems to me the iconic Saturday evening lineup of Archie Bunker, Mash, Mary Tyler Moore, Bob Newhart, Carol Burnett.

FR: Oh, I remember all of them, yes. [57:40]

KF: I grew up in the central time zone, so it started at 7 and it ended at 10. It was the only time I was allowed to stay up and watch television until ten o’clock was those Saturday nights. And I don’t think that lineup could ever be reproduced today, but I think back on those Saturday nights in front of the television with great fondness.


Fred Rowland’s interview with Kathleen Fitzpatrick was transcribed from audio and edited by Andrew Lopez.

Thanks are due to Fred Rowland and Kathleen Fitzpatrick for undertaking this interview, for agreeing to let me transcribe it, and for participating as peer reviewers in the preparation of the transcript for publication online.

An additional thanks is due to Fred Rowland for collaborating on the introduction with his input on the interview process and his thoughts on scholarly communication. Thanks also to Dean of University Libraries at Temple University, Joe Lucia, for sharing his insights on interview transcription with Fred Rowland.

Emily Ford at Lead Pipe has been patient and dedicated throughout the transcription process, which may not have been completed without her support. Thanks also to Carrie Kent and my colleagues at Connecticut College for keeping this conversation alive.

Audio Recording of Interview

An audio recording of this interview is available for streaming or download from the Temple University Libraries website: http://sites.temple.edu/humansciences/2013/05/11/kathleen-fitzpatrick-on-scholarly-communication-the-digital-humanities/

References & Further Reading

Barthes, Roland. The Pleasure of the Text. Trans. Richard Miller. New York: Hill and Wang, 1975. Print.

Biagioli, Mario. “From Book Censorship to Academic Peer Review.” Emergences: Journal for the Study of Media & Composite Cultures 12.1 (2002): 11-45. Print.

Carr, Nicholas G. The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. New York: W.W.Norton, 2010. Print.

CommentPress: A WordPress Plugin for Social Texts in Social Contexts. Institute for the Future of the Book. Web. 3 Dec. 2014.

Darnton, Robert. The Case for Books: Past, Present, and Future. New York: PublicAffairs, 2009. Print.

Davidson, Cathy N. Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn. New York: Viking, 2011. Print.

—–, and David Theo Goldberg. The Future of Thinking: Learning Institutions in a Digital Age. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2010. Print.

Fitzpatrick, Kathleen. The Anxiety of Obsolescence: The American Novel in the Age of Television. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 2006. Print.

—–. “The Humanities, Done Digitally.” Debates in the Digital Humanities. Ed. Matthew K. Gold. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2012. 12-15. Print.

—–. Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy. New York: NYU Press, 2011. Print.

—–. “Reading (and Writing) Online, Rather Than on the Decline.” Profession (2012): 41-52. Print.

—–. “We Never Do Anything Alone: An Interview on Academic Authorship with Kathleen Fitzpatrick.” A Companion to Media Authorship. By Jonathan Gray and Derek Johnson. Malden, MA: Wiley Blackwell, 2013. 544-550. Print.

Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities. University of Maryland. Web. 3 Dec. 2014.

MediaCommons: A Digital Scholarly Network. Institute for the Future of the Book. Web. 3 Dec. 2014.

Mittel, Jason. Complex TV: The Poetics of Contemporary Television Storytelling. New York: NYU Press, [forthcoming].

Price, Leah, ed. The History of the Book and the Idea of Literature. Spec. issue of PMLA 121.1 (2006). JSTOR [database]. Web. 3 Dec. 2014.

Rowe, Katherine, ed. Shakespeare and New Media. Spec. issue of Shakespeare Quarterly 61.3 (2010). Project Muse [database]. Web. 3 Dec. 2014.

Rowland, Fred. “Interviews with Authors.” Fred Rowland – Librarian. Temple University Libraries. Web. 3 Dec. 2014.

Rowland, Fred, et al. “n+1: The Temple University Libraries Interview.” Journal of Librarianship and Scholarly Communication 2.1 (2013). Web. 3 Dec. 2014.

Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media. George Mason University. Web. 3 Dec. 2014.

Scalar. The Alliance for Networking Visual Culture. Web. 3 Dec. 2014.

Scholars’ Lab. University of Virginia. Web. 3 Dec. 2014.

Sinnreich, Aram. The Piracy Crusade: How the Music Industry’s War on Sharing Destroys Markets and Erodes Civil Liberties. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 2013. Print.