(This is a riff off of Kathleen’s post on seriality and may make more sense if you read that first.)
One of the years that I was in graduate school, the Computers and Writing conference was held in Hawaii, a fact that drove me bananas. Bad enough that it happened every year at the end of the fiscal year (guaranteeing the absence of travel funding), and bad enough that I could barely afford any conferences, but to hold it in a place that was extra expensive to get to? So, one evening, I went on this prodigious rant in front of a couple of friends, enumerating all of these points and more–apparently, at some point I convinced myself that I’d made two points and needed to gear up for a third. I said, “And C…Hawaii?!?!” (imagine this in my best whatever voice) whereupon we all collapsed in laughter. After that point, regardless of how many items were on the list, “C. Hawaii?!?!” became our way of poking holes in each others’ will-to-rant. (It works best, I find, if I number my points, and then break out the C.) And I still think about it from time to time, if I get particularly wound up about something, and need a way to defuse. So clearly, it’s a charter member of my Inside Joke Hall of Fame.
Inside jokes are interesting to me, in that we talk about them primarily as a strategy for patrolling the boundaries of a given social group: You don’t get it. You’re not one of us. You had to be there. And C. Hawaii?? But no one sits around with friends plotting out how they can exclude everyone else through the use of obscurity and in-jokes. There’s something to the in-joke that’s typical of social networks in general, something that doesn’t have only to do with exclusion.
There’s an analogy here to be made between the inside joke and scholarly publication, but the analogy is less perfect than I think critics typically let on. Think for a moment about the criticisms of disciplinary specialization that complain about all the jargon, the barriers to entry, the tiny number of people who comprise the intended audience, and you’ve got a bumper sticker: Print publication is the inside joke of academia. But it’s a little more complicated than that, yes? Part of the point of publication is that you don’t have to be there and then, and thank goodness for that. Whatever the truth of execution may be, part of the point of a published essay or book is that it intends to rise above the messiness of the moment (deixis!) to make some sort of statement that incorporates both the flashes of insight and the perspective of reflection. That perspective, ideally, allows us to select and combine the insights that have some lasting value, those that are worth preserving precisely for those people who weren’t there in the moment with us.
One of the very few moments of friction for me with Kathleen’s post comes in her historicization of academic discourse, and only because I think that
The first modern scholarly journals came into being as a means of broadening and systematizing such correspondence, and in the process, gradually replaced a sense of ongoing exchange with one of formal conclusion.
is a thin description of the shift to formal publication. (I actually talk a little bit about this in a CCCC presentation I did a few years back.) Not that I disagree with it, but there are a lot of advantages to be had in supplementing conversation: community, memory, storage, preservation, hypotaxis, et al. There’s perhaps an argument to be made about how that shift parallels the one from orality to literacy, but I’d have to do a lot more research to make it. At the very least, though, I think there’s a danger in imagining the modern scholarly journal as simply a fall from seriality–I don’t think K does this, but I definitely get that vibe from some who advocate for open access. For example, the phrase “guerilla self-publishing” brings into play a whole host of associations that position us in particular (undesirable?) ways, and tend to return us to the bumper sticker understanding of things. (For the record, Aimee doesn’t use that term–I’m fairly sure she got headlined.)
I’ve titled my piece “surreality” partly for the homophony with “seriality,” but mostly because I don’t think we can talk about the horizontal of seriality without considering it in combination with some vertical quality, and “sur” (over, on top of) + “reality” (duh) fits cleverly. The inside joke is a micro-example of this ratio in action–something happens over the course of a conversation (seriality) that’s particularly funny, and it becomes a touchstone or reference point (surreality) in later conversations. A discipline is a much much more complicated site to think about this, because you have to get into talking about a lot of different layers of surreality. In one important sense, seriality doesn’t change (Randall Collins has a tome); it is the foundation of what we do as writers, as social beings, as communities. But as any community expands to the point where its members can no longer sit around the same table, or fit into the same room, surreality begins to assert itself. Actually, that’s not quite right, because it implies that there’s some point prior to surreality. Fact is, regardless of how reflexive or naturalized the process becomes, we’re always choosing the words we use as a result of the combination. Within a complicated, dispersed community like a discipline, surreality manifests itself in a broad range of genres, from course syllabi to reading lists to published scholarship–we are constantly engaged in the process of sorting and managing our serially generated knowledge along that vertical axis of evaluation, priority, importance, salience.
And yet. It’s not just the case that, back in the day, academia flipped the switch and got to publishing. The system we have now is broken, in part, because surreality drowns out the seriality, and again, I firmly believe that this is a question of scale. (I also still believe that there are important steps that we can take to deal with issues of scale, that we don’t.) At a given size, a community outgrows itself in certain ways, almost like phase transitions. Aimee’s essay (not to mention countless others) points to some of the implications for this outgrowth: the model we have often results in long lag times that erase seriality even further, specializations become ever more insular and inaccessible, and institutionally, we can become overwhelmed with the added layers upon layers (please write an executive summary of the committee report compiling the outside reviews of the scholarship section of the tenure packet, would you? oh, and write another book while you’re at it.). It can become an Escherian vision of interlocking, overlapping synecdoches–wholes distilled into parts gathered into wholes distilled into parts gathered into wholes–that’s disorienting and demoralizing.
In that sense, the metonymy machines of social media are a refreshing alternative. And honestly, I think we desperately want that alternative. Some of the most popular essays in my field are those that highlight their seriality (Elbow v Bartholomae, Gale v Jarratt/Glenn). Think about all the energy generated at conferences, in part because of the stark contrast they provide to our normal academic lives. The surreal pressures of academic life (and here I’ll use it both ways) have created a space where our cv’s, the tiniest surreality tip of the seriality iceberg, replace all of the energy, exploration, invention, experimentation, community, and (yes) excitement that should accompany what it is we do. It’s freakin hard to replace “I have to get another line for my cv this semester” with “I want to explore this set of ideas and talk with these people” as a baseline motivation; one of those goals is measurable, and one is not (or at least not necessarily so).
One of the cool moments for me about K’s piece was that it sent me back to my essay in Ecology, Writing Theory, and New Media–in a sense, that essay’s actually all about this issue. And the fact that it appears in a book that’s library-priced only underscores the point. Anyhow, among the recommendations I make there is one about turning our graduate seminars more towards seriality. Let me quote liberally:
As disciplines grow, and the ground that we must cover in our courses increases, the temptation is to rely more and more heavily on the shortcuts we develop, synoptic texts, surveys, anthologies. We rely upon the consensus of the field to determine our texts, comfortable in the assumption that while our students might not be exposed fully to the conversations in the field, they’ve acquired some sense of what’s important. As I hope I’ve implied above, one problem with such shortcuts is that they skip over the very processes our students need to understand to arrive at that perspective. There is no single, correct model that could be applied to every subject matter, but one important step we might take is to treat at least some of our graduate courses less as sites of coverage and more as sites of topical development. In other words, our courses could serve as disciplinary simulation, where students can study a topic or issue as it unfolds in the discipline over a particular interval, even if that unfolding doesn’t provide the coverage that a more synoptic survey might.
An important part of such a course would be attending to the conversation as it emerged, taking texts chronologically, of course, but also studying them closely for their epistemic practices. It would be worth examining how the texts during one time frame take up or set aside those texts that preceded them, and reading one week’s texts as the consequence and outcome of prior weeks’ readings. Certain texts would begin to acquire disciplinary density and centrality; others might prompt a week or two of discussion and fade into obscurity. Such a course would ideally train students to read the discipline, helping them see how each successive text built on what preceded it, how each framed issues in particular ways, how certain texts were taken up and canonized, and others set aside. A certain amount of time would be need to spent exploring and explicating the texts themselves, but the emphasis in such a course would be intertextual, exploring the impact that the texts had on the network formed through the conversation they engaged in (102). (“Discipline and Publish: Reading and Writing the Scholarly Network”)
[Alex's piece on "how to do things with a humanities phd" just came across my reader, and it occurred to me that the idea of "microecology" links up nicely with what I'm suggesting above. He writes: "A microecological approach, at least as I see it, suggests that elements might combine in unexpected ways, and that while the totality, seen from a great distance, might look the same (i.e. from the outside an English department still looks like an English department), from the inside (of any discipline), the relations might look very different." Metonymy!]
Wow, I should wind this up. Let me close with the same issue that K does – evaluation. Like her, I really value seriality, and I’m conscious of the fact that in today’s academy, it’s a privilege to be able to embrace that value. I think the question of credit, though, can drift dangerously into the surreality side of things. It can reterritorialize seriality, if we’re not careful about that. So I think there’s some strategy in looking to the sites where seriality hasn’t been erased–like conferences–to think about how we’re able to preserve seriality. Where I get a little tangled up is in the “prepositional differences” I wrote about in response to the OPR document: should blogging be more like publication? should publication be more like blogging? should both be more like conferences? do I really need one thing to rule them all? (probably not.)
I’ve got more to say, but I’ve also got more clever post titles to invent, so I’ll do both later. After I finish this damn essay.