I remember coming back from a meeting at the Annenberg School at USC in April 2006 after having met Kathleen Fitzpatrick for the very first time. I still had not yet defended my dissertation (though I had a tenure-track job already lined up at Old Dominion University), but I had gotten Kathleen and the Institute for the Future of the Book’s attention through the work Chris Lucas and I had done in launching Flow in 2004 and through my somewhat impassioned plea at the 2006 SCMS conference for the need to rethink what forms of publishing counted toward our mission as scholars and educators. The Annenberg meeting had brought together some of the top thinkers in the digital humanities to discuss the future of academic publishing and the possibilities of launching a born-digital press. This would be the genesis for MediaCommons, though I did not know so at the time. What I did know was that when I returned from the meeting, I was going to embark on a whole new mode of scholarly production: I was going to write my next essay in an open forum where interested parties could follow the process of my ideas as they formed and watch as my argument would be constructed. I truly believed – and to a large extent, I still do – that by making the processes of critical thinking and writing more transparent, we would help smart, engaged people shed their fears about participating in scholarly conversations; that we could reduce the distance between academics and the publics we wish to inspire and provoke by demonstrating our own struggles to formulate ideas along with the rewards that come from committing to the process.
I’ve never followed through on that idea.
I’d like to say that I quickly realized that it was hubris to believe that anyone really wanted to watch me do an academic version of a peep show, but that ain’t it.
And this brings me to the central idea I am trying to work through in this post on the efficacy of “sharing” within the academy. You see, I believe fully in the gift economy and in the moral and legal rationales for open-source scholarship. I know that we are all better scholars, teachers and humans when we share our ideas and the material forms they take with one another. But sadly, I am also aware that academics only possess one true form of capital, vested in their reputation and cultivated in the words they produce. I see the impulse to share butt heads with the need to establish one’s scholarly “brand;” to develop a recognizable and somewhat polished style of sharing that continues to differentiate scholarly contributions to the gift economy from other forms of giving. At the end of the day, I have never written an essay “live” online because I fear that it exposes my intellectual shortcomings to my colleagues and risks diminishing my reputation. Though sharing is a process, I am rewarded only for the products my branded ideas endorse.
Though I lament the need to change the structural constraints that privilege certain forms of scholarly work over others and constrain the willingness of scholars to put ideas out into the world in medias res, I also recognize that in order to truly share, we need to shift our perception of what makes one’s reputation in the academy. Hubris indeed.