Commenting, Conversation, and Community

One of the greatest challenges facing the staff[1] of In Media Res involves how best to encourage vibrant and productive comments to curators’ posts.

As others involved in digital scholarship have likely discovered, soliciting feedback on any website can be tricky. If you allow anonymous commenting, the discourse often degrades quickly, sometimes even becoming downright offensive. But if you ask commenters to post under their real name, submitting a comment becomes a sort of performance, a presentation of one’s best professional face to other scholars.

Thus while digital scholarship may remove much of the formality and bureaucracy of print-based scholarship, for many it does not necessarily relieve the anxiety that accompanies any public expression of professional work. Moreover, at IMR we strive to reach out to non-academic writers as well, so the scholarly pose in the comments can limit the appeal of the conversation by intimidating members of a broader public.[2]

To counteract these challenges, we depend upon our curators to initiate the discussion in the comments, trusting they will create a space of openness for others who read the site. In accord with the sentiments Alisa Perren expressed last week, I have found that relationships established in the real world are often our best gauge for the activity level of a particular week.[3] Moving forward, IMR hopes to incorporate a Twitter feed into the interface of the site since that space (and its 140-character limit) necessarily reduces formality and complexity.[4]

Despite the efforts made thus far, there seems much as yet untapped potential for IMR and sites like it. Finding ways to translate our work for a general public while maintaining a level of professionalism and disciplinary engagement seems a continually elusive goal, even while technology promises to remove barriers and facilitate engagement.


[1]While a doctoral student at Georgia State University, where IMR is housed, I served as an Associate Editor for two years. Having completed my doctorate, I now enjoy a position as a member of IMR’s  Alumni Consulting Committee.

[2]Our current week about Female Representation and the Bechdel Test features film and publishing professionals, non-academics in the traditional sense.

[3]For example, one of our most successful weeks, in terms of the level of conversation generated, was the Popular Seriality week brought to us by a group of scholars working together in Europe through a research unitat the University of Göttingen.

[4]Kristen Warner discussed something similar regarding Facebook in her post for Media Commons last week.


I'm glad you pointed out the performative nature of these posts. I confess that every response or blog entry made on sites like MediaCommons is checked by the fact that I have several applications to doctoral programs floating around out there. Although knowing anyone from admissions could potentially connect these entries to my application does cause me to pause before hitting SUBMIT, I ultimately hope these posts might provide a complement to my credentials by providing an honest reflection of who I am as a potential colleague. 

Thanks, Kristopher.  I wondered if that element of my post was a reflection of my own relatively junior status in the field.  Is there a point where an academic overcomes those sorts of anxieties?  Or is any type of engagement--in print or online--necessarily a deeper statement of the value of your work and the questions you ask?

I think (hope) people in general get over the anxieties associated with all types of interaction. Whether vocally or in written form , it seems to only come with practice. One of my favorite moments in presenting at conferences is when I'm being "called out" and I have to defend a position. This usually happens when an underdeveloped thought or off-the-cuff comment has been insufficiently fleshed out. While I hope this doesn't imply that I'm haphazardly approaching the subject, it certainly means that I'll revisit the question to better address it in the future. 

Personally, I've found that commenting on websites like Media Commons and IMR help gives me confidence in the formulation of my responses during class discussion. While this certainly isn't the case for the vast majority of comment sections on the Internet, the conversational format that the comments on sites such as this one offer a way to "practice" engaging in academic discourse without the immediate pressure an in-person class presents. 

How can we reach out to the layperson and the scholar simultaneously? And it's not just a question of writing style, but topic, contextualization, citation, etc. In my work, I have the choice of writing for the scholar who may take some academic interest in my text, or writing for a layperson who may be able take my ideas and use them to better their daily life. But I can't address both audiences with the same text; no matter the medium, the text can only be appropriate for one audience or the other. I don't think technology can mitigate this problem, and it sounds like IMR is coming to the same conclusion. My solution to this so far has been to completely reconstruct my text from one audience to another. I'm sure this type of reconstruction is often impractical or impossible, which leads me back to my original question. I'd like to have a hybrid approach to share my findings and unite my audiences, but is there a way to do this, and will I ever find it?

I like the idea of IMR, and sites like it, as liminal spaces, in which young scholars practice their craft and scholars of all experience levels experiment with more open language.  Sarah, your comment has me pondering, and I'm not quite sure where that pondering will lead. My immediate reaction is to resist the notion that academic work must necessarily be expressed in language that is not accessible. But that brings up all the traditional debates--what counts as "real" scholarship (tenure-worthy), how we work with academic publishers (particularly those that would prefer scholars to have no ownership of work, in print and online), and the relative lack of respect for scholars who write "popular" books. 

The ideas expressed above, though, are merely a guess as to why conversation doesn't develop more vibrantly in our comments section.  I've always wanted to do a poll of our readership to learn more, but perhaps the answer is quite simple--scholars have too many demands on their time.  I'll continue to ponder...

Building on Karen, Matt's and Karen's discussion, one of my favorite elements in many of IMR's comment conversations is the fact that the writers do enter a discourse about the topic. I have seen several review and change their own claims. As a developing scholar, I think it's important to see that as well.  It doesn't happen with every post, but certainly enough to make sure this aspect of the site gets lots of attention. 

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