The kairotic nature of online scholarly community building

When I had the pleasure of working with Kathleen Fitzpatrick and others on the Mellon-funded open peer review white paper during the 2011-12 academic year, it became very clear to me during our working group’s conversations that Kairos is a rare bird. I knew that the journal is odd in the kind of scholarship it publishes--scholarly multimedia--and I knew that its review processes were relatively unique--using collaborative, open editorial-board reviewing for all of its (now) 18 years. What I didn’t know was that most fields struggle to form the kinds of communities that Kairos reviewers, authors, and readers inherently bring with them.

Writing studies as a discipline values collaboration and studies how writing is never divorced from its discourse communities and contexts. As a subdiscipline, digital writing studies is all rather filled with cheery, happy people who are more than ready to share what they know about teaching writing with technology and are eager to hear how you do it as well. It’s all quite ridiculously wonderful. This field has had social and professional-development MOOs (not MOOCs, which are like the evil dopplegangers of MOOs) and listservs for as long as there’s been academic computing, and I have to remind my non-digital-writing colleagues all the time why Facebook (or listservs, or MOOs, or ...) is so valuable to me: because my academic community has always resided in the digital ether. My entire professional life is in the tubes, and I have always known people I see once a year WAY better than colleagues in the office next to mine. Many of us, even introverts, know (through our research) that in order to make distance feel like presence, you have to put a little bit of yourself out there. We are naturally curious about technology, and because we all teach digital writing, we can usually put ourselves out there pretty effectively. In comparison, I’ve heard horror stories about other disciplinary listservs that berate newcomers (or even old-timers, for that matter). I’ve had it happen to me on a listserv outside of writing studies. Those berated often resign themselves to lurk, or unsubscribe due to the total lack of welcoming. I say shame on those fields and lists! (I think they are slowly, and stubbornly, starting to realize that lacking an online scholarly community translates to slow death in the field. But they’re going kicking and screaming.)

Drawing from the digital writing studies community, one would think it would be easy to find editorial board members for the journal who are as eager to mentor, share, and collaborate online as they are IRL. Yes and no. Centering a digital scholarly community around a longstanding digital journal has a certain sense of built-in-edness about it, and we are never short of scholars willing to be either editorial board members or, thankfully, staff members. These two communities serve different purposes for the journal but both need to feel like they belong in order to participate to their fullest. And creating community among these two groups involves way more work than I would have originally expected when I took over as editor in 2006. Here are a small set of obstacles to forming community in each of these groups and a few practices I’ve experimented with to ameliorate a sometimes laggard workflow. I offer these as personal reflections, and to show that even when it seems like a community should form on its own, all online communities need a little personality (and technological) TLC.

Editorial Board
Kairos was started by graduate students, so we work to make sure all ranks of academia are represented in our ed board, whenever possible. Every year or so, we have some turnover in the board, as folks take on new projects, administrative work, dissertations, and tenure. When I became editor in 2006, I added several junior scholars I thought could fill in certain areas of weakness on the board. These were people I knew, trusted, liked, and socialized with at conferences. Some were introverts, but none were wallflowers, by any means. Yet, it felt like pulling teeth to get them to participate on our editorial board discussion list, where the 50 or so board members collaboratively reviews submissions (not usually all at the same time). In talking with folks privately, I discovered that despite their rising-star status in the field, they still keenly felt their junior-ness compared to established rock-star scholars on the board. (There are no divas in digital writing studies, though.) While I knew everyone (as is my job) and trusted everyone to implement the values of our field onlist, the junior scholars didn’t know everyone in the same way and, thus, were afraid of saying something embarrassing. Seven years later, we have the same problem whenever anyone new joins the board: New people will return their reviews to me, backchannel, and I’ll encourage them to send it directly to the list.

To work against this concern, I’ve asked for the requisite welcome and introduction emails when someone new joins, but that doesn’t really do the trick. I’ve discovered that reviewers have much better conversations when it’s only five or six of them talking in a smaller group rather than the 50 looming heads at the other end of an email. This splitting of groups works well when we have multiple submissions that need reviewing simultaneously. It’s just too much email exchanging hands when we do more than one review onlist, and that will often trigger Yahoo’s -- yes, sigh -- spam filters. Yahoogroups (which we've used since 1997) is, of course, a huge problem in our community-building equation; one that we’d been trying to work on with a recent NEH DH Startup grant, although the project has ultimately proven to be  unsuccessful. Big sigh. But, like much of what Kairos goes through, live and learn. So: smaller team-building leads to better reviews. The complications of open review comes to bite us in the ass. But these are still collaborative reviews--a process I can’t ever us envision changing as it’s too necessary for scholarly multimedia.

It’s a much slower process to acculturate the board members than it is staff members, due to the bigger time-lags the board experiences between submission reviews. The staff, on the other hand, usually work together for months at a time during production. We do have two kinds of staff: Section Editors and Assistant Editors. I’m focusing solely here on the Assistant Editors, all of whom work under my direction to copy- and design-edit three issues of the journal a year.

This is actually a new process for us--having the AEs work directly with me--which we started August 2012. Previously, AEs were siloed in each section that they were assigned to, working under the section editors. We discovered that this split in responsibilities burdened the sections with too much work (both developmental and production), in areas they weren’t trained to do as writing teachers, and resulted in the journal not having a cohesive identity--in large part because the communities of each section had no reason to talk to each other. So, instead of one journal/staff community, there were seven. Now there are two: section editors and assistant editors. And every assistant editor gets the same training from me, so that the journal can be more assured of a cohesive identity, at least from the production end of things. (Simultaneous training is going on with the section editors, whose focus is now solely on developmental editing, which means they have more time to mentor authors than previously. A win-win for the journal, our authors, and our readers.)

We still have Yahoogroups email problems, so we mostly exchange emails using CC lines. (There’s a long, complicated, good reason why we don’t use a content-management system, outside the scope of this post.) To ensure that our copy- and design-editing processes are implemented systematically, which in turn increases the quality of the journal, I spend a good part of every year writing documentation about our editing processes, which the AEs use as a manual-like starting point. We are currently transitioning the document to a wiki, where it belongs, since our design-editing processes, in particular, change every time a new technology hits our doorstep.

There's approximately 75 of us: 50 board members and 25 staff members, spread out across the world. I feel like I've made progress with the board, but I still don’t think the AEs (or section editors) know each other well enough, and a big part of that is my fault: I’ve been so focused on getting the journal out the door on-time (August 15, January 15, May 15) for the last seven years that I haven’t had time to focus on community-building through social-networking sites or other media. I try to make sure we have parties at Computers and Writing (our mainstay conference), but on zero budget, that’s not always possible, and not every staff and board member can attend.

The still unbuilt hacienda
A dear mentor and editor asked me, a few years ago, when when I was going to be done with Kairos. Hadn’t I done everything I could do with it to make it really special?, she asked. I was aghast, not at the thought of leaving Kairos, but at the thought that we were done improving. I said no way, and then listed the 17 things I still want to do (in the next five years) to improve our sustainability practices, our workflow, our quality, and most importantly--because none of the other can be done without this--our community.  So, until that day when I will have technological demensia and a young whippersnapper will take my place, or the Web will no longer exist in its current form so the journal becomes something other, or I decide (or am told by my Senior Editor Douglas Eyman) that there’s nothing left for me to do to improve the Kairos community (ha!), it's my job to keep it rolling. As you can see, there’s a lot of work left to do.



Thanks for the lively post, Cheryl - I think it precisely (and joyfully) describes the digiRhet/Comp community and the collaborative nature of our discipline. I've been involved in a couple interest groups that have attempted paper-bound publications and each time have watched the project dissolve under the weight of visionary egos that, for whatever bizarre reason, refused to cohabitate. So it's always refreshing to me when a Kairos or MediaCommons proves that it is possible for creative projects to not only succeed but remain viable after many years.

Thanks for the glimpse behind the curtain - Kairos is one of the great flagships of digital scholarship. To 18 more years!

I was struck by this history of Kairos as rooted in the work of Graduate Students, who are typically at the lower end of the academic food chain when it comes to authoritative rank. But it makes sense now, given Cheryl's overview of this digital community space. The efforts to create a real community, "make distance feel like presence," as well as Kairos' staff efforts to carve out a medium where research habits and practices have a space to extend into subject and form that are unlike the "traditional" fare of the long-established physical journals focused on English studies -- those factors struck me as characteristics that are unique to Kairos and the field of composition / writing studies. More than that, Cheryl's observation that in order to create that "presence, you have to put a little bit of yourself out there" brought to mind the role of an Avatar - which in the most basic sense serves to fill in the gap between physical  and projected digital self. Avatars create opportunities for movement, for creative representation, for untried exploration, and even (dare I say it) a place where resistance in the form of  work beyond  traditional (i.e., physical) designs and purpose is not only accepted but given  space to flourish -- as does Kairos.

I join Kris in expressing appreciation for this "space" Kairos has created for graduate  and post-graduate scholars alike.

Thanks, Amy and Kristopher, for your comments. I wanted to add a few resources about how I see distance becoming presence in online spaces. When I was a grad student, I helped edit Computers and Composition and one of the pieces we published was Craig Stroupe's article "Making Distance Presence: The Compositional Voice in Online Learning," which is where I pulled that phrase from. (I think it was from 2003 or 2004?) Stroupe talks about teaching an online writing class and trying to connect with the students. One of the examples he discussed was including a picture of the instructor. Ten years later, this seems like a no brainer (like the avatars Amy mentioned). Of course, in the early 2000s, this was not as easy ;) so the piece stuck with me. Such a small, subtle change...

In online classes I've taught, I often do videos of me-at-home (I'm pretty open and extroverted, so there's that...) that show a little bit of my workspace -- because *physical space* is also a big factor in making connections -- and students have said that that small gesture towards personalizing the online learning experience helps them understand my teaching philosophy, my approach, the tone of voice in my written comments, etc.

A friend and colleague of mine, Laura Erskine, locally works in the college of business and studies virtual leadership. (lol, it's no wonder we're friends when we can share research stories as well as beers ;) She has an article out in an open-access journal, International Journal of Leadership Studies, which defines 'relational distance' (the term business fields use to talk about the kinds of distance between leaders and followers, e.g., supervisors and employees) with three dimensions: structural, status, and psychological. Structural is like physical space/distance; status is like rank/hierarchy/class. Both of those seem no-brainers, right? It's the psychological dimension that, for me, is the most interesting. (And the most difficult for business-folk to track, I think.) Psychological has to do with relationship quality between leader and follower (or teacher and student, etc.) and the decision-making latitude that a follower feels they have with a leader. Bad managers are micro-managers, yes? Because "followers" don't feel they have any decision-making power, don't feel they have the trust of a boss. This dimension is very much about affect. Erskine breaks down this and the other two dimensions with lots of categories and case studies. It's a really fascinating study for folks learning to work in online communities. But the theory doesn't seem to be taken up very well (yet!) in management studies because -- just a guess -- teaching people about personality traits seems like a very difficult thing to do, a very *humanities* thing to do, lol. Erskine's one of the first to publish on this topic, but it really strikes a chord for my work and for online teaching and online discourse community building.

Cheryl - thank you for posting these resources. I was struck by the serendipity of the timing of this; in my academic work, I'm currently involved with work with military leaders and writing (as a writing center tutor). Our program is currently looking at how the ideas of leadership can have powerful potential for teacher training / pedagogy. We have found similar limitations in terms of the available scholarship that cross-relates the concept of leadership and writing and the undergraduate writing classroom, whether distance or f2f.

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