“A Large Amount of Good Second-Class Work”: The Value of Graduate Students’ Contributions to Scholarly Group Blogs

MLA 2013

Talk delivered in “Rewards and Challenges of Serial Scholarship” (Session 767), January 6, 2013. Also featured as an “Editors’ Choice” from MLA13 in Digital Humanities Now.

A roundtable organized and chaired by Mark Sample (GMU), with co-panelists Douglas M. Armato, Univ. of Minnesota Press; Kathleen Fitzpatrick, MLA; Frank Kelleter, Univ. of Göttingen; Jason Mittell, Middlebury Coll.; Ted Underwood, Univ. of Illinois, Urbana

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John Franklin Jameson, an early director of the American Historical Society in the late nineteenth-century, wanted to connect scholars in the same discipline across institutions and to encourage scholarship by those who were not yet PhDs.

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In 1881 he declared, “My view is that there will not be produced among us any work of supereminent genius, but that there will be a large amount of good second-class work done” (235). John Thelin reminds us that Jameson was not being snide when he addressed the “good second-class work” that his colleagues would produce. Rather, it was a nod to the extremely heavy teaching loads that professors bore and the fact that many university professors at the time were also scholars in training and had not yet completed their PhDs (131). In fact, PhDs in History were so new that Jameson, himself, was the very first to earn a doctorate in the field from Johns Hopkins in 1882. Nevertheless, he saw value in the experimental work of his pre-professional colleagues as well as a need for an extra-institutional scholarly community that included them and a serial publication forum for their research. These were some of his motivations for helping to co-found and manage the American Historical Review in 1895 (Rothberg 160).

Here at MLA, we can identify with the conundrum faced by historians and other Humanities scholars in the late nineteenth-century: we now have a massive pool of scholars-in-training who do a lot of work in our fields over the four to ten years that most of us spend in doctoral programs, but we also have few traditional ways for us to easily share our work and make meaningful professional connections outside of our departments and an annual conference or two. And though our writing is only very rarely circulated in peer-reviewed publications, it is, as Jameson would say, “good second-class work” nonetheless. We can share knowledge, learn from others, form an interactive community, and show the value that we add to the Humanities if we blog some of what we do in an online professional community.

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I want to take what Jameson calls “second-class work” and emphasize that these are only “second-class” because they are essays that are closer to drafts than polished articles. Here I invoke Samuel Johnson’s definition of “essay” as “an attempt,” “an experiment,” or better yet, “a loose sally of the mind” (Johnson 721). It’s a form that acknowledges its instability and invites play. The particular in-process quality of the graduate-student essay and our unique status as a very large group undergoing professional metamorphosis or “becoming” makes our work especially suitable for sharing specifically as a collection of blog posts: that is, as pieces that are in need of peer-review and that seek to discuss their loose ends and instigate dialogue about research or the profession.

Graduate students are often warned and trained to think that it is a bad idea to share our work with an audience beyond our advisors or classmates either because our ideas are not developed enough or we risk having them stolen by someone who can whip off a journal article. (I don’t buy the intellectual theft argument.) Traditional scholarship rules require graduate students to treat their drafts like manuscripts in a Romantic gothic novel: bury them deep in the catacombs, in a locked box, for a distant relative to uncover generations later. Over our four to ten years of training, we draft drafts of drafts while we work slowly toward a peer-reviewed article or two, and in the even more distant future, The Book Project. I suggest that we begin to take advantage of the blogosphere as a space for participating in the profession more frequently and publicly and displaying our value to the Academy and the public through our drafts.

Some Group Blogs for Graduate Students of 18th-19th c. Literature and DH

1.      HASTAC (www.hastac.org)

2.      NASSR Graduate Student Caucus Blog www.nassrgrads.com

3.      ASECS Graduate Student Caucus Bloghttp://asecsgsc.wordpress.com/

4.      International Gothic Association Postgraduate Blog  http://www.iga.stir.ac.uk/blog.php

5.      Romantic Circles Pedagogies Blog http://rc.umd.edu

6.      The Blog Tank – just found on #MLA Twitter feed http://theambulantscholar.com/2012/12/28/recommitting-to-your-scholarly-blog-in-2013-blogtank/ -

7.       MLA Commons -  potential new site http://commons.mla.org 

I advocate for extra-institutional organized group blogs in particular based on my own experience with two blogging communities – the North American Society for Studies of Romanticism (NASSR) Graduate Student Caucus blog (nassrgrads.com) and the HASTAC (hastac.org) community blog that I work in.[i] Like the just-launched MLA Commons, extra-institutional group blogs offer a place for many scholars-in-training who are connected by their fields of study to collaborate and curate a discussion space together in real-time – a feat that individual research blogs don’t allow. As Kathleen Fitzpatrick tells us and MLA Commons demonstrates, a group blog builds its authors and its audience into its very platform, drawing together acts of authorship and reception in a socially dynamic and responsive arena (PO 73; Reading 48).

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In 2010 I started the NASSR Grad Caucus blog and I have managed it since then. I have also blogged in the HASTAC community since 2011. For those unfamiliar, HASTAC is a huge consortium of approximately 10,000 scholars of different levels and from numerous institutions working in the humanities, arts, and sciences, and who are committed to using technology for collaboration and education. HASTAC is both a community and a complex, multimodal virtual platform that scholars use in many different ways. Conversations on HASTAC tend to happen in a blog post that has a series of comments by different authors interested in the conversation.

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By contrast, the NGSC blog is a smaller, niche platform for Romanticists in training: it has grown to include about 20 graduate student bloggers over two years, 130 blog posts, and 100 comments (excluding pingbacks).The conversation on the NGSC is less of a series of comments and more of a sharing festival: contributors sometimes respond in comments but more often respond in kind, with another blog post.

My call for graduate students to be more transparent and generous with sharing their knowledge joins a chorus of others I’ve heard at this MLA – and not just on DH panels – who voiced the need for sharing scholarship that is experimental in form and content. [Note: see my Storify that collects important tweets from MLA on this topic.] For example, in talks on Black Romanticism, Frances Botkin and Paul Youngquist presented “a call to take a step away from authenticity and ask what prospects and forms of transmitting history come up with ‘nuh knowin.’” In a roundtable on literary labs, Laura Mandell offered the idea that at the end of an essay, it should be okay to say that you no longer agree with your own thesis. In regard to interoperability of digital tools, Jeffrey Rockwell advocated for what Voyant does – that is to embed the digital tool used for a project within the final project so that a reader can have easy access to process – blurring the line between reader, user, and author. And Cathy Davidson and Matthew Kirschenbaum talked extensively on Friday about the empowerment and important challenges that open access scholarship raises for research and education reform. Finally, at the panel right before ours, “Rebooting Graduate Studies,” Matthew Jocker suggested that we imagine new forms of writing beyond the seminar paper for training graduate students.

I want to bring these same ideas to graduate students’ routine work as scholars-in-training. We may still be learning how to craft journal articles more quickly, but we do incredible quantities of reading, thinking, teaching, and responding informally that can be shared. For example, what to your project turned out to be an interesting detour and a research rabbit hole could very well be an autobahn for a colleague’s project.

In sum, rather than think of this only as a critical moment where the profession is oversaturated with PhDs and offers few jobs, I suggest we also envision ourselves in a moment flush with knowledge production that, if shared more freely and frequently, has the potential to change the value of Humanists to those inside and outside of the Academy.

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Works Cited

Fitzpatrick, Kathleen. Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy. New York and London: NYU P, 2011.

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

Jameson, John Franklin. “Historical writing in the United States since 1861: A public lecture, delivered in the Hall of Johns Hopkins University.” Englische Studien, 13 (1889): 235.

Johnson, Samuel. “Essay.” Page View, Page 721. A Dictionary of the English Language: A Digital Edition of the 1755 Classic by Samuel Johnson. Edited by Brandi Besalke. Last modified: December 6, 2012. Web.

Rothberg, Morey, and Jacqueline Goggin, eds. John Franklin Jameson and the Development of Humanistic Scholarship in America. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1993.

Thelin, John R. A History of American Higher Education. 2nd ed. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2011.

Note: I also collected a long list of works consulted for thinking through this talk and I plan to add to this talk in the near future. Stay tuned. If you have any questions, I would love to discuss.


[i] While it is very common to find doctoral students’ blogs re-purposed as e-portfolios or electronic CVs, these blogs are largely static and do not try to deliver a feed of new content or foster dialogue. Those who have their own personal research blog, as I do, and post updates in a feed do share more, but also tend to host fewer real conversations than one can find on a group blog since most grad student blogs do not have a large regular audience of readers or followers. It is for this reason that I sometimes double-post a piece: once on my own research website to give myself credit for the piece, but also post it on a group forum in which it will have the opportunity to participate in a conversation. The ethics of double-posting is something that I think a lot about and may change my mind about in the future.

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2 responses to ““A Large Amount of Good Second-Class Work”: The Value of Graduate Students’ Contributions to Scholarly Group Blogs

  1. Pingback: Editors’ Choice: #AHA2013 and #MLA13 Roundup : Digital Humanities Now

  2. Pingback: Sharing Process, Sources, Product: Around My Talk on Grad Student Group Blogging | NASSR Graduate Student Caucus Homepage

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