Continuous Publishing and the digital republic of letters


It has become something of a truism that we (that is academics) live in a time of intensification of academic labour with its technologies of surveillance such as research assessment exercises, key performance indicators, and metrics of productivity.  We are caught up in what Mark Carrigan has referred to as the ‘accelerated academy’ and its toxic and murderous effects.  It is this ‘toxic academy’ that I have directed some of my own energy, partly through my blog but more recently through more ‘legitimate’ (?) forms of academic publishing (book chapter under review).

In response to this situation some have called for the institution of a slow university that draws on the ethos of the slow food movement.  Others, however, have championed forms of open scholarship and open access as alternative or complementary practices.  Indeed some initiatives, such as the online journal Hybrid Pedagogy, deliberately situate themselves in this space.

Many of these debates congregate around the issue of academic publishing in these accelerated times.  In particular they attend to a number of intersecting issues:

  • the closed nature or privatisation of academic traditional publishing
  • the impact of the digital on traditional analogue publishing.

I won’t go into these issues in detail.  However, there has been growing concern about the dominance of academic publishers over the nature of academic labour, and that this constitutes a privatisation of what should be regarded as a public good.  The digital landscape has been seen by some as opening up a new republic of letters, a new way of reconnecting scholarship with its many publics.

My own scholarly practice has been impacted positively, in my view, by this more recent idea of a DIGITAL REPUBLIC OF LETTERS.  As Edward Said would note, there are many beginnings associated with this turn in my practice.  Specifically, I was inspired (and I use that term deliberately) by a number of articles in the LSE’s ‘Impact of Social Sciences’ blog.  These articles deal with the practice of continuous publishing.  One ‘beginning’ was my reading of Mark Carrigan’s discussion of The Open-Source Academic and the use of participatory media (for instance blogging and twitter).  I followed this discussion through two sister articles written by Mark and Pat Lockley.  They noted that “We need to have an ongoing and honest conversation about what academic publishing is, what it could be and what it should be.”, drawing attention to the perverse incentives generated by the particular kind of reputational economy that the accelerated academy is producing.  In this scenario university managers appear to fetishise metrics of academic productivity, being obsessed with improving their institutions’ relative position in an insular economy.  This particular reputational economy is increasingly divorced from the the big issues, and leads to public goods (research knowledge) being locked behind ever expensive paywalls.  They then go on to argue that multiple forms of publishing – journals, blogs, twitter, etc. should become the norm if we are serious about public engagement, and could enhance more traditional forms of reputational value.  Bonnie Stewart has done some incisive work looking at twitter activity as a measure of impact and contribution in open scholarly networks (which often sit alongside the traditional mode) (and it is important to mention Bonnie’s work here since a brief review of the LSE ‘Impact’ blog shows that men seem to be dominating this discussion in that particular space even though my personal empirical experience is of a dynamic network of women driving much of this forward).

But I think there is something beyond the #altmetrics buzz we are getting just now, something that has to do with ethical choices about the kind of academic you want to be.

I am struggling with this right now, caught between embracing digital and open scholarship as a strategy of increasing professional presence and public engagement (though the matter of publics is in need of serious deconstruction), and something more akin to #alt-ac.

My engagement with the work of Mark Carrigan and Pat Lockley came at a moment (a beginning) where I was reconsidering my place in academia, indeed whether I wanted to remain in it all.  A good colleague of mine had been gently nudging me to venture further into the digital and open scholarship space, and to build on my existing blog.  While my blog had initially been developed with a vague idea of the potential of participatory media as a platform for reflection, this was to be further and more deliberately developed later in response to my embracing of the digital identity.  This signalled a desire to refashion my professional identity and practice, to explore the opportunities afforded by ‘digital’, ’openness’, ‘connectedness’. 

In part this is a continuation of traditional modes of academic endeavour.  My sister blog ‘The Broken Academic’ is a vehicle for rehearsing ideas and writing leading to academic publication.  And in my main blog I am currently trying to tease out my understanding of various literatures in relation to aspects of learning and teaching in higher education, with the intent of publishing.  But I have taken to heart the ethic of continuous publishing as also being about uncovering the artfulness of academic writing, of its created sense; to capture in blog posts some of the messiness, the experimentation, so that it does not appear as ready-formed, as rationally produced, as the mere outcome of a recipe that one simply needs to follow.  In this it is a refashioning of the self and a framing of ‘engagement’ as making oneself vulnerable, and so undermining the potential mantle of ‘expert’.  Is this, though, a kind of ‘academic suicide’, a denial of the possibility of being an ‘academic’?

And this is why it is more than enhancing the traditional form of academic publishing (while not, as yet, refusing that offer completely). 

Jacque Ranciere is a fantom here, present not in his corporeal person but in his evocation of a spirit – the spirit that says “Enact openness and see what happens”.  I am seeing what happens, and what ‘openness’ might mean.

It is taking on interesting forms.

While for me the digital and open scholarship practices that I am trying to enact are about ‘connected scholarship’ I find myself enjoying the company of folks who might be described (inscribed?) by the term ‘connected learning’.  This space is defined by certain practitioners and certain concepts and certain networks, many of which overlap:

  • @catherinecronin; @bali_maha; @GoogleGuacamole (Laura Gogia); @JeffreyKeefer; @jessifer, @bonstewart, etc (just some most pertinent to this particular discussion) I am new to most of these folks and in a few short, but intense months, have learned so much that I doubt I can go back to where I was; and the use of ‘@‘ is deliberate because that is how I mostly know/communicate with them, the platform that carries the learning;
  • #connectivism; #connectedlearning; rhizomatic learning; digital scholarship; #digiped; #openscholar, etc. – and again the ‘#’ is instructive as to how I engage with these;
  • Hybrid Pedagogy/@HybridPed; @LSEImpactBlog; #TJC15 (via Laura Gogia); and now #rhizo15.

Now that most of my teaching has become f-2-f (having been distance/blended for so long), I find myself embedded in conversations about hybrid/connected/rhizomatic learning.  And although my concerns are with digital and open scholarship the crossover conversations are stimulating, push me beyond the familiar and habitual, push me into uncomfortable (but enriching) liminal spaces.

And, finally, perhaps this is what I really want to say:

I had imagined academia as a place where we regularly engaged in stimulating intellectual discussion, where, when one was teaching there would be pedagogic debate.  I never believed that this would happen all of the time.  But I had worked in spaces that on the surface appeared to share similar creative impulses (in community arts and education).  In those spaces debates/discussions/considerations of principle, of ideas, of pedagogy were central to what we did – TO OUR DAILY PRACTICE, TO OUR DOING.  Approaching 20 years in academia, in the company of the folks, the concepts, and the networks above, I find myself in that kind of stimulating arena, of being daily tested/attracted/disgruntled. 

BUT much of my normative/paid ‘academic’ doing is dominated by timetabling, meeting committee deadlines, instrumental demands around introducing modules rather than why we are doing it, what does it mean for teaching or for learning (and so for who we are or could be as academics).  Academic publishing and conferences are seldom experienced as invigorating but as enervating.

So, the discussions of continuous publishing speak, to me, of where we experience the kinds of discussion that academia should have, the spaces where we engage with people and ideas and practices that place us in liminal spaces, and therefore powerful learning.

Zen and the Art of E-mail Maintenance

When you send an email to somebody do you expect an answer?

If you send an email to colleagues at work do you expect an answer?

If you send an email to colleagues at work asking them for help do you expect an answer?

I can’t speak for others, only for myself, and the answer to the above questions is YES.


My current reflection arises from an observation about the ethics of email etiquette in professional settings.  Some time ago I sent an email to a colleague in another institution offering to provide a workshop on contemporary policy developments.  This wasn’t just any random person but somebody responsible for professional development.  Hopefully I am not so arrogant as to presume that simply because I made this offer that it should be picked up joyously.  But, I had run a number of successful seminars on this topic so it wasn’t complete fantasy to think that my offer might be at least considered.  That was three years ago.  I am still to receive even a confirmation of having received the email.

I would like to say that this was unusual.  But it isn’t.

When you have been successful in applying for a job then it is normal to spend some time in communication with the prospective employer’s human resources department.  And it was for me recently.  Except that email after email went unanswered.

It doesn’t stop there.  As an Academic Developer my job is to work with other academic colleagues in the development of their academic practice.  So it is not unusual for me to request support from academic colleagues in this endeavour.  And so it was a few weeks ago.  I sent an email to a group of colleagues who had graduated from one of our courses asking if they would participate in a workshop to guide their own colleagues on the assessment aspects of the course – colleagues supporting colleagues.  Out of the 10 emails I received one reply.  That means that the other 9 colleagues did not even reply to decline the invitation.  This scenario was repeated again more recently and in relation to an identical request for support.  And the response?  The same.  Many emails posted, one positive reply, lots of completely unanswered requests.

What is the issue?

On the one hand there is the matter of simple courtesy.  I might be naive but if a colleague sends me an email containing a direct request I answer it.  Now, there are plenty of times when I miss an email and reply late, or have to be reminded – but 9 out of 10?

There was no expectation that people would say yes simply because I asked them.  The expectation, though subdued and implicit, was that there would be some reply.

I have to say that, unlike some years ago, the lack of collegial response did not upset me.  I didn’t go away feeling that I had been rejected, that I was discounted, that I – and that is it, I.  And so it is to the ‘I’ of this concern that I must turn.

A while back this series of mini-events would have caused me much pain, even if only temporarily.  The fact that it doesn’t now (though obviously it plays on the mind as a curiosity) is what I want to think through here, because it has something to do with the ‘I’ and the Buddhist concept of ‘no-self’.

The terms ‘academic identity’, ‘identity’, and ‘identity work’ can be found in scholarly discussions of how we see ourselves, of our struggles for authenticity, of battling with ‘managerialism’ or ‘neoliberalism’, of ‘reform’.  The language can often conflate our personal identities into that of the ‘academic’.  And often it can feel like that.  Who, on reading their students’ feedback, doesn’t zoom in on the one or two negative comments, blind to all the positive ones?  Its no surprise really.  Academic life is often isolating and vulnerable.  We are vulnerable in the face of our students, asking ourselves if we are good enough, if we are failing our students.  We are vulnerable in the face of academic publishing – remember the deep psychic pain when you receive a rejection from a journal editor?  We don’t even need a rejection.  Suggestions for revision can feel like a public declaration of failure.

It is as if my fundamental self is bound up so completely in the day job.

This reminds of Art Bochner’s wonderful piece on the divided self, “It’s About Time: Narrative and the Divided Self“.  In this article Bochner recounts how he was confronted with the chasm between his personal and professional selves.  Importantly he talks about how the ‘academic self’ rejected the affective self, pushing emotion into the private shadows of the personal.  So, we often feel, on a day to day basis, that hurt caused to our professional self is an attack on our deep self, on us as a PERSON.  Yet, the academic sensibility often negates the affective, the felt.  We struggle with an ‘I’ as if it were one and the other, the personal AS the professional.

And this is where ‘no-self’ comes in, and why, I think, I felt a healthy detachment from the lack of collegial response; why I was able to observe it as a phenomena, but not as something that caused pain.

Faced with the lack of collegial responses I was confronted with the possibility of seeing this as a comment on ‘myself’, as an evaluation of ‘me’ by my colleagues.  There is a moment, then, when I have to consider the ‘I-ness’ or ‘me-ness’ of my emotional responses.  If I see that what I call ‘me’ has no real substance, then there is no ‘me’ to be hurt.  This is not a lack of emotion, or a lack of identity.  Instead, what this notion signals is that what we conventionally refer to as ‘me’, as ‘I’, as ‘identity’ is of such a composite nature that it is finally difficult to identify with it in such a way that the normal slights visited upon us by social interaction can really touch ‘me’.

The feeling of love, of rejection, of course arise.  We, I, do FEEL them, sometimes intensely.

But what I have in my power to do is respond to them.  There is a moment when I can pause, and allow the mind and body to observe these rising feelings, a pause where the understanding that ‘I’ am a complex composite of inherited dispositions (like Bourdieu’s ‘habitus’).

In that pause before inherited emotional responses take over, I can see that it is the attachment to an essential and substantive self that causes the pain.  It is the desperate clinging to the idea of myself as an independent entity that causes me anxiety.  The ‘me’ that my colleagues might or might not reply to is not ‘me’ at all.  If there is a ‘me’ to which they are not replying (and there is an arrogance in assuming that there is a ‘me’ that prompts their not responding) then it is a phenomena of their mind.

A brief reflection on the substantial nature of ‘me’ can reveal that it is largely a narrative through which I seek to construe a sense of coherence  in the midst of impermanence and change, a coherence that carries me from a linear past to a distinct future.  In this narrative of self is a hint of the emptiness of this phenomena – ‘me’.  Drawing on Bourdieu’s concept of ‘habitus’ I can see myself as a condensation of history, of family, social and cultural location, historical events, chance happenings and meetings.  I am ‘me’ only so far as the conditions of my existence allow.  And those conditions do and can change.  In what sense does this composite of elements make me a coherent and substantive thing?

The empirical self is actually composed of a flow of mental and physical states that are co-dependent on history, on the different environments within which I exist and move.  While ‘I’ or ‘me’ are relative terms, phenomena of the mind, this does not mean that there is no ‘sense of self’, of a ‘me’ that is in the world.  Recognising that much of what I regard as myself is a composite of inherited dispositions, these do not wholly determine me.  Devoid of an essential self, I am faced with a different reality.  Faced with the lack of collegial response I have only that moment.  And in that moment I have power.  I have the power to respond in line with inherited dispositions that might see the lack of collegial response as something personal, OR I can respond otherwise.  I can accept the variety of feeling responses that might arise, but I do not have to identify with them AS IF THEY WERE ME.

I may still feel upset.  My feeling of worth may be rattled (as when we receive negative feedback from students).  But, if I do not attach too strongly with an essential sense of self that subsumes all of me into the professional me, then I can avoid much of the pain of those moments.

I am bemused by the lack of collegial response.  But my responsibility is not that, it is my ethical being in the world.  And that is another post.