How to Break Out of the Academic Ghetto…

Reader Katie King submitted an interesting question about how academic publishing relates to the new trends towards participatory culture we’ve been documenting here:

I’m wondering to what extent the participatory culture of fandom does or does not affect academic cultures? For example, academic publishing seems to be more and more conservative, more “broadcast” rather than “niche market” oriented.

The issue is a crucial one that speaks to the “Aca” part of my Aca-Fan identity. I know that not all of you are interested in academic politics but you may be interested in what follows because it speaks to the barriers blocking a fuller dialogue between academics and others who share our interests and passions in popular culture. As someone who studies popular culture and the people who produce and consume it, I have always felt an obligation to try to get my insights back into a larger public circulation. But this is easier said than done.


Publish And Perish

The current state of academic publishing poses some real challenges for those of us who want to engage with a public beyond the textbook market. For starters, there is the challenge of publication time. It can take as long as two years, sometimes longer, between the time that an academic completes a book and when that book hits the stores. For that reason, few of us are able to engage in meaningful ways with contemporary developments in popular culture. I can’t tell you the number of books which were started with the goal of responding to popular media in real time and which ended with the phenomenon under investigation dead and buried by the time the book hit the market. There are certainly some things I will need to update about Convergence Culture on the blog even if the general trends I identified in the book remain valid.

Second, there are real filters that make it extremely hard for academics to get books into commercial bookstores where they might fall into the hands of non-academic readers. Most proposals for academic books on popularculture boldly assert that there is a potential crossover market around their topics but it’s hard to figure out how they are going to reach that readership when their books are never going to appear in Borders or Barnes and Nobles or any of the other chain bookstores where the vast majority of books get sold.

My goal in writing Convergence Culture was to produce a general market nonfiction book. For all practical purposes, the book which NYU Press will publish was written with such a reader in mind — the chapters are structured through narratives and examples drawn from familiar programs, the language has been striped down as much as possible (there are some purely academic terms but most of the terms I use come from the media industry or from fans rather than from other theorists. And I have added a glossary in the back which readers can consult if they run into an unfamiliar concept.) I don’t think I dummied down the book: I simply did not assume that the reader was immersed in the same academic debates as I was. But I found it hard to find an agent who understood what the book was trying to argue or who could imagine a general reader interested in knowing about the logic by which current media operated. I was told again and again that a nonfiction book could only have three big ideas and that the most successful ones only had one core concept. The passage I quoted in my opening post was a bit of a parody of this claim — trying to reduce the book’s sweeping arguments to the core concepts of convergence, collective intelligence, and participatory culture.

There are some folks out there who think my prose is still much too academic but I work pretty hard to open up my arguments to the widest possible set of readers. If you have enjoyed reading some of the posts on this blog, then I doubt you are going to find Convergence Culture too difficult to read.

NYU Press, by the way, is doing an excellent job working with me and the MIT news office to help publicize the book and set up a press tour around its release, giving me treatment I have received from none of the other publishers I’ve worked before. They care as much as I do about getting these ideas out to a larger public which is being impacted by the changes in our media landscape.

Why Bad Books Happen to Good Writers

With little hope of writing to a general reader, most academics end up writing mostly to themselves. Certainly, the reader in their heads as they write is someone who goes to the same conferences and reads the same journals they do. And I think this as much as anything else contributes to the extensive use of jargon in most academic prose. You end up short-handing ideas to an in-the-know reader rather than imagining readers who might be introduced to those concepts for the first time. There emerges a kind of insularity — it isn’t just that you end up writing for other academics, but you also become isolated from other kinds of public conversations about the topics that matter to you. Academics often don’t read non-academic books, which, after all, get sold in totally different kinds of bookstores.

This is bad enough in an established field but in an emerging field like media studies, at a moment when the whole media landscape is in flux, you cut yourself off from those other voices at your own risk. I have learned so much from conversations with journalists, policy makers, parents, classroom teachers, creative artists, industry leaders, venture capitalists, fans, etc., etc. And indeed, one of my hopes for this blog is that it can create a space where some of these different groups, each dealing with the same issues, may learn a bit more from each other.

Another consequence of the slow pace of academic publishing is that we tend to think of our work not as provisional but as monumental. The idea that you might throw out ideas just to create a dialogue with others interested in your topic is very alien to the way most academics think. What you put on the page is your life’s work. It’s what you’ve built your career around. It’s what builds your reputation. It’s what determines whether you get tenure or not. So, there’s no room to explore ideas in the kind of open-ended fashion King is describing here. Instead, everyone wraps their ideas in armor. They start to play it safe. They start to hedge their bets. And the result can be deadening prose which has nothing to do with the way most of us live with or think about media.

There are other things going on with academic publishing right now that contribute further to this problem. Academic presses are facing serious economic difficulties. They are cutting down drastically on the books that they publish. Most of the books now need to have large sweeping themes that cut across the broadest possible range of academic disciplines. One might imagine a form of generalization that opened books up to general readers but that isn’t what has happened. Instead, this push towards broader approaches encourages a certain kind of abstraction since theory moves across fields more easily than factual study. Academic presses are cutting back on the publishing of anthologies, which don’t sell well but often play an important role in sparking dialogue around new topics or showcasing the work of emerging scholars. And there is a strong pressure to tighten the length of most books — not always a bad idea but often resulting in further tendencies towards jargon as people shorthand their ideas even more and count on the reader to fill in the gaps in their arguments.

So, from one direction, all academic publishing is niche publishing. Most academic journals get read by fewer people than the average fan discussion list reaches. Most academic books are lucky to sell more than a few thousand copies and most of those go to libraries where many of them will go unread for decades. From the other, academic publishing is moving away from more specialized or niche publications. I can’t tell you how many general introductions to game studies I’ve reviewed for presses in recent years — all with more or less identical tables of contents and interchangeable introductions. Yet, presses have worried that more focused books on specific games, creators, genres, or issues will be too specialized to attract the “general reader.”

Changing the Rules

King continues:

My own feeling has always been that the best “participatory” invoking television (my own interests have been Highlander and Xena) are from shows that are not seamlessly written, not exactly grade “A” (whatever that might mean) but “B” — shows that have lots of “holes” fans can fill in various forms of participation.

My own academic aspirations are to produce not seamlessly argued academic texts, but suggestively extensive ones — not intensively analytical, but maybe full of their own proper “holes” to be filled in.

Trying to create and argue for this seems to be an uphill battle now. Or is it? Do you have thoughts about this?

The good news is that the web is creating opportunities for academics to break out of the academic bookstore ghetto and engage in a broader range of conversations. Much as other media producers are taking advantage of digital distribution to reach around traditional gatekeepers, a number of academics are experimenting with ways of communicating their core insights to a more general readership, many of whom will not find our books in their local bookstore (thank goodness for Amazon!) and wouldn’t be very engaged by our more specialized journals. As they do so, these academics are finding ways to be both more topical (having a chance to respond to media change in real time) and more provisional (floating ideas, getting feedback, and refining them before putting them into print). Academic culture is discovering what every other sector already knows — the power of social networks to produce richer insights and pool knowledge.

For example, a growing number of my graduate students are starting their own blogs around their thesis topics, providing them with a strong incentive to write every day, creating opportunities to translate their insights into language which can be understood by lay readers, getting a reality check on their claims, and often connecting with people who have specialized or insider knowledge that they might not encounter otherwise. I am seeing such blogs spring up at many other institutions as well and it does produce the kind of exploratory writing King is describing here. For example, check out this site by CMS graduate student Ravi Purushotma. Ravi is researching the ways games and other forms of popular culture can be used for educational purposes. His site, which includes works in progress and videos designed to dramatize his concepts, has generated response from teachers, textbook publishers, and game designers, among others, who have contributed actively to his research and who have also opened up new job options for him after graduation.

Increasingly, we are also trying to make the work of the research group in CMS as transparent as our arrangements with various sponsors allow, opening up the work in progress to the public. For example, my CMS colleague Beth Coleman is currently in China, leading a team of our students, and working with our research partners from GSD&M advertising. They are looking at social networks and the use of mobile media, particularly with young people, university students, artists, and cultural leaders. The research team is comprised of individuals from heterogeneous fields of expertise, including media studies, network analysis, cultural

anthropology, and market planning.People can follow their adventures and learn of their discoveries via their Project Good Luck website where they are blogging some of their fieldnotes.

There have also been a number of collective projects where academics write about media or popular culture topics as they unfold. Bad Subjects has been going for more than a decade out of Berkeley, offering left-of-center social commentary (what they call “political education for everyday life”). Their writing can sometimes becomes a bit too abstract for my taste, but the site often offers unconventional and challenging perspectives on contemporary issues. Flow is a webzine focused on television and new media and published by graduate students at the University of Texas-Austin. Its contributors include many of the top scholars in the field, all trying to produce work which would appeal to a crossover readership. That said, the editors of Flow have told me that they are having difficulty — even on the web — reaching non-academic readers. Because the history of academic writing to the public has been so dismal, the public often runs in fear when they hear a writer is an academic and therefore don’t give them a chance or meet them half-way. The borders are being policed from both directions.

And then there is the trend towards academics (not to mention journalists) putting up their works on progress on the web and seeking feedback from interested readers. Many university presses are nervous about us giving away our ideas for free but early signs suggest that where these books take on a life on the web, they actually increase public awareness of the project and thus increase sales. Writers who have been involved in such a process also confirm that they produce better books because they are able to clear up misleading or badly phrased passages and make new discoveries as their ideas get tested by the wisdom of the crowd.

A good example of this process at work right now would be McKenzie Wark’s new book, GAM3R 7HE0RY — a collaboration with the Institute for the Future of the Book, a group which is exploring innovative new approaches to publishing. Wark has posted the entire book on the web where it is generating lively discussions among gamers, game industry insiders, and games researchers alike.

Unfortunately, little or none of this activity counts towards tenure and promotion within most universities. Indeed, there are lots of institutional pressures discouraging younger academics from engaging in public outreach in forms which do not “advance their careers” and this slows down many who might otherwise try to broaden the conversation. Right now, these outlets end up becoming part of a “process” which leads towards a more monumental publication, rather than being seen as valuable in their own right. For the time being, it seems unlikely that we can escape the stranglehold that university presses have on our writing because of the credentialization issue. Yet, the push away from more specialized publications may force this to change. Whole disciplines may discover that they have no print outlets for their work and will have to reorganize and find ways to use digital publishing and peer-review to achieve the same goals.

Update: Jonathan’s comments below are a useful corrective and I accept them as a friendly ammendment to this original post. I was speaking from the perspective of someone who very much wants to be sharing my current work with a larger public and has every reason to want to go beyond the academic bookstore and university library space. But university presses sometimes (less often than they once did) do valuable work when they publish research that does not have a strong market appeal, that is unpopular, challenging, difficult, or groundbreaking in ways that is not going to be finding a broad public audience anytime soon. Nothing in my text should be taken as devaluing either such work or the job that university presses play in publishing it. That said, I still question whether many academics don’t fall back on this as an excuse for sloppy and jargon-filled writing when they might want to examine closely their motives for closing off such work from larger public scrutiny. I suppose I have more faith in the public’s ability and willingness to engage with serious ideas than current academic practice acknowledges. More than anything else, though, I want to open up more options for different kinds of academic publishing that does have greater public access and that is open to a more exploratory process. I don’t think Jonathan or I disagree on that point.

Comments

  1. Your comment on books sitting in libraries unread really resonated with me. As a point of reference, the copy of ‘Textual Poachers’ that the library of my 20,000 student campus has has been checked out precisely twice since publication. Once in 1993, and once by me.

    I’ve been watching this trend for a while now, finding it oddly amusing and sad that so many great and interesting ideas are read by so few people.

    Thomas

  2. Hi Henry,

    I’m all for accessibility and have worked with Bad Subjects for the last 12 years in pursuit of the ideal that politicized cultural criticism is something to which many people should have access.

    But I want to take issue with the idea that knowledge is best when it has the widest possible dissemination. Part of the virtue of academia, and indeed the luxury of it for those of us who have good jobs in it, is the power to pursue unpopular, unfashionable and uninteresting (to any marketable audience, anyway) ideas. Sometimes books sit in libraries for decades only to be discovered much later. I have had many love affairs with dusty books that hadn’t been checked out in decades. With the distance of time or perhaps a shift in paradigm, I see something in them that perhaps their own authors didn’t see.

    Academic publishing is indeed niche publishing, and it’s a shame that presses are being pushed more and more toward bottom lines. So yes, by all means let’s do some public intellectual work, let’s go to conferences with other kinds of intellectuals (artists, musicians, journalists, etc.) but let’s also reserve space for knowledge production that doesn’t have to meet some immediate standard of utility, accessibility or broad interest. I still want to live in a world where I’ll be able to find dusty monographs with 10 years of research — and careful reflection — in them.

    Best,

    –Jonathan

  3. Dear Henry, I’m a former university-press editor, now starting a new Center for Digital Publishing at North Carolina State, where I hope we can create some new opportunities for faculty and students to distribute their work. Your post rings true to much of my experience.

    I have a modest suggestion for you and your colleagues: in addition to creating new works online, see if you can find a way to post previously-published material that way. If your book is going out of print, be sure to have the rights reverted to you, so you can put it on the web yourself or deposit it into your university’s digital repository, where it can be preserved for the long term. You can protect your rights with a Creative Commons license and make the work freely available for others.

  4. pidgin says:

    Mr. Jenkins,
    c-theory is also a good resource for niche market academic theory. A system where academic theory is imeediately posted better serves the dialogue. They’ve been doing this for years.