Chuck Tryon, "Blogging, Scholarship, and the Networked Public Sphere"

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As scholarly publishing models continue to face the need for significant changes in response to the rise of digital media, it is worth using these changes in order to theorize what counts as “scholarship” within the fields of literary and media studies. While the MLA Task Force on Evaluating Scholarship for Tenure and Promotion has wisely observed that “forms of scholarship other than single-authored books were not being properly recognized” and by calling for “a more capacious conception of scholarship” (Profession 2007), it is less clear what counts as a publication in the current context. In fact, the Task Force Report still places emphasis on the scholarly monograph as a crucial means for transmitting academic research and for perpetuating the ongoing scholarly conversations that makes our research so vital. However, rather than reinforcing traditional modes of scholarship, I would like to suggest that new scholarly networks are already forming and functioning autonomously on the web in the academic blogosphere. While blogs have been the object of discussion at MLA for some time, they have rarely been treated as a productive model for reimagining the scholarly conversations that we are having. In this context, I will discuss how blogging can revitalize scholarship in part by thinking about blogging as a significant element of what Yochai Benkler refers to as the “networked public sphere.” In addition, I will argue that the changes in the media ecosystem that favor “open-access” publication can learn quite a bit from the ongoing stresses in the DIY movie “industry,” which features a number of young, enterprising media makers developing new distribution tools for delivering their movies to the widest possible audience, even as the “institution” of theatrical distribution remains closed to most of these filmmakers.

Drawing from my own experience as a blogger and author, I have found that both forms can not only feed one another but that blogs themselves are a form of scholarly activity, one that may provide new models for how we write. In fact, as Alex Halavais argues, the web is fostering a model of authorship that emphasizes “findability and making connections as central to what it means to create in a hyperlinked world” (110). In writing the book, my blog served as what Matthew Kirschenbaum has referred to as an “academic workbench,” one where I could “test” ideas with a wider readership, whether other scholars, film industry personnel, or non-specialists, before submitting them for peer-reviewed publication. In fact, as Kathleen Fitzpatrick observes, blogs have the potential to offer what might be called “peer-to-peer review.” Material for many of the articles I have submitted to journals has been read hundreds of times, often receiving dozens of comments before being published, making my “published” work even stronger. However, as I’ve continued to write for the blog, not only do I continue to receive feedback, but I have also found that the blog is where much of the vital conversation around the issues of “digital cinema,” in particular the changes in movie distribution enabled by digital technologies, is taking place. Many of these conversations allow film and media scholars, such as Henry Jenkins and danah boyd, to contribute in a timely way to ongoing media policy debates, work that seems to be in keeping with what Avi Santo and Christopher Lucas identify as a process of ongoing engagement with policy makers and media industry creative personnel. Again digital cinema models provide a useful model: because many of these films, including many of the so-called Mumblecore films, challenge conventional audience expectations, theatrical distribution is often closed to them, except in major cities; however, both filmmakers have been able to maintain a thriving, if underpaid, career through forms of self-distribution. While it would not make sense to base the vetting of scholarship purely on the whims of market forces—especially scholarly research that addresses obscure or controversial subject matter—a developing filter system of online film critics and filmmakers, especially aggregator blogs such as David Hudson’s IFC Daily, has emerged to help audiences make informed choices about the films they watch. A similar model could work for creating a wider readership for academic research and for evaluating how that research can contribute to our ongoing attempts to build knowledge.