Challenges of change-ability: New Frontiers of Digital Scholarship

“History’s house has many rooms” is the phrase I used in a previous post to describe the increasing print-digital cohabitation. If we accept that both that both print and digital forms will continue to evolve and to coexist, neither able to supplant the other because the platforms offer different, complementary advantages, then perhaps we can move the conversation past the anxiety about what form future scholarly dissemination will take, and instead find comfort in the promise that it will take all kinds of forms.

The diversification of media is good for the discipline, giving historians choices about how to present both historical arguments and primary sources. As Daniel Cohen notes in this month’s  Perspectives,

it is clear that the fundamental activities of the historian—researching, publishing, teaching—have been forever altered by the transition to digital media and technology.

This flourishing of forms simply makes more visible the kinds of strategies already available in a print-only era: aim for a specialist journal devoted to time, place or thematic interests, or a generalist journal? As with breaking news, the proliferation of venues and increasing ease of self-publication (like this blog) means that editorial boards no longer control access to dissemination, so you can take your message directly to your audience.

Having more choices naturally complicates the decision-making process, though. Which available medium reaches your intended audience (including members of a tenure committee)? What puts you in the most direct dialog with other scholars, or with members of a wider public? What makes your work most accessible? What form best preserves your work and provides some assurance of long-term availability? Where is your work most likely to be seen and reliably cited? Thinking through answers to these questions points again to a continued mix of print and digital forms to tell new stories about the past and represent its artifacts.

I’ve already made a case for the continued relevance of print forms. Here I want to reflect on the opportunities and challenges of going digital. One of the many seductions of creating historical interpretations for web-based media is the possibility of direct and nearly immediate interaction with interested readers. Another seduction is the expanded possibility of “getting it right,” quickly correcting mistakes or responding to suggestions without having to wait for a publisher to issue a second edition.

Several comments in response to Karl Jacoby’s praise of the mutability of digital formats suggest the allure of correction is strong, compounded by the sense that you’re not bound to stick with positions you no longer defend. True. But neither are you bound by published positions in print, even if the article exists to remind you of old errors. Subsequent publications can modify or critique your own previous work. This isn’t likely, though, since few of us want to tread and re-tread in exactly the same intellectual terrain. Given the exigencies of peer-reviewed publications and the competition for spots in major journals, it’s usually not worth the time to develop an article that clarifies or adjusts what you’ve already published. So it’s attractive to be able to simply alter what’s already out there.

The mutability of digital forms creates a thorny problem, though: how to create a sustained chain of citations if the evidence or arguments in the cited work may change? Columbia University Press made the decision to make the Gutenberg-e series of books immutable, once published. Granted, the series was hatched in the long-ago days of Web 1.0, before the premium on interactivity. This decision also speaks to an attachment to existing notions about “the book” as an entity, in which changes might be desirable, but require a defined second edition.

For historians, the ground slips right out from under our disciplinary training if either argument or sources are open to changes at will. We have citation problems with evidence or arguments entirely rooted in a mutable website—another reason to want some fixed form of published scholarship, whether print or digital. Roy Rosenzweig’s illumination of this problem, published half a decade ago in the AHR, retains its salience.  A post a month ago on Inside Higher Ed reiterates the issue’s currency.

Historians are not likely to abandon our attachment to defined, reproducible citations, but as Rosenzweig’s article shows, we can find ways to make the changing evidence part of the stories we tell. But that’s only if the changes leave a trail. Without something like the explicit change history on Wikipedia, or the skills of a forensic computer analyst borrowed from CSI, historians laboring in digital trenches must take care to keep their own copies of sources they discover on the web, and work assiduously to assure that resources they create remain stable (or at least traceable).

How we might accomplish this is still open to discovery, but that shouldn’t put us off the task. We should instead be excited about the prospect that some of the forms of the future haven’t been invented yet, even as we grapple with the challenges that come with figuring out what to do with the technology already at our disposal.

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2 Responses to Challenges of change-ability: New Frontiers of Digital Scholarship

  1. Danielle Fouquette says:

    What an interesting discussion, and one about which I have two lines of thought that I hope aren’t too tangential–one as a teacher of writing and the other as a reader (not that they are distinct activities, just convenient labels for the attitude I bring to the activities).

    First, as someone who works with student writers, the opportunities offered by the mutability of digital texts is deceptive. That one’s students HAVE a change in perspective,a more nuanced idea, or better information to share in a second or subsequent draft is the real challenge, and the fact that digital texts can be so easily changed may lead us to underestimate the role that time plays in getting there. I mean, when changing and correcting were more time consuming, I tended to do a lot more writing by hand, and a lot more thinking away from the emerging text in order to bring more cogent thoughts to the writing. As one who came to writing this way,the mutability of digital texts is mostly opportunity, but for students who have always approached writing with the sense that it can be changed at any time with minimal effort, the temptation must be always to shape at the point of utterance.

    Second, as a reader, I think now of the situatedness of texts–how even errors and incorrect information can tell me something about time and place. That there are errors/falshoods–whether from carelessness or lack of knowledge–in a text seems to me to be a given. So, too, will there be support or evidence that turns out later to be weak or even ineffective, but as a marker of how people think or thought at that time, these seem to be invaluable. Literary texts are generally left alone in this regard, and they reveal much about the time and place in which they were written, but I think non-literary texts (for lack of a better term) including academic texts are at least as revealing.

    I don’t think that means we can’t correct mistakes, bolster support, or offer new iterations of our thinking; just that the paper trail–or in this case, the digital trail–is an important element of a text worth keeping.

    On a lighter note, check out this link:
    http://www.facebook.com/ext/share.php?sid=75604703818&h=yO-7G&u=48Oko&ref=mf

  2. Laura Mitchell says:

    Danielle,
    You raise thoughtful issues.
    Your first comment points to issues that I don’t think anyone knows much about, yet: how new technologies are changing the way we think.
    I learned to write first long-hand, then on a clunky electric typewriter that I loved. (It was still awesome the fist time I used an IBM Selectric w/ correcting tape, though).

    I used to cut and paste text quite literally–except I used scotch tape instead of paste…

    So production on a computer is, for me, an easier way to accomplish a process that’s not dramatically different from working on paper, whether with pencil or keyboard.

    Your post points out that this always changing interface may, in fact, get people to have a very different relationship to the text they produce–as they produce it.

    Even in this context, do you think writers will move away from the idea of drafts vs. finished product.
    I know most students don’t make big changes to drafts, even when that’s part of a class assignment. In my experience, they add to the work they’ve already done, but don’t change much.

    The difference in attitude comes when writers/students are invested in the project beyond getting an assignment done for class: an honors paper in history, a piece of creative writing for fun, a PhD dissertation chapter. Then, I see the drafts changing as people work through ideas.

    maturity as thinker/writer? Investment in the project?

    re point 2: I agree about leaving a trail of some sort. The evidence of our changing ideas and knowledge is an important part of the process.

    The Bible in 140 character chunks is a brilliant bit. Thanks for sharing it.
    Laura