MiT7 on the horizon

I leave tomorrow for the Media in Transition 7 conference, the theme of which is Unstable Platforms: The Promise and Peril of Transition. My paper is called Academic Journals Online, and in a move that will surprise no one, I will talk about (among other things) Transformative Works and Cultures, the online-only Open Access Gold fan studies journal I coedit with Kristina Busse.

I’ll be talking about the “promise and peril” of transition in terms of the humanities’ rocky move to online publication in terms of scholarly journals. This topic interests me because I am employed in the publishing industry, plus I’m an editor of a journal, so I have to deal with a lot of behind-the-scenes copyright and production stuff that has implications for presentation and dissemination.

My panel, Publishing in Transition, is on the very last day of the conference, Sunday, May 15, from 10:45a to 12:15p. The other people on the panel are Kathleen Fitzpatrick (who will be talking about books, as opposed to journals), Hanno Biber and Evelyn Breitenede (online corporate texts), and Kristin Anderson-Terpstra and Casey Brienza (manga distribution in the United States).

Here’s my abstract:

The transition of scholarly discourse online is proving a bumpy one. Although some radical new modes of content vetting and delivery are emerging and “digital humanities” has become a buzzword, scholarly work online in the humanities and social sciences is not accorded the same prestige compared to journals that use a print-only or dual print-online model, despite the obvious advantages of access and use of embedded (multi)media. Yet these fears also reveal sites of possible renegotiation of the academic model in a way that will help scholars and scholarly discourse. Publishing in the humanities and the social sciences needs to follow the lead of the sciences, which were early adopters of moving and organizing content online: physics pioneered the online preprint; ClinicalTrials.gov registers trials and provides instructions for investigators; and journals in many disciplines publish online-only supplemental materials, such as data sets and online videos. Further, Creative Commons copyright and open access models have much to offer. All these ideas may be usefully co-opted by the digital humanities.

A draft of the full paper is up on MiT7’s site. Ironically, one concern of mine was that putting up full text would render any text I might try to publish about this topic unpublishable (because it had already appeared), so I wrote informally and didn’t cite exhaustively, so that any rewrite will be substantially different and could be considered. Hmmm… sounds like an excellent topic of discussion for this conference!

American remakes of British television

It’s out! Carlen Lavigne and Heather Marcovitch edited American Remakes of British Television: Transformations and Mistranslations, and I just received my contributor copy. My essay is entitled “Memory and the 1996 American Remake of Doctor Who.” Other TV shows discussed in the volume include American Idol, Cracker, What Not to Wear, Queer as Folk, The Office, Life on Mars, and Steptoe and Son. The essays are divided into three sections: Methods and Mechanics, Personal and Political, and Text and Context. The editors’ introduction usefully contextualizes the volume and sources other books about remakes.

American Remakes cover image

The book is published by Lexington Press (a Rowman & Littlefield imprint) and is available in hardcover and in an electronic version. You can order it right from Lexington or, of course, from Amazon. The complete table of contents is up at Lexington’s site.

OTW March 2011 drive

23-29 March 2011 OTW Membership Drive

What I do for OTW: I coedit the OTW’s academic journal, Transformative Works and Cultures (TWC).

Why this is important: TWC’s focus on the fan part of the equation makes it unique. Other academic journals will take articles about fan studies, but OTW does so within a framework that respects fan privacy and autonomy—for example, we request that contributors contact the fans that are being written about, so that fans can be informed and can help control how they and their fan works are presented.

What I do as a fan: I write fan fiction, maintain a fan fic archive, and maintain a couple mailing lists. All this has regrettably slowed down since I started working on TWC, but I also perceive working on TWC as a kind of fannish activity—service, rather than creation. However, lately I’ve been getting lots of feedback on old stories I’ve written and archived over at the Archive Of Our Own (did I get rec’d? what what?), and it’s making me feel all happy and shiny, so if I could just clear this backlog of TWC manuscripts I need to comment on….

ICFA 32

ICFA 32 just ended! I gave a paper entitled “Fandom kerfuffles as expressions of agency.” (I’m sure you noticed that I do not have a subtitle.) I assess fandom kerfuffles, and I used as my example Strikethrough ’07. I argue that kerfuffles are an important way for members of the fan community (broadly conceived) to exert collective agency. This agency may or may not result in change, but regardless, fans, through a process of consensus, come to act as moral agents who exert agency and impose value judgments. The kerfuffle is a divisive discussion, often centering on the lack of autonomy or freedom an individual feels. Kerfuffles are important because they are expressions of an emergent collective group, and that group is made up of individuals who perceive themselves as having agency.

The point of the kerfuffle becomes the kerfuffle itself; it is a mode of expressing agency, discussing a topic, and engaging with others in a topic larger than fandom-specific concerns: gender, race, class. The kerfuffle permits the ad hoc, emergent fan grouping taking part to act as the moral community that provides space for this sort of important discussion. In addition to the fan grouping being emergent, the intention is likewise emergent. (I discuss this in terms of the sociological literature.)

I won’t reproduce the description of Strikethrough ’07 here, as it’s been very well documented and readers of this blog can easily find out about it. I use it as an example because it resulted in emergent action: the creation of the Organization for Transformative Works (OTW). The kerfuffle united, rather than divided, groups of fans into a larger emergent group that made an ethical judgment about a situation and then took action using fan norms. This kerfuffle cut at the heart of fans’ artistic integrity and the infrastructure of many fans’ most fundamental social engagements, LiveJournal. Kerfuffles work by rending the fan community and then emergently reconstituting it, thus permitting fannish core values and norms to be assessed and reaffirmed; but they can also work to bring about directed action.

This work is related to an essay I published last year about Fandom Wank, and I have also done work on the MsScribe Story. I’m interested in kerfuffles and wanks in terms of documentation and fan norms. I plan to write up this paper and the MsScribe Story paper for publication.

I saw lots of familiar faces, and I met a lot of great new people, including many smart grad students. I got on my fangirl squee when I got to chat with the writer guest of honor, Connie Willis, whose recent books, Blackout and All Clear, are even better than her previous masterwork, The Doomsday Book. Scholar guest of honor Andrea Hairston’s lunchtime talk, which began with African women sitting on men and ended with the film District 9, ranks among the best, most thought-provoking, wide-ranging performances I have ever witnessed.

TWC No. 6 released

TWC No. 6, a special guest-edited issue on History, has been released right on time. In addition to the peer-reviewed papers and symposium articles, this issue features some great oral histories, some video, some words.

We are having trouble making the DOI links work, but never fear, we are on it and they will be working soon. Please bear with us. Meanwhile, enjoy!

Comic book slash

Journalist Matt “Darcey” Buttell, writing for the Web site So So Gay, interviewed me via e-mail for a story about slashing the characters in comic books: “Slash: Fan fiction’s sexiest sub-culture.” Admittedly I know nothing about comic book slash, other than that Wolverine is hot, but I like Buttell’s thesis: that until comics’ TPTB get it together and introduce more canon gay characters, well, the unofficial stuff written by fans will have to do.

Matt mentions an important point that TPTB everywhere would do well to consider, because it’s true of more than comics:

Ultimately, fiction in any form works because writers are more than just storytellers: they open up readers’ minds to entire new worlds, previously unimagined landscapes or situations, and unforgettable characters. This applies both to fan fiction and the source material on which fan fic is based. The concern is that comics’ audiences seem two steps ahead of the industry when it comes to open-mindedness and diversity.

Humanities, meet the sciences!

A recent spate of research I’m conducting, which has included some data input into Zotero, has only reaffirmed my belief that the sciences can teach the humanities much. I’m not just talking about quick peer review turnaround times and wait times to publication that don’t stretch into years. I’m talking about something simple, something basic: abstracts and titles.

Admittedly I am coming at this from the point of view of an unaffiliated scholar. Getting access to texts is a huge chore. I can’t just magically obtain something and flip through it to see if it’s what I need. I have to research it first, then decide if I want it, and then decide if it rates being one of the five books I can request at one time. I can’t possibly be the only person who wishes that I could figure out what something was about without actually having to read it.

Heed my call, journals and scholars in the humanities! Abstracts and titles. Please, I beg you, make them count. Let’s follow the example of the sciences here.

Abstracts

Abstracts in the humanities are relatively rare but are becoming more common now that many journals are transitioning online. The library databases I see squish all the data into a common presentation format, which includes a space for an abstract. Good start! Of course, if no abstract originally appeared—as is all too common in the humanities—we instead get a useless one- or two-sentence summary that some poor data-entry sod had to write up when submitting the data to the aggregator.

Contrast this with the sciences. They provide abstracts with everything, not to mention maybe also keywords, a two-sentence precis, and a “what’s new” box that indicates what this text is adding to the literature. You want to know the point of the article? It is right there. You want to know what this adds to the field? They say it in actual words. There are two kinds of abstracts: unstructured and structured. Unstructured abstracts are just narrative text, maybe 250 words long max. Structured abstracts are divided into sections such as background, methods, results, and conclusion, thus neatly summarizing the entire study.

Were the humanities to more widely implement abstracts, I imagine that most would use unstructured abstracts. But allow me to humbly suggest heads for a structured abstract: background, thesis, methodology, and significance. Background and thesis ought to be self-explanatory. By methodology, I mean the approach (queer theory; posthuman analysis) and an indication of the sort of study (close analysis of a single text; compare–contrast; manuscript analysis; online survey; application of existing theory to a new text). By significance, I mean what this is adding to the field.

At the very least, constructing an abstract along these lines will really focus the writer, forcing her to actually have a point. This can only be good. In addition, the information provided about approach/methodology will help scholars contextualize each other’s work, especially if people are working across disciplines.

The abstracts are then ideally put online, for free, to be endlessly reproduced by anybody who wants to, so that access to a locked-down library database is not necessary for one to learn of the mere existence of this bit of scholarship.

Titles

In the sciences, article titles are actually meaningful. Some titles, usually the ones that use verbs, actually summarize the results of the study: “Defective IL-10 signaling in hyper-IgE syndrome results in impaired generation of tolerogenic dendritic cells and induced regulatory T cells” (Saito et al., J Exp Med, 2011;208:235–249, chosen randomly). Were I a cell researcher, I would know instantly whether this paper was relevant to my current project.

Humanities journal article titles, on the other hand, tend to be informative only in their subtitles. The foretitles are often little discursive dances, often a pithy quotation.* As an extreme example, check out the table of contents for the March 2010 issue of PMLA (125, no. 2).† Out of the five titles provided, only one has the actual topic of the paper (Beowulf) listed in the foretitle. Here are the foretitles of the other four: “Swollen Women, Shifting Canon,” “‘As a leaf on a branch…,'” “Clustering and Curling Locks,” and “Beyond Sacrifice.” Go on, give a guess as to what these papers are about. No, try. Give up? From what I can infer from the subtitles, the topics are, respectively, midwifery and genre of the romance lyric; Dante; Paradise Lost; and Milton.

I call for boring, representative paper titles because the titles will reveal the topic, and what with the endemic lack of abstracts, we need all the help we can get. Many databases truncate titles after the foretitle, so the subtitle is not reproduced and is not searchable. The foretitle thus ought to include the actual topic of the paper. Think of it as a dense keyword dump. Something like this: “Midwifery, the Romance Lyric, and Tenth-Century Occitan Poetry.”

Keywords

I’m not calling for keywords in the humanities, despite their extensive use in the sciences, because they aren’t that helpful without an infrastructure in place that would permit them to make meaning. The Web can do that now. If authors had titles that actually reflected the topic, as well as useful abstracts, keywords would be superfluous because hits via search engines would actually work, assuming the titles and abstracts were available for free online (and that’s a big if). Keywords in the sciences and in medicine are often related to subject terms, like MeSH terms, and assigning MeSH terms is so difficult that professionals have to do it.

Conclusion

I don’t think I’m asking for anything radical here. I’m not sure why the humanities has created an infrastructure so unfriendly to actually finding out what is going on in individual bits of scholarship. Of course, my mantra is, “What’s the point?” And if I can’t figure out what the point is, I move on. I thus urge writers in the humanities to not make me work so hard. Explaining yourself will also help justify the importance of your research—and if you can’t, well, maybe that bit of scholarship doesn’t need to be disseminated.

______

Notes

* In foretitles that are quotations, the quotation ought to be immediately recognizable: a famous line, a cliche, whatever. And if it’s not, the quotation ought to be used and sourced somewhere in the paper itself. Otherwise, it’s just puzzling. What is this quotation I have never heard of, and why are you using it?

† I am only picking on PMLA because I think it can take it. Apologies to the authors of the papers for implying disapproval; I’m confident that they had lots of fun coming up with their titles. Kudos to PMLA for having its tables of contents and abstracts available for free online.

This text is copyrighted under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License. This post was originally written on March 10, 2011. It may be freely copied anywhere. If you read this document at a site other than its original, I may not see any comments you might append, and I’d love to hear from you. Please comment at the original blog post if you wish me to see your remarks.