Friday, May 23, 2008

Begging Bowl

For faculty members working with electronic media, one of the central questions has become how their work will be evaluated in comparison to traditional print sources produced by their peers and whether e-scholarship will be weighted appropriately, given the labor-intensive character and potentially large audiences of digital texts.

Unfortunately, not much has seemed to have improved since "Tenure and Promotion Cases for Composition Faculty Who Work with Technology," the classic study that invented "five fictional tenure and promotion cases of composition faculty who work with computer technology — addressing their contributions in the area of teaching, scholarship, and service" and showed them to "real department chairs, deans, and personnel committee chairs," who were "writing anonymously and frankly about how the case would be evaluated at their institutions." The study found that even widely-read online journals that have made a point of rigorous peer-review were discounted, sometimes arbitrarily, in contentious committee meetings, and that such publications were considered by many in the academy as "essentially no scholarship or at best scholarship of a spurious kind." (I've published in some of the journals used in the fictional c.v.'s, so reading this study several years ago helped me understand that it was the presence of page numbers not peer review that might matter most to some parties.)

A special panel at the Computers and Writing conference about "New Media Scholarship Stakeholders: Departmental, Editorial, and Authorial Issues" tried to address these concerns with updated reflections on the current state of affairs. Catherine C. Braun of Ohio State opened the panel with a study of her own that had asked faculty members who were already tenured how they would evaluate digital scholarship that was already published. Braun inquired specifically about how faculty members would apply specific criteria from their own institutions to these electronic publications in order to encourage more discussion about "shared values." Although she said that there was respect for certain kinds of high-profile digital bibliographic types of scholarship, which cynics might note may also be grant-worthy as text-encoding initiatives, she found that more essayistic digital compositions were often judged very harshly.

Braun focused on one faculty member who was using a specific rubric with four criteria ("originality," "lucidity," "intellectual depth," and "significant contribution to the field") and gave him three online pieces to review. This faculty member intensely disliked the first sample, "Teaching Writing in the Space of Blackboard" by Evan Davis and Sarah Hardy of Hampden-Sydney College, and characterized it as mostly how-to, not original, and shallow. He also asked a question that surprised her, because it indicated a certain kind of web-savvy that she had not anticipated hearing from such a staid colleague: "Why is this a hypertext?" Although I enjoyed reading it, I might add that since the piece is written in Microsoft's Front Page software application, it may also defeat its own purpose of getting its constituency to think critically about how proprietary code may shape pedagogy.

Despite its intentionally distracting and disconcerting multimodal appearance, which included a bottom ticker on the page, the test faculty member praised Braun's second example, Anthony Ellertson's "Some Notes on Simulacra Machines, Flash in FYC & Tactics of Spaces of Interruption," because this professor liked the way it theorized and liked the ethos of the piece, particularly when Ellertson speaks in the piece's video clips.

Finally, Ellen Cushman's "Composing New Media: Cultivating Landscapes of the Mind" was dismissed quickly, according to Braun, because the faculty member was not willing to "play with the text" after becoming irritated with not being able to install the necessary Shockwave plugin on his office computer. Braun argued that this faculty member might have come to a different conclusion if he went through all the criteria he had listed, but I'm afraid that I also found the Shockwave piece slow to load and difficult to navigate, and I'm accustomed to reading online hypertext and finding it of value to my own thinking.

Next up moderator and Kairos editor Cheryl Ball gave a presentation on "New Media Scholarship: Taxonomies, Heuristics & Strategies to Connect (?) Authors, Editors, Departments, & Tenure Committees." Ball is an advocate for what she calls a "digital tenure binder," and her talk moved through several examples of heuristics designed to foster understanding of what constitutes quality in digital work. Ball covered the visual rhetoric heuristic of Kristen Arola, which included terms for a rhetorical reading, such as "audience," "purpose," "context," "emphasis," "arrangement," "proximity," "organization," etc. She also reviewed Jim Kalmbach's 2006 "Types of Hypertexts in Kairos," a list that commends my own piece on the rhetoric of September 11th, which now looks like a very dated model to me by Arola's criteria. Although Steve Anderson's 2007 list from "Regeneration: Multimedia Genres and Emerging Scholarship" may emphasize the cinematic in ways difficult for scholars of written composition to emulate, Ball asserted that it still represents useful "argumentative" and "essayistic" categories of discourse relevant to writing faculty. Ball also discussed Alison Warner's "Constructing a Tool for Evaluating Scholarly Webtexts" and its influence on the "Suggested Guidelines for Online Publications" from "Best Practices for Online Journal Editors" from the Council of Editors of Learned Journals (CELJ), which accounts for different audiences and the desire for content about both institutional affiliations and expertise in web design. Finally, Ball looked back to the late Ernest L. Boyer's Scholarship Reconsidered: Priorities of the Professoriate (1990) to explain her own recently premiered "Digital Scholarship Axes," which I have reproduced below. (Thanks to "genevieve is" for the image.)

Virginia Kuhn's talk on "revising new media (or “huh, it’s finished!”)" also raised a number of salient issues about how digital works are read and valued in the academy. As Ball pointed out, Kuhn has been an author of her own heuristic in her contribution to the Kairos Manifesto Issue, "The Components of Scholarly Multimedia," which includes "conceptual core," "research component," "form//content," and "creative realization" as critical elements. In her presentation, Kuhn talked about the practical difficulties involved in creating a "Gallery" for the 2006 Conference on College Composition and Communication, which appeared in Kairos as "From Gallery to Webtext." Kuhn examined nuts-and-bolts issues that included compression, Mac/PC compatibility, and conveying an impression of uniformity with such a range of experimental texts. As her talk title indicated, this was also about the material challenges of revision when working with new media. She detailed some of the technical difficulties in bringing text, sound, image, and video together in Victor Vitanza's "Writing the Tic," Tim Richardson's "Bereshith," and Byron Hawk's "Rhetoric of Revolution" for the web. Kuhn also discussed the work of her own students at USC, including Evan Bregman, creator of "Immersive Flow: Narrative Through Interactivity."

Many of Kuhn's USC students, including Bregman, used the Sophie reader and authoring system to create large-scale multimodal works. Sophie is the free and open software that many see as a logical successor to Bob Stein's earlier TK3 Reader.

During the question-and-answer session, audience members discussed issues about access, particularly in light of prominent protests about "anti-publishing" by closed online journals, such as Nick Montfort's "Digital Media, Games, and Open Access" and danah boyd's "open-access is the future: boycott locked-down academic journals." Some in the audience claimed that writing faculty find themselves in a strange double-bind, in that open access work that is available free of charge is frequently devalued, and -- at the same time -- work creating textbooks is similarly shunned, ironically because it is seen as too personally lucrative to merit credit as scholarly research done for academic promotion.

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Blogger Cheryl said...

Liz, I forgot to thank you during the summer rush, but thanks for blogging about our C&W session. It's nice to have a recap to point to, and I think you summed up the session quite nicely.

3:38 PM  

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