Writing for ourselves

As this research project progresses I keep coming back to the question “who are we writing for?”. Clearly there are a lot of different answers to this question, but I have been quite surprised to hear how few academics I speak with actually want their work to be shared publicly. For many academic writing isn’t meant to be read broadly – it is written with a specific audience [supervisors, tenure promotion committees] as a kind of rite of passage as opposed to an act of sharing knowledge.

This came up again during a recent seminar hosted by the Media Anthropology Network. I didn’t follow the seminar closely enough to summarize it here, but what struck me was the response to a suggestion to make a Youtube video to publicize the project being discussed. The response to this suggestion was quite dismissive -

“Contrary to David’s opinion I find Michael Wesch’s Youtube work
to be slick, superficial.  He is too much like a second rate McLuhan. As to his suggestion that I “prepare a youtube version of at least part of the Oak Park project – that way it can engage and interact with a whole other audience.” I actually cringe at the idea.  What little I know about YouTube is that consists mainly of stupid pet tricks, stupid human tricks and million of really really bad rock bands.  I know there are some really interesting clips and that some of Rouch’s films are available there but the “whole other audience” that David alludes to consists mainly of 15 year olds and that is not exactly who I had in mind as a new audience. Perhaps I am showing my age but too much of the material available on YouTube is too adolescent for my tastes. Before I retired I even thought the undergrads I taught had values that I abhorred.  God knows what the people who love stupid pet tricks would do with my work?  I prefer not to know.”

So here we have a perfect example of the kind of academics who simply do not want to share their work with a broader public (although the project does have a website even with his dislike of the youtube audience). For them anthropological productions are a very specific, specialized form of knowledge which are of interest only to a select group of academics.

The point I want to make is that anthropology journals are not “failing” to get ideas out there, since many authors simply do not want to share them in such a public fashion. The “pay to access” model works very well for many academics who want to filter out members of the public, or for those who see anthropological writing as being of little interest to anyone but other anthropologists.

The Media Anthropology Network’s mailing list provides a place for academics with specific interests to share ideas and argue with each other with less public feedback than say, a blog post. It’s fascinating to compare the kinds of discussions that take place given the increased amount of audience specialization.

The discussions are honest and extremely heated, and they are not anonymous. At the same time, a digest form of the discussion is made available online for anyone to read once the seminar finishes. I’m finding it really interesting to look at how audiences are managed in academic discussion.

random notes/tags -

[limited distribution is intentional]

[Is it rude to bring list serve discussions into the blogsphere? This post is not meant as an attack on the author, the quote is quite informative. Is it rude to leave his name out? This isn't plagiarism, you can follow the media anthro link to read the whole thing]

[it's not the publishers, it's the academics, who want to limit the audience - to some extent anyways]

[public engagement - necessary or not? For some yes, others no.]

[People love to attack Michael Wesch! And they keep missing out imho.]

[the quote really shouldn't be read alone, it comes out of a long discussion and the context is missing. ]

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10 responses to this post.

  1. Thanks for this! Especially the notes at the end.
    Addressing these first…
    Yes, anthros love to bash Wesch. I just can’t help but think that Wesch’s popularity is an important factor, there. Not that most people are jealous of his “celebrity status” (though I’m sure a few people are in fact jealous). But maybe because popularity and academic value are perceived as incompatible. Related to the “curmudgeon phase” I keep thinking about, there seems to be an impression that for someone to say something valuable in academia, it needs to be obscure.
    My personal perspective is that Wesch has been playing around with a few things and that what he put in public was the equivalent of somebody else’s lesson plans or course notes. But anthros evaluate his work as if it were meant as part of a magnum opus. They also focus on Wesch’s “more public” presentations, not on the Manitoba one (which seems much more explanatory than the rest).
    Non-anthros have in fact learnt a lot from Wesch. His popularity is “our” popularity. Regardless of what you think of the content of a particular video, response to Wesch’s work is having a beneficial effects in terms of exposure to some broad ethnographic concepts. In the range of people (trained as ethnographers or not) who contributed to people’s perception of ethnography, Wesch is closer to Margaret Mead than to Wade Davis and Jared Diamond.

    Blogging mailing-list messages. Tricky issue, which gets exactly to the centre of the broader issue you raise. I’ve done it myself, usually after asking for permission from every participant in the discussion. With a public mailing-list, the issue is a bit different. There’s still a preconception of relative privacy, even if the mailing-list messages are indexed by major search engines. Blogging those messages makes the public character of those lists into a matter for discussion. As for private mailing-lists, the “publication” of messages sets the conversation apart from the rest of the list’s activity.
    I’ve yet to get one of those transfers from mailing-list to blog as a smooth transition into an “ongoing conversation.”
    Obviously, the reverse is completely different. Posting a blog item to a mailing-list is common practise and often does result in true conversational engagement.
    What can I do, I’m a mailing-list fan.

    So, the broader issue… People want/need to control different spheres of potential conversation and these spheres can, in fact, be put on a private-public continuum (instead of the private/public dichotomy). IMHO, there’s a deep anthropological insight hiding in there. Somewhere.
    The comment you blog here is a rather “extreme” way to put it. There’s something in the tone which can make people react. But my guess is that the author isn’t that exclusive in approach to audiences. It might have been something of a knee-jerk reaction. Or, more likely, the result of negative experiences with YouTube.com specifically. We can assume parts of the context but we can’t tell from this message (one of the biggest problems in “exporting” mailing-list messages to blogs).
    If you think about it, we all have different conversational spheres. We all control the “privacy levels” when we talk/write. Many Facebook users have sophisticated ways to deal with those issues (contrary to what some Fb-naysayers have been assuming). But it’s also part of our daily lives.
    A few examples from a teaching life…
    When we lecture, most of us tend to assume that everything we say is on-record. Those of us who do lecturecasts (podcasts from lectures) are probably even more conscious of being on-record (because we’re actually recorded). But any lecture can and might be recorded by individual students, even if such a practise is explicitly forbidden in the syllabus.
    When we hold office hours, we typically want to have as much on-record as possible (to protect ourselves from manipulative students) while students mostly want what they say to remain off-record or at least relatively private. There’s even an assumption of something like the “X-client privilege,” even though the rules are a bit unclear. Something similar happens with private messages between student and teacher but, there, it’s easy for the teacher to keep a trace (“just in case”) without jeopardizing the “privileged” nature of the interaction.
    Without being “celebrities” by any means, many teachers live “public lives.” Some are interviewed by mainstream media, others are invited to public conferences, etc. Those of us who blog are able to create a “public persona” which may be slightly different from our “teaching persona.” Wesch’s case could be interesting, there. He almost achieved the type of Internet fame afforded a high school student playing with a light-saber. And he’s given several public presentations (the LoC one may be the best-known, recently, and it’s been used as “evidence against him”). He remains a teacher. And he probably does read a number of the things which are said about him. Those are all part of the same person’s life, but Wesch may have created a specific persona for public appearances and public criticism. If he had been active on WoW or SecondLife instead of YouTube, he might have created an “avatar” (in multiple senses of the word).
    Most full-time professors also need to preserve their academic standing. Not necessarily because they want to. But because there’s a tremendous amount of pressure on them to do so. This is actually one dimension of a teacher’s life which is advantageous to part-time faculty and other adjuncts. Though scores might be kept about academic activities, adjuncts are much less exposed to the effects of the academic rat-race than tenure-track faculty. So tenure-track faculty end up speaking less freely than teachers outside of the tenure system. What makes this especially ironic is that the main defence of the tenure system is based on a notion of “academic freedom.”

    Ah, well…

    Reply

  2. Great commentary here. It is interesting how we construct virtual walls & private rooms in the otherwise wide-open world of cyberspace. Most striking to me is that both of you have noted that people love to attack me (and I’m sure this is true because I know *I* would attack me if it weren’t me!), yet I almost never see the attacks. Most take place on mailing lists or in private e-mail chains that I am not a part of (though often somebody alerts me to it so I can enter the conversation). It seems that here would be evidence that not only do we not want to share our work with 15 year-old YouTubers, but sometimes we don’t even want to engage in dialogue with each other!

    Edmund Carpenter has noted that a change in media can make old realities frighteningly explicit. Maybe the web is now making it frighteningly explicit that anthros actually don’t want to talk with everybody, and sometimes don’t even want to talk to each other.

    More likely though it is just that *sometimes* we don’t want to talk publicly (as Alexandre mentions above.) The notion that we as authors might actually want to restrict access to our pubications has been an interest of mine for a long time. I think there is some merit to restricting access and having private or semi-private conversations. Even as we push for an increasingly public anthropology, many of us (including me) still see how useful it would be to have perfectly secure “closed-access” forums for professional access only. I know it sounds antithetical to almost everything we do, but there are times that we have sensitive or ethically complex information that is still of great value to the scholarly community but is not appropriate for the broader public.

    A semi-private conversation can also be useful to flesh out a few ideas before going fully public … and we’re lucky that digital communications offer us so many different possibilities to create these walls and rooms where we can have these kinds of discussions.

    Reply

  3. Thanks for the fantastic comments, I’ll be feeding this discussion into future interviews and I really appreciate your contributions!

    Reply

  4. [Spend a little time wrestling first-hand with how students misinterpret complex texts and perhaps this makes a little more sense.]

    [In principle expert knowledge should be transparent, in practice it has to be sequenced.]

    [Then there's the years of disciplinary hazing into specialized expertise and nitpicky critical thinking where we learn to be embarrassed about anything we say unless we've got fourteen references to back it up - chronic intellectual constipation best kept behind a closed door.]

    [There is also the ritual purity of the priesthood to consider.]

    Reply

  5. 8 days without power (in an American context) have left me a bit bleary but I think you are conflating a lot of points here. First, there can be important differences between academic discourse and teaching. These have nothing to do with secrecy or hostility. Carl’s point is spot on, here. I would repeat it but he said it beautifully.

    As a person who needs to teach intro classes around the clock, I would like to see a better bridge between academic discourse and teaching in anthropology. I remember in grad school my own adviser would not teach the intro course because she said it would be too hard! We had to hire adjuncts, instead.

    My own dialog with Wesch was spun as a defense of lecture versus technology but my original objections were based on other issues and they remain a concern. Anthropologists (rightly or wrongly) teach about “the other”. The greatest good I can do in this world is to get students to be able to understand the lived realities of other human beings. They know more about America and their own world of YouTube and Wikipedia and Facebook then most older faculty. They can use those as tools but, in the end, they are only engaging more with their own elite culture and technology when they do so. It is inward-looking discourse and I do not see that as compatible with anthropology, hence, the “resistance”. In short, there is no resistance to the “tools” but there is to the content and message.

    While we all may have reached the knowledge-sequencing required to deconstruct our own culture, the vast majority of undergraduates still can’t get out of an ethnocentric bias that is all-pervasive. They need discussion and dialog that specifically references that bias. I can find little on the WWW that addresses the critical thinking and analytical reasoning that can be explored in class discussion. My verdict is still out on whether that discussion can be effective in a posting format.

    Reply

  6. Owen,
    I do not know if you noticed that some anthropology blogs when they are naming or describing their blogs, some are using the word “academic” next to either the blog name or in the description part (about me, blog, project) section.I think understanding or observing how the blog is “constructed” in relationship to the word “academic” might lead you to some results on how anthropologists bloggers “conceptualize” the word academic and comparing to its usage when referring to any the restricted access for academic journals or work. What is the difference between academic anthropology blog and anthropology blog and then think how the former links to the restricted access ones.I hope this make sense!

    Reply

  7. Pamthropologist, thanks so much for clarifying once again your position. I really appreciate it and should have better presented our previous discussion in the post itself.

    Safaa, an interesting point that came up from the Fabian conference was his position that ethnography was not a profession, but rather a mode of inquiry. I’ll go over the recording of the talk and try to dig out the quotes relating to professionalism and ethnography, which might inform the question you are raising about anthropology blogs (public audience?) vs academic anthro blogs (inbred anthro audience?).

    I have turned my blog into an academic blog, trying to focus on questions relating to my research, and the response has been…. very academic. All the people who have commented on this site have been academics and anthropologists. So I’m really doing “anthropology in public” which is different than “public anthropology”. (some posts on this a while back here and on openanthropology.. i’ll try and track them down and link them here later).

    Reply

  8. Owen,
    I thought this comment from Max post clarifies my point further, Nirmala wrote:

    “You see, my blog was never intended to be an ‘academic’ blog but more of a travelog for family, friends and acquaintances”. “Now, I am considering shutting it down altogether”.

    http://openanthropology.wordpress.com/2008/09/23/a-world-upside-down-institutional-connections-of-anthropology-bloggers/#comments

    I like the point which you mentioned here Owen:
    Doing “anthropology in public” differs from “public anthropology”. You might like to write, whenever you got a chance, a short post how they differ.

    Reply

  9. Thanks Safaa for the excellent link! And btw, I had already started writing it based on your question and the posts you quote above by Nirmala.

    I’ll put on the coffee when I get back from dinner and post it up on anthsoc.com later tonight!

    Reply

  10. Here is another link Owen check it might inspire you with further ideas

    “Academic Blogging is a Must”

    http://tokerud.typepad.com/blog/2004/03/academic_bloggi.html

    Also, check what how Max wrote in his own blog in both his about section and about this project: How he situate himself in the blogging context:

    Here are two parts of what might be interesting to think about:

    “If you are looking for (safe) scholarly and “professional” blogging, you are bound to be disappointed here on many occasions, and you are best served by looking elsewhere if you are looking for material you would normally find in journals and academic texts”.

    Another part from Max about section:

    “While my “professional discipline” is anthropology, neither my occupation nor my discipline speak for me, and I can claim to speak for neither. I am not anthropology’s slave. I am not consumed by the discipline, and it takes no (dis)credit for anything I say or do. Likewise, when I write here it is not always or even often that I write “as an anthropologist,” in the disciplinary, institutional sense”

    http://openanthropology.wordpress.com/about-the-blogger/

    Now my questions here are:

    What is meant by “professional blogging”? Could a anthropology blog be a professional one and not academic? what is the link between academic and professional in the blogging context?

    Also, it would be interesting to see how the word “professional” and “academic” are being used; where “context” title, description and about section, who is using them and why each of them is being used?In other words,what is the function of each of them?How anthropologists understand them and how and why they are using them?(to stress on what?)

    Last point, does it mean writing one’s university name mean that he or she is an academic? This lead us to think about the agency of the university as well and if this anthropologist represent the university or not…

    Sorry for the long comment, but I hope it might help.

    Reply

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