Monday, January 09, 2012

The Best MLA is the One I Didn't Attend: Tweeting the Conference

by J J Cohen

Because I'm on fellowship leave, and because I'm committed to an extraordinary amount of travel in the semester ahead, I didn't attend the recent MLA conference in Seattle. I followed the event at a distance through friends on FB and the occasional text message or phone chat. I know a few people who are on the job market, and a delegation of GW English faculty were conducting interviews for our Romanticist position. And maybe that says it: the MLA convention is easy shorthand for the US academic hiring process in literature, since in hotel rooms at that conference most of the interviewing is undertaken.

This year, though, I also experienced the unfolding of the meeting via Twitter (hashtag #MLA12). You know already from Eileen how much Twitter can offer the plugged-in scholar; MLA 12, though, seemed crowdsourced. Most of those who tweeted from sessions are Digital Humanities scholars -- a field in which I participate (you're reading this on a blog, after all), but without knowing enough about its contours. So it was illuminating to hear quick takes on panel presentations that outline some of the issues currently being discussed, everything from e-lit to digital editions to the labor conditions hidden by our assumption that technology comes to hand without human expenditure. Digital humanities were so prominent at MLA that they also received the predictable backlash: that DH is the next fad (as if feminism or critical race studies were fads rather than enduring transformations to our scholarly modes), or that DH is parvenu (as if it didn't have a history that goes back decades, and as if it didn't have deep roots in the technologies and study of the distant past). Intriguing, too, to see via Twitter video game theorists alongside those who study Shakespeare's plays, so that arguments about quarto and Folio versions of Lear resonated with the phenomenology of objects in electronic worlds. Some of the accounts I followed: Sarah Werner, Rosemary Feal, Kathleen Fitzpatrick, Matt Thomas, Ryan Cordell, Ian Bogost, Stacey Donohue, George Online, New Faculty Majority, Doug Armato, Mark Sample, Dan Cohen, MLA Convention, Erin Templeton. That's a quick sampling.

Tweeting a conference creates a more embodied space for scholarship to transpire within. One scholar reported as her plane was delayed multiple times and she wondered if she'd ever make it to Seattle (and admit I was relieved when she did arrive; it was a nail biter), another noted the preponderance of black while wearing her own orange sweater. Tweets often surveyed the room and told us the gender breakdown at specific sessions. Sometimes speakers were chided for taking too long, squeezing out those who came after them or disallowing conversation. Most focused on the substance of the presentations, offering tantalizing insight into large, exciting projects (and yes, a talented writer can convey revelatory information in 140 characters). Some people, I know, like their knowledge to arrive without such context; I look to journals for such disembodied delivery systems. Scholarship unfolds in a world, and I like to experience what I can of that complicated unfolding. It deepens my understanding of how knowledge works, and increases the likelihood that I'll retain what I've learned.

One of the most provocative tweets came from Elaine Treherne, who was likewise following the conference:
Is tweeting all the main points of an unpublished conference paper really ethical? Has permission been sought from the speaker, I wonder?
I wonder about this situation as well. Is one required to seek permission before reporting on a speaker's presentation via twitter or a blog? Or is a presentation inherently public, reportable (with proper attribution, etc)? Those tweeting the DH sessions didn't worry. What's happened, I think, is that a conference is no longer considered a closed or private space where you impart an argument in its almost-article form, just before you publish a citable (and non-dialogic) version within the cement of a paper journal. Despite the fact that someone will check your nametag at the door to ensure you've registered if you want to sit at session, conferences in the digital age have become networked, public forums with potentially immediate and wide impact. That is especially true in digital humanities, which embraces that flow of information in subjective and multiple forms. Relatively few of the sessions on more tradition topics were tweeted.

Delegate assemblies and governance meetings did get some coverage, though. Rosemary Feal did an impressive job of disseminating information about them. As executive director of the MLA, she has rendered the organization's workings transparent via her frequent use of twitter. Her electronic outreach matters, and has often been aimed towards those who are young in the field and those who are not traditional TT faculty. The MLA that Feal conveys is a much more welcoming one than those who know the organization only thorough the conference, and the conference only through the interview process. This year I was happy to witness its diverse and vivacious other side, the reason MLA actually exists -- a witnessing that confirmed for me that those working in DH are leading the field in promising new directions.


Bradley Stabler said...

Tweeting this article.

ET said...

Morning! I quite agree that when one delivers a conference paper, the paper and its contents enter the public domain, but it is a time- and context-bound domain, to an extent. And isn't there an understanding, a professional contract if you like, that an orally delivered paper's findings belong to its author? Twitter is effectively contextless--a entirely unknown audience--and takes 'open access' to extremes. Perhaps there should be an overarching statement, an explicit understanding at colloquia, symposia and conferences, that all and any papers presented are potentially subject to rewriting through tweeting or recording or blogging, and that permission is implicitly given by the presenter, unless otherwise stated. (Ultimately, I don't suppose it matters a jot, but we might want to revisit our professional code of conduct in the light of new media.)

Lucia said...

Quoting ET, above: "I quite agree that when one delivers a conference paper, the paper and its contents enter the public domain, but it is a time- and context-bound domain, to an extent."

YES. There are, of course, conference papers that are simply abbreviated versions of almost-finished articles (or dissertation chapters) and in that case, I wouldn't be too worried about Twitter. The speaker already has a firm command of the material, and even if someone on Twitter feels inspired to pursue a similar line of thought, it is unlikely that they will publish anything on that topic before the speaker does. But what about the papers that are more tentative and new? I have heard some fantastic papers that were nothing more than the speaker getting excited about a new idea and looking for immediate feedback from an informed audience of peers. Sure, opening it up to Twitter enables more people to give feedback, but more feedback doesn't always equal better (or more constructive) feedback, especially when that feedback is limited to 140 characters. And what about new scholars? I am certainly glad that Twitter and Facebook were not around when I presented at my first conference. Why give someone more reasons to be nervous about presenting their scholarship for the first time? (n.b. the idea of presenting for the "first time," I think, can apply to senior scholars embarking on a new project just as well as it can apply to grad students presenting at their first conference.)

That said, the "explicit understanding" ET describes is probably where we're headed (if we aren't already there). I don't see how you could stop people from tweeting about conference papers. Even if you ask them not to do it during the session, you can't stop someone from posting after the session has ended. And I do like the idea of people tweeting/posting about the conference more broadly (gender dynamics, "fashion," conference themes and trends, etc.). So I guess it's a mixed blessing. For now, I can just be glad that there are still plenty of panels (and conferences) where the Twitter contingent is nowhere to be found.

Eileen Joy said...

I have no problem agreeing with ET that revisiting professional codes of conduct under the aegis of new media is a good idea. I myself have always asked permission to live-tweet and live-blog conference sessions, and after learning that some people were made uncomfortable when I did not ask far enough in advance, I now always ask way ahead of time [i.e., way before the conference actually happens]. For BABEL-related conference sessions and symposia, I have turned to podcasting, as a way to record and archive and make freely available the content of BABEL events for those who cannot be there and also for those who may want to use the materials in their scholarship [and this way there is no chance of altering what people originally said], and again, I always seek permission in advance. Let's try to remember, too, that one of the advantages of blogging or tweeting a conference session is not necessarily to just broadcast that session into the general ether where anyone might poach and/or use and/or misinterpret it, but rather is done as a service to all of the people in our narrowly-defined profession [medieval studies] who cannot always be at every conference, especially given current economic circumstances. So, while orally-delivered papers, as ET rightly suggests, may "belong" to the author, anyone who shows up at a conference to deliver a paper, to an audience of 2 or 20, has already implicitly agreed to share that work, and to air it publicly, however "under construction" it may be. I agree with ET that further "sharing" of that work is "potentially subject to rewriting" and that permission should be sought to do so [where possible] -- that is just a matter of courtesy, or "professional conduct," as ET says, on one level -- but in the spirit, at the same time, of the open-access movement, of which I am admittedly a proponent, I believe that we should work toward making our field more and not less accessible, to each other [after all, when can we ever *all* be together in one physical space?] and to a larger public, with the understanding that the *sharing* of the writing & speaking each one of us offers to each other and to that larger public should be conducted with some caution regarding the possible alteration or improper poaching of others' thought and work. But this can also only happen when we all, perhaps, make a stronger commitment [an important commitment, in my mind] to engaging with each others' ideas and writings more often and in more public and transparent venues.

I think what I'm partly trying to say here is: sure, we should have professional courtesy, we should work hard to ensure that everyone's intellectual property rights are protected [however you want to define those], and to follow afarber, we certainly shouldn't go out of our way to make people nervous or vulnerable when they are airing tenuously new ideas, but when I consider all of the ways in which new media have increased what I would call the collaborative thinking power of our field, as well as lessened the institutional and other types of loneliness and professional isolation that I really believe have been endemic in our field for a long time, it is hard for me [it's just me, granted] to fret over something like the "contextlessness" of something like a Twitter MLA feed, especially because I personally want more and not less people paying attention to what is going on in the humanities, and from those "on the ground," so to speak, as opposed to hearing about what is supposedly happening in the humanities in the typically senile and woefully "out of it" opinion columns of the NY Times [Stanley Fish] and The Chronicle Review [where, increasingly, I would like to see all of the regular pundits fired and replaced with graduate students].

[to be continued]

Eileen Joy said...


Again, I would just say that I agree with ET about agreeing on some ground-rule, professional conduct protocols, while I am also hoping we might take the opportunity of ET's and afarber's remarks to consider how we might like to further define the domain and reach of our thought and work. Intellectual property -- who owns it, what are its protections, what is its value? etc. -- especially these days, is something we all need to spend some more time thinking about, and we will [although I also want to pose the provocative questions: why "property"? what makes some knowledge belong to singular individuals and not to collaboratives, asymmetrical or otherwise? what are the dangers inherent in the partial "ownership" of knowledge? do ideas really "belong" to any one person? etc.], but we also need to work a little harder, I think, to be a bit braver about entering into more processural, transparent forms of scholarship whereby we could all maybe benefit from being privy to MORE of what each of us is reading and thinking about at any given moment. I guess I'm very taken by the idea of a hive sentience/networked domain of scholarly thought [while at the same time, of course I would devote myself to also safeguarding the right of some to work more solitarily and apart from others, if that's what they desire, and after, all, you never know from what routes the best ideas may come], and therefore, I'd like us to better highlight the *always* tentative nature of thought, and to feel more secure in articulating that. I think both ET and afarber are right to point out the possible abuses inherent in someone live-twittering what someone else is saying at a conference -- after all, being misconstrued or taken out of context is a genuine possiblity -- but at the same time, we should be so lucky that so many people beyond the small conference room should or might care at all about Staffordshire hoards or literary studies. How many times have you given a paper and wished there were more than 4-5 people in the room or that you were anywhere in the world besides that sterile meeting room with its industrial carpet and plastic wall sconces and no windows? I don't want to be misquoted, but I do want an audience, even more so, a community that exists beyond the conference venue yet is also there with me in that same venue. New media make that possible and we're smart enough to make it as richly contextual as we need it to be.

Helen Smith said...

I think this is fascinating, and if my comments below are provocative, it’s because I think digital media offer lots of possibilities and it’s great to see those possibilities being debated. And I enjoyed many of the tweets and tweeters from recent conferences. A handful of points:
- Is live-tweeting a conference paper really inclusive, or is it just another way of being exclusive? I struggle to believe that many members of the (mythical) ‘general public’ will find themselves drawn into an obscure or difficult field by 140-character snapshots from designedly ephemeral papers. Many of the conference tweets I saw were for a very particular, and still narrow, audience (not that that’s necessarily a problem, but let’s not pretend it’s something it isn’t). Some appeared to be only for a very small group all attending the same sessions and tweeting together in a peculiar Digital Humanities bonding ritual.
- Is there a difference between taking notes (ostensibly private, though admittedly I show my scribbling to the person next to me when I feel strongly) and tweeting? For most people twitter is, at least in part, a tool of self-presentation, so the note to help you formulate a question or follow up a reference or idea gets transformed into a gnomic summary (so elegant you’ve missed the next three paragraphs of the presentation).
- Couldn’t we be more innovative? The twitter lecture is a fabulous idea. How about panels where tweets are displayed next to the speaker or at question time? Or (given that I always struggle to formulate my question until long after the paper) using twitter for a post-talk conversation?
- As ET says, it’s fun to use conference papers as a way to test ideas. And while twitter may be one way of getting a response (though only if it’s directed @thepersonwho’sspeaking), a thoughtful comment or conversation is surely better when it comes to actually changing what people are saying or thinking. So many collaborative technologies seem to me a way of showcasing the individual rather than finding a way of creating a new voice through talking together.

Katherine Rowe said...

These are issues we are going to be spending some time with over the next few years, I think, because they reach into so many of our scholarly practices (undergraduates tweeting a lecture? seminar participants tweeting their weekly discussions?).

A few thoughts to add to the conversation:

• When the MLA Ad Hoc Committee on the Annual Convention began to take a serious look at the convention five years ago, the expansion of the program that Jeff describes, beyond the defined days of the meeting, was a key recommendation of our group. As an organization, the MLA has a deep commitment to making the intellectual exchanges that take place at the conference as accessible as possible. We can continue think systematically about how the MLA's IT infrastructure might answer some of the issues raised in the comments above. Might tweets from a session feed to the annotations field for that session on the electronic program, for example? Archiving audience reception of the talks in this way might redress some of the negative effects of context collapse as a constitutive feature of social networking. And it would make them further accessible for a non-Twitter audience.

• One audience for whom such tweets can be profoundly important is the next generation of scholars. We have a compelling interest, I think, in any change in practice that fosters the connection of young intellectuals to our fields. Here's one anecdotal data point to consider in this regard. Last year, for the first time in my career, an undergraduate told me she desperately wanted to go to the MLA convention. This student was deeply engaged with DH questions and had followed the Twitter feeds from many of the scholars Jeff names. She found their collective thinking out loud -- and the window into conversation about topics she was working on out here, on a small suburban campus -- galvanizing. This year, now graduated and employed in an alt-ac position, she made it to Seattle for the conference. Think about it: when was the last time one of your undergraduates became really excited about following a developing conversation in your field?

• Ground rules for Tweeting academic events make a lot of sense and can be established via a brief discussion among participants at the outset. The organizers launched the pre-convention workshop on evaluating digital scholarship at reappointment this way. It's a practice I learned at the Scholarly Communication Institute a few years ago. Our impetus there was Bethany Nowviskie's seminal post on this topic at (HTML refs aren't working in blogger for some reason!).

• What we need to work on, I think, are citation practices and techne adequate to these new platforms of scholarly communication. We have yet to develop robust citation technologies, beyond hyperlinking a whole page; yet technologies such as Twitter provide the opportunity to cite more, rather than less.

Jen Rajchel brilliantly articulates in her HASTAC blog the benefits of embracing that challenge. (See Describing the Twitter groundrules for citation that developed at a conference she organized she concludes,

"By making the commitment to attribute quotes to one another [on Twitter], the level of investment in my own contribution shifted (and --as it seemed to me -- so did the investment of others). Citation became new type of currency in the larger exchange of our dialogue. There was sense of respect both for individual contribution as well as its capacity to generate insights from the larger group."

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Don't know why Kathy couldn't leave working links, but here they are:

Bethany Nowviskie's seminal post

Jen Rajchel's HASTAC blog

Mark said...

The controversy about tweeting MLA talks is somewhat strange coming from a science background, where conferences have long been considered public. It's not a recent Twitter phenomenon: journalists show up to physics conferences and poster sessions and write news articles based on them!

Holly Crocker said...

Thanks for the interesting discussion, everyone. At the "Chaucer's Futures" panel on Friday, Heather Blatt spoke about open reviewing, blogging, and post-publication responses in compelling and interesting ways (in connection with Chaucer and Lydgate). In advocating more open forms of circulation of developing and finished work, however, she raised a caution that I wonder if you all might be able to speak to: apparently (and I'd never thought about this), some people are worried that making work too "public" reduces its viability for publication. If the ideas are already out there--on a blog, a series of tweets, or even proQuest--publishers worry that it is already "published." Some dissertation advisers and early-career mentors, reportedly, are therefore cautioning younger scholars against making their work available in ways that might endanger its chances of publication. What do those of you working in this area think about the dangers of pre-print publicity for developing work--is it risky to post whole papers, dissertations, etc.? When does a work become "published"?

[And Heather, if you are out there reading this, please chime in--I was listening while preparing to deliver my own remarks, so I'm sure my version of your paper is imperfect at best].

Jeffrey Cohen said...

This blog post by Kathleen Fitzpatrick touches upon MANY of the issues we have been discussing here. EG:

"The horror that greets the idea of taking a blog seriously as a locus of scholarly writing – or even more, the idea of taking Twitter seriously as a form of scholarly communication – reveals a serious misunderstanding of the nature of those forms: what they are, and what can be done with them. The standard dismissal of Twitter as a scholarly tool suggests that no serious argument can be made in 140 characters, and there’s of course a real truth to that. But that dismissal betrays a failure to engage with the ways that scholars actually use Twitter today, and the things that can be done in those 140 characters: scholars share links to longer pieces of writing; engage in complex conversations in real time, with many colleagues, over multiple tweets; and more than anything, perhaps, they build a sense of community. This community is ready with congratulations and sympathy, and is eager to share jokes and memes, but it’s also ready to debate, to discuss, to disagree. More than anything, it’s ready to read – it’s not just a community of friends but a community of scholars, an audience for the longer work in which its members are engaged."

Eileen Joy said...

All of the further comments here are really rich and provocative; a few further thoughts of my own in relation to those:

--to Helen Smith's comment that tweeting can be exclusive, perhaps more so than inclusive, is a point I had initially thought of commenting upon as well, and she is probably right to point out that sometimes it appears or feels like a group of persons [often sharing a designated hash-tag], affiliated in some way, are having a private conversation with each other, but Katherine Rowe is also right to point out that, nevertheless, there are also persons listening in on those conversations, which on Twitter are inherently "open" to anyone who wants to follow a particular individual or organization [like HASTAC or Franklin Humanities Institute or Open Humanities Press or any other larger group or institution who maintains a Twitter feed]. Those having what appear to be an exclusive conversation are, in some cases, Twitter "intimates," but they use Twitter primarily because they want to make their conversations public. As some Twitterers get to know each other really well, via Twitter and other means, there will be tweets that sometimes seem, and are, in-jokes and in-chatter, but that's never the *only* thing that's going on between a group of Twitterers that faithfully follow each other because of common scholarly and other interests [and again, they make their exchanges open on purpose, and often, hell, they're not that interesting!].

Having said all of that, I think Helen makes some EXCELLENT points, which Katherine follows up on, regarding how we can make the use of Twitter more structured, directed, and more broadly inclusive and even pragmatic with regard to something like the conference session. Having recently undertaken a Twitter University lecture, I can tell you that it's amazing what can be accomplished in a series of 140-character tweets that are well-structured and thought out in advance and that are plugged in to a structured, timed broader conversation/dialogue.

I couldn't agree MORE with Katherine about Twitter as a tool that allows to cite more and not less. I use Twitter feeds for postmedieval, BABEL Working Group, punctum books, O-Zone Journal, my own personal feed, etc. to constantly and practically daily provide cites and links to others' work, such as the audiofiles of the late lectures by Foucault that were recently made available or to direct my/our followers to recent work, blog posts, publications, etc. of work that I think needs as large an audience as possible. This was never possible --at such a rate/speed, anyway -- before blogs, FB, and Twitter.

Eileen Joy said...

Relative to Holly's recent comment, this is a concern I have heard aired multiple times, and I worry about young scholars being given such advice--I'd like to meet the journal editor who wouldn't publish an article by someone [grad. student or otherwise] who apparently tweeted or blogged a draft of it first. If they exist [and I don't doubt there *may* be some who do], I would aver they are in the minority and a shrinking one at that. How, we might ask ourselves, is blogging a draft of a paper different from presenting a version at a conference? Both are pre-publication "drafts." I know there are always security issues--i.e. a tenured professor may feel more confident about doing this than a graduate student or early career researcher, who is more vulnerable, career-wise.

BUT, having said all of that, the answer to this still-important question from Holly, like many things these days having to do with the digital humanities, comes from Kathleen Fitzpatrick and her book "Planned Obsolescence." Now, I know this is a bit radical [although I'm personally for it], but we really need to start shifting our definition of what we think "publication" is and stop thinking in terms of pre-publication and "final" publication, with "publication" here standing for the conventional printed article and printed book. I say this because, following Fitzpatrick, I think we need to expand our definition of what "publication" is and say something like, the blog post is *already* a legitimate publication, and other sorts of writing online are, technically [for all of their status of representing thinking still "in flux" and "not finished"--but when is anything NOT "in flux" and "not finished"?], already "published," which is why Fitzpatrick, anyway, argues for expanded [and perhaps "new"] post-publication review processes [which will be strenuous, to be sure, and depend on the commitment of many to what is already a gift economy]. Of course we don't give up on the printed article or printed book, either, or the conventional print journal [which might also have a online presence], but we EXPAND the domain of what constitutes academic publication and we set ourselves to the very hard and rigorous task of how to assess all of this, with the hope that what we really want, at the end of the day, is simply more and not less thought.

Eileen Joy said...

Also, still following up on Holly's comments by way of Heather Blatt, and as someone [like Holly] who edits a scholarly journal and also runs a para-academic press that is invested in ALL possible "delivery" platforms, I think it would be very prudent of scholarly journal editors and directors and editors of scholarly presses to *want* to play an important role in the future(s) of digital publishing where the print journal and print book or e-journal and e-book might still represent one [but only one] important phase/imprimatur of one's scholarly production and therefore also of one's scholarly legitimation [career-wise], and also might be critical in what might be called the longer-term sustainability of one's work [because a press with a dedicated staff and editorial board and some long-term financial and institutional stability might be better at ensuring certain longer-term material forms of publication "presence" over the long haul, although in the end, everything really *is* ephemeral]. This is just my way of saying that, looking into the future, in addition to possibly embracing new technologies and platforms for scholarly writing and review of scholarly writing [which helps ALL of us to secure better career futures], we also have to dedicate ourselves to building institutes, presses, journals, and the like to which we dedicate our long-term careers, and for which we develop strategic plans for their future after we've "left the building," so to speak. To discuss and work on behalf of the so-called digital humanities, then, also means to work at institution building, and as collaboratively as possible.

Holly Crocker said...

It seems to me [and now I'm just taking off from Heather] that the situation described, where publishers avoid work that is already available in some electronic form, is an instance of taking blogging, tweeting, etc., *very seriously* as scholarship. In fact, it seems to take it so seriously that it "counts," at least in some sense, as already-published. What do we think of that possibility? Is this a symptom of success? Is it negative? What does it mean that digital scholarship might count as published in one venue (to traditional publishers), and not in another (to t&p committees, etc.?)? What do we tell young scholars?

I have to say that Heather's paper gave me another reason to be glad that I work on a journal that encourages both print and digital, pre- and post-publication feedback. With the recent "crowd-review," and the ongoing Forum (and here's a shameless plug: in a few short weeks we'll be launching a forum on digital scholarship in light of the crowd review, with open comments this time), *postmedieval* is providing safe, "officialized" (elegant word, no?) spaces where different digital contributions can be recognized. but what about other, less "sponsored" spaces? Where do we draw the line between "published" or "unpublished" work?

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Holly brings up a great point, and returns us to a topic that we have frequently discussed here at ITM.

The profit motive of many publishers (especially corporate publishers) is not compatible with the desires of scholars to have their work disseminated as widely as possible. Brepols, Palgrave, Ashgate and the like know that if they charge $100 per book they will make a nice sum for themselves even if they only sell 200 copies to libraries. The book will be locked away from anyone without access to a major research institution, but from the publisher's point of view: tant pis. These publishers COULD make digital versions easily and cheaply available, since hardbound volumes are essentially produced from etexts. They don't, though, because they have their formula worked out: enough libraries will buy the $100 material thing to keep them in the black.

Why do we keep this system in place, in which corporate profit is sustained by us having our own work locked away and out of reach? And, it isn't as if these publishers fairly pay for peer review; our volunteerism sustains them.

Aside from the suspect ethics of this model (to which I say: occupy publishing!), I'd also point out that the model is based on an erroneous assumption. Having a work available even as a free! open access!! download will not prevent some profit being earned on the hard copies, as outfits like Australia's have demonstrated repeatedly (and may punctum do the same).

I understand why publishers worry that too much work is already out there, and why they then hesitate to publish things that haven't been raised in a seclusion. Publishers can be as wrong as they'd like. But look at publications that succeed -- like not-for-profit U Minn Press and its success with Ian Bogost's work, much of which has appeared via twitter and his blog. Come on: getting work out through multiple channels is publicity that can only aid a scholarly project. We shouldn't convince ourselves that we need to write in cloisters and keep our books in noncirculating scriptoria.

You can tweet that.

Daniel Connell said...

Having tweeted during the convention (@DanConnell), I would say that rather than view the communication of the central ideas contained in a paper as an ethical issue, it should rather be seen as an opportunity for publicity. I don't think it's possible to perfectly illustrate an idea on Twitter (especially during a live feed - it just goes too quickly), so the medium serves as an advertisement for an academic's paper. Think about it this way: a combination of the people you mentioned could reach 1000s of Twitterers, all interested in a specific field. If the paper tweet-quoted becomes an article or a book, there is a ready-made, interested audience already there. I think that's a huge incentive for academics to really nail it at the MLA.

LanglandinSydney said...

Jeffrey--Brepols do make their journals and books available electronically. (I pointed this out too once when Karl said he wouldn't cite Viator and some others b/c it wasn't in E-form, but I did so weeks after a discussion on Exemplaria's FB page so I'm not sure anyone noticed.) FWIW. --Lawrence Warner

Jeffrey Cohen said...

From today's Chronicle: Twitter is Scholarship

Rosemary Feal said...

I appreciate your thoughts. I use Twitter for many reasons, but the principal one at the convention: to communicate with members. I've done everything on Twitter from advising candidates going to job interviews, helping someone with a hotel room charge, inviting anyone following Twitter to meet me for an informal chat (with wine!), cheering on a first-time presenter, etc. My goal is to make that 8,000 person convention more hospitable and enjoyable for those attending--and accessible to those following along at home. But as is often the case, I "get" more than I "give." I have met so many members I wouldn't know otherwise, and they help me understand (and run!) the MLA. They support me in my work and provide constant feedback.

Rosemary G. Feal
Executive Director

Jeffrey Cohen said...

And now, Ian Bogost.

i said...

"But what about the papers that are more tentative and new? I have heard some fantastic papers that were nothing more than the speaker getting excited about a new idea and looking for immediate feedback from an informed audience of peers. Sure, opening it up to Twitter enables more people to give feedback, but more feedback doesn't always equal better (or more constructive) feedback, especially when that feedback is limited to 140 characters."

As someone who regularly presents papers that are more at the "inspiration" stage than at the "conclusion" stage, this is precisely my concern. I'm not worried about people "stealing" my results, since I rarely have the kind of results one would steal, but I am worried about a safe space with limited scope for public embarrassment turning into one where my words would be transformed into tweetable units and broadcast. Also worrisome: if I say something that sounds dumb in a conference paper, I at least have a chance to clarify during the question period. That chance is taken away from me if someone else should choose to broadcast what I say, because they are effectively inserting me into a conversation that I'm not "in," if that makes any sense.

Also, as someone who has chosen not to use twitter, I would not gain any of the feedback that might be forthcoming. And even if I did want to tweet or follow tweets, since I don't want to spend my money on a "smart" device that would allow me to do so instantaneously, I would be shut out of the conversation in real time. And wouldn't it be reasonable for me to expect that since I'm attending a conference and presenting a paper, I might be able to participate in the discussion of my own paper?

Anonymous said...

Anonymous said...

I have many many thoughts on this, as you can imagine, but I'll try and be restrained. Most particularly I think about this question a lot:

Is one required to seek permission before reporting on a speaker's presentation via twitter or a blog? Or is a presentation inherently public, reportable (with proper attribution, etc)?

Since quite a lot of my blog is such seminar reports, I have had to worry about this. I used to take the view that a paper was public domain, that obviously presenting work already poses the miniscule danger of being scooped, if you're really too slow to finish before someone new to the project does so; but now I think differently. The reason is that I've had to work this out in connection with talking about my own research on the blog, and after a while it occurred to me that putting stuff online where it can easily be searched up probably constitutes prior art. That is, if I stall on a paper and blog about it, and then two years later I see there's a paper out about how the local population were complicit in the vicecomital take-over of Sant Pere de Casserres (to pick an example), actually, if I care enough, I can mail the editors and say, "hey, I wrote about that stuff in 2010-12 and here's proof". Similarly, assuming that people writing about other people's work are good enough at least to name the scholars, so it is for that work; anyone who cares to can search out that even if Y has published about this (and fast work Y!) actually X was saying it in the first decade of the twenty-first century etc. So in this sense I'm more with Daniel Connell here where he says:

rather than view the communication of the central ideas contained in a paper as an ethical issue, it should rather be seen as an opportunity for publicity.

That said, I still don't think like Eileen that:

we need to expand our definition of what "publication" is and say something like, the blog post is *already* a legitimate publication...

Not least for the economic infrastructure mechanism reasons Jeffrey points out, commercial publishing won't be abandoning filter-then-publish any time soon. That entails the continuation of peer review and maintaining continuous, rigorous peer review of a blog-like output just hasn't been cracked; who can we get to read the blogs of people whose work they don't like, every day? And without that, only positive reviews, so no filter even after publish.

Lastly, I have worried also about this:

some people are worried that making work too "public" reduces its viability for publication. If the ideas are already out there--on a blog, a series of tweets, or even proQuest--publishers worry that it is already "published."

It is certainly within the letter of many copyright agreements that prior Internet publication ought to bar something from publication under their terms (not least because they lose exclusivity on which their ability to make sales supposedly rests, and no, I don't think that's true either--as long as scholars stay affluent). But as Eileen says I can't think there are many publishers who'd let it worry them rather than seeing the online reception as evidence that there is an interested audience for such work. Rather, I'd expect it to be used as a beard for the rejection of work the editors didn't like for other reasons. But the simple way round it is not to put fully-worked up papers on your blog! Not least because online, for a general audience, we might want to be a touch more accessible (in my case, only a touch, but still). And this must apply still more to a Twittered version of a presentation, surely. (When we actually get to the point of printing academic tweets, call me back. It can't be far off...)

i said...

Jonathan, thank you for the thoughtful post -- but I will nitpick a little bit:

"Similarly, assuming that people writing about other people's work are good enough at least to name the scholars, so it is for that work; anyone who cares to can search out that even if Y has published about this (and fast work Y!) actually X was saying it in the first decade of the twenty-first century etc."

1. Does this mean that scholars are now responsible for all published blogs as part of their literature review/basic research? What about blogs or websites that have been deleted? If I'm doing a basic search on what's been said about my obscure little text, do I have to use the Wayback Machine to figure out everything everyone has written about it on the internet? What if I'm writing an essay on Chaucer? How about a not-so-popular tale, like the Squire's Tale? A search for 'Geoffrey Chaucer "The Squire's Tale"' gives me about 36,000 results on Google. What if there's a grad student with a not-linked-to blog who already made my point, but somewhere around rank 7000? Am I now "bad" because I don't cite him?

2. I would love to take a picture of my dean's face if I told him, "Well, I worked on this material off and on for four years, and put bits of it up on my blog, but someone else has published the journal article in the meantime so my argument is no longer a substantial enough contribution. But you can easily look on my blog at this 2008 entry -- I swear I haven't backdated it -- and see that I came up with the material first."

The funny thing is, as I wrote this post, I realised that I actually weirdly am in this situation. (I had completely forgotten!) I came up with an alternative solution to one of the Old English riddles -- more of an alternative second interpretation -- that I presented to small audiences in 2003 and 2004. Two senior Anglo-Saxonists have briefly mentioned this interpretation in print, in both cases carefully and generously citing me. (Those were my first appearances in print, and they actually made me inordinately happy.) I probably should have revised the paper into a note ages ago, but it's never really been a priority, and I now wonder if it's worth it anyway, given the fact that it's already available in two places, albeit without the supporting argument. I'm happy that most of my work is not easy to sum up in a single sentence, so I don't exactly live in fear of this happening with my book project, but what if, for example, I did work on riddles and spent the better part of a decade on what I thought were fresh and provocative interpretations, only to find that someone had put all my "results" on their blog? Or even in their print footnote?

Unknown said...

i consider myself a spy at the orgy, at best.

i just found your meta-squawks at the Twittergawkers highly entertaining.

as you know. 'cause i screencapped you and put it on Facebook.