The question is no longer whether graduate students and early-career scholars should engage with digital media. It’s how they find the right match between their goals and the available online outlets for their work.
That, at least, seemed to be the consensus at a recent roundtable on Public Writing and the Academy, in which I participated. The discussion took place in October at Ways of Knowing, the Annual Graduate Conference of Religion at Harvard Divinity School. It brought together a variety of early career scholars, each of us pursuing slightly different paths.
There was Leah Aronowsky of American Science, the blog of the Forum for the History of Science in America. The blog she edits exemplifies the potential of digital formats to define and enhance scholarly conversations, allowing academics to coalesce around a set of common interests and to share their work with the broader academic community. It is also, for Aronowsky, a way to try to “introduce historians to a set of literature they might not otherwise be engaging with,” particularly with respect to ethical issues.
Myrna Perez Sheldon, who edits Cosmologics, spoke passionately about the importance of bringing the fruits of scholarship before broad audiences. “The ideas that people have really do matter,” she explained. “My task as a historian is to show how complicated, and sometimes surprising and contingent, our ideas of what’s natural [can be].” This magazine pursues that mission by providing an outlet for academics to engage with contemporary issues.
Much the same impulses seem to have motivated Max Perry Mueller to help launch Religion & Politics, a web-based publication of the John C. Danforth Center at Washington University in St. Louis. He sought “to create an honest space…where multiple views can occur,” in the hope that those with different perspectives might engage with each other. Religion & Politics brings together a range of contributors, inside and outside the academy. It aims at a general audience, but also, he explained, seeks to provide “accessible scholarship to our students.”
I have tried to make my scholarship more transparent, linking readers back to my sources, and stressing the evolving process of historical interpretation.
My own writing for The Atlantic stems from the same essential imperative to take scholarship and render it accessible. In particular, I have tried to make my scholarship more transparent, linking readers back to my sources, and stressing the evolving process of historical interpretation. By performing the craft of history in a publication with the reach of The Atlantic, I hope to transform the way my readers understand the practice of scholarship.
So four early-career scholars, and four different approaches. And that, really, was the theme of the panel. There is no single best approach to digital media, but rather, a range of options. It falls to each of us to make the proper match between our purposes and the available forums. Or, to borrow a phrase from Professor Anne Harrington of Harvard’s History of Science Department, who chaired the panel, “What rooms do you want to walk into with your ideas?”
I cannot speak for the other panelists, much less our audience, but I think the explosion of digital media presents us with a threefold opportunity. First, to share our scholarship far more widely than any scholar would have dared dream a generation ago. Digital work is discoverable. It gets read, shared, and indexed. It reaches not just the audiences we intend, but also audiences we might never have expected. And it persists. In a year, or a decade, if an article published online remains relevant, it can still be accessed and read almost effortlessly.
The second opportunity is to reimagine the work of scholarship itself. That may involve publishing not just analysis, but also the data or sources on which it rests. Or it may be about convening new kinds of scholarly conversations. Perhaps it will mean more collaborative projects. Already, many scholars are experimenting with digital tools. It remains unclear which approaches will yield the richest dividends, but that only heightens the sense of excitement.
It is a chance to remember what drew us to the subjects we love, and to share that enthusiasm with others, in a very public manner.
The third, though, may be the most transformative of all. Digital media collapse the divide between scholars and their audiences. Some posts may never receive a single comment, but others will garner hundreds. A digital article may generate letters from scholars, but also from members of the general public. And although these interactions may prove complicated, they are also immensely valuable. The ease of digital communication speeds feedback, allowing us to incorporate it in a timely fashion. We can learn from each other, from our readers, and from their reactions to our work.
Alongside these opportunities there are also risks. It can be tempting to pursue an audience at the expense of rigor. The reach and permanence of digital publications can be transformed from a boon to a curse if we publish things we later regret. Pursued with too much enthusiasm, digital media can distract scholars from other responsibilities. And, perhaps most troublingly, digital publications can attract vociferous, or even vituperative, reactions.
The key, perhaps, is balance. Move purposefully into the digital sphere. Make certain that your contributions meet your own high standards and that they reflect well upon you. Select the outlets in which you publish with care. Remember that digital publications form just one part of your portfolio, and take time to hone other skills as well.
Even the prospect of conflict or controversy need not be a deterrent. “If the value that we imagine that we’re adding to society is a deep consideration of difficult and complex things, then it’s OK, it’s worth it,” Perez Sheldon explained on the panel, “because the alternative would be to hide.”
But bringing scholarship online is not only an ethical obligation. It is also enormous fun. It is a chance to remember what drew us to the subjects we love, and to share that enthusiasm with others, in a very public manner. I think every scholar has something important to say to the world. Digital media give us each the chance to say it. And that may be the best reason of all to take the plunge and engage our varied publics.
Yoni Appelbaum is a Lecturer in History and Literature at Harvard University, and a Correspondent for The Atlantic.
Image from Flickr via eflon