Performing the Scholarly Monograph in Contemporary Digital Culture

1.2 Methodology: Theoretical

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 To explore my own entanglement as a scholar in the material-discursive becoming of the book, I will follow a methodology of ‘critical praxis’ in this thesis, which is integral to its theoretical framework and an important part of the performative and interventionist approach that this study is arguing for. Part of the specific situatedness of this particular project resides with the fact that it is (a reflection on and performance of) a PhD thesis. Exactly why this is important with respect to the concept of critical praxis, as well as to the overarching topic of the potential futures of the book that this project wants to address, will be explained below. However, the fact that this chapter describes the theoretical and practical aspects of a methodology of ‘critical praxis’ under two different headings does not mean that I see the theoretical and practical aspects of this thesis as separate or even as separable. They are entangled from the start and I am only making a cut between the two here for the sake of clarity.

1.2.1 Scholarly Conformism

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 One of the narratives that comes to the fore quite often with a thesis, is that it is advisable to follow the safe route outlined by the rules and regulations of the thesis—relating to its format, content and appearance—and to only explore more experimental forms of research and publication after the degree has been awarded. Media theorist Kathleen Fitzpatrick promotes a different approach. In 2011 she wrote an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education entitled ‘Do “the Risky Thing” in Digital Humanities’. In this piece Fitzpatrick writes about advice given to a graduate student wanting to do a digital project for her final thesis. Instead of doing the safe thing and writing a traditional thesis, Fitzpatrick advised her to ‘do the risky thing’ instead, and to experiment and present her argument in an innovative way. At the same time, however, Fitzpatrick was careful to emphasise to the student the importance of making sure they had someone to cover their back. Fitzpatrick thus used her article in the Chronicle to make a strong plea for mentors and thesis supervisors to support experimental digital work (2011a).

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 My thesis can in many ways be seen as an expansion of Fitzpatrick’s argument. However, although I applaud her insistence on the importance of acquiring supervisory support when doing digital research, I will draw more attention to the responsibility and agency of PhD students themselves to, in Fitzpatrick’s words, ‘defend their experimental work’, and their ‘deviation from the road ordinarily travelled’. I will do so by looking at the reasoning that lies at the basis of critical scholarly work that embraces the digital, and I will apply this to formulate both a theoretical and practical methodology for my own digital doctoral project. I will outline below a theoretical argumentation as to how the choices we make during the course of our PhDs and the way we conduct our research, says a lot about the scholarly communication system we want and envision, and is incremental in shaping it. Drawing on Foucault and insights from cultural studies and critical literacy theory—both fields that actively incorporate elements of praxis and political action—I will argue that during the course of our PhDs, and in the process of creating a thesis, we are very much structured to produce a certain kind of knowledge and with that a certain kind of social identity. Developing critical and digital literacy through developing what I will call a ‘critical praxis’ can prevent us from simply repeating established practices, without critically analysing the assumptions upon which they are based. To enable us to remain critical of power structures and relations that shape knowledge, I will argue for the importance of PhD students to experiment with different forms of knowledge production as part of their research process. The practices we develop and embrace whilst doing work on our thesis have the capacity to transform the way we conduct scholarly communication. Through them, I will argue, we can struggle for and enable the kind of politics and ethics we feel our systems should embody and we can start to produce knowledge differently.

1.2.2 Developing a Critical Praxis

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 Producing a thesis in an experimental form—from using multimedia to enhance the text’s argument, to more advanced forms such as hypertextual or multi-format theses—or even using blogs and social media to develop further the argument of a print-on-paper thesis online, can be an important aspect of acquiring digital and critical literacy. For example, reflecting on studying for a PhD, historian Tanya Roth writes: ‘As digital tools and processes continue to offer larger benefits for [such] projects, it is increasingly important to make sure grad students understand what’s out there and how these resources and ideas can help them with their own research’ (2010). As Roth makes clear, this is not an either-or-situation where what are perceived as traditional skills, such as how to write a research paper, also need to be part of the curriculum.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 One of the reasons it is important when studying for a PhD to develop digital and critical literacy—which, I will argue, can be seen as a simultaneous process—is that it helps to develop and perhaps expand one’s research skills. More importantly, it presents an opportunity to rethink and analyse critically certain traditional skills and research practices that have become normalised or have become the dominant standard, both within humanities research and within the process of writing and conducting a humanities thesis. One could argue that the coming of a new medium offers us a gap, a moment within which—through our explorations of the new medium—dominant structures and practices become visible and we become aware of them more clearly. The discourse, institutions and practices that have come to surround our printed forms of communication and that we have grown accustomed to, have not only fortified certain politics and ethics that we need to be critical about, these politics and ethics are also being transported into the digital where our practices and institutions are being reproduced online.[14]

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 From that perspective, by using these new critical skills and tools we have the possibility to start performing our practices differently. By actively and critically trying out new (digital) tools and methodologies to see how they might fit the specific research project and/or argument that is being pursued, by performing the thesis in an experimental or alternative way and, as part of this, taking the digital as our object of research, graduate students may be able to develop what I call a critical praxis. Praxis here relates to the process of bringing ideas, ideologies or theories into practice. It refers to how theory is embodied in our practices. Critical praxis, then, refers to the awareness of, and critical reflection on, the way our ideas come to be embodied in our practices, making it possible to transform them. Being similar as a theoretical method to Foucault’s genealogy, critical praxis can be seen as a practical application of the same critical procedure and investigation. It refers to the institutional embeddedness of PhD students and the transformational agency of their practices. Praxis in this sense forces a link between practice and the political, where through self-critique we are able to reconstitute and reproduce ourselves and our social systems and relationships.

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 My exposition of the process of developing a critical praxis during the course of one’s PhD, draws on theories of critical, digital, and media literacy. The insights of critical pedagogue Henry Giroux are essential here. Following Giroux, cultural processes and power relations are seen as integrally connected in the shaping of our (educational) institutions. This takes place through the production of social identities, where certain values and knowledge systems help construct the production, reception and transformation of a particular kind of identity. For instance, structures and practices underlying knowledge production in a field enable a specific value system to emerge that (re)produces a specific kind of social identity, namely that of the PhD student and ultimately of the academic scholar. Importantly, however, for Giroux, a cultural politics and critical pedagogy ‘can be appropriated in order to teach students to be critical of dominant forms of authority, both within and outside of schools, that sanction what counts as theory, legitimate knowledge, put particular subject positions in place, and make specific claims on public memory’ (2000). Developing a literacy that expands ‘beyond the culture of the book’ is in this respect essential, Giroux claims. Not just to learn new skills and knowledge, but to be able to use these to both critically examine and analyse various (multimedia) texts and to produce these texts and technologies differently. Giroux thus sees literacy foremost as a critical discourse, as a precondition for agency and self-representation. Educators McLeod and Vasinda draw further on this when they argue that a critical literacy involving multiple media demands of us to expand the concept of text, where text can also include socio-cultural conditions and relationships (2008: 272). Hence developing critical praxis can be seen as a method to critically analyse the socio-cultural conditions and relationships that constitute academia and, on that basis, produce the PhD thesis (and by extension the PhD student), and ultimately the scholarly field and system in which it functions, differently.

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 That said, I do not envision that any critical praxis, including the particular kinds outlined here, can be used as a ‘normative method’ or a route map towards conducting a PhD in the digital age. The ‘reflection on the self’ as a social identity (as embedded within and entangled with the various material-discursive formations that co-constitute it) that my understanding of critical praxis envisions is in this respect highly situated and contextual. For this I draw on cultural studies scholar Handel Wright and the form of auto-ethnography he applies in his article ‘Cultural Studies as Practice’. For Wright, ‘doing cultural studies’ means most importantly an ‘intervention in institutional, socio-political and cultural arrangements, events and directions.’ He sees cultural studies as a form of ‘social justice praxis’, one that warns against theoreticism and that blurs the boundaries between the academy and the community. In his description of what ‘social justice praxis’ means or what it should do he chooses not to use a model-based, more prescriptive method, but follows a more modest approach, one in which he adopts Gregory Jay’s (2005) strategy of ‘taking multiculturalism personally’ to ‘taking cultural studies personally’, in order to advocate and explicate cultural studies praxis (Wright 2003: 809).

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 The examples of critical praxis that I mention here should thus not be seen as authoritative models of what a critical praxis should be, but only as illustrations and descriptions of what it could be within the context of a Humanities thesis. In this specific case the university, the process of studying for the PhD itself, and the thesis become the subject on which the critical praxis focuses. This is very much consistent with the stress Wright places on the importance of addressing one’s own practices and institutions as sites of critical praxis: ‘In addition, I want to reiterate that the university itself must not be overlooked as a site of praxis, a site where issues of difference, representation and social justice, and even what constitutes legitimate academic work are being contested’ (2003: 808).

1.2.3 The (Re)Production of the PhD Student

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 As stated above, critical praxis offers us an opportunity to actively rethink traditional skills and established research practices, and with that what is still perceived as the conventional or natural process of doing a PhD in the Humanities: creating a single-authored, static, print-based argument in long-form, which should ideally be of publishable standard. This perceived natural process of doing a PhD—which of course is anything but—can be seen as a product of certain dominant discourses that function to shape how a graduate student is to author a dissertation. As such, this established convention provides a road map to becoming a scholar in which the thesis serves as a model as to how to conduct research, and ultimately how to produce a scholarly monograph. Game Studies scholar Anastasia Salter reflects on this state of affairs, remarking that ‘the traditional dissertation as product reflects the dominance of the book: it creates a monograph that sits in a database. The processes of the Humanities are to some extent self-perpetuating: write essays as an undergraduate, conference papers as a graduate student, a dissertation as a doctoral student, and books and journal articles as a professor’ (2010).

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 The importance of being aware of and critiquing such dominant discourses, however, lies not only in exploring the tension between how the PhD and the PhD thesis reproduce ‘traditional scholars’, while they are at the same time supposed to be ‘the foundations of ‘new scholarship’, and as such are integral to the production of new thought and new scholars’, as political theorist Angelique Bletsas argues (2011: 9). It is important to be aware that these discourses relating to knowledge production during the PhD process also have, as Bletsas puts it, certain ‘subjectification effects’. She shows how the thesis is not only about finishing a static text but also about finishing as a person: as she puts it, the accepted thesis completes the student as a discoursing ‘subject’. In other words, the PhD student as a discoursing subject is being (re)produced in and by these dominant discourses; and with that, a certain kind of scholar, and a certain kind of scholarly communication system are also reproduced.

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 Alan O’Shea argued as far back as 1998 for the importance of cultural studies theorists to pay attention to their own institutional practices and pedagogies and the way knowledge is produced and disseminated therein, something he felt had been lacking up to then. O’Shea warns against the ‘tendencies towards self-reproduction’ in higher education, effects which are not pre-given but outcomes of specific struggles. As O’Shea points out, similar to Bletsas argument, ‘the practices in which we engage constitute us as particular kinds of subjects and exclude other kinds. The more routinised our practices, the more powerfully this closure works’ (1998: 515). O’Shea however warns not to overemphasize the extent of this closure, focusing on the many-sided complexity of the regimes of value underlying our educational institutions, where different regimes co-exist and overlap and people move between them. He conceptualises these regimes as ‘a field of contestations’, where we are always already positioned within certain institutions and practices: ‘The cultural critic is always-already positioned within institutions. To speak publicly at all you do not have to belong to a state institution, but you do have to operate within one set or another of ‘institutionalized’ codes and practices, with historically determinate modes of production, distribution and consumption’ (O’Shea 1998: 518).

1.2.4 Critical Praxis as Self-Assertion

13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 Drawing further on O’Shea and Bletsas, I will argue in this thesis that to change our institutions from within we should start by critically examining our own position and practices and how these are reproduced. At a time when digital projects are still perceived within the humanities as ‘risky’, developing a form of digital or multimedia literacy (including the related skills) in experimenting with these kind of digital projects or practices, can be positioned as a process that goes hand in hand with developing critical literacy in general. It provides graduate students with a means and an opportunity to critically rethink, through critical praxis, some of the dominant discourses and established notions—including their connected ethics and politics—concerning how to conduct a thesis, and with that, ultimately, how to write a scholarly monograph.

14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 Let me emphasise I am not claiming that critical praxis can only be achieved or learned through experimenting with digital projects, methods and tools. Rather, I am arguing that at this specific moment these tools and methods can be employed to trigger critique and rethink some of our established notions concerning scholarship and scholarly communication—including authorship, peer review, copyright, and the political economy surrounding scholarly publishing. What is more, this critical praxis should be applied just as much to digital methods and to how research is being carried out within the digital humanities, especially insofar as digital projects reproduce notions and values from the dominant, established discourses. Not all digital projects are inherently and necessary critical, experimental or even ‘risky’; they just have the potential to be so. Furthermore, I argue that acquiring digital literacy means acquiring various kinds of literacies, including ‘traditional’ print literacy. Media theorists Kellner and Share highlight the importance of developing forms of ‘multiple literacies’ as a response to dominant forms of literacy as they are socially constructed in educational and cultural practices and discourses. Multiple literacies, in the sense of media literacy, computer literacy, multimedia literacy and digital literacy, also include books, reading, and print literacy (Kellner and Share 2005: 370).

15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 0 As Bletsas points out, drawing on Foucault, there is ‘no standpoint in the field of knowledge production which is ‘innocent’ or outside of power relations’ (2011: 10). Bletsas describes the tension that you need to be formed by and comply with a certain discourse, before you can critique this discourse. Just as knowledge is inherently political, so I would claim that doing a PhD or writing a thesis is also a political act. The process of resisting being formed in a certain way is, for me, something that already starts during the period of studying for a PhD, this being a time when we begin to evaluate critically which of the values that get reproduced in scholarly communication we should cherish. The PhD can therefore be seen as an intervention in the production of knowledge, in which one adopts a position concerning the future of scholarly communication and tries to perform it differently.

16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 0 In order to maintain this position of the ‘interventionist potential’ of the PhD process, I will not theorise the closure of the dominant discourses within academia and the subjectification effects they have on social identities in an ‘overemphasized way’, as O’Shea puts it. Rather, I draw on Foucault’s later work in which he advances that the subject has to develop agency within subordinating systems. In Foucault’s words ‘individuals are the vehicles of power’, they reproduce power in a positive, productive way. However, they also have the ability to reproduce power in a different, creative way. Foucault scholar Eric Paras sums up these changes in Foucault’s work as follows: ‘The individual, no longer seen as the pure product of mechanisms of domination, appears as the complex result of an interaction between outside coercion and techniques of the self’ (2006: 94–95). Drawing upon the later Foucault, performing the PhD and one’s social identity as a student and scholar can be seen as no longer being a matter of self-defence but rather of self-assertion. As Paras states, becoming a subject is in Foucault’s later thought less ‘an affirmation of an identity than a propagation of a creative force’ (2006: 132). It is a creative effort rather than a defensive one. In this sense, Paras emphasises the potential in the later Foucault for the subject to reflect upon its own practices and to choose among and modify them following techniques of the self, those specific practices that enable subjects to constitute themselves both within and through systems of power.

17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 0 If we envision critical praxis as both a critical project and a creative, transforming and transformative one, part of this creative impulse lies in the potential to, as cultural studies scholar Ted Striphas calls it,perform scholarly communication differently—that is, without simply succumbing, in Judith Butler’s words, to “the compulsion to repeat”’ (Striphas 2011). He argues that the norms of scholarly communication that we perform today through a ‘routine set of practices’ were forged under historically specific circumstances—circumstances that might not apply in their entirety today. This triggers us to ask new questions about these practices and to start performing them differently, much more creatively and expansively (expanding our repertoire), Striphas adds, than we currently do, with the ultimate goal to ‘enhance the quality of our research and our ability to share it’ (2011).

18 Leave a comment on paragraph 18 0 Applying this to the course of a PhD means that, instead of envisioning doctoral students as being completely produced by the practices they reproduce and the knowledge systems that enforce them, we can see these practices and institutions not as constituting, but as shaping these students. However, this is not to underestimate the power these shaping practices and systems have. As we saw O’Shea argue above, the more repetitive they become, the more thorough and self-perpetuating this shaping-process also becomes (1998). Nonetheless, as students, and as academics, we have the potential to act creatively within these frameworks, to struggle for a more ethical and progressive knowledge system, performing scholarly communication differently. That being said, we should remember O’Shea’s critique of the idea of these (dominant) systems being monolithical. There is a complex power struggle taking place within academia for certain kinds of knowledges and knowledge systems. This struggle can be seen to revolve around having or obtaining the power to create the possibilities to transform the structures that will enable specific values to be produced. The digital, for instance, has the potential to promote a more progressive knowledge system based on values of sharing, openness to otherness, and collaboration; a system that struggles against institutional inertia and conservatism, and the perseverance of neoliberal market values in education. The kind of knowledge that can emerge from a more progressive system of this kind, I will argue, might be hard to realise if we keep reproducing our humanist and essentialist print-based practices within a digital environment, as these practices might not be able to promote these values to the fullest in an online setting. It is this struggle over the future of our scholarly communication system that I want to focus on in this thesis.

1.2.5 Re-envisioning our Research Practices

19 Leave a comment on paragraph 19 0 The natural PhD process together with the traditional PhD thesis, follows many of the elements of a paper-based and humanist view of scholarly communication, increasingly inhibiting potentially progressive practices and knowledges—such as I will outline in this thesis—to come to the fore. Consequently, what I am arguing for is a critical praxis that explores—and at the same time remains critical of—alternative practices and structures that promote values based on a politics of sharing, collaboration, (radical) openness and experimentation.

20 Leave a comment on paragraph 20 0 In order to establish where the importance of experimental digital work for humanities scholarship lies, we need to explore how we can use digital tools and technologies in a critical way to potentially enhance and improve our scholarship and our communication systems. Through the digital we have the opportunity to critically investigate the value of our established institutions and practices and, vice versa, critique gives us the potential means to analyse and transform the digital to make it adhere to a more progressive and open ethics and value system, one that remains critical of itself. In this respect, experimenting with open and online theses can be seen as the beginning of an exploration of what digital scholarship could look like. It is important to stress however, as cultural and media theorist Gary Hall has argued extensively, that in our experiments with the digital our ethics and politics should not be fixed from the start (2008). We need to leave room to explore our ethics and politics as part of our experiments or as part of the process of conducting a thesis.

21 Leave a comment on paragraph 21 0 Let me reiterate here that print-based communication is evenly capable of promoting more experimental and ethical forms of scholarly communication. Print is not the problem here, nor is digital the solution. What I am referring to when I write about ‘print-based forms of communication’, is the way print has been commodified and essentialised: through a discourse that prefers to see print as linear, bound and fixed (a work with an author); and through a system of material production within publishing and academia—which includes our institutions and practices of scholarly communication—that today certainly prefers quantifiable objects as auditable performance indicators. Even more, it is this ‘print-complex’, with its power structures and stakeholders, that is being increasingly supplanted in a digital environment while the book is being rethought as an object and commercial product within digital publishing. I also do not want to claim that the potential of the digital for collaboration and open forms of publishing will be a guaranteed outcome of ‘digital innovation’. Experimenting with new forms of communication is hard work, involving more than only the overcoming of technological barriers, where it entails a critical redesign of scholarship.

22 Leave a comment on paragraph 22 0 I therefore want to break down digital promises and utopias in this thesis while at the same time examining those aspects that might actually be exciting, experimental and perhaps more ethical in digital scholarship. I thus want to analyse digital publishing projects that explore what a new digital ethics and politics might entail, in an ongoing manner. In this respect I concur with Johanna Drucker, when she argues that: ‘we can’t rely on a purely technological salvation, building houses on the shifting sands of innovative digital platforms, with all the attendant myths and misconceptions. Which aspects of digital publishing are actually promising, useful, and/or usefully innovative for the near and long term?’ (2014b).

23 Leave a comment on paragraph 23 0 A critical praxis can trigger us to rethink institutions and practices that are at the moment still very much part of, and reproducing, an economics and politics based on a power structure that has been inherited from a print-based situation. Striphas similarly states that we need to move beyond the blind copying of print writing practices into digital environments, arguing instead for experimentation with the form, content and process of scholarly publication. There is no compelling reason, he claims, why we need to conform to paper-centric conventions in the online world when we can also explore and make better use of the interactive features the web offers to rethink the paper-based distribution and assessment methods we are repeating in the digital realm (Striphas 2010). However, a critical praxis not only serves to critique established notions of how to write a thesis within the humanities, to provide just one example. As an affirmative practice it also has the potential to develop new (digital) research practices and to experiment with new forms of politics and ethics as part of that—including, in this specific case, practices that experiment with sharing, openness, liquidity, and remix, as well as internally critiquing these as part of the research’s continuous development. Let me make clear however that with my emphasis on affirmative politics and practices throughout this thesis, I want to focus on the potential of power as a form of empowerment (potentia), where negative, reactionary politics can be operationalized into affirmative alternative practices. As Rosi Braidotti has argued, this does not mean a distancing from critique nor I would argue should it be perceived as an opposition between critique and praxis (2010).

24 Leave a comment on paragraph 24 0 Thinking back to the beginning of this section, and Fitzpatrick’s comment that doing a digital project in the humanities is still seen as a risky thing, we can say that this specific research project will encounter both tension and paradox. The paradox lies in the fact that to become an academic within the present system, we in many ways still have to adhere to the present structures, resulting in the tension described by Bletsas: how to conform to the rules, regulations and practices that one at the same time tries to critique and transform? However, following O’Shea and Striphas, as well as the later Foucault, I maintain that we are able to transform these practices from within our established structures. Nonetheless, as in any struggle focused on changing a system from within, compromises have to be made to deal with the tension between outside coercion and techniques of the self. That being said, I hope that the example of this thesis will show that by developing a critical praxis during the process of conducting a PhD, early career scholars can then continue to develop this further as their careers progress. As part of this process we will have the potential to actively and affirmatively produce and promote alternative communicative norms, politics and practices, which will aid us in the struggle to critique and transform the established academic power systems. It is worth emphasising once again, however, that the examples I have mentioned here—including my own thesis—should not be seen as normative models. Nonetheless, I hope they might inspire other students and scholars to develop their own form(s) of critical praxis to aid them to produce themselves and their institutional practices differently.

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