Blog Post

"Undo Expectations": Dr. Kathleen Fitzpatrick brings her thoughts on writing in the digital age to St. John's University


     On September 24, the St. John’s University (Queens, NY) community was privileged to hear Dr. Kathleen Fitzpatrick speak on the topic “the future of authorship: writing in the digital age.” Dr. Fitzpatrick is currently on leave from a position as Professor of Media Studies at Pomona College in Claremont, CA, where she teaches such courses as Writing Machines, and Television Authorship.  She is also the co-founder of Media Commons, an online network of digital scholars, and she blogs and tweets (//@kfitz) regularly and to large audiences. Dr. Fitzpatrick is the author of Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology and the Future of the Academy,  a print book that first appeared online in draft form for open peer review in 2009. The manuscript is still there, at the media commons website along with the commentary it received, an archived view of the normally invisible (except to the few) process of peer review. It is fascinating to read the conversations around the manuscript, and to be made aware in this way of the implicit collaboration that is scholarly writing in the humanities. In her talk, Dr. Fitzpatrick pointed to internet commenting as a kind of “development network” -- a key feature of writing in digital spaces.  Formats such as the blog, for example, privilege the development of the author over time and de-emphasize the finished work. These are notions that can disrupt our fixed ideas of authorship and what constitutes a scholarly product. Intellectual work as deeply--mystically--individual contrasts with this big web-based collaborative network in which we are increasingly immersed. We value collaboration within the academy, Dr. Fitzpatrick reminds us, so why is it that we cling to the individual author so strongly? One of Dr. Fitzpatrick’s most thought provoking ideas was the need to move out of the “filter then publish” process of academic publishing and into a “publish then filter” one, which certainly challenges ownership of intellectual thought.

     This sounds so simple, so exciting, in its potential to unseat the proprietary nature of authorship and usher in a networked way of creating knowledge, but we are well aware of the challenge this poses to academic writers and their institutions. I have been experimenting with spelunking trips into the caverns of Wikipedia along with my composition students, sending them out to play in the “sandbox” and reading through Talk Pages to see what diversity of opinion goes on behind the neutral point of view.  To take a group of freshman writers into authorless Wikipedia space feels a lot like leading a slightly dangerous trip into a dark cave surrounded by slimy walls. They are used to hearing that using Wikipedia for research is relying on garbage knowledge, and they seem unable to trust me when I tell them the network of volunteers employed in this project to create public knowledge is surprisingly rigorous in its self-patrol, and deliriously utopic in its commitment to a collaborative encyclopedic enterprise for no economic gain.  Yes, we have to read critically, and just because Wikipedia is open to the world to add content doesn’t mean that the world is equitably represented in that content --and, isn’t this something that needs our inquiry, too? Budging these students out of their learned stances toward authorized information is harder than I would have imagined, but I feel that we in academic institutions should be disturbed by their distrust of decentralized knowledge.  We need to find more ways to challenge their thinking, and doing it from within the walls of authorized academia can seem to defeat our purposes. This is, after all, where they learned to distrust projects like Wikipedia and to think of themselves as subject to the vicissitudes of individual inspiration in the first place. But, even I, an open source idealist, jump to the metaphor of slimy cave exploration when I position myself as a composition professor introducing the idea of “publish then filter” to a group of young writers. What are the pedagogically sound ways we can do this? What is a pedagogy of dangerous spelunking that I can live with?

     How do institutions and scholars address these changing paradigms of authorship, intellectual property and scholarly production?  First, says Dr. Fitzpatrick, we need to acknowledge that, historically, “originality” as a value has always been evolving. Ancient Greek rhetoricians disregarded the individual voice of the speaker in favor of the skilled use of language to construct a persuasive text.  With the invention of print and the possibility for reproduction of a writer’s work, the notion of authorship and intellectual property arose only to be later-- well-- romanticized by the Romantics who saw the creative self as singular in terms of inspiration and divine influence.  These Romantic ideas of authorship still have a hold on our cultural sense of the act of writing today, and they bring with them all sorts of exclusivity and privilege.  The ongoing and collaborative conversation that has always characterized scholarly writing perhaps now begs to be brought out in the open and exploited in the best and most creative ways.  According to Dr. Fitzpatrick, we need to embrace remix in our work, pluralize the role of editor to include the curator (see Hacking The Academy), create texts that “startle” and “undo...expectations” like those that use an online longform scholarship program like Scalar to reconfigure reading as a multimedia journey, or that juxtapose different texts to situate the meaning in the links.  These new spatial paradigms suggested by the internet speak to and with the ones we know from text, changing all our discourses, from writing to the creation of knowledge to pedagogy. 


1 comment

Great post on this talk, Laura! I'm also struck by the tension in practice between our ideas about pluralized, multi-modal authorship and the way we and our students react to texts such as wikipedia that lack clear "authorial authority." That's a conversation I think we should be having, about the on-ground practices that flow out of these theoretical models. Spelunking is a good metaphor.