Blog Post

The Future of Authorship?

Just under a month ago, I attended a HASTAC-sponsored talk at Duke University's John Hope Franklin Center for Interdisciplinary and International Studies. The talk, titled "The Future of Authorship: Writing in the Digital Age," was a call from Pomona College's Kathleen Fitzpatrick, professor of media studies, to re-examine the way that we, as academics, create and communicate knowledge. Fitzpatrick, who is currently on sabbatical at NYU, will have a book published this fall called Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy, upon which the talk was largely based. (An earlier draft of the book is available online. See also a video recording of the talk and HASTAC scholar Lisa Klarr's recent interview with Fitzpatrick.)

Fitzpatrick argued that the lines between authors and readers have been becoming less and less distinct online. Scholars have discussed the diminishing authority of the author for a while, she noted. But they have been less willing to accept the implications of such ideas for their own careers and their own work. Fitzpatrick called for five shifts in how writing and publication work:

  • From product to process: A focus on works as "coming into being," with some possible punctuation points where the work can be shown to others and gather feedback, instead of seeing publication as the transformational moment when the work "counts." Fitzpatrick here contrasted the static, authoritative quality of traditional publications with the ever-evolving nature of blogs. She noted that the academy's emphasis on "product" is closely tied to the need for academics to get credit for their work, in the form of a grade or a line on a C.V. New forms of assigning credit will need to be developed if a focus on "process" is going to become prominent.
  • From individual to collaborative: A greater acceptance of the idea of multiple voices in works. This is especially difficult in the humanities, in which pieces rarely have multiple authors, Fitzpatrick said. Again, the importance of getting credit for work looms large. But Fitzpatrick pointed out that works have always been the products of collaborative efforts, in that our creations are based on and seen in the context of the creations that came before. Similarly, our work will inform later work. In online "network-based publishing," Fitzpatrick argued, these links between works will become harder to ignore, as they become represented by clickable links from one author's words to another's.
  • From original to remix: Moving beyond a narrow focus on the "original" and the "unique" as the mark of good academic work. Fitzpatrick suggested that scholars should take some cues from online "remix culture" by placing value on the curation of material, creating "playlists," and bringing different lines of thought into conversation with each other. Fitzpatrick pointed out that this kind of work already occurs in blog posts that gather related links and make some commentary that ties the links together.
  • From intellectual property to the gift economy: A shift away from copyright and restricted access toward the open dissemination of knowledge. Fitzpatrick said that the academy is similar to the gift economy anyway: scholars are paid by their institutions to advance knowledge and distribute it widely, and any income from publication sales is generally insignificant. Sharing our work will contribute to innovations in how writers and readers communicate, Fitzpatrick argued, and might ease the process of authors and audiences finding each other.
  • From text to...something more: Innovating by using media beyond text. Fitzpatrick is hopeful that other authors will startle her, that they will "undo all of [her] own expectations about what is possible for the author today."

After her talk, Fitzpatrick fielded questions from the audience, and then sat down for a discussion with Cathy Davidson and the students in her "21st Century Literacies" class. Topics during this discussion included the proper function of peer review, the need to avoid insular "echo chambers," and the potential obsolescence of universities.

I wonder how Fitzpatrick's vision relates to social and political justice. Does the focus on process, collaboration, and the gift economy align with a move toward greater appreciation of the knowledge created in oppressed communities? Fitzpatrick mentioned that literary scholars should learn from groups of devoted fans who are essentially engaged in scholarship, but should academics also learn from those outside the academy who are analyzing racism or documenting the environmental impacts of pollution? On the other hand, does throwing open the gates of the academy make it easier for ideologies that we consider oppressive (or just plain wrong) to take root? And since Fitzpatrick's vision is based on the use of digital technology, how do we make sure not to forget about those who do not have physical access to that technology, an understanding of how to effectively use it, or the social position necessary to get their message heard?

(Just to be clear, I am responding to Fitzpatrick's talk and not her book, which I have not read yet. I'd love to discover that she's already responded to these issues.)

What do you think of Fitzpatrick's ideas? Do you have thoughts about my questions, or questions or concerns of your own?

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