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In Media Res - Fall 2010 Open Calls, Word Counts, & Public Intellectuals

As I said in my introductory post, one of the topics I'll regularly address is my work with the MediaCommons project In Media Res, and this will be one of those posts. I'll discuss a little bit of our meeting we had shortly before we organized the call, as well as some debates we had about what we expected for the site moving forward.

First the call itself, though. We have 7 open calls for our Fall Schedule (September to December). Actual posts involve short written piece, 300-350 words accompanied by a video clip (30 seconds to 3 minutes, a slide show, or an image). Anyone is welcomed to submit a proposal for any of the topics listed below (or you can click the link above to go directly to the IMR call page). The topics below link to a Google Document with more information. I encourage you to pass this call to anyone you think may be interested as well.

September 27 - October 1: Banned Books

October 4-8: Animals in the Media

October 25-29: Branding

November 1-5: Regional Elections

November 8-12: Sports & Media: Football/Futbol

November 15-19: The Harry Potter Franchise

December 13-17: Spectatorship & Film

From that above paragraph, I want to talk about two things: the word count and the openness of the call (anyone can submit a proposal). First the word count.

The issue of the word count, 300 to 350 words became an issue of debate at our last organizational meeting. The word limit has been a feature of IMR since its inception, and serves as a way to help make IMR unique. A regular blog or on-line journal would feature posts considerably longer than that, so I find the limited word count a refreshing change of pace.

But as any of you who have edited a journal issue or anthology featuring new material know, getting people to stick to a word count can be a daunting task (especially academics, who are a verbose bunch anyway). As one established scholar (who has contributed more than once to IMR) said to a new PhD student, contributing to the site for the first time (and I paraphrase): "Some people just aren't wired to write for In Media Res." (This was made all the funnier since the new PhD student is known within his blog community for his lengthy posts.)

We, as a staff, have struggled with this word count, and how much wiggle room to allow beyond the word count. The main issue for us has been almost a sense of defining the site through our word count. When we explain the word count limit to contributors, we tell them to think of their post not as a fully formed idea, but as a conversation starter, a long-ish prompt that encourages a discussion in the comments section (for academics, we tell them to think of it as an intricate, but still open-ended, question one would pose in a graduate seminar).

While I am not a partisan about many things, the word count was something I took a hard line in our discussion (I was also quite....emphatic about the word count when contacting the contributors I organized for my weeks...). For one thing, anything beyond 350 words looks like a lot to read, and may close of discussion if too much is said in the actual post. 350 words, ideally, would be three paragraphs that work in conjunction with whatever media the contributor has decided on. 3 paragraphs is manageable, quick to read, and allows for people to comment with brief thoughts as well. 

We eventually settled on how to address the issue, in a manner that pleased all of our staff, and will best serve In Media Res. I am curious, however, as thinkers of the digital, what you think about this issue of the word count. When is too much text too much? Too little? Is it counter to our mission to be strict about it? Will we lose contributors? 

As I move to the next topic, allow me to really stress the anyone is welcomed to submit a proposal aspect of the calls. One of the goals the staff of IMR set for ourselves is to involve more non-academics in the site, both as contributors and as commenters. We have been fairly successful in this regard as a number of our weeks have featured television critics, filmmakers, and bloggers as contributors, and we've been very happy with their participation.

Our desire for non-academic contributors stems from a desire to make our site (and thus the work featured on it) relevant to those not in the academy, a challenge we're currently working through. If you visit our About page, we're still in academy lingo, and we're debating how best to open up the language to make it seem not so threatening (a few of our non-academic contributors were nervous about writing for us since they are not academics).

One of our ideas has been to re-label the scholar/academic word with the term public intellectual. Some of us feel that the term can apply to anyone who is an authority within their community (be it in pro-wrestling fandom or as a media policy journalist), and may take the sting out of having to be "academic" or "scholarly" when contributing.

At the same time, public intellectual carries its own baggage. Even those who may be authorities in their communities may not perceive themselves as public intellectuals, or the term may not be desirable within the communities. It also implies a mastery of the topic in ways that may not be comfortable for everyone.

Which leads to my second prompt for you all. What term works best for our contributors? Does seeking out or receiving submissions from leaders in a digital community help us? Are they public intellectuals? 

I know I will appreciate any feedback you all supply, and I also thank you on behalf of the IMR staff for your thoughts on these issues.

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