Listening as Generous Thinking

(Crossposted from the Johns Hopkins University Press blog.)

Generous Thinking began for me with the nagging sense that something is off-kilter in much of scholarly life. It’s having profound effects not just on the ways that we as individual scholars are able to live out the values that we bring to our work but also on the ways that we work together, in groups, as departments, as institutions. And perhaps most importantly, it is affecting the ways that we connect and communicate with — or fail to connect and communicate with — the world off-campus. A talk I heard by David Scobey some years ago gave me the title for this book; Scobey argued that critical thinking in the humanities was completely out of balance with generous thinking, which oriented toward a form of public engagement designed to reconnect the university with the world. I was thrilled to hear someone name the thing that I’d been circling around, and yet I had two points of concern: first, was critical thinking necessarily on the opposite end of the intellectual see-saw from generous thinking? And second, if we are to engage generously with the world, do we need to begin closer to home?

The kind of generosity that I found myself hoping to foster has as its goal reconnecting the university to the communities that the institution is intended to serve. But this generosity is grounded in practices of connection that might strengthen the university itself as a community. The most fundamental of these practices is listening.

But — listening? How could something so basic be the ground for solving such a complex set of problems?

The first thing to note is that listening is indeed a most basic form of human engagement, but one that nearly all of us are pretty bad at. We may let one another speak; we may even hear one another when we do; but much of that time is spent waiting for our next turn to talk, preparing our own thoughts and ideas. Genuinely listening to what someone else has to say requires letting go, at least for a moment, of our own assumptions and perspectives. Listening requires attuning ourselves to what is being said to us, opening ourselves to the possibility that we might have something to learn from the engagement — that our own assumptions and perspectives might be wrong.

It’s not a coincidence that the ability to listen varies inversely with privilege: people who are marginalized are not just commanded to listen, but often must use listening as a tool of survival. The need to learn to listen, to displace the self in order to understand the perspectives of others, is for that reason most pressing for those of us who are most privileged. Listening is the first step in the creation of solidarity, of recognizing that our collective interests must take precedence over our individual interests.

Listening isn’t a panacea. It can’t solve the problems that the university faces today, not unless it’s accompanied by real transformative action. But listening is more than just personal, or interpersonal. It’s the ground for a critical practice that begins by thinking with rather than against our colleagues. It’s the ground for our ability to draw students and other potentially interested members of the public into the work that we do, rather than closing them out. It’s the ground for creating institutions that genuinely live out the values they claim to espouse. Listening is a basis for generous thinking, and as such is the first step toward real transformative change.

More on GT: Comments Reopened

The conclusion to the print edition of Generous Thinking directs readers to the manuscript’s open review site to share thoughts and ideas growing out of the book, in the hope that we can find ways collectively to develop opportunities for rebuilding the relationships between institutions of higher education and the publics that they serve. So, in conjunction with the book’s release this week, I’ve reopened comments throughout the draft manuscript. I’ll look forward to discussing the possibilities there.

Community Review

In my last book, Planned Obsolescence, I argued for the potentials of open, peer-to-peer review as a means of shedding some light on the otherwise often hidden processes of scholarly communication, enabling scholars to treat the process of review less as a mode of gatekeeping than as a formative moment in which they could learn from and contribute to their communities of practice. In Generous Thinking, my focus is somewhat different—less on the ways that scholars communicate with one another and more on the ways we invite the world into our work—but the emphasis on opening up our processes and imagining the ways that they might invite new kinds of conversations remains.

When I launched the open review process for Planned Obsolescence in 2009, the world was somewhat different. There seemed cause for optimism about the potentials presented by new kinds of openness, and though there was without question just as thick a strain of racism, misogyny, homophobia, and general hatred within western culture, it was somehow less emboldened. Or so it seemed to me, at least, in my narrow corner of the internet, where my colleagues and I chatted happily through our blogs and on Twitter, imagining the ways that our networks could help support more open, egalitarian modes of scholarly engagement.

Things are different in 2018. Scholars are being actively targeted for their political beliefs, with off-campus groups campaigning for their dismissal. Entire academic departments have come under investigation by state legislatures for their apparently subversive activity. And too many writers whose work explores issues of race, of gender, of sexuality, of oppression routinely receive threats of violence in response.

As Generous Thinking will attest, I still believe in the opportunities presented by building more open forms of conversation both within the academy and between the academy and the broader publics with which we engage. But I am more cautious about how we should do so now, or at least I am less naive. And so I’ve staged this review process a little bit differently.

For the last two weeks, the manuscript has been open to a group of invited readers, many but not all of them close colleagues, including folks on- and off-campus, folks in a range of faculty and staff positions, folks with bents more optimistic and much less so. My hope was—and remains—that inviting a community to engage with the text before opening it up to the world would help create a space of honest, productive critique, a space in which the manuscript’s shortcomings might be discussed without fear.

But it’s nonetheless important—it’s in fact the heart of Generous Thinking’s argument—to take that next step, to engage in a broader dialogue and invite the world into the process. So the community review is now moving into a period of open review. That openness is both important for this project’s own development and important for this project to model: if we’re going to find our way to a space of greater generosity, it has to start here.

Not just because this project needs to live by its own principles, though that’s an important part of it. But because some of us face far greater dangers than others, and those of us who, like me, are comparatively safe must be willing to create spaces where important public discussions can take place. We need to build our communities, and then we need to invite those around us into them.

So: between now and the end of March, Generous Thinking is open. After that, the record of our discussions will remain publicly available, but the comment function will be closed. I hope that you will share any thoughts you have about the project, and that you will invite any readers you think might be interested to join this discussion.

Thanks to those who have read and commented so far, and thanks to all of you who are reading now. I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

Opening Up Open Access

It’s Open Access Week, and as befits the occasion, I’m starting it this morning by thinking about what we’ve accomplished, what obstacles we’ve found — or even, if I might dare to whisper, created — and what remains to be done in order create full commitment among scholars and researchers to getting their work into circulation in the most free, open, and equitable ways possible.

The last several months have been quite interesting in humanities OA land: we’ve seen the launch of exciting initiatives such as the Open Library of the Humanities and Luminos, plus the first round of competition for a joint Mellon-NEH Humanities Open Book Program (not to mention a wide range of other Mellon-funded OA projects). At the same time, there seems also to have been an uptick in approaches to humanities scholars by somewhat shady-looking publications claiming an interest in publishing their work (for a fee) or asking to add them to a (somewhat random) editorial board. For many scholars, sadly, the latter cast a long shadow, making it that much harder to persuade them of the value to their work that OA might provide.

I have been wondering of late about the extent to which the problem is the degree to which our thinking about the goals of OA has gotten derailed by our focus on the business model of OA — and even worse, by a more-or-less exclusive focus on one particular business model that can simply be taken up without the need to reconsider the purposes or values of scholarly communication. Shifting costs from the reader side to the author side creates hardly a ripple in the system, as witness the speed and fluidity and commitment with which the most problematic corporate journal publishers have absorbed this shift into their regular practices.1

Having said this, however, I must admit that I feel a bit implicated in that derailment-by-business-model, as my early interventions into thinking about OA in the humanities very much focused on gold OA, on making publications freely and openly available at the source. And I do still think that there are ways of implementing gold OA publishing models — perhaps especially around monographs — that might be more equitable and should be further explored.2 But I worry that this singular focus on making publications freely available might have prematurely foreclosed a set of larger discussions about the broader circulation of scholarship in general.

In some of the early open access meetings I attended, in fact, I found myself arguing with a few other participants who insisted that we were headed in the wrong direction, and that we needed to be thinking about green OA, on the author side of making things freely available — primarily through repository deposit — rather than on the publisher side. But the longer I think about it, the more I have come to believe that what I had in mind in the creation of free-and-open publications bears more in common with repositories than it does with the dominant mode through which OA has been taken up by corporate publishers. My all-too-nascent idea, after all, was based on my experiences with MediaCommons, which led me to hope that groups of scholars could take control of the systems through which they publish by creating collective, cooperative, scholar-organized and -governed publications on open networks.

And some of that has happened. The Open Library of the Humanities, notably, was founded by two humanities scholars who are working closely with the scholars who operate the journals under its umbrella.3 And, of course, MLA Commons is a platform developed by a scholar-governed society on which members are encouraged to develop and share new projects with the field in a wide variety of ways.

But there’s been comparatively slow uptake on this end of the open access spectrum, and it’s worth considering why. On the one hand, there is the fact that publishing requires work, and comparatively few scholars have the time or inclination required to move some of their “own” work aside in favor of working on publishing’s machinery, whether by building their own publications or supporting others through the publishing process. That sort of work isn’t, by and large, what we trained for, and perhaps more importantly, it isn’t the kind of thing for which we get credit.4

Even more, there is the question of prestige: scholars continue to publish in venues that have established imprimaturs, and in venues that they have no editorial hand in, because those two factors continue to be privileged by the various review mechanisms up the chain. Scholars need to persuade internal and external review committees that their work has been selected through an impartial, rigorous review process, and all the better if the name of the organization that runs that review process resonates. But of course publishing collectives are capable of being just as (if not more) rigorous, and scholarly associations like my own can provide not just an imprimatur for those collectives but also access to the many other members in the field that the collectives would likely want to reach.

So the question that remains for me is what will be required in order to motivate scholars to take the lead in forming such collectives. Much of the OA movement has focused on a hearts-and-minds campaign of sorts, working to convince individual scholars that open access to their work is not just good for the work but also key to intellectual forms of social justice. But I think, in the coming years, we need to pay as much attention to shifting the requirements of those review mechanisms up the chain, whether institution- or funder-based, in order to persuade them that impact and prestige might not necessarily correlate, that rigor need not necessarily require distance, and that all publications — from the individual scholarly blog to the most carefully edited monograph — demand to be evaluated on their own terms, with an understanding of the possibilities each presents for the increase in knowledge we all seek.

The Political Economics of Open Access

Oh, this this this:

I’m increasingly feeling that the old debates (what’s a reasonable cost, green vs gold, hybrid vs pure) are sterile and misleading. That we are missing fundamental economic and political issues in funding and managing a global scholarly communications ecosystem by looking at the wrong things. And that there are deep and damaging misunderstandings about what has happened, is happening, and what could happen in the future.

Cameron Neylon, “The Political Economics of Open Access Publishing: A Series”

Tools and Values

I’ve been writing a bit about peer review and its potential futures of late, an essay that’s been solicited for a forthcoming edited volume. Needless to say, this is a subject I’ve spent a lot of time considering, between the research I did for Planned Obsolescence, the year-long study I worked on with my MediaCommons and NYU Press colleagues, and the various other bits of speaking and writing I’ve done on the topic.

A recent exchange, though, has changed my thinking about the subject in some interesting ways, ways that I’m not sure that the essay I’m working on can quite capture. I had just given a talk about some of the potential futures for digital scholarship in the humanities, which included a bit on open peer review, and was getting pretty intensively questioned by an attendee who felt that I was being naively utopian in my rendering of its potential. Why on earth would I want to do away with a peer review system that more or less works in favor of a new open system that brings with it all the problematic power dynamics that manifest in networked spaces?

In responding, I tried to suggest, first, that I wasn’t trying to do away with anything, but rather to open us to the possibility that open review might be beneficial, especially for scholarship that’s being published online. And second, that yes, scholarly engagements in social networks do often play out a range of problematic behaviors, but that at least those behaviors get flushed out into the open, where they’re visible and can be called out; those same behaviors can and do take place in conventional review practices under cover of various kinds of protection.

It was at this point that my colleague Dan O’Donnell intervened; by way of more or less agreeing with me, Dan said that the problem with most thinking about peer review began with considering it to be a system (and thus singular, complex, and difficult to change), when in fact peer review is a tool. Just a tool. “Sometimes you need a screwdriver,” he said, “and when you do, a hammer isn’t going to help.”

Something in the simplicity of that analogy caught me up short. I have been told, in ways both positive and negative, that I am a systems-builder at heart, and so to hear that I might be making things unnecessarily complicated didn’t come as a great shock. But it became clear in that moment that the unnecessary complications might be preventing me from seeing something extremely useful: if we want to transform peer review into something that works reliably, on a wide variety of kinds of scholarship, for an array of different scholarly communities, within a broad range of networks and platforms, we need a greatly expanded toolkit.

This is a much cleaner, clearer way of framing the conclusions to which the MediaCommons/NYU Press study came: each publication, and each community of practice, is likely to have different purposes and expectations for peer review, and so each must develop a mode of conducting review that best serves those purposes and expectations. The key thing is the right tool for the right purpose.

This exchange, though, has affected my thinking in areas far beyond the future of peer review. In order to select the right tool, after all, we really have to be able to articulate our purposes, which first requires understanding them — and understanding them in a way that goes deeper than the surface-level outcomes we’re seeking. In the case of peer review, this means thinking beyond the goal of producing good work; it means considering the kind of community we want to build and support around the work, as well as the things we hope the work might bring to the community and beyond.

In other words, it’s not just about purposes, but also about values: not just reaching a goal, but creating the best conditions for everyone engaged in the process. It’s both simpler and more complex, and it requires really stopping to think not just about what we’re doing, but what’s important to us, and why.

If you’ll forgive a bit of a tangent: I mentioned in my last post that I’d been reading Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz’s The Power of Full Engagement, which focuses on developing practices for renewing one’s energy in order to be able to focus on and genuinely be present for the important stuff in life. I only posted to Twitter, however, the line from the book that most haunted me: “Is the life I am living worth what I am giving up to have it?”

At first brush, the line produces something not too far off from despair: we are always giving up something, and we frequently find ourselves where we are, having given up way too much, without any sense of how we got there or whether it’s even possible to get back to where we’d hoped to be.

But I’ve been working on thinking of that line in a more positive way, understanding that each choice that I make — to work on this rather than that; to work here rather than there; whathaveyou — entails not just giving up the path not taken, but the opportunity to consider why I’m choosing what I’m choosing, and to try to align the choice as closely as possible with what’s most important.

In the crush of the day-to-day, with a stack of work that’s got to be done RIGHT NOW, it can be hard to put an ideal like that into practice. And needless to say, the opportunity to stop and make such choices is an extraordinary privilege; thinking about “values” in the airy sense that I’m using it here becomes a lot easier once things like comfort, much less survival, are already ensured.

But this is precisely why, I think, those of us in the position to do things like create new programs, or publications, or processes, need to take the time to consider what it is we’re doing and why. To think about the full range of tools at our disposal, and to select — or even design — the ones that best suit the work that is actually at hand, rather than reflexively grabbing for the hammer because everything in front of us has always looked like a nail.

So, an open question: if peer review is genuinely to work toward supporting our deeper goals — not just getting the work done, but building the future for scholarship we want to see — what tools do we need to have at our disposal? What of those tools do we already have available, even if we’ve never used them for this purpose before, and what new tools might we need to imagine?

Future Publishing

Back in the late spring of last year, I participated in a panel discussion on the future of publishing in visual culture studies, as part of the Now! Visual Culture symposium held at NYU. The panel organizers, Marquard Smith and Mark Little, have edited our presentations together into a brief collection entitled “Future Publishing: Visual culture in the age of possibility,” which they’re releasing today.

I’m very happy to have been able to participate in such a great discussion, and to be able to help spread the word a bit further. Please download, read, respond, repost; we look forward to hearing from you!

Open Review: A Study of Contexts and Practices

crossposted from MediaCommons:

In April 2011, MediaCommons and NYU Press jointly received a grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to support a year-long study of open review practices and possibilities. The document that follows is a draft of the white paper that will serve as the grant’s primary outcome. We are happy to post a draft of this paper for open peer review.

The questions raised in the paper affect a wide range of scholarly processes. They impact publishing, of course, but also the ways scholarly work is assessed beyond the moment of publication, from hiring, tenure, and promotion decisions to funding applications, and the development of a scholarly reputation. The issues we discuss affect scholars at every stage in their careers, as well as publishers of journals and books of every sort, and administrators at many different kinds of institutions.

We therefore welcome the broadest possible feedback, both on the white paper’s details as well as on the larger questions that it raises. Please join in the discussion!

Open Access at 10

I’m really happy (if mildly tired) to be writing from Budapest, where (like Cameron) I’m honored to participate in a meeting on the tenth anniversary of the Budapest Open Access Initiative. It was this gathering, ten years ago, that gave a name to the growing sense that the content produced as a result of scholarly research can and should circulate freely in the age of the Internet. We’ve come together to discuss what’s been learned over the last decade, as well as the directions for the next decade.

As I told someone yesterday, I’m simultaneously surprised that it’s already been ten years and that it’s only been ten years; the discussions that took place in Budapest a decade ago have had such an impact that it seems at one and the same time as if their ideas have always been in circulation and as if they have only just been introduced.

Needless to say, it’s auspicious that this anniversary meeting is taking place at a moment of widespread discussion about the value of public access to the products of scholarly research. Personally, I’m also thrilled that this discussion broadly recognizes the value of such open circulation of the products of humanities research as well as that of the sciences, and that there is serious consideration being given to the particular challenges that different subsets of the academy face in the transition toward more open models of communication.

I’ll hope to report more thoughts as the meeting progresses, and will look forward to bringing what I learn back with me, as we continue thinking through the future of scholarly communication in the humanities.

iBooks, Authoring, Education, and So Forth

A quick note: I had the opportunity to attend the Apple Education event today on behalf of ProfHacker, where I posted my reflections a bit later in the day.

And a bit after that, I appeared on Tech News Today, talking more about the ways that iBooks 2, the iBook Author application, and the other things announced today might (and might not) affect education.

It’s been a whirlwind. Thank goodness I have a quiet weekend planned.