Priscilla Wald on the Slow Future of Scholarly Publishing

Upweek-logo-2013Welcome to University Press Week! We're so excited to be participating in a great tour of university press blogs featuring posts by authors, press staff, customers, and many more fans of the great work university presses do. Watch this space for more posts and links to all the other great university press blogs. Today's post is by Duke University Professor of English and Women's Studies Priscilla Wald, author of Contagious and Constitutiting Americans, editor of American Literature, and chair of our Editorial Advisory Board. The blog tour continues at Harvard University Press. A complete schedule is available here.

50_s_Vintage_Red_Royal_Quiet_De_Luxe_TypewriterI was delighted and amused a few days ago to hear two young women fiction writers, both also graduate students, celebrate their newly acquired manual typewriters. Remembering my own joy (in high school) when I replaced my manual typewriter with an electric one, I was curious to hear the reasons for their joy: they liked the feel of the keys and the pressure their fingers had to exert while typing. They felt closer to their words and less distracted by the temptations of the Internet. It made them concentrate more on their writing.

I was struck by how their excitement countered contemporary laments about what we are losing in the Age of the Internet. I’ve heard the bell toll for the humanities, libraries, and university presses, and, to paraphrase Mark Twain, news of their death is greatly exaggerated. I don’t mean to compare these vital institutions to the manual typewriter itself. It was their return to the typewriter that intrigued me: their expressed delight in the labor of writing, in the tactility of the experience, and in the intensity of concentration. 

Their enthusiasm was an unusual reminder of how new media and technologies are changing our relationship to writing and to scholarship. In many ways, these technologies are simplifying our lives.  But the women’s pleasure in the pressure of the manual keys is like scholarly delight in rigorous inquiry.  It persists in this new electronic age and can take surprising forms. What could be more perversely cutting edge, we might ask, than a Royal Classic manual typewriter?

This moment of a coming generation’s return to an archaic technology offers a glimpse into the future: where we in the fields of scholarship, publishing, and teaching are heading. No one on Facebook needs to be reminded that the Internet puts distraction at our fingertips. And no one in the contemporary classroom can fail to appreciate the pedagogical and research opportunities the Internet also offers. Scholars at every level have unprecedented access to materials they once would have needed time and resources to consult. Remembering the days of waiting for a book or article that wasn’t in my university’s library, I marvel at the privilege of instant gratification. But the relation between old and new isn’t stable. The two women writers had no doubt learned to write, as did my sons, on a computer keyboard. The typewriter was, for them, both new and rare, and their delight in it, a reminder of what persists. The deliberation that is dramatized by the tactile sensation of pressing ink onto paper is as much a part of the future of scholarship as of the past.

The sensation is one of slowing down. New technologies offer exciting opportunities for scholarly books and articles. A link in an online book might connect readers to a film clip a critic is discussing, and one click in an article can illustrate a subtle distinction in tones a linguist wants us to hear. But scholarly research is a slow process. It takes time to sort through the details of lives, events, artistic productions, to make sense of scholarly conversations past and present—to interpret and engage. And it takes time to transform early insights and half-formed arguments into elegant scholarly communications. It also takes resources. The image of the solitary scholar makes it easy to forget the labor of the many people that goes into the production of a scholarly book.  

I have been awed as a writer, editor, and university press board member by the dedication of the editors, designers, publicists, and other press staff to their writers—and to the exacting process of scholarly publication. I’ve watched editors nurture scholarly projects from the first spark of an idea through rigorous peer review and editorial processes into an elegant work of scholarly communication.  And the labor doesn’t end there. The beautifully designed and thoughtfully marketed products of the university presses I’ve worked with reflect the engagement of people authors often never even meet.  It takes a scholarly village.

It is also important to the future of scholarly communication for us all to remember that both the slowness of scholarly production and the speed of the Internet are privileges that are not equitably distributed worldwide. As both scholarly communication and the Internet make it increasingly difficult not to think globally, differences in lived experience worldwide are more broadly apparent and, one hopes, more difficult to ignore. Even as access to the Internet expands, access to scholarly publications depends in many cases on affiliations with universities or the availability of good libraries. The slow processes of scholarly communication I have been describing are costly and subject to the contemporary challenges education is facing.   

I have faith, however, in the discovery, analysis, and communication that comprise scholarship to expose inequities, dislodge biases, and inspire positive change, despite the economic and political challenges that invariably arise. My more than three decades as a teacher and scholar have continually renewed that faith. So I can enjoy watching the future of scholarly communication unfold through new media and technologies. But it is the young women who expressed such pleasure in the resistance of the typewriter keys who ensure my optimism about that future. 

 

 

 

 

 

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