Thoughts on #aha2015 #s69, Doing More with Less: The Promise and Pitfalls of Short-Form Scholarship in the Digital History Age”

Since I’m having my students in my Digital History class write about blogging, I thought I would (finally) give some of my observations on this session, especially the bit about blogging by Ben Railton, who somehow manages to write a daily post on his American studies blog. He uses his blog as a “generative space,” that is, a starting point for new directions in his research.  It also allows him to get rapid feedback from his readers.  I like this idea of using a blog to generate and sound out new ideas very much but I doubt I have the time or discipline to do this on a daily basis as he does. Railton also writes for other blogs such as Talking Points Memo.  This allows him to connect to new and larger audiences. The downside of writing for this kind of blog is that he has to write more aggressive, less historically nuanced articles than he normally would in order to get published and attract readers. Perhaps he should consider writing for History News Network.  I’ve written several articles for them and find I can be both timely and nuanced.  Then again, I probably don’t get as many views as articles at TPM. Another problem with this type of short form scholarship (and I would agree that blog writing is scholarship) is that it’s usually not peer-reviewed (with some exceptions), so is seldom considered for promotion and tenure purposes. Kathryn Nasstrom, editor of the Oral History Review discussed the journal’s new short-form article initiative, which was created to publish shorter articles  (3-4,000 words on average) than the usual articles that are 8-12,000 words.  The editors did this to get more ideas in circulation (the journal is only published twice per year), and allow authors to publish “thought pieces” that suggest new ideas but are not as definitive as fully developed research articles.  Nasstrom was careful to mention that these short-form articles are not watered-down scholarship — they go through the same peer review process as long-form articles. The Society for the History of Technology has a similar short-form platform called Technology’s Stories: Past and Present.  I had the privilege of having a short article on the 50th anniversary of the Pill accepted for this publication. It appeared in the Society’s print journal as well, but I like that its appearance on the website brought it to a broader audience. Another opportunity for short-form scholarship was presented by Kristin Purdy, editor of the Pivot Series at Palgrave Macmillan. This series provides a valuable middle ground between article-length and book-length works.  The typical length of a book in this series is 25-50,000 words.  These works are still peer-reviewed, but shorter length also allows for a much shorter production process (typically 12 weeks after acceptance).  This is especially attractive to those who need to beef up their CVs for promotion and tenure.  It also allows the press to get books on timely topics out quickly.  The main problem with this series is the books are still quite expensive (even the ebooks are over $20).  Still, it allows authors to try out unconventional ideas (e.g. The History of the Kiss) and have a greater and faster impact than they might with longer form monographs. Last up was Stephanie Westcott from the Center for History and New Media George Mason University, who discussed the Center’s PressForward Plugin for WordPress.  This plugin allows for aggregation of posts from across the web.  Digital Humanities Now is an example of a site developed with this plugin. According to the site’s description: DHNow highlights scholarship—in whatever form—that drives the field of digital humanities field forward as Editors’ Choice. Additional items of interest to the field—jobs, calls for papers, conference and funding announcements, reports, and recently-released resources—are redistributed as news. In other words, DHNow is one-stop shopping for keeping up on what’s happening in the field of Digital Humanities. So, in summary, it turns out there’s a lot you can do with short-form scholarship.  The various platforms discussed in the session allow academics to reach larger audiences quickly and efficiently.  One issue that did come up is the issue of ownership, i.e. how does one maintain control of one’s work once it’s on the web.  The short answer is to use Creative Commons to put a license on your work.

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