Thursday, July 27, 2006


The other day, my pal Jeff Pooley pointed out to me a new project that is being assembled by the good folks over at the Institute for the Future of the Book. They're putting something together that should be of interest to media scholars and, to a lesser extent, everyone else (oh, them). Here's the deal: the Institute for the Future of the Book is going to introduce a project they call MediaCommons. On July 17, the IFB's Kathleen Fitzpatrick announced the MediaCommons project, and the online discussion boards have been filled with commentary ever since.

MediaCommons, says Fitzpatrick, will be a "new model of academic publishing." It will be less of an "electronic press" than a "scholarly network." I must say, they really do seem to be thinking in a constructively broad manner about this. MediaCommons will indeed be dedicated partially to online publications. Instead of being tied to a traditional model of peer review, it will involve "peer-to-peer review, in which texta are discussed and, in some sense, 'ranked' by a committed community of readers." Instead of determining whether or not a text will be published, these readers will simply rank texts, with comments. This focus will allow MediaCommons to make "the process of scholarly work just as visible and valuable as its product." Sounds good.

But that's just the potatoes. Here's the gravy: MediaCommons is going to be more than just online publishing. It will involve electronic monographs, electronic casebooks, electronic journals, electronic reference works, and electronic forums. I would explain all of these, but you should really just check out Fitzpatrick's description.

Much of this project seems quite excellent. The creators of MediaCommons claim that this will lead to new forms of and opportunities for collaboration. This seems likely. More dramatically, they also claim that this will help to change the relationship between the academy and the public. They say that, although scholarly work is "often...defined as a public good...much academic discourse remains inaccessible and impenetrable to the publics it seeks to serve." They believe that "the lack of communication between the academy and the wider reading public points to a need to rethink the role of the academic in public intellectual life."

This is where I think they start misfiring a little bit. Note a few of the assumption in this. First of all, it's probably a bit much to presume that MediaCommons will re-shape the relationship between the academy and the public in any dramatic fashion. I find it unlikely to imagine that MediaCommons will be particularly interesting to members of 'the public' (that amorphous group that everyone wants on their side). Just because something is available online and is written/voiced in an easy to understand language does not mean that anything dramatic is going to change in the relationship between the public and the academy.

It's also worth pointing out that this argument partakes of an assumption that is common to academics who deal with the question of public scholarship. The good folks at the IFB seem to presume that the public is being served by this. That may very well be true in this case. However, it's worth reminding ourselves that academics often flatter themselves by presuming that their work is in the public interest. Is there an audience clamoring for this? Will the world be saved if only our insights could be distributed to a broader public? In essence: does the public want this? My answer: maybe. But remember that just because something has been put together for an audience does not mean that it serves that audience's interests. Those are two different things. I'm probably going too far here. Addressing the public on crucial issues of the day (as many issues relating to the media are) is a laudable activity. Much contemporary academic scholarship does have a ridiculous level of impenetrable jargon. It would help to create a sense of renewal of professional purpose if there were a go-between linking scholars and the public. But it still seems to me as if MediaCommons is more likely to function as a broad scholarly network than as a medium for public intellectual work. And, of course, there's nothing wrong with that.


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