The Blessay

Sorry, I don’t have a better name for it, but I feel it needs a succinct name so we can identify and discuss it. It’s not a tossed-off short blog post. It’s not a long, involved essay. It’s somewhere in-between: it’s a blessay.

The blessay is a manifestation of the convergence of journalism and scholarship in mid-length forms online. (For those keeping track at home, #7 on my list of ways that journalism and the humanities are merging in digital media). You’ve seen it on The Atlantic‘s website, on smart blogs like BLDGBLOG and Snarkmarket, and on sites that aggregate high-quality longform web writing.

Some characteristics of the blessay:

1) Mid-length: more ambitious than a blog post, less comprehensive than an academic article. Written to the length that is necessary, but no more. If we need to put a number on it, generally 1,000-3,000 words.

2) Informed by academic knowledge and analysis, but doesn’t rub your nose in it.

3) Uses the apparatus of the web more than the apparatus of the journal, e.g., links rather than footnotes. Where helpful, uses supplementary evidence from images, audio, and video—elements that are often missing or flattened in print.

4) Expresses expertise but also curiosity. Conclusive but also suggestive.

5) Written for both specialists and an intelligent general audience. Avoids academic jargon—not to be populist, but rather out of a feeling that avoiding jargon is part of writing well.

6) Wants to be Instapapered and Read Later.

7) Eschews simplistic formulations superficially borrowed from academic fields like history (no “The Puritans were like Wikipedians”).

I suspect readers of this blog know the genre I’m talking about. Am I missing other key characteristics of the blessay? What are some exemplary instances?

UPDATE: Unsurprising griping about the name on Twitter. Please: give me a better name, one that isn’t confused with other genres. Other suggestions: Giovanni Tiso: “essay” (confusing, but gets rid of the hated “bl”); Suzanne Fischer likes Anne Trubek’s suggestion of “intellectual journalism” (seems to favor the journalism side to me). As I’ve said in this space before, writing is writing; I’d love to call this genre just “the essay” or, yes, “writing,” but I wrote this post because I believe if we go that route the salient characteristics of the genre will be lost in a night in which all cows are black.

UPDATE 2: Much headway being made on Twitter in response to this post. Yoni Appelbaum puts his finger on it: “It’s not journalism. It’s not blogging. It’s practicing the art of the essay in the digital space.” That’s right. Thus Yoni’s suggestion for a name: “Simplest is sometimes best. These are Digital Essays – composed, distributed, and tailored for the format.” Anne Trubek and Tim Carmody worked to define the audience. Anne spoke of readers of the print Atlantic, the New Yorker, and other middle brow gatherings, and authors like Trilling. Tim responded: “The audience for this is similar: para-academic, post-collegiate white-collar workers and artists, with occasional breakthroughs either all the way to a ‘high academic’ or to a ‘mass culture’ audience.”

UPDATE 3: Back to the name: Some perhaps better suggestions are surfacing. Sarah Werner mentioned a word I often use in this space for the genre: “pieces.” Anne Trubek gives it that classic modifier: “thought pieces.” Kari Kraus reminds me that MediaCommons uses “middle-state,” which has some charms, but is a bit opaque.

UPDATE 4: So of course Stephen Fry would beat me to the coinage of “blessay” (thanks, Dragonweb). Again, the point of this exercise is less about the name than about a set of traits. A blessay—or whatever we want to call it—isn’t just a long blog post or a short academic article posted online. It has certain stylistic elements. And it doesn’t rule out other kinds of intelligent online writing.

Just the Text

This post marks the third major redesign of my site and its fourth incarnation. The site began more than a decade ago as a place to put some basic information about myself online. Not much happening in 2003:

In 2005, I wrote some PHP scripts to add a simple homemade blog to the site:

In 2007, I switched to using WordPress behind the scenes, and in doing so moved from post excerpts on the home page to full posts. I also added my other online presences, such as Twitter and the Digital Campus podcast.

Five years and 400 posts later, I’ve made a more radical change for 2012 and beyond, as the title of this post suggests. But the thinking behind this redesign goes back to the beginning of this blog, when I struggled, in a series called “Creating a Blog from Scratch,” with how best to highlight the most important feature of the site: the writing. As I wrote in “Creating a Blog from Scratch, Part I: What is a Blog, Anyway?” I wanted to author my own blogging software so I could “emphasize, above all, the subject matter and the content of each post.” The existing blogging packages I had considered had other priorities apparent in their design, such as a prominent calendar showing how frequently you posted. I wanted to stress quality over quantity.

Recent favorable developments in online text and web design have had a similar stress. As I noted in “Reading is Believing,”

rather than focusing on a new technology or website in our year-end review on the Digital Campus podcast, I chose reading as the big story of 2011. Surely 2011 was the year that digital reading came of age, with iPad and Kindle sales skyrocketing, apps for reading flourishing, and sites for finding high-quality long-form writing proliferating. It was apropos that Alan Jacobs‘s wonderful book The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction was published in 2011.

Now comes a forceful movement in web design to strip down sites to their essential text. Like many others, I appreciated Dustin Curtis’s great design of the Svbtle blog network this spring, and my site redesign obviously owes a significant debt to Dustin. (Indeed, this theme is a somewhat involved modification of Ricardo Rauch’s WordPress clone of Svbtle; I’ve made some important changes, such as adding comments—Svbtle and its clones eschew comments for thumbs-up “kudos.”)

One of the deans of web design, Jeffrey Zeldman, summarized much of this “just the text” thinking in his “Web Design Manifesto 2012” last week. Count me as part of that movement, which is part of an older movement to make the web not just hospitable toward writing and reading, but a medium that puts writing and reading first. Academics, among many others, should welcome this change.

Catching the Good

[Another post in my series on our need to focus more on the “demand side” of scholarly communication—how and why scholars engage with and contribute to publications—in addition to new models for the “supply side”—new production models for publications themselves. If you’re new to this line of thought on my blog, you may wish to start here or here.]

As all parents discover when their children reach the “terrible twos” (a phase that evidently lasts until 18 years of age), it’s incredibly easy to catch your kids being bad, and to criticize them. Kids are constantly pushing boundaries and getting into trouble; it’s part of growing up, intellectually and emotionally. What’s harder for parents, but perhaps far more important, is “catching your child doing good,” to look over when your kid isn’t yelling or pulling the dog’s ear to say, “I like the way you’re doing that.”

Although I fear infantilizing scholars (wags would say that’s perfectly appropriate), whenever I talk about the publishing model at PressForward, I find myself referring back to this principle of “catching the good,” which of course goes by the fancier name of “positive reinforcement” in psychology. What appears in PressForward publications such as Digital Humanities Now isn’t submitted and threatened with criticism and rejection (negative reinforcement). Indeed, there is no submission process at all. Instead, we look to “catch the good” in whatever format, and wherever, it exists (positive reinforcement). Catching the good is not necessarily the final judgment upon a work, but an assessment that something is already quite worthy and might benefit from a wider audience.

It’s a useful exercise to consider the very different psychological modes of positive and negative reinforcement as they relate to scholarly (and non-scholarly) communication, and the kind of behavior these models encourage or suppress. Obviously PressForward has no monopoly on positive reinforcement; catching the good also happens when a sharp editor from a university press hears about a promising young scholar and cultivates her work for publication. And positive reinforcement is deeply imbedded in the open web, where a blog post can either be ignored or reach thousands as a link is propagated by impressed readers.

In modes where negative reinforcement predominates, such as at journals with high rejection rates, scholars are much more hesitant to distribute their work until it is perfect or near-perfect. An aversion to criticism spreads, with both constructive and destructive effects. Authors work harder on publications, but also spend significant energy to tailor their work to please the paren, er, editors and blind reviewers who wait in judgment. Authors internalize the preferences of the academic community they strive to join, and curb experimentation or the desire to reach interdisciplinary or general audiences.

Positive-reinforcement models, especially those that involve open access to content, allow for greater experimentation of form and content. Interdisciplinary and general audiences are more likely to be reached, since a work can be highlighted or linked to by multiple venues at the same time. Authors feel at greater liberty to disseminate more of their work, including material that is half-baked and work that is polished, but audiences may find even the half-baked to be helpful to their thought processes. In other publications that “partial” work might not ever see the light of day.

Finally, just as a kid who constantly strives to be a great baseball player might be unexpectedly told he has a great voice and should try out for the choir, positive reinforcement is more likely to push authors to contribute to fields in which they naturally excel. Positive reinforcement casts a wider net, doing a better job at catching scholars in all stations, or even outsiders, who might have ideas or approaches a discipline could use.

When mulling new outlets for their work, scholars implicitly model risk and reward, imagining the positive and negative reinforcement they will be subjected to. It would be worth talking about this psychology more explicitly. For instance, what if there were a low-risk, but potentially high-reward, outlet that focused more on positive reinforcement—published articles getting noticed and passed around based on merit after a relatively restricted phase of pre-publication criticism? If you want to know why PLoS ONE is the fastest-growing venue for scientific work, that’s the question they asked and successfully answered. And that’s what we’re trying to do with PressForward as well.

[My thanks to Joan Fragazsy Troyano and Mike O’Malley for reading an early version of this post.]

Digital Journalism and Digital Humanities

I’ve increasingly felt that digital journalism and digital humanities are kindred spirits, and that more commerce between the two could be mutually beneficial. That sentiment was confirmed by the extremely positive reaction on Twitter to a brief comment I made on the launch of Knight-Mozilla OpenNews, including from Jon Christensen (of the Bill Lane Center for the American West at Stanford, and formerly a journalist), Shana Kimball (MPublishing, University of Michigan), Tim Carmody (Wired), and Jenna Wortham (New York Times).

Here’s an outline of some of the main areas where digital journalism and digital humanities could profitably collaborate. It’s remarkable, upon reflection, how much overlap there now is, and I suspect these areas will only grow in common importance.

1) Big data, and the best ways to scan and visualize it. All of us are facing either present-day or historical archives of almost unimaginable abundance, and we need sophisticated methods for finding trends, anomalies, and specific documents that could use additional attention. We also require robust ways of presenting this data to audiences to convey theses and supplement narratives.

2) How to involve the public in our work. If confronted by big data, how and when should we use crowdsourcing, and through which mechanisms? Are there areas where pro-am work is especially effective, and how can we heighten its advantages while diminishing its disadvantages? Since we both do work on the open web rather than in the cloistered realms of the ivory tower, what are we to make of the sometimes helpful, sometimes rocky interactions with the public?

3) The narrative plus the archive. Journalists are now writing articles that link to or embed primary sources (e.g., using DocumentCloud). Scholars are now writing articles that link to or embed primary sources (e.g., using Omeka). Formerly hidden sources are now far more accessible to the reader.

4) Software developers and other technologists are our partners. No longer relegated to secondary status as “the techies who make the websites,” we need to work intellectually and practically with those who understand how digital media and technology can advance our agenda and our content. For scholars, this also extends to technologically sophisticated librarians, archivists, and museum professionals. Moreover, the line between developer and journalist/scholar is already blurring, and will blur further.

5) Platforms and infrastructure. We care a great deal about common platforms, ranging from web and data standards, to open source software, to content management systems such as WordPress and Drupal. Developers we work with can create platforms with entirely novel functionality for news and scholarship.

6) Common tools. We are all writers and researchers. When the New York Times produces a WordPress plugin for editing, it affects academics looking to use WordPress as a scholarly communication platform. When our center updates Zotero, it affects many journalists who use that software for organizing their digital research.

7) A convergence of length. I’m convinced that something interesting and important is happening at the confluence of long-form journalism (say, 5,000 words or more) and short-form scholarship (ranging from long blog posts to Kindle Singles geared toward popular audiences). It doesn’t hurt that many journalists writing at this length could very well have been academics in a parallel universe, and vice versa. The prevalence of high-quality writing that is smart and accessible has never been greater.

This list is undoubtedly not comprehensive; please add your thoughts about additional common areas in the comments. It may be worth devoting substantial time to increasing the dialogue between digital journalists and digital humanists at the next THATCamp Prime, or perhaps at a special THATCamp focused on the topic. Let me know if you’re interested. And more soon in this space.

Reading and Believing

Rather than focusing on a new technology or website in our year-end review on the Digital Campus podcast, I chose reading as the big story of 2011. Surely 2011 was the year that digital reading came of age, with iPad and Kindle sales skyrocketing, apps for reading flourishing, and sites for finding high-quality long-form writing proliferating. It was apropos that Alan Jacobs‘s wonderful book The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction was published in 2011.

Indeed, the relationship between reading and distraction was one of the things that caught my eye reading Daniel Kahneman‘s essential Thinking, Fast and Slow. Kahneman speaks of two systems in the mind—he eschews “intuition” and “reason” for the more neutral “System 1” and “System 2″—with the first making quick, unconscious assessments and the second engaging in much more studious, and laborious, calculations. Since our minds (like our bodies) are naturally lazy, we prefer to stick with System 1’s judgments as much as possible, unless jarred out of it into the grumpier System 2.

In the fifth chapter of Thinking, Fast and Slow, Kahneman addresses the act of reading, and the impulse—even in what is normally thought of as the most cerebral of human acts—to fall back on System 1, to associate the ease of reading with the truth of what is read:

How do you know that a statement is true? If it is strongly linked by logic or association to other beliefs or preferences you hold, or comes from a source you trust and like, you will feel a sense of cognitive ease. The trouble is that there may be other causes for your feeling of ease—including the quality of the font and the appealing rhythm of the prose—and you have no simple way of tracing your feelings to their source.

Thus the context writing exists in and other aspects unrelated to the actual content are critical to the reception that writing receives. In addition to studies on the effects of different fonts on credibility, Kahneman also cites experiments that show the importance of the quality of paper (for printed materials), of the contrast between a font and its background, and of the presence of distractions that reduce the cognitive ease of reading. In short, environments that make it easy to read also make it easy to believe what is being read. Perhaps the most unsettling aspect of this mixture of context and content is that is it extremely difficult for you to separate the two.

So legibility and the absence of distractions are not just design niceties; when a reader chooses to move an article into an app like Instapaper, they are strongly increasing the odds that they will like what they read and agree with it. And since readers often make that relocation at the recommendation of a trusted source, the written work is additionally “framed” as worthy even before the act of reading has begun.

Commercial publishers may not like the use of Instapaper or Readability, which strip the distractions otherwise known as ads from a cluttered website to focus solely on the text at hand, but they are an unalloyed good for writers.

Digital History Research Awards for New PhD Students at Mason

George Mason University and the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media are pleased to announce Digital History Research Awards for students entering the History and Art History doctoral program in fall 2012. Students receiving these awards will get five years of fully funded studies, as follows: $20,000 research stipends in years 1 and 2; research assistantships at RRCHNM in years 3, 4, and 5. Awards include fulltime tuition waivers and student health insurance. For more information, contact Professor Cynthia A. Kierner (Director of the Ph.D. Program) at ckierner@gmu.edu or Professor Dan Cohen (Director, Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media) at dcohen@gmu.edu. The deadline for applications is January 15, 2012.

Critical Elements of Web Culture Scholars Should Understand

The Scholars’ Lab at the University of Virginia has posted audio recordings of sessions from “The Humanities in a Digital Age,” a symposium that took place in November at UVA’s new Institute of the Humanities and Global Cultures. My keynote at the symposium was entitled “Humanities Scholars and the Web: Past, Present, Future,” and focused on what I believe are three critical elements of the web that scholars tend to overlook, or that cause concern because they upset certain academic conventions:

1) The openness and standards of the web produce generative platforms. The magic of the web is that from relatively simple technical specifications and interoperability arise an incredibly varied and constantly innovative set of genres. For those wedded to traditional forms such as the book and article, this can be difficult to understand and accept.

2) Interfaces shape genres. Tracing the history of web applications used to make blogs, from early link aggregators to the blank page of WordPress 3’s full-screen writing environment, shows this in action. Humanities blogs shifted in helpful ways over the last 15 years, into modes that should be more acceptable to the academy, as these interfaces changed. Being in control of these interfaces is important as we continue to develop online scholarship.

3) Communities define practice. Conventions around web genres are created by those participating in them. This has serious implications for what the academy might be able to do with the web in the future.

You can hear about these three main points and much more in the talk, which is available as a podcast or audio stream near the bottom of this page. Part of the talk comes from chapter 1 of The Ivory Tower and the Open Web.

Panel on the Future of Digital Publishing [Video]

I really enjoyed the 2011 HASTAC conference at the University of Michigan last weekend. Many interesting talks and project presentations, and less formal (but no less interesting) conversations in the hallways.

I particularly enjoyed the panel I was on with Tara McPherson and Richard Nash on “The Future of Digital Publishing.” Video of that panel is now available:

I expand upon several points I’ve been making in this space and elsewhere, such as PressForward‘s pyramidal scheme of assessment, the notion that scholarship can come in many forms and should shape journals rather than vice versa, the hidden cost of perfection, and the affordances of digital publishing.

What Will Happen to Developmental Editing?

My colleague Zach Schrag wrote a guest post on Mike O’Malley’s blog two weeks ago with some significant criticisms of what we are trying to do with PressForward. He expressed a general worry that we were out to destroy a proven system of scholarly review, and a particular worry that we were casting off what is often called “developmental editing,” or the sharp eye of a savvy editor making suggestions for improvement. It’s a serious and important point: few of us can produce flawless arguments and prose from scratch, and can use the help of others to sharpen our writing and ideas.

As I wrote in a quick comment on Zach’s piece, I do not disagree that good editors can be crucial to the advancement of scholarship. It’s just that I do not believe Zach’s wonderful personal experience with an editor is very representative of the experience of scholars in 2011, or presents an accurate and whole picture of the cost, labor, and landscape of scholarly communication.

Here’s Barbara Fister with a recent report on what those at university presses have to say about the state of developmental editing:

I assumed that editorial work was a massive time commitment for university press editors, but the people I talked to said manuscripts need to be very nearly ready for publication these days; most editors don’t have the time for developmental or line editing. Authors increasingly need to get that work done themselves, either through writing groups or by hiring their own editors. Authors may also have to pitch in to pay for indexing, an important feature of scholarly monographs. Publishers at our discussion were not convinced that copy editing was worth the cost; the more ready a book is to go to print, the better. Design was once a standard function, but increasingly designs are templates that can be applied to any number of books. In general, work done on books once acquired seems to play a much smaller role than identifying authors to publish and then helping an audience discover the published book.

This jibes with my view of the situation: the world of fussy, behind-the-scenes editing that Zach treasures is in decline because of its costs, which were once masked by less-lean library purchasing budgets that created surpluses for presses which could be devoted to greater fussing. (Not worth getting into here, but it’s been many years since I experienced any decent developmental editing with my books or articles at presses or journals—please agree or contradict me by adding your experiences in the comments.) Worse, with additional cost-cutting on the horizon, I suspect that Zach’s ideal form of a paid, dedicated editor is unsustainable. (The sciences seem to have already figured this out; the most successful recent publications are venues like PLoS ONE and its clones from commercial publishers, which merely check for technical competency rather than content quality, and rely on the community of scientists to determine that quality.)

But let me agree with Zach that developmental editing is useful in history and the humanities. Where will it come from in the future? Zach and others believe that the only possible system is the system we know, with a dedicated editor paid for by publication gating fees. Here is where we diverge. If we look at the total picture of peer view and scholarly communication—not just in these sad days of recession and cost-cutting, but in prior generations as well—most of the developmental editing has actually come from unpaid colleagues and peers in our discipline, who are willing to give our drafts a read, or listen to us give early versions of our ideas at conferences or over coffee. Developmental editing has always largely resided in the gift economy of the scholarly community. Indeed, Zach runs our Levine Seminar series at Mason, where faculty present drafts of articles or book chapters to each other, receiving helpful criticism.

Surfacing, supporting, and expanding that gift economy is one of the goals of PressForward. Although those in the digital humanities often point to big experiments in open review—Jack Dougherty and Kristen Nawrotzki’s Writing History in a Digital Age, for instance, recently received hundreds of high-quality comments—it’s also important to recognize the increasing frequency of more modest experiments on the web.

For instance, this summer, while working on an article on a fourteenth-century motet, the Oxford musicologist Elizabeth Eva Leach posted a draft to her blog for comment. She didn’t receive hundreds of comments, but some helpful colleagues interested in the subject matter read the draft carefully and wrote in suggestions for improvement. Those little moments happen every day on the open web, and I suppose where Zach and I disagree is in their value. I’ve seen some extraordinarily extensive comments that easily equal the comments of a dedicated editor, whereas Zach worries that without that editor’s dedication, some scholars will receive no feedback.

With PressForward, we are not only trying to aggregate and curate high-quality, vetted scholarly content; we are trying to aggregate the attention of scholars so we can point to pieces like Leach’s, which in turn will receive more in-depth commentary. My view, perhaps colored by six years of blogging, is that there are many intelligent voices out there prepared to provide criticism. And the more commenters, the wider the range of views and suggestions, as opposed to the voice of a lone editor.

In short, far from destroying what is good and true, open publication with a layer of review seems like an obvious and effective way to retain some measure of developmental editing in a changing world of scholarly communication.

Evans and Cebula on Academic Blogging

There has been some very good writing recently on academic blogging that I wanted to highlight in this space. Over on the excellent History of Emotions Blog, Jules Evans asks “Should Academics Blog?” (Update 1/6/12: For some reason Jules Evans has taken this post down), and offers some smart reasons in favor. I particularly liked this reason, given how academics often find the writing process difficult:

Firstly, it makes me a better writer. If you only write articles for peer-reviewed journals and the occasional book, you’re going to lose the habit of writing, and when you do write, you may find it a torturous process, like doing no exercise at all then suddenly running a marathon. Or, to use another simile, it’s like being a painter who only ever practices their art by painting huge frescoes. It’s helpful to have a sketchpad to try out ideas, find ways of putting things, and to preserve insights while they’re still fresh. It’s not either blogging or longer and more serious work. Blogging makes the longer work easier and more vibrant.

Another experienced (and award-winning) academic blogger, Larry Cebula, provides sound advice for academics thinking about starting a blog, or those who worry about sustaining one:

Decide what your blog is about, and stick to it. This blog covers the history of the Pacific Northwest, digital history and resources, and sometimes teaching. You topic does not have to be a straight jacket (perhaps 10% of my posts are outside of my usual topics), but keeping a tight focus helps you build an audience and reputation.

And in case you’re new to this blog, my views on academic blogging from 2006.