The Four Noble Virtues of Digital Media Citation

The Four Noble Virtues of Digital Media Citation

In digital space, everything we do is networked. Real thinking doesn’t (and can’t) happen in a vacuum. Our teaching practices and scholarship don’t just burst forth miraculously from our skulls. The digital academic community is driven by citation, generosity, connection, and collaboration. The work we do as hybrid and critical pedagogues, digital humanists, and alternative academic publishers depends on our sharing ideas as part of a much larger project or conversation.

Two weeks ago, in his post “Catching the Good”, Dan Cohen explained how the community of digital scholars should be looking to “catch” others doing great work, rather than focusing on older models that utilize negative reinforcement like the submission/rejection process. Cohen recognizes key qualities that orbit digital publishing practices, namely experimentation and interdisciplinarity. At the end of the post, he writes:

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?

An attention to the psychology of positive-reinforcement in publishing has been a long time coming and is motivated by, among other things, the decrease in resources (money and time) required to publish. Clay Shirky argues, in Here Comes Everybody, that the drop in expense digital practices precipitate opens fields of scholarly and social activity previously limited to insular professional communities. Considering Shirky’s attention to the economic impact of the web on social behavior and Cohen’s gesture toward the psychological impact of positive-reinforcement on digital scholars, we propose to define four virtues of digital media citation:

1. ATTRIBUTE
In most digital publications, no one person shoulders the brunt of the entire project. Instead, we bring together teachers, philosophers, designers, technicians, coders, researchers, authors, editors, and commenters. On an even deeper level, our work on Hybrid Pedagogy is built from close engagement with our sources — engagement with the coterminous work of ProfHackerJITP, or the Journal of Digital Humanities, but also with seminal works like Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed or Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “The American Scholar.”

While citation has long been a defining feature of academic work, it happens more frequently and with different intentions in the best digital scholarship. We all build mental maps of posts, articles, projects, and arguments that guide our work. Good digital citation practices, though, aim to make these maps explicit, reconstructing them online by weaving together direct links to the intersecting texts that help shape our own ideas.

Consider the sometimes frenetic consumption of web content. We read an article on a computer screen, or we skim it on a smartphone as we walk to class. As we read, we might be reminded of something we can’t quite put our finger on. We annotate and leave even ourselves reminders. We build lists on Evernote or Diigo; we “favorite” tweets of articles we’ve enjoyed or need to return to. We consume so many texts, though, across so many fields, in so many different ways (consider the difference between sitting down to read The New Yorker and scanning across leads in a digest of new posts on ProfHacker) that we risk losing locations on the map of our own consumptive practices.

If this is true for digital media consumers (a condition championed by Tyler Cowan and lamented by Nicholas Carr), as digital media authors, we must work even harder to build thorough maps for the audiences of our scholarship. We attribute not just for rhetorical effect, but for intertextual familiarity. Sources no longer deliver merely arguments or data; they create an interactive critical network.

2. DEFER
Espousing deference as an academic virtue may sound odd, especially within a discussion of citation. From a more traditional scholarly publishing perspective, competition often pits potential collaborators against each other. In the rush to publish the results of an experiment or the impact of a particular theory, scholars might actively avoid acknowledging their indebtedness to the work of their peers. A singularly influential journal article can make someone a celebrity in the traditional publishing model, a kind of ideological authority that invites rhetorical challenge.

In digital discourse, however, an article has less claim to such authority because it is in such immediate contiguity with parallel scholarship — the Burkian conversation metaphor brought to fruition. Rather than everyone talking over one another, the best digital texts talk in turn, express appreciation and connection, and are honest about their indebtedness to related works.

Digital scholarship has a different surface than traditional scholarship, beyond just being communicated across a different medium. That surface is more evenly perforated. It can and should allow more academic voices to permeate its boundary as references. When that happens, our attitude toward those sources becomes more deferential. The work of others completes a kernel of an idea we’ve only just begun to consider. We propose a question and call others to answer. Through hyperlinks and post-publishing tweets that make the scholarly invitation explicit, we demonstrate our humility. Liberal citation communicates a deference to the scholarly community that guides our work and may be best suited to extend it.

This has all been said even better, and more succinctly, by Cormac McCarthy. In a rare interview about his work, he says, “The ugly fact is books are made out of books. The novel depends for its life on the novels that have been written.”

3. CURATE
There is nothing particularly new or innovative about curation, but the practice is currently being championed and re-imagined by web authors. For example, the Chronicle’s Arts and Letters Daily is a beautifully simple and fresh list of “ideas, criticism, and debate” across a range of academic disciplines. The democratic format of its short entries and links eschews authorial-name dropping, instead enticing readers with thought-provoking blurbs. Arts and Letters Daily’s curated links strip ethos away, allowing readers more direct access to an article’s pith. With more attention to design, Brain Pickings is an explosion of connected, structured, interdisciplinary material. Brain Pickings is “the brain child of Maria Popova, a cultural curator and curious mind at large” and offers scores of inventive lists, reviews, and aesthetic curiosities. Finally, consider the curated media space In Media Res, where scholars propose, present, and contextualize contemporary media artifacts.

Our goal with Hybrid Pedagogy is to be neither here nor there, and the best way for us to sit both inside and outside a thing (like teaching) is to think carefully about its boundaries, and to examine closely how that thing is connected to other things. We’ve been a part of (and have learned a great deal from) conversations among K-12 teachers, college teachers, #altac professionals, classroom teachers, online teachers, and educational technologists. The impetus of this project is to bring all these folks into rooms together (both virtual and physical), and thus to encourage cross-pollination of ideas about what it is to learn and about the changing nature of the tools and technologies we use for learning. Our citation practice (and the philosophy it engenders) is just one way through which we form and shape these rooms.

Digital curation is not just about assembling a random list of links and web objects; rather, the best curatorial practice is more overtly intertextual, bringing those links and web objects (and the people behind them) into meaningful conversation, making explicit and implicit connections between them.

4. ENGAGE
Hyperlinks are just one of the ways that we put works into conversation on the web. The hyperlink (both as a literal device in digital texts and as a metaphor) draws a direct line between things at a conceptual distance, pushing them (no matter how disparate) into direct (metonymic) contact. The hyperlink is a call-to-action in at least two ways. It asks the reader to venture off the page and into a sourced work. It also invites the author of the sourced work into the conversation, through the trackback that tells them when and where they’ve been cited.

Kathleen Fitzpatrick writes in Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy,

To the degree that scholarship is about participating in an exchange of ideas with one’s peers, new networked publishing structures can facilitate that interaction, but will best do so if the discussion is ongoing, always in process. This foregrounding of conversation, however, will likely also require authors . . .  to relinquish a certain degree of control over their texts, letting go of the illusion that their work springs wholly from their individual intelligence and acknowledging the ways that scholarship, even in fields in which sole authorship is the norm, has always been collaborative. (12)

Taking a cue from Fitzpatrick, Hybrid Pedagogy aims to rethink how digital media citation happens by moving away from citation as context-shaping or name-dropping and toward citation as critical-positioning and community-building. In this way, each citation and each hyperlink preempts the peer review process by inviting other scholars and pedagogues into the conversation. We don’t cite because someone has written the “best thing”; rather, we cite to offer feedback and to invite dialogue. Thus, digital scholarship becomes less about the delivery of knowledge and more about fostering critical engagement. It becomes less about knowing and more about doing — more about a collection of practices, a methodology. These practices and methodology are born out of experimentation and out of discussions we have at conferences (especially ones like THATCamp), via Twitter, in our classrooms, and on the pages of a journal.

Rather than end with neat and tidy conclusions, in the spirit of engagement, we offer these questions:

1. What digital artifacts or scholarship have changed or overwritten the concept of traditional citation for you?
2. Does the hyperlink amend or replace the static bibliographic record?
3. How has social media reinvented citation practices?
4. How should we teach research and citation in light of digital media practices?

[Photo by mmechtley]

About the Authors

Pete Rorabaugh

Pete Rorabaugh (@allistelling) is Assistant Professor of English, Southern Polytechnic State Univ in @ETCMA_SPSU. Critical pedagogue, Americanist, father, and co-founder of Hybrid Pedagogy.

Jesse Stommel (@Jessifer) is Director of Hybrid Pedagogy and Assistant Professor of Digital Humanities in the Department of Liberal Arts and Applied Studies at University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is an advocate for lifelong learning and the public digital humanities. His personal site can be found at jessestommel.com.

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