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[META] Breaking the primacy of print

I was brought on board to help launch TWC in part because of my expertise in the scientific publishing world and my background in production. I was a hard sell when asked to lend my time to the Organization for Transformative Works (OTW) and to TWC. What convinced me was the open access nature of the journal, the Creative Commons copyright, and the notion of fair use that would permit the journal to embed video and stills. These are in striking contrast to the locked-down access, repressive reprint rules, and monetization of content that I see every day in the journal-publishing industry. When it came time to decide whether we wanted a print component available for TWC’s articles, like a print version or PDFs, I spoke out strongly against it. I argued for the primacy of the online version because TWC embeds media, like YouTube videos and screen caps. How could that be duplicated in print? It can’t. Better that there be only one official version, and that one online. We would strike a blow for online-only content!

Two years later, TWC is still online only, but it’s become clear that that ideal has a cost. TWC’s audience is made up of acafans, and lots of academics who might otherwise submit to TWC find that they ought not, because their university has rules that online-only publications do not count for promotion and tenure. Some publishers won’t send us review copies of books because they have a blanket policy that they will not provide books to online-only publications. It’s clear that the reputation of online-only publications is markedly lesser than print publications. Discussions have been going on for years about online publishing models and how to weight them for tenure and promotion: Robert B. Townsend’s “History and the Future of Scholarly Publishing” discusses the issue in the field of history, and the Modern Language Association lays out its suggestions in its Statement on Publication in Electronic Journals.

The academic articles in TWC are double-blind peer reviewed. This means that every article is read by two scholars in the field who are unaware of the identity of the writer, and the writer is shielded from the identity of the readers. That’s the gold standard in the journal-publishing industry. (Several sections of the journal, including the Symposium section, are editorially reviewed.) We naively thought that rigor, peer review, excellent editing, and overall high standards would trump mode of publication. But little has changed in institutional practices. It is too easy to replicate the existing model, or too difficult to permit an institutional committee to assess items on their own merits. They would rather offload their assessment to a proxy, such as publication in a prestigious journal or by a prestigious press. Why read the book if Oxford University Press published it? It’s Oxford University Press! Similarly, to assess importance, you might look at proxies that are meant to suggest importance in the field: you might check the journal’s acceptance rates; if in the sciences you might check their impact factor; or you might examine a listing maintained by, say, the MLA, and if it’s on the list, it counts.

To up our profile, we submit TWC to various indexes. These indexes are lists of vetted content that meets certain criteria, and being listed in the index is a way to show legitimacy and drive readership. Well-known indexes that most people have heard of include PubMed (for medicine) and ERIC (for education). TWC signed an agreement permitting EBSCO, a database aggregator, to list TWC. But our application to be listed in Scopus was rejected, perhaps because when we applied, only a single issue had come out. (We’ll try again later.) To be listed, not only must TWC maintain its status as blind peer reviewed, but the journal must print a careful ratio of peer-reviewed content to non-peer-reviewed content to retain the status of “academic.” The indexing services seek to ensure quality by going down a checklist of current best practices in the journal-publishing industry and only listing journals that fulfill these criteria. Yet best practices have clearly not yet been able to adequately account for online-only publications, or online-only publications would not be treated differently by academic institutions during review for tenure and promotion.

When I fill out forms, surveys, and index submission forms related to TWC and its practices, it becomes clear how strongly the print model affects every aspect of what is considered the norm for publishing. I skip entire sections: I don’t know the number of subscriptions because we don’t use a subscription model. I can’t estimate readership because many of the user accounts are obviously spam accounts, and plenty of readers never create a user ID. We don’t offer different levels of access to different people. We don’t have office expenses because we don’t have an office, instead using freeware OJS to shepherd copy through the publication process. I can’t estimate readership for an essay because our copyright permits the author, or anyone else, to repost, which bleeds off readers and thus they aren’t counted by the software. We have no income from reprint or author fees because we don’t charge those fees. All the questions meant to assess readership and subscriptions are, with an open access model, nearly impossible to estimate. Ironically, the traditional journal-publishing world seeks to maximize impact by minimizing access, even though study after study has shown that people are far more likely to read and cite publications available in full online.

Despite these very real drawbacks, all of which are remnants of the print model, I stand by our decision to reject print in favor of online-only open access. We probably don’t need to be cited in indexes like Scopus because Google searches easily find us, with no block to obtaining full text. It has also struck me that my coeditor, Kristina Busse, and I are the perfect people to edit this journal precisely because neither of us is affiliated. Our jobs aren’t going to be affected by our work; working on the journal will never “count” one way or the other. That’s tremendously freeing.

I’m proud to be working on a publication that is on the vanguard of changing the journal-publishing model by testing models and ideas that permit the free and open exchange of ideas within a context of intellectual rigor. I am saddened that some authors will never submit to us because they can’t afford to, but I am also confident that within the next 10 years, that will change. And it will be because TWC, and journals like it, stood its ground.

[META] Mad Men and Aca-Fen

I wanted to write something about the recent online dust-up (micro-kerfuffle?) in media studies sparked by Ian Bogost’s post, Against Aca-Fandom, which riffed off of Jason Mittell’s essay On Disliking Mad Men and in turn sparked another post from Henry Jenkins, On Mad Men, Aca-Fandom, and the Goals of Cultural Criticism. But the more I tried to disentangle the various threads (in these posts, and the comments to them, and Twitter, and elsewhere) the less clear I became about the substance of Bogost’s critique and its relationship to Mittell’s essay. So I decided to go back to the beginning and look again at what Mittell actually wrote about Mad Men. I should probably caveat that I am a fan of Mad Men, and a semi-fan of Mittell’s work (dude kind of lost me with his posts on the final season of Lost).

So Jason Mittell vs. Mad Men: he starts by saying that on paper, he should like it as a fan of a certain brand of cable-style “quality TV” which falls within the genre of complex serialized narratives that he’s made a name for himself out of analyzing and championing. Moreover, his peer group of critics and academics all seem to love the show. Which leaves him at great pains to try to advance a critique of the show which is not a critique of its fans/his friends — “that I can offer my negative take on the series without implicating its fans in my critique” — by “highlight[ing] [his] own aesthetic response to shed some light on the mechanics of taste and televisual pleasure.” So far, so good, right? (Though I’m not entirely sure what he means by “aesthetic response”, which seems to be a synonym for affect, as he repeatedly links it to pleasure while bracketing off his respect for the caliber of the acting, writing, set design, etc. as objective qualities which fail nevertheless to provide him with pleasure.)

But he chooses an odd strategy to insulate fans from his critique, by articulating his “absence of pleasure” in Mad Men “dialogically, in comparison [with] what the show’s admirers find so enjoyable. In discussing Mad Men with friends and reading celebratory criticism, I believe the three core types of pleasure that they take from the show (and that evade me) are in the visual splendor of its period style, the subtextual commentary on American history and identity, and the emotional resonance to be found with the characters and their dramas.” Spoiler alert: each of these “core types of pleasure” end up eluding Mittell, and he never ends up reconciling his displeasure with his friends’ enjoyment of the show.

Mittell never makes clear the origin or status of the types of pleasure he describes — specifically, whether they’re inherent to the show, cultivated by the fans, or forged in complicity between the fans and the show’s creators. But his displeasure — his inability to find pleasure in Mad Men, to recognize himself amongst his peers as a fan of the show — circles around contradiction and ambivalence. He can’t find pleasure in the contradiction between the glossy veneer of the show’s period style and its cultural critique, in the ambivalent politics of “social critique [which] seems to promote a sense of superiority to the characters and the 1960s milieu, while simultaneously inviting us to return to this unpleasant place each week.” He’s left cold by the narrative’s “emotional distance”, the characters “we are seemingly supposed to find… both appealing and repellent at the same time”: Mittell “ultimately doesn’t care about these people.”

At one point Mittell, discussing Betty Draper in the first season, describes her as the character he found “most off-putting”, with her depiction in the show “making us complicit in her degradation and generating contempt for her frail character.” Yet later on he reserves special contempt (“disgust and disdain”) for the lead character Don Draper, who he deems less sympathetic than “quality TV”‘s murderous rogues gallery of Tony Soprano, Dexter Morgan, or Vic Mackey. Mittell cites an episode where Don ruins his daughter’s birthday party as cause for singular scorn: “as a father, I found this unmotivated behavior a step too far.”

In a suggestive phrasing, Mittell suggest that “[t]he missing ingredient from Draper and nearly all of Mad Men‘s characters is empathy, as virtually nobody’s behavior or situation invites me to place myself in their shoes. Instead, I watch the characters from an emotional remove….” But surely the lack of empathy that Mittell locates here resides in himself; he eschews complicity with Betty’s plight, and actively disidentifies with Don — a man with “the most agency” and “copious opportunities” who “created his own destiny”, “a charmed life of limitless professional and romantic opportunity.” I can’t speak to Mittell’s love life, but surely some of the phrasing he uses to describe Don’s achievements and capabilities could also apply to a certain degree to his own position as a tenured media studies professor with several publications and a solid reputation in the field — solid enough at least to be invited to contribute to a volume on a show that he doesn’t even watch?

My take on Mad Men is that the show operates in a deeply ironic mode — contradiction and ambivalence are features, not bugs. What Mittell identifies as incongruities and incompatibilities in his three core types of pleasure are in fact irresolvable and a continued source of tension for the viewer that alternately evoke empathy and distancing. The aesthetic of the show thus lies much closer to modernist novels than the “serial fiction of the nineteenth century” to which Mittell has frequently compared recent the complex serialized narratives of shows like The Wire which he favors. For me, the subtext of Mittell’s complaint is his refusal or inability to find pleasure in that ironic mode, to secure a pleasurable place as audience and potential fan within those contradictions and ambivalences that threaten to overwhelm him with complicity and contempt. The pleasures of Mad Men, and the experience of being a fan of the series, thus remain opaque to him as they don’t align with his own.

Yet I think the experiences that he describes, even as he rejects them — complicity, contempt, disidentification — can also function as valuable critical tools for the aca-fan. If aca-fandom is to extend beyond the purely celebratory, the range of affect in question should encompass more than pleasure. Perhaps what we really need is an aca-fandom capable of operating in ironic modes of critique.

[ADMIN] Welcome!

We are delighted to begin offering you weekly posts in a blog affiliated with the journal Transformative Works and Cultures, specifically its Symposium section.

Our goal for this blog is to provide a lively forum for discussion of fan works and fan cultures, one which draws on the modes and traditions of both fannish meta and academic analysis. Above all, we want to offer a bridge between Transformative Works and Cultures and fannish discussions, by covering both fannish meta topics, and fannish perspectives on fan and media studies. Our hope is that the blog spurs greater interest in and engagement with TWC among fandom, and extends the reach of TWC by linking to and discussing ideas and themes presented in the journal.

Your regular bloggers are:

cryptoxin, who is a long-time fan of science fiction TV, comic books, professional wrestling, and anime. He came into online media fandom a few years ago, and his fannish interests include meta and vidding. He maintains personal journals on Dreamwidth and LiveJournal.

 Dana Sterling, who was abruptly catapulted into online fandom with the movies of “The Lord of the Rings.” She has loved the books since childhood, and never looked back after plunging into the fan community for the movies. Since then, she’s branched out into several other fandoms while retaining her love of all things Middle-earth. She was trained as a journalist, and after 20 years in newspapers, television, radio and magazines, now teaches a variety of communications classes at Oklahoma State University in Okmulgee, Oklahoma.

The two of us intend to gear our posts to a general fannish audience interested in meta discussions and fan studies. The style and tone of the blog will be more informal than TWC articles, and we assume very little prior knowledge of specialized terminology. We will define and cite whenever necessary. We’ll follow the media fandom we know from Livejournal and Dreamwidth, but we anticipate addressing fan topics mentioned in other blogs and mainstream media, as well as the scholarly blogosphere where it intersects with fan studies.

So what can readers expect in the months to come? Weekly posts which will include:

– Reviews and reflections on articles in TWC, including its Symposium section.

– Discussion of trends and developments in fan cultures and fan works, riffing off of the types of posts that are highlighted by the Metafandom community on LiveJournal and Dreamwidth. We always ask permission before citing a fannish journal, and we’ll only cite public posts.

– Critical discussion of external perspectives on fans and fan cultures, including those of journalists and academics.

– Brief interviews with acafen, and a monthly guest blogger.

– Reviews of books or journal articles relevant to fan cultures.

We will moderate and respond to comments, and hope we get a lot of them!

In short, we want to make this blog a bridge between the TWC journal and fandom, by producing a regular stream of content on meta and acafannish topics, content that will be available in a timely fashion, in between the semiannual journal issues.

Plus, we want to have a lot of fun with our friends. :)