Technological Ecologies and Sustainability

Sustaining Scholarly Efforts

Cynthia L. Selfe, Gail E. Hawisher, and Patrick W. Berry



Scholarly models of production are not fixed. Rather, they are fluid, and socially and technologically shaped and contingent. Scholarship, increasingly, is created, maintained, and circulated in a range of electronic environments that can be used to extend the intellectual reach of ideas and the development of academic fields and subfields.

By the beginning of the 21st century, the use of scholarly materials in digital forms had become commonplace for English faculty: electronic databases of digital materials (e.g., The Wilfred Owen Multimedia Digital Archive, Project Perseus, The Vergil Project at the University of Pennsylvania, the Rossetti Archive, The William Blake Archive), online journals (Kairos: Rhetoric, Technology, and Pedagogy; Enculturation; Computers and Composition Online), and digital tools for searching and finding information, conducting original scholarship, and composing (Google Scholar, HyperResearcher and InterClipper, Microsoft Word, Adobe Dreamweaver, Windows MovieMaker and Apple iMovie, among many others). It remained less common, however, for departments of English to value scholarship published in digital venues, using digital forms of collaborative production and adopting emerging digital formats.

In responding to this dynamic context, we attempted to balance conservative and not-so-conservative values in ways that seemed sustainable at the time and within the situated contexts of our academic lives. We continued to recognize the disparate models of scholarship in play at the time, as well as to recognize the profession’s value on peer review and intellectual excellence in scholarly projects while taking advantage of changing digital environments to support new models of design, production, exchange, and circulation.

More specifically, during the 1990s, we initiated an online version of the print journal, which came to be called Computers and Composition Online. Various iterations of this journal, edited first by Keith Comer, then in Sweden, and Margaret Syverson, at the University of Texas, have been in existence since 1996. Sustaining this effort, however, has not always been easy, especially in the 1990s. As much as we believed that the profession was ready for online publication, academic departments still viewed electronic articles as less rigorous than their print counterparts, and authors were understandably cautious in publishing online. In 2002, however, when Kristine Blair, at Bowling Green State University, assumed the editorship, the journal began to focus on texts that could not be fully or adequately accommodated by print publications. These pieces included articles that featured video and audio content, hypermedia documents, and webbed text. Although we still worry about adequately preserving early issues of the journal, thanks to Blair’s farsighted-leadership, Computers and Composition Online provides a valuable instantiation of arguments being articulated by scholars in the New London Group (among them Cope & Kalantzis, 2000; Kress, 1999, 2000; Kress & Van Leeuwen, 1996), who had begun to recognize the contributions that various semiotic modalities made to complex communication tasks and the inability of any one modality to fully convey meaning. To sustain the considerable effort associated with Computers and Composition Online, Blair, too, relied on tenets of feminist networking and involvement: encouraging talented graduate students seeking editorial experience to participate on the journal’s staff, weaving the journal and its operations into the institutional fabric of her university, and using her extensive personal networks to recruit outstanding scholarship and encourage scholars. Blair’s key strength in this effort is her recognition that sustainability factors will continue to figure centrally in the rapidly changing technological landscape the journal inhabits. She understands, as do we, that sustainability is an ongoing concern, not a short-term project. With Blair’s always-conscientious attention to the journal, we continue to search for additional ways to ensure both the online journal’s history and its future.

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Establishing Computers and Composition Online gave new intellectual definition to the print journal and provided scholars and practitioners in the field another valuable venue for new forms of digital media scholarship,[3] one that retained a value on peer review and excellence while accommodating new forms of academic projects responsive to the new communicative and scholarly forms created, exchanged, and circulated in extended electronic networks. Computers and Composition Online, for example, published a special issue on sound as a compositional space in fall 2006 (edited by Cheryl Ball, Illinois State University, and Byron Hawk, George Mason University) that included a range of sound files and examples that could not have been reproduced in a print format.

The rapid extension of digital networks was also having effects on the print journal, Computers and Composition, which continued to transform itself in response to changing and contingent digital contexts. When the journal was acquired first by Ablex in 1994 and then by Elsevier in 1999, for instance, its international reach became even more pronounced. Elsevier moved to a new electronic editing and delivery system in 2005, creating a new set of challenges and possibilities for the journal. As an Elsevier journal, for example, Computers and Composition was bundled into the publisher’s ScienceDirect offerings, which were marketed to libraries as a consolidated group for a considerable subscription fee. This strategy—when coupled with increases in production costs and journal subscription costs experienced by other presses and journals—stretched already overtaxed library budgets in ways that have, at times, been painful to observe.

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At the same time, however, the fact that the print journal was available in an electronic venue as well as in print meant that increasing numbers of libraries around the world had access to the information contained in the journal in a timely manner. As the journal became increasingly available online, for instance, subscriptions outside the United States rose dramatically, as did opportunities to encourage submissions from scholars in other countries. In 2007, for example, Computers and Composition was not only being read in more than 64 countries around the world, but also published special issues focusing on international contributions (edited by Taku Sugimoto at Chiba Institute of Technology, Japan) and on computer gaming (co-edited by Matthew Johnson, Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville, and Pilar Lacasa, University of Alcalá, Spain). Elsevier’s electronic delivery system also allowed subscribers to download individual articles from various journal issues, and thus provided scholars with another means of identifying the ways in which—and the extent to which—their work was being circulated and read, ensuring additional evidence for their tenure and promotion portfolios.

These new electronic environments, then, through various intensional networks, worked to accelerate the already-rapid spread of information and encouraged emerging disciplinary communities, such as computers and writing, to extend themselves over large distances (Brown & Duguid, 1996; Castells, 1997). Indeed, as John Brown and Paul Duguid pointed out, such communities are increasingly held together, at least in part, by digital networks that promote “documents circulating among members, keeping each other conscious of being a member and aware of what others are up to” (p. 4). There is every indication that this disciplinary networking, now occurring many years after Brown and Duguid’s historic article, continues to grow and expand as scholarship moves, more and more, into digital contexts.

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[3] In this effort, we were inspired, in part, by three similar efforts: Postmodern Culture, first published online in 1990 and edited by John Unsworth and Eyal Amiran; Kairos: A Journal of Rhetoric, Technology, and Pedagogy, which published its first issue in 1996, edited by Mick Doherty, Elizabeth Pass, Michael Salvo, Jason Teaugue, Amy Hanson, Greg Siering, and Corey Wick; and, Enculturation: An Electric Journal for Cultural Studies and Theory, which published its first issue in 1997 under the editorial leadership of Byron Hawk and Thomas Rickert.