Technological Ecologies and Sustainability

Sustaining Scholarly Efforts

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



Social networks and collaborative scholarship—especially when informed by feminist values on sharing and connection—can multiply and leverage the innovation and contributions of new scholarly projects. They can also help increase the sustainability of such projects and the community at large.

Although social networks have grounded the collaborative projects we have undertaken with the journal, various book series, and edited collections, feminist perspectives also continue to inform our scholarly work. Our most recent co-authored book, Literate Lives in the Information Age (2004), provides an important example of how feminist values on connection and an ethics of care (Noddings, 1984) can contribute meaningfully to collaborative scholarship and function to sustain the projects and disciplinary community from which they emerge. The goal for this book project was to gather information about literate practices as they occurred in peoples’ lives and, then, to analyze the information gathered within the larger contexts of the historical, political, economic, and ideological movements that had shaped these same people’s lives. We were—and continue to be—interested not only in how people acquire and develop digital literacies but also in how we can do justice to participants’ words while recounting their stories and, at the same time, holding ourselves accountable (Britzman, 2000). Following the lead of feminist scholars such as Caroline Brettell (1996), Patti Lather (2000), Deborah Britzman (2000), Shulamit Reinharz (1992), and Kamala Visweswaren (1994), we attempted to develop a research methodology that worked toward an ethical understanding of agency that honors all individuals involved in our study—a methodology that allowed us to write with and about those in our study in a manner that suits all parties.

With these concerns in mind, we invited participants to co-author their chapters with us to develop a feminist framework for doing such work and inviting truly collaborative processes between researchers and study participants. We were influenced in this decision by Caroline Brettell’s (1996) collection When They Read What We Write, which presents a series of perspectives on studies like ours—anthropological projects, ethnographies, and life histories—and talks about the ways in which approaches to such writing have suffered from the limited and often modernist perspectives of academics and professional scholars who, as Schoen (1983) noted, still cling to an understanding of “the superior academic value of ‘pure knowledge’ inherited from the ‘model of technical rationality’ that has been influential in all American social sciences” (p. 27). In many respects, we see this attitude as a part of the conservative forces that authors in disciplines outside the humanities encounter and, which, as we’ve noted, tends to challenge models of scholarship that privilege collaborative authorship. As we thought through our research practices, we came to the conclusion, however, that co-authorship—as a refinement in method—would give participants more say in the politics of interpretation. When we turned to the participants, finally, and asked if they would be willing to co-author their chapters, the great majority of those whom we approached accepted, only a few preferring to maintain their anonymity and privacy.           

Although we began our project with the intent to sample a representative group of people within the United States, we inevitably came in contact with those in other parts of the world who had their own rich digital literacy stories to tell. Thus, what began as research focusing primarily on a network of participants from the United States quickly spun out into other projects that now include people from China, Taiwan, Nigeria, Egypt, Norway, and other countries (see Hawisher, Selfe, Guo, & Liu, 2006; Hawisher, Selfe, Coffield, & El-Wakil, 2006; Selfe, Hawisher, Lashore, & Song, 2006). This scholarship continues with recent presentations we have given at Australia’s University of New South Wales and China’s Peking University.In all this work, we have found that the more we engage in collaboration informed by feminist values between ourselves and among the many that contribute to the computers and writing community, the richer and more sustainable the scholarship becomes. These collaborative configurations tend to encourage, in addition, the circulation, exchange, and the social sharing of new knowledge in ways that exponentially increase the membership of disciplinary communities, encourage new collaborations among those who come together however briefly, and, ultimately, we hope, provide sustenance for a young, expanding field (Benkler, 2004; Johnson-Eilola, 1995).           

These collaborative configurations are having a similar effect on another research project that grew out of our work with Literate Lives in the Information Age (2004). Recognizing that far too many literacy stories remained uncollected, unheard, and unappreciated, we began talking about the possibility of an archive to house the many digital literacy narratives that were yet to be told. When one of the authors moved to Ohio State University, the project began to take on a life of its own. Led by Cynthia Selfe, H. Lewis Ulman, and Richard Selfe, the Digital Archives of Literacy Narratives (DALN) project was designed to develop a searchable, public archive of literacy narratives—autobiographical recollections of how individuals acquired the ability to read and write; the conditions under which they did so; and what familial, educational, economic, technological, and historical influences have shaped their literate practices. Depending on the preferences of individual contributors, these literacy narratives may be written documents, video-taped recollections, or audio recordings. The DALN is available on the web, both for individuals to contribute their narratives and for scholars, educators, and literacy program workers to search and use, thus extending the reach of research possibilities. To plan for the sustainability of the DALN, the Ohio State University team partnered with an established state-wide project—OhioLink’s Digital Resource Commons, which is committed to maintaining electronic collections of information for educators across the State. This partnership leverages local efforts by taking advantage of an established technological infrastructure that will continue to support the DALN project in coming years. Most significantly, the project recognizes that although our continuing international research is important, today’s new technologies allow—indeed demand—a much wider circulation of documents and other materials. In other words, DALN is responding to trends of informatization and globalization, and the ways these trends have converged in the 21st century to transform communication and literacy practices, which increasingly occur within and around globalized computer networks (Brandt 1995, 2001; Castells, 1996, 1997, 1998; Kress, 1999, 2003). Within this context, communicative practices and values have become increasingly international, cross-cultural, and digital; they have also, in many cases, become increasingly multimodal. In globalized computer environments, texts designed to carry meaning across geopolitical, linguistic, and cultural borders must take full advantage of not only words, but also of still images, video, animation, and audio (Selfe & Hawisher, 2004).

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These changes in literacy practices and values are both dramatic in scope and far reaching in effect, and they pose enormous challenges for humanities scholars. The need to focus on new forms and practices of literacy and to provide an historical trace of literacy practices as they continue to migrate from print to digital environments, has become acute—for humanities scholars, librarians, historians, and educators among many others. Once fully implemented, the DALN will invite citizens of all ages, races, genders, and backgrounds to tell their literacy histories—using print, audio, or video—in response to a series of prompting questions and then to submit these narratives to a public, web-based archive, along with any literacy artifacts (e.g., poems, song lyrics, essays, photographs, video clips) that have a bearing on these stories. Because the archive’s historical value will increase in direct proportion to the number of people who voluntarily contribute their literacy narratives, a series of DALN centers will be set up at various locations to encourage a broad range of citizens to tell their stories about literacy, and to describe the literacy values and practices of their families, their peer groups, and their communities. As the archives expand, we hope to fund additional projects aimed at targeting specific groups of citizens whose stories are under-represented. The DALN project can best be compared to the Mass Observation project in Britain, which has been in existence since 1937. The Mass Observation project, like the DALN, has the goal of tracing the everyday literacy practices of ordinary people that often remain invisible in our culture—especially during times of dynamic change (Sheridan, Street, & Bloome, 2000).

Finally, as we write this chapter, we have very much on our minds the most recent of our projects, Computers and Composition Digital Press (CCDP), which is designed to address more thoroughly those problems in publication we have enumerated. CCDP has in place an impressive international editorial board of scholars and, with the help of good colleagues from Miami University, the Illinois Institute of Technology, as well as the University of Illinois and Ohio State University, we have begun to solicit ebook proposals like Technological Ecologies and Sustainability in which this chapter appears. Recognizing the dilemma that junior faculty face in finding publication venues for their digital media scholarship, CCDP is committed to publishing innovative, peer-reviewed ebooks and multimodal scholarly projects in an open-access, online venue. We seek digital academic publishing projects that have the same gravity as books, but not always necessarily the specific form of books. That is, the press will publish print texts in electronic form available for downloading, but we are also particularly interested in digital projects that cannot be printed on paper, yet have the same intellectual heft as a book. Most recently, Utah State University Press (USUP) has signed on to host the imprint of CCDP. The collaboration between Michael Spooner, the Director of USUP, and ourselves marks an attempt to institutionalize CCDP for the future. Unsurprisingly, we have also teamed up with the Institute for the Future of the Book, a group “investigating the evolution of intellectual discourse as it shifts from printed pages to networked screens.” One of its major projects is developing the software Sophie, a media-rich program for everyday web authors that we hope will prove useful to CCDP authors.

The goal of the digital press is to honor the traditional academic values of rigorous peer review and intellectual excellence, but also to combine such work with a commitment to open access and innovative digital scholarship. For us, the digital press represents an important kind of scholarship and scholarly activism—an effort to circulate the best work of digital media scholars in a timely fashion and on a global scale made possible by digital distribution. We acknowledge that starting these projects has required an enormous amount of work and, even more important, that sustaining them remains the real challenge. To some extent, the long-term continuation of these projects will depend on luck and good timing, as such things always do. We hope that these factors will exert a relatively minor and manageable influence if we can focus on careful planning and the collective efforts of talented and committed people that make up our intensional networks. The colleagues and graduate students with whom we have worked have made all the difference in providing the needed sustenance for the many projects in which we have been involved. Although we didn’t set out to participate in Brown and Duguid’s intensional networks, the extraordinary times in which we live, the technology-rich environments in which we work, and the generosity of colleagues in the expanding fields of literacy and technology studies have sustained us and the projects we have undertaken.

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