Research

I came to Pomona College in 1998, just out of graduate school, in a joint appointment between the Department of English and the Media Studies Program. My dissertation had been accepted in May of that year, and I fully expected that I’d spend a year or so revising it into a book, which would no doubt find a publisher in short order, leaving me free to move on to new projects. Needless to say, it didn’t turn out that way; “revising” turned into a much deeper process of re-envisioning and rewriting, and the time available for that project was much harder to come by than I’d expected. The delay was, I believe, fruitful; The Anxiety of Obsolescence is a far better book than it would have been had it stayed closer to my dissertation. The range of theoretical questions that it asks and the nuance with which it explores them are both richer for my having taken the time to genuinely engage with the book on its own terms, rather than rushing headlong into print.

The crucial turn in my career thus far, however, came after that book manuscript was complete, as I started looking for a publisher for it. While in 1998-99, I’d had expressions of interest in my dissertation from three presses, by 2002, that interest seemed to have dried up. Or, rather, it wasn’t that the interest in the manuscript was gone — far more crucially, the ability to publish it was. All three interested presses, along with numerous others, found themselves after the first dot-com crash in increasingly dire economic straits, a situation that required that they pass on projects that otherwise merited publication but that didn’t show immediate promise of sufficient sales. Query letter after query letter resulted in responses that read, more or less, “boy, we wish we could, but we [can only publish for the classroom market/aren’t taking any first books/are very worried about projects that don’t fit cleanly into existing fields/are just plain full up, thanks].”

The apotheosis of this process came, bizarrely enough, exactly 72 hours after I received the congratulatory phone call from my dean informing me that my tenure and promotion to associate professor had been approved by the cabinet. Ten months before, I’d finally managed to find a press that was both interested and able, and shipped the manuscript off to them; they sent it to outside reviewers, who were enthusiastic about the book, as was the editor. But that morning, in December 2003, three days after getting tenure, I got an email message from the editor telling me that the press was, regretfully, declining to publish the book, on financial grounds. The message informed me that the editor had been overruled during the board meeting by the representatives from the marketing department, who argued that — and this really is a quote — the book would “pose too much financial risk (in the form of relatively slow sales in the first few years) to pursue in the current economy.”

The irony, of course, is that The Anxiety of Obsolescence makes the argument that claims of the book’s death have been purposefully exaggerated. And yet, here I was, having trouble getting the book that made that argument published. Something in the nature of that irony suddenly made clear to me that I’d been looking in the wrong direction, that rather than thinking about the system of scholarly publishing as the conduit that brought my work into being, I needed to treat that system as the object of my work, studying how that system worked, why it seemed to be falling apart, and what might be done to save it.

In that moment was born the two projects that have defined the last several years of my research: MediaCommons and Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy, the former a hands-on attempt to build a new kind of publishing system, and the latter an argument about the social and institutional changes that will be required within the US academy in order for the digital scholarly publishing system of the future to become successful.

Along the way, I’ve written a number of articles and given a number of talks derived from these two projects, and I’ve received one significant grant (an NEH Digital Start-Up Grant) to support MediaCommons. I’ve also blogged extensively and participated in a wide range of public discussions about digital scholarly publishing, about new modes of digital learning, and about the issues facing colleges and universities as they explore the digital future.

All of these projects have over the last few years shifted the focus of my work increasingly toward the media studies side of my joint appointment — this in addition to serving as the coordinator of the Media Studies Program at Pomona College from 2004 to 2009, and now serving as the founding chair of the college’s new Department of Media Studies. With the founding of this new department, my appointment has moved wholly into media studies, but I haven’t fully left my roots in English behind. I have a few continuing projects that focus on contemporary literature, and my next major project, which is in its infancy, and which I can thus only describe in the most speculative terms, will focus on the changes that new media structures are inspiring in narratives produced in a range of forms, including the novel, film, television, and electronic literature. This project, tentatively entitled “Unbecoming Narratives: Death and Abjection in New Media,” considers the disruptions in traditional narrative structures being produced by contemporary media forms. The first chunk I want to work on is an article entitled “The Death of an Ending,” which attempts to focus on the problem of closure in contemporary media by looking at the “ends” (or lack thereof) of blogs, the last episode of The Sopranos, and the last volume of the Harry Potter series, while attempting to think about the relationship between those ends and various theoretical conceptions of the end, whether the end of psychoanalysis or more apocalyptic ends. This project is in its earliest research stages, and so there’s nothing of it, save that description, contained within the dossier, but I look forward to pursuing it, in whatever direction it leads me.

In the meantime, I have a lot of work that I want to do with MediaCommons. In the coming year, I hope to focus my energy on the implementation of the tools we’ve built, attempting to develop the network into a full-fledged publishing system; in effect, I’m attempting to practice what Planned Obsolescence preaches, creating a new community-oriented model of what scholarly publishing in media studies can be. This will involve shepherding projects through their development process, assisting in their construction, and facilitating their dissemination and review. At the same time, I’ll also be working on developing the policies and procedures that will help MediaCommons become self-sustaining as a publishing network.

The last several years since I received tenure have been a bit of a whirlwind, and my research has certainly wound up somewhere different from where I thought I was headed the last time I wrote a personal statement such as this. But the changes in my career and my focus across this period have been extremely fruitful for me, and I hope that in the coming years my projects bear fruit for the field more broadly, for the academy in general, and for the role that the academy might play in the future of public intellectual life.

[updated 5 February 2010 to correct links]