Open Letter to Rosemary Feal, Kathleen Fitzpatrick, and the Modern Language Association

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Open Letter to Rosemary Feal, Kathleen Fitzpatrick, and the Modern Language Association

by Eileen A. Joy

*initially written for Facebook, 14 December 2015 (and slightly expanded here / to help me make this letter better and to point out its weaknesses and to help me emend/correct anything, please visit the Discussion Session built around the letter at Academia.edu HERE)

Prefatory Note

I have been trying to finish a somewhat long-ish op-ed “Open Letter to Rosemary Feal​, Kathleen Fitzpatrick,​ and the Modern Language Association” for several weeks now, but so many other things are getting in the way (such as the recent release of punctum books’s new Graduated Open Access platform), that I’ve decided to encapsulate the main points here more briefly (with the longer op-ed to emerge later). First, let me say how much I admire the work of Feal and Fitzpatrick and everything they have done on behalf of making the MLA more inclusive, less hierarchichal, more in sync with the contemporary landscape of literary and language (and really, cultural) studies (especially in globally inflected ways), more sensitive to the dire precariousness of graduate students and adjuncts (such as with their support of the MLA Sub-conference), and more digitally networked and social media-savvy. Let me also convey my immense gratitude to Fitzpatrick, especially, whose book Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy, and also her work with MediaCommons Press, has been one of the biggest influences on pretty much every editorial and publishing project I have ever been involved with. Her work has always stood (for me) as a shining beacon vis-a-vis the breaking open and enaction of peer-to-peer review networks and open commons projects, but given Kathleen’s own recent op-ed piece on Academia.edu, “Academia, not Edu,” in which she urges us to explore alternatives to for-profit initiatives such as Academia.edu, which could never (supposedly) have our best Open Commons and Public Knowledge interests in mind, and to consider instead becoming part of the MLA Commons, and thus be able to take advantage of CORE, their new “repository through which members can not only deposit and preserve their work, but also share it directly with the other members of the network,” I feel compelled to write this open letter.

Dear Rosemary Feal, Kathleen Fitzpatrick, and MLA,

In light of all of the op-eds (and other reporting) flying around lately about whether or not scholars should use Academia.edu:

While I (along with many others) have my concerns about Academia.edu’s interest in our work (most likely, to be data-mined by the R&D departments of information-based and other “proprietary knowledge”-based companies, such as Informa, Inc., among other less than ideal possibilities), at the same time, nothing has been more critical than Academia.edu to my ability to connect my work with the work of others across the globe, and to forming new discourse communities and scholarly collectives. There are more than 2.3 million pieces of scholarship on Academia.edu and from every discipline and disciplinary mashup and para-academic realm imaginable (all deliverable in an incredibly handsome and user-friendly platform, with lots of neat little bells and whistles, such as the newly launched Discussion Sessions feature), whereas CORE, the supposedly “open” repository attached to MLA Commons, has approximately 200 items (granted, it is still in beta release), and this repository cannot be claimed to be “open” if only MLA members (who themselves come from a limited number of fields within the humanities) can deposit items at CORE. Yes, it is open to readers, but not to depositers. This model will fail.

SO, Dear MLA, please consider the following:

  1. If you want us to stop using Academia.edu, please use your resources to create something very much like it, such as CORE, but with NO impediments whatsoever (membership-wise, discipline-wise, etc.) as to who can either access and/or post to the site. You may feel that your purview is limited to literary and language studies only, but I challenge you to widen your ambit (and to use your formidable position and resources) to lead the way in crafting a digital repository that would provide a safe and democratic haven for a rowdily promiscuous (and anarchic) Open Knowledge Commons. Dedicate staff to raising funds to underwrite this, and ask existing (and future) members to pay a small additional subscription amount each year to help make this possible. [I might add that if this is developed & designed properly, it will practically run itself.]
  1. Make PMLA an open-access journal. And make all PMLA “Approaches to Teaching” guides open access. Because I left academia to run an independent press full-time (punctum books), I no longer have institutional access to PMLA, and thus, I no longer read it, and thus, also, don’t have the resources (either financial or psychical) to care more about what goes on within its pages. Likewise with the teaching guides. As someone who also runs a non-profit scholarly communication venture, I understand very well that making things open-access is not free and requires a great deal of labor that needs to be compensated, but there are many ways that we can collectively figure out how to make this work without giving in to the neoliberal-style optimization-privatization of the public university and its resources.
  1. Get rid of the guards at MLA meetings. Stop making the MLA meetings feel so forbidding in terms of who has “access” to the meeting rooms and the books exhibits. Most people are still going to pay their dues and registration and there are other ways of hounding people to “pay up,” as it were. I want to live to see the day where people want to break into an MLA session on homo-nationalisms or the long 18th century or Chaucer because it’s that enticing and alluring. You should want and actively encourage “break-ins” at the annual convention. You also have many aspiring “lovers” (graduate students, adjuncts, poor professors, post-grads without university employment of any kind, the general public) who would rush to your doors, and offer their resources — of heart and mind and hands — if those doors were truly open.

Sincerely and With Great Admiration, Eileen Joy

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