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Wondering & wandering & cyberpublishing

By Eric Crump

"The cure for boredom is curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity."
(attributed to) E. Parr
(seen in the email signature of Alexander MacDougall)

Alternate title: "Why I (un)manage a chaotic, experimental online publication."

RhetNet, a cyberjournal for rhetoric and writing,  is not a stable sort of publication--nor will it ever be, if all goes well. It is an experimental journal by intention and design--not "an experiment" in the sense of a procedure for answering a question or solving a problem, not at least in the sense that the question can be answered by begining with a hypothesis and end with a result. RhetNet is experimental by nature. That's its operating principle, a description of its process. What we hope to do is to continually discover what online publishing can do. Because the technology of the network (by which I suppose we mean the pervasively interconnecting commerce of intellectual exchange, not the Internet, per se) changes so quickly, discovery can perhaps be a perpetual stance, a continuous approach. Whatever stability we have is a matter of function. Whatever stability emerges in terms of form will not be at the expense of nimbleness and play. Or so I hope! To better describe what it means to be an experimental journal, I'd like to sketch out some of the current projects that are developing.

First, though, a few words about the relationship between Kairos   and RhetNet  . I imagine that many Kairos   readers are familiar with RhetNet  , and vice versa. But as far as I know there's been little public discussion about how the two journals complement and contrast with each other.

I think of RhetNet   and Kairos   as kissing cousins. They're part of the same "family" (the online computer & writing community). Both show up for Thanksgiving dinner at grandma's house, but Kairos   cleans its plate (maybe stuffing the brussel sprouts under the table cloth) while RhetNet   feeds the dog from the table and uses its spoon to wing peas at Uncle Harold when he starts to doze.

An obscure metaphor. Sorry. What I mean to say, by way of describing how the two journals seem to relate to each other and to academic publishing in general, is that Kairos   is quietly subversive, pushing against convention without violating its cherished values; RhetNet   is a bit more unruly, pushing against convention with the intention of getting past it quickly and on to other business. Both journals, however, take as their political mission the project of forging new ground without ignoring the past. They approach that mission in different ways.

For instance, Kairos   departs from print publishing in two fundamental ways: its hypertextual form and its collaborative peer review process. Its editors are prudent enough, though, to give a nod (as Mick Doherty put it during his recent Computers & Writing Conference presentation) back to print-based sensibilities. The journal maintains several recognizable print-based conventions--the term "peer review" itself, the organization into "issues," etc. Those concessions to print may help make an effective tool for change by veiling any threat it poses to the current status quo.

And that's an important consideration. The idea popped into my head recently (while talking to a colleague about the resistence he'd gotten from his administrators to new initiatives he'd proposed) that institutions are very like organisms in the way they respond to perceived threats. Institutions treat innovation like it was a disease. They send white blood cells to attack the intruder, to surround it, contain it, neutralize it. No reason they shouldn't! Innovation is a threat to an institution's status quo.

RhetNet   is more overtly a threat, and as such may be more vulnerable to institutional retaliation of some kind. But it also more likely to discover new possibilities. As RhetNet   began to evolve, one of the things I tried to articulate as a fundamental feature of the publication was its maintenance of publication function--that is, the ways in which a publication provides for the need for intellectual exchange and storage for a particular community--while concurrently transforming publication form and practice radically.

Peer review, for example, is not absent from RhetNet,   but it looks very different from the review process for print journals and even online journals like Kairos.  Review, in RhetNet,  is a practice that is more dispersed among the members of the community. Notice I didn't say "readership." One of the functions of publication is to facilitate the distribution of ideas and information and to support negotiation about the nature and worth of what's published. Print happens not to perform the negotiation part of the process very well. It's too slow and affords too little space for conversation. Those limitations help shape the current print-based convention of review, which involves selecting individual colleagues to read and comment upon specific texts, often with the purpose of helping determine whether the text is acceptable and with the process of refining it. When space is plentiful and interaction fast, review no longer needs to take the print-based form. It can be absorbed by the community's natural predilection for paying attention to ideas and information that becomes known it. So, the function of review remains, but the practice changes radically, becoming a feature of ongoing conversation rather than periodic and textually oriented.

Will ad-hoc, ex post facto review become the norm soon? Probably it already is (if we count as "publications" all the lists and newsgroups and MUD environments in which academic communities carry on their discussion). Will it become legitimate soon, something that can be accounted for in the institutional reward structure. I doubt it.

That's where the Kairos   approach is so important. Because it pushes for change but stays within range of conventional practice, it probably stands a much better chance of getting in the way of some legitimacy rather sooner than RhetNet   will. And that's as it should be. That's how the two journals complement each other. To borrow from the (overused but still appropriate) frontier metaphor, RhetNet   is the explorer, tramping over the new land just to see what's out there. Kairos   is the settler right on the explorer's heels, braving considerable danger in order to bring civilization to the wild land. The explorer and the settler need each other.

RhetNet   has shape and changes shape as a matter of course, but we can at least take a snapshot of its current manifestation. The idea, of course, is to attempt to enact whatever ideas come forth that seem enactable. What it will become, we cannot say. What is today (07 June 1996):

Stable-ish forms:

Brief, intentionally provocative essays that along with responses to them. The difference between snapshots and the kind of essays that typically grace academic publications is their purpose as catalysts for conversation rather than fully articulated arguments or thoroughly expressed ideas.

The closest thing we have to conventional publication forms. Texts are more stable, longer, more thorough, and are pre-reviewed (though we use the same sort of collaborative review that Kairos does). Two articles are in the review process now and should be available in a couple of weeks.

In a way, this form is at the heart of the journal. These are conversations that emerge naturally in network venues where writing and rhetoric scholars and teachers are talking. They are interesting chunks excised from the continuous flow of conversation, threads that seem to be worth saving, reflecting on, extending. Anyone who sees a thread that seems interesting enough to save might consider using RhetNet as a venue for maintaining the text and subsequent discussions.

Emergent Projects:

Conversation: Computer-Mediated Dialogue, Multilogue, and Learning
A book-length study by Beth Baldwin that not only argues for "conversation itself as the primary mode of meaning-making in both social and personal life" but enacts its own theory, taking the shape of conversation more thoroughly than most (if not all) other texts on the subject. The text-as-written is published, but of course in the RhetNet   world, that's just the beginning. Anyone who reads Beth's work and has ideas about how to facilitate conversation about it or weave more conversation through it should feel free to post ideas to Rhetnt-L@mizzou1.missouri.edu.

Rhetnt-L, by the way, is the list part of the journal. Subscribe by sending mail to listserv@mizzou1.missouri.edu wi th the message: sub rhetnt-l yourfirstname yourlastname

PreText/RhetNet Publishing Partnership
Cynthia Haynes announced several months ago that she would be guest editing a special issue of Pre/Text   on virtual rhetorics. Nick Carbone announced several months ago that he would be coordinating an "issue" of RhetNet   on responses to the ideas in Richard Lanham's book, The Electronic Word: Democracy, Technology, and the Arts   (though based on the emphasis given rhetoric, it might also have been subtitled "Virtual Rhetorics").

We saw a connection (didn't take much) and decided to act upon it.

The project is still not all that definite in shape. Cynthia has a number of fine texts to include in her print issue of Pre/Text   and Nick has a number of fine texts to include in his online issue of RhetNet  . What we've begun talking about is how the two publications can interact, complementing and complicating each other. Should be interesting!

Interactive Historiography
This project is managed by Mick Doherty and sprang in part from a snapshot he and Elizabeth Pass published earlier this year, What's In A Name? What We Call What We Do And Why It Matters. The historiography project on the same subject is an attempt to keep the naming process in the foreground, to attract some attention and intention to a subject that often happens rather casually and without reflection.
All of these projects are open to participation by anyone who is interested in them. Please visit the web pages, use the comment forms, post mail to the list, or send suggestions to me. RhetNet   is a responsive journal. It's got an editorial board, but the editorial functions are shared widely. The primary qualifications for participation are interest and energy!
  • Send mail to Eric Crump, please!
  • Back to the front of Pixelated Rhetorics
  • See Bill Hart-Davidson's contribution
  • See Amy Hanson's & Elizabeth Pass' contribution

    KAIROS Kairos: A Journal for Teachers of Writing in Webbed Environments.
    Vol. 1 No. 2 Summer 1996