In your experience as an Editor how has digitization affected the physical process of running the Journal of Historical Sociology?
I have worked on the journal for over twenty years in various roles, starting as editorial assistant when I was a PhD student. Those were the years when computers were clunky, when WordStar was still a popular word processing software, and noisy dial-up speeds took at least ten minutes (at best).
Submission was made by snail mail and we requested four hard copies for reviewing purposes – and accompanying floppy disks if possible. It was time consuming, and the paperwork storage required physical file cabinets and shelf spaces for the files and hard copies. From submission and reviewing to publication (if accepted) – the duration would be a year and a half to two years – and that would be normal expectation in the academic publishing experience.
So you can imagine, how welcoming it is to have such ease of digital technology today with the submission and reviewing process, copyediting, and overall management of the journal. I remember having constantly to catch the fedex courier so that the final revised copies for print would arrive in the UK on time. We have now saved money in mailing costs as well as having reduced massive paper use – and we are also no longer anchored to a particular office space as we can work from almost anywhere as long as we have our devices with us. The editorial assistant works from Lethbridge while I am based in Calgary. Technology, particularly with internet communication, has contributed to a more flexible day to day running of the journal. However, it is not always positive.
Has this been a welcome development?
Yes and no. In a way, digitization has also changed our expectations and habits. The editorial mobility that we experience unfortunately also comes with the need for self-discipline and organization especially since we constantly have our smart phones and tablets with us. We have to stop ourselves from responding instantly to every email. Authors have rightly come to expect a much faster response and online publishing (Wiley Early View) has made it possible to have an article submitted, reviewed, revised and published (online) within a year. We try our best to make this happen. However, many academics are now experiencing increased responsibilities that are leading to stress, and peer-reviewing duties are often placed on the bottom of the workpile until a nudging email comes along. I confess to doing the same sometimes when agreeing to review a paper. Even if publishing is happening at a much faster pace, we are needing nowadays to provide more flexibility with reviewing and revision datelines. Potential reviewers are more contactable by email but it also means that they are more ready to ignore, or reject – for example, we went through 14 possible reviewers for one paper. Given the nature of the changing higher education environment — where it was once part of an academic’s overall professional responsibility – nowadays, reviewing a paper or two is not normally seen as an incentive, and counts little for promotions. I am thus grateful to all the reviewers out there who have given their time to reading papers.
How has the rapid onset of technology affected the humanities specifically?
For the humanities, we have to remember that it was English departments like the one at the University of Alberta in Canada (see The Orlando Project) which embarked quite early on the digitization of literary knowledge. Despite perceptions of the arts and humanities as full of technological luddites, it was the arts and humanities which embraced digitization enthusiastically, and recognized the potential of its research, textual and archival possibilities. Digitization offers greater public accessibility – eg. when library databases and archives of text, film and images are made publicly online, open access publishers like Open Humanities – we can, and should only celebrate the possibilities. We live in a cornucopia of knowledge, and as someone who once lugged heavy books around from library to home, having access on the screen eg. Library of Congress is a gift. The horizons of textual production have also expanded and we are actually seeing more creative non-fiction works in academia — experimental texts, multimedia production and mixed-genre works that take us beyond conventional writing. The act of reading is very different now as well – and we are now seeing a cohort of future humanities scholars who would have had a very different relationship with media. Students today would never have remembered a time when reading was a mostly horizontal page turning experience.
Much innovative academic work appears not to be recognized enough by the scholarly publishing world where technology appears to be deployed for uniformity and production streamline efficiency rather than for the creative possibilities that digitization can offer. Digital design teams appear not to work closely with academics and academic-related professionals from different disciplines to ask what is required – and that affects template layouts to journal covers, especially when there is more interest in visual and graphic content. We should be able to change cover images if it is a digital journal. The technological function is not living up to form and content – and it would really be interesting to think about putting out more digital journals that actually embrace different forms of scholarly textual productions.
Are the humanities stronger in light of the digital community?
We seem to approach this issue as if the humanities just stepped out of the dark shadows of the analog divide and into the brand new world of the digital but it’s a historical progression – the humanities have always been evolving. Think of the history of print. I do not know if the humanities are stronger but they, and the social sciences are certainly under a lot of pressure in universities where there are always reports of programmes being cut, budget constraints, and the lack of permanent/tenure-track faculty hiring. The funding poured into digital humanities is seen more as a science and technology direction — justifiable in terms of finances as a “public good”, ie results that are quantifiable and metric friendly. We can “see” the results. The problem of concentrating funding in one area of the humanities landscape is that it ignores the rest of the other forms of knowledge being produced, including old fashioned monographs. Universities, similarly are always talking about grant capture – and if the sciences are where grants are most available, the humanities fall on the wayside.
While digital communities can work better together, and collaboratively across genres, we still need to appreciate the individual scholar or author. We have few academic funding sources that reward non collaborative projects – and have money put aside for a scholar to finish a major research project or a monograph. The humanities should continue to be multi-formatted, from books to digital editions. The first time I heard the phrase “the lone scholar” in the UK, I was truly disturbed by the negative connotations. I honestly do not know if the humanities are stronger now or becoming something else altogether – and in fact feels like it is constantly under attack for not being productive enough, whatever that means. If anything, the digital community should be stronger in light of the humanities which ought to teach critical thinking to the former. I would love to see a compulsory introductory university course on Critical Thinking in the Digital World because you see reports in the tech world about gender disparity, and racial stereotyping – and some of the problematic aspects of gaming eg. Gamergate. We teach kids to code (I agree, a good thing), but not learn a different language like French or Spanish or Mandarin. To learn a language is to learn about another cultural world – even coding has a gendered and cultural context.
Do you think there are any negatives to the digital Utopia we find ourselves in?
The popularity of digital humanities often ignore that other publishing forms matter – books as objects and books as physical embodiment of design and knowledge, should be cherished. We should encourage multiple publishing forms because it gives us a far wider choice of reading options. The bookshop and the library are places of wonder — and I hope they never become obsolete (the return of the vinyl gives me hope). I cannot wait to visit the new public library in Calgary – such a magnificent building designed by Snøhetta.
I always show a picture of a catalogue card cabinet to my students and ask them if they know what that is. Most do not – and this is where I realized how they interact differently with the materiality of knowledge. They mostly want instant answers to their questions rather than to search for the answers. Even at the PhD level, the methodology of research has changed. I have had students who keep saying they can’t find the books or the papers specifically addressing the issue – and they look confused when I tell them to consider reading related writings to arrive at a discussion of the issue.
The digital utopia or at times, dystopia, needs more critical assessment because for all the wonders of the internet of things, we know enough nowadays that algorithms are not always appropriate indices of anything. There is also worrying surveillance, and the issue of data collection which I ask, on whose behalf and for what purpose? The digital agora comes with risks as we can see from the latest concerns surrounding trolling, online bullying and shaming, social media, conspiracy sites, and more. On more mundane levels, the problem with any management software is the human factor in any software design that ignores practical details regarding the use of names, the location of countries – and the culture of the users themselves. I had a recent sticky geo-political situation where an author was very upset about how their country was identified (by the software). I constantly ask who designs the software because it assumes people read or act or respond in a particular way – and that what appears convenient or easy is actually complicated and negates contexts, especially cultural ones.
One of my favorite historians, Yuval Noah Hariri argues we are already constituted by big data which sees organisms as “biochemical algorithms” that will be absorbed into some big giant data processing system. I don’t want to subscribe to technological determinism but rather we need some form of critical and pragmatic approach to digitalization and not to embrace wholesale every software that comes on the market or every digital initiative. There is no one size fits all.
Do you think technology encourages diversity in research and publishing?
There is so much more to do in higher education with respect to discrimination, and institutional racism is still prevalent – consider admission of non-white students, hiring, and diversity in senior faculty and management. I am, however, really glad to see more activism on decolonizing the curriculum nowadays.
I do not know if technology encourages diversity in research and publishing although it creates the spaces for which publishing platforms and initiatives are launched from beyond the Anglo-European dominated academic publishing world. We like to believe that there are no implicit biases operating in scholarly publications, but there are studies showing a lack of female authors in scientific journals. The bias is also racial, ethnic and regional – and discrimination is well and alive in the academic publishing world. I have always wondered how many major scholarly publishing houses have PoC editors and publish a wide range of PoC authors beyond STEM or Area Studies journals. I’m looking forward to a time when I see editors of Asian popular culture journals actually have more Asian academics involved. I would like to see a study done by the major scholarly journal publishers like Wiley, Sage, Taylor and Francis, Springer, & Elsevier on the diversity of their humanities and social science editors.
Where digitization has helped is the global reach – and with disseminating published academic works to higher education institutes across the world although more needs to be done for fairer access. As a result, I am seeing more authors submit from across Central and Eastern Europe, Asia, Africa and the Middle East, and the journal content is more international. We are also communicating with peer reviewers from beyond Western based universities. There are potential authors abroad publishing blogs and online papers (on their personal webpage or university sites) – and some are really fascinating. I came across a travel blog of an early career anthropologist from Sikkim while searching for a potential reviewer and wrote to them asking for a submission. I received a response within a few days. This would not have been possible twenty years ago.
How does digitization facilitate your work now? Has technology helped overcome physical boundaries?
I do not enjoy living out of a suitcase, and I suffer from a chronic disability – so I choose my travel carefully. In a way, we should also be talking about disability, ableism, and technology as well – I hope Wiley will focus on it one day in their humanities festival. Online communication technology has helped overcome the need to travel especially with respect to organizing conferences, workshops or exhibitions. I can use facetime, and share large documents as needed – and handle the basic day to day communication by email without physically being on-site (if I am working with a co-organizer or not presenting). I was grateful that I could co-curate an exhibition in the US recently without having to be present. As mentioned before, I can run the journal from anywhere nowadays but unfortunately it comes with the baggage of endless electronic devices. I always find it funny how many smart machines I have to place in the plastic box going through airport security, and I keep thinking, surely life can be simpler. Digitization has also allowed us to store our work online, on the web – and to advertise and showcase research and exhibitions. Yes there are risks – hackers, viruses, spam, predatory emails, electric and network problems but I do not have to carry print and papers with me around anymore when the pdfs are loaded on the laptop or tablet.
I still love being in the physical spaces of the library but for my own research work, I have become more savvy in searching out online sources, and am always amazed that we have so many digital resources and databases. Public digital libraries are wonderful, especially image libraries. I am grateful to the people who spent the hours digitizing archival materials and image collections. This has helped so much with teaching especially in classes that are art and design related or use visual matter as pedagogic content.
The opportunities given by technology can be bewildering and can affect the course of an academic’s career – what advice would you give to them at the beginning of their journey regarding technology?
In comparison to most academics nowadays, I suspect I am a dinosaur and most early career scholars today are more tech savvy than I am. I feel I cannot really provide any advice beyond being more careful with social media usage and to be more critical of the claims of the digital utopia because there are always those who will be excluded from it, in one way or another.
Thank you for giving me a chance to air out my thoughts in this interview.