Publication Date

April 1, 2011

When I was invited to participate in the session on the “Art of the Article,” organized by the AHA’s Graduate and Early Career Committee for the 2010 annual meeting of the AHA, I was delighted. The panel promised to be a wonderful opportunity to talk about Common-place, the digital magazine devoted to early American history and culture that I’ve edited since 2009. But almost immediately after typing “Yes” and hitting “Send,” panic set in. This was, I realized, a version of the same panic that set in when I agreed to take over the helm at Common-place.

Confession: In all kinds of ways, I was a questionable choice, both for the panel and the magazine. I’m not nearly as immersed in the digital world as the crew at George Mason University’s Center for History and New Media or my Common-place colleague Josh Brown, who presides over the stunning web site,Picturing U.S. History. I do not haunt the blogosphere. I have some vague sense that my cell phone can take a photograph but only because I once took a picture accidentally. I rarely think to update my Facebook status. And I would never, ever tweet.

Who was I to speak about the art of anything in the digital age?

Another confession: Initial panic aside, I think that my remove from the cutting edges of New Media—and even the cutting edges of Not-So-New Media—provides me with a discrete advantage for thinking about the art of the digital article. As both a contributor to and the editor of Common-place, I’ve found that most successful essays present fresh research, conceived and executed via more or less conventional academic processes, and reformatted for a different medium and with a different audience in mind. In other words, the crucial issues hinge less on technology per se than on translation.

I use the word “translation” advisedly. When early Americanists reshape their scholarship to fit Common-place‘s standards, they are finding ways to talk about their work in more than one idiom. They are becoming multilingual. This is an extraordinarily smart move. We can all benefit from the ability to conceptualize and package our work in multiple media, for multiple audiences. Traditional, academic print journals, distinguished by double blind peer review, painstaking documentary apparatus, and increasingly intense specialization, are not going to disappear. But digital media aren’t going to disappear, either. It makes sense to be fluent in both genres, both languages.

Certainly, scholars who opt to translate their research for a digital magazine like Common-place encounter some decided advantages. Speed is the most obvious. Because Common-place is not bound by an extensive and extended referee process, the production pipeline is considerably streamlined. Writers generally have a firm yes or no answer (and often a lengthy list of revisions and editorial comments) within a month or so. Better yet, they can expect their essays to appear within a year of the submission date—and typically much sooner than that. A yearlong interregnum might seem glacial to a journalist, but to a professor or graduate student, it’s lightning quick.

Exposure marks another advantage. Digital publications attract far more viewers and readers than traditional scholarly journals. Our content turns up in scholarly database searches and Google searches. And since Common-place is free, any reader who stumbles upon one of our essays courtesy of Google enjoys unrestricted access. Certainly, the ease of linking from one web site to another means that digital articles can go viral in ways that print essays cannot.

But a magazine like Common-place also affords a very different kind of exposure. We reach a remarkably wide audience, one that includes academics but that extends out to a much larger, more diverse community of readers. Attracting those readers and holding their interest is no easy matter. Our articles must be more than “accessible,” the historical profession’s euphemism for “lucid.” As founding editors Jane Kamensky and Jill Lepore put it, Common-place aims “to be a place for elegant prose and worthy ideas.” Or, as I regularly tell contributors: “Think New Yorker, not William and Mary Quarterly.”

Senior scholars and graduate students alike are startled by just how much reframing, rethinking, and revising this sort of translation entails. It goes well beyond ditching the jargon, the endnotes, and the historiography. Many writers are taken aback to discover that they depend upon a handful of stock phrases to stand in for a constellation of ideas, things, and processes (here, the term “Atlantic World” springs immediately to mind); they are surprised by the difficulty they have isolating exactly what they mean to say when those phrases are taken away. More than one contributor has observed that what we lack in double-blind peer review, we make up for in line editing. But as a result, we publish work that is polished and engaging, often playful, and sometimes passionate. Small wonder, then, that acquisition editors at scholarly and trade presses troll our pages looking for leads on manuscripts that someone might actually want to buy. And small wonder that essays published online in Common-place are regularly reborn in print. Sometimes, our essays even make their way into the mainstream press. Consider Molly McCarthy’s sparkling piece on the early American almanac as the iPhone of its day from our October 2010 issue: It was featured in the New York Times within days of its initial publication.

If digital publication can help historians get work out, it can also help open the work up in a variety of ways. The speed of digital publication makes it ideal for time sensitive topics, especially political ones. The lion’s share of the History News Network, a weekly publication, is devoted to precisely this enterprise. If your work can place the brouhaha over the uprisings in the Middle East the attacks on public unions here in the United States, or the ongoing fights over healthcare reform in a context that extends past the most recent news cycle, HNN can connect you with readers.

Of course, digital media is more than an accelerated version of print media. It is, at least potentially,multi-media. As such, it offers an ideal platform for making use of interactive software like hypertext links and popups and imaging technologies ranging from GPS to video. Projects like Douglas Shadle’s 2008 Common-place essay on early American composer William Henry Fry, which used mp3 technology to introduce readers to Fry’s work, are obvious candidates for the web. But even scholars dealing with prosaic images can benefit from digital publication: A print journal might have run a handful of the images Jonathan Prude collected for the special issue on Hard Times, but it could not have collected 21 of them into an interactive album to supplement his essay on the depiction of poverty.

Even more tantalizing, to my mind, are the ways that digital media can change the stories we tell, as well the ways we tell them. When Yvette Piggush gave us an essay arguing that 19th-century historian John Fanning Watson’s relic box (which housed an idiosyncratic collection of miniature souvenirs from the nation’s founding) willfully cut against standard narrative trajectories, we seized the opportunity to play with the rhetorical conventions of our profession. We designed a layout that recapitulated the logic of Watson’s box onscreen. Readers were presented with an introduction, a table of contents for the essay’s component parts, and a photograph of the open relic box with each compartment symbolizing one section of the essay. You can read the essay in the order that Piggush wrote it, but you don’t have to; and if you focus on the illuminated box rather than the table of contents, you can’t get a strong sense of the essay’s original structure. Just as Watson invited his contemporaries to see the past as a collection of discrete moments, randomly organized, we invited our readers to peruse Piggush’s essay in any order they chose.

It is true that translating your work into a digital idiom opens up any number of exciting possibilities. It is also true that within the academy, this idiom is not the dominant language. Digital publication has drawbacks as well as advantages; scholars eyeing a magazine like Common-place would do well to bear them in mind.

Most obviously, articles we consider are not peer reviewed. On the one hand, this gives our contributors a faster turnaround. On the other hand, this means that when hiring committees, promotion committees, and annual review committees sit down to calculate academic productivity, an essay appearing in Common-place will count for far less than a piece in a traditional, refereed journal, regardless of the number of people who read it or whether it caught the eye of a New York Times columnist. Junior scholars, especially, should approach digital publication strategically, using it to generate visibility and mark turf and supplementing it with refereed scholarly articles.

Less obviously, the kind of writing featured in a magazine like Common-place occupies an odd place in the academy regardless of one’s academic rank. Professors and administrators seem to agree that it serves some purpose, but they are usually hard pressed to explain exactly what that purpose might be. Common-place reaches a large and eclectic public, but it certainly doesn’t count as “public history.” It is sponsored by a research library, the American Antiquarian Society, and the University of Oklahoma; most of its content is written by academics about their ongoing research. Yet I’ve been told more than once that the shape and tone of our essays registers as popular, edgy, fun . . . and consequently not scholarly. I choose to take this as a compliment, but the point remains.

Digital publication depends on translation. It demands that we learn to translate the best of what we do into a new idiom. And it demands that we translate the value of that idiom into terms that make sense to those who haven’t acquired that language. Mastering a new language isn’t always easy or straightforward. But in this market, you can’t afford not to.

Catherine E. Kelly is associate professor of history at the University of Oklahoma and is the editor of Common-place.

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