Archive for July 30, 2010

Mash-up vs. Purple Crayon

This is not a post on bastard pop or remixed movie trailers.  Such a post would be fun to read, but this isn’t it.  At 13 years (if measured by my degree date) or 11 years (if measured by my first publications) into the business that is academia, I’m reflecting on what kind of work I do.  So, if you aren’t an academic, it’s highly likely that this will bore the pants off of you.  True, given that we’re having an exceptionally warm summer, you might want to be pants-less.  Surely, though, you could find a less wearisome way of becoming de-pants’d?  (Insert ribald joke here.  Thank you.)

Anyway.  Some scholars manage to shift the paradigm, changing the discussion.  Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point (2000) is a popular example; Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics (1993) is another.  In the field of literary studies, one could point to Harold Bloom’s The Anxiety of Influence (1973), Eric Lott’s Love and Theft (1993), or Shelley Fisher Fishkin’s Was Huck Black? (1993) — among many others.

And then you have people like me.  Some (much?) of my scholarship is the academic equivalent of the musical mash-up.  Instead of combining a song by Jay-Z with one by the Beatles, I make a similar move with ideas — placing a set of ideas in a different context, and coming up with something unusual.  Read Dr. Seuss through theories of the avant-garde and postmodern, and you — well, I — get “Dada Knows Best: Growing Up ‘Surreal’ with Dr. Seuss” (article, 1999; book chapter, 2002).  Write on Don DeLillo while teaching Introduction to Women’s Studies, and — voila! — “Amazons in the Underworld: Gender, the Body, and Power in the Novels of Don DeLillo” (article, 2001).  Where odd ideas collide, you’ll find me.

I admire people who have the paradigm-shifting ideas.  But I’m not one of those people.  Perhaps my tendency to pursue many projects simultaneously prevents the sort of reflection that leads to the Big Ideas.  Or maybe that my mind simply doesn’t work that way.  Likely, both are factors.

After getting my doctorate, I concluded that a rigorous publishing regimen was the only path out of adjuncthood and into a tenure-track job.  Kathleen Fitzpatrick, who earned her Ph.D. at the same time I earned mine (exactly one year later, in fact), did something different.  Instead of arriving at a conclusion, she asked a question: Why?  Why do we publish in academic journals and with academic presses that take years to print our work and that few non-academics read anyway?  Why not post our work on-line, via a blog?  While I toiled away within the publish-or-perish paradigm, she challenged the paradigm … and has begun to change it.  Thanks to her Planned Obsolescence blog, her many invited talks, and her forthcoming book (named for her blog), Kathleen is shifting the way that academics think about publishing.  My motto for the past decade has been: Enhance production!  Hers is something more like: Change the mode of production!

I intend the echo of Marx in that last sentence to evoke less his ideas, and more the boldness of his thinking.  As an untenured academic, Kathleen took a risk in questioning the system she aspired to join.  Wisely tempering that risk, she did (and does) also publish scholarship through traditional venues, of course — via academic presses, academic journals. Though I co-edited a collection of radical children’s literature, my own career path has been much more conservative. True, I have had a website since 1997, but — for the bulk of my scholarship — I have stuck almost exclusively to traditional modes of publishing.

If the mash-up is the controlling metaphor for my scholarship, then the purple crayon is the metaphor for hers. Instead of doing the usual thing and creating a story about a character, Crockett Johnson had the idea to make his character the author of his own story.  In doing so, he created a classic of children’s literature — Harold and the Purple Crayon — in which the title character draws a universe out of a single crayon.  His adventures get him into a few tight spots, but, keeping “his wits and his purple crayon,” Harold draws his way out … and into another six books.  So, hoping that you keep your wits and your purple crayon (or blog, or vlog, or insert other medium here), remember there’s more than one path to success.  Why not draw your own?

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