The Talk

It occurs to me that the venues we have for discussing work in academic journals is deficient. The current model of what stands for conversation is thus: Professor A publishes a research article in a journal making some arguments or observations. Professor B, when she comes across the journal article while researching an article of her own, perhaps years later, will incorporate her amendments and critiques of Article A in her own article, published perhaps in the same journal, but usually not, a year from the time of her first finding it, since the timeline to publication in peer-reviewed disciplines is so (justifiably) long. 

This method has merits: not least that everything is on record, and a person wishing to wade into the debate, even decades later, can pick up the thread (like some later Theseus!) and heave shoulder to wheel. But it lacks spark. And it requires a level of formality—restating the original positions, totting up citations, revisiting source material—that is in-conducive to having something like a real exchange. 

Another method, about which I’ve written a little here and here, by which academic conversations are held is through conferencing, though again, useful as they undoubtedly are, the conversation part never quite fires off in writing, since position papers are written beforehand. This method makes negatives of the former’s positives. The actual exchanges take place verbally, and once. I try to take notes sometimes while at the table, but then it’s hard to cite formally, as in, "I think Professor Y said over drinks once that X, or something to that effect." 
The third way they happen is on discipline, even period-specific listservs. Mine is called NASSR-L, but I found so many of the exchanges hostile, and so many others self-promoting that I’ve unsubscribed. When a conversation does develop, it means we’re flooding 200-something inboxes. Some of us inbox-zero types feel bad about that. 

As I say, imperfect. 

By contrast, consider Twitter’s virtues: lightning response, long-form linked opinion shared with the author and venue and tagged with the subject. The author and journal get traffic, the exchange is public, and the form limits windbaggery. I see this all the time by following feeds from people like @ayjay @jwilson1812 and @pegobry. Usually, the exchanges are about some cultural topic, in popular venues, but the conversation is real. People change their minds. The truth outs. Couldn’t something similar be tried by/for academics? Wouldn’t new relationships be formed by the proverbial fireside? And wouldn’t the (usually-beleaguered) journals appreciate the hits? 

Sometimes I’ll read an article and appreciate most of it, but have a few minor disagreements. Not enough to make an article out of, but inconsistencies I’m not comfortable letting lie. My practice now is to let them lie and remain uncomfortable. Perhaps this is being done on a large scale already and I’m just not following the right people. I say we take a cue from our friends in the Twitterverse. I know we’re all busy, but I’ll send a few friendly (read: critical and arrogant, it’s my default shorthand, unfortunately) volleys in the next weeks, in the interests of experiment.