Planned Obsolescence by Kathleen Fitzpatrick

In Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s Planned Obsolescence, she tackles the crisis in scholarly publishing (as traditionally conceived) and encourages her readers to develop institutional and electronic cultures in which an alternate, healthier model can flourish.  She specifically states in her conclusion that she has “tried to avoid the prescriptive, focusing less on what the future of scholarly publishing will look like than on how we’ll need to think differently about our relationships – as scholars, publishers, librarians, and administrators – to the process of publishing” (195) as she feels certain that “the contradictions in our current systems are simply too great to be sustained” (194).  I appreciate her openness about the fact that she cannot offer definitive solutions, but I find that (even though she avoids prescriptive directions) my strongest impression of the book is that it is primarily about our need as academics to find better ways of thinking of ourselves and the social/hierarchical world of Higher Education.

In the Introduction and in Chapter One, Fitzpatrick draws the outline of the Problem for us.  In a nutshell, the current scholarly publishing system is broken – mainly because it is being asked to do too many contradictory things by the Powers That Be in the world of Academia.  Administrators want to use the existence and number of a job or tenure candidate’s publications (from established scholarly presses that use traditional closed peer review systems, and, to a lesser extent, in traditional print-based journals) as a simple scale by which to evaluate said applicant’s suitability for the position and ultimate worth as a scholar.  Problems with this role include 1) Scholarly presses just don’t have enough money to print everything that deserves their “seal of approval”; 2) Holding out from disseminating research that can’t be traditionally published harms the field because much that should be said isn’t — it’s dumb financial luck, not academic worthiness that is in the driver’s seat; and 3)  When scholars spend their entire professional lives being taught that their worth depends solely on finished, marketable, singly-authored projects that exist in print form, the kinds of work they attempt – the ideas they regard as thinkable – become unjustly diminished.  The system we now have is ailing and will die in the reasonably near future, but this is not because it has been neglected and needs us to take better care of it; it is ailing because it is simply not equipped to handle the expectations different groups of users place on it.  As Fitzpatrick puts it in her introduction:

“In the end, what I am arguing is that we in the humanities, and in the academy more broadly, face what is less a material obsolescence than an institutional one; we are entrenched in systems that no longer serve our needs.  But because we are, by and large, our institutions – or rather, because they are us – the greatest challenge we face is not that obsolescence, but our response to it.” (13).

Of course, the flip side to the problem of very little getting through the System to readers is how can we ensure the quality of the work that gets seen if we delete the System?  Fitzpatrick argues that we shouldn’t.  Instead of gatekeeping on the front end of the “publication” process, we need to create a scholarly environment in which everything can be “published” AND THEN evaluated by knowledgeable and helpful reviewers who can help guide readers to the best work and that which is most relevant to their needs.  Fitzpatrick acknowledges that it will be hard to create such a new system and that doing so depends on finding a way to reward competent reviewers for their time and effort, moving toward a “gift economy” in which scholars help each other for the good of their fields.

In Chapter Two, Fitzpatrick explores the often counterproductive ways in which we think of ourselves as “Authors.”  She argues that we academics are firmly habituated to thinking of our own writing in ways that, ironically, ignore the death of the author as we readily apply the theory to the writing of others.  We have pinned our very identities as scholars to notions of originality, individual creativity, and solitary intellectual labor; these beliefs about ourselves are deeply held, and so will be very hard to change, but they do not accurately describe the writing process as it actually is or as it should be.  Focusing only on academic labor as traditionally conceived can push us toward self-defeating evaluations of our own work; by internalizing the (broken) System’s values, we may feel that “as long as we are in the process of writing, we have not yet completed it, and without completion, we cannot get credit for what we have produced; we haven’t accomplished anything” (68).  She argues that we need to reconceive ourselves, our institutions, and our work in ways that allow the work-in-progress to mean something to our administrators, our communities of networks between scholars working in the same fields, and – most crucially – to ourselves.


Questions for Discussion

Fitzpatrick’s recommendations depend on the accuracy of her analysis that the so-called “scholarly publishing crisis” is real and operates in the way she describes.  Do you find her argument convincing?  Have you had personal experience with the publishing industry that might support or contradict her conclusions?

Who do you think is Fitzpatrick’s audience for this book?  When she hails her reader using “we,” she nudges that reader toward seeing him/herself as a part of a group about which she makes certain assumptions and in which she explicitly includes herself.  When she says “we,” do you think that she is talking to you?  We have a good mix of people on different career paths and at different stages of those careers in our class; I’m curious about what the multiple “audience” of our class finds relevant (or not) for our own work.

How do think of yourself in relation to your own writing?  Is Fitzpatrick’s diagnosis that “we” tend to semi- or unconsciously regard ourselves as Authors (with a capital A) applicable to you?  Or do you think of yourself in a different mode?  Does your self-identification change based on the type of writing you are doing, i.e. traditionally-published scholarly work, essays for classes, blogging, or content you post on personal and/or professional social media accounts?

Which of the models that Fitzpatrick suggests as possible solutions to the Problem do you think sound most promising?  What flaws seem most worrying?  Can you think of anything else that we might try?

Multimodal Stuff:  Do you make it?  Do you want to make it?  What (if anything) might you do (or do you do) with it?

How does Fitzpatrick’s Conclusion – a case study of her own book’s publication process – affect your evaluation of her argument?  Based on the evidence she provides, would you consider taking a similar approach if/when you write a book?

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