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To: Tom Dwyer, Editor-in-Chief, University of Michigan Press
From: Jack Dougherty and Kristen Nawrotzki
Re: Summary of revisions made to Writing History in the Digital Age
Date: September 28, 2012
¶ 2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 In response to your request, we have summarized the revisions made in light of the reviewers’ comments on Writing History in the Digital Age. In creating this edited volume, we sought to answer whether recent technologies have changed the ways that historians think, teach, author, and publish. Also, we designed a born-digital, open-access platform to capture reader comments on drafts and shape the book as we wrote it. Our website launched in Spring 2011 with a call for essay ideas that yielded over 60 proposals. We conducted an open peer review — with general readers and appointed experts — for the 28 fully-drafted essays we received in Fall 2011. Based on online commentary and our judgement as co-editors, we selected 20 essays (about 70 percent) to be revised for the full manuscript, which we submitted in June 2012. We reluctantly declined several essays that had individual merits but did not consistently address the volume’s core issues nor meet all of our expectations for insightful and persuasive writing. In accordance with our editorial policy, rejection letters were delivered privately. But all of the contributors’ initial proposals, first and final drafts, digital links and images, and over 1,000 online comments are publicly available at http://WritingHistory.trincoll.edu.
¶ 3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 For the open peer review, the Press commissioned 4 experts to conduct a more traditional, yet public, examination of our scholarship, alongside the comments posted by 67 other readers. Our website allowed readers to post comments at different levels of the text: an individual paragraph, the essay page, or general comments on the book. The expert reviewers posted comments throughout the volume, but the broadest, most substantive statements appear at the following links by William Thomas, Bethany Nowviskie, and Timothy Burke (and also here and here).
¶ 4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 As co-editors, we subsequently posted our summary evaluation of the reviewers’ most relevant critiques on each of the 20 essays we invited to be revised and resubmitted. Below is one example of how we communicated this to the authors:
Summary evaluation by co-editors Kristen Nawrotzki and Jack Dougherty of “‘I nevertheless am a historian’: Digital Historical Practice and Malpractice around Black Confederate Soldiers” (Fall 2011 version) by Leslie Madsen-Brooks
posted on January 13, 2012 at 5:25 pm
In our invitation to revise & resubmit this essay, we wrote: Explicit attention to three particular themes would strengthen this essay’s contribution to the volume as well as to the wider discourse of digital history. First, you should do as you suggest in your own response to comments, i.e. to play with (or at least refer to some of) “the philosophical implications of an imagined or actual past” as they emerge in this essay. Secondly, as Bethany Nowviskie notes (and as you yourself acknowledge in a comment thereto), the premise of this essay requires an interrogation of “academic credentials” as a source of legitimacy and authority. Both of these are themes common to other essays in the collection, and it is important to address them here – preferably even with reference to those other essays. Finally, we ask that you especially consider William Thomas’s prompt for more critique of the engagement you call for, namely: “[H]ow to deal with the question of rip-mix-burn culture and the provenance of, and interpretation of, historical materials. The online space excels at manipulation. Are historians working against the grain, the underlying nature of the medium? If so, what can be done to take more advantage of the medium to give greater context to this subject – see for example the Virginia Historical Society runaway slave role playing exhibit – fully immersive.”
See also other comments on your essay in the Fall 2011 web-book. Please do your best to incorporate these recommendations into your revised essay. According to the word count at the bottom of the WordPress editing window, your current essay is 4,844 words. In order to meet our obligations to the Press, your final resubmission must not exceed 5,000 words.
¶ 8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 In early 2012, all of the invited contributors revised and resubmitted their work, then continued to correspond with us about further editing suggestions during the spring, until the final drafts met our standards. Overall, the volume has been improved significantly by addressing specific concerns raised by the expert reviewers. The most substantive areas of revision are:
¶ 9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 • In response to reviewers Timothy Burke and Bethany Nowviskie, most essays now situate their (more focused) discussion of the digital and digital history more consistently within larger traditions, trends, and questions facing the discipline (e.g. the role of public history). Similarly, contributors revised their work to concentrate on historical writing in particular, and to situate their claims more soundly within historiographical debates, and, where appropriate, other digital humanities contexts. The chapters do a better job now of problematizing the extent to which the digital is the harbinger of much that is “new” in historical thinking and scholarship.
¶ 10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 • As co-editors, we revised the Introduction in response to open-reviewer comments, and co-authored a Conclusions section to synthesize themes across the essays and to answer our guiding question: Has the digital revolution transformed how we write about the past — or not? Furthermore, we summarized the process behind the open peer review and analyzed our website data to explain patterns among readers and the types of remarks they posted. Most importantly, we invited two of the most vigorous and stimulating commentators to contribute to the Conclusions: graduate student reader Charlotte Rochez reflected on what led her to participate in the open peer review, and expert reviewer Timothy Burke expanded on criticism of the volume by asking, “Is the ‘digital turn’ truly new?” By integrating these two voices, our volume now includes perspectives from “outsiders” who significantly shaped the book’s content while it was being created on the web.
¶ 11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 • Following suggestions by Bethany Nowviskie and William Thomas, we reorganized the essays into a different array of sections to place the essays offering more theoretical and historiographical context at the beginning of the volume, and with more attention to the arguments as well as their subject matter. We eliminated several redundancies across the chapters. In one case, we requested that two authors re-write their individual essays into a single 4000-word co-authored piece, thereby incorporating reviewers’ suggestions for each of the essays, eliminating repetition within the volume and highlighting points of agreement and of productive conflict between the duo. Since the open review provided all authors with the opportunity to read each other’s work online, we encouraged them to revise their text to refer directly to each other via hyperlinks in the digital version, picking up on several reviewers’ suggestions. Finally, we extensively copyedited the manuscript to create a more uniform style for citing and linking to digital content, both on our own site and the World Wide Web.
¶ 12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 Also worth mentioning are some reviewers’ comments that we intentionally did not address in our revisions. William Thomas noted that “for a volume dedicated to exploring writing in the digital age, the form seemed remarkably text-heavy and traditional,” and he “yearned for some ‘break-out’ examples, unconstrained by the WordPress format.” Similarly, Bethany Nowviskie wondered why our volume did not break down the conventions of the book. “Not a single contribution to the collection is un-printable — in the sense that it takes advantage of affordances of digital media to make arguments and embody approaches impossible in print.” In response, we argue that our goal was to create a book (or more specifically, an openly-accessible book on the web) that featured textual answers to our question about whether the digital age is changing how historians write. Indeed, we proudly included several essays that questioned the dominance of long-form argument or advocated for data visualization, among other alternatives. But at the end of the day, historians evaluate these arguments based on the persuasiveness of the prose and the strength of the supporting evidence. Our objective was not to overturn the book, but rather, to reinvent how to create a scholarly volume using open peer review and tools of the web.