Reading & Writing Online – A Brief Response to Kathleen Fitzpatrick

Once I read Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s (2012) “Reading (and Writing) Online, Rather Than on the Decline,” I knew I had to respond to it via blog post. It is a terrific article though it’s being published by The Modern Language Association (MLA) of America struck a strange chord given Fitzpatrick’s focus within the article upon the possibilities of scholars publishing their works on blogs and other online forums (and, as far as I can see, this article is not freely available online via blog or academia.edu or any other online forum). That aside, however, she puts forward a truly well-reasoned and articulated argument that scholars must come to accept online reading and writing as instances of actual reading and writing. She begins by explaining that people’s fears/anxieties regarding the putative fall of “the book” or “the novel” is fixed upon two primary misconceptions:

  1. that reading serious literature was ever a major pastime of most individuals in Western societies when, in fact, it “was always an activity dominated by those with time to spend at leisure” (42)
  2. that books are being completely torn from our cultural make-up by media such as television, radio, and the Internet when, in fact, these arguments have been greatly exaggerated for, what Fitzpatrick calls, “clearly ideological purposes” (42)

In this way, she argues, the elite of Western societies were able to not only cast a greater judgement upon Western culture as a whole (i.e. those that do not read books are leading us into a cultural decline) but were able to, in this same vein, cast themselves “as a marginalized population” of enrichment or enlightenment (42). And while I can certainly see the truth in this — there is a fair amount of snobbery and elitism that is becoming further ingrained within the thought of “the book” day by day — she at no point touches on the inherent issue of then suggesting that the Internet and online forms of reading and writing are not also forms of elitism and elite control of and participation in creating information. After all, even if academia as a whole hasn’t embraced online writing and reading as their new Sweetie Pie, she ignores the fact that many Americans still don’t even have access to the necessary technologies to make such an embrace an option for them. Consider that by 2012, 20% of Americans still had no access to the Internet and another 9% only had access via work or public institutions such as libraries.

In other words, while I don’t have a problem with Fitzpatrick’s arguments that academics ought to really get over their anxieties regarding online forms of reading, writing, and scholarly collaboration (I especially enjoyed her defense of Twitter by comparing its length restrictions to those of the sonnet (47)), I disagree with her that the Internet is a more democratized form of scholarship than books and journal articles. This is not to say that all of our public libraries are as well stocked, funded, centrally located, and/or appreciated as they ought to be or that books are somehow more available to many people (especially those in rural areas) than Internet access; this is simply to say that the fact that Fitzpatrick doesn’t mention this obstacle or disparity at all within her article is a significant oversight. The fact of the matter is, if I weren’t putting myself into thousands of dollars of debt to take graduate courses at the George Washington University, despite my internet connection and undergraduate degrees, I wouldn’t know this article existed or have access to it.

Before we begin to harangue the rest of academia into fully embracing the arenas of online reading, writing, publishing and peer reviewing, perhaps we ought to focus more upon making our work and our scholarship truly available to everyone — why not focus on making sure everyone had access to a public library or a personal computer before attempting to more fully integrate these hugely expensive technologies within our universities that are already too expensive for many to participate in? After all, as Fitzpatrick herself states in her article,

“If we’re brave enough to engage directly with the voting public, we might have the opportunity to demonstrate a bit more about what it is that we do and why what we do matters.” (50)

So, why don’t we make what we do matter and first work to make sure it’s available to the entirety of “the voting public” before trekking back down the ill-fated path of all those who once proclaimed the Internet was “the Great Equalizer”?

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