Free 'Video Book' From MIT Press Challenges Limits of Scholarship

David Zentz for The Chronicle

Alexandra Juhasz, a professor of media studies at Pitzer College, talks to a class at the U. of Southern California in front of the online video book that she developed.
February 20, 2011

When Alexandra Juhasz began teaching a class about YouTube in 2007, journalists poked fun at the Pitzer College professor. Academic credit to watch goofy kitten videos? TechCrunch, a popular blog, said it might be the most ridiculous class any college had ever offered.

But Ms. Juhasz, a professor of media studies, felt that her students needed to participate in this new medium in order to critique it. The same was true of her work: Academic writing on YouTube demands videos, not just words.

That idea got a major boost this month when the MIT Press released Learning From YouTube, a free "video book" that was written by Ms. Juhasz and grew out of her class. It's the first time the press has published an online-only book, and it helped developers build a new platform for authorship that they hope will be used for more such works. It's also a test of academic waters: Will similar publications, backed by established presses, count toward tenure?

The YouTube book was peer-reviewed and comes with an ISBN number, but beyond that it has little in common with the books we're used to seeing. Users get to it by visiting a Web site that consists of about 250 "texteos," pages that combine text and video. The videos, many of them produced by Ms. Juhasz's students, encourage readers to reflect on YouTube by learning inside it. The closest thing to chapters are "YouTours," which guide viewers through related pages. That format also makes the book a test of staying power: Since much of the content isn't owned by Ms. Juhasz, its owners could take it down, leaving holes in her book.

The MIT Press thinks this form is worth a try because scholars are demanding new publishing forums. They "are studying rich media forms of communications, and they have to be able to write and create in those formats," says Ellen W. Faran, director of the press. "And this takes their work, at the moment, sort of outside of the regular stream of publishing pipelines in the academy."

In traditional writing, film scholars like Ms. Juhasz have been trained to spend a paragraph describing a movie and then to make their argument. But why describe a video when you can show it?

Existing platforms like WordPress and Drupal can already handle much of what scholars need for such multimedia work. "But they aren't always easy to use, especially for those not savvy enough to tweak a bit of code," says David Parry, an assistant professor of emerging media and communications at the University of Texas at Dallas.

New Publishing Pipeline

Learning From YouTube may help simplify things. The work served as the prototype for new software, Scalar, that provides templates to create similar publications. Development of the system, based at the University of Southern California, is part of a growing national effort by scholars, archives, and academic presses to support multimedia scholarship. The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation has put more than $900,000 into the project, called the Alliance for Networking Visual Culture.

The idea behind Scalar is that professors will have an authorship platform, similar to WordPress, that allows them to create digital scholarship filled with multimedia content culled from partner archives. So far, four archives are participating: the Shoah Foundation, Critical Commons, the Hemispheric Institute Digital Video Library, and the Internet Archive. Presses at MIT, Duke University, and the University of California are also involved, as are the Modern Language Association and the Society for Cinema and Media Studies.

Organizers see the support of those presses and scholarly societies as key to overcoming a big obstacle in the slow-to-change culture of academe: the difficulty of getting new forms of work recognized.

"We have a disconnect between popular forms and what the folks who produce and review and give credit for scholarly work recognize as scholarship," says Tara McPherson, an associate professor in the School of Cinematic Arts at Southern California, who is the lead scholar on the Mellon grant. "The reason we're partnering both with presses and scholarly societies is to help credential the work and make it possible for young scholars to produce this sort of work with a reasonable expectation it would count for tenure."

Another new publishing tool, Anthologize, approaches the same obstacle from the opposite direction. A WordPress plug-in created with support from the National Endowment for the Humanities, it transforms blog posts into books. Brett Bobley, who directs the agency's digital-humanities office, says the project is slightly "subversive" because it turns new-media objects into old-fashioned texts so that scholars can "print them or distribute them using more traditional publishing channels, something that may still be needed for promotion and tenure or other reasons."

Beyond issues of credit, organizers of the Mellon-backed alliance hope it can broaden the audience for academic scholarship. That would demonstrate the value of this work and perhaps bolster the agencies that finance it, a timely move now that Republican lawmakers, looking for federal budget cuts, are calling for the elimination of the NEH.

For example, Ms. McPherson says, multimedia work created with materials from the alliance's partner archives has the potential to attract interest from the general public, just as colleges did by releasing free online lecture videos. And Ms. Juhasz says public engagement was one reason she published Learning From YouTube online.

Ms. McPherson also hopes that embedding primary sources will raise the standard of scholarship. In traditional writing, an academic can "pretty much get away with saying almost anything" in describing an obscure film or oral history, she says. "You can't just make any interpretation you want if your object is right there and your user can see it."

'The Book Is So Temporary'

But will the object remain there? That's one of the many questions facing this kind of work. Ms. Juhasz expects that some of her book will evaporate.

After all, she doesn't own much of its content.

For her class, Ms. Juhasz prodded students to think about YouTube by forcing them to perform all their coursework on the Google-owned site. Instead of writing papers, they recorded videos and left comments. The online book that grew out of that work embeds many YouTube videos—television shows, music videos, and the like—that can easily be taken down.

"The book is so temporary," the professor says. But it's easy to substitute new clips for stuff that gets pulled down, she adds.

A potentially greater problem is that technological change will render obsolete old formats like the CD-ROM or floppy disk. Will people be able to consume her Web-based book at all in the future?

Already an incompatible device has emerged: the iPad. When Ms. Juhasz started the project, the iPad didn't exist.

Similar efforts have been doomed by copyright concerns. Doug Sery, the MIT Press senior editor who acquired Ms. Juhasz's book, recalls an earlier attempt to put together a digital book on media studies with content drawn from videos and music and social-networking sites. "We had these intellectual-property issues that really prevented us from doing that," he says.

The fate of Scalar, which has not yet been released to the public, also remains to be seen. Mellon had backed an earlier attempt to build multimedia-authoring software, called Sophie. The first version failed, says Bob Stein, a director of the Institute for the Future of the Book, who left the Sophie project after blowing through more than $2.5-million working on it. A second version is not usable now but may end up being the "holy grail," he says.

"The easier you try to make an authoring environment, the harder it is to build it," says Mr. Stein. "It's easy to build an authoring environment that requires experts to use. It's very hard to build an authoring environment that somebody can use after reading two pages of instructions."