An Academic Hopes to Take the MLA Into the Social Web

Mark Abramson for The Chronicle

Kathleen Fitzpatrick, director of scholarly communication at the Modern Language Association, is helping the group build a platform to encourage academic blogging and social networking.
February 26, 2012

A blog post changed Kathleen Fitzpatrick's professional life. Now she's helping to infuse the spirit of blogging into scholarly societies and shaking up academic publishing in the process.

In 2006 Ms. Fitzpatrick, now 44, was an associate professor of English at Pomona College, struggling to get her first scholarly book published. The text was finished, and it had been favorably reviewed twice, but it remained in limbo as she searched for a publisher, leaving the ideas locked on private hard drives. In a post on a blog called The Valve, she proposed that scholars should share their draft monographs online and let them go through peer review the way blog posts do—with comments by knowledgeable colleagues.

THE INNOVATOR: Kathleen Fitzpatrick, Modern Language Association

THE BIG IDEA: Have scholarly associations set up bloglike online forums to let scholars share ideas and openly conduct peer review.

She said that her "big mouth" on the issue got the attention of like-minded researchers, and she soon co-founded a project called MediaCommons that put her idea into action, providing an open platform for scholarly peer review of books.

Suddenly she was a rising star in digital humanities. Colleagues flocked to her popular Twitter feed, and she was invited to serve on the program committee for the annual conference of the Modern Language Association, where she was again an outspoken advocate for change. Her message: "Young scholars are moving into a field that is going to look very, very different from the way it has looked for the last 100 years," and the organization should be part of those professional changes.

Rosemary G. Feal, the MLA's executive director, not only listened to her ideas but when the group decided to start a new office devoted to scholarly communication, she helped hire her to try them out. Last year Ms. Fitzpatrick started the gig, and she is now working to create a bloglike platform, called MLA Commons, for the group's 30,000-plus members. The online community will have some social-media features as well, Ms. Fitzpatrick says, but the details have yet to be announced.

Matthew Gold, of the City University of New York, who helped develop the open-source software the MLA will use for its platform, says the association's hiring of Ms. Fitzpatrick signaled that it was serious about change. "There was a collective feeling of shared success that one of us had been promoted into a position that went far beyond the digital humanities circle itself," he says.

Ms. Fitzpatrick continues to spend time blogging, including for The Chronicle's ProfHacker. Not that she thinks old-fashioned books should go away. She has a new one of those out, too: Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy (NYU Press). She first released it to the world back in 2009, inviting anyone to comment.

Kathleen Fitzpatrick discusses the future of authorship in a lecture at Duke U.: