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Ignored: past participle, past tense of ig·nore (Verb) Refuse to take notice of or acknowledge

In a recent comment on a Savage Minds post by Chris Kelty,  I asserted that there is a disconnect within the American Anthropological Association (AAA) in that the organization often (and I think sincerely) calls upon the membership at-large to collectively fact-find, discuss, weigh, evaluate, and solve big questions that are before the Association but then does little to actually attend to the efforts or inputs that follow from such promptings. I think that I am obligated to make clear why I think this.

Weblogs (blogs) provide a distinctive domain for collective discussion, one that some people appreciate, others do not appreciate, and others still do not know much about.  While I think that a noteworthy amount of useful conversation about AAA governance, policy formulation, and problem solving has unfolded on various weblogs without prompting any signs of engagement by AAA leaders, it is probably not fair to assume that this audience knows about and is comfortable operating within this venue. While it is strange, I am not going to hold up the ignoring of weblog discussions as evidence for my point.  (Such evidence is particularly easy to amass if anyone wanted to catalog it.)

Here are a three large scale interventions that have provoked remarkable silence. I offer them as illustration for my contention. None are blog based.

Kelty et al.’s “Anthropology of/in Circulation: The Future of Open Access and Scholarly Societies” appeared in the pages of one of the society’s most prestigious journals–Cultural Anthropology–and was intended to be a direct and useful contribution to a discussion of vital importance within the association. While it prompted significant discussion outside of the AAA, this article-length work precipitated, to my knowledge as a co-author, no rebuttal, no acknowledgment, no nothing in a AAA context. Being disagreed with completely and fully would have been a meaningful experience. Going unnoticed or being ignored is dumbfounding, especially when we describe our association’s journals as the key means by which we communicate with one another as professionals about those matters that are of shared professional interest.

As the person who was then editor of Museum Anthropology (another AAA journal), I played (with a sense of deep sadness) a key role in one of the most dramatic and durably transformative moments in the history of scientific/scholarly communication in anthropology.  It was time consuming and really terrible and terrifying but I tried to do it in a way that would be therapeutic, as well as fair to all involved. In publishing our field’s first Expression of Concern (and not a temporary one but a eternal one), I pleaded in the pages of the journal that the CSC (now ACC) would take this moment seriously and reflect on where we were and where we were headed. If the matter has been given even a moment of consideration, this would be a relief and would come as news to me.

In an email, I recently asked Kim Fortun (outgoing co-editor of Cultural Anthropology) if anyone had addressed her thoughtful memo (available here, see discussion here) to CFPEP. She reported that she had received no reply at all, but that the Section Assembly-based committee (or task force) of which she is now a part had been asked by CFPEP to create a new memo that integrated her memo with the six or so other memos compiled by other committee members on behalf of their constituencies. I wonder how this would even be done? If we imagine a brief memo from one member who is reporting that her/his section and colleague-friends are all really happy with the new revenues that our association publishing program is generating for sections, does that just negate Kim’s hard work bringing attention to voices that express concern rather than happiness? Why wouldn’t someone involved in vital decision making not want to read and at least acknowledge and think about the memo that Kim wrote? It sure looks and feels like Kim is being ignored. As co-editor of Cultural Anthropology, she (and her co-editor Mike Fortun) worked as hard as one can work to advance the cause of this AAA journal and the association as a whole. Along the way, she gained important insights that make her a better, and more useful, member of the association.  Is there any sense in alienating her and driving her out of involvement in the association by not acknowledging, let alone reading, a report that she clearly invested hours and hours in compiling for the sake of the association? Because she took her job seriously and polled a wide circle of colleagues, the matter is even more grave. This (risk of alienation) does not make sense, even if substantive analysis were to show that every concern raised by Kim and the many people that she consulted with were unequivocally unfounded.

This dynamic has already harmed the AAA. As a final piece of evidence, I propose the following test based on the specific case that I have followed most closely–the scholarly communications/publishing program. Find the early programmatic (and inspirational) documents about AnthroSource in Anthropology News and elsewhere.  Make a list of people involved in the early days, then search for them now.  How many are still involved in AAA scholarly communications policy?  Are they still talking publicly about AAA scholarly communications policy or have they moved on to other pastures?

I deeply appreciate all the good work that the AAA does to support me today and all that it has done for me in the past (meetings, news of the field, advocacy, employment listings, etc.). It is an important organization to which I have tried to contribute meaningfully. It is this durable sense of investment, appreciation, and concern that prompts my observation. When other commentators take an increasingly sarcastic, impatient, and confrontational tone in their one-sided dialogues on AAA policy, I understand this (and they may understand it differently) as a common human response to the perception of being ignored. The frustration of being un-acknowledged is amplified with each new call for feedback, input, and involvement.

Coda: While I purposefully did not discuss this dynamic as it relates to weblog discussion, I think that it is fair to say that when the AAA staff posts an item on its own blog for the overt purpose of promoting discussion, that item and the discussion that it generates should be entered into the official record of the society’s business and should attended to in the same way that a official letter, memo, or other communication ideally should. The headnote for William Davis’ August 31, 2010 post to the AAA weblog says: “If you have any comments, you are welcome to post them below.” What is the status of these comments?  Who might be expected to read them? Will they serve any purpose? It is a very rare blog that actually attracts comments from readers. This does not mean that it is unread or unappreciated. (I appreciate the AAA blog and am grateful for its introduction.) Blogs that do attract (sensible) comments are ones managed by people trying to cultivate discussion. This is very, very hard work and I do not expect anyone to invest that kind of labor in the AAA weblog, but when a call for comments actually generates them, there should be some signal as to what the nature of the transaction is. One minimal way in which this can be achieved is by someone (the chair of a relevant committee, for instance) joining the conversation at least to say “thanks all for your comments, I will make sure that they get shared with the other members of the [relevant] committee.” Scan the AAA blog looking for posts with more than one comment.  They are few and far between, thus the response to William Davis’ August 31, 2010 post is noteworthy. Did that exchange increase or decrease alienation among those who participated as commentators or readers? If, in such episodes, facilitating more discussion is going to generate more alienation, it is not a good path to take. It would be better to turn the comments function off (both literally and figuratively) and to ask for input less rather than more often.

6 Comments Post a comment
  1. Christopher Kelty #

    This is thoughtful as usual, Jason. I guess what it seems to point to, but you don’t say explicitly, is that the AAA simply does not need to respond to any criticism. Perhaps this is because there are no choices to be made–in a negative sense, no choices that are not already heavily constrained by finances and urgent survival needs–or maybe it is because there are no consequences to ignoring members. In any case, were this a diagnosis, it seems to me the disease is that there is nothing in the way of accountability in the AAA, and what’s perhaps worse, nothing in the way of a concern about this lack amongst the membership. The fact that you and I and five (ok ten) other people are apparently the only people endlessly harping on these issues suggests that the other 10,990 members of the AAA either have no idea about these issues or find them irrelevant to the more pressing concerns they have about the AAA and what it does. Frankly, I sympathize, since I no longer pay much attention to those other concerns. If some urgent policy issue concerning indigenous rights, or some issue of fraud and bias is being hotly debated by AAA members right now, I’m clueless… so maybe it’s only fair…

    Nonetheless, we both know the only option is to keep talking. eventually someone will listen.

    September 13, 2010
  2. (hello all…the post below was originally sent as a private reply to Jason Jackson–hey Jason!–but he encouraged me to post it publicly…so, here it goes…Full disclosure: I’m speaking for myself here. Who the heck am I? I study everyday uses of media and work in a wonderfully quirky media studies-type department at Indiana University. I’m the AAA Section Assembly Convenor which means I’m also a voting member of the AAA Executive Board).

    I have to admit, it’s hard to hear/read this critique at this stage of things (when the effort to get Section Assembly perspectives to the EB is still underway), particularly when I tried, at the very beginning of this process, to persuade Jason Jackson or Chris Kelty to consider participating as SA Advisory Group reps so that the SA might have their expertise on tap to substantively engage the Committee on the Future of Print and Electronic Publishing/CFPEP. I definitely understood why that was not something either of them could (or wanted) to do at the time. I want to offer an addendum (maybe even correction) to the case Jason makes in his post (because I fear that Jason’s observations are too easily dismissed as frustrations with the outcome of a process that hasn’t even made it past the drafting stage)…if Jason or others suggest that this is a done deal (as I think Jason does in his post) how does that help motivate AAA members to continue to advocate, let alone pay attention to, all the options on the table? I know it might seem irrationally optimistic of me to believe that members and Section leaders in particular are genuinely being asked to share our perspective on publishing but I fear the alternative is to assume we’re being ignored already (and my experience is that, at least at the moment, we’re not)? So, as I said, here’s my addendum regarding this process so far:

    An important thing to keep in mind: The CFPEP subcommittee charged with collecting perspectives from a range of AAA constituents and reporting them to the AAA Executive Board/EB isn’t just working with the SA, although I think Sections are key interlocutors in the discussion. As I’ve said to Jason and others, Sections don’t just have their publications to lose. All Section budgets currently depend on income generated through our publishing program. Any Section that reckons with the reality of that should care deeply about what happens to AAA publishing as this future will also likely determine the fate of each Section’s existence and the role of Sections, through the Section Assembly, as a governance structure itself. So, as much as this is about the short term question of whether the AAA should renew its publishing agreement with Wiley-Blackwell, the questions about publishing also have long term implications for the health and strength of Sections’ involvement in AAA governance.

    Yes, the CFPEP subcommittee charged with soliciting feedback on the future of AAA publishing, particularly the WB contract renewal, did ask the SA Advisory Group to produce an overview memo but as a supplement to not a replacement for the submitted memos. This request came after the SA Advisory Group submitted separate memos detailing the feedback they were able to collect from editors and Section leaders over the summer. I think the CFPEP request was understandable–they hoped that perhaps the SA Advisory Group could offer some sort of synthesis (even if it was “there’s a range of takes among Sections on the future of publishing”) as there are several perspectives that need to be presented to the EB if it’s to move toward a decision on the WB contract. But when I expressed the SA Advisory Group members’ reasonable objections to a summary memo (the need for more time to capture a summary position and the challenges of drafting anything with the tight time line in place), the CFPEP subcommittee was fine with shifting to a conference call with the Advisory Group (which took place this Monday Sept 13) to make sure they’ve heard what Sections would like to convey to them and, ultimately, the EB. Around the middle of August, I suggested that Advisory Group members urge their Section leadership to also push their Sections and journal editors to advocate for more public conversations, specifically something that could happen at the NOLA Meetings, if the SA Advisory Group felt that would help draw out more Section perspectives and concerns (that was a challenge over the summer).

    Here’s the rub: as much as I (SERIOUSLY) respect Jason’s expertise on scholarly publishing and the perspectives found in the Cultural Anthropology essays Jason cites (and Chris Kelty’s take on all of this in particular), decisions concerning the direction of AAA’s publishing can’t and won’t (or maybe I just mean shouldn’t) be driven by the arguments of a few experts paying close attention to the future of AAA scholarly publishing. They will be driven, for better or for worse, by what the members do with those and other arguments, specifically what they communicate to the AAA leadership and fellow AAA members as the course of action they’d like leadership to take on behalf of the AAA. And, yes, I’m still at that place in my life where I believe leadership ultimately follows what its public demands so I do think this boils down to turning informed positions into a collective course of action with broad support.

    As Jason points out, the future of AAA publishing is an academic/intellectual set of questions with profound implications for the future of the AAA, maybe the discipline (or perhaps the discipline as much as the AAA). But, I would argue that as a member-based organization, individual, intellectual positions on publishing can only move the debate so far. I would definitely argue that they should inform the debate (sidenote to Jason: and I know having no exchange suggests you are being ignored but I’m fairly certain that most, if not all, the EB have seen the articles you mention–and others–as part of its ongoing discussions about the AAA’s future publishing because I am a member of the Executive Board and have cited them, discussed them, and circulated other materials I’ve gleaned from you…like that piece on scholarly publishing from my colleague Ted Striphas available at IU ScholarWorks).

    But what the AAA does with its future publishing is, ultimately (IMHO), something the membership must decide and communicate beyond journal issues. Section leadership must educate itself and speak up (or Section members must learn about the stakes of publishing and push their leaders to speak up), or it becomes very, very hard to gauge whether enough members are aware of the publishing options and their implications and even harder to determine the direction that AAA members would like the Association leadership to go. In the absence of that democratic mobilization there is nothing but volunteer leaders and paid staff, all with varying degrees of expertise and energy for the topic, left to make final decisions. That doesn’t mean they/I shouldn’t be listening to individual members like Jason who publish strong, informed positions on these issues but neither do they have a reason to feel compelled to prioritize, act on, or even respond to those informed recommendations, published or not (although if I didn’t believe in the value of responding, I wouldn’t be posting here).

    Let me close with this: I firmly believe that we need to parse out the goals of assessing whether the Wiley-Blackwell contract works for now and the deeper, tougher (though, frankly, more exciting) issue of imagining what else we could do (with or without Wiley-Blackwell) 5 years from now. My job as the SA Convenor and an Executive Board member is to find out what as many Sections as possible would like to do now and help them educate themselves and their members as much as I can about the possibilities (and pitfalls) of different publishing futures. If I only hear from one group, even if I agree with that group (and I’d say I’m a ringer if there ever was one), I feel compelled to keep searching for other perspectives to see if there is anything that approximates a “majority opinion” out there before I make the most informed, representative decision possible, whether it’s concerning the fate our of relationship with Wiley-Blackwell or preparing for a different future entirely. This is an imperfect approach to decision-making but it does mean that, at least for the 38 Sections that comprise the Section Assembly, each Section has the very real option of quickly moving a concern forward if they can transform it through deliberations and honest discussion into a SA-wide concern. That’s what I hope the SA Advisory Group will be able to do. I would ask that anyone reading this who gives a pinch about these issues contact their Section Leadership and tell them what you’d like them to do on your Section’s behalf. If you belong to multiple Sections, push them all at the same time and you’ve got some traction.

    All my best and with respect,
    Mary

    Mary L. Gray
    Section Assembly Convenor, 2008-2010

    ____________________________
    Mary L. Gray, Ph.D.
    Associate Professor
    Communication and Culture
    Affiliate Faculty, Gender Studies
    Adjunct Faculty, American Studies
    Adjunct Faculty, Anthropology
    Indiana University
    800 E. 3rd Street
    Bloomington, IN 47405

    Email: mLg@indiana.edu
    URL: http://www.indiana.edu/~qcentral
    Phone: 812-855-4379
    Fax: 812-855-6014

    BLOG for “Out in the Country, Youth, Media, and Queer Visibility in Rural America” (NYU Press 2009)
    @ http://www.QUEERCOUNTRY.org

    September 13, 2010
  3. In her comment Mary has shared valuable insights with the world about an ongoing process within the AAA. I do not have anything to add or subtract from what she reports, except to say that I appreciate her work and her willingness to offer news and views here. I share her belief in the value of deliberative process and consensus building in an context of collective self-education and collective future-building.

    As I said to her in an email reply (paraphrasing here), I wish that I had found a way to say what I said without any specific mention of scholarly communications (publishing) issues. These are what I have been trying to engage with and thus they provide the evidence at hand for me, but they are really not my point here. The point that I was trying to make concerns the way that the Association engages with the individual people that constitute its collective human capital. I have probably said more than I should about that and I cannot think of more to say. I am no less discouraged about it today than I was last week or last year. I wish that publishing talk were not clouding my point but it is perfectly reasonable and understandable that it should. The good news for me is that I am not discouraged overall, just about the way that this dynamic plays out within the AAA. (I have a great many engagements that are disappointment-free zones, including in the actual work of doing scholarly communications reform.)

    Since Mary provides rich detail on the current governance process and because such information is not often circulated in a context such as this, I’ll just say something publicly that I have already said to Mary in private. I am just one member among 11,000 so everyone can take this view with a grain of salt, but for reasons that Chris and I and others have discussed in a range of contexts (for me, going back to the earliest editor’s meetings of the Wiley period), it would be an extremely difficult matter to change publishing partners given the financial and technical systems in which we are now firmly embedded. This is especially true in the context of the diversity of views and priorities found among the membership (as Mary has described well here). I think that renewing the AAA’s partnership with Wiley in 2012 is inevitable. This is not because alternative strategies are not imaginable or are not viable. They are have been imagined and they are workable, but a big complicated organization like the AAA only gets so many chances to innovate and the time is not right for the AAA’s next experimental moment. If I am right, this does not mean that the current deliberative process is without value. If it can cultivate conversation and cause more members to understand the issues a bit more, then it will still be very valuable. I appreciate those who are doing this work now (Mary especially) and I wish them well.

    If anyone besides Chris and Mary and I actually reads this exchange this far in, what do you think?

    September 14, 2010
  4. I don’t have any advice for the AAA membership because I don’t know what these business arrangements mean in practice for the various units, and in any case all that is for the AAA membership to decide and I am not a member.

    I just thought I would point out that it took me five minutes to chase down the article linked in the blog post because the link goes to a subscription at a library that is not my library. Fortunately, my library does subscribe to the journal and I was able to find it, but if I were not a librarian or a habitual library user or if I were not affiliated with an institution that subscribed to this journal, and a bit persistent, I would not have been able to read it. (I did find that once I finally got to the article, there is a free online copy at http://blog.culanth.org/incirculation/. I will link to that in future. Of course, most articles in this journal do not have a fee version, and would be completely lost to me if my library didn’t subscribe.)

    I think this serves as an illustration of the underlying issue, though. If societies publish research to make it available, publishing it the current way does not make it available except to a select few, and it sounds as if that mode of publishing does not really bring in money that publishing it in a manner that makes it available to all would not. In other words, limiting access does not appear to serve either the ideal purpose of the publication (to disseminate new research) or the realpolitik purpose (to provide revenue to help the organization) though possibly it does do a third thing, keep its paid-up members up to date on new information, reviews, etc.

    If the membership and select students at select institutions are the sole audience for these publications, then perhaps it is working – except it seems to be costing the organization too much, and the number of institutions that can afford access is bound to shrink. Libraries are not getting budget increases that match cost increases – so they are continually shrinking. And of course anyone who is not affiliated with a college or university that subscribes and is not a member can’t access it at all.

    If the purpose is to share knowledge, it’s at least a partial failure. If it’s to be an attractive member benefit, it’s a partial success, but it may require steep membership cost increases, and members may begin to think it’s not enough of a benefit. If it’s to increase Wiley’s profits, it’s undoubtedly a success, but probably not for long because it seems unlikely the membership can keep spending this much money.

    Our library had to drastically shrink its subscriptions (and book purchases) three times in the past decade. What’s left to cut? Not much. Anthrosource will certainly be one of the subscriptions that will be up for debate.

    September 19, 2010
  5. Barbara–I am sorry that I used the link to the toll access version of Kelty et al. (I was trying to show good faith as a AAA member.) When I did so, it brought in my local library proxies (fouling things up in a common fashion). I am sorry about that. I wish that I had noticed this mistake. Glad that you found the CommentPress version. The stable green OA version to cite is probably the one in IUScholarWorks Repository at https://scholarworks.iu.edu/dspace/handle/2022/3167 This is a stable URL. The authors used a Science Commons author addendum to circulate the paper in these alternative formats.

    September 19, 2010

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