Computers and Composition Digital Press: A Born-Digital Partnership

Computers and Composition Digital Press (CCDP) began in 2007 when digital writing scholars Gail E. Hawisher and Cynthia L. Selfe saw shrinking opportunities for scholars in the field to publish their work, and limitations that were becoming an increasing hindrance to the scholarship that was published. What was needed was a press that would publish “pieces that couldn’t be represented in the two-dimensional spaces of print,” said Selfe, Humanities Distinguished Professor in the Department of English at Ohio State University.

Importantly however, these publications would also need the intellectual authority that came from peer review in order to hold value in the academic world. These frustrations sparked the idea for CCDP, and Hawisher and Selfe soon recruited other scholars in the field to help get the project off the ground. Selfe described the initial questions they had to address as the project began to take shape: “what kind of a press would publish these digital projects” and “what it meant [for the projects] to have the same specific gravity as a book.”

Finding a publishing partner that exemplified “the same values as tenure and promotion committees,” would be crucial – there would be no incentive for scholars to take advantage of new technologies to publish avant-garde texts if their work would not be accepted by the larger academic community. Coincidentally, Selfe’s home campus, Ohio State University, was in the process of revising its tenure and promotion guidelines, with one of the goals being “to strip out print biases.” Going through this process at her own institution, Selfe was able to outline the key criteria that would be necessary to make CCDP projects viable and competitive: peer review, university presses as preferential publishers, and a continuing value placed on intellectual reach, scope, and excellence. This is where Utah State University Press came in. Having published with Michael Spooner at USU Press and elsewhere beforehand, and familiar with the strong reputation of the press’s existing composition and rhetoric list, the editors felt that the press would be the perfect publishing partner. Spooner’s previous work, and the stature of Utah State University Press ensured them that this imprimatur would provide the project the “academic legitimacy” they were seeking for CCDP. Hawisher, Professor of English and University Distinguished Teacher/Scholar at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, described the confidence they had that USU Press would give young scholars, whose work she feels is not always recognized by traditional outlets, the attention they deserved.

Spooner explained that the press decided to present CCDP as an imprint because “the idea of CCDP was created with an identity separate from USU.” Despite its all-digital output, “editorially, the project operates very much like a standard university press series.” Selfe and Hawisher handle the acquisitions and peer review process. Completed manuscripts are then sent to USU Press’s editorial board for a final vetting.

Generally, the imprint relies on its authors’ own technical expertise for the production aspects of these digital works. The press negotiates specifications for handling layout with the authors and editors. The ability of the imprint’s authors to provide projects ready for online publication is related to the demands of the field: “this isn’t a process that I’d attempt with just any series or imprint,” said Spooner, “It happens that scholars in this field have a higher than average expertise with document design, web design, programming, etc., and because of their academic appointments, some have regular access to new publishing and design software.”

Marketing efforts for the imprint have come from both the press and the editors. USU Press provides visibility on its web site, Facebook page, e-catalog, and email blasts, as well as a presence on exhibit tables and in occasional space ads. The editors and their colleagues do a great deal of old-fashioned word-of-mouth marketing, promoting the imprint at conferences, on email lists, and through other venues of scholarly exchange. In keeping with their born-digital roots, reviews by bloggers are featured in sidebars on the book web pages.  Spooner added that the value of having such well-regarded editors cannot be underestimated: “the informal buzz created by the editors, their students, and colleagues is the most effective marketing presence.”

The editors were also pleased to find that Spooner and USU Press were amenable to their commitment to open access for the imprint. A commitment to open access is something that many presses and institutions feel is valuable, but financial pressures often make it difficult to implement in reality. CCDP has been able to maintain their policy of accessibility through the support of USU Press, USU Libraries, partner institutions, and the scholars who assist the imprint in various capacities. The editors, their colleagues, graduate students, and the imprint’s authors (as described above) all contribute their time and skills. For a digital imprint, technological resources have been essential; Selfe describes CCDP as “building on the technological infrastructure and margins of universities.” The site was originally hosted by Miami University of Ohio, then moved to the Illinois Institute of Technology, and will now be moving to Utah State.

The publication of a report from an MLA Task Force, as well as more recent letters from current MLA president Sidonie Smith, are factors the editors see giving the profession a push to move towards acknowledging this sort of work. Of course, the “availability of different kinds of technology” is another impetus, as the possibilities for digital work continue to expand. Said Hawisher: “When we had the support of a university press, we believed that we could publish these books and that colleagues could use these books in their tenure portfolio.” She sees the increasing move to e-publication as inevitable (and beneficial for the field), and believes that this project is one facet of learning how to “make this [shift to e-publishing] work for all of us.” The editors face the challenge of acquiring work that is, as Selfe described it, “conventional enough to be recognized as scholarly projects in terms of historical and genre expectations, and yet interesting enough to push those boundaries that require digital environments to be understood.” The real test comes in putting these ideals into practice: an upcoming CCDP project will be , Selfe believes, “the first native digital text for tenure at a Big Ten institution.”

In addition to the Press and its university partners, CCDP also has an association with the Institute of the Future of the Book (if:book), which Selfe described as providing a “philosophical template,” as well as some of the necessary software infrastructure. Having worked with members of the staff previously, the editors felt the partnership would also encourage authors to produce books in different environments, like Sophie, an if:book-developed platform they hope to utilize in future projects.

As for the future of the imprint, both editors envision projects including an increasing variety of media, as they truly become something that can be published only in an online venue, and “push the envelope for what is [considered] a book.” Just in the two books published so far, and two forthcoming projects, they have seen an increase in the amount and variety of digital media that has been incorporated – a trend they expect to continue as technological advances widen the realm of possibility. They had originally anticipated that it would take five years before producing works that were challenging boundaries, but feel that their second book, Generaciones’ Narratives, has already moved in that direction, with its inclusion of video interviews. An increasing variety of digital components is particularly important Spooner explained, “because this is the very stuff that needs to be legitimated before the [promotion and tenure] process.”  There has been discussion of adding a print-on-demand component to the imprint. Such an idea remains theoretical at this point however, due to the obvious challenges of transposing the digital aspects of the projects. Another trend the editors see increasing with the proliferation of born-digital work is that of collaborative authorship, to an extent that can be rare in the humanities. The evolving demands of these projects necessitate drawing on the resources of multiple scholars: “authorship often has to happen in teams,” said Selfe, “different people contribute different skills.”

Spooner emphasized the importance of CCDP’s evolving online presence as they learn about the best ways to build their publications: “it’s important to us and to the scholars/authors/readers in this part of the field to have things accessible now, even knowing that formats will evolve in future.” The partners are continuing in this collaborative and innovative spirit as they work towards the mission encapsulated in CCDP’s  tagline: “Open access. Peer-reviewed. Online.”

Meredith Benjamin
Communications Coordinator, AAUP