A perennial problem in academic writing is the lack of feedback along the way. Academics can run ideas by other academics and in class; works in progress can be presented at research seminars; and published papers can provoke published replies. In response, the original idea can be refined, and the process of iterative development can continue. One way to short-circuit the process is to publish ideas in early draft form on blogs and similar sites (and many of the posts on this site are well on their way to incorporation into academic articles). Conor Gearty (pictured right) has come up with a really interesting way to go further, a collaborative means by which he can garner, engage with, and incorporate significant online feedback on his writing during the course of the writing.
Moreover, what he will write by this means is very important: a book entitled The Rights’ Future in which he will consider nothing less than the future of human rights. In his view, they are
the only potentially radical and genuinely universal idea available to us in this post-socialist world of fear, money and lost souls. Too important to be left to lawyers but too subversive to be handed over to the politicians alone, human rights need the intellectuals, the workers and the streets if their model of a new kind of society has any chance of beginning to be built.
His collaborative process will involve “the intellectuals, the workers and the streets” in the writing of The Rights’ Future. Beginning this evening with a RIGHTS’ MANIFESTO on The Rights’ Future website, each week for the next three months or so, Gearty will publish a chapter of the book online in the form of a 2,000 word essay, which will probe the history of human rights, address their present state in the world and map out some of the possible futures that await this morally important but highly contested phrase. Each essay will be open to online discussion and debate; at the end of the week, Gearty will summarize the responses and the impact they have had on his thinking, and he will adapt and improve his original thoughts on foot of this engagement. The process will begin again the following Monday with the next 2,000 word essay.
This seems to me to be a fantastic use of the internet, replacing the loneliness of the cloistered ivory tower intellectual with the collaborative wisdom of crowds. It doesn’t quite go as far as sites like Wikipedia, but it is an excellent means to obtain real-time interaction with people who are genuinely interested in the issues. I wish I’d thought of it first; I will certainly be participating; and, depending on the way the site and debate develop, I will probably cross-post some of it here. Moreover, some version of this model will doubtless become a familiar means of writing in the future.