Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s “Planned Obsolescence”: Like Retinol for the Scholarly Monograph | From Site Contributor Lauren Pfeil

Kathleen Fitzpatrick opens Planned Obsolescence with “The text you are now reading, whether on a screen in draft form or in its final, printed version, began its gestation some years ago in a series of explorations into the notion of obsolescence.”1 

I am now writing a blog post about a book about obsolescence with the knowledge that the very words I am typing are going to become obsolete. So, uh, with that happy thought that in mind…

Fitzpatrick has explored obsolescence as a concept before publishing Planned Obsolescence—namely, in her previous title, “The Anxiety of Obsolescence: The American Novel in the Age of Television,” which was published in 2006. Her struggles in publishing that book were ironic; at the heart of its argument was the defense of books’ relevance in today’s culture, and yet, she was rejected by presses that she thought would agree with that thesis. 

And nevertheless, she persisted—in large part because getting published is still an important standard by which academics are judged. Though our culture broadly has shifted away from the book in favor of other media, the scholarly monograph is still key for advancement at the vast majority of American colleges and universities. Therefore, the scholarly monograph, she argues, is not dead: it is undead.2

Cue the theme music from The X-Files.

“Undead” here doesn’t necessarily mean that once-popular titles that have fallen off of syllabi have suddenly been reborn from their literary ashes. Rather, Fitzpatrick states that the scholarly monograph is no longer viable as a form, yet it is still necessary. There hasn’t been a new form or a major change to the form which could replace the scholarly monograph as-is, so although we are aware that it is flawed, we continue with the scholarly monograph as it is the best option that we have. Those of you who are rom-com watchers will recognize this as “settling.”

Through five chapters—”Peer Review”, “Authorship”, “Texts”, “Preservation”, and “The University”—Fitzpatrick strips the world of academic publishing down to the studs. Each chapter focuses on a different aspect of academic publishing, exploring why it is the way it is and how it got to be that way before mapping out potential new roads to explore in the name of improvement. Fitzpatrick stakes claim after claim as she tackles each new subject, and demonstrates the importance of her assessments and subsequent recommendations with fervor. There’s something distinctly Lorax-ian about her prose; even sections that center on technical knowledge are passionately written and defended.

While much of Planned Obsolescence relies on speculation or predictions, its myriad hypotheses alone are worth considering even without testing and results. Fitzpatrick is doing heavy lifting here by working to push a field forward, and for current and former scholars and academics alike, this book is like a fire alarm. Even though she acknowledges that as every second goes by, her statements lose relevance, it is the fact that she is making them and that we are reading them that makes them more crucial than ever. Putting out a fire from inside the house is a big ask, and yet, Kathleen Fitzpatrick has asked it of us. It’s going to take a whole lot of people willing to fight this fire to keep the scholarly monograph from going completely up in flames.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Because it’s such a hot topic both in general and for this class specifically: How do you think Fitzpatrick would feel about NFTs, as they relate to intellectual property and authorship? 
  2. What’s something that you once loved that is now obsolete? For what reason has it become obsolete, and do you think that there is a potential route for it to be revived?
  3. In Chapter 3, Fitzpatrick writes that “[g]ames may seem a frivolous example of the contemporary academy’s drive to cater to the younger generation’s relatively non-intellectual interests, but it is in fact hoped that patrons who use the library in such a fashion will not only be more likely to use it in traditional ways…but also more empowered to collaborate with one another, breaking the library’s stereotypical hush.” As public historians, creating a product that can be relevant to broad audience—across generations, for example—can be a difficult task. Does obsolescence help or hurt this effort? How can it be utilized strategically?
  4. As historians, we often handle topics and subjects that are considered obsolete. Where do you draw the line between obsolescence being a good thing and being a bad thing?
  5. Is there something about student life that you already consider “undead”? What could possible reanimations or replacements be?
  6. As a student—someone who has experienced university life and academic constraints, even if you haven’t pursued publishing—what is something that you would like to see change about the culture of academia?


  1. Kathleen Fitzpatrick, Planned Obsolescence (New York: NYU Press, 2011), 1.
  2. Kathleen Fitzpatrick, Planned Obsolescence (New York: NYU Press, 2011), 4.

Lauren Pfeil is a graduate student at American University. A native of Des Moines, Iowa and a proud alumna of Butler University, she hopes to push the field of public history towards a more inclusive & accessible landscape.

Reach Lauren on Twitter: @lauren_pfeil
Reach Lauren via email: laurenspfeil@gmail.com

Who’s Working in “The West Wing”: Using MALLET to Assess Representations of Work | A Print Proposal from Contributor Lauren Pfeil

The American family room is oriented towards a television screen, a setup made for entertaining the home audience and creating water-cooler fodder for the next day on the job. Many viewers can find personal connections with characters and events depicted on television shows; this is reflected with Halloween costumes, the dating profiles of Jims looking for their Pams, and of course, in the recently revived claim “I’m a Samantha.” With both work and television being so central to American culture, I’m hoping to look at the impact of a setting that exists across genres: the workplace. 

Setting aside any main and side plots which are not specifically about workers, working, or being in a workplace, certain elements that are worthy of evaluation appear across workplace television shows. Analyzing the biographical details of television characters—such as employee demographics, reporting structures, wardrobe—as well as their actions—like landing a big sale or microwaving salmon in the break room—would allow critical analyses to be made about how a series portrays the work that forms its basis. Naturally, the selection of the literature to be reviewed would impact the results gained. 

Evaluating the script of a show where the main cast of characters find themselves working on the same level or in similar positions might allow for an interesting assessment of the characters and their relationships when faced with the same tasks. Reading through scripts of NCIS might implore a historian to count how many times Gibbs tells Kate and Ziva to “sketch and shoot” and compare it to how many times he barks the same order at Tony and McGee, perhaps demonstrating a skew in gender or seniority. Jim, Dwight, and Andy’s sales tend to get more minutes of an episode of The Office than those of Phyllis, Stanley, or Pam, and the sales careers of Michael Scott and Todd Packer are heavily celebrated. How significant is this portrayal of the white, male sales representatives’ career trajectories at Dunder Mifflin? 

On the other hand, evaluating a script from a show where the positions of the characters are varied invites a vertical analysis where one could consider who works in which role or how much screen time that individual’s work is given. Mad Men’s interpretation of strict societal roles, for example, is explained as a statement on another time (though I’d invite everyone to consider the employment and pay gaps that persist to this day, as they might be closer to Don Draper’s world than we’d imagine). 

The West Wing is one of my favorite television shows of all time, and not just because my high school choir student teacher said that I bear a passing resemblance to Janel Moloney. A variety of people surround the White House, spanning industries, generations, and Congressional districts, and because the show focuses so heavily on the work of West Wing staffers, there is a wealth of Sorkinese to sift through. If afforded a good sabbatical to repetitively binge-watch seven seasons, I could go about this research question in the old-fashioned way—from my couch. However, digital transcripts and topic modeling would allow for much more expeditious data collection to be done. 

Happily, a fansite exists which boasts transcripts from every episode of The West Wing, aptly named www.WestWingTranscripts.com. Using MALLET (MAchine Learning for LanguagE Toolkit, linked here), I would feed in episode transcripts and get back Mallet’s perceived topics. If I ventured a guess, I would imagine that amongst these would be directives (keywords perhaps including Margaret, Carol, Bonnie, Ginger), legislative (votes, aisle, Hill, bill), and public opinion (survey, poll, Danny Concannon). The findings that Mallet would collectivize would allow me to evaluate the nature of the work being done and the workers who were doing it, without hearing that catchy theme song one hundred and fifty-four times. 

As the Executive Branch is one of the most important workplaces in the nation, it certainly merits scholarly attention. With the success of The West Wing as a series, the fictional President’s fictitious staff were invited to join many Americans’ Wednesday (later Sunday) nights on their La-Z-Boys. Considering the prestige of both the White House and NBC’s stake on primetime TV, I’m hoping that the use of topic modeling and digital transcripts will provide effective quantitative analysis of work on The West Wing

Lauren Pfeil is a graduate student at American University. A native of Des Moines, Iowa and a proud alumna of Butler University, she hopes to push the field of public history towards a more inclusive & accessible landscape.

Reach Lauren on Twitter: @lauren_pfeil
Reach Lauren via email: laurenspfeil@gmail.com

Get to Know DigHist Contributor Lauren Pfeil

Our family copy (Thanks for the photo, Dad!)

When a mother hears her three-year-old ask, “Mommy, did you know that Teddy Roosevelt kept lots of critters in the White House?”, she likely thinks that her child is trying to angle for a puppy. In my mother’s case, she wandered over and was surprised to find that I was reading Meet Theodore Roosevelt by Ormonde de Kay; the book was one in Random House’s “Story of America” series, aimed for 3rd through 5th graders. Surprised, she asked if someone had read the book to me earlier. When I replied that I was reading it for myself, she went around the house in search of a book she knew I had not seen before. She asked me to try to read some words; I read the first page to her before she turned to my dad and asked him if he already knew that I could read. (He didn’t.)

Funnily enough, my reading tastes have stayed relatively the same as they were in that stage of child development. I still love to discover what made people tick, how events and organizations came together and fell apart, when the extraordinary and the quotidian make an impact—in short, history spurs my imagination. And thus, I find myself in Washington, D.C., enrolled in American University and pursuing a Master’s degree in Public History.

That old living room rug was in West Des Moines, Iowa, where I was raised amidst perennial political campaigns and annual sweet corn harvests. Iowa has an incredibly beautiful state capitol, a low cost of living, and quite literally gave the world sliced bread, so I will always appreciate my home state. I earned my Bachelor’s degree from Butler University—Go Dawgs!—in Indianapolis, Indiana (March Madness fans will remember our consecutive runs to the National Championship Game in 2010 and 2011). Indy is a phenomenal city, once you get over the drivers acting like it’s May three hundred and sixty-five days per year; I genuinely recommend finding any reason to add it to your road trip list.

Learning about new places has always been a love of mine—I’ve visited thirty-eight states and sixteen countries. A few of these were added to the list as a result of two years spent in leadership consulting, which helped me sharpen my skills in audience engagement (ever given a workshop to four hundred and fifty Southern sorority women straight off of a plane?) and helped me to finesse my organizational prowess. Living out of two suitcases and a backpack when you will be in both the stifling heat of Athens, Georgia and your first “snow squall” in Binghamton, New York? It’ll make you a pro at prioritization and compartmentalization.

My two suitcases many, many frequent flier miles later…

After the pandemic took me off the road and into virtual mode, I began wondering what was next for me. I love to coordinate, encapsulate, encourage, and educate. I had spent two years helping others gain tools and skills to help them learn and grow as leaders and learners. During my college years I had worked for Butler’s office of Student Disability Services. A student with visual disabilities hoped to take upper-level Spanish courses, but the Modern Languages department lacked the bandwidth to take thousands of pages of textbooks and make versions that were accessible; meanwhile, Student Disability Services lacked a Spanish-speaker on staff. Enter a junior triple-majoring in International Studies, Spanish, and Political Science who was passionate about accessibility, typed fast, and was thrilled to get pocket change for concessions at Butler Basketball games. The result? You get a student who can now hear audio versions of her textbooks and use screen readers para aprender.

Combining all of these passions of mine into studying Public History makes me excited for the future—not just as a professional, but for a future in which visitors enter a museum and find lessons that resonate with them, where students have materials that make the past come alive, and where learning about history outside of school doesn’t make people immediately think about how their dad lets yet another World War II documentary play while he “rests his eyes” on the weekends. I believe new media is the key to giving history a PR makeover. In this course, I’m excited to find the tools and strategies that will help me help others. From podcasts and documentaries, to behind-the-scenes web design and data sets, I’m thrilled to be in this course and can’t wait to share with you some secrets that will help you find your own Meet Theodore Roosevelt—a little tidbit of history so fascinating that you just can’t help but share it with others.

Lauren Pfeil is a graduate student at American University. A native of Des Moines, Iowa and a proud alumna of Butler University, she hopes to push the field of public history towards a more inclusive & accessible landscape.

Reach Lauren on Twitter: @lauren_pfeil
Reach Lauren via email: laurenspfeil@gmail.com