A few weeks ago on October 22nd, I participated in an Open Access Week event held by York University’s libraries. A deliberate attempt to generate a lively discussion, this event was titled “The Great Debate: Should the blog replace the book?”, and I was recruited to argue on the “blog side”. The other participants were Ian Milligan (University of Waterloo), John Fink (McMaster University), and Scott McLaren (York University).
This was an interesting debate, though I must say I wish I hadn’t spoken first–I’ve never been in a debate before, and in academic presentations (in my experience) we’re encouraged to focus on content over rhetorical style. So I had too many points and lacked a convincing style of conveying them, partly because public speaking makes me nervous. Needless to say, we were beaten out by the book, but of course now I can turn to my blog and add a lengthy post-script!
I should mention that at least a couple of the participants weren’t particularly committed to the positions we were asked to take. I had difficulty arguing against the book, even as someone who blogs, since I’m quite attached to the (hundreds of) books I have sitting on shelves around my apartment. My co-debaters were similarly positioned: Ian is actually writing a book right now, and on the book side, John Fink is Digital Technologies Development Librarian at McMaster, and he discusses in his blog how he, too, had problems coming up with an argument.
I’m also not very good at responding quickly to questions from an audience. I always feel as if my responses are going to sound uninformed, because I haven’t had time to think them through. There was one question in particular that stood out during the debate, probably because I simply didn’t believe anyone could hold to the opinion expressed. This question was about whether we viewed blogs as “entertainment” (and books as…not?). To me it seemed clear that “entertainment” was being positioned against something else with more inherent value–information, or knowledge, perhaps? I felt like reminding the audience that “Twilight”, too, is a book (with sequels–and I don’t think it started as a blog, either).
In any case, since I never think about academic blogs in this way, I had trouble coming up with a good response to the question. I explained that while I’m happy for people to find my blog “entertaining”–why not?–the actual goal here is to provide some critical analysis of issues relating to the academic research I’m doing. I believe the content of my blog differentiates it from, say, blogs about celebrity gossip or cooking (and the latter are still at least as informative as they are entertaining). And although I loathe the concept of “Edutainment”, I would also question the idea that the difference between entertainment and information is something simple and straightforward.
The problem with much of the critique of blogs is that there are too many generalizations. Categorizing blogs as “entertainment” means generalizing and extrapolating based on aspects of the nature of the medium, rather than on the content of particular blogs. In this debate, our primary focus was on academic publishing. For example, in using the term “accessibility” I was comparing blogs with the most predominant forms of academic publishing, the journal article and the monograph–not with cheaper forms of publishing that don’t require as much digital technology. So when the issue of “entertainment” was raised, it seemed inappropriate to the context in which we were framing our arguments.
A similar problem is illustrated in a recent blog post from Maclean’s, in which the author discusses how she was advised to stop blogging because it could negatively affect her career as a teacher. There is much focus on the form of blogging, but not on whether it was more the author’s writing and subject matter that was deemed problematic or potentially damaging to her professional prospects (as opposed to simply having a blog at all).
In academe, the negative assessment of blogs is widespread. Quite recently I saw one academic on Twitter refer to blogging as “easy” and I winced. I’d argue that like many things, blogging is “easy” if you don’t care about quality–if you don’t want to consider content or audience or style, for example. But anyone who does care about such things is going to argue that blogging well takes as much skill as writing in any other medium. I wouldn’t want a shoddy blog post published any more than I’d want a sub-par academic paper published in a journal, because it’s something I wrote, and it’s in public where people can read it.
Is blogging easy compared to “real” academic writing and its publishing process, perhaps? In academe we have the assumption that the peer review process guarantees quality–and thus blogs, which are not reviewed (in most cases), must be of lower quality than academic journal articles and books. This is tied up with the relative value of different kinds of writing (and indeed, knowledge) in the academic economy, and of course, to the current process of academic publishing.
But does the absence of gatekeeping necessarily mean that the ultimate “product” is of lesser worth? This is not just a philosophical question–how we answer it will play a part in the future of the academic profession, since faculty hiring and promotion depends so heavily on publishing. This is the context in which the question of blogs as “entertainment” was put to us as scholars hoping to participate in knowledge dissemination. This is a political context, a context of institutional change; even if such issues are entertaining, they are certainly not neutral.
Many of those of us kicking around the academic Twitterverse over the past few days have been witnessing (and participating in) an intense discussion that’s raised issues at the core of academic values and assumptions about knowledge and research. This discussion has been focused on the “ethics of live tweeting” as a practice at academic conferences, and the ways in which presenters and academics either support this practice or reject it. We can see that this topic has touched a sore spot from the extreme reactions it’s generated in some Twitter circles. A number of people have also written thoughtful blog posts addressing the issues in more detail, and I’ve linked to those throughout my own contribution here.
To begin, I have to say I agree with those who’ve argued that we need to respect other people’s boundaries and try to understand where strong reactions come from; there are reasons why people react the way they do. But those reasons aren’t necessarily personal (even when the reaction makes it sound like they are). So I want to take a look specifically at the accusation that academics “use” other people’s work in social media venues like blogs and Twitter to build their own reputation and academic “brand”, and ultimately to benefit their own academic careers (ostensibly at the expense of others). Tressie McMillan Cottom brought my attention to this critique in her post from September 30, and it’s more fully articulated here.
One of the key problems brought up in the online debate has been that of determining what knowledge is public and what’s private, and who gets to decide how dissemination of that knowledge happens (where, and when, and who the audience will be), who has the “right” to share ideas.
In my opinion, control is one of the fundamental elements of this discussion; this is something discussed critically by Roopika Risam, who points out the connection between access and control. Control is also exercised through authority, which is closely tied to expertise and peer recognition. So we see some scholars re-asserting a form of academic credibility by putting down other scholars as mere opportunists, not “real” academics. In this way the boundary between “academic” and “anything else” is re-drawn by those who are already inside it–or those who hope to be allowed in.
Why would academics, even those using Twitter themselves, cast such unpleasant aspersions upon their colleagues? To understand this, we need to consider that regular forms of academic promotionalism, such as book launches, listserv announcements, and of course conference presentations and guest lectures, simply aren’t seen as such; they’re perceived as ways of “sharing ideas” with colleagues; mentoring; and building professional networks.
However, academics using social media make similar claims; many argue that “opening up” scholarship to commentary, through public tweeting, brings attention both to the scholar doing the presenting and to the person sharing (tweeting) what is being said. Many of us also view Twitter as a tool, for note-taking or simply for the dissemination of scholarly insights to a broader audience, given that many people simply can’t attend academic conferences. We strive to properly “cite” our sources because we’re still academics and researchers, even online; because we respect our peers and colleagues; and also because it’s part of an ethic of sharing as something that actually increases the value of the research.
Some academics have also argued that they fear their ideas will be “scooped” or stolen by others. This is of course a reasonable point since real plagiarism happens online–as do myriad versions of misattribution, as in this article where a tweet from Roopika Risan was re-quoted, as an incorrect attribution, from a different Tweeter (it’s now been corrected).
But plagiarism happens in more traditional forms of academic writing, too. Anyone in the room at an academic conference could be “stealing” your ideas. Whether that person uses a notebook and pen or a notebook computer, theft happens and it hurts people, and that’s a risk we take when we present work at an academic event or elsewhere. I think this is a problem that’s been around for much longer than the short period in which we’ve had access to mobile devices and social media platforms (though of course, these technologies dramatically increase the possibilities). The problem is the motivation for the practice of theft, not the technologies that enable it.
The argument that those who tweet posts about others’ work are “selfish” and concerned only with academic branding is a rebuke in the harsh terms of promotionalism, which is highly disdained in academic culture (partly for reasons I’ve discussed in the past). But let’s not forget the flip side of this extreme argument, which is that true meritocracy should be free from crass self-promotion. Not only is the argument an inflammatory one, it also plays into a false binary. Making such an argument through social media channels merely adds the element of irony to that mix.
There’s another ironic point here, too. Accusing others of selfishness in this way reinforces an objectifying and proprietary concept of knowledge in which ownership trumps the added value of openness. And this is a neo-liberal concept of knowledge, one in which knowledge is constrained by its use-value within an (academic) economy, and bounded by the assumption that we can exchange it for various forms of capital. The increased competition and professionalization in higher education has only exacerbated this conflict between the need and desire to share ideas, and the imperative to claim them as protected “territory”.
The accusations of self-interested careerism also signal a shift in academic practice and culture, including the possibility of changing how we develop authority and prestige–vital currency in the academic economy. How is “academic capital” created? Will this change with the use of relatively open new media to disseminate knowledge? That’s a “disruption” similar to what has been predicted in the debate about online education, for example. It could be another facet of the effects of new communication technologies on the ways in which academic culture and work are changing. At the moment, social media activity from academics does not generate nearly as much academic credibility as publishing and presenting at conferences. This could change.
How can we deal with these issues in the academic context? Clearly, we can’t assume that everyone agrees on (social media) etiquette. The general level of awareness needs to be raised if problems are to be avoided. Conference organizers could include social media guidelines; presenters could ask politely that people refrain from Tweeting; attendees could check to make sure it’s OK before they share online. I don’t think there’s one practical answer that’s going to make everyone happy (other than this one), because context is crucial and also because of the very contentious underlying issues involved (Kathleen Fitzpatrick, Ernesto Priego, and Bethany Nowviskie have good suggestions). But as E. E. Templeton commented, we can at least make sure everyone’s “on the same page”–and that this discussion is happening at all.
Unless you’ve been offline and away from your computer for the past week, you have probably seen or read something about the many Internet site “blackouts” in protest of the U.S. bills SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) and PIPA (Protect IP Act), with high profile demonstrations and shutdowns from Wikipedia, Google, Reddit, BoingBoing and others.
Watch a video explaining the implications of SOPA and PIPA.
In the course of my various degrees I’ve never had a class on intellectual property (IP) issues, and though I find it difficult at times to keep up with the details of the policies, I think it’s important that we all learn something about these issues given their increasing relevance to education.
As academic librarians stepped up via Twitter to help out those panicked undergrads who couldn’t function without a Wikipedia page to steer them in the right direction, I wondered in what ways my own research process is (or is not) entangled with the political, legal and technical issues raised by SOPA/PIPA. Revising, adding to, and sharing research materials is an ongoing process, one that I couldn’t have developed even 10 years ago because the tools — many of them online — simply weren’t available. At the same time, the information “field” is now so huge that it’s hard to know where and how to begin our searches, and the search is in no way restricted to library databases or to academically sanctioned channels of information seeking (Google Scholar is generally my first stop these days). What exactly is “content” now and how do we find it?
For example one problem is that SOPA/PIPA could affect content on social media sites like YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter, as discussed in this TED talk by Clay Shirky. Shirky discusses how we not only discover, but also share and create content using the Internet. This is an important point — as students, teachers and researchers, we’re now using the Internet for much more than just straightforward searches for academic content. As well as the more popular sites, specialty tools such as Mendeley, Diigo, Academia.edu and more are examples of how social networking and online information sharing have started to change what educators do and how we connect with others.
Though the example isn’t a parallel, Canada’s PSE institutions have already had copyright problems related to the increasing digitization of research and teaching materials. Many of us experienced first-hand the effects of changes to Access Copyright when a number of universities decided not to use the service anymore, after the tariff per student was to be more than doubled. This past September was, as I recall, more hectic than usual as we waited for course readings to be approved, assembled and copied so students could purchase and read them for class.
As others have pointed out, it was also during the past week that Apple unveiled its new online textbook project. Sadly, but unsurprisingly, it sounds like Apple wants to link the use of its textbook apps directly to expansion of the market for iPads by creating a new technological territory and governing it solo. At worst, this buys in to the notion of technology as academic panacea while also cynically making the play to generate the technology on which education will come to rely. In other words, it’s a tidy business move; but will it work — and what will be the implications for knowledge and for already-stratified education systems, if it does? It may be nice to see education “front and centre” but not, in my opinion, when the goal is to create a closed economy.
While SOPA/PIPA has been postponed indefinitely, the issues it raises will not disappear. Even as we find ourselves with a new freedom to find research materials and share these with others, our new relationships and sources of information are dependent on systems that are beyond many people’s reach and understanding. Even if we learn how to code, to make our own apps, are we not still using infrastructure that is controlled elsewhere and could be policed or shut down without our consent? We need to pay attention to the changing information infrastructure (its physical, legal, and political economic aspects), since the changes made today can and will affect our capacities as researchers and teachers in the future.