A recent article on Slate‘s website came to my attention only because so many academics in my personal Twittersphere were reacting negatively to it. The article caused outrage with its discussion of EdX founder Anant Agarwal’s suggestion that professors who create and present material for (video-based) MOOCs could be replaced by Hollywood stars, who would lure more students to enrol in and complete the courses. This is presented as the logical solution to the problem of needing more camera-savvy and student-friendly presenters, since not all profs are up to the task. Further commentary from Udacity founder Sebastian Thrun is supportive of Agarwal’s approach. I won’t link to the Slate piece here, but you can Google “The new rock-star professor” (if you must).
The article captures our attention by positioning Agarwal’s and Thrun’s comments within a particular frame of speculation, i.e. that professors could be “replaced” by stars who appeal to the “masses” in a system that un-bundles the work of teaching into user interface design, content production, “delivery”, and assessment. It’s not a neutral framing, because it puts forth a vision of education that subjugates the expertise of faculty (and of educators in general) to the logic of markets and to the “big data” that are assumed to generate more important pedagogical insights than experienced professionals can. It also conflates learning with “content delivery”, espousing interaction and personalisation while in practice apparently relying on what Freire called the “banking model” of education.
But to turn back to Slate, they’re certainly not the only publication to realise that anger generates interest, that there are ways of making academics angry, and that this anger leads to pageviews (maybe we should call them “rage-views”). Slate’s a bit late in catching on to a game that’s been played successfully before by the Chronicle of Higher Education, the Washington Post, The Economist, Forbes, the New York Times, and others. Popular articles include those that take on the work-life balance and/or salary of the “average” professor, or that reek of unexamined privilege and spark strong feminist or anti-racist critiques, or of course those that pronounce on the future of higher education, which is conveniently subject to apocalyptic speculation that can continue ad nauseum (because the future is always…the future, right? Fair game!).
This time around the article was written by Jeff R. Young, who’s also the tech editor for the Chronicle. In fact part of the piece is a modified excerpt from his e-book, the title of which contains the words “MOOC”, “high-tech”, and “disruption”. Based on its Amazon.com description, the book looks more like a cram guide for busy senior administrators, to whom I’d recommend instead Audrey Watters’ blog Hack Education. In the meantime, academic rage at Young’s article has probably brought a good deal of attention to his book (I couldn’t tell you if it’s boosted sales).
Taking apart articles like the one Young published in Slate is practically a bore at this point. It so clearly sets out to prod at academic sore spots, taking consumerist logic to extremes while playing on a major theme from recent higher ed reporting (MOOCs can hardly be called “news” by now). Even better is that authors who write on this topic don’t need to make up their own extreme speculations, since the quotes they’re using are taken directly from ed-tech celebs like Agarwal and Thrun whose popularity in turn is strengthened by their edgy proclamations. The excerpt doesn’t address whether stars like Matt Damon would be willing to work for free in the name of a good (educational) cause. But the “logic” reflected both in his comments and in the way they’re framed by Young could be said to assume the insecurity of “Ivory Tower” academics facing impending obsolescence, while playing up the often-self-fulfilling predictions made by ed-tech upstarts – “Casting Damon in a MOOC is just an idea, for now” (emphasis added).
I was thinking of all this during the panel on higher education and the media that I attended last Friday afternoon. I thought the facilitator (Anne McNeilly) and the three journalists on the panel (Léo Charbonneau, Scott Jaschik, and Simone Chiose) did a great job of explaining the context in which coverage of education issues is produced, and how this connects to the kinds of critiques they hear about that coverage. Not only are universities (for example) complex institutions with many facets that aren’t entirely visible even to those who participate in them every day; journalists must also develop ways of “finding” the stories and making them relatable to a much larger audience than the those assumed by most individuals, and they must do this with resources that are limited and not necessarily predictable.
The economic logic of the media, particularly those sources that operate primarily in online territory, tends to be one of attention. Linkbait is linkbait, and even the most offensive article can bring attention and start a “debate” that draws people back to the site repeatedly either through comments, or through a subsequent series of “response” articles. The idea is to gain readers, whereas for some academics, it seems the general goal is the opposite: to shave one’s audience down to the narrowest slice of an expert readership. While academics engaging in this kind of practice could be (and have been) accused of a form of professional solipsism, on the other hand media priorities in some cases encourage particular forms of gleefully narcissistic provocation, which we see in various mainstream publications (here’s an example; and its antidote). These are all dynamics that must be taken into consideration by those working in either higher education or journalism (or both) if coverage of postsecondary issues is going to work for “both sides”, i.e. for both educational and media institutions, as well as for their publics.
For some reason, in the last few months I’ve seen a number of articles and blog posts about the nature of “public intellectuals” – how to define the term, to whom it applies, and of course, the long-running series of “critiques” that discuss the failure of public intellectuals and what contributes to it. Maybe I’m just more attuned to the topic because I worked on the Public Intellectuals Project for a year. Or maybe it’s the fact that, uncomfortably, I started to hear the term being applied to me – and I had to ask myself why I wasn’t exactly happy about it.
There are plenty of people who have spent a lot of time thinking and writing about what it means to be an “intellectual”, and/or a “public” one. I’m not one of those people, so (ironically) I can’t claim that expertise; for me the issue has come up only through practice, not theory. But the use (and abuse) of the term “public intellectual” reveals much about the attitudes people hold towards it and whatever concept it represents to them. I’ve seen it placed in the same category, or conflated with, terms like “pundit”, “guru”, “talking head”, and “celebrity”. These refer not only to a type of public figure, but to one who may be viewed as a self-proclaimed expert. Often these references mock the assumed self-importance that must surely accompany not only the willingness to be “public”, but also to take on “intellectual” as a public persona.
According to their critics (for an example, try this article by Omer Aziz), public intellectuals have supposedly “failed” or “died out”, and there are two popular arguments about why this has happened. The first, most common argument – set out by Russell Jacoby and re-articulated repeatedly since then – blames the university and the professionalization of academe. Increased specialization is the culprit here, and the academic system that rewards those who tailor their work to others in the field for purposes of professional advancement, rather than to audiences beyond it. The meaning of “public” in this equation, tends to mean “non-specialist audiences” or more broadly, “outside the university”. In truth, academic culture in general implicitly encourages a low regard for those who work in the “public” eye, which is connected to the assumption that communicating with non-specialist audiences means “dumbing down” one’s message. This is part of why, in spite of the push for more “engagement” with publics beyond academe, these activities are not professionally recognised in the same way as more traditional activities like peer-reviewed publications.
The second reason for the “death” of public intellectuals is of course the Internet, which has polluted the pure pool of intellect with the corruption of superficial self-promotion, and…wait a second, I thought being “public” meant we were “impure” anyway? And since when was academe free of self-promotion? As you can see, there are plenty of contradictions here. Yet the Internet is feared and loathed as the catalyst that allows almost any person to speak out on any topic (though whether and how they are “heard” is a whole other issue). It offers us no traditional filtration system for determining who is a “real” intellectual and who isn’t, who has the “right” to speak and who doesn’t. Never mind that this also provides the opportunity – which some must see as a threat – for new voices to be heard, those of folks who’ve traditionally been shut out of “public intellectualism” and who may now have the opportunity of showing why they have every right to take on that role. Call me naive, but given the excellent articles I see appearing daily not just in mainstream publications but also on blogs, the picture looks far more complex than “the Internet corrupts intellectual life”. I think what we could and should be asking is not “who has the right” to be called a public intellectual in the age of the Internet, but which ideas (and individuals) seem to gain significant currency in this new context – and why.
I think underlying much of the criticism is a projection of desire and expectation, the hope that such a public figure will take on the tasks, and risks, that we ourselves cannot (or will not). At the same time there is skepticism and resentment, that the attention is directed at a particular individual – do they “deserve” the weight given to their words? How do we know? Why should they be the ones to whom we listen? What should they be allowed to say – should they stick to their areas of expertise, or provide commentary on other issues as well?
Generally, the articles that bemoan the “death” or “failure” of public intellectuals also include the author’s chosen examples of those who have succeeded. Those examples are telling – as is the fact that the “public intellectual” must be anointed by others, never self-described. Indeed, in some of the articles I have read, there is a sort of pining for a lost world of “real” intellectual selflessness, for the “generations of writers and thinkers for whom the demands of either the university or mass media were a minor concern, if even that”. How interesting that this era seems to coincide with the one wherein such activity tended to be institutionally limited to a homogenous intellectual elite of white males, in spite of so many others who have made significant contributions both then and since.
And yet I think all that I’ve said above provides us an explanation as to why many who would seem to belong in this category, and who have indeed been consigned to it, seem to reject the term or claim it doesn’t apply to them. It’s because once you’ve been labelled, there’s no winning: you can’t self-identify as a “public intellectual”, or you’re automatically either shot down, accused of “failure” to achieve unwieldy political goals, or simply assumed unworthy of the title. But if someone else describes you as such, can you accept the description without being seen as a “tool”? I wonder if this is why, as Andrew Potter discusses, there were some key figures (such as David Suzuki) who weren’t willing to include themselves in a recent book on Canadian public intellectuals. But in his review Potter makes a good point, which is that there’s no going back to the “golden age” so often invoked by critics – and that this isn’t a bad thing.
As my last academic event of the season, I attended Worldviews 2013: Global Trends in Media and Higher Education in Toronto on June 20th and 21st. I’m not going to write about the panel in which I participated (“Who are the MOOC users?”, with Joe Wilson, Aron Solomon, and Andrew Ng), since I’ve already spent enough time thinking and writing about that issue of late. But there was another very interesting theme that I noticed coming up throughout the conference. In a number of the sessions I attended, I heard emphasis being placed on the need for researchers and academics to communicate more with publics beyond the specialist audiences that have, until recently, been the norm.
This language of “engagement” has been taken up ever more enthusiastically by funding agencies and universities, often alongside the concept of “impact”, the latter term having already become influential (and embedded in the logic of research governance) in the UK. However, in all this talk about “engagement” and public communication it seems that less attention is being given to the question of which academics participate in this process – who can make use of the opportunity to “engage”, and why.
For a start, it’s somewhat disingenuous to discuss the “responsibility” for academic public engagement without considering the risks that this involves, and for whom that risk is most significant - i.e. most likely those already in marginalized positions in the institution and in society. The point about risk was not addressed explicitly in discussions I heard at the conference. In spite of the rhetoric about “impact”, the fear that many graduate students and early career researchers (ECRs) feel – and the anecdotal evidence of folks being told not to get involved in certain kinds of activities – suggests that “engagement” must happen on terms explicitly approved by the institution, if those involved are seeking academic careers. Grad students are not generally encouraged to become “public intellectuals”, a concept that regularly provokes critiques from those both within and outside the academy.
Not only was risk left out of the picture, but the discussion wasn’t adequately placed in the context of increasing amount of non-TT labour in academe. Those not fortunate enough to be on the tenure track still want to be (and are) scholars and researchers too; but it’s harder for them to contribute to public debates in the same way because they don’t tend to have a salary to fund their work, or a university “home base” to provide them with the stamp of academic credibility. I noticed at one panel there was also a discussion about tenure and academic freedom, and the argument was made that profs with tenure don’t speak up enough, given the protections they enjoy. Again, I think the more interesting question is about who gets to speak freely, with or without tenure, and why. Do all tenured faculty get to assume the same kind of “freedom” that someone like Geoffrey Miller does (or did)? What will happen to such freedom when the work of academics is further “unbundled”, as with the growing proportion of low-status contract faculty?
Blogging of course falls into the category of “risky practice” as well. Writing a good blog post actually takes time, effort, practice, and a lot of thought. But what’s interesting, and perhaps predictable, is that blogs were dismissed as not credible by at least one participant during a Worldviews panel that was about the future of the relationship between higher education and the media. In fact a specific comment referred to ECRs “trying to make a name for themselves” through social media, as if this is merely a form of shallow egotism as opposed to a legitimate means of building much-needed academic networks.
This seems particularly short-sighted in light of the intense competition faced by graduate students and other ECRs who want to develop an academic career. To suggest that ECRs are simply using tweets and blogs as vacuous promotional activities is an insidious argument in two ways: firstly because it implies that such tools have no value as a form of dissemination of research (and development of dialogue), and secondly it invokes the idea that “real” academics do not have to descend to such crass forms of self-aggrandizement. Both of these points are, in my opinion, simply untrue – but then again I’m just “a blogger”!
If universities are going to help educate a generation of researchers who will cross the traditional boundaries of academe, they will need to support these people in a much more public way – and in a way that will be reflected by the priorities of departments and in the process of tenure and promotion. Yes, we have the “3-Minute Thesis“ and “Dance Your PhD“, but not everyone enjoys participating in this competitive way – and myriad other forms of public, critical engagement may be less well-accepted. Universities may make the claim that they value such forms, but who other than well-established researchers would be willing to speak up (especially about the academic system itself) without the fear of making a “career-limiting move”?
Those starting out in academic life need to receive the message, loud and clear, that this kind of “public” work is valued. They need to know that what they’re doing is a part of a larger project or movement, a more significant shift in the culture of academic institutions, and that it will be recognized as such. This will encourage them to do the work of engagement alongside other forms of work that currently take precedence in the prestige economy of academe. Tenured faculty are not the only ones with a stake in participating in the creation and sharing of knowledge. If we’re looking for “new ideas”, then we need to welcome newcomers into the conversation that is developing and show that their contributions are valued, rather than discouraging them from – or chastising them for – trying to participate.
A note from the web editor: A related story that you might also find interesting is the recent University Affairs article Nothing about us, without us, which looks at community-engaged scholarship in Canada.
This week on Wednesday, my Twitter feed was swamped first with posts about the newly elected Pope (which I expected). What I didn’t expect was that by the time evening rolled around, the Pope tweets were being eclipsed by reactions to Google’s decision to “kill” its RSS aggregation tool, Reader.
Now, I use Reader a lot–every day–to sort through piles of higher education news, so I was annoyed by this news. It means I need to seek out a new tool and set it up, not just for my personal use but for the professional accounts I run as well. Thankfully feeds can be exported, so the actual transfer shouldn’t be a big deal. There are other options available, and more are being built. For me the issue is more the irrationality of dismantling a perfectly good tool (like when Tweetdeck was bought and destroyed by Twitter), but I’m leaving that aside for now.
What I want to address is the theme of digital moralism, which is of course nothing new, but which made another appearance in the Google Reader discussion. Some of the online responses I saw were both predictable and deeply frustrating in a specific way. The line of arguing often begins with “I told you so”, as in, “I told you that using a tool from an Evil Corporation like Google would come to no good”. Followed by, “If you just do X” (get your own website or server; write your own app), your problem is solved. Then: “What, you don’t know how to code? Everyone should know how to code. Why not teach yourself? It’s easy.”
There is an ethical edge to the responses that begins to come through as a judgement. Do you really want to support big corporations that dominate the Internet and academic publishing? Are you really so lazy that you can’t take time to investigate all your options, or learn how to create your own, instead of using commercial tools?
Considering those ethics, why don’t we take a moment to consider why, other than laziness, so many people might be using these tools and why they may not have the resources (time, money) or even the desire to choose differently? This has been addressed in a number of helpful posts, including those from Miriam Posner and Lee Skallerup Bessette, which address access as it relates to gender and other forms of privilege as part of the context of coding and of recognition in the Digital Humanities. Ernesto Priego has also written about the various facets (and degrees) of academics’ “digital literacy”. These discussions have become more visible as a part of the ongoing construction of disciplinary boundaries in that field: whose work is most valued as DH work, and why?
Another argument frequently raised is that we should make coding a part of school curriculum. Perhaps if many education systems were not already struggling with their current responsibilities, that would be an option. But it would require a curricular re-design that presupposes an awful lot of resources on the part of public schools and teachers. It also adds to the responsibilization of schools for solving problems that a particular group sees as absolutely pressing but which, in comparison to other issues, may not be the most urgent. I’m not saying curriculum shouldn’t change to reflect the realities of daily interactions with technology; I think it it should. But the way the solution is framed also needs to take into account the context of schooling, and the political struggles often involved in claiming certain subjects as “essential” over others.
That’s one interesting thing about digital moralism. It may be the “right” thing, but no-one is won over to the cause when they feel chastised for using a non-preferred tool, or publishing in non-open access (OA) journals, or for thinking “Python” refers to Monty Python. I am pro-OA, and against corporate monopolies, and I still feel alienated by high-handed retorts that assume everyone has what is necessary to implement the solutions considered most appropriate. What I need is another option, something other than just “learn to code”, something that takes into account my context and its potential limitations.
In my case, the main reason I don’t have a personal blog at all is that my blog is here, on the University Affairs website. This is why it’s a problem when I’m told to “just post your papers on your personal blog, instead of on [insert existing web tool here]”. I would love to know how to program, mainly because I’d like to build the Ultimate Twitter App, but this is a daunting task to a complete beginner and when I barely have time to work on my dissertation, it’s also not realistic. In fact it’s only a relatively recent thing that I have the means to access any of this information at all, and I freely admit that most of my self-discipline has been (and still is) tied up in my PhD work.
If you have the capacity and resources to do things on your own rather than using pre-fab online tools, then I congratulate you and also thank you for any contributions you make. Those of us without coding skills need to be appreciative of the work done by those who have them; without it, we could not do what we do online. We can also support their efforts in other ways. But do we all have the opportunity to learn the skills they have? Yes–and no. The availability of resources online is not enough. This is not just about whether we “really” want to gain skills; framing it in those terms is a means of assigning responsibility and then making a judgement about other people’s commitment to a cause. It also assumes, as Trent M. Kays points out, that we cannot have any understanding and appreciation of tools–or use them critically–without also knowing how to create them ourselves; and while I believe creation brings a special appreciation, it’s not the only kind.
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.
In time for the start of the new semester, I have a bit of a tech update, in which I’ll be discussing two online tools that might be of interest to researchers and students.
The first site I want to mention is Buzzdata, a data-sharing site that first came to my attention when Dr. James Colliander (@colliand) invited me to view NSERC data that he and others had already been posting at their “hive”, nserc.buzzdata.com. Each “hive” is like a separate space that can be shared by multiple users, and the hives contains various themed “datarooms”. For example, one of the datarooms in the NSERC hive is dedicated to NSERC postdoctoral fellowship application rates and outcomes; another focuses on NSERC’s Research Tools and Instruments (RTI) program consultation.
When I saw how the site was being used to highlight the trends in NSERC research funding, I suggested we start adding SSHRC data as well. I asked Dr. Ian Milligan (@ianmilligan1) if he could take a look at the numbers, since my facility with statistics and graphs is very limited. He kindly did so, and blogged about some early results here.
From my point of view, the site’s only significant problem right now is that you have to make a different profile to view each hive, rather than being able to create one profile and view different hives from it. However, the site developers have assured us they’re working on this, so I expect it will be resolved in good time. While Buzzdata is still very much in development, it was great to learn that the site developers are taking suggestions directly and providing help in realtime through the site (which has a chat feature for this purpose), and through emails and Twitter. The data that have already been uploaded show how much promise there is in a kind of crowd-sourced compilation of statistics about education and research funding. This is also a great way to organise for political effect; among the participants in the group is Kennedy Stewart, Official Opposition Critic for Science and Technology.
The other site that’s been drawing my attention lately is Academia.edu. I saw a blog post about the new analytics they’ve made available, and because I’ve gradually been using the site more over the past 12 to 18 months, I decided to check out the changes. When I looked at the blog post and then the site, I realised they were starting to make significant changes that could be quite useful to academic users. So I shared the link through my Twitter account, recommending that others take a look.
Academia.edu, a social networking site specifically for academics, researchers, and students, has already been providing some interesting and unique statistics to its users. These include a kind of tracking system in which the site shows you a list of recent profile views including Google searches in which your profile has come up as a result, and also shows where the views came from (geographic location). Each view shows up with an ID number so that you can tell whether pageviews are “unique” or not; this is a small but important detail. The site can also send an email notification each time your profile comes up in a Google search.
Like LinkedIn, Academia.edu has a spot where you can upload your CV. It also has a section where you can list academic talks and presentations and add slides or a link to Prezi, and a similar section for sharing academic papers (which can be tagged with keywords). While I’d been thinking about posting some older papers online, what convinced me to put them up on Academia.edu was a new feature that tracks “views” of one’s papers, including which other site users have viewed them.
After my tweet, I was surprised to receive an email from the site’s community manager, Helen Sparrow, who asked if I’d be interested in providing feedback on how I used Academia.edu. We had a phone conversation in which we discussed various aspects of site use including whose research I “follow” and why, and what features might be useful for users. One of the things I recommended was to increase available Twitter link-ups to Academia.edu, including the capacity to search users by Twitter handle (there’s already a “share on Twitter” button added to the analytics pages).
They’re working towards adding a commenting feature for the academic articles, which is intended to facilitate discussion and feedback in a way that the current peer review (for publication) process doesn’t tend to allow. Of course, there are risks with that, too–one can only begin to imagine the grief that could be cause by academic trolls!–but it’s interesting to see a potential tool for constructing a kind of networked online academic profile, where you could re-work and re-post papers after feedback, then track the number and location of views. At a time when many scholars are becoming frustrated with the restrictions of traditional academic publishing, and while universities are demanding “evidence” of academic performance, this could be an experiment worth trying out.
In fact both Academia.edu and Buzzdata are providing means of connection that could facilitate academic collaboration in research and in other aspects of professional life. While much of the debate about “disruption” is focused on technologies that fragment the university, we’re also seeing tools that reflect the potential for coming together (again) in new ways.
This week, I’ll be attending Congress of Humanities and Social Sciences, one of the biggest annual conferences in Canada, held this year at the University of Waterloo and Wilfrid Laurier University in Ontario. I try to attend Congress whenever I can, though of course conferences are pricey (as I’ve discussed in the past) and must be juggled with other work. Since this year’s conference is so close to where I live, it’s relatively easy for me to “drop in” just for a few days. I’ll be presenting twice at the Canadian Communication Association conference, and taking a third extra day to meet up with people who are coming in from around (and outside of) Canada.
At academic conferences, usually if you’re attending in person then you’re there not just for the presentations but also for the social contact (which often leads to new academic connections). Yet there’s also a bit of a paradox at work at large conferences. On the one hand, it’s true that conferences can be a great place to meet new people if you don’t have an existing academic network. But if you don’t organise beforehand it can be hard to find anyone who hasn’t already booked up their conference time “catching up” with friends and colleagues from other universities, provinces, and countries. That’s partly why the “networking” that we expect to engage in at conferences can be difficult to achieve, even though there are so many people packed into the same space over a short period.
My answer to this problem of “getting a foot in the door” has been to use Twitter to meet academic friends and organise in advance. Congress was much better last year in Fredericton (New Brunswick) than the previous time I attended, because I knew more people and used social media to contact and meet up with them. This year, I created an open Google Doc and invited people to add their names and availability for a get-together. Based on that information I’ve been able to organise a “tweet-up” (on Thursday May 31st, 7 p.m., at the Huether Hotel — Lion Brewery) and also a breakfast with Twitter friends earlier in the week.
As for the more academic content at Congress, my first presentation will be with Maija Saari (@ffi_maija) who’s working on a PhD at OISE and is Academic Chair of the School of Communication Media & Design at Centennial College (she is busy!). Our panel is “Journalism Ethics” (Session 6A, AL 105, 10:15am, Thursday May 31), and the paper we’re writing is the outcome of a conversation we had about egregious news interviews and what makes them so interesting (and offensive!). We decided to do an analysis of three controversial interviews: George Galloway and Anna Botting (Sky News), Margie Gillis and Krista Erickson (Sun News), and Chris Hedges and Kevin O‘Leary (CBC). The goal of our piece is to show, using theories of communication, linguistics and ethnography as well as the interview examples, how and why journalism training should incorporate critical analytic approaches.
My second talk is on Friday June 1st at 1:15 p.m., on the panel “Issues of Training and Practice” (Session 11A, Room 105). This paper relates closely to a number of blog posts I’ve written over the past year or so, which addressed various issues with media coverage of universities and postsecondary education. In my talk I’ll be giving some detailed examples from news articles, exploring as a case study the ways in which tuition is discussed in the news — as an accessibility issue (or not), as a means of highlighting generational divides, and as a touchstone topic in the debate about the “value” of university education for individuals and for society.
During the three days I’m attending Congress I’ll be posting updates on Twitter (as will various colleagues including @UA_Magazine and @PublicIntellec; the hashtag is #Congress2012), and the conference’s “Big Thinking” talks are being webcast. Hopefully you’ll get the chance to follow along or, if you’re lucky, to attend the conference yourself!
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.
Last week an article I wrote about academic blogging was published in the print and online editions of University Affairs. I decided to provide a follow-up to the article, because there were so many interesting comments from bloggers that couldn’t be included in the scope of the original post.
I also want to take time to link their points to those from another discussion over at The Guardian, involving the critique of academic publishing and the call for its reform. Many of the issues mentioned by bloggers were clearly entwined with this recent thread of criticism that targets academic journals and their business model, one that is described by its current critics as restrictive, exploitative and out-dated.
A benefit of blogging cited by most of those who commented was the development of a public profile independent of the regular channels of academic validation. This visibility tended to lead to more (and diverse) opportunities because of exposure to different audiences. Having a public “face” meant being recognizable as an expert on a particular topic, and PhD student Chris Parsons (UVic) explained that “this is important for graduate students, in particular, given that most of us lack established publishing records.” Because of his active construction of a body of “alternative” online work, Parsons has been invited to contribute to more traditional peer-reviewed publications, the accepted signifiers of academic success.
The bloggers also described using social media for professional networking and collaboration. Blogging sparked dialogues and exchanges across disciplines, facilitated by what David Phipps (of York University) describes as “enhanced reach and two-way communication,” enabling new connections that were unexpected, serendipitous, and productive. Blogs were also viewed by students as more inviting and accessible than traditional publications; UVic professor Janni Aragon discussed how students have become engaged with her online work, many of them reading and responding to her posts.
A related theme was that of the benefit of gaining access to different audiences. Academic publications are associated with specialized audiences confined not only to the academic realm but also to disciplinary areas. Professor Marie-Claire Shanahan (U of Alberta) discussed how blogging has helped her to build a research community, allowing her to “meet people with similar interests who work in different areas” and also to reach out to audiences for whom the research is relevant but who don’t normally have access to it. All the bloggers who sent me comments made mention of this relationship between development of a public profile, and the ways in which “blogging extends our ability to communicate our research beyond academic circles in an accessible and timely manner” (Alfred Hermida, UBC).
Several bloggers expressed their frustration with traditional academic publishing, including complaints that the regular publication process takes too long and that the resulting publications are inaccessible to non-academic audiences. Sharing ideas through accessible online sources is more efficient because it isn’t hindered by the gatekeeping function of peer review (part of what validates academic knowledge). Chris Parsons described how his work has been cited in “government filings, academic papers, news sites, and so forth […] none of that would have happened if I was constrained to the slow process of peer-review or forced to utilize traditional media outlets.”
The publishing model that currently dominates renders research inaccessible to the public even though much of the research done in universities is publicly funded, and the journals technically acquire their content for free. Parsons argues that his work “is publicly funded, so it should be available to the public” and blogging is a part of this. The current model reflects the concept of knowledge as a “private good” rather than a “public good” (Slaughter & Rhoades, 2004, p.28). A private-good model goes against an ethic and practice of sharing as discussed by PhD student Rebecca Hogue who explained, “I like to get my ideas out there, and by sharing them (and writing them down) they become more solid […] I hate to hold stuff back because someday it might be published.” In spite of the myth of the lone scholar, collaboration has been an essential feature of academe in the past. How does an increasingly proprietary, private model of knowledge affect collegial work?
Those academics involved in blogging are engaging with new modes of communication and new models of scholarly collaboration and research dissemination. The vehemency with which this practice is debated by bloggers and non-bloggers alike speaks to the deep roots of the issue; because academic publishing is key to professional advancement in academe, everyone has something at stake. This debate touches on the heart of the university’s mission, and what accompanies it — a continued struggle over the definition of authoritative knowledge.