Blogging

Silence in the Stacks

Some months back, one of the cable networks debuted a movie -- evidently the pilot for a potential show -- that inspired brief excitement in some quarters, though it seems not to have caught on. Its central character was someone whose grasp of esoteric knowledge allowed him or her (I'm not sure which, never having seen it) to command the awesome mysterious forces of the universe. Its title was The Librarian.

The program was, it seems, a reworking of a similar figure in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. That's in keeping with the fundamental law of the entertainment industry once defined by Ernie Kovacs, the great American surrealist TV pioneer: "Find something that works, then beat it to death."

At another level, though, the whole concept derived from a tradition that is pre-television, indeed, almost pre-literate. The idea that a command of books provides access to secret forces, the equation of the scholar with the magus, was already well established before Faust and Prospero worked their spells. The linkage has also left its trace at the level of the signifier. Both glamor, originally meaning a kind of witchy sex appeal, and grimoire, the sorcerer's reference book, derive from the word grammar -- one of the foundational disciplines of medieval learning, hence a source of power.

Today, it's much rarer to find the whole knowledge/power nexus treated in such explicitly occultic terms, at least outside pop culture. As for librarians, they are usually regarded as professionals working in the service sector of the information economy, rather than as full-fledged participants in contemporary intellectual life. That is, arguably, an injustice. But the division of labor and the logic of hierarchical distinctions have changed a lot since the day when Gottfried Leibniz (philosopher, statesman, inventor of calculus and the computer, and overall polymathic genius) held down his day job running a library.

The most persistent aspect of the old configuration is probably the link between glamor and grammar - the lingering aura of bookish eroticism. At least that's what the phenomenon of librarian porn would suggest. The topic deserves more scholarly attention, though an important start has been made by Daniel W. Lester, the network information coordinator for Boise State University in Idaho. His bibliography of pertinent livres lus avec une seule main ("books read with one hand") is not exhaustive, but the annotations are judicious. About one such tale of lust in the stacks, he writes: "Most of the library and librarian descriptions are reasonable, except for the number of books on a book cart."

But the role librarians play at the present time brings them closer to the most pressing issues in American cultural life than any cheesy TV show (or letter to Penthouse, for that matter) could possibly convey.

Their work constitutes the real intersection of knowledge and power -- not as concepts to be analyzed, but at the level of almost nonstop practical negotiation. It is the cultural profession most involved, from day to day, with questions concerning public budgets, information technology, the cost of new publications, and intellectual freedom. (On the latter, check out the American Library Association's page on the Patriot Act.)

Given all that, I've been curious to find out about discussions by academic librarians regarding current developments in their profession, in the university, and in the world outside. A collection of essays called The Successful Academic Librarian  is due out this fall from Information Today, Inc. Its emphasis seems to fall on guidance in facing career demands. But how can an outsider keep up with what academic librarians are thinking about other issues?

Well, the first place to start is The Kept-Up Academic Librarian, the blog of Steven Bell, who is director of the Gutman Library at Philadelphia University. Bell provides a running digest of academic news, but for the most part avoids the kind of reflective and/or splenetic mini-essays one associates with blogdom.

My own effort to track down something more ruminative turned up a few  interesting blogs lus avec une seule main run by librarians, such as this one. But this, while stimulating, was not quite on topic. So in due course I contacted Steven Bell, on the assumption that he was as kept-up as an academic librarian could be. Could he please name a few interesting blogs by academic librarians?

His answer came as a surprise: "When you ask specifically about blogs maintained by academic librarians," Bell wrote earlier this week, "the list would be short or non-existent."

He qualified the comment by noting the numerous gray areas. "There may be some academic librarians out there with an interesting blog, but in some cases I think the blogger is doing it anonymously and you don't really even know if the person is an academic librarian. For example, take a look at Blog Without a Library. I can't tell who this blogger is though I think he or she might be an academic librarian. On the other hand Jill Stover's Library Marketing blog is fairly new and pretty good, and she is an academic librarian -- but the blog really isn't specific to academic libraries.... Bill Drew of one of the SUNY libraries has something he calls BabyBoomer Librarian but it isn't necessarily about academic librarianship -- sometimes yes, but more often not."

Bell listed a few other blogs, including Humanities Librarian from the College of New Jersey. But very few of his suggestions were quite what I had in mind -- that is, public spaces devoted to thinking out loud about topics such as the much-vaunted "crisis in academic publishing." It was a puzzling silence.

"I can't say any individual has developed a blog that has emerged as the 'voice of academic librarianship,' " noted Bell in response to my query. "Why? If I had to advance a theory I'd say that as academic librarians we are still geared towards traditional, journal publishing as the way to express ourselves. I know that if I have something on my mind that I'd like to write about to share my thoughts and opinions, I'm more likely to write something for formal publication (e.g., see this piece.) Perhaps that is why we don't have a 'juicy' academic librarian out there who is taking on the issues of the day with vocal opinions."

And he added something that makes a lot of sense: "To have a really great blog you have to be able to consistently speak to the issues of the day and have great (or even good) insights into them -- and it just doesn't seem like any academic librarian out there is capable of doing that. I think there are some folks in our profession who might be capable of doing it. But if so they haven't figured out yet that they ought to be blogging, or maybe they just don't have the time or interest."

Now, that diagnosis may perhaps contain the elements of a solution. The answer might be the creation of a group blog for academic librarians -- some prominent in their field, others less well-known, and perhaps even a couple of them anonymous. No one participant would be under pressure to generate fresh insights every day or two. By pooling resources, such a group could strike terror in the hearts of budget-cutting administrators, price-gouging journal publishers, and even the occasional professor prone to associating academic stardom with aristocratic privilege.

Full disclosure: I am married to a librarian, albeit a non-academic one, who knew about the World Wide Web (and the proper grammar for using various search engines) long before most people did. She has proven to me, time and again, that librarians do indeed possess amazing powers.
They also tend to have a lot to say about the bureaucracies that employ them -- and the patrons who patronize them. 

An outspoken, incisive, and timely stream of commentary on the problems and possibilities facing academic libraries would enliven and enrich the public discourse. If anything, it's long overdue.

Author/s: 
Scott McLemee
Author's email: 
scott.mclemee@insidehighered.com

Scott McLemee writes Intellectual Affairs on Tuesdays and Thursdays. One of his previous columns was on the pleasures of reading encyclopedias.

Pass It On

One sign of the great flexibility of American English -- if also of its high tolerance for ugliness -- is the casual way users will turn a noun into a verb. It happens all the time. And lately, it tends to be a matter of branding. You "xerox" an article and "tivo" a movie. Just for the record, neither Xerox nor TiVo is  very happy about such unauthorized usage of its name. Such idioms are, in effect, a dilution of the  trademark.

Which creates an odd little double bind for anyone with the culture-jamming instinct to Stick It To The Man. Should you absolutely refuse to give free advertising to either Xerox or TiVo by using their names as verbs, you have actually thereby fallen into line with corporate policy. Then again, if you defy their efforts to police ordinary language, that means repeating a company name as if it were something natural and inevitable. See, that's how they get ya.

On a less antiglobalizational note, I've been trying to come up with an alternative to using "meme" as a verb. For one thing, it is too close to "mime," with all the queasiness that word evokes.

As discussed here on Tuesday, meme started out as a noun implying a theory. It called to mind a more or less biological model of how cultural phenomena (ideas, fads, ideologies, etc.) spread and reproduce themselves over time. Recently the term has settled into common usage -- in a different, if related, sense. It now applies to certain kinds of questionnaires or discussion topics that circulate within (and sometimes between) blogospheric communities.

There does not seem to be an accepted word to name the creation and initial dissemination of a meme. So it could be that "meme" must also serve, for better or worse, as a transitive verb.

In any case, my options are limited.... Verbal elegance be damned: Let's meme.

The ground rules won't be complicated. The list of questions is short, but ought to yield some interesting responses. With luck, the brevity will speed up circulation.

In keeping with meme protocol, I'll "tap"a few bloggers to respond. Presumably they will do likewise. However, the invitation is not restricted to that handful of people: This meme is open to anyone who wants to participate.

So here are the questions:

(1) Imagine it's 2015. You are visiting the library at a major research university. You go over to a computer terminal (or whatever it is they use in 2015) that gives you immediate access to any book or journal article on any topic you want. What do you look up? In other words, what do you hope somebody will have written in the meantime?

(2) What is the strangest thing you've ever heard or seen at a conference? No names, please. Refer to "Professor X" or "Ms. Y" if you must. Double credit if you were directly affected. Triple if you then said or did something equally weird.

(3) Name a writer, scholar, or otherwise worthy person you admire so much that meeting him or her would probably reduce you to awestruck silence.

(4) What are two or three blogs or other Web sites you often read that don't seem to be on many people's radar?
Feel free to discard anything you don't care to answer.

To get things started, I'm going to tap a few individuals -- people I've had only fairly brief contact with in the past. As indicated, however, anyone else who wants to respond is welcome to do so. The initial list:

Okay, that should do for now.

An afterthought on the first question -- the one about getting a chance to look things up in a library of the future: Keep in mind the cautionary example of Enoch Soames, the minor late-Victorian poet whose story Max Beerbohm tells. He sold his soul to the devil for a chance to spend an afternoon in the British Library, 100 years in the future, reading what historians and critics would eventually say about his work.

Soames ends up in hell a little early: The card catalog shows that posterity has ignored him even more thoroughly than his contemporaries did.

Proof, anyway, that ego surfing is really bad for you, even in the future. A word to the wise.

Author/s: 
Scott McLemee
Author's email: 
scott.mclemee@insidehighered.com

Reading Left to Right

Once upon a time -- back in the days of dial-up and of press conferences devoted to the presidential libido -- there was a phenomenon known as the "web log." It was like a blog, only different. A web log consisted almost entirely of links to pages that the 'logger had recently visited online. There might also be a brief description of the site, or an evaluative remark. But the commentary was quick, not discursive; and it was secondary to the link. The product resembled an itinerary or a scrapbook more than it did a diary or an op-ed page.

So when Political Theory Daily Review started in January 2003, it already looked a little bit old-fashioned, blogospherically speaking. It was a log, plain and simple. There were three new links each day. The first was to a newspaper or magazine article about some current event. The second tended to go to a debate or polemical article. And the third (always the wild card, the one it was most interesting to see) would be academic: a link to a scholarly article in an online journal, or a conference site, or perhaps the uploaded draft of a paper in PDF.

In the intervening years, the site has grown wildly -- at least in size, if not in reputation. (Chances are that more bloggers read Political Theory than ever link to it.)  The same three departments exist, but often with a dozen or more links in each. By now, clearly, the Review must be a team effort. The sheer volume of material logged each day suggests it is run by a collective of gnomes who tirelessly scour the Web for eruditia.

But in fact, it is all the work of one person, Alfredo Perez, who keeps a pretty low profile, even on his own site. I got in touch with Perez to find out who he is, and how he puts the Review together. (I also wondered if he ever got much sleep, but forgot to ask that part.) Here, in any case, is the gist of our e-mail discussion, presented with his permission.

Alfredo Perez is 34 years old and originally from Puerto Rico. After going to college in the United States, he went back to the island to work in the government for a few years, then headed to New York in 1996. He ended up at the New School, where he is now pursuing a dissertation on political theory. He lists his research interests as "normative political theory, cosmopolitanism and sovereignty, theories of human nature, and political economy."

Now, alembicating all of that down to a manageable dissertation is not so easy. And it sounds like Political Theory Daily Review has had a complicating effect on the whole process. "Writing a dissertation is an exercise in becoming an expert in one small piece of scholarly real estate," he says. "It really hasn't helped in that way."

But the Review has also had its educational benefits for Perez. It has encouraged him to keep up with fields that are now in the news: "the debate regarding constitutional interpretation, the arguments about American foreign policy and its impact around the world, and the space for religion in the public sphere...." He says he "probably would have been much less informed about [these areas] without having to keep up the site."

Over the year or so that I've come to rely on the Review as gateway to new material online, the most striking thing has been Perez's mix of sources. On the one hand, he covers extremely topical material -- "ripped from today's headlines," with quite a few of those headlines being from the English-language editions of foreign newspapers and magazines.

On the other hand, some of the sites to which Perez links are exotic, esoteric, or just downright weird. I'm glad to hear about the debate over liberalism in a Slovakian journal called Kritika & Kontext -- but could probably have lived without seeing the United States Christian Flag. It is a relief, though, to learn that the latter Web site's sponsors "are not trying to overthrow the government or force anyone to be a Christian." Thank heaven for small favors.

How does Perez keep up with all  this stuff? What are his criteria for linking? Do readers send him tips?

To take the last question first: No, for the most part, they don't. Evidently he just has one wicked set of bookmarks.

"I try to link to things that are interesting to me or to anyone trying to keep up with current events," says Perez, "not just political theory.... I don't link to technical papers on, say, economics, but if I see an interview with Gary Becker or an article on Amartya Sen, I don't think twice about linking to that. Sometimes I link to articles on Theory, essays by literary critics, or events in the world of literature." He also has an interest in the natural sciences -- biology, in particular -- so he links to things he's following in Scientific American and other publications.

Perez doesn't link to blogs. That way, madness lies. "It would be too much work to consider linking to the blogosphere," he says."

He places a special emphasis on pointing readers to "articles that are sure -- or have the potential -- to become part of what's debated in the public sphere." That includes things like op-eds in The New York Times, articles on public policy in The American Prospect, and essays from the socialist journal Dissent -- "material that I think should be a part of the 'required reading' for anyone who wants to stay on top of the news and public debates."

His default list of required readings shows a certain tilt to the left. But he also links to material far removed from his own politics -- publications such as Reason , First Things , Policy Review , and "The Occidental Quarterly." Actually, it was Perez's site that first introduced me to the latter periodical, which describes itself as a "journal of Western thought and opinion." Its editors are keen on eugenics, stricter immigration laws, and the European cultural tradition (in particular the German contribution thereto).

"I think it obvious," says Perez, "that anyone interested in public debates about more philosophical matters has to be familiar with those on 'the other side.' I think it's just plain smart to do so. Reading counterarguments to your position can often be more helpful than readings that just confirm your own point of view." He says he makes no claim to be "fair and balanced," but also "doesn't want to alienate visitors who are on the right. I want them coming back!"

Any editorializing at Political Theory Daily Review tends to be implicit, rather than full-throated. It may be that lack of a sharp ideological edge, as much as the sheer number of links in the course of a week, that creates the impression that the site is the work of a committee.

Perez admits that he's "not very comfortable about publishing opinions willy-nilly like many people are when writing on their blogs. In fact, I am part of a group blog, Political Arguments, but I hardly ever post there." It's not that he lacks a viewpoint, or is shy about arguing politics and philosophy with his friends and family.

"I'm pretty sure I could defend those views well enough," he told me. "I guess it's my way of being a bit careful about the whole process. People in academia cannot be timid about their own views, of course, especially political theorists with regards to politics. But it's different when discussing day-to-day events as soon as they happen."

The line between public intellectual and pompous gasbag is, to be sure, a slender one; and it runs down a slippery slope. Perez's caution is understandable. "I don't think I have to mention any specific names in academia as examples," he says, "in order to make my point here."

Author/s: 
Scott McLemee
Author's email: 
scott.mclemee@insidehighered.com

Will to Power

For some time now, I have been collecting notes on the interaction between academics and journalists. In theory, at least, this relationship ought to be mutually beneficial -- almost symbiotic. Scholars would provide sound information and authoritative commentary to reporters -- who would then, in turn, perform the useful service of disseminating knowledge more broadly. 

So much for the theory. The practice is not nearly that sweet, to judge by the water-cooler conversation of either party, which often tends toward the insulting. From the mass-media side, the most concise example is probably H.L. Mencken's passing reference to someone as "a professor, hence an embalmer." And within the groves of academe itself, the very word "journalistic" is normally used as a kind of put-down. 

There is a beautiful symmetry to the condescension. It's enough to make an outsider -- someone who belongs to neither tribe, but regularly visits each -- wonder if some deep process of mutual-definition-by- mutual-exclusion might be going on. And so indeed I shall argue, one day, in a treatise considering the matter from various historical, sociological, and psychoanalytic vantage points. (This promises to be a book of no ordinary tedium.)

A fresh clipping has been added to my research file in the past couple of days, since reading Brian Leiter's objection to a piece on Nietzsche appearing in last weekend's issue of The New York Times Book Review. The paper asked the novelist and sometime magazine writer William Vollmann to review a biography of Nietzsche, instead of, let's say, an American university professor possessing some expertise on the topic.

For example, the Times editors might well have gone to Leiter himself, a professor of philosophy at UT-Austin and the author of a book called Nietzsche on Morality, published three years ago by Routledge. And in a lot of ways, I can't help wishing that they had. It would have made for a review more informative, and less embarrassingly inept, than the one that ran in the paper of record. 

Vollmann's essay is almost breathtaking in its badness. It manages to drag the conversation about Nietzsche back about 60 years by posing the question of whether or not Nietzsche was an anti-Semite or a proto-Nazi. He was not, nor is this a matter any serious person has discussed in a very long time. (The role of his sister, Elisabeth Forster-Nietsche, is an entirely different matter: Following his mental collapse, she managed to create a bizarre image of him as theorist of the Teutonic master-race, despite Nietzsche's frequent and almost irrepressible outbursts of disgust at the German national character.)

And while it is not too surprising that a review of a biography of a philosopher would tend to focus on, well, his life -- and even on his sex life, such as it was for the celibate Nietzsche -- it is still reasonable to expect maybe a paragraph or two about his ideas. Vollmann never gets around to that. Instead, he offers only the murkiest of pangyrics to Nietzsche's bravery and transgressive weirdness -- as if he were a contestant in the some X Games of the mind, or maybe a prototype of Vollmann himself. (Full disclosure: I once reviewed, for the Times in fact, Vollmann's meditation on the ethics of violence -- a work of grand size, uncertain coherence, and sometimes baffling turgidity. That was six weeks of my life I will never get back.)

Leiter has, in short, good reason to object to the review. And there are grounds, too, for questioning how well the Times has served as (in his words) "a publication that aspires to provide intellectual uplift to its non-scholarly readers."

Indeed, you don't even have to be an academic to feel those reservations. Throughout the late 1990s and early 2000s, for example, many readers would spend their Saturday afternoons studying a weekly section of the Times called "Arts and Ideas," trying to figure out where the ideas were.
By a nice paradox, though, the coverage of ideas improved, at least somewhat, after the "Arts and Ideas" section disappeared. (See, for example, the symposium inspired earlier this summer by a Times essay on early American history.) 

So while reading Leiter's complaint with much sympathy, I also found some questions taking shape about its assumptions -- and about his way of pressing the point on Vollmann's competence.
For one thing, Leiter takes it as a given that the best discussion of a book on Nietzsche would come from a scholar -- preferably, it seems, a professor of philosophy. At this, however, certain alarm bells go off. 

The last occasion Leiter had to mention The New York Times was shortly after the death of Jacques Derrida. His objection was not to the paper's front-page obituary (a truly ignorant and poorly reported piece, by the way). Rather, Leiter was unhappy to find Derrida described as a philosopher. He assured his readers that Derrida was not one, and had never taken the least bit seriously within the profession, at least here in the United States.

I read that with great interest, and with the sense of discovery. It meant that Richard Rorty isn't a philosopher, since he takes Derrida seriously. It also suggested that, say, DePaul University doesn't actually have a philosophy program, despite appearances to the contrary. (After all, so many of the "philosophy" professors there are interested in deconstruction and the like.) 

One would also have to deduce from Leiter's article that the Society for Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy is playing a very subtle joke on prospective members when it lists Derrida as one of the topics of interest they might choose to circle on the form they fill out to join the organization.

An alternative reading, of course, is that some people have a stringent and proprietary sense of what is "real" philosophy, and who counts as a philosopher. And by an interesting coincidence, such people once ruled Nietzsche out of consideration altogether. Until the past few decades, he was regarded as an essayist, an aphorist, a brilliant literary artist -- but by no means a serious philosopher. ("A stimulating thinker, but most unsound," as Jeeves tells Bertie Wooster, if memory serves.) The people who read Nietzsche in the United States a hundred years ago tended to be artists, anarchists, bohemians, and even (shudder) journalists. But not academic philosophers.

In short, it is not self-evident that the most suitable reviewer of a new book on Nietzsche would need to be a professor  -- let alone one who had published a book or two on him. (Once, the very idea would have been almost hopelessly impractical, because there were few, if any.) Assigning a biography of Nietzsche to a novelist instead of a scholar is hardly the case of malfeasance that Leiter suggests. If anything, Nietzsche himself might have approved: The idea of professors discussing his work would really have given the old invalid reason to recuperate.

Vollmann throws off a quick reference to "the relevant aspects of Schopenhauer, Aristotle and others by whom Nietzsche was influenced and against whom he reacted." And at this, Leiter really moves in for the kill.

"As every serious student of Nietzsche knows," he writes, "Aristotle is notable for his almost total absence from the corpus. There are a mere handful of explicit references to Aristotle in Nietzsche's writings (even in the unpublished notebooks), and no extended discussion of the kind afforded Plato or Thales. And apart from some generally superficial speculations in the secondary literature about similarities between Aristotle's 'great-souled man' and Nietzsche's idea of the 'higher' or 'noble' man -- similarities nowhere remarked upon by Nietzsche himself -- there is no scholarship supporting the idea that Aristotle is a significant philosopher for Nietzsche in any respect."

Reading this, I felt a vague mental itch. It kept getting stronger, and would not go away. For the idea that Aristotle was an important influence on Nietzsche appears in the work of the late Walter Kaufman -- the professor of philosophy at Princeton University who re-translated Nietzsche in the 1950s and '60s.

Kaufman published an intellectual biography that destroyed some of the pernicious myths about Nietzsche. He made the case for the coherence and substance of his work, and was merciless in criticizing earlier misinterpretations. He has had the same treatment himself, of course, at the hands of later scholars. But it was Kaufman, perhaps more than anyone else, who made it possible and even necessary for American professors of philosophy to take Nietzsche seriously.

So when Kaufman wrote that Nietzsche's debt to Aristotle's ethics was "considerable" .... well, maybe Leiter was right. Perhaps Kaufman was now just a case of someone making "superficial speculations in the secondary literature." But for a nonspecialist reviewer such as Vollmann to echo it did not quite seem like an indictable offense.

So I wrote to Leiter, asking about all of this. In replying, Leiter sounded especially put out that Vollmann had cited both Schopenhauer and Aristotle as influences. (For those watching this game without a scorecard: Nobody doubts the importance of Schopenhauer for Nietzsche.)

"To reference 'Schopenhauer and Aristotle' together as important philosophical figures for Nietzsche -- as Vollmann did -- is, indeed, preposterous," wrote Leiter in one message, "and indicative of the fact that Vollmann is obviously a tourist when it comes to reading Nietzsche. The strongest claim anyone has made (the one from Kaufmann) is that there is a kind of similarity between a notion in Aristotle and a notion in Nietzsche, but not even Kaufmann (1) showed that the similarity ran very deep; or (2) claimed that it arose from Aristotle's influence upon Nietzsche."

Well, actually, yes, Kaufman did make precisely that second claim. (He also quoted Nietzsche saying, "I honor Aristotle and honor him mostly highly...") And there is no real ground for construing the phrase "Schoenhauer and Aristotle" to mean "similarly and in equal measure."

There are preposterous things in the writing of William Vollmann. But a stray reference to a possible intellectual influence on Nietzsche is by no means one of them. Nor, for that matter, is the novelist's willingness to venture into a lair protected by fearsome dragons of the professoriat. I wish Vollmann had read more Nietzsche, and more scholarship on him than the biography he reviewed. But whatever else you can say about the guy, he's not a pedant.

In fact, the whole situation leaves me wondering if the problem ought not be framed differently. There is, obviously, a difference between an article in a scholarly journal and one appearing in a publication ordinarily read during breakfast (or later, in, as the saying goes, "the smallest room in the house"). It need not be a difference in quality or intelligence. Newspapers could do well for themselves by finding more professors to write for them. And the latter would probably enjoy it, not in spite of the sense of slumming, but precisely because of it.

But does it follow that the best results would come from having philosophers review the philosophy books, historians review the history books, and so forth? 

The arguments for doing so are obvious enough. But just as obvious are the disadvantages: Most readers would derive little benefit from intra-disciplinary disputes and niggling points of nuance spill over into the larger public arena.

It is probably a crazy dream, even something utopian, but here is the suggestion anyway. The Times Book Review (or some other such periodical) should from time to time give over an issue entirely to academic reviewers commenting on serious books -- but with everyone obliged to review outside their specialty. Hand a batch of novels to a sociologist. Give some books on Iraq to an ethicist. Ask a physicist to write about a favorite book from childhood. 

It might not be the best set of reviews ever published. But chances are it would be memorable -- and an education for everybody.

Author/s: 
Scott McLemee
Author's email: 
scott.mclemee@insidehighered.com

Noise in the Stacks

In June, Intellectual Affairs offered a modest proposal for the general improvement of academic culture. The idea was simple. It was that academic librarians ought to have a group blog -- and that, furthermore, it would be a good thing if people other than librarians were to read it. After all, many of the problems they face, and the decisions they come to, affect anyone who does research in a library. Which is to say, most of us.

By amplifying the voices of an important but largely overlooked sector of the scholarly workforce, such a blog might do its part to benefit the common good of everyone. That, in brief, was the point made by the column called "Silence in the Stacks." And for making it, I got no little grief.

More on that in a moment. But for now, it is a pleasure to note that the call was heard. The Association of College and Research Libraries -- which has 12,000 members working in the various sectors of secondary education -- has now launched a group site called ACRLog. Actually it has been running since mid-September, but only in warm-up mode. Its existence was officially announced yesterday, following what sounds like a rather thorough and protracted round of bureaucratic vetting.

It all started in June, when Steven Bell, the director of the Gutman Library at Philadelphia University, and Mary Jane Petrowski, the assistant executive director or ACRL, worked up a proposal for a group blog on academic-librarianship issues. The idea was discussed and approved during a meeting of the ACRL board during the annual conference of the American Library Association, held this year in Chicago.

"For the next two months or so," as Steve Bell told me by e-mail, "we concentrated on (1) getting a domain name and host for the blog (2) getting a software package to run the blog  (3) assembling a team of bloggers, and (4) getting the blog up and running." They then spent a few weeks fine tuning aspects of the site.

It is, in short, an authorized and official project of a professional organization. And in mentioning this, there is, once again -- ping! -- the bitter sting of spitballs at the back of my neck.

You see, in June, I mentioned that it had been difficult to find blogs that discussed the work of academic librarians in a way that treated this as a matter of general concern. It was not for want of trying. Of course, there were plenty of blogs out there by maintained by librarians, academic and otherwise. They were a good way to learn about people's hobbies, cats, sex lives, favorite television shows, political opinions, insights into various personnel decisions, and amusing or irritating encounters with patrons.

But sites where they thought out loud about the relationship between their professional expertise and the rest of the university, for example? Sure, that happened, sometimes, in passing. But not as a primary emphasis.

Saying this was, let's say, not popular. According to some of what later transpired, I had proven myself guilty of malice, myopia, abject stupidity, and willful intention to insult. To the naked eye, the column had actually been a sort of paean to librarians as overlooked wizards of the information age -- combined with a plea that others in academic life give them their due.

But perhaps that was part of my nefarious plan? For I am a snake. And as the Bible tells us, the snake is the most subtle of the beasts.

What had really happened only became clear much later: I had wandered, blithely enough, into a minefield. Doubtless you have heard about the heated exchanges between pro- and anti-blogging factions of academe. And there have been similar contretemps within the profession of journalism: Some see blogging as a legitimate dimension of mass media, and some regard it as the death of all standards and accountability. Well, the same polarization has occurred among librarians.

The anger touched off by "Silence in the Stacks" in June was actually a continuation of the furor over a notorious (well, in some circles, anyway) statement by Michael Gorman, the president of the American Library Association, earlier this year. In the pages of [ital]Library Journal[ital], he lashed out at "the Blog People" in his own profession -- attributing to them sundry lapses of taste, judgment, and intelligence.

It was as if he were conducting an experiment to see if they could carry a grudge. Guess what? They can.

It would be good to think that the new group blog started by the Association of College and Research Libraries will rise above the old hostilities. So far, four academic librarians are involved in running it. I asked Steven Bell if there were plans to involve more people.

"I hope we can add two bloggers in the next few months," he wrote in reply. "....I should add that we are open to guest posts from colleagues, and perhaps if we find someone who shows some talent for this sort of thing he or she will be invited to join the blogging team."

One of the current participants is, by his own account, a latecomer to the format. Scott Walter is assistant dean of libraries for information and instructional services at the University of Kansas in Lawrence. "I was not an early adopter of the blog as a means of disseminating information or personal views," he told me, instead preferring "more familiar formats such as public presentation and publication in traditional journals. Nor have I been particularly active on the older electronic medium of the discussion list in recent years."

So why go digital now? "What sold me on the idea," as he put it, "was the notion of a public forum for discussion of academic library issues that inhabits the middle ground between the  quickly composed reply to a discussion list and the formal (and often long-delayed) publication of one's ideas in a peer-reviewed journal.... It struck me that, despite the variety of library blogs already available, we still had a need for this in the world of academic librarianship."

Another member of the ACRLog group is Barbara Fister, coordinator of the instruction program at the Folke Bernadotte Memorial Library at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minn.

"Blogging is an emerging narrative genre that interests me both as a librarian and as someone interested in popular literacy generally," Fister told me. "It's part news, part opinion, part humor, part passion, part contact sport -- and of course it's a way to get conversations going."

That reference to "conversation" turns out to be an allusion to a library-science article published almost 20 years ago: Joan Bechtel's "Conversation, a New Paradigm for Librarianship?" It's an oft-cited text. Here's a passage from it: "The primary task, then, of the academic library is to introduce students to the world of scholarly dialogue that spans both space and time and to provide students with the knowledge and skills they need to tap into conversations on an infinite variety of topics, and to participate in the critical inquiry and debate on those issues."

In other words: Academic librarians were cultivating the blogosphere even before there was one....

Author/s: 
Scott McLemee
Author's email: 
scott.mclemee@insidehighered.com

Radio Free Moby

Early in the summer of 2002, the National Press Club, in Washington, sponsored a panel on the phenomenon of blogging. The turnout was rather modest. The journalistic buzz over blogging -- soon to become deafening, once the presidential campaign got underway -- was as yet little more than a puzzled murmur. The idea of blogging as a political force wasn't even that high on the agenda, if memory serves. It must have come up, of course, but it was not the most striking thing about the discussion. No,  what sticks in my memory, three years later, was the presence of Doug McLennan from ArtsJournal, the indispensable daily digest of cultural reporting, and of Dennis Loy Johnson, whose Moby Lives was one of the first literary blogs.

Later that day, Johnson, formerly an English professor at Allegheny College, sat in my living room, elaborating his grand vision of blogging as a means of revitalizing the culture. (It is hard to write about this now without some retroactive irony.) His idea was that literary blogging would provide an alternative to The New York Times Book Review and suchlike. But it could do more than that. It would help foster a kind of counter-public sphere: Writers and readers could meet sans the influence of the big publishing conglomerates. The do-it-yourself ethos would be revitalized, and Random House wouldn’t know what hit 'em.

I listened -- supportive, but skeptical. You can participate in just so many let's-overthrow-the-media discussions, after all, before being a little too familiar with the inevitable topoi. The great thing about the counterculture is that it comes from a tradition that is centuries old; the awful thing about it is that the apocalypse never comes.

In any case, having reservations about the impending showdown is not necessarily proof of cynicism. Rather, it's a matter of thinking that, in the end, somebody is going to have to put up or shut up. Having started out in the ‘zine world during the first Reagan administration, I’ve now read far too many cultural fatwas by literary "movements" uncontaminated by talent ever to take one at face value ever again.

Well, for his part, Dennis Loy Johnson has managed to put up. He went on to start an independent press, Melville House Books, which in three years has published about two dozen literary and political books. Countless literary blogs started in the wake of Moby Lives -- some by people who emulated Johnson, and some by people who loathed him. (Another countercultural tradition, that: By the time Allen Ginsberg got "Howl" into print, 50 years ago, there must have been some fierce young beatniks furious at the sellout.)

He's let Moby Lives "go dark" from time to time, as the theater people say when the stage closes down for a while. Understandable enough, given the effort required to keep Melville House running. The site went dark this summer -- with a page announcing, first, that Moby would return in August, then in September. By October, I was checking it more from force of habit than real expectation.

Then, last week, Moby Lives was reincarnated – as an online radio program. My wife, who is far more infotech-minded than I am, rolls her eyes at the expression "online radio program" and insists that it be called a "podcast." That locution is much too reminiscent of something from Invasion of the Body Snatchers, however. And anyway, you have to listen to Moby Lives through Real Audio. You can't actually download it to an iPod (or any other such gizmo), though evidently that option will soon be available. So technically Moby has only halfway metamorphosized from blog to pod. (O brave new world, that has such lingo in it.)

In any case, it was a surprising development, so I called Johnson to find out more about how it came to pass. The Melville House office (and impromptu radio studio) is in an old factory building. As we talk, I hear various booms and crashes in the background. It’s pretty clear that there will be times when Moby Lives 2.0 won’t quite sound like anything from National Public Radio.

"I’ve been wanting to do this for a long time," Johnson says. "It’s just been a question of finding the time to learn how to do it. The curve on it has been difficult for me. I’m not particularly astute at these things, which is why the blog never got beyond HTML. That was about as much as I could do."

He says the equipment "is all really small, and really expensive." A freelancer does the engineering work, helping him to edit the various recorded bits into a single program. At the end of the day, Johnson records a survey of publishing news to serve as the opening for the next morning's program. Other features are drawn from telephone interviews. During Moby's first week, guests included David Kipen, the new director of the literature program at the National Endowment for the Arts, and Sara Nelson, an editor at Publishers Weekly. There are also short humor pieces – including a sort of fractured Masterpiece Theater segment in which Johnson reads excerpts from classics of world literature as rendered by an online translation program.

Even apart from the occasional mysterious background noise, the recording quality is, he admits, a little rough. "That’s why we tried to sneak online with it. I didn’t send anything out to our mailing list about it, or contact the blogs."

But the latter decision might also reflect disenchantment with blogging. What he hoped, three years ago, might foster an alternative culture now strikes Johnson as a new tool in the hands of mainstream publishers. "Blogging has become another outlet for them," he says. "I hear from their publicists on a daily basis."

Are university press publicists making the same kinds of pitches? His answer comes as a surprise to me: "I don’t hear from university press people as much as you might think, unless they’re doing poetry, since they know I’ve covered poetry a lot. But scholarly books, no."

He doesn’t think of university presses as part of the problem. While references to "the crisis in academic publishing" are commonplace in some circles, few people in literary journalism or the blogosphere have heard of it. "University presses are as under assault as any other kind of independent publisher," Johnson says. "I don’t think people in the literary world really understand that."

The move from print to audio only looks like a new departure. "I was a film major as an undergraduate at Boston University," he says, "and took all my basic classes in communications from acolytes of Edward R. Murrow and Fred Friendly. I worked at the student radio station there, at the same time as Howard Stern, of all people, not that I really have any memory of him. But I always thought I’d end up a broadcast journalist."

It isn’t a question of creating some whole new form of alternative media, then, so much as it is keeping faith with the old school. "Back when Mary McCarthy went on 'The Dick Cavett Show,'" says Johnson, "he had her on because she was Mary McCarthy, not because she had a new book out. That’s the principle with Moby Lives radio. We want to have on people with something to say, not something to sell."  

Author/s: 
Scott McLemee
Author's email: 
scott.mclemee@insidehighered.com

Scott McLemee writes Intellectual Affairs on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Suggestions and ideas for future columns are welcome.

Technology as a Liberal Art

Most people think of small liberal arts colleges as cloistered sites nestled on sweeping land in the middle of a city, out in the suburbs, or in quaint small towns miles from civilization. The stone buildings and gothic architecture of most of these colleges invite thoughts of monasteries, of being somehow beyond the world.

They are places where students go to study at the feet of masters, to reflect, to be removed from the cares of the world. And they’re certainly not places where one thinks of cutting-edge technology in the fast lane of the information superhighway. No, that’s for places like MIT, Berkeley, Harvard.  

Many students and faculty believe that there is no place for technology in small liberal arts colleges, a belief they cherish and are loathe to let go of. But technology doesn’t have to be the great invader, the destructor of the special nature of a liberal arts college education. It can, in fact, make that education better and more sustainable.

When I was an undergraduate in the late ‘80s, our technology resources were limited. Always a little ahead of the technology curve, I had a computer of my own. It had no hard drive; data was stored on a floppy which had to be switched out with the floppy for the program itself. It was prone to crashing.  Once it crashed in the middle of not one, but two, papers I was writing. When I called tech support, I heard a message indicating that the manufacturer had just filed for bankruptcy. We had no computing department to whom I could turn for help.

My only other option for computing was to use the terminals in the library, VAX machines. In order to write a paper, I had to know a few formatting codes, symbols that now make even the most tech-savvy among our students and faculty cringe. And the papers printed out on dot-matrix printers with holed edges that had to be torn off. There was no Internet, no e-mail, on the campus. All our research had to be done in the library using card catalogs and journal directories.

I cannot imagine going back to that. I recently returned to my alma mater for my 15th reunion and was amazed at how much has changed, and yet how much has remained the same. The buildings, built from stone mined from the same quarry, look like they did a hundred years ago. But inside, much has been transformed. Computers now sit on every professor’s desk. Students have access to computers in any number of places and wireless access in even more places. The new library puts books, journals and computers side by side comfortably. The fiberglass stone-like columns hide all the data conduits to allow information to speed around the library quite quickly. As at many small colleges, technology and the liberal arts are coexisting quite nicely.

One of the advantages of a college like my alma mater, or of Bryn Mawr College, where I am now an Instructional Technologist, is to have a more intimate experience of college. Students have smaller classes, participate in extracurricular activities together and see each other around campus frequently, which means they know each other well. They also know their professors well. Professors open their office doors to students more often than at larger institutions. There is more opportunity for a face-to-face conversation with just about everyone. In light of this opportunity, people think that technology only distances people from each other. But that’s not necessarily so; in many ways, technology helps to encourage more face-to-face interaction rather than less.

From a basic communication standpoint, technology such as e-mail, instant messaging, course management systems and course Web sites offer the ability for students to ask questions, to find information about the class, to interact with other students or with course materials. The mechanics of assignments, class schedules, announcements and the like can be relegated to course management systems or Web sites, leaving more time to cover real material in class. E-mail and IM exchanges can lead to a face-to-face appointment.

These methods of communication, one-way or two-way, merely provide an opening for a more meaningful exchange. An e-mail from a student that asks a question might indicate that he or she is having trouble understanding a particular concept -- which might lead the professor to invite the student to visit and go over the concept more thoroughly. Several such e-mails from students might prompt the professor to shift the next class’s focus to the concept in question.

No matter how much instruction is offered on the Web, the core of these schools is the classroom experience.  Technology can do a lot to enhance that experience. At Bryn Mawr, Michelle Francl, a professor of chemistry, is recording all of her lectures for her physical chemistry course. She’s capturing her computer screen and her voice, saving the video and the audio file, and posting them to her blog. For now, these recorded lectures, or screencasts and podcasts, serve primarily as review for the students. In the future, however, she plans to assign these recorded lectures much as she would assign a text and use class time for something more engaging than a lecture. 

As she said recently at a conference, “I used to always show the students the easy case during the lecture and send them home to work on the hard case, but that’s just the opposite of what I think I should do.  Now we can work on the hard case in class.”

At the same conference, Scott Warnock of Drexel University, demonstrated how he was using the same technology to comment on student papers. He created a video of the paper with his voice commenting on different parts of it, highlighting as he went along. I was so excited by his demonstration that I tried it myself when I returned. I posted the resulting flash files in Blackboard and asked students to review them before our conference and come prepared to discuss their plans for revision. This worked out wonderfully and I had much more productive conferences. The students were able to ask what I meant by certain comments I’d made. Rather than my spending conference time saying what I had already said in the video, I was able to guide them in their revision process and work with them on more complex aspects of the paper. This, to me, is the essence of a liberal arts education, the ability to have these one-on-one conversations that are productive and help the student begin to tackle problems themselves.

For me as a student, the biggest benefit of a liberal arts education was the ability to make connections between classes and topics. I  remember realizing that my classes were not these discrete units, that my economics class had something to do with my Victorian literature classes, that in fact, my classes could inform each other. The advent of the Internet and many Web-based technologies creates a unique environment in which those connections can not only thrive, but flourish.

Via blogging, for instance, students can write about the connections they’re making between topics and classes. They can actually make connections with people and resources that I just couldn’t 15 years ago. Now, they can e-mail a researcher or read their blog and comment on it, which might, in turn, lead the researcher back to the student’s blog and might even lead to a collaboration. Not only do students have nearly instant access to many library resources, but they also have access to the wider resources on the Web, including personal blogs by academics, unpublished papers, “open access” journals, and Wikipedia.

But students aren’t content anymore to simply be passive recipients of this plethora of information; they also want to create their own content and increasingly are provided the resources with which to accomplish that aim.  In the lab that I run, I have helped many a student create multimedia presentations, using video, audio, and photos.  Some have created Web sites and still more have blogs (some of which I read), on which they reflect on their schoolwork and college life.  Last semester, in fact, a computer science professor, Doug Blank, and I co-taught a class that is studying the blog phenomena, mostly by writing in our own class blog and reading other blogs and media. The students write an average of two posts a week and comment on each other’s posts even more frequently than that.  

They are creating content that is, in turn, being commented on by others, including the authors of the articles they’ve written about.  In the beginning, we felt we had to post and comment fairly frequently to help get the blog off the ground, but now the students are the primary authors of most of the content.  We use that content as fodder for class discussion. Not only do we discuss the topics that they have addressed, but we also discuss they way they’ve formulated their arguments and how they could be improved.  We talk about any comments that present counter arguments and how they should address them.  The students are learning valuable lessons about what it means to write publicly and how to evaluate what they say against the standards required by writing publicly.

By now, some of you may be feeling a little queasy about all of this. Blogging? Screencasting? How is that part of the liberal arts? Aren’t we losing control if the students are creating the content? If all the content is online, what need is there for books? What need is there for a teacher then? 

Students still need guidance -- and perhaps more so now than ever before. They still need help figuring out when an online resource is a good one. They still need to learn to analyze, synthesize, and critique. They need help making connections. These are skills that technology can’t teach, though it can facilitate the process. I am not saying, you’ll notice, that technology makes it easier. 

It doesn’t, but it definitely opens up possibilities that fit in quite naturally with a traditional liberal arts education. Instead of just reading a book and writing a paper about it that gets read only by a professor, students can write an analysis of it on their blog, which their classmates and instructor can then comment on, giving them valuable feedback. Students may engage in an out-of-class online discussion of reading or lecture material that helps them think more deeply about the material.  They can ask questions of not just the faculty member teaching their course, but even of the author of an assigned article or other experts.  

If a liberal arts education is about increased connections between students and faculty, about learning to learn, about creating critical thinking skills, about eventually going into the world and contributing, then technology is absolutely a part of that. Technology broadens the conversation beyond the ivied walls of the institution, facilitating a student’s own transition beyond those walls. Professors, especially at liberal arts institutions, certainly see themselves as instrumental in that transition. To remain so might mean trying out new technology. It doesn't have to be scary and it doesn't mean an end to the liberal arts. As Sam said in Green Eggs and Ham, "Try it. You may like it. You will see."

Author/s: 
Laura Blankenship
Author's email: 
info@insidehighered.com

Laura Blankenship is Senior Instructional Technologist at Bryn Mawr College. She is also Geeky Mom.

Notes from the Underground

Normally my social calendar is slightly less crowded than that of Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment. (He, at least, went out to see the pawnbroker.) But late last month, in an unprecedented burst of gregariousness, I had a couple of memorable visits with scholars who had come to town – small, impromptu get-togethers that were not just lively but, in a way, remarkable.

The first occurred just before Christmas, and it included (besides your feuilletonist reporter) a political scientist, a statistician, and a philosopher. The next gathering, also for lunch, took place a week later, during the convention of the Modern Language Association. Looking around the table, I drew up a quick census. One guest worked on British novels of the Victorian era. Another writes about contemporary postcolonial fiction and poetry. We had two Americanists, but of somewhat different specialist species; besides, one was a tenured professor, while the other is just starting his dissertation. And, finally, there was, once again, a philosopher. (Actually it was the same philosopher, visiting from Singapore and in town for a while.)

If the range of disciplines or specialties was unusual, so the was the degree of conviviality. Most of us had never met in person before -- though you’d never have known that from the flow of the conversation, which never seemed to slow down for very long. Shared interests and familiar arguments (some of them pretty esoteric) kept coming up. So did news about an electronic publishing initiative some of the participants were trying to get started. On at least one occasion in either meal, someone had to pull out a notebook to have someone else jot down an interesting citation to look up later.

In each case, the members of the ad hoc symposium were academic bloggers who had gotten to know one another online. That explained the conversational dynamics -- the sense, which was vivid and  unmistakable, of continuing discussions in person that hadn’t started upon arriving at the restaurant, and wouldn’t end once everyone had dispersed.

The whole experience was too easygoing to call impressive, exactly. But later -- contemplating matters back at my hovel, over a slice of black bread and a bowl of cold cabbage soup -- I couldn’t help thinking that something very interesting had taken place. Something having little do with blogging, as such. Something that runs against the grain of how academic life in the United States has developed over the past two hundred years.

At least that’s my impression from having read Thomas Bender’s book Intellect and Public Life: Essays on the Social History of Academic Intellectuals in the United States, published by Johns Hopkins University Press in 1993. That was back when even knowing how to create a Web page would raise eyebrows in some departments. (Imagine the warnings that Ivan Tribble might have issued, at the time.)

But the specific paper I’m thinking of – reprinted as the first chapter – is even older. It’s called “The Cultures of Intellectual Life: The City and the Professions,” and Bender first presented it as a lecture in 1977. (He is currently professor of history at New York University.)

Although he does not exactly put it this way, Bender’s topic is how scholars learn to say “we.” An intellectual historian, he writes, is engaged in studying “an exceedingly complex interaction between speakers and hearers, writers and readers.”  And the framework for that “dynamic interplay” has itself changed over time. Recognizing this is the first step towards understanding that the familiar patterns of cultural life – including those that prevail in academe – aren’t set in stone. (It’s easy to give lip service to this principle. Actually thinking through its implications, though, not so much.)

The history of American intellectual life, as Bender outlines it, involved a transition from civic professionalism (which prevailed in the 18th and early 19th centuries) to disciplinary professionalism (increasingly dominant after about 1850).

“Early American professionals,” he writes, “were essentially community oriented. Entry to the professions was usually through local elite sponsorship, and professionals won public trust within this established social context rather than through certification.” One’s prestige and authority was very strongly linked to a sense of belonging to the educated class of a given city.

Bender gives as an example the career of Samuel Bard, the New York doctor who championed building a hospital to improve the quality of medical instruction available from King’s College, as Columbia University was known back in the 1770). Bard had studied in Edinburgh and wanted New York to develop institutions of similar caliber; he also took the lead in creating a major library and two learned societies.

“These efforts in civic improvement were the product of the combined energies of the educated and the powerful in the city,” writes Bender, “and they integrated and gave shape to its intellectual life.”

Nor was this phenomenon restricted to major cities in the East. Visiting the United States in the early 1840s, the British geologist Charles Lyell noted that doctors, lawyers, scientists, and merchants with literary interests in Cincinnati “form[ed] a society of a superior kind.” Likewise, William Dean Howells recalled how, at this father’s printing office in a small Ohio town, the educated sort dropped in “to stand with their back to our stove and challenge opinion concerning Holmes and Poe, Irving and Macauley....”

In short, a great deal of one’s sense of cultural “belonging” was bound up with community institutions -- whether that meant a formally established local society for the advancement of learning, or an ad hoc discussion circle warming its collective backside near a stove.

But a deep structural change was already taking shape. The German model of the research university came into ever greater prominence, especially in the decades following the Civil War. The founding of Johns Hopkins University in 1876 defined the shape of things to come. “The original faculty of philosophy,” notes Bender, “included no Baltimoreans, and no major appointments in the medical school went to members of the local medical community.” William Welch, the first dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, “identified with his profession in a new way; it was a branch of science -- a discipline -- not a civic role.”

Under the old regime, the doctors, lawyers, scientists, and literary authors of a given city might feel reasonably comfortable in sharing the first-person plural. But life began to change as, in Bender’s words, “people of ideas were inducted, increasingly through the emerging university system, into the restricted worlds of specialized discourse.” If you said “we,” it probably referred to the community of other geologists, poets, or small-claims litigators.

“Knowledge and competence increasingly developed out of the internal dynamics of esoteric disciplines rather than within the context of shared perceptions of public needs,” writes Bender. “This is not to say that professionalized disciplines or the modern service professions that imitated them became socially irresponsible. But their contributions to society began to flow from their own self-definitions rather than from a reciprocal engagement with general public discourse.”

Now, there is a definite note of sadness in Bender’s narrative – as there always tends to be in accounts of the shift from Gemeinschaft to Gesellschaft. Yet it is also clear that the transformation from civic to disciplinary professionalism was necessary.

“The new disciplines offered relatively precise subject matter and procedures,” Bender concedes, “at a time when both were greatly confused. The new professionalism also promised guarantees of competence -- certification -- in an era when criteria of intellectual authority were vague and professional performance was unreliable.”

But in the epilogue to Intellect and Public Life, Bender suggests that the process eventually went too far. “The risk now is precisely the opposite,” he writes. “Academe is threatened by the twin dangers of fossilization and scholasticism (of three types: tedium, high tech, and radical chic). The agenda for the next decade, at least as I see it, ought to be the opening up of the disciplines, the ventilating of professional communities that have come to share too much and that have become too self-referential.”

He wrote that in 1993. We are now more than a decade downstream. I don’t know that anyone else at the lunchtime gatherings last month had Thomas Bender’s analysis in mind. But it has been interesting to think about those meetings with reference to his categories.

The people around the table, each time, didn’t share a civic identity: We weren’t all from the same city, or even from the same country. Nor was it a matter of sharing the same disciplinary background – though no effort was made to be “interdisciplinary” in any very deliberate way, either. At the same time, I should make clear that the conversations were pretty definitely academic: “How long before hundreds of people in literary studies start trying to master set theory, now that Alain Badiou is being translated?” rather than, “Who do you think is going to win American Idol?”

Of course, two casual gatherings for lunch does not a profound cultural shift make. But it was hard not to think something interesting had just transpired: A new sort of collegiality, stretching across both geographic and professional distances, fostered by online communication but not confined to it.

The discussions were fueled by the scholarly interests of the participants. But there was a built-in expectation that you would be willing to explain your references to someone who didn’t share them. And none of it seems at all likely to win the interest (let alone the approval) of academic bureaucrats.

Surely other people must be discovering and creating this sort of thing -- this experience of communitas. Or is that merely a dream? 

It is not a matter of turning back the clock -- of undoing the division of labor that has created  specialization. That really would be a dream.

But as Bender puts it, cultural life is shaped by “patterns of interaction” that develop over long periods of time. For younger scholars, anyway, the routine give-and-take of online communication (along with the relative ease of linking to documents that support a point or amplify a nuance) may become part of the deep grammar of how they think and argue. And if enough of them become accustomed to discussing their research with people working in other disciplines, who knows what could happen?

“What our contemporary culture wants,” as Bender put it in 1993, “is the combination of theoretical abstraction and historical concreteness, technical precision and civic give-and-take, data and rhetoric.” We aren’t there, of course, or anywhere near it. But sometimes it does seem as if there might yet be grounds for optimism.

Author/s: 
Scott McLemee
Author's email: 
scott.mclemee@insidehighered.com

Serious Bloggers

In several online educational columns, various blog posts, department meetings, and graduate education advice, we repeatedly hear the dangers of blogging. Blogging will ruin your career! Blogging will prevent you from getting a job! Blogging will ... fill in the blank. In a 2005 Chronicle of Higher Education column that received widespread attention from online readers, blogging critic "Ivan Tribble" argued that openly sharing one's views or one's life with the world can only have detrimental consequences for aspiring educators. Tribble wrote: "The pertinent question for bloggers is simply, Why? What is the purpose of broadcasting one's unfiltered thoughts to the whole wired world? It's not hard to imagine legitimate, constructive applications for such a forum. But it's also not hard to find examples of the worst kinds of uses."

Too many academic bloggers have taken Tribble and similar commentaries seriously. Technorati, the blog search engine, lists 264 weblogs linking to (and one assumes commenting on as well) the initial Tribble column. It's not a trivial number considering the small amount of academic bloggers writing and the even smaller number of humanities-academic bloggers on the Web. The latter was the focus of Tribble's diatribe. Tribble's intense reading is not alone nor the anomaly. Most notable among other warnings regarding blogging is Forbes magazine's October 2005 cover story "Attack of the Blogs." Written by Daniel Lyons, the essay transformed blogging into an economic heavyweight whose influence far exceeds normal market and political forces. Beware of the blogs, Lyons cautioned. They will destroy your business!

More worrisome than this trepidation over blogging (i.e. whether these warnings are accurate or not), however, is the general seriousness that has immediately encased a fairly novel form of writing.  By "seriousness," I don't mean the investments and concern we place in our work; instead I note the over-hyped heaviness centered on this one particular type of writing. That heaviness can be overbearing. It turns online writing into either an obligation or a burden; either way, writers act as if they are trapped in this medium they have chosen to work in. The two brief examples I just alluded to are not the only attributes of the seriousness weblogging evokes. A quick glance at Inside Higher Ed's "Around the Web" section reveals a majority of blogs linked to whose writers are identifiable only by pseudonyms: Wanna Be Ph.D, Angry Professor, Anonymous Professor, La Lecturess.

These "names" do not reflect the general tendency in digital culture to adopt alter-egos (as in hip hop culture) nor do they reflect the altering of one's name for easier and more likable recognition (as in Hollywood screen names) nor the postmodern play of identity (as in Philip Roth's novels). Instead, these names re-enforce the burden of seriousness which has overtaken academic blogging. Writing a blog under a pseudonym is usually an argument that the only safe way for an academic to write publicly is to write anonymously. Our thoughts about students, grades, internal policy and even our private lives and interests can never be revealed to our colleagues or future colleagues or we risk losing all we have worked so hard for! As one anonymous writer states about her decision to stop blogging: "The only reason I'm in this predicament is because I've been terrified of people knowing who I am. As much as I've dealt with my 'real' identity being revealed to a few people, I've also been really afraid of the consequences of being a 'real' person in the blogosphere. And so, I thought, maybe the solution is to come out -- to just write under my "real" name, to tell people in my real life that I blog. As I thought about it more, however, it seemed to me that to write under that name is no solution, ultimately, because it would limit my writing here in the opposite direction."

I don't want to rehash the pro/con argument regarding blog pseudonyms or  anonymous blogging in general. Instead, I draw attention to how serious both the critics and supporters of this kind of writing take its activities. Lost in this seriousness are a number of quite amazing things blogging has provided writers: ability to create discourse in widely accessed, public venues, ease of online publishing, ability to write daily to a networked space, ability to archive one's writing, ability to interlink writing spaces, ability to respond to other writers quickly, etc. That over a million people of various ages and writing proficiencies have taken up blogging so quickly speaks to its attractiveness and novel nature. Indeed, all new genres of writing spurred on by technological innovation create new opportunities for expression. Always there exist doubters, but seldom do the adopters themselves express as much seriousness and trepidation of the very medium they use as their opponents do.

The consequences of this seriousness can be quite problematic, more problematic than whether or not a reader will take offense (or even retribution) at one's postings. The consequence of this seriousness is stagnation. When we become too serious about novel ideas too quickly, we deny ourselves the ability to experiment with and develop the very innovations in communication we are attracted to in the first place. In turn, we replicate processes already in circulation; i.e., we maintain a status quo and fail to explore possibilities raised by the new medium. One hears that stagnation in the repeated refrains of "fear" pseudonymous bloggers express or the tropes of general complaining many pseudonymous weblogs turn out. One hears that stagnation in Tribble's own cliché reading of the job market or what digital writing entails. On hears that stagnation in Forbes' model of economic competition.

If we have too much seriousness, nothing new occurs. One might imagine what would have happened to the future of the essay if Rousseau had contemplated and feared negative public response to his love of self-pleasure and resisted exploring his emotions in such a way (i.e., if he doubted whether self love would be a "serious" topic).  Or what if Cervantes took the "novel" form of the novel so serious that he could not mock his own novel's origins and purpose, as Don Quixote does in its beginning pages? Would this medium be the same as it is today?

To break this sense of seriousness, academic bloggers would benefit by engaging with the potentials this medium offers writers and by allowing themselves the opportunity to experiment. In a professional environment like ours, where experimentation is typically admired elsewhere (poetry, fiction) and downplayed in our own practices (exams, dissertation writing, outcomes statements, academic publishing), finally academia has the opportunity to play with digital form, content, and genre in ways previously denied because of the difficulty of learning hypertext or setting up webspace on university servers.

Some of the most provocative and exciting weblogs are, in fact, those that experiment with content and form: Boing Boing's daily juxtapositions of Internet oddities and current events, Warren Ellis' s explorations of fetish, comic book culture, sci-fi, and related topics, Oliver Wang's Soul-Sides,  an archival replay of forgotten soul tracks (and which incorporates music into the blogging experience), dETROITfUNK's photographic exploration of Detroit's ruins, forgotten sites, and surprising charms, Wonderland's mixture of game related and consumer items, and Drawn's highly visual, daily updates of cartoon and graphic art developments are but a few blogs functioning in a fairly experimental manner. By experimentation, and not by seriousness, they explore how blogging may change or enhance their interests. That they are not academic is worth noting if only for the lack of seriousness they apply to their existence and their willingness to break conventions. We, in academia, might learn from them. We might learn how to simultaneously be serious about our work (i.e., to be invested) while not allowing that  seriousness (heaviness) to be overbearing.

My own blog, Yellow Dog, attempts to engage with the experimentation blogging affords as well as to produce a lighter sense of seriousness. In my writing, I mix personal narratives, imaginative encounters, academic work, critical commentary, humor, Photoshop imagery, multiple personalities, and other items in an effort to generate a space which is both professional and playful. I am serious about what I do; but I am not overpowered by seriousness. Yellow Dog is not a model, but one effort to think about a new medium while actively working with that medium. What Yellow Dog does not do, and what my overall point of this short piece is trying to convey, is resort to a sense of super-hyped seriousness; a stagnation that fails to move our ideas, work, and sense of experimentation anywhere. I can name other academics who have also chosen to place "seriousness" aside in favor of play and experimentation: Jenny Edbauer, Derek Mueller and Collin Brooke are but three. Serious bloggers might take heed of such writing and think about how their own sense of seriousness limits their interaction with the new medium of weblogging. As Roland Barthes famously noted, there is a pleasure of the text. To that we might add the pleasure of online activities in general, engagements which do not always have to be placed in the realm of super-seriousness.

Author/s: 
Jeff Rice
Author's email: 
info@insidehighered.com

Jeff Rice is assistant professor of English at Wayne State University, where he teaches courses in rhetoric, writing, and new media.

Aggregate This!

“You’re either part of the solution,” as Eldridge Cleaver put it in 1968, “or part of the problem.” It was the one Black Panther slogan that appealed to Richard Nixon. He repeated it four years later, while running for re-election. A catchy saying, then. But also a risky one, in regard to the tempting of fate. (There is always a chance that you are just making the problem worse, simply by assuming you are solving it.)

Over the past few columns, I’ve pointed to some opportunities and difficulties created by emerging forms of digital publishing. In particular, the item from last week – the one suggesting that university presses might benefit from working out a modus vivendi with academic bloggers -- has generated interest and discussion. The space available online for the discussion of new books is, for all practical purposes, boundless. Meanwhile, the traditional forms of mass media place pay ever less attention to books. The avenues for making a new title known to the public get slimmer all the time. Literally slimmer, in some cases. Recently the San Francisco Chronicle cut its review section from eight pages to four, hardly an unusual development nowadays.

But will urging university presses to think more seriously about blogs (and other new media forms) really offer a solution? Or does it just compound the problem? Hearing from readers over the past week, I’ve started to wonder.

Many presses have very compact publicity departments – often enough, a single person. The work includes preparing each season’s catalog, sending out review copies, and working the display booth at conferences.

“So now,” the weary cry goes up, “we have to look at blogs too? Just how are we supposed to find the right one for a given book? There seem to be thousands of them. And that’s just counting the ones with pictures of the professors’ cats.”

Fair enough. Life is too short, and bloggers too numerous. And let’s not even get into podcasting or digital video....

The great strength of emergent media forms is also their great weakness. I mean, of course, the extreme decentralization that now characterizes “the broadband flatland.” It is now relatively easy to produce and distribute content. But it also proves a challenge to find one’s way around in a zone that is somehow expanding, crowded, and borderless, all at once.

With such difficulties in mind, then, I want to propose a kind of public-works project. The time has come to create a map. In fact, it is hard to imagine things can continue much longer without one.

At very least, we need a Web site giving users some idea what landmarks already exist in the digital space of academe. This would take time to create, of course. More than that, it would require a lot of good will.

But the benefits would be immediate -- not just for university presses and academic bloggers, but for librarians, students, and researcher within academe and without.

My grasp of the technology involved is extremely limited. So the following proposal is offered -- with all due humility -- to the attention of people capable of judging how practical it might be. For it ever to get off the ground, a catchy name would be required. For now, let’s call it the Aggregator Academica, or AggAcad for short.

Assuming a few people are interested, it might be possible to start building AggAcad rather soon. I imagine it going through two major rounds of improvement after that. Here’s the blueprint.

AggAcad 1.0 would resemble the phonebook for a very small town -- with one column of business numbers and another of personal. It would provide a rather bare-bones set of links, in two broad categories.

There would be an online directory of academic publishers, similar to the one now provided by the Association of American University Presses. But it would also have links to the Web sites of other scholarly imprints, whether from commercial publishers or professional organizations.

The other component of the start-up site would be an academic blogroll – perhaps an  updated version of the one now available at Crooked Timber, divided broadly by disciplines.

My assumption is that the initial group would be ad hoc, and assemble itself from a few people from each side of town. They would need to work out criteria for each list: the terms for deciding what links to include, and what to exclude. (Perhaps it is naive to place much trust in the power of collegiality. But it might be worth risking a little naiveté.)

The lists would be updated periodically. Meanwhile, the AggAcad team would need to go hunting for the storage space and the grant money required for the next stage of development.

AggAcad 2.0 would provide not just directories but content from and about scholarly publishing. As academic presses make more material available online -- sample chapters, interviews with authors, etc. --  the site would point readers to it. (This aspect of the site might be run by RSS or similar feeds.) Likewise, visitors to the site would learn of the more substantial reviews in online publications, including symposia on new books held by academic bloggers.

At some point, the whole site might be made searchable. (We can call this the 2.5 version.) A reader could type in “Rawls bioethics” and be given links to pertinent books, podcasts, blog entries etc. that have been referred to at the site. The total number of results would be smaller than that returned via Google -- but probably also richer in substance, per hit.

As AggAcad became more useful over time, it would presumably attract scholars and publishers who valued the site. Working on it might begin to count as professional service.
 
AggAcad 3.0 would incorporate elements of Digg -- the Web site that allows readers in the site’s community to recommend links and vote on how interesting or useful they prove. For an introduction to “the digg effect,” check out this Wikipedia article.

By this stage, AggAcad would provide something like a hub to the far-flung academic blogosphere (or whatever we are calling it within a few years). Individuals would still be able to generate and publish content as they see fit. The advantages of decentralization would continue. But the site might foster more connections than now seem possible.

Information about new scholarly books could circulate in new ways. It would begin to have some influence on how the media covered academic issues. And -- who knows? -- the quality of public discussion might even rise a little bit.

Assuming any of it is possible, of course. I sketch this idea with the hope that people better placed to make that judgment might take the idea up ... or tear it to shreds. Is it a solution? Or just part of the problem? Hard to say. But of this much I am certain: Thanks to AggAcad, there is finally an expression even uglier than “blog.”

Author/s: 
Scott McLemee
Author's email: 
scott.mclemee@insidehighered.com

Scott McLemee writes Intellectual Affairs each week. Suggestions and ideas for future columns are welcome.

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