Sometimes our tools are our politics, and that’s not always a good thing. Last week, the Copyright Clearance Center announced that it would integrate a “Copyright Permissions Building Block” function directly into Blackboard’s course management tools. The service automates the process of clearing copyright for course materials by incorporating it directly into the Blackboard tool kit; instructors post materials into their course space, and then tell the application to send information about those materials to CCC for clearance.
For many, this move offers welcome relief to the confusion currently surrounding the issue of copyright. Getting clearance for the materials you provide to your students, despite the help of organizations like CCC, is still a complicated and opaque chore. Instructors either struggle through the clumsy legal and financial details or furtively dodge the process altogether and hope they don’t get caught. With the centralization offered by CCC and now the automation offered by this new Blackboard add-on, the process will be more user-friendly, comprehensive, and close at hand. As Tracey Armstrong, executive vice president for CCC, put it, “This integration is yet another success in making the ‘right thing’ become the ‘easy thing.’”
Certainly, anything that helps get intellectual resources into the hands of students in the format they find most useful is a good thing. I have no doubt that both the CCC and Blackboard genuinely want the practical details of getting course materials together, cleared, and to the student to be less and less an obstacle to actually teaching with those materials. But I’m skeptical of whether this “easy thing” actually leads to the “right thing.” Making copyright clearance work smoothly overlooks the question of whether we should be seeking clearance at all -- and what should instead be protected by the copyright exception we’ve come to know as “fair use.”
Fair use has been the most important exception to the rules of copyright since long before it was codified into law in 1976, especially for educators. For those uses of copyrighted materials that would otherwise be considered an infringement, the fair use doctrine offers us some leeway when making limited use for socially beneficial ends.
What ends are protected can vary, but the law explicitly includes education and criticism -- including a specific reference to “multiple copies for classroom use.” It’s what lets us quote other research in our own without seeking permission, or put an image we found online in our PowerPoint presentations, or play a film clip in class. All of these actions are copyright violations, but would enjoy fair use protection were they ever to go to court.
But there is a dispute, among those who dispute these kinds of things, about exactly why it is we need fair use in such circumstances. Some have argued that fair use is a practical solution for the complex process of clearing permission. If I had to clear permission every single time I quoted someone else’s research or Xeroxed a newspaper article for my students -- figuring out who owns the copyright and how to contact them, then gaining permission and (undoubtedly) negotiating a fee -- I might be discouraged from doing so simply because it’s difficult and time-consuming. In the absence of an easy way to clear copyright, we have fair use as a way to “let it slide” when the economic impact is minimal and the social value is great.
Others argue that fair use is an affirmative protection designed to ensure that copyright owners don’t exploit their legal power to squelch the reuse of their work, especially when it might be critical of their ideas. If I want to include a quote in my classroom slides in order to demonstrate how derivative, how racist, or maybe just how incompetent the writer is, and copyright law compelled me to ask the writer’s permission to do it, he could simply say no, limiting my ability to powerfully critique the work. Since copyright veers dangerously close to a regulation of speech, fair use is a kind of First Amendment safety valve, such that speakers aren’t restricted by those they criticize by way of copyright.
This distinction was largely theoretical until organizations like CCC came along. With the help of new database technologies and the Internet, the CCC has made it much easier for people to clear copyright, solving some of the difficulty of locating owners and negotiating a fair price by doing it for us. The automatic mechanism being built into Blackboard goes one step further, making the process smooth, user-friendly, and automatic. So, if fair use is merely a way to account for how difficult clearing copyright can be, then the protection is growing less and less necessary. Fair use can finally be replaced by what Tom Bell called “fared use” -- clear everything easily for a reasonable price.
If, on the other hand, fair use is a protection of free speech and academic freedom that deliberately allow certain uses without permission, then the CCC/Blackboard plan raises a significant problem.
The fact that the fair use doctrine explicitly refers to criticism and parody suggests that it is not just for when permission is difficult to achieve, but when we shouldn’t have to ask permission at all. The Supreme Court said as much in Campbell v. Acuff-Rose (1994), when Justice Kennedy in a concurring decision noted that fair use “protects works we have reason to fear will not be licensed by copyright holders who wish to shield their works from criticism.” Even in a case in which permission was requested and denied, the court did not take this as a sign that the use was presumptively unfair. Fair use is much more than a salve for the difficulty of gaining permission.
Faculty and their universities should be at the forefront of the push for a more robust fair use, one that affirmatively protects “multiple copies for classroom use” when their distribution is noncommercial, especially as getting electronic readings to students is becoming ever cheaper and more practical.
Automating the clearance process undoes the possibility of utilizing, and more importantly challenging, this slow disintegration of fair use. Even if the Blackboard mechanism allows instructors simply not to send their information to CCC for clearance (and it is unclear if it is, or eventually could become, a compulsory mechanism), the simple fact that clearance is becoming a technical default means that more and more instructors will default to it rather than invoking fair use.
The power of defaults is that they demarcate the “norm”; the protection of pedagogy and criticism envisioned in fair use will increasingly deteriorate as automatic clearance is made easier, more obvious, and automatic. This concern is only intensified as Blackboard, recently merged with WebCT, continues to become the single, dominant provider of course management software for universities in the United States.
Technologies have politics, in that they make certain arrangements easier and more commonplace. But technologies also have the tendency to erase politics, rendering invisible the very interests and efforts currently working to establish “more copyright protection is better” as the accepted truth, when it is far from it.
As educators, scholars, librarians, and universities, we are in a rarified position to fight for a more robust protection of fair use in the digital realm, demanding that making “multiple copies for classroom use” means posting materials into Blackboard without needing to seek the permission of the copyright owners to do so.
The automation of copyright clearance now being deployed will work against this, continuing to shoehorn scholarship into the commercial model of information distribution, and erase the very question of what fair use was for -- not by squelching it, but simply by making it easier not to fight for it and harder to even ask if there’s an alternative.
Tarleton Gillespie is an assistant professor in the Department of Communication at Cornell University, and a Fellow with the Stanford Law School Center for Internet and Society.
For most scholarly journals, the transition away from the print format and to an exclusive reliance on the electronic version seems all but inevitable, driven by user preferences for electronic journals and concerns about collecting the same information in two formats. But this shift away from print, in the absence of strategic planning by a higher proportion of libraries and publishers, may endanger the viability of certain journals and even the journal literature more broadly -- while not even reducing costs in the ways that have long been assumed.
Although the opportunities before us are significant, a smooth transition away from print and to electronic versions of journals requires concerted action, most of it individually by libraries and publishers.
In reaching this conclusion, we rely largely on a series of studies, of both publishers and libraries, in which we examined some of the incentives for a transition and some of the opportunities and challenges that present themselves. Complete findings of our library study, on which we partnered with Don King and Ann Okerson, were published as The Nonsubscription Side of Periodicals. We also recently completed a study of the operations of 10 journal publishers, in conjunction with Mary Waltham, an independent publishing consultant.
Taken together, these studies suggest that an electronic-only environment would be more cost-effective than print-only for most journals, with cost savings for both libraries and publishers. But this systemwide perspective must also be balanced against a more textured examination of libraries and publishers.
On the publisher side, the transition to online journals has been facilitated by some of the largest publishers, commercial and nonprofit. These publishers have already invested in and embraced a dual-format mode of publishing; they have diversified their revenue streams with separately identifiable income from both print and now increasingly electronic formats. Although the decreasing number of print subscriptions may have a negative impact on revenues, these publishers’ pricing has evolved alongside the economies of online only delivery to mitigate the effects of print cancellations on the bottom line.
The trend has been to adopt value-based pricing that recognizes the convenience of a single license serving an entire campus (rather than multiple subscriptions), with price varying by institutional size, intensity of research activity, and/or number of online users. By “flipping” their pricing to be driven primarily by the electronic version, with print effectively an add-on, these publishers have been able to manage the inevitable decline of their print business without sacrificing net earnings. They are today largely agnostic to format and, when faced with price complaints, are now positioned to recommend that libraries consider canceling their print subscriptions in favor of electronic-only access.
Other journal publishers, especially smaller nonprofit scholarly societies in the humanities and social sciences and some university presses, are only beginning to make this transition. Even when they publish electronic versions in addition to print, these publishers have generally been slower to reconceive their business models to accommodate a dual-format environment that might rapidly become electronic-only. Their business models depend on revenues received from print, in some cases with significant contributions from advertising, and are often unable to accommodate significant print cancellations in favor of electronic access.
Until recently, this has perhaps not been unreasonable, as demand for electronic journals has been slower to build in the humanities and some social science disciplines. But the business models of these publishers are now not sufficiently durable to sustain the journals business in the event that libraries move aggressively away from the print format.
Many American academic libraries have sought to provide journals in both print and electronic formats for the past 5 to 10 years. The advantages of the electronic format have been clear, so these were licensed as rapidly as possible, but it has taken time for some faculty members to grow comfortable with an exclusive dependence on the electronic format. In addition, librarians were concerned about the absence of an acceptable electronic-archiving solution, given that that their cancellation of print editions would prevent higher education from depending on print as the archival format.
In the past year or two, the movement away from print by users in higher education has expanded and accelerated. No longer is widespread migration away from print restricted to early adopters like Drexel and Suffolk Universities; it has become the norm at a broad range of academic institutions, from liberal arts colleges to the largest research universities. Ongoing budget shortfalls in academe have probably been the underlying motivation. The strategic pricing models offered by some of the largest publishers, which offer a price reduction for the cancellation of print, have provided a financial incentive for libraries to contemplate completing the transition.
Faced with resource constraints, librarians have been required to make hard choices, electing not to purchase the print version but only to license electronic access to many journals -- a step more easily made in light of growing faculty acceptance of the electronic format. Consequently, especially in the sciences, but increasingly even in the humanities, library demand for print has begun to fall. As demand for print journals continues to decline and economies of scale of print collections are lost, there is likely to be a tipping point at which continued collecting of print no longer makes sense and libraries begin to rely only upon journals that are available electronically. As this tipping point approaches, at unknown speed, libraries and publishers need to evaluate how they can best manage it. We offer several specific recommendations.
First, for those publishers that have not yet developed a strategy for an electronic-only journals environment and the transition to it, the future is now. Today’s dual-format system can only be managed effectively with a rigorous accounting of the costs and revenues of print and electronic and how these break down by format. Because some costs incurred irrespective of format are difficult to allocate, this accounting is complicated. It is also, however, critical, allowing publishers to understand the performance of each format as currently priced and, as a result, to project how the transition to an electronic-only environment would affect them. Publishers that do not immediately undertake these analyses and, if necessary, adjust their business models accordingly, may suffer dramatically as the transition accelerates and libraries reach a tipping point.
Second, in this transition, libraries and higher education more broadly should consider how they can support the publishers that are faced with a difficult transition. A disconcerting number of nonprofit publishers, especially scholarly societies and university presses that have the greatest presence in the humanities and social sciences fields, have a particularly complicated transition to make. The university presses and scholarly societies have been traditionally strong allies of academic libraries. They may have priced their electronic journals generously (and unrealistically). Consequently, a business model revamped to accommodate the transition may often result in a significant price increase for the electronic format. In cases where price increases are not predatory but rather adjustments for earlier unrealistic prices, libraries should act with empathy. If libraries cancel journals based on large percentage price increases (even when, measured in dollars, the increases are trivial), they may unintentionally punish lower-price publishers struggling to make the transition as efficiently as possible.
Third, this same set of publishers is particularly vulnerable, because their strategic planning must take place in the absence of the working capital and the economies of scale on which larger publishers have relied. As a result, some humanities journals published by small societies are not yet even available electronically. The community has a need for collaborative solutions like Project Muse or HighWire, (initiatives that provide the infrastructure to create and distribute electronic journals) for the scholarly societies that publish the smaller journals in the humanities and social sciences. But if such solutions are not developed or cannot succeed in relatively short order on a broader scale, the alternative may be the replacement of many of these journals with blogs, repositories, or other less formal distribution models.
Fourth, although libraries today face difficult questions about whether and when to proceed with electronic-only access to traditionally print journals, they should try to manage this transition strategically and, in doing so, deserve support from all members of the higher education community. It has been unusual thus far for libraries to undertake a strategic, all-encompassing format review process, since it is often far more politically palatable to cancel print versions as a tactical retreat in the face of budgetary pressures. But a chaotic retreat from print will almost certainly not allow libraries to realize the maximum potential cost savings, whereas a managed strategic format review can permit far more effective planning and cost savings.
Beyond a focus on local costs and benefits, there are a number of broader issues that many libraries will want to consider in such a strategic format review. The widespread migration from print to electronic seems likely to eliminate library ownership of new accessions, with licensing taking the place of purchase. In cases where ownership led to certain expectations or practices, these will have to be rethought in a licensing-only environment. From our perspective, the safeguarding of materials for future generations is among the most pressing practices deserving reconsideration. Questions about the necessity of developing or deploying electronic archiving solutions, and the adequacy of the existing solutions, deserve serious consideration by all libraries contemplating a migration away from print resources. In addition, the transition to electronic journals begins to raise questions about how to ensure the preservation of existing print collections. Many observers have concluded that a paper repository framework is the optimal solution, but although individual repositories have been created at the University of California, the Five Colleges, and elsewhere, the organizational work to develop a comprehensive framework for them has yet to begin.
The implications both of licensing on archiving and of the future of existing print collections are addressable as part of any library’s strategic planning for the transition to an electronic-only environment -- but all too often are being forgotten under the pressure of the budgetary axe.
These challenges appear to us to be some of the most urgent facing libraries and publishers in the nearly inevitable transition to an electronic-only journals environment. Both libraries and publishers should proceed under the assumption that the transition may take place fairly rapidly, as either side may reach a tipping point when it is no longer cost-effective to publish or purchase any print versions. It is not impossible for this transition to occur gracefully, but to do so will require the concerted efforts of individual libraries and individual publishers.
Eileen Gifford Fenton and Roger C. Schonfeld
Eileen Gifford Fenton is executive director of Portico, whose mission is to preserve scholarly literature published in electronic form and to ensure that these materials remain accessible. Portico was launched by JSTOR and is being incubated by Ithaka, with support from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Roger C. Schonfeld is coordinator of research for Ithaka, a nonprofit organization formed to accelerate the productive uses of information technologies for the benefit of academia. He is the author of JSTOR: A History (Princeton University Press, 2003).Â
Whether we’re aware of it or not, the doctrine of “fair use” built into copyright law is one of the most important protections available to scholars, librarians, and students. Every time you quote from someone else’s work, every time you photocopy an article for a student, every time you read a passage aloud to your class, you are technically in violation of copyright.
The reason that an army of publishers and FBI agents aren’t smashing down your office door is that U.S. jurisprudence has long understood that a totalizing approach to copyright would be disastrous. Fair use is the only way we as individuals can together do what is fundamentally a collective endeavor, scholarship, in an information ecology that otherwise lives and dies by the intensely individualizing force of the marketplace.
But fair use has been carrying a heavy load lately, and it’s starting to show its limitations. Over the last few decades and especially amid the recent “copyright wars,” a powerful new philosophy has emerged: Rather than seeing copyright as a careful balance between the interests of private owners and the public, powerful content industries have argued that robustly protecting private interests is always the best way to serve the public. It’s the trickle-down theory of knowledge: Give the power to the producers and get out of the way, and it will eventually get to everyone who needs it. And digital technologies have handed copyright owners further power to regulate the use of their work, to further commodify information in ways never before imagined.
While most of us in higher education are little content industries ourselves, we should not be seduced into forgetting our role first and foremost as the keepers, distributors, and developers of our society’s body of public knowledge. We must fight for the promise copyright made to the public: All these economic rights are only in the service of intellectual progress. However, our rhetorical arsenal in this battle seems to be only to trot out fair use, i.e. the right to violate copyright for progressive reasons. Technical copy protection? Don’t forget about fair use. Restricting peer-to-peer networks? Don’t forget about fair use. Suing our students for downloading? Don’t forget about fair use. Automatic permission systems in educational courseware? Don’t forget about fair use. It’s a wonder the poor statute can barely stand, considering how often it is invoked as defense, criticized as folly.
This dependence on fair use, to somehow safeguard all of the myriad “public interest” elements of copyright’s balance, risks crushing it altogether -- no more so than in the pending battle around Google Book Search.
For those who don’t know, the search engine giant recently announced its aspiration to digitize every book ever printed. To do this, it partnered with the university libraries of Stanford, Harvard, Michigan, and Oxford, and with the New York Public Library. Together they have already begun the process of digitizing works whose copyright protection has run out -- right now, those published before 1924. These books would be full-text searchable and could be read in their entirety online, for free. For more recent books still protected under copyright, Google intends to digitize and make them searchable as well; however, the text returned in response to the search query would only be a short excerpt around the located word or phrase. Publishers who don’t want their work to appear at all can opt out of the system. Links will lead users to vendors where the book in question can be purchased.
To be clear, Google’s project does require making copies of numerous copyrighted books, and an unauthorized copy at that. Google says this copy is a fair use. And in lawsuits brought in September and October of 2005, the Author’s Guild ( complaint) and the Association of American Publishers ( complaint) argue it is a violation of their rights, and an attempt to unfairly capitalize on their work.
Unlike battles around digital music that have occupied the courts’ attention of late, this case will be of vital importance for the academic community. What is at stake is the possibility of a digital database of all written knowledge, and the question of who gets to produce it and under what conditions. Some think this is the Library at Alexandria finally realized; others think it's risky to have just one company running the stacks. But the case will live or die not on the question of the value of such a database to users, but on the narrower legal question of whether Google has the right to scan the books to begin with.
Perhaps this case will settle -- Google certainly has the funds to do so if it chooses. If it does get heard by the courts, what is of greatest importance, I believe, is how well the doctrine of fair use can carry the weight of this particular dispute. Lawrence Lessig has argued that fair use is being stretched thin because copying is so fundamental to the digital environment; uses that never even rang copyright’s bell, because they now require a copy to be made in the process, find themselves under legal scrutiny. I believe this is true. But fair use has already been pulled in too many directions, well before the Internet stretched it to its breaking point.
Fair use has a century-long history in U.S. courts, as a handy way for judges to stave off copyright claims when the use in question is socially valuable. At first, it was a way to protect small amounts of copying for the sake of criticism; as Justice Story noted in Folsom v. Marsh (1841), “no one can doubt that a reviewer may fairly cite largely from the original work, if his design be really and truly to use the passages for the purposes of fair and reasonable criticism. On the other hand, it is as clear, that if he thus cites the most important parts of the work, with a view, not to criticize, but to supersede the use of the original work, and substitute the review for it, such a use will be deemed in law a piracy.”
As such, one of the important criteria used by the courts to judge a use fair has been whether the new work is “transformative,” rather than merely replacing the old. The most famous of these is Acuff-Rose v. Campbell (1994), in which a surprisingly culturally savvy Supreme Court found that 2 Live Crew’s sampling of the Roy Orbison classic “Pretty Woman” was a kind of parody, however crude, and should be protected as fair -- it “adds something new, with a further purpose or different character, altering the first with new expression, meaning, or message.”
However, when fair use was finally codified in 1976, the primary motivation was not to protect criticism or parody but to accommodate the increasing use of the Xerox machine, particularly in education. University libraries did not want to risk liability when they made copies of journals and book chapters for faculty and students, and aggressively lobbied Congress for some legal protection to do so. When fair use became law, it included the four factors that had developed through court precedent, but also specified “multiple copies for classroom use” alongside parody, criticism, journalism, and scholarship as the likely contexts for the use to be considered fair.
Making multiple copies of an article for use in the classroom does not claim to produce a new work, in the way that sampling Orbison’s tune does. The value of the use is not that it is “transformative,” but that it is “distributive.” Now fair use is saddled with two aspirations. If the first understands that new work often needs to lean on and borrow from existing work, the second understands that the market mechanisms and distribution technologies that circulate work do not always achieve the scope and access we would like, or that other socially valuable activities require.
The courts have since used fair use in this ‘distributive’ sense, allowing cable TV to retransmit copyrighted broadcasts to audiences who could not otherwise receive them, prohibiting Kinko’s from producing course packets without paying a fee but leaving open the possibility that universities could do so as long as they do not enjoy direct commercial gain, and most notably in Sony v. Universal (1984), granting VCR manufacturers immunity to copyright penalties because some VCR users do make unauthorized copies of protected movies. The court argued that users have the right to record shows in order to watch them at other times, that this in fact “enlarges the television viewing audience” -- even the beloved Mr. Rogers testified that he wanted public school teachers to be able to tape his show and show it in class the next day. Again, these fair uses are not transformative, but distributive.
Is Google’s book search project fair use? This was the question vigorously debated, but by no means settled, at the recent “Battle over Books” debate at the New York Public Library and the blog-off that followed. Most copyright watchers largely agree that, if it makes it to court, the legal answer will come down to a battle of precedents. (See, for example, Jonathan Band’s “The Google Print Library: A Copyright Analysis.”) Google will come out on top if the court sees the case as akin to Kelly v. Arriba-Soft (2003), which allowed an image search engine to copy images from the Web so as to make thumbnail versions available to user queries.
The publishers and authors will likely triumph if the court turns to UMG Recordings et. al. v. MP3.com (2000), where MP3.com was found to be infringing when it made single copies of 400,000 CDs in order to stock a digital locker from which users could stream music they could prove they already owned. Google needs fair use to accommodate an activity that is neither “transformative” in the classic sense, or “distributive” in the Sony sense. Neither precedent did either, and the solutions were work-arounds to force the square pegs of searching and streaming in the oddly-shaped hole fair use offers them.
Let’s give fair use a break by sending in a legislative relief pitcher, one that can better allow for the role search engines play in facilitating the circulation of digital information. If fair use has been protecting both ‘transformative’ and ‘distributive’ uses, today we need a statute that can cover the kind of “indexing” uses that Google is after.
If we recognize that the Internet offers us the chance to make much more of our society’s culture and knowledge available to more people, and we recognize that to make this massive resource most useful requires ways to navigate and search it, and we further recognize that search engines like Google need to make copies of that work in order to make it searchable, then we have a genuine and reasonable public interest in ensuring that that they and others can do so. At the same time, we should also ensure that doing so doesn’t undercut the possibility of selling these works, and ideally should help their sales.
The publishers’ concern is not that Google shouldn’t make books searchable, but that they should have to pay a fee to do so. Such a fee represents the compensation not for lost sales, but to match what they might have earned had they provided this search function themselves. So let’s imagine that they do just that; Harper & Collins has already announced that it will develop a digital database of their books, following the lead of academic journal publishers like Sage. We could decide that this is a reasonable exploitation of one’s copyright, and forbid Google from building a library.
What this is likely to produce is a bunch of different, publisher-specific archives, all searchable under different criteria in different ways, all with different rules for how much text you can view and under what conditions -- and price. Smaller publishers will be less able to afford to do any of this, so once again we will be incidentally privileging those represented by the larger publishers when what we want is all work to be as available as possible.
And all publishers will be in a position to exclude some of their works from public view, for whatever idiosyncratic (or, more likely, financial) reasons they fancy. Perhaps someone would develop a meta-search that could query many of these archives simultaneously and return the results together -- in all likelihood, it would be Google. But this does not solve the systemic problem posed by letting publishers also govern access to their content.
What I think we’re after is something more straightforward, but nearly impossible to achieve. In this dream scenario, every author would make his or her work available in a digital form that is searchable but cannot be redistributed, in a widely compatible format, marked with the same kinds of metadata. We wouldn’t need Google Book Search, because these book “footprints” would all be online and available for searches just as Web sites are. But this is certainly an unreasonable and prohibitive request to make of authors, at least right now. For all intents and purposes, this is what Google seems willing to provide for us, with the promise of some ad revenue in return. As a less than perfect version of that ideal, it’s quite good.
Waiting for fair use to shield this expanding range of uses is slowing the innovation in information, knowledge, and culture the Internet seems ready to facilitate. And every time it does, we risk a court setting a retrograde precedent that cements digital culture into place for good. We need a new statute that acknowledges and accommodates the common sense recognition that search is good, that it requires incidental copying, and that it should not be left to individual, competing publishers to make their work part of the public trust.
In a moment when we are handing content owners much more control not only over the use of their work but over access to it, we need to make a parallel commitment to ensuring and expanding access of a different kind, as an aggregate collection of all things thought and written that can be easily explored. And, we need to let fair use protect the activities it’s designed to protect, instead of letting it fray as it stands in as the only protection against a locked and licensed digital world.
Tarleton Gillespie is an assistant professor in the Department of Communication at Cornell University, and a Fellow with the Stanford Law School Center for Internet and Society.
I’ve heard many a student excuse for missing class: flu of one type or another, early escape to Mexico the day before spring break, the old high school’s homecoming, even a stint in jail. But recently one surprised me, not so much in its originality -- a car fire, though that was a new one -- but in the evidence offered.
Terry is a grad student at my university who drives 130 miles each week from Interlochen Arts Camp to Grand Rapids for a night class. One Monday he e-mailed that a car problem might result in his absence the next day. Attached to his text was a series of numbered digital photographs taken just hours before: No. 127, his car, smoking alongside the highway; No. 128, from 20 yards further back, the burning car, flames engulfing the left side; No. 142, a firefighter, gazing at the blackened shell; and No. 143, in a creative denouement, the burned-out car being hoisted by a wrecker.
Clicking through Terry’s sheaf of jpegs was a welcome diversion from the steady stream of more mundane e-mails that fill my day, and the break prompted reflection on the Internet’s effect on daily academic life. Ask most faculty about the general impact of computers on their teaching and you will still hear more reports of in-class technology disasters than grumbles about e-mail; of electronic malfeasance (everything from easy plagiarism to text-messaging during an exam); of fears about being replaced by online instructors; or, if they are virtually savvy and have authored their own online curricular materials, of having their intellectual property appropriated by the university.
But read a batch of evaluations by current students, and you will find complaints about Professor Luddite never answering e-mail. Who cares anymore about seldom-kept office hours? Faculty are now expected to be on-call electronically -- if not quite 24/7, like transplant surgeons, then certainly far more than under an old paradigm that assumed availability to students only during class and office hours, scheduled or by appointment. It is e-mail, finally, that is the main engine behind ever-burgeoning demands.
Not so long ago you could display your techno-awareness just by printing an e-mail address on a syllabus. Want to impress your students today? You’d better send immediate answer to e-mails arriving sometime during Jay Leno’s monologue. (They’re probably watching Jon Stewart or playing online poker, but that’s a topic for another essay.) Outside readers of Professor Luddite’s course evaluations, though, should interpret student gripes skeptically. Or do I alone receive late-night messages from students posting second messages sent at 2:32 a.m. anxiously asking whether I had received the first, sent at 11:45 p.m.?
Even the most ordinary academic tasks have taken on new levels of complexity. A once-innocuous instruction, “Your final paper is due in my office by 5 p.m.,” now unleashes floods of e-mails with attachments, all bearing pleas to assure the senders that you received the papers. My answers often generate subsequent messages of “thanks” and requests for final grades. And recently I have had to warn students that the university’s spam filter, which has spared me thousands of offers for penny stocks and generic Viagra, may also weed out their messages from Yahoo or Hotmail.
“Be sure to make a copy of your essay,” my teachers from another century sagely advised. Occasionally I inflicted eye strain on those last-century academics via faded typewriter ribbons that have happily dissolved into the past. Today, I print off student texts on a networked laser printer, texts that are visually sharp, however fuzzy the thinking.
If I’m distracted, though, or if I’m tired, there’s a chance that otherwise-convenient attachments will be virus- or worm-ridden, making life hell for days, even weeks. Student codes drone on about punishments for plagiarism. To my mind purveyors of malicious computer code (however innocent they may be) also deserve draconian treatment. Caning might be sufficient, though confiscating the offender’s X Box would be more effective and better fit the crime.
As student e-mails grow more frequent and address increasingly trivial matters, professors are less able to keep up with the volume. I don’t personally know any faculty who use instant- or text-messaging with their students -- “DO WE ND 2 RD CH 6 FOR QZ 2MORO?” -- or who print their cell phone numbers on a syllabus. I suppose some of my Gen X colleagues might. Like enthusiastic young professors at small colleges who say, “Here are my home number and address. Drop by anytime to talk,” they’ll learn to regret it.
The effect on faculty life of this new communications urgency can be felt across many arenas, even those that serve as escapes from the ever-growing demands of student-consumers.
Fifteen years ago the most animated discussions at faculty cocktail parties were about computers. Simply mentioning your new “machine” would override the usual academic gossip. Now I envision hosting a party with a laptop visible on a table: conversation bubbles, Pinot Noir flows. ... How long, I wonder, before someone asks about wireless access and decides to check her e-mail?
Even brief escapes to professional conferences have been spoiled by new pressures to monitor overstuffed virtual mailboxes. For several years now at Modern Language Association conventions, technolust combined with an obsessive need to “check in” has shortened lines at the bars but created long queues at e-mail kiosks. At least the wireless Internet currently available in most hotels has improved the electronic comfort level. One can loll on a king-sized bed, cocooned in the hotel’s terry cloth robe, sipping coffee while fielding queries from anxious students and e-mailing friends at the same conference. Or, if you are in certain trendy disciplines, you can “attend” a conference online -- though that would force you to stay home, deprived each night of turndown service and the before-bed mint.
The next technological wave promises podcasting of our lectures and discussions, and some schools have already contracted with Apple’s iTunes. “Our students are digital natives,” says one University of Missouri official. “We seek to meet our students where they are and iTunes is the interface with which most of our students are already familiar.”
Where once it seemed students would be content only when they could park their cars inside the classroom, today they want faculty (and the knowledge conveyed in their classrooms) as available as 24-hour cable.
Of course, regular e-mailing between faculty and students fosters overfamiliarity, chipping away at the deference many academics used to take for granted. A dean at Georgetown recently told The New York Times that the tone students often take in e-mail is “pretty astounding, with a familiarity that can sometimes border on imperative.” (He may have meant “impertinent,” but no contemporary university administrator would dare use that term, holdout from the British Empire that it is.) One might also argue that annual tuition in excess of $25,000 fuels a sense of student entitlement. In this world, faculty are the “servants”; but the trend is not limited to private universities and pricey colleges.
This e-mail frazzled academic can rationalize one consolation. When my students receive nearly immediate e-response, they are at least one step away from the impersonal world of much university education. The contact may be virtual, not face-to-face, but the effects can still be impressive. If your college uses a program like BlackBoard, try the online chat option for real-time “conversation,” especially near a paper due date. After one of these sessions you’ll see a marked improvement in the quality of work submitted.
Late-night virtual office hours are not so bad occasionally when you are at home and sipping on a beer. And however tempted I am to curse an ever-full e-mail box, I often wonder how we managed without it. How else would I have been able to stay in contact with a student who recently missed several classes because she and her teammates were busy winning the NCAA Division II basketball championship? Talk about athlete-students. She e-mailed me about the course on the very afternoon of her final game.
Yet unrelieved e-communication with our students eats into time we need for intellectual recharge, thinking and writing. Enticing digital waters can also drown us. Be it from the clutter of my study or from the comfort of a high-end hotel, every time I respond to student e-mail during “off hours” I may be writing the script for my own obsolescence. How long, I wonder, before a collective of ambitious Ph.D.s in Calcutta is both willing to teach all my classes online and to remain available 24/7 fielding queries about the next day’s assignment -- like the revolving “Mikes” who help resolve my wireless network problems? Is this the end of the virtual path upon which I blithely trod?
Such musings, I suppose, are born less from genuine fear than from computer fatigue, despite my new LCD screen. Yes, our students are now and will remain “digital natives.” But I’m confident that, much as we try to “interface” with them, we won’t easily surrender the face-to-face pleasures of the seminar room and the office. After all, how else could I have witnessed Terry, when he actually did find his way to class that Tuesday night, regaling his peers with fresh prints of his fiery adventure -- from Nos. 127 through 143.
Rob Franciosi is professor of English at Grand Valley State University, in Michigan.
I am a digitally-enabled, network-ready scholar. I check e-mail and browse the Web. I read RSS feeds. I leverage Web 2.0's ambient findability to implement AJAX-based tagsonomy-focused long-tail wiki content alerting via preprint open-access e-archives with social networking services. I am so enthusiastic about digital scholarship that about a year ago I published a piece in my scholarly association's newsletter advocating that we incorporate it into our publications program. The piece was pretty widely read. At annual meetings I had colleagues tell me that they really like it and are interested in digital scholarship but they still (and presumably unlike me) enjoy reading actually physical books. This always surprised me because I love books too, and it never occurred to me that an interest in digital scholarship meant turning your back on paper. So just to set the record straight, I would like to state in this (admittedly Web-only) public forum that I have a deep and abiding passion for paper: I love it. Love it.
It's true that there is a lot of stuff you can do with PDFs and the Web that you can’t do with paper, but too often people take this to mean that digital resources "have features" or "are usable" while paper is just, you know, paper. But this is not correct -- paper (like any information technology) has its own unique form of usability just as digital resources have theirs. Our current students are unused to paper and attribute the frustration they feel when they use it as a mere lack of usability when in fact they simply haven't figured out how it works. Older scholars, meanwhile, tend to forget about paper’s unique utility because using it has simply become second nature to them.
Some of the features of paper are well known: Reading more than three pages of text on a screen makes your eyes bleed, but I can read paper for hours. You can underline, highlight, and annotate paper in a way that is still impossible with Web pages. And, of course, in the anarchy after The Big Electromagnetic Pulse the PDFs will be wiped clean off my hard drive but I will still be able to barter my hard copy of Durkheim's Elementary Forms of the Religious Life for food and bullets.
But my passion for paper is about more than preserving the sociological canon in a post-apocalyptic future. Using paper is embodied in a way that using digital resources are not. Paper has a corporeality that digital texts do not. For instance, have you ever tried to find a quote in a book and been unable to remember whether it was on the left or right hand side of the page? This just a trivial example of way in which paper’s physicality is the origin of its utility.
And of course professors have bodies too. This is another way that scholarship is embodied -- we often do it while in libraries. Here our bodies are literally in a vast assemblage of paper with its own unique form of usability. And as scholars achieve total communion with the stacks, they find books based not just on catalog number, but on all of their senses. The fourth floor of the library I wrote my Ph.D. in sounded and smelled differently than the second did. How many of us -- even the lab scientists -- with Ph.D.'s will ever be able to forget the physical layout of the libraries where we wrote our dissertations? Or our undergraduate libraries? I find books in my current library by comparing its floorplan with the layout of the college library where I first studied.
And catalog systems! I am a DU740.42 man myself, although I freelance in B2430 at times and of course retain a broader competence in G and GN. I was visiting a colleague at Duke once and went into its library to see what sort of GN treasures it might have stored away only to find that the library used Dewey Decimal -- a fact I experienced with surprisingly raw sense of betrayal.
The very fact that libraries can’t buy every book is a form of utility, not a disadvantage. True, there is tons of hubub about Web sites that provide users "personalized recommendations" based on their preferences and the preferences of people in their social networks. But in practice all this has boiled down to the fact that after years of using Amazon.com, it has finally figured out that since I enjoyed reading Plato's Republic, I might also be interested in Homer's Iliad. But every book in my library has been "filtered" by my librarian, and browsing through stacks arranged by subject allows "discovery" of "resources" in a non-metaphorical pre-Internet way.
At Reed, where I went to college, the library had a disused, musty room dubbed the "multiple copy room." Not surprisingly, it was where all the multiple copies of books were stored. The librarians at a small liberal arts college like mine did not buy 10 copies of a book unless they sure that it was a keeper, worthy of being taught for eons, its wisdom instilled into countless generations of students who would value it so much that they would weep when bartering their own copies of it for food and bullets after The Big Electromagnetic Pulse. Browsing through and reading from those shelves was the best "filter" for "content" that I ever had. So much for "the long tail."
And of course browsing doesn't just happen in libraries. Amazon may have a bintillion books for sale out in the ether of the ethernet, but there is no better place to take the pulse of academic publishing that a good used book store near a university. Bookstores mark the life cycle and disposition of the community where they are physically located -- the end-of-the year glut of books dumped by students eager to rid themselves of dead weight like Anna Karenina in order to spend more time tinkering with their MySpace page is itself a good indicator of what a university has been assigning.
Bookstores also connect us to the larger scholarly community. Remainders -- books that are being sold at discount prices because publishers want them out of their warehouses -- are a remarkable measure of what fads have just passed in scholarly publishing or what is about to come out in paperback. And of course just being in a good bookshop can be therapeutic. A good friend of mine worked his way through college at a Walden Books. After work he would spend a half hour in the aisles of our local used book store, staring at the covers of Calvino novels until he had recovered from eight hours of selling people copies of The Celestine Prophecy.
The used book store is the horizon at which our human finitude and our books intersect. I have actually been turned on to the work of scholars based solely on the fact that I've purchased so many books from their collections. One book store I frequent actually put a picture of one recently deceased professor in the window to advertise that his library was on sale. Some find the practice morbid, but for me this sort of thing is the academic equivalent of the life-affirming musical number in The Lion King about how we are all part of the circle of life. Roscher and Knies costs $180 off the Internet and is scarcer than hen's teeth, but in that magical, electric moment that I found it used for 20 bucks I knew that in cherishing and loving it I would not only be honoring the memory of the previous owner, but perpetuating the hopelessly over-specialized intellectual lineage which we both cared about so deeply.
What I am trying to say is that owning and reading books is about our lives as scholars in a way that e-journals are not. Our libraries are furniture. They are decoration. They threaten the breathable air to paper ratio in our apartments and offices. Books spill over my shelves. They crowd my kitchen table. We are what we read. On my bedside I currently have one Hawaiian language textbook, Dan Simmon's science fiction novel Hyperion, Jonathan Lamb's Preserving the Self In The South Seas: 1680-1840, Eugene Genovese's Roll Jordan Roll and Jean-Luc Nancy's The Inoperable Community. In this combination I find elemental solace.
Our collections of physical, paper texts do not only help explain who we are to ourselves, they signal this to our visitors. When my guests first enter my apartment and make a beeline to my shelves they are actually learning more about me. When they admire my copy of Roscher and Knies I am learning something about them. When they spot my first edition of Ricky Jay's Cards as Weapons or Scatological Rites Of All Nations I know that I have found a true soul mate. I am convinced that this is somehow more important than finding out that the professor in the office next to me reads the same cat blogs that I do.
It is easy to see that paper will continue to be used by academics for a long time to come purely on the basis of its utility as an information technology. But we are not passionate about paper because it is a good research tool. We are passionate about it because of the way that it smells and feels. Our love of paper springs from the way it insinuates itself into not only our career, but our souls. This is why, after The Big Electromagnet Pulse, I won't be working desperately on some computer somewhere trying to resurrect my metadata. I’ll be fortifying the multiple copy room and trying to figure out how few copies of The Andaman Islanders I’ll have part with to keep alive until someone manages to turn the power back on.
Alex Golub finished his dissertation in anthropology at the University of Chicago in 2005 and is now an adjunct professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. He blogs at Savage Minds, a group blog about cultural anthropology.