The Tech-Enabled Scholar

New book explores what it means to be a scholar at a moment when every aspect of life in academe is being changed by technology.

October 6, 2016

Technology is changing all aspects of life in academe, from how instructors teach to the way they connect with their peers and conduct and publish their research. But many of those changes are not yet complete -- they are still betas, experiments and pilots. Meanwhile, higher education's traditional functions of teaching, research and service remain.

Jessie Daniels and Polly Thistlethwaite’s new book, Being a Scholar in the Digital Era (Policy Press), explores life in academe at a point in time when many scholars feel as though they are straddling the line between the traditional and the experimental. In chapters examining technology’s impact on activism, openness and scholarly impact, the authors connect the news and personalities of today to historical events, weaving in their own experiences and experiments along the way.

“Today, being a scholar means having to navigate through overlapping legacy and digital models of scholarship that can seem like two different worlds,” the authors write. “In the not-too-distant future, we will not find the digital worth remarking on, because it will be so ordinary.”

Daniels and Thistlethwaite, both of whom are based in the City University of New York System, responded to questions by email. Their responses have been lightly edited for clarity.

Q: So much of your book deals with how technology is transforming life as a scholar, whether talking about activism, collaboration, librarianship, publishing or teaching. What hasn’t changed? What are the cornerstones people in academe can anchor themselves to in times of change?

Daniels: For me, the core of being a scholar is knowledge production -- coming up with new ideas -- and writing about them. Teaching, by extension, is getting students to engage with the world of ideas and to think critically. Those cornerstones are what anchor us in academe, but the point of the book really is that the ground is shifting under us in these core functions.

Sure, it’s still possible to read only in hardbound copies of journals and books, write only longhand with pen on paper to do our scholarship, but even the most tech-averse colleagues I know don’t work this way now. The proliferation of digital technologies means that there are many ways to do knowledge production and teaching, and these carry implications with them.

Thistlethwaite: Practices of deep reading and criticism, building argument based on citation and peer review remain cornerstones. But they’re supplemented now by newer scholarly practices. Texts and collections can now be analyzed using computational technologies, citation practices are made more efficient than card files with reader-generated databases and publishers have online platforms for distribution in addition to paper-based systems.

Perhaps the greatest shift in our scholarly lifetimes involves search practice. While scholars can search journal indexes and online catalogs using author, title and subject, same as paper- or card-based systems, the full-text and keyword capacities of contemporary search engines are so very different. Online catalogs and indexes both shape and reflect new information landscapes that often elude even the savviest researchers. It’s important for scholars to understand what bodies of literature they’re searching when they search.

The digital scholarly landscape, now significantly shaped and governed by commercial interests, is not knowable in the same way the analog universe was a generation ago.

Q: You highlight several examples of scholars who have used digital media technologies for activist goals. We’ve also seen scholars and their research attacked using the same technology -- look at the Gamergate controversy, for example. To turn your chapter on scholar activism in the digital era on its head, how has technology complicated scholarly communication?

Daniels: True, there are challenges to being a scholar activist in the digital era. Some of the ways that digital technologies have complicated our lives is that we are all just more reachable than ever before. While this is wonderful for connecting across the community-university divide, it can be terrible when those with nefarious intentions -- like the Gamergate controversy you mention, or white supremacists -- use the same social media platforms to threaten and intimidate.

There are lots of smart people working on technical fixes to the problems of online harassment, but I’m not optimistic about technological fixes to what is essentially a social problem. The trolls and harassers are a tiny percentage of the online world, and they certainly make life miserable for the people they target. Unfortunately, I don’t see that going away any time soon. At the moment, I think we have to be aware of that as one of the downsides of the tumult of the public sphere.

Thistlethwaite: Right, harassment and free speech considerations have always been thorny, and they are no less so in online contexts. Informal statements intended for limited or private audiences now may potentially find their way into wider public attention, indelibly etched on the digital record. It has always been the case that an offhand remark could be recorded without the author’s permission or proper context, but for scholars not facile with the ways of social media, the speedy dissemination of an ironic utterance or experimental thought can come as a surprise. The shifts in reach, in impact and in the nature of the archive compel us to become more fluent in contemporary modes of communication.

Q: You provide examples of your own experiments -- for example a participatory open online course (“POOC”) focused on inequality and the MediaCamp at the CUNY Graduate Center -- and how they relate to broader changes in higher education. What do you hope readers will learn from those anecdotes?

Daniels: What I hope comes through in the book is that each of our specific experiences with different aspects of a large, experimental project connects to larger trends in higher education. Take the POOC, for example, our twist on the MOOC. Instead of launching a course that tried to scale to a massive level, we did a course that was rooted in a specific neighborhood, built in participation on that level, and then tried connecting outward from there. We had thousands of people participating, and we also had people from the local community around the university who participated. I would say that’s a transformative way to think about technology in higher ed for the public good, because it reinvigorates the idea that those of us in public institutions are accountable to the communities around us.

Thistlethwaite: Scholars’ understandings about the digital landscape are important to develop, and scholars make more meaningful contributions when they are effective participants in the digital world. This takes training, even for the most well-educated people!

Scholars who care about how their work enters the world must join conversations to put it there. With our MediaCamp effort, we teamed with faculty at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism to offer peer-to-peer instruction to other faculty and administrators. We taught faculty to post their academic work publicly, in accordance with publisher’s contracts, so that readers anywhere, even those unaffiliated with an academic library, can find it. And we shared skills on making scholarship relevant to readers outside the academy. We imparted op-ed writing and on-camera interview techniques. We offered lessons in using Twitter, taking digital photos, constructing WordPress blog sites and making podcasts.

Daniels: A couple of other examples we talk about in the book -- our experiments with different kinds of knowledge production and with metrics -- are also worth mentioning. We created all kinds of what we called “knowledge streams,” ebooks, data visualizations, blog posts and podcasts. Part of our goal was to transform the way people think about knowledge in the academy, less the 20th-century model of discrete “knowledge products,” and more of a constant flow of knowledge streaming out of the university and into the public sphere. To me, this is the one of the key shifts in higher education, and in many ways our students are already there -- they expect that knowledge from the university will travel with them, on their mobile devices, after they graduate, wherever they are -- and we have to catch up to them.

When we started, we thought that this would make measuring impact easier through alternative metrics (altmetrics), but in fact we learned a different lesson about impact. Although there is a bounty of new ways to measure the reach of scholarly work, it’s still difficult to measure impact in a way that’s meaningful. In other words, did the work have an impact on policy, on people’s lives? That sort of thing is difficult, if not impossible, to measure in a systematic way. We also got significant pushback from faculty who are very resistant to anything that smacks of “audit culture,” so that was another valuable lesson and one that speaks to broader trends in higher education about metrics.

Q: On the topic of metrics: as you point out, few (if any) academic departments use altmetrics in tenure and promotion cases. We’ve seen the same sort of hesitancy when it comes to evaluating digital scholarship more broadly. Do you feel that colleges have been right to wait it out while these evaluation methods mature, or should they have taken a more active role?

Daniels: I don’t think that institutions have been right so much as just slow and unsure about how to proceed. In the book we talk about the collision between legacy institutional systems and digital ways of doing scholarship and reaching publics beyond the academy. Academic administrators that I’ve talked to are genuinely confused about how to update legacy tenure and promotion systems for the digital era. This book is an attempt to help make sense of all this. And, I think that we’ll begin to see more attempts by scholarly associations to produce guidelines like the American Sociological Association recently did.

Thistlethwaite: One area where universities, colleges and departments are adjusting to digital scholarship is by adopting open-access policies that affirm the value of scholarship being shared with nonacademic publics (see the Registry of Open Access Repository Mandates and Policies). Applying some kinds of altmetrics to academic review extends that gesture by assessing scholarly activity in contemporary contexts, not held to the sometimes ill-fitting standards of legacy practices. If the academy fails to embrace review guidelines that value digital work, then we end up quashing the most remarkable innovations. So, to your question, no, I don’t think colleges should wait. Instead, they should adjust and apply appropriate review guidelines.

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