“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.”
June 14, 2006 didn't seem like a particularly noteworthy day in higher education. With many students and faculty off enjoying the early summer, the campuses were quiet and relatively deserted. But something important happened on that day, even if higher education doesn't know it yet. For the first time in history, a public college presidency ended not simply because of the president’s failure to meet expectations, but also as a direct result of her administration’s inability to adequately respond to a private blog. Although the situation unfolded on one campus, it has implications for administrators and professors at public colleges everywhere.
Uma G. Gupta’s presidency of the State University of New York College of Technology at Alfred, which ended in June, has been the subject of coverage in local and national publications, including this one. Much of the discussion on the campus and elsewhere has been about her performance on the job, a subject that is open to debate. Clearer, though, is the devastating effect of “the blog” on Gupta's presidency.
“The blog,” as it has come to be called at Alfred State, was http://asctruth.blogspot.com. (The blog later moved to a new location, asctruth.free-forums.org, which is more of an open discussion forum and no longer technically a blog.) The author of the blog is unknown, and there is no consensus on the campus about who started it. What is known is that the blog first appeared on May 13, 2005. The blogmaster, using the pseudonym "Brewster Pennybaker," attacked the president on a number of fronts, including leadership style ("Gupta tried to justify the cruel and callous way in which she has treated so many people at Alfred State"), skills ("When it comes to fund raising, the level of incompetence of Alfred State President Uma Gupta is almost beyond belief"), and even mental health. The posts were numerous, detailed, up-to-date, and generated many responses from an ever-growing readership.
The president and her cabinet appeared completely befuddled by the new technology. Ignoring the blog seemed out of the question; once the blogmaster installed a counter on the main page, it was evident that the blog had a substantial readership. Although Alfred State has only a few hundred employees, the original blog recorded over 12,000 hits in just a couple of months, and the newer version recorded almost 100,000 page views in less than a year. Using legal means to shut down the blog were considered; Alfred State administrators consulted with the central SUNY administration in Albany and got the bad news that it would be legally difficult if not impossible to shut down the blog.
The administration then turned to threats: Vice presidents told their staff members that any non-tenured employee who was caught posting to the blog would be fired. These efforts produced only howls of derision on the blog itself. The president also pressured the Faculty Senate to officially condemn the blog, but the senate refused. The cabinet then tried to squelch the blog by blaming it for low enrollment and poor fund raising, and hinted at job cuts. But use of the blog only grew.
With the blogmaster's and the bloggers' identities unknown, the president and her cabinet decided that the best policy was to trust no one, and their new isolation alienated veteran faculty leaders. Finally, numerous posts appeared on the blog that appeared to be from the president herself, even though the president claimed that she neither read nor posted to the blog. These posts grew in frequency, irrationality, and malice, and further undercut support for the president on campus.
The blog hurt the administration in two key ways: First, administrators were unable to focus on correcting the problems that led to the creation of the blog, and second, the administration’s clumsy and futile efforts to combat the blog simply compounded the anger and contempt on campus.
In June, following an investigation by the statewide University Senate, a damning report in The New York Times, shrinking enrollment, stagnant fund raising, and four months of an on-site investigation from officials at SUNY, Gupta was offered another position in the statewide system, leading an initiative to increase the number of women and minority group members in science, technology, engineering and mathematics disciplines across the university.
The blog was far from solely responsible for Gupta’s downfall; her job performance and defensiveness were enormous factors. But few people on campus dispute that the the presence of the blog helped to undermine her and provoked a set of administrative responses that contributed to her demise.
David Broad, who was fired from his position of dean of arts and sciences during Gupta's administration, says that the blog’s publication of the transcript of a “self-revelatory” speech by the president “alerted many for the first time to her egotistical presentation of self." He adds: “Consistent growth of participation and analysis of the problems created by the administration put the onus on the president to justify her autocratic behavior, which she was never able to do."
Jim Grillo, the current Faculty Senate Chair who was also fired from a top administrative position by Gupta, says that the blog gave voice to the college’s increasing ranks of untenured and part-time faculty and staff, who where “fearful to speak up,” he says. “Faculty and staff were able to watch the debate, listen to the facts, and yes, even hear some ridiculous statements,” Grillo says. “Slowly, as the truth came out, the vast majority of the campus knew we had significant problems that we had to address. I don't believe it would have happened as fast were it not for the blog."
This event has changed the political landscape for presidents and other upper-level administrators, whether they know it or not. No longer must faculty and staff make their criticisms on the open, public floor of the Faculty Senate. No longer does the summer "buy time" for administrators while the faculty scatter -- the blog kept the employees of Alfred State connected no matter where they went. No longer can administrators "control" the dissemination of information about themselves or the college -- I daresay that at several points the blog was by far the single most-used public source of information about the college, and the college had no control over the information presented on the blog or the way in which it was presented.
It is difficult to discern what Alfred State’s former administrators learned from the blog. They should have learned that the combination of electronic dissemination and motivated faculty make blogs a force to be reckoned with. They should have learned that attempts to suppress the free speech of the blog achieved nothing but instead simply made them look heavy-handed. They should have learned that the blog could have been used to their advantage because it allowed them to read faculty opinions that ordinarily would have been driven underground. The only real problem the blog presented was that it was entirely public; anyone could go to the blog site and read the half-truths, falsehoods, and occasionally even libelous comments about many people connected with the college.
Clearly what Alfred State needed (and other colleges probably need as well) is a blog that is confidential, accessible, not regulated for content, and yet not completely public. Most colleges could simply contract with a third-party provider to host such a forum, so that confidentiality is assured. The results of such a contract would be a new extension of the market place of ideas that is academe; an extension that includes the vulnerable and the fearful -- perspectives that too often go unheard.
Daniel W. Barwick
Daniel W. Barwick is an associate professor of philosophy at the State University of New York College of Technology at Alfred.
Not quite 40 years ago, Andy Warhol said that in the future everybody would be famous for 15 minutes. It was a good prediction, one that verged on announcing a new entitlement. By 1997, someone had tweaked it for the post-Warholian digital era. “In the future,” the formula now went, “everyone will be famous to 15 people.” Again, a good call. Presumably the next version will involve intervals of 15 seconds.
But a small crowd gathered for a much longer interval on Saturday to attend the session of the Modern Language Association convention called “Meet the Bloggers.” While introducing the panelists, I quoted the “15 minutes/15 people” formulae – and added a corollary that seems to apply to academic bloggers: Anyone who wins more time or audience than that must bring to the table a particular knack for the kind of discussion fostered by the medium. Being well-respected within one’s area of specialist concern is not quite the same as being able to hold one’s own in what the maverick American cultural theorist Kenneth Burke called “the parlor.”
Here’s how Burke explained the image, back in 1941:
“Imagine that you enter a parlor. You come late. When you arrive, others have long preceded you, and they are engaged in a heated discussion, a discussion too heated for them to pause and tell you exactly what it is about. In fact, the discussion had already begun long before any of them got there, so that no one present is qualified to retrace for you all the steps that had gone before. You listen for a while, until you decide that you have caught the tenor of the argument; then you put in your oar. Someone answers; you answer him; another comes to your defense; another aligns himself against you, to either the embarrassment or gratification of your opponent, depending upon the quality of your ally's assistance. However, the discussion is interminable. The hour grows late, you must depart. And you do depart, with the discussion still vigorously in progress.”
The ability to orient oneself in that sort of free-for-all requires a kind of discursive finesse that probably cannot be certified (let alone quantified). For that matter, there is no particular reason to equate success in this endeavor with reaching a vast audience. For some topics, 15 people is a lot. Just this morning, for example, I saw a blog post that started by asking, “What is the future of phenomenological geography, and why is this question even important?”
Well, it’s a big parlor. It contains multitudes. And even if some administrators fail to grasp the fact, the existence of such a space provides a necessary -- if at wildly unregulated -- supplement to the standard venues of publication and formal scholarly gathering. Whenever the phenomenological geographers do get together face-to-face, for example, it has to make some difference that they have already had a chance to talk in a forum that is also potentially open to objections from structuralist geographers who don’t wish them well. (Please consider that a hypothetical: I don’t actually know if there is such a rumble now underway.)
The four speakers at the MLA session had each found a broad audience, as academic blogs go. The organizer of the event, Scott Eric Kaufman, a senior instructor in literary journalism at the University of California at Irvine, has a personal blog and also writes for The Valve. The latter was founded by the second panelist, John Holbo, who is assistant professor of philosophy at the National University of Singapore and the editor of Glassbead Books, an imprint of Parlor Press. (The name of which comes from that Kenneth Burke passage. Small world!)
The third panelist, Tedra Osell, an assistant professor of English at the University of Guelph, is very much better known as Bitch, Ph.D. (Even though Osell has now very publicly "outed" herself as Bitch Ph.D., it still feels like a violation, somehow, for anyone else to do so, although I use her name here with her permission.) And the last speaker was Michael Bérubé, whose day job is professor of English and cultural studies at Penn State University.
The text of Kaufman’s and Holbo’s papers can be found online, here and here, respectively. Bérubé indicates that he won’t be making his discussion of the phenomenon of the “blogspat” available online, if only because it would probably just start another one. But I’d like to think that Osell’s talk will end up in print soon. It would yield a well-turned essay on blogging, gender, 18th century periodical literature, the vicissitudes of Habermas’s concept of the public sphere, and the paradoxical overtones of the pseudonym “Bitch Ph.D.”
There was one moment in Osell’s presentation that must have hit close to home, given the panel’s Y-chromosomal preponderance: her reference to the “old-boy network” in the blogosphere. This is no joke -- and no exaggeration, either. Just before heading off to Philadelphia, I had photocopied an article from the summer 2006 issue of Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly called “The Gendered Blogosphere: Examining Inequality Using Network and Feminist Theory.” Looking it over now, it’s striking how exact her formulation really is.
The authors, Dustin Harp and Mark Tremayne, are both assistant professors of journalism at the University of Texas at Austin. “Sampling over one year from blog rankings,” they note, “we found that 10% of the top [political] bloggers were women.” They consider various explanations of why this might be, but conclude that “the linked nature of blogs” has had a skewing effect given certain tendencies familiar to network theorists.
“Original players in any network have an advantage,” write Harp and Tremayne; “the longer you have been around, the more links you are likely to acquire. In the 1990s men outnumbered women on the Web by a sizable margin. While that is no longer true, the early advantage may continue to grow and snowball. But this explanation alone cannot explain the pattern.”
A “second principle of network growth -- preferential attachment -- may [also] be responsible,” they suggest. To rephrase this in terms of the Burkean “parlor” analogy, the Internet throws open the doors so that many more participants may enter the fray. But if the conversation long-since well underway is headed in a particular direction -- if a few topics are dominant, and a few very full-throated conversationalists are making themselves heard -- it had can very difficult to get a hearing.
“In attempting to ‘subvert the hyperlink hierarchy,’” as Harp and Tremayne conclude, “women bloggers may be unwise to remove all links to the top male bloggers because linking tends to be reciprocal behavior. But positive action is needed. More links between and among women bloggers and others who understand the importance of inclusive spheres of discourse will be a step in the right direction.”
But will it be enough? You have to wonder. The problem seems to run deeper than network-generated patterns of communication. For example, the editors of Inside Higher Ed tell me that the site’s readership is more than 50 percent female. But you would never know it from the comments section -- which, during a full moon, is populated almost entirely by 60 year-old guys complaining about Ward Churchill. (Even if the topic is federal funding for astrophysics research, Ward Churchill is making it worse, somehow.) It is possible that I am exaggerating but that is often how it seems.
Now, there is no bias in favor of running such comments. As a venue for discussion, the comments section beneath each article is quite open. You have to avoid libel, and stay at least somewhat on topic (with “somewhat” being the operative word). Other than that, it is a very accessible forum -- and it would be a good thing if more women took to it.
The same principle applies to the blogosphere, academic and otherwise. But it’s easier to say this than to overcome either resistance or inertia, whether among writers or readers. For now -- as Osell’s paper at the MLA made clear -- pseudonymity is as viable and necessary a solution as any at hand.
“We all joke that ‘on the Internet, no one knows you’re a dog,’” she said. “But it seems to me that, in fact, this isn’t true. Even unschooled readers are fairly savvy about generic form, and one of the formal conceits of public discourse is that people whose social identities are marked as “other” -- women, in this case -- will, when writing personally, draw attention to their persons. Pseudonyms prevent texts from being impersonal, from pretending to objectivity; they draw attention to the author’s role in a way that a straight byline does not. At the same time, though, pseudonyms make a text more fully public: by hiding the author’s identity, the author becomes potentially anyone. Pseudonyms mean something, and one of the things they mean is that the pseudonymous writer has a reason for pseudonymity.
“When pseudonymity becomes a generic feature, as with essay periodicals and blogs, one of the things that means is that the genre entails risk, that publishing is risky.... The desire to talk about work conditions, or personal problems, or politics, or parenting is (apparently) more important than fears of being fired, or embarrassment, or shamed. But because those risks are real, writers publish pseudonymously.”
One bit of news from the old boys’ club started to circulate just after the panel: the decision of Michael Bérubé to wind down his blog, which has been running at a steady and even breakneck pace for three years now.
"The blogging has started to take three to four hours a day for longer posts, and one to two for shorter ones, and my days aren't so fluid anymore,” he told me. “But actually it's the longer term that has me worried. Right now I do the blog, plus teaching, plus all the usual committee things, plus some other writing, plus hockey. Something's got to give, and even though the hockey's the obvious first choice, I figure I only have another five years of meaningful hockey in me (‘meaningful’ here means ‘hockey in which it actually matters to either team whether I am on the ice or not’).”
The reference to a five-year window turns out to be overdetermined. He is now writing two books, one called The Left at War, the other Disability and Narrative. (“No overlap whatsoever, I assure you!”) And he might write a sequel to Life as We Know It: A Father, a Family, and an Exceptional Child, his memoir about raising a son with Down’s syndrome.
“As it happens,” he says, “Jamie is out of school in another five years, and whatever arrangements we make for him, they will be vastly different than the arrangement I have now. Indeed, this will be the last year in which he has his after-school program, and in a few years his summer program disappears, too.... The thing that jumps out as being the least necessary to my overall well-being between now and 2011 is the blog.”
Given Tedra Osell’s paper during the panel, I wondered if he had any insights, as an old boy leaving the network, about what would be necessary to change things.
“More Tedras!” he answered. “Besides that, of course, it hasn't escaped me that the vast majority of academic bloggers are junior faculty and graduate students. Most female academics' blogs are anonymous, as well. Both things are related, and both things are factors. Perhaps the Valve and Crooked Timber lineups could use some shaking up, or perhaps there could be a few similar group blogs made up mostly of women.”
He noted that things actually have begun to change to some degree outside the academic blogosphere. The feminist group blog Pandagon has “something like five times my readership of 9,000 people per day. How much longer will it take before the academic blogosphere sees the same kind of thing? I have no idea. Another 2-3 years? I think it'll depend on how many female graduate students and junior faculty keep it up, and how many do it under their own names -- post-tenure, I would guess.”
Academic librarians are the nice guys of higher education. We dwell in neutral territory; the library belongs to no one and everyone. So do we. Our reputation is mostly one of being excruciatingly helpful. We give service with a smile. Our academic roost is a peaceful haven, and we welcome all. As an academic librarian who regularly navigates the library blogosphere, I find that the librarian’s penchant for pleasantry extends to our own virtual nest. In the world of library blogging the sky is always sunny, and nary is a dissenting or argumentative thought expressed.
Why is it that “flatlined” may be the best term to describe the state of discourse in librarianship? In the traditional library literature one rarely sees an article that takes issue with the research or perspectives of a particular author. There may be a dissenting letter to the editor every so often, but one would be hard pressed to identify a juicy back-and-forth between two camps engaged in academic discourse about a controversial issue. Maybe we’re just too nice to take an intellectual sledgehammer to a colleague’s work, even if it was well deserved. Some librarians might point to any number of the profession’s electronic discussion lists as the virtual ground where real debates between librarians are happening, but I would argue that what debate takes place on these lists often occurs between the same small crew of librarians who simply have an axe to grind with each other’s positions. The vast majority of list members never get involved, and what transpires might be more accurately described as bickering than intellectual discourse.
As one explores and delves into the world of library blogs it soon becomes apparent that the rules of disengagement dominate the landscape. There one is likely to see a repetitious flood of posts exclaiming “What a great post by so-and-so” or “She’s got a must read post today”. Rarely does one see a post that starts with “I have to disagree” or “Boy, does he have it wrong.” Most commenting is no better. It’s mostly gratuitous back patting. But why bother anyway? Comments are secondary to actual posts and they reach a much smaller audience. One exception might be ACRLog, a blog for which I write. Geared specifically to academic librarians it still allows fairly unrestrictive commenting, and on occasion comments may offer brilliant opposing views. But these are few and far between; the overall dearth of comments, even for posts that make controversial statements, is shockingly surprising for this profession.
Other areas of academia have fostered some excellent exchanges between dissenting parties -- in blogs, journal back and forths, and at scholarly meetings -- in fact many professors worry that some fields are too contentious. That’s hardly a concern the library profession must address. If anything our professional meetings are exceptionally notable for the atmosphere of courtesy and collegiality. On those unusual occasions when parties do disagree it’s typically handled in a jovial manner so that neither side perceives any offense. On those occasions when the gauntlet of disagreement is thrown down, rarely is it taken up by the opposition. At the recent ACRL conference in Baltimore, in response to a participant comment, a speaker said “that was passionate but you are completely wrong”. It ended there. I wonder how that exchange would play out at a faculty conference. The outcome, I think, would be quite different.
It’s not that librarianship lacks controversies worth getting worked up. Remember the virtual firestorm created by Michael Gorman? Gorman’s critical essay about bloggers in a 2005 Library Journal column set off an explosion of anger in the library blogosphere. How, bloggers asked, could an American Library Association president be so out of touch with a communication medium so important to his own profession? How dare he attack bloggers and even the blog as a form of expression! Even non-librarians got in on the action. But the action was all one way. There was hardly a defense of Gorman. It appeared no one wanted to step forward and take on the hoards of critics. And what he said and why he said wasn’t completely indefensible. Bloggers had attacked Gorman over comments he published in an op-ed piece in the Los Angeles Times ("Google and God's Mind," December 17, 2004) that were critical of Google’s plan to digitize books. So Gorman responded in kind. After the assault Gorman claimed his words to be hardly serious, but from the reaction you would have thought he said that the blogosphere was an evil plague that needed to be eradicated. Did any library bloggers come to Gorman’s defense? None that I could detect. And I know why. Fear of underserved and irrational reprisal.
Although many library pundits and A-list library bloggers would be quick to deny it, it seems increasingly the case that a speech chill has descended on the library blogosphere. On the few occasions when a dissenting comment is attached to a post in the spirit of discourse, the commenter is likely to find him or herself the target of an unpleasant post in which the blogger uses his or her bully pulpit to lash out against someone who’s dared to take an opposing view. Even if the commenter responds with a follow-up comment (and more bloggers refuse to allow them these days), few readers take the time to look at them. Posts on the other hand can be quite memorable. The blogger has the upper hand. Ultimately, those who make an attempt at discourse are discouraged and the next time simply ask, “Why bother?”
Even more remote is the possibility of discourse between opposing bloggers, particularly in an attempt to bring to the table an observation of groupthink. In those circumstances the woeful dissenter is subject to swift condemnation that quite quickly quashes any chance of thoughtful dialogue. The essential trend of 2006 was Library 2.0. But exactly what it meant became the subject of some promising back and forth exchange among bloggers. As a far less heated issue than Gorman’s blogger incident, a few librarians felt encouraged to wade in against the tide to voice opinions that Library 2.0 was little more than old wine in a new bottle, a new fad for those who seek out new technology solutions before they’ve identified a legitimate problem. Library 2.0 advocates were quick to band together in a “they just don’t get it” response. Ultimately groupthink won out over efforts to help all those interested in the topic to better understand it through thoughtful examination. Is it any surprise that few oppose the majority? And in the end the nice thing to do is just go along with the crowd.
What makes this situation all the worse is that the library profession has long nursed a debilitating inferiority complex when we compare ourselves to other disciplines. It’s supposed to be library science, not library “let’s all just be nice and agree to think the same way." What seems to define many other disciplines is the discourse that occurs. When academics challenge each other’s thoughts their understanding of the issues evolves, and as a result the entire profession’s body of knowledge moves to a higher plane of discovery. Instead library science is the Rodney Dangerfield of the social sciences; it gets no respect. Lack of discourse is not the sole reason, but it points to the profession’s lack of interest in engaging each other in discourse. It’s just easier to agree – or better yet share no thoughts at all.
Perhaps what the library profession needs to do, if it wants to be taken seriously as a science, is to realize that we need to be accepting of rigorous discourse. We need to learn that there’s something special about it, and that we do a disservice to ourselves and our profession when we fail to do all we can to encourage it. Despite the chill factor that has descended on the library profession there may be some hope. We need to look at how other disciplines stimulate and support discourse. At our conferences and through online communities we need to engage in discussions about how to encourage discourse and appropriate ways in which to engage. We need to hear from scholars in other disciplines with experience in discourse so that we can better understand how to inspire ourselves and our colleagues to be both constructively critical and accepting of criticism. We need to focus on the content, and resist the temptation to make it about personalities.
Library educators should begin to integrate into the curriculum more opportunities for verbal and written discourse, as well as present students with case studies that serve as good examples of discourse and how it advances professional knowledge. What contemporary issues are deserving of discourse that might provide good examples? The role of reference services and the future of the reference desk are topics that emerge every few years, but that issue is now re-energized as new technologies make the need for traditional desks less important. Arguing the values of face-to-face interaction versus the immediacy of delivering services virtually is certainly fertile ground for debate. As future professionals, students would undoubtedly find challenges in discussing the qualifications required of academic librarians. As new professionals without library degrees, such as Web programmers and Ph.D. bibliographers, increasingly join the ranks of MLS degreed librarians, there is opportunity to debate the relative merits of an evolving new class of non-MLS professionals in the academic library. What academic librarianship shares with other disciplines is a seemingly never ending parade of controversial issues and challenges that invite the sharing of multiple, strong perspectives. If our future professionals can learn to appreciate and be inspired by the collegial expression of disagreement, it would serve well the future value of scholarly discourse in librarianship.
Another encouraging factor is a recent library blog thread about there being too much politeness in the library blogosphere. This originated in a post by a public librarian, Rachel Hartman, at the Tinfoil + Raccoon blog. The gist of the blog correctly noted that when everyone is too polite to say what is really on their mind we construct a rather boring echo chamber in which all we do is exchange pleasantries. Others responded with observations concerning the need for librarians to engage each other with more constructive criticism. Finally this small segment of the profession began to awake to the possibilities of improving the quality of our discourse, and how that would provide a serious blow to the groupthink that was bringing a slow death to any serious conversations. Of course, the challenge is to simultaneously eliminate the atmosphere of personal repercussions, real and perceived, when expressing opinions while stressing to colleagues that their polite act of suppressing opinions is actually a disservice to our professional advancement. Only time will tell if the profession moves beyond this initial attempt at creating more rigorous discourse.
Whatever we may think about the Web 2.0 phenomenon, whether you love or hate the concept, it is clear that at its core is the creation of conversations between those who build the web and those who use it. The latter seeks to participate by adding their voice, in whatever medium that may occur, and by virtue of doing so helps to build new layers of content. It is ironic that a profession dedicated to community building and embracing Web 2.0 has so miserably failed to create a conversation among it own members. But one thing I greatly admire about my librarian colleagues is how vastly open minded a group they are. They are widely accepting of new ideas, and welcome into the discussion anyone who is willing to share their thoughts. But perhaps we have become too welcoming, too complacent to remember that we share a responsibility to take our profession forward through intellectual discourse. Maybe a good place to start is with a well thought out response to this article. It offers great opportunity for argument. Who wants to take the first shot?
Steven J. Bell
Steven J. Bell is associate university librarian for research and instructional services at Temple University.
In the blogging circles in which I run, one of my many claims to fame is the extent to which I am tired of blogging. I am the author of several pieces on the drawbacks of academic blogging in particular (see, for instance, “On Academic Blogging: A Diagnosis”), and I seize upon any evidence of momentary fatigue or frustration in other academic bloggers as proof of my prescience and insight.
What has caused me to become so cynical at such a tender age? Certainly I can’t deny that I have benefited from blogging -- I’ve met some interesting people and even gotten a couple publications (albeit non-peer-reviewed) out of it. I also can’t deny that I was once among those I now berate as “blog triumphalists.” For approximately two years after I graduated college, my blog was a lifeline for me, and my circle of blogging friends at the time started a fairly ambitious series of reading groups under the Derridean title of “The University Without Condition.” Our first discussion, of Walter Benjamin’s “Critique of Violence,” was enthusiastic and productive, but things gradually tapered off. Since that time, blog-based conversations have nearly always been disappointing to me.
So one way of investigating the origin of my negative attitude is to look at what might have gone wrong with the University Without Condition. First of all, the initial discussions took place over a widely-dispersed network of blogs, which produced an open-ended effect. I hosted a central clearing-house post on my own personal blog, but in theory, anyone could participate in the discussion, either through their own blog, through the comments on someone else’s post, or through some combination thereof. The result was a conversation that was free-wheeling and often difficult to follow, especially for those who were not comfortable with blogging technology. However, when we eventually decided to pool our efforts in a group blog for the sake of convenience, we found the new setting to be stultifying. Why the change?
I have come to the conclusion that what was so good about the original disorganized format of the University Without Condition conversations was precisely that it was so decentralized. This feature allowed it to escape one of the major pitfalls of conversations based in blog comments -- the inherently hierarchical nature of the format. In blog comments, someone has written out a thoughtful post in what they will often regard as their own personal space. They have an established community of commenters who are, for the most part, sympathetic to the author’s point of view. Thus, when someone comes along and starts criticizing the original post, there is naturally a temptation toward “circling the wagons.” Additionally, comment forms are generally cumbersome and difficult to use for in-depth conversation -- with the paradoxical result that one will either dash off a quick comment that by definition cannot match the rigor of the original post, or else an overly long comment that people will experience as an imposition. Having various people responding on their own personal blogs rather than in comments gets around all these problems -- the conversation is decentered, not localized to anyone’s “turf,” and people are more likely to write lengthier, more thoughtful responses if they are producing it for the sake of their own blog instead of writing something that will be hidden away in some obscure corner of someone else’s comment sections.
Unfortunately, the trend in my corner of the academic blogosphere has been toward assembling group blogs with some particular mission or outlook. For a time, a particularly toxic relationship developed between two academic blogs, Long Sunday and The Valve. Long Sunday was originally formed with the ambitious goal of providing an alternative to the (still) dominant academic group blog, Crooked Timber. The contributors all shared a strong interest in continental philosophy and literary theory. The Valve, by contrast, had a strong skepticism about literary theory and in fact featured many posts critiquing the entire enterprise -- together with a book event surrounding an anthology called Theory’s Empire, which positioned itself as “dissenting” from the hegemony of Theory in literary studies. (At the time, I was an occasional contributor to Long Sunday, and my particular loyalties were broadly in line with Long Sunday’s.) Broadly speaking, the dynamic in the various debates between The Valve and Long Sunday was that Long Sunday tended to read The Valve as attacking the entire enterprise of continental philosophy in favor of a more Anglo-American approach, whereas The Valve consistently viewed Long Sunday as failing to provide any definite idea of where The Valve had gone wrong or even what they understood The Valve to be about. As time went on, this dynamic became a negative feedback loop that predecided every argument in advance -- to the point that two years later, certain parties (including me) still periodically argue about the exact stakes of those disputes.
It seems to me that there was a kind of short circuit in these conversations -- a minority tendency in literary studies (The Valve) was coming up against a minority tendency in American philosophy departments (Long Sunday), resulting in a kind of missed encounter where the stakes revolved more around institutional insecurities rather than the supposed "substance" of whatever we were talking about. I believe that this effect was exacerbated by the quasi-“institutional” nature of the two respective blogs. The various debates may still have been just as heated if the various group loyalty issues were not in play, but they probably would have been more intellectually productive. There are enough institutional turf wars in academe – if blogs are to play a productive role in academic discourse, they should not gratuitously recreate those same dynamics, and for me that means moving away from having quasi-institutional group blogs with stated missions and back toward conversations dispersed among many blogs.
More than formatting issues, however, I think that everyone needs to realize that having a productive conversation in an online format is very hard work, which is why it happens so rarely. Many bloggers can point out online conversations in which they were pushed to think in a new direction or got genuinely valuable feedback on a question, but as with all human endeavors, there is a high percentage of dross to go along with the occasional gold. Policing comments is a difficult job, and efforts to keep conversations on-topic or ensure that contributors have some substantial knowledge to share will often cause resentment in light of the “democratic” leanings of online communities. All this is on top of the obvious problems with online interaction as opposed to in-person conversations.
As more and more academic resources become available online, hopefully academic blogs will begin to fill a role analogous to the political blogs that link to and comment on particular news stories -- that is, bringing new scholarly research to the attention of an interdisciplinary audience. I hope that events like this will help to push more journals toward open-access electronic formats. Failing that, however, academic blogs seem to me to be best-suited as a social outlet for academics who would otherwise feel isolated, creating camaraderie and supplementing the social aspects of disciplinary conferences. I know that my interest in blogs peaked when I was living in the rural town where my undergraduate institution was located. I was fortunate enough to find a vibrant intellectual community in Chicago, so that I frankly don’t need blogs as much as I once did. If I were asked why I don’t just quit blogging if I’m so tired of it, I would have to say that the answer is finally that I recognize that I may not always be so lucky: I may need blogging again.
Adam Kotsko is a doctoral student at the Chicago Theological Seminary. He blogs at The Weblog and An und fÃ¼r sich. This essay is adapted from a talk he gave last month at the annual meeting of the Association of Literary Scholars and Critics.
Adam may not need blogging right now, but even he admits that the community he has as a graduate student is transitory -- contingent upon a certain group of students sharing an institutional affiliation in a particular historical moment -- and perhaps all the more vibrant for being so.
I have a similar community in Irvine: I speak regularly with Joseph Kugelmass, another contributor to The Valve, and our conversations as frequently turn to things we’ve read and written online as they do formal professional matters. Our conversations straddle two mediums; but someday soon, when he’s sporting tenure at an Ivy and I’m adjuncting my way up and down the California coast, we’ll still be able to keep half our current dynamic intact. I’m not talking about pointless Facebook update -- there may be a benefit to knowing that a Simpsons rerun left a fellow Americanist craving Cherry Garcia, but I doubt it’s intellectual. I’m talking about a regular engagement with each other’s intellectual concerns -- everything from the pains of preparing for the job market to the theoretical implications of an interpretive move you’re not sure you should’ve made -- all communicated in a medium able to accommodate everything from idle chatter to earnest manifesto.
Over the past three years, I’ve learned what it’s like to write in a way most academics never have: namely, for an audience. If this seems like a simple point, that’s because it is. Nor is it one of those profoundly simple points, either: it’s straight simple. When a blogger sits down to slave on her dissertation, article, or book, she doesn’t turn her back on the public sphere. Because in the end, the public sphere is us.
I’m talking about the communities we currently have, only five years in the future, when we’re scattered around the country, unable to communicate face-to-face, but still connected, still intellectually intimate, because we’ll still regularly be engaged with each other’s thoughts. But I’m not only talking about us. There’s no reason our community needs to consist solely of people we knew in grad school. Why not write for people who don’t already how you think about everything? Why not force yourself to articulate your points in such a way that strangers could come to know your thought as intimately as your friends from grad school do?
The informal publishing mechanisms available online can facilitate such communication so long as bloggers write for an audience informally. Senior faculty might continue to orient their scholarly production to the four people whose scholarly journals don’t pile up in the corner of the living room, slowly buried beneath unpaid bills and unread New Yorkers. Whether they know it or not, bloggers write for an audience larger than the search committees we hope to impress. They have already started eye-balling the rest of the world, asking themselves how they can communicate with it without seeming to pander to it. By and large, this approach works. To draw from my own recent experience:
In the first week of October, I presented at the American Literature Association’s Symposium on Naturalism. My talk went well enough, but the conference itself was surreal: two tenured faculty members -- both of whom wrote books I wish I’d written at institutions that would never consider hiring me -- two tenured faculty members independently introduced themselves to me and acknowledged that they’ve read my blog, Acephalous, for quite some time. Flattering, but hardly surreal. However, they then told me that they almost didn’t introduce themselves because they were, and I quote, “intimidated.”
Tenured faculty intimidated by a graduate student. These professors obviously put some weight into what I’ve written on Acephalous and The Valve. So I turned to my audience for feedback, and one of my commenters made the obvious point: I have commenters. Most scholars don’t. They have people they need to impress and tenure files to fill; but I have sustained intellectual engagement with hundreds of people. As one member of it wrote: “In the land of the people who work on things only three people will ever read, the schlub with a somewhat popular blog is king.”
Perhaps, but I don’t want to sound like one of Adam’s blog triumphalists, because I consider the power of blogs to be supplementary and concrete: they provide atomized intellectuals a way to meet and remain in contact with fellow sufferers and their ideas. More importantly, they ensure you’re not forgotten.
Scott Eric Kaufman
Scott Eric Kaufman is a Ph.D. candidate in English at the University of California at Irvine and blogs at Acephalous. This essay is adapted from a talk he gave last month at the annual meeting of the Association of Literary Scholars and Critics.
A few months ago, I started using Bloglines, a service for keeping track of new posts on the blogs one looks at regularly. Other such aggregators are available elsewhere -- from Google, for one. But my decision to go with this one was not a matter of carefully evaluating the available options. A librarian who found Bloglines useful in her own work offered to set it up for me and provide a quick tutorial on how to use it. We "late adopters" are prone to using whatever tools someone is kind enough to explain to us.
To express appreciation, I gave her a copy of the recent essay collection She's Such a Geek: Women Write About Science, Technology, and Other Nerdy Stuff, reviewed here. The skills of tech-savvy women may be underestimated by society at large, but not by me. This gesture was well received (the librarian in question flies her geek flag proudly) and I would recommend the book as a gift suggestion for anyone owing a debt of gratitude to the female digerati.
Having been thus initiated into the mysteries of the RSS feed, I plugged the two or three dozen URLs from my regular rounds into Bloglines and started keeping up. Most were academic blogs. And when they linked to another blog that looked interesting enough to bear monitoring, I would enter it into Bloglines, too. A group blog run by social scientists interested in the dynamics of various kinds of organizations? Sure thing! One where a graduate student in philosophy thinks out loud about philosophy, and about being a graduate student? Why not?
You can probably see where this is headed. As of this morning, there are 372 feeds in my Bloglines account. Occasionally it proves necessary to purge a few. (From time to time, my aspiration to be under-informed on a really encyclopedic scale is undercut by the sheer eyestrain involved.) But there's too much benefit to being able to eavesdrop on smart conversations not to keep adding new ones; and ephemerality has its pleasures, too.
Curious what worthwhile feeds might be missing from my aggregator, I contacted a number of academic bloggers to ask if they followed any academic blogs that deserved more attention. (I defined "academic blogging" here pretty loosely, since this seems like a category that can involve a wide range of interests, approaches, and personnel.) Nearly everyone responded. So here follows a roundup of their suggested readings -- points on a map that nobody has gotten around to drawing yet.
Matthew Battles, a senior editor at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and the author of Library: An Unquiet History (Norton 2003), responded that he's not actually doing any blogging himself now -- what with "nonvirtual life, alas, being all too nonvirtual." But he did name a couple of favorites.
"Whatever definition of academic blog you adopt," he said, "The Proceedings of the Athanasius Kircher Society likely stretches it to breaking. But I appreciate the Kircher Society' Panglossian perspective and its commitment to what I can only call esoteric universalism -- the world's a tissue of secrets and wonders."
He also cited Ethan Zuckerman's My Heart's in Accra: "With great activity and intelligence, Ethan's blog ties together the seemingly disparate strands of human rights, development, and Internet culture (and it doesn't take long reading his blog to realize that they're not disparate at all)."
Cathy Davidson, a professor of English and interdisciplinary studies at Duke University who blogs at Cat in the Stack, recommends a number of blogs including "danah boyd's Apophrenia column, Howard Reingolds' Smart Mobs, and Henry Jenkins' Acafan."
All three have a strong emphasis on digital culture. She also points out Savage Minds, a group blog on anthropology, and Jonathan Sterne's Super Bon!
Barbara Fister, an academic librarian at Gustavus Adolphus College, in St. Peter, Minn., contributes to the Association of College and Research Libraries' ACRLog. She singles out if:book, the blog of the Institute for the Future of the Book, as a source of "thought-provoking discussions of how we may be reimagining the book in a digital world."
Less analytic, but a reliable source of "intriguing stuff, hot off the press," is Sabrina I. Pacifici's blog, BeSpacific. "Its tagline, 'accurate, focused law and technology news' is on target," Fister says.
Phil Ford is an assistant professor of music at Indiana University and a member of the almost excessively enjoyable group blog Dial "M" for Musicology. Some of you may recall his notorious (and widely read) piece here at IHE applying the wisdom of gangsta rap to the academic workplace. I don't mean to play favorites here, but what the hell: Of any blog that I read regularly, Dial "M" is the one that seems most like a really good magazine.
Ford recommends a new effort called People Listen To It that was, he says, "started by a University of Illinois ethnomusicology professor named Gabriel Solis and is a group blog that includes a number of his seminar students. They're still kind of catching their stride (it takes a while to work out a bloggy voice), but it's an interesting idea, doing a group blog grounded in a single institution, and having students blogging alongside their professor. Has anyone else done this? It wouldn't have occurred to me even to try, and I wouldn't think it would work, but this one does."
Scott Eric Kaufman, now finishing his dissertation in English at the University of California at Irvine, is probably better known as "that guy who walked in on two students having sex in his office," thanks to a widely circulated post at his blog Acephalous. That was two years ago. The story will never die. Someday it will be adapted for film and shown at Sundance.
And Kaufman singles out Jonathan Mayhew's Bemsha Swing as a source of "the best writing about writing out there, a consistently sound motivator for me to stop reading blogs and start writing my dissertation. (Odd praise, that is: it's the blog that makes you want to stop reading it.)"
Adam Kotsko is a doctoral student at the Chicago Theological Seminary and author of Zizek and Theology, to be published next year by Continuum Books. He contributes to An und fur sich, a group blog on theology and Continental philosophy.
"I would recommend Voyou Desoeuvre," he says; "the writing and political analysis are great, and I love that he doesn't have a 'publish or perish' mentality."
Tedra Osell was an assistant professor of English at the University of Guelph (now on the job market) and has written an interesting paper on gender and anonymity in 18th century magazines and 21st century blogging. She is also the channel for Bitch Ph.D.
Osell calls herself "a huge fan" of Outside the (Toy)Box, the work of a blogger who identifies herself as "a professor in an unnamed social science field as well as media studies."
"Her writing shows the ways that being a mom and an academic are not only compatible," says Osell, "but that doing both together makes her better at each of her jobs."
Eric Rauchway, a professor of history at the University of California at Davis, was interviewed in this column previously. He has contributed to The New Republic's effort to create the academic supergroup blog Open University, which I think is technically still alive. (If you hold a mirror under its nose, there is fog, sometimes.) With his colleague Ari Kelman, he has more recently been blogging at Edge of the West.
Rauchway is a fan of Ben Wolfson's blog waste: "If you had been living on a blogless planet, and then had blogs described to you, and then were asked to hypothesize what a scholar's blog might look like, this would be it: rich in dry wit, obscure wordplay, and shaggy dog stories."
Chris Matthew Sciabarra is a visiting scholar in the department of politics at New York University and the author, most recently, of Total Freedom: Toward a Dialectical Libertarianism (Penn State University Press, 2000). He is part of the group blog Liberty and Power
He calls Lester Hunt's E pur si muove! "just a lot of fun, and all over the map, from popular culture to philosophy." And while Once Upon a Time is not written by an academic, Sciabarra calls it "among the most passionate blogs I've ever read on the crossroads of culture, social psychology, and politics." And he cites Roderick Long's blog Austro-Athenian Empire for "pure libertarian radicalism that I find very appealing."
Aaron Swartz is a programmer whose work on Open Library was covered in Intellectual Affairs this summer. He blogs at Raw Thought.
Swartz referred me to Robert Viennau's Thoughts on Economics, calling it the work of "a scrupulous, independent scholar with an interest bordering on obsession with heterodox economics. His blog is filled with interesting quotes from his voluminous reading, arguments against the economics mainstream, and occasionally proofs of various interesting things."
He also points out The Monkey Cage: ""Although this blog started only days ago, it's quickly become one of my favorites. Three political scientists from [George Washington University] describe recent research results in an clear and engaging style. I wish every field had a blog like this -- come on, sociologists!"
Siva Vaidhyanathan, an associate professor of media studies and law at the University of Virginia, has published widely on questions involving new media and intellectual property, and not long ago started a blog in conjunction with his book in progress, The Googlization of Everything.
Like Scott Eric Kaufman (above), he points to Liz Losh's VirtualPolitik: "Liz teaches rhetoric at UC-Irvine. She is one of the smartest people writing about information technology uses among educators and young people. The way she combines rhetorical criticism with technological sophistication is inspiring. I also dig Madisonian.net. It's a group blog by a bunch of my favorite law professors. It's sharp and well written, concerned with a broad array of legal issues but centers on intellectual property, mostly."
Vaidhyanathan also says he is "a big fan" of Feminist Law Professors: "This blog keeps the good ol' boys in the legal academy honest. Ann Bartow at the University of South Carolina is the editor and leader of the blog. Its contributions are wide ranging. And the writing is first-rate."
Jeremy Young is a graduate student in history at Indiana University, with a special interest in the Progressive era. And when he blogs, it's at Progressive Historians.
"I'm a liberal," Young says. "ZenPundit (Mark Safranski) is a conservative. So what? His history blog is one of the most best reads on the 'Net. Whether he's discussing small wars theory, political history, or Jack Kerouac, he's unfailingly thorough and offers a unique, insightful perspective on every issue he covers."
He also follows A Historian's Craft, the blog of Rachel Leow, "an obscenely smart Malaysian-British grad student at Cambridge." Young describes it as "a delightful, thought-provoking, and often moving journey through intellectual history. Don't miss Rachel's collection of what she playfully terms 'bookporn' -- salivatingly-gorgeous photographs of library stacks taken by the author herself."
Just before heading to San Francisco for the annual convention of the Modern Language Association, I had a brilliant idea, or so it seemed. Between scholarly panels and face-to-face meetings, I would blog here at Inside Higher Ed. Instead of scribbling notes on a pad and then synthesizing out some kind of continuous text after the fact, this would mean recording the MLA in all its paratactic glory -- perhaps including links to YouTube videos of people saying interesting things in casual discussion after the panels. Your roving reporter would pause every so often to type up something on the laptop, or shoot it with the digital camera, and fire the resulting document out into the world via the wireless ether.
This was indeed, in its conception, a beautiful plan. Except that my laptop (which by now probably counts as vintage) is heavy, and the hotel wireless proved another sort of pain. The rooms where the panels were held tended to be badly lit, so that the video clips were all of a murkiness. Besides which, there were never any fireworks. If the days of Theory are over, so are the days of post-Theory, and "the rediscovery of aesthetics." I have attended six of the past seven MLA conventions. This was the first time when it really felt like a trade show in Detroit -- and not back in the day when next year's auto designs were a big deal, either. More like one right about now. Non-deflation counts as progress.
Be that as it may, I filed occasional causeries along the way, available here. And the blog will continue in the months ahead as an annex or supplement to Intellectual Affairs. In the four years that IA has been running, any number of books, papers, debates, etc. have fallen through the cracks. For whatever reason, I found it impossible to develop a full-length column around them. Given how few nonspecialist journals devote space to university-press books (apart from a handful of crossover titles per season, usually from the same four or five publishers), it might be helpful to offer quick or timely references to work that might otherwise be missed.
One possibility is that the new venue might include the occasional striking passage from my reading, in the manner of a commonplace book.
As blogged early in MLA, the organization has given its most recent lifetime achievement for scholarship to René Girard. His newest book, Mimesis and Theory: Essays on Literature and Criticism, 1953-2005, is from Stanford University Press, which naturally had it prominently displayed at their booth. A couple of paragraphs in "Theory and Its Terrors" (first published in 1989) jumped out as worth quoting here.
"If you consider our numbers in the abstract, you might think we are about the right size for a harmonious and productive intellectual life. How many of us are there in the humanities? How many members does the Modern Language Association have? There must be at least twenty thousand active people. [Twenty years later, it is thirty thousand, according to the MLA website.-SM] We complain about the indifference of the outside world. The public pays no attention to us; it is not interested in criticism; yet our numbers correspond, more or less, to the actual audiences of Shakespeare or Racine at the time they were writing. Our sector of the academic world is as large as the entire cultivated public of Elizabethan England or the France of Louis XIV.
"And yet our cultural world is a far cry from Elizabethan England or la cour et la ville in seventeenth-century France. There is a reason for this, so simple and yet so obvious that no one ever mentions it. At the time of Elizabeth and Louis, one percent, perhaps, of the educated people were producers, and ninety-nine percent were consumers. With us, the proportion is curiously reversed. We are supposed to live in a world of consumerism, but in the university there are only producers. We are under a strict obligation to write, and therefore we hardly have the time to read one another's work. It is very nice, when you give a lecture, to encounter someone who is not publishing, because perhaps that person has not only enough curiosity but enough time to read your books."
Submitted by Chad Orzel on January 11, 2010 - 3:00am
When I started my blog in 2002, I had no idea it would lead me to talking to my dog about physics. Let alone to writing a book about explaining physics to my dog.
I thought of the blog as a way to talk a bit about politics, pop culture, and academic science, and a place to let off a little steam as I went through the tenure process (I started the blog at the end of my first year as an assistant professor). Over the last seven and a half years, it's evolved into something much more, and I've begun to see it as an essential part of my responsibilities as a scientist.
A statement like that obviously presupposes some definition of the responsibilities of a scientist. Without getting too deeply into the many complex philosophical debates about the nature of science, my own view is that science is a four-step process for generating useful knowledge: the first step is to identify an interesting phenomenon in the natural world, the second to develop a model that might explain the phenomenon, the third to test the model by experiment or further observation, and the fourth to tell everyone the results of those tests.
The fourth step was the last one to become general practice -- as late as 1676, Robert Hooke published what we now know as "Hooke's Law" for elastic materials as a Latin cryptogram ("ceiinossttu," which unscrambles to "ut tensio, sic vis" for “as the stretch, so the force,” indicating that the force exerted by a spring is proportional to the amount it is stretched), so as to hide his results from his competitors while still claiming credit for the work. But it is not until wide and open dissemination of scientific results became the norm that we saw the tremendous explosion of scientific knowledge that has shaped the modern world. Broad publication of results is critical for the success of science, as it allows large numbers of scientists to build off the same body of knowledge, and to try many different approaches in parallel.
As essential as this step is, it is in many ways the weakest link in the scientific process today. While there are more scientific papers published today than ever before, a combination of technical sophistication and scientific specialization means that as far as the general public is concerned, modern scientific papers might as well be Latin cryptograms.
This is the famous "Two Cultures" problem pointed out by C.P. Snow a half century ago, and in many ways, the problems have only gotten worse since Snow's day. This is especially troubling given that the biggest problems facing human civilization today -- global climate change, pandemic disease, dwindling natural resources -- demand scientific solutions. Public understanding of science remains dangerously low, however, to the point where slick and cynical lobbyists can easily sow doubt about the state of global climate, or the safety of vaccines. When a shameless huckster like Glenn Beck can convince people not to vaccinate themselves or their children, in the face of decades of scientific evidence of the safety and efficacy of vaccines, something is dangerously wrong.
The only solution to this problem is to reinforce the fourth step of the scientific process, by disseminating scientific knowledge as widely as possible. We need to communicate science not only to other scientists, but also to the average voter, so they can have the knowledge base and critical faculties needed to distinguish solid science from cynical manipulations. This is a daunting task, though, both because all the professional incentives for academic scientists reward technical publication above all else -- you get tenure by publishing in Science, not Scientific American -- and also because modern science is a highly technical and mathematical enterprise, and even highly educated and intelligent people have a sort of learned helplessness when confronted with mathematics. Communicating science to the general public requires scientists to find a way to make science less intimidating, to find a voice that will make complex science seem more approachable to people who aren't comfortable with the mathematical language of modern science.
This is where blogs can play a role. Blogging gives scientists a platform from which they can reach a huge audience. On a fairly typical weekday, my blog is read by nearly 3,000 people, which is more than the entire enrollment at Union College, where I teach. When I write something about physics on the blog, it gets read by more people than I could ever hope to teach in my classes. Other science blogs have many times more daily visitors than I do, allowing the scientists who write them to share their results with thousands of people all around the world.
Blogging also gives scientists who are interested in communicating with the general public a chance to hone their communications skills. There are numerous feedback mechanisms available -- site traffic, comments, links from other blogs and social media platforms -- that allow blogging scientists to figure out what works, and practice communication to a broad audience. Through trial and error, they can find a voice that works for them, that will let them speak directly to people who wouldn't be interested in the technical details of a scientific journal article.
What voice will work is different for every scientist, and can be surprising. The voice might not even be human -- the voice that has been most successful for me is that of my dog, Emmy. In 2007, I wrote a couple of blog posts featuring imaginary conversations with my dog about aspects of quantum physics (Bunnies Made of Cheese and Many Worlds, Many Treats). These were read by tens of thousands of people, and led directly to a general audience physics book, How to Teach Physics to Your Dog. Strange as the concept may seem, I've found explaining physics via my dog to be extremely effective. She provides a way to keep even very abstract concepts grounded, and to break up dense and potentially intimidating discussions with an element of humor, making the science more approachable.
Writing as the dog is not something that ever would've occurred to me without the blog. Because I had the blog as a forum to try new things, even things that seemed kind of silly, I was able to experiment with different approaches to presenting physics, and stumble across something that worked exceptionally well for me. Any scientist with an interest in public communication of science should jump at the opportunities offered by running or writing for a blog.
Of course, no one book or individual blogging scientist will be enough to fix the problems science faces. We need many scientists willing to speak to the public, making use of the tools that the Internet offers. Not every scientist needs to be a public communicator -- some people will not have the inclination or the skills needed to convey complex technical ideas to a general audience, and that's fine -- but those scientists with an interest in public communication should have the opportunity to explore that, for the good of the scientific community, and the larger society.
Internet technologies remove most of the technical obstacles to scientists speaking directly to the public, but there are still significant roadblocks due to academic culture. Public communication is not highly regarded in academic science, and many junior faculty are explicitly warned against outreach programming and other public communication activities that "distract" them from producing technical publications. The only sure path to academic success is through publishing for a narrow audience of other scientists, not for a broad general audience.
Given the urgent threats that we now face, and the need for sensible decision making based on solid scientific evidence, though, we need to encourage faculty with an interest in communicating with the public to do just that. The consequences of a continued disconnect between voters and the scientific community are too great. We need to encourage and reward people who can help increase the public's understanding of science, and recognize public communication as a valid and even essential part of the scientific enterprise. We should ensure that scientists with an interest in public communication have the tools they need, and an opportunity to find a voice that works for them.
“It is my impression that no one really likes the new. We are afraid of it. It is not only as Dostoevsky put it that 'taking a new step, uttering a new word is what people fear most.' Even in slight things the experience of the new is rarely without some stirring of foreboding.” --Eric Hoffer, Between The Devil And The Dragon
I tried the new in fall 2009, teaching with student blogs, (look in sidebar and scroll down) out in the open where anyone who wanted to could see what the students were producing. The blogging wasn’t new for me. I’d been doing that for almost five years. Having students blog was a different matter. I had no experience in getting them to overcome their anxieties, relaxing in writing online, learning to trust one another that way. Normally I believe what’s good for the goose is good for the gander. If I could blog comfortably and get something from that, so could they. On reflection, however, I was very gentle with myself when I started to blog. As an experiment to prove to myself whether I could do it, for three full weeks I made at least one post a day, 500 to 600 words, a couple of times 1,100 to 1,200 words. I didn’t tell a soul I was doing this. There was no pressure on me to keep it up. It was out in the open, yet nobody seemed to be watching. After those three weeks I felt ready. In the teaching, however, at best I could ask the students to blog once a week. I gave the students weekly prompts on the readings or to follow up on class discussion. (See the class calendar for fall 2009. The prompts are in the Friday afternoon entries.) If I let them blog quietly to get comfortable as I had done, the entire semester would expire before they were ready to go public. There seemed no alternative but to have them plunge in.
The uncertainty about how best to assist the students once they had taken the plunge created an important symmetry between the students and me; we both were to learn about how to do this well, often by first doing it less well. Though it was an inadvertent consequence, of all my teaching over the past 30 years I believe this course came closest to emulating the Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education by Chickering and Gamson. I learned to comment on the student posts, not with some pre-thought-through response based on what I anticipated they’d write, but rather to react to where they appeared to be in their own thinking. (This post provides a typical example. The student introduced time management as a theme. My comment aimed to make her think more about time management.) As natural as that is to do in ordinary conversation, I had never done it before when evaluating student work. Indeed, I didn’t think of these comments as evaluation at all. I thought of them as response. In the normal course of my non-teaching work I respond to colleagues all the time and they respond to me. This form of online interaction in the class made it more like the rest of my interactions at work.
Most of the students were quite awkward in their initial blogging. Good students all, the class was a seminar on "Designing for Effective Change" for the Honors Program, but lacking experience in this sort of approach to instruction, the students wrote to their conception of what I wanted to hear from them. I can’t imagine a more constipated mindset for producing interesting prose. For this class there was a need for them to unlearn much of their approach which had been finely tuned and was quite successful in their other classes. They needed to take more responsibility for their choices. While I gave them a prompt each week on which to write, I also gave them the freedom to choose their own topic so long as they could create a tie to the course themes. Upon reading much of the early writing, I admonished many of them to "please themselves" in the writing. I informed them that they could not possibly please other readers if they didn’t first please themselves. It was a message they were not used to hearing. So it took a while for them to believe it was true. In several instances they tried it out only after being frustrating with the results from their usual approach. This, as Ken Bain teaches us, is how students learn on a fundamental level.
I'm crustier now than I was as a younger faculty member. Nonetheless, I find it difficult to deal with the emotion that underlies giving feedback to students when that feedback is less than entirely complimentary to them. Yet given their awkward early attempts at writing posts that’s exactly what honest response demanded. It’s here where having the postings and the comments out in the open so all can see is so important, before the class has become a community, before the students have made up their minds about what they think about this blogging stuff. Though both the writing and the response are highly subjective, of necessity, it is equally important for the process to be fair. How can a student who receives critical comments judge those comments to be fitting and appropriate, rather than an example of the insensitive instructor picking on the hapless student? Perhaps a very mature student can discern this even-handedly from the comments themselves and a self-critique of the original post. I believe most students benefit by reading the posts of their classmates, making their own judgments about those writings and then seeing the instructor’s comments, finally making a subsequent determination as to whether those comments seem appropriate and helpful for the student in reconsidering the writing.
A positive feedback loop can be created by this process. The commenting, more than any other activity the instructor engages in, demonstrates the instructor’s commitment to the course and to the students. In turn the students, learning to appreciate the value of the comments, start to push themselves in the writing. Their learning is encouraged this way. Further, since the blogging is not a competition between the students and their classmates, those who like getting comments begin to comment on the posts of other students. The elements of the community that the class can become are found in this activity.
Since on a daily basis I use blogs and blog readers in my regular work, one of the original reasons for me taking this approach rather than use the campus learning management system was simply that I thought it would be more convenient for me. Also, given my job as a learning technology administrator, I went into the course with some thought that I might showcase the work afterward. Openness is clearly better for that. However in retrospect neither of these is primary. The main reason to be open is to set a good tone for the class. We want ideas to emerge and not remain concealed.
Yet there remains one troubling element: student privacy. Is open blogging this way consistent with FERPA? As best as I’ve been able to determine, it is as long as students “opt in.” (I did give students the alternatives of writing in the class LMS site or writing in the class wiki site. No student opted for those.) My experience suggests, however, that is not quite sufficient. If most students opt in, peer pressure may drive others to opt in as well. More importantly, however, students choose to opt in when they are largely ignorant of the consequences. Might they feel regret after they better understand what the blogging is all about?
Based on my discussion with the students on this point, essentially all their reservations about blogging would have been eliminated were they to have blogged under aliases. One of my students figured that out on her own, for self-protection. A few others took out any mention of their name on their blogs partway into the class. I’ve been thinking of the next class I will teach and how I’ll adopt aliases in that setting. My current plan is to assign aliases generated by concatenating the names of famous economists (I teach microeconomics) with the course rubric and number. Then in the bio section of their blogs I’ll have the students post a little about the economists who are their namesakes. The actual aliases will be a little long and clunky this way, but in the colloquial way students are apt to communicate with each other, I’m sure they’ll embrace shorter forms. And this way they’ll become acquainted with some of the giants in the field, not a bad byproduct from satisfying their privacy need. I had briefly considered using something considerably shorter, say a number. But that conjured up thoughts of The Prisoner and that’s not the ambiance I’m trying to create for the course.
I wonder if partway into the semester, after having established some confidence with the blogging, students might choose to reveal their true identities. I’m curious to find out.
Lanny Arvan is CIO and associate dean for e-learning at the College of Business of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.