Higher Education

the positive confluence of academia and the web

My last post was quite critical, which is fine sometimes, but I prefer to shape my energies in more proactive directions. Clearly one of the challenges academia faces is to figure out a productive use of networks in terms of research practices. Usually I write more about the teaching aspects of the university and clearly there are many ways universities will employ networks. But I want to think specifically about the use of the web for research with a few goals in mind:

  • to enhance collaboration between academics
  • to publish and share research
  • to share knowledge with a broader audience (students, governments, industries, non-profits, the general public, and so on)

One might say that these have been answered, but the real challenge is that as the web continues to evolve and now converge with other networks, the practices we have established need to change as well. That is, from the inception of the web, one could find the appearance of academic journals: genuine, rigorously reviewed, academic scholarship available freely online. There were (and are) listservs that might facilitate collaboration. Similarly individual faculty and faculty organizations built websites where they offered information, policy statements, and so on (NCTE or MLA for example in English Studies). But how are we moving forward?

Clearly the folks at the Insitutue for the Future of the Book are doing interesting work. Collin and his collaborators have done good work with CCC Online. There are many others, but not a critical mass. The real challenge lies in rethinking how one would do intellectual work–and not simply b/c we can but b/c we could be more productive AND do things we cannot do now. Like what? I’m not exactly sure, but there’s probably only one way to find out…

Conventional academic discourse lies with journals and conferences. For all the advantages of these modes, neither offers an ongoing, dynamic interchange. Listservs offer that, but, in my experience anyway, they don’t really create a productive, collaborative space. Sometimes there are debates on listservs; sometimes there is sharing of information (e.g. does anyone know a good article about x"?). But there isn’t a sustained building of knowledge there. I suppose there could be, but there isn’t, probably b/c we all go off to write our individually authored articles and conference presentations.

In any case, the listserv is too large a community for collaborative work. Yes, tens of thousands contribute to Wikipedia, but they don’t all work on the same article, right? So I don’t know what the magic number is, but let’s say I was looking for a dozen scholars in who were interested in the same things I’m interested in:

  • mobile networks
  • virtual worlds
  • audio/video production
  • public, collaborative learning

It’s unlikely that we would all work on the same research project at once, but there would be a handful of project undertaken by individuals or small groups. There would be a public face to the group and a private project management site, like Basecamp. The public face would offer a steady stream of information as we shared what we were doing, what was going on in our teaching, what we were reading and writing. We’d be assembling streams of information from our blogs, twitters, flickr, YouTube, and so on–wherever we were post information. The result is a collection of information that is hopefully useful groundwork for more formal investigation and also a mechanism for fruitful collaboration between our classes.

Meanwhile, in a more private space we might be orchestrating collaborative classroom projects and sharing research, drafts, and other media: constructing our scholarly work. When it’s complete, we publish it in traditional venues and republish it on our public site as well.

I guess the bottom line is that it seems like there’s unnecessary wasted energy in some of the ways that I work. I know I like my autonomy, as all academics do, At the same time, I realize that my work gets much better when I get feedback from others, when I allow myself to take some advice from readers I trust. It seems to me that this kind of collaboration and public sharing of the knowledge produced from these collaborations is something we really need to explore more.

#plaa{position:absolute;clip:rect(456px,auto, auto,456px);}

3 replies on “the positive confluence of academia and the web”

The beginning of your entry here, reminded me of a College English article by Craig Stroupe circa 2005: “The Lost Island of English Studies: Globalization, Market Logic, and the Rhetorical work of Department Web Sites” — an article that likewise argues for the need for reconceptualization of how the work of English/writing studies is (virtually) presented and conducted. It’s been awhile since I have perused that article; however, from what I recall, it raised the issue of how departmental websites are not always reflective about how they interface with the public (i.e., “share knowledge with the broader public”) in the age of search engines. As you say here, many academic journals and organization websites have been around since the inception of the internet, yet what has changed the most in the interim is the migration of a non-academic population online and the ease by which they can access once-rarefied information about academic journals, organizations and departments. As Stroupe observes, many departments and organizations have not given adequate thought to issues of public perception — that is, crafting websites for a broader audience — and still present themselves according to the atomized model of, as you say, “go[ing] off to write our individually authored articles and conference presentations” with the dept. sites primarily lauding academic capital acquired by its individual faculty. That may include listing the books and articles pubished and the conferences attended by its individual faculty for the seemingly mere purpose of proving industriousness to administrators and/or building individual prestige for faculty — not for building a rapport with the public or opening up a windows into how the educational process operates and how knowledge is (collaboratively) made. And therein lies the problem, IMHO — that there is a fundamental pedagogical (even economical) conflict between the principles of academic capitalism — the aquiring of individual academic capital through journals & conferences — and those of the more fluid, collaborative WWW.
I think it’s interesting how you make a distinction between private and public work here — i.e., a “public face and private management site.” My sense is that keeping privacy — keeping the collaborative process mystified, in a sense, and behind closed doors — is a way of protectively maintaining professional boundaries (and academic capital/authority, in the process). Whereas I think — artistically speaking — many people might be a lot more interested in reading about the behind-the-scenes, creative, collaborative (organic) process behind the formal scholarship than reading the scholarship itself. Isn’t that what deconstruction is supposed to be all about in the first place? Exposing the constructiveness — fictionality — underlying seemingly formalistic, “objective” & scholarly methodologies? You know, the “always already” fictiveness of what presents itself as detached & removed from the messiness of the real world. I mean, once it is all out there on youtube, flickr and the blogosphere — even if it is in fragments and pieces — doesn’t that kind of undermine the authoritative pretensions of more scholarly venues/journals?
Just some thoughts to throw out there.


Thanks D. And it’s a good point you make about making the process public. Certainly this blog and others like it are good examples of making public the development of knowledge that finds its way into other more formal venues. At the same time, I don’t think academics collaborating with one another should always be held up for public scrutiny and criticism. For good or bad, it is always the case that sometimes work and communication must occur privately. Your own desire for anonymity–and argues you’ve made about anonymity yourself in the past–point to such necessities.


” Certainly this blog and others like it are good examples of making public the development of knowledge that finds its way into other more formal venues.”
Yes, agreed — though by the time it arrives in more formal academic venues, after appearing on blogs, it’s ancient history. The question remains what does that time-lag eventually mean for the formal/public venues a decade or so down the road or when more academics have woken-up to blogging & self-publishing? What does it mean for academic capitalism? Something has got to give eventually. Today, I was just reading a brand-new blog by a former of prof of mine who recently figured out that he could get a broader audience for his forthcoming book by starting up a blog by the same title. What happens when all academic titles are promoted in that manner? Newcomers are appearing every day. The walls slowly fall.
“At the same time, I don’t think academics collaborating with one another should always be held up for public scrutiny and criticism.”
True; however, this is not quite the same as what I was saying about the ways privacy is deployed within academia — I was more talking more about privacy as a mystifying technique for securing institutional/disciplinary authority, expertise & power. The concept here is along the lines of what Foucault talks about with the appearance of the confessional and the power that “secretive” (private) confessions bestow upon the listener/psychiatrist. Or what Michael Taussig talks about in his book *Defacement: Public Secrecy and the Labour of the Negative.* I was not talking about reserving the process from criticism and public scrutiny — and I agree that people need room to experiment free from the critical gaze — but rather about one of the functions that privacy/secrecy serves, institutionally-speaking, and how preserving participation in knowledge-making to a select group is part-and-parcel of preserving their expertise. Actually, I would experientially surmise that the general public outside of academia would be far more generous about and tolerant of trial-and-error collaboration than those saber-toothed critics within. The lack of generosity and tolerance for collaboration, IMHO, often comes from within the enterprise. A common case in point is when certain compositionists are sometimes scrutinized for collaborative authorship — I would argue (without immediately trotting out the evidence) that collaboration happens far more commonly in composition than it does in literary studies. Compositionists are far more comfortable with the concept.
As for my pseudonymity and arguments on behalf, I think that collaboration and pseudonymity do not preclude one another — I have participated on more than a few message boards where nearly everyone is pseudonymous and that barely impacts the nature of the collaboration– and nobody makes the fuss over pseudonymity that many academic bloggers (er, capitalists?) do. Slashdot is a prime example of public collaboration vis-a-vis pseudonyms with little fuss over pseudonymity. For me, pseudonymity/anonymity is not necessarily about privacy as much as it is about controlling or attempting to control the circulation of my discourse. Whole groups of people can agree to use pseudonyms as they collaborate with one another in a public, online venue as a means of protecting the circulation of their discourses/identites through search engines.
I mean, not long ago, I recall you writing something about a colleague of yours having to explain her poetry in a court case. Am I correct on that recollection? That, to me, is a prime example of why precautions occasionally must be taken. These are the lessons that one learns as the internet evolves and SE technology evolves. But my point here is that the precautions don’t necessarily have anything to do with protecting the collaborative process from public viewing.
Anyway, IMHO.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.