digital ethics and scholarship: more on Technological Ecologies and Sustainability

As mentioned in the previous post, some further thoughts on the recently released Technological Ecologies and Sustainability (free download). Admittedly, I am skipping around somewhat in the collection and writing today about two of the pieces in the final section on "Sustaining Scholarship and the Environment:" "Sustainable Digital Ecologies and Considered Limits" by Lisa Lebduska and "Sustaining Scholarly Efforts: The Challenge of Digital Media" by Cynthia Selfe, Gail Hawisher, and Patrick Berry. Clearly the notion of sustainability is at stake here. It's not only a question of can we build a lab, create a new course, start a new journal, or begin a new scholarly practice: it's a question of what does it take to keep such things alive. And I know from my own experience that bringing things like these to life in the first place can be such a difficult task that it is tempting to put off the question of long-term sustainability.

You might think that such a statement is a preamble to a warning about the danger of such an approach, and I suppose you can take it that way. However, anything short of legally-binding contractual commitments to sustainability (which you are not likely to get) are probably not worth much anyway. What I mean is that the bottom line to sustainability is access to material resources (money). There is really only one strategy for sustainability, as cynical as this may be: being successful in a way that can be communicated to, and valued by, the people who decide to give you money. In short, it is exactly the same strategy any professor employs in pursuit of access to that most important mechanism of sustainability: tenure.

Beyond that, I have never particularly felt the need to be an apologist or evangelist for digital media. Lebduska focuses part of her essay on the reasons why some faculty are skeptical or resistant toward new technology. In my view, some of these arguments are important and reasonable, some are poorly conceived, and others are just self-interested turf protection.

To put succinctly my own thoughts on this matter… if you have concerns about emerging technologies, that's fine, but for your concerns to have any merit in academic terms, they have to be based upon a disciplinary study of those technologies. In short, to have a legitimate academic concern regarding technology is probably as strong a reason for calling for studying these technologies as I can imagine. I mean, does it make any academic intellectual sense to say, "I think x is a matter of great concern for the future of our society, so it's my position that we should not study it."

In any case, in the big picture, 20 years down the line, one of three things will happen: most of the humanistic disciplines around today will be gone; most of the current humanities will have morphed into digital versions of themselves; or we will have reverted to print technologies and the humanities will remain largely unchanged. I wouldn't bet on the last one. What we do in the next decade might have an impact on which of the first two possibilities comes about. I suppose that is where this collection lies.

But I digress from my discussion of these essays!

In trying to move us forward, Selfe, Hawisher, and Berry identify three principles of feminist scholarship and sustainability:

Principle #1: The profession of English can retain its traditional value on scholarship that is original, innovative, intellectual and sustained, peer reviewed, and published, while acknowledging that scholarly fields, forms, and values change.

Principle #2: Scholarly models of production are not fixed. Rather, they are fluid, and socially and technologically shaped and contingent. Scholarship, increasingly, is created, maintained, and circulated in a range of electronic environments that can be used to extend the intellectual reach of ideas and the development of academic fields and subfields.

Principle #3: Social networks and collaborative scholarship—especially when informed by feminist values on sharing and connection—can multiply and leverage the innovation and contributions of new scholarly projects. They can also help increase the sustainability of such projects and the community at large.

This is certainly sound advice and, as the essay exemplifies, Selfe and Hawisher's careers as leaders in the field of computers and writing serve as evidence. I would expand upon this to note the importance of extending these networks beyond English, as organizations like HASTAC demonstrate. As reasonable as these principles sound, we know that strong objections remain to digital scholarship.

Lebduska invokes Lawrence Lessig's concept of rivalrous, non-rivalrous, and innovation commons in seeking to understand these objections. Though we can think of aspects of digital scholarship as falling into the non-rivalrous and innovations commons, along with other aspects of digital culture, inasmuch as digital scholarship draws on limited university resources, it is undoubtedly in competition with traditional practices, ranging from library budgets to hiring practices. It is perhaps not so easy to acknowledge that "scholarly fields, forms, and values change," even though change must be an integral part of any living, intellectual practice.

Setting aside the intellectual arguments, for those committed to traditional scholarly practices, for whatever reason, the primary advantages lie in inertia, bureaucracy, and the general conservatism of academic life (even if one doesn't otherwise share those values). For those interested in digital scholarship, the advantages lie in access to the nonrivalrous and innovation commons of digital culture, as well as all the external cultural forces that seek change in higher education (even if one doesn't otherwise agree with them). It does create strange bedfellows, where scholars who fought to open the literary canon now align themselves with the cultural conversative values that built that canon and scholars who critique corporate values find themselves in agreement on the importance of teaching "digital literacy" (or whatever you want to call it).

Taking the long view, the digitizing of the humanities seems inevitable, but it ain't going to be pretty. The only real, ethical question lies in what role one sees for oneself in the eventual shape those humanities take. The guidelines in these essays are not a bad place to start thinking about such things.


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