digital humanities digital rhetoric

academic cynicism, social media, and the fate of the humanities

There's some conceit in the humanities, or at least in English, that one must love the object one studies. It almost feels like an elementary school playground: "if you love social media then why don't you marry it?" I don't believe I've ever been a technology apologist. I actually don't make much personal use of social media. I guess I don't get enough enjoyment out of Facebook or Twitter to spend much "free time" there. I do however find productivity in these tools: i am introduced to people; I encounter new ideas; I get involved in new projects; and I find colleagues to work with on projects of my own devising. Still I understand the skepticism, even cynicism, regarding social media and its proponents (e.g. Clay Shirky). No one finds the conversation regarding MOOCs less surprising than I do, and I have certainly raised my concerns about them. However, it strikes me that we are only at the very start of a networked society. The problems we identify are challenges to address not reasons to turn away.

But that's not the humanities' way. I agree with Levi Bryant's recent post on the matter of cynicism. We have every reason to be skeptical of social media. There is no doubt that ideolgical and capitalistic motives lie behind the arguments for social media. Hell, in most cases, such motives are front and center. Should we be skeptical of Instagram or Facebook or Coursera? I think so. But should we be skeptical about the premise of networked sociality in itself? Or should we be looking to adapt/invent practices for this environment? Levi writes that as a result of cynicism "We thus strangely find ourselves in the same camp as the climate change denialists, the creationists who use their skepticism as a tool to dismiss evolutionary theory, and those that would treat economic theories as mere theories in the pejorative sense and continue to hold to their neoliberal economics despite the existence of any evidence supporting its claims.  We critique everything and yet leave everything intact." It's a bold argument perhaps, as it equates what we imagine as the height of intellectual behavior (critique) as functionally equivalent to some of the more blantant examples of what we would term anti-intellectualism. However, I think the same thing could be said for our treatment of social media.

So here's another piece of information to critique. The McKinsey Global Institute produced a report earlier this year on "the social economy." Yes this institute is a think tank for a global consulting firm. I won't go into too great detail about this report as I don't think the findings are too surprising. One interesting statistic indicated that knowledge workers spend 28 hours a week writing emails, searching for information, and collaborating internally. While these may be online activities, they are typically not done via social media, and the report argues that these activities might be done more efficiently if social-media functionality was enabled. So that's their argument. Another argument/analysis that they offer identifies different industries in terms of the value a social media approach might have and the ease of realizing that value. Education comes out looking ripe for such activities, which I don't find so surprising either.

This leads me back to a position I've been arguing for some time (in fact, you can find it in my chapter for the Design Discourse collection) that we should be looking to integrate social media into our pedagogy. Here are four examples.

1. Next semester we will have around 2500 students and 80 instructors teaching composition courses at UB. No they aren't all following a common syllabus, but nevertheless they are encountering common tasks. About 3/4 will be in a second-semester course where they will be writing research papers. Could our students and instructors be more productive if they collaborated in this way? Could they get feedback faster? Could they get answers to questions that are stalling them out? Could they get support and encouragement when they hit writer's block or need to stay on schedule? Could they find an audience for their work and peers who have similar research interests? 

2. On a smaller, but more diverse scale, we'll have around 60-70 other graduate and undergraduate courses in English with 40 or so different faculty and instructors. What kinds of conversations and collaborations could arise among them? Would we discover consistent and persistent challenges running through the curriculum that we might collectively address? Would we develop a sense of purpose and communicate that to our students?

3. And what about among the faculty, say all the humanities faculty at UB? Let's just say we did the following. Each semester, you would post in your profile a description of your current research project, courses you were teaching, and particular service project you were undertaking(if any). These could be driven by keywords and include lists of books and articles being used (in both research and teaching). Out of this, you could find colleagues across the humanities that might be potential collaborators. Administrators could see trends that might shape policy and budget decisions. One could generate a kind of ground-up vision of what we are doing. The sad thing is that we already do this in a far more pedantic way for our annual reports. However that information is retrospective (i.e what we've done rather than what we plan to do) and is not socialized. 

4. As far as that goes, why not do this with MLA? You could start just with the convention. In a rudimentary way, you could start by just having participants add some keywords to their proposals (key terms, major authors, etc.). Then you could link these people together and create some recommendations. Not just among those who were accepted, but everyone who applied. I wouldn't mind a list from MLA of other scholars "who appear to be studying related issues" that I might then seek out on Twitter or Fb. Eventually though we'd need to build a platform to facilitate disciplinary collaboration.

Anyway, I think you get the point. The common workplace concern is that social media is a distraction. It is the common classroom concern as well. This is the perhaps counter-intuitive argument that social media could make us more productive workers and learners if the applications were properly designed and we adapted to use them in this fashion. The argument I made in that Design Discourse article (freely available here, pdf) is that one shouldn't make rules up front about how to use the technology. That is, rather than building the paths and forcing people to stay on them, one could wait to see where people move and build paths to facilitate that movement. 

In the long term (say a decade out) this shift might not only be in the degree of productivity but also in the nature of productivity (which is more interesting to me). That is, our notion of the kind of work we should be doing will change as the means by which we do our work shifts. By facilitating large-scale collaboration among students, across the curriculum, institutionally among researchers, and through professional organizations, the relatively solitary labor of the typical humanist (a consequence of 20th century technology) will change. Maybe that change will not be for the better. It depends on what "better" means. If by better one means keeping things as they are, doing the same work as we've done in the past, and asking the same questions in the same ways, then this will obviously not be better. For those of us that are congenitally skeptical, as Bryant suggests, then there can never be a better, which results in a de facto argument for the status quo. For me, better for the humanities means increasing our capacity for producing knowledge and practices that have meaning and value beyond our specialized communities and that can speak (at least) to the shape of education and (hopefully) to the concerns of public, democratic discourse on a range of issues. But that's just rhetorician speak I suppose. 

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