Digital Scholarship Higher Education Teaching

digital impacts, scholarship, and general education

I’m bringing together a couple conversations I’ve been following online and that also have become juxtaposed at least on my campus: general education, with its attendant adjunct concerns, and impact metrics for research as they intertwine with digital activity.

So the second one first. Ian O’Byrne,  Gideon BurtonSean MorrisNate Otto, and Jesse Stommel have a podcast discussing digital scholarship and openness. It’s an interesting conversation that addresses many of the common concerns we have about open digital scholarship: how it “counts,” rigor, risks, and impact. They also venture into connections with teaching because clearly our values about how intellectual work should be done are reflected, though often distorted, in our pedagogy. As such, as a traditional scholar in the humanities one might restrict or forbid “online sources” and require single-author student papers that imitate the style and discourse of the print journal article. On the other hand, someone like myself might more natively think of students interacting with public online conversations and working collaboratively across a range of genres. My detractors might be concerned such work isn’t rigorous enough and that it asks students to take unnecessary risks by writing in public. Thus my point that the discussions of digital scholarship and pedagogy mirror one another.

The first conversation was on Facebook and stemmed from this Chronicle article on adjunct unionizing. The conversation though quickly turned to the linkage between adjuncts and general education. Jeff Rice, who initiated that Fb thread, followed with this post, where I think he makes a key point

The adjunct fight is the fight that most people commit to in one oral/textual manner or another (support, empathy, dissent) but that they really don’t fight over. It’s not really even a fight. Some blog posts. A short film. Discontent. Chronicle of Higher Education first person narratives. Tweets. Some inaccurate coverage in Slate. None of this makes for a fight.These are disconnected and scattered declarations that something sucks. That’s all they are.

Jeff’s post is an interesting read, as usual. He makes these rhetorical moves that combine the personal and public and examines how narrative and rhetorical structures move back and forth. One of those moves is saying something sucks. Then we have a tendency to fit the facts to the story. We do the same thing with general education. We say it sucks. As the Fb thread addressed, general education has become a primary mechanism for distributing university resources, especially to certain departments. Only a portion of that money actually goes directly to delivering the gen ed curriculum of course and by using adjuncts the gen ed curriculum becomes cheaper and that money can then float other activities. The obvious example (and one closest to my work) is the way first-year writing courses float English graduate programs.

We could argue for abolishing general education as a way of addressing the exploitation of adjuncts. It would require some significant reformation of the way university accreditation works. Universities would have to come up with new models for allocating resources if they didn’t want to lose departments and graduate programs. It’s really an extension of the abolition movement in composition from the 90s. Why require courses students don’t want to take and faculty don’t want to teach? Why require a curriculum that only results in the creation of an exploited labor class?

This is where I want to circle back to impact and digital work. We often reference academic freedom, but I think it’s easy to feel constrained as well. It is true that I can research anything I want (in my field, which I chose) as long as I can get it published by a good press in the form of a monograph. Maybe I could do a “digital monograph.” But I think it is very hard to have measurable “impact” that way, especially in proportion to the work involved. Instead of spending 100s of hours over years to publish a monograph that will be purchased by as many individuals as hours I spent writing it, what if I spent that same amount of time here? What if I had as many people (or more) reading my work everyday here as I might hope for purchasing my book in total? What if I was not only reaching people in my field but academics across disciplines, students around the world, and a general public that was carrying my work into journalistic publications?

Maybe it seems natural for me to advocate for that, but I do mean it as an open question. Impact has never been a significant metric in the humanities. We talk reputation instead. And building a significant online identity may or may not contribute positively to reputation. In my view reputation is a more conservative enterprise. It has an advantage of durability where impact can be fleeting. In many ways it is analogous to the print/digital divide. That book will sit on a shelf for a long time.

General education is a similarly conservative enterprise: stuff that every undergraduate should know. And though we’ve updated the list of stuff over the years, the premise is still the same, and it isn’t about impact. It’s about reputation in a way, or at least, it’s about identity. It says that students should embody certain knowledge. What’s the impact of that education? That’s a little harder to trace and though we try to make those arguments now, the opportunities for impact are constrained by the conserving action of reputation. In theory it’s not hard to imagine a replacement for general education that was entirely about impact, about students and faculty discussing, investigating, and reporting on questions that they cared about. Maybe it would be a model that reduced or eliminated the inequities of adjunct hiring. It would not be a model that imagined some ideal plane of knowledge that had to be traversed somehow and required adjuncts as a means to cover it. Instead it would begin by saying “We are the people who are here, the faculty and the students, and we will pursue what we think is valuable and relevant, we will do what it is possible to do with the resources we have, and we will call that general education.”

In practice though these things are almost impossible to imagine. And I certainly do not mean to present them as a panacea. They are more like a pharmakon, replete with their own psychedelic voyages. Who knows where such a course might lead one? I certainly had no idea where blogging might take me a decade ago. And 10 years later I can’t offer it as a solution or a success but only as a different scholarly journey than I might have otherwise had.


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