July 7, 2009
I hate to bump the New Liberal Arts off the top of the front page - go check it out! Buy it! Do it now! - but I’ve got a related meatspace publishing story to tell you. My Chronicle of Higher Education forum contribution on scholarship and teaching in 2029 - “The Faculty of the Future: Leaner, Meaner, More Innovative, Less Secure” - is out now, but the online version is sadly behind a very 2009 subscription firewall. So you’ll have to have a login to read what Mark Bosquet, Anthony Grafton, Joseph Hermanowicz, Evelyn Hu-Dehart, Peter Stearns, and Cathy Ann Trower wrote. But here’s my piece as it appears in full:
How is academe different in 2029? Let’s begin with the basics: reading, writing, and teaching. If anything, Google is even more important. The 2009 author/publisher settlements that allowed Google to sell full access to its book collections didn’t revolutionize books in retail, but subscription sales to institutions did fundamentally alter the way libraries think about their digital and analog collections. Access to comprehensive digital libraries allows teachers at any institution to compile virtual syllabi on the fly, seamlessly integrating readings, assignments, communication, and composition..
Automated subscriptions powered by Google’s search services deliver articles on any topic or keyword of interest instantaneously; hyperlinked citations and references appear with the original document, as threads in a continuing conversation, creating the first genuinely hypertext documents.
Apple’s popular iRead application (launched in 2011) enables reading, writing, and recording on virtually any device. Some teachers and students still use laptops or tablets, but others prefer handhelds, like phones or game consoles. But users’ inherited assumptions about the casual use of these devices make both teaching and research more closely resemble the activity of online social networks than traditional lectures, seminars, or conferences. Courses typically emphasize collaborative research leading to immediate publication of short bursts of text. Reader feedback then powers incremental improvements and additions.
The curriculum, especially in the humanities, valorizes thoughtful curation and recirculation of material rather than comprehension or originality. The traditional unidirectional model of knowledge transmission (best represented by the now-deprecated “lecture”) has been effectively discredited, although it persists through habit, inertia, and whispered doubts about the efficacy and rigidity of the new model. Many professors periodically pause to lecture, but only apologetically, or when distanced by ironic quotation marks.
The ‘teens are as widely remembered for technical innovation and radical dissemination of knowledge as the ’20s are for job loss, technological retrenchment, and economic concentration. In 2019, when Google used its capital to snap up the course-management giant Blackboard and the Ebsco, LexisNexis, and Ovid databases, it effectively became the universal front end for research and teaching in the academy.
Many university presses were shuttered in the transition from print to digital, especially those affiliated with public universities looking to shed costs following the catastrophic collapse of the University of California system following state budget cuts in 2020. The remaining presses make up for lost textbook sales by hosting blogs where established scholars and high-octane amateurs brush shoulders (and compete for shared advertisement revenue). These in turn drive production of traditional monographs, whether published electronically, in print, or both. Scholars also directly market their services as virtual lecturers to students and other institutions. All authors now have a broader view of their audience, across institutions, disciplines, and peer levels.
Everyone is excited, but everything is uncertain. No one knows what will happen next. Just like 20 years ago
I already got my first written response from one of my UPenn professors Al Filreis, who, um, pretty wildly misreads me on his blog, but for reasons that I think I understand. Just to be as clear as possible, I’ll cut-and-paste part of what I wrote to Al:
Thanks for blogging on my Chronicle piece — where I was obviously too clever for my own good. No valorization intended! I don’t believe in or support either the “traditional unidirectional model of knowledge transmission” or the lecture. I don’t teach or write that way. I just thought there was something comic about professors who, out of “habit and inertia” try to justify their use of the lecture as a radical act. The “ironic quotation marks” is something I find myself doing whenever I pause class for a minute or two to give a mini-lecture on background or whatever - effectively letting the lecture in under censorship. Total negation city.
Generally my approach in the 2029 thing was to adopt a kind of middle voice where I didn’t give in (at least completely) to my sometimes overweening techno-optimism or my dread of the professional and
economic conditions of the future…
If you’re willing to direct your readers to some writings of mine that are less ambiguous about what I really think, you can check out the stuff me and my co-bloggers at Snarkmarket have written under the “New Liberal Arts” tag, especially “Anti-Teaching,” “What Do We Learn Online?,” “The New Socialism Is The New Humanism,”“La Gaya Scienza,”etc…
Anywho, let me say one last thing about “originality.” I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this, and I really do think that “original” is just way too tied to quasi-romantic notions of invention ex nihilo
(I say quasi because even the Romantics didn’t believe the Romantics about this). Ditto comprehension, which is tied to the purely-receptive mode associated with the lecture. So I’m opposing “originality” and “comprehension” to “curation” and “recirculation.” (And I point out, it’s thoughtful curation, leading to immediate publication, then refining the results over time, creating a public document rather than a private register of the deep new thoughts or successful retention.
When I talk to my students about this, I usually say that it’s not about originality, or even analysis, but synthesis — bringing things together and expanding on them to create something new. Synthesis can
be creative - it can add to the discussion, it can keep knowledge moving. What we call originality usually isn’t. (And don’t read this as a covert dig on “uncreative writing,” either.)