Academia, Podcasts, Uncategorized

Bridging the Academic-Public Divide Through Podcasts

[The text of my keynote at the Sound Education conference at Harvard on November 2, 2018. This was the first annual conference on educational and academic podcasts, and gathered hundreds of producers of audio and podcast listeners to discuss how podcasting can effectively and engagingly reach diverse audiences interested in a wide range of scholarly fields.]

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It’s great to be back here in Andover Hall. I received a master’s degree in theological studies from Harvard Divinity School, and being in this chapel reminds me of what I was thinking about during my two years studying the history of religion. It is, perhaps surprisingly, germane to what I want to talk about today.

Studying religion means studying the biggest questions, the unanswerable questions. The study of religion is, necessarily, humbling. If it occasionally approaches higher truths, it also reminds us that human knowledge is woefully incomplete and fallible.

But this fallibility and the way we stumble toward the truth is not communicated regularly or well by academia to the outside world. Our formal communications take other forms that are more, shall we say, braggadocious. The academic monograph and article are necessarily shaped to show off expertise. These written forms have scholarly accoutrements, like the jewelry of footnotes, that make them dressed to impress. Mostly, of course, they are dressed to impress one’s peers.

On the other side of the academic house, press releases and magazine-like pieces from the university communications office are aimed at impressing the broader world, and to garner coverage beyond the walls of the academy. But these are also forms of writing that stay in a narrow lane, crowded as they are with spunky, crafted quotations from a world in which everything is a game-changing breakthrough.

But we’re here for podcasts. Let’s not dwell on these forms of academic expression other than to recognize them for what they are: genres. The press release and the academic article and the monograph may all be about scholarly research, but they are distinct genres, and throughout my brief remarks this morning, I want to encourage you to think about podcasts in terms of genres as well. I want you to think about the genre for your podcast.

Genres are enormously helpful structures. They are commonly agreed upon forms of communication that provide identifying signals to the audience about what they are reading, viewing, or in the case of podcasts, listening to. Genres give the audience, often unconsciously and rapidly, a general category for a creative work, which in turn colors its reception.

Genres prep the podcast listener’s ears and mind through repetition, recognition,and expectation. Conforming to a genre telegraphs structural information to the audience and makes audio more palatable and relatable.

Podcast elements like intro and outro music, for instance, are genre-building. They orient the listener, who after all might be tuning in for the first time, and communicate what kind of audio stream this is.

This conference is about podcasts, but there can be and indeed are many genres of podcasts. Podcasts no longer occupy the vast spectrum from two white guys talking about technology to three white guys talking about technology. What this conference represents is a wonderful flourishing of podcast genres.

Now we need to think more about the kinds of genres that academic work works well in, and that can take maximal advantage of the medium and have the maximal impact.

So let’s talk about how to situate educational and academic podcasts within the galaxy of possible genres.

We can take some helpful clues about this situation from other new media formats that have flourished on the web over the past quarter-century. For instance, since the advent of the web, and its ability to serve a wide array of text, in different lengths, sizes, and contexts, we have seen the birth of new genres that challenge traditional writing and break out of the constraints of print publication.

Take the blog. Originally a “web log” of interesting links, it evolved two decades ago in places like LiveJournal into personal musings and then in other platforms like MoveableType and ultimately WordPress into a fairly flexible, but always recognizable, reverse chronological, largely textual genre, one that accommodates posts of different lengths and purposes.

Because it lived on the web, and given its origins, the blog was colonized by a less formal, more freeform style that beneficially allowed academics who started blogs to loosen up a bit. I moment ago I used the word braggadocious. I would feel, shall we say, uncomfortable using that word in an academic article in my native field of history, but I’ve owned the domain dancohen.org for 20 years now and if I want to drop a braggadocious or two in a blog post there so be it.

More seriously, although the genre of the blog didn’t line up well with the strict structures needed for the peer-reviewed article, it did line up well with other aspects of academia. For instance, while the article and the book provide a final, formal genre for the results of research, they do not accommodate well, or often at all, the detailed, day-to-day research process that led up to the book or article. Indeed, most academic writing involves obscuring our processes and complexities and doubts behind the scenes, the starts and stops that happen throughout academic work, before the article or book is complete. (Note that this obscuring has led to such bad things as the replication crisis.)

The blog excels, in extraordinarily helpful ways, in portraying this process, and so we now have the distinct genre of the process blog. For example, one of the blogs I subscribe to is by a particle physicist who is providing daily updates on the fusion reactor his team is building. That is just plain cool, but will never appear in his submissions to physics journals. I have colleagues in history who blog about the ups and downs of archival research, the rare finds and the drudgery, the thousands of hours of research and writing. Those sentiments, revealed in a blog, and can enrich and humanize academic work.

Also, like a good movie, a successful article or book leaves on the cutting room floor dozens of other great scenes, half-baked but still pretty tasty thoughts, and possible connections that must wait until another time, or be forgotten forever. A blog can document the incredible swirl of evidence and thinking and knowledge that emerges out of an academic project. Blogging can be a powerful way to provide “notes from the field” and ongoing glosses in research areas that perhaps only a handful of others worldwide know much about, but that may fascinate the wider world if framed well.

Podcasts provide a fantastic opportunity, in many ways much better than the blog, to communicate the complex processes involved in acquiring new knowledge and passing it on to students and the public, and to show the bumps along the road, and the methods and heartache and excitement along the way.

For instance, last week on our What’s New podcast, we had a brilliant young biochemist, Heather Clark, on to talk about the nanosensors her lab is creating to determine the level of certain chemicals in the body. They custom design extraordinarily tiny molecules that light up when they find lithium or sodium in the bloodstream, and an electronic tattoo on the skin can then register and transmit that information.

This is truly the stuff of science fiction, but the best part of the podcast was Heather’s response to my question about how such nanotechnology is actually created. We hear this word “nanotechnology” all the time in the news, but do you have any idea what it actually looks like in practice? I didn’t. So I asked Heather to describe what goes on in her lab during a normal day. And she digressed into a remarkable discussion of how making nanosensors actually looks a lot like making salad dressing—literally mixing various oils and ingredients together to make the right blend. And she’s laughing as she’s describing this process because on the one hand it’s kitchen counter work, but on the other hand it’s a profound synthesis of physics, biology, chemistry, and engineering.

As Heather revealed these scientific principles and bench-science techniques, I couldn’t help but think of how magical, alchemical, her work is. Indeed, podcasts can frame academic expertise in a way that can thrill an audience because of this magical element. Teller, the shorter, quieter magician in Penn & Teller, has made the point that a big part of what makes magic what it is is that magicians will spend an unbelievable amount of time practicing a very specific skill or pursuing a trick, far more time than the audience considers humanly possible.

By this definition there is a lot of magic in the academy. Our colleagues spend years or even decades deciphering papyri, learning long-lost languages, trying to solve fantastically complex mathematical theorems, or tracking down the smallest bits of evidence or assembling the largest imaginable data sets. Audio, done well, can display this incredible obsession to audiences, and as Teller notes, revealing how a magic trick is done—by grit and practice and sheer will—often enhances appreciation for magic rather than dissipating it.

Finally, and most importantly, podcasts have an unparalleled ability to convey the reality of academic work, and inculcate appreciation of it—better than the blog because of the nature of audio and especially the unique character of the human voice. From the time we are babies, we respond differently to voices than to other sounds in our world. As the most social of animals, we are incredibly adept at picking up subtle cues from the human voice—excitement, nervousness, ambivalence, assurance.

The human voice can thus communicate one’s humanity to the listener in a way that most academic writing has enormous trouble with—and as I noted earlier, was never really structured to do.

But it has to be the right type of voice, a topic of many of the sessions at this conference today. If you are an academic, are you projecting a know-it-all voice, the voice of the article and the academic monograph, or the more cautious, thoughtful voice that is really in your head as you pursue your research? Are you merely recounting the end results of a process, or pulling the curtain back and showing the human—and often engrossing—processes behind the discoveries?

Academic podcasts are often criticized as raw and unedited, but they can take advantage of this lack of polish in comparison to a monograph or an article. In podcasts, we can hear a potent and unique combination of the expertise of academics with the informality of extemporaneous speech.

Done well, educational podcasts as a whole, the range of podcasts represented here today, can foster audiences who may not always agree with us or our research or conclusions, but who can grasp much more deeply the very human pursuits of the academy and see how those pursuits relate to their own lives. Critically, this has never been more important, as there is a growing skepticism about the value of the academy. All universities are struggling with how to communicate their worth to the public.

In his recent book How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds, literary scholar Alan Jacobs calls on us to foster what he calls “like-hearted, rather than like-minded” audiences. We are never to get everyone to agree with us about everything, but that shouldn’t be our ultimate goal. We should instead seek to cultivate receptivity to academic subjects again, and that hard work isn’t being adequately done through our formal writing or press releases. Podcasts give us the opportunity to show the humanity and relevance and relatability of academic practice, something that significant portions of the public have lost sight of.

Your podcast can be an important addition to this humanizing goal, one more step in expanding the audience of curious listeners, and the general population of the like-hearted.

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Academia, Digital Scholarship

Institutionalizing Digital Scholarship (or Anything Else New in a Large Organization)

I recently gave a talk at Brown University on “Institutionalizing Digital Scholarship,” and upon reflection it struck me that the lessons I tried to convey were more generally applicable. Everyone prefers to talk about innovation, rather than institutionalization, but the former can only have a long-term impact if the latter occurs. What at first seems like a dreary administrative matter is actually at the heart of real and lasting change.

New ideas and methods are notoriously difficult to integrate into large organizations. Institutions and the practitioners within them, outside of and within academia (perhaps especially within academia?), too frequently claim to be open-minded but often exhibit a close-mindedness when the new impinges upon their area of work or expertise. One need only look at the reaction to digital humanities and digital scholarship over the last two decades, and the antagonism and disciplinary policing it is still subject to, often from adjacent scholars.

In my talk I drew on the experience of directing the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University, the Digital Public Library of America, and now the Northeastern University library. The long history of RRCHNM is especially helpful as a case study, since it faced multiple headwinds, and yet thrived, in large part due to the compelling vision of its founder and the careful pursuit of opportunities related to that vision by scores of people over many years.

If you wish to digest the entire subject, please watch my full presentation. But for those short on time, here are the three critical elements of institutionalization I concluded with. If all three of these challenging processes occur, you will know that you have successfully and fully integrated something new into an organization.

Routinizing

At first, new fields and methods are pursued haphazardly, as practitioners try to understand what they are doing and how to do it. In digital scholarship, this meant a lot of experimentation. In the 1990s and early 2000s, digital projects that advanced scholarly theories eclectically tried out new technologies. Websites were often hand-coded and distinctive. But in the long run, such one-off, innovative projects were unsustainable. The new scholarly activity had to be routinized into a common, recognizable grammar and standardized formats and infrastructure, both for audiences to grasp genres and for projects to be technically sustainable over time.

At RRCHNM, this meant that after we realized we were making the same kind of digital historical project over and over, by hand, we created generalized software, Omeka, through which we could host an infinite number of similar projects. Although it reduced flexibility somewhat, Omeka made new digital projects much easier to launch and sustain. Now there are hundreds of institutions that use the software and countless history (and non-history) projects that rely on it.

Normalizing

To become institutionalized, new activities cannot remain on the fringes. They have to become normalized, part of the ordinary set of approaches within a domain. Practitioners shouldn’t even think twice before engaging in them. Even those outside of the discipline have to recognize the validity of the new idea or method; indeed, it should become unremarkable. (Fellow historians of science will catch a reference here to Thomas Kuhn’s “normal science.”) In academia, the path to normalization often—alas, too often—expresses itself primarily around concerns over tenure. But the anxiety is broader than that and relates to how new ideas and methods receive equal recognition (broadly construed) and especially the right support structures in places like the library and information technology unit.

Depersonalizing

The story of anything new often begins with one or a small number of people, like Roy Rosenzweig, who advanced a craft without caring about the routine and the normal. In the long run, however, for new ideas and methods to last, they have to find a way to exist beyond the founders, and beyond those who follow the founders. RRCHNM has now had three directors and hundreds of staffers, but similar centers have struggled or ceased to exist after the departure of their founders. This is perhaps the toughest, and final, aspect of institutionalization. It’s hard to lose someone like Roy. On the other hand, it’s another sign of his strong vision that the center he created was able to carry on and strengthen, now over a decade after he passed away.

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Academia, Podcasts, Scholarship, Web

Critical Elements of Web Culture Scholars Should Understand

The Scholars’ Lab at the University of Virginia has posted audio recordings of sessions from “The Humanities in a Digital Age,” a symposium that took place in November at UVA’s new Institute of the Humanities and Global Cultures. My keynote at the symposium was entitled “Humanities Scholars and the Web: Past, Present, Future,” and focused on what I believe are three critical elements of the web that scholars tend to overlook, or that cause concern because they upset certain academic conventions:

1) The openness and standards of the web produce generative platforms. The magic of the web is that from relatively simple technical specifications and interoperability arise an incredibly varied and constantly innovative set of genres. For those wedded to traditional forms such as the book and article, this can be difficult to understand and accept.

2) Interfaces shape genres. Tracing the history of web applications used to make blogs, from early link aggregators to the blank page of WordPress 3’s full-screen writing environment, shows this in action. Humanities blogs shifted in helpful ways over the last 15 years, into modes that should be more acceptable to the academy, as these interfaces changed. Being in control of these interfaces is important as we continue to develop online scholarship.

3) Communities define practice. Conventions around web genres are created by those participating in them. This has serious implications for what the academy might be able to do with the web in the future.

You can hear about these three main points and much more in the talk, which is available as a podcast or audio stream near the bottom of this page. Part of the talk comes from chapter 1 of The Ivory Tower and the Open Web.

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Academia, Blogs

Evans and Cebula on Academic Blogging

There has been some very good writing recently on academic blogging that I wanted to highlight in this space. Over on the excellent History of Emotions Blog, Jules Evans asks “Should Academics Blog?” (Update 1/6/12: For some reason Jules Evans has taken this post down), and offers some smart reasons in favor. I particularly liked this reason, given how academics often find the writing process difficult:

Firstly, it makes me a better writer. If you only write articles for peer-reviewed journals and the occasional book, you’re going to lose the habit of writing, and when you do write, you may find it a torturous process, like doing no exercise at all then suddenly running a marathon. Or, to use another simile, it’s like being a painter who only ever practices their art by painting huge frescoes. It’s helpful to have a sketchpad to try out ideas, find ways of putting things, and to preserve insights while they’re still fresh. It’s not either blogging or longer and more serious work. Blogging makes the longer work easier and more vibrant.

Another experienced (and award-winning) academic blogger, Larry Cebula, provides sound advice for academics thinking about starting a blog, or those who worry about sustaining one:

Decide what your blog is about, and stick to it. This blog covers the history of the Pacific Northwest, digital history and resources, and sometimes teaching. You topic does not have to be a straight jacket (perhaps 10% of my posts are outside of my usual topics), but keeping a tight focus helps you build an audience and reputation.

And in case you’re new to this blog, my views on academic blogging from 2006.

 

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Academia, Books, Education, Internet, Open Access, Peer Review, Publishing, Research, Scholarly Communication, Scholarship, Web

The Ivory Tower and the Open Web: Introduction: Burritos, Browsers, and Books [Draft]

[A draft of the introduction to my forthcoming book, The Ivory Tower and the Open Web, which looks at academic resistance to the modes and genres of the web, and how those modes and genres might actually reinvigorate the academy. I’ll be posting drafts of chapters as well for open comment and criticism.]

In the summer of 2007, Nate Silver decided to conduct a rigorous assessment of the inexpensive Mexican restaurants in his neighborhood, Chicago’s Wicker Park. Figuring that others might be interested in the results of his study, and that he might be able to use some feedback from an audience, he took his project online.

Silver had no prior experience in such an endeavor. By day he worked as a statistician and writer at Baseball Prospectus—an innovator, to be sure, having created a clever new standard for empirically measuring the value of players, an advanced form of the “sabermetrics” vividly described by Michael Lewis in Moneyball. ((Nate Silver, “Introducing PECOTA,” in Gary Huckabay, Chris Kahrl, Dave Pease et al., eds., Baseball Prospectus 2003 (Dulles, VA: Brassey’s Publishers, 2003): 507-514. Michael Lewis, Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2004).)) But Silver had no experience as a food critic, nor as a web developer.

In time, his appetite took care of the former and the open web took care of the latter. Silver knit together a variety of free services as the tapestry for his culinary project. He set up a blog, The Burrito Bracket, using Google’s free Blogger web application. Weekly posts consisted of his visits to local restaurants, and the scores (in jalapeños) he awarded in twelve categories.

Home page of Nate Silver’s Burrito Bracket
Ranking system (upper left quadrant)

Being a sports geek, he organized the posts as a series of contests between two restaurants. Satisfying his urge to replicate March Madness, he modified another free application from Google, generally intended to create financial or data spreadsheets, to produce the “bracket” of the blog’s title.

Google Spreadsheets used to create the competition bracket

Like many of the savviest users of the web, Silver started small and improved the site as he went along. For instance, he had started to keep a photographic record of his restaurant visits and decided to share this documentary evidence. So he enlisted the photo-sharing site Flickr, creating an off-the-rack archive to accompany his textual descriptions and numerical scores. On August 15, 2007, he added a map to the site, geolocating each restaurant as he went along and color-coding the winners and losers.

Flickr photo archive for The Burrito Bracket (flickr.com)
Silver’s Google Map of Chicago’s Wicker Park (shaded in purple) with the location of each Mexican restaurant pinpointed

Even with its do-it-yourself enthusiasm and the allure of carne asada, Silver had trouble attracting an audience. He took to Yelp, a popular site for reviewing restaurants to plug The Burrito Bracket, and even thought about creating a Super Burrito Bracket, to cover all of Chicago. ((Frequently Asked Questions, The Burrito Bracket, http://burritobracket.blogspot.com/2007/07/faq.html)) But eventually he abandoned the site following the climactic “Burrito Bowl I.”

With his web skills improved and a presidential election year approaching, Silver decided to try his mathematical approach on that subject instead—”an opportunity for a sort of Moneyball approach to politics,” as he would later put it. ((http://www.journalism.columbia.edu/system/documents/477/original/nate_silver.pdf)) Initially, and with a nod to his obsession with Mexican food, he posted his empirical analyses of politics under the chili-pepper pseudonym “Poblano,” on the liberal website Daily Kos, which hosts blogs for its engaged readers.

Then, in March 2008, Silver registered his own web domain, with a title that was simultaneously and appropriately mathematical and political: fivethirtyeight.com, a reference to the total number of electors in the United States electoral college. He launched the site with a slight one-paragraph post on a recent poll from South Dakota and a summary of other recent polling from around the nation. As with The Burrito Bracket it was a modest start, but one that was modular and extensible. Silver soon added maps and charts to bolster his text.

FiveThirtyEight two months after launch, in May 2008

Nate Silver’s real name and FiveThiryEight didn’t remain obscure for long. His mathematical modeling of the competition between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination proved strikingly, almost creepily, accurate. Clear-eyed, well-written, statistically rigorous posts began to be passed from browsers to BlackBerries, from bloggers to political junkies to Beltway insiders. From those wired early subscribers to his site, Silver found an increasingly large audience of those looking for data-driven, deeply researched analysis rather than the conventional reporting that presented political forecasting as more art than science.

FiveThiryEight went from just 800 visitors a day in its first month to a daily audience of 600,000 by October 2008. ((Adam Sternbergh, The Spreadsheet Psychic, New York, Oct 12, 2008, http://nymag.com/news/features/51170/)) On election day, FiveThiryEight received a remarkable 3 
million 
visitors, more than most daily newspapers
. ((http://www.journalism.columbia.edu/system/documents/477/original/nate_silver.pdf))

All of this attention for a site that most media coverage still called, with a hint of deprecation, a “blog,” or “aggregator” of polls, despite Silver’s rather obvious, if latent, journalistic skills. (Indeed, one of his roads not taken had been an offer, straight out of college, to become an assistant at The Washington Post. ((http://www.journalism.columbia.edu/system/documents/477/original/nate_silver.pdf)) ) An article in the Colorado Daily on the emergent genre represented by FiveThirtyEight led with Ken Bickers, professor and chair of the political science department at the University of Colorado, saying that such sites were a new form of “quality blogs” (rather than, evidently, the uniformly second-rate blogs that had previously existed). The article then swerved into much more ominous territory, asking whether reading FiveThirtyEight and similar blogs was potentially dangerous, especially compared to the safe environs of the traditional newspaper. Surely these sites were superficial, and they very well might have a negative effect on their audience:

Mary Coussons-Read, a professor of psychology at CU Denver, says today’s quick turnaround of information helps to make it more compelling.

“Information travels so much more quickly,” she says. “(We expect) instant gratification. If people have a question, they want an answer.”

That real-time quality can bring with it the illusion that it’s possible to perceive a whole reality by accessing various bits of information.

“There’s this immediacy of the transfer of information that leads people to believe they’re seeing everything … and that they have an understanding of the meaning of it all,” she says.

And, Coussons-Read adds, there is pleasure in processing information.

“I sometimes feel like it’s almost a recreational activity and less of an information-gathering activity,” she says.

Is it addiction?

[Michele] Wolf says there is something addicting about all that data.

“I do feel some kind of high getting new information and being able to process it,” she says. “I’m also a rock climber. I think there are some characteristics that are shared. My addiction just happens to be information.”

While there’s no such mental-health diagnosis as political addiction, Jeanne White, chemical dependency counselor at Centennial Peaks Hospital in Louisville, says political information seeking could be considered an addictive process if it reaches an extreme. ((Cindy Sutter, “Hooked on information: Can political news really be addicting?” The Colorado Daily, November 3, 2008, http://www.coloradodaily.com/ci_13105998))

This stereotype of blogs as the locus of “information” rather than knowledge, of “recreation” rather than education, was—and is—a common one, despite the wide variety of blogs, including many with long-form, erudite writing. Perhaps in 2008 such a characterization of FiveThirtyEight was unsurprising given that Silver’s only other credits to date were the Player Empirical Comparison and Optimization Test Algorithm (PECOTA) and The Burrito Bracket. Clearly, however, here was an intelligent researcher who had set his mind on a new topic to write about, with a fresh, insightful approach to the material. All he needed was a way to disseminate his findings. His audience appreciated his extraordinarily clever methods—at heart, academic techniques—for cutting through the mythologies and inadequacies of standard political commentary. All they needed was a web browser to find him.

A few journalists saw past the prevailing bias against non-traditional outlets like FiveThirtyEight. In the spring of 2010, Nate Silver bumped into Gerald Marzorati, the editor of the New York Times Magazine, on a train platform in Boston. They struck up a conversation, which eventually turned into a discussion about how FiveThirtyEight might fit into the universe of the Times, which ultimately recognized the excellence of his work and wanted FiveThirtyEight to enhance their political reporting and commentary. That summer, a little more than two years after he had started FiveThirtyEight, Silver’s “blog” merged into the Times under a licensing deal. ((Nate Silver, “FiveThirtyEight to Partner with New York Times, http://www.fivethirtyeight.com/2010/06/fivethirtyeight-to-partner-with-new.html)) In less time than it takes for most students to earn a journalism degree, Silver had willed himself into writing for one of the world’s premier news outlets, taking a seat in the top tier of political analysis. A radically democratic medium had enabled him to do all of this, without the permission of any gatekeeper.

FiveThirtyEight on the New York Times website, 2010

* * *

 

The story of Nate Silver and FiveThirtyEight has many important lessons for academia, all stemming from the affordances of the open web. His efforts show the do-it-yourself nature of much of the most innovative work on the web, and how one can iterate toward perfection rather than publishing works in fully polished states. His tale underlines the principle that good is good, and that the web is extraordinarily proficient at finding and disseminating the best work, often through continual, post-publication, recursive review. FiveThirtyEight also shows the power of openness to foster that dissemination and the dialogue between author and audience. Finally, the open web enables and rewards unexpected uses and genres.

Undoubtedly it is true that the path from The Burrito Bracket to The New York Times may only be navigated by an exceptionally capable and smart individual. But the tools for replicating Silver’s work are just as open to anyone, and just as powerful. It was with that belief, and the desire to encourage other academics to take advantage of the open web, that Roy Rosenzweig and I wrote Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web. ((Daniel J. Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig, Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006).)) We knew that the web, although fifteen years old at the time, was still somewhat alien to many professors, graduate students, and even undergraduates (who might be proficient at texting but know nothing about HTML), and we wanted to make the medium more familiar and approachable.

What we did not anticipate was another kind of resistance to the web, based not on an unfamiliarity with the digital realm or on Luddism but on the remarkable inertia of traditional academic methods and genres—the more subtle and widespread biases that hinder the academy’s adoption of new media. These prejudices are less comical, and more deep-seated, than newspapers’ penchant for tales of internet addiction. This resistance has less to do with the tools of the web and more to do with the web’s culture. It was not enough for us to conclude Digital History by saying how wonderful the openness of the web was; for many academics, this openness was part of the problem, a sign that it might be like “playing tennis with the net down,” as my graduate school mentor worriedly wrote to me. ((http://www.dancohen.org/2010/11/11/frank-turner-on-the-future-of-peer-review/))

In some respects, this opposition to the maximal use of the web is understandable. Almost by definition, academics have gotten to where they are by playing a highly scripted game extremely well. That means understanding and following self-reinforcing rules for success. For instance, in history and the humanities at most universities in the United States, there is a vertically integrated industry of monographs, beginning with the dissertation in graduate school—a proto-monograph—followed by the revisions to that work and the publication of it as a book to get tenure, followed by a second book to reach full professor status. Although we are beginning to see a slight liberalization of rules surrounding dissertations—in some places dissertations could be a series of essays or have digital components—graduate students infer that they would best be served on the job market by a traditional, analog monograph.

We thus find ourselves in a situation, now more than two decades into the era of the web, where the use of the medium in academia is modest, at best. Most academic journals have moved online but simply mimic their print editions, providing PDF facsimiles for download and having none of the functionality common to websites, such as venues for discussion. They are also largely gated, resistant not only to access by the general public but also to the coin of the web realm: the link. Similarly, when the Association of American University Presses recently asked its members about their digital publishing strategies, the presses tellingly remained steadfast in their fixation on the monograph. All of the top responses were about print-on-demand and the electronic distribution and discovery of their list, with a mere footnote for a smattering of efforts to host “databases, wikis, or blogs.” ((Association of American University Presses, “Digital Publishing in the AAUP Community; Survey Report: Winter 2009-2010,” http://aaupnet.org/resources/reports/0910digitalsurvey.pdf, p. 2)) In other words, the AAUP members see themselves almost exclusively as book publishers, not as publishers of academic work in whatever form that may take. Surveys of faculty show comfort with decades-old software like word processors but an aversion to recent digital tools and methods. ((See, for example, Robert B. Townsend, “How Is New Media Reshaping the Work of Historians?”, Perspectives on History, November 2010, http://www.historians.org/Perspectives/issues/2010/1011/1011pro2.cfm)) The professoriate may be more liberal politically than the most latte-filled ZIP code in San Francisco, but we are an extraordinarily conservative bunch when in comes to the progression and presentation of our own work. We have done far less than we should have by this point in imagining and enacting what academic work and communication might look like if it was digital first.

To be sure, as William Gibson has famously proclaimed, “The future is already here—it’s just not very evenly distributed.” ((National Public Radio, “Talk of the Nation” radio program, 30 November 1999, timecode 11:55, http://discover.npr.org/features/feature.jhtml?wfId=1067220)) Almost immediately following the advent of the web, which came out of the realm of physics, physicists began using the Los Alamos National Laboratory preprint server (later renamed ArXiv and moved to arXiv.org) to distribute scholarship directly to each other. Blogging has taken hold in some precincts of the academy, such as law and economics, and many in those disciplines rely on web-only outlets such as the Social Science Research Network. The future has had more trouble reaching the humanities, and perhaps this book is aimed slightly more at that side of campus than the science quad. But even among the early adopters, a conservatism reigns. For instance, one of the most prominent academic bloggers, the economist Tyler Cowen, still recommends to students a very traditional path for their own work. ((“Tyler Cowen: Academic Publishing,” remarks at the Institute for Humane Studies Summer Research Fellowship weekend seminar, May 2011, http://vimeo.com/24124436)) And far from being preferred by a large majority of faculty, quests to open scholarship to the general public often meet with skepticism. ((Open access mandates have been tough sells on many campuses, passing only by slight majorities or failing entirely. For instance, such a mandate was voted down at the University of Maryland, with evidence of confusion and ambivalence. http://scholarlykitchen.sspnet.org/2009/04/28/umaryland-faculty-vote-no-oa/))

If Digital History was about the mechanisms for moving academic work online, this book is about how the digital-first culture of the web might become more widespread and acceptable to the professoriate and their students. It is, by necessity, slightly more polemical than Digital History, since it takes direct aim at the conservatism of the academy that twenty years of the web have laid bare. But the web and the academy are not doomed to an inevitable clash of cultures. Viewed properly, the open web is perfectly in line with the fundamental academic goals of research, sharing of knowledge, and meritocracy. This book—and it is a book rather than a blog or stream of tweets because pragmatically that is the best way to reach its intended audience of the hesitant rather than preaching to the online choir—looks at several core academic values and asks how we can best pursue them in a digital age.

First, it points to the critical academic ability to look at any genre without bias and asks whether we might be violating that principle with respect to the web. Upon reflection many of the best things we discover in scholarship are found by disregarding popularity and packaging, by approaching creative works without prejudice. We wouldn’t think much of the meandering novel Moby-Dick if Carl Van Doren hadn’t looked past decades of mixed reviews to find the genius in Melville’s writing. Art historians have similarly unearthed talented artists who did their work outside of the royal academies and the prominent schools of practice. As the unpretentious wine writer Alexis Lichine shrewdly said in the face of fancy labels and appeals to mythical “terroir”: “There is no substitute for pulling corks.” ((Quoted in Frank J. Prial, “Wine Talk,” New York Times, 17 August 1994, http://www.nytimes.com/1994/08/17/garden/wine-talk-983519.html.))

Good is good, no matter the venue of publication or what the crowd thinks. Scholars surely understand that on a deep level, yet many persist in the valuing venue and medium over the content itself. This is especially true at crucial moments, such as promotion and tenure. Surely we can reorient ourselves to our true core value—to honor creativity and quality—which will still guide us to many traditionally published works but will also allow us to consider works in some nontraditional venues such as new open access journals or articles written and posted on a personal website or institutional repository, or digital projects.

The genre of the blog has been especially cursed by this lack of open-mindedness from the academy. Chapter 1, “What is a Blog?”, looks at the history of the blog and blogging, the anatomy and culture of a genre that is in many ways most representative of the open web. Saddled with an early characterization as being the locus of inane, narcissistic writing, the blog has had trouble making real inroads in academia, even though it is an extraordinarily flexible form and the perfect venue for a great deal of academic work. The chapter highlights some of the best examples of academic blogging and how they shape and advance arguments in a field. We can be more creative in thinking about the role of the blog within the academy, as a venue for communicating our work to colleagues as well as to a lay audience beyond the ivory tower.

This academic prejudice against the blog extends to other genres that have proliferated on the open web. Chapter 2, “Genres and the Open Web,” examines the incredible variety of those new forms, and how, with a careful eye, we might be able to import some of them profitably into the academy. Some of these genres, like the wiki, are well-known (thanks to Wikipedia, which academics have come to accept begrudgingly in the last five years). Other genres are rarer but take maximal advantage of the latitude of the open web: its malleability and interactivity. Rather than imposing the genres we know on the web—as we do when we post PDFs of print-first journal articles—we would do well to understand and adopt the web’s native genres, where helpful to scholarly pursuits.

But what of our academic interest in validity and excellence, enshrined in our peer review system? Chapter 3, “Good is Good,” examines the fundamental requirements of any such system: the necessity of highlighting only a minority of the total scholarly output, based on community standards, and of disseminating that minority of work to communities of thought and practice. The chapter compares print-age forms of vetting with native web forms of assessment and review, and proposes ways that digital methods can supplement—or even replace—our traditional modes of peer review.

“The Value, and Values, of Openness,” Chapter 4, broadly examines the nature of the web’s openness. Oddly, this openness is both the easiest trait of the web to understand and its most complex, once one begins to dig deeper. The web’s radical openness not only has led to calls for open access to academic work, which has complicated the traditional models of scholarly publishers and societies; it has also challenged our academic predisposition toward perfectionism—the desire to only publish in a “final” format, purged (as much as possible) of error. Critically, openness has also engendered unexpected uses of online materials—for instance, when Nate Silver refactored poll numbers from the raw data polling agencies posted.

Ultimately, openness is at the core of any academic model that can operate effectively on the web: it provides a way to disseminate our work easily, to assess what has been published, and to point to what’s good and valuable. Openness can naturally lead—indeed, is leading—to a fully functional shadow academic system for scholarly research and communication that exists beyond the more restrictive and inflexible structures of the past.

[Update, 7/29/11: I’ve answered Zach Schrag’s criticism about the disciplinary scope of the book in a new paragraph beginning with “To be sure, as William Gibson…”]

[Update, 8/1/11: Added more about “good is good,” beginning with the line on Alexis Lichine and continuing through the following paragraph, to address Sylvia Miller’s point about promotion and tenure. Also fixed a few points of grammar, thanks to Sherman Dorn.]

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Academia, Blogs, Scholarship

A Lesson from the Past about Genres and Bias

In my sophomore year of college I took a new course with more buzz than a summer blockbuster: “Postmodernism.” Students literally ran to sign up for it, partly because it was taught by the coolest, mustard-suited professor on campus, Andrew Ross, and partly because it promised a semester filled with graphic novels, Survival Research Labs, and Blade Runner.

Beyond the discussions of mechanical reproduction and simulacra, I remember several things vividly. One was Ross’s lecture on cyborgs in which he described Arnold Schwarzenegger in Terminator as “a condom filled with walnuts.” The second was my preceptor, a brand-new assistant professor named Jeff Nunokawa. Nunokawa was whip-smart and a great teacher, and he introduced my nineteen-year-old self to the incredible revelation that Batman had a homoerotic subtext. (I’ll pause here for you to snicker at my youthful ignorance.) Finally, and most importantly, both Ross and Nunokawa repeatedly emphasized in the course that any genre in any medium could have value—and on occasion sustained creativity and insight.

So I was glad to see a cover story on the boundless energy and intelligence of Nunokawa in the Princeton Alumni Weekly (which is actually produced monthly, in postmodern fashion), especially since the article highlighted Nunokawa’s writing of thousands of online posts about literature and philosophy, art and ideas. I cheered what I thought was a great example of a professor blogging, until I hit this paragraph:

For the record, he does not call this a blog, partly, he says, because “I hate that particular syllable,” but also, more importantly, because “it doesn’t catch what I’m really trying to do, whether successfully or not. These are essays. When I think of a blog — and maybe I’m being unfair to bloggers because I don’t spend much time in the blogosphere — my sense of blogs is that that they’re written very quickly. This is stuff that I compose and recompose, and then recompose and recompose and recompose. It’s very written.”

This is precisely the bias I’m arguing against in The Ivory Tower and the Open Web. There is no reason a blog has to be quickly or poorly written; the comment made me want to time-travel the Nunokawa of 1988, Terminator-like, to confront the Nunokawa of 2011. And if Nunokawa can have this prejudice against blogs, instead of viewing them as potential outlets for good writing owned by scholars themselves, imagine what Nunokawa’s more traditional colleagues think of the genres of the open web.

As in the Oscar Wilde plays Nunokawa often dissects, there’s a final, amusing irony to this story. Where does Nunokawa do his sophisticated blog…er, essaying? Facebook.

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Academia, Books, Collaboration, Conferences and Workshops, Programming, Unconferences

Thoughts on One Week | One Tool

Well that just happened. It’s hard to believe that last Sunday twelve scholars and software developers were arriving at the brand-new Mason Inn on our campus and now have created and launched a tool, Anthologize, that created a frenzy on social and mass media.

If you haven’t already done so, you should first read the many excellent reports from those who participated in One Week | One Tool (and watched it from afar). One Week | One Tool was an intense institute sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities that strove to convey the Center for History and New Media‘s knowledge about building useful scholarly software. As the name suggests, the participants had to conceive, build, and disseminate their own tool in just one week. To the participants’ tired voices I add a few thoughts from the aftermath.

Less Talk, More Grok

One Week director (and Center for History and New Media managing director) Tom Scheinfeldt and I grew up listening to WAAF in Boston, which had the motto (generally yelled, with reverb) “Less Talk, More Rock!” (This being Boston, it was actually more like “Rahwk!”) For THATCamp I spun that call-to-action into “Less Talk, More Grok!” since it seemed to me that the core of THATCamp is its antagonism toward the deadening lectures and panels of normal academic conferences and its attempt to maximize knowledge transfer with nonhierarchical, highly participatory, hands-on work. THATCamp is exhausting and exhilarating because everyone is engaged and has something to bring to the table.

Not to over-philosophize or over-idealize THATCamp, but for academic doubters I do think the unconference is making an argument about understanding that should be familiar to many humanists: the importance of “tacit knowledge.” For instance, in my field, the history of science, scholars have come to realize in the last few decades that not all of science consists of cerebral equations and concepts that can be taught in a textbook; often science involves techniques and experiential lessons that must be acquired in a hands-on way from someone already capable in that realm.

This is also true for the digital humanities. I joked with emissaries from the National Endowment for the Humanities, which took a huge risk in funding One Week, that our proposal to them was like Jerry Seinfeld’s and George Costanza’s pitch to NBC for a “show about nothing.” I’m sure it was hard for reviewers of our proposal to see its slightly sketchy syllabus. (“You don’t know what will be built ahead of time?!”) But this is the way in which the digital humanities is close to the lab sciences. There can of course be theory and discussion, but there will also have to be a lot of doing if you want to impart full knowledge of the subject. Many times during the week I saw participants and CHNMers convey things to each other—everything from little shortcuts to substantive lessons—that wouldn’t have occurred to us ahead of time, without the team being engaged in actually building something.

MTV Cops

The low point of One Week was undoubtedly my ham-fisted attempt at something of a keynote while the power was out on campus, killing the lights, the internet, and (most seriously) the air conditioning. Following “Less Talk, More Grok,” I never should have done it. But one story I told at the beginning did seem to have modest continuing impact over the week (if frequently as the source of jokes).

Hollywood is famous for great (and laughable) idea pitches—which is why that Seinfeld episode was amusing—but none is perhaps better than Brandon Tartikoff’s brilliantly concise pitch for Miami Vice: “MTV cops.” I’m a firm believer that it’s important to be able to explain a digital tool with something close to the precision of “MTV cops” if you want a significant number of people to use it. Some might object that we academics are smart folks, capable of understanding sophisticated, multivalent tools, but people are busy, and with digital tools there are so many clamoring for attention and each entails a huge commitment (often putting your scholarship into an entirely new system). Scholars, like everyone else, are thus enormously resistant to tools that are hard to grasp. (Case in point: Google Wave.)

I loved the 24 hours of One Week from Monday afternoon to Tuesday afternoon where the group brainstormed potential tools to build and then narrowed them down to “MTV Cops” soundbites. Of course the tools were going to be more complex than these reductionistic soundbites, but those soundbites gave the process some focus and clarity. It also allowed us to ask Twitter followers to vote on general areas of interest (e.g., “Better timelines”) to gauge the market. We tweeted “Blog->Book” for idea #1, which is what became Anthologize.

And what were most of the headlines on launch day? Some variant on the crystal-clear ReadWriteWeb headline: “Scholars Build Blog-to-eBook Tool in One Week.”

Speed Doesn’t Kill

We’ve gotten occasional flak at the Center for History and New Media for some recent efforts that seem more carnival than Ivory Tower, because they seem to throw out the academic emphasis on considered deliberation. (However, it should be noted that we also do many multi-year, sweat-and-tears, time-consuming projects like the National History Education Clearinghouse, putting online the first fifteen years of American history, and creating software used by millions of people.)

But the experience of events like One Week makes me question whether the academic default to deliberation is truly wise. One Weekers could have sat around for a week, a month, a year, and still I suspect that the tool they decided to build was the best choice, with the greatest potential impact. As programmers in the real world know, it’s much better to have partial, working code than to plan everything out in advance. Just by launching Anthologize in alpha and generating all that excitement, the team opened up tremendous reserves of good will, creativity, and problem-solving from users and outside developers. I saw at least ten great new use cases for Anthologize on Twitter in the first day. How are you supposed to come up with those ideas from internal deliberation or extensive planning?

There was also something special about the 24/7 focus the group achieved. The notion that they had to have a tool in one week (crazy on the face of it) demanded that the participants think about that tool all of the time (even in their sleep, evidently). I’ll bet there was the equivalent of several months worth of thought that went on during One Week, and the time limit meant that participants didn’t have the luxury of overthinking certain choices that were, at the end of the day, either not that important or equally good options. Eric Johnson, observing One Week on Twitter, called this the power of intense “singular worlds” to get things done. Paul Graham has similarly noted the importance of environments that keep one idea foremost in your mind.

There are probably many other areas where focus, limits, and, yes, speed might help us in academia. Dissertations, for instance, often unhealthily drag on as doctoral students unwisely aim for perfection, or feel they have to write 300 pages even though their breakthrough thesis is contained in a single chapter. I wonder if a targeted writing blitz like the successful National Novel Writing Month might be ported to the academy.

Start Small, Dream Big

As dissertations become books through a process of polish and further thought, so should digital tools iterate toward perfection from humble beginnings. I’ve written in this space about the Center for History and New Media’s love of Voltaire’s dictum that “the perfect is the enemy of the good [enough],” and we communicated to One Week attendees that it was fine to start with a tool that was doable in a week. The only caveat was that tool should be conceived with such modularity and flexibility that it could grow into something very powerful. The Anthologize launch reminds me of what I said in this space about Zotero on its launch: it was modest, but it had ambition. It was conceived not just as a reference manager but as an extensible platform for research. The few early negative comments about Anthologize similarly misinterpreted it myopically as a PDF-formatter for blogs. Sure, it will do that, as can other services. But like Zotero (and Omeka) Anthologize is a platform that can be broadly extended and repurposed. Most people thankfully got that—it sparked the imagination of many, even though it’s currently just a rough-around-the-edges alpha.

Congrats again to the whole One Week team. Go get some rest.

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