Category: Academia

Harvard Faculty Approves Open Access Policy

According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences adopted the open access policy I mentioned yesterday. Peter Suber has the link to the full text of the faculty motion.

A Quartet of Open Access Arguments

On the day that Harvard’s faculty votes on a strong open access proposal (I’m still looking for the actual text of the proposal; please add a link in the comments if you are aware of it), here are a few of the better arguments this week about the open access movement:

Errol Morris Understands What Academic Blogging Could Be

I’ve been catching up with some reading over break—reading both online and off, despite the NEA’s recent dismissal of the former. And nothing dismisses the NEA’s dismissal of online writing as lesser than print better than the destined-to-be-a-classic series of blog posts by Errol Morris in the New York Times, “Which Came First?” Better written than most novels, more insightful than most academic articles, and more of a (virtual) page-turner than most mysteries, you should do yourself a favor and read the entire series (go ahead, print it out if you must, it’s long), and subscribe to Morris’s blog while you’re at it.

“Which Came First” begins with Morris simply trying to figure out which of two stark and riveting Crimean War photographs by Roger Fenton was taken first—the one with cannonballs strewn across a deserted road or the one with the cannonballs clustered to the side. But the series of blog posts quickly devolves into a discussion and debate about truth in photography and history. Along the way we get pointers about the nature of sunlight, warfare, and Photoshop.

Beyond the series itself, I was impressed by Morris’s conversion to blogging during the writing of the series. (Before “Which Came First?” he only blogged sporadically.) Morris began to realize that open access to his writing online led not only to a large and engaged audience, but also to critical feedback from readers. Some of the reader comments are as shrewd as Morris’s narrative.

I’m at work on a longish series of blog posts of my own tentatively entitled “The Tyranny of the Monograph,” building on my original call for professors to blog. Morris’s conclusion fits with the spirit of my series and with the need to think of new ways of academic publishing in a digital age:

A number of readers have claimed that I am not producing a blog—that I am producing a series of essays. Nomenclature aside, the idea of publishing the responses of readers to a given text (and even to including an author’s responses to those responses) goes back at least to the 17th century…So what is going on here? I believe it should appropriately be called…”Cartesian Blogging.”

Digital History Takes Root

Mills Kelly takes note of a new trend this year: the sprouting up of digital history positions. The numbers aren’t large, but this is how new fields slowly emerge and are integrated into the profession. Congratulations to the departments and universities with the foresight to incorporate digital history into their programs.

Symposium on the Future of Scholarly Communication

For those who missed it, between October 12 and 27, 2007, there was a very thoughtful and insightful online discussion of how the publication of scholarship is changing—or trying to change—in the digital age. Participating in the discussion were Ed Felton, David Robinson, Paul DiMaggio, and Andrew Appel from Princeton University (the symposium was hosted by the Center for Information Technology Policy at Princeton), Ira Fuchs of the Mellon Foundation, Peter Suber of the indispensable Open Access News blog (and philosophy professor at Earlham College), Stan Katz, the President Emeritus of the American Council of Learned Societies, and Laura Brown of Ithaka (and formerly the President of Oxford University Press USA).

The symposium is really worth reading from start to finish. (Alas, one of the drawbacks of hosting a symposium on a blog is that it keeps everything in reverse chronological order; it would be great if CITP could flip the posts now that the discussion has ended.) But for those of us in the humanities the most relevant point is that we are going to have a much harder transition to an online model of scholarship than in the sciences. The main reason for this is that for us the highest form of scholarship is the book, whereas in the sciences it is the article, which is far more easily put online, posted in various forms (including as pre- and e-prints), and networked to other articles (through, e.g., citation analysis). In addition, we’re simply not as technologically savvy. As Paul DiMaggio points out, “every computer scientist who received his or her Ph.D. in computer science after 1980 or so has a website” (on which they can post their scholarly production), whereas the number is about 40% for political scientists and I’m sure far less for historians and literature professors.

I’m planning a long post in this space on the possible ways for humanities professors to move from print to open online scholarship; this discussion is great food for thought.

The Strange Dynamics of Technology Adoption and Promotion in Academia

Kudos to Bruce D’Arcus for writing the blog post I’ve been meaning to write for a while. Bruce notes with some amazement the resistance that free and open source projects like Zotero meet when they encounter the institutional buying patterns and tech evangelism that is all too common in academia. The problem here seems to be that the people doing the purchasing of software are not the end users (often the libraries at colleges and universities for reference managers like EndNote or Refworks and the IT departments for course management systems) nor do they have the proper incentives to choose free alternatives.

As Roy Rosenzweig and I noted in Digital History, the exorbitant yearly licensing fee for Blackboard or WebCT (loathed by every professor I know) could be exchanged for an additional assistant professor–or another librarian. But for some reason a certain portion of academic technology purchasers feel they need to buy something for each of these categories (reference managers, CMS), and then, because they have invested the time and money and long-term contracts on those somethings, they feel they need to exclusively promote those tools without listening to the evolving needs and desires of the people they serve. Nor do they have the incentive to try new technologies or tools.

Any suggestions on how to properly align these needs and incentives? Break out the technology spending in students’ bills (“What, my university is spending that much on Blackboard?”)?

PhDinHistory Is Back!

Kudos to PhDinHistory for relaunching his blog (at a new address; please refresh your RSS subscriptions). It clearly took a lot of guts and I look forward to many more insightful posts from this vibrant blogger and budding academic. I have no doubt that his site will be the locus for interesting, contentious discussion, and both supporters and critics should applaud his hard work and thoughtfulness.

The Perils of Anonymity

PhDinHistory, we hardly knew ye. A blogger who came out of nowhere to write interesting, thorough analyses of the state of academia and trends in history, captured my attention from the first post and eventually garnered a much wider audience. Then suddenly, this weekend, PhDinHistory deleted his or her WordPress account. No goodbye post and static archive of the blog, but rather a full deletion that made it impossible to read or link to the blog forever. I didn’t always agree with PhDinHistory, but as a blogger who also wanted to write more in-depth pieces rather than quick blogish ones (although more recently I have cheated by adding into my feed smaller posts from ma.gnolia), I truly respected the effort that went into this new blog. From the beginning, however, I thought there was one major problem with PhDinHistory’s blog: its anonymity.

PhDinHistory’s rise and fall demonstrates, I believe, one of the principles I’ve outlined about academic blogging: we shouldn’t use pseudonyms. PhDinHistory may have been a thoughtful blogger, but he or she created a unnecessary distraction by writing under a pseudonym. It might come as a shock to PhDinHistory, but there was almost nothing on his or her blog that was an affront to other students or professors, or that would have been a problem when he or she came on the job market. When PhDinHistory wrote about possible upcoming vacancies in history departments, he or she was simply analyzing the statistics of age and fields of concentration, not proposing to off tenured professors. Besides, professors know that graduate students are constantly mulling over schemes to get dream jobs—we were grad students once, too. It’s actually refreshing to see such speculation out in the open, and with numbers to boot.

Moreover, as I noted in “Professors, Start Your Blogs,” by writing under his or her own name, PhDinHistory would have gained the “responsibility and credit” that goes along with attribution. Both are important. It’s too bad that PhDinHistory will never receive proper credit for months of hard work and many thought-provoking articles. At the same time, I think that the responsibility that goes along with attribution actually would have strengthened, not weakened, PhDinHistory’s blog. I assume PhDinHistory thought that anonymity would be liberating and allow for the fullest latitude on the blog. But writing with attribution would have allowed PhDinHistory to truly join in a conversation with other (non-anonymous) academics. It also would have helpfully tempered some of the more speculative posts. As poets know, total freedom makes for some bad verses.

PhDinHistory thought that there was peril in writing under his or her real name, but it turned out that the opposite was true—it was the pseudonym that was the real peril. All it did—as PhDinHistory admitted to Rob Townsend of the American Historical Association—was to create a contest to see who could unmask the mystery blogger. As the pursuers closed in, PhDinHistory unfortunately had to stop blogging.

The pseudonym was counterproductive, and in PhDinHistory’s case, completely unnecessary. I am undoubtedly not alone in wanting PhDinHistory to return to the blogosphere. The solution to his or her quandary is clear to me, as it is to many others. Simply relaunch the blog under his or her own name and—as hard as this may be—stop worrying. We professors know you don’t really want us to meet an untimely end.

Promotion and Tenure Guidelines for New Media

The University of Maine’s New Media Department summarizes several recent reports on how to assess new media projects as part of promotion and tenure in academia. The summary identifies nine “recognition measures” as alternatives to the standard peer-review process, which is often not possible for new media projects.

Creating a Blog from Scratch, Part 6: One Year Later

Well, it’s been over a year since I started this blog with a mix of trepidation, ambivalence, and faint praise for the genre—not exactly promising stuff—and so it’s with a mixture of relief and a smidgen of smug self-satisfaction that I’m writing this post. I’m extremely glad that I started this blog last fall and have kept it going. (Evidently the half-life of blogs is about three months, so an active year-old blog is, I suppose, some kind of accomplishment in our attention-deficit age.) I thought it would be a good idea (and several correspondents have prodded me in this direction) to return to my series of posts about starting this blog, “Creating a Blog from Scratch.” (For latecomers, this blog is not powered by Blogger, TypePad, or WordPress, but rather by my own feeble concoction of programming and design.) Over the next few posts I’ll be revisiting some of the decisions I made, highlighting some good things that have happened and some regrets. And at the end of the series I’ll be introducing some adjustments to my blog that I hope will make it better. But first, in something of a sequel to my call to my colleagues to join me in this endeavor, “Professors, Start Your Blogs,” some of the triumphs and tribulations I’ve encountered over the last year.

As the five-part series on creating this blog detailed, I took the masochistic step of writing my own blog software (that’s probably a little too generous; it’s really just a set of simple PHP scripts with a MySQL database) because I wanted to learn about how blogs were put together and see if I agreed with all of the assumptions that went into the genre. That learning experience was helpful (and judging by the email still I get about the series others have found it helpful), but I think I have paid a price in some ways. I will readily admit I’m jealous of other bloggers with their fancy professional blogging software with all of the bells and whistles. Worse, much of the blogosphere is driven by the big mainstream software packages like Blogger, TypePad, and WordPress; having your own blog software means you can’t take advantage of cutting-edge features, like new forms of searching or linking between blogs. But I’m also able to tweak the blog format more readily because I wrote every line of the code that powers this blog.

As I wrote in “Welcome to My Blog,” and as regular readers of this blog know well, I’m not a frequent poster. Sometimes I lament this fact when I see blogs I respect maintain a frantic pace. I’ve written a little over 60 posts (barely better than one per week, although with the Zotero crunch this fall the delays between posts has grown). Many times I’ve felt I had something to post to the blog but just didn’t get around to writing it up. I’m sure other bloggers know that feeling of missed opportunity, which is of course a little silly considering that we’re doing this for free, in our spare time, in most cases without a gun to our heads. But you do begin to feel a responsibility to your audience, and there’s no one to pawn that responsibility off on—you’re simultaneously the head writer, editor, and publisher.

On the other hand, I just did a quick database query and was astonished to discover I’ve written almost 40,000 words in this space (about 160 pages, double-spaced) in the last twelve months. Most posts were around 500-1000 words, with the longest post (Professors, Start Your Blogs) at close to 2000 words. Had you told me that I would write the equivalent of half a book in this space last fall, a) I wouldn’t have believed it, and b) I probably wouldn’t have started this blog.

One of the reasons bloggers feel pressure to post, as I’ve discovered over the last year, is that it’s fairly simple to quantify your audience, often in excruciating detail. As of this writing this blog is ranked 34,181 out of 55 million blogs tracked by Technorati. (This sounds pretty good—the top 1/100th of a percent of all blogs!—until you realize that there are millions of abandoned and spam blogs, and that like most Internet statistics, the rankings are effectively logarithmic rather than linear. That is, the blog that is ranked 34th is probably a thousand times more prominent than mine; on the other hand, this blog is approximately a thousand times more prominent than the poor blogger at 34,000,000.) Because of that kind of quantification, temptations abound for courting popularity in a way that goes against your (or at least my) blog’s mission. I’ve undoubtedly done some posts that were a little unnecessary and gratuitously attention-seeking. For instance, the most-read post over the last year covered the fingers that have crept into Google’s book scanning project, which of course in its silliness got a lot of play on the popular social news site and led to thousands of visitors on the day I posted it and an instant tripling of subscribers to this blog’s feed. But I’m proud to say that my subsequent more serious posts immediately alienated the segment of Digg who are overly fond of exclamation points and my numbers quickly returned to a more modest—but I hope better targeted— audience.

Surely the happiest and most unexpected outcome of creating this blog has been the way that it has gotten me in touch with dozens of people whom I probably would not have met otherwise. I meet other professional historians all the time, but the blog has introduced me to brilliant and energetic people in libraries, museums, and archives, literary studies, computer science, people within and outside of academia. Given the balkanization of the academy and its distance from “the real world” I have no idea how I would have met these fascinating people otherwise, or profited from their comments and suggestions. I have never been to a conference where someone has come up to me out of the blue and said, “Hi Dan, I’m so-and-so and I wanted to introduce myself because I loved the article you wrote for such-and-such journal.” Yet I regularly have readers of this blog approach me out of the blue, and in turn I seek out others at meetings merely because of their blogs. These experiences have made me feel that blogging has the potential to revitalize academia by creating more frequent interactions between those in a field and, perhaps more important, between those in different fields. So: thanks for reading the blog and for getting in touch!

Next up in the anniversary edition of “Creating a Blog from Scratch”: it’s taken me a year, but I finally weigh in on tagging.

Part 7: Tags, What Are They Good For?