Recently in Academy 2.0 Category

Got to get back into the habit, and for that, I'm taking a cue from Donna, who took it from me a few years back. Think of blog posts not as Montaignean essays, but as post-it notes. Slap a max on your post rather than a min. So here's mine for the day, inspired by Kent Anderson's post on making peer review more transparent. Equally worthwhile are the comments on that post--I'm not always convinced by the will-to-transparency, and there's good discussion of that issue below the post itself.

That being said, what if our journals were required to include information about number of reviewers, revisions, and time from submission to review to publication? Would that information change the way we prioritize our field's outlets?

An interesting piece of news floated across Twitterspace, and across some blogs this week: the revelation that the Australasian Journal of Bone and Joint Medicine was, in fact, a fake journal sponsored by a pharmaceutical company. Even more dismaying was a followup story about how Elsevier, publisher of AJBJM, has an entire division devoted to such fraudulence, the so-called strategic medical communications agency, Excerpta Medica. Over at the ACRLog, Barbara Fister has a nice post with the link to the original Scientist article that outed the journal, as well as some discussion of the information literacy implications. Long story short, Elsevier's track record with respect to integrity is not particularly sparkling.

While it's hard to imagine something similar happening in the humanities, recent discussions of a particular anti-plagiarism vendor should probably give us rhetoric and technology folk pause, particularly when you recall that the most likely outlet for scholarship related to said vendor happens to be an Elsevier journal. But I digress.

It's tempting, I think, to see this and other events as further indictments of the academy's fetishization of peer review, but I'm not sure I would agree. And I say that as someone who would really like to see other models available to us for the circulation and distribution of our work. But the fact of the matter is that problems like these have more to do with the oligopolists than with peer review per se.

I review for several journals now, and honestly, I see maybe 1-2 submissions per journal a year. I have some quality control as a result, but the real responsibility for quality lies with the editorial staff of each, the folk who aggregate the results. I've thought a bit about what it must be like for those who were hoodwinked by the press into sitting on the board or reviewing for these journals, because my gut reaction to this story was to blame the reviewers. But that's assuming that submissions actually made it to reviewers, and there's no real guarantee that this is the case. Writers and reviewers alike operate on good faith, the assumption that there's some integrity at the editorial stage. Beyond a certain size, the editorial staff cease to function as part of peer review--their function is more aggregation and facilitation. And given the kind of money involved with the oligopoly journals, I guess I'm not totally surprised at something like this.

It's shameful, but not as shameful as it would be if the reviewers for a "real" journal had been found to be accepting money from Merck (or whomever) for certain outcomes.

Hmm. I feel like I have more to say, but I'm not sure what. Maybe I'll revisit this post after I think about it. For now, though, that's all.

Course Update #4: LF Tools

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Bradley asked me to say a little more about my comment from the other day about my ambivalence regarding the tools we're using in my class, so here we go.

I should say a few words first about what I tried to accomplish this semester. I've been thinking a lot in recent months about the relationship between narrative and database, and how it plays out across graduate education. Without numbing anyone's mind with too much detail, what I would say is that both "forms" are crucial. It's important to be able to build narratives about the field's development, for example, or to generate particular field-narratives (seminar papers, journal articles, etc.) as a result of one's work. At the same time, though, we hold ourselves responsible for what Paul Matsuda called his "mental intertextual map," (see last post) what I would describe as our disciplinary network. And that latter responsibility is more database than narrative. I think of the two as complementary--each "narrative" feeds into the database, helps us fill it out, and then we draw future narratives from the database/map that we've generated.

I've had great success in recent years urging students to take up database management tools and techniques as a means of managing the later stages of their graduate programs, which seem to me to require more database kinds of thinking than does coursework. Coursework, as I mentioned the other day, tends to be organized around what I called "directed reading," some sort of (narrative) arc that helps to structure a semester and give it some coherence. So the question that I asked myself last fall (and talked about a little at Watson 08) was: what would a course look like that attempted something more databasic, that didn't worry so much about narrative coherence?

And as I've said all along, the course has gone much better than I could have hoped for. I really think that the students have found it valuable, and I've been really happy with how enthusiastically they've taken it up. I've talked before about the set up for the course: over 10 weeks, we took the past 10 years of the field, 1 year per week. Each student chose a particular area of focus, and was responsible for (a) finding 4 essays in that area published during each of those 10 years; (b) posting notes to our class blog and tagging those entries in Delicious; and (c) sharing what s/he found during class. And, for the first time in my graduate teaching, I'm asking students to complete a "real" final exam. Next Saturday, the students will take a 3-hour exam, a simulation of one of our comprehensive exams.

In other words, I've asked them to focus for the past 10 weeks on building personal databases, and now (just as they'll do during exams), I'll ask them to construct a narrative of the development of their area over those 10 years, based on what they've found/noticed. We spent a fair amount of class time on Wednesday talking about how they might approach this task, what sorts of evidence they might find and use, etc.

So to my mind, there are two main things that we've been doing this semester. The first is aggregation, and I think that this is something we'll see more of in graduate education over the next several years. The most recent Teaching Carnival had a link to Mark Sample's annotated bibliography project, using Zotero and Citeline to create an aggregated class bibliography. And just as I was setting up my class, Michael Wesch was doing something similar in his Digital Ethnography class, using Zoho Creator to generate a 94-work bib on anonymity in a week. Both are cool projects, and they both speak to the usefulness of web2 tools for doing the kind of aggregation that I'm thinking about.

Me? I used Wordpress and Delicious. Part of my reliance on blogging tools is that I've spent the last 5 years thinking about how to use them in other ways. My work on CCC Online involved a number of significant tweaks. Thinking about it now, I might have tried Zoho, but ah well. I think that there are a number of ways to aggregate successfully nowadays.

The problem comes, however, from the other main point of my course, and I don't have as easy a term for it. If the point of aggregation is search and retrieval, then any of these tools are as good as any other, I think. And I don't mean to suggest that this isn't a worthy goal. But what are our options if we want to be able to take the next step with respect to an aggregated database? How do we take that accumulated body of information, and perform meaningful work with it?

In my mind, that's what I'm asking of my students next week. And it's what we ask of them on their comprehensive exams. And ultimately, it's what we do ourselves as scholars and writers--we construct our large maps of the field and eventually contribute to it ourselves, by clearing our research spaces, tracing out lines of thought that are "missing," etc.

I'm a big believer in the tag cloud as a heuristic, and so that's what I had in mind in asking my class to tag in delicious on top of WP. I have an article in the works that talks about this, but I believe that, especially for the humanities, tag clouds are a fairly easy way to generate some testable hypotheses about a body of textual data. The problem is that most of our tagcloud tools are partial. The tagclouding available to us in blogging platforms is rudimentary at best. TagCrowd and Wordle work best from actual text. If I'd been more careful, I might have been able to do a little more with Delicious, but honestly, their development has been pretty minimal, post-Yahoo.

Here's what I would wishlist for such a tool:
1. The stylized output of Wordle
2. The stoplist function of TagCrowd
3. Expanded faceted clowding (the related tags function in Delicious)
4. The ability to do some kind of timelining (like Chirag Mehta's PrezClouds)

Obviously, these are all possible. They're all available right now, only in incompatible tools. Wordle can take cloud delicious tags, but only at the level of an entire account, and without any kind of stoplist. Delicious seems like the best place for implementation, but I have no idea if it's even breathing. The point is to be able to take a decent-sized body of tags, though, and to visualize it in fairly simple ways, in order to discern patterns that might not be otherwise apparent. Sounds simple, but right now, the tools for doing so are mostly one-trick ponies.

My biggest wish would be for a tagclouding tool that was actually attached to something I could use for the data entry, so that I didn't have to ask folks to use two different sites to accomplish one thing. That's where my WP/Delish combo fell short this semester. I myself resented having to do both, and I was the one who made the choice. Heh.

My other wish would be some sort of middle-ground between the fully pre-determined interface of WP or MovableType, and what I assume is the ground-up blank slate of something like Zoho Creator. I don't want to have to do everything myself, in terms of setting something up, but I've spent the last 5 years using the MT interface against itself, because (at least until the recent integration of Custom Fields) I can't make any real changes to it. I'm a little weird that way, I suppose. I loved MT3--the MT command language was a perfect middle ground for me between programming and end use. I'm willing to spend time on a good middle-ground toolkit, but that's a rare category of software, from what I can tell.

Ah well. I feel like I'm rambling now. I don't think that what I'm after here is that difficult to accomplish, but I felt trapped this semester by the fact that I know enough to know where current apps don't meet my needs, but not enough to be able to do anything about it.

That's all.

Ambient Reading

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Paul's got a great entry today, on "How to Read Everything?" Seriously great. Lots of good thoughts in there.

One of the things that's instructive about his entry is the list of various strategies that he's tried and abandoned, which is one of the things I recommend to folk on a regular basis. There are all sorts of ways to manage one's "mental intertextual map," and the trick is find the ones that will work for you at a given time.

One thing that I would add to Paul's account is that you have different needs at different times. My own strategies tend to resemble his quite a bit--I don't take a lot of notes myself, although that's changed a little as I've gotten older and more forgetful. Like him, I tend to have a very strong procedural memory--I remember colors, covers, the place on the page where an important quote is, etc. But I do do a little bit of underlining, not so I can go back through a text and cull the marks, but because I find that it reinforces my procedural memories. It keeps me on a given page and at a particular spot on the page a little longer, which seems to burn that spot into my memory a little more.

A couple of other points worth raising. There's a difference between reading a book and reading a discipline, even if we tend to use the same verb. So in "reading everything," I hear "everything" to mean the discipline, and that's a different strategy. You can "read" a journal in 10 minutes if you're reading it to know what's there, so that you can return to what's valuable to you later. And that kind of reading is ultimately quite valuable--Brian has written recently about "ambient research," and I just finished a collaborative piece with a friend on a similar topic--it's a matter of entering the flow of a discipline, getting a feel for what's going on, before you make the choices about where to drill down.

So maybe I'd describe this as a difference between ambient and directed reading. We are trained very heavily in directed reading, and rarely are advised about ambient reading. In part, this is because it comes as a result of enculturation, and so seems a "natural" outgrowth of that process. I think I could argue that what I've been working on in my graduate teaching in the past 4-5 years is pushing my students more towards a model of ambient reading, an approach that could productively complement the emphasis on directed reading that tends to dominate graduate coursework. And I think that part of my current interest in Web2 stuff is how those tools can help us accomplish that.

So there's that.

A discipline remixed?

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Couple of days ago, I had a conversation with a colleague, and in one of those hallway moments, we chatted about how interesting it would be if we could do a collection where we invited a bunch of folk from the discipline to each take a piece of the disciplinary/organization network, and revise it as we saw fit. On the one hand, there are a lot of big issues that could stand to be solved, not the least of which are things like institutional classism, over-reliance on and undercompensation of part-time faculty, disciplinary overproduction, etc.

But I guess we were thinking more along the lines of the smaller things that could ripple out into broader improvements. The problem with tackling the large issues is that they are embedded so completely into the interlocking systems of profession, organization, institutions, and culture that they're not easily solvable. That doesn't mean we shouldn't be working on them--on the contrary, they should be our constant focus. But it's equally interesting to me to think about all of the small things that could improve given a creative nudge.

There'd be no way to organize and publish such a collection in time for it to have value, of course, and that in itself is one of the things that's wrong. One of the potential advantages of having a large disciplinary organization is aggregation, but that's something that happens infrequently in our org, and even when it does, it's done in less than ideal ways. What might be aggregated? Oh, information about graduate programs, graduate courses, conference papers, emerging writing majors and the courses taught there, teaching strategies, syllabi, position announcements, membership contact info and cv's, etc. And that's really just off the top of my head. One of the potential disadvantages of having a large disciplinary organization is that it can reinforce patterned isolation, and crowd out any attempts to circumvent that problem to the outskirts of members' attention.

That's all for now. Maybe I'll toss up a post later that outlines my imaginary chapter. But I've got some actual chapter writing to complete first.

The more, the messier

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Even after not having been there, one of the nice things about CCCC, at least in a program where many people go, are the conversations that take place afterward. And although I'm a grouser, I would admit secretly to a certain amount of energizing that takes place even as I think the conference needs improvement desperately.

So the question of scale. When I wrote that I thought that the conference had gone awry for reasons of scale, it would be more accurate to say that the conference hasn't scaled along with the membership. And by that, I mean to challenge the commonsense idea of "the more, the merrier," or what's sometimes described in network studies as the "network effect," the idea that as more users opt in to something, the more value the network accrues for everyone who's part of it. The classic example of this is the fax machine. The more fax machines that people buy, the more value it has as a communication device for everyone who already owns one. And this is true of utilities in general.

There's a great piece over at RWW today on the reverse network effect, though, which is something I've seen less discussion of. The basic idea is that, unlike an app like Skype or PayPal, where the network effect is pretty much ongoing, social networking applications, for most users, actually plateau in usefulness, regardless of how many users there are. It doesn't matter to anyone who doesn't work for Facebook that the service now has 175 million users rather than 50 or 100 million.

Bernard Lunn explains:

In a social network, the value for existing users of a new user joining the network plateaus once users have most of their own contacts in that network.

There's a finite limit to the amount of networking/socializing we can do, and once we reach that limit, we will either stop growing our network, or the quality of that network will change. Perhaps we will turn from "hanging out with close friends" to "social butterflying," for instance. I would argue that this process is never necessarily stable--that there are both centripetal and centrifugal forces at play--that we are our own "deictic systems." Nevertheless, I think this sense of plateau-ing is largely correct.

To bring this back to discussions of the conference, I think that there's a point in our careers (and while it may happen at different times for each of us, I think it still is pretty common) where the conference shifts from being a place to meet new folk to being one where we caretake the connections we already have.

Here's how I'd test it, if I were of a mind to do a project: I would do a massive survey of conference attendees, and ask them to answer the following two questions: which sessions did you attend? why did you choose them?

My guess is that new and relatively new attendees are more likely to attend sessions because (a) they want to learn more about a topic, (b) they want to see a scholar whose work they respect/admire, and/or (c) the person/people they were with decided to go. Furthermore, I suspect that not only do more experienced conference-goers attend fewer sessions, but that they are far more likely to attend sessions by people whom they already know (ie, friends, colleagues, and/or students) than for the reasons above. It's not a perfect threshold, but I suspect that the patterns would emerge if you separated out folks who had been to 4 or fewer and 5 or more.

Partly, that's because attending sessions is one of the ways you reinforce extant ties as a conference vet. And those ties carry trust and affinity, but also obligation. I can remember plenty of times where another panel sounded more interesting to me personally, but where I opted instead for panels of those whom I wanted to support.

I'm most certainly not saying that one reason is better than another. What I am saying, though, is that once you've gone to CCCC a few times, your motivations may shift. Inevitably, there is a point at which the network value provided by the conference plateaus. Doesn't mean that you stop meeting new people completely, or that you never go to a panel with speakers you don't know, just that these activities are much less likely.

And these network plateaus organize themselves differently. For some people, it may be a SIG or Caucus that they attend every year. Some people may basically attend CCCC to catch up with their grad school friends. Some may attend as a way of mentoring their own students. Some may only do it to keep up with the work being done in their speciality. Again, none of these reasons is better than any other, just different. And these are all valid reasons to hold the conference and to attend the conference.

For me, a question worth asking, though, is whether or not there's a point after which that plateau begins to turn into a downward slope, as Lunn describes it. I think it fair to say that the recent (@5 years) spate of articles and CCCC papers bemoaning the absence of X, Y, or Z is a sign of this. And I notice that spate because many of them are drawing upon CCCC programs as evidence of this fact.

In some ways, our conference is designed according to an implicit faith in the constancy of a disciplinary network effect. I talked a little about this here when folks were talking about CCCC rejections, about how more specialized research was disadvantaged by the decisions made regarding the submission process. I also think that there's at least an implicit assumption that good proposals are those that target a general audience, including newcomers to the field. There's a reverse network effect as a result, one that Alex talked about yesterday, where the same questions are repeated year after year, because we're not encouraged to assume any prior knowledge in our proposals or our presentations.

But you may say to yourself, this is not my beautiful MLA!

In many ways, MLA suffers from the opposite problem, I suppose, given the way that their conference is organized and designed. Tied as it is to the misery of the job search, MLA doesn't have to worry about attracting newcomers.

But surely there's some in-between space. I have to believe that it's possible for a conference of this scope and size to be able to accommodate newcomers while still be rewarding for those whose motivations differ. The fact that folk use the CCCC program as evidence of our field's failings and/or neglect and/or fragmentation should be a sign to all of us that there are plenty of us who want something more from the conference, that it might be a place that serves both community and discipline.

Would it surprise you to learn that I've been talking about this for 5 years now? Here's an idea I posted in 2004, complete with my old skool design if you follow the link:

Book of the Year: Every year, several books in our field are nominated for a book of the year award (and one or two receive it). Plan a series of sessions, each of which focuses on one of the BOTY nominees. Allow the author to hand-pick 2-3 people to give presentations about the book and then the author would be a respondent. Participants in the BOTY series would be allowed to do a second presentation (assuming that their proposal had been accepted).

I still love this idea. And here's the thing. It would be a thread of sessions that (a) rewards the best scholarship being done in the field that year (in book form, at least); (b) rewards the writers of those books (by featuring their work in the program; (c) recognizes that work in a highly visible way; (d) functions as a centralizing force for the discipline and conference; (e) introduces newcomers to the best work being done by experienced colleagues; and (f) provides some space for sessions where advanced discussions of quality work might happen.

But I'm drifting off-point a little, and this has become much longer than I'd planned initially. (It started as a one-para linklove post to RWW.) Here's my broader point: for certain people in our field, there is an advantage to having a 5000-person conference rather than a 500-person one. There are more people to meet, sessions to choose from, etc. For others in our field, the advantage is reversed, because many of them may feel that the smaller conferences (like RSA, e.g.) allow you to accomplish more specialized, sophisticated work.

As for me? I believe that a genuinely flagship conference should be able to achieve both the social value of 5000 and the disciplinary value of 500. And I'm hypothesizing here that our org has pursued the former at the expense of the latter, even though I honestly believe that this expense has been largely unintended. That's the reverse network effect.

And that is all.

Party like it's 1999/2000

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I figure it's time for a little update on how my course is going.

We're 2 weeks into the "10 years in 10 weeks" part of the course, and while I'm going to wait a bit for the kinks to iron out of the database part of the course before I think about it, the class sessions themselves have been interesting.

To remind: what I'm asking the students to do is to read each week that year's Braddock and Kinneavy Award winners (the best essays annually from CCC and JAC respectively), and then each student has to locate 4 other essays from that year (ideally no overlap among students), annotate them on our course blog and tag them on a course delicious site.

I was a little unsure about how class meetings would go, given that we were approaching class with a minimum of shared material. For the past two weeks, we've gone around the class and reported out, with me reporting on the 2 Award winners. First week, the reporting went pretty quickly, since we'd planned on using the second half of class to do the delicious work as a class. This week, though, we had to rush at the end to fit everyone in, and that was with 2 folks missing from class. This week, people in class (myself included) started talking back to the reports, asking questions, noting patterns, etc., and to my mind, that's a good thing.

I think it would be easy to fall into a groove where we were asking too much of our essays--it seems obviously risky to attribute to 4-6 essays some sort of essential year-ness, but that's not what's happening so far. Instead, I think we're doing a good job so far of treating the things we notice as hypotheses to be tested rather than conclusions to jump to. And what's been interesting about the class sessions themselves is that I think we're all learning a bit about the range of topics that different people are taking up (cross-cultural rhetorics, WAC, WC, queer rhet/comp, technology, race, etc). I'm encouraging people to listen for connections across "areas" as well as patterns within their own foci, and I feel like that that's happening.

For my own purposes, it's been interesting to read the two Award winners across each other, finding themes and tags in common in essays that I wouldn't have paired in a million years otherwise. And I'm looking forward to seeing what happens once everyone begins readings essays that are citing some of the ones that we've already covered.

The "payoff" for the course will be a final exam, one that simulates one of the minor exams that our students do as part of their comprehensives. I've never given a final exam in a graduate course before, but it made a great deal of sense to me in the context of this course design. It'll give the students practice at exams, the opacity of which tends to be intimidating for some of them. But more importantly, it will hopefully have been good practice at assembling a focused list of works, reading that list steadily, and reading it with the kind of openness and alertness that we ask from our students at the exam stage.

If I can say so without jinxing, it seems to be working well. The interesting thing about it, though, is that, in addition to helping them learn to prepare and read through a topic area, this process will expose them to a range of different areas, encourage them to see some of the connections among the various areas in our field, and perhaps even encourage some of the meta questions that I find really fascinating: how do areas develop? why do certain areas develop in certain ways, and others in different ones? etc. There's some interesting politics and sociology of knowledge that I'm hoping we'll get at a little this semester.

So if I sound optimistic about the course, there's good reason. I think the folks in my course have really taken this idea up well so far, and I hope that continues.

At Watson last fall, I gave a talk that was about, among other things, the idea of the "antilibrary" from Taleb's Black Swan, the idea that significant parts of our libraries are unread because for researchers, having read something is less valuable than knowing where to find it when you need it. And at the end of the talk, I said something like this:

this is less about technology, and more about rethinking our basic practices to include collection as one of our goals. For example, imagine a graduate seminar where instead of studying 2 or 3 articles chosen by the professor, students are instead responsible for locating and representing 2 or 3 articles that they've found themselves on that week's topic. Instead of 10 sets of detailed notes on the week's readings, each student would walk away with detailed notes for 25-30 essays. The conversational dynamics of such a course would be different, certainly, but such a seminar could accomplish a great deal in a short span of time if it were devoted to mapping out broad sets of texts rather than mastering a small handful. The point would be to shift our focus from reading to a combination, at the very least, of reading and not reading.

So this spring, I decided to take myself up on this thought experiment. The experimental part of the course won't begin in earnest for a couple of weeks yet, but I've started assembling the online portion of it. Here's the idea:

Over the last ten weeks of the course, we're going to be looking at the past ten years of composition and rhetoric, one year per week. During the week, everyone in the course will read that year's Braddock Award winner from CCC and the Kinneavy Award winner from JAC. In addition, each of the students will be locating 4 essays (or book chapters) published in that calendar year, taking notes on each, posting those notes to our course blog, and then tagging that entry in delicious. (I'll be doing the same for the shared essays.) Multiply this by 10 students, and by the end of the semester, we'll have a database of more than 400 essays from the past 10 years of the field.

I've encouraged them to use this exercise as a way of doing some preliminary research for their comprehensive exams, so the database won't be representative. Nevertheless, we'll be paying attention, via tags, to methods, key thinkers, etc., and so my hope is that certain patterns will emerge. I'll be encouraging them to think about their focus areas rather than extrapolating their findings to the discipline as a whole, so I'm hoping that some value will come of it.

And I'm certainly curious to see how our discussions will go. I'm still not sure how that part of things will work out. But that's what I'll be thinking about in my teaching this sem.

A month or so ago, I posted a quick blip about the latest State of the Blogosphere report, which had somewhat to say about microblogging platforms and their effect on blogging. While I would never argue that it's a simple either/or, it's hard not to feel as though it basically is an either/or, in practice at least.

Exhibits one and two come from Derek and Jenny, both of whom talk tonight about shifting intensities away from blogging. But I think Derek's right, that "the large scale diagnosis is too reckless to square with that peculiar set of conditions bearing on any one of our heres and nows."

I'll be keeping my space here, for a range of reasons, not the least of which is that, pace Jenny, I still need more than a sentence. Tonight's exhibit for the defense comes from Tim Burke, whose thoughtful interrogation of social construction was worth reading twice for me today. As I said back in September, I don't think that facebooking or twittering is likely to scale up, and so I feel like there is something we lose if we give up our spaces and give ourselves entirely to the frequently updated status report.

But I'm also thinking about shifting my activity a little more consciously towards the commonplace book sort of work that a few of us already do. We'll see.

Engaging Theory

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That's the name of the conference I'm at this weekend. And for a host of reasons, it's been a very different experience than was Watson. About which, more soon. In the meantime, we were asked to post 4-page discussion papers to the assembled folk, and while it's on the conference website, I thought I'd go ahead and stick mine up here--it was written for a panel on "Technological Inventions:"

The 'Intellectual Venture' of Academy 2.0

In the May issue of the New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell published "In the Air," a
feature story about former Microsoft exec Nathan Myhrvold, and about invention more
generally. Gladwell argues that we have been too quick to treat all invention as though it were synonymous with artistic creation. Following sociologist Robert Merton, Gladwell
suggests that "our romantic notion of genius," while it may hold true for great works of
art, is less useful when it comes to knowledge in general. Many of the paradigm-shifting
inventions in science and technology have in fact been "multiples;" in other words,
multiple people, otherwise unconnected, "discover" the same idea or "invent" the same
technology at roughly the same time. For Gladwell, these good ideas are "in the air,"
discoverable not only by the solitary genius but by many people in the right place and
time. Myhrvold's ongoing project, a company called Intellectual Ventures, is an attempt
to capitalize on this idea by bringing in leading minds in many different fields to come
together for invention sessions, with the idea that approaching problems from
unconventional directions might lead to solutions. Myhrvold's company, which he
expected might file a hundred patents a year, is currently filing more than 500 a year,
with a backlog of ideas in the thousands ("In the Air").

Merton is neither the only nor even the most recent thinker to tackle the question of invention, however. Recent work in network studies and organizational theory has attempted to understand invention as something more tangible than the product of genius on the one hand, and as something less formulaic or horoscopic than one might find in the fairly recent genre of corporate self-help manuals. Ronald Burt, for example, has been working for years as an organizational sociologist, studying the ways that organizations are formed around what he calls brokerage and closure, the primary strategies by which members of organizations form social capital. In any social network above a certain size, people tend to form stronger ties among the members of their immediate sub-networks. We know our departmental colleagues, by and large, better than we know the average member of another department. We are more likely to spend time at academic conferences with friends than with strangers. One positive effect of this closure is the trust, respect, and affinity that members of this smaller network feel for one another--this is one form of social capital. But when a larger network separates out into many smaller ones, communication gaps emerge among those smaller networks; Burt describes these as "structural holes." And at the same time that we benefit from them, the danger is that these relatively closed networks will trend towards groupthink, becoming echo-chambers. For Burt, then, brokerage names the opposite tendency, the ability of members of multiple networks to bridge the structural holes that separate them. Brokerage and closure are, respectively, centrifugal (trending outward) and centripetal (trending inward) forces operating within a network. Both are necessary components of any network. But good ideas, Burt writes, occur with more frequency when there are opportunities for brokerage, when people are encouraged to range beyond their comfort zones and/or echo chambers and to export their own ideas and import others.

It is worth thinking about insights like Burt's when we consider the knowledge production and circulation in academic disciplines. As Andrew Abbott observes, disciplines are prone to spread as widely as possible, but within the network formed by the discipline, the reward system encourages closure rather than brokerage. That is, it encourages us to specialize such that, even as the discipline's "turf" expands, the structural holes among specialties and subdisciplines multiply as well. As disciplines grow, the amount of work one must do to comprehend even a portion of one's own discipline likewise grows, and thus we focus our attention in our specialties. David Smit's observations about the fragmentation of rhetoric and composition provide one recent account of this. As the field has increased in population and importance, its members have cast their research nets further and further afield in order to locate subjects of study. It is not unusual to read essays in CCC, for example, whose bibliographies are comprised mostly, if not entirely, of texts that would be largely unfamiliar to the majority of that journal's subscribers. And this is to say nothing of the structural holes that separate composition and communication. Despite recent attempts at brokerage by the ARS and others, most of us remain largely ignorant of developments in fields that are closely related to our own. The specialization that would once have occurred at the point in our careers where our work had matured has slowly crept earlier and earlier in the educational process, to the point where our students feel pressured to specialize before they've even taken a PhD seminar. They are taught that the sooner they specialize the better, because otherwise they will struggle to present and to publish, as they now must do before they've earned the degree.

One of the classic accounts for accomplishing these goals comes from John Swales, whose discussions of academic writing yields the important step of "creating a research space" (CARS), although the C is sometimes related as "clearing" or "carving out" a space for one's work. Structural holes, in other words, are often portrayed in our field not as opportunities for brokerage but as opportunities for the replication of closure. In rhetoric and composition, where most faculty still serve in literature departments, too often "originality" is conferred on research by the obscurity of the object of study rather than method, approach, or ability to engage with the field more broadly. Research spaces are perceived, for better or worse, not as carefully constructed engagements with the discipline (and certainly not among multiple disciplines), but as unspoiled territory that can be claimed and populated with articles and books.

As Gladwell's account of Intellectual Ventures makes clear, there is certainly value to be had in specialization; the expertise of IV's participants is one of the primary reasons for its success. But each participant also brings the trained incapacities of the specialist. Myhrvold's project brokers among those specialists, allowing them to pool their knowledge as a means of approaching intractable problems in one or more of their fields, allowing one's person incapacity to be met with another's capacity. The importance and benefits of that kind of collaboration receive little attention in our field, an unusual omission considering the emphasis that we often place on the virtues of collaboration and the social nature of language. But we have been slow to practice what we preach, especially at disciplinary scales. Even sites of potential brokerage, like our national conventions, are frequently too large for attendees to venture beyond the comfort of relatively closed social networks and academic specialties. When we come face to face with the sheer size of a discipline, our tendency is to retreat to more manageable scales; our disciplines themselves are shaped by this tendency, as Abbott observes in Chaos of Disciplines, often in self-similar ways.

It is unlikely that any of us possesses the kinds of resources at Myhrvold's disposal. But with the recent emergence of software platforms gathered under the umbrella of Web 2.0, those resources aren't necessary. If Web 1.0 was about siloes and exclusive, owned content (closure), Web 2.0 has seen a boom in participatory culture, sites whose function is to allow users to share content (brokerage). You can find pools of photos at Flickr, bookmarks and tags at Delicious, books and reviews at LibraryThing, and so on. When I want to follow up on a book I've read, particularly if it's outside of my field, I'm more likely to visit Amazon than I am any academic site or siloed publisher search engine. In the past five years, the tools available for us to broker our structural holes, to explore beyond our closures, have increased exponentially, such that it's less a matter of resources now and more a matter of commitment to something beyond staking our individual claims on shrinking patches of disciplinary turf.

But professional inertia works against any such commitment. We still hold to the artistic model of invention, both in our attitudes towards intellectual property and in the institutional structures that reward what we do. If Gladwell and others are right, these attitudes may actually work against us; we may spend so much time clearing our research spaces that we miss out on what's "in the air." It's not a question of choosing one or the other; as Burt explains in his work, both are valid forms of accruing social capital, and each provides us with value that the other cannot. The question instead is one of balance, and that balance is difficult to strike in an institutional culture that, for all of its talk of interdisciplinarity, still privileges closure over brokerage when it comes to rewarding the making of knowledge. That attitude trickles down into our attitudes towards the new media available to us. I've lost count of the number of colleagues I've seen speak and write dismissively of weblogs, wikis, Facebook, et al. Those of us who blog as academics are frequently charged with "wasting" our time on such sites when, presumably, we should be using it to generate another article or two. From the perspective of a closure- inflected system, it can be difficult to see the ways that social media transform the ways we read, write, think, and communicate.

It's a lot less difficult to simply treat these media as tools that make our scholarly lives more convenient. If we're looking for a particular essay, we can locate it faster online than we would walking to the campus library, for example. Our hard drives can slowly take the place of file cabinets, as we convert our libraries to PDFs. Our computers can give us more access, faster, to more of the field than ever before, certainly, but we have the opportunity now to rethink the structures underlying that access. We have a chance to rethink our institutions, our cultures, and even our disciplines in important ways. Much like Myhrvold's project does for its participants, new media offer us unprecedented opportunities for brokerage, if we can develop the collective attitude necessary to "waste" a little time on invention.


Whatever the virtues of this little ditty, in addition to the unintended irony of talking about resources in our current financial climate (i wrote it in early Sept), among them you would not count "similarity to the other conference papers." Seriously. Sore-Thumbsville. Check em out yourself if you're tempted to attribute any false modesty to me on this.

I'll have a little more to say, but I've got some sleep and more than a little driving to do first. So for tonight, that's all.



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