Academy 2.0: November 2005 Archives

The agony of de-feeds

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There's an interesting "report" over at the Feedburner weblog, about the changing face of feeds (RSS/Atom), and specifically about the way that feeds are finally (or need to be) decoupling from blogs. Although they remain an incredibly useful way for me to keep up with the 100+ blogs I subscribe to, that's not their only use. The Venn diagram at the top of the entry illustrates this nicely:

RSS/Atom evolving

When I talk about using weblogs with someone who's new to the idea, I almost always also talk about Bloglines (and various other aggregators), because feeds have been so vital to my own ability to manage the incoming information. But as feeds take on a more autonomous role on the Web, one of the things I've been thinking about is what they mean (or could mean) for the academy.

Right now, you can subscribe to a feed for CCC Online, but as a single feed, and one that's only updated 4 times a year, it's not going to save you that much time and effort. But what if more of our journals began to put out feeds, such that we could all keep an aggregator folder that fed us new article information? Or heck, put em all together into a Feedburner, and you'd have a single feed for the field that would notify you of articles as they were published. (and don't even get me started on keyword subscription--sigh.)

This is even more important for those of us who work in fields that aren't purely disciplinary. There are so many journals dealing with technology stuff, for instance, in cognate fields, and it's a lot of work to keep track of them, and to do so at the proper intervals. You can't tell me that it wouldn't be worth our time, for example, to be feeding the tables of contents of Kairos and Computers and Composition to the majority of new media scholars who work in other fields. Crossing the boundaries of disciplines and specializations is a high threshold activity, but feeds would make it a lot more simple.

Problem is that the publishers of our journals need to get on board, and that may take some doing. The operative model, even for the corporate journal oligopolists, is protectionist. Many of them already make the information that would be in a feed freely available, but they are focused heavily on the "search" as their primary form of interaction: come to our site to look at our data. And that's also assuming a level of technical capability that is by no means uniform across the publishers in my discipline.

I still think that the primary obstacle to wider readerships for our journals is ignorance, and this is doubly true for any kind of inter or transdisciplinary work. It's so hard to keep up broadly that most of us only keep up narrowly, with a few journals, trusting ourselves to check the others every once in a while. Investing a little bit of time, distributed across publishers, in feeds would address this obstacle really well, and it would have the potential to really change the way we do things.

And honestly, putting out a feed would involve, beyond initial setup, maybe 30 minutes an issue for copying and pasting. For the most part, it's information that we already have--feeds would simply distribute that information differently, better, and more widely. That's why we're doing it with CCCO.

[tip: Richard MacManus]

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Academy 0.5

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In the CCR program here at Syracuse, we encourage our students to take electives outside of the program. In fact, the program's small enough (and the graduate course offerings sufficiently limited) that it would be a challenge to complete the program coherently without recourse either to independent studies or courses from other departments. In my mind, this is good.

And so it's been nice over the last couple of courses that I myself have taught to have non-CCR students among us. Last spring, we had participants from other institutions, and in both my summer and fall courses, I've had students from other programs on campus. So far, so good. There's a danger in a small program of becoming excessively insular, and in a freestanding writing program where we train PhDs who will most likely take positions in English departments, it's even more urgent. I worry sometimes that we don't prepare our students here sufficiently to deal on a daily basis with colleagues who may or may not respect the kind of work they do. While it's by no means a given that they will struggle in this fashion, it's also by no means that unusual.

And I guess I'm getting a lesson in that myself. I've learned over the past couple of weeks that another department, a couple of whose students are taking or have taken my course, aren't receiving credit for the course towards their majors. Needless to say, I'm less than pleased. There are multiple reasons, and while I could take issue (easily) with each, one of them in particular is especially galling to me. Allegedly, the students in my class "aren't doing enough writing."

It would be more accurate to say that my students aren't doing "the right kind of writing," which appears to be the real objection. I've written in this space before about the ways that I'm currently using CMap and asking students to do visualization work rather than the end-of-the-semester, stay-up-for-48-hours, binge-and-purge model that results in a 20 page essay that may or not may ever get read and almost certainly never goes through any kind of response, feedback, or revision process. Can you smell the bitter in that sentence?

As well you should. I've been meaning to blog for a couple of days now about John Unsworth's talk on New Methods for Humanities Research (Tip: MGK), the talk he delivered upon receiving the Lyman Award for technological innovation in the humanities. Please, please, please, read his talk. It's worth it. But it was pretty ironic to me, after having read this talk, to be told (albeit indirectly) that the work that I was doing in my courses wasn't "rigorous" enough for this other department.

Setting aside all of the issues that I might have with the so-called rigor of the seminar paper, and setting aside the issues I have with what I would describe as rampant current-traditional writing pedagogy on the graduate level, what I think is going on is simply a lack of understanding. Because for me, Unsworth's talk (and by extension, a fair bit of the work that I do) is not just about generating new methods for turning out the same kinds of academic products. A big part of the nora project is visualization, developing not only new methods and finding out new things, but learning to express them in new ways, and developing the tools to do so. It's easy for those of us who are really interested and excited by all of this possibility to simply assume that, once we do these things, their value will be self-evident to our colleagues.

What are my students doing in these projects? (or rather, what have they done, since the map was only one of two separate projects, and they've already turned the maps in.) Each of them had to assemble a collection of 25 sources for a particular area of inquiry. They had to familiarize themselves sufficiently with these sources to be able to see the patterns and relationships among them. In most cases, they had to learn a new piece of software. They had to articulate those relationships visually, write an executive summary of what their map reveals about the area, and present their work to the class.

In my mind, all of the various activities that resulted in their maps are activities that I myself have performed (and am still performing) in order to write scholarly articles. But there are two major differences. First, obviously, their articulation didn't take the form of a seminar paper, and so they weren't required to make claims that--let's face it--most graduate students are underprepared to be able to make. In other words, what I'm trying to do is to separate out, just a little, the related processes of "knowing" a field of inquiry and asserting your place within it. Seminar papers, in my opinion, tend to conflate the two, even though most of us (I think) realize that it's almost impossible to succeed at the 2nd without spending much more time than a few months working on the 1st. In fact, I would argue that it's precisely the repeated conflation of the two that helps to ill-equip students for writing their dissertations and to do research/scholarship once they leave graduate school. I think that this is one of the things that we have to unlearn to be successful academics.

The second major difference is that the projects my students are doing may prove to be useful to them for more than just having their professor submit the grade. Even if they don't keep up their maps or add to them, the value of spatially and visually articulating relationships among a healthy set of texts will persist. As they go on to do work in their areas (I encouraged them to think about potential exam areas as topics), they'll have a much better start for doing so than if they had synthesized a fraction of those texts in order to make a 20-page argument.

But hey, that's me. I like a good 20-page essay from time to time, but it's certainly not the only genre (nor medium, for that matter) that I think in/with/through, and often, it's not the best to say what I want to say. More to the point, I simply don't believe that the only way to learn how to write a good article is to just write simulated articles over and over and over and over until you either sink or swim. The scholarship process is made up of lots of and various micro-processes, and learning how to handle some of the earlier stages of the broader process can make the later ones more manageable. But of course, this requires us to actually think about that process, which is not especially encouraged by old school writing pedagogy, where good writing is the expression of inherent genius rather than the result of any kind of work. And where rigor is defined, by and large, simply as "what we do," despite plenty of evidence to the contrary (or at least, to the complicating).

In my little corner of the universe, there's actually something a little more rigorous (and a good bit less Pavlovian) in what I'm trying to do in consciously eschewing the seminar paper.

That is all. And see, I made it through this entire entry without having to refer to the insult of receiving an email asking me, out of the blue, to defend the rigor of what I was doing in my course. Well, almost, anyway.

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This page is a archive of entries in the Academy 2.0 category from November 2005.

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