Academy 2.0: August 2006 Archives

We'll see how this flies

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I've spent the past few days finishing up the overview document for my tenure case, known affectionately across the campus as "Form A." The form closes by asking for "additional information" that might be helpful in evaluating one's work. Here's what I put:

In a conversation with one of the members of the search committee that recommended my appointment at Syracuse, after I arrived in the Writing Program, I learned that this particular committee member had three criteria for each of the candidates. This person explained that each candidate was expected to make technology their primary area of scholarly inquiry, to be able to apply it in and to their pedagogy, and, just as importantly, to be a practicing user of technologies. While I believe that this form documents my achievements in the first two areas, I want to discuss that third area briefly.

In the field of rhetoric and composition, a field devoted to the study and teaching of writing, there is a sense in which we are practitioners of that which we study. But for those of us who choose to specialize further in the study of information and communication technologies as they impact writing, practice is not only essential, but it brings added pressures as well. In addition to staying abreast of developments in our field, we are obligated to remain familiar with developments outside of academia, to be practicing technologists as well as scholars, pedagogues, and colleagues. However, the criteria by which tenure and promotion are determined do not easily admit this fourth category, partly because it is a difficult one to measure. The proficient use of technologies does not fit into any of the three categories, but it is not entirely separable from them, either. I have spent hours learning software in order to write multimedia essays, familiarized myself with various research and productivity tools in order to help students become more proficient at online research, and drawn on my understanding of spread sheets, databases, and web design in order to improve the performance of the graduate office. But I also engage in activities that cannot easily be reduced to scholarship, teaching, and service.

It is in this context that I wish to call attention to my activity as an academic blogger. I started a weblog (Collin vs. Blog) in August of 2003, and in the three years I have spent writing and maintaining it, it has become an integral part of my academic practice. I use it as a place to work through ideas that will eventually be turned into published scholarship, to reflect upon teaching practices, and to connect with colleagues both local and distant. In roughly 20 months of tracking site traffic, my site has received close to 75,000 unique visits and over 100,000 pageviews, averaging 144 visits and 199 views daily since January of 2005. In the summer of 2005, I received my discipline’s award for Best Academic Weblog. In short, maintaining a weblog has raised my profile, both within my discipline and beyond it, far more than any course I might teach or article I might publish. And in doing so, it raises the profile of Syracuse and of the Writing Program in a fashion that I believe to be positive.

In recent years, there have been high-profile tenure cases where applicants have offered their technological work in lieu of activity more easily categorized in traditional terms; that is not my intent here. I feel that my scholarship, teaching, and service stand on their own. But in a year where Syracuse is actively pursuing and promoting the idea of “scholarship in action,” it strikes me as particularly important to include this form of public writing as part of my activity as a member of the Syracuse University faculty. At a time where much of the discussion surrounding academic weblogs focuses on the risks of representing one’s self publicly as anything more than the sum total of items on a vita, I feel that it’s important to acknowledge the positive, productive impact that blogging has had upon my academic career. My weblog is not a strictly academic space, any more than my life is consumed with purely academic concerns. But it adds a dimension to my contributions here at Syracuse, both as a writer and as someone who studies technology, that would be difficult to duplicate within the categories articulated in this form.

* * * * *

I'll be sure to let you know how it goes.

Inching, inching

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It's easy to come off, and to want to come off, as someone who's already figured it all out--it's a particularly academic attitude that's all but hammered into us, that to "not know" is a sign of weakness. The unfortunately ironic part of it all is that not knowing is always an opportunity, for me at least, and yet I feel like I get caught up in papering over those times where I don't know.

All of which is to say that, as I was thinking more about last night's post, I was reflecting on how often I do the stuff that I was critical of. I've been thinking about doing the bulk of my reading and writing for my 2nd book online, for a variety of reasons. I want the early and immediate feedback on much of what I have to say. Blogging is a lot closer to my ideal writing rhythm. And the tools for managing knowledge available online are just better than anything I might cobble together on a desktop.

And yet, last week, as I was thinking about it, I found myself falling back into the terms that I advocate against. I was worried that people would think it derivative. I was worried about it being written out from under me, as people took up ideas and turned them around faster than I could. I was worried about presses being turned off by it appearing publicly. In short, and let's break out the arrogance checklist for this, I was making the following assumptions:

  • An idea is only good the first time, that is, if you're the one to "discover" it. (check)
  • My ideas are so good that people will steal them. (check)
  • It's better to be first than to write well. (check)
  • I should hoard my good ideas greedily and then spring them all at once, so that people will think my genius is pure, whole, and polished. (check)
  • "My genius" (snort) (check)

It's so unbelievably hard to get out of the habit of policing the borders of "my" ideas that there are times when I don't know where to start. You'd think I'd learn eventually, though. You'd think we'd learn eventually. In his post yesterday, Alex wrote:

So why do we produce scholarship?
  • To get tenure, promoted, a raise, a better job, and other monetary rewards
  • To improve our reputation/standing in the academic community
  • To lay claim to an idea
  • To promote an ideological/disciplinary position and/or to critique another

I'd say those are roughly in descending order and might be followed by more altruistic notions like "advancing knowledge" or some such. If that seems cynical then perhaps you are unaware of the pressures involved in tenure or the pathetic role reputation plays in academia (something Jeff's post addresses).

As I read this, I was saying to myself, "Oh, no, my motives are so much purer than this," and to a degree they are. I really enjoy reading and writing and teaching, and the degree to which they allow me to put togther ideas, and to make sense where perhaps less sense existed previously. And to a degree, they're not. When I think of how hard it seems to be for me sometimes to think outside of that list, even when I know there is epistemological space outside of it that I can occupy, then it seems unfair to me to critique others for what in the end are my own failings.

So at the same time that I try and even out any unfairness from yesterday by calling out my own proclivities, I'm hoping that writing through it here will stop me in my well-worn tracks on occasion from repeating the cycle. I think I'll learn eventually.

Update: Well, the beginnings of a site are there. It'll take a few entries for the layout to fully unfold, and I still have to go in and tweak a bunch of the backup pages, but much of the major style sheet wrasslin' is complete, I think. Take a look. The design was partly cribbed from my grad course site, along with some twists I've been thinking about. Oh, and the colors will be different, most likely. I futzed with stuff mainly so I could find it again, but still have some alterations to make...

CCCO thoughts

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Over at if:book, Ray Cha relays and recommends an upcoming chapter from Clifford Lynch, about moving beyond "reader-centric views of scholarly literature." It has much in common with Franco Moretti's work on literary history, and is worth reading for that reason alone.

But I'm also on the lookout for ways to articulate just what it is we're trying to do with CCC Online, and Lynch's piece fits the bill. Namely...

We would also see an explosion in services that provided access to this literature in new and creative ways. Such services would also incorporate specialized vocabulary databases, gazetteers, factual databases, ontologies, and other auxiliary tools to enhance indexing and retrieval. They would rapidly transcend access to address navigation and analysis. One path here leads towards more-customized rehosting of scholarly literatures and underlying evidence into new usage and analysis environments attuned to the specific scholarly practices of various disciplines.

We would also see a move beyond federation and indexing to actual text mining and analysis, to the extraction of hypotheses and correlations that would help to drive ongoing scholarly inquiry. Indeed, the literature would be embedded in a computational context that reorganized and re-evaluated the existing body of knowledge as new literature became available.

That excerpt separates nicely into what I think we're already doing at the site, although not perhaps to the extent that Lynch imagines it, and the second half, which in many ways is the prize that we've got our long-term eyes on. If you don't think we're watching projects like this and this, well, you don't know us very well. Heh.

I'm less worried about the potential objections that Cha raises at the end of his post--"Purists will undoubtedly frown upon the use of computation that cannot be replicated by humans in scholarly research"--than I am about getting to the point where such objections can be raised. In other words, I believe that such work, if it can generate compelling results, will override knee-jerk complaints. I think it's also going to be necessary, in our own field at least, to be very careful to qualify the value of this work appropriately. Not that that's always been enough, especially when it comes to quasi-statistical work, which tends to run afoul of the old "me humanities. me hate math." goofiness.

Two other points. First is one that I'm guessing some people will not appreciate, and that's that, to an extent this work is fairly easily decoupled from the "open access" that appears to drive Lynch's piece. That is, the value of data mining is offered as a consequence of open access, and while that is true at a very large scale, I think it possible to do quite a bit in this area without it, honestly. We're able to work around providing the metadata we wanted without having to open up the journal's content, even if we might have preferred it otherwise. And I think that some pretty entrenched attitudes will need to change for what Lynch describes to be more than a thought experiment. Not that they shouldn't change, but I'm not sure how far they actually need to, for this at least.

Second point is that we use a fairly small, fairly simple suite of tools to do what we're doing now. We had to cobble stuff together, and we've done so fairly successfully, but it shouldn't go unmentioned that a couple of good programmers would go a long way towards making this a lot more doable. Personally, I have enough ability to tweak, and I'm pretty good at making MT modules do what I want them to, but we spent a fair bit of time just cobbling. I'm conscious of how much more efficient our system could be.

And yeah, it's only one journal that we're working on, and all things considered, we really have to pace things more slowly than I'd like. But it's also our flagship journal, and if nothing else, we tackled the biggest job first, in designing and testing it on CCC. There's going to be some real value in what we're doing, even if it doesn't hit the scale that Lynch imagines. And we're a pretty solid model for how to accomplish these goals on both a small scale and approaching it from the bottom up.

That is all.



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This page is a archive of entries in the Academy 2.0 category from August 2006.

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