books: March 2008 Archives

1 step forward?

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Lindsay Waters has a piece in yesterday's IHE about how we evaluate what we do in the academy, "A Call for Slow Writing." Now, you might recall that my own feelings about Waters are, shall we say, less than glowingly positive. But I will say that my feelings about this essay are mixed, and not in the worst way.

First, it's a well-wrought piece, showing off Waters' own skills at prose, and it is replete with erudition. I don't usually write like that, but there you have it. And second, I'm actually in complete agreement with the major point of the essay:

I have claimed elsewhere that the book-for-tenure system is coming to an end, that it is unsustainable, that its growth has been an obscenity, because it was mindless, because it sought to make something automatic and machine-like play the role that should only be played by the soul....There is no good reason why the essay should not replace the book, and a lot of good reasons why it should. I am tempted to say -- in order to be maximally provocative -- that anyone who publishes a book within six years of earning a Ph.D. should be denied tenure. The chances a person at that stage can have published something worth chopping that many trees down is unlikely.

Waters' argument is that we need to start unlearning the system that prompts us to push out writing as quickly as we do, in the interests of bumping up our pre-tenure numbers. I don't know that he'll have many takers for denying tenure to those who do publish books, but I will say that I very consciously reset my tenure clock when I moved from ODU to SU. And my book was better for it, I believe.

So far, so good. It's a little curmudgeonly of me, but I am willing to grant that most of our writing would be improved by shaking it free of the shadow of tenure. But then...

What I'm saying is that the first step to re-establishing the essay as the standard in humanistic writing is to reinvigorate the sentences we write, so that, when one reads an essay, one feels it. One feels it the way one tastes -- and here I'm going global -- a good curry. It really sets you back. Or maybe forward. Style, maniera, modo is what we readers demand.

It's hard for me not to react negatively--and here I'm going local--to the modo for modo's sake here. But the larger point is where I'm set back. To imagine that an entire profession sits around thinking, "hmmm, how can I write a really crappy sentence here?" is beyond laughable to me. Is there writing in the humanities that is largely indefensible from a stylistic point of view? Almost certainly. Are there writers in the humanities who consciously set out to produce inelegant prose? I seriously doubt it. So the notion that an entire tenure system is going to be changed by our conviction about the quality of our prose just sounds cranky to me, to be honest, and not serious at all.

Now, Waters goes on to talk about the editorial changes going on at boundary 2, and they sound great. I'm even willing to grant as part of a thought experiment that other journals follow suit. Not all, I'd imagine, but some. Let's even suppose that some of the essays written in this renaissance of clarity trickle upwards into book form. How long will that take? And where does the system tip?

Most importantly, though, what will any of this have to do with the demands placed upon us by our institutions? Who will be the first top-flight university to say that their tenure expectations are aberrant, and should be scaled back to allow more quality work? Which administrator, content with a system that translates qualitative work into quantities, is going to admit the "obscenity" when most university and college budgets already build into their calculations the retirements and tenure denials, and the budget line resets that they bring?


I've never been all that adept at the kind of nominal-dense, code-wordy prose that Waters and others decry, so I don't really take this stuff that personally. What I do take personally is the transfer of value judgments from the work (this work is difficult, obscure, and personally offensive) to the folk who write such works, in some kind of weird moral algebra. Honestly, I find that a little sloppy.

There are things that we can do. That much I agree with. We can strive to write as well as we can, certainly, and we can try to hold each other accountable as we read manuscripts, offer advice, direct projects, etc. But to imagine that we are the ones who have driven this system within which we toil is a little facile.

And this is from someone who's been fortunate enough to receive tenure. I'm not one of those who believes that the current system was good enough for me, so it's good enough for anyone else. But I don't see this essay offering anything like a solution for the problem it poses.

That is all, except to note that I'm not the CB who left a comment on the original post...

If you're like me, there's a hole in your aggregator where Clay Shirky used to appear regularly. In a lot of ways, he and the rest of the Many2Many crew helped to spark my interests in social software, web2, and network studies. So it's been a little lonelier at Google Reader without him. The hiatus, though, had its consequences: this week, Clay's book, Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing without Organizations (Amazon) was released. I was lucky enough to be quick on the draw when Clay posted an offer to bloggers for a free, advance copy in exchange for blogging it, and although I'd hoped to do so before its release (thereby proving my Relevance and insider status), the sad truth is that the crossword tournament and other things got in my way. But here I am now. And here you are. Here we go.

This book will be largely familiar to those of us who have been reading Clay for a few years, and equally familiar in tone and style to those of us who read Gladwell, Johnson, Anderson, etc. There's a genre that's emerged in the past few years that I think of as PopTech (although perhaps sociologists would correct me, since I think these book "intrude" on their territory more than any other)--books that translate both sociological concepts and the technology industries for the more casual reader. I don't think of PopTech as a bad thing--my own attitude is a more open sociology/rhetoric of knowledge kind of thing. So it's interesting to me that these kinds of books are where "my work" is being done most actively. Okay, that's neither here nor there, except to note that the book works hard to be engaging to those who have little stake in the conceptual end of things. Again, not a bad thing.

The about part: HCE is about understanding the changes that are happening as a result of the net, web2, etc. "These changes are profound because they are amplifying or extending our essential social skills, and our characteristic social failings as well" (14). The big change that this book narrates is the move from institutions/organizations as the primary site of social interaction to a more bottom-up activity. In a sense, this is an answer to what Clay calls the "institutional dilemma"--we need institutions to direct our group efforts, to act collectively, but a certain margin of those institutions is devoted to actually directing those efforts (19). "New social tools are altering this equation by lowering the costs of coordinating group action" (31).

One of the profound shifts that this book examines is the move from scarcity to abundance, a theme that you'll find in Anderson's Long Tail as well. But while the original thesis of the Long Tail dealt primarily with commerce and economics, Shirky's focus is on a more interpersonal scale. In an age of media scarcity, where access to publication and broadcast is limited, the "professionals" are those whose job it is to filter our media pre-publication. With social tools, more and more, it's instead "publish, then filter." But Shirky's careful not to suggest that utopia is just around the corner: "The limiting effect of scale on interaction is bad news for people hoping for the dawn of an egalitarian age ushered in by our social tools" (95). And that's one of the nice features of this book, overall, the fact that Shirky doesn't fall victim to the temptation to try and discuss these tools outside of their social context. It recalls for me his discussion of A-lists, power laws, etc., from the good old days. These tools may address technological or media issues, but that doesn't mean that our social or cognitive limitations have somehow vanished along with them.

One of my favorite posts from Shirky's site is "The FCC, Weblogs, and Inequality," which has my favorite subtitle of all time: "Diverse. Free. Equal. Pick two." He goes into a little more detail in the book, of course, but of particular interest to me was his discussion of power laws, motivation, and collaboration in Chapter 5, where he notes that "imbalance drives large social systems rather than damaging them" (125), which I take to be a gentler translation of that original point. The book shifts at this point to talking about collective action, flash mobs, political action, cultural capital, and small worlds. And that's an awfully skate overview of those latter chapters, I fear.

What happened for me as I read through the book was that by the final couple of chapters, it felt like all of the narratives and terms really coalesced into the overriding message of the book. And the final chapter pretty well sums it up: "Promise, Tool, Bargain." Only one of those is technological, you'll notice, and each is as essential as the other two. According to Shirky, "The promise creates the basic desire to participate...After getting the promise right (or right enough), the next hurdle is figuring out which tools will best help people approach the promise together...Then...A successful bargain among users must be a good fit for both the promise and the tools used" (261). Of these, the bargain was the trickiest for me, and it's the trickiest of the three in general, I think. But really, it's everything from explicit contract to implicit, phatic exchange.

I'm not sure that there's a formula, though. In fact, let me change that around: I'm sure there's not a formula, but one of the things that Shirky discusses in the second-to-last chapter is how these new tools make failure "free"--if no one's interested in your obscure Wikipedia page, or your Meetup group, or your Flickr account, or your blog post, then if that's not part of your bargain, you just drop it/them. In traditional organizations (pace James Dyson), there's not a lot of room for failure, which translates into lost resources, or adds to that margin of costs. Online, though, if your group doesn't fly, or your discussion list fades, or enough people don't pay attention to you, then you just go on to do other things. Failure is free.

And this may be the most interesting part of the book to me. "Cheap failure, valuable as it is on its own, is also a key part of a more complex advantage: the exploration of multiple possibilities" (247). In other words, as much as this is a book about organization and about social tools, I left the book thinking of it as a book about social and organizational invention, and I mean that more in the rhetorical sense than in the corporate sense of innovation. It's a nice bridge between the more technical ideas (power laws, e.g.) and the concrete, practical examples thereof. And it's a book that would be accessible to those of my colleagues who don't think of technology as something they "do." The tools are only part of the equation; in many cases, we're part of it ourselves.

As a close, I think this book would/will be valuable for those who are looking to connect up rhetoric of social movement kind of work with technology and/or the language of networks (which is getting full-on buzz in my field right now, I think). Donna mentioned something to this effect last week, and I think she's right to call for this kind of cross-pollination. It's definitely worth reading, and it's a good entry point for folks in my field to some of these issues.

That's all.



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