The internets giveth, the internets taketh

A colleague of mine sent me a couple of links to articles in Inside Higher Ed the other day that I thought were actually kind of interestingly contradictory. On the one hand, there’s “The Distance Ed Tipping Point,” which is about the sorts of things that institutions need to think about when the percentage of online classes reach some sort of “tipping point.” To quote:

But what about after distance education takes off? At what point does the question shift from what a college does to offer quality online programs to how a college needs to change in its entirety when it reaches a tipping point in enrollments — and at what point does such a change take place?

(and then)

“What do we change — if we change anything?” said Dylan D. Mattina, director of information technology, in introducing the session. “This is something that many institutions will have to deal with at some point.”

Mattina and others from his college discussed several of the choices colleges need to make as they reach either 50 percent or some other critical mass where the institution is changed by the success of its distance offerings.

The article goes on to provide strategies for things like hiring and training faculty, it discusses what happens with the question of local ties, technology, etc., etc. So in some ways, I think this article is describing a panel/group of people who are trying to figure out how institutions can deal with these changes and, in a way, maintain something that resembles the status quo in the face of these changes in teaching as a result of the internet.

On the other hand, there is also the article “Tenure in a Digital Era.” Here are the opening paragraphs:

Among the “horror stories” Rosemary Feal has heard: Assistant professors who work in digital media and whose tenure review panels insist on evaluating them by printing out selected pages of their work. “It’s like evaluating an Academy Award entry based on 20 film stills,” said Feal, executive director of the Modern Language Association.

Such horror stories abound. Even as the use of electronic media has become common across fields for research and teaching, what is taken for granted among young scholars is still foreign to many of those who sit on tenure and promotion committees. In an effort to confront this problem, the MLA and a consortium called the Humanities, Arts, Science and Technology Advanced Collaboratory have decided to find new ways to help departments evaluate the kinds of digital scholarship being produced today. The MLA ran a program for department chairs at last year’s annual meeting in which chairs were given digital scholarship to evaluate, and that will take place again this year.

But it’s clear to me that dealing with multimedia scholarship is not the only reason for rethinking and reconsidering “digital scholarship;” it’s also because paper/tree-based scholarship is disappearing quickly:

One reason for the new effort is that shifts in publishing may make it impossible for a growing number of academics to submit traditional tenure dossiers. With many university presses in financial trouble and others — notably the University of Michigan Press — turning to electronic publishing for monographs, there will be fewer possibilities for someone to be published in the traditional print form that was once the norm for tenure.

The article goes on to give a list of principles for evaluating digital scholarship; in brief:

  • Material shouldn’t be judged inferior when it is identical to traditional work in every way except medium.
  • New systems are needed to evaluate scholarship that is unique in digital form.
  • Peer review matters — and needs to involve people who understand the work.
  • Digital work doesn’t fall neatly into teaching vs. research categories.

In other words, while part of this approach is to capture the kind of work that doesn’t translate neatly to traditional genres and forms (such as the example at the beginning of the article about evaluating a film or video), it is also an approach of preserving traditional genres and forms. That first criterion about not judging work on its materiality speaks to that.

So, when the internets creates a dilemma/opportunity/situation that potentially changes the way we teach, the reaction is to figure out the “tipping point” where this technology jeopardizes the stats quo, or, if we must teach online, how can we make these new classes look like the status quo? On the other hand, as the implosion of paper-based academic publishing picks up speed, there is some urgency among organizations like the MLA to reconsider the internets as a viable place to think about scholarly publishing. In doing so, we have a chance of preserving something akin to publish (albeit not on paper) or perish, aka, the status quo.

I don’t know. Maybe I’m reading these articles wrong, but it just struck me in my own head as a contradiction.

I’m happy to point out two things though. First, (insert “shamless self-promotion” tag here) I kind of feel like I was ahead of this curve in “Where Do I List This on My CV?” I originally wrote this in 2002, and I discussed in that piece some very specific ways in which self-published web sites “counted” as scholarship and the kind of problematic assumptions academics tend to have about how tenure and promotion is figured. (end self-promo)

Second, I am in a department that has embraced lots of different kinds of scholarship for a long time. In a way, I think that makes EMU a lot more forward-thinking and cutting-edge than many/most “research universities.”

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