I went to the JSB Symposium with Derek on Monday over at the University of Michigan, which was an event that featured David Weinberger as the speaker. Weinberger is the author of books like The Cluetrain Manifesto, the excellent Everything is Miscellaneous, and a forthcoming book that was more or less the topic of his talk, Too Big to Know. It was an interesting talk, though not as provoking (for me) or as popular as the last one of these I went to in 2009 with danah boyd. But I digress.
Weinberger talked about a lot of things, but I think it’s fair to say that his new work continues in the same vein as what he talked about before, and how, in a digital age, knowledge is no longer expensive, rare, logical, and locked into books, and that the problem with books is they as objects freeze knowledge at the point of printing. And he talked through Darwin quite a bit as a pretty good example of how knowledge used to work and how it works now, how nowadays Darwin would probably have a blog.
A lot of what he was talking about here reminded me of an article on Prof Hacker I had been meaning to blog about here for quite some time, “Do ‘the Risky Thing’ in Digital Humanities” by Kathleen Fitzpatrick, who is the “director of scholarly communication” for MLA. Basically, Fitzpatrick is offering encouragement to dissertation writers to “be bold” by producing dissertations that distinguish themselves potentially in form if not also content. For example, she writes:
Writing a standard dissertation that meets everyone’s expectations for what a dissertation should look like, how it should argue, and what it should say is the safe path to a completed degree. But having taken that path—the path to a book—the candidate is likely to find herself on the job market with dozens of other Ph.D. holders with prospective books. Getting her work out of the pile is helped enormously by having done something more than what was expected. That is not to push experimentation for experimentation’s sake, but it is to say that reining in a project a graduate student really wants to do to conform with a traditional structure is counterproductive, deflating both the student’s passion and the thing that makes her work distinctive.
On the one hand, I don’t disagree with either Weinberger or Fitzgerald, and Fitzgerald is pretty much praised in the comment section on ProfHacker. I’m all for “breaking the rules” in terms of scholarship, my dissertation has been online now almost as long as it has existed in print, and I’m proud of the fact that I’ve published lots of stuff online.
On the other hand, let’s check in with reality. By definition, taking the experimental/alternative path is a risk, and I don’t know if a dissertation is a good place to take that risk. There are a lot of variables here, of course. When I was dissertating 15 years ago, there was no “taking a risk” in that dissertations were double-spaced and bound chunks of text by definition. My assumption that much of this has changed nowadays with electronic publishing possibilities and it is more normal for even traditional dissertations to reference web-based content. But if someone doing a dissertation on the use of multimedia in the teaching of writing and then produced it only as a web-based chunk of video, then I think that person would probably have a difficult time having that work taken seriously by scholars or the job market. The cautionary tale that already Alexandra Juhasz tells about her multimedia work/book on YouTube “A Truly New Genre” outlines the problems for an established scholar in publishing this kind of work; freshly minted PhDs just entering the profession would have an even bigger challenges.
Hey, I don’t make the rules. I’m just telling you what they are.
As for Weinberger: well, he’s telling us about the powers of the web and its transformations of what constitutes knowledge based on a book. He isn’t working at Harvard and hasn’t been invited to the University of Michigan to give a speech (one that he has and will surly repeat at other similar venues) because he keeps a blog. I don’t know how much money Weinberger makes from his books, but I guarantee you that in direct and indirect ways, he makes a lot more from them then he does from his blog.
So, while it is true that we technically don’t need books anymore (though there is something to be said about the permanence and unalterability of print as well) and we might not even be buying books like we used to, books have far more capital in an information economy than anything in the blogosphere.