Friday, January 11, 2008

Scholarly Collaboration in the Digital Age

I just finished up my part of a panel with Tim and Kathleen and am now sitting in a session being started off by a couple of my Haverford colleagues. The topic of scholarship and digital media or web 2.0 is one I'm particularly interested in; however, I often feel that I can't say anything much about it because of the role I currently occupy. Although I consider part of what I do scholarship, I don't think many others would consider me a scholar. I'm not sure I want to be a scholar, at least not as it's currently conceived--the isolated individual hunched over books (or maybe more contemporarily, the screen). So I think I come at the topic from a place outside of the existing community and that makes me somewhat uncomfortable.

I have to say that I felt my talk did not go as well as I wanted it to. It followed quite nicely from Kathleen's and Tim's, but I felt that I hadn't quite organized my thoughts in a way that took good advantage of that. I didn't have notes. Most of the time, I can work without notes, but I don't think it worked quite as well this time. But I learned something from it and its juxtaposition with Tim and Kathleen's talks.

Here's what I learned, or what I'm chewing on right now. The real work of scholarship takes place in isolation and through individual work. From that isolated position, isolated works get created and those works are read only a few people. There are exceptions to this, of course, and the sciences are much more collaborative than other disciplines, although they also are at greater risk of being scooped than humanities faculty, for example. In my work field, instructional technology, much of the thinking and work that looks like scholarship happens online, via blogs, wikis, podcasts, etc. And that's one of the things that draws me to the field. I like thinking out loud with others. I feel more comfortable moving the thinking and scholarship that happens online within the ed tech community into formal publication than I would going from online to formal within rhetoric and composition field.

Partly, of course, it's because I've lost touch with that scholarly community and what I know of it from reading and contact I've had with people in the field, it's both going in directions that interest me and in directions that really don't interest me. Honestly, I think to some extent, I'm skeptical of scholarship in many (most) fields. I find some of it very valuable, but the way that scholarship is produced and the reasons it's produced (for the sake of getting tenure and promotion, maybe to forward the field, maybe to say something new) tend to make it less valuable to me personally. Again, I'm speaking from a position where I'm likely to get condescending or patronizing comments. When scholarship is valuable to me, it's when its context is clear, something Kathleen discussed at length. In other words, its links to other works are clear, the links back to it are clear, what people are saying about it, what they think of it are all brought out of the footnotes, out of the scholarly literature and made visible. As it stands now, there's a lot of work an individual needs to do in order to figure that out. I think the reason these links, this context isn't more visible for most works in most fields is not because it's not possible, but because it serves a gatekeeping function.

I think I need to chew on this more and I think the talks I'm listening to are going to give me some more thoughts and ideas. Part of why this is all in my head is not just because I'm at a conference on the topic, but also because I'm thinking about what it means for me to be a scholar. I'm not willing to follow the traditional rules, and as I said in my talk, I feel disoriented as a result.