The Threat of Scholarly Openness: Twitter and Its Discontents

The Threat of Scholarly Openness: Twitter and Its Discontents

I was roused from my teaching this week by the cacophony of tweets and blog posts on the merits and pitfalls of tweeting another scholar’s ideas (the most cited ones authored or collected by Roopika RisamTressie McMillan CottomKathleen Fitzpatrick and Adeline Koh), culminating in “The Academic Twitterazzi” on Inside Higher Ed. The conversation is rushing through multiple channels, expressed with frustration in Mark Sample’s response to being quoted, also by Inside Higher Ed., when he was actually citing Risam’s original blog post. “Imagine the chilling effect upon graduate students,” Sample writes in the comments, “when their first forays into academic blogging are also their first experiences with having their ideas stolen from them.” The discussion convinced me that it’s time to contextualize a personal story of mine within the larger debate of digital ethics, transparency, and inter-institutional academic collaboration. Ultimately, it comes down to a question also relevant to our teaching: as scholars, are we invested in our ideas, our “curriculum,” to the extent that we want them to grow beyond our own ability to define them?

Since January, Hybrid Pedagogy has been working to define the contours of responsible and progressive academic hybridity – its application to the classroom, to scholarly publication, to professional networks, and to knowledge construction — in small pieces. Our fundamental principles have been that academic production and consumption (what we might simply call “writing” or “research”) should become more collaborative and public, that valuable academic community can be found outside our institutions and our disciplines, that scholarly connection and citation are ethical goals, and, ultimately, that scholarly practices — teaching, collaborating, publishing — must become more open.

This spring my department launched an internal search to appoint a new chair. I was excited to hear my colleagues’ vision statements for the future of the department. However, after live-tweeting the first presentation and securing the permission of the speaker to share the tweets via email, I was reprimanded. After a day of administrative discussion, it was determined that I should also live-tweet the second presentation in the interest of fairness (an intention I had already expressed), but that I should refrain from involving Twitter in departmental activities again. I had misread the culture of the department, and I began to understand that my approach to scholarly communication needed to be more nuanced.

My intention here is not to debate the finer points of the openness of those events, but to connect my experience to this week’s discussion of Twitter ethics (dubbed #Twittergate by Risam with intentional levity). The central questions are: Is academic discourse considered public? Should it be? And does that openness pose a threat to traditional scholarship? To the first question, I propose that academic discourse, broadly considered, is quasi-public. Students pay fees to universities, university libraries pay fees to databases and publishers, and the general public rarely finds itself engaging with what most scholars consider their research. It is instead interpreted by journalists, non-profit organizations, and governmental agencies not without their own rhetorical lenses. Should access to scholarship be more public? Yes. Does a move toward openness raise threats, whether perceived or actual, to traditional scholarly practice? Yes.

In “Twitter Theory and the Public Scholar” I articulated the concerns of traditional thinkers toward the kind of communication and knowledge-sharing that digital networks enable. Potentially these networks threaten the privilege of specialized knowledge and democratize the learning process, making university culture less relevant. However, “digital culture has had neither of these effects. Our fields of special knowledge are still valuable, our pedagogical priorities still powerful, as long as we understand that we don’t have the market cornered on either practice.” Four months’ worth of work on MOOCshashtag discussionsinterviewsfaculty development, and editing since the publication of that article have made me more secure in that argument.

The collaboration that Twitter enables, like the knowledge-sharing that Wikipedia affords, unties the proprietary connotation of “content” from the essentially humanistic activity of “learning.” In the same way that teachers operate on a “share-and-share-alike” pedagogical exchange and that media creators have found use in the copyleft spirit of Creative Commons licenses, small pockets of digital scholarly communities are working at the edges of ownership to construct new models for teaching and publication. The essence of this practice is that knowledge is not ultimately valuable unless it is networked, engaged, and shared. A host of federally-funded grants and university-sponsored initiatives are recognizing and encouraging this shift (for example the NEH’s Office of Digital Humanities’ grant opportunitiesACLS’s Digital Innovation FellowshipsDuke University’s PhD Lab in Digital Knowledge, the THATCamp unconference movement, the Andrew F. Mellon Foundation’s Scholarly Communication and Information Technology grant programs, and variously organized digital humanities institutes), and the scholarship that results from these efforts follows new standards of authorship and ownership.

Take, as an example, the heightened visibility of MOOCs (massive open online courses) this year. Certainly the venture capital investments and celebrity professors associated with the xMOOCs have garnered the most media attention, but connectivist MOOCs like #Change11Ed Startup 101 and Digital Storytelling 106 have blazed the trail for a new participatory learning practice that is distributed across the web. (For a great explanation of the theory and practice behind a connectivist MOOC, see Dave Cormier’s video “What is a MOOC?”). We examined MOOCs in detail this summer on Hybrid Pedagogy (we even ran our own), and the most exciting promise of that model is the potential for engaged and open knowledge sharing between scholars and students. Blog posts, interviews, videos, and Twitter chats extend out from a connectivist MOOC in rhizomatic fashion (again, from Dave Cormier) that permits massive sharing and discussion. It’s not inherent in every MOOC, but every good MOOC promotes a new kind of knowledge. Cormier writes that “if knowledge is to be negotiated socially, then the idea of individual intellectual property must be renegotiated to reflect the process of acquisition and the output constructed by that process.” We will have less need to “own” it, and more interest in promoting it.

In higher education we hear increasingly more discussion of “the public scholar.” The phrase points to the quietly understood reality that the traditional nature of scholarship is inherently not public – not private to the author, but private to a community of privileged professionals. Some of that isolation is appropriate to the work of intensely focused researchers; however, work in digital pedagogy (DML Central) and the digital humanities (Journal of Digital Humanities), in professional development circles (the #edtech hashtag on Twitter), in the MOOC community, in ongoing debates over the economy of permanent and contingent academic professionals (New Faculty Majority and Adjunct Project), and in digital culture at large all coalesce around a central realization: the “cult of the expert” is dying and it is, and should be, replaced by a culture of collaborative and participatory knowledge construction that is more accessible and more useful outside the walls of the university. This does not mean that experts are no longer relevant; it means that experts have a responsibility to consider connections to other work more and horde content less. Digital environments breathe new life into the goal of public scholarship. In his response to the #Twittergate discussions, Alex Reid writes, “The ethos of [academic] work being semi-private is hopelessly outdated. In fact I wouldn’t even call it an ethos. It was more of a default position that resulted from the fact that publicizing one’s work wasn’t possible. Let’s face it. ‘Publishing’ one’s work in a print journal that languishes on a dusty shelf in an academic library is a fairly minimal definition of making something public.” We should view most of our work, he argues, as public in a way that welcomes digital engagement.

Since completing my Ph.D. in American literature and rhetoric/composition, I have engaged in a year-long process of collaborative public research about the affordances of digital culture to critical pedagogy. I have participated in countless collaborative writing sessions, hours of conversation, and weekend-long conferences focused on re-positioning the process of teaching and learning to orbit around a common nucleus of discovery and engagement. To some degree, I have had the freedom to do this because I am not being held to traditional standards of scholarly publishing — as a lecturer, I am not “expected” to publish, “only” to teach. The unfortunate consequence is that the work does not carry the weight of “research” by traditional scholars. I am viewed as a “teacher,” whose relationship to research is tenuous because it is not proprietary and it cannot be commodified along the lines of print production. Most administrators, promotion and tenure committees, and publishers cannot yet see how this new knowledge production is essential to the evolution of scholarship. But the polarizing effects of the MOOC model, the anxiety around intellectual property, and the ethical dilemmas of what events are tweet-safe are evidence of the coming change in learning communities. It’s a cultural change I felt acutely as I first defended my departmental live-tweet session, then capitulated, during my own experience this spring. If our job as scholars is to create concepts and arguments that act like currency, for ourselves and our institutions, then digital practices will be restricted and more conferences will resist tweeting and blogging. If, however, the world, wired or otherwise, is the audience for our scholarship, then we should embrace the potentials of connected learning and participate actively and critically in its methodologies and discoveries.

[Photo by Unhindered by Talent]

About the Author

Pete Rorabaugh

Pete Rorabaugh (@allistelling) is Assistant Professor of English, Southern Polytechnic State Univ in @ETCMA_SPSU. Critical pedagogue, Americanist, father, and co-founder of Hybrid Pedagogy.

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