Friday, 18 November 2011

Reply to George

Thanks a lot to George for his response to my previous post. This started out as a short comment in reply, but grew like topsy into another speculative post.

First, I agree with George that there is a body of literature that describes non-digital scholarship with a similar lens to Kumashiro et al. However, there is also a body of literature about the ways that scholars have collaborated, and I think that to examine one without the other risks missing important points. Indeed, for me, some of the most interesting debates arise from the tension (creative, I hope) between these two views – a tension that goes back at least to classical Greece (eg.Leach) and whose most recent manifestation is as much to do with the rise of the “professional” or “expert” in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries as to do with managerialism and marketisation. So I agree with George that interesting questions are which scholars are participating in which ways. What purposes do they use these media for and under what circumstances do they use others? How truly “open” are the debates and are they still excluding “others” in some way, eg. by the form of language and discourse used? What is the relation between an “open” or “networked participatory” scholar and a “public intellectual” (see, eg. special edition of Philosophy & Rhetoric)? I'm not at all surprised that George has found evidence of reputation building as a motive. It's one that we have also found prominently in our work on release of Open Educational Resources and is evident also in Downes (2007), OECD (2007), Atkins et al (2007).

However, I am wary of confining such questions to digital media as though these were the only possible media or space for collaboration or for reputation building – this closes down options and limits research. I am also wary of framing research on digital scholarship in terms of a debate about the relations of technology and society that was current in the 1980s and 90s, rather than looking at the processes of co-evolution of the two. George mentions co-evolution, but doesn’t really explore the implications in terms of the type of study required - though there are lots of examples in his paper that would be the starting point for a more nuanced and in depth study. This sort of work is now being done in the realm of science studies (see, eg. Carl May).

I think where George and I differ may be on whether values are changing, or whether it is the spaces and ways in which those values can be expressed or performed that is changing. My sentence before the one George quotes makes clear that autonomy and ideals of collaboration and sharing are not new values – though they have existed in tension with monastic ones. (I also wonder whether we mean the same thing when we talk about “autonomy”. I mean absence of control by government or managers. I do not mean that these people are socially isolated).

But this opens up the whole post-modernist debate, and whether values have a stable reality that can be expressed through different media, or whether they exist only in the performance of them. In the latter case, then it becomes trivially obvious that performance in new media is new - but the more interesting question is how is that performance enacted and how does it compare with performances enacted in other media? However, the way George expresses his argument suggests to me that he does assume the objective reality of values, in which case my initial point holds.

fact, though, I wonder in several places in the paper whether there is a post-modernist interpretation struggling to surface. This is evident in a paragraph that otherwise does not make sense to me:

This transformed view of the mind from a disembodied and objectivist reasoning tool to an embodied, experiential, and social faculty calls into question the validity of monastic scholarly practices which attempt to disassociate the mind, knowledge, and research from social experience This view paves the way for rethinking how scholarly knowledge is acquired, expanded, and validated given the embodied, social nature of human experience. Nevertheless, we should be clear that even though such embodied practice is present in some aspects of academe, it does not represent the dominant academic culture. (my emphasis)

If we take “the mind” as a fairly stable, objectively real, thing – which I think from George’s language throughout the paper that he does – then it is the “view of the mind” that has transformed, not the mind itself – which, indeed, is what he says. However, if it is only our view of the mind that has changed, and assuming that our current view of it as a social faculty is the correct one, then it calls into question the possibility of monastic practices, rather than their validity, ie. all scholarly practices in the past must have been embodied, experiential and social even if this was not talked about explicitly in the discourse of the time. To claim otherwise would be like claiming that nothing evolved before Darwin and Wallace, or that some process other than gravity held the universe together before Newton. Equally, if we are correct in saying that the mind is a social, embodied faculty, then it must be present in all aspects of academe, even if this is only explicitly discussed in the discourse/culture of some.

Now we could get round this objection by saying something like, "the transformed view of the mind legitimates a view/discourse of collaborative scholarly practices." Or we could take the view that “mind” is a social construct that does, indeed, change with the way we talk about it, and that our discourse powerfully constitues the way we think as well as the way we behave. This, of course, then raises the thorny issue of distributed cognition (eg. Vaesen 2011)if we are talking about thinking in networks. So, lots to explore and debate here.

Any thoughts anyone?

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Networked participatory scholarship

Eleni has drawn my attention to Veletsianos & Kimmons’ new paper on Networked participatory scholarship. They take a historical approach and “delineate how scholarship itself is changing with the emergence of certain tools, social behaviours, and cultural expectations associated with participatory technologies.”

They build on Burton, Cohen and Weller, and then define Networked Participatory Scholarship as "scholars' use of participatory technologies and online social networks to share, reflect upon, critique, improve, validate, and further their scholarship."

So far, so good.

However, while noting that, "it could be argued that scholars have always shared their work with colleagues (eg. face-to-face, via correspondence, over the telephone, through conferences, etc), and disciplines have always had open (and less open) scholars," they go on, in the rest of their argument, to rely on Kumashiro et al's characterisation of earlier sholarship as "monastic and lacking ongoing participation, support, and conversation". In doing so, are they missing some of the most interesting things?

If we accept that scholars have always shared their work, and that disciplines have always had open scholars (there is lots of evidence to support these contentions), then what changes with use of participatory technologies?

One thing is the synchronicity with which the public, and other scholars, can observe the debate, and hence the ways in which they can contribute to it. Some of the ways in which scholars shared and reflected upon their work in the past were private at the time, perhaps not through intention, but because that was what the available technologies enabled. We can re-capture the sharing and reflection now, through archives of correspondence. James Clerk Maxwell, William Thomson (Lord Kelvin), and Peter Tait, for example carried on an extensive correspondence with the frequency and brevity of blogs or email, all on postcards, in the 19th century, bouncing half formed ideas off each other. They also published in journals, books, and lectures, their ideas at various stages of development, but these were all in different media. It was only after their deaths, too late to join in, that the entire corpus could be assembled and the debate traced.

Another is our ability to capture the debate (or that element of it that takes place in digital technologies). Debate has been at the heart of what scholars do, at least since medieval times, and to enable debate in the absence of easy communication technologies was what prompted the formation of the first universities. Universities brought scholars together in physical proximity over extended periods of time so that they can talk to each other; conferences brought geographically dispersed scholars together temporarily for intensive bursts of talk. But that is what it was - talk - and most of it has left no trace. Only the published papers or books are seen.

Synchronicity and the ability to capture, then, enable both different geographic and temporal dimensions to the debate. Are these changed dimensions what constitute "openness" today? Scholars are doing the same things they ever were, but by using participatory technologies to do them, the dynamics have changed, and the nature of the debate is likely to change too?

Jim Secord has chronicled the changing nature of scientific conversations in the 19th century. Social norms governed what types of topic were appropriate in what situations, and these changed in response to wider social changes, such as the rise of a professional class and the changing organisation of science. Are any such norms and conventions yet evident in scholars use of participatory technologies? Can we observe and chronicle their changes?

If we view things this way, then perhaps there is a wider context in which we might view the adoption by scholars of participatory technologies. Bollier argues that until the 1960s or so, universities operated on the principle that academic research and innovation depended upon cooperation, collaboration and sharing. Aligned with this belief, university management, and funding policies, were based on collegiate principles, allowing considerable autonomy to scholars (McNay 1995*, Van Rooij 2011). The last 40 years, however, have seen increasing managerial control of universities and a "a frankly acquisitive ethic that aggressively seeks private ownership and profit from the fruits of university research" (Bollier). Might one of the social stimuli underlying increasing use by scholars of participatory technologies be the desire for a space in which they can assert their autonomy and ideals of collaboration and sharing? In this case we might expect to see norms emerging about what gets discussed there, and these norms will be affected not only by the scholars, but also by the expectations and interests of the "public" who join the debate - so the question of who else is involved in these debates, and what they contribute, becomes interesting also.

*McNay, I.(1995),“From the Collegial Academy to Corporate Enterprise: The Changing Cultures of Universities”, in T. Schuller (ed.), The Changing University?, SRHE/Open University Press, Buckingham