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

1 comment:

George Veletsianos said...

Thank you for your thoughts, Isobel. I appreciate you taking the time to post this, and I am happy to engage in this conversation, per the spirit of the paper! I'd like to note that our paper is not relying on the premise that scholarship is as characterized by Kumashiro et al. Rather, we note that the way digital scholarship has been described in the literature views scholarship with that lens. Our focus is on emerging stimuli that encourage scholars to engage in networked participatory scholarship. One of these stimuli is a changing set of values. For instance, one of our examples suggests that the "emergence of blogging is a symptom of changing trends in societal thought and values, and it follows that though blogging may not be transforming scholarship per se, growth in academic blogging may reflect a changing set of values amongst many scholars regarding their profession." Your argument appears to support this thought: "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?" Absolutely! We point that out when noting that se see "an emergent emphasis upon collaborative work in the form of
‘collectives’ or aggregations of the actions of individuals that are organized in a complex manner
to benefit those individuals" As I note in a recent blog entry regarding this paper "our work complements recent research in the field by suggesting that the rise of digital scholarship is not simply due to technological advances. Digital scholarship also relates to social and cultural pressures" (see http://www.veletsianos.com/2011/11/06/networked-participatory-scholarship/).

It's very interesting to reflect on one of the tensions that you bring to the surface: On the one hand, your sources suggest that we have seen the rise of the managerial university. On the other, we see the rise of (some) scholars who seek to (re)assert authority. Are the two incompatible? Sometimes they are. How does that relationship work and how do the two entities respond to the interests of the other? On the other hand, the interests of the two may not always be in conflict. I don't think that all scholars who are practicing networked participatory scholarship are doing it to re-assert themselves. Evidence from a different paper of mine actually indicates that some are participating with an eye towards simply promoting their work and creating a brand around themselves, which would align with the interests of a university managed as a corporation. Obviously not all universities are run this way and not all scholars are desiring to change that, which then brings up another interesting question: who are these scholars? What characterizes them, what are their values, and how are they using technology to make change?

Thanks for the food for thought!