Every once in a while, everything just seems to flow into one large conversation full of resonances, connections, and it’s like striking a tuning fork. This is a post about the challenges of graduate education, and perhaps, by extension, academic work for those of us who identify with the digital humanities. Let me see if I can gather the threads together.

There’s a little history. Jokingly, I tell people that one of my biggest academic regrets is a paper I delivered at CCCC a few years back (2010). Our session took place in a huge ballroom (the size of our audience did not do it justice), and rather than a projector and portable screen, we had like a 30-foot monitor. It was colossal, and one of the things I regret is that, not knowing about it ahead of time, I didn’t prepare a full slide deck. Instead, I gave the only talk I’ve ever given that had just one, solitary slide. Don’t get me wrong, I was proud of that slide, and I wish that I hadn’t lost it in the Great Laptop Crash of 2011. It was a screen capture of a cover of an old issue of Field & Stream magazine, lovingly Photoshopped to reflect the topics in my talk, which was called “Writing Retooled: Loop, Channel, Layer, Stream.” Keep in mind that this was 3 years ago, when Twitter was still relatively exotic for academics, but what I was arguing was that

For those of us who engage with the field through social media, though, that engagement may seem more shallow in the short term, but it is constant and ongoing. We are setting foot in the river every day, rather than waiting for the occasional, official “event” to do so.
Think of it this way: who is more likely to shape the field? The person who sits in the audience for a presentation or reads a journal article that’s already been written, or the one who participates in weblog or Twitter conversations about that writing as it is being done? And yet, if you asked 100 people at this conference whether they’d rather publish an essay in CCC or have a couple of hundred followers on Twitter, I’m pretty sure most people would choose the first option.

A couple of hundred. Heh. Anyways, I suggested that, rather than focusing exclusively on the “field” of writing studies, we needed to be building the tools and habits necessary for dealing with the “stream.” I was arguing and, not or, but my talk was certainly weighted towards the stream, given where the field was (is?) at the time.

Anyhow, someone reminded me of that talk this year at CCCC, my first trip back since I gave it, so I’ve had cause in the past month or so to remember it fondly. Over the past couple of days, it’s connected for me with a few different links. First, there’s Anil Dash’s talk yesterday at the Berkman Center on “The Web We Lost.” There are a number of things in there worth thinking about, but Doug Hesse pointed out in my FB comments something that I’m not sure we’ve all really processed:

We built the Web for pages, but increasingly we’re moving from pages to streams (most recently-updated on top, generally), on our phones but also on bigger screens. Sites that were pages have become streams. E.g., YouTube and Yahoo. These streams feel like apps, not pages. Our arrogance keeps us thinking that the Web is still about pages. Nope. The percentage of time we spend online looking at streams is rapidly increasing. It is already dominant.

In Writing Studies, I think that we still think of ourselves as being in the business of writing pages. Think about all of the infrastructure we have, from page counts to citation formats, that make this simple assumption about the “object” of our practices. Or about how vital .PDF has been in finally getting people to accept that scholarship isn’t necessarily inferior because it’s online. (None of these are particularly thrilling examples to me.)

As part of my own stream, I just came across a tweet from Jay Rosen that provides some nice overlap as well:

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Yes, that’s the same Robin Sloan who wrote Fish and Mr. Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore, which I happen to be reading at the moment. 🙂 Sloan writes about stock and flow:

But I actually think stock and flow is the master metaphor for media today. Here’s what I mean:

  • Flow is the feed. It’s the posts and the tweets. It’s the stream of daily and sub-daily updates that remind people that you exist.
  • Stock is the durable stuff. It’s the content you produce that’s as interesting in two months (or two years) as it is today. It’s what people discover via search. It’s what spreads slowly but surely, building fans over time.

I feel like flow is ascendant these days, for obvious reasons—but we neglect stock at our own peril. I mean that both in terms of the health of an audience and, like, the health of a soul. Flow is a treadmill, and you can’t spend all of your time running on the treadmill. Well, you can. But then one day you’ll get off and look around and go: Oh man. I’ve got nothing here.

If you push on, as I did, and read the Rushkoff interview, then you’ll see Sloan’s treadmill metaphor writ large, and translated into “present shock.” This is a line from the book that the interviewer quotes:

When we attempt to pack the requirements of storage into media or flow, or to reap the benefits of flow from media that locks things into storage, we end up in present shock.

I realize here that I’m making my own talk appear far more prescient (and perhaps more sophisticated) than it actually was. I was in good shape just identifying the difference between what I was calling field and stream, I suspect.

Another thing that I talked about with several people at this year’s CCCC was how I was sometimes struggling with the presentism of social media. It’s particularly acute for me as I dip into conversations around the digital humanities, as so much of that discussion seems to happen on Twitter. You could argue variously that this is a symptom of its relative novelty but also of its dynamic energy, and even perhaps a combination of the two. Talk to me in five years, I suppose. It’s sometimes become difficult for me, though, to step back from social media and to focus instead on the page-oriented commitments that I have. The virtue of being in my position is that, if I want, I can just tone down the commitments and focus instead on more short-form work of the sort that social media energizes and provokes from me. I’m conscious that not everyone has that luxury, though.

This is not a post where I want to scold anyone. Rushkoff has a particular position that he’s promoting, to be sure, and there are hints of it in Dash and Sloan, I suppose, but my own interest is in thinking about how the balance that I was arguing for back in 2010 has so radically shifted in the other direction. But only in certain places. I’m slated to teach our Rhetoric, Composition, and Digital Humanities graduate course next spring, and already I’m thinking about how I can hack the curricular and conceptual space of my classroom to allow for a more dynamic and distributed course experience. But now I find myself in the odd position of thinking about whether that kind of course will provide enough field, enough stock, for students who (as I was arguing three years ago)

are more likely to rely on bookmarking than bookshelving. They are more likely to read an article that has well‐developed keywords than one with page numbers. And they are more likely to follow citation trails than to sit still and read a paper journal cover‐to‐cover. They are more accustomed to managing the flows of information, sorting them, and assembling them for their own uses. In short, they are much more likely today to be what  Thomas  Rickert  and  I  have  described  as  practitioners  of  ambient  research.

I’ve been deeply committed to making over my pedagogy in ways that help students work with flow, but as a colleague and I were talking about today, those students still have to go through a comprehensive exam process and to write a dissertation. Believe me when I say that I know all the arguments for reshaping those requirements, and that I agree with them. But I have to reconcile them with my own ethical beliefs about graduate education and whether it prepares students adequately for what follows. I’m not so full of myself as to think that a single graduate course with me will make the difference in a student’s ability to finish or not; however, years spent as a graduate director have made me keenly aware that every course is itself a blend of stock and flow, with obligations both to itself and to the ongoing curriculum that it is a part of.

So while the blogger in me celebrates the short-form and the streams, the academic in me starts to wonder if the shift away from more traditional academic practices doesn’t ultimately do my students a disservice–I think about whether or not I’m responsibly modeling the kind of balance they’re going to need in their own careers. I say that fully aware that it sounds like the first step on the road to rationalization, but it’s not. Really. I think that it means that I’ll think more carefully about how I hack my course next spring, not whether or not I’ll do so. It’s an issue that I’ll likely grapple with for some time, and this is really just the beginning of that process for me. That’s all.

(ps. If you’ve read the above and thought, “why isn’t he doing something about this in his research?” or some variation on the hack/yack question, then you’ve happened upon one of the driving forces behind my next major project. About which, more soon. 🙂 )