Apropos of a couple of different Twitter conversations yesterday, I found myself thinking last night about just how much our tiny, academic corner of the media landscape has changed in the past five or ten years. The first such conversation involved a simple request for resources–someone was looking for an article on a topic (archives) that could be included in a syllabus–and the second was about citation, and whether a particular writer had engaged with the scholarship in a specific discipline. Depending on the Venn diagram of our following, you may have seen one or both of these. I’m being purposefully vague here, though, because the details here matter less to me than the fact of the conversations themselves.
I entered my PhD program right about the time that Mosaic was making the transition to Netscape–the latter was released during my first semester, although I wouldn’t know it for another year or two. Here’s how long ago this was: unless you specifically requested otherwise, my school put the last 4 digits of your Social Security number in your email username–that’s how oblivious we/they were at the time. Before I devolve here into a combination of tech history and Abe Simpson stories, I’ll just say that it was a different time.
The availability of Facebook and Twitter (and any number of other sites), and the presence of fairly usable journal databases, are in the process of changing much of what it’s meant to be an academic. Those changes are happening in fits and starts, and they’re unevenly distributed, but I think they’re slowly shifting our expectations for ourselves, in ways that will only become more apparent over the next decade. It wasn’t so long ago that “searching the journal database” would have been a euphemism for going to my office and thumbing through back issues. And the database was limited strictly to whichever journals you and your colleagues had subscribed to.
And that’s to say nothing of trying to access journals or topics from other fields; tracking an idea or topic across multiple disciplines would have required such effort as to make it practically impossible. When I was in graduate school, I used to use the campus bookstore that way–I would walk the stacks and look at the texts required in other programs’ graduate courses, to see what sounded relevant or interesting. Now? I follow folks from any number of disciplines on Twitter, I read their blogs, and I trace back their citations online. Part of the reason for this, of course, is that I have certain interests–technology cuts across disciplines–but the conditions of possibility for my interests have emerged alongside social media.
If there’s an interesting side effect to this, it’s that having access to a broader swath of scholarship changes our assumptions. For those of us who use these platforms, the boundaries among disciplines feel much more porous and arbitrary, such that interdisciplinarity or transdisciplinarity becomes our default. So in the case of the second conversation I refer to above, part of me wonders how much of “citation politics” is being driven by these platforms. That conversation was not an isolated occurrence–with the emergence of digital humanities, there have been times where I felt myself resenting the fact that its history is defined almost exclusively in terms of “humanities computing” rather than “computers and writing.” There’s also a long history of consternation about the import/export ratio in writing studies–why do “we” draw on “their” ideas but “they” don’t return the favor? And so on.
This isn’t to say that, with a wave of the Twitter wand, everyone everywhere should now be aware of everything. But I do think that social media are rapidly simplifying what used to be insurmountable issues of material access, and as a result, our expectations for intellectual access are changing as well. I’m fairly sure that this is a positive development–when I was young, the only way your work would be read outside of your home discipline was if you were lucky enough to transcend your discipline and become a superstar. This isn’t probably the right term for it, but I think of this as “vertical interdisciplinarity.” I think what we’re seeing emerge now is a more “lateral interdisciplinarity,” where only a couple degrees of separation is required to search in other fields–if I know someone who knows someone, that’s all it takes. And that “knowing” can be something as simple as following a blog or a couple of people on Twitter. A lot of my own interest and work in network studies comes less from superstars and more from finding places where people in other fields are sharing their syllabi and writing occasional blog posts.
But we’re in a transitional time, and that means that not everyone is working this way, even if we believe that they all could be. The assumption that we are all equally visible to one another sounds a little absurd, but I catch myself at it all the time. I know about you; how can you not know about me?! Between the defunding of academic presses and the proliferation of social media platforms, I find myself having to think more about whether and how visibility is my own responsibility. At the very least, this raises issues of how our notions of audience are changing.
I was about to post this when it occurred to me that this could be read as a kind of “blame the victim” argument with respect to any kind of disciplinary asymmetries–that I could be taken to mean that if a particular group of people isn’t adequately represented in a conversation, it’s somehow their fault for not working hard enough to make themselves visible. That’s definitely not my point here. I don’t think these changes alter our professional ethics in that regard–if anything, they should (ideally) make them simpler to achieve. It should be easier to assemble a broader range of citations, course readings, and/or keynote speakers–to my mind, there is even less excuse for homogeneity. A second, related point is that, at a time where open access challenges the model of scarcity upon which many of our organizations have built themselves, I think visibility and aggregation are services that those organizations should work harder to provide.
I’ve got more to say, but also syllabi to finish. So that’s all for now.