THE Scholarly Web

Weekly transmissions from the blogosphere

May 17, 2012

Perhaps because it is now at the forefront of policymakers' minds, the debate over using the internet to disseminate academic work and digest new data has become more heated and widespread.

In a recent post on his Sample Reality blog (http://bit.ly/IDFL19), Mark Sample, assistant professor in the department of English at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, indicates that the discussion is not confined to the UK.

He takes exception to the argument in a recent essay titled "How Not to Reform Humanities Scholarship" by Gary Olson, former provost of Idaho State University, that in the digital age, younger scholars have lost the ability to produce in-depth work.

"Writing a book, in Olson's view, is all about 'deep concentration' and 'richly complex writing'," he writes.

"But why should length have anything to do with concentration and complexity? There's many a book-length monograph (i.e. a book) that is too long, too repetitive, and frankly, too complex - which is a euphemism for obscure and convoluted. And why, too, should 'cognitive concentration' correspond to duration?" he says.

"I am not saying that I don't value concentration. In fact, I value concentration and difficult thinking above almost all else. But I want to suggest here - as I have elsewhere - that we stop idealizing the act of concentration. And to go further, I want to uncouple concentration from time. Whether we're writing or reading, substantive concentration can come in small or large doses.

"The act of writing is mostly standing on the shore like an idiot. And Olson is asking us to stand there even longer?"

Professor Sample insists that people such as Dr Olson have a "cultural prejudice against tweeting and blogging in the humanities".

"The bias against blogs is often attributed to issues of peer review and legitimacy, but ... much of the bias is due to the length of a typical blog post - which is much shorter than a conventional journal article.

"Simply stated, time is used as a measure of worth. When you're writing a blog post, there's less time standing on the shore like an idiot. And for people like Olson, that's a bad thing."

Professor Sample agrees with Kathleen Fitzpatrick (director of scholarly communication at the Modern Language Association and professor of media studies at Pomona College in Claremont, California), who has argued that a blog "provides an arena in which scholars can work through ideas in an ongoing process of engagement with their peers".

"It's that concept of ongoing process that is particularly important to me," he writes. "Olson thinks that nothing fosters deep concentration like writing a book. But writing a scholarly blog is an ongoing process, a series of posts, each one able to build on the previous post's ideas and comments.

"Writing on a blog - or building other digital projects for that matter - can easily accommodate and even facilitate deep concentration. Let's call it serial concentration: intense moments of speculation, inquiry, and explanation distributed over a period of time."

Send links to topical, insightful and quirky online comment by and about academics to john.elmes@tsleducation.com.

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