Thursday, December 08, 2011

Field of Dreams: Academic Edition

One of the impacts of the digital revolution should be the breaking down of barriers even in academia, making it more and more possible for scholars to move out beyond their specialties, to collaborate, and to bring into their own concentrations work by others that might, at first, seem far removed from one's own area of study.  To some degree, this is happening.  In my own case, my original specialties were science fiction, genre literatures, and American literature more generally.  Because of the new exploration possibilities, I have been able to enter into specialized conversations beyond those areas more readily than once was possible.  This has allowed me to expand my brief to include cultural studies, film studies, and a great deal more.

A quarter or a century ago, I attended a meeting of radical behaviorists, almost all of whom were quite familiar with the jargon developed by B. F. Skinner (Skinner himself was there).  One heard phrases like "contingencies of reinforcement" batted around constantly and, in a smaller grouping, "mand," "tact," and "autoclitic."  No one, without having read Skinner's Verbal Behavior, could have made any sense of these last bits.  Today, on any smartphone, one can identify them in seconds and, if not participate in the discussions, at least understand a bit of them.  And, perhaps, even add to them from the outsider perspective that is always worth considering.

For a variety of reasons, the concept of disciplines (as we know them today) was established in universities in the later half of the 19th century.  The number of these has grown as time has passed with new departments being established with frequency.  Each of these centers around its own vision of an increasingly narrow "field," sometimes based on the "seminal" work of a particular scholar (Skinner for the radical behaviorists, for example) or even on a geographic area (Appalachian Studies, for instance) and the people who, though from diverse perspectives, produce work relevant to that region.  To establish a place for themselves with the university structure, groups must provide clear delineation between themselves and whatever department (or departments) they are coming out of.  One result of this is the pitched internecine battles between departments who feel that another has stepped on their prerogatives. 

The attitudes of separation this necessity engendered continue today as people insist on establishing new "fields."  This maneuvering, though perhaps necessary in the past because of the structures of academia, really has nothing to do with scholarly activity itself.  It simply provides a convenient place for a particular scholar to hang her or his hat.  Oh--and for those more interested in promoting careers rather than scholarship, it provides a whole new vista of positions, journals, and conferences, places where, at the beginning, competition is light--and where who you know or if you got there first is often more important than what you do.

To me, there's a great irony, today, in the claims for a "digital humanities" field, in demands for its 'place at the table.'  This is exactly the opposite of what I had imaged happening in academia as a result of the digital revolution.  Rather than continuing to limit conversations to certain in-groups, certain cognoscenti, I was hoping to see all sorts of barriers in academia start to crumble, from classroom walls to the fences around fields.

In a digital age, we have less need for division, for we can rely on digital tools to provide us greater connection instead, allowing for increased knowledge of both subject areas and those working within them.  We no longer need the restrictions of "field."  In fact, we should be promoting just the opposite, a revolutionary approach to academia, one that dispenses with disciplinary boundaries rather than creating more of them.  None of us needs to be in a department any longer, not if we are willing to rely on our digital tools for keeping track of who is doing what, where, and when.  In terms of our scholarship, digital tools allow us to evaluate ourselves and each other, and to see how even people across the world view the work, in a matter of moments.

One advantage of teaching at New York City College of Technology is that the school lacks, for the moment, any sort of English major.  That means that the vast majority of our classes in the English department are composition classes, and at a low level.  It also means that we don't have to "cover" as many specialties as do departments with their own majors.  It means I am able to write about journalism, about new media, about academic freedom, about popular culture, about film... about whatever I please... without being accused of stepping beyond what I was hired to do.

Until the other day, I didn't realize what a privilege this is.  In talking to someone teaching in a university where the English department recently split into two, into a Literature department and a Composition department, I learned that, in the Composition department, publication outside the "field" of Rhetoric/Composition does not count for tenure or promotion.  I was appalled.  Scholarship is only scholarship, to me, if you follow where it leads--even if that is far beyond your original goal or in a different direction completely.

We can "unfence" our academic fields today but, too often, we do not, but continue to follow patterns that, though they might have once been necessary, are no longer needed in this digital world.

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