Jeff Nunokawa, Professor of English and scholar or nineteenth-century literature at Princeton University, likes to use social media in his work:
Nunokawa… began using Facebook in 2005, as an alternative to burdening his students with too many exhortatory emails. By now he has written more than three thousand notes. “They are brief essays… rendering the sphere of scholarship sociable.” [The New Yorker, July 4, 2011]
“Rendering the sphere of scholarship sociable” – this is part of a vision of how the pursuit of knowledge can and should change in the digital age. I’ve written before about how academic institutions are limiting the spread of knowledge and how to improve the peer review process, but it’s not enough to tweak and critique various current modes of scholarship. One should also have an overarching vision in mind. Here’s mine: remove the obstacles to the free flow of knowledge and the information out of which it is built.
The current practices of scholarship block the flow of knowledge and information at every turn. Knowledge is socially shared on an annual basis at a variety of formalized conferences, instead of in a constant, informal, and natural way, à la Nunokawa. The pace of peer review and publication is slow and content is embargoed until it goes to press. Though raw data (facts) cannot be copyrighted, intellectual property conventions limit the dissemination of data. Analyses and interpretations are closely guarded by copyright. All these practices are linked to the tenure and livelihood of individual scholars, giving people interested in the development of knowledge a personal stake in defending these old, inefficient, and counter-productive processes.
It might seems foolish or naive for someone like myself – an academic outsider and grad-school drop-out – to criticize the time-honored rituals of academic life. But seeking to build knowledge in new and better ways by challenging old customs isn’t sophomoric. It come from a passionate commitment to the purpose of academia, which is to create knowledge. Again from the Facebooking professor: “it’s not that I don’t want to be a scholar, but this is how I want to be a scholar.”
Here’s how I want to be a scholar:
- I want to be open, to share, to collaborate, and to co-create.
- I want to publish an idea when it comes to me – on my own schedule, not a publisher’s.
- I want to choose which of my ideas should be linked to income/monetized (some) and which should be free (most).
- I want access to all books and articles ever written and all data ever created, in a usable form.
How do you want to be a scholar?