Universities as brands

Siva Vaidhyanathan in the Chronicle of Higher Education:

Once you consider a university a “brand,” you have lost. I suppose university presidents lapse into such language to placate the MBA’s on their boards. But the challenges and duties of private firms do not in any way resemble the challenges or duties of universities. So we must stop using business language to describe universities. It’s not only misguided and inaccurate, but it also sets up bad incentives and standards. The University of Virginia is a wealthy and stable institution, a collection of public services, a space for thought and research, a living museum, a public forum, a stage for athletics competition, and an incubator of dreams and careers. But it’s not a firm, so it’s certainly not a “brand.”

If students stop coming

In a follow-up to a previous blog post on “the online course tsunami” Mills Kelly of George Mason University speculates on what may happen to the academic labour market if MOOCs (massively open online courses) gain real, long-term traction:

If general education is to be delivered through whatever means (online only/hybrid) seems most cost effective and/or universities opt for a competency model such as I proposed in those long ago posts on the free economy and higher education, then we will eliminate the need for large numbers of junior and/or contingent faculty, because our students will be able to present credentials that demonstrate their mastery of what is currently called general education. Someone, somewhere, will be making money on these courses or course-like options.

This is only one of the possible outcomes that Kelly is discussing, but if this scenario would become real, “tsunami” is no exaggeration of the impact on the entire landscape of higher education (and with it, research).

Update: Kelly has now published a third part in the series focusing on the potential impact on upper-level courses if many students take their introductory courses via MOOC providers.

Libraries without books

David A. Bell of Princeton has a thorough piece on the future of libraries in the New Republic, where he argues that major change is unavoidable:

This technology cannot simply substitute for the great libraries of the present. After all, libraries are not just repositories of books. They are communities, sources of expertise, and homes to lovingly compiled collections that amount to far more than the sum of their individual printed parts. Their physical spaces, especially in grand temples of learning like the NYPL, subtly influence the way that reading and writing takes place in them. And yet it is foolish to think that libraries can remain the same with the new technology on the scene.

It is a balanced, well-informed analysis and Bell is probably as right as anyone can be in assessing the way forward for libraries, but I feel very sad at the thought of physical books gradually being pushed to the sidelines and even “phased out” entirely. A world that means a lot to many is on the brink of disappearing.

Keeping it together

The last few days I have been reviewing an old research proposal that I wrote more than two years ago. I was fortunate enough to receive a grant for the project, but because of various other obligations it was only last spring that I began to work on it in earnest. After some initial weeks of reading up on what’s happened in my field recently, I reached the point where I felt the need to revise the project abstract to reflect developments in my thinking since I wrote it, flesh out more fully the main points and organization of each chapter and so on.

As I have been working on this, I have become painfully aware of how long it has been since I was last in this position, i.e., about to embark on a fully funded, multiple-year project that will (hopefully) result in a book. Yes, writing articles can be difficult and challenging too, but trying to maintain coherence – “staying on message”, as a politician would put it – throughout a few hundred pages of text is a different matter altogether. Apparently it is also a skill you can fall out of practice with if you don’t do it regularly enough.

All I know is that I have been slogging my way through the various threads of research and the lines of argumentation that I want to include in the book, and let us just say that more work is needed. The problem is not really each strand of thought in itself, but rather the totality (in a painfully literal sense) of ambitions represented in the proposal as a whole. There are just too many of them. Or to quote The Matrix: “The problem is choice.” As it always is, isn’t it?

* * *

While the chapter synopses need further, uh, refinement, at least I was able to revise the project abstract into a state that I may dare to share publicly. It is coming soon to a blog near you.

Blogs — a return to seriality?

Speaking of academic blogging, Kathleeen Fitzpatrick just posted a piece on “Blogs as serialized scholarship”, where she discusses to what an extent and in what respects blogging is a new form of scholarly exchange or reminiscent of old ones:

The divergence between the direct, communal kinds of exploration we undertake in a seminar and the discrete, closed form of the journal article mask their common origins in the letter-based correspondence among scholars in the early Enlightenment. The first modern scholarly journals came into being as a means of broadening and systematizing such correspondence, and in the process, gradually replaced a sense of ongoing exchange with one of formal conclusion.

In this sense, today, when a scholar with a blog writes a bit about some ideas-in-process, receives some feedback in response, returns with further ideas, reiterates, and so on, we can glimpse once again the seriality that has always been at the heart of scholarly production.

Interesting argument. I have worked quite a lot with such 18th century scholarly correspondence and agree that there are obvious parallels to blogging (although the speed of exchange is very different today, of course).

Primers on blogging and online learning

Yesterday I came across two good, thoughtful blog posts that each summed up one important aspect of digital humanities practice. The first is Jeffrey McClurken’s primer on “Forms of online learning”, aimed at people who might be interested in the topic but “are not part of the ed tech world” (i.e., people like me). Essentially it is an ordered, structured list of different types of approaches where each is characterised very briefly and a few pros and cons are given.

Although McClurken calls it a draft, it provides an excellent overview of a very diverse range of forms that are often, mistakenly, discussed as if they were one single “thing”. Also well worth reading is Jason Heppler’s post on “What I’ve Learned as an Academic Blogger”, based on his experience of running a blog of his own for four years. I found it particularly interesting and helpful to read his advice on the very day I launched this site, but I could also relate it to my previous experience of academic blogging (in Swedish) for almost two years.

Most of Heppler’s points I agree with, such as the importance of writing regularly and not to procrastinate by fiddling with the design (I am the first to plead guilty on that score, though). Others I rather hope than am convinced he is right about, for example that you can write about many different things and do not have to stick to one topic. I intend to do just that here, but I am also fairly certain that it will make fewer people read the blog. Like Heppler, however, I am more interested in quality than quantity, so as long as there are at least a few readers it is a compromise I can live with.

Twitter för historiker och andra nybörjare

Twitter är användbart till mycket och för många är det idag vardagsmat, men för den oinvigde är det inte helt lätt att förstå vad det är, hur man kommer igång med det och vad det kan användas till. Att förklara detta på ett pedagogiskt vis är inte det lättaste, och därför vill jag tipsa om två introduktioner till Twitter som jag tycker är riktigt bra.

En mer allmän orientering om vad Twitter är och hur man handfast kommer igång ger Jessica Parland-von Essen på sin alltid läsvärda blogg Essetter i ett inlägg som är föredömligt klart och enkelt. Hos en amerikansk historiker, Rachel Herrmann, beskrivs också några av Twitters grunddrag och dessutom resonerar hon kring hur det kan användas av just historiker (och andra historiskt intresserade). Nyhetsspridning, nätverkande och möjlighet att följa diskussioner vid konferenser är bara några exempel av nästan oändligt många tänkbara; liksom andra verktyg blir Twitter vad man gör det till.

Länken till Herrmanns blogg fick jag för övrigt via (just det) Twitter, närmare bestämt Katrina Gulliver (@katrinagulliver) som är en av de flitigaste “twitterstorians” eller twittrande historikerna.