Reprogramming The University

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Harvard Professor Robert Darnton’s recent article in The New York Review of Books presents several salient arguments about texts and libraries in the electronic age. Darnton shows us the instability of texts and how information tools throughout history have progressed from scrolls to the codex to movable type presses to the Internet. He then ends with a fair and robust critique of Google Books. The bottom line for Darnton seems to be the old-school library, the one with the shelves of hard-copy books and dusty reading rooms, is still as important as ever. The traditional bibliographer, pouring over crumbling, yellow book pages, lives on, according to Darnton’s vision.

No one can dispute the importance of the “physical” library just as no one can stop the growing popularity of the “electronic” library. People can fetishize and romanticize both types of libraries, and, in his article, Darnton certainly romanticizes hard-copy books, along with their feel and smell. Darnton, to be sure, is not opposed to new electronic methods of collecting and disseminating information, but, overall, he does make a somewhat defensive and romantic argument in defense of the past. Books and their intellectual derivatives, as an almost spiritual concept, have haunted the imaginations of scholars and poets alike for centuries. Darnton is no exception, and no one should hold it against him.

The pressing questions of electronic academic scholarship, though, as Darnton and other scholars, such as Jerome McGann, are well aware, transcend the spirituality or what we might call the fetishism of books. Darnton notes that the Google Books project, which essentially aims to put all non-copyrighted books online, has not hired a single bibliographer. McGann, in another article, notes: “Just when we will be needing young people well-trained in the histories of textual transmission and the theory and practice of scholarly method and editing, our universities are seriously unprepared to educate such persons. Electronic scholarship and editing necessarily draw their primary models from long-standing philological practices in language study, textual scholarship, and bibliography. As we know, these three core disciplines preserve but a ghostly presence in most of our Ph.D. programs.”

As far as I can discern, both Darnton and McGann do not look to aggressive political solutions to the problems facing the academy in terms of maintaining the world’s most important texts in electronic formats. Yet as corporations take over control of the world’s texts and information—and I do not think this is understated—the academy needs to assert itself as a principal guardian of Web-based books and other texts. This demands a political solution. We can rank a book or another text in terms of the number of hits it receives on the Internet, but someone needs to rank its “truth” and its aesthetics and its situational place in history and culture. But the more the academy slips behind the technological curve, the more it will suffer in terms of public funding and philosophical support, disabling it to serve as the Web-based book guardian, and, consequently, the corporations, under the neoconservative rubric, will own our knowledge. Perhaps, our grandchildren will want to research in library reading rooms instead of using their wireless laptops, but that seems unlikely at this point.

In this post, I want to argue in three broad areas that sometimes overlap, building on Darnton’s article and the ideas of McGann and other scholars concerned with electronic texts. First, I will argue professors need to become more politically involved in refuting neoconservativism as they lobby the federal government to fund a massive program that will enable trained scholars to put critical editions of e-books and sites devoted to academic pursuits on the Internet. My second area deals with how the ideas of both those who romanticize the past and future in terms of books and information have created a philosophical stalemate in the academy as it transitions to electronic scholarship. My third area ruminates about the new language of the Internet. This language is changing the ways we write and read. It also poses new challenges for scholars in terms of learning new computer languages and also learning how to analyze such languages.

Neoconservatives and the “Market” of Knowledge

Universities and colleges have changed measurably under corporate models of education over the last fifteen or twenty years. A new middle management cadre has taken over much control of class sizes, assessment and even training and development for faculty. Tenure remains under attack at many universities under the guise of post-tenure review or other evaluation methods. Overall, faculty salaries in relation to inflation have continued to decline. Students pay more in tuition and less aid is available to them. Many students must borrow from the corporate banking trough in order to complete a college education, and then the government will garnish their wages if they do not pay up. It is a brutal, unethical system. Business professors, most of whom support this new corporate model of education, make a lot more money than liberal arts or math or science professors these days. For a complicated set of reasons, many in the academy accept these developments has foregone conclusions.

All of this can be seen as the triumph of neoconservativism in higher education, and new victories of the political movement, despite the Republicans’ declining approval ratings, are recorded on a regular basis in academia. As Stanley Fish points out, the University of Colorado, for example, is raising money for a Chair in Conservative Thought and Policy. Meanwhile, many colleges cannot even offer affordable, decent health insurance to their faculty and staff.

But these are only the most visible signs of the continuing neoconservative takeover of higher education. Less recognized and discussed are the ways huge monopolies, such as Microsoft and Google, have taken over how information is written and disseminated. What student or professor, for that matter, can get by without Word or Power Point--both of which shape how texts get created, how we know--or Google’s powerful search engine? Google ranks by hits; Britney Spears beats Sophocles. Slowly and surely, American universities have abdicated their philosophical duty to seek truth outside of the influence of money and other vested interests. (I am a big proponent of open source code applications, and some universities embrace this inexpensive technology, but it remains the exception.)

The point here is that professors and instructors must become more politically active in terms of refuting the neoconservative argument, which is premised on the idea that markets are the central guide to how we should live and know. This transcends political party, but obviously my argument is weighted heavily against Republicans. The main argument of this anti-neoconservative position should be that knowledge and critical inquiry must be protected against market forces. We should teach Latin at colleges even if there is little interest in it among students. This is an old story, perhaps, but one that bears repeating often in our current corporate-manic realities. Money tells only one story about our lives.

If the results of the 2008 elections signal the demise or weakening of neoconservative influence, and signs are quite positive this could happen, then the academy should push for a massive program to place more critical editions of texts and more academic-related Web sites on the Internet. These publicly funded texts and sites would then be owned by all of us. I envision a $1 billion a year program for at least a decade. The money could be distributed to small and big projects. The project could be operated by a board of respected scholars under a specific rubric and mandate. Meanwhile, some of the money could go to our Ph.D. programs to train new bibliographers to edit and maintain texts and information on the Web. This transcends disciplines. One might think Internet2, of course, could be the conduit for this new information, but will it be absorbed by corporate ideology? It appears so.

Petticoats and Second Life

Darnton makes an argument about the body of the book in this way: “When I read an old book, I hold its pages up to the light and often find among the fibers of the paper little circles made by drops from the hand of the vatman as he made the sheet—or bits of shirts and petticoats that failed to be ground up adequately during the preparation of the pulp.”

In the next paragraph, Darnton attempts to further qualify this type of analysis: “I realize, however, that considerations of ‘feel’ and ‘smell’ may seem to undercut my argument. Most readers care about the text, not the physical medium in which it is embedded; and by indulging my fascination with print and paper, I may expose myself to accusations of romanticizing or of reacting like an old-fashioned, ultra-bookish scholar who wants nothing more than to retreat into a rare book room.”

The language of Darnton’s self-incrimination or admission, however you view it, does not diminish the stereotypes and reality of the “ultra-bookish” scholar concerned with quaint fonts and paper quality. Of course, fonts and paper quality and measurements can tell a story about a book whenever and however it was published, but one must ask how much the fetish of loving or experiencing the physicality of books outside of the text has kept scholars from exploring the new realities of e-books or producing academic-related Web sites. For example, Darnton writes about the transitions of scrolls to the codex in publishing history, but fails to adequately address the simple fact that electronic texts are also scrolls, albeit virtually infinite in concept, and that font use in Web-based texts are surely as important in how we read as it was in the nineteenth century. Can we smell an electronic text? No, but we can use the control-F function and search immediately for words. We can embed images, video and audio in our books. How does that change the way we read? How does that change the way we write?

Conversely, just as Darnton and other book fetishists romanticize the past, so do technologists within the academy often romanticize the future. There have been wonderful, time-saving advances in academic technology that allows us to research at ever faster speeds. Primarily, academic researchers save much time on retrieving basic information, such as dates, name and location. It is virtually instantaneous. Professors can obtain full-text articles on the Internet and use databases available from libraries. The speed of conducting research seems boundless, and all texts could conceivably be on the Internet in the future. Can you imagine such a world? Meanwhile, students will attend classes as avatars on Second Life. It goes on and on. But corporations will need to make their profits and this could slow the process as they squeeze the last dollar from every student they can with their latest technology. More importantly, speed and convenience will never replace critical inquiry, which takes as much time as ever. Academics form arguments and test them against the historical record and contemporary culture. There are always setbacks and re-thinking, and very few scholars add original and groundbreaking philosophical ideas—I think of Darwin and Freud here—to the world. More likely than not, scholars simply add small evidence or expand big ideas or show how an idea has manifested itself years later.
The two extremes within this bifurcation cancel each other out, and we are left with stasis. One group of scholars clings to the smell of books; another group clings to an uncharted technical future now dominated by corporations. This bifurcation need not be. As I mentioned earlier, the paper scrolls of the past and the computer scrolls of the future have much in common. But, more importantly, the study and reading of hard-copy books should never cease as the academy adjusts to new technologies. The main point is the academy needs to embrace its bifurcated self without fetish or romance.

Language and the Internet

Web-based texts and information create larger philosophical questions about knowing.

How do we read an Internet text, say an e-book or blog, as opposed to a hard-copy book or article? What are the psychological differences? Certainly, we “know” something differently when we read about it or see a photograph about it? How does this manifest itself today when an Internet text can contain any number of images, videos and audio files? How, for example, does a video embedded in a text affect how we know something? How does hyperlinking affect reading on the philosophical level? How does the way in which a text appears on a site affect our reading? How do our individual computer screens and their resolutions influence how and what we know?

Then, again, how does new technology affect how we write? How much should we hyperlink? How do we cite a hyperlink or distinguish their importance, what word or words should we highlight? What differences are there between how sentences are constructed for hard-copy publication compared to Web-based publication. Does Web-based writing demand an exaggerated awareness of how texts appear on the page? Does this enhance or hinder our writing? What about the long-held separation between author and publisher? Is that a relic of the past in terms of Web-based writing?

These are just a small group of questions for academic bibliographers concerned with Web-based publications, and some academics have tried to address these issues. But there are more and more questions and, as technology advances, there will be questions we cannot yet conceive.

Then there is the question of computer languages, from older software languages that ran on DOS to html and its variants to php to database construction and beyond. These languages deserve their own rhetorical study, from their basic structures to their psychological and philosophical expressions. How, for example, does the basic html blockquote tag function in blogs today? How does php’s focus on interactive objects change the definition of a text from something static to something always in movement, always changing? How do computer languages function within the academic framework of presenting knowledge? How do they shape how we know? Should today’s bibliographers know computer languages? Which ones?

The academy faces many challenges after foundering under a political system heavily dominated by neoconservatism for the past seven years, and the 2008 elections may yet sentence it to even more years of corporate constraints and baggage. But safeguarding knowledge and critical inquiry from a small group of profiteers and monopolists seems the most pressing challenge of them all.

(Darnton’s article, “The Library in the New Age,” appears in the June 12, 2008 edition of The New York Review of Books).

And The Winner Is . . .

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In case you missed it from the corporate media over the weekend, here is the recap on the presidential race and its candidates:

Hillary Clinton’s political career is, well, over.

Barack Obama cannot win the presidency if he becomes the Democratic Party nominee because of the mean way he has treated Clinton.

John McCain’s campaign is in such disrepair that no one can expect the GOP candidate to win in November.

So it’s all over, folks, before it even really began, according to The New York Times. No new person will actually be elected president in November because the pundits and infotainers have decreed it. I guess we’re stuck with Bush for another eight years.

Meanwhile, take a deep breath, and read these recent excerpts from Okie Funk posts. I’ll be back tomorrow.

“Now that John McCain has repudiated the Rev. John Hagee and Barack Obama has repudiated the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, maybe we can repudiate all the country’s leading religious freaks and irrationality in general.”—Irrationals Warp Political Process, May 23, 2008.

“My description here of the interview makes it seem somewhat linear. Inhofe often rambles off topic, sounds egotistical, and seems like a fool who believes in vast political conspiracies. Of course, environmental groups are going to come after Inhofe, who is the unspoken GOP leader on denying the dire effects of global warming, but is it, really, a conspiracy, whose members, as he puts it, include George Soros, Michael Moore and Barbara Streisand, or just concerned citizens exercising their rights in a democracy? McCain’s recognition of credible science and his recent proposals, of course, are just one more mark against Inhofe, who seems increasingly incoherent and pathetic.”—Inhofe’s Fantasy World, May 21, 2008.

“Coburn’s stunts do nothing to help those state voters who elected him. It may be great on a short-term visceral level to some voters here, for example, that George Will has become a Coburn sycophant, but for every adoring pundit like Will there is another pundit or another organization that vehemently opposes the Senator and considers him a cruel egomaniac. The bad publicity outweighs the good. Coburn’s controversial stances continue to harm the state’s image.”—Coburn 7 Stops World AIDS Relief, May 16, 2008.

“But, then, who else besides a prominent Oklahoman Republican, backed by the state’s ultra-conservative, GOP-adoring corporate media and energy companies, could get a free media pass when defending on a de facto basis the botched Iraq occupation, the torturing of foreign prisoners by the U.S. government, the continuing war on basic civil rights in this country and the tanking economy? Who else would even do it? Maybe someone from Utah or Mississippi? Maybe.”—Cole’s Sinking Ship Brings Bad PR Vibes To State, May 12, 2008.

“Conservative pundits, from Rush Limbaugh to Robert Novak to George Will to Charles Krauthammer, dish out the witty vitriol and clever snark about Democratic Party candidates Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, but the real story is these commentators—blustering, pontificating cartoon figures—are as intellectually bankrupt as the Republican Party they so adore. The corporate media feeds these narcissistic, loony right-wing ideologues with petty guilt-by-association plots and Clinton-family obsession. What did the Rev. Jeremiah Wright say today? Did Chelsea look sad the other night? Is she out of touch with her generation? Limbaugh, Novak, Will and Krauthammer (and so many, many others in the mainstream media) crowd around the pig trough.”—Dead GOP Ideologies, May 9, 2008.

Irrationals Warp Political Process

Image about theocracy and constitutional democracy

Now that John McCain has repudiated the Rev. John Hagee and Barack Obama has repudiated the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, maybe we can repudiate all the country’s leading religious freaks and irrationality in general.

McCain, the Republican presumptive presidential nominee, distanced himself from the bombastic Hagee this week after it surfaced the good Reverend said God actually planned the Holocaust. Hagee had earlier publicly endorsed McCain, and the Arizona Senator had already told reporters he disagreed with Hagee’s inflammatory remarks about Catholicism and God’s obvious “Katrina” wrath on New Orleans

Meanwhile, U.S. Sen. Obama recently had to distance himself from his Chicago pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, who has some particular ideas about the government inflicting AIDS on African Americans.

McCain has tried to nuance his repudiation, arguing Hagee is not his pastor, after all. Republicans can spin that argument to death; it simply won't fly if Obama becomes the Democratic nominee for president.

Given the specifics, it is all a meaningless muddle, a diversion from real issues. But there is a much larger issue here. The truth of the matter is this country has an extremely serious religion problem.

As religious influence has grown in the political process in recent years, the ability of the American government to tackle the country’s serious problems has diminished. Religious thinking, simply put, can lead to irrational thinking because faith itself is based on irrationality.

Consequently, the country’s attention in recent years has been focused on non-essential wedge issues, such as abortion and gay marriage, supposed religious issues, as our country’s infrastructure and quality of life deteriorated. We are giving up our dreams and our children’s futures so the religious freaks can fuel their apocalyptic fantasies.

Meanwhile, an incredulous world waits, ready to pounce. The number one security issue in this country right now is the irrationality embraced by so many of our leaders.

Sure, there are plenty of rational, intelligent people willing to run for office on rational issues, such as restoring the infrastructure, solving the health care crisis, ending the long, gruesome military occupation and doing something significant about rising energy costs. I would even include a few Republicans in this group.

But how can they run on rationality when religious extremism tells us logic and science are dispensable, that fighting gay marriage is more important than, say, providing adequate health care for children?

McCain, in particular, has to kowtow to the religious-right in this country. Without the votes of the irrationals, he does not stand a chance. Consequently, he and other Republicans must take irrational positions to win votes. Meanwhile, religious extremism has influenced Democratic politicians as well, producing a similar, albeit diminished, effect. As the bizarre drama unfolds in the United States, the corporate media gives religious lunatics more and more space and credibility.

What if the country had a president and other elected officials who could actually focus on the country’s pressing problems without interference from religious ideologues?

Until that happens, this country’s fortunes will continue to sink.

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