Invoking a New Ethos

(The first in what will undoubtedly be a bunch of posts to do with my discourse & technology course this semester)

(beware of messy polemic and parenthetical asides)

One of the texts for my summer PhD course (The Rhetoric of Personal Agency) is David Weinberger’s Everything is Miscellaneous (a book I’d highly recommend even without having finished it yet).  His thesis has basically to do with how the nature of how humans know is changing as we remove the limitations of the physical world by moving into the digital (mostly through social networking and collaborative knowledge-creating).  The basic argument seems to be that by allowing information to be truly miscellaneous and in many “places” at once, the individual knower has a great deal more freedom to know –as well as a responsibility to know actively.  (The book’s certainly a great deal more complex than that, but it’s the basic gist as I can summarize it thus far.)

This has gotten me thinking about a great many things, most of them to do with academia’s continued resistance to (if you’ll pardon the generic) Web 2.0: the social, collaborative, semantic, accessible, interactive, collectivist, rhetorical, networked, (insert appropriate adjective here) Web.

One section that I marked with a pink sticky note (the “Blog on This” marker) is in his chapter on social knowing, authority, and credibility.  Because of the limitations of the physical (i.e. capital and resources needed to create, maintain, and gatekeep expensive print texts that are assumed to be of value to readers), credibility has a great deal to do with the credentials and “expertise” of the author—what school he comes from, what people he knows, what things he’s done, etcetera.  For sites like Wikipedia, credibility comes not from credentials (most authors are anonymous, most editors are pseudonymous), but from a history of established, quality contributions to the site.  If you write/edit good articles that don’t get disputed a great deal, that is the basis of your credibility.

Beyond that, Weinberger writes, successful Wikipedia authors “have to know how to play well with others.”  In the often contentious world of facts and ideas, these authors need to be able to take edits, argue for their original positions, and perform a great deal of negotiation.  This is how Wikipedia’s vaunted goal of neutrality can be reached, and this (along with the credibility of authors) is one example of how social knowledge works.

To bring it back to academia: I think that in asking the academic community to embrace the digital (communities, technologies, information, publishing and media, etcetera), what we’re mostly asking them to do is engage with an ethos that is (ironically, I think) alien to them.  One of the great themes of the university is “knowledge is power”—we hold it sacrosanct; at the same time, many academics feel that social knowledge (an important element or principal of our rhetoric of personal agency) somehow represents the WORST of what old Al Pope was talking about when he wrote that “a little learning is a dangerous thing.”

Every time I read or think about the kind of paradigm shift in knowledge-making that Weinberger’s talking about, I can’t help but think of academics I’ve know who would number themselves among the Ludd-est of Luddites.  Can we articulate such a rhetoric to a people who honestly think that e-books (and I quote) “aren’t real books”?  Or should we even try?  I think that an accessible, engaging rhetoric is absolutely possible and even moreso, an accessible, engaging rhetoric is pivotal for bringing academia into the 21st century (okay, I’m getting off onto my diss. area here, I think…)

Let’s drink deep from the Pierian spring, but let’s recognize that perhaps that spring isn’t ONLY lodged among the stacks on the third floor.  Melvil Dewey got us that far when he invented his Decimal System to democratize library storage and access, but the humanities have been stuck there a little too long… Needless to say, the implications are wide-reaching and inspiring.  We’re really talking about a fundamental shift in understanding of how we know things, and who distributes that knowledge.  It’s a question of ethos.

<help>So, how do we get that ethos across?</help>


One thought on “Invoking a New Ethos

  1. Me likey your class already. THIS is exactly some of the issues that I find interesting with social networking (my students even write a “watered down” version discussion on this topic for their Comp I class).

    My answer to your final question is: attrition. Like it or not, you Luddite-ish colleagues are going to be left in the dust come 15-20 years from now and such arguments against e-books, for instance, will seem irrelevant.

    Being that much of my research is in Disability Studies, I would like to offer other thoughts on this issue related to accessibility, disability, and impairment. For instance, such technological changes are shifting the parameters of accessibility–for good and for bad. For instance, social networking sites (like blogs) offer discourses and forums that often challenge “conventional” sources of knowledge about disability (i.e., medical community). The medical community has predominately led the conversation about how disability and impairment ought to be treated, mediated, discussed since that community typically had the “authority,” i.e., power to shape those conversation. However, social networking changes the constructions of disability by offering “spaces” for resistance.

    Thinking about this in the classroom: how much of the knowledge that is read, discussed, and “valued” in the classroom, by our Luddite-ish colleagues, reflects the predominate, majority views? For instance, when thinking about/discussing disability, if we relied on “accepted” discourses (which are predominately not electronic, socially networked), how much of those reflect medicalized views on impairment, stigma, and disability? Something to be “cured,” “feared,” or “stigmatized”?

    Or, when thinking about accessibility for our students, how much does an adherence to “traditional” sources of knowledge–like books, overheads, handouts–stigmatize or alienate students with disclosed and UNdisclosed disabilities. (Disclosure being a whole other issue in regard to the university.) Making “the university” accessible through social networking sites, like Facebook, WordPress, Blackboard, or ANGEL, for instance, can enable students with and without disabilities to access the course content without having to go through the hoops of bureaucracy. *This is the ultimate democratization of the university, in my opinion.*

    My point, I guess: Being the hard-nosed jerk who proclaims, “Students can ONLY enter/access this course through face-to-face lecture, overheads, and handouts” ultimately leads to 1) disconnecting/disenfranchising both disabled and non-disabled STUDENTS to the “university” and 2) disconnecting FACULTY from future jobs. This is a fast-moving train–either get on board and learn how to steer or get run over on the tracks. Because we’re the generation coming up vying for their jobs and I have NO problem thinking outside the box. It’s kinda nice out here, anyways. I can wear my jeans and I feel a cool breeze…

    This reminds me of two points: One, on FB yesterday, a friend of mine who teaches senior English at SHS was telling me the necessity of teaching students to use notecards for their research papers. NOTECARDS! I wanted to yell and scream at the computer because that’s completely OUT OF TOUCH with how students will read, write, and research when they get to college. Trying to teach organization and paraphrasing? I’ve got lots of ideas that don’t require a single notecard. I haven’t used a notecard since 1996 in senior English. [pounding head on computer]

    Second, back in 2002, Dr. R at TSU told me that, when I was studying for my MA comps and reading the books on that stupid reading list, that listening to audiobooks didn’t count as “actually reading the books.” WHAT?!? Would she have told a blind student that they didn’t actually read/learn the material because they needed audiobooks to do so?

    You think I have an opinion on this topic!?!? (Or a dissertation to avoid…)

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