Monday, January 28, 2013

Online Information and Interactive Academia

As someone who has just begun their higher academic career, I think it's time for me to come to a reluctant realization: the concept of academia is dead. I know how that sounds, but let me explain. It's clear to me, especially after attending the Digital Humanities Symposium, that the education I will be receiving over the next five years or so will only partially resemble that of the generations before me. Information is being spread and presented to those outside of the field, and this is undoubtedly a positive development, enabling those without the privilege of obtaining higher education to view information they may have once not been privy to. As much as I shy away from citing anything but books and articles, it's time to admit that the information on the internet is now, in many cases, sponsored by educational institutions or written by scholars, and has brought the realm of academic prowess into the digital age. With creatively enhanced websites and interactive experiences such as the Map of London project put together by Janelle Jenstad and the Melville Interactive Library created by John Bryant, it's clear that the days of examining information strictly on paper in dusty archives are long gone.

But if this is true, then what does it mean for those of us just getting started in the field? Will our future positions be jeopardized by this sudden democratization of information? The answer, in my opinion, is stuck somewhere between yes and no.

During the symposium on Friday, I was struck not only by the variety of speakers and their interests, but also by what that must mean for the internet itself. Considering that a small sampling of those using digital means to expand their interaction with texts had such a wide range of fields and information, imagine what must also be out there, just waiting for scholars and resourceful students to engage with it. The scale of the information present on the web is astounding, and more than a little intimidating. With so much information and so many reliable online sources, how is it possible to discern what's really relevant? 

In my opinion, this is one of the reasons that academia will never cease in significance. The long heralded concept of gated libraries and dark offices of knowledge is gone. Information is out there, for anyone with a WI-FI connection, and it's no longer gated, but has been thrown wide open. Universities and scholars, however, have not lost their relevance. Rather, by transitioning to the internet, the information, analyses, and insights they can present have simply changed audiences. You don't have to be a scholar to use JSTOR, you just have to be interested enough to want to spend the money. Online lecture series have been wildly popular, and bring in audiences of not only curious current students, but even those who have never stepped foot on a university campus. The importance of professors and universities has not been diminished through this open forum of information. They remain crucial to shaping the presentation and development of information, but the platform has simply changed, and the audience has widened. 

To connect this back to my initial statement, the classic idea of academia is unarguably disappearing more and more each year, as more and more information and interactive learning tools appear. However, it's still easy to see the influence that scholarship has, even in the digital world. Academia isn't going anywhere- it's just moving, to a brave new world of interactive websites and digitized data, open for anyone determined to learn. And in the end, isn't that what it always should have been?


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. A very hopeful post, and really I believe more about the "liveness" of academia than about its death: how it is changing and growing. I can certainly share in that excitement and optimism.

    I worry however about the characterization of "academia" and "dusty old archives" as now being passe; relegated to a past that no longer has a place among us and which is stuck in a hierarchical mode in contrast with the digital newfoundland ("O, my America").

    I don't think you intended to move us down that road, but can't that be a bit reductive, especially with all that the digital erases or cuts off in the process?

    The Modern, Capitalism, Industry, and Democracy has long promised such a "New World" where "everyone" is equal and has equal access, but as their technologies are deployed, I witness a further and further divide between people that are in a position to take advantage of them and others... that, well, get taken advantage of.

    A quote from CS Lewis's Abolition of Man, comes to mind where he writes:

    "Any or all of the things mentioned can be withheld by some men from other men; by those who sell, or who approve of the sale, or who control the means of production, or who make the goods. What we call ‘man’s power over nature’ is really the power of some men over other men… Every victory ‘by Man’ is a victory ‘over Man’. It makes him stronger as well as weaker."

    Coming from Chicago, I can attest that many marginalized people, even those determined to learn, can not equally access this new world. A lack of wifi, computers, instructors, and subscriptions to sites & journals designed for the academic elite remain out of their grasp.

    Certainly, and I agree with you that the burgeoning technologies do open us more ways of getting connected, but for me at least it is a cruel and cautious optimism.

  3. For clarification, the "deleted post" was for formatting issues, not because of content. If only blogspot would let me in so I could clean up its code, but