Category Archives: Academia

Critical Elements of Web Culture Scholars Should Understand

The Scholars’ Lab at the University of Virginia has posted audio recordings of sessions from “The Humanities in a Digital Age,” a symposium that took place in November at UVA’s new Institute of the Humanities and Global Cultures. My keynote at the symposium was entitled “Humanities Scholars and the Web: Past, Present, Future,” and focused on what I believe are three critical elements of the web that scholars tend to overlook, or that cause concern because they upset certain academic conventions:

1) The openness and standards of the web produce generative platforms. The magic of the web is that from relatively simple technical specifications and interoperability arise an incredibly varied and constantly innovative set of genres. For those wedded to traditional forms such as the book and article, this can be difficult to understand and accept.

2) Interfaces shape genres. Tracing the history of web applications used to make blogs, from early link aggregators to the blank page of WordPress 3′s full-screen writing environment, shows this in action. Humanities blogs shifted in helpful ways over the last 15 years, into modes that should be more acceptable to the academy, as these interfaces changed. Being in control of these interfaces is important as we continue to develop online scholarship.

3) Communities define practice. Conventions around web genres are created by those participating in them. This has serious implications for what the academy might be able to do with the web in the future.

You can hear about these three main points and much more in the talk, which is available as a podcast or audio stream near the bottom of this page. Part of the talk comes from chapter 1 of The Ivory Tower and the Open Web.

Evans and Cebula on Academic Blogging

There has been some very good writing recently on academic blogging that I wanted to highlight in this space. Over on the excellent History of Emotions Blog, Jules Evans asks “Should Academics Blog?” (Update 1/6/12: For some reason Jules Evans has taken this post down), and offers some smart reasons in favor. I particularly liked this reason, given how academics often find the writing process difficult:

Firstly, it makes me a better writer. If you only write articles for peer-reviewed journals and the occasional book, you’re going to lose the habit of writing, and when you do write, you may find it a torturous process, like doing no exercise at all then suddenly running a marathon. Or, to use another simile, it’s like being a painter who only ever practices their art by painting huge frescoes. It’s helpful to have a sketchpad to try out ideas, find ways of putting things, and to preserve insights while they’re still fresh. It’s not either blogging or longer and more serious work. Blogging makes the longer work easier and more vibrant.

Another experienced (and award-winning) academic blogger, Larry Cebula, provides sound advice for academics thinking about starting a blog, or those who worry about sustaining one:

Decide what your blog is about, and stick to it. This blog covers the history of the Pacific Northwest, digital history and resources, and sometimes teaching. You topic does not have to be a straight jacket (perhaps 10% of my posts are outside of my usual topics), but keeping a tight focus helps you build an audience and reputation.

And in case you’re new to this blog, my views on academic blogging from 2006.

 

The Ivory Tower and the Open Web: Introduction: Burritos, Browsers, and Books [Draft]

[A draft of the introduction to my forthcoming book, The Ivory Tower and the Open Web, which looks at academic resistance to the modes and genres of the web, and how those modes and genres might actually reinvigorate the academy. I'll be posting drafts of chapters as well for open comment and criticism.]

In the summer of 2007, Nate Silver decided to conduct a rigorous assessment of the inexpensive Mexican restaurants in his neighborhood, Chicago’s Wicker Park. Figuring that others might be interested in the results of his study, and that he might be able to use some feedback from an audience, he took his project online.

Silver had no prior experience in such an endeavor. By day he worked as a statistician and writer at Baseball Prospectus—an innovator, to be sure, having created a clever new standard for empirically measuring the value of players, an advanced form of the “sabermetrics” vividly described by Michael Lewis in Moneyball.1 But Silver had no experience as a food critic, nor as a web developer.

In time, his appetite took care of the former and the open web took care of the latter. Silver knit together a variety of free services as the tapestry for his culinary project. He set up a blog, The Burrito Bracket, using Google’s free Blogger web application. Weekly posts consisted of his visits to local restaurants, and the scores (in jalapeños) he awarded in twelve categories.

Home page of Nate Silver’s Burrito Bracket
Ranking system (upper left quadrant)

Being a sports geek, he organized the posts as a series of contests between two restaurants. Satisfying his urge to replicate March Madness, he modified another free application from Google, generally intended to create financial or data spreadsheets, to produce the “bracket” of the blog’s title.

Google Spreadsheets used to create the competition bracket

Like many of the savviest users of the web, Silver started small and improved the site as he went along. For instance, he had started to keep a photographic record of his restaurant visits and decided to share this documentary evidence. So he enlisted the photo-sharing site Flickr, creating an off-the-rack archive to accompany his textual descriptions and numerical scores. On August 15, 2007, he added a map to the site, geolocating each restaurant as he went along and color-coding the winners and losers.

Flickr photo archive for The Burrito Bracket (flickr.com)
Silver’s Google Map of Chicago’s Wicker Park (shaded in purple) with the location of each Mexican restaurant pinpointed

Even with its do-it-yourself enthusiasm and the allure of carne asada, Silver had trouble attracting an audience. He took to Yelp, a popular site for reviewing restaurants to plug The Burrito Bracket, and even thought about creating a Super Burrito Bracket, to cover all of Chicago.2 But eventually he abandoned the site following the climactic “Burrito Bowl I.”

With his web skills improved and a presidential election year approaching, Silver decided to try his mathematical approach on that subject instead—”an opportunity for a sort of Moneyball approach to politics,” as he would later put it.3 Initially, and with a nod to his obsession with Mexican food, he posted his empirical analyses of politics under the chili-pepper pseudonym “Poblano,” on the liberal website Daily Kos, which hosts blogs for its engaged readers.

Then, in March 2008, Silver registered his own web domain, with a title that was simultaneously and appropriately mathematical and political: fivethirtyeight.com, a reference to the total number of electors in the United States electoral college. He launched the site with a slight one-paragraph post on a recent poll from South Dakota and a summary of other recent polling from around the nation. As with The Burrito Bracket it was a modest start, but one that was modular and extensible. Silver soon added maps and charts to bolster his text.

FiveThirtyEight two months after launch, in May 2008

Nate Silver’s real name and FiveThiryEight didn’t remain obscure for long. His mathematical modeling of the competition between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination proved strikingly, almost creepily, accurate. Clear-eyed, well-written, statistically rigorous posts began to be passed from browsers to BlackBerries, from bloggers to political junkies to Beltway insiders. From those wired early subscribers to his site, Silver found an increasingly large audience of those looking for data-driven, deeply researched analysis rather than the conventional reporting that presented political forecasting as more art than science.

FiveThiryEight went from just 800 visitors a day in its first month to a daily audience of 600,000 by October 2008.4 On election day, FiveThiryEight received a remarkable 3 
million 
visitors, more than most daily newspapers
.5

All of this attention for a site that most media coverage still called, with a hint of deprecation, a “blog,” or “aggregator” of polls, despite Silver’s rather obvious, if latent, journalistic skills. (Indeed, one of his roads not taken had been an offer, straight out of college, to become an assistant at The Washington Post.6 ) An article in the Colorado Daily on the emergent genre represented by FiveThirtyEight led with Ken Bickers, professor and chair of the political science department at the University of Colorado, saying that such sites were a new form of “quality blogs” (rather than, evidently, the uniformly second-rate blogs that had previously existed). The article then swerved into much more ominous territory, asking whether reading FiveThirtyEight and similar blogs was potentially dangerous, especially compared to the safe environs of the traditional newspaper. Surely these sites were superficial, and they very well might have a negative effect on their audience:

Mary Coussons-Read, a professor of psychology at CU Denver, says today’s quick turnaround of information helps to make it more compelling.

“Information travels so much more quickly,” she says. “(We expect) instant gratification. If people have a question, they want an answer.”

That real-time quality can bring with it the illusion that it’s possible to perceive a whole reality by accessing various bits of information.

“There’s this immediacy of the transfer of information that leads people to believe they’re seeing everything … and that they have an understanding of the meaning of it all,” she says.

And, Coussons-Read adds, there is pleasure in processing information.

“I sometimes feel like it’s almost a recreational activity and less of an information-gathering activity,” she says.

Is it addiction?

[Michele] Wolf says there is something addicting about all that data.

“I do feel some kind of high getting new information and being able to process it,” she says. “I’m also a rock climber. I think there are some characteristics that are shared. My addiction just happens to be information.”

While there’s no such mental-health diagnosis as political addiction, Jeanne White, chemical dependency counselor at Centennial Peaks Hospital in Louisville, says political information seeking could be considered an addictive process if it reaches an extreme.7

This stereotype of blogs as the locus of “information” rather than knowledge, of “recreation” rather than education, was—and is—a common one, despite the wide variety of blogs, including many with long-form, erudite writing. Perhaps in 2008 such a characterization of FiveThirtyEight was unsurprising given that Silver’s only other credits to date were the Player Empirical Comparison and Optimization Test Algorithm (PECOTA) and The Burrito Bracket. Clearly, however, here was an intelligent researcher who had set his mind on a new topic to write about, with a fresh, insightful approach to the material. All he needed was a way to disseminate his findings. His audience appreciated his extraordinarily clever methods—at heart, academic techniques—for cutting through the mythologies and inadequacies of standard political commentary. All they needed was a web browser to find him.

A few journalists saw past the prevailing bias against non-traditional outlets like FiveThirtyEight. In the spring of 2010, Nate Silver bumped into Gerald Marzorati, the editor of the New York Times Magazine, on a train platform in Boston. They struck up a conversation, which eventually turned into a discussion about how FiveThirtyEight might fit into the universe of the Times, which ultimately recognized the excellence of his work and wanted FiveThirtyEight to enhance their political reporting and commentary. That summer, a little more than two years after he had started FiveThirtyEight, Silver’s “blog” merged into the Times under a licensing deal.8 In less time than it takes for most students to earn a journalism degree, Silver had willed himself into writing for one of the world’s premier news outlets, taking a seat in the top tier of political analysis. A radically democratic medium had enabled him to do all of this, without the permission of any gatekeeper.

FiveThirtyEight on the New York Times website, 2010

* * *

 

The story of Nate Silver and FiveThirtyEight has many important lessons for academia, all stemming from the affordances of the open web. His efforts show the do-it-yourself nature of much of the most innovative work on the web, and how one can iterate toward perfection rather than publishing works in fully polished states. His tale underlines the principle that good is good, and that the web is extraordinarily proficient at finding and disseminating the best work, often through continual, post-publication, recursive review. FiveThirtyEight also shows the power of openness to foster that dissemination and the dialogue between author and audience. Finally, the open web enables and rewards unexpected uses and genres.

Undoubtedly it is true that the path from The Burrito Bracket to The New York Times may only be navigated by an exceptionally capable and smart individual. But the tools for replicating Silver’s work are just as open to anyone, and just as powerful. It was with that belief, and the desire to encourage other academics to take advantage of the open web, that Roy Rosenzweig and I wrote Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web.9 We knew that the web, although fifteen years old at the time, was still somewhat alien to many professors, graduate students, and even undergraduates (who might be proficient at texting but know nothing about HTML), and we wanted to make the medium more familiar and approachable.

What we did not anticipate was another kind of resistance to the web, based not on an unfamiliarity with the digital realm or on Luddism but on the remarkable inertia of traditional academic methods and genres—the more subtle and widespread biases that hinder the academy’s adoption of new media. These prejudices are less comical, and more deep-seated, than newspapers’ penchant for tales of internet addiction. This resistance has less to do with the tools of the web and more to do with the web’s culture. It was not enough for us to conclude Digital History by saying how wonderful the openness of the web was; for many academics, this openness was part of the problem, a sign that it might be like “playing tennis with the net down,” as my graduate school mentor worriedly wrote to me.10

In some respects, this opposition to the maximal use of the web is understandable. Almost by definition, academics have gotten to where they are by playing a highly scripted game extremely well. That means understanding and following self-reinforcing rules for success. For instance, in history and the humanities at most universities in the United States, there is a vertically integrated industry of monographs, beginning with the dissertation in graduate school—a proto-monograph—followed by the revisions to that work and the publication of it as a book to get tenure, followed by a second book to reach full professor status. Although we are beginning to see a slight liberalization of rules surrounding dissertations—in some places dissertations could be a series of essays or have digital components—graduate students infer that they would best be served on the job market by a traditional, analog monograph.

We thus find ourselves in a situation, now more than two decades into the era of the web, where the use of the medium in academia is modest, at best. Most academic journals have moved online but simply mimic their print editions, providing PDF facsimiles for download and having none of the functionality common to websites, such as venues for discussion. They are also largely gated, resistant not only to access by the general public but also to the coin of the web realm: the link. Similarly, when the Association of American University Presses recently asked its members about their digital publishing strategies, the presses tellingly remained steadfast in their fixation on the monograph. All of the top responses were about print-on-demand and the electronic distribution and discovery of their list, with a mere footnote for a smattering of efforts to host “databases, wikis, or blogs.”11 In other words, the AAUP members see themselves almost exclusively as book publishers, not as publishers of academic work in whatever form that may take. Surveys of faculty show comfort with decades-old software like word processors but an aversion to recent digital tools and methods.12 The professoriate may be more liberal politically than the most latte-filled ZIP code in San Francisco, but we are an extraordinarily conservative bunch when in comes to the progression and presentation of our own work. We have done far less than we should have by this point in imagining and enacting what academic work and communication might look like if it was digital first.

To be sure, as William Gibson has famously proclaimed, “The future is already here—it’s just not very evenly distributed.”13 Almost immediately following the advent of the web, which came out of the realm of physics, physicists began using the Los Alamos National Laboratory preprint server (later renamed ArXiv and moved to arXiv.org) to distribute scholarship directly to each other. Blogging has taken hold in some precincts of the academy, such as law and economics, and many in those disciplines rely on web-only outlets such as the Social Science Research Network. The future has had more trouble reaching the humanities, and perhaps this book is aimed slightly more at that side of campus than the science quad. But even among the early adopters, a conservatism reigns. For instance, one of the most prominent academic bloggers, the economist Tyler Cowen, still recommends to students a very traditional path for their own work.14 And far from being preferred by a large majority of faculty, quests to open scholarship to the general public often meet with skepticism.15

If Digital History was about the mechanisms for moving academic work online, this book is about how the digital-first culture of the web might become more widespread and acceptable to the professoriate and their students. It is, by necessity, slightly more polemical than Digital History, since it takes direct aim at the conservatism of the academy that twenty years of the web have laid bare. But the web and the academy are not doomed to an inevitable clash of cultures. Viewed properly, the open web is perfectly in line with the fundamental academic goals of research, sharing of knowledge, and meritocracy. This book—and it is a book rather than a blog or stream of tweets because pragmatically that is the best way to reach its intended audience of the hesitant rather than preaching to the online choir—looks at several core academic values and asks how we can best pursue them in a digital age.

First, it points to the critical academic ability to look at any genre without bias and asks whether we might be violating that principle with respect to the web. Upon reflection many of the best things we discover in scholarship are found by disregarding popularity and packaging, by approaching creative works without prejudice. We wouldn’t think much of the meandering novel Moby-Dick if Carl Van Doren hadn’t looked past decades of mixed reviews to find the genius in Melville’s writing. Art historians have similarly unearthed talented artists who did their work outside of the royal academies and the prominent schools of practice. As the unpretentious wine writer Alexis Lichine shrewdly said in the face of fancy labels and appeals to mythical “terroir”: “There is no substitute for pulling corks.”16

Good is good, no matter the venue of publication or what the crowd thinks. Scholars surely understand that on a deep level, yet many persist in the valuing venue and medium over the content itself. This is especially true at crucial moments, such as promotion and tenure. Surely we can reorient ourselves to our true core value—to honor creativity and quality—which will still guide us to many traditionally published works but will also allow us to consider works in some nontraditional venues such as new open access journals or articles written and posted on a personal website or institutional repository, or digital projects.

The genre of the blog has been especially cursed by this lack of open-mindedness from the academy. Chapter 1, “What is a Blog?”, looks at the history of the blog and blogging, the anatomy and culture of a genre that is in many ways most representative of the open web. Saddled with an early characterization as being the locus of inane, narcissistic writing, the blog has had trouble making real inroads in academia, even though it is an extraordinarily flexible form and the perfect venue for a great deal of academic work. The chapter highlights some of the best examples of academic blogging and how they shape and advance arguments in a field. We can be more creative in thinking about the role of the blog within the academy, as a venue for communicating our work to colleagues as well as to a lay audience beyond the ivory tower.

This academic prejudice against the blog extends to other genres that have proliferated on the open web. Chapter 2, “Genres and the Open Web,” examines the incredible variety of those new forms, and how, with a careful eye, we might be able to import some of them profitably into the academy. Some of these genres, like the wiki, are well-known (thanks to Wikipedia, which academics have come to accept begrudgingly in the last five years). Other genres are rarer but take maximal advantage of the latitude of the open web: its malleability and interactivity. Rather than imposing the genres we know on the web—as we do when we post PDFs of print-first journal articles—we would do well to understand and adopt the web’s native genres, where helpful to scholarly pursuits.

But what of our academic interest in validity and excellence, enshrined in our peer review system? Chapter 3, “Good is Good,” examines the fundamental requirements of any such system: the necessity of highlighting only a minority of the total scholarly output, based on community standards, and of disseminating that minority of work to communities of thought and practice. The chapter compares print-age forms of vetting with native web forms of assessment and review, and proposes ways that digital methods can supplement—or even replace—our traditional modes of peer review.

“The Value, and Values, of Openness,” Chapter 4, broadly examines the nature of the web’s openness. Oddly, this openness is both the easiest trait of the web to understand and its most complex, once one begins to dig deeper. The web’s radical openness not only has led to calls for open access to academic work, which has complicated the traditional models of scholarly publishers and societies; it has also challenged our academic predisposition toward perfectionism—the desire to only publish in a “final” format, purged (as much as possible) of error. Critically, openness has also engendered unexpected uses of online materials—for instance, when Nate Silver refactored poll numbers from the raw data polling agencies posted.

Ultimately, openness is at the core of any academic model that can operate effectively on the web: it provides a way to disseminate our work easily, to assess what has been published, and to point to what’s good and valuable. Openness can naturally lead—indeed, is leading—to a fully functional shadow academic system for scholarly research and communication that exists beyond the more restrictive and inflexible structures of the past.

[Update, 7/29/11: I've answered Zach Schrag's criticism about the disciplinary scope of the book in a new paragraph beginning with "To be sure, as William Gibson..."]

[Update, 8/1/11: Added more about "good is good," beginning with the line on Alexis Lichine and continuing through the following paragraph, to address Sylvia Miller's point about promotion and tenure. Also fixed a few points of grammar, thanks to Sherman Dorn.]

  1. Nate Silver, “Introducing PECOTA,” in Gary Huckabay, Chris Kahrl, Dave Pease et al., eds., Baseball Prospectus 2003 (Dulles, VA: Brassey’s Publishers, 2003): 507-514. Michael Lewis, Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2004). []
  2. Frequently Asked Questions, The Burrito Bracket, http://burritobracket.blogspot.com/2007/07/faq.html []
  3. http://www.journalism.columbia.edu/system/documents/477/original/nate_silver.pdf []
  4. Adam Sternbergh, The Spreadsheet Psychic, New York, Oct 12, 2008, http://nymag.com/news/features/51170/ []
  5. http://www.journalism.columbia.edu/system/documents/477/original/nate_silver.pdf []
  6. http://www.journalism.columbia.edu/system/documents/477/original/nate_silver.pdf []
  7. Cindy Sutter, “Hooked on information: Can political news really be addicting?” The Colorado Daily, November 3, 2008, http://www.coloradodaily.com/ci_13105998 []
  8. Nate Silver, “FiveThirtyEight to Partner with New York Times, http://www.fivethirtyeight.com/2010/06/fivethirtyeight-to-partner-with-new.html []
  9. Daniel J. Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig, Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006). []
  10. http://www.dancohen.org/2010/11/11/frank-turner-on-the-future-of-peer-review/ []
  11. Association of American University Presses, “Digital Publishing in the AAUP Community; Survey Report: Winter 2009-2010,” http://aaupnet.org/resources/reports/0910digitalsurvey.pdf, p. 2 []
  12. See, for example, Robert B. Townsend, “How Is New Media Reshaping the Work of Historians?”, Perspectives on History, November 2010, http://www.historians.org/Perspectives/issues/2010/1011/1011pro2.cfm []
  13. National Public Radio, “Talk of the Nation” radio program, 30 November 1999, timecode 11:55, http://discover.npr.org/features/feature.jhtml?wfId=1067220 []
  14. “Tyler Cowen: Academic Publishing,” remarks at the Institute for Humane Studies Summer Research Fellowship weekend seminar, May 2011, http://vimeo.com/24124436 []
  15. Open access mandates have been tough sells on many campuses, passing only by slight majorities or failing entirely. For instance, such a mandate was voted down at the University of Maryland, with evidence of confusion and ambivalence. http://scholarlykitchen.sspnet.org/2009/04/28/umaryland-faculty-vote-no-oa/ []
  16. Quoted in Frank J. Prial, “Wine Talk,” New York Times, 17 August 1994, http://www.nytimes.com/1994/08/17/garden/wine-talk-983519.html. []

A Lesson from the Past about Genres and Bias

In my sophomore year of college I took a new course with more buzz than a summer blockbuster: “Postmodernism.” Students literally ran to sign up for it, partly because it was taught by the coolest, mustard-suited professor on campus, Andrew Ross, and partly because it promised a semester filled with graphic novels, Survival Research Labs, and Blade Runner.

Beyond the discussions of mechanical reproduction and simulacra, I remember several things vividly. One was Ross’s lecture on cyborgs in which he described Arnold Schwarzenegger in Terminator as “a condom filled with walnuts.” The second was my preceptor, a brand-new assistant professor named Jeff Nunokawa. Nunokawa was whip-smart and a great teacher, and he introduced my nineteen-year-old self to the incredible revelation that Batman had a homoerotic subtext. (I’ll pause here for you to snicker at my youthful ignorance.) Finally, and most importantly, both Ross and Nunokawa repeatedly emphasized in the course that any genre in any medium could have value—and on occasion sustained creativity and insight.

So I was glad to see a cover story on the boundless energy and intelligence of Nunokawa in the Princeton Alumni Weekly (which is actually produced monthly, in postmodern fashion), especially since the article highlighted Nunokawa’s writing of thousands of online posts about literature and philosophy, art and ideas. I cheered what I thought was a great example of a professor blogging, until I hit this paragraph:

For the record, he does not call this a blog, partly, he says, because “I hate that particular syllable,” but also, more importantly, because “it doesn’t catch what I’m really trying to do, whether successfully or not. These are essays. When I think of a blog — and maybe I’m being unfair to bloggers because I don’t spend much time in the blogosphere — my sense of blogs is that that they’re written very quickly. This is stuff that I compose and recompose, and then recompose and recompose and recompose. It’s very written.”

This is precisely the bias I’m arguing against in The Ivory Tower and the Open Web. There is no reason a blog has to be quickly or poorly written; the comment made me want to time-travel the Nunokawa of 1988, Terminator-like, to confront the Nunokawa of 2011. And if Nunokawa can have this prejudice against blogs, instead of viewing them as potential outlets for good writing owned by scholars themselves, imagine what Nunokawa’s more traditional colleagues think of the genres of the open web.

As in the Oscar Wilde plays Nunokawa often dissects, there’s a final, amusing irony to this story. Where does Nunokawa do his sophisticated blog…er, essaying? Facebook.

Thoughts on One Week | One Tool

Well that just happened. It’s hard to believe that last Sunday twelve scholars and software developers were arriving at the brand-new Mason Inn on our campus and now have created and launched a tool, Anthologize, that created a frenzy on social and mass media.

If you haven’t already done so, you should first read the many excellent reports from those who participated in One Week | One Tool (and watched it from afar). One Week | One Tool was an intense institute sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities that strove to convey the Center for History and New Media‘s knowledge about building useful scholarly software. As the name suggests, the participants had to conceive, build, and disseminate their own tool in just one week. To the participants’ tired voices I add a few thoughts from the aftermath.

Less Talk, More Grok

One Week director (and Center for History and New Media managing director) Tom Scheinfeldt and I grew up listening to WAAF in Boston, which had the motto (generally yelled, with reverb) “Less Talk, More Rock!” (This being Boston, it was actually more like “Rahwk!”) For THATCamp I spun that call-to-action into “Less Talk, More Grok!” since it seemed to me that the core of THATCamp is its antagonism toward the deadening lectures and panels of normal academic conferences and its attempt to maximize knowledge transfer with nonhierarchical, highly participatory, hands-on work. THATCamp is exhausting and exhilarating because everyone is engaged and has something to bring to the table.

Not to over-philosophize or over-idealize THATCamp, but for academic doubters I do think the unconference is making an argument about understanding that should be familiar to many humanists: the importance of “tacit knowledge.” For instance, in my field, the history of science, scholars have come to realize in the last few decades that not all of science consists of cerebral equations and concepts that can be taught in a textbook; often science involves techniques and experiential lessons that must be acquired in a hands-on way from someone already capable in that realm.

This is also true for the digital humanities. I joked with emissaries from the National Endowment for the Humanities, which took a huge risk in funding One Week, that our proposal to them was like Jerry Seinfeld’s and George Costanza’s pitch to NBC for a “show about nothing.” I’m sure it was hard for reviewers of our proposal to see its slightly sketchy syllabus. (“You don’t know what will be built ahead of time?!”) But this is the way in which the digital humanities is close to the lab sciences. There can of course be theory and discussion, but there will also have to be a lot of doing if you want to impart full knowledge of the subject. Many times during the week I saw participants and CHNMers convey things to each other—everything from little shortcuts to substantive lessons—that wouldn’t have occurred to us ahead of time, without the team being engaged in actually building something.

MTV Cops

The low point of One Week was undoubtedly my ham-fisted attempt at something of a keynote while the power was out on campus, killing the lights, the internet, and (most seriously) the air conditioning. Following “Less Talk, More Grok,” I never should have done it. But one story I told at the beginning did seem to have modest continuing impact over the week (if frequently as the source of jokes).

Hollywood is famous for great (and laughable) idea pitches—which is why that Seinfeld episode was amusing—but none is perhaps better than Brandon Tartikoff’s brilliantly concise pitch for Miami Vice: “MTV cops.” I’m a firm believer that it’s important to be able to explain a digital tool with something close to the precision of “MTV cops” if you want a significant number of people to use it. Some might object that we academics are smart folks, capable of understanding sophisticated, multivalent tools, but people are busy, and with digital tools there are so many clamoring for attention and each entails a huge commitment (often putting your scholarship into an entirely new system). Scholars, like everyone else, are thus enormously resistant to tools that are hard to grasp. (Case in point: Google Wave.)

I loved the 24 hours of One Week from Monday afternoon to Tuesday afternoon where the group brainstormed potential tools to build and then narrowed them down to “MTV Cops” soundbites. Of course the tools were going to be more complex than these reductionistic soundbites, but those soundbites gave the process some focus and clarity. It also allowed us to ask Twitter followers to vote on general areas of interest (e.g., “Better timelines”) to gauge the market. We tweeted “Blog->Book” for idea #1, which is what became Anthologize.

And what were most of the headlines on launch day? Some variant on the crystal-clear ReadWriteWeb headline: “Scholars Build Blog-to-eBook Tool in One Week.”

Speed Doesn’t Kill

We’ve gotten occasional flak at the Center for History and New Media for some recent efforts that seem more carnival than Ivory Tower, because they seem to throw out the academic emphasis on considered deliberation. (However, it should be noted that we also do many multi-year, sweat-and-tears, time-consuming projects like the National History Education Clearinghouse, putting online the first fifteen years of American history, and creating software used by millions of people.)

But the experience of events like One Week makes me question whether the academic default to deliberation is truly wise. One Weekers could have sat around for a week, a month, a year, and still I suspect that the tool they decided to build was the best choice, with the greatest potential impact. As programmers in the real world know, it’s much better to have partial, working code than to plan everything out in advance. Just by launching Anthologize in alpha and generating all that excitement, the team opened up tremendous reserves of good will, creativity, and problem-solving from users and outside developers. I saw at least ten great new use cases for Anthologize on Twitter in the first day. How are you supposed to come up with those ideas from internal deliberation or extensive planning?

There was also something special about the 24/7 focus the group achieved. The notion that they had to have a tool in one week (crazy on the face of it) demanded that the participants think about that tool all of the time (even in their sleep, evidently). I’ll bet there was the equivalent of several months worth of thought that went on during One Week, and the time limit meant that participants didn’t have the luxury of overthinking certain choices that were, at the end of the day, either not that important or equally good options. Eric Johnson, observing One Week on Twitter, called this the power of intense “singular worlds” to get things done. Paul Graham has similarly noted the importance of environments that keep one idea foremost in your mind.

There are probably many other areas where focus, limits, and, yes, speed might help us in academia. Dissertations, for instance, often unhealthily drag on as doctoral students unwisely aim for perfection, or feel they have to write 300 pages even though their breakthrough thesis is contained in a single chapter. I wonder if a targeted writing blitz like the successful National Novel Writing Month might be ported to the academy.

Start Small, Dream Big

As dissertations become books through a process of polish and further thought, so should digital tools iterate toward perfection from humble beginnings. I’ve written in this space about the Center for History and New Media’s love of Voltaire’s dictum that “the perfect is the enemy of the good [enough],” and we communicated to One Week attendees that it was fine to start with a tool that was doable in a week. The only caveat was that tool should be conceived with such modularity and flexibility that it could grow into something very powerful. The Anthologize launch reminds me of what I said in this space about Zotero on its launch: it was modest, but it had ambition. It was conceived not just as a reference manager but as an extensible platform for research. The few early negative comments about Anthologize similarly misinterpreted it myopically as a PDF-formatter for blogs. Sure, it will do that, as can other services. But like Zotero (and Omeka) Anthologize is a platform that can be broadly extended and repurposed. Most people thankfully got that—it sparked the imagination of many, even though it’s currently just a rough-around-the-edges alpha.

Congrats again to the whole One Week team. Go get some rest.

Open Access Publishing and Scholarly Values

[A contribution to the Hacking the Academy book project. Tom Scheinfeldt and I are crowdsourcing the content of that book in one week.]

In my post The Social Contract of Scholarly Publishing, I noted that there is a supply side and a demand side to scholarly communication:

The supply side is the creation of scholarly works, including writing, peer review, editing, and the form of publication. The demand side is much more elusive—the mental state of the audience that leads them to “buy” what the supply side has produced. In order for the social contract to work, for engaged reading to happen and for credit to be given to the author (or editor of a scholarly collection), both sides need to be aligned properly.

I would now like to analyze and influence that critical mental state of the scholar by appealing to four emotions and values, to try both to increase the supply of open access scholarship and to prod scholars to be more receptive to scholarship that takes place outside of the traditional publishing system.

1. Impartiality

In my second year in college I had one of those late-night discussions where half-baked thoughts are exchanged and everyone tries to impress each other with how smart and hip they are. A sophomoric gabfest, literally and figuratively. The conversation inevitably turned to music. I reeled off the names of bands I thought would get me the most respect. Another, far more mature student then said something that caught everyone off guard: “Well, to be honest, I just like good music.” We all laughed—and then realized how true that statement was. And secretly, we all did like a wide variety of music, from rock to bluegrass to big band jazz.

Upon reflection, many of the best things we discover in scholarship—and life—are found in this way: by disregarding popularity and packaging and approaching creative works without prejudice. We wouldn’t think much of Moby-Dick if Carl Van Doren hadn’t looked past decades of mixed reviews to find the genius in Melville’s writing. Art historians have similarly unearthed talented artists who did their work outside of the royal academies or art schools. As the unpretentious wine writer Alexis Lichine shrewdly said in the face of fancy labels and appeals to mythical “terroir”: “There is no substitute for pulling corks.”

Writing is writing and good is good, no matter the venue of publication or what the crowd thinks. Scholars surely understand that on a deep level, yet many persist in the valuing venue and medium over the content itself. This is especially true at crucial moments, such as promotion and tenure. Surely we can reorient ourselves to our true core value—to honor creativity and quality—which will still guide us to many traditionally published works but will also allow us to consider works in some nontraditional venues such as new open access journals, blogs or articles written and posted on a personal website or institutional repository, or non-narrative digital projects.

2. Passion

Do you get up in the morning wondering what journal you’re going to publish in next or how you’re going to spend your $10 royalty check? Neither do I, nor do most scholars. We wake up with ideas swirling around inside our head about the topic we’re currently thinking about, and the act of writing is a way to satisfy our obsession and communicate our ideas to others. Being a scholar is an affliction of which scholarship is a symptom. If you’re publishing primarily for careerist reasons and don’t deeply care about your subject matter, let me recommend you find another career.

The entire commercial apparatus of the existing publishing system merely leeches on our scholarly passion and the writing that passion inevitably creates. The system is far from perfect for maximizing the spread of our ideas, not to mention the economic bind it has put our institutions in. If you were designing a system of scholarly communication today, in the age of the web, would it look like the one we have today? Disparage bloggers all you like, but they control their communication platform, the outlet for their passion, and most scholars and academic institutions don’t.

3. Shame

This spring Ithaka, the nonprofit that runs JSTOR and that has a research wing to study the transition of academia into the digital age, put out a report based on their survey of faculty in 2009. The report has two major conclusions. First, scholars are increasingly using online resources like Google Books as a starting point for their research rather than the physical library. That is, they have become comfortable in certain respects with “going digital.”

But at the same time the Ithaka report notes that they remain stubbornly wedded to their old ways when it comes to using the digital realm for the composition and communication of their research. In other words, somehow it is finally seeming acceptable to use digital media and technology for parts of our work but to resist it in others.

This divide is striking. The professoriate may be more liberal politically than the most latte-filled ZIP code in San Francisco, but we are an extraordinarily conservative bunch when it comes to scholarly communication. Look carefully at this damning chart from the Ithaka report:

Any faculty member who looks at this chart should feel ashamed. We professors care less about sharing our work—even with underprivileged nations that cannot afford access to gated resources—than with making sure we impress our colleagues. Indeed, there was actually a sharp drop in professors who cared about open access between 2003 and the present.

This would be acceptable, I suppose, if we understood ourselves to be ruthless, bottom-line driven careerists. But that’s not the caring educators we often pretend to be. Humanities scholars in particular have taken pride in the last few decades in uncovering and championing the voices of those who are less privileged and powerful, but here we are in the ivory tower, still preferring to publish in ways that separate our words from those of the unwashed online masses.

We can’t even be bothered to share our old finished articles, already published and our reputation suitably burnished, by putting them in an open institutional repository:

I honestly can’t think of any other way to read these charts than as shameful hypocrisy.

4. Narcissism

The irony of this situation is that in the long run it very well may be better for the narcissistic professor in search of reputation to publish in open access venues. When scholars do the cost-benefit analysis about where to publish, they frequently think about the reputation of the journal or press. That’s the reason many scholars consider open access venues to be inferior, because they do not (yet) have the same reputation as the traditional closed-access publications.

But in their cost-benefit calculus they often forget to factor in the hidden costs of publishing in a closed way. The largest hidden cost is the invisibility of what you publish. When you publish somewhere that is behind gates, or in paper only, you are resigning all of that hard work to invisibility in the age of the open web. You may reach a few peers in your field, but you miss out on the broader dissemination of your work, including to potential other fans.

The dirty little secret about open access publishing is that despite the fact that although you may give up a line in your CV (although not necessarily), your work can be discovered much more easily by other scholars (and the general public), can be fully indexed by search engines, and can be easily linked to from other websites and social media (rather than producing the dreaded “Sorry, this is behind a paywall”).

Let me be utterly narcissistic for a moment. As of this writing this blog has 2,300 subscribers. That’s 2,300 people who have actively decided that they would like to know when I have something new to say. Thousands more read this blog on my website every month, and some of my posts, such as “Is Google Good for History?“, garner tens of thousands of readers. That’s more readers than most academic journals.

I suppose I could have spent a couple of years finding traditional homes for longer pieces such as “Is Google Good for History?” and gotten some supposedly coveted lines on my CV. But I would have lost out on the accumulated reputation from a much larger mass of readers, including many within the academy in a variety of disciplines beyond history.

* * *

When the mathematician Grigori Perelman solved one of the greatest mathematical problems in history, the Poincaré conjecture, he didn’t submit his solution to a traditional journal. He simply posted it to an open access website and let others know about it. For him, just getting the knowledge out there was enough, and the mathematical community responded in kind by recognizing and applauding his work for what it was. Supply and demand intersected; scholarship was disseminated and credited without fuss over venue, and the results could be accessed by anyone with an internet connection.

Is it so hard to imagine this as a more simple—and virtuous—model for the future of scholarly communication?

One Week, One Book: Hacking the Academy

[Reblogged from the THATCamp website. Please note that you don't need to be a THATCamper to participate. We are soliciting submissions from everyone, worldwide. Join us by writing something in the next week, or if you've already written something you think deserves to be included, let us know!]

Tom Scheinfeldt and I have been brewing a proposal for an edited book entitled Hacking the Academy. Let’s write it together, starting at THATCamp this weekend. And let’s do it in one week.

Can an algorithm edit a journal? Can a library exist without books? Can students build and manage their own learning management platforms? Can a conference be held without a program? Can Twitter replace a scholarly society?

As recently as the mid-2000s, questions like these would have been unthinkable. But today serious scholars are asking whether the institutions of the academy as they have existed for decades, even centuries, aren’t becoming obsolete. Every aspect of scholarly infrastructure is being questioned, and even more importantly, being <em>hacked</em>. Sympathetic scholars of traditionally disparate disciplines are cancelling their association memberships and building their own networks on Facebook and Twitter. Journals are being compiled automatically from self-published blog posts. Newly-minted Ph.D.’s are foregoing the tenure track for alternative academic careers that blur the lines between research, teaching, and service. Graduate students are looking beyond the categories of the traditional C.V. and building expansive professional identities and popular followings through social media. Educational technologists are “punking” established technology vendors by rolling their own open source infrastructure.

“Hacking the Academy” will both explore and contribute to ongoing efforts to rebuild scholarly infrastructure for a new millenium. Contributors can write on these topics, which will form chapters:

  • Lectures and classrooms
  • Scholarly societies
  • Conferences and meetings
  • Journals
  • Books and monographs
  • Tenure and academic employment
  • Scholarly Identity and the CV
  • Departments and disciplines
  • Educational technology
  • Libraries

In keeping with the spirit of hacking, the book will itself be an exercise in reimagining the edited volume. Any blog post, video response, or other media created for the volume and tweeted (or tagged) with the hashtag #hackacad will be aggregated at hackingtheacademy.org. The best pieces will go into the published volume (we are currently in talks with a publisher to do an open access version of this final volume). The volume will also include responses such as blog comments and tweets to individual pieces. If you’ve already written something that you would like included, that’s fine too, just be sure to tweet or tag it (or email us the link to where it’s posted).

You have until midnight on May 28, 2010. Ready, set, go!

UPDATE: [5/23/10] 48 hours in, we have 65 contributions to the book. There’s a running list of contributions.

Introducing Digital Humanities Now

Do the digital humanities need journals? Although I’m very supportive of the new journals that have launched in the last year, and although I plan to write for them from time to time, there’s something discordant about a nascent field—one so steeped in new technology and new methods of scholarly communication—adopting a format that is struggling in the face of digital media.

I often say to non-digital humanists that every Friday at 5 I know all of the most important books, articles, projects, and news of the week—without the benefit of a journal, a newsletter, or indeed any kind of formal publication by a scholarly society. I pick up this knowledge by osmosis from the people I follow online.

I subscribe to the blogs of everyone working centrally or tangentially to digital humanities. As I have argued from the start, and against the skeptics and traditionalists who thinks blogs can only be narcissistic, half-baked diaries, these outlets are just publishing platforms by another name, and in my area there are an incredible number of substantive ones.

More recently, social media such as Twitter has provided a surprisingly good set of pointers toward worthy materials I should be reading or exploring. (And as happened with blogs five years ago, the critics are now dismissing Twitter as unscholarly, missing the filtering function it somehow generates among so many unfiltered tweets.) I follow as many digital humanists as I can on Twitter, and created a comprehensive list of people in digital humanities. (You can follow me @dancohen.)

For a while I’ve been trying to figure out a way to show this distilled “Friday at 5″ view of digital humanities to those new to the field, or those who don’t have time to read many blogs or tweets. This week I saw a tweet from Tom Scheinfeldt (blog|Twitter) (who in turn saw a tweet from James Neal) about a new service called Twittertim.es, which creates a real-time publication consisting of articles highlighted by people you follow on Twitter. I had a thought: what if I combined the activities of several hundred digital humanities scholars with Twittertim.es?

Digital Humanities Now is a new web publication that is the experimental result of this thought. It aggregates thousands of tweets and the hundreds of articles and projects those tweets point to, and boils everything down to the most-discussed items, with commentary from Twitter. A slightly longer discussion of how the publication was created can be found on the DHN “About” page.

Digital Humanities Now home page

Does the process behind DHN work? From the early returns, the algorithms have done fairly well, putting on the front page articles on grading in a digital age, bringing high-speed networking to liberal arts colleges, Google’s law archive search, and (appropriately enough) a talk on how to deal with streams of content given limited attention. Perhaps Digital Humanities Now will show a need for the light touch of a discerning editor. This could certainly be added on top of the raw feed of all interest items (about 50 a day, out of which only 2 or 3 make it into DHN), but I like the automated simplicity of DHN 1.0.

Despite what I’m sure will be some early hiccups, my gut is that some version of this idea could serve as a rather decent new form of publication that focuses the attention of those in a particular field on important new developments and scholarly products. I’m not holding my breath that someday scholars will put an appearance in DHN on their CVs. But as I recently told an audience of executive directors of scholarly societies at an American Council of Learned Societies meeting, if you don’t do something like this, someone else will.

I suppose DHN is a prod to them and others to think about new forms of scholarly validation and attention, beyond the journal. Ultimately, journals will need the digital humanities more than we need them.

Idealism and Pragmatism in the Free Culture Movement

[A review of Gary Hall's Digitize This Book! The Politics of New Media, or Why We Need Open Access Now (University of Minnesota Press, 2009). Appeared in the May/June 2009 issue of Museum.]

Beginning in the late 1970s with Richard Stallman’s irritation at being unable to inspect or alter the code of software he was using at MIT, and accelerating with 22-year-old Linus Torvalds’s release of the whimsically named Linux operating system and the rise of the World Wide Web in the early 1990s, with its emphasis on openly available, interlinked documents, the free software and open access movements are among the most important developments of our digital age.

These movements can no longer be considered fringe. Two-thirds of all websites run on open source software, and although many academic resources remain closed behind digital gates, the Directory of Open Access Journals reports that nearly 4,000 publications are available to anyone via the Web, a number that grows rapidly each year. In the United States, the National Institutes of Health mandated recently that all articles produced under an NIH grant—a significant percentage of current medical research—must be available for free online.

But if the movement toward shared digital openness seems like a single groundswell, it masks an underlying tension between pragmatism and idealism. If Stallman was a seer and the intellectual justifier of “free software” (“free” meaning “liberated”), it was Torvalds’s focus on the practical as well as a less radical name—“open source”—that convinced tech giant IBM to commit billions of dollars to Linux starting in the late 1990s. Similarly, open access efforts like the science article sharing site arXiv.org have flourished because they provide useful services—including narcisstic ones such as establishing scientific precedent—while furthering idealistic goals. Successful movements need both Stallmans and Torvalds, as uneasily as they may coexist.

Gary Hall’s Digitize This Book! clearly falls more on the idealistic side of today’s open movements than the pragmatic side. Although he acknowledges the importance of practice—and he has practiced open access himself—Hall emphasizes that theory must be primary, since unlike any particular website or technology theory contains the full potential of what digitization might bring. He pursues this idealism by drawing from the critical theory—and the critical posture—of cultural studies, one of the most vociferous antagonists to traditional structures in higher education and politics.

Hall’s book is less accessible than others on the topic because of long stretches involving this cultural theory, with some chapters rife with the often opaque language developed by Jacques Derrida and his disciples. Digitize This Book! gets its name, of course, from Abbie Hoffman’s 1971 hippie classic, Steal This Book, which provided practical advice on a variety of uniformly shady (and often illegal) methods for rebelling against The Man. But Digitize This Book! reads less like a Hoffmanesque handbook for the digital age and more like a throw-off-your-chains political manifesto couched in academic lingo.

Those unaccustomed to the lingo and associated theoretical constructions might find the book offputting, but its impressive intellectual ambition makes Digitize This Book! an important addition to a growing literature on the true significance of digital openness. Hall imagines open access not merely in terms of the goods of universal availability and the greater dissemination of knowledge, but as potentially leading to energetic opposition to the “marketization and managerialization of the university,” that is, the growing approach by administrations to treat universities as businesses rather than as places of learning and free intellectual exchange—a development that has upset many, including well beyond cultural studies departments. Similar worries, of course, cloud cultural heritage institutions such as museums and libraries.

Despite his emphasis on theory, Hall knows that any positive transformation must ultimately come from effective action in addition to advocacy. As Stallman unhappily discovered after starting the Free Software Foundation in 1985 and working for many years on his revolutionary software called GNU, it was Torvalds, a clever tactician and amiable community builder rather than theoretician or firebrand, who helped (along with others of similar disposition) to break open source into the mainstream by finding pathways for his Linux operating system to insinuate itself into institutions and companies that normally might have rejected the mere idea of it out of hand.

Hall does understand this pragmatism, and much to his credit he has real experience with creating open access materials rather than simply thinking about how they might affect the academy. He is a co-founder of the Open Humanities Press, a founder and co-editor of the open access journal Culture Machine, and is director of CSeARCH, an arXiv.org for cultural studies.

Yet Hall sees his efforts as ongoing “experiments,” not the final (digital) word. Indeed, he worries that his compatriots in the open access and open source software movements are congratulating themselves too early, and for accomplishing lesser goals. Yes, open source software has made significant inroads, Hall acknowledges, but it has also been “coopted” by the giants of industry, as the IBM investment shows. (The book would have benefited from a more comprehensive analysis of open source, especially in the Third World, where free software is more radically challenging the IBMs and Microsofts.) Similarly, Hall claims, open access journals are flourishing, but too often these journals merely bring online the structures and strictures of traditional academia.

Here is where Hall’s true radicalism comes to the fore, building toward a conclusion with more expansive aims (and more expansive words, such as “hypercyberdemocracy” and “hyperpolitics”). He believes that open access provides a rare opportunity to completely rethink and remake the university, including its internal and external relationships. Paper journals ratified what and who was important in ways we may not want to replicate online, Hall argues. Even if one disagrees with his (hyper)politics, Hall’s insight that new media forms are often little more than unimaginative digital reproductions of the past, which bring forward old conventions and inequities, seems worthy of consideration.

A wag might note at this point that Digitize This Book! is oddly not itself available as a digital reproduction. (As part of the research for this review, I looked in the shadier parts of the Internet but could not locate a free electronic download of the book, even in the shadows.) Other recent books on the open access movement are available for free online (legally), including James Boyle’s The Public Domain: Enclosing the Commons of the Mind (Yale University Press) and John Willinsky’s The Access Principle: The Case for Open Access to Research and Scholarship (MIT Press). Drawing attention to this disconnect is less a cheap knock against Hall than a recognition that the actualization of open access and its transformative potential are easier said than done.

Assuming things will not change overnight and that few professors, curators, or librarians are ready to move, like Abbie Hoffman, to a commune (though many might applaud the lack of administrators there), the key questions are, How does one take concrete steps toward a system in which open access is the normal mode of publishing? Which structures must be dissolved and which created, and how to convince various stakeholders to make this transition together?

These are the kinds of practical—political—questions that advocates of open access must address. Gary Hall has helpfully provided the academic purveyors of open access much food for thought. Now comes the difficult work of crafting recipes to reach the future he so richly imagines.

Leave the Blogging to Us

The history of genres is filled with curious transformations, such as the novel’s unlikely evolution from wasteland of second-string prose to locus of Great Literature. One of the founding notions of this blog was that despite its inauspicious beginnings and high-profile overcaffeinated incarnations the genre of the blog has always been well suited to the considered pace and output of the scholar.

Original functions of the blog (and the stereotypical blogger), like the transcription of the day’s minutiae or logging of interesting websites (thus the inharmonious neologism, weblog), have, in the last two years, swiftly emigrated to other platforms and genres, such as “microblogging” services like what-I’m-doing-right-now Twitter (with its one-sentence “tweets”) and gee-look-at-me social networks like Facebook. If you’re a trend-seeker, this makes it seem like blogging is passé, abandoned by both the masses and the digerati.

But to me, it’s simply confirmation that the genre has found its most appropriate writers and readers. It reinforces my initial view of the genre, which is that personal content management systems (what blogging platforms really are) are, despite the genre’s early, unpromising forms, perfectly suited for serious thought and scholarship. With blogging, there is no requirement for frequent posting, and I subscribe to many scholarly blogs that have infrequent, but substantive, posts. Put us in the slow blogging camp. As Barbara Ganley puts it: “Blog to reflect, Tweet to connect.”

And while we’re reflecting, it should be rather obvious at this point that thoughtful, well-written blogs can rival other forms of publication. For instance, a baseball statistician and political junkie armed with little more than a free Blogger account and considerable intelligence and energy was able this year to rival the election analysis of most professional newspaper reporters. What are the Chronicle of Higher Education‘s “Brainstorm” blogs than op-ed columns by another name? As I said in the Journal of American History earlier this fall, good writing and analysis rises and makes an impact, no matter the medium or editorial or peer-review system—or lack thereof.