Category Archives: Academia

Symposium on the Future of Scholarly Communication

For those who missed it, between October 12 and 27, 2007, there was a very thoughtful and insightful online discussion of how the publication of scholarship is changing—or trying to change—in the digital age. Participating in the discussion were Ed Felton, David Robinson, Paul DiMaggio, and Andrew Appel from Princeton University (the symposium was hosted by the Center for Information Technology Policy at Princeton), Ira Fuchs of the Mellon Foundation, Peter Suber of the indispensable Open Access News blog (and philosophy professor at Earlham College), Stan Katz, the President Emeritus of the American Council of Learned Societies, and Laura Brown of Ithaka (and formerly the President of Oxford University Press USA).

The symposium is really worth reading from start to finish. (Alas, one of the drawbacks of hosting a symposium on a blog is that it keeps everything in reverse chronological order; it would be great if CITP could flip the posts now that the discussion has ended.) But for those of us in the humanities the most relevant point is that we are going to have a much harder transition to an online model of scholarship than in the sciences. The main reason for this is that for us the highest form of scholarship is the book, whereas in the sciences it is the article, which is far more easily put online, posted in various forms (including as pre- and e-prints), and networked to other articles (through, e.g., citation analysis). In addition, we’re simply not as technologically savvy. As Paul DiMaggio points out, “every computer scientist who received his or her Ph.D. in computer science after 1980 or so has a website” (on which they can post their scholarly production), whereas the number is about 40% for political scientists and I’m sure far less for historians and literature professors.

I’m planning a long post in this space on the possible ways for humanities professors to move from print to open online scholarship; this discussion is great food for thought.

The Strange Dynamics of Technology Adoption and Promotion in Academia

Kudos to Bruce D’Arcus for writing the blog post I’ve been meaning to write for a while. Bruce notes with some amazement the resistance that free and open source projects like Zotero meet when they encounter the institutional buying patterns and tech evangelism that is all too common in academia. The problem here seems to be that the people doing the purchasing of software are not the end users (often the libraries at colleges and universities for reference managers like EndNote or Refworks and the IT departments for course management systems) nor do they have the proper incentives to choose free alternatives.

As Roy Rosenzweig and I noted in Digital History, the exorbitant yearly licensing fee for Blackboard or WebCT (loathed by every professor I know) could be exchanged for an additional assistant professor–or another librarian. But for some reason a certain portion of academic technology purchasers feel they need to buy something for each of these categories (reference managers, CMS), and then, because they have invested the time and money and long-term contracts on those somethings, they feel they need to exclusively promote those tools without listening to the evolving needs and desires of the people they serve. Nor do they have the incentive to try new technologies or tools.

Any suggestions on how to properly align these needs and incentives? Break out the technology spending in students’ bills (“What, my university is spending that much on Blackboard?”)?

PhDinHistory Is Back!

Kudos to PhDinHistory for relaunching his blog (at a new address; please refresh your RSS subscriptions). It clearly took a lot of guts and I look forward to many more insightful posts from this vibrant blogger and budding academic. I have no doubt that his site will be the locus for interesting, contentious discussion, and both supporters and critics should applaud his hard work and thoughtfulness.

The Perils of Anonymity

PhDinHistory, we hardly knew ye. A blogger who came out of nowhere to write interesting, thorough analyses of the state of academia and trends in history, captured my attention from the first post and eventually garnered a much wider audience. Then suddenly, this weekend, PhDinHistory deleted his or her WordPress account. No goodbye post and static archive of the blog, but rather a full deletion that made it impossible to read or link to the blog forever. I didn’t always agree with PhDinHistory, but as a blogger who also wanted to write more in-depth pieces rather than quick blogish ones (although more recently I have cheated by adding into my feed smaller posts from ma.gnolia), I truly respected the effort that went into this new blog. From the beginning, however, I thought there was one major problem with PhDinHistory’s blog: its anonymity.

PhDinHistory’s rise and fall demonstrates, I believe, one of the principles I’ve outlined about academic blogging: we shouldn’t use pseudonyms. PhDinHistory may have been a thoughtful blogger, but he or she created a unnecessary distraction by writing under a pseudonym. It might come as a shock to PhDinHistory, but there was almost nothing on his or her blog that was an affront to other students or professors, or that would have been a problem when he or she came on the job market. When PhDinHistory wrote about possible upcoming vacancies in history departments, he or she was simply analyzing the statistics of age and fields of concentration, not proposing to off tenured professors. Besides, professors know that graduate students are constantly mulling over schemes to get dream jobs—we were grad students once, too. It’s actually refreshing to see such speculation out in the open, and with numbers to boot.

Moreover, as I noted in “Professors, Start Your Blogs,” by writing under his or her own name, PhDinHistory would have gained the “responsibility and credit” that goes along with attribution. Both are important. It’s too bad that PhDinHistory will never receive proper credit for months of hard work and many thought-provoking articles. At the same time, I think that the responsibility that goes along with attribution actually would have strengthened, not weakened, PhDinHistory’s blog. I assume PhDinHistory thought that anonymity would be liberating and allow for the fullest latitude on the blog. But writing with attribution would have allowed PhDinHistory to truly join in a conversation with other (non-anonymous) academics. It also would have helpfully tempered some of the more speculative posts. As poets know, total freedom makes for some bad verses.

PhDinHistory thought that there was peril in writing under his or her real name, but it turned out that the opposite was true—it was the pseudonym that was the real peril. All it did—as PhDinHistory admitted to Rob Townsend of the American Historical Association—was to create a contest to see who could unmask the mystery blogger. As the pursuers closed in, PhDinHistory unfortunately had to stop blogging.

The pseudonym was counterproductive, and in PhDinHistory’s case, completely unnecessary. I am undoubtedly not alone in wanting PhDinHistory to return to the blogosphere. The solution to his or her quandary is clear to me, as it is to many others. Simply relaunch the blog under his or her own name and—as hard as this may be—stop worrying. We professors know you don’t really want us to meet an untimely end.

Creating a Blog from Scratch, Part 6: One Year Later

Well, it’s been over a year since I started this blog with a mix of trepidation, ambivalence, and faint praise for the genre—not exactly promising stuff—and so it’s with a mixture of relief and a smidgen of smug self-satisfaction that I’m writing this post. I’m extremely glad that I started this blog last fall and have kept it going. (Evidently the half-life of blogs is about three months, so an active year-old blog is, I suppose, some kind of accomplishment in our attention-deficit age.) I thought it would be a good idea (and several correspondents have prodded me in this direction) to return to my series of posts about starting this blog, “Creating a Blog from Scratch.” (For latecomers, this blog is not powered by Blogger, TypePad, or WordPress, but rather by my own feeble concoction of programming and design.) Over the next few posts I’ll be revisiting some of the decisions I made, highlighting some good things that have happened and some regrets. And at the end of the series I’ll be introducing some adjustments to my blog that I hope will make it better. But first, in something of a sequel to my call to my colleagues to join me in this endeavor, “Professors, Start Your Blogs,” some of the triumphs and tribulations I’ve encountered over the last year.

As the five-part series on creating this blog detailed, I took the masochistic step of writing my own blog software (that’s probably a little too generous; it’s really just a set of simple PHP scripts with a MySQL database) because I wanted to learn about how blogs were put together and see if I agreed with all of the assumptions that went into the genre. That learning experience was helpful (and judging by the email still I get about the series others have found it helpful), but I think I have paid a price in some ways. I will readily admit I’m jealous of other bloggers with their fancy professional blogging software with all of the bells and whistles. Worse, much of the blogosphere is driven by the big mainstream software packages like Blogger, TypePad, and WordPress; having your own blog software means you can’t take advantage of cutting-edge features, like new forms of searching or linking between blogs. But I’m also able to tweak the blog format more readily because I wrote every line of the code that powers this blog.

As I wrote in “Welcome to My Blog,” and as regular readers of this blog know well, I’m not a frequent poster. Sometimes I lament this fact when I see blogs I respect maintain a frantic pace. I’ve written a little over 60 posts (barely better than one per week, although with the Zotero crunch this fall the delays between posts has grown). Many times I’ve felt I had something to post to the blog but just didn’t get around to writing it up. I’m sure other bloggers know that feeling of missed opportunity, which is of course a little silly considering that we’re doing this for free, in our spare time, in most cases without a gun to our heads. But you do begin to feel a responsibility to your audience, and there’s no one to pawn that responsibility off on—you’re simultaneously the head writer, editor, and publisher.

On the other hand, I just did a quick database query and was astonished to discover I’ve written almost 40,000 words in this space (about 160 pages, double-spaced) in the last twelve months. Most posts were around 500-1000 words, with the longest post (Professors, Start Your Blogs) at close to 2000 words. Had you told me that I would write the equivalent of half a book in this space last fall, a) I wouldn’t have believed it, and b) I probably wouldn’t have started this blog.

One of the reasons bloggers feel pressure to post, as I’ve discovered over the last year, is that it’s fairly simple to quantify your audience, often in excruciating detail. As of this writing this blog is ranked 34,181 out of 55 million blogs tracked by Technorati. (This sounds pretty good—the top 1/100th of a percent of all blogs!—until you realize that there are millions of abandoned and spam blogs, and that like most Internet statistics, the rankings are effectively logarithmic rather than linear. That is, the blog that is ranked 34th is probably a thousand times more prominent than mine; on the other hand, this blog is approximately a thousand times more prominent than the poor blogger at 34,000,000.) Because of that kind of quantification, temptations abound for courting popularity in a way that goes against your (or at least my) blog’s mission. I’ve undoubtedly done some posts that were a little unnecessary and gratuitously attention-seeking. For instance, the most-read post over the last year covered the fingers that have crept into Google’s book scanning project, which of course in its silliness got a lot of play on the popular social news site Digg.com and led to thousands of visitors on the day I posted it and an instant tripling of subscribers to this blog’s feed. But I’m proud to say that my subsequent more serious posts immediately alienated the segment of Digg who are overly fond of exclamation points and my numbers quickly returned to a more modest—but I hope better targeted— audience.

Surely the happiest and most unexpected outcome of creating this blog has been the way that it has gotten me in touch with dozens of people whom I probably would not have met otherwise. I meet other professional historians all the time, but the blog has introduced me to brilliant and energetic people in libraries, museums, and archives, literary studies, computer science, people within and outside of academia. Given the balkanization of the academy and its distance from “the real world” I have no idea how I would have met these fascinating people otherwise, or profited from their comments and suggestions. I have never been to a conference where someone has come up to me out of the blue and said, “Hi Dan, I’m so-and-so and I wanted to introduce myself because I loved the article you wrote for such-and-such journal.” Yet I regularly have readers of this blog approach me out of the blue, and in turn I seek out others at meetings merely because of their blogs. These experiences have made me feel that blogging has the potential to revitalize academia by creating more frequent interactions between those in a field and, perhaps more important, between those in different fields. So: thanks for reading the blog and for getting in touch!

Next up in the anniversary edition of “Creating a Blog from Scratch”: it’s taken me a year, but I finally weigh in on tagging.

Part 7: Tags, What Are They Good For?

Understanding the 2006 DMCA Exemptions

If Emerson was correct that genius is the ability to hold two contradictory ideas in the mind simultaneously, the American legal system just gained enough IQ points to join Mensa. Already, our collective legal mind was showing its vast intelligence trying to square the liberties of the people with the demands of government and industry. For instance, in Alaska you can possess up to an ounce of marijuana legally, but can be charged with a felony for possessing more than four ounces or for selling the “illegal” drug. (Lesson: don’t buy in bulk.) If you’re gay you can legally join the United States military, but you can’t talk about being gay, because that’s illegal and you will be discharged. And now, more pretzel logic: as of last week, it is illegal to break the copy protection on a DVD or distribute “circumvention” technologies, but if you’re a film or media studies professor you can break the copy protection for pedagogical uses. But how, you might ask, would a film or media studies professor with no background in encryption, programming, and hacking crack the copy protection on a DVD?

Good question. It was the first question I posed last weekend to Peter Decherney as my addled brain tried to grasp the significance of the new exemptions to the DMCA granted by the Librarian of Congress, James Billington. Peter is a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and deserves all of our thanks for spearheading the effort to put some cracks into the DMCA. (Full disclosure: Peter is a very good friend. But I still think—objectively—that he deserves an enormous amount of praise for persevering in the face of the MPAA’s lawyers to get the exemption for film professors. He told me the MPAA doggedly fights every proposed exemption, reasonable or not, so this was a long way from a trivial exercise.) It’s unfortunate to see many initial reactions to the new exemptions lamenting that they are only for three years or that they merely enshrine the DMCA’s destruction of fair use principles.

Well, sure. These new exemptions are indeed limited in scope and in an ideal world Peter and his colleagues should not have had to ask for these rights or fight for months to get them. (And then do the process all over again in 2009.) But there are a few bright spots here for those of us who believe that the balance between the rights of copyright owners and users of their content has swung much too far in the direction of the former.

First, as Peter pointed out to me, the exemption for film and media studies professors is the first time an exemption has been carved out for a class of people. It’s not hard to imagine how this opens the door for other groups of people to evade the strict rules of the DMCA. Most obviously, many of my colleagues in the History and Art History department at George Mason University use film clips in their courses. Shouldn’t they be exempt too? Shouldn’t a psychology professor who wants to store clips from films on her hard drive to show in class as illustrations of mental phenomena be allowed to do so? The MPAA will undoubtedly say no every step of the way, but you can see how a well-reasoned and reasonable march of exemptions will begin to restore some sanity to the copyright regime. Academia could merely be the beachhead.

Second, and related to the first point, getting a DMCA exemption is a daunting task, especially for those of us without legal training. Peter and his colleagues have provided a blueprint for academics seeking other exemptions in the future. It would be good if they could pass along their wisdom. Thankfully, they have already set up a website that will serve as a clearinghouse of information for the “educational use of media” exemption. A plainspoken description of how they got the exemption in the first place would be helpful as well.

Finally, the new exemptions have raised the odd contradiction I mentioned in the introduction to this piece, a contradiction that helpfully highlights the absurdity of current law. Film professors can now legally proceed in their work (saving clips from DVDs for their classes), except that they have to break the law to do this legal work (by encouraging and participating in an illegal market for cracking software). Similar absurdities abound in the digital realm; recently the MPAA went after a company that fills iPods with video from DVDs the iPod owners have bought.

So now the question becomes: Does our legal system follow the dictates of Emerson’s genius, or of common sense? And how do those moderate pot smokers in Alaska get their marijuana, anyway?

Professors, Start Your Blogs

With a new school year about to begin, I want to reach out to other professors (and professors-to-be, i.e., graduate students) to try to convince more of them to start their own blogs. It’s the perfect time to start a blog, and many of the reasons academics state for not having a blog are, I believe, either red herrings or just plain false. So first, let me counter some biases and concerns I hear from a lot of my peers (and others in the ivory tower) when the word “blog” is mentioned.

Despite the fact that tens of millions of people now have blogs, the genre is still considered by many—especially those in academia—to be the realm of self-involved, insecure, oversexed teens and twentysomethings. To be sure, there are plenty of blogs that trace the histrionics of adolescence and its long, tortured aftermath. And there’s no denying that other blogs cover such fascinating, navel-gazing topics as one man’s love of his breakfast (preferably eggs Benedict, if you must know). And—before I throw too many stones in this glass house—I too have indulged in the occasional narcissistic act in this column (not to mention the “shameless plug” for my book, Digital History, in the right column of my home page).

But this common criticism of the genre of the blog has begun to ring hollow. As Bryan Alexander of the National Institute for Technology and Liberal Education recently noted at a meeting I attended on emerging web technologies and higher education, a remarkably wide range of blog styles and genres now exist—including many noteworthy examples by professors. There are blogs by historians providing commentary on current events, blogs by journalism professors dissecting mass media coverage of health news, and blogs by whole academic departments, like Saint Cloud State University’s astronomy department.

Blogs are just like other forms of writing, such as books, in that there’s a whole lot of trash out there—and some gems worth reading. It just depends on what you choose to read (or write). And of course many (most? all?) other genres of writing have elements of self-promotion and narcissism. After all, a basic requirement of writing is the (often mistaken) belief that you have something to say that’s important.

Second, no rule book mandates that one adopt the writing style of a hormone-crazed college student. Professors, especially those in the humanities, have spent a great deal of their lives learning how to write prose, and to write in a variety of styles for different purposes: monographs, popular works, reviews, lectures to students, presentations to colleagues. For this blog I’ve adopted a plainspoken prose style with (I hope) a little humor here and there to lighten the occasional technically complex post. I’ve also carefully avoided the use of extreme adjectives and hyperbole that are common on the blogs the academic critics love to hate. I’m proud to say I’ve used only a handful of exclamation points so far. This “casual rationalist” voice is but one option among many, but it’s a style I’ve crafted to disarm those who believe that blogs can be nothing but trouble for the careers of graduate students and professors.

Another factor that has distanced professors from blogs was anonymity. Most early blogs, and especially the ones the media liked to cover, were anonymous or pseudonymous. But I would say that the vast majority of new blogs are clearly attributed (even if they have odd monikers, unlike the boring dancohen.org). Attribution and its associated goods, such as responsibility and credit, should make academics feel better about the genre.

Moreover, as I pointed out when I began this blog last year, a blog is really just a series of “posts” (whatever those are; I began the post you’re reading by calling it an “article,” because at almost 2,000 words it feels less like a post-it note than a legal pad). There’s no blogging requirement to discuss botox or baked beans or boyfriends, or to write short, snarky bits rather than long, balanced, thoughtful essays. A failure to understand this simple point has kept too many serious folks like professors on the sidelines as the blogosphere has exponentially expanded.

The addition of professorial blogs to the web will enrich the medium greatly. The critics of blogging are perhaps onto something when they note that the blogosphere has too many people writing on too few topics (does the world really need another blog on the latest moves of Apple Computer?). Although they frequently teach broad, introductory courses, professors are hired and promoted because they are specialists who discover and explain things that few others understand. For these theorists and researchers, blogging can be a powerful way to provide “notes from the field” and glosses on topics that perhaps a handful of others worldwide know a lot about. While I tend to avoid the hot term of the moment, professors are the true masters of the “long tail” of knowledge.

When I was in graduate school, the Russian historian Paul Bushkovitch once told me that the key to being a successful scholar was to become completely obsessed with a historical topic, to feel the urge to read and learn everything about an event, an era, or a person. In short, to become so knowledgeable and energetic about your subject matter that you become what others immediately recognize as a trusted, valuable expert.

As it turns out, blogs are perfect outlets for obsession. Now, there’s good and bad obsession. What the critics of blogs are worried about is the bad kind—the obsession that drives people to write about their breakfast in excruciating detail.

Yet, as Bushkovitch’s comment entailed, obsession—properly channeled and focused on a worthy subject—has its power. It forges experts. It stimulates a lifelong interest in learning (think, for a moment, about the countless examples of “retired” professors still writing influential books). The most stimulating, influential professors, even those with more traditional outlets for their work (like books and journals) overflow with views and thoughts. Shaped correctly, a blog can be a perfect place for that extra production of words and ideas. The Chronicle of Higher Education may love to find examples of Ph.D.s losing a tenure-track job because of their tell-all (anonymous) blogs, but I suspect that in the not too distant future the right type of blog—the blog that shows how a candidate has full awareness of what’s going on in a field and has potential as a thought leader in it—will become an asset not to be left off one’s CV.

The best bloggers inevitably become a nexus for information exchange in their field. Take, for instance, Lorcan Dempsey’s blog on matters relating to libraries and digital technology. It has become a touchstone for many in his field—my estimate is that he has a thousand subscribers who get updates from his blog daily. Overall, I suspect his blog has more actual readers than some print publications in his field. Looking for influence? A large blog audience is as good as a book or seminal article. A good blog provides a platform to frame discussions on a topic and point to resources of value.

Altruistic reasons for writing a blog also beckon. Writing a blog lets you reach out to an enormous audience beyond academia. Some professors may not want that audience, but I believe it’s part of our duty as teachers, experts, and public servants. It’s great that the medium of the web has come along to enable that communication at low cost.

Concerned about someone stealing your ideas if you post them to a blog? Don’t. Unless you decide otherwise, you have the same copyright on words you write on a blog as those published on paper. And you have the precedence that comes with making those words public far earlier than they would appear in a journal or book.

Worried about the time commitment involved in writing a blog? The constant pressure to post something daily or weekly? This was my stumbling block a year ago when I was thinking of starting a blog. I’m busy; we’re all busy. What I’ve found, however, is that writing a blog does not have to take a lot of time. Promoters of blogs often tell prospective bloggers it’s critical to post frequently and reliably. Nonsense. Such advice misunderstands what’s so great about RSS (Really Simply Syndication), the underlying technology of blogs that notifies people when you have a new post. RSS “pushes” new material to readers no matter the interval between posts. RSS is thus perfect for busy people with blogs who are naturally inconsistent or infrequent in their posting schedule. If you post every day, then readers can just visit your site daily; if you post six times a year, randomly (when you really have something to say), RSS is the technology for you. Without it, no one would ever remember to visit your website.

RSS also allows aggregation of blog “feeds” so that by mixing together a number of RSS files an audience can track the goings-on in a field in a single view. I would love to see a hundred historians of Victorian science have blogs to which they post quarterly. That would mean an average of one thoughtful post a day on a subject in which I’m greatly interested.

For those who need further prodding to get past these worries and biases, blogging as we know it (or don’t know it, if you are unfamiliar with the use of RSS “news readers”) is about to change. Seamless support for RSS is now being written into the most commonly used software: email programs and web browsers. Rather than having to figure out how to manage subscriptions to blogs in a news reader or on an off-putting “Web 2.0” site, the average user will find soon find new posts along with their email, or beckoning them from within their browser. And new versions of Blogger and other blog software has made it easier than ever to start a blog. In other words, blogs are about to become much more accessible and integrated into our digital lives.

Now, I’m aware the irony of imploring, on a blog, professors who don’t have a blog to start a blog. I fear I’m preaching to the choir here. Surely the subscribers to this blog’s feed are blog-savvy already, and many undoubtedly have their own blogs. So I need your help: please tell other professors or professors-to-be about this post, or forward the URL for the post to appropriate email lists or forums (if you’re worried that the long URL is difficult to cite, here’s a tiny URL that will redirect to this page: http://tinyurl.com/ptsje).

But wait—haven’t I just asked you to be an accomplice in a shameless, narcissistic act typical of blogs? Perhaps.

The Perfect and the Good Enough: Books and Wikis

As you may have noticed, I haven’t posted to my blog for an entire month. I have a good excuse: I just finished the final edits on my forthcoming book, Equations from God: Pure Mathematics and Victorian Faith, due out early next year. (I realized too late that I could have capitalized on Da Vinci Code fever and called the book The God Code, thus putting an intellectual and cultural history of Victorian mathematics in the hands of numerous unsuspecting Barnes & Noble shoppers.) The process of writing a book has occasionally been compared to pregnancy and childbirth; as the awe-struck husband of a wife who bore twins, I suspect this comparison is deeply flawed. But on a more superficial level, I guess one can say that it’s a long process that produces something of which one can be very proud, but which can involve some painful moments. These labor pains are especially pronounced (at least for me) in the final phase of book production, in which all of the final adjustments are made and tiny little errors (formatting, spelling, grammar) are corrected. From the “final” draft of a manuscript until its appearance in print, this process can take an entire year. Reading Roy Rosenzweig’s thought-provoking article on the production of the Wikipedia, just published in the Journal of American History, was apropos: it got me thinking about the value of this extra year of production work on printed materials and its relationship to what’s going on online now.

Is the time spent getting books as close to perfection as possible worth it? Of course it is. The value of books comes from an implicit contract between the reader and those who produce the book, the author and publisher. The producers ensure, through many cycles of revision, editing, and double checking, that the book contains as few errors as possible and is as cogent and forceful as possible. And the reader comes to a book with an understanding that the pages they are reading entail a tremendous amount of effort to reach near-perfection—thus making the book worthy of careful attention and consideration.

On the other hand, I’ve become increasingly fond of Voltaire’s dictum that “the perfect is the enemy of the good”; that is, in human affairs the (often nearly endless) search for perfection often means you fail to produce a good-enough solution. Roy Rosenzweig and I use the aphorism in Digital History, because there’s so much to learn and tinker with in trying to put history online that if you obsess about it all you will never even get started with a basic website. As it turns out, the history of computing includes many examples of this dynamic. For instance, Ethernet was not as “perfect” a technology as IBM’s Token-Ring, which, as its name implies, passed a “token” around so that every item on a network wouldn’t talk at once and get in each other’s way. But Ethernet was good enough, had decent (but not perfect) solutions to the problems that IBM’s top-notch engineers had elegantly solved, and was cheaper to implement. I suspect you know which technology triumphed.

Roy’s article, “Can History Be Open Source? Wikipedia and the Future of the Past,” suggests that we professional historians (and academics who produce books in general) may be underestimating good-enough online publishing like Wikipedia. Yes, Wikipedia has errors—though not as many as the ivory tower believes. Moreover, it is slowly figuring out how to deal with its imperfections, such as the ability of anyone to come along and edit a topic about which they know nothing, by using fairly sophisticated social and technological methods. Will it ever be as good as a professionally produced book? Probably not. But maybe that’s not the point. (And of course many books are far from perfect too.) Professors need to think carefully about the nature of what they produce given new forms of online production like wikis, rather than simply disparaging them as the province of cranks and amateurs. Finishing a book is as good a time to do that as any.

No Computer Left Behind

In this week’s issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education Roy Rosenzweig and I elaborate on the implications of my H-Bot software, and of similar data-mining services and the web in general. “No Computer Left Behind” (cover story in the Chronicle Review; alas, subscription required, though here’s a copy at CHNM) is somewhat more polemical than our recent article in First Monday (“Web of Lies? Historical Knowledge on the Internet”). In short, we argue that just as the calculator—an unavoidable modern technology—muscled its way into the mathematics exam room, devices to access and quickly scan the vast store of historical knowledge on the Internet (such as PDAs and smart phones) will inevitably disrupt the testing—and thus instruction—of humanities subjects. As the editors of the Chronicle put it in their headline: “The multiple-choice test is on its deathbed.” This development is to be praised; just as the teaching of mathematics should be about higher principles rather than the rote memorization of multiplication tables, the teaching of subjects like history should be freed by new technologies to focus once again (as it was before a century of multiple-choice exams) on more important principles such as the analysis and synthesis of primary sources. Here are some excerpts from the article.

“What if students will have in their pockets a device that can rapidly and accurately answer, say, multiple-choice questions about history? Would teachers start to face a revolt from (already restive) students, who would wonder why they were being tested on their ability to answer something that they could quickly find out about on that magical device?

“It turns out that most students already have such a device in their pockets, and to them it’s less magical than mundane. It’s called a cellphone. That pocket communicator is rapidly becoming a portal to other simultaneously remarkable and commonplace modern technologies that, at least in our field of history, will enable the devices to answer, with a surprisingly high degree of accuracy, the kinds of multiple-choice questions used in thousands of high-school and college history classes, as well as a good portion of the standardized tests that are used to assess whether the schools are properly “educating” our students. Those technological developments are likely to bring the multiple-choice test to the brink of obsolescence, mounting a substantial challenge to the presentation of history—and other disciplines—as a set of facts or one-sentence interpretations and to the rote learning that inevitably goes along with such an approach…

“At the same time that the Web’s openness allows anyone access, it also allows any machine connected to it to scan those billions of documents, which leads to the second development that puts multiple-choice tests in peril: the means to process and manipulate the Web to produce meaningful information or answer questions. Computer scientists have long dreamed of an adequately large corpus of text to subject to a variety of algorithms that could reveal underlying meaning and linkages. They now have that corpus, more than large enough to perform remarkable new feats through information theory.

“For instance, Google researchers have demonstrated (but not yet released to the general public) a powerful method for creating ‘good enough’ translations—not by understanding the grammar of each passage, but by rapidly scanning and comparing similar phrases on countless electronic documents in the original and second languages. Given large enough volumes of words in a variety of languages, machine processing can find parallel phrases and reduce any document into a series of word swaps. Where once it seemed necessary to have a human being aid in a computer’s translating skills, or to teach that machine the basics of language, swift algorithms functioning on unimaginably large amounts of text suffice. Are such new computer translations as good as a skilled, bilingual human being? Of course not. Are they good enough to get the gist of a text? Absolutely. So good the National Security Agency and the Central Intelligence Agency increasingly rely on that kind of technology to scan, sort, and mine gargantuan amounts of text and communications (whether or not the rest of us like it).

“As it turns out, ‘good enough’ is precisely what multiple-choice exams are all about. Easy, mechanical grading is made possible by restricting possible answers, akin to a translator’s receiving four possible translations for a sentence. Not only would those four possibilities make the work of the translator much easier, but a smart translator—even one with a novice understanding of the translated language—could home in on the correct answer by recognizing awkward (or proper) sounding pieces in each possible answer. By restricting the answers to certain possibilities, multiple-choice questions provide a circumscribed realm of information, where subtle clues in both the question and the few answers allow shrewd test takers to make helpful associations and rule out certain answers (for decades, test-preparation companies like Kaplan Inc. have made a good living teaching students that trick). The ‘gaming’ of a question can occur even when the test taker doesn’t know the correct answer and is not entirely familiar with the subject matter…

“By the time today’s elementary-school students enter college, it will probably seem as odd to them to be forbidden to use digital devices like cellphones, connected to an Internet service like H-Bot, to find out when Nelson Mandela was born as it would be to tell students now that they can’t use a calculator to do the routine arithmetic in an algebra equation. By providing much more than just an open-ended question, multiple-choice tests give students—and, perhaps more important in the future, their digital assistants—more than enough information to retrieve even a fairly sophisticated answer from the Web. The genie will be out of the bottle, and we will have to start thinking of more meaningful ways to assess historical knowledge or ‘ignorance.'”