Academic Spring: Access Revolution or Stumbling Up the Stairs?

Originally published at Stillwater Historians, April 25, 2012.

So let me see if I have this.  At Ant Spider Bee we have the beginnings of a debate that grew out of an ASEH panel in Madison earlier this month called “Beyond the Book.”  OAH panels from Milwaukee have further cast scrutiny upon digital history/humanities media as a means of reaching broader, more popular audiences, and last week’s episode of On The Media considered the future of the book, and of publishing in general.  Merle Massie is talking about reining in the “geek speak” and breaking the “nerd loop” (since I don’t know the actual origins of that one, I’ll thank Tina Adcock for tweeting it!) so as to make our conversations and labors more accessible to non-academic audiences.  Harvard Library is sending a shot across the bow of the academic publishing establishment, asking its faculty to publish in open access journals because of the growing costs of providing access to scholarly materials.  At More or Less Bunk Jonathan Rees (in another OAH reflection piece) thinks about moving towards the “uncoverage” model for the history survey—a move that begins by jettisoning our textbooks.  So monographs, jargon, journals and journal articles, and traditional surveys, and textbooks are all under attack–and as all of these are miles from perfect, I’d say quite rightly so!

On top of that we have movements afoot to make Twitter handles and hashtags standard components in all of our conferences to both facilitate organization and crowd control and foster communal note-taking, discussion, and longer term discourse.  We have speculative efforts to incorporate Twitter into our pedagogical discussions and even into our pedagogy itself.  There are even efforts to scrutinize individual hashtags to understand where and how communities of historians are moving through such spaces.

About this time every year I dig around my closet to unearth my beloved sandals.  I was a bit earlier this year because for all of Halifax’s many charms, its climate is not one of them—and to the extent that there was a winter at all, it ended quite early.  But also, last year I fell into the poor grad student trap of buying a pair of shoes because they were ten dollars cheaper than the brands I trusted.  Then, of course, I came to Canada, where, let’s just say if you’re paid like an American (to say nothing of an American grad student) you sure as hell can’t afford to consume like a Canadian.  So replacing a pair of shoes that has tragically underperformed longevity-wise is difficult to justify.  Instead I moved up the annual transition to sandals, since my shoes were beginning to resemble sandals anyway.  This meant a few late-night walks home with little or no feeling in my toes, but did stave off the replacement of the shoes until I can get back to a tax environment that is a little more commensurate with my pay grade.  But I find that, despite the fact that I spend five months or more of every year in my beloved Teva’s for some reason there is an adjustment period where I have to relearn how to walk in them.  I trip going up the stairs and even stumble along perfectly flat sidewalks, usually skinning the sides of my big toes multiple times before getting my rhythm back.  But then, by mid-May, it’s all sorted out, and the Teva’s become the automatic choice for everything, from hiking to paddling to working in the archives.  By October my Teva tan is so dark that traces of it can still be seen along about St Patrick’s Day!

100_0021So here we are at conference season and at the end of the spring semester, leaving me to wonder about the nature and potential impact of our collective zeal.  Are we , in fact, poised to overthrow some of the rusty conventions of academic life?  Are we at a crossroads where new technology, creative application, and insightful self-analysis drive a reconstitution of the modern university and what we come to know as the history discipline and its classroom?  Or is this just something we do every year, a recipe concocted from fatigue, frustration, and the momentary glimmer of hope and inspiration that a weekend’s immersion in great scholarship can create?  Are we just drunk with possibility?  When we shift our attention from grading essays and exams back to the projects and writing obligations that have been back-burnered for months, will we find the inertia of our past patterns and approaches too great to escape; will the cutting edge be dulled, and the commitment to access and openness forgotten?  Will practicality, that cheeky bastard, trump possibility once more?

I’ve actually seen the term “academic spring” used somewhere, and I can’t for the life of me remember where–it’s out there bouncing, spring-like, about the blogosphere.  But it was quite distinctly used not in reference simply to the green season of rebirth but to the widespread social revolutions and political transformations we’ve seen around the world in recent months and years.  Use of the term in this context makes me very uncomfortable–a community of largely elite academics seeking to elbow in on that connotation seems disingenuous as best.  And I fear that the use of “spring” for transformation and wholesale change will become as ubiquitous, sensational, and ultimately meaningless as the “-gate” has for incidents of scandal and questionable ethics.  Also we seem to have a far better track record of pointing out problems than fixing them–so the term may have limited applicability anyway.  But it does beg questions:  are we really on the verge of a revolution in the ways in which knowledge is created and disseminated, or is it just the time of year when we have to learn how to walk in our sandals again?