The Academy Goes Digital

Yesterday morning, Nicole and I had the pleasure of attending The Georgetown University Libraries Scholarly Communication Team’s fifth symposium, Scholarly Communication and the Web: Creation and Collaboration. An impressive panel, moderated by William Olsen, discussed their groundbreaking integrations and interactions with digital media in their respective fields. The focus was on the scholarly use of the Internet in academic collaboration, writing, research, and publishing. Nicole and I were particularly encouraged to learn that in a report released this past December, the MLA advocated for universities to revise their approach toward scholars working in digital and new media, advising that they institute ways to acknowledge and evaluate such work, particularly in terms of tenure and promotion.

Dr. David Germano, Associate Professor in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia, an expert in Tibetan and Buddhist studies (who incidentally had to leave the symposium early, at the special request of his congressman, in order to attend yesterday’s public honoring of the Dalai Lama on Capitol Hill) spoke first, followed by Dr. Susan Schreibman, Assistant Dean of the Office of Digital Collections and Research at the University of Maryland Libraries, and affiliate faculty in the Department of English at the University of Maryland. Dr. Maximilian Riesenhuber, Assistant Professor in the Department of Neuroscience at Georgetown’s Medical Center and director of the Laboratory for Computational Cognitive Neuroscience was the third panelist.

Dr. Germano discussed the incredible potential that digital media can have for area studies, and showed parts of a massive collaborative archiving project that he has been managing for the past eight years, which has become the Tibetan and Himalayan Digital Library. With over 1000 collaborators worldwide, the site is incredibly rich, complete with interactive maps and immersive media. For a minute, Dr. Germano took us all for a simulated walk through an ancient temple, complete with sound effects. Aside from impressive technological shows, the most important advantage of digital media in Dr. Germano’s eyes is the incredible capacity that it has for fostering collaboration and documenting communities, as well as fundamentally reconfiguring the social structure of the institution. Germano spoke of the community outreach and education applications of his work, also pointing to the potential of fostering community-responsible forms of tourism, or "geotourism." Nicole and I were duly impressed, and the two-and-a-half hour symposium proceeded to fly by, with the two of us exchanging incredulous looks and furiously taking notes.

Dr. Schreibman, who is the founding editor of the digital archive of the works of the Irish poet Thomas MacGreevy as well as of the web archive Irish Resources in the Humanities, made compelling arguments about how engagement with digital media stands to have far-reaching institutional effects. She spoke about the paradigm shift that is particularly demanded of humanities scholars working in digital media. "Where the humanities are used to objects that last, digital technologies involve developing a model that may or may not be sustainable, subject to constant renewal," said Schreibman. She addressed Web 2.0 as posing a particular challenge, with the user-as-contributor model unsettling notions of scholarly authority and control. "We can’t determine today how our data repositiories will be used tomorrow." However, scholars are embracing the platform, as shown in projects such as Fedora Commons, which is supported by the University of Virginia.

Dr. Schreibman’s discussion pointed to the issue of texts coming to be used as databases; not only of texts being digitally stored in online databases. One example that she shared was IBM’s Many Eyes visual data mining tool that can also be applied to literary texts, analyzing word frequency and the such, and another is TextArc, which maps a literary text by words as they appear in frequency and order. "It really changes the way that we look at literary texts: it pushes us to look at them in a way other than syntactically, which his how we are used to reading," she explained, "shifting our focus onto how texts mean."

Dr. Schreibman ran through a bunch of scholarly work with digital media, including Zotero, the open-source bibliographic tool (which was recently showcaseed at a CCT event); DPubS; the Public Knowledge Project; and Nines. She pointed us to the numerous interesting academic-commons oriented projects at the Institute for the Future of the Book. An online user-annotated version of a controveresial article, University Publishing in the Digital Age, published this summer, is now available thanks to the Institute for the Future of the Book’s CommentPress. Schreibman also co-edited Blackwell’s A Companion to Digital Humanities in 2004, the full version of which is available online.

Next, Dr. Maximilian Riesenhuber spoke about how the sciences utilize digital media and the Internet, and particulalry how his lab relies on the Internet in its daily operations, from IM-ing lab-mates either in the lab or across the country, to tracking hits on the lab website or on articles published online. Dr. Riesenhuber values the Internet for making it possible to do small-group interactions just about anywhere, greatly facilitating and at times speeding up the experimental and publishing process.

Needless to say, I am expecting a lot of discussion to come out of this report on the symposium and the compelling work that was presented. The two major archiving projects led by Dr. Germano and by Dr. Schreibman bring up important questions about changing disciplinary attitudes toward artifacts, for instance. The data mining that can be performed on texts raises larger questions about the constant archiving and data mining that is performed on us/our data without our knowledge, when we are using Google’s search engine or browsing for books on Amazon. In that vein, questions regarding copyright and "credit" or appropriate citing of web sources were touched upon in the discussion as still chronically lacking as a practice in academia. I would close with the concept of the data-fication of documents as a particularly compelling one, and unsettling: what about the data-fication of scholars and scholarly work? If they are reduced to data is that indeed a "reduction"? Is it divesting scholars or their works of singular clout? How can the academy re-orient itself in terms of recognizing collaborative work towards individual advancement? There are economic challenges. Can we get a Marxist to weigh in on this question?

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