Monday, December 21st, 2009...12:08 pm
In Media Res: Browsing, Grazing, and Googleizing Scholarly Knowledge
(A paper to be presented at a panel of the Council of Editors of Learned Journals, Modern Language Association Annual Convention, 30 December 2009)
As a professor of English appointed to a school of nursing and its Center for Nursing Scholarship, I wear several hats. A writing coach and editor, I support faculty members’ writing goals; I research the facilitators and inhibitors of faculty scholarly productivity; and I do work in medical humanities, cultural representations of the body. This talk could be subtitled, “Four Propositions in Search of a Thesis.”
Proposition Number 1. The medium is the message. The medium in question is the aptly named Web browser, a multimedia software that tends to efface the material differences among, a) the database and its abstract, b) the peer-reviewed article in the learned journal, c) the monograph or book, and d) the Web page embedded in a Web site. Frequently, when using a search engine like Google, the searcher lands in media res, in the middle of a Web page or a Google book or a journal issue. What is lost is context, continuum, connections, the carefully crafted thematic structure of a journal’s guest editor, the arc of an extended argument of a book, sometimes even the identity of the author. Not simply missing the forest for the trees, we may miss the forest for the leaves. If we download one tune at a time from iTunes, we can also download one article or one chapter at a time. While we can no longer be the polymaths of the past or the Anthony Grafton of today, a comprehensive view of the landscape is not any less important.
Number 2. The medium is the massage. Who of us has not experienced the cyber sublime, the Internet ecstasy in which sense of time is suspended, the dizzying accumulation of Web links and search results and RefWorks citations? However, this state of bliss, evidence perhaps of our insatiable Western hunger for distraction and acquisition, may sometimes impede scholarly productivity, or at least that is the hypothesis I derive from a 2001 study of nursing faculty, conducted by Barbara Schloman, finding that, for the group reporting a low level of computer-related experience, there was greater likelihood that the respondents published, and there was no correlation between high use of the World-Wide Web and publishing.
Number 3. Click. With a single click of the mouse, I can access data about data. I can learn how often my work has been cited by other scholars (but not necessarily accurately), how often my article has been viewed or downloaded (but not necessarily read), where my book ranks in sales. The back-office analytics of the WordPress blog I edit for nurse writers and scholars tells me how many daily visitors come, what Web sites referred them to us, which posts they click on (and maybe read), which external links they click on, and which search terms they use. In this Golden Age of Bibliometrics, we still need to ask, what do the data mean and what is their value? What we need, with a tip of the hat to Rita Felski, is a more robust phenomenology of scholarly reading.
Finally, Proposition Number 4. The message is the metaphor. Historically we have framed our learned labor in figurative tropes, the majority of which for centuries have been related to eating. Like Peter Comestor, the twelfth-century theologian so nicknamed because he devoured books, we chew over a problem, ruminate, assimilate, consume, absorb, digest. Alimentary, my dear Watson. However, the Web browser encourages hasty nibbling, grazing. And it has appropriated a new metaphor: the rhizome, the creeping plants that send roots and shoots from their nodes. The Internet is rhizomatic with endlessly branching pathways, a funhouse of the mind. Its bookmarks, bookmarklets, and blogs mark the return of the commonplace book, the compilation, the florilegium. However, as Anthony Grafton suggests of the rhetorical commonplace book: “like a good sausage machine, it rendered all texts, however dissimilar in origin or style, into a uniform body of spicy links that could add flavor to any meal—and whose origins did not always bear thinking about when one consumed them.”
In conclusion, through these propositions I am not arguing that Google makes us stupid, but that networked information technologies may disrupt, sometimes in harmful ways, the valuable habitus involved in learned labor.
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