Monday, December 21st, 2009...12:08 pm

In Media Res: Browsing, Grazing, and Googleizing Scholarly Knowledge

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(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.

Works Consulted

Auletta, Ken. Googled: The End of the World as We Know It. New York: Penguin, 2009.

Borgman, Christine L. From Gutenberg to the Global Information Infrastructure: Access to Information in the Networked World. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2000.

—. Scholarship in the Digital Age: Information, Infrastructure, and the Internet. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2007.

Borgman, Christine L., ed. Scholarly Communication and Bibliometrics. Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications, 1990.

Bowker, Geoffrey C. Memory Practices in the Sciences. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2005.

Collini, Stefan. “Impact on Humanities: Researchers Must Take a Stand Now or Be Judged and Rewarded as Salesmen.” Times Literary Supplement, 13 Nov. 2009. 18-19.

Darnton, Robert. “Google and the New Digital Future.” New York Review of Books, 17 Dec. 2009,  82-84.

Deleuze, Gilles, and Félix Guattari. “Introduction: Rhizome.” A Thousand Plateaus. Brian Massumi, trans. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987. 3-25.

Felski, Rita. “Remember the Reader.” Chronicle of Higher Education, 19 Dec. 2008: B7.

Grafton, Anthony. What Was History? The Art of History in Early Modern Europe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

—. Worlds Made by Words: Scholarship and Community in the Modern West. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2009.

Hall, Gary. Digitize This Book!: The Politics of New Media, or Why We Need Open Access Now. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009.

Hauptman, Robert. Documentation: A History and Critique of Attribution, Commentary, Glosses, Marginalia, Notes, Bibliographies, Works-Cited Lists, and Citation Indexing and Analysis. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2008.

“The Internet is Rhizomatic.” A-Website, 2002,

Lamont, Michèle. How Professors Think: Inside the Curious World of Academic Judgment. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2009.

McNeely, Ian F., and Lisa Wolverton. Reinventing Knowledge from Alexandria to the Internet. New York: Norton, 2008.

Novak, Marcos. “transArchitecture.” Telepolis, 9 Dec. 1996,

Polastron, Lucien X. The Great Digitization and the Quest to Know Everything. Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions, 2006.

Shrum, Wesley, Joel Genuth, and Ivan Chompalov. Structures of Scientific Collaboration. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2007.

Willinsky, John. The Access Principle: The Case for Open Access to Research and Scholarship. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2006.


  • […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Jim Long, Kakie Urch. Kakie Urch said: RT @newmediajim: In Media Res: Browsing, Grazing, and Googleizing Scholarly Knowledge (my brother's preso at Modern L … […]

  • […] discussion on the related topic, Ranks, Brands and the Editorial Process, on which my contribution, “In Media Res: Browsing, Grazing, and Googleizing Scholarly Knowledge,” is available […]

  • […] this afternoon I will present my position paper (“In Media Res: Browsing, Grazing, and Googleizing Scholarly Knowledge”) at the final CELJ panel, “Ranks, Brands, and Editorial […]

  • Thomas Lawrence Long
    March 21st, 2010 at 12:04 pm

    In today’s New York Times, Michiko Kakutani’s “Texts Without Contexts”:

    ‘Unlike “Digital Barbarism,” Mark Helprin’s shrill 2009 attack on copyright abolitionists, these books are not the work of Luddites or technophobes. Mr. Lanier is a Silicon Valley veteran and a pioneer in the development of virtual reality; Mr. Manjoo, 31, is Slate’s technology columnist; Mr. Keen is a technology entrepreneur; and Mr. Sunstein is a Harvard Law School professor who now heads the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. Rather, these authors’ books are nuanced ruminations on some of the unreckoned consequences of technological change — books that stand as insightful counterweights to early techno-utopian works like Esther Dyson’s “Release 2.0” and Nicholas Negroponte’s “Being Digital,” which took an almost Pollyannaish view of the Web and its capacity to empower users.

    THESE NEW BOOKS share a concern with how digital media are reshaping our political and social landscape, molding art and entertainment, even affecting the methodology of scholarship and research. They examine the consequences of the fragmentation of data that the Web produces, as news articles, novels and record albums are broken down into bits and bytes; the growing emphasis on immediacy and real-time responses; the rising tide of data and information that permeates our lives; and the emphasis that blogging and partisan political Web sites place on subjectivity.’

    Article on line at:

  • Reported today on The Chronicle of Higher Education Wired Campus blog:

    Students Retain Print Information Better,
    By Jill Laster

    A study at Arizona State University has found that students had lower reading comprehension of online material than they did of a print version.

    The report, “To Scroll or Not to Scroll: Scrolling, Working Memory Capacity, and Comprehending Complex Texts,” described how two groups, of 20 students each, wrote essays after reading materials either print or online. Those given the online work to read had an overall lower comprehension of the material.

    It is harder to keep track of where information is located within an online document versus the more-apparent page markers in a written text, said Christopher A. Sanchez, a co-author of the study. He is an assistant professor of applied psychology at Arizona State.

    But the scrolling interface of online documents had little impact on the students in the study with high working-memory capacity, or a good ability to process and retrieve information. Mr. Sanchez said such people could have more cognitive resources able to remember static locations within an online text.

    More study is needed on the impact that scrolling has on learning, he said, especially given the prevalence of online tools in the classroom and in distance learning.

    “What it could do is give us recognition of how to better design materials so all people learn well, so we don’t have this group of low-working-memory-capacity individuals who are behind the curve and are for some reason failing to learn when this material is in this scrolling form,” he said.

    The ASU study can be found at:

  • […] of Scholarly Knowledge," which raises concerns about the Internet's effects on scholarly readers:… Thomas Lawrence Long Mansfield, CT Jul 09, 2010 4:34 […]

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