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Being a Scholar in the Digital Era: Transforming Scholarly Practice for the Public Good

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Reviewed by James Hartley

Daniels, J and Thistlethwaite, P (2016) Being a Scholar in the Digital Era: Transforming Scholarly Practice for the Public Good  London: Policy Press, ISBN 978-1-4473-2926-8 (pbk), 170pp  £19.99

Being a scholar in the digital era is an interesting book, but who is it for? Presumably not for people like me, retired academics from the mainly pre-digital era,  so it must be for current academics, or for people who want to read about what academics do today. Authors Jessie Daniels and Polly Thistlethwaite are professors of sociology at the City University of New York (CUNY). The book describes a course they developed in 2013 for academics, activists and journalists, designed to encourage academics to change how they communicate amongst themselves and with others. ‘Our experiment sought to leverage the reciprocal power of social activism and the connected platforms of digital media to meet demands for accessible and impactful information that retains the integrity and authority of scholarly research’ (p18).

The text has five main chapters between an Introduction and a conclusion. Chapter 2 describes what it is like to be ‘a scholar activist’, then and now, discussing the effects of new digital media on teaching, writing and researching, journalism and film making. The authors describe several ‘summits’  in which they brought together scholars, journalists, film-makers and activists, on themes including ‘Re-imagining Scholarly Communication for the 21st century’, and ‘Resisting Criminalisation through Academic-media-activist Partnerships’. Materials for these summits were posted in online blogs and podcasts and reproduced in e-books.

Chapter 3 criticises massive online open courses (MOOCS) as a way of providing instructional materials for those people who cannot afford to go to university or college and have to study at home. As the authors see it, commercial MOOCs are designed to work well for people who are already skilled at learning, and who can afford to pay for them. Further, they are an administrator’s dream: ‘The ratio of two faculty to nine-thousand students is the sort of ‘productivity’ that administrators want to see realised in the academy through the use of digital technologies’(p46). In contrast the authors describe their ‘POOCs’ – much smaller participatory online courses – designed to open the CUNY campus to students in East Harlem.

Chapter 4, ‘Acting up, Opening up Knowledge’, comments that ‘the way scholarly publishing works is difficult to explain to anyone outside the system, because it makes so little sense’. Authors are not paid for publishing and people without university affiliations (and former students) have sharply limited access to academic research. The major publishers take most of the profits and control access to journals and scholarly societies. According to the authors the price of textbooks has risen 812% since 1978 and ‘The College Board in 2015-16 advised students attending US public two-year institutions to budget a whopping $1,364 for books and supplies’.

Open access is seen as at least a partial answer to this dilemma,  aiming to make texts and learning freely available to as many people as possible. In this study this is done via a series of e-books tied to the summits, and through ‘POOCs’. In addition research communities such as ResearchGate and Kudos share information and provide access to members’ publications.

In Chapter 5, ‘Training scholars for the digital era’, doctoral training at CUNY is described as ‘somewhat unique’ in that there are several programs that emphasize and teach the use of digital technology for PhD students and mid-to-late career academics. The authors describe how they organised MediaCamp workshops free of charge for faculty and graduate students, academic administrators, non-governmental organisations, and community activists. During the first year of operation MediaCamp featured more than 40 sessions, most with 10 to 20 participants, covering a range of topics – including television interviewing techniques, writing for a general audience , creating a podcast, blogging, using twitter, and making sense of web analytics. The authors report that their MediaCamps met with resistance from some and enthusiasm from others, and that it was best to teach individually or in small groups. They say that such training is important as academic institutions now have a vested interest in the use of digital media by both faculty and administrators.

Until recently, engagement with the public has not generally been rewarded in universities. Chapter 6 thus turns to a new concern, that of measuring scholarly impact. Here a good deal of attention is given to ‘impact factors’, and their strengths and limitations: the general picture (rightly in my view) is negative. The authors conclude (following Boyer) in favour of broader measures of impact that involve social justice.

Nonetheless, the argument used in this chapter illustrates the difficulties for authors of relying on hearsay and blog-dependent sentences. In my view, neither of the following sentences is true:

 ….and the way it works in British Universities, the JIF (Journal Impact Factor) is regarded as a      valid and reliable measure of scholarly impact. (p113)

It is common practice among journal editors, once an article is accepted for publication, to ask authors to add a few citations from that particular publication… (p113)     

Chapter 7 ends with a brief discussion on the future of being a scholar that includes some optimistic speculations about the effects of new technology on teaching, learning and research. The authors argue that scholars will be more collaborative, share their research in the social media, and boost the profile and reputation of universities. They also foresee the end of the commercial domination of universities and their research. Such optimism belies the research discussed in earlier chapters.

The book is driven by the view that academics are – or should be – concerned with the public good. Daniels and Thistlethwaite argue that using new media is the way to achieve it. Many of the references in this text are to blogs rather than scholarly publications, but such sources are not always scholarly; bloggers are not always careful or detailed in their analyses or reports, and may make statements without supporting references. Being a scholar in the digital era: transforming scholarly practice for the public good offers some useful and interesting perspectives on what it is like to be an academic today but leaves two key questions unanswered: who decides what needs transforming, and who decides what is the public good?

SRHE Member James Hartley is Emeritus Professor of Psychology at Keele University.

Author: SRHE News Blog

An international learned society, concerned with supporting research and researchers into Higher Education

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