An Economy and Democracy of New Platforms

I really enjoyed the New York Times' piece (1 June '14, BU, 1,4) on how business school administrators at some of the nation's top universities are adjusting to the phenomenon of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses). From my own perspective, MOOCs--and not only MOOCs but cyberspace in general-- are the best thing to happen to the world in a long time. It's not hard to see how creative use of the Internet, making use of the practically unlimited and semi-free space it offers, allows one to develop him or herself professionally--independent of the institution for which one works. I suspect that, in anticipation of this, some institutions have developed policies that at least outline appropriate social networking behavior for its employees (social networking creates synergy for teaching and research activities), but, beyond this, perhaps little is already in place to police the level of faculty presence online. And I am not one to suggest that there should be. The migration of the world's professoriat from the physical classroom to the Internet unleashes it, allowing people whose well-developed intellect and critical voices have very often been kept to a minimum to see their worth on the open market, so to speak.

Of course, the administrators in the Times' story pretty much limited their discussion to MOOCs, a phenomenon which some of them have embraced while others have questioned them. The central issue is whether the online presence of professors, faculty who earn a living teaching at universities and colleges, will in the near future provide them other options. Relatedly, this growth of online education gives students as well the option of never setting foot inside an actual (meaning physical) classroom. The administrators interviewed by Times writer Jerry Useem consider what this "disruptive innovation" will mean for their traditional business programs.

I made, about five years ago, my own migration to the Internet, when I encountered a Civil War record which I knew there would be a waiting audience for. I didn't go about working with the record in the way that a researcher usually would if she expects to be taken seriously by peers or to be given the kind of credit that matters to tenure committees, say, presenting a paper on it at a conference followed by an article in a refereed journal. I was more interested at the time in a specific audience of readers--namely African Americans who might very well find mention of an ancestor in the record--than I was in discussing its relevance with university-trained researchers. Though engagement of professional historians would have been equally interesting, ethically I was pulled toward sharing it first with people whose lives were most directly implicated by the finding.

In 2009, I began blogging about the record, and in 2010 I did an initial transcription and published it to the Internet. Life has not been the same since then. I quickly became part of a community of genealogists, who, as a group, have a pretty active online life compared to other professionals. Genealogists are I have learned at all times--for instance in the wee hours of the morning--doing research including Internet research, and they spend countless hours sharing information with each other. In a sense, engagement of this community has launched me as a public historian of sorts even while my training is in critical literacy. In my case, training in close, critical, analysis of texts and qualitative, ethnographic research, has been easily leveraged into a public role in transcribing and publishing the historical record, not to mention developing discourse around it.

As one of a relative few professors whose online life is as active as their university life, and also as Interim Chair of Humanities at Rust College in Mississippi, I have been encouraging and gently nudging our humanities faculty to do more online than they have been doing in the last three to five years. This year, two began blogging, and others are readying themselves. 

In the meantime, I have preached much the same to our students since I am excited enough about public work on the Internet to believe that the medium ought to be used to launch even undergraduates into simple, yet important, research projects. One that has been a few years getting off the ground is the Eaton-Bailey-Williams Freedpeople's Transcription Project. Students taking my sections of Composition II have had as an option for a research topic the persons named in the record I've been studying. Their work, very little of it so far, has been published to a project wiki. From this, other topics have mushroomed. Just last module (quarter), I encouraged a small group of English majors at the College to write creative non-fictional pieces on members of the United States Colored Troops, some of whose lives also are implicated in the record under study because their family members appear in it. Students composed their work at, which allowed me to comment online on their progress, and which moves these students very close to having published work. Some of the students migrated to the online space with trepidation; one remained onshore, but overall the project was a success, and I was pleased to be able to initiate them to writing online.

Report of the student work is not unrelated to the migration of professors to the Internet; populating the Internet with a polyphony of voices with varying levels of expertise, diverging and converging perspectives, and different levels of interest is what makes cyberspace the new frontier of capitalism, as well as a rich democratic space.

And this brings me to my last point: the Internet combined with undergraduate research opportunities like those I've just described can be a boon for small colleges that never have dreamed of competing with research universities. The work that my students are doing is tied to my own research, and they are carefully being guided both as new historians and as new writers. Moreover, they are able to establish themselves online as experts in much the same way that I have. When people search the Net for information on topics of interest, they are not so much concerned with whether it was published in a refereed journal--which they are in most cases less likely to read or even to have access to--than whether it contributes to their knowledge base in meaningful, substantive and substantiated ways. Needless to say, there must be quality control. Not all persons writing on the Internet have integrity or "real" expertise.

Harvard Professor Michael Porter offers a warning: "Anything that starts to fracture the enterprise is a sobering prospect." And it should be; innovation is economically healthful, no? Porter is speaking of the new freedoms enjoyed by the professoriat, and I am speaking of that and also of new ways to get our students creating niches, intellectual property, for themselves long before they graduate college. I cannot think of anything more exciting than this.


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