in praise of the academic riffraff

All day I struggled with how to convey my reactions to Gary A. Olson’s article for the Chronicle of Higher Education last week. Some of that time was spent wondering why I should even bother. I’m still not sure. Nonetheless, I feel compelled to offer up this unfinished thought…

Last week, Gary A. Olson wrote an article for the Chronicle of Higher Education in which he strongly cautions against jettisoning “traditional monograph-style dissertations” in favor of digital scholarship. Claiming to have “received calls from a handful of deans and department chairs” who fear the damage to the reputation and careers of those in the humanities that such a shift would cause, Olson suggests that digital scholarship might not be scholarship at all. It’s too quick and short. It discourages our capacity for deep concentration and sustained engagement with research. It is not “appropriately vetted by responsible experts.” And, it seems to be (at least partially) motivated by a scholar’s desire to get “instant gratification” from others on their research.

In contrast, continuing to rely on the 300+ page dissertation enables scholars to maintain “proper” standards and still be rigorous in their efforts, both of which are central to ensuring that the humanities are valued in this scary time of increased budget cuts. It also enables those in the hollowed halls of higher ed to use the peer review process to keep out the riffraff, “the amateur or dilettante simply posting thoughts online.” Because without the elaborate peer review process of “top tier written journals,” presumably first introduced to grad students through the process of writing and getting their dissertation approved by a committee of experts in their field, written work is (probably) not serious and scholarly enough.

For Olson, or at least his “callers” (the anonymous “they” that he refers to throughout the short piece), the issue is simple: Expanding scholarship to include new forms, especially digital ones, is a threat to the humanities. It diminishes its value and lowers the standards of its scholarship. And, Olson asks, “Why should humanities scholars settle for lower standards for their own disciplines?”

Judging by the title of my post and the content of my blog, you might correctly guess that I am troubled by Olson claims. And I’m not alone. Just read the comments on his original piece. Or check out Sample Reality’s response post, Serial Concentration is Deep Concentration, over on his blog. Many writers have great, very thoughtful and studied, responses to why Olson’s argument is faulty. I’m not interested in re-hashing them.

Instead, I want to offer up some praise for (what Olson might refer to as) the academic riffraff; those scholars, thinkers, writers, teachers, and activists who refuse to settle for the limited and biased set of standards and proper behavior that many in the academy continue to promote. While these “standards” are supposed to ensure quality, they are often used to keep out ideas/practices/people that challenge privileged forms of knowledge production.

Does this mean that we shouldn’t have any standards? That there’s no way to effectively assess whether or not serious engagement is occurring? No. It means that academics need to spend less time policing the borders of who counts as a scholar and more time engaged in the difficult labor of repeatedly asking who benefits (and at whose expense) when “standards” and rigor are invoked. They also need to develop new ways to understand, engage with and evaluate research.

Many of the digital scholars that are critical of Olson’s claims aren’t part of the academic riffraff; they are successful academics who have managed to do critical and creative work online and offline in ways that earn them cultural capital within the academy. Indeed, it seems as blogging and other online engagements, have increased caché in the academy, or at least some pockets of the academy. So, my praise of the academic riffraff is not necessarily for digital scholars working within many academic spaces (although I do appreciate the work that they do). Instead, my praise is for all the thinkers, troublemakers, storytellers, academic rebels, adjuncts, graduate student teachers (and more) that get exploited, undervalued, dismissed, and rejected even as they engage in exciting, compelling, innovative, “cutting-edge,” transformative, revolutionary, and accessible work.

Not as a side note, but as an finished thought and feeling, I’m bothered by how this argument for “standards” and “rigor” is so easily gendered, raced and classed. It seems that the “academic riffraff,” those folks who are doing the most interesting and innovative work, have the least amount of privilege (and access to cultural capital). 

For more on the MLA controversy, see my previous post: tweeting your thesis? good. rethinking purpose of thesis?  better.