In his essay “Blogging for Promotion: An Immodest Proposal” anthropologist Greg Downey outlines a clear set of actionable proposals for reform at the intersection of scholarly communications practices and academic tenure and promotion practices. I commend his essay, which was published today (10/20/11) on Neuroanthropology, a compelling and influential PLoS (Public Library of Science) weblog that he runs with Daniel Linde. Rather than discussing this important contribution here in depth, I am going to try enacting one of its proposals. (For reference, see especially the discussion that follows Downey’s section heading “An immodest proposal (not an indecent proposition)”.)
First the set up. I am working extensively right now preparing a new course for spring 2011. This course was devised as part of my participation in a two year think-tank funded by the Teagle Foundation (a funder supporting projects designed to foster innovation in undergraduate teaching and learning) and organized by the American Folklore Society. The AFS project was built around the theme “What is the relationship between lay and expert knowledge in a complex society?” Colleagues teaching in a range of institutions, from community colleges and private liberal arts colleges to large research institutions gathered to explore the frontiers of research-based teaching, changing curriculum practices, and the wider contexts of our work in a small border discipline bridging the humanities and the social sciences, as well as the academy and the public sphere. As part of our work, we developed plans for new courses and teaching resources. Part of my work focused on working out plans for the course that I will initially teach next spring (it opens for enrollment today).
I have mentioned the course here previously. In a nutshell it uses the toolkit of folkloristics (and by extension my other field–cultural anthropology) to consider human responses–including aesthetic, expressive, customary, and communal responses–to a range of recently emergent and highly contested human social problems. Called “The New Social Problems: Communal and Expressive Responses” the new problem domains to be considered include such things as the digital divide, genetic engineering, intellectual property contests, and nanotechnologies. I am sure that I will be discussing the course further as it moves forward. The important point in this context is noting the influence that one colleague–whom I do not know and whom I have not yet met–has had on the shaping of my plans for this experimental course.
Michael Wesch, on his website/weblog Digital Ethnography (which is a key node in the digital infrastructure of his undergraduate-based research group), has regularly and effectively documented the pedagogical experiments and research work that he has been pursuing (over many years) with many successive groups of Kansas State University students. Wesch has been appropriately recognized and celebrated for the innovative work that he and his students have been doing. What I want to highlight here is that the manner in which he has documented and explained this work has made it richly available for the wider scholarly community. Because he has used http://mediatedcultures.net as a venue for reporting on his work, his strategies and experiences are openly and immediately accessible to me (and to my students) as well as to everyone else able to surmount the digital divide. Essays like “Our Class on How We Run Our Class” in which Wesch and his students describe (and enact) the technical and intellectual strategies through which a standard U.S. undergraduate course is turned into a deeply meaningful research collaboratory for social scientific investigation are just not available in the conventional published literature in our field. It is on the basis of the inspiration provided and the information conveyed by Wesch and his students that I am able to imagine a very different kind of course to pursue with my own students in January.
Michael Wesch’s Digital Ethnography efforts represent the kinds of “blogging” work that deserves to count as a substantive scholarly contribution (bridging teaching, research, and service) in such areas as annual review and tenure and promotion considerations.