Technological Ecologies and Sustainability

Sustaining Scholarly Efforts

Cynthia L. Selfe, Gail E. Hawisher, and Patrick W. Berry



The backdrop for the intellectual work of this chapter is complex and woven from multiple and related contexts. In part, it has emerged from our location in an area of composition studies—computers and writing—that focuses on the study of information technologies and their use in literacy instruction and practices. From this position, for instance, we have followed a series of related trends in information production and exchange that have emerged from a converging set of technological changes and practices we mentioned above.

The multiplied power of peer collaboration, which has been a consistently valued practice in composition studies since the initial interest in social constructivism (Berger & Luckmann, 1966; Bruffee, 1984), has enjoyed a similar emphasis within the corporate sector since the early phases of globalization in the 1980s, when U.S. businesses began to emulate the team-based practices of Japanese communication styles. In the 1990s, however, collaborative practices experienced even more rapid growth as new digital networks and digital work environments expanded in their international reach and importance. Moreover, personal social networks across workplaces continue to assume increasing importance. As Bonnie Nardi and her colleagues (2000) pointed out, personal networking is not necessarily new—it has been explicitly identified since 1940 to denote the cultivation of “useful others”—but what is new “is the intensity and absolute necessity of networking for practically everyone” (n.p.).

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By the 1990s, and within ever-changing social, historical, and technological contexts, as Deborah Brandt (1995) pointed out, digital literacies were accumulating rapidly. Manuel Castells (1997) described a range of groups that had begun to assemble and communicate online—within digital networks that were contributing to the breakdown of conventional geopolitical borders and the rise of globalized politics. Within such environments, Castells described social groups that not only worked online—for emerging multinational corporations had to connect workers across conventional linguistic and cultural borders—but that also involved offline self-sponsored literacy activities related to new kinds of identity politics. Within digital environments, these social groups and networks formed interest groups; political action groups; and groups focused on feminist, racial, environmental, or religious issues. Also forming in such spaces were social groups focused around gaming, dating, genealogy, films, music, and other interests. Importantly, Castells noted that as people were exchanging ideas and work within and among such groups—and often taking action collectively—they were also involved in contesting, negotiating, and re-writing the new “social codes” under which societies would be “re-thought, and re-established” (p. 360) in the coming decades.

Communicative practices, it was clear, were beginning to change dramatically within globalized online environments where texts were, increasingly, crossing national borders, time zones, language groups, and geographic distances. As scholars from the New London Group (Cope & Kalantzis, 2000; Kress, 1999; Kress & van Leeuwen, 1996) and others noted, people could no longer afford to think of texts in monolingual, monocultural, or monomodal terms. Within online globalized environments for composing and communication, texts needed to resist the limitations of a single symbolic system and its attendant conventions, taking increased advantage of multimodalities of expression: visual, aural, and kinesthetic elements, as well as alphabetic components. To increase their effectiveness, texts also had to become highly intertextual in terms of their resonance across media types.

By the beginning of the new century, digital environments had begun to spawn not only new forms of composing and communicating, but also new models of information design and production, maintenance and organization, delivery and circulation. Of particular interest for the purposes of this chapter are new practices of collaborative peer production that have resulted in the emergence and growth of social-networking phenomena like Wikipedia, YouTube,, LinkedIn, MySpace, and Flickr. Such projects depend on the personal contributions and investments by large and far-flung social networks of people who choose to come together to create online “commons” (Benkler, 2003) that are defined, variously, by an expanded freedom to shape involvement, including the timing, extent, and conditions of involvement; value as contributors; and freedom from some of the constraints normally accepted as “necessary preconditions to functional markets,” and by “more or less elaborate rules—some formal, some social conventional—governing the use of the resources” (Benkler, 2003, pp. 6–7).

The Context of English Departments

If English departments and related programs in the humanities have yet to embrace fully many of these new patterns of information design, production, and exchange that have come to characterize globalized digital environments, they have, nevertheless, been fundamentally affected by these trends. The recent report of the MLA Task Force on Evaluating Scholarship for Tenure and Promotion (2007), for example, identified a related set of concerns in the profession—among them, increasing demands for scholarly productivity within universities engaged in a “prestige economy” (Chait, 2002, qtd. in MLA, 2007, p. 11); shrinking resources for humanities publishing, especially among university presses; and an almost single-minded focus on the scholarly monograph as the “gold standard” (p. 5) of academic excellence.

The “widespread anxiety” prompting the 2007 MLA report has considerable basis in fact. As the report acknowledges, over 62% of the departments responding to an MLA survey “reported that publication has increased in importance in tenure decisions over the last ten years” (p. 4), with 88.9% of the departments in Carnegie doctorate-granting, 44.4% in Carnegie master’s, and 48% in Carnegie baccalaureate institutions ranking the “publication of a monograph as ‘very important’ or ‘important’ for tenure” (p. 4). In addition, 32.9% of all departments and 49.8% of departments in doctoral-granting institutions expect “progress toward the completion of a second book for tenure” (p. 4). A related value is placed on articles in refereed scholarly journals, which only 1.6% of departments characterized as “not important” (p. 5).

Fueling anxieties about such requirements, the report found, were several factors. First, the report noted the gradual but persistent decrease of funding for higher education, which has resulted in the “corporatization of the university” along “business models of efficiency and output” (MLA, 2007, p. 16). For university presses, the report points to the work of the MLA Ad Hoc Committee on the Future of Scholarly Publishing (2002) and Phil Pochada’s statement that “these presses have increasingly been asked to operate as businesses that must cover their costs and had lost or sharply reduced their subsidies from the institution” (qtd. in MLA, p. 16). Presses have responded, in part, by “discontinuing publication in certain Humanities subjects altogether” or “reducing the humanities list,” thus “narrowing... publishing possibilities, especially in fields viewed as marginal” (p. 16).

A second source of anxiety is the disconnect between the profession’s increasing dependence on electronic scholarly resources and its lack of experience in evaluating such materials. Indeed, 4.8% of departments in doctoral-granting institutions report “no experience evaluating refereed articles in electronic formats” and 65.7% report “no experience evaluating monographs in electronic formats” (p. 5). While neglecting new electronic publications as a source for tenure, many in English departments have also come to see new digital networks and electronic forms as heralding the “end of… [the page’s] influential reign. Old document forms and institutions—books, journals, and newspapers, on the one hand, publishers, and librarians, on the other, seem about to dissolve” (Brown & Duguid, 1996, p. 14).

A third source of concern is the recognition that faculty are working harder than ever. Referencing work by Jack Schuster and Martin Finklestein, the MLA report noted, “the weekly work effort of faculty members across institutional types increased from 40 hours per week in 1972 to 48.6 hours in 1998, and it increased most dramatically to 50.6 hours, at research universities where faculty have been subjected to both increasing instructional and research demands” (p. 14). We would argue that these statistics are especially alarming for junior faculty who struggle to establish a series of sustainable scholarly, teaching, and service practices.

Principles of Feminist Scholarship and Sustainability

What strategies, then, might help senior scholars bridge the complex series of gaps between the new systems of digital knowledge production and the more historically informed values that shape departments of English—in ways that make scholarly effort sustainable for both senior and junior colleagues? In this section, we focus on three principles that have guided our thinking and scholarly efforts, and that may, or may not, work in modified ways for others. In explaining these principles, we focus on our situated experiences as scholars and on the tenets of feminist theory that have shaped our thinking. Once again, we offer important cautions to readers:

First, the story of how we identified these principles is, in part, a fiction necessitated by the context of this writing task, one composed by memory and, thus, highly susceptible to selective perception and editing. In short, these principles have emerged not fully formed, but in fits and starts, wrong turns and returns, revisions and rethinking, over time. Indeed, they are still emerging and changing.

Second, we do not consider these principles generalizable in their specifics; rather, their value, if they have any, rests in their ability to sketch the general topography of a third way, a middle ground between the historical values that continue to inform departments of English and the rapidly changing contexts for scholarship that provide exciting potential for new generations of scholars.

Finally, our intent in this chapter is to promote multiplicity, flexibility, and sustainability—in part by resisting the adoption of any single model, any single standard, or any single approach to scholarship, scholarly efforts, or scholarly careers.

Our hope, then, is that somewhere between the personal situatedness of experience and the explanatory power of theory, others might find ways to use and modify the principles we have identified; that others might articulate their own ways of working toward a sustainable and flexible set of approaches to scholarship; and that they might discover new ways of addressing the needs of both junior and senior faculty, recognizing the innovative contributions of colleagues with both conventional and unconventional approaches to knowledge production, exchange, and distribution.

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