Technological Ecologies and Sustainability

Sustaining Scholarly Efforts

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



Organizations and institutions, intellectual work and global communication, computer networks and electronic environments have converged in the past decade or so. The changes in these venues have altered models of work and information in a range of sectorsmany of which are increasingly dependent on the digital creation, exchange, interpretation, and manipulation of information. Among these changes are a growing recognition of the value of collaborative groups and their role in knowledge production (Nardi, Whittaker, & Schwartz, 2000); a new appreciation of sharing and building associations as powerful and underappreciated tools in information economies (Johnson-Eilola, 1995); an acknowledgment of new semiotic channels and modalities for conveying meaning (e.g., digital audio, video, animation, multimedia); and a focus on the efficacy of digital informational resources leveraged by peer production (Benkler, 2004).

Although these trends are increasingly visible and influential in a range of public, business, and governmental sectors, they have yet to fully permeate the humanities, or, more specifically, departments of English, with which we are most familiar.[1] Many of these academic units retain long-standing historical and cultural values that seem highly resistant to new forms of knowledge production, especially those situated within digital environments—among these, a value on the scholarly and research performance of individuals rather than teams; a value on conventional forms of information exchange, particularly printed books and journal articles; and a value on models of scholarly production tied to institutional capital in university presses and professional journals (MLA Task Force, 2007).For those scholars who recognize the strengths of both conventional and emerging forms of knowledge production, this situation is becoming increasingly problematic to negotiate, especially for junior scholars working toward tenure. Indeed, the current situation presents senior scholars with an important ethical challenge: to establish an increasingly sustainable system of scholarly production in English departments—one that works both for scholars who want to retain traditional values of humanist scholarship and those who see needed changes in such values. Although some of this work can be undertaken by revising departmental guidelines for tenure and promotion (e.g., updating them to accommodate new electronic forms of scholarship and collaborative work) other approaches, for instance, may be more complex and may involve scholarly leadership that bridges the local, micro-level sites of departments, the medial-level institutional environments within which such departments function, and the macro-level national contexts that help shape our professional values.

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In this chapter, we draw on our experiences as scholars—two women, both senior, both in a relatively unconventional field within English studies, both committed to collaborative work, and one man versed in the electronic forms of scholarship and part of a new group of scholars entering the profession. Our goal is to identify a small set of principles that describe what we consider to be a productive middle ground between the historically informed values of the humanities and the changes currently informing emerging information ecologies in digital environments. These principles also serve as guides to the kinds of scholarly leadership efforts that we mention above—efforts that seek to bridge micro, medial, and macro-levels of our professional work—and that help to establish increasingly sustainable systems of scholarly production for other scholars and for ourselves. In short form, these are as follows:

    • The profession of English can retain its traditional value on scholarship that is original, innovative, intellectual, and sustained, peer-reviewed and published, while acknowledging that scholarly fields, forms, and values change.
    • Scholarly models of production and form are not fixed. Rather, they are fluid—socially and technologically shaped and contingent. Contemporary scholarship, increasingly, is created, maintained, and circulated in a range of electronic environments that extend the intellectual reach of ideas and the development of academic fields and subfields.
    • Given electronic contexts, current scholarship can increasingly employ multiple semiotic modalities (words, still and moving images, video, audio) to convey meaning in increasingly effective and robust ways.
    • Social networks and collaborative scholarship, especially when they are informed by feminist values on sharing and connection, can multiply and leverage the innovative contributions of new scholarly projects. They can also help increase the sustainability of such projects.

These principles—heavily inflected by feminist values, emerging models of work in digital environments, and long-standing ideals in composition studies—have provided us a way of sustaining research and scholarly efforts over a period of decades. Importantly, informed by the work of Donna Haraway, we consider these principles partial, contingent, fluid, and situated. They are neither objective nor generalizable, but rather our own form of coyote knowledge that others may, or may not, choose to stitch into their professional lives—in various transformed, partial, and complex ways (Haraway, 1988).

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[1] Because many of our colleagues reside, if not in departments of English, in humanities programs, we specifically discuss these departments in this chapter. We intend, nevertheless, for our discussion to apply to those computers and writing colleagues who make their academic homes in other disciplinary units across the university.