Sunday, 17 January 2010

Digital Scholarship – initial thoughts

My interest in the ideas around Digital Scholarship has been prompted firstly by a debate on the subject that is going on within the Open University, and secondly by the apparent overlap this issue has with our ‘Literacy in the Digital University’ discussions.

The OU’s strategic interest in Scholarship in general reflects the new currency of a set of issues that Boyer (Scholarship Reconsidered) was discussing 20 years ago – about defining, valuing, managing and rewarding work that academic employees do that isn’t classifiable as ‘research’. The core problem is the subordination, both in the employment practices of institutions and the minds of scholars themselves, of teaching compared to research. Despite the rhetoric about valuing teaching, the experience of successive research assessment exercises has shown that research trumps teaching every time as far as rewards and academic status are concerned. We can make as much noise as we like about the necessary synergy between teaching and research, but in the current climate of financial famine, the prospects for parity don’t look good. As Durham’s VC Chris Higgins says ‘research-led teaching’ is ‘more expensive in terms of people and equipment’ and institutions that are research-led (like, er… Durham) clearly need a bigger share of available funds.

The OU is aware that it is primarily a ‘teaching university’ (although it is keen to cling to its mid-table position in the research championship with the hope of maybe elbowing its way into the playoffs for promotion to the premiership at the next REF). It takes the status of teaching staff seriously and recognises the importance of teaching-led research (known elsewhere as the ‘Scholarship of Teaching and Learning’) through its rewards and promotion systems. The importance of digital developments to pedagogy in a distance teaching institution is obvious, and ‘digital scholarship’ therefore figures quite prominently in the overall scholarship strategy. However, it’s not clear yet exactly what digital scholarship means, and whether it can legitimise activities that are digital but neither disciplinary ‘genesis research’ nor SOTL.

For example, there are a number of things that academic employees do that don’t class as either teaching or research. For example: reading around their subject area for personal enlightenment, organising and summarising literature, data, or other sources for ease of reference, writing articles in non-specialist publications, speaking to the media, blogging, working for public bodies, advising other organisations, being ‘public intellectuals’ in a variety of forums etc. Activities like these are regarded by many scholars as central to their academic roles and identities, and as key elements in the exercise of academic autonomy. In the past, in the OU, they were the kind of interests that we were given ‘study leave’ in order to pursue: academic work of our own choosing, geared to academic objectives of our own devising. However, in the more managed culture of today’s university, scrutiny is being brought to bear on the outputs of such scholarship, in an attempt to ensure that they conform to institutional priorities, as well as personal academic ones. Where such outputs contribute to research assessment, or where they relate to the production of teaching material, assurance is straightforward. But where they are primarily expressions of an individual scholar’s interest, and their fit to institutional strategy is not immediately apparent, they are suspect. They are not scholarship any more.

Unless, perhaps, they are digital. One sometimes feels, in a technology-dominated university, that all matters digital seem to be in line with institutional strategy, whereas some matters disciplinary or academic are not. And this is where I come to the overlap with the concerns of the LiDU seminars, because one of the points of applying a ‘literacies’ perspective to the university in a digital age is to try and unearth value systems underlying the communication practices that are being privileged. The issue of how digital scholarship will be recognised, and rewarded, and the capacity built for it across the higher education sector, also raises questions about the relation individual institutions will have to their scholars, to their disciplines, and to their teaching of the habits and practices of disciplinary scholarship to their students. For me, a key question is whether the term ‘scholar’ continues to define someone who has a particular kind of orientation to knowledge, or whether it will simply come to apply to anyone who is engaged in a given set of knowledge-related activities. If the former, then digital scholarship has a task on its hands – to assert a distinctively academic orientation to knowledge in a medium where any message is ‘susceptible to being ‘received and reprocessed in unexpected ways’, as Castells puts it, messages like ‘bottle[s] drifting in the ocean of global communication’ (2009 p.66)!

More in a future post, particularly drawing on Borgman’s Scholarship in the Digital Age . In the meantime, for anyone interested, my colleague Nick Pearce’s blog discusses Boyer’s categories of knowledge-building: ‘discovery’, ‘integration’, ‘application’, and ‘teaching’, in terms of implications for digital scholarship.

No comments:

Post a Comment