Help with the Long Haul

March 29th, 2009

In a case of asynchronous synchronicity, I was hit all week by digital surfacings of the same topic, one I was sensitized to by a couple of relevant books I’m looking at, one titled The Paradox of Choice (about how we are hobbled rather than empowered by the putative option of having the “best” of whatever) and one titled simply Glut (which wryly looks at the “information age” historically, finding we always seem to have felt overwhelmed, desperate for the ultimate key or codex). These probably had me primed for a host of online mentions of what one piece in Inside Higher Ed called “Knowledge Overload.”

Ordinarily my reaction to locutions like that is to bemoan the semantic slippage besetting us these days. Information overload is really about data, not information (information should make you feel informed, right?), and knowledge in phrases like “knowledge management” is really just about information. Something has to happen to information — some activity, typically within some community of practice — to turn it into knowledge.

But, as it turns out, Ken Coates, in his piece on “Knowledge Overload,” was not misusing the term. He was talking about so much activity on the part of scholars that it has no reasonable outlet, just unreasonable ones, like being on one of 50 sessions run concurrently at a single, fairly well-focused conference (one of the examples given in that piece). In another piece, almost a companion piece, from Inside Higher Ed later the same week, Scott McLemee reported on the announcement from the University of Michigan Press that it is shifting to digital publishing. Keeping up with change (and sheer volume) is a challenge that justifies (almost demands) that university presses consider such a move, and McLemee has little patience for those who “will read about Michigan’s initiative and decide it means turning monograph publication into YouTube with footnotes, more or less.” But his is not an unequivocal acceptance of the inevitable:

When the University of Michigan Press blog promises the creation of “a rich, functional and efficient publishing environment,” it seems appropriate to feel a pang of dread — not just for the future of a great academic press, but for scholarship itself. Substitute “publishing environment” with “dining experience” and you have the language of the fast food industry.

And even that may miss the point. McLemee talks about the experience of disseminated knowledge, whatever its form, the activity of reading, an individual experience. Coates hints (but only hints) at something more: “There may well be a convergence possible between Academe 1.0 and Academe 2.0. New technologies certainly do find things faster and share them more broadly.” And later Coates asks whether “we, in the world of Web 2.0, really need to constantly add to the number of published – and sadly unread – academic journals and books. Can we not elevate the scholarship of synthesis and interpretation back to the highest rank of professional inquiry, recognizing the remarkable talent needed to bring together in a readily digestible form the accumulated insights of thousands of scholars?”

More almosting. If this is just pure distillation and synthesis, that sounds about as attractive as a scholarly Reader’s Digest or Publishers Weekly. But if we think of this as an activity that brings to light something that otherwise would not be visible — like “Making Invisible Learning Visible,” the current HASTAC forum led by Randy Bass and Bret Eynon — then we have something that is more useful, something possible only through collaboration, a way of making knowledge in the process of sharing it. I think this is much more than distillation, though we have a lot to do and a long way to go. This is partly a way of updating and repurposing what we already know, partly a way of keeping up with what we don’t know but need to, partly a way of sifting what we most need to know locally and globally, short term and long term. I think of this sifting process as the Long Haul, kind of the way Chris Anderson describes the Long Tail: a way of playing out the possibilities so that everyone can find out what they most need, what’s the best fit, what’s the thing that really makes a difference. I heartily hope this is one of the things the Commons allows us to do for the knowledge we need to realize the possibilities of academic technology. Heaven knows we do need it.

  1. Howard Wach Says:

    George, your post reminds me of one of the ur-texts in my life as a digitally-minded educator, Randy Bass’s “Engines of Inquiry,” ( in which he made the simple but powerful point that that “information is not education.” If anything, the point is today more relevant–and more urgent–than it was in the late 1990s. The historian in me has always valued synthesis—it can be a very high form of scholarship and absolutely indispensable to effective teaching. It helps turn information into education. And in our digital context, just as information is not education, sharing resources is not changing practices. What’s the middle term here? Where is the step that moves us from archiving to synthesis to collaboration? How do we get past “mere” sharing? (I’m thinking of what you called the “virtual tumbleweeds” rolling around in Merlot.) I think the little working groups taking shape in the Commons might be incubators of that missing step. They are drawing people together from the far reaches of five boroughs around very powerful common interests. It’s a good start.

  2. George Otte Says:

    I couldn’t agree more, Howard. John Seeley Brown and Paul Duguid make a similar point in The Social Life of Information. In making it, they invoke a bunch of cognitivists and philosophers from Bruner to Polanyi, and the result isn’t easily paraphrased, but basically they say real knowledge is know-how (and not just the ability to recollect), and that has to be social (and socialized). There’s a huge difference between ingesting and recollecting on the one hand and really comprehending and applying on the other — the difference between knowing diagnostic signs of a disease and really being able (perhaps certified) to make a diagnosis. And I’m worried that just a collection of thoughts means the best we can hope for is re-collection. So the easy thing is to say that there has to be social activity of the kind that turns information into useable knowledge. The hard thing is to say how we structure it. I’m convinced that it has to go beyond aggregating and vetting and rating (sort of the “Salon and Slashdot” approach to information-sharing and knowledge-creation). But then what is it exactly?

  3. Howard Wach Says:

    What is social activity that turns information into useable knowledge? In one sense there’s an immediate answer, an easy answer–it’s practice. In effect the VKP model of shared practice–shared experience. But then how far does that take us? Building that kind of model is one thing–it’s difficult enough. But sustaining it and pushing it forward–closing the circle of practice, collaborative sharing, and further practice–that is something else again. I think something approximating that ideal is what all of us are imagining.

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