The Digital Playground

We’re supposed to be playing games. We’re not. We’re starting a fight.

People argue and the rhythm beats against my skull. They toss ideas back and forth like a game of catch with a ball that’s easy to throw but difficult to throw back. The more that people argue, the less they mean and the more they attack one another.

I want to do something fun. That’s why I’m here—why we’re all here—to begin with. We’re supposed to learn through play. Instead, the back and forth of confrontation sails overhead, competitive, taunting, and demeaning. I put my hands against my temples, waiting for the ball, following along—annoyed but still attentive:

“I’m just sayin’.”

Someone yells, tossing the ball across the room.

I’m just sayin’!”

Louder, throwing with more force.

I’m just sayin’.”

It’s falls to the ground and someone picks it back up.

The ball passes in front of me, way above my blood pressure, making me tense. I’m not sure how to play when people fight. I’m a bigger fan of dialogue, where everyone plays along. When people contribute easily, included in the game—connecting with others as they share ideas, suspending assumptions. Playing fair and, for the most part, playing nice.

This is not that. This is people fighting over a ball…

Catch.

“But students aren’t that smart. They want things to be easy and they don’t want…”

Toss.

Catch.

“Do you know how ridiculous that sounds? Really, I mean you can’t honestly believe…”

Toss.

Catch.

“You can’t say that! That’s not necessarily true! Studies show that people don’t care…”

Toss.

Classes like this are ruined from the start by too many personalities pulling in every direction. Discussion is disruptive; dialogue is meaningful; but here learning is reduced to miscommunication. Though no one’s in charge, no one takes turns because everyone has something to say. And someone always gets left out.

In dialogue, when one person wins, everyone wins.

That’s just the way that it goes. I hate being the person who’s unsure if they’ll get to play. I make others know that I’m not going away. I assert my presence and take a firm stand. I struggle for attention among strong egos. The need to be hears comes before good ideas and competition trumps decorum. I’ll be the first to admit that I’m abrasive—that I get animated when I feel threatened. Motivated by malice and cursing under my breath, I look for ways to break the rules and stay involved, get my words in edgewise and find a way to throw the ball.

I get loud and speak out of turn. I interrupt just to digress. My chest is tight from my heart to my neck, suffocated with ambition, the empathy strangled out of my words. Hot with anger I hold my breath, biting my tongue in half at the sour taste as the room gets heated.

I realize that I’ve had it all wrong: This isn’t play; this is people fighting with guns

I grip my desk to control the expressions on my face. Someone takes a shot at me, pulling me into the fight. Thrust into the open, I’m mocked by a person who’s got a way with words—criticism with a real need to be “right.” On guard, I pull back, holstering hasty ideas, taking my finger off the trigger, thinking about escape and there’s bedlam in my mind, generating thoughts too raw to express, harboring words in steady production as I prepare to draw. It’s only a matter of time before things get loud and ugly and I don’t want to miss the point when I get my chance take my shot. Animosity is churned into gunpowder, held back with bated breath and the smallest spark of excitement is explosive enough set me off.

People draw and fire, the room filled with smoke—hot air pouring from the barrel of their tongues. Others take cover, taking shots at each other, not sure where their words will land. Good ideas are slaughtered and threads of conversation murdered—maimed into assertions with no conclusion or point. A few people throw out terms in a desperate measure of defense, hurling boulder-sized words like “agency” and “autoethnography,” struggling to get a grip on what they mean as they fight to survive. They kick up dust with forcible gestures, echoing no one but themselves in the absence of wisdom and commonsense.

“I can’t believe that you think this is a…”

Bang.

“You have no clue what it’s like to teach a class with a…”

Bang.

“How can you say that knowing that people don’t…”

Bang.

“That’s unbelievable! I don’t know where you get this kind of…”

Bang.

My vocal chords shake, ringing shots out like bullets, shattering broken silences with hammering arrogance, bigger and meaner than others. A shotgun loaded with aggression, blasting away, spraying everyone, everywhere, all at once, silencing the crowd, commanding attention in rapid fire, pumping out shot after shot.

“What you’re saying doesn’t actually mean anything! You haven’t said a thing this entire time! You just keep talking, over and over, repeating yourself, filling the air with noise…”

BANG. BANG… BANG.

Pairs of eyes left blinking, targeting me with uncomfortable glares, holding their ground but not firing until the smoke clears. I stare back, queer and awkward—exposed but steady and my voice reverberates in my mind, filling a moment of sudden silence as a small stream of smoke sneaks up my side. I see that I’ve missed the target. I see that I’ve shot myself.

Sigh.

For a moment, there’s silence and then calamity ensues again. Conversation buried in the sarcasm of some new untenable game. Balls fly and guns blaze, but I pay them no mind. I opt out and disengage, shut-off by the imaginary world I’m forced to inhabit in a class that’s gone wrong. It’s not a game worth playing or a fight worth fighting—not on this playground, anyway—and not with these kids.

There are other ways to learn and have fun.

I abandon the group to go off on my own, resigned to keep my thoughts undisclosed. Staying quiet, I notice a few others doing the same.

This is people playing alone, together

Sliding open my computer I close my mouth. A gust of air-conditioned air cools my face and bits of imagination fill the room. My attention shifts into the virtual ether as I focus online, soothing interactions that don’t provoke humiliation.

My fingers do the talking, translating angst into social commentary. I climb over rungs of posts. I perch atop wifi bars, connecting networks of discussion in a jungle-gym of information. I peer through the glass of my screen, sanguine as others argue and fight. I reflect on my thoughts and respond at my discretion, productive as I communicate with distantly intimate others, learning to play on my own.

I open Twitter to observe the class-feed—our back channel of the discussion. I check lists of followers, scroll through posts, tweeting once every few minutes. There’s affirmation in the network; it explodes with creativity—forming scores of information that swing by my mind. I monkey around with others online, retweeting interesting links as I go, playing follow the leader as we all climb back to where we started.

On Facebook, my newsfeed rolls and I explore the slow churn of “conversation.” Others keep pace from the far reaches of my network and classmates make room for each other as they voice their opinions. They’re see-saw encounters, falling silent in-the-flesh while speaking up out of body, finding a way to collaborate and even smile.

I post comments that I overhear from the argument still going, using classmates’ words in puns and metaphors. I’m the captain of a ship that sails through cyberspace, passing by computer screens—windows into the very classroom setting on every desk. Quiet jeers of delight keep us moving as oblivious classmates walk the plank. Status updates and newsfeeds wash over them, drowning their cynicism in virtual presence. Other typed voices chime in, playfully layering intelligent anecdotes with humorous quips, cheering me on. Together we’re a crew and a therapeutic subtext, escaping a mutual dissatisfaction in the creative commons of our own devices.

Voices fade into the distance as I ascend deeper into the blue and alabaster of Facebook, Twitter, and Google, finding footing in complex thoughts, pounding out responses on my keyboard in a field of text. I swing between applications, more invloved and emphatic, each time curling my feet behind my chair and pushing myself to new heights of participation. Tweets and retweets, posts and likes, all accumulate in affinity. Digital ideas re-place verbal accusations and typed enunciations elicit response. Fresh thoughts infuse with new discoveries, engaged in intellectual contention, swinging in tandem, building a cognitive surplus of trust, feeding ambient generousity that adds value to reality—freed from the bondage of the classroom, surrendered to the digital playground.

The same people are talking but fewer are listening, and everyone’s more engaged with themselves. I can see fingers moving, smirks on faces with heads bent as they type and press and drag their ideas across a screen, exploring new worlds in parallel play, meeting others they’ve never given a chance any other way. They play on the equipment—finally unafraid to get along. Clicks and ticks welcome the sounds of silence.

Images from the past flash across my mind…

I’m in a desk, in 5th grade, staring out the window on sunny afternoon. The teacher talks about something I don’t understand, but the wind has got my attention. I don’t want to understand him so I tune it all out; I don’t want to pay attention as much as I want to play. I’m longing to be outside, where it’s warm and air is clear; where the wind blows leaves with the smell of cut grass, and ants gather under swing-sets flexing in a rhythm. Others kids fly off of monkey bars as they hit the ground running, laughing and pulling at each other. People toss a ball, seeing who can throw the hardest, impressed at how good they all are. Friends on seesaws bounce and giggle as cops and robbers run around by.

I wish the classroom was the playground, or the other way around—and I want to understand why that can’t happen.

Light floods through the window, casting networks of shadows on the floor. And there’s no need to fight, just good reasons to laugh. We play hide and seek, moving on and offline, together bringing the playground into the classroom and the classroom online. There’s so much more out in the digital wide open—so much more we can do together  because play is the deepest lesson that we can learn.

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The Digital Playground by Nicholas A. Riggs is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.

Move Your Body to Move Your Mind

I often tell people that we should offer lecture classes to undergraduates (particularly Freshman) at the gym. In my mind, I see a lecturer positioned in front of treadmills; the various screens that typically display ESPN and Dr. Phil are adorned with Prezi’s or SlideShare presentations.

“Wouldn’t it be great,” I usually say to other academics, “if you could take your required history or philosophy course while you jogged, or powerwalked, or went to town on a rowing machine? Don’t you think students would listen better and learn more? Their brains are technically functioning at a higher level when they’re working out.” At that point, I get dirty looks and contentious laughs.

“Ya right,” people say.

When I ask why they think it’s a bad idea, they usually say something like “no one would sign up for that” or “I listen to music at the gym.” I have to wonder what’s so different about listening to someone discuss complex ideas that may actually be new or interesting as opposed to Nicki Minaj. Or is there some innate human desire to hear the same top 40 song you heard yesterday blast through your eardrums during work-outs?

I, for one, listen to lectures as I run, or lift. I would do it while I swim, but I haven’t saved enough money for the underwater phone protector or the waterproof headphones. But X-Mas is right around the corner…(cough*Mom*cough)….

A recent NY Times article explores the monotony people feel toward excersice.  Drawing from a number of psychological studies, Jane Brody concludes that the average person chalks working-out up to doing something hard, challenging, or generally unenjoyable. Yet, study after study reveals that people who do excersice on the regular are happier, more productive, and less stressed.

I can attest to the latter. Moving your body is not just a way to fit into that shirt you bought last winter when you were certain you’d be in shape by now. It’s a way to move your mind – to keep your mental state positively charged, resilient, and upwelling with new ideas that motivate you to improve the conditions which help you sustain whatever it is that you do. And, reflecting on the shape my relationships are in since I’ve started working-out on a daily basis, I’ll argue that it makes you a more pleasant person to be around.

Look – I used to be 100 lbs over weight and then I chose a profession that forces me to sit down all day long. That is the personal-health equivalent to making toast while you take a bubble bath. Sitting and staring in front of my computer screen most of the time, I suffer from the same hand to mouth disease as the next person. And I am much more concerned with gettng my thoughs in order and well-formed (because it makes me money and pays off my mountain of college debt) than I am worried about the shape my love handles make when I wear shorts just out of the dryer. But I’ve found that a lack of attention to one important aspect of my life (I’m suggesting that my bodily health is one of them) has a direct impact on another (I’m suggesting that financial/mental health is just as important).

As a technology user and graduate student, I’ve found a way to reconcile the Cartesian Dual that tortures my soul. It’s a dilemma that’s not just mine alone – I know for a fact that a “longing for” combined with the “lack of” motivated, enjoyable, routined exercise plagues the majority of my colleagues. And most of them can’t seem to understand how I stay on top of my work (which involves immense amounts of intensive reading, writing, blogging, teaching, and incessant talking) as well as work out everyday (which most of them assume is an exaggeration, I’m sure).

I’ve turned their excuses into a solution. All it takes is a phone and headphones:

1. Don’t listen to music when you work out; listen to open courses, lectures, podcasts, or something intellectually stimulating. Teach yourself how to pause and fast-forward so when you need to talk to someone or shift your focus for a moment, you can get back on track with minimal interruption.

2. Download an app that lets you easily record yourself. You will be shocked at how incredible your ideas are at the peak of your workout. You’ll also get a kick out of hearing your winded self say words with more than 3 consonants. Go back and listen to these as a warm down – or, just throw them away. The magic is really in the talking-through-it.

3. Use a standard note taking app to write down any idea that comes to mind. This is especially great to do when you stop running, pause the workout, or are waiting between machines at the gym. I actually write a load of emails while I workout and sometimes – I’m not embarrassed to say – I write poetry. How ’bout that!

These three suggestions are easy, make working out more productive, and, at least for me, seem to keep the same old routine fresh and exciting. Everyday. As an academic, you might find these suggestions helpful, but I can assure you that what I’m suggesting translates to any vocation that involves learning. You could just try it out for the hell of it. Who knows? I bet you find yourself motivated and inspired at the same time.

And that’s not an exaggeration.
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Move Your Body to Move Your Mind by Nicholas A. Riggs is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.
Based on a work at nicholasariggs.wordpress.com.

The Raging River of the Interwebs

Howard Rheingold tweets that being mindful about all of the data on the web means filtering all of the crap as we wade through the waters of ever rushing interest.

Ok, maybe I’m stretching his 140 word post on Hybrid Pedagogy‘s #digped discussion group about his new book Net Smart, which went live last month (and will stay active throughout the summer). Still, Rheingold is pulling together centuries old spiritual thought with cutting edge technology when he suggests that digital beings can be mindful beings. He’s saying that surviving the over-growing, ever-moving datasphere at a time when information and ways to access it grow in abundance each day requires some mental agility. Dare I say, we all need to show some “digital hubris” or what could otherwise be considered intellectual stubborness.

We have to get unstuck from the school-age notion that the only way to really know something – to be right, to have a say, to pass the test – is to know everything there is to know. We have to decide not be perfect – to let some things pass us by – but we have to keep trying to keep learning as we keep moving down the river of tweets and retweets, memes, likes, posts, blogs and vlogs, and oversourced schools of email that nibble at every second of our already overbooked day. Like the reborn alcoholic or addict, we can surrender to the datasphere, acknowledging our own learning limits and realizing the full magnitude of what the datasphere has to offer. In my view, cyberspace does qualify as some form of “higher power” that is “greater than ourselves”. It’s “virtual” for Godsake! What could be more mystical than that?

If you don’t like that idea, don’t worry: higher powers and guilty people have historically complimented each other nicely.

“We can’t all learn everything, and but we all can learn something” is a line we used to tell pledges in my college fraternity. Today, I take it as my daily mantra of digital practice. I prevent myself from falling down the “YouTube hole” and resist my unbelievable propensity to scroll down. That sort of avoidance doesn’t include technological dismissal or denial. It’s a matter of discipline, like a spiritual practice, you do what feels right. Knowing how to move through the “crap” (Rheingold’s actual word) on the Internet is key for retaining peace of mind. It’s the only way we can manage the digital information overload, which for some reason seems bigger and meaner than all of the other information overloads that have happened throughout history. But just because there’s too much information doesn’t mean that there’s too much information to manage. A fact that is often overlooked by the common person is that social technology is a discretionary function of everyday life, not a mandated one. That means that you have just as much ability to shut down as you do to power up. By virtue of that fact, you have just as much incentive to tailor technology to suit your needs as you do to be sucked in by flashy lights and funny pictures of cats.

We live in a world of artificial excess – the ocean, the land, the sky, and outer space are all bolstering with too much stuff that gets in our way when we try to occupy it. “Space junk” threatens our safety and the purity of the environment that anchors whatever reality we’re living in at the moment. Today and forever from now own, cyberspace will be the same way. The hard part is recognizing what counts as “junk” and what doesn’t. We need tools to do that because – remember – the Interwebz is bigger and badder than us. We need super amazing information-metal detectors, hardcore data-rototillers and social media-rakes that collect all of that rich soil good for planting positive, clever, and humorous seeds of intellect and prestige in the gardens of our social network (and, perhaps, our minds).

If we want to know how to manage the raging river that runs through our collective digital-backyard, then we better know how to pick the right tools to help us reroute our expectations. We also need to know who can be our best guides for helping us along the way as we take on the rapids of discourse and debate. We need to know who will pull us back in the boat if we get pulled into the tossing waves of argument, cut-up on the sharp rocks of disinformation.

Had enough metaphors, yet? Good. Me too.

You get the point, I hope, that we all need to learn how to be mindful of the Internet, which means not passing up the opportunities it presents us for both work and play. No matter your vocation, digital resources can help you just as much – if not more – than they are said to be a hindrance.

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PLE's The Raging River of the Interwebs by Nicholas A. Riggs is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.
Based on a work at nicholasariggs.wordpress.com.

Value in Virtual

You walk out of the gym, satisfied with your work out. You can feel the wear in your arms, still fresh from the swim. The chlorine smell from the pool drips onto the collar of your shirt as your hair dries in the sun. Paced and calm, you enjoy the walk back to the office, taking your time, taking it all in. You love being on campus in the afternoon. Students pass by in fast forward, late for class coming from work. Some are late for work coming from class. They get nearer to the cars passing on the crosswalk—closer than you’re comfortable with. One of them, wearing head phones, holds up a middle finger as a red Sedan passes, which doesn’t  even hesitate to stop, almost hitting him. You sigh in disbelief. The ignorance of Florida drivers. Still, you don’t feel sorry for the guy with the headphones. He wasn’t paying attention, either.

Three black guys coming your way are elated in conversation, smiling and joking, taking up a lot of room and making a ruckus. You smile behind your sunglasses, remembering college and recalling two friends you’ve lost touch with completely. You feel a twist of longful nostalgia, envious of a carefree sensibility that you’ve lost. A feeling of freedom absent in a space leftover from a not-so-distanced youth. You catch a bit of the conversation as they pass: “Nigga, shut up! You don’t know what she said wh-” The words echo in your head. You can’t get past “Nigga” and you think about the power of words that construct reality. You wonder why so many people struggle with difference. You can’t help but think about how some words stay in use long after they should. You know that there’s a cultural identity tied up in certain labels, which have been purposed and re-purposed, but you’re not sure that some will ever be completely free of stigma. Your body gets tense when you hear  certain language and you wonder if other people have the same reaction. You try to recall the last time you let your lack of cultural sensitivity get the best of you but you can’t. You decide to omit the word “gay” from your vocabulary. You’re pretty sure you won’t be completely successful with that. Still, it’s worth trying.

Ahead of you is a series of waist high boards, propped up and lined in a row next to a table. Some sort of campus group set them up in the green, no doubt. Maybe protesters. Maybe street preachers. Who knows. You guess names as you walk up, thinking up possible student groups: Students for Social Change…Young Democrats of Tampa…Occupy USF…Campus Coalition for the Homeless. You hope it isn’t anti-abortion propagandists from last week.

Turning the corner, you see that the boards are yellow with a big, sloppy number painted on the front of each. The first one says “US Total Debt.” The number is in the trillions. Silly. You keep walking. Then you stop, take out your camera and kneel beside the last number, snapping a few pictures, taking a shot of the whole thing. You think about how ridiculous money really is, how the national debt is merely an indicator of a government’s inability to play by their own rules. Laughing, you resist the urge to go ask the student standing at the booth if he realizes that money has become less and less real. You want to know if he sees the irony in the whole display, which uses large, physical objects to, quite literally, make money real for us. Money that is rarely represented by dollar bills. Money that’s no longer in our pockets as much as it’s in our clouds. Money that you can spend on Google Checkout. You realize that you’re probably the only one reading into this so deeply, so you keep moving. You check around, but no one was staring.

You head in the direction of the cafe in the basement of the business building. You don’t even notice that you failed to catch the name of the student group responsible for what turned out to be a clever political statement about capitalism, systems of exchange, and material culture. When you get to the cafe, you order a Tuna sandwich, wondering if it’s healthier than roast beef. You decide that you don’t really care. The workout was a good one. Looking through the pictures on your phone of the giant, wooden numbers, you think about your morning. You see yourself sitting in the communication building performance lab, surrounded by colleagues and mentors, listening intently to Mary Catherine Bateson talk about learning. She’s disarming, almost prophetic.

She leans forward in her seat, sculpting the air with her hands, looking at you, then past you, then next to you, then the other way. She talks about the importance of play and improvisation. You shake your head in agreement. You shift your weight. You lose track of the room as you zero in, focused. She answers questions with adapted lecture notes that come out like mini-seminars, genuinely honest and spontaneous, yet authentically true to her thoughts. Old thoughts. Thoughts  she’s mulled over and adapted for years. You realize this is what she means when she says  “we’re all making it up as we go along.” She says we need to spend more time being reflective—that all wisdom is derived from thinking about thinking. That “thinking about thinking” is the same as “learning.” She insists that we should find a way to dictate our actions as they’re happening, not just talk about them after the fact. If we can do that, we’ll reveal that we don’t really learn in the “now” but that we’re always making reality out of things that we already knew.

Mustard farts out of a bottle. You look at the women behind the counter as you grab your sandwich and ask for a pickle. You decide that Bateson’s “now” has got to be connected to Micheal Heim’s “virtual,” which he says is another word for “as if.” You hand over your card to pay. “$8.50” the cashier tells you, handing it back swiped. You don’t get a chance to process the information but you think that $8.50 is too much for lunch, especially considering the quality of the bread. You try to recall the last time you paid with cash, thinking about how your sense of money and value has shifted in the last decade. When did everyone start paying with plastic? When did  that become normal? You can’t seem to pinpoint it.

Moving toward the plastic silverware, you steal more than your share of knives and take a handful of napkins. You briskly open the door with your back, hands full of food and utensils, hoping no one will yell at you. As you scale the steps of the building, you move toward the sunlight, heading for your building. You talk to yourself out-loud, unaware that someone’s coming down the steps: “Virtual is the moment we reflect on what we think. The moment we make reality in our own words. It’s a reality out of nothing but what we remember from our experience. And our experience is only what we make of it.” You think that’s pretty clever, but know it needs some work.

The woman coming down the steps makes awkward eye contact. You stop talking, not sure if she heard you. You’re pretty sure she speeds up as she passes. You wonder why you’re so weird. You decide that when you get to your office, first things first, you’re going to start writing. Get it all out. At the top of the steps you breathe in the sunny Florida air and you ask yourself: Is all thinking virtual? Is money only a thought? If so, what’s the value in thinking? And what’s the value in virtual?

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PLE's Value in Virtual by Nicholas A. Riggs is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.
Based on a work at nicholasariggs.wordpress.com.

Doing Away with Discipline: The Way of the Digital Scholar

In his 6th chapter, “Interdisciplinarity and Permeable Boundaries” in Digital Scholar: How Technology is Transforming Scholarly Practice, Martin Weller (2011) anchors the idea of Interdisciplinarity in digital practices that reshape society. Drawing from Chris Anderson, the current TED curator, he claims that “lightweight and unrestricted forms of communication found in many Web 2.0 tools may serve the needs of Interdisciplinarity to overcome existing disciplinary and geographical boundaries” (p. 2).

Weller suggests that open, digital, networked technologies are, in many ways, responsible for an “unexpected collision of distinct areas of study” (p. 2). To an increasing extent, digital culture permeates the walls of the ivory tower as technologies enable new practices, which “create[s] a common set of values, epistemological approaches and communication methods” that “override those of separate disciplines” (p. 3). Approaches to research emerge that refigure what it means to be a researcher as academic behaviors encompass more and more digital practices. Researchers adhere to new, emergent norms of discovery in their work, which often run counter to the traditional, fragmented, departmental models of an analog past. As a result, new pathways leading to different-yet-viable methods of knowledge production are formed, reshaping institutions and disciplines as they crystallize via publication. As scholars tread grounds beyond their familiar intellectual territory, pursuing innovative ideas outside of their academic home, they form alliances with others by way of new media. Blogs, social network sites, and Wikis evolve with scholars’ ideas as convergence cultivates creativity, play, and other forms of generative learning that cut across disciplinary boundaries.

This is a big deal for an academy structured around a model of institutionalized knowledge, which developed a fragmentary schema of disciplined study sometime in the mediaeval period. In the cliché words of Bob Dylan, “The times they are a changin’.”

For Weller, Interdisciplinarity goes beyond the physical constraints of pre-networked society where “Journals need[ed] to have an identified market to interest publishers, people need[ed] to be situated within a physical department in a university, [and] books [were] placed on certain shelves in book shops” (p. 2). Digital practices lead to virtual spaces where cultural norms and standards adhere to new possibilities, enabled by global networks of scholars who reform the functions of their trade and find innovative uses for new media tools leant to research efforts.

Problems in the academy arise when a clash of realities between digitally-oriented and analog-secure scholars lead to disagreements about rigor and relevance. Many scholars oriented toward tools of a pre-network society (i.e., analog technologies and traditional means of gaining public notoriety) remain unconvinced that digital practices can be rigorous or salient. As skeptical reactions toward Wikipedia’s credibility illustrate, many academic professionals who hold sway over tenure promotions and search committees remain suspicious of digital practices, distrusting the viability of knowledge that emerges through work that is digitally prodused under the cultural auspices of openness, free access, and quick turnover.

Interdisciplinarity is at once condoned when tied to emergent digital practices. Weller’s discourse frames the “schizophrenic attitude toward Interdisciplinarity” (p. 1) as a problem of exploding traditions.

He exposes a reality in the academy where scholars of an “old guard” who seek to defend the boundaries of institutional disciplines clutch to analog tools and methodological constraints of an old paradigm. The compendium of digital scholars entering the academy, as both students and new faculty, are forcing those who protect the standards of traditional approaches to yield their posts as they crash institutional gates with smartphonestabletsGoogle AnalyticsBlogger, and Twitter – all tools that diversify research audiences, amplify scholar’s messages, and ensure that scholarship has a larger impact when published.

In short, the digital difference in scholarship is Interdisciplinarity since digital practices break down barriers. With digital tools come digital practices and standards that academic institutions must take into account as they move into the future. Academic definitions of knowledge and discipline are forced to shift with a paradigm of practice that threatens the authority of institutions everywhere (see Weller’s discussion in Chp 3 regarding the music and newspaper industries).

In Weller’s view, Interdisciplinarity doesn’t only apply to academic work. In reference to blogs as a genre of writing that leads to inquiry, Weller suggests that the “personal mix is what renders blogs interesting” as he explains that, in one of his favorite blogs, the author “mixes thoughts on educational technology and advice on the blogging platform WordPress with meditations on B-horror films. The mix seems perfectly logical and acceptable within the norms of the blogging community” (p. 4). The takeaway here is that digital culture remixes other cultures, including the intelligentsia, and this leads to new social formations. Scholars reinforce altered practices of engagement, learning, and knowledge production with their research, regardless of its focus or content, as they use digital tools to conduct it.

This means that the academy is changing from the inside out—a centrifugal force pushing out old hierarchies as it makes way for new networks. As Benkler (2006) suggests in Wealth of Networks, there is value in these networks, which is derived from the network itself and the swarm that embodies it. New networks have their own energy, which establish new modes of evaluation, new means of discovery, and new ways of making meaning through human action that gnaw at the edges of disciplines keeping old hierarchies sturdy and analog identities intact.

As Weller notes in his 3rd chapter, “Lessons from Other Sectors”, academia should take note of alternative resources that lead to new forms of research and learning before it loses its institutional hold on knowledge as an ideological authority. While this may seem a bit pretentious, the everyday experiences of academics who utilize digital tools frequently reveal the pertinence of such a warning. As digital culture subsumes disciplinary culture, Interdisciplinarity becomes more of a reality and ideological apparatuses are reshaped to fit “the social classes at the grips in the class struggle” (Althusser, 1970). The “weakness of the other elements in the ‘university bundle’ could become apparent, and the attractiveness of the university system is seriously undermined” (Weller, 2011, Chp. 3, p. 8) if traditions remain carved in blocks of stone.

Digital practices chip away at those stones.

The networked foundation for digital scholars’ work gives them the stability and solidarity to tackle complex, societal issues in ways that “old guard” academics never imagined possible. As a result, they may find their efforts having a greater practical impact outside of academia because institutional standards fail to adapt. This is a dismal attitude to take towards schools, which have made technological development and intellectual growth possible for an eon. However, as Weller warns, we should not confuse “higher education with the university system” (Chp. 6, p. 1); people will find a way to accrue new knowledge in any way available, and if that means subverting the dominant, traditional university system, so be it. The integrated perspective of Interdisciplinary pedagogy that Weller draws from Ernest Boyer, which makes “connections across the disciplines, placing the specialties in a larger context, illuminating data a revealing way, often educating non-specialists” (p. 1), is more hopeful than the critical view taken by many scholars caught up in the current system. This may be because hard working academics who strive to climb social hierarchies do not stand in solidarity together.

It is no lie that many graduate students and untenured scholars are bent on dismantling the good work of their brethren, who have spent a lifetime building the best stocks of knowledge they can in contribution to their discipline. In the end, these scholars belabor tired points in graduate seminars and faculty meetings, more concerned with asserting their self-centered agendas and personal politics as a way of accruing social capital, rather than fostering ongoing dialogue amongst their colleagues that would lead to new ideas and innovative inquiry. Digital practices tap networks that provide academics with outlets to collaborate unilaterally and avoid the traps of corporate machinery embedded in the institution, nullifying the need to burn bridges and step on toes as one makes their way in academia.

The limiting scope that arises when scholars squabble over methods of research, play tug-o-war with the line over authority, and willfully thicken tensions that arise between “hard” and “soft” sciences is perhaps the very reason why Interdisciplinary work evokes a laugh when suggested as a bonafide approach to research. Weller sees diversity as nothing to fight over. The habits of discipline are hard to break “and interdisciplinary work requires transcending unconscious habits of thought” (p. 2). Scholars who commune through digital practices begin speaking new, integrated languages that bridge gaps between research agendas rather than widen disciplinary lacunas. This is because, in their practical nature, digital technologies dismantle boundaries of institutionalized thought, not thoughts of institutionalized scholars.

So what would Weller’s Interdisciplinary model of higher education look like?

I asked my girlfriend this question after I finished reading Weller’s book. We both have different opinions about what counts as research. You might say that we both have trouble transcending disciplinary habits. While we both attended liberal arts universities in our undergraduate studies, our affiliations as graduate students differ. I study Communication, so I consider myself a humanities scholar; she dons the tag “social scientist” as she studies Applied Anthropology.

In our conversation, I envisioned a school where scholars work together to diversify fields of interest and broaden student perspectives. Explaining my ideas, I began brainstorming for a curriculum that put Interdisciplinarity at the center of pedagogy, instead of the margin.

At first she was intrigued by my excitement.

“Could you imagine it? … What if, as an undergrad, you could take classes that blended different areas of study? Something like, “Environmental Ecology and Spirituality”, “Statistics and Performance”, “Graphic Information Systems and Food Cultures” or “Creative Writing and Biochemistry”. How cool would that be?”

Her expression went from hopeful to disturbed. “Everyone would be really confused,” she said.

Perhaps.

But I don’t see that as a bad thing. Then again, I’m a digital scholar.

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PLE's Doing Away with Discipline: The Way of the Digital Scholar by Nicholas A. Riggs is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.
Based on a work at nicholasariggs.wordpress.com.