People, in particular readers, are so busy obsessing over the aesthetics of reading from an electronic device that they never even inquire about what electronics has done to books. They never had awareness in the first place of how books were published. Books just materialized as objects on a shelf with no history at all, unless you’re talking about the biography of the author. But in fact, the internet has completely remade publishing. One does not print out a manuscript and send it (return postage included but not glued to the return self-addressed envelope) to be stacked in a slush pile. There is no slush pile. Publishers have laid off their editors, who are now agents and acquire possible manuscripts by reading the first three pages of an email submission. Then delete. Actually, a smart agent reads small journals or self-published books with good sales figures, which may or may not be related to the quality of the writing. More likely the drive of the author to sell. Or the recommendation of the marketing department.
There is no warehouse, no shipping dock, no book returns (did you know that bookstores can send back to the publisher all unsold books?), no remainders, no pulping. In fifty years how many used books? Recently the Pentagon bought the entire 10,000-copy first edition of a book critical of them, in order to prevent readers from getting it. But printing that many paper books is old-fashioned. Next time there will be no physical stacks of books to buy. The Pentagon negotiated for a second printing to be made, with the changes they want, which can be easily done since since the type-setting is on the computer. Soon there will be no second or third or fourth printings, but a publisher could supply unique editions of any book to fit any stipulations. One version for the Pentagon, one version for you. Censorship is already preparing to move online.
Universities are also still largely unconscious of the difference the internet makes. If one can get the lectures on YouTube and books on Amazon, why would one want to go pay huge amounts of money to a university? (Of course, my cousins went to university to find prosperous husbands, but online dating services could be made more upscale.)
One could interpret the original colleges as a development of monasteries where books were written out by hand in a community sequestered to concentrate on theology and medicine. Gutenburg was the troublemaker that time, releasing books to the masses. Because books are so transformed by electronic technology, so are all book-based pursuits, particularly theology, medicine, and law.
This is also driven by economics. Universities become more and more burdened with the need for money in order to maintain the status quo, which craves endowment for both expensive buildings and libraries. Rules have been made to protect the professors (tenure) but demographics mean that sometimes there are too many of them and other times there are too few.
Emphasis has moved from the classroom to research. Suddenly one must acquire a “quality” education by going profoundly into debt at the same time that the usefulness of the degrees is questioned, the validity of those highly paid occupations is challenged, and the high status has gone through a trapdoor. Science, due to new insights from computer-enabled analysis (DNA, physics, climate) is also quite transformed. Humanities, now required to be global instead of the elevation of British tradition, has become hell-raising as post-this-or-that or hides behind the door of a million footnotes relevant to nothing.
Mark C. Taylor’s Op-Ed in The New York Times on April 27, 2009, gave a quick summary of his newly published book, “Crisis on Campus: A Bold Plan for Reforming our Colleges and Universities.” (You can get it on Kindle.) This man is like Bertrand Russell on steroids, an old-fashioned polymath but internet-hip friend of Derrida (what a troublemaker) who grips things like religion and cuts the crap. He’s the head of his religion department at Columbia and publishes at the U of Chicago Press. Now he’s on my list of people to follow. He’s even handsome!
This too-short list of his ideas, all strike me as absolutely on-target. “Cloning” by requiring students to conform to their advisors and burnish their tenured careers is over. Departments, divvying subjects up in the medieval pigeonholes, are over. Using students as slave labor (in grad school or as adjuncts) is over. Black box research beyond the purview of anyone is over.
Here’s the positive version:
1. Restructure the curriculum so that it is a complex adaptive web, a network that clusters around issues like “the role of religion in society” and has a care for method. (Martin Marty undoubtedly knows this guy.)
2. Departments should have sunset clauses and be renegotiated every seven years, like Old Testament debt. This moves the emphasis from the status quo to process, which makes study far more responsive to actual issues like water in an age of warmiing.
3. Increase collaboration among institutions. He seems to mean crossing international boundaries for university partnerships. I can see collaboration between kinds of institutions.
4. “Transform the traditional dissertation.” Publication at present is simply waste and the scholarly certification is a mockery. Why must dissertations be in print? Why can’t they be cross-media?
5. The PhD as teaching certificate is obsolete. What else can you do? Business, NGO’s, art, government?
6. Mandatory retirement with tenure replaced by seven-year contracts.
Bottom line, a quote: “Do not do what I do; rather, take whatever I have to offer and do with it what I could never imagine doing and then come back and tell me about it.”
Terrifying. Necessary. It will happen anyway, even if a gun is held to our heads, because life is a process. There is no tenure in life. There are no books so brilliant that they change lives . . . Hey, wait. There are. The problem is finding them, which is why I’m pointing at this one. Some are not print, but images. After all, if someone is out there who really understands Derrida rather than interpreting him as a weapon of mass destruction, I want to spread the news. (I still don’t understand Derrida myself in spite of a U of Chicago master’s degree.)
I used to speak in sermons about “harrowing,” meaning both a frightening experience and the literal ground-breaking that we in Valier know well as the planting of seeds. It’s not comfortable. I wish it weren’t done in such straight lines — good conservationists know to contour their plow lines to prevent erosion. I wish they didn’t poison out weeds and ground squirrels or use chemical fallow (kill EVERYTHING in the plot so no moisture will be drawn out of the ground). I wish that commercially owned seeds were banned. It was grain that made cities possible, cities that made universities possible, and now the internet has made something entirely new possible. I can sit here in my back bedroom and — hey, I wonder if Mark C. Taylor is on YouTube!
NOT! What the . . .