Answer: They wield enormous (and terrifying) power, yet  they are ill-adapted to function in a changing environment.

In most corners of society, it’s a become a trope to say that the Internet has changed everything; but online communication is still far from integrated into the norms and practices of the academy, whose pace of change and adaptation is nothing less than glacial.  Anyone familiar with academic careers knows that conventional (read print) journal publications are the be-all end-all criterion in evaluating potential hires—the meaning behind the well-worn cliché: “publish or perish.”

The practice of using journal articles as the sole criterion in evaluating an academic’s productivity is an artifact of an epoch long-passed.  In the age of the printing press, journals were, by far, the most efficient and enduring form of communication.  They enabled disciplines to have thoughtful conversations spanning decades and continents.  They also facilitated the transmission of the knowledge produced through these conversations to younger generations.  In fact, it is nearly impossible to imagine the emergence of Modern science without existence of this medium. Thus, in the beginning, journals become symbolically and ritually important because they were functionally necessary. (While journals were medium du jour during Durkheim’s productive years, he surely would have recognized the reason behind their status in the cult of the academic.)

Today, academia finds itself in a state of hysteresis (à la Bourdieu); that is say, our habits have become maladapted to the field or environment in which they are performed.  Let us consider recent developments in the nature of academic discourse. Fifty years ago, the democratization of commercial flight made face-to-face communication between professionals in various disciplines a reality.  Conferences becomes a more rapid and efficient method of communicating ideas—but, this form communication was not durable.  Thus, the conference proceeding emerged as a supplementary medium to compensate for the shortcomings of face-to-face communication.  In some younger or more progressive disciplines, proceedings have been elevated to a status akin to that journals.  These proceedings are printed, circulated, and come to occupy the shelves of offices and libraries across country, if not the world.  And, for many decades, this was the only way to transmit and store the content of conferences.

In the proceeding two decades, however, the practical justifications for the production of print journals or conference proceedings has evaporated in light of the Internet’s emergence.  These vestigial organs of the academy should have slowly withered away, becoming fossilized in archives. Yet, print media remain firmly entrenched, retaining all their symbolic significance, while lacking any of their earlier practical import.  Our cult-like worship of print media is far from benign; the privileging of the print over the digital, in fact, has the opposite effect than was originally intended.  Instead of facilitating the rapid dissemination of ideas, it hinders it.  Print is a solid, heavy medium (as Bauman explains); it travels slowly and is expensive to reproduce.  Digital information is liquid and light; it travels instantaneously and is free to reproduce.

It would be superficial, however, to simply criticize print article (and to promote digital articles).  The article itself an artifact of print media and native to that form.  There ought to be a debate within the academy that seriously considers whether the article optimally utilizes the potential of digital platforms.  Are there more effective, indigenously digital mode of communication?  Is the article a undead corpse, reanimated to inhabit the digital realm?  Of course, this is a loaded question—no doubt exaggerated by the fact that the medium currently in use is an indigenously digital blog, not an article.

De facto, academics in every discipline are utilizing blogs, Twitter, video, and other “new media” to communicate their ideas (and, incidentally, to communicate them to much wider—read interdisciplinary and lay—audiences). De jure, however, we still valorize the article, particularly, the print article.  Who/what suffers? Young academics, socially-active academics, the quality of conversation within the academy, and any layperson or lay-community who stands benefit from the fruits of academic knowledge.  Who benefits? Those entrenched in the old system, whose habits are better suited to yesteryear and who still have sufficient power to resist within the academy to resist any change in the standards of evaluation.  What can we do?  It’s time for the a younger generation and those on the outside to fight our way on to hiring committees.  It’s time for us to establish a unified agenda that involves developing more expansive and inclusive criteria for evaluation.  It’s time (as Patricia Hill Collins once said) to leverage our power as “outsiders within”—to learn to function, even thrive, within the system as we systematically work to reform it.

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