What Happened to our Academic Culture?

Universities – along with their centers, departments, and colleges – vary greatly in the vibrancy of their respective academic culture (intellectual climate). Nevertheless, no university can be complacent about the vitality of their culture for academic excellence – least they lose it.

Of course, there is no single academic culture. There are differences in the values, attitudes, and priorities of academics cross-culturally and at teaching versus research institutions, for example, but some of the same questions are relevant: Are the faculty and students engaged with each other over important issues and questions in their fields? Are they open to new ideas, but also are they actively scouting for new ideas in areas close and far from their primary areas of study or research? Do colleagues exhibit a healthy analytical skepticism – questioning the validity of assumptions and arguments, regardless of their prominence among their colleagues or their field as a whole?

Arguably, if you feel that you need to build an academic culture at your institution, you might have already lost it. But in many respects, even institutions with a strong academic culture need to continue building on their success, and not taking it for granted. There are too many pressures in modern academe across all institutions to ignore the forces that could undermine the openness and engagement of academics.

Competition for Time and Attention

These pressures include a nearly universal sense of increasing time pressures. Traditional images of the academic sitting comfortably reading while smoking a pipe seem increasingly romantic to academics multi-tasking online to handle never ending streams of email, deadlines, reviews, and the pressures to publish. Time to think and write seems to be shrinking for many if not most and not only among early career scholars, but across the range of temporary, fixed term, and tenure-track faculty. With attention appearing to be spread more widely across multiple demands, it is understandably difficult to take the time out to have lunch with a colleague, meet with students, go to a seminar outside your immediate area, listen to a lecture, or even read a book!

Unfortunately, this can lead academics to prioritize their activities in ways that can be counter-productive, such as going only to seminars central one’s areas of research and teaching, if at all. However, it is so often the case that it is in a seminar outside of one’s immediate areas of interest that you can find new ideas, new methodological approaches, and analogies with one’s own research. Many activities that appear unproductive, such as having a relaxed lunch with colleagues, are central to building an academic culture. For example, you learn about developments outside of your normal field of view, or discover how to better explain your own work.

A risk is that a focus on publishing can lead to more of a culture of production than a more genuine academic culture. A production culture could lead to publishing more work, but in a day when virtually anything can get published, this can undermine the quality of the academic process, such as leading us to do more incremental versus more innovative research, in addition to creating an academic treadmill for yourself and your colleagues.

Change in Collaborative Research Practices

A related driving force is a move from the traditional model of the lone scholar to more team oriented research collaboration. There is a degree to which a lone scholar values interaction with colleagues, such as over lunch or through seminars, as a stimulating approach to their own thinking. As academics move more into collaborative teams, often distributed geographically, they are more engaged in communication online and offline with their team, potentially undermining the attraction and value of spending more relaxed time with colleagues that are not closely tied to their work. Of course, the resources available online for collaboration and research generally are enabling individuals to work on their own in more productive ways, but nevertheless, there is arguably more reliance on distributed team research that can supplant more informal collaboration (Dutton and Jeffreys 2010).

Of course, the move to online collaboration and teaching creates more pressures. It might be easier to meet with people at a distance, but this means we meet more often and about more things. Online courses might make life easier for students, but they are harder for teachers to produce, and put more pressures on the time of academics. But as they are a new source of revenue for universities, and a means for increasing the productivity of faculty, these pressures will increase, or create more teams for the delivery of courses, which reshape the collaborative culture of teaching as well as research (Dutton and Loader 2000).

Jobs, Jobs, Jobs: a Focus on Careers versus a Liberal Education

Another pressure is the move of many universities to focus more on ensuring that their graduates get good jobs rather than a liberal education. Decades ago, I was intrigued by arguments that a university should train students for their ultimate job, and not simply their first job. I wasn’t sure if it was right, but it certainly seemed closer to what universities did in trying to provide a liberal education to students on how to do such things as communicate, listen, reason, appreciate new cultures, create new ideas and approaches to old ideas, and challenge conventional thinking. But as more pressure is placed on more universities to train students for their first career if not their first job, the priority of a liberal education diminishes and so do aspects of university life tied to an academic culture. Of course, this focus on a student’s first career is problematic when students are likely to have not just multiple jobs, but multiple careers over the course of their working life.

From the Ivory Tower and into a Political Cockpit

Another pressure worth mentioning is the politicization of education, including universities. In the US, for example, there is a growing disparity of trust in universities across political parties (Geiger 2016). Universities seem to be increasingly lumped into a category of liberal-elite institutions that are out of touch with popular criticism of the status quo. As politics becomes more prevalent and perceived as more partisan in the climate of universities, it is possible that universities might become less open and more self-conscious about expressing viewpoints, such as on politically sensitive issues. Moreover, as competition between industries – which often cuts more deeply than politics – becomes more politicized, such as in the EU and US, then there are even greater political tensions in the Ivory Tower that can undermine free and open inquiry. Already in the USA, it is difficult to get federal funding for policy research, given the partisan concerns that surround funding decisions and research outcomes.

To Build a Culture from Yourself Up

The pressures of the digital age, the economic imperatives to train for jobs, and the growing political visibility of academia might combine to undermine academic cultures across many institutions of higher education. This makes it even more important to constantly think about building the academic culture of your institution. Don’t be defensive – this is a general problem, not just a swipe at your institution, but more of a note to myself.

There are steps you can take. My suggestions are first to start with your own willingness to take the time to engage, participate, and be open to and challenging ideas in areas close to and also far from your primary areas of inquiry. The moment you hear yourself think that you are not interested in a topic, that is the moment you should make an extra effort to engage, hear more, and see what you can learn. An academic culture can’t be driven from the top-down, or required by the instructor. But an academic can teach by example. So make an open, inquisitive, skeptical academic culture your priority, and other good things will happen.

References

Dutton, W. H. and Loader, B. D. (2002) (eds.), Digital Academe: New Media and Institutions in Higher Education and Learning, London: Taylor & Francis/Routledge.

Dutton, W. H., and Jeffreys, P. (2010) (eds), World Wide Research: Reshaping the Sciences and Humanities. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Geiger, A. (2016), From Universities to Churches, Republicans and Democrats Differ in Views of Major Institutions, Factank, September 26th. Available online here.

Pack Journalism – Digitally Networked

Digitally Networked Pack Journalism

Pack journalism is not only alive and well in the digital age, it is arguably more prominent than it could ever be in the analogue era of print journalism. There is clearly a need for multi-disciplinary research on the sociology and politics of digitally enabled pack journalism.

The concept of pack journalism was coined in the midst of the Nixon-McGovern election campaigns of 1972 through observations made of journalists riding on the campaign buses, leading to the book entitled The Boys on the Bus by Timothy Crouse (Random House 1973).

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It is not difficult to imagine how reporters travelling together on a campaign bus would interact in ways that shaped the definition of the story and undermine the diversity of viewpoints that might otherwise emerge from multiple reporters covering the same campaign. Recall Kurt and Gladys Lang’s classic, Television and Politics, which demonstrated how different people watching the same parade or demonstration would have very different perspectives from different vantage points, such as being there in person versus watching it on television. Despite blogging and Tweets galore, the news is likely to present one perspective on a demonstration, as well as most other political events, as journalists are more networked – not just on the bus, but – nationally and globally, than ever before possible.

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Pack journalism was seen as a problem as it created a more homogeneous coverage of stories, but it also homogenizes the news agenda, every paper covering the same story in similar ways. This is dangerous in creating a sense of THE news agenda and THE truth about a story, rather than a healthier view of multiple perspectives on the news. It is important to remember that TV is still king, and sets the agenda for most other media.

The driving forces behind networked pack journalism are not simply technical, but also economic and socio-political. As news organizations are more financially stressed, in part due to the rise of online and the decline of revenues for traditional media outlets, then reporters are more likely to rely more than ever on other journalists. This is not only a recipe for more reliance on press releases, what has been called ‘churnalism’ rather than original reporting, but also for reliance on the increasingly networked pack of journalistic reporting. It saves money and time. News organizations are also increasingly operating in a highly partisan setting in which journalists might well be increasingly concerned with how their stories are politically categorized. It is safe to travel in the company of other journalists, creating another incentive to stick with the pack, or packs, as in the polarized news political news coverage of today.

Good journalists are alert to the value of diversity in reporting, but it is possible for even good journalists to drift into pack journalism without being aware of the degree there interaction with their peers is homogenizing the news. So beware of pack journalism in the digital age. The ‘boys on the bus’ are an anachronism, but pack journalism is not, and could well be an even greater problem in the digital age of networking.

In this respect, I would argue a need for more multidisciplinary research on the networking of journalists. This requires sociologists, academics in Internet studies, political scientists, and others to study how journalists use networks and with what effect on the diversity or homogeneity of the news. With all the attention being directed on how Internet users are networked into echo chambers, or filter bubbles, it is surprising indeed that journalists are not a stronger focus of critical research.

References

Timothy Crouse (1973), The Boys on the Bus (New York: Random House).

Kurt Lang, and Gladys Engel Lang, Politics and Television (Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1968).

Notes to Pundits of the Trump-Russia Stories: If you were my students …

Sorry if this sounds patronizing, as you are stellar journalists and politicians, but if you were my students, writing a paper for a college class, what would I say?

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teaching commons.stanford.edu

I would definitely give you points for effort, and creativity, but would mark your work down on its analytical precision. Happy for you to come in during an office hour, but briefly, let me give you a few examples of my concerns. Apologies in advance for these quick notes.

First, take your vague attributions, which change over time. Who is responsible for meddling with the 2016 US Presidential election? Is it hackers in Russia, Russian oligarchs, Russian nationals, Russians, government hackers, agent’s of the government, the government, the highest levels of government, or President Putin? Your essays keep veering across these various actors. You must see that it makes a difference, so you must be more precise to be credible.

Likewise, what did they do – what was the meddling? Did they hack into email of the DNC, RNC, John Podesta, or others; gain access to county voter registration files; change voter registration files; meet with members of the campaign; loan money (at some point in the past) to members of the campaign; compromise members of the campaign; pass material to WikiLeaks, or one or more of the above? Your discussions keep shifting from one to another accusation as if this were a shell game.

When did this happen? Was it during the 2016 elections, happening now, or is it something that is likely to happen in the future? When you sometimes veer toward the future, it undermines your case.

Where is the evidence? Is it simply based on authority, the intelligence agencies, all of whom happen to agree, even when they seldom or ever confirm or deny anything? Is there evidence beyond hearsay? [By the way, you should not equate the heads of intelligence agencies with scientists, or doubts over Russian interference with climate change denial, as the analogy so flawed that it further undermines your credibility.]

Finally, in line with a major problem with undergraduate writing today, is it something that you often just feel is right? As you would have heard me say in class time and again, your feelings don’t count.

So you can see that given all the possible permutations of who did what, when and where, and all without strong evidence, the essays end up in an analytical muddle. You’ve constructed a wicked problem out of a set of vague accusations that are not critically assessed.

This would be funny if your work did not have such serious consequences. [I should add you do get high marks for impact.] And the impact will last decades and shape governmental institutions in the US in major ways, such as with respect to the role of Congress in foreign policy.

Finally, it would have been good to focus on some things that could be done to avoid the risks you identify, such as shoring up cyber security in all aspects of campaigns and elections, and not moving to electronic voting – a plea that has been made for well over a decade. [See Barbara Simons’ work, for example, who has been warning people about the difficulties of securing electronic voting systems for decades.] You might also reinforce the wisdom of how decentralized voting systems are in the US, meaning that there is no one system, even in a single state, and the need to keep it that way.

That said, great effort, well written, and convincingly spoken, but I regret to say that I cannot give you high marks on your work. And apologies for not addressing every individual journalist and politician talking about the Trump-Russia story, as that would not be possible given the number of you that chose this topic. Nevertheless, as a group, try to focus on developing a more analytically rigorous argument, and ensure that your evidence drives your conclusions rather than the opposite.

 

Talks in Europe on Quello Center’s Search and Politics Project

I had a fascinating and challenging week in Europe speaking about the Quello Center’s work on search and politics. The findings of our project, called ‘The Part Played by Search in Shaping Public Opinion’, suggested that concerns over fake news, echo chambers, and filter bubbles is ‘overhyped and underresearched’. The project was supported by Google, and the findings and methodology are publicly available online (see references), along with the slides I adapted for each of the particular talks. The slides are posted here: https://www.slideshare.net/WHDutton/search-and-politics-fake-news-echo-chambers-and-filter-bubbles-july2017

In Paris, on the 10th and 11th, I was able to speak at a UNESCO Knowledge Café for a seminar chaired by the Director for Freedom of Expression and Media Development, Guy Berger, for UNESCO staff, which included UNESCO’s Xianhong Hu. I then met with members of the French Audio Visual Regulator, the Conseil Supérieur de l’Audiovisuel (CSA); and then members of the Ministère de la Culture (Ministry of Culture); and gave a lecture at Sciences Po, which was jointly organized by Thierry Vedel for the MediaLab and CEVIPOF. I was also able to meet over lunch with a former colleague in the President’s office at the French National Commission on Informatics and Liberty (CNIL), which is central to data protection in France.

On the 12th, I was in Rome, where I first spoke at a roundtable over a wonderful lunch at the Centro Studi Americani – the Center for American Studies. That evening, I spoke on the Terrazza dei Cesari with members of YouTrend, an organization of political communicators in Italy, which was picked up by over a thousand on a Facebook Live video stream. The talk was sandwiched by an aperitif and dinner, and sequentially translated.

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Centro Studi Americani

My last stop was in Berlin, where I was able to meet at the Ministry for Culture with representatives of the state media authorities, representing the German Lander. I finished my talks with a roundtable at the Alexander von Humboldt Institute für Internet und Gesellschaft (HIIG – Germany’s first Internet Institute), chaired by Professor Dr. Wolfgang Schulz and joined by Professor Dr. Dr. Ingolf Pernice. As a member of HIIG’s Advisory Committee, it was great to end my trip with a sense of the quality and diversity of faculty, fellows and visitors at the Institute.

This week was an incredible opportunity for me to convey the results of our research. I want to thank all of those who helped organize and attended these events; thank my colleagues on the project, including Grant Blank, Elizabeth Dubois, and Bibi Reisdorf, along with our graduate assistants, Sabrina Ahmed and Craig Robertson; and thank our colleagues at Google for their confidence in our project.

I must say that I was unable to convince many of those involved in these talks that the panics over fake news, filter bubbles and echo chambers have been overhyped. Despite evidence on the many ways that Internet users are likely to mitigate these problems, such as in consulting multiple sources of information about politics, many politicians, regulators and scholars remain very concerned.

I spoke to each group about the ways evidence can fail to change views on these issues as an example of how many divisions in society are not due to filtered or biased information, but to real divisions in opinion. These panics are powerful for several reasons, including the attraction of technologically deterministic perspectives, the role of a confirmatory self-selection or dismissal of evidence, and the role of the third-person effect – I’m okay, but others are likely to be fooled.

References

Dutton, W. H. Talking Points that Formed the Basis for the Talks in Europe: https://www.slideshare.net/WHDutton/search-and-politics-fake-news-echo-chambers-and-filter-bubbles-july2017

Dutton, W.H., Reisdorf, B.C., Dubois, E., and Blank, G. (2017), Search and Politics: The Uses and Impacts of Search in Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Spain, and the United States, Quello Center Working Paper available on SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2960697

Dutton, W.H. (2017), ‘Fake News, Echo Chambers, and Filter Bubbles: Underresearched and Overhyped’: https://theconversation.com/fake-news-echo-chambers-and-filter-bubbles-underresearched-and-overhyped-76688

Dutton, W. H. (2017), ‘Bubblebusters’, NESTA. http://readie.eu/bubblebusters-countering-fake-news-filter-bubbles-and-echo-chambers/

 

Evidence of Benefits from Opening the White House Press Briefings via Skype Seats

I’ve argued on this blog that the idea of enabling the press to ask questions from outside the White House Press Office, in fact, outside the Washington DC Beltway, was a good idea. Some anecdotal evidence is being reported that the strategy is working. USA Today reported that over 13 White House press briefings, Sean Spicer has taken questions ‘from 32 outside-the-Beltway outlets’. This is a great example of using the Internet to enable more distributed participation. The Washington press is obviously defensive when people complain about the ‘media bubble’ in the briefing room, but the potential for what was once called ‘pack journalism’ is real, and location matters. Geographically distributing contributions is symbolically and materially opening the briefings up to more diversity of viewpoints and issues. th-1

Inevitably, more voices means more competition among the journalists in asking questions. But there are already too many in the room, and why it is fair to give more access to the outlets that can afford to station staff in Washington DC is not clear to me. That said, the Skype seats will always be the cheap seats, and be less likely to get their turn in the question and answer sessions.

My earlier post is here.

Twitter Diplomacy Not Going Away: Taiwan Joins the Twittersphere

I’ve written/blogged about the inevitable rise of digital diplomacy, and the need to adapt to it. President Donald Trumps’ use of Twitter is testing the patience of the foreign policy community in particular, setting many against the wisdom of his use of Twitter, and the value of digital diplomacy in general.

However, this morning’s New York Times piece about the use of Twitter by the President of Taiwan, President Tsai Ing-wen, is an illustration of its significance, and likely growth. As Taiwan is working against efforts to marginalize the country and even ‘muffle’ news and information about the nation, Twitter is offering the President a means to go global with tweets in English to reach foreign journalists and others within and beyond Taiwan’s borders, including Chinese netizens around the world. th

Interestingly, despite the legends of politicians ranting about President Trump using Twitter, most of those complaining – it seems – tweet!

*See Chris Horton (2017), “Muffled by China, Taiwan’s President Employs Twitter as a Megaphone“, New York Times, 7 July: A6.

My Endorsement of ‘Sharing: Crime Against Capitalism’ by Matthew David

‘Through a remarkably broad cross-industry synthesis, Matthew David demonstrates how information industries could benefit by adjusting market mechanisms to support the vitality of sharing-based economies. Anyone with a serious interest in intellectual property policy and practice should read this provocative case for building business models around sharing.’
William H. Dutton, Quello Professor of Media and Information Policy, Michigan State University

Information about Matthew David’s new book, entitled Sharing: Crime Against Capitalism (Polity Press 2017) can be found here.