[-empyre-] post for convergence

katherine hayles nk_hayles at yahoo.com
Fri Jun 11 18:31:23 EST 2010

Thanks to Senom Yalcin for your question about blogs as meeting tenure requirements in academia.  To a certain extent, university presses have become a kind of de facto credentialing agency for university personnel decisions:  if a book has been accepted by a reputable press, it's a strong argument for being worthy of tenure.  A blog, on the other hand, even an influential blog such as, say, Ron Silliman's on contemporary poetry, is self-published and has no such imprimatur.  I could see a blog being presented as a credential, but my guess is that it would at best supplement, not replace, requirements for peer-reviewed publications.  At stake here (leaving aside the major issue of someone's livelihood) is the self-reinforcing nature of the academy, the tradition of peer review (which is cogently criticized in Gary Hall's "Digitize this book!"), and the entire system that has accreted around publication as an academic credential.   In my own view,
 the academy will be forced to change, but I also think that change will come slowly, and that many people will be chewed up in the transition.   The more general form of this issue is the evaluation of work in digital media in general--websites devoted to research issues, publication in online journals, etc.  Here the picture is more promising.  A lot of professional organizations (such as the Modern  Language Association) have issued guidelines for academics on how to review and evaluate such work, and departments seem (slowly) to be coming around.
On the question of what issues arise with transformed cognition, in my view this isn't just a pressing question but a crisis.  It's here with us, right now, and educators at all levels would do well to be thinking seriously about effective pedagogical strategies.  The evidence now seems unmistakable:  reading extensively on the web has strong neurological consequences.  To sum up this research:  web reading catalyzes greater pattern recognition, increased spatial facility, and greater flexibility in noticing and responding to different information flows.  It also leads to a distracted kind of reading in which (compared to print)  information is not processed as fully, remembered as long, or integrated as much into one's existing mental schemas (held in long term memory).  A crucial factor seems to be the limits of working memory (what is held in consciousness), and how much of the contents of working memory can be transferred to long-term
 memory.  The evidence suggests that the low-level activities of Web reading (clicking links, navigating websites, etc.), small as they are, nevertheless increase the cognitive load and therefore decrease the effectiveness with which information can be processed.  For young people who read primarily on the Web, these habits bleed over into print as well--that is, print material is now being read as if it were on the Web:  quickly skimmed and not retained very well or for very long.  The brain's neural plasticity is such that these changes are creating anatomical transformations that take place in everyone who spends a lot of time online (including me), although they are most acute for young people and children.   These results are of course statistical averages, and no doubt there are a lot of variations that don't follow these patterns (for example, readers who turn to the web for in-depth analyses, which are read as if they were print).  But
 still, the evidence is very strong that a massive shift is taking place in how attention operates and how our brains are being re-wired to distribute it differently.  

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