Natalia Cecire at Works Cited wrote a great post called “Attention and Length” in response to Zunguzungu’s criticism of the NYTimes’ discussion of tenure, where she talks about how the quality of an online conversation is a function of how it balances length with the internet reader’s legendarily short attention-span. In replying to her post I realized I was exceeding—oh irony!—the parameters of attention and length appropriate to a comment. So I’ve moved the entire mess here.

To catch you up: ZZ points out that the NYTimes (among its many hamhanded missteps) limited the five opinion pieces on tenure to 350 words, which pretty much guaranteed a superficial treatment of a notoriously complex issue. The word-limit was an unnecessary constraint since space on the internet is cheap-to-free. Natalia writes that the real constraint on cyber-writing isn’t space; it’s attention.
There is certainly a culture of the internet that privileges the short form, and culture is very, very strong.

Yup. This is such an interesting conundrum. Personally, I think internet culture is in late adolescence and, having stuffed itself silly on Mars Bars, tacos, Youtube and porn, begins to crave something a little more substantial. It wants porn, but it wants late-night talks about Nietzsche and the meaning of life too. The  apparent success of iTunes U, TED videos and other load-bearing long-form tools leads me to hope that a similar tolerance (thanks to Kindles too, as Natalia says) will develop for written content. Someday, TL;DR may stop describing (and perpetuating) the outer limits of our attention spans online.

That’s a sunny vision, but one I believe in precisely because the internet is one of the only formats that can allow for the “depth of discussion”  ZZ  missed in the NYTimes forum. The kind of discussion, in fact, that he and Natalia have had, and which I’m jumping into here.

Natalia turns her take on this to academic writing, a genre where the vigorous exchange of ideas is a Holy Grail mired in a no-man’s land. Attention, length and the time elapsed from writing to publication all make a discussion practically impossible. As an academic, you might see something you wrote published as much as a year later, by which time (if you hope to keep your job) you’ve started work on something else and probably lost interest in it. Maybe someone else will find what you said interesting, but for you the scent is cold (or cooling). A dialogue under these conditions is plainly impossible; a series of monologues is all this easily allows.

Digital humanists are tackling the temporal aspect of this problem with verve—Hack the Academy was an effort to produce a book in a week. It’s an interesting project. I contributed, although I’m still not sure why they felt the need to call what they produced a book. Seems like quite the wrong vehicle for what they’re crafting.

If the digital humanities become a reality, articles will probably get shorter. (Not the worst thing in the world—I’d welcome a more vibrant intellectual culture that beefed up Notes & Queries, which at least signal genuine engagement.) Again, I’m okay with that, although I’m leery of a troubling tendency toward making speed a virtue in its own right.  What I like about the digital humanities as an enterprise, though, is its interest in redefining the work of the scholar (known for its profound isolation) as an ongoing conversation.

Because here’s the thing: the lack of venues that permit “depth of discussion” is systemic. Natalia’s analogy to the MLA roundtable is uncomfortably apt, and shows how challenging it is to find a format that can host a conversation of substance. (I’ll have something to say in this connection about the Journolist kerfuffle, which shows  how tempting such a conversation can be, and how intoxicating.)

To get biographical for a minute: I’ve been to exactly one conference and it struck me as a waste of time, largely because of the unsuitability of the medium for the message. For some reason we’ve refused, in the academy, to acknowledge the important difference between how we process language that’s *heard* vs. language that’s *read*. The chief concession the conference makes to this changed circumstance pertains to length—a conference paper will be shorter! (Much like writing on the internet! And just as unrewarding.)

We continue to operate under the absurd premise that fifteen people sitting in a room will be able to absorb and respond to a piece of dense academic prose after a single hearing. This is not something we train for, nor is it something we do well, but the format persists.

In refusing to adapt to the demands of what is, in essence, a classroom (and we are teachers!), the conference consigns us to an endless cycle of unsatisfying intellectual encounters. (Somehow the lecture—a more friendly beast, and one that we use to launch real discussions in our own classrooms—has been deemed inadequate.) No wonder the scholars that take the trouble to “translate” their written work into something that can be delivered orally are so successful. It’s  refreshing, after watching speaker after speaker look up blankly from her stapled sheets, to hear from someone who seems as interested in actually engaging an audience as s/he is in performing the dull rituals of professionalization.

Of course, giving the audience free rein isn’t the answer either. Anyone who’s been to a department meeting knows that two hundred professors in a room without the “shut-up-and-listen” rule is a recipe for something uncanny and infinite, a cross between Borel’s monkeys and Schrodinger’s cat.


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