Technology and the Professor’s Future

The real revolution in higher education might not come from OWS; it might come from the iPad and Kindle.

Change might be coming to higher education faster than those of us who reside in the Ivory Tower would care to think, and it probably won’t be because of the rising cost of tuition. (That issue will probably never be resolved–while there have been programs and initiatives, such as Texas’s $10,000 4-year-degree, which offer promise, I’m skeptical that university culture is going to respond to the change before the academic bubble bursts.) More dramatic changes to the culture of academia might not come from a dwindling student body, but the transforming nature of academic research.

As an academic, I am the sort of antediluvian who has a book library, but chooses not to allow it to come with me wherever I go—in other words, I still keep my books on a shelf, not in a Kindle. But antediluvians such as I am are becoming less common. Electronic reading devices increasingly glare in classrooms and library study halls. Just last year, one of the most discussed books to come out of the academy was available only in Kindle edition long before yours truly could get his hands on a hardcover copy. If this keeps up, libraries might be reduced to special collection rooms and universities might begin the school year by giving their students—or, more likely, forcing their students to buy—a reading device.

But these reading devices have much more business in Athens than we have yet realized: Amazon has recently begun bypassing publishing houses and promoting its own authors, a move that has the potential to undermine commercial printing. Professors who don’t happen to have names like Niall Fergusson or Stephen Greenblatt have never worked too hard to make their work commercially successful—the only real market for the books that most churn out for tenure are university libraries. But what will it mean for the academic profession if university presses—in an effort to cut back on overhead—get the same idea as Amazon and begin closing their printing divisions?  After the printed book becomes unfashionable with commercial readers, academic presses may just decide that continuing to run the presses are a luxury they can no longer afford.

Will a book that is only available in electronic format ever acquire the same prestige as an actual printed manuscript? Will a tenure committee accept it as sufficient for promotion from assistant professor to associate professor? If anyone can publish a book for the Kindle store, how will we evaluate which works have academic merit and which works do not?

I foresee citations becoming an increasingly important criterion for tenure evaluations. But this will mean that professors will have to do more to promote their work to their scholarly communities: Expect to see more academic blogs springing up to do just this; more conferences (and virtual conferences); and more social networking among the academic community. In other words, the next generation of professors will have to work to be more effective political animals and more adaptable entrepreneurs.

I am ambivalent about the changes that are likely to come: On the downside, it will bind professors still closer to the ideology of their academic communities; on the other hand, it will also make them more attuned to producing research that fellow scholars will actually want to read. As Mark Bauerlein recently pointed out, research is expensive, time-consuming and mostly unread. Up until now, that didn’t really matter: The mere fact of being published—of having someone go through the laborious and costly process of putting your ideas into print—was enough to attest to one’s research being “quality stuff”.

Now, as this mode of evaluation is slowly closing off, will departments find new ways to evaluate the quality of research—citation quantity (and quality—since there’s a big difference between being quoted and being footnoted), search engine hits, etc.? Hopefully. We academics may not like it, but, what Tancredi said in The Leopard is true today: “If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.”


James Banks is a doctoral student at the University of Rochester where he is pursuing studies in English Renaissance and Restoration Literature.  Previously, he worked in nonprofit administration in the District of Columbia and northern Virginia. He is also a contributor at Via Meadia and has written for “The Intercollegiate Review,””First Principles,” “The Foundry,” and other publications. He is an alumnus of the University of Idaho (B.A. 2008) and the University of Rochester (M.A. 2010) and lives in upstate New York where he serves in the NY Army National Guard (though the views he expresses on this blog are his alone).

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