The intellectual output of a university over time is massive--like a forest of redwood trees. Ironically, much of that output is treated as byproduct and consequently has a much more limited life and impact than it might have. I'm talking about classroom discussions, teaching materials and media, and those countless student papers, presentations, and projects around which so much of education revolves. These are seen as having ephemeral value within the educational process, but they are not treated as intellectual or institutional assets like vetted scholarship is. No effort is made to capture, preserve, or make available some of the best intellectual efforts and tools produced by faculty and students alike. These are the lost assets of academia. I will explain by extending the redwood analogy.
Today we would tremble to consider the waste of resources involved in early logging. "In the 1800s, as much as 35% of the wood from a redwood tree was left in the forest as unusable branches, stumps, chips, and shattered trunks…. Another 30% of the tree was often wasted at the mill in the form of sawdust and scraps. Consequently, sometimes only about a third of the cut wood actually became usable lumber” (Adams qtd. in Human History of the Coast Redwoods, p. 133).
All that "slash" and "residue" was once just a byproduct of the logging process seeking prime lumber, effectively leaving two thirds of a redwood tree to rot or burn. Today, what was once systematically discarded is now used for fuel, pulp, and various wood products. Happily, in modern logging 99% of "mill waste" finds its way to purposeful uses.
We need to reclaim these byproducts of teaching and research and safeguard them as the assets that they are. This requires changing some thinking. We need to believe that knowledge that is in process is not "slash" and that knowledge generated by amateurs is not "residue"--to be tossed onto the bonfire like 2/3 of a redwood tree.
Valuing Knowledge in Process
What of class lectures or research logs, or field journals? These are only means to an end, not an end in themselves, right? Such only have value as they lead to defined learning outcomes or publications, right?
Consider how much we prize the notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci. The way he thought things through, even the ideas he conceived of but never even prototyped--all are part of the value of his record. Sure, he was a genius, but even if he were not, this notebook would prove an important document of the times. Now, consider how much more valuable it would be had da Vinci's many contemporaries kept such records (and perhaps not in coded writing!). Countless valuable investigations could be done of such "ephemera."
And what of the "residue" of real knowledge (scholarship) found in teaching? This semester I assigned my students not the treatises but lectures given by Nietzsche and by Hugh Blair that have proven critical for understanding these thinkers. Can you imagine how valuable it would be if we could go back in time a decade, let alone a century, and mine the lectures or classroom discussions of any given school? Today that sort of granular and mass recording and preservation of student and teacher intellectual activity is feasible. Stanford has piloted the recording of faculty lectures (via iTunesU), and companies like Tegrity provide an efficient and automated lecture capturing system that has proven extremely popular with students for review purposes (though they don't yet seem to grasp the scholarly value of their service). Special Collections are routinely digitizing and archive-publishing primary texts of every flavor, providing the technical specifications, workflow protocols, and metadata standards that make possible mass archiving and access to anything put in electronic form.
But it is unlikely that we will see systematic efforts to turn this steady, voluminous stream of knowledge to account, to light up the intellectual dark fiber, as it were, of our campuses. At least for a long while. This is because academic institutions, despite their technological enhancements, are stuck in the print paradigm. That paradigm has figured knowledge as a commodity good, with print publication tantamount to presenting a finalized product on the market--knowledge in finished form, approved as fit for consumption and appropriate for veneration. The print paradigm could sustain this static and idealized view of knowledge only so long as it maintained a monopoly over the distribution of physical containers of scholarship. That monopoly has been broken in the digital age. Allowing unlimited copies and distribution of knowledge, especially in the context of the social web, has reoriented knowledge away from the static and product-oriented concept of knowledge that comes from the print world toward a dynamic and process-oriented understanding of knowledge that fits the new digital environment. Knowledge is not like a chair, whose usefulness may not be apparent until its pieces are assembled. Knowledge is valuable at each stage of its evolution--unless, of course, one remains within a print paradigm that insists upon the value of something correlating with scarcity, or knowledge being propriety rather than a common and social good.
Valuing Amateur Knowledge
have a research paper graveyard in my paper files. Some students never come to pick up their research papers, and I think of all my own thoughts penned in margins that might have had value. What if our student work were online from its inception, incubating in blogs and wikis, informed by readers outside the classroom, commented on by peers, teachers, and the public at large? How many opportunities to capitalize on a student's educational experience are missed because we have not yet applied the tools that lie at hand for us to leverage our students' intellectual work?
Those academics who have looked at the web long enough must begrudgingly admit that the amateurs are winning. Encyclopedia Brittanica cannot compete with Wikipedia because the former is static and exclusive while the latter is dynamic and open. The web embodies faith in the combined intelligence of amateurs of good will working in cooperation; academia is threatened by any system in which there are not quality and credentialing controls for knowledge and expertise.
This attitude will backfire on academia, keeping its guardians from profiting from the grand enterprise of amateur learners that toil so feverishly within its walls. And that's a shame.The digital environment provides academia with ready means to preserve much more of its intellectual activity--to claim closer to all the tree's uses and not just the prime lumber cuts that fit the familiar formats of scholarly publishing. Institutional repositories are being created now that can preserve anything put into electronic form. Unfortunately, even those developing these repositories are mostly thinking only within the limited framework of archiving traditional scholarly publications. Just as peer-reviewed journal articles need to be liberated from the shackles of restricted-access, so the many intellectual activities of the university--its research processes, its umpteen lectures, its students' work--need to be taken out of their temporal quarantine of the classroom or the semester so that they can live (cheek by jowl with vetted scholarship) and find new life in the process. And they will! Research and teaching can cross-fertilize through automated semantic discovery as much as by teachers involving students in their projects. And those who open their learning (and their learning processes) to the myriad seekers online find their work is important in different ways than they had anticipated, especially as one's work is aggregated with others' within or across institutions.
The redwood loggers used a large monstrosity known as a "beehive burner" or "wigwam burner" to dispose of all the mill waste they produced. Does this update the figure of academia's ivory tower? If a university is a place where students and teachers generate countless hours and efforts of significant intellectual discovery and expression that then expire with the semester, then academia is a great smoking beehive burner. We are squandering assets with every faculty lecture that goes unrecorded, every student paper that is discarded, every syllabus or PowerPoint that dies with the semester, every research log or field journal that slips into oblivion when it might have been otherwise.
The redwoods are burning.