Kloeckner, Christian, Simone Knewitz, and Sabine Sielke, editors. Knowledge Landscapes North America. Universitätsverlag Winter, 2016.
Data explosions and information revolutions have made news on both sides of the Atlantic and generated a spectacular set of book-length treatments of current knowledge practices that supplemented classic studies of technology and society penned by Latour and Mattelart, Pickering and Knorr-Cetina, Bowker and Borgman (see, for instance, Cheney-Lippold, Kitchin, Pentland, or Nobel). Following in their steps, the German Association for American Studies (GAAS) convened in 2015 to discuss various “formations” on North American knowledge landscapes from the humanities’ perspective. As conference-goers know, conventions serve as testing grounds for new research rather than the sites where specific topics of interest get a thorough, encyclopedic treatment. Conventions showcase work in progress and put scholars in conversation with one another so that through the collective effort and exchange of ideas they can push the boundaries of what is currently known. Consequently, conference volumes that routinely gather, under one umbrella, keynote addresses, panel talks, and presentations are marked by inconclusiveness and a desire to create a springboard for new conversations and new research. Because of their origins, conference publications rarely resemble polished, authoritative statements of the disciplinary state-of-the-art. They also fall rapidly out of date.
This fate has apparently befallen Knowledge Landscapes North America, a conference volume from the 2015 GAAS meeting. Composed of select papers instead of a complete set of conference proceedings (a practice more common in the STEM disciplines), it inevitably compromised the use of “North America” in the conference title. The majority of contributors adopted the white, Anglo-Saxon cultural tradition of the continental United States as their default setting, and only one out of fourteen articles in the volume happened to be devoted to non-western epistemological traditions currently found in that part of the world. Yet, a quick scan of the conference program reveals the diversity of perspectives and several panels devoted to indigenous and traditional knowledge. Moreover, positioning the volume as a coherent whole and highlighting its relevance to present and future studies, the editors emphasized a competitive advantage of the United States in the global economy, assuming that at least some of it should have come from the knowledge generated within the US national borders. In the introductory remarks, they framed the chapters as seeking answers to three “pertinent” questions: “How do North American knowledge institutions drive global knowledge economies—and in what ways are they driven by them? Which agents shape North American knowledge landscapes? What conditions have been conducive to the emergence of innovative knowledge?” (7) While those inquiries are important to pursue, the reader will search in vain for an essay that explicitly connects its subject matter with the global dominance of the United States in economic, cultural, political, or other terms, nor will she find a range of knowledge institutions whose role and influence is said to be indispensable to innovations on the knowledge landscapes.
The college campus—in its physical reality as well as imagined by novelists—receives more scholarly attention in the volume than any other mainstay knowledge space, be it a library, a museum, or a research lab. The opening chapter by Christopher Newfield offers an overview of the key trends in American higher education and issues a warning against four developments: the valorization of STEM disciplines at the expense of the humanities, for-profit research on academic campuses (otherwise known as a successful partnership between academia and industry), skyrocketing tuition, and the marketing of college education to students as a private good—all connected, in his view, to the onset of neoliberal ideals in American society. A similar warning is sounded by Sverker Sörlin, who notes the ongoing transformation of the cultural ecology of college campuses away from being a “way of life” and a “lens to the outside world” (52). Sörlin’s diagnosis of a rising tide of managerial thinking on campus blames not the newly disruptive business schools and science deniers in Congress per se but the denialists’ perception of threat emanating from the humanities scholars who “ask questions about society, policy, morals, values” and who could “expose . . . activities . . . not very useful for the world and its citizens over the long run” (Sörlin 53). Put in simpler terms, the new narrative about corporate interests that gains momentum and that conceals their predatory nature does not face stronger counter-evidence because it masterfully disables the efforts to reveal it as unproductive, unpractical, or irrelevant by “ridiculing the humanities” as the entire knowledge domain in crisis. Despite this contestation among the stories about what kind of knowledge the world needs and the exodus of students from the humanities to business schools, Newfield believes that the attraction of practical majors will soon wear out, while Sörlin does not express much optimism for such shifts on the knowledge terrain, noting that the slashing of the “dangerous” humanities might leave the knowledge landscapes in ruins (62).
Several chapters throughout the volume address the tensions between the different world-views in which disciplines anchor their epistemological and methodological practices. For instance, Antje Kelly examines the long-standing juxtaposition of the sciences and the humanities and finds scientists to be lacking a social perspective—the very outlook that the humanities pride themselves on nurturing. Notably, though, acknowledging the opposing camps as two legitimate modes of world making, Kelly is not concerned with the humanities’ numerical literacy or their low quantitative skills. In fact, she does not see it as any shortcoming at all. However, a relatively recent disciplinary hybrid of Digital Humanities attempts to merge the two worlds by introducing coding and computerized data analysis to the humanities’ research toolbox in the hopes of revealing patterns and regularities in human behavior impossible to trace by using traditional approaches, “small” datasets, and n=1 studies dear to the heart of a qualitative researcher. Unfortunately, the volume does not venture out into the history of interdisciplinary research nor does it mention the contemporary challenges of tackling the world’s wicked problems (which apparently require the collaborative effort of many disciplines) while facing institutional barriers and overcoming the gravitational pool of disciplinary identities.
Three chapters in the volume are devoted to campus life as it is imagined in novels. These fictional accounts explore the university as a site where social capital is produced and where society’s dominant power relations are upheld. The novels speak to the differences in goals and aspirations between elites and the masses and illuminate the sheltered existence of students on elite campuses. They also trace the idea of success as it is marketed to young people, with education for democracy or even for good life regularly assigned a lower priority while students’ imagination is turned, instead, to jobs and commercial measures of success. Pinpointing the problem, the volume’s contributors stop short of discussing (let alone advocating for) radical pedagogy that would reform the education of “excellent sheep,” to borrow a phrase from William Deresiewicz, whose teaching experience at Yale led him to conclude that “practical” subjects rob the students of a chance to develop into independent thinkers. A curious reader will have to seek other venues where such possibilities of reform, transformation, and the breaking down of the “tower” mould are considered in more detail. A keen observer would also notice that the choice of fictional campuses distracts us from several urgent contemporary problems (for instance, student debt) that signal the conversion of the social mobility ladder that colleges were designed to be into a financial machine that produces debt.
While contemporary American campuses do not come across as happy spaces of vibrant knowledge production and resemble instead battlefields of vested interests and ideology, one would be quite justified to ask how they came to be that way. To that end, two contributions to the volume present historical inquiries into knowledge formation in the United States. Emily Petermann’s study of children’s poetry during the American Revolution and Mahshid Mayar’s examination of children’s toys (specifically, dissected maps) demonstrate that the merging of entertainment with education and playtime with ideology has deep roots running back several centuries, and that in play children were encouraged to “master the world” and to form proper (namely, imperial) attitudes towards it well before the United States gained its status of a global superpower (105).
As with poetry and fiction, media such as film and the news also engage in knowledge production, albeit that the negative effects of their mediation loom larger—and are talked about more frequently—than their positive contributions. For instance, Frank Kelletter’s essay offers a view on the knowledge landscape through the lens of the news and remains skeptical about our digital future. His skepticism stems from the observation that as contemporary practices of reporting get bolstered by the technical affordances of communication media, they encourage everyone to post reports and effectively “return us to the pre-modern times” when gossip was a form of the news (224). Film as a means of discovery is featured in Jeanne Cortiel’s work as she explores the medium’s potential for understanding the social world of various groups (women, in this case). Speaking to the dearth of meaningful encounters with diverse groups of people, Russell K.A. Kilbourn’s essay advances the claim that onscreen presentations might well be the only option left for coming in contact with the epistemology of indigenous people.
Several chapters supplement these explorations into the potential of media for learning about cultural landscapes with theoretical conversations on conceptual formations that shape knowledge spaces. For instance, Paula von Gleich discusses the concept of the “border” and its deployment in asymmetric power relationships (195). In his turn, through the analysis of metaphors as knowledge-making tools, Hubert Zapf demonstrates that, when taken together, material practices and discursive processes allow for deeper insight into knowledge production. Finally, concluding the volume is an account of a conference talk between Rivka Galchen and Joseph O’Neill, in which they emphasize the centrality of cartography to our understanding of the world.
Slightly removed from contemporary debates on information flows, intellectual property, computational analyses and algorithmic culture, and the collapse of divisions between data, information, and knowledge, this volume nevertheless invites future inquiries into the lines drawn between disciplines and types of knowledge, into contemporary configurations of ideas, resources, and actors on various knowledge terrains (note the volume’s omission of many traditional knowledge spaces such as research labs, think tanks, and tech companies), and into social, political, cultural, and economic ramifications that those configurations activate.
The spatial metaphor of knowledge landscape offered as a unifying umbrella for the volume is hardly exhausted by fourteen chapters and can be productively deployed in future studies. For example, a thorough mapping of knowledge spaces on college campuses would call for a study of knowledge workers—professors, graduate students, postdocs, researchers, staff in labs, archivists and librarians, institutional effectiveness officers, and administrators who produce new knowledge in their respective areas of expertise. Sponsors, funding organizations, and federal agencies should not be overlooked either since their funding priorities influence the direction that research takes regionally, nationally, and globally. They also shape those spaces in a quite literal—architectural—sense, as Alexander Starre demonstrated in a chapter on library designs. In addition to more nuanced sociological studies of knowledge spaces, we could also benefit from the legal studies that would document the laws, rules, regulations, and ethical norms that govern actors in those spaces. Knowledge landscapes are dynamic formations indeed: and yet, some of their elements and structures are bound to resist transformation. In order to navigate those spaces better and avoid entanglements and collisions, it is important to understand what holds, what yields to change and why, what must be preserved, and what is subject to alteration.
Finally, since this volume appears in a traditional book format rather than in the shape of an e-publication, it is important to consider the role that the publishing industry plays in the creation and dissemination of knowledge. Its involvement (in fact, embeddedness) in the process of knowledge production and its significant weight in terms of who gets access to new knowledge (and how) has stirred many controversies, and an inquiry into the campus/publishing houses’ relationship is gaining urgency by the hour as the drive for open access alternatives to paywalls and subscription fees keeps growing. Moreover, encouraged by the availability of online fora for dissemination of knowledge, young scholars now more often seek to enter public discussion and inform the public on important issues of the day (Stein and Daniels). These new forms of public scholarship challenge the traditional models and encourage us to wonder whether an academic conference is still the best way to present new knowledge and whether academic books are still the best format for disseminating it in times when online access and digital formats are winning the day. A search for answers to these questions promises to reveal not only the power struggles among the changing cast of actors on the shifting knowledge terrains but also to shed light on our hopes and aspirations, which hinge upon their perpetual movement.
Having acknowledged the accomplishments of this volume and its limitations, inherent to the genre of conference publications in general, it is fitting to pose a meta-analytical question and, in a gesture meaning to round up the discussion, ask on which additional terrains, in which innovative formats, and to which audiences new knowledge should be presented to benefit from “multidimensional interaction” that “transforms our conceptions of what constitutes and counts as knowledge” (10). In other words, and paraphrasing Foucault, studies of knowledge landscapes cannot expect to stand outside of knowledge production looking in, for there is no outside to it. An awareness of their own placement will only assist scholars in creating more detailed and sophisticated maps of the knowledge landscapes they aim to explore.
Cheney-Lippold, John. We Are Data: Algorithms and the Making of Our Digital Selves. NYU Press, 2018.
Deresiewicz, William. Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life. Simon and Schuster, 2015.
Kitchin, Rob. The Data Revolution: Big Data, Open Data, Data Infrastructures and Their Consequences. Sage, 2014.
Noble, Safiya Umoja. Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism. NYU Press, 2018.
Pentland, Alex. Social Physics: How Social Networks Can Make Us Smarter. Penguin, 2015.
Stein, Arlene, and Jessie Daniels. Going Public: A Guide for Social Scientists. U of Chicago P, 2017.
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