I'll admit, as a slogan, "hacking the academy one department website at a time!" doesn't have great prospects as a rallying cry. Websites for academic departments are typically one of the most uninspiring formats that exist on the internet: the components are pretty standardized, from the digitized brochure boilerplate, to the perfunctory faculty listings, cursory course descriptions reproduced from the university catalog, and occasionally some newsletter-type info bites. Visit a sample of departmental homepages and it would be hard to guess that there's a whole world wild web of 2.0 functionalities out there . . .
I've just begun a series of posts on how I've been trying to reconceptualize communication with our department's undergrads under the stimulus of web 2.0 capabilities, using our departmental pages as our jumping-off point. This has caused some head-scratching -- not least because getting our basic revised departmental website up and running has been a nightmare, as in I'm still waiting waiting waiting w a i t i n g on that, so doesn't that prove the folly of trying anything new digital-wise with such a bureaucratic form? A compelling point! -- but mainly because everyone knows that, really, in all honesty, hardly anybody visits a departmental website, and especially not undergrads. Since the departmental website is like a digital deadzone, better to put one's ingenuity into online classroom technology or one's own blog or debating, developing, and divining what the latest techno-cool tools are with others who share an early adopter mindset.
But it's deceptive: even though departmental websites seem to be buried deep inside the layers of a university website's architecture and therefore exist way off the grid in a grayish netherworld, they're not, of course. They live on the open web by virtue of a url just like any other website. And if we can experiment with reconfiguring the lines of communication and participation with our undergrads via a departmental website rethought in 2.0 terms, there's no reason not to extend that line of thinking one step further: to the departmental website as a crossroads between professionals and the public, reconstituting what professional and public means in the process.
Bringing dynamic elements into a departmental website can be as simple as starting with an rss feed or two that brings the outside world across the university's walls and into the heart of where a community of researchers currently (digitally) resides: at the department's website. If the rss feed speaks in everyday language rather than in a specialized vocabulary, then an interesting juxtaposition is struck immediately in and of itself, as with, say, a science news feed on a science department's site. By its presence, the feed instantiates an ongoing invitation for responses by members of the departmental community to speak to current events, and/or a challenge to individuals to adopt the common tongue in a like manner in communicating via the website about what goes on in research and teaching, and/or a prompt to take an item and use it as focal point to link to other resources that are available to anyone near or far who may find them of use and who come across them via the website.
And it's a relatively simple matter to make that happen, by adding in a blog component that professors can post to that has a comment function and the ability to share posts across multiple social networks -- and if so, the departmental website begins to rejuvenate from the deadzone and the departmental community begins to live out on the open web together, where it is much more likely that interaction with various publics can happen than if professors remain walled in, physically or digitally. [And if it seems to hard to revamp the website, a companion space can be activated via typepad or wordpress, for example.]
And, of course, there is so much that can be done, once you get going and improvisation proves not only possible but the way to move forward and evolve.
The aspect of this that I especially like is how decentralized the department as a local node is in representing a discipline, and how it doesn't depend on a scholarly society representing you or me, but you or me representing what our disciplines do, in concrete terms that communicate in the vernacular, allowing for encounters that recast the circulation of knowledge in different terms than how we normally perform when we hew to the various reward structures of our disciplines (as structured by journal editors, and funding agencies, and an institution's administrators). In being located at the departmental level, it makes it easier to bring in those who have been uninterested in computer-mediated communication -- folks who, perhaps, even have disdain for those who know about the specific bells and whistles that exist in the sphere of social media -- and allow for broader participation within our own local sphere, and thus a greater diversity of voices, and a more robust set of dynamics. It also makes communication and interaction with the public not something that is the "job" of a few hardy/gregarious/adventurous individuals, and instead the responsibility of a collectivity.
In my field of History, historian David Thelen (in The Presence of the Past) challenged his colleagues with the following argument about the cramping of the scholarly mind that can come with professionalization:
"the greatest danger from professionalization – a danger that is great because it is often invisible – is that its self-enclosing thrust has made it harder for us professionals to recognize which of our practices resemble ‘common,’ ‘local,’ or ‘everyday’ knowledge and perspective and which have evolved into jargon that makes sense only to other professionals. If we wish to construct serious dialogues about the past with nonprofessionals – who are, after all, our fellow citizens and human beings – we may need to go back and revalue our first languages, the ones we were taught to leave behind when we entered the professional world. By recognizing patterns in our historymaking practices that we share with others, we can more effectively contribute to the larger historical culture we all inhabit."
I believe that, increasingly, how connections will be forged among others outside our professional circles will be mediated by an ability to speak in the "digital vernacular" of web 2.0. By finding meaningful ways to participate in the digital vernacular, we can "more effectively contribute to the larger culture we all inhabit." Using the departmental website -- which is a ready-made representation of our authority as academics -- and drawing on the practices and philosophy of web 2.0, opens up our world to others, and becomes a space in which we can communicate in new ways and interact in unscripted encounters that can allow us to rethink our pedagogical imperatives and traditions.
By entering into the stream of inquiry when it is constituted by small pieces loosely joined -- and by thinking of the internet's capabilities in interactive and participatory terms with the public as potential partners, rather than as an audience who views a static digital display space in which we set out products -- we take on more modest roles as academics, with the potential to hack new forms of community that change ourselves as well as offer possibilities to others.
So, the departmental website as an online learning environment? I know, perhaps a difficult concept to credit. But I bet there are already innovative examples out there that currently exist, ready for us to play with. I'll be looking.