Last June, Stanford history education professor Sam Wineburg went to Umeå University in Sweden to accept an honorary doctorate. He had prepared remarks on his recent Howard Zinn critique [pdf] but instead chose to analyze his complicated sense of relevance in the age of Twitter.
It’s fascinating introspection on what counts as scholarship, how status is awarded, and how we define academic relevance in the 21st century. It’s particularly interesting given that he’s a tenured professor at an elite university. He’s throwing stones from inside the glass house, basically. On a personal level, having felt forced to maintain something of a firewall between my Internet advocacy and my work at Stanford, it was cathartic to hear that one of my professors isn’t just aware of Twitter but understands that it complicates and enriches his professional existence.
There are plenty of interesting moments throughout the 20-minute talk. Here are a few I wanted to transcribe and collect:
After I received tenure … I had an opportunity to reflect upon the way that my own values had become changed by the culture of the university in which I was rewarded for publishing in the most prestigious journals, whether or not those journals had any effect on anyone else except for the small number of people reading those journals.
A foundation supervisor asked him about his theory of change. His response:
Our theory of change is that we will produce materials that are better than those that are commercially bought and the commercial companies will start to see that people are downloading our materials for free and they will start to copy what we are doing and imitate what we are doing.
On the waning relevance of universities:
Our worry is that, as we continue to produce only our refereed journal articles, we are not understanding the profound changes in how information is disseminated in modern society. The university, particularly professional schools that are supposed to be producing knowledge for practitioners, are being left behind. We are becoming less and less relevant to the people who most need our knowledge — teachers and students and principals and decisionmakers in the field.
2013 Feb 19. Here is another disclosure from Prof. Wineburg, a brief interview on his struggle with depression.