The New Economy of Letters

tags: MOOCs, social media, Jill Lepore, Twitter, blogging, Chronicle of Higher Education, public intellectuals



Jill Lepore is a professor of American history at Harvard University and a staff writer at The New Yorker. Her latest books are The Story of America: Essays on Origins (Princeton University Press, 2012) and Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin, forthcoming in October from Knopf. A version of these remarks was delivered at the 2013 meeting of the Association of American University Presses.

...Bookstores and newsstands have shut their doors. Newspapers, magazines, and entire publishing houses have stopped their presses. And the public, wearing big, Internet boots, has stomped through the gates of the university. "Writing for the public" is, by now, a fairly meaningless thing to say. Everyone who tweets "writes for the public." Lectures are posted online. So are papers. Most of what academics produce can be found, by anyone who wants to find it, by searching Google. These shifts have made exchanging ideas easier, faster, cheaper, and less dependent on publishers—and even less accountable to readers.

Every day, more scholars are writing more words for less money than ever before: They are self-publishing and tweeting and blogging and MOOC-ing. Much of this is all to the good, especially insofar as it disseminates knowledge. But publicity and public-spiritedness are not one and the same, and when publicity, for its own sake, is taken for a measure of worth—some tenure evaluations are conducted by counting "hits"—attention replaces citation as the academic author's compensation. One trouble here is: Peer review may reward opacity, but a search engine rewards nothing so much as outrageousness.

The new economy of letters hasn't made academic writing better, but it has made it harder for certain kinds of intellectuals to be heard. All the noise has silenced the modest, the untenured, and the politically moderate....



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