What else does this loss of place implied by electronic technology mean to the university, to its students and faculty? A colleague has pointed out to me that Newman thought the university would nurture virtues by means of a kind of ethos, and most colleges for a long time echoed that goal at least in the opening sentences of their catalogues. Will that sense of the university as a place of values survive a university which is not in a single place? Furthermore, the sense of the university as a place has often related to a particular kind of nurturing of students' personal development. Will the digital university destroy that kind of nurturing?
Again playing devil's advocate, my colleague wonders about the effect of computers upon the social life of universities, particularly upon faculty collegiality and intellectual interchange. He reports the work of a friend who collected a good deal of evidence to suggest that collegiality is dissolving throughout both our colleges and universities, supposedly because faculty, especially in the humanities and social sciences, spend less time in the campus offices, preferring to work at home on personal computers which give them access to libraries, databases, and other colleagues all over the world. In that sense the university as a place is disappearing because the people who really constitute the place interact in the traditional university space less and less.
These crucial questions demand three responses, the first of which involves examining the degree to which colleges and universities now provide such nurturing and collegiality. Facing the possibility of electronic universities, we tend, I would argue, to sentimentalize present universities much in the way those who oppose electronic text sentimentalize books. Many book-lovers both in and out of the academic world who feel threatened by the digital word contrast the present limited version of reading on a computer screen with the pleasures of reading a beautifully designed, printed, and bound leather volume reeking of antiquity, Many of us in fact pretend that we and our students generally read volumes bound by Sutcliffe when in fact we and our students generally read ugly, unwieldy anthologies, paperbound reprints of classics that dissolve during the week they are used, and, increasingly, packets of photocopied materials. Similarly, although we like to think — imagine or fantasize would be more accurate terms — that our educational institutions are characterized by Oxbridge tutorials, small seminars, and large amounts of contact between student and faculty, in fact for half a century or more the great majority of American and European students (many of whom, incidentally, are nonresident or attend institutions without campuses or adequate student facilities) receive their education from large lectures.
Of course, one might well respond that even if a good bit of contemporary university education falls far short of the ideals that our college catalogues proffer to applicants and their parents, those comparatively few schools that maintain an ideal of small seminars, close contact between student and teacher, do not have to abandon their ways in an onrushing electronic world, and here the answer is. of course not, since the experience of using such electronic materials shows, electronic text, hypertext, computer conferencing, and other forms of the digital word support and supplement these activities, rather than doing away with them.
Much the same points can be made about collegiality among faculty members — it is often more an ideal honored in the breach than in the observance, and electronic networks, like telephone lines, connect people in an electronic community that supplements and strengthens rather than destroys that based on physical presence. Certainly, it is true that the isolated scholar reading, writing, or keystroking away on a personal computer does not by those activities tend to participate in collegial activities, but, then, neither does the scholar reading a manuscript, writing notes, or typing up an article on an old-fashioned typewriter do so either. Any destruction of collegiality caused by faculty use of word-processors derives from not enough of a good thing rather than from too much of it. Any destruction of collegiality by electronic technology, arises in inadequate and incomplete forms of it and not in any essential quality or effect of that technology itself, which, on the contrary, tends to emphasize connection and relation. In other words, personal computers by themselves do not the digital revolution or the electronic university make. In fact, it is not digital computing but digital computing joined by networks that makes the new information technology and the new university.
The shape of the new intellectual space formed by this networked computing can already be guessed from its earliest forms — electronic mail, electronic conferencing, computer-mediated conferencing, and the World Wide Web. As far as I know, everyone who has studied or experienced the effect of such computer-mediated communication based on electronic networks has pointed to the fact that these contacts in virtual space, or cyberspace as it has also been called, produces a new kind of collegiality. My own experiences on computer conferences in which people from five continents participate suggest one of their defining characteristics is that they provide a sense of collegiality and the nurturing experience of conversing with those who share similar interests. Anyone with a scholarly specialty knows the pleasure of leaving one's own institution, where no one else shares or perhaps even understands one's special interests, and attending a conference of those with like interests. One feels — at last — understood and even occasionally appreciated for those interests that one takes particularly seriously. Precisely these kinds of experiences characterize computer conferences: one feels that one had joined an intellectual community similar to that encountered at a traditional professional conference but in which one can participate at almost any time and with little expense or inconvenience. So one answer to what will happen to collegiality in a fully digital university is that it will allow those within and without the institution to participate in common interest groups. Some of these participations may well, as they certainly have in my case, eventually led to private electronic communications and good old-fashioned face-to-face conversations,
Let me close by explaining that I remark on the way we fall short of our ideals of collegiality and close and continuous interaction with students chiefly not to point to the absence of the emperor's old clothes. No, I do so to remind us that the digital university is coming into being to remedy the shortcomings of the present non-digital one. In the jargon of the technologists, this change is not technology- but need-driven, which is to say that those instructors and scholars who eagerly grasp the new potential of the digital word and digital university do so because their needs as teachers and scholars demand new solutions, though like all solutions to major problems they promise to confront us with a range of new questions and issues.
Last modified 18 October 2005