Vol. 8. No. 3 R-13 December 2004
Return to Table of Contents Return to Main Page

Electronic collaboration in the humanities

James Inman, Cheryl Reed & Peter Sands (Eds.) (2004)
Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates
Pp. xxiv + 419
ISBN: 0-8058-4147-4 (paper)
$39.95 (Also available in cloth, $99.95)

Being a student of humanities myself in the eighties, a quick reflection on those times lets us perceive how much and how fast information and communication technologies (henceforth, ICT) have evolved. I remember those years when computers at university were slow and black-and-white, with no window open to the outside world. It was a time when typing and storing information were high achievements.

Nowadays, ICT have transformed the work of scholars and professionals as well as the way they communicate and share information. In fact, in the opening pages of the book, entitled A word to the fore, the reader is presented with the following lines, which give an idea of how much communication has changed and how it has affected the language:

I mean point-n-click, drag-n-drop, icons, colors, mpegs, jpegs, tiffs, pdfs, fonts, scalable point size, moveable margins, zooming, curving, filtering, mode adjusting, layering, blurring, cropping, boxing. It's all there now, it's concrete in that it's manipulable as a trowel. (p. xii)

The book is divided into four main parts, which are preceded by the above-mentioned introduction and a preface by the editors. The final pages are devoted to an afterword, notes on contributors, references, and author and subject indexes. Unlike other volumes, editors restrict their authorship to the preface and an article each. The majority of the scholars are based in American universities or educational institutions. Each part of the book comprises an average of five chapters and a response to close the section.

Part I goes under the name of Theories of electronic collaboration, Part II focuses on Student collaboration and electronic media, Part III has to do with Faculty collaboration and electronic media, whereas Part IV is titled Electronic collaboration and the future.

In the Preface, there is some reflection on issues that provoke a great concern among humanities scholars: it is true that the survival of the humanities is not in doubt, but it is clear that the new way of production and consumption of knowledge is going to change the future. For the editors, the following five ideas are pivotal to the development of humanities and to the content of the book: (i) scholars have gained access to technology and are carrying out important works at all levels; (ii) scholarly projects with technology reflect significant diversity, with interdisciplinarity as a hallmark of contemporary humanities; (iii) the use of information technologies in this area of studies and research involves a continuous conversation and encounter; (iv) ICT are not to be considered as threat but as a set of options that may be effective in terms of pedagogy and research; and (v) ICT are redefining the nature of collaboration in projects: speed, character, methods and possible implementations. [-1-]

Whereas a summary of each chapter would turn the review in a document too long to read, what follows is a sampling of each part that tries to illustrate the content of the whole collection.

Chapter 4, in Part I, is authored by James A. Inman, one of the three editors, and is titled Electracy [sic] for all ages: collaboration with the past and the future. For sure, whoever types the word electracy in his computer will find it automatically underlined as a non-existent word in the lexicon. Certainly it is a term that has been recently coined but that is going to imply a dramatic change in humanities. Electracy is put in reference to orality and literacy, and it is in this threefold division that we must understand its importance. Using Ulmer's (1997) [1] notion of electracy, Inman (p. 51) says that electracy is an apparatus for meaning making that is "to computing what literacy it to print." The concept includes all electronic technologies, meaning that it includes not just computers but also film, video, television and more. What is really important about electracy is that it allows collaboration between people who do not live in the same era. In this way, interaction goes a step beyond and, therefore, it is not only bi-directional, but transactional and capable of spanning generations.

Chapter 6, in the second part of the volume, is titled New technology, newer teachers: computer resources and collaboration in Literature and Composition. From the position of new TAs with a willingness to experiment the what and the how in their classes, they make a strong defence of, firstly, collaboration as a learning device, and, secondly, computing as a medium that both implements and generates collaboration. It is a rewarding surprise to observe how a reference is made to Vygotsky and social constructivism in order to explain the point where collaboration meets technology. No doubt, technological collaboration means a blurring of disciplinary boundaries that allows students to gain content knowledge as well as cognitive and interpersonal communication skills.

Chapter 13 in Part III, What's in a name? Defining electronic community tries to reflect on the features of a traditional community and what can define an electronic community. The author exemplifies her reflection by making reference to a discussion list, WCENTER, and a MOO, Tuesday Café [2]. By using, mostly, Unsworth (1996) [3] and other scholars' criteria, the author defines what an electronic community is and why it can be called so. In this sense, electronic communities (i) do have a shared location in a common space on a network, (ii) act as recipients of the shared interest of their users, (iii) are regulated by the action of a shared government in the form of the list owner, the moderator as well as the policies of the list and MOO, (iv) do also share a property, though the texts and words in the screen are not tangible as properties in the real world, (v) are the place for the communication and interaction of their members, though the phenomenon of lurking is affecting the life of communities, and (vi) are affected by a feeling of emotional connection that brings together all their members. [-2-]

Finally, Chapter 16, in Part IV, is one of my choices in as much as it has, in my opinion, a very humanistic character and, at the same time, it recaptures the figure of Paolo Freire and his idea of critical pedagogy. The author compares the meteoric rise of ICT in capitalistic countries and the power relations that are established with the world of academia to the relations of power between the universities and the church in the European tradition (p. 286). He suggests that new media technologies should serve the purpose of enriching people's lives rather than depreciating them. He suggests a reflection on certain issues that may provide the grounds towards a critical pedagogy of ICT. These issues have to do with the following topics: (i) new media is shaping our environment and our relation to it in ways that previous generations would have never imagined; (ii) new media technologies and the content they transmit are affecting people's awareness and identities; (iii) ICT are provoking a rupture with our perception of the world and the result is a new way to understand aesthetics; (iv) ICT are functioning as a pedagogy, affecting the way knowledge is stored and transferred; (v) new technologies are developing faster than our ability to adapt to the new situations; (vi) ICT are not closing the gap between the wealthy and the deprived and they are promoting a sort of dominant language and culture: the language and culture of their producers; (vii) ICT should be measured in terms of how much it increases critical consciousness, whereas other cool parameters such as speed rating of microprocessor, screen features, graphics and the like should be disregarded. A final question put by the author is not to be forgotten: where do we want these technological vehicles to take us, and why? (p. 293).

To end, I would like to point out a couple of ideas: firstly, it is a sort paradox to have a book (printed paper-tangible version) to discuss issues about a non-tangible world such as electronic collaboration. In this same direction, I would have expected, perhaps, a greater number of references to on-line documents, whereas the reference pages still resemble traditional bibliographies quite a lot.

The second issue has to do with the valuable but temporary condition of the opinions and statements included in the book. Such a changing world as ICT makes the reader understand this book as a temporary stage of reflection on these topics because, presumably, more and faster changes are to come in a not very far future. Parallel to the changes, academic discussion will increase, for sure, in a short span of time.


[1] Full reference of the publication as quoted by the editors is: Ulmer, G. (1997). Electracy. Retrieved November 15, 1999, from http://www.elf.ufl.edu

[2] Notes by the author (p. 228) provide a clear and wide description of both as well as the difference/similitude between MOO and MUD.

[3] Full reference of the publication is as follows:

Unsworth, J. (1996). Living inside the operating system: Community in virtual reality. In T. M. Harrison & T. Stephen (Eds.). Computer networking and scholarly communication in the twenty-first century university (pp. 137-150). Albany: State University of New York Press.

Antonio R. Roldán Tapia
University of Córdoba, Spain

© Copyright rests with authors. Please cite TESL-EJ appropriately.

Editor's Note:

Dashed numbers in square brackets indicate the end of each page for purposes of citation..
Return to Table of Contents Return to Top Return to Main Page