Created: 2000-03-05
Last Modified: 2000-03-05
Go to
Brad De Long's Home Page

Teaching | Writing | Career | Politics | Book Reviews | Information Economy | Economists | Multimedia | Students | Fine Print | Other | My Jobs

Academic Technology: Let Us Cheer For It!

J. Bradford DeLong


I cannot be the only person who was distressed and alarmed at David Noble's article. I came to his peroration:

"[O]nce the faculty converts its courses to courseware... [t]hey become redundant.... [T]he new technology of education... robs faculty of their knowledge and skills, their control over their working lives, the product of their labor, and, ultimately, their means of livelihood. None of this is speculation.... At York University, untenured faculty have been required to put their courses on video, CD- ROM or the Internet or lose their job... [and] been hired to teach their own now automated course at a fraction of their former compensation. The New School in New York now routinely hires... unemployed PhDs... paid a modest flat fee and are required to surrender to the university all rights to their course. The New School then offers the course without having to employ anyone. And this is just the beginning."

I thought: this would apply just as well to the fifteenth-century invention of printing as to the twentieth century invention of computers and telecommunications. Simply replace every reference to "courseware" with a reference to "book." Like courseware, books make faculty redundant: why listen to lectures or attend meetings when you can read the book? Books are sold by multinational conglomerates for a fraction of the price that a student would have to pay for personal lessons from the author. Publishers routinely hire hacks for a modest flat fee to write books that disseminate knowledge that before the fifteenth century one would have had to pay an accomplished professor a fortune to have the chance to learn.

Yet we today view books as complements to and not substitutes for the personal engagement, lecture-discussion-and-office-hours part of higher education. We do not speak of how assigned readings rob students of the "genuine face-to-face education they paid for" and replace it with a "biblo-counterfeit." We do not speak of how it is unfair that professors who assign readings are "compelling students... to become users and hence consumers of the hardware, software, and content products of the publishing industry as a condition of getting an education," or drop dire hints about how many students will be unable to afford the crushing book bills associated with a "book-capital-intensive education."

Few would think that the transformation of the university from a place of manuscripts and lectures to a place of printed books, xeroxed reading assignments, and massive libraries has been a regression. Professors today live better, know more, and--I think--are vastly more effective teachers than their predecessors of six centuries ago.

I think that it is a safe bet that two centuries from now professors will be extremely happy that they have access to computer-and-telecommunication tools that will also be complements to and not substitutes for personal engagement with their students.

I think that at the bottom of Noble's concerns is a very different set of issues. For the past generation in the humanities and in many of the social sciences the tenured professors of American higher education have been betraying their graduate students. They have expanded graduate Ph.D. programs well beyond the size for which there would be sufficient entry-level academic jobs available. They have played a shell game: making false implicit promises to their graduate students that they will have a good chance at getting an academic job and following an academic career. They have then used the social structure of higher education to insulate themselves and their favorites from the consequences of their shell game: dividing the community of Ph.D.s into the good sheep who have secure academic jobs and the bad goats who cannot gain entry into the tenure-track hierarchy, and justifying this division on the basis of "merit" (never mind that we all can think of ten thirty-five year old humanities Ph.D.s without tenure-track academic jobs who can outthink and outteach each of the sixty-year old tenured Ph.D.s.)


>I am interested in writing a small story on academics and their
>web pages - why they have them, how are they used, how do they make them,
>etc. Yours struck me as particularly interesting because your web site does
>such a good job of intermixing your professional interests and
>responsibilities - i.e. offering information to students, while also
>providing detailed information on your research and interests. Also, I
>particularly enjoyed your article on the Berkeley Paleontology Museum and
>was wondering if you were interested in further commenting on the ways in
>which modes of communication and accessing information have changed with
>the increased use of such technologies as email and the internet.

My Comment:

e-mail is very good for gossip, and very good for bureaucratic
routine. It allows you to avoid a lot of short phone calls and
a lot of meetings that are held largely to keep everyone
informed of what everyone else is doing. e-mail is a blessing--
as long as the people you are dealing with read their e-mail.

e-mail appears to be less good for seminars: less good for
longer run and more engaging intellectual conversations. In
part this is because of the flame problem: people say rude things
to others via e-mail that they would never dare say in person,
and the absence of smiles, self-deprecating body language,
and other forms of non-verbal communication means that people
take rude things said to be much more offensive in e-mail than
in person. (Videoconferencing may change this; or it may not.)

Mike Godwin has a law: as time passes the likelihood of someone
in an e-mail conversation or newsgroup being compared to Adolf
Hitler approaches one, and no useful conversation or exchange
of views can take place after the first such comparison is made.

On the other hand, the Diplomatic History reading list that
I subscribe too has taught me a lot. And the Economic History
reading lists that I subscribe too are sometimes very interesting
as well. Take a look at and look up the archives for
the virtual seminar on David Landes's _Wealth and Poverty of
Nations_ book that took place over an extended period of a
month or so. In the end that virtual seminar ran out of steam:
Andre Gunder Frank proved incapable of brevity, and too many
people (including myself) were doing nothing more interesting
than repeating themselves. But while it lasted it was very
interesting to see...

>More specifically, I was wondering whether you'd be interested in
>commenting a little on your interest in the web and why you decided to use
>the web as a showcase of sorts for your works and interests.

Why I decided to make a website? Four reasons:

First, I was sick of having to deal with letters from people
who wanted me to make and mail them out reprints of works that
I had previously published.

Second, my cousin Tom Kalil had (still has in fact) the
technology desk at the National Economic Council during
the Clinton Administration. When I was leaving the government
in early 1995, he said that he thought that the WWW truly
was going to be the Next Big Thing, and that any time I
spent learning what it was, how it worked, and how it could
be used was time well spent.

Third, one of my former roommates, Paul Mende, is a physicist.
Because the WWW was created at CERN, physicists have taken
to it like ducks to water. Even at the start of 1995 Paul
was telling me that in a decade I would be out-of-touch
with the intellectual conversation that was my discipline
(economics) unless I rapidly learned how to put things up
on and pull things off of the WWW.

Fourth, I had been very interested in technology and economic
growth in the late 1980s and early 1990s. But my interest
had been interrupted by the election of 1992. My friend,
patron, and former dissertation committee chair Lawrence
Summers went to work for the Clinton Administration as
Undersecretary of the Treasury for International Affairs.
I went to work for the Clinton Administration as Deputy
Assistant Secretary of the Treasury for Economic Policy,
reporting to Assistant Secretary Alicia Munnell (the best
of all bosses). As a result, for two and a half years I
spent my time doing everything other than technology and
economic growth: in the Treasury I worked on GATT and NAFTA,
deficit reduction and monetary policy, health care reform
and welfare reform, INS issues, the impact of the international
economy on American workers, and so forth.

So when I came out of the government and moved to Berkeley
in mid-1995, catching up with the field of technology and
economic growth was one of the first things I wanted to do.
And a lot of people said that putting up a WWW site was a
good way to catch up to what was going on today...

>Mostly I would
>just like to get a sense of what interested you about using the web,
>whether you make your own web page,

I do. You will note that--as web pages go--it is not especially
fancy. I don't think good web pages can afford to be fancy
yet. Bandwidth is too low. Emulate Yahoo, which takes seven
seconds to load.

>how much time you spend working on it,

It's hard to tell. What I do is that whenever I finish
something--or finish drafting something--I make a .html
version of it and put it up on the WWW. There was a
considerable up-front investment necessary in making
the website initially: I had to find copies of all of
my writings, get them into some electronic form or other,
figure out how to turn them into .pdf files, and so forth.

There was also the investment required to keep control of
the thing: issues of organization become very important as
the website grows if it is to stay useful to me (or to anyone
else). This part of the job I am not very good at--as
glancing through my website will convince you.

But then, not many other people are very good at it either.
You need to be (a) a professional librarian, and (b) an
expert in the particular discipline being covered in order
to figure out how to organize a good website.

So the website takes very little time save on those occasions
when I think that I really should try to reorganize it to make
it easier for me (and others) to find things on it. And
perhaps the most difficult task (at which I am failing) is
to figure out how to tell people what kinds of things are on
it before they search.

>whether or not there are any other web pages (academic or personal) that
>you particularly enjoy (or dislike, for that matter).

I like Hal Varian's website very much--it is the mother
of all economists' websites. I like Paul Krugman's website
because I like and respect Paul Krugman. Nouriel Roubini's
East Asia Crisis website is amazing--but it needs reorganization
badly: by now visiting it is to drown in data. My friend
Michael Froomkin's website at the University of Miami Law
School is also a place that I can go to learn something new
every day, and that I visit often.

I think that _Salon_ is doing a good job at being a
literary-and-culture magazine light. Too many people have
too hard a time reading stuff on screen for it to replace
the _New Yorker_ or the _New York Review of Books_. But they
do a very good job. I think that _Slate_ could do a better
job (and I have ranted about this on occasion) except that
they seem very slow to load on my machine at least, and so
reading _Slate_ becomes a definite pain.

The AllPolitics website is good for political news and gossip,
as is the National Journal's Cloakroom. Rewired, the Netly
News, Such, Wired News, and Robert X. Cringely at PBS
are essential reading for the cybernetic buzz, I think.

Jakob Nielsen's Alertbox is a portal to a lot of interesting
information on the design and effectiveness of hypertext systems.

I also like the summaries of daily news...

>Have you received any
>feedback about your web page?

A lot of feedback. But the piece of feedback that is most
interesting came from my brother Chris DeLong about four
months ago:

"Hello Brad, it's Chris."
"Did you know that you are quoted in _Foreign_Affairs_
[the high-circulation flagship journal of the Council on
Foreign Relations] this month?"
"Did you know that you are quoted twice in _Foreign_Affairs_
this month, and that both quotes are not from anything in
print but from _off_of_your_website_?"
"Can you give details?"
"Jagdish Bhagwati [Columbia] quotes a paragraph from your
website and then slams you as a banner-waving proponent of
international capital mobility in the lead article. Paul
Krugman uses you as an ally to dump on new-economy people
later on in the issue, quoting something you wrote for the
e-zine _Rewired_."
"And both quotes are from the website?"
"That's interesting. This means the website has been a good
investment of time."
"I think it's been a much better investment of time than you
had ever dreamed, DeLong..."

To the extent that putting things up on the web makes them
easy to find so that more people read them, that's the whole
point of the exercise. And the leakage back the other way--
from my website to _Foreign Affairs_, from my website to _Harpers_
(and I hope from my website to _Lingua Franca_), the exercise
is succeeding.

>Did UC Berkeley put any restrictions on the
>type of materials you were permitted to put on the web?

I am not aware of any restrictions that Berkeley has
placed on what I can put up on what are, after all,
University of California computers save one: I can't
use the UC Berkeley seal unless I go through some
complicated and probably not-yet-defined review process.

>More generally, I'd be interested to find out whether or not you see
>fruitful intersections between internet communication and academic
>scholarship and conversation more generally.

My syllabi, assignments, and back exams are up on the
web. I no longer have to worry about keeping copies of
every problem set and handout with me whenever I go to
class. It's now a lot easier for me to find out what
books Doe Library has--and whether they are on the

In general, academics write not because they hope a lot
of people will pay a lot of money to read what they have
written (although they dream of it), but because they
have ideas to express and points to make, and what to
add those ideas and points to the body of human learning.

For academics the internet is a godsend: it allows you
to add your ideas and points to the body of human learning
*for*free*: you don't have to convince a publisher that
enough libraries will buy your conference volume that it
is worth its time to print it up. You don't have to wait
three years between the time you write something and the
time the first person reads it. When the internet has reached
its full growth, you will not have to reside at one of the
world's centers of knowledge in order to tap the body
of human learning as fully and completely as you can.

The problem of separating the gold from the dross will remain,
and will become much more difficult and important. But that's
what we have librarians for. They'll solve it somehow...

For teachers the internet is a godsend as well: it opens
another channel of communication to students--in addition
to those provided by lectures, discussion sections, office
hours, and problem sets or other assignments. And we teachers
very badly need this extra channel of communication because
we are not doing a stellar job with the channels of
communication we now have, and we need help.

I think that for other writers the coming of the internet
may be a two-edged sword. I think that they may find their
conditions of life changing drastically. But for academics
the internet looks, to me at least, like an unmitigated

Sign up for Brad Delong's (general) mailing list

Go to related links...

Add a comment on this page...

Read other people's comments on this webpage

Professor of Economics J. Bradford DeLong, 601 Evans Hall, #3880
University of California at Berkeley
Berkeley, CA 94720-3880
(510) 643-4027 phone (510) 642-6615 fax

This document:

Search This Website