Notes on “The Ivory Tower and the Open Web: Introduction,” by Dan Cohen

Nate Silver and FiveThirtyEight

This week we’ll be taking a look at the introduction of Dan Cohen’s book, The Ivory Tower and the Open Web, published July 26, 2011, on his website. Cohen begins the introduction (aptly titled, “Burritos, Browsers, and Books”) with a disclaimer, explaining that the book will analyze academia’s rejection of “modes and genres” of the Internet and, furthermore, how these might actually present profound opportunities for growth and change within the academy.

The introduction is narrative-driven, describing the story of statistician Nate Silver as he set out to document his neighborhood’s Mexican restaurants on the web. What began as a humble blog documenting and rating his culinary findings snowballed into a gradual comfortability with blogging and web page creation.

Unable to cultivate much public interest in his restaurant blog, Silver turned to politics. He enlisted his statistical skills to create fivethirtyeight.com (“a reference to the total number of electors in the United States electoral college,” Cohen writes), which analyzed polls for the upcoming 2008 election. These “clear-eyed, well-written, statistically rigorous posts began to be passed from browsers to BlackBerries, from bloggers to political junkies to Beltway insiders,” according to Cohen.

He argues that mainstream media’s reactions to Silver’s website demonstrated common misconceptions and stereotypes surrounding blogs as a means of communication. Contrasting against a waterfall of quotes questioning the trustworthiness and even safety of the format, he posits that blogs are not just a “locus of ‘information,'” but they are also one of knowledge.

Silver eventually found himself connected with the editor of the New York Times Magazine, and, later, FiveThirtyEight situated itself under the NYT Umbrella. Cohen emphasizes that this might not have been possible had Silver not had complete, unadulterated access to the web.

Academia and the Internet

Cohen lays out some “lessons” which can be gleaned from the success story of Nate Silver. They are as follows:

  1. Do-It-Yourself
    • With a lack of oversight or micromanagement, the open web offers opportunities for creativity and ingenuity.
  2. Iterate Toward Perfection & Recursive Review
    • In contrast to academia, digital content creation allows for a continual process of improvement through edits.
  3. Recursive Review & Good is Good
    • Cohen argues that because of the nature of the Internet, the “best” academic work is constantly being pushed to the forefront.
  4. Openness
    • The web’s openness provides pathways for “dissemination” and “dialogue” and a more productive relationship between scholars and their wider audience.
  5. Unexpected Uses and Genres
    • The open web, in its lack of conventionality, encourages unexpected uses and genres that are traditionally rejected within academia.

The Ivory Tower and the Open Web

Cohen writes, “If Digital History was about the mechanisms for moving academic work online this book is about how the digital-first culture of the web might become more widespread and acceptable to the professoriate and their students.” His argument that the web is largely commensurate with academia’s principles frames The Ivory Tower and the Open Web.

Discussion Questions

  1. Do you agree/disagree that the Internet should be respected more by academia as a pedagogical tool? Why or why not?
  2. In what ways (if any) has the Internet changed in the decade since Cohen’s piece was published? How might this be reflected in an updated version?
  3. In your own experience, have you seen any standout examples of the kind of academic blogs/more accessible academic works that Cohen discusses in this piece?

6 Replies to “Notes on “The Ivory Tower and the Open Web: Introduction,” by Dan Cohen”

  1. To answer your first question Karly (great review of the work by the way!), I definitley think academia should respect the Internet more, but I think this is starting to change especially with COVID.
    I think a lot of the distances has to do with the older generation in academia who still sees “true” history as what is in books and in archives. While there is still lots to dissect about history in that, the Internet can create connections that traditional historical writing can not. As for teaching, the Internet can make history seem not as boring as some people view it (aka my sister who rolls her eyes at me any time I start talking about history and mentions how math is so much better). The Internet should be honored as a source and as a teaching tool, one in the same that stand on the same plane as a multipurpose arena.

    1. Hi Jane, thanks for your comment! I absolutely agree that the pandemic has forced academia to adjust its relationship with the Internet (hopefully for the better!). The web does offer so much of what a traditional monograph or archive never could, so it only makes sense that, as you say, it should be respected as another source of scholarly discourse. Perhaps as new (more Internet-savvy (?)) generations of historians enter the field, the academy’s approach to digital scholarship will continue to improve.

  2. Great review Karly!

    Addressing your second question, one of the biggest changes to the internet since 2010/11 has been the explosion of bots and trolls. They always existed, but social media has amplified them to the point where it can be hard for legitimate websites/resources to stand out from all the misinformation. Because of this, I don’t know that I agree with Cohen when he argues that “the ‘best’ academic work is constantly being pushed to the forefront.” We can see this problem in news media – the ‘best’ reporting is often superseded by more sensationalized stories.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Jessica! That’s a great point about Cohen’s argument – you’re absolutely right that bots/trolls have changed the landscape of the Internet since his piece was written. It’s incredibly difficult to weed through misinformation, and the news couldn’t be a more pertinent example of that.

  3. Great review Karly,

    To answer your first question, I believe that academia should definitely respect the internet more. I believe in the last 10 years, the internet has produce resources that are really reliable and accessible for historians. Like what Jane said in her post, I believe that COVID has made historian’s realize how useful the internet can be. It gave them a new respect for online sources. The internet has been seen as a more accessible resource for school teachers as a new technique to teach students besides using a textbook. Historians can use the internet to find work from other historians and research topics giving them more access to sources rather than having to constantly travel to archives.

    1. Hi Sherrell! I’m also in agreement with you and Jane about the positive changes that have occurred in the past couples years as far as academia/the web goes. Considering the immensity of resources available in digital format on the Internet, it’s unfortunate that we are only just now seeing the tides turn toward acceptance/appreciation of its offerings. The archive still has its place in historical research, of course, but there’s no reason the web shouldn’t be considered another great resource at our disposal.

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