March 19, 2010
'Arcade' traces the life cycle of an idea – from blog to book
By Cynthia Haven
A scholar wants to tease out an idea for a book. He writes a paper. He flies across the state, nation or even world to deliver it for 10 minutes to a roomful of jet-lagged peers. He flies home. Lather. Rinse. Repeat.
But how does this time-honored academic cycle survive in the 21st century, when travel budgets are dwindling?
In the humanities, at least, an alternative is surfacing via the net: Arcade.
Roland Greene, head of Stanford's Division of Literatures, Cultures, and Languages, launched the website in November. Pretty much by word-of-mouth alone, and some nifty technological know-how, it's now attracting more than 5,000 visitors a day.
Arcade provides a venue for scholarly articles, an intellectual network, a public conversation, a digital salon and a sounding board for ideas before they wind up between hard covers. "In my field, it's really a boon," said Greene, professor of English and of comparative literature. "There's nothing like it on the web."
The site hosts two digital-only journals Occasion and Republics of Letters. It includes podcasts and videocasts on "The Arcade Channel" and discusses works in progress on "ArcadeWorks."
"The Art of Translation," in conjunction with San Francisco's Center for the Art of Translation, also nests on the site, along with about 35 bloggers (discussions are pending to add about 20 more).
Arcade describes itself, in a brochure, as "curated but participatory" and "technologically rich in the service of ideas." But at first glance it can be overwhelming in the wealth of information it offers Greene guesses it has "about 10 times more stuff" than, say, The Valve, another site for the academically inclined. He said that he and Zach Chandler, who is the academic technology specialist for Stanford's Division of Literatures, Cultures and Languages, are exploring ways to make the site easier to navigate.
It currently works like this: The left side of the page features bloggers; the right side of the page is structured to feature constantly refreshing scholarly journals, podcasts and multimedia. On a particular day, a post by Christopher Warley of the University of Toronto, musing about the various editions of Shakespeare his students bring to class, might appear on the left side. On the right, in the scholarly reviewed Occasion, John Bender of Stanford gives his take on rational choice in Laclos' Les Liaisons Dangereuses.
"Arcade's links magnify the world for each of us," said Bender, a professor of interdisciplinary studies and former director of the Humanities Center.
For Greene, a scholar of early modern culture (that means 16th and 17th century, not 20th), the transition to online culture wasn't an inevitable one.
But at some point he was overwhelmed by the waste: At Stanford, "We were generating a tremendous amount of high-quality content that was going to a lot of other places." For example, video sessions of visiting scholars that were squirreled away in archives or included on obscure, niche-oriented websites. A lot of content vanished altogether. After workshops or conferences, great discussions petered out and were forgotten. Greene longed for "a place where we could capture all this high-quality stuff and package it."
So about two years ago, he and technical editor Chandler tinkered with formats before finding one that worked to provide a place to trace "the whole life cycle of an idea," Greene said. It also provides advantages that no one dreamt of. For example, one blogger, Sianne Ngai of UCLA, has about 350 subscribers to her feed all potential buyers of the book she will be writing on the topic at hand, "without having done any publicity," Greene said.
The possibility of an online salon also breaks down the isolation of scholars. Greene noted that a scholar who left one university for another "fell off the Earth" and would thereafter be seen by erstwhile colleagues once a year at conferences. Now a researcher halfway across the globe is as close as the person down the hall, he said.
It also breaks down the walls of isolation for humanists not affiliated with any university at all, providing a venue for "people in the humanities professionally as well as academically." While Greene estimates that the site draws about 80 percent scholars, it also includes "a poet, an architect, a music manager who manages one of the hottest bands in the country, a museum curator."
While social media forums such as Facebook might feature pages that attract hundreds of participants ("Rethinking World Literature," for example, has 662 members), discussions can be a bit of a ramble, or even a rant. Greene makes it clear that Arcade is not a place to discuss what you had for lunch or where "an absolutely random person can blog what they're wondering about."
But the more salient difference is this: Facebook owns everything you post, he said. On Arcade, ownership stays with the contributors.
Greene said Arcade doesn't take much of his time but further questioning reveals that he is currently spending a couple hours a day maintaining the site. That's not including the labors of Chandler or the three managing editors from Stanford and the University of California-Berkeley, or the editorial board that includes faculty from Stanford, Duke, UC-Berkeley, UC-Santa Cruz and Yale. Clearly, it's labor intensive, but it's also a labor of love.
"It's a good investment of time," said Greene. In an unobtrusive way, "We are positioning Stanford at the center of an intellectual network." He is also providing humanists worldwide with a valuable service. For free.