Ade Bulletin
Number 127, Winter 2000

Net Work in the Virtual Department: The Romantic Circles Experiment


I TEACH Romantic-period literature and textual studies, including digital textuality, at Loyola University Chicago. I am also one of three co-creators and co-editors of the Romantic Circles Web site (, published by the University of Maryland and supported in part by a major grant from the NEH. In what follows I address learning and teaching in the context of the new kinds of collaborative research made possible by this distributed, networked project. After some preliminary observations, I turn to Romantic Circles itself to illustrate what I mean by invoking, as I have in my title, notions of the virtual organization and communities of interest. My point is that many of us in the humanities are already up to something like this--and I believe more soon will be--so we'd do well to continue the conversation about what we're doing and what we might be doing on the Net.

First a necessary word about distance learning--which is not, precisely speaking, my topic. I know someone--a true geek, in the best sense--who ran a distance learning setup for a progressive midwestern community college in the 1970s. You're probably familiar with the arrangement: a single TV camera streamed a social scientist's lectures live to monitors mounted high on the wall of a prison extension classroom full of studious and ambitious felons. Cameras and microphones were trained on the class for the Q&A period after the lecture. Exams and assignments were couriered back and forth every week. If you're tempted into wit or theory by this picture and can't help thinking of Bentham and Foucault, please remember that in this panopticon the incarcerated were behind as well as in front of the camera. Moreover, many of the prisoners were completing criminal justice or social work degrees of their own through this system. Despite some superficial ironies, this little scene of power represents actual outreach on the part of the college to a segment of its community usually denied the benefits of higher education. I don't wish to criticize this program and others like it (on the contrary); rather, I want to call attention to how much it resembles in its structure many of today's online distance learning configurations, to point to its severely limited conceptual design for networked learning. This kind of distance learning is a very old and, pedagogically speaking, not really a very interesting idea.

Few would quarrel with the good being done for those prisoners or for large numbers of disadvantaged students, for example, who benefit from networked instructional distribution. But what bothers me is the extremely conventional scene of instruction still being replicated and distributed in many (certainly not all) of these cases. The top-down, front-back broadcast lecture model of distance learning still obtains too often, in which "feedback" or electronic delivery of assignments (now via e-mail or HTML forms) defines the limits of a student's role. Too much online learning is still more about knowledge dissemination than about knowledge production.

The MLA's Committee on Computers and Emerging Technologies in Teaching and Research (see the committee's documents in this issue) pointedly prefers the terms "distributed learning" to "distance learning." It also makes the reasonable and commendable recommendation that the instructor select the appropriate mix of traditional and high-tech methods. Whatever the intended significance of the choice of terms (distributed perhaps implies collaboration and avoids the psychological connotations of distance), it is clear that some such finer distinctions--and a general self-consciousness about the use of technology--are necessary in the face of blatant exploitation of distance learning technology by downsizing administrators, trustees, or state regents. It is not good pedagogy merely to collaborate with such exploitation. Rather than find ways to replicate in necessarily diminished form our most traditional classrooms and modes of instruction, we should use the opportunity provided by the hopeful shock of technological change to reconsider and redesign our modes of instruction, pedagogical methods, and educational goals. Networked learning environments at least make possible a wider range of communication and collaboration among students and, at their best, encourage students actively to make new knowledge. Such environments work best when they are seen as supplementing prosthetically--rather than displacing--face-to-face interaction in physical space, meetings of fully embodied colearners. Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple Computer, said in a 1996 interview that the Web would not change the world but would "augment" it (Wolf 107), and I think augmentation and extension in this sense are salutary figures for our own online educational applications.

This has very little to do with computers per se. Educators in the humanities need to wake up to the fact that we are living in a post-PC era. Humanists, in particular, like to reassure themselves that the computer is a "tool"--often "just a tool." But since the early 1990s things have decidedly changed. Though English professors are perhaps understandably stuck on the question of writing as word processing, broadly considered, the "computer," taken by itself, is not really very interesting anymore. The network, however, is--very much so. Not just the historically specific protocols of the World Wide Web as it was conceived by Tim Berners-Lee and others but the whole of the still evolving network of networks--this net is less a "tool" than a widely (though not universally) distributed communication medium and shared mode of production, for our students as well as for us.

This aspect of the network is giving rise to new kinds of collaborative projects, professional alliances, and communities of interest, all of which may be figured as sites where new kinds of work get done. This work frequently blurs the reflexively denied but increasingly operative boundary between research and teaching. Such collaborative groups outside one's home institution have of course always existed--though less so in the humanities than in the sciences. The most obvious example is the field of study or period of specialization as codified in the Job Information List. These days they have their own online discussions lists but are otherwise well-known extrainstitutional structures. There are even more traditionally collaborative and widely distributed projects, such as the multivolume scholarly edition, with its team of editors working in many different locations over time, though mostly producing their individual contributions alone or with the help of graduate assistants who are not full co-authors.

I want to suggest that the Net has made possible or even encouraged new, accelerated, hypertextual forms of these alliance groups, forms so different in degree from previous ones that they may as well be treated as different in kind. The hype of a few years ago has died down, but many of us are now quietly organizing and participating in what we might call virtual departments--virtual organizations not coextensive with our real-life English departments or even with our period or topic fields but connecting independent scholars in more focused teams and communities of interest across institutional and geographic lines.

This development is remarkably like what many in the high tech industry have been saying for a few years about their own work, though few of us on this side remember clearly or are conscious of the resemblance. I offer you the following definition, which appears on the Virtual Organization Net Web site, as excerpted from that organization's newsletter:

A Virtual Organization is a combination of various parties (persons and/or organizations) located over a wide geographical area which are committed to achieving a collective goal by pooling their core competencies and resources. The partners in a Virtual Organization enjoy equal status and are dependent upon electronic connections [...] for the coordination of their activities. (Bultje and van Wijk)

As a reality check, here's the more blatant business-jargon version reprinted on the same Web site:

A virtual organization is based on a network of companies, which unite quickly (configuration and alternation of it) in order to exploit an apparent chance to compete. In a virtual organization partners share costs, risks and knowledge. They act together in national and global markets whereby each "player" contributes its "comparative advantages." A critical success factor is a sophisticated information infrastructure which connects the dispersed member companies over large distances. If a market task is accomplished, whether it be after a year or a century, the organizational structure disbands respectively [to] make space for new alliances. (Mertens and Faisst)

I deliberately juxtapose these two versions of the virtual organization to force the issue of what we're getting into through these new networked alliances. The real questions are to what ends such organizations will be put and how far the formation of such organizations may stretch already strained institutional loyalties in the academy.

We all trust that the academy is a different sort of organization to begin with, one difference being the way we articulate our "collective goal," which is not (we hope), as in the second passage, merely the ability to "exploit an apparent chance to compete" in rapidly changing markets. We have other goals, higher ones. But of course we are not fully autonomous. Pierre Bourdieu, for one, has much to tell us about our own competition for cultural and symbolic capital and our inevitable connection with the economy at large--even if by way of inverse utility (see, e.g., Distinction). But those of us participating in emerging technologies of education in particular need to remain aware of how far we are responding to financial pressures in the changing educational marketplace, even if unwittingly. This may be a dangerous time to be extolling the virtues of virtuality, when reorganizations of universities into the "managerial university" set out to turn us all into fully "accountable" "knowledge workers" on the cheap (Carroll 24; Liu). If we don't want academic virtual organizations to be the effect (or, worse, the cause) of competition for FTEs, financial restructuring, and the shift to (and exploitation of) part-time instructors, we have to insist on infrastructural support. Though Romantic Circles began as a kind of start-up project in our several basements and kitchens, it quickly turned into something else. Doing it right requires server stability, staff, and money, so we signed an innovative (and we believe unprecedented) publishing agreement with the University of Maryland. All our real-life departments are I'm sure quite happy that the site has been awarded a $230,000 grant from the NEH. But that grant, like our modest annual budget at Maryland and other kinds of support from Loyola, should be seen as concrete recognition that electronic publishing and learning cost money and time (including release time) and must be treated seriously by chairs and administrators if they are to succeed. It is not simply a way of cutting costs through the cutting edge; though networked learning environments happen over cables and wires invisible to most of us, this venue remains a very material--not at all ethereal--one for collaborative work.

Substandard networks, including local-area networks at our home institutions, simply won't do. It is intellectually imperative that we pursue the most advanced applications, not merely the tried and tested ones that will run on outmoded systems. That takes bandwidth and memory, for example, and support from information technology personnel. In finding and testing these applications, we need room for some of them to fail and be replaced. This kind of innovation takes money and research time. To justify this kind of support, those of us involved in these new networks need to make subtle distinctions, and make them publicly, among the kinds of technological applications that are emerging, interpreting the possibilities toward our own intellectual goals instead of being co-opted by the managerial university. I believe that, like the original Luddites--who were after all technological adepts in their own work worlds, unlike most of their soi-disant academic descendants, who are mere technophobes--we humanists must continue to claim technology as our own and imagine better, more interesting, and more effective scholarly and educational applications, not relinquish it to dot-coms, our scientist colleagues, or new-style managers of academe.

Like many other academics working with information technology, I have in the past decade helped form a number of virtual organizations and online communities of interest in response to perceived changes in my field of study, in collaboration with geographically distributed colleagues and across some of the usual boundaries (higher and secondary education, professor and assistant professor, graduate student and undergraduate, editor and author, text and context) that have structured and been structured by the traditional hierarchies of our field. With some common goals--a mixture of research questions and teaching objectives, personal and professional--we've come together by means of the electronic network to do kinds of work that we would not have done before. In Romantic Circles we've formed a virtual organization that crosses the boundaries of each of our home institutions and--especially as it has become successful, attracted grant money, been mentioned in the Chronicle of Higher Education, and begun getting almost a half million hits a month from over a hundred countries around the world--gives us a new nexus of loyalties and professional interests. Our larger goal is to construct together models of new ways, ultimately, we hope, as-yet unimagined ways, of doing work on the Net.

The author is Professor of English at Loyola University Chicago. A version of this paper was presented at the 2000 ADE Summer Seminar Midwest, hosted by Loyola University Chicago in Evanston, Illinois.

Works Cited

Bourdieu, Pierre. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1987.

Bultje, René, and Jacoliene van Wijk. "Taxonomy of Virtual Organisations, Based on Definitions, Characteristics, and Typology." VoNet: The Newsletter 2 (1998): 1-49. <>, click on "Resources," "Definitions," "Virtual Organization."

Carroll, Linda L. "Tenure and Academic Excellence." Academe 24 (2000): 23-25.

Liu, Alan. "The Future Literary: Literary History and the Culture of Information." (Work in progress.)

Mertens, P., and W. Faisst. "Virtuelle Unternehmen--Eine Organisationsform für die Zukunft?" Trans. Ulrich Franke. Das Wirtschaftsstudium 6 (1996): 280-95. <>, click on "Resources," "Definitions," "Virtual Organization."

Wolf, Gary. "Steve Jobs: The Next Insanely Great Thing." Wired Feb. 1996: 102-07.

© 2001 by the Association of Departments of English. All Rights Reserved.