On the Other Side of the Looking Glass:

A Report from the Corporate Software World

When Christine invited me to give this talk, we chatted about the theme of this year's conference and the kinds of things I might consider discussing. Considering that my almost three year stint at Houghton Mifflin Company is soon coming to an end, we thought it might be fun if I were to report back as a traveler might from a strange land. For me, this opportunity also seemed a fitting chance to say good-bye in some way, since I am returning to academia, but to an administrative post that seems to offer little writing and research time. So I thought this might allow me a kind of closure, for as Gail has reminded me, "I may be forgotten, but I have not been wholly gone." Any sentimental notions I might have had about leaving the C&W community were of course sharply rebuffed when fliers for next year's conference reminded me that we would next meet in Hawaii. Who says an administrator can't find the time to do a little scholarly work?

For our colleagues in the sciences, engineering, and business, it is not at all unusual to move back and forth between academia and industry. Indeed, it is often considered a distinct advantage to have one's classroom and scholarly work informed by stints in the non-academic workplace. That seems much less true in the Humanities. So it was with a little anxiety and some ill defined sense of guilt that I accepted an offer from Houghton Mifflin in the Fall of 1994 to join its College Division and to create for it a new, built from scratch educational technology group -- that which came to be later known as Sixth Floor Media. I had been thinking and writing about software development for some time and the chance and resources to actually build software programs was too good to pass up.

My opportunity there was quite extraordinary, I think. I the Summer of 1994 the Wall Street Journal published a piece that predicted the demise of publishers if they did not get on the technology bandwagon and, in response to their now anxious shareholders, they did so with a vengeance and often with little planning or strategizing. I, on the other hand, was first allowed to hire two staffers and to spend nine months traveling around the country talking to faculty, administrators, students, and corporate trainers and to begin writing a business plan and strategy. We spent a lot of time on airplanes -- accumulating the first of what was to be about 325,000 frequent flier miles as of last count -- and visited dozens of campuses. At the end of that period, I presented a plan for a new separate group, received the corporate green light, and at that point ramped up staff, got products in the pipeline, and began what was for me the equivalent of an intensive, hands on MBA course. This second aspect of my experience -- being allowed to create a new business without inheriting anyone's baggage -- is a rare one in any large corporation.

What I'd like to share with you today are some of the things I discovered on this journey, some reflections on our field as seen from a very different angle, and some speculation on what the future holds. Any sense or degree of discovery is of course based on the starting ignorance of the explorer, so bear with me when you hear what is for you obvious and what was for me new. My talk today examines two areas: the nature of the publishing industry and our field and then, the state of our field in general.

The first impressions I offer have to do with textbook publishers. Somewhere in the middle of this I am going to sound like a bit of an apologist for publishers, but I will soon be off their payroll, did not work with the books, and speak with no vested interest other than a desire to share a view from the other side.

Discovery #1: Finding my and your former students.

The shortcomings of a book I wrote some years ago on software development has been the subject of some fairly recent discussion (which itself is the subject of a C&W panel this year), but I discovered firsthand one of its more egregious sins: the simplistic portrayal of textbook publishers. I had a pretty negative view of publishing and it's one that I have heard echoed from colleagues all of my professional life. Rising textbook prices, the occasional pushy sales rep, and the political view that textbook publishers served traditional, often tired pedagogy and theory all supported an otherwise unexamined and harsh perception of the publishing industry.

My job at Houghton never included books -- I was that new technology person on the far side of the floor hiring software geeks -- so I could examine textbook culture from the inside with anthropological disinterest and I came to a much more complex view of publishing. Here are some of the conclusions:

  1. This is where all our majors go. The industry is overwhelmingly staffed with former English majors -- from the head of the division to the most recently hired EA. And we've done a good job. That is to say, these are people who very much care for language, for ideas, and for learning. They want to create books we will like and want -- for reasons of profit, quite assuredly, but also because they by and large have a deeply felt commitment to what we do.

  2. Of all the people I have met in the industry, those who actually have the greatest respect -- sometimes embarrassingly close to awe -- for faculty are sales reps. Editors and other in-house people connect in intellectual ways -- they attend conferences, read the same journals, work closely with faculty authors. But the people who are most eager to share stories of exciting teachers, to feel sympathy for overworked, increasingly burdened instructors, and to simply enjoy our company are the reps. Unfortunately, fewer of them are asked to do more -- as is true in almost every American workplace, including our own, so their knowledge of new texts might be less solid than in the past and the pressure they feel to sell may make them sometimes more aggressive than we'd like, but no constituency in any business sells to us more directly and I do not believe any other actually cares about us as much.

  3. Capitalism abhors a vacuum. If we as a market want more interesting or more progressive or more diverse books, we need to persuade our colleagues that these are good things. In a twist on the Field of Dreams axiom: "If we buy them, they will build them." Publishers create the texts they sell because we as a market demand those texts. The day we demand a different text (and we will illustrate that demand with our dollars, as is true in any market), publishers will create them. Hearing veteran editors share their stories of failed reform books, failed niche books, and failed experimental books made me reconsider our own struggles in this field to champion new technologies and I at least have a more complex sense of why we see the kinds of books we do in the booths at 4-Cs and NCTE and the brochures that come to us through the mail. Reform texts often fail to find some critical mass of support and that's one of the key reasons we see so few of them. Bob Connors points out, quite accurately I think, that textbooks offer a fix on where a field stands at any given time; they do not forward new pedagogy and theory, they reflect their level of acceptance or rejection in the profession. However, the possibilities for reduced production and marketing costs through technology are lowering the publishing bar and I think we will see more niche books and niche publishers in the future.
Discovery #2: The disconnect between creators and users of content.

Thomas Jefferson said that knowledge is the only gift that does not in the giving make the giver more impoverished. That was true enough in an agrarian or manufacturing economy, but in our information-based age, we have a fundamental tension between the very high cost of creating information and the increasingly low cost of replicating that information. Fair use was always a workable standard because the costs of widespread reproduction were prohibitive -- the small amounts of copying we might do for a class -- and its poor relative quality, posed no real threat to the commercial viability of an asset and distribution could only be limited and was almost very local. However, digitized content can be replicated at almost no cost and distributed to as broad an audience as might be interested. Simply carrying over to on-line environments fair use doctrines based on book technology does not work unless it adequately addresses the issue of how we as a society fund new content creation, new information.

Coming to Houghton Mifflin, the cost of producing content was simply astonishing to me. Production cost for a book in the sciences, say chemistry or biology, can easily run $1 million. Composition is a more affordable market, but even in an anthology the text permissions can easily run over $100,000. The rule of thumb for color photos is $200 per photo -- it's not unusual for a text to run 500 photos. In one notable accounting text now in development, the ancillaries -- the stuff given to professors for free, which students never see -- will run $1.4 million. In software projects like those in Sixth Floor Media, our testing costs alone run into the tens of thousands of dollars and the documentation for a product like CommonSpace runs close to $90K and that does not include manufacturing costs. Our rule of thumb for video production is $2K to $4K per minute. As consumers we have set very high standards. We expect video to have high production quality. We want excellent photos to accompany our texts. We rightly expect excellent documentation to accompany the software we buy.

What we also need to do is to help content creators articulate a fair use policy and a business model that give us the freedom and flexibility we need as educators while supporting content providers well enough to keep them providing us with high quality information. Some of you might now accuse me of going native, spending too much time with a publisher. But we would certainly all agree that we want content providers to be creative, high quality, and diverse, and for that to be so, we need to protect their interests -- or as Abraham Lincoln said, we need to add "the fuel of interest to the fire of creativity." This is not a defense of publishers' rights per se, but certainly about the rights of those who create and those who refine and distribute. Fair use always implied a boundary -- the boundary of possible quality, size, and distribution -- that supported the simple explicit boundary between when we pay and when we don't pay for the use of someone else's content. Now that digital technology has removed the implicit boundary, allowing us to quickly and inexpensively replicate content without loss of quality, limits of size or distribution, I would suggest that we need to think about removing the pay/don't pay distinction and replacing the fair use model with institutional licensing. Debates about fair use center on copyright -- but that begs the real question of funding and how the culture will sustain the creation of high quality works when there is little economic incentive to create them.

Discovery #3: Sometimes innovation means leaving home.

A few moments ago I mentioned the perceived failure of publishers to offer the market real innovation and suggested that the market has not really been receptive to innovation in the way many of us think they might or should be. Right now, I'd like to explore further with you the topic of innovation, because I think it illuminates the past performance of publishers and actually has important implications for faculty in higher ed.

My thinking here is greatly influenced by the work of Clayton Christensen of the Harvard Business School. Christensen's research looks at the way companies succeed or fail to bring innovation to their customers and he uses the disk drive industry to illustrate his theories -- this work, by the way, won the McKinley Award for the best HBReview article in 1995. A quick summary. When companies fail to bring an innovation to their markets we often accuse them of being out to lunch or out of step with the market. How often, for example, has IBM been chastised for not being a player in the microcomputer market? We look at a company that seems to be challenged by a new upstart with a new technology and wonder if the older, more established company got lazy or, worse in today's market, out of step with their customers. Clayton's research actually shows a more interesting phenomena at work and one that I'll briefly summarize.

Clayton's work shows that real innovation most often takes place outside -- indeed, must take place -- outside the core organization. When innovation occurs within organizations, with all of their accepted practices, politics, and ways of thinking, it is often squelched or faces a set of market realities it can't yet address. For example, when mainframe engineers came up with the minicomputer, the market of mainframe customers weren't interested. Managers did their job: they went out and talked to their customers and came back with the accurate information that their market would not invest in the new technology. These new, smaller computers were interesting, but they weren't yet capable of the speed and computational needs of the established mainframe market. Those engineers who had created the new technology left to pioneer the minicomputer market and were successful because they turned to a new market whose needs could be met by the new minis and then, because the technology curve is high, they were able to eventually invade the traditional mainframe market. Ironically, when engineers in the minicomputer industry created new small hard drives, they found resistance within their companies. These new drives were intriguing, but too small and slow for the minicomputer market, so these engineers went off, formed their own companies, and found a new market on the desktop and the microcomputer revolution was launched. Again, because the technology curve is steeper than the user need curve, desktop technology quickly came to meet the needs of lots of mini users. It's important to point out that the innovators of one technology never become leaders in the new technology late in the game. IBM created the PC late and quickly built huge market share, but by cannibalizing its old market share. DEC, a leader in the minicomputer market, never became a key player in the microcomputer market. In all cases, the progress of these companies with new technologies is defensive.

In all these cases, innovation found a home in a new place and the old customer base caught up later. Consider my earlier comments about the failure of innovative textbooks. Christensen would argue that textbook publishers' attempts at innovation will always be limited because they listen closely to their markets. The Christensen model would suggest that innovative texts ought to be marketed in other places than the traditional higher ed market (post-secondary learning takes place in abundance outside of colleges and universities) and that the latter might catch up.

Let me give you an alternative scenario that illustrates Christensen's model. Houghton's College Division had for a long time a software group called InfoSoft that did lexical databases (spell checkers and the such) and struggled along, but found its way to Microsoft and the rest became history. InfoSoft provided the spell checker for WORD, signed a lucrative licensing deal, was spun off and is now an independent and tremendously successful company called Inso. And the market where it had initially struggled? Who here doesn't use a spell checker? What students don't? The market caught up.

I'd like to use Christensen's work on innovation to think about technology and education generally. The C&W community is one of the most innovative and creative groups I have encountered in higher ed. It invents very little actual technology, but within the framework of teaching it pushes its uses as far as it can and backs up its attempts with robust scholarship and theory. If we think of this community as a center for innovation and the field of composition, English departments, and our institutions as a market, the work of this community has certainly helped drive a great deal of change in the teaching of writing. To do so, people interested in technological innovation and its potential within the field of composition had to leave home, in a manner of speaking, and to forge this new sub-field. There, they could find community, support, dialogue, and a forum for scholarship and research. Today, some 15 years from the beginnings of this field, technology plays a greater role in the field of composition studies and C&W people play leadership roles on many campuses that I have visited. It's becoming increasingly hard to find an English Department without a computer writing facility; we might say that the field at large is finally catching up with the C&W community. These are accomplishments that deserve credit and the history book I recently completed with Gail H., Cindy Selfe, and Charlie Moran in many ways celebrates that effort.

Discovery #4: Perhaps it's time to rethink the place of C&W.

The combination of working on the history test and this leave taking of sorts has compelled me to think about C&W, its relationship to the academy, and our future innovators -- more specifically, in this case -- where they can make their best contributions, where they can find a place to realize their dreams. I think these are important questions because three things are now happening in the context within which this field exists: 1. as English studies makes computing a norm, there is a question about the way C&W studies can continue to exist as an independent sub-field (we don't have typewriters and writing as a field, for example), 2. the market is simply awful, and 3. the technologies we now entertain do not fit as neatly into English studies as text-based technologies such as word processing and real-time conferencing did. This raises questions about the place and role of C&W studies in the future and the viability of the field for those who wish to push technology further than C&W's parent fields of comp/rhet and English might allow.

Christensen's model of where innovation takes place suggests that Rhet/Comp came into prominence because the innovation it offered was not easily accommodated within English Departments. Then, C&W emerged as a field of innovation because Rhet/Comp did not accommodate it very well. There was a window of opportunity for Rhet/Comp and for a while that's where most of the jobs were. However, we now have a 10% increase in the number of new graduate programs in the area even though that window has largely closed. C&W had a window of opportunity and for awhile, English departments wanted C&W people -- that's how I got my job at Springfield College. But I believe that window is closing now as well -- as more and more colleagues actively use technology, the need for English departments to hire a technology specialist will seem much less pronounced, especially as they seek to compensate for inevitable cuts in other areas of the department.

C&W is a subset of rhet/comp which is a subset of English and in all cases, there is an ethical question about creating new programs and maintaining at present sizes existing programs. When the conditions that support newfound growth in a discipline begin to disappear, we need to reconsider our graduate school mission and how we train people and what expectations we can give them for their future when they apply. At UMass, where I did my doctoral work, grad admissions in English and its subsets has been reduced by 50%. That aside -- however it plays out -- the next innovation curve will be still tougher.

Yet graduate students have always played a central role in the C&W community in the past and have always pushed the envelope, while more established members of this community necessarily focused on their publishing and activities that conform to the reward and recognition structures of their home institutions. The Daedalus Group, for example, came into being when all its members were grad students and the baton of leadership gets passed on each time the current head gets a tenure track job. In the past, those graduate students went on to find jobs and recalibrated their scholarly activities to fit the tenure and promotion demands of their new schools. Graduate students continue to be the compasses or bellwethers of this community today, but I fear they will have increasing difficulty finding full-time positions and those that do will struggle to balance their C&W work with the demands of their institutions.

One of the ways the C&W field can perhaps better serve its graduate students is to consider where innovation is now taking place and how we might participate in that process. This suggests that we need to widen our field of vision in terms of the professions for which we prepare people and subsequently, the ways we train them. There are emerging providers of instruction that operated with a different set of priorities than those that drive undergraduate programming. For example, those groups building on-line distance learning companies might enthusiastically welcome a C&W person with experience in the pedagogical uses of MOOs. They might pursue a person who has thought really hard about Web-based instruction. I have been struck by how little technology companies really understand education and their efforts to provide products for our market would be tremendously enhanced with the hire of C&W people. In fact, we have begun to see people move from the traditional academic setting to places where they feel they can work on new technologies, perhaps have more impact, and not be forced to abandon the things that really excite them most. My stay at Houghton Mifflin was short-lived, but is an example. We can all think of others: MaryAnn Phinney, who is working on lexical databases for Inso or Bill Wright, who has recently joined International Wireless to work on educational Internet access in developing countries and is off to Vietnam to explore Internet access to schools. Also encouraging is the outreach to the K-12 world that we see evidenced here.

A last discovery or realization, if you will.

The best part of the last 2 .5 years has been the enjoyment of a different vantage point for looking at post-secondary education -- in some ways being asked to take a look from 30,000 feet up. What I have seen from that perspective is near cataclysmic change in higher education. While traditional college and university culture is being challenged on almost every front -- from attacks on tenure and the curriculum to legislative led funding cutbacks to a fundamental turning away from universal access -- there is welling up all around us new providers of post-secondary education that seek to offer instruction in new ways, in new places, and with new models of infrastructure and organization -- much of it enabled or shaped by technology. These programs or providers range from companies like University On-Line and Jones Cable to huge career schools like DeVry and Phoenix University to on-line MBA programs like the one at Herriot Watt U. (with 8000 students and no faculty) to a new consortium of small liberal arts colleges and a technology company. Government agencies like the NSF and ARPA are pouring money into on-line learning and open entry/open exit systems. You've all heard the buzzwords that characterize these changes: life long learning, learning on demand, anytime/anyplace instruction, self-paced and competency based learning, just in time learning, and so on. Colleges aren't going away (the demand for learning is greater than ever), but they are beginning to look very different and they will represent one form of educational provider among many.

What is worrisome to me is that so much of what I have observed out there seems pretty awful. One finds technology in the service of instruction, but with little of the theory, research, and careful implementation that has characterized the history of C&W. I'd like to close by suggesting that this community can play an extremely important role in the models of education emerging today. I would love to see a future C&W conference that explored these possibilities. I'd love to see us send graduates into these new organizations to play leadership roles in forging the new instructional paradigms. I'd love to see this community forge links to the companies, organizations, and educational providers that will increasingly be part of the higher education landscape in this country. These entities are in great need of the expertise, knowledge, and skills that exists so abundantly in this community. One of the very best qualities of our field has been its willingness to embrace change and innovation. It's a quality and example that higher education will need much of in the years ahead.

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KAIROS Kairos: A Journal for Teachers of Writing in Webbed Environments.
Vol. 2 No. 1 Spring 1997