Thursday, October 25, 2012

Publishing and the Intellectual System: A Question of Relevance?

With the rise of the “Apple Empire” and a burgeoning fascination with all things digital, it is easy to recognize the profound impact technology holds over our daily lives. Traditional forms of communication—maps, letters, even the telephone—have been swiftly dominated by an age of digital technology, seeping into most every system and institution. A former professor of Higher Education who has taught at Harvard University and the University of Wisconsin, Philip G. Altbach, in his article “Publishing and the Intellectual System,” explores how the publishing industry functions within the greater intellectual community. In simpler terms, it explores how they contribute to complex activity systems such as newspapers, journals, magazines, radio, television, and virtually any system linked with publishing. These lengthy explanations, though, reach beyond the scope of this article.

So, is there a successful, relevant synergy between the modern technological world and traditional publishing, or could the future give rise to the inevitable death of books? For the scope of this article, I will focus mainly on how the publishing industry—and printed media itself—function not only within intellectual systems outside academia, but also (primarily) within the educational activity systems.

First, the more general point to note is how Altbach’s text aims to show how traditional publishing and printed media are important to any intellectual system. By the way, it did take me a bit of reading to decode what an intellectual system was, since the text functions within the context of other "scholarly" readers: it is any network concerning the relationship of cultural and educational matters. This phrase, in itself, is scholarly and academic. To analyze its formal elements, this scholarly article is most suited for those within the academic discourse; its diction fits within the fields of academic studies. Particularly in this excerpt, though, these elements can become somewhat difficult to decipher:
“Books are not the only means of advancing the so-called high culture of a society.  Indeed, traditional printed media are being supplemented increasingly by television and other forms of mass communications as educational and cultural media. Many cultural figures argue that novels and poetry have moved from the center of the creative arts and have been replaced, in part, by film as a medium of expression. Although books no longer hold a monopoly on cultural diffusion, they remain central to the development and distribution of knowledge” (2). 
At a reading ease of 35.5 and with 20.7 words per sentence, this excerpt fits a reading grade level of 14.1, a college sophomore. Though this isn’t unmanageable by scholarly article standards, it still includes a considerable amount of “Official Style” elements that can be difficult for any audience to read. Its use of abstraction is seen first with passive voice, stating “traditional printed media are being supplemented”. Further, its use of lengthy sentences and frequent commas are apparent throughout, and the use of upper-level diction is scholarly, such as the phrase: “indeed, traditional printed media...” We also see some nominalizations, with "communications," "expression," "diffusion," and "distribution." In short, these sentence combining strategies immediately place the text at a higher reader level, perhaps making it more credible but less clear.

The importance of publishing and printed media is more apparent and clear further in the article when it addresses educational activity systems themselves. Here, it specifically explains—with less abstractions—how print plays a social function within educational activity systems:
“The educational system is a key consumer of printed materials. In the United States, at least 30 percent of all books sold are textbooks. An additional 11 percent go to libraries, and many libraries are connected with schools and colleges. Elementary and secondary school texts alone account for 16 percent of book sales. In many developing countries, the proportion of books sold to educational institutions  is even higher, because relatively few individuals can afford to  purchase books, and channels of retail book distribution are generally  inadequate. It has been estimated that more than 90 percent of book sales in India are made to institutions—mostly schools, colleges and libraries. In recent years, as university enrollments have risen dramatically in most countries, the market for textbooks at the post-secondary level has also become an important aspect of the publishing equation” (3). 
This second excerpt of the article explains how, despite speedy technological advances, publishing and print are still vital to the educational system because the systems are key consumers of print. For the purposes of the article,  it is far more concrete and has less elements of the “Official Style.” Clocking in at a reading grade level of 13.0, this portion is more accessible and sets a clearer framework of the importance of print in these systems. Further, by precisely connecting book/traditional print production and sales with specific educational systems like libraries and universities, it shows relevance. It even explains how relevant print is to any grade level, not merely university systems. The excerpt raises another relevant point: with the rise of university enrollment in recent decades, there is a certain need for books and traditional print in the educational system. It is an interesting notion because it goes against the assumption that print no longer plays an active role in the system. By addressing these educational systems, this excerpt functions well.

Altbach’s text functions within educational systems in terms of libraries as well. Take this third excerpt: “Libraries are particularly important for certain types of books. For example, about 80 percent of the children's books published in the United States are purchased by libraries. Scholarly books are also very dependent on libraries” (5). The need for books in the intellectual community is imperative within the context of this article, and the text functions as an additional element to Altbach’s argument, with even less abstractions and elements of "Official Style"—on the contrary, actually. At a reading grade level of 10.7, this excerpt seems to be written more in "Plain Style;" that is, with less "scholarly" jargon and more accessible language. Though it does include some passive voice, the facts are apparent. Here, Altbach's argument seems to be at its strongest because it suggests a sense of urgency; phrases like "particularly important" and "very dependent" perpetuate this. This overall tone works well within the context of his article. As a result, the excerpt appears both credible and clear.

So, as the witty—and a bit depressing—above drawing shows, is technology truly fueling the fire for the bleak future of print?  Perhaps... but are books dead? Through its key excerpts and its ability to address educational activity systems, the article seems to suggest otherwise, and goes against the assumption that technology should reign supreme. Above all, the article functions in the sense that it shows the relevance print holds, even in modern, technologically driven intellectual systems. Especially as university students, it is interesting to note how this text functions within the educational system.

By: Jessica Haugen

For more information on Philip G. Altbach's article, click here. 

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