On Developing Networked Communities

I dropped what a friend of mine referred to as a “Twitter bomb” this morning, spurred on by a question raised by Tim Hutchings:

My thoughts have gotten a bit of attention, and in order to ensure that they’re not lost to the passage of time (and to do the editing that Twitter won’t permit), I thought I’d capture them here.

I’ve heard the concern about the way we named Humanities Commons a few times, and I have taken it to heart. I’ve tried, as much as I can, to put aside my somewhat knee-jerk desire to point out that few have complained about the ways that projects with “science” in their names limit their address. Because there’s a real point being made here: naming the humanities limits our reach. And to a significant extent, that’s purposeful.

The humanities have long been underserved by digital infrastructure projects. Scientists have loads of open science networks available to them. Social scientists have had SSRN. And given that Humanities Commons began with the MLA, and MLA Commons, it seemed only natural that we should serve our own constituency first.

But: First. Platforming outward from MLA Commons to Humanities Commons has been one step in a process. And more steps are to come.

It’s hard to develop community by simply throwing open the doors, though. Much as I resist the Facebook analogy (as I wouldn’t want a scholarly commons to take it as a model), it’s worth considering how the platform grew. First, they established internally-focused networks within individual institutions, enabling members to connect with people they already knew. Then they created means of connecting across those networks. And only once there was a critical mass of participation did they open the doors to everyone.

One of the mistakes that’s been made repeatedly in open scholarly communication projects has been the attempt to create the bucket of everything. Sometimes that bucket has been journal-shaped, and sometimes it’s been social network shaped. But they all face the same challenge: getting individual scholars who identify with their field or subfield and who want to speak with their colleagues to recognize themselves in “everybody.”

So Humanities Commons has begun with communities of practice — but they’re just a place to start. We welcome the involvement of new communities of practice, and we look forward to growing the network in organic, collaborative ways.

The Commons and the Common Good

The Commons and the Common Good

Earlier this week, I took a whirlwind trip back to my old New York stomping grounds, where I both had the opportunity to catch up with my colleagues at the MLA and to spend a day talking with the leaders of several scholarly societies who are helping us think through the future of Humanities Commons. I’m still a bit fuzzy-headed from travel and sleep deprivation, and I’m still processing the discussion and the challenges that it surfaced, but I’m excited about the energy in that meeting room and the possibilities that lie ahead.

Two things became clear to me in the course of our conversation. The first thing is that organizations and institutions across the humanities are facing many of the same challenges and have many of the same resulting infrastructural and communication needs. The second is that chief among those needs — if often unrecognized or unarticulated — is the ability to have some agency with respect to the solutions they adopt. Neither of these ideas really qualifies as a realization, but the degree to which the shared nature of the challenges risks obscuring the shared potential of the solutions did become a good bit sharper.

A huge part of the problem is that the most shared of the shared challenges is budgetary: everybody’s underresourced and understaffed; everybody is trying to figure out how to do more with less. Scholarly societies need to provide their members with more, and more compelling, services in order to keep those members involved and invested, but doing so often involves new systems and platforms, and supporting (much less developing) those systems and platforms is often beyond those societies’ capacity. Similarly, colleges and universities need to provide their faculty members and students with compelling ways to develop their research and make it available to and discoverable by the world, but they face similar challenges in developing the infrastructure — not just technical but crucially human — to facilitate that work.

This gap between needs and capacities has led to a thriving ed-tech and association management industry. Solutions (with a capital S) abound. The problem, of course, is that the end goal of those providing the Solutions is not the same as the end goal of the organizations and institutions they’re providing the Solutions for: not improving education, or facilitating communication, or supporting research, or whathaveyou, but instead (as Neal Stephenson would have it) increasing shareholder value. In order to do so, of course, their Solutions need to be pretty good, and pretty well-supported, but where the goal of increasing shareholder value runs up against the needs and pressures of the organizations and institutions they’re ostensibly serving, the industry’s goals are going to win. And the result is platforms and services that function more to extract value from organizations than to help those organizations serve their members’ needs.

These platforms and services, however, are generally speaking too difficult to develop and maintain for any organization or institution to manage on their own. And it’s that “on their own” that makes the Solutions industry a viable one. As long as organizations and institutions not only assume their needs to be idiosyncratic but feel the need, as Chris Newfield has put it, to “compete all the time,” they’re stuck, at the mercy of the market.

I am very grateful to have had the opportunity over the last several years to work for an organization that recognized the importance of providing community-focused platforms for scholarly communication, and that gave me the latitude to work with other like-minded academic groups to develop an open-source, not-for-profit solution (with a small s) to fill that need. The MLA is large enough, and well-resourced enough, to have been able to take such a project on where many of its sister societies could not. But sustaining a solution like this requires more than even the largest and best-resourced organizations can provide.

What’s required is a more robust sense of the commonality of our interests and the collaborative possibilities of our solutions. We need organizations and institutions to put aside competition and embrace the sorts of collective action that might help protect all of us from the markets that promise solutions but provide only Solutions. That’s a significant part of what we’re hoping to build with Humanities Commons — not just a platform for open scholarly communication, but a model for collective development and support of shared services.

This is no small challenge. We know all too well how to think about market-based forces like competition. We have much less experience, as a culture, with thinking about collaboration. But solving shared problems sustainably is going to require just that shift.

Photo credit: Cooperation 2 by Erich Ferdinand. CC BY.

Desire Paths

Desire Paths

The last month has been full of the expected and unexpected business of learning my way around a new institution. It’s been seven years since I’ve been on a campus full time, nearly twenty years since I’ve been centered on a large university campus, and and an unspeakably large number of years since I’ve spent time on a large public land-grant university campus. And so more or less everything I thought I knew about those institutions and how they function is having to be reset. There are new systems, new structures, new acronyms (my word, the acronyms), and new histories and people. There’s a lot to learn.

The geographical component of all that is relatively minor, and yet it’s loomed quite large over my first few weeks. It’s not just a matter of being in a part of the country that I know precious little about (and then the attendant confusions of a cooler-than-expected August and an unusually hot mid-September); it’s also the campus itself. Finding my way from one place to another was initially disorienting, more so than I would have expected. What got me through those early days was the fact that all campus buildings have officially recorded street addresses, with the result that they’re all Google Maps-able by name.

Nonetheless, it took me a while to figure out that there are no straight paths on campus, no way to walk directly from one building to another without a bit of vectoring. All the paths — and there are lots of them — impose slight turns, oblique angles, subtle curves. It’s not your typical quad-based structure, all rectangles and straight lines and diagonals and occasionally cut corners.

It’s the missing cut corners that got my attention; one would think (okay, the recently removed New Yorker in me would think) that folks would get fed up with the indirection of the paths and start forging their way directly from one place to another. But they haven’t. I haven’t spotted desire paths anywhere I’ve been. (Admittedly, my wanderings have thus far been confined to a relatively small area of campus, but it’s pretty highly trafficked.)

There’s something in this I want to ponder, an awareness built into the environment that the best way from one place to another, intellectual-growth-wise, is likely not direct. It requires no end of gradual shifts and turns, of recalculating and setting a course anew. That I have found a place where such indirection is embraced, where shortcuts don’t seem to be the inevitable result, feels faintly miraculous.

Parting Gifts

Today marks the start of my last week working at the MLA. It’s been a fantastic six years, and I’m enormously grateful to have had the opportunity to work on so many fascinating projects, and with such great colleagues and members, over that time. And I’m especially happy that I’m going to be able to continue working on one of those projects, Humanities Commons.

So this is the point at which I’m going to shamelessly use my imminent departure to ask you all for a little going-away present. We are super close to a major milestone in Humanities Commons membership, and I’d really, really like to see us cross that threshold while I’m still in the office, with the team.

Here’s the call: if you haven’t yet created a Humanities Commons account, please do! Accounts are open to anyone working in any field, in any capacity, in the humanities. You can create a professional profile, deposit and share work in our open-access repository, join discussion groups, build a website, and more. And if you’re a member of one of our participating societies — MLA, AJS, ASEEES, and as of last week, CAA — you can participate in your scholarly organization’s work as well.

If you already have an account, thank you! I’d love it if you’d give me — well, all of us, really — a small gift as well: deposit a syllabus, a conference paper, an article pre-print, or something else entirely, to share with the world.

Thanks, all, for all of your support and enthusiasm over the years. Here’s to our next steps toward building the humanities community of the future.

Sustainability

As we’ve just announced, the MLA is grateful to have received a generous grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation in support of the next phase of our work on Humanities Commons. I’m personally grateful as well, both to have had the opportunity to work with an amazing team (about whom more in a moment) on this project over the last five years and to have been given the opportunity to continue that work from my new position at Michigan State University.

Our goal for Humanities Commons is to build an open access, open source, not-for-profit network that is focused on the needs of scholars and practitioners in the humanities, helping them share their work with one another and with the world. Humanities Commons is committed to an ethic of collective, collaborative, sustainable development, and this next phase of our work is focused on just that. Over the course of the next year, we will work with a group of prospective partner societies to produce a comprehensive business and sustainability plan to ensure the network’s future, as well as a governance model that will ensure that the network’s sustaining partners have oversight of its operations and a voice in its future development.

Real sustainability, after all, isn’t just about revenue generation and cost recovery. It’s about relationships, about personal and institutional commitment, about the willingness to work together toward long-term means of ensuring that the platforms we build today will not just survive but evolve with our technologies and the people who use them.

We want to thank our partner societies in the pilot of Humanities Commons — the Association for Jewish Studies; the Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies; and, as of later this week, the College Art Association — for their willingness to build those relationships in the service of this new network. And we want to thank the organizations that have agreed to participate in this year’s planning process, about whom more in the very near future.

But we also want to thank the more than 4000 members who have joined Humanities Commons since we launched in December, for helping us create and promote a community of scholars, for scholars, by scholars.

And most of all, I personally want to thank the Humanities Commons team. The team of course includes my fabulous colleagues at the MLA, who have brought an astounding creativity, commitment, and spirit of member service to building a truly sustainable scholarly communication network for us all: Nicky Agate, Head of Digital Initiatives; Eric Knappe, Head of Web Development; Ryan Williams and Leo Fulgencio, Web Developers; Anne Donlon, Community Manager; and Caitlin Duffy, our social media maven. It also includes some amazing collaborators: Matt Gold, Boone Gorges, and the rest of the CUNY GC team who brought us Commons In A Box; Barbara Rockenbach, Mark Newton, Rebecca Kennison, and the rest of the Columbia University Libraries team past and present who have energetically participated in the development of CORE; Benn Oshrin, Scott Koranda, and the rest of the Spherical Cow Group for their work on the identity management system that makes this federation possible.

It has been a privilege to get to be part of this extraordinary collaboration, and I very much look forward to seeing where the next year leads us.

Next Steps

Six years ago, I had the privilege of joining the staff of the Modern Language Association as Director of Scholarly Communication. My goal was to help the association and its members explore how developing digital technologies and platforms might affect the ways they produce and share their research, the ways they communicate and collaborate with one another, and the ways that they get their work out to the world. My hope in this position was to be able to take the research I’d been doing, both on MediaCommons and in Planned Obsolescence, and put it to work in service to our fields.

This position was an extraordinary challenge, and it pushed me in ways that I never could have predicted. Over the last six years I had the opportunity to work with a brilliant acquisitions, editorial, and development team to rethink our publishing processes and produce a new MLA style for the network age. We rethought our author agreements to make them fully open-access friendly. And perhaps most importantly, we created new ways of fostering direct member-to-member communication on MLA Commons, and growing that project into the interdisciplinary, open, not-for-profit Humanities Commons. Along the way, I’ve had the honor of working with brilliant, dedicated colleagues, as well as with a terrific number of committed MLA members, all of whom have challenged and strengthened the ways I’ve thought about research, publishing, communication, and collaboration in all their forms.

Today, I’m on the cusp of a new transition: this August, I’ll be joining the College of Arts and Letters at Michigan State University as Director of Digital Humanities and Professor of English. The decision to leave the MLA was a difficult one, but the opportunity to bring the many things that I’ve learned over the last six years back to a university campus, and particularly to an institution like MSU, was extremely enticing. I owe my undergraduate and masters-level education to a land-grant institution, and the mission of those institutions — their commitment not just to the university community but to building bridges between the academy and the broader public — matters enormously to me. I’m thrilled that I’ll be able to work with colleagues at MSU on building programs and projects that can serve the public good.

My role as Director of DH will be to facilitate and foster campus-wide collaborations among MSU’s extraordinary number of digital centers, programs, and projects, helping build on their strengths and imagine new future possibilities. I’m also looking forward to working directly with students once again, supporting graduate students in exploring new forms of scholarly communication and professionalization and working with undergraduates as they begin exploring and shaping the future of our increasingly digital culture. And of course I’m excited about the opportunity to push my research and writing projects forward — not least, Generous Thinking, which is entirely focused on the potential that the humanities present for recreating productive, collaborative relationships between the academy and the public sphere. And — best of all possible worlds — I’m thrilled that I’m going to be able to continue my work on Humanities Commons, working with the MLA’s fantastic team and our many partners to think about ways that the platform might support more new kinds of collaborations within and across university campuses.

It has been a genuine privilege to spend the last six years serving the field. I am grateful to have the chance now to continue that service, both to a local campus community and to the larger public good. Thanks to all of you for your support and encouragement and critique and conversation over the years; I’m hopeful that I’ll have the opportunity in the coming years to build on the thoughtful, generous sense of community that I’ve found here.

Things I Have Learned from Other People’s Use of My Email Address

Kevin Fitzpatrick’s monthly AT&T Wireless bill is creeping higher month by month, and unless he’s got family members on his account, he should probably seek a better plan.

Kevin also apparently had some serious damage to his 2013 Dodge, but his insurance company seems to be all over it.

Kathleen Fitzpatrick got a great deal on some lovely clothes at Nordstrom Rack in Eatontown, wherever that is, but she’s not going to be getting a copy of her receipt.

Kathy Fitzpatrick’s mum, Mary, is super sweet, and I hope their upcoming trip goes wonderfully.

K. Fitzpatrick found a better deal on a Samsung Galaxy Tablet than what JohnLewis.com was offering, but JohnLewis.com did the right thing and matched it. Or would have, had she gotten the message instead of me.

Another K. Fitzpatrick and her husband have a really nice financial advisor, who reached out to them for a review to start the new year. I am glad her husband got the message but wish he’d noticed that his wife’s email address was wrong before replying-all.

And yet another K. Fitzpatrick’s nursing license renewal application has been received by the Tennessee Department of Health. Registered nurses are the best, and the Tennessee Department of Health is awesome too, as they’re the ONLY organization that has ever worked to track the correct email address of the correct K. Fitzpatrick down. Rock on, TN Health.

* * *

I will admit to being somewhat facetious in detailing the above, and I’ll also acknowledge that some of the misdirected email messages I get are the result of sender typos (see Kathy Fitzpatrick’s mum). That’s going to happen. But other instances of this problem are much more concerning. After several months of trying to notify someone about the problem, I am still receiving Kevin Fitzpatrick’s AT&T bill, as well as notices of when he’s paid, and because of that I know his account number and the last four digits of his credit card. And then there’s the teen several years back who signed up for a series of MySpace-like social networks using my email address, which proceeded to bombard me with notifications about her activity within the sites, in way more detail than I would have wanted.

The bottom line is that this is not safe. That a mistake can result in a stranger receiving all kinds of personal information about you points to a major flaw in many of the systems with which we interact today. And what’s worse is that in many cases this information leak is avoidable: if AT&T or any of the other sites and networks that have started sending me someone else’s information were to require email verification before employing user-provided addresses, they’d take an enormous step toward securing their users’ privacy.

I have undoubtedly mistyped my email address on several web-based forms. Kevin Fitzpatrick may well know more about me than I would like. All the more reason to find it astonishing that such a basic flaw in internet-based communication seems to be getting worse rather than better.

“To acknowledge these horrors means turning away from the brightly rendered version of your country as it has always declared itself and turning toward something murkier and unknown. It is still too difficult for most Americans to do this. But that is your work. It must be, if only to preserve the sanctity of your mind.”

Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me

Reading, Privacy, and Scholarly Networks

Sarah Bond published a column on Forbes.com this morning on the importance of not for profit scholarly networks. I’m thrilled that she mentioned not only my blog post but also the work we’re doing at Humanities Commons. But if she hasn’t convinced you that it’s time to #DeleteAcademiaEdu yet, maybe this will: Friday, the network launched a new “prime” feature that allows members to pay to see the identities of users who are reading the work they share. That is to say: if you are reading things on Academia.edu, the network may sell your user info.

That they’re offering to sell this info to the author of the work involved does not make it okay. This is a frightening violation of the privacy standards that — a key point of comparison — libraries have long maintained with respect to reader activity. And selling your data to authors may only be the beginning.

I don’t want to read too much into the fact that they launched this “feature” on inauguration day. But the coincidence really begs scholars to become even more vigilant about where they’re sharing their work, and what networks they’re supporting as they access the work of others.

“You know, the question isn’t whether we’re going to have to do hard, awful things, because we are. We all are. The question is whether we have to do them alone.”

Kate Braestrup, in Krista Tippett, Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living