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

Moving Forward

For the last week, I have been less than a page away from finishing a draft of the chapter on reading (see the overview for more on that), but found myself unable to press forward. The reasons are all too evident: it suddenly felt way too precious to be writing about the transformative potential of reading in helping build a more empathetic, engaged relationship between the academy and the public sphere in the face of what still feels to me like the most colossal breakdown in not just empathy but the most basic forms of mutual recognition and comprehension in my lifetime.

But this morning I forced myself through it. Those last two paragraphs will likely be subject to serious revision, of course, as will much of what precedes them, as I need to take a few giant steps back from the project as a whole and make sure that it’s working toward the right goals, for the right reasons. I am beginning that process by turning my attention to research toward the chapter on listening, in the hope that it might help me not only push this project forward but also start shaping for myself a way of being in the world that we seem to have made.

My intent is to share some of that research as I go, though I have a lot to process — we all have a lot to process — and doing so in public feels more than a little dangerous right now. But it’s important, and I’m not going to let myself back down from this. I hope that you’ll be willing to join me.

This Morning

I am wanting desperately to find some still place to regroup, but I have to keep moving: I have to pack and get myself to the airport and go home, where I have to prepare for some beloved guests who will be arriving from the U.K. and all I can think of is the hundreds of ways I need to apologize to them, and to all of us. I am sick at heart, and sick to my stomach, contemplating where we find ourselves today.

In November 2004, I was teaching an Introduction to Media Studies class, and the morning after, my students and I talked about the degree to which the election results signaled a desperate need for media literacy. The outcome of that election, I told them, did not give me hope, but it did give me purpose.

I am trying to find myself in that sense of purpose again, but it’s going to take me a bit longer to process what last night suggests for my current project, about the possibilities for real communication across the borders of the academy, for generosity in the face of dismissal and divisiveness.

In 2004, I felt that I might have a lot that I could teach. Today, I cannot help but feel like I have much, much more to learn. And it’s not going to be easy, or pleasant. But — and this is as much an exhortation to myself as it is a declaration — I will not run away from this.

Generous Thinking: Introduction

The text below is a revised version of a talk I gave at the University of Richmond this spring. It’s the first bit of writing toward my very much in-process project, Generous Thinking: The University and the Public Good. I suspect that a modified version of it will wind up serving as an introduction to the larger project, but I’m early enough in this thing that I wouldn’t be surprised to be wrong about that entirely.

Responses are not simply welcome but strongly desired.

Continue reading “Generous Thinking: Introduction”

Generous Thinking: The University and the Public Good

I have been working — painfully slowly, but nonetheless working — on a new project for something that is showing every sign of turning into a book. I’m still in the phase in which the thing is a bit hard to discuss, as I’m really figuring out what it’s all about on a day-to-day basis. But it finally occurred to me (another one of those “light dawns over Marblehead” moments that have characterized so much of my career thus far) that given the extent to which my last book argued for new scholarly practices including a willingness to show our process, blemishes and all, and given the extent to which the new project is all about the possibilities that might open up for scholars not just in doing more of their work in public but in doing more of that work in conversation with the public, well, I might take a bit of my own advice and open the thing up a bit.

Consider this the start of a conversation, a call in hope of response.

I’m beginning today with the project overview, below the fold. Later this week, I’ll post the first chunk of the project itself, derived from a talk I gave this spring at the University of Richmond. And I hope that more pieces will follow as I dig further into the guts of this thing. Those pieces are likely to be fragmentary, more question than answer — but then, that’s how some of the best conversations begin.

Continue reading “Generous Thinking: The University and the Public Good”

Not-Running

Over the years, I’ve posted a lot here about running, from chronicling my marathon training to pondering my deep ambivalence (if not flat out reluctance) about the act. Like writing here, I’ve stopped and started and stopped again, and issued myself new directives to get going once more.

This is a different sort of post, in which in which I am trying not to make myself do anything but instead to accommodate myself to the current situation, and to motivate myself to make as much of it as I can. It’s attempting what Tara Brach describes as the start of a process of recognition and acceptance, a moment of looking around and saying, “Oh, it’s like this.”

The situation is this: my left knee has been acting up for the last several months, mostly in a mid-grade way but at a couple of points acutely enough that I took to my bed with an ice pack, pretty worried that I might have actually damaged something. I finally persuaded myself to go see a sports medicine doctor and get it checked out. And of course, just like when you take your car to the mechanic, it wouldn’t make the noise. Or, rather, it did make the noise (“wow, that’s a lot of crackling,” my doctor said) but it didn’t hurt, it didn’t stick, it didn’t threaten to buckle. So she pushed and prodded and said that there didn’t appear to be anything structural wrong with it, and she sent me off for x-rays.

Which, as I should have known to expect, showed a bunch of arthritis. She sent me a prescription for physical therapy, and she advised me to lay off the high-impact exercise, at least for the time being. “I’m not saying you can’t run ever again,” she said. “But for now.”

My physical therapist, however, was a good bit more solidly in the running-is-over camp. And I’m finding myself there as well. It’s partially because the thing going on in my knee seems to be degenerative, and as the PT said, it can’t be reversed or even really stopped. But it’s also partially because it gives me permission to stop bashing my head against that particular wall. Deciding that running is over lets me stop feeling bad about not running, and about not wanting to run, and it opens up some space for me to focus on doing some other things.

So for the last few weeks I’ve been all about the stationary bikes at my gym, and I’ve even taken a few spinning classes. (I’ve also been advised to back off on those until we strengthen things around my knees a bit — but that feels like something to look forward to.) And I’m doing my PT and working with a personal trainer to try to strengthen more generally.

I wanted to write about this today because it feels a bit emblematic, capturing something about how I’ve been trying to approach change over the last few years, finding ways not to fight the things that can’t be fought, ways to hold onto the meaningful parts of the past and to let go of what cannot be. It’s a mode of being in the world that I’m trying to bring to my work as well: recognizing, for instance, that whatever writing I’m doing is likely to go way more slowly than I want it to, and that my wanting it to go faster won’t change that. And that recognition — “Oh, it’s like this” — is the first step toward figuring out how to make the most of the slowness.