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.

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 was offering, but 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

“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


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.

I have just had one of those moments in which writing about the reasons I’m having trouble writing the thing I’m trying to write just made the thing I’m trying to write become far more clear. As in previous such instances (c.f. the opening of the authorship chapter in Planned Obsolescence), the problem being explored in the piece of writing and the problem of doing the writing are pretty intimately intertwined. Someday I would love to remember that before my anxieties about why this thing is so hard to write become quite so pronounced.

The NEH at 50

The National Endowment for the Humanities is celebrating its 50th anniversary today. I’m joining many scholars, writers, filmmakers, educators, and countless others online today in thinking about the ways that the NEH has supported the work that I do, and my ability to do it.

I’ve been the grateful recipient of two Digital Humanities Startup Grants from the NEH, one of which enabled the colleagues I was working with to build MediaCommons, and the other of which supported a collaboration between the Modern Language Association and Columbia University Library’s Center for Digital Research and Scholarship in building CORE. What’s crucial about these projects, in my view, is that each focused not on the production and publication of a specific research project (though there is enormous value in and need for support of such work), but rather on developing the means of supporting many other scholars in doing the work that they want to do. I hope, in that way, that these two projects help further the endowment’s goals in, as President Obama phrases it, working to “shape a future of opportunity and creativity for all.”

What is also important to note, of course, is that both projects that I had the honor of being involved with were primarily social in their orientation — MediaCommons sought to create a community among scholars in media studies, and CORE now explores the possibilities that are created when an open-access repository is connected with a networked scholarly community. This community orientation is not at all incidental to the projects, or to the endowment: the NEH has sought from the outset to connect the humanities with the American public. I am honored to have had the opportunity to play a small role in that enormously important project.


When I was in sixth grade, I decided that I hated the way that folks where I grew up pronounced my first name (think three syllables), so I convinced everyone to call me by a shortened nickname version (think first initial). This was a fine solution, until I discovered at some point in college that I really liked my actual first name and wanted to use it, but could not convince anyone to drop the nickname.

It took moving across the country, to a place where no one knew me, to make the switch. My first name and I got a fresh start — for the most part. Most of my family still uses the nickname, as do some old friends. They’re mostly forgiven, as people who knew me before 1991 were grandfathered in, so to speak.

Every so often, though, I’ll run across someone who didn’t know me then, but who now knows someone who did. And every so often, one of these people will decide to pick up the nickname, whether innocently or not, whether out of a genuine attempt to be friendly or a condescending familiarity.

Honestly, I do not care why they do it. What I’m mostly interested in here is my own reaction, which is frequently anxious, and often furious.

Part of the deal is that it triggers the same response as when someone gets my name wrong, usually mistaking either my first or last name for the slightly more common variants thereof. It happens to everyone sometimes. It’s an honest mistake. But I’m left weirdly saddened by the sense that I am not vivid enough to be remembered properly, or important enough to warrant correctness, and I never know how to issue a correction that isn’t either overly defensive or fruitlessly unheard. And when it happens more than once, or far enough into knowing someone that they ought to know better, all of that is intensified.

It’s got me wondering a bit about names and attachments, about the relationship between what someone calls you and what you feel yourself to be. Being called by that old nickname today inevitably puts me back in that desk where, on the first day of sixth grade, I made the spur of the moment decision to ask to be called something else, something that might be gotten a little less wrong. The difficulty I had shaking that casual decision to use a diminutive — and the visceral response I have when the wrong person tries to adopt it now — suggest the deep consequences of names, the degree to which they embed themselves wherever it is that identity lies.

For many years, I lived with a diet Coke addiction. It wasn’t bad in terms of quantity, but it was serious in its regularity: it was hard for me to go a day without one. The cravings that resulted were intense.

I’ve been all but diet Coke free for nearly two and a half years now. Over that period I’ve drunk a bit of diet Coke twice (and a bit of Coke Zero once) and was astonished by the degree to which it tasted like antifreeze. That did in my cravings pretty much entirely — and yet this afternoon I find myself longing for an ice-cold carbonated caffeinated beverage. Neither iced tea nor iced coffee will do.

I find myself weirdly saddened today that the thing that was diet Coke no longer exists for me, even though I’m so much better off without it.