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.


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.


Tim McCormick posted an extremely interesting followup to my last post. If you haven’t read it, you should.

My comment on his post ran a bit out of control, and so I’m reproducing it here, in part so that I can continue thinking about this after tonight:

This is a great post, Tim. Here’s the thing, though: this is exactly the kind of public disagreement that I want the culture of online engagement to be able to foster; it is, as you point out, respectful, but it’s also serious. The problem is that I think this kind of dissensus is in danger as long as our mode of discourse falls so easily into snark, hostility, dismissiveness, and counterproductive incivility.

I don’t think it’s accidental that we are having this discussion via our blogs. I had time to sit with my post before I published it. You had time to read it and think about it before you responded. I’ve had time to consider this comment. And not just time — both of us have enough space to flesh out our thoughts. None of this means that by the end of the exchange we’re going to agree; in fact, I’m pretty sure we won’t. But it does mean that we’ve both given serious thought to the disagreement.

And this is what has me concerned about recent episodes on Twitter. Not that people disagree, but that there often isn’t enough room in either time or space for thought before responding, and thus that those responses so easily drift toward the most literally thoughtless. I’m not asking anybody not to say exactly what’s on their minds; by all means, do. I’m just asking that we all think about it a bit first.

And — if I could have anything — it would be for all of us to think about it not just from our own subject positions, but from the positions of the other people involved. This is where I get accused of wanting everybody to sit around the campfire and sing Kumbaya, which is simply not it at all. Disagree! But recognize that there is the slightest possibility that you (not you, Tim; that general “you” out there) could be wrong, and that the other person might well have a point.

So in fact, here’s a point of agreement between the two of us: you say that we need to have “the widest possible disagreements,” and that “to be other-engaged, and world-engaged, we need to be always leaning in to the uncomfortable.” Exactly! But to say that, as a corollary, we have to permit uncivil speech, public insult, and shaming — that anyone who resists this kind of behavior is just demanding that everyone agree — is to say that only the person who is the target of such speech needs to be uncomfortable, that the person who utters it has no responsibility for pausing to consider that other’s position. And there, I disagree quite strongly. (As does, I think, Postel; being liberal in what you accept from others has to be matched by being conservative in what you do for the network to be robust.)

I do not think that it should be the sole responsibility of the listener to tune out hostility, or that, as a Twitter respondent said last night, that it’s the responsibility of one who has been publicly shamed simply to decide not to feel that shame. There’s an edge of blaming the victim there that makes me profoundly uncomfortable. But I do think that we all need to do a far better job of listening to one another, and of taking one another seriously when we say that something’s just not okay. That, I think, is the real work that Ryan Cordell did in his fantastic blog post this morning. It’s way less important to me what the specific plan he’s developed for his future Tweeting is (though I think it’s awesome); it’s that he took the time to sit down with a person he’d hurt and find out what had happened from her perspective. It’s not at all incidental that they walked away from their conversation still disagreeing about the scholarly issues that set off their exchange — but with what sounds like a deeper respect for one another as colleagues.

This has all become a bit heavier than I want it to be. I have no interest in becoming the civility police. Twitter is fun, and funny, and irreverent, and playful, and I want it to stay that way. But I really resist the use of shame as a tool of either humor or criticism. Shame is corrosive to community. It shuts down discussion, rather than opening it up. And that’s my bottom line.

More on That Word

This is in part an apology for having ranted and run yesterday; between the little project I’m trying to get launched in the next couple of weeks and a meeting that took up a good chunk of yesterday, I wasn’t able to stay on top of the conversation that my post started for very long.

I’ve tried to catch up on it, though, and have a few thoughts I now want to add.

My hatred of the term is not meant to signal any sense that the thing it’s meant to refer to doesn’t exist. To deny that the dominant logic of contemporary U.S. culture is the logic of the market would be a fruitless exercise. Nor do I want to defend that logic, or suggest that there aren’t real consequences to its dominance.

But I do want to suggest that the logic is so pervasive, and the concept used to describe it so totalizing, that, like “postmodernism” before it, at some point it ceases to have the desired critical effect. As in the case of postmodernism, one has to begin to wonder whether there is any outside to neoliberalism. If there is an outside, how do we get there? If there isn’t, what work is pointing out the water in which we all swim actually attempting to do?

The other problem with the term, and the one that I was mostly focused on yesterday, is its conduciveness to sloppy adoption and deployment. This, too, plagued “postmodernism,” a term that got tossed around like confetti until what descriptive or critical power the term had utterly dissipated. What makes it worse in this case is that “neoliberal” is so clearly meant to be a pejorative, and that it gets deployed in the ways that, as Ted Underwood pointed out on Twitter, “bourgeois” once was. There are times when that term is undoubtedly called for. But like “bourgeois” or “reactionary” or any number of other such terms, I have too often of late heard “neoliberal” deployed as an insult by people on the left against other people on the left. It’s the classic circular firing squad of ideological purity, and it makes me nuts.

Outward and Visible Signs

I have an idea I’m backing into writing about this morning as I stand on the subway platform, a thing that I’m thinking about as “A Theory of the Information Class,” which attempts to unpack the bizarre merger of Weber and Veblen that so many of us seem to live under today. We operate under a not-exactly-Protestant work ethic that selectively defers the benefits of that work to some mythical after-life. We spend on certain kinds of material display, certainly — technology not least among them — but more than that, we conspicuously display our stress levels as if they were an outward and visible sign of grace.1 The markers of our stress seem to have become the real fruits of our labor, the proof of our virtue, the evidence of our success.

I came to this notion this morning as I tried to imagine what my life would be like if I weren’t so overwhelmed that I can’t fall asleep, if I weren’t waking up at 4 am thinking about everything I have to do, if I weren’t too busy to go to the gym, or go to yoga, or cook healthier meals, or see my friends. The first thing that occurred to me — and trust me, I recognize how sad this is — was that I’d be afraid that I wasn’t working hard enough. Or rather, if I’m going to be honest, I’d be afraid that other people would think I wasn’t working hard enough.

Stress has become, I think, the contemporary sign of our salvation. This doesn’t take us all that far from Weber, of course. But simply being too busy to relax isn’t enough; it’s the need to make visible to those around us how busy we are, to prove our worth by forever demonstrating how little time we have for leisure, that I think begins to carry us into Veblen terrain. It’s not simply about deferring pleasure; it’s about the pleasure we take in deferring pleasure, a pleasure that’s all about how the deferral looks to others.

I’m not sure how much more I want to dig into this right now, or whether I’m at all qualified to take this line of thought much further. But it’s clear from my last few months of posting here, as well as the reading and thinking I’ve been doing in my (precious little! really, very impressively infinitesimal!) leisure time, that I’ve got questions of balance, of self-care, of stillness very much on my mind. I am going to let those thoughts linger, and see where they might take me.

Public Responsibility, Public Access

Occupy is back today, celebrating the first anniversary of S17 with Strike Debt, a movement meant to call attention to the unconscionable levels of debt that many Americans are forced to take on, not least in the process of getting an education. There is much anger out there – and much justified anger, at that. We once understood as a culture that providing access to education was a public responsibility, and we funded it as such. Over the last thirty-plus years, conservatives have convinced a huge percentage of voters that education isn’t a right, but a privilege, one whose funding is a private responsibility, and access to which therefore has become a private privilege.

There is a very similar discussion taking place about the knowledge that is being created within our institutions of higher education, and for equally good reason: knowledge, of the kind that is produced in universities and communicated through scholarship, is in the main produced in order to benefit our culture as a whole. It should be shared as widely as possible, so that it can have the greatest possible impact.

Many publishers associated with academic institutions and scholarly societies have long sustained themselves by making scholarly work available for a price. None of these university or association publishers make a profit; they use the proceeds from the work that they sell in order to provide services to the scholarly community.1 Scholarly societies in particular have used revenue generated through publications as a means of supporting the kinds of work on behalf of their members that can never produce revenue. Those activities are the mission of scholarly societies, and successfully pursuing that mission while keeping membership fees as low as possible requires additional revenue to come from somewhere. Many not-for-profit publishers would like to make the work they’re helping to facilitate freely and openly available, except that they don’t have the means, in a most literal sense: they need to recover costs on the work that they publish, in order to maintain the publishing activity. This isn’t just a matter of paying for the costs of printing and mailing the publications; putting work on the web may reduce the cost of distribution to near-zero, but it doesn’t reduce the cost of the work that publishers do to take the work from manuscript to finished publication.

Most such publishers have done a less than great job of explaining exactly where their “value added” lies, why it’s worth paying them for the work that they do. There’s a tendency, for instance, among university presses, to gesture toward “conducting peer review” as a key service, which only makes scholars pushing for increasingly free access dig in their heels: presses may coordinate peer review, but it’s scholars who do the reviewing. There is, however, an important set of services that publishers provide: they manage the many submissions they receive and select carefully from among them; many of them still, contrary to popular belief, invest in robust copyediting (and even the best writers benefit from the thoroughness that a good copyeditor can provide); they design readable texts, whether in print or online; they build those texts, whether through web production or typesetting; they distribute and publicize those texts through known networks. All of this provides the scholarly community with quality publications — and provides authors who publish through these channels with a venue in which their work will be associated with other quality work, and where it can be found by many of the other scholars who are looking for it — but all of those tasks require labor, and the people who do it (people, it should be said again, who are working for non-profit organizations) deserve to be paid, just as scholars deserve to be paid for the labor they provide to their institutions. However freely available we’d all like the products of such publishers to be made — and I think many, if not most, not-for-profit publishers would be very happy to give their work away, if they could simultaneously manage to keep the organization running — producing that work simply cannot be done for free.

Similarly, I know that many “public” universities — now only nominally public — would be happy to slash the tuition they’re charging, if they could find a way to remind the public of our collective responsibility for funding higher education. Strike Debt is out there today trying to remind us that access to education should be a public right, not a private privilege, and that making it so will require understanding that the responsibility for funding it is a public responsibility.

If we want the public to have access to scholarship — and if we want that access to be free — one key question remains: how will we fund it?

Changing the core model on which scholarly communication operates will require great imagination, a lot of experimentation, and a bit of time. We at the MLA are working on a number of initiatives designed to make the work that our members are producing more openly available. We have recently revised the author agreements for our publications to make them green open access friendly. We are in the process of developing a platform on which members will be able to share their work as freely as they would like. And we’ve got some other plans as well, as we look for more ways to give away the stuff that we’re producing. But there are still costs associated with all of this work. Whose responsibility is it to pay for scholarly communication? And how do we ensure that the responsibility is equitably distributed and fully accepted?


I find myself in that state again, in which I have a particular writing task — in this case a talk — with a pressing deadline, one that’s pressing enough that I really need to be working on it whenever I have time to write. (Being a talk, its deadline really can’t be blown.)

But for a whole series of reasons I won’t dig into too much right now, I’m struggling with the talk. It’s taking far longer to write than it should, and it’s just painful to work on. And so, as it drags on, the things that have been pushed aside in order to work on the talk are getting pushed further and further aside, and more deadlines are beginning to loom.

I’m caught in that eternal dilemma: put aside the most pressing thing in order to work on less pressing stuff that I might actually be able to knock off the list, but run the risk of not getting the talk done, or at least not getting it right? Or press on with the talk, hope a breakthrough comes quickly, and let the less pressing stuff continue to wait?

I have never found a satisfying solution to this particular kind of stuckness. What do you do when you’re caught in this deadline double bind?

Train of Thought

The funniest part of yesterday’s post — at least it’s funny to me — is how it got written: on my iPhone, on the subway. I remembered yesterday that, back when I started posting here semi-regularly again in the early summer, I began by jotting down some thoughts in this way, often standing with one elbow hooked around a pole, trying to keep my balance. I’d finish the posts started this way once I got in front of my computer. So I thought I’d try it out again, and yesterday’s post was the result.

Could my train of thought literally be a train of thought?

It’s more likely that these bursts of productivity on the train have to do with getting myself to start thinking before I get to my computer — in an environment with no network connectivity, where external circumstances often make it a good idea to pull inward and divert your attention from your surroundings.

I usually manage that by listening to French podcasts, which require a certain kind of concentration, but writing — perhaps a couple of quick paragraphs during the trip downtown — works even better, not least for helping to train my focus where I need it before I get to the office.

It’s easier to stay focused once I get there if I arrive with an idea already clearly in mind — one of those lessons that I think I need to relearn often.

Annals of Comment Spam

A few days back, I tweeted an amusing bit of comment spam I’d received that morning:

But there’s amusing comment spam and then there’s amusing comment spam. I’m not going to reproduce it here, but yesterday I received a comment that could conceivably have slipped past me, had Akismet not caught it. The comment was left on a recent travel-related post, and it related a travel anecdote, asking for advice on how to handle a somewhat bemusing interpersonal issue. And while my post seemed a strange place to ask that particular question, the story was well-enough written, and the concern seemingly sincere enough, that I might have let it get through. Akismet, however, flagged the address that the commenter left in the URL field, and so into the filter it went.

I find myself both relieved and troubled. While it would be great to get fewer comments telling me how helpful and brilliant and pretty and useful my blog posts are (or alternately that I should really work a bit harder on them), those are quite easily spotted and dispatched. If spammers start actually taking the time to ask substantive questions and post them in plausible places, will it become increasingly difficult to recognize spam when we see it?

It occurs to me that in fact I probably wouldn’t have missed the spammish nature of this particular comment, precisely because I didn’t recognize its author — even if I had been taken in by the tale, I wouldn’t have been ready to engage with the teller. Something in that leaves me both relieved and dissatisfied. On the one hand, I’m glad that relationships and the communities they create can help us weed out bad actors in networked spaces. On the other hand, if we find ourselves in a situation in which we close folks whom we don’t (yet) know out of our conversations, how can those communities continue to develop?