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.

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.

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.

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.

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”

Starting Again, Again

I have been working for the last year-ish on a new long-form writing project. The project is proceeding slowly, mostly because of time limitations.1 But it is proceeding, which is something I need to remind myself of right now.

I need the reminder because I am in the process of trying to produce a project overview, which is something I thought I’d already done. I kind of did; I started the project by producing what I thought of as a proto-prospectus, which I shared with a few friends for comment. I then wrote and delivered a talk that might serve as a first draft of an introduction to the project as a whole, and this summer I dove into work on one of the project’s central chapters. So I’ve managed to produce a fair bit of material, which is great.

But somehow the existence of that material is getting in the way of my ability to describe this project formally. My proto-prospectus feels far too informal and ill-formed; my draft introduction gets far too caught in the narrative weeds; the central chapter… well, it’s only about a third done, and in part because I felt like I’d lost the thread of the work the chapter was supposed to be doing. So if I’m going to produce the project overview I need, it’s going to require me to put everything I’ve already done aside and start fresh, in a blank document, telling the project’s story as best I can.

It occurred to me this morning that perhaps one of the reasons I feel such difficulty maintaining a grasp on this project and its through-line is that I haven’t been talking about it much — or here, frankly at all — and so haven’t worked out its points in dialogue with friends. I’ve avoided that in part because it just felt too early, and thus too risky, to go public with these ideas.

But I’m having to remind myself that Planned Obsolescence did not begin its life as a book project. Long before it began to take that shape, I did a lot of thinking-out-loud on this blog; it was only much later that the various pieces began to coalesce as something larger than what they’d been.

I’m not sure why I expected things to be different this time. Perhaps because I’m now advanced enough in my career that I figured I should know how to do this in a more systematic, more conventional, more independent way. Or perhaps there is something embedded in that seniority that has made me if not exactly risk-averse then perhaps nervous about showing uncertainty in public.

I should know better. A willingness to show that uncertainty is not only a key part of the scholarly process in which I want to engage, it’s a cornerstone of the argument I’m trying to make.

It’s not entirely a surprise that I’m having to learn this lesson again; this blog is filled with instances of me relearning and remembering and trying to remind myself of things I’d somehow managed to forget. But here I am, again, reminding myself, again, of the purposes that this space has served for me for the last fourteen years.

I’m starting again, again, both in this space and on this project. And I will hope for the opportunity to talk with you about the ideas I’m working on in the weeks ahead.

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.