A hexadecimalful for hacking the academy

I do not regret not applying for THATCamp Prime (The Humanities and Technology unconference) this year, as it fell on the weekend of my anniversary, but I do miss the conversation as I woke up this morning reading the tweets (#thatcamp if you’re curious), and I hope those participating in the game jam write up their notes for more public consumption. One of the side projects is Tom Scheinfeldt and Dan Cohen’s call for contributions to Hacking the Academy, which they hope to collect within a week. A book in a week? I’d consider that a wee bit ambitious if I didn’t know them. And I’m glad I’m not teaching this summer, so I have the time to write a short essay.

I am an incrementalist radical, certain that change can happen, good change, without enormous discontinuity. So my vision of hacking the academy is less disruptive than what others imagine. In many ways, the academy has been in the process of being hacked for decades. My own experience as a student and academic illustrates that history. I was in the generation of college students who often enough began high school with typewriters and ended college or graduate school with computers (mine: a Leading Edge XT bought when I entered grad school in 1987). In college, I took a Greek literature in translation course from someone who was a founder half a decade later of the Bryn Mawr Classical Review, one of the first online humanities journals. In graduate school I was among the third generation of social-science historians to learn SPSS or SAS; I hope I was among the last to do part of my dissertation research on a mainframe VAX. At the end of grad school, I searched for job openings using a Gopher connection to the Chronicle‘s job database. I created my first webpage in 1996, and I’ve been blogging jobwise since 2001 (though that first entry on March 24 could best be used to point out the frequent tedium of an assistant professor’s life, not Hello, world so much as I’m in the office on another Saturday, world). In its first few years of existence, I was one of the hundreds of active participants on the H-Net collection of humanities e-mail lists. According to Google Scholar this morning, my five most-cited publications include my first book, two articles in standard journals (one sponsored by a scholarly society, one stand-alone), and two articles in an online-only journal. The most cited? My first article in an online journal. My education and professional life has been touched in fundamental ways by previous efforts to “hack the academy.”

So what does this history mean? Some would say such incremental change is insufficient, and we should blow up higher education. In the Twitter stream tied to THATCamp this year, Mark Sample argued, “[H]igher ed is terminally ill and hacking it only prolongs its stay in the hospice.” Historians of education are familiar with this rhetoric of radical reform, though the literature on it generally focuses on K-12 rather than higher education. There are plenty of attempts to “blow up” higher education by creating institutions that veer off from the plurality of practices. Sometimes those survive on the margins, or die out, and sometimes they become a model (if not necessarily an ideal). Antioch College, New College of Florida, Evergreen State College, and UC Santa Cruz have their origins in such attempts. Two of those started life as public institutions, one became public after a funding crisis, and Antioch’s future is still in doubt. Or, if you want to go back further in time, both Clark University and Johns Hopkins University were founded with the intent to stay away from undergraduate education, and instead Johns Hopkins became the model for the modern large university, including high-priced tuition for undergraduates.

As an historian of education, I’d caution my more utopian colleagues that both institutions and people have to pay bills regularly, and that being able to pay bills allows innovation to thrive and spread. The wonderful thing about the internet is that you can do all sorts of intellectual work with minimal infrastructure. The damned thing about the internet is that resources still matter, especially if you want to foster a community of practice. Life involves compromise, even for hackers. With that in mind, here is a digital handful of ideas for hacking the academy, starting with the necessary and institutionalist and moving to what I would like to think of as the more inspirational:

0. Tenure-track faculty at research universities need to demonstrate competence in conventional ways. The bad news (if you were hoping to gain tenure at a research-oriented place with an experimental form of scholarship): if you are an assistant professor at a place that requires scholarship for tenure, you have roughly five years to get stuff published in a recognized way, and that means ways that external reviewers will recognize. The corollary: if you’re a graduate student wanting to be a faculty member at a place that values research, you need to develop those competencies. The bittersweet news: because so few faculty are tenure-track at research universities, that means the vast majority of scholars can be innovative. That includes tenured faculty but also librarians, museum staff, and anyone who can find an alternative academic career path. If you are on the tenure track, you need to think about a career that lasts 20-30 years. If you demonstrate your chops in conventional ways in your first 5 years, you have the vast majority of your career to take greater risks.

1. We can build a broader coalition for reforming promotion considerations (but probably not tenure criteria) by discussing the value of taking risk in scholarship. If you’re an aspiring digital humanist and are frustrated that a curated online website is not valued as scholarship in the same way as a university-press monograph, even if it’s used by hundreds of classes or scholars worldwide, look at your colleagues who are conducting engaged scholarship in communities, where projects take years to get funded, help communities, and become translated into refereed articles. Or look at your colleagues who worked their tails off to earn tenure to find themselves as associate professors caring simultaneously for children and aging parents. Yes, the vast majority of them are women, and they find themselves with tenure but also with a gap in their scholarship record. The best way out of all these dilemmas is to argue that institutions should value long-term, risky projects when they demonstrate their value to the broader scholarly community. One could argue that the obligation of a scholar with tenure is not to continue to do the same work you did to earn tenure but to take greater intellectual risks. Let’s find common cause by appealing to broader values.

2. The transition to post-publication review is in process. arXiv is leading the way as a recognized outlet for working papers in an entire discipline, and somehow physicists don’t agonize about the peer-review process as journal publication still conveys an imprimatur of quality. How post-publication review develops is something I cannot predict, but there are a number of reasons why we are likely to head in a different direction, from the expenses of humanities journals to the diversification of bibliometrics and the weak-ethics of author-fee journals with high acceptance rates, or what some hard-sciences faculty refer to as “write-only” journals. Assistant professors may not be happy that a provost wants to see their h-index, but you should be happy that Google Scholar will find a good chunk of (if not everyone) who cited your conference paper from 3 years ago.

3. Senior scholars have an obligation to advocate for the ideas explained above. I expect to be around for another few decades, and I want my university to be a place where I like to work. What’s the value of being a tenured full professor if we don’t help colleagues and encourage risk-taking in scholarship? This involves both the realistic advice we have to give new scholars and ways to nudge academic administrators with arguments we know are more likely to appeal to them. If we don’t speak up, we let the most powerful and conventional win by default, and we fail in our obligation to make the “codes of power” (see Lisa Delpit) explicit and open.

4. Expect large universities to abandon good initiatives on a regular basis unless there are forceful incentives that inhibit double-crossing. In April 2010, Yale University stopped contributing to the Public Library of Science journal system, despite a symbiotic relationship (where Yale scholars have increasingly contributed to PLoS journals). Institutional support: great idea. But there was nothing to inhibit Yale’s withdrawal apart from reputational risk. There’s a reason why Elsevier is hated: they’re very effective at rent-seeking. Don’t become Elsevier, but if you run an innovative project, don’t avoid or hate the time you spend thinking up how to diversify income. It’ll keep your people employed when Yale kicks your project to the curb.

5. Reputational markets are the tip of the iceberg in academic economies, and expanding/creating new economies is one route to hacking the academy in both peer review and funding. The Berkeley Electronic Press system has a formalized credit system for authors and reviewers in the form of its A&R bank. In the twitter stream for THATCamp Prime 2010, Jo Guldi suggested a pledge-support system for creative scholarly initiatives. This payback collaboration is a viable, sustainable model in other environments; for example, one early-childhood intervention program in Tennessee relies on a reciprocal-obligation model for services, where parents in the program are obliged to pay back services by becoming volunteers after their children exits.

6. Tight networks should raise red flags. The network of self-labeled digital humanists comprise mostly white academics, library and museum staff, and independent scholars. That is broader than disciplinary societies in one sense but misses lots of people who might consider themselves digital humanists if exposed to the idea, including the growing population of people connected to cultural heritage sites. That omission is a missed opportunity to make tools and conversations more useful as well as make digital humanities more sustainable in the long term. There is a solid reason for departments and similar structures to exist inside an organization, but your good sense should prompt occasional trips outside your hallway. Periodically ask, Who is missing from the conversation?

7. Some projects are going to be ephemeral; either plan for obsolescence or plan for periodic rebuilding. Archivists remind us regularly that formats are not forever. The same is true for individual projects that require continuous maintenance, whether specific intellectual enterprises or the infrastructure (such as base code). The earliest online journals began as e-mail lists; those which survive are now on the web. H-Net has atrophied in part because it has never been through a recent complete rebuild, despite internal advocacy for such rebuilding.

8. Some projects should be ephemeral. This is not necessarily a bad thing: like a sand mandala of Buddhist monks, an ephemeral project can teach us much during its existence even while and perhaps because everyone involved knows it is time-limited. If you work on a project that will most likely burn brightly for eighteen months and no more, be happy and up-front about that fact. Make your fans miss the project when it’s gone.

9. Not everyone will or should be on the bleeding edge. Especially for specific tools, there is some maturity threshold before a piece of technology becomes more broadly usable (if it ever does). For example, online conference software exists, and particularly adept scholars can put together a virtual conference if they are willing to invest more effort than a lot of people might. With some effort I could probably create a one-day workshop using Google Wave. But how many would participate? In a few years, there might be a package that is closer to turnkey status, and then virtual conferences will be more feasible because organizing them will require less effort for the infrastructure.

A. A critical mass of users enables not only a rapid change of practice but the breaking of barriers. The corollary of not everyone’s being on the bleeding edge is that one needs to know when enough people have a technology to assume its availability and to push hard at barriers. For example, now is the time to push unwieldy scholarly organizations to negotiate members’ wifi in conference hotel contracts. Twitter may not exist in a few years, but internet access for attendees will make conferences more useful for whatever exists, to connect people and enable more engagement than listening to 20-minute paper readings.

B. Students need rules made explicit, and these include the hidden rules of life and scholarship, especially when a faculty member is trying something new and risky for students as well as the teacher. By rules I mean, “Here’s how you get stuff done with minimal pain.” And also the meta-stuff: “Here’s what I’m trying that’s new, here’s why and what I expect you to learn, and please tell me when I’m screwing up.” The immediate corollary inside a university or college is love your librarians, for they will often teach students what you forget to. The second corollary is reveal the hidden secrets in bits and pieces. I have very long undergraduate syllabi, but I know the students who most need the information are least likely to read and remember everything, so I expect to repeat the same information at key points in a term. The head of the martial-arts center I attend regularly introduces corrections with, “Here’s a black-belt secret…” Everyone loves to know secrets, especially students.

C. Surplus time is necessary for students to be creative and rigorous. The explanation is left as an exercise for the reader just before going to bed. If you’re working too late tonight to be able to think as you brush your teeth, please reread the first sentence of this paragraph.

D. We make our teaching more effective if we can figure out how the class can seduce students. My first year at USF, I was hoarse halfway through each semester, and I decided I needed to take voice lessons if I wanted my career to last without ruining my voice. One of the most important concepts I learned was that every time I took a breath, it was a chance to start a beautiful phrase. Every group of students has at least one wonderful new scholar, and on the first day of the term, you have not yet bored them. That doesn’t mean hacking our teaching should focus on entertainment. But it should make the experience irresistible.

E. Can you explain what you do to your neighbors, and have you invited them to look at your website and at the websites of people and projects you admire? Academic freedom means that you do not cater to political whims of the moment, but higher education should not throw away the enormous benefit of being perceived as a public good. Since so much of hacking the academy results in public work, that should be public in a broader sense of being known to the general public.

F. Make time to dance. Everyone gets grumpy on occasion, but it’s hard to sustain scholarship or creativity (and get others to support you!) if you’re permanently grumpy. If you are no longer motivated by the joy or beauty of what you’re doing, rediscover it or reinvent what you’re doing until you discover a new source of joy.

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