Category: Collaboration

Some Thoughts on the Hacking the Academy Process and Model

I’m delighted that the edited version of Hacking the Academy is now available on the University of Michigan’s DigitalCultureBooks site. Here are some of my quick thoughts on the process of putting the book together. (For more, please read the preface Tom Scheinfeldt and I wrote.)

1) Be careful what you wish for. Although we heavily promoted the submission process for HTA, Tom and I had no idea we would receive over 300 contributions from nearly 200 authors. This put an enormous, unexpected burden on us; it obviously takes a long time to read through that many submissions. Tom and I had to set up a collaborative spreadsheet for assessing the contributions, and it took several months to slog through the mass. We also had to make tough decisions about what kind of work to include, since we were not overly prescriptive about what we were looking for. A large number of well-written, compelling pieces (including many from friends of ours) had to be left out of the volume, unfortunately, because they didn’t quite match our evolving criteria, or didn’t fit with other pieces in the same chapter.

2) Set aside dedicated time and people. Other projects that have crowdsourced volumes, such as Longshot Magazine, have well-defined crunch times for putting everything together, using an expanded staff and a lot of coffee. I think it’s fair to say (and I hope not haughty to say) that Tom and I are incredibly busy people and we had to do the assembly and editing in bits and pieces. I wish we could have gotten it done much sooner to sustain the energy of the initial week. We probably could have included others in the editing process, although I think we have good editorial consistency and smooth transitions because of the more limited control.

3) Get the permissions set from the beginning. One of the delays on the edited volume was making sure we had the rights to all of the materials. HTA has made us appreciate even more the importance of pushing for Creative Commons licenses (especially the simple CC-BY) in academia; many of our contributors are dedicated to open access and already had licensed their materials under a permissive reproduction license, but we had to annoy everyone else (and by “we,” I mean the extraordinary helpful and capable Shana Kimball at MPublishing). This made the HTA process a little more like a standard publication, where the press has to hound contributors for sign-offs, adding friction along the way.

4) Let the writing dictate the form, not vice versa. I think one of the real breakthroughs that Tom and I had in this process is realizing that we didn’t need to adhere to a standard edited-volume format of same-size chapters. After reading through odd-sized submissions and thinking about form, we came up with an array of “short, medium, long” genres that could fit together on a particular theme. Yes, some of the good longer pieces could stand as more-or-less standard essays, but others could be paired together or set into dialogues. It was liberating to borrow some conventions from, e.g., magazines and the way they handle shorter pieces. In some cases we also got rather aggressive about editing down articles so that they would fit into useful spaces.

5) This is a model that can be repeated. Sure, it’s not ideal for some academic cases, and speed is not necessarily of the essence. But for “state of the field” volumes, vibrant debates about new ideas, and books that would benefit from blended genres, it seems like an improvement upon the staid “you have two years to get me 8,000 words for a chapter” model of the edited book.

Thoughts on One Week | One Tool

Well that just happened. It’s hard to believe that last Sunday twelve scholars and software developers were arriving at the brand-new Mason Inn on our campus and now have created and launched a tool, Anthologize, that created a frenzy on social and mass media.

If you haven’t already done so, you should first read the many excellent reports from those who participated in One Week | One Tool (and watched it from afar). One Week | One Tool was an intense institute sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities that strove to convey the Center for History and New Media‘s knowledge about building useful scholarly software. As the name suggests, the participants had to conceive, build, and disseminate their own tool in just one week. To the participants’ tired voices I add a few thoughts from the aftermath.

Less Talk, More Grok

One Week director (and Center for History and New Media managing director) Tom Scheinfeldt and I grew up listening to WAAF in Boston, which had the motto (generally yelled, with reverb) “Less Talk, More Rock!” (This being Boston, it was actually more like “Rahwk!”) For THATCamp I spun that call-to-action into “Less Talk, More Grok!” since it seemed to me that the core of THATCamp is its antagonism toward the deadening lectures and panels of normal academic conferences and its attempt to maximize knowledge transfer with nonhierarchical, highly participatory, hands-on work. THATCamp is exhausting and exhilarating because everyone is engaged and has something to bring to the table.

Not to over-philosophize or over-idealize THATCamp, but for academic doubters I do think the unconference is making an argument about understanding that should be familiar to many humanists: the importance of “tacit knowledge.” For instance, in my field, the history of science, scholars have come to realize in the last few decades that not all of science consists of cerebral equations and concepts that can be taught in a textbook; often science involves techniques and experiential lessons that must be acquired in a hands-on way from someone already capable in that realm.

This is also true for the digital humanities. I joked with emissaries from the National Endowment for the Humanities, which took a huge risk in funding One Week, that our proposal to them was like Jerry Seinfeld’s and George Costanza’s pitch to NBC for a “show about nothing.” I’m sure it was hard for reviewers of our proposal to see its slightly sketchy syllabus. (“You don’t know what will be built ahead of time?!”) But this is the way in which the digital humanities is close to the lab sciences. There can of course be theory and discussion, but there will also have to be a lot of doing if you want to impart full knowledge of the subject. Many times during the week I saw participants and CHNMers convey things to each other—everything from little shortcuts to substantive lessons—that wouldn’t have occurred to us ahead of time, without the team being engaged in actually building something.

MTV Cops

The low point of One Week was undoubtedly my ham-fisted attempt at something of a keynote while the power was out on campus, killing the lights, the internet, and (most seriously) the air conditioning. Following “Less Talk, More Grok,” I never should have done it. But one story I told at the beginning did seem to have modest continuing impact over the week (if frequently as the source of jokes).

Hollywood is famous for great (and laughable) idea pitches—which is why that Seinfeld episode was amusing—but none is perhaps better than Brandon Tartikoff’s brilliantly concise pitch for Miami Vice: “MTV cops.” I’m a firm believer that it’s important to be able to explain a digital tool with something close to the precision of “MTV cops” if you want a significant number of people to use it. Some might object that we academics are smart folks, capable of understanding sophisticated, multivalent tools, but people are busy, and with digital tools there are so many clamoring for attention and each entails a huge commitment (often putting your scholarship into an entirely new system). Scholars, like everyone else, are thus enormously resistant to tools that are hard to grasp. (Case in point: Google Wave.)

I loved the 24 hours of One Week from Monday afternoon to Tuesday afternoon where the group brainstormed potential tools to build and then narrowed them down to “MTV Cops” soundbites. Of course the tools were going to be more complex than these reductionistic soundbites, but those soundbites gave the process some focus and clarity. It also allowed us to ask Twitter followers to vote on general areas of interest (e.g., “Better timelines”) to gauge the market. We tweeted “Blog->Book” for idea #1, which is what became Anthologize.

And what were most of the headlines on launch day? Some variant on the crystal-clear ReadWriteWeb headline: “Scholars Build Blog-to-eBook Tool in One Week.”

Speed Doesn’t Kill

We’ve gotten occasional flak at the Center for History and New Media for some recent efforts that seem more carnival than Ivory Tower, because they seem to throw out the academic emphasis on considered deliberation. (However, it should be noted that we also do many multi-year, sweat-and-tears, time-consuming projects like the National History Education Clearinghouse, putting online the first fifteen years of American history, and creating software used by millions of people.)

But the experience of events like One Week makes me question whether the academic default to deliberation is truly wise. One Weekers could have sat around for a week, a month, a year, and still I suspect that the tool they decided to build was the best choice, with the greatest potential impact. As programmers in the real world know, it’s much better to have partial, working code than to plan everything out in advance. Just by launching Anthologize in alpha and generating all that excitement, the team opened up tremendous reserves of good will, creativity, and problem-solving from users and outside developers. I saw at least ten great new use cases for Anthologize on Twitter in the first day. How are you supposed to come up with those ideas from internal deliberation or extensive planning?

There was also something special about the 24/7 focus the group achieved. The notion that they had to have a tool in one week (crazy on the face of it) demanded that the participants think about that tool all of the time (even in their sleep, evidently). I’ll bet there was the equivalent of several months worth of thought that went on during One Week, and the time limit meant that participants didn’t have the luxury of overthinking certain choices that were, at the end of the day, either not that important or equally good options. Eric Johnson, observing One Week on Twitter, called this the power of intense “singular worlds” to get things done. Paul Graham has similarly noted the importance of environments that keep one idea foremost in your mind.

There are probably many other areas where focus, limits, and, yes, speed might help us in academia. Dissertations, for instance, often unhealthily drag on as doctoral students unwisely aim for perfection, or feel they have to write 300 pages even though their breakthrough thesis is contained in a single chapter. I wonder if a targeted writing blitz like the successful National Novel Writing Month might be ported to the academy.

Start Small, Dream Big

As dissertations become books through a process of polish and further thought, so should digital tools iterate toward perfection from humble beginnings. I’ve written in this space about the Center for History and New Media’s love of Voltaire’s dictum that “the perfect is the enemy of the good [enough],” and we communicated to One Week attendees that it was fine to start with a tool that was doable in a week. The only caveat was that tool should be conceived with such modularity and flexibility that it could grow into something very powerful. The Anthologize launch reminds me of what I said in this space about Zotero on its launch: it was modest, but it had ambition. It was conceived not just as a reference manager but as an extensible platform for research. The few early negative comments about Anthologize similarly misinterpreted it myopically as a PDF-formatter for blogs. Sure, it will do that, as can other services. But like Zotero (and Omeka) Anthologize is a platform that can be broadly extended and repurposed. Most people thankfully got that—it sparked the imagination of many, even though it’s currently just a rough-around-the-edges alpha.

Congrats again to the whole One Week team. Go get some rest.

A Thanksgiving Thought from Roy

We are doing the sad work of cleaning out Roy Rosenzweig’s office today, and happened upon his original (typed!) dissertation from 1978. Here’s the wonderful first paragraph:

“The researching and writing of history is often a lonely and solitary experience. Fortunately, I was able to avoid such isolation in the production of this thesis through the help and support of a large number of friends. Their assistance has confirmed my belief that history does not have to be an individualistic and competitive enterprise, that the most creative and critical scholarship will grow out of an environment of mutual support and collective sharing of ideas.”

International Network of Digital Humanities Centers

One of the outcomes of the Digital Humanities Summit I recently blogged about is this attempt to create some kind of network of centers. It would be good if a wide range of centers got involved, and this site explains the possible collaborations that could take place, including workshops, projects that span several centers, and knowledge exchange. Sorely needed.

Digital Humanities Summit Wrap-up

I’ve been going to digital humanities conferences of one kind or another for many years now, but last week’s summit of digital humanities centers at the National Endowment of the Humanities showed that finally there is extraordinary interest in the field. People in positions of power and influence showed up for the first time. Vint Cerf (one of the founders of the internet and now evangelist for Google) was there. Many funders came as well, which is important since the work I and my colleagues do at the Center for History and New Media is not inexpensive. In general, an excitement permeated the room—the feeling that with the exponential growth in digitization and the rise of digital tools, we are on the cusp of a new age of scholarship. Here are my rough notes from the meeting.

James Harris, the Dean of Arts and Humanities at the University of Maryland began the summit by highlighting how critical collaboration is. This theme continued for the rest of the meeting; it was probably the single word that came up the most in discussion.

Bruce Cole, the NEH Chairman, candidly told the audience how he started the job as a tech newbie but has presided over great strides in the digital realm, such as the NEH’s recent digitization of 30 million pages of historical newspapers. He now believes that we are entering a new era in which rapid advances in digital technology will have a profound impact on the humanities.

Cole said there were three goals of the digital humanities initiative at NEH: 1) use digital technology to make the humanities more accessible to everyone; 2) use the technology to foster increased collaboration in the humanities (he raised the human genome project as an exemplar from the sciences); 3) explore how digital technology will change the way we read, think, write, and create tools, and how we might turn huge digital corpora into wisdom. He highlighted the new programs at the NEH: digital start-up grants (over 70% of applicants are new to NEH, so it’s reaching a lot more people, he noted); digital humanities fellowships (encouraging scholars to think about how digitization and digital technology will change their field); digital humanties teaching grants; digital humanities challenge grants (to endow large-scale projects and centers). He said that NEH’s working with IMLS on these fronts has gone very well, and he believes that digital humanities centers will be critical for building the scholarly cyberinfrastructure.

John Unsworth continued that theme in his plenary address, “Digital Humanities Centers as Cyberinfrastructure.” He began by asserting that digital humanities centers are cyberinfrastructure. These centers offer a chance to really engage the consumption of primary materials in digital form, and they can create relationships with institutions like libraries and other collection-holders over time that can then be built upon in ways that individuals can’t do. These relationships are important. Centers thus build trust so scholars don’t have to do. They can also build relationships with corporate entities, and they can match researchers’ interests with institutions. They can also mentor people in digital technology and grant writing, offer grad students experience, and connect with other programs (like library and information sciences).

Unsworth further noted that the cultivation of leadership critical. Human infrastructure is as critical to the success of digital humanities as the cyberinfrastructure. It takes a long time and many talented people to create things like the NCSA. Unfortunately, the ad hoc nature of the current digital humanities infrastructure is difficult—we need long-term funding, interoperability, the technological and the social.

Unsworth concluded by emphasizing that we have had many failures, but that failures are important and provide lessons. Very few standards and robust tools have come out of academic software development. But maybe academic software should be more for proof-of-concept. The honest reporting of failure is important, so we all can learn. “Stop hiding the bodies!”

Vint Cerf then took the stage to discuss “Google and Digital Humanities Centers.” To laughs from the scholarly audience, he admitted that when you finish a Google search you are not done with your resesarch—it’s vital to remind people that everything of value is not online. He said that Google Book Search is their attempt to add to the online corpus and at least make things findable. And to no one’s surprise, he said that indexing of books should be fair use, as long as the display of snippets is limited. He believes “copyright is a mess and needs to be rethought” (e.g., Creative Commons). Cerf encountered considerable resistance from one member of the audience (and later I heard from a few others who partially or fully agreed with that antagonist), who noted that Google is a big company in the business of making money from its scans. Cerf tried to defuse the tension over this issue by offering to meet the dissenter in the alley for a duel (more laughs).

Cerf ended with a “1000 year view”—he argued we need to plan for that time horizon. But it’s unclear what to do right now. It might be that having an 8-bit ASCII version of everything (thus losing layouts and images) is the only way to deal with the 1000-year question, i.e. to ensure longevity. We need in the near future to learn how to make the digital world sufficiently stable—as stable as the world of print. On a positive note, he said that collaboration is something that’s unexpectedly arisen out of the internet, e.g., Wikipedia. The threshold for publishing is much lower: the minimum publication used to be the article, but now you can contribute two sentences to the web if you want.

Two wikis with greater information about the digital humanities came out of the conference. The first is the wiki for the conference itself, which contains many more details than I’m able to relate here. The second is a wiki I set up with the blessing of the group to try to have a single location for those interested in the digital humanities to find information about centers, people, tools, standards, and other elements in the multifaceted world of the digital humanities. Please contribute to it if you can.

Blackboard’s Entry into Web 2.0 Unveiled:

Maybe they should have kept it veiled. I’m surprised at how poorly designed this site is (surely a freshman who knows Ruby on Rails and a little Photoshop could have put together a better social bookmarking site in a week), not to mention that additions to the site are limited to users of the Blackboard course management system. How do they plan to get the scale necessary for network effects? From students who are thrilled by the new functionality of the website they have to go to for their classes?