Community, Privatization, Efficiency

Thanks to a recommendation from Danica Savonick, I’ve been reading Miranda Joseph’s Against the Romance of Community. Danica pointed me toward it as a corrective for some of the ways my gestures toward community flirted with the romanticized notions Joseph seeks to question, and hard as it is for me (an optimist, for better or for worse) to open some of the ideals I hold to harder questioning, that questioning is proving fruitful.

Joseph explores the extent to which discourses about community suggest an antidote to or escape from capitalism’s depredations, while distracting us from the supplementary role that community actually serves with respect to capital, filling its gaps and smoothing over its rifts in ways that permit it to function untrammeled. The alternative presented by community allows the specter of socialism, or genuine state support for the needs of the public, to be dismissed. This relationship becomes particularly clear in Joseph’s discussion of the role of non-profit organizations — entities highly likely to participate in and benefit from the idealized discourse of community — which often fill needs left behind by a retreating state, allowing that retreat to go unchallenged.

As Michael Fabricant and Stephen Brier explore in Austerity Blues, the state’s ongoing disclaimer of its responsibilities for the public welfare, from the Reagan era forward, makes itself felt across the social sphere — in housing policy, in environmental policy, and, of course, in education. Throughout Generous Thinking, one of my interests lies in the effects of, and the need to reverse, the shift in our cultural understanding of education (and especially higher education); where in the mid-twentieth century, the value of education was largely understood to be social, it has in recent decades come to be described as providing primarily private, individual benefits. And this, inevitably, has accompanied a shift from education being treated as a public service to being treated as a private responsibility.

As Fabricant and Brier note, this transition is just one manifestation of the state gradually displacing its responsibilities for the public welfare onto private citizens and, as Joseph’s reading suggests, onto a range of socially-oriented nonprofits supported largely through private philanthropy. This displacement is of course operative in the de-funding of public universities, effectively transforming them into non-profits rather than state institutions. The effects of this program of neoliberal1 reform run deep, not least that the dominant motivator behind these privatized institutions becomes sustainability rather than service, leaving universities, like non-profits, in an endless cycle of fundraising and budget cuts.

The argument in favor of this privatization, one largely accepted on both sides of the aisle, is in significant part based on the inefficiency of government bureaucracies and the far more streamlined and therefore ostensibly effective practices made possible in the private sector. Reversing the trend toward privatization will thus require not just massive public mobilization and demand of elected officials, but also a hard turn away from efficiency as a primary value, a recognition that the building of relationships and the cultivation of care is slow and difficult and of necessity inefficient. In fact, that its value lies in its inefficiency — but making the case for such inefficiency as a necessary value requires a lot of effort, and a lot of caution.

All of which is surfacing a bunch of related thoughts that I’m still working through, and about which I hope to write more in the coming days, including strategic uses of the notion of community, potential forms that collectivity might take other than “community,” and — and I swear this is connected — the relationship between obligation and voluntarism. More on which soon.

What’s New?

Over the last couple of months, I opened Generous Thinking to a community review process at Humanities Commons. I am thrilled with how the discussion went and am thoroughly enjoying the process of revision started.

Doing that work has had me reflecting a fair bit of late on my working processes, how they’ve changed over the last several years, and how I might want to transform them yet again. And one bit of that potential transformation is leading me, with Dan Cohen, back to blogging, and, with Alan Jacobs, to ponder returning to some related technologies as well.

The 2002 version of Planned Obsolescence

But it was time for more than a minor refresh here. I started the blog now formerly known as Planned Obsolescence back in 2002, and its title was intended as a tongue-in-cheek jab at the book manuscript I’d just finished revising, The Anxiety of Obsolescence. The blog was my “what, me worry” in the face of the possibility that the book, started six or seven years before as my dissertation, might itself be obsolete before it ever saw print. Fine, I apparently thought: you want obsolete, I’ll give you obsolete.

I didn’t know so many things then. I didn’t know that within the first year of blogging I’d connect with a small crew of other academic blogging folks, including the Wordherders, many of whom became my closest colleagues and friends. I didn’t know that the reading and writing that my blogging friends and I were doing would transform the ways that I thought about scholarly work, not just how it gets done but the purposes it serves. I didn’t know that the blog would wind up hosting the first pieces of my writing to be cited in more formal academic contexts. I didn’t know that the blog would be the place I’d turn when it looked like that first book might not get published, the space where I’d wind up thinking through the puzzles in scholarly communication that eventually turned into my second book. And I had no idea that, in a bit of ironic turnabout, I’d wind up naming the second book after the blog, in part to gesture toward the blog’s preeminence.

All I knew was that I was desperate for someone to read — and maybe even respond — to something I wrote. And this seemed like one way of making that happen.

The 2018 version of Planned Obsolescence

This space has been at the heart of all of the work I’ve done over the last nearly 16 years. And it seems like a good moment to step away from the notion of obsolescence, if for no other reason than that 16 years is a whole lot of persistence.

I’ve migrated Planned Obsolescence to this new location, and my 301s seem to be working, and the Google authorities have been informed. I’ve also migrated one of my subdomains, Projects, which hosts a few old community review projects. I still need to migrate my teaching-focused subdomain, but that one’s pretty complicated, so it may take me a bit. And I’m itching to get back to work, so it seems like a good moment to launch.

I’m hoping to write some about my revision process in the coming weeks, to think through some of the challenges I’m running up against. And beyond Generous Thinking, I’m hoping to get back to using this space to think through some new ideas — not least because I have no idea what my next project will be.

It’s nice to have a period of not-knowing in front of me again, and a space in which some new connections can be forged. I’m looking forward to seeing where it all leads.

In Revision

Yesterday morning, I closed comments on the open review of Generous Thinking. I’m enormously grateful to everyone who took the time to read and give me feedback on the project: 30 commenters left a total of 354 comments (and prompted 56 responses of my own). I have a good bit of insight into what’s working well and what needs improvement in the manuscript, and I’m excited about the possibilities ahead as I embark on the revision process.

Getting started on revising a piece of writing is always daunting for me. The draft feels complete, and it usually holds together and works as a thing, if imperfectly, and the beginning of the revision process almost always involves breaking that completeness, that thingness, in order to open it up and rethink how it works. I resist initially, not so much because I don’t think the thing could be better but because I worry that breaking it open will wind up making things worse, that I won’t be able to do the hard transformational work of putting it back together in a new way.

That initial leap, hard as it is, almost always pays off; once I get into the revision process I usually find myself excited by the patterns that I couldn’t see before, the new ways that ideas can be drawn together. But it’s still a leap, one that requires a deep breath (and a good cup of coffee) before diving in.

Thanks to everyone, again, who read and commented and linked to the draft. The discussion will remain up and available, if you’re curious about how it went, and the general comments remain open if you have further thoughts I should take into consideration. I’ll look forward to sharing some of my thoughts from the revision process as things proceed.

Community Review

In my last book, Planned Obsolescence, I argued for the potentials of open, peer-to-peer review as a means of shedding some light on the otherwise often hidden processes of scholarly communication, enabling scholars to treat the process of review less as a mode of gatekeeping than as a formative moment in which they could learn from and contribute to their communities of practice. In Generous Thinking, my focus is somewhat different—less on the ways that scholars communicate with one another and more on the ways we invite the world into our work—but the emphasis on opening up our processes and imagining the ways that they might invite new kinds of conversations remains.

When I launched the open review process for Planned Obsolescence in 2009, the world was somewhat different. There seemed cause for optimism about the potentials presented by new kinds of openness, and though there was without question just as thick a strain of racism, misogyny, homophobia, and general hatred within western culture, it was somehow less emboldened. Or so it seemed to me, at least, in my narrow corner of the internet, where my colleagues and I chatted happily through our blogs and on Twitter, imagining the ways that our networks could help support more open, egalitarian modes of scholarly engagement.

Things are different in 2018. Scholars are being actively targeted for their political beliefs, with off-campus groups campaigning for their dismissal. Entire academic departments have come under investigation by state legislatures for their apparently subversive activity. And too many writers whose work explores issues of race, of gender, of sexuality, of oppression routinely receive threats of violence in response.

As Generous Thinking will attest, I still believe in the opportunities presented by building more open forms of conversation both within the academy and between the academy and the broader publics with which we engage. But I am more cautious about how we should do so now, or at least I am less naive. And so I’ve staged this review process a little bit differently.

For the last two weeks, the manuscript has been open to a group of invited readers, many but not all of them close colleagues, including folks on- and off-campus, folks in a range of faculty and staff positions, folks with bents more optimistic and much less so. My hope was—and remains—that inviting a community to engage with the text before opening it up to the world would help create a space of honest, productive critique, a space in which the manuscript’s shortcomings might be discussed without fear.

But it’s nonetheless important—it’s in fact the heart of Generous Thinking’s argument—to take that next step, to engage in a broader dialogue and invite the world into the process. So the community review is now moving into a period of open review. That openness is both important for this project’s own development and important for this project to model: if we’re going to find our way to a space of greater generosity, it has to start here.

Not just because this project needs to live by its own principles, though that’s an important part of it. But because some of us face far greater dangers than others, and those of us who, like me, are comparatively safe must be willing to create spaces where important public discussions can take place. We need to build our communities, and then we need to invite those around us into them.

So: between now and the end of March, Generous Thinking is open. After that, the record of our discussions will remain publicly available, but the comment function will be closed. I hope that you will share any thoughts you have about the project, and that you will invite any readers you think might be interested to join this discussion.

Thanks to those who have read and commented so far, and thanks to all of you who are reading now. I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

“In the book Where Do We Go From Here? Chaos or Community, Martin Luther King, Jr. told the citizens of this nation, with prophetic insight, that we would be unable to go forward if we did not experience a ‘true revolution of values.’ He assured us that

‘the stability of the large world house which is ours will involve a revolution of values to accompany the scientific and freedom revolutions engulfing the earth. We must rapidly begin the shift from a “thing”-oriented society to a “person”-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism and militarism are incapable of being conquered. A civilization can flounder as readily in the face of moral and spiritual bankruptcy as it can through financial bankruptcy.’

Today, we live in the midst of that floundering. We live in chaos, uncertain about the possibility of building and sustaining community.”

bell hooks, Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom (1994)

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.

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.

Parting Gifts

Today marks the start of my last week working at the MLA. It’s been a fantastic six years, and I’m enormously grateful to have had the opportunity to work on so many fascinating projects, and with such great colleagues and members, over that time. And I’m especially happy that I’m going to be able to continue working on one of those projects, Humanities Commons.

So this is the point at which I’m going to shamelessly use my imminent departure to ask you all for a little going-away present. We are super close to a major milestone in Humanities Commons membership, and I’d really, really like to see us cross that threshold while I’m still in the office, with the team.

Here’s the call: if you haven’t yet created a Humanities Commons account, please do! Accounts are open to anyone working in any field, in any capacity, in the humanities. You can create a professional profile, deposit and share work in our open-access repository, join discussion groups, build a website, and more. And if you’re a member of one of our participating societies — MLA, AJS, ASEEES, and as of last week, CAA — you can participate in your scholarly organization’s work as well.

If you already have an account, thank you! I’d love it if you’d give me — well, all of us, really — a small gift as well: deposit a syllabus, a conference paper, an article pre-print, or something else entirely, to share with the world.

Thanks, all, for all of your support and enthusiasm over the years. Here’s to our next steps toward building the humanities community of the future.


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.