Self-Assessment

A writer whose work I admire enormously tweeted the other day about the new book they’re working on and the joy they’re taking in it. Reading this tweet left me simultaneously delighted and saddened — delighted because there will soon be more amazing work for me to learn from; saddened because… well, because me. Because I’m not writing right now. Because I despair of my ability to clear out the time and the brain space required to really dig into another serious writing project. Because I know I’ll never measure up to the example of that writer I so admire, who has published two brilliant new books in as many years and is well on the way to more. And who has won numerous awards for those books, so it’s not just about quantity, but about quality as well.

I look at my own body of work and, at my worst moments, feel its painful slowness. It took more years than I care to count after completing my first book for me to have any inkling that there might be a second one, and there was a similar gap between the end of book two and the start of book three. How long, I wonder, will it be before I really get traction on another writing project? Why can’t I be as prolific as that writer, or any of those other ones, whose work I so admire?

At moments like this, I remember a former colleague of mine listening to my frustration and saying “but, Kathleen: how many books do you want to write during your career?” That question brought me up totally short; my first response was going to be “all of them?!?,” but right behind that came the somewhat dumbfounded question, “is there some number that’s enough?” And then: if there were, what would it be, and how would you know?

Part of the issue, then, is this sense of not-quite measuring up to some standard that I’m not even conscious of having set. But part of it is the source of that unspoken standard, which is externally derived, leaving me engaged in the constant work of comparison, anxiously checking to see if my work measures up to that I see being done around me. A mentor of mine (one of the generous thinkers to whom the most recent book is dedicated, in fact) tried to steer me away from this kind of invidious comparison years ago, when I was one year behind an award-winning super-genius on the tenure track. Such comparisons do no one any good. At the pre-tenure moment, I was of course caught up in the (not entirely mistaken if undoubtedly overblown) impression that my colleagues would be comparing my work to that of my immediate predecessor. Now? If there is comparison going on, it’s fully internalized.

These are the moments when I most need to remember what my colleague Beronda Montgomery has taught me: the importance of establishing my own index for what I consider success and keeping myself focused on it. By articulating her own personal metrics for evaluation, Beronda keeps herself focused on values and purpose and ensures that the work she is doing fulfills them. Even more, she ensures that she’s working from affirmation, not for affirmation, as she shows up to the work already valued and affirmed in her purpose.

When I start from a conscious sense of my own purpose, rather than the markers of success I’ve unconsciously absorbed, I remember how much of the work in my portfolio that means most to me has been focused on fostering better conditions within which other people can do their own creative and connective work. It’s been about creating and transforming systems and structures that allow that work to be more engaged and more fulfilling for all of us. Perhaps I could write more if I weren’t doing all that other work — if I weren’t directing a program and two centers, if I weren’t building the Commons. But I think I’d feel less satisfied with a portfolio that focused mostly inward — a deep irony for a committed introvert, but true nonetheless. It’s much too important to me to work on projects that have the potential for building community, and for changing the ways that all of us work.

File this under “things that are perfectly obvious as soon as I say them, but of which I nonetheless have to remind myself repeatedly.” The great news, I guess, is that these reminders present an epiphany every time: light dawning over Marblehead may come as sudden wonder at the glaringly obvious, but it’s awe-inspiring nonetheless. The internal effects of the competitive structures of institutional reward that I described in Generous Thinking are pernicious, and rooting them out may well be the work of a lifetime.

17 September 2019, 08:20

I’ve been thinking this morning about the difference between Planned Obsolescence and Generous Thinking, and why the latter, and the response to it, means so much to me right now. When I was writing Planned Obsolescence, I thought I had answers to big problems, and that I needed to get them in front of a sometimes recalcitrant academy, to press it in directions I thought would be better. With Generous Thinking, I am certain I have more questions than answers, and while I have some thoughts about the approaches we might take in solving our biggest problems, I’m all too aware that my perspective is partial. Even more, I am aware that I am at best an imperfect model of the directions I’d like to see us take. In some key ways, I am the primary audience for Generous Thinking, trying as hard as I can to guide myself toward better ways of being.

4 August 2019, 18:39

Before what’s below, I need to say something about the horror unfolding around us in El Paso and Dayton, and too too many other cities of late, though I honestly don’t much know what to say, except that it’s a national shame of the highest order that we have come on some fundamental level to accept living like this.

The gravity of these events and our larger cultural moment leave me struggling to figure out how to put this: I am worrying a bit about how widespread the use of “white supremacy” has become when used to talk about obviously racist mass shootings. Because I’m convinced that the mainstream white-supremacist Right is starting to find an out in the term. Something as horrible as El Paso is so beyond white supremacism that Ted effing Cruz and whatsername the orange one’s daughter can use those very words in tweets and yet distance themselves from their larger import. So when we talk about voter suppression, about redlining, about the million microaggressions that people of color face every day, they will have created ground on which to say “ONLY THAT qualifies as white supremacist, you are trivializing the concept by using it to refer to (X thing I regularly do but know I shouldn’t).”

We Have Never Been Social

Last week, I had the pleasure of chatting with Bryan Alexander on his Future Trends Forum. We were primarily focused on Generous Thinking, but by way of having me introduce myself, Bryan asked what I’m working on this year. I mentioned that I’m in the early research phases of what might turn out to be a new project — which is to say, I have a pretty inchoate idea and I’m doing a lot of reading this summer trying to figure out whether there’s a there there. Late in our conversation, however, the discussion turned back to that project idea, and given that I’ve now shared it on video (soon to be available on YouTube), I thought it might behoove me to commit a bit of that idea here.1

The project has as its working title We Have Never Been Social: Rethinking the Internet. It revisits the history of the Internet’s development and, in particular, the rise of the social media structures that have come to dominate so much of our experience of networked communication, arguing that a significant part of what has led us to the mess we find ourselves in today — with corporate entities tracking our every move while ignoring (or abetting) the growth of violent radical movements just under the surface, undermining not just how we interact with one another in casual ways but the very organization of our formal, public, political lives — is a desperately flawed model of sociality, one that is in fact not just un-social but anti-social. These structures allow us to talk to one another and to form connections with those who share our interests and concerns, for sure, but they are predicated on a hyperindividualism that is not just contrary to but actually corrosive of the kinds of deliberation necessary to a productive public life. (You might begin to see some of the ways in which this project grows out of ideas I developed in the course of Generous Thinking; the Internet, like the university as it exists today, is not conducive to generosity, and imagining how a more generous Internet might be developed requires thinking through its present and potential structures of reward and relation.)

I imagine that the first part of this project will focus on how it got to be this way, what got missed or ignored in some of the early warnings about what was happening online and how those warnings were swamped by the hype depicting the Internet as a space of radical democratization. But then I want to turn my attention to where we might go, whether there are possibilities for building an Internet that would be more genuinely social. Some argue that a more decentralized web — a web in which we manage the platforms through which we interact with others, or what Wired recently referred to as the soothing promise of the artisanal Internet — would allow us to control the ways that our data is used, as well as to control the terms of our engagements with the broader network. There is no small irony in the suggestion that what has been termed the IndieWeb could actually turn out to promote a deeper sociality, of course, and the vision of a distributed, self-hosted, self-controlled Internet would be a real challenge to achieve. But as I see it, the desire to pull our efforts at creative production and connection out of platforms like Facebook and Twitter and, commit to more distributed platforms like Mastodon or return to blogging and its micro-blogging relatives focus not on the goal, but instead on a means to an end. Because the problem is not that our platforms haven’t been sufficiently individualized; despite — or more truthfully because of — being under ravenous corporate control, they cater to our worst individualist instincts. Contravening that force is going to require something more than personal control, promoting something other than atomization.

That is to say: if the problem has not been the centralized, corporatized control of the individual voice, the individual’s data, but rather a deeper failure of sociality that precedes that control, then merely reclaiming ownership of our voices and our data isn’t enough. If the goal is creating more authentic, more productive forms of online sociality, we need to rethink our platforms, the ways they function, and our relationships to them from the ground up. It’s not just a matter of functionality, or privacy controls, or even of business models. It’s a matter of governance.

So this is where some older paths-not-taken, such as Ted Nelson’s original many-to-many, multidirectional model for hypertext, and some more recent potential paths, such as Herbert van de Sompel’s decentralized, distributed vision for scholarly communication, might come in. But this is also where I want to turn my attention to the arguments I raised in my plenary talk at the Spring 2019 CNI meeting about the relationship between sustainability and solidarity. Because this, as Tressie McMillan Cottom reminds us, “is not a problem for technological innovation or a market product. This requires politics” (Lower Ed 182).

That’s where I am in the project: re-reading a lot of early writers on the rise of the Internet and social media, including the techno-utopians, those who got dismissed as Luddites, and the wealth of critical thinkers that fall somewhere in-between. And I’m reading a lot of recent work that looks at the mess we’re in and how it got to be this way. And I’m reading some key texts in social theory that will help me envision potential paths forward. But what else? What are the crucial texts and ideas I should be engaging with? Where are the new movements in rethinking the Internet that I shouldn’t miss?

Summer 2019

I’m titling this post “Summer 2019” in part as a way of reminding myself, as firmly as possible, that the summer has begun, in order to get myself focused on a new set of priorities as quickly as possible.

The transition from spring into summer has always been a bit of a challenge for me. On the one hand, there has often been this sense of my calendar opening out into vast stretches of unscheduled time — freeing, but with the seeming result that I go to bed one night in late May and wake up the next morning in late August, with the stretch inbetween passing in a dream-like blur.

On the other hand — and particularly in periods like now when some significant percentage of my time is dedicated to administrative responsibilities — there is also this sense of the spring and fall terms creeping like kudzu into the summer: just one more set of meetings, one more report, some final paperwork, and then perhaps we can start taking up planning for next year.

Last year I handled the spring-to-summer transition brilliantly, if a bit by accident: we left town as soon as finals week was over and spent two weeks in a lakeshore cabin. That two weeks was designed to allow me to jumpstart the revisions of Generous Thinking that I needed to get through in short order, but it had the knock-on effect of clearing my head and jumpstarting the summer, a clean transition into a different mode of being.

This year, we’ve scheduled the summer’s travel differently, with the result that the transition into summer isn’t as clean. Last week — the first week after finals — was filled top-to-bottom with meetings. This week’s schedule is less full but still contains a few stragglers. So I’m having to bring a somewhat more purposeful attention to the transition into summer work. Hence this post.

My goals this summer include both some exciting Humanities Commons-related developments (about which more soon!) and some preliminary work toward what may or may not turn out to be a new book project.

That last is potentially the most important, but also the easiest to defer, interrupt, or otherwise sidetrack: mostly what I need to do is to Sit Still and Read Things. Lots of things. And it’s hard to convince my spring brain — jumping from one thing to the next, with a long list of tasks in hand — to slow down and take the time to focus.

In any case, a post to remind me to do so. And the promise of more posts to share how it’s all going: I’ll post on significant ideas as they develop, but I’m also going to try to post a more general weekly roundup as well, just to keep myself on track. (We’ll see how that goes.)

Happy summer, in the meantime!