Scholars, It’s Time to Take Control of Your Online Communities

Crossposted from the Humanities Commons Team blog.

A couple of years ago, I got a bit fed up with the ways that certain for-profit networks were purporting to provide scholars with opportunities to share their work openly with one another, and I decided that it was time to mouth off about it a bit: about the fact that their “.edu” address was deceiving many into believing that they were an academy-driven initiative, about the ways their uncertain business model endangered the future of the work being shared there, about the damage that network was doing to genuine open access.

Not long after, Sarah E. Bond issued a direct call to action: “It is time to delete your Academia.edu account.”

And many scholars did, taking their work to networks like Humanities Commons. And they told their friends and colleagues to do so as well. Since that time, Humanities Commons has come to serve more than 16,500 scholars and practitioners across the humanities and around the world. Those members are building their professional profiles, depositing and sharing work via the repository, and creating a wide range of websites to support their portfolios, their classes, and their other projects.

But where we’ve been less successful has been in attracting groups of scholars to engage in active discussion and collaboration. The Commons has a robust groups structure, permitting communities of a range of types and sizes — from private committees to public subfields, and everything inbetween — to host threaded discussions, to share files, and more besides. But that feature of the network remains somewhat underutilized, despite the extent to which many scholars today want to be able to communicate and collaborate with one another online.

The heart of the issue, I’m pretty sure, is that those scholars already have communities that seem to be functioning pretty well for them, a ton of them on Facebook. And the problem is, as I noted in my original Academia-not-edu post, is the gravity that such existing groups exert, especially when, as with Facebook, everybody is already there. (Or so it often seems, at least. People who are not on Facebook might be quick to tell you how annoying it is when we assume that everyone can be reached that way.)

If it’s hard to convince individual scholars to change their ways of working and take up more equitable, open, and transparent systems, it’s all but impossible to convince groups of scholars to do so.

And yet: it’s time.

Part of the argument I made for abandoning Academia.edu in favor of non-profit, scholar-governed alternatives, alternatives that were not out to surveil or data-mine their users, was based on my assessment that “everything that’s wrong with Facebook is wrong with Academia.edu, at least just up under the surface, and so perhaps we should think twice before committing our professional lives to it.” The inverse is even more true: everything that’s wrong with Academia.edu is wrong with Facebook, and then some.

I’ll leave it to Siva Vaidhyanathan to delve into the details, but it should be apparent from recent headlines that Facebook is at the root of a tremendous amount of personal unhappiness, violent conflict, and political turmoil today. The company has routinely sold its users’ data to advertisers, to companies, and to highly damaging political agents like Cambridge Analytica. Facebook engages in deep surveillance of users and their activity both on the network and elsewhere on the internet, an activity that is not just being exploited by corporations but also by governments. Given that Facebook’s entire business model depends on selling us — our presence, our information, our clicks — to other entities, every interaction we engage in there supports that model, whether we like it or not.

Most of us know this already, and yet we use the network anyway, even if begrudgingly. Our distant family members and friends are there, and we don’t know how we’ll keep up with them otherwise. And our scholarly communities, too: there are active discussion groups on Facebook that we’d miss if we left. So we watch our privacy settings and try to be careful with what we share — and yet no amount of such prophylaxis can really protect us from malfeasance. Assuming that our ostensibly private groups are actually private is setting ourselves up for abuse.

On top of which, working in proprietary spaces like Facebook does ongoing damage to the scholarly record; we cannot control, preserve, or migrate the archives of our discussions as desired.

It’s extremely difficult to move an entire group of people, I know, but I hope that some of you might be willing to try. There are other non-profit scholarly networks grounded in academic values available out there, of course, but if you’re in or adjacent to the humanities, I hope you’ll consider moving your discussions to Humanities Commons. And if you’re not in the humanities, maybe come join us anyhow? We want to open the network up to all fields in the near future, and your involvement would help us chart a path toward doing so.

26 February 2019, 13:29

I’m grateful to have gotten to have such a good conversation with Scott Carlson of the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Listening as Generous Thinking

(Crossposted from the Johns Hopkins University Press blog.)

Generous Thinking began for me with the nagging sense that something is off-kilter in much of scholarly life. It’s having profound effects not just on the ways that we as individual scholars are able to live out the values that we bring to our work but also on the ways that we work together, in groups, as departments, as institutions. And perhaps most importantly, it is affecting the ways that we connect and communicate with — or fail to connect and communicate with — the world off-campus. A talk I heard by David Scobey some years ago gave me the title for this book; Scobey argued that critical thinking in the humanities was completely out of balance with generous thinking, which oriented toward a form of public engagement designed to reconnect the university with the world. I was thrilled to hear someone name the thing that I’d been circling around, and yet I had two points of concern: first, was critical thinking necessarily on the opposite end of the intellectual see-saw from generous thinking? And second, if we are to engage generously with the world, do we need to begin closer to home?

The kind of generosity that I found myself hoping to foster has as its goal reconnecting the university to the communities that the institution is intended to serve. But this generosity is grounded in practices of connection that might strengthen the university itself as a community. The most fundamental of these practices is listening.

But — listening? How could something so basic be the ground for solving such a complex set of problems?

The first thing to note is that listening is indeed a most basic form of human engagement, but one that nearly all of us are pretty bad at. We may let one another speak; we may even hear one another when we do; but much of that time is spent waiting for our next turn to talk, preparing our own thoughts and ideas. Genuinely listening to what someone else has to say requires letting go, at least for a moment, of our own assumptions and perspectives. Listening requires attuning ourselves to what is being said to us, opening ourselves to the possibility that we might have something to learn from the engagement — that our own assumptions and perspectives might be wrong.

It’s not a coincidence that the ability to listen varies inversely with privilege: people who are marginalized are not just commanded to listen, but often must use listening as a tool of survival. The need to learn to listen, to displace the self in order to understand the perspectives of others, is for that reason most pressing for those of us who are most privileged. Listening is the first step in the creation of solidarity, of recognizing that our collective interests must take precedence over our individual interests.

Listening isn’t a panacea. It can’t solve the problems that the university faces today, not unless it’s accompanied by real transformative action. But listening is more than just personal, or interpersonal. It’s the ground for a critical practice that begins by thinking with rather than against our colleagues. It’s the ground for our ability to draw students and other potentially interested members of the public into the work that we do, rather than closing them out. It’s the ground for creating institutions that genuinely live out the values they claim to espouse. Listening is a basis for generous thinking, and as such is the first step toward real transformative change.

More on GT: Comments Reopened

The conclusion to the print edition of Generous Thinking directs readers to the manuscript’s open review site to share thoughts and ideas growing out of the book, in the hope that we can find ways collectively to develop opportunities for rebuilding the relationships between institutions of higher education and the publics that they serve. So, in conjunction with the book’s release this week, I’ve reopened comments throughout the draft manuscript. I’ll look forward to discussing the possibilities there.

17 February 2019, 10:06

My dean Chris Long recently invited me to talk about Generous Thinking with him on his podcast, the Liberal Arts Endeavor. It was a great discussion, and I’m grateful to have had the opportunity.

Behind the Will

I am honored that my colleagues in the College of Arts & Letters asked me to talk a bit about digital humanities and the role that it might play in reorienting the university toward the public good. We had a rather long conversation, more of which is represented in the full story, but they wisely edited me down into a pithy (and beautiful; thanks, Pete!) minute-thirty:

I’m grateful for the opportunity to think out loud a bit — and particularly just as Generous Thinking drops — about the ways the various pieces of my work work together.