Yes, in case you are wondering, I am blogging alot recently. MLA panels prodding thoughts, which I think is a good thing. So an excellent panel this morning with some winners of the HASTAC/MacArthur Digital Media Competition (hub.dmlcompetition.net): Howard Rheingold (Social Media Classroom), Todd Presner (Hypercities), Greg Niemeyer and Antero Garcia (Blackcloud). These are all really interesting projects. I can't do them justice here so I'll just invite you to check them out.
I want to talk a little about the conversation between the projects and the audience. There is, on the one hand, a clear sense of the humanities central role in emerging technologies. Many of the key figures in social media/web 2.0 have come out of the humanities, which might be surprising to some. There was consensus, at least in the room, the many of the challenges of social media fall squarely within the purview of humanism: they are, in a sense, human problems. On the other hand… there remains a suspicion about social media in terms of critical thinking and its value in doing "serious" intellectual work.
Oh good, an argument we've never heard before, *sigh.*
Still, it bears with saying (again), that such skepticism is necessary, but the question might be more productively phrased in terms that were not tied to moral judgments about technologies. The question is not whether or not this or that technology is "good" or "bad." The question is not whether or not this or that technology can replicate what the scholarly essay does.
Instead, the first question/task is to uncouple one's intellectual mission, purpose, agenda from a particular technology (e.g., the essay). If you can't uncouple, then maybe you've wandered into an interesting realization about your work. Then you begin to ask questions along the lines of
- how can I accomplish my intellectual goals through other media?
- how are my goals reshaped by this remediation?
- what new goals/possibilities emerge that were not previously available?
In the end, our sense of what it means to think critically or do serious intellectual work changes. I believe it is quite relevant (and critical-thinking-ish) to wonder what it means if a certain kind of critical work cannot move from one media to another. Do we imagine that the journal article is some kind of divine mechanism that offers us special insights into the universe? Or might we instead begin to recognize how historically contingent our notions of intellectual work have been?
Please note, btw, that I am certainly not suggesting that we abandon the essay.
For example, take MLA (insert Catskill comedian joke here). You all know the drill. What if MLA had a massive backchannel and thousands of participants that knew how to use it. E.g. twitter comments hashmarked by panel number and linked to a discussion forum. People could do something similar to what some of us do in live blogging a conference. Except now that work would be better connected. One could take that corpus and do some interesting data mining. Shapes would emerge, I am willing to bet. The conference would become a giant, highly differentiated, intellectual project, but you could get some pictures of the scope and trends. You could also drill down to localized projects and conversations among dedicated participants on a particular issue sharing links, research, ideas, proposals, etc. All of the things you might wish would happen but rarely do at a panel.
How might one's intellectual goals be pursued/reshaped by this kind of social media activity? What value might a database like this have for graduate education?
Anyway, I've gone very far afield from what the panelists were talking about, which were all unique and interesting projects dealing with mapping in time and space, tracing environmental pollution, and building social media into classrooms. Check them out. When I get a chance I'm going to spend some time on the DML Hub as well and investigate the other winners' projects too.