the creative community and the digital humanities

Below the digital fold on this post are three Cognitive Media videos featuring Steven Johnson, Jeremy Rifkin, and Sir Ken Robinson. Here are the short synopses of their arguments:

  • Steven Johnson: great ideas emerge from communities/networks over time.
  • Jeremy Rifkin: contemporary human and social sciences demonstrate that Enlightenment notions of humans as fundamentally self-interested are misleading; we are instead fundamentally empathic and connected. We need to reinvent social institutions to facilitate our global connection with each other and our biosphere.
  • Sir Ken Robinson: educational institutions must be reformed away from the factory model toward a cyberspatial/post-industrial one that encourages divergent thinking and creativity.

I think of my own work as operating in this common discursive and cognitive space, and that digital media provides us an opportunity to intensify our collective creative potential (even though it is obviously not an automatic given that technologies will do this). 

I realize that in some ways this seems like a tired argument,especially given the commercial hype machine surrounding social media. And, of course, these claims have been made about technologies in the past. But really, prior technologies have resulted in these kinds of expansions of communities and creative explosions: the earliest development of symbolic behavior among humans; the invention of writing systems in neolithic civilizations; Enlightenment, science, and the printing press; the nation state and mass media. As Rifkin points out, each of these stages had its own notions of humanness and community (and I would add, creativity). Now these are clearly broad brushstrokes, but this is a big picture kind of scene setting.

Within this bigger picture, my recent interests have been in examining how our legacy notions of creativity/intellectual work and community, both of which are undoubtedly historically situated in the material and technological contexts of the late 19th- through mid-20th centuries, now stand as fundamental obstacles to our ability to take advantage of our new context and, quite frankly, to solve the problems created by prior paradigms. Now, one can think about this in very big terms, as one can see in these talks and similar ones at RSA, TED, and other sites: all the problems of globalization and industrialization from environmental threats to cultural conflicts. My interests are fairly humble in that context but certainly grandiose in terms of the way humanists work, at least recently. That is, I see, in a way that is analogous to these large scale problems, that the humanities (and particularly English studies, and particularly my own field of rhetoric and composition)

  • suffers from the myopia of atomization and hyper-specialization that typifies modern bureaucracy;
  • is severely limited by the legacy notions that information is scarce and communication is expensive;
  • and, perhaps most surprisingly, faces a real ethical dilemma in its persistant presumption that intellectual work is fundamentally individual.

I term this last surprising as I am sure that humanists in general are quite confident of the ethical strength, if not superiority, of their work. And I don't mean to suggest that humanists are collectively unethical or bad people. It's not that at all. Instead, we are all caught up in a kind of institutional and disciplinary inertia that is very difficult to get away from: this kind of sticky situation is evident in Johnson, Rifkin, and Robinson as well. At the same time, invention and community obviously do exist in the humanities, and the humanities are increasingly mediated by digital technologies. So it's not so much a matter of completely scrapping what we are doing as it is a "theoretical" challenge, a matter of seeing differently, and then acting from our re-vision.

If you're in a humanities department though, you can easily imagine how difficult this task will be. As I've written about here before in terms of academic workspaces, if you walk down the hallways of an English department (and I've had offices in six departments over the years and seen many others), mostly you will see closed doors. Some small percentage of humanities faculty choose to work in their offices and those serving administrative roles (as I am now) need to be around more, but most faculty are only around for their office hours. Why? Because our work is traditionally atomistic. Whether its research, writing, editing, class preparation, or grading, we work alone. Only our service work ever requires any kind of collaboration, and, predictably, it's largely unrewarded and undesirable. 

One of the interesting things in Johnson's talk is his discussion of how scientists often developed creative ideas in weekly meetings where they discussed their research with others. Clearly those research meetings would be with others who were doing related but different work. These kinds of things happen in the humanities but not nearly on that level of intensity. For example, at UB, the Humanities Institute supports reading/working groups that meet to discuss common research concerns, but the work doesn't appear to be very collaborative or extensive. So what if we incentivized a different kind of behavior? Let's say there was some money to support humanities faculty working in teams on a common research problem. They would be expected to meet regularly; maintain a group blog; co-author conference papers, articles, and/or grant proposals; and intersect their teaching in learning communities, co-taught courses, etc. I'm not sure what kind/amount of incentive one would need: perhaps support for conference travel, graduate research assistants, bringing in guest speakers or consultants, release time, summer stipend, and/or books or other supplies. Then, ideally, such research groups could connect with related groups at other institutions.

So, imagine a department where the typical scene is groups of faculty and students meeting together to discuss collaboration and intersecting research. Maybe, we would be part of several such groups. I might be part of a group doing research on humanities gaming but also a group doing research that supports our composition curriculum. And, in a sense, I am already part of such groups, but they don't really function very well because such group activities often seem to operate on the back-burner behind our individually-authored articles and courses. But what if, instead, I spent a couple hours a week meeting with those groups? What if my research agenda was shaped by those meetings? What if I participated in those colleagues' classes and they participated in mine? What if, instead of writing on this individual blog I was writing on one with those colleagues?

All of these kinds of activities are easily facilitated by digital media. If I can team up with a group of trusted scholars, some senior to me, some junior (including students), and each of us with our own areas of expertise, then digital media can make it easy for us to share our research discoveries and ideas with each other and ultimately with a larger academic and public audience. 

Now I think that typical humanities scholars would shudder at the idea of this kind of collaboration. They would primarily see it as a time sink that would prevent them from accomplishing their research. They would have great difficulty imagining their research as shared or even framing their research in terms of common interests beyond the very narrow scope of their hyper-specialized fields. Plus, we've all been on committees, and we know just how ineffective faculty can be at collaboration. And none of this is because they are bad people or unethical, as I said before. It's because, in my view, they have been poorly trained (and partly because the humanities, ironically, tends to attract poorly socialized folks who find the idea of hiding behind an office door appealing). 

As such, I think we need to start selecting differently, teaching differently, and researching differently. We need to encourage a new kind of communal behavior, guided by a new ethos. In this view I see the primary challenge of the digital humanities as being only tangentially related to emerging technologies. It will ultimately be about expanding the discussion and experimentally leading the way in forming these new communities and ethical practices.

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