Blog Post

What Makes a Participatory, Virtual Organization Happen? (Or, in Praise of Julie Klein)

It was 2002 when David Theo Goldberg and I left a meeting where there was an awful lot of handwringing about the crisis in the humanities and a lot of grousing about how "technology" was destroying the humanities, and said, "Hey! It's the Information Age. This is our age. There have to be other scholars and teachers around the country who realize that the issues of the Information Age are so momentous and happening so fast that we all need to be working together on them, we need to be collaborating, we need to be redefining our fields and rethinking what 'education' means, together, so we can think through social, political, moral, economic, ethical dimensions of all the new ways communicating together are changing our lives."


Well, we may not have used exactly those words, but that was the intent. By early 2003, we had called together about a hundred people at UCHRI and had a meeting to think about a new way of thinking, where "the crisis of the humanities" was irrelevant because we had, from such a crisis, an opportunity to rethink it all. What is education? What is learning? What is individuality, specialization, collaboration, interaction? What are institutions? What are networks? What about an organization whose cost of membership is participation?


We were fortunate that our institutions, UCHRI and the John Hope Franklin Center and the John Hope Franklin Humanities Institute as supported by Duke University more generally, thought we were on to something and allowed us to, mostly on our own hour, not part of our jobs but as an add-on, to develop outreach for this thing called "HASTAC." (Don't ask on what dark night that acronym evolved . . . but we were amazed when scientists, especially, liked it, liked the homonymic "haystack" but also the naming of all the disciplines. "Advanced?" I think Kevin Franklin may have come up with that because "academic" was in there originally and we realized there were lots of people who had no academic affiliation who were also interested in playing along with us, in thinking about how you think online, anonymously, collaboratively, globally. "What's another 'A' word?" Thank goodness it wasn't "aardvark" or, well, "awkward." As the cheerleaders say, "Give me an A!!!")


Okay, so over the years it has been amazing to watch who has stepped up. Who "gets it" (thank you, Larry Grossman, Anne Murphy, and Newt Minow for being the first, at Digital Promise; thank you, Miriam Heller from NSF for being the first of the major federal agencies; and, above all, thank you MacArthur Foundation). Who contributes. The numbers of individuals and institutions--hundreds and hundreds--who have joined in on various projects, who have nominated and been mentors to HASTAC Scholars, who have hosted small or large events: it's astonishing. So is the traffic, every day, to this website.


I'm writing a piece for the ADE Bulletin (Association of Departments of English) and wondering how many of my articles in print publications have as many "eyeballs" (in geek language) as my blogs? Interesting question, no?


So, the subtitle of this little nostalgic paean to participation and contribution was inspired by yet another email this morning from one of our Steering Committee members, the renowned interdisciplinary studies scholar Julie Thompson Klein. I have an email from Julie at least once a week and it is always with an idea that she follows through on. Imagine that! Julie is one of those rare human beings who comes up with an idea, checks out with everyone to make sure it isn't being done (she is efficiency personified) and, if it isn't, she comes up with an action plan and makes it happen. Astonishing. Wayne State, where Julie teaches, is incredibly fortunate to have a colleague who does so much in so many innovative directions, and who can be relied on, always, to carry through. Some of us think she needs a title within HASTAC. Goddess of HASTAC's Interdisciplinary Ideas and Implementation? But it's hard, in an organization without real titles, to figure out how you reward participation among participators? As we think further about the goddess title (!), this blog will just have to suffice, with a big round of virtual applause for Julie, who makes things happen.


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