Today, on a conference call that happened to be mostly about global business strategy, a colleague asked, "So what makes you a humanist anyway?" I gave him an answer, then the call ended and there was Ben Moskowitz's delightful, smart, incisive presentation of the Feedbacker, the open source web-based tool that my students in FutureClass designed this year and that was selected for development and publicity and outreach by the Mozilla team. So I thought about that question again, in this new context, of having helped students develop a new tool to help with collaboration, feedback, and attention. The humanist as MBA? The humanist as technology designer? The humanist as teacher of collaboration skills? The humanist as an authority on attention? Really? Whatever happened to philology, literature, history, critical theory, languages, and other "fields" we define as humanist?
Here's a long answer to that question. I would say that a humanist does all those things . . . in a humanistic way!
To start, check out Feedbacker, the attention/collaboration/feedback tool my students are developing with the Mozilla team.One motivation is to get beyond the hostile and simplistic "clicker" system for feedback in large classes to something more subtle.
And here's what Ben has to say about Feedbacker: "Feedback can be useful. This is the simple, but important idea behind the Feedbacker. Feedbacker is about taking all thats good about backchannels, and turning that into meaningful feedback for presenters.
Well be building several modules for Feedbackerthe first, called the Classroom Attention Barometer, already exists in prototype state, thanks to Sam Iglesias and Andrew First.
The Classroom Attention Barometer asks students to provide real-time, binary feedbacklike registering whether they are following the presentation. (Well need to experiment with the wording and presentation heregiving students the opportunity to grade their teachers requires delicate balance)." Here's Ben's really wonderful cartoon of Feedbacker:
The Feedbacker developers--in FutureClass and in the Mozilla developer community--worry, though, that it might be just anothe backchannel that allows the trolls to take over. What if someone likes making a mess, not making real interactivity? What if someone wants to be as disruptive and rude as possible? Feedbacker cannot change behavior but is its very design such that it encourages anonymous lashing out instead of thoughtful, collaborative participation in making the learning experience as valuable as possible for everyone? These are some of the questions we're asking.
So now back to that first question, the one that prompted this blog post: So What Makes Me a Humanist Anyway? I have a business conversation one moment and am teaching a class on collaboration where my students took ideas we were discussing about attention and then created the Classroom Attention Barometer and that eventually became Feedbacker. Where is the humanism? It is in asking the "why" and "wherefore" questions--about commerce, globalization, attention, tools, feedback, trolls, participation, and learning--that I believe my humanist training comes in. For example, with the Feedbacker, our conversations have been cognizant of minority opinion, an issue technology theorist and designer Anne Balsamo raised about tag clouds when she came to give a HASTAC talk at Duke. If you visualize the loudest and most prevalent voices, what happens to the important, creative, edgy, inspiring but minority voices on the periphery? We asked the same question about Feedbacker. Is the backchannel always the silent minority? Does it make a difference if the majority people are sitting there not paying attention and then acting like trolls when they have a chance to add something of their own? These are questions of ethics and communication, power and performance, and those, dear friends, are humanistic questions. What makes a humanist is a desire to ask theoretical questions about tools, operations, interactions, and systems. It's not just about "how" but about "why"--and those big "why" questions are what make the tools and operations and interactions and systems much more powerfully compelling in the end.
Humanists are not the only ones, by any means, who reflexively ask these questions and some humanists (and academics of all stripes) ask them so reflexively and repeatedly that they get themselves into a muddle and don't actually do or make or produce anything. How to exert the perfectionism of outsider critique to an end that is about the fallability of development--it is never perfect, it is always on the way, and there are always new ideas and new things to try--is the particular challenge. It is one of the unique aspects of FutureClass that it started from a place of introspection and critique with a goal of turning critical ideas into creative but also highly useful things or tools. That progression is not a typical journey or an easy one but it is, I believe, one well worth making.