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Exploration & Collaboration: Profiling Kevin Franklin

Exploration & Collaboration: Profiling Kevin Franklin

Kevin Franklin, an expert on distributed knowledge systems and virtual collaboration, is one of the co-founders of HASTAC. Since 2007, he has served as Executive Director of the Illinois Center for Computing in Humanities, Arts, and Social Science at the University of Illinois. Like HASTAC, I-CHASS aims to bring people from a variety of backgrounds—from engineers to programmers to photographers to literary critics—together to collaborate on the development of new tools for studying human problems. He is also a senior research scientist at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications, bringing his passion for interdisciplinary and multi-platform collaboration to the birthplace of the first widely-available graphical web browser and home of some of the most powerful supercomputers on the planet.


In order to find out what inspires him, and to see how he imagines the innovative work of HASTAC and I-CHASS at work in the world, Patrick Berry and I asked Franklin a few questions. Here’s what he had to say:

What brought you to your field?

Exploration. I've worked in many fields in my career, everything from marketing and promotions in professional athletics, college basketball coaching, teaching, building national programs to develop a more diverse teacher workforce to helping to lead a supercomputer center and humanities research institute. I've been most interested in the system complexities of these various activities, the strategies and tactics needed to effectively grow and sustain collaborative efforts. But not just strategy and tactics as functions but also as art. I am interested, in other words, in trying to understand what is required to achieve excellence from a team—you know, the magic. You can see it in the basketball team that wins the national title, you can see it in the research team that sequences the genome for the first time and you can see it in many aspects of HASTAC. It’s part strategy, part tactic, part imagination, and part art. The most wonderful configurations of people always have lots of imaginative and artistic thinking.


What aspect of your current work means the most to you and why?

My collaborations with brilliant people many of which live in the HASTAC community. As Keith Sawyer frames it in his book Group Genius: The Creative Power of Collaboration (Basic Books, 2007), collaborative effort generates ideas and inventions. I've found this the most stimulating part of my work: getting together with friends and colleagues to collectively develop ideas that are helpful to others and shape those ideas for implementation and impact.

Are there any trends that have taken place in the last few years that have challenged or supported collaborative efforts like these?

A more intense effort at universities to push interdisciplinary research and scholarship has been very helpful. It’s very difficult in general for people to move out of their comfort zones and the lack of real academic and funding rewards to do so compound the problem. I think the trend towards universities, institutes and funding agencies to look more favorably at projects that cross disciplinary, organization and international boundaries will have a powerful and long-lasting impact on solving many of the worlds grand challenges.

What do you believe are the challenges and barriers entering scholars will have to navigate as they attempt to make a career?

Breaking down walls and breaking through ceilings. It’s a tricky thing. When I first started my career the primary walls and ceilings where those that tried to box people in by race and gender. Of course these still exist, but now there are also clearly disciplinary walls and ceilings, and most likely these boundaries will exist for a along time to come. I think to navigate these obstacles it requires developing an intelligent and caring support network. Good mentors are hard to find but I would recommend that entering scholars find the very best ones they can; and I don’t just mean scholarly mentors, but also political mentors, fundraising mentors, etc.

If you could collaborate with anyone, who would it be and why?

Miyamoto Musashi, circa 1645, author of The Book of Five Rings. He had a gifted insight into nontraditional versus traditional vantage points. One of my favorite quotations from him is:

Know the smallest things and the biggest things, the shallowest things and the deepest things. As if it were a straight road mapped out on the ground …. These things cannot be explained in detail. From one thing, know ten thousand things. When you attain the Way of strategy there will not be one thing you cannot see. You must study hard.

Why? Because I believe we are in an era where we need brilliant and sustained nontraditional thinkers to help us deal with the major problems of the day in and outside of the academy.


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