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Patrik Svensson on the Role of Public Education and the Future of Digital Scholarship

Patrik Svensson on the Role of Public Education and the Future of Digital Scholarship

Kalle: Hello Patrik Svensson! You’re a visiting researcher with The Futures Initiative this year. What are your current research projects and collaborations? What are your driving forces behind that/those project/s? What are your concerns and questions?

The first semester here I was at the Advanced Research Collaboratory (ARC) and the second semester I’m at the Futures Initiative, which I think is a very good combination. I mean, they’re similar in some ways. ARC is a place with fellows from inside CUNY and nationally and internationally. Very vibrant environment. The Futures Initiative, to me, seems to have this grand goal of reforming, challenging, changing the fabric of education and what education can be. So it connects to my work in various ways. What I worked on during the ARC fellowship time was primarily things that had to do with space and learning. So the spatial situatedness of learning and knowledge production, and that has lots of different parts to it.

One part has to do with presentation culture and presentation software, so we did one article on PowerPoint, which is not only about space, but the history of the software and the rise of presentation culture and how that creates conditions for knowledge production. So that’s one project. And I did that, the presentation software stuff, is together with Erica Robles-Anderson at NYU.

And another project is together with Johanna Drucker at UCLA on intellectual middleware—actually, I heard this in some of The Future Initiative’s discussions already—the kind of “black box,” the [thing that’s] in-between the conceptual level or whatever and the material manifestation: How knowledge production, in particular, is structured by the tools we use. PowerPoint is an example of that, but also more widely: If you look at Wordpress or Scalar, or whatever, it structures, conditions the way we can make arguments, and we think it’s very important to think about the very particularities and the material details of that structuring, in a critical sense, but also using that as a kind of tool for thinking about what kind of tools you may need to put forward the arguments that we want to make as scholars or public humanities folks, or whatever… intellectuals.

I also have a book project on academic events—the way that academic events, in the academy is a very important part of what we do but there is very little critical work. We take lots of it for granted—we go to big conferences, small conferences, workshops, they’re structured in very particular ways. There are hierarchies, all kinds of things built-in to, and space is another important factor, I don’t like academic conferences very much myself, but the plan is go to ten of them and document them in a year. That will be personal narrative too, kind of personal story of hardship and try to fit in or whatever.

I also continue to work with David Theo Goldberg at the UC Humanities Research Institute and Matt Ratto at University of Toronto on new projects that result from conversations over many years..

So conditions of knowledge production is one of my key interests, and engaging both critically and in terms of making. I’m interested in infrastructure, for instance, both looking at infrastructure critically, but also building stuff. You know, I have worked on it with HUMlab for 15 years as the Director, that was building infrastructure to a large degree.

Kalle: How has your work at HUMlab informed scholarly knowledge production?

With the December 2014 event on genres of scholarly knowledge production, we disallowed the use of PowerPoint. We had like 60 people, many international, many senior scholars, also junior scholars. We told them: You cannot use PowerPoint, Keynote, or whatever. But we encourage you to use our infrastructure, the labs, we’ll provide you with a piece of software to enable argument-making using those infrastructures. And it was a really interesting experiment I think. One of our spaces we have screens around. It’s like a performance space /with/ peripherally placed screens. We had a couple of panels early on, and then we moved into that space. And the first panel, the first speaker wasn’t actually there physically. You walk into this space and there are slides, or screens, with content around you. And although one screen is larger than the others, there is no natural kind of center-point. And then you have ambient voice—this person, actually speaking. We had an architect looking at how people were moving in that space. You know, the initial confusion etc etc.

Kalle: How did you come into the field of the Digital Humanities? What role do you see HASTAC (and similar organizations) playing in addressing some of the opportunities and challenges in digital humanities? If that’s what you consider yourself doing?

I’ve always been a little resistant to the label, for many reasons actually. I cherish the liminal position which I think you can probably argue that HASTAC has too. My own interest in this kind of domain, which I at least used to call humanities-culture-information technology broadly speaking, was mostly through educational projects. I used to be at the Department of English at Umeå University, and we did this series of learning experiments and projects, in the early 2000s, with hypertext papers that teacher trainee students did. Instead of doing the equivalent of a BA thesis, we encouraged students to engage with a theme across the linguistic, literature, cultural studies. But also not to express it in terms of a traditional paper but do an installation, a graphical virtual world. But the idea wasn’t to build detailed physical replicas but rather to link conceptual stuff to analysis and we worked in themes like the city, weddings, monstrosity. And students worked in groups and built things—a really interesting experiment. And we did that for a number of years. I worked closely with Pat Shrimpton at the department, another great collaboration. She was senior director of studies who had successfully taught generations of Swedish students, with lots of curiosity and engagement.

I was also working a lot as a linguist with a lot of corpora, text-databases, and those are obviously very powerful tools if you want to find patterns in billions of words, etc.

From that I think, a kind of basic understanding or interest in the fact that digital technology or information technology can be, I mean, definitely a tool. But also, with the students, representing or manifesting their work, in this kind of digital performative space. That partly came from those projects, but also from my own work actually looking at digitally-enabled communication critically: The digital obviously is a study object. That’s a kind of richness which is important to the digital humanities as a field, I think. There has been a tendency to maybe engage with one of those. But I think there’s power in that kind of intersection, and that we also need in terms of building tools that are also interpretative, and think carefully about the way knowledge production and interpretation are manifested. Then it’s never an either or (if it has ever been).

HASTAC is a very good example, obviously, which to me also relates to the strengths and facts about digital humanities which is that it has become or been a place for thinking about the humanities too. So my sense is that HASTAC and you see this around now—I see it with the Nordic DH conference too—that there is a lots of early career scholars and experts of different kinds, not only engaging with the digital because it makes sense from all kinds of perspectives on the the work we want to do but also because it is a place where it is OK and encouraged to discuss the humanities, the academy. I think HASTAC is that, too, that allows, enables, empowers, maybe, to /revisit?/ important work. And I think HUMlab has tried to and been that kind of platform and still obviously is, an experimental platform for the humanities.  

My work is, and my interest, is curiosity-driven, so I think it’s important to have platforms to do the kind of work you’re interested in doing. And I think HASTAC is one platform, The Futures Initiative is another one, HUMlab is another one, etc. Those kinds of platforms often require curatorship; curatorial work is very important. And I think, as I said earlier, that those platforms tend to be empowering in the sense that they can facilitate, or they can help you do things that you might not be able to do so easily within traditional fields or whatever.

Kalle: HumLab is in Sweden. You’re now here in the U.S. You have experiences of two different cultures of higher education. What are your thoughts on the role of public education today for the good of society?

I think that’s true, although I also think there are maybe more similarities too than we sometimes think. I also think the discourse around the humanities which is not only grounded in the numbers, etc. but is also cultural, in the way we think about who we are and what we can do. And the humanities are and have been threatened and has been described as being that for a  very long time. I think if you look at Swedish newspaper articles on the humanities, which I did at one point, it was very clear that many of them, it’s about crisis, all kinds of words that has do with catastrophe or åderlåtning (blood-letting).

But over the last couple of the years, Swedish higher education, the problem has been that there is too much money. Universities haven’t been able to spend it necessarily. It’s not evenly distributed between different fields, etc. Things are changing however.

I think what we see in Sweden too, in terms of challenges, is the nationally driven or state-driven prioritization of certain areas; a kind of instrumentalization of higher education, which is often not seen as a good thing for the humanities because if you invest in whatever that is seen from the national agenda as important, it will often not automatically include the humanities or be taken to include the humanities.

But, again, on the whole it is a very privileged system: No tuition fees—at least if you’re from Sweden or within the EU. I mean, that’s been one of the great things about being at CUNY too: to get a better sense of a very large public education system which I think has been a fantastic experience. There are lots of challenges, obviously, but it’s also a very powerful system with a heart, that I really appreciate. And the connection, obviously, between the privileged part of the CUNY system, The Graduate Center, and the various other parts. That’s been one of the great things about ARC and also the projects that you’re doing here at The Futures Initiative.

Another state system I know fairly well is the University of California, which I think is a fantastic system but also the risk, and we see that in many places in the US now, the risk with those great institutions, is when you reduce funding and you become more dependent on other sources of funding, etc. etc. and tuition fees are increased, you know it’s not as public necessarily anymore. But also, at some point, the system breaks down. So the benefit of having something that cuts across is large. The Graduate Center is an important part of the CUNY system but of course, you need to fund The Graduate Center—The Graduate Center people would argue that it’s good for the CUNY system as a whole. For the UC system, if you take away too much of the funding that cuts across, then the individual schools will be more isolated in a way, and many of the good things happen across [different schools].

One observation I have made talking to quite a few researchers, junior and senior, is that more people based at private elite schools than I thought, make it very clear that they would rather be at a good public or state school. Something I sense here, and maybe it’s idealistic and a notion of CUNY and The Graduate Center too, is that there is more than the pieces you put together, there’s a culture and hard commitment to something that is valued a lot from the outside, that you may not have in some of these other schools—some of them seem more like real estate companies, etc.

Kalle: I want to look to the future: Where do you see interesting people, institutions? Where is the good work happening right now?

I think the way I think about it, and the way I am doing it… I mentioned this before, but trying to get this event on what I call critical visualization together, which is a kind of thematic—visualization is pervasive, it is something we often take for granted. We need in-depth critical work but we also need to think about how we enact knowledge through visualization; knowledge-production through visualization. Yes, I mean to some degree, looking at something like that, you can look at specific institutes, environments, but typically, for me at least, it is often about people. People are an very important driving factor for me, so I get interested, obviously,  by people who do very good work, and who are willing to engage in relation to that work.

At the MLA conference, for instance, I was very impressed with someone like Élika Ortega who is part of the Global DH movement or organization (working together with Alex Gil, Roopika Risam and others). She did a very good talk on that, but she also talked about her work on narratives that span different kinds of materialities—something that lives on a screen and also paper, and how those interact. That was inspirational.

There is much good work going on here at The Graduate Center, actually. That’s where we are, but in relation to digital humanities stuff, there is a careful build-up of capacity and bringing people in, and of course the students here are a very important part of that too.

I think the field, looking at digital humanities which has expanded massively, and where there has been all kinds of different movements and tensions, I think we have come to a point in which things are changing. Earlier, I think, people spoke more about change than there actually was change. And now I think that we’ve come to a stage in which there are lots of new institutions, and lots of new people, so major challenges to actually, I think, manage that. Organized DH is under pressure, coping under all those new organizations. But maintaining to me, one of the key challenges when I think about the digital humanities at least, is to be able to maintain that liminal, in-between quality, as well as being institutionalized to the degree to do the work you want to do. I don’t think of DH as a discipline. It’s very interesting to follow, it’s going on right now, it’s like seeing a field, I mean I have been following it for quite some time now. See different kinds of struggles and challenges and successes, but also what will happen? It’s not one thing.

And I think the open kind of, generous spirit is important of the field. And I also think that the, as I was saying earlier, the combined intellectual material engagement, I mean when you actually bring critical sensibility to building, or they intertwine in different ways and vice versa. It’s a very difficult thing. I think that’s where tools are not just about access, or about whatever things we used to do, but also modes of doing interpretation, live stuff. It’s not about presenting as much as enacting, and using tools connected to data to understand the world better.

Kalle: Do you have any concrete examples of such projects?

Just to give you one example from the lab, Cecilia Lindhé from Gothenburg (earlier in HUMlab), she did this—together with other people—on Virgin Mary as a virtuous role model in medieval Sweden. So they collected lots of data but instead of trying to do a realistic reconstruction of churches or whatever, she did an installation together with our HUMlab team in that space. Digital platforms and digital cultural heritage have a tendency to create decontextualized worlds to some degree, and I think she argues that we apply print logic to the world that we see through that material whereas she would say that when you came into church, you actually interacted with stuff, you moved about, you touched whatever. So this is an installation on multiple screens which is maybe more partly like an art piece which is about engaging with that kind of pre-print logic in an expressive way, which has lots of sound, visuals etc. She has written about this… it’s a good project.

Kalle: So how is this a direction for future academic digitally-oriented projects?

I think that’s the key—conceptually strong projects where you actually do the making too. It doesn’t always have to be a fully finished thing, I mean it can be a prototype or a proof-concept or something.

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