Blog Post

HASTAC: Representing for Gryffindor

(cross-posted from my blog, Aporia)


I’m flying back from the HASTAC conference, and after an evening and morning of intellectual cookie-baking, I think I’m finally ready to say a few meaningful things about the past few days. This first post will attempt to answer, what’s HASTAC, and why does it matter?

HASTAC’s where the Gryffindors in the humanities have been sorted.

One of the big themes of conversation was the whole intellectual timidity issue that I’ve written about recently: in panel presentations, in lunchtime chat, in a broad range of contexts, we seemed to keep coming back to it.

Last year I co-taught a class to English grad students that was something of a fiasco; I’d taught a very similar class the year before in the law school that had been an exciting success. What was the difference?

Well, the output of the Sorting Hat.

Law schools have a good smattering of social-justice Hufflepuffs, but very few truly bookish Ravenclaws. Both of the two more active houses are well represented, of course. Law students tend to want to do, to act, be it for justice or wealth and status.

I was shocked to find NYU Law in my time there to be the most anti-intellectual environment I’d ever been in  – and coming from a school known for its surfing and fine craftsmanship of bongs, that was saying something. What my fellow students wanted was the kit of tools to go do things: make a fortune, run for office, help the casualties of the war on drugs. While careerism was rampant, it was of an active form: go, earn, do.

The humanities seem to draw heavily from Ravenclaw, from those whose impulse is to stand back. Sure, you get your occasional Newt Gingrich representing for the green and black, and for some decades a housing shortage pushed a lot of Ravenclaws into social-justice Hufflepuff against their natures, but mostly colleges of letters and sciences are filled with those whose impulse isn’t to push to the fore, but to Do What They’re Told and be rewarded with a lifetime sinecure in which they’re no longer expected to do anything in particular, tenure being something of the opposite of the law firm partnership model, where expectations of productivity go up, rather than down.

Conventional scholarship is a path enabling its followers to stay safely invisible in the middle of the herd. The world has changed, though, and that sort of prey-animal safety simply can’t be found anymore.

HASTAC’s a place for Gryffindorian scholars to part from the herd and take a stand.

A pair of panels on Friday epitomized the distinction between the humanities version of Kuhnian “normal science” and what I see as the HASTAC vision: in one panel, there was a repeated plea for digital scholarship to be taken seriously by ‘ them” -  prestigious journals and tenure committees – the established powers. In the second, a student talked about the work of a woman who broke with conventional paradigms to apply for a job by creating a lovely new-media work that went viral.

One was supplication to others – not present, not directly addressed but framed as powerful superiors, to take students’ work seriously, without an acknowledgement of simple power relations that that would make such an outcome improbable. The other was a demonstration of simple excellence that demanded respect due quality, innovation and courage.

“Please sir, can I have some more?” is a rhetorical stance unbecoming the work of public intellectuals newly empowered by a suite of technologies that render the old order painfully irrelevant. HASTAC is a networked community working to explore the new powers we find ourselves able to wield, and the questions of responsibility and quality which have to be answered unflinchingly and anew.

It was in that spirit that Cathy Davidson came up to me at the Friday reception for a remarkable chat about our discussion on the forums over community standards. Cathy modeled the behaviors that should become standard procedure for HASTAC scholars:

  • challenging her own assumptions and pat answers
  • researching doggedly, and when theory and data conflicted, throwing out the old theory
  • leading, not reluctantly shuffling, where the data pointed
  • building and encouraging community around both process and outcome

That’s what a Gryffindor scholar does. That’s what a HASTAC Scholar should do, and what sets us apart from our colleagues who haven’t chosen to embrace the reality that new tools can empower us to shatter old hierarchies, should we find the courage to use them.

Here’s where the neoliberal ideologies underlying law and business training come in handy: it would never occur to us to beg favor of the old, established powers, to request them to embrace or respect new technologies. We’re expected to go out on our own, create startups, make a business case, draw support interested in results, and push the old order into the dustbin of history.

Like it or not, Schumpeter’s “creative destruction” has come to the great fortresses of medieval thinking. The old institution continues to try to replicate itself; a young generation of scholars sees that it’s impossible but wants somehow to pour its new wine into old bottles, to take its place among the ancient, venerable portraits on the walls, wants the safety and assurances of a world already gone, and panics, unable to reconcile a desire for the comforts of a past and cloistered world with the realities of the present and the challenges of living in a dynamic era of technophilic Muggles.

Gryffindor scholars, HASTAC Scholars, rather than trying to slip invisibly in line with the ghosts of medievalists past, stride to the front, take the power of the new, temper it with concerns for justice and equality, and lead.


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