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Spring Series Book Review #4: Hacking the Academy

Spring Series Book Review #4: Hacking the Academy

Daniel J. Cohen, Tom Scheinfeldt, eds. Hacking the Academy: New Approaches to Scholarship and Teaching from Digital Humanities.

Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2013. 168pp. ISBN: 9780472071982

In Hacking the Academy, Dan Cohen and Tom Scheinfeldt bring together in print-form a selection of the essays and conversations originally published in the online version of the “book crowd sourced in one week” at, which launched in September 2011. The book is divided into three thematic sections, “Hacking Scholarship,” “Hacking Teaching,” and “Hacking Institutions,” with an additional concluding chapter titled “Cautions.” Since the authors were given just one week to submit their entries, most of the submissions are rather short, few exceeding three or four pages. Although this lends a fragmentary quality to the work as a whole, the benefit is that it becomes very accessible as an introduction to larger debates, themes and questions related to digital scholarship and the academy. From this emerges a book that aims not just to raise questions and complain about the current state of affairs, but to offer some concrete solutions from the perspective of scholars “already deeply involved in the digital realm.” But the decision to publish a book stems from the desire to expand the audience to those scholars not so deeply involved in the digital realm. In that sense, the submissions strive to do more than encourage the already-sympathetic to take action, but also seek to convince “scholars of a more conservative bent” that the academy’s original goals of learning, scholarship, and service can be further promoted through digital media and technology. Some of ways the authors try to convince them of this are explored below.

In the first section, "Hacking Scholarship," the authors almost unanimously acknowledge  that academics ought to abandon publishing with "for-profit" journals. Instead, they should strive to publish only with open-access journals in order to uphold the original scholarly pursuit of making their research widely available. Many of the authors offer these critiques in the form of lists directed to the reader seeking real, conrete ways to promote digital advocacy. As a corollary to abandoning for-profit journals, some of the authors also express their thoughts about blogging and how this is one more way to promote a different kind of scholarly conversation on an open platform. Matthew G. Kirschenbaum rightly points out that one of the main concerns with scholars posting publicly on a blog is the fear that their work will be copied without permission. But by blogging, Kirschenbaum suggests the scholar should view this instead as a path to "branding" your thoughts, ideas, and research so as to make the identity of the author unmistakeable in the future. Finally, a number of the authors also call into question whether the traditional timeline of submitting an article then waiting several months for a peer review process makes sense today as a path to publishing. Some of the more radical submissions suggest that scholars might publish instantaneously online, imitating the Arxiv model for the sciences, then maintain a period of time within which the article could be updated in real time, with the author's edits publicly available.

The second section, "Hacking Teaching," addresses ways in which technology and new media can aid teachers and professors in the classroom. If the first section of the book was almost unanimous in encouraging scholars to abandon for-profit journals, then the submissions in this chapter urge teachers to embrace ways teaching can change in the classroom, and question traditional assignments and standards. When it comes to new technologies, the authors urge teachers not just to deliver lectures to teach these new methods, but to engage with them. Jeremy Boggs writes that "to provide students the guidance they need to reach these goals, faculty and staff must be willing to lead by example." Although he acknowledes that this will naturally result in teaching time being devoted to "tech support," those moments will also reinforce the teacher's position as a role model for students. The section as a whole would have benefitted from more submissions highlighting examples of the kinds of teaching and new media that the authors encourage. A few examples they discuss are Wikipedia articles, developing personal websites, and digital story telling to communicate scholarly information. In addition to endorsing new media in the classroom, several of the authors offer their critiques of traditional pedagogical tools, like lectures and student essays. Mark Sample criticizes essays for being a narrow assessment tool with a tiny audience that only trains students to become future professors. Lectures not only fail to engage students in new ways of thinking, they are also repetitious in the sense that so many professors create lectures on identical topics. The authors suggest that one way the role of the university might evolve is to become more of a curator, culling the best lectures and resources that already exist on the web. This way, professors are free to develop complementary material.

The final section, "Hacking Institutions," opens with Brian Croxall's "meta-paper," which Sheila Cavanagh read at MLA 2009, candidly explaning his absence, and which went viral after Croxall published it to his blog. It is followed by David Perry's analysis of how a paper that only about 30 people heard at MLA exploded online, thanks to social media. Perry argues the real influence is thus measured not by the size of the paper's original audience at MLA, but its online identity. None of the other submissions from this chapter discuss the sobering reality of the job market. Instead, they addresss other practical concerns like proper Twitter etiquette during invite-only conferences, and tips and tricks to successfully running an unconference. Libraries feature in several submissions, with the main concerns being how libraries might successfully adress the issue of digital preservation, and whether it is possible for the library to regain its original goal "not, then, to provide access to information, [but] to provide a space—whether literal or virtual—for the support of all aspects of the scholarship process, with information provision being just one of these services." 

The book ends with two concluding submissions that caution anyone from blindly adopting any of the practices suggested in the text. But they also raise important questions about whether "hacking" goes beyond the debate over whether the Digital Humanities have a place within the academy. Tim Carmody views it "instead as something that is happening, continuing to emerge, develop, and differentiate itself, both inside and outside of the academy, as part of the spread of information and the continual redefinition of our assumptions about how we encounter media," and not just about applying digital tools to traditionally analog methods. Overall Hacking the Academy is an excellent primer for anyone interested in some concrete ways in which the academy is evolving to encompass the Digital Humanities, and rasies pertinent questions and concerns for the future. But it already assumes that the reader is somewhat familiar with the Digital Humanites, and is somewhat sympathetic to the authors' aims. To that end, Hacking the Academy could be better served with some variety in the published opinions. If the goal is truly to reach those more traditional scholars who are unaware of the debates, they will not be well served by this text unless they are already "savvy."


1 comment

Isn't the fundamental issue here the role of publication and expectations of writing genres vis-a-vis  audience, access, and status.  For many years email listservs have and still do provide spontaneity of thought and the immediacy of dialog where clarity trumps erudition. Yet, listservs and other means for participating in the "social echo chamber" are often limited to a relatively small set of insiders and don't produce status in the same way as conventional print.  It seems ironic, although understandable, that it might require simulating such immediacy and clarity of expression in the conventional slow form of a printed book to reach a larger audience and achieve the veneer of academic respectability.  Why not leave the book for what it is best at doing--something along the lines of Twain's (?) comment:  I can write faster than anyone who can write better, and I can write better than anyone who writes faster."  But, he also said, "If I had had more time, I would have written a shorter book." 

Jack Goldenberg - Goodreads