Blog Post

Open, Transparent, Tactical

I attended two sessions in a row concerned with the openness and the digital humanities. The first, Open Professoriate (#openprof), was concerned specifically with exposing the work of the academy to the public through social media. The second, Methods of Research in New Media (#606), had the broader goal of addressing new media methodologies, but came around addressing openness as a method. Though some of the same topics were raised that always come up (will this count for tenure, etc), I thought the speakers addressed academic openness from some really interesting angles. I am going mash the two sessions together here rather than follow the talk schedule.

One of the primary virtues of openning the professoriate was the potential to connect with and work with the public. Amanda French shared her experience of using social media to draw attention to a recent publication, arguing that putting our work online will earn more readers but only if there is no pay wall. David Parry seconded this suggestion by arguing that we must make public and open the default for our scholarship. This kind of openness would require that we see ourselves as accountable to the public and, as was brought up in the question sessions, address the public as a partner.

Openness, however, is not as easy as it sounds. Erin Templeton raised several questions about what we mean by "open" and asked how "openness" is challenged or compromized by openness itself. In her discussion, Templeton collapsed many versions of "open" in an attempt to complicate the optimism of the term. She spoke specifically of such practices as Yale's online courses, which offer the academy to the public, but in unidriectional communication. She also asked how open can a professor be online if their activities are surveilled by their department chairs and college deans.

She also discussed how few humanists are doing their work in public, suggesting that the small group that is "open" might mistake themselves for the whole show. The reality of this issue was made unavoiably apparent during the rest of the conference with allegations about a cliquish digital humanities star system. Matthew Kirshenbaum's response to that emergent discussion is particularly insightful in its honesty. He admits that "star systems" are how academic movements tend to happen, but the real key will be to see if digital humanities can avoid the pitfalls that come with it.

This conversation, however, fed nicely into Marcel O'Gorman's talk in which he argued for the value of closed systems. Quoting Cary Wolfe, O'Gorman suggested that for innovation to occur it is perhaps necessary to work in small groups, doing the kind of deep reading humanists have always done, just in digital spaces. This lead David Perry to revise the opposition between open and closed to propose transparent as the value we should seek putting or work online. The call for openness is not necessarily a call to include everyone all the time, but to show our work. It also recalled Mark Sample's provocation from the day before regarding the need for digital humanists to practice tactical alliances, to collaborate even with the those in the enemy camp, but remain fleet-footed and mobile.

At the same time, it matters less if we are tactical in our openness if we are not also tactical in what we are doing in public. Sam Cohen raised an extremely important point in the discussion about openness when he pointed out the supposed "crisis in the humanities" is not fundamentally about being open, closed, or transparent, but about the revaluation of culture and the changing role of the university. As the web comes to resemble the mall from Minority Report more than a public square and the university is restructured to run like a business, Gold asks in all seriousness, "do you think Newt Gingrich will read your blog?" And he has a real point.

The talks this weekend suggest we are continuing to come around from the early utopian potential of digitally enabled public intellectualism in the virtual public square. The call now is to redefine openness as transparent, tactical collaborations that are accountable to the public and skeptical of institutions. This involves recognizing that openness is not enough in itself to take advantage of what Alan Lui sees as the digital humanities's great opportunity to "serve the humanities." We have to continue to find ways for the open professoriate to answer Lui's question, Where is Cultural Criticism in the Digital Humanities"?


***UPDATE*** (1/16/11) I want to thank Matt Gold for alerting me to a couple of mistakes. I had mistakenly attributed a talk to him that was actually given by Sam Cohen. All fixed now. Sorry for the confusion. 



Thanks very much for attending the #openprof session and writing about it here on HASTAC, Timothy -- we appreciate your coverage! But in the interest of accuracy, I should point out that the comments you ascribe to me actually came from Sam Cohen. I organized and chaired the session, but I did not make a presentation. Also Dave's last name is Parry, not Perry.

In any event, I love the way that you mashed these sessions together in your coverage here. That speaks to the very real way in which the conversations at #mla11 moved across panels and social networks like twitter, leading to an overall networked effect that many of us are still working our way through (and recovering from!).


Thanks for alerting me and sorry for the mistakes. I've updated my post to fix the errors. It was a great panel; thank you for putting it together!


For your remarks and for the coverage not only of our session but also of the other session with O'Gorman and Dave Parry.  Some great synthesis and important questions that we all need to keep in mind as we move forward.