Democratizing Knowledge

Democratizing Knowledge

In the digital humanities, what does it mean to "democratize knowledge"? In this year's first HASTAC forum discussion, graduate students from the University of Washington and the University of Iowa invite us to consider the intersections of information technologies with fostering community partnerships and opening access to university resources and research.

Democratizing Knowledge in the Digital Humanities: Making Scholarship Public, Producing Public Scholarship

Organizations like HASTAC, Imagining America, the Obermann Graduate Institute for Public Engagement at the University of Iowa, the Center for Teaching at the University of Iowa, and the Simpson Center for the Humanities at the University of Washington aim to democratize knowledge to reach out to "publics," share academic discoveries, and invite an array of audiences to participate in knowledge production.  Of course, emerging technologies and media offer the potential to widen even further the reach of public scholarship and the breadth of community partnerships.

More specifically, in the context of the digital humanities, democratizing knowledge often refers to making scholarship public, to opening access to university resources and research through, for example, the creation and preservation of digital archives and journals.

For scholars, these projects afford rich possibilities for deep collaborative work that is ongoing and historically absent from the humanities' scholarly paradigm. 

Yet practitioners of the digital humanities can also democratize knowledge by collaborating with their community partners to produce public scholarship, often through action research, experiential learning, and civically engaged pedagogy, all of which ultimately re-situate and reformulate expertise.  According to Teresa Mangum (faculty at University of Iowa and co-director of the Obermann Institute on Public Engagement), as with new information technologies, public scholarship can radically redefine who finds, owns, and gives knowledge.  Put this way, the goal is for practitioners to forward research and pedagogy while serving the community in a way that is a truly reciprocal partnership.

With democratizing knowledge and the digital humanities in mind, we are interested in learning more about people's varying experiences in (and theories on) the use of emerging technologies and media to make scholarship public and/or produce public scholarship.

We invite you to join us as we discuss:

+ The requirements, terms, goals, practices and hopes for public scholarship or engaging with public(s) vary depending on the project and groups interacting. What are your best practices for developing and implementing projects with your community?

+ What are the benefits and risks to consider when developing community-driven or joint academic-community projects?

+ How are terms like "democracy," "public," and "scholarship" mobilized in digital humanities projects, for whom, and to what effects? What are the assumptions, definitions, and desires attached to each of these terms?

+ How do community partnerships affect perceptions and deployments of expertise? Does the notion of "the expert" change or collapse?"

+ How do you evaluate different forms of technology for your public knowledge projects? Have some forms of technology been more useful or productive than others?


Hosted by HASTAC Scholars:

Bridget Draxler
University of Iowa, Department of English

Jentery Sayers
University of Washington, PhD Candidate, Department of English
Society of Scholars Fellow, Simpson Center for the Humanities

Edmond Y. Chang
University of Washington, PhD Candidate, Department of English

Peter Likarish
University of Iowa, PhD student, Department of Computer Science
Obermann Senior Graduate Fellow 2010


Hello, everyone.  I'm looking forward to this forum, and for now I'll just pick up on that first question, the one about best practices for public scholarship and democratizing knowledge. 

I, for one, would love to hear from those who are currently engaged in community-based research and learning projects that use (or create) a particular authoring or editing envrionment. Having participated in a few myself, I'm at a stage in my work where I'm developing ways to teach and communicate technical competences to audiences who are either new to new media or are looking for more experience.

This is relatively new territory for me. As a person whose academic training is in literary and cultural criticism, I'm accustomed to understanding technology through fiction.  Teaching technical competences has forced me to articulate and practice technology as something that is not only a metaphor or trope.  It is a concept with material character, and it's often inflexible.  For instance, all the more I'm adding modules (on HTML, CSS, WordPress, Flash, and the like) to my classes and curricula.  I'm also spending a lot of time helping others compose new media as a form of scholarship (e.g., Kairos and Vectors become models for such projects). 

Among other things, this shift has changed the "boundary objects" I share with others when collaborating.   Whereas, initally, the only object was a print book or an electronic text on a screen, it now also includes a Flash interface, lines of code in WordPad or Dreamweaver, or the backend of WordPress.  That is, collaboration now entails growning about characters in a novel AND a missing ">" or "href." 

Perhaps by necessity, the language and literacies I use have grown increasingly "technical" (in the computational sense), yet without abadoning theory.  Now, I just prefer letting a theoretical framework emerge alongside the technical aspects of a project (rather than establishing a framework first and then applying it).  For instance, if I facilitate a conversation on a text by Shelley Jackson, then I might stress how the text is structured (e.g., looking at its code and design) while also discussing how it conceptualizes embodiment and sexuality. Of course, stressing how a text is made is theoretical.  All technical issues are social issues.  Nevetheless, I wonder how emphasizing technical competences is also a functionalist move that alters how knowledge and expertise in the digital humanities are produced.  As an example, I find that I need to incorporate modules on how to structure navigation (e.g., navigating a website or electronic text) into project development.  Such inquiry asks those involved to simultaneously speak to how scholarship is modeled (in order to functionally produce more scholarship) and what are its claims and investments.  Put another way, what are the software and platforms we are using to produce scholarship in the first place and to what effects on the digital humanities?

This line of thought might be called "theory in the making," perhaps similar to what Wendy Chun (at HASTAC III) referred to as "running theory."  Whatever your preferred term, I am curious about its implications on public scholarship. 

What are the boundary objects (or collaborative platforms) that are used to produce public scholarship?  What projects are you involved in that are attending to or producing environments for public scholarship and civic engagement? What kinds of practices in the digital humanities can foster the creation of digital tools for such work? 

Again, I'm looking forward!


Thanks, Jentery, for your post!  I am also particularly interested in the role of service learning and civic engagement in the future of the academy.  We have already begun to democratize knowledge through access to resources and ideas through new ways of archiving, but also more excitingly through new ways of collaborating in both researching and teaching.  Civic engagement opens up ownership and connections of knowledge, broadening the conversation not only outside our departments but also outside our university.  

My mentor Teresa Mangum, (faculty at University of Iowa, co-director of the Obermann Institute on Public Engagement), has helpfully explained to me that there tend to be two general types of public engagement in the university.  The first is a service-model, that can be labeled loosely as "outreach."  In this paradigm, university partners do something "for" the community, anticipating need and designing/providing some kind of solution.  While useful in some circumstances, this isn't the formula, or the language, used by organizations like Imagining America or the Obermann Institute.  

The second and preferred model, as defined by these organizations, is a more radical version of engagement that emphasizes "collaboration"--working with rather than for community partners.  The goal here is to forward research/teaching while serving the community in a way that is a truly reciprocal partnership.  This kind of work requires coming to the table with the idea that organizations and people outside the university are experts just like we are, but with different kinds of knowledge.  As mentioned in the initial prompt above, this kind of civic scholarship radically redefines who finds, owns, and gives knowledge.  The goal for us as teachers and scholars becomes to see how information technology and
civic engagement can collaboratively promote the "best" version of democratized learning.

My first question, then, is how new changes and opportunities in the digital humanities foster, invite, or even necessitate community engagement.  Will scholarship in the humanities necessarily become more ongoing, engaged, collaborative, and democratic as it becomes increasingly digitized? 

And secondly, how can we facilitate this second version of public engagement in our institutions?  What kinds of projects are people working on that combine new technologies and new communities in ways that are mutually beneficial and illuminating?



What a great topic, everyone. I had never thought about civic engagement and public scholarship in terms of democratizing knowledge, and in the past few days your comments have helped me reframe what is most interesting about digital technology's affordances, and the  relationships between campus and community.

I was hoping that Hypercities, one of the HASTAC/MacArthur Foundation Digital Media & Learning winners, would weigh in -- their project is a wonderfully collaborative, engaged form of public scholarship and community partnership, and I know the choreography of getting each part to work required serious dedication, interest and effort. I contacted them to let them know about the Democratizing Knowledge forum, but they are preparing for a big event tomorrow and all of their resources are focused there. Since they're busy, I'd like to describe the project and point people to their model as a fascinating blend of digital media, public scholarship, and community engagement -- and of democratizing knowledge.

They describe their work much better than I can, so I pasted this from their website: Hypercities is "a collaborative research and educational platform for traveling back in time to explore the historical layers of city spaces in an interactive, hypermedia environment." Hypercities partnered with Public Matters, a multidisciplinary team that works to "engage residents in the creation of media-based neighborhood narratives that illuminate its history, character and conditions and integrate the results with broader civic processes, advocacy efforts and community initiatives." During their grant period with HASTAC/MacArthur, Hypercities and Public Mattesr worked with the Pilipino Workers Center in Historic Filipinotown in Los Angeles, and also partnered with UCLA's Center for Research in Engineering, Media and Performance (REMAP).

It's hard to speak in terms of a final product for this project, because the ripples seem capable of extending indefinitely (perhaps the best possible outcome). But one culminating moment is tomorrow's Mobile Hi(storic) Fi(lipinotown) Tours (Mobile Hi Fi Tours) which is probably best described in the series of questions they raise on their site: " Hi Fi epitomizes L. A.: a diverse population, a significant percentage of low-income and recent immigrants, and a history that has been erased or is hard to find. How then do you experience the history of a place with few visible cultural markers? How do you access the hundreds of stories permeating non-descript buildings, now-empty lots, and commercial strip malls that, taken collectively, result in that Historic Filipinotown sign by the 101 Freeway? How do you dig up the past, peel back the layers of a neighborhood’s evolution over time and make it meaningful to a contemporary audience?"

They took on those questions with youth and digital media, using GPS-enabled Nokia tablets to access images, maps and audio, ultimately creating the Mobile Hi Fi Tour content. I won't be able to attend the festivities tomorrow, but I compare the tours to the audio tours we use in museums and galleries, except that these tours are built by the community, and the experts are the people creating the content.

Hypercities' digital media (which is an open-content platform built on Google maps and Google earth), "allows anyone to create interpretative pathways through time and space." I find that to be a particularly intriguing and alternative way to saying that theymake it possible for people to democratize knowledge. Their partnerships with Public Matters, Pilino Workers Center, and REMAP democratizes knowledge in many ways, by capturing the stories, broadcasting them, and ultimately connecting people with knowledge that might otherwise be overlooked.

All of our Digital Media & Learning projects touch on these themes in some way, but given the discussions in this forum and the myriad ways that Hypercities connects to the topic of democratizing knowledge, I wanted to devote a few paragraphs and links to their work.




Inspired by Marissa Parham, who ran a workshop on the topic last spring at Rutgers University, I have been experimenting with course blogging using Wordpress software.  The blog format is useful on a number of fronts: it allows students to continue class discussion when we run out of time, it opens their interaction with each other at a more leisurely and substantial pace, it leads to links and topics further afield from the course material, it helps them try out ideas. It is also time-effective for me, since it builds in a process of peer-review and commentary without the need to grade response papers.

The question of democratization has already come up, however, in two respects.  The first is the degree of "publicity" to build into such a site: at the moment I have set the privacy options so that the site does not come up in search engine results, but is viewable to anyone who navigates there.  I have done so since students may be uncomfortable with the idea that anyone is able to search for them personally - but I like the idea that the blog is accessible to a wider community (you can view it here).  I do not allow people outside the course to comment or post, however, since I prefer the "coterie" feel of a learning community unique to those who are enrolled in the course.  I may change this depending on the course (or depending on my current ideas about democratization!)  To use another early modern analogy, since that's my field, it reminds me of what Harold Love calls "scribal publishing": the medium itself may imply something about the size of the community (a small manuscript coterie or the world-wide web), but in fact many degrees of privacy and distribution are possible in both cases.

I have also been thinking about access and literacy, since I was immediately disabused of the notion that new media is straightforwardly "democratic" in these senses. I have already noticed that some students are unfamiliar or uncomfortable with the format.  Some do not own computers or have internet access at home, so they are at a disadvantage. Some had a great deal of trouble setting up an account (don't assume that younger students are always digitally literate!) They all have access to the internet through the university, and I think it is important to help them become more digitally literate - but it reminds us that personal computing remains an economic obstacle even in higher education.



Thanks for your comment, Scott.  I'm particularly struck by your sentence, toward the end: "I have also been thinking about access and literacy, since I was immediately disabused of the notion that new media is straightforwardly 'democratic' in these senses." 

I echo your concerns about access and would add to them concerns about who is producing content and how.  That is, not only is access still very much an issue and not only is personal computing an economic obstacle even in high education, but also access to personal computing alone doesn't guarantee democracy.  Know what I mean? 

That said, on the topic of students who are reticent to blog, what is your response (if you don't mind sharing)?  I'm also curious how much time you dedicate to teaching students how to blog and navigate the WordPress backend. 

Thanks again, Scott!  And great blog!


Hi Jentery - I do know what you mean about access being only one part of the equation: it enters into my thinking about the privacy/publicity settings of a course blog.  My fondness for a coterie feel has the implication that the blog does not pretend to be "democratic" for a community outside the class.

And even if the blog were open for comments and posts there would still be a pyramid of "expertise" with the instructor or "administrator" at the top.  One thing that has struck me about the format of WordPress is that an administrator appears able to be able to edit other users' comments and posts, and see the drafts of their posts. I certainly prefer not to be in the position of an "adminstrator" in this sense - I wish I could turn that feature off. But some notion of expertise (perhaps as an "intellectual" or "scholar," to pick up on a thread below) seems necessary for a pedagogical environment.

As far as students who are reticent to blog - I tell them to come to my office for help and deal with it to some extent during class, but (speaking of administrative, read autocratic, behavior) I also require them to post or comment weekly and factor the blog as 25% of their grade!


Thanks, Scott.  Having used a multi-authored WordPress platform for nine courses now, I'm facing precisely the issues you raise above. And I don't know about you, but one thing I've particularly enjoyed is how much I learn when students blog.  For instance, in a few courses, the students and I have compiled an archive (through the blog) on a particular topic or historical moment (e.g., events in or publications from the year 1919).  Essentially, we crowdsource around an idea, stressing differences across discinciplinary and personal investments, and we compile and discuss the material gathered. Aside from producing a resource for later use, the other thing I appreciate about such a project is that, in and outside of the classroom, the students quickly realize that they are speaking to things in the archive that are entirely new to me and about which I'm not (necessarily) an expert (even if, of course, I'm still the instructor, who issues grades, adminsters the blog, constructs the prompts, and the like). 

Down the line, I'd like to make this kind of project more about how to foster community partnerships, where something like WordPress becomes a space for collaborative archive building (ostensibly around a local issue).  Thing is, this move would require more expertise on my end on how to model (and not just produce) such scholarship.  Per my comment above, I'm finding all the more how much navigation and display matter for collaborative projects.  How, in short, scholarship functions, not just what it "finds" or means. 

One quick technical question, too: When students blog in your course(s), in WordPress are they editors, authors...? 

Thanks again!  I'm enjoying this conversation, Scott!


My favorite part of the blogging environment so far is that it can extend that moment you talk about - when a student realizes their expertise exceeds mine on an issue - because they can follow through on it with a longer post.

The students are "authors" on my blog - someday I might try making them "editors," which would give them administrative powers and create a different kind of democratic and collaborative environment in which their control extends to the level of production and display that you describe.

I notice that the blog on your course site is for users only: in other courses have you used a different level of publicity?


At the University of Washington, I have not used a different level of publicity.  All of the class blogs have been passcode-protected.  However, at Cornish College of the Arts (in Seattle), I'm currently teaching an Introduction to Digital Humanities course, themed "Designing Literature."  That blog is not passcode-protected, but we began the course with a discussion about the implications of blogging in a forum that could be read by people who are not in the class (hence the use, by some, of nicknames).  We're currently using the blog for freewrites, lesson plans, workshop prompts, reference, and short blog entries (on the course material).  We'll also be using the site to circulate student projects during every stage of their iterative development.  By the course's end, the students will be expected to collaboratively compose an e-book, with each of them submitting a chapter and writing a brief introduction to another student's chapter. 

Let me know what other questions you have.  And I'm curious: In your department/field at Rutgers, do many other English instructors use blogs in the classroom? 

Also, down the line, we should chat about our dissertations.  I'm also working with sound (but not song, and from 1860 forward)!  Hope all's well, Scott.



I'm not sure how populuar blogging is in my department, though I know that Henry Turner uses the Wordpress format for both graduate and undergraduate courses: like Marissa Parham, he centers things around his own website, here. This allows for a more fluid combination of research and teaching.

I'll be interested to check out your students' e-book - and also to hear more about your research!


I wanted to respond to the merits of keeping a blog open to the public so that those outside of the class can see and/or participate in the development of the blog.  I think sometimes when I think about and hear people talk about the value of blogs in public scholarship and the classroom, we envision the value of the blogging to be predominately if not solely in the process of blogging and the unfolding of the dialogue.  Speaking as an English student, I definitely find this aspect one of the most fascinating features about blogging.  Blogging and partically the ability to trace conversation threads and to search via archive tags is away of making public, a methodology and way of thinking that so often coralled within academia. 

However I think you can get a lot out of keeping a blog more  or less closed to people outside the class participants when the class is working towards something they ultimately envision to be a public resource.  Students are allowed to have an intimate digital community in which they can take something like a collective ownership of the work for a time. This allows them to spend time not only researching but hashing out thoughts and thinking critically about what they are offering a larger community. Once the site is open at the end of the semester, you still have opportunity for users to comment, and revise the blog, but you also offer for discussion, reference, and thought a more fully flushed out resource.  Such a resource can be linked from other sites to be simulteneously a place of discussion and an archive.

I'm thinking about a course that Dr. Powell in the Art History department at Duke is leading this semester.  The course thinks about visual stereotypes, caricatured images and how their visual rhetoric gets passed down to hosts of images.  Instead of a paper, this course is working on creativing via wordpress, a kind of database of turn of the century sheet music images and their stereotyped images of African Americans.  Using the digital images from the Duke collection, the students in the course are creating a blog that will discuss the formal elements of the original images, then put them in historical context both textually and alongside other images that challenge and speak to and challenge the formal elements of the origianl caricatured images.  The blog is closed to the public during the semester with the exception of a few special guests invited by the professor.  After they have posted all the images in the particular collection they are using, they will open the blog to the public.  By this point though, they will have already been commenting on each other's posts, assessments, and research.  


Thanks for this forum.

We have discovered that the M-Ubuntu project, in its pursuit "to produce public scholarship" must, on the one hand, act with an awareness of the ruins of a legacy that thrived on keeping your knowledge to yourself because if you share it, you risk becoming obsolete and useless and on the other hand, seize the opportunity to demonstrate the usefulness of acquired knowledge.

Already we are seeing encouraging indicators when we created opportunities for teachers to learn together. The technology, and in our case particularly the use of mobile phones, enables peer coaching to flourish. It seems so natural for teachers to assist and help each other during these workshop sessions. Also, the teachers immediately find a way to employ their acquired knowledge for the benefit of the learners and for themselves.

In one small and significant way, therefore, the M-Ubuntu project lends itself to making a valid contribution to enabling teachers to share their knowledge - it is a small democracy in an ailing democracy.




Thanks, Theo.  I just had a chance to peruse the M-Ubuntu site.  It's great!  As an instructor invested in technology-focused learing, I especially appreciate the lesson plan that was posted (in November 2008) for the Mobile Learning Workshop.  One thing that I notice is how the lesson plan foregrounds activities like writing and listening and incorporates an array of media, as well as poetry, into the exercise.  In just two concise pages is a model module that indicates how many literacies and modes of learning are at work in m-learning projects. 

In your conversation with Ramsey, you speak to having very little and doing a great deal, and above you stress (among other things) how teachers can learn together.  This idea of teachers entering unfamiliar territory (e.g., m-learning) and visibly being learners themselves: would you say this is key to "a small democracy in an ailing democracy"?

Thank you again, Theo.  We appreciate your time!


I appreciate you taking the time to view the material on our site and get an idea of this "small democracy". The attitude of teachers and their teachability are two core reasons why they are on the verge of being a model for South Africa to follow.

Thanks again Jentery for THIS democracy ... right here, right now!


I was moved by this comment, Theo.   It is a good reminder that traditions of shared knowledge have special preciousness and special precariousness in certain kinds of social orders and social situations. 

At the Franklin Center this week, our HASTAC Distinguished Faculty Fellow Allison Clark gave a talk on digital access and digitial divide and mentioned that there was a plan for high bandwidth access for lower income families.  One member of the audience was worried that "a box on the house" supposedly for bandwidth access was also potentially something the police and others could misuse for surveillance, with the implication that it would be safer if African Americans refused this possibility.  Someone else noted that, given the kind of policing that routinely happens in poor and especially urban African American neighborhoods, one didn't need a box that could afford digital access in order to have surveillance.  


In other words, fear of repression could allow one to over-react to the "box on the house" in a way that would deny one access without solving the problem of surveillance.   It was a crucially important reminder and also a good intervention.    I imagine that, beyond your astute comment, are many similar kinds of examples of fears of public (or too-public) knowledge.   Thanks for writing! 


Great conversational thread!  I recall an interesting conversation I had with Jessica Pham as we were fretting about the administrative burdens of human subjects protection and IRBs as relates to technology grants.  Surely no one was going to be adversely impacted these grants, we griped.  So we give cell phones to poor rural women in India and they become empowered.  What could be more altruistic and harmless?  Or we give new technologies to poor children in classrooms in developing countries.  Too great, right?  I think it's too easy to idealize a family, a village, a "public," as an inherently supportive organism, one which accepts new knowledge as healthy and vital and desirable.  One has only to tune into the current health care "debate" to see people frantically opposed to ideas that are good for them and the populace.  Any intervention into a public requires a non-idealized and problematized view of how communities absorb, process, resist and either reject or accept change, no matter its intent.  The "box in the house"/surveillance tool is a great cautionary example about potential unintended consequences of high-minded interventions.



You have written elsewhere about "collaboration by difference" which I think is a powerful idea and one that is greatly facilitated by communication technologies. In our case studys of WSU's ePortfolio contest, one of the concepts that we found in the portfolioes that successfully addressed a problem was "be public." While working in public is not inherently democratizing, the potential to be found by, joined by, or inform others in a democratic way is enhanced over working in a closed group.

Regarding various comments about student blogs and projects, it seems to me that having students engage in authentic projects, in service to, or better, in collaboration with, a community is an important aspect of the assignment design. If students need to be interacting with a public, it will answer some of the questions about why they are working in public, and whether the public should be able to comment back.

Another aspect of this democratization of learning is the role that publics can and should play in assessing the work. By assessing I mean something other than giving letter grades, I mean feedback to the learner about the broad skills like critical thinking, as well as domain specific skills, that their work exhibits (or lacks). We have been exploring how students can work anywhere online where their community or problem is found and the assessment of that work can be harvested back to the University. This is opening up opportunities to talk about designing curriculum that is problem-based and authentic, even for our rural campus.

All that said, learning to work in public, to find communities of practice, to adopt open-source strategies is not natural or comfortable for many of us. It seems to be a skill that must be developed after adopting a faith that collaboration by difference is a very powerful mechanism to address many of the complex problems facing us today.


What a great Forum!  Thanks for kicking off the new year with such an expansive topic.   In fact, the questions you raise here and the responses already being generated make me think that the Forum is as much about "Democratizing Knowledge" in general as it is more specifically about "digital humanities."   That is, for any specialized scholarship, in any field, whether arts, humanities, social sciences, natural sciences, or technology studies, finding the best way to have a public interface, a way of making our knowledge useful not only within our professional lives but extended to civic society more generally, is a challenge and, more and more, I think it is an imperative too.   Even in my teaching, I more and more find ways to have my students translate their class research into public forums, whether it is adding to Wikipedia entries, writing to the local newspaper, or actually going out into communities to do work (I learned yesterday about a program in Bolivia building bridges . . . that is doing the same here in Durham, on one of our flood-prone rivers).  


Thanks so much for this.  I can't wait to see what kinds of response this generates in the days ahead.


What a great forum.

I agree with Cathy that it's important to think about digital humanities in relation to the broader question of democratizing knowledge.

I can't wait to look at the blogs and websites mentioned above and investigate further. And to follow the discussion here.

I want to return now, though, to the really important questions that Bridget, Jentery, Edmond, and Peter raise in the opening forum description:

+ How are terms like "democracy," "public," and "scholarship" mobilized in digital humanities projects, for whom, and to what effects? What are the assumptions, definitions, and desires attached to each of these terms?

+ How do community partnerships affect perceptions and deployments of expertise? Does the notion of "the expert" change or collapse?

There has been an enormous amount of high-theory scholarly attention to the concept of the "public" in general (just to start the long, long list: Habermas, Warner, Berlant, Fraser, Robert Asen, the Black Public Sphere Collective, Paul Gilroy, Jodi Dean's work is relevant here to civil society and online digital issues, and there's countless others going back to good old John Dewey and Walter Lippmann). Many different finely-tuned definitions and arguments about the "public": is it a monolithic entity or does it have the capacity for diverse civic participation? Is it "rational-critical" and egalitarian or inflected with emotions, feelings, and unequal power relations? What is its historical lineage? And what happens to the public in different modes of mediation (newspapers and coffeehouses; television and malls; Internet and, er, coffeehouses)?

And yet, when we move from high-flown (and often revelatory, if sometimes jargonistic) theory to civic engagement, we often start to use the term "public" less critically and carefully, and we load a lot of idealistic wishes onto the term (nothing wrong with idealism, but we should be aware of it). Who is this public we're imagining here?

So the questions I'm thinking about now are: 

What happens if we bring theories of the public to bear more explicitly on our use of the term in what amount to campus "outreach" efforts (and maybe also "inreach" efforts) of democratizing knowledge? Let's use that scholarly knowledge to think about the concept of the "public" itself. 

Would it change our sense of public scholarship if we are using Habermas's rational critical model of the public as compared to Michael Warner and Lauren Berlant's visions of publics as communication among strangers? Or Nancy Fraser's distinctions between distributive justice (the redistribution of material wealth from one part of the public to another) as compared to appeals for recognition (symbolic representation in and before the public)? Or John Dewey's old-fashioned ideas about art as a crucial medium for democratic publics? Or Lippmann's belief that we probably need experts to manipulate "phantom publics"? Or Birmingham School ideas about "subcultures" as counterpublics?

In other words, which public are we talking about when we talk about "the public"? Or should we talk about publics plural rather than one public? These are difficult questions to my mind, but important ones to ponder (we probably can never definitively answer these questions) when it comes to public (publics?) scholarship?

This brings me to the great question about "experts." Here's an idea I've been tinkering with: What if we substituted the word "intellectuals" for experts? Alas, "intellectuals" has an elitist, snooty ring to it in the U.S., and it has the danger of undercutting the expert's authority, but maybe that's just what we aim to do. What if we imagined a public scholarship in which we were all intellectuals rather than a few of us being experts and everyone else "the public"? What if we took the idea of "public intellectuals" and broadened it beyond the few academic stars and celebrities who get the label? Could we be democratic intellectuals? Again, it's an ideal, but one that I am intrigued by.

And what if the Internet might have the capacity to alter the power dynamics of the exchanges between democratic intellectuals? So that they were less top-down and more egalitarian. What would we gain, what would we lose in this scenario? Most of all, what I think about is how would we manage the torrent of ideas and information in a more democratic public of knowledge exchange? How would one navigate among a broadened group of equal citizen-intellectuals?

Okay, that's a few scattered questions that I tend to obsess about and wanted to share. I hope others will find them stimulating to ponder. If not, of course, consider this one voice babbling in the digital mass public.




I want to thank you for your provocative and difficult questions... these are many of the same issues I grapple with in working with community partners. 

Naming is so powerful.  The names we give for ourselves and the names we give for the "publics" we work with really tell a lot about the relationship we have with those groups.  Adapting scholarship and university-level teaching to, for example, non-profit community organizations is much more complicated than just removing academic jargon to make what we do more "accessible;" this kind of condescending treatment of some vague entity we call the "public" is unproductive and unhelpful.  Adapting our work to local communities should hopefully lead us to question, in tough ways but good ways, what the value of our research actually is--and that seems much more productive to me. 

The idealism you so rightly note is evident in both terms, the "public" we seek to serve and our status as "intellectuals."  Both of those designations can be rosy-colored ideals that can interfere with our ability to make progress.  If we can instead think about it as two groups of experts, who are experts in different but equally valuable areas, we can change both the dynamic of the relationship and the potential for a collaborative project. I don't think it can be real collaboration without this reciprocal recognition of expertise on both sides.  I wholeheartedly second your call for better names for both groups--but I am equally perplexed about what those names might be. 

Thanks again for your questions, Michael!




I was rereading your initial post and appreciating more fully that you were already asking a few of the questions that I posed in my post (rereading is always good, I find, in the rush of digital conversation, since it takes me a few times to absorb things).

I like the questions you pose:

My first question, then, is how new changes and opportunities in the digital humanities foster, invite, or even necessitate community engagement.  Will scholarship in the humanities necessarily become more ongoing, engaged, collaborative, and democratic as it becomes increasingly digitized?

And secondly, how can we facilitate this second version of public engagement in our institutions?  What kinds of projects are people working on that combine new technologies and new communities in ways that are mutually beneficial and illuminating?

In some sense we are talking here is how what you call "collaboration" might work. We're pretty much agreed that we want to focus on what Teresa calls the second model. The first has its uses, but also real problems.

A few thoughts:

First, terminology: I prefer the terms cooperation or association, because I always think of the Vichy regime when I here the word "collaboration," but that's my own weird association.

Or maybe not just a weird association. One thing I like about cooperation and association is that they emphasize that we still need to respect the need for individual pursuits within a democratic model of knowledge production. Sort of in the way that your phrase "mutually beneficial" does in your second question. Status will always matter to many people, and getting ahead in their own careers, goals, and intellectual journeys needs to form part of the model for working in more connected ways. I'm guessing you and others would agree with this. I think I just want to bring it out into the open: when we work collectively, we should keep an eye on how the individual participants are doing and what their individual needs are, and I think we should honor and reserve a special place for not going with the flow of collective work as well as engaging together in knowledge production.

Second thought: it's interesting to me how we are moving between the term "public" and "community." Are these, to your mind (and others), the same or different? I think of them as different terms, but I need to think more about what that means in terms of digital spaces of cooperative knowledge production.



I think you and I are very much on the same page here--I completely agree with your comment about weird associations.  You're retiscent about collaboration, and rightly so, but I hear the words "cooperation" and "association" and find them to sound rather institutional.  The problem and the beauty of language, yes?  One term can mean something different outside academia, outside your department, etc, and the challenge of using the right word requires us to know what a word means to different people in different contexts. 

Some of my most challenging yet most enlightening moments working with community partners have been, believe it or not, concerning vocabulary issues.  When a word comes up that means something different to both parties, it can take some time to sort out what is meant and how it is interpreted.  I'm hosting a "workshop," for example, at a local library for an adult reading group, and it took some miscommunication glitches to discover that my definition of what a workshop includes didn't align with that of the program director with whom I was working.  It was a good reminder of the importance of communication between academic and community partners.  Spending lots of time talking about the project together ahead of time, and sorting carefully through both our expectations, prevented a small interpretive difference from turning into a mistake at the actual event that might have flustered everyone involved. 

Perhaps it's less important to choose the right word than to have really clear channels of communication between all involved parties to make sure everyone is working with a common definition--perhaps it's less important to have the right answers than to ask the right questions.

So, if you'll humor me, perhaps we can practice!  What do you see as the differences between "public" and "community"?


Thank you, Bridget, Michael, and Peter, for this thread.  

Here, I want to piggyback on several comments, including Michael's: "One thing I like about cooperation and association is that they emphasize that we still need to respect the need for individual pursuits within a democratic model of knowledge production." 

As well as Bridget's: "Some of my most challenging yet most enlightening moments working with community partners have been, believe it or not, concerning vocabulary issues. . . . Perhaps it's less important to choose the right word than to have really clear channels of communication between all involved parties to make sure everyone is working with a common definition--perhaps it's less important to have the right answers than to ask the right questions."

I agree, Bridget: Some of my most challenging yet most enlightening moments working with community partners have also emerged from the vocabularly mobilized.  And no doubt, Michael, "collaboration" is one of those tricky words, especially if you distinguish between a kind of collaboration where (to borrow from Chris Kelty) (1) individual autonomy is privileged, and individual work is then filtered through peer review and incorporated, and (2) the shared goals of a group take precedence over autonomy. 

While I, too, agree that clear communication channels matter, I also think that language shapes (though does not determine) practice.  (I'm in English, after all.  Hahaha...) Even more so, some particularly complex issues arise when we represent the community-based work we do.  That said, at the end of several projects I've asked myself, "In what ways did I 'collaborate' with this group?  Is that word a fair representation of the power that was at play and the labor that was involved?  How was 'collaboration' articulated by others involved?"

Thanks, Bridget, for addressing the all-important issue of spending significant time talking about a project before implementing it.  That is so true.  To this mix, I would also add that the representations of a project, including who is doing the representation and how, really matter as well.  How does a project circulate, including to its target audiences and its participants?  How is a project historicized?  Here are but a few reasons (among a slew) why I think new media---as means of transmitting and storing scholarship---are so imbricated in the future of scholarship. 

Now, on the differences between "public" and "community," I'd love to hear and learn more. 


Thanks Michael, your questions definitely struck a chord with me, in particular:

"And what if the Internet might have the capacity to alter the power dynamics of the exchanges between democratic intellectuals? So that they were less top-down and more egalitarian. What would we gain, what would we lose in this scenario? Most of all, what I think about is how would we manage the torrent of ideas and information in a more democratic public of knowledge exchange? How would one navigate among a broadened group of equal citizen-intellectuals?"

I feel ill equipped to address the theoretical notions raised earlier in your post but I am comfortable asserting that the Internet *has* altered the power dynamics between democratic intellectuals and traditional experts. Further, as a computer scientist, I can't help but think that the internet has made almost everything less top-down and more distributed. Where I run into trouble is attempting to determine where exactly that leaves us. Concretely, we now have wikipedia, Google Scholar and the HASTAC forums. We have the ability to remove traditional forms of content control and distribute it freely anywhere in the world. But we're losing traditional sources of knowledge such as newspapers that we used to depend on to provide accurate information. We're trading information for entertainment. And powerful, entrenched interests have a stake in pushing for an abolition of the tenants of the WWW that have helped to make it a democratic force (such as net neutrality). Certainly we can create systems and algorithms to help us distinguish between good information and bad and maybe we can use this to construct a citizen scholar's reputation but the sheer amount of information we're talking about is mindboggling and likely to change this conversation in ways none of us can predict...


After reading through some of these comments, I'm wondering if there are different discplinary approaches and traditions to treating the democratization of knowledge creation?

I have professional and academic experience in public history and so I'm familiar with different ways that people have engaging in history making in the US.

We can look at some of  the New Deal-funded projects that collected oral histories by interviewing former slaves and individuals living in rural areas. These oral histories represent some early efforts to reach out to non-elites and let them share their history with a broader public. There are many oral history projects contain great guided interviews.

Different from traditional oral history, digital collecting projects, like some developed at the Center for History and New Media, allow the individual to come to the site and share what they want on their own terms.  The September 11th Digital Archive was one of the early digital collecting projects ( launched in 2002 that simply asked people to tell their stories and now has over 150,000 digital objects. 

In 2005, I helped to created the Hurricane Digital Memory Bank ( to save the stories of those affected by the Gulf hurricanes (Katrina and Rita).  It was accessible to anyone with an internet connection, and for those without access to a computer, there were other means for sharing stories. We printed and distributed postcards w/paid postage for some to write down a short reflections that were then scanned. We also set up a local phone number w/voice mail  via Skype so that individuals could call and tell us what they wanted to share. Those voicemails are then uploaded into the website's archive.

When you undertake a community knowledge-building or digital collecting project, we have learned that you will spend a lot of time doing hands-on work. Participating in community meetings or events will require a lot of your time. But if you are willing and able to devote yourself to that type of work, the community you are working with will be more likely to partcipate and sustain the project because it belongs to them.

One of the biggest drawbacks to a digital collecting site is the abundance of materials. Roy Rosenzweig wrote about the problems of abundance and scarcity with digital media. There can be an abundance of materials saved that were never saved before, and yet when evidence is born digitally it can very easily disappear as quickly as it was created leaving us without evidence of those creations.

How does one then deal with 25,000 digital objects related to Hurricanes Katrina and Rita? Are individual responses ignored because there are too many of them? How can we think about what has been lost when there is so much already saved? I think good searches and text mining tools help tackle some of those problems, but there always are concerns.

There is a lot of good work out there and it's great to hear from the group on the types of projects they are working on and how we are all working through issues of authority and knowledge construction.



Anything Roy wrote about knowledge production and democracy is well worth our time reading, I think. He had such a feel for these issues. In terms of preservation and history (I'm trained as a cultural and intellectual historian), we do face the same problem, only now from the other side. Whereas we used to lose histories because they "weren't important" compared to the works of "great men," with digital preservation we now lose histories because they are buried in the mass of information available to one's fingertips. Is that democracy? In one sense, it's a better problem to have than the old exclusionary assumptions, but multitude might not be the answer for democratic knowledge production. Both people and information has to get organized. And as you being to note, it's the "how" of that organizing that really will matter to a democratic vision of knowledge creation.

Maybe one answer in addition to better search mechanisms are the tools of social networking? These, at their best, could extend the human communication that goes into turning data into knowledge, information into meaning, evidence into interpretation.


To quote an old cliche, when you post on the internet no one knows if you are a dog, with some exceptions, of course. If one reads the editorial page of the NYT and the many magazines which post essays on issue of public life or one looks at the myriad of blogs, wiki's and other well crafted pieces often from "think tanks on the left and the right in the US and internationally, one wonders where the academic stands in this sphere. Many in academia also write for the public and play their part in the media. But more and more it seems that those who stand in the Ivory Tower no longer command from that height.

What is the role of the university in an increasingly "democratized" public which can become saturated by thinkers and "scholars" who do not reside within The Academy. I have little trouble understanding John Brockman's proclamation that the sciences are the new humanists as they profer their accomplishments as giving them the right to speak almost ex-cathedra on the issues of the day.


Secondly, "service learning" and the variances which involve students and faculty extending themselves into the community in various ways, in a fragmented manner, seems to need further thought. Few faculty receive promotion and tenure based on such activities except as it is part of a class. Students participate, some out of commitment and others as part of requirements- but their involvement is tenuous and short termed at best. On the other hand, the many community based organizations ranging from Rotarians to local environmental organizations are imbedded in the community. It would seem that if these ideas are to be significant and meaningful it requires a reorientation of the academic instution and a cross cylindered participation amongst the disciplines rather than seeing this as a "humanities" endeavor or any other department for that matter.

There are other issues to consider as education goes from preK->16 and maybe even "20" where secondary blends into post secondary almost seamlessly and the roles of faculty change as well as students being driven by external pressures to obtain levels of post secondary competencies.

Thinking about the future, are the ideas and thoughts being promulgated around this subject based on a university of the past and not what it might be in the future considering the spread of options and institutions evolving? Education, by its roll, is past oriented. One can not "grade" in the current modality for knowledge that doesn't exist. The subject here is transformational in that it calls for risk on the part of all, students, faculty, administration and the public in which the Ivory Tower is imbedded.



I am a computer science student, so Open Source Software immediately comes to mind for me. These days, there is an incredible amount of Free (as in Speech) software available on the internet. Millions of programmers choose to place their source code and make it available to anyone for modification.

Within the open source movement, many large, collaborative projects exist. Projects like Linux, Apache, MySQL are all open source and have completely fueled the entire Internet. Today, even notoriously proprietary Microsoft has released millions of lines of code as open source. Companies like Google have been built from the ground up using open source software and given back to the community appropriately. I believe that this is just another exciting, new form of democratization of knowledge.

I also believe that one may look to the open source movement as a cue for democratization of knowledge. These were the same people that invented blogs and wikis, after all. :)

Some interesting common practices in open source are:

  • * Version control systems, which store the history of documents over time. This technology is popping up everywhere; Google Docs, Google Wave and Wikipedia's History page are all fantastic examples. This enables accountability and reversibility of damage, even when (nearly) anyone can change anything.
  • * Developer blogs and "planets". Planets are websites that contain the aggregation of blogs by many developers. For example, Reading the planet is often a great way of following the community at a high level.
  • * Newsgroups and mailing lists, where people discuss new ideas or problems with the project.
  • * Wikis, where people document the project.
  • * Bug trackers, where people document problems and items to do.

There are some downsides to this kind of development though. Many projects collapse and fail under poor leadership, despite talented workers. Political disputes can sometimes cause projects to fork. Sometimes people simply lose interest entirely.


Larry Sanger, the founder of Wikipedia, has an entire article on the democratization of knowledge and Wikipedia as an example of it:

In it he discusses why the widespread access of information is important for everyone, much in a way that the printing press was. He also discusses a lot of the problems we face when we begin democratizing knowledge. The most obvious is that, if anyone can bring knowledge to anyone else, how do we verify the integrity of it? 

You all have probably noted this paradox: Wikipedia has a terrible reputation in the academic community; a Wikipedia citation is almost mark of shame. And yet, it is probably one of the most used resources, especially for obtaining basic information on nearly any topic.

It's as if we want to simultaneously encourage democratization and spread of public knowledge, but we want to discourage its use.




I think this a great forum to kick off the year! And especially appropriate considering the ongoing legislative debate on net neutrality:,2817,2353128,00.asp  


So far, I've enjoyed all the posts and would like to quickly address Stephen's concern, before introducing another dynamic about questions concerning the ethics of knowledge production.  The wikipedia paradox is important to bring up, considering its widespread utilitarian function.  But considering the epistemological issues of the site, I too deter my students from using it as validated source for academic work.  I do not discourage its usage for introductory research though, as the collaborative organization of such information contains citations for the original sources, which are often valid texts.  Thus, I look at wikipedia not as an ends in itself but rather an effective nodal point in navigating vast bodies of relative information.


Another element of the democratization of knowledge production within and outside of academia that needs to also be addressed is the ethically complicated social knowledge that is not based upon texts per se, but rather the documented experiences of others.  I'm thinking here especially about strong affective and potentially sensitive images and videos of people's experiences, at home and abroad.  I think Sheila's post touches on this some, but there are other important testimonies that are meant for specific legislative or interventionist purposes and become potentially endangering if they become publicly accessible, as well as the issues of original raw events themselves, such as the Neda Agha Sultan video.


One of the largest issues then with quick and dispersible forms of such knowledge is the decontextualization of the original event specifics as well as the loss of protective measurements for those in risk, if their identities are exposed.  It may be relatively easy to create such a sensitive structure within the classroom but as we facilitate new platforms for experiencing complex historical or quotidian events of others, how do we create ethical infrastructures for making sense of such knowledge and information?  Certain organizations that deal with human rights related material, such as WITNESS, increasingly focus on meta-data issues for maintaining contextual information of material that is accessed and/or disseminated.


I think this plays into the media literacy agenda as well, in that the developing skills for navigating and authoring web-based material may need to be coupled with critical semiological skills that take into account ethical and social concerns of the material conditions and origins of produced information and knowledge.


So to sum up, my key question is how do we create data infrastructures, network policies, and media literacy agendas that incorporate the real world social complexities of information sources?  And how much of a contextualizing web of information is necessary to anchor knowledge acquisition? 


Thanks again everyone and I can definitely see how the interdisciplinary nature of this forum is taking shape. I'm looking forward to future responses!



I'm really enjoying this conversation especially about teaching and learning with new media and how it changes the engagement/learning experience.

As a journalism and communication studies student I have found that within the past year most of my professors have tried to incorporate new media into their teaching process. Blogging with Wordpress, Twitter and groups on Facebook have all been established and considered the main ways to communicate between members of the class.

However I have noticed that most of the students I know in other areas of study (most surprisingly Education department) either have no idea how to use these new technologies or have not used them in an education format. I am interested in how other areas of research are using the technologies or new media to their advantage and how they will differ from how we use them.


I am compelled by your statement about students who may be familiar with these technologies but "have not used them in an education format."  Could you say more about how a student could be familiar with blogging, for instance, but still be hesitant to use it in an academic context? 


I find that most of the time students who are familiar with the technologies that don't use them in an educational format, don't do so because their teachers do not require them to. I also know many who do not think that these kind of technologies are helpful to the learning process or want to mix something they like to do for fun with education. For instance, my soccer team was shocked to learn that my entire Participatory Media class had Twitter accounts and used them to talk about the readings. After I had to explain to many of them what exactly Twitter was, most of them didn't understand the connection. I think that this demonstrates how there are too many departments that aren't utilizing new media effectively.


So you see use of this technology as more an effort to make learning "fun" than a helpful pedagogical tool?  Is there a way that using this technology could be more effective?  What would that look like?


Wow, what a great forum! As a first-year HASTAC scholar, I am really excited to participate in the ongoing discussion that raises so many important questions that I currently grapple with as a M.A. student in Literature. In light of recent developments in open access movements for academic research and journals (as in the Compact for Open Access Publishing Equity and the Federal Research Access Act of 2009), the issues that are discussed here really bring home the importance of collaboration, so that we can build a community of individuals who come together in the sharing of ideas (as HASTAC has enabled us to do so), and whose works will allow a diversity of learners and learning styles. In order to do so, I think it is imperative that we rethink the tools we use in knowledge production, and create an environment which Erna Kotkamp describes as one that is dynamic enough to accommodate different and complex learning processes where doubt and uncertainty can exist. These, in addition to the issues that have been raised here about situating knowledge in physical and social contexts (going back to good ol' John Dewey), will bring us closer to a democratization of knowledge that opens the door to more diverse and complex community of individuals. 

Prompted by the discussion that Bridget, bangs23, kenbrown et al have started above, I want to focus this post on the use of new media as an effective pedagogical tool. My direct experience is restricted to the field of literary studies, so I shall speak to that as best I can. 

I'd like to take some time to respond to Bridget's question about what an effective use of this current technology may look like (I will say that there is no easy answer, and that perhaps the answer will always change and evolve, depending on how technologies change and how we respond to the change...). I am currently working with a professor (Lawrence Hanley) at San Francisco State University in implementing new media-related projects for his undergraduate American literature class. Engaging the students is important, and using new/social media will more likely get them to interact with the material, but the first question that we ask is how the students will benefit from using new media technology in reading texts. Can new media enhance our reading of texts? Our first project involves the use of a wiki in getting the students to perform a hyper/multimedia reading of Whitman's "Song of Myself." Not only will students be engaged on multiple sensory levels in their reading of the poem, it will also allow them to read and work on the poem collaboratively. When everyone has contributed their multimedia reading of the poem, they are required to blog on why they chose that specific multimedia and how it enhances their reading of the poem. The blog will then be linked to the multimedia and word/phrase that they have analyzed in the poem. The result is a richly-woven, intertextual, hypermediated, collaborative reading of "Song of Myself" (also apt, I think, for the big themes that the poem raises) that allows for visible and active learning. Whether or not this is a truly effective use of new/social media as a pedagogical tool is a question whose answer is continually in progress, and which I hope will be further illuminated by the ongoing discussions here. In upcoming projects, I will continue to get students to work collaboratively as well as individually (I agree with Michael Kramer's astute comment above, that when engaging in knowledge production, it is important to keep an eye on the individuals participating in the activity). 

Also in response to kenbrown's question of how new media can be put to good use instead of being a distraction, I think expert produsers of knowledge are needed to guide the public in turning the wealth of information into useful knowledge, so that a community of individuals (in this case, students in higher-ed institutions) can become critical readers, users and consumers of information. Democratization of knowledge in institutions seems to be a tricky subject, one that requires equilibrium of all sorts. What does democratization of knowledge look like in higher education institutions? Does that mean a loss of power for the teacher if the student-teacher relationship becomes more leveled? What do teaching and learning look like in a democratized classroom and institution? If social media are really the "new laboratories of culture and knowledge making" as the Digital Humanities Manifesto 2.0 suggests, how would that change what goes on in the physical classroom? What, in the current trend toward the democratization of knowledge, are effective ways of teaching and learning? 



Wow, Viola!  That sounds like a fabulous project--I love how the form and function are really complementary with your use of the wiki.  Bravo!


Thanks for your comment, Viola!  Per your project description above, I'm curious to hear how the work you are doing with Prof. Hanley and undergraduates at SFSU is affecting your own scholarship.  For example, as a graduate student in English, are you using any digital tools in your own research?  I ask because I often include online authoring platforms in my classes; however, I'm writing a bulk of my dissertation (excluding one chapter) with a word processor.

And great blog, by the way!


Bridget -- great questions!  I've been studying technology-mediated learning for some time, largely in corporate settings.  I've drawn a great deal on a theoretical framework in educational technology advanced by Clark, which claims that technology doesn't matter much per se with regard to learning.  More specifically, delivering material via lecture or via videostreaming isn't the important distinction.  Instead, what matters is what is said in the lecture, and how what is said encourages the listener to think. 

So the student who blogs a lot about football may be learning a lot about football (and a little about writing as a blogger) but not much else.  So the challenge for students is to be intentional about their use of technologies to help them learn things that matter.  And the same is true for faculty.  Using technology for the sake of trying to be current may only interfere with desired learning outcomes from the students.  Great instructors use technology deliberately to help with their course objectives, such as using wikis to support a course where collaborative writing and editing is a primary goal.  In such a course, the wiki can create efficiencies that allow for students to spend more time actually editing and reading comments.  While more time doing the work isn't a guarantee of learning, it does generally pay off.

There is a connection here to democratization of learning, I think.  One of my concerns as we move forward is that we are heading for a world in which we are inundated with information. I already feel that way.  If I kept up with my email, Facebook, LinkedIn, and professional association networking accounts religiously, I'm not sure I'd get much work done let alone much learning.  So what can we as academics do to help people make use of what is already freely available via the Internet?  I think efforts to make more and more available on-line are laudable, but what about making sure that its being put to good use?  


I know I'm weighing in late in this conversation, but I read it last week on my cell phone!  I just entered the world of interent in my pocket, which I want to speak a little to in a second.  First I am really interested in Bridget's question about students not knowing about technologies and/or not knowing how to use them in an educational context. 

I have to say I agree with what everyone is saying about technologies have to be tailored to the curricular objective.  In so many ways using new medias and technologies has the potential to be for students now what group work was for me and many of my peers.  It's theoretically progressive, but almost every peer I encounter can recall feeling like group work was a frustrating artifice put on an assignment whose underlying objectives was not well suited for group work.  Group work is fitting here because I think in so many ways (though many teachers/professors have come up with group work that requires and actually fosters a group) group work continues to be poorly put to use in the classroom, and in many ways some of the problems I've noticed in the use of blogs/discussion boars has not been so much, or not only, a problem addressing new problems that arise out of learning to use technologies, but are actually resurfacing of old problems.  For example blogs were every student is required to post every week or for every class as opposed to some percentage or number of classes.  Though interesting thoughts definitely show up online, what I have found is that there is that the focus is on getting your post up, or reading others post mainly to find a spring board to make your own post.  The collaborative aspects of this project seem undercut by the expectations implied in the assignments' guidlines.  I know that amending this problem is tricky.  What happens if no one feels like posting one week?  Or worse what if one student puts a lot of time into a post and no one responds?  (Though I would hope that every student is reading, and what's on the blog can tranfer into class discussions.)  

This being said, I think it's worth risking failed experiments of technology in the class room.  Ken-I'm interested in what you said,

"So the student who blogs a lot about football may be learning a lot about football (and a little about writing as a blogger) but not much else.  So the challenge for students is to be intentional about their use of technologies to help them learn things that matter." 

I'm interested in the types of knowledge we conceive of as matter.  I totally understand and fervently support the idea that we have to help students become intentional about their uses of technologies.  Still I think what we know, part of what we seem really enthusiastic about is the way knew technologies make way for new knowledge and new epistomologies.  I just attended a graduate symposium at Rice University and one of the papers was about the rise of the small press in britian.  She talked about the way this new technology had strong influence on individual merchants who could run their own ads as well as young people who were said to use the press as a learning tool.  The presententation also alluded to the way some of how the children interacted with the press was inventive and had potential to be expressive in the print world, but that the technology and the use of it was so regulated by adult, that the use became strictly one of educating young people into established crafts.  I see a great deal of parallels between this old new technology and what we are discussing with our new new technologies.  There's a way in which we might have to acknowledge that a lot of new technologies are most conducive to the popular.  Twitter is an excellent example. Comments quickly become irrelevant.  It is a medium of the now, and I mention this because I want to pause before I consider football or other popular topics as just fun and our goal as swooping in to teach students how to redirect themselves elsewhere.  The question for me is what can we learn about football via new technologies that require the student to be intentional both about their engagement with the topic and with the writing of their blogs.  Maybe this is a matter of having them change who they are blogging to?  Perhaps they alterante between blogging to football fanatics and an audience totally ignorant of the game?  Maybe they have to find another blog that is not sports related but where they can draw a parallel between what this blog is about and what it is they want to say, or what it is they're noticing about football?  I'm not sure, but I think part of what's important in our conversation about democracy and new technologies and about considering the power dynamic between student and teacher means we also have to expand what types of knowledge we privilige in this medium.

Lastly and perhaps this should be it's own post, but alas... Having just gotten interent on my phone, I am blown away by how much more appealling blogs are to read on my phone and in transit than they are at home.  I think (and maybe this goes with some of what I'm saying above) the new medias require different types of technology to be effective and what I'm suggesting is that that technology may be even more specific than interent access, which challenges even more who has access to the type of technology most conducive for participating in new medias.  That I've pretty much had access to a computer and consistent interent access for the past nine years wasn't really enough.  I mean I particpated in blogs, facebook, etc, but I have always felt either chained down waiting for delayed responses or more aloof in the virtual world because my energies and affections are so concentrated on the present physical world.  Internet on the phone isn't necessarily a place where I want to blog. (I love T9 word, but it's a bit much for a response as long as this one.) But it's a great way to read, check up to date news.  It's still not second nature to consult my phone for what's going on, directions, and whatever else, but I can see that it won't take me too long.  Just long enough for a new and more conducive technology to come online. :)



Stephen, I think you have hit upon one interesting implication of the knowledge-democratization debate that has been hinted at thus far but not fully expressed. The basic idea is, what happens to authority when knowledge is democratized? The answer to that question depends, I think, on what is meant by "democratized"; specifically who fills the role of the author. If we are talking primarily about finding new audiences for the fruits of the academy, the traditional expert/lay authority structure is preserved. But knowledge production is a different beast entirely, with Wikipedia standing apart even from open source software development. For in the latter, there is an initial knowledge-hurdle that must be cleared even to be considered a member of the community; namely, one must know how to write code. The only barriers to participation for Wikipedia are an internet connection and basic literacy.

The democratization of the instruments of knowledge production has obvious benefits as you note. But one side effect is knee-jerk skepticism from some of the knowledge-production incumbents who formerly enjoyed a monopoly on the practice--that is, us as academics. Of course, we HASTAC scholars are more progressive than some in this regard, but we all know or have heard of colleagues who have dismissed Wikipedia out of hand without considering how it might properly be used in a scholarly context. They point out, and not without merit, that knowledge production systems that lack mechanisms for accreditation and peer review (Wikipedia has review mechanisms but they're obviously not the same as academe's) should not be considered equal to those that possess them. Some counsel their students to use it solely in a navigational capacity, as Karl does above. But this should get us thinking about whether, and how, knowledge production systems relate to one another hierarchically. Is it the case that, broadly speaking, the more democratized a knowledge production process is, the less credence it ought to be given? Do lower barriers to entry imply lower quality standards? Surely the relationship can't be this straightforward, and yet as Wikipedia illustrates, the perception of universal inputs can convey an impression to some of debased value or quality. It seems to me that this is something the planners of any public knowledge production project would want to take into account.

Hmm, I hope all that sort of made sense; it's getting late here . . .


Thanks, Deen.  Plenty of sense made, and I like where you are going with this one.  Earlier in the thread, I was stressing the platforms that are used to model and produce knowledge.  When you ask, "Is it the case that, broadly speaking, the more democratized a knowledge production process is, the less credence it ought to be given? Do lower barriers to entry imply lower quality standards?", one thing that comes to mind is how a given platform influences the standards of scholarship (including metadata and peer review).  In other words, in projects where new(ish) platforms for scholarship are made or used, those involved must also create standards (from the bottom up or by modifying precedent) instead of inheriting them as a given.  Of course, creating new standards is simultaneously risky and exciting. 

So, to address your questions, I think the challenge is determining what standards should be used and when, depending upon the context and the mode of production.  With this determination comes the increased need for education on standards-making and evaluation as critical practices.  For example, I find that different projects call for different channels, platforms, literacies, and styles, if nothing else because they have different audiences, each of whom likely has a different perception of "quality."  Assessing the context of and competences involved in "quality," then, is crucial---one reason why I like the example you give of needing to know code to be cleared by the open source community. 

With all of this on the table, I'm also curious how (if at all) you imagine ReCal intersecting with standards-making and evaluation.  I really appreciate how you designed it (especially your comments about why PHP and why web-based).  How, then, do you map ReCal and other such open-source tools onto not only democratizing access to what people use to produce knowledge, but also democratizing the very standards of production?

Regarding the former, you mention that your "goal was to make available online a free and accurate reliability calculation program that offered a range of coefficients."  Yet what also really impresses me about ReCal is that it seems to be after a new way of evaluating (or assessing) standards.  Correct me if I'm mistaken. 

& now I'm wondering if I'm making sense... Let me know what I need to clarify here.  Or I might be on the wrong track entirely.  Regardless, thanks for your comments!


To answer your questions about ReCal, Jentery, I found that the standards piece of the development was something I had to put together myself. I'm not a software developer by trade—I'm really just a hobbyist and ReCal was a side project that happened to attract a small userbase--so I relied on intuition and data-driven trial and error in making design choices. My guiding principle was simply to lower the system requirements as much as possible to maximize the program's potential userbase. Not all free software projects share this goal--many fail to integrate much in the way of backwards-compatibility as new versions are released, preferring instead to focus on exploiting the latest and greatest hardware- and OS-layer features. I think your point about different audiences is crucial here: if democratization is a key priority, we should take care not to design solely for power users with lots of disposable income. There's probably some essay somewhere out there containing a set of democratic software design principles, and if anyone knows of something like that I'd love to read it.


Thanks, Deen, for responding to my questions.  As you can likely tell from my comments throughout this forum, I'm very much interested in design and its role in collaborative editing and authoring environments.  That said, I'll also be on the hunt for that essay on democratic software design principles.  Let me know if you come across it, and I'll see you soon!


A recent project of mine I think fulfills well the definition of democratizing knowledge laid out in the prompt. A year ago I designed and made publicly available ReCal, a free online utility that calculates several of the most popular intercoder/interrater reliability coefficients for nominal content analysis data. Content analysis is a research technique that is used throughout the social sciences, particularly in my own field of communication, and intercoder reliability is the standard criterion by which its operational constructs are validated. Yet options for calculating it have been limited, as the major statistics packages (SPSS, STATA, SAS) contain few built-in options for doing so. One of the major free software options for reliability calculation, PRAM, is Windows-only, and hasn't been updated since 2004 (and thus could be rendered obsolete by a future Windows release). And while there are other online reliability calculators available, only ReCal computes coefficients other than Cohen's kappa.

Several features of ReCal's design exemplify best practices for maximum democratization of knowledge, which here is interpreted to mean ensuring that as many people can use it as possible. First, being web-based, it can be used by any operating system that can access the internet and store user files. Second, it is written in the open-source programming language PHP, which requires no third-party plugins to function (as do Flash and Java). Third, rather than forcing users to use a proprietary file format such as MS Excel, it accepts CSV (comma-separated values) files, a highly parsimonious and non-proprietary file format which can be exported by nearly all statistics, spreadsheet, and database applications. And fourth, it contains several subroutines aimed at providing compatibility for international users, such as a function that converts semicolon-separated files into comma-separated files (since many computers in Europe and elsewhere export the former under the extension "CSV").

The key design features that have allowed me to tailor ReCal to the needs of its userbase are the collection of users' reliability data and close scrutiny of the progam's error logs. ReCal is not the easiest program to run, and users sometimes encounter difficulty producing results on their first try. The error routines I have designed log every runtime failure and show exactly what happened so that I can modify the program to make such errors less likely. Examining the files users submit to ReCal has helped me fine-tune the instruction page to warn them against making common mistakes. (Of course, I disclose fully that one condition of ReCal's use is that users allow me to view their data for the purpose of improving the program.) One of the reasons I decided to start collecting users' reliability data (initially I did not) was that I was receiving very little feedback on what problems people were having. Their reliability files along with the error logs supplied this information better than they ever could have. The result is that ReCal is an infinitely more robust and compatible application today than it was when I launched it a year ago.

I apologize if this post comes off as something of an advertisement, but I do feel that ReCal is a relevant example of knowledge democratization in action. It is used nearly every day by an international user base, many of whom probably lack feasible alternatives (I'll readily admit that it's rather cumbersome to use compared to SPSS or STATA). My goal was to make available online a free and accurate reliability calculation program that offered a range of coefficients, and I think ReCal has accomplished that.


Deen and Jentery,


I was especially intrigued by your posts, which draw attention to one of the problematic aspects of the democratization of knowledge, i.e. the potential lowering of intellectual and ethical (?) standards that go along with the democratization of knowledge (production). And I was very much impressed by ReCal, the tool Deen has developed to assess the credence and reliability of sources.

It strikes me, however, that what we are discussing here is again not ways to empower „laymen“ through the democratization of knowledge, but rather digital mechanisms for excluding information that does not comply with the intellectual or ethical etc. standards mentioned above. By graduating in an academic subject (humanistic or otherwise) one acquires many forms of embodied knowledge (intellectual and argumentative skills, the ability to contextualize information through personal reading experience etc.), which are just as important in defining the status of an „expert“ as is the formal qualification of a diploma. My question therefore is, how could one facilitate the participation of a larger number of laymen (that is, people who potentially lack these forms of embodied knowledge) in the scholarly discussion, rather than restricting it through sophisticated instruments for scholarly data selection?


Thanks for the interesting discussion!




I can't tell from your comment whether you are including ReCal when you mention "digital mechanisms for excluding information that does not comply with the intellectual or ethical etc. standards mentioned above." To be clear, the program's purpose is to calculate intercoder reliability coefficients from nominal content analysis data judged by two or more coders; it does not directly analyze text or make any semantic judgments whatsoever. Essentially it is a glorified calculator that offers about a dozen fairly narrow functions. My two original comments above (one about authority hierarchies and the other about ReCal) weren't intended to be related, but their proximity to one another may have given that impression.

To your point about including laymen in scholarly discussion, that is a difficult and worthy task, but one that digital technology is abetting. As might be expected, much of what's available at this point is fairly top-down. You may have heard about the large number of scholarly lectures and podcasts from world-class scholars that are available free of charge through iTunes and Youtube. Popular science programs such as Radiolab do a great job of making difficult topics accessible to the non-expert. And pubilc intellectuals have always been interested in spreading their ideas as widely as possible via public lectures and mass-market books.

The difficult part has always been finding ways to faciliate meaningful bottom-up communication. One key problem here is that many people are reluctant to put their ignorance on display for the sake of satisfying their curiosity--no one wants to look dumb in front of an expert. So I would think that any plan for including laypeople in scholarly discussion would need to find ways to level the putative knowledge gap between scholars and non-scholars. Perhaps there's a way to exploit the fact that no one's an expert in everything--but everyone's an expert in something--to reduce the power differences that can make these kinds of endeavors so awkward.



I like your point about communication and terms. There is a lot at stake in terms, but no need to be rigid about them. As you wonderfully point out, sometimes we can productively use different interpretations of keywords among participants to explore the very relations in which democratic knowledge gets made, contested, remade, etc.

Here's my take on public and community. This is just a stab at the difference, and really a kind of rehashing of various theorists whose thinking I've absorbed. But let me just try out a few ideas here, and I welcome your and others comments. Nothing definitive below even though I'm trying to define terms.

Public and community are both very crucial terms to my mind. I think there are two ideas here that overlap with both of these words. They largely have to do with issues of scope.

When we use the word community I tend to think of smaller, face-to-face interactions, of closer ties defined perhaps by kinship or neighborhood. Community is something we all tend to idealize, but it can also have its downsides too. It can grow insular at its worst, homogenous, suspicious -- community can sometimes lack democratic openness. At its best, to me, community does include those things, but I think it is important to keep an eye on what happens at the smaller level.

For me, the public is a far stranger phenomenon (and here I'm drawing on the various public sphere theorists I mentioned above). The public, the people, public opinion — in modern society these signify to me the idea of a far larger mass of participants. When people invoke "the public," it is a kind of representational fantasy, if you think about it, what Lippmann called a "phantom public," since you can never really unify all participants in one entity: too much diversity, too many viewpoints. But even if it's a kind of representational fake, it's really important to me. At their best, democratic publics offer a sense of radical openness, of cosmopolitan exchange among strangers, of connections that are momentary but sometimes deeply moving. There is, I suppose, a kind of community in this — in the sense of a sense of fellowship, a sense of transitory connection — but it seems of a different nature than smaller, more coherent groups of people in communities.

So to sum up my experiment in defining terms:

A community tends to be a smaller group of people, more embodied (though digital realm makes embodiment a more intriguing question!), and better for organizing in that it can have more structure and commitment. But communities also can be limiting: closed, suspicious (often rightfully so), limiting to free range of beliefs and expression. Community at its worst can be stifling, but even in publics, we seem to long for certain aspects of community: that feeling of fellowship and connection.

A public is a larger group of people, more abstract, and not so good for organizing, but really important for that sense of open democratic range in which one comes into contact with lots of different people of all different sorts, perhaps in transitory and temporary ways, but these can still be deeply significant.

One last thought: we might think carefully about the difference between a public and publicity. The recent disturbances at "town hall meetings" are an intriguing example of this. Here, through the lens of representing the public in the mass-mediated news, it began to look like "the public" opposed health care reform. Statisically speaking, only a very small percentage of protesters were speaking in the name of "the public" at these town hall events (themselves simulacra of town hall meetings, by and large), but they appeared in the costume of "the public." To me this starts to get at the strangeness of the public as a concept. And it suggests, to me (and as I said above, the ideas of Habermas, Gramsci, and others are all over  my thinking here), that there's always a struggle going on over defining and representing the public.

What does all this have to do with democratizing knowledge? Well, I think if we are going to produce "public scholarship" and be "public experts" and "public intellectuals," we probably need to think carefully about what the public is exactly in these avenues of scholarship and intellectual engagement. What are we imagining as "the public" seems particularly important to me in our use of digital technologies of mediation and representation, such as the Internet. Whose there? What bonds people together? Where are the spaces for disagreement and democratic tension? Is it an open space? Or does this public lack enough structure and organization?

Hmmm, instead of "public" work, is what we're really up to the pursuit of "community scholarship" and the creation of "community experts" and "community intellectuals"?

Final tought: I'm creating what probably amounts to a false binary here between public and community. Maybe it would be good to break it down and reassemble it in new ways collectively (and collaboratively!).

Look forward to your thoughts, comments, objections, critiques, additions, expansions, innovations. I'll be reading the forum and following everything.



First, great to see so much traffic and contributions.  Given the scope of the initial prompts, it's no surprise that there's a lot to talk about.  Just in the brief moments of trying to digest the wild and wooly threads, I have a few immediate provocations:

1) In direct response to Michael's sussing out of publics versus communities, I think the notion of scale is really important.  I wonder, though, as you say that things like digital and communication technologies (though one could think of penpalling or swapmeets or Anderson's imagined communities of newspaper readers) aren't already disheveling these definitions? 

2) I also wonder that in our attempts to construct "publics" what does that do to constructions of "privates"?  Given the increased attention in everyday media and culture about things like Internet privacy, mobile technology privacy, and intellectual property (which could be considered a kind of privacy), are these very attempts to open up publics shoring up privates?  (I'm afraid the double entendre is also telling here.)

3) Several people have mentioned the tag-team duo Berlant & Warner, so what about counterpublics?


Good question, what about privates? What happens to privacy in a digital age? There's a definite generational disparity occurring in which those belonging to older generations view (and value?) privacy in a much different manner than younger generations seem to. I can cite multiple studies of online social networks (for example) that suggest that people just don't seem to care about privacy online.

Thinking about pedagogy: classrooms are (if not a public) at least a community. As we transition to digital humanities, what does this do to students' senses of community? How does it alter their expectations and perceptions of their fellow scholars? I have no idea, but really want to know more about this now. As a student of Human-Computer Interaction, I have learned that some real-world concepts just don't translate well to a digital medium. If we are going to use blogs, twitter and a variety of other tools in the classroom I think it's imperative to know how this will alter student's views of the classroom and their peers...



I'm coming to this a month late (and probably a few brain cells short), but oh well.  In some ways, I agree with your basic delineation of community and publics, but I wonder whether or not the collapsibility/abiguity of the terms is actually part of how they function in the world. 

It seems to me that a lot of projects that aim to build--or resuscitate--publics often have, as a fantasy goal, the constitution of communities out of a vast, unknowable mass.  The point is not only to facilitate people coming together to exercise their reason, or to think together.  It seems part of the point is to make it so people feel together--not only do they feel connected to one another but they share a particular affective orientation.  So they build what look a lot like publics-as-communities.  I'm thinking here especially of libraries, of some kinds of education, and of certain aspects of nation-building.  All of these try to build--with books passed hand to hand, with common curricula creating common bonds, with ideals and ideas--to link people not only intellectually, not only as strangers, but as friends and neighbors in a neighborhood of unimaginable size but familiar friendliness.

But all of these are also facilitated by the state.  Habermas would be horrified.  Perhaps this unclear collapse of public and community is what happens when the state gets into the business of public-making.  States seem to frequently have an investments in using emotion to maybe short-circuit public-formation, making love of the nation and one's fellow citizens a grounds for "phantom" attachments, instead of the public application of reason.  Since it's my dissertation topic (and thus where my head spends most of its time these days), I think the bookmobile in the mid-twentieth century is an excellent example.  In Curious Missie (1953), the eponmyous little girl goes out with a bookmobile librarian for the day. She and the librarian encounter a woman who is intensely suspicious of the bookmobile, refusing to believe that the books are free.  Missie eagerly informs her that, in fact, "[i]t’s the government that pays…[because] [t]he government wants all the people to have books to read."  The woman is shortly convinced, and checks a number of books out of the library for her family, declaring, "Thank the good Lord for such a government, to be so good to the people. … Ma’am--I hope we deserve it." Creepy, right? Making the increasingly massive and bureaucratized government seem close, familiar, and friendly, the iconography of the bookmobile aimed to help citizens negotiate their place in an expansive, bureaucratic, and frequently fragmented nation. But in doing so, it teaches them a lesson--the government serves you, but only insofar as you "deserve" it and are willing to enter its embrace--that binds them together with print and information, but to what end?

I think we can fetishize reason far too much (as I tend to think Habermas did), and I think affect could actually be key to a real democratic access movement, but in orienting what seem like publics around an emotional attachment to the state can make it difficult, if not impossible, to really democratize knowledge.

(I'm not sure I really ended up where I started, but that's what I get for writing a post right before I go teach.)


First, publics vs privates is a significant issue which the private or corporate sector has dealt with and which places like facebook, linkedin and other such networks have been only partially successful in accomplishing. Basically, the public space is noises and inefficient but necessary if one optimizes ones time in selectively dipping rather than being consumed. Thus private virtual networks, filters and selective groups can choolse the level of participation and/or level of visibility.

Secondly, open source is an open space for contributions amongst the software community who have developed different types of filters. They represent the community collaborative efforts. As the late futurist, Robert Theobald once said, you can get social change or get credit for it. Most of these folk and others of a similar nature contribute without expecting credit, only better and more useful outcomes for everyone's benefit.

"School" as an enterprise, K-20 values the work of individuals. In fact, publishing "first" as so well described by Crick in the effort to deconstruct the double helix, focuses on the achievement of the individual. As pointed out in the posts, the "democratization of knowledge tends to want to blur that individual with some exceptions. With the interest in democratization there seems to be some dynamic tensions, particularly within academia, in all areas including community outreach as well as in the pub/perish/open access movement.


"K-20 values the work of individuals"

This is an issue a big issue. One of the things the Obermann Graduate Institute (brief description: A Univ. of Iowa institution that exposes interested grad students to the idea of civic engagement from both a teaching and research perspective) emphasizes is that it's all well and good to attempt to frame your research as a engaged, egalitarian partnership with one or more communities/community members. But at the end of the day, if you aren't creating scholarship valued by your peers and the institution at which you work, you aren't "doing your job". That is, you're not going to graduate/get tenure. Currently, many schools pay lip service to the notion of service (what awkward phrasing!). There are exceptions and I am hopeful there will continue to be more in the future but a combination of tradition and ego are going to make it a slower process than I think I would like...


Teachers in the M-Ubuntu project at the two South African schools, having seen the potential of using the multi-functions of the Mobile phone for learning, are dealing with a lack of resources in a very creative way. Based on a model and practice that they have already employed, they are now coaching the older learners (Grades 6-7) to produce resources for younger learners.

Their creativity now combines with useful technology to deal with resource scarcity.

I would like to hear comment on whether their initiatives represent scholarship.



This is such a crucial question, Theo, as it pushes the line of what we call "scholarship" and the line between actual work in the world and studying that work in the world . . . and all the forms of research that go into doing that work in the first place.  I am sure some HASTAC Scholars will jump in here.   But a question:  would you be willing to be interviewed by one of the Scholars' on this and your other questions?   This is such a fantastic opportunity for cross-fertilization between these students who are studying how their work can help to and be part of the democratization of knowledge and an experienced administrator/scholar/activist/teacher who is actually doing that work in the most remarkable circumstances, against all the odds, including research scarcity, as you say.   I think we would all learn enormously from such a cross-conversation between HASTAC Scholars and DML Winners.  Game to try?  If so, they will be in touch.  Thanks so much for contributing so richly, Theo.


Sure Cathy ... I would welcome opportunities to dialogue around this crucial subject. I have been engaged in teaching and learning environments in both South African and Swedish schools and I have witnessed time and time again how categories have been redefined and reconceptualized, if you wish. At the same time, I have noticed such a need to pursue genuine consensus that will lead to making a real and practical difference where it matters - within the formal and non-formal learning experiences of teacher and learner. All that to say that, I am "game to try".


Thanks!  We'll be in touch and would very much value such a dialogue. 


At least one university has changed its criteria for Promotion and Tenure to encourage civic engagement such as being discussed here. The larger question in this effort is when the faculty will take back the responsibilities that they have given to administration. The unwillingness of the faculty in the humanities to look at criteria other than book publishing as a primary measure and the shifting of that vetting to the hands of others is a strong indicator of the hill yet to be climbed.

It is interesting to see the parallel between the collaborative effort of faculty to re-engage students with the subject matter at hand and the recent emphasis in the corporate sector of encouraging such collaboration amongst production workers to improve their "product" along the production line.



Thank you for your comment!  In your first sentence, you mention that "at least one university has changed..." I'm wondering if you have the name of that university.  I ask because I think it might be interesting and worthwhile to compile a list of such institutions. 

Appreciate your time!


I need to pause, on the morning of the second full day of this Forum, to congratulate all of you--HASTAC Scholars Director Fiona Barnett for launching "her" first Forum, and all the faculty mentors (Teresa Mangum at Iowa and Kathleen Woodward at Washington:  anyone else?) and the four Scholars.   Does everyone realize that almost 1500 unique visitors (no bots allowed!) have viewed this conversation, with 46 comments left already?  For a Forum on Democratizing Knowledge.   That is very exciting, a great harbinger of the future.   Okay, now I'll stop kvelling and let more exchange begin.  Thanks everyone.  And especially Fiona and the four Scholars launching this Forum:

Bridget Draxler University of Iowa, Department of English;

Jentery Sayers
University of Washington, PhD Candidate, Department of English Society of Scholars Fellow, Simpson Center for the Humanities;

Edmond Y. Chang University of Washington, PhD Candidate, Department of English;

Peter Likarish
University of Iowa, PhD student, Department of Computer Science
Obermann Senior Graduate Fellow 2010


Thank you, Cathy.  We appreciate it.  The forum has been a real pleasure thus far, and we are looking forward to more.  And while we are taking a moment to thank those involved, I would like to thank Miriam Bartha, Zhenya Lavy, Peter Leonard, Lynette McVey, and Grace Yang (from the Simpson Center at the UW) for their continuing support of the HASTAC Scholars. 


Thank you and thanks to all of the contributors (so far)!


The issue of participation by "experts" and "lay persons" has an interesting counter part in the debates between Madison and Jefferson about how to structure the US government. One argument is "one person one vote" while the other side argued for the landed class to have sway. The rationale for the latter was that they had more time and the resources to devote to critical decision analysis. The compromise was the representative government we now have where the "public" votes for persons who presumably have the time and knowledge to represent the larger public.

The idea that, for example, an undergraduate student can hold forth on equal footing with a gray beard professor would be the equivalent of my playing a round with Tiger Woods.


On the other hand, there are many "scholars" with both depth of knowledge and abilities to match academics as public intellectuals on issues of public policy. Science and Engineering are another story. But "think tanks" and now "bloggers" and even journalists and commentators have the ability to marshal public knowledge and present pare passu with academics. Again the exception is when certain knowledge is proprietary which, in many cases, would also exclude academics.


One of the keys is that there is common interest. Who really wrote Shakespeare's plays has academics and those outside of academia able to exchange ideas on equal footing. Interest inside of academia on arcane subjects might not generate significant interest outside of the acadamy which then may change the relationship between the lay public and the academic.


This, of course, raises the question as to why "democratize knowledge" when such attempts may not find the equivalent of a "market" outside of collegial exchange within the arcane catacombs of The Academy. This, of course is one of the reason that Sokal wrote his piece.


I like the comparison to the Madison/Jefferson debates.

It's been a pleasure to watch terms like "public," "community" and "collaboration" get teased out in this forum so far. I wonder if we shouldn't do the same to a word like "knowledge."

If we see knowledge as some kind of datum (a fact, a proposition, a statement, some bit of information, something "I know"), then I think distinctions between the layperson and expert become meaningful. (The expert has simply aggregated more bits of knowledge.) But what if we see knowledge not as some static stockpile, but as a process? The question of democratizing knowledge, then, is not one of acces, but one of rendering the processes by which we come to know transparent. (These tensions seem to run beneath some of the earlier threads on Wikipedia and classroom blogging.)

I would never want to argue that an undergrad could hold equal footing with a tenured professor when it comes to knowledge-as-information (in fact, I would argue that St. John's College's "Great Books" program definitively proves the failure of this logic). But knowledge as a dynamic form of modeling learning allows us to find some common ground. We all continue to be students of something.

(And of course, thanks to the moderators of the forum! I enjoyed reading through the comments so far.)


I really appreciate your sentence here, Whitney: "The question of democratizing knowledge, then, is not one of acces, but one of rendering the processes by which we come to know transparent."  I agree, and to process I would add how we model (or shape) knowledge-making, too---for example, making transparent not just the steps by how we come to discover something through a given study or research project, but also the mechanisms that were used during that study/project and the investments in those mechanisms.  Clearly, I'm infuenced by Science and Technology Studies here, yet the point is that laying bare the situated practices of knowledge-making can often be too easily divorced (purposefully or not) from articulating the rules, technologies, and structures that foster those practices. 

All of which is to say: Thanks so much for adding "knowledge" to the teasing-out.  Indeed, in our description, we tend to take that word for granted!



I've finally made my way through all the comments and have enjoyed them immensely. I'd like to focus on Wikipedia, as many participants have touched on issues concerning communities/"expert" & "laymen"/epistemology in regards to this website. 

I find it interesting that a popular point of contention with Wikipedia among academics is the veracity of its contents. Indeed, Wikipedia presents itself as "the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit" (Wikipedia's tagline) which seems to give credence  as well as impetus for criticisms of correctness. In response to these concerns, I contend that Wikipedia is founded in a particular methodology, has a hierarchy, and requires a large understanding of Wikipedia before a participant becomes a part the community. 

Earlier in this discussion Deen writes, "But knowledge production is a different beast entirely, with Wikipedia standing apart even from open source software development. For in the latter, there is an initial knowledge-hurdle that must be cleared even to be considered a member of the community; namely, one must know how to write code. The only barriers to participation for Wikipedia are an internet connection and basic literacy."

It is true that in order to edit Wikipedia the technical requirements are very basic: reading, typing, internet. However, if you want a substantial or contentious edit to stick -- well, you may have better luck trying to arbitrarily code. Wikipedia has an extensive list of policies ( that govern how articles come to fruition. Also governing content production are Wikipedia administrators, who, according to Wikipedia are: "Wikipedia editors who have been trusted with access to restricted technical features ('tools'). For example, administrators can protect and delete pages, and block other editors. See Wikipedia:Administrators/Tools." These protections are invoked all the time to revert, change, or delete articles as well as censure users (something which severely negates someone's ability to become a part of the Wiki community). 

I would like to clarify at this point that I am by no means proposing that methodology of Wikipedia rivals that of much more rigorous sources. What Wikipedia really suffers from (in an academic context) is not necessarily misinformation, but reductive information (something which is a direct product from Wikipedian article production). As a TA, I feel the same wave of incredulity come across me upon seeing a footnote that references Wikipedia, Encyclopedia Britannica, or other sources that present a very broad and generalized approach. 

What do we learn from Wikipedia? I would like to propose that Wikipedia provides an interesting model showing how the structure of the website models communities as well as epistemologies. For the most interesting part about Wikipedia is not actually the content of an article, but the Discussion and History pages.

While preparing to teach a TA section in a large-scoped introductory Art History class I found myself quickly scanning Wikipedia for bits of information that could fill in small historical gaps in my knowledge (I am reminded now of the irony presented by Stephen earlier in the discussion). During my browsing I came across the Discussion page for Alexander the Great. Interestingly enough, the Discussion page is contextualized as "not a forum for general discussion about the article's subject." In this capacity, it would appear that the Discussion page preeminently amounts to an archive of questions and concerns not only rooted in what is veritable, but also what it means for something to be veritable (as well as how these ideas agree or disagree with Wikipedia's guidelines). Despite the confrontational manner that some of the Discussion posts often take on, (especially on contentious subjects) what is actually built on Wikipedia is a inquiry into community knowledge building with the aid of the Media Wiki software. A Wikipedia  article itself simply serves as an artifact of this process. 

Taking it back to Whitney's comments about knowledge as process and transparency, I would say that Wikipedia is very rich in content in regards to how an online community can come to know. 

I want to close by saying that I am not a participating Wikipedian but I am an avid Wikipedia follower. Thinking about Wikipedia as a product, I find myself entertained by strange and esoteric facts that may or may not be true. As a process however, it is something much more interesting. 


This discussion about knowledge, democracy, and the public is very interesting to me as an undergraduate student. Similar to Nik, I have been thinking of Wikipedia throughout the discussion. This is an example of a place where the world community can exchange knowledge. However, it is seen as unreliable and is not accepted as a valid reference. Despite this fact, I know that I, and many of my friends, often check Wikipedia to get background information or an understandable description of course topics. One of the benefits of Wikipedia and shared digital communities is the accessible language that can be understood by multiple people with different levels of education.

Unlike Nik, I have never been drawn to the discussion sections of Wikipedia. I viewed them as containing opinions about the subject, rather than debates about the reliability of article contents. Now I am motivated to check these pages out. Yet, even when “experts” post points and discussions on the site, can anyone really know if the author really has the credentials described? I guess I am always slightly wary about information on the internet, because individuals can easily use false identities on the Web.

This discussion also reminded me of an upcoming project in my MolCell (that I am excited about). One of our assignments will be to create a Wiki page, allowing us to share the knowledge we gain with people on the internet. I am excited about making a Wiki I think this will give everyone in the class a sense of accomplishment. We will be able to say that we took the time to learn and understand something and are able to share our comprehension. It will also help us retain the information because studies often show that the best way to learn is to teach.

I would also like to comment on the M-Ubuntu project. I think this is a great project. Reading about having older children mentor younger children in the use of the educational mobile phone was a great solution to limited resources. I think this aspect of the program will help maintain its sustainability. It can keep getting passed along by the students. This gives them responsibility and helps them learn how to be educators.   



I would love to hear more about the wikipedia article assignment you're doing.  What kind of class is it?  What are the requirements, criteria, topics?  How has your instructor described the purpose of the assignment?  Would you consider this kind of work a "service"? 

Looking forward to hearing more from you, Claire!  Thanks for your post!


Hey Bridget,

I will find out more about the Wiki page later this semester (closer to its due date). The information I do know, is that it is for a molecular and cellular biology course. The wiki page will be a group assignment. The purpose is to allow us to pick a topic related to something that interested us in the class (such as Transcription initiation, a genetic disorder, etc.)  to show that the class information is related to many different fields of science. We also must have a 15 minute presentation for the class. I am hoping to find out if the Wiki page is only for the class or if it actually gets posted on the Internet. I guess it could be considered a service, since it can be used as an education tool and allows knowledge to be shared with a broader community (of MolCell students and possibly individuals on the internet). I'll let you know more details as I find out more in class and can let you know how the project works out.  


Thanks Claire!  That sounds like a really interesting assignment--I'm excited to hear how it works out.  Thanks for your post!


First off, I'd like to say that this forum has been very exciticing to read.  As a grad student who's out of course work, these online interactions are so vital to keep the creative and intellectual juices flowing--thanks!

When I read the prompt, one of the initial thoughts that popped into my mind was my shifting feelings toward the Google digital book project.  When I first began grad school (and admittedly I was very Luddite-minded then), I would never dare think that I would look towards e-books as a "valid" or "fair" source of information.  I thought, if it's intellectual and free, it obviously can't be that good.  Wrong.  As I've warmed up to e-books, and as I've steered away the need of having to hold a physical book, the debate seems futile now.  We should promote the democratizing of knowledge in any and every way possible. I'm not underestimating the importance the social and economic limitations of actually having an internet connection and access to the Google books project, but at least the project is available

Furthermore, if, as the facilitators rightly point out, that "democratizing knowledge often refers to making scholarship public," then how come we (academics in general) hesitate making our books available for the larger public?  Certainly, academic authors don't make much money off their books (I'm excluding tenure/promotion stipulations and referring primarily to the royalties from the book itself), why not let our work be available? If we're so eager to contribute to wiki-knowledge, is there, fundamentally, a big difference?

The Chronicle recently had another article debating this idea.  Where does everyone stand on this issue?


"I have never been drawn to the discussion sections of Wikipedia. I viewed them as containing opinions about the subject, rather than debates about the reliability of article contents. Now I am motivated to check these pages out. Yet, even when experts post points and discussions on the site, can anyone really know if the author really has the credentials described? I guess I am always slightly wary about information on the internet, because individuals can easily use false identities on the Web."


Greetings from Guatemala

I am wondering if Dante Noto could describe his background and experience in working in developing countries and place his comments into that context. 



A little late to the game here, but I guess I'll wade right in. I’m wondering if some of those prompting questions inherently assume that "public scholarship" is a desirable product rather than a desirable process. Would it be taking too broad a view to argue that the scholarly/research process itself must be made public in order to be relevant? Publishable results are one thing, but often the journey toward those results is obscured. I'm reminded of doing a Google search in which I don't immediately find what I'm looking for and am forced to identify increasingly accurate keywords for whatever concept or document. By the end of the search, I've succeeded in locating the resource, but what's lost is the chain of thought/logic that went into narrowing down my search. It's as if these chains should somehow be made public and visible as well to better help future searchers. This notion of transparency or traceability is one connotation of "public" that I'd like to think about more in the context of digital humanities.

I'm probably veering from the original intent of the prompt, but this touches upon the relationship between academia and the world beyond as well. That is, many of us attend public or state-funded universities, but how often do we truly see ourselves as contributing to a brand of social epistemology (in the style of Wikipedia, yes)? Do our publishing practices make the knowledge we create less accessible than it could be? Or is it that the advanced, expert nature of our interests limits them from catching on with a wider audience? In other words, I'm seeking that balance between something that's interesting for its own sake versus being interesting due to its (eventual?) utility to society. Of course, legitimizing our research in the eyes of the public is not usually a primary concern, but if we can, all the better, right?


I'm interested in picking up on a point from your first paragraph because it's something Bridget and I have come across several times since the start of this forum.

Why do some humanities scholars resist the idea of digital humanities? Each individual probably has their own concerns but one of the key facets we return to is that the humanities place value on the uniqueness and individuality of a project. Contrast this with research in the sciences were reproducibility is key; if you're findings can't be replicated, your research is bunk. Our hypothesis is that digital work tends to be more valuable when it's reproducible--e.g. when another scholar can re-use your method to create their own work. This makes it a somewhat foreign way of working for traditionalists. Clearly, there are some huge generalizations here... I hope you'll forgive that.

I think what I'm getting at, though, comes back to your distinction between process and product. Unique products are still a worthwhile goal of scholarship but reproducible processes, that is, public processes, are key to maintaining rigor. This reminds me of Nate Silver of who recently took to task the polling firm Strategic Vision, LLC (not to be confused with the very well-thought of Strategic Vision, Inc.). Silver raises questions about the quality of the data produced by Strategic Vision LLC, even going so far as to question whether or not the data is at least partially fraudulent. Regardless, the point I want to make is that as one of the only polling firms that releases essentially no information about it's methodology, Strategic Vision LLC has made itself vulnerable to claims that could have been easily settled by being open about how it produces it's polls.

I can't help but think that by making the process of scholarship public, we raise the level of scrutiny to which research is exposed and, hopefully, increase the quality of the work we produce...


Fantastic forum everyone.  Thanks for launching and contributing.  I'd like to pick up on the process-product discussion (with a small off-line push from Teresa).

I come to this discussion from a series of initiatives related to interdisciplinary education and public scholarship (Imagining America; the U of Washington Institute on the Public Humanities for Graduate Students; the community-based Master of Arts in Cultural Studies at UW Bothell) and digital forms of publication (the website related to the book Keywords for American Cultural Studies -- -- and the prospective launch of a hybrid print-digital journal with the US Cultural Studies Association).  There's lots to say, but let me limit myself to one observation here.

In my experience, new processes and forms of knowledge production (interdisciplinary, intersectoral, digital, publicly-engaged, community-based, etc.) require and create new metrics of valuation and evalution.  This is clear in the work on tenure and promotion in the university by HASTAC, Imagining America, and others (Campus-Community Partnerships for Health, AACU, etc.).  This shift in metrics is critical, I think, to changing how professional recognition/reproduction plays out in the university.  But I have become even more interested in the question of how emerging partnerships, collaborations, or alliances that are inter-disciplinary or, more important, inter-sectoral produce and require new means of valuing and assessing research processes and their diverse products.

So what does this have to do with the question of why "humanities scholars resist the idea of digital humanities" (to quote from above)?  My simple response would be to say that many of them (us) are invested, as most individuals working in professions are, in the metrics of valuation that have produced their success.  They believe in them because it's the water they swim in (and want others to continue to swim in -- think Fish here) -- and they don't really want them to change.  This common sense is supported by professional-disciplinary associations, peer review networks, awards, and so forth.  "Public" (and "community"), in this context, may not name things in the world, but a push beyond those professional forms of valuation and recognition (or toward counter-professionalisms that are inter-disciplinary/sectoral).

I'm not saying that the reproduction of exiting forms of valuation/recognition is inevitable (or always bad -- we obviously need a metric other than the "new" here: "democratic" is one; "just" is another; "egalitarian" is a third).  Innovative knowledge processes and products come with the burden of all innovation -- the need to do cognitive and metacognitive work simultaneously; to do the work and to explore/explain why it is ethically, politically, socially important to do the work at the same time.  For me, this should be what universities and other research-based knowledge-producing organizations are all about.  It's obviously what this forum is about.

So to finish up and follow up on Cathy's earlier pitch for a follow up interview, here's another opportunity for publication.  The 2010 Imagining America conference will be in Seattle and will focus at least in part on the intersection of "public" and "digital" scholarships (though I tend to see the later as a subcategory of the former since "digital" references one means and form of public address among others.  I could be wrong.).  It would be great if some of you all could construct and submit a proposal for a roundtable that pushes this conversation forward.  The CFP will come out sometime next spring.        



I appreciate your point about how new forms of knowledge production requires us to change not only our valuation of scholarship but also our methods of assessing research processes and products--changing the way we as scholars think about our own research will precede any changes in the institution as a whole, right?  It's a bottom-up process oftentimes.  Do you have specific ways you think we need to rethink our research, even those of us who may be already experimenting with technologies, collaborations, or outside communities? 

And I wonder, do you see a similar shift in how we think about learning?  If new forms of knowledge are shaping our pedagogical practices, does that mean we also need to reassess what we think are the goals of a university education?  What might those new goals be?

A roundtable at next year's IA conference sounds like a great idea; let's definitely be in touch.  Thank you for the suggestion! 







I actually think of my comment as more top-down (or middle-down).  Those of us in positions to review/assess/value need to articulate metrics that will make your/new work valuable/visible. 

In terms of learning, I tend to norm toward students-researchers who do not seek to reproduce professional norms, even if they want to work in that profession.  For me, this is the difference between intellectual and professional work (to recur to the early discussion of nomenclature and keywords). 

In terms of rethinking research, I find it useful to distinguish between research processes and research products, allowing the latter to take different forms for different publics.


Thanks for your expansion and clarification, Bruce!  You raise really important issues about where, how and why these changes in the academy are happening.  And I especially like the point you make in your last sentence--do you have any particularly helpful examples of how research products can take different forms for different publics?  I'm especially interested to hear how that might play out in a real project.


My overarching goal would be to have folks think about the question of the research product as an element of research design.  In other words, let's not just assume that a monograph or a website or an article or a policy report or a exhibit is appropriate because that's what the inter-disciplinary/profession recognizes as the inevitable form of public dissemination.  This does not mean that no one should write monographs, just that we should have some explanation for why a monograph (or website) is appropriate (beyond the instrumental response that monographs are what is required for hiring and promotion).  Examples?

One that I know well is related to the book Keywords for American Cultural Studies.  As Glenn and I were finishing the editing of that book, we ran several conference panels at which we tried to explain to audiences that the point of the book was to spur the generation new knowledge, not just to map existing knowledge.  This was a methodological point about interdisciplinary field formation, but it fell flat at sessions, partly because we kept gesturing toward a book with a set table of contents, etc.  This meant that we had two choices: publish and run (some colleagues said: "You're done with that project.  Move on to the next one") or create a second form of public address, another mode of publication-dissemination.  We chose door number 2 and developed the interactive website I linked above (with help from Deborah Kimmey, a former HASTAC scholar).  The latter project has been moderately successful, I think.  We'll see where it goes next.  But the point is that these two "publications" or "products" emerged from an integrated research process.  Both appear on my cv and Glenn's (and some related activites are on Deborah's), which is persuasive only if we can explain the linkage since the book typically "counts" in our fields and the website typically does not.  We have also done some subsequent panels on digital work in American studies and cultural studies and may write about it (here and elsewhere).

This is one example.  More important, I think, are the multiple products that can (and need to) emerge from cross-sectoral and/or community-engaged projects.  Let's say that a partnership with a local museum on an exhibition about Latino popular music conducts archival and ethnographic research into the history of that music in the US and produces the following products: 1) an exhibition that tours nationally; 2) a series of panels at academic conferences about music and/or public scholarship; 3) an exhibition catalogue; 4) an article published in an academic journal on the history of migration and popular music in the Pacific Northwest; 5) an article published in an academic journal on public scholarship and museum outreach; 6) a series of public events that are documented and available on-line; 7) a website related to the exhibit.  If the faculty member is in an Ethnomusicology department, does only artifact #4 count?  (If we are thinking about the museum curator, does only #1 count?) 

So the answer should be no.  But the burden/opportunity is to explain to the Ethnomusicology department that we are looking at a continuum of scholarly artifacts that emerge from a carefully-designd, unified, cross-sectoral (and terribly ambitious) research process.  (I'm paraphrasing here from Imagining America's tenure team's report, specifically the very useful phrase "continuum of scholarship.")  Similarly, the professionals at the museum will need to explain how this range of activites is part of their work and should be recognized as such.  This example, by the way, is real: the American Sabor exhibit developed between UW faculty and the Experience Music Project museum in Seattle, with the facilitation of the Simpson Center for the Humanities through its public humanities initiatives.  

Other examples, at a smaller scale, could involve the relation between a needs assessment or website developed through a service-learning course with a local non-profit and the article on service-learning pedagogy that resulted from that course.  These artifacts need to be bundled, I think, and the connections made clear.  Part of my administrative job these days is to make sure that the polices and metrics are in place to make that possible. 


I noticed a few people were talking about wikipedia and its use in classrooms. In this vein, I had a class last year on systems theory at UT-Austin where we used a class-specific wiki to facilitate discussion and help explain the readings. Additionally (as you'll see if you check out the site), all our assignments were put up on this wiki.

What was interesting was the way in which the format itself led to a certain democratic mentality: one of our assignments was to write a brief critical/explanatory paper on some aspect of the theory we were reading every few weeks. In a conventional class where this would take the form of say, a four-page paper, we would probably have focused on what we were interested in, summarized it briefly and then attempted a criticism or argument that connected the theory to our own projects. While interesting and of obvious use, the value of such an assignment is mostly limited to just the interaction between the professor and the student, given that they are the only readers. Even when classes do a sort of 'peer-review' or 'presentation' format, the simple fact that the review/presentation occurs in the space of just one class-meeting limits the discussion to those 15 or so minutes of time. With everyone turning in wiki-sites, however, I noticed that all of us were innately drawn more toward explaining the theory we were reading rather than going of on our own tangents and arguments. Each and every paper produced in this class was of utility not only to the individual scholar writing the paper, but also to all the other students struggling to understand some of the technical vocabulary. Naturally, given that the website is public, our classroom discussions are also available to a much wider audience.


Again, what I want to stress is how just the fact that we were writing public websites made all of us write in a completely different way, one innately attuned more toward explaining what we were doing for the benefit of all. Moreover, because these websites are always there, many of us were able to take our time and exchange ideas about our projects well after the end of the class: discussion wasn't confined to those 15 minutes.


Lastly, I also noticed that when writing these wiki entries I focused a lot more on the structure of my explanations: when one sentence (for example) contains a difficult term, one can make that term a hyperlink to its own wiki-entry explaining just that term. This creates a sort of 'modular' approach to writing that creates two flows of argumentation - one focusing on the discrete 'building blocks' of the argument (the individual small hyperlinks), and the other focusing on the overall flow of the argument (the main website itself, which collects together and connects each link to the others).


Anyway, at the end of the day, I really liked it, and still refer to this website often to help me understand various bits of theory and get some inspiration for my projects. I find myself wishing that all my classes would use such tools.


Another good use of wikis is to create quick, rough and detailed translations of texts. My friend and I (both of us Sanskritists) would often read the same text and collaborate on a translation/annotation. We would use a wiki engine (pbwiki, for us), create a website and copy/paste the Sanskrit text into the wiki. We'd create, say, a separate wiki entry for each canto of a poem. Each of us had a password and we'd log-in and edit the wiki and type up a translation underneath each verse. We'd make each difficult word a hyperlink to its dictionary entry (many Sanskrit dictionaries are online and digitized), and each of us could go back and correct/improve the other's translations. The format also allowed us to annotate things extensively and link a verse with an article in JSTOR, etc. relating to the topics in the verse. What we created was a multi-layered, densely annotated text that could be used for years to come as a sort of collaborative notebook for all our textual research. Like a scholar's private notebooks, but so much faster, easier and filled with so much more information -- and public, too!


Thanks, Ishan, for your comment.  As an instructor who uses both Wikis and WordPress blogs in the classroom, I agree with what you've posted above.  In short, I find these platforms particularly productive for circulating ideas, collaborating, and revising projects, especially projects shared by an entire class.  Right now, with the use of a multiauthored WordPress blog, I'm in the process of collaborating with one of my classes to compose an e-book, where each student submits a chapter as well as an introduction to someone else's chapter.  We're starting to discuss what form the book should assume and what programs (e.g., Table of Contents) it should include. 

I will also echo the notion of archive-building, which you reference above.  I really like the idea of returning to a previous quarter's/semester's work and considering its afterlife. 

One quick question for you, then: In your course, did you discover anything you didn't like about using a Wiki?

Thanks again!




We are launching a project this week to give scholars a direct channel to interact with the public. AcaWiki allows scholars to post summaries of their work so the public can access them. There are also a number of web 2.0 interactive features that scholars and the public can take advantage of.


Democratizing knowledge is an issue close to my heart, so I’m thrilled to see this discussion.  I only regret that, being in the midst of fieldwork in rural Laos and Thailand, I haven’t been able to participate earlier.  My internet access will be unreliable and/or non-existent over the next week as I head back to small villages, so I’m not sure how much I’ll be able to follow the discussion.  I do, however, want to throw my .02 Canadian in.

I’m in the MLIS/MA (Humanities Computing, aka “HuCo”) program at the University of Alberta.  In several of our HuCo classes, students are given the option of working on Community-Service Learning (CSL) projects.  Community organizations identify needs for a technical invention (in HuCo’s case), tells the Community-Service Learning Office, HuCo profs sign classes up for the CSL program, and then students are assigned to a task.  For example, in HUCO 5530: Project Management, two people worked on a project called Streetlinks, which was looking at the feasibility of creating touch-screen information centers at homeless shelters for homeless people and service providers.  Another person worked with Edmonton area Scout groups, to create a database of what resources (material, personnel, etc) each group had so that one didn’t go out and buy 20 pairs of snowshoes when a group across town already owns 20 pairs.  Here I should mention, in full disclosure, I’m the grad student rep on the CSL Advisory Board at the U of A. 

While I think programs like the CSL one HuCo students can participate in are on the right track in general, I do think there are issues that need to be thought about in detail before designing these kinds of programs.   Part of the problem getting students engaged with the community in any kind of meaningful way is the highly transitory nature of student life.  Many of us move every couple years for degrees or jobs.  When a community organization invests the time and resources to develop a proposal and supervise a student, they should get someone who can commit to their organization.  At U of A, groups and professors are eligible for a couple of hundred dollars each to cover expenses incurred in participating, but I’m still not convinced that what the community is getting in terms of a completed project and the knowledge that can go with it is equal to what the university gets out of the arrangement.  It’s certainly a step in the right direction to involve HuCo students in projects in the community, but it has to be looked at critically and students can’t just be sent out to get credits.  Sending students out doesn’t automatically guarantee that the knowledge they bring is being shared appropriately. 

On another note, in terms of ways of publishing academic work that can help democratize knowledge, I think it would be great if scholars could distill their work down to short, easy to read summaries of a few pages.  These types of documents could then be put online in some kind of non-proprietary database for public use.  Producing shorter, jargon-free, lower-reading-level-than-grad-school documents is something I plan to do with all my research in the future.



What an amazing first forum of the year! I am especially thrilled that it has generated so many questions, reflections and conversations.

Earlier this week, I was reflecting on the desire within this forum to have more participants who are actually working on projects to "democratize knowledge." It occured to me that we have such a great wealth of exactly those kinds of projects right here in HASTAC!

One wing of HASTAC is the Scholars - full of students and their mentors, generating forums and blogs like these. Another other wing of HASTAC is the Digital Media and Learning Competition - what we shorthand to "the DML Competition." It is supported by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation as part of their commitment to digital media and learning.

The competition is now in its second year, and awarded $2 million to 19 different projects around the theme of "participatory learning." The competition was split into two categories: Innovation in Participatory Learning, designed to support larger-scale pioneering efforts in DML, and Young Innovators, which targeted innovaters between the ages of 18-25. 

Folks, these are some amazing and inspiring projects, filled with some awesomely smart, hard-working, innovative and grassroots "digital media and learning" organizers within their own communities.

It can be hard to break into dense conversations like this forum, so we thought a series of interviews might introduce the Scholars, participants in this forum/website, and DML winners to each other in an accessible, personable and focused approach.

The entire interview will be posted as a blog entry by the Scholar, where they'll also give an introduction to the DML project and their representative. In order to link back to this generative forum, the Scholar will feature an especially pertinant 'teaser excerpt' from that interview to feature in this forum, and will link back to the full interview on their blog. 

We are really excited about these interviews, and invite you to continue commenting on the interview in this forum, or on the blog, whichever seems more appropriate to your comment.

The first interview will be posted today and it is a perfect introduction -- HASTAC Scholar Bridget Draxler, one of the hosts of this forum, interviewed Theo van Rensburg Lindzter of DML winning project M-Ubuntu. Theo has been one of the DML participants in this forum and we are excited to feature their interview.


"Our project, I think," Theo explained to me, "stumbled, as it were on this need - helping teachers see the difference they really can make to the quality of the learning process." Theo's description of the M-Ubuntu Project highlights many of the key issues surrounding the democratization of knowledge already discussed in this forum, from debates surrounding the practicality and usefulness of scholarship to questions of reciprocity and collaboration. In an interview in conjunction with the forum, I had the opportunity to talk with Theo about his vision of the M-Ubuntu Project, whose title means "I am because we are."   

Theo van Rensburg Lindzter is involved with Learning Academy Worldwide, a Swedish-based learning organization, and he is the original funder for phase one of the M-Ubuntu Project.  The M-Ubuntu project has built on distance learning teacher workshops by using mobile phones to bridge the digital divide in two very poor South African schools in two ways: first, by helping students with digital and cultural literacy, and second, by helping the teachers to network and collaborate.  Theo provides upfront training in M-Learning (mobile learning), literature-based pedagogy in the Paideia tradition, and he leads content production and dissemination for the project.  You can learn more about the project at; please read our full interview on my recent blog post at



Teresa Mangum says that "developing a true service learning course is challenging, but it’s quite possible to create learning experiences that engage the public in literature and literary history and the issues they raise." 

Associate Professor of English at the University of Iowa, Teresa was the 08-09 Faculty Associate Director of the Obermann Center for Advanced Studies and the founding Co-Director of the Obermann Graduate Institute on Engagement and the Academy (a week-long seminar on civic engagement for graduate students that is in its fourth year).  Teresa has also organized the University of Iowa’s first Obermann Platforms for Public Scholars conference, a symposium that begins this week at U Iowa (Oct. 15-17).  In addition, she has been a mentor and hero to me and countless other students at the University of Iowa—I had the chance to participate in the 2008 Obermann Graduate Institute with Teresa, and she has inspired me in many ways, but most of all to pursue civicly engaged teaching and scholarship.

I am convinced that you will find her optimism inspiring and energy contagious.  Teresa has a way of talking about civic engagement that makes you want to get involved--involved wholeheartedly, ambitiously, and as soon as possible.  Please read more of our interview on my recent blog post!


Great forum -- I've really enjoyed reading all your comments.  Some terrific discussions.  While I was reading, it got me thinking about a recent digital humanities start-up grant called "Archive 2.0."  It is a digital archive project by Michigan State University in which they worked cooperatively with the Samaritan community in Israel and the West Bank.  It was interesting to me how the scholars and the community learned from one another and this helped to shape the project.  To read more, check out this piece in the Chronicle or download their detailed white paper.

I also liked the discussions about collaboration (aka cooperation!) and such.  It made me think of this wonderful post that Willard McCarty recently wrote in Humanist.  I love his bit about "I don't mind being told I have a strong accent, but I do want to be understood in foreign parts."  Great stuff.  (Alas, you can't link directly to a Humanist article, so I will repost below:)

Thanks -- Brett


Date: Mon, 28 Sep 2009 07:00:14 +0100 

From: Willard McCarty <

Subject: being plural   

The question Richard Cunningham raises via assertion, of whether anyone trained in discipline X can wholly think his or her way into discipline Y, gets down to cases and probabilities, I'd think. Northrop Frye, in a version of the Medieval "centrum ubique" argument, spoke of starting with a structure that could expand into other structures. Thomas Kuhn spoke of the wrenching agony of switching among the three disciplines in which he worked (physics, history, philosophy), of their incommesurability. Frye was always a literary critic, but he could stand on another's ground -- as a student I was convinced anyone's, anytime, though he would never have made that claim. Kuhn (one who knew him well once said) was always really a philosopher, and wanted to be regarded that way.    

I wonder, however, what profit there is in dealing with the question of whether X can become Y. The point for the work we do, I'd think, is to become agile in moving in and out of various disciplines, to expand, to improve what we begin with. Sometimes the work we set out to do will involve others who are proper representatives of disciplines Y, Z and W etc. Sometimes, for purposes of our own, we'll play all the parts. I've always tried to test the results when I do that against colleagues who know those disciplines from the inside. I don't mind being told I have a strong accent, but I do want to be understood in foreign parts.    

The point, I'd think, is in the process, the travelling around, not in achieving total indistinguishability from the natives. For someone full-time in humanities computing, though, this would seem to mean at our stage of development a home-base stocked mostly with others' goods, its aesthetics a matter of arrangement. Like my bookshelves, whose principle of organization I have never yet been able to get straight. But it does seem clear to me that the richness and depth of the collection is due to the mixture of borrowed subjects (not borrowed books, I hasten to add). The virtue of multiple cohesibilities rather than of singular coherence?   




Hi, Brett, So glad you are enjoying this Forum.  It's so meaty and interesting and I've learned a lot.  One thing I learned is from you.  I thoroughly enjoyed following the link to the MSU project.  We just hosted our first HASTAC Distinguished Scholar in Residence, Allison Clark from UIUC, and we spent her time here looking in detail at issues of digital divide and digital access.  She stressed over and over how important culture was to access.  You can't just set up a computer and think everyone will use it.  And we began to think of ways that literacy, cultural heritage, and divide issues could be addressed not exactly simultaneously but wrapped together.   The project in Israel made me think about how digitizing invaluable local cultural heritage (whether local is Jerusalem or Durham) makes one a step closer, to paraphrase Willard, to overcoming the foreign. 


I love your idea about the "scholars and the community learning from one another."   That's a motto!  


Peter and I met last week with Kathy Magarrell, Head of Reference and Library Instruction and member of the Libraries E-Research Task Force; Nicole Saylor, Head of Digital Library Services, chair of the Libraries E-Research Task Force, Liz Pearce, faculty in the department of communication studies who works with Instructional Services, and Jim Elmborg, Director and Associate Professor of Library Science, about how the University of Iowa library system is working to share, develop, and use technology services to enhance teaching and scholarship around the University.

We talked about tensions on a university campus: tensions between learning and teaching, between humanities practitioners and tech people, etc.  And specifically about the cultural disconnect--whether caused by differences in language, goals and critical assumptions or by the fragmentation of the university system--that prevents cross-campus collaboration from either happening or being effective. Technologies that are useful for teaching is not necessarily useful for research. The one-off technology necessary to support a unique digital humanities project is oftentimes not interesting to the campus IT department who often focus on enterprise-level, reusable development.

The solution, we surmised, might be to combine cross-campus collaboration and technology in a way that suits both sides. Idealistic, but possible.  We discussed several places on the UI campus that are working to make these connections possible.  For example, UI was one of the Project Bamboo participants that aimed to help humanities faculty, ITS, and library communities work together.  Other options are campus-level digital humanities technology centers like the one pioneered by the University of Virginia.  One comment that surprised both of us was that the most consistent method for making cross-campus collaborations successful is involving graduate students.  It was also suggested that public scholarship--the kind that combines new technology and works across campus--is where the money, and the future, lies.



Thanks to some fortunate timing, the Imagining America: Artists and Scholars in Public Life conference begins tomorrow (Oct. 1st) and will continue through Oct. 3rd in New Orleans. If you're enjoying this forum, I highly encourage you to check out the organization. One of the core values of Imagining America (IA) is to support "Democratic principles of participation, dialogue, and pluralism." In particular, IA is also one of the premier organizations promoting civically/publicly engaged scholarship. Again, from their website "Public scholarship joins serious intellectual endeavor with a commitment to public practice and public consequence." In my view, one of the fundamental aspects of publicly engaged scholarship is the principal of viewing community partners as equals in research and pedagogical endeavours and producing work for the public good.

There are several Univ of Iowa faculty members in attendance at the IA conference and we've asked some of them to stop by this forum and give us a report on items that are of interest to those of us discussing democratizing knowledge. I hope you'll give them a big welcome when find the time to stop by and give us a glimpse of the discussions to which they'll be privy in the coming days.


Will you be at this conference?  Will you be blogging about it for HASTAC?  We can send you our official HASTAC@Imagining America kit if you are.  Nancy Kimberly, HASTAC's Project Manager, is the person to contact.   Enjoy!


Hi Cathy,

Unfortunately I will not be at the conference personally. I also didn't realize there was an official HASTAC@IA kit but now that I know am not surprised at all! I will talk to Fiona about possibly cross-posting some of their entries! Thanks for the heads up!




Hi all -

I'm Kevin Bott, brand new to HASTAC and the organizer of the IA conference here in New Orleans.... and also a doctoral candidate "finishing" my PhD in applied theater. My research concerns creating original rites-of-passage with formerly incarcerated men as they transition out of prison...

Anyway, the conference is off to a good start. Thursday is typicaly our "slow" day -- people trickling in throughout the day. We're never quite sure who will get here and when and how full any of our presenters' sessions will be. This is why we've never tried to schedule a full slate of sessions... until this year. We feel that engaged scholarship is catching on, and we see it in the growing numbers of attendees. We knew the 2008 forum in LA -- because it's LA -- would be a draw to a lot of people. But we assumed we'd have a numbers drop off regardless of where we convened this year. And THEN, everyone's funding disappeared. For the last 6 months I have been hoping for the best and preparing for the worst...

...And then people came. A lot of them. We have roughly the same numbers this year as we did last year. This says, to me, one pf two things: 1) LA wasn't a fluke and those interested in our conversation continue to expand; or 2) NOLA is as powerful a draw as LA was, and that it will be NEXT year when we see numbers return to "normal." This latter scenario is entirely possible. Hurricane Katrina, as most know, brought the full spectrum of engaged scholarship, from service learning to full-on participatory, reciprocol work between scholars from the academy/community artists and community partners. So our conference here presented an opportunity for many, many people to share what they did here... or how similar crises in their own backyards yielded similar lessons. I really hope, though, that it's the former... I started with IA as a graduate (PAGE) Fellow in Ohio in 2006 and I have to say that I think it's the most exciting conversation happening in higher ed. At the very least I can say that it's the one I'm most interested in having.

That's all for now. It's late and as the "cruise director" of the conference I need to be bright-eyed and bushy-tailed in a few hours.

Before I go, though, I want to say that the other role I play here is as the director of the PAGE program (Publicly Active Graduate Education). Today was our 9-5 PAGE Summit wherein any graduate student who shows up is invited to participate in a series of activities and small and large group conversations about their own work as well as the "crisis and opportunity" that is higher education in regard to publicly engaged scholarship. I'll be forwarding the HASTAC info. to this year's cohort in hopes that one of them will say a few words about their experience today before I share mine...

best -




First off, welcome to HASTAC, Kevin! 

I know you must be busy, so thanks for taking the time to post here. 

I hope that, in the future, you'll keep us posted on developments at this year's IA conference! 

Looking forward...



I've really enjoyed all the posts below, much rich terrain for thought and action! I'd like to briefly share my own experience teaching outside the university as a way to democratize knowledge.

Each spring I teach a one-night course for the Gainesville Free Univeristy here in Florida. The topic of my course is Counter-Mapping: Map Making as Counter-Hegemonic Practice and I teach it as part of my larger project to democratize the methods academics use in relation to mapping and map-making. I draw heavily on the internet and my personal website to make these sorts of techniques available to the wider, public community. In regards to this Free University course, I put up a website and have added some basic tutorials on how to use free geographic information system (GIS) software. The course website is

This course covers three main issues:

  • Hegemony, Counter-Hegemony, and Emergent Ideology
  • A Theoretical and Historical Overview of "What is a Map?"
  • Counter-Mapping Resources online for a price and for free

I've envisioned this course as a form of local Participatory GIS (P-GIS) that exposes the technologies of mapping as largely a stete-run enterprise and then invite members of my community to use these techniques to tell their own stories with space and spatial data. This course is a condensed version of my Anthropological Uses of GIS course taught sporadically at the University of Florida (UF).

As an anthropological archaeologist, I agree with geographers who state that upwards of 80 percent of all knowledge can be given spatial coordinates (M. F. Goodchild), which means that many people's personal stories (especially in the 'city') can be told by drawing on mapping technologies.

Interestingly, as I write this short piece for HASTAC, the anarchist.academics listserv is buzzing with these sorts of questions in an ongoing thread titled "Outside the University". I am drawn to ideas of anarchist education and have incorporated them into my own teaching, particularly in a class I've taught at UF titled Academic Activism. In this course, we use Graeber's Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology to explore this often maligned theoretical perspective as a system of ethics for academic practice. I've been invited to speak on my experiences teaching anarchist ethics at this years Radical Archaeological Theory Symposium (RATS) in SUNY Binghamton. Anarchism as I perceive (and teach) it involves comprimise, open-mindedness, and the creation of a team-oriented perspective. Of course, attaining these goals does not require a committment to radical theory, but I've found it helps.

Thanks for reading,



I guess I showed up too late for the party. Though the stack of comments feels something like cleaning all the empties the morning after (and has the daunting feel that only a really nasty hangover can bring to bear), the contents of all these comments smell good enough that I'll be sure to be on time for the next round...

Here in California it feels a little rediculous to talk about the democratization of knowledge at the moment. Out quasi-public educational institutions are rapidly being defunded. What isn't scrapped completely is headed for a disastrous round of privatization. In a moment when scholars, educators and the gamut of University workers have been thrown into this fight together, it feels silly, at best, to contemplate what role 'experts' might serve in the decentralized knowledge system that is dawning: we are in a process of learning from one-another's experience of the academy–a process in which Janitors necessarily know every bit as much about the privatization of knowledge as tenured professors. Knowledge, it turns out, is actually spread around quite evenly: it's decisions about what "counts" as knowledge that need to be democratized.

My own experience thinking about democratization of knowledge comes out of working with non-profit community bicycle projects for the last seven years. These are grubby shoe-string operations that lack the, uhh, glamor of wikipedia and the funding of the academic classroom, but have proven quite effective, nevertheless, in constructing highly democratic pedagogical apparatus. We teach folks to fix their own bicycles. No body is turned away for lack of funds. Any task relating to a bicycle can be accomplished by the student/patron... with a little advice and the right tools.
Similarly, for several years I have been teaching courses through an organization called Free Skool Santa Cruz. "Teaching" isn't really the right word; we prefer "facilitating", as in, "to make facil", "to make easy." Again, no body is turned away for lack of funds. Topics range from local history to cooking classes to anarchist theory.

This is exactly how I think about teaching in the University as well. Never have I taught a class that I thought I was "qualified" to teach. I'm not an expert in much of anything. "Facilitating" learning doesn't require me to be an expert, however; it merely requires me to be a good listener, and stay a couple pages ahead in the course readings.
All of this isn't to say that the "democratization of knowledge" is such an easy task. There is real research to be done into how we construct pedagogies and invent practices in which the form is as democratic as the content. New media and new technologies may yet demonstrate great capacity for what Ed nicely terms "Counter-Hegemonic Practice" (I confess to being especially excited about the prospects of deploying the strategies of his Counter-Mapping course listed above...). This forum seems to me a good beginning: many of the tensions and antagonisms are laid bare in an atmosphere of goodwill and an abundance of niceties. So how do we proceed from here?

Is it possible that the moderators could identify the key nodes of thought from this forum and suggest a set of follow-up discussions? I promise not to be late next time.


I hope others will join your party, Kyle, because this is such an important point you raise.  One concern many of us have is the high cost of digitizing materials in order that "democratization" can happen.  On the one hand, our advertising collection at Duke used to be available only to those local enough or wealthy enough to actually come here, physically, to use it.  Since it was digitized quite literally hundreds of thousands of people world-wide have been able to watch early tv ads or see digital versions of roadside billboards to help create a different version of history than one available in many standard text-based or even photographically-based archives.  That, surely, is a kind of democratization.  But I worry, as another commentator noted, when millions of dollars are used to fund a project that might be of interest only to a few.   The two issues that then arise, though, only complicate matters:  First, it is impossible to predict what will or won't be of public interest in advance.  People always guess wrong as anyone teaching the dwindling field of Arabic Studies before 9-11 and after can certainly testify.   Second, one never knows "unexpected outcomes."   Huge and beneficial results sometimes come from overly-expensive technologies that seem to have only limited application.  To use another local example, Duke received a lot of criticism back in 2003 when we decided to become one of the six Apple Digital Campuses and chose a technology students loved (this new thing called an iPod) rather than what faculty loved (tricked out laptops) and just told students to invent away.  It was considered elite, more toys for rich kids . . . but so much good came from the experiment, and it was standing room only when students in our ISIS program held the first ever academic conference for something with the weird name of "podcasting."  That happened a full year before YouTube was launched with its motto "Broadcast Yourself."  Cost? Benefit? Prediction?   It's a subject with no answer but that I mull over and over.


That said, what you bring up, the lowcast innovation that has immediate benefit and is immediately democratizing, never keeps me up at night.  Unequivocally, I say, go for it?  I love your idea that we need to construct pedagogies and invent practices that address the range of democratizations, in its many forms and in its many forms of camouflage and sometimes even hypocrisy, and need to realize that different forms raise different questions.    And these questions pertain, quite explicitly, to the crisis of publicly-funded education.  China understands the worth.  The US seems not to.  That is a shame, a disaster, and, on some moral and social level, a crime.  




Is it possible that the moderators could identify the key nodes of thought from this forum and suggest a set of follow-up discussions?

I want to second Kyle's request for taking a bit of time to reflect on the forum this far. I would love to hear the thoughts of the moderators and others about this.

I see a few nodes of thought here (this is just a quick stab at things):

1 - Concepts

There has been a series of conversations about concepts in democratizing knowledge.

  • Democracy and the act of democratizing - what's at stake with it?
  • Knowledge - what is it? Who has it? How do we exchange it?
  • Process vs. product - in rethinking models of knowledge production and circulation, how do we recalibrate what's valuable (particularly in the new modes of the digital humanities)?
  • Experts vs. Citizens - when we collaborate/cooperate/associate on knowledge production and critique, what roles are we playing, what institutions are we embedded in, what issues of status and power are playing a role?
  • Publics, Communities, Privates - what is a public exactly when we are pursuing public scholarship? What are communities? What is the relationship between private relationships and public ones, institutional interactions as compared to open exchanges in civil society?

2 - Examples

There have been a whole host of projects mentioned here, such as the M-Ubuntu Project (see Bridget Draxler's great interview with Theo van Rensburg Lindzter). We could perhaps list these and then think about whether we want to discuss each as a case study, give some attention to what projects people are working on.

3 - The Digital

As befits the place where this forum is occuring, we have returned to the role of the digital in democratizing knowledge quite often. So, for example, wikis keep returning (as the repressed other?!).

I'm racing to finish this before a meeting this afternoon, so I've probably missed many things, but this is a first go at some reflection on the forum this far.

Might we revisit some of the above nodes of thought to explore further? Anyone else wish to frame the forum's many byways and pursuits thus far in a different way that could be more productive?



Thanks Michael for an apt summation, and I want to underline your question about the role of the digital, particularly what that means in terms of medium(s), old and new, attitudes toward things digital, access, and digital literacy (all things that people have at least raised as questions so far).  Given that the concepts and examples you point to are mediated by the digital, I am interested in what the digital means and why the digital is important.  Given that much of this work is navigating the difficult terrain of how to read, use, create, repurpose these technologies, I am interested in how to mitigate utopian calls for the digital and how to antidote determinist or instrumental concerns.  For example, does the digital necessarily mean computer-aided communication technologies?  For example, in teaching, just because a technology exists, does it mean it is relevant or useful?  For example, how do you realize democratic technologies even as those technologies are simultaneously being (or have previously been) used for oppressive projects (e.g. the current intensification of White Nationalist / White Supremacist projects online, including big business music and cultural mobilizing sites)?


I don't really have much brilliant to add but it seems a shame to leave the comments at 98 . . . we could break 100 . . . an all-time HASTAC Scholars record AND three, immortal digits.  Anyone want to take it there?


But while I have your attention I'm going to add to this democratizing forum by posting the url for the Social Network Revolution video that was going around this summer.  i believe I posted it here at the time, in fact, but I just watched it again today courtesy of a Facebook friend's posting, and it is both urgently the case that, given the role of social media in our lives, of course we better be democratizing knowledge.  If we don't higher education's real estate will get ever and ever smaller and less consequential.   The knowledge we make must be accessible or, really, why bother?   The entire model of what knowledge is has change radically but our institutions remain mostly in place as they have been for decades, even centuries, assuming they remain the center, not the periphery.  

HASTAC Scholars give me hope for a future that can change, can step back and re-evaluate this.  It is now part of the legend of HASTAC's origins that David and I were once referred to as "charlatans" in a major annual address at a professional society.  I think the specific cause was our suggesting (or perhaps it was just me--I don't want to tar David with this brush) that Wikipedia was the most amazing encyclopedia the world had ever known and, instead of "banning" it as some universities were doing, why not require our students to correct entries and post their own as part of the protocols of knowledge-making?  Charlatans!  T-shirt slogan, perhaps?


Okay, that's 99.  Who is going to make it 100?   Here's the video.  Congratulations to Fiona and the HASTAC Scholars for exceeding all possible expectations for what a lively, thriving community of intellectuals can do and contribute together.  I am humbled and way, way impressed.


The 2009 Obermann Humanities Symposium ( began tonight with a panel discussion titled "The Digital Public Sphere: Books in the Age of New Media."   Respondants include Scott McLemee, Christopher Merrill, and Meena Kandasamy.  

The panel moderator, Joe Parsons, started off the conversation with a few questions:

  • Are virtual communities genuine communities?
  • How serious are the economic/cultural challenges to publishers as publishing is increasingly digitized?   What does it say about authority and quality of print?
  • Do readers prize the work of writers and publishers?
  • What are the implications for citizenship?
  • How will these changes affect the career paths of writers and publishers?



Scott McLemee began by discussing how University Presses used to be isolated from the marketplace—and university libraries used to always buy the books.   This system has changed in the digital age, and presses have had to make unhappy choices.    


Scott suggests that the 18th-century rise of the novel and the public sphere finds parallel in the present-day rise of digital publication and the virtual sphere.   Both are utopian spaces: easy to get in, free-for-all sites of discussion and debate. And both spaces can be accused of being "the context of no context."   But ultimately, the comparison really works--and it's a much more optimistic way of thinking about how digital publication will shape scholarship.   We can think about digital publication, Scott surmises, as a loss without necessarily being a decline.    



Meena Kandasamy began blogging in India in 2002, and she describes it as a form of both writing and activism.   She talks optimistically about how blogging can be empowering for the powerless (gender, caste)—blogs can tell a side of the story that the official press won’t cover.   Human rights defenders, for examples, can use blogs as a way to expose atrocities.   These stories!   I wish I could capture her passion and humor—Meena’s excitement is contagious.   I can’t do it justice; read her yourself:



"Talk is Cheap”: Chris Merrill begins with a story.   First, he describes talking about books in a TV interview.   He says it was if “I had wandered into a party too loud for meaningful conversation.”   Radio, he says, is different.   It’s what drew him to NYC, to poetry, to music, to good conversation.   In his first radio show with Lisa Mullens, he forgot about the microphone and talked about “things that mattered.”   (See   But as public radio has fewer and fewer local shows, “The future of radio lies on the Internet.”   If we can avoid being too loud for meaningful conversation, the Internet might be the new space where inventive minds tell their stories.  




Please feel free to comment on the issues raised above, or respond to any of the questions here from the Q&A :

  • Are posting twitter comments on major news networks and cell phone videos on youtube forms of democratization?  
  • Is the Internet a tool of “revolution”, and is the Internet’s revolutionary potential different in the US versus other nations?  
  • How might the Internet be a source of not only political radicalism but also intellectual radicalism?  
  • How is the “user response” facet of digital technology shaping the creation of academic knowledge?  
  • How do changes in distribution of knowledge change how we both produce and market this knowledge?  
  • Scott reminds us that “the scarce thing is not information but attention”—how do we get readers when there is so much to compete with?
  • With all the changes of the digital revolution, is there a place for books anymore?
  • How can we validate good writing on the Internet, and make it worth the effort?
  • How can we maintain good reading after the Internet, and make it worth the effort?
  • How do we recalibrate our priorities, both personally and professionally, as writers and readers, in a post-digital age?
  • How will we capture all these digital conversations for posterity?
  • How can we validate the new ways of reading and writing?


Wow!  This great, Bridget.  Perhaps, to continue this forum (either here or through another HASTAC thread), we could focus on one or two of the questions on the list you provided? 

I'm particularly interested in unpacking these two questions:

How is the “user response” facet of digital technology shaping the creation of academic knowledge?

How do changes in distribution of knowledge change how we both produce and market this knowledge?

Both of them concisely capture a number of issues that have emerged during this forum, including how we imagine democracy in the first place.

Let me know what you think!


For more updates about the Platform for Public Scholars, please read my blog--today's sessions included topics in making histories, bridging distances, staging the public humanities, and home-grown artists and scholars.  Peter also set up a liveblog for the public humanities session, so I've posted the audience conversation there. 

Teresa Mangum assembled an all-star cast of public scholars for this conference, and today's discussions grappled with many of the same issues we raised here in the forum.  It's a great capstone to a great month of conversation about the democratization of knowledge!  Thanks for reading!


I'd like to add a last word on the Platform for Public Scholars--and this time, not my own word.  Scott McLemee’s Inside Higher Ed piece on the conference captures the excitement and the challenges of the symposium better than I can, and in far fewer words.  Focusing on the issue of hiring and promotion, Scott raises some key questions we all should be asking.  Please read his article at

In addition, I'd like to encourage you to check out a one-hour webinar that will be hosted Nov. 3 by the Society for College and University Planning on the struggle for the future of higher education (  The webinar poses a series of questions that seem very relevant to the conversations we've been having together on HASTAC: How can higher education reverse the disturbing trends we see occurring: pressures for higher education to become increasingly a private good with students as customers, institutions as industries, and competitive success measured by how many are refused admission?  Could civic agency become a core focus of higher education in the 21st century? And how can higher education institutions integrate civic agency in ways that go beyond activities towards an identity of engagement, with institutions deeply grounded in their communities and regions and “filled with the democratic spirit,” as former Harvard president Charles Elliott once described his university?


Really challenging questions.  I am particularly interested in:

  • Is the Internet a tool of revolution, and is the Internets revolutionary potential different in the US versus other nations?  
  • How might the Internet be a source of not only political radicalism but also intellectual radicalism?  
  • How can we validate the new ways of reading and writing?


While I think that the Internet has been and continues to be revolutionary, I don't think it is usually viewed in this manner. I believe that most people view the Internet as a fun and engaging space where they can participate in conversations about whatever interests them. I think that if we looked closer we could see just how revolutionary the Internet is, especially in regards to how much information is changing hands and evolving.

The second part of that question seems like it would be an easy yes answer, but the more I think about it the more I'm unsure. Obviously the Iran election proved that the Internet does have revolutionary power but I'm not sure if we can completely credit the Internet for that. The users, mostly young people who already had revolutionary political beliefs, were the ones who made the Internet as powerful as it was. So then the question should be, in other countries is the Internet only as revolutionary as its citizens?


I really should have gotten to this sooner. Live and learn. One of the things that most interested me reading through all these comments was I think commented on some implicitly and probably considered more but maybe not as explicitly reflected on--how best should one construct the relationship to given knowledge in the process of democratizing it? What I mean by that is it is often important for different people to have different relationships to the same knowledge, and it is not always just a question of what knowledge one should be in contact with. I constantly over hear in the computer lab people really talking down about literary/critical theory as complete smoke and mirrors. It would perhaps be less useful to present one of them with the knowledge of what a particular thinker says than it would to present them with a practical explanation of what such theory is used for. The most critical problem presented by my cs friends' discourse is not the inability to use that knowledge but the inability to grant legitimacy to its use. So to come back, a lot of the discussion here of various projects centers on making available to people knowledge they can and will use, and I think the question of what is it people need or can use is a salient one that merits some thought.


Thank you for this great discussion... 

I think that probably the "revolutionary" nature of the internet is a bit different in the US than in other countries where access to information is much more limited. But in the US information is limited as well, just not in as obvious a manner. Discussions on the internet (just as long as it stays free and open to everyone!) allow us to talk about the things and tell each other about the things that we might not otherwise. But then there is the problem of sorting bad information from good- although I feel confident about our ability to do so, and to develop methods and systems for that. 

I am the web editor for a blog ( for Changing Lives Through Literature (CLTL). CLTL is an alternative sentencing program where criminal offenders are sentenced to literature courses as an alternative to traditional probation. Although we discuss books in CLTL (not access to technology, etc), I think this is part of "democratizing knowledge." Reading significantly impacts the way we think, and the inequality of our education system often lets people fall behind. Reading is engaging - so is the internet. On the blog, we try to balance the experience of reading with the discussion aspect of the internet. Some people have been hesitant to join the online discussion out of (it seems) "technophobia" or the sense that technology takes away from the traditional experience of reading a book. My sense is that the two work together - greater access to technology and greater access to education in all disciplines opens minds and increases access to the world itself... 

How do we combat resistance to technology in order to spread information and increase access? As a writing student as well, I am very interested in new forms (social media, etc) and writing about technology in ways that pulls in readers, makes them comfortable with the ideas they are learning, and breaks down that divide.


I was a little too late to participate in this forum last fall, but the topic is of great interest to me. In the home stretch of my doctoral studies at Antioch University's leadership and change program, I'm undertaking a significant independent learning project to more fully consider the movement to democratize knowledge; this will lay the foundation for my dissertation proposal. I've started blogging at HASTAC, with four posts so far. I'd like to invite you all into the conversation. What else should I consider as I map out this terrain? Who should I follow? What topics have I missed? What debates are happening in your disciplines? On your campuses? Outside the academy?