Sunday, May 23, 2010

Will "Hacking the Academy" Be Understood as "Backing the Academy"?

Hacktivism and the Humanities

Recently I was having dinner with a younger couple in Washington D.C. She worked for an elite government agency, and he worked for a university. They both complained about bureaucracy and obstacles to collaboration in their respective workplaces. At one point he told about participating in a project tentatively called "Hacking Georgetown" and described how a more senior colleague had objected to the name. "Does it have to be called 'Hacking Georgetown'?" his coworker asked. "What about 'DIY Georgetown' instead?"

I am actually very sympathetic to such anxieties from members of the old guard when it comes to talking about "hacking the university" or "hacking the academy." After all, in the common parlance, hackers are far too often associated with stealthy behavior and highly specialized knowledge that they seem to exploit largely for ego and personal gain. Hackers are seen as those who take matters into their own hands, break rules, and subvert traditional practices of deliberation and negotiation.

In a provocative announcement, head of the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University Dan Cohen put forth a challenge to fellow advocates for digital media and learning in higher education. "One Week, One Book: Hacking the Academy" describes a book that Cohen is planning to edit, along with Found History's Tom Scheinfeldt, that will target the following potential areas for reform:

* Lectures and classrooms
* Scholarly societies
* Conferences and meetings
* Journals
* Books and monographs
* Tenure and academic employment
* Scholarly Identity and the CV
* Departments and disciplines
* Educational technology
* Libraries

Certainly I share Cohen's concerns that if reform doesn't come from within the scholarly community, the public mission of the university will lose support from the very communities that it is intended to serve. I would also agree with my friend instructional technologist Sue Gautsch that far too often "distance learning begins in the second row."

Even as someone who has been very slowly putting together the manuscript for my second book, which is based on years of conference papers and presentations that cover many of the same headings, I can't say that I am only envious of their planned rapid turnaround time. Books about digital higher ed need to be coming out sooner rather than later, particularly when even a rapidly prototyped academic book like The Future of Learning Institutions in a Digital Age primarily offers older examples from K-12 learning.

I would be the last one to argue that the system isn't broken. For ten years I have served as the Writing Director of a large-enrollment year-long humanities core course. I have seen students "Facebooking through their classes" much like the dynamic described in Michael Wesch's "A Vision of Students Today." I have read evaluations in which students boast about never attending lectures or cracking open the assigned reading.

Unfortunately, the exact questions asked in this call for manifestos on the future of higher education could be easily misread as encouragement to the current administrative crop of cost-conscious budget cutters who are already eager to reward for-profit, self-service distance education initiatives that are oriented toward individual profit in the marketplace rather than sustaining the collective good longterm.

Can an algorithm edit a journal? Can a library exist without books? Can students build and manage their own learning management platforms? Can a conference be held without a program? Can Twitter replace a scholarly society?

As someone who has seen the terrible work done by automatic indexing programs and who has written about the nonsense that gets rewarded when text generators create what appears to be scholarly articles, I'm not ready to fire the journal editors just yet.

As someone teaching at the University of California, which is contemplating adopting something more like a "netflix" model for its library system in order to dramatically cut costs, I worry about how the supposed efficiencies of a "library without books" might discourage the kinds of deep reading practices and forms of curation that interaction with print documents affords.

As someone who has seen students struggle with assessing credibility of sources or creating executable code, I'm not sure I'm ready to jettison the electronic educational environment at my campus, where friendly programmers and web designers are only a few buildings away.

As someone who agrees that it is hard to judge a conference based on the Twitter feed, I'm not sure I'm eager to give up my professional associations just yet, as reprehensible as their current complicity in perpetuating closed access expensive subscription publishing may be.

And, yes, I love conferences without programs like THATCAMP, but I also like the ones that are the products of several iterations and that include potentially unpopular speakers who would be unlikely to be favored by a crowd-sourcing model. After all, I watched a THATCAMP divide by gender lines before my very eyes, so it may not be the utopian form of collegiality that it wishes to be just yet.

In a time when public universities are seeing many core undergraduate programs on the chopping block, particularly those related to digital literacy, which is somehow supposed to be naturally occurring among "digital natives" or the "digital generation," I worry about potential misreadings of what Cohen is proposing by budget-minded cost-cutters with little pedagogical experience or appreciation of the slow growth histories of campus infrastructure.

Instead of talking about "hacking," I have argued that we should be talking about "hacktivism" and curricular, scholarly, and societal changes that focus on digital rights and responsibilities more generally. For example, Siva Vaidhyanathan has written his own manifesto that argues for interdisciplinary engagement with what he calls "Critical Information Studies" and a joint defense of work done outside of the academy in the name of fair use, free culture, open access, open source, collective intelligence, network neutrality, user privacy, and digital inclusion.

I would like to ask a different set of questions. There is no doubt that movements for civil rights, women's rights, gay rights, the rights of ethnic minorities from both immigrant and indigenous populations, and the rights of the disabled have transformed not only the academy but also the larger society as a whole. What would it mean to have campus protests, walkouts, and strikes to champion digital rights and how could it change the mission of the university itself? If the anti-war movement moved universities and governments toward transparency, what could a movement specifically concerned with information transparency do?

Of course, I am well aware that institutions of higher education are inherently conservative. As places that preserve tradition and maintain cultures of continous knowledge-transmission, universities would be remiss to not be conservative. I think cyber-utopianists would be foolish to ignore a recent Mellon report on "The Future Landscape of Scholarly Communication," which argues that there is little evidence that an empowered "digital generation" will be taking over the academy any time soon. Principal Investigator Diane Harley details practices that characterize the "conservatism of younger scholars" that I have seen at work in my own institution. Ironically older "early adopters" are even reaching retirement age at my campus and are not being replaced.

Now when I talk about "hacktivism," I think it is important also to distinguish this movement from well-intentioned but remote do-gooderism. Last year, on a HASTAC blog, humanists were encouraged to find kindred spirits in computer science who were knowledgeable about exploits to bring down the websites of a religiously fundamentalist Iranian government after a disputed election. First off, this could easily backfire and confirm suspicions in the Middle East about a meddling West. More important, it misses the point about how hactivism in the humanities could be transformative. What about instead creating a visualization tool that highlights voting irregularities at polling places? Wouldn't that be more persuasive?

How can hacktivism be a call to action that is still relevant to everyday classroom practice without seeming to proselytize for an extraneous political agenda? There are already a number of good models of university teaching that emphasize critical thinking about computer platforms, interfaces, code, and their respectively learning communities. The most essential aspect of successful programs is that they combine theories of digital content-creation with practice.

Note: This posting has been updated since its original publication online.



Anonymous eLearning Online said...

Very nice post. Interesting and very insightful. I would like hacking to stop. It's not very good for our online society.

5:54 AM  

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