Posted & filed under Blog

In 2003, I and several other scholars came together with a simple idea:  to take the lessons and ideas that were used to create the World Wide Web and see how we could adopt them to the transformation of higher education.   This was the birth of HASTAC (pronounced “haystack”), an acronym for Humanities, Arts, Sciences, and Technology Advanced Collaboratory.   We met at University of California Humanities Research Institute (UCHRI), at the National Science Foundation, at Stanford and at Duke and pushed at our founding idea:  that we could take the practices and principles of open web developers, the collaborative methods through which the World Wide Web was created, and explore the ways that those principles and methods could transform higher education.    


Some basic other parts of this include these aims:  to rebalance intelligence for the interactive digital age with emphasis on collaboration, on interdiscipliary crosstalk (“collaboration by difference”); by remelding the two cultures of arts, humanities and social sciences on one side and technology and natural and computational sciences onthe other; by erasing the distinction between theory and practice,thinking and making; to think about all research as public (in process as well as in final product) and shared and sharable;  to use historical perspective and the archive to substitute either “techno-utopianism” or “techno-apocalypse” with “technopragmatism” and “technorealism” based on hands’ on practice not punditry (most punditry is based on what I call the “baseline of nostalgia”–an imagined past from which declension can be measured); to meld research with teaching, and teaching with perpetual learning; to re-examine pedagogy; to challenge contemporary modes of assessment; and to realize that professional seniority often does mean privilege but does not necessarily mean excellence.  


That is why HASTAC is largely a network of networks, why membership simply requires signing into the website, and why we work very hard to instill the idea of productive creativity moving forward rather than critique of one another’s foibles as the best basis for the “critical thinking” that we all prize.  From the beginning our three areas have been new media (building it, using it, modding it, thinking about it), critical thinking, and participatory learning.   I personally do not believe you can have participator, connected interactive learning without a generous view of critical thinking, where one learns from mistakes–one does not strive to humiliate others for making them.   To me, a practice based on flaming others for their failures is inherently conservative.  It means that you set your own bar only at “higher than that last stupid guy’s bar” and that, to my mind, is way too low.  


Here’s another part of that:   calculated optimism.   That is, if everything around you is a disaster, if the future only looks bleak, if there seems to be some devolution from some (mythical) past that was free of problems, easier, where everyone who went before you had a “pass,” made it in a simple way whereas you have to deal with catastrophe at every turn, then, well, why bother?    The past is never as simple or easy as we think it was–either through imagination or memory.   The baseline of nostalgia is more like quicksand . . . we get stuck there, unable to move.   It is self-defeating and self-undermining.   (NB: if you are a theorist and haven’t read Lauren Berlant’s Cruel Optimism, you should!)


I am very happy to say that, in paper after paper at the recent HASTAC2011 conference at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, attended by about 300, I saw productive, collaborative, process-oriented, creative, imaginative, interdisciplinary, engaged, and critically optimistic thinking that began with its own goals and ideals as the high bar and didn’t waste a lot of time yapping about what some other random strawperson had done badly.   The critical thinking was turned towards one’s own project, how to make it better, rich, full, and, well, critical. 


I was mulling these thoughts when I went to Josh Greenberg’s excellent talk “Data, Code, and Research at Scale.”  I’m going to take some of the basic insights from that talk and apply them to general and personal observations from my experience at #HASTAC2011.  In this endeavor I am aided by the public notetaking of HASTAC Scholar Karen Petruska, from Georgia State, whose notes for all the keynotes are on the HASTAC site and are just brilliant.  I have used hers to supplement my own.  You can find them here:


Some HASTAC Principles Going Forward (inspired by Josh’s talk and, needless to say, my own Now You See It ideas about how we got here and where we need to be going):

(1) Learning/research as Macroscope:  “Telescopes let you see far, microscopes let you see small, now we are talking about a macroscope—that let’s you see big and complex.”   One of HASTAC’s founding ideas is that, if individual achievement in highly specialized research on even more specialized topics as credentialed by a hierarchy of institutions is key to the Industrial Age project of task-oriented, quantifiable, measurable productivity, then what is key to our age?   Learning as Macroscope is a good metaphor for the post-1993 Internet-inspired Information Age project of collaborative, self-publishable, collectively editable thinking that aims at thinking big and complex and developing better tools for that job.   Over and over at #hastac2011 I heard talks that were doing exactly that.


(2)  Code is Never Finished.   Josh asked, “what if scholarship worked like code?”   In code, there is version control, you release an idea time stamped and you can go back and revise it later.  Code is always evolving.  The whole point of the HTML that Tim Berners-Lee evolved for writing the World Wide Web is that it was open and anyone could contribute, including those he had never met whose credentials were unknown or located in their skill, not in their certification or degrees or reputations. A system grants its terms of access and anyone who meets that standard can then contribute.   But everything you contribute has attribution, and what you contribute becomes your reputation–and your gateway to continued participation or denial of accessVersion control: that means, in part, that if an editor is doing something that impedes the improving of  the code, he or she might not be invited to edit in the future.   In a loose way, that is exactly how we have structured HASTAC membership.  You cannot contribute to the network, to the website, without signing in, but once you sign in you can contribute as you wish, as long as you realize your contribution has attribution.  You are responsible to the participatory community’s flourishing by your contribution.  Trust is a key component of open web development, attribution is part of that trust.

(3) Ability to tell stories with data.  In every field I know right now, the ability to make narratives, to tell stories of the massive amounts of data we now have access to is absolutley key.    Collaboration by difference should be sending social scientists, computational scientists, and natural scientists into massive collaboration with humanists and artists right now–and vice versa–because it is almost impossible to be brilliant at story telling and brilliant at data mining all on your own.   Macroscopic research is almost always collaborative and cross disciplinary because, despite our highly successful lifelong training as academics in, for, and by Industrial Age timed, item-response testing, reaching beyond those restrictive modes is the only way to succeed in the world we live in now.   The ability to tell stories with data requires understanding where, how, why, and when that data is generated, to what purpose, and by what means.   Very #hastac2011.


(4)  Forking.   In writing code together, sometimes there are crucial and key disagreements.  You come to a fork in the code and one participant wants to go one way, one another.   Forking allows you to mark the place of disagreement and get past it.  You agree to follow one fork.   If it isn’t working, if it isn’t giving you the macroscopic view, you can then go back to the fork, and try to pursue the other path.   What is great about this method in open web development, is returning to the fork, having pursued the other one, almost always means that you disagree with your original position, and now pursue the opposite form but in a way that has been transformed by having followed the other path for a time.    We do not have a built-in practice–yet–of forking scholarly discourse, but, in the many papers I heard, I was seeing this open web practice incorporated as an intellectual, collaborative practice.


(5) Building Better Tools Together As Josh said, we do not yet have forms of scholarly communication that allow us to express collaborative differences and the divergent, forked modes of working out disagreement and profiting from it.  We need better modes.  Having written The Future of Thinking on an open Comment Press platform and having worked to create a potential Master’s in Knowledge Network on that platform, I am all to aware of its clumsy, frustrating, difficult, and clunky affordances—yet it is also helpful because it does allow line by line annotation by others without changing the original tesk and attribution is part of contribution.   But we need better tools to serve our goals.


So those are five basics.   Let’s get started!


Leave a Reply

(will not be published)
Cathy N. Davidson

Cathy N. Davidson

Follow Cathy