At HASTAC: On DH, Transparency and Belonging

Window Photo CC-BY Ramesh NG
Photo CC-BY Ramesh NG

Originally posted at HASTAC:

I seldom blog opinion pieces about current academic affairs these days. I force myself to hyperlink thoroughly and the amount of time it takes me I cannot currently justify. The term is about to start and I’m focused on module design and lots of editorial work kickstarting the initial months of our Ubiquity Press-published stage at The Comics Grid. So I often find myself sharpshooting ideas on Twitter, without being able to articulate them properly. Hoping to offer a less unstructured ideas, I have quickly dropped some thoughts below.

It was only until last week that I came across and read Elijah Meeks’ post, “How Collaboration Works and How It Can Fail”. It’s very good. I can’t say I have experience collaborating in the way Elijah describes, but I know it is the case of many in the Digital Humanities (DH). I really enjoyed it.

I am personally concerned with collaboration, and Internet or Web-mediated colaboration a lot. I like to think about alternative ways of enticing collaboration between individuals from different disciplines, institutions, cultures, countries, contexts.

Personally, I have tried to be as transparent as possible about what I am doing and working on. It’s not always possible, but for example I try as much as I can to keep everyone in the loop about developments around and within The Comics Grid, and I have constantly enabled mechanisms for open participation amongst people I know and don’t know, through google forms, open calls, etc. The poor team behind the Comics Grid often get a lot of collective emails.

Of course this is not enough to enable collaboration. Academia is incredibly competitive. Competition moves at neck-breaking speeds these days. Often you feel like you can’t afford to sleep at nights for fear you will miss out on one opportunity or another.

We live of course in an era in which transparency and the digital technologies we use to communicate to each other and publish our work are both complementary and at odds with each other. It gets more complicated when the mechanisms for academic recognition and promotion are not properly adapted to a more recent culture of immediate publishing and dissemination.

This double-bind (in case it’s still cool to use that term) is at the crux of academic collaboration and career advancement: the culture relies too much on what is not said and when it’s not said: for academics, what is edited out is as important as what is edited in; there can only be the inclusion of some if others are excluded. Making this process transparent is complicated because collegiality and professional relationships rely not only in pragmatic mutual dependency but (hopefully) in values like mutual trust and friendship.

Recently it saddens me to realise that often DH has not been able to overcome some of the most painful traits of ‘traditional’ academia. As if academia were closer to professional football, where players are forced to compete not only against the other team but against each other– come the transfer window, you are likely to be playing against the team you are hoping will offer the big bucks for you.

Elijah is completely right when he argues that “if you can’t pay a person what the position should entail, you need to entice them with ownership.” I used to believe (I still want to believe) that it should be possible, given the technologies we have available to us, to be willing to collaborate with others without having money or even [complete] ownership. What I mean by this is that if we for one minute stopped thinking of the Other as a de facto competitor in a professional, intellectual, reputational and consequently financial sense, if we were guided by the wish to include and create, we would be working towards more inclusive platforms and more inclusive, transparents methods of collaboration and production.

There is, of course, lots of good will and fantastic camaraderie in the field(s) of DH. No need to emphasise that again. A concentrated focus on competition and opacity is not exclusive of DH, in any case it is an extension of the current systems of academic production, interaction, recognition and promotion. As we engage through technologies that make it possible for almost anyone to find what everyone else is deciding to share online, honest transparency becomes both rarer and more and more needed.

It is precisely because DH works with/on/in/about technologies that are so embedded with possibilities to increase and diversify participation (but also to limit it) is that we wish the field were more transparent about how decisions and processes of inclusion are carried out. No matter how much you love social media it is more and more common to feel like it’s a collection of voices talking to themselves about themselves. When competition is this fierce, in spite of the technically levelled field of interaction, it is as easier to include as it is to exclude. Exclusion tends to promote resentment, and resentment to a deterioration of any social tissue.

This is why careful decisions must be made when sharing information and when developing working groups. Transparency must be demanded equally from the big ‘uns and from the (not for long) small ones. Transparency is about clarity of purpose. Transparency implies making a mission statement, a process, clearly available in a timely fashion. It means allowing others in whilst there is still time to make a difference. Transparency cannot and will not get rid of exclusion. Exclusion of this or that might be at the heart of the academic endeavour, but transparency about the criteria will make a lot of us feel less alienated and make us more understanding of why and how certain things that we care about happen.

In the end what is at the stake is a problem very dear to recent DH: that of identification or belonging.

Are we making our colleagues feel included or excluded?

What are we doing to develop mechanisms of academic collaboration and production, i.e. what methods are we employing to make other colleagues feel welcome and included to participate in ongoing and as-yet-not-created projects, not only as consumers or ‘collaborators’ with the end-product, but during its inception and development?

*With many thanks to my colleague Melonie Fullick for her feedback and encouragement.

If you’d like to leave a comment please do it on the original HASTAC post.  Thank you.