Design@Large talk: Networks for us, by us

Design@Large talk: Networks for us, by us

Networks for us, by us: Participatory design for a San Diego Digital Commons

It’s often taken for granted that everyday users should have little say in the design or governance of the digital networks and platforms used to produce and exchange information, such as provided by Google, Facebook, and Twitter. Given this lack of user participation, along with the general opacity of the deep algorithmic design structure to the average user, it can be difficult to fully appreciate the varying social, political, and intellectual effects of different types of digital tools or imagine how they might be otherwise. While there is growing public concern over some of the dystopian aspects of our digital networks (such as “algorithmic control” and “dataveillance”), there is still broad uncertainty about how to develop and sustain networked digital tools in line with democratic ideals.

In this talk, I will describe counter models of technological development that seek to expand user participation in the design, development, and governance of their tools. Through an overview of relevant case studies, such as the participatory design movement beginning in the 1960s, the free and open source development communities beginning in the 1980s, digital humanities/pedagogy experiments in the early 21st century, and the Platform Cooperative movement today, I will give concrete examples of how participatory design offers exciting opportunities to better shape the social, political, and intellectual outcomes of our networked communication. I will then describe KNIT, a digital commons for the San Diego academic community and its vision to incorporate student participation in its development and governance. If time remains, we will end with a short collaborative brainstorming exercise to imagine the networked tools we would build to support the type of academic community we want.

#SocialDiss Recap #1: The delightful crowd in the dissertation’s margins

#SocialDiss Recap #1: The delightful crowd in the dissertation’s margins

What happens when you invite the public to review your messy dissertation drafts?

About four months ago, I launched #SocialDiss, an experimental project in which I’ve committed to “socializing” every chapter of my dissertation draft on a variety of publishing platforms. In late February, I posted the working introduction to a public Google Doc, and over the next few weeks, announced its presence on Twitter, Facebook and a few emails to friends and colleagues.

I wasn’t sure if anyone would actually engage with it. I was halfway hoping no one would.

However, I had long ago committed to the project as part of my praxis-oriented research in networked academic publics. And after writing my dissertation nearly three thousand miles away from the academic community I developed in graduate school, I was relieved to finally give this creation of solitude a bit of air. Already juggling an exciting, but demanding full-time job, writing the dissertation had come to feel like a barrier between myself and the living.

The introduction I posted was far from perfect, perhaps even cringe-worthy at times. But that was the point. I wanted to push against the crippling fear of being judged for imperfect writing and imperfect thoughts. Why should only perfect writers have publishing communities, especially when such perfection demands quantities of free time that are often unavailable to working Ph.D. students and candidates such as myself? What if we evaluated knowledge production not only by its content, but by the communities and social practices we built in the process?

Of course, given this scarcity of free time in academic life, I didn’t expect that anyone would donate their own small scraps of it to engage with my developing piece.

Imagine my surprise then when during the weeks following my announcement I received 125 comments from eleven different individuals, ranging from close colleagues to folks I had only briefly connected with over Twitter at prior conferences. In addition, the project spawned multiple backchannel connections and encounters, where folks opted to give me feedback over coffee or email, or connected me with other scholars whose perspectives helped enlighten mine. Hundreds more clicked on links related to the project, and suddenly friends and colleagues were full of deeply-encouraging appreciation about the project. The professional generosity I encountered during these weeks was humbling, and kept my spirits afloat when other challenges made the journey feel all but impossible.

But the comments also happened to be intellectual gold. Altogether, they represented one of the most wide-ranging and in-depth conversations I’ve ever had about my dissertation topic, and were loaded with information and perspective that simply could not be found in research alone. I am still, months later, trying to digest the rich set of criticism, related anecdotes, conceptual suggestions, and text recommendations offered by the commenters. They offered everything from tips on my choice of language, personal experiences with computers in higher education in the early 1980sand Usenet, their reading notes posted on Github on the transformation of science as a pastime to a profession in the 19th and 20th century, the potential relevance of Derrida’s notion of “pro-gram,” and jokes! One of the author’s that I engage with in the piece (Scott Dexter, who co-authored one of my all-time favorite books on the politics of software, Decoding Liberation), engages right back. There is even a two-part, nearly 1,000-word thread debating the difference between “programming” and “scripting,” with a passionate discussion of the rather obscure Emacs text editor between folks that hadn’t met outside of the Google Doc comment section (part 1 and part 2).

My commenters also gently pointed out grammatical errors, logical oversights, and places where the clarity could be improved. And somehow it didn’t hurt. They were still there after all.

I am skeptical that the posting of my next chapter will have equal effect. The type of engagement my commenters demonstrated was incredibly generous and would likely be impossible to carry out very frequently. But I will continue the experiment all the same, posting my chapters and reflections on various platforms simply to see what happens. I have also tried to pay my commenters’ generosity forward by providing peer review on five different articles and chapters in the past four months.

All in all, the effect of the first installment of #SocialDiss has been exhilarating, inspiring, and challenging. The feedback I’ve received from both my commenters and my committee has helped me set about revising the structure and approach of the entire dissertation.

It will be a vastly improved project. And my professional and collegial connections have deepened in the process. But it also means that the project is not yet ready to release me back to the land of the living. And so in the meantime, I’m grateful for a little conviviality in the margins.

(Cross-posted on Medium)

Social Paper: Retooling Student Consciousness

Social Paper: Retooling Student Consciousness

A global commons for students to network in-progress writing and feedback across disciplines, institutions, and publics.

The following is a grant proposal written in October 2015 soliciting funding from the Knight Foundation to further develop the beta version of the networked writing tool Social Paper. Social Paper is currently in beta version at The CUNY Graduate Center through the generous support of a National Endowment for the Humanities Digital Humanities Start Up grant and a CUNY Advance grant. Though my thinking has evolved on the project, I’m posting this proposal as a snapshot of Social Paper’s guiding vision. 

In one sentence, describe your idea as simply as possible.

Student writing is not just an educational issue, it’s a global politics issue. While world problems demand empathetic collaboration across national and cultural boundaries, communication platforms continue to inhibit collective action and obscure radical possibility from our imagination. As a student-developed commons with a commitment to user freedom and privacy, Social Paper will release the momentous and untapped energies of student writing into an organizing force for global community.

A networked writing environment

As a cloud-based, networked writing environment, students will be able to compose, archive and share all forms of their written work, whether for class or extracurricular interest. Unlike many learning management systems or course blogs, Social Paper gives students full control over the sharing settings of each individual piece of writing. Students may choose to share a paper with a professor, a class, a writing group, the public at large, or alternately, keep it private as part of their personal, in-progress, reflective writing portfolio. Additionally, while composing, students can post comments on their writing with questions mentioning other users or tagging topics in order to solicit peer feedback or interest. By giving students a centralized space to manage the totality of their writing, students can easily change privacy settings as they mature as writers and thinkers, develop audience for their growing body of work, and reflectively build off prior writing.

Opening the black box of education

For the most part, student writing is confined to the audience of a single professor and has few opportunities to generate an engaged public beyond each individual course. Social Paper will provide a sustainable commons where students may browse, comment upon, and build off the work of their peers, both within and outside their courses, disciplines, institutions and familiar communities. Social Paper will use activity feeds to promote student writing and student comments among a network of peers; likewise students may choose to associate their papers with categories and topics to make them easily discoverable or showcase them on their public archive. By exposing the hidden messy processes of developing one’s writing and thoughts, Social Paper will foster egalitarian peer pedagogy. Unlike siloed or ephemeral course sites, Social Paper transforms every writing assignment into the opportunity to build community both within and beyond the class.

User freedom and participatory development

In contrast to the many proprietary platforms used within education, Social Paper is committed to the practice and philosophical attitude of Free Software. All too often, students are encouraged by educators to use profit-driven technologies which inflict incomprehensible user terms, predatory data practices, user restrictions, and/or advertising upon the student and her educational space. Besides being unethical, these technologies tacitly condition students into being passive consumers of the technologies which shape their communication and community. Conversely, as a non-profit, open-source platform, Social Paper will strive to achieve full transparency in all of its operations and open up both its code and its practices to student participation; users will be invited to participate in the platform’s ongoing development to better serve their emerging needs and interests. Thus, aside from fostering peer pedagogy and self-organizing community, Social Paper’s pedagogical mission is to awaken participatory consciousness in the users of today’s technologies.

What does this have to do with data?

As communication technologies become increasingly integrated into educational practices, students are exposed to a broad array of data surveillance conducted by the platforms they use to write documents and communicate with instructors, peers or the public. These data collection practices are largely covert, obscuring from students the direct connection between the profit motives of tech companies and the distinct forms of communication made possible by their platforms. By giving students control and awareness of their individual and collective data, Social Paper will intervene on this situation in two important ways. First, students will be positioned for the first time ever, as a global community, to creatively analyze their data for their own purposes, such as understanding their individual development as writers or comparing broader community trends, and create governance regarding the use of this data. Second, by exposing students to the power and practices of data collection within their own community, students will be better attuned to the complex political issues and democratic potential of an increasingly data-driven world.

Briefly describe the need that you’re trying to address.

Student writing is conceived of as a waste product–a valueless byproduct in the production of literate citizens. Current technologies for composing and submitting student writing reinforce this attitude by making it all but impossible to generate a sustainable public for student work. Though profit-driven social technologies offer new public opportunities, they continue to alienate students from understanding and directing the ways in which technologies shape the social potential of their work.

What progress have you made so far?

Social Paper is currently in development by The CUNY Academic Commons development team ( at The CUNY Graduate Center with a release scheduled for November 2015. This release will serve the CUNY community only. Funding has been provided by a $29,965 2014 National Endowment for the Humanities Digital Start-Up Grant, and a $29,500 2015 CUNY Advance Grant. Further funding would help us create a Social Paper platform for general public use.

What would be a successful outcome for your project?

First, we would use funding to host our tool on a network open to all, regardless of location or institutional affiliation. Success would consist of a growing global community of users as well a transformation of public consciousness regarding the politics and ethics of communication technology.

Announcing #SocialDiss: Transforming the dissertation into networked knowledge production

Announcing #SocialDiss: Transforming the dissertation into networked knowledge production

To what extent can the general public participate in and benefit from the production of a dissertation? How might the private and anxiety-ridden processes of education be transformed into a public good and social joy? Are the imperfect artifacts of learning to be hidden and disposed of as shameful waste, or might they provide fertile soil for the cultivation of a global learning community? Could the form of the dissertation itself blossom into something more vibrant and responsive to today’s world in the process?

In the search of an evermore cooperative, influential, and self-directed student public, I am launching #SocialDiss, a project in which I will post each chapter of my dissertation draft to a different commenting platform in solicitation of public peer review.

This social academic experiment, inspired by the participatory values of the HASTAC network and proud heir of the minor tradition of experimental humanities dissertations, is an extension of my work in student-directed writing technology. It is also tightly-linked to the the topic of the dissertation itself. “Software of the Oppressed: Reprogramming the Invisible Discipline” explores the historical development of the university’s reproductive role in our everyday software environment, as seen from the unlikely site of the humanities. Here I attempt to draw connections between academic ideology, especially as it relates to writing, and the dire political situation of digital technology today. The objective of the dissertation is not merely to critique, but to point to the university’s promising role in digital emancipation, and enact a humble step in that direction.

I am kickstarting #SocialDiss today by posting a link to its first installment, my introduction “The Cyborg University as Reproductive Organ of the Cyborg World,” which I’ve posted on Google Docs. This introduction sketches out the idea of cyborg oppression, or the mass suppression of collective user freedom to critically understand and transform the digital technology of everyday life, and makes suggestions for how the university might reconfigure its relationship to technology as a means of carrying out an inclusive cyborg liberation.

By far and away, the most valuable part of this introduction is the more than 90 comments it has already received since its quiet launch in February, which have dramatically expanded my thinking on the dissertation’s topic. I’ve been both delighted and humbled by the unexpected knowledge produced in the interactions between commenters whose specialities range from computer science to the history of medieval universities. While I am already overwhelmed by the generosity and intelligence shown in these comments, I invite new and interested readers to continue the dialogue, either here in the margins, or in our collective effort of reprogramming knowledge production and its tools for a more just, intellectual, and cooperative public.
Read the introduction and comment here:

(Cross-posted on HASTAC.)

participatory infrastructure: why we need the masses in the control room

participatory infrastructure: why we need the masses in the control room

The passive user is not only unable to have a say in how digital technology mediates their everyday life, but can’t even see how it does so. IMAGE CREDIT: SPLENGUIN /DEVIANTART
The passive user is not only unable to have a say in how digital technology mediates their everyday life, but can’t even see how it does so. IMAGE CREDIT: SPLENGUIN /DEVIANTART

Recently, I had the privilege of giving a brief presentation at the Southern California Code4Lib Quarterly Meet Up on Commons in a Box (CBOX), an open source platform for setting up digital commons at educational and scholarly organizations. While I’ve long been a passionate advocate for CBOX and its role in higher education—I still fondly refer to it as my “fourth committee member”—I am still only beginning to get to know the rich world of “technology folks” within the broader library community. So far, however, I’ve been deeply impressed by their commitment to community values and their ability to organize highly-complex, multi-institutional technical collaborations such as the Fedora Repository. Thus, as someone who is looking for ways to further grow open source software initiatives for humanities research and education, I look to this community as a model and an ally. The following is a summary of presentation on why I think it’s necessary that universities begin to implement community-driven software projects such as CBOX.

The past few times I’ve talked about CBOX, I’ve emphasized the platform as a means for universities and colleges to cultivate a participatory campus culture, where the traditional private processes of learning and research are opened up to generate academic community, public resources, and greater public visibility of humanistic engagement. Through its range of communicative tools such as blogs, forums, file sharing, messaging, and activity feeds, CBOX users are able to creatively expand the aims of their research, teaching, and learning.

Today, however, I’d like to talk about a different asset of CBOX that goes beyond any one of its particular features. That is, I’d like to talk about how the platform itself, as an open source tool developed by academics for academics, represents a mighty step forward in participatory infrastructure for higher education.

I use “participatory infrastructure”  here to signify digital infrastructure whose mechanisms are transparent to its user community, whose user community is able to critically assess the ways in which it affects and mediates their community, and which is designed to invite continued development by that user community. Participatory infrastructure requires open technical protocols and social organization that encourages all users, regardless of expertise, to participate in discussions regarding that infrastructure’s ongoing development. Or, in short, as I joked with the Code4Lib audience, participatory infrastructure is like “inviting the masses into the control room and handing them a wrench.”

Of course, I was being somewhat facetious with that last remark. Software development is complicated enough in a quiet, well-ordered room full of experts; it is hard to imagine how a digital platform of any value or reliability might be run by the so-called “masses.” It is equally difficult to imagine what sort of user would possibly appreciate the gesture. In the long  and hard struggle of making software as painless and accessible as possible for the general user, we have as a culture taken invisibility to be one of the chief ideals of digital infrastructure.

Nonetheless, the spirit of my joke was also in earnest. Invisible infrastructure may be convenient infrastructure, but it is also highly problematic. Its seamless entrance into the lives of today’s 3.4 billion Internet users has made it very difficult for us as a public to grasp, discuss, and make decisions regarding its political effects. For example, users are typically unaware of how internal mechanisms encourage and discourage certain types of user activities or enable and disable certain types of user communities. Software under this model also typically conceals what sort of user data it collects, what insights are generated with that data, and whose interests those insights serve. The effect has been pedagogical in that it has taught us to not care, or not care enough, about the following questions:

What do digital companies do with the 1.8 million megabytes of data produced by every average American office worker every single year? How should they get to profit from it? To what degree should they have to disclose their practices to the users or the general public? How would we know if they don’t? Who is entitled to this data and from whom must it be protected? Health insurance companies? Car insurance companies? One’s employer? One’s government? This year? Next year? Should the user herself have rights to it? Is there any difference between data collected for the purpose of consumer surveillance versus data collected according to the will and interest of the public? Do we even adequately understand what sorts of insights data scientists can make about users past, personality, lifestyle, and future decisions? Do we know how those insights are being used and are we confident that they will not be used at the expense of the public good?

How do algorithms shape the way news and knowledge is circulated, how opinions are formed, how votes are cast? How does digital infrastructure determine who has access to knowledge and who doesn’t, whose voices are heard and whose are obscured, whether conflicting views are hidden from one another, used to inflame one another, or productively engage in dialogue? How do digital platforms shape our assumptions about what knowledge even is, how it is made, and what it can do?

Questions along these lines are brought up time and again but so far have yet to result in a widespread practical response. For one, it is near impossible for communities to research how platforms mediate user behavior and the flow of information as the algorithms and practices of the most popular platforms are private and thus unavailable for analysis. For another, it is very difficult to escape these platform’s grip. As Bruce Schneier writes, “These are the tools of modern life. They’re necessary to a career and a social life. Opting out just isn’t a viable choice for most of us, most of the time; it violates what have become very real norms of contemporary life.” Thus, able neither to escape nor study the digital infrastructure which mediates so much of our lives, our freedom diminishes while our ignorance grows. The effect is reproductive. As we continue to conceal the nitty gritty details of digital infrastructure from the everyday user, we continue to deny her the opportunity of understanding the intertwined political and technical issues at play in its use. And thus it remains nearly impossible for us as a public to imagine how digital infrastructure might be any other way, and how it might serve us better as a democratic public.

This situation has in effect produced what I call the passive user, or the user who is not only unable to have a say in how digital technology mediates their everyday life, but can’t even see how it does so. And while digital infrastructure within the university provides very valuable services and resources that we must protect and sustain, we must also consider how these services on their own might contribute to the mass production of this passive user. If we take the political stakes of digital infrastructure seriously, we must look for ways to develop less passive, more participatory relationships with software within higher education.

I want to be clear: I am not arguing for universities and users to “opt out” of the very valuable digital services that for a multitude of political, practical, and proprietary reasons conceal their internal mechanics from users’ view. But I am arguing for the need to identify sites within the university in which participatory infrastructure might be meaningfully practiced, even if in small ways. These ventures will necessarily be experimental and exploratory–at least in the beginning; they will also require a significant amount of social engineering. Facilitators will have to consider how they will generate student interest, how they will organize, legitimate, and reward labor, what sort of participatory capacities will be made available, and how to financially sustain the endeavor. And they will also obviously need to choose an infrastructural site, such as a digital tool or platform, which they might reasonably open up to participation.

While there are conceivably a myriad ways of doing this, I’d like to point to CBOX as an exemplary model. Not only has it involved numerous scholars, educators, and students in discussions pertaining to its maintenance and development at The CUNY Graduate Center, but its software is used to great success by organizations and institutions across the country. Though not explicitly enacting “participatory infrastructure,” the fact that it is developed by a team composed largely of academics deeply embedded in an academic setting has in many ways shrunk the divide between the makers and users of that software. Being part of that community while at The CUNY Graduate Center was one of the most educative experiences of my schooling to date. As it becomes increasingly clear that digital technology mediates virtually every aspect of social and political life, it is urgent that we acculturate, not just educate, our entire civic body in infrastructural citizenship. While facilitating participatory infrastructure will certainly pose challenges, it’s high time that experts aren’t the only ones in the control room.

Pushing the joy of FOSS at the university

Pushing the joy of FOSS at the university

Edward Snowden appearing bashful before his keynote on free software and security at LibrePlanet 2016. Regardless of one’s personal politics however, educators should take note that free software has deep pedagogical application as well.

This post is adopted from a talk I gave with Evan Misshula and Scott Dexter at LibrePlanet 2016, an annual conference hosted by the Free Software Foundation dedicated to issues and activism related to digital freedom. Our collaborative presentation highlighted the critical role that the university plays in reinforcing the dominance of “proprietary” or “nonfree software” in today’s popular market. While Evan and Scott focused on the hazards of proprietary software in areas within the university explicitly devoted to computer science, I focused on the dramatic influence of a research and pedagogy area rarely linked to software politics, that is, the humanities. Here I argue that proprietary software supports a hidden and detrimental assumption within the university about the nature of learning and suggest a collaborative intervention that would enlarge freedom for software culture and the global student body alike.

There are at least two major ways in which the university reinforces the dominance of proprietary software. As Scott mentioned in his talk, and has detailed at great length in his book with Samir Chopra, Decoding Liberation: The Promise of Free and Open Source Software, computer science departments are often immersed within a proprietary culture without adequate recognition of how this inflects their course of study. The implications of this circumstance should be quite shocking even to those with little understanding of the field. Proprietary software, as many of you are already very aware, obscures the code from the user, and thus within the context of education, literally hides both the object and instrument of study from the student. Whatever sort of learning does occur in such a scenario, we must understand it to be a learning that is obedient and whose limits are determined in advance.  Anyone interested in the conditions and importance of critical thought should have much to meditate upon here.

But the computer science department is perhaps one of the more obvious places to scrutinize. When I hear the free software community discuss issues related to the university, it is often in regard to departments that explicitly study computer science or develop their own software.  And of course, it is critical that we attend to the software politics of the formal site of reproduction of computer science. However, this is not the only site of software use within the university that carries great consequence. For the fact of the matter is that practically speaking every member of the university — regardless of discipline – uses software for almost every aspect of their professional or student activities.  And this banal everyday usage arguably strengthens proprietary software’s social and economic grip just as much as a formal blessing from computer science. From word processors to learning management systems, the university relies so deeply on proprietary software that one could hardly imagine the shape of higher education without it. These activities of course are completely outside the activities and influence of the computer science department but they are no less consequential on the reproduction of proprietary software culture at large.

To many FOSS advocates, this may sound like just one more bullet point in the long list of territories colonized by proprietary software. However, I think there is something special about the sphere of higher education especially in regards to its potential to influence broader culture.  According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, around 20 million Americans attend some form of higher education a year. The fact that this number translates directly into a software user base has not been lost on the edtech industry which has worked tirelessly to entrench proprietary software within all aspects of higher education. Their success has meant that college not only teaches particular subjects of study, but also apathy and powerlessness with respect to the software systems that shape and monitor user activities. If the FOSS community is looking for ways to grow, it should consider intervening not only via important, grass-roots efforts, but also in higher education, where software consciousness of the masses is produced and disciplined at scale.

How then do we begin to do this?  How do we seize this incredible opportunity to immerse 20 million students in participatory, community-oriented software cultures that could potentially reshape the ways they imagine, contribute to, and politicize software for the rest of their lives? We could of course focus on communicating the availability and political import of FOSS to the academic community and hope that one by one they come to engage more consciously with their software. On its own, however, I do not think this approach will be very effective. While the generous educator/administrator/student will perhaps patiently listen to an explanation about Emacs or LibreOffice, they will not understand why it’s worth the technical difficulty or even mild inconvenience when they are already quite content with the tools they have. In short, I do not think we should consider the ethical or technical principles as the sole selling points of FOSS.  As much as the FOSS community might pride itself on these principles, I would argue that it is actually the communal joy that these principles make possible which sustains and grows the community.

Nathan Schneider highlights the importance of this communal joy in his article “The Joy of Slow Computing.” I think it’s worth excerpting here as he quite eloquently describes how this joy literally changes his user experience of software. He writes:

…early on, I noticed that the glitches started to feel different than they used to. Stuff that would have driven me crazy on a MacBook didn’t upset me anymore. No longer could I curse some abstract corporation somewhere. As in Slow Food—with its unhygienic soil, disorderly farmers’ markets, and inconvenient seasons—the annoyances of Slow Computing have become pleasures. With community-made software, there’s no one to blame but us, the community. We’re not perfect, but we’re working on it. I gave away my MacBook.

As we concern ourselves with the question of communicating FOSS to new audiences, it’s important to remember the centrality of this communal joy. As Schneider’s observations suggest, community can make technical difficulty feel – and indeed be – meaningful. However, this is not just any community, but one formed in the process of working towards a new political reality. The joy of FOSS, as of Slow Food, is in the creation of a participatory alternative to dominant oppressive consumer industries. It is the feeling and actualization of empowerment through cooperation. But this is an extremely difficult aspect to convey through simple explanation. There is no elevator pitch to communicate the social value of free software. And so, how can we preserve this critical, but oh so perishable, aspect of the FOSS message when communicating with the academic community?

I would like to suggest that we do it through experience rather than words. Concretely, I mean that we should set up a seed FOSS project that would be of everyday use for the everyday student with visible and welcoming onramps for participation in development and governance. Or as Sumana Harihareswara very nicely put in her talk this weekend, we need to set up “tidepools,” that is, “friendly newcomer spaces” that protect users from the free software ocean while preparing them for it. Now, in a moment, I will outline my own vision for this seed project which is already well under way.  But in to show you why I think this seed project could be so meaningful for the both FOSS community and the student community, I would like to share how I, an English Ph.D. student with strong suspicion towards digital technology, wound up as a passionate, though somewhat frustrated advocate for FOSS within the university.

Several years ago as a graduate student at The CUNY Graduate Center, I first became aware that a group within our institution developed and maintained a FOSS-supported digital commons — The CUNY Academic Commons — for the entire Graduate Center community. This space was (and still is) used to facilitate digital pedagogy and collaborative research. It also enables students, staff, faculty, and research organizations to easily set up websites and communicate across the community. In a not-entirely coincidental twist of fate, it was in a class that used the Commons where I was also first exposed to the ideas of FOSS.  Learning about and discussing the ideas of free software in a space made possible by free software was an intellectually transformative experience. I began to see the dramatic influence of software on academic and student life, especially within areas that distance themselves from technical matters such as the humanities. Even more importantly, I was shocked to realize that proprietary software is an active agent in stifling and segregating the intellectual activities of students.  This is not the easiest thing to explain but let me try.  Proprietary software in higher education – particularly word processors and learning management systems, the bread and butter of course communications — has always been designed by someone other than the student and implemented for the sole purpose of enabling an instructor to evaluate student work.  Whatever ideals you might associate with higher education, at the end of the day, “learning” for the most part is about displaying one’s knowledge – in an essay, an exam, a report — for the sole purpose of a grade. And the software used to carry out that task reinforces that individual, hierarchical, evaluative logic of learning.

Now this logic might seem perfectly reasonable to you and I’m certainly not arguing that it has no value. But I’d like to contrast it with the philosophy of learning inherent in FOSS. If we look at the four freedoms we see that they create a pedagogical culture that values the ability to learn from and teach your neighbor. In short, the four freedoms acknowledge and foster the critical importance and joyful incentive of collaborative learning. One does not study for a “grade” so to speak, but to create and share valuable goods within the community. Proprietary software within education doesn’t only prohibit software collaboration, but stifles collaboration at every level of learning and artificially divorces our understanding of intellectual activity and the software which structures and disciplines it. What if, then, I thought, we made higher education — both its software and its intellectual activities — look a lot more like FOSS?  Could the same freedoms which enable and incentivize massive global collaboration among developers also provide a model for forging a global student community that joyfully co-produced both knowledge and its structure of circulation? By implementing FOSS in the university might we make higher education, not just the software of higher education, more participatory, collaborative, and publicly engaged?

This is the hope that drove me  — initially a technophobic scholar of literature – to dream up Social Paper, a student-driven collaborative writing platform, and join up with The CUNY Academic Commons, its Director Matthew K. Gold, and my co-founder Jennifer Stoops, to develop it. I’m excited to say that last December we launched a beta version that is now being piloted at The CUNY Graduate Center with the invaluable help of many contributors. I will refrain from going into too much detail about the software itself except to say that it is designed to foster peer collaboration, public scholarship, self-reflection, and most importantly, participatory design in ways that are not possible on other platforms.  (You can read my argument for Social Paper on the platform itself here and a proposal for its global potential here.)  It has been an incredibly exciting and transformative experience. However, it is also an incredibly precarious endeavor.  While we’ve been extremely fortunate in receiving grant funds, and also participation from an incredibly talented and generous group of people within the CUNY community, I can already see how difficult it will be with available resources to achieve the vision of this platform, much less maintain it as a sustainable platform for a broader community. I can see now that growth is often not just an ethical imperative for the FOSS community, but a survival skill for a FOSS project. I can see that we need to be better integrated into the FOSS community so as to draw on its counsel and support if these university FOSS projects are to flourish.

And so, I’m asking the FOSS community to consider the critical importance of everyday software within higher education to its broader mission. I know that I am by no means the first to raise attention to this issue, but I find that there is still no coherent community of FOSS educators nor is there a clearly defined path for the “non-techie” academics and educators to join the FOSS community. We need more tide pools. We need more bridges. We need a movement for free software within higher education. It’s my hope that this plea will help carry that work along.

On encouragement and the digital humanities

On encouragement and the digital humanities

Nice to see Ada hanging around UC San Diego’s campus.

“Instruction does much, but encouragement does everything.” These words were written by Goethe, but I know them from the email signature of my colleague Evan Misshula, a data scientist and criminal justice researcher with whom I worked closely on issues pertaining to software politics, social justice, and education at The CUNY Graduate Center. Evan is one of those magical people who has the unique talent of converting Luddites into free software advocates, poets into programmers, and underrepresented minorities into burgeoning computer science heroes. His success, however, is not just due to his ability to explain the harried details of computer technology to those who find it alienating or elitist, but to show them that computer science desperately needs their marginalized identities, interests, and values to contribute to its development if it is to ever fulfill its promise. I mention Evan here because his approach is emblematic of the collaborative and ethically-minded digital humanities and digital pedagogy community at The CUNY Graduate Center that I’ve had the honor of helping build as a Digital Fellow and Mellon Interdisciplinary Science Studies Fellow for the past four-and-a-half years. Through this experience I have witnessed the transformative power of encouragement at personal, collective, and institutional levels, and it is this power which I would like to keep fresh in mind as I announce my exciting new transition.

I am delighted to say that I am joining UC San Diego’s Center for the Humanities as the Associate Director and Digital Humanities Coordinator.

It is not easy to say goodbye to the many generous, creative, and innovative individuals which inspired and challenged me daily at The Graduate Center and the greater New York City area; from them I have learned that the power to make change rests directly in our ability to encourage the people immediately around us. In just the few short years that I spent at The Graduate Center, I had the privilege of either participating in or witnessing tremendous change in the development of multiple extraordinary initiatives including the GC Digital Scholars Lab, the Digital Praxis Program, Manifold Scholarship, DH Box, and The Futures Initiative, while also collaborating on a wide array of DH projects and teaching DH workshops. I must, of course, give special due to The Digital Fellows program, The CUNY Academic Commons, and The Interactive Technology and Pedagogy program. These initiatives not only completely transformed my scholarly direction but also made it possible for me to conceive of and lead Social Paper, a non-proprietary socialized writing environment for students that has received a National Endowment for the Humanities Digital Start-Up Grant and a CUNY Advance Grant. In my own view, part of what has made The Graduate Center so tremendously rich in digital innovation is the encouragement they have given to students to help lead the charge.

While I will miss The Graduate Center dearly, I am thrilled to join the vibrant, multidisciplinary community of UC San Diego. It is an exceptionally exciting time to arrive as recently-appointed Dean of the Division of Arts and Humanities Cristina Della Coletta is actively building out new initiatives to foster forms of interdisciplinary and public-facing scholarship. As Associate Director and Digital Humanities Coordinator for the Center, I will help shape these ongoing efforts in building bridges across disciplines, institutions, and publics in order to amplify the reach of UC San Diego’s thriving intellectual and pedagogical activities. At the Center, I will continue my research and advocacy in critical digital pedagogy and am eager to collaborate with the broader San Diego and Souther California DH community whose regional networking initiatives I’ve been enthusiastically following from afar. It is a great honor to join these many flourishing communities in the important work of encouraging and carrying out new imaginative possibilities for scholars, students, and the broader public.