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Computing With The Infrastructure At Hand

Computing with the Infrastructure at Hand: Collaborative Research for the Arts and Humanities in Times of Scarcity

Updated March 8th

If nature has made any one thing less susceptible than all others of exclusive property, it is the action of the thinking power called an idea, which an individual may exclusively possess as long as he keeps it to himself; but the moment it is divulged, it forces itself into the possession of every one, and the receiver cannot dispossess himself of it. Its peculiar character, too, is that no one possesses the less, because every other possesses the whole of it. He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me. (Thomas Jefferson, letter to Isaac McPherson in 1813)
Letís not whine about the humanities. Letís watch, think and act. (Stanley Katz, Brainstorm: Let's Not Cry for the Humanities -- Yet)

While our governments plan for a couple years' downturn, we fear we are heading into an economic depression that will dramatically change the funding available to universities and research. How do you plan for a decade-long depression in a university, especially in the disciplines not seen as economically critical like the humanities?

The answer is to imagine the worst and ask how you can do what is important with what is at hand. Whether we face a decade-long depression or a recession of a few years, the economy will undoubtedly have an effect on the long term funding of the arts and humanities and therefore we have to rethink our expectations about what we can do now. Stanley Katz in his Chronicle blog entry Brainstorm: The New Normal quotes his Princeton provost to the effect that a long period of downturn is the New Normal. Even at Princeton, "even if the economy should recover quickly (in eighteen months, say), and the financial markets should resume annual 10-percent increases, our endowment revenue will not approach the FY08 levels until at least 2020. And that model is surely too optimistic." What do we do during the long time it takes to get back to the point where we were imagining doing certain expensive things?

Others will address how teaching will change and how to protect it, here I want to address research and, to that end I propose a Collaborative Research Commons for the Arts and Humanities that is aimed at imagining alternative forms of research that leverage what is at hand. Our dreams of a well-funded research commonwealth will have to wait, so let us take this time of cuts for what it is: a time to take stock of what we have, protect what is important, imagine what we can do, and develop ways of doing research with little more than we have at hand. Let us build a research commons on collaboration across borders that can survive cuts and be ready for innovation when funding is available again. Let us build something that celebrates what we do together rather than begging apart.

The arts and humanities, in other words, can pioneer new ways of doing research with what is at hand: our common equipment and especially ourselves - you know those artsy humans of good will in the university. We can also do research that is reflective and is therefore about about what it is that is important at hand - humans like ourselves and our inquiry. Let us learn from social projects like the Wikipedia to crowdsource our research rather than complain about a lack of resources. Let us involve the broader community in research discussions to compensate for the constraints we will face. It is, after all, ideas in discussion that celebrate the arts and humanities.

To that end I propose some starting theses:

It is people that matter not funding or things.

The first point to be made is about what matters and what should be protected, and I believe that is people. We need to focus on people not infrastructure, especially those without tenure-track jobs entering a market where hiring is drying up. Lets let the computers age past their renewal date and lets put off building the new glassy studio in favor of supporting graduate students and new researchers without stable jobs. We risk losing a generation of friends and colleagues if we defend only the tenured faculty and the rich centres. If I were to ask for a change to the national stimulus packages emerging it would be to ask for a renewed arts and humanities Work Projects Administration that, like the original, hires youth to be painters, sculptors, writers, new media designers, and teachers. Let the stimulus create jobs across the skills where there are dreams not just in the auto industry and construction.

We have more than we think we have.

The second point to be made is that in North American and European Universities we have a wealth already, from our bright graduate students to excellent libraries. Not having the latest infrastructure doesn't stop us from asking pertinent questions and thinking through what matters. We can learn from our colleagues who do good work in less funded universities. Remember that in the humanities we are lucky that we can do meaningful research without much more than a book in one hand and coffee in the other. With the addition of someone else willing to talk about that book over coffee you have a symposium. If you can get three around a table you have an academic movement, to paraphrase Arlo Guthrie, and that's what matters. It is harder in the arts where there are material costs like paint and fibre, but the arts have ever been the most creative disciplines when it comes to the costs of research.

We have to help each other and across the usual borders.

Universities tend to compete and compare themselves with each other and this has been good for us in times of growth, but now we have to help each other. Universities that try to be excellent tend to want to develop their areas of excellence at the expense of others. Striving to be excellent usually means striving to get better metrics than the other universities you compare yourself too and that means we don't naturally help each other. The time has come to loosen the rules of support and be prepared to help others. Why not be measured by generosity and cooperation? If I have extra disk space on a web server why shouldn't I offer to host your web site? If I have an extra couple of seats in a graduate course why shouldn't I include your students? Can we use this crisis to overcome the bureaucratic barriers between us when it comes to resources and courses? Can we do it on an international scale as the humanities should? Just as importantly can we cross the boundary of amateur and professional to involve anyone in research?

We are not just in the university.

We have tended to think that contributions to the humanities must come from those credentialed with a PhD and at universities, but of course that has never been true. We know there are amateur historians, philosophers, writers, intellectuals, translators, classicists and linguists with much to contribute if could include them. We are not professions that control access and certify what it is to write or think - we celebrate the diversity and history of human thought and expression. We used to not have the time to engage the broader community interested in the subjects of the humanities in our professional concerns, but now we have models for how to involve large communities in creative and academic work. So let us not be a we within the university, but let us conceive of research as something that a broader community engages in. What then can each of us contribute? How can we use technology to leverage the demonstrated love of research in the broader community? When there are thousands across the continent contributing to a project then we will have a case for institutional support beyond boundaries.

We are in no rush.

Research is not a race to be measured in three year or five year laps. We shouldn't confuse the pace of funding with the time it takes to think carefully through matters. We should beware of how the exigencies of promotion and funding force a pace and deadlines on us that may not suit all humanities research. The lack of funding and new demands to do more with less give us a chance to pause and think about slow research with the time at hand. The constraints of the time provide an opportunity to imagine longer careful engagement that may not have a promised end. Why not reopen big questions that we might not solve with a project, but are none the less worth pursuing.

We can always do something that matters.

Others may have confused funding for knowledge, but in the humanities we hopefully haven't forgotten that we are free to think about what we want to and to do research, whether or not we are in the university or have the good fortune of tenure. We always have a choice in our research. We have a choice in methods, in collaborators, in questions, and in the evidence we use. We don't have to do the big stuff with lots of grants even if that is what gets noticed. In the face of constraint let us ask what we can do with what we have at hand rather than ask for renewed funding. For a generation of researchers trained to imagine innovative projects that can justify grants it is hard to turn aside and try to study without a cent, but that is the challenge - if we can find a way to discover new truths with little then how much will we be able to do when there is support again?

So, you like the idea, but wonder what we really can do? Here are some starting moves:

  • Travel-free Conferencing: We don't need to travel to do research! The time has come to learn to manage ourselves and to exchange ideas without having to travel. How much of your research grant is for travel? Can you do without? Phone conferencing, internet conferencing (as in Skype and iChat), and shared spaces (from Google docs to wikis) should be enough if we are willing to make them work. Academic societies that are organized around conferences should think about how they can further research exchange without the numbers of attendees. Can we have more local meeting and fewer national ones? Can we videoconference people in and out? Does a society have to have a face-to-face annual meeting to do its business? Almost every university has some underutilized conferencing system on the other side of campus. It is time to fire these up and try to do stuff together without leaving home. See Parties 4 Research below. Who is willing to be the first to go live without flight?
  • Matchmaking Research: We need a way to match people and projects that have assets to those who need help and to do so in ways that benefits all. Lets build a virtual marketplace for research aide in the arts and humanities. It might not work, but that itself could be research fodder. This could be built in a way that tracks the value of what is asked for and given. It could be developed as an exchange system that recognizes the trade in help. Who wants to build it for the rest of us?
  • A Distributing Archive: We need to organize a distributing archive to save the digital projects that go under by distributing what can be saved to others. Likewise we need to encourage projects that are struggling to be honest and ask for help closing down. Lets learn to stop doing things gracefully and park those projects with archives that can hold them. Who wants to coordinate this?
  • Doing Slower: We need to figure out what we can't do and be honest about that. No amount of cooperation and good will can cover everything we would have done with increased funding and we shouldn't pretend so. No amount of working harder will last a decade of deflation and budget cuts. Cooperation itself takes work and that means less will get done because of the costs of doing it collaboratively with second-hand stuff. For this reason I think we should value slow work which like slow food takes pleasure in what you can do with the time and resources at hand. Who wants to write the manifesto and come up with guidelines for recognizing the slowdown?
  • Help Asking: We need to ask for help, especially help that doesn't involve money. I don't know how to do this, but I have to believe that there are people outside the university of good will who would support arts and humanities research if we could find a way to ask. Who wants to organize the distributed reach-out?
  • Help Preparing: Likewise we need to prepare to help. To that end I propose development of a Statement for a Collaborative Commons to which researchers, projects and universities can subscribe. We need to negotiate permission beforehand from our administrations to share resources and the statement of what your institution is prepared to share and under what conditions should be standardized. Who can write such a modular Commons?
  • Adapt Don't Build: We need to adapt and use Web 2.0 applications to make collaboration easier. In particular we need to develop training and documentation to help new projects get off the ground with what is free and at hand. Do you need a social research network - use and try using it this way. Do you need an online database - try playing with Google apps. Do you want to distribute video, use YouTube. Much of what we would normally build on university servers can be done, though not as well, on open and commercial services. Who wants to write the recipes for Do-It-Yourself-Research-For-Nothing?
  • Collaborative Assessment: We need to tell our universities that we will be conducting collaborative research in the face of limited resources and that we expect to be assessed in that light. It is time to flood our tenure and promotion committees with group projects and jointly-authored papers. Perhaps we should ask to be judged by how others have done. Let us agree to list how we have helped others do original research as a form of granting and ask for those that help us to be recognized. Why shouldn't the gift of a month's worth of programming to help someone else be counted as a research contribution or at least service to the research community? Who wants to write the Statement we all put at the top of our annual reports?
  • Parties 4 Research: The symposium where we share ideas over a meal dates back to Socrates, but we haven't had the time for more than fast food recently. So take the time to call a symposium, but let it be over food and about something others are interested in. Calling it a symposium costs nothing. For that matter, when was the last time you wrote a letter telling someone how much you appreciated a contribution they made? Praise and parties are cheap, especially if we bring our own wine. There are probably more people at your university that you haven't talked to than you have possible lunches. Get off your depression and make your own academy. Give it an acronym; call it a funding-free project - the first Collaborative Research Commons in your favorite coffee shop.

Recently I heard from a colleague visited who is trying to set up a humanities computing centre with nothing, thanks to budget cuts. I would like to imagine a way we could coordinate a way forward for her to launch a centre, even without funding, so that interesting research could happen through that centre. Her administration will probably not be happy with a centre woven out nothing but the stuff and good will of competing universities. Administrators won't want to see my university logo on their centre's web site, but then again, what really matters here? Credit should be generous in the humanities, unlike the banks. It is a gesture that can be shared without diminishing anyone. Administrators everywhere need to relax and let us do the teaching, learning and research without a fetish for credit or they won't see it done at all. It would be hard to argue that such a centre, built from the collaborative commons, is an example of excellence, but excellence is overrated. We should aim to be good with what we have and that is all the rest of us. We should show that the arts and humanities care about our common wealth - the human stuff that really matters. If they see us celebrate the arts of the human with nothing much they will join us and then we are more.

My colleagues will worry that I am arguing for creative defeatism. Absolutely not! Let us continue to advocate vigorously for the value of arts and humanities learning; let us continue to imagine and propose ambitious projects that need investment; let us fight for the infrastructure needed; but let us also be imaginative in how we contribute through research should this downturn be long and painful. Let us also be honest about priorities and try to find ways of saving what is important.

So make a list of what you can contribute and find the time to start giving it away. Make a date with someone you have always wanted to talk to about ideas or with whom you wanted to make art and start collaborating. Apply for what funding is left, but be prepared to do without and ask how you can be someone else's funding - working in common for the good. Do research not regrets and hold out your hand to those less fortunate as you would want a hand held out to you. Be liberal in your arts and humanity and the liberal arts will thrive.



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