‘Hacking the Academy’ – A Test of Time

Jim ShimabukuroBy Jim Shimabukuro

The first thing you should know about Hacking the Academy: New Approaches to Scholarship and Teaching from Digital Humanities (Daniel J. Cohen and Tom Scheinfeldt, editors, University of Michigan Press, 2013) is that it was compiled in May 2010 — three years ago. I’m not sure what the full implications of this time gap are, but for starters, the iPad was released in April 2010, a month earlier, so it’s not mentioned in the book. The first MOOC was offered by the University of Manitoba in 2008, but they didn’t become wildly popular until 2012 so they, too, are left out.

Once past the hurdle of the three-year gap, I found the offerings interesting both as a retrospective and as a time-tested compass for change. Change is so rapid in ed tech that the concept of “past” is becoming more a blur than a time line. Thus, I found myself intrigued by this slice of time that preserves some of the more progressive thinking three years ago, including insights that are still relevant today.

Hacking the Academy

I received the UM Press announcement for Hacking early yesterday morning and requested a digital review copy later that morning. After downloading it, I did a quick search for “iPad” and “MOOC” and, as expected, came up empty.

An “online and open-access version” of the book was released on 8 Sep. 2011 (Jason B. Jones, “Hacking the Academy: the Book,” Chronicle, 9.9.11), but I was unaware of it until today. Andrew Tully, in his University of Nebraska – Lincoln blog (4.18.12), provides a useful overview of the project so I won’t go into it.

I like the twist that the project has given to the word “hacking.” In “Why ‘Hacking’?”, Tad Suiter says, “Hackers are autodidacts,” and he defines hacking as “The clever gaming of complex systems to produce an unprecedented result.” But here’s the part that makes it very special even, and perhaps moreso, today: “The academy, ultimately, can only be invigorated and improved by an infusion of the hacker ethos that goes beyond the computer  science departments and infects all the disciplines.” Suiter’s point is that the hacker is us, the teachers in the disciplines, in the classrooms. Adam Turner, in “Hacker Spaces as Scholarly Spaces,” amplifies Suiter’s point. He says, “Hacking is about doing: creating, thinking, questioning, observing, learning, and teaching. The core of academic work is, at its heart, hacking.” The implications of teacher as hacker are as fresh today as they were in 2010. 

Twitter began to take off in 2009 so it’s the dominant cutting edge web technology in Hacking. However, in the years since, it’s moved into the mainstream. (See Jess Knott‘s and Melissa Venable‘s ETCJ articles on Twitter.) Still, some of the ideas are worth revisiting because they address deep issues that remain. For example, in “Uninvited Guests Twitter at Invitation-only Events,” Bethany Nowviskie writes, “The voice from Twitter cries: ‘Elitism! Hypocrisy! How can you be discussing — pick your poison: the public humanities, the future of scholarly communication, the changing nature of the disciplines — in a cloister? Who are these privileged few? And why weren’t we all invited to attend?'”

Closed or by-invitation-only F2F conferences to discuss topics that impact thousands of frontline educators is still an issue, and back channel tweeting is still a vital means to offset this down side of professional development.

In “Voices Twitter at Conferences,” Matthew G. Kirschenbaum provides a useful analogy to grasp the value of tweeting: “Most of all what I think Twitter does at a conference is create a common narrative; or better, it’s a kind of communal narrative to which all can write simply by virtue of opening an account and invoking the hashtag.” In “An Open Letter to the Forces of Change,” Jennifer Howard pits Twitter against campus email systems and, thus, provides an insight into its potential.

The trend toward open electronic academic publishing has grown, but it is still a divisive problem. Thus, the large number of pieces devoted to it are worth revisiting for eloquence if not for innovative ideas. In “Burn the Boats/Books,” David Parry applies Marc Andreesen’s “burn the boats” reference to books: “Academics should similarly ‘burn their boats,’ or in this case, ‘burn the books,’ making a definitive move to embrace new modes of scholarships enabled by web-based communication, rather than attempting to port old models into the new register.” Parry’s comment leaves me wondering if “burn the campuses” isn’t a better fit for 2013. Parry offers a list of suggestions for academic publishing in the 21st century: “Stop publishing in closed systems.” “Self-publish.” “Digital publications must interact with the web.” “Get over peer review.” “Aspire to be a curator.” “Think beyond the book.”

In “Reinventing the Academic Journal,” Jo Guldi provides some ideas that may not be as fresh today but are still very quotable:

  • Web 2.0 journals that take their primary responsibility as curatorial have no need for official publication from the university-press system.
  • Electronic journals will have the opportunity to expand their curatorial mandate to include different forms of publication.
  • It is contrary to utility, in the world of Web 2.0, to maintain exclusive publication rights on an article.
  • Like the essay, the journal peer-review process is the relic of another age.

For telling it like it is, John Unsworth, in “The Crisis of Audience [in the Humanities] and the  Open-Access Solution,” takes the prize. He says, “The simplest analysis of the ‘crisis in scholarly publishing’ is that it’s a problem of audience: nobody’s reading these books — not even colleagues in the disciplines, much less students, or the general public.” He pushes for open access: “For truly esoteric publishing, Harnad’s reasoning still holds. If the audience is very small, give it away: it’s cheaper, all the way around.”

Perhaps the most eloquent in the “Hacking Scholarship” section is Daniel J. Cohen. In “Open Access and Scholarly Values: A Conversation,” he says, “Writing is writing and good is good, no matter the venue of publication or what the crowd thinks. Scholars surely understand that on a deep level, yet many persist in valuing venue and medium over the content itself.” To underscore his point, he asks, “If you were designing a system of scholarly communication today, in the age of the web, would it look like the one we have today?” Cohen mentions blogs as a promising medium: “Disparage bloggers all you like, but they control their communication platform and the outlet for their passion, and most scholars and academic institutions don’t.”

Cohen, addressing professors, draws a hard line between closed and open publishing: “When you publish somewhere that is behind gates, or in paper only, you are resigning all that hard work to invisibility in the age of the open web.” His summary of the advantages of open and electronic publishing are worth repeating: “The dirty little secret about open-access publishing is that while you may give up a line in your CV (although not necessarily), your work can be discovered much more easily by other scholars and interested parties, can be fully indexed by search engines, and can be linked to from other websites and social media.”

MOOCs aren’t mentioned in Hacking, but in “Lectures Are Bullshit,” Jeff Jarvis describes a hypothetical “New School” approach that not only presages massive open online courses but hints at a business model that we’re only now beginning to discover: “Maybe the New School should curate the best lectures on capillary action from MIT and Stanford, or a brilliant teacher who explains it well even if not from a big-school brand; that could be anyone in YouTube U. Then the New School adds value by tutoring: explaining, answering, probing, enabling.”

Jarvis advocates portfolios and project learning. Nothing new, but still relevant: “Rather than showing our diplomas, shouldn’t we show our portfolios of work as a far better expression of our thinking and capability? The school becomes not a factory, but an incubator.”

“This is a social revolution, not a technological one,” says Michael Wesch in “From Knowledgeable  to Knowledge-able,” and he adds, “Its most revolutionary aspect may be the ways in which it empowers us to rethink education and the teacher-student relationship in an almost limitless variety of ways.” Again, not new, but worth repeating in a time when so much emphasis is being given to technology.

Jeff McClurken’s views on teaching as empowering will never grow old. In “Digital Literacy and the Undergraduate Curriculum,” he says, “One of my desires for students is for them to be comfortable with being uncomfortable as they try new things.” By “uncomfortable,” he means “It’s good for college classes to shake students — and faculty — out of their comfort zone. Real learning happens when you’re trying to figure out the controls, not when you’re on autopilot.”

In “A Personal Cyberinfrastructure,” Gardner Campbell is calling for the kind of constructivist change that is only now beginning to break the surface. He understood, in 2010, that “the ‘progress’ that higher education achieved with massive turn-key online systems, especially with the LMS, actually moved in the opposite direction.” Campbell was ahead of his time in 2010, and he remains so in 2013. He says, “Just as the real computing revolution didn’t happen until the computer became truly personal, the real IT revolution in teaching and learning won’t happen until each student builds a personal cyberinfrastructure that is as thoughtfully, rigorously, and expressively composed as an excellent essay or an ingenious experiment.”

Like Suiter and McClurken, Campbell urges a greater self-empowering role for teachers in the change equation: “To provide students the guidance they need to reach these goals, faculty and staff must be willing to lead by example — to demonstrate and discuss, as fellow learners, how they have created and connected their own personal cyberinfrastructures.”

Matt Gold, in “Learning Management Systems,” also weighs in on the negative effects of LMSs: “Learning management systems have dominated online education up until now, but must they be what we rely on in the future? Having found our way out of one box, must we immediately look for another? Can we imagine no other possibilities?” By insulating faculty from the action opportunities in the real-world web, LMSs stifle rather than nurture growth.

As a writing teacher, I couldn’t help but appreciate Mark Sample’s “What’s Wrong with Writing.” He says, in most classes, “The student essay is a twitch in a void. A compressed outpouring of energy — if we’re lucky — that means nothing to no one. My friend and occasional collaborator Randy Bass has said that nowhere but school would we ask somebody to write something that nobody will ever read.” This is as true today as it was in 2010. The web changes this closed game and makes it possible for writing to take on a social dimension. Students can share easily their essays in blogs, turning their classmates and friends into instant audiences. Sample says, “This is the primary reason I’ve integrated more and more public writing into my classes. I strive to instill in my students the sense that what they think and what they say and what they write matters — to me, to them, to their classmates, and through open-access blogs and wikis — to the world.” A teacher-only audience for writing is no match for a real-world context, and technology provides the advantage.

Perhaps the most sensational and telling article in Hacking is David Parry’s “Be Online or Be Irrelevant: Brian Croxall, the MLA, and Social Media.” It spotlights the downside of closed F2F conferences. “If you imagined asking all of the MLA attendees,” says Parry, “not just the social-media enabled ones, what papers/talks/panels were influential, my guess is that Brian’s might not make the list, or if it did, it wouldn’t top the list. That is because most of the chatter about the paper was taking place online, not in the space of the MLA.”

Croxall couldn’t afford to attend the MLA conference, where he was scheduled to present a paper about his situation. He asked a friend to make the presentation for him. He also posted his story on his website. It went viral. In “Reflections on Going Viral at the MLA,” which appears in Hacking, Croxall says, “It seems certain that practically no one at the real MLA was talking about my paper. How could they have? They hadn’t heard it. Instead, my paper and the response it generated happened at a virtual MLA.”

Christine Madsen’s “The Wrong Business for Libraries,” about academic research libraries, and Ethan Watrall’s “Notes on Organizing an Unconference” are worth reading for their clarity if not for their timeliness. There were many more excellent articles in this massive collection squeezed into 177 pages, but I simply didn’t have the time to cover them all.

Before I close, though, I need to acknowledge one of the most insightful observations in Hacking. It’s made by Tim Carmody in “The Trouble with Digital Culture.” He says, “Digital humanists’ efforts to ‘hack the academy’ most often turn out not to be about replacing an established analog set of practices and institutions with new digital tools and ideas; instead, it’s a battle within digital culture itself.” The greatest battles, from Carmody’s perspective, in the ed tech transformations to come will be fought not between analog and digital advocates but among subgroups within the digital faction with conflicting views on how technology ought to be used. I agree.

A final observation is that Hacking is surprisingly innovative, pushing the definition of “book” in a direction that bridges the gaps between text publications, virtual conferences, and blogs. As I “read” the digital version of the book, I had the sensation of participating in an online conference or a blog where the various chapters represent different presentations or posts. The feeling grew stronger when I encountered discussion-type comment sections scattered throughout the book, adding a pseudo-interactive element that is quite effective.

Update 5.23.13: See Jess Knott’s review ‘Hacking the Academy’ – Intimate Conversations with Voices at the Edge.

One Response

  1. […] A review of the book edition, but someone new to the effort (who missed the earlier instances), has been published on the Education Technology and Change (ETC) blog. […]

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