By mcelish on January 27, 2009
Technology changes not only what we do, but also how we do things. This seems an obvious observation. However, the consequences of these changes are far-reaching and demand attention. For example, the internet has profoundly affected the ability and necessity to collaborate among humanities scholars. The very idea of collaboration is something we at the Hypestudio have been thinking a lot about lately. From our US-Iran project (bringing together Iranian and American scholars and policy makers) to our Comédie Française Registers Project (bringing together scholars and archivists from England, France, Australia and US) to Cultura (bringing together students in France and the US in cross-cultural exchange) collaboration is, indeed, the essence of our work. With this blog post, I’d like to begin and open up a discussion about collaboration that I hope to revisit in the coming months.
First published in 2006, the ACLS [American Council of Learned Societies] put together a Commission on Cyberinfrastructure in the Humanities and Social Sciences, chaired by John Unsworth and supported by the Mellon Foundation. The commission report, Our Cultural Commonwealth, underscores the urgent need to develop strategies and tools for scholars to collaborate in the humanities, writing:
“Despite the demonstrated value of collaboration in the sciences, there are relatively few formal digital communities and relatively few institutional platforms for online collaboration in the humanities. In these disciplines, single-author work continues to dominate.”
The report continues,
“Most people the Commission interviewed expressed hope that an investment in cyberinfrastructure would allow humanists and social scientists to conduct new types of research in new ways. …
To take advantage of the technology, one must engage directly with it, and one must allow traditions of practice to be flexibly influenced by it. One such tradition in the humanities is that of the ‘individual genius.’ Nevertheless, many of the examples cited in this report show us that humanists can be highly collaborative and that by working in groups, they can sometimes address research questions of greater scope, scale, and complexity than any individual—even a brilliant one—could address in isolation…
For the humanities and social sciences, then, an effective cyberinfrastructure will have to support the computer-assisted use of both physical and digital resources, and it will have to enable communication and collaboration using a range of digital surrogates for physical artifacts; in fact, it will have to embody an understanding of the continuity between digital and physical, rather than promoting the notion that the two are distinct from or opposed to one another.”
Collaboration in this context is itself a link, a gathering, between the digital and the physical.
Earlier this month, Jim Brown facilitated a discussion about collaboration in the HASTAC Scholars Forum. The discussion was very interesting, and seemed to expand and contract around two common points: collaboration necessarily involves some kind of emotional investment, (the work must be effective and satisfying), and collaboration online cannot be severed from the physical world. As Cathy Davidson pointed out, “the Web isn’t about the act of collaboration but the ACTORS of collaboration, the community of connection as an end almost in itself. ” Further reading and resources were offered throughout the discussion, including Howard Reingold’s delicious links on collaboration and cooperation.
Collaboration online, especially in the humanities is emerging as an intricate weaving of digital and physical, tradition and experimentation, individual and community. At this point, I think we have more questions than answers. Collaboration has become an ideal and, to some extent, a dilemma. In this respect, I think it’s important not to let collaboration devolve into an empty buzzword. The potential actions and ideas that come and will continue to come from online collaboration are some of the most exciting areas of humanities research and the academic community. I leave you with a comment from Kristin Wolf that approaches the idea of collaboration,
“I think that the art of collaboration 2.0 is more about the multiple dimensions (on-line, offline, all-at-once-smaller groups-one2one) of collaboration than about just web-based collaboration alone (just like web2.0 is about participation, not about the technology alone).”
Above image: Collaborativesociability, vaXzine/flickr.