March 25, 2011

Of Rockets and Humanities

Speaking a year ago at the 50 Years of Public Computing at UI symposium (April 15, 2010), Professor Marc Snir noted that technologists at times have been uninterested in the outcomes of their inventions: “Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down? That’s not my department.” Of Community Informatics (CI), Snir noted: “CI cares where the IT [information technology] rockets come down. That concern is an integral part of IT research.” Snir went on to argue that IT can, is and must be a force for good, contributing to the democratization of knowledge, challenging power relations in the process. Technologies change society, he noted, with changes in the way we process information. Handmade items now become precious; likewise, “brain thought” will be rarer and more valuable than machine thought.

Universities are information organizations, as Snir put it. IT should be affecting them, but teaching, research and organization are remarkably the same these days. A fundamental assumption is that a professor is in a position of authority, but knowledge workers (such as university professors) will be increasingly obsolete. We are not really able to see what is needed, but much education happens outside of the classroom. Prof. Richard J. Light’s study at Harvard, The College Experience: Blueprint for Success, showed that collaborative environments help all of us integrate knowledge, and that teaching by doing contributes to success. (See also, Making the Most of College: Students Speak their Minds, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001)

Other points Snir made:

· Information flows are lateral, meaning decision processes are less hierarchical

· Virtual ad-hoc processes will continuously change geographically distributed organizations

· Data is cheap; a key skill is knowing how to find or create data

· Self-service is cheaper

· Online education needs to increase to optimize education when and where needed

· Citizen and community science needs assessment measures

I came across these notes while cleaning my office, and they resonate with another talk I attended recently, that by David Theo Goldberg, “The Afterlife of the Humanities.” With Cathy N. Davidson, Goldberg is author of The Future of Thinking: Learning Institutions in a Digital Age (The MIT Press, 2010). Goldberg spoke of state-located institutions rather than state-supported institutions these days. Asking “what are universities for and for whom?” Goldberg noted that they used to help transform class structures. He argued that in some ways the blogosphere has sidelined universities as a place for public comment. Then he listed a number of venues where exciting exchanges are taking place, at DIY universities:

· P2PU (partially funded by Mozilla)

· Singularity University

· Free/Slow University of Warsaw

· Center for Possible Studies

· Public Schools Brussels

· Copenhagen Free University

· University of the People

· EduFactory

· Factory of Ideas

And I would add our own local School for Designing a Society.

Goldberg went on to mention Chris Newfield’s blog, “Remaking the University”  in his outline of the usual defensive arguments in favor of the humanities:

-they are intrinsically valuable (Stanley Fish is associated with this idea)

-they make economic sense by providing transferable skills and supporting science

-they emphasize civics and make good citizens (Martha Nussbaum argues this, especially in Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities)

-they can dramatically shape the public sphere by creating counterpublics

Goldberg spoke of the “greater humanities” and the condition of “living in a critical condition.” He suggested that it’s time to take the networks of ideas as networks seriously, offering some examples:

-Making Publics

-Poor Theory manifesto suggests revisions and remixes, as in compost

Public Reason, a blog for political philosophers

Then he asked, “what is the university we are for?” He argued for the capacity to make wise judgments together, in conversation. Humanities are consequential: they speak truth in relation to power, as both trouble-shooter and trouble-maker. They provide much more than negative critiques; they serve as compasses and help imagine what is possible. Goldberg proposed dramatically reconceived humanities that are germane to our working lives, with institutional humanities disappearing.

August 9, 2010

Civility and Flying

I went to Washington, DC, to serve on an all-day review for the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) in early August. The idea was to fly in one evening and fly out the next, given that DC in August is not really a comfortable time of year and I was about to go on vacation. Jim Leach, the director of the NEH, launched an initiative this year focusing on civility and democracy.  The previous head of NEH, Bruce Cole, conducted an interview with Judith Martin, aka Miss Manners, on this very topic as well. It was published in Humanities in 2005.  President Barack Obama addressed the issue of civility and democracy in his May 2010 commencement address at the Univeristy of Michigan: “[T]he practice of listening to opposing views is essential for effective citizenship.” I even got a little pin that says “Civility” on it, once I got to the NEH panel convening.

When my flight to DC was substantially delayed in Chicago, some people became quite uncivil. One man, who claimed to be a surgeon, had a really unpleasant meltdown. He harangued us all about his crucial engagement at National Institute of Health the next day and how he was going to sue American. Lots of very loud swearing, name-calling and sweaty, hostile body language. Remarkably unhealthy.

I had just finished the chapter in The Mangle in Practice: Science, Society and Becoming, about using verbal judo to diffuse hostile encounters, but I was too tired to even attempt something with this guy. The idea of verbal judo, according to George Thompson who developed it, is that one uses “the principle of judo itself, using the energy of others to master situations.” Verbal judo is “a set of communication principles and tactics that enable the user to generate cooperation and gain voluntary compliance in others under stressful conditions.” (Thompson and Jenkins 1993, 89) I must say, it sounds like it takes practice. But if we are to re-learn civility in stressful and varied situations, we will need early and frequent lessons about strategies like verbal judo. Civility in a multicultural democracy is not just going to happen; in that sense, I wish Mr. Leary’s initiative every success, in bridging cultures and instilling civility, provided civility means respectful striving for justice and patient negotiation of difference.