Author Archives: Cailean Cooney

Scheinfeldt and Flanders: Alt-ac

Tom Schienfeldt – “Toward a Third Way: Rethinking Academic Employment”

My guess is that Scheinfeldt intended this as an appeal to the DH community – those inside and influenced by the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, (Scheinfeldt’s then employer; he’s now on a faculty line at UConn) and other DH loci dotted around the DC metro area. Scheinfeldt is talking to DHers he hopes might eventually take over his CHNM role (hard or soft money allowing), and to the newer academic crowd he might employ in the consistently funded digital humanities positions he describes working tirelessly to maintain. I can imagine juggling soft money to create stable employment beyond a grant cycle was tough work, and it sounds completely impossible from a CUNY perspective, what with CUNYFirst and our lithe HR support. I would guess it helped, finance wise, that CHNM is a separate research center, and built an endowment.

Scheinfeldt’s appeal makes a lot of sense when I consider his role in DH. He and his colleagues have worked hard and made a success of this type of alternative academic employment (which I think is awesome, btw) so it is only natural that he would use his position and this post as recruitment for bright new PhDs to go work for him. It’s not that Scheinfeldt is merely concerned with preserving legacy, he believes this work is just as valuable as traditional tenure track work. I agree that a tenure position is but one of many important roles in an academic institution, and I also lament that it still carries a particularly coveted patena. In so far as Scheinfeldt can be a mentor and enabler for alt-ac folks to forge ahead with the support of leaders like him, I applaud his words.

But I have fundamental disagreements with the tenor he uses to structure his argument and I question whether this post would have any impact beyond the DH community. Let me try to explain “tenor” here. When I read this, I heard someone speaking from experience; a very exceptional, and privileged one. I did not get the impression that Scheinfeldt had a true understanding of the realities of librarians or tenure track faculty. Or maybe he didn’t think revealing an understanding was important to this discussion? Mentions of tenure track faculty and librarians, even libraries, were invoked in rather crude terms, seemingly for the sole purpose of advancing his own agenda (though I agree with asserting alt-ac equality). Last time I checked, the library, second only to staff and students, was at the center of the university. Obviously, I’m biased. I was also not so sold when he brought up soft/hard money, the polarities of job security, and the walmart/university simile.

My trouble with this piece, and why I think it falls short of being effective, is basically my trouble with academia (and it extends beyond university grounds). As a reader who wouldn’t consider myself Scheinfeldt’s target audience (I’m a librarian BUT I’m faculty status), I think the tone of this discussion accentuates the purveying lack of awareness or concern for units (human or other) that constitute a more complete, albeit flawed organism. This absence, in academia and elsewhere, may be partly attributable to ignorance, inexperience, fear, selfishness, bullying, transactionality, the bureaucratic beast, institutional siloing, not enough hours in the day…etc.

When we position ourselves as, or conceive those beyond us as “other” or “outside,” absence is produced. The results of this are felt by many graduate students as their advisers and departments endeavor to mold them in their own likenesses (traditional faculty roles), and as members of their cohort attain competitive and prestigious post docs, followed by tenure track positions. It’s all well and good for Scheinfeldt to preach for alt-ac, but the reality is that people feel pressure to perform and to compete in these conventional academic roles and it’s hard to make a leap without feeling much risk, and the deep possibility of failure. The preening of the academic can be a major exercise in solitude and insulation. And preparing an annual tenure review packet, feels much the same. You are forced to report all of your work under one of three columns: teaching, service, or scholarship. No double dipping allowed, although I would have guessed conveying that my work crossed every domain was a win!

So I think reforming the faculty system of tenure and reward is very important. Scheinfeldt speaks of the changing nature of digital humanities scholarship and work, and I think the challenges of the digital humanities are a proxy for the challenges inherent to the whole university. Fundamental questions that press the academic organism are the shift in scholarly communications, and what it means to do collaborative, digital research. I believe teaching must move out from behind scholarship, and become equally as important. Incidentally, I think Scheinfeldt’s work is great on this front. In my institution for instance, there are a number of pedagogical programs that instructors participate in (beyond classroom teaching) that are usually a ton of work, but also extremely important to the college community – and looked upon very highly by college administration. Yet, translating this labor into the tenure portfolio still requires juggling, and faculty can start to second guess how they choose to spend their time. Do something to benefit the college, or to benefit themselves? This is silliness. The college wants to employ good pedagogues and scholars, so can’t we find a way to reward this in practical terms?

And, for possible context, my position is quite rare for an academic librarian. My faculty status is equal to teaching faculty; equal in the sense that we librarians at CUNY have the exact same tenure guidelines and review as other faculty. This has mostly been a net positive for me so far, and I’ll briefly explain why. Libraries and or librarians are perceived to, and often operate at the behest of and in service to others. Providing a service is fine. But the reality is that academic libraries are more than a service. Libraries have their own agenda, mission, and expertise. Of course, a huge aspect of that is to serve and provide resources, but many faculty can be largely unaware of the rest of the library’s goals and initiatives. One such example would be the library as purveyor of critical information literacy. I’m pretty certain I wouldn’t feel as empowered to put my work at the level of importance as faculty outside the library if I didn’t have faculty status. I’ll often hear librarian colleagues, and have observed myself becoming preoccupied with how to help and serve the college community as if we’ve always been fighting for relevance through someone or something else. I think this is a misrepresentation. I believe we’ve always been relevant but that we have the unique privilege and curse of having much less time to push or advocate on our sole behalf because we are often working to advance others. I think this reality produces many librarians who are keen to collaborate and are particularly receptive of stuff “outside” the library. But I fear many folks beyond the library have much less practice or incentive to improve on this. And while I concede that it can be frustrating for the library to balance its roles, I think, or at least would like to think, that we’ve been working in an environment that is far more complementary than (some) other units of the university have. We could use more of this.

Julia Flanders, “Time, Labor, and ‘Alternate Careers’ in Digital Humanities Knowledge Work,” in Debates in the Digital Humanities

Reading Julia Flander’s chapter after writing the above was kind of amazing. I was particularly struck with this:

Self-consciousness in the consultant arises partly from habitual exposure to infinite variety of beliefs, ways of doing things, and systems of value and partly from the constant projection of oneself into other people’s imaginative spaces. The consultant must identify, however briefly and professionally, with the client’s situation…”

Flanders’ is a critical read and observation of “para-academic” roles. I’m particularly interested with her comments on consulting and observing transactions between clients: the clients’ relief at not having to be responsible for certain knowledge, and finding satisfaction from consultant answers with a monetary transactional dimension. Also, the notion of hourly/work for hire labor versus the traditional academic labor paradigm, and the resulting quantifiable labor and outcomes is a really important piece of the conversation which Scheinfeldt’s piece did not tackle at all.

Keeping this short since I already wrote a lot, any reactions to the following statements?

“By formalizing humanities research practices and rendering explicit the premises on which they rest, digital humanists also make possible critique and change.” – Flanders

Re: the fractionalization of workers: “…it constitutes a displacement of autonomy concerning what to work on when and how long to take…a reversal of the classic narrative of academic work.” – Flanders

Are there exceptional models that we celebrate without daring to imitate? Are there exceptional models we are enacting?

It would be great also to hear examples of how we’ve negotiated our choices around investing time and labor as academics.


Fights over software and the web

The Free Software Definition and Vaidhyanathan, and O’Reilly in the Social Media Reader

At first glance, these reading selections may appear a bit dry, but they’re valuable to our conversations because they represent different perspectives from certain “stakeholders” of the internet and computing. In the case of the Free Software Definition, the declaration represents a specialized computing community (or as Gates called some, personal computer hobbyists) that strongly support a political and ethical imperative. Vaidhyanathan represents the academic perspective of critic and problem poser, and O’Reilly represents the perspective of a long term business person whose company has straddled tech and created an interesting niche in tech business and culture through software manual publishing and conference hosting. 

Their importance as records of the state of computing in the early to mid 2000s (and in some cases its forecasted future) is also their weakness – they are words from the usual suspects. Yet the content of their discussions cross beyond the materiality of the internet and computing, and into economies of culture and capital that affect all of us. The internet’s capacities to intersect between expression, innovation, collaboration, and commodification are unlike any other, it seems. Is it impossible that a conversation about the future of the internet doesn’t ultimately come down to fundamental questions of freedom and control (regulation)? I think Vaidhyanathan does a laudable job of speaking to the complex politics with respect to legacy copyright laws and the rhetoric of free/open source. Speaking of the open-source model, Vaidhyanathan speaks to my concern over the voices shaping the conversation:

“It has been difficult to court mainstream acceptance for such a tangle of seemingly technical ideas when its chief advocates have been hackers and academics.” 

These works all have in common a reaction (Free Software Definition and Vaidhyanathan) to and/or dialogue (O’Reilly) with the proprietization of software and computing, versus the historical and romantically routed philosophy of hacker culture and free/open source software radiating from academics and researchers, the likes of whom founded the Free Software Foundation, and many of whom have supported the development of GNU/Linux OS.


Who can and how can we make conversations about the future of the internet/computing, and open versus proprietary relevant to all users?

What are some examples of a successful strategy that’s gotten the general public in dialogue? What is the role of media and government? What about privacy and security?

Are the business systems that support Web 2.0 competencies here to stay? How do they advance or hinder internet and computing?

Notes on the Free Software Definition

The free software definition is more than a definition, it’s a declaration that free software is an extension of the fundamental freedom of speech. It is an evolving statement that traces the history and revisions of the very political definition from 2001 to present (a nod to wiki edit history), though the fundamental concepts has been systematically advancing since the early-mid 1980s with the work of Richard Stallman to develop a completely open OS with the GNU project. 

The free software definition consists of four main freedoms:

  1. freedom to run a program as you wish
  2. freedom to learn how the program works and the freedom to change the program to your own specifications
  3. freedom to distribute copies to your neighbor
  4. freedom to distribute copies of your modified versions

Most of these freedoms cannot be achieved unless software source code is open – free for anyone to access and use. The definition also stresses that free software is not about cost. In fact, FSF condones distributing copies of free software for a price. More on that here. The definition also comes out pretty hard against a group advancing the term “open source software”  instead of “free software.” FSF believes the two are fundamentally different. Richard Stallman writes:

“The two terms describe almost the same category of software, but they stand for views based on fundamentally different values. Open source is a development methodology; free software is a social movement. For the free software movement, free software is an ethical imperative, essential respect for the users’ freedom. By contrast, the philosophy of open source considers issues in terms of how to make software “better”—in a practical sense only. It says that nonfree software is an inferior solution to the practical problem at hand.”

The Free Software Definition talks about copyright, and recommends using copyleft licensing which requires that any future modifications of the existing software be licensed exactly the same, so that no one can convert the software into a proprietary (nonfree) version. But in general, the Definition does not go into detail about the range of software licenses available, and the style of the post reads sort of like a one sided conversation and has an air of superiority.

Notes on Web 2.0 by Tim O’Reilly 

Tim O’Reilly and his colleagues at O’Reilly Media introduced the term “Web 2.0” after the dot-com bubble burst in the early 2000s. Since the coining of the term, it’s taken on a monstrous life of its own, and O’Reilly’s writes to explain its original intentions.

What makes something on the internet Web 2.0 instead of Web 1.0? O’Reilly describes 2.0 as “…principles and practices that tie together a veritable solar system of sites” that exhibit some/all of the following principles or “core competencies”:

  • services, not packaged software
  • architecture of participation
  • cost-effective scalability
  • remixable data source and data transformations
  • software above the level of a single device
  • harnessing collective intelligence

from Figure 4.1, the Web 2.0 Meme map

Fundamental features of Web 2.0 include the web as platform, integration of transformative social networking technology with blogging and RSS, strategic management of the data supply an application works off of, and constant maintenance and iterative improvements to the product. The most enduring concept throughout O’Reilly’s discussion is really about shifting business models in the likeness of Web 2.0 companies that have had huge success (Google, Amazon, eBay). O’Reilly emphasizes that companies are best positioned when they work with the network: this includes leveraging the user community, for instance Amazon tracking user activity to improve search results, and Flickr categorizing content with user generated folksonomies. Web 2.0 also pushes the option for modular product development that takes existing independent components and assembles something of new value.

I have several concerns having to do with O’Reilly’s section about improving the user experience. The emergence of cross platform access is convenient but can also degrade user privacy and open source software didn’t get explored in great detail.


Materials from OER workshop + Event on social justice & scholarship

Two docs I’d like to share:

Both incorporate a lot of material I’ve put together specifically for faculty at City Tech, but the contents have wide application for anyone interested in integrating free/open course content into their curriculum.

Also, a plug for “Scholarship Matters,” a talk on social justice and open scholarship with speakers, Jessie Daniels, and Megan Wacha.

Location: City Tech, Atrium 632 (Faculty Lounge) – amazing train access: 2, 3, 4, 5, A, C, R, F

Date/time: Tuesday, October 20 from 4 – 6 p.m.


Kerr needed a rap session with Freire

First, I’ll start with a very terse critique of Kerr’s The Uses of the University turned “multiversity.” I give anyone, including Kerr, credit for engaging in any reasonably thoughtful discussion of the university because higher education discourse often inspires a deer in headlights level of frustration (I would say he pushes, at the very least, to the brink of paralysis).

I felt a palpable sense of angst throughout this reading, despite agreeing with a number of points throughout Kerr’s account. I couldn’t shake a constant sense of distrust towards an individual at the pinnacle of privilege, speaking so clinically, and dispassionately about his own subject – ironic considering his biography. Kerr took the structuralist portrayal of the university slightly too far for me, but considering his time, and position (I am calling the kettle so black right now…) it would seem pretty difficult to avoid. This is not to say that there isn’t tremendous value in revealing the skeleton and arteries of large institutional organisms. I think in part, his methods are an overture to what I believe is a core purpose of the university (see 4th paragraph). But since we live in America, and it’s election season, the myriad problems of bureaucratic systems with gargantuan societal mandates are all too familiar to us. And in national politics as in the university, binarism rises to the top of the discourse most of the time.

My fatigue with partisan, radical discourse in mainstream politics today makes me loathe to broach the “university” and “multiversity” nomenclature. I also didn’t find it particularly riveting. Instead, I want to talk about what I think Kerr’s discussion missed. His account of the two great university traditions, the British undergraduate system, and the German graduate system, is the most he speaks on the role of teaching and learning in the university, besides a brief aside about technology’s potential to supplant instruction, and free up research time. This is a true blunder. If the academy were to put the same level of value on teaching as on scholarship, (and perhaps unsilo the two) I think it would help clear up a lot of discord about the “university,” inside and out.

How to improve teaching and learning? Hire scholars who are good teachers. They exist, and the two practices don’t need to be mutually exclusive. I’m talking about people who care deeply about critical pedagogy. I think critiques on the merit of liberal arts colleges versus community and technical colleges matter a little less when students are equally given the space to develop critical literacies and are empowered to become scholars in their own right, no matter their discipline of interest or level of advancement. Unfortunately, the current system of faculty tenure and promotion fails to make room for teaching, let alone incentivize it. The contingent faculty labor band aid damages the situation more. Yet despite this, many faculty still find opportunities to drive critical pedagogy into their curricula. They’re doing this without fanfare or additional remuneration? There must be something to this teaching thing.


Relate any number of topics to the text: the university’s role in perpetuating the class system, fueling neoliberalism, the corporatization of the university, college as commodity

What can critical pedagogy fix? What can’t it?

Respond to this quote:

“This creates new roles for education; but it is also part of the process of freezing the structure of the occupational pyramid and assuring that the well-behaved do advance, even if the geniuses do not. The university is used as an egg-candling device; and it is, perhaps, a better one than any other that can be devised, but the process takes some of the adventure out of occupational survival, and does for some professions what the closed shop has done for some unions.” p. 83-84 of The Uses of the University by Clark Kerr.