Creating an Interstructure in the University Using Student-Led, Faculty-Supported Projects

Megan Keaton, a student enrolled in this semester’s ENG 5998 reading group, offers a starting point for conversation about ways in which to create an interstructure between vertical and horizontal power structures in the university. 

In the Digital Humanities Manifesto 2.0, we see a call for collaboration and participation in the: “Digital Humanities implies the multi-purposing and multiple channeling of humanistic knowledge…Its economy is abundance based, not one based upon scarcity…[I]t promotes collaborations and creation across domains of expertise…Digital Humanities = Co-creation” (UCLA, emphasis in original). This kind of collaboration and participation is similar to Jenkins’ particaptory culture and collective intelligence. Yet, as articulated in Jie’s post, “While viral sites encourage users jump from one post to another to get the information they want, such participation does not lead to many meaningful activities. And considering personalization, this model of participation will inevitably weaken, not strengthen, audience agency…This may make us ask what is real participation, or to what extent participation is promising, but another question is to what extent people participate.”

During her talk, Dr. Yancey also approached this problem by discussing power; media content is not power-neutral and, even in spaces in which content is user-generated, the content that is seen and/or valued has very much to do with access. Access goes beyond simply having an Internet connection and a Facebook account; access here means having a valued voice, the ability and position to influence readers and media owners, and the permission to disturbed, circulate and/or modify already created content. Dr. Yancey also pointed us to the differing power structures between the supposed horizontal structure of social media and the vertical structure of institutions like the government. Then, as summarized by refactorymuse, “Moving to the issue of changing media infrastructure and knowledge distribution in the academy, Dr Yancey used the analogy of the ‘interlanguage’ to suggest a viable connection between the social media platforms and protocols of the populace and the platforms and protocols of the humanists in academia.” In the rest of this post, I would like to combine and address two questions posed by refactorymuse:

  1. Can we continue to expose the urgency of the need for an interlanguage in more logistical ways, and specifically pertaining to the FSU Humanities network?
  2. Are there ways to foster more faculty-student digital projects in the English Department wherein the student can gather digital experience/skills on site, even if they have little preexisting digital experience?

I would like to suggest that this interlanguage can begin by “fostering more faculty-student digital projects in the English Department.” This, then, brings to the fore the desire for co-creation and a sharing of expertise described in the Digital Humanities Manifesto 2.0. (I recognize that the ideas below are idealistic; however, I am presenting suggestions with the hope of developing a conversation.)

To begin, we might follow Dr. Yancey’s lead in the ways in which she inspires students to take up their own projects. In her graduate level courses (I cannot speak for her undergraduate courses), students design their own final projects; these projects can be “a conference text (could be prezi; print; etc); a syllabus; or other work allowing you to explore in depth a dimension of the course” (Yancey, Everyday Writing Fall 2014 Syllabus). Though not every student will continue their project after the course has ended, these projects allow students to apply course concepts in meaningful ways and give them an opportunity to begin composing/designing a product on which they can build. Furthermore, students do not need to seek out a faculty member who can help them with the project. As the instructor is an authority on the subject of the product and is already associated with it, students have a faculty member who can oversee, facilitate and/or offer advice for the project. More, if students receive feedback on their final projects, they already a reader’s (and expert’s) reactions to and suggestions for the project. All of this means that beginning and continuing a project is much easier than if a student was to begin a project outside of a course on his/her own.

In her post, Jie made the connection between Jenkins and Svensson, who encourages his readers to think of Digital Humanities as a meeting place or a trading zone. These metaphors might also be used for student-led, faculty-supported projects. Svensson writes, “The digital humanities can be seen as a fractioned (not homogenous) collaborative (not coerced) trading zone and a meeting place that supports deeply collaborative work, individual expression, unexpected connections, and synergetic power. The ‘digital,’ in a broad sense and in various manifestations, functions as a shared boundary object” (“Big Tent”). The “shared boundary” for faculty and students may be the content of the course (as discussed above) or a particular area of interest.

These student-led, faculty-supported projects can encourage conversations about the “interlanguage” between vertical and horizontal power structures within the university. For instance, the online Museum of Everyday Writing (MoEW) – which is being created by three Rhetoric and Composition graduate students, including myself – was born out of Dr. Yancey’s Everyday Writing course. While there is a horizontal structure among the three graduates students and a vertical structure between the graduate students and Dr. Yancey as faculty member, there is an interplay between these structures when decisions about the MoEW are made. Because they see Dr. Yancey as an expert, the graduate students have turned to Dr. Yancey for advice about categorization systems, copyright and ownership laws, and language for submission forms; yet, the decisions about and directions of the MoEW are ultimately up to the graduate students.

In this, we see a push-pull of power and knowledge creation (as Dr. Yancey discussed during her talk). On one hand, Dr. Yancey’s advice is valuable and, if the graduate students choose to leave the MoEW at FSU when they leave, Dr. Yancey will be the faculty member attached to the MoEW; these means that she needs to be in support of most of the graduate students’ decisions. On the other hand, the MoEW is a project the graduate students started and will continue to associate with their names. Due to this push-pull, and particularly when Dr. Yancey’s advice conflicts with what we have imagined for the MoEW, my colleagues and I have had conversations about the balance between following Dr. Yancey’s (the expert) advice and staying true to our vision for the MoEW. To come even closer to the “interlanguage” suggested by Dr. Yancey, my colleagues and I could involve Dr. Yancey – and possibly other faculty members – in this dialogue.

Moving outward to the English department as a whole or to the university as a whole, we might turn to Clay Shirky’s Ted Talk, “Institutions vs. Collaboration.” In this talk, Shirky argues that most user-generated content follows the power-law distribution:

“The math behind the power-law distribution is that whatever’s in the nth position is doing about one-nth of whatever’s being measured, relative to the person in the first position. So, we’d expect the tenth most prolific photographer to  have contributed about a tenth of the photos, and the hundredth most prolific photographer to have contributed only about a hundred as many photos as the most prolific photographer did. So, the head of the curve can be sharper or flatter. But that basic math accounts both for the steep slope and for the long, flat tail” (Shirky).

He argues that an institution would see that they can get 75% of the content for 10% of the labor and hire those 10% of photographer. Shirky asks, though, why lose the other 25%? Why not get the full 100% with a collaborative framework. Of course, some of this answer is about control; institutions cannot control the kind of content that is generated if everyone can contribute as much or as little as one wants. However, with the collaborative framework, we can get more – and potentially more meaningful – content. As we move from an instructional framework to a collaboration framework, Shirky explains, our questions change from “Was this person a good hire?” (institutional) to “Was the person’s contribution a good idea?” (collaborative).

This allows for the possibility that a person may contribute fewer ideas in quantity but much more useful ideas in quality. Dr. Yancey, in her talk, suggested, “If you want people to change what they do, you need to change the reward.” She gave the example of publishing: publishing a book through a UP is more valued than “publishing” the book for free, even if the content and/or audience of the book would align more closely with distributing the book for free. So, then, what do we reward? Here, we could utilize Shirky’s collaboration framework. We might move from “How many books has this person published?” or “Where did this person publish?” to “What kind of contribution (and to whom) did this person’s work make?”

I acknowledge that this is still problematic. There is a value judgement that needs to be made and we would need to decide not only what kinds of contributions get valued but also how highly those contributions are valued. But, shifting to a collaborative framework might encourage more student-led, faculty-supported projects if faculty is rewarded for supporting students in these ways (and, and that matter, directing student theses and dissertations) and if students were rewarded for contributing to the knowledge base in more ways than only through publication and conference presentations. For instance, then, students could be rewarded for designing spaces like the MoEW and the FSU Post Card Archive. This also might led to an interstructure as more faculty and students collaborate on projects and are both rewarded for that collaboration.

Works Cited

Clay Shirky. “Institutions vs. Collaboration.” Ted Talks, 2005.

Henry Jenkins. Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. NYUP, 2006.

Patrick Svensson. “Beyond the Big Tent.” Matthew Gold, ed. Debates in the Digital Humanities, 2013 open-access edition.

UCLA. The Digital Humanities Manifesto 2.0. UCLA Humanities, Division, and the Digital Humanities, 2009.

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