Sunday, June 7, 2009

We are afterall, humanbeings first, not humandoings.

I have been, of late, exploring a conceptual framework for action within my own disciplinary boundaries. In doing so, I have come realize that one of my "unshakeable" beliefs-- a framework out of which I act -- is that every human being is born a contribution to the planet. Something like a spiritual principle, this notion of "human being as contribution," governs my views on Web 2.0 and collaborative learning as the core of my work in the college classroom.

Yet, as I foreground this principle and my reliance on a mechanism by which I bring the principle to life, I want to make a distinction between what makes up an initiative and what constitutes a vision.

As new media initiatives are being introduced into the educational environment in the Humanities, my colleagues at Duke University are slowly warming up to the possibilities that these technologies provide. The much publicized iPod initiative at Duke garnered faculty involvement, as did the Duke Digital Initiative. While the digital initiatives have clearly generated interest in Duke as an institution and have produced inter- and intra-institutional collaborations, I feel moved to ask the following:

Where is the people factor here? Where is “the who” that is in collaboration? How are people interacting and how are they bringing about changes? If collaboration is important, is collaboration being applied as a model throughout the system, or is part of the system, of change in particular, moving forward in an adversarial or confrontational or monopolistic manner? (These are some of the most provocative questions asked by Michael Karlberg in Beyond the Culture of Contest.)

As I see it, it is the competitive nature of grading in the educational system (for students) and the accolades that accrue in doing research and writing as individual scholars (for faculty) in the Humanities that often force members of academic Humanities to shy away from collaborative work. (The defeat at the University of Maryland of the vote to institute an open access policy for research by its faculty is an instance of this resistance to open collaboration).

So let me ask: Bottom line: What does it mean to collaborate?

To collaborate is to be in relationship. It is to place consultation at the core of our interconnectedness. To collaborate is not about the doingness of a project, but the being. It is the attitude, the vision of interconnectedness that we bring to the process, first and foremost.

We are afterall, humanbeings first, not humandoings.

It is in consultation, within a dialogic back and forth of reflection, discussion, and application, and repeated reevaluation --a consultation in relationship between the individuals involved-- that we as individuals and our institutions gain in identity, grow, learn and generate knowledge. Within projects, consultation is the basis for collective growth and the safe-guard for justice in human relations. Consultation also protects knowledge from the orthodoxy of any truth. For any discourse that establishes itself as an orthodoxy is stagnant and dangerous.

As I see it, no one institution, and no one individual scholar is self-sustaining. Establishing greater networks of consultation for academic institutions supports a vision that says that we envision the world as a place where we gain new levels of consciousness, together, in an interconnected way. As Isaac Newton once said: "If I have seen further it is only by standing on the shoulders of giants."

New technologies are presently available to generate a conversation on a grand scale that would allow us to think as a global community about any local or global concern, especially those that might impact and address the future of humanity, its knowledges, its cultures and its well-being. As a recent Time article on Twitter suggests, “We are living through the worst economic crisis in generations, with apocalyptic headlines threatening the end of capitalism as we know it, and yet in the middle of this chaos, the engineers at Twitter headquarters are scrambling to keep the servers up, application developers are releasing their latest builds, and ordinary users are figuring out all the ingenious ways to put these tools to use. There's a kind of resilience here that is worth savoring. The weather reports keep announcing that the sky is falling, but here we are — millions of us — sitting around trying to invent new ways to talk to one another.”

Much of this kind of work, this interconnection and constant consultation takes place as a necessity in the Sciences, but in the Humanities, we cling firmly to old and outworn traditions of scholarship and teaching, refusing to include both our students and scholars at other institutions in our day to day work, to involve them in our research, our thinking, our applications, our questions, our writing and our teaching. Also, truth be told, don't we work with the assumption that all scholarly contribution has its beginnings and finds its end-point in the academic institution itself?

What would happen if we provide for mechanisms that allow for an open exchange of ideas to whoever wants to be involved in the evolution of knowledge? What would happen to Humanities scholarship then? How would we change as scholars? Who would we be? And who would we become?

What are we really afraid of?