Digital Technologies and the Transformation of the Academic Conference: An Experiment

ITP student Benjamin Haber (Sociology) reflects on his independent study project

 

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With some notable exceptions, academic conferences have remained largely unmoved by the digital technologies of the twenty-first century. PowerPoint feels like the last technology to really disrupt the conference form, and the aesthetics and rhythms of that program have become so pervasive that it can feel more exciting just to hear people read. Of course, livestreaming and video rebroadcasting of conference sessions are becoming more popular, and Twitter seems to play an ever-larger role in conference interaction and communication, but these technologies have largely functioned to expand the audience for academic ideas and conversations (an important goal, of course) while leaving the structural form and affective tone of the conference itself relatively intact. In other words while conferences have slowly begun to utilize digital technologies to bring scholarly research and ideas to new publics, they have largely failed at using these technologies to transform the academic conference itself, a form that is in desperate need of reinvention.

In this paper I explore a project that in its own small way attempts to leverage digital technologies to transform the experience of the conference itself. It is my hope that doing so shows both the potential for networked digital technologies to transform the in-person work of academic life, while also highlighting the challenges of these transformations, both in terms of design and implementation as well as resistance by users to new forms of academic scholarship and unpaid labor.

Theory and Design

For this project, my colleague Christina Nadler and I have designed an interactive online environment to facilitate scholarly communication prior to an in-person seminar meeting. While the typical seminar format involves distributing readings on a topic that then get discussed in person, we thought that an interactive online platform would allow the for a more productive and enjoyable face-to-face meeting by focusing the conversation on the theories and practices that most interest the participants. This is particularly the case because the topic of the seminar we are leading, Animality, is a still emerging, interdisciplinary academic movement whose contours will be in large part defined by the research and theory produced under this banner. Thus, rather than focusing discussion on readings that reflect our interests as seminar leaders, we decided to organize the discussion around a wiki comprised of ten keywords, populated by seminar participants with academic texts, reflections, discussion, media and art that reflect the collective research interests of the group.

Trying to strike a balance between creating a useable structure and keeping discussion open-ended we defined the ten keywords but tried to keep them as expansive as possible: Biopolitics, Slaughter, Race, Civilization, Pedagogy, Bodies & Environment, Domestication, Biotechnology, Digital, Art. We picked words that were major terms in the discourses of animal studies and cultural studies but also words that were of significance in popular culture. Our hope is that the interconnected but divergent applications of these concepts in popular and academic discourses offer productive points of generation. However, the inclusion of these particular ten words is to some extent arbitrary and guided by our own interdisciplinary histories so we fully expect that some words will attract more interest than others. If this project continues after the conference perhaps some words will fall away and others will emerge.

We asked each of the seminar participants to “bottom-line” two of these subtopics, but encouraged them to participate widely by adding content to any of the keywords they felt inspired to take on. We have also enabled CommentPress on the wiki to offer another avenue for participation, for those who may want to comment on certain additions or subtractions from the wiki through marginalia. CommentPress is an open-source project, as well as a WordPress plugin and theme, designed to turn static documents into interactive conversations through in-text commenting.

This ongoing wiki was to form the basis of our in-person conversation at the Cultural Studies Association’s Annual Meeting in late May of this year. A few days prior to the conference, Christina and I would review the wiki and come up with a number of structuring questions, focusing on points of convergence and contention, opportunities for future research and praxis, and interactions between academic research, activism and cultural production. This would allow us to tailor the seminar to the concerns of the participants in a way not possible in a traditional seminar format, but as important it gave participants the opportunity to get familiar with the particular discursive styles and research interests of those who they will be talking with. Our hope was that this would prove to be particularly helpful in an interdisciplinary seminar where differences in the ways of talking and theorizing about similar topics can alienate participants and derail conversations.

In addition to the wiki, our site has a CommentPress enabled blog where participants are able to post their original research for commentary and constructive criticism. This feature foregrounds what is still the most important and often the most alienating part of academia—publishing. A seminar is theoretically a perfect opportunity to make connections with people who are doing similar research as you, but the ephemeral nature of these meetings often prevents this from happening in reality. By stretching the amount of time spent with participants, and adding to the points of interaction, the site perhaps makes the networking benefits of conferences a bit more tangible. The blog itself offers a mechanism for feedback with a built in audience of receptive, knowledgeable scholars who, better than most, can reflect and critique works-in-progress prior to sending them out for publication.

The blog works in tandem with the wiki. While the wiki allows the development of intertwining genealogies of interest and theoretical inspiration, the blog shows the specific work that participants are doing. Participants were asked to initially post their animality-related conference abstracts to the blog, with longer pieces to come later. It is likely that the blog will become more useful as participants use the site more and become more comfortable with other seminar participants. The initial request for abstracts rather than articles was in part in order to create a “safe space” online where participants could get comfortable through a gradual sharing of work and ideas.

CommentPress has been used to tremendous effect in a couple of high-profile cases, perhaps most notably with Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s Planned Obsolescence, whose success as a CommentPress case study was in no small measure due to the subject of the manuscript (the future of academic publishing). Though Fitzpatrick outlines many of the barriers to the mass adoption of the technologies of open peer-review, one of the most significant hindrances to making this work in practice involves finding a scholarly community and creating structures of accountability to other’s work. While Fitzpatrick suggests that the technologies of the internet will facilitate this sorting into communities of interest (2011, 17), it is clear that this remains one of the ideals of digital technologies that at best has only been embryonically realized. By integrating these technologies with in-person conference meetings (for many academics the only opportunity to engage with scholars outside of their university), our hope is that projects like this can speed up the process of academic community making. As the university becomes increasingly interdisciplinary, while still organizationally structured through and around disciplines, the creation of new forms of scholarly community will only increase in importance, especially for graduate students just beginning to find their place in the academy.

Implementation

Our site was built using WordPress-based plugins and hosted on Opencuny.org. Our construction decisions were mostly practical, driven by the resources at our disposal and the constraints imposed by the short window of time between our invitation to lead a seminar and the conference itself. It would not be unreasonable to see this as a test-run or a prototype that if successful could be customized and further developed for future conferences.

Opencuny.org is the student-run, open-source, online community for the CUNY Graduate Center. We looked at variety of platforms, including the CUNY Academic Commons and running WordPress on a privately hosted site, but Opencuny offered both unbeatable affordability (free!) and the versatility afforded by Christina’s position as an administrator. The administrative access proved to be particularly important as it allowed us to install plugins not already approved for general use (like the wiki plugin), and most importantly allowed us to add people to the site who are not academically affiliated with the Graduate Center (only one other seminar participant besides Christina and me are CUNY students).

We decided to use the CommentPress theme to structure our site, reasoning that the ability to comment on blocks of text would be useful for all components of our site. On top of that theme we activated the Wiki plugin in order to support the interactive keywords component of the site. This proved to be a more technically complicated and less elegant solution than we would have hoped. While in theory the wiki plugin works fine with the CommentPress theme, in practice the wiki periodically deactivated itself with compatibility issues. While we have been able to get the site back online, those with less technical skills and administrative access would likely have not. More importantly, as I will discuss later, its ongoing technical glitches undermined participant’s confidence in the site. In addition to technical problems, we ran into the restrictions of working with pre-existing software. For example, the free version of the wiki plugin is not set up to allow easily embedded video, making that portion of the site less aesthetically rich and media diverse. In short, we encountered the common problems of WordPress incompatibilities and the limitations of working with free software.

It was important for us to use already existing WordPress plugins because we wanted to explore the possibilities for creative and transformational digital projects for those with only the most minimal of technical skills. While it would be ideal if many scholars in the humanities and social sciences had the technical skills to build and utilize digital tools, this is unfortunately not yet the case, despite a flood of interest and capital into the Digital Humanities and “big data.” Alongside a new push to give academics outside of the computer sciences the digital literacy needed to be “makers,” should be a concerted effort to highlight the many simple, free and cheap tools that are widely available and can help academics make their work more interesting, more accessible and more interactive.

Challenges

The most pressing and immediately evident challenge to this project’s success is one shared by many innovations in online communication—the labor problem. It is all well and good for me to write about the potential for this platform to make conferences more interesting and useful, but at the end of the day, this way of running a seminar requires the sustained work of all participants for it to be successful. While you basically can get the work of a traditional seminar done on the plane ride to the conference, this mode of pre-conference engagement requires ongoing intellectual labor, and just as important, the affective labor of making yourself vulnerable to your peers.

The magnitude of this challenge became evident right away. After sending multiple emails asking participants to join the site, we finally managed to get everyone signed up a little more than a week after the site went live. Asking people to post their abstracts and begin to populate the wiki initially was met with a tepid response- two weeks after the site went live only about half of seminar participants had put any content on the site at all. In part this can be explained by the amount of time between site launch and conference. Despite our enthusiasm for this project, academics are asked to manage an increasingly daunting array of projects and contributing to a seminar that is almost two months away is likely not high on that list.

This put Christina and me in the awkward position of having to be enforcers of a certain level of production when paradoxically one of the goals of this project was to decentralize the seminar experience. Indeed, one of the weaknesses of this project is the incompatibility of ownership over the site and the ideas it represents. In other words, the collectivizing intention of this site has been hampered by the centralized way it was conceived and designed. In hindsight, it probably would have been better to have collectively formulated the plans for the design and construction of the site to whatever extent possible. For example, rather than coming up with the ten keywords ourselves, we could have utilized a Doodle poll to both solicit words and vote on which ones to include. More fundamentally we could have proposed this unconventional approach to a seminar and put it up for discussion rather than unilaterally implementing it.

Since perhaps two months is too much time for seminar participants, we decided to wait until May 1st for any further gently prodding emails. Perhaps concentrating the energy of participants into a smaller period of time would prove to be wise. In my experience as both a professor and student I have noticed an increasingly pervasive inability to do work well before a deadline (among both my most and least motivated students and peers) that perhaps is the attention deficient condition of the twenty-first century—the cultural equivalent to just-in-time manufacturing and high-frequency trading (see Randy Martin’s recent article on the “Social Logics of the Derivative” [2013]).

In any case, this project highlights the way that for many academics, digital tools and online interactions feel like unpaid labor and increasingly like very high stakes unpaid labor. While for some Twitter is a fun and casual tool for speaking their mind and engaging with others, for academics it is serious business, yet another space where our already perilous career paths can be made or unmade. The Digital Humanities both relieves and exacerbates this problem. By treating our online activities as labor, Digital Humanities perhaps provides a platform for recognizing and renumerating what is now by and large unpaid labor. But in its larger pull on the academy—by increasing the pressure to engage on ever-multiplying platforms in various ways while teaching loads and adjunct hiring continue to rise in tandem—it can increase the expectations of scholars in an academy in flux.

To return to this project, what I want to emphasize is that getting seminar participants to contribute to this site is exhorting them not only to participate in unremunerated labor, but also a certain kind of digital affective labor that most of us receive no training for. Every academic knows the work of (good) college teaching or presenting at a conference, while often extremely rewarding, is particularly taxing because of the affective labor involved. Getting seminar members to participate is asking them to not only post things to a website, but to subject themselves to scrutiny, to quickly engage with other academics at a high intellectual level, to master the difficult art of gentle critique, among other tasks. How do we convince ourselves and others that the rewards of online engagement are worth the real costs of participation?

In part the answer lies in the gap between the increasingly digital, collaborative and generally non-textual production of academia in the 21st century and the still old school ways of representing our academic accomplishments. Graduate students in particular are forced to straddle an academic hiring system that still relies on the credentialing system of the twentieth century—namely peer-review publishing in print academic journals—while increasingly emphasizing the need to use digital tools to do things in public. Until we find ways to more fully and equitably compensate academics for the new kinds of academic scholarship we are doing, we at least need new ways to get credit for our work. Maybe we need to add new and strange sounding sections to our CV’s (“Digital Collaborative Curation” perhaps?) until they start seeming less new and less strange.

Successes and Failures

While this was certainly a worthwhile experiment on the possibilities of new digitally facilitated collaboration, problems both technical and structural in nature limited the success of this project. Most pressingly perhaps were technical glitches on the site that we were unable to fully resolve and unfamiliarity and uncomfortably with the format both of which limited participant engagement. However, the site was effective in giving seminar members a better sense of the other participants and their work and by providing a novel digital space for informal collaboration that encompassed both academic and popular media. With some technical and organizational modifications, this project could provide a template for using simple digital tools to facilitate more productive and engaging seminars.

While most seminar participants had participated in building the site content by the time of the in-person meeting, the level of engagement did not meet our expectations. While some conversations or discussions did occur on the site—mostly relating to the abstracts posted on the blog—engagement with others work was the exception rather than the norm. More common were posts and comments that made interesting connections or asked compelling questions but did not cohere into a discussion. While this is part reflected the short time period between when people started participating in earnest and the conference itself, there were also concerns both structural and affective that limited sustained engagement.

In the seminar meeting at the conference, some participants expressed a hesitance to post that was part technical and part affective—a waiting to see what others posted, unsure of how this was going to go, unclear if it was worth the effort—kind of reticence.  Because of the novelty of the form it took a while for the particularized style, tone and content of the site to cohere.  While nobody mentioned this in the meeting specifically (we only had time for brief comments at the end of the seminar on the participant’s experience of the site), I suspect some of this hesitance has to do with a general chaffing at the increasing demands that digital participation places on academics, along with a not unreasonable fear that communication on the internet is more likely to be negative and unproductive than in-person conversations. Indeed, in informal conversations many academics have told me they are disengaging from the big two proprietary “social media” platforms at least in part because of the groaningly unpleasant affect that in particular seems to poison conversations between strangers. Now that many of the seminar participants have met and talked in person, I suspect the affective barriers to participation will lessen.

There was also some disappointment that the website and the seminar meeting were not as integrated as they could be. In part this was because while the media posted to the website represented the broad theoretical and thematic interests of the seminar participants, we wanted to focus our in-person conversation on possible common ground—both practical and theoretical—and thus spent a large portion of the conversation discussing what animality is in the context of Cultural Studies and other disciplines. That said, perhaps we were not as successful as we hoped in imbuing the spirit of the site into the conversation.

Also mentioned by participants was a structural problem with the website, by which I mean the lack of a temporal structure of engagement. In other words, many thought the site would be more effective if instead of a nebulous wiki-style slow build of content, we structured it around time sensitive topics. In hindsight, this would have been a far more preferable way to structure the wiki—rather than picking the ten keywords, we could have had participants both pick and bottom line a new word on a weekly basis. That would have defined a more concrete structure of participation and would concentrate most of the labor of posting into one week. Because of the technical glitches of the site—which seem to be a compatibility problem between the CommentPress theme and our plugins—after the conference we changed the theme in order to host future conversations in a more decentralized and time-sensitive manner.

All that said I consider this project to be a success. Most participants liked the idea of the site, and had we been able to work out the technical glitches before the conference, I think participation would have been more robust. Numerous people indicated that it was helpful as a way to get to know the other participants, and that they liked having a centralized space for learning about other people doing similar work.  Seminar participants also highlighted that they particularly liked the opportunities it opened up for humor, non-textual media and non-academic articles. It’s easy to imagine this site as a sort of third-space between the academic and popular worlds of cultural studies, which combines the best aspects of both kinds of communication.

While the failures of this project seem to outnumber the successes on paper, my hope is that the failures are ones of growth, and that this experiment contributes towards conversations about new and better ways of integrating the digital and the fleshy in the service of innovative collaborative academic research. There are always hiccups in major transitions, and academia’s quickening reorganization by the digital will not be smooth or uncomplicated. The more we get comfortable as both participants and creators of digital tools the better they will become, and the quicker we will move from seeing these kinds of projects as novel experiments to seeing them as the new mundane that we then look to overcome.

Conclusion

Integrating digital tools into pedagogical and research practice is not simply a project of acquiring technological skill. The increasing calls to digitize academia come along with a variety of affective, labor and social implications that deserve more attention as money and attention flood to digital initiatives. While this project has shown that technical barriers (both real and perceived) can and do hinder the adoption of digital tools, it also highlights the need to ask new questions about the digital academy: How can we design and utilize the digital in ways that don’t exacerbate (and ideally ameliorate) the labor demands that have been so acutely piling up in late capitalism? What new feelings and capacities do these new technological circuits encourage, and how do we mindfully incorporate these affects into our discussions of the digital academy? What do our in-person academic encounters lack, and what new digital tools can be useful in making meetings, conferences and classrooms more interesting, productive and collaborative? How do academic systems of hiring, promotion and funding stifle experiments in integrating the digital into pedagogy and research?

I hope our project has suggested speculative answers to some of these rhetorical questions. At the core of many of them is the suggestion that more digital tools and projects should emerge from conversations about what is not working about academia. Indeed, framing conversations about “digital making” around the possibilities of a more vibrant and compelling academic life would be an easy way to accelerate the process of interesting those faculty and students whose work does not focus with technology into participating in digital projects. If these kinds of experiments (even failed ones) become more widespread it will go a long ways towards recognizing them as labor (and thus deserving of remuneration and professional acknowledgement) but also recognizing that they can make the in-person experiences of academic life more enjoyable, creative and vibrant.

Works Cited

Fitzpatrick, Kathleen. Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy. New York: New York University Press, 2011. Print.

Martin, Randy. “After Economy?: Social Logics of the Derivative.” Social Text 31.1 114 (2013): 83–106. Print.