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Notes Towards a Regional Digital Arts & Cultures Collaboratory; or, HASTACing With the Neighbours

[This is the text of a presentation I recently gave at the Humanities, Arts, Sciences, and Technology Advanced Collaboratory (HĀSTAC) Conference at York University in Toronto, ON. Taking place 25-28 April 2013, the theme of the meeting was The Decennial: The Storm of Progress: New Horizons, New Narratives, New Codes. This presentation centres on how a focus on regional networks of collaboration–and what a network might look in the Pacific Northwest/West Coast region of Canada and the US–might impact how we “do” digital humanities and grow the field in the future. I have included the slides, as presented, for your edification.]

In their 2004 article “A Manifesto for the Humanities in a Technological Age,” Cathy Davidson and David Theo Golberg argue that the “humanities have a central place in exploring the possibilities, the reach and implications, of digital technologies and cultures.” These new, technologically concerned and inflected humanities “require new structures” and “new models for researchers to work across disciplinary boundaries, making use of databases and resources that no one scholar, or department, can maintain. That requires planning at an institutional level.”

In line with the this conference’s prompt to “engage in the creative, if impossible, attempt to glimpse the digital future,” this presentation will engage in a sort of thought experiment, one engaged intimately with how we—the scholar-practitioners of the digital age—can shape such a future. So, my imagined future community is this: A regional, focused, multi-institutional digital cultures collaboratory anchored in the Pacific Northwest. In the next few minutes, I will outline and briefly discuss four areas of concern to such a potential organization: geography (cultural and actual), digital collaboratories like HASTAC, regional humanities centers, and formalized networks of research transfer and enrichment. Obviously, this is a broad overview of some tenuous thoughts that haven’t progressed formally—so think of it as an extended thought experiment.

Geography            Depending on who you ask, the Pacific Northwest is usually taken to mean some combination of the US states of Oregon and Washington and the Canadian province of British Columbia. Slide Often, the region is said to be limited to the area between the Cascade Mountains and the Pacific Ocean—a coastal area containing the cities of (from north to south) Vancouver, Bellingham, Victoria, Seattle, Tacoma, Portland, and Eugene, among several others. This region is well known for its left and liberal politics and natural abundance, containing the world’s largest area of temperate rainforest. 

As Wikipedia mentions, and as several people I’ve spoken with have brought up, the region has even seen the emergence of a low-level, sometimes tongue in cheek, sometimes not, independence movement calling for the succession of ‘Cascadia’ from the US and Canada.

More seriously though, the region has been identified by the Metropolitan Institute at Virginia Tech University as one of ten ‘Megapolitan’ Areas, a clustered network of metropolitan areas that will by 2040 exceed 10 million people.

Most of the region’s population falls along the I-5 / Hwy 99 corridor in BC, Washington, and Oregon, with Vancouver (metro population 2.3 million), Seattle (metro population 3.5 million), and Portland (metro population 2.5 million) anchoring the slender, coastal region. In common with other ‘megaregions’ like the Great Lakes megaregion (anchored by Chicago, Toronto, and Detroit) and the Northeast Megalopolis (Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington D.C.), the Northwest has seen increasing integration across state, provincial, and national borders. Washington and BC have cooperated to issue drivers licenses facilitating the crossing of the US-Canada border; the British Columbia-Washington Environmental Cooperation Council and the Pacific Northwest Economic Region similarly deal with transnational, regional issues. By many standards, political, cultural, and geographic affinity unifies the coastal Pacific Northwest.

Curiously (or perhaps not given the presence of Microsoft and a vibrant tech sector), the region has emerged as an established center for the study of digital cultures, the teaching of digital methods, and cross-institutional collaborations. The Electronic Textual Cultures Lab at the University of Victoria engages cross-disciplinary study of the past, present, and future of textual communication, and is a hub for digital humanities activities, hosting the vibrant and well known Digital Humanities Summer Institute; next door, the Humanities Media and Computing Center facilitates research in the humanities involving digital technologies, with their hands shaping many interdisciplinary projects. About two hours away, the Media Research Lab and the Media Text Assemblage research a number of digital arts & culture topics at Vancouver Island University; across the Straight of Georgia, the Centre for Digital Media at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver administers the Master’s of Digital Media program administered by four local institutions of higher learning; the Digital Literacy Center at the University of British Columbia focuses on digital pedagogy, while the Centre for Digital Arts & Experimental media at the University of Washington focuses on digital arts and new media; further south, the Creative Media and Digital Cultural Program administers a BA in Digital Technology and Culture at Washington State University in Vancouver, Washington. This list illustrates, I think, a sort of ‘critical mass’ of programs and centers invested in and oriented towards grappling with culture, broadly construed, in the digital age. They are, I think, local examples of how a Humanities 2.0 (to use another term coined by Cathy Davidson) might take shape.

Digital Collaboratories             Such a listing of locations, programs, geographic information, and population figures seem to be in opposition to efforts like HASTAC, which Davidson has defined as “a network of educators and digital visionaries who have worked together since 2003 both to codevelop creative new collaborative learning technologies and to think critically about the role of technology in life, learning, and society” (486, Debates). On the HASTAC website, we HASTACers are invited “to contribute to the community by sharing your work and ideas with others in the HASTAC network, by hosting HASTAC events online or in your region, by initiating conversations, or by working collaboratively with others in the HASTAC community.” I daresay many of use have contributed to HASTAC, but that we have tended to do so virtually, taking up with vigor the call to contribute over the seemingly ephemeral medium of blog posts, HASTAC forums, discussion groups, and so on. To be clear, I think this is a good thing, and I think we are fortunate to live in a moment where HASTAC exists; at the same time though, I think we have to consider what we might unintentionally leave behind in the excitement of wide-ranging discussion and virtual collaborations that seemingly annihilate the distances the separate us. Social scientists have, for example, begun to identify the complications that come along with the advantages of ‘virtual’ collaboration. Lynne Siemens, for instance, in her research on large digital project teams has found that even small geographic distances—from a few meters in a hallway to work spanning multiple timezones—can radically impact team efficacy and communication practices. As she states

these teams draw upon the media rich channels for their most complex discussions, which are those focused on resolving conflict, planning work and deadlines, and creating productive working relationships. The face-to-face meetings are critical in this regard with the combination of formal agenda and informal discussions over meals. To date, the teams interviewed have not found a way to replicate these interactions within the online environment. Again, the use of these media rich channels becomes important for developing the relationship that sustains the project once teams return to working in the electronic environment. The less media rich channels such as emails, listserves, wikis, blogs, and online project spaces are useful for information sharing and recording keeping.

Although not strictly concerned with open ended inquiry and collaboration outside the context of specific, goal oriented research projects, such assertions should perhaps cause us to consider how a localized sense of investment might be combined with digital technologies for a more syncretic view of connectivity and inquiry in Humanities 2.0.

Regional Humanities Centres            Of course, variations on this theme have been tried before. In 1999, the US National Endowment of the Humanities committed to partly funding up to 10 regional humanities centers in areas “grouped as a way to channel resources rather than to draw rigid boundaries between regions.” In 2001, several institutions were awarded grants by the NEH to found humanities centers in their regions. These included Ohio University (the Central Region), Southwest Texas State University (the Southwest), Tulane University (the Deep South) and so on. These centers are a fascinating examples of how grant funding cycles, varying institutional support, and the rise of digital technology can impact what seems a straightforward mission. Many of the 9 or so funded humanities centers underwent a burst of activity in 2002-2003 then slowly fizzled out. Slide Many are still active, with most hosting a conference or so per year or perhaps a lecture series, with several having been integrated into larger humanities centers. The Center for New England Culture, for instance, considers itself part of the University of New Hampshire’s Center for the Humanities; the Pacific Regional Humanities Center has transmuted into the California Cultures Initiative, housed within the UC Davis Humanities Institute; the Central Region Humanities Center at Ohio University seems to exist mostly as a website.

What is most striking to me as I looked into the institutional history of these centers is that the ones that seem the most successfully integrated into a regional academic community and most active in their presence are those that successfully blend online projects reflecting their regional grounding with select, face-to-face events such as lectures and conferences.

The Mid-Atlantic Regional Center for the Humanities at Rutgers University-Camden and the Center for Great Plains Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln are particularly striking examples of how a robust virtual presence can be leveraged to maintain a vibrant material presence on campuses, and vice versa. 

These two centers serve as combined virtual and ‘meatspace’ hubs, deftly wielding digital media to further their cultural missions.

In other words, they suggest how a geographically localized space of collaboration and cross-pollination might be structured, especially one reliant upon shared cultural interest and investment.

Networks of Research Transfer            Any such locus of activity, I would argue, is highly reliant on what I call networks of research transfer. Organizations such as HASTAC, DH Commons, or CenterNet all provide the infrastructure for such networks. Many of these networks are wonderful I have, many times, found myself looking at the HASTAC site for far too long when I should be reading for my comprehensive exams.

On the other hand, as I’ve suggested above, the conversations, collaborations, and intellectual insights that have structured my thinking in multiple areas have happened, for the most part, in face to face environments and the shared space of digital research. These centers realize this, in the lectures they sponsor (although they might webcast them or skype people in), the conferences they assemble (though the proceedings might be published online and subject to commentary), the publications they peer review (though they might be published in multiple media or have peer review take place in a space like CommentPress). I don’t think this is earth shattering news, by any means, since it is the rare individual indeed who actively seeks to skype into all their conferences rather than seek for funding and get on a plane.

The Pacific Northwest has developed integration and knowledge sharing in a purely academic context. The Western Deans Agreement between 16 major public Canadian universities from Manitoba west to British Columbia allows any graduate student to take classes in another signatory’s graduate program, paying tuition only at the home institution. Closer to coastal region mentioned earlier, Simon Fraser University, the University of British Columbia, Emily Carr University of Art + Design, and British Columbia Institute of Technology jointly award a Masters of Digital Media —notably, two major research universities, one professional art and design university, and one polytechnic institute—all of which are public, and all of which are located within or around Vancouver, BC. These two examples are not, in themselves, perfect models, but suggest alternatives to the opposition of virtual or embodied knowledge creation and collaboration.

Conclusion                        I’ll round this out with the claim that for any virtual network to work, material bodies have to be involved, they have to move around. How much and for what might be up for debate, but I think it must happen—after all, much of HASTAC is gathered here, together, in person. I think we realize this in invited lectures, in master classes with visiting faculty, with (in Canada especially) the growing normalcy of postdocs in humanities programs and interdiscplinary positions. These embodied forms of interaction, discussion, and collaboration have real impact; the Digital Humanities Summer Institute alone is the largest digital methods training institute designed for those coming from academia and the GLAM fields in the world. So what, in the final form, does the imagined digital arts & cultures collaboratory look like?

1. It is geographically defined, if flexible. In this case, the boxed area put up before indicates

2. It actively uses technology as a catalyst to enhance collaboration, to inspire interdisciplinary projects, to have discussions across geographic areas, and to tie scholars, artists, and communities together.

3. It is also highly invested in a region as such, which might range from localized historical and cultural materials and content to networks of individuals who research non-regional ideas together in the same area. So a project on indigenous peoples in the Northwest or a project on early modern theater undertaken by scholars working within 300 miles of each other might have equal likelihood of forming.

4. The movement of bodies through the network, and the highly valuable ‘knitting function’ those bodies exert, would be prized and actively sought. This might include visiting professorships, teaching sabbaticals at research labs, rotating regional conferences, research assistantship rotations, graduate student rotations, or what have you. The important thing is to match a circulation of ideas in virtual space with the circulation of bodies in a physical network.

So that’s it. That’s one vision, as I see it, for the future of digital arts & culture in the Pacific Northwest. I don’t want to reinvent HASTAC, I don’t want to roll back the clock on virtual collaboration. I just want us to remember that networks exist in two dimensions, the space on the screen and the space in the room. Slide  I look forward to your comments!


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