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Some Steps Toward Collectivist Platforms for Humanities Research Collaboration

What Do We Want in a Research Platform of the Future?

Published onAug 01, 2023
Some Steps Toward Collectivist Platforms for Humanities Research Collaboration

What Do We Want in a Research Platform of the Future?

Some Steps Toward Collectivist Platforms for Humanities Research Collaboration


Samuel Baker, The University of Texas at Austin

MLA 2023 San Francisco


While I still teach and research in an English Department, over the past five years I’ve also organized, and for a time led, a “Grand Challenge” program at my university that tries to find ways to make artificial intelligence technologies good for people. So I speak to you today not as a specialist in infrastructure studies per se, as a builder, or as an especially digital humanist, but as a normal literary critic who has been working with computer scientists and engineers, and with upper-level STEM administrators, as well as with literature professors, and who has thus been afforded a fresh perspective on what we do, and don’t do, in the humanities.

Most bracingly, I’ve confronted how little we still collaborate in the humanities, comparatively speaking, and how formidable the obstacles to humanities collaboration remain. We’ve been discussing these issues for years and making progress on them; yet by and large we still seek a research infrastructure that better mediates our collaborative ambitions. As we seek to effect the transformation of our field made possible by recent experiments, what broader conversations should we be having about the information technology platforms in which our work inheres? {5} Can an infrastructural studies approach help us understand why we cling to Microsoft Word as not just a document standard, but as a writing environment? What can we learn from the vogue for new hardware and software we do see – for instance, for the Remarkable tablet, or for Scrivener as a manuscript management app? Would we want notes on MLA talks, say, to be immediately shared and collated in the cloud, perhaps short-circuiting their refinement and publication? We are aware of what risks we take when we adopt platforms that might enhance collaboration but might also expose our data to cooptation by the institutions behind the platforms – institutions very much including, beyond Google and Microsoft, our universities themselves, whose claims on our work product are far from clearly defined. What other trade-offs do we face as we move away from the highly proprietary, individualistic attitude of our “single-author monograph” focused field, toward more collaborative processes?

I’ll start with a provisional answer to the prompt we’ve been given {6}: What Do We Want in a Research Platform of the Future? and with a broad outline of the resources we have for understanding the platforms we have and for assembling the set of platforms we need. We need platforms that are accessible {7}, meaning, low in cost and available to diverse researchers whatever their institutional status {8}; persistent, i.e. future-proofed, assured of continuity as hardware and software systems shift and evolve {9}; curatorial, which is to say, compatible with principles of selection that add value to what they hold {10}; scalable, able to manage a paucity or a surplus of data {11}; private, as secure as possible from would-be plagiarists or for-profit data miners {12}; yet also public-facing, capable of presenting research to the world in a useful form; and, as I have been suggesting {13}, collaborative. Others will adduce further desiderata, which I will probably share. I give this list just to convey what informs my own judgments in what follows {14}. I’ve been educated in such judgments by my own experiences building digital humanities tools, and much more by listening in on discussions about priorities among other tool-builders; by media histories that cover the contemporary production of literary criticism; by digital humanities and media infrastructure theory; and by community building efforts locally, around humanities labs at specific universities, and around broader sites like Humanities Commons, PubPub, and COVE. I’d like to better understand, myself {15}, what disciplines like Organizational Communications and Education have to say about these topics, how our institutions’ procurement practices impact us, and how we are targeted by the sales strategies of private sector EduBusiness. But it’s important to put our own processes and needs at the core of an understanding of how our choice of tools relates to how we work {16}, and then use that understanding to help shift our discipline from an individual(istic) toward a more collaborative mode: changing our conditions and mode of production, we might say, by reconfiguring our instruments of production.

Now, I wouldn’t have signed up for an interdisciplinary grand challenge research project if I hadn’t thought of myself as someone with some skills in collaboration and with a commitment to it. {17} And I did know when I joined this project that extending it to include more humanists would indeed be, exactly, a challenge. Still, as mentioned, I’ve been disappointed to encounter well-nigh unsurmountable institutional issues that impeded recruiting humanists onto collaborative sub-teams exploring topics like the representation of AI in the media, the advent of public interest technology, or the possibilities for living and working with robots. {18} Many of those issues with which I’ve struggled were notorious aspects of our working conditions. We still celebrate the cult of the single author. We insist our graduate students design projects for themselves that are at once highly idiosyncratic and tremendously ambitious. We publish in journals and collections whose sometimes antiquated procedures can stifle innovative research agendas. We miss opportunities to lend others elsewhere at the University expertise on topics, like textual communication or narrative analysis, which we should claim as our proper domains. I’m glad to see panels at this MLA addressing such structural concerns, and I’ve deepened my respect for fields like rhetoric and composition, sociolinguistics, and digital humanities that foster a culture of research collaboration while remaining committed to humanities ends. We still have tremendous work to do across the Liberal Arts, however, to make collaborative research more possible by reforming our norms and expectations. Such reform need not involve abandoning our disciplinarity {19}, breaking down our silos, as the cliché goes, at the behest of what Jonathan Kramnick has criticized as “interdisciplinary delusion.” To the contrary, collaboration amongst ourselves and with other disciplines helps us learn to robustly represent the benefits afforded by our properly disciplinary modes of knowledge production, as one sees happening in flourishing cross-disciplinary fields, such as information and communications studies, whose objects overlap with ours.

As Digital Humanities researchers will know, working as they do across those fields as well as across the Liberal Arts disciplines, we share with STEM researchers significant infrastructural impediments to collaboration. How can we furnish forth collaborative research platforms that can further both our individual and our collective goals? Very broadly, my take is that while researchers in the sciences have better institutional structures for collaboration—for instance, obviously, they almost invariably work together in laboratories—we in the humanities may be developing a better understanding, or at least a useful supplemental understanding, of the infrastructure collaborative research requires. {20} Here I find instructive the critical, reflexive approach of leaders in our field like Kathleen Fitzpatrick. In her 2019 manifesto Generous Thinking, Fitzpatrick argues that we need to “step outside the structures of competition into which we’ve been led and instead find new ways to approach problems together.” Declares that, to this end, “institutions must develop new structures that can support such collaboration,” she exemplifies such restructuring with the emergence of “academy-owned infrastructure” in areas such as repository building and citation management {21}. We need such infrastructure, Fitzpatrick suggests, to scaffold the work of reforming and reorganizing our research to serve our publics, our communities, and each other more generously. Such reforms can well extend beyond the humanities. In my current work adducing layers of social science and humanities research to the Texas Robotics Consortium at UT, I’ve been stunned to discover how quickly those of us coming to the Consortium from outside of Engineering and Computer Science could contribute to that lab by introducing its members to the protocols we already use for data-sharing, protocols that make it easier for us to work with those roboticist colleagues, while raising the public profile of their work.

Fitzpatrick avers that in her book she “barely scratches the surface of what can and should be done,” and recognizes that “‘okay, so what do we do?’” remains the salient question for humanities researchers {22). As a next step, on the last page of her book she refers readers to a public discussion of its ideas on the Humanities Commons site she now runs, a site that exemplifies the kind of infrastructure for which she calls. Reading Fitzpatrick, I felt affirmed in my decision to invest time setting up a Humanities Commons site not long ago {23}, sharing my work on a platform branded by a group with whose mission I could independently affiliate. More broadly, I appreciate how the public university for which I work has invested in making our research work available, both through personal web pages and through the dataverse-driven Texas Data Repository where we are beginning to share robotics research the way we have been sharing social science and digital humanities research. While on one level these repositories may be redundant with independent archives such as the Humanities Commons offers, on another level, if I use them to address both my state public and my professional community, I can connect and extend the reach of each group {24}. Additionally, since neither of these repositories is especially equipped to handle work in progress, I am experimenting with uploading conference papers on the PubPub platform developed by MIT Media Lab researchers and taken independent by them as a prepublication site for humanities researchers {25}. Those concerned about the difficulties that researchers, especially perhaps early career researchers, can face navigating the journal publication system, with its long waits and inconsistent feedback, should be aware of PubPub as an incipient alternative that has the potential to increase the velocity of research in our fields much as prepublication venues in the sciences have done {26}.

Concluding his 2016 literary history of word processing, Track Changes, Matt Kirschenbaum makes a gesture like that made by Fitzpatrick on her final page, inviting readers and other interested members of the public to join him on a website where they can continue elaborating the history of word processing collectively. Notably, however, whereas Fitzpatrick directs readers to a platform that embodies the best practices her book describes, Kirschenbaum, wisely, we will all agree, chooses not to join his readers in the online environment provided by the last platform his book discuses: Microsoft Word {27}. I’m now quite familiar with Word’s online environment, because the UT System administrators who set up our grand challenge’s infrastructure not only use Microsoft Outlook to schedule our meetings and Teams for messaging and for, mercifully, only some of our videoconferencing {28}, they also use Sharepoint to collect our document libraries, and, naturally, hoped we would be able to collaborate on emergent documents such as grant proposals using Word online, although those efforts largely failed, because the platform isn’t well enough developed.. Now, ironically enough, I found this devotion our administrators showed to the Office365 Suite with which our university contracts to be quite compatible with the continuing near-universality of Word within my discipline of English, and for a time, I experimented using Sharepoint and Word online to interface with the works in progress of my graduate students {27}. While I wouldn’t say this effort succeeded, the students in question did all complete dissertations, and I do think it may have helped them to have a virtual place where they would know that their progress would be visible to me and to each other. My department is currently discussing the idea of using another university-contracted software system, Box, to establish a set of internally facing repositories for graduate student work, so that faculty can more easily acquaint themselves with the portfolios of work students are developing; obviously there may be downsides to such a system, but the potential upsides seem clear enough as well. No doubt we should investigate adapting a Commons system such as that built by Matt Gold and others at the City University of New York {30}.

In the sciences, Google Docs and the Google Suite of online apps seem almost universally used for such purposes, and because graduate student writing is for the most part collaboratively undertaken with faculty using Google Docs, its progress is visible in that medium {31}. To my mind, there is a lot to like about the collaborative research platforms that scientists cobble together using Google. Their main downside, however, is of course also Google, which is to say, the difficulties of using tools perpetually being reformatted to try and maximize data extraction and advertising sales, while their contracts are continually being renegotiated. Most recently, at Texas, Google reduced the storage provided to our university accounts by a factor of five, forcing numerous science labs to quickly relocate their data archives (since Google was slow to provide a simple mechanism for purchasing additional storage space for University accounts) {32}. Publishing their work, many computer scientists use straight, simple HTML to build what have become very prestigious, preternaturally open platforms that share documents beautifully crafted in LaTeX, often made by using the commercial platform for collaborative writing in LaTeX, Overleaf. We humanists increasingly take recourse to such tools for home-brewing our teaching materials; will the taste for open educational resources beget a similar interest in developing, and securing to ourselves, open research platforms?

By way of a quick provisional conclusion, I will just make two final points. First: to better understand what we want in a research platform of the future, we do well to better understand our platforms of the past. Why have we chosen to read, write, annotate, and publish in the ways that we have? How have our goals, as well as our media and infrastructure, changed? Second: I want to highlight the attention we could pay at this juncture not to how we read, an infrastructural question that has long been addressed in discussions over e-books, critical mark-up tools, and the like, but to how we write. What if the MLA were to lend its collective expertise and imprimatur, if necessary, in collaboration with a commercial enterprise, to a collaborative writing tool like Overleaf, doubtless one that would lend itself to formatting text in perfect MLA style? My thought is that imagining such a project, even just as a thought experiment, involves entertaining both questions of software engineering and questions about how we could reengineer scholarly writing to bring out the extent to which, in essence, it is both a solitary and a collective enterprise. Thank You.

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