Author Archives: Michael Gossett

Higher Education Post-COVID (Jacobin)

To accompany our reading this week from Steve Brier and Michael Fabricant, I thought I’d share a snippet of this short Jacobin article on austerity, the COVID-19 crisis, and the current and future infrastructure of higher education.

“Crises, Naomi Klein reminds us, are periods of undoing, as society’s key institutions shutter and collapse. But they can also be moments of redoing, as new structures emerge from the rubble…

How our universities get remade in the wake of a global pandemic is a matter of crucial public significance, fundamentally entrenched in questions of power, redistribution, and democracy. It should not be relegated to technocratic engineering and management. Now is a time to advance far-reaching egalitarian programs, to align our universities with crucial public needs rather than market conceits. The future of our universities will be shaped by the movements that rise up to fight for them.

In the coming weeks, the calls to resuscitate our collapsing higher education institutions should be evaluated according to three fundamental values that ought to underpin institutions of higher learning: How can COVID-19 responses deepen and expand democracy on campuses? Will matters of crucial public significance be collectively determined, or swept under the auspices of technocratic decision-makers? How will future access to resources — financial, instructional, material — be equitably distributed in universities? How will we govern and organize ourselves — both within and across institutions — to foster solidarity, rather than division and zero-sum competition?

The answers to these questions rest on the social struggles and organizing that occur in the coming weeks. As the COVID-19 conversation moves from crisis to recovery, we need to both resist austerity on our campuses and fundamentally reimagine how they operate and whose interests they serve. Simply returning to normal won’t be good enough.​”

Web Archiving + Intervention project

Over the next six weeks I’ll be taking an Introduction to Web Archiving course through the University of Wisconsin at Madison’s iSchool, and I thought I’d offer to “bend” my weekly assignments in that class toward our intervention project in whatever way is useful to us. For the week of March 16, for instance, we’re being asking to add seeds to Archive-It and to do some test crawls, and to draft a collections policy of some sort. As the readings and details for the assignments open up, I’ll do my best to bring relevant things back to our group so we can think about if/when/how we want to start archiving web materials relevant to CUNY and what it would mean to have a collections policy that informs the scope of that work.

I also thought I’d ask for your thoughts on how our intervention might align with and go in a different direction from the conversation being had in this Twitter thread re: collecting universities’ emergency announcement pages related to COVID-19.


Class Discussion: Digital Humanities Knowledge Infrastructures

Our readings this week have me thinking again about Robert Hayden’s poem “Those Winter Sundays,” a much anthologized sonnet about a blue-collar father building fires in a fireplace and a son who, too late, realizes the subtle importance of this act. The poem concludes with the question: “What did I know, what did I know / of love’s austere and lonely offices?”—austere here meaning “unadorned,” and “offices” referring to either a kindness done for others or a ritualized religious prayer (or both). It’s a rhetorical question, really, as in: How could I have known that love can take the form of continuous, humble, thankless labor? And the regretful and sympathetic quivering in the son’s voice—“What did I know, what did I know”—drives home the additional unsaid: …until now.

It’s this double formulation of love—as both subtle labor and an (even-belated) appreciation for the laborer—that I’d like to use to catalyze a line of questioning through our five readings on the digital humanities (DH) practice of building within public and academic knowledge infrastructures. Think of this more as a yeast starter than a fully baked loaf, a noodle flung against the wall than one finely plated.

We see the first kind of love—the father’s love, a love through building—in Kim Gallon’s case for Black DH as “a technology of recovery” that is “characterized by efforts to bring forth the full humanity of marginalized people through the use of digital platforms and tools,” and in Todd Presner’s description of DH’s expansive “ethic of participation and curation” as one lying in the ideal of “participation without condition.” Together, these seem to formulate an idea that DH practitioners can and do demonstrate love to those outside of the DH community (i.e., in the public knowledge infrastructure) through the labor of their building work.

The second kind of love—the son’s love, a love for the builder—in this DH context perhaps could be thought of as an appreciation and advocacy for those “doing the work” of the first order, particularly in an academic institutional context. In this way, we might see the three other readings—from Stephen Jackson’s call for “subtle acts of care” and repair that will allow us to “love, and love deeply, a world of things” that are essential to engaged DH practice, to Brian Greenspan’s defense of DH as a field whose fault is only in its “making all too visible the dirty gears that drive the scholarly machine,” to Stephen Ramsay and Geoffrey Rockwell’s validation of DH’s building practice as “a distinct form of scholarly endeavor, both in the humanities and beyond”—all showing love for DH practitioners through increased visibility and professional recognition within the academic knowledge infrastructure. (Importantly about the father, in the Hayden: “No one ever thanked him.”)

For class, perhaps we want to linger in this space for some time to ask whether and when we consider DH to be an extension of the incessant churn of technological innovation and neoliberal management, and whether and when we consider DH to participate in a craft of continuous, humble, thankless building—and its extensions: repairing, recovering, participating—that can be held up and focused on as an act of love and care, to transformative effect, both inside and outside of the academy.

Perhaps we want to consider other intersections:

  1. What about the way that Jane Bennett talks about the independent lives of things seems relevant for Ramsay and Rockwell’s project of establishing built things (especially facilitating, non-discursive “tools”) as non-secondary forms of scholarship? Or for Greenspan’s argument that the “scandal” of DH is that it “reveal[s] the system’s components” and scrutinizes “the material underpinnings of scholarship” (e.g., databases, IP, unpaid student labor) that were there all along, even in non-DH scholarship?

  2. Maybe we return to thinking about boundary objects. More than one of the readings this week cite Alan Liu’s call for DH to have a stronger cultural criticism. What do we make of this quote from a piece Liu wrote following up on that essay, in which he calls the building of boundary objects the best way (at least, the most unique way) for DH to make its impact:

    Acting out through the digital humanities about larger social issues is necessary.  But such actions must be complemented by creating infrastructures and practices that make their social impact by being what Susan Leigh Star called “boundary objects”–in this case boundary objects situated between the academic institution and other major social institutions.  It is in this boundary zone–just as one example, “content management system” infrastructures whose use by scholars oscillates between corporate “managed” and “open community” philosophies–that higher education can most pertinently influence, and be influenced by, other institutions through what I earlier called “shared but contested information-technology infrastructures.”  It is in this boundary zone of hybrid scholarly, pedagogical, and administrative institutional infrastructure that we need the attention of skilled and thoughtful digital humanists, even if the interventions they make are not called anything as ambitious as “activism” but instead simply “building.”

  3. Jackson argues that Marxism looks backward to connect things to their “moments of origin, discovering the congealed forms of human labor, power, and interests that are built into objects at their moment of production.” Broken world thinking, on the other hand, “draws our attention around the sociality of objects forward, into the ongoing forms of labor, powers, and interests… that underpin the ongoing survival of things as objects in the world.” How is this forward-backward orientation reinforced or troubled by Gallon’s argument that Black DH hinges on a broken world thinking that “forces us to move backward before moving forward”?