The pedagogy of collaboration for self-herding autodidacts

August 8th, 2010 § 6 comments

It’s an unlikely—even an absurd—premise for a summer institute: twelve people will come together for a week to see if they can make some kind of digital tool that will be useful in the humanities. No one will know in advance what tool they will build, what technologies they will draw on, or who will take responsibility for which part of the project. It’s not that the organizers will surprise them—the organizers also don’t have any of this information, because there are no advance decisions. All the details will be decided by the group only after they meet. And many of them have never met each other before.

Having had the privilege of participating in One Week | One Tool, an NEH-funded summer institute organized by the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University (July 25–July 31, 2010), I’ll add my voice to those who have said it was an extraordinary success. Sunday night we met. Monday we heard from CHNM staff about their work, and then we started brainstorming tool ideas. On Tuesday we narrowed the ideas, voted, revoted, selected one, chose teams and leaders, and got to work. By Saturday we had an early version of a workable tool, a name, a logo, a site to promote it, and a provisional plan for the future. We were prepared to launch Anthologize.

With much attention these days to the institutionalization of Digital Humanities, whatever it is taken to mean, one might reasonably ask how the One Week | One Tool project functions as pedagogy. Aspiring digital humanists sometimes ask what they need to know, which technological specialization they should learn first. Databases? Web design? GIS? XML? Ruby? PHP? Microsoft Word macros? The One Week project set out to teach none of these. In terms of the pedagogy of specific technologies within the humanities, One Week | One Tool was proposed, as Dan Cohen reports, as a summer institute seemingly about nothing in particular.

Tom Scheinfeldt has written that the Center for History and New Media judges tools by their use, and undoubtedly CHNM wanted the tool created by One Week | One Tool to be widely used. Yet after more than a year of preparation they began the week not having the slightest idea what the group would come up with, and without establishing an overt mechanism for ensuring that the group’s decision would be one that CHNM would be happy with.

If they had had their own clear vision in advance of what the tool should be, all sorts of responsible decision-making would have immediately followed from that. They would have wanted to investigate carefully what technologies were best for development, and they would have looked for people with specialized strengths in just those technologies. They would have prepared pedagogical materials thoughtfully focused on the purposes and technologies relevant to the tool.

But they did none of this. It seems irresponsible, but it wasn’t. Judging by outcomes, it’s clear that almost magically, somehow, and consistent with CHNM’s own track record, they managed to demonstrate an approach that worked much better than an early-risk-minimization strategy would have. It’s a tribute to the vision of both CHNM and the NEH Office of Digital Humanities that this experiment happened at all. If it was a crazy idea, it was “crazy like a fox,” maybe, in the words of Boone Gorges (YouTube video at 3:26).

There are many thoughtful accounts of the project and its process that describe the team’s effective rapid self-development in terms of risk, trust, humility, and leadership. When I first heard of the initiative, my own experience with project management made me skeptical, fascinated, and hopeful. I was especially skeptical about the idea of deferring the decision about the tool until Tuesday afternoon, two days into the week, and months after the applications were invited and the participants chosen. I would never have imagined setting up a project in that way.

But in retrospect it now seems obvious how brilliant and essential that structure was. It could well have been just as brilliant had our group of twelve been skipped over for any other set of a dozen applicants. Because by advertising that the One Week | One Tool project had no plan of its own, I imagine now it must have ensured that any applicants were likely to be simultaneously fearless, pragmatic, and capable of humility and trust. Had we maximized our own personal risk management strategies, we would not have applied. We were committing ourselves not just to learning something, but to creating something together that our names would go on. Our success or failure would be dependent on eleven strangers (for all we knew, and this was often the case in fact) who happened for some reason to be attracted to the same opportunity, and who matched whatever inscrutable criteria the people at CHNM might have had in mind.

The pedagogy of One Week | One Tool was grounded in tacit values that are recognizably characteristic of people who are drawn to Digital Humanities, and yet much of that culture is not necessarily overtly tied to technology at all. There is a kind of geeky communitarian anarchy, a tropism toward the values captured in the phrase “rough consensus and running code,” that lends itself to a paradoxical kind of pedagogy: self-taught lessons in group dynamics for a team of pragmatic collaborative autodidacts. With the right group, or the right expectations and balance of uncertainties, twelve people can all be simultaneously service-oriented and capable of exercising leadership, flexibly and as needed in pursuit of a common goal.

However intensely production-focused One Week was, and however use-focused its resulting tool, as a pedagogical intervention it raises some important questions for which the answers don’t seem at all obvious yet. Was this a pioneering laboratory experiment under exceedingly rare, carefully prepared conditions? What would it take for its lessons to be replicable in other contexts? I would be very interested to see this dimension of the project discussed further. Much as I love the superb folks at CHNM and the great work they do, and as impressive as their marketing savvy is, their successes don’t seem to be aimed primarily at burnishing their unique brand for its own sake.

If their pedagogy is going to be successful, their working assumptions will have to appear to the rest of us much less unusual and their achievements less radically innovative and unexpected in contrast to common practice. There is power in the premise that there are many latent groups of a dozen people ready to imagine themselves into existence to get something useful done.

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