What’s the difference between HASTAC and CWCON? Organization and a web site

I went to the HASTAC conference this week/weekend instead of the Computers and Writing conference (also this week/weekend) mostly because of geography. HASTAC was at Michigan State, which is about an hour drive from my house. Computers and Writing (let’s call it CWCON for the rest of this post) was at the University of Wisconsin-Stout, which is in the middle of freakin’ nowhere in Menomonie, Wisconsin, which is a small town a little more than an hour drive from Minneapolis. I also have some bad memories from the job market about UW-Stout, but hey, those are my own problems, and I’m pretty sure that all of the folks associated with those problems are long gone.

Anyway, I’ve been to CWCON about every other year or so (give or take) since 1994, so my guiding question for much of this conference was how would I compare HASTAC to CWCON? The short answer is they are very similar: that is, there was little going on at HASTAC that would have been out of place at CWCON, and vice versa. Both are about the intersections of the digital (e.g., “computer stuff,” technology, emerging media, etc.) and the humanities, though “humanities” probably includes more disciplines at HASTAC, whereas at CWCON, most participants identify in some fashion with composition and rhetoric.

Granted, my HASTAC experience was skewed because I attended panels that were writing studies-oriented (more on that after the jump), but I didn’t see much of anything on the program that would have been completely out of place at CWCON.  HASTAC had about as much about pedagogy on the program as I’ve seen before at CWCON. Both of the keynotes I saw were ones that would be welcome at CWCON, particularly the second one by rootoftwo (I missed the third, unfortunately). Both conferences were about the same size, mid-300s or so. Both are organizations that have been promoted and propelled by prominent women scholars in the field– Cindy Selfe and Gail Hawisher for CWCON, and Cathy Davidson for HASTAC.

So, what was different? There were more grad students and younger folks at HASTAC, but (I was told) that is mostly because the conference and its origins are more grad student-focused. CWCON is arguably a little more geeky and “fun,” with things like bowling night and karaoke and the like, though maybe there was some of that stuff at HASTAC and I just didn’t know about it. I think there is housing in the dorms at HASTAC, though I stayed at the very affordable and convenient Kellogg Center. And of course I know more people who go to CWCON.

But at the end of the day, I think the most significant difference between these two groups boil down to organization and a web site.

Computers and Writing, as I have complained about before, has neither. It is a loosely formed neo-socialist anarchist collective committee organized under the umbrella of the CCCCs (which itself is technically a group organized under the umbrella of NCTE) that meets at the CCCCs mainly to figure out where the next conference is going to be– and often enough, deciding on where the next conference is going to be is tricky. The web site, computersandwriting.org, is mostly non-functional.

The Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Alliance and Collaboratory (aka HASTAC) is an organized community that has an executive board, a steering committee, council of advisors, a staff (at least of sorts), lots of related groups, affiliated organizations, and (of course) a web site. According to the web site, HASTAC is an “alliance of nearly 13,000,” though I don’t quite know what that means. Before she introduced the first keynote of the conference on Thursday, Cathy Davidson took a moment to talk about the upcoming revisions to the HASTAC web site, which she claimed was the oldest (and I think most active?) “social media” web site for academics. I might be getting some of that wording wrong, but it was something along those lines.

Does any of this matter? Maybe not. I mean, “bigger” is not automatically “better.” So what if HASTAC has 13,000 in their “alliance,” if “Digital Humanities” is the term of art (in the sense that the National Endowment for the Humanities has an Office of Digital Humanities and not an Office of Computers and Writing), if CWCON remains the small conference of a sub-specialization within composition and rhetoric, a discipline that many also view (and the MLA wishes this were the case) as a sub-field of “English?” What do we care? In thinking about this post, I revisited some of the discussion on tech-rhet last year about the decay of the computersandwriting.org web site. Back then, I stirred the pot/rattled the cage a bit by suggesting that a) maybe we need an actual organization, and b) maybe we need a robust web site. Both of those ideas were more or less poo-poo-ed, in part because I think a lot of people like the way things are. CWCON has always been a “non-organization” organization that has had a groovy and rebellious feel to it, and I mean all that as a positive. And given that the conference has now been put on 31 times (I think?), it’s hard to dispute the success of this approach.

On the other hand, if folks associated with CWCON want to be taken seriously by academics outside of that community, I think it matters a great deal.

A big theme amongst the CWCON crowd in recent years (and I include myself in this) has been being miffed/angered/hurt/etc. about how scholars in the “Digital Humanities” have ignored the decades of work we’ve done in comp/rhet generally, particularly folks who identify with CWCON. Cheryl Ball wrote a pointed editorial in Kairos about this (though she was taking on the PMLA more specifically), and I believe in her keynote at this year’s CWCON (I wasn’t there, just judging from Twitter), she again expressed frustration about how comp/rhet scholars doing DH work (CWCON, Kairos, etc.) are ignored, how “we” have been doing this work for a lot longer and better, and so forth.

I share that frustration, believe me. But at the end of the day, the CWCON community can’t have it both ways. It can’t be both a free-wheeling, non-organized “happening” of a group and be miffed/angered/hurt/etc. when the rest of academia interested in DH either doesn’t know we exist or ignores us because we’re not organized and visible to anyone outside of the group.

All of which is to say I have three general take-aways from HASTAC:

  • HASTAC was good, I would go again, and I am generally interested in seeking out/attending other DH conferences with the confidence that yes indeed, the kinds of things I might propose for CWCON would probably be welcome in the realm of DH. The one caveat to that is my general resistance to academic conferences of all sorts, but that’s another issue.
  • HASTAC could learn a lot from CWCON, sure, but CWCON could learn a lot from HASTAC too. I don’t know how much of this was the MSU location and how much of it was HASTAC generally, but I liked the presentation formats and I also thought they had some creative ways for getting people to know each other, like “sign-ups” for particular restaurants to go to as a group.
  • I’m not interested in starting an organization (that takes way too much work and isn’t something I can do alone), but I’m thinking very seriously about creating a web site that could be what I’d like to see computersandwriting.org be, a repository for comp/rhet things relevant to DH things, and vice-versa. I found out that computersandwriting.net is actually available, but that would be a little too snarky, and besides, I think the move should be to make connections with the DH community. So I thought maybe writinganddh.org or writing-dh.org maybe something like ws-dh.org (where I mean “writing studies”). If you have any ideas and/or thoughts on pitching in (I mean to write– I’ll fund it out of my own pocket, at least for a year), let me know.

More specifically about what I did at HASTAC after the jump:

 

More or less in the order it happened for me:

Scott “scottbot” Weingart’s keynote was called “Connecting the Dots,” and it was about the historic representation of knowledge, or as he put it “Historical and modern illustrations are surprisingly effective lenses through which to explore overlaps between knowledge and practice. How we think about and communicate around knowledge co-evolves with the communities we form.” Pretty interesting talk. He has his slides here and he also linked to a longish essay about all this here, though that essay is from a couple years ago and was called “Knowledge Uprooted.”

A couple of things from my notes: for all we talk about interdisciplinary work, the academic systems we are within work against it. And one other fun link: one of the questions was about if there are any aural representations of knowledge akin to the “trees” Weingart was talking about, and someone mentioned Listen to Wikipedia, which basically “maps” changes and updates to Wikipedia with different sounds and bubbles. It’s quite hypnotic. It’s a product/project of {{Hatnote}} which is a couple of programming/Wikipedia guys who do some other cool stuff, too.

Then I went to “Transforming the Dissertation: Models, Questions, and Next Steps,” which was mostly about the various challenges of making dissertations that are in “alternative” formats. It was a big panel and lots of interesting ideas about the possibilities and problems of these kinds of projects. The most amusing takeaway for me: Justin Hodgson (he was on this panel) told a story about a student who used a frequently updated application (I think it was iBooks Author) to create their digital dissertation, and this person has permission to update their dissertation as the software changes. My reaction (and many others in the audience, too) was “who the heck would want to keep updating your dissertation?!?” Oh, and one other fun fact: one of the people on the panel talking about his dissertation– which was not exactly digital because it was a comic– was Nick Sousanis, and that diss eventually became Unflattening, which is one of the things on my nightstand right now. It’s good stuff, too.

A big part of the reason for this trip was to do an interview for my “MOOCs in Context” project, so I did that. Then, after bouncing around between a couple of sessions, I settled in on a session called Reimagining Scholarly Publishing and I caught most of the talk about how this relates to an emerging Public Philosophy journal. The folks at MSU’s MATRIX and WIDE are working with Mark Fisher on developing a platform that would be used as a sort of communal peer review system for this new journal about public philosophy. As I understand it, the platform being developed for this project is kind of part of the same grant project that Cheryl Ball has been working on with the Vega Academic Publishing System.  And my educated guess on all of that is we’re going to see emerging in the next five or six years “competing” open platforms to host the academic publishing process (which includes submission, review– both blind and communal– editing, and publishing) that will also in turn compete with the proprietary operations like Elsevier and the like.

The second keynote was by rootoftwo— aka Cézanne Charles and John Marshall– and about two of their art installations. The first was THR_33 which was this exhibit that was connected (somehow, I’m not sure how) to the Kyoto Protocol. The way it worked was there were three little robots inside this sort of paper “house,” and when people looked in through openings (not exactly windows) in this house and they smiled (I think there was some kind of facial recognition camera), they made the little robots move. And the big piece they talked about was called whithervanes, which was exhibited (and I think part of the permanent collection now) at the Folkestone Triennial in the UK. It’s hard to explain, but these are headless chicken weathervanes that turn direction and change color based on news fed to them via Reuters and (I think?) Twitter. Very cool, very smart.

Then there was a lovely reception at the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum, which was kind of trip in and of itself. Supposedly (spoiler alert!) the building is going to be featured in the upcoming Batman v. Superman movie as Lex Luthor’s house.

I only got to see one session on Friday, but it was a really good one, Provocations, Rhetoric, and Visualization. Each presenter talked about how various sorts of visualizations and maps figured into their research: Tim Amidon about firefighting, Laurie Gries about that famous Obama poster, and Donnie Johnson about environmental waste areas/hotspots– there were a couple of videos from Brian McNely and Ryan Omizo too. Super smart stuff.

Then it was time for the session I was involved in, “Building Connections across DH and Computers & Writing: A HASTAC/C&W Simulcast/Cross-Conference Dialog.” Basically, we (and by that I mean my fellow presenters here and at CWCON too) put this together as a bit of a response to a “call” of sorts last summer on Twitter that moved to a Google Doc here, #cwdhped, which was about trying to find ways to make connections between these two different groups. To make the “simulcast” between conferences happen, we used a software called zoom.us, which is a fairly robust video conferencing software with a few more options than Skype. It worked mostly but not completely great; maybe a better way of putting it is it worked good enough to call the session a largely successful experiment, but there were big moments in the discussion where we couldn’t hear the folks at CWCON and vice-versa.

I was really just playing the role of MC/Chair/facilitator, and in a lot of ways, just trying to make the tools work took a lot of my energy. But basically, it was a pretty robust discussion about the connections/disconnections between the two camps. Here’s a storify compilation of the tweets about the session:

Just to add/expand on two things: first, regarding the discussion about DH, the job market, and the tenure-track.  I think that one of the ways that folks in fields outside of composition and rhetoric are trying to make themselves more employable/marketable is by jumping on the DH bandwagon (so to speak), and actually, I have no problem with that. The problem though is that most hiring in universities is still very discipline-specific and department specific. In other words, folks going into literature who are interested in DH are still (probably) going to have a hard time finding a permanent job because I don’t think any amount of DH/interdisciplinary work is going to counter the market realities of the disciplinary work.

When it comes to the overall future of academic work and tenure and all the rest, I think DH plays a minor role at best. Understanding the concerns of HASTAC and CWCON– that is, the connections between texts and technology, the relevance of the humanities generally with the digital– probably will become more of a basic job requirement for any academic job, regardless of tenure status.  And I also think a) tenure is not quite as magical as the non-tenured tends to think, and b) I’d much much rather advocate for faculty unions.

Second, in terms of ways to bring HASTAC and CWCON together: for a fleeting moment in 2014, there was the thought that MSU would host both HASTAC and CWCON. That never got off the ground for all kinds of reasons, but it would have been pretty interesting and I think it’s something that these two different camps ought to consider in the future. It won’t be able to happen for a few years because HASTAC is going to be holding its conference at different times– one year in November, and one year in March. But I do think it would be a fascinating experiment and a fun experience, especially if there was a way to pay one registration to attend both HASTAC and CWCON sessions. Maybe we’d get a better sense then of what is really similar and different about these two groups.

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