¶ 1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 Here is where our working in public—creating public access, valuing public engagement, becoming public intellectuals—transforms into the creation of a genuinely public scholarship, a scholarship that is not simply performed for the public but that includes and is in fact given over to the publics with whom we work. In public scholarship, members of our chosen communities enter into our projects not just as readers but as participants, as stakeholders. Recent experiments in “citizen science” provide some potentially interesting examples; these are projects, such as Galaxy Zoo, that go beyond crowd-sourcing, enlisting networked participants not just in mass repetitive tasks but in the actual process of discovery. Galaxy Zoo, which launched in 2007, initially invited interested volunteers to assist with classifying the hundreds of thousands of galaxies contained in a sample from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, and they did that, far faster and more thoroughly than any lab full of grad students and post-docs could have. But those volunteers have been active participants in significant discoveries that have resulted in dozens of published papers over the last decade. These papers include studies of the project itself, which indicate that volunteers are motivated to participate by their interest in astronomy, their desire to contribute to research, their hope to learn more about science, and the fun they have in the process (Raddick et al).
¶ 2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 5 This might give us a sense of how citizen science can operate, but what might the citizen humanities look like? It might look like museum exhibits such as Pacific Worlds at the Oakland Museum of California, which engaged members of local Pacific communities in the planning and development processes, with the result that “what you see in our galleries includes not only the input of curators and historians, but of people that are featured speaking for themselves” (Fischer). It might look like The September 11 Digital Archive, developed by the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University, which presents first-hand accounts of the events of that day, along with photos, emails, and other archival materials from more than 150,000 participants, with the goal of “providing historical context for understanding those events and their consequences” by “allowing people to tell their stories, making those stories available to a wide audience” (RRCHNM). It might look like the New York Public Library Labs’s What’s On the Menu?, in which participants were invited to help transcribe, review, and geotag the library’s massive digitized collection of historic menus, making them accessible for research and “opening the door to new kinds of discoveries” (NYPL). It might look like the Baltimore Stories project coordinated by the Dresher Center for the Humanities at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, which used humanities scholarship as a convening force to bring community organizers, educators, and non-profit organizations together with the university in order to “help frame and contextualize narratives of race in American cities” (“The Dresher Center”). What these projects have in common is that the cultural concern that each of them explores is of compelling interest to the public that the project engages, precisely because that concern belongs to them. The work involved is theirs not just to learn from but to shape and define as well. Engaging these publics in working with scholars to interpret, understand, and teach their cultures and histories can connect them with the projects of the university in ways that might help encourage a deeper understanding of and support for what it is that the university does, and why.
¶ 3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 2 Crowd-sourcing has developed something of a bad reputation of late, whether due to the too-often uncredited appropriation of the creative labor of participants or to the misinformation that can arise from the unruly masses. Tom Nichols, for instance, argues in his defense of the role of the expert in contemporary culture that the assumption that “the Internet can serve as a way of crowd-sourcing knowledge conflates the perfectly reasonable idea of what the writer James Surowiecki has called ‘the wisdom of the crowds’ with the completely unreasonable idea that the crowds are wise because each member of the mob is also wise” (122). This is to say that groups require mechanisms for self-correction in order to manifest and elevate the wisdom they contain. Wikipedia, for instance, operates under a strict set of rules for the review of contributions and changes to the project. Critics have pointed out the many flaws in those rules—the degree to which, for instance, they permit certain kinds of systemic bias to flourish and allow editors with an axe to grind to control the direction of their areas of the project (“Criticism”)—and the problems to which they lead are significant. This is perhaps where the self-reflexivity of humanities and social science based critique, coupled with the generosity that is at the root of our thinking, might point the way toward better, more generative practices. For instance: what if the editorial principles under which a community-based project such as this operates, as well as those who are entrusted to carry them out, were subject to the same kind of review as the work that the project produces? How might such a project be led to develop a structure that is not just self-regulating but self-critical? As my colleague Avi Santo and I argued in a white paper on open peer review practices in humanities scholarship, successful processes based in communities of practice require carefully developed guidelines that foster the kinds of engagement we seek—and those guidelines, and the community’s functioning within them, must be equally subject to review as the work itself. The understandings that guide scholars’ engagement with broader publics require the same guidance, and the same commitment to ongoing review.
¶ 4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 2 Open peer review has of course met with resistance to the notion that members of the public can serve as “peers”; it is, however, worth considering the ways that the academy might benefit from a shift away from an understanding of the “peer” as a “credentialed colleague” and toward the recognition that “peer status might only emerge through participation” in the processes of a community of practice (Fitzpatrick and Santo 8). The ways we define the notion of the peer, unsurprisingly, has profound consequences not just for determining whom we consider under that label but also who considers themselves to be a part of that category. Kelly Susan Bradbury has recently explored this issue with respect to the term “intellectual,” pointing out the ways that, for instance, traditional academic exclusions of the more applied interests of adult education programs from that category results in those who participate in such programs rejecting the notion of the intellectual as part of their self-definition. This inevitably exacerbates tendencies and beliefs in American culture that we perceive as anti-intellectual. Opening the notion of the intellectual, or the peer, to a much broader range of forms of critical inquiry and active project participation has the potential to reshape relations between town and gown, to lay the groundwork for more productive conversations across the borders of the campus, and to create an understanding of the extent to which the work of the academy matters for our culture as a whole.
¶ 5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 2 But what if we were to open up not just our understandings of the terms through which we describe intellectual or scholarly work today, and not just our practices in engaging in that work, but the very institutions in which we spend our work lives? What would be required in order to transform our colleges and universities into places where this public-oriented, generous thinking can flourish? This kind of openness was one of the goals in the original establishment of the public land-grant colleges and universities under the Morrill Act, which authorized and supported those institutions in bringing crucial knowledge to the people of their states. That mission has often been met through extension programs that provide continuing education and outreach to state residents, often in practical areas such as agriculture and engineering. But it is crucial today that we think about what a humanities and social science extension program might look like, and the ways that public universities might play a key role not just in bringing technical knowledge to the public but the liberal arts as well: not just tools for production, but tools for living. If the university is to win back public support, it must be prepared—structurally, strategically, at the heart of not just its mission statement but its actual mission—to place public service at the top of its priorities. What that might look like, and what that might require, is our focus ahead.