The 2018 Triangle Scholarly Communication Institute concluded a few weeks ago, and we’re already planning for 2019. If you’d like to participate in 2019, keep an eye on this site and the @TriangleSCI Twitter account, where we’ll announce the Request for Proposals for SCI 2019 in January.
The best way to learn more about what the SCI experience is like is to read it from the perspective or participants. Many of us were active on Twitter during the program, and highlights of photos and tweets from the 5 days of SCI 2018 have been collected in this post. You can also see the full stream at the #TriangleSCI hashtag, and this slide show with some photos.
Each year on the Tuesday night of the Institute we go to the National Humanities Center for a reception with colleagues from the NHC and local community, and hear some thoughtful remarks on working in collaborative spaces like the Humanities Center and TriangleSCI and the theme of this year’s SCI (for 2018 it was “Overcoming Risk”). Here’s what one of the speakers (Josh Sosin, Duke Classics professor and member of the TriangleSCI advisory board) said that evening:
The first few years of the SCI Don Waters from A. W. Mellon Foundation gave the speech at the NHC dinner. When he couldn’t attend last year Paolo asked all of the other Advisory Board members whether someone would fill in, and then all of the former attendees, and then the nieces and nephews of the former attendees, and then their high school friends, and then he came to me. So I told a cute story about family dinners when I was a kid and a friend of mine who grew up to be a mixed martial arts fighter.
This year I wasn’t moved to say something cute.
The theme for this year’s SCI was suggested during the roundup at the end of last year’s SCI. The definition of ‘risk’ at the time was rather different from where we wound up. I think the word floated was in fact not ‘risk’ but ‘safety,’ or ‘security.’ That was November 9th, one year after the election, 6 months after the events at Charlottesville, a month after the Harvey Weinstein story broke in the New York Times.
The risks that were so much on our minds one year ago of course aren’t abated. But neither were they new at the time.
The prompts for this year’s SCI are much the same. I went and translated the bullet points from the call into language that seemed suited to 2018. How do we protect those who speak the truth in settings in which facts seem not to matter? How do we protect scholars who work on the edges of what is valued at the moment? How do we protect against the tribalism to which we are so prone in so many contexts? or against the tendency of powerful institutions to distort our very views on the virtues of sharing, or to disincentivize collaboration and collective action? How do we protect the integrity of the scholarly enterprise against the twin forces of big business and small government? Why are the ‘we’ in these questions so few and so alike? And so on.
And so I wonder what is new here.
Academia has a long history of looking inward. We built these walled environments with libraries at the center, little paradises, alternate universes where we at least aspire to speak a common language founded in truth and facts. Academic disciplines support the large normative core of community-based investigation, and academic tenure protects inquiry at the edges and at the bridge points between what we value and what we don’t yet understand. Peer-review, whatever its faults, provides a layer of protection against our tendency simply to accept the word of the strong and prominent. We muster in societies because many issues cannot be advanced or problems solved except at scale. We rely on endowments and DIY publishing and tool-building on the conviction that the scholarly enterprise is too important to be subject to the shifting and sometimes ruinous tides of politics, markets, industries. We’ve rushed headlong into the realm of the digital and open out of a laudable desire to share with others the harvest of this protected walled garden that we’ve built up over years, decades, centuries.
And so, the risks that we’ve arrayed ourselves against this week are in large part artifacts of our own efforts. The challenges that we identify today are the result of previous generations’ attempts to address some of the same basic questions. Their solutions give rise to the challenges that we wrestle with now. Probably better to say that our solutions are our challenges.
In many ways the underlying arithmetic has not changed. Scholarly production is still painfully slow, wildly expensive, and the privilege of but a few. Skepticism and mistrust of knowledge, expertise, and basic human competence are as widespread as ever. A culture of hearing others, learning from others, countenancing the possibility of a world that is larger than our individual experience, is still a dream.
The internet did not re-write those facts (it might even have made them worse).
One thing that has changed is our conception of our audience. For the 900 years that universities have been around we’ve known who our audience is: The members of our own walled garden, and the others like it, sometimes, via well-defined channels, people who live, you know, in the world. That posture is changing fast. Just look at this year’s SCI teams; and last year’s and the year’s before that, and before that. More and more of us are looking to audiences outside the garden wall, and good.
But even as members of the scholarly community—and I mean this in the most ecumenical sense—grow in their commitment to a wider audience, in much of the world it is not at all clear that our social and cultural and political and economic commitments to humane education, to teaching and learning, to the cultivation and application of widely shared knowledge toward the good, are safe or secure. Even as we send more and more information up, over, and outside the garden wall (which is good), somehow we are bringing fewer and fewer people into its compass. I mean public higher education, which is increasingly none of those things.
And you have to be more optimistic than I am to think that the last century’s commitment—not everywhere and not perfect but nonetheless widespread and powerful—that the last century’s commitment to the progressive virtues that inform our work at SCI, is not at grave, grave risk. But I don’t think it’s grandiose or a gesture of hubris to say that one of the virtues of the SCI, and since we are here, of the National Humanities Center as well, is that it provides us all with an opportunity to breathe deep, take stock of where we are, find support in the company of peers, and return to our home institutions re-energized, re-charged, re-committed to the shared enterprise of leaving the next generation with better tools and more resources than we ourselves inherited. Lord knows, they’ll need them if they want to solve the problems that our solutions will inevitably create!
We hope you’ll consider joining us in 2019. SCI 2019 will be held October 13-17 at the Rizzo Center in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. The Request for Proposals will be announced here in January, with proposals due in April and teams invited in late May or early June. If your proposal is selected, the Institute will cover all expenses for your team to attend, with funding generously provided by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Stay tuned, here on this web site and on @TriangleSCI!