Category Archives: Hacking

Some Thoughts on the Hacking the Academy Process and Model

I’m delighted that the edited version of Hacking the Academy is now available on the University of Michigan’s DigitalCultureBooks site. Here are some of my quick thoughts on the process of putting the book together. (For more, please read the preface Tom Scheinfeldt and I wrote.)

1) Be careful what you wish for. Although we heavily promoted the submission process for HTA, Tom and I had no idea we would receive over 300 contributions from nearly 200 authors. This put an enormous, unexpected burden on us; it obviously takes a long time to read through that many submissions. Tom and I had to set up a collaborative spreadsheet for assessing the contributions, and it took several months to slog through the mass. We also had to make tough decisions about what kind of work to include, since we were not overly prescriptive about what we were looking for. A large number of well-written, compelling pieces (including many from friends of ours) had to be left out of the volume, unfortunately, because they didn’t quite match our evolving criteria, or didn’t fit with other pieces in the same chapter.

2) Set aside dedicated time and people. Other projects that have crowdsourced volumes, such as Longshot Magazine, have well-defined crunch times for putting everything together, using an expanded staff and a lot of coffee. I think it’s fair to say (and I hope not haughty to say) that Tom and I are incredibly busy people and we had to do the assembly and editing in bits and pieces. I wish we could have gotten it done much sooner to sustain the energy of the initial week. We probably could have included others in the editing process, although I think we have good editorial consistency and smooth transitions because of the more limited control.

3) Get the permissions set from the beginning. One of the delays on the edited volume was making sure we had the rights to all of the materials. HTA has made us appreciate even more the importance of pushing for Creative Commons licenses (especially the simple CC-BY) in academia; many of our contributors are dedicated to open access and already had licensed their materials under a permissive reproduction license, but we had to annoy everyone else (and by “we,” I mean the extraordinary helpful and capable Shana Kimball at MPublishing). This made the HTA process a little more like a standard publication, where the press has to hound contributors for sign-offs, adding friction along the way.

4) Let the writing dictate the form, not vice versa. I think one of the real breakthroughs that Tom and I had in this process is realizing that we didn’t need to adhere to a standard edited-volume format of same-size chapters. After reading through odd-sized submissions and thinking about form, we came up with an array of “short, medium, long” genres that could fit together on a particular theme. Yes, some of the good longer pieces could stand as more-or-less standard essays, but others could be paired together or set into dialogues. It was liberating to borrow some conventions from, e.g., magazines and the way they handle shorter pieces. In some cases we also got rather aggressive about editing down articles so that they would fit into useful spaces.

5) This is a model that can be repeated. Sure, it’s not ideal for some academic cases, and speed is not necessarily of the essence. But for “state of the field” volumes, vibrant debates about new ideas, and books that would benefit from blended genres, it seems like an improvement upon the staid “you have two years to get me 8,000 words for a chapter” model of the edited book.

One Week, One Book: Hacking the Academy

[Reblogged from the THATCamp website. Please note that you don’t need to be a THATCamper to participate. We are soliciting submissions from everyone, worldwide. Join us by writing something in the next week, or if you’ve already written something you think deserves to be included, let us know!]

Tom Scheinfeldt and I have been brewing a proposal for an edited book entitled Hacking the Academy. Let’s write it together, starting at THATCamp this weekend. And let’s do it in one week.

Can an algorithm edit a journal? Can a library exist without books? Can students build and manage their own learning management platforms? Can a conference be held without a program? Can Twitter replace a scholarly society?

As recently as the mid-2000s, questions like these would have been unthinkable. But today serious scholars are asking whether the institutions of the academy as they have existed for decades, even centuries, aren’t becoming obsolete. Every aspect of scholarly infrastructure is being questioned, and even more importantly, being <em>hacked</em>. Sympathetic scholars of traditionally disparate disciplines are cancelling their association memberships and building their own networks on Facebook and Twitter. Journals are being compiled automatically from self-published blog posts. Newly-minted Ph.D.’s are foregoing the tenure track for alternative academic careers that blur the lines between research, teaching, and service. Graduate students are looking beyond the categories of the traditional C.V. and building expansive professional identities and popular followings through social media. Educational technologists are “punking” established technology vendors by rolling their own open source infrastructure.

“Hacking the Academy” will both explore and contribute to ongoing efforts to rebuild scholarly infrastructure for a new millenium. Contributors can write on these topics, which will form chapters:

  • Lectures and classrooms
  • Scholarly societies
  • Conferences and meetings
  • Journals
  • Books and monographs
  • Tenure and academic employment
  • Scholarly Identity and the CV
  • Departments and disciplines
  • Educational technology
  • Libraries

In keeping with the spirit of hacking, the book will itself be an exercise in reimagining the edited volume. Any blog post, video response, or other media created for the volume and tweeted (or tagged) with the hashtag #hackacad will be aggregated at The best pieces will go into the published volume (we are currently in talks with a publisher to do an open access version of this final volume). The volume will also include responses such as blog comments and tweets to individual pieces. If you’ve already written something that you would like included, that’s fine too, just be sure to tweet or tag it (or email us the link to where it’s posted).

You have until midnight on May 28, 2010. Ready, set, go!

UPDATE: [5/23/10] 48 hours in, we have 65 contributions to the book. There’s a running list of contributions.

THAT Camp Almost Full

THATCamp LogoAlthough the official deadline is not until March 15, I wanted to remind readers of this blog who are interested in attending THAT Camp 2008 to apply as soon as possible. The available slots are filling up very quickly; we’ve gotten a lot of great applications already. So don’t delay if you would like to attend! Instructions for how to apply are on the THAT Camp site.

Understanding the 2006 DMCA Exemptions

If Emerson was correct that genius is the ability to hold two contradictory ideas in the mind simultaneously, the American legal system just gained enough IQ points to join Mensa. Already, our collective legal mind was showing its vast intelligence trying to square the liberties of the people with the demands of government and industry. For instance, in Alaska you can possess up to an ounce of marijuana legally, but can be charged with a felony for possessing more than four ounces or for selling the “illegal” drug. (Lesson: don’t buy in bulk.) If you’re gay you can legally join the United States military, but you can’t talk about being gay, because that’s illegal and you will be discharged. And now, more pretzel logic: as of last week, it is illegal to break the copy protection on a DVD or distribute “circumvention” technologies, but if you’re a film or media studies professor you can break the copy protection for pedagogical uses. But how, you might ask, would a film or media studies professor with no background in encryption, programming, and hacking crack the copy protection on a DVD?

Good question. It was the first question I posed last weekend to Peter Decherney as my addled brain tried to grasp the significance of the new exemptions to the DMCA granted by the Librarian of Congress, James Billington. Peter is a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and deserves all of our thanks for spearheading the effort to put some cracks into the DMCA. (Full disclosure: Peter is a very good friend. But I still think—objectively—that he deserves an enormous amount of praise for persevering in the face of the MPAA’s lawyers to get the exemption for film professors. He told me the MPAA doggedly fights every proposed exemption, reasonable or not, so this was a long way from a trivial exercise.) It’s unfortunate to see many initial reactions to the new exemptions lamenting that they are only for three years or that they merely enshrine the DMCA’s destruction of fair use principles.

Well, sure. These new exemptions are indeed limited in scope and in an ideal world Peter and his colleagues should not have had to ask for these rights or fight for months to get them. (And then do the process all over again in 2009.) But there are a few bright spots here for those of us who believe that the balance between the rights of copyright owners and users of their content has swung much too far in the direction of the former.

First, as Peter pointed out to me, the exemption for film and media studies professors is the first time an exemption has been carved out for a class of people. It’s not hard to imagine how this opens the door for other groups of people to evade the strict rules of the DMCA. Most obviously, many of my colleagues in the History and Art History department at George Mason University use film clips in their courses. Shouldn’t they be exempt too? Shouldn’t a psychology professor who wants to store clips from films on her hard drive to show in class as illustrations of mental phenomena be allowed to do so? The MPAA will undoubtedly say no every step of the way, but you can see how a well-reasoned and reasonable march of exemptions will begin to restore some sanity to the copyright regime. Academia could merely be the beachhead.

Second, and related to the first point, getting a DMCA exemption is a daunting task, especially for those of us without legal training. Peter and his colleagues have provided a blueprint for academics seeking other exemptions in the future. It would be good if they could pass along their wisdom. Thankfully, they have already set up a website that will serve as a clearinghouse of information for the “educational use of media” exemption. A plainspoken description of how they got the exemption in the first place would be helpful as well.

Finally, the new exemptions have raised the odd contradiction I mentioned in the introduction to this piece, a contradiction that helpfully highlights the absurdity of current law. Film professors can now legally proceed in their work (saving clips from DVDs for their classes), except that they have to break the law to do this legal work (by encouraging and participating in an illegal market for cracking software). Similar absurdities abound in the digital realm; recently the MPAA went after a company that fills iPods with video from DVDs the iPod owners have bought.

So now the question becomes: Does our legal system follow the dictates of Emerson’s genius, or of common sense? And how do those moderate pot smokers in Alaska get their marijuana, anyway?