Collaboration and Emergent Knowledge at Greenhouse Studios


Crossposted from Greenhouse Studios

Since the 1970s, scholars in fields as varied as sedimentology, ornithology, sociology, and philosophy have come to understand the importance of self-organizing systems, of how higher-order complexity can “emerge” from independent lower-order elements. Emergence describes how millions of tiny mud cracks at the bottom of a dry lake bed form large scale geometries when viewed at a distance, or how water molecules, each responding simply to a change in temperature, come to form the complex crystalline patterns of a snowflake. Emergence describes how hundreds of birds, each following its own, relatively simple rules of behavior, self-organize into a flock that displays its own complex behaviors, behaviors that none of the individual birds themselves would display. In the words of writer Steven Johnson, emergence describes how those birds, without a master plan or executive leadership, go from being a “they” to being an “it.” In other words, emergence describes a becoming.

We, too, form emergent systems. Emergence describes how a crowd of pedestrians self-organizes to form complex traffic flows on a busy sidewalk. Viewed close-up, each pedestrian is just trying to get to his or her destination without getting trampled, reacting to what’s in front of him or her according to a set of relatively simple behavioral rules—one foot in front of the other. Viewed from above, however, we see a structured flow, a river of humanity. Acting without direction, the crowd spontaneously orders itself into a complex system for maximizing pedestrian traffic. The mass of individual actors has, without someone in charge, gone from being an uncoordinated “they” to an organized “it.”

oxford street

Emergent approaches to scholarly communication have long been an interest of mine, although I’ve only recently come to think of them this way. My first experiment in the emergent possibilities of radical collaboration took the form of THATCamp—The Humanities and Technology Camp—an “unconference” that colleagues at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media and I launched in 2008. Instead of a pre-arranged, centrally-planned conference program, THATCampers set their own agendas on the first morning of the event, organizing around the topics that happen to be of most interest to most campers on that day. Another example is Hacking the Academy, a collaboration with Dan Cohen, which posed an open call for submissions to the community of digital humanists on a seven-day deadline. From the patterns that emerged from the more than 300 submissions we received—everything from tweets to blog post to fully formed essays—we assembled and published an edited volume with University of Michigan Press. A final experiment with this emergent approach was a project called One Week | One Tool. This Institute for Advanced Topics in Digital Humanities brought together a diverse collections of scholars, students, programmers, designers, librarians, and administrators to conceive, build, and launch an entirely new software tool for humanities scholarship. Participants arrived without an idea of what they would build, only the knowledge that the assembled team would possess the necessary range of talent for the undertaking. They began by brainstorming ideas for a digital project and proceeded to establish project roles, iteratively design a feature set, implement their design, and finally launch their product on day seven.

The Greenhouse Studios design process similarly provides a space for emergent knowledge making. Greenhouse Studios is interested in what new knowledge might emerge when we allow academic communities to self-organize. We are asking what kinds of higher-order complexities arise when teams of humanists, artists, librarians, faculty, students, and staff are given permission to set and follow their own simple rules of collaboration. This mode of work stands in strong rebuke to what I would call the “additive” model of collaboration that draws resources and people together to serve faculty member-driven projects. Instead, Greenhouse Studios provides its teams with the conditions for collaboration—diversity and depth of thought and experience, time apart, creative tools and spaces—and lets them set their own projects and own roles. At Greenhouse Studios, we’re running an experiment in radical collaboration, exploring what happens when you remove the labor hierarchies and predetermined workplans that normally structure collaborative scholarly projects, and instead embrace the emergent qualities of collaboration itself.

My new outfit: Greenhouse Studios | Scholarly Communications Design at the University of Connecticut

Looking down the page, it seems I haven’t posted here on the ol’ blog in nearly three years. Not coincidentally, that’s about when I started work on the initiative I’m pleased to announce today. It was in the fall of 2014 that I first engaged in conversations with my UConn colleagues (especially Clarissa Ceglio, Greg Colati, and Sara Sikes, but lots of other brilliant folks as well) and program officers at the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation about the notion of a “scholarly communications design studio” that would bring humanist scholars into full, equal, and meaningful collaboration with artists, technologists, and librarians. Drawing on past experiences at RRCHNM, especially One Week | One Tool, this new style digital humanities center would put collaboration at the center of its work by moving collaboration upstream in the research and publication workflow. It would bring designers, developers, archivists, editors, students, and others together with humanist faculty members and at the very outset of a project, not simply to implement a work but to imagine it. In doing so, it would challenge and level persistent hierarchies in academic labor, challenge notions of authorship, decenter the faculty member as the source of intellectual work, and bring a divergence of thought and action to the design of scholarly communication.

A planning grant from Mellon in 2015 allowed us to explore these ideas in greater depth. We explored models of collaboration and project design in fields as disparate as industrial design, engineering, theater, and (of course) libraries and digital humanities. We solicited “mental models” of good project design from diverse categories of academic labor including students, faculty members, archivists, artists, designers, developers, and editors. We visited colleagues around the country both inside and outside the university to learn what made for successful and not-so-successful collaboration.

Greenhouse StudiosThe result of this work was a second proposal to Mellon and, ultimately, the launch this week of Greenhouse Studios | Scholarly Communications Design at the University of Connecticut. Starting this year with our first cohort of projects, we will be pioneering a new, inquiry-driven, collaboration-first model of scholarly production that puts team members and questions at the center of research and publication rather than the interests of a particular faculty member or other individual. Teams will be brought together to develop answers to prompts generated and issued internally by Greenhouse Studios. Through a facilitated design process, whole teams will decide the audience, content, and form of Greenhouse Studios projects, not based on any external expectations or demands, but according to their available skills and resources, bounded by the constraints they identify, and in keeping with team member interests and career goals.

Stay tuned to see what these teams produce. In the meantime, after three long years of getting up and running, I plan to be posting more frequently in this space, from my new academic home base, Greenhouse Studios.


pressforward We have been threatening to do it for years. Frustrated with the inadequacies of traditional modes of scholarly publishing for the digital age, we have long batted around the idea of launching a “CHNM Press.” Today, we are pleased to announce the launch of PressForward, a new initiative to explore and produce new means for collecting, screening, and drawing attention to the vast expanse of scholarship that is currently decentralized across the web or does not fit into traditional genres such as the journal article or the monograph. In recent years, on sites like Slashdot, Techmeme, and Google News, the web beyond academia has developed sophisticated mechanisms for filtering for quantity. Over centuries, the academy has honed a set of methods of filtering for quality, through peer review. PressForward aims to marry these old and new methods to expose and disseminate the very best in online scholarship. We are pleased to add PressForward to our stable of projects (including THATCamp and Hacking the Academy) that are re-imagining scholarly communication for the Internet age and grateful to the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation’s Digital Information Technology program for making this exciting new adventure possible.

Learn more about PressForward on our new site, or by sending us an email. You can also follow us on Twitter or via RSS.

One Week, One Book: Hacking the Academy

Dan Cohen and I have been brewing a proposal for an edited book entitled Hacking the Academy. Let’s write it together, starting at THATCamp. 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 (submissions should use a secondary tag — #class #society #conf #journal #book #tenure #cv #dept #edtech #library — to designate chapters). 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!