Digital Scholarly Communication and Visual and Material Research #hastac2011

posted on 04 Dec 2011 18:20 by BGC DML - Kimon
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Just got back from the University of Michigan and the HASTAC 2011 conference. HASTAC stands for Humanities, Arts, Sciences, and Technology Advanced Collaboratory and brings together a wide variety of people working on ways to integrate technology into academic work. This particular conference was focused on Digital Scholarly Communication, a topic which has really been at the forefront of much digital discourse for the last couple of years and has far reaching implications from the impact and relative value of different formats of academic expression (journals, books, blogs, Twitter, etc.), to the role of open access in publishing, to the changing state of tenure and promotion, especially within the humanities. It was good to be there and to see a number of friends, make new contacts, and once again do a survey of the field and the changes that are taking place.

While at HASTAC, one thing in particular stood out to me about how the work we do in the DML fits into the way the humanities is adopting digital technologies and how the larger realm of academia is adapting as well. A recurring commentary that I noticed and heard was that there will always be different sets of questions and priorities for different disciplines and subdisciplines in how technology influences research and academic practice. Tara McPherson of USC and Vectors actually brought this up explicitly in a Q&A session after Siva Vaidhyanathan's keynote with regards to the different approaches that scholars in the humanities and arts take to research and scholarly communication. What this brought to mind for me was how the materials used for research can influence the types of questions and the relative importance of those questions that scholars have to ask about their work when integrating digital technology into their research. The thing that really came to the fore for me while at HASTAC 2011 was how questions about permissions and the right to reproduce materials are much more central to the discourse surrounding digital scholarly communication for art historians than other humanists.

We have had a number of private and public gatherings at the BGC to discuss scholarly communication, the future of publishing, and the role of the artifact in the age of new media and it is inevitable that those types of conversations gravitate to the cost and challenge of reproducing images that are critical to the argumentation of art and material culture historians. This goes beyond regular questions of tenure and promotion, open access, and the mode of scholarly publication and enters a very real realm of economic and legal considerations that involve copyright, the systems that museums use to control and generate revenue from their unique collections, and the relationships that scholars and institutions must maintain with content providers in order to ensure future access. This isn't to say that these are questions that other humanities scholars aren't confronted with, but I found it interesting that the availability and publishability of the visual and material research objects that scholars at the BGC work with was a secondary question at a gathering on digital scholarly communication.

I was reminded of the challenge of these types of materials in the pedagogical realm when talking to Brian Croxall (@briancroxall), a postdoc at Emory and one of the fabulous ProfHacker authors, about the Prezis that we are using at the BGC with more and more regularity. When showing him the visual syllabi I had constructed for my Scenic Design in Western Theatre class, we started thinking about ways that could we could perhaps show other teachers the thought-map/workspace approach to using Prezi that we have adopted at the BGC. We quickly ran into the barrier that most if not all of the materials I had gathered (about 1200 images covering 140 years of scenic design) could be used under fair use on a private Prezi for a class, but could not be publicly displayed for obvious copyright reasons. This is why the question of open access pedagogy and course materials has been a bit sticky here at the BGC. While I would love to open up all of our wikis for the world to see (since our students and faculty are doing some really amazing work on them and embracing the collaborative ethos that wikis provide) they are almost always inundated with visual materials with copyright issues attached to them. As a school that relies on our strong relationships with institutions like the Metropolitan Museum of Art, American Museum of Natural History, New York Public Library, and Museum of Modern Art, we still need to recognize and respect the contested space of copyright and permissions. This limits the amount of envelope-pushing we can do as an institution.

This is not meant to be a critique of HASTAC 2011 in any way. It was a good conference (although a little bit of un-conferenceness would have suited the audience I think), and the lack of explicit conversation about rights and permissions was definitely not an intentional omission of any sort. However, what it did remind me of was how widespread the impact of digital technology on the academy has been and how hard it is to cover all the facets of that change, even at a conference completely dedicated to those questions and filled with leading minds and practitioners. I do think that the DML is doing a good job in keeping up with trends–if not even pioneering some solutions–and that the BGC has taken a very progressive stance incorporating digital media across the institution. Nevertheless, many challenges remain and I am intrigued to see how changes in copyright and permissions in the world of art historical materials continue to impact the notion of digital scholarly communication in our corner of academia.

Kimon Keramidas @BGCDML


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