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Rachael Hodder

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January 5, 2012

Reflecting on HASTAC V: Forking Scholarship

January 5, 2012 | By | 2 Comments

Like Alex, HASTAC V was the first digital humanities-centric conference I have attended. However, I have not had the pleasure of attending any THATcamps yet, so it was the first time I’d shared the same physical space with so many other scholars who are as excited as me about DH. It was invigorating and I left the conference feeling inspired and motivated.

The conference’s theme was digital scholarly publishing and many scholars’ talks focused on how they have been doing digital scholarly publishing already or their vision for why or how the current model of scholarly publishing is flawed and in need of change. Highlights for me include a keynote panel featuring Richard Nash, Dan Cohen, and Tara McPherson as well as Doug Eyman and Cheryl Ball’s discussion of managing Kairos, an online scholarly journal founded in 1996. These talks, both reflective and rallying, felt like exciting calls to action by scholars who have been working to change models of academic publishing for many years, if not decades.

I was particularly enthralled by Josh Greenberg’s keynote talk, “Data, Code, and Research” (video; notes). I’m a big fan of metaphors and Greenberg had one fantastic metaphor that has stuck with me in the month since I heard his talk.

“What if we wrote scholarship like code?”

This metaphor falls flat to people who don’t code, so let me clarify. Greenberg referred to “version control” in his talk, referencing programmer collaborative platforms like GitHub. On GitHub, programmers can share their work so that other programmers can “pull” it down, play with it, improve it, and “push” it back out to the community; or a programmer could “fork” the original code and make something new out of it. Forking would preserve the genealogy of academic work by linking to common ancestors. Rather than producing one publication, scholarship would be tagged for release like software: My Awesome Thesis Version 1, My Awesome Thesis Version 2, etc. Greenberg’s metaphor describes a scholarly culture that embraces collaboration, innovation, and remix. This is an upheaval of the current paradigm of academic work where single-authored scholarship is most valuable, “definitive” works rule, and ideas are personal property. By changing the scholarly workflow as Greenberg proposes, academia can become an even more fertile ground for cutting edge, revolutionary work.

As a master’s student trying to plot my path to and through the digital humanities, HASTAC V was an incredible experience. Though I’ve been following the work of many DH scholars on the web through blogs and Twitter, it was truly powerful to put voices with the names and faces of so many people I admire. Digital humanities as a field can sometimes be difficult to put a finger on and I have been doing my best to follow along using the web, but it has become apparent to me that it is essential to attend conferences, talks, and workshops on DH topics to be part of the conversation. Furthermore, because digital humanities is not a field that is always embraced with open arms in some academic communities which can amount to some frustration, especially for graduate students, conferences like HASTAC are essential resources for learning the arguments that can help us get to do the work we want to do.

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