about 100 hours of video are uploaded to You Tube every minute. We
also underestimated the degree to which it would be about relationships –
over 700 million users are on Facebook each day. This is the environment
in which young scholars have grown up.
We live in what Henry Jenkins has called a “participatory culture.”
Lots of people connected with one another, creating content. Much of it, I’ll
admit again, is about cats. But there’s good, thoughtful, important stuff in
there, too: amateur science, fan fiction writing, citizen journalism.
James Paul Gee has called the producers of this kind of knowledge
“professional amateurs.” These citizen scholars are rarely credentialed or
paid. They do history, economics, or sociology because they love to. And
they are intelligent, motivated and curious, claiming expertise in areas
where a single researcher, and even a group of researchers, might be lacking.
And in many cases they are delighted to contribute to our research.
Where is this happening? In science, it’s well established. Recently, an
online game called Foldit drew citizen scientists from around the world
together to solve a major problem that scientists had worked on for more
than a decade. It took gamers around the world three weeks. This is often
called crowdsourcing research.
In the social sciences and humanities, where we study culture, societies
and relationships in those societies, we can crowd-source knowledge – transcribing written diaries or contributing to population databases. But we
can go beyond allowing others to contribute to a predefined research project and instead provide opportunities for citizen scholars to be co-creators
What does this look like? Let’s go back to digital archives. Within days
of last year’s Boston Marathon bombings, scholars at Northeastern University had created The Boston Bombing Digital Archive as a place where
citizens could add pictures, videos, stories and social media about the
attacks. Or let’s go back to Hypercities. The Egyptian revolution of 2011
which brought an end to Hosni Mubarak’s regime has been called the
Twitter Revolution because of the way Twitter and Facebook were used
to organize and bring international attention to the protests. With this in
mind, a Hypercity was created that linked a Twitter stream recorded during
demonstrations to a map, illustrating where those who were organizing,
and tweeting, were located at different moments during the protest.
We could say that this is a way of creating new audiences, and it is. But
it goes much further than that. It allows for a new kind of relationship with
our communities. We are no longer mysterious wizards hidden in ivory
towers; we are especially skilled, especially knowledgeable members of
larger communities of interest. Of course, this kind of relationship won’t
make sense in every domain. But I believe it’s required in others.
In history, for instance, if we don’t do this, it will be done for us. In my
own research, I’ve created iPhone-enabled walking tours of the Ontario villages of Niagara-on-the-Lake and Queenston that take tourists back to life
in the early 19th century. These kinds of apps can now be opened up so that
users can add their own knowledge of history, and share that with others.
This year Google will release Google Glass – augmented reality glasses
that provide the wearer with information relevant to her time and place.
Interested in the facade on that church? A speaker tucked behind your
ear will tell you about the architect. And how is Google marketing these
glasses? With an app called Field Trip. Where does that information you’ll
hear come from? Google is an advertising company, so it will probably
come from people who want to sell you things. We could do better.
Our role in all this
When information is readily available on the inside of our glasses as we
walk down the street, will social sciences and humanities scholars be
contributing to it? Will we be integral to the many others spaces where
knowledge is being created and shared? And if our work is occurring in
the open, for all to see, will it still be scholarship?
If the answer to these questions is even a tentative yes, we need to provide space for new ways of practising the social sciences and humanities.
To be clear, I’m not suggesting that we adopt these exact models of research, writing, publishing and communicating. In a few months some of
the methods, tools and practices I’ve described will already be out of date.
As with everything now, it’s in flux. Nor, to be clear, am I saying that we
should stop researching in libraries and archives, stop writing articles,
stop publishing in prestigious journals, or stop communicating via long-established outlets. These ways of being have served us well for generations.
What I am suggesting is that we make room within the academy for
both established and new methods. Let’s enlarge the boundaries so that:
• a close analysis of our sources can be accompanied by a distant reading
of vast datasets;
• writing with text goes hand in hand with digital maps, audio, video and
other forms of digital expression;
• publishing with a reflective, time-intensive peer review goes together
with publishing that which is most valued in an online community; and
• creation of knowledge by scholars alone is accompanied by the sharing
or even co-creating of knowledge with citizen scholars.
The new paradigm defined around digital media and the Internet means
that knowledge exists in a world of limitless boundaries. But scholarship
requires boundaries. We see that tension in the English title of Congress
2014 – Borders, without Boundaries. So we need to determine what to
keep – what borders to guard – and where to experiment – what boundaries
to push past.
Established, accomplished scholars in the academy have a special role
to play here. With decades of experience, they know what boundaries to
guard, and which to push past, and have moved their research domains
in directions these wouldn’t otherwise have gone. They are in a position
to work alongside those scholars who are experimenting with how we research, write, publish and communicate. Let’s together ask questions of our
practice and determine where to be imaginative and experimental in our
answers. Let’s engage in the practice of critical reflection that has powered
the social sciences and humanities in the past and will propel them into
I remember well Brock’s last Congress, in 1996. I’ve got a good idea
of what it will be like in 2014. Let’s imagine what Congress, indeed what
the social sciences and humanities, will look like, when Congress returns
to Brock … in 2032. Let’s together imagine a social sciences and humanities
with scholarly borders, but limitless boundaries.
Kevin Kee is associate vice-president, research (social sciences and humanities), and holder of the Canada Research Chair in Digital Humanities at Brock University. This article was
adapted from the Big Thinking lecture Dr. Kee gave at the 2013 annual meeting of the Royal
Society of Canada, in Banff, Alberta. Congress 2014 runs from May 24 to May 30.