You can't have "community" without "scholars" can you?

Avi Santo's picture

When we came up with the inaugural question to our MediaCommons Front Page survey on topics near-and-dear to the digital humanities I thought to myself “this one’s a no-brainer.” Indeed, I was so confident that I knew how to approach the question that I volunteered to go first. It’s not that I ever thought that the answers to how to build digital communities and cohorts were simple or straightforward, but I did feel strongly that my experiences co-creating projects like Flow, In Media Res and MediaCommons had prepared me to offer sage (or trite) insights like “Kevin Costner lied! They don’t just come because you built it” or “check your egos at the door! Digital communities work best when networked conversations eclipse cults of personality.”

But then pesky word placement did me in. Is the question: “how do we create digital scholarly communities and cohorts” or is it “how do we create digital communities and scholarly cohorts”? This is more than mere semantic chicanery. The first (naively) conflates two very different groupings under the banner of “the scholar,” while the second (again naively) distinguishes between a virtual community much broader than just scholars and a self-contained peer group made up exclusively of scholars.

The trouble is that I’ve always wanted membership in both. I’ve wanted to generate conversations both inclusive and exclusive; to find peers that I never knew existed and to exchange ideas with folks that would never once consider themselves “peers,” but nonetheless cross paths at the same digital hub. Ultimately, the answer hinges on how we define “community,” “cohort,” “peer.” We are at an interesting crossroads where peer boundaries are becoming porous yet for many of us the scholarly mantle remains an important mark of distinction. How do we participate in digital communities while retaining our affiliations with scholarly cohorts?


Jamie Henthorn's picture

I didn’t think of the

I didn’t think of the necessarily exclusive nature of cohorts. While defintely not inclusive, I suppose I’ve always thought of cohorts more as close-knit, which is probably a nicer way of saying the same thing. 

Somewhat tangentially, your post makes me think of studying a gaming community I belong too. They know I’m a student, but I never stressed it. When I wanted to write about the group, part of that involved a survey and I felt nervous crossing identities. Figuring out how to let that scholarly community enter this other community while still being an equal participant. The balance between studying a group and interacting with it is difficult. 

Kristopher Purzycki's picture

Definition of Scholar?

The most intriguing element of this question is the term “scholar.” Is it fair to say that our interpretation of its significance and meaning precedes how we identify the scholar’s relationship to the community? Perhaps I’m misreading the final question but, off the bat, it reads as either “How do I maintain my integrity within the academy while associating with these Others?” or “How may I participate in this discourse as both a researcher and peer?”

Avi Santo's picture

fuzzy (definitional) boundaries

Great points, Jamie and Kris. 300-word limits tend to lend themselves to more polemic than nuanced claims, so the “clarify”: ultimately, I see a series of tensions emerging online when academics seek to engage in community-building. On the one hand, I think that academics have yet to figure out what their roles are amidst more broadly defined scholarly communities. I typically advocate for the need to relinquish the title of “expert” and embrace the role of “stewardship,” though even this presumes a distinct role to play within these communities. On the other hand, I see the rise of accidental academic “silos” online, where projects like this one, which desire to breach boundaries, most often end up reproducing fairly insular conversations ironically about things like “how do we breach boundaries.” These are not separate occurrences in my opinion, but rather, are emblematic of what Pierre Bourdieu suggests happens whenever barriers to entry become permeable - a simultaneous - and somewhat contradictory - attempt to redefine and to refine our positions without sacrificing our capital - mostly symbolic and tied to our credentialing. As such, I agree fully with you, Kris, that a lot depends on how we define “scholarly” and what relationship this categorization has to the academy. In some ways this is what I mean when I say that our sense of who and who is not a “peer” matters, because a more expansive definition of scholarly likely means a reduced valuation of academic. This is not a bad thing per se, but merely one that generates tremendous anxiety amongst those whose careers and dispositions are invested in the conflation of these two terms.

Rochelle (Shelley) Rodrigo's picture

 Avi, I like your emphasis on

 Avi, I like your emphasis on “stewardship.” Not only does that framework allow for a more flexible and welcoming understanding of “expertise,” it also reminds the Steward that there are a multitude of responsiblities in fostering digital community and “expertise” is just one of them. I see some of the Steward’s responsiblities including things that are very “teacherly”: constructing and maintaining the environment, motivating and fostering activity, responding and rewarding activity, etc.