Hacking the Academy: A Review
Hacking the Academy is a very interesting kind of a thing. At it’s core it is a compilation of articles and scholarship on the emerging digital age in education, but the ideas behind the site are so much more complex that explaining the site this way almost seems like a disservice. The site and corresponding printed book were conceived by Dan Cohen and Tom Scheinfeldt, both from George Mason University. The two had an idea for a “crowdsourced” book that would be put together in a week. Basically, they posted some questions online on their personal websites and social media channels, and these questions became a call for submissions. Every kind of digital writing was accepted, from essays and long articles to tweets, and these were compiled online on their website hackingtheacademy.org, and also published in a printed volume available from the University of Michigan’s DigitalCulture Books.
First things first, something has to be said about the design and use of the website before one can dig into it. Hacking the Academy is a lot like goulash: it’s a little sloppy, doesn’t look all that great, but it’s very filling and meaty. Alright, maybe that’s a bit unfair. The site itself isn’t sloppy exactly, it’s just not as well laid out as it perhaps should be. The presentation of the homepage is kind of hard to look at, since it was given the appearance of something conspiratorially typed up on a typewriter with a slightly fading ink ribbon. I think that this was done because of the title of the entire project “Hacking” the academy. There is a rather extensive set of reasons given in the printed version of Hacking the Academy by Cohen and Scheinfeldt about why the word “Hacking” was chosen for this project, but the Introduction and Preface are not linked to or hosted on the .org homepage. This is extremely frustrating. It seems that a project of this scope should have a large friendly link titled “About” that
takes the reader to the explanation of what the project was about, how it got started, its effects, and all that good stuff. Sadly, most of this is lacking on Hacking the Academy, and while the Introduction and Preface can be read on the printed book’s publisher website , this seems like information that should be located directly on the original site, as the first piece of information for readers to read. There is a link for current news about the project and a link to criticisms of the project, but no explanation of the project itself. This seemed rather mysterious when first looking the project, and it has, if anything, become more mysterious. It is a major fault in the foundation of an otherwise solid project.
So, what about the project? What’s it all about? Is it successful? Is it relevant? Why “Hacking”? Perhaps it is best to start with that last one. Using the language of the authors in the introduction to the printed volume to answer that question (and simplifying more than a tad): “A hacker is a person who looks at systemic knowledge structures and learns about them from making or doing.” Basically, the model of hacking fit the model of education the creators of this project and the contributing authors saw. It is important to point out that while the articles in the first section are focused primarily on Undergraduate education, the sections almost advance themselves, moving from the classroom to the conference to the tenure track. Really, anyone involved in the education system is a part of the audience of this book.
To put all of this another way, the word “Hacking” was chosen because in fiction and fact, hackers are innovators taking the rules of a given structure and slightly modifying them in order to get what they want out of that system. This means that the website was designed to not only explore how technology is used in the classroom today, but also how teachers are implementing technology in actual classrooms to adjust (or hack) their curriculum and responses of their students. It’s a pretty cool idea.
In order to make the reader’s job a little more simple (there are more than 300 submissions on the site), the website has been broken down into these categories: First: Lectures, Classrooms, and the Curriculum, Second: Educational Technology, Third: Scholarly Societies and Conferences, Fourth: Scholarship and Scholarly Communication, Fifth: Academic Employment, Tenure, and Scholarly Identity, Sixth: Departments and Disciplines, Seventh: Libraries, and finally the Miscellaneous category: More Hacking. These subject headings are helpful, but they can also be slightly misleading. Many of the articles here span more than one subject in small amounts of space, so it seems like the most relevant or most present topic in the article was chosen to be it’s place. Really, its not a bad organization system. Once a reader selects a section to read, they are taken to a page of bare links. Each article has the author and title…nothing else. Well, some have some small editors notes like “video” or “nominated by”. The point is that there is no brief description of the links. This has two interesting and distinct effects, first it encourages exploration and expansion because not only does the reader not entirely know what they are about to read, but they also don’t know what to read next. There is no true “order” to these links, they just sort of randomly flow down the page.
The second effect of this is basically the inverse of the first. It is easy to see how this site would be discouraging to students who are not used to the double-edged sword of Graduate-level reading: Nobody will ever tell you that it’s okay to scan, but it sometimes can be. However, as a resource for those who already have a background in digital humanities or education or indeed anything listed in the above subject headings, casually leaping from one link to another can be an enjoyable experience, as it allows for a maximum amount of information to be spread out casually and perused at the reader’s leisure.
Perhaps due in part to the simplistic and stripped-out design of the website, the information is the true star. It is genuinely difficult to find an article on this website that is entirely uninteresting. Even articles that are not in a reader’s area of expertise will almost always have some fascinating concepts or technology applications in them. Really, it’s like a series of written and area-specific TED talks. Even reading about things that readers might not like (say, the heinous and insidious BlackBoard) has it’s merits, since the authors are usually somewhat aware of the limits of the technology they are using, and
not afraid to point out or at least look at the shortcomings.
It is really difficult to pick out specific articles in each section, or even one section to talk about.
Even if a reader simply goes through a section and randomly selects 5 or 7 articles without reading the titles a larger understanding will begin to emerge. Yes, some articles will be more interesting than others, but they will all present a new idea or a new application for a current technology. Failing that, the article will present a well-thought out analysis of a part of academia that some or all will deal with, be it Graduate studies, giving lectures, communicating with other scholars, on and on. Truth be told it can get a little exhausting reading these articles because there are so many new ideas out there.
By way of an example of how the site can be used, the section on Lectures, Classrooms and Curriculum will be used. On clicking the link to that section on the homepage, readers will find all the relevant links. Titles range from Johnathan Dresner’s “Towards a Unified Theory of Grading”, to Jeff Jarvis’ “This is Bullshit”. From Meg Palladino’s “Compromise”, to Mills Kelly’s “I Know…Let’s Blame the Students”. None of these are necessarily “superstar” academics, but they do have some incredible things to say. As the titles suggest, the tones of the articles vary slightly. Some are furiously angry, some are ironic, some are slightly morose, and some are actually laugh-out-loud funny. As mentioned before, it is so hard to take selections from these readings without taking single lines from several articles and mashing them together, because while the articles are of course stand alone pieces, it is in the context of the Hacking the Academy project that they all begin to shine together.
Also, never once did an article listed on this website come up improperly, or 404, or anything like that. How impressive is that? Additionally, with this being the digital age, all the authors have email accounts or twitter feeds that are active, so that if a page does go down, it can be brought back up in short order.
And so this is supposed to constitute a review. But it is such a disservice to have to explain this project in this way. Hacking the Academy was designed to be a dynamic kind of experience for readers. Not because the content is continually changing, but because the website is designed to be as invisible to readers as possible: no interpretation, just presentation. Cohen and Scheinfeldt did not make up the work in this project, they merely set up the project so that academic scholarship on a oft-ignored
subject would not be as obscured as it was before this project. The best thing about Hacking the Academy is the tangible sense of satisfaction that comes from reading the articles on the site. While they are not all uplifting, there is a great sense that “At least somebody is doing something about______”. That blank can be filled with any academic-related complaint. There is bound to be at least one solution on this site, and probably more than one. So, while it is possible to read about this site, the best way to learn about it is to use it. That way, the function of the project can be seen, and the excellence of the website can begin to reveal itself while the reader gorges themselves on this slightly unattractive, but wholly nutritious goulash of a website.