Research

Collaboration and Emergent Knowledge at Greenhouse Studios

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Since the 1970s, scholars in fields as varied as sedimentology, ornithology, sociology, and philosophy have come to understand the importance of self-organizing systems, of how higher-order complexity can “emerge” from independent lower-order elements. Emergence describes how millions of tiny mud cracks at the bottom of a dry lake bed form large scale geometries when viewed at a distance, or how water molecules, each responding simply to a change in temperature, come to form the complex crystalline patterns of a snowflake. Emergence describes how hundreds of birds, each following its own, relatively simple rules of behavior, self-organize into a flock that displays its own complex behaviors, behaviors that none of the individual birds themselves would display. In the words of writer Steven Johnson, emergence describes how those birds, without a master plan or executive leadership, go from being a “they” to being an “it.” In other words, emergence describes a becoming.

We, too, form emergent systems. Emergence describes how a crowd of pedestrians self-organizes to form complex traffic flows on a busy sidewalk. Viewed close-up, each pedestrian is just trying to get to his or her destination without getting trampled, reacting to what’s in front of him or her according to a set of relatively simple behavioral rules—one foot in front of the other. Viewed from above, however, we see a structured flow, a river of humanity. Acting without direction, the crowd spontaneously orders itself into a complex system for maximizing pedestrian traffic. The mass of individual actors has, without someone in charge, gone from being an uncoordinated “they” to an organized “it.”

oxford streetEmergent approaches to scholarly communication have long been an interest of mine, although I’ve only recently come to think of them this way. My first experiment in the emergent possibilities of radical collaboration took the form of THATCamp—The Humanities and Technology Camp—an “unconference” that colleagues at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media and I launched in 2008. Instead of a pre-arranged, centrally-planned conference program, THATCampers set their own agendas on the first morning of the event, organizing around the topics that happen to be of most interest to most campers on that day. Another example is Hacking the Academy, a collaboration with Dan Cohen, which posed an open call for submissions to the community of digital humanists on a seven-day deadline. From the patterns that emerged from the more than 300 submissions we received—everything from tweets to blog post to fully formed essays—we assembled and published an edited volume with University of Michigan Press. A final experiment with this emergent approach was a project called One Week | One Tool. This Institute for Advanced Topics in Digital Humanities brought together a diverse collections of scholars, students, programmers, designers, librarians, and administrators to conceive, build, and launch an entirely new software tool for humanities scholarship. Participants arrived without an idea of what they would build, only the knowledge that the assembled team would possess the necessary range of talent for the undertaking. They began by brainstorming ideas for a digital project and proceeded to establish project roles, iteratively design a feature set, implement their design, and finally launch their product on day seven.

The Greenhouse Studios design process similarly provides a space for emergent knowledge making. Greenhouse Studios is interested in what new knowledge might emerge when we allow academic communities to self-organize. We are asking what kinds of higher-order complexities arise when teams of humanists, artists, librarians, faculty, students, and staff are given permission to set and follow their own simple rules of collaboration. This mode of work stands in strong rebuke to what I would call the “additive” model of collaboration that draws resources and people together to serve faculty member-driven projects. Instead, Greenhouse Studios provides its teams with the conditions for collaboration—diversity and depth of thought and experience, time apart, creative tools and spaces—and lets them set their own projects and own roles. At Greenhouse Studios, we’re running an experiment in radical collaboration, exploring what happens when you remove the labor hierarchies and predetermined workplans that normally structure collaborative scholarly projects, and instead embrace the emergent qualities of collaboration itself.


Tom Scheinfeldt
Director, Greenhouse Studios

Creativity and the Scholarly Record

 

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“There is no scholarship without preservation.”

At Greenhouse Studios, we are working out the process of creating new forms of scholarship. One important aspect of what differentiates scholarship from projects is sustainability. As I like to say, there is no scholarship without persistence. The infrastructure of persistence is well understood in traditional academic publishing, but is less understood in the world digital humanities.

The Greenhouse Studios model works through five distinct phases, Understand, Identify, Build, Review, Release, and is based on the idea of flattening traditional academic hierarchies: we do not build things for faculty, we gather together a group of people around a common intellectual question, and go from there.

Archivists have traditionally insisted that it improves the preservation potential of any digital record for the archivist—or at least preservation thinking—to be a part of the creation of that record from the beginning. At Greenhouse Studios we are testing what that actually means in terms of new forms of scholarship. What is the beginning? When is it appropriate to consider preservation? Continue reading

The Understand Phase Explained

When people ask me about what we do at Greenhouse Studios, it is challenging to distill all of its ambitions into a easily digestible tidbit. Ultimately, we are attempting to change the way scholarship is produced. As a result, many of Greenhouse Studios’ features are responsive to the limitations of mainstream academic practice. In this post, I thought I would share an in-depth explanation of the Understand phase, the first phase stage of collaboration in the Greenhouse Studios design process. I will describe our current process with a degree of generality, as we are constantly evaluating its efficacy and suggesting possible tweaks. I’ll explain how this first phase sets the stage for our teams to generate innovative forms of scholarship.

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Thomas Lee Describes The Charles V Project in Video Interview

Enter Greenhouse Studios and you'll almost always spot Design Technologist Tom Lee diligently at work in the corner project room. Step up to its glass wall and inside you'll see architectural blueprints, virtual reality (VR) equipment, and Tom, who's often wearing a pair of VR goggles and staring into space.  He's not just day dreaming, he is actually working on Greenhouse Studios’ first and furthest-developed collaboration: The Charles V Coronation. This project involves experts from the History, Music, Research Services, and Digital Media & Design departments. Their goal is to recreate the coronation Mass of Charles V, which took place in 1530, as realistically as possible, including the original architectural space, artifacts, and music of the event.

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Alom from the Fino Project Runs 16-mm Film Workshop with Students

16-mm Film Screening Juan Carlos Alom

The Workshop

On the evening of November 9th, I gathered in the Ballard Institute of Puppetry theater to watch four short films produced by students with old-fashioned 16-mm cameras. The films were made in a workshop conducted by Cuban artist Juan Carlos Alom, a filmmaker and photographer whose work has been exhibited throughout the world, and Aimara Fernádez. Alom is a team member of our Fino and Global Cuban Cultures collaboration, which is in the build phase of project development. The event was sponsored by the University of Connecticut: School of Fine Arts; Robert H. Gray Memorial Lecture; Greenhouse Studios; Literatures, Cultures & Languages; El Instituto: Plank Lecture Series; Humanities Institute; Global Affairs; Dodd Center; Human Rights Institute; Connecting with the Arts; and Center for the Study of Popular Music.

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Greenhouse Studios’ First Projects Grapple with The Limits of Text

Greenhouse Studios, a new research unit at the University of Connecticut, is beginning implementation of a collaboration-first approach for the creation and communication of scholarship thanks to a $789,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. This award is theGreenhouse Studios Logo first of its kind at UConn and part of the Mellon Foundation’s Scholarly Communications program, a multi-pronged effort to accelerate the evolution of scholarly practice and academic publishing to meet the opportunities and challenges of the digital age. Greenhouse Studios is a joint effort of the University Library, School of Fine Arts, and the University of Connecticut Humanities Institute, with each contributing resources and personnel to advance scholarly communications research. “Greenhouse Studios represents the kind of bold commitment to interdisciplinary research that our academic plan identified as central to solving the problems of the 21st century and to cementing UConn’s place as a driver of innovation and excellence within the State of Connecticut and around the world,” says Interim Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs Jeremy Teitelbaum.

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