Pragmatic Collaborative Autodidacts

There have been many posts and accounts of the One Week | One Tool project in which a group of twelve digital humanists from diverse backgrounds got together and created something from scratch; the wonderfully useful Anthologize WordPress plugin that will turn your blog (or collection of feeds) into an eBook. The project was coordinated by the Center for History and New Media.

One of the participants, Douglas Knox, has written a post that examines the project from a pedagogical perspective.

The pedagogy of One Week | One Tool was grounded in tacit values that are recognizably characteristic of people who are drawn to Digital Humanities, and yet much of that culture is not necessarily overtly tied to technology at all. There is a kind of geeky communitarian anarchy, a tropism toward the values captured in the phrase “rough consensus and running code,” that lends itself to a paradoxical kind of pedagogy: self-taught lessons in group dynamics for a team of pragmatic collaborative autodidacts. With the right group, or the right expectations and balance of uncertainties, twelve people can all be simultaneously service-oriented and capable of exercising leadership, flexibly and as needed in pursuit of a common goal.

I love that phrase “pragmatic collaborative autodidacts” as a way to describe the characteristics of the people involved. Collaborative autodidact does seem like a paradoxical term. After all, when you think autodidact, you probably think of someone who places a high value on personal autonomy, rather than someone anxious and eager to collaborate with others on a project. But it feels like an important term when you start thinking about a world that places increasing importance on collaborative skills, and where the ability to continually learn what you need to know is crucial, as the half-life of skills continues to decrease.  To me, pragmatic is the key here, and what binds the other two concepts into something powerful. Pragmatic is important because it suggests a humbleness; a willingness to know when to let go, when to step up to lead, and when to fall back and follow, all in the name of getting the job done. Not an easy mix to find, and one that Knox himself wonders if it is reproducible in other contexts with other participants.

However intensely production-focused One Week was, and however use-focused its resulting tool, as a pedagogical intervention it raises some important questions for which the answers don’t seem at all obvious yet. Was this a pioneering laboratory experiment under exceedingly rare, carefully prepared conditions? What would it take for its lessons to be replicable in other contexts?

It’s a good question, and I wonder if we can get a clue from the subtitle of the project: “a digital barn raising“. A traditional barn raising saw members of the community come together to create something tangible for other members of the community. Some groundwork was established ahead of time, and the more experienced members of the community coordinated the on site work, alternatively leading, training others, and constructing. A contemporary model might be the Sustainable Living Arts School in Vancouver, where small groups of neighbours gather for a  learning party centered around the theme of sustainable living. One week you might be the teacher, the next the student. These might have analogies to, or commonalities with, the One Week | One Tool project.

At any rate, the end result is a useful tool that will benefit many in both the academic and non-academic world, and will perhaps inspire others in academia to take on a project like this to create useful digital tools for academics, something not manufactured by Google, Apple or Microsoft. And, as Douglas notes with a nice riff on Margaret Mead at the end;

There is power in the premise that there are many latent groups of a dozen people ready to imagine themselves into existence to get something useful done.