How Open Is Open?

September 22nd, 2009

I have been struggling with others (“with” both in the sense “together with” and “at odds with”) on how open the CUNY Academic Commons should be. This is hard stuff.

Why? I realize, with some chagrin, that I do not embrace a wholly open conception of the Commons. I am against closed doors and gated communities — password protected sites, proprietary software circumscribing proprietary holdings — but I also resist the sense that anything goes. As I said to one colleague, how would we feel if the CUNY Academic Commons (emphasis presumably on the adjective) were swamped by bureaucrats or undergrads (looking for places to bureaucratize or socialize respectively)?

I don’t consider that a wholly rhetorical question. Enamored of the alternative space(s) for intellectual property created by the Creative Commons, I felt sympathy as well as trepidation when I read a mockery of its core values expressed in the now-notorious (and anthologized) “Letter to the Commons”:

We appreciate and admire the determination with which you nurture your garden of licences. The proliferation and variety of flowering contracts and clauses in your hothouses is astounding. But we find the paradox of a space that is called a commons and yet so fenced in, and in so many ways, somewhat intriguing. The number of times we had to ask for permission, and the number of security check posts we had to negotiate to enter even a corner of your commons was impressive. And each time we were at an exit we were thoroughly searched, just in case we had not pilfered something, or left some trace of a noxious weed by mistake into your fragile ecosystem. Sometimes, we found that when people spoke of ‘Common Property’ it was hard to know where the commons ended and where property began.

There is some mischief but some justice in such comments.

I would feel more vulnerable to the veiled charges of hypocrisy and elitism if I were a person of principles. I’m not. Like a good rhetorician (and latter-day Sophist), I regard everything as contingent: a product of the people involved, the circumstances at hand, the matters of the moment. Intention (that will-o’-the-wisp) does matter to me, and I think it should matter to the Commons. In our particular case, we have framed a mission statement, and we should be guided by it (or amend it if we choose not to be).

There we’re explicit that the Commons is primarily intended for faculty, and as a place to “to support faculty initiatives and build community through the use(s) of technology in teaching and learning”; the intention is to “nurture faculty development through sharing replicable materials and best practices.” (These are ambitious goals, but they are also clear about not trying to be all things to all people, an ambition I don’t have.)

I think invoking the mission statement helps us in other ways: that its first words are “The Academic Commons of The City University of New York” justifies our requiring a CUNY email address for those who log in and post. The emphasis on the core mission of the University, teaching and learning, also helps to set (admittedly flexible) boundaries on the use of the Commons by students, administration, and staff, hedges against such admittedly far-flung scenarios as its getting swamped by undergrads or bureaucrats.

I do not think there is a contradiction between being a public site and having an intended audience. That may mean we are not absolutely open, but I then I don’t believe in absolutes.

  1. Boone Gorges Says:

    George, I appreciate the humility implied by your self-deprecation, but I take offense at the idea that the failure to embrace one of the two extreme positions available makes one a neo-Sophist, or a “mere” rhetorician, or a man without principles. Pragmatism – the cognizance that one’s decisions are made against the backdrop of, and should reflect the relative importance of, the various facts on the ground – not only counts as a principle, but it strikes me as a downright virtuous principle. (See: Aristotle.)

    That said, when it comes to the CUNY Academic Commons, the questions surrounding openness are not as simple as open-v-closed, or even as simple as the spectrum between open and closed. There are different kinds of openness that operate largely independently of one another. Thus the Commons might be less than totally open with respect to its membership or to its intended purpose. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t embrace a great deal of openness in other respects: the software on which the site runs, the scholarship that its members produce, and so on. A space that is totally open in every respect, attempting to be everything to everybody, is likely to serve no individual member very well. In a sense, the kind of openness you consider here is given up, and in exchange we are better able to foster other kinds of openness. Pragmatism at work.

  2. George Otte Says:

    I may be missing your irony in wondering if you’re missing mine, Boone, but on the chance that you really do take offense, you should know that I am a professional rhetorician (or was in another life) and have the highest regard for the Sophists (who have taken a bad rap, deserve better than they got from Plato et alia). I would never put “mere” in front of “rhetoric” or “rhetorician” (and of course didn’t here). I was in fact and of course arguing that things were not so simple as an open/closed dichotomy would imply, which is why I concluded with noting my disbelief in absolutes. In fact, the only think I wasn’t wholly serious about was being without principle. I do make a principle of not arguing from principle, and that is what I meant. I think that context matters, that constraints are ineluctable, that … well, I find myself paraphrasing you (and regard your second paragraph as a paraphrase of what I was saying), so I’ll just say that I don’t think we’re that far apart. No?

  3. Boone Gorges Says:

    Yes, I think we do pretty much agree. (And yes, I was mainly feigning offense!)

    Having been trained as a philosopher (and hence a Socratophile), I suppose I’m part of the team that produces all the bad press about Sophists. I apologize on behalf of the group 🙂

    I see what you mean about not arguing from principle – and I gather that this is more a strategic decision than a philosophical one – but my point is that there would be nothing inconsistent about your doing so. Embracing certain kinds of constraints doesn’t imply rejecting principles of openness, and in fact one’s principled desire for openness might be the motivating factor for embrace certain constraints (at least if the last few sentences of my previous comment are true).

  4. George Otte Says:

    I always embraced the conception of the the Sophists advanced by one of my heroes, Terry Eagleton, in his wise and wry book Literary Theory: An Introduction, where he argued that, understood aright, literature is a small subset of rhetoric. (Ditto philosophy, BTW.) One of his heroes, Marx, would have approved.

    I’m glad we are not that far apart. Maybe even less so than we seem to say. One of modern rhetoric’s terms is “enabling constraints” — the fact that apparent constraints of context and circumstance may actually have a generative effect. But then this comes from the same ilk who prefer “productive disequilibrium” (argument, also generative) to consensus.

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