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.