Cyberinfrastructure: Leveraging Change at our Institutions. An interview with James J. ODonnell

by David Green, Knowledge Culture

James O’Donnell, Provost of Georgetown University, is a distinguished classics scholar (most recently author of Augustine: A New Biography), who has contributed immensely to critical thinking about the application of new technologies to the academic realm. In 1990, while teaching at Bryn Mawr College, he co-founded the Bryn Mawr Classical Review, one of the earliest online scholarly journals, and while serving as Professor of Classical Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, he was appointed Penn’s Vice Provost for Information Systems and Computing. In 2000 he chaired a National Academies committee reviewing information technology strategy at the Library of Congress, resulting in the influential report, LC21: A Digital Strategy for the Library of Congress. One of his most influential books, Avatars of the Word (Harvard, 1998) compares the impact of the digital revolution to other comparable paradigmatic communications shifts throughout history.David Green: We’re looking here at the kinds of organizational design and local institutional evolution that will need to happen for liberal arts (and other higher-education) institutions to take advantage of a fully-deployed international cyberinfrastructure. How might access to massive distributed databases and to huge computational and human resources shift the culture, practice and structure of these (often ancient) institutions? How will humanities departments be affected–willingly or unwillingly? Will they lead the way or will they need to be coaxed forward?
James O’Donnell:
I think the issue you’re asking about here boils down to the question, “What problem are we really trying to solve?” And I think I see the paradox. The NSF Cyberinfrastructure Report, addressed to the scientific community, could assume a relatively stable community of people whose needs are developing in relatively coherent ways. If wise heads get together and track the development of those needs and their solutions, you can imagine it would then just be an ordinary public policy question: what things do you need, how do you make selections, how do you prioritize, what do you do next? NSF has been in this business for several decades. But when you come to the humanities (and full credit to Dan Atkins, chair of the committee that issued the report, for saying “and let’s not leave the other guys behind”) and you ask “what do these people need?” you come around to the question (that I take it to be the question you are asking of us) “Are we sure these people know they need what they do need?”

In the humanities, it’s more that for a long time a bunch of people have been able to see, with varying degrees of clarity, a future, but that hasn’t translated to a science-like community of people who share that need, recognize it and are looking around for someone who will meet those needs–if not in one way then another. With the sciences, it’s almost like a natural market. So it’s easy enough for the CI group to say “This is what forward-looking, directionally-sensible humanists need.” But then we look around the institution and say: “Hello, does anyone around here know they need this stuff? And if so, why aren’t people doing more about this?” And we’re all a little puzzled by the gap and trying to put an interpretation on it. Is this a group of people who are burying their heads in the sand and will be obsolete in three to five years? Or is it a group of people who are not seduced by fashion and gimmickry and are just sticking with their business, undistracted and doing darn good work? Or is it somewhere in between?

I’m curious about the differences between what we’re told is coming, the next wave of radically magnified networking and computing power, and the first wave, when the Internet hit in the mid-90s. Before that you had a fairly small but robust set of networks that had been built for a relatively tiny number of scientists. Then with the Web and the government white papers, the Internet hit in a pretty big way. Some members of the humanities community realized there were tools and capabilities here that could change the way they do business and a tiny minority proceeded to work in this way. Now, how will things go this time around? Will it just be a repeat: a few innovators declaring rather insufficiently that this will radically alter the way we do business in the humanities and the vast majority skeptically watching and waiting–for who knows what? And within the institutions–will the big changes happening in the sciences “trickle down?” How much interaction is there between the two cultures?
Let me start by trying to characterize the two waves. First a story: When I was at Penn, I took over the networking in 1995 and one of the stories I got was about Joe Bordogna, Dean of the Engineering School, who in 1984 really believed in this networking thing and he wanted to get the campus backbone built and connected to the Internet. Nobody much agreed with him, there was no money for it and no one believed it would happen. He finally got them to agree to build it on the mortgage plan (a fifteen-year loan). Three years after I got there, the mortgage was paid off and we had something like a million dollars a year we could spend on something else (even though, while the cables and wiring were all there, all the electronic equipment attached to it was long gone by the time the mortgage was paid off). That was visionary and it was challenging. But it was clear, in retrospect, that that was what you had to do: you had to build network infrastructure and had to figure out how to make it work. I came into the IT business partly due to the crunch of the mid-90s. Without anyone planning it, this electrifying paradigm shift occurred. The physical form of it was Bill Gates releasing Windows 95 on August 28, 1995, three days before students returned to campus, all demanding it be loaded onto their machines while all the guys in IT support hadn’t had time to figure out how it worked. So there was a real crunch time as we had to figure out how to get all these machines installed, all designed for the new network paradigm (Windows 95 had the new Internet Explorer browser bundled with it). So we were all suddenly moving into this new space. Nobody had planned for it and no one understood it. But what everyone did know was that you had to connect your machine to the network and that’s the paradigm that’s remained fairly stable ever since. You have a basic machine-it’s shrunk to a laptop now (essentially none of our students have “desktop” computers any more)-and you connect to the network, but nothing else has substantially changed. The under-the-hood browser environment is more complex than it used to be, but nobody’s had to take lessons, the change has been seamless. So my concern is that today there’s no high-concept transition. We’ve had to (a) build networks and (b) connect machines to networks. There’s nothing so clear to face now as what we had fifteen to twenty-five years ago.There’s wireless and WiFi that’s exploding, then there’s the continuing miniaturization, and the iPhone. Is that all incremental change?
Yes, and it all feels incremental. The place where there is real change is invisible. It’s in the handset and all the things it can do now and, though the browser on my Blackberry is pretty crippled, I can get core critical information that way and when I’m really bored in a meeting I can read Caesar’s Gallic Wars in Latin on my handheld. It also gets me through an overnight trip now. I don’t lug a laptop around with me quite so much.

And then there’s the additional bandwidth. It’s also incremental but its pretty fast now.
You know, I must have dozed off for a while, because I never noticed the point at which basic web design started assuming broadband.

And assuming video.
Right. But for a long time, basic web design was geared to deliver the best experience over a 28K dialup connection. Now we’re past that. If we go back to the average humanities academic, he’s talking on his cell phone, doing email, and web-surfing every morning. When I read Arts & Letters Daily with my orange juice and I see a piece I like, I hit “Print” and it’s waiting for me at my office when I get there 30 minutes later.

It’s making things faster, but it’s not changing too much?
Yes, this is automation carried to a point where there is a change in kind as well as in degree. I’m reading more kinds of stuff; I’m a better informed person across a wider range of topics than I was. I am a different person because I do this. But it’s an incrementally different kind of person. Nothing substantial has changed.

Now, although I’d like to pursue the social networking route, I also want to ask if you think there are any pull factors at work on humanities faculty. What would entice faculty to really deeply engage with networking? It’s certainly not collaboration, in itself at least.
There’s the real question of whether most academic behavior is really driven by the content of our enquiry versus how much of it is the need to perform. “Published by Harvard University Press” is still a superior form of performance to any form of electronic publication that you can now imagine.

So the intensity of a social intellectual life that might be increased through collaborative engagement online is of no comparison to that kind of imprimatur?
For many that is correct. I mean, I may be writing better articles because I’m in touch with more people. (I just checked the number of emails in my Gmail account over the last 6 months and it’s a mind-boggling number, something like 1500, so compared to the total number of people I ever met, spoke to on the phone or wrote paper letters to back in the day, it’s half an order of magnitude.) But it’s not getting us to a tipping point where instead of doing x I’ll decide to do y. Instead, I’m just running faster in place. And that’s interesting.

So now I’m provosting, I believe in this future. I’ve written about it. I think we can get somewhere. I think it’s exciting. But has my own personal practice changed that much? Not that much.

Could one tipping point be when the majority of the resources you use are in digital form? I know that would vary dramatically across disciplines.
Well it makes it easier for a humanities scholar-provost to write books while provosting. It means I can carry an amazing library on the train and read through stuff I wouldn’t otherwise be able to get to.

Put another way: does the format of one’s resources affect the format of how one will eventually produce or publish one’s work?
Not to my knowledge. I’m still writing “chapters”–and that’s interesting to me. Even at my level, the obvious rewards are for writing in traditional formats rather than for doing something digital–even down to dollar rewards. I mean, if you’re a scholar wanting to break through to a new audience, you do that through a trade publisher in New York.

At Georgetown you work with science departments that are engaged in cyberinfrastructure projects, so you’re quite conversant with what they’re doing and how. And our big question, where we started tonight, is whether there’s any connection between this activity in the sciences at Georgetown and the humanities. Will the humanities and social sciences always be the poor neighbors who might get to see what the sciences are up to and, if they’re lucky, might occasionally benefit from trickle-down effects?

That’s one extreme position–and it’s an external and judgmental one. An internal extreme position is “Well, we’re doing just fine, thanks!” And those two may be somewhat congruent. In between is a more hopeful and responsible position that says “Look, we are moving forward, developing things gradually.” You saw the piece in today’s Chronicle of Higher Education about Stephen Greenblatt’s[1]new course he’s teaching at Harvard? Almost the most important thing about that, by the way, was that they mentioned Stephen Greenblatt by name–because he’s truly famous and writes famous books and if he does this kind of thing then it must be OK.

And so this is the kind of thing that we need, only much more of it? But how old is Ed Ayers’ complaint that despite all of the really substantial and revolutionary work many have done in creating and using digital resources, as a community we were not moving forward, that real cyberscholarship is still-born?[2] He has pushed as hard as anyone and is as prominent as can be. For his pains, they’ve made him first a dean and now a president. But there’s the tendency for people to sit back and say “Look at that Ed go, isn’t he marvelous,” and that’s the puzzle. I’ll come back to say that the core issue for me is still the one of defining the problem that we have to solve persuasively enough that we get enough people interested in solving it.What’s the role of librarians in this? They seem to be leading in pushing for the provision of digital resources.
Librarians are very good inside and outside agitators in this regard. A logical way to make progress happen is to substantially support them in what they do. I have to say at Georgetown every time we do something digital in the library, foot traffic in the building and circulation of physical material goes up. For example, we offer more transparent web access to the library catalog with more links on it, letting you order stuff from other libraries–and foot traffic goes way up. We can’t stop them coming in (and sure aren’t trying to!).

So the building will be around for a while?
Let me be provostial here and say not only will the building be around, but in five years we’ll have to seriously renovate and consider building an extension. And this for many of our stakeholders (board members and donors) is at first glance counterintuitive: “I thought all that stuff was digital now.” But students are going in more and more, and going in collaboratively-to see and talk to each other. I’m left figuring how to budget for it.

You’re clearly deeply engaged by the present. Do you spend much time going the John Seely Brown route[3] and thinking through what the university of twenty years hence will look like?

Well, that’s kind of my day job. We’re about to kick off a formal curriculum review process at Georgetown that will take years to enact. My task is to have my colleagues challenge themselves to think about the abstract questions of what the goals might be for bringing people together in one place for four years and how we might get there. Can we even get to challenging ourselves about the four-year-ishness, the academic-term-ishness? That’s going to be very hard. As long as that is so powerfully the model and so powerfully the business plan and so universal the expectation that even breaking up student time so they can spend a month on a project is really, really hard. Now this has nothing to do in itself with digital, but there are things you can imagine with new empowering technologies that would be really, really cool if they could do that.

Will there be opportunities for serious consideration of totally discontinuous change?
Definitely. But we’re just beginning and we have to acknowledge that anytime you go anywhere near a faculty meeting, you get what I call the Giuliani Diagnosis of NYC traffic: gridlock is upon us and the natural behavior of everyone around us is go get a bigger SUV and lean on the horn some more. Now, that’s not a good thing and wisdom in such a situation is not about reinventing spaces for living together but consists of the first emergency response level of striping certain intersections and changing the timing on the stoplights because everything is so entangled and interwoven. That’s why I say getting students to get a four-week period to sit together to collaborate and do something truly new and different together is extremely hard. Again, for reasons that have nothing to do with electronic technology but everything to do with institutional structures we have chosen with certain kinds of assumptions in place. (Giuliani left New York before they did more than the emergency response, of course.)

The university is a highly evolved form, so it’s hard to suddenly change direction, or grow a new limb.
Yes, so any academic looking at this has to have pessimistic days in which you say “survival will go to the institution that can start afresh.” I’m reading a report by a colleague on “Lifelong Learning in China” and my question for him will be, “Do you think this vision for lifelong learning in China, where they don’t have such a vast installed base as we have, will/could/should be as exclusively associated with the kind of four-year institutions of learning we have in this country, or will the model get created not in rich first-world institutions but in places where productivity and output matter, where people will invent forms that are genuinely creative and more productive and efficient than we have now?”

Will that kind of conversation enter the curriculum review?
I’m chairing it, so we’ll see. But I have no illusions about my ability, resource-challenged as the institution is, simply to grasp the helm and do hard-a-lee and steer off in a different direction. You have to get a whole load of folks shoveling coal in the engine room to get buy-in before you can do that.

I’d like to make an observation: Theodore Ziolkowski, who wrote the book German Romanticism and Its Institutions[4]–how the zeal of the Age of Wordsworth and Goethe turned into bourgeois Victorianism–makes an important point about the university. Von Humboldt had a choice about the research institution that he had in mind. He didn’t have to take over a university and animate it; it could have been any other kind of educational institution–an Institut, a Gymnasium, an Akademie–but he did and there were costs in doing that. (You know the joke about why God created the Universe in only six days? No? Because He didn’t have to make it compatible with the installed base.) Von Humboldt chose to make his university compatible with the installed base and it was a good idea and it worked. But it carried with it the cost of associating the high-end research enterprise with all of that teaching of an increasingly mass audience. It also carried with it all the benefits of associating research with that kind of teaching.

Now this is an ‘I wonder:’ I wonder if we’re not at the tipping point where that cost-benefit ratio isn’t working anymore. And where, therefore, new institutional forms will need to emerge, if money was there to make new institutional forms emerge or if an institutional form emerged with a business plan–and the University of Phoenix doesn’t look like it.Can you imagine any foundations venturing seriously in this direction? They generally seem quite constrained in their thinking.
Well, have you ever read Thorstein Veblen? They should make us memorize his The Higher Learning in America in Provost school. These institutions are a lot about transmitting social and cultural capital and less about academic performance than we might think. There’s a young scholar I know, Joseph Soares, who’s passionate about demonstrating that the best predictor of performance in college by prospective students is not the SAT but class rank: people who have climbed to whatever heap they’re sitting in will go climb to the top of the next heap.[5] People with good test scores can get good test scores, but there’s no telling what will happen when they get out into the world. But this is unfashionable and it connects well with the fact that these institutions are bound up in the creation, preservation and transmission of cultural capital from one generation to the next. That’s a piece of the function of this tiny but trend-setting group of institutions that transmit their trends out to a wider public in remarkable ways. And that function makes institutions full of creative, innovative, iconoclastic people into bastions of conservatism. Good thing for me I love navigating the tensions that result.


[1] Jennifer Howard, “Harvard Humanities Students Discover the 17th Century Online,” Chronicle of Higher Education 54, no. 9 (October 26, 2007) A1.

[2] Edward L. Ayers, “Doing Scholarship on the Web: 10 Years of Triumphs and a Disappointment,” Chronicle of Higher Education 50, no. 21 (January 30, 2004) B24-25.

[3] In for example, the chapter “Re-Education,” in John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid, The Social Life of Information (Harvard Business School Press, 2000).

[4] Theodore Ziolkowski, German Romanticism and Its Institutions (Princeton University Press, 1992).

[5] Joseph Soares, The Power of Privilege: Yale and America’s Elite Colleges (Stanford University Press, 2007).