Did We Break It?

“What is the Commons?”

This is the question that inevitably comes up after people ask what I do for a living.

Well, that’s not entirely true.

When people ask what I do for a living I tell them I’m a grad student now and there’s usually a long pause followed by, “So what do you do for money?”  This is where I beam and offer that I work for the CUNY Academic Commons and that’s when the conversation dives into the particular.

To be fair it’s a good question.  What is the Commons?  For as long as I’ve had the pleasure of working with this team I’ve tried to break down explaining the Commons into something shorter than an elevator pitch, but longer than some neat (and ultimately spurious) comparison to Facebook.  I’ve found that it’s actually quite difficult to describe what exactly the Commons is for a variety of reasons.  The biggest obsticle for me is that when discussing the Commons I often conflate what it is with what it can be.  What we are doing here is amazing, and what will do in the future will undoubtedly become integral to the way we conduct higher education.  One might pause there and wonder whether I’m all hat and no cattle but hear me out.

The CUNY Academic Commons is an eloquent solution to a very complicated problem: How do we connect minds who are departmentally, institutionally and geographically separated from each other, often at great distances on all three fronts, so that their work can reach it’s greatest potential?  The solution provided by the Commons is singular in that it has never been available before.  15 years ago words like ‘Twitter’, ‘Flickr, ‘blog’ and ‘Google’ were non-sense.  You can see where trying to speak broadly about the Commons presents its own challenges.  Asking “what is the Commons” is a bit like asking “So what can you do on the internet?”

The best I’ve come up with so far is:

It’s a tool we’ve built for scholars and staff across CUNY to connect with one another and share their thoughts and resources.

There, that wasn’t so bad.  A bit disjointed, and perilously close to a run-on, but it grabs the reigns and pulls back in the nick of time.  Technically speaking, it’s also accurate.  Take a look around the Commons and you find hundreds of blogs and groups created by our ever-growing membership.  As we expand, the network of minds that make up CUNY reaches outwards and new potentials avail themselves.  Maybe you’re professor at Brooklyn College with a student who’s crazy about Modernist poetry and you’re looking for someone to connect them with who specializes in such.  Maybe your department’s cumbersome size makes staff meetings virtually impossible and you need a way to share minutes and resources in a dynamic environment that’s less sterile than an email inbox.  If you serve on a committee that crosses several campuses you’ll find tons of resources in our group features to help facilitate the process.  The scenic route I’m taking to the point is that asking what the Commons is is an open-ended question.  Ultimately it’s whatever you make of it.

We wanted to start a blog that worked as a dialogue.  The Commons is built for you, the CUNY Community, and we want to provide the best tools and resources to help you connect with your colleagues.  We also want to hear from you and know more about what you want to see here.  We hope that this blog will have something of a diplomatic air as we reach out to other schools across the country who are trying to build similar networks for their faculty as well.   Each week I’m going to take you behind the scenes and show you what we do on the back end to keep things running.  Contrary to popular belief, the Commons Team isn’t some crew of l33t hackers (well…maybe Boone).  We’re just a group of people who are passionate about this project and its vision.  That means occasionally we all stare at each other and say ‘did we break it?’  I’m also going to look at other communities who share our enthusiasm for open source networks and collaboration and reach out to them.  I’m hoping to use this blog as a way of constantly finding new answers to  ‘What is the Commons?’

I’m also shameless begging for links!  Do you have friends at other institutions who are facing the same challenges and working on solutions.  Do you have technology and education blogs you pour over that I should know about?  Tell me!

Break a bottle of champagne on the mast and join me every Friday at Ground Control.

2 Responses to “Did We Break It?”

  1. Michael Branson Smith (he/him/his) August 20, 2010 at 2:15 pm #

    Well for one, I’d just like to thank the “Commons Team” for making this all possible. It’s been a great experience to have an online forum that is under the CUNY umbrella, and without the typical administrative hurdles that can come with trying to work online at the individual campuses.

    So for now, it’s definitely not broken, so don’t fix it!

  2. Matthew K. Gold (he/him) August 15, 2010 at 10:43 pm #

    Great first post, Brian. Thanks for getting this ship in the water and happy sailing!

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