Why We Started HASTAC: Changing Learning, Institutions, and Society for Social Justice

HASTAC since its inception has had several pillars (and the Futures Initiative, for CUNY and the Graduate Center), embodies those as well.  HASTAC has been a “free and open community” from the beginning, open to anyone who signs onto the website and observes our principles of respect and contributes to our wide-ranging areas of interest embodied, in the most general way, by the slogan:  “Changing the Way We Teach and Learn.”  Not just in school, not just in higher education, but all the ways we teach and learn together.   Students (undergraduate and graduate) have a special place in HASTAC as leaders and innovators, through HASTAC Scholars, through courses hosted on HASTAC, and as individuals who encounter HASTAC and simply wish to participate.   Participatory learning–progressive, engaged, or student-centered learning–is our chief open source principle.  We believe empowering individuals as co-learners and co-creators in any enterprise, in every situation, helps people move beyond passivity to become change-makers and activists in the largest sense, better able to tackle complex issues of institutional and social change.

Those who began “the world’s first and oldest academic social network” (we’re older than MySpace, Facebook, and the oldest scientific social network, Nanohub) know the linked principles that motivated the founding of HASTAC and that keep us going after all these years. It is always worthwhile to rehearse these basic prinicples and make overt the connections between them.

These are my own paraphrase and restatement of our principles–I hope others will use the comment section to add what I’ve forgotten or to state these principles better.


1) Rethinking how we learn and how we teach in a digital age—through, with, and because of technological change.   HASTAC has always been committed to technological innovation coupled with deep, critical thinking about the human and actual costs of technology.  As the Futures Initiative insists, we need to think in tandem about “equity and innovation.”  Each part of that equation complements, counterbalances, energizes, and enriches the other

(2) Making available a free and open platform and community so that leadership, ideas, and innovation can emerge equitably from individuals and institutions in our community, not just top down, not from a central source.   We don’t know how long we’ll be able to keep HASTAC free (no cost to join and we never sell any network or user data:  ever!). Instead of institutional dues, we invite institutions to support HASTAC Scholars–graduate and undergraduate students–with the equivalent of a $300 a year support that might help them attend the HASTAC conference.  We don’t collect dues.  Through HASTAC Scholars and our open user network, over 13,600 community members contribute their ideas, actions, activities, and opportunities to the community as a whole and to the public. It takes a lot of financial support and even more human labor to make an “open and free network” and we are grateful to all who have made HASTAC possible since 2002. (“Free to the community” does not mean free. On the contrary, HASTAC is expensive to run, in labor and in costs.   Through grants, through enormous volunteer activity sustained over 12 years, and through tremendous institutional support, we’ve been able to keep the HASTAC website a free and open and open source (Drupal) platform. (Special thanks as always to Duke University and, more recently,  the Graduate Center and the City University of New York, as well as the National Science Foundation and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation).

3) Anti-discriminitory methods, advocacy, practices, and principles as well as an insistence on diversity are central and founding commitment (“Difference is our operating system” is a long time motto).  From the beginning and structurally, anti-racist advocacy, social justice, equity, gender equality, and diversity have been necessary components of what we do, a core principle and default question (“is there a social justice component here? how can we ensure that there is?” ).  You do not counter structural inequality with good will.  You must structure equality.  HASTAC has worked to structure equality as a foundational principle.

4) Connection: the original meaning of the neologism “collaboratory” is a a “center without walls,” an online collaborative, cross-institutional, cross-disciplinary space. We are always asking the “why” about the usefulness of the disciplinary boundaries and silos that we have inherited from the Industrial Age university.  This includes a conviction that a term such as “digital humanities” shouldn’t just be a new specialization or a new way of micro-credentialing expertise but also a prompt to help us rethink  the structures of the university to encompass the seeming oxymorons of our time.  It helps us re-imagine learning without the silos that embody the inherited divisions of higher education.

(5) Public academic work.  HASTAC was founded with a conviction that scholarship can and should make a true contribution to public knowledge, including that work performed by students in the classroom.  Higher education is a public good and needs to be supported by the public.  In turn, we must contribute to the public good in the most open and expansive and accessible way possible.  For those who cannot afford to build a website from scratch, HASTAC has provided a platform for expansive community and  for communication of ideas in a safe and yet open environment of respectful co-learners.

(6) All of these components together are a transformative pedagogy that begins in the re-ordered classroom.  We start by emphasizing classroom practices because that is an area that anyone can change tomorrow. As professors, as teachers, even as teaching assistants, we have tremendous autonomy.  Yet we know from many studies, we tend to teach as we were taught.  Not surprisingly, our classrooms replicate all the forms of inequality of our society–who speaks in class, who thrives, who goes on to be a professor, mirroring the values of the professor, rewarded, and then replicating the system.  Right now, over 85% of professors are white, for example. The “new majority” of college students is increasingly a first generation college student, often a student of color. If we are going to change the imbalance of who models learning and the learned, we must start by readjusting the practices of our classroom to more participatory, open models.

(7) Once we transform our public presence online and our classroom spaces, we can have the confidence to tackle larger issues of institutional and social change.  In 2015-2016 and continuing into 2016-2017, HASTAC, in partnership with the Futures Initiative at the Graduate Center CUNY, is hosting a series of student-led online discussion groups and livestreamed workshops on The University Worth Fighting For.  Each month, we tackle another aspect of the ecology of the university to see what can be changed and how we can change it in order to teach and learn in better ways, for a better society.

(8) You cannot counter structural inequality with good will.  You can only counter it by structuring equality.  HASTAC’s free and open and partricipatory public network, with its strong emphasis on student leadership, is a start. Insisting not just on theories of equity but on equitable institutional change is the ultimate goal.   We begin with pedagogy and an open community for ideas because that is an area we can–any of us–be part of today.

Building on the strength that comes from performing one’s ideas in public, we then move to larger issues of institutional change and social justice.  These are connected.