Archive for the ‘General’ Category

One Week, One Book: Hacking the Academy

Friday, May 21st, 2010

Tom Scheinfeldt and I have been brewing a proposal for an edited book entitled Hacking the Academy. Let’s write it together, starting at THATCamp. And let’s do it in one week.

Can an algorithm edit a journal? Can a library exist without books? Can students build and manage their own learning management platforms? Can a conference be held without a program? Can Twitter replace a scholarly society?

As recently as the mid-2000s, questions like these would have been unthinkable. But today serious scholars are asking whether the institutions of the academy as they have existed for decades, even centuries, aren’t becoming obsolete. Every aspect of scholarly infrastructure is being questioned, and even more importantly, being <em>hacked</em>. Sympathetic scholars of traditionally disparate disciplines are cancelling their association memberships and building their own networks on Facebook and Twitter. Journals are being compiled automatically from self-published blog posts. Newly-minted Ph.D.’s are foregoing the tenure track for alternative academic careers that blur the lines between research, teaching, and service. Graduate students are looking beyond the categories of the traditional C.V. and building expansive professional identities and popular followings through social media. Educational technologists are “punking” established technology vendors by rolling their own open source infrastructure.

“Hacking the Academy” will both explore and contribute to ongoing efforts to rebuild scholarly infrastructure for a new millenium. Contributors can write on these topics, which will form chapters:

  • Lectures and classrooms
  • Scholarly societies
  • Conferences and meetings
  • Journals
  • Books and monographs
  • Tenure and academic employment
  • Scholarly Identity and the CV
  • Departments and disciplines
  • Educational technology
  • Libraries

In keeping with the spirit of hacking, the book will itself be an exercise in reimagining the edited volume. Any blog post, video response, or other media created for the volume and tweeted (or tagged) with the hashtag #hackacad will be aggregated at (submissions should use a secondary tag — #class #society #conf #journal #book #tenure #cv #dept #edtech #library — to designate chapters). The best pieces will go into the published volume (we are currently in talks with a publisher to do an open access version of this final volume). The volume will also include responses such as blog comments and tweets to individual pieces. If you’ve already written something that you would like included, that’s fine too, just be sure to tweet or tag it (or email us the link to where it’s posted).

You have until midnight on May 28, 2010. Ready, set, go!

UPDATE: [5/23/10] 48 hours in, we have 65 contributions to the book. There’s a running list of contributions.

Analogizing the Sciences

Friday, May 21st, 2010

One of the recurring themes of digital humanities—its methods, its modes of publication, its standards for tenure and promotion, its position within the academy, its disciplinary development, its future—is analogy to the sciences. I just made one such analogy myself (to 18th century electrical research) in a recent blog post.

I’d like to take a session at this year’s THATCamp to interrogate these analogies a little. Just how appropriate and useful are analogies between digital humanities and the sciences? Which analogies work and which ones don’t? How far can we take them? What practical work can they do for us?

This session will obviously be of interest to campers with academic backgrounds in history of science and technology and science and technology studies. But I would also like to invite anyone with an interest in popular science or science fiction and especially anyone with a working background in science and engineering themselves to join us.

See you all tomorrow!

Digital Literacy for the Dumbest Generation

Friday, May 21st, 2010

The scholarship done by the digital humanities community demonstrates that inquiry enabled by modes of research, dissemination, design, preservation, and communication that rely on algorithms, software, and or the internet network for processing data deepen and advance knowledge in the humanities. Marc Baeurlein argues that undergraduates now and undergraduates to come soon are “the least curious and intellectual generation in national history.”  Dubbing them “the dumbest generation” and “mentally agile” but “culturally ignorant,” Bauerlein decrees that The Web hasn’t made them better writers and readers, sharper interpreters and more discerning critics, more knowledgeable citizens and tasteful consumers” (Bauerlein, The Dumbest Generation 110). Baeurlein complains that undergraduates are passive consumers of “information,” that they convert history, philosophy, literature, civics, and fine art into information,” information that becomes, quite simply, “material to retrieve and pass along” (“Online Literacy”). In contrast, Wendell Piez and other digital humanities scholars insist that when we study “how digital media are encoded (being symbolic constructs arranged to work within algorithmic, machine-mediated processes that are themselves a form of cultural production) and how they encode culture in words, colors, sounds, images, and instrumentation,” we are “far from having no more need for literacy;” in fact, the cultural work done by and through digital media requires that students “raise it to ever higher levels.”
So, why isn’t there more discussion within the DH conference and publications about this essential aspect of undergraduate study?

That undergraduate studies are not well discussed within the DH community is part and parcel with the fact that it is a field that engages a wide range of disciplinary perspectives and it is a field that is represented by programs of study that are inflected by, but not necessarily called, Digital Humanities.  Already, I have created an online list of undergraduate programs generated through an informal survey conducted on Twitter, the Humanist Discussion List, and @ palms (my blog) see
The fact that the list already includes a broad range of programs encompassing information science, digital cultures, new media, and computer science reflects the difficult nature of training an undergraduate student in the “methodological commons” (McCarty 131) of the digital humanities, but it also reflects the provocative nature of describing what that curriculum might look like. What is important to teach these students? What is the core knowledge base needed? Who gets to decide?

When discussing current models, it is equally important to make transparent the institutional and infrastructural issues that are specific to certain colleges or universitie, large or small. What works for one institution will not necessarily work for another. By the same token, simply providing examples of existing programs would belie the extent to which scholars and administrators shape these programs (whether they grant degrees, certificates, or nothing at all) according to the needs of their specific communities.

In order to make these matters transparent and broaden discussion about the broad range of issues that underpin the formation of an undergraduate curriculum, I want to discuss UNDERGRADUATE DIGITAL HUMANITIES at THATcamp.

Oh, and I am disseminating a survey to the digital humanities community (Please take it! at asking basic questions concerning how an undergraduate program inflected by the digital humanities has been and might be developed within a variety of university settings. These questions are based on previous conversations (Hockey 2001; Unsworth, Butler 2001), but this previous work has focused primarily on graduate (or post-graduate) work.

Teaching Students Transferable Skills

Friday, May 21st, 2010

It’s no secret that the humanities are in a crisis in higher education. Those who are leaving graduate school are faced with one of the worst job markets in more than a decade. Many of those who are lucky enough to find a job will be working as lecturers or adjuncts at inequitable wages. Those securely ensconced on the tenure track face smaller budgets, dwindling enrollment, and charges of irrelevancy. Undergraduate students are entering an equally difficult employment environment, lacking skills that prepare them for specific work opportunities.

And so forth. Because it’s no secret that the humanities are always in crisis. (In fact, soon there will likely be a crisis for those who like to observe that the humanities have always been in crisis as they realize that their own genre of writing has also always already been in crisis. Watch for the Downfall parody soon.)

Having dispensed with the standard alarmism on the state of the humanities, I think it is still worth noting that we’re in a tough employment market. My own #jobmarket experience bears out the difficulty of such a search. But I’ve been lucky enough in this past semester to have had several interviews and job offers. Interestingly, all of these interviews have been for positions that Bethany Nowviskie and others have taken to calling #alt-ac: alternative academic careers. (See also Tom Scheinfeldt‘s 2008 post on “A Third Way.”) These #alt-ac job interviews weren’t concerned so much with my dissertation research. Instead, they were interested in how I use emerging technologies. This knowledge and skill set (which to be honest isn’t all that amazing compared to most of my fellow THATCampers) was developed in a rather haphazard way throughout my graduate school career, as I found myself in different fellowships or simply following my own inclinations. But no matter how I acquired these skills, it’s what got me the job. It’s what allowed several different employers to visualize me as making an impact on their organizations, despite my Ph.D. In other words, what I suddenly found myself equipped with was a set of transferable skills.

What I’d like to discuss at THATCamp is how we can go about teaching humanities students–both undergraduate and graduate–more transferable skills. This isn’t to say that the skills we traditionally teach humanists–critical thinking, analysis, clear and effective writing, etc.–are not transferable. Rather I want the “more” in my previous statement to be understood quantitatively rather than qualitatively. If we’re teaching X number of skills right now, X+5 might be more useful. That’s certainly been my experience.

One of the ways that I’ve worked to teach my students transferable skills is by the sorts of assignments I create. These assignments give students working with emerging tools (and some that have already emerged) such as wikis, Google Wave, Twitter, Zotero, browser-based social gaming, online timelines, and simple GIS tools. Each of these projects asks students to engage in work that is part of a standard humanities education–reading, writing, discussion, and more–with the goal of making an effective argument about the text under consideration. But while they’re polishing those skills, they are also learning to use new and different tools. For example, my timeline assignment asks students to populate the timeline’s data in a simple Google Docs spreadsheet. They learn how to do simple historical research, but they also gain experience working with a useful online tool and and learn what it means to work within the constraints of a database. In short, they do traditional humanities work, learn how it can be informed by new information technologies, and get a crash-course in those technologies.

I’m going to guess that the idea of teaching students transferable skills won’t be a hard sell at THATCamp, but I’d be intrigued to have a discussion for best practices for doing so. Moreover, what skills should we be teaching? Is my emphasis on Web 2.0 tools enough? Should we be teaching humanities students programming languages, as Stephen Ramsay and others do? How can we best integrate these skills into traditional humanities curricula?

At the last, then, I’d like to take the question one step further than Dave Lester does when he asks in his THATCamp post, “What if digital humanities centers were more like hackerspaces?” I’d like to know to what degree we can transform humanities classrooms–or humanities departments themselves–into hackerspaces?

Creative data visualizations

Friday, May 21st, 2010

I want to have conversations about dozens of the ideas already put on the table, but a topic that I have been thinking a lot about lately are ways in which we might think about how data visualizations might circulate beyond academic boundaries.  By this I mean that while we should think long and hard about the data we choose to visualize and we should think reflexively about the role of humanistic inquiry as we move toward graphic representations, we might also consider how creative and thoughtful visualizations might be deployed as forms of public scholarship.

The best visualizations (and infographics) present a complex set of information in a creative form that respects the complexity of the issues while expressing an argument at the same time.  Even as infographics are circulating through mainstream media outlets and are increasingly trending as social media phenomenon, data visualization efforts are a key aspect of a number of innovative scholarly projects.  I would like to press a little bit on the idea that creative visualizations – which might well be a collaborative effort between scholars, coders, and designers (and scholar-coders, coder-designers, etc.) – might allow critical work to circulate in quite public ways.

At the same time, while we should certainly develop and expand our individual and collective repertoire in this realm, we should also consider the role of data visualization in teaching digital visual fluency skills to our students.  While a fair amount of creativity and technical skill is needed to create some types of visualizations, students can begin with more manageable, off-the-shelf visualization tools and still begin to learn how to effectively decode their ideological and technological foundations.

Mostly Hack…

Thursday, May 20th, 2010

About a month ago I started hacking around with the Zotero RSS feeds to see if we might be able to use them in in our application development. The idea was that I would develop a library to allow users to collect and manage citations in one of the best citation tools out there, and then integrate the citation reference in to some yet-to-be-developed application. To that end, I whipped up a quick Ruby library, and released it as a gem. PHP also has a Zotero library maintained by Jeremy Boggs. Both of these libraries allow developers to start integrating Zotero into applications in new ways.

So here’s the pitch…let’s get together and expand these libraries and/or build something cool out of them. As an example, for the Ruby library, I would like to implement a COinS decorator for Zotero items. This would allow you to store the item id in a Model (I’ve started an acts_as_citable plugin for this) and then generate COinS in a view with item.to_coins. PHP uses a slightly different idiom, but you could imagine a getCoins() function that would produce the same result.

Anyone up for an old-fashioned hackfest along these lines?

A Contextual Engagement

Thursday, May 20th, 2010

Over the last few months I have been contemplating McKenzie Wark’s idea of  telesthesia (perception at a distance).  In his writing he describes a third nature where each of us “no longer has roots; we have aerials. We no longer have origins; we have terminals.”  Our “terrain is organized with vectoral rather than social relations, freeing itself from the necessity of spatial contiguity.” This creates an ever increasing abstract world, a post modern world, that we now must negotiate and contend with. Global and local are linked, but we do not have the tools or the ability to truly comprehend how each effects the other. I see the digital humanities as an attempt to re-situate and organize information according to this new landscape. It is a breaking-down of the boundaries between disciplines, allowing for a remapping/recontextualization of information that connects our “terminals.”

Over the past several years I have been working on several projects that work within these frameworks. In 2009, I collaborated with the Children’s Media Project in Poughkeepsie, NY to created an augmented reality game entitled Walking History.  Working with students and several Humanities scholars, we negotiated and collected  narratives that have come to define this post-industrial city. These were then situated onto a map to locate them with in the urban landscape. As a player of the game you physically traversed the streets of the city while being provided an alternative layer of information using a mobile device. This provided for a broader, lived understanding of place.

Also in 2009, I created the Hyde Park Visual History Project. The objective of this effort was to create a dynamic relationship between the place, people and the visual culture of that area. Over a two year period, I worked with institutions and individuals to create a collection of images, video and sound that documented the landscape and activities of Hyde Park, NY.   Once establish the media was then used to develop multiple interactive installations that played between representation and reality. Video of a couple’s 1952 wedding was projected onto their former home, images of a hamlet were shown on the library that houses them, and the entire collection was shown at historic drive-in theatre playing on relationships between cinematic and reality landscapes. Software made the media reactive to the environment and people’s movements, thus establishing a way of understanding the unique relationships built between each.

Finally, I have been working to produce VR technology as a means to further conceptualize both object and space.  While not a new technology, the ability of this media to provide visual access to a distant place or fragile object creates the opportunity for a lived experience.  No longer does a the concept of a place have to be understood only in text or the flatness of an image, it can be twisted, turned and placed within a Google map to provide further context.

Playing With the Past: Pick One of Three

Wednesday, May 19th, 2010

I know there are at least a handful of other folks interested in games and playful thinking in history and the humanities more broadly, so I thought I would stick a post up here to start a conversation and see what kind of session we could pull together. Here are three quick ideas for playing with the past sessions. Chime in with your thoughts and suggestions.

1. Share A Game Play Time:
One option would be to just make some time to play some humanities games together. If a few people suggest a few games we should have plenty to play with, and I think they would prompt some great conversations about the power of the medium. If we went this way, I would share Argument Wars.  (If other folks don’t have other game ideas to share I can dig some more up)

2. Mini Humanities Game Jam:
In a game design jam the objective would be to break into groups and work up a playable prototype for a game on a provided topic in less than an hour. (For constraints on this see Raph Koster’s blog) We could try that, or we could try something more like tiltfactor’s grow a game workshop, where groups draw cards for different components of games and then put together short pitches for their games (See this overview for rules, and we could use the Flash version of the Grow-A-Game cards). I would lean toward the tiltfactor approach, with the caveat that we could swap out the challenges or goals for history or humanities learning objectives.

3. Prototyping Some Barely Games Into Digital Incarnations
Rob MacDougall recently blogged about some really cool “barely games” that playfully get at some critical elements in historical thinking.  It would be relatively easy to work up plans for “digitizing” these simple game/exercises and putting them up online.

I’m personally most inclined to the third option, but I would be up for jumping into the other two as well. So, who is in?

DH centers as hackerspaces

Wednesday, May 19th, 2010

What if digital humanities centers were more like hackerspaces, where students/faculty/staff could learn skills, socialize, and collaborate on projects in an informal setting? If not DH centers themselves, what if there was a space on your campus where Computer Science grad students hung out to hack on code with undergrads from English? I’m talking about a place where you could learn how to use a soldering iron, or learn about the wonders of Emacs. Think about the work at these hackerspaces as R&D, entirely participant-driven, and something closer to NiCHE’s Hacking as a Way of Knowing workshop, rather than the grant-funded model of DH that people more commonly associate with centers. Spontaneous. Non-hierarchical. Open. Fun. A hackerspace at a university could be a place where everyday is an unconference, there’s no staff, and skunkworks projects are fostered.

Over the past several years, local hackerspaces have taken hold in cities across the world from Baltimore to Berlin, from San Francisco to New York. There are already a handful of hackerspaces on college campuses like BUILDS at Boston University or MITERS at MIT. What’s next in the evolution of these spaces for tinkering and what can their relationship with digital humanities be?

All Courseware Sucks

Wednesday, May 19th, 2010

Really.  All of it.  I think Blackboard is one of the most poorly designed systems ever built for the Web, and I’m rarely challenged on that opinion.  Problem is, even the good ones (Moodle, Sakai) suck.

But why do they suck?

In general, these systems are too heavy, too buggy, require way too much administration, and suffer from the most extreme form of featuritis imaginable.  They try to be all things to all people while pursuing desktop metaphors that remain awkward on the Web.  They commit the abominable freshman mistake of thinking that since “teachers are used to paper gradebooks” we should have e-GradeBooks ™ that work just like the paper ones.  They can’t decide whether the electronic classroom should be like a social network, or a room, or like Twitter (and so they end up being like 4Chan).  Students hate it, teachers hate it, administrators hate it.  It’s a bloody disaster.

I propose that we discuss — and if possible sketch out — some solutions to this morass.  Maybe that involves coming up with some very thin portal software that hooks up existing services.  Maybe we design a highly minimalist courseware system as a foil to systems like Blackboard.  Maybe we design a few of them for different kinds of teaching situations (large Chem lecture, small grad seminar, etc.).  Maybe we develop highly nuanced arguments for why “courseware,” as such, shouldn’t exist.

Now, we want to be clear about what’s not working with these systems, but this can very quickly descend into an angry mob of people eager to vent about Blackboard.   Perhaps we can think about limiting or constraining that discussion (using some clever mechanism) so that we can get it all out on the table without getting overwhelmed.  Whatever we do, I’d like to get some concrete suggestions and even schematic designs for Courseware That Does Not Suck.


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