Digital Humanities

My adventures in digital history.

These are my remarks as written (if not exactly as delivered) in Paul Harvey’s history seminar at the University of Colorado – Colorado Springs this morning:

I recently wrote an essay for the Chronicle of Higher Education called “Confessions of an Ex-Lecturer.” Yet my appearance this class (well, the first part of this class anyway) is going to be a lecture. Yes, I’m going to lecture about why and how I stopped lecturing. To get past this enormous contradiction, let me make a distinction between conveying historical content and making a pedagogical argument. You have no reason to memorize anything I say today. There will be no quiz later. Instead, this lecture explains my thinking about teaching history to you and see if I can convince you I’m right. I’ve adopted a lecture format here because I have to tell the story of how my thinking has changed in order for you to follow along with my reasoning.

My opinions on this subject are not popular in historical circles. As one of my former graduate school acquaintances put it on Twitter the other day: “[T]hey will pry the lecture out of my cold, dead hands.” I sympathize. Old habits die hard. That’s the way I learned history when I was in college. Indeed, I never had a class of any kind in college that had fewer than thirty people in it and the vast majority of those class periods consisted of people lecturing at us. A lot of those professors were really good at what they did – although I did take a class from a political science professor who looked up at the ceiling as he talked, which drove me completely crazy….but that’s a story for another time. The reasons I’ve sworn off lecturing in my own classes are twofold.

First, there’s the advent of the cell phone. These small supercomputers have so permeated daily life that the average person – notice how I didn’t say average student – average person can’t go ten minutes without reaching for their phone at least once. Indeed, stick me in some meeting where someone starts lecturing about something that I’m not particularly interested in and I’ll reach for my phone far faster that. I could be the most interesting lecturer in the world (which I most certainly am not), and a good number of you would still reach for your phones at some point during the presentation.

Please understand that I’m not blaming millennials here. I’m blaming everybody. For so many of us, the temptations of the Internet is just to hard to resist. “When people say they’re addicted to their phones, they are not only saying that they want what their phones provide,” writes the MIT psychologist Sherry Turkle, “they are also saying that they don’t want what their phones allow them to avoid.” If I’m talking at you in a classroom of any size, it is ridiculously easy for you to avoid me and I’m not going to be able to change that. Therefore, I have to talk at you I better make darn sure that I have something interesting to say.

So what if I give you the opportunity to do something rather than to passively absorb information? What the Internet take away, it also giveth. My interest in digital history comes from my interest in finding some alternative to lecturing about historical facts and then testing students on how many of those facts they’re retained. I know this is sacrilege in most historical circles, but I’m gonna say it anyways: You really can Google anything.

The Internet is well-developed enough that most of the time a discerning consumer of information can get reasonably reliable factual information very quickly with limited effort. But, and this is the second reason I’ve basically given up lecturing, with limited technical knowledge it is now possible for ordinary college students to make useful contributions to the great pool of historical information available online. Not only that, by doing so, they can pick up practical computer skills that will increase their employability upon graduation. With that kind of upside, taking some of the attention in class off of me seemed like a small price to pay.

One of the most interesting things about digital history is that this field lets you make professional use of skills that you probably picked up just by being an active digital citizen. For example, I started blogging right after I got tenure in 2003 because I was a lot less worried about someone threatening my employment because of my political opinions. Oddly enough, I devoted my entire blogging life to one subject: Walmart. I learned WordPress from a guy named Jeff Hess in Cleveland, Ohio via e-mail. Jeff was the administrator of our group anti-Walmart blog.

In 2007, when my department wrote and was awarded a teaching American History grant from the federal Department of Education, I used those skills in class for the first time. We were funded to take teachers to historic sites on the East Coast over the summer and this was a way that they could write easily from the road and that we could still follow them. So could their relatives friends and even students, which served as a nice side benefit – a benefit that applies to all sorts of history undertaken on the open web.

Another skill I already had which turns out to have enormous digital history ramifications is some proficiency in social media. Personally, I’m a stonecold Facebook hater, but Twitter has been a godsend to me with respect to digital history not so much in class but for keeping up with the field. Your professor, for example, (if you didn’t already know) is a prolific Tweeter, if mores on American religious history than digital history and things technological. More importantly, my students have used it to reach out to scholars in fields that they’re researching.

It’s also a great tool for publicizing the work you do online. I actually got a book contract thanks to Twitter (although not in history). If you’ve spent any time listening to the Canadian scholar Bon Stewart as I have, you’ll understand how social media in general and Twitter in particular is a great tool for building communities of interest – and I mean that both in terms of what you enjoy and as a way to fight for what you believe.

With respect to digital history in particular, the turning point for me in particular was the summer of 2014 when I attended an NEH Institute at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University in Virginia. Me and a bunch of other folks who never studied this stuff in Grad School got a very intensive tour of what’s on the web, web tools and how we might want to integrate them into our classes. Some of it was old hat for me. Unlike a lot of my fellow professors, I had already heard of two-factor authentication and Password protection programs.

However, when it came to history-specific web tools almost everything they touched on was brand new to me. One I was already using, but learned to use better is Zotero, which actual began at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media and really ought to be on every historian’s must-use list. Zotero is a notes program that lets you gain intellectual control of your research by allowing you to search it at the word level. That includes content inside digital copies of things that you’ve scanned and uploaded. As someone who wrote his dissertation on 4×6 notecards I can tell you I am never, ever going backwards on this. That’s why I’m now requiring all my students doing research papers to use it. My students constantly tell me how grateful they are to know about Zotero, and how they wish they knew about it two or three years earlier.

A jaw-dropping research tool for digital historians that I first learned about in Virginia is Camscanner. Camscanner is an app that turns your cell phone scanner into a document scanner. If I could show you the huge pile of Xerox copies I made for my dissertation at 25 cents, 50 cents…even a dollar a pop, you’d know why this is so amazing. Having access to free copies of documents from archive make sit easier to acquire information over what is often very limited research time. I had some experience with researching this way when the Manuscripts Division at the Library of Congress installed the greatest book scanners that I had ever seen in order to preserve the physical well-being of their collections (since bending things back for ordinary copying does so much damage). Now I’m swimming in information – information that’s searchable using Zotero. The same is true for my students as I have them working with local archives in my digital history classes.

The program I settled on for them to use is Scalar, which comes out of the University of Southern California. It’s actually designed as a book publishing program, something that allows books to appear on the web with digital media embedded into them. I’ve been using it in class for web exhibits. Study after study has shown that putting resources up on the web drive traffic to physical archives and libraries rather than take it away, so I’ve had my student create Scalar projects using local resources and putting them up on the web. Here’s a recent example from the Steelworks Center for the West that I liked a lot. Here’s another about a place I think that everyone in this class ought to know well.

Why Scalar? You don’t have to know how to program in order to make it look good. Indeed, as the experience of countless of my students has more than proven, you can learn how to use it within just an hour or two of starting to play with it. Indeed, I have plenty of students who can Scalar far better than I can because they’ve had far more reason to use more features than I have since I simply use it to put up a few syllabi (although I have trained to do more now).

Another reason I like Scalar is that students and faculty who use it can host their own Scalars if they go through Reclaim Hosting. This is not the place to argue why faculty and students should take back the web from university administrators and private companies (although I did co-author a book that fits in well with that argument), but one of the best things about the Reclaim-related “Domain of One’s Own” project is that it allows students to keep access to their digital work even after they’ve graduated. Scalars students create through Reclaim therefore can serve as evidence to potential employers that they can do something other than just historicize things. Not that there’s anything wrong with the ability to historicize things, but in this manner digital history might actually be the answer to the age-old question, “What can you actually do with a history degree (besides teach)?”

On personal level, my digital history experiments has proved much more interesting than standing up and lecturing to disinterested students about the same old things that I had always been lecturing about. In the future, I’m dying to get into digital mapping, as the Steelworks Center of the West has an absolutely astounding collection of mine maps that cover both towns and mines. I imagine a digital project that traces the physical impact of mining on Southern Colorado’s landscape as soon as I have enough theoretical background to pitch it to some funding agency. What’s really great is that thanks to my changes in pedagogy I’ll be able to get my students to pitch in.

When I was at the American Historical Association meeting in Denver a few weeks ago, I attended almost nothing but digital history sessions. I was really struck by all the people at those sessions by how willing everyone was to admit that they have no idea what they’re doing – that the whole field of digital history is kind of a running experiment. To paraphrase one scholar I heard at the meeting, digital history blurs the line between research, teaching and service. In my case, I’m having students do historical research and putting on the web for the benefit of local historical non-profits. I think the benefits of doing this far outweigh whatever harm that gets done to my ego if I’m no longer the center of attention in class anymore.

Posted by Jonathan Rees in Digital Humanities, Teaching, Technology, 0 comments

Get your side hustle off.

I’ve been streaming a lot of Simpsons with my son lately. Backwards. Since I quit watching the show regularly sometime in the late-90s, this was the best way that we could both enjoy all-new material. The quality of even the most recent stuff is obviously the good thing about streaming the Simpsons. The bad thing is being locked into watching all those Fox commercials since my cable company (or maybe it’s Fox) won’t let us fast forward. The above Uber commercial has been on full rotation for months. In fact, it sometimes plays twice an episode. I’ve been making so many “earnin’/chillin'” jokes that my son now leaves the room when it comes on.

I thought of that commercial twice while I was at the AHA in Denver last weekend. The first time was when I explained to four historians from Northern California (ironically, the first place that I ever took an Uber) how Uber works. [Key lesson: Always tip your driver!] The second time was when I went to my first digital humanities panel on Saturday morning. The commentator, Chad Gaffield from the University of Ottawa, was talking about how DH makes it possible to break down the false dichotomy between work and play. That spoke to me, because I’ve been having an awful lot of fun teaching all my classes lately. Indeed, I’m going to bring that up the next time I hear someone who teaches like it’s still 1995 start talking about “rigor.”

The other point Gaffield mentioned that I thought was really important was the way that DH blends the traditional roles of teaching, research and service. In my case, I teach students how to research using local resources that help the community once they appear online. However, I suspect there are a million variations to that. In any event, when you fill out your annual performance review, we can all include DH work in whichever category we don’t have enough material in already.

In the very early days of this blog, the role of tech critic was something of a side hustle for me. It wasn’t my day job, but my writing nonetheless found an audience. It’s through the conversations which that writing inspired that I stumbled into a large, multi-disciplinary pool of scholar/teachers who were trying to utilize the Internet to create unique educational experiences rather than cheap, dumb carbon copies of face-to-face courses. I started teaching online so that I could try to set a positive example for other people who might be reluctant to make the same jump because so much of what’s out there has a justifiably bad reputation. I still have a long way to go, but one of the most refreshing things I got out of all the DH panels I went to last weekend is that so does everybody else. Even historians who get their DH papers onto AHA panels readily admit that their learning curve remains steep.

By the time I left Denver in Sunday, I had decided I’m never going back. I don’t want my conventional courses to be entirely conventional anymore. In other words, I’ve been convinced that the digital needs to be present in every course I teach.

I am hardly the first person to draw such a conclusion. CU-Boulder’s Patty Limerick wrote in the September 2016 issue of AHA Perspectives that:

In innumerable settings, historians in Colorado are stepping up to this challenge. In the process, they are devising practices that transcend the conventional turf fights between “academic history” and “public history,” uniting in the strenuous and satisfying work of “applied history.”

I think you could make a pretty good case that food and refrigerators are relevant today, but it’s my classes which take students into the Steelworks Center of the West and the Pueblo Public Library that fit this definition of “applied history” the best.

While such activities have little to do with my current research, teaching is 50% of my job according the annual performance review I’ll have to turn in a couple of weeks from now. In short, what was once my side hustle has now become my regular hustle. While there’s still a lot of tech criticism left to write and I plan to write at least some of it when I have the time, this blog, when I have time for it (and why would I have redesigned it if I had intended to never use it again?) is going full pedagogy.

In the meantime, I have another actual history book I want to write…

Posted by Jonathan Rees in Digital Humanities, Teaching, Technology, 0 comments

Digital History Projects – Fall 2015.

These are the links to the projects from my first Introduction to Digital History class this semester:

Colorado State Hospital

Ludlow Massacre

The Mineral Palace

Mines of the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company

Pueblo Sports History

Most of these aren’t even done since students will be returning to work on the same projects in Colorado History or as interns next semester.

For anyone who’s counting, that’s four Scalars and a WordPress site. All local history, my model for what I wanted to create was this old article by Peter Knupfer in the JAH, but I was going to do it digitally. Exhibits instead of papers. Group work, but it’s a hybrid class so I spent many Tuesdays and Thursday this semester driving around Pueblo meeting my students in their respective archives, commenting on the work as it developed. Much of the rest of the class occurred on Slack.

When I read the work of people who’ve devoted their whole careers to this stuff (like Miriam Posner, who just got Boing Boinged today – Congrats, Miriam.), I realize how much I have left to learn so that I can teach this stuff better.  That’s why you can for me at DHSI next summer, assuming the funding I’ve requested comes through.

Nevertheless, I’m delighted that I’m already placing graduates of my digital classes in computer-oriented jobs at local historical sites. This is not what I expected to be teaching when I went to grad school all those years ago, but it really has become an awful lot of fun.

Posted by Jonathan Rees in Digital Humanities, Teaching, 0 comments

He lost me at “scale.”

I don’t know the historian Steve Mintz, but I do know he’s a pioneer in putting all kinds of historical resources online.  This means he was doing what we now call the Digital Humanities (to which I have some aspirations) long before it was cool.  Today in IHE, he describes his newest project:

This summer, I am designing a U.S. history survey course for online delivery at scale – maintaining chronological sweep while eschewing lectures and emphasizing active learning.

He lost me at “scale.” It’s a shame because if you read that whole blog post you’ll see there’s a lot of things there that I want to do online myself.  Unfortunately, the problems that I have with scale here is so massive, I think they’re insurmountable.  Let me explain why I think they should be non-starters for you too.

In the interests of space, rather than rehash the numerous parts of Mintz’s essay that I agree with I’m going to concentrate on where he lost me.  Here it is all in one paragraph:

One of my goals is to demonstrate that a writing-intensive course built around active learning can be scaled. But successfully implementing such a course won’t be easy. Even when the writing prompts are highly specific and the length of responses is limited, it will be difficult to provide students with the kind of prompt feedback they expect.  There are ways to address this challenge, but many inflict a cost. I can cut back on feedback, reduce the number of modules, or substitute multiple choice questions for written responses. I can also include some ungraded assignments, use some form of peer grading, or experiment with auto-grading.

So what’s he gonna do?  Mintz doesn’t say.  I think there’s a reason he doesn’t say – all those solutions stink.

Cutting back on feedback means that students will not get the kind of writing instruction they deserve. Yes, it’s a requirement for grading at scale, but the problem is that Mintz would be letting the scale engine drive the pedagogy train.  To maintain the integrity of the course would require doing it the other way around.

Reducing the number of modules would mean less actual history instruction.  This is certainly a feasible solution, but it also lacks integrity.  The funny thing about online instruction is that when you say a course is online all those accreditation-related  concerns about seat time just go flying out the window.  Self-paced?  No problem.  While I think it’s unwise to build an online course that resembles whatever your face-to-face course once was, an online course with less material is less likely to achieve whatever the professor’s goals happen to be.  That’s a sacrifice that’s not worth making.

Multiple choice tests?  That would set back history education about fifty years.  I wrote this about multiple choice tests in the history MOOC context way back in 2013:

If we judged the success of a history MOOC on the basis of multiple choice questions based upon the content of superprofessor lectures, then I bet MOOC students would learn a ton. However, no history professor in their right mind would ever define a successful history education this way. I define history education not as the accumulation of facts, but as promoting critical thinking, improving reading and writing skills and as a process of intellectual socialization based upon close interaction between a student, their peers and the professor. None of these things can be measured in numbers.

A regular online history class at scale is actually worse than a MOOC in some ways because it’s designed to replace the labor of living, breathing faculty members.  It’s a job killer by definition.

This is precisely why whatever good Mintz manages to eek out of this experiment will be far overshadowed by the bad.  Yes, I’m talking about the academic equivalent of featherbedding – maintaining jobs that could be rendered obsolete so that people can be employed fill them.  However (and this is a BIG however, so don’t anyone dare quote this paragraph outside its full context), unlike with typesetters during the 1962-63 New York newspaper strike, the people in question here do the job much better than the technology that management wanted to use to replace them.  Mintz’s laudable, unachievable-at-scale aspirations here actually demonstrate why scale hurts the quality of an online history class almost by definition.

The problem that all of us faculty face – whether we teach online or not – is that at least some people with the power to set curricula won’t care.  That explains why faculty keeping control of the technology that might be used to replace them is so important.

Posted by Jonathan Rees in Digital Humanities, History, Labor History, Online Courses, Teaching, 7 comments

My adventures teaching digital history.

Curtain 2I’ve had an absolutely terrible semester. The reason was/still is for one more week my fourth class. Like one of those self-destructive overworked academics who my friend Kate describes so movingly here, I’ve been trying to do everything I usually do this fall despite having about 33% more teaching on my plate than usual. Almost at the end now, I recognize that the only casualties of all this extra work have been blogging and sleep so I know that things could have gone much worse. I also take my hat off to everyone out there who has to do even more teaching than this to make a remotely decent living every semester. Nevertheless, it has been quite difficult trying to keep up to my usual high standards for everything.

That’s why it’s nice when your students can bail you out and my digital history class has done precisely that. Faced with so much more class time, I really didn’t want to teach a course just like every other one, so I put many of the things I learned about at the RRCHNM at George Mason last summer into practice for the first time. Actually, the first lesson I learned is that you can’t throw students too much at once or they’ll shut down. That’s why I let them gravitate towards the programs they like. I can now definitively state that the results have been spectacular.

As I mentioned before, I threw out the syllabus mid-semester because the students wanted to focus on Scalar. What’s funny about this is that I didn’t think I’d be using that one all that much when I first heard about it in Virginia. It just seemed so over my head. I knew I wanted them to do exhibits, but I was trying to get them to use either WordPress (which I know well) or Omeka (which still doesn’t make much sense to me, but then again I’m not a museum professional) as a platform. It turns out that Scalar is not just a fantastic publishing platform, but a great exhibit platform too.

Here are some screenshots from the three group projects:

Screenshot 2014-12-07 18.55.23 (1)

Screenshot 2014-12-07 18.56.34

Screenshot 2014-12-07 18.57.35For one thing, they all look fantastic (and they have a few more days to finish editing so they’re just going to look better soon).

However, what’s more important to me is that this kind of class causes so much less wear-and-tear on the professor, even when I’m not familiar with everything that I’m teaching. For example, I could give students a program and go tell them to go georectify a map, and it would actually be done. Then they’d come back and show me how to do.  Video was actually their idea.  Their Scalar skills are now better than mine, but I’ll catch up by the time next semester rolls around. Following a cue from John Randolph at UIUC, I’ll be creating at least one Scalar syllabus and getting students to write web and traditional research papers in my senior seminar class at the same time.

I’m also planning a much bigger Scalar project now with the Steelworks Center of the West here in Pueblo, which owns the Colorado Fuel and Iron Archives, the source for all the wonderful pictures and maps in these student-created books.  Since I know the archives better than just about anybody with the possible exception of the archivist, I’m an essential consultant on every student project.

Speaking of the students, the most surprising and gratifying thing about this whole effort has been their reactions. I’ve heard similar sentiments to this one expressed many times over the last few weeks:

“I honestly have never done anything like this project before. I have never gone to a museum, pulled out some documents, maps, and pictures from over a hundred years ago and then analyzed them. Usually, I got them off of the internet. It was fascinating to pull out those old mine maps and look at all of the detail that went in to constructing it. I had a lot of fun working with those maps. I also learned how to go about looking at archival information…

Overall, I learned a lot in this class. I spent more hours working on this class than all of my other classes but I also feel like I gained many more useful tools out of it. The history and technology lessons that I learned from this class could never be undervalued.”

Yeah, I know this is old hat to some of you who’ve been doing this for years now. I also know that some of you traditionalists out there are wondering why any historian wastes his time teaching computer skills, but it’s fun (and comparatively relaxing) to do things completely different every once in a while. No, I’m not planning to do this sort of thing in every class I teach going forward, but how could you possibly argue against doing this at least some of the time with this kind of success?

Posted by Jonathan Rees in Adjuncts, Digital Humanities, Teaching, Technology, 4 comments

“I want to break free.”

So apparently I’ve driven Michael Feldstein to drink. I, for one, think the quality of his post is worth the cost (but then again it’s not my liver that’s involved). Since I got pinged, I had the chance to lay down the first comment on that post, so here it is reproduced in full (and it begins with me quoting Michael):

“Here’s the hard truth: While Jonathan wants to think of the LMS as “training wheels” for the internet (like AOL was), there is overwhelming evidence that lots of faculty want those training wheels. They ask for them. And when given a chance to take the training wheels off, they usually don’t.”

I think that’s true, Michael, but not because faculty like riding tricycles. It’s because the faculty development necessary in order to make use of the whole, wide Internet through whatever system they want to use isn’t there and I don’t think that’s a coincidence. The Internet must look like anarchy to the average college administrator because it is. By systematizing that anarchy, universities can control both faculty and curriculum at the same time. Indeed, while I think the LMS SHOULD go the way of the dodo the day before yesterday (since I’m on team anarchy as it makes teaching and learning more fun), I would argue that this is precisely why it hasn’t.

In the great scheme of things, Michael and I aren’t really disagreeing on very much. There’s an LMS. It makes life easier. Many faculty use it. The difference of opinion we have involves – WARNING: Humanities jargon alert!!! – agency.

If you go to work every day does it prove that you like your job? It certainly proves that you like being paid, but the fact that you haven’t quit is not evidence that you’re happy between nine and five every weekday. Similarly, if you chose to use the Learning Management System I don’t think that proves that you necessarily like what your administration has provided you. It simply proves that you are willing to take the path of least resistance to performing the requirements of your employment, and I think that’s sad.

Please don’t get me wrong here: I’m not blaming anyone for making the choice to use an LMS. I agree with Laura Gibbs here:

When a faculty member uses some permutation of lecture-quiz-discuss in the closed environment of D2L because that is the only option they have, they do not even have the opportunity to experience the different kinds of learning that can happen in more open environments. So, when I show faculty members what I am doing with student web publishing in my classes, powered by some great aggregation and syndication tools, they like what they see, but when I tell them that D2L does not provide any of the needed tools, they shrug and move on. Would they like to do things better and differently? Sure, I think so; I am not so pessimistic as to say that faculty don’t care or cannot tell the difference, especially when you show them some impressive student learning outcomes. But if the only tool the university offers them is completely inadequate to the task, it’s understandable that they would just carry on with the same-old same-old.

I’m blaming the people who’ve decided that the lack of a single online system is a problem that somehow needs to be fixed – as if having a hundred professors teaching the same subject a hundred different ways was a problem that they ever would have thought of fixing during the pre-Internet age.

Well, I want to break free, and I think that it’s best for education if as many other faculty members as possible break free with me. Indeed, I think the relative success of the digital humanities demonstrates that lots of faculty members are interested in learning lots about lots of different, sometimes-complicated tools that will make their classes better. I would argue that the key reason for that is that they control vertical. They control the horizontal. Every learning management system that I’ve ever encountered controls you. Even if it’s just an aggregator – and even if YOU set the parameters of what’s being aggregated – that’s one more thing about your job that’s being automated, which therefore makes a lot of people feel a little less human.

The great Nick Carr has a new book out, The Glass Cage: Automation and Us. I keep meaning to write about it here, so I think I’ll use this opportunity to at least use a quotation from the very last page of text in the book:

“To resist invention is not to reject invention. It’s to humble invention, to bring progress down to earth. “Resistance is futile,” goes the glib Star Trek cliche beloved by techies. But that’s the opposite of the truth. Resistance is never futile. If the source of our vitality is, as Emerson taught us, “the active soul,” then our highest obligation is to resist any force, whether institutional or commercial or technological, that would enfeeble or enervate the soul.”

I would argue that technology doesn’t get much more soul-enfeebling than the LMS – both for the professors running classes through the system and for the students at the receiving end of this kind of education. Just because a class is online, doesn’t mean it has to be cookie cutter. It doesn’t mean that it has to have bounds. The fact that such systems get (tacitly) imposed upon professors everywhere demonstrates more than anything else I can think of at the moment that education has become a commodity, which isn’t just sad. It’s a waste of so much technological potential.

Posted by Jonathan Rees in Academic Labor, Digital Humanities, Learning Management Systems, Teaching, 10 comments

“Every man, woman and mutant on this planet shall know the truth about de-evolution.”

I have to admit that I became much more fond of Clay Shirky the moment that I found out that he occasionally reads this blog (or at least the last version of it). It’s not like I had anything particularly against him before. It’s just that I had only read a few of his articles and a couple of blog posts and all of it seemed a bit too technologically utopian for my taste.* Little did I realize that he has the same kinds of problems that I do:

The level of distraction in my classes seemed to grow, even though it was the same professor and largely the same set of topics, taught to a group of students selected using roughly the same criteria every year. The change seemed to correlate more with the rising ubiquity and utility of the devices themselves, rather than any change in me, the students, or the rest of the classroom encounter.

As a result, Shirky has banned electronic devices in his classes.

I sympathize. Indeed, I’ve been all over the place on precisely this question. What I settled on is a pretty simple general principle: different technologies for different classes. In classes which are mostly lectures (aka surveys), I’ve ask students who want to use a laptop to sit in the front row. Since I’m a walking lecturer as well as a lecturer who’s been doing the same survey class long enough to work without written notes, I can see who’s not paying attention. Since my survey classes aren’t huge, I can therefore do something about it if I see that anybody’s not paying attention.

Phones are a different matter entirely. I can’t imagine a single viable reason why anybody would have or want to take notes on their phone. Usually, they’ll bend over the desk or table, cradling their phone lovingly and try to be unseen. But come on! It’s kind of obvious what’s going on and it’s also rude as heck.

Yet I am now teaching a class where students have to bring their laptop to sessions. Indeed, without it, they’d be lost.

I. My own personal three-ring circus.

My time with the nice people at RRCNMH has been put to good use almost instantly. Having been forced to teach a forth class this semester and not wanting to do something conventional for fear of boring myself to death, I decided to teach a hybrid, experiential learning, digital humanities course based around the collections of our local corporate archives, the same one I wrote a book out of just a few years ago.

So far it’s been amazing in many sorts of ways. Since I had some experience with a few DH tools before, I knew that the great appeal is that you get to ponder entirely different kinds of questions than you do in ordinary classes. To borrow one from a few semesters ago in the early days of my wiki, should the sanitariums of old Colorado Springs be categorized as “Medical Facilities” or do they belong under the existing category of “Leisure?” [The class and I picked leisure.] The same kinds of questions are emerging already and the semester is only three weeks old.

More interestingly, the entire way that I teach has changed. It’s not just that I never expected to be paid to introduce undergraduates to digital tools like Dropbox or Omeka. It’s that it’s almost impossible to script any class in advance. For one thing, I have no idea what I’m doing from week-to-week so the agenda kind of arises organically from student blog posts and e-mails. I also have no idea how long reviewing any of these tasks are going to take.

The most interesting thing about the whole endeavor is the potential for students to teach me. After all, I literally have no idea what I’m doing. If they figure out a problem first then certainly I can learn from them. Then, when I do this again for my first undergraduate Colorado history course next semester, I might actually cease to feel like a fraud. At least for the moment I’m a fraud who’s enjoying himself.

It all sort of reminds me of an old Steven Wright joke: “You know how it feels when you lean back in your chair and you think you might fall over backwards and you don’t? I feel like that all the time.”

II. Shared governance rocks.

Sick person that I am, another thing that I do for enjoyment is read books about shared governance. OK, I know of only one book about shared governance, and when I read about it in IHE a while back I actually bought it. Since it’s written by a historian covering the history of this important (at least to us) subject, it has turned out to be more fun than I ever expected.

I don’t want to review Larry Gerber’s The Rise & Decline of Faculty Governance here (maybe if anybody reading this has a publication interested in such an essay, you can drop me a line?). What I do want to do is drop a lot of quotes. You see, Gerber starts with shared governance (or lack thereof) all the way back at the beginning of American higher education and reading old-timey professors complain is a little like that scene in The Shining where Jack Nicholson is looking at all the pictures on the wall and he sees the ghosts all around him in them. It’s hard to tell what era they (or you for that matter) are really occupying.

Here are a few examples:

A) Louis Aggassiz, 1874 (p. 26):

“I believe that there is no scientific man who will concede that there can be a university managed to the best advantage by anybody but those interested in its pursuits, and no body of trustees can be so interested.”

B) The Nation, 1881 (p. 29):

“…[The businessman trustee] wishes very much, indeed, that a college could be carried on without professors, and has a vague notion that by some sort of improvement in organization this result may some day be attained.”

C) William Channing Russel, President of Cornell, 1881 (after he was dismissed by the Board of Trustees there, p. 34).

“[Universities] are not business enterprises, nor are professors clerks or servants, nor have the Trustees any right to look down on them, ignore their claims, or treat them summarily…”

I could go on. Heck, I’m not even done with it yet. Who knows how many ripped-from-the-headlines kinds of academic controversies I’ll eventually find?

III. Jocko homo.

I swear I wasn’t going to read this book with a highlighter, but the quotes were just so good and they just kept coming that I couldn’t help myself. I wanted to be able to get back to them later. It’s not that I even expected to blog about them later, but eventually the link between tech and shared governance became very clear to me.

Human interaction matters. Human beings matter. As Nick Carr wrote earlier today, summarizing his new book:

I argue that we’ve embraced a wrong-headed and ultimately destructive approach to automating human activities, and in Apple’s let-the-software-do-the-talking feature we see a particularly disquieting manifestation of the reigning design ethic. Technical qualities are given precedence over human qualities, and human qualities come to be seen as dispensable.

That’s why teaching machines are a contradiction in terms.

But the people in charge don’t seem to understand that. The same way that Apple is pushing automated conversation on us, whether we want to or not, too many administrators are pushing automated education on us whether we need it or not. My class, if nothing else, has already demonstrated the importance of having a living, breathing professor around to help students with cold feet and to serve as a ringmaster in the three-ring circus.

Of course, if there’s only one path students can take then the ringmaster seems superfluous. That’s why this article from Slate about those textbook company course packages just scares me to death:

Creating online courses from scratch is expensive and time-consuming. When universities try to do it themselves, the results can be erratic. Some online classes wind up being not much more than grainy videos of lectures and a collection of PowerPoint slides.

Publishers have rushed in to fill the gap. They’ve been at the game longer, possess vast libraries of content from their textbook divisions, and have invested heavily in creating state-of-the-art course technology.

Faced with these alternatives, schools frequently choose the plug-and-play solution.

Unfortunately, in an online university which might have faculty scattered across the planet, shared governance is very difficult. In a university which makes vital technological decisions like which learning management system to use, shared governance does not exist in the traditional sense of that word. In a university that forces professors to use their e-mail system for professional correspondence or their web pages for conducting your course business, faculty prerogatives no longer exist.

Shared governance is the vehicle by which faculty can resist these and countless other similar developments. What’s technologically sophisticated may be pedagogically backward, and it’s up to the well-trained, tenured faculty of the world to tell the difference.

Anything else sounds like de-evolution to me.

* Indeed, if I’m really going to get into this education technology thing in a big way, I should probably read his books.

Posted by Jonathan Rees in Digital Humanities, Shared Governance, Technology, 2 comments

DH as self-defense.

If you’re interested in what I was doing for most of this month, you can read about it here. [Yes, I’m the goofball wearing a baseball cap in the back of the group picture.]  The short version?: I spent two weeks in Arlington, VA learning about the digital humanities in general and digital history in specific thanks to the nice folks at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

This was an experience I was hoping to have the moment I heard about it for two reasons: 1) I made a commitment long ago not to be that professor lecturing from yellow lecture notes when they get old. [And I mean yellow because the white paper turned yellow, not because they wrote their notes on yellow paper.] and 2) The Center for History and New Media always struck me as an organization that handles technology right. Just look at Zotero, for example.

So rather than just summarize our entire two weeks with all the tools and articles about them (all of which is still posted here indefinitely), I wanted to make a broader point about the labor politics of DH. It seems to my newbie mind that the digital humanities are more interested in equipping professors with the tools they need to do their jobs better (or at least differently) than they are in creating robots that will do their jobs for them. I heard nary a peep about MOOCs in two weeks, but lots about how to teach history in ways that no MOOC could ever duplicate. Indeed, starting with getting a site from Reclaim Hosting* (the revolutionary nature of which I explained to the group summarizing this article the best I could), continuing with tools like StoryMap or Scalar and culminating with planning projects of our own, we learned how to drive the tractor rather than let the tractor drive us off our land.

Of course, I’ve read the same complaining that you have about DH soaking up all the money and attention while the rest of us soldier on teaching history or English or whatever old style. I still sympathize. After all, it’s not like every class I teach is going to become all digital humanities all the time overnight, or even ever. But I’ve come to believe that the Digital Humanities are a good thing not just because they are a different way to teach, but because they are an excellent way to highlight the importance of professors in general as higher education transforms itself into whatever it will eventually become.

* By the way, thanks for making the transition to the new blog site with me. This is a friendly reminder to change your book marks and blogrolls too if you haven’t done so already.

Posted by Jonathan Rees in Academic Labor, Digital Humanities, Teaching, 0 comments

Digital history? Moi?

Here at “Doing Digital History” in lovely Arlington, Virginia we’re currently working on ways to design and justify our respective digital history projects and courses at our home institutions. I’m fortunate enough that I won’t have to justify mine, but I’ve been working out the syllabus for a digital, experiential learning archives-based course for the last week and a half (before I start teaching it exactly two weeks from today).  If you want to see what it looks like at the moment, then click here.

Posted by Jonathan Rees in Digital Humanities, 0 comments

Icebox v. refrigerator.

Our DH seminar homework for tonight is to write a brief blog post considering how we might use text mining in our upcoming digital history projects. Unfortunately for me, a project about an underwater mining town doesn’t seem particularly text mining friendly.  Don’t get me wrong, I found, for example, this particular tool to be something potentially really useful as a way to get control of my growing corpus of Harvey Wiley literature.  However, from my perspective, text mining is probably the least useful DH strategy that I’ve encountered here in the last week and a half or so.

The one time I did to some text mining may suggest why.  This is the Google Ngram for “refrigerator v. icebox” (with “ice box” thrown in just for good measure)*:

Refrigerator vs. iceboxI first did this Ngram while writing Chapter Six of Refrigeration Nation in order to confirm something that I already knew from my research: that before the advent of the electric refrigerator, what we now know as “iceboxes” were called “refrigerators” and that icebox is a term invented to differentiate boxes full of ice from the appliance that now runs in everybody’s kitchens. The fact that the terms “icebox”and “ice box” basically come out of nowhere precisely during the time when the first electric refrigerators were being developed basically confirm that fact.

Apparently, confirming things you already think you know is the best way to use text mining. I think that’s a good thing, as I’m not sure how I ever would have footnoted this in the book. In fact, how COULD you footnote this in a book if the corpus keeps changing?

But it is a pretty good trick to play with students that the cultural historians probably adore.

* Click the picture if you’re interested in a clear look.

Posted by Jonathan Rees in Digital Humanities, Refrigeration, Refrigeration Nation, 0 comments