Re-watching Ted Nelson’s eulogy for Doug Engelbart last week reminded me of one of the many (many) reasons Nelson’s thinking about computers and society resonates so powerfully with me. Mourning the loss of one of the most pivotal stars of the new media revolution by indicting his colleagues and making them laugh (nervously), invoking the tropes of classical funeral orations and quotes from Shaw and Shakespeare, and recounting the highlights and tragedies of Engelbart’s career, Nelson’s eulogy is a tour de force in terms of form (technique) and content. He insists, as passionately as he had in 1974, that computers should support our dreams, indeed that technology is an expression of those dreams. And dreams, of course, are as much about the emotions as they are about reason and calculation.
Movies and books, music and even architecture have for all of us been part of important emotional moments. The same is going to happen with the new media. To work at a highly responsive computer display screen, for instance, can be deeply exciting, like flying an airplane through a canyon, or talking to somebody brilliant. This is as it should be…..
In the design of our future media and systems, we should not shrink from this emotional aspect as a legitimate part of our fantic (see p. 317) design. The substratum of technicalities and the mind-bending, gut-slamming effects they produce, are two sides of the same coin; and to understand the one is not necessarily to be alienated from the other.
Thus it is for the Wholiness of the human spirit, that we must design. (NMR, p. 307)
The democratizing, radically-reimagining agenda laid out in Computer Lib / Dream Machines is as relevant today as it was in 1974. In the early seventies, computing was about inscrutable calculations, fiendishly massive quantification, and the expertise of, yep, experts. Nelson summoned every woman to “understand computers,” to engage with them, and to create with them. He insisted (rightly) that we are creatures of culture and of interaction as much (perhaps even more so) as we are creatures of reason and calculation. And he wanted us to use computers to develop a “fantic space” (inspired by Eisenstein’s and Pudovkin’s concept of filmic space) to help us communicate emotionally as well as cognitively:
RESPONSIVE COMPUTER DISPLAY SYSTEMS CAN, SHOULD AND WILL RESTRUCTURE AND LIGHT UP THE MENTAL LIFE OF MANKIND. (NMR, p. 317)
Forty years later, the landscape has changed, but the challenge remains. We carry computers with us all day long, communicate with people downstairs and around the world in the blink of an eye, and can summon nearly all the world’s texts and many of its numbers to our screens with a few key strokes and a good internet connection. I do feel that my mental life has been illuminated and transformed by the innovations Nelson envisioned. But do we understand computers and the networked world in the way that Nelson thought we needed to? Has the Computer Priesthood” been ousted? Or just changed clothes? And what about “Computer Aided Instruction” (CAI, as Nelson calls it)? I look at computerized testing, video taped lectures, the march of MOOCs, the “Learning Management System” industry, and the relentless pressure to scale, standardize, measure and homogenize an experience that should be so much more….and I think we still need to focus instead on using this technology to provide students (and ourselves) with a real education:
Instead of devising elaborate systems permitting the computer or its instructional contents to control the situation, why not permit the student to control the system, show him how to do so intelligently, and make it easy for him to find his way? Discard the sequences, items and conversation, and allow the student to move freely through materials which he may control. Never mind optimizing reinforcement or validating teaching sequence. Motivate the user and let him loose in a wonderful place” (NMR, p. 313).
I want to keep my beacon set on that wonderful place.
In the hope that anything worth posting once can be re-posted again (different audiences?), I’m offering this reflection / question I wrote for Gardner’s New Media Seminar a couple years ago . Thoughts, anyone?
I’ve posted before about how central Doug Engelbart is to the Awakening of the Digital Imagination. This time I’m going to let an image — or more precisely, a mural — do the talking. Created by Eileen Clegg and Valerie Landau for the fortieth anniversary of the Mother of All Demos, this graphic representation of the interaction between cultural change, technological innovation, and what Engelbart called “collective intelligence” suggests how we have co-evolved with our technology since the early twentieth century. At the end of the mural, a blue wave asks us to think about “the next paradigm-shifting wave of innovation”….which seems to be happening in 2015. I mean, RIGHT NOW.
Our jumping off point was Vannevar Bush’s “As We May Think,” published in the Atlantic in 1945 as the imperative to leverage the technological innovations of wartime to more peaceful purposes seemed especially compelling. Bush’s vision of the memex – a computerized combination of note cards, annotations and information sources that could extend the reach (capacity) of any one learner by integrating that individual’s knowledge with the sources that informed it in a durable medium that could then be used and developed by others — underpins web annotation projects such as Hypothes.is. It also supports networked learning frameworks that facilitate collaborative learning, knowledge production and reflection.
As a historian, I’ve been intrigued by Hypothes.is since it first came to my attention last year. Historians are trained to think about how knowledge is produced and organized as an essential element of the research process: What was the author of this essay, article, book trying to say? Why was this archive created? Why are the records organized the way they are? Why did they keep what they kept? What are the assumptions behind the Dewey decimal or LOC cataloguing systems? In what context was this book, manuscript, court record, ship’s manifest created?)
Once you have a handle on those questions you need to figure out how to find where the resources you want to consult are and how to get to them. There is a dialogic process to this that involves reading, searching, thinking, taking notes, making lists, thinking, reading more, going back to your bibliography, supplementing it with new things you find, reading those things, taking more notes, thinking, going back to the older notes, etc…..I realize as I’m typing that this I might be describing a pretty generic research practice for many fields….
Anyway, at some point in there, I think two conceptual maps of a project emerge that overlay each other. The first is defined by types of sources — not so much a list, like a bibliography — but more like a grid of different kinds of evidence with points of overlap as well as nodes of distinction and empty spaces that still need to be filled in. The empty spaces let you know what you need to keep looking for and what silences your work might have to address. The points of overlap provide nuance, depth and corroboration, and the points of distinction raise new questions, redirect the inquiry or foreground a significant problem that might not have been evident when considering one source in isolation.
The second structure comprises the notes and annotations that are attached to those sources but also connected to each other (in your head or on a piece of paper or in your word processor) by the interpretation you are developing about the evidence. I see Hypothes.is as a medium through which those annotations can be assembled AND shared, which is just mind-blowingly wonderful. (Hypothes.is annotations for “As We May Think” are here.) While the analog or un-networked digital version of note taking certainly allows for all kinds of remixing and re-purposing, with Hypothes.is the annotations can themselves become nodes on or elements of a new kind of crowd / collaborative / collective “source” – a distributed conversation about a particular web page. We’re used to thinking about different kinds of sources: primary, secondary, web-based, archival, print, biographical, testimonial, etc.. Maybe a set of Hypothes.is annotations on a particular article would be a Web 3.0 source? A networked source? A memex-cubed source?
Two points in the wide-ranging Twitter chat especially resonated with me. We had been talking about how Hypothes.is helped realize Bush’s vision of “associative trails” and I asked if Jon and Jeremy saw those trails as supplements to or replacements for conventional taxonomies. Jon thought they were complementary, and Jeremy cautioned that the annotations alone might not constitute “trails” — they needed to be connected or flagged somehow, perhaps by a tag. (I like the metaphor of trail blazes.)
So, annotations become associative trails when they are marked out by tags or blazes — or any durable and accessible symbolic representation of the cognitive framework that helps you knit meaning into the tapestry (or navigate the cacophony?) of information about the world. And those trails serve as jet-packed complement to the conventional taxonomies for organizing knowledge. YES!!!!!
But how to get to the trails you really want or need? I’m imagining a future when a good chunk of the web has been trailed by Hypothes.is. And I’m imagining that all trails will not be created equal. I won’t be able to read it all, and I don’t want to fall down a rabbit hole without some warning, so how am I going to know where the good stuff is? How will the high value trails get filtered forward?
And here came the second nugget moment: Jon Udell responded to a query about this by saying “Help me grok it and I’ll help you make it real.”
I’m pretty sure I haven’t groked* it myself. But here goes:
As teachers we spend a lot of time helping students learn how to find, sort through and evaluate resources. (Crane Librarian has spoken to the challenges of doing that in the library.) And as researchers our own successes (and failures) in finding the sources and communities we need depend largely on a somewhat ineffable combination of content expertise / experience, and skill — the “scaffolding” we’re always talking about providing and developing for learners. In this sense, I do feel like I have groked the research process. But the prospect of having something so powerful and potentially overwhelming as a Hypothes.ized web makes me think I’ll need to develop another kind of sensibility and that the trails and webs marked out by Hypothes.is will need some kind of context sensitive markers to help direct individual users where they want to go. At the most basic level this would be a system whereby spam and trolls (they are, I fear inevitable) could be marginalized. But even more valuable would be a marker that would flag certain kinds of annotations — and the connections between them — and also allow for the dynamic process of ongoing annotation. What would that look like? I don’t know yet. But it would be cool. And I think it’s worth thinking about. I know I’m hoping for something that would make the web more akin to Doug Dorst’s and J. J. Abram’s book S. and would not like to see a set of user-conditioned algorithms turn Hypothes.is into a colonial outpost of my Facebook feed. It also seems that the conceptualization behind sites like Jon Stewart’s Open Note Database project could be really helpful. I’m just not sure how.
So there you go. Not at all groked, I’m afraid. But maybe glimpsed as a desirable future? Thanks for encouraging me to think about this. I will continue to do so.
*my working understanding of “grok” falls closer to the flower child sense of mastery that is so intuitive it feels innate than the techie understanding of internalizing a concept so completely it feels like second nature. But grok is also the only Martian word I know, so that might be an issue.
We have a late-breaking, serendipitous opportunity tomorrow morning to talk about David Weinberger’s book, Too Big To Know on Twitter. Weinberger, a philosopher and technologist who writes about the effects of the internet on human relationships, is currently a senior researcher at Harvard’s Berkman Center. In light of current discussions about the nature of facts and their alternatives, the book’s subtitle — “Rethinking Knowledge
Now that the Facts aren’t the Facts,
Experts are Everywhere, and
the Smartest Person in the Room
is the Room.” — is especially compelling.
Dr. Weinberger will be Skyping into Tom Ewing‘s undergraduate course on Data in Social Context at Virginia Tech to talk about Too Big To Know with Tom and his students.
I will be live tweeting the conversation tomorrow (Monday) from 10:10 to 11:00 am EST. If you’re familiar with the book or Weinberger’s work please join us. And if you aren’t please join us anyway! You can follow along and send questions and thoughts to #Openlearning17 and #Faccollab.
Followers of #gedivt — I will try to flag you all as well, but the best bet would be to check #OpenLearning17
Twitter Handles: Data in Social Context: @DiSCVT ;David Weinberger: @dweinberger ; Tom Ewing: @EThomasEwing
My what a couple of weeks it’s been….So much anticipation, trepidation, incredulity, outrage, sorrow….resolve…
No, I’m not talking about #OpenLearning17. The course launch last week provided a wonderfully affirming forum for engaging with the forces of enlightenment. Laura Gogia’s masterful facilitation of a Twitter Journal Club (#TJC17) on Friday brought folks together around a close reading of Jeffrey Pomerantz’ and Robin Peek’s Fifty Shades of Open, and through Twitter magic and generosity Jeffrey Pomerantz was able to participate in the discussion. Some of us even carried the conversation further by annotating it on Hypothes.is . And because the #TJC17was open and coincided with the annual AAC&U conference in San Francisco, conference participants could join the fun and those of us who were not physically in attendance could share in some of the buzz generated by the big gathering.
But locally, last week was a time when I was reminded, rather brutally, that teaching collaboratively and in the open takes time, is messy, and is totally worth it.
First of all, there’s just the time commitment to building out the digital spaces where my courses grow. While I was working on my book last semester I seem to have remembered how cool it is when you get a website tricked out and looking nice, but forgotten just how time consuming it is to:
Create the motherblog, choose a template, add feedwordpress, hook up JetPack, pick out fonts, and colors and other design features, customize the template so it will be easy to update the front end as new content comes in, create a shadow blog for the comments and feed that through an RSS feed on the main site…..
None of that’s hard, but it all takes time. And then you have to get the students hooked up and ready to roll (ah yes, add form to site that they can fill out so you can harvest the URL..)
You see where this is going — there’s lots of set up work to do before the first class session.
And then there are the human factors — they include a couple of outstanding GTAs for the grad course and an editorial team for my undergrad course (two peer-editors, veterans of the course who comment on posts and help identify content to feature in the weekly edition, plus a WordPress savvy grad student who handles a lot of the weekly maintenance). So that’s really two “teaching teams” for these learner-centered hybrid courses.
And figuring out how we are going to best facilitate learning in the course and establishing a weekly work flow, with time built in for dialogue and troubleshooting, can be pretty messy. We need to figure out which affordances to use for what kinds of interaction (Slack for sure, also a shared Drive folder….e-mail only when smoke signals fail). We all have different strengths and intersecting but not 100% overlapping domains of expertise. Like everyone else, we are busy. And like everyone else we learn by doing. So, the first couple of weeks can be pretty bumpy, as we coordinate our individual tasks with our other time commitments, learn (or remember) some new tricks (how do you get the sleeping dogs to be in the center of the photo in the slider?), and figure out how to best work together to help leverage the students’ contributions into a robust and interesting place that showcases and enables “acts of cognition” (focused either on Soviet History of contemporary pedagogy in higher ed):
And to me, that’s why working in the open — in a medium where we can all create and engage collaboratively with the content — is not just worth it, but necessary. I did spend less time on my classes before the 2.0 version of my teaching — I think we are all familiar with that feeling that sometimes it’s just plain easier to do something by yourself or the way you’ve always done it. But I do see real (positive) differences in the way we learn (students, course assistants and instructor) in these networked, open learning spaces. And the takeaways for the students, in the form of the critical thinking, writing and research skills they develop by working on the open web, the insights they gain about the course content and their own learning, as well as the digital portfolio that they create, make the extra time and effort well worth the investment on my part.
In an era of Alt-Facts and gathering storms around the ethical tenets of our democracy, learning together in the open seems especially important. (I know I’m being hyperbolic and I hope I’m wrong about the storm clouds, but I’m still going to throw down behind open pedagogies.)
Over the last few years, as I’ve re-imagined the kind of intellectual work we do in our classrooms, I’ve seen how making incremental changes can first amplify and then transform the learning experience for students and faculty. By embracing networking as both a metaphor and a practice for having students learn in conversation with openly accessible high value source materials as well as with me and with each other, I’ve been able to cultivate broader and more dynamic communities of learners and have discovered new opportunities to explore and grow as a teacher, a researcher and a practitioner of digital history and the digital humanities. It’s true, I did have plenty to do before I started down this road, but the extra time I spend learning how to use new tools (Hypothes.is is coming to my graduate pedagogy class this semester), building websites, upgrading a legacy OER, and engaging with my students’ work outside the regular class time, is time well spent. It comes back to me many times over in the form of higher quality engagement with lively minds, the gratitude of colleagues all over the country (for keeping a popular resource accessible ) and membership in richer, more diverse, and more robust intellectual communities.
Susan Albertine has offered us some timely reflections on how the Open Learning cMOOC might advance the cause of “Mind Liberating Education,” — her wonderful characterization of the purpose of general education at all levels of higher ed in the twenty-first century. The Faculty Collaboratives are a national endeavor and teams in different states have adopted a range of strategies, but the Virginia group is the only one to place a web-based social learning project at the core of its program. Susan hopes the Open Learning cMOOC will facilitate cross-pollination between the community of gen ed reformers and advocates for open education. I see that possibility as not just desirable, but natural and necessary for the ultimate success of the whole enterprise (empowering 21st-century students with the skills, knowledge, experiences they need to make their way and lead in a times of often mind-bending change and complexity).
I was on research leave working on a book about space dogs in the fall, and in the process of re-engaging my various teaching communities over the last few weeks have realized how inter-connected various practices and communities are, and how one open practice leads to another. This semester I am teaching two openly accessible networked courses — an upper-level Soviet History course, where students collectively source the majority of the content, and Contemporary Pedagogy, a course for graduate students developed by Shelli Fowler that invites future faculty to develop or refine their own teaching praxis grounded in inclusive and critical pedagogies. Inspiration for the networked version of the Soviet course came from a pilot project where students blogged and published their research projects on the web in an honors colloquium on Deep History and Domestication. That experience brought me to Gardner Campbell’s New Media Seminar — first as a student, and then as the seminar facilitator.
So there’s been this nice synergy between networked learning / open ed and my expertise as a Russian historian with evolving interests in environmental history and animal studies from the beginning. That overlap proved crucial when I was asked to help salvage Seventeen Moments in Soviet History, a multi-media digital repository of primary materials with subtitles and translations developed by James von Geldern and Lewis Siegelbaum more than fifteen years ago. After hackers destroyed the site in January 2015, we worked to move it to an open source platform (WordPress), launching the new site that August. Last November the site had more than 9,000 30-day active users (with nearly 500,000 page views), which would suggest that a lot of students studying Soviet history use the archive in some fashion. This free to use, freely accessible resource exemplifies the goodness of open: Faculty rely on it to give students a multi-dimensional view of a society about which students know little and often presume much. To watch clips of popular Soviet movies or listen to songs — with expertly rendered subtitles — is to experience the power of openness and accessibility, and to gain insight into a culture and society that might be otherwise opaque to many.
There’s another unexpected, yet strangely natural, and very rewarding aspect of the open learning path that I want to note before signing off, namely the opportunities to develop as a teacher and as a student and to meet new people and engage with new communities of practice. After twenty years of university teaching, the opportunity to embrace the roll of learner again has been very invigorating. The New Media Seminar served as my gateway drug, and I have also participated in previous cMOOCs. Realistically, helping facilitate the Open Learning cMOOC will keep me pretty busy this semester, but I hope I can at least dabble in a digital story-telling course on Networked Narratives that Alan Levine and Mia Zamora are directing.
The semester promises to be full and rich, with lots of open. I hope when we get to the end of the Open Learning syllabus I will be (even more) open to new opportunities on the borders of the various domains I inhabit, that the middle, the core of my networked learning practices is more robust, and that our work has fulfilled Susan’s hopes for our faculty collaborative.
I’ve been working with a great group of higher ed folks affiliated with the AAC&U Faculty Collaboratives project for the last several months. The collaboratives are state-level efforts to enlist faculty in the far-reaching and essential challenges of re-imagining role of liberal education at this time of transformation across the higher education landscape.
In January we will be facilitating a cMOOC addressing all aspects of “Open Education,” a category that includes open educational resources (OER), open pedagogical practices, open access, participatory cultures and literacies, networked learning, etc. These topics will structure weekly readings, viewings, etc., as well as the reflections and networked learning that the course participants will offer each other.
For an overview of goals and planned activities, see openlearninghub.net/about. A week-by-week listing of topics, readings, etc., is developing at openlearninghub.net/syllabus
More information about the course and reflections on what we hope to accomplish will be coming in the new year. In the meantime, if you are interested or implicated in liberal learning — especially in Virginia — and would like to take part in a meaningful exploration of the potential for open education to contour the landscape of learning in the twenty-first century, it’s never to early to join the cMOOC here: http://openlearninghub.net/the-stream/
We also heard from Yelena Kalinsky, Managing Editor for H-Net Reviews who discussed the use of Drupal as a CMS for the H-net Commons; Emil Kerenji, from the U. S. Holocaust Museum, who introduced a richly annotated digital archive of Jewish Perspectives on the Holocaust; Ruth Lorenz, who maintains Луч света, a marvelous site of news-related video clips to teach listening comprehension and social-cultural literacy to Russian language students; Joan Neuberger founder of Not Even Past, the exemplary public history site with affiliated podcasts and blogs she founded at the University of Texas, Austin in 2008; and Svetlana Rukhelman, who spoke about digital archiving projects at Harvard using Omeka.
I am implicated in various digital humanities projects but will talk today about Seventeen Moments in Soviet History. As many of you know, Seventeen Moments is a legacy digital humanities project. It was conceived by James von Geldern and Lewis Siegelbaum in the late nineties (the heyday of Netscape Navigator and KOI8 fonts) – at the same time the Library of Congress launched the bi-lingual multi-media site, Meeting of the Frontiers, and it first went live in 2002. The NEH supported the site’s initial development – sending Lewis and Jim to Russia to acquire materials, especially the film, photographs and audio files from the Russian State Film & Photo Archive at Krasnogorsk and funding the design for the original site. Over the years Lewis’ and Jim’s host institutions, Michigan State University and Macalester College, provided funds for updates. Kristen Edwards collected content from the Hoover Institution and coordinated a major upgrade to the site in 2008. This was the site that was hacked in January 2015, just as a new version of the site was nearing completion. And this is where I got involved. (Why I got involved is a story for another time.)
For the first several months of January work proceeded on two fronts: 1) we tried to finish up and secure a new version of the site that had been paid for but not finished before the hack of the old version; and 2) we made plans to move the site to an open source CMS that could be updated, secured and modified more easily.
To our great regret, No. 1 proved impossible, so by the spring we shifted attention exclusively to No. 2.
The new WordPress installation has been live since August of 2015.
Following our panel organizer’s guidance, my comments are framed around three issues:
Why we chose WordPress / MATRIX
How well things working (or not), with advice for someone starting their own project
How we think about digital humanities resources like 17 Moments and the kinds hybrid / multivalent spaces they shape.
The concerns that informed our design decisions – why we ended up at MATRIX with a WP install.
Obviously we really wanted to save the “new” site that seemed agonizingly close to being ready for prime time. But there were two problems: The first was solvable – de-bugging glitches such as getting the subtitles to display on the audio files. But the second was not. The “new” site used CakePhp (an outdated variant of the scripting language, Php – b. 1995), and was all custom work. Some of the coding was good, but a lot of it was messy – different solutions to the same problem – caveats left in all caps (i.e. DON’T CHANGE ANYTHING BELOW THIS LINE!). And it was vulnerable to the same kind of MySQL injection attacks that had brought down the old site. The vulnerability was compounded by what should have been a wonderful feature – namely a tiered access system, which would allow different levels of users to suggest and submit new content. (So someone with malicious intent could get access to the database by creating an account.)
Four very accomplished computer science students worked on these problems as their senior project, but couldn’t solve the security issue.
Because we were dealing with php and MySQL we leaned towards WordPress and Drupal for the CMS. These are both open source platforms with robust user and development communities. WordPress, which gained popularity mainly as a blogging platform runs more than twenty-five percent of the web as of November, 2016. While Drupal has more bells and whistles, and more flexibility in terms of customization, it is not super user friendly. WordPress, on the other hand is “easy” – especially at the entry level (all of my undergrads use it). It has thousands of (mostly free) plug-ins that make it a decent CMS rather than just blogging software. It also has thousands of templates that provide a terrific assortment of design options. And although it also has security vulnerabilities, the basic script and the plug-ins are constantly updated with an eye toward security.
As part of saving Seventeen Moments and taking it to the next level, we wanted the site to benefit more directly from the attentions and expertise of its huge user / fan base. We want to expand the site — to develop new modules, add new resources – both embedded in the site and as related links next to the various topics. In my early (wildest) dreams, I imagined that (properly supervised) students could help curate these materials once an administrator (Lewis, Jim or I) had approved them. I am a big believer in the empowering potential of digital literacy and proficiency with web authoring tools. So while Drupal would have made sense in terms of its sophistication, WordPress won out as the people’s platform.
And because we had very little in the way of budget, we were grateful that MATRIX, who had hosted the original site, gave us the friends and family discount for hosting the new site and developing it.
So, how well is it working and what advice do we have for those starting out?
If use is a measure of success we are in fantastic shape.
We’re at nearly 500,000 page views for and over 70,000 visitors for 2016 More than half of the traffic comes from repeat visitors. Most sessions involve 4.72 different pages (which does not count additional clicks on videos or images). As of mid November there are more than 9,000 30 day active users – These would be current students, which is pretty cool.
The site draws traffic from all over the world: mainly the US, Great Britain, Australia and Canada, but with healthy representation from Europe, Russia and the former Soviet Union, and just about everywhere except Central and West Africa.
Most people find the site via search engine (Jim was delighted when we regained our #1 Google Ranking), but many come via curated lists (Exeter, Nottingham, BU, Rochester) and Reddit, Twitter, Facebook, wikipedia, etc.)
So, folks definitely missed the site during the nine months it was down. We’ve also received lots of positive feedback about the look and feel of the new interface, which is responsive. Many students do look at stuff on their phones, even though most of the access is still via laptop / desktop).
And the work that remains to be done?
People do miss the music box, and that brings me to some of the challenges we’d like to overcome in the near to medium future.
We could not find an off the shelf plug-in that could replicate the music box, and will have to wait until we find the support to have one made for us. It shouldn’t be expensive or hard, but given the size of the site and how many plug-ins are currently on it (we know it loads slowly sometimes), this isn’t as straightforward as you might think.
We hope to have more success with regular updates and improvements going forward. Ease of updating (and the benefits of that for security) were key factors in choosing an open source, easy to use, CMS in the first place.
So you have a great project you want to develop…. (advice to people starting out):
1) try to inform yourself and your team about what you don’t know or can’t have and the implications of that – because what you don’t know can hurt your site, and you can’t assume that the folks who are trying to fix things are that much more expert than you are.
2) Cherish your blessings as a late adopter.
3) Think about your project as having an indefinite digital future – it isn’t just about building / launching, but about maintaining, updating, and growing.
Finally: How do we think about digital humanities resources like 17 Moments and the kinds hybrid / multivalent spaces they shape?
I’ve been struck by the accidental and dialogic evolution (over fifteen odd years) of what the site is and what it does. For many, Seventeen Moments began as and still is a valued pedagogical resource – an Open Educational Resource before its time. But it is also much more, and here I think the balance between the site’s accessibility and its high value content have been key.
Having it on the open web does make the site vulnerable at some level, but it also makes engaging global audiences possible. During March of 2014 for example, Lewis Siegelbaum’s subject essay and the related module, “Gift of Crimea”, had more than 50,000 visitors. And now, when just about anything is at your fingertips, I take some comfort in knowing that lots of fingertips find Seventeen Moments instead of whatever fake news might be filtered forward surface instead.
Going forward, I hope we can strengthen the site’s presence by expanding it (along the lines outlined above), getting the Creative Commons license attached to all of the relevant items, and doing more with social media. Our Facebook page and Twitter are linked, but have been neglected because the admins are busy with their day jobs. We have commissioned some more modules, especially for the postwar period and would like to set up a “sandbox” site where people could submit new material for potential inclusion in the existing modules or ones that might be developed down the road.
It also seems that how we identify sites like seventeen moments and what we expect of them is starting to shift.
First there’s the relationship between a site like ours, that was developed as an “online primary source repository” in English, primarily for students (or their profs.) and more scholarly sources like Vadim Staklo’s Russian Perspectives on Islam, which uses OMEKA (also free and open source, but better geared toward library, museum and archival collections).
But both of these sites, and many other digital humanities resources, are also public history venues – sites where history is made, presented and consumed. To audiences outside the traditional classroom, the distinctions between an OMEKA site, with the rigor of Dublin Core metadata and something like Seventeen Moments are not that significant, and both have the potential to engage more users in more complex ways than their pre-digital predecessors.
Second, are the historical underpinnings of the site: Seventeen Moments is rooted in the Digital Humanities as well as Digital History. Digital Humanities started with text encoding projects in the 90s (Women Writer’s Project), and became widespread as a term when the NEH launched the Digital Humanities Initiative in 2006 – several years after Seventeen Moments first went live. Digital History of course emerged from the quantitative approaches of the 60s and 70s, but was (like everything else) transformed by the multi-media, interactive potential of online digital environments. Ed Ayers conceived the Valley of the Shadow project in the early nineties; Roy Rosenzwieg founded the Center for History and New Media at GMU in 1994. (Joan Neuberger launched Not Even Past in 2010.)
And these histories point to one of the big challenges for developing best practices with digital humanities resources going forward, namely, how do we secure their future?
Like campus construction or the nation’s highways, finding funding for new projects and buildings is much easier than securing the resources to maintain and renovate them. At a time when print collections are shrinking, and more and more library resources vanish behind paywalls in the cloud, securing and maintaining spaces for open access digital humanities resources seems especially imperative and challenging. Seventeen Moments proves that “if you build it, they will come,” and we know that they will also stay, and even return after a major disaster. My hope is that we start designing and building our digital humanities resources with their future in mind, so they don’t just get stuck on a server somewhere waiting for the end to come.
A couple of years ago, when I began thinking about the courses I teach as places where content is created and curated rather than transmitted and tested, lecturing was one of the teaching modalities I most wanted to jettison. It wasn’t that I didn’t enjoy lecturing, it just seemed that so little of it “stuck” — and what did stick often sounded parroted or parodied when it came drifting back up through the prose of a midterm essay. My lectures articulated my explanation and interpretation of historical developments I’d spent twenty years studying and thinking about. Did I think they were good? Yes. Did students get a lot out of them? I liked to think so. Did what they learned from them stay with them past the midterm? Doubtful. Was there a better way? Probably.
So when I embraced networked learning as the main modality for my courses, it seemed that lecturing might not be compatible with the kinds of active learning and knowledge production I wanted to support and facilitate. I’d been so impressed with what students could do when they were given the opportunity to explore and pursue a topic that interested them in depth and in conversation with their peers. Subjecting those often disparate and always unique presentations to the constraints of my own interpretive arc — no matter how elegant and “good” I thought it was (it was mine after all), just did not feel right.
But finding an alternative has taken a while. I’ve found that students embrace the responsibility of having more control over what they learn and how they demonstrate their learning. Putting them in conversation with each other and engaging with the substance of their work and the questions their work raises elevates the quality of what we create together as a class and what they leave the class with as individuals. We spend much of our F2F time discussing student work, identifying and analyzing source material, and debating the merits of particular interpretive models and historical debates. For assessments I ask them to show me what they’ve learned, reflect on their learning process, and suggest how their work addresses the broader issues of the course.
But to make it all work we still need some lecture to provide context and draw connections between the students’ work on particular topics. I’ve tried various things, including giving short (15-20″) overviews of the main themes we will work on in the coming week and thematic presentations that connect discussions from different parts of the course. But the one that seems to work best uses the students’ work as its foundation.
The outline for a student-centered lecture on the transition from the upheaval and violence of the Russian Civil War to the economic and social transformations of the 1920s might look something like this:
The URL’s are all posts written by students over the previous weekend. I make this outline available to the class on a Google Doc, and give a brief (2-3 minute) explanation of what we’ll be talking about and why I selected these posts and topics as references. (This semester there are 25-40 posts submitted every week.) Then I lead a guided discussion anchored by this outline, and elaborated with the perspectives of the individual authors and the collective expertise in the room. Everyone can read or review the posts, and the authors have the opportunity to talk about their work in some detail and ask questions raised by their research. Students can take notes individually or add to the outline as we go along. I still have an interpretive arc in mind, but we support and develop it together. Because it uses student-generated work as the jumping off points for the presentation and explanation, the connections between what students “know” individually and the big picture (both the macro-level view, and my perspective as the “expert”) are made explicit. I believe this helps construct an analytical framework and understanding of a particular period or topic that has a longer half-life than the traditional lecture did.
This is a working theory and it will certainly continue to evolve. I’m not ready to kick lectures to the curb or the dustbin, but would like to imagine the “student-centered lecture” taking its place in the ranks of this versatile transmedial pedagogical form. (A big thank you to Practice in Pedagogy for bringing Friesen’s article to my attention.)
What are the implications for familiar genres as the mode of transmission and preservation evolves? We still talk and think about “files” within “folders” for many text documents, even though physical file cabinets and manila folders are on their way out. We process words on a simulated piece of paper and discard the rejects in a metaphorical trashcan. And “books” now exist in a range of formats, including e-readers, paper, and audio books. I do a lot of reading on the screen and appreciate the relative advantages and drawbacks of that mode of consumption. I love my Kindle and my Ipad for flipping through mysteries and PDFs, but paper between covers is still my preferred medium for serious reading and subsequent consultation of a text I want to know well.
I also listen to audio books while I run and have been enjoying Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens. A Brief History of Humankind this winter. There is nothing brief about this book (the full Audible version comes in at more than fifteen hours), unless you consider the scope of the project. Harari’s provocative examination of the deep history of humanity artfully interweaves larger themes about how homo sapiens came to dominate the planet with the specifics of that story by focusing on three particular tectonic shifts in the development and organization of human societies: the cognitive revolution, the agricultural revolution, and the scientific revolution. As a story of globalization, Sapiens, which evolved from Harari’s World History course, is an unusual and surprising blend of interpretation — an effort to find coherence in the story of humanity’s rise to world dominance, and of reflection on how that past might condition the future.
A couple days ago I listened to Harari’s discussion of the distinction between deterministic and humanist perspectives on historical change and possibility and nodded appreciatively at this observation in Chapter 13, near the end of Part III:
“In October 1913, the Bolsheviks were a small, radical, Russian faction. No reasonable person would have believed that in a mere four years they would take over the country.”
Since we were just getting to the revolutions of 1917 in my Soviet History course and spent most of the previous week discussing the prospects of constitutionalism in Imperial Russia after the Revolution of 1905, I wanted to use the eight minute clip this quote comes from as a jumping off point for discussing contingency and the goals of historical study in class. So how does that work logistically and how does the format of the audio book condition the way we work with this “text” in class?
Making the excerpt accessible to the class was the easy part. We meet in a Learning Studio equipped with several AppleTVs, so I used AirPlay to send the audio from my phone through the projection system. Instead of referring the students to a text they needed to read and then waiting for everyone to finish (it’s always tricky to gauge how long this should take) we all listened at the same speed and finished at the same time.
I was curious about how well, or rather how consistently we would listen as group. Individuals latch onto different aspects of a printed text, and helping students distinguish between the morsel they find interesting and the author’s main idea or analytical framework can be challenging. In the case of the audio excerpt, however, it most of the class seemed to “get it” right away. We spent very little time establishing “what the author said” and moved quickly to the issue I wanted to discuss — that causation and contingency are not just important, but that the more you know about a particular historical moment the more complex it becomes. We seek meaning in the past and connecting the dots that are only visible in hindsight is as misleading as it is appealing. So, making sense of how the Bolsheviks came to power in 1917 requires us to consider the messiness of the present of that moment — the traumas of World War I and the social and economic stresses that conditioned the series of political crises that helped position this “small radical Russian faction” for success.
It’s hard to say if this initial experiment with discussion based on listening to a text together has many advantages over more traditional modes of reading, but I will likely try something similar again soon. I think the slower “delivery” of the spoken excerpt, combined with the fact that we were all physically in the same space made it easier for people to focus on what they were hearing. I observed no multi-tasking and very little squirming. When we have a text in front of us it’s easy and often necessary to point to a specific passage. In the case of the audio book, cuing up a particular sentence is a bit tricky, but in this case I didn’t need to. Enough people remembered the main ideas pretty well and could clarify them for the folks who were confused.
I’ve noticed that more and more of my own “reading” has shifted to audio books and podcasts recently, so I’m interested in how we can use these resources in teaching. And if you haven’t had a chance to read or listen to Sapiens, you should give it a try. Whether you agree with him or not, Harari has an important message about where he thinks our past is taking us.