Remembering – The First Decade

Beslan Memorial, Open Democracy

Yesterday the European Court of Human Rights ruled against the Russian Government in a case brought by survivors of the massacre of  students and faculty at School Number 1 in Beslan, North Ossetia.  On September 1, 2004, Chechen militants seized the school, fortified it with explosives and held more than a thousand people, including 777 children, hostage for three days. They terrorized their captives, executing several, and withholding water from those who remained. Continue reading “Remembering – The First Decade”

Open on the Edges and in the Middle

Kerstin (aka Ella T.) "Open Hexagon Twist Only"
Kerstin (aka Ella T.) “Open Hexagon Twist Only”

Yesterday Steve Greenlaw  ( @stevegreenla ) asked me  why a “typical faculty member” who teaches and pursues their own research might get involved in Open Education.  His question was a tad disingenuous, of course.  We know that the “typical” faculty member is as much a fiction as the typical student.  But his invitation to explain why I continue to explore and embrace various modalities of open learning is one I am happy to accept.

Continue reading “Open on the Edges and in the Middle”

Virginia Faculty Collaborative cMOOC Countdown

Teaching Open Source Practices version 4.0 https://flic.kr/p/8CFPTG
Teaching Open Source Practices version 4.0

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/

Digital Humanities for Slavic Studies – Part 1

A recently organized group of digital humanities practitioners in the field of Slavic Studies made a big splash at the annual meeting of the Association for Slavic, East European & Eurasian Studies earlier this month. In addition to a half-day THAT Camp the group sponsored a series of themed panels on the regular convention program. I participated in two of those, one focusing on Platforms for Digital Scholarship, and one on the impact of digital humanities work in the classroom.

See below for a reprise of my comments on the first session about the rewards of re-launching and the challenges of maintaining Seventeen Moments in Soviet History.

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.

30-Day Users of 17 Moments of Soviet History as of November 14, 2016
30-Day Users of 17 Moments in Soviet History as of November 14, 2016

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.

The Student-Centered Lecture

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fdkomite, Lectures

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.

Continue reading “The Student-Centered Lecture”

Listening to Change

Listen, by Wayne Stadler. https://flic.kr/p/qGquvE
Wayne Stadler, “Listen” Creative Commons License 4.0 Non-Commercial, No Derivatives

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.

The Costs of Victory

Winning the Great Patriotic War: The Soviet Union in World War II

Montgomery County Public School Teachers’ Workshop, November 3, 2015

Featured Resources:

The Fallen of World War II – by Neil Halloran. Both understated and stunning, this animated, data-driven documentary looks at the human cost of the second World War. The cinematic story-telling technique of this data visualization brings the staggering complexity of the war’s casualties into focus in unexpected and illuminating ways.

Seventeen Moments in Soviet History – Archive of primary sources developed by Lewis Siegelbaum (Michigan State University) and James Von Geldern (Macalester College) in 2002. I joined the editorial team as web director and content curator in 2015. This rich multi-media repository includes texts, images, video, and music. The site is designed as a window on the Soviet experience as ordinary people made and experienced it. The materials are organized chronologically and thematically. A short subject essay introduces the user to the materials on a particular topic. All of the modules in 1943 (as well as many in 1939 and 1947) relate to the war in some fashion.

Victory Day 70 — Interactive multi-media website developed by RT (Russia Today — a state-funded television network broadcasting in English, Arabic and Spanish outside the Russian Federation). Developed for the seventieth anniversary of the Allied Victory in Europe in May 2015, this site presents many beautifully-produced resources relating to the Soviet war experience to English-speaking audiences. Materials high school students will find especially compelling include oral histories with Soviet veterans and their children, an interactive documentary map, and a dynamic timeline of the Eastern Front, as well as posters, songs and key speeches from the war. (Site works best in Chrome.)

Other Gems:

Restored film of Victory Day Parade, Red Square, Moscow June 24, 1945

The Battle of Russia from Frank Capra’s Why We Fight series

Gremlins in the Kremlin, Robert Clampett / Warner Brothers, 1944

And One Book:

Geoffrey Roberts, Victory at Stalingrad. The Battle that Changed History (2002)