Late Adopter

Last January, I stumbled into a workshop on student blogging, spent the weekend revamping the course I was about to teach on the history of humans and domestic animals, and, without really realizing what was happening, fell into the slipstream of a richly rewarding, compellingly complex, and insistently dynamic network of practices and technologies.  I knew these “new media” were reshaping the intellectual and physical landscape of higher education, but had never really thought about them in any sustained or systematic way.  The opportunity to do so appeared a few days later, in the form of an invitation from Gardner Campbell (he who dispensed the student-blogging kool-aid the previous week) asking me to join the New Media Faculty-Staff Seminar.  I wasn’t sure what might be involved in such a seminar, but found its title alluring: “Awakening the Digital Imagination.”

Over the next twelve weeks I read, watched, talked, listened, blogged, and learned. I met and got to know a talented and diverse group of colleagues, many of whom had shared the university’s physical campus with me for years in that completely anonymous way that is both bizarre and completely normal at a giant institution such as this one.  After twenty years of teaching, it was incredibly fun and interesting to be a student again. Taking a couple hours a week to consider the cultural and historical context of technological change and the creative potential of new media started out as a welcome variation in the ordinary routine of the semester, but soon became much more.

By the end of the term I had overhauled my teaching, re-imagined my scholarship, and was having more fun doing both than I’d had in years.  Along with working on a book about the Soviet space dogs, the summer held out the promise of developing a crowd-sourced blogging project for my Soviet history students that would use a proprietary database of translated primary materials as well as openly accessible resources on the web.  When I heard Gardner was leaving Virginia Tech to become the Vice Provost for Learning Innovation and Student Success at VCU we met for a farewell lunch, where I was somewhat shocked to learn that he thought my digital imagination had developed enough for me to carry on his work as facilitator of the NMFS Seminar with new cohorts of seminarians. Over the last several weeks I’ve been working with a quietly persistent learning revolutionist and Tony Brainstorms to do just that.

But I’ve been late to start my own blog. Of course this doesn’t mean I haven’t been blogging:  I have several blogs related to various courses at Virginia Tech, including the two predecessors of this one and a monster motherblog my students are using for the Soviet History project this fall. But getting to a place where I am ready to strike out on my own has taken a while.  I’ve been tweeting and tumbling and ravelrying and facebooking for years.  I’ve embraced the transformative potential of networked learning environments in my classroom and have started to imagine libraries in ways that confound my training and twenty-years of practice as a historian.  But I’m a late adopter of the personally-professional blog.

For brevity’s sake I’m laying a large portion of the blame for this on the traditions of my craft.  Where their discipline is concerned, historians are pre-occupied with time and venerate print, but tend to distrust speed.  And we all know the internet is fast. Furthermore, the solitary and painstaking nature of our research mitigates against the kind of collaborative openness that animates digital scholarship.  We like to keep our ideas and our work under wraps until we’re sure “we have it right.”  And here’s where my own temperament compounds the challenge of presenting a public, transparent, professionally-informed presence on a blog like this:  I don’t write quickly, and I like to revise and revisit what I write a lot before committing it to print or anything else, including, and by that I mean especially, the World Wide Web.

But here I am, ready to relax my grip, at least a bit, on my own predilections, and embrace, or at least try, a digital scholarly practice David Parry describes as an ongoing conversation and process of knowledge formation.  I’m starting the NEW New Media Faculty-Staff Seminar on the very edge of my comfort zone.  It’s an exciting place to be, and experience suggests that rich rewards await the awakened digital imagination.

Final Food and Course Awards

To celebrate the completion of some pretty terrific research on domestication we planned an end-of-term food fest to honor the animals we have studied over the course of the semester. The crew assembled here is ready to dive into a smorgasbord of food for, derived from, or inspired by the domesticates they researched and wrote about this semester.  The projects – which focus on the Honeybee, Goldfish,  Pigeon, Chicken, Cat, Donkey, Horse and Reindeer,are available from the research project menu on the main blog page.Feast for the Final Class

The Menu: Earl Grey tea with honey represented Bill’s fine study of the honeybee. Horses would have had stiff competition from us for the apples and caramel dipping sauce Camilla brought.  Alex paid homage to the donkey with ginger snaps (because watermelon is not in season), while Connor prepared a bowl of delicious fresh berries and gummy worms as pigeon food. Chris also played with the symbolic, bringing goldfish crackers and milk to represent the house cat. My own approach to this assignment was synthetic. I tried to include something for everybody in the “Domesticate Cookies” I made.IMG_1164

Ben and Casey took the creative route, crafting reindeer cookies and goldfish marshmallows that would be the envy of any domestic god or goddess.goldfishreindeer

 And then it was time for awards! (I’m very sorry I didn’t get photos of the winners modeling their prizes).  The finalists for “Best Video Featured on a Research Project Blog” were: 1) “Which Came First, the chicken or the Egg?” 2) George Carlin on Cats and 3) The Amazing Trick Goldfish.  Scroll all the way down on the goldfish page to find the winner, also pictured here with his culinary handiwork.CaseysFishWeb

The finalists for “Best Poem Featured in a Research Project Blog” were: 1) An ancient Egyptian Ode to embryos (and eggs?) 2) A honey-themed excerpt from the Illiad and 3) “Cher Ami,” a poem written to commemorate the feats of a pigeon hero of the First World War.  Following enthusiastic dramatic readings of all three entries, Cher Ami emerged as the winner of this coveted award.

A discussion ensued over the Best Overall Research Project Design, and while there were many good candidates, the group quickly settled on a winner.

The prize goes to….drum roll, please…….THE CHICKEN!!!! With deep appreciation of your contribution to the class this whole semester, your insistence that we always keep an eye on our moral compass, and your uncanny ability to raise the bar for all of us, Erica, we want you to come claim your prize, please.

Best Overall Design Award
Best Overall Design Award

Artifacts and Learning

ModelCropFor some reason, this is the item that immediately came to mind when I read Kimberly, Alma and Joycelyn’s invitation last week.  For those of you unfamiliar with post-Soviet retro kitsch, this is a lovingly rendered model of an early space ship, procured at a flea market outside Moscow about fifty years after the vessels that inspired it were first launched.   Thinking about how this Sputnik  “represents my work” brings up obvious resonances with one of my favorite courses – Soviet history.  The space program and the Soviet Union’s commitment to using technology to master the heavens as well as the earth, and to remake “man” along the way, is one of the main themes of the course.  And the drama and global interest in the early chapters of the space race remain compelling for 21st-century learners.  Like the Russian Revolution and World War II, the space race is something most people think they “know” something about, but are often surprised when that “knowledge” evolves considerably with a bit of study, encouragement, and reflection.  So the model Sputnik represents my work because it is anchored to particular historical context, created in a different historical situation, and invites learners of all ages (in a third historical context) to engage with the intellectual, material, and cultural legacy of one of the great proxy struggles of the Cold War.

When I started reading Ivan Illich, I was pretty sure I would need to find a different artifact. (Once again our reading for this week completely captivated me!  Every week I think that this course has maxed out its potential to get my happy, creative, “I love my job” juices flowing…and every week, I’m wrong.  What a great feeling!)  I found much in “Deschooling Society” that made me question how accessible the artifacts of education are, and wonder how best to make “educational equipment” more accessible for self-directed learning 24/7.  And I could (should?) write a whole separate post about Illich’s perspectives on the student-teacher relationship – I’m still struggling with what often seems to be a reductive understanding of learning as “skills.” ModelDogsCropShortBut in the end, I’m sticking with my little wooden sputnik.  For as any learning web would quickly discover, the model is both more and less than what it appears to be.  Using a combination of careful inspection (Why are there little wooden dogs inside the model? Why does the model look a lot like an egg?)unpaintedWoodenEgg and skilled consultation with peers and other educators (Which space ship is this supposed to be? Why is that important?), we realize that although the model falls way short of historical accuracy and museum-quality craftsmanship, it represents a grand vision, and a salient moment when the learning webs of a forward-thinking cohort of scientists forever altered the way humanity sees life on Earth.


Food, Pest, Pet…Research Subject

Jonathon Burt’s introduction to Rat prompted many of us to think long and hard about why our 21st-century American reactions to a ubiquitous rodent are so strong and so negative.  Looking at the rat in other contexts provides a somewhat different perspective.  For example, the Rat is the first animal of the Chinese horoscope cycle. Rat - Ai WeiWei's RatThe Rat conveys many positive qualities to people born under its sign, including leadership, charm, passion and practicality. Year of the Rat people might also be cruel, controlling and exploitative, which reminds us that good and evil are inseparable.  One requires the other, and problems arise when balance is disrupted.

Other cultures have a more practical approach to mice (which belong to the same sub-family of the rodentia order as rats — the murinae).  In Malawi poached mice on sticks (captured in freshly harvested corn fields) are considered a culinary delicacy.mice

But I find that rats and mouse brethren get especially interesting here in the West in the late 19th / early 20th centuries, when creatures mainly seen as “vermin” join the ranks of pets and then become the first purpose bred laboratory animals.  Why and how did this transformation come about and why do rats still evoke such complex and strong responses from us?  Bill’s fabulous post noted that “there is no species whose narrative has been as forever altered by contact with humanity as the rat.”  I’m wondering what would happen if we inverted the query:  Where would we be without rats and how has the human condition changed as a result of our interactions with this creature?  (As you know, this is a central question of the research projects, and I am looking forward to learning about how everyone sees this issue in terms of the species they’ve been working with throughout the semester.)

Our readings by Karen A. Rader and Kenneth J. Shapiro present us with a good analytical framework for thinking about how the process of domestication shaped human-rat (mouse) interactions over the last century or so.  Camilla and Ben have some excellent insights about how rats double as humans, serving as models for humans in biomedical experiments, and anthropomorphic citizens of parallel societies in young adult fiction.  Ai Wei-Wei’s zodiac rat, pictured above, portrays the ambiguity of the rat-human divide more powerfully than many words could. Disney’s Mickey, the world’s most famous mouse has long provided scholars with insight about a creature, who in Karen Raber asserts “redefines or challenges conventional zoological and social understanding” (p. 389).  Stephen J. Gould’s 1979 essay on neotony still provides an excellent jumping off point for those wanting to learn more.micearmyweb

I’m intrigued by the nexus of domestication, affection, revulsion, and technology we find in contemporary American attitudes about rats and mice.  Connor makes some good points about the importance of these rodents to scientific research, and I agree that the contribution to human welfare these animals have made is significant.  I think it’s important, however, to consider Shapiro’s and Raber’s analysis closely – regardless of what one thinks about the ethics of animal testing.  In Shapiro’s article, we find a nuanced dissection (sorry!) of the synergy between the development of the concept of the “lab animal” and the domestication of rats for that purpose.  The application of selective breeding, specific kinds of socialization, and the creation of new “habitats” / confinement systems facilitated the emergence of the domestic lab rat (from the Norway rat) and articulated and shaped the meaning (social construction) of those animals for researchers and human audiences outside the lab.  Shapiro’s assertion that rodents make poor models for humans, especially in psychological research presents us with some uncomfortable questions, as does Donna Haraway’s concept of the “cyborg” animal, which is equal parts nature, culture, and technology (think OncoMouseTM).

Finally, for all of their negative cultural baggage, stigma as vermin and unwilling contribution to scientific research, rats can be that most favored of American creatures – the domesticated pet. Rats are clean, sociable, and come in a rainbow of colors.  Unlike other rodents sold in pet stores, they rarely bite, and are excellent companions for young children. Ginger and Snap 2004 The first two rats our family adopted were rescued from the snake food tank at a local pet store (our enthusiasm for raising domestic animals to feed captive wild animals would also be worth thinking through more carefully).  In their two years with us they provided endless hours of entertainment and companionship, loved nothing more than to snuggle into a pocket for a nap, and displayed remarkable calm in the face of the cat’s obviously predatory intentions.  If they could write about their histories with us, I wonder what they would say?

Interaction, Agency and Ants


ant.sim.110810-530pxThis week my post-seminar musings circled back to our discussion about what we expect of our computers and how we understand and imagine them.  I found thinking about what exactly what we mean by “interaction” pretty interesting. I’m going to duck the whole question about how good or bad Brenda Laurel is on Aristotle and focus instead on the issue that Janine raised when we were talking about agency and computers.

There’s much that resonates with me in Brenda Laurel’s definition of agents as “entities that can initiate and perform actions” (p. 569).  Thinking about my computer, or my ipad, or my Iphone, I definitely see a potential there for performing actions, a potential that is realized countless times over the course of any given day. Initiation is a bit more complex, but it seems to me that when I tell Siri to send a text to Alan, “she” initiates the action by executing the program that calls up the text window and then “asks” me what I want to say in that text.  I don’t think I have a theory of mind about Siri. I do expect “her” to interact with me so that we can successfully accomplish something I couldn’t do by myself. And at some level it does feel like I’m engaging a cognitive entity when I use my phone. But because I know that Siri is a suite of programs and technologies that can’t make associative leaps independently of what her programmers gave her, I understand that her limits are absolute – she cannot be “trained” to quit confusing “Alan” with “Ellen.”  She does know that Alan is my brother because she was programmed to ask “what is your brother’s name” the first time I said “send my brother a text.”  But when I asked her to send a text to my mother, she asked what her name was, and when I told her she replied: “there is no Bonnie in your contacts.”  I’m pretty sure that the next time Siri gets an upgrade there will be an association between “mother” and “mom” somewhere in her code, but this is not something that Siri can develop (initiate) on her own.  At the end of the day, she is the creation of her programmers and designers.  In some sense of the word she is “organic” – that is complete and more than the sum of her inter-related parts.  But she is not unique.  My Siri is just like your Siri and every other Siri out there, even if she does call me “Amy.”

But you can interact with her.  I liked Janine’s assertion that computers are technologies or tools that help humans accomplish specific tasks, but not entities with which we interact. We both thought about how the concept of “interaction” squared with what we think about humans’ use of other technologies.  I suggested cars, skiis, and a cello, and Janine proposed a broom. I agree that brooms do not have agency. But you might be able to make a case for agency and interaction with skiis, and certainly with a cello.

After class I also thought about how we understand our interactions with some animals (where the “theory of mind” issue is often invoked to deny animal agency). Dogs, for example, can certainly initiate and perform actions. They do things for us that are beyond our solo capabilities (herding sheep, finding a lost child).  And mine have never confused Alan with Ellen or not known who “mom” was. They continue to learn over the course of their lifetime, without a software upgrade. They are also unique individuals, a claim that can be made about cellos (and flutes) as well.  All flutes might have the same components, but each has its own feel and sound. Musicians make music with their instruments.  Through breath and/or touch they animate the flute to create something exquisite and unique. The performer might initiate the breath or the touch, but it is the synergy between the breath, the fingers, and the flute that creates the sound we recognize as music. Of course instruments are technologies in some ways, as are some animals at least some of the time.

I feel like I should write something about human-computer interaction in terms of ANT (Actor Network Theory) but am going to end with Sim Ant as a reminder of the connections between cognition, play and agency – as well as the generational differential we’ve talked about before in terms of how we respond to emerging digital technologies.  Here’s Will Wright’s description of the development of Sim Ant and the game’s connections to animal culture:

“The next game I did was called SimAnt; it was actually based on the work of Edward O. Wilson, who is the premier myrmecologist in the world. He had just published this very large book called The Ants18 that won the Pulitzer Prize that year. Ants have always fascinated me because of their emergent behavior. Any single ant is really stupid, and you sit there and try to understand what makes it tick. If you put a bunch of these little stupid components together, you get a colony-level intelligence that’s remarkable, rivaling that of a dog or something. It’s really remarkable, and it’s like an intelligence that you can deconstruct. Ten- and fifteen-year-olds really got into SimAnt; it was really successful with that group. Most adults didn’t play it long enough to realize the depth of ant behavior and mistook it for a game about battling ants.”





Imagination vs. Information Transfer


photo(17)Disclaimer:  I have the attention span of a flea and a “to-do” list that makes me itch for time alone with a real book today….

Last week’s session with Janet Murray kept me happily engaged through the snowstorm and well into the weekend.  But among the many ideas that emerged from the discussion, Jocelyn’s reminder that we still await real change from social media gnawed at my distracted musings as I shoveled piles of electronic paperwork, tried to carve out a few hours to write, and prepared for my teaching week.

As I’ve mentioned in class several times, my honors seminar students are blogging this semester about the weekly readings and using blogs to build out their term research projects.  Learning to blog with this group has been a heady, inspiring experience for me, and the class seems more engaged with the course content and each other and more self-motivated to excel than any group I’ve worked with in the last several years.  I believe that the blogging medium has a lot to do with this (thank-you, Gardner!).  When the class meets in person everyone has already posted about the reading and commented on each others’ posts.  The quality of the posts and of the in-class discussions is much more sophisticated and nuanced than I normally expect – even from honors students.  In fact our class discussions are so rich that the students asked if “we” could have notes on them.  So now we have a collective google.doc for every session with an assigned “synthesizer” and 10 invested recorders. If the synthesizer misses something or anyone in the class has something to add, they start typing on the doc or copying a link or image into it.  People consult and modify the doc long after class ends, and I post finished product as a PDF on the motherblog the next day.

Back to Jocelyn and real change.  I feel like blogging has transformed the learning environment in my seminar in all kinds of (mostly) wonderful ways.  Thumbs up.  Bring it on.  I’m hooked.  But the reason I’m hooked has everything to do with the potential this format offers for enhancing an inherently social dynamic of learning and finding meaning in what you learn.  Like many others, I’m concerned about the advent of the MOOC era (ok, I’m a Russian historian, so “concern” for me really means “certain this will end badly but suffering is what we do best and prevailing is our destiny”).  I appreciated Nathan’s thoughts on online learning last week, and the other Amy’s note about the difference between knowledge transfer and kinds of soft skills that are both essential to effective education.  MOOCs feel like “real change” to me, but not of the kind we’d necessarily hope for or welcome.  As a fellow Russian historian recently noted, MOOCs may have much to offer in an ancient and venerable tradition of autodidactism.  If the goal of the “delivery system” is to convey information and the goal of the student is to assimilate it and “get credit” for doing that, then MOOCs might be ok in some contexts some of the time.  The danger lies, I think, in confusing or conflating this kind of “teaching” with the more complex kinds of learning and discovery that humans pursue.  The latter depend heavily on social relationships and social context. (Joshua Sanborn’s post lays this out beautifully.) The “real change” I’m looking for in using on-line tools and social media will intensify and expand the quality and nature of the interactions I have with students and their ideas. My hope is that “real” social change of the kind Jocelyn asks for might ensue. I love that our class invokes the digital imagination, and hope we can resist the reduction of higher education to information transfer.

Like a Pizza, or maybe a Theremin?


Last wednesday’s class kept me thinking well into the evening. (Yes, this post has been in the works for a while.  I’m thinking of this as an elastic week.)  I loved how Janine and Nathan framed our discussion — there was just the right balance between supplementary / explanatory nuggets and open exchange. And thinking about representation and the ways in which humans, as highly visual creatures, developed abstract recordings of language (writing) from pictograms made me appreciate the kind of assumptions and expectations we bring to the computer, nascent even in the amazing vision of Kay and Goldberg’s Dynabook.  (That letters such as A, C, H, L and I come from our pastoral past is important too, but that’s the class I’m teaching, not the one I’m taking…)  But what I really found compelling was the computer as pizza metaphor.  Like pizzas, computers share some things: crust = memory/hard drive; sauce =processor; cheese =screen on which the bubbles and waves of input and the icons (toppings) of applications appear?  You can choose your toppings and your apps and your components.  If you need skype or mushrooms you can have them. And if you hate anchovies you can leave them (or the DVD drive) off.  You can also have just a piece of a pizza – or a tablet instead of a laptop.

Unless you have celiac disease.  In that case you can’t have pizza (unless it has a gluten-free crust, which most people will tell you is as close to the real deal as a slot machine is to a real computer.)  But you can still have a computer.  And while the Dynabook’s creators thought about flutes, I’m wondering if they might also have known about the Theremin, an early electronic instrument named after its Russian inventor, Leon Theremin, and known to most of us as the signature special effect of the Beach Boys’ hit, Good Vibrations and many bad horror movies.  Unlike the flute, which is animated by the breath, the Theremin responds to hand gestures.  Although it’s composition is less plastic than a pizza’s, it responds to the subtlest and most varied inputs.  Children, rock stars, and spies that came in from the cold could all play it. And as this video of a Theremin performance indicates, the results could be quite elegant.