DO Save the Time of the Reader/ Researcher

As a historian, I self-identify as a “super searcher.” I was trained to identify and track down whatever evidence I need, regardless of the time, effort, and tedium involved. As a researcher those skills stand me in good stead every day, but as a teacher, I want my students to spend at least as much time working with materials as they do identifying and locating them. They need to develop strategies for searching and acquire the content expertise to search intelligently, but they also need to start with “the good stuff” so that their curiosity will take over and spur them to dig deeper. For the project Brian Matthews cited in [Don’t] Save the Time of The Reader, my goal was to bring the teaching and learning of Soviet history into the networked age by using blogging and googledocs to contextualize sources available in at least three formats: print, the open web, and proprietary databases.

I’ve provided some background on the design of the course elsewhere, but the basics were as follows: Each student (38 total) had a blog that served as their digital portfolio for the semester and contributed to the content of the course. The individual blogs were syndicated to a motherblog with a magazine-style layout that included a slider and a featured post section. We curated the content from the individual posts into a “weekly edition,” highlighting the most engaging and sophisticated research in the slider or with a “red star.”

The class used a number of openly accessible collections, especially Seventeen Moments in Soviet History — a rich multi-media repository of translated primary sources for the Soviet period.  Other high quality internet sources for Soviet history include Gulag: Many Days, Many Lives —  a browseable archive of video, artifacts and film, that immerses viewers in the history of the Soviet Union’s vast system of forced labor camps; Making the History of 1989 — a digital history repository for studying the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe; and 1917: Did the War Cause a Revolution?  an interactive teaching module about the Russian Revolution based on primary sources (part of the Digital History Reader created by a team of faculty at Virginia Tech with funding from the NEH)

Students find topically coherent, multi-media repositories like Seventeen Moments appealing and user-friendly. The images and audio files are engaging, the translated primary documents are selected for their significance and interest, and the scaffolding of the web site makes it easy to dig more deeply into a particular topic or branch off on a different one.

Getting students to use (and like) the proprietary databases held by the library presents more of a challenge. Every vendor has a different search interface, the scope of the resource (i.e. The New York Times) is far broader than Soviet History, and the sophistication of the database can be daunting for the novice researcher. For this project I wanted students to take advantage of the ProQuest Historical Newspapers, and the Current Digest of the Soviet Press, (now called the Current Digest of the Russian Press) a translated monthly compilation of articles from Soviet newspapers dating back to 1949. I was pleased that once the class got the hang of finding, analyzing and citing materials from the openly accessible sites, they also found it easier and more interesting to work with the Current Digest. Providing a link directly to the search interface for these resources helped, as did using class time to work together on finding articles about particular topic.  In classic crowd-sourced style, our collective networked searching proved far more efficient and productive than our solitary forays would have been.  The student’s post became more sophisticated in terms of analysis and source base as the semester progressed.

In this context, the first step in saving time for student researchers involved helping them build proficiency with openly accessible repositories that are relatively easy to use and cite. Once the students’ interest in the subject, content expertise, and searching skills had developed, they were more willing to add the Current Digest or the Historical New York Times into the mix and invest the extra time and attention to detail these resources require.

“Saving time” like this allowed the class to use time more productively. Class-sourcing the content for an entire course required a significant investment of time and energy from all of us, but had numerous benefits, including:

1) Giving students a bigger role and larger stake in developing historical knowledge and presenting history to audiences outside the academy;  2) Bridging the conceptual and technological divide between the resources of the open web and the proprietary knowledge of commercial databases; and 3) making the walls of the classroom and the library more porous and transparent.

Expert researchers still need their super searcher skills, but we also need to acknowledge that the world is changing.  Tomorrow’s super searchers will be just as competent as we are, but they will arrive there by different means.

Remembering Alika

The posts this week about the first section of Part Wild have made me think a lot about a wolf-hybrid I lived with in the late eighties. I thought I’d share some of my impressions of life with an Inyo-like creature as part of our ongoing discussion about the distinction between tame and domestic, and the liminality of the domestic condition.

Big Sticks
Big Sticks, Frozen Pond
Leaping Shadows
Sharing the Big Stick


The photos here show Alika, who was 75% wolf and 25% husky playing with my German Shepherd, Alyosha (named after the kind brother Karamazov, but known to his friends and family as “Loshy”).  Anyone who has read Part Wild will recognize the wolfiness of Alika’s lithe, leggy frame and note how it contrasts Loshy’s burly, more softly contoured silhouette.  They were both amazing creatures, fast friends and allies.  They shared a love of big sticks, woodchucks, swimming in the pond, and doing anything the humans were doing (writing dissertations being the most common activity). And yet they were also very different, and many of Terrill’s difficulties with integrating Inyo into a domestic space rang true with my days with Alika.

Loshy was one of those incredibly perceptive dogs who never needed “training.”  He was eager to please, played outfield on an intramural softball team, worked as a therapy dog in the University of Michigan hospital, and took his duties as mascot of the girl scout camp where I lived very seriously.  He loved everyone but feared pizza boxes. He was a vigilant guardian of my person but would have watched quietly while thieves took my last possession.

Alika was different. (See Corinne’s reminder that we need to consider animals as individuals as well as representative of a species.) Her powers of perception could be extraordinary, but I would not characterize my interactions with her as “training.”  She was extremely attentive to her “pack” of humans, domestic canines, the living room couch, and a large grey cat. She was very gentle and very shy. She ate normal dog food and whatever the campers gave to her. But she could not be confined.  Like Inyo, she would destroy or thwart the most elaborate and expensive containment system out there. When we were home all was well, but if she got loose while we were gone she would run. And run, and run and run. We spent hours, sometimes days, searching for her, only to have her reappear at the camp when she thought we were home. Loshy taught her to hunt woodchucks and she taught him to chase deer. She could not fathom why the humans discouraged this activity.  Unlike Inyo, she figured out a way to live in mixed company, but the part of her that was wild – intractably, genetically, evolutionarily not domesticated – eventually undid her.  These old photos remind me of her gentle, ghostly beauty.

I could go on for quite a while, but will stop for now. Kara’s insightful queries about dogs’ “sixth sense” also reminded me that we still need to talk about cross-species communication.  So if you get a chance, have a look at Patricial McConnell’s latest post about how humans misinterpret dog affect due to our own sign stimuli.

What are they thinking?

It seems that many of our discussions circle back to this question.  What animals think and how they experience the world are big questions that impinge directly on how we understand domestication.  So I was delighted to see that NOVA is putting out a three-part series in April called Inside Animal Minds.  I’m eager to see it and hope everyone else can watch it as well.  There should be lots there for the scientists as well as the humanists in our group. I’m also excited about a conference I’ll be attending in March on Animal Thinking and Emotion. I’m sure there will be lots of material relevant to our class and I’ll definitely post my thoughts about it here.

In the meantime, some of you have indicated that you’d like a more scholarly reading about the domestication process and it occurred to me that Melinda Zeder’s recent article on “Pathways to Domestication” might be really helpful as you begin working on your research projects.

Pretending and Intending

“Animate pretension with intention” enjoins Bum in a Suit, in what is surely one of the most engaging and conflicted “about” posts I’ve yet to read on a new blog.  Taking his cue from Kurt Vonnegut, Bum in a Suit zips straight to the heart of that ambivalence many of us confront when we begin to blog.  For if the internet and its affordances are increasingly implicated into every aspect of our work and daily life , starting a blog is often one of our first deliberate endeavors to create content by claiming and building on a piece of digital real estate.  As Bum in a Suit notes, beginning to blog can feel like an act of pretension: How could the tiny droplets I offer here ever matter in the bottomless ocean of the web?  What agency might my lone ideas exercise against the ever-more-sophisticated algorithms of Google, Facebook and the like? Starting a new blog might also seem futile and /or passe.  As the internet of things rises over the horizon of the internet of information and communication is there really any point to continue to talk to each other?*

I’m going with YES to all of the above (some with more certainty than others), and affirming Bum in a Suit’s decision to blog as an intentional, affirmative and creative act —  one that can, should, must even, make the life of the mind richer and more interesting.  I realize these are bold propositions and not everyone will agree with me.  And that’s fine.  I hope we take all of them up during the seminar this semester. For now I want to note just a few of the many benefits of blogging:

1) Blogging offers an amazingly easy, fast, and durable modality for sharing ideas and research

2) The medium naturally lends itself to thoughtful, documented, distributed conversation about problems and ideas ranging from the practical to the esoteric.

3) Blogging makes it easy to leverage the affordances of a networked environment and tap the infinite and expanding knowledge that the web places at our finger tips.

4) If you are an academic searching for a broader audience or a parachute out of the ivory tower — a blog is your best friend.

I look forward to a seminar loaded with pretentiously intentional posts.

*John Udell has some timely thoughts on the need for “engineered filter failure” here.

A dog’s job

As expected Richard Bulliet’s Hunters, Herders, and Hamburgers elicited some strong (and not entirely positive) responses this week – which is great!  I’m really grateful to Corinne and Kelly for pointing out the obvious problem of theorizing domestication without looking seriously at the dog – which has been more implicated in the emergence of human society than any other domesticate .  Perhaps Corinne will want to look at dog domestication for her research project later in the term?  While I’m typing, I thought I’d highlight this new study about social learning and imitation in wolves (which revises earlier research that gave dogs a leg-up in this area).

But the main reason I’m posting is in response to Tanner’s discussion of “salience”, which offers terrific insight into why we humans find it so easy to disregard issues, things, and creatures we find uncomfortable, unpleasant, and outright ugly.  Take this photograph of a dog watching the sunrise over the Himalayas, for example.

As 21st-century Americans we find this image compelling, beautiful, and perhaps a bit haunting.  What is the dog doing there?  Who does he “belong” to?  What happened to him?  The answers laid out in photographer Sebastian Walhuetter’s blog post will probably surprise you.  And they should definitely give us good food for thought on how to think about cultural context, history, “ownership” and agency – whether we’re looking at a dog doing his job or using an image on the internet.

Deep History and Domestication — New for Spring 2014

Welcome to Deep History and Domestication 2.0!  This semester’s colloquium brings back some of the greatest hits of last year’s course, along with some new offerings that promise to keep us thinking, debating and writing throughout the term.  Among the latter are some readings that suggest how our relationships with other creatures shape our humanity, in the present as well as the remote past.  We’ll be reading portions of Rob Dunn’s provocative The Wild Life of Our Bodies, and Ceiridwen Terrill’s haunting tale of life with a wolf-dog hybrid named Inyo.  Reindeer People, Goat Song, and Hunters, Herders and Hamburgers are all back by popular demand.  The syllabus is posted on Scholar and on the left side of the mother blog.  I am eager to meet you all and look forward to working with you this semester!

Comic Relief

Today we concluded the New Media Seminar with Scott McCloud’s now classic Ted Talk and a free-ranging discussion about why McCloud’s approach to “visions of the future” affords so many insights about the narrative potential of new media, and why a course on new media might conclude with McCloud’s work.  We all agreed that McCloud packed a lot into seventeen minutes, so I’m posting it here in case anyone needs a second look.

We talked about different ways of learning and remembering, and how our perceptions of space and time depend on a particular symbolic syntax. I was intrigued by testimonials from a mechanical engineer and literary scholar about their use of graphic novels to review physics concepts and teach rhetoric.  I’d welcome references to those books if you have them handy!  For those of you who love the space program or share my interest in historical animals, I’d highly recommend Nick Abadzis’ graphic novel, Laika, which tells the story of the first living creature to orbit the earth.

Although McCloud’s talk highlighted how the print revolution compromised the narrative flow of comics, some of us confessed to a lingering attachment to the printed word.  It turns out that our brains do prefer paper for some things (such as reading), which doesn’t mean that we’ll be doing less reading on screens but might encourage us figure out how to make that experience more beneficial.  The Scientific American article I mentioned is here.

There was more, but I’ll stop now. Thanks, everyone for a wonderful first semester.  I’ve learned a lot and enjoyed our meetings tremendously.  I’m sure next semester’s group will be terrific as well, but their footwear can’t possibly compete with this.