Living With Animals II

LWA Program Cover What a difference a couple of years make. When I went to the inaugural Living With Animals conference in 2013 I was negotiating the first invigorating turn of connecting my teaching with blogging and putting students in charge of creating most of the course content. Gardner Campbell had helped me think through the implications of various motherblog configurations, my students had developed a method of “google-doc-ing” class discussions, and I was riding high on the transformative experience of  “Blogging Domestication.”  That Living with Animals gathering gave me the chance to to think through and talk about the intersection of two passions — human-animal relationships and web-based pedagogies that augment student learning (cf. Doug Engelbart) — with like-minded souls from across the academy and around the world.

Now I am further along the road of connected learning and have extended the class-sourced blogging format to all of my courses. And after a necessary and rewarding excursion into the Belyaev fox experiments and the cultural implications of domestication, I am back at work on the project that brought me to animal studies in the first place — a collective biography of the Soviet Space dogs.  I have explored several analytical frameworks for different aspects of the space dogs’ histories, but continue to mull over the challenges and possibilities of integrating agency for the dogs into narratives, memories, and legacies that are shaped by all kinds of complicated human constructs. Living With Animals offered an ideal opportunity to talk through some of these issues with an interested and expert audience. So last week I set out for Richmond Kentucky with two wonderful graduate students — an aspiring veterinarian interested in the effects of lead toxicity in raptors, and a historian who is completing a master’s degrees in History and Teaching and Learning and writing a capstone research paper on dogs in World War I.

Like the first conference, this year’s meeting was organized by the indefatigable, good-natured, and ever-so-talented Robert Mitchell.  Together with Radhika Makecha and Michal Pregowski, Bob again assembled a rich program that included students, scholars, and practitioners with special emphasis on animal agency, dogs, horses, and elephants. As with the first gathering, the power of this conference emanated from the way it brought together people from applied fields (conservation, animal welfare and rescue, animal-assisted therapy, etc.) with academics engaged in ethical, sociological, historical and zoological research on some aspect of human-animal relationships.  The opportunities for dialogue and learning between people working in “real world” situations and those focused more on contextual and theoretical issues are essential for any field, but are especially crucial for emerging and interdisciplinary projects such as animal studies.

The Animal Studies major at Eastern Kentucky University does this via a carefully crafted, comprehensive curriculum, and one of the emphases of this year’s program was discussing the expansion of animal studies and the potential benefits and drawbacks of promoting more coherent taxonomies and definitions (animal studies, anthrozoology, critical animal studies, etc.).  I found the presentations by Anne Perkins and Erica Feuerbacher (both of Carroll College, home to the most robust Anthrozoology major in the country) inspiring and refreshing.  As a humanist-historian, I appreciate how the degree programs at EKU and Carroll provide an integrated, comprehensive collegiate experience to students seeking careers working with dogs and horses.  These programs are not just about “job training,” but rather offer a mind-opening education of the whole-person. They are grounded in the ethical, humanist traditions of the liberal arts as well as the art and science of inter-species communication and community service.

As for the space dogs…..I am still thinking about various ways to incorporate an ethological perspective into a theoretical framing of their “contributions” to making human space flight a reality. I deliberately left the end of my paper open for interpretation — hoping the audience would offer suggestions for how one might read and weave a dog’s perspective into the human drama.  I got some good questions, as well as affirmation of my own read on researcher’s accounts of their interactions with the dogs.  What humans see as willingness, cooperation and acceptance in a research subject may be a dog’s best effort to display submission to a situation (and people) it cannot control.

But challenges remain. Ian Duncan, who gave the opening keynote address, asked us how we might evaluate subjective states in a non-human being. While most of us think we know suffering when we see it, how do we know that animals are “happy”? Duncan’s research with farm animals uses preference tests to “ask animals” what they want and need.  Not surprisingly, his insights about the nesting behaviors of chickens and pigs’ aversion to extended isolation and confinement indicate that battery hens and production sows may be “productive” (they lay eggs and farrow piglets), but they are certainly not happy.  With dogs, determining and evaluating these preferences is more tricky.  Dogs have co-evolved with us. Their social behavior and community include interactions with people as well as other dogs.  Their preferences and subjective states (“happiness”) may be (even) more complex than those of other domesticates, as Erica Feuerbacher’s presentation on the effects of familiarity, context and schedule on dogs’ preference for food or petting suggested. (I love this title: “Most Dogs Prefer Food….But Sometimes They Don’t”).

I will keep working on it.

There’s much more worth remembering about Living with Animals II, but I’ll close with a presentation that resonated with my New Media brain as well as my “dogs have histories too” convictions: A group of students working with Ellen Furlong at Illinois Wesleyan University have investigated the possibilities of using an iPad app to provide shelter dogs with mental stimulation. Since many of the 6-8 million dogs that enter shelters annually have behavior problems linked to insufficient exercise (i.e. separation anxiety), and many owners and shelter staff find it difficult to give their dogs enough exercise, the prospect of having a dog find a mentally challenging and engaging activity on a touch screen is quite appealing.  Having recognized the potential for interactive computing to “awaken the digital imagination” in humans, how can I not salute the students who developed object recognition and number discrimination tasks that shelter dogs like to play on a touch screen?  Game on!

"Good Dog! APPlications of Dog Science" poster presentation by Brenden Wall, Anthony Bohner and Jeffrey Toraason, March 21, 2015
“Good Dog! APPlications of Dog Science” poster presentation by Brenden Wall, Anthony Bohner and Jeffrey Toraason, March 21, 2015



Jeffrey on Steroids

Eric Fisher – Language communities of Twitter (European detail) 2011

The release of Walter Isaacson’s, The Innovators’ this week offers an ideal backdrop for tomorrow’s  discussion of Doug Engelbart’s “Augmenting Human Intellect,” a text which in many ways serves as the animating heart of the New Media Seminar syllabus. Isaacson’s saga of the digital revolution — from its origins in the 1840s in the visions of Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage to the incorporation of Google — locates collaborative creativity as the engine driving the innovation that made the computer and the internet indispensable pieces of the global economy and social fabric. (See Matthew Wisnioski’s deft review in the Washington Post for the lowdown on this – better yet, read the book – I’m on the fence as to whether to Kindle this one or hold out for paper.) In any case, Isaacson’s  shift away from the ineluctable preoccupation with lonely geniuses and transcendent individuals that shapes so many intellectual histories foregrounds a modality of innovation that Engelbart not only promoted, but considered essential to the project of leveraging “augmented” human intellects to address the world’s increasingly complex problems.  (This post from last year talks about that a bit more.)

As good discussions often do, our encounter with Norbert Wiener and J. C. R. Licklider last week kept percolating with me long after we adjourned. One nugget I kept returning to was a conversation with the author of Icarus Falling. Just before the seminar began we empathized over the challenges of writing a reflective, substantive piece for a blog, and I admitted that I am still working against decades of training and discipline when it comes to getting my ideas formulated and expressed here. Historians tend to be solitary in their pursuits. We value rigor, depth and polish in our research and writing. Speed is not a common descriptor of our mode of production. I like to mull things over, draft, revise, go for a run, revise, repeat, repeat, repeat….And blogging, which is all about collaboration and creativity is just not compatible with those habits. And that is a good thing, in fact it is a great thing, but it is also a hard thing.

So, I was grateful when Anil Dash’s 15 Lessons from 15 Years of Blogging showed up in my Twitter feed. I can take something to heart from all 15 lessons  — especially #9: Meta-writing about a blog is generally super boring.

(Ok. Enough of that then. Back to collaborative creativity as the innovative warp and intellectual weave of the web….)

Better encouragement came a couple days later in a student’s reflection that used the enlightening awe of a parent engaging a talented child to describe how blogging for our graduate historiography course has invigorated her work:

 “So…Jeffrey, what do you think?”

This is actually a question that I ask often. Let me explain.

Jeffrey is my son and he often sees more sides to things than I do. I don’t actually remember exactly how old he was when I discovered this, but I remember thinking, “Wow, those are great ideas. I never thought of them.” Today, Jeffrey speaks three languages, holds degrees from Yale and Amherst and I continue to call him when in a quandary.

I say this not to be the ‘proud mama,’ but to explain what I think about our blogging activities. I think our blog page is like ‘Jeffrey on steroids.’ I can’t say that any one blogger influences me more than another. The corporate effort is really what illuminates ideas and impacts my thinking and writing.

She is wise and she is right. A published post joins the ecosystem of ideas, people, and information that make the web an augmenter of human intellect.  In the reading, the writing, the commenting and the reflecting we engage each other in a transformative project that can help solve the world’s increasingly complex problems.  I think Doug Engelbart would agree that “this” is indeed like Jeffrey (lots of Jeffries — and Sofias as well) on steriods (lots and lots of steriods.)

Your motherblog might need a (mostly invisible) spouse

Course blogs are everywhere these days. While Tumblr and instagram might be the “it” social media of the moment, a course blog’s suitability for exchanging ideas, presenting research, and engaging in an open, distributed conversation is hard to beat. Course blogs come in all shapes and sizes of course, but the format I’ve been using extensively this year came about with the help of Gardner Campbell. I’ve deployed it in a range of course settings, from seminars with six undergraduates to upper-level courses with thirty-eight. It has worked beautifully for helping new graduate students come to terms with historiography as well. Several people have asked me about the set-up, and although it can be explained with spoken words and hand motions, it will be easier to lay out here.  So what follows is partly a plug for this particular configuration and partly a “how-to” for those who want to try it themselves.

Why does a motherblog need a spouse?

Like many course blogs, this format uses a “motherblog” that syndicates posts from all of the contributors’ individual blogs. Each student has their own “childblog” which they can customize according to their own preferences. The student’s blog becomes an eportfolio of their work, a “deliverable” they can take away (and continue to build on) when the course ends. The motherblog aggregates the feeds from all members of the course in one easy to find and search place.

Mother Blog


 Child Blog


But how do you handle the comments?  One of the main advantages of having students blog is the amplification of the audience. Instead of completing an “assignment” for me (“Is that what you wanted?”), they are writing for a much more diverse and interesting audience — it includes me, but is mainly comprised of their classmates and anyone else who happens to be interested in what they have to say. Commenting gives us a chance to engage in a multilateral conversation about the substance of the posts over a few hours, several days, or the entire term. But since every student has her own blog, the comments on a particular post are going to be attached to the individual blog, rather than the course blog. (You can set the motherblog up so that comments on the syndicated posts appear on the course blog, but then they won’t be attached to the student’s blog.)  This means you have to click around and look for a conversation to join, which could be serendipitously fun, but might also be a pain in the neck.

The solution is a second blog that aggregates all of the comment feeds from the students’ blogs. I think of it as a (mostly invisible) spouse to the motherblog, because it does a lot of the heavy lifting in terms of pulling content together and pushing it forward. But like many spouses, it does this quietly and without much recognition. It will work just as hard as the motherblog, but never rise to a search engine’s attention.  This blog of the collected comments from all of the students’ blogs appears in an RSS feed on the mother blog. When someone goes to main website to see what’s been posted recently, the comments on those posts are visible on the front page as well.  Clicking on a post or an interesting comment will take you directly to the student blog you want to engage.

Comment feed on Mother Blog


Student Blog Post


  It’s elegant, functional, and not hard to set up:

1) Create and set-up your motherblog to aggregate the posts from all of your contributors. (If you don’t have access to a WordPress enterprise installation, you can use an RSS multiplier to get the similar kind of functionality as you have with the syndication application.)

2) Create another blog to do the same for the comments.

3) Syndicate the individual blogs to the comment blog:


4) Select the “comments” feed:


5) On the motherblog, pull the comment blog through the RSS feed and relabel the RSS feed as a comment feed:


6) Drag the “recent comments” widget on the mother blog to the “inactive” area of the dashboard:


7) Create a link to the comment blog on the motherblog (optional):


8) That’s it!

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.

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.

“Do Something Boring”

Oblique Strategies

This was not the advice I was looking for when I consulted my Old Media version of Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies this morning.  The new media version’s offering was more intriguing: “Be Dirty,” it suggested.

Oblique Strategies Be DirtyOk.

I started cleaning my office.  Boring, but not dirty.  The opposite of dirty in fact.  The instruction to “Be Dirty” made me take a mental step to the side, which prompted me to clean, which cleared my head, and brought brought the seven most important things that need to happen to today into focus: Write this blog post; find an article in Nauka v Sibiri, figure out what Dmitrii Belyaev was thinking when he started breading silver foxes for tameness in the 1950s, make pet care arrangements for upcoming travel, get ready for the NMFS, find a way to fix the broken shade in the entryway, sign-up for a flu shot, fold clothes from last week’s laundry.

Oblique Strategies helped me get unstuck, but I would need the internet for everything on my list except for folding the clothes.

Lateral thinking, the kind of indirect approach to creativity and problem solving that Oblique Strategies stimulates, might not be the first thing that comes to mind when reading Vannevar Bush’s, As We May Think.

In the aftermath of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Bush summoned scientists to develop technologies that would make the “inherited knowledge of the ages” accessible to all.  He was particularly interested in making vast realms of information immediately available. From our vantage point today, his vision of the memex with its monoculared user and stores of microfilm seems almost quaint, and at the same time eerily anticipatory of the latest wearable computing technology such as Google Glass.

But the last sections of As We May Think suggest that Bush recognized that the real power of the future Memex depended on the process of association – not just locating bits of information, but connecting them in meaningful and unique ways.  He knew that leveraging the selection of information by association, rather than indexing, was the key to extending the power of human beings’ creative, symbolic and associative reasoning capacities.

And to me, this is the most prescient moment of the text.  Yes, it conditions the ground for the development of Oblique Strategies (Old Media).  But more importantly it suggests the power of the future we are now living, where the internet and digital media not only put infinite amounts of information at our disposal, but enable us to make meaningful associations, create new knowledge, and form networks that leverage expertise and mutual interest in ways that must have seemed truly fantastic (if not fanciful) in 1945.

Lauren talked about the connections she sees between the associative powers of new media and her work as a librarian in her post here:

“I’m really interested in exploring how the changing information/communication/media landscapes impact peoples’ access to information, their ability to learn and contribute back, and, ultimately, their understanding of the world. Library work gives me a concrete “lab” in which to explore this, and the information I find then can be directly fed back into my library work to make the library more relevant.”

I am examining a similar process with my students this semester by using a blogging project to crowd-source content for a course on Soviet History.  We are only a few weeks in, but I’ve already seen a significant uptick in the level of engagement and quality of the research students produce when they use the associative powers of the web to turn information into knowledge reflecting their unique interests and aptitudes. At the same time their work as individuals contributes to a networked and globally accessible repository of insight about the Soviet experience.  It might be a living Memex.  And it is certainly not something boring.

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.