historian, author, film producer

Category: Digital Humanities (page 2 of 6)

DH2013 Reflections

The Digital Humanities 2013 Conference at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln ended yesterday, and I am still thinking through all I heard and saw. The conference was a major success with over 500 participants and panels on cyberinfrastructure for humanities, prosopography, digital humanities curriculum building, and lots more.

The highlights for me included Ryan Cordell‘s talk on undergraduate digital humanities and pedagogy, Allison Booth and Worthy Martin on the Collective Biographies of Women, the ChartEx Digging into Data project, and the welcome, important, and long-overdue panels on diversifying the digital humanities (thanks to Liana Silva-Ford, Miriam Posner, Adeline Koh, Roopika Risam, Tressie McMillan Cottom et al. and the stirring closing keynote by Isabel Galina).

We held an informal but exciting meeting on The History Harvest project with Ryan Hunt and Kim Martin from University of Western Ontario. Their DHMaker Bus has similarly democratizing DH ambitions. Scot French has been leading the RICHES project at University of Central Florida and is adapting the History Harvest into the public history program. And Justin Schell, just starting at the University of Minnesota Libraries, is interested in the possibilities for the History Harvest there.

Another highlight of the conference was the opportunity to brainstorm in informal conversations with so many digital humanities scholars. I was able to meet with Jen Guiliano and Trevor Munoz at MITH as we consider the next steps for our joint effort to digitize the case file records of the District of Columbia district court in its first decades–1808-1830. Talking further with Lea VanderVelde, we explored broader ideas for the Early D.C. Law and Family project (“O Say Can You See”). Among other ideas, we discussed linking her St. Louis court records, collaborating on a comparative article, and digitizing and annotating the full run of Blackstone’s Commentaries in U.S. legal history. After John Buckley’s presentation on prosopography, he issued an open invitation to discuss shared or “open” models of prosopography ontologies, and I look forward to that conversation.

The experience of the DH2013 Conference was in many respects exhilarating because there was so much energy, so much good scholarship, and so much hacking and collaborating. But the conference was also characterized by a welcoming and open spirit shared by the digital humanities broadly. The CIC universities sent graduate students to the conference through a bursary provided in part by University of Nebraska-Lincoln and the CIC will likely become a leading force in digital humanities production. It was exciting to see the new special interest groups (SIGs), poster sessions, and one-minute lightning rounds for pedagogy. Thanks to Bethany Noviskie for her leadership in putting the conference program together and to all who came to Lincoln, Nebraska for the conference!

Thanks to History Harvest and NITLE Seminar Participants

Thank you to over 50 college faculty and technology professionals who joined for the final event of History Harvest Blitz Week–the NITLE Seminar on Teaching the History Harvest. We had a dynamic and rich discussion online with great questions from the participants. Thank you!

One of the questions that we did not get to address in the seminar asked us to reflect on the impact of this project in the community beyond the class semester. In North Omaha the effects were significant and have continued well beyond the semester. Our students worked with the Great Plains Black History Museum to revive and restore its remarkable archival collection. And their work has continued to play a role in the ongoing work at the GPBHM and plans for a larger historical sites city planning effort in Omaha. In short, History Harvest classes can galvanize interest and have lasting positive effects in the community. My colleague Patrick D. Jones briefly wrote about this here, as did Michelle Tiedje, and most importantly GPBHM director Jim Beatty.

For anyone who was not able to attend the NITLE Seminar, we have placed most of the teaching resources we used in our courses online (linked here) along with student produced videos and segments from The History Harvest Minute series.

Interview posted by “The Junto” on The History Harvest

Sara Georgini at “The Junto” (a group blog of early American historians) has posted an interview with Patrick Jones and me on “Spring at The History Harvest.” The planning for The History Harvest is moving briskly and our interview focuses on where we are headed with the project in the coming months. Other questions include how we came up with the idea for the project, how it has changed our ideas about teaching, what our goals of “community-based” history are, and what technical and aesthetic challenges we face in developing The History Harvest digital project online. Great questions from The Junto! For our answers visit “The Junto” blog.

History Harvest Blitz Week, April 8-12, 2013

We are going to hold a “virtual” brainstorming session for all interested parties in the History Harvest this spring April 8 through April 12, culminating on that Friday April 12 with a NITLE seminar that Patrick Jones and I will lead (soon to be announced). We hope the blitz suggestions we receive will help shape future grant proposals and the project’s next steps.

The goal is to open our broader History Harvest idea out through social media for participation and feedback. We see this as kind of open strategic planning for the HH project. While we are glad to encourage everyone who leaps in and runs their own harvests (undoubtedly a good thing in the community), we are seeking ideas about a federated approach to this form of experiential learning and how to develop the cyberinfrastructure to support it. 

We are looking for participation and suggestions not only from fellow historians (who may have seen our piece in Perspectives on History) but also from the Digital Humanities community and the broader community of K-12 educators, education researchers, and state humanities councils and partners. But we believe the platform for doing that will need to be completely different. So, during the upcoming “The History Harvest Blitz Week” on Twitter, Google Hangout, and other social media we will take suggestions and explain our project broadly. We will be capturing the suggestions and twitter stream for later reference and use.

To keep matters interesting each day of the blitz week, we will be releasing student produced work, including a short video introducing The History Harvest, and we hope to have a series of community radio “interstitials” for “The History Harvest Moment” that indicate what students can do and focus on one object/story from a harvest.

The MOOC Bubble: where do we go from here?

At long last, a year into the MOOC frenzy, here comes Thomas Friedman with an oped in yesterday’s New York Times, Revolution Hits the Universities. This breathlessly enthusiastic endorsement from Mr. Friedman (The World is Flat) should mark the high tide of the MOOC craze, and for all of us, I hope, the beginning of a more reasonable discussion of these new courses and the future of higher education. With Friedman’s late entry, perhaps we can safely say the MOOC bubble is about to burst.

One reason this seems likely is that his high profile piece in The New York Times elicited barely a whimper from the digital humanities community. Friedman’s oped came on a day in which the twitter stream among digital humanities lit up over MOOCs, but not one of these scholars paid attention to Friedman’s pandering sycophancy. Instead, the real issues came up in Cathy Davidson’s “Why MOOCs Are Not a BandAid For Higher Education’s Budgetary Woes,”  “Spy v. Spy: A Response to the Chronicle of Higher Education”, and “If We Profs Don’t Reform Higher Education, We’ll Be Re-Formed (and we won’t like it).” (see #highered, #MOOC)

Friedman’s piece was just one of a string of “disruptive” “transformative” “revolutionary” flavored assessments about how MOOCs will “reinvent” the future of higher education. To get a sense of the panic MOOCs have brought on, we only need to look to the other side of the pond yesterday and see the Times Education Section‘s report on Cambridge University’s chancellor fretting that MOOCs will transform “the nature of higher education.” (“V-c warns of massive threat posed by MOOCs”)

Because of his public audience, Friedman certainly gets attention. His piece generated over 285 comments before the day was over. But it seems that the hard, serious questions about how to transform higher education with technology are taking place in the digital humanities twittersphere and other similar venues. Ryan Cordell at Northeastern (@ryancordell), Cathy Davidson at HASTAC (@CathyNDavidson), Adeline Koh at Duke (@adelinekoh), Siva Vaidhyanathan at the University of Virginia (@sivavaid), and Edward L. Ayers at Richmond (forthcoming piece on a “more radical online revolution”) among many others in digital humanities are writing thoughtful and fascinating pieces on the real changes underway in higher education–in teaching and learning using technology, of which MOOCs are a part but perhaps not necessarily the most important.

I could not ignore Friedman however. He does at least two things in yesterday’s piece that are very troubling. The first is his hook-line-and-sinker acceptance of Coursera’s sugary story that an autistic student and his parents appreciated the MOOC environment. Friedman and Coursera imply that the MOOC environment could transform opportunities for special needs students. But neither he nor Coursera seem willing to admit that such technologies could be used to exclude or profoundly limit access.

Before going further I should say that my youngest daughter has Down syndrome and so while I do not doubt that this autistic student found great value in the MOOC experience (and applaud that), I want to point out the subtle manipulation of those with disabilities at work in Friedman’s piece. He uses this story in the service of another agenda without any apparent concern for the implications. This sort of scenario occurs daily in the life of my daughter, and it has been discussed among parents of children with special needs regularly from Michael Berube’s brilliant and inspired Life as We Know It to yesterday’s thoughtful New York Times piece by George Estreich “A child with Down syndrome keeps his place at the table.” The frightening and retrograde idea that people with special needs can be set apart (to be special somewhere else) should be seen for what it is–exclusionary. The trade offs are vastly unequal: instead of school, here is an online link; instead of a professor, here is a video, instead of a place at the table, another table is set. Will the MOOCs mean less diversity in our institutions of higher learning? Perhaps. Does Coursera or any current MOOC provider seek to serve students with special needs in any real or meaningful way? Probably not–so why does Friedman bring it up? Why does Coursera offer this particular story to him? It makes those who do not confront the daily challenges of navigating the world with disabilities feel good about something they otherwise might find vaguely threatening–a revolution in higher education. It desensitizes us, however perversely, to the very issue we should be more alert to in this drama: access and equal opportunity.

Second, one of the real issues of concern is that privately capitalized corporations running MOOCs through consortia of elite institutions, as presently described by Friedman, might flatten the landscape of higher education in ways that limit, rather than expand, access to quality instruction. In the name of efficiency public higher education might be stripped of resources. Using the technology to appear accessible, the elite institutions secure their positions by placing the real engagement on campus ever further from the reach of other students. Across the broad second and third tier of institutions, students might find fewer pathways, not more, into the system of higher education, as all sorts of courses are cut from campuses. Then these courses would only be available virtually, “at scale.”

What is needed in this discussion, as Cathy Davidson, Siva Vaidhyanathan, and others in digital humanities so clearly recognize, is first and foremost to acknowledge the wider scope of online  research and practice which the MOOC bubble has obscured. To the amazement of the digital humanities scholars who have been thinking about and building mechanisms to teach more effectively using technology for over fifteen years, the current MOOC model appears to be a puzzling throwback, like suggesting we all take up closed circuit television or organize correspondence courses.

In an episode of Seinfeld, Jerry assesses Kramer and Newman’s never-ending game of Risk as “a game of world domination being played by two guys who can barely run their own lives.” The character and tenor of MOOCs–their potential for realigning credit hours and their hundreds of thousands of “students”–might remind us of the game of Risk, and perhaps some of the leaders involved could appear to be a little bit like Kramer and Newman.

In higher education at the moment we find it difficult to see beyond the next budget cut, the next course enrollment battle, the next assessment strategy. But the debate over MOOCs in our departments and disciplines suggests a much broader opportunity and challenge before us:  in the humanities we need to begin building pedagogy for the digital age. We have seen rapid growth in the availability of digital archives and digital projects, yet our classroom practices have changed little. Students are confronted with millions of digital texts, yet they need skills to navigate the World Wide Web and numerous proprietary databases. They need the disciplinary habits of mind in the humanities to interpret and evaluate digital information, yet they are given few opportunities to participate in the creation of new knowledge. Imagine if we reorganized our classroom experience both in large lecture courses and more intensive seminars to create less anonymity and more dynamic learning, to allow students truly to participate in a “community of scholars.” We will be doing precisely this in The History Harvest course soon–at least we are in the planning stages now for a MOOC-like distributed course next year with participating classes from other colleges, after my colleague Patrick Jones has run the first set of very successful History Harvest courses.

The vast changes in our classrooms and information technology have led to fundamental questions about our higher education enterprise, ones we should be asking. Why go to college when information is at your fingertips? What will we do with ten million books digitized online and searchable? What is a lecture course for? How can we use technology more effectively? The emergence of the MOOC offers another opportunity, one that humanities and STEM faculty should embrace. But the justifications Coursera and Friedman have offered ring hollow and the unrestrained hyperbole about the “reinvention” of higher education could have the reverse effect of shutting down experimentation with MOOCs, just when we need it most. That would be a shame.