Monday, November 11, 2013

Open Access

I've been reading in Daniel J. Cohen and Tom Scheinfeldt's Hacking the Academy this week. The editors crowdsourced the book in a week (see here for the original contents and here for the resulting book). The short essays are quite readable and provocative, both of which results were intended by the editors.

I'm very struck in reading the "Hacking Scholarship" section that all the contributions claim passionately and as a given that Open Access is a superior publishing model for academics over all the other ones that exist out there.

I have two big unanswered questions after reading the contributions on publishing.

1. How will libraries effectively catalog materials that are "curated" by links rather than included in a published volume of essays, whatever form the "volume" takes. The essays tend to assume that the value of scholarship and a shifted time sequence of peer review is in the present, so that the contemporary audience will grow. But much of humanities scholarship's value rests in its long-term discoverability, years if not generations in the future. It is absolutely crucial that libraries and their key databases continue to be able to sift and make available scholarship over the long run.

2. How will the costs of Open Access be redistributed? Doing work to put stuff up on the web is not free, even if the costs of printing and distribution are mitigated. Critics of the Finch Report in England suggest that the costs will shift from publishers to authors (and whatever institutions support them), making it more difficult for scholars on the margins--graduate students, PhDs who have not landed tenure-track employment, and scholars at teaching-oriented institutions with little research support--to get published.

Neither of these is taken up in "Hacking Scholarship."

A colleague pointed me to a few critiques, most especially these:

AHA Statement on Scholarly Journal Publishing

Opening the Journal: How an Open-Access E-Journal Can Serve Scholarship, the Liberal Arts, and the Community

I think I'll have to assign these together.

My favorite observation in the "Hacking Scholarship" section, incidentally, is Mills Kelly's definition of scholarship"It is the result of original research; it has an argument of some sort and that argument is situated in a preexisting conversation among scholars; it is public, it is peer reviewed; and it has an audience response." This articulates in some interesting ways with my comments about Wikipedia
in Teaching Wikipedia without Apologies,where I claim a key problem of Wikipedia is the difficulty of making arguments in a collaboratively-executed document.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Inspired by this morning's fruitful reading, I've spent much of my afternoon sketching out the syllabus for the class ("drafting" is too strong a word to use here). Phew, for getting really going.

How is this for language inviting students to use their devices in class?

"Students are invited to bring their laptops, tablets, phones, and other digital devices to class. You may use them to tweet about the class using the course hashtag, conduct research for the benefit of the class discussion, and make demonstrations to the group. Please respect the normal rules of classroom conduct and do not idly surf the web, post to Facebook, or otherwise absent yourself from the seminar."

Now, if only I could figure out which readings to put in which week...

Practical additions to the class

I've been spending time over at Jack Dougherty's Web Writing project, reading about the pedagogical implications of having students write on the web instead of on paper for a professorial audience. Jack's own essay, "Collaborative Writing, Peer Review, and Publishing in the Cloud," put me in mind of some practical things that I would like to do in my seminar.

1. Offer the students a shared, collaborative notetaking space, using Google Docs as the platform. Right from the start of class, students will be given the opportunity to use that space however they see fit to share resources, notes, and ideas. I intend that we have an ongoing conversation about the uses to which they put that space, perhaps prompted by a reading of Jack's essay.

2. Conduct a pre-class survey of what digital tools students have used and have heard of. My guess is that Survey Monkey would be fine for that survey. I'd welcome your suggestions for items that should be on the list. Off the top of my head, I can think of:

Google Docs
Word Press
N-gram viewer
Survey Monkey

Now that I get going, there are so many possibilities I wonder if I might get carried away trying to write the survey...

Jack's essay also made me wonder whether I should allow students to do a collaborative project for a final paper in the class. I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, it's a graduate seminar for programs that lead inexorably to an independent project like a thesis or a dissertation. On the other hand, digital history projects are almost invariably collaborative, so practice in the shared arena is probably good training. If a collaborative project is accompanied by a shared reflection or process paper, that might ease my qualms.

Another thing that the larger collection reminded me of is that I want to encourage students to tweet from (or about) the class. I have a question out on my twitter feed right now considering the appropriate hashtag. I'd welcome suggestions here. But I do have unresolved feelings based on an article I read in the Chronicle of Higher Education several years ago suggesting that it was inappropriate to require students to use platforms that require them to sign a service-agreement contract such as those of Facebook and Twitter. I've never encountered an effective rebuttal to that argument, but moving students onto corporate platforms seems so ubiquitous that perhaps I should not worry about it. Probably my plan to use Google Docs hinges on the same problem, and I've never thought that through.

Finally, I'm grateful to Leigh Wright's terrific "Tweet Me a Story" for explaining what Storify is and elucidating some of the possibilities for using Twitter to teach journalistic (at least) writing.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Ceding Control

Once when I was in graduate school, a very self-assured faculty member argued that all of the instructor’s work for a course took place before the term started. If the instructor designed the syllabus correctly, then all he had to do once the class started was to sit in the back of the room and let the students have at the material.

I have never been so relaxed as to abdicate control of my classroom once the semester started, but I took seriously the charge that a substantial portion of teaching occurs before the students show up. I write very long syllabi that tell me and the students what we will be doing on any given day of the semester. This approach dovetails well with two aspects of my temperament that shape my work habits. First, I have a tendency to be a control freak. Second, inspired by this most brilliant comic strip sequence ever written, I like to set up future Amanda to thank past Amanda for being so thorough in her preparations. Given the franticness that characterizes most semesters, it is really helpful to have left a really thorough breadcrumb trail for me to pick up rather than have to think up what happens next on the spot.

Two decades down the road, though, I wonder if I should have taken that faculty member’s pronouncements so seriously. (Perhaps another clue was that he was shortly after denied tenure, and his final proposed course effectively flipped the bird at his colleagues. The posted description of the course on the history of serial killers advised students that they should be prepared to travel to prisons and conduct lengthy interviews with convicted criminals. Even if that wasn’t going to scare away all prospective students and leave him without teaching responsibilities for the quarter, there was no way that a dozen students could have gotten access to such prisoners in the space of ten weeks.)

I am in the midst of reading T. Mills Kelly’s inspiring and stimulating Teaching History in the Digital Age. My head is swimming with all the ways I want to use this book to structure next spring’s graduate seminar in digital history, but it also is such a powerful reminder that I am effectively a novice in this area. Not only is there a lot I have not thought or read about in the field of digital history, but there is a ton of stuff I do not know how to do. How do I set up a Wiki or an RSS feed? How do I make a group blog? I don’t even know how our university’s digital course software makes for course discussions (although I do know how to upload a document to it for future reference). In order to make the class a success, I have to rely not only on past Amanda, but also on future students, who will bring to the class their expertise, experiences, interests, and skills.

And, I just cannot structure every last minute of the class down to the last minute. In planning the course I must balance providing enough structure and content to make the course work in a coherent and meaningful fashion with providing enough space for all of us to discover together what it is we need to know and then figure it out.

I do know now that there are some things I want to build into the course. Many of them depend on my ability to let someone else’s expertise take over, and they all depend on not programming the course to the last minute.
  • There are some tools and terms that we will need to understand as they come up. I want to build in “Tech Timeouts” where someone who has accumulated some knowledge shares that with the class. I am compiling a list of things that I think are essential, but I am sure others will come up over the semester. I would like to have students sign up for presentations in advance using a Google Docs spreadsheet. It also occurs to me that students should not just present on these tools, but they should also provide their classmates with documentation for future reference. The spreadsheet can help track what form of documentation they left, and where.
  • One student who is planning on taking the course told me that he hopes I “will REQUIRE us to set up individual blogs and Twitter accounts, encouraging much of the course discussion to take place online.” I agree with the sentiment of that idea, but I also the class to discuss which digital platforms are appropriate for which kinds of discussions. Thus I think what I will do is require students to hold some of the course discussion out on the Internet—whether with a blog, a twitter account, a Facebook group, the course D2L site (which I really must learn how to operate), or shared Google docs—and then have some collective reflection on those choices. This will require, however, some central way of letting the collective know where to find that discussion and alerting us to new contributions. At this point, I suspect a shared Google doc class page might be the way to handle this.
  • I would also like to experiment with collective note-taking with a course Google doc page. Why and how do students take notes and how can they best share them with classmates?
  • At this point I am planning a completely open ended final project. I will ask the students to propose an appropriate final project for a graduate seminar in digital history, execute it, and then write a process paper about the choices they made and what they learned. Again, this involves ceding control to the students.
  • Finally (for today), I started wondering how to share the fruits of our learning with the rest of the world, or at least with my department. Should we have a poster session about those final projects and hold an exhibition (or post them on the department’s walls)? Should we create a website that contains the projects? Perhaps I will have to let the class decide.

Which takes me back to where I started. I am nervous about this approach to teaching. Being a person who takes her responsibilities as a teacher seriously, how do I persuade myself that I am executing my own responsibilities if what I am doing is setting up an opportunity to turn everything over to the students?

Monday, April 15, 2013

In which I invite the students into the process

This morning in a Monday morning fit of enthusiasm inspired by the placing of History 717: History and the New Media in the draft schedule for Spring 2013, I sent out the following email to the students in the UWM History Department:

Dear History Graduate students:

I requested and have been given the opportunity to teach History 717: History and the New Media next spring semester. This is a class that fulfills a portion of the PhD program's methods requirement and perhaps a useful opportunity for those of you in the various MA tracks to learn about digital history. I hope that some of you will consider taking it.

I am writing today with two invitations:

1. If you are interested in this class (whether or not you plan to take it) and have some idea about what you would like to see happen in it, please let me know your thoughts. The class has been taught only once in our department, and I am very open to your suggestions for what to include that would maximize its usefulness for you. I would be happy to hear about model websites, readings, tools, or assignments that you would like to discuss in the structured environment of the seminar.

2. I invite you to read and comment on my blog, The Reluctant Digital Historian, where I am attempting to document my progress in developing the course. It has only three entries so far, but as you provide me suggestions and I make a more concerted effort to plan the class, I expect that to change. The blog can be found here:

Thank you for your consideration.



The first response to this missive came in from a student who has much more knowledge of and experience in digital history than I do. The note reminded me dramatically that I should not attempt to teach this course from a position of expertise. My job is to facilitate the learning of everyone in the room, including myself, no matter how much each of us knows. It threw me back to a workshop for Teaching Assistants that I participated in about 20 years ago, sponsored by Northwestern University’s Searle Center for Teaching Excellence. In the workshop, participants were asked to associate their preferred teaching style with one of four leadership styles: facilitator/moderator, peer coach, expert, and a fourth approach I can never remember without looking it up in my documentation. I identified with the facilitator/moderator style, but over the years I have become more and more comfortable with my own expertise. Teaching a new course in digital history slams me back into facilitator mode, because I will not be able to fake being an expert.

As I thought about what that meant for how I run the course, I came to two preliminary conclusions:

First, part of the pedagogy of this course has to be transparency about my own lack of expertise—and what the implications of that that position are for how I run the course.

Second, it occurs to me to consider leaving open the capstone assignment for the course. By that, I mean, I should give students the opportunity to propose what they think would be an appropriate final assignment and then to execute it.

I did have a much more inspired set of thoughts about each of those points when I was out for my walk. But when I came home, I saw the news about the explosions at the Boston Marathon finish line, so I will leave it at this for today.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Review Issues

I have never quite finished reading any e-books before, but the most recent issue of the Journal of Digital Humanities captured my attention all the way to the end. The topic of this 4th issue of the journal is “What is Needed to Ensure the Development of Digital Humanities Scholarship?” I started reading it in order to sort out some of my thinking about a piece I am writing for The Public Historian about my digital project, The Encyclopedia of Milwaukee. By the time I got to the end, it had also stimulated my thinking about my aspiration for my department to hire a full-fledged digital historian, my own eventual promotion case, and the perpetual question of what my students need to know about digital history. 

The editors have arranged the issue around three topics: the “Problem,” “Approaches,” and “Professional Statements.” For the purposes of introducing graduate students to digital history issues, I think that I will probably use some but not all of the content. My natural inclination is always to assign students everything, but in practice I try to be selective in what I assign to students, so that everything I assign has a specific pedagogical purpose, is well written, and represents a manageable amount of reading (though I realize that for some faculty, part of the modus operandi of graduate school is to teach students that they can cope with an unmanageable amount of work). At this moment, I would arrange the contents into the following clusters:

1.       Substantive issues relating to peer review: Sheila Cavanagh’s and Bethany Nowviskie’s articles, in order to help students understand the transformative moment we are living through and the ways in which digital humanists are thinking it reshapes questions about how collaborative, technical projects count as scholarship.

2.       For practical commentary on evaluating digital humanities projects: the short essays by Todd Presner, Geoffrey Rockwell, and James Smithies and the professional statement by the Modern Language Association and the AHA, NCPH, and OAH Working Group report on “Tenure, Promotion, and the Publicly Engaged Academic Historian,” which is not actually reproduced in the Journal’s issue.

3.       Late in the course, in order to discuss my own dilemma as an instructor in figuring out how to evaluate the work I will have assigned to students, I would assign Shannon Christine Mattern’s essay.

4.       Finally, to help students who are hoping for careers where they might go up for tenure based in part on digital history work, I would assign the argument offered in Laura Mandell’s open letter and the practical models offered by Katherine D. Harris and the wiki group on “Documenting a New Media Case.” My inclination here is not to assign this to the whole group, but to one or two students to report on, since most of them will not be seeking faculty positions in the long run (though I expect a few will need to understand tenure and promotion issues).

Other things that this issue made me think about:

1.       I should assign students to explore and discuss the Hypercities (definitely) and Voyant (probably) projects that Mandell discusses.

2.       Finally, I am reminded by the ease with which actual digital humanists toss around terms like “text encoding initiative” and XML how much I don’t know—and how much my students and I both need to know. I need to find a way to incorporate little “tech timeouts” into the discussion to define terms and show examples without derailing the overall conversation. What I need is a way for us all to hyperlink to another little discussion room to get on the same page and then link back to our main thread.

  I see these essays as opportunities for helping my students think about how to explain to other people that digital history work integrates the skills of argument that historians already hold dear with the organizational, technical, and human skills relating to project management that are crucial for digital projects.