Dear MOOC Messiah Squad: You are expendable.

3 10 2013

Well, I’m not sure I can actually answer Evgeny Morozov’s really excellent question, but I can tell you this: When everybody learns to code, there will be a lot of downward pressure on wages and benefits for coding jobs. It’s a simple function of supply and demand. When skills become more common, they earn less compensation.

You can already see something like this happening in the digital humanities. While I’m hardly an expert on this sort of thing, I do feel safe quoting Richard Grusin’s epic MLA paper from earlier this year on the “Dark Side of the Digital Humanities” to help me make one narrow point:

The category of “digital humanities” covers a diverse and heterogeneous range of projects, including but in no means limited to publishing, pedagogy, editorial, creative, and critical work, ranging from close individual attention to single texts to the creation of games and other interactive formats to the mining of big data for patterns imperceptible to the individual scholar). Taken as a whole, however, digital humanities reproduces structurally both within itself and among the humanities writ large the proliferation of temporary, precarious labor that has marked late 20th and 21st century global capitalism. Substantive digital project often entail collaborations among tenured and tenure-track faculty, students, and more precarious technical and non-technical staff. To avoid becoming obsolete such projects will inevitably need ongoing or renewed support if they are to be updated or redone as new technologies continue to replace the technologies with which DH projects were initially created.

To put it bluntly, only one class of the participants that Grusin notes in these projects are tenured. As Wendy Hui Kyong Chun noted in that same session:

DH allows us to tread water: to survive, if not thrive (***think here of the ways in which so many DH projects and jobs depend on soft money and the ways in which DH projects are often—and very unfairly—not counted towards tenure or promotion***). It allows us to sustain ourselves and to justify our existence in an academy that is increasingly a sinking ship.

In other words, the digital humanities employment infrastructure is a new one, and in some ways it’s even more precarious than the regular academic employment structure that it supplements. As a result, administrators controlling the cash have a greater sway over its development than any other kind of scholarship inside a university. Don’t get me wrong: I think the digital humanities are extremely cool. The people doing it should be encouraged to do more, but to ignore the politics of this technological transformation would lead to disaster down the road for everyone involved.

The same is true for MOOCs. While the superprofessors get all the attention, MOOCs are a jobs program for a whole bunch of people who are technologically inclined. Let me quote Karen Head (again) to suggest the extent of this employment surge:

The preparation of a MOOC, unlike that of a traditional course, requires working with videographers, instructional designers, IT specialists, and platform specialists. For many MOOCs this means that an instructor and a teaching assistant must fill most of those support roles. In fact, one of my colleagues who taught a MOOC actually built a recording studio in the basement of his home. Even with our team of 19, we still needed several other people to provide support. We now also have an internal project manager to coordinate our videography needs.

Has somebody started tenuring instructional designers and IT specialists and nobody told me? I doubt it. yet in my experience it is precisely these people in IT or IT-related positions who are the most enthusiastic about MOOCs, even more so than the superprofessors that run them. Yet ironically, once any particular MOOC has been perfected (assuming such a thing is even possible), it is these jobs that will be the most unnecessary, even more so than those of the professors whose jobs those MOOCs might replace. After all, if the university has to keep shooting retakes, the MOOC won’t save anybody any money. “What about MOOC maintenance?,” you ask? That kind of routine IT work is the reason we have electronic outsourcing.

This is a common problem in the tech industry. Indeed, thanks to the wonders of the Internet, engineers in India can seamlessly replace engineers in America in just about any IT project. This is from p. 287 of Hedrick Smith’s recent book, Who Stole the American Dream? (which is very, very good):

“Even so, losses of solid middle-class jobs now ripple throughout the knowledge economy. Banks, airlines, hotels, retailers, investment banks, law firms, and even hospitals and American states have been shipping work offshore. In Madras, India, a Los Angeles Times reporter came across an offshore operation where ‘task by task, function by function, the American office is being hollowed out and reconstituted in places like this…’ He described a local shopping arcade where researchers, librarians, claims processors, proofreaders, accountants, and graphic designers were churning out work for U.S. tax accountants, insurance companies and law firms.”

What’s to stop these folks from doing IT design for Coursera, Udacity or any college with MOOCish aspirations? For all I know they already are.*

Regular face-to-face professorial positions, like traditional service jobs, are more connected to particular places, namely university campuses, unless we let the MOOC Messiah Squad convince administrators and the public otherwise. This doesn’t mean that MOOCs can’t be cool under some circumstances AS LONG AS THEY REMAIN UNDER FACULTY CONTROL. That requires preventing privatization and the inevitable race to the bottom that goes with it. This is important not just for employment purposes, but for quality control of the final result as a lousy online education is of no use to anybody. To ignore the politics of MOOCs in favor of some misguided technological solutionist agenda will just lead to all of us, including our students, meeting each other on the unemployment line.

* I want to make one thing abundantly clear: My problem here is not with the people of India, Ireland or anywhere else with a rising class of knowledge professionals. My problem is with the parasitic companies that create a global race to the bottom solely to expand their already fat profit margins. This hurts workers everywhere in the long run. Global solidarity is the only solution to this problem, but that explanation is for another blog at another time.





Ground rules for the MOOC Monster.

29 04 2013

So a giant, hairy, orange monster has shown up at the door to your classroom. Maybe you invited it, but more likely your dean or provost invited it into your department for you. What are you going to do? Are you going to let it inside and risk being eaten alive or are you going to try to bar the door?

Recognizing that plenty of people are not in a position to bar the door, I thought I would suggest a few ground rules for living with the MOOC Monster. After all, monsters are such interesting people. Maybe you and it can learn to get along. And rather than making these rules facetious (like “Don’t let him eat anybody,”) these are (mostly) serious:

1) The Monster is not allowed to get between the professor and the students.  In other words, every student must maintain access to the professor.

Public education does not mean education only for the self-motivated or the quick to pick up on things. Public education means education for everybody. That means every student must be able to ask questions of somebody who knows the answer. TAs are helpful in this area, but even students caught in a 500-person face-to-face lecture hall still require access to the professor. In theory, they have it. MOOC students, on the other hand, certainly don’t. Instead they’re barred in the syllabus from e-mailing the superprofessor or the superprofessor holds a lottery so that students have the privilege of participating in a Google chat with them. This is not good customer service.

Neither is pawning the inquisitive off on other students and calling that a “learning community.” Yes, there are plenty of things that students can learn by working together. There are also plenty of things that they can’t. Anybody who thinks that the entire college experience can be transformed into an interactive group activity is either an edtech entrepreneur or rolling too many of their own jelly babies.

As I’ve explained elsewhere, the Achilles Heel of endeavors like these is peer-grading. That’s where the lack of access to the professor hurts the learning process most because correcting essays is where most writing-based instruction occurs. Rather than quote myself, I’ll offer up an extended excerpt from this post at Degrees of Freedom:

But when paid graders have to go through thousands of submissions for AP History (for example), they are not simply e-mailed a rubric and a bunch of essays and told to get on with it. Rather, they are all flown into the same location and put through hours or days of training to ensure they are all grading consistently.

This usually includes sharing examples (called exemplars) of essays representing each score on a rubric (giving graders models to work from). It will also include mechanisms for sharing and confirming scores between graders and bringing in additional evaluators to break ties or settle disputes.

The point of all this activity is to squeeze as much inconsistency out of the process as possible so that the major source of subjectivity in a rubric-graded scoring exercise (idiosyncrasies between those doing the grading) is minimized.

Needless to say, no such training or collaboration is available when I’m scoring 3-4 essays from my home in Boston (and applying my own extra rules – such as the non-native English one mentioned above) while someone else is scoring their 3-4 from their villa on the Turkish coast (and applying his or her own idiosyncratic rules as they work).

This is not good customer service either. Indeed, if you actually care about learning, this kind of crapshoot would probably drive you to drink. Perhaps, just perhaps, the MOOC Monster could be a model party guest while visiting a math classroom, but if the course has anything to do with writing I don’t see why we shouldn’t kick the creature out before it comes in and trashes the place straight away.

2) The Monster must be kept on a leash. The professor must hold that leash at all times.

Technology, the cliché goes, is neither good nor bad. That depends upon how it’s used. How it’s used depends upon how much you know about where you plan to use it. Over the weekend, Michael Feldstein, fresh off a conference full of edtech startups and VCs wrote:

The prevailing attitude in the Valley seems to be, “Hey, we built the internet. How hard could education be?”

That’s right. Education is your career, but the capitalists of Silicon Valley are convinced that they can do your job better than you can. I wouldn’t trust my history classroom to a psychology professor (nor they to me, I hope), yet the guy who used to run Snapfish.com and his venture capitalist buddies are convinced that they can recreate the Ivy League online. It would be hilarious if so many people weren’t assuming that this sort of thing was even remotely plausible.

If you need brain surgery, call a brain surgeon. If you want an education, then there better be some educators involved or you’re probably flushing your money down the toilet. I’m not talking about the venture capitalists here. If gullible administrators willingly give them guaranteed contracts then their profit is in the bag. I’m talking about the students. Professors serve as quality control for higher education endeavors. If your professor is about as accessible as the pope or Thomas Pynchon, then you can’t perform that function no matter how well-meaning you happen to be.

I am not a Luddite (not that there’s anything wrong with that). I try to learn technologies that I think will be useful to me in my life or in the classroom. I eschew technologies that won’t help, or which I know I can’t control. Also over the weekend, Derek Bruff asked, “Why isn’t the digital humanities community building great MOOCs?” I think the answer to that question is pretty obvious. Its members want nothing to do with a technology that they can’t control.

Come to think of it, the fact that MOOCs don’t do anything to improve the quality of education may have something to do with it too.

3) The professor is the one who gets to decide if the Monster has overstayed its welcome.

In real terms, I’m talking about assessment here. I hate assessment. I think it’s nothing but a fishing expedition for an excuse to punish higher education by defunding it, thereby making it even less effective than it already may be. Yet, for some reason, MOOCs seem to immune from all this assessment talk that dogs face-to-face classes. “Don’t mind the 90% dropout rate,” the MOOC enthusiasts tell us. “It’s a new technology. We’ll figure it all out down the road.” Maybe they will. Maybe they won’t. I still want to know why MOOCs deserve a pass while face-to-face classes don’t.

I think this is where that whole “Be a maker not a hater” business comes in. I have no problem with making things. However, if a professor can change their assessment rubric to value outcomes rather than individual student learning, they are cooking the books. Of course 95,000 students are going to do something, but doing isn’t necessarily the same thing as having every student learn what they need to know.

The digital humanities allows us to stretch the nature of our disciplines and of what students need to learn in college. I’m certainly fine with trying some of what this new subdiscipline has to offer in some of my classes. In fact, I just got a small grant from my university to try a class along these lines next spring. However, too many edtech startups and superprofessors are running down what most of us do every day in an effort to justify whatever disruption makes them rich, famous or both. Perhaps whatever tech that happens to be hip that week is a good thing. Perhaps it isn’t.

I say let the people who do the teaching be the judge.

***

But what if we can’t? What if the powers that be won’t let us kick the MOOC Monster out of our classrooms? Congratulations, if you understand that this is the likely outcome of laying ground rules for the MOOC Monster, then you understand that professors are employees, not entrepreneurs. Everything we do takes place within an industrial relations system in which most of us have very little power.

Nonetheless, I think there’s value in forcing the MOOC pushers to go on the record with their anti-education views. These simple ground rules aren’t unreasonable. They are reflections of the should-be-uncontroversial principle that educators know what’s best for education, not VCs or tech geeks. To argue against these rules would clearly reveal that the actual agenda of the MOOC “Revolution” does not involve improving the quality of education for anyone. Maybe then we professors might start paying more attention to the threat that the MOOC Monster embodies.

Monsters may be interesting people, but you can’t engage them in meaningful conversation if they’ve just swallowed you whole.





There’s more than one way to remove the sage from the stage.

10 04 2013

I’ve spent more than a little space on this blog defending lecturing.  The irony of that situation is that I don’t do very much of it in the great scheme of things anymore.  Since I’m a historian, there are a lot of facts that I feel obliged to cover in my survey classes. Nevertheless, I lecture a lot less than I used to do when I started teaching because I’ve developed other teaching priorities besides pouring facts into students’ open ears over time. With respect to my upper level classes, I hardly ever lecture at all. Most of the sessions in most of the courses I teach are unscripted, reading-inspired classes filled with discussions and a very wide variety of planned exercises.

This helps explain why I’m so fond of Peter Knupfer’s new article in the teaching section of the Journal of American History (subs. only). He offers an entirely different path towards removing the sage from the stage, one that depends upon faculty expertise and lots of access to the professor. Here’s a small taste:

My iteration of the seminar was not about my research, however. Indeed, it was deliberately oriented toward a different object, asking a different question: “whether,” as Gilbert C. Fite has asked, “as teaching scholars we are trying to train professional historians or attempting to increase the general level of historical understanding in our society.” I centered the seminar on two problems: How does history serve the public? and How do historians select and communicate with disparate audiences? The seminar’s work products were keyed to the answers to those questions and took the students into the community. The first question is predicated upon the beliefs that history is useless if it is not shared, that it has a public purpose beyond the interests of a close circle of friends or family, and that it seeks to improve the world at large. That is why the projects in this course were explicitly not family histories or explorations of a student’s particular past.The second question pushed the students to develop their own historical questions and to define their intended audience; this was a learner-centered task that cast the instructor in the role of consultant, not of sage on the stage.

[footnote omitted]

I already run our research seminars at the undergraduate and graduate levels, but unlike Knupfer, I haven’t been making nearly enough use of local resources in those classes. His article offers many suggestions for doing this that are both technologically adept and pedagogically sound.

On the other hand, anybody who know’s the slightest thing about the digital humanities really won’t find anything all that new here.  And that’s the really important political point that I want to make about this article. Too many people who attack the “sage on the stage” have no idea what professors actually do all day.  In my case, my survey class is only a third of my teaching work. Most of my classes are already a lot closer to Knupfer’s already than to the stereotype that MOOC enthusiasts put forward to advance their agenda.

The great irony here is that most commercial MOOCs want to replace lecture classes with more lecturing.  In disciplines that are generally less lecture-centric than history, I suspect there’s a very good chance that a Coursera MOOC will have more lecturing in it than whatever class it happens to replace.

But that, of course, is not the point.  The point of MOOCs is to disrupt destroy higher education for the sake of millionaire tech investors, not to actually teach anybody anything.





Like Lucy, Charlie Brown and the football.

7 02 2013

When I told my department that Hell could freeze over and I STILL wouldn’t teach online, what I meant was that I wouldn’t teach online here because I know I wouldn’t have the freedom, time or technological support in order to do it right. There are enough professors blogging now about creating MOOCs for me to realize that dealing with an outside provider limits their freedom to create their own MOOC even more.

That said, the kind of MOOC that the multi-talented historian and University of Richmond President Ed Ayers writes about here* sounds awesome:

We call this model “generative scholarship”: It is scholarship built to generate, as it is used, new questions, evidence, conclusions, and audiences. Online courses will be ideal environments to further this kind of scholarship. Thousands of people in a MOOC or a dozen in a small class at a liberal-arts college can collaborate as they find and share new patterns and insights. Students from many backgrounds can contribute to conversations about matters of enduring consequence.

Generative scholarship need not be of immense scale and complexity. Its value comes from the meaningful integration of student involvement and the creation of new perspectives. Those goals can be produced by the close analysis of a single text as well as of a full corpus of an author’s work, by a thoughtful examination of a single episode as well as of national or international patterns. Generative scholarship, moreover, can work across all disciplines, in big-data projects in science and social science, as well as in focused humanities projects.

I’d oversee something like that, assuming anybody around here let me. Of course, I’m not holding my breath. In more amenable climes, I believe they call this kind of thing (along with many other fine ideas) the “digital humanities.” The reason the digital humanities interest me is that they wouldn’t replace face-to-face classes. Instead, they could supplement the offerings on campuses everywhere. Use technology to create new kinds of classes that can’t be done face-to-face, I say. Then give students the opportunity to do things the old way AND the new way at the same time.

Yet we could only do this right if the powers that be would let professors run the show. Unfortunately, I think the illusion that we can run the show is one of the necessary enticements to attract superprofessors in the first place. What a shame it will be when many of them gradually discover that they have a lot less power than they think they do. That shame won’t be for them, of course. They’re the “best of the best.” The shame will be for the displaced faculty members who’ll have to pay for other people’s mistakes.

* Yes, the piece was behind the Chronicle of Higher Education‘s evil paywall the first time I tried to read it. However, in a shocking display of practicality, my campus is currently testing a campus-wide online subscription to the Chronicle so I can actually read the whole thing now. Should you be one of the enormous number of “More or Less Bunk” fans at Colorado State University – Pueblo, *cough* Doug and Kristen *cough* please e-mail Rhonda immediately so that they will make this permanent, OK? If you don’t have any way to access the whole article, the national treasure known to most people as “John Fea” has excerpted more of it here.





The beatings will continue until morale improves.

8 01 2013

I would understand if stuff like this makes digital humanities people kind of touchy:

One MLA panel yesterday expounded on “The Dark Side of the Digital Humanities.” Like all the DH sessions I’ve attended this year, it was packed. Amid the surge of Twitter conversations (like drinking from a bundle of firehoses), I was able to absorb some points in the larger bill of indictment: That DH is insufficiently diverse. That it falsely presents itself as a fast-track to academic jobs (when most of the positions are funded on soft money). That it suffers from “techno-utopianism” and “claims to be the solution for every problem.”  That DH is “a blind and vapid embrace of the digital”; it insists upon coding and gamification to the exclusion of more humanistic practices.  That it detaches itself from the rest of the humanities (regarding itself as not just “the next big thing,” but “the only thing”).  That it allows everyone else in the humanities to sink as long as the DH’ers stay afloat. That DH is complicit with the neoliberal transformation of higher education; it “capitulates to bureaucratic and technocratic logic”; and its strongest support comes from administrators who see DH’ers as successful fundraisers and allies in the “creative destruction” of humanities education. And—most damning—that DH’ers are affiliated with a specter that is haunting the humanities—the specter of MOOCs.

This whole argument is obviously incredibly unfair.  Anybody who knows anything about the digital humanities knows that it provides professors with wonderful tools that make their lives easier and higher education better.  Nevertheless, I understand this critique and I think I can use an analogy to make a distinction that will help this conversation work a little better.

Thanks to the success of a certain Johnny Depp movie series, “The beatings will continue until morale improves” frequently shows up on pirate t-shirts, but I have always associated it with Roman slave galleys, like in “Ben Hur.”  A bunch of bare-backed slaves are all grabbing  giant oars, while evil drivers in funny armor are standing behind them, beating their backs with whips trying to make them row faster.  The problem there is not with the rowing.  Even if the slaves could take control of the ship, they’d still have to go somewhere.  The problem is with the whipping.

In the case of MOOCs*, the fact that there’s an administrator standing behind the labor force with a whip is fairly obvious.  Chris Newfield described the egregious example of the UC system’s pre-MOOC online system just the other day. Aaron Bady, in one of the most astonishingly good posts about higher education in general that you will ever read, explains the MOOC problem better than anyone that I have ever read:

Instead of using new technology to do what we have always done, but do it better, it will be so thoroughly co-opted and driven by venture capital that it will be another battering ram against what’s left of high quality, low cost higher education. And it will destroy subjects and disciplines that aren’t conducive to being MOOCified, like mine. 

I know the average DHer is more than smart enough to see this.  I’ve been particular heartened by the MOOC skepticism I see coming out of the Center for New Media and History from people like Mills Kelly.

Unfortunately, the digital humanities can also be weaponized.  The problem with the digital humanities isn’t the work itself, it’s how the work gets used.  If every major archive goes totally online, what’s going to happen to travel money to visit the smaller ones?  What’s going to happen to library budgets?  What if administrators think that students can use the digital humanities to teach themselves?

While I’m not sure this qualifies entirely as digital humanities, consider Monica Rankin’s now-famous Twitter in the history class experiment at UT-Dallas.  The problem here is not the fact that Rankin uses Twitter in her class.  The problem is that the class is so large that she has to use Twitter to have a discussion in the first place.  More importantly, if she continues to use Twitter, will that lead administrators there to make her class even bigger than it already is?

Technology is not good or bad.  What’s important is the way in which it gets employed and who controls it. Do not condemn the slave or the oar.  Condemn the driver with the whip standing behind them.  And if you happen to be that slave, then the first step you have to take if you ever want to be liberated is to acknowledge that the person behind you is holding a whip, whether it’s stinging your back currently or being held in check for future use when necessary.

*  Come on, you just knew I wasn’t going to be able resist this subject for very long.





The digital humanities vs. cyber clown college.

10 07 2012

Other than the good guys winning (at least temporarily), the best thing to come out of the University of Virginia debacle has got to be the emergence of Siva Vaidhyanathan as a major force in higher ed commentary. My bet is that he didn’t have 6,000+ Twitter followers before his campus went crazy. When it did, enough people read his opinions and said to themselves, “Wow, this guy is good!,” that they now all keep coming back for more.

If you know what I’m talking about then you’ve probably read this post about MOOCs already, but it sure does bear repeating:

The delivery of course content is not the same as education. And training students to perform technical tasks, such as doing basic equations in calculus, is not the same as education. Teachers get this, of course. So do students.

Besides this nice clear argument, what makes this piece so much more valuable than the standard edtech analysis is his decision to seek out other expert opinions so that he could better distinguish what MOOCs can and cannot do.

To do that, Vaidhyanathan got feedback from GMU’s Dan Cohen, who’s head of the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media. As I’m sure most of you know already, CHNM is right in the middle of the digital humanities revolution, a multi-disciplinary technological transformation that I have no problem with at all. To me, this quote is everything you need to know about the effect of technology on higher education all in one place:

“We have been working on synthesizing digital media and technology into the classroom and research for two decades and understand how complex it is, and how you can’t just throw a student into a digital environment,” Cohen wrote to me in an e-mail. “We’re trying to do much more than reproducing lectures and quizzes online; we are trying to use the medium to enable new kinds of interpretation and scholarly interaction. So MOOCs seem like a huge step backward.”

Unless, of course, you’re primarily interested in cutting costs.

When it comes to DH, I don’t know enough to speak with authority but I do know just enough to be dangerous. Still, I think Cohen’s distinction between reproducing old ways of doing things and developing new ones is incredibly important. Digital humanities research allows scholars to see history in new ways because they can do things with data that they couldn’t do without the Internet and the powerful computers that keep it running. Teaching students with digital humanities tools (like wikis, to give a very basic example) allows professors to convey historical information and concepts in new ways too.

I support this kind of thing in theory and in practice because it is a professor-centered vision in which faculty can pick the tools they want to use at their discretion based on their particular pedagogical objectives. Administration-initiated online education and MOOCs designed to cater to the lowest common denominator are anything but that.

Blackboard (which is still the Devil) gives you all its bells and whistles whether you want them or not. Like textbooks of all kinds, every LMS reinvents itself every two years in order to justify hefty licensing fees, not because their platform needed to be reinvented. What the professor wants to do has to take a backseat to what the tech services department is capable of helping you facilitate or whether your university even has a license to run a given program on its servers. Lastly, as Leslie pointed out the other day, you might not even own the rights to your own work if you put it up on your university’s LMS. You will never have that problem in a professor-centered world.

So why isn’t the edtech world more professor-centered? Certainly, one size fits all is cheaper and more convenient. Spend less money at the front of the house and the back of the house gets to keep more of the proceeds for itself. But I think it’s more than that. While people like the folks at the Center for History and New Media are asking themselves “How can we use technology to improve education?,” people like Bill Gates and Helen Dragas are asking themselves “How can we use technology to show those elitist professors who’s boss?” Our tools are their clubs.

I became a college professor because most jobs are inherently alienating, yet no workday is ever the same when I’m teaching or doing research. Used well, online tools can make my job even more interesting than usual. Used badly or for the wrong reasons and I have a lifetime appointment as a tender of machines at a cyber clown college, assuming I have any job left at all.

If the forces of permanent austerity are pulling American higher education inexorably towards a clown college future, and I think they are, then the fate faced by faculty everywhere depends entirely upon how hard we professors decide to push back.





Hey kids, let’s put on a show!: Digital humanities edition.

11 01 2012

The most important conclusion that I drew from the teaching with technology panel at THAT Camp AHA last Thursday was that my opinion of this amorphous subfield depends upon whether we’re talking about teaching or research. In terms of research, I think there are people out there doing some really cool things. However, I’m pretty sure that I will not be spending my research time gathering and presenting electronic data anytime soon. For one thing, I got into this business for literary reasons, not technological ones. More importantly, the best work in the digital humanities is clearly collaborative, and I really don’t want to work that way.

On the other hand, I realized we may be approaching the point where not getting students to try some kind of digital project at some point in their college career constitutes educational malpractice. After all, it’s their future that brings them to your classroom, not yours. Just because you’re uncomfortable with the technology doesn’t absolve you from having to make sure they have the skills they need to succeed. Besides, who’s it going to hurt if what they produce isn’t genius? That’s why I think the digital humanities is probably a more important pastime for students than it is for professors.

So I’ve decided to give my graduate students a pilot assignment in the digital humanities this semester even though I know I haven’t got the faintest idea what I’m doing. Luckily, my graduate seminar is in Colorado History which means there’s lots of easily accessible resources and no self-inflicted pressure to cover everything (because I’m actually from New Jersey).

I’m thinking they’ll do small group work, learn the tech skills (and teach them to me while doing it), apply them to the history, and then present the results in class and through the class blog for the wider world. What could be easier! I know, just about everything, but it’s stuff like this that keeps this job interesting. Luckily, I think I can even get a small budget to help this along.

At the moment, I’m thinking about offering these technological options:

1. Prezi.
2. Web Site.
3. Movie (I actually know iMovie already).
4. Omeka (despite the fact that I’m still not entirely sure what Omeka even is).

Additional suggestions and advice would be much appreciated. The syllabus has to be done by next Tuesday. And yes, I know that this will likely fail in spectacular fashion. So sorry Britney, Matt and all my other victims graduate students who might be reading this, but I’ve got to start somewhere, right?





AHA Day 1: Keeping up with the Joneses (Digital Humanities edition).

5 01 2012

I was always determined not to be one of those professors who lectures off of notes so old that they’ve turned yellow. Certainly, I want my research to be modern too, and that’s why I was absolutely desperate to go to THATCamp AHA. I want to be able to keep up with the Jones and not be the old guy lamenting that my evil plan would have gone perfectly well if it weren’t for those meddlesome kids. [I'm looking at you, Stanley Fish.]

From my digitally under-informed perspective, the program at THAT Camp AHA could be sorted into three categories 1) Really interesting stuff. 2) Stuff I had no interest in at all. 3) Stuff that was so far over my head that I didn’t know whether I found it interesting or not. I ended up doing two sessions: An introduction to digital humanities and one on teaching undergraduates with technology. I’ll cover the first one here, and probably get to the second one next week some time as it’s the one that will take some more time to digest. [I'm also going to make more time during the main conference to see another DH session, so I'll probably get to that eventually too.]

While my session didn’t pan out, I got great help from the guy sitting behind me with ideas to be more technologically independent. That’s gotta be the best thing about an un-conference. Everybody’s trying to help everybody else out, instead of the more than occasional teardown you witness at regular conferences panels.

This next bit is going to sound critical, but it’s not. The folks in the Digital Humanities aren’t exactly sure what precisely it is that their subfield does and willingly admit it. My quick intro suggests to me that there are interesting DH projects that involve putting stuff up on the web (sometimes to do new things with it that you wouldn’t get to see otherwise and sometimes so that more people can do the same kind of things with the same data); new digital tools being developed to do new things; and new digital tools to do the same thing everyone else already does, but better.

There was a guy with us in that first session who was a whole lot more skeptical than I’ve ever been about technology, who kept wondering if this was just about carrying the same history in new vessels. From the discussion, it was pretty clear that most Digital Humanities people are conceiving of whole new ways to look at history that aren’t necessarily tied to the traditional narrative forms engineered solely by a single historian who starts with an introduction and ends with a conclusion.

I would find that scary if it weren’t for the fact that everyone I heard who “does” digital humanities still remains committed to getting students to do the same kinds of things historians have always asked their students to do for at least some part of the semester. Ultimately, the whole field seems to be about putting more items on the menu for students and professors alike. Chicken gets boring if you eat it every night, but that doesn’t mean you should never eat chicken again.*

Near the end of that session, another guy suggested that in the future we’ll probably all be doing some kind of hybrid between the digital and traditional humanities. If that’s what Dan Cohen meant when he said that in the future all history jobs will be digital history jobs then I’m OK with that. We can all do our jobs better because of the tools and methods that the Digital Humanities is producing. When I figure out which ones I’m going to make my students use this coming semester, then I’ll blog about that next session right here.

In the meantime, I celebrate the fact that my undergraduates can start turning in research papers with better sourcing than most MA theses had just 20 years ago. I celebrate the fact that anyone can mine text to their heart’s content. But I hope digital history never forgets its roots.

It’s what you do with all those sources that make the digital humanities the humanities. After the gathering is over, you need to turn a huge quantity of information into a useful, compelling, accessible narrative. This actually requires taking information away rather than gathering more. The Digital Humanities might actually make that process harder. Doing it well takes authority, confidence and a lot of practice. And besides the fact that (unless you’re David McCullough) you’re probably doing it on a word processing program, that process isn’t digital at all.

* Actually, as a vegetarian I plan on never eating chicken again, but I think you still get my point.





A preview of upcoming attractions.

4 01 2012

Today’s the day I leave for the AHA in Chicago. While I’m sorely tempted to say something profound about the job market, I have to spend most of two days interviewing candidates it’s probably best that I don’t. However, I wrote this post right before the AHA convention a couple of years ago. That year, I wasn’t going at all and felt that I could speak freely. The funny thing is looking at that post again it’s still pretty much what I think now too. Therefore, it’s going to have to still serve as my thoughts on that subject for the duration. However, if you see me in the book exhibit when nobody’s around, I promise I’ll bloviate more if you’re somehow interested in such things.

I am, however, doing a few things other than interviewing job candidates. I’m signed up for THATCampAHA on Thursday afternoon (where I actually proposed a session). I’ll see how that goes and I promise to report on the whole experience in this space sooner or later.

Equally importantly, there’s a hole in our interview schedule on Friday that will allow me to attend “Successfully Teaching History in the Online Environment: Experiences, Tips, and Thoughts.” Seriously, I’m not going to be difficult. I’m genuinely interested in how people make the best of that situation and I promise to report on that here too.





Blinded by science.

5 10 2011

Yeah, let’s go to Braverman again. This thought is in Labor and Monopoly Capital, but it’s also put very succinctly in a really nice article they appended to the 25th anniversary edition:

“Thus the more complex the process becomes, the less the worker understands. The more science is incorporated into technology, the less science the worker possesses; and the more machinery that has developed as an aid to labor, the more the labor becomes a servant of machinery.” [p. 319]

Now I’m tempted to conjure up this image of classes canceled because the tech infrastructure needed to put them on doesn’t work right (and if you know anything about the tech infrastructure at my place of employment, you’d know that’s not at all far-fetched), but I want to take this analysis in a different direction. I’m starting to to think that the advent of technology is making professors passive. What I mean by that is that too many of us are letting technology get imposed upon us from without rather than picking and choosing what works for them. You probably saw this post about Blackboard in the CUNY system, but it’s not just Blackboard. Whenever I do those focus groups with big academic publishers I always say the same thing: “I’d like to get your services à la carte.” They say no dice. Why does any professor put up with that? Are they blinded by science?

More importantly, what happens if technological makes your class worse rather better? Here’s Erik Loomis at Lawyers, Guns and Money:

My students…think they are riding the wave of a paradise of new technological achievements that will make our lives easier and better. They have a very hard time figuring out that technology can sometimes have unexpected bad consequences, not to mention fully intended bad consequences like putting people out of work. I can’t really speak for other countries, though clearly societies like Japan and South Korea share similar love of technological innovation, but this blind faith in technology is deeply embedded in what it means to be an American, going back to the early 19th century and the rise of canals and railroads at the very least.

So evidently, humans have no agency to accept or reject technology. We can either embrace it wholeheartedly and ideologically or we can be called “Luddites.”

We don’t have to be servants to machinery. We can be its masters because they’re our classrooms!

Perhaps what I like best about the Digital Humanities movement is its practitioners willingness to experiment. If something works well, tell everybody else about it and they can take that practice up too (often with no cost at all). If something works badly, tell everybody about it and people won’t walk down the same blind alley. We make the decision because we’re the ones who can best just the pedagogical merits of any innovation.

The existence of Blackboard is proof that technological decision-making needs to be placed in the right hands or bad things will happen, kind of like in all those James Bond movies.








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