Monthly Archives: May 2010

Hacking Together Egalitarian Educational Communities; Some Notes on the Looking for Whitman Project

When I discuss the “Looking for Whitman” project, a multi-campus experiment in digital pedagogy sponsored by the NEH Office of the Digital Humanities, I often emphasize the place-based structure of the project. As part of it, four courses were offered in institutions located in cities in which Walt Whitman lived; students spent the Fall 2009 semester reading texts that Whitman had written in their location and sharing their thoughts, reactions, and research with one another in a dynamic, social, web-based learning environment.

What I discuss a little less often, even though it was extremely important to the project, was the way in which the project worked within existing institutional structures in order to encourage, or at least model, a shift in their functioning. Rather than forming a meta-course that would run classes outside of traditional, credit-bearing disciplinary and institutional frameworks, we chose to work within existing academic boundaries. This wound up necessitating a great deal of administrative work: faculty participants had to ensure that their courses would get on the books in forms that would allow them to be aligned with the project, which involved extensive consultations with departments, deans, registrars, colleagues, and curriculum committees.

But by working within those institutional structures, we subverted some elements of them.  Perhaps the most radical element of the project was the way in which it brought participants from very different types of schools into linked virtual learning spaces. The colleges chosen for participation in Looking for Whitman–-New York City College of Technology (CUNY), New York University, University of Mary Washington, and Rutgers University-Camden-–represented a wide swath of institutional profiles: an open-admissions public college of technology, a private research-intensive university, a public liberal arts college, and a public research university, each with very different types of students. Beyond that, the courses explicitly engaged different types of classes and learners with very different types of backgrounds and knowledge-bases. The class at University of Mary Washington consisted of senior English majors who were taking the course as a capstone experience. There were two classes at Rutgers; one contained a mix of undergraduate English majors and master’s-level students; the other consisted entirely of graduate students who were taking a methods course that served as an introduction to graduate english studies. At City Tech, meanwhile, undergraduate students with little training in literary studies were taking a course on Whitman as part of their general education requirements.

The roster of schools became even more diverse when our NYU faculty member, Karen Karbiener, received a Fulbright Fellowship to Serbia and decided to include her class at the University of Novi Sad in the project. It was this interesting mix of institutions that Jim Groom wrote about in his post on Looking for Whitman:

From the University of Mary Washington to Rutgers-Camden to CUNY’s City Tech to Serbia’s University of Novi Sad, the project represents a rather compelling spectrum of courses from a variety of universities that provide a unique network of students from a wide array of experiences. This is not a “country club for the wealthy,” but a re-imagining of a distributed, public education that is premised on an approach/architecture that is affordable and scales with the individual. It’s a grand, aggregated experiment that will hopefully demonstrate the possibilities of the new web for re-imagining the boundaries of our institutions, while at the same time empowering students and faculty through a focused and personalized learning network of peers, both local and afar.

Mixing all of these students together in a single online space — especially one that placed a great deal of emphasis on social interaction — might seem to some observers to be at best a bad idea, and at worst a dangerous one.  What could graduate students studying literature learn from undergraduate students taking gen-ed courses at an urban school of technology?  Would undergrads flame one another on the course site?  Would undergrads be intimidated by the work of more advanced students who were working within their fields of specialization?

A look around the project website will show that productive interactions did take place, though not always without complications.  We’re just beginning to sort through the data associated with the project, and we’re especially looking forward to examining student responses to the extensive survey we circulated at the close of the semester.

Still, it’s not too early to say that the radical potential of projects like “Looking for Whitman” — and, I would argue, the radical potential of Digital Humanities pedagogical projects more generally — lies in their ability to connect learners in ways that hack around the artificial boundaries of selectivity and elitism that educational institutions have erected around themselves.  And if one result of that hacking is the creation of more open, more diverse, more egalitarian learning environments that engage a broader spectrum of students and institutions, the Digital Humanities might find that it has a social mission that complements its technological one.

(Submitted to Hacking the Academy)

Why I Left Facebook

I deleted my Facebook account a week ago, and I’ve been working on a post since then explaining my decision. But my draft has grown superfluous with every passing day as an increasing number of news outlets have covered the problems surrounding Facebook’s recent privacy policy changes. If you’ve somehow missed the news, you can catch up by reading the following pieces:

With that ground already covered, this post is not going to center on the general issues surrounding privacy on Facebook; instead, I want to discuss some of the personal reasons why I quit, in part as an explanation intended for the network I left behind.

Thinking About Leaving
[pullshow id=”personalprofessional”]I had robust networks on both Facebook and Twitter. Like Luke Waltzer, who described his reasons for staying on Facebook on his blog, I used Facebook mostly to connect to people from my past, while on Twitter, I connected mostly to colleagues in my academic field. Over time, these networks became somewhat interpenetrated, but generally, [pullthis id=”personalprofessional”]I thought of Facebook as a quasi-personal space, and Twitter as a quasi-professional space[/pullthis]. It was on Facebook that I posted photos of my ten-month old baby and on twitter that I posted links to articles about the digital humanities.

I’ve heard friends and colleagues — people who quit Facebook in recent weeks, like Boone Gorges, Dan Cohen, CogDog, and Carlo Scannella, or people who never never joined, like Dave Parry — claim that they rarely visited Facebook anymore and that they no longer valued the connections they had made there; it had stopped being a valuable space for them, and when Facebook compromised the privacy of that space even further, leaving became an easy decision.

That wasn’t the case for me because I valued, and continue to value, the wonderful network I had on Facebook. I loved sharing baby photos with friends there; I loved the funny and ironic status updates that my friends posted, and that led to humorous discussions in the comments; I loved the support and camaraderie that members of my network showed for one another.

Photo by kbaird

I remember Dan Cohen tweeting that one reason he had left Facebook is that anyone who wanted to contact him merely had to google him to find his online portfolio, blog, and email address. While that is true for me, too, I know that leaving Facebook means that I am leaving behind conversations that won’t happen elsewhere. Yes, my old college and grad-school friends can email me if they want to, but it’s a whole lot easier to post a comment on a status update than it is to send an email. Most people have a to-do list of emails that they need to send; no one I know has a similar list for Facebook comments. The ease and speed of the Facebook platform made connecting to others both easy and fun (and that ease of sharing, of course, is what built up a critical mass of members and equity in Facebook).

I most emphatically did not want to quit Facebook, because my network was very valuable to me.

And that was exactly why I had to quit.

How We Value Our Networks
The idea of “network value” recurs in many of the posts I’ve seen about Facebook; my friend Boone Gorges used it to explain why he had quit Facebook, but not Google, even though both platforms compromise the privacy of their users. His Facebook network wound up having little value for him, but the functionality provided by Google’s services (mail, docs, chat, calendar, etc.) was so valuable to him that it was worth the cost of lost privacy.

[pullshow id=”value”] What I came to realize is that [pullthis id=”value”]the more I valued the connections I had made on Facebook, the less I thought they should be happening on Facebook[/pullthis]. I very much wanted to share photos of my baby with family and friends, but I didn’t want to share them in a space run by a man who believes that privacy is dead.

It’s that simple: I deleted my Facebook account because I loved my facebook network and didn’t want to see my interactions with it mined relentlessly by a company without scruples. And now, a week after deleting my account, I miss that network terribly. But I will not go back to the site because in enabling connections between friends, it corrupts connections between friends. It simultaneously creates and undermines the value of member networks — from the member’s standpoint, at least. Facebook itself only gains value as it data-mines user networks.

Open Alternatives

Photo by amanky

It’s important for us to remember that as strong as Facebook is, it is not the only social-networking model out there. Indeed, one of the primary reasons that I quit Facebook is that I recently watched an immensely powerful talk by Eben Moglen of Columbia titled “Freedom and the Cloud.” In an hour of brilliant lecture that is part history lesson and part jeremiad, Moglen describes the central problem with cloud-based computing (“you can’t point to the server”) and lays out a vision of a free and open-source social network that can replace sites like Facebook. I urge you to watch; it’s what pushed me over the edge and finally got me to quit Facebook.

You might have heard about Moglen’s talk in the recent New York Times article on Diaspora* the open-source Facebook alternative that four NYU students started building after hearing Moglen speak in February.

I’ll rebuild my Facebook network there, or in some other open space, as soon as I can.

And as for Google? Well, maybe I need to watch that Moglen video one more time.