Category Archives: pedagogy

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)

Onward and Outward

“All goes onward and outward . . . . and nothing collapses”
— Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass (1855)

Last week’s student conference in Camden brought “Looking for Whitman” to a rousing, poignant close. Four months after the classes involved in the project had ended, students from the University of Mary Washington, Rutgers-Camden, and City Tech gathered together to share their experiences and to meet one another in person. Understandably, students from the University of Novi Sad were not able to make the trip across the Atlantic Ocean to be with us in person.

There was something special about this day that reflected the entire spirit of the project. It was fed, no doubt, by the amazing cadre of students from UMW who boarded a bus at 6am on a Saturday morning to take a five-hour bus ride up to Camden for a conference related to a class that they had taken in the previous semester. Led by faculty members who had devoted intense amounts of energy to the project, these students arrived at Camden at a fever pitch. They weren’t there for a conference; they were there for a revival.

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What intensity these students brought with them!! They came into the room wearing Whitmanic beards, clutching their texts, brimming with excitement. And that excitement bolstered us throughout the day.

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UMW students arrive in Camden festooned with Whitman beards, t-shirts, and shoes.

We knew we were very lucky to have this group with us. It can be difficult — particularly at commuter campuses like City Tech and Rutgers — to round up students four months after a class has ended, let along to convince them to take a two-hour trip from NYC or a five-hour trip from Virginia for a student conference–especially at the end of the semester, with finals and senior thesis projects looming. I know that many students wanted to attend but couldn’t because of work or family obligations. Many Rutgers graduate students couldn’t because of concurrently scheduled comprehensive exams.

UMW students felt right at home on the RU campus; here are Sam and Brendan posing with a statue of Walt:

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Sam P. and Brendan B. pose with Walt himself.

 

A Generative Conference
Early on, we decided that this conference would not be presentational, but generative. We wanted the conference to be an active event that embodied the pedagogical imperatives of the project as a whole: students would not just lecture about the work they had done during the Fall 2009 semester, but would also create new work to accompany it. To this end, we handed out FlipCams to all students there and encouraged them to take footage of the day. In the coming days and weeks, I look forward to seeing the posts that will come out of that footage.

Some of the highlights of the day included:

— Small group discussions in which students and faculty members shared their experiences in the project and discussed the Whitman they had found in their project location.

— A viewing, over lunch, of several videos created during the course of the project. These included:

Two Videos from Novi Sad
We watched two videos from students at the University of Novi Sad that deserve special mention. As Professor Karbiener noted, many Whitman poems have not yet been translated into Serbian. In her class, Prof. Karbiener chose to concentrate on the Calamus section of Leaves of Grass, which contains some of Whitman’s most sexual poems. This was a brave choice, given Whitman’s sexuality and a Serbian culture that is not always understanding of gay rights.

Even braver and more inspiring, Prof. Karbiener’s students chose to translate some of Whitman’s most openly sexual verse into Serbian for the first time. Here are two deeply moving films depicting readings and interpretations of those verses:

 

“to a stranger (Calamus 22)”

This film from Indira at the University of Novi Sad feels like a mashup of Godard, neorealist Italian film, and Whitman. It’s a stunning piece of work that gets to the heart of Whitman’s democratic vision by putting his most open words in the mouths of ordinary Serbian citizens as they go about their daily lives.

 

“Walt Whitman, Calamus 9

A powerful meditation on and translation of Whitman’s poem from Elma at the University of Novi Sad

 

Wonderful Videos From Other Campuses:

In Search of Wendall Slickman

A rollicking twenty-minute rock ‘n roll mockumentary by Sam P. of UMW about a figure named “Wendall Slickman,” a hybrid figure of Walt Whitman and Elvis Presley

 

Whitman, Commercialism, and the Digital Age. Will Whitman Survive?

Virginia S. of UMW created this beautiful cinepoem marked by a moving reading of Leaves of Grass playing over video footage of traveled roads, sweeping waves, and setting suns.

 

City of Ships
[kml_flashembed movie="http://www.youtube.com/v/xgChcYlXR8I" width="425" height="350" wmode="transparent" /]
A moving cinepoem that takes us through Whitman’s Camden and Philadelphia by Rutgers-Camden student Tara Wood. This video was highlighted in an article about the Looking for Whitman project.

 

City Tech students bring us Whitman’s New York by finding his presence in two busy hubs of the city Whitman loved:

Ermir finds Whitman In Times Square:

And Fabricio finds him in Grand Central:

 

To be sure, these videos are just a sample of the amazing student work completed during the Fall 2009 semester. In the coming weeks and months, the Looking for Whitman team will continue to unearth and organize riches from the project. Stay tuned, and thanks so much to all students involved in the project for their good work!

 

A Trip to Mickle Street
At mid-afternoon, we hopped on a bus and rode a few blocks to visit Whitman’s House on Mickle Street — the only house he ever owned, and the house in which he spent the last eight years of his life. (During the course of our own project, Prof. Hoffman’s class wrote scripts for the Visitor’s Center that will soon be built at the site).

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Students gather in the backyard of the Whitman house after a tour.

I’ll let the students who were visiting the house for the first time speak about this experience, but I’ll just say that it was wonderful to observe the awe with which these students approached the house.

Many thanks to Leo Blake, curator of the House, and his volunteer staff for a wonderful tour.

 

Whitman’s Tomb at Harleigh Cemetery
After our tour of the house, we headed over to Whitman’s gravesite. We arrived to find the front gates shut and locked, even though we arrived a few minutes before closing time. While we tried to figure out what to do, I walked around the the cemetery looking for someone to talk to. Nearby, I found a section of the wrought-iron fence that had been bent open. After I went through, hoping to talk to a representative of the cemetery, I turned to find students and faculty from the project following me through the hole in the fence!

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Entrance to the Harleigh cemetery. Note the closed gate.

Finding no one around, we walked down the road a bit until we arrived at the tomb that Whitman had designed for himself and his family members:

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Students and faculty members gather in front of Whitman's tomb. Thanks to Claire Fontaine for the shot.

And then, we read together the closing lines of Whitman’s “Song of Myself.” (video to follow). It was a fitting and beautiful way to end our time together.

 

The Smallest Sprout Shows There is Really No Death
Onward and outward. The project is drawing to a close, of sorts, but I have the sense that it will never end for many of us. Like one of the elastic, limber, ellipsis-trailing lines of Whitman’s 1855 Leaves of Grass, Looking for Whitman will continue to fling its likeness outward; and those of us who were a part of it, or who watched it from afar, will continue to draw from it as we find it under our bootsoles, filtering and fibering the soil in which we grow.

 

Acknowledgments
My deepest thanks to those who supported this project, including:

The NEH Digital Humanities Start-Up Grant Program, offered through the NEH Office of Digital Humanities in partnership with the Institute of Museum and Library Services. I am grateful to the NEH and to the Office of Digital Humanities for their support, and I hope that this project can serve as an example for others interested in multi-campus educational projects.

I am also grateful to the colleges represented in this project for the generous support and encouragement that they have given to the participants. In particular, I would like to thank the following people for their support of this project:

    Dr. Bonne August, Provost and Vice President, New York City College of
    Technology, CUNY

    Barbara Burke, Patty Barba, Eleanor Bergonzo, Yasemin Jones from the Grants Office of the New York City College of Technology, CUNY.

    Dr. Teresa A. Kennedy, Professor and Chair, Department of English,
    Linguistics, and Communication, University of Mary Washington

    Dr. Nina Mikhalevsky, Acting Provost and Vice President for Strategy and
    Policy, Professor of Philosophy, University of Mary Washington

    Dr. Michael A. Palis, Interim Dean, Faculty of Arts and Sciences Graduate
    School, Rutgers University-Camden

This project would not have been successful without the efforts of its deeply committed faculty members and staff. For their enthusiasm, excitement, energy, and expertise, I would like to thank:

Most of all, I’d like to thank the students who took part in Looking for Whitman. Without your hard work, none of this would have been possible.

 

“Looking for Whitman” has been designated a “We the People” project by the National Endowment for the Humanities.

NEH

wtp

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Against Learning Management Systems

Jail

cc-licensed “Jail” by Luigi Caterino https://www.flickr.com/photos/luigipics/401770711/

In a recent post on BavaTuesdays, Jim Groom called down a plague upon two corporate producers of learning management systems, Blackboard and Desire2Learn. After years of fighting Blackboard’s unreasonable patent lawsuits, Desire2Learn made news by proposing a donation of one million dollars to educational causes on the condition that Bb drop its lawsuit.

The premise of D2L’s publicity ploy is that it has put Blackboard in a no-win situation: Bb can either drop its lawsuit against D2L or, by continuing it, admit that it doesn’t care about education.

If only a corporation like Blackboard had a sense of shame, it just might have worked.

For a long time now, Jim has been asking why universities need LMS’s. He has also been fighting the incursion of corporations into higher education through technology. These are points that I’ve been thinking about increasingly since CUNY began having so much trouble with its Blackboard installation that many instructional technologists and individual faculty members in the system started to look for alternate learning environments. As Joe Ugoretz noted on Twitter, CUNY is ripe for a Blackboard killer.

Whether or not CUNY sticks with Blackboard is almost beside the point if, when it looks for a replacement, it considers only other learning management systems–be they closed or open source. As Jim points out, these systems all look depressingly similar: they package a suite of conventional tools (blogs, wikis, discussion forums) within familiar navigational structures and call the whole package a “learning management system.”

The problem with Learning Management Systems lies in the conjunction of three words that should not appear together. Learning is not something that can be “managed” via a “system.” We’re not producing widgets here — we’re attempting to inspire creative thought and critical intelligence.

Learning Management Systems have dominated online education up until now, but must they be what we rely on in the future? Having found our way out of one box, must we immediately look for another? Can we imagine no other possibilities?

Of the many important things Jim has done in recent years, his advocacy of the small-pieces-loosely-joined approach to pedagogy, twined with his resolute resistance to the corporatization of pedagogy, may be one his most important contributions to our public dialogue about teaching and learning. Why, Jim has asked again and again, must we confine education to a box? Why must we pack learning inside of an acronym?

More importantly, why do these questions appear with such force and regularity when the subject involves online education? What is it about learning in online environments that makes us so afraid of open, loosely managed pedagogical space?

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Edupunking the NY Times

f*ck blackboard?  the nytimes approves!

This is old news, I know, but I will not let this blog begin without acknowledgment of the fact that the New York Times declared edupunk, the new-media pedagogical ethos adumbrated by my good friend Jim Groom, one of its choices for The Buzzwords of 2008. In the spirit of edupunk and all of my “instructional technologist” friends, I salute the paper of record.

(and for the record, Wired summed it up nicely, too).