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.

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!

2010-04-10 17.03.04

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:

whitman-gravesite-visit

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

IMLS_Logo_2c

Fall 2009 Talks

I’m excited to announce the following speaking engagements for the Fall 2009 semester, most of them stemming from the Looking for Whitman and CUNY Academic Commons projects:

Invited Lectures:

Norwegian elearning Research and Educational Network (REN) Delegation Visit to New York City

Conference Program

“Looking for Whitman: Networking the Digital Humanities”
Thursday October 15
Affinia Shelburne Hotel, 303 Lexington Avenue, New York

 

LaGuardia Community College Speaker Series
Information 2.0: Knowledge in the Digital Age
Friday, October 16, 2009 from 9:30 AM – 12:00 PM

Guerrilla Pedagogy: A Hit-and-Run Guide to Mobile, Open-Source, Aggregated Course Design
This presentation will consider the practical and theoretical implications of using the ethos of the open-source software movement as a guiding force for classroom pedagogy. Embracing the principles of open-source in the digital classroom involves distinct notions of openness, transparency, sharing, and student-centeredness that are, in many ways, anathema not just to corporate content management systems such as Blackboard, but also to deeply ingrained ideas concerning the role of higher educational institutions in public life. Responding critically and creatively to the possibilities opened up by new communications technologies can and should entail a reexamination of the assumptions regarding the ways in which students and teachers relate to course materials and to each other.

more info

 

Conference Presentations:

Dreamland Pavilion: Brooklyn and Development Conference
Kingsborough Community College, October 2-3, 2009
10:45 a.m. – 12:15 p.m.: Morning Session II – Water and Work in the Literature of Brooklyn

“Ample: Sizing Up Whitman’s Brooklyn”

 

8th Annual IT Conference — Instructional/Information Technology in CUNY: Managing Complexity

Morning Session: “Introducing the CUNY Academic Commons”
Afternoon Session: “CUNY WordCampEd and Beyond–The State of WordPress at CUNY”

 

Modern Language Association
125th annual convention, Philadelphia

Special Session:
Looking for Whitman: A Cross-Campus Experiment in Digital Pedagogy
7:15p.m.-8:30 p.m. on 28-DEC-09 in 410, Philadelphia Marriott

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?

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.

On Bucking the System

. . . almost every defendant, even the most simple-minded among them, starts thinking up suggestions for improvement from the moment the trial starts, and in doing so often wastes time and energy that would be better spent in other ways. The only proper approach is to learn to accept existing conditions. Even if it were possible to improve specific details–which, however, is merely an absurd superstition–one would have at best achieved something for future cases, while in the process damaging oneself immeasurably by having attracted the attention of an always vengeful bureaucracy. Just don’t attract attention! Keep calm, no matter how much it seems counter to good sense. Try to realize that this vast judicial organism remains, so to speak, in a state of eternal equilibrium, and that if you change something on your own where you are, you can cut the ground out from your own feet and fall, while the vast organism easily compensates for the minor disturbance at some other spot–after all, everything is interconnected–and remains unchanged, if not, which is likely, even more resolute, more vigilant, more severe, more malicious. One should leave the task to the lawyers, instead of interfering with them.

— Franz Kafka, The Trial

MLA 2008 Recap: Part 1 – The Rise of the Digital MLA


“Untitled,” The Tattered Coat

(With apologies to IHE)

Three days after returning home from the MLA Conference in San Francisco, and I’m still coming down, still thrumming with the newfound sense of energy, purpose, and camaraderie that I found there.

Who would have thought? Certainly, the annual conference of literature and language professors is not renowned for its capacity to spread good cheer. As the Los Angeles Times has pointed out, the MLA conference functions first and foremost as a job market, even if that market is shrinking in scary ways. My own experience interviewing at the MLA in 2006 enabled me to see only the tension and stress of the MLA experience; I was not prepared for what I found there this year.

So, what changed in 2008? Here are some of the highlights and trends I saw:

 

Twitter Altered the Pre-Convention Experience
Before the conference had even started, a bunch of my contacts on twitter had begun to connect with one another. We arranged a tweetup by setting up an account on twitter. We created a wiki page and encouraged convention-going twits to list their presentations on it. We bemoaned the fact that so many of the panels we wanted to attend were scheduled at the same time. (And by “we,” I mean a loosely connected set of people who identified themselves as being members of both the MLA and Twitter. There was very little structure involved, and the community, such as it was, was very open).

Before we even arrived, then, the conference had begun.

 

Twitter Enhanced the Experience of the Conference Itself
It wasn’t just the tweetups (we met for the first time when we crashed the cash bar of the Electronic Literature Organization). It was the fact that twitter provided a backchannel for conference. Here, for example, are general tweets about the conference, and here are tweets specifically related to the Microblogging panel.

Such conference-related backchanneling is nothing new, but it seemed new for the MLA.

 

Digital Panels Reached Critical Mass
Nearly everyone I spoke with remarked upon the breadth and depth of digital panels and workshops at the convention and the ways in which that contrasted with previous years. Established academic communities that had formed around societies such as the Electronic Literature Organization mixed with newer, distributed groups that formed through blogs and/or twitter. All of the digital panels I went to were remarkably well attended, and it was particularly useful to see conversations build across several different panel sessions.

Here, for instance, is a list of sessions that were identified by the MLA search tool under the rubric “General Literature: Electronic Technology (Teaching, Research, and Theory)”:

52. Defoe, James, and Beerbohm: Computer-Assisted Criticism of Three Authors
108. Using Technology to Teach Languages
163. Scholarly Editing in the Twenty-First Century: Digital Media and Editing
174. Microblogging: Producing Discourse in 140 Characters or Less
224. Methodologies for Literary Studies in the Digital Age
271. Genre, Form, and Cultural Practice in Contemporary Electronic Literature
320. Biocultures: Closing the Science-Humanities Gap
369. Promoting the Useful Arts: Copyright, Fair Use, and the Digital Scholar
421. Digital Immigrants Teaching Digital Natives
464. Online Course Management: Friend or Foe?
497. Digital Initiatives in Early Modern English Literature
543. The Library of Google: Researching Scanned Books
617. Editing Manuscripts in Digital and Print Forms
724. E-Criticism: New Critical Methods and Modalities
796. The Audiobook

And that is only a very partial list. [update: Here, via projectjulie, is the full list of Digital Humanities panels as compiled by ACH. Hugely impressive.]

The critical mass of new-media sessions was aided by a new tool rolled out by the MLA, “My Convention Schedule,” which allowed MLA members to search for panels of interest and to compile customized panel listings.

I hope that by MLA 2009, the organization is able to take that tool one step further by making it social, so that members can share their schedules with one another and recommend panels to friends.

 

A Tired Meme: The Cantankerous Objector
not listening One of the most striking refrains I heard at the digital panels occurred during the Q&A periods, when a curmudgeon would invariably rise and question not just the validity of the panelists’ particular work but also the entire project of engaging digital technology in research or teaching. There was a fascinatingly similar pattern to all of these comments: he (and it was always a ‘he’) would first establish his connection to the literary field (“I’ve been teaching XYZ literature at ABC University for 25 years”), then seek to distance himself from the luddite position (“Don’t get me wrong–I love my iPhone”), before boring in with overly generalized criticism of the new generation of scholars or, more often, students (variations of “students seem more distracted these days,” “students don’t read anymore,” “students won’t stop playing with their iPhones during my overly long and thoroughly boring disquisitions on DEF’s minor ballads”)–precisely the kinds of generalized criticism, we might assume, that he would never countenance in a classroom discussion of those minor ballads.

In his post-convention blog post, my friend Chuck Tryon got to the heart of these kinds of objections:

One of my frustrations in thinking about [the course I’m designing] is the degree to which the existence of digital technologies have been used to reify an entire generation of students, to assume on the one hand that Kids Today have shorter attention spans and on the other that they are fluent in using digital technologies. These assumptions often say more about the people who articulate them and their attitudes toward digital technologies than about actual students[. . . .]

I agree wholeheartedly with Chuck, and I suspect that the kinds of objections being made to digital technologies in the academy today mirror earlier discourses around subjects such as women’s studies, queer studies, and african-american studies, to name only a few fields.

And that leads me to my last point:

 

Communities Grow in Marginalized Spaces
Between the Crevices Despite continuing objections to the field and to its methodologies, the strength of our union is strong (really, it is, despite that link!). As one friend noted to me, the field has now grown large enough to contain multitudes: various methodological and pedagogical disagreements played out in the panels I saw. But the field, as a whole, still faces fundamental questions about its legitimacy–something that becomes clear as soon as the words “digital publication” and “tenure review” are put together.

Recent developments, such as the emergence of large funding agencies such as the NEH Office of Digital Humanities and the MacArthur Foundation/HASTAC have undoubtedly changed the playing field. But even so, questions of legitimacy linger on.

Then again, legitimacy is overrated.

Cathy Davidson–a scholar I much admire, whose work needs no introduction–skewered the “cantankerous objector” meme in one of the terrific blog posts she wrote following the convention:

Anyone who says that “digital learning” isn’t “real learning” (yes, we had such a comment from an audience member) isn’t paying attention. Or, more accurately, is so busy defending the assumptions of the field into which they were delivered as young graduate students that they do not see, cannot see, do not wish to see, the contours of a changing world in which their field is shrinking, not because it is irrelevant, but because far too few people in the profession represented by the MLA are willing to do the deep, difficult, engaged work of thinking through what it means to be a field (any field) in the twenty-first century.

I do not believe that the dreary decline in English majors that the MLA duly reports on every year is inevitable. But I do believe it is inevitable if we, as a profession, refuse to go through the work that so many of our peers in the arts, social sciences, and natural and biological sciences have gone through of carefully examining our assumptions, our goals, and our decline in light of the Information Age that should be our finest hour, the moment which, as a profession, we are trained to attend to most sensitively, acutely, historically, rhetorically, and critically.

If we are missing the boat of the Information Age as teachers trained in the art of close reading, compelling writing, and critical thinking, then, well, sorry folks, we deserve to sink.

It’s 2009. The MLA has begun to catch up to that boat, but we haven’t reached it yet. And as Bob Dylan tells us, “It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there.” We can say that the profession is finally moving, but whether or not it will get where it needs to go fast enough remains to be seen.

 

==> Coming soon: Recaps of my favorite sessions at the conference.

Putting the Steam Back in the Punk


Source: kaitlyn tikkun

I ushered in the New Year in Brooklyn at Pratt’s wonderful New Year’s Eve Steam Whistle Blow. What a great event! Best wishes to you for a happy 2009!

Update: Here’s a YouTube vid of the steam whistle experience (and, yes, the people taking photos of each other combined with kids [and adults] dancing around was very much part of that experience).

Update #2: MAKE captures the event nicely. Sadly, Pratt didn’t allow anyone down into the steam control room this year.

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).