Screwing Up DH101: My Talk at MLA 2017

Title slide. Two screws pointing up through a piece of wood with the text, 'Screwing Up DH101 | #mla17 #s376 | @briancroxall | Brown University'

tl;dr: I gave another talk about digital pedagogy. Here it is.

About two weeks ago, I spoke at the MLA Convention in Philadelphia. I was part of a panel titled, “DH 101: Revisiting the ‘Introduction to Digital Humanities’ Course.” The panel was organized by Matt Gold and Lauren Klein on behalf of the MLA Forum TC Digital Humanities. My co-panelists included:

I was particularly excited to present with Kathi, as we co-organized a panel on digital humanities pedagogy for the 2012 MLA. But it was great to get to know the work of these colleagues, and the exciting and different ways they are leading development of digital humanities pedagogy at their different schools, ranging from Ivy Leagues to community colleges.

There’s a part of me that hesitates to put this talk up because I talk (at least in part) about an assignment that I have discussed in a previous talk that I’ve published here on my blog. But this presentation gave me a chance to talk through the changes that I had made over the years to the course, and to do a little bit of theorizing—a very little—about what it is that I think matters in digital humanities pedagogy. Spoiler: it’s the last sentence. There’s an essay or blog post to be written about my resistance to “doing things twice,” as that has been an animating tension for me in the development of this and other courses. But I’ll have to save that for another day.

As always, my work is Creative Commons-licensed. Let me know what you think!

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Announcing Like Clockwork

A few years ago, my good friend and colleague Rachel Bowser and I put out a call for papers for an edited collection on steampunk. Today, we are pleased to say that Like Clockwork: Steampunk Pasts, Presents, and Futures will be published this fall by University of Minnesota Press. In fact, you can order it now. And check out this cover!

The cover of *Like Clockwork, which shows a brass colored automaton with a number of gears and dials in its head. The edges of the book have gears running up and down it.

In many ways, our book leaves the question of “what is steampunk?” aside as we already tackled that question in our special issue of Neo-Victorian Studies on Steampunk, Science, and (Neo)Victorian Technologies. Like Clockwork asks a different question: “why steampunk?” and, perhaps more importantly, “why steampunk now?”  why did steampunk explode in popularity in the first years of the twenty-first century? What is it about the aesthetic, the themes, or the crosscutting of anachronistic technologies that speaks to so many around the globe? Why did steampunk only become a thing—and a thing that IBM’s social analytics predict will continue to grow—more than 30 years after its invention in the early 1970s?

Perhaps it’s not surprising that a genre that celebrates the similarities and disjunctures among times took a while to find its own moment, but our collection identifies specific trends and events to which steampunk as a genre, a fan culture, and art movement respond. The essays in the book address these subjects as well as disability studies, postcolonial studies, digital humanities, Victorian culture, urban studies, performance, graphic novels, film, cultural trauma, and even the question of whether steampunk is “punk enough”:


Rachel A. Bowser and Brian Croxall, “It’s about Time: Reading Steampunk’s Rise and Roots”

Steampunk Spaces and Things

David Pike, “Steampunk and the Victorian City: Time Machines, Bryan Talbot, and the Center of the Multiverse”
Roger Whitson, “How to Theorize with a Hammer; or, Making and Baking Things in Steampunk and the Digital Humanities”
Catherine Siemann, “The Steampunk City in Crisis”

Steampunk Bodies and Identities

Kathryn Crowther, “From Steam Arms to Brass Goggles: Steampunk, Prostheses, and Disability”
Stefania Forlini, “The Aesthete, the Dandy, and the Steampunk; or Things as They Are Now”
Diana M. Pho, “Punking the Other: On the Performance of Racial and National Identities in Steampunk”

Steampunk Reading and Revising

Mike Perschon, “Seminal Steampunk: Proper and True”
Lisa Hager, “The Alchemy of Aether: Steampunk as Reading Practice in Karina Cooper’s Tarnished and Gilded
Joseph Weakland and Shaun Duke, “Out of Control: Disrupting Technological Mastery in Michael Moorcock’s The Warlord of the Air and K. W. Jeter’s Infernal Devices”

We’ve been thrilled to work with great authors throughout the project and the fine folks at Minnesota. We can’t wait to see the book in print and to be throwing out to the rest of y’all from the sides of the book-tour dirigible.

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Assignments and Architecture: Pedagogy in the Digital Age

Title slide that reads 'Assignments and Architecture' with a hand-corrected print-out on one side of the screen and a upward-facing shot of a building on the right half. The link on this image is for the assignment as the photograph of the building is one that I took.

tl;dr: I gave a talk about digital pedagogy.

Today I want to share a talk. That’s not all that unusual, as I’ve been in the habit of posting such presentations since I began blogging here in 2009. What’s unusual about this one—at least for me—is that it’s a talk that evolved as I gave it as a keynote at three different universities.

Although it’s taken me longer to post this talk than I would have liked, I want to share my framework for theorizing digital pedagogy. This is the rubric I use when working with faculty here at Brown to design new classroom research projects. We can create new and exciting, team-based research projects for our students. Once you’ve tried this, it’s really hard to go back.

I first spoke about “pedagogy in the digital age” at Fordham University in November 2013. I was invited by Glenn Hendler, who is chair of the English Department, to give this talk as well as a more practical workshop on teaching with technology in the classroom. It was one of the first times I had been given the opportunity to tackle either subject in such a broad way, and the setting of Fordham in NYC definitely inspired the direction that the talk took—that, and an episode of 99% Invisible that I had just listened to. I very much enjoyed the conversations at Fordham and was glad of the chance to put together my thoughts about digital pedagogy into a more coherent argument.

When I was asked a few months later to give the keynote at the September 2014 Liberal Arts Scholarship and Technology Summit (LASTS) at Penn State, I took the chance to further refine the talk and its argument. I was invited by Christopher P. Long, who was at the time Associate Dean for Graduate and Undergraduate Education at Penn State and who has since moved to Michigan State as Dean of the College of Arts & Letters. I’ve always admired Chris for the genuine excitement and positive energy he brings to conversations, so I was flattered and happy to spend the time with him and the Penn State community. (Also, land-grant schools tend to have the best ice cream.) My visit for LASTS was combined with a talk at the Center for American Literary Studies’s Symposium on #Alt-Ac, which I wrote about previously. My keynote was recorded, if you want to see the high kick at the end.

Shortly after the presentation at Penn State, I was thrilled to be invited to speak at both St. Olaf and Carleton Colleges in Northfield, Minnesota (home of Malt-o-Meal; the whole town smelled like Marshmallow Mateys!). The two colleges have received a Mellon Foundation grant for collaboration between the two schools, which sit opposite one another across the Cannon River. One of the outcomes for the grant was the Bridge Crossings Events, which focus on integrating and supporting digital technologies into teaching, learning, and research. I made some more changes to the presentation, as well as did some research on the architecture on both campuses, and joined faculty, librarians, and IT staff at both schools in February 2015 for a discussion of Digital Humanities on the Hill. I really enjoyed my visit, thanks to the great library and IT staff at both schools, although I was shocked at how little winter gear people in Minnesota needed compared to a guy from Georgia. If you’re into comparative media experiences, you can also watch the video of this version of the talk. No high kick, I’m afraid.

Again, my thanks to Fordham, Penn State, and St. Olaf and Carleton Colleges for inviting me and giving me the chance to pull together years of praxis into three performances.

N.B. It’s worth saying that there are two images in this slide deck that are potentially NSFW: artistic photographs of nude sex workers, circa 1912.

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Announcing the Open Peer Review of My “Failure”

A piece of printed paper with a red 'FAIL' stamped on it, with the rubber stamp and ink pad sitting nearby.

How’s that for a clickbait title?
tl;dr: You can now do open-peer review on something Quinn Warnick and I wrote,

Way, way back in what feels like forever ago—and perhaps it was given my two new jobs since then—I attended the 2012 MLA Convention in Seattle. That convention was notable for a number of things for me, including a panel that I co-organized with Kathi Inman Berens on “Building Digital Humanities in the Undergraduate Classroom”; a talk that I gave on #altac and the digital humanities; and the publication of Debates in the Digital Humanities. Note that I didn’t have anything to do with the latter, but it’s a book that changed the field and Minnesota was kind enough to buy pizza for the small but growing DH contingent at the MLA.

Also at that convention, I ended up in a conversation about digital pedagogy and the lack of books on the subject, which was thrown into sharp contrast by the appearance of Debates. The happy result is that in the months that followed I found myself engaged on the advisory board of what eventually became titled, Digital Pedagogy in the Humanities: Concepts, Models, and Experiments. The editors who steered the project—Rebecca Frost Davis, Matthew K. Gold, Katherine D. Harris, and Jentery Sayers—felt that a publication on digital pedagogy probably shouldn’t be limited to print as it simply didn’t respect the medium of the discussion. And fortunately, they were able to place the project with a press that agreed: the Modern Language Association using its tremendous MLA Commons platform. The result will be a book-like publication that is open access and allows for the presentation of original assignments and student work in relation to those assignments.

Even early on in the process, the editors knew that they wanted to organize the volume by keywords that were central to digital pedagogy. Those who contributed keywords would curate pedagogical artifacts and materials in relation to their term. I was both amused and flattered when I was asked by the editorial team to tackle “failure.” It was only a couple of years since I had flailed and failed very publicly in the pursuit of a job and I had since given talks and written articles about failure of one sort or another. It seemed like the FAIL meme had come home to roost and that I should embrace it.

I might have embraced it a little bit too hard at first, and I failed to make much progress in pulling together my thoughts on “failure.” But last November, I had the pleasure of being invited to speak at Virginia Tech by wonderful Quinn Warnick, whom I had met at the DH Conference in 2013. (Kids, never let people tell you that networking won’t pay off.) Our conversations over my time in Blacksburg led me to think that Quinn could be an ideal person to fail with, and we began to discuss what failure meant in the context of our own teaching and that of people we admired. Eventually, we decided that there were four types of failure in digital pedagogy:

  • the technical glitches we have all experienced in our teaching, when something just doesn’t work
  • the difficulties students have in implementing tools that are functioning just fine
  • when students are directed to find failure in others’ work as an opportunity to do better in one’s own, like peer review
  • failure as an epistemology, where students are asked to fail on purpose

Along with articulating how we saw failure working in the classroom, we found assignments or experiences that responded to each of these tiers of failure. We wrote them up and sent it off to our editors.

I’m now proud to say that Quinn’s and my keyword has appeared as part of the open review process for Digital Pedagogy in the Humanities. From now until 18 January 2016, you will be able to tell us exactly how well—or how badly—we failed at describing “failure.” (Consider it a Tier 3 exercise!) Please join in the conversation and let us know what you think:

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It’s Open Access Week! Have an Essay I Wrote!

A collection of 19th-century wax phonograph cylinders.

It’s Open Access Week, in this, the sixth year of my blog (AKA 2015). Like many younger scholars and people who have grown up with the most recent incarnations of digital humanities, I’ve been an open access enthusiast for a long time. But since I haven’t had a lot of my own publications, my version of openly sharing knowledge has normally been to post talks that I’ve given here in this space.

Earlier this year, however, I had an article come out in American Imago. It was exciting for a number of reasons. First, PUBLICATION! 🎉 Second, it was an essay that I’d been working on getting published since 2009 but that had been interrupted for years at a time because of family health problems and the challenges of working as a low-wage adjunct and then the changing nature of my work. Third, it was the first publication to come directly out of my dissertation research. I remain proud of the work that I did on that project, but also don’t really expect to see much more of it come to light given the different sorts of research I do these days. Fourth, I was excited to be working with The Johns Hopkins University Press because their author agreement was really very generous with what I could do with my own work. Past publications have seen me trying to use the SPARC Author Addendum to try to argue for expanded access to my own research. JHUP was going to give me those rights without me having to convince them.

And so, at the beginning of this week, I thought: I should make this essay open access, since I have the right to do so. I decided that I would share it via the MLA’s Commons Open Repository Exchange, or CORE. Part of the innovative community structure that the MLA has built for its members to share and discuss their work, CORE is a disciplinary-focused, “permanent, open access storage facility for [members’] scholarly output.” Not only does CORE allow researchers to share their work with the world, but it makes it easy to let others in the MLA who have interests in common with you know about the article. And did I mention that CORE handles a lot more types of research output than just PDFs? My good friend and steampunk collaborator, Rachel Bowser, and I submitted a talk we gave earlier this year to CORE, and it was a good experience. So with all of that and some institutional loyalty to the MLA as a member of the Executive Council, CORE was a perfect fit for my article.

One of the last lines of the CORE deposit asked me how I wanted to license the article for use by others in the future. I tend to prefer the CC-BY license, as that gives the most possible avenues for my work to be used again by others, and it’s what applies to everything I share on this site. I decided to check the author agreement one more time to see if that had any specific instructions about what I should do in this case. Here’s what I found:

Rights of the Author: You have the following nonexclusive rights: (1) to use the Article in your own teaching activities; (2) to publish the Article, or permit its publication, as a part of any book you may write or edit; (3) to include the Article in your own personal or departmental institutional database or on-line site; (4) to include the Article in your institutional repository provided the repository is institution specific and not a discipline-based database that accepts contributions from outside the institution; (5) to include your Article, if required by law, in an open access archive such as PubMedCentral.

When I had first reviewed the author agreement in February, I paid particular attention to point 3, which meant that I could put the essay on my website and share it that way. I had also noticed that point 4 meant that I could put it in an institutional repository. But this week, it was the second half of the point 4 that caught my attention: I can’t share the article in a “discipline-based database that accepts contributions from outside the institution.” When I signed this, MLA CORE wasn’t yet live and I just didn’t notice the prohibition.

While I don’t like this particular clause in the agreement, it is nevertheless an agreement and one to which I was a willing party. As much as I would like to support the MLA and to share the article in what I think would be the most useful means for my disciplinary peers, that’s not an option. In the future, I will certainly negotiate my author agreements to try to get permissions to submit to CORE. I might not always get it, but at least I will know to ask.

The other thing worth mentioning is that I’m currently serving the second year of a four-year term on the MLA’s Executive Council. It’s been a tremendous learning experience to this point, and I’m proud to be working with an organization that I care about. (You may consequently call my above comments about CORE “boosterism,” but please note that I speak only for myself and not for the MLA.) But from this vantage point, I have the opportunity (as do all MLA members) to bring items to the attention of the organization. You can be sure I’ll be talking to MLA staff and fellow Council members at our meeting next week about how the MLA might advocate to publishers—even ones with liberal and good starting places like JHUP—to re-consider clauses like point 4 in their author agreements.

Was this a bait and switch? “Where’s the article?” you clamor. Nope, not at all. Please help yourself to your very own copy of “‘Becoming Another Thing’: Traumatic and Technological Transformation in The Red Badge of Courage.” What? You can’t tell what it’s about given that title? Of course not! This is academia!

Here’s how I described the argument in the abstract:

This essay examines the traumatic transformation of Stephen Crane’s young protagonist in battle. It argues that this metamorphosis is brought on by the technologies on the battlefield and the youth’s outdated expectations about their speed. Further, it explores how Crane deploys tropes of mechanical and media technologies—especially the phonograph and the camera—to describe the protagonist’s psychically dissociated state and to account for the processing of traumatic memories. It closes by demonstrating that The Red Badge of Courage deploys metaphors of technology as a way to demonstrate the continuing relevance of the novel as genre in the face of rapidly evolving media ecologies.

That captures it pretty well. But it’s probably more accurate to say that this is what you get when you take someone who has been reading a lot of Virilio, Kittler, and Bolter and Grusin and then let them loose on Freud and Crane. Whether that’s something anyone actually wants is something else altogether.

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