Posts Tagged technology

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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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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A Digital Pedagogy Unconference at MLA13: Join Us!

[This has been cross-posted at Adeline Koh’s website,]

Adeline and I are thrilled to announce that we’ll be holding an “unconference” on digital pedagogy as a preconference workshop for the Modern Language Association Annual Meeting in 2013.

What are “Unconferences”?

The ten-year old unconference format emerged as a response to weaknesses of the traditional conference presentation. Unconferences are participant-driven gatherings where attendees spontaneously generate the itinerary. Perhaps the best example of the unconference format in the humanities thus far has been the THATCamps which originated at the Center of History and New Media (CHNM) at George Mason University. The growth of interest in the unconference format within the humanities can be seen by the exponential growth of THATCamps, from one event in 2008, to three in 2009, to twenty-six in 2011.

Why an “Unconference”?

For the last several years, the MLA conference has increasingly welcomed new styles of presentation such as lightning talks and electronic roundtables, all aimed at increasing interactive discussion among the attendees. The organization continues to call for more change. In the Spring 2012 MLA Newsletter (PDF), both the MLA’s Program Committee and its Executive Director encouraged MLA members to consider new forms of presentations for the upcoming convention in Boston.

Our three-hour “unconference” on the subject of digital pedagogy is an attempt to answer this call to re-envision the conference format and introduce yet one more form of presentation at the annual Convention.

Hold an unconference

Unconference Theme: Digital Pedagogy

Attendees of our Digital Pedagogy Unconference will consider: what would you like to learn and instruct others about teaching with technology?

While interest in digital pedagogy has grown along with the rise of the digital humanities, these two fields are not identical. Although all instructors are being increasingly encouraged to incorporate technology into their pedagogy, not all of these instructors may want to become digital humanists. As such, digital pedagogy has a broad application for scholars of language and literature.

More Soon!

  • We expect to offer 50 seats for the unconference workshop and to charge a small fee to sign up.
  • Expect a website for the unconference to be forthcoming in the summer/fall of 2012, with more details and instructions about how to sign up.

We’re both incredibly excited, and hope you’ll join us there!

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Whither Technology in the Graduate English Seminar?

This week I was asked to take part in a meeting about some improvements to the classroom where Emory’s English department teaches its graduate courses. Specifically, the department has decided to make the space “smart” by adding a computer and a projector to the space. As far as I know, this classroom has been one of the last holdouts on this campus–and certainly in its building–for adding these tools. Up until this point, the technology of this space has been limited to a blackboard, a whiteboard, and a 27-inch, CRT television that hangs precariously in one corner of the room. So the improvements are certainly welcome.

But this meeting wasn’t about debating the technology that would be added. Instead, we were there to think about how the faculty in the English department could use the new technology effectively in graduate seminars. Our group met to brainstorm before giving a presentation to the department on different strategies they could use, and it represented people heading up a humanities digital scholarship initiative, librarians, and instructional technologists.

We had a lively discussion, but at the end we felt a bit stumped. What was getting in our way was the format in which the English graduate seminar tends to be taught. Speaking from my own experience–at Emory, no less–English graduate seminars tend to follow a pretty predictable pattern.[1] Students are assigned to read a primary text–a novel, a volume of poetry, etc.–and one or more secondary texts–articles, chapters from one or more books, or a monograph (although this last one is shockingly rare, as Cathy Davidson has recently discussed in the ADE Bulletin). The seminar sessions themselves varied on the faculty member. It wasn’t uncommon for the faculty member to walk in and say, “Well, what did you think?” (What did I think about reading the complete Wallace Stevens in one week? Plus two articles? I don’t know. I really don’t.) Others would begin by discussing the secondary texts and then move on to the primary texts. Still others would encourage individual students to take the lead for a portion of the class, either giving an oral presentation or speaking about a paper that he or she had written and distributed ahead of time. Seldom did any of my professors start with anything resembling a presentation or lecture that covered concepts or history. Any way you take it, the result is that much of the seminar’s time ends up being devoted to discussion that is centered around a couple of texts.

But if the discussion is around a few texts, around their close reading and their discussion by what can often be very small groups of people, what role is there for classroom technology, even if it is something basic like a podium computer and a projector? Obviously, one can use these tools for displaying films or images. These are certainly germane to the work and pedagogy of some of the department’s faculty members. And if one is working on electronic literature, then having a computer in the classroom is certainly advantageous. But what else is there?

This is the question that our group found itself wrestling with, as we tried to think of some approaches that faculty members could find useful. Here’s some of the ideas that we came up with:

  • Skype-ing in guest speakers: If grad students are reading a couple of current articles, imagine how interesting it would be to invite the authors of those articles to participate in a discussion with the class. Not only do students get a different perspective on the article (although still being wary of authorial intention), but they would have a chance to make real connections with people in the field that are outside the institution. In addition to the authors of secondary material, faculty could also invite experts on various topics to engage the class in additional dialog.
  • Co-teaching / co-learning across institutions: Extending the previous point to perhaps its logical conclusion, one could ask whether it would be possible to co-teach an entire class with someone at another institution and to have students enroll from each institution. Connecting budding scholars not only with advanced persons in the field but also other budding scholars could only do wonders for the profession, in my opinion.
  • Enhanced student presentations: Given the increasing emphasis on professionalization in the last decade within graduate school, students are more and more aware that they are enrolling in a PhD program as a stepping stone to having a particular career. Instead of simply giving an oral presentation in class, students could practice presentation skills that will be useful in conferences, classrooms, and job talks. Becoming familiar with tools such as PowerPoint or Prezi or formats such as Pecha Kucha will help the students polish what they will need to do on larger stages. As anyone who has been to an academic conference or attended college can attest, presentation skills are not bundled with the Ph.D. The more time students spend speaking in the front of a room and hearing from their audience, the better they will be at crafting engaging (and therefore successful) presentations and classes.
  • Social media in the classroom: Those who know me know that I am very enthusiastic about the use of Twitter and other social media tools in the undergraduate classroom. My experience shows that such tools increase participation in class due to the students’ knowing one another better. Once you know what someone eats for breakfast, it really does become easier to talk with her about Faulkner. There isn’t any reason that graduate students couldn’t make use of similar backchannels within and without the seminar. Doing the former provides another venue for presenting ideas and furthering discussion outside the classroom with the inclusion of what David Siver calls “thick tweets.” There are two potential limitations to this approach. First, my experience in seminars (which is, admittedly, five years old at this point) suggests that most English graduate students don’t bring their own computers, opting instead to take hand-written notes. A cultural shift can alter this, however. Second, since many seminars are so small (I took one with only the professor, one other student and myself), there is not necessarily the adequate numbers required nor the dynamic in place to sustain social media interactions.
  • Crowdsourcing notes: Those who know me know that I am even more enthusiastic about Jason Jones’s wiki-notes assignment than I am about Twitter. I think there’s great value in asking students to collectively decide what was important about the day’s work in the classroom. And I would argue that this might be even more important in the graduate classroom. Since the faculty members from whom I took classes tended not to present/lecture in the beginning of the seminar, I often left the seminars not sure if I’d latched onto the most important concepts. Having to put into writing what I’d learned that day would have been a very useful exercise. Doing it in conjunction with my classmates would have been still better. Of course, one need not have classroom technology in place for this assignment. But bold faculty members could experiment with allowing students to take collaborative notes about the class within Google Wave or a wiki. Potential problems with live note-taking could occur if, again, the seminar is small and/or if the note-taking got in the way of discussions. That being said, becoming conscious of the “text” of the classroom could be instructive (it has always been so for me) and provide another text to analyze.
  • Re-thinking the secondary reading assignment: If, as mentioned previously, Cathy Davidson is right that we do not assign enough monographs in our graduate seminars, one might rethink how the secondary reading is assigned with a class. A faculty member could assign an entire monograph to the class to be read in conjunction with the primary text. To lighten the load on the students, however, the faculty member could ask each student to be in charge of individual chapters and to write summaries of those chapters. These summaries could be collected in a class wiki that could be referred to throughout the class. If a professor was worried that there wouldn’t be enough common ground for a discussion, she could ask all the students to read one chapter and then assign the rest.
  • Doing the work of the class: While graduate seminars in English tend to be focused on discussions of the texts at hand, this is not the only activity that takes place, as mentioned above. Consequently, other uses of technology within the graduate seminar could include examination of primary materials (images), facsimile editions (displayed on a document camera), film, doing text mining analysis, or marking up texts in with TEI’s XML standards. Some classes, such as University of Maryland, College Park’s Matt Kirschenbaum’s Spring 2008 seminar on simulations, might go so “far” as to use Second Life or games within the classroom and others, such as Yale’s Pericles Lewis’s “Moderns, 1914-1926,” is in part devoted to creating an electronic resource for the study of modernism. Todd Presner of UCLA has his students contribute to geospatial archive and publishing platform Hypercities. Doing the work of the class, in other words, can be dependent upon particular technologies, especially when particular technologies (not always the same as those in the previous clause) are the subject of the course.

Apart from this last point, in which the technology is explicitly a part of the work of the class–albeit classes that stray from the standard model of the graduate seminar [1]–I’m willing to bet that each of these ideas will seem radical and disruptive to how English seminars are normally taught. But why is that?

I believe that English seminars are taught not so much to convey information (stuff the professor knows that the students don’t) as they are to teach the methodologies of literary studies. The most important methodology of literary studies is the manner of thinking about literature, since it is this thinking that spurs us on to ask particular questions. The give and take of the seminar, then, is an exercise in training graduate students not in particular information but in a particular thinking method. And since thinking method is the primary research method for literature students, the seminar room becomes a de facto space for teaching research methodologies. Using technology in unexpected ways in a graduate seminar becomes a challenge to the traditions of the discipline’s research methodology.

The integration of technology into an English graduate seminar classroom, in other words, poses questions about how we’re training the next group of scholars, about our pedagogy, and about how we’ve done things for the last X-number of years. This is not to say that it’s a bad thing. In fact, it might be a very, very good thing. But I think it underscores why we had such a hard time coming up with this list and why it will be difficult for faculty to integrate the new tools into their graduate seminars.

But I also know that my experiences in the English graduate seminar are not universal.[1] And I’m willing to bet that many of you have thought of or seen other ways to integrate technology–even on a very small scale–into the English graduate seminar. I’d like to collect as many of these possibilities as I can in the comments. Both our discussion group and the English department believe that faculty best learn and innovate by seeing examples of other things that other faculty are doing.

So. How have you imagined or seen technology transform the English graduate classroom experience? Please share.

[1] It’s worth noting that my portrayal of what an English graduate seminar is and looks like is obviously influenced by my own experiences. Conversations with those who attended other institutions tend to confirm these experiences. But I’m sure that there are also plenty of places where the structures are very much different from what I perceive to be the “norm.”

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