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Some Assembly Required: teaching through/with/about/by/because of, the Digital Humanities (slides & notes)
I’m giving a keynote address to the Canadian Network for Innovation in Education conference, at Carleton on Thursday (10.30, River Building). I’ve never done a keynote before, so I’ll confess to being a bit nervous. ‘Provoke!’ I’ve been told. ‘Inspire! Challenge!’ Well, here goes….
These are the slides and the more-or-less complete speaker’s notes. I often write things out, and then completely adlib on the day, but this is more or less the flavour I’m going for.
I never appreciated how scary those three words were until I had kids. ‘Some assembly required’. That first Christmas was all, slide Tab A into Slot B. Where’s the 5/8ths gripley? Is that an Allen key? Why are there so many screws left over? The toys, with time, get broken, get fixed, get recombined with different play sets, are the main characters and the exotic locales for epic stories. I get a lot of mileage out of the stories my kids tell and act out with these toys.
My job is the DH guy in the history department. DH, as I see it, is a bit like the way my kids play with the imperfectly built things – it’s about making things, about breaking things, about being playful with those things. This talk is about what that kind of perspective might imply for our teaching and learning.
I don’t know what persuaded my parents that it’d be a good idea to spend $300 in 1983 dollars on a Vic20, but I’m glad they did. You turn on your ipad, it all just happens magically, whoosh! In those days, if you had a computer, you had to figure out how to make it do stuff, the hard way. A bit disappointing, that first ‘Ready’ prompt. Ready to do what? My brothers and I wanted to play games. So, we sat down to learn how to program them. If you had a vic-20, do you remember how exciting it was when that ball first bounced off the corners of your screen? A bit like the apes in the opening scene of ’2001′. At least, in our house.
‘Wargame’, film with Matthew Broderick. This scared me; but I loved the idea of being able to reach out to someone else, someone far from where I lived in Western Quebec. So we settled for occasional trips to the Commodore store in Ottawa, bootleg copies of Compute! Magazine, and my most treasured book, a ‘how to make adventure games’ manual for kids, that my Aunt purchased for me at the Ontario Science centre.
Do you remember old-school text adventures? They’re games! They promote reading! Literacy! They are a Good Thing. Let’s play a bit of this game, ‘Action Castle’, to remind us how they worked.
To play an interactive fiction is to foreground how the rules work; it’s easy to see, with IF. But that same interrogation needs to happen whenever we encounter digital media.
Games like Bioshock – a criticism of Randian philosophy. Here, the interplay between the rules and the illusion of agency are critical to making the argument work.
When you play any kind of game, or interact with any kind of medium, you generally achieve success once you begin to think like the machine. What do games teach us? How to play the game: how to think like a computer. This is a ‘cyborg’ consciousness. The ‘cyb’ in ‘Cyborg’ comes from the greek for ‘governor’ or ‘ship’s captain’. Who is doing the governing? The code. This is why humanities NEEDS to consider the digital. It’s too important to leave to the folks who are already good at thinking like machines. This is the first strand of what ‘digital humanities’ might mean.
A second strand comes from that same impulse that my brothers and I had – let’s make something! Trying to make something on the computer inevitably leads to deformation. This deformation can be on purpose, like an artist; or it can be accidental, a result of either the user’s skill or the way that the underlying code imagines the world to work.
‘Historical Friction’ is my attempt to realize a day-dream: what if the history of a place was thick enough to impede movement through it? I knew that I could find a) enough information about virtually everywhere on Wikipedia; that b) I could access this through mobile computing and c) something that often stops me in my tracks is not primarily visual but rather auditory. But I don’t have the coding chops to build something like that from scratch.
What I can do, though, is mash things together, sometimes. But when I do that, I’m beholden to design choices others have made. ‘Historical Friction’ is my first stab at this, welding someone else’s Wikipedia tool to someone else’s voice synthesizer. Let’s take a listen.
…So this second strand of DH is to deform (with its connotations of a kind of performance) different ways of knowing.
A third strand of DH comes from the reflexive use of technology. My training is in archaeology. As an archaeologist, I became Eastern Canada’s only expert in Roman Brick Stamps. Not a lot of call for that.
But I recognized that I could use this material to extract fossilized social networks, that the information in the stamps was all about connections. Once I had this social network, I began to wonder how I could reanimate it, and so I turned to simulation modeling. After much exploration, I’ve realized that what I resurrect on these social networks is NOT the past, but rather the story I am telling about the past. I simulate historiography. I create a population of zombie Romans (individual computing objects) and I give them rules of behavior that describe some phenomenon in the past that I am interested in. These rules are formulated at the level of the individual. I let the zombies go, and watch how they interact. In this way, I develop a way to interrogate the unintended or emergent consequences of the story I tell about the past: a kind of probabilistic historiography.
So DH allows me to deform my own understandings of the world; it allows me to put the stories I tell to the test.
There’s an awful lot of work that goes under the rubric of ‘digital humanities’. But these three strands are I think the critical ones for understanding what university teaching informed by DH might look like.
Did I mention my background was in archaeology? There’s a lot that goes under the rubric of ‘experimental’ archaeology that ties in to or is congruent with the digital humanities as well. Fundamentally, you might file it under the caption of ‘making as a way of knowing’.
Experimental archaeology has been around for decades. So too has DH (and its earlier incarnation as ‘humanities computing’) which goes back to at least the 1940s and Father Busa, who famously persuaded IBM to give him a research lab and computer scientists to help him create his concordance of the work praesans in the writings of Thomas Aquinas.
So despite the current buzz, DH is not just a fad, but rather has (comparatively) deep antecedents. The ‘Humanities’ as an organizing concept in universities has scarcely been around for much longer.
So let’s consider then what DH implies for university teaching.
But I feel I should warn you. My abilities to forecast the future are entirely suspect. As an undergrad, in 1994, I was asked to go on the ‘world wide web’, this new thing, and create an annotated bibliography concerning as many websites as I could that dealt with the Etruscans. The first site I found (before the days of content filters) was headlined, ‘the Sex Communist Manifesto’. Unimpressed, I wrote a screed that began, “The so-called ‘world wide web’ will never be useful for academics.”
Please do take everything I say then with a grain or two of salt.
Let me tell you about some of the things I have tried, built on these ideas of recognizing our increasingly cyborg consciousness, deformation of our materials, and of our perspectives. I’m pretty much a one-man band, so I’ve not done a lot with a lot of bells and whistles, but I have tried to foster a kind of playfulness, whether that’s role-playing, game playing, or just screwing around.
Some of this has failed horribly; and partly the failure emerged because I didn’t understand that, just like digital media, our institutions have rule sets that students are aware of; sometimes, our ‘best’ students are ‘best’ not because they have a deep understanding of the materials but rather because they have learned to play the games that our rules have created. In the game of being a student, the rules are well understood – especially in history (which is where I currently have my departmental home). Write an essay; follow certain rhetorical devices; write a midterm; write a final. Rinse. Repeat. Woe betide the prof who messes with that formula!
I once taught in a distance ed program, teaching an introduction to Roman culture class. The materials were already developed; I was little more than a glorified scantron machine. I was getting essay after essay that contained clangers along the lines of, ‘Vespasian won the civil war of AD 69, because Vespasian was later the Emperor.’ I played a lot of Civilization IV at the time, so I thought, I bet if I could get students to play out the scenario of AD69, students would understand a lot more of the contingency of the period, that Vespasian’s win was not foreordained. I crafted the scenario, built an alternative essay around it (’play the scenario, contrast the game’s history with ‘real’ history’), found students who had the game. Though many played it, they all opted to just write the original essay prompt. My failure was two-fold. One,‘playing a game for credit’ did not mesh with ‘the game of being a student’; there was no space there. Two, I created a ‘creepy treehouse’, a transgression into the student’s world where I did not belong. Profs do not play games. It’d be like inviting all my students to friend me on Facebook. It was creepy.
I tried again, in a history course last winter. The first assessment exercise – an icebreaker, really – was to play an interactive fiction that recreated some of the social aspects of moving through Roman space. The player had to find her way from Beneventum to Pompeii, without recourse to maps. What panic! What chaos! I lost a third of the class that week. Again, the concern was, ‘how does playing a game fit into the game of being a student’. Learning from the previous fiasco, I thought I’d laid a better foundation this time. Nope. The thing I neglected: there is safety in the herd. No one was willing to play as an individual and submit an individual response – ‘who wants to be a guinea pig?’ might have been the name of THIS game, as far as the students were concerned. I changed course, and we played it as a group, in class. Suddenly, it was safe.
But from failure, we learn, and we sometimes have epic wins (failures almost always are more interesting than wins). Imagine if we had a system that short-circuited the game of being a student, to allow students the freedom to fail, to try things out, and to grow! One of the major fails of my Year of the Four Emperors experiment was that it was I who did all the building. It should’ve been the students. When I built my scenario, I was doing it in public on one of the game’s community forums. I’ve since started crafting courses (or at least, trying to) where the students are continually building upwards from zero, where they do it in public, and where all of their writing and crafting is done in the open, in the context of a special group. This changes the game considerably.
To many of you, this is no doubt a coals-to-newcastle, preaching-to-the-choir kind of moment.
And again, I hear you say, what would an entire university look like, if all this was our foundation? Well, it’s starting to look a little better than it did when we first asked the question…
dh will save us
…but DH has been pushed an awful lot lately. DH will save us! It’ll make the humanities ‘relevant’: to funding bodies, to government, to parents! Just sprinkle DH fairy dust, and all will be safe, right?
memes & dark side
You’ve probably heard that. It’s happened enough that there’s even memes about it.
Yep. No doubt – a lot of folks are sick of hearing about ‘the digital humanities’. At the most recent MLA, there was a good deal of pushback, including a session called ‘the dark side of DH’. Wendy Chun wrote,
“For today, I want to propose that the dark side of the digital humanities is its bright side, its alleged promise: its alleged promise to save the humanities by making them and their graduates relevant, by giving their graduates technical skills that will allow them to thrive in a difficult and precarious job market. Speaking partly as a former engineer, this promise strikes me as bull: knowing GIS or basic statistics or basic scripting (or even server side scripting) is not going to make English majors competitive with engineers or CS geeks trained here or increasingly abroad […] It allows us to believe that the problem facing our students and our profession is a lack of technical savvy rather than an economic system that undermines the future of our students.”
(That’s not a DH that I recognize, by the way, as I hope you’ll have noticed given my three strands).
Now, I wasn’t at that meeting, but I saw a lot of chatter flutter by that day, as in that same session MOOCs were conflated with the digital humanities; that somehow the embrace of DH enables the proliferation of MOOCs. As Amanda French, who has coordinated an extraordinary number of digital humanities ‘THATCamp’ conferences, has said, ‘I don’t know a single digital humanist who likes MOOcs.”
We’ve heard a lot about MOOCs today, and I’m certainly in no position to critique them as I’ve never offered nor successfully finished one. But as I’ve identified the strands of DH today, there *is* an affinity though with the so-called ‘cMOOC’.
Know Your MOOCs
Before there was coursera, udacity, and glorified talking heads over the internet, there was the cMOOC. The Canadian MOOC. The personal learning environment. Isn’t it interesting that Pearson, a text book publisher, is a heavy investor in the MOOC scene? Frankly, as xMOOCs are currently designed, they seem to me to be a challenge to publishers of textbooks rather than to teaching. We can do better, and I think DH ties well with the idea of personal learning environments. ‘Massive’ is not, in and of itself, a virtue, and we’d do well to remember that.
So, following my three strands, we’d:
-identify the ways our institutions and our uses of technology force particular ways of thinking
-we’d deform the content we teach
-we’d set up our institutions and our uses of technology to deform the way our students think: including the ways our institutions are set up.
So let’s turn the university inside out. It’s been about silos for so long (also known as ivory towers). I grew up on a farm: do you know what gets put into a silo, what comes out? It’s silage, chopped up, often a bit fermented, cattle food: pre-processed cud. Let’s not do that anymore.
Walled Gardens, online dating
For all their massiveness, MOOCs and Universities are still walled gardens. And what’s the unit of connection? It’s the course. It’s the container. I used to work with a guy who often said, ‘once we get the contract, we’ll just get monkeys to do the work’. That guy is no longer in business. I used to work for a for-profit university in the States that had a similar approach to hiring online faculty.
MOOCs are not disruptive in that sense. Want to be really disruptive? Let’s turn to a model that massively connects people together who have a shared interest. I hereby banish the use of any metaphor that frames the relationship at a university in terms of clients, or customers. Instead, what if the metaphor used was more in line with a dating service?
In online dating, the site brings together two kinds of people, both looking for the same thing. Typically, the men pay a fee to be on the site; women are wooed to the site by all sorts of free promos etc. No point having a dating site that does not have any available ‘others’ on it. In which case, the university could be in the business of bringing together students [the ‘men’] with faculty [the ‘women’]. If a university had that metaphor in its mind, it would be thinking, ‘what can we do to make our site – the university – an attractive place for faculty to be?’ Imagine that!
Students would not be signing up for classes, but rather, to follow and learn from particular profs. Typically on something like eBay or a dating site, there are reputation systems embedded in the site. You do not buy from the person with the bad rep in eBay; you do not contact the person whose profile has gotten many negative reviews. Since the university knows the grades of the students and has teaching evaluations and other indicators of faculty interests and reputations, it has the ability to put together faculty and students in a dynamic way. “Others who have enjoyed learning about Roman civilization with Dr. Graham have loved learning about Bronze Age Greece with…”. Wouldn’t it be something to allow students to select their areas of interest knowing the reputation of the profs who work in a particular area; and for profs to select their students based on their demonstrated interests and aptitudes? Let faculty and students have ‘tokens’ – this is my first choice, this is my second choice, this is my third choice prof/student to work with for the session. Facilitate the matching of students and faculty. Let the student craft their way through university following individuals, and crafting a ‘masterpiece’ for their final demonstration of making as a way of knowing, for their BA? Hmmm. Kinda sounds like a return to the Guild, as it were.
You might not like that, which is fine; there are probably better ideas out there. We’ve got all this damned information around! Maybe there are earlier models that could work better with our new technologies, maybe there are new models for our new techs. But surely we can do better than merely replicate processes that were designed for the late 19th and early 20th century? Whatever metaphor we use to frame what the university does, it goes a long way to framing the ways learning can happen. That’s what DH and its exploration of a cyborg consciousness should make us at least explore.
domain of one’s own
And once we’ve done that, let’s have some real openness. Let the world see that faculty-student, and student-student, relationship develop. Invite the rest of the world in. Folks like Ethan Watrall at MSU already do that for their on-campus courses putting all course materials and assessment activities on open websites, inviting the wider world to participate and to interact with the students.
Give every student, at the time of registration, a domain of their own, like Mary Washington is starting to do. Pay for it, help the student maintain it, for their time at university. At graduation, the student could archive it, or take over its maintenance. Let the learning community continue after formal assessment ends. The robots that construct our knowledge from the world wide web – Google and the content aggregators – depend on strong signals, on a creative class. If each and every student at your institution (and your alumni!) is using a domain of their own as a repository for their own IP, a personal learning environment, a node in a frequently re-configuring network of learners, your university would generate real gravity on the web, become the well out of which the wider world draws its knowledge. Use the structure and logic of the web to embed the learning life of the university so deeply into the wider world that it cannot be extricated!
Because right now, that’s not happening. If you study the structure of the web for different kinds of academic knowledge (here, Roman archaeology), there’s a huge disconnect between where the people are, and where the academics are. If we allow that to continue, it becomes increasingly more easy for outsiders to frame ‘academic’ knowledge as a synonym ‘pointless’. With the embedded university, the university inside out, there are no outsiders. If we embed our teaching through the personal learning environments of our students, our research production will become similarly embedded.
If the university is inside out, and not in splendid isolation, then it is embedded.
Forget massively ‘open’.
Think massively embedded.
Think massively accessible.
(Not the best image I could fine, but hey! that boulder, part of a structure, is embedded in a massively accessible landscape.)
Check mark list
So what’s tuition for, then? Well, it’s an opportunity to have my one-on-one undivided attention; it’s icetime, an opportunity to skate. But we need to have more opportunities for sideways access to that attention too, for people who have benefited from participating in our openness, our embeddedness to demonstrate what they’ve learned. There’s much to recommend in Western Governors’ University’s approach to the evaluation of non-traditional learners.
The digital humanities, as a perspective, has changed the way I’ve come to teach. I didn’t set out to be a digital humanist; I wanted to be an archaeologist. But the multiple ways in which archaeological knowledge is constructed, its pan-disciplinary need to draw from different wells, pushed me into DH. There are many different strands to DH work; I’ve identified here what I think are three major ones that could become the framework, the weave and the weft, for something truly disruptive.
I’m to speak at the Canadian Network for Innovation in Education conference at Carleton in May; I’m one of the keynotes. I’ve never done a keynote before… I have a great fear of bringing coals to Newcastle, as it were. Pressed for a title and an abstract, this is what I’ve come up with (for good or ill):
Some Assembly Required
Every day, another university signs up to participate in Udacity, Coursera, or another of the monster MOOCs. Every day, another job posting makes ‘digital humanities’ a requirement. These two trends are not unrelated. Canadians have been at the forefront of massively open online courses, and in work that has come to be known as ‘digital humanities’, long before the current mania. In this talk, I want to tease apart the strands and histories that conflate these two trends. I want to look at how a perspective grounded in the digital humanities (whatever they are) is not just the latest trend, but rather a prism with a deep history through which we can refract our teaching and learning, and where MOOCs can be transmogrified into good pedagogy. Some assembly is required, and in neither trend can humans be replaced. Rather, the technology requires a humanities perspective in order for it to achieve its greatest potentials.
I’d be happy to hear people’s thoughts on this – inverting the normal order of thing, soliciting comments before the paper…
Partly as a result of speaking at this conference (and also a wedding to attend that week) I won’t be able to hit a graduate student conference on the digital humanities happening one building over.
Tomorrow in my HIST3812 I want to get students thinking about the kinds of history that might be appropriate to embody in a game or simulation, and the experience of such games. Inspired by something we did at THATCamp Great Lakes, I’ve taken a deck of cards and divided it into ‘historiography (hearts)’, ‘genre (spades)’, and ‘aesthetic (clubs)’. Here’s the prompt for the exercise:
“I will give you cards from three different decks:
- historiography (Hearts)
- genre (Spades)
- aesthetic (Clubs)
Look at your cards. In your groups, brainstorm a quick idea for a game using those cards. If, after five minutes, you’ve hit a blank, you may exchange one card, and one card only. Note that nothing is being said about mechanics…
(what you come up with today is not necessarily what you have to go with for the term. This is just meant to get you thinking.)
|Historiography (Hearts)||Genre (Spades)||Aesthetics (Clubs)|
|1 – Comparative||1 – ARG||1 or A – sensation|
|2 – Cultural||2 – Platformer||2 or K – fantasy|
|3 – Oral||3 – Shooter||3 or Q – narrative|
|4 – Economic||4 – Action-adventure||4 or J – challenge|
|5 – Environmental||5 or 10 – Adventure||5 or 10 – fellowship|
|6 – World||6 or J – RPG||6 or 9 – discovery|
|7 – Family||7 or Q – Simulation||7 – submission|
|8 – Gender||8 or K – Strategy||8 – expression|
|9 – Religious||9 – Casual|
|10 – Intellectual||A – Serious|
|J – Labour|
|Q – Marxist|
|K – Microhistory|
|A – Public|
Finally, with a bit of space to breathe, I am turning to getting my HIST3812 Gaming and Simulation for Historians course put together. In response to student queries about what this course will explore, I’ve put together a wee comic book (to capture the aesthetic of playfulness about history that games & simulations naturally contain). I’m not a particularly good maker of comic books, but it does the trick, more or less.
See it on Issuu here
I was interviewed recently by a student in Leslie Madsen-Brooks graduate seminar in digital history, HannaLore Hein. She posts her impression of the interview on the course website here. It’s always interesting to see what you wrote come through someone else’s filters. Given a recent conversation on twitter, where Mike Widner and others have been discussing the results of text analysis/topic modeling on all of the posted interviews, I thought I’d post here the ur-text from our interview.
1. Did you begin your academic career wanting to be an archeologist? How did your studies as and undergraduate and graduate student lead you to your current career?
I grew up in a family with a very strong interest in history. My brothers and I all teach at various levels in the system, and various aunts & other family members all taught too. It was rather a given… as for archaeology, I was attracted by the materiality of it. I love historical landscapes. Archaeology forces you to confront that history happens in space and place, with and through objects. I like stuff. It was a good fit!
But it all comes down to an opportunity I had a at junior college in Quebec (a CEGEP, as they’re called). I had the opportunity to go to Greece on a study tour, and then to return the following year on an excavation. We worked on a medieval Cistercian abbey, in which was buried a mutilated skeleton. Its treatment was consistent with traditions surrounding vampires, so… it rather hooks you in, an experience like that!
I studied classical archaeology at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo Ontario. I wasn’t very tech minded in those days, though I had had a C-64 growing up, and had programmed my own games in BASIC. I had an exercise in one class in 1995 where we were asked to go onto this “World Wide Web” and create an annotated webography of sites related to the Etruscans. Less than impressed with what I found, I wrote an essay entitled, ‘Why the World Wide Web Will Never Be Useful For Academics’.
My ability to predict the future is thus suspect.
2. Did you always have a knack for technology? Was it something that came easily to you, or something you really had to work at to understand?
I’ve been breaking things since I was 3. I took our family piano apart when I was ten, dropping all of the hammers and rendering a B-Flat completely useless ever since. In the sense that I’ve never been afraid to tinker, to try to understand how things work, then yes, you could say I have a knack for technology. With our C-64, I use to buy magazines that printed out all of the code for games, utilities, and so on. I did a lot of that sort of thing, down in the basement… but I’m always working hard to figure out how things work, and what I might use them for. I get a kick out of helping other people too. I believe in failing gloriously and failing often. It’s only through that cycle – and being willing to share what happened – that we move forward. Recently a project website of mine was hacked. I was gutted – I lost a summer’s worth of work. But on the flip side, it was a great moment to share with the wider community so that it wouldn’t happen to them. I posted about it here: http://electricarchaeology.ca/2012/05/18/how-i-lost-the-crowd-a-tale-of-sorrow-and-hope/ and was really heartened to see the comments of support (and tweets) about what went on.
Too often we only talk about things that worked just like we thought they would. We need to have a discourse about things we try that didn’t – and why.
3. What jobs have you held previously? Were there any skills that you acquired at those positions that you still use today?
My very first job was as a janitor, responsible for the washrooms at a summer resort. Being a janitor taught patience and fortitude in the face of really annoying ….stuff….. More to your question though, I’ve taught at all levels from High School through to Continuing Ed. Until I joined the faculty at Carleton, I worked in the world of for-profit online education. I learned a lot about teaching and tech in those positions. I was a free lance heritage consultant at one point, with a couple of government contracts, where mission creep is a very real issue. Learn to say no, learn to draw the line. I also have a business with my family in what could be considered the heritage agritourism field. Again though I consider that a form of teaching – understanding customers, understanding students, can be very similar. That’s not to say that students are customers, mind you. Paying for tuition is like paying for ice time- it gets you on the ice, I’ll coach you, but you don’t necessarily get to hoist the Stanley Cup.
4. How advanced is your knowledge of computer science and programing? Is that a major component of your job?
I’m always reading, always learning. Talk to the comp.sci folks. Keeping up with what’s going on, and trying to identify which skills are the ones I need. There’s a lot to recommend just playing and tinkering though, in terms of teaching. When you are formally taught something, you tend to internalize that particular mode of doing whatever it is. I’m sure there are probably more effective ways of learning the skills I need, but this is what seems to work for me. I’ve heard of people getting credit towards tenure for ‘learning python’ or what have you, so that’s encouraging. Works like The Programming Historian are a fantastic resource, and I’m continually astounded by what other folks can do. I’m really a bit of a fraud. First day in the department, I couldn’t find the on switch for the Macs…. (I’m a pc guy).
5. What is your favorite form of digital communication? (Blogs, Twitter, etc.) What form do you think is most respected in the field? What form is the most “academically accepted?”
I have worked hard on my blog, from 2006 onwards, to make it a useful form of academic output for me. I thank Alan Liu and other participants at the 1st Nebraska Digital Humanities Workshop (were I’d been invited to present) for pushing me to blog. Once I started giving it away on my blog, I started getting traction in academia (that I wasn’t getting as a Romanist). A careful, thoughtful blog is a sinequanon for the digital humanist, as is a twitter account. I don’t care much for Facebook or Google +. In terms of ‘academically accepted’, I can show you structural reasons why blogs matter in terms of speaking beyond and to the academy. Someone has to generate the content on the internet, right? Experiments like the Journal of Digital Humanities and things like the LSE Impact Blog are slowly securing the short-form quick-publish genre as an accepted format of scholarly output. Blogging is platform, not genre. We shouldn’t confuse the two. In some senses, the journal article or monography is the last stage of the process, an archive rather than a picture of developing scholarly output. That’s going to be the biggest change.
6. How do you balance your career/projects between the digital and traditional academic worlds?
Happily, I’m one of the first people in Canada to have ‘Digital Humanities’ as my job title, so I’m making it up as I go along.
7. I noticed on your blog that you cite extensively. Is that common practice among digital humanists?
Blogging as a platform has nothing to say about citations. I cite, because I want to give credit and to show where my original thought begins. It’s pretty common on academic blogs. Linking is a form of citation too.
If there is any other information that you think is pertinent to the field of digital humanities, especially in relation to public history, that I did not touch upon in my questions, I would love to hear your thoughts.
All digital history is public history, far as I’m concerned. Working online allows an interested public to become part of the project. Precious few have read my book; about a hundred people a day take a look at my blog.
In the hopes that a more visually appealing syllabus will mean that my students read the thing, I’m turning the first few pages of the HIST2809 syllabus into a comic book. The nuts-and-bolts will be the regular format.(The doctored historical plaques are from Rob MacDougall’s ‘Tecumseh Lies Here‘ augmented reality game).
Oh, and the final project/exam is a version of the Forgery Game.
Below is a draft of my syllabus for my upcoming class on ‘Cities and Countryside in the Ancient World’ class. I’m very Mediterranean-centric; 12 weeks won’t allow for much else, and stick with what you know, right? Comments, suggestions are welcome.
HIST3902-A Cities and Countryside in the Ancient World
Cities are creatures of the countryside. Understanding that relationship is key to understanding the ancient world. Discuss.
This course looks at the relationship between cities and countryside in the ancient world, as evidenced primarily through landscape archaeology. I will be arguing, amongst other things, that the form of that relationship is the key indicator for understanding the mindset, the nature of, that particular culture. It is no accident that ‘cities’ and ‘civilization’ are etymologically related: thus, looking at cities and countryside will give us an understanding of what being civilized meant in antiquity.
Hacking as a Way of Knowing
Every exercise in this course builds on every other, as we build tools and work with data to construct an understanding of what it meant to be civilized in the (Greco-Roman) ancient world. The course objectives then are to:
- Introduce and explore the study of ancient landscapes, society, and economy
- Develop facility with representing archaeological and historical data using GIS and/or Network Analysis
- Make a positive and public contribution to scholarly knowledge on some aspect of Greco-Roman antiquity as it played out across space.
You will be working with datasets that have been made available to you by scholars working in the field. I am enormously grateful to these partners. Some of this material is unpublished; all of it is rich. You have the opportunity to make real contributions to scholarly knowledge by mining and analyzing this data for new insights. Accordingly, you must maintain the highest standards of professionalism and academic ‘good citizenship’ as you work with this data.
I do not see the point of assigning you work that only I or the TA will read. In which case, we will be conducting certain portions of this course in public on the internet. (For more on my teaching philosophy, see http://bit.ly/LLq765).
Anything posted online may be posted under a pseudonym should you have privacy concerns. You need to discuss these with me during week 1. I strongly recommend you do use your own name, so that you can begin to build your online footprint as a serious scholar. I also suggest you begin to lurk on Twitter, to follow prominent archaeologists and historians there and on Academia.edu, so that you can connect to a world-wide community of practice.
The best student work will be posted and promoted on Electric Archaeology (electricarchaeology.ca) and on Twitter, with the ambition of having the Journal of Digital Humanities select it for formal publication. If your work is selected, you are under no obligation to have your work promoted in this fashion should you so choose.
We will discuss and explore a number of key concepts. Terms that you should watch out for in your readings: primitivist, modernist, consumer city, producer city, bazaar, space syntax, actor-network theory, social network analysis, landscape formation processes, the anthropological nature of time/space, networks, information systems, agent-based simulation, computational economics.
The following is on reserve in the library. Its philosophical and methodological approach will underpin much of what we will do.
Knappett, Carl. An Archaeology of Interaction: Network Perspectives on Material Culture and Society. Oxford University Press: Oxford, 2011.
Demonstrating Your Scholarly Growth
- ORBIS and the social experience of space – due in class Wednesday Week 2 (September 19). 10%
- GIS/Network Analysis – due in class Wednesday Week 9 (November 7). 30%
- Final Project – due in class Monday December 03. 40%
These three assignments dovetail into one another. The first exercise involves working with ORBIS The Stanford Geospatial Network Model of the Roman World http://orbis.stanford.edu/ to experience, via networks, maps, and simulation, something of the social experience of space around the Mediterranean. In the second exercise, you will create maps and/or social network graphs from real data provided by our partners (exact details TBA). In the Final Project, you will combine your understanding of the spatial realities of the ancient world with your maps and graphs in a final project which may combine media and text to answer the question with which we began the class.
- Theory & Practise Exercises – due at end of Week 4 (October 5) and Week 6 (October 19). 20%.
These are a suite of exercises you may redo until you have achieved mastery. You may begin these exercises during Week 2, and submit at any point prior to the due date. The earlier you submit, the greater the chance that we can look at the work and help you. You have to allow at least 4 days for us to look the work over and return it to you. If you submit 4 days before the due date, you will not be allowed to redo the work. Please keep in mind that by offering you this chance, we are accepting a heavy grading load, and we ask for courtesy as we do so.
NB You will note that there is no final exam. DO NOT take that as a sign that this class is not as important as your other classes. By not having a final, I wish to signal to you that you must bring your best work to bear on your class work at all times.
Required (free) Software
You should download and install the following free software packages on your computer – or team up with someone else who can download and install them, should you not have access to a suitable machine. Note that ‘Portable GIS’ is meant to be run from a USB stick, and thus could be run on University computers.
Some of the following simulations can be run in your browser (others you may only read about, as the code hasn’t been released). They (and their associated texts) should be explored. Why do they work the way they do? What are the assumptions behind them? How do they enhance or not your understanding?
Roman Itineraries http://graeworks.net/abm/itineraries.html
Procedural Modeling of Cities http://ccl.northwestern.edu/cities/
Artificial Anasazi (a key archaeological implementation of agent based modeling) http://www.openabm.org/model/2222/version/1/view
Timelines & Mapping resources
Introductory Lecture on Netlogo – Agents in Archaeology (video)
GIS and Agent-Based Modeling http://gisagents.blogspot.ca/
Archaeological Networks http://archaeologicalnetworks.wordpress.com/
The Scottbot Irregular http://www.scottbot.net/HIAL/
Maps, Data and Government Information Centre http://www.library.carleton.ca/contact/service-points/madgic
Digital Humanities Subject Guide http://www.library.carleton.ca/research/subject-guides/digital-humanities#welcome
Greek and Roman Studies Subject Guide http://www.library.carleton.ca/research/subject-guides/greek-and-roman-studies
The following weekly schedule of topics is tentative and subject to change.
Part 1 (September):
- Setting the scene: history & theory. Abandoning your 2-dimensional, top-down view of space: the emic vs. the etic.
- Minoans, Mycenaeans and the Aegean
- The Era of Colonization (Greeks, Etruscans, Phoenicians)
Part 2 (October):
- Maps and GIS
- Agent Based Simulation
- Network Analysis
- Landscape Archaeology & Survey
Part 3 (November):
- Greek Cities
- Greek Landscapes
- Roman Cities
- Roman Landscapes
The End (December 3)
- Answering the questions with which we began.
The following readings are indicative of the issues involved, and will deepen your understanding. This list is by no means exhaustive – consult the works’ bibliographies to pointers to further work! I provide them here to help you, to round out the ideas presented in our meetings. You will be able to make useful contributions to that discussion if you come prepared, having looked at some of these works. If you can’t find them on your own, you *must* ask the Historian/Classics Librarian for help to find other possible books/articles/online resources that can speak to the week’s topic. I expect you to read beyond the works listed here. Do you know how to use Google Scholar? Have you ever used L’Année philologique?
Agar, M. (2003). ‘My kingdom for a function: modelling misadventures of the innumerate’, Journal of Artificial Societies and Social Simulation 6.3. http://jasss.soc.surrey.ac.uk/6/3/8.html
Bang, P., Mamoru Ikeguchi and Harmut G. Ziche, eds. (2006). Ancient Economies, Modern Methodologies : Archaeology, Comparative History, Models and Institutions.
Brughmans, T. (2012). ‘Thinking through networks: a review of formal network methods in archaeology’, Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory 19.2 Online version: DOI: 10.1007/s10816-012-9133-8 http://www.springerlink.com/index/10.1007/s10816-012-9133-8
Conolly, J., and M. Lake. (2006). Geographical Information Systems In Archaeology.
Coward, F. (2010). ‘Small worlds, material culture and Near Eastern social networks’, Proceedings of the British Academy 158, 449-479. http://www.fcoward.co.uk/Cowardsmallworlds.pdf
Frier, B. and D. Kehoe. (2007). ‘Law and economic institutions’, in W. Scheidel, I. Morris, R. Saller (eds.), The Cambridge Economic History of the Greco-Roman World. 113-143.
Graham, S. (2006). ‘Networks, Agent-Based Modeling, and the Antonine Itineraries’, The Journal of Mediterranean Archaeology 19.1: 45-64.
Graham, S. (2009) ‘The Space Between: The Geography of Social Networks in the Tiber Valley’ in Coarelli, F. and Patterson, H. (eds) Mercator Placidissimus: the TiberValley in Antiquity. New research in the upper and middle river valley.
Graham, S. and J. Steiner. (2008). ‘Travellersim: Growing Settlement Structures and Territories with Agent-Based Modelling’, in J. Clark and E. Hagemeister (eds.), Digital Discovery: Exploring New Frontiers in Human Heritage. CAA 2006. Computer Applications and Quantitative Methods in Archaeology. Proceedings of the 34th Conference, Fargo, United States, April 2006. 57-67.
Ingold, T. (1993). ‘The Temporality of the Landscape’. World Archaeology 25.2 152–174.
Johnson, M. (1999) Archaeological Theory.
Lansing, J. S., and J. N. Kremer. (1993). ‘Emergent Properties of Balinese Water Temple Networks: Coadaptation on a Rugged Fitness Landscape’. American Anthropologist 95.1: 97–114.
Laurence, R. (2001). ‘The Creation of Geography: An Interpretation of Roman Britain’ in C. Adams and R. Laurence (eds.). Travel and Geography in the Roman Empire.
Massey, D. J. Allen, S. Pile (eds.) City Worlds: Understanding Cities 1.
Neville, M. (1996) Metropolis and Hinterland : the City of Rome and the Italian Economy, 200 B.C.-A.D. 200.
Orejas, Almudena, and F. Javier Sánchez-Palencia. (2002). ‘Mines, Territorial Organization, and Social Structure in Roman Iberia: Carthago Noua and the Peninsular Northwest’. American Journal of Archaeology 106.44: 581–599.
Pettegrew, D. K. (2007). ‘The Busy Countryside of Late Roman Corinth: Interpreting Ceramic Data Produced by Regional Archaeological Surveys’. Hesperia: The Journal of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens 76.4: 743–784.
Schortman, E. and W. Ashmore. (2012). ‘History, networks, and the quest for power: ancient political competition in the Lower Motagua Valley, Guatemala’, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 18.1: 1-21.
Smith, M. (2005) ‘Networks, Territories, and the Cartography of Ancient States’. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 95.4: 832–849.
My field nowadays is the digital humanities; I started my academic life as an archaeologist. In between, I’ve taught in continuing education, distance education, secondary education to troubled students, and started a business. My philosophy of teaching has evolved continually as a result of these disparate experiences.
I was attracted to archaeology by the hands-on nature of the field, by the materiality of it. I became interested in distance education and continuing education for how these two modes opened up academia to broader audiences than a standard undergraduate experience. Working with troubled teens (students whom the system had otherwise failed), I saw both of these strands come together in a program that offered a hands-on experience leading to a vocational diploma. Starting a business taught me that I had to relearn everything I thought I already knew. I recount these experiences to explain where I am coming from.
I first encountered the idea of ‘uncoverage’ in a blog post on Profhacker by Mark Sample. This phrase neatly encapsulates what I have come to believe. In Sample’s post, he defines ‘uncoverage’ by contrasting it with how we normally use the phrase in course syllabi: “…this course will cover the evolution of American public life from the publication of the Federalist Papers to…”. In the race to cover everything on the syllabus, we necessarily end up covering in the sense of ‘protect or conceal, to hide from view’ (Sample, citing Wiggins and McTighe 106). We do not teach understanding; rather we slip and slide over the top of the deeper issues that make these topics worth studying in the first place. For Sample, ‘uncoverage’ then is a kind of digging downwards, to reveal the assumptions and principles that we would normally cover. There is an obvious connection here with archaeology. In archaeology, one begins with the most recent layers and works backward, peeling away the events that form a site, understanding their associations and connections both in terms of breadth and depth. In the same way one would plan an archaeological excavation backwards from the idea ‘what do we wish to learn from this site?’ I implement backwards-design philosophies into my classes: in order to uncover that which is important, what must students understand as a result of having been in this course?
My ambition in every course is to teach for uncoverage. This has the effect of making my research and teaching two sides of the same craft. As a craftsman, I want my work to be visible, public and appreciated. My students therefore are both objects of my craft, and independent craftspeople in their own right. I seek out opportunities for my students’ work to become visible as together we work through the implications of digital media for historical understanding. Digital history is public history: therefore my students’ work is never conceived of as being done for an audience of one. As I tell my students, ‘we’re working without a net, folks: everything we do, we do in public’. I have published papers, articles, blogs and projects with students as a result.
I have blogged my own teaching and research for five years now. I am committed to open access, making not only my process but also my data available to the wider community. Not every experiment results in success; indeed, the failures are richer experiences because as academics we are loathe to say when something did not work – but how else will anybody know that a particular method, or approach, is flawed? This idea that it is ‘safe to fail’ at something, that sometimes what we try just might not work, is something that I try to foster in my classes. If we try something, it does not work, and we then critically analyze why that should be, we have in fact entered a circle of positive feedback. This perspective comes from my research into game based learning. A good game keeps the challenges just ahead of the player’s (student’s) ability, to create a state of flow. Too hard, and the player quits; too easy, and the player drops the controller in disgust. If we can design assessment exercises in a class that tap into this state of flow, then we can create the conditions for continual learning and growth (see for instance Kee, Graham, et al. 2009). What is more important is that these can be tailored to an individual student’s abilities. Why should assessment in a class begin at 100 points and then work downwards? Why not begin at zero and allow the student to rise?
My approach to teaching has changed over the years, and it will no doubt evolve in the future. What I hope to make a constant though is a commitment to celebrate in public the excellent work that my students do, whether that is sharing their blog posts on Twitter, to finding opportunities to publish with them, to finding collaborative projects with the wider community. By teaching for uncoverage, and by exploring the affordances of digital media for historical representation and analysis, I am able to marry the strands of my own evolution as a student, research and teacher, into the best opportunities for my students.
Putting the digital into my humanities
I teach one of the History Department’s core courses in historical method, HIST2809: The Historian’s Craft. This class has a large enrolment of typically 120 students. Instead of surveying the many different ways historians write history and do historical research, I focus instead on cultivating a deeper understanding of the reflexive nature of historical work, so that when students encounter a new possible method or approach they do so with a critical understanding of not just what the approach offers, but also how it delineates what it possible to say or uncover. I emphasize that historical work is not done in a vacuum, but is done within a community of practice.
To support this teaching, I created a WordPress powered website that I extended with the Buddypress plugin. Buddypress allows for the customized creation of a social network platform – a HIST2809 Facebook, if you will. Then, I ‘gamified’ this space by creating ‘achievements’ that students could work towards, with their progress being visible to other members of the classroom. This approach was written about by Nick Ward in This Week in FASS:
‘I wanted students to have more opportunities to practice the ‘craft’ of being an historian, beyond the formal assessments in the class. Obviously, I could’ve assigned weekly exercises, but that would’ve gone against some of the spirit of what I was trying to inculcate in my students-that being an historian is about being part of a community, that there is joy and surprise and discipline in being an historian, and that most of all, one has to want to do these things – to that end, the achievements system was entirely voluntary (but with a healthy dose of competition).’
In this gamified approach, the students started at zero and tried to collect as many points as possible. All participants would get a small bonus to their participation grade, proportional to the number of points they’d collected. Some of the game challenges included transcribing lines of ancient papyrus, learning the rhetorics embedded in computer code, completing tutorials on logical fallacies, learning some Latin, and participating in online crowdsourcing history projects (including HeritageCrowd.org, Graham’s own experiment in crowdsourcing local cultural heritage knowledge).”
As a result of including participation in the running of some of my own research projects into the achievements system, some of my students became involved in community digital history projects. One student is now a lead author on the writing of a regimental history for one of Ottawa’s military units. Another student became a co-author with me on a case study of the project to crowd-source local history.
An ancillary use of technology in this class is my virtual excavation project in the Carleton Virtual Campus. This excavation is designed to make ‘real’ the metaphors of archaeology. Through interaction with this virtual excavation – where it is safe to make mistakes – students get the chance to explore how archaeological knowledge is created. This excavation is still in a prototype phase, and so it hasn’t been fully incorporated into this course yet. It represents another facet though of how the careful use of game-based elements can enhance one’s teaching and learning in class.
(I also presented my approach to gamification to my colleagues at an EDC brown-bag lunch. As a side note, I used ‘Prezi’, a piece of online presentation software that uses as its dominant metaphor the idea of ‘zooming’ into data. This is in stark contrast to Powerpoint, whose dominant metaphor is the 35 mm slide. I use both pieces of software in my classes to highlight the ways the media we use structure the stories we are able to tell. There is no ‘right’ way to interact with digital 1s and 0s. In a way, we are all disabled in this regard.)
FYSM1405a Digital Antiquity
I have been teaching a first year seminar for two years. In the first iteration of the course, which was then subtitled ‘digital history’, I sought to explore a variety of digital media with my students to explore how these media structure our understandings of history. As part of that course, I partnered with the Council of Heritage Organizations of Ottawa to use their Ottawagraphy website to tell stories about Ottawa’s history. One of these students later became a co-author with me on the case study on crowd-sourcing local history. Another student is now a co-editor with me on a project to crowdsource the illicit trade in antiquities, heritage.crowdmap.com.
In the second iteration of this course, subtitled ‘Digital Ancients, Digital Moderns’, we focused more on ancient history and archaeology, and how both digital media and ‘traditional’ media create ways of understanding and patterns of power. One of the semester long assignments in this class was to write the Wikipedia. We looked at how Wikipedia articles are subject to a channelization effect, where the earliest structure of an article sets the stage for all subsequent alterations. My students selected an article related to ancient history consisting of only a single paragraph, and then set out to improve it. One such page is http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mycenaean_pottery . Wikipedia pages now come with ratings, and as of March 2012, the consensus view of this page is that it is ‘well-written’ (in Wikipedia’s page rating shema). That first year students can be responsible for setting what is the de-facto Western memory bank for everything is a shocking experience for these students!
In the second part of this year’s course, I have partnered with the Museum of Civilization on a project to make ‘the Hidden Museum’ accessible to the public via augmented reality. As a result of some postings on my research blog, curators at the Museum contacted me to see if there was a possibility to partner. They opened up their storerooms to my students, and we began a project to create three-dimensional models of artefacts, using free software. The students ended up selecting a series of models related to Mesoamerica. The students then used Lulu, a print on demand service, to create a book which they are in the process of augmenting with smart-phone based augmented reality software (Junaio.com). In this way, they provide a ‘magic-eye’ like experience or pop-up book experience and liberate these museum pieces from the storerooms, providing a new way for the public to interact with them. The students also considered the ethical implications of displaying museum artefacts this way. This experience will be recounted at this spring’s Canadian Archaeological Association conference in Montreal as a case study. The museum curators and I have written a SSHRC application for a much larger study built on some of the themes related to this student work. Should we be successful in winning the grant, I intend to provide opportunities for these students to continue participating in the project.
Our work in this class was written up in the Charlatan Newspaper, Carleton’s Student newspaper, in January 2012.
This year I have been teaching a graduate seminar in our public history program on digital history. http://dhcworks.carleton.ca/history5702/ The entire course is designed around the exploration of the historiographical issues implicit in digital history and the use of digital tools for historical research (the two are not necessarily the same thing). There was a wide range of ability and affinities for digital media amongst the students enrolled in the course. A significant worry for the students from day one was, ‘what if the project/tool x doesn’t work?’ For these students, my concern with making a project ‘safe to fail’ was paramount. I wanted to demonstrate to them that digital history, as public history, is as much about knowing what doesn’t work (and why) as it is with achieving any set result.
The course also was funded by the NiCHE, the Network for Environmental History. They wanted to know whether or not augmented reality was a feasible approach for telling environmental history in Canada. They provided funds allowing us to purchase some smart-phones and data-plans. In conjunction with an exhibit on the urban forest of Ottawa at the Bytown Museum, the students began exploring the ways history could be told in-place using geo-location and augmented reality. I had them chronicle their journey from being digital neophytes to the completion of the project (April 3rd). They did this on a group blog hosted by the Digital History at Carleton platform (a web-space for digital research and collaboration). Each time they posted, I have retweeted to my followers the location of their posts (~ 700 digital humanists, archaeologists, and online education professionals). As a result, important connections have been made between individual students and practitioners in the field, opening up new research avenues.
I encouraged each student to develop an individual project that would further their major research essays. The resulting panoply of projects and the discussion surrounding their implementation and implications, has made for an incredibly rich seminar. Some students are using interactive fiction platforms (Inform7); others using text-analysis (Voyant Tools) or topic modeling (Mallet) software; some are creating 3d models of artefacts from a museum perspective while others are using data mining of Youtube and Twitter. For me to support these projects has necessarily meant working hard to understand how they work, their possibilities and their perils.
I also hosted a Google+ hangout with PhD students and faculty in digital history and archaeology from the UK and the United States. I wanted the students to experience first-hand one of the hallmarks of the digital humanities, its ‘big-tent’ philosophy and its philosophy of ‘hacking as a way of knowing’. The openness of that experience was something commented on by everyone that week in their blog posts.
I am a thesis advisor for a student interested in exploring issues of power and identity in the Greek Bronze Age. We developed a methodology for him to study these power relationships through social network analysis using the open-source platform Gephi (http://gephi.org). He has been blogging his research approach ( http://zackbatist.com/ ) and has made very important connections with practitioners in the field, which he has been able to draw upon as he applies to graduate school. I’ve taken him to a digital humanities ‘unconference’, and he is helping in the planning of an unconference to take place at Carleton next fall.
I am also a collaborator on Jennifer Evans’ ‘Hate 2.0’ project that looks at online hate. I have been training a student funded by the I-Cureus programme in data mining and analysis to support this project. ( http://dhcworks.carleton.ca/onlinehate/ ).
So why are you sharing this?
Well, lord knows I’m not the best teacher out there – but I want to be better. How are you using tech in your classroom, to support your digital humanistic mission? Where are the flaws in my approach? Where are the strengths?
Kevin Kee, Shawn Graham, Pat Dunae, John Lutz, Andrew Large, Michel Blondeau, Mike Clare. ‘Towards a Theory of Good History Through Gaming’ Canadian Historical Review 90.2 (June 2009). Pp.303-326.
Mark Sample. ‘Teaching for Uncoverage’ August 23, 2011 http://chronicle.com/blogs/profhacker/teaching-for-uncoverage-rather-than-coverage/35459
Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe. Understanding by Design. (Prentice Hall, New Jersey: 2005).
I have a small summer project running, using the Ushahidi and Omeka platforms for crowdsourcing local history, called HeritageCrowd. I have two Carleton University undergraduate students, Guy Massie and Nadine Feuerherm helping me with this; we’re blogging the experience here. Please check us out; comments & critiques (and submissions, of course!) are most welcome.
This project, headed by Professor Shawn Graham and students Nadine Feuerherm and Guy Massie at Carleton University, rethinks the way that people share and interact with local history and heritage. Through the use of a number of technologies such as text messaging, voice mail, and the internet, we will test the possibility for creating a database of local history knowledge by asking for contributions from the community. This type of approach is known as “crowdsourcing,” and while it has been used to gather information about ongoing events such as the violence following the 2008 elections in Kenya, it has yet to be used in this way in the area of heritage and local history. The contributions made to the project will be stored and displayed on a website for the public. On our ‘stories‘ page, students and researchers can do further research on the items contributed by the public, creating exhibitions and other digital stories.
In the same way that the Memory Project is working to record the stories of veterans from the Second World War, we believe that there is an untapped resource in the historical knowledge of members from the community. The different ways of contributing to this project mean that anyone with telephone or internet access can share what they know about a place, event, building, or other topic related to local history. Our goal is to create an automated method of storing and digitally curating local heritage and history. In this way, our research hopes to benefit rural areas, and other regions of the world, that may otherwise face obstacles in attracting interest and attention about local history from the larger public.
This project is funded by a Junior Research Fellowship, and will make extensive use of the Omeka and Ushahidi web-based platforms. It will use the Upper Ottawa Valley as a “testing ground” for the project, and in particular the Pontiac MRC region in Western Quebec.
Let me tell you today what happened when I introduced the idea of simulating the past to my first year students. The phrase ‘digital history’ does indeed appear in the title of the course, yet a significant proportion of the class told me during the first week that they were technophobes, that they could post an update to Facebook, but don’t ask them to do anything more complex! You can see how this is a wee bit of a challenge.
The solution though presents itself when we remember the benefits of simulation:
Benefit #1: Crystallization of one’s own thoughts on history. If I can’t express it, I can’t code it.
Benefit #2: To critique the simulation, one has to perform a close-reading of the code, a prime historical skill.
Benefit #3: Seeing where what did happen fits into the realm of then-possible outcomes; a way of assessing the impact of Caesar’s decision not to cross the Rubicon as it were.
I firmly believe that one of the most important benefits of learning to program is that it provides the discipline necessary to engage closely with texts, to take them apart to understand what the author, the programmer, intended to happen. I built my lesson around Benefit #2, but to ease them into the idea, I introduced them to Chapter 1 of Wheelock’s Latin Grammar.
I’m no Latinist. But even a glancing familiarity with the language (or with any language’s grammar, for that matter) helps to put the student into the correct mindset for dealing with code. Grammar forces us to look at syntax and construction, and how elements combine to create meaning.
The meaning of a word in Latin depends on its function in the sentence. That meaning is signaled by the combination of a root word and a stem. The verb ‘to praise’ has as its stem laud ; the first person in the present tense is indicated by the addition of -o : laudo I praise; I am praising; I do praise.
We spent a considerable portion of that first day working through Chapter 1 of the Latin grammar. The average Canadian student these days has no knowledge of how grammar actually works, so we had a bit of remedial work to do. The idea that word forms change with meaning, that the structure of a sentence – which words modify which others – can be deduced from the forms of the words even when you don’t know what the word actually means was a bit of an eyeopener.
And programming is rather like composing a sentence in Latin. In Netlogo-speak, you have ‘primitives’ that fit together in particular ways (like when in Latin you put a feminine noun with an adjective, the adjective takes a feminine ending to show agreement with the noun); you put these together into a single unit of meaning, called a procedure. In Latin and English, we’d call that a sentence.
We then looked at the ‘Termites model that comes bundled with Netlogo. I hid all of the code related to setting up the world and its displays, and had them concentrate on the main run-time procedures. I showed them how to recognize an ‘if…then’ type construction, and how to know where a procedure started and stopped. Then, I ask them to scan the code, and sketch out which procedures came first, any loops they encountered, to follow that through to the end of the model. They were to highlight any bits of code they didn’t understand.
Of course, at the end of the exercise, lots of the individual bits of code were highlighted, but as a class, they were able to develop the flow chart of how this simple model works. They’d begun the process of learning how to close-read the code of a simulation. And if you don’t know how the pieces fit together, how can you trust the results of the model? If you don’t know how the pieces fit, how can you know what it means?
Let me conclude with some remarks by Alun Salt on my last post:
[...]One of the benefits of computer models is that reading code requires close-reading which is a useful historical skill. Yes it is, but my gut reaction is why learn close-reading for history by examining code, when you could close-reading for history by examining historical texts? The gut is not noted for its large number of brain cells, and this example demonstrates why mine is no genius. Close-reading for code should be simpler. It should be unambiguous and lacking the complexities of meaning that words in historical text have. It’s an easier way of learning the skill that you can then take into more complex situations effectively making a shallower learning curve.
Having examined the way the code is written, my students are now looking at what the code produces, where it breaks down, and what emerges when you let thousands of individuals, interpreting the same instructions under different circumstances, interact. As one student said, ‘It’s kinda creepy’.