On Teaching High School

“Hey! Hey Sir!”

Some words just cut right to the cerebellum. ‘Sir’ is not normally one of them, but I was at the Shawville Fair, and ‘sir’ isn’t often used in the midway. I turned, and saw before me a student from ten years previously. We chatted; he was married, had a step daughter, another one on the way. He’d apprenticed, become a mechanic. He was doing well. I was glad to see him.

“So, you still teaching us assholes up at the school?”

No, I was at the university. “You guys weren’t assholes.”.

A Look. “Yes, we were. But there were good times, too, eh?”

Ten years ago, I held my first full-time, regular, teaching contract, at the local highschool. The year before that, I was a regular-rotation substitute teacher. Normally one would need a teaching certificate to teach in a highschool, but strangely enough newly minted teachers never seem to consider rural or more remote schools. Everyone wants to teach in the city. Having at least stood in front of students in the past, I was about the best short-term solution around. Towards the latter part of that year holes had opened up in the schedule and I was teaching every day. This transmuted into a regular gig teaching Grade 9 computing, Grade 9 geography (a provincially mandated course), and Grade 10/11 technical drawing.

And Math for Welders.

The school is formally a ‘polyvalente’, meaning a school where one could learn trades. However, our society’s bias against trades and years of cuts to the English system in Quebec (and asinine language laws which, amongst other things, mandate that only books published in Quebec can be used as textbooks. How many English textbooks are published for a community with only around a million people, full stop?) meant that all of the trades programs were dead. In the last decade this last-gasp program had been established in the teeth of opposition (which meant these students were watched very carefully indeed – and they knew it). Instead of taking ‘high math’ and other courses (targeted at the University bound) these students could take ‘welding’ math. They also worked in a metal shop. If they could pass my course, and pass the ticket exam for Welders, they could graduate High School and begin apprenticeships.

The welding program was conceived as a solution for students (typically boys) who had otherwise fallen through the cracks in the system. It was intense. These boys (though there have been maybe five or six girls in the program over the years) had never had academic success. They were older than their peers, having fallen behind. They had all manner of social issues, family issues, learning difficulties, you name it.

And they were all mine. Not only did I teach technical drawing and math (so right there, two or three hours of face to face time per day, every day) I was also their home room teacher. At our school, ‘home room’ was not just about morning attendance, but was also a kind of group therapy session too. (I say, ‘group therapy’, but really in other classes, there was a mix of years in these home rooms, so older students could work with younger on homework, personal stuff, whatever; but in my class, it was just me, and the welders. We didn’t mix).

I learned a lot about teaching over those two years.

I could tell you a lot of stories of pain and stress. I’ve never been quite so near to quitting, to tears, to breaking down, to screaming at the world. I did a PhD! I was from the same town! I’d beaten the system! Did that not earn me some respect? Was I not owed?

No.

And that was the hardest lesson right there. In fact, although I thought myself humble when I started the job (after two years of slogging in the sessional world, hustling for contract heritage work, and so on), I still had a hard time disentangling my expectations of what students should be from my notion of the kind of student I was. Those first two months, up to Thanksgiving, might’ve been a lot easier if I had.

I also underestimated how hard it would be to earn respect. I figured ‘PhD’ meant I’d already earned it, in the eyes of the world. But I hadn’t counted on the ‘if you were any good you wouldn’t be working here’ attitude that infects so much of Canadian life (and rural life in particular).

Once, one of the students fell asleep in class. What do you do, as a novice teacher? You wake him up. You take him into the hallway to ‘deal’ with him. And then I sent him up to the office. What I didn’t know: his Dad was long gone. His mom was with a new beau, and had been spending every night at the bar. The oil bill had not been paid, and what with it being winter and all, there was no heat. He had been sitting up, every night to watch over his sisters whom he’d put in sleeping bags in the kitchen, in front of an open electric oven. He was afraid of burning down the house if he fell asleep.

And god help me, I was giving him shit for not drawing his perspective drawings correctly, for falling asleep.

With time, I began to earn their respect. It helped that at school functions I had no fear of standing up and making a fool of myself doing whatever silly activity the pep leaders had devised. “He’s a goof but he’s OUR goof!” seemed to be the sense. I learned that I had to stop being a ‘teacher’ and start being these guys’ advocate. Who else was going to stand up for them? Everyone else had already written them off.

In some corners of the school, there was a firmly held conviction that these guys were getting off easy, that somehow what they were doing was less mentally challenging. There were some ugly staffroom showdowns, sometimes. Welding math involves a lot of geometry and trigonometry, finances, and mental calculation. It’s not easy in any way shape or form. Tradesmen in Canada frequently work in Imperial units, while officialdom works in metric. Calculating, switching, tallying… these are all non-trivial things! “Sir, that’s the first time I passed a math test since Grade four” said one lad, around about October.

The first test since Grade four. My god, what have we done to ourselves? None of these students were dumb, in the sense that students use. When I lost most of the class to moose hunting season, when they got back I had them explain to me exactly what they did. Extremely complicated thinking about camouflage, fish and game laws & licensing, working with weapons and bullets… these guys were smart. They never hesitated to call me on it either when what I was saying to them was nonsense or not making sense.

“Sir”, a voice in the back would say, “what the fuck are you talking about?” You can’t get angry about language. This is how they’ve learned to speak. But imagine: a student in your class actually taking the time to explain that they don’t understand, and to show you where they lost you? These guys did that! Once I learned to take the time to listen, they had a lot to say.  Would that my university students had the bravery to do the same.

It was never easy, working with these guys. At the end of the year, I was completely drained. A tenured teacher came back from sick leave, and I was bumped from my position. Unemployed again.  Look at that from my students’ perspective. Here’s a guy, finished first in his high school, got a phd. Came back home without a job. Ends up working with us – us! – and then loses his job again afterwards. Maybe, just maybe, doing the whole ‘academic’ thing they push isn’t the thing. Maybe, maybe, working with my hands, welding, machining… I’ll always have work. If I can figure out how to plan the best cuts in this sheet of metal so that I don’t waste any money. If I can pass the welding exam. If I don’t get my girlfriend pregnant. If I maybe pass on the blow this weekend and go to work.

Did some of them think that? I’d like to think so. We bickered, we locked horns, but once I proved to them that I was on their side, I’d like to think the good stuff outweighed the bad. I certainly know that it did wonders for me as a teacher. First and foremost, it forced me to get over myself. I learned that:

  • nobody owes me anything
  • what I was like as a student is no guide to what my students are like as students
  • I need to ask how do I make it safe to try something, for students to admit that I’m making not an ounce of sense?
  • I need to not assume I know anything about my students’ backgrounds
  • I need to make my expectations crystal clear for what constitutes proof-of-learning
  • I need to be part of the life of my school/community so that my students see that I’m invested in them.

A few years later, I won a postdoc position at U Manitoba, and began teaching in distance education and online education. That helped me transmogrify into whatever this ‘digital humanities’/’digital archaeology’ thing is. That’s the final lesson right there. I have a PhD in the finer points of the Tiber Valley brick industry. Don’t be afraid to change: your PhD is not you. It’s just proof that you can see a project through to the end, that you are tenacious, and that you can put the pieces together to see something new. Without the PhD, I could never have worked with those boys.

I was glad to see Jeremy, at the fair this year.

 

 

 

Setting the groundwork for an undergraduate thesis project

We have a course code, HIST4910, for students doing their undergraduate thesis project. This project can take the form of an essay, it can be a digital project, it could be code, it could be in the form of any of the manifold ways digital history/humanities research is communicated.

Hollis Peirce will be working with me this year on his HIST4910, which for now is called ‘The Evolution of the Digitization of History: Making History Accessible’. Hollis has been to DHSI twice now, once to take courses on digitization, once to work on the history of the book. Hollis’ interest in accessibility (as distinct from ‘open access’, which is an entirely different kettle of fish) makes this an exciting project, I think. If you’re interested in this subject, let us know! We’d like to make connections.

We met today to figure out how to get this project running, and I realized, it would be handy to have a set of guidelines for getting started. We don’t seem to have anything like this around the department, so Hollis and I cobbled some together. I figured other folks might be interested in that, so here they are.

Assessing my upcoming seminar on the Illicit Antiquities trade, HIST4805b

So I’m putting together the syllabus for my illicit antiquities seminar. This is where I think I’m going with the course, which starts in less than a month (eep!). The first part is an attempt to revitalize my classroom blogging, and to formally tie it into the discussion within the classroom – that is, something done in advance of class in order to make the classroom discussion richer. In the second term, I want to make as much time as possible for students to pursue their own independent research, which I’m framing as an ‘unessay’ following the O’Donnell model.

~oOo~

Daylight: The Journal of #HIST4805b Studying Looted Heritage

Rationale: What we are studying is important, and what we are learning needs to be disseminated as widely as possible. In a world where ‘American Diggers‘ can be a tv show, where National Geographic (for heaven’s sake!) seriously can contemplate putting on a show that desecrates war dead for entertainment there is a need to shed daylight. The fall term major assessment piece does this. You will be writing and curating a Flipboard magazine that ties our readings and discussions into the current news regarding heritage crime.

There are a number of steps to this.

  1. Each week, everyone  logs into heritage.crowdmap.com and puts three new reports on the map.
  2. Each week, a different subset of the class will be the lead editors for our journal.
    1. lead editors each write an editorial that explores the issues raised in the readings, with specific reference to new reports on our crowdmap. Editorials should be 750- 1000 words long.
    2. lead editors curate the Flipboard magazine so that it contains:
      1. the editorials
      2. the crowdmap reports
      3. the readings
  3. This should be completed before Monday’s class where we will discuss those readings. The lead editors will begin the class by discussing their edition of Daylight.*
  4. Each student will be a lead editor three times.

*if you can think of a better name, we’ll use that.

At the end of term you will nominate your two best pieces for grading. I will grade these for how you’ve framed your argument, for your use of evidence, and for your understanding of the issues. I will also take into account your in-class discussion of your edition of Daylight.

At the end of term you will also nominate two of your peers’ best pieces for consideration for bonus, with a single line explaining why.

This is worth 40% of your final grade.

—–

The Unessay Research Project

Unessay‘ noun - as described by Daniel Paul O’Donnell,

“[…] the unessay is an assignment that attempts to undo the damage done by [traditional essay writing at the university level]. It works by throwing out all the rules you have learned about essay writing in the course of your primary, secondary, and post secondary education and asks you to focus instead solely on your intellectual interests and passions. In an unessay you choose your own topicpresent it any way you please, and are evaluated on how compelling and effective you are.”

Which means for us:

The second term is an opportunity for exploration, and for you to use the time that you would normally spend in a classroom listening as time for active planning, researching, and learning the necessary skills, to effectively craft an ‘unessay’ of original research on a topic connected with the illicit antiquities trade. I will put together a schedule for weekly one on one or small group meetings where I can help you develop your project.

For this to work, you will have to come prepared to these meetings. This means keeping a research journal to which I will have access. You may choose to make this publicly accessible as well (and we’ll talk about why and how you might want to do that).  Periodically, we will meet as an entire class to discuss the issues we are having in our research. You will present your research formally to the class and invited visitors at the end of term – your project might not be finished at that point, but your presentation can take this into account. The project is due on the final day of term.

Grading:

Pass/Fail: Research Journal (ie, no complete research journal, no assessment for this project). We will discuss what is involved in a research journal. A Zotero library with notes would also be acceptable.

5% Presentation in class

45% Project

O’Donnel writes,

“If unessays can be about anything and there are no restrictions on format and presentation, how are they graded?

The main criteria is how well it all fits together. That is to say, how compelling and effective your work is.

An unessay is compelling when it shows some combination of the following:

  • it is as interesting as its topic and approach allows
  • it is as complete as its topic and approach allows (it doesn’t leave the audience thinking that important points are being skipped over or ignored)
  • it is truthful (any questions, evidence, conclusions, or arguments you raise are honestly and accurately presented)

In terms of presentation, an unessay is effective when it shows some combination of these attributes:

  • it is readable/watchable/listenable (i.e. the production values are appropriately high and the audience is not distracted by avoidable lapses in presentation)
  • it is appropriate (i.e. it uses a format and medium that suits its topic and approach)
  • it is attractive (i.e. it is presented in a way that leads the audience to trust the author and his or her arguments, examples, and conclusions).”

~oOo~

So that’s what I’m going with. I’m not giving points out for participation, as that never has really worked for me. There will of course be much more going on in the classroom that just what is described here, including technical tutorials on various digital tools that I think are useful, beta-testing some other things, but my thinking is that these will see their expression in the quality of the independent research that takes place in the Winter term.

So Fall term: much reading, much discussion. Winter term: self-direction along trajectories established in the Fall. We shall see.

HIST4805b Looted Heritage: The Illicit Antiquities Trade

I’m teaching a fourth year seminar next year dealing with issues surrounding the illicit antiquities trade. This seminar will be in conjunction with a larger project spearheaded by the investigative reporter and author Jason Felch, of Chasing Aphrodite. I’m quite excited about this; as an undergraduate, I once had the opportunity to work on a term project that looked at the antiquities market. That was twenty years ago; I’ve never really had the opportunity to scratch that itch since. So, when I was asked to suggest a seminar topic, I jumped at the chance to plumb the depths of my own ignorance together with my students. What better way to teach than to be learning right along with your students?

As ever, I turned to twitter, to see what folks there had to say.

Many folks chimed in with suggestions, including:

I’m keeping all of these in a zotero library for eventual sharing with my students (wider world too), but for now, this is the kind of stuff that’s come in:

Legal & Academic Frameworks

Renfrew, Colin. Loot, Legitimacy and Ownership: The Ethical Crisis in Archaeology. Duckworth, 2000.

Lazrus, Paula K. And A. Barker (eds). All the King’s Horses: Essays on the Impact of Looting and the Illicit Antiquities Trade on Our Knowledge of the Past. SAA 2012.

Marlowe, Elizabeth. Shaky Ground: Context, Connoisseurship and the History of Roman Art. Debates in Archaeology. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013. http://catalogue.library.carleton.ca/record=b3486847~S9

Hoffman, Barbara T., ed. Art and Cultural Heritage: Law, Policy, and Practice. Cambridge ; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006. http://catalogue.library.carleton.ca:80/record=b2293643~S9

Green, Penny, and S. R. M. Mackenzie, eds. Criminology and Archaeology: Studies in Looted Antiquities. Oñati International Series in Law and Society. Oxford ; Portland, Or: Hart Publishing, 2009. http://catalogue.library.carleton.ca:80/record=b2609135~S9

RealTime Delphi Study on the Future of Cultural Heritage Research http://www.jpi-culturalheritage.eu/wp-content/uploads/JPI-Cultural-Heritage-RealTime-Delphi-Report-final-version-to-be-published.pdf

Campbell, Peter B. ‘The Illicit Antiquities Trade as a Transnational Criminal Network: Characterizing and Anticipating Trafficking of Cultural Heritage’. International Journal of Cultural Property 20, no. 02 (2013): 113–153. doi:10.1017/S0940739113000015.

World War II

Nicholas, Lynn H. The Rape of Europa: The Fate of Europe’s Treasures in the Third Reich and the Second World War. 1st ed. New York: Knopf, 1994. http://catalogue.library.carleton.ca/record=b1456118~S9

Edsel, Robert M, and Bret Witter. The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History. New York: Center Street / Hachette Book Group, 2010.

Edsel, Robert M. Saving Italy: The Race to Rescue a Nation’s Treasures from the Nazis. 1st ed. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2013. http://catalogue.library.carleton.ca/record=b3445170~S9

Current State

Felch, Jason, and Ralph Frammolino. Chasing Aphrodite: The Hunt for Looted Antiquities at the World’s Richest Museum. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011.

Watson, Peter, and Cecilia Todeschini. The Medici Conspiracy: The Illicit Journey of Looted Antiquities from Italy’s Tomb Raiders to the World’s Greatest Museums. PublicAffairs, 2007.

Waxman, Sharon. Loot: The Battle over the Stolen Treasures of the Ancient World. Macmillan, 2010. http://catalogue.library.carleton.ca/record=b2928026~S9

‘Trafficking Culture’. Accessed 12 March 2014. http://traffickingculture.org/.

and an entire special issue of Internet Archaeology: Issue 33 – Portable Antiquities: archaeology, collecting, metal detecting, Edited by Stuart Campbell and Suzie Thomas http://intarch.ac.uk/journal/issue33/index.html

And from Donna Yates, the exciting news that she and her collaborators at Trafficking Culture are going to write a textbook on the subject:

Assessment

In terms of assessment, I want to avoid long research essays based on secondary sources. Instead, I’d rather have the students build something, analyze something, visualize something… so this will be a heavily digital humanities inflected course. I want my students at the coalface. My little looted heritage social media observatory, https://heritage.crowdmap.com/ will be pulled out of the mothballs and will become an active part of the course. We’ll be mining eBay, looking at the auction sites, exploring museum archives… probably. Stay tuned!

If you have suggestions for things the students should be reading/looking at/exploring, please do drop me a line or leave a comment.

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.

http://www.slideshare.net/DoctorG/some-assembly-required-teaching-throughwithaboutbybecause-of-the-digital-humanities

[Title]

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.

[2]

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.

[3]

‘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.

[4]

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.

[5]

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.

[6]

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.

 [7]

‘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.

[8]

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.

[9]recap

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.

[10]

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’.

[11]

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.

[12]

So let’s consider then what DH implies for university teaching.

[13]salt

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.

[14]

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.

[15]epic fails

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.

[16]epic wins

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.

[17]

To many of you, this is no doubt a coals-to-newcastle, preaching-to-the-choir kind of moment.

[18]

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…

 [19]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?

[19]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’.

[21]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.

[22]Rainbow Castle

So, following my three strands, we’d:

 [23]

-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.

[24]

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.

[25]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.

[26]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!

[27]

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.

[28]

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.)

[29]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.

[30]

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.

Some Assembly Required: Teaching through/with/about/by/because of, the Digital Humanities

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.

A history game brainstorming exercise

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

 

HIST3812, Gaming and Simulation for Historians

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

Digital Humanist Interview

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.