A historian on teaching and technology

Recently I was interviewed by the University of Gothenburg staff magazine, GU-Journalen. They sought a historian’s perspective on how digitisation, understood very broadly, will affect teaching and learning in higher education. The only sensible response I could give to that question, of course, was that a) it really depends and b) no one actually knows. But in the course of elaborating on those basic themes, I also had the chance to comment on some of the recent debates about teaching and technology in relation to Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), traditional distance-based education, Active Learning Spaces, and so on.

For those who may be interested, the conversation has now been published in both the original Swedish (web page at Issuu / PDF, 5 Mb) and an English translation (web page at Issue / PDF, 600 Kb). I should point out (again) that I talk here not as a specialist on educational research, but rather as a historian with an interest in digital humanities who has followed (and sometimes engaged in) ”ed tech” debates, especially those about MOOCs a few years ago; some blog posts, mostly in Swedish but also some in English, on that topic can be found here. Even though I am always a little uncomfortable at seeing statements I made verbally and ”in haste,” as it were, presented as text on a page, on the whole I think the interview reflects accurately not only what I said but also what I think about these interesting and very complicated issues.

A digital humanities reality check

Last week I wrote a post in Swedish here about my initial impressions of the 2014 Digital Humanities Summer Institute at the University of Victoria. Now that it is over and a few days have passed, I thought I’d try to sum up my experience of the intense week at DHSI as well as some more general reflections. These notes are based on the course I took, ”Fundamentals of Programming” led by John Simpson; two ”Birds of a Feather sessions” I attended live and one I followed on Twitter; an ”unconference” session on open access publishing (chaired by my classmate Casey Brienza) and the keynote lectures by Aimée Morrison, Paul Arthur and Alex Gil. There were many, many more activities offered outside the regular courses, but this handful of events was all I managed to attend during the week in Victoria. (As an aside, to paraphrase a comment another attendee made on Twitter ”I can neither confirm nor deny that I just googled the phrase ’How do I move to Victoria, BC’.” The home of DHSI is clearly one of the loveliest cities I have ever had the privilege to visit.)

First of all, the programming class was tremendously good and I learned a lot in those five days. For a complete beginner the pace was quite fast, but our instructor did an outstanding job of keeping all of his 14 students on board and constantly moving forward. In just a few days we went from being introduced to some basic concepts in programming to working on different coding projects in small teams, ranging from text extraction and manipulation to geocoding analysis and writing a text adventure game. Some times it was hard to keep up and I’m still very much the beginner, but it was really valuable just to spend so much time in the command line interface day after day and to gain familiarity with it. Perhaps this familiarity and being comfortable with working in the Terminal was the most important outcome of the Institute for me personally, since it gives me the confidence to move forward and continue to learn on my own now that the DHSI is over.

Hello World

On a more general level, the out-of-class sessions I attended throughout the week were about a variety of topics but, to me, a common theme became apparent as the days went by: a sense of ”digital humanities reality check(s)”. The sessions may have been about trying to define who are digital humanists or not, about open access or graduate training, but to my mind they all seemed to return again and again to issues of finding a balance between idealism and pragmatism in promoting and implementing the digital humanities – whatever that is. And throughout all of these discussions, I couldn’t help but think that as the question of definitions is a case of ”you’re damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t”. In other words, while many would argue that the endless debates about ”defining DH” are just a waste of time and energy it is hard to see how they can be avoided, since in order to know what we are doing we have to know what ”it” is and what it means.

It also seems clear to me that one of the main reasons for the great surge of digital humanities over the last few years has been exactly the fact that it is a very elastic, multifaceted term. It signifies many different things to different people, and when these come together it is inevitable that there will be intense and sometimes rather messy discussions about what it all means as these different groups try to figure out if and how they are a ”we” or not. So, for instance, while to some the digital humanities is rather simply just what the term implies, more or less traditional humanities scholarship that happens to be carried out with digital methods and resources, to others DH is something much more radical: a movement aiming for comprehensive and fundamental transformation of humanities research and the academic world that it is a part of. Between these extremes there is a variety of intermediate positions and priorities within the ”big tent” that the digital humanities, whether you like it or not, is today.

Reflecting on this situation and the discussions taking place within it, I cannot help but draw a comparison to a completely different, but in some ways also remarkably similar, historical context: the Reformation in sixteenth century Europe. This may seem far fetched, but there is the same widespread – albeit not universal – sense of crisis for the existing order within a well-established institution (the church/academia) on the one hand, and the same lack of consensus on how swift, deep and wide-ranging the reforms to counter it should be on the other. Some within the system don’t see the need for any internal change at all since the main problem, to them, is an unappreciative outside world who must be made to value appropriately the work we are already doing. Others feel that in essence, the basic principles of the current order are right but they are being misapplied or abused, so that what we need are some fresh ideas on how to practice what we preach. Yet others, finally, think that the whole system is corrupted beyond repair, in urgent need of being reimagined and rebuilt from the ground up. Everyone, of course, are deeply convinced that their view is the right one, and the outcome is a clash of competing visions that can be both invigorating and frustrating to witness up close.

My own position in all of this is firmly located somewhere in the middle, or perhaps even on the outskirts of the whole debate. To the question being raised in one of the DHSI sessions, ”Are we all digital humanists now?”, I would reply that on the one hand it is completely obvious that the answer is yes, in the sense that all humanists work with digital materials and methods and will increasingly come to rely on such in years to come. On the other it is equally apparent that the answer is no, for reasons already suggested above: many academics in the humanities do not subscribe at all to the agenda of those who most fervently self-identify as digital humanists and who see DH as something much more than merely a new methodology. One of the reasons why DHSI is such an interesting environment is, in fact, that it draws together people ranging from one extreme of this spectrum to the other, which makes for lively and diverse exchanges of ideas.

Ray Siemens

DHSI’s director, Ray Siemens, at one of the closing sessions of the 2014 Institute.

Having said that, I thought there were in some of the discussions a tendency to make unnecessarily sharp distinctions between ”us” (as in progressive, innovative digital humanists) and ”them” (as in conservative, traditional academics); to reproduce such polarizing dichotomies of ”we and they” is rarely a constructive way to move forward. It should also be remembered that the world of the digital humanities is not free from hierarchies or other forms of inequality; they just look different and are based on other criteria than in some other parts of academia. Perhaps this is, at least in some respects, more apparent to someone like me, in several ways something of an outsider looking in at the community of (self-identified) digital humanists. Generally speaking I see many intriguing opportunities and much potential worth exploring in digital sources and methods, but there are also many aspects of ”traditional” scholarship that I think are important to preserve and/or to build on for the future. That makes me approach the more ”radical” DH ideas and their proponents with an ambivalence that may best be characterized as a sceptical sense of sympathy. It also makes me think that we have many bridges to build in the years ahead, and that is ultimately what DHSI is all about.

På DH-kurs i Victoria

I drygt tre år nu har jag mer aktivt intresserat mig för frågor om digital historia och digital humaniora, vilket det senaste året kommit till uttryck främst genom skrivandet på Historia i en digital värld tillsammans med Jessica Parland-von Essen. Hittills har det dock mest handlat om att tackla dessa frågor på en allmän nivå och från en historikers perspektiv i ganska traditionell mening, utan att egentligen förstå så mycket om den bakomliggande teknologi som det i grunden handlar om. Eftersom det är så tydligt att historisk forskning och undervisning är på väg att omvandlas mer eller mindre radikalt av de digitala metoderna och miljöerna, har jag därför länge funderat på hur jag kan komma vidare och få åtminstone en elementär förståelse också för de mer tekniska aspekterna av digital historia/humaniora.

Som en följd av de funderingarna anmälde jag mig i höstas till en veckolång intensivkurs i ”Fundamentals of Programming / Coding for Human(ist|s)” vid Digital Humanities Summer Institute i Victoria, British Columbia. DHSI är en årligen återkommande sommarskola och, i praktiken, konferens om digital humaniora som organiserats sedan början av 2000-talet. I år samlar den ca 600 deltagare i 28 olika kurser, alltifrån de mest grundläggande (som den jag går) till tämligen avancerade, specialiserade fördjupningskurser om vissa verktyg eller tekniker. Evenemanget pågår under fem dagar med ett sprängfyllt program som, utöver fem timmars reguljär undervisning varje dag, innehåller en mängd föreläsningar, seminarier, posterutställningar, kollokvier, ”unconference”-sessioner och sociala aktiviteter från tidig morgon till sen kväll.

Årets upplaga inleddes igår och den första dagen lovar mycket gott för fortsättningen. Dels var början på min kurs mycket intressant och lärorik, om också intensiv, dels kännetecknas hela evenemanget av en påfallande öppen, välkomnande och generös atmosfär där samarbete och erfarenhetsutbyte hela tiden står i centrum. Denna anda av lagarbete och ömsesidig hjälpsamhet trycker arrangörerna själva mycket starkt på i olika sammanhang, och den gör att man som nybörjare snabbt känner sig hemmastadd här. (Att både staden och University of Victoria utgör en vacker miljö, som det verkar med strålande sommarväder hela denna vecka, gör inte saken sämre.)

Att åka ända till kanadensiska västkusten för att ta en kurs i grundläggande programmering kan tyckas vara lite övermaga, men faktum är att DHSI är en ganska unik miljö. Det finns liknande sommarinstitut i bl.a. Oxford och Leipzig, men de tenderar vara lite mer tekniskt avancerade (även om det i Oxford detta år kommer att finnas en kurs/ett spår kallat ”Introduction to Digital Humanities”). I Victoria tror jag att det samlas fler deltagare med samma bakgrund som jag: humanister med å ena sidan små eller obefintliga tekniska kunskaper, å andra sidan ett stort intresse av att börja ändra på det förhållandet. En vecka är en kort tid, hur intensivt schemat än är, men när den är slut hoppas jag en smula bättre förstå vad som krävs för att jag ska kunna ta nästa steg på vägen mot att inte bara tala om utan också praktisera digital humaniora.

Data, information, visualization

Dana Solomon gave a presentation, now posted online, at MLA 2013 about ”the deployment of information visualization as a method of textual analysis in the digital humanities”. It is worth reading in its entirety, but as a non-specialist I found two distinctions – one conceptual, one historical – to be especially instructive:

Data is typically not useful without some kind of supplementary, grafted-on action: processing, mining, analysis, visualization, etc., while information can take the form of processed data, and is therefore more readily useful. Data is always a noun, while information walks the ontological line between noun and verb, or object and process. Data visualizations can be beautiful and powerful visual objects, but the term itself is less dynamic than its more processual partner and, further, is fraught with its own embedded epistemological debate about what it means for something to be “given.” My personal preference is to use “information visualization” because the term offers a more fruitful starting point for a discussion of methodology and practice. [– – –]

If the first wave of large-scale database projects in the digital humanities is exemplified by the practices of digitizing texts, constructing archives, and determining best practices for digital preservation, then the practice of information visualization is emblematic of the second wave of projects devoted to mining this new data.

Bridging the gap

I couldn’t agree more with Sharon M. Leon:

But, the fact of the matter is that to be responsible guides to their students, mid-career historians desperately need opportunities for training in information managements and digital tools. The faculty who are teaching the current crop of PhD students are woefully unprepared to assist their students in surveying and analyzing the vast field of source material that they have access to at this point. Well-trained in the skills necessary to closely read and corroborate sources as they build answers to historical questions, these historians would benefit from knowing more about how text-mining, visualization, and geospatial tools offer ways to see new things a larger aggregate of sources.

And most important of all, Leon points out that you have to meet these ”mid-career avoiders” at least halfway or you will lose them:

But, really, we need something more concrete: a several week summer workshop for digital history novices who want to build a baseline of skills and learn how to learn new ones in a discipline-specific context. (The Digital Humanities Summer Institutes don’t fit the bill here; they’re just too advanced for this crowd.)

Avoider or not, I would be the first to sign up.

To unbundle the university

Ethan Gach, responding to Aaron Bady’s critique of the piece by Clay Shirky that I quoted a month ago, discusses exactly what part of higher education will (or should) be unbundled by the coming of MOOCs and other forms of online learning:

The original point of the university was the efficiency of large classes and large faculties all housed in the same location. That efficiency can now be gained in other ways. Especially if you already have the tools to do most of the learning on your own, which large lectures more or less require anyway. […]

What putting lectures online does do is allow them to be revised, stored, and retrieved whenever need be. This is the point of textbooks, and while I would be the first to recognize the limits of most of them, they are extremely effective as repositories for standardized information and references. […]

Of course, to simply recommend then that all large lectures be turned into online courses skips an important question, which is whether they should be turned into small seminars instead. And this is the real alternative to online lectures (since, unlike Bady, I do think the physical lecture is a dead medium).

While not agreeing with every aspect of Gach’s reasoning – of which the above is only one small example – I think his contribution to the debate is very much worth reading.

Expanding the audience

Clay Shirky drills down into the question of what MOOCs are and what they are not:

The possibility MOOCs hold out isn’t replacement; anything that could replace the traditional college experience would have to work like one, and the institutions best at working like a college are already colleges. The possibility MOOCs hold out is that the educational parts of education can be unbundled. MOOCs expand the audience for education to people ill-served or completely shut out from the current system, in the same way phonographs expanded the audience for symphonies to people who couldn’t get to a concert hall, and PCs expanded the users of computing power to people who didn’t work in big companies.

If he is right, the big question is: For how many current and potential students will MOOCs be ”good enough” to justify not attending a traditional college?

Tools, people, history

Benjamin Breen in the inaugural blog post for The Appendix, an upcoming ”journal of narrative and experimental history”:

History is shaped by the tools available for making it: cuneiform tablets tallying sheep or barley are less flexible as texts — they carry more limited forms of information, in smaller quantities, and in harder to reproduce form — than 17th century letters or printed books. By the same token, digital communication can do things that early modern technologies of writing and print can’t (for instance, web packets are at considerably less risk of falling into rivers during winter storms). History changes, and is also changed by, the technologies used to record it.

At the same time, however, history isn’t about those tools — it’s about people.

This thoughtful, well-written piece makes me look forward even more to the debut of the first issue of The Appendix on 21 December. Its very appropriate theme: ”The end?”

Of databases and narratives

These days I might describe myself as a (somewhat) old-school historian trying to better understand the implications of digital technology and social media. As such, I found this piece by Lev Manovich (part 1 of a longer article) on different ”information design patterns” or ”forms of social media” to be analytically helpful. He discusses three such patterns – the database, the timeline and the data stream – and argues that we have now arrived in the age of the latter:

I want to suggest that in social media, as it developed until now (2004–2012), database no longer rules. Instead, social media brings forward a new form: a data stream. Instead of browsing or searching a collection of objects, a user experiences the continuous flow of events. These events are typically presented as a single column. New events appearing on top push the earlier ones from the immediate view. The most important event is always the one that is about to appear next because it heightens the experience of the “data present.” All events below immediately become “old news” – still worth reading, but not in the same category.

In the light of this, a previous point in Manovich’s argument was especially interesting: his contention that the database pattern of 1990s web sites represented a break with the narrative as ”the historically dominant way of organization [sic] information”. While I’m sure one might qualify or challenge this conclusion in various ways, it seems generally valid to me. But if so, what is the data stream if not a merger of these opposing forms, a database-driven narrative or a narrative database? Put differently: ”The Narrative Strikes Back”, anyone?

While Manovich does not explicitly make that connection in this installment of his article, maybe he will get back to it in the next. Whether he does or not, I am looking forward to reading it.

Online-only scholarship?

On the NPS blog Mysteries and Conundrums, John Hennessy has an interesting post about how far he as a Civil War historian can get today using only online sources. More and more is becoming available, but Hennessy thinks that (at least in his field) we are not yet close to the point where digital collections are all we need:

While it’s astonishing how fast the mass of materials online is growing, we are still far from the day when new, credible, comprehensive, and definitive history can be written from the digital domain alone. Covet your Ipads, but also hang on to those rolls of dimes for the copy machines, continue to make friends in your favorite repositories, and keep those laptops ready for transcription (barbaric though it may seem), because doing really good history requires all those things.

It is difficult to argue seriously with this assessment today, but I cannot help wondering for how long that will be the case.