Monthly Archives: April 2011

We’re in Good Company

A short post to direct readers to the list of projects being funded by new Digital Humanities Start-Up Grants from the NEH. All of these projects reflect the work of scholars, librarians and technologists as we use digital tools to increase access to historical materials and to support education. That’s our project, there at the end of the list alphabetically.

Be sure to click on the link to the full list of grants just announced by the NEH, which leads to this press release. Clicking to another link at the bottom of the press release leads to a 40-page pdf, which lists all of the projects supported by the current round of NEH awards. The grants are listed by state, and readers will notice four awards to Wheaton College, two in the History Department.

Our project is in very good company, indeed.

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Time Zones

A New York Times article about simultaneous UK and US premieres of the new season of “Doctor Who” prompts me to reflect here on the historicity of time zones. The article focuses on how the Internet has changed the BBC/BBC America policy of imposing a delay of several weeks between beginning to air the show in the UK and in the US.

“The BBC’s solution is to compress time and space,” writes Times reporter Brian Stelter. He goes on to comment on how “the Internet overcomes time-zone borders,” noting: “Twitter data in the United States indicates that there are fewer tweets about the West Coast broadcasts of television shows than about East Coast broadcasts.” This effect fascinates me because time zones are to a certain extent a historical construct, and the effect of compressing time differences that Stelter credits to social media marks a historical change in the way we experience distance and its effect on time.

Long ago and far away, when I was taking a US history course as an undergraduate, the professor assigned historian Alan Trachtenberg’s then recent book Incorporating America: Culture and Society in the Gilded Age (1982). I still remember Trachtenberg’s compelling description of the effect of the expansion of railroads across North America after 1869. Towns on railroad lines flourished, while those the rails passed by faded. Railroads connected people who lived in rural areas to the wider world beyond them. Farmers and their families had access to larger markets, both for selling their crops and for consuming manufactured products. And standardized time zones were established to increase the efficiency of the movement of goods and people that the railroads enabled. New Regulator clocks appeared in train depots. Railroads extended industrial time beyond the walls of factories and across the nation. The Eastern, Central, Mountain, and Pacific times that marked the consumption of popular media over first radio and then television in the twentieth century originated in train schedules and the need they created for standardized time.

And if the time zones that marked the availability of objects of mass culture in the twentieth century had their origins in the technologies that dictated train schedules in the nineteenth, the compression of time and space in the twenty-first century also has its origins in technological innovations. There are of course things about the relationship between time and space that the Internet cannot change. Those of us who exist physically in the Western Hemisphere will always encounter some challenges if we seek to watch sporting events as they happen in Asia or Australia or even Europe for that matter. And even the so-called simultaneous release of new episodes of “Doctor Who” will occur not at the exact same time but on the same day, as Stelter notes in his article.

I cannot imagine I am either the first or the only person to notice a relationship between the effects of technology on contemporary changes in our experiences of time and space to those that happened in the past. What would you add to the reference list on the topic that I have started below?

________

References:

Stelter, Brian. “New Time Warp for Doctor Who,” New York Times, April 22, 2011. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/23/arts/television/doctor-who-us-premiere-will-not-be-delayed.html.

Trachtenberg, Alan. Incorporating America: Culture and Society in the Gilded Age. New York: Hill and Wang, 1982.

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Women in the Archives

This time last year, I noted that attending the Women in the Archives conference at Brown University gave a colleague and me the idea that we might be Brown groupies. This year, many of the usual suspects were absent for various reasons, and even though I missed those familiar faces, I found the conference as stimulating as ever.

I began attending the conference in 2009, a few years after it began. I had been learning text encoding from Julia Flanders and Syd Bauman of the Women Writers Project since 2004, and my own research on Eliza Baylies Wheaton’s 1862 travel journal had evolved into a presentation I was ready to offer in a conference setting. Because one focus of Women in the Archives that year was celebrating the twentieth anniversary of the Women Writers Project, I met many people who had been involved in the project at one time or another. And since interdisciplinarity features significantly in the conceptualization of the conference, I learned some interesting things about the multivalence of terms like “historian” in a room where archivists, historians, programmers, and literary scholars come together to discuss archives broadly conceived.

Interdisciplinary studies have always appealed to me at the same time that my disciplinary focus as a historian has remained relatively clear. As an undergraduate, I double majored briefly in English and History, deciding eventually that I was more a historian than a literary critic. If I had known about Cultural Studies, my academic life might have been quite different, but as much as I enjoyed English literature, I allowed myself to be drawn in to historical study of the United States as both my undergraduate focus and my graduate field.

Interdisciplinarity kept cropping up, though. My graduate advisor held a Ph.D. in American Studies. Since my dissertation research focused on intentional communities, utopian studies appealed to me. And because courses in U.S. Women’s History are a pillar of my teaching, Women’s Studies has long been an institutional focus for me at Wheaton College. Added to a long-term interest in how technology could be a tool to enhance teaching and learning, my scholarly evolution has followed this trajectory through using text encoding in the classroom into Digital Humanities.

So I feel at home at Women in the Archives, and I take considerable pleasure in hearing about the work of colleagues considering archival projects from multiple perspectives. Ideas from the paper sessions continue to percolate, and conclusions have yet to distill. At the moment, I think, I just want to celebrate the pleasure of two days spent hearing about teaching, GLBT community archives, subversive archival practices, medieval women, development of longstanding women’s archival institutions, and contemporary immigrant communities–all at the same conference.

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Tools for Teaching and Learning

During the NITLE Summit last week, some posters from the twitter stream asked what folks at the morning plenary session thought about a New York Times article on the use of online courses in public schools.  I had read the article with dismay, as it described a trend towards using online courses as a way for schools to offer both Advanced Placement courses when there were too few students to fill a face-to-face course and “make up” courses for students who had failed courses in face-to-face settings.  After the meeting, I appreciated the conversation NITLE Senior Fellow Bryan Alexander initiated on Facebook.  I particularly liked the photograph that accompanied the post Howard Rheingold pointed to among his contributions to DML Central, though I would caution that there are likely to be significant differences in budgets between the schools featured in Rheingold’s photograph and the ones mentioned in the NYT article.

My initial gut reaction to the NYT article hasn’t changed.  I am nauseated but not surprised every time I see an indication that people who think about the bottom line think of “online education” as a way to achieve efficiencies.  My quick Twitter response to the question was easy: Technology is a tool. It can be used well or poorly. It cannot make decisions about its use. That’s our job as educators/edministrators.

Many issues arose during that morning plenary, including the conflicting purposes of colleges and universities, which are magnified in a climate in which increasing access to information undermines the traditional structures of professional scholarship and teaching.  Professors come from graduate schools valuing research and unsure of how to graft teaching responsibilities onto apparently esoteric research interests.  Students and their parents, concerned about the high price of higher education, nevertheless seek the credentials they know are minimal requirements for success in the so-called real world. Administrators must balance budgets, and admissions officers must make classes.  Institutions compete for students even as many of the most interesting research projects require collaborations across institutions.

John Seely Brown, the speaker at our evening plenary, celebrates the opportunities for open learning and intellectual play offered by the abundance of information that is currently available and will only grow in the foreseeable future.  My favorite of the examples he mentioned at a later session is MIT’s Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP), which allows students to receive course credit, be paid, or work on a voluntary basis, participating as colleagues in the research projects of their professors.  JSB suggests that institutions would do well to cut half their courses from the curriculum and put the saved time to use in closer research collaborations between faculty members and students.

Education is not an efficient process.  High quality education requires meaningful interactions among instructors and students.  Including technology in the mix can contribute to students’ preparation for the learning they will continue to do after they leave the educational “bubble” or “tower” or whatever other protected metaphor we wish to use.  Misusing technology to manufacture “efficiencies” does everyone a disservice.

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Good News

This is a good day. There is real joy in receiving a phone call from a granting agency, and today that call came from the Office of Digital Humanities at the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Here at the Wheaton College Digital History Project, we proposed a meeting to begin conversations about using TEI to mark up financial records, and reviewers agreed with our assertion that there is enormous potential here for increasing access to abundant and underused archival documents. We are fortunate to be joined in our efforts by colleagues at the Massachusetts Historical Society, the American Antiquarian Society, the Papers of George Washington at the University of Virginia, and the Women Writers Project at Brown University.

We look forward to sharing our ideas as soon as our work is complete.

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