Category Archives: education

XML: The Latin of Digital Scholarship?

I’ve been playing with this analogy for a while, and I was pleased to hear the silence of assent when I took it out for a trial run at a session on Big Data at THATCamp Kansas a few weeks ago. It elicited some resistance at another moment that weekend, and I’m interested in the contextual differences.

The second group with whom I discussed my notion represented a couple of constituencies that I’m less familiar with in digital humanities, those interested in the semantic web and those who work with the languages that power social media. These folks mentioned Django, which is based on Python and was developed in Lawrence, Kansas. I haven’t yet learned Python, though I know about it, and William J. Turkel and Alan MacEachern’s The Programming Historian is bookmarked on my browser. (Thank you once again, Canada, for your excellent support of digital scholarship.)

My young colleagues pointed to Web 2.0, Facebook, and Google as examples of common tools not based on XML. I learned a lot from them–I’d never heard of Django before that conversation. But I don’t think their point invalidates my own.

I mean, after all, to point here to certain historical effects, including the use of Latin as the language of scholarship and diplomacy in Medieval Europe. (Easy for me, you may say, since I’m not a medievalist.) Thus, I think the analogy may be apt since XML lies behind long-term developments in what was long ago called Humanities Computing—efforts to consider how computers might facilitate humanities research, in Medieval and Classical Studies in fact.

Since the language also underlies such proprietary applications as MicroSoft Word and Excel, the analogy also alludes to the place of Latin as the foundation upon which the romance languages were built. Apt again, perhaps, since computational linguistics also makes use of XML.

I ponder this analogy because I want to better articulate the significance for liberal education of the effects of digital innovations on scholarship. And as I do so, I seek to understand digital scholarship in the larger landscape of digital culture.

I think that learning to feel comfortable with one type of coding (XML) can help humanities students develop the confidence to explore additional languages–like Python–and become ever more nimble citizens of their digital world.



Filed under digital humanities, education

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?



Stelter, Brian. “New Time Warp for Doctor Who,” New York Times, April 22, 2011.

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

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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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Exceptional Students

College professors do a lot of writing that often goes uncounted in the various bookkeeping systems we use to tally performance in the profession. Letters of recommendation constitute one category of such hidden writing, and they can be a source of real pleasure. Recently, I wrote three sets of such letters for former students, and all three brought smiles to my face, each for very different reasons.

One student had majored in History and is applying to Ph.D. programs. Writing in support of her applications gave me an opportunity to recall not only the pleasures of working with her in courses that ranged from introductory level surveys of various periods in U.S. History and U.S. Women’s History to Senior Seminar but also a wonderful experience presenting with her at a conference focused on changing libraries. We talked about an assignment in which I had asked students to read some diaries that College Archivist and Special Collections Curator Zeph Stickney has collected and to contextualize them using class readings and books that had been digitized as part of the Harvard University Library Open Collections Program’s Women Working, 1800-1930, Collection. I described the assignment, and the student described her experiences working on it. She was the star of the conference. Other professors and librarians and academic technologists and administrators who attended were impressed with her ability to pinpoint key concerns about the online collection of sources, concerns that the librarians shared. The conference was a wonderful experience for me; I so enjoyed seeing this student shine.

Another student had majored in Women’s Studies and is applying to a Social Work program. She, too, had taken a range of courses with me, from introductory level U.S. Women’s History courses to an advanced course on Sex and Culture in the 19th-century United States. I didn’t have a conference experience to recall for this student, but I was delighted to have a moment to remember that course and her work in it. We read a lot of books in that course, and every week pairs of students led discussions. One of my favorite memories of that course was when this student and her co-leader asked their classmates to cast the movie version of a book called The Murder of Helen Jewett, a wonderfully researched and well-written narrative about a young woman from Maine who moved from a post as a domestic servant in her home state to remake herself in New York City, where she worked as a prostitute and–after she was brutally murdered–became the focus of a sensational trial in the 1830s. These were students who had been deeply affected by such movies as “Titanic” and “Gangs of New York,” so imagining this woman’s story as a film proved enormously effective for them as a learning exercise. And it was all their idea. Students are often more astute than their professors when it comes to finding ways to bring the past to life.

The final student had majored in American Studies and had worked as my research assistant on the Wheaton College Digital History Project. She is applying to Library School because it will prepare her for a profession in which she will be able to practice Digital Humanities. This student became a real colleague for me on the project. When the college awarded us funds from the Mars Foundation to take an introductory course on text encoding at the Digital Humanities Summer Institute at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, she outshone me as a student. My brain remains pretty analog in this digital world, no matter how much I might prefer otherwise. But this student had already taught herself XML. And after the course, she studied the TEI Guide to figure out the details of the “measure” element. I am over the moon knowing that this student is ready to embark on her professional career and that I can look forward to encountering her as a colleague for a long time to come.

Teaching definitely has its rewards.

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“What Can You Do with That?”: One Argument for Undergraduate Digital Humanities

As a faculty member in a humanities discipline at a small liberal arts college, I often find myself having the “what can you do with that?” conversation with students.  Now that the fall semester has ended and students are heading back home for the winter break and holidays, many of them are likely to have that conversation with parents, grandparents, friends, parents of friends, and maybe even strangers they meet in transit.  So this post is partly for them and partly for larger discussions about the humanities in general and digital humanities in particular.

Students have been subjected to the “what can you do with that?” conversation since at least the expansion of higher education in the late twentieth century, and classic responses abound.  My favorite goes like this:  All employers want well-educated employees. That means everyone who expects to have a job needs to be able to write coherently, do research, meet deadlines, and solve problems in discrete contexts.  Students who major in humanities disciplines learn these skills and thus are prepared to do well in whatever occupation they choose.  This response applies not only to the humanities but also to liberal arts education in general. One of my favorite moments teaching First-Year Seminar at my institution involved watching a student begin to understand that higher education is less about going to school for the sake of going to school than it is about taking a few years to learn skills that can be applied in many different contexts.  Some of my colleagues in the humanities and in liberal arts education might find such an instrumentalist definition troubling. But I have reluctantly made my peace with an economic climate in which I must try to justify getting paid for doing work that I love by explaining to people in policy positions that learning in the humanities does indeed have practical value. And I’m okay with that.

I first encountered the “what can you do with that?” conversation as an undergraduate myself, and purely by accident I learned that my university offered an opportunity to learn some possible responses. In the early 1980s, Rice had an internship program that placed students majoring in the arts and humanities in corporations. These internships added to the notion that liberal arts or humanities education has marketable value both the principle that skills specific to arts and humanities disciplines have additional value and the information that jobs based on that value do exist in the corporate world.  I didn’t do one of these internships myself, but I knew someone who did.  The student was an acquaintance a year or two ahead of me, so I don’t remember her name. She made a big impression on me though, and I can still see her face. Active in campus theatre, she might have majored in Theatre or English or Art History–I don’t recall. She played the Leading Player–Ben Vereen’s role on Broadway–in “Pippin” and Desiree Armfeldt–Elizabeth Taylor’s role in film–in “A Little Night Music.” And she did a summer internship working with the curator of an art collection owned by a Houston corporation. Who knew that corporations had collections and employed curators? For members of the What Color is Your Parachute? generation, this program helped expand students’ ideas about what kinds of jobs existed in the world. It helped us learn there were possibilities beyond doctor, lawyer, teacher, engineer.

Noticing that corporations hire curators to manage their collections might also remind us that arts and humanities and the ability to talk about them in interesting ways have an important place in a fully realized world. Most professionals are consumers of art, theatre, literature, history, music, and even philosophy. Such pleasures might seem elite and the audiences for them small, but the post-WWII project of expanding higher education has also increased the potential audiences for all of these. And these audiences will probably continue to grow. Now, Frank Donoghue noted a few months ago in the Chronicle Review that the consumption model does not make an argument for jobs like his and mine–historians and literary critics in colleges and universities. A faculty member at the Ohio State University, Donoghue focused on the corporatization of research universities and the changing place of humanities disciplines in curricula over time. He predicted that the humanities would survive outside the university, in the marketplace.  The prediction bears an unpleasant similarity to the one from Edward Bellamy that I wrote about in my previous post, and I can’t get the image of Linus Roche playing the economically struggling Samuel Taylor Coleridge to John Hannah’s successful William Wordsworth in “Pandaemonium” out of my head.  If geniuses are not always rewarded during their lifetimes, the outlook is pretty grim for ordinary historians like me.

I think digital humanities offers an alternative to Donoghue’s vision. A field that has a venerable past as well as an expansive “big tent” future, digital humanities can also help us imagine a curriculum in which arts and humanities education can prepare students in liberal arts colleges for digital workplaces. When I talk to students about the digital history projects I ask them to complete in my courses, I explain to them that working on these projects will help them both “do history”–perform historical work that adds to our collective knowledge of the past–and sample skills that give them an idea of what’s “under the hood” on the web. They will learn a little bit about pointy brackets and the code we use to tell computers what to do, and that just might spark enough confidence or curiosity in liberal arts students to do a bit of exploring in programming or web design. Some of them might find ways to parlay experience with using digital tools into skills with writing simple programs. At the very least, they might learn how to navigate a page of HTML code with something approaching ease. Even minimal comfort with the language of the web will add value to their undergraduate degree in History or English or African-American Studies. And whether they find jobs in contemporary analogs of those Houston corporations that participated in Rice humanities internships in the 1980s or engage in the kind of entrepreneurship featured in today’s New York Times article about NYU graduate Scott Gerber’s Young Entrepreneur Council, students who have been educated in digital humanities will leave their liberal arts colleges with real value added. They might even be able to explain that value to their grandparents.


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Why the Humanities Matter

Unfortunately, the situation at SUNY Albany leads us to pose this question in a problematic way: either the humanities matter or they do not; an institution either needs a degree program in Theatre/French/Classics or it does not. Of course, when the question is pressed by budgets and bottom lines, it is hard to resist this either/or framework. But what happens when we think beyond it?

Some of the short essays published in the Room for Debate feature in today’s New York Times make traditional arguments for the humanities—the liberal arts as training for good citizenship, the importance of cultivating imagination and innovation. Some argue against corporatization and vocationalization in higher education. Some endeavor to imagine a different model for higher education in the United States, one with greater diversity of institutional mission, reserving liberal arts education for some campuses and letting go of it at others. And some discuss the bottom line and the difficulty of continuing to add new programs as technology and culture change without cutting old ones that no longer seem worthwhile.

None of the essays mentions a possibility that moves beyond either/or and considers the humanities as integral to our evolving digital culture. As an advocate for digital humanities at a small liberal arts college, I find this argument the compelling one to make. Many of my colleagues in humanities departments use digital tools in their teaching, and their innovative pedagogy offers students opportunities to practice the methods of their disciplines in ways that expand their exposure to skills that will be more and more necessary as digital culture develops. A significant proportion of these colleagues recognize that their disciplines are changing as digital culture advances, and they are asking their students to consider questions, for example, about how reading changes as the ubiquity of e-books increases. They are posing humanistic questions for a digital age.

I am of course saddened that budget constraints whose complex sources are matters beyond the reach of educational policy lead us to pose the question of the humanities as one about whether we need them or not. But I would urge us all to consider how embracing digital culture as part of the larger humanistic mission might help us make the argument for relevance in age of budgetary crisis and increasing administrative frenzy over the bottom line.


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Collaborative Pedagogy

I wrote this post in response to a ProfHacker Open-Thread Wednesday, but I kept getting an error message when I tried to post it. So I’m posting it here instead. The question for the day was about IT success stories.

We have had enormous success in collaborations among technologists, librarians, archivists, students, and faculty in the Wheaton College Digital History Project, which began in 2004. And the inspiration of our staff in what was then Academic Computing and a former staff member at the National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education (NITLE) laid the groundwork. From a classroom assignment for an introductory level course in U.S. Women’s History, we developed a digitization project that has employed students during summers to transcribe and encode the diaries of our institution’s founder, Eliza Baylies Wheaton. We have now begun similar work on financial records that are part of the Wheaton Family Papers. Eventually, we plan to digitize all of the documents from the founding era of the college, 1834-1911.

Collaborations are essential in classroom uses of technology as well as in projects that extend beyond the classroom, and whilst technologists are one significant group in the mix, so too are archivists and reference librarians, who bring other strengths and professional perspectives to any course or project.

Collaborative pedagogy requires forethought, something I’m very bad at. So I would urge faculty members who seek to enrich their pedagogy with technological and research tools to do this part of the job better than I do. Plan such assignments early. Contact the appropriate archivists, librarians, and technologists before the semester begins. Call a meeting in which you bring together the members of the faculty and staff who will be working with your students. Ask them what they think your students need to get the most out of your assignment. You, your students, and your staff colleagues will all benefit from the extra time it takes to craft the classroom experience.

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