Quick note: Timeline of famine philanthropy

I’m sitting down to tackle my introduction, and wanted to say something specific about the timeline for famine philanthropy. Tableau helped to track the total number of donors by organization.  This is a better measure than the total amount of donations – at least until I go back and standardize British pounds and U.S. dollars, but it gives a good sense of time timeline of relief.

 

Teaching reading notes

When I was in college, a friend of mine made a joke that he couldn’t read novels without a pencil in his hand, because he was so used to note-taking his philosophy books.

My father is a professor, but I don’t remember ever seeing him read a work of fiction, and always remember him having a manuscript to work on in his spare time.

One of the goals of the historical methods class at CSUF is to teach students how to be history majors, and a part of that is teaching them how to read scholarly texts.  My friend and my father come to mind because they, and I, treat academic reading as the default form of reading, and (at least in my case) can forget what it was like to learn to read for argument and scholarly conversation rather than for information.  I have acute memories of feeling like I was reading in the wrong way in college, but not of learning what the right way was.

I’m hoping to help my historical methods students skip, or at least speed through the uncomfortable confusion stage of this (which is not to say that discomfort can’t be productive, but that the feeling that you’re missing something that everyone else gets isn’t really productive).  So I made a reading worksheet that’s based on the notes I took for my grad comps.  I’ve been filling one out for each of the readings we have this semester, and it’s helping me to ground my thoughts about a text.  Hopefully it does the same for the students, and models a way to take reading notes.

 

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Teaching theory in history (part two of some) – or – In Theory podcast meets Typhoid Mary

Big theoretical concepts can help us to see the world in new ways.  Big theoretical concepts can help us  see historical events in new ways.  This is especially important for methods classes like the one I am teaching now, since these courses seek to bridge the gap between history as a set of stories that someone else tells, and history as a practice that students themselves can engage in.  We want students to leave these classes loving history as much as when they came in, but we also want to destabilize the idea that there is one, “objective,” “true” narrative to be told about each historical event.  We want them to think about how to select evidence, put that evidence in conversation with other scholars, and offer an interpretative framework for that evidence that nets something beyond arguing that a thing happened in a place and at a time.  Theory helps with that framework.

Undergrad-me would not have believed that current-me would someday be singing the praises of theory.  Luckily, a compatriot of undergrad-me was more prescient than I – Maria Cecire and Noorain Khan are responsible for the In Theory Podcast, which seeks to “raid academia for the the most fascinating and relevant social, cultural, and scientific theories, and use them to help make sense of this beautiful mess of a world we live in.”  It is excellent.  You should listen to it.

I’ve especially enjoyed using In Theory in the classroom.  I’ve generally found teaching theory in history to be one of the more challenging parts of undergraduate pedagogy.  This isn’t because students are incapable of understanding, or even enjoying, theory.  However, I do think that it is difficult to understand the value of theory in the abstract (at least, this was true of me in my theory-adverse undergraduate days).  This course features several weeks on classic theory for history, but this semester I found that pairing the In Theory podcast with a classic in historical scholarship – Judith Walzer Leavitt’s Typhoid Mary – helped to illustrate the ways in which theory can be useful generally, and useful in historical scholarship in particular.

How it worked:

First: I assigned pairs of students different episodes of In Theory.  As they listened, they were asked to identify (1) the theories engaged with in the episode (2) how the podcasters apply those theories to everyday life and (3) other things to which they might apply that theory.

Second: In class, the groups diagrammed their notes on the board, focusing on one particular theoretical concept from the assigned episodes.

Third: Each group presented on their theory of choice, and then each student went around the room and commented on how they might use one of the theoretical concepts outlined in class to further their own research.

Fourth: For the next class, students were assigned chapters from Judith Walzer Leavitt’s Typhoid Mary.   Each chapter takes a different perspective on Mary Mallon (the first silent carrier of typhoid fever, colloquially named “Typhoid Mary,” and imprisoned by the state of New York until her death).

Fifth: Armed with their knowledge of how different theories help us to understand different aspects of the world we live in, students dove into Typhoid Mary and undertook the same kind of diagramming they had done for the In Theory podcast.

Sixth: Each student once again commented on how they might use the theoretical concepts used in Typhoid Mary to further their own research.

By the end of this two class arc, students had two different examples of the application of theory in concrete ways.  Next time I teach this class I am going to have a more defined section on theory, and probably build in an additional class and assignment that recapitulates the different theories the students have been exposed to.  Nevertheless, I think the concrete application of theory evinced in the In Theory podcast and in Typhoid Mary really helped to clarify theory for students.

Protest is a feature, not a bug, of American politics

Protests are inconvenient. They disrupt everyday people just trying to do their jobs. They are “dumb.” They are “arrogant.”   They take American liberties for granted. These arguments appear, as if from the ether, every time a protest (individual or widespread) makes national headlines. The people who make them – who come from across the political spectrum – seem to see protest as a modern tactic, one anathema to the genteel politics of yesteryear. Why, these arguments imply, in the aftermath of political defeat, can’t we all just come together, put differences aside, not resister displeasure?

Some excellent scholars have spent a lot of time pointing out the problems with applying this vision to the Civil Rights Era (the short answer is that Civil Rights was never just about peaceful protest, and that protests that began peacefully were often rendered violent by state actors), but I want to look farther back in time, and to sketch the history of protest in early America.

What follows is a series of historiographical vignettes about protests, riots and violence in American history. The short version of this history: protest – disruptive, sometimes violent, always inconvenient, rarely genteel – is baked into American politics. It is not a modern or millennial invention. It is not a product of rudeness and self-centeredness. It is a feature, not a bug.

In the decades before the American Revolution, protests often followed a set ritual.   Wayne Lee has documented the ways in which complainants gathered signatures for a petition, asking those in power to accede to their demands. If petitions went ignored, protesters would often turn symbolic violence on symbolic targets – hanging effigies, demanding performative gestures or trying absent officials in an invisible court of law. If symbols did not work, protestors would engage in structured, nominally legal protests, which often included bonfires, toasts, parades and public spectacle. If none of these worked, unstructured violence was seen as a feasible alternative.

The idea that protests were legitimate politics did not die with the colonial era. In the 1970s Pauline Maier pointed out that protest mobs – both those that sought to subvert the law and those which endavoured to enforce laws they though were being flouted – were central to the American Revolution. Not only were mobs important tools for revolutionary action, they were also viewed as legitimate political action by leading eighteenth-century Americans, who “could still grant such incidents an established and necessary role in free societies, one that made them an integral and even respected element of the political order.”

Neither did protest end with the Revolution. Scholars have documented the various ways in which people excluded from formal politics were able to make claims on those in power during the Early Republic. These included boycotts of non-American goods, public refusals to pay taxes to the new nation, and even the ceremonial presentation of a mammoth block of cheese. These newly minted American protestors were not inventing a new form of politics. They borrowed from colonial and revolutionary norms, rejecting what did not work, and keeping what did.

Enslaved people also engaged in similarly structured public protest. Some employed formal petitioning, others embodied protests – though (unsurprisingly) these protests were and are still today called rebellions or revolts. Eugene Genovese, and subsequently many others have put these protests, rebellions, revolts in the long genealogy of American resistance to structures of power. The idea that the way a person looks, or a set of behavioral markers, determines whether a protest is cast as legitimate or mob – riot or march – will surprise no one, but I think it is worth noting that these features also have historical roots.

In the decades that followed the era of the early republic, and leading up to the Civil War, protest remained a valuable part of Americans’ political repertoire. When faced with perceived injustice (perhaps most visibly the Civil War draft and the practice of buying out of military service) American men and women took to the streets. They embodied their political frustrations. Some of their causes were sympathetic, others are deplorable, but the mode of politics they were using to make those claims had a clear genealogy with roots in Colonial America (or, as Lee would have it, in the European polities from which colonists came).

All of this is to say that there was never a golden age of genteel and polite objections to politics. The only way to arrive at the impression that there was is if you willfully restrict your attention to what was happening in halls of power, where the rituals of politics are bound by yeas, nays, motions and seconds (though even in these spaces have been memorable instances of violent protest).

However, if we were only to study American politics from the perspective of these halls of power, we’d miss out on some of the driving engines of political change. Imagine a history of the American Revolution without the Boston Tea Party or Boston Massacre. Imagine a history of the Civil War without the draft riots. Imagine a history of the Great Depression without the Bonus army.

Histories of politics that lack what is happening outside of formal political spaces are missing a fundamental engine of change. To look to our current politics and ask that we limit ourselves to statehouses and capitol buildings is unreservedly ahistorical.

 

For some more reading, see

Dorsey, Bruce. Reforming Men and Women: Gender in the Antebellum City. Cornell University Press, 2002.

Genovese, Eugene D. From Rebellion to Revolution: Afro-American Slave Revolts in the Making of the Modern World. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1979.

Lee, Wayne E. Crowds and Soldiers in Revolutionary North Carolina: The Culture of Violence in Riot and War. University Press of Florida, 2001.

Maier, Pauline. From Resistance to Revolution: Colonial Radicals and the Development of American Opposition to Britain, 1765-1776. WW Norton & Company, 1991.

Pasley, Jeffrey L., Andrew W. Robertson, and David Waldstreicher. Beyond the Founders: New Approaches to the Political History of the Early American Republic. Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 2004.

Roediger, David R. The Wages of Whiteness : Race and the Making of the American Working Class. London ; New York, NY: Verso, 1991.

Waldstreicher, David. In the Midst of Perpetual Fetes: The Making of American Nationalism, 1776-1820. Williamsburg, VA: Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, 1997.

Teaching theory in history (part one of some)

I’ve recently had conversations with several colleagues about teaching theory in history.  As a discipline, we’re not as obviously theory heavy as some of our compatriots in the social sciences, and much of the theory we use is grounded, or embedded in assumptions we make about sources, voices and narrative.  Given the importance, but relative invisibility of theory in history writing (and given that students – especially new majors in historical methods classes – are likely to be a little allergic to heavily theorized writing anyway) I’ve been trying to figure out how to teach students how to identify and make us of theoretical frameworks for history.

This question has been bugging me for the past year or so.  It first became apparent in a class on the intertwined histories of gender and technology, and I also see it in my current undergrad historical methods and Atlantic history classes.  This is not, I think, merely a consequence of mulling more on theory than I used to.  By design, none of these courses clear narrative path.  Gender and Technology took on several themes during the semester, often circling back to the same time, but a very different place or perception.  Atlantic history is arranged roughly chronologically, but approaches the Atlantic from a series of different spaces, and via different peoples, so we are often jumping in space and time.  Historical methods is loosely organized around the theme of American disasters, but we also skip around temporally, and often head down methodological or historiographical culs-de-sac before returning to the topical meat of the course. This shred lack of a singular storyline meant that theory was all the more important – it was the thing that could get the courses to hang together.

I wanted an assignment that allowed students to make connections from class to class, which emphasized theoretical framings, demonstrated the value of theories as organizing frameworks, and which wouldn’t rely on me lecturing at students.*

I’ve come up with something that I call “theory exercise.”  Each class uses a different variation on the same theme:

First: students review their notes and memories and write down one or two important framing concepts from the previous class.  Earlier in the semester these can be a bit vague, but I make sure that we identify important ideas in reading discussion, so that they can (hopefully) just go back to notes.

Second: some students come up to the board and write one important framing concept.  The only rules are (1) no duplicates and (2) you can amend what someone else writes

Third: the remaining students come up to the board and write down one topic from earlier in the semester, or from the reading for that day’s class that connects with those big ideas.  The same rules apply as in the second phase.

The final product
The final product

As a result of all of this whiteboard writing, we have a map of the main points of the previous class, and a visual representation of connections throughout the course.

This works with individual students working on their own, pairs of students, or even groups that have to consult and come up with one big idea or one connection.  I’ve been experimenting recently with randomly assigning students to big idea or connection and with allowing it to be more of a free for all.

I’ve learned a few things:

  • In classes where I’ve been using this exercise since the beginning of the semester, weekly reading responses do a much better job making links between a given reading and themes from earlier in the semester.  In making those links, students also invoke theoretical frameworks.  Some of these are more explicit than others, but the very act of linking disparate examples requires a theoretical underpinning.
  • In classes that don’t have a clear narrative (and this is probably true of most upper level classes) this exercise also helps students to make their own meaning out of the material covered, and to remember material from earlier in the semester.
  • On exams that ask students to identify and demonstrate the utility of theoretical frameworks, the classes that have been doing this kind of work do better than the classes that haven’t.
  • Having this material written on the board is a great way to mark the start of class with activity, rather than my recap; it also models note-taking strategies for students who aren’t familiar with documenting their participation in discussion based classes.

*I developed this assignment after many talks with Caroline Weist, pedagogue extraordinaire.

Safe Spaces in the Life of the Mind

The University of Chicago recently sent a letter to incoming students which has made me – for the first time – embarrassed to be affiliated with my undergraduate institution.

Image from the Chicago Maroon twitter feed. https://twitter.com/ChicagoMaroon

This letter (as Kevin Gannon has noted) seems to be equal parts pedagogical statement and public posture.  It certainly needs to be understood in terms of evolving debates about college campuses, academic politics and student life.

I, however, want to address it from the perspective of both an alumna of the college and as a professor.

The call for “civility and mutual respect” in this letter is a heartening one, as is the reminder that “freedom of expression does not mean the freedom to harass or threaten others.”  (This, by the way, sounds like what most academics mean when they talk about safe spaces) A space in which “members of our community [are expected] to be engaged in rigorous debate, discussion and even disagreement” and to constructively manage ideas that “may challenge you and even cause discomfort” resonates with what I expected when I first stepped into U(C) classrooms some many years ago.

But I balk at what follows – first because the author of the letter seems not to have fully interrogated what “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces” mean, in practice, in college classrooms; and second because rejecting student protests and trigger warnings works to undermine what Dean Ellison says is a priority: “building a campus that welcomes people of all backgrounds” and which supports students’ “freedom to espouse and explore a wide range of ideas.”

In my experience, and as described by faculty from different institutions, trigger warnings are not about “cancel[ing] speakers because their topics might prove controversial.”   Neither are they intended to allow students to “retreat form ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.”  In the practice I have seen, trigger warnings are a way for faculty to help students manage their reactions to material without disrupting the intellectual community of the class, and without derailing students’ own academic progress.

For example, I teach on the history of disaster.  We read about terrible, heartbreaking things.  It does no one in my class – neither me nor the students – any good to not anticipate the possibility that some students might react strongly to (for example) discussions of the death of orphan children during the Galveston Hurricane.  Flagging scenes of infanticide (a trigger warning) in our readings likewise has no cost – it simply alerts students who may have strong reactions to a particular topic that they might want to take extra steps to prepare for class that day.*   These might include drafting a discussion question in advance, finding a time to do reading that might be trauma-inducing when they will not be in public, or even simply practicing scripts to get through the class period.  Rather than undercutting intellectual discourse or protecting students from uncomfortable material, trigger warnings as practiced by me and by many faculty seek to ensure that a student can fully prepare – in what ever way they need – t participate in class.

Dean Ellison similarly seems to be mistaken about the common use and history of “safe space.”  While it is laudable that the U(C) “welcomes people of all backgrounds” and encourages “diversity of opinion and background,” American higher education is historically constructed, and has – historically – been friendlier and more accommodating to certain groups more than others.  For one excellent example of this history, see Craig Steven Wilder’s Ebony and Ivy detailing the racial history of American education (while I have the utmost respect for Dean Boyer – the dean of the college when I was an undergrad – I can’t help but think that Wilder’s would certainly be a book that incoming first years would benefit from reading).  This history means that, in practice, colleges and university have been – and continue to be – safer spaces for some students than for others. Those for whom the college is already safe – many of them students who are not otherwise marginalized – do not need to petition for safe spaces on campus.  For them it already is one.

To reject the idea of safe spaces or to pre-empt any protest in response to a scheduled U(C) speaker is to say – again in practice – that the University of Chicago has no interest in attending to the needs of students who do not already feel safe.  These might include (and this is based on my experiences both as a student and now as a faculty member) students of color, first generation college students, LGBTQA students, undocumented students, students who grew up in poverty, students with learning differences, students with illnesses, students with disabilities.  Making higher education more welcoming to these students sometimes means re-imagining what campus civility looks like.  It means, rather than telling students that protests are unwelcome and silencing, interrogating why those students thought that protest was the best way to speak to the administration.  It involves treating protest as a tool of debate rather than as a fait accompli**.   It involves listening to students who ask for a heads up about potentially traumatic material.  None of this silences academic discourse.  Rather, it makes academic discourse a space in which more and more diverse students can participate.

As practiced*** most frequently, trigger warnings allow for classes to be flexible enough to accommodate students whose experiences of trauma and crisis are different from our (the faculty’s) own.  Discussions of how to make more safe spaces on campus are a way to expand campus culture to include people who historically were excluded from it.  Neither of these models is detrimental to undergraduate education.  Neither undermines the life of the mind.  It shocks and saddens me that a place which prides itself on intellectual rigor for all students would take such a stance.


*They might also choose to skip class, but I have seen no evidence that talking about possibly traumatizing material makes a student any more likely to skip a class than any other of the usual reasons college students have. Incidentally, this is why I do not have an excused absence policy in my classes – students can choose to be absent from a fixed number of class meetings without penalty, and I am not put in a position of adjudicating a good reason for missing my class.

**I want to think about this a bit more about this, but discussions of student protests of speakers tend to assume that having a protest means that the speaker will not come.  This has not been my experience of student protests, and is a perspective which, I think, dangerously misrepresents the institutional power that students, faculty and university deans have respectively.  When we talk about student protests, I think we miss the ways in which institutions and (in the case of Rice, invited speakers) have the power to react to protest.  Many times, institutions and speakers decide that a talk will go on.  When I was a U(C) undergrad, Fareed Zakaria came to speak.  Some students walked out in the middle of the talk.  Some called for the talk to be cancelled.  Both of these actions prompted robust and sustained discussion, and allowed for discussion about the place that Zakaria’s ideas had on the U(C) campus.  Calling for the cancellation of the talk was part of that discussion, not an attempt to silence it.

*** I have a shirt from my time as an undergraduate which reads “that’s all very well in practice, but how does it work in theory.”  I still love that shirt, but I think that the current U(C) administration might – in this case – benefit from thinking a little more about pedagogical practice, and less about theoretical posturing.

Streamlined Grading with Linked Documents

First comes the start of the semester; then comes grading; then comes the inevitable
wondering about how to make grading less of a chore
. I realized a few years ago that
much of my dislike of grading came not from an aversion to reading student work, or
even to writing comments. Rather, for me, it came from navigating the systems that
meant that I was spending more time collecting, archiving and returning student projects
than I was on giving thoughtful feedback.

I’d tried a number of tools meant to streamline grading, but rather than making things
easier, each seemed to involve an ever-increasing number of steps:
* Course Management Systems: students upload papers, I download them, comment
on them, grade them, upload the graded/commented document, enter grades into a
digital gradebook.
* E-mail submissions: students e-mail me papers, I save them, comment on them,
grade them, enter their grades into a gradebook, calculate other graded
components of the course, send an e-mail back with course component grades as
well as the commented and graded final project.
* Paper submissions: students give me papers, I mark them (with increasingly
cramped handwriting), grade them, handed papers back to students who were in
class the day grading was finished, subsequently fielded e-mails about course
grades and arranged meetings with those who hadn’t been in class to pick up
papers.

Last semester I tried something new. I created a series of linked folders and documents
which allowed for students to easily submit work, and for me to speedily grade papers,
leave comments, and give students ready access to their course work and grades. As a
result, my grading went faster, papers were returned more speedily, and I felt like I was
spending less time uploading, e-mailing and returning work, and more time crafting
actual feedback.

This took some set-up time on the front end, but the result streamlined the acquiring and
returning of papers. I used Dropbox and Excel,
in large part because my institution gave me access to them, but I think that something
similar could be developed using open source tools.

Here’s how it worked:
* At the beginning of the semester I created one folder for the class and saved it to
my personal Dropbox.
* Within that folder, I created one folder for each student.
* Within the class folder, I also created a master grading spreadsheet, which could
track the grading categories (participation, short papers, long papers etc.) for each
student.
* I then linked this master grading spreadsheet to individual spreadsheets for each
student. (All of this can be accomplished in Excel by highlighting a cell in the
individual student sheet, typing “=” and then navigating to the main gradebook
and selecting the matching cell.) Setting these sheets up was the most time-
consuming part of the process, and took about an hour for a fifteen person class.
* Each student’s spreadsheet was saved in that student’s folder, along with word
documents in which I could enter comments about weekly reflection pieces.
* Finally, I shared each folder with the student to whom it belonged.

While this took some time to set up, by the time the semester started it was possible for
students to upload work, and for me to grade papers, take attendance and track
participation without ever having to log into a CMS, and without ever having to send
students e-mails with their grades. When I updated the master spreadsheet, the individual
folders updated as well. Students could check in on their grades and comments whenever
they wanted, and my grading process was condensed to three steps:
i. Students upload papers
ii. I grade and comment
iii. I enter the grades in the master grading spreadsheet.

This, like any other, is not a perfect system. One of the biggest concerns raised by my
colleagues was that students could change the grades in their individual sheets. This
didn’t happen this semester, and even if it did, the ability to track changes in shared
folders would make it pretty easy to catch, but it still presents a possible administrative
hurdle. My system also forced students to learn new tools, on top of those already
required by the college to do similar tasks (for example, Moodle or Blackboard). Finally,
it required some considerable setup time up front, to get each of the student folders and
spreadsheets working properly.

At the end of the semester, I found that I preferred this approach to the grading systems
I’d tried. Students were able to access feedback more quickly. Because everything
happened within students’ individual folders, it was easy to be sure that feedback was
going to the right person, and I never had to worry about accidentally sending the wrong
paper or the wrong grade to the wrong student. While this system didn’t make grading
any more fun, it certainly mitigated against one of my biggest stumbling blocks for
getting grades done on time.

Looking Back on Davidson

In May of 2016, I taught the last section of my last class as Davidson College’s digital studies postdoc. In this final meeting, students in my “(Histories of) Gender and Technology” class presented projects that ranged from artistic engagements with gender in Kanye West lyrics, to gendered norms in cooking, to quantitative analyses of gendered affect on Twitter. These projects were exciting. They were deeply engaged with historical scholarship on gender and technology, but also carefully used non-traditional forms and methods to make arguments about how we understand that history today. For me (and hopefully, for the students) the class felt like a success.

 

{Flashback}

 

Almost exactly two years before this class meeting, I was waiting anxiously in my office to take a call with Davidson’s Dean of the Faculty formally offering me the college’s new postdoc in digital studies. I’m trained as an Atlantic historian, and while I’d been working with maps, networks and historical statistics for a few years, 2014-me still felt like a covert digital humanist. My own work arrived in the digital humanities via cliometrics, quantitative history and an undergraduate degree from the University of Chicago, the home of “the new social history.” These methods used what today might be called “big data” to get at the lives and experiences of people who left the barest of marks on the historical record. (For example, while we might not know much about one particular voter in nineteenth-century South Carolina, if we look at all voters in aggregate, we might be able to infer something about individuals.) Also, my father is a statistician who encouraged me to think about the quantitative aspects of my research, and I read a lot of Asimov’s Foundation series as a child. In short, I like the intersection of data and history.

 

Despite this trajectory, I think that I began to truly advocate for the digital humanities in the academy when I saw what it could do in the classroom. I saw a marked difference between students’ responses to assignments that were written for me to read but which were then fated only to languish on a hard drive, and assignments that had some kind of public component. The digital turn facilitated that publicness, and with it new kinds of student engagement that (at best) blended quantitative analysis, visualization, mapping and networks with the historical practice I loved to teach. I felt like the “new social history” I’d met as an undergrad was getting a second life. At Davidson, as a visiting assistant professor in the history department, I’d been lucky enough to share that new life with students in historical methods classes. The digital studies postdoc let me continue that work, and explore more, newer, and increasingly weird pedagogies.

 

Over the last two years, I radically re-imagined or developed totally new courses in the digital studies curriculum. I learned to teach humanities labs, used Caleb McDaniels’ “backwards history” methodology, borrowed Tim Burke’s student design class structure and embraced human centered design as a humanities classroom tool. I designed rubrics for digital assessment. I worked with colleagues to develop digital modules for their own classes. I collaborated with the college’s associate archivist to argue for the importance of student-driven pedagogy for digital programs. As a result of all of this, I’ve come to value more flexible classrooms, and come to trust in my own impulses for letting students take control of and ownership in the classes I teach.

 

I’d love to be able to say that the transition from teaching history classes to digital ones was a smooth one, and that my first class at Davidson was an unreserved success. Predictably, however, the first class – DIG360: Digital Maps, Space and Place (we were very proud of that course number) – was quite bumpy. My graduate training had not prepared me to teach technical labs in a humanities discipline or to teach tools as well as theoretical approaches. I also felt (in hindsight, needlessly) that I had to justify the union of the digital and the humanistic (as an aside, I’m now totally convinced by Ryan Cordell’s argument that we should reserve the “what is DH?” readings until the end of the class – if at all). Subsequent classes felt more successful, and by the end of my time at Davidson, I’d settled on some pedagogical interventions that worked well for me. These included letting myself be more flexible with class time and giving students room to play with both tools and intellectual frameworks. I’m also increasingly convinced that asking students to undertake digital projects requires more scaffolding (for now, at least) than traditional academic assignments. We can’t just send them out in the world to do new things, because the anxiety of doing new things wrong has the potential to be more crippling than the structures of essays and exams. As a result of the classes I taught at Davidson, I came to believe that creating an environment in which students feel comfortable tinkering, failing, adjusting and tinkering again is the first and most essential component of digital pedagogy.

 

I also had an insider’s perspective on the development of a digital studies program. One of the realizations I came to in the first class I taught was that if we were going to ask faculty to bring the digital into their classrooms, we would need to offer more support – not necessarily in digital theories – but in how to teach new tools, and in the case of my home discipline of history, how to talk to students about the relationship between theory, historical argument, and making digital things. With that in mind, I think that one of the things I’m proudest of from my time at Davidson is the creation of “digital learning communities” – a structure that the digital studies faculty developed to help the digitally-curious at Davidson explore new tools – on mapping, data and data analysis and student domains. I’m also very pleased that we were able to institute “digital open office hours” – where faculty, students and staff can drop in and talk about their projects, pedagogical victories or challenges, or unpack their own research questions.

 

Having seen the growth of the digital studies program from the inside, the creation of these kinds of communities seems to me like one of the most important pillars of a digital and interdisciplinary program. Digital methods and pedagogies are not, and will never be for everyone. Skepticism towards things digital is not likely to disappear any time soon. There are some very real and substantive critiques about the relationship between the digital turn and the impulse to operationalize the humanities, funding streams, and institutional priorities. But for those scholars and teachers who find digital approaches useful – in some part of their work, or as a central tenet of it – the ability to talk with people who are trying to adapt their teaching and research in similar ways – but often in different fields – is essential. The community that is created through those conversations is central to getting digital programs off the ground and maintaining them as they grow.

 

It has been great to see how a new program, and new methodologies are fostered “from scratch,” and to have the space to develop my own pedagogical approaches. That space – to play, fail, test and re-invent pedagogically – was probably the most valuable part of this postdoc for me. In the process, I hope to have added to the digital curriculum at Davidson, and built some structures that will continue to support that curriculum as it grows.

Movable maps

In trying to explain the set of feelings I have about my impending move west, I find myself frequently using the phrase “I am deeply, deeply, natally from New Jersey.”  In saying that, I am telling a little bit of a fib (I was born in New York City, but quickly thereafter transported to Montclair, NJ) but the spirit of the claim is true.  On my mother’s side of my family, people emigrated to America (usually from Ireland), come to Essex County, and stay there.  My great-great-grandfather – Edward M. Waldron – emigrated in the 1880s.  He married a woman whose own father (my great-great-great-grandfather – James Moran) had emigrated in the 1840s.  Other branches of this particular family tell similar stories.  We were from Ireland, and then we were from Essex County.

All of this has gotten me thinking recently about the work that maps do for us – in terms of memory, mythmaking, and claimsmaking.  I came across this map of Essex County in the 1850s (comprising more space than the county does now) and showing “the names of property holders from actual surveys.”  It is difficult to reconcile the suburbia that I grew up in as empty farm lands, but moving through the space of the town now, it is possible to imagine what a hotel at the corner of Bloomfield and Valley might have looked like, or that a chemical works, paper mill and cesspool once occupied the space now taken up by a discount liquor store.  With some (very) few exceptions, that past is invisible to us – but imagination can put it back in place.

It is not quite the same thing, but I’ve been doing some imaginative geographical work of my own of late.  Just over one year ago, I got my first tattoo, which was based on a 1927 street map of Montclair.  The tattoo is of the area in which I grew up – as I said at the time, leaving New Jersey makes me want to indelibly mark it on my person.  A month ago, I added to the map, this time showing the area of town where my partner and I currently live.  The two maplets are connected by the railroad – which famously collapses space and time, but which also collapses space on my body.

IMG_1529 copy tattoo

 

Just as I like the idea of imagining the past haunting the present through old maps, I like the idea that these New Jersey spaces will haunt my body as I travel and age.

 

 

Re(cursively)-conceptualizing Atlantic History

Next semester, for the first time, I get to teach an Atlantic history survey.  I’ve taught a lot of courses that think Atlantically, but never one which has the Atlantic as a specific subject.  Looking back over the syllabuses I designed when I was on the market, I realized that I was subject to the (common, I think, but hopefully increasingly uncommon) trap of too-often letting British imperial history stand in for Atlantic history.  So, a few days before book orders are due, I’m tearing apart the course and stitching it back together.  Shamelessly riffing on Michael Jarvis’s syllabus, I want to try to arrange the class around sites where Atlantic processes and identities are constructed.  I’m hoping this will mean that the historical specificity of encounters will become clear to students, which the broader arc of the class will illustrate the ways in which the Atlantic has been constructed and reconstructed over time.

In pursuit of some case studies, I pulled up a timeline that my colleagues at NYU and I created in 2007-8 as we were preparing for exams.  We pooled our expertise, and tried to identify the major turning points, events and eras in Atlantic history, along with the scholars who wrote about them.  This morning, I dropped the entire thing into Timeline.js.  In some ways, the resulting document says more about our early-grad school conceptions of the field than anything else – our decisions about what makes colonialism different from imperialism seems under theorized, for example. However, I also think it does a good job of showing the spaces that Atlantic history touches.

Hopefully, the 8-years-past versions of ourselves won’t be judged too harshly for our categorization and periodization – and perhaps this thing might even become useful for other budding Atlanticists in the future.  I might continue to add to this – or I might just leave it as an artifact of what the state of Atlantic history seemed to be for five anxious people at NYU nearly a decade ago.