Open(ish) letter to the University of Chicago

This morning, I received an alumni survey from my alma mater, the University of Chicago.  At the end, there was a section for extended comment.  Since I indicated in the survey that I highly valued my education, the connections I made, and the mission of the institution, but that I had no plans to give in the future, I thought I should explain myself.  Here’s what I wrote:

I used to donate to the University of Chicago, in large part because I received an excellent education that prepared me for graduate school, and for my own career in academia.  In the past few years, four factors have kept me from giving, and will likely keep me from giving for the foreseeable future:

1) President Zimmer’s salary in comparison to other major research universities – since 2011, President Zimmer’s salary has been among the top 15 highest base salaries paid to presidents of private institutions.  While being a university president is certainly a role that requires skill and expertise, Dr. Zimmer’s salary suggests an institutional emphasis on administrative prestige, rather than on the support of students.

2) Safe spaces – earlier this year, the University published an ill-informed (with regards to the theory of safe spaces) and, from the perspective of a faculty member, misguided statement on the place of safe spaces at the University of Chicago.  There were a number of very thoughtful critiques of this statement, but for me it signaled a fundamental disregard for students who fell outside of dominant categories.  Put simply, by dint of their race, class, gender, gender presentation and sexual orientation, some students experience the world as safer (both in terms of discourse and in terms of physical safety) than others.  That the University of Chicago would ignore these disparities, and criticize some of the student-led structures that push back against it was, for me, unconscionable.

3) Rachel Fulton – I took undergraduate classes with Dr. Fulton.  She was an excellent lecturer, and fundamentally shaped the way I approach my own teaching.  She is absolutely entitled to her political opinions, but I was shocked that the language she used to describe women in some of her posts (this in particular – and even more shocked that no one in a position of power at the university thought that it would be good to disavow those ideas (I’m not, by the way, calling for Fulton to be fired).  In this case, the university seemed more interested in studied non-action than it did in reassuring students that one faculty member’s thoughts about women’s sexuality, appearances and students’ sexuality in general did not represent the institution as a whole.

4) Unionization – the arguments that are being offered against graduate student unionization this week further undermine the value of a University of Chicago education.  Lawyers for the university have argued that graduate students do not teach for the benefit of undergraduates, are not assessed on the quality of their teaching, create more work for tenure-track faculty (presumably detracting time from their own research) and are just there to learn to teach(apparently at the expense of undergraduates).  I don’t believe this to be true – it reads as classic anti-union rhetoric – but if I take the university at its word in these proceedings, then I must conclude the University of Chicago cares only for training graduate students, and not for either faculty or undergraduates. If I take the rhetoric that the university disseminates about the value it places on education and research at face value, then I  must conclude that it is more important to defeat a graduate student union than it is to be consistent in values.

In sum, the actions of the University of Chicago in the past years suggest to me a fundamental disregard for undergraduate education specifically, and higher education more broadly.  I do not recognize the institution that I attended from 2002-2006 in the institution of 2016-2017.  I see no reason to give my money or support to a University of Chicago that seems so alienated from the views it has historically espoused, which drew me in as a student, and which supported my own education.

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.


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.

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.

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

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
* 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.




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.

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.

Students designing classes, you say?

Last semester, inspired by Caleb McDaniel and Tim Burke‘s student-designed courses, I let students design the content of my Death in the Digital Age course.  Then I wrote a post about it for EdSurge. Here, a few months later, is the text of that post.

Last semester, I ceded control of class to my students. I didn’t just give them room to speak. I asked them to design the syllabus, the assignments and even the grading rubrics.

As the semester progressed, these students gained experience forging connections among different interdisciplinary fields. By selecting the topics that the class would explore, they built confidence in their own expertise and embraced the uncertainty of using new digital tools to communicate their work.

Why Give Students the Reins?

“But!”—my colleagues asked—“Didn’t the students hate the deconstruction of faculty expertise? How could they be trusted to do rigorous work if they were designing assignments? Wouldn’t they just do the minimum required?”

The class I was teaching, Death in the Digital Age, was totally new for me. It was prompted by my own research questions about the relationships between death, data and ghosts, and a desire to read deeply beyond my own expertise. To explore these big and often complex questions, the class would have to encompass recent developments in science and technology studies, medical humanities, biology, sociology and anthropology, as well as my own fields of digital studies and history. The students enrolled in the class came with interests as diverse as these fields, and I knew that I wouldn’t be able to anticipate all (or even most) of the intersections between the themes of the class and students’ own fields of study.

I also wanted to see what kind of digital historical projects students would produce when prompted to bring together disparate data points about an individual as a kind of “resurrection.” In order for these projects to work, this class would have to surmount a pedagogical problem common to digital humanities courses: Digital projects feel scary in ways that traditional papers do not. Many students know how to write papers. They are, understandably, much less comfortable with digital assignments (e.g., digital archives, interactive exhibits or games-as-scholarship), new tools (e.g., Omeka, Twine or d3.js) and new forms (e.g., hacks, glitches or directed play).

I wanted the class structure to help students manage their (productive) discomfort with new tools, while also introducing them to the new (and possibly discomforting) field of death in the digital age. I faced the prospect of discomfort building upon discomfort, with no productivity in sight. Taking my cue from Rice Associate Professor Caleb McDaniel’s work on student-driven classrooms, I decided guard against the possibility that this class would leave students feeling unmoored by giving them control over the conceptual boundaries of the course.

I broke the class into three parts: (1) Building the course, (2) Theorizing digital death and (3) Digital resurrection. The bulk of the first few weeks was devoted to thinking about how to build digital humanist communities, design digital assignments, and support (without co-opting) student agency. I asked students to list topics they wanted to see covered in the course. As a class we then discussed, and decided on, the themes we wanted to pursue together. Some, such as the advent of digital memorials to the dead, were ones that I had expected. Others, such as the phenomenon of digital memorials for fictional characters, were ones I had not. I asked students to bring in expertise from their own majors and classes, and I provided expertise in the form of finding readings that fit the topics suggested.

Having students shape the content of the course worked well, but I wanted to go farther—I also wanted them to feel like they had agency in terms of their intellectual output. So I asked them to look at digital projects that they liked, and to come up with a set of best practices for digital scholarship. These collaborative best practices became the beginnings of their midterm assignment.

As a group, the class decided that the best digital work was relevant to contemporary politics, publicly oriented and collaborative. I suggested various tools they might use to build such a project, but they ultimately settled on Tumblr, which fell within their digital vernacular but was outside of mine. The resulting assignment collected and contextualized artifacts of digital death, and brought them together in conversation with one another. (For instance, the students drew inspiration from the Queering Slavery Working Group project, which uses Tumblr to aggregate “histories of intimacy, sex and sexuality during the period of Atlantic slavery.”)

The semester progressed. The students seemed to get comfortable with the idea of a course that they were complicit in. Their final was a fairly broad prompt: Digitally resurrect someone from Davidson’s past. Before starting the students had to construct two documents. The first was an assignment for themselves, written from the perspective of the professor. Then they developed a grading rubric, “hacked” from a rubric I use to grade student papers. Each assignment and rubric was different. Students would be assessed according to the individual standards they set.

Positive Results

Some students were initially uncomfortable with the idea of a professor abdicating responsibility, but the class did not implode and students did not rebel. In the end, they liked that the course we all participated in was unique—it will never be taught in just this way, with just these readings, topics and assignments ever again. This uniqueness made the students feel as if we were all working toward some intellectual end together, rather than feeling like they were working toward some unknowable standard I was setting.

In contrast to other digital studies classes, there also seemed to be less resistance to learning new tools and technologies. In part, I think, this was because the students felt free to choose tools that suited their projects, rather than being expected to master a tool that they would never use again.

One student used Instagram to recreate the movements of a former Davidson employee through the space of the town and college in order to argue that people who have worked for institutions should be remembered for more than their service. Another student used Timeline JS to recreate the final days of Fred Martin Hobbs, a student at the college who died trying to save a classmate from drowning. In both cases, students felt empowered to select the stories they wanted to tell. Rather than feeling compelled to demonstrate proficiency in a particular tool, and finding a narrative that was easy to convey, students mindfully chose tools that helped them to tell particular stories.

Would I Cede Control Again?

Yes. However, this is not a model that works for all (or even most) classes. The combination of a relatively unknown topic, with a relatively underdeveloped literature, and a lot of new technologies worked to create circumstances that seemed to require teaching in a way that made students feel more secure about their control of and place in the class. Student control of the classroom might not work so well for classes in more established fields, and certainly would be less effective in classes with more familiar assignments.

The whole class was not smooth sailing—at times students and I disagreed about the direction the class would take, and clashed over differing opinions about the right tool for a particular narrative job. Despite these moments of friction, I found that the work that students created felt more thoughtful than that submitted in other digital studies classes I’ve taught. Students were able to articulate why different digital methods afforded the telling of stories in particular ways, and developed critical perspectives on the study of death in the digital age. The benefits far outweighed the frustrations (for me at least) and structuring a class with student agency at the core is certainly an experiment I’ll try again.

An agentic moment

This week I assigned Jeff McClurken’s article on Omeka and “productive discomfort.”  I’ve had students read this article before, and while the resulting conversation was interesting, the article has never before resulted in the kind of robust debate about discomfort, barriers and technology that came out of the reading response blog posts for today’s class.

I could summarize, annotate and curate their posts, but (drawing on Andrew Rikard’s recent argument about student agency) I thought it might be better to just leave links here.

Love in Peril

“That Belongs in a Museum”… or an Omeka Exhibit

Preservation through Representation

The Digital Difference