Monthly Archives: April 2012

Opportunities for Undergraduate Research in the Digital Humanities

There are three compelling reasons for an administrator in the humanities to support efforts in the digital humanities:  first, DH provides opportunities for serious reflection on what it means to be human now using tools central to human being in the digital age, this quest for understanding the appropriately central task of humanists;  second, DH provides opportunities for students to acquire technical skills that are no longer optional for college graduates transitioning in to the world of work;  third, DH provides serious opportunities for students to pursue original research in the humanities, contributing to the basic fund of knowledge that humanists and society at large will build on in the future.

Regarding this last, I’ve done just a little bit of scratching related to the possibilities related to undergraduate research, attending most recently the Re:Humanities conference at Swarthmore.  Adeline Koh, who has become something of a twitter interlocutor on these issues, was kind enough to point me to Richard Stockton College’s blog post on the conference (Messiah College’s own Larry Lake was mentioned), which in turn led me to the Richard Stockton Postcolonial project.  A really fine example of undergraduate thinking at work in a way that will contribute to our broader understanding of the postcolonial experience.  I am impressed that this kind of work is managed at the undergraduate level, and apparently without massive infusions of institutional infrastructure and cash.  I also love the fact that it is clearly collaborative work between a professor and students, it includes not only literature students but a student majoring in biology, and it provides opportunities for students to reflect on their own learning.  The quality of the project is such that MLA is archiving it in its database of scholarly websites.  Nice work.

There’s going to be another opportunity to hear about and review the best student work in this area via the NITLE symposium on undergraduate research in digital humanities.  NITLE has been a strong advocate for ug research in digital humanities.  I hope I can connect to the symposium.

Preliminary Takeaways from Rethinking Success

My colleague, John Fea, has already wrapped up his experience at Rethinking Success and is off to talk about his book at Notre Dame.  He’s hoping to avoid the slings and arrows tossed his way by the likes of Mark Noll.  The third day is just beginning, so I’m not quite ready to wrap up myself, but a few anticipatory thoughts and considerations.

First, it has been good for me to see that the School of the Humanities at Messiah College has been taking a number of good steps already, confirming my sense begun about 2 and a half years ago (and even earlier as a chair) that we in the Humanities had to do a much better job of addressing the question of jobs and careers.  It seems to me, frankly, that a number of elite national liberal arts institutions are only at the stage we were in the School of the Humanities two and a half years ago in grappling with how to address the situation of careers and the humanities.  At Messiah our steps have been few, but they have been serious and we seem to have done intuitively what some of the other liberal arts programs are beginning.  We have taken small but significant steps to integrate career considerations in to the curriculum, and to do that from the beginning of their time in a major, and we’ve had multiple faculty conversations and professional development opportunities to improve faculty advising for careers.  The results have been solid so far.  Student satisfaction in the area of career advising and preparation is up, though I admit we don’t have solid data on how effectively our students have transitioned in to the workplace.

Second,  it’s obvious that resourcing is key.  It’s just really staggering what Wake Forest has decided to do in promoting career development, putting it front and center on their agenda in liberal arts education, and not just doing that with rhetoric but with institutional structure and with dollars.  Moreover, it is clear that it is a presidential initiative that everyone has to take seriously.  Given the much higher levels of resource that most of the elite liberal arts institutions have, and some of the plans they’ve started espousing, I have no doubt they will be leap-frogging past our efforts in short order.  On the other hand, I think this will be a good thing on the whole for the discourse surrounding the liberal arts.  The conversation about what the liberal arts are and how they ought to connect to careers will only change fundamentally if places like Bryn Mawr, Swarthmore, Wake Forest, and Harvard and Yale and others take up the cudgel and change.  So I was extremely glad to see the national liberal arts colleges seeing this as a priority for liberal arts generally.

Third, it’s obvious that faculty is a key.  Here again, I think we at Messiah are modestly ahead of the game.  We were one of a very few schools that even brought a faculty member, and we brought three.  This signifies, I think, the seriousness with which the faculty has begun taking this issue at Messiah College, though, of course, I can always wish it was more widespread and more deeply felt.  Universally speakers pointed to the fact that faculty don’t think career development is their responsibility, but if students are going to make the transition in to the workplace from a liberal arts major they have to be able to speak clearly about the way their whole college experience, including their academic experience, has prepared them for the jobs ahead of them.  That can’t be done without effective faculty participation and buy in.  Secondarily, it was clear issues of curriculum have to be addressed–either in general education or in the majors or both–to assure that students actually have the skills they need for success.  That, again, can’t happen without serious faculty engagement with the question of what the curriculum should look like and how it might connect to career preparation.

The final note is that clearly we’ve only just begun.  It was evident to me that we’ve only taken first steps and that our continued work in this area is probably another two or three year process to really establish the cultural change we need to establish.  I think the biggest areas for us to consider have to do with the curriculum. One speaker made it abundantly clear that fundamental skills were essential.  As he put it “You must either be a science tech graduate who is liberally educated, or your must be a liberal are graduate who is science and technically savvy.  There is no middle ground.”  Other conversations and talks such as that from Hampden Sydney President, made it clear that while companies do talk about the need for communication skills etcetera, the type of things we find in the humanities, it is more or less the case that they are assuming the technical skills.  That is, it is fundamentally important that students have the kinds of technical skills necessary to do the jobs for which they are applying.  In flush times companies were willing to hire the smartest kids and train them in the specifics.  In lean times they want the students to have the skills to do the job, and they want those students to have the skills associated with a liberal arts education as well.  We need to keep talking about transferable skills at Messiah College, but we’ve got to talk about what skills students need that we currently aren’t giving them effectively.

In the humanities I think this might mean two or three things for us:  First is I think we need to require internships.  It was a universal refrain that the kinds of experiences students get in internships are the single most important factor in hiring decisions for companies.  If we can develop internships containing reflective components focused on the discipline, we could do a better job of not only making sure students have those experiences but that they are able to connect their disciplinary education to the world of work.  Second, I think this means a harder and more urgent look at technology and the humanities.  As some folks know who follow this blog, I am an advocate for the digital humanities and am trying to get a few things off the ground here at Messiah.  So far I’ve talked about that in terms associated with the future of the humanities.  I’ve become convinced this weekend that we need to broaden that conversation to talk about the future of our students.  The skills associated  with digital humanities are the kinds of skills that will make our students more effective competitors in the marketplace and enable them to infuse the values and interests of humanistic learning in to the world of work.  Finally, I think we need to pursue the idea of a Business Bootcamp at Messiah College, a course or intensive summer program specifically focused on liberal arts students needing to make the transition in to the business world so that they can more effectively become familiar with basic skills they will need, and think more effectively about how their disciplinary skills are useful in the business world.

Enough for now, the bus ride is over.

Stories about Digital Literacy: a literary sub-genre?

There’s a very long history of memoirs about reading and literacy. Richard Rodriguez’s Hunger of Memory is one of the signature works in my own life on this theme, but there are a bunch of others. Before I entered administration I was pondering an essay on this theme as a particular sub-genre.  The tale of awakening to words, of becoming so absorbed by stories that you no longer had time for friends, or that books became your friends, your parents worry, the suspicion that there is something wrong with you, the thrill of finding the one or two other people in your adolescence who can share a love for the printed page.

There’s a nice entry on Digital Literacy over at ivry twr that has some of the same features, and I realized I wasn’t really familiar with stories of coming to digital literacy in quite the same way.

Are there other such stories out there?  Are the memories of our engagement with screen and keyboard a literary sub-genre?  I’m actually truly intrigued and interested, so if you can point me to them I’d love to have a look.

A short excerpt from the post:

I still remember my grandfather’s first computer. It was a Pentium 486 that ran Windows 3.1. Murmurs in the family said that he paid nearly $3000 for it. My grandfather has (and continues to be) someone who enjoys the latest and greatest gadgets. We visited my grandparents regularly and I was allowed largely unsupervised time with the computer. I quickly discovered a number of computer games on his hard drive and from that point on all my memories of that computer revolve around Wolfenstein 3D and Cosmo.

My first experience with the internet didn’t come for a few more years. One day my uncle was visiting with his company laptop. He told my parents about something called the internet that would let you search for anything. He plugged his laptop into our phone line and before long we were online.

My family sat me down in front of it and told me to search for something. Being around 10 or 11 at the time, I searched for “toys.” Some things about the internet never change. Instead of the Transformers or Lego that I was expecting, I was greeted with page after page of every sex toy imaginable. My parents quickly closed the laptop.

Accessing the Rethinking Success Conference

Wake Forest has done an exceptional job, I think, of creating this conference as a resource for the academic community at large. The goings-on of the conference can be accessed in realtime through Twitter at #rethinkingsuccess, which they are using as a Storify version of the conference.  (John Fea and I are cited several times, so happy to contribute to the view of what going on).  But they are also doing a good job of getting the word out in other ways.

Andy Chan from Wake Forest is compiling a record of the conference at his blog, and there you can access video interviews with the main speakers as well as summaries of the sessions.

There’s also been some good press, with an Inside Higher Ed report this morning.

Finally, Wake has provided a great resource page that examines these issues through linked articles and essays–a bibliography of the main issues according to the topic.

Kudos to Wake for providing a great service to the academic community.

Are Career Development Officers and Liberal Arts Professors Ships passing in the night?

The first day of the Rethinking Success conference was highly informative and stimulating, but also weirdly disjunctive in certain respects.  This was best represented in the two afternoon sessions.  The first focused on historical perspectives on liberal arts and careers and featured scholars from the liberal arts, Andrew Delbanco (Columbia) and Stan Katz (Princeton).  The second session, focused on Employment and Market issues featuring three panelists concerned primarily with different issues associated with careers and college–Philip Gardner (Collegiate Employment Research institute, Michigan State), Debra Humphreys (AACU), and Mark Zandi (Moody’s Analytics and

Independently these were two very good sessions.  Together I think they embodied a problem rather than elucidating it.

That is all the panelists were passionate about students, concerned about college and its roles in students’ lives, and convinced that we needed to do something different.  However, it was as if the two panels were speaking different languages or talking past one another.  The format of the sessions, which was tightly controlled and didnt really invite cross panel reflections or responses, contributed to this sense I had that we do not really yet have a common language to talk about the liberal arts and careers.  What we really have is two different groups talking about the same thing in the same place, but not really talking in a way that was informed by the other’s concerns.

In the first session Delbanco and Katz raised the traditional defenses of the liberal arts that one could expect of those steeped in and defending that tradition.  By contrast the market trends folk were emphatic about the primacy of career considerations in pursuing your college education. A few of my tweeted notes and paraphrases suggests the contrast:

  • From Andrew Delbanco:  Education is in essence, an effort to resist death, to preserve knowledge and pass it on to our children.
  • From one of the second panelists:  We need to be relying on venture capitalists who can see 5 or 10 years in to the future to predict the kinds of skills and emphases we need to be giving students in their education.
  • From Mark Zandi:  The dollar value of higher education has declined even as the cost of higher education has skyrocketed
  • From Andrew Delbanco:  We’re not providing students the time to reflect, the time for contemplation to reflect on who you are
  • From Philip Gardner:  Internships are the most important thing students do in college.

It’s not that there’s anything specifically wrong with any of these proclamations;  it’s just the these folks aren’t really in conversation with each other and it seems to me that they don’t yet have a language where they can converse.

There was one point of commonality on which everyone seemed to agree, even in their different languages, and that was on the need for breadth and depth, that it is not enough to train narrowly for a specific field but that the creativity and innovation that would be required for successful career paths in the future required a combinations of the two.

  • From Stan Katz:  Provincialism is narrow specialization. Liberal arts creates generalists capable of engaging the larger world.
  • From Gardner:  In this day and age you must either be a liberally educated technical student, or a technically savvy liberal arts student, there is no middle ground.
  • Gardner: Innovation comes from thinking broadly, between functions rather than only in your particular role
  • Humphreys–Narrow Learning is not enough. It’s not a choice between tech ed and big issue ed. We must have both.

I thought the second panel was a little better on this than the representatives of the liberal arts, perhaps because the broad and deep model is still somewhat embodied in systems of general education that rely–in however wan and half-hearted a way in many professional and technical programs in university settings–on a liberal arts ethos.  Ironically, this problem is harder for the denizens of the liberal arts because we have to think through the question of what it might mean for our “deep education” in a liberal arts discipline to be come more deeply connected to the workplace.  What would it mean to develop a technically savvy graduate of a liberal arts program.  One solution would be to reimagine  the general education programs we have so that they had higher components of technological learning–and I think that’s something to consider.  Another possibility would be to think about how to transform our majors so that they insist on higher levels of technological competence as that is appropriate to our changing fields, as well as deeper levels of engagement with the translation and transition of skills from the academy to the marketplace.

And I think that’s something to consider as well.

Rethinking Success: Liberal Arts and Careers for the 21st century

I’ve just arrived in Wake Forest NC for the Rethinking Success Conference where we’re planning on thinking about liberal arts and careers.  This has been a particular area that I’ve put some emphasis on in the past couple of years since becoming dean, believing we need to do a much better job of articulating the connections, but also forging connections, not just articulating.  In our areas in the humanities at Messiah College,  I’ve asked faculty and departments to craft more comprehensive career development plans connected to the curriculum, to focus on advising for life after college, to connect more intentionally with our Career Center, and to do a better job of highlighting the variety of successes that our humanities majors have had in the world of work and other areas of endeavor in their lives after college.  I’m looking forward to this conference to see what we’ve done well and what we could do better.  Attendees are from a wide variety of institutions–though a particularly heavy dose of national liberal arts colleges and Ivies–and Messiah is one of two institutions I saw associated with the CCCU, so maybe our particular orientation as a faith-based institution can bring something useful to the conversation.

I admit there’s a part of me that can be a little leery about these kinds of conversations.  On the one hand, I think a lot of time humanities scholars and administrators  get together and cheerlead, preaching to the choir about how badly our disciplines are needed, without really thinking through material and discursive needs of our various audiences.  This conference doesn’t look like it will do that, but it does strike me that “Rethinking Success” could mean many different things.

On the one hand, “Rethinking Success” could be a wagging finger in the face of the body politic, or, since I’m not so certain that we have a body politic in this country anymore, maybe we should call it the body economicus.  That is, talking about Rethinking Success in humanistic circles often devolves in to discussion about how the culture at large needs to rethink success, and we in the humanities are just the people who are there to help them do it.  Give up your pecuniary interests, we say, and learn how to be civic minded by majoring in the liberal arts. So we take it as our job to shame the commercialization of the culture at large in the hopes that it will have a heartfelt conversion and find their way back to philosophy, theology, history, and literature–in other words, the way to rethink success is to encourage everyone else to change their habits so that we can do what we’ve always done and be …..more successful at it.

I actually don’t completely disagree with that notion.  As I’ve noted in my sometimes mixed reviews of Andrew Delbanco’s recent book,  I really do think there is a lot to be said for recapturing a better notion of the civic orientation and the transformative character of learning that has typically characterized learning in liberal arts colleges.  In other words, understanding that life and learning is more than instrumental is the bailiwick of the liberal arts, and that involves people rethinking what success means in life.

I remember an undergraduate class I had as a freshman wherein I was asked to list my life goals.  I indicated I wanted to own a house on a lake and a boat.  My professor rather drily noted in the margins, “You may want to rethink this.”  Indeed, and my liberal arts education did in fact work the kind of transforming power that Delbanco talks about by reorienting my thinking about what was really important in life.  (On the other hand, I still wouldn’t mind owning a house on a lake and a boat, I just don’t’ define that as a life’s goal and purpose).

Nevertheless, I think that “Rethinking Success” can’t be focused outwardly alone for those of us who are in the liberal art and in the humanities especially.  We need to do some self-examination for how and why the humanities may need to change what it is doing in the world today, rather than taking on the role of the embattled chosen remnant of some lost educational utopia.  Especially, I think that we need to think carefully about how much our undergraduate education is focused on reproducing people just like us.  That is, we imagine success in our areas as producing future holders of doctorates and professors in colleges and universities across the country.  The sign of a “successful” program is the production of such future professors.  Bunk.  We need to recognize that success in our areas has to mean the production of thoughtful and informed persons who go on to become bankers;  we need to value students and programs that prepare secondary teachers as much or more than we value programs that produce PhD candidates;  we need to prepare and applaud students who make their way into the many different horizons of the world, not simply those who make their way in to our world as future professors, a form of narcissistic projection if there ever was one.  And we need to think about how our curricula prepare students for these horizons.  I’ve suggested to others many times in the past that in the humanities we tend to do a great job of broadening students horizons, but we need to do a much better job of showing them how to forge pathways in to those horizons.  Facilitating students pathway in to a vocation or a career is not something extraneous to our educational purpose.  In most ways it is central to our purpose and we have forgotten or ignored that.

I’m hoping this conference will help me and my colleagues here how to think through that issue.

If you’re interested in following along with the conference, I know there’s a twitter hashtag #rethinkingsuccess.  I’ll be blogging about the conference sporadically at this site, and I know my colleague John Fea intends to do so as well.  Your thoughts and comments are appreciated.

Is the laptop going the way of the codex; technological nostalgia in the iPad imperium

My colleague John Fea over at The Way of Improvement Leads Home, pointed me to this essay by Alex Golub on the relative merits of the iPad and the laptop.  For Golub, the iPad is indispensable, but, as he puts it “it’s not a laptop and it never will be.”  Golub goes on with a litany of limitations that, in fact, I mostly agree with–too hard to produce things, too hard to multi-task, etcetera, etcetera.

On the other hand, I’m struck by the degree to which his lamentations strike me as just the sort of thing people are saying about the demise of the book.

Perhaps I am one of the old generation who will someday be put to shame by nimble-fingered young’uns tapping expertly away on their nanometer-thick iPad 7s, but I don’t think so. People may get used to the limitations of the device, but that doesn’t mean that it’s better than what came before.

In fact, I see this as one of the dangers of the iPad. I see them everywhere on campus, and I wonder to myself: Are my students really getting through college without a laptop? Frankly, the idea seems horrifying to me. I don’t doubt that they can do it — I worry what skills they are not learning because of the smallness (in every sense of that word) of the devices they learn on.

Read more:
Inside Higher Ed

Substitute the word “book” for every reference to laptop and you’ve got a pretty good rendition of the typical concerns with the demise of the codex, profs in horror at the idea that students may someday come to their classes without books in hand and they may be required to teach students from text on a screen. (Who am I kidding, the thought horrifies me still).  As if somehow there were an inherent depth or proficiency of knowledge that is unavailable through this other form.  My college began an iPad experiment this year, and so far there’s been quite a bit of success, even if there are also hiccups.  Just yesterday I read an interview with Clive Thompson who is reading War and Peace on his iPhone.  On his iPhone!

As I said, I’m reading War and Peace on my iPhone. But you can’t tell I’m reading War and Peaceon my iPhone. When I take my kids to the park and they’re off playing while I’m reading War and Peace, I look like just some fatuous idiot reading his email. I almost went to CafePress and designed a T-shirt that said, “Piss off, I’m reading War and Peace on my iPhone.”

I mildly object to the notion that people look like fatuous idiots answering their email.  It’s what I spend about 80% of my day doing.  Nevertheless, I agree with the sentiment that simply because the embodiment or the tools of our intelligence are unfamiliar, we should not assume intelligence and learning aren’t present.

We’ve had the codex for about two millennia in one form or another.  We’ve had the laptop for less than 40.  I admit to being just a bit bemused at the foreshortening of our nostalgia for the good old days.

Interview with Andrew Delbanco: Students, you have saved others, now save yourselves

Following up on my recent posts on Andrew Delbanco (here, here, and here), there’s an interesting interview with Delbanco on the Chronicle of the Higher Education as part of their Afterwords series, speaking further about his recent book:

Andrew Delbanco Interview–Chronicle of Higher Education

Mostly Delbanco covers the same territory here, and again, I admire his ideals.  I remain struck, though, by the way in which he puts the onus on students to resist the commercialization of college life. Again, I wonder, why is it up to students to do this.  Don’t they, most of them, end up working with an overwhelmingly overdetermined system, hopelessly recognizing that a college or university degree is necessary for their success in life, and realizing at the exchange of several tens of thousands of dollars in debt they are being offered a chance at a reasonably secure existence.  How can it be up to college students to resist this commercialization when college and university life is so thoroughly commercialized from the moment of the transaction–through admissions decisions that consider the ability to pay, to financial aid offerings, to debt loads, to student jobs necessary for paying basic expenses.  What student could avoid understanding that there is a deeply commercial angle to the transaction.

Note, I am not saying the commercialization of higher education should not be resisted, but it seems peculiar to me to put emphasis on the need for students to do this.  The question ought to be, how do we change the structures of higher education that are making the commercialization of their education inevitable.

That is a tougher nut to crack than pleading with undergraduates to resist pecuniary interests and take humanities majors anyway.

Our Data, Our Selves: Data Mining for Self-Knowledge

If you haven’t read Gary Shteygart’s Super, Sad, True, Love Story, I would encourage you to go, sell all, buy and do so.  I guess I would call it a dystopian black comedic satire, and at one point I would have called it futuristic.  Now I’m not so sure.  The creepy thing is that about every other week there’s some new thing I notice and I kind of say to myself “Wow–that’s right out of Shteyngart.”  This latest from the NYTimes is another case in point.  The article traces the efforts of Stephen Wolfram to use his immense collection of data from the records of his email to the keystrokes on his computer to analyze his life for patterns of creativity, productivity, and the like.

He put the system to work, examining his e-mail and phone calls. As a marker for his new-idea rate, he used the occurrence of new words or phrases he had begun using over time in his e-mail. These words were different from the 33,000 or so that the system knew were in his standard lexicon.

The analysis showed that the practical aspects of his days were highly regular — a reliable dip in e-mail about dinner time, and don’t try getting him on the phone then, either.

But he said the system also identified, as hoped, some of the times and circumstances of creative action. Graphs of what the system found can be seen on his blog, called “The Personal Analytics of My Life.”

The algorithms that Dr. Wolfram and his group wrote “are prototypes for what we might be able to do for everyone,” he said.

The system may someday end up serving as a kind of personal historian, as well as a potential coach for improving work habits and productivity. The data could also be a treasure trove for people writing their autobiographies, or for biographers entrusted with the information.

This is eerily like the processes in Shteyngart’s novel whereby people have data scores that are immediately readable by themselves and others, and the main character obsesses continuously over the state of his data, and judges the nature and potential for his relationship on the basis of the data of others.

Socrates was the first, I think, to say the unexamined life was not worth living, but I’m not entirely sure this was what he had in mind.  There is a weird distancing effect involved in this process by which we remove ourselves from ourselves and look at the numbers.

At the same time, I’m fascinated by the prospects, and I think its not all that different from the idea of “distanced reading” that is now becoming common through certain Digital humanities practices in literature, analyzing hundreds or thousands of novels instead of reading two or three closely in order to understand through statistical analysis the important trends in literary history at any particular point in time, as well as the way specific novels might fit in to that statistical history.

Nevertheless, a novel isn’t a person.  I remain iffy about reducing myself to a set of numbers I can work to improve, modify, analyze, and interpret.  The examined life leads typically not to personal policies, but to a sense of mystery, how much there is that we don’t know about ourselves, how much there is that can’t be reduced to what I can see, or what I can count.  If I could understand my life by numbers, would I?

For Your edification I include the book trailer for Shteygart’s novel below.

The Pew Research Center Report on Reading and e-books: Reading More and Reading Less

The Huffington Post had a somewhat different take on the Pew Research Center Report concerning reading than I had in yesterdays post:

The surveys of 2,986 respondents, carried out in English and Spanish at the end of 2011 and the beginning of 2012, also showed that the average (calculated by mean) American reads 17 books a year.

However, 19% of respondents aged 16 and over said that they hadn’t read a single book in any format, over the previous 12 months – the highest since such surveys on American reading habits began in 1978. If this figure is accurate, that means more than 50 million Americans don’t read books at all.

This is the typical fare of discourse of the reading crisis that I’ve commented on extensively elsewhere.  In some ways it seems to me that this speaks to a kind of literacy divide–those who can concentrate and comprehend (or just tolerate) long-form texts and those who cannot.  I am no longer completely sure we have a reading crisis in the abstract. I think in some respects people are reading more than ever. But I do think we have a concrete reading crisis in the sense that long form reading of many types is becoming harder to sustain.  
The advantage of the codex, fewer distractions.  The disadvantage of the codex, we are living in a world of distraction.  One of Alex Juhasz’s insights at the Re:Humanities 2012 undergraduate conference a couple of weeks ago was that we have to figure out how to write for a world that is permanently distracted.  Is this a better world?  I doubt it.  Is it a reality?  I don’t know how to doubt that it is.  
The question is, how may one write in to that world while also intervening and resisting its most fragmenting and distracting aspects.  What kind of writing might both engage and accept distractedness while ultimately provoke focus and concentration or at least pointing to their possibility?