Ada Lovelace Day Post–Women in the History of American Technology

I’ve had trouble deciding who I was going to write about for my promised post on Ada Lovelace day. [Don’t know who she is? Look her up here and be sure to check out the references as well.] I’m glad to see that I’m far from alone in writing today. The task for Ada Lovelace Day is to blog about a woman in technology, but I’m going to write about my own impressions here on the subject of the history of women in American Technology before I get to discussing three specific women. This is not a scholarly exercise (hence no footnotes) or a complete history by any stretch (so don’t use this to study for a test, or crib from this post), but simply a few musings that come after teaching a particular history class (History of American Technology and Culture) in a particular way for a number of years.

As an historian of American technology (and other areas including the 19th Century US, as well as women and gender), I’ve often been frustrated (though perhaps not surprised) by the relative paucity of the presence of women as individuals in this sub-field’s historical literature. Of course, from before the arrival of Europeans American women have worked in agricultural fields, often beside men, and using various implements of technology while doing so. Women also appear prominently in accounts of Lowell’s textile mills, and in the form of laborers in a number of industries employing technology, especially at times of war (the women in Civil War munitions factories and so famously represented by Rosie the Riveter in WWII are merely the most well known).

Yet, since my class is organized around the inventions (and reinventions) of twenty or so key artifacts of American technology, I’ve all too often talked about women’s roles in technology as secondary or reactive, especially before 1900. The number of prominent inventions women had direct roles in creating before the 20th century is harder to highlight given the roles that women were expected to play, and the restrictions often placed on their educations and their actions.

Still, there are three women of the “long 19th Century” that I want to mention, women who were involved in some of the most significant acts of technological creation of their day and place.

  • Catherine Green was a widow and Georgia plantation owner who certainly encouraged Eli Whitney to work on the problem of removing seeds from cotton. What’s less clear historically speaking is how much of a role she played in helping Whitney discover what may have been the key aspect of that the cotton gin, the wire teeth that pulled the cotton fibers from those pesky seeds. [1793]
  • Emily Warren Roebling was the spouse of Brooklyn Bridge head engineer Washington Roebling. When he was struck down and crippled by “caissons disease” after spending too much time in the pressurized diggings below the surface of the East River it was Emily Roebling who took over as the main contact between Washington and the bridge effort. For years while Washington apparently watched from the window of a nearby building, Emily was his eyes and ears, learning a great deal of engineering on what was the largest bridge in the world at the time. When it was completed, it was Emily Roebling who made the first official crossing of the bridge in 1883. [1869-1883]
  • Finally, Amanda Jones is the least well known of the three, though I’d argue fairly important. Though women were often chiefly responsible for preserving food in their households in the 19th Century, most of the innovations in commercial preservation came from men like Gail Borden, H. J. Heinz, and John Torrence (of Campbell’s Soup). In 1872, however, Amanda Jones was the inventor of a vacuum-based process for canning foods that made them last longer and taste better.

As I close this post, it occurs to me that it might be time to think about teaching a new course focusing on the history of women, technology, and culture in the US. Reactions, suggestions, reading lists? They’re all appreciated.

Happy Ada Lovelace Day!

Contemplating Online Academic Publishing

This post began as a comment on Laura Blankenship’s Emerging Technologies Consulting blog. Laura noted that the topic of online academic publishing and how it relates to tenure and other institutional academic concerns was going to be part of her formal role as a speaker/leader at this year’s Faculty Academy. My response was as follows:

I can’t wait to hear what you have to say in May. This is a particularly tough issue and one that has gotten a great deal of resistance when broached (at UMW and elsewhere) in formal or informal ways in a variety of conversations I’ve been a part of lately.

On one hand the change to a new system is always complicated (and frankly, even in the old system, the disciplinary differences are enough to make university-wide review committees shudder–e.g., how many psychology articles equal a book in history? I have my own argument, but all would agree that my perspective on this is fairly biased). So, that resistance isn’t that surprising.

Yet, on the surface, online publishing should make a lot of things easier, not harder, to assess for tenure and/or merit pay:

1) Financial limitations that restrict #/size/scope of published works exist on a completely different scale in the online world, especially once a system for peer-reviewed academic e-publishing is built.

1a) It seems almost a no-brainer that scholarly journals should move on-line completely (or at least in part) given the large percentage of costs that publishing those journals entails.

2) Measuring impact — There must be some way of measuring the number of readers/links/hits/formal citations in other peer-reviewed articles or books/presence in syllabi. Now, obviously these things could be gamed (i.e., hits and uniques) or narrowed by restrictive access to some of the examples (BB course syllabi aren’t accessible, for example, nor are many online, but peer-reviewed articles in collections like JSTOR).

I’m sure there are many things I’m forgetting/overlooking here, but I’m really looking forward to Laura’s exploration of the topic in May. Every institution needs to have that conversation.

Writing a Strategic Plan for Academic Technologies & Libraries

Our institution is going through a major process of strategic planning, and one on a fairly accelerated timetable. We need to have a complete draft by May and after feedback from the Board and the rest of the academic community, have a plan in place by November. I’m a member of the strategic planning steering committee, the group responsible for directing the process and for writing the final report, as well as being part of some of the discussions of the pieces of the report.

Now, strategic plans are funny things. Done right, they can set aspirational and practical goals for an institution that can drive fund-raising, shape organizational decisions, and determine the investment of key resources. Done wrong, they can create needless animosity, fear, confusion, and leave an institution in worse shape than before the process. But even when done well, the best strategic plan is useless unless the administration and the academic community as a whole relies on it, turns to it, uses it. So, the first question might be, why bother? Why invest time in an enterprise that has such a potential for failure? The answer is that I believe that this effort is a real opportunity for change, a true chance to articulate a vision for the direction of this institution, a remarkable moment in the life of the institution. I, and many of my colleagues, choose to see this as a time to think boldly about the future of the liberal arts university we care so much about.

One area in which I believe bold, visionary thought is both required and possible is in the area of academic technologies and libraries. I see the three key reasons why this area of discussion is particularly important for Mary Washington right now.

  1. Virtually everyone who talks about the future of institutions of higher education sees academic technologies and libraries as critical vehicles (paths, jump-starters, incubators, facilitators — choose your metaphor as you wish) for the growth of colleges and universities.
  2. Academic technologies offer a chance for smaller institutions to compete with much larger schools with much more sizable resource budgets. Also, assuming a basic computing infrastructure is in place, digital tools and technologies also allow for a quick ramp-up time for projects, easier piloting of new ideas, access to significantly larger (and better organized) library and archival collections, and widespread changes to existing systems or practices.
  3. Finally, UMW already has a number of critical resources in place with which we can build, create, and innovate boldly. [UMWblogs is perhaps the best known digital tool, and Faculty Academy may be the best-known event; but by “resources” I really mean a dedicated group of librarians, instructional technology artists, staff, and faculty. It is these genuinely creative, caring, thoughtful, reflective, and revolutionary people who must lead and effect the bold changes for which I’m hoping.]

In the next month, the strategic planning discussion group on Academic Technologies and Libraries needs to come up with 2-3 big goals in this area for the institution with several smaller objectives and a number of specific measurable benchmarks that would reflect progress toward those goals and objectives.

So, help me and UMW to think boldly about these critical components of a successful institution. What would be on your top list of goals for a small (~4,000 undergraduates, ~1,000 graduate and professional students) institution of higher learning? What are the necessary digital and/or library components of an liberal arts university of the 21st century? What could we do to be a leader among our peers in the fields of academic technology, library services and information resources?

The Responsibility of a Tech Evangelist: Or, should I help people use a technology I don’t?

Intellagirl’s recent comment on the EDUPUNK discussion highlights an issue I’ve been struggling with lately. Her comment raised a concern about the notion of “non-cooperation” with more standardized forms of closed/proprietary educational technologies, specifically exploring the issues with non-cooperation as they relate to helping faculty who aren’t interested in ed tech (and/or are not tech-savvy). This gets right at a question I’m interested in hearing from others about.

I stopped using our out-of-the-box CMS system nearly three semesters ago, but many of my colleagues in the department and the institution still do. It meets their basic needs for course management (dealing with distributing readings, syllabi, assignments, grade posting, limited discussions, digital drop-off, etc.) However, as one of the people seen as an informal departmental (and building) ed tech resource I get lots of questions about how aspects of the CMS works. People want help on the grade book, on arrangements for discussions, on how to best set up online assignments in the CMS, or just basic troubleshooting.

Some of these questions I can answer, but since it’s been 18 months since I used it last, and since the school has upgraded to a new version of the CMS since then, there are a number of questions I can’t answer.

This raises the following questions:

  1. Should I spend some valuable time diving back into the campus’s proprietary CMS in order to better help them do what they need to do in it?
  2. Should I just send them off to campus tech support, knowing that in doing so, at least some of them will stop looking to me for advice on tech issues?
  3. Should I use these moments as opportunities to make a hard sell for going outside the CMS for options, knowing that for some of these faculty, even going to the CMS was more change than they were interested in, and knowing that for others, the issues of lack of stability/uniformity/secure access, etc. would make their outside-the-CMS experience at a minimum frustrating, and potentially a deal-breaker? [I’m aware that’s a ridiculously long question, but I see this as a fairly complex issue.]

How do we help faculty who are at least nominally interested in engaging with educational technology, when we don’t always see that particular tech as being the best way to approach these questions? And how do we approach a technology resource that others use but we don’t? Should we just dismiss it, or should we continue to facilitate its usage?

Any feedback on this issue would be greatly appreciated.

Past and Upcoming Presentations

I’ve been fortunate enough to do a number of presentations this academic year, on a variety of topics.

  • I had a great time presenting on teaching with WordPress blogs at WordCampEd DC last November (along with Jeremy Boggs, Automattic’s Jane Wells, and CNDLES‘s Rob Pongsajapan). The morning finished with Jim Groom’s call to arms (blogging/EDUPUNK–actually those don’t do it justice–it was an inspired call to innovation). I just needed to warm up the crowd, and I think I did my job well. [Seriously, I got lots of good questions about methods used, strategies to get students to actually blog, and problems with “controlling” what students say in these blogs. It was a warm, welcoming crowd and I was humbled to be in conversations with the participants and my fellow presenters. Thanks especially to CHNM’s Dave Lester for setting the whole event up.]
  • Then in January, Jeremy Boggs and I presented as part of a large panel of scholar teachers at the American Historical Association national meeting in New York. Our topic was Teaching History in the Digital Age. [My links for the presentation are here and the session was nicely reviewed by history-ing.] Although the conference organizers had placed us in a tiny room (~30 seats), we filled the room and had people sitting on sideboards, the floor, and standing in the hallway. Hmmm, perhaps historians do want to know more about this digital thing. In any case, my presenters were fun, their presentations fascinating, the audience was engaged, and we had a terrific Q&A afterwards. About all you could hope for in an AHA presentation….


I’m also hoping to present on 1) digital history and 2) strategic planning for digital resources and technologies at the AAHC in April and THATCamp II in June, though I’m still waiting to hear about the proposals for those conferences.

Also in April I’ll be presenting at HASTAC III at the University of Illinois on “‘Uncomfortable, but Not Paralyzed’: Challenging Traditional Classroom Boundaries with Undergraduates and Digital History.” Having never done a lightening talk (and being famous for running over) I’d appreciate any strategies readers of this blog have for doing lightening talks (~5-7 minutes).

And in late May, I’ll be presenting to Mary Washington alums on Digital History projects as part of Alumni College associated with UMW’s Reunion events.

It’s a busy fall and spring, but I’ve been having a great time doing these presentations.

Why Blog Spam is a Good Thing

I woke up this morning to find 18 of my blog posts had been comment spammed with what looks like Chinese characters and links. [No comments about the need to move to WP please; I’ve seen WP anti-spam plug-ins fail much more often than Google’s software.]

So, why is this a good thing? As I went back to each post that had spam on it I was reminded of a number of posts that I’ve written over the last few years. Now, I’ve been meaning to go back and read over my ideas anyway, to get a sense for how my thinking has changed (“evolved” seems too strong 🙂 over time.

That review reminded me of a number of posts that I’ve wanted to write, others that I wanted to follow up on, and a sense of the comments and community that I’ve been missing out by not blogging lately. [Some of that interaction has been replaced by Twitter, which has been very useful, but also does not encourage me to write as much, or as thoughtfully.]

So, I’m hoping to push out a blog post or two in the next few days; and I’m going to think about how I’m going to use both Twitter and the blog to explore and engage further with the larger community I’ve come to depend on.