THATCamp 2009 — A Proposal

For those of you that don’t know, THATCamp is an unconference on The Humanities And Technology.

This is what I posted to the THATCamp 2009 site as my proposal for a session. Join in the discussion before and after the conference!

How to get money, money, money for wild and crazy times!!

Okay, not really. But I do think this topic is particularly important right now.

This was my original proposal:

I’d like to talk about the role of faculty, IT, and administrators in collaborating to shape institutional strategic plans and planning in general for academic computing and the digital humanities. I’ve spent nearly 18 months now involved in various strategic and practical planning committees at UMW regarding digital resources and goals for the humanities and social sciences. Making sure that resources are allocated to the digital humanities requires broad commitments within administrative and strategic planning. [Not as sexy or fun as WPMU or Omeka plug-ins, but sadly, just as important….] I’d like to share my own experiences in the area and hear from others about theirs.

And today I would simply add that as UMW is closing in on a first draft of its strategic plan, I’m even more convinced that the college/university-wide planning process is something with which digital humanists need to be engaged. In this time of dwindling economic resources, however, we also need to be, pardon the pun, strategic about it. I think we need to figure out when we need to explain concepts, tools, the very notion of what digital humanities is and its place in the curriculum (something even THATCampers seem to be debating), when we need to do full-on DH evangelizing, and when we need to back off from our evangelizing in order to ease fears and/or recognize budgetary realities. In any case, who else has had to make the case for Digital Humanities or academic technology as part of these processes?

UPDATE: Of course, let’s also include planning for libraries, archives, and museums in this discussion as well. (Thanks for the reminder epistemographer)

Strategic Planning for Academic Technologies and Libraries

So I posted almost two months ago about the strategic planning process going on at my institution and the subcommittee (now called a “discussion group”) I was working with on Academic Technologies and Libraries. I wanted to post a link to what we came up with to recommend to the larger Strategic Planning Steering Committee. I’d appreciate any feedback that people had on what we came up with, especially since I’m on the Steering Committee and we’ll be taking this report (and 14 others) into account as we write the school’s strategic plan to present to our Board of Visitors in July.

Here’s the report, in MS Word form.

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?

Digital History and Undergraduate Digital Literacy

As so many of my posts, this began as a comment on someone else’s blog that grew unwieldy as a comment…. In this case, I was joining a discussion about teaching undergraduates digital history begun by the wise Mills Kelly at edwired and continued in the comments by Sterling Fluharty of PhD in History and others. Mills expresses concern about the lack of attention to the question of undergraduate teaching in a recently published panel discussion in the Journal of American History about “The Promise of Digital History” . [As Mills points out, it’s quite a useful panel other than this glaring omission of teaching undergraduates.]

So, my comment (and now this post) is an attempt to explain from my perspective why digital history is important to teach to undergraduates.

My goal in teaching undergraduates digital history is to offer students new ways of approaching their own research and thinking and writing. Our department has agreed that “digital literacy” is core to our expectations for our undergraduates (along with critical thinking and reading, the creation of original ideas, the deployment of evidence to support one’s arguments, and the ability to present those arguments in sophisticated written and oral forms).

Now, I know the notion of “digital literacy” has been overused and has multiple definitions, but I actually like the phrase for people’s familiarity with it and for that very richness of meanings. So, I’ve viewed the goals of my undergraduate digital history course through some of those definitions.

  • One goal of my digital history course is to teach the most conventional form of digital literacy: How does one find and evaluate online materials for scholarly (and non-scholarly) uses? How does one begin to sift through the massive content that is available in an systematic and/or creative way? What are the pitfalls and perils, the promises and potentialities of the online information experience?
  • Another facet of digital literacy is the notion of digital identity: This is a class that, through individual and group online presence (often blogs and wikis, but many other tools are available as well), explicitly engages students in discussions of their digital identity. How should we present ourselves to the online world (personally, professionally, and intellectually, but also individually and in groups)? [In future iterations it might even encourage them to create their own centralized online presence that wouldn’t necessarily be housed by the university (or restricted by a single course). We’ve been engaged recently at UMW in a number of discussions related to this notion of enabling students to take control of their digital identity. See Jim’s post and comments for one take.]
  • Increasingly I have become convinced that a key, but often overlooked, aspect of digital literacy is a willingness to experiment with a variety of online tools, and then to think critically and strategically about a project and to identify those tools that would be most useful to that project. [Note that I’m NOT talking about training in a specific tool or even a set of tools. This is not an MS Word or Blackboard skills class. This digital history class offers students a “digital toolkit” from which to choose. There certainly needs to be some basic exposure and technical support, but part of the goal is to get students to figure out how to figure out how a new tool (system, software, historical process) works on their own.]
  • Broadening the previous point, one of my desires for students is for them to be comfortable with being uncomfortable as they try new things. Figuring how to deal with constantly changing technology is something we all are dealing with, yet in higher education we often put students in new situations only when they first begin. Before long, they’ve got the process and procedures down and can churn out 8-10 page papers in their sleep. Yet what kind of preparation is that for the larger world? I know, I know. There are much larger philosophical and practical and even political issues at work here. But my point is simply that it’s good for college classes to shake students (and faculty) out of their comfort zone. Real learning happens when you’re trying to figure out the controls, not when you’re on autopilot.
  • Finally, I think digital literacy for undergraduates in history should encompass at least some exposure to the complex new approaches to research in the discipline offered by recent advancements in computing, including text-mining or GIS (if only because that those methods are influencing a new generation of scholarship that students will need to understand to assess). As they become more accessible and widely used, there will be more opportunities for students to also engage in the application of these tools in their own work.

Now, one of the issues raised by Sterling on Mills’s blog post was whether the goal of an undergraduate history class was to train students for particular jobs. My response to that is both practical and pedagogical. No, I don’t see this course as preparing them for particular jobs. However, I do see the class as preparing students to be adaptable citizens and workers, with a sound grounding in who they are (on- and off-line) and a willingness to try new things, to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. Having said that, I’ve had several alums of my first digital history class get jobs that were direct results of the skills (and portfolio of projects) gained in the class. In some cases it was because of a specific tool that they’d worked with; in others it was because of the package they were able to present to their potential employers. Certainly those students felt like the class had been worth it for them.

Finally, although I’ve been talking specifically about one class, aspects of these ideas have made their way into most of my classes, as well as those of several of my departmental colleagues, including that of our methods class for majors. Still, I suspect there will be a need for (at least) one class in my department that is explicitly focused on Digital History for a long time to come.

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WordCamp Ed DC 2008

So, I’ve gratefully accepted an invitation to speak at WordCamp Ed DC 2008 on “Teaching Undergraduates with Blogs” at GMU’s Center for History and New Media on Saturday, November 22. If you’re in the area, come check it out. [Heck, it’s free!]

I’m planning on talking about my uses of WordPress (MU) blogs in various classes. So, WordPress as: CMS-alternative, research log, reading reaction journal, individual project site, “permanent” group project site, and potential e-portfolio. Then I’ll discuss how students have responded to the process, maybe show a few good examples of students taking it to the next level.

Any suggestions for my talk? Issues to raise? Points to ponder?

Speaking of Honor

I was honored to be asked to present the faculty perspective on our school’s Honor Code at our annual Honor Convocation, a moment when all new students at the school are introduced to the Honor System and sign an Honor Pledge, committing themselves to that system.

I only had a week to prepare, so I turned to a number of colleagues and some fellow alums for ideas. Tim O’Donnell and Claudia Emerson were particularly helpful in shaping the direction of the speech.

Thanks to Anand Rao for recording and posting the video. If anyone’s interested, I could post the text of the talk as well.

In any case, I think it went well. It was a real honor to stand up on that stage and start off the academic year in that way and represent the faculty perspective to the entering students.