Digital Scholars Institute at Mary Washington

I’m blogging this time in English after a few months of Spanish-only, to share with my non-Spanish-speaking colleagues some of my work and ideas about digital scholarship as I practice it. This semester I’ve been participating in Mary Washington’s Digital Scholars Institute a group of faculty interested in digital issues related to pedagogy, research, and scholarship. We’ve met every other week since the end of February in two cohorts to share our work and discuss pertinent issues. This project has been a natural next step for a campus that has been active in these issues for years with help and leadership from the great staff at the Division of Teaching and Learning Technologies and the Center for Teaching Excellence and Innovation. They have given the faculty and students at Mary Washington the opportunities, training, and tools we have needed to jump in to digital work, especially through initiatives like Faculty Academy,  UMWBlogsUMWDomains, and OpenVA.  As a result of those years of cultivating, coddling, preaching, and even sometimes prodding, there is a sizeable group of faculty here that is doing VERY COOL stuff! What has most impressed me in my own cohort–Andréa Livi Smith (Historic Preservation), Shawn Humphrey (Economics), Jack Bales (Simpson Library), Steve Gallik (Biology), Mary Kayler (CTEI), Jim Groom (DTLT), and me, Betsy Lewis (Modern Languages and Literatures)–has been the creativity with which each person has approached his/her discipline and then how that work has directly benefited students, even when not expressly (or exclusively) “pedagogical”. Check out http://digitalscholars.org to see their work, and the work of the other 5 faculty participating in another cohort.

So on Thursday April 24th it’s my turn to present my work. Some of what I’m going to outline below, I’ve narrated elsewhere before, so I’ll link to those places and you can read or skip as you wish. I’d like to focus on a digital project I’m finishing right now, sharing some of the frustrations, questions, and doubts I’ve had throughout, and end with some future projects I hope to start soon.

First of all, I don’t consider myself an accomplished “digital scholar”. It’s something I’ve been pursuing (more like playing with!) for years, and if you’re interested I’ve already reflected a bit about my trajectory thus far (“Domain of One’s Own Faculty Initiative”). I say play, because that’s what the digital has added to both my teaching and my research: active engagement of new skills, creativity, along with a sense of joy and wonder.

I have numerous colleagues here at Mary Washington to thank for everything I’ve learned and accomplished professionally in digital pedagogy and digital scholarship. They have helped me see my work as part of an intellectual and global community.

First, UMWBlogs inspired me to use technology in my classes. Through digital applications and blogging, Spanish 413 (Advanced Writing) evolved from a grammar and writing course (a snooze-fest for me and the students!) to be about writing and creativity through the composition of a large digital project. In Spanish 375 I took a nineteenth-century novel course (again, hard to get the students enthused), and made it about film adaptation of novels in which students story-boarded and eventually produced their own video adaptation. In both I saw the digital medium as a way to engage students in exciting, creative and more real ways, turning boring and dry courses to something much more interactive and rewarding for all involved. I then decided to go a step further by involving students in my research. As part of that, in 2011 I decided to try for a Digital Humanities start-up grant from the NEH . I was denied the grant, but still took two groups of students to Madrid to do research at the Biblioteca Nacional, and created a digital exhibition with them (more about that in a minute).

When UMWDomains came along, I tried to be a little more intentional about my  web presence apart from my courses, through bringing my work together on my own domain http://elizabethfranklinlewis.net, I started keeping a personal blog more regularly, where I write about my research, my teaching, and some issues that I see in the academy, which has included among other topics diversity, disability studies, language study, and the future of the book . Sometimes blogging feels a little disconnected–is anybody actually reading this?? But it has been a useful tool for me to work out some of my ideas and to reflect, if nothing else.

The bulk of my digital scholarship recently has been through the creation of a digital exhibition on the evolution of women’s charity in Spain. I’ve reflected (in Spanish) in my blog on the experience of working with students on such a project (“Haciendo humanidades digitales con mis alumnos”).  I’ve also presented some preliminary results of our work at several conferences: at the Asociación Internacional de Literatura y Cultura Femenina Hispánica XXIII Congreso Annual held at Pomona College in October 2013 (“Concepción Arenal’s La Voz de la Caridad Through the Lens of a Database“), a poster presentation with my students at the OpenVA conference also in October of 2013, and next month I’ll be presenting the whole site as a poster/demo at the Segundo Encuentro de Humanidades Digitales in Mexico City.

This work with my students has been amazingly rewarding, and lots of fun, and I think it has been a great experience for the three groups of freshman and sophomores who worked with me. But is it scholarship? It’s certainly not what I had envisioned when I proposed the project to the NEH three years ago. Lack of time, money, and resources have all limited what I could actually accomplish without the grant. Another issue I’ve had has to do with permissions from libraries and archives to display the material I’ve collected from them. Due to the permissions that I needed (still need), I haven’t made the site publicly available. Even though everything I display is OLD and in the public domain, the National Library in Madrid requires that I pay 25 euros per image to display them (that is up from 7 euros last fall, when I wasn’t quite ready to apply for permission!). Wasn’t the web supposed to be free and open? I suppose I can’t begrudge a library that has given me and my students open access to their collections the funds they need to keep their own work going, but it has made things difficult, if not downright expensive.

Despite these frustrations, I’ve learned TONS through this process over the last three years: about digital applications, issues of digital humanities, and about researching with students.Which leads me to my next steps. I’m offering a first-year seminar Digital Don Quijote, in which the students and I will use Cervantes’ great novel as way to approach some of the issues of digital humanities and digital studies that I’ve mentioned, and others that I haven’t (See my post “Quixotic” that I wrote last summer as I prepared to make the proposal for the FSEM).  It was originally planned for this spring (2014), but no one enrolled (another topic for discussion) so I’ll be trying it again for Fall 2014, with the senior seminar in Spanish planned for spring 2015, the 400th anniversary of the publication of the second volume of the novel. I’m trying to get together a bike tour of the Ruta del Quijote for spring break, something like this video below. Andy Rush has already got me psyched about mounting cameras to our helmets to document our experience to share with the world! Oh, and I’ll be department chair too. ¡Qué loca soy!

Un dominio propio

Todos tenemos una identidad digital, lo queramos o no. Las revelaciones escandalosas recientes de Edward Snowden nos confirmaron que desde nuestras comunicaciones diarias, hasta nuestras transacciones financieras, nosotros y nuestros metadatos son todos identificables, y que muchas entidades—desde las agencias gubernamentales como la NSA, las compañías privadas como Facebook o Google, y “hackers” de todo el mundo—están coleccionando toneladas de información sobre nosotros. Pero no tiene que ser una organización sofisticada que nos descubra información confidencial (o por lo menos vergonzosa).  Un ex novio, un futuro empleador, o incluso tu madre pueden encontrar mucha información tuya, haciendo una simple búsqueda Google.  Si no lo has hecho antes, debes buscar tu nombre en Google. Lo que salga representa tu identidad digital para el mundo.

Por eso, la Division of Teaching and Learning Technologies (DTLT) de la Universidad de Mary ha creado el programa “Domain of One’s Own” (Un Dominio Propio). Bajo este programa los alumnos y profesores de la universidad pueden conseguir (gratis) un dominio web donde puedan desarrollar su presencia electrónica y comenzar a controlar su identidad en la red. El “programa piloto” comenzó en 2013, con un grupo pequeño de estudiantes y profesores, y se ha extendido este año a todos los alumnos en su primer año de estudios y a más profesores, con la intención de seguir extendiendo acceso al programa a todos los miembros de la universidad.  Los dominios han sido sitios de exploración personal o creativa, lugares donde se puede mantener un portafolio de su trabajo y su curriculum actualizado, y espacios que les ayudan a los participantes a tener una presencia profesional y positiva en la red electrónica mundial. Un alumno que ha participado en el programa piloto ha hablado de la importancia de tener su propio sitio web para la formación de su identidad digital: “One of the most important things I have done is creating my own website, my own space where I can form a digital identity by putting whatever I want in it, whenever I want, and however I want.”

Mary Washington no es la única ni la primera universidad que les está proveyendo este servicio a sus estudiantes, ni tampoco es “A Domain of One’s Own” su primer intento a animar a los miembros de la comunidad universitaria a crear su propio contenido electrónico. Hace más de 5 años comenzaron el programa de UMWblogs que les ofrece a los profesores y alumnos la posibilidad de crear una gran variedad de proyectos a base de la plataforma abierta WordPress. Sin embargo, el programa de Mary Washington ha sido reconocido por innovador y ambicioso (Chronicle of Higher Education, Wired). Tener “un dominio propio” (nombre que su creador, Jim Groom, seleccionó en homenaje a Virginia Woolf y su libro A Room of One’s Own), es un paso más hacia una conciencia de ser participante no solo en las actividades dentro de la universidad, sino de verse como parte de algo más grande.  Este proceso comienza con la selección de un nombre para el dominio, la cual les hace considerar, para algunos por la primera vez, lo que quieren que sea su identidad para el mundo de la web.

Esto es lo que hice yo hace un año con un grupo de mis colegas en la primera iniciativa del profesorado.  Nos reuníamos durante 6 semanas para conversar sobre estos asuntos, usando el libro de Martin Weller, The Digital Scholar, como punto de partida. A la misma vez aprendimos a crear y desarrollar nuestro nuevo dominio.  Para mí es un proceso que todavía sigue, pero creo que me ha ayudado a ver mi identidad electrónica como… mía. Ya no es algo temeroso o fuera de mi control. Mi identidad es mía, pero la tengo que cultivar—tal vez un poco como el jardín de Toledo (España) que escogí para la portada del sitio principal de mi dominio: elizabethfranklinlewis.net.

cropped-DSCN01301

Is this the “future of the book”?

This blog post is about a particularly alarming situation in my university’s library, my reaction to it, some musings about what it might mean for my institution and others like it, and also what it might mean for us as educators and readers. I am not intending in this blog to disparage anyone, most especially the librarians at my university, whom I’ve experienced as always supportive of my work as a researcher and educator. Mostly I hope to spark some conversation among faculty and librarians—at UMW and elsewhere–about what this means for us, and our students. I begin with a picture, probably worth the roughly thousand words of this post, but also, in this case, worth a thousand books…

library 1This picture is representative of the hundreds of books flagged (with the little white and purple slips of paper) for removal from my university’s library. These books were chosen for the most part because they had not been checked out of the library in over 15 years. These are the PQ shelves corresponding  literary works in Spanish, and works of literary history and criticism about them. In this picture, the tail end of a long row of books in Spanish, I estimate about 250-300 books are tagged. And these are just a sample. There are many more flagged, more in peninsular Spanish than in Latin American. All of the books in Portuguese are tagged. Most of the books in Italian. I didn’t even get to the books in French and German, although I know my colleagues in those languages have been through the collection and were stunned at the number tagged, as I was. Most of these books are classics in the field: some are canonical works by important authors and thinkers, others are important historical literary histories or seminal studies in their field.

Galdos’ Episodios nacionales

Galdos’ Episodios nacionales

Early 20th-Century Philosopher Ortega y Gasset

Early 20th-Century Philosopher Ortega y Gasset

Miguel de Unamuno

Miguel de Unamuno

We were warned that this was coming, and invited to look through the books flagged for removal, with a chance to save the ones we wanted to keep. Early last month I had some extra time after spending the morning working on P&T files downstairs in the library and thought I’d go through the PQ stacks, expecting to find a few dozen tagged. When I came upon this I was completely overwhelmed! I saved what I could in the thirty minutes or so that I had to work on it, feeling sort of like the old beachcomber in that over-used story of the starfish: the one who comes upon hundreds of stranded starfish and begins throwing them back in the sea, even though there is no way he can save them all before they die in the hot sun. I saved what I could, mostly important literary histories, which I had come to first. But I only got to a few of the shelves, and there were literally hundreds more books that I couldn’t go through. When I spoke to our humanities librarian, who in turn spoke with the head librarian, we were given more time to be able to go through the stacks. I intended to get back, but it has been an incredibly busy semester, so yesterday was the first time I’ve been able to return. I was overwhelmed by the rows and rows of books with little slips of paper flagging them for removal. The sight of them inspired a feeling of panic, of helplessness, of incredulity. The only thing I could do was to start snapping pictures, to try to convey that feeling to others, and to ask some important questions of myself, and of our collective commitment to (paraphrasing Robert Darnton and others) the “future of books.”

Some of my reaction to this purging is connected to my own nostalgic connection to the materiality of books, and of libraries as spaces. I have extremely fond memories of graduate school, navegating the labyrinthine stacks of Alderman library at the University of Virginia, perusing the stacks for books, reading their spines, opening their covers,leafing through their contents, and finding gems I hadn’t expected.

Alderman Stacks 1993, photo by  Elfpvke; flickr.com

Alderman Stacks 1993, photo by Elfpvke; flickr.com

It wasn’t unlike the experience Jorge Luis Borges describes in his short story “La Biblioteca de Babel” (The Library of Babel), in which a library of endlessly connected hexagonal rooms filled with shelves of books, contains infinite knowledge:

“When it was announced that the Library contained all books, the first reaction was unbounded joy. All men felt themselves possessors on an intact and secret treasure. There was no personal problem, no world problem whose eloquent solution did not exist—somewhere in the hexagon. The universe was justified; the universe became congruent with the unlimited width and breadth of humankind’s hope.” (115)

Yet Borges’ library held many contradictions and problems. The allusion to the Biblical tower of Babel is underscored in the problem of unknown languages in the library, in the “impenetrable books…in ancient or far distant languages” (114). There also exists in Borges’ library an impulse to purge the unwanted, unused, unneeded, imperfect books::

Others, going about it in the opposite way, thought the first thing to do was to eliminate all the worthless books. They would invade all the hexagons, show credentials that were not always false, leaf disgustedly through a volume, and condemn entire walls of books. (116)

I’ve been a great advocate of new technologies in recent years. I firmly believe that endeavors like Google Books, Hathitrust, the Digital Public Libarary of AmericaCervantes Virtual, and other virtual library collections have had the net effect of democratizing knowledge—of making information widely available to people all over the world who otherwise would not have had access to that information. In the words of Robert Darnton:

“Yes, we must digitize. But more important, we must democratize. We must open access to our cultural heritage. How? By rewriting the rules of the game, by subordinating private interests to the public good, and by taking inspiration from the early republic in order to create a Digital Republic of Learning (“Google and the Future of Books,” New York Review of Books, Feb 12, 2009)

As a faculty member in a small public liberal arts university with a relatively small library and travel budget, I’ve benefitted from access to these digital collections in my own research and teaching. But I never dreamed that easy access to digitized material might mean that the printed material we already own would disappear from my university library’s shelves. The fact that these important books haven’t been checked out in years I think is reflective of two things: 1) easy access to some of the same materials in digitized format, and 2) curricular changes–for example we no longer teach Portuguese, and there has been a change in focus in my department’s course offerings away from Spanish peninsular literature toward Latin American literature. As a result of both factors, there is less (or even no) interest or practical use for many of these books. To be honest, when writing this blog post, I myself did not march to the library to peruse the shelves. Instead, I consulted, from the convenience of my own living room late at night, the internet. I too am part of the problem.

But still, I can’t sit on the sidelines and let all those books disappear from my university’s library without making an argument for their importance–not only to me, but to our students and our institution. In Borges, the library is a symbol of his conception of the universe and of all human knowledge. Our library is both a practical space where students and faculty research and study, but just as important to me, it is also a symbol of the broad knowledge we seek for ourselves and our students as an institution of liberal learning.  Purging the shelves of those books may make room for other things (and I am unclear what will replace these missing volumes), but will the future of our library collections at institutions like mine, symbolize a conception of the liberal arts is not very liberal at all?

I can’t finish this essay without a reference to Don Quixote, coincidentally also flagged for removal from my library’s shelves. In chapters six and seven of the first volume, Don Quixote has come home from his first set of adventures, injured and delirious. As he sleeps, his friends decide the best thing for him would be to get rid of his collection of books of chivalry. After some deliberations, they burn all the books and wall up the entrance to his library. When Don Quixote awakes, the first thing he does is to look for his books:

the first thing he did was to go and look at his books, and not finding the room where he had left it, he wandered from side to side looking for it. He came to the place where the door used to be, and tried it with his hands, and turned and twisted his eyes in every direction without saying a word; but after a good while he asked his housekeeper whereabouts was the room that held his books.

The housekeeper, who had been already well instructed in what she was to answer, said, “What room or what nothing is it that your worship is looking for? There are neither room nor books in this house now, for the devil himself has carried all away.” (Chapter VI)

Will we, as professors, scholars, readers, find ourselves also wondering what happened to our beloved books and library??

Illustration by Gustave Doré in John Ormsby translation of Don Quixote, republished by University of Adelaide

Illustration by Gustave Doré, from Chapter VI o Don Quixote, translated by John Ormsby and republished by University of Adelaide

Works Cited:

Borges, Jorge Luis. “The Library of Babel.” Collected Fictions. Trans. Andrew Hurley. New York: Viking, 1998. 112-118.

Cervantes, Miguel de. Don Quixote. Trans. John Ormsby. University of Adelaide, 2013. ebooks@adelaide. Accessed November 14, 2013.

Darnton, Robert. The Case for Books. New York: Public Affairs, 2009.

—. “Google and the Future of Books,” New York Review of Books, Feb 12, 2009. Accessed November 14, 2013.

Elfpvke (flickr.com user). Photograph of Alderman Stacks,1993. Accessed November 14, 2013.

In Defense of (Academic) Language Study

I recently finished teaching a Spanish 101 course during our university’s first summer school session. My course was full, mostly with students from my institution working on the language requirement for our general education curriculum, which requires that students complete coursework or otherwise prove competency (AP scores, for example) at the intermediate level as defined by the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL, http://actflproficiencyguidelines2012.org/). So students starting in 101 would likely have 3 more semesters of study to complete the general education language requirement. This term’s course was pretty typical for my lower-level language courses. Some students were only in the course to complete the general education requirement, while others were there because they also had either a personal or a professional interest in learning Spanish. Ofen students see Spanish as a “practical” language and cite this as a reason for taking it. Completing what is normally done over 14 weeks of classes in only 4 1/2 weeks is quite a challenge for any course, but in a language course, it was a colossal task for all of the students, and for me as their instructor, and I have to say that I left the experience with some mixed feelings. I have a student from the course to thank for the topic of this blog post, in defense of (academic) language study, as opposed to the many other ways people can learn another language, from purchasing commercial programs sold in an airport to moving to another country.  I would like to argue for the value of language study as part of a liberal university education.  Also, although academic language study might have the side benefit of proving itself “practical” some day to some students, that is not its only, and maybe not even its most important purpose.

The aforementioned student who inspired this post was one of those students who  seems to question everything at every turn. A non-traditional student returning to school after a few years of experience in the “real” world, this person was not the typical undergraduate content to just do as I said and trust that I knew what I was doing. While it can be quite frustrating and tiring to have to defend oneself in this way, I don’t believe that the student was out-of-line to question me. To the contrary, I, as a professor, should be able to explain the “why” of my pedagogical choices just as well as I explain the “what” of the content delivered in them. So when this student asked me “Why don’t you just use that commercial program XXX?”(*referring to the sort of program advertised in travel magazines, sold in big box electronics stores, and in kiosks at the airport) I was a little dumbfounded.  Why not? Now to be fair, I’ve never really used any of those programs, although I suppose they probably have helped introduce many more people to a new language than I have in my 20 years as a professor. I did a bit of researching and found several reviews of one of the most advertised programs, Rosetta Stone, including this oneon a blog post from January of this year in the Economist. Certainly the program’s special features are intriguing, but I’m still suspicious of anything or anyone who  claims language learning can be quick and easy, natural, painless and never ever boring! But, back to the student’s questions– why not? While one of the criticisms of these language learning software programs is that they are quite expensive, none of them are as expensive as the three-credit summer course I taught, even for in-state students. What is so special about the way we teach language in a university classroom setting that justifies our price?

I myself learned Spanish in a rather non-traditional way. Thirty years ago, in the summer following my high school graduation, I lived for 9 weeks in La Paz, Bolivia. I had never studied Spanish before that moment, but rather had taken 4 years of highschool French. My immediate reaction to the letter announcing that I would be living with a family in Bolivia was to tell them no way, I wouldn’t go! I couldn’t go. I didn’t even know Bolivian, I thought, and I especially didn’t even know that Bolivians spoke Spanish, along with Quechua and Aymara and a few other indigenous languages. But the people at AFS talked me into taking a big risk and go.  Those were the 9 most difficult and most rewarding weeks of my life, and the experience completely transformed me. I came back with a pretty good foundation for speaking and understanding Spanish, but more importantly I came back with a greater awareness of how other peoples around the world lived, and I returned with a hunger to learn more, to improve my skills, and to continue transforming my monolingual, monocultural worldview to something much, much richer. For me it was sort of like that moment in the Wizard of Oz where the film changes from black and white to color. Going to Bolivia, and learning Spanish opened my mind, and my life to a whole new way of thinking, of understanding and of being. Until I saw my my pictures developed once I was home, I had no idea how different I looked from my Bolivian friends–what a true “gringa” I must have seemed to those around me (evidenced below!). Perhaps proof of my intellectual (not physical) transformation?

Betsy Bolivia 1983

I started my university career the next fall and began my formal study of Spanish. I learned grammar, more vocabulary, and writing, and I continued to improve my speaking and listening skills. I also continued pursuing opportunites to travel–again to Latin America (Cuba and Costa Rica) and then a summer in Spain. I sought every opportunity I could to speak with native speakers in my university.  For me it was that combination of real-world experience and academic study that helped me in my transformation. This transformation didn’t happen easily, it did not happen quickly in fact, it’s still happening 30 years later!  It was not always fun, although often it was GREAT FUN, and it’s what I hope for each and everyone of my students, and the reason I went into college teaching.

Here is an exerpt of my response to my student:

I’m not sure if you were in class the day that I spoke about language learning being like learning a musical instrument or learning a sport. It takes a lot of practice, and it can be quite frustrating at times. Some students are naturals (just as some are naturals in sports or music) and seem to improve almost effortlessly, while others work and work and feel they are not improving as quickly as they’d like. But most students, all but those with the most severe of learning disabilities, are able to improve and they are able to achieve intermediate competency at the end of two years. The problem is, I can’t do it for students. I can provide students a road map (that is, through my syllabus, through the assignments that I give, and the topics that we cover in class, along with my power point slides and explanations that I provide).  I also can provide opportunities to practice in class: in every class I try to make sure that all students have the opportunity to practice all 4 skills necessary for language learning, with lots of speaking activities, reading, writing, and listening. I can also give students feedback, through my comments on their quizzes, on their homework, and on their classwork.But in the end it is ultimately up to the student to use all of these opportunities to his or her best advantage.

Learning a language is an art and a science. It requires skill and knowledge and creativity. The 2011 proposal for a “21st Century Skills Map”, spearheaded  by ACTFL–the same professional organization that has created the proficiency guidelines mentioned earlier–calls for 21st century language teaching at the K-12 and college level to focus on five “Cs”: communication, cultures, connections, comparisons, and communities. The proposal goes on to state that it is “only through knowing the language of others that we can truly understand how they view the world.” (http://www.actfl.org/sites/default/files/pdfs/21stCenturySkillsMap/p21_worldlanguagesmap.pdf).  While I question the practicality of the proposal’s call for all students to emerge from K-12 at the advanced level, and from university study at the superior level–something only the very best of our Spanish majors are able to achieve in their 4 years with us–I do think it rightly emphasizes active and engaged student learning in a variety of “modes” from the more informal “interpersonal” to a higher level functioning “interpretive” and a more formal “presentational” mode.  These last two are areas a student is unlikely to develop outside of the classroom.

I will continue to seek new ways to encourage my students to become more active learners, able to create and interpret meaning accurately and correctly through both written and spoken Spanish. But my ultimate goal for them, more than achieving a particular language proficiency level, would be that they too might go from black and white to color, to enjoy the wonder of seeing, understanding, and being differently.

Wizard of Oz cover 1900

Domain of One’s Own Faculty Initiative

I wanted to write a final blog expressing how much fun, and how informative, this faculty initiative of #umwdomains was for me. I found the topics in Weller’s book to be provocative and the discussions in my cohort to be stimulating. I always left with lots to think about, and some new ideas I wanted to try out in my own teaching and research, and on my new domain. It also got me thinking about my own engagement with technology up to this point. I’m in an in-between generation as technology goes. I remember the days before cell phones, email, and the internet, and yet technology entered my life  young enough that it’s been part of my coming-of-age. Here’s a picture of me and my little brother (also a college professor now!) with our (really his) first gaming system Christmas 1979. I thought it was an Atari, but my brother tells me it was an Odyssey system, because our dad, also sort of a techno geek before his time, thought it might be more educational for us. I was a freshman in high school here, my brother in third grade.
Christmas 1979

 

We had a pc at home pretty early. Later in college I actully took a Basic programming course and learned to program the computer to print out my name (it was “Basic” after all). In 1992, as I was finishing my PhD, I received a book as a gift for joining the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies, Hypertext: The Convergence of Contemporary Critical Theory and Technology by George Landow (Johns Hopkins UP, 1992)–a sort of ironic welcome to a very luddite organization, but its membership is managed by Johns Hopkins, so I guess there was a connection. Reading this book, with a graduate student’s knowledge of post-structuralism and no knowledge  or experience whatsoever of the internet, Landow’s analysis of this new medium blew my mind:

Hypertext, as the term is used in this work, denotes text composed of blocks of text — what Barthes terms a lexia — and the electronic links that join them. Hypermedia simply extends the notion of the text in hypertext by including visual information, sound, animation, and other forms of data. Since hypertext, which links one passage of verbal discourse to images, maps, diagrams, and sound as easily as to another verbal passage, expands the notion of text beyond the solely verbal, I do not distinguish between hypertext and hypermedia. Hypertext denotes an information medium that links verbal and nonverbal information (Landow, 4, and here’s a hyperlink to a digital copy the author has provided.)

About the same time, a friend named David Gardner decided to stop publishing a small print newletter called the Motley Fool,  to which my husband and I subscribed (out of friendship more than interest in investing, since we were newly weds hunting “real” jobs, and with student loans to repay!). He told us he was putting it on something called AOL.  So we joined AOL. Flash forward 20 years, and Landow finally makes sense to me!

The conversations we had, and the issues we debated through UMW domains, have in a way connected the dots to my own experiences with technology, and helped me see a little more clearly how I want to engage technology professionally with my students, my colleagues and my research.

A Tale of Three Books

The last chapters of Weller for this last week of our #umwdomains faculty initiative had me thinking about my own experiences with traditional research, peer-review and publishing, and my recent attempts to become an open digital scholar.

My first book was originally my dissertation, that I revised based on comments from my dissertation committee. I got it all ready, at least I so thought, and sent out a prospectus to various university presses. One expressed interest quickly, and made me sign an agreement that while reviewing it, they had exclusive rights to it. A year later I received a scathing report from the anonymous reviewer–not a kind rejection with constructive criticism, but a crushing review that made me, for a moment, question my whole career. But I picked myself up, tried to work on the manuscript a little more, and sent out more inquiries. Another university press expressed interest, made me sign over the rights, and a year later sent me back a letter that their Board of Directors didn’t think it was appropriate for their press–no review, just “no thanks” A YEAR LATER! I was completely at a loss of what to do. But then, Rebecca Haidt, a wonderful colleague at Ohio State University whose work I admired, offered to read my manuscript and give me some comments. She suggested that I re-focus the book and gave me some very helpful insight about how I might go about this. So I did, and I also sought help from my colleague here at Mary Washington, Allyson Poska, who also gave me some great advice and suggested I submit the book to a private scholarly press. Eventually the book was re-written and published with Ashgate. Before publication, it was anonymously peer-reviewed–this time with very constructive comments–and re-worked again. I paid a nominal fee to have the book professionally indexed, which they would take out of my royalties. The press did not provide professional editing, so I hired Jane Gatewood of our Writing Center to edit the book for me. The press marketed the book in their print and on-line catalogues, and at booths in important national and international conferences. In the end I was quite happy with the results and judged by reviews and contacts I’ve had since then, I think my book has made a small contribution to my field. Each year for about 4 years after publication, I received a small royalty check from Ashgate–enough to go out to a nice dinner with my husband and feel good about the whole thing.

My second book was a co-edited collection of essays that I did with my colleague Cathy Jaffe from Texas State University. We put out a call for papers, received contributions, chose the articles, and prepared a manuscript to send out to presses. We received interest from a university press (LSU), signed over our rights and a year later received a positive review, but with suggestions for revisions. We (and our authors) did the revisions and resubmitted. A year later a different reviewer suggested a whole different set of revisions (some of them contradicting the original reviewer). Luckily we were able to negotiate with the press about what revisions we were willing to do, and the ones we weren’t. The press used a professional editor, who was brutal but very good. It also marketed the book in all the usual ways, and this book too has made a positive impact in our field of eighteenth-century Ibero-American studies. Each year since it came out in 2009, I get an invoice, showing how despite selling books, I won’t get any royalties. I just received one of these yesterday. No dinner out, but that’s not why we did the book anyway.

The third book has never happened, at least not in they way I orginally conceived it. For the past 5 or 6 years I have become increasingly interested in digital pedagogy and scholarship. This coincided with a new avenue of research on the evolution of women’s charity in Spain. I researched, I blogged, I made new contacts in Spain, I published a few articles in traditional print journals and collections, I began to involve my students and undergraduate research in my work, and I applied for a NEH Digital Humanities Start-Up grant with the idea of creating a hybrid digital book-exhibition with my students. I didn’t get the grant, which actually I don’t think I deserved. The reviews of my grant application were generally positive and constructive, but found the “humanities” part of the proposal stronger than the “digital innovation” part. Since then I’ve attended workshops on DH, sought advice from colleagues I trust and admire, continued work with my students, given up the idea of the hybrid model, and have focused on creating the digital exhibition of our work. It’s almost ready for prime-time but there are several more steps I need to take–I need permissions to publicly display some of the images from the Biblioteca Nacional, I need to do some heavy editing, and I need some sort of peer review of the project.

What do these three tales have in common? They all had their share of obstacles, delays, re-workings and frustrations. In all I have benefitted from constructive criticism, both from anonymous reviewers and from colleagues. I found the private press to be a more pleasant publishing experience than the university press, and the dissemination of the books to be about the same. Still, going it on my own in an open digital format is not any easier. There are no built-in mechanisms for peer-review, for editing, or for dissemination–that would be all up to me. So I’m still feeling my way through this, but as with the other two projects–I don’t give up easily!

It’s personal (and professional)

The idea that has inspired me for this week’s #umwdomains topic actually came up in our cohort discussion last time, but it is a theme Weller continues in Chapter 9–the idea of openness, and of mixing the personal with the professional. I’ve struggled with this personal/professional mix. When I first started Facebook, I joined for purely professional reasons–that’s where my students were, and I wanted to connect to them. But then later former students, highschool friends, my parents, my in-laws, my Aunt Bert, my husband’s cousins, my colleagues, my neighbors…everyone joined… and although at first it was fun reconnecting those relationships, I now feel that Facebook is no longer the place for the professional. Its a place where I post cute pictures of my kids and pets, and of my vacations, and maybe links to articles or videos about some issues of importance to me (although I try not to be too contraversial or overbearing, because that friends list is so diverse I’m sure to offend someone, probably a family member). So I thought Twitter and Linkedin might be where I should be professional. But Linked-in is sort of boring, and Twitter is still overwhelming, but I’m trying.

This week I posted on both Facebook and Twitter links to some things that are of great importance to me personally, but also related to my professional interests. Many of you may know that I have an 8 year old daughter with Down Syndrome. My FB friends see many posts of her accomplishments and the cute things she says and does (along with her twin brother, who does not have DS). Disabilities, and the rights of persons with disabilities has taken on new meaning for our family–it’s personal! So two stories really touched on those interests that I’ll share here too. The first is about the Ideal School, in NYC where inclusion is not just a nice term that doesn’t mean much, but a way of learning for both the students with disabilities and the students without:

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This story really spoke to me, because it really seems to be the “ideal” I have of a school, for my children, but also for my students here at UMW. In this place, individual learning and accomplishment is valued. Diversity and difference is valued. Life skills and social skills are taught along with academic subjects.

The second story was the opposite. Not my dream, but my nightmare:“Man with Down Syndrome who died in police custody loved law enforcement”

This is the fear of every parent of a child with a disability–how will they interact with the world when you’re not there to protect them, and how will the world treat them back? I can’t help but think that if there were more “ideal” schools, more “ideal” education at every level and in the workforce, there would be less tragedies like this one.

And so I’m on to the professional–my ideal education. I want student learning to be deeply engaged, to have personal meaning, to be experiential, to happen in a community of fellow learners, and to be fun. So I did an experiment in class last Wednesday.

The students in my Spanish 320G (a topics course on the culture of service and social action in Spain and Latin America) had read a wonderful short story by Emilia Pardo Bazán, a nineteenth-century realist writer. The story depicts the riders of a Madrid street car traveling from the city center through one of the city’s wealthiest neighborhoods on a happy Sunday afternoon. The idyllic scene is interrupted by a poor woman and her baby, who are short of cash for their ticket. The wealthy travelers take up a collection to cover her fare, and then shower the extra funds on the woman, who seems not to appreciate their generosity, but instead interrupts their lighthearted scene with too much information about her cad of a husband who had abandoned her for another woman. When the narrator tries to console the woman with encouraging words about how she should look on the bright side, that at least she has her son to care for her in the future, the poor woman reveals her baby’s face and the blank stare of the blind child.

Instead of a typical class discussion on various aspects of the story–themes, characters, imagery–I divided the class into 7 groups and assigned each part of the story to depict in images, each choosing a quote from the story as the image’s caption. I gave them only about 20 minutes to do it, and set up a site on google docs where each group was to create its slide. We immediately had problems–web browsers that weren’t supported by Google, difficulty transferring images saved on Macs–, enough that we had to end class without presenting the show. But when I went back to it in preparation for Friday’s class, I was so pleased by their work, and of how each group really was able to select both text and image that got at the essence of the greatness of Pardo Bazán’s story. I loved it so much that I posted it on Slideshare, even though I’m not quite sure where the images were taken from, and perhaps I’ll need to pull it down if someone questions me on it. But still, as an in-class activity, I loved how this got students to approach literature in some different ways, and then to work together to create something that communicated their understanding. Take a look!

The “pedagogy of abundance” Newt style??

Newt Gingrich is thinking about some of the same things we are, and he’s optimistic about the same sort of “abundance” model Weller metions in Chapter 8–that is in the style of Google’s Sebastian Thrun!

 (pardon the crass commercialism with the ad at the beginning–the price I must pay to embed and MSNBC video!)

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So what does it mean when politicians see this free, open-to-all-model as the future? Of course Gingrich is somewhat of an academic himself, so he believes he speaks with authority, not just as the typical politician. But the worlds of politics and academics are coming into conflict more than ever, regardless the party–President Obama’s SOTU is further evidence of this,(Chronicle of Higher Education “Obama’s Accreditation Proposals Surprise Higher- Education Leaders“) . I agree with Weller that the scarcity model of education might be coming to an end, but what do we need to consider as we academics (hopefully) help shape the abundance model? And where do the liberal arts fit? Where does a small institution like Mary Washington fit?

What’s the point (of research)?

#umwdomains. Weller, in his chapters on research and the idea of digital research (4-5), tries to define just what constitutes research. But I find myself not asking “what is research”? but rather “why research”? What’s the point? The answer to that question has a very different answer for different people depending on where they work, what they research, what stage they are in their careers. For me, when I first started down the path to becoming a professor of Spanish, I did research to please others–first my professors, then my dissertation committee, then the readers at various journals to, in turn, please potential employers, then to please my supervisors and senior colleagues.  Not that I didn’t enjoy what I was doing, but personall fulfillment wasn’t my main objective. Then when I came to Mary Washington, I actually felt a freedom I hadn’t felt before in my research. Proving a “pattern of professional activity” for tenure and promotion was not a very big hurdle for me, which then allowed me not to worry so much about a certain number of articles, or publishing in certain places, or getting that book by a certain point. It allowed me to pursue my interests in research. I went after publishing a book, which took time with my heavy teaching load, but research began to provide real personal and professional rewards to me. I began to see how my research and writing spilled over into the classroom and vice versa. Still, I didn’t really see myself as part of a larger researching community. Sure, I went to conferences and I read others’ articles, but it wasn’t until I started keeping a blog, briefly, in 2006-2007, as I started a new research project that I understood my research as part of something much larger. I started the blog for my students–to include them in on my research and writing process. But then I got a comment from a doctoral student from Madrid who was researching a similar topic. That initial contact led to wonderful and very fruitful professional relationship that then led me (and my new colleague in Spain) to other connections.  Since then I have come to see my work not in isolataion–not as something that I do for others, or even for myself, but rather that I do in dialogue, and as a small part of a much larger process of knowledge creation. Last week, Cervantes Virtual–an important digital library in Spain–announced its new page on María Rosa Gálvez, a late-Enlightenment playwright who was one of the women I wrote my dissertation on (and eventually a number of articles and a chapter in my book)back when only a handful of people even cared about her work. Another wonderful colleague at the University of Alicante, Helena Establier (whom I’ve never met in person actually!), coordinated this effort, which brings together research from many different scholars, including me! I think it represents a little of what Weller was getting at in his chapters about a new way of thinking about scholarship. Certainly my thinking about research has evolved.

http://www.cervantesvirtual.com/portales/maria_rosa_de_galvez/

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Open or Closed?

Below are some questions and thoughts I think I’ll raise with my cohorts that were sparked by the Weller reading this week, all related to the idea of open education/open access:

How do we deal with the ever-present tensions between open and closed access? Between exclusivity and inclusivity? I see this tension in so many ways in my life as an academic. On the one hand, there is so much more information available to me as a researcher than before. When I was writing my dissertation in the 90’s, only those who had the money to travel and spend months in the libraries and archives of Madrid had access to many of the texts that today are freely  available on Google Books. However, an exclusive private enterprise like Gale-Cengage can also sell digital access to the collections of the British  Library at a price only wealthy institutions can pay, thus excluding small public institutions like our own. MOOCS offer free and open access to the masses (for now) to professors and courses that previously only the most elite could come in contact with, but is it really open education and is it access at all? The digitally native teenagers referenced as part of the net generation represent only one demographic–those wealthy enough to actually be consumers (and sometimes producers) of technology. What about the rest of them–for most of whom their only real engagement with technology is through their phone? I’m guessing some of our students fall in that category when they come to us.