Leila Walker wrote a new blog post Table of Contents: Issue 6 in the group Journal of Interactive Technology and Pedagogy (Public Group): 2 weeks, 5 days ago
Leila Walker wrote a new blog post “All Corners of the World”: the Possibilities and Challenges of International Electronic Education in the group Journal of Interactive Technology and Pedagogy (Public Group): 2 weeks, 5 days ago
Leila Walker wrote a new blog post Transcultural Dialogue Mashup in the group Journal of Interactive Technology and Pedagogy (Public Group): 2 weeks, 5 days ago
Leila Walker edited the blog post How (Not) to Plan Your Entire Course in the group Journal of Interactive Technology and Pedagogy (Public Group): 2 months ago
Chris Friend, Saint Leo University
How can we involve our students in syllabus planning?
My students are often smarter than I realize at first, and I love when they find novel opportunities to demonstrate what […]
Leila Walker’s profile was updated 3 months, 2 weeks ago
The ITCP Independent Study course is the final requirement of the nine-credit ITP certificate. The I.S. course encourages students to apply the theoretical, pedagogical, and practical lessons learned in the two ITP core courses and the skills workshops to conceive and develop a concrete and realizable IT project of their own design that they then implement and evaluate. Procedure for Approval of an Independent Study ProjectITP students will undertake the I.S. at the point in their graduate study that: 1) They have completed a sufficient number of ITP and other IT skills workshops to allow them to fully develop the technological aspects of their IT independent study projects; and 2) Their I.S. project, whichever form it takes, is well enough conceived and developed to be ready for active implementation either as a research project or in a classroom teaching or other educationally-appropriate environment.ITP students first need to meet with the Certificate Coordinator to discuss their I.S. project plans. Where appropriate, the Certificate Coordinator may recommend the inclusion of other ITP or GC doctoral faculty members in the review and supervision of the student’s I.S. project. ITP students can, if they choose, work in teams of two or more to plan and execute I.S. projects. Jointly developed and executed I.S. projects need the prior approval of the Certificate Coordinator.Once ITP students have conceived I.S. projects and discussed them with the Certificate Coordinator, they submit a short written proposal (no more than five to ten typed pages) describing their proposed project and its goals and they anticipate evaluating the results of the independent study (e.g., using surveys of participants). That proposal must be reviewed and formally approved by the Certificate Coordinator before students begin work on their Independent Study. Independent Study Options The Independent Study can be pursued in several different ways, all of which privilege questions of research, pedagogy, and/or IT practice:· The first option for the independent study course allows students to implement IT tools and pedagogical approaches they conceived and began to develop in ITCP 70020 (the second core course). ITP students who have CUNY teaching assignments in their academic disciplines (e.g., GTFs, Writing Fellowships, Instructional Technology Fellowships, and adjunct teaching positions) will be able to utilize IT tools particular to the given courses they will be teaching. These tools can include classroom delivery and assessment of content using Blackboard, the Academic Commons, and other online sites and digital pedagogies.· A second option for the I.S. involves the adaptation/modification of an existing IT tool or piece of software that can be used for pedagogical and/or research purposes (e.g. adapting a mobile application for use in improving academic or health outcomes). The idea here is for the ITP student to think critically about the ways in which new digital approaches to software and hardware design and development can be used to enhance their academic scholarship and teaching and then adapt and/or deploy a specific tool or tools that make that enhancement operable.· A third independent study option has the capacity to offer a vital service to students at The Graduate Center, and to secondary and postsecondary educators across the city. To fulfill this I.S. requirement the ITP student develops and delivers, with active guidance of the Certificate Coordinator or a designee, a full-day workshop or series of workshops on IT and pedagogy designed for local educators. These workshops could be part of larger GC and/or CUNY outreach efforts to expand IT solutions and opportunities in K-12, undergraduate and/or graduate teaching environments. Such pedagogy workshops are particularly amenable to collaborative work by two or more ITP students.· A fourth independent study option casts students in the role of technology ethnographers. To gauge the effectiveness of various IT tools, ITP students who choose this option would attend classroom IT presentations in CUNY colleges or K-12 classes, talk to professors and teachers, follow students into computer labs or other digital work spaces and observe them using their digital devices and various digital media and formally interview them to gauge how well a particular instructor’s design for using IT in the classroom is translated into practice or how well a particular IT solution (hardware and/or software) is realizing its educational/academic potential. It should be noted that formal interview and/or survey evaluation methodologies will require appropriate IRB approvals. If the ITP student finds none of the listed options above satisfactory, he or she may propose a unique I.S. project to the Certificate Coordinator for consideration in meeting the requirements for the Independent Study. Students who pursue this option should be prepared to present a fully developed and articulated written proposal for the I.S. project to assure that it is sufficiently rigorous and meets the completion requirements for the ITP certificate.Independent Study ImplementationStudents enrolled in the I.S. course will be expected to meet with the Certificate Coordinator periodically (at minimum no fewer than three times over the course of the semester that the I.S. course is taken), offering verbal reports on the progress of their I.S. projects. ITP students enrolled in the I.S. will be expected to do ongoing self-evaluations of their own research and/or pedagogy projects as part of a final report/paper that they will write upon completion of the Independent Study.All ITP students enrolled in the Independent Study will be expected to complete a final written report that includes an assessment of the implementation of their research project, their IT classroom project, or their assessment of successes and failures in running and evaluating IT workshops. Students who pursue the role of technology ethnographers will produce a final research paper based on their formal classroom evaluations. Students who adapt and deploy software tools must also produce a final paper that describes the full project, both with respect to the process of development and production and evaluation of its successes/effectiveness. ITP students should assume that they will offer a draft of this final report/paper to the Certificate Coordinator for comment, editing and criticism and are prepared to make necessary modifications and changes in response to those suggestions. The final written report should be of appropriate length and intellectual rigor, paralleling doctoral student work in GC seminar courses, and, ideally, be suitable for possible publication in the ITP program’s online Journal of Interactive Technology and Pedagogy.Rationale: The completion of the ITP independent study demonstrates that the theoretical and technical lessons ITP students have learned in the program have clear application in educational and/or research environments, either through the student’s own work as a classroom instructor, as an outside evaluator of someone else’s IT practice or software program(s), or as the developer of a piece of digital technology for use in academic research. Final written I.S. reports or research papers assure that students who successfully complete the certificate program are able to be self-critical and analytical in their uses of IT in addition to being technically proficient in the creation of IT projects and software programs.
Leila Walker wrote a new post, Digital Technologies and the Transformation of the Academic Conference: An Experiment, on the site Independent Study Projects 7 months, 2 weeks ago
ITP student Benjamin Haber (Sociology) reflects on his independent study project
With some notable exceptions, academic conferences have remained largely unmoved by the digital technologies of the twenty-first century. PowerPoint feels like the last technology to really disrupt the conference form, and the aesthetics and rhythms of that program have become so pervasive that it can feel more exciting just to hear people read. Of course, livestreaming and video rebroadcasting of conference sessions are becoming more popular, and Twitter seems to play an ever-larger role in conference interaction and communication, but these technologies have largely functioned to expand the audience for academic ideas and conversations (an important goal, of course) while leaving the structural form and affective tone of the conference itself relatively intact. In other words while conferences have slowly begun to utilize digital technologies to bring scholarly research and ideas to new publics, they have largely failed at using these technologies to transform the academic conference itself, a form that is in desperate need of reinvention.
In this paper I explore a project that in its own small way attempts to leverage digital technologies to transform the experience of the conference itself. It is my hope that doing so shows both the potential for networked digital technologies to transform the in-person work of academic life, while also highlighting the challenges of these transformations, both in terms of design and implementation as well as resistance by users to new forms of academic scholarship and unpaid labor.
Theory and Design
For this project, my colleague Christina Nadler and I have designed an interactive online environment to facilitate scholarly communication prior to an in-person seminar meeting. While the typical seminar format involves distributing readings on a topic that then get discussed in person, we thought that an interactive online platform would allow the for a more productive and enjoyable face-to-face meeting by focusing the conversation on the theories and practices that most interest the participants. This is particularly the case because the topic of the seminar we are leading, Animality, is a still emerging, interdisciplinary academic movement whose contours will be in large part defined by the research and theory produced under this banner. Thus, rather than focusing discussion on readings that reflect our interests as seminar leaders, we decided to organize the discussion around a wiki comprised of ten keywords, populated by seminar participants with academic texts, reflections, discussion, media and art that reflect the collective research interests of the group.
Trying to strike a balance between creating a useable structure and keeping discussion open-ended we defined the ten keywords but tried to keep them as expansive as possible: Biopolitics, Slaughter, Race, Civilization, Pedagogy, Bodies & Environment, Domestication, Biotechnology, Digital, Art. We picked words that were major terms in the discourses of animal studies and cultural studies but also words that were of significance in popular culture. Our hope is that the interconnected but divergent applications of these concepts in popular and academic discourses offer productive points of generation. However, the inclusion of these particular ten words is to some extent arbitrary and guided by our own interdisciplinary histories so we fully expect that some words will attract more interest than others. If this project continues after the conference perhaps some words will fall away and others will emerge.
We asked each of the seminar participants to “bottom-line” two of these subtopics, but encouraged them to participate widely by adding content to any of the keywords they felt inspired to take on. We have also enabled CommentPress on the wiki to offer another avenue for participation, for those who may want to comment on certain additions or subtractions from the wiki through marginalia. CommentPress is an open-source project, as well as a WordPress plugin and theme, designed to turn static documents into interactive conversations through in-text commenting.
This ongoing wiki was to form the basis of our in-person conversation at the Cultural Studies Association’s Annual Meeting in late May of this year. A few days prior to the conference, Christina and I would review the wiki and come up with a number of structuring questions, focusing on points of convergence and contention, opportunities for future research and praxis, and interactions between academic research, activism and cultural production. This would allow us to tailor the seminar to the concerns of the participants in a way not possible in a traditional seminar format, but as important it gave participants the opportunity to get familiar with the particular discursive styles and research interests of those who they will be talking with. Our hope was that this would prove to be particularly helpful in an interdisciplinary seminar where differences in the ways of talking and theorizing about similar topics can alienate participants and derail conversations.
In addition to the wiki, our site has a CommentPress enabled blog where participants are able to post their original research for commentary and constructive criticism. This feature foregrounds what is still the most important and often the most alienating part of academia—publishing. A seminar is theoretically a perfect opportunity to make connections with people who are doing similar research as you, but the ephemeral nature of these meetings often prevents this from happening in reality. By stretching the amount of time spent with participants, and adding to the points of interaction, the site perhaps makes the networking benefits of conferences a bit more tangible. The blog itself offers a mechanism for feedback with a built in audience of receptive, knowledgeable scholars who, better than most, can reflect and critique works-in-progress prior to sending them out for publication.
The blog works in tandem with the wiki. While the wiki allows the development of intertwining genealogies of interest and theoretical inspiration, the blog shows the specific work that participants are doing. Participants were asked to initially post their animality-related conference abstracts to the blog, with longer pieces to come later. It is likely that the blog will become more useful as participants use the site more and become more comfortable with other seminar participants. The initial request for abstracts rather than articles was in part in order to create a “safe space” online where participants could get comfortable through a gradual sharing of work and ideas.
CommentPress has been used to tremendous effect in a couple of high-profile cases, perhaps most notably with Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s Planned Obsolescence, whose success as a CommentPress case study was in no small measure due to the subject of the manuscript (the future of academic publishing). Though Fitzpatrick outlines many of the barriers to the mass adoption of the technologies of open peer-review, one of the most significant hindrances to making this work in practice involves finding a scholarly community and creating structures of accountability to other’s work. While Fitzpatrick suggests that the technologies of the internet will facilitate this sorting into communities of interest (2011, 17), it is clear that this remains one of the ideals of digital technologies that at best has only been embryonically realized. By integrating these technologies with in-person conference meetings (for many academics the only opportunity to engage with scholars outside of their university), our hope is that projects like this can speed up the process of academic community making. As the university becomes increasingly interdisciplinary, while still organizationally structured through and around disciplines, the creation of new forms of scholarly community will only increase in importance, especially for graduate students just beginning to find their place in the academy.
Our site was built using Wordpress-based plugins and hosted on Opencuny.org. Our construction decisions were mostly practical, driven by the resources at our disposal and the constraints imposed by the short window of time between our invitation to lead a seminar and the conference itself. It would not be unreasonable to see this as a test-run or a prototype that if successful could be customized and further developed for future conferences.
Opencuny.org is the student-run, open-source, online community for the CUNY Graduate Center. We looked at variety of platforms, including the CUNY Academic Commons and running Wordpress on a privately hosted site, but Opencuny offered both unbeatable affordability (free!) and the versatility afforded by Christina’s position as an administrator. The administrative access proved to be particularly important as it allowed us to install plugins not already approved for general use (like the wiki plugin), and most importantly allowed us to add people to the site who are not academically affiliated with the Graduate Center (only one other seminar participant besides Christina and me are CUNY students).
We decided to use the CommentPress theme to structure our site, reasoning that the ability to comment on blocks of text would be useful for all components of our site. On top of that theme we activated the Wiki plugin in order to support the interactive keywords component of the site. This proved to be a more technically complicated and less elegant solution than we would have hoped. While in theory the wiki plugin works fine with the CommentPress theme, in practice the wiki periodically deactivated itself with compatibility issues. While we have been able to get the site back online, those with less technical skills and administrative access would likely have not. More importantly, as I will discuss later, its ongoing technical glitches undermined participant’s confidence in the site. In addition to technical problems, we ran into the restrictions of working with pre-existing software. For example, the free version of the wiki plugin is not set up to allow easily embedded video, making that portion of the site less aesthetically rich and media diverse. In short, we encountered the common problems of Wordpress incompatibilities and the limitations of working with free software.
It was important for us to use already existing Wordpress plugins because we wanted to explore the possibilities for creative and transformational digital projects for those with only the most minimal of technical skills. While it would be ideal if many scholars in the humanities and social sciences had the technical skills to build and utilize digital tools, this is unfortunately not yet the case, despite a flood of interest and capital into the Digital Humanities and “big data.” Alongside a new push to give academics outside of the computer sciences the digital literacy needed to be “makers,” should be a concerted effort to highlight the many simple, free and cheap tools that are widely available and can help academics make their work more interesting, more accessible and more interactive.
The most pressing and immediately evident challenge to this project’s success is one shared by many innovations in online communication—the labor problem. It is all well and good for me to write about the potential for this platform to make conferences more interesting and useful, but at the end of the day, this way of running a seminar requires the sustained work of all participants for it to be successful. While you basically can get the work of a traditional seminar done on the plane ride to the conference, this mode of pre-conference engagement requires ongoing intellectual labor, and just as important, the affective labor of making yourself vulnerable to your peers.
The magnitude of this challenge became evident right away. After sending multiple emails asking participants to join the site, we finally managed to get everyone signed up a little more than a week after the site went live. Asking people to post their abstracts and begin to populate the wiki initially was met with a tepid response- two weeks after the site went live only about half of seminar participants had put any content on the site at all. In part this can be explained by the amount of time between site launch and conference. Despite our enthusiasm for this project, academics are asked to manage an increasingly daunting array of projects and contributing to a seminar that is almost two months away is likely not high on that list.
This put Christina and me in the awkward position of having to be enforcers of a certain level of production when paradoxically one of the goals of this project was to decentralize the seminar experience. Indeed, one of the weaknesses of this project is the incompatibility of ownership over the site and the ideas it represents. In other words, the collectivizing intention of this site has been hampered by the centralized way it was conceived and designed. In hindsight, it probably would have been better to have collectively formulated the plans for the design and construction of the site to whatever extent possible. For example, rather than coming up with the ten keywords ourselves, we could have utilized a Doodle poll to both solicit words and vote on which ones to include. More fundamentally we could have proposed this unconventional approach to a seminar and put it up for discussion rather than unilaterally implementing it.
Since perhaps two months is too much time for seminar participants, we decided to wait until May 1st for any further gently prodding emails. Perhaps concentrating the energy of participants into a smaller period of time would prove to be wise. In my experience as both a professor and student I have noticed an increasingly pervasive inability to do work well before a deadline (among both my most and least motivated students and peers) that perhaps is the attention deficient condition of the twenty-first century—the cultural equivalent to just-in-time manufacturing and high-frequency trading (see Randy Martin’s recent article on the “Social Logics of the Derivative” ).
In any case, this project highlights the way that for many academics, digital tools and online interactions feel like unpaid labor and increasingly like very high stakes unpaid labor. While for some Twitter is a fun and casual tool for speaking their mind and engaging with others, for academics it is serious business, yet another space where our already perilous career paths can be made or unmade. The Digital Humanities both relieves and exacerbates this problem. By treating our online activities as labor, Digital Humanities perhaps provides a platform for recognizing and renumerating what is now by and large unpaid labor. But in its larger pull on the academy—by increasing the pressure to engage on ever-multiplying platforms in various ways while teaching loads and adjunct hiring continue to rise in tandem—it can increase the expectations of scholars in an academy in flux.
To return to this project, what I want to emphasize is that getting seminar participants to contribute to this site is exhorting them not only to participate in unremunerated labor, but also a certain kind of digital affective labor that most of us receive no training for. Every academic knows the work of (good) college teaching or presenting at a conference, while often extremely rewarding, is particularly taxing because of the affective labor involved. Getting seminar members to participate is asking them to not only post things to a website, but to subject themselves to scrutiny, to quickly engage with other academics at a high intellectual level, to master the difficult art of gentle critique, among other tasks. How do we convince ourselves and others that the rewards of online engagement are worth the real costs of participation?
In part the answer lies in the gap between the increasingly digital, collaborative and generally non-textual production of academia in the 21st century and the still old school ways of representing our academic accomplishments. Graduate students in particular are forced to straddle an academic hiring system that still relies on the credentialing system of the twentieth century—namely peer-review publishing in print academic journals—while increasingly emphasizing the need to use digital tools to do things in public. Until we find ways to more fully and equitably compensate academics for the new kinds of academic scholarship we are doing, we at least need new ways to get credit for our work. Maybe we need to add new and strange sounding sections to our CV’s (“Digital Collaborative Curation” perhaps?) until they start seeming less new and less strange.
Successes and Failures
While this was certainly a worthwhile experiment on the possibilities of new digitally facilitated collaboration, problems both technical and structural in nature limited the success of this project. Most pressingly perhaps were technical glitches on the site that we were unable to fully resolve and unfamiliarity and uncomfortably with the format both of which limited participant engagement. However, the site was effective in giving seminar members a better sense of the other participants and their work and by providing a novel digital space for informal collaboration that encompassed both academic and popular media. With some technical and organizational modifications, this project could provide a template for using simple digital tools to facilitate more productive and engaging seminars.
While most seminar participants had participated in building the site content by the time of the in-person meeting, the level of engagement did not meet our expectations. While some conversations or discussions did occur on the site—mostly relating to the abstracts posted on the blog—engagement with others work was the exception rather than the norm. More common were posts and comments that made interesting connections or asked compelling questions but did not cohere into a discussion. While this is part reflected the short time period between when people started participating in earnest and the conference itself, there were also concerns both structural and affective that limited sustained engagement.
In the seminar meeting at the conference, some participants expressed a hesitance to post that was part technical and part affective—a waiting to see what others posted, unsure of how this was going to go, unclear if it was worth the effort—kind of reticence. Because of the novelty of the form it took a while for the particularized style, tone and content of the site to cohere. While nobody mentioned this in the meeting specifically (we only had time for brief comments at the end of the seminar on the participant’s experience of the site), I suspect some of this hesitance has to do with a general chaffing at the increasing demands that digital participation places on academics, along with a not unreasonable fear that communication on the internet is more likely to be negative and unproductive than in-person conversations. Indeed, in informal conversations many academics have told me they are disengaging from the big two proprietary “social media” platforms at least in part because of the groaningly unpleasant affect that in particular seems to poison conversations between strangers. Now that many of the seminar participants have met and talked in person, I suspect the affective barriers to participation will lessen.
There was also some disappointment that the website and the seminar meeting were not as integrated as they could be. In part this was because while the media posted to the website represented the broad theoretical and thematic interests of the seminar participants, we wanted to focus our in-person conversation on possible common ground—both practical and theoretical—and thus spent a large portion of the conversation discussing what animality is in the context of Cultural Studies and other disciplines. That said, perhaps we were not as successful as we hoped in imbuing the spirit of the site into the conversation.
Also mentioned by participants was a structural problem with the website, by which I mean the lack of a temporal structure of engagement. In other words, many thought the site would be more effective if instead of a nebulous wiki-style slow build of content, we structured it around time sensitive topics. In hindsight, this would have been a far more preferable way to structure the wiki—rather than picking the ten keywords, we could have had participants both pick and bottom line a new word on a weekly basis. That would have defined a more concrete structure of participation and would concentrate most of the labor of posting into one week. Because of the technical glitches of the site—which seem to be a compatibility problem between the CommentPress theme and our plugins—after the conference we changed the theme in order to host future conversations in a more decentralized and time-sensitive manner.
All that said I consider this project to be a success. Most participants liked the idea of the site, and had we been able to work out the technical glitches before the conference, I think participation would have been more robust. Numerous people indicated that it was helpful as a way to get to know the other participants, and that they liked having a centralized space for learning about other people doing similar work. Seminar participants also highlighted that they particularly liked the opportunities it opened up for humor, non-textual media and non-academic articles. It’s easy to imagine this site as a sort of third-space between the academic and popular worlds of cultural studies, which combines the best aspects of both kinds of communication.
While the failures of this project seem to outnumber the successes on paper, my hope is that the failures are ones of growth, and that this experiment contributes towards conversations about new and better ways of integrating the digital and the fleshy in the service of innovative collaborative academic research. There are always hiccups in major transitions, and academia’s quickening reorganization by the digital will not be smooth or uncomplicated. The more we get comfortable as both participants and creators of digital tools the better they will become, and the quicker we will move from seeing these kinds of projects as novel experiments to seeing them as the new mundane that we then look to overcome.
Integrating digital tools into pedagogical and research practice is not simply a project of acquiring technological skill. The increasing calls to digitize academia come along with a variety of affective, labor and social implications that deserve more attention as money and attention flood to digital initiatives. While this project has shown that technical barriers (both real and perceived) can and do hinder the adoption of digital tools, it also highlights the need to ask new questions about the digital academy: How can we design and utilize the digital in ways that don’t exacerbate (and ideally ameliorate) the labor demands that have been so acutely piling up in late capitalism? What new feelings and capacities do these new technological circuits encourage, and how do we mindfully incorporate these affects into our discussions of the digital academy? What do our in-person academic encounters lack, and what new digital tools can be useful in making meetings, conferences and classrooms more interesting, productive and collaborative? How do academic systems of hiring, promotion and funding stifle experiments in integrating the digital into pedagogy and research?
I hope our project has suggested speculative answers to some of these rhetorical questions. At the core of many of them is the suggestion that more digital tools and projects should emerge from conversations about what is not working about academia. Indeed, framing conversations about “digital making” around the possibilities of a more vibrant and compelling academic life would be an easy way to accelerate the process of interesting those faculty and students whose work does not focus with technology into participating in digital projects. If these kinds of experiments (even failed ones) become more widespread it will go a long ways towards recognizing them as labor (and thus deserving of remuneration and professional acknowledgement) but also recognizing that they can make the in-person experiences of academic life more enjoyable, creative and vibrant.
Fitzpatrick, Kathleen. Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy. New York: New York University Press, 2011. Print.
Martin, Randy. “After Economy?: Social Logics of the Derivative.” Social Text 31.1 114 (2013): 83–106. Print.
ITP student (James) Anderson Evans (MALS) reflects on his independent study project
Addressing the Need for Technical Pedagogy in the Digital Humanities
The purpose of this paper is to address the need for digitally malleable forms of pedagogy, the technical and mechanical forms of scholarship practiced in the Digital Humanities as they might be addressed through “Gentle Introductions.” As Digital Humanities becomes a more recognized area of interest within higher education, approaches to its more challenging technical aspects need to be addressed. This paper will describe the concept of an ideal resource (referred to herein as the Gentle Introduction Resource or simply GIR), critique current resources that demonstrate the need for such a resource, and describe initial implementation of the GIR’s infrastructure.
What is a Gentle Introduction?
Gentle Introductions vary by author, but they typically provide clear, introductory information on specific technical, scientific, or computational concepts that can be engaging even to an audience that has no prior knowledge of the subject under discussion. This does not mean they do not provide a roadmap toward experimentation, but they can be key in reaching a place of initiation and understanding as to what specific strengths and weaknesses a complicated method or technique might involve.
Why do we need a Gentle Introduction Resource?
Presently most gentle introductions must be sought out specifically. For instance, to find a gentle introduction to XSLT transformations one must use specific search queries like “XSLT gentle introductions,” in a search engine. The foresight to engage this search suggests that one has already moved beyond gentle introductions to be aware of a niche acronym such as XSLT.
II: The Gentle Introduction Resource (GIR)
History of Gentle Introductions
The “Gentle Introduction” moniker for layman introduction to high-level technical concepts is not new, and there is something quietly vintage about it. This explicit descriptor can be found in academic articles at least as far back as the early-1960s. In running a Google scholar search the earliest articles I found apply “Gentle introductions” to a range of technical concepts from probability and statistics in the early 1960s to programming PASCAL-like languages in the 1980s .
A particularly deft, and more recent self-proclaimed “Gentle Introduction,” came in University of Pittsburgh Professor David J. Birnbaum’s approach to XML or eXtensible Markup Language. Birnbaum takes the time to present a contextual, clear, and engaging discussion about how the markup is used in the context of Digital Humanities, not making the choice so many make and launching right into static, aggressive instruction. He is able to speak about XML as it relates to other, more conventional topics, such as university departments and foundational uses. When he does speak of XML in and of itself, he does so with terms that make its definition digestible, not more difficult.
XML is a formal model that is based on an ordered hierarchy, or, in technical
informatic terms, a tree. It consists of a root (which contains everything else), the
components under the root, which contain their own subcomponents, etc. These
components and subcomponents are called nodes. (Birnbaum 2012)
Compare Birnbaum’s quote with the first entry that results when “XML” is queried in Google.
XML stands for eXtensible Markup Language.
XML is designed to transport and store data.
XML is important to know, and very easy to learn.
This quote from the w3schools.com website is followed immediately with code. While XML is indeed a form of markup that is very human readable, and in some cases self explanatory, contextually this fast-and-dirty introduction fails the student attempting to engage with foreign subject matter. This blurb treats XML like a product, something a strong Gentle Introduction like David Birnbaum’s would never do
While I don’t yet have hard data illustrating exactly how many present day graduate-level humanities academics are familiar with “Gentle Introductions,” from my own experience, most are not familiar with it as an over-arching concept. Even those who have been assigned a “Gentle Introduction” often think this is a clever way to title a tutorial, not realizing that the offering fits into a genre bigger than the concept central to their reading.
In November 1991 the commercial publishing industry came up with a title that proved far more marketable than “Gentle Introduction”: “For Dummies.” This moniker is already problematic not just in its tongue-in-cheek insult to its audience, but in its forced separation of the layman from the expert. Instead of introducing the layman to the infinite progression through a technical topic, it establishes a road block to the depth of understanding a layman should think of himself or herself of being capable.
Even while the first “For Dummies” offering, titled DOS for Dummies was indeed a technical concept exploration, the title proved lucrative enough to effortlessly flow into almost all facets of understanding from quilting to line dancing. These books, and the channels through which they are distributed, were (and are) often written by academic experts, yet it would be startling to see them assigned in academic syllabi. The books are typically colloquial to a fault, and in my own experience their quality is low, and they go on at length examining concepts that could be expressed with far greater brevity.
The bulk of technical instruction utilized by both the layman and the expert are now found on the Internet. While official “Dummies” books are still being written and distributed, these are titles that are still primarily print-based, and the concept, a book “for Dummies,” is now a proprietary concept. In the world of free and open Creative Commons scholarship distribution this moniker is not available, but I would suggest that this is, in fact, a good thing.
It seems that, at least within the niched community of academia, the “Gentle Introduction” is coming back into vogue. As the scholar’s library becomes increasingly web-based, opportunities for scholars, students, and learners to engage in free and open scholarship have flourished. Without having to engage in the traditionally slow model of academic publishing, academics themselves can use their computers and personal devices to relay scholarship with immediacy. Peter Suber writes about the advantages of Open Source and Open Access scholarship in Open Access, giving numerous reasons that such models of scholarship are more practical and ethical than outmoded forms still often clung to in the present day academy. Suber lays out an argument with 15 tenants describing why traditional peer-reviewed publishing model is no longer sustainable (Suber 2012, 29-43), and then at great length describes a system, already in play, that disseminates knowledge far more quickly with legal frameworks protecting content producers intellectual property, but allowing them to share their knowledge quickly and without cost (Suber 2012, 77-147). Scholars hoping to engage students and the general public with programming competencies, are posting new “Gentle Introductions” at regular intervals. Schools like MIT are using Open Access models through their OpenCourseware programs, publishing an entire semester’s worth of Gentle Introduction pedagogy. If ever there was a prescient time to aggregate as many quality Gentle Introductions into one location, it would seem that time is now.
Doing The Digital Humanities
From beneath the rising umbrella discipline of “Digital Humanities,” in which humanities scholars search for ways to inject digital/computational methodologies into humanities scholarship, the distribution of pedagogically sound introductions has become essential. Ways of wrangling the vast number of introductions (gentle or otherwise) that could prove useful has been a major handicap to the discipline, leading to more arguments about how essential or necessary specific technical methods are than to paths of artisanal exploration. This is perhaps best illustrated by the provocative debate that grew from Stephen Ramsay’s insistence during the 2011 MLA Conference that one could not be a digital humanist without sufficient programming knowledge. As a Master’s candidate for a degree in this discipline I hope to offer a theoretical solution to gently addressing this problem in ways that I believe others have failed to do.
Critiquing Bamboo DiRT Wiki
In the introductory course to Digital Humanities at CUNY Graduate Center taught by Professor Matt Gold, a DH expert, my fellow graduate students and I were introduced to “Bamboo DiRT Wiki.” This resource was constructed by a team of more than 16 credentialed university members, overseen by five highly respected institutions, and funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The “About” section of the Bamboo DiRT site reads:
Bamboo DiRT is a tool, service, and collection registry of digital research tools for scholarly use. Developed by Project Bamboo, Bamboo DiRT is an evolution of Lisa Spiro’s DiRT wiki and makes it easy for digital humanists and others conducting digital research to find and compare resources ranging from content management systems to music OCR, statistical analysis packages to mindmapping software.
The mission of Bamboo DiRT seems to be an admirable one, yet I feel that it illustrates a misstep by the humanities community at large in its attempt to work digitally. Many humanists currently feel secure beneath a blanket of software packages and suites that seem to remove the necessity of core computational skillsets and many DHers move forward with complete ignorance as to what makes these pieces of software work under the hood. I am not so bold as to suggest that a digital humanist should have technical expertise that mirrors that of the computer scientist, but without deeper understanding of how utilized software works, there is a damning amount of ignorance that makes its way into the traditional humanities scholarship synthesized with digital components. The scholarship reveals its flaws in the published online works of insufficiently educated practitioners. If software contains bugs, or is constructed erroneously, the digital humanist without deep understanding of the core software processes is taking the dangerous risk of communicating flawed results. This creaties risk not only in the scholar’s own research, but also for the DH community at large.
The issues with Bamboo DiRT as I see them can be narrowed to three specific complaints:
Filter failure: the pure bulk of software this site attempts to connect its users to becomes more of a hindrance to organization than a help. Even with use of tagging and metadata, the 30 DH-themed sections prove to be far too broad to encapsulate the sheer number of offerings. In many cases, hardly comparable software packages are pushed together without enoughexplanation for the uninitiated to grasp their differences. This is a problem throughout the internet, often appearing to the less informed as “Information Overload.” Such problems have been more appropriately termed by NYU Professor Clay Shirky issues of “filter failure”.
Interface: The Bamboo DiRT interface suggests that software does specific things that the software linked to within the resource may or may not do. There is little to no room for users to give feedback and keep the most useful items visible.
Pedagogy: Pedagogical write-ups of the specifically academic/DH software usage are completely ignored.
This critique focuses on Bamboo Dirt Wiki not because it is the only DH Resource suffering from issues in thorough digital pedagogy as utility, but because of the initial attention it has garnered and the fact that it has been generously funded.
The Gentle Introduction Resource does not look to replace a site like Bamboo DiRT, but rather to serve as a supplement to such digital spaces that offer access to useful tools. The GIR will give scholars a network in which to share their initial explorations and forays into both digital and humanistic study.
The Gentle Introduction Resource Design (Initial)
The GIR’s design will begin it’s alpha testing as a twitter clone built in Ruby on Rails. When initially prototyping the early versions I attempted to make a useful site in pure HTML and CSS, but found this approach lacking, especially in terms of expandability and longevity. In the span of six months I moved through the following frameworks as a higher level solution to basic html:
Flask, PythonAnywhere, and Django – These frameworks are all based on the Python computer language. In experimenting with these frameworks I made some major strides in my own understanding of how computer language is communicated from the user to the machine and back to the user. I hit several roadblocks in deploying these frameworks in the public sphere, primarily because of the difficulty in uploading the local SQL database. The SQL database is the component necessary to allow registered users individualized participation on the site.
Ruby on Rails – I was hesitant to put away the Python and begin working with Ruby, but I was surprised with the relative simplicity of the Ruby on Rails framework. I don’t believe I would have found it accessible if I had not first labored over several projects using Python. The Ruby language is an Object Oriented language just like Python, and many of the rules that I learned when implementing Python allowed for a seamless transition into Ruby. While the differences between Ruby and Python are plentiful, the Ruby language has a supportive online community that has helped me push past the challenges I was unable to overcome with the available Python web frameworks.
As I have indicated, I chose Ruby on Rails as the framework to move forward with and have initiated the design of the GIR to parallel that of the twitter network. By creating a database more focused on the community invited to use the service, there is a stronger understanding of what the developing needs of the DH community engaged with the GIR actually might be. By crowd sourcing a list of pedagogical writings on topical tools and methods that explain both the foundations of DH software offerings and higher level academic software packages a digital space can be created showing and telling DH scholars about what is initially foreign and anxiety inducing.
Using the mediaCommons project, InMediaRes, as inspiration, I plan to create a membership system based on academic credentials. Members would be able to add Gentle Introductions to their personalized data stream, and moderators would be able to add these introductions to a regularly updated blog featuring the most useful Gentle Intros shared in the universal site’s data stream feed.
Finally it should be said, all linked Gentle Introductions would be in either the public domain or distributed under a Creative Commons License.
This GIR proposal is not set in stone, and any time proposals meet the realities of implementation there are usually concessions that have to be made. That said, it is of key importance that in the implementation phase, critiques of projects that have come before are reflected upon. The most essential aspect of this proposal is the belief that pedagogy should be a stronger focus than tool resources; That a smaller number of tools engaged with through expert pedagogy is an optimal goal. This project aims to focus on molding the layman into an engaged explorer and eventual expert. This act is far more valuable than access to an aggregation of resources with which the intended audience does not understand how to comfortably engage.
Canelake, Sarina. A Gentle Introduction to Programming Using Python. MIT OpenCourseware. January, 2011. http://ocw.mit.edu/courses/electrical-engineering-and-computer-science/6-189-a-gentle-introduction-to-programming-using-python-january-iap-2011/index.htm
Donadio, Rachel. “Dumbing Up.” The New York Times Online. September 24, 2006. http://www.nytimes.com/2006/09/24/books/review/Donadio.t.html
Harpold, Terry. “Screw the Grue: Mediality, Metalepsis, Recapture.” Game Studies 7, no. 1 (2007).
Kasten, Eric. 1995. “HTML: A Gentle Introduction.” Linux Journal 1 (15). Online Version (July): 1–5.
mediaCommons. About. inMediaRes. Accessed May 22, 2013. http://mediacommons.futureofthebook.org/imr/about
Mosteller, Frederick. “Continental Classroom’s TV Course in Probability and Statistics.” The American Statistician 16, no. 5 (1962): 20-25.
Pattis, Richard E. Karel the robot: a gentle introduction to the art of programming. John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1981.
Project Bamboo. Bamboo Dirt Wiki. About. Accessed May 20, 2013. http://dirt.projectbamboo.org/about
Ramsay, Stephen. “Who’s In and Who’s Out”. Stephen Ramsay Homepage. January 8, 2013. http://stephenramsay.us/text/2011/01/08/whos-in-and-whos-out/
Shirky, Clay. Here comes everybody: The power of organizing without organizations. Penguin books, 2008.
Suber, Peter. 2012. Open Access. Vol. 1. Essential Knowledge Series. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press.
Swinehart, Christian. Samizdat Drafting co. CYOA. http://samizdat.cc/cyoa/
Unknown author. Unknown date. “XML Tutorial”. Instructional. W3schools.com. http://www.w3schools.com/xml/.
 [exempli gratia] Birnbaum, David. 2012. “What Is XML and Why Should Humanists Care? An Even Gentler Introduction to XML.” http://dh.obdurodon.org/what-is-xml.xhtml. || Canelake, Sarina. 2011. “A Gentle Introduction to Programming Using Python”. MIT Open Courseware MOOC January, Online. http://ocw.mit.edu/courses/electrical-engineering-and-computer-science/6-189-a-gentle-introduction-to-programming-using-python-january-iap-2011/. || Kasten, Eric. 1995. “HTML: A Gentle Introduction.” Linux Journal 1 (15). Online Version (July): 1–5.
 Frederick Mosteller. “Continental Classroom’s TV Course in Probability and Statistics.” The American Statistician 16, no. 5 (1962): 20-25.
 Pattis, Richard E. Karel the robot: a gentle introduction to the art of programming. John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1981.
 Birnbaum, David. 2012. “What Is XML and Why Should Humanists Care? An Even Gentler Introduction to XML.” http://dh.obdurodon.org/what-is-xml.xhtml.
 [sic.] Unknown author. Unknown date. “XML Tutorial”. Instructional. W3schools.com. http://www.w3schools.com/xml/.
 Rachel Donadio. “Dumbing Up.” The New York Times Online. September 24, 2006. http://www.nytimes.com/2006/09/24/books/review/Donadio.t.html
 Suber, Peter. 2012. Open Access. Vol. 1. Essential Knowledge Series. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press.
 Sarina Canelake. A Gentle Introduction to Programming Using Python. MIT OpenCourseware. January, 2011. http://ocw.mit.edu/courses/electrical-engineering-and-computer-science/6-189-a-gentle-introduction-to-programming-using-python-january-iap-2011/index.htm
 Stephen Ramsay. “Who’s In and Who’s Out”. Stephen Ramsay Homepage. January 8, 2013. http://stephenramsay.us/text/2011/01/08/whos-in-and-whos-out/
 Project Bamboo. Bamboo Dirt Wiki. About. Accessed May 20, 2013. http://dirt.projectbamboo.org/about
 Clay Shirky. Here comes everybody: The power of organizing without organizations. Penguin books, 2008.
 I will also note that Bamboo DiRT is still being worked on, and I notice many issues I have criticized are at least slightly improved.
 mediaCommons. About. inMediaRes. Accessed May 22, 2013. http://mediacommons.futureofthebook.org/imr/about
Leila Walker wrote a new post, Enlightened Educators: Reflections on Pedagogy, Website Development and Collaboration, on the site Independent Study Projects 1 year, 3 months ago
ITP student Laura Kane (Philosophy) reflects on her independent study project
Just over a year ago, I set out to create a wiki for philosophers – an online, collaborative resource that would help newer graduate teaching fellows and adjuncts create lesson plans around topics they have never taught before. I named the wiki Enlightened Educators hoping it would be a space that inspired educators with varying levels of experience to come together and offer suggestions for overcoming many of the obstacles that newer educators face when trying to determine the most effective ways to teach their students. As I write this report summarizing my work toward this goal, the wiki remains largely unused. It is not entirely devoid of content and contributions, but it has not taken off with the kind of enthusiasm that I had envisioned it would. Instead, its current state has served as a reminder to me that it’s very difficult for those of us in academia to break with the traditions we’ve been inculcated with since entering doctoral study.
Academics are often encouraged to work alone and discouraged from introducing any new work until it has already reached a semi-polished state. We become defensive about sharing our early ideas with others for fear of receiving less credit and prestige when those same ideas finally come together in formal conference presentations and published articles. This rationale is not only limited to scholarship; the same kind of behavior occurs regularly when we approach teaching undergraduate students.
As many of us have already learned, graduate students are often thrown into the classroom with little to no pedagogical training. We must create our own guidelines and lesson plans, with very little guidance from our peers or professors. Expectations are immediately placed upon us to create interesting and comprehensive lesson plans that are informative, engaging and open-ended enough to allow for substantial student participation. While it is intimidating enough to step in front of the classroom for the first time, it is even more intimidating to do so when our lesson planning is also balanced with the demands of doctoral coursework, effectively limiting the amount of time we have to spend on creative approaches to teaching new material.
Creating a lesson plan for the first time is a time consuming and challenging task. With no clear indication of how students will engage with our chosen material, we try to determine the best way to teach complex concepts and large quantities of information without overwhelming our students or leaving most of them behind. This raises many questions, including:
How much should I rely on the assigned reading to guide classroom discussion?
What kinds of questions will best elicit responses from students?
Are there any exercises or activities that would help to convey the core ideas in the readings to students?
How can I ensure that students will engage with the material and actually understand it?
With little to no empirical evidence available as to what works best, it is often very difficult to answer these questions.
The Internet houses a vast landscape of teaching guides for undergraduate classrooms. While it’s possible to find a useful guide for how to structure a syllabus or how to keep students awake and paying attention, it is very difficult to find any guidance on how to structure a lesson plan around Book VI of Plato’s Republic. That’s the result of the fact that guides for teaching undergraduate students are very general and meant to be used by educators from many different academic disciplines. While they may provide some general answers to the above questions, they don’t necessarily give us the tools we need to plan effective strategies for teaching students specific ideas and concepts. Moreover, much of the general advice given to new educators is outdated and doesn’t reflect the varying types of education and backgrounds that current undergraduate students come to college with.
My desire to create Enlightened Educators came from reflecting upon these issues as I struggled to create my own effective lesson plans for the first time. After discussing these issues with my colleagues, I found that I was not alone in wanting some kind of resource that would offer more targeted guidance for teaching concepts and ideas that are specific to my discipline.
My initial proposal for Enlightened Educators was largely inspired by my own struggles to come up with the most effective strategies for teaching undergraduate students. My colleagues and I would discuss at length the types of questions we would ask students and the kinds of exercises we would do in class to encourage student participation, comprehension, and engagement with our chosen material. However, these discussions would only occur after we had already taught our lessons! We had little or no guidance about how to make our initial lesson plans, and were only able to improve our lesson plans after we had already discovered for ourselves what worked and what didn’t work.
New educators would certainly benefit from hearing about these experiences before they teach material for the first time. I searched for any type of tool – a blog, a database, an archive – where more experienced educators shared their tested teaching strategies with others, but I came up empty-handed. I decided to try and build a resource that would be available to all educators who wished to collaborate with one another, building the form of a database of shared experiences related to teaching specific content to students.
There were, however, a few things that I wanted to avoid when creating this kind of resource. Firstly, it couldn’t be something with a blog-like structure. A blog-like structure would privilege the first account written – the main blog post – leaving alternative accounts, suggestions, revisions and additions in a comment stream that would not receive nearly as much attention. Such a structure would ensure that these strategies,despite whatever feedback was given by those who commented, would remain static and unchanging, so that someone stumbling onto the blog for the first time might find a strategy that was posted three years prior that hasn’t been updated or vetted since. Teaching strategies change over time as we repeat lessons over and over again, and this resource needed to reflect the kinds of revisions that we make year after year. Blog posts are not meant to be revised over and over again, nor are they typically capable of being collaboratively edited to reflect multiple experiences. The discussions around lesson planning are extremely important for educators as we seek to build off one another’s experiences and suggestions. A blog would severely limit how much these lesson plans might change over time as compounded experiences are taken into account.
Secondly, the resource needed to be dynamic in terms of navigability. A blog does not offer the same kind of dynamic environment as a wiki. While one can tag blog posts so that they can be aggregated in different categories, a wiki provides a user with a fluid searching experience. Users can search for a topic that directly links to other related topics, and all of these topics are taxonomized as a network instead of a hierarchy. A network of topics is far easier to navigate than a hierarchy, as no particular topics receive preference over others and no topic is subsumed under another. Hence, it would be easier to add topics to something based on a wiki.
Thirdly, the resource couldn’t be something that allowed one strategy to become dominant. A wiki would keep the main content for each post open to revision so that different voices could participate with equal authority in crafting a teaching strategy. Such openness and equality should encourage any educator to feel comfortable adding their experiences to the database.
With these criteria in mind, I proposed to build a wiki using MediaWiki, a free open source wiki software package, that would be inviting, easy to navigate and easy to contribute to. My goal was to create a venue for educators to come together and collaborate with one another to develop the most effective lesson strategies for teaching philosophy to undergraduate students. I emphasized how each page would be modifiable to encourage potential users to generate and edit content, and to collaborate with one another to ensure that each lesson plan was as comprehensive and adaptable as possible. I also emphasized that the wiki would be open to all so as not to exclude anyone who wishes to participate in discussions around certain topics. With these goals in mind, I set out to create my wiki, though it was not quite the experience that I had hope it would be.
My initial proposal indicated that it would take about one month to do a complete structural build-out of the site, before user content could be added. This estimate wound up being fairly accurate.
I had used Wikipedia – a wiki also built using the MediaWiki software package – pretty extensively in the past and was very familiar with how to create and edit content, create pages and participate in discussions. However, I had no clue how to build my own wiki. I researched how one would go about creating a wiki using MediaWiki and discovered that MediaWiki has a quick installation option called a “1-Click Installation” – an option allows one to bypass a manual installation of software. The quick installation option is compatible with several different hosting services, so I set out to find the best one for my purposes.
Initially, I had wanted to host my website on OpenCUNY or the CUNY Academic Commons; however, I also wanted to ensure that my wiki could be used by non-CUNY adjuncts and educators alike. I discussed what option would be best with my professor, Michael Mandiberg, who had been guiding my progress on the wiki’s development. He suggested that I host the website on my own so that I would have the option to expand my user base to include non-CUNY members. He also advised me to limit my initial user base to Graduate Center colleagues only – something he thought would contain any potential scope creep regarding managing users in the site’s earlier phases. Tasked with finding my own hosting service, I asked for recommendations from friends and colleagues and decided to use DreamHost.com.
Installing the wiki software was very simple (it was designed to be), and soon I was staring at the home screen of my very own blank wiki! I felt very empowered – this was going to be the start of a new and exciting project! – so I got to work right away putting content on the site. I created the Main Page with an inviting welcome section and included a mission statement about the intended use of the wiki; I created the main discipline page and an FAQ Page for users who were unfamiliar with wikis; and lastly, I created the first entry on the site: how to teach Kant’s Categorical Imperative. Everything was going smoothly, and I began to mention the site to my colleagues in the philosophy department. Given our previous conversations about pedagogy and the dearth of resources to help us with our lesson planning, they all seemed very excited that a new tool might be available soon. I felt confident that they would be enthusiastic to jump in and start adding their own teaching experiences.
And then the spammers hit.
I had heard from friends who were working on their own wikis that they were having problems with spammers, but I didn’t think much of it. How would spammers even find my wiki? It had only been built a month prior and barely had any user activity. As far as the Internet was concerned, it existed more in potentiality than actuality with its low MB usage. Much to my surprise, it is exactly these types of websites that spammers attack.
I went to my site one afternoon and thought I had typed in the wrong URL. The site I had landed on was blank save for some barely comprehensible text about Viagra and life insurance. My site had been spammed.
WikiSpam, as it is properly called, is perpetrated by owners of different websites who wish to improve their position in Google searches. They spam wikis with advertisements to their websites, not realizing that these spamming attempts actually have no bearing on Google’s page ranking system. The way they spam is infuriating; when spammers enter a wiki, they remove all of the original content on the page (in my case, it was my Main Page that kept being spammed) and replace it with their advertisements.
Fortunately, MediaWiki has a failsafe for such situations. One is able to revert back to earlier edits of a page, essentially erasing any damage to page content that spammers have done. Unfortunately, the spammers are relentless. When one spammer finds your wiki, other spammers join in, arriving to your wiki in droves. Worse still, these spammers “carpet-bag” wikis – they continually edit the same page over and over again, adding one or two new lines of text each time, until your original page is so far back in the history that it is difficult to find. This process can result in hundreds of edits per day on your wiki, effectively destroying any original purpose the wiki had. After several months of constant spamming, I decided that I’d had enough and took the site offline.
Eight months later, fueled with a new eagerness to get my wiki up and operational, I brought the site back to life again. I had restored the wiki back to my original posts and began to research ways to combat spammers. Soon after I relaunched the site the spammers were back, but I was determined to find a way to beat them.
My original build-out did not take spammers into account; hence, I did not have any protective firewalls to keep them out. What I needed was a way to put editing obstacles on my site to deter spammers from endlessly posting advertisements without also deterring my intended audience from posting real content to the site. What I found was a bit of PHP code that would make it mandatory for anyone who wanted to post on the site to create an account before they would be allowed to post. This seemed like a pretty solid fix; the spambots that were targeting my site might not be able to get past a mandatory account creation and my users would be required to create accounts that would give them a greater sense of responsibility for their content. I felt confident that I would finally be able to share my site with my colleagues.
Several days after I added the code to my site I noticed that I was receiving the same volume of spam again, only this time my spammers all had random account names. My “solution” did nothing other than give me a false sense of security for a few days. Increasingly frustrated, I began to reach out to more experienced wiki builders for their advice and assistance. I was growing desperate and resigned to the fact that I might never get the wiki to a stable place for users.
I explained my situation to Micki Kaufman, one of my fellow CUNY Graduate Center Digital Fellows, and asked her for any advice she might have. Micki offered to help me create a stronger barrier for account creation – one that would require an email confirmation from me (acting as the site administrator) for the creation of any new account. When I went to log into the site to show her what we were up against, I was again surprised at what I had found: my site was gone. Completely gone. An error code, “MediaWiki internal error. Exception caught inside exception handler,“was all that existed in place of the entire wiki.
After digging around a bit in PHPMyAdmin, the MYSQL database manager for my wiki, Micki was able to detect what had happened. One of the spammers had hacked into my site and deleted the database. The MYSQL database for a website holds all of the content for that website – every bit of site structure, every post, every photo, etc. – and the database for my wiki had been completely wiped out. I was crushed; why would someone commit such a malicious act against a complete stranger? My wiki wasn’t political or offensive; it didn’t make any unjustified claims or spread any rumors. The wantonness of the act made my skin crawl.
Micki was quick to point out that most hosting services back up the data for their users, so there might be a copy of the database on DreamHost’s servers. After poking around the DreamHost site for a bit, we discovered that it does have a backup service that continually backs up your database for you; however, these backups are only saved for five days and then replaced. Since I hadn’t been to my wiki in a couple of weeks at that point, the oldest backup contained the already wiped database. My site was, in fact, totally lost.
Before I could completely give up, Micki assured me that this was a step in the right direction. We could install a completely new and updated version of MediaWiki that would have the built-in protection needed to defend my wiki against spammers and hackers. The quick installation options that MediaWiki offered came with various levels of restricted access for unregistered users and had been updated to make it more difficult for hackers to enter the backend of the software. After discussing some of the positives and negatives of the different builds, we decided upon a type of installation that would mandate that all edits require accounts and that all accounts had to be created by the site administrator.
The downside to this added security is that the wiki would lose the openness that I wanted it to have. Anyone that wished to contribute an experience to the site would now have to contact me first, and I would have to generate a new username and temporary password before they could log into the site and make a contribution. I knew that these new restrictions would limit the number of users who would actually make contributions to the site; however, realizing that this was the only option available for a truly secure wiki, I decided that sacrificing this openness was worth it. After we completed the install, Micki showed me how to make my own backups of the database. I remade all of my original pages, including a rewrite of all of my original content, and made a database backup.
I finally had a secure wiki with reassuring failsafe measures in place, and finally felt confident about recruiting my first group of contributors.
After securing my site, I crafted an email to my friends in the Philosophy Department that explained my motivation behind making the wiki, a list of potential uses for our PhD program, and a request for contributions to help build the database of teaching resources. Almost immediately after sending the email off I received several positive responses and offers for contributions. I was elated! My colleagues were genuinely into the concept behind the wiki – especially those who were going to be teaching for the first time – and seemed excited to take part as contributors. Within days after sending my initial email, I had made six new user accounts and was anxiously waiting for the wiki to become a hub for strategizing about the best ways to teach Philosophy students about topics like Compatibilism, Virtue Ethics and Skepticism. Two contributions were made fairly quickly, sustaining my excitement for the future of the site. But then the site just sat; no new colleagues offered to participate, and no other contributions had been made in the month following my initial email.
I started to feel defeated again; I had made so much progress battling the technical setbacks I encountered that I assumed my struggles getting the wiki off the ground were over. I was determined to get eight to ten new contributions on the site, so I decided to send an email to my colleagues again. However, this time I opted to send individual pleas for participation hoping that a more personal request would motivate some colleagues to make contributions. As it happened, the individual emails did the trick; within two weeks of sending the personalized pleas I had twelve unique contributions to my site.
The contributions posted to the wiki were very good – they were candid, on point and very informative:
Each contribution reflected a strategy for teaching certain philosophical concepts or articles to undergraduate students – precisely what I had hoped for. The posts provided secondary source materials, open-ended questions to generate discussion, targeted questions to elicit certain responses, recommended classroom activities and step-by-step guides for clear presentations.
I would love to say that these contributions amounted to “success” for the wiki. However, after the contributions were entered the wiki sat again, and continues to sit with no additional contributions. There have been no discussions and no collaborations around how to teach certain topics. There have been no revisions or alternative suggestions made for posted strategies. Instead, all of the contributions were made in isolation from one another, and logged site activity has plummeted: no users have signed back into the wiki since making their original contribution. A total failure? No, certainly not. The wiki has some fantastic content on it that reflects a breadth of the topics that typically fall under an Introduction to Philosophy course. Hence, the wiki already has the potential to be useful to someone crafting lesson plans for the first time. Nonetheless, the conceptual impetus behind creating the wiki has yet to be realized.
Upon reading all of the contributions, I noticed that none of them involved the use of digital tools as teaching aids. I suspect the most plausible explanation behind this observation is that philosophy doesn’t require much beyond the faculties of reason and imagination, at least not in a classroom setting. We are asking students to apply critical thinking skills to centuries-old problems that have never required digital tools in the first place. If philosophers aren’t using digital tools within their lessons, then how likely are they to use a digital tool to help them plan lessons?
I’d like to think that these are two disparate issues. Philosophy graduate students use digital tools all of the time to help them with research, networking, job searches and citation management. The addition of a digital tool to assist with lesson planning seems par for the course not only for philosophy graduate students, but for graduate students in all disciplines. That philosophers are not using digital tools as regularly as some of their peers in other disciplines is not a bad omen for Enlightened Educators – it merely reflects the process behind teaching philosophy as one that requires very little beyond an apt mind.
Still, in its current state, the wiki lacks the vibrant discussions and revisions that it was created to foster. The collaborative structure of the wiki has done little to motivate the contributors to interact with one another through the site. Instead, it seems to have perpetuated the isolated approach to lesson planning that we’re already familiar with – one that doesn’t require the use of a digital tool like Enlightened Educators. This result is not necessarily permanent, though, and I haven’t given up on making the site a true success. Perhaps it’s a matter of involving more individuals with the site by reaching out to a wider audience beyond the Graduate Center, or perhaps it’s a matter of offering alternative suggestions or revisions to the already existing content to motivate those who have already contributed to revisit their strategies. I plan to promote the site throughListservs, the CUNY Academic Commons Philosophy Page, various Philosophy Blogs and Facebook Groups, and I plan to ask faculty members to contribute to the site. One way or another, I intend to continue recruiting more individuals to the site with the hope that a community of users will eventually emerge.
User Reception and Experience
The user reaction to the wiki was, for the most part, extremely positive. I received several emails from newer Graduate Teaching Fellows who were excited about the potential of the wiki, and several emails from more experienced Graduate Teaching Fellows who were happy to have a place to share their teaching experiences. Despite the small number of contributions by friends in my department, there seems to be an acknowledgement that a resource like Enlightened Educators could have a tremendous impact on the way we teach lessons to undergraduate students.
After contributions were made to the site, I sent a questionnaire to those who participated to ask about their experience using the wiki and their assessment for how useful the wiki could be for our department. I received responses from a third of the contributors, and those responses were relatively similar across the board.
Of those who responded, none had any difficulty logging onto the site for the first time after receiving their accounts from the site administrator. This was a positive sign for me, as I was worried about how difficult the new login restrictions would be for new users to navigate the site and worried they would deter some from wanting to participate in the first place. Of those who responded, all agreed that the main Philosophy Menu was easy to navigate, but responses were split about how difficult it was to add content to the site. Two respondents had difficultly with HTML formatting, adding that they did not feel that they were able to format their contribution as they wanted. Two respondents mentioned that they had consulted the FAQ to help them with their contributions. All of the respondents agreed that the information on the site, once entered, was easy to find and easy to access.
I was very happy to receive such positive responses. Although most people are familiar with wikis like Wikipedia, many have never made a contribution before. I was worried that this would be an impediment to using my wiki, but I was happy to hear that contributors were able to complete posts on their own or with the assistance of the FAQ.
Lastly, all of the respondents agreed that Enlightened Educators would be a useful resource for our department, and all respondents answered that they would use the site again if it became an official departmental resource. I was pleasantly surprised by one respondent’s disclosure that they had used an entry on the site to help with a lesson plan!
Despite the myriad difficulties I’ve encountered as I try to build my wiki into a comprehensive database for educators, I’m happy with the way the site has taken shape. It is far more secure now than it has ever been, and I perform regular backups to ensure that no content is ever lost. There is a decent amount of content up on the site right now, though it is far sparser than I had envisioned it would be. This problem, along with the collaboration issue, may be resolved by attracting new users to the site. While this has proven to be a difficult task, there are steps I can take to try and promote the site as a valuable resource worthy of continued participation.
After sending out both requests for participation – the more general request and the more personal request – I realized that the wiki, as a new, empty database, doesn’t have anything to attract users. The responses I received after sending out my general request for participation were focused primarily on the concept behind the wiki, and an excitement over what potential it may have once it was full of content. However, something like a bystander effect occurred among those to whom I sent the email: they all assumed that someone else was going to contribute, so they didn’t have to. Hence, the site only received a contribution from one person after that initial request. My more personal pleas for participation were successful at attracting more users to the site because my colleagues are also my friends, and their contributions were made to help me move my project forward. The next phase of my project must address the issue of how to attract more users to the site on their own terms. This may be a bit easier now that there is some content up on the site, but I’m sure a bystander effect will still linger among those that visit the site for the first time. One possible solution involves my department endorsing the site as an official departmental resource. This is something that I plan to work on in the next year.
My final remarks concern two particular responses I received when I sent out individual requests for participation. These responses encapsulated for me the main obstacle behind academic and educational collaboration.
Two respondents seemed very interested in contributing to the wiki, mentioning that they had crafted some excellent exercises for specific topics. Both of these respondents also inquired about what kind of credit they would receive if others used their exercises.
I had gone to great lengths to convey to my colleagues that the wiki was to be a collaborative endeavor, one that encouraged educators to come together to help one another create successful lesson plans for their classes. The structure of a wiki precludes giving formal credit for contributions; instead, it encourages users to engage with one another over the best way to represent a certain topic or idea. Unfortunately, this approach is in tension with how academics traditionally do research and, consequently, how they create their lessons. The responses I received from these two colleagues captured this tension and further exemplified the resistance to change that plagues many of us who wish to receive as much credit as possible for all of our academic pursuits. Granted, we are all at the beginnings of our careers and receiving credit for our projects and endeavors is an important part of establishing ourselves as scholars. However, academia is becoming increasingly more collaborative – especially with the recent surge in digital humanities partnerships – and this is a good thing. Collaboration doesn’t preclude the assignment of credit for work done. Rather, it has the potential to increase the profile of the projects that we work on and the potential to improve how we begin and sustain our own scholarly pursuits. My goal for Enlightened Educators is to create a venue for collaboration to take place where individuals are less concerned about the credit they receive for their contributions and more concerned about whether their contributions are improving the type of scholarship that we are all involved with.
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