Monthly Archives: July 2006

MediaCommons 3: continuing the discussion

All of us working on MediaCommons are extremely gratified by the reception that our introduction of the project has had, ranging from the supportive emails we’ve received, the posts on numerous other blogs, the articles in other publications, and, most importantly, in the lively conversation and substantive feedback we’ve gotten here. We’ve already started following up on these ideas and we’ll be posting more in the days to come, raising more particular issues for our collective consideration. We will also be taking the insightful suggestions and constructive criticisms we’ve received into our next face-to-face meeting in a few weeks’ time, after which we’ll respond more fully to your concerns and seek your feedback and input once again. For the moment, however, thanks to all of you — and please stay actively involved in these conversations.
We would also like to take the opportunity to announce that we’ll be representing at the upcoming Flow Conference, October 26-28, 2006, at the University of Texas at Austin. We will be participating on an open-forum roundtable discussing the future of digital publishing, which should prove fruitful for both generating ideas and continuing to build the strong community network for this project. If you can attend, we’ll hope to see you there.
— Kathleen Fitzpatrick, Avi Santo, Bob Stein, Ben Vershbow

network v. multimedia

During Bob’s synchronous chat with the Chronicle of Higher Education on Wednesday, I was reminded of the distinction he’s drawn between digital books that incorporate multimedia–text, audio, still and moving images–and those that are networked (and, as such, seem more dynamic and/or alive). Of course these two attributes are not mutually exclusive–and Bob never states/implies/screams that they are–but these two features, media-rich and networked, do seem to comprise the salient features of digital texts and the ways in which they part company with their paper counterparts. Moreover, the networked aspect of digital texts and all that it implies has NEVER escaped me–I wrote an hypertextual Master’s thesis complicating this very notion–still, I have bristled each time I’ve heard Bob’s proclamation that “it’s all about the network,” though I couldn’t seem to account for this reaction. Until, that is, I noticed other academics reacting similarly…
It hit me when the other day when Bob was asked a question by Michael Roy (one which reiterates a query from H. Stephen Straight) which said:

I was curious about your quote in the Chronicle article that suggests your change in focus away from multimedia texts towards networked texts. Can you elaborate on why you feel that the priority in development of new genres of electronic texts should be on their ‘networkedness’ rather than in the use of media?

Bob’s answer?:

it’s not really a move away from multimedia, just a re-orientation of its [sic] centrality in the born-digital movement. when i started working in this area full-time — twenty-six years ago — the public network that we know as the internet didn’t exist. our model at the time was the videodisc, an analog medium that suggested the book of the future would be just like the book of the past, i.e. a standalone, frozen, authoritative object. it took me a long time to realize that locating “books” inside the network would over time cause more profound shifts in our idea of what a book is than the simple addition of audio and video.

As I read this exchange it occurred to me why I/we have been harping on this issue and it has to do with our training. Poststructuralist theory taught us that there is no single book frozen in time; we have long since abandoned the notion of the authoritative tome. Foucault, for instance, posited the ‘author function,’ a position in a discourse community, one that contributed to the social construction of knowledge. Books, by extension, are always-already (given Jacque D’s recent passing, a little nod and an enactment of my point here), networked; they are part of a larger oeuvre and refer to each other extensively–thus they contain copious links, even if said links are a good deal more metaphoric in nature than the hyperlink of the networked text.
Moreover, reader response theorists such as Wolfgang Iser and Louise Rosenblatt taught us that the reader never approaches a text without bringing her own perspective to bear on it–a notion that renders each reading act as discrete–and each act of reading by the same reader is unique from the read that preceded it. In this world, then, the notion of a dynamic book versus one that is “frozen in time” becomes a non-issue. Indeed, in some respects, the networked book is in fact More traditional if it depends on textual language to conduct the interaction. Look at GAM3R 7H30RY–the method is unique but in terms of the knowledge made/gained etc, it is perhaps business as usual except for an accelerated and maybe more inclusive pace. By contrast, were you to put out a multimedia networked ‘book,’ and have it reviewed IN MEDIA-RICH language, that would be revolutionary.

teaching in a “collaborative, interactive, multimediated, networked, nonliear, and multi-accented” environment

Ed note: John McClymer of Assumption College, MA is a teacher and scholar of American History, who attended our nexttext history meeting last spring.
The string of adjectives in my title comes from Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s fascinating “Introducing MediaCommons” of July 17, 2006. Fitzpatrick uses them to describe the “new scholarship” MediaCommons can help promote. They apply with equal force to the teaching this new environment can foster, as Avi Santo’s post on revised pedagogies demonstrates. He sets forth the goals we need to pursue. My task is to explore a specific set of pedagogies suited to teaching history.
Ever since I attended my first workshop on the internet, I have been groping towards such a pedagogy. I think that I am now coming within hailing distance. So I extend an invitation to peers to take a look at what I will be seeking to do in an upper-level course on the history of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era this fall.
First I need to say a few words about history as a field of study. It is what some cognitive psychologists call “ill-structured.” Chemistry, for example, is well-structured. There is nothing equivalent to the Periodic Table in history. There are no formulae, no model problems. Nothing is reproducible. The historian never can isolate a particular phenomenon. We can never measure anything precisely. The evidence we need to make sense of comes in a wide array of forms, ranging from sermons to furniture, from battle plans to cartoons. No matter what the topic, furthermore, we know there are crucial missing pieces. Some we can someday discover. The rest is simply lost forever. As a result, say the cognitive specialists, history as a discipline requires a very high degree of intellectual flexibility.
Because it does, it is especially ill-served by what we can call pedagogies of scarcity. Consider the standard U.S. survey textbook. Despite its bulk, its authors have had to make innumerable painful choices about what to leave out. There is exciting new scholarship about, let us say, women in the antebellum South. If that is going to be included in a new edition, something of equal length must come out because the overall size of the text is fixed. So is the number of illustrations. Authors and editors must choose one painting to represent the Ash Can School. They must select one way of explaining the abolition movement. They must pretend, in short, that history is a well-structured field.
This necessarily carries over to the tasks we assign students to undertake. “Discuss the rise of imperialism in late nineteenth-century America” we ask. What is wrong with such a question? It is bogus. Students CAN solve for x; they CAN prove that two geometrical figures are congruent. They CANNOT “discuss” the rise of imperialism. They can only demonstrate that they know the version of the story found in their textbook or that they transcribed in their notes. Scarcity routinely leads historians to ask inauthentic questions. One proof is that we ask students to write an in-class essay on the rise of imperialism but caution the same student that the topic, as phrased, is too broad for a term paper.
History as a discipline does not admit of closure. We can prove theorems. We cannot state definitively the significance of race in American history. Yet we routinely pretend that we “cover” topics in our lectures. And we make students pretend that they understand topics whose mysteries continue to perplex us. All the adjectives in my title are antonyms for such inauthentic learning.
The course site contains a discussion of what authentic means in history, so I will not rehearse that here. Instead I will discuss why I approach the course in the ways I do. I will also highlight questions that continue to bedevil me as I continue to work on this course.
Creating a Community of Learners In and Outside the Classroom
My course builds upon work done over a number of semesters in an American Studies course at the University of Virginia that uses an online version of Alan Trachtenberg’s classic The Incorporation of America: Culture and Society in the Gilded Age. Over several semesters students in that course have created web sites that explore Trachtenberg’s ideas. My students and I, therefore, will be joining an existing scholarly community, albeit unbeknownst to the large majority of its members whose work of semesters past we will use. Their work provides us with models as well as information and ideas. Our work, we hope, will do as much for other classes on other campuses.
We will work as a community in class as well. All of us will read Trachtenberg’s chapters and hold a preliminary discussion for each. Then participants will pick among an array of resources relevant to a particular chapter. They will report their findings, first to me an hour before class via email. Then they will report them to each other. I insert myself here in the process for several reasons. One is quality control. I have no desire to encourage class discussion for its own sake. The format I’ve adopted guarantees that students will do the great majority of the talking. What I need to insure is that the most interesting ideas get a full and fair hearing. As a result, I need to know in advance who has what to say.
I take the best posts and create a web page. I do not hesitate to edit student notes, usually by deleting extraneous material. It is not uncommon for a student post running a page or more in length to show up on the course page as a paragraph or sometimes a sentence. All of this provides immediate feedback to the students. Some of it is negative, at least by implication. But the overall message is positive. Whenever I ask a student to contribute it is because I know that she has something worthwhile to add to the discussion. This means that students can relax.
Providing Multiple Points of Entry
Because they choose the materials they will work on, students can play to their strengths and their interests. This is, in fact, how practicing historians choose their own projects. Sometimes students rue specific choices, but most of the time they are enthusiastic about what they selected to work on. Further, they learn from each other in a non-competitive setting. The student reporting on the trial of “Big Bill” Haywood is not in competition with the one reporting on the “Uprising of the 20,000.” Instead both are puzzling over the labor movement in the early twentieth century. Each gains from the quality of the other’s work.
Structuring Access to Abundance
On line resources grow richer every day. We live in a world of intellectual abundance. Unfortunately this is daunting as well as liberating. Perhaps the key challenge in developing appropriate pedagogies for this new era is to figure out how to provide structured access to this abundance. Here the fact that University of Virginia students have already worked over some of the resources is an enormous plus. Even so, I have to group resources in clusters that are intellectually coherent, that offer diverse approaches to some central topic, and do not overwhelm the students seeking to use them. In its current form, I am reasonably satisfied that I have met the first two challenges for the course. I have not begun to meet the last. I will have to break out subsets of materials in each of the clusters I have set up. And I welcome all the help I can get in doing so.
Producing as well as Consuming Educational Resources
The goal of any pedagogy of abundance is to empower students to produce as well as consume knowledge. Currently the student-as-consumer model rules American education. My college, for example, has just hired a new vice president in charge of student recruitment and retention. The position was created on the advice of the marketing firm that carried out an extensive survey of how we should best position ourselves. I file no brief against any of this. I merely observe that the same set of notions shapes the academic as well as the other aspects of student life. And students act like consumers. Tuition is expensive and becoming more so every year. They want their money’s worth.
In some areas they are informed consumers. They know what the recreation centers and dorms are like at other schools, for example. In the classroom, on the other hand, they do not know nearly so much. Course evaluation forms often ask if the professor made reference to the most recent research in the relevant field. Few are the students capable of answering that question. And they understand even less of pedagogy. They know that they have been in classes where they learned a lot. They know they have been bored to tears on occasion. They have not had the opportunity to think about how specific disciplines impose specific constraints and provide specific intellectual challenges.
If they were more informed, history students would demand to be more active. Most students in most history courses spend their time listening to lectures, taking notes, and highlighting things in the textbook they suspect may show up on a quiz or exam. Most do not appreciate what a travesty of historical learning this is. Historians puzzle over evidence that is partial, contradictory, various, and fascinating. That is what they should be doing as well. Historians realize that, however exhaustive their research, they will never have the last word on anything. They also realize that their research can nonetheless contribute something lasting. Students need to be able to make the same claims about their work.
This raises a critically important question for which I have only very tentative answers: What are the appropriate student projects in an interactive, mediated world of abundance?
The student web sites at the University of Virginia provide one model. 1896, created by Rebecca Edwards and several of her students at Vassar, provides another. 1896 is a collaborative project of the students in History 276, “A House Divided: The United States, 1830-1890” taught by Professor Edwards. It contains a wealth of resources about the 1896 election along with suggestions by her on how to use the site in the classroom.
Both are final projects. Are there meaningful intermediate products students can produce and share? What might those look like? One idea I am currently playing with derives from the Women and Social Movements on line journal, The journal publishes documentary projects. All collect relevant primary sources around a question such as “From Wollstonecraft to Mill: What British and European Ideas and Social Movements Influenced the Emergence of Feminism in the Atlantic World, 1792-1869?” Some of the authors are recognized experts. Nancy Hewitt, for example, did “From Wollstonecraft to Mill.” Others are Ph.D. candidates drawing upon dissertation research. So my undergraduates will not be able to produce projects of the same scope or professionalism. But they can collect half a dozen primary sources bearing upon a topic, write a 750-1000 word overview, and provide a head note for each source. I can then post their work on the college’s server or, perhaps, in an appropriate MediaCommons node. I would be most interested in getting reactions to this idea, and I would love to hear of other ideas for authentic student projects.

wikipedia lampooned in onion

The Onion takes a shot at Wikipedia this week:

Wikipedia, the online, reader-edited encyclopedia, honored the 750th anniversary of American independence on July 25 with a special featured section on its main page Tuesday.

Not bad, though it kinda beats the Wikipedia-is-error-prone point into the ground. But the fact that it’s being satirized says something.
Naturally, the piece has already been noted on Wikipedia’s article on The Onion. The talk page points to another, funnier, wiki-themed “news brief” from last September: “Congress Abandons WikiConstitution.”

today at noon (e.s.t.)! online colloquy at chronicle of higher ed.

Bob will be appearing online at the Chronicle of Higher Education site for a live chat with readers about our recent cover story. The topic: “conversational scholarship.” 12 noon E.S.T.
UPDATE: you can now read a transcript of the chat here (same as the live link).

MediaCommons 2: renewed publics, revised pedagogies

What a week it has been since Kathleen first posted about the MediaCommons project we are developing at the Institute for the Future of the Book. The responses we’ve received so far have mostly been both exciting and constructive and they clearly point to a community out there hungry for a digital scholarly network providing new opportunities for interaction and new modes of scholarship, pedagogy and community building.
As a co-creator with Christopher Lucas of Flow: A critical forum on television and media culture, an online journal intended to foster accessible and relevant conversations amongst media scholars and non-academic communities, I have seen first-hand the positive impact that more fluid exchanges of ideas can have on media studies scholarship. Flow’s mission is to provide a space where researchers, teachers, students, and the public can read about and discuss the changing landscape of contemporary media at the speed that media moves. Flow is organized around short, topical columns written by respected media scholars on a bi-weekly schedule. These columns invite response from the critical community by asking provocative questions that are significant to the study and experience of media.
The journal has been put to use in various classroom environments as well, with students either responding to pieces online or the inclusion of various columns in course packets, though this aspect of Flow’s mission has never achieved it’s fullest potential. Moreover, while the journal has been a phenomenal success amongst media studies scholars, it has largely failed to attract other constituencies on a consistent basis or engage them in critical conversations about media. My involvement with MediaCommons emerges out of a desire to make these scholarly conversations relevant to other constituencies — whether they be media producers, legislators, lobbyists, activists, students, or informed consumers — re-establishing the role of the academic as public intellectual and steward or critical conversations.
Today, I am going to write a little bit more about the pedagogical and community outreach goals of the site. These ideas are still being developed and we are hopeful that readers will chime in with other possibilities and suggestions as well. While I will discuss each of these subjects separately, one of the exciting opportunities with MediaCommons would be the integration of scholarly discourse, pedagogy, and community outreach in symbiotic ways.

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ebook ipod rumored

apple_ebook.jpg Engadget has it from inside sources at Apple that a next-generation iPod is in the works with a larger screen and a full-fledged text reader:

…two bits from separate, trustworthy insiders that Apple’s not satisfied merely vending Audible‘s books-on-digital-audio solution. With the iRex iLiad and Sony PRS-500 Portable Reader both right around the corner, is it possible the next iPod might catch the eBook bug? We’d say the possibility is very real, since according to a source at a major publishing house, they were just ordered to archive all their manuscripts — every single one — and send them over to Apple’s Cupertino HQ.

So Audible, huh? Interesting. They got a toehold in the market with audiobooks, and may now be making the transition to ebooks.

A separate trusted source let us know that the next iPod will have a substantial amount of screen real estate (as we’d all suspected), as well as a book reading mode that pumps up the contrast and drops into monochrome for easy reading. It’s no e-ink, sure, but a widescreen iPod would be well suited for the purpose, and according to our source, the books you’d buy (presumably through iTunes) won’t have an expiration…

I’d hope that such a device would have wifi, a web browser and an RSS reader that could be taken offline. I think that books will only be a part of the equation.
Teleread has the ebook standards angle.

wikipedia not safe for work

encyclopedie.jpg Stacy Schiff takes a long, hard look at Wikipedia in a thoughtful essay in the latest New Yorker. She begins with a little historical perspective on encyclopedias, fitting Wikipedia into a distinguished, centuries-long lineage of subversion that includes, most famously, the Encyclopédie of 1780, composed by leading French philosophes of the day such as Diderot, Rousseau and Voltaire. Far from being the crusty, conservative genre we generally take it to be, the encyclopedia has long served as an arena for the redeployment of knowledge power:

In its seminal Western incarnation, the encyclopedia had been a dangerous book. The Encyclopédie muscled aside religious institutions and orthodoxies to install human reason at the center of the universe–and, for that muscling, briefly earned the book’s publisher a place in the Bastille. As the historian Robert Darnton pointed out, the entry in the Encyclopédie on cannibalism ends with the cross-reference “See Eucharist.”

But the dust kicked up by revolution eventually settles. Heir to the radical Encyclopédie are the stolid, dependable reference works we have today, like Britannica, geared not at provoking questions, but at providing trustworthy answers.
Wikipedia’s radicalism is its wresting of authority away from the established venues — away from the very secular humanist elite that produced works like the Encyclopédie and sparked the Enlightenment. Away from these and toward a new networked class of amateur knowledge workers. The question, then, and this is the question we should all be asking, especially Wikipedia’s advocates, is where does this latest revolution point? Will this relocation of knowledge production away from accredited experts to volunteer collectives — collectives that aspire no less toward expertise, but in the aggregate performance rather than as individuals — lead to a new enlightening, or to a dark, muddled decline?
Or both? All great ideas contain their opposites. Reason, the flame at the heart of the Enlightenment, contained, as Max Horkheimer famously explained, the seeds of its own descent into modern, mechanistic barbarism. The open source movement, applied first to software, and now, through Wikipedia, to public knowledge, could just as easily descend into a morass of ignorance and distortion, especially as new economies rise up around collaborative peer production and begin to alter the incentives for participation. But it also could be leading us somewhere more vital than our received cultural forms — more vital and better suited to help us confront the ills of our time, many of them the result of the unbridled advance of that glorious 18th century culture of reason, science and progress that shot the Encyclopédie like a cork out of a bottle of radical spirits.
Which is all the more reason that we should learn how to read Wikipedia in the fullest way: by exploring the discussion pages and revision histories that contextualize each article, and to get involved ourselves as writers and editors. Take a look at the page on global warming, and then pop over to its editorial discussion, with over a dozen archived pages going back to December, 2001. Dense as hell, full of struggle. Observe how this new technology, the Internet, through the dynamics of social networks and easy publishing tools, enables a truer instance of that most Enlightenment of ideas: a reading public.
All of which led me to ponder an obvious but crucial notion: that a book’s power is derived not solely from its ideas and language, but also from the nature of its production — how and by whom it is produced, our awareness of that process, and our understanding of where the work as a whole stands within the contemporary arena of ideology and politics. It’s true, Britannica and its ilk are descendants of a powerful reordering of human knowledge, but they have become an established order of their own. What Wikipedia does is tap a long-mounting impulse toward a new reordering. Schiff quotes Charles Van Doren, who served as an editor at Britannica:

Because the world is radically new, the ideal encyclopedia should be radical, too…. It should stop being safe–in politics, in philosophy, in science.

The accuracy of this or that article is not what is at issue here, but rather the method by which the articles are written, and what that tells us. Wikipedia is a personal reeducation, a medium that is its own message. To roam its pages is to be in contact, whether directly or subliminally, with a powerful new idea of how information gets made. And it’s far from safe.
Where this takes us is unclear. In the end, after having explored many of the possible dangers, Schiff acknowledges, in a lovely closing paragraph, that the change is occurring whether we like it or not. Moreover, she implies — and this is really important — that the technology itself is not the cause, but simply an agent interacting with preexisting social forces. What exactly those forces are — that’s something to discuss.

As was the Encyclopédie, Wikipedia is a combination of manifesto and reference work. Peer review, the mainstream media, and government agencies have landed us in a ditch. Not only are we impatient with the authorities but we are in a mood to talk back. Wikipedia offers endless opportunities for self-expression. It is the love child of reading groups and chat rooms, a second home for anyone who has written an Amazon review. This is not the first time that encyclopedia-makers have snatched control from an élite, or cast a harsh light on certitude. Jimmy Wales may or may not be the new Henry Ford, yet he has sent us tooling down the interstate, with but a squint back at the railroad. We’re on the open road now, without conductors and timetables. We’re free to chart our own course, also free to get gloriously, recklessly lost.

understanding bloggers

Last week, the Pew Internet & American Life Project released a study on blogging. The findings describe the characteristics of the blogging community. The ways blogging as a communication tool supports public speech are gaining clarity and support through this study. It estimates that 12 million people in the US are blogging. Bloggers, as compared to internet users, are more ethnically diverse, younger and highly wired. Further, an important aspect is that the majority of bloggers (54%) has never published media before they started blogging. 37% of bloggers report that they post about personal experiences, the largest response for that question. Not surprisingly, bloggers read blogs, and there is a direct correlation between the frequency of a blogger’s posting and how often she read blogs. The growth of blogging will become more important as it is encouraging the roles of reader and writer to merge. We’ve discussed this merger before, but it is great to have numbers to support the discussion.
As internet users are becoming authors and publishers, I am curious to watch the future development of bloggers as a community and the possible impact they can have on policy issues. Is there the opportunity for bloggers to become a vehicle for social change, especially on Internet issues? 12 million bloggers could demand the attention of legislators and courts on the issues of net neutrality, copyright, privacy and open access. Although, as we have discussed in the past, the blogosphere is often a partisan space. The Pew study also confirms its diversity. Therefore, mobilizing this community is a challenging task. However, the sheer number of bloggers foretells that some of them are bound to find themselves dealing with these issues, especially with copyright and intellectual property. My hope then would be that these inevitable frictions would bring further into the mainstream these issues and broaden the discussion by the often one-sided debates of the telecommunications industry and media conglomerates.