Sunday, November 27, 2011

"From Behind The Safety of the Internet's Vast Perspex Shield"

On the Music For Deck Chairs blog, the author (who wishes to remain anonymous) makes some interesting observations on the recent pepper spraying of UC Davis student demonstrators by a UC Davis police officer.  The subsequent footage of the chancellor making her way past a gauntlet of silent students is also very moving.  In spite of these images, Music For Deck Chairs cautions us not to be too judgmental "from behind the safety of the internet’s vast perspex shield" (I love that phrase).  For sure, none of us want to model our behavior after that of Officer Pike, but some of us in IT are also guilty at times of colluding with hierarchical thinking.  It's still unclear whether the UC Davis protests and the Occupy movement will have the impact that the Tea Party has.  But I don't want these things to go by completely unnoticed on this blog -- especially since there is still a tangential connection to IT and the university.  I've reposted my comment to Music For Deck Chairs below:

To segue from your last paragraph I’m reminded of David Noble who probably would have seen resonances between the actions of officer John Pike and initiatives of elearning administrators (I draw the connection only because your blog is dwelling on both). Here is what he says in Digital Diploma Mills:

“Once faculty and courses go online, administrators gain much greater direct control over faculty performance and course content than ever before and the potential for administrative scrutiny, supervision, regimentation, discipline and even censorship increase dramatically. At the same time, the use of the technology entails an inevitable extension of working time and an intensification of work as faculty struggle at all hours of the day and night to stay on top of the technology and respond, via chat rooms, virtual office hours, and e-mail, to both students and administrators to whom they have now become instantly and continuously accessible. The technology also allows for much more careful administrative monitoring of faculty availability, activities, and responsiveness.”

This isn’t to say that all forms of “collusion with hierarchical thinking” should be conflated. But as I think you are saying, we better check carefully to see whether our own houses aren’t made of glass before shaming other people too stridently.

I wonder too, whether that process of shaming will lead to positive social change or something else besides. Sometimes the shaming of egregious repression of social protest has resulted in positive social change ( for example, Bull Connor’s actions in Birmingham were ultimately a P.R. victory for the civil rights movement). But the irony of the UC Davis protests is that the students were there because they were objecting to a tuition hike. Those hikes, while due to many things, have at least a tenuous connection to the Berkeley protests of the late 60’s. Those earlier protests were stirring but they also alienated some Californians who weren’t interested in romanticizing the academy as a virtuous fifth estate. That alienation played a role in the election of Reagan and the defunding of California higher education. So yeah, we need to take inspiration from the Mario Savios of the world, and all those who are bold enough to choose the risks of civil disobedience over the cowardice of little-Eichmanns. But we need to do this in a way that keeps the university in the good graces of the taxpayer and the constituencies who are a little less strident in their condemnation of people whose jobs require the strict following of orders. What then is the best way forward?

Monday, November 21, 2011

Digital Humanities in the University

I've been regretting that my blog has such a pedestrian title, especially when I compare it to some of the other blogs I've been browsing like CogDogBlog or BavaTuesdays.  Unlike those mysterious titles, mine has little irony.  It doesn't prompt the reader to keep asking what it means.  And the phrase "I.T." can sound uninteresting.  The first vision that may come to mind is a bunch of mainframes and Cobol programmers wasting away in non-descript tan cubicles.  That stereotype, as it's witheringly pictured in the movie Office Space, or as I lived it while doing Y2K patching in the late 90s at Ashland Oil Company, is certainly a part of what I.T. is.  And I suspect those faculty I'm friends with who don't quite know what I do at work, think these images sum it up.

Fortunately, the culture of IT, in the university at least, isn't usually as corporate as that vision.  We have our share of practitioners who wear suits, and who wax excitedly about books like Who Moved My Cheese, or Seven Habits of Highly Successful People.  But the reality is that IT in the University is a lot more than all of that.

On this blog, for example, I've been trying to highlight the digital humanities which are very much a part of I.T. in the university.  A nice synopsis of what this IT initiative is can be found in a recent Chronicle article by Kathleen Fitzpatrick.  But the fast and short story is that the digital humanities are two things.  First, humanities scholars are increasingly using digital tools in their teaching and research.  Second, the frameworks and approaches that humanities scholars use offer incredibly insightful perspectives for making sense of what I.T. is, where it should go, and it's role in forwarding the missions of the university.

To forward those activities some universities have established digital humanities centers (a flagship one for example is George Mason's Center for History and New Media).  But even on campuses which don't have formal centers, it's easy to uncover how much they can serve (and be served) by university I.T.  I'll leave a comprehensive survey of these service roles for a later blog post.  But for now I want to list three digital humanities concerns that I came across last week while on my own campus.  They aren't necessarily the most powerful examples or most salient digital humanities initiatives on campus (I'm leaving out for example the whole range of activities that our media scholars do in English and Communications -- including but not limited to Michael Wutz's research on emerging 19th century media and Sheree Josephson's research on computer-human interaction).  But I draw attention to them simply to illustrate that digital humanities concerns are a pervasive and topical presence on campus even outside of the areas where one would ordinarily expect to find them.  (If you don't care about what's happening on my local campus you might skip the italicized stuff below):

1) On Tuesday I was working with some students who were about to read Henkin's fine history of the postal service in 19th century America.  To spark their curiosity I mentioned that many of the concerns that we have about emerging media now are echoed in 19th century Americans' reactions to changes in postal services.  For example, when the postcard first came out in the middle of the 19th century, Americans expressed worries not unlike those worries we now have about the abbreviated messaging that happens in texting and twittering.   We then dwelt on challenges of salutation (which were as much an issue in the postcard as they are in email), which in turn morphed into a discussion of the manner in which proliferating media are eroding traditional institutions of authority (the recent audience disturbance during Weber State's performance of Beethoven's 9th was mentioned as an example).  After class, a couple of students noted that it wouldn't be a bad idea to have some classes on netiquette.  A digital humanities center could do this and more, Rather than merely teach polite practices for the online world, it could lead us to examine how issues of authority, familiarity, cordiality, and social relations more generally take on new forms in the digital age.

2) On Thursday I met with two Weber State professors who recently published an anthology titled Science Fiction and Computing.  (I hope to post a transcription of that conversation here in a few weeks).  Like many anthologies, it covers a lot of ground.  But one thread that was particularly noteworthy was the insight that science fiction plays an important role in helping readers to sort through the moral challenges that past and present technologies have (and are) presenting us with.  While science fiction is sometimes seen as a form of techno-porn or technophilia, it actually also plays an important role in developing and evolving our understanding of IT.  It goes without saying that this too is a topical example of the digital humanities at work within our university.

3)  My spouse, who recently published Homesickness: An American History,  spent five years doing archival research to determine that the once popular sentiment of homesickness has given way to nostalgia.  Instead of indulging homesickness, the modern American economy celebrates nostalgia.  While the book is painstakingly researched, she was surprised when a reader used modern data analytics to corroborate her empirical research.  Using Google's Ngram viewer of the American library, the reader determined that indeed the use of homesickness has declined while the use of nostalgia has increased:

Of course there's a lot more to my wife's argument than is conveyed by a simple graph.  Analytics in and of itself isn't going to generate (or displace) the meaning and significance that is uncovered through archival work.  But as a complement to traditional humanities scholarship, these digital techniques certainly have a lot to offer.

These three anecdotes are not necessarily the most obvious examples of the way I.T. and the humanities intersect in our university life.  But their topicality suggests how omnipresent the digital humanities are in university affairs.  We need digital humanities more now than ever to make humanities teaching and research stronger.  But in turn we also need the digital humanities to make sense of I.T. and it's growing presence in university life.  We may not all have the resources to found digital humanities centers.  But there is certainly an argument to be made for creating umbrella organizations  to host conversations that address the ongoing concerns that the humanities, I.T., and the larger university share.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

The Progress Paradox: Students Now and Students Then

Weber State University hosts a number of book groups that I’ve been attending and/or leading this semester.  For example this fall we’re reading everything from Science Fiction and Computing to The Fall of the Faculty, to Hamlet's Blackberry.  This past week some students and I discussed Gregg Easterbrook’s The Progress Paradox which grapples with the predicament illustrated in the following Andy Singer cartoon:

Easterbrook argues that evidence of progress is fairly incontrovertible. Americans may sometimes feel nostalgic but few of us would be willing to jump into a time machine and live permanently in a world without modern health care, transportation, plumbing, heating, cooling, and the bounty made possible by the green revolution in farming.    Yet, in spite of the fact that we are favored compared to our ancestors, we “do not feel favored.”  Easterbrook then asks “what does this tell us about ourselves?”

Easterbrook seems to be writing a Whiggish history that legitimates complacency and a blindness toward existing injustices. But he’s really not.  He acknowledges that there is still too much inequality, and that the developing world still has yet to reap the full boons of progress.  But because he sees the glass as half full and is grateful for what he has, he argues that we should use and share those resources to help others.  That doesn’t mean that we’ll be able to escape the tragedy of the human condition or the fact that we’re hedonically adaptive: we can make a better future for our descendents, but those descendents will continue to complain.

The Progress Paradox isn’t without its weaknesses especially in light of the current crises we’re facing in education, potential climate collapse, a growing disparity in wealth between rich and poor, and continued resource scarcity.  Easterbrook may be right that history is progressive over the long term.  But the direction of history seems less clear when we look at the recent past.  To paraphrase Thomas Friedman, the world isn’t really quite as flat as we sometimes present it.  In spite of all this, I think the students still thought that it was a good inquiry into the nature of technological change, the tragedy of the human condition, and the  possibility that an optimistic demeanor can give foundation to an enlightened and progressive politics.

Given Easterbrook's optimistic disposition, I asked the students whether they shared it in light of the Occupy Wallstreet Movement and the financial pressures they are facing as college fees increase and jobs become scarcer.  To my surprise, the six students in my discussion group did not want to dwell on that critique.  Our current crisis did not on the surface seem to dampen their sanguine outlook.  I expected them to be more like me.  As an undergrad I spent many semesters reading and writing about the politics of nihilism and existentialism.  I don't know, maybe it was more in vogue in the 80's.  Or maybe students now just don't have the leisure to go down such paths.  Either way Easterbrook provides an important reminder for at least one generation in the academy: constructive change may come as easily from people who feel optimistic about the course of history as from people who take a darker view.