Links for UM Talk

This post is a grab bag of links and thoughts related to my short talk at a “Humanities PhD Careers” panel at the University of Michigan.


Perspectives on non-Academic jobs:

Develop and Implement a Course Blog

At THATCamp CHNM this year, Mark Sample proposed a session on “Building a Better Blogging Assignment”. Those present shared their experiences from assigning blogs in past courses and also exchanged models and ideas for assignments that best fit their course objectives. Some use blogs in seven week online courses, while others have incorporated blogs into the semester-long physical classroom or hybrid courses. While you can draw your own conclusions by examining the collaborative notes started by Trevor Owens, the guide below presents my own summary on how to design and implement a blog assignment for your own course.

First, realize that the blog is not a genre but a platform. While students certainly bring a set of perceptions to a WordPress dashboard or how a blog post should read, the blog is simply a platform for text and media. Students can post long-form essays, poetry, or any other form you want, you just have to guide them. It is always a good idea to assess your students’ expectations of blogs and to discuss opportunities like developing an online persona, engaging with a public audience, or experimenting with something like a “Blessay“.

Let your course goals determine the blog assignment. You wouldn’t assign a paper without aligning it with your course goals, so think carefully of how a blog assignment will fit with the class objectives. A potential strength of a blog is to increase the visibility and readership of your students’ work, even if it is just within the confines of the course. This might be beneficial in a course on public history, for example. If you don’t want your students reading each others’ entries, you might just consider using something like dropbox to accept their documents online.

Experiment with roles. At the THATCamp session, someone brought up Randy Bass’s technique of having students rotate between three roles: first readers, respondents, and synthesizers. This gives students the chance to generate the main content, have their peers comment on their ideas, and to see how a third group synthesizes the discussion. Others roles came up in the session including ‘seekers’ who post related content and supplemental material, ‘in-class hosts’ to lead the discussion if you meet physically or over Skype/G+ Hangout, and even rotating a role where students take that week off and simply observe.

Find a model to guide your development. This will be highly dependent on your discipline and course objectives, but doing some research to locate similar courses can pay dividends. I have been looking at the student posts at Jeff McClurken’s Adventures in Digital History course at UMW not only to get a sense of how their content looks, but also to see how they assess their posts and projects in light of the course goals. Digital Storytelling 106 strikes me as an excellent model for developing goals and methods to help students build a digital identity and create media.

Provide students with models of what you want. One of the most challenging aspects in using a course blog is to have students meaningfully engage with their peers’ posts. Grammar girl has an excellent guide that you can give your students on “How to Write a Great Blog Comment”. The guide contains nine easy rules and your students can listen instead of reading if they prefer (there is also a cover of Sir Mix-a-Lot’s ‘Baby got Back’ called ‘Yo Comments Are Wack!‘ at the end of the post). Think about the elements you want students to produce in their blog posts and provide solid models for each.

Finally, peruse Mark Sample’s post on “Making Student Blogs Pay Off With Blog Audits“. This not only allows you to assess the blog’s place in your course, but also encourages your students to reflect on how the platform affected their ideas and learning.

Do you use a blog in your course? Do you have any resources for helping others evaluate or incorporate the use of a course blog?

Don’t Keep Your Head Down: Digital Dissertations and Graduate Training

I recently received an email from the AHA forwarded by my department chair. In it, the AHA asked for feedback from departments regarding their institutions’ policies on the online publication of dissertations. This request from the AHA’s Professional Division was prompted by an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education from April that “raised alarms about the growing number of universities that require digital publication of theses and dissertations despite evidence that some publishers will not accept such works as manuscripts” (AHA Email). A recent graduate responded to the email, sharing their reasons for restricting access to their dissertation. This student was more concerned about the theft of their research than publisher’s attitudes towards online dissertations. We were presented with two troubling scenarios: your dissertation may lose its appeal to publishers by being online and your work might be stolen. In the email exchange, it was suggested that graduate students think about opting for restricted access to their dissertation.

These concerns are valid, but their framing is at best incomplete and at worst detrimental to the scholarly training of graduate students. This is also an opportunity to address a more pressing concern in our profession: the current system of publishing and promotion. As many graduate students envision a tenured position at a research institution as a top goal, this end often governs their relationship to their research. While we should certainly guard our intellectual property and aim for promotion in the field, I argue that restricting access to our scholarship contradicts core values in the historical profession. Furthermore, encouraging graduate students to hoard their research until they can holdout for the traditional monograph at a prestigious press denies them the opportunity to build authorship – a vital tool in safeguarding their research and building an academic identity.  The decision to restrict access to a dissertation should ultimately lie with its author, yet this decision should not be based on fear. Instead, graduate students should be encouraged to build authorship around their scholarship so that their dissertation’s impact will not depend solely on the publication of a monograph in an academic press.

Security does not lie in anonymity. The theft of ideas, data, and sources does occur in academia. The contours of these risks are highly dependent on the field and institutions; graduate students should familiarize themselves with these dangers. However, a dissertation is a published document that carries the full weight of copyright protection. A scenario in which an online dissertation was pilfered for its ideas and sources would not differ drastically from one with a printed monograph. Intellectual property disputes can be difficult and involved affairs, but my point is that scholars are not left naked by making their dissertation available online. A more sensible source of safety lies in authorship, or having people associate your ideas with, well… you. Taking ownership of your ideas means developing an academic identity, a scholarly persona that students often mistakenly believe is reserved for the most senior of faculty. Besides the growing examples many academics are providing in building an online presence, developing an academic identity can also be accomplished by being present and active within your field’s conferences, journals, and networks of communication. Most importantly, this means sharing your ideas and research early in your career so that you control their entry into the academic community.

Restricting access to your dissertation has real costs. Keeping the thieves out means keeping everyone else out too. An open access dissertation can represent your largest contribution to the body of scholarship at the end of a long journey to the PhD, but people must read it for it to be a contribution. Ah, but what of the monograph and publishers’ unease? The AHA framed the article as being primarily about publishers’ misgivings, yet the subtitle reads: “Libraries’ digital open-access rules make some editors wary of buying graduate students’ work, although others see a marketing boost.” Others see a marketing boost. In fact, the article cites two presses with concerns and three that see great opportunity in digital dissertations. Penn State, Iowa, and West Virgina’s presses all support open access dissertations, reminding readers that “books and dissertations are two distinct species” (Chronicle 2011). Obviously not all publishers agree, but the framing of the Chronicle article as simply negative is disingenuous and obscures a complex issue for graduate students. A digital dissertation aids scholarly communication, makes our research available to a public audience, and promotes collegiality between disciplines.

This message inhibits the very sort of scholarship we call for. The AHA’s professional standards read: “Historians favor free, open, equal, and nondiscriminatory access… As much as possible [historians] should also strive to serve the historical profession’s preference for open access to, and public discussion of, the historical record.” The standards also note that restricting access is appropriate when protecting the confidentiality of sources like oral histories. A dissertation with restricted access contradicts this ‘preference for open access’ and privileges a system of publication and promotion at the cost of the profession’s core values. Furthermore, at many conferences I have heard calls for scholarship that is transnational, collaborative, interdisciplinary, and comparative, yet we are being sent a message to keep our heads down until (someday) we can publish at the right opportunity. This type of work can only be done by sharing our research, not placing it in a silo. Are these lofty research aims to be reserved for senior faculty?

Many of my views are informed by the vigorous calls for open-access scholarship emerging from the field of Digital Humanities. Many of these debates are still fresh in my own mind, and I would reiterate my point that authors should be free to opt-out. However, I am troubled by how the AHA framed this article and strongly believe that open-access dissertations represent the opportunity to transform graduate training and scholarly communication in service of the core values we hold.

I plan on writing a more detailed response directly to the AHA, your feedback in improving the above article and expanding its scope would be much appreciated.

Graduate Training and the Digital Humanities

On Sunday, Kathleen Fitzpatrick wrote an article for The Chronicle, titled “Do ‘the Risky Thing’ in the Digital Humanities”, that got some significant play in the Twittersphere. Fitzpatrick argues: “As mentors to younger scholars, it is our responsibility to ensure that they can do the risky thing, knowing that someone’s got their back.” So what is the ‘Risky Thing’ exactly? Fitzpatrick points to dissertations that are presenting their arguments in an innovative form, such as incorporating video and maps built with GIS tools. This is somewhat vague, but that’s O.K. – The innovations occurring in the ‘big tent’ of the Digital Humanities are diverse because of the wide range of disciplines and experiences that DH practitioners hail from. Fitzpatrick urges grads to find support for their ideas in order to improve their marketability while simultaneously urging faculty to support digital projects and hire DH practitioners.

Natalia Cecire’s thoughtful response, “It’s not “the job market”; it’s the profession (and it’s your problem too)”, concludes with a hard-hitting and excellent point: “Digital humanities has become important to “the job market” exactly insofar as it is causing major shifts in the institutions of the profession. These shifts are political. And if you are in my profession, then they are your concern.” These political shifts have everything to do with the increasing number of jobs that include a digital humanities component and the disciplinary practices these hires bring to their work. Cecire connects the dots between the budget crisis in humanities departments, the shattered myth of an academic meritocracy, and the perils of having DHers forget about the ‘H’.

Yesterday, Karen Kelsky wrote about how the dearth of good PhD advising has allowed her to make a living selling it. Grads might not need another reminder that poor advising exists, but if we combine the insights of these three articles an increasingly grim picture emerges. We need good ideas, support, and professional awareness, but these things are in short supply.

Yet, we can also take some hope and wisdom from these pieces. If we are honest with ourselves, we are already doing ‘the Risky Thing’ by attempting to find gainful employment in academia. In this light, Fitzpatrick’s advice isn’t so much about a gamble, but developing meaningful contributions in your field. Abstract this from any digital context (and it is often healthy to do so), and we are really talking about finding our place in the humanities. The Cultural Heritage Informatics Fellowship at Michigan State is designed to provide grads with practical and analytical skills in computing technologies. Fellows are urged not to ask ‘how can I incorporate GIS into my project?’, but instead ‘what do I want to explain and what digital tool can help?’. This allows grads to develop their DH interests by finding a worthwhile message and medium rather than adding glitter to a resume for the job market.

These sorts of fellowships are not widespread, and herein lies the political. Grads must be proactive and practical about incorporating digital training into their studies and digital tools into their research. We have to push for what we want, and we have to have good reasons or wanting it. This means getting support for ideas from senior faculty and administrators who may need to be ‘sold’ on it. It also means thinking very hard about how digital approaches affect our relationship with sources, data, people, and the politics inherent to all academic research.

[Image by Flickr user MDMA and used with Creative Commons License]

Zotero in the Archives

What is this… Zotero? “Zotero [zoh-TAIR-oh] is a free, easy-to-use tool to help you collect, organize, cite, and share your research sources. It lives right where you do your work—in the web browser itself.” Download it and give it a try, the program sells itself. In this post, I would like to give you a concrete example of Zotero’s power in the field and some tips for using it in your own research.

First, take a tour of my own Zotero library:


How can you create your own while in the field?

Develop a system for collecting the sources efficiently. Consider how you are collecting your sources, the ease of adding and annotating them on-site, and developing a workflow for post-collection processing. If you are taking pictures of sources, consider processing them into PDFs immediately and saving them into your library. Be sure to create a citation in your library for a source as you find it, that way you have the important citation information (page, publication, etc…) in case it is missed in a photo.

Remember, how you organize your data will have a profound effect on your thinking. Make sure that any digital archive mirrors the best practices of any physical archive. Use the tag system to connect ideas rather than to separate sources into folders you will only look at occasionally. For example, a colleague had a “somewhat ridiculous system” of binders, but it forced him to look back through all of his sources when working on his manuscript. Make sure that digital convenience does not come at the cost of scholarly rigor.

Storage space is limited. Zotero gives you 100MB of free storage on its servers, but more space can be purchased for reasonable rates. You can also cut some fat off of your images by optimizing them. Try and make sure you are taking good pictures with plenty of light so that you can be flexible with editing your photos to be lighter while remaining readable.

Annotate! The purpose of having a digital collection of your archival sources it to work with said sources. This means being diligent about your annotation and tagging. You might not have time to read a source in its entirety as you collect it, but make life easier by always leaving a brief child note explaining what is contained in the source and why it is relevant. Use your time in the field wisely by tagging your sources as you move forward. The tags are easy to edit, rename, and sort which means they can keep pace with your thoughts as you swap themes and perspectives in your work.

Do you use different software for your bibliographic data? How would you use Zotero in the field in a different discipline? Do you have a suggestion for how to organize archival sources digitally or analog? Leave a comment!