Some Thoughts on Digital Dissertations

Recently, there has been a good bit of talk about policies governing the digital publication of dissertation. I blogged about it a couple of weeks ago, but most of this came from American Historical Association’s well-meaning efforts to urge us to adopt flexible policies toward the digital publication of dissertations immediate after their completion. Instead, they recommend allowing scholars to embargo their dissertations for up to six years after they have been completed. They did not necessarily recommend that every scholar do this, but they recommended that a 6 year embargo be an option.


The fuss was sufficient that the AHA made real efforts to clarify their position and then the president of the AHA, William Cronon, responded directly to criticism of the Association’s position. His response was measured. He argued, in a nutshell, that recent Ph.D.s are particularly vulnerable because their dissertation is their most significant scholarly achievement to that point. Allowing recent Ph.D.s to embargo their work is a policy that protects that work and ensures that these vulnerable scholars can deploy their dissertation for greatest professional benefit. He is particularly concerned that academic publishers might look askance at publishing dissertations that are available for free digital download. This would make it more difficult for scholars at the start of their career to publish books heavily based on their dissertations. Since books remain the gold standard for tenure, any reluctance by publishers will perhaps make it more difficult for scholars to earn tenure.

It is interesting to consider whether this policy is closing the barn door after the horse has bolted. Smaller numbers of historians are hired to tenure track positions and a smallest percentage of Ph.D.s over the past 40 years earn employment at all. As a result, the pages of the Chronicle of Higher Education, Inside Higher Ed, and even the AHA have called for academically trained Ph.D.s to embrace the possibility of non-academic careers. The culture of academia is changing.

Moreover, state universities are under increased pressure to justify their expenditures on the humanities. Making dissertations available to the public (who often understand their tax dollars as directly funding graduate research) is a key way to assuage public concerns that money invested in higher education funds exclusively boutique projects that the average citizen could never access, much less appreciate. One response to these concerns has been to encourage more open access research. Moreover, this practice follows national programs like the NSF and NIH which are requiring scholars to make available their research. Dissertations, especially those receiving “public funds” at state universities (putting aside the vagaries of state university budgets), would appear to many people as the products of their tax dollars. In the UK, this concern has fueled a recent spate of graduate student blogs where students advocate for themselves by making more of their research transparent. Other fields in the U.S. are making the same argument for different, but related reasons.

Most historians have come to accept that our field is undergoing tremendous change, and Cronon admitted that the status of tenure remains uncertain in our changing academic landscape. More than that, we all know that the character of academic publishing is in transition. Even the idea that an academic publisher would shy away from a dissertation that was freely available as a download is hardly a clear situation, as Cronon points out. Our world is changing and the AHA has the opportunity to promote policies that shape future expectations in the discipline.

I respect Cronon tremendously; he’s smart and the AHA’s heart is in the right place. It appears, however, that the AHA has  adopted a policy the limits the circulation of academic research to protect a career path that follows an increasingly obsolete trajectory. (I really want to make the problematic analogy that this is like a well-meaning administrator advocating for lower standardized-test scores to keep under performing schools from being stigmatized.) If dissertations become immediately available for free download, it will accelerate the process of changing the expectations in both academic publishing and on the academic career path.

For publishing, the re-publication of embargoed dissertations as books is not the best use of increasingly straightened publisher or – more importantly – library resources. This policy will make libraries more likely to expend resources on research that will eventually become available for free. It’s hard to see this as a way forward.

More than that, the embargo would tend to protect dissertations that do not undergo substantial revisions. Substantially revised dissertations will retain value to a publisher as an original book. Cronon admits as much:

“I’ve had several editors from distinguished presses tell me (off the record, unsurprisingly) that although they would certainly consider publishing a revised version of a dissertation that had been posted online, the general effect of online posting would be to raise the bar for whether they would look at such a dissertation in the first place or eventually offer it a contract. And I’ve heard of university libraries that now save money by choosing systematically not to purchase university press books based on dissertations that are available online.”

In other words, this policy advocated by the AHA protects the lowest value books – ones that are not substantial revisions of dissertations – and creates a scenario where university libraries spend money to purchase lightly revised dissertations as book! Considering how academic publishing works, they might end up purchasing these lightly revised dissertations a year or two before dissertation embargoes would expire.  

More importantly, the push to make dissertation research available quickly after its completion fits the changing character of American graduate education with fewer candidates entering academic jobs or joining the tenure track. In effect, we’re not only protecting the weakest dissertations, but we’re protecting the research of an increasingly small number of scholars who pursue traditional academic careers. I wonder if this calculus is short-sighted and creates a system that privileges an elite career path over the massive quantity of valuable research. 

Some scholars have argued that dissertations are labor and apply a traditional reading of capitalism, unfortunately I am not convinced that graduate research fits the capitalist model perfectly. In fact, I have argued elsewhere that history remains a craft and graduate students have an apprentice relationship with their advisors making the ownership metaphor of graduate research problematic. After all, most of us relied heavily on graduate advisement to produce the dissertation and as a result, it is as much a product of a system in which advisors and students are both deeply embedded. This isn’t to suggest that graduate students aren’t entitled to the fruits of their own research, but to suggest that it is more complex equation than simple labor costs might suggest.

There are always forces that resist change in academia. In many ways, academic culture is deeply conservative. So I understand – and begrudgingly respect – Cronon’s arguments. The AHA has to represent the interests of all historians as well as protect the intellectual product of these scholars. In this case, I feel like they’re doing more to protect the scholar than the discipline. I suppose, if an organization has to pick one or the other, they’ve made the right choice, but I’m still not entirely satisfied. 

More on Rhythm Planet: A Crowd-Funded, Student-Developed Video Game

As I noted yesterday, my talented colleague Joel Jonientz, from the University of North Dakota’s Department of Art and Design, is crowd-funding his student-developed video game on Kickstarter. Before you read any further, go check it out here (and that means clicking on the link)


Yesterday, I mused how using Kickstarter to fund a student project brings a new dimension to how technologies like crowd-funding is expanding how we might understand student engagement in their academic programs. Seeking crowd-funding for a project breaks down the barriers between what happens in the classroom and the larger community of interested onlookers in a way similar to how MOOCs (Massive Online Open Courses) have expanded the audience for parts of the academic curriculum. 

Today, in the second part of my interview with Joel, we talk more about the potential overlap between Kickstarters and MOOCs, discuss video games as art, and reflect on how a video game about mining might be particularly relevant on a state enjoying an oil boom.


Karlatron walk  colored

Bill Caraher: I’m interested in process and some of the most exciting Kickstarters invite their investors to be part of the process even to the extent of influencing the final product. Will investors get to see how this project takes place?

Joel Jonientz: We have created several reward levels that would allow supporters to influence the game. We have a level that allows for designing characters and one that asks investors to envision their own level design. If the project is successfully funded we plan to create a web space where our backers can view the project’s process and help with the beta testing prior to release.


BC: Why is a professor of Art and Design the lead on this project? Is this a typical situation?

JJ: Many of the students involved had been interested in gaming, but had not wanted a computer science degree so had begun taking animation classes. UND does not have a formal game design program. There are a large number of students who are interested in gaming as a career path and at the time I suppose I looked like the most willing candidate to teach the class. I am not sure if this is a typical situation. I was asked by a group of students if I would help them make a game and I said yes. There have been days when I have regretted that answer, but not many.

Karl and Karl Jr

BC: Has your position as a professor of art and design brought particular artistic influences to the game? What are they?

JJ: I would say that film, has probably had more of an influence than art on the gaming world. Many of the gaming titles being produced today are beautiful, absorbing near cinematic experiences. Artists have begun to play with elements of the gaming world, and commercial animation has certainly influenced the look of games, but the fine arts have not yet begun to influence gaming in my opinion.


BC: To my mind, the game has a cool vintage video game feel to it. Can you talk about how the aesthetic, music, and game play came together? You mention in the Kickstarter page Looney Toons of the 1950s, but are there other influences? The entire game seems nostalgic for what we experienced in our youth in the 1970s and 1980s, but this is a good bit before most of ours students were born. How can we understand this nostalgic aesthetic?

JJ: Early on in the game’s development, I realized that the students in the art group were not really ready to lead the process. This was a painful realization for me because up until that point I had envisioned my role in the project as mostly one of coordination. After we were forced abandoned several visual concepts the art students had developed (I believe the phrase “this art sucks” was used during one team meeting). I stepped in and acted as visual lead. All of the visual style seems nostalgic and of “our youth in the 1970s and 1980s,” primarily because I drove visual aesthetic in that direction. This is not to say that the students were not capable of creating the assets. They just needed to learn how to direct their skills. So the process became that I would design and create a key level for each zone that they would then dissect and use to inform the creation of the levels they were assigned. Once the visuals had been established, I believe the other groups were influenced by the retro look until it had overwhelmed the game design process.

Karljumpingovermountain color

BC: I’m a bit obsessed (like many here in North Dakota) with the Bakken Oil Boom. I kept imagining that the theme of mining would resonate with recent activities in North Dakota?

JJ: The majority of the students who have worked on the game are native to North Dakota and the recent oil boom may well have influenced them. In the early days of game development, I put a sole constraint on the game’s theme and that was that the finished project needed to playable in front of my Grandmother at Thanksgiving Dinner. So, there was to be no theft or murder and no gunplay of any kind. This meant that the game had to be rated G. This as much as anything pushed the game towards mining and beat the clock type puzzles. Of course my Grandma is dead, but they didn’t know that at the time.

BC: Ok, one more question. I can’t help feeling like this Kickstarter project has the potential to intersect with recent interest in MOOCs (Massive Open Online Classes). While only a small group of students will be working on this project, a larger team of investors will be behind it and in their own way participating in the team’s success. Does doing this project give you any ideas about how you might organize classes in the future?

JJ: There have been several projects in the animation community that utilize a large collective of artists to create a film or television segments. Bill Plympton’s “Guard Dog Global Jam,” comes to mind, but none that have tapped into the MOOC movement. Crowd funding as a model for creative development is in itself a fascinating phenomenon. One of the outcomes of the project for me personally is that I am trying to write about the experience as it is happening in posts on my website. The whole Kickstarter movement is so new that it is hard to find much that has been written about it beyond what the site itself has put out. So I am pursuing that in the process.

I have now organized and taught three separate gaming courses each more focused than the one that came before it, but I think that if I ever endeavor to do this again I would throw out everything I know about how I think a game should be created and let the students drive the engine until they need guidance. That was my first experience in game creation and to this point it still continues to be the best.

Now, go and give a $20 to Joel’s sweet, sweet video game and get stickers. 


Rhythm Planet: A crowd-funded, student-developed video game at the University of North Dakota

This week Joel Jonientz, a colleague of mine from the Department of Art and Design, rolled out one of the coolest projects that I’ve seen from our humble little campus here in The Grand Forks. He has launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund the completion of Rhythm Planet, his student-developed video game. He is looking for $31,700 to complete the game and all of this money (minus Kickstarter’s fees) will go to paying students to produce the game and contributor rewards. Joel is blogging about the Kickstarter process at his blog. In short, the way it works is that Joel and his students get nothing unless the project meets its goal. That means, you will not get charged unless the project raises $31,700.

Before you read any more of this post, go and support this project on Kickstarter


Now that you’ve supported the project, keep reading.

The project is cool for many reasons. First, Joel has been a staunch supporter of my little adventures, so there is a kind of reciprocity here. He designed the amazing Punk Archaeology poster and will hopefully accompany my team West to Williston this August as part of the North Dakota Man Camp Project.

That’s the not the main reason the project is cool, though. I am fascinated with what I call (to myself) “the project-focused classroom” and Joel created a class that developed the first draft of a video game. I am equally fascinated with the idea that a class can begin something that then gets crowd-funded. The comforting classroom environment moves seamlessly into the world of entrepreneurship, marketing, and real deadlines.

We have entered the age of crowd-funded higher education. I keep envisioning a MOOC (Massive, Open, Online Class) that is made up of interested students who are also the investors in a project. The scale of some recent MOOCs, which can run to the tens of thousands of participants, would mean that individual investments could be tiny (<$5) for the project director (previously known as the instructor) to raise a significant amount of capital. When the project is complete, participants would become either shareholders or simply receive a copy of the final product. The curriculum of the course would lead the group from conceptualization to completion over a course of 3 months. Imagine a magazine crowdsourced, crowd-funded, and published in this way?    


Enough of my indulgent fantasies of egalitarian, crowd-sourced utopias. To support his amazing Kickstarter project, I sat down with Joel (over email, of course) and discussed his Rhythm Planet. This is part one of the interview:

WAIT. Before reading any further, please support this project on Kickstarter. Then proceed to the interview.

Bill Caraher: Can you explain the origins of this project?

Joel Jonientz: When I first arrived at the University of North Dakota, I was encouraged to remake the Time-Based Media program to better reflect student interests and bring the curriculum forward into the 21st century. Part of that process involved listening and responding to student needs, and one of the things students asked for again and again was a class in game design. This was right around the time I became involved with the Working Group in Digital and New Media. The group had acquired a space on campus and some very specialized equipment that would allow for a diverse group of students and faculty to collaborate on multimodal projects such as a video game.

I approached the students who had shown interest game development and with them began to recruit other students to the project that would become Rhythm Planet. Once we had about a dozen students with the skill sets we were looking for, it was simply a matter of fitting the project into my teaching load by creating a special topics course so that they could earn credits for what would be a semester of experiential learning. At the time we began, I had no idea what we could accomplish, and I did not envision that we would create a game that would still be in development three years later.

Zone2 1

BC: How did the Working Group in Digital and New Media serve as a catalyst for this project?

JJ: When we first envisioned the Working Group, it was as a space in which faculty and students could collaborate on research projects that pushed the boundaries of traditional classroom instruction. Because of the interdisciplinary makeup of the Working Group, I was able to reach out to students who I otherwise would not have known and involve them in the development of Rhythm Planet. The Working Group’s Laboratory Space was instrumental in game’s development in the way the team was able to work together. All of the sound and visual assets in the game were created in the lab and the space made it possible for the students to meet, test, and make changes to the game in real time.

BC: So did the physical space of the Working Group lab help the team collaborate to create the first iteration of this game?

JJ: Working collaboratively is always challenging. The key to developing Rhythm Planet was enabling honest dialogue between groups and avoiding distraction. Each week, we would meet as a large group discuss timelines and then split into three separate teams. One group worked on the gaming engine and programming. The second group created visual assets and character animations. The final group created the soundtrack. For the most part, the students in the first cohort were self-starters. There were multiple points in the process where one team’s mission became subservient to another. The programmers could not begin working out the game engine without assets from the artists, who in turn could not build out the zones without the puzzles from the level designers etc. The worst thing that could have happened during the process would have been one group sitting around waiting on another. Down time is the enemy of a good working environment.

BC: It seems like you had a pretty impressive workflow at play from the start. Are there any lessons we can all learn about teaching from the game design process? It seems like this game project illustrates some of the limits of the single class or even course based design model. You needed more time.

JJ: Because I had never created a game before, I was often forced into a position where I had to answer a question with “I don’t know.” As a young professor this sentence had not previously been one I was used to uttering. I am in many ways being paid for my expertise and not knowing was an aspect of teaching I was uncomfortable with. In this particular case, I was wholly unprepared for most of the questions being asked of me and so I was forced to admit my ignorance on the subject. What developed out of this was a transparency in the learning process that I had not encountered before in my own teaching. When confronted with a question I made not knowing a teachable experience. “Let’s learn this together,” and “Here is how I would go about finding the answer,” became phrases I uttered daily and continue to use in my teaching today. There is no shame in not knowing a thing and virtue in making your research process transparent.  This is the lesson I took from the process. 

BC: What will the Kickstarter fund? How will the final product be better than the existing game? What can players expect in the later levels?

JJ: The Kickstarter campaign will fund the completion of the game. Rhythm Planet as it exists today is a collection assets waiting to be made whole. Throughout its development, we have been able to put enough pieces together to test the concept and play a level or two, but we want to get to the point in which we could send the entire game out for a beta test. This Kickstarter will allow us to put together the first three zones totaling fifteen levels. The number of assets we have created through the three iterations of the gaming class would allow us to double the games size over time, but for now we have set our sites on finishing the work of the original group.

Zone1 1 bkg 2

Have you supported this project on Kickstarter, yet? Have you decided to be part of the future?

Day of Digital Humanities 2013

I am participating in this year’s Day of Digital Humanities. So my posts today will be cross posted to a blog called “Bill’s Digital Intervention“. I urge you to dip into the wealth of digital knowledge and insight being produced over  at the Day of Digital Humanities headquarters or through the #DayofDH hashtag on Twitter.

When I signed up for the Day of Digital Humanities activities, they asked that I come up with a definition for the Digital Humanities.  This is what I said:

What is Digital Humanities?

The digital humanities are an intervention. The space of the humanities has entered a period of rapid technological change which has forced scholars to become aware of the tools that they use for understanding their texts. This situation has inspired a new, more robust discourse centered on both the tools that humanities use and the knowledge that humanists produce. The Digital Humanities (Digital History, Digital Archaeology, et c.) embrace *techne* as it informs their epistemology.


Post 1

I think the goal of the Day of Digital Humanities is for us to post how we work in this field throughout the day. So this is my first post:

If the broadest definition of digital humanities sees it as an approach to humanistic inquiry focused on a particular set of digital tools, then it is perhaps most fitting to start my “Day of Digital Humanities” with a discussion of the tools. This past week, I received an automated email from a good academic journal’s Editorial Manager software asking me to peer review an article. The software was very straight forward, efficient, and I am sure that the journal found it useful for managing submissions and reviews.

That being said, I still don’t like it.

This software intervenes into a particular delicate area of our academic mission. We as professional scholars are expected to provide peer reviews of our colleagues works. This ensures that the work in academic journals and in our field in general upholds academic standards and advances knowledge. In general, this work is uncompensated. At the same time, publishers profit from our collegial obligations while restricting access to the final product. I have peer reviewed for journals to which I do not have access because I cannot afford the final product of my review.

Requesting that a scholar peer review an article is a sacred act. It expects a scholar to sacrifice their time and professional energies for the greater good of the field and discipline. Even in our digital age an automated message hardly seems befitting one of the fundamental transactions of academic life. That this kind of treatment may come from a publication produced for a profit and that limits access to the knowledge that my labor produced is particularly disheartening.

The tools that we use shape the knowledge that we create.


Post 2

Paper and the Machine

If digital humanities increased the emphasis on the various technologies central to the production of humanistic knowledge, it also made clear that despite inroads of digital technologies across all areas of academic research, we still very much live in a hybrid world.

I spent the world conducting a peer review. I had dutifully printed out a paper copy of the manuscript and spent three hours this morning scrawling notes in generous margins provided translation of the text from its original A4 size to 8.5 x 11. I’ll then transcribe or summarize my notes from the paper margins to a Byword file on my MacBook Air and save it to the iCloud. Before I submit my review, I’ll cut it from the Byword file and dump it in a Microsoft Word file.

While I’m writing this I’m listening to music stored in digital files but played through analog headphones. We life in hybrid world articulated by the range of tools at our disposal. Digital humanities must be a hybrid endeavor, unstable, and subversive.


Post 3

Making Text

I spend most of my days writing and the more I write the more tools that I use. I know it’s almost a cliche among digital humanists to have a bewilderingly cluttered desktop stretched over multiple monitors, but I suspect this super specialized interest in tools, workflow, and technology is a product of our seeing “digital” as a key heuristic for producing knowledge. It also creates a peculiar awareness of the tools we use in our digital worlds.

For example, I argue with a graduate student in our program over the relationship between the Apple hardware and software interface and aesthetic and my own workflow. I am comfortable in an Apple environment and that helps me be more productive because I can “imagine away” the interface and focus on the task at hand. Making the tool “invisible”, however, poses a risk for the critical digital humanists. The moment that we forget our tools we run the risk of pretending our tools don’t matter.

When I write this blog in the lovely and simplistic interface of Byword and then move it to the WordPress blog interface (for my Day of Digital Humanities blog) or into Mars Edit to post on my Archaeology of the Mediterranean World, I make a series of little decisions that locate my text in little networks of human and non-human actors. These actors do more than shape the context for my text (as if any text could exist separate from a context) but actually make the text itself. The audience, display, pagination, style, and words themselves, mark the text as the product of particular networks. In the digital world, these networks include the physical, electronic, and mappable world of software and the internets. As a digital humanist, I have to remember to feel the digital world.


Post 4

Music, Mashups, and Multitasking

I spend most of day digital days listening to music. Some of it is streamed via Spotify, some of it is digital downloads, and some of it is ripped from CDs. As I continue to reflect a bit on my digital life, I was struck by how much more ubiquitous music has become for me. The portability and streamability of my music means that I can be as fickle as I like most days and interrupt albums and sometimes even songs. As I do this, I switch from one task to the next dancing across the open documents on my desktop with the attention span of a fly that’s got into some Red Bull.

Like my music I have the ability to move between various documents, texts, and media either by bringing them together in a single workspace like Scrivener or strewn across multiple applications and monitors. While we often hear that such workflows have eroded our students’ attentions spans and destroyed out ability to think deeply, it has also allowed us to operate in a comparative and transmedia framework that supports the growing convergence of communication tools.

Production of digital humanities, then, mimics our hope for the field. The fickle mind of the music obsessed scholar and compulsive multitasker produces and consumes technological mash-ups and demands that software and hardware support these work patterns. Everything must be happening all at once.

Social Media in the Oil Patch

I’ve been trying to interest some of my colleagues in the Communication program in a project that works to document the use of social media in the Bakken Oil Patch. So far, there have been no takers, so I thought I’d pitch the idea a bit more widely. 

Over the past 5 years, the use of fracking to extract oil from miles beneath the surface has transformed communities in the western part of North Dakota. For all the effects on the physical communities around Williston and Watford City, there has also been a parallel development in the region’s social media presence. From the rise of Greg the YouTube sensation (check out Kyle’s picture!) who describes on YouTube his struggles to make his way as a new arrival in Williston to the Real Oilfield Wives, a website and Facebook page, dedicated to the life of oil field wives. Facebook pages dedicated to Watford City Newcomers and My Life in Williston share space with pages dedicated to Watford City’s new Indoor RV Park and the tragedo-comic Bakken Oilfield Fail of the Day. The business oriented the Bakken Dispatches speaks in the same forum as the Facebook page, This is Mandaree, which documents the influence of drilling in the Ft. Berthold Indian Reservation. Amy Dalrymple’s Oil Patch Dispatch provides news from the patch in a blog type format. The North Dakota Petroleum Council maintains an active Twitter feed. A simple search for #Bakken on Twitter provides a significant insight into the range of activities present in social media outlets. Photographers and documentary makers share space with local businesses catering to the Bakken boom. While I am not trained in the study of social and new media, I have been pretty interested in how Facebook and Twitter collapse the distinction between various voices. Industry advocates (driven in part by marketing strategies) stand shoulder-to-shoulder with support groups and critics of activities in western North Dakota. The interaction between media outlines, critical voices, individuals, and communities provides a window both into the nature of these new media voices and the emerging communities of the patch. Some student, somewhere, needs to analyze this to understand how these virtual communities, marketing strategies, viral phenomena, and twitter strategists contribute to how we understand the Bakken and the North Dakota oil boom  at the intersection of community, individuals, and technology.

In other, somewhat related, news from the Bakken, we were a bit shocked to hear that there was a stabbing death at the Capital Lodge in Tioga. This is where we tend to stay when we’re out in the Bakken. Sort of a bummer.

Managing Archaeological Data in the Digital Age

This week I’ve begun work on a paper that I’ll give with my colleagues David Pettegrew, R. Scott Moore, and Sam Fee at the Archaeological Institute of America’s Annual Meeting in Seattle in January. The paper is titled “Archaeological Data and Small Projects: A Case Study from the Pyla-Koutsopetria Archaeological Project on Cyprus” and it will be for a panel called Managing Archaeological Data in the Digital Age: Best Practices and Realities.

There are three main themes to this paper: first, small projects tend to use more off the shelf software for data collection and distribution; second, small projects have limited resources for high-visibility, longterm archiving of data; and finally, small projects feel more acutely the tension between creating datasets that best fit small scale and sometimes idiosyncratic goals and adopting data standards established by larger projects which often have more substantial resources. In general, these three themes seek to explore how projects with limited resources engage the standards, agendas, and conversations about data management that often originate in larger, better funded, and more established projects.

The goal of this paper is not to complain about the “plight” of small projects in a big project world. What I hope to do, rather, is to show how certain technical limitations shape the way in which small project think in archaeological way and produce archaeological knowledge. This is in keeping with recent scholarship that has considered the organization of a project as a key element in understanding the production of archaeological knowledge. The social organization of archaeological practice both provides a context for and is influenced by the technology available for a project. In other words, the tools at an archaeologist’s disposal and the way in which these tools are used both inform practice.

As an example of this, small projects tend to rely more heavily on off-the-shelf data recording tools – like Microsoft Access for creating databases and ESRI’s ArcGIS for managing spatial data. While this software is easy enough to manipulate in simple ways, it is more difficult to design a data recording in ways that allow multiple users to enter data simultaneously. The Pyla-Koutsopetria Archaeological Project recorded data in the field on paper forms and individuals then entered this data into our databases either one-at-a-time during the season or after the season had concluded. As a result, data entry became a bottleneck as it conformed to the limitations of our project’s technical knowledge and the software at our disposal.

So data recording begins in the field where each member of the team is responsible for some part of data collection – whether it is collecting and counting sherds in field survey or participating at the “trowel’s edge” in excavation. The trench supervisor or team leader takes the data produced by the field teams and their input to create an authoritative (at least by institutional dictum) account. This account then is keyed into a database and documented spatially in GIS. This last step is done at a significant remove from the field. The collective and collaborative act of generating archaeological field data becomes a more solitary act of converting this data into a form usable by existing technology. The more technically demanding the interface and the analytical tools available, the more attenuated the link between the experience of archaeological work in the field and the data it generates becomes. 

Projects with more robust technological and intellectual infrastructures have begun to experiment with ways to allow for greater integration between fieldwork and computer work. Using iPads in the field – as our small project experimented with this summer – offered ways to streamline the relationship between data collection in the field and the production of digital data.  Closing the gap between fieldwork and data production has any number of benefits for the kinds of archaeological knowledge produced, the most obvious benefit is to problematize the tendency for digital technologies to smooth field experiences to fit within limited ontologies of most off-the-shelf digital applications. It becomes harder to accommodate a digital interface or data structure which fails to capture an immediate archaeological reality in the field when holding a trowel, artifact, or observing a stratigraphic relationship.

This kind of immediacy, however, comes at a cost of scarce resources at the disposal of most small projects.  The tools at our disposal, in this example at least, dictate to some extent the kind of data and the types of archaeological knowledge that our project can produce. My paper will examine a number of these small project examples to problematize the relationship between archaeological tools, social organization, and knowledge.  

(For an earlier effort to explore these issues, check out this paper from 2010.)

Some Photos from the Working Group in Digital and New Media Showcase

When I started this blog several years ago, I regularly included more news-like updates about my day to day academic life (whether here in North Dakotaland or in Athens, Greece). At some point, the blog drifted more toward being a research journal. In the end, I don’t have a tremens personal or ideological commitment to one form of blogging or the others.

So, I’ll offer some photographs from last Tuesday’s Working Group in Digital and New Media event at the Firehall Theatre in Grand Forks.  The presentations were lively and the food was amazing (and generously provided by the Cyprus Research Fund).

The photos are by Ryan Stander.

TheCrowdThe assembled masses

AlbertsasMCProf. Crystal Alberts served as an able M.C.

WorleyOne of Prof. Paul Worley’s characters from the Yucatan where he works with Prof. Joel Jonientz to produce Maya language animated films.

TravisProf. Travis Dessel, the newest Working Group member, discusses the use of volunteer computing to document Wildlife@home.

ChampionGraduate Student Jim Champion presents his marvelous melting sculptures

PaschWittgrafProf. Tim Pasch and Prof. Mike Wittgraf make digital music together

The event saw over 50 people come out to see the fantastic digital and new media works of my colleagues, and we considered that a great crowd for the first effort to showcase the efforts of the Working Group in front of the wider university and local community.


Teaching Thursday: MOOCs and Collaborative Writing

There has been a ton of buzz lately about Udacity. Udacity is a company developed by Stanford professor Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig  two other robicists, David Stavins and Mike Sokolsky. They offer Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs) on various topics related to robotics and technology to literarily tens of thousands of students per course.  This company grew out of Thrun’s and another Stanford professor, Peter Novig’s, courses in Artificial Intelligence at Stanford which they opened to the world as MOOCs. Here’s an article in Wired about it and here’s an article in the New York Times.

As I have noted before, I find this ideas amazingly cool. I even proposed a similar program focusing on humanities classes here at the University of North Dakota. My theory was that classes in the humanities – particularly history – already have a strong following among students who find the topics and stories particularly appealing. After all, we all know the well-worn story about how a series of podcasts on Byzantium attracted worldwide attention. A few meetings with our technology folks convinced me that these courses could be opened to the world without undue strain on our technical resources. Finally, I knew there was a real interest and tradition of outreach on our campus that would eventually allow a program like this to expand. Unfortunately, as happens to so many ideas, my proposal never made it through the university administration.

One of the recurring concerns with MOOCs is that universities are loath to give students free credits for completing the courses. Students who commit the time and energy to the course, however, want some kind of recognition for their efforts. Recently, Udacity has begun to offer certificates of achievement for completing their courses.

As I worked on a proposal for a History 101 class to run in the UND’s new Scale-Up classroom (here and here), I began to wonder whether one approach to giving students a sense of accomplishment for a MOOC would be a collaborative writing project. If a History 101 course introduced students to the basics of historical methodology, grounded that in some basic writing skills, and provided a solid structure for collaborative writing, would it be possible for students to produce a custom textbook for the class? The book writing process would focus student efforts over the course of the semester and produce something of enduring value to the students in the course.

There are obvious issues to my plan ranging from potential copyright problems to course design and the technical aspects of shepherding students through the writing process. One consequence of the large size of most successful MOOCs is that the instructor tends to present content and provide far less day-to-day feedback to individual students. A course centered on something as methodologically complex as writing a textbook, would require a course design that encouraged students to collaborate in a critical way and provide one another with the kind of consistent feedback that would usually come from an individual faculty member.  With some trial and error, however, I am pretty convinced that it is possible to overcome this hurdle. After all, sites like Wikipedia have managed to self-police their content and provide a rather remarkable degree of consistency, accuracy, and perspective.

The value in collaborative writing is less in the final product and more in the process. Collaborative writing is a great method to expose students to the diversity of perspectives on the past and to encourage the construction of sound historical arguments. A well-managed MOOC that clearly communicated the core ideas of the historical method could serve as an exciting platform for the collective and collaborative production of knowledge.

Thinking about Teaching History in a Scale-Up Classroom

I was pretty excited when I received word that the University of North Dakota’s Scale-Up classroom is almost ready and accepting applications for classes in the Spring of 2013. The Scale-Up classroom is designed to foster an “active learning” environment in courses that have large “lecture sized” (100+) enrollments. The students are generally seated around smaller tables in groups of 8 to 10 – almost cafeteria style – and typically have access to computers. The design of the room makes it easier to implement collaborative activities and to promote an “flipped lecture” type environment where students teach one another and remain engaged in problem centered learning.

To this end, I’ve begun to propose a rather unconventional history course ideally suited for the Scale-Up environment:

The large survey class has changed radically over the last 20 years. The traditional arrangement of the class positions the faculty member as the “sage on the stage” and the students in the audience in order to maximize the number of students exposed to the content in a controlled environment. This organization has gradually given way to more dynamic and interactive arrangements between student and teacher. While the much-maligned jargon of “active learning” has lost favor in recent times, there is no doubt that a greater degree of interaction between faculty and students has become increasingly normalized within pedagogical literature and day-to-day teaching practices of faculty.  At the same time, enrollment pressures, efficiency expectations, and old habits have continued to support the presence of large lecture style classes particularly at the introductory level. Occasional efforts to flip or invert the lecture have met with the typical difficulties: large classes, lecture bowl style seating, and limited space for students to meet, work, share, or write.

In recent years, the rapid expansion of digital technologies has offered ways to overcome the physical limits of the classroom.  Discussion boards, integrated social networking components, and the use of new and multi media delivery systems have expanded the educational environment beyond the physical confines of lecture hall, distended the concept of learning communities, and challenged the tension between groups and individual learners.

Despite the expansion of the digital frontiers and a continuously renewed commitment to “active learning” and “flipped lectures”, traditional textbooks persist as the main way in which students encounter “content”. Traditional textbooks are generally linear, unappealing, and expensive obstacles that many faculty feel as compelled to work around as to justify to their students. Remarkably the history textbook of the 21st century is structurally similar to the textbook of the mid-20th century, even if the content has changed to suit new academic fashions and tastes.

My proposed use of the Scale-Up classroom is to create a History 101: Western Civilization course where the students write their own textbook. This takes its inspiration from recent discussions of inverting the lecture, conceptual literature projects that compose journals or edited books in a fixed span of time,  collaborative spirit behind projects like Wikipedia, and the socially disruptive “DIY” practices associated with the edu-punk movement.

The course itself will be based upon my experiences teaching with both flipped lecture style History 101 class and teaching a similar course online. My flipped lecture classroom met once a week at night and featured 6 break out style groups who would meet weekly prepare responses to discussion questions based on primary sources. In an online version of the class these discussion questions became part of an online discussion board where the students responded both to prepared questions and their fellow student’s posts. Both techniques created an environment where students learned from one another rather than from a set lecture. The groups were generally big enough that better students and responses drove out the worse, and better students tended to model the quality for those less clear on the expectations of the class. At the same time, I have experimented extensively with wikis that allow students to produce collaborative, synthetic collections of weekly notes. I have also gained experience with using Twitter in the class to create social networks for the students that allowed them to forge a sense of community and to communicate in a transparent and immediate way.


The main goal of the Scale-Up History 101 Course will be to produce a synthetic History 101 textbook. The class will break into 15, 10 person groups, each responsible for a 5000 word chapter in the textbook. Using online resources, collaborative digital and classroom work spaces, and a restructured history lecture which focuses on methods, key interpretative themes, and techniques for writing history, students will be asked to invert the traditional educational process where students go from learning history from a faculty member, a textbook, and other economically and politically repressive arrangement to producing a textbook in a space where the tools and material of history are available in a far more democratized way than traditional introductory history lectures.

The advantage of the Scale-up classroom is that it will foster an integrated, simultaneous, realtime physical and digital environment that will allow multiple individuals to develop resources collaboratively. Wiki style text interfaces (even if managed through an off-the-shelf product like Google Docs) allow multiple students to edit a single document simultaneously and allow the faculty to track total contributions to a document.

At the same time, students will also have access in a group format to various resources on the web ranging from Google Earth to content sources like Wikipedia, digital primary source texts, digital open access textbooks, and new and multimedia resources.

I have a ways to go yet on this proposal and because of tricky time commitments over the summer, it seems unlikely that I’ll be in the first cohort to use the Scale-Up classroom. It is still really exciting to be part of the process of re-imagining learning space on campus.


Fritz at 50 Poster at the Scholarly Forum

As the final project for my digital history practicum, I’ve been asking the students in the class to prepare a poster for the University of North Dakota’s Graduate School’s Scholarly Forum. The Forum is the largest annual research meeting on campus and it gives us a chance to show off the class’s hard work from the previous semester.

Fritz at 50 posterSM

Here is a bigger version of the poster as a jpg or as a pdf:

Special credit goes to Daniel Sauerwein, one of our Ph.D. students, who took the lead on preparing the poster and dabbled in the arcane by working with Adobe Illustrator.

And special credit also goes to my lovely wife who makes the Scholarly Forum possible every year. The poster session was probably the most dynamic research event held on campus!