Slow Reconsidered

This week, for various reasons, I’ve started to re-think my position on “slow.” As readers of this blog know, I started to use appeals to the slow movement as an endearing and popular hook for some of my ideas about archaeological field practice, technology, and even teaching in the last few years. I co-edited a volume of the public humanities journal North Dakota Quarterly on slow and have published a pair of articles on “slow archaeology.”

At the same time, I’ve thought a good bit about speed and teaching and recently enjoyed Michael Serres book, Thumbelina which argues that millennials have profoundly different ways of engaging the world and that we should embrace and celebrate this. Serres views runs counter to folks who see “slow teaching” as an antidote to the quickening pace of every day because it sees the pace and connectivity of the world something that a problem that teachers need to solve, rather than an opportunity that we should embrace. At its most insistent, the need for slow teaching blurs with calls for reform in academia more broadly. Margie Berg and Barbara Seeber offer a flawed, but well-meaning treatment of academia as a blurred space of slowness (and I review this book here and here). 

A very recent article by Andrew Sullivan in New York Magazine prompted me to revisit these ideas. Sullivan was one of the first new media superstars and this thoughtful article reflected on the toll that his immersion in the 24-hour news cycle and the hyper-connected online world took on his mental, physical, and spiritual health. It makes a compelling case for us to slow down. At the same time that I am making final revisions on an article on slow archaeology slated to appear in this book. My own arguments for a slow archaeology and my immediate (non-slow!) appreciation of Sullivan’s article feel like they contradict my desire for fast teaching and enthusiasm for Serres’s view of the millennial generation. While I have some tolerance for contradiction in my thought, I took a walk yesterday convinced that this contradiction could and should be resolved.

Here’s what I thought:

First, I’ve increasingly come to appreciate slow archaeology as less of an issue of archaeological practice and more of an ethical issue. In other words, digital practices will continue to influence how we do archaeology in the field, but our entanglement with digital tools and a vastly complex ecosystem of commercial products is no less challenging that the legacy of colonialism, sexism, and economic inequality that shaped archaeological practices for the last century. Just as archaeologists have critically engaged  these complicated legacies in an effort to create a more ethnic and responsible discipline, we should also engage critically our approach to technology. These are lessons about digital tools in our discipline and the structure of our discipline more broadly that I’ve learned from Eric KansaÖmür Harmanşah, and Richard Rothaus. I’m not sure that I understood this aspect of my argument very well in the last two things that I’ve published on slow archaeology, but the more I’ve thought about it, the more I’m getting it now. The spread of digital technology into our field and publication practices is not just about how we document material culture and produce archaeological knowledge, but also how we engage a commercial ecosystem that has values which often run explicitly counter to those associated with our discipline.

Second, critical resistance to technology is not the only way forward, of course. Our students, for example, have grown up immersed in this technology and thrive in a connected, accelerated, and global world. While there is nothing wrong about asking students to put down their phones, close their laptops, and unplug, we should be aware that our students life with technology is fundamentally different from our own. Sullivan observes as much when deeply immersed in a meditation retreat, he reconnects with a childhood full of emotional trauma and largely devoid of technology. As a result, Sullivan sees a world of bird songs, tree bark, and mottled sunlight as “real.” Our students today largely grew up with technology and just as crowded neighborhood eateries, well-worn woodland trails, and freshly-mown suburban lawns represent the real world to my generation, a digitally-mediated existence reflects the reality for our students. The pace of a digital world that makes those of us who worked to normalize the pre-digital “life of the mind” feel disoriented and overwhelmed, may not influence our students in the same way.

Finally, the idea that we need to slow down to be critical of how we engage the world is something that archaeologists and teachers should attend to. The pace of digital life makes the siren call of efficiency and speed in archaeology unavoidable. As archaeology is always the work of translation and mediation between material traces of the past and the present, our view of the past is shaped not only by the tools that we use, but our fundamental view of the world. As digital technology has become implicit in how we see the world – particularly the millennial generation who have grown up without whatever idyllic conceits we reserve for “reality” – it is inevitable that our archaeology will become more digital. At the same time, maintaining critical awareness of these changes will preserve an awareness of our disciplinary lens without invalidating the experience of the next generation of scholars. 

This is not a situation that leads to a simple resolution. Rejecting slow teaching runs the risk of putting “pre-digital” faculty in an uncomfortable and inauthentic position, alienating a generation of students who are already prone to resist our pedagogy, and forfeiting a critical opportunity to understand how technology shapes our world. Rejecting slow archaeology, carries fewer practical problems (as the tradition of slow archaeology (pre-digital and otherwise) persists throughout the world) and more ethical challenges as it risks normalizing efficiency, speed, and precision as crucial considerations for archaeological knowledge production.

Teaching Thursday: Technology, Narrative, and Practice

My first classes were this week, and as per usual, I left with a head full of ideas and challenges. I want to get back to doing a little blogging about teaching so I’ve put up a few of my thoughts after my first week back in the classroom.

1. Technology. I teach History 101 in a slightly thread-worn Scale-Up classroom here at University of North Dakota. The technological potential of this class is really impressive. For example, three-laptops at each of the 9-student tables can be routed to flat screen TVs at each table or larger projection screens in the corner of the room. This has the potential to facilitate collaborative work at each table and across the entire room, but with the complications associated with this technology come some real challenges. Unfortunately this did not work for about a quarter of the tables making it difficult for the entire group to share the work of the person on the lap top. This is not a deal breaker of course, but it put me in the awkward situation of navigating technology rather than teaching history or helping the students think through a complex problem.  

I recognize in a professional sense, taming the technology is not my responsibility, but once the class starts, some of this has to be navigated on the fly. I need to get better at problem solving classroom technology.

2. Narrative. The most compelling idea probably didn’t come from class, but from a quick chat with one of our D.A. students after class. We were discussing his History 103: US History until 1860 class and got to talking about whether one could design a compelling textbook using Wikipedia pages complemented by one of the numerous open access primary source readers for U.S. History. We got to talking about the role of narrative in teaching introductory level history courses. My History 101 course lacks basic narrative structure (although parts of the class do proceed chronologically) and focuses instead on the construction of historical arguments. The downside of this is that students sometimes feel unmoored from big picture patterns of historical causality and the systematic production of what we today call Western Civilization. Of course, these are the kinds of patters and processes that are often the most challenging for history students to understand. (In the past, I’ve blogged about the ironic situation where we teach the incredibly complex diachronic narratives to survey students and then present much more simple, focused historical problems!) Breaking the introductory level history survey course down into more manageable historical problems and giving up on the sweeping narrative and drive for coverage actually offers a better route to helping students understand the basic skills of historical analysis. 

3. Big Ideas and Little Learning. One of the most stimulating conversations that I’ve had in a graduate seminar happened yesterday evening. As per usual, I started my graduate methods course with the rather open-ended question “what is history?” I got a good range of responses from the highly analytical (making arguments from primary sources) to the expansive (storytelling). The conversation turned to the practical question of what do we need to learn as professional historians to become good stewards of the practice of writing history?

It was really cool to work between the big idea of History (as a way of thinking about the past) and as a professional discipline and to understand more clearly the “little learning” that informs how we confront big ideas. What was challenging was coming up with an assemblage of particular skills necessary to write our version of history. We certainly got the idea that writing and reading were important, but beyond that things were a bit hazy. Since the next 15 weeks will be concerned with historical methods (both in terms practical professional skills and the larger context of disciplinary practice as part of the 20th and 21st century university).

Satellite Remote Sensing in the AJA

I have to admit to being equal parts geeked out and creeped out by recent advances in satellite (or, more broadly, aerial) remote sensing in archaeology. I am excited as anyone to read about the latest “lost city” to appear from the use of LiDAR in the jungle and recognize that ever increasingly resolutions of multi-spectral satellite images provides new ways for archaeologists to tease out subsurface features from subtle variations in vegetation, soil color, and even elevation. Moreover, as someone interested in regional-level intensive survey, I appreciate the potential of satellite images to help us understand large-scale phenomena in the landscape. We use satellite images to map our survey units and have even used some basic multispectral analysis to target potentially significant subsurface features in the Western Argolid. In this context, I was excited to see the recent article of J. Donati and A. Sarris in the American Journal of Archaeology 120.3 (2016):  “Evidence for Two Planned Greek Settlements in the Peloponnese from Satellite Remote Sensing.”

Donati and Sarris combined historical excavation data with satellite remote sensing to reveal the ancient city plans of Hellenistic towns of Mantinea and Elis in the Peloponnesus. The article is an impressive blend of traditional archaeological data from excavations and remote sensing, historical sources, and the technical analysis of satellite data. The analysis of satellite images through the use of various band combinations and enhancements to pull out subsurface features is a major point in the article.

When I had finished the article, I couldn’t help feeling a bit uneasy. Maybe I’ve seen too many haunting images of satellite and drone images from the Middle East (check out Bard’s Center for the Study of the Drone). Or maybe I have read too much on technological solutionism over the past couple years. I could even be that I just spend 7 weeks hiking around the Greek countryside and felt put out that my physical labor could so easily be replaced by digital tools.

Whatever the reason, there was something disconcerting about the remote study of the landscape, and I was hoping that the article included some brief discussion of the ethical issues surrounding using satellite images in archaeology. This is not to suggest, even obliquely, that Donati’s and Sarris’s fine work had any ethical flaws, but the use of increasingly sophisticated remote sensing tools in archaeology is already having an impact on the discipline. For example, the use of drones and satellite images to monitor the looting and destruction of archaeological sites is almost common practice, and saturated with a kind of irony: the same technologies that have contributed to the political and social instability in the Middle East are being used to monitor the consequences of this instability.

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Of course Donati and Sarris weren’t using drones to monitor looting or to document the changing landscape of an off-limits prison camp. And I recognize that military technologies – ranging from the basic organization of excavation “campaigns” to the extensive use of GPS, satellite images, and drones – have shaped archaeology since its emergence as a modern discipline. At the same time, I do wonder about the de-spatialization of archaeological work. I won’t invoke my long-standing reflections on the significance of physically being in an archaeological environment. Any reader of this blog is probably familiar with my painfully romantic sensibilities.

Instead, I couldn’t help think that the use of remote sensing to take archaeological work from the field and to transport it to the lab, office or library seems to represent the obverse of the call by communities for the repatriation of archaeological objects. Our ability to analyze the material culture of a region and a community from miles in the sky or through millimeter accurate digital surrogates offers a potent challenge to those who see objects, sites, and heritage as profoundly local. Satellites, for example, defy the authority of local communities and national governments to grant access to sites in the same way as high resolution 3D scans challenge what it means to posses “the original artifact” in new ways. These perspectives should not necessarily lead us to rejecting the use of digital or remote sensing tool, but I’ll continue to feel a vague sense of discomfort when I encounter the use of new technologies without any reflection on its ethical impact. 

Speed and Practice in Digital Archaeology

I’ve always wanted to go to one of the Theoretical Archaeology Group (TAG) meetings. So I was chuffed to be invited to present at a panel at this years TAG meeting in Boulder, Colorado. Unfortunately, because of the financial situation at the University of North Dakota, we are currently prohibited from leaving the state for any reason. While I can’t complain too much, considering some of my colleagues who live in Minnesota have not been able to return home for weeks, it nevertheless put a crimp in my plan to attend.

Fortunately, UND has not banned us from using Skype or other electronic means to communicate with the outside world. I will be able (if the current policy stands) to Skype into the conference and present a paper titled “Speed and Practice for a Digital Archaeology.”

Here’s the abstract:

It has become cliche to observe that archaeologists now conduct their research in a connected world, but, as a discipline, we have continued to struggle with the implications of this routine observation. The speed with which archaeological descriptions and arguments disseminate across digital media presents new opportunities to observe and understand the practice of archaeological knowledge making. The differing generic expectations of these media, their fluidity, and the rapid pace of innovation offers ways to complicate the distinction between a provisional statement and a final publication, archaeological data and analysis, and real artifacts and digital representations. Speed of dissemination compresses distance, accelerates conversations, and transforms the appearance of the archaeological discourse.

The paper argues that the speed of digital publishing has transformed knowledge production in key ways. Speed has already challenged archaeology’s commitment to artifactual provenience by allowing the production and dissemination of highly accurate digital reproductions of artifacts, landscapes, and places. The speed with which archaeologists can update data sets, catalogues, and interpretation has threatened the generic integrity of the final publication. Finally, the speed with which social and new media provide highly visible outlets has begun to erode the authority of the disciplinary practices like peer review, traditional publishing outlets, and even layout, editing, and formatting standards. The relentless pressure and potential of speed in the digital era has introduced fundamentally new concepts to practice of archaeological inquiry.

Teaching Tuesday: The Lecture Problem

3A longstanding problem in the discipline of history is the lecture. Looming over our field like a ponderous, aging, typically conservative, uncle, people insist that the lecture deserves its place at the table and, well, kids these days don’t understand that ole uncle lecture has remained in our family for as long as he has because … uncle lecture is a valued family member. We then shake our fists at people with their USB ports, active learning classrooms, and practice based teaching reminding them that we all learned history from old, uncle lecture and what is more, WE LIKED IT. 

To be clear, I like teaching lecture classes. I usually teach one every few years to upper level students. I use podcast lectures in my online history survey, and I even use short, on-point, lectures in my survey course in a collaborative learning classroom. Uncle lecture is a fine, old thing, as long as you don’t believe the stories about him being a war hero or single-handedly saving O.D.B. from a burning limo.  

In a recent article in the New York Times, by the historian Molly Worthen, trots out uncle lecture and once again sets him up against all the recent crazes, from technology in classrooms to STEM to active learning. The rhetoric of her article is defiant, she positions herself as a voice of conservative, educational wisdom, and she manages to undermine some of the most significant contributions of the discipline of history in less than 2000 words.

Here are my thoughts:

1. Begun the STEM War has. Worthen decides that the growing influence of STEM might be the cause for the spread of active learning. The humanities, opponents of all things STEM, must double down on the lecture to preserve their very identity. 

Ugh. This is so wrong, of course. If anyone is the blame for active learning, it’s probably the humanities. The 19th century seminar in history was the paradigm for humanities – and to some extent university education – for much of the early 20th century. In the seminar, students did not listen to a lecture, but analyzed primary sources to produce history. The production of history – that is the managing of historical information and the construction of historical arguments – remains the core value of education in the field. History is historical practice. The rise of rote memorization had less to do with the importance of various fragments of historical information and more about the construction of a mental database that would allow a student to build an argument about the past. 

In fact, the lecture is valuable (for history) only in as much as it models historical practices. A students who could recite a lecture verbatim (from, as Worthen tells us, detailed notes) is not a successful student. The practices modeled in a lecture must be applied to evidence either gleaned from the lecture and reorganized into a new argument or drawn from elsewhere.

Traditions of STEM teaching, in contrast, historically isolated the practice experience of learning through the lab, field practice, or simulations (often presented via lectures). In other words, the rise of active learning in STEM fields relates directly to their need to engage students in STEM practice in the classroom, which is something that these fields have traditionally lacked or sequestered in the lab component of the class or through field practica or other explicitly hands-on and active learning environments.

Most criticism of active-learning in the humanities stems (heh, heh) from our awareness that all of what we do is active learning because the product of a history class is … the production of history. Worthen’s association of active learning with STEM is a bit of pettiness that derives from educational politics rather than historical realities. It was a weak sortie in the STEM Wars.

2.  This contributes to SOTL and Assessment. My skepticism concerning SOTL and assessment are pretty well-known to anyone who reads this blog. I see both of those practices as components in a gradual deskilling of academic faculty and the sure transition of faculty from professional experts to employees. The production of increasingly generalized and non-disciplinary criteria for what we teach and how we evaluate disciplinary practice is part of larger project to undermine the professional standing of disciplinary practitioners and make university faculty into teachers rather than scholars.     

Articles like this do nothing to advance our cause. The historical foundations for Worthen’s arguments were, as I noted, questionable, her evidence for the value of lectures was squishy and insubstantial (at best), and the relationship between lectures and particular disciplinary skills was not clear. If historians value lectures, we should value them not because they keep students off Facebook or they teach students to listen carefully, but because lectures lead to the production of good history. As soon as we claim magical powers for lectures, we put ourselves into the realm of SOTL and assessment which privilege – in most cases –  practices broadly foreign to history and the humanities (typically, although not exclusively grounded in quantitative or systematic, qualitative practices of the social sciences) and non-disciplinary learning outcomes (like being able to sit still and listen, dammit).  

We need to stop doing that. The value of history is in practice. We offer the students a way to understand the past. Historians demand that students demonstrate their ability to understand the past using historical methods in our classes. (And lecture may or may not be a valuable tool to that end). Our big picture hope is that by teaching students to understand the past based on historical methods that they become critical consumers and producers of culture.

3. Blame technology. It is clear that technologies has changed how students and historians engage the classroom, interact with their peers, and produce knowledge. Worthen was silly about technology throughout this article. I’m sure her lectures are handwritten ensuring that she is better able to recall fine details while she presents in front of the class room. Studies have shown that writing lectures out by hand improves retention and memorizing a lecture would obviate the need for a lectern in the classroom and open up time for Worthen to “pace around, wave [her] arms, and call out questions to which [she] expects an answer.” 

The issue is, of course, how do students use technology. The kind of one-sided and, frankly, simplistic view of students and technology in the classroom does not suggest a venerable Luddism from Worthen, but rather conforms to the stereotype of an out-of-touch humanities professor who does not understand the way technology fits into the lives of students. Using technology to take notes, to find sources, and to engage course material reflects a tremendous opportunity and challenges the role of the lecture as source of information. Modeling historical thinking through scholarly articles or even textbooks, and pushing students to construct their own arguments and disseminate them digitally offers many more opportunities than developing among students the patience to watch a flailing history professor perform a prepared script. I have no doubts that Worthen understands technology, but her rhetorical position in this article does nothing to help the humanities in either the STEM Wars or in the court of public opinion. The contest in most cases is not between lectures and distraction, but between lectures and the remarkable wealth of material available on the interwebs.

As I said at the start of this post, I lecture and I respect the place of lecture in the history of our discipline and profession. Heck, I even enjoy listening to an engaging lecture by a peer. Justifying the place of the lecture within our discipline deserves more than the sophistry presented in this article. I’m not sure that I’m ready to present an argument for why preserving the lecture in history deserves its place within the university classroom, but Worthen has offered some conceits that I’ll certainly avoid.

Survey Units are Unique Like Snowflakes

I had a mini database meltdown on the first day of field work and data entry. The specific problem with the database mostly involved how we were using it (and the limits on the particular tool we chose to use), but it highlighted the relationship between the unit as space and the unit as a procedural unit in intensive pedestrian survey. To put this another way, we can only walk the same unit once, and we are thinking about how to make our database reflect this.

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We began the process of creating new unique number for each field by creating a value that reflected the space of the survey (keyed to a polygon in our GIS) and the procedure we used to walk the unit. We identified four procedures: standard survey, grab samples, resurvey, or unsurveyed (used to describe, for example, a fenced area or a unit that is too close to the edge of a sheer cliff). 

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As I thought about this unique identifier for each unit in our database (and in our analysis), I got to wonder whether we need to refine this identification of a unit more. For example, there is the slim possibility that we could resurvey a unit more than once. So perhaps we should use as our unique identifier the space of the unit, the procedure, and the team leader. After all, this would allow us to distinguish as unique, different engagements with the unit led by different individuals. Even this might not be enough. If we’ve learned anything from Big Al Ammerman, it’s that you can never walk the same survey unit twice. Maybe we need to make the unique identifier the unit number, procedure, team leader, and date. 

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This is all a good bit to think about on the first day in the field, especially when it was damp, overcast, and muddy. Maybe it was being out in the field, however, and away from the blue light of the computer screen that prompted me to think about how we imagine space. It could also be that I managed to help to screw up mapping a few units as I got my survey legs back. Nothing like real fields in a changing landscape to shade my understanding digital contexts.

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Day of Digital Humanities 2014

Today is the long awaited Intergalactic Day of Digital Humanities. While we have not heard whether we’ll be joined by any off planet humans and the usual uproar about whether “the humanities” are offensive to non-human lifeforms has yet to flair up, I commend the organizers for melding together humanocentric jingoism with a open-armed inclusiveness. The digital humanities are, after all, big tent.

My posts today will appear here.

But I’ll keep a little updated index on this page so none of my regular readers will miss out.

A Digital Morning
Digitally Mediated Learning
The Afterlife of Old Media
The Keymaster and the Gatekeeper

Slow Teaching

Anne Kelsch, our Director of Office of Instructional Development here at the University of North Dakota, sent along a fascinating article on slow pedagogy. As readers of this blog know, I’ve been an advocate of becoming more aware of pace in how we teach. I have made various tweaks in my classes to use change of pace in teaching to lure students to engage material in a more focused way in the classroom and, at the same time, to develop the ability to think quickly and efficiently. That being said, I also value slowing down, maintaining routines, and thinking carefully (such as I can) both in classroom work and in assignments. In fact, I have gradually shortened the length of assignments in my midlevel classes to allow students to focus a bit more on the details of writing than the need to fill changes.

This article, “Determining our Own Tempos” by P. Shaw, B. Cole, and J. Russell appeared in To Improve the Academy 32 (2013) and talked about the value of slowing down and encouraging contemplation during the classroom encounter. (To add to the quaintness of this notion, Anne sent me the article as a photocopy, on paper, in a campus mail envelope rather than as a scan in an email!). The article discussed the context for the “slow” movement extending it from the slow meals phenomenon through slow writing and the larger slow living movement which emphasizes taking pause in our every day life and managing our engagement with the hectic pace of the mass media, the internet, and other so-called distractions.

The most significant take away from this article is the value of creating an
environment where students feel comfortable both in reflecting on their own learning and in thinking carefully about the material or content of the class. While the article provides little direct advice for installing slow learning exercises in the class, they did make refer to some techniques the authors used to create a contemplative and reflective environment for students. Playing music before class that generates a calm environment in the classroom (i.e. not the Meat Puppets), taking some quiet time during class to encourage thorough consideration of an issue, and fostering group discussions that verge on the conversational (rather than the task or goal oriented) all play a role in creating an environment more conducive to deliberate thought than the typical classroom.

The authors then extend their model of slow pedagogy to faculty development. They emphasize the value of quiet conversation, reflective practices, and writing groups to transform what can be a solitary professional existence with one embedded in a community of supportive peers. As the authors note, this will not happen naturally, but has to be cultivated by an environment that supports particular practices.

Whether one buys “slow pedagogy” or even the entire slow movement, there is no doubt that the tempo of life has come under increased scrutiny in the early 21st century. Just this week, for example, I coined the term “slow archaeology” to describe archaeological practices that are deliberately independent of the pace allowed by technology. I see a “slow archaeology” as a antidote to field practices increasingly informed by a Taylorist obsession with efficiency. 

I have also sung the praises of my daily walk home (and it’s beauty here, here, here, here and here). One of the real bummers of this winter is that I am still recovering from a broken leg and I haven’t returned to my daily walking routine. It find that it robs me of valuable time for thinking without the distractions of digital gadgets, human distractions, or even good old fashioned texts. I will do all I can to make sure that daily strolls are part of my life during my sabbatical year. My daily blog writing – usually before 7 am – encourages me to take some quiet time at the start of my day to think through problems, develop a regular practice of writing, and focus as much on producing as consuming digital media. 

Finally, we can all see the reinvigorated interest in craft behind these various slow movements. As our culture slides more and more deeply into the totalizing grasp of late capitalism and audit culture, we increasingly look for opportunities to embrace minimalism, take control of the pace of life, or just tune in by turning off. It is probably too soon to tell whether these practices represent desperate last ditch efforts to preserve our humanity or another chimerical return to “simpler times” mediated by the relentless push of technology. 

Teaching Tuesday: Pace and Teaching

If you pay attention to quality teaching articles online, then you’ve undoubtedly lingered over Jennifer Roberts’ recent piece in Harvard Magazine. She describes – in a remarkably SoTL free article – how she encourages students to slow down and look carefully at a work of art. She introduces the idea of deceleration as a tonic against the immediacy and spontaneity of the modern world. Invariably the technology is to blame for the distracted and impatient state of our undergraduate students, and Roberts suggested that making students slow down to contemplate a work of art for three hours can serve to train students to focus their attention on details and to see things that we tend to miss in our fast-paced world.

In a couple of recent interviews, anthropologist Tim Ingold reminds us that modern technology – including the tyranny of the keyboard – carries with it risks to how we create and see the world. He prefers to write by hand and requires his students to do so. For Ingold, handwriting has an aesthetic value that challenges the homogenized, regular world of typed work.

Both of these scholars are encouraging our students to slow down and become more aware of their experiences, and this is surely commendable. At the same time, both of the techniques these scholars employ to encourage students to decelerate and become more patient with how they experience the world are not singular discrete actions, but processes embedded within a much larger and complex learning environment. Learning from a painting over three hours is not something that most students are prepared to do. To make this a meaningful exercise, students have internalized a series of little acts of viewing that they can repeat for a sustained period of time. For students to benefit from an exercise in handwriting they have to know how to produce a handwritten text. This involves additional steps of planning, composing, and revising that most students raised in the computer era have not internalized.

Putting aside the issues of who has 3 hours to do anything in this world, I do think that the skills associated with careful and patient observation are scalable to real world situations. Sustained iterative engagements with texts, objects, and problems is a learned skill.

(I’m profoundly skeptical of approaches that imply students can learn complex skills “on their own”.)  

I have thought rather informally about some of the issues of that Ingold and Roberts sought to explode in their methods in my own classes. I agree with them that the pace of the class and of any given activity is an important component of student engagement. My approach was, however, has been the opposite of Roberts’ but I’d like to think had a similar goal. Instead of slowing the student engagement with the course material down, I have worked to speed it up. As I have blogged about in the past, I took some inspiration from Chip Kelly’s uptempo football practices at the University of Oregon. Instead of walking players slowly and deliberately though formations and plays, he taught his offense almost entirely at game speed. When players required additional coaching, he would rotate the player out of the drill and substitute another play in at that position allowing the drills to continue at top speed. Kelly’s system encouraged players to think quickly, to adapt, and to build conditioning at game pace. While this might appear completely opposite to Roberts’ deliberate and patient observation, I’d argue that both methods use pace to make their charges more away of how they engage the world.

To make this happen in my classes, I’ve worked to break assignments into smaller parts and to compress the time allowed for these short assignments as a way to keep students on task. By keeping the class “up tempo” I attempt to drive out the opportunity for distractions. Some of my colleagues complain that students surf the net, Facebook, or text during class. My usual response is to ask why the students have time to do things like that.  

Like so much in teaching, I suspect putting students in a place to think consciously about how they engage their own learning is more important than how they actually learn. Being conscious of how we pace learning and alternating between rapid exercises and sustained activities that draw upon these same techniques provides a disciplined environment  

Curation and Mediation at the 2013 Arts and Culture Conference at the University of North Dakota

I’m pretty excited about this week’s Arts and Culture Conference. Its theme is Cultures of Curation (and features a super snazzy poster). Archaeologists (and historians) love curation. In fact, one could argue that archaeology is primarily a discipline of curation. We not only spend significant time fussing with publications, but we also are obsessed with the archival aspects of our work. This extends from how we plan to conserve and present the physical artifacts themselves to our interest in the distribution and archiving digital artifacts.

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And, yes, that is a sexy poster design by Joel Jonientz.

Curation is a hot topic these days (as this Ngram view shows):

Google Ngram Viewer

So, to get myself in the spirit, I thought I’d offer up three things that I want to think about at this week’s festivities.

1. Curation as Mediation. One of the most interesting aspects of curation in archaeology is how much it involves the archaeologist moving objects from one system (or context) to the next. This shift from one system to the next serves to make the objects of archaeological study accessible to different kinds of questions. In other words, an object located on the floor of a collapsed building has a different meaning than one on a museum shelf. In its “archaeological context” the object can speak to it use during the lifetime of the building, the history of building, and the formation processes that contributed to presence of the object on the floor.

The act of curating prioritizes some aspect of the object’s context – whether it be the object’s form, the object’s context, or the standing of the object as an example for a larger process – and recontextualizes it according to this value. The curator translates the objects from one context to the next (in both the Latin meaning of carrying across and the Medieval context of moving a sacred object from one site to the next). Curation, then, is the act of mediation as it emphasized the middle zone between one context and the next and how this unstable middle zone both imparts meaning and captures the inherent instability of meaning.

2. Curation and the Dynamic Archive. In my thinking about curation, I tend to think of it in the context of the object. I know, though, that the days of stable objects subjected to mediating influences are behind us. New digital objects are unstable, constitute and reconstitute themselves at the demand of the curator, the researcher, the querier, or the audience. The spirit of the linked-data movement see databases, for example, as entities that stretch extend beyond single creators, datasets, and users, and reconstitute themselves constantly and new data constructs new relationships.

In keeping with the idea of the curator as a mediator, curation become a decentralized practice the curator focuses on relationships rather than objects in a traditional sense. The managing of relationships within curatorial systems allows for decentralized collections to emerge and to constantly produce new contexts for existing material.

The most obvious example of this is a site like Wikipedia which houses perhaps the single largest collection of linked data in the world. The line between curator and contributor is blurred completely, and the links between entries and between the entries and other large datasets on the web (most notably spatial datasets) ensures that the structure of Wikipedia data is a significant as the actual data present in the entries.

3. Curation and the Web. As innumerable web-pundits have argued, the web is the single greatest curatorial enterprise (perhaps) in human history. Social media, blogs, wikis, and the like provide a constant space for individuals to assemble, collect, and mark web content for secondary consumption. With the massive expansion of Facebook and Twitter the web has continued the process of democratizing the culture of curation. Each individual curates a dynamic museum of content and shares it with a complex network of friends, followers, and readers. 

With this new environment for curation, the curator becomes both more secondary to the act of curation (we’re all curators, after all) and more individualized as the standards of curation drift across the varying tastes and practices of millions of users in the web. So the title of this year’s conference “cultures of curation” is particularly apt way to describe the practice of curation on the web. Culture perhaps best describes the distributive practices of curation in the 21st century. 

UPDATE:

Just for fun, I ran a Google Ngram on the words “curate” and “curator”. Curator is in red and curate is in blue. Both show a slight uptick in frequency over the past decade, but nothing like the dramatic ramping up that the word curations demonstrates.

Google Ngram Viewer 3

My temptation is to argue that the verb “to curate” and the individual, “the curator”, fail to capture the decentralized context of curation in the digital age. Curation remains a strong and persistent interest, but curating and curators are actions and agents of an earlier age.