Martha Burtis reminded us to come up with great titles for posts. Great titles are my kryptonite. If anybody reads this post, that means they’ve read others, so they’re already aware. I stunk at titles as a student, stunk at them as a reporter, stunk at them as a grad student, and stink at them today. Bad puns are my crutch.

I linked Twitter to my blog earlier, adding the widget so the latest Tweets show up in the sidebar. Of course, most of my Tweets had previously been announcements about blog posts, since I’d already linked the blog to the Twitter account. Now I feel like I need to have real Tweets so all my latest don’t just cycle people back to the blog. However, the AHA magazine Perspectives had a January article suggesting that linking personal sites to social media sites (which Google algorithms like, apparently) helps move them up the search rankings, so there’s that. I think I have practically inert LinkedIn and Academia.edu profiles I could connect, and I guess I could connect with my professional biography in the AHA system, too (and since I have to pull one of those together for UMW anyway…). If I can figure out how it is that I link these things.

Also, adding blog posts and links and tweets, I just killed off a good hour I should have used for grading (which is among the last things I find appealing anyway, so not something I need another excuse to avoid). The writing is obviously much easier than academic writing, so goes much more quickly/doesn’t demand nearly as much time, but I posted on drought in California, data mining and studying the 1918 influenza epidemic, an update on an article, in addition to writing my FAAR this week–needless to say, other writing didn’t happen. I think I need a goal, like posting once a week or so, and not blogging about reading, teaching, technical stuff, musings, and research, but rather picking one or two per post. Otherwise I’m likely to spend way more time doing this fun stuff, and musing, than doing my “real” work (though if we can make this count as “real” work, that’d be grrreeeaaaat–Okay, thanks Peter.).

I suppose if I kept up on my reading in the monthly magazine issued by one of my professional organizations, I’d have been able to bring this to the table in our DoOOFI cohort meetings, or post on it in a more timely fashion. But I don’t, so I didn’t, but my Wednesday night reading proved timely nonetheless.

A team (of history, English, rhetoric, and engineering professors, plus computer science students and librarians) at Virginia Tech published a piece, “Mining Coverage of the Flu: Big Data’s Insights into an Epidemic,” in the AHA’s Perspectives on History, that I found enlightening. They concede that asking historians “accustomed to interpreting the multiple causes of events within a narrative context, exploring the complicated meaning of polyvalent texts, and assessing the extent to which selected evidence is representative of broader trends, the shift toward data mining (specifically text mining) requires a willingness to think in terms of correlations between actions, accept the ‘messiness’ of large amounts of data, and recognize the value of identifying broad patterns in the flow of information.” It’s asking quite a bit, but their measured optimism is, I think, quite reasonable.

Using 20 weekly newspapers from throughout the US, they identified topics (defined by words that frequently appeared together–something I actually worked on some as a grad student research assistant) to think about broad patterns in reporting on the disease, including change over time. I don’t see the historical developments they identify as especially groundbreaking (and this recalls what Debra Schleef raised in relation to sociology, where she has seen projects use such methods, but without accomplishing much that traditional methods couldn’t anyway), but the fact that the research team then closely read selected articles to confirm the larger patterns and to further develop arguments I think suggests their approach to data mining as a supplementary tool, and one in which researchers can build confidence over time as they gain experience and confirm some of what they find by applying more traditional tools as well.

A second component of the project involved identifying the tone of these newspaper reports, which the project could do on a larger scale than individual human readers could manage. Again, the categories of tone they identified–Reassuring, Explanatory, Warning, and Alarmist–weren’t surprising or really new, I don’t think. Nor did the classifier program’s 72% success rate “correctly” identifying tone seem especially high. Yet the team’s report was cautiously optimistic, noting, “It is therefore potentially valuable as a knowledge discovery technique, but only if it can be refined,” which also suggests this process alone would provide an incomplete understanding. As they say, “Tone classification illustrates the real challenges that the complexity of written language poses for data mining.”

In other words, they’re very much in favor of employing new methods, but advocate their combination with existing methods–and the application of this combined approach to history, and especially to the 1918 influenza epidemic (which I talked about as a pandemic in my US History survey just last week), resonated with me.

 

I’m not all grumpy-pants. I found the idea of an “open scholar,” whose project and process are not only visible both within and without academia, but continue to evolve in response to the conversation they foster (which itself is visible), particularly intriguing this week. That would provide quite a contrast to the more traditional approaches to scholarship, especially through academic journals (which in terms of the business model I tend to think are all kinds of problematic in their current form anyway). The tension between the two approaches seems to me reminiscent of our discussions about a pedagogy of abundance (as opposed to scarcity), in the sense that those journals are premised on the idea that due to the editorial and peer-review process, the knowledge/scholarship they present is of higher quality/authority (scarce), whereas knowledge/scholarship not vetted by those processes is perhaps not (though possibly abundant on the open web). So in a sense, the goal is to create the impression of scarcity even where it might not truly exist. The open scholar presents one avenue for escaping that model, though certainly not one without its own problems (not least of which, of course, is that mechanisms for determining quality may not be as well refined or tested).

However, I also have to question the viability of this model for all scholars (I’m thinking here in terms of rank more than discipline, though the latter could be a factor as well). In part that concern arises from my position as newly tenure-track, and my attention to what will secure/advance my own career–and in the current climate, becoming that “open scholar” wouldn’t. Sure, that’s something that might be combined with a more traditional approach, though that just increases the demands on my time/energy/resources. Besides the relative security of tenure, a more senior scholar would have advantages that I think would facilitate her/his transition into being an open scholar, most notably a well-established network (PLN?) of peers and contacts who could contribute one element of that open conversation, providing some continuity in the conversation as well as academic authority (which could potentially be constricting, but could also serve as “quality control” to some extent).

Part of what I want to accomplish with my domain is to share some of my work and my process, and even some random thoughts I’m unlikely to ever follow up on, and I’d love to continue conversations about scholarship that I’ve begun in other venues. Plus, I do want to make sure if people search for me and read my webpage, they can get a good sense of what I work on. At the same time, I’m wary of making that work too available, so available that no one has any reason to come to me to get it, or to publish it in a journal, etc. For the time being, I’ve settled on descriptions and abstracts, and perhaps a focus on process (what I’m doing) over product (what I have to say).

Perhaps I’m just being reactionary, but the Anderson article makes me cringe.

One fundamental flaw seems to actually be hinted at in the article itself. Anderson is talking about how models fundamental to the physical and biological sciences ultimately proved imperfect, simplistic, etc. as we gained greater understanding of them, as scientists continued to test and refine them (or refute them), and seems to suggest that that is a problem with models in general. But we’re supposed to have faith in a “Big Data” that just takes the data and identifies patterns? Isn’t that a similar simplification of nuanced and diverse behaviors and realities? I get that it’s useful, and opens up tons of avenues of inquiry, and certainly provides new capacities for answering questions we could have only theorized about before, but I don’t see it as completely addressing all those avenues of inquiry, like why there might be exceptions to its big patterns. To take the bacteriologist: he’s identified all these new bacteria, and might be able to make some guesses about other forms of life to which they’re related, or some of their characteristics. But so what? What good does that do? It gives you lots of information, lots more data, but to get anything particularly useful you have to ask the right questions of the data, which presumably relies upon models and theory; to actually do something with whatever you get out of the data requires the same.

I appreciate Caulfield’s intervention here. He notes that scientists etc have premised their work on the assumption that correlation does not mean causation–which seems reasonable enough. I appreciate his point that correlation is enough for some tasks (and I like the term “radical pragmatism” he tosses in there), but it also seems woefully inadequate for others. Take Google translations, which Caulfield mentions as being sets of statistical probabilities, the product of which are generally good enough to move a web page between languages or give a user a general sense of the content of some entered text. That is obviously a useful tool, but it’s also incomplete, likely struggling to convey connotations, rhythms of language, emphasis, the careful construction of sentences and the order of ideas, cognates and puns, and a thousand other nuances of language that do convey meaning. Here I come back to my own scholarly interest in cultural mediators/brokers involved in 17th- and 18th-century European-Indian relations, who were not simply translators, but rather spent inordinate amounts of time learning the structures of speeches and negotiations, the proper moments to employ mnemonic devices and what those objects should be, the histories and cultural logics of a given symbol or title–and when to fudge what was being said so as not to piss off the other participants in the conversation. All of that gets lost in something relying only on sets of statistical probabilities–not always a concern, but often.

Basically it seems that everybody’s favorite models for explaining why causation doesn’t matter and correlation is enough comes down to Amazon and Google–in short, the ability to sell crap. I want to see how it’s useful to the sciences, the social sciences, and I especially want to see how it works with the humanities–I assume there are instances out there I’m just not aware of as yet, and I’d be curious to see them. I’m sure Big Data and its ability to identify correlations can be useful in these other contexts, and will be/is, but I’m not convinced it is so independent of theory and models as Anderson implies.

Oddly enough, this is something I’ve been thinking about the last two weeks anyway, as I’ve worked with a Southern-California-based PhD student I’ve never met in person to organize a panel proposal for a big conference. He met my PhD advisor, who put us in touch since our work is somewhat similar. We emailed back and forth, then talked on Skype. From there, we emailed around to try to find a third panel member, a commenter, and a chair. I’m not sure what the connections were that helped him find the panelist and commenter, but I found the chair by asking a historian who will be visiting UMW later in the semester, and who was recruited for that in part because she attended grad school with one of my historian colleagues. That’s a lot of different mediums for communication, and a variety of types of connections, and none of them are all in the same place despite the fact that we’re all historians.

However, in some ways I find that process, messy as it is, more attractive than some of the alternatives. Sure, if there was a centralized location, things might be easier, and certainly things like Twitter might have potential for sending a CFP/panelist search into networks of people likely to respond (those “pools of expertise” Frey mentions), but I also think some of those elements of a Personal Learning Network could be overwhelming. In most of those categories, I’m somewhere on the edge of “Between Two Worlds” and “Entrenched in Real-World Networks,” and mostly I’m okay with that. I think it’s only in the Writing and Commenting that I’d want to even approach “In the Matrix” levels (I want to write more habitually, whatever the context, and whether or not the majority of it gets read/used), in part because that seems to require a level of commitment that demands too many of my resources (time, energy, etc) without a ton of immediate payoff for me (as far as I know, I get no credit for those in terms of production/scholarship, though some sort of recognition of those conversations as akin to participating in academic panels, conferences, etc might motivate me more). The social bookmarking/archiving I don’t find especially appealing (I don’t like watching stuff, YouTube account unlikely to ever happen). I have enough obligations, and this creates more, and I feel could pretty quickly grow beyond its capacity to be meaningful and/or manageable. Thus I appreciate the Hackademic Guide suggestion about seeing Twitter as a live conversation, and dropping in occasionally for just a bit, as even more attractive than Frey’s suggestion to vett and weed your networks (which in itself would require a lot of time and attention).

This is part of the reason I don’t aggressively expand, explore, search, and share a ton–the time, energy, effort, and attention are being spent elsewhere. I know there’s a lot out there, I know some people love those connections. I suspect quickly scanning, identifying the most useful, and paring/controlling these networks in ways that keep them from getting unwieldy is a skill acquired largely through experience, but that means I would need to make the commitment and deal with the learning curve and expenditures if I want to benefit. And I’m not sure these pieces acknowledge those kinds of costs.

Respect, Virginia.

That’s what UMW History’s department chair, Jeff McClurken, told one of his classes the other day, and I’m reminded of it after last night’s mad scramble to figure out what to do about the snow.

I have a senior seminar that meets once a week, on Wednesday nights from 6-8:45, and we already lost a week to the semester’s first snow day. That one was relatively easy to recover, since I was going to lead that discussion, rather than it being a student-led discussion, and thus a graded assignment. I moved that discussion online, and hosted it on Canvas, our LMS, monitoring the conversation from home and adding my thoughts as appropriate. That still let me model the advance post I was going to require of student discussion leaders, how I’d like them to participate in discussions, and the summary I want them to write afterwards.

That was the first time I had run a complete discussion online (I’ve had students post, but that in my absence, and I’ve summarized after rather than being involved in the ongoing posting), and so I turned for help to my significant other, Darcie, who recently completed her MLS through Rutgers University’s online program. She had lots of tips for refining what I was asking students to do, and how to explain it to them, and the whole thing seemed to work out fairly well.

Last night promised to be a different story. With impending severe weather, administration announced between 3 and 4 pm that campus would be closed and classes cancelled after 6pm. I’d been madly scrambling all day to be ready for class (6 hours of scheduled classes on Wednesdays), meet with students (two advisees, a potential thesis student, a current thesis student), and polish off an abstract for a conference panel proposal (which I felt obligated to do, since my collaborators had already spent time on theirs). Nonetheless, it was not a relief to return from my 3-4 class to discover the email announcing the cancellations. Now what was I supposed to do with my evening class, which would be missing another week, this time a student-led discussion of a great book?!

Luckily, I had the earlier online discussion to work from. I talked with a colleague to think it through, then modified the earlier discussion guidelines. This time, students would work from the advance post their classmates had shared, responding to prompts as well as to each other, and the student discussion leaders would check in and add their thoughts as the conversation progressed. I also told students to expect to spend the first hour of next week’s class revisiting the online threads, and addressing topics the discussion leaders felt needed additional attention. I emailed everyone, posted the plan on Canvas, and stuck around to make sure no one showed up for the start of class–no one did (I’m sure they were checking their email diligently every couple of minutes until the announcement came, but they may not have checked since).

I’m not sure I could have brought that together as effectively if I hadn’t done it already earlier in the semester, and perhaps more to the point, I’m not sure how fair it would have been to students to ask them to pivot on such short notice and expect it to go smoothly without them having had earlier practice. And I’m also absolutely positive that even the ability to move things online wouldn’t have been so plausible just a few years ago–other LMS’s I’ve used have been less user-friendly, the format would have been less familiar, and at my last university a shocking (to me, anyway) number of students didn’t have home internet access (lived in very rural areas, truly couldn’t afford it, etc). Nonetheless, I still wonder about whether my email and posts–all I can really do at the moment–made it to everyone, since some people likely don’t watch their email for that kind of information (perhaps deliberately), and could have gotten the announcement via other channels, like the UMW website, university announcements via text message, or Twitter.

And then I realized there’s a downside for me to all this. As I dropped files into Dropbox and added notes and reminders to the Notes app–both of which sync to my phone and are accessible from the laptop I often have with me–it occurred to me that there’s no snow day for me, either: no excuse not to write that letter for a student’s internship, keep up with the conference proposals and other writing, set up my grade book in Canvas, etc. And maybe those students who don’t check their email after the snow day is announced are on to something.

I know none of my thinking here is revolutionary, but I think that is telling in itself.

Readings

Weller’s chapter was an interesting start, and I appreciated the note towards the end that the pedagogies being posed were not a how-to guide, but rather a glimpse of some of the possibilities. It seemed to me that elements of many of these strategies are not too far from our ideal classrooms/teaching strategies (critical engagement and knowledge construction over knowledge acquisition, open-ended questions/problems and diverse possible solutions, etc), though they’re often not entirely realized. Certainly some of that is due to educators’ various constraints–time, resources, experience, comfort, effectiveness devising strategies to pursue those goals, etc. But I also think students’ comfort levels matter as well–they also have expectations for how education works and what its outcomes are supposed to look like–since as Madsen-Brooks points out, there has been an emphasis on content over skills like considering/critiquing content.

Part of the student discomfort I’m imagining would arise from these models is due to exactly the changes Weller is arguing should produce some sort of reconceptualization of teaching strategies (and the list of skills Madsen-Brooks produces–can you imagine telling students in a classroom that your goals for the class remain ambiguous, and your priorities may change?), that is, the abundance of content/connections as the core of educational models. I think we tend to be leery of that abundance because there is so much “bad” content out there, and based on my experiences, many students struggle to effectively assess it, so educators feel the need to moderate/curate it (hey, recreating that “scarcity” sort of like DRM etc). And here the “power of the crowd” gets a bit scary because of its potential to authorize (based on numbers/popularity rather than complete understandings–see Madsen-Brooks pondering Texas’ content standards) problematic knowledge. So I think lots of this would have to start with, or really intensely moderate and develop, some of those basic skills of assessing selections from among that abundance. Of course, making this a collective assessment rather than leaving it to individual learners to decide might help alleviate that challenge somewhat.

Incidentally, this reminds me of a conversation with Jim Groom a couple of years ago when I was setting up a UMW Blogs site for my Colonial America class, and he was tossing out ideas about how to construct an online archive of primary sources, located and introduced and tagged and categorized by students as part of their course work, that then subsequent classes could add to as well as draw on. There would ultimately be more content than every student would use (abundance), but there would be that process of selection and constantly growing materials available. The thought was totally overwhelming at the time, but getting more intriguing now. I could even see this crossing classes, with upper-level history classes aggregating things (curating them as a group) and lower-level classes deciding how to draw on them as a resource. Madsen-Brooks’ “Crafting Idaho” is an interesting example of how this could work, and so is Historic Buildings of UMW.

Twitter. I’m in the Reluctance spot still. I don’t especially want to be that visible, and the service will remain firmly in the professional realm for that reason (there are students present in that space and able to follow me). I do see how it could be a great tool in terms of networks>hierarchies, succinct thoughts (we can often drone on, and this forces you into a more constrained format, hopefully more “punchy” comments), etc., but I’m also glad to see that even people who made it central to a class found it uncomfortable to do so at times. What I do especially like is the cross-class potential–a hashtag for our methods students who are spread across three sections but working with parallel syllabi/assignments/goals, for example.

What’s the best method for setting up photo galleries? I have tons of pictures I’ve taken at historic sites I’ve visited, and I want to share them. Is my best bet to set up a subdomain (photos.jasonsellers.org) and install a photo gallery management web app? Or is there some sort of plug-in/effective way of doing that within WordPress, and just adding the “Photos” to the menu there?

On a similar front. My main page has a menu option for “Domain of One’s Own,” but we have a subdomain set up for the blogging we’re doing for our workshops/meetings/readings. I want those two connected, for people clicking “DOO” on the main page’s menu to see what I’m blogging about in terms of setting things up (I want a transparent process to be as evident as the product, especially since I’ll be using this as a model and experience when I’m teaching our methods class in History). Can I have them redirected to the subdomain?

I like the widget that creates a clickable word-cloud using my tags. Good stuff.

I need to mess with themes and colors more, but I feel like that’s not incredibly productive, and like I could end up sucked down into that vortex. Perhaps not the best way to spend my time. Happier with my main domain than the subdomain, so maybe I just need to stick with simpler/straightforward. I did try a few background photos, but they didn’t do well–you couldn’t see any of the interesting elements, and so what was there just seemed useless. I’ll work on that, because it would make what I think are fairly wide borders somewhat more interesting.

Also, I think since you have to set up a subdomain to run a different web app, those are more like outbuildings (garage, garden shed, wood shop, chicken coop, etc) than rooms in the main house.

Reading the Campbell piece made me wonder about introducing a Technology-Intensive course designation that would fit alongside UMW’s Writing-Intensive and Speaking-Intensive designations/requirements. I know we have the new Digital Studies minor, but that is an opt-in program, whereas a TI designation might be a way of broadening our definition of the types of skills liberal arts majors WILL (rather than COULD) develop at Mary Washington. Maybe that goes along with the long-term goals of giving incoming freshmen web space, and has already been discussed, but it popped into my head, and a cursory Google search reveals that there are a few colleges out there with TI courses.

Prompt: Chambers talks several times about becoming acquainted with the Terms of Service (TOS) of the online tools we use. Look up the TOS for one or two services you regularly use Facebook, Twitter, Google TOS, LinkedIn. Could you understand them? Where they what you expected, and, if not, why? What surprised you most about what you read? If you read more than one, how do they compare?

Responding to this as requested would actually require me to go look at the TOS of these services, which sounds awful. However, my cynical self suspects that such is deliberate on the part of those who write them: make them so awful, tedious, and opaque to your average user, who’s in a hurry to set up their account, access content, whatever, that they will do everything they can not to read the TOS, and you can then include whatever you want. I tend to just assume that if I were to read and understand these things, I’d know that I’m not protected, and nothing I do is sacred or unwatched in some way; as a result, I share as little real information with these sites/services as I can, and if I can’t avoid sharing information, I sometimes decline to go ahead with accessing whatever service it is. I do try to pay attention to discussions and articles in other news sources that report on changes to, for instance, FB’s TOS (which seem constant, and really, again, who wants to go read through the whole thing again and try to figure out what has changed, and whether it has gotten better or worse?), and respond accordingly. What I try NOT to do is take too seriously the rants and posts in people’s FB news feeds supposedly telling me what has happened with the latest changes, and how to undo them.

I know this response isn’t quite what this prompt is intended to produce, but I also think it’s not an atypical response, which in itself is worth bringing up and discussing.