Category Archives: Posts

Trails, Paths, and Digital Literacy

Yesterday I had the good fortune to be the keynote speaker at the Winter Symposium on Digital Literacy in Higher Education at the University of Rhode Island. It was incredibly energizing to spend a day and a half with a diverse group of educators across disciplines, all of them committed to the idea that improving our students’ (and our colleagues’) digital literacy.


Of course, there are few more amorphous topics than digital literacy, which made my task as keynote speaker challenging, to say the least. A quick survey of the literature yields almost as many definitions of the concept as there are authors who write about it.

Do we mean the ability to use digital technologies to accomplish a particular task? Or does it mean just being able to navigate the wilds of the Internet without being taken in by the false information floating around out there? Or does it mean being able to create digital objects, code something useful, or develop visualizations of large corpora of texts?

To help those assembled to try to find a way forward, I drew on my experiences on the Appalachian Trail, America’s oldest and still most iconic long distance hiking trail. Of late I’ve been mesmerized by Robert Moor’s On Trails (2016). Moor writes in ways I can only dream about, and in his first pages I found the quotation that I think helps us make our way through the echoing vastness of the Internet.

To put it as simply as possible, a path is a way of making sense of the world. There are infinite ways to cross a landscape; the options are overwhelming, and pitfalls abound. The function of a path is to reduce this teeming chaos into an intelligible line.” (14)

If we think about digital literacy more as choosing a path through the mountains and less like trying to sail across the open ocean, then I think we have a chance to find a way forward as educators and as scholars.

Of course, paths impose their own tyranny. Early into their hikes, long distance hikers find themselves less and less willing to leave the path marked out for them by others. Ask anyone who has through hiked the Appalachian Trail and they’ll tell you that “Blue Blazer” is a term of derision, because it connotes that long distance hiker who leaves the white blazes of the AT for side trail short cuts with blue blazes on the trees and rocks.

Despite the risk of being labeled a Blue Blazer, I think we have to admit that there are too many options, too many platforms, too many apps, too many new ways to navigate the Internet. If we accept this premise, then instead of trying to define or to teach something called “digital literacy,” we can instead decide “I’ll just do this,” or, “I’ll just teach my students that.” And not anything else.

Do we do them or ourselves a disservice by ignoring so much? My answer is no. Too often we forget that our students are with us for only a short time in what we (and they) hope are long and productive lives. Instead of teaching them everything they need to know about things digital, it strikes me as more than enough to teach them a few useful skills, a few useful ways of knowing. We need to give them the tools to find their own paths, and we need to model the willingness to reject the notion that to be competent means always being able to do more and more. Sometimes enough is plenty.

Just a little over 100 years ago, Benton MacKaye stood in a fire tower in Vermont and gazed out over the beauty of the Green Mountains. It was there that he first dreamed up a thing he later christened the Appalachian Trail. MacKaye’s mantra for those hiking on the trail he created was “Walk, see, and see what you see.” To put it another way, stop, look around, what can I see/learn here.

Stopping is a risk, because in doing so, the Internet will swoosh past us. But that’s ok. Really.

Making History Matter Again

I was very pleased to see AHA Teaching Division Vice President Elizabeth Lehfeldt take on the issue of declining enrollments in undergraduate history programs in the October edition of Perspectives. Anyone who reads this blog with regularity knows that enrollment issues have figured prominently among the topics I cover, most recently here and here.

The decline in history enrollments around the country isn’t news to anyone teaching at the post-secondary level and the AHA has done a thorough job of documenting some of the parameters of the decline. What’s lacking in this whole discussion is solid data on exactly why students have moved away from history and into other fields. We have lots of reasonable propositions, and I have offered my own suggestions in the posts linked above, but all of us are, to a degree, shooting in the dark because we don’t have actual data from students.

One obvious place to look for such data would be from our campus enrollment officers. Admissions offices, enrollment management consultants, and research centers like the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA have reams of data on student preferences, predispositions, demographic characteristics, and other factors that could be plugged into the kind of regressions that might just tell us a lot about what’s going on. At a minimum, these data would add richness to our anecdotal or surface studies of the problem. I hope the AHA will consider investing in some of this sort of analysis so that we get beyond just asking department chairs what they think is happening.

A second issue I have with what Lehfeldt writes in her essay is the assumption that doubling down on the History Discipline Core of the Tuning Project is going to be a solution to our enrollment problems. I completely agree with Lehfeldt that, as she writes, the Tuning project has “created a common, broadly accessible vocabulary about the value of majoring in history.” But to assert that “Tuning has helped allay students’ and parents’ concerns about ‘what to do with a major in history’,” based on no data to support such an assertion is really troubling. If such data exist, I’d love to see them.

So, yes, Tuning is a good step forward. But, no, I don’t see any evidence cited by anyone that adopting the framework and goals of the Tuning project has either allayed concerns in the market about the value of a history degree, or that the adoption of Tuning has helped change the enrollment trajectories of those departments who have signed on.

In previous posts on Tuning, I’ve been very critical of the fact that, at least to my mind, the Discipline Core is neither forward looking, nor aligned with the world our students live in. As evidence for my contentions, I would offer the fact that in the entire Discipline Core document the digital world our students (and we) live in shows up exactly once…toward the end, where one of the competencies students might gain is the ability to build a website on a historical topic.


Doubling down on Tuning as the solution to our enrollment problems strikes me as saying that if we just keep doing what we’re doing, but do it more, and do a better job of explaining to students why doing it the way we’ve always done it really, really is good, everything will turn out fine in the end.

The last time I checked, Professor Pangloss was teaching in a different department.

Maps, Walls, and Digital Public History

This coming fall I’m teaching a new course: History of the Appalachian Trail. As envisioned, the class is going to be many things at once (which is likely a structural problem). It is a conventional history of one of America’s longest national parks, it is a chance to introduce students to the basics of digital public history, and it is a chance for me to connect my avocation (long distance backpacking) with my vocation (educator, historian).

Today I want to focus on just one part of the course — the part that in some ways I’m the most excited about. Across the hallway from my office is a long, blank, pale blue wall. When I say long, I mean 82 feet long with not one thing on it except a thermostat sort of a small plastic box. This blank wall has bugged me for years, because we’re a university for goodness sake, and such a wall should be covered with student art, or history student research posters, or SOMEthing besides pale blue paint. Now I’m glad no one ever thought to do any of that stuff with what I now think of as “my wall,” because it is going to become the canvas for my students.

For their final projects, students in the class are going to create an Omeka exhibit for the website I’m developing (no formatting yet, so don’t judge) on the history of the Appalachian Trail. But they are also going to paint the Trail onto my wall. And yes, before you ask, I have permission from the powers that be in facilities to do that. Given that the wall is 82 feet long and the Trail is 2,190 miles long (this year), that works out to a scale of around 27 miles: 1 foot. That seems like a reasonable scale to me. Right now. Today.

Once we get the Trail painted on my wall, students will then attach connection points to their own work — images of people, or places, or texts, or whatever, along with QR codes that let passersby dive into the online exhibits themselves.

That’s the plan anyway. From a technological standpoint, it’s not a complicated plan. From a pedagogical standpoint, I have a fair amount of work to do this summer to make sure mys students have all the tools they need to succeed.

And yes, we’ll be doing some hiking…


Eat Your Brussels Sprouts!

When I was a child, I knew that if a Brussels sprout passed my lips, one of two things would happen — I’d vomit, or I’d die. Unfortunately for me, my mother loved Brussels sprouts and so they showed up on my dinner plate far, far too often. Because she had a “sit at your place until you clean your plate” rule, and our cats wouldn’t eat vegetables IĀ  dropped on the floor, I spent many nights sitting at that damned dinner table until it was time to go to bed.

Spinach? I hated it, but could force it down. Collards? They were worse, but I could force them down too. Limas? Peas? Loved them! But Brussels sprouts was where I drew the line.

Ultimately my mother gave up and just made me peas on the nights she cooked Brussels sprouts for herself and my father (who secretly loathed peas). Sometime in my twenties I had to eat a Brussels sprout and lo and behold, it was delicious. Who knew? We eat them often at my house, but never once have I forced one of my children to eat them. They’ll find there way to Brussels sprouts on their own. Or not. Either way, it will be up to them.

I’m sorry to report that our approach to general education in American higher education is just like my mother’s approach to vegetables at dinner — Eat them, kid. They’re good for you! And you can’t leave the table (graduate) until you DO eat them. Why? Because I’m the Dad and I said so, that’s why.

For years I’ve been railing about the state of general education in American higher education. [See for instance, two of my personal favorites from 2008: Why the Apparatchiks Would Have Loved General Education, and Milo Minderbinder University.] In today’s Chronicle of Higher Education, Jeff Selingo brings a fresh voice to the long simmering and frankly shameful debate about the truly silly ways we force our students to eat their vegetables before they graduate.

Toward the end of his essay, Selingo says, “general education is also meant to equip students with an understanding of the wider world and a sense of civic responsibility. Whether it still does that is debatable.”

I don’t think it’s debatable at all.

I think we force students to eat their vegetables because we’re the adults and we know better.

In fact, at far too many institutions of higher education here in the States, we’ve let our approach to general education ossify to the point that the thing we misleadingly call “general education” has become nothing more than an exercise in box-checking by our students who just want to graduate with the credential everyone tells them they must have to succeed in life.

Rather than cast aspersions on any other institution, I’ll cast them on my own, because George Mason University could be a poster child for the sorts of problems Selingo describes in his essay.

As evidence, let me lay out for you the requirements every student who graduates from Mason must complete (with the add on of additional requirements students in my college–Humanities and Social Sciences–must complete in addition to the already onerous requirements imposed by the university).

In what we recently renamed the “Mason Core,” every student must fulfill the following requirements with the number of credits in parentheses:

Written Communication (3) — English 100 or 101
Oral Communication (3) — Communication 100 or 101
Information Technology (3-7) — One or two courses from a list of 15
Quantitative Reasoning (3) — Math 106 or an advanced class from a list of 10
Arts (3) — One course from a list of 83
Global Understanding (3) — One course from a list of 85
Literature (3) — One course from a list of 29
Natural Science (7) — Two courses, one with a lab, from a list of 41
Social Sciences (3) — One course from a list of 35
Western or World Civilization (3) — History 100 or 125
Advanced Composition (3) — English 302 (writing in the disciplines)
Synthesis [capstone] course (3) — One course from a list of 7

So you don’t have to count up all those credits, I did it for you. That’s either 40 or 44 credits depending on the IT course you select.

Then, my college adds on an additional 18 credits to this list, meaning anyone majoring in the humanities or social sciences must complete between 58-62 credits from a list forced on them by the faculty.

Now here’s the best part. Of all of those courses we require of our students, by my count one — that’s ONE — of them actually connects to any of the others. One. As in less than two. That course is English 302, which is a writing in the disciplines course in which students learn to write in the broad categoriesĀ  they are studying in — Humanities, Social Sciences, Science, Business, Engineering, etc.

At no other time in all of those 40-62 credits do any of our required courses reach across the disciplinary boundaries to connect to other aspects of the core curriculum, unless it happens by chance (or design) in a particular course because the professor goes out of her or his way to make it happen. The capstone/synthesis courses are really just capstones within majors, not across the curriculum, so even those don’t pretend to be general education courses.

So really, here at George Mason, we don’t have a “core” that is anything more than a list of boxes that students must check.

Or, given how so many of them feel about it, Brussels sprouts they must eat.