History Spaces

I wrote this essay as a series of posts during the annual meeting of the American Historical Association in January 2014. The series grew out of the work I’ve done over the past two years on various committees here at George Mason devoted to learning spaces, campus planning, and the design of a new building, as well as my on going concern about the stagnation of our curricula in history.  What follows, is a slightly edited version of that series—edited so that the texts all fit together in this long form way rather than being interlinked as a series of blog posts. If you want to read them as a series of posts, start here.

History Spaces
January 1-6, 2014

Close your eyes.

Now, visualize a college or university history department. Maybe the one you work in, or perhaps the one you studied in as an undergraduate. Or if you weren’t a history student, one you visited at some point in your life.

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I bet I can tell you what it looks like, floating there in your mind. There is a hallway. Maybe a long hallway. With lots of posters and flyers tacked up. And a sign that says “Department of History.” You walk in and find a receptionist and a bunch of faculty mailboxes. Maybe a printer or a copier. And up and down the hall are doors, almost all of them closed, with cartoons, announcements, and other ephemera of faculty lives taped on those doors. A few of the doors are open, so you peek in and you see books. Lots of books. Some of the offices are neat and tidy, others are pretty messy. Almost all of them are small.
[Photo from Flickr]

You might wonder what sorts of intellectual work takes place in those offices. Research? Writing? Collaboration with colleagues in other states or countries? Probably some grading too. Those offices can be interesting and inviting, or so messy that they are a little scary, but they tend to fit our notions of what a professor’s office looks like, even if the work taking place there often doesn’t. Too often what happens there is all about just trying to stay on top of email or campus committee work. And grading. Plenty of grading. Research does happen, but most of that is across an Ethernet or wireless connection these days.

History departments around the country are of a piece with this description because they’re artifacts of the way the professoriate in most universities has developed – the professor as semi-independent contractor, who has a campus office that is his/her base of operations for teaching and research. Those offices are places to meet with students and colleagues, but only rarely are the location of serious, sustained intellectual work. That part of our professional lives mostly takes place elsewhere, most often at home, but also in libraries, archives, in the field, or in a coffee shop with a good wireless connection.

So what? Why worry about our physical spaces when we have so many other issues on our plates? After all, we’ve muddled along with this physical model of history departments for more than a century. Why not just stay the course, or at least ask for a bigger office, preferably with a window?

I can think of several reasons why right now, today, historians need to be not only thinking critically about the kinds of spaces we’re in, but also advocating as loudly as possible for change in those spaces. At the top of my list are three prominent contenders: the growing importance of digital in the history (and humanities) curriculum; the now seemingly ubiquitous pressure to incorporate more online or hybrid course options into our curricula; and the growing importance of undergraduate research in college curricula more generally. If we don’t press hard for changes in the spaces we have – the typical history department you imagined – we’re going to have a difficult time making any headway in either of these two emerging areas of our endeavors, both with undergraduate and graduate students.

Over the next several days, while historians from across the country and around the world are assembled here in Washington, D.C., for the annual meeting of the American Historical Association, I’m going to explore our history spaces, and how we ought to begin thinking about changes in those spaces to help us prepare for the teaching, learning, and research environment we’ll find ourselves in in the coming decade.

I’ve previously taken up the issue of spaces and learning in this blog, and my series this week is certainly inspired, in part, by the thinking I did on this subject back in November 2012. But that thinking was about classrooms. This series is more about our departmental spaces — spaces that I believe will be more central to our success in years to come than we currently give them credit for.

One of the main reasons why I think it’s worth trying to do something about the shape and form of the typical history department is that our departmental spaces are one of the few spaces on campus that we have much to say about.

Sure, we are sometimes consulted about classroom design, or about “learning commons” spaces in the library. But those spaces belong to others. To the degree that our departmental spaces belong to us, we at least have the opportunity to reimagine how they might best serve our needs and the needs of our students going forward from where we are today.

The first possible reimagining of a departmental space I want to throw out there is one that addresses the growing importance of digital in the history curriculum, but also in the work we do as scholars. The standard history department space of the long hallway of professor offices in no way facilitates the kind of collaborative work that is at the heart of digital historical work (and the digital humanities in general). Although digital tools certainly make it possible to collaborate with colleagues across great distances, our experience at the Center for History and New Media, and the experience of colleagues at digital humanities centers around the world, is that there is no substitute for a team of scholars (or students) sitting around a table, throwing out ideas, working through difficult coding challenges, etc.

Therefore, if we are going to do digital right in our departments, we need to create collaborative spaces where the making of digital history can happen.

That making can take many forms. It could be a “maker space” like the ThinkLab at the University of Mary Washington, which is the kind of space where, to quote Audrey photo(1)Watters, the focus can be on “play and creativity and exploration.” In such a space, students and faculty can begin to play around with the basic assumptions of digital history, can hack things together or apart, and can begin to create new forms of knowledge representation that can be shared across a variety of media.

Another such space that can be a model for what we need in history departments is the Design Lab 1 space at the University of Michigan, where students and faculty are urged to “drop in, start something.” This space was designed by a small group of students and faculty members from several colleges who wanted to lure in fellow travelers and curious others to start making things. According to Matthew Barritt and Linda Knox, who have written about DL1 in Planning for Higher Education (42/1, October–December 2013), “Gradually, the room developed into a multifaceted learning environment with a distinctive cultural character representative of its members.”

Imagine what if would be like if, in a history department, we made a space that nurtured “a distinctive cultural character” that was representative of our discipline and its future potential in the digital age? Such a space would invite students and colleagues in, encourage them to work together, and would give them tools to play around with notions of how the past ought to be represented in media beyond the book and the academic journal.

But most importantly, and this is probably the biggest hurdle we’ll have to get over as historians used to doing our work the same way it’s been done for more than a century or two, it will have to be a space where research, learning, and and the production are understood to be a shared endeavor. The spaces we inhabit today reinforce the notion that these three central activities of any history department are top down endeavors, where experts transmit their knowledge to novices. To be successful in a world where digital matters, we’re going to have to accept that some, if not a good bit, of what we will be doing should be built on a different — a truly collaborative — notion of teaching, learning, and research. Then we just have to build, or more likely retrofit, spaces where that collaboration can actually happen.

If your institution is anything like mine (or like most of the ones I read about and visit), you are being asked to think about how you might incorporate more online and/or hybrid courses into your curriculum. In our case here at George Mason University these conversations are being driven both by a genuine sense that we need to be part of the online delivery of educational content, but also by a space crunch that is only going to become more acute with each passing semester. Whatever the pressures or inducements are at your institution, it’s almost a given that you are hearing something from somewhere on campus about online, online, online.

When we talk about spaces and online education (under which I’m including hybrid courses that blend online and face to face instruction), there are both physical and virtual spaces to consider. I’m on record in many places as not liking BlackBoard or really any other commercially available learning management system (LMS), but I will admit that for many instructors, these open the box and use systems make a lot of sense if only because they are institutionally supported and relatively easy to use. I think they impose a particular set of pedagogical assumptions on the instructor, which is why I don’t use them, but for history departments that want to create virtual learning spaces quickly, the use of a commercial LMS may be the simplest option.

What I’m more concerned with in this essay, however, is the physical spaces we control — to the degree we do control them — in our departmental offices. If we are going to do online right, we and our students have to have easy access to two kinds of physical spaces — those that can be used for the production of online historical resources, and those that students can use when consuming those resources.

I think educators enamored of online education cling to one really big mistaken assumption when it comes to student learning with online resources. Yes, it is likely that many students will sit quietly by themselves watching videos, working their way through problems, doing research, and interacting with other students enrolled in the same course. But does it have to be that way? Is this face-glued-to-laptop mode of learning the best use of online educational tools? After all, if that’s the way students are going to take our courses, then we don’t need our campuses at all, now do we? They can just sit at home, in Starbucks, or wherever, and consume our curricula all by their lonesome selves. Think of the money we’d save if we shut down all our classroom buildings for good.

What if, instead, we created learning spaces in our departments dedicated to students taking online courses? Such spaces could be Huntsmallish, meaning large enough for a couple or a few students, and wired, so that the students can all watch the same screen simultaneously, but have enough bandwidth to work independently on their laptops/tablets. The image to the left is from the Hunt Library at N.C. State University that opened last year and shows one of many such possible configurations of a space where students can work together, whether as part of an online course, or while planning a group presentation, or whatever.

If our students had such spaces and we designed our online learning opportunities to encourage them to work together in such spaces (or in their dorms, or a Starbucks), what could the learning outcomes be and how would those outcomes be different that what might be achieved in a face-glued-to-laptop mode of online course design? Because some of the very best historical work is the result of collaborative endeavor — showing drafts to friends, presenting to colleagues, etc. — it seems to me that it is incumbent on us to think more carefully about designing online learning around the kinds of collaborations we value in our own work. In that way we help to model a mode of knowledge production that we engage in ourselves. And we give them a reason to engage with our curriculum in our department, where faculty and other students might join in, be available to answer questions, or take part in the production of new knowledge as part of the kind of shared endeavor I discussed above.

That alone would seem to offer a very good reason why even online students might want to be on our campuses rather than taking courses from online competitors.

In the middle of writing the blog posts that make up this longer essay I was at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association and while there I attended a panel discussion of the recent American Academy of Arts & Sciences report, “The Heart of the Matter” that discusses the future of the humanities and social sciences in the United States. One of the panelists, I’m pretty sure it was Claire Potter, suggested that one reason our colleagues in the STEM disciplines seem to be more visible on campus is that they do their work in big spaces — labs, workshops, and so on — spaces that include other colleagues, graduate students, and undergraduates. The speaker then urged historians to think big, by which she meant big projects we could do that would similarly involve many people.

We already do that here at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, where we have dozens and dozens of people working on various projects, large and small, spread out across half a floor in one of our campus research buildings. But we’re one of only a few history departments around the country that have such large scale research and production spaces and almost all of those that exist are engaged in digital work. Digital work at this scale is not for everyone, but historical research is, at least if by everyone we mean historians and their students.

Earlier, I suggested that we need to start thinking about research, teaching, and learning as shared endeavors rather than something that we as the experts transmit to our students in our classrooms and in our cramped offices. Such a vision of the future of history education fits very nicely with the push across the United States for substantial expansion of undergraduate research opportunities. According to the Council on Undergraduate Research, more than 900 colleges and universities have signed on as members of the Council and more than 10,000 faculty, staff, and students have joined as well. I’m quite certain that within a decade these numbers will have increased substantially. Undergraduate research is just too attractive both as a pedagogical tool and as a marketing strategy.

For historians this should be a no-brainer.Every history curriculum I’ve examined has a research methods course, a required research seminar, or some similar focus on undergraduate research. It’s just what we do.

But while we’re very good at giving our students a chance to engage in authentic historical research, we’re not very good at doing that in a “big” way as suggested by yesterday’s speaker. Instead, we generally reproduce the binary expert/novice model and just about the only time research that is anything like the shared endeavor so common to the sciences occurs is when we hire an undergraduate to do some research for us.

What if we took yesterday’s speaker seriously, though, and went big? What kinds of libraryhistorical research projects could we design that would span several years, would attract external funding, and would engage undergraduates, graduate students, and colleagues in collaborative knowledge production and meaning making? I can think of several such possibilities right off the top of my head and I’m sure that with a few minutes reflection, you could too.

But if we are going to go big, we need some space for that to happen — space where people can sit around tables and collaborate, where some archival files can be stored, maps can be unrolled, objects can be locked up and then later brought out for examination, careful analysis of sources can happen, where all the things we do as historians can take place, can be shared, and can result in something much bigger and more immersive than the expert/novice binary can every provide.

Any such space we build should be visible from the street, the hallway, or the campus quad. Other students, those not part of what we’re up to in that cool space, should be able to peer inside and ask, “Hey, what’s going on in there?” Because if they do, they might just think to ask more about being a history major. And with the number of high school seniors set to decline over the coming decade, anything we can do to attract a few more our way is to the good.

Now I want to take up the hardest question of all — how we might find the physical spaces we need to take the sort of creative and new approaches to digital history, online education, and undergraduate research I’ve advocated for here.

I think it’s fair to say that few, if any, of our institutions have extra space lying around near our departmental offices that they would be willing to let us have, retrofit, and repurpose. And even if such spaces were just sitting there waiting to be used in new and different ways, it’s probably unlikely that a history department would get to call first dibs. We’re more likely to lose out to our colleagues in the STEM disciplines, the business school, or other programs that bring in larger enrollments and more external funding.

That being the case, all we have left to work with are our departmental spaces themselves. Unfortunately, if your department is anything like mine, the way your offices are set up right now doesn’t really lend itself to developing new and exciting spaces for student/faculty collaboration. Which leaves us with only one really viable alternative. To get new spaces that will serve us well over the coming decades, we’re going to have to give up something, and that something is going to have to be our private faculty offices.

Yes, I know that to even suggest that a professor give up his/her private office is about as heretical as anything I could possibly suggest. But before you click away to something less likely to elevate your blood pressure, hear me out.

Let’s all be honest for just a minute. Raise your hand if every one of your colleagues uses his/her office for more than 20 hours per week every week. Anyone? No? I didn’t think so. The fact is, every history department in the United States has plenty of office space that is used less than 20 hours per week — much of it for less than 15 hours. And when they are in use, what do we do in our offices? Most of us — not all, I grant, but most — use our offices primarily for prepping our classes, meeting with students, grading, and catching up on email. Very few historians I know do significant research and writing in those departmental offices. That work, as I suggested above, mostly takes place in archives, libraries, or at home.

So, if we have all this space that is being used less than half time, there are two possible alternatives for how we might reconfigure our office spaces to make them into what we want. The first alternative is, in some ways, the simplest — shared offices. Bob, who Booksteaches MWF this semester has the office those days, and Stan, who teaches TR, has it the two other days.

But what about my books???

Trust me, I know. I too love my books and just sitting in my office looking at them makes me happy. But, since we’re being brutally honest here, how about this as a solution to your books. You get to keep every book that you’ve taken down off the shelf in the past 18 months. All the rest have to go home. In my case, that would open up something like 70 percent of my shelf space. Maybe more if I’m being really honest.

The second alternative, and the one that would have to require some serious re-thinking of how we work in our departments, is to move to an open floor plan — no, not cubicles — where individual workspaces are surrounded by offices that can be used for private meetings, project work, or private calls. Almost every other industry in the United States has moved to open floor plans and higher education just can’t be so special, so exceptional, that it couldn’t work for us as well.

1315-Peachtree-Perkins-Will-6Industries where professionals have to engage in creative, intellectual work have found ways to make open floor plans successful and report that collaboration among colleagues, general employee happiness, and overall productivity have gone up rather than down. This image is from the offices of Perkins+Will, an architectural firm in Atlanta, Georgia with a substantial higher ed practice. The main common space shown here holds dozens of workspaces for the architects and is ringed by glassed in offices that are used for various ad hoc purposes — the kinds of purposes I have been describing here. And, you’ll note, everyone has a window. I don’t know about you, but I certainly prefer natural light over florescent tubes.

If the very idea of giving up your private office hasn’t sent you away yet, try this experiment. Make a simple sketch of the total office space your department occupies. Then think carefully about the kinds of new spaces you’d like to have. Do you want a maker lab? Do you want group work spaces for students taking online courses? Do you want a “history lab” where you, several colleagues, graduate and undergraduate students can all work together on long term research projects? How about a new classroom that your department controls and that houses the technology, cartons of artifacts, or whatever, that you’d like to have available all the time?

If you were to halve the number of private offices (option #1, shared offices) that your department has, how much space would that free up? Would it be enough for the cool new spaces you envision? Or, if you were to move to an open floor plan like the one pictured above (option #2), how much space would that free up?

You might object to the whole idea I’ve laid out over the past few days on the basis of pessimism about your institution’s willingness to invest in reconfigured department space. Before you do, it’s worth sitting down with whoever is in charge of your campus spaces — an architect, a space planner, a facilities director — and just have a conversation with them. I can say that all across the United States people who fill those roles at colleges and universities are engaged in a very interesting and dynamic conversation about how campus buildings need to be retrofitted to meet the learning needs of future students and the research needs of future faculty. See if your campus is a member of the Society for College and University Planning. If so, then someone on campus has been at least partly connected to these conversations.

If so, you may just be surprised to find that you have a receptive audience, maybe even a willing partner, especially if you go in an offer up something — the footprint of your department — in exchange for something new and exciting.

The alternative, I’m sorry to say, is for us to sit in our offices, with our books, lamenting that those STEM people keep getting all the good spaces on campus.

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