Tag Archives: collaboration

History Spaces (II)

In my previous post in this series I argued that we need to think critically about the physical spaces that make up our departments as we look forward into the coming decade. 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.


History Spaces

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.

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 th10250968414_cdf0d135e9_ne offices are neat and tidy, others are pretty messy. Almost all of them are small.

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.

[Photo from Flickr]

THATCamp Switzerland (Concluding Remarks)

THATCamp Switzerland is now over and everyone has dispersed to their various ends of the earth, which in my case means a flight out of Geneva tomorrow morning.

My impression was that the experience was a good one for those in attendance. I certainly got plenty of positive feedback. Of course, one rarely hears the negatives in situations like this, so it’s quite possible that some weren’t pleased with the whole unconference concept, but I certainly didn’t see anyone who looked unhappy or frustrated during the two days.

At the concluding session, attended by about half of those who were there when we started, several people emphasized their belief and/or hope that further connections and collaborations would grow from this THATCamp. If this one is anything like the others I’ve attended, that will certainly be the case. And, I was pleased to note, a number of people referred to my admonition on the morning of Day One to “have fun.”

If only one could say that about the other academic conferences we attend…

THATCamp Switzerland (8)

The final full session I attended was devoted to the question of digital project management, led by Radu Suciu.

Among the questions discussed were how to complete a project once the money runs out? Another was how to plan successfully for the final outcome? Another was how do we get started with a digital humanities project?

The conversation then turned to audience. We have to think through who might be using the resource–ranging from just me to many different audiences in different fields. This makes project management difficult in the extreme if we don’t know what people in those other audience groups want (or don’t) from our work.

Another was whether digital humanities projects can be anything but a collaborative/team effort? My own take on this is that none of us have the expertise we need to realize all aspects of such an endeavor and so from the beginning we need to plan collaboration into the project in a formal as well as an informal way. This can also mean, according to one of the participants, that we may do much of the initial work alone, but there is almost always a point at which we have to engage others as partners, building a community around the work we began. The evolution over time can therefore move from an idea to a community with specific details of the project being realized either by the initial researcher or the growing community over time.

The session also raised the point that, given the difficulty of realizing a digital humanities projects, shouldn’t there be some part of graduate education (formal or informal) to teach our graduate students learn how to get from start to finish on a digital project. Our second course in the Clio Wired sequence (most recent version) offers one example of a full course version of such an introduction.