On #UNL_DHS & #hastac2011

Perhaps it was because I finished my reflection for Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together before hopping on my flight to Ann Arbor, but her argument and the UNL Digital Humanities Seminar was on my mind quite a bit during HASTAC V. Particularly Turkle’s argument that networked communication was making people isolated by distracting them from real relationships and giving them false relationships. Cathy Davidson began the conference with a wonderful talk in which she brought up a famous psychology experiment. (Check it out here before I spoil it)

Davidson noted that when she first saw the video at a public talk, she was distracted by other things going on, but because she was distracted from the “task” (counting the passes) she was able to see the gorilla. This anecdote struck me as counter to Turkle’s argument. By being distracted, Davidson was able to properly see experiment. In very much the same way I found being “distracted” by twitter during the conference enlivened my experience and I think made the conference a a more meaningful experience than it would have had I chosen to “pay attention.”

Choosing to tweet was a self-conscious choice I made the morning of Friday’s official start to the conference. I had attended the #alt-ac workshop the night before and only brought a pen and paper, so no tweeting. Friday morning, however, I grabbed my computer and cord, leaving the paper behind. My reading of Turkle’s argument was that online networks like twitter encourage false personas and false relationships. However, over the course of the conference I found twitter to enrich, encourage, and facilitate my “real” interactions with people.

Cathy Davidson’s talk had a small experiment, in which she gave instructions for the audience to write down a couple of things in a short amount of time after which she told the audience to share their answers with a person next to you. Afterward she revealed the activity was very much a gorilla in the room situation. We were not told to silently write down our answers, though the entire audience worked that way. We had to be told to collaborate. Davidson then began to describe the fascinating history of how the educational system conditioned people to default to quiet, individual work. That is a side note, however. Getting back to twitter, when discussing my answers with a neighbor, I met a grad student from the University of Michigan, who followed me on twitter and I later followed on twitter. Before networked communication we simply would have shaken hands, had a few words and maybe seen each other at another conference. However, the possibility for extended communication exists beyond the occasional accidental meeting.

Similarly, a senior scholar followed me on twitter after I briefly talked with her at the Friday night reception. Twitter does not guarantee any further communication. This senior scholar may never remember the UNL grad student she talked to at HASTAC V (I imagine she talked to a lot of people) but my name appearing in her twitter feed every so often certainly raises the possibility that she may remember me if we meet again. Are these relationships, which began with an introduction, but will now exist on twitter, “real”? They are certainly more real than having no professional relationship.

On Friday night I also met an early career scholar who had led the pre-conference #alt-ac workshop. Saturday morning after the first keynote, I began a conversation with him by saying I like his tweets about that talk. There are many ways to begin a conversation, but having a low pressure online relationship, the one that Turkle argues will lead to human’s reliance on robotic relationships in the future, does not erode person relationships. Rather, it helped to have a (in Turkle’s sense) “fake” relationship to begin a “real” relationship.

The same thing happened when I met another senior scholar. He mentioned he had heard of me through my blog (and I had certainly heard of him). While we did not have a real life relationship before meeting, networked communication allowed us to have familiarity with each others’ work and ideas. This sort of groundwork for in-person relationships does not have to happen online; I read the senior scholar’s work before meeting in-person. But what was this senior scholars going to read of mine before social media? Networked communication does not actually degrade “real life” communication. Rather, the online facilitates and enriches the “real life.”

Alone Together

[This is a post for UNL’s Digital Humanities Seminar. The week’s readings was Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together.]

In Alone Together, Sherry Turkle explores human interaction with technology, concluding that as technology provides companionship it also isolates individuals. Turkle presents this argument in two parts, first looking at “tomorrow’s story” of sociable robots and later examining “today’s story” of online networks and connectivity (17). Turkle suggests that as people and technology become closer, people grow further apart. While Turkle’s use of extensive examples make her point clear and understandable, as a historian, I found her analysis lacking genuine reflection on comparing the interpersonal relationships in the Internet Age with relationships before this new technology. By not historicizing her argument, skepticism over the uniqueness of her findings remains.

Turkle begins her work by examining what she sees as the future, sociable robots. Detailing case studies of people’s interactions with increasingly sophisticate robots, Turkle builds the argument that people are and will continue to develop sociable robots to fill emotional voids. She warns the “safe” interactions robots provide seem beneficial, but may in fact hinder society in the long run. While sociable robots give the impression of a relationship, they in fact only give a “performance” (101). She makes this point most powerfully when discussing the use of robots in nursing homes. Turkle acknowledges that the relationship seems to benefit seniors and allows younger generations the comfort of knowing their elders have companionship, but she questions whether this reliance on technology merely allows society to, guilt-free, ignore seniors.

Society accepting the replacement of personal relationships with technology is the second step in Turkle’s narrative, however. Turkle argues that before sociable robots will provide the appearance of companionship to isolated individuals on a societal level, society must first learn to feel connected while alone. Turkle argues online networks and mobile connectivity are already building the appearance of connectivity while people are increasingly losing touch with “real” relationships. Social networks and continual connectivity, Turkle maintains, lower expectations for social interaction, paving the way for robotic relationships. Networked communication lowers people’s social interaction by placing technology in-between personal relationships. Through more case studies, Turkle explores online communication from Facebook to texting to confessional websites, arguing people feel more connected, while they are, in reality, only superficially connected. Like the sociable robot, networked communication is more a performance than a relationship.

However, I felt quite skeptical from Turkle’s interpretations of her observations in regards to these networked communications. In her introduction, Turkle tells a story of a young woman Skyping with her grandma. While Turkle notes the service Skype allows increased face-to-face communication (mediated by a computer though), the woman felt guilty for doing other things while chatting with her family member. Turkle suggests this anecdote exemplifies the superficial connectivity of new technology: more quantity, but less quality (14). However, I find this view to romanticize the past. How many people talk distractedly on the phone to a family member? Or in person to a family member? Likely the same proportion that do so online. Turkle’s observations of new communication technology eroding personal relationships seems alarmist when much of the behavior she observes takes place with pre-Internet communication.

Turkle repeatedly overstretches her argument with similar examples. One of Turkle’s biggest points is that people create alternate online identities, which Turkle emphasizes as performance. However, social interactions have nearly always been dependent on performance. I was not convinced the performance of a Facebook profile is all that much more damaging than the performance of eighteenth and nineteenth gentility (or any other cultural system), in which people surround themselves with objects meant to convey a sense of self that may or may not be genuine. Social relations seem to be by their nature part performance, so why would online relationships be different?

Perhaps the most egregious is her assertion that young people are so busy that they can no longer date, but only “hook up.” It is not my area of expertise, but I have to believe low commitment sexual relationship are not new to the Digital Age. In attributing every instance of low quality communication to new technology, Turkle undermines her argument’s effectiveness. Though she briefly notes past comparisons in a few spots, she does not examine the historical trends that may shape this new technology’s influence. Turkle’s fears may merely be a product of new technology’s reception, similar to Wu’s “cycle.” It is certainly possible every new communication technology brings reports of new “distractions” and cheapened personal communications (though this is just speculation on my part).

Even though Turkle may overreach at points, she does make an overall valid point about technology. Just because there is more communication does not mean it will better communication. The humanities and academia more generally should heed this broader argument. Academics can now “friend” or “follow” other academics and even follow along with conferences via twitter. Scholars use popular (twitter, Facebook, etc.) and scholarly (H-Net) networks for communication, allowing the academics to work together regardless of their place on the globe.

However, this virtual communication cannot substitute for personal relationships and conference attendance. These virtual networks should support real life relationships, not overtake them. Scholars should use networked communication to virtually attend conferences that would have previously been out of reach. If, or perhaps when, scholars begin using virtual conference attendance to substitute for physical attendance then Turkle’s fear will be realized in the humanities.

Similarly, online communication removes space as a barrier for collaboration. Any scholar can work with any other scholar, provide they have Internet access. However, Turkle’s warning should be heeded as it is easy for scholars to collaborate online while (literally) shutting the door on their real life colleagues.

Turkle’s warning can also be extrapolated to address the digital humanities specifically. Digital tools open the possibilities of analyzing data in new way. Though many of these tools read texts at a distance, like text mining and topic modeling. These new methods are important, though the humanities would be cheapened if scholars abandoned traditional close readings of text. Turkle urges society to be careful of the ways in which new technology changes people and their relationships. Digital humanists must likewise be careful to watch the ways in which new digital tools change their scholarship.

Bruno Latour

[This post is a reading reflection written for UNL’s Digital Humanities Seminar. This week’s reading was Bruno Latour’s Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory.]

Something tells me Bruno Latour would not like the analysis of “social networks” in my research. Latour breaks down both “social” and “networks,” as well as several other terms in a useful theoretical book. However, I find his deconstructions only partially useful, as his theoretical arguments do not always seem practical.

In order for Latour’s reassemblage of the social to have significance, he must first object to the current definitions of social. Though he might not argue as strongly if not trying to be somewhat provocative, it seems Latour is content to throw the baby out with the bath water. Latour seems most concerned with the improper usage of the word social. He may even be correct. However, to discount the value of studying social structures or social influences seems extreme. Latour can find fault in the words we use to define these phenomenon, but I find the content of the research and not the words used to describe the field more important.

Though I felt Latour got too obsessed with defining social, I find Latour’s definition of a network, “Network is a concept, not a thing out there” (131), incredibly useful. In my own research, I have attempted to visualize networks, which is difficult if a netowrk is not a thing to see. The danger with visualizing networks is that the personal relationships that comprise a social network are very diverse and dynamic. Relationships change over time and are never quite as simple as lines connecting names. The very act of visualizing a social network seems to cheapen the intimacies of personal relationships by equating deep friendship with acquaintance. However, in reality, there is little alternative. As historians looking at personal relationships in the past it is very difficult to partially understand on personal relationship let alone a vast set of them. Instead of giving up on quantifying something that is in reality impossible to fully understand, I prefer to take what little understanding I can. Even if I cannot fully grasp the depth or shallowness of a past personal relationships, I find exploring these relationships, even speculatively, more useful than ignoring them.

Clubs of GR

The following is an excerpt from the same chapter draft as last week’s post.

Grand Rapids’ Club Scene

According to the Peninsular Club’s constitution, the club’s primary function was “to promote social intercourse amongst its members.” In order to accommodate the city’s preeminent elite on both sides of the political aisle, the club refused to express any “opinion on any religious, political or social question.” On everyday but Sunday, members could frequent the club house from seven in the morning until midnight, though special occasions could keep the club open until four in the morning. The club was still open on Sundays, from 9:00am until 10:00pm, but the club did not allow games or alcohol. During the other days, the club allowed card games, though only gentlemanly ones. The constitution outlawed “the games of Poker, Loo, and other games of hazard” or gambling. Every Saturday evening was “Club Night,” during which the club wanted its members “to make a special effort to be present.”

The Peninsular Club was one many social clubs in the city. However, unlike the Lakeside Club, which had hundreds of members, the Peninsular Club only kept dozens of members.The club maintained this exclusivity through strict admissions policies and fees. For a man to gain membership, he needed a current member to submit a written proposal, which then needed a second member to second the proposal. Afterward, the applicant’s name, as well as the names of his two sponsors, would be posted at in the club house for ten days. Finally, the members would take a vote, with only two negative votes required to deny an applicant membership. If the members did approve the applicant, he would then owe a fifty dollar initiation fee, after which he would be responsible for the annual dues of forty dollars.

Though exclusive, non-members could still access the social power of the Peninsular Club. Members could invite non-members to enjoy the social club, though only twice in one year. For many of the city’s leading citizens, like Mayor George Perry, who knew several members, two invitations could be come a dozen rather quickly. In addition to his own social relations with members like Thomas McGarry, Perry appointed several Peninsular Club members to city government positions while mayor, including Dudley Waters, Charles Phelps, William Boyns, and David Uhl. Though George Perry was not a member during his time as mayor, he could easily socialize at the Peninsular Club.

The masculine club house allowed the city’s elite men to socialize over a drink, smoke, and game of cards or billiards. The Peninsular Club also provided a space acceptable for women and children. The ladies dining room was the acceptable space for members of the club to entertain women, as well as the only area permissible for children. However, the Ladies’ Literary Club (LLC), a separate women’s club, provided a more complete feminine space. While the Peninsular Club had an explicitly social purpose, the LLC’s function was the “promotion of literary, scientific, and educational purposes,” as well as “the bringing together of women that they might be helpful to one another and to society.” The LLC hosted national renown speakers in its auditorium and held classes on Shakespeare, short stories, and the Bible.

Though the LLC had an educational foundation, it clearly had social inclinations. Examining a 1926 inventory, the gentility of the LLC becomes very clear. Some of the kitchen items included two lunch clothes, two silver tea urns, two small china plates, three dox tea towels, one sugar tong, four lemon forks, four glass lemon plates. The LLC also had other, more expensive items, such as a grand piano, thirty-six books by Shakespeare, a Wilton Rug, and a silk American flag, estimated at $1,125, $100, $257, and $75 respectively. The ladies discussing Shakespeare in the tea room were the wives and mothers of the city’s elite. Wives of furniture magnets, such as the women of the Widdicomb and Gay families, politicians, like Mrs. William Stuart, Mrs. George Perry, and Mrs. William Alden Smith, and lawyers, bankers, and other businessmen like Mrs. Edwin Uhl, Mrs. Harvey Hollister, Mrs. Dudley Waters, and Mrs. McGeorge Bundy.

The Corrupt Network

Last week, I turned in my project for my digital history seminar. What I hope is evident from my design, I used this course to play with an idea of investigating “Facebook friends” in the past. “Facebook friends” is a modern term that can describe relationships ranging from life long friendships and one time acquaintances. Though Facebook and the term “Facebook friends” are modern things, social networks are nothing new. Examining social networks of the past provides context for events, like the political scandal on which my thesis is based.

My digital project is meant to visualize some of the relationships, which I have been writing about for my thesis so that I can better see the relationships. I have found textual descriptions of these social connections to be very long winded and often difficult to read, but visual descriptions can quickly and often more accurately present social relationships.

Though perhaps not as developed as much as I would have liked, the opportunity to expand my research remains. This digital project, just like any print project resulting from a research seminar needs additional work before becoming publishable.

Open Source Scholarship

A couple of weeks ago, Bethany Nowviskie visited UNL and talked about adapting the model of “skunkworks” to producing research and development. While her talk included many great insights as well as the most entertaining slides I have ever seen in an academic speech, one part of my notes from the talk really jumped out to me. I wrote: “scholars used to hiding work until polished–> bad for open source collaboration,” which seems to me to be a great insight into academic production of scholarship.

When debating whether or not to start a blog, I found that I too had been trained (by whom I am not sure) to hide my work until it is polished. I was a little cautious because I did not want to be defined by blog posts writing that, while thought out and edited, did not receive the much closer review I give to papers for class. I also worried that I would develop an amazing research topic and mention it, only to have another scholar steal it and beat me to the punch. I feared that I would fall into a situation like in 2009 when two mall cop movies came out within months of one another, and the movie released first made nearly ten times as much.

However, as I have seen the benefits of open sourced work (one example being the open source visualization tools around which I have built my digital history seminar project), I am beginning to think opening the research process up will be much more beneficial than waiting until my work is polished.

Scholars already do share unfinished work, one example being giving conferences papers. However, this sharing is almost always still very polished, like a formal presentation, or only reaches a limited audience, like a few peers off of whom you bounce ideas. Some of the beauty of the Internet and its social networks, is that you can now bounce ideas off of large groups of peers, like a number of twitter followers or facebook friends, or even friends or family you guilt into reading your blog.

Beginning sometime soon (polished details to come later), I plan on officially getting over some of the fear of sharing research. Once I decide on the frequency, I will begin substituting (perhaps supplementing, but we will have to see how productive I am this summer) a blog post on a regular basis to discuss my research in hopes that I can gain productive feedback. Though, even if I do not get any feedback, I figure at least regularly expressing my research ideas in (semi-)coherent words will help me develop the ideas further.

Just Keep Swimming

Once again, the end of the semester is near, which means each night’s sleep gets progressively shorter. I keep telling myself that graduate school is a marathon, not a sprint, but it seems that every few couple of miles I need to sprint. The work to complete graduate school is a tough enough task on its own. When coupled with the stress of low pay, dim job prospects in the future, and the type of personal problems that hit everyone regardless of career, it is enough to question what you are doing with your life. And with that lovely introduction, I want to give a few suggestions for staying sane in graduate school.

Blow off steam

Taking a walk, going for a run, bitching about your workload or the class you TA for to a friend or pet, meditating, yelling into a pillow, punching the wall (you may want to get a punching bag instead though), or any other activity that will help you work out the stress of graduate school is essential. Though it is probably the most obvious suggestion, without a method to get rid of some of the day-to-day stress, graduate school becomes a monumental task.

Guilty Pleasures

Blowing off steam can help you de-stress through productive activities like exercising or therapeutic ones like complaining, guilty pleasures, on the other hand, are activities that give you a moment of respite from the day’s worries. Think more fun, but less productive. A few of mine include playing in a few fantasy sports leagues, obsessing about Notre Dame football, anything created by Joss Whedon, and foods that are either chocolaty or deep-fried. I think of guilty pleasures like a power nap. Spending a short amount of time on something you genuinely enjoy (and that is not related to your work), can re-energize you as you try and tackle your day.

Social Life

I will be the first to admit, I have neglected this piece of advice more than I have liked this semester as I try to finish my MA thesis. However, I always say that going to happy hour with other graduate students is one of the best ways a graduate student can spend her or his time. Even if you do not drink, spending some social time with other people is vital to maintaining sane in the often isolating experience of graduate school (history can be particularly solitary at times). Not only do social events provide the opportunity for you to blow off steam and distract you from the pile of work sitting at home, I have found one of the most valuable resources for navigating graduate students is other graduate students. Even if that may seems obvious, I have learned so much from students further along in the program than me and I cannot stress that point enough. Particularly as a new student trying to figure out how to work your way through the politics of a department, the best resource is students who have already spent time navigating.

There is no reason to limit your interaction with graduate students to in person contact either. I have found twitter to be a great resource for connecting and interacting with other students and scholars, even if those I have never met in person. Similarly, there are groups that are more explicitly meant to be resources for graduate students, like H-Net’s H-Grad listserv (disclaimer: I’m currently an editor so, no surprise, I think it’s great), which provides a private, graduate student-only forum for students to draw on the experience of others across the globe (though the majority are probably in the US).

If all else fails, I tell myself to just keep swimming.

#sarnackigate (two links)

Jonathan Nash:

Can the Graduate Student speak, & if ze can, will anyone listen?

I’m not really interested in the content of @briansarnacki’s post from yesterday (Sorry B!). I am, however, interested in the criticisms it generated. Most follow this pattern: grad student + “naivety” = dismissal of opinion.

It seems the same formula is used often to systematically silence graduate student voices throughout the interwebz. The exact same formula is used to silence graduate students who complain about the so-called “job market.” And the exact same formula is often used when graduate students critique their graduate school experiences. The formula tells graduate students what academia expects of them: shut up, work quietly, & accept the status quo.

In my opinion, it’s terrific that graduate students are so threatening & potentially damning that their voices must be silenced as soon as they utter a syllable.

(he also provides links to tweets that back up his point)

Andrea Zellner:

Something happened on twitter this week that motivated me to write this post. Generally, I’ve noticed a bit of a trend (granted, this is sampling bias) of Higher Ed folks tweeting, facebooking, reddit-ing, and otherwise publicly mentioning, kvetching, and snarking about students. Largely, this has been about students’ writing. Then, I noticed that someone else noticed, too. And then, there was a backlash. I am of the opinion that there is a fine line between being snarky and bullying. Satire loses its power in my eyes when it takes aim at the powerless. It is one thing to laugh with a person when they have a typo or an unfortunate word substitution (thong for thing, for example) (iPhone auto-correct gets me in trouble regularly. I once blew up an eye vessel laughing too hard at damnyouautocorrect.com). It is quite another to be laughed at.

Listen, we all get tired of feeling like we are repeating ourselves to our students. We get frustrated that nothing seems to change. But openly complaining on twitter is counterproductive at best, and hurtful at worst. The thing is that we can teach all we want; it is the learning that matters.

Respect in the digital age

“I think it demonstrates a real lack of respect for students…How can students trust that someone is going to have their best interests in mind and be trying to help them in that course if they are making fun of them behind their back?”

— Hans Rollman, graduate student at York University

While perhaps not wildly popular in a mainstream sense, I have been coming across an alarming number of online resources in which professors and graduate students openly (and anonymously) mock students. In what I can only describe as immature and petty, these sites denigrate poorly written sentences, typos, and spelling errors from the papers of students. From Shit My Students Write to twitter accounts like Grumpy Historian and Prof Snarky, these anonymous postings are on par with the vicious gossip forums, like Juicy Campus.

I am sure everyone who has ever graded a paper has found sentences (or complete papers) that create the urge to pull one’s hair out and most graders have muttered under their breath or even complained to colleagues. These private utterances, while regrettable, resemble thoughts that are never said out loud because they are hurtful or just merely a product of frustration. However, once these thoughts are “said” on the Internet, they cannot be taken back and may end up hurting someone.

Have academics become so jaded that making fun of the people who we are supposed to be teaching is the only option? Or are we just that insecure about our own intelligence? Regardless of why people find the need to make fun of students, this disrespect for students and mockery of the learning process only hurts the relationship between instructors and students as well as perpetuates the stereotype of professors as pretentious intellectuals.

Furthermore, these sites that the claim to give anonymity to submitters are not, in fact, all that protective. Belittling the written work of a student does not protect the student or the grader because, barring plagiarism, the author could identify the quoted excerpt and connect it to a particular class assignment. Beyond the obvious feelings of shock or hurt a student seeing his or her work being openly mocked may feel, a grader who posts comments online can face real world consequences from the lack of true anonymity. For example, a teaching assistant at York University in Canada experienced the dangers of making fun of students online after her Facebook comments complaining about the writing of students went public.

Instructors should be setting a good example, but instead it seems they have taken the worst parts of anonymous student reviews and expanded upon them. While grading, especially when grading papers that receive copious amounts of red ink, it is important to remember being in the place of the student. I know I have turned in papers containing sentences that could have ended up on Shit My Students Write.That is why proofreading (done by the author as well as an editor in some cases) is a valuable tool. However, instead of getting frustrated or laughing at mistakes, we as instructors must teach the skills that improve writing, like proofreading.

The Branded Professor

Insidehigered.com:

As a relatively new tenure-track professor in journalism and media, I teach students skills and critical thinking for a profession that is in a state of redefinition. One of the ways journalism educators are trying to increase their students’ job opportunities is by encouraging them to develop a “personal brand,” through which they establish themselves as a rising professional with a unique voice and style. They then publicize that personal brand through multimedia blogging and social media, in hopes of impressing prospective employers with their initiative and distinctive qualities.

I think that this kind of engagement, through social media and other communication opportunities, is critical for someone who wants not only to teach about important societal issues in the classroom, but also to contribute to change on a larger scale. Attempting to establish myself online as someone with a voice and some expertise in my field gives me a bigger platform from which to speak.

Unlike my students, though, I have no one to remind me to remain true to myself and to monitor the integrity of what I do and say. That responsibility falls to me alone.