The Challenges of Turning Inwards

(95/365) Eh?!
Creative Commons License photo credit: Sarah G…

Over the past few years I’ve approached the digital humanities with a touch of skepticism. Much of this has had to do with my own career path and anxieties: I did digital history from the mid-1990s through 2003 or so, and since then — even while writing a traditional history dissertation — have worked primarily as an educational technologist focused on pedagogy, curriculum development, and open learning initiatives. These two fields overlap in many important ways, and have much to learn from one another (a dynamic that I and others have attempted to tease out). Yet I regarded the rise of the digital humanities with a certain amount of bemusement since much of what was regularly being heralded as new felt to be the logical next stage of something already familiar to me. I finished my Ph.D. in 2009 and found that there were better opportunities in educational technology awaiting me than on the history job market. As I was making this move, the excitement and celebration and “woo-hoo!” that surrounded the digital humanities put me off a bit. It seemed discordant with the state of the field that I had come to know watching very few of my colleagues and friends land desirable jobs.

Over the past six months I’ve pushed myself to examine these feelings more closely, an effort that began when my pal Matt Gold asked me to contribute to a volume he’s editing on debates in the digital humanities and culminated in my attendance at my first THATCamp this past weekend at George Mason’s Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media. I’ve emerged with a fuller and more complex take on the digital humanities, one that’s softer if still a bit critical (then again, I’m critical of everything). I was struck by a few things about THATCamp in relationship to other academic conferences: the earnestness of the curiosity that infused the enterprise, the genuine commitment to openness and sharing that so many attendees possessed, and the democratic willingness so many folks had to engage with whomever approached them. I was pleased to leave with a handful of ideas for projects to pursue. I needed a shot of adrenaline at the end of a relatively demanding year where I regularly felt that my professional autonomy was being made tenuous by circumstance. THATCamp delivered some inspiration, and for that I’m thankful.

Still though, after submitting an essay to Matt and my trip this past weekend, I feel as though some of the assumptions I had about the digital humanities have been reaffirmed even as I have come to understand them more deeply. One common theme threaded through several of the sessions and conversations that I had and observed at THATCamp: many attendees are working through some sort of frustration with their home institution.

The first session I attended, on whether or not “digital literacy is a done deal,” emerged out of attempts at the University of Mary Washington to launch a “Digital Knowledge Initiative.” Jeff McClurken, who proposed the session, argued that the DKI grew out of a sense that much of the experimentation that has been happening on UMWBlogs wasn’t filtering throughout the entire school and hadn’t been institutionalized in a way that was sustainable, scalable, and truly transformational. Martha Burtis, who also contributed to the proposal, noted her discomfort with an initiative that might disembed the building towards digital fluency from other curricula. Separating out those pedagogical processes ultimately might weaken them. Both positions reflect the desire to compel others at the institution to embrace lessons that can be drawn from the digital humanities about the role of technology in nurturing humanistic inquiry which revolve around openness, sharing, experimentation, visualization, embracing discomfort, and tapping into imagination. Much of the rest of the discussion focused on the challenges of compelling reticent colleagues to integrate such values into their own work, particularly the self- de-centering required of so many who’re steeped in research and teaching from very narrow niches.

A subsequent discussion that I attended extended a morning conversation about “inclusion” in the digital humanities while absorbing a session that had been proposed by Sheila Brennan on “documentation.” I have to say that while this investigation emerged out of earnest self-reflection and a genuine desire to make the digital humanities into a more fully representative field, parts of the conversation unsettled me. Though it wasn’t directly articulated, it was pretty clear from the conversation in the afternoon that most of the concern was about bringing scholars of color into the DH fold. While I agree that ensuring that tools and projects emerging out of the digital humanities are accessible is extremely important, the notion that those committed to the field need to put forth significant effort to make events like THATCamp more ethnically diverse is problematic. The THATCamp “movement” prides itself on openness and welcoming, and those feelings were certainly in full effect in Fairfax last weekend. A working group that focuses on targeting populations of humanities scholars who aren’t present in force at THATCamps risks reifying the insider/outsider us/them constructs that spurred the organization of this session in the first place.

There’s no easy answer to the conundrum of diversity in DH, but I do think that those trying to address this question would be as well or better served by looking inwards at the field than by organizing outreach. For instance, I’m curious how many disagreements there are at THATCamps, and to what extent real diversity might challenge notions of the “niceness” of the field? There’s also the question of politicization. Black and ethnic studies departments emerged in the wake of the civil rights movement, as part of broader efforts to explore untold histories in an effort to empower. I’ve not done research to verify this, and I feel a bit uncomfortable making the observation, but after a lifetime around higher education it certainly seems that scholars of color are still more likely to do their inquiry within this mission than outside of it. Research in these fields rarely pursues knowledge simply for its own sake, but rather does so regularly out of the sense that the process of making knowledge is political. That vibrancy and purpose has drawn me intellectually to the history of race and ethnicity. Does the fact that the digital humanities “movement” hasn’t articulated an explicitly radical agenda contribute to the lack of diversity at events like THATCamp? I really don’t know, but it seems a question worth asking. This is not a call for a more self-consciously radical digital humanities, but rather a call for more reflection about the nature and implications of true diversity within higher education.

Talk in that session turned to how digital humanists might reach out to such scholars on their campuses and draw them into projects or at least the conversation, and it was here where integration of documentation made the most sense. Good documentation is the best tool to make accessible what humanists are doing with technology, and ultimately to draw additional scholars in. A second conversation on documentation on Sunday morning extended this discussion, and it was particularly useful in suggesting tools for creating documentation and methods for integrating the creation of supporting materials into the production process. This discussion also focused on the frustrating art of imagining and addressing audiences not necessarily familiar with the language, methods, or processes of the digital humanities.

A final session asked “what can we learn from journalism?” Part of this conversation again constructed digital humanists as conduits for innovation to filter into their home institutions. A significant chunk of the work I do with Blogs@Baruch involves finding and sharing new models for teaching with technology across the curriculum and helping faculty members adapt those models to their pedagogical purposes. It’s here where I think the work of educational technologists and digital humanists most overlaps: for our work to be effective, we must have the ability to compel people into it, and that requires quite a different skillset than those that go into producing a new tool, visualization, or archive.

One of the most useful things that I got from conversations at THATCamp was some necessary perspective on how positively folks on the outside view the initiatives that I’m involved in at CUNY. Admittedly, most of this was likely out of broad familiarity with the CUNY Academic Commons, to which I’m a Community Advisor, but Blogs@Baruch is the Commons’ sister project, sharing an ethos, a politics, and circumstance that go far beyond software. I’m not shy about muscling Blogs@Baruch in on some of the Commons’ shine. What I think each of these projects shows — along with our other sisters — is that as frustrating as this process often is, a digital project becomes stronger as it grows organically within and in response to the concerns and uses of a distinct community, whether that be a college or an imagined user base. So much is to be gained from the networked conversations and experiences that happen within the digital humanities and at THATCamps. But the difficult work of turning that knowledge inwards — which often entails productively engaging resistance that can originate from both inside and outside our own selves — is at least as important.

Pressible

WordCamp gatherings consistently deliver the latest, mindblowing innovations happening with WordPress, and I’m still processing much of what I learned when we hosted WordCampNYC this past weekend. One project I wanted to highlight from the Academic Track is Pressible, a custom theme and set of plugins developed by Patrick Carey and Eric Buth and other members of the EdLab at Columbia’s Teachers College.

The project is currently in beta, and the code isn’t ready for release, but Patrick and Eric gave us a sneak peak of how this setup can transform a WordPress network into a publishing platform tailored to the specific needs and interests of a community.

Pressible is designed to organize and feature your content in an intuitive, browsable way. That means all users have to do is post! No static pages to update, no hierarchies to create. The structure of your site emerges from the content you add–the more you post, the more sophisticated and interconnected your site becomes.

They’ve changed the name of “Categories” on their install to “Topics,” and really pushed their community members to use WordPress’s native functionality to build out a folksonomy of the content produced on the system. I can’t quite tell what kind of sitewide processes there are on the system from the outside looking in. It seems most of those paths in are located on the individual user pages, where affiliations across site are listed, but they could have something like sitewide tags running and enabling connections across content (and I just can’t see it).

A few things come to mind after looking at Pressible for a bit. Eric and Patrick have taken a different approach to using a publishing platform to build community within their institution than we have on Blogs@Baruch. We launched a really broad platform, got as many people onto it as possible from around the campus, sought to make connections via word of mouth and through building a community of practice, and then ultimately integrated BuddyPress in an effort to tie it all together. Now we’re pushing tagging to gradually build a folksonomy. But Pressible seems to structure the platform to allow folks easily to publish and ultimately to funnel what they’ve done towards community conversations.  All sites use the same theme– which is beautiful, by the way, and seems to have some built-in customizability — and it’s easy for users to publish through the front end.  Chronology is practically non-existent, and tags and topics are foregrounded in the user experience. WordPress is the base, but the branding reflects the fact that getting content up, out and connected is the main priority.

I can see how it’s fitting to a community like Teachers College to have a more focused platform like this; at Baruch, we’re trying to make connections across seemingly unrelated conversations, but at TC the goal is to amplify discussion among specialists within a single field (albeit one that engages a wide range of ideas).  One of the key terms that any CUNY who’s gone through the Writing Fellows Program has learned is “enabling constraints,” the notion that by limiting the options available to a student on a writing assignment you can help them focus more deeply and thus open up more possibilities for exploration. Pressible seems to me to embody that approach in the design of an open source publishing platform, and it’s an exciting experiment that I’m happy to follow.

On EdTech and the Digital Humanities

This post originally was published at my personal blog, Bloviate. If you wish to comment, click on the title and add to the discussion there!

Source of our power
Creative Commons License photo credit: myoldpostcards

Last Wednesday Matt Gold and Charlie Edwards invited me and a few of my favorite CUNYs to come speak to the CUNY Digital Humanities Initiative, a new group at the University “aimed at building connections and community among those at CUNY who are applying digital technologies to scholarship and pedagogy in the humanities.” Matt and Charlie were especially interested in bringing CUNY educational technologists to this meeting because the relationship between edtech and the digital humanities is something that’s been assumed more than theorized: we all focus on the intersection of technology and academic work in the humanities, ergo we must be doing similar and somewhat simpatico things.

With a field that’s been as nebulous in its boundaries and definitions as the digital humanities, this stance hasn’t been particularly problematic. There has, however, been significant energy within the digital humanities over the past year devoted to self-definition. At the same time, the loose, distributed community of educational technologists working with open source publishing platforms of which I consider myself a part has congealed around a certain set of ideas. I intended my contributions to the CUNY DHI to draw some points of difference between these twined trajectories, to look upon the digital humanities through the lens of my recent experience becoming an educational technologist after completing a graduate degree in history, and ultimately to raise some questions about the tensions I see between the two realms of academic life.

In advance of the visit, we were asked to circulate some readings, and I chose Mike Neary and Joss Winn’s “The Student as Producer.” This piece contextualizes the work that I and several of my colleagues have been engaged in over these past few years. Our work as educational technologists has emerged to meet a particular nefarious challenge that Neary and Winn powerfully delineate: over the past two generations, the function of the university has been increasingly shaped in response to the forces of capital. “Since the 1980s, universities, in response to government pressure, have become more business-like and enterprising to take advantage of the ‘opportunities’ presented by the so-called global ‘knowledge economy’ and ‘information society.’” At the risk of overdrawing the picture somewhat, we see the impact of such pressures in pretty much every nook and cranny of the university: in how resources are sought and allocated, in the corporatization and professionalization of athletics, in the anxiety over assessment and accreditation, in the structure and vicissitudes of the academic labor market, in the predatory student loan and credit card industry and, not least of all, in the classroom, where structures of instruction commonly lead to students being treated as vessels into which information should be dumped en route to the job market.

Blogs@Baruch and its sister projects emerged in direct response to these conditions. Our original focus was on nurturing student-centered learning by merging WAC and WID principles with the possibilities opened up by online publishing, in making more visible the pedagogy (both successful and not) at work in our classrooms, and at supporting an alternative to the proprietary course management system that still predominates across CUNY. Blackboard is itself an embodiment of the university culture that Neary and Winn rightly find so troubling: students cycle through a system that structurally, aesthetically and rhetorically reinforces the notions that education is consumption, the faculty member is a content provider, the classroom is hierarchical, and learning is closed. Less and less though do we have to convince listeners that open source publishing platforms and the many flowers they’ve allowed to bloom can create exciting possibilities in and beyond the classroom; we can show them link after model after link after model after link.

And yet our argument has quickly expanded beyond the classroom to engage broader questions about curricula, the social life of the University, the very way that our community members think about their experiences. Our engagement is a humanistic one in that it insistently constructs the university first and foremost as a site of inquiry and exploration, resists and complicates the concepts of deliverables and education as consumption, challenges staid structures of power, and seeks to constructively question motives and goals at every opportunity. Technology and the open web have empowered us in this endeavor, leveling the playing field in ways that give those who might imagine other trajectories within the university the means to counteract power.

I could say much more about the work we’ve been doing, where it’s succeeded, where it’s failed, and how it’s been a struggle. But the point here has been to situate our work, to historicize it in a way that brings to the fore its politics. This is something that I think the progressive edtech movement has done quite clearly, but that the digital humanities have not.

In many ways, the digital humanities is not really new. Or, that is to say, the methods and questions and processes that constitute its core are not new. Just drawing upon my own disciplinary (and professional) past, the folks at the American Social History Project have been exploring the implications of new technologies on scholarship and pedagogy for nearly thirty years, challenging orthodoxies and valorizing collaboration and innovative approaches to engaging with the past since the Kaypro II. The Center for History and New Media was founded in 1994 and together these two organizations built the first large scale efforts to digitally reimagine the past in the classroom and beyond. Randy Bass’s work out of Georgetown — which I first encountered as an undergraduate participant in the “Crossroads Project” at the University of Michigan in the mid-90s — has done much to promote the use of digital tools to remake the classroom and curricula. Additional examples in “humanities computing” are many.

What is new about the digital humanities, though, is the legitimacy, funding, and visibility that it’s found over the past few years, and those are the components that have sparked recent efforts to set some boundaries and define the field. Frankly, this process has sometimes bordered on the absurd. The recurrent presence of phrases like “big tent,” “expansive,” and “broadly conceived” give speakers a rhetorical tool set for drawing just about any academic work done with technology into the field. It gives graduate students who use technology in their research a language for demarcating their work from those who do not. This slipperiness makes formulating a critique a significant challenge, since the digital humanities resists being reduced to a single or even a handful of things. In trying to write this I’ve had a difficult time boiling my critique down to an unhedged essence. But, here goes.

The (un)structure of the digital humanities has led to a careerism and opportunism that, to the outsider, often obfuscates the genuinely pathbreaking work that’s happening around the field. It’s here where I see the biggest point of difference between educational technology and the digital humanities. Edtech is necessarily implicated in constructing the university of the future, and one of the many reasons that battle is so important is that its outcome will in fact go a long way towards determining the future of the humanities. While there is significant political content within the digital humanities — the valuing of openness, the emphasis on sharing, the location within technology of particular tools and methods for empowerment — one gets the sense that ideology is not the main thing. In other disciplines (history and educational technology being the two I’m most familiar with) political debates abound, often times propelling ideas forward. In the digital humanities you tend to see much more agreement than disagreement. While it’s well and good to be agreeable, and I far prefer people who are, we are in high-stakes times. The humanities have been and continue to be in crisis. Budgets are burning, departments are being axed, and in many places the very value of a humanistic education is not only being questioned, but boldly denied.

And yet, a tone predominates in the discourse around the digital humanities that often seems to sidestep this crisis, or miss it altogether. Part of this is no doubt attributable to the fact the the digital humanities has become so dependent upon Twitter and is thus subject to the distorting echo of the hive mind. Part of it is also contributable to the new sense of community and connectedness within the field, which has also spurred a significant amount of navel-gazing and those efforts to self-define. I admittedly suffer from enthusiasthma, but the “I’m okay, you’re okay” “RT congrats!” cliquishness that flows across my screen and predominates at DH gatherings seem to me to be a bit misaligned with the current trajectory of the humanities in higher education. DH jobs, funding, and departments are becoming more widely available while the broader humanistic project — to which universities are central — crumbles around us. Are new tenure track positions, attempts at building a canon and establishing authority, and a dozen new conferences representative of progress, or are they reentrenching and reinscribing power along traditional paths? (Yes, I realize the answer can be “both.”) And why do digital humanists seem to celebrate scholarship much more deeply and publicly than teaching and learning? These questions are at the core of my discomfort with aligning my work with the digital humanities, as much as I’ve learned and benefited from scholars at its center.

Some might ask, “well, what about #alt-ac?” I appreciate the extent to which that phrase articulates, illuminates and validates the variety of labor paths and modes that make the university function and evolve (including what I do). Yet I can’t help but feel that something might be lost by, as Jim Groom has said, “naming and reifying my alterity.” Adapting for myself the pressure to publish, travel to conferences, keep up with the canon, to constantly produce and present new research — all of the things that seem necessary to establish one’s self within the digital humanities, even as an “alt-ac” person — doesn’t really seem “alt” at all. It’s seems about exactly what I expected from a career in academia.

I realize this argument is deeply personal, perspectival and located mostly within my own struggles to navigate professional terrain. I’m not trying to shit on anyone’s work. Some of my best friends are digital humanists, I swear. But I know that I’m not the only person to feel some of the things I’ve written above. At the end of my brief, wholly unpolished presentation to the CUNY DHI last week, @mkgold tweeted “@lwaltzer argues for a more muscular, progressive version of the Digital Humanities that questions/critiques power.” I initially wasn’t comfortable with that conclusion being drawn from what I had said because I don’t feel myself enough of a DH insider to make any arguments for what its future should hold. And yet upon more reflection I do feel nurturing that ethos is and must be central to the humanities. It’s simply too important to be absent from or even unclear in any future vision of the university.

I guess that, thanks to Matt and Charlie’s invite and the struggle to write this post that ensued I’ve learned that I’m interested in the digital humanities only to the extent to which it helps me use technology to do the work as a humanist I’d try to do even if we had no computers. So does that mean I’m in, or out?

Blogs@Baruch, now with BuddyPress!

I recently completed a significant upgrade to Blogs@Baruch, and I thought I’d blog my hacks and some of the thinking behind them for teh Google to index.

The goal of the upgrade was to get BuddyPress up and running, which will create additional avenues for social publishing and networking around academic interests across the College. The upgrade included two new WordPress child themes, one that uses bp-default (for the home site and all BuddyPress functionality) and one that uses TwentyTen (a new default theme).

if ( is_user_logged_in() )

Since we’re rolling BuddyPress into a system that’s been active for almost two years already, and which has more than four thousand users, I was hesitant to just automatically give everybody public profiles or to make the member list publicly visible. The following simple argument came in very handy in these cases:


<?php if ( is_user_logged_in() ) : ?>
<?php else : ?>
<?php endif; ?>			

I snaked this code through functions in a number of places:

  • in header of the BP child theme to hide the Members list (by excluding the page id for the Members page in the “else” statement)
  • in sidebar.php file of my child theme, to give logged-in users relevant quick links
  • in members/index.php of my child theme, to hide the Members directory
  • in members/single/home.php to hide individual Profile pages

I also hide the BP admin bar for logged out users (which is an option built into BP)… So if you’re a visitor to the site, BuddyPress won’t be visible to you.

Logged out:

Logged in:

This is the way we’re going to keep it for now, and I think such a structure reflects our sense of BuddyPress primarily as a tool for the community to get to know itself a little better. Rumor has it that some more granular privacy control will be coming down the pike in future versions of BuddyPress, and we’ll revisit this issue as appropriate.

bp-custom.php etc.

Every BuddyPress install should have a bp-custom.php file located in wp-content/plugins/ which houses customizations. I used this file to change the order of the tabs on Profile pages, and to insert additional menus on the BuddyPress admin bar.

One of the great challenges I’ve had is the fact that one of my good buddies and partners in pizza-eating crime has become one of the top BuddyPress/WordPress developers around, and Boone’s on my IM rolls. I’m often faced with the dilemma of taking an hour to figure something out, or bothering him and getting some code in about 3 minutes. He helped me with code for the tab order:


function change_profile_tab_order() {
	global $bp;

	$bp->bp_nav['profile']['position'] = 10;
	$bp->bp_nav['activity']['position'] = 20;
	$bp->bp_nav['blogs']['position'] = 30;
	$bp->bp_nav['friends']['position'] = 40;
	$bp->bp_nav['messages']['position'] = 50;
	$bp->bp_nav['groups']['position'] = 60;
	$bp->bp_nav['settings']['position'] = 70;
}

add_action( 'bp_setup_nav', 'change_profile_tab_order', 999 );

The additional menus in the admin bar, I figured out with help from the Codex:


function my_help_link(){
  ?>
  <li><a href="http://blsciblogs.baruch.cuny.edu/support/explanation-of-buddypress/">HELP!</a>

 <ul class="wp-admin-bar">
<li><a href="http://blsciblogs.baruch.cuny.edu/support/guide-to-buddypress/">Guide to Buddypress</a></li>
  <li><a href="http://blsciblogs.baruch.cuny.edu/support/for-blog-authors/">Support for Students</a></li>
  <li><a href="http://blsciblogs.baruch.cuny.edu/support/for-blog-administrators/">Support for Faculty</a></li>
  <li><a href="http://blsciblogs.baruch.cuny.edu/contact/">Contact</a></li>
  </ul>
  </li>
  <?php
}
add_action( 'bp_adminbar_menus', 'my_help_link', 14 );

function quick_links(){
  ?>
  <li><a href="http://blsciblogs.baruch.cuny.edu/support/explanation-of-buddypress/">Quick Links</a>

 <ul class="wp-admin-bar">
  <li><a href="http://blsciblogs.baruch.cuny.edu/about-blogsbaruch/terms-of-service/">Terms of Service</a></li>
  <li><a href="http://www.baruch.cuny.edu/blsci">BLSCI</a></li>
  <li><a href="http://www.baruch.cuny.edu/bctc">BCTC</a></li>
  <li><a href="http://www.baruch.cuny.edu/">Baruch College</a></li>
  </ul>
  </li>
  <?php
}


And, with Boone’s help, I made a change to my wp-config.php file so that Profile (rather than the Activity Stream) became the default component loaded when you visited a member’s page. (I located this line of code just beneath the “/* That’s all, stop editing! Happy blogging. */” comment, as it didn’t work when I put it at the end of the wp-config.php file).


 /** Sets BP Nav to load Profile first */
define( 'BP_DEFAULT_COMPONENT', 'profile' );

These changes are intended to prioritize Profiles. We want our users to share information about themselves and to use Boone’s Custom Profile Filters to connect with others at the College with similar interests. While the CUNY Academic Commons, for which that plugin was written, hopes to connect CUNYs across campuses, we want do this on a more local scale. When all of our incoming students get their Blogs@Baruch accounts next week, they will be asked to fill out their profiles and to begin exploring.

New Default Theme

I also used the upgrade opportunity to create a new default theme for sites created on Blogs@Baruch, a child of TwentyTen which features some Baruch College and CUNY branding/linking and altered css. Aided by this tutorial, I swapped out the built-in header images that ship with TwentyTen for images taken from Baruch College’s library of photographs. Here’s the code for that, placed into the theme’s functions.php file:


define( 'HEADER_IMAGE', get_bloginfo('stylesheet_directory') .'/images/headers/baruchcollege.jpg' );

add_action( 'after_setup_theme', 'blogsatbaruch_setup' );
function blogsatbaruch_setup(){

/* Add additional default headers: All Photos are from Baruch College Visual Standards Library: http://www.baruch.cuny.edu/visualstandards/photos.htm */

	$blogsatbaruch_dir =	get_bloginfo('stylesheet_directory');
	register_default_headers( array (
		'Baruch' => array (
			'url' => "$blogsatbaruch_dir/images/headers/baruchcollege.jpg",
			'thumbnail_url' => "$blogsatbaruch_dir/images/headers/baruchcollege-thumbnail.jpg",
			'description' => __( 'Baruch College', 'blogsatbaruch' )
		),
		'Elevators' => array (
			'url' => "$blogsatbaruch_dir/images/headers/elevators.jpg",
			'thumbnail_url' => "$blogsatbaruch_dir/images/headers/elevators-thumbnail.jpg",
			'description' => __( 'Elevators', 'blogsatbaruch' )
		),
		'Reading' => array (
			'url' => "$blogsatbaruch_dir/images/headers/reading.jpg",
			'thumbnail_url' => "$blogsatbaruch_dir/images/headers/reading-thumbnail.jpg",
			'description' => __( 'Reading', 'blogsatbaruch' )
		),
		'Streetsign' => array (
			'url' => "$blogsatbaruch_dir/images/headers/streetsign.jpg",
			'thumbnail_url' => "$blogsatbaruch_dir/images/headers/streetsign-thumbnail.jpg",
			'description' => __( 'Street Sign', 'blogsatbaruch' )
		),
		'Turnstiles' => array (
			'url' => "$blogsatbaruch_dir/images/headers/turnstiles.jpg",
			'thumbnail_url' => "$blogsatbaruch_dir/images/headers/turnstiles-thumbnail.jpg",
			'description' => __( 'Turnstiles', 'blogsatbaruch' )
		),
		'VC View' => array (
			'url' => "$blogsatbaruch_dir/images/headers/vcview.jpg",
			'thumbnail_url' => "$blogsatbaruch_dir/images/headers/vcview-thumbnail.jpg",
			'description' => __( 'View from VC', 'blogsatbaruch' )
		),
		'Windows' => array (
			'url' => "$blogsatbaruch_dir/images/headers/windows.jpg",
			'thumbnail_url' => "$blogsatbaruch_dir/images/headers/windows-thumbnail.jpg",
			'description' => __( 'Windows', 'blogsatbaruch' )
		),

	));
}

function remove_twenty_ten_headers(){
	unregister_default_headers( array(
		'berries',
		'cherryblossom',
		'concave',
		'fern',
		'forestfloor',
		'inkwell',
		'path' ,
		'sunset')
	);
}

add_action( 'after_setup_theme', 'remove_twenty_ten_headers', 11 );

And here’s what it looks like:

This new theme is sharper than what previously loaded, and TwentyTen is customizable enough that I think a lot of our users will just keep it as their primary theme.

Bye Bye Userthemes

Finally, I’ve done away Userthemes on Blogs@Baruch. The last two WP upgrades have required hacks to keep the plugin only half-working (I’ve never been able to turn off Userthemes on blogs… once you go Userthemes you’ll never go back!). It’s such an important part of what we do on the system that I wanted to cease relying on such an unstable plugin. Instead, with Tom Harbison’s help, we copied all of our custom themes into the theme library and renamed their folders to the site id for which they were intended. We didn’t activate these themes site wide, but rather went one by one through the blogs, editing the template, stylesheet, and theme settings for each. Not the perfect solution, but it feels more stable than relying on Userthemes.

Those are the hacks that I remember. I’m sure there are a few that I missed.

If you’d like to take a look at the child themes, here they are: Blogs at Baruch BP (child of bp-default) and Blogs at Baruch (child of TwentyTen).

The Path to Blogs@Baruch

“The road of life twists and turns and no two directions are ever the same. Yet our lessons come from the journey, not the destination.” - Don Williams, Jr.

Creative Commons License photo credit: Ian Sane™

Jim Groom and Brian Lamb recently asked me and some of my fellow CUNYs to reflect on how we’ve “designed or conceptualized” the publishing platforms we oversee, with a focus on the role of networked collaboration in public higher education. The question is a big one, and it spurred me to think about the roots of my work as an educational technologist, an #alt-ac that emerged for me rather incidentally out of the work I was doing while training to become a historian at the CUNY Graduate Center, and which has led to Blogs@Baruch.

See, a myth is out there that one day the Reverend Jim Groom wandered into the University of Mary Washington from the wilds and revolutionized open source university-based personal publishing when he launched UMWBlogs in 2007. But this is only part of the story. Jim cut his teeth as an educational technologist in the same accidental way I did; we were both graduate students preparing for traditional academic careers. Our paths converged in 2004 when we met as Instructional Technology Fellows at the CUNY Honors College (which is now the Macaulay Honors College). I had already worked for four years at the New Media Lab, with the American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning, building Virtual New York City, and had taught history at Baruch. My work with ASHP taught me much about collaboration and the power and necessity of networks when doing new kinds of intellectual work in a discipline, and my teaching at Baruch had introduced me to the challenges and rewards of teaching at a public institution with an incredibly diverse and unique student body. Even before doing work as an instructional technologist, then, I had learned the catalytic value of connective networks and the pedagogical rewards of working in a “non-traditional” classroom setting.

As ITFs (a group of graduate students who are now overseen by the great Joseph Ugoretz, who unfortunately came on-board after Jim and I had moved on) our job was to work with faculty members who were teaching in the College’s core curriculum to make smart use of the laptops every student was given by integrating technology into pedagogy and cross-campus events. As Fellows, we met every couple of weeks to discuss our work and share ideas, and while many Fellows saw these meetings as a burdensome distraction from their much more important doctoral work, I always saw in them an opportunity to think collaboratively through methods and pedagogies that were in circulation but were not very present throughout much of CUNY. Those exchanges with Jim, Zach Davis, Jeff Drouin, Wendy Williams, Emily Pugh and others were very much the foundation of the work I’m now doing. They helped shape my sense that teaching with technology was about exploring and embracing new possibilities rather than reinforcing existing structures. They showed me that there was as much to learn from breaking down and reflecting upon the processes by which we produce knowledge as there was in using technology to engage deeply with content. They sharpened my understanding of experiential learning, and got me to focus more on nurturing sustained engagement than meeting the heavy coverage that’s always expected of teachers of history. They also taught me that doing this kind of work while in constant conversation with others is really the only way to do it, for if you’re doing it right you should be raising more questions than you’re answering. Many spaces in higher education — especially those that revolve around making sense and use of new technologies — would benefit from increased dialogue, reflection, and collaboration. Being part of a network that exists within and beyond our home institutions foregrounds those qualities in our work.

I remember the specific ITF meeting in Spring 2005 where Jim shared a maps project he had done on WordPress with a class at Hunter College, and excitedly riffed on the pedagogical possibilities of self-publishing on the open web. It wasn’t until that Summer when I started to play with WordPress on my own that I saw what had gotten him so excited. I’ve mused before that the edtech revolution started not in the classroom, but in the baby blogosphere. In February 2005, Zach Davis and his wife launched a blog (using Movable Type, if I recall correctly) about their young daughter; in March 2005, Jim and Mikhail Gershovich launched blogs to document the lives of their young sons; I followed suit a couple of months later with my own baby blog. I can’t speak for the other blogfathers, but in my case blogging about my child served multiple purposes: it was a needed distraction from my dissertation research that also pleased far-away grandparents; it spurred me to explore presenting a wide range of media online; and it lulled me into my first tentative steps towards real hacking. I knew HTML and CSS and had built sites using Dreamweaver and Fireworks and Flash, but I was no hacker and was never much interested in code. But by blogging and making movies and art about my child I came to see more clearly the power of the lowered barriers to self-publishing provided by a software like WordPress. And that I was doing this in concert with other like-minded academic geek dads made me feel as though my efforts were part of some larger trajectory.

By Fall 2005, I was ready to roll WordPress into my support for courses. I had worked for two years with a faculty member, Roz Bernstein, whose pedagogy was proto-edupunk in that she always required her students, after studying a particular art form, to produce work of their own in that form. We had previously done a project where students crafted PowerPoint presentations inspired by the movie Capturing the Friedmans about their own families, and the students had come up with some fantastic creative work (work that I still use today to challenge arguments that there’s no such thing as a good PowerPoint). So when her students were studying collage, they were tasked with making collages of their own and to write about their creations. We scanned the collages and shared them along with the notes via a WordPress blog. This process opened up second and third layers of dialogue, as students commented on each others’ work asynchronously and then reflected upon the process in classroom discussions (including a memorable discussion of what was gained and loss by the process of digitization). I’ve often said that Baruch students are among the most interesting college students in the world, and none of them realize this. Their stories are so rich and varied that assignments which urge them to mine their pasts to find the raw materials with which to create and reflect are invariably rewarding. Maker assignments done here that encourage students to bring what they already know to what they’re learning are successful time and time again.

After a few additional projects at the Honors College I joined the Bernard L. Schwartz Communication Institute in 2006 as a CUNY Writing Fellow. Mikhail, the Director of the Institute (who I had first learned of through his baby blog), wanted to bolster support for “computer-mediated instruction,” and had talked me into leaving the Honors College. The opportunity to see what could be accomplished with these tools in a non-honors setting appealed to me, as did the opportunity to get experience with WAC/WID theory. Finally, I was interested in seeing if we could expand support for open-source applications at the College. Mikhail gave me the freedom to develop some faculty development initiatives around teaching with blogs, and we ultimately supported 10-12 different course blogs per semester (on single installations of WordPress) between Fall 2006 and Spring 2008. We worked with English, Law, Sociology, Anthropology, and Journalism course, and we did everything from small, project-based assignments, to research paper scaffolding, to collaborative research using a wiki, to creating a news blog of student reporting about New York. And I started blogging about my work at Cac.ophony.org.

Those two years of work as a Writing Fellow, while I was finishing my dissertation, really drove home the extent to which we were working on something that was new to our campus and University, something that was needed because it connected the intellectual/academic work that students were doing in school with the digital literacy that they were developing only outside of the curriculum, and which they would need wherever their careers took them. I continued to stay in touch with Jim and learned from the way he distilled his network through a political and pedagogical prism to which I was sympathetic, a perspective which had in-part been forged by professional experiences at CUNY supporting teaching, learning, and scholarship with technology. I followed with great interest as his experimentation led to UMWBlogs, and discussed with Mikhail the opportunity to systematize and scale up what we had been doing up until then only on a piecemeal basis.

Blogs@Baruch evolved out of these discussions, and has very much depended upon the interplay between a broader network of teachers, learners and scholars out on the interwebs and the unique community we continue to engage with at Baruch College. A significant part of my job is to mediate this interplay, to bring ideas and inspiration mined from my expanding network and to try find a place for them within the curriculum at Baruch, and to then to share back my reflections on the results. We’re getting ready to roll BuddyPress out on Blogs@Baruch this Fall. Our goal in doing so is to congeal a platform that already has more than 4000 users into an academic publishing network. We hope doing this will make more explicit the fundamental fact that what’s happening on small corners of our system is connected both to other developments around this school and around CUNY, and also to a broader community within higher education of people finding their footing on the open web, and using that footing to launch themselves forward. Baruch students and faculty have much to learn from these connections, and also much to give.

The Scariest Story Ever; or, the Tyranny of Taxomony

It was night time. I was in bed. I was awakened by a bump. I got out of bed. I looked under my bed. YIKES! I saw a monster. He growled at me. I growled bake. He got agry. I ran away he did to. I ran in my mom’s and dad’s room. The monster ran to the closet. In the morning my mom and dad asked me why I was in ther bed. I told them it all.

– “The Monster,” written precisely as above by a kindergartner I know

WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE:Carol's face

My oldest child is completing her first year of public school.  While I was mostly pleased with her experience, there are certain components of it that, projecting forward, make me uneasy. Primary among them is the administrative impulse within public education to categorize children. Her classmates have all been divided into groups, and the groups will be evenly distributed across the various first grade classes next year. Boys and girls are each a group. Special needs children are a group, as are the “troublemakers.” Then there are the average kids, the “brights,” and the few who have horrifyingly been deemed “gifted and talented.” They’ll all be spread across 10 or so classes, with the “gifted and talenteds” collected in one lucky classroom that gets a visit from an outside teacher once a week. Once you’ve entered into the “gifted and talented” group, thanks to your performance on a secret test and assessment formula, you stay there for the duration of elementary school, like some sandbox mafia to which other children are occasionally extended an invitation. There’s also a special arts program, which pulls students out to work on projects with a district art teacher, who handpicked the kids, herself, based on her interactions with them this year.

I understand the need to assess students, to identify those who need extra help and to ensure that all are challenged. I understand that in order to distribute students across classes and distribute resources effectively within a system, divisions and choices must be made. But what I am seeing first-hand, which should come as no surprise to anyone who pays attention to public education, is a system that creates giant cracks connected by shoddy netting. Forward, forward, forward the students are marched, their teachers sympathetic drill sergeants who can get them a little help and extra attention within certain confines, but not really much more than that. My state, like many others, doubles down by incentivizing a system that reifies taxonomies that I’ve been shocked out of my naivete to find start immediately. I have these misgivings even though we live in a very good school district and even though our daughter has done very well.

I’m familiar with but not expert in theories of elementary education, and there is much I don’t know. What I do know is that I wish we could send our child to a school where she was marched on the path projected forward by the thinking in the story above, not by a system that sorted her by its expectations of what she should be able to do when. There’s a creativity and focus in “The Monster” which I fear will only be tapped and harnessed incidentally given the current trajectory of public schooling, whether she’s in a “gifted and talented” program or not. I want her to get help at school nurturing that ability, mining it and turning it into the base from which she can develop the literacy required to be a well-rounded adult. But the hegemony of quantitative assessment and the taxonomies that it leaves in its wake make me worry that such creativity will be given space to flourish less regularly than it should.

Approaches like what I want exist, to be sure, but we can’t afford to have our kids attend the nearest Montessori, and home schooling isn’t practical given our situation (and sense of what we’re capable of doing). We also care deeply about public education, and would rather contribute to its richness and successes through the unique perspectives we know our children will bring than to remove ourselves from it all together.

Ultimately, we’ll plan to supplement and support our children’s pursuit of their passions, and while we’re confident they’ll come out the other side whole, talented, adjusted young adults, we’re also increasingly resigned to the fact that no matter where we are it will take a certain amount of navigation, and that we’ll see things along they way that don’t sit well with us. In fact, that’s already begun.

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Creative Commons License photo credit: minowa*naitoh