CUNYPie returned today after a too-long hiatus with its first trip to Staten Island, where we visited Denino’s. This was a two campus affair, as me and my homeboys from Baruch joined our sisters from City Tech for pies and pitchers, which I’ll get to in a moment. The occasion of our trip to Shaolin was the 8th Annual CUNY Coordinated Undergraduate Education Conference, at which we all presented. There’s lots going on with undergraduate education at CUNY these days, only some of which made it onto the docket at the conference. The controversy around Pathways was a subtext in each of the panels I attended, but was curiously absent in the day’s opening remarks. The general feeling I got from folks was one of resignation that Pathways was probably going to happen, we’ll just wait and see, and then we’ll make the most of it.

The keynote was delivered by Mark Taylor, who presents himself as an expert on “Generation NeXt,” and visits schools and other organizations to help them think about improving student engagement. The pedagogy he espouses consists of familiar stuff: flipped classrooms, active/engaged learning, future orientation, embracing technology (though as an information more than a connective tool), etc. The rationale he offers for this pedagogy is grounded in an analysis of generational difference, supported, as far as I can tell, by his synthesis of a range of secondary sources. Not sure if he does original research, as the papers presented on his site refer entirely to the research of others. We heard a good 30-40 minutes of talk about differences between the Baby Boomers and the generation just behind me, drawn significantly from Jean Twenge, whose work I’m not a fan of. Taylor doesn’t come down as hard as Twenge or Mark Bauerlein on “kids these days,” but rather sees in the generation’s broad characteristics learning styles that need to be adjusted to.

Taylor’s rationale was pretty Domino’s, which is to say, weak sauce. There was a lot of charm and playfulness and “I’m a southern yokel and you’re all New Yorkers” before he got to what he was trying to say. But you don’t have to be a professional historian to know that identifying the broad differences between generations is only the very beginning step towards understanding how higher education needs to evolve in the coming years. And you don’t have to be a CUNY lifer to know that our university serves a particular set of populations, only small segments of which look like the learners Taylor theorizes about. At one point Taylor argued that colleges and universities better adapt or they’ll face disruption from some unidentified, external force. I don’t necessarily disagree with this notion or find it problematic (except for when he likened students to customers). But many of us know this already, and are determined to be that disruption ourselves rather than simply to head it off. In that spirit, Mikhail and Tom and I left Taylor’s talk fifteen minutes early to go get set for our panel. In short, the keynote was a significant step down from Pedro Noguera’s rousing talk at this same event last year. Noguera knew well who we were and who we serve, and used that knowledge to speak directly to our challenges.

But all of this was prelude, prelude to pizza. Denino’s makes a damn good pie, thin but not saggy, with a cornicione that was a bit blistered, chewy, and crispy. We had four pies: a sausage (my fave), a margherita (good, not great), a half olive/half mushrooms (heavy on the olives, and quite strong), and an anchovy (to which I can only say this). The restaurant is a sizable, friendly family joint, and we were very lucky to get a table for ten just before the Friday dinner rush. If I lived on Staten Island, I would definitely be a regular. And it only cost us $13 each!

Big ups to Jody Rosen, who grew up on Staten Island, for picking the spot and then bullying me into writing this post. Only you, Jody. Thanks for organizing the outing and giving me that specific kind of CUNY Pie full and happy feeling again.

Denino's margherita and olive/mushroom pies
Denino's upskirt
Denino's sausage and anchovy pies


photo: DSCF-Photographer

Today I migrated Blogs@Baruch, the 10k user WordPress installation I manage, to a new server. Our previous server was unable to handle the system’s activity. We had been in a Jumpbox environment, which our colleagues at the Baruch Computing and Technology Center had directed us towards a few years back out of concerns about the resources available to manage a LAMP stack alongside the dozens of other virtual environments the school manages. Problem was, Jumpbox only supports 32-bit lamp environments, which max out at 4 gb of ram… simply not enough for the amount of traffic and usage that we get, especially given the propensity of certain processes in WordPress to eat up a ton of ram. We were getting to the point where the server needed to be rebooted almost daily over the past month in order to clear out processes that were locking things up. My comrade-in-arms Tom Harbison and I were on constant alert, interrupting family dinners, story time with our children, and, most horrifyingly, college basketball games to get the site back online and verify that no damage had been done. As a colleague told me, “that’s just no way to live.”

Moving to a more robust server became necessary if our system was going to continue to grow and evolve in response to community need, which is becoming ever more intense. We began discussions in mid-winter about where we’d move Blogs@Baruch. Our choices were to host externally, perhaps with Cast Iron Coding (where our cousin UMW Blogs is hosted) or with a host like Softlayer (where another CUNY WordPress install is hosted); or to ask BCTC to build and deploy a new server for us. Both decisions were feasible, yet both had costs and benefits. Hosting outside would give us total control over the environment, though at a monetary cost that might be difficult to maintain down the road. It would also require making outside systems interact with CUNY systems… let’s just say that has been a problem in the past. Hosting at the College would get us in-house support, but also make us dependent upon an IT department which has a specific set of pressures upon it to keep the systems of the college running, to be responsive to the needs of users here and also the demands of CUNY central administration.

In the end, we decided to continue to host Blogs@Baruch at the College, for a few reasons. The most important is that Mikhail Gershovich, Tom and I very much see this project and the others at CUNY like it as efforts not only to foster certain pedagogical and communicative opportunities for members of our community, but also as tools in a larger battle to push our university and others in a particular direction in their approaches to supporting educational and information technology. It may very well have been easier to go to outside hosting: we could have moved more swiftly, wouldn’t have had to address the same security concerns, and could have bypassed bureaucracy altogether. But if one of our goals is to encourage the broader adoption of free and open source software within higher education, then taking the easy way through risks limiting the potential impact of our experiment. I’m proud that our College values this project and has given it support in tough economic times. That support isn’t only monetary, but also the valuable and highly in-demand time of our CIO Arthur Downing and his staff at BCTC. This project is as much theirs as ours, a point they’ve articulated through their support for this migration. We think the extent to which the system is homegrown adds to its vitality, and makes it a strong model for what open university publishing platforms can be with just a few of the right people saying “yes.”

It’s fitting that this migration happened on the Day of the Digital Humanities, when many of my colleagues at the intersection of humanities and technology across the world are sharing details and reflections about their workdays. In the course of my week — often in the course of a day — I visit classes and help students with projects, consult with faculty about assignment and course design, oversee the work and writing of graduate student fellows, build WordPress themes, research plugins, help develop programs and workshops, speak with staff members about their use of social media, advise projects elsewhere at CUNY, and occasionally write, present, or teach a class. Through this all, I must make sure the platform that propels much of my work remains viable and growing. This last bit is the least familiar to me of my tasks: though I administer a system I’m no system administrator, and I often need help. It’s ultimately much easier for me to call Phil or John or Patrick in the building next door than to dig through forums or to push my friends and connections for free advice (or to get on their calendars for the paid version).

Managing a platform like this has complicated my understandings of both university information technology and open source software deployment. Yes, much of the fetishization of security in IT comes from a fear of litigation, from uncertainty and doubt about the motives of users, and from a proprietary mindset that weighs the cost and risk of every moving bit. We should push back against that culture. But security isn’t always only about these things; it’s also about ensuring the stability, functionality, and sustainability of a system so that its users can reap the most benefits. That sometimes may mean denying users the ability to do certain things on the system, or at least channeling them into a process that helps them do those things in a way that doesn’t risk compromising stability (especially if they’re expecting and relying upon stability). Conversely, it also means going to bat for users with the powers that be and expanding a system’s capabilities so that we can all ultimately do more.

So, that’s where we are with Blogs@Baruch: we’ve just expanded the system’s capability so that it can do what it already does better and faster, and so that we can see if it can also do some new things. It’s also where I am in my work as an educational technologist: mediating between the growing needs of an exploding community of users and the capabilities and demands of an institutional structure that sometimes gets us and sometimes doesn’t. And it’s where I am in my thinking as a digital humanist: wondering every day how emerging technologies are helping and forcing us to rethink the work — all of the work– that we do in the university.

My Grandfather Sold a Fake Book to President Truman

My grandfather, who passed well before I was born, owned a music store on 48th Street called Banner Music. One day, two well dressed men walked into the store. I’ll let Murray Sunshine tell the rest of the story. Murray, who sat in on drums at my bar mitzvah party (swinging) and once ragged on my wife for ordering pierogi at the Second Avenue Deli, worked with and loved Grandpa Fintz. As much as any one else, knowing him has connected me to the lovely but lost world they once inhabited. Not least of all, because he can tell a story like this.

This was recorded at my grandmother’s 90th birthday party on January 1, 2012. If you don’t know what a fake book is, read this.

Finding #ds106radio

I really dug the DIY Radio for Teaching and Learning session that Mikhail Gershovich organized last night at Baruch College. I’ve been following the evolution of the community that’s emerged around the digital storytelling courses (named ds106) begun at University of Mary Washington and joined by folks all over the world, and have watched with interest as that community has explored the integration of web radio over the past year. But I’ve refrained from jumping in for a number of reasons. First, I’m not much of a joiner. Second, I saw that ds106 radio seemed to have taken over the lives of many of the folks involved, and I simply don’t have time. Third, as a self-diagnosed enthusiasthmatic, I didn’t feel I have the stamina to participate in a movement whose mood generally puts the good vibes in the digital humanities community to shame. Fourth, when confronted with evangelism, which I often find boring, my instinct is to turn the other way. And fifth and by far the most important, I’m not particularly interested in punk, and ds106radio plays a lot of punk.

These reservations aside, I did know from the get that ds106 was on to something interesting and that radio is just a part of that, and last night’s presentation gave me a firmer sense of just what that is. I was reminded last night of the emergence of Found Magazine, which was created by Davy Rothbart, who I attended college (and played a lot of hoop) with. Found collects “found stuff: love letters, birthday cards, kids’ homework, to-do lists, ticket stubs, poetry on napkins, doodles– anything that gives a glimpse into someone else’s life. Anything goes.” Found’s finds reveal the poetry and humanity in the quotidian detritus of every day life. When my wife and I got our first issue of Found, it immediately changed the way we related to our lived environment. Random pieces of paper blowing across the sidewalk had real stories and real life behind. Binding them into a collection made a space for readers to creatively explore and imagine the voids left by the individual artifact’s isolation and abandonment.

I was similarly struck by the way ds106radio has altered the way that Grant Potter, GNA Garcia, Jim Groom, Michael Branson Smith and Mikhail  as well as several others have integrated the possibilities of web radio into their interactions with the spaces around them. They seem absorbed by the experience of ds106radio, always imagining how to make use of it, constantly thinking of ways to bring what’s around them to the network, and doing so in deeply personalized ways. Grant is focused on creating, expanding, and simplifying the technical capabilities of the experience, drawing upon his ability as a technologist interested in telephony. GNA is an educational psychologist, and her interest in the space seems to revolve around mindfulness and nurturing a sense of community. Mikhail has embraced the role of deejay for its own sake, but has also shown the promise of the medium for capturing oral history and begun to imagine curricular integration around a set of tools like these. Michael has taken the first difficult stab at bringing the ds106 world into the curriculum of a CUNY college over at York, and while he’s made amazing artistic contributions (and to the ds106 ecosystem, he’s also made use of his connections to expand the set of tools ds106ers can draw upon in their audio production and brought #ows on air. And Jim, whose work with ds106 inspired this whole thing, has started to imagine the range of ways that a web radio station might be integrated across the curriculum at UMW.

As much as Jim might recoil in horror at the term, he’s an academic through and through, and in and only in the best sense of the word. After his presentation with Mike Neary and Joss Winn last week, I felt that the MOOCification of ds106 and the attention to the community beyond UWM embedded a implicit critique of the institutional limitations of the university. While I think these awesome projects suggest a dynamic about the nature of change and innovation within higher ed that we would benefit from teasing out better understanding, Jim’s presentations these past two weeks have reiterated to me yet again that more than anything he’s deeply committed to the idea of curricular innovation and evolution using free, open, powerful tools in a way that specifically and systematically fosters digital and networked literacies. Jim wants you to think he’s crazy and unpredictable and unbound, so he references heroin and porn in his presentations. But his work can’t help but reveal that he is in fact something much more radical and profound: an intensely committed educator. (Not that I ever doubted that. But I don’t think I’ve ever written it, and it’s only fair given the millions of keys he’s struck professing his love for me).

Rock on #ds106radio. I’ll likely call mic check at some point. And much more importantly, I’ll be rolling the possibilites of web radio into my thinking about ways educators can stretch, invigorate, and revolutionize the classroom.

If you missed it, here’s the presentation, which lays out with much more passion and clarity than I can what ds106 and ds106radio are:

DIY Web Radio, Part 1 of 2

DIY Web Radio, Part 2 of 2

Twenty Years of The Low End Theory

Twenty years ago today A Tribe Called Quest’s The Low End Theory came out, and it’s been my favorite hip-hop album since. I remember when I bought the tape. I was on my way to watch a high-school basketball game (against Lansing Waverly) with Colin Moriarty and we stopped by Warehouse Records on West Saginaw then bumped it in his Monte Carlo. The record immediately spoke to me, and that it has continued to do so in different ways at different points in the past twenty years is testimony to its greatness.

Initially it grabbed me because of the jazz. I come from a family of jazz musicians, and this album drew upon that genre in a way that no other rap record had done before. Half of the record is extremely bluesy, with “Excursions” built around a sample from Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers’ “A Chant for Bu.” About hip-hop Q-Tip raps “my pops used to say it reminded him of be-bop, I said that daddy don’t you know that things go in cycles?” “Bugging Out” laces a beat from Lonnie Liston Smith’s version of “Spinning Wheel” around a bass line from Jack DeJohnette’s “Minya’s a Mooch” and features entirely seamless interplay between Q-Tip and Phife Dawg. Tribe rolls out Ron Carter on bass on “Verses from the Abstract” (along with a hook sung by Ms. Vinia Mojica), solidifying the link between generations and genres. The sound immediately connected the world I knew at home with the world I was engaging when I left home, either on Yo! MTV Raps or in the halls of my high school or in my homeboy’s hooptie on the way to a Friday night game.

The first single from the record was “Check the Rhime-” a song that embodied all that was great about hip-hop at that moment.

The playful, practiced call and response beginning: “You on point Phife? All the time Tip.” The nostalgic celebration of home, 21 year-olds rapping about “back in the days on the Boulevard of Linden.” The self-awareness and confidence of a group who hit it big with their first record — “you’d be a fool to reply that Phife is not the man, cuz you know, and I know, that you know who I am” — and then made the impact of success a subject of their second (see “Rap Promoter” and “Show Business” from the first half of the record). Q-Tip’s verse on this track is perhaps one of the greatest ever, sixteen perfect bars woven through the snap of the snare that reference Lou Brock and pride, coins “industry rule number four thousand and eighty,” and makes a metaphor of hoop — “pass me the rock and score ’em with decorum” — before ending with a pointed shot at MC Hammer’s efforts to make hip-hop pop.

But there’s much more on this record. By the mid-nineties, the bling movement signified a genre aspiring to be larger than life. But On The Low End Theory Tribe explored how large real life already was. “Vibes and Stuff” is dedicated to M.C. Trouble, Scott La Rock, Trouble T-Roy (who was also the inspiration for this classic Pete Rock and C.L. Smooth track), influential hip-hop artists who had tragically passed away in the few previous years. Phife Dawg and Q-Tip explored the sexual opportunities (and risks) created by their fame and visibility. Guest spots by Brand Nubian and Leaders of the New School and sprinkled references to De La Soul centered Tribe’s experience within that of the Native Tongues and Zulu Nation collectives, thus making an argument that hip-hop should be about identity and humanity.

If one half of the record connected hip-hop to jazz, the other connected it to funk. The second half simply rocked, picking up steam behind the drum groove of “The Infamous Date Rape” (sampled from Jackie Jackson’s “Is it Him or Me,”) blazing through “Check the Rhime” (with Minnie Ripperton and Grover Washington samples), drawing on Funkadelic for “Everything is Fair” (“you young boy, my love toy? I doubt that very highly. Just because you rhyme don’t mean I’ll let you try me”). And then sampling Sly and the Family Stone, Lucky Thompson, and Freddie Hubbard in the mellow-but-grooving “Jazz (We Got).” These four tracks run together as a ten minute inner suite, sharing a beats per minute, and adding up to more than the sum of their parts. Another Sly sample forms the basis of the palette-cleanser “Skypager.” And then the penultimate track, “What?,” highlights Q-Tip’s verbal dexterity, worldliness, and exceptional rhyme play, over a rump-rattling beat.

The album ends with one of the biggest, baddest posse tracks of all time, “Scenario.” Producer Ali Shaheed Muhammad mixed the blues that characterized the first half of the record with the funk that dominated the second (sampling Miles Davis, Jack McDuff, The Ohio Players, Kool and the Gang, and Hendrix). This was the third single, and it was released along with a pathbreaking video in January of 1992.

The highlight of the track might be the star-making cameo by Busta Rhymes, whose reference to Peter Tosh, Maceo, and Dungeons and Dragons hit the sweet spot with my group of extremely particular friends. But every rapper on “Scenario” brought his A game.

I’ve returned to this album probably more than any other in the past twenty years, and it’s never failed to connect. Sometimes it transports me back to those early days when the rhymes were fresh and caused me to do double takes to catch the metaphors. Other times it connects anew, like hearing the bass line on “Show Business” in a way I hadn’t before, or honing in on a sample. That’s what makes great art durable, that it can be at once timeless but of a particular moment.

I have no doubt that I’ll still be bumping this in another twenty. Thanks, Tribe!

Here’s the whole album for your listening pleasure:

Where are the students?

Creative Commons License photo credit: ShuttrKing|KT

Boone’s post about Blackboard as an impetus behind his turn to open source software development got a lot of attention on Monday, and for good reason. He struck a fine balance between deep knowledge, a moral center, and a progressive stridency that many of us who are doing work at the intersection of technology and higher ed aspire to but rarely achieve. It’s ideological, for sure, but its ideology is a simple one: Blackboard is ripping off students by locking the institutions responsible for nurturing their development as thinkers and makers into an expensive relationship with a software whose design is hostile to thinking and making. That’s troubling enough. But, as Boone notes, it’s doubly troubling at a place like CUNY, where the vast majority of students have few choices when it comes to higher education.

Boone’s piece resonated with educators and developers who like to think deeply about this stuff, and kicked off a series of exchanges on Twitter about how we might translate broad anger against Blackboard into some kind of transformative action. And yet, a significant piece is absent from the puzzle: there seems to be little student outrage over the fact that Blackboard is the default option for teaching and learning with technology at CUNY and so many other places.

Is it important that undergraduates know the details on this stuff? Or is this situation more akin to a faculty member choosing texts for a class, an act of tuition and fees paid along with faith that the “experts” will act in the best interests of the students?

Honestly, I’m not sure. I find it more concerning that I’m not sure students care to know. CUNY undergraduates have barely made a whimper since their tuition was raised 15% in 2009, and 7% this academic year, with promises of additional hikes each of the next four years. There were some scattered student protests: an internationalist group and marxist social workers at Hunter organized a rally. I heard a rumor, unconfirmed, that A group of anarchists at Queens College stopped traffic on the L.I.E. to protest the hikes. But there’s been nothing across campuses, nothing sustained, and the loudest protestors, as always, are CUNY Grad Center students, who are often steeped in the history of protest (especially at CUNY) but who only make up a sliver of the student population. Compared with students in Europe, American students show few signs of organizing and making demands.

If CUNY’s undergrads aren’t motivated to oppose such steep tuition hikes, it’s hard to imagine that they’d deeply engage with the types of ed tech decisions made by the University. Would CUNY actually jettison a relationship with a corporation to which it has outsourced so much of its thinking about teaching and learning with technology without students demanding it? CUNY is a huge bureaucracy, and getting it to change direction is a monumental task.

I’m fortunate enough to have carved out a niche with other like-minded educational technologists and digital humanists at the University where we can think deeply about and create alternative structures for the exploration of the way that technology is changing teaching, learning, and scholarship. My project is funded directly by the student technology fee, a fact that I’m proud of. Our campus puts its plan for the tech fee online for all to review, and it’s a symbol of enlightened leadership that we’ve been given the space to experiment. Still, there’s little evidence to assume that most CUNY students know or care about the substantial fees paid by CUNY to Blackboard, or the much more exorbitant costs of the CUNY First ERP transition, or (despite our recognition) how much bang for the buck projects like Blogs@Baruch, The CUNY Academic Commons, and ePortfolios@Macaulay deliver.

Our innovations remain on the edges of the University. In some ways, to be honest, that’s preferable — we don’t have as much pressure to scale and as a result we have both less scrutiny and greater ability to respond nimbly to changes on the ground. If we had more resources and a bigger mandate, our work would change significantly. But at the end of the day, CUNY students are still sending a significant chunk of money to Blackboard without any say, and the overwhelming majority of faculty members aren’t thinking through the pedagogical implications of a continued client-service model of educational technology.

So we can be proud of the critique we’ve waged and the alternatives we’ve constructed. But Boone’s post reminds us in the starkest terms that we’ve not accomplished nearly enough. We have more to do. But so do our students. They can start by asking some questions, and hopefully, down the road, making some demands.

Uncomfortable Truths

The best, most vibrant comedy mines the depth of uncomfortable truths. I first discovered Louis CK’s standup a few years ago, and the bit that got me was about what an asshole his four year-old daughter was.

CK taught me not only that my frustrations with parenting were common, but also that because of the fact that they could be tapped for great art, they were that ambiguous stuff that makes life, you know, life. Any respectable parent feels terrible when negative thoughts cross their mind about their children. But any honest parent will admit having them. That’s why I both cringe and kind of get it when Louis CK quips “I love that kid to pieces. But I wish she was never born.” Of course he doesn’t think that all of the time… but there are moments when thoughts of which we’re not proud creep uncomfortably into our minds. It’s part of the human condition; why not talk about it? Better yet, why not joke about it?

Adam Mansbach’s book “Go the F-ck to Sleep” taps into that same feeling by playfully articulating the redundant, exhausting, and endlessly unproductive processes that parenting requires. Deploying verboten language when discussing something so truly precious as our kids provides necessary release from the quotidian torture all parents endure. Bill Cosby’s bits about parenting, which led to his sitcom in the 1980s, were funny in an observational and performative way. But Cosby’s routines are ultimately less satisfying because they construct family life as chaotic yet still under control, parents as harried but ultimately capable and on top of things even though kids say the darndest things. Now that I’m a seasoned parent, Cosby’s stuff feels less true. Balancing parenting, work, bills, marriage, life, and still maintaining some inner-direction requires persisting and progressing despite constantly not being on top of things. Most of this is because parenting is so demanding. Being able to hold in my head both unconditional love for my children and the honest acceptance that they make my life worse even as they make it better required a maturation process I didn’t realize I’d have to go through when I first held my daughter.

Watching the evolution of CK’s career over the past few years suggests the moment where it’s therapeutic to vulgarly talk about your children is but a stage. As he told Emily Nussbaum of New York Magazine:

The mistake so many parents make, he tells me, is to go into mourning for the life they’ve lost. “All those early bits I did calling my kid an asshole came out of not knowing how to handle it. You distill those feelings in stand-up.” But as his children get older, he says, he’s become more confident about his role—something he wants to incorporate into the show. “They’re amazing now. It’s nice to be with them. It’s delightful. And you know, it also doesn’t last very long.”

I’ve started to see that kind of light in my future with my kids, even though the 2 year-old is a fledgling maniac and the 7 year-old is simply learning to be difficult in new ways. One particularly long trip home from an exhausting birthday party in Brooklyn a couple months ago sticks out. They were both worn down, over-sugared and tired, and either could have lapsed into assholicity quite easily. Our small car could have been turned for 90 minutes into a hurtling torture chamber. But instead the kids were quite pleasant, singing to each other and entertaining us, dozing off sweetly before we got home. The moment was a window into a future where we will be able to spend more time just being people together. We’ll often enjoy each others’ company, and have the ability to occupy ourselves when we don’t.

Of course, when we got home, both kids woke up, and took another hour to get the fuck back to sleep.

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.

“Table marked as crashed”

I encountered a pretty scary error on the WordPress Multisite network I manage yesterday, which turned out to be something relatively minor. I thought I’d blog it in case someone else found themselves in a similar situation and began frantically Googling… which is what I was doing last night as my wife (thankfully) handled getting the kids to bed.

We think we’ve been having some brute force attacks on our server over the past few months, and while our server mostly weathers them, we had one yesterday morning that required a manual restart of the virtual machine where our system is housed. We were back online in no time and all looked good. I then had a pretty busy day, and wasn’t spending much time on the system, but got no notices that there were problems (usually I’ll hear from users if something’s amiss).

Towards the end of the day, on either side of my commute, I saw the following symptoms emerge:

  • I noticed that it was taking a long time to access my dashboard even though the site load was normal. I was though still able to eventually get in.
  • On my way out of the office, I noticed that the BuddyPress admin bar was visible even though I had set it to be hidden for logged out users. I noted to take a look at this when I got home. When I did, I found that I couldn’t change that or any other BP setting… when I clicked “save,” the setting reverted to “not hidden.”
  • While going back and forth between the front and back ends, I suddenly lost the super admin capability on my personal account, though I was still able to access the super admin menu with the “admin” user.
  • I then noticed several plugins — including BuddyPress, WP-Super Cache — had been suddenly deactivated, and I couldn’t reactivate them.
  • Then, I noticed that no network themes were available in the Appearance>Themes menu, and that the “enabled” setting on all themes on the wp-admin/ms-themes.php page had been toggled to “no”
  • The home site went white, probably because BuddyPress was no longer enabled and that site runs a BP theme
  • All subdirectory sites seemed fine and were accepting posts.

I’ve never seen this collection of problems before, and began to worry that perhaps the system got hacked…although the pattern of symptoms suggested something was interfering with the database. I first deleted all plugins (except the shar-db plugin), but doing so changed nothing.

Then, I thought, if this is really bad, I need to make sure I have a current MYSQL dump. When running the dump, I got this error:

mysqldump: Got error: 145: Table ‘./wpmu_global/wp_sitemeta’ is marked as crashed and should be repaired when using LOCK TABLES

Ah… crashed database table! I repaired that table via PhpMyAdmin, and, voila, problem resolved.

It seems as though the hard reset that the system required in the morning corrupted the database, and led to the gradual emergence of these symptoms.

Live, learn, and make sure you check your database.


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.