Posts Tagged ‘collaboration’

Developing, but not overdeveloping, a collaborative space

Thursday, June 25th, 2009

For the past few months, I’ve been involved in the development of the CUNY Academic Commons, a new project of the City University of New York whose stated mission is to “to support faculty initiatives and build community through the use(s) of technology in teaching and learning”. This is no small goal, given the mammoth size and unruliness of CUNY: 23 institutions comprising some 500,000 students, 6,100 full-time faculty, and countless more staff and part-time faculty. The Commons – built on a collection of open-source tools like WordPress MU, Mediawiki, Buddypress, and bbPress – is designed to give members of this diffuse community a space where they can find like-minded cohorts and collaborate with them on various kinds of projects.

My work as a developer for the Commons pulls me in several directions. Most obviously, I’m getting a crash course in the development frameworks that underlie the tools we’re using. These pieces of software are at varying stages of maturity and have largely been developed independently of each other. Thus, making them fit together to provide a seamless and elegant experience for users is a real challenge. This kind of technical challenge, in turn, leads me to consider critically the way that the site could and should serve the members of the CUNY community. How do you design a space where people with wildly different interests and wildly different ways of working can collaborate in ways that work for them? By making the system open enough to accommodate many ways of working and thinking, do you thereby alienate some of those individuals who need more structure to envision the utility that the site could hold for them? How do the choices you make when developing a tool – decisions about software, about organization, about design – mold or constrain the ways in which the site’s uses will evolve?

In light of these varying challenges, there are a couple different things that I would be interested in talking about at THATcamp. For one, I’d like to get together with people working with and on open-source software to talk nuts and bolts: which software are you using, how are you extending or modifying it to suit your needs, and so on. I’m also very interested in talking about strategies for fostering the kinds of collaboration that the CUNY Academic Commons has as its mission. I’m also anxious to discuss more theoretical questions about the design and development of tools that are meant to serve a diverse group of users. In particular, I’m interested in the interconnections between the designer, the software, and the designer’s knowledge and assumptions about the desires and capacities of the end user.

Visualizing time

Wednesday, June 24th, 2009

For the last two years, I have been very interested in visualizing data that emerges within my particular field: literature. This interest emerged as I read Moretti’s Graphs, Maps, Trees at the same time that I was experimenting with using GIS tools like Google Earth as a portion of the analysis in the last chapter of my dissertation. In my last year as a graduate student, a fellowship in the Emory Center for Interactive Teaching gave me additional time to begin experimenting with timelines. Timelines in literary studies were nothing new, but I wondered if it would be possible to have a class collaboratively build one in a manner similar to writing a wiki. The result was–in turn–a collaboration with Jason Jones (@jbj) where I coded a timeline, he designed an assignment, and his students created the data for a timeline of the Victorian Age. I’ve since had the chance to play with the tool in my own classes.

Jason and I both thought that timelines would be a fruitful subject for conversation THATCampers. And as many others have done, I thought I would share my original THATCamp proposal and then propose some ideas about where a discussion might go:

I would like discuss the different web-based tools and software that can be used to produce interactive and collaborative timelines. The presentation would involve demonstrating the different tools, showing the strengths and the weaknesses of each one, and producing a finished product. The tools would range from CHNM’s Timeline Builder to xtimeline and from Bee Docs Timeline 3D to the Timeline and Exhibit widgets that were developed in MIT’s Simile project. Having already spent some time with these tools, I think that the tools from Simile might be the most interesting to THATCamp participants due to their flexibility in representing data in multiple ways, including color coding events, sorting events, and with GIS data, as well as the ability to grab data from sources as diverse as a Google Docs spreadsheet or Twitter. Perhaps the best demonstration of the usefulness of a timeline would be to create–during the session/event–a timeline of THATCamp.

My current thinking:

As I’ve been preparing for THATCamp, I have gone ahead and evaluated as many of the timeline tools as I’ve had time for. I’ll be looking at another one or two tomorrow. I’ve gone ahead and created a spreadsheet listing the abilities of these different tools, along with some evaluation. Admittedly, some of the categories that I was using to evaluate the timelines stem from my deep involvement with the Simile widgets, and so the cases might not stack up as being completely fair to the competition.

Also, wanting to blend together both streams of data visualization that seemed valuable to me, I’ve also expanded on the original timelines that I designed for my courses by adding a Google Maps view this week. You can choose to either look at one view at a time or a dual view.

While a conversation could certainly be held about the different strengths and weaknesses of these different tools, most of the timeline tools that are available are going to be fairly easy for THATCampers to pick up and run with. The most complicated among them is the Simile tool, but I’ve heard there’s a fairly straightforward tutorial on building your own. Instead (or in addition to), I wonder if it could be possible to have a conversation about other possible research and pedagogical uses for timelines than those to which Jason and I have put them to use thus far. One obvious apporach would be to timeline a particular text (say, Slaughterhouse-Five) rather than a contextual time period. But what else could we do with timelines to make them valuable?

Moreover, I wonder if a discussion about visualizing time could be a part of a larger discussion about visualization that seems to be on the minds of other THATCampers (at least per their blog posts) such as Tonya Howe and Amanda Watson. How best can we use such visualizations in our research and/or teaching? At what point are there diminishing returns on such projects? Since these tools are relatively easy to learn (as opposed to programming languages), are they a good gateway tool for “traditional faculty” to begin comfortably integrating new technologies into their research/teaching? And, perhaps most broadly, what is the relationship between digital humanities and visualization

(I should meniton that while Jason and I proposed related ideas to THATCamp, this post is my own. So don’t hold him responsible for my shortcomings in expression.)

Archiving Social Media Conversations of Significant Events

Tuesday, June 23rd, 2009

I’ve already proposed one session, but recent events in Iran and the various discussions of the role of social media tools in those events prompted this post.

I propose that we have a session where THATCampers discuss the issues related to preserving (and/or analyzing) the blogs, tweets, images, Facebook postings, SMS(?) of the events in Iran with an eye toward a process for how future such events might be archived and analyzed as well.  How will future historians/political scientists/geographers/humanists write the history of these events without some kind of system of preservation of these digital materials?  What should be kept?  How realistic is it to collect and preserve such items from so many different sources? Who should preserve these digital artifacts (Twitter/Google/Flickr/Facebook; LOC; Internet Archive; professional disciplinary organizations like the AHA)?

On the analysis side, how might we depict the events (or at least the social media response to them) through a variety of timelines/charts/graphs/word-clouds/maps?  What value might we get from following/charting the spread of particular pieces of information? Of false information?  How might we determine reliable/unreliable sources in the massive scope of contributions?

[I know there are many potential issues here, including language differences, privacy of individual communications, protection of individual identities, various technical limitations, and many others.]

Maybe I’m overestimating (or underthinking) here, but I’d hope that a particularly productive session might even come up with the foundations of: a plan, a grant proposal, a set of archival standards, a wish-list of tools, even an appeal to larger companies/organizations/governmental bodies to preserve the materials for this particular set of events and a process for archiving future ones.

What do people think?  Is this idea worth a session this weekend?

UPDATE:   Ok, if I’d read the most recent THATCamp proposals, I’d have seen that Nicholas already proposed a similar session and I could have just added my comment to his…..  So, we have two people interested in the topic.  Who else?

Disciplinary Heresies and the Digital Humanities

Wednesday, June 3rd, 2009

Cross-posted at Clio Machine:

(This post is a continuation of some of the questions I raised in my original THATCamp proposal.)

Are the humanities inherently valuable, both in terms of the skills they impart to students and because the value of humanistic scholarship cannot be validated by external (often quantitative) measures?  Or are the humanities experiencing a crisis of funding and enrollments because they have not adequately or persuasively justified their worth?  These debates have recently resurfaced in the popular press and in academic arenas.  Some commentators would point to the recession as the primary reason for why these questions are being asked.  We should also consider the possibility that the mainstreaming of the digital humanities over last couple of years is another (but overlooked) reason for why questions about the value and worth of the traditional humanities are being taken more seriously.


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