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Interdisciplinarity and Teamwork in Virtual Reality Design

Abstract

Virtual Reality Design has been co-taught annually at Vanderbilt University since 2017 by professors Bobby Bodenheimer (Computer Science) and Ole Molvig (History, Communications of Science and Technology). This paper discusses the pedagogical and logistical strategies employed during the creation, execution, and subsequent reorganization of this course through multiple offerings. This paper also demonstrates the methods and challenges of designing a team-based project course that is fundamentally structured around interdisciplinarity and group work.

Introduction

What is virtual reality? What can it do? What can’t it do? What is it good/bad for? These are some of the many questions we ask on the first day of our course, Virtual Reality Design (Virtual Reality for Interdisciplinary Applications from 2017–2018). Since 2017, professors Ole Molvig of the History Department and Bobby Bodenheimer of Computer Science and Electrical Engineering have been co-teaching this course annually to roughly 50 students at a time. With each offering of the course, we have significantly revamped our underlying pedagogical goals and strategies based upon student feedback, the learning literature, and our own experiences. What began as a course about virtual reality has become a course about interdisciplinary teamwork.

Both of those terms, interdisciplinarity and teamwork, have become deeply woven into our effort. While a computer scientist and a historian teach the course, up to ten faculty mentors from across the university participate as “clients.” The course counts toward the computer science major’s project-class requirement, but nearly half the enrolled students are not CS majors. Agile design and group mechanics require organizational and communication skills above all else. And the projects themselves, as shown below, vary widely in the topic and demands, requiring flexibility, creativity, programming, artistry, and most significantly, collaboration.

This focus on interdisciplinary teamwork, and not just in the classroom, has led to a significant, if unexpected, outcome: the crystallization of a substantial community of faculty and students engaging in virtual reality related research from a wealth of disciplinary viewpoints. Equipment purchased for the course remain active and available throughout campus. Teaching projects have grown into research questions and collaborations. A significant research cluster in digital cultural heritage was formed not as a result of, but in synergy with, the community of class mentors, instructors, and students.

Evolution of the Course

Prior to offering the joint course, both Bodenheimer (CS) and Molvig (History) had previously offered single-discipline VR based courses.

From the Computer Science side, Bodenheimer had taught a full three-credit course on virtual reality to computer science students. In lecture and pedagogy this course covered a fairly standard approach to the material for a one semester course, as laid out by the Burea and Coiffet textbook or the more recent (and applicable) Lavalle textbook (Lavalle 2017). Topically, the course covered such material as virtual reality hardware, displays, sensors, geometric modeling, three-dimensional transformations, stereoscopic viewing, visual perception, tracking, and the evaluation of virtual reality experiences. The goal of the course was to teach the computer science students to analyze, design, and develop a complex software system in response to a set of computing requirements and project specifications that included usability and networking. The course was also project-based with teams of students completing the projects. Thus it focused on collaborative learning, and teamwork skills were taught as part of the curriculum, since there is significant work that shows these skills are best taught and do not emerge spontaneously (Kozlowski and Ilgen 2006). This practice allowed a project of significant complexity to be designed and implemented over the course of the semester, giving a practical focus to most of the topics covered in the lectures.

From History, Molvig offered an additional one credit “lab course” option for students attached to a survey of The Scientific Revolution. This lab option offered students the opportunity to explore the creation of and meaning behind historically informed re-constructions or simulations. The lab gave students their first exposure to a nascent technology alongside a narrative context in which to guide their explorations. Simultaneous to this course offering, Vanderbilt was increasing its commitment to the digital humanities, and this course allowed both its instructor and students to study the contours of this discipline as well. While this first offering of a digital lab experience lacked the firm technical grounding and prior coding experience of the computer science offering, the shared topical focus (the scientific revolution) made for boldly creative and ambitious projects within a given conceptual space.

Centering Interdisciplinarity

Unlike Bodenheimer, Molvig did not have a career-long commitment to the study of virtual reality. Molvig’s interest in VR comes rather from a science studies approach to emergent technology. And in 2016, VR was one of the highest profile and most accessible emergent technologies (alongside others such as artificial intelligence, machine learning, CRISPR, blockchain, etc). For Molvig, emergent technologies can be pithily described as those technologies that are about to go mainstream, that many people think are likely to be of great significance, but no one is completely certain when, for whom, how, or really even if, this will happen.

For VR then, in an academic setting, these questions look like this: Which fields is VR best suited for? Up to that point, it was reasonably common in computer science and psychology, and relatively rare elsewhere. How might VR be integrated into the teaching and research of other fields? How similar or dissimilar are the needs and challenges of these different disciplines pedagogical and research contexts?

Perhaps most importantly, how do we answer these questions? Our primary pedagogical approach crystallized around two fundamental questions:

  1. How can virtual reality inform the teaching and research of discipline X?
  2. How can discipline X inform the development of virtual reality experiences?

Our efforts to answer these questions led to the core feature that has defined our Virtual Reality Design course since its inception: interdisciplinarity. Rather than decide for whom VR is most relevant, we attempted to test it out as broadly as possible, in collaboration with as many scholars as possible.

Our course is co-taught by a computer scientist and a humanist. Furthermore, we invite faculty from across campus to serve as “clients,” each with a real-world, disciplinary specific problem toward which virtual reality may be applicable. While Molvig and Bodenheimer focused on both questions, our faculty mentors focused on question 1: is VR surgery simulation an effective tool? Can interactive, immersive 3D museums provide users new forms of engagement with cultural artifacts? How can VR and photogrammetry impact the availability of remote archeological sites? We will discuss select projects below, but as of our third offering of this course, we have had twenty-one different faculty serve as clients representing twelve different departments or schools, ranging from art history to pediatrics and chemistry to education. A full list of the twenty-four unique projects may be found in Appendix 1.

At the time of course planning, Vanderbilt began a program of University Courses, encouraging co-taught, cross disciplinary teaching experiments, incentivizing each with a small budget, which allowed us to purchase the hardware necessary to offer the course. One of our stated outcomes was to increase access to VR hardware, and we have intentionally housed the equipment purchased throughout campus. Currently, most available VR hardware available for campus use is the product of this course. Over time, purchases from our course have established 10 VR workstations across three different campus locations (Digital Humanities Center, The Wond’ry Innovation Center, and the School of Engineering Computer Lab). Our standard set up has been the Oculus Rift S paired with desktop PCs with minimum specs of 16GB RAM and 1080GTX GPUs.

As the design of the joint, team-taught and highly interdisciplinary course was envisioned, several course design questions presented themselves. In our first iteration of the course, a condensed and more accessible version of the computer science virtual reality class was lectured on. Thus Bodenheimer, the computer science instructor, lectured on most of the same topics he had lectured on but at a more general level, and focused on how the concepts were implemented in Unity, rather than from a more theoretical perspective that was present in the prior offering. Likewise, Molvig brought with him several tools of his discipline, a set of shared readings (such as the novel Ready Player One (Cline 2012)) and a response essay to the moral and social implications of VR. The class was even separated for two lectures, allowing Bodenheimer to lecture in more detail on C#, and Molvig to offer strategies on how to avoid C# entirely within Unity.

Subsequent offerings of the course, however, allowed us to abandon most of this structure, and to significantly revise the format. Our experience with how the projects and student teams worked and struggled led us to re-evaluate the format of the course. Best practices in teaching and learning recommend active, collaborative learning where students learn from their peers (Kuh et al. 2006). Thus, we adopted a structured format more conducive to teamwork, based on Agile (Pope-Ruark 2017). Agile is a framework and set of practices originally created for software development but which has much wider applicability today. It can be implemented as a structure in the classroom with a set of openly available tools that allow students to articulate, manage, and visualize a set of goals for a particular purpose, in our case, the creation of a virtual experience tailored to their clients specific research. The challenge for us, as instructors, was to develop methods to instrument properly the Agile methods so that the groups in our class can be evaluated on their use of them, and get feedback on them so that they can improve their practices. This challenge is ongoing. Agile methods are thus used in our class to help teams accomplish their collaborative goals and teach them teamwork practices.

Course Structure

We presume no prior experience with VR, the Unity3D engine, or C# for either the CS or non-CS students. Therefore the first third of the course is mainly focused on introducing those topics, primarily through lecture, demonstration, and a series of cumulative “daily challenges.” By the end of this first section of the course, all students are familiar with the common tools and practices, and capable of creating VR environments upon which they can act directly through the physics engine as well as in a predetermined, or scripted, manner. During the second third of the course, students begin working together on their group projects in earnest, while continuing to develop their skills through continued individual challenges, which culminate in an individual project due at the section’s end. For the second and third sections of the course, all group work incorporates aspects of the Agile method described above, with weekly in-class group standups, and a graded, bi-weekly sprint review, conducted before the entire class. The final section of the course is devoted entirely to the completion of the final group project, which culminates in an open “demo day” held during final examinations, which has proven quite popular.

Three-fifths of our students are upper level computer science students fulfilling a “project course” major requirement, while two-fifths of our students can be from any major except computer science. Each project team is composed of roughly five students with a similar overall ratio, and we tend to have about 50 students per offering. This distribution and size are enforced at registration because of the popularity of the CS major and demand for project courses in it. The typical CS student’s experience will involve at least three semesters of programming in Java and C++, but usually no knowledge of computer graphics or C#, the programming language used by Unity, our virtual reality platform. The non-CS students’ experience is more varied, but currently does not typically involve any coding experience. To construct the teams, we solicit bids from the students for their “top three” projects and “who they would like to work with.” The instructors then attempt to match students and teams so that everyone gets something that they want.

It is a fundamental assertion of this course that all members of a team so constructed can contribute meaningfully and substantially to the project. As it is perhaps obvious what the CS students contribute, it is important to understand what the non-CS students contribute. First, Unity is a sophisticated development platform that is quite usable, and, as mentioned, we spend significant course time teaching the class to use it. There is nothing to prevent someone from learning to code in C# using Unity. However, not everyone taking our class wants to be a coder, but they are interested in technology and using technical tools. Everyone can build models and design scenes in Unity. Also, these projects must be robust. Testing that incremental progress works and is integrated well into the whole project is key not only to the project’s success as a product, but also to the team’s grade. We also require that the teams produce documentation about their progress, and interact with their faculty mentor about design goals. These outward-facing aspects of the project are key to the project’s success and often done by the non-CS students. Each project also typically requires unique coding, and in our experience the best projects are one in which the students specialize into roles, as each project typically requires a significant amount of work. The Agile framework is key here, as it provides a structure for the roles and a way of tracking progress in each of them.

Since each project is varied, setting appropriate targets and evaluating progress at each review is one of the most significant ongoing challenges faced by the instructors.

Projects

A full list of the twenty-four projects may be found in Appendix 1.

Below are short descriptions and video walkthroughs of four distinctive projects that capture the depth, breadth, and originality fostered by our emphasis on interdisciplinarity in all aspects of the course design and teaching.

Example Project: Protein Modeling

The motivation for this project, mentored by Chemistry Professor Jens Meiler, came from a problem common to structural chemistry: the inherent difficulty of visualizing 3D objects. For this prototype, we aimed to model how simple proteins and molecules composed of a few tens of atoms interact and “fit” together. In drug design and discovery, this issue is of critical importance and can require significant amounts of computation (Allison et al. 2014). These interactions are often dominated by short-range van der Waals forces, although determining the correct configuration for the proteins to bind is challenging. This project illustrated that difficulty by letting people explore binding proteins together. Two proteins were given in an immersive environment that were graspable, and users attempted to fit them together. As they fit together, a score showing how well they fit was displayed. This score was computed based on an energy function incorporating Van der Waals attractive and repulsive potentials. The goal was to get the minimum score possible. The proteins and the energy equation were provided by the project mentor, although the students implemented a Van der Waals simulator within Unity for this project. Figures 1 and 2 show examples from the immersive virtual environment. The critical features of this project worth noting are that the molecules are three-dimensional structures that are asymmetric. Viewing them with proper depth perception is necessary to get an idea of their true shape. It would be difficult to recreate this simulation with the same effectiveness using desktop displays and interactions.

While issues of efficiency and effectiveness in chemical pedagogy drove our mentor’s interest, the student creators and demo day users were drawn to this project for its elements of science communication and gamification. By providing a running “high score” and providing a timed element, users were motivated to interact with the objects and experience far longer than with a 2D or static 3D visualization. One student member of this group did possess subject matter familiarity which helped incorporate the energy function into the experience.

Figure 1. Two proteins shown within the simulation. The larger protein on the left is the target protein to which the smaller protein (right) should be properly fit. A menu containing the score is shown past the proteins. Proteins may be grabbed, moved, and rotated using the virtual reality controllers. Embedded video: Figure 1. Two proteins shown within the simulation. The larger protein on the left is the target protein to which the smaller protein (right) should be properly fit. A menu containing the score is shown past the proteins. Proteins may be grabbed, moved, and rotated using the virtual reality controllers.

Example Project: Vectors of Textual Movement in Medieval Cypress

Professor of French Lynn Ramey served as the mentor for this project. Unlike most other mentors, Prof. Ramey had a long history of using Unity3D and game technologies in both her research and teaching. Her goal in working with us was to recreate an existing prototype in virtual reality, and determine the added values of visual immersion and hand tracked interactivity. This project created a game that simulates how stories might change during transmission and retelling (Amer et al. 2018; Ramey et al. 2019). The crusader Kingdom of Cyprus served as a waypoint between East and West during the years 1192 to 1489. This game focuses on the early period and looks at how elements of stories from The Thousand and One Nights might have morphed and changed to please sensibilities and tastes of different audiences. In the game, the user tells stories to agents within the game, ideally gaining storytelling experience and learning the individual preferences of the agents. After gaining enough experience, the user can gain entry to the King’s palace and tell a story to the King, with the goal of impressing the King. During the game play, the user must journey through the Kingdom of Cyrus to find agents to tell stories to.

This project was very successful at showcasing the advantages of an interdisciplinary approach. Perhaps the project closest to a traditional video game, faculty and students both were constantly reminded of the interplay between technical and creative decisions. However, this was not simply an “adaption” of a finished cultural work into a new medium, but rather an active exploration of an open humanities research project asking how, why, when, and for whom are stories told. No student member of this group majored in the mentor’s discipline.

This project is ongoing, and more information can be found here: https://medievalstorytelling.org.

A video walkthrough of the game can be seen below.

Figure 2. Video walk-through of gameplay. Embedded video: Fig 2. Video walk-through of medieval storytelling project gameplay. Video shows gameplay in main screen, with small inset filming user in VR headset. Gameplay shows the goal and user interface by which players tell stories and explore medieval village. Scenes include a market, a castle, and a village environment.

Example Project: Interactive Geometry for K–8 Mathematical Visualization

In this project, Corey Brady, Professor of Education, challenged our students to take full advantage of the physical presence offered by virtual environments, and build an interactive space where children can directly experience “mathematical dimensionality.” Inspired by recent research (Kobiela et al. 2019; Brady et al. 2019) examining physical geometrical creation in two dimensions (think paint, brushes and squeegees), the students created a brightly lit and colored virtual room, where the user is initially presented with a single point in space. Via user input, the point can be stretched into a line, the line into a plane, and the plane into a solid (rectangles, cylinders, and prisms). While doing so, bar graph visualizations of length, width, height, surface area, and volume are updated in real-time while the user increases or decreases the object along its various axes.

Virtual Reality as an education tool has proven very popular, both amongst our students and in industry. No student member of this group specialized in education, but all members had of course first hand experience learning these concepts themselves as children. The opportunity to reimagine a nearly universal learning process was a significant draw for this project. After this course offering, Brady and Molvig have begun a collaboration to expand its utility.

A video demonstration of the project can be seen below.

Figure 3. User manipulates the x, y, and z axes of a rectangle. Real-time calculations of surface area and volume are shown in the background. Embedded video: Figure 3. Video demonstration of geometry visualization project gameplay. User manipulates the x, y, and z axes of a various shapes, including regular polygons and conic sections. Real-time calculations of surface area and volume are shown in the background.

Example Project: Re-digitizing Stereograms

For this project, Molvig led a team to bring nineteenth-century stereographic images into 21st century technology. Invented by Charles Wheatstone in 1838 and later improved by David Brewster, stereograms are nearly identical paired photographs that when viewed through a binocular display, a single “3D image” [1] was perceived by the viewer, often with an effect of striking realism. For this reason, stereoscopy is often referred to as “Victorian VR.” Hundreds of thousands of scanned digitized stereo-pair photos exist in archives and online collections, however it is currently extremely difficult to view these as intended in stereoscopic 3D. Molvig’s goal was to create a generalizable stereogram viewer: capable of bringing stereopair images from remote archives for viewing within a modern VR headset.

Student interest quickly coalesced around two sets of remarkable stereoscopic anatomical atlases, the Edinburgh Stereoscopic Atlas of Anatomy (1905) and Bassett Collection of Stereoscopic Images of Human Anatomy from the Stanford Medical Library. Driven by student interest, the 2019 project branched into a VR alternative to wetlab or flat 2D medical anatomy imagery. This project remains ongoing, as is Molvig’s original generalized stereo viewer, which now includes a machine learning based algorithm to automated the import and segmentation of any stereopair photograph.

Two demonstrations of the stereoview player are below, the first for medical anatomy images, the second are stereophotos taken during the American Civil War. All images appear in stereoscopic depth when viewed in the headset.

Figure 4. Demonstration of anatomy stereoscopic viewer. Images from the Bassett Collection of Stereoscopic Images of Human Anatomy, Stanford Medical Library. Embedded video: Figure 4. Video demonstration of medical anatomy stereoscopic viewer project gameplay. User selects and relocates various stereoscopic images of cranial anatomy. Images from the Bassett Collection of Stereoscopic Images of Human Anatomy, Stanford Medical Library.
Figure 5. Demonstration of Civil War stereoviews. Images from the Robert N. Dennis collection of stereoscopic views, New York Public Library Digital Collection. Embedded video: Figure 5. Video demonstration of Civil War stereoview project gameplay. User selects and and relocated various stereoscopic images taken during the American Civil War. Images depict scenes from battlefields, army encampments, and war material preparations. Images from the Robert N. Dennis collection of stereoscopic views, New York Public Library Digital Collection.

Challenges

This course has numerous challenges, both inside and outside of the classroom, and we have by no means solved them all.

Institutional

Securing support for co-teaching is not always easy. We began offering this course under a Provost level initiative to encourage ambitious teaching collaborations across disciplines. This initiative made it straightforward to count co-teaching efforts with our Deans, and provided some financial support for the needed hardware purchases. However, that initiative was for three course offerings, which we have now completed. Moving forward, we will need to negotiate our course with our Deans.

We rely heavily on invested Faculty Mentors to provide the best subject matter expertise. So far we have had no trouble finding volunteers, and the growing community of VR engaged faculty has been one of the greatest personal benefits, but as VR becomes less novel, we may experience a falloff in interest.

Interdisciplinarity

This is both the most rewarding and most challenging aspect of this course. Securing student buy-in on the value of interdisciplinary teamwork is our most consistent struggle. In particular, these issues arise around the uneven distribution of C# experience, and perceived notions of what type of work is “real” or “hard.” To mitigate these issues, we devote significant time during the first month of the course exposing everyone to all aspects of VR project development (technical and non-technical), and require the adoption of “roles” within each project to make responsibilities clear and workload distributed.

Cost

Virtual reality is a rapidly evolving field, with frequent hardware updates and changing requirements. We will need to secure new funding to significantly expand or update our current equipment.

Conclusions and Lessons Learned

Virtual reality technology is more accessible than ever, but it is not as accessible as one might wish in a pedagogical setting. It is difficult to create even moderately rich and sophisticated environments, without the development expertise gleaned through exposure to the computer science curriculum. A problem thus arises on two fronts. First, exposure to the computer science curriculum at the depth currently required to develop compelling virtual reality applications should ideally not be required of everyone. Unfortunately, the state of the art of our tools currently makes this necessary. Second, those who study computer science and virtual reality focus on building the tools and technology of virtual reality, the theories and algorithms integral to virtual reality, and the integration of these into effective virtual reality systems. Our class represents a compromise solution to the accessibility problem by changing the focus away from development of tools and technology toward collaboration and teamwork in service of building an application.

Our class is an introduction to virtual reality in the sense that students see the capability of modern commodity-level virtual reality equipment, software, and these limitations. They leave the class understanding what types of virtual worlds are easy to create, and what types of worlds are difficult to create. From the perspective of digital humanities, our course is a leveraged introduction to technology at the forefront of application to the humanities. Students are exposed to a humanities-centered approach to this technology through interaction with their project mentors.

In terms of the material that we, the instructors, focus most on in class, our class is about teamwork and problem-solving with people one has not chosen to work with. We present this latter skill as one essential to a college education, whether it comes from practical reasons, e.g., that is what students will be faced with in the workforce (Lingard & Barkataki 2013), or from theoretical perspectives on best ways to learn (Vygotsky 1978). The interdisciplinarity that is a core feature of the course is presented as a fact of the modern workforce. Successful interdisciplinary teams are able to communicate and coordinate effectively with one another, and we emphasize frameworks that allow these things to happen.

Within the broader Vanderbilt curriculum, the course satisfies different curricular requirements. For CS students, the course satisfies a requirement that they participate in a group design experience as part of their major requirements. The interdisciplinary nature of the group is not a major requirement, but is viewed as an advantage, since it is likely that most CS majors will be part of interdisciplinary teams during their future careers. For non-CS students, the course currently satisfies the requirements of the Communication of Science and Technology major and minor.[2]

Over the three iterations of this course, we have learned that team teaching an interdisciplinary project course is not trivial. In particular, it requires more effort than each professor lecturing on their own specialty, and expecting effective learning to emerge from the two different streams. That expectation was closer to what we did in the first offering of this course, where we quickly perceived that this practice was not the most engaging format for the students, nor was it the most effective pedagogy for what we wanted to accomplish. The essence of the course is on creating teams to use mostly accessible technology to create engaging virtual worlds. We have reorganized our lecture and pedagogical practices to support this core. In doing this, each of us brings to the class our own knowledge and expertise on how best to accomplish that goal, and thus the students experience something closer to two views on the same problem. While we are iteratively refining this approach, we believe it is more successful.

Agile methods (Pope-Ruark 2017) have become an essential part of our course. They allow us to better judge the progress of the projects and determine where bottlenecks are occurring more quickly. They incentivize students to work consistently on the project over the course of the semester rather than trying to build everything at the end in a mad rush of effort. By requiring students to mark their progress on burn down charts, the students have a better visualization of the task remaining to be accomplished. Project boards associated with Agile can provide insight into the relative distribution of work that is occurring in the group, ideally allowing us to influence group dynamics before serious tensions arise.

This latter effort is a work in progress, however. A limitation of the course as it currently exists is that we need to do a better job evaluating teams (Hughes & Jones 2011). Currently our student evaluations rely too heavily on the final outcome of the project and not enough on the effectiveness of the teamwork within the team. Evaluating teamwork, however, has seemed cumbersome, and the best way to give meaningful feedback to improve teamwork practices is something we are still exploring. If we improved this practice, we could give students more refined feedback throughout the semester on their individual and group performance, and use that as a springboard to teach better team practices. Better team practices would likely result in increased quality of the final projects.

Notes

[1] These images are not truly three dimensional, as they cannot be rotated or peered behind. Rather two images are created precisely to fool the brain into adding a perception of depth into a single combined image.
[2] https://as.vanderbilt.edu/cst/. There is currently no digital humanities major or minor at Vanderbilt.

References

Allison, Brittany, Steven Combs, Sam DeLuca, Gordon Lemmon, Laura Mizoue, and Jens Meiler. 2014. “Computational Design of Protein–Small Molecule Interfaces.” Journal of Structural Biology 185, no. 2: 193–202.

Amer, Sahar, and Lynn Ramey. 2018. “Teaching the Global Middle Ages with Technology.” Parergon: Journal of the Australian and New Zealand Association for Medieval and Early Modern Studies 35: 179–91.

Brady, Corey, and Richard Lehrer. 2020. “Sweeping Area Across Physical and Virtual Environments.“ Digital Experiences in Mathematics Education: 1–33. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s40751-020-00076-2.

Cline, Ernest. 2012. Ready Player One. New York: Broadway Books.

Hughes, Richard L., and Steven K. Jones. 2011. “Developing and assessing college student teamwork skills.“ New Directions for Institutional Research 149: 53–64.

Kobiela, Marta, and Richard Lehrer. 2019. “Supporting Dynamic Conceptions of Area and its Measure.” Mathematical Thinking and Learning: 1–29.

Kozlowski, Steve W.J., and Daniel R. Ilgen. 2006. “Enhancing the Effectiveness of Work Groups and Teams.” Psychological Science in the Public Interest 7, no.3: 77–124.

Kuh, George D., Jillian Kinzie, Jennifer A. Buckley, Brian K. Bridges, and John C. Hayek. 2006. What Matters to Student Success: A Review of the Literature. Vol. 8. Washington, DC: National Postsecondary Education Cooperative.

LaValle, Steve 2017. Virtual Reality. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Lingard, Robert, and Shan Barkataki 2011. “Teaching Teamwork in Engineering and Computer Science.” 2011 Frontiers in Education Conference. Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.

Pope-Ruark, Rebecca. 2017. Agile Faculty: Practical Strategies for Managing Research, Service, and Teaching. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Ramey, Lynn, David Neville, Sahar Amer, et al. 2019. “Revisioning the Global Middle Ages: Immersive Environments for Teaching Medieval Languages and Culture.” Digital Philology 8: 86–104.

Takala, Tuukka M., Lauri Malmi, Roberto Pugliese, and Tapio Takala. 2016. “Empowering students to create better virtual reality applications: A longitudinal study of a VR capstone course.” Informatics in Education 15, no. 2: 287–317.

Zimmerman, Guy W., and Dena E. Eber. 2001. “When worlds collide!: an interdisciplinary course in virtual-reality art.” ACM SIGCSE Bulletin 33, no. 1.

Appendix 1: Complete Project List

Project Title (Mentor, Field, Year(s))

  1. Aristotelian Physics Simulation (Molvig, History of Science, 2017, 2018).
  2. Virtual Excavation (Wernke, Archeology, 2017, 2018).
  3. Aech’s Basement: scene from Ready Player One (Clayton, English, 2017).
  4. Singing with Avatar (Reiser, Psychology, 2017).
  5. Visualizing Breathing: interactive biometric data (Birdee, Medicine, 2017).
  6. Memory Palace (Kunda, Computer Science, 2017).
  7. Centennial Park (Lee, Art History, 2017).
  8. Stereograms (Peters, Computer Science, 2017).
  9. Medieval Storytelling (Ramey, French, 2017, 2018, 2019).
  10. VR locomotion (Bodenheimer, Computer Science, 2017).
  11. 3D chemistry (Meiler, Chemistry, 2018).
  12. Data Visualization (Berger, Computer Science, 2018).
  13. Adversarial Maze (Narasimham and Bodenheimer, Computer Science, 2018).
  14. Operating Room Tool Assembly (Schoenecker, Medicine, 2018).
  15. Autism Spectrum Disorder: table building simulation (Sarkar, Mechanical Engineering, 2019).
  16. Brain Flow Visualization (Oguz, Computer Science, 2019).
  17. Interactive Geometry (Brady, Learning Sciences, 2019).
  18. Jekyll and Hyde (Clayton, English, 2019).
  19. fMRI Brain Activation (Chang, Computer Science, 2019).
  20. Virtual Museum (Robinson, Art History, 2019).
  21. Peripersonal Space (Bodenheimer, Computer Science, 2019).
  22. Solar System Simulation (Weintraub, Astronomy, 2019).
  23. Accessing Stereograms (Molvig, History, 2019).

About the Authors

Ole Molvig is an assistant professor in the Department of History and the Program in Communication of Science and Technology. He explores the interactions among science, technology, and culture from 16th-century cosmology to modern emergent technologies like virtual reality or artificial intelligence. He received his Ph.D. in the History of Science from Princeton University.

Bobby Bodenheimer is a professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at Vanderbilt University. He also holds an appointment in the Department of Psychology and Human Development. His research examines virtual and augmented reality, specifically how people act, perceive, locomote, and navigate in virtual and augmented environments. He is the recipient of an NSF CAREER award and received his Ph.D. from the California Institute of Technology.

Powerpoint slide reading "Crowd-sourced in-class project", featuring the Wikipedia globe logo.
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When Wikipedia Fought Back

In this short essay, the author explains what went wrong when he asked his students to tackle an ill-conceived project—an in-class Wikipedia edit—and what he’d do differently next time.

In the fall of 2018, at my last institution, a smaller, teaching-focused university in the Pacific Northwest, I tried—and failed—to use Wikipedia in my survey of digital media course.

The assignment? I urged my students to attempt to edit our institution’s entry on Wikipedia. I had them first read Wikipedia’s own “simple” rules for editing entries (though these by no means are necessarily user-friendly or transparent to beginners, in retrospect). With these rules in mind, I tried to offer some guidance, and we spent the first twenty or so minutes of class creating profiles and discussing how, exactly, to add text, images, and links to Wikipedia entries. It was part of a larger unit on wikis and collaborative digital tools. I was excited. I figured that even if we just succeeded in adding some small bits of information to the page, that would be a success. Students, however, were technically going to be graded on a self-reflection forum post afterward, so it was not necessary that they “succeed” at the process. That helped lower the stakes, but provided enough motivation for students to at least attempt the assignment.

Like many of my colleagues, I had the best of intentions. I was going to lean in, darn it, to my students’ own learning habits (Wineburg 2018). Inspired by scholar-teachers smarter and savvier than I, I was going to have one of those collective “a-ha!” moments we all yearn for, when, in the silence of an air-conditioned, sun-lit space, the scent of marker lingering in the air, you turn, excitedly, from the whiteboard to gaze upon the newly enlightened faces of your students, who burst into applause.

That did not happen.

As I planned the in-class exercise the night before class, I realized too late that we might get pushback from Wikipedia’s infamously irascible and mysterious volunteer editors (Dougherty and O’Donnell 2015).

“But we’re just adding some innocuous info,” I thought—details like the names of buildings and programs. “What’s the worst that could happen?”

First Mistake

I soon learned, about 25 minutes into the whole affair, that, in fact, a great deal can go horribly wrong when you forget that the thing you’re toying with in real time—in our case, again, our university’s Wikipedia page—can fight back. Wikipedia, my friends, is very much alive.

It started innocently enough. One of my more engaged students raised her hand.

“Umm, Dr. Mari, I think Wikipedia doesn’t like how we’re all in this page editing it together right now.”

I strode over—surely, of all the pages in the wide world of Wikipedia, ours wouldn’t have some kind of odd editing cap on it, right?

And yet, lo, it did! “Hmmm,” I said. And then I improvised.

“Pair up with Joon,” I said.[1]

And sure enough, things continued well enough for a bit. My students added some benign, or so I thought, facts about our volleyball team, the names of our new degree programs, some of our campus ground’s highlights, and so on.

But then, one mischievous student decided to get a little… silly.

Second Mistake

“What if I just make up something dumb and put it in here?” he asked me.

“Like what?”

“Well, what if I add myself to the list of famous alumni?”

I thought about this for a second. On the one hand, I didn’t want to encourage the accumulation of garbage information in the world and turn my class into a fake news farm. I’d rather not become the subject of a cautionary tale in a journal somewhere.

But… we had just talked about how Wikipedia has a strong internal editing culture—as controversial and problematic as it can be—and I did want to show the students, instead of just prattling on about it.[2] I pushed aside the voice in my head that was saying, “wait a second here, sir.”

“Sure,” I said instead. “Try it and see what happens.”

And so he added his name, and the names of a few friends, for good measure. Within moments, it was deleted. I pulled up the editing log—a veteran Wikipedia volunteer editor, working under a pseudonym, had already corrected the record.

“There, everyone,” I pointed to the projected screen behind me, “just like I told you. This isn’t the Wikipedia of my time as an undergrad, a decade ago. Things have changed for the better and this engagement is part of why Wikipedia…” (see Ayers et al. 2008).

Various hands began shooting up, like baby asparagus shoots.

“Maybe this thing is working after all,” I thought, perhaps a touch too proudly. “Maybe I’m pretty good at this.”

It wasn’t, and I’m not.

My students’ careful and fact-based links, edits, and other changes were being erased and wiped clean, in rapid succession, by the original editor, but also now by several others. The word must have gotten out: we didn’t stand a chance!

We still had more than half of class left to go. But within minutes, all my poor students’ work was gone, vanished. They looked up, over the edges of their phones, laptops, and tablets.

They were not pleased.

I took great pains to try to connect what had just happened with our reading from the week, which had included articles both critical and supportive of Wikipedia and its potential as a kind of refuge, a stronghold of fact-checked information, and some of the irony of that.

I am not always fast on my feet with this kind of extemporaneous pedagogy. I have a stutter, and often need my slides and notes to guide me, as I talk fast and mumble more the more nervous I get, especially in front of twenty skeptical students. There’s almost always something else I wish I had said or added after these kinds of moments when teaching, especially with digital tools. I often write long notes afterward via email or post to our class page, debriefing disastrous assignments.

But in the moment, I just… sort of embraced the “successful failure,” to borrow from our friends at NASA (Leinfelder 2020).

I stopped talking. My students had questions: would they still get credit? Even though all their edits had been erased? What were we going to do now?

“Yes,” I told them, “you’ll get credit. We can talk more about this next time.”

Then I ended class early, thinking hard about power dynamics and hidden infrastructures and black boxes (Jemielniak 2015). In this case, “black boxes” are unexamined, taken-for-granted technologies that are not well understood outside of small circles of experts (Anderson and Kreiss 2013). Wikipedia has come a long way, and I need to be more thoughtful about how I unpack it, contextualize it in time and culture (Cummings 2009; Jemielniak 2015), and contrast it with other “legacy” sites such as Craigslist and Reddit (Lingel 2020, Lagorio-Chafkin, 2018). Wikipedia is not so easy to use as a teaching tool. I need to be less so-sure of myself.

But I think it worked out OK, for a first attempt working through an exercise like this with students. Later, on their course evals, at least one of my students mentioned that day as one of their favorites, because it made them think about the people behind the software curtain. That helped, but now I know—Wikipedia can fight back. Watch out!

I’ll be ready next time. And for next time, I’ll be more mindful of the power of “black boxes” that are a heady mixture of software and hardware, people and intention, momentum and gatekeeping. I will equip my students to better face these hurdles—and overcome them—by reading more critical accounts of the site and how it works.

Maybe we’ll write an entry about it, while we’re at it.

Notes

[1] Students’ names have been changed for the purposes of this essay.
[2] And as an avid fan of Stephen Colbert, I had enjoyed watching what happened when his team edited entries in the late aughts for fun—and to make a point: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Wikiality_and_Other_Tripling_Elephants.

Bibliography

Anderson, C.W. and Daniel Kreiss. 2013. “Black Boxes as Capacities for and Constraints on Action: Electoral Politics, Journalism, and Devices of Representation,” Qualitative Sociology 36, no. 4: 365–382. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11133-013-9258-4.

Ayers, Phoebe, Charles Matthews, and Ben Yates. 2008. How Wikipedia Works: And How You Can Be a Part of It. San Francisco: No Starch Press.

Cummings, Robert E. 2009. Lazy Virtues: Teaching Writing in the Age of Wikipedia. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press. http://site.ebrary.com/id/10314047.

Dougherty, Jack, and Tennyson Lawrence O’Donnell. 2015. Web Writing: Why and How for Liberal Arts Teaching and Learning. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press. http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.2307/j.ctv65sxgk.

Dougherty, Jack, and Kristen Nawrotzki. 2013. Writing History in the Digital Age. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Jemielniak, Dariusz. 2015. Common Knowledge?: An Ethnography of Wikipedia. Palo Alto: Stanford University Press.

Lagorio-Chafkin, Christine. 2018. We Are the Nerds: The Birth and Tumultuous Life of Reddit, the Internet’s Culture Laboratory. New York: Hachette Books.

Leinfelder, Andrea. 2020. “Lessons from a ‘successful failure:’ Apollo 13 astronaut, flight director recall famous mission.” Houston Chronicle, April 10, 2020. https://www.houstonchronicle.com/news/houston-texas/houston/article/APOLLO13-ANNIVERSARY-15192303.php.

Lingel, Jessa. 2020. An Internet for the People: The Politics and Promise of Craigslist. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Wineburg, Samuel S. 2018. Why Learn History (When It’s Already on Your Phone). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

About the Author

Will Mari is now an assistant professor at the Manship School of Mass Communication at Louisiana State University, where he teaches media law and media history and continues to research the history of technology and news work.

Final rendering of 3D model of Bethel Seminary.
2

Creating Dynamic Undergraduate Learning Laboratories through Collaboration Between Archives, Libraries, and Digital Humanities

Abstract

In an environment of rapid change in higher education in which institutions strive to lure prospective students with unique curricula, there is a growing need to provide innovative pedagogical experiences for students through collaborations among archives, libraries, and digital humanities. Three colleagues at a small Liberal Arts university—a digital librarian, a historian-archivist, and a historian-digital humanist—planned an integrated set of assignments and projects in an “Introduction to Digital Humanities” course that introduced students to archival management and digitization of archival material. This article demonstrates how we developed this signature course and curriculum on a limited budget in the context of a liberal arts university, and illuminate how it capitalized on relationships forged among the archives, the library, the history department and the digital humanities program. We first describe our collaborative workflow, and how we involve undergraduate student-workers in these efforts. Next, we provide a detailed lesson plan for an Introduction to Digital Humanities course that integrates traditional archival materials, in this case photographs and blueprints of campus structures, into a digital archive. Finally, we share how our students converted these photographs and blueprints into digital 3D models via Sketchup, a powerful architectural modeling software.

Introduction

In an environment of rapid change in higher education in which institutions strive to lure prospective students with unique curricula, there is an increasing need to provide innovative pedagogical experiences for students through collaborations among libraries, archives, and digital humanities. There is also a growing body of literature—on research support for scholarship, curriculum development, collaborative publishing, and on shared values across these organizations and disciplines—about how historians, librarians, archivists, and digital humanists can forge mutually supportive relationships (Locke 2017; Middleton and York 2014; Rutner and Schonfeld 2012; Svensson 2010, para. 39; Vandgrift and Varner 2013). Kent Gerber (Digital Library Manager) Diana Magnuson, (archivist at the History Center and historian), and Charlie Goldberg (Digital Humanities coordinator and historian), are colleagues who set out to do just that at Bethel University, a small Christian Liberal Arts university in St. Paul, Minnesota. Applying insights from these literatures to the ever-evolving landscape of humanities teaching in higher education, the three planned an integrated set of assignments and projects that spanned a new “Introduction to Digital Humanities” course. “Introduction to Digital Humanities” was the first course in the new Digital Humanities major, and was designed to: engage and motivate students early in the curriculum with “hands-on, experiential, and project-based learning … where students think critically with digital methods” (Burdick et al. 2012, 134); “develop a broader set of skills … essential to students’ success in their future careers” (Karukstis and Elgren 2007, 3); and give students meaningful experiences and agency as a form of “professional scholarship” rather than placing them in a position of fulfilling “menial labor in a large-scale project” (Murphy and Smith 2017, para. 8). Our thinking about the design of this course was influenced by the pedagogical theory of Brett D. Hirsch, Paolo Freire, and Claire Bishop (Murphy and Smith 2017). Collaborative teaching always poses special challenges, but we anticipated that our diverse backgrounds and training would result in a rewarding and distinctive experience for our students.

This article will explain how we developed this signature course and curriculum in the context of a liberal arts university, and illuminate how it capitalized on relationships forged among the archives, the library, the history department and the digital humanities program. Built on the foundation of the material holdings of the History Center (Magnuson), the Digital Library (Gerber) was able to grow connections and extend the reach of these materials through an infrastructure of digital skills and collections. This combination provided a robust environment for the campus community to seek and eventually establish a Digital Humanities program, including a new major and a new faculty member (Goldberg) to develop and coordinate the program. The curriculum developed along the lines of Cordell’s four principles of how to incorporate digital humanities into the classroom, including starting small, integrating when possible, scaffolding everything, and thinking locally (2016). These relationships and principles enabled the development of a course, “Introduction to Digital Humanities,” which engages the archives, the digital library, and digital humanities domains in a mutually supportive and emergent cycle of learning and research.

Opportunities for undergraduate digital humanities scholarship and pedagogy are burgeoning, particularly at more prestigious liberal arts institutions. Occidental College in California, Dickinson College in Pennsylvania, and Hamilton College in New York all maintain well-funded centers for either Digital Liberal Arts or Digital Humanities focused on undergraduate students. There are also several noteworthy inter-institutional collaborations among liberal arts schools—COPLACDigital (comprised of more than twelve schools), the Five Colleges of Ohio (Oberlin College, Denison University, Kenyon College, Ohio Wesleyan University, and the College of Wooster), the Five Colleges Consortium in New England (Amherst, Hampshire, Mount Holyoke, and Smith Colleges, and the University of Massachusetts Amherst) and St. Olaf, Macalester, and Carleton Colleges in Minnesota have all received collaborative grants from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

At schools (like our own) that lack these resources, it can sometimes feel like the unique pedagogical opportunities afforded by this support are beyond the reach of faculty and staff. Our aim here is to describe our collaborative experiences and provide other scholars with a model of how the archive can intersect with digitization efforts and undergraduate pedagogy at smaller institutions of higher education. Together, these assignments and projects produced learning outcomes related to concepts in the humanities, archival research methods, digital competencies, information literacy, and digital humanities tools and software (Association of College and Research Libraries 2016; Bryn Mawr College n.d.).

History Center

The History Center, the archives at Bethel University, contains the institutional records of the university and its founding church denomination, known as Converge (formerly the Baptist General Conference). The History Center provides stewardship of manuscript and digital materials, collects historically relevant materials, curates three-dimensional objects, offers access to special collections, assists researchers, documents the story of its institutions and supports the mission of Bethel University and Converge. The types of collections housed at the History Center include but are not limited to: institutional records of Bethel University (college and seminary); Baptist General Conference (and all its iterations) minutes and annual reports; conference and university publications; church and district records (from both active and closed churches); home and foreign mission records; Swedish Bibles and hymnals; bibliographic records on conference pastors and lay persons; photographs and other media.

The director of archives at Bethel University (Magnuson) is a part-time position created in 1998 and held by a full time faculty member in the history department. This dual appointment provides unique positioning for the faculty member to provide a bridge for students between academic and public history. Students in her classes work with a variety of primary source materials, regardless of the level of the history course. Through the faculty member’s engagement with students in the classroom, Magnuson identifies students with proclivity for detail, curiosity about archival work, and willingness to explore a variety of primary source material. Sometimes, just by working with primary sources, or hearing a description of archival work or records management, a student reacts enthusiastically to the physical and intellectual encounter: “This is so cool, where can I have more of this kind of experience?” Over and over again, the experience of encountering a primary source in its original form is at once awe inspiring and profoundly transformative for the student. It is one thing to read about one of the first professing Baptist believers in nineteenth century Sweden and the impact this life had on Swedish Baptists in America, but it is quite another kind of experience to encounter in person the artifact of his diary (Olson 1952).

Two or three students each year are invited to work with the director of archives as student archive assistants. Students with a major or minor in history are given preference in the application process. Once hired, over the course of an academic year, students are exposed to and trained in: initial stages of archival control; digital inventory projects; arrangement and description; digital metadata entry; and patron assistance. For example, our students have contributed to developing collections focusing on photographs, film, artifacts, institutional records such as catalogs, yearbooks, and student publications.

In 2009 Bethel University hired someone for the newly created position of Digital Library Manager (Gerber). Since then, both the History Center and the Digital Library have transformed into dynamic learning laboratories for our undergraduate students to experience first-hand the tools of the professions of history and digital librarianship. The now nearly decade-long partnership between the History Center and the Digital Library is characterized by lively and productive collaboration on a number of fronts. For example, students hired by the history department are trained and work with both the Director of Archives and the Digital Library Manager. Major equipment that benefits both the History Center and the Digital Library has been purchased through mutual consultation and contribution of funding, such as an overhead book scanner and 3D scanner. Monthly meetings identify and move forward projects, workflow, grant applications, institutional initiatives, web presence, and troubleshooting as the need arises. At the behest of the Director of Archives and the Digital Library Manager, two foundational committees were formed to anchor our institutional conversations about our cultural heritage: the Cultural Heritage Committee and the Digital Library Advisory Committee, respectively. These committees support the History Center and the Digital Library through institution-wide input, drawing committee members from faculty, staff, and administration. In tandem we are significantly growing the breadth, depth, and reach of our collections, not only to our Bethel community, but to the world.

The Digital Library as Infrastructure and Bridge between the Archive and the Classroom

Of the Bethel Digital Library’s twenty-six collections spanning five major themes—Bethel History, Art and Creative Works, Faculty and Student Scholarship, Natural History, and the Student Experience—the majority of the content comes from the cultural heritage materials held in the History Center. Digitization of these unique materials broadens their availability to the community for teaching and research while simultaneously preserving the originals from wear because they do not need to be handled as frequently. Regular conversation between the Digital Library Manager and the Director of the Archives developed the library and archive as an infrastructure of values, practices, and workflows enabling a deeper understanding of Bethel’s cultural holdings and a broader reach of those materials to the Bethel community and beyond (Gerber 2017; Mattern 2014). In one of his series of four seminal articles on digital humanities, Director of the HUMLab in Umea University, Patrick Svensson discusses how the research-oriented infrastructure of technology, relationships, and practices, called “cyberinfrastructure” can be built specifically for humanities teaching and research (2011). Magnuson and Gerber’s collaboration developed a cyberinfrastructure at Bethel with the scanners, software, networked computing, meetings, digital collections, and committees mentioned above. The shape and scale of these resources influences a broad range of digital humanities literacies and competencies, as Murphy and Smith point out in their introduction to the special issue of Digital Humanities Quarterly focused on undergraduate education (2017, para. 7).

Bringing student workers into this cyberinfrastructure of the Digital Library and History Center also continued this cooperation and cross-pollination of knowledge and skills, and introduced them to information literacy skills and digital competencies. The first set of concepts these students learn are aspects of the Association of College and Research Libraries Framework for Information Literacy in Higher Education. Information literacy is “the set of integrated abilities encompassing the reflective discovery of information, the understanding of how information is produced and valued, and the use of information in creating new knowledge and participating ethically in communities of learning.” Knowledge of these skills has particular potency due to the influence of Mackey and Jacobson’s (2014) concept of “metaliteracy,” which expanded on information-literacy abilities with respect to the networked digital environment, rapidly changing media, increased consumption and production of media, and critical reflection upon one’s self and the information environment (ACRL 2015, para. 5). The Framework consists of six frames, or core concepts, of information literacy, which are marked by certain knowledge practices and dispositions when a learner moves through a threshold of awareness from novice to expert. The six frames are, in alphabetical order: 1) Authority is Constructed and Contextual; 2) Information Creation as a Process; 3) Information Has Value; 4) Research as Inquiry; 5) Scholarship as Conversation; 6) Searching as Strategic Exploration.

Digital competencies, as developed at Bryn Mawr College, are a useful complement to information literacy, spanning media and disciplines, specifically focused on the digital environment, and developed within the context of a small, liberal arts college. This model of skills is organized into five focus areas and can be used as learning objectives or as descriptions of skills one already has. The five focus areas are: 1) Digital Survival Skills; 2) Digital Communication; 3) Data Management and Preservation; 4) Data Analysis and Presentation; and 5) Critical Making, Design, and Development (Bryn Mawr, n.d.).

Informed by their work in the archives with historical materials, student workers in the archive and the Digital Library are exposed to and develop skills and competencies related to the above ACRL information literacy frames and the Bryn Mawr digital competencies. They accomplish this through learning the processes of digitization, learning how to use scanning equipment and image manipulation software, writing descriptive metadata, and encoding finding aids in a version of XML called Encoded Archival Description (EAD) for public display. Going through these processes introduced students to information literacy frames of “Information Creation as a Process” and “Information has Value” as well as digital competencies like “Digital Survival Skills,” “Data Management and Preservation,” and “Data Analysis and Presentation” (Association of College and Research Libraries 2016; Bryn Mawr, n.d.). As students begin work with the Digital Library, they begin to realize the limit of their own skills and abilities with technology and recognize how they can grow their awareness and competencies with “Digital Survival Skills,” particularly in the subcategory of “metacognition and lifelong learning.” The competency of “Data Management and Preservation” included learning more sophisticated hardware like flatbed scanners and the software environment of spreadsheets. The flatbed scanner process involved scanning at a high enough resolution for the resulting image to represent the original in print or digital formats as well as enable the ability to zoom in for very close examination afforded by a digital format. Some students had not used spreadsheets before and learned how to navigate a spreadsheet and use them to organize different categories of data and store multiple records of items. Students were introduced to the domain of “Digital Analysis and Presentation” through classification methodologies and learned how to navigate a digital archive to research a topic of interest. The skills students learned from these experiences motivated them to learn more and prepared them for further study in graduate school or employment in the cultural heritage sector. This built a culture of trust, common understanding, and shared competencies between both units and set a foundation for further integration of Bethel’s cultural heritage in the classroom and the establishment of the Digital Humanities major (Bryn Mawr College n.d.).

While these competencies and literacies were building in student workers, it was necessary to integrate the learning of these concepts more broadly into the general curriculum so that more students could benefit. Some classroom opportunities emerged as a result of the digitization activities in various classes and disciplines. Students researched historical events and trends through their increased access to documents within a collection like the historical student newspaper collection for their journalism projects, engaging the frames of “Research as Inquiry” and “Searching as Strategic Exploration.” Students in a computer science course on data mining were also able to use the corpus of metadata from collections like the student newspaper, college catalogs, and faculty research as an object of study in their projects to identify trends in course offerings, changes in campus space, changes in school mascots through the years, and profiles of particular individuals in Bethel’s history. These assignments and experiences also built some familiarity with ways to engage archival material in classes other than a history class. Some of these students were excited to make these discoveries and had a heightened interest in the history of the institution, but their ability to pursue it in any depth was limited by the length of one single assignment.

In 2017, two developments in Bethel’s cyberinfrastructure improved the scope and scale for student learning anchored in these concepts: the launch of Bethel’s Makerspace in the Library and the creation of a Digital Humanities major. Bethel’s Makerspace is the result of a purposeful design discussion consisting of a cross-disciplinary group of faculty, staff, and administrators. This discussion resulted in a technology-infused space in the Library to explore innovative, creative technologies and encourage collaboration and experiential classroom experiences through the use of 3D scanners, 3D modeling and media production software, photo studio equipment, movable furniture, 3D printers, and meeting space for groups and classes. With the Digital Humanities program in place beginning in 2017, a new opportunity emerged for students to use the Makerspace as a lab to learn information-literacy concepts and digital competencies as demonstrated by other programs (Locke 2017, para. 8–49; White 2017, 399–402), and to engage more fully in the physical archive and the digital collections.

The Archive in Digital Humanities Pedagogy

Powerful technology has never been more accessible to educators, even, as we describe above, to educators at smaller schools like our own. Yet there remains the assumption that the digital humanities are best left to R1 institutions with deep pockets and deep rosters of instructors and support staff (Alexander and Frost Davis 2012; Battershill and Ross 2017, 13–24). However, there is a growing conversation and community of practice for undergraduate and liberal-arts–oriented digital humanities education, like the Liberal Arts Colleges section of the Digital Library Federation, that seeks ways for smaller institutions to thrive (Buurma and Levine 2016; Christian-Lamb and Shrout 2017; Locke 2017, para. 7). Bethel has been able to do this through incremental financial investments in technology and intentional partnerships like the efforts of the History Center and Digital Library mentioned above. In 2016–2017, Bethel designed and launched a new undergraduate Digital Humanities major informed by concepts from digital humanities pedagogy that capitalized on the existing technical and relational investments that can be available to faculty at most institutions with limited means (Brier 2012; Cordell 2016; Wosh, Moran, and Katz 2012).

We have benefited greatly by our archival holdings in the History Center. A particular challenge to incorporating digital humanities in the classroom is avoiding the technological black hole, whereby the technology used to make something becomes the focus of the thing itself, demanding the attention of both instructor and student at the expense of the humanistic subject. The archive, as an essential repository of humanistic data, can help anchor the traditional humanities at the center of digital humanities pedagogy. Here, we share an example of a lesson plan that aims to do just this—to craft an undergraduate archival project that is at once technologically sophisticated yet true to traditional humanistic values—all without the use of expensive equipment.

This project was inspired by a research trip Goldberg made to Rome as a graduate student at Syracuse University. On a day off from research, he visited Cinecittà, a large film studio just outside the city that housed the set for the 2005 HBO series Rome. The studio still maintains the set, featuring a scale replica of the ancient Roman forum, and allows visitors to traipse the grounds as part of a tour. As a Roman historian, standing in a replica of the forum was a powerful experience for Goldberg, and delivered a new sense of historical place and space that examining traditional scholarly materials—maps, plans, and written descriptions—couldn’t match.

When Goldberg arrived at Bethel in the Fall of 2016 and began designing the Digital Humanities curriculum, he looked for ways to emulate his experience abroad. Digital 3D modeling, including virtual reality applications, can provide such an immersive experience for the viewer, and holds a special value for bringing archival materials to life (Goode 2017). Working in tandem with Magnuson and Gerber, it became apparent that the History Center archive contained a treasure trove of materials pertaining to the university’s spatial past: photographs of historical groundbreaking ceremonies, architectural blueprints, and design sketches. Particularly alluring were plans and renderings for campus expansions that never panned out; such materials suggested alternative campus realities that would have fundamentally altered the contexts of how students, faculty, and staff interact with one another on a daily basis.

During a summer meeting in the History Center, we began to design a six-week lesson plan for Goldberg’s semester-long Introduction to Digital Humanities course. Our primary pedagogical goals were twofold: 1) to introduce students to archival digitization practices, culminating with the creation of digital records for traditional archival materials; and 2) to create immersive, experiential worlds based on the History Center’s architectural records. We determined that Trimble’s Sketchup, a 3D modeling program used by architects, interior designers, and engineers, was the best software tool for goal #2. Even more, Trimble provides 30-day trial versions of its Pro software for educators and students, long enough to cover the three weeks dedicated to 3D modeling in this assignment. They also now offer Sketchup for Web, an entirely online, cloud-based version of the software, which eliminates the need to install the software on campus or student computers, though it does lack certain key features of the Pro version.

For this assignment, students chose a building, actually built or only existing in design plans, from the campus’s present or past. They chose two photographs or other visual records of it from the History Center (such as blueprints or design illustrations), and were tasked with incorporating these as entries into the Digital Library. This aspect of the assignment was structured over three weeks, and gave students an introduction to many of the professional archival practices and digitization fundamentals described above, providing a hands-on “experiential” learning opportunity that immersed them in the fabric of our institutional history. Finally, students were to create 3D digital models of their structure using Sketchup. This final step also took three weeks.

As Digital Library manager, Gerber took the lead in the first half of the assignment. Because most students were freshmen, we assumed no previous exposure to the archival setting. We therefore took a field trip to the History Center, where Magnuson gave an overview of her work there and introduced students to basic archival practices. We then reassembled as a class to learn some basic digital competencies like how medium impacts the experience and the meaning of an archival item by comparing and contrasting physical and digital versions of the same object. Once introduced to this framework, the class focused on how any object, be it a photograph, document, or physical object, possesses a range of features unique to it and how to attach a description of it to a digital file in order to be intelligible and findable by both humans and computers. To use a nonarchival example, an action figure is made of a certain material (e.g., “plastic”), is a certain size (e.g. “8 inches tall”), made by a certain company (e.g., “Mattel”), in a certain year. This basic principle is a crucial aspect of proper digital asset management, and allowed us to introduce the concept of “metadata,” or information about an object that describes its characteristics. We stressed the importance of metadata in the archival setting and introduced our students to the Dublin Core Metadata Initiative, an international organization dedicated to maintaining a standard and best practices for describing and managing any kind of information artifact including archival material. At its heart, Dublin Core consists of fifteen common elements necessary to describe the metadata of any archival object (e.g., “Title,” “Creator,” “Subject,” “Description,” etc.). We then looked at how items catalogued in the Digital Library store this metadata and apply local standards, like the Bethel Digital Library Metadata Entry Guidelines, adapted from the Minnesota Digital Library Metadata Entry Guidelines, to determine what kind of information is needed in each element. We focused particularly on the purpose of the Title and Description elements in the Historical Photographs Collection and analyzed the quality of the entries based on how well they provided context and facilitated discovery of the item by a potential researcher. For example, the Title element for the image of Esther Sabel, a prominent woman in Bethel’s history, was used to demonstrate levels of quality seen in Table 1: Poor – “Woman,” Good – “Portrait of Esther Sabel,” Better – “Portrait of Esther Sabel, Head of Bible and Missionary Training School.” Finally, based on this scaffolding, students were given the assignment of analyzing two images in the Historical Photographs Collection with insufficient or erroneous metadata, and improving the records in this Metadata Improvement Worksheet using a shared Google Spreadsheet.

Poor Descriptive Titles Good Descriptive Titles Better Descriptive Titles
These titles lack specificity and do NOT assist users in finding materials. These are examples of basic descriptive titles. These titles provide users with more specific information and relay exactly what is in the image.
Woman Portrait of Esther Sabel Portrait of Esther Sabel, Head of Bible and Missionary Training School
Crowd of People Group of students sitting on grass Group of seven students outside signing yearbooks
Table 1. Excerpt from Bethel Digital Library Metadata Entry Guidelines.

In the second week, we gathered several folders of photographs, blueprints, and architectural renderings awaiting catalogue entry in the History Center, and had our students spend some time perusing their contents. Since the assignment was quite long at six weeks and culminated in a large finished digital work that some students found intimidating, we found that students greatly appreciated this unstructured exploration, or “tinkering” (Sayers 2011) time. These photographs provided intimate glimpses into the university’s past and unrealized future(s), and motivated our students to find out more about the students who came before them. Students then selected two images for entry into the Digital Library, and received their second assignment: tracking down the necessary metadata. Their submissions would become a publicly-available part of the Historical Photograph Collection, adding a “real-world” application incentive to this assignment. Some images were easier to provide metadata for than in others, with dates or a list of subjects written on the back. Photographs of ground-breaking ceremonies could be dated by looking up construction dates for buildings on campus. Others required reasoned speculation. Dates for difficult photographs could be estimated by the style of clothing of the people photographed, for example.

In the third week, students wrote a two- to three-page blog post synthesizing Digital Library records into a narrative of a past campus event. Some students chose to write on their dorms or the campus building they had previously studied, while others wrote on a key historical event, such as Martin Luther King Jr.’s scheduled visit to campus in the 1960s. This aspect, since it required close reading of a text or texts, was the component of the assignment most aligned with the traditional humanities, and helped alleviate some anxiety in the instructors that this digital-centered project might stray from core humanities values.

In the second half of the assignment, students created three-dimensional digital models of their campus building using Trimble’s Sketchup. Sketchup is a popular software tool with an active and enthusiastic online support community. Having access to a wide range of tutorial walkthroughs and videos greatly reduced the learning curve for acclimating both instructor and student to the software. There are also several guides and tutorials written specifically for those in the digital humanities community, which provide helpful tips for applying it to the humanities classroom. In particular, Goldberg benefited from the step-by-step guide for creating 3D models from historical photographs written by Hannah Jacobs at Duke University’s Wired! Lab, as well as Kaelin Jewell’s use of Sketchup to bring medieval building plans to life (Jewell 2017). We have made Goldberg’s intro and advanced tutorials available online. The fourth week was devoted to installing Sketchup on student computers and learning the basics. Students with experience playing video games tended to get up to speed faster than others, as the software’s simulated three-dimensional environment can be disorienting at first. Students, and instructors, should be encouraged to simply search Google if there is a particular process they are struggling with, since there are many helpful tutorials on YouTube.

After we learned the basic functionality, we began to translate our photographs into architectural models in Sketchup. The program allows the user to upload an image and transform the two-dimensions represented within it into three dimensions of digital space. It does this by insinuating axis lines on the image, and “pushing” the façade of the building back into a third dimension, as demonstrated in these two photos:

Figure 1. Screenshot of a building in Sketchup showing how 2D images are projected into 3D space.
 
Figure 2. Screenshot of a building in Sketchup showing early stages of 3D modeling from a 2D photo of a building.
 

Because this process involves transforming a two-dimensional image into three-dimensional space, it is imperative to start with the right kind of image. The one used above demonstrates the proper perspective; essentially, the image must contain a vanishing point. Head-on images do not allow the user to determine how deep the actual physical building is and are therefore not usable in this process.

Next, the user can begin to add features to their model, referring back to the two-dimensional image as necessary. In our class, we allowed students two additional weeks to complete this process. We found this to be necessary since none of our students were previously familiar with Sketchup. This time therefore allowed them to troubleshoot errors as they came up. Class time was dedicated to working on our models together. Students and instructors collaborated with one another and shared strategies and tips. Finally, the completed models were rendered with V-Ray, a plugin for Sketchup which places the models in simulated environments, adding convincing lighting and other scenery effects.

Many projects succeeded. Graham McGrew, for example, started with an unbuilt plan from the 1960s for an A-frame building to house the university’s seminary chapel, as shown in this final rendered image:

Figure 3. Final rendering of un-built “A”-frame chapel made by Graham McGrew.
 

Another student, Bobbie Jo Chapkin, chose to model the existing Seminary building, as shown in this final rendered image:

Figure 4. Final rendering of 3D model of Bethel Seminary.
 

There are clear challenges to incorporating archival practices into digital humanities pedagogy. Regarding our lesson here, students lacking familiarity with video games or other three-dimensional computing tools may find orienting themselves to Sketchup challenging. And, as with any large project, the quality of the final products will depend entirely on the effort and energy students put in. Still, this project successfully combined a focus on the humanistic value of the archive with a modern software application to create a sophisticated experience that recreated an episode from our past campus.

Expanding from this specific project to consider the collaborative efforts described here generally, the intersection between three diverse academic disciplines might be thought to be a difficult place for three busy researchers and teachers to land upon. However, we feel that the best strategy for effecting meaningful interdisciplinary pedagogy in the archive and the humanities is to encourage organic opportunities to develop at their own pace, and to scaffold larger projects such as this one upon the foundations already laid. Our efforts were long in the making—Bethel’s archivist position was created in 1998, its digital librarian position in 2009, and its Digital Humanities position in 2016. Rome, even as a modern HBO set, wasn’t built in a day. Though incorporating the traditional archive into digital undergraduate pedagogy is a relatively recent effort, it still rests primarily on tried-and-true humanities principles like thoughtful reading, analysis, and attention to detail.

Bibliography

Alexander, Bryan and Rebecca Frost Davis. 2012. “Should Liberal Arts Campuses do Digital Humanities? Process and Products in the Small College World.” In Debates in the Digital Humanities, edited by Matthew K. Gold. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Association of College and Research Libraries. 2015. “Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education.” American Library Association, Association of College and Research Libraries Division. February 2, 2015. Accessed October 29, 2018. http://www.ala.org/acrl/standards/ilframework.

Battershill, Claire and Shawna Ross. 2017. Using Digital Humanities in the Classroom: A Practical Introduction for Teachers, Lecturers, and Students. London; New York: Bloomsbury Academic.

Brier, Stephen. 2012. “Where’s the Pedagogy? the Role of Teaching and Learning in the Digital Humanities.” In Debates in the Digital Humanities, edited by Matthew K. Gold. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Bryn Mawr College. n.d. “What Are Digital Competencies?” Accessed October 29, 2018. https://www.brynmawr.edu/digitalcompetencies/what-are-digital-competencies.

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Buurma, Rachel Sagner and Anna Tione Levine. 2016. “The Sympathetic Research Imagination: Digital Humanities and the Liberal Arts.” In Debates in the Digital Humanities, edited by Matthew K. Gold. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Christian-Lamb, Caitlin and Anelise Hanson Shrout. 2017. “‘Starting from Scratch’? Workshopping New Directions in Undergraduate Digital Humanities.” Digital Humanities Quarterly 11 (3). http://www.digitalhumanities.org/dhq/vol/11/3/000311/000311.html.

Cordell, Ryan. 2016. “How Not to Teach Digital Humanities.” In Debates in the Digital Humanities, edited by Matthew K. Gold. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Gerber, Kent. 2017. “Conversation as a Model to Build the Relationship among Libraries, Digital Humanities, and Campus Leadership.” College & Undergraduate Libraries 24 (2–4): 418–433. https://doi.org/10.1080/10691316.2017.1328296.

Goode, Kimberly. 2017. “Blending Photography and the Diorama: Virtual Reality as the Future of the Archive & the Role of the Digital Humanities.” MediaCommons Field Guide: “What is the Role of the Digital Humanities in the Future of the Archive.” May 4, 2017. Accessed October 25, 2018. http://mediacommons.org/fieldguide/question/what-role-digital-humanities-future-archive/response/blending-photography-and-diorama-virtu.

Jewell, Kaelin. 2017. “Digital Tools and the Pedagogy of Early Medieval Visual Culture.” Peregrinations: Journal of Medieval Art and Architecture 6 (2): 30–39.

Karukstis, Kerry K. and Timothy E. Elgren. 2007. Developing and Sustaining a Research-Supportive Curriculum : A Compendium of Successful Practices, edited by Kerry K. Karukstis, Timothy E. Elgren. Washington, DC: Council on Undergraduate Research.

Locke, Brandon T. 2017. “Digital Humanities Pedagogy as Essential Liberal Education: A Framework for Curriculum Development.” Digital Humanities Quarterly 11 (3). http://www.digitalhumanities.org/dhq/vol/11/3/000303/000303.html.

Mackey, Thomas P. and Trudi E. Jacobson. 2014. Metaliteracy: Reinventing Information Literacy to Empower Learners, edited by Trudi E. Jacobson. Chicago: ALA Neal-Schuman.

Mattern, Shannon. June 2014. “Library as Infrastructure.” Places Journal. https://doi.org/10.22269/140609.

Middleton, Ken and Amy York. 2014. “Collaborative Publishing in Digital History.” OCLC Systems & Services: International Digital Library Perspectives 30 (3): 192-202. https://doi.org/10.1108/OCLC-02-2014-0010.

Murphy, Emily Christina and Shannon R. Smith. 2017. “Introduction.” Digital Humanities Quarterly 11 (3).
http://www.digitalhumanities.org/dhq/vol/11/3/000334/000334.html.

Olson, A. 1952. A Centenary History: As Related to the Baptist General Conference of America. Chicago: Baptist General Conference Press.

Rutner, Jennifer and Roger C. Schonfeld. 2012. Supporting the Changing Research Practices of Historians. Ithaka S+R Report.

Sayers Jentery. 2011. “Tinker-Centric Pedagogy in Literature and Language Classrooms.” In Collaborative Approaches to the Digital in English Studies, edited by Laura McGrath. Computers and Composition Digital Press. https://ccdigitalpress.org/book/cad/Ch10_Sayers.pdf.

Svensson, Patrik. 2010. “The Landscape of Digital Humanities.” Digital Humanities Quarterly 4 (1). http://digitalhumanities.org/dhq/vol/4/1/000080/000080.html

Svensson, Patrik. 2011. “From Optical Fiber to Conceptual Cyberinfrastructure.” Digital Humanities Quarterly 5 (1). http://digitalhumanities.org/dhq/vol/5/1/000090/000090.html.

Vandegrift, Micah and Stewart Varner. 2013. “Evolving in Common: Creating Mutually Supportive Relationships between Libraries and the Digital Humanities.” Journal of Library Administration 53 (1): 67–78.

White, Krista. 2017. “Visualizing Oral Histories: A Lab Model using Multimedia DH to Incorporate ACRL Framework Standards into Liberal Arts Education.” College & Undergraduate Libraries 24 (2-4): 393–417.
https://doi.org/10.1080/10691316.2017.1325722.

Wosh, Peter J., Cathy Moran Hajo, and Esther Katz. 2012. “Teaching Digital Skills in an Archives and Public History Curriculum.” In Digital Humanities Pedagogy: Practices, Principles and Politics, edited by Brett D. Hirsch. 79–96. Cambridge: Open Book Publishers. http://books.openedition.org/obp/1620.

Appendix – Technology Tools

Spreadsheets (Google Sheets, Excel)
CONTENTdm
Epson Expression XL 10000 Flatbed Scanner
Sketchup
V-Ray plugin for Sketchup

About the Authors

Kent Gerber, the Digital Library Manager at Bethel University, is responsible for the library’s digital collections, the Makerspace, and collaborative digital scholarship projects. He holds an MLIS and Certificate of Advanced Studies in Digital Libraries from Syracuse University and focuses on how libraries engage with technology, teaching, research, cultural heritage, and digital humanities through facilitating conversation. He serves on the Operations Committee for the Minnesota Digital Library and co-designed new Bethel programs including the Digital Humanities major and the Makerspace.

Charlie Goldberg is Assistant Professor of History and Digital Humanities Coordinator at Bethel University. He helped design and currently oversees Bethel’s undergraduate Digital Humanities major. He has a Ph.D. from Syracuse University, and his primary research pertains to gender and politics in ancient Greece and Rome.

Diana L. Magnuson is Professor of History at Bethel University and Director of Archives, History Center of Bethel University and Converge. She holds a Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota and teaches courses on American history, introduction to history, and geography. As Director of Archives, Magnuson stewards and provides access to manuscripts, media, three-dimensional objects, and digital materials that document the institutional history of Bethel University and Converge. Magnuson also curates the institutional history of the Minnesota Population Center at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities Campus.

Screenshot of University of Mary Washington Libraries Digital Collections homepage.
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What Do You Do with 11,000 Blogs? Preserving, Archiving, and Maintaining UMW Blogs—A Case Study

Abstract

What do you do with 11,000 blogs on a platform that is over a decade old? That is the question that the Division of Teaching and Learning Technologies (DTLT) and the UMW Libraries are trying to answer. This essay outlines the challenges of maintaining a large WordPress multisite installation and offers potential solutions for preserving institutional digital history. Using a combination of data mining, personal outreach, and available web archiving tools, we show the importance of a systematic, collaborative approach to the challenges we didn’t expect to face in 2007 when UMW Blogs launched. Complicating matters is the increased awareness of digital privacy and the importance of maintaining ownership and control over one’s data online; the collaborative nature of a multisite and the life cycle of a student or even faculty member within an institution blurs the lines of who owns or controls the data found on one of these sites. The answers may seem obvious, but as each test case emerges, the situation becomes more and more complex. As an increasing number of institutions are dealing with legacy digital platforms that are housing intellectual property and scholarship, we believe that this essay will outline one potential path forward for the long-term sustainability and preservation.

As a leader in what is called the Digital Liberal Arts, we at the University of Mary Washington are facing the unique challenge of archiving our early digital output, namely, UMW Blogs. Started in 2007, UMW Blogs contains 11 years of digital history, learning, and archives. Although we are best known today as the birthplace of Domain of One’s Own, UMW Blogs was a testcase for showing the viability of such a widely available online platform for faculty, staff, and students.

After three years in which Division of Teaching and Learning Technologies (DTLT) staff and a few UMW faculty experimented with blogs in and out of the classroom (Campbell 2009, 20), UMW Blogs launched in 2007. It provided the campus with a WordPress installation that allowed any student, faculty, or staff member to get their own subdomain (e.g. mygreatblog.umwblogs.org) and WordPress site, administered by DTLT. Since then, the 600 blogs of 2007 has grown to over 11,000 blogs and 13,000 users as of 2018! Each site has any number of themes, plugins, and widgets installed and running, creating a database that is exponentially larger and more cumbersome than the user numbers suggest at first glance.

The viability and popularity of a digital platform available to the UMW community convinced the administration that we should be providing faculty, students, and staff not only with a space on the web, but with their own web address, hosting capabilities, and “back-end” access to build on the web beyond a WordPress multisite installation. Domain of One’s Own was born, where anyone with a UMW NetID could claim their own domain name and server space on the web, and where they could install not just WordPress, but also platforms like Omeka, docuwiki, or even just a hand-coded HTML website.

As a result, we now have two “competing” platforms—one legacy, one current—to administer and maintain.

Maintaining UMW Blogs today can be quite a challenge, and as the administrators we frequently alternated between idyllic bliss and mass panic. It’s not very heavily used (most users have moved to Domain of One’s Own instead), but when something does go wrong, it goes really wrong, bringing down every site on the system. And with a number of sites that haven’t been updated since the twenty-aughts, there are many that are poised to cause such problems: too many sites using too many outdated themes and plugins, leaving too many security vulnerabilities, and impacting the overall performance of the platform.

And while there was the initial expectation that the sites would be left up on UMW Blogs forever, the changing nature of the web and our understanding of digital privacy and data ownership has evolved as well. We have an open, online platform featuring works by former faculty and students that are over a decade old, many of which are inaccessible to the original creator of the content to delete. Content they may no longer want on the web. How do we balance preservation and privacy?

Of course, we can’t just pull the plug—well, okay, we could, but for many faculty, this would be unacceptable. Some of our faculty and students are still using UMW Blogs, and many of the sites no longer being maintained are important to our institution and its history—whether it’s an innovative (for its time) course website, an example of awesome student collaboration, or an important piece of institutional history. Former students, as well, may still be using content they have created on UMW Blogs in their job search. We want to ensure the UMW Blogs system works and that those important pieces of our institutional history and students’ intellectual property don’t become digital flotsam.

With that in mind, DTLT in collaboration with UMW Libraries have embarked on a major project to ensure the stability of our legacy system and the long-term preservation of UMW’s digital history. We are going to chronicle some of those efforts, both for the benefit of the UMW community and for those at other institutions who find themselves in a similar situation, or soon will.

Outline of the Problem

UMW Blogs contains some stellar content. A group of students (some of whom are now UMW staff) catalogued historical markers and other landmarks throughout the Fredericksburg/Spotsylvania area, mostly from the Civil War, providing important historical context. A student wrote love letters to his girlfriend at another university regularly for several months, leaving her coded messages and invitations to dinner dates (“don’t forget the coupon!”). Two colleges on campus hosted their Faculty Senate sites there. Student government leaders (and campaigns) hosted sites on UMW Blogs. And there are historical sites from many student clubs, activists, and research groups. And who can forget Ermahgerd Sperts, or possibly the most creatively unimaginative username: umwblogs.umwblogs.org.

While most faculty, students, and staff have migrated to Domain of One’s Own (DoOO), there are always those who remain on the the platform they are most familiar with. As a public liberal arts, teaching-intensive institution, many upper-division courses are only taught on a three-year rotation, meaning that course sites built in UMW Blogs remain inactive for two or three years until the course itself is once again offered. While the course sites could (and often eventually are) migrated into DoOO, the way that faculty and students then interact with those sites inevitably shifts, causing some degree of anxiety from faculty members, who thus delay the migration process.

In other words, in the faculty’s mind, if it isn’t broke, don’t fix it. Except, of course, it does break. Often. Leaving their course sites down.

In addition to valuable contributions to UMW history, scholarship, and archives, UMW Blogs also contains about 700 sites that were last updated on the same date they were created. (“Hello, World!”… and nothing since.) A number of sites have “broken” since they were last maintained, mostly as a result of using themes and plugins that have not been updated by their developers to retain compatibility with upgrades to the WordPress core platform. And then there are sites that, while valuable to some at the time, have been neither updated nor visited in a long time. This leaves broken and vulnerable sites, compromising those who are currently using the platform.

One of the challenges we are facing in the process of archiving the sites is the ethos under which the project was created, of openness and experimentation. The original Terms of Service for UMW Blogs reads:

UMW Blogs is an intellectual and creative environment, owned and maintained by the University of Mary Washington’s Division of Teaching and Learning Technologies. Users of the system are expected to abide by all relevant copyright and intellectual property laws as well as by the University’s Network and Computer Use Policy.

Users are encouraged to use UMW Blogs to explore the boundaries of Web publication in support of teaching and learning at the University, with the understanding that UMW may decide to remove at any time content that is found to be in violation of community standards, University policy, or applicable federal or state laws.

As participants in a public Web space, users must also understand that the work they publish on UMW Blogs generally may be browsed or viewed by anyone on the Web. Some features are available to users who wish to protect content or their own identity. Information about protecting content and/or your identity within the system can be found at the following address:[1]

While the TOS capture the ethos and spirit of UMW Blogs and prompt users to think about privacy, they don’t prompt users to address their own IP and copyright. This oversight is partially a reflection of the approach to the Web as open. Nevertheless, it leaves us, now, wondering what we can actually do with student work, former faculty and staff work, group blogs, long-term collaborative projects between faculty, staff, and students.

The intention was always that copyright would remain with the creator of the content (which was made explicit in the Domain of One’s Own Terms of Service). But as we archive sites, we have encountered a number of issues regarding whose permission we need to move these sites into the (public) archive, to which the original creators will no longer have access. This is particularly difficult for collaboratively created sites, where contributors to the site are not owners of the site.

There’s another related issue that has been weighing on our minds. Past members of DTLT (none of whom are still administering the platform) told users that their UMW Blogs sites would be hosted in perpetuity, but that presents a major data ownership and privacy issue. The internet is a different place than it was in 2007. According to Paul Mason, the entire internet in 2007 was smaller than Facebook is today (Mason 2015, 7)! And that’s to say nothing of the changing ways in which we view our personal data, even our public creative work, since GamerGate, Ferguson, and Cambridge Analytica. And as the birthplace of Domain of One’s Own, UMW (and DTLT in particular) has focused increasingly over the past decade on the ownership aspect of writing and working on the web—empowering students to make critical decisions about what they put on the web, what they don’t put on the web, and what they delete from the web.

We’ve also received a number of requests from alumni asking us to remove their blog from UMW Blogs, to remove a specific post they created on a faculty course site, or even to remove specific comments they left on a classmate’s blog as part of an assignment. We are well aware of the vulnerabilities that working in public can create, as well as the ways in which we as people change and grow, leaving behind aspects of the (digital) identity that we once shared with the world.

And so, beyond the need to streamline the platform, we think it’s important that we take the initiative to remove old content from our public platform, and to pass it along to former students and faculty so they can decide what should be public and where it should be hosted.

After everything is archived locally and before anything is deleted from the platform, DTLT will be reaching out to those former students, faculty, and staff, letting them know our plans, and providing them the opportunity (and documentation) to export their data and preserve it publicly or privately, in a place of their choosing. This not only helps those currently on the platform have a better experience, but it helps our former community members once again reflect critically on their public digital identity and take a bit more ownership over their data and what’s done with it.

As proponents of “digital minimalism,” we often tell our students and colleagues that what we delete is as important a part of curating our digital identity as what we publish. We want to encourage students (and faculty and staff) to think about how large a digital footprint they are leaving, and help devise strategies everyone can use to minimize traces of themselves online. And our freedom to delete increases our freedom to experiment. As the attention economy and algorithmically driven content discovery have radically changed the internet since the early days of UMW Blogs, it’s worth rethinking both what we as an institution hold onto, and what we as individuals decide to keep in public venues.

Another challenge was that at the start of this project, we at UMW did not currently have any policies governing data storage, collection, and deletion. Alumni could keep their email addresses, the only time we ever deleted a course in the LMS was when we moved from one to another, and we do not have a enterprise-solution cloud-based shared digital storage space. We were starting from scratch.

The Process, DTLT

We identified over 5000 blogs on the platform that have not been updated since 2015 or earlier, are not administered by any current UMW community members, and have either not been visited at all in the last two years or have been visited less than 100 times in the entire time period for which we have analytics. That means essentially half the platform is inactive and no longer providing benefit to users, but is also open to vulnerabilities or “bit rot,” which can cause problems for the active sites.

However, some of the inactive sites we identified are also important pieces of institutional history. After analyzing the metadata for all 11,333 sites in the UMW Blogs database, we identified a list of over 5000 blogs that meet all of the following criteria:

  • The blog has not been updated since Jan 1, 2016.
  • None of the blog administrators are current members of the UMW community.
  • The site has either not been visited at all in the last two years, or has logged fewer than 100 visits all-time.

We then went through the entire list to identify sites important to our institutional history, as well as course websites that are less than five years old. (Some courses are offered every three or four years, and having relatively recent course websites live can be useful for faculty and students.) These are sites that we either think should be kept on the platform, or—more likely—that we think would be good candidates for UMW Libraries’ new Digital Archive. The latter will create a flat-file archive (a website with no databases or dynamic content, only HTML and CSS code) that will be far more future-proof and less likely to just break one day.

Now, we didn’t visit all 5000+ blogs manually! Rather, we looked carefully at the metadata—site titles, the person(s) attached to the sites as administrators, the administrator’s email address, and the dates the sites were created and last updated. This told us if the site was created by a student or faculty member, and if the site was a course website, collaborative student project, personal blog, etc. We identified almost 300 sites from this collection which we did check manually, often consulting with each other about them, before deciding on the 62 of these 5000+ sites that were important to keep public or submit to the UMW Digital Archive (more on that process below).

In the end, we determined that of the 11,333 blogs on the UMW Blogs platform, 6012 of them were important to keep actively published on the web (including about 50 which would best serve the UMW Community by being frozen in time and preserved publicly before “bit rot” and broken plugins bring them down). The other 5321 blogs, many of which were important in their time, are ready to be removed from the platform.

To be clear, we’re not talking about just deleting them! We are working with our hosting company, Reclaim Hosting, to create a flat-file archive and a WordPress XML export of each of those blogs, which DTLT will retain for 2 years before permanently deleting them. We are also preparing to email the administrators of those sites to let them know our plans so they can download their content before we remove anything from the platform (or, worst-case scenario, ask us to email them the backup archive after we purge the platform). But ultimately, it is important for the health of the platform to streamline the database and focus on supporting the more recent and active sites.

Through this process, we also identified a number of faculty and staff “power users” of UMW Blogs—those people who had more than 10 sites on UMW Blogs or had created a course site on the blog within the last two semesters. Once that handful of faculty were identified, we reached out to them to schedule one-on-one meetings with a member of DTLT to discuss the options for their UMW Blog site: deletion, personal archive, library archive, or migration to personal subdomain.

This was, admittedly, a fraught process for some of the faculty; these sites had become important and significant resources, examples, and case-studies of the viability and ultimate success of working openly on the web. They were sometimes years in the making, informed by countless hours of student and faculty work. To come in and say, “These sites aren’t viable in this space anymore” is intimidating.

One advantage of targeting the “power users” first is that we interacted frequently with these faculty members on a number of other projects, and thus had already developed a relationship with them, not to mention an understanding of their values, their work, and their pedagogy. We decided collectively which DTLT team member would work with each individual faculty member based on past relationships and interactions. We weren’t cold-calling these faculty; we were approaching colleagues with whom we had previously collaborated. Thus, we knew better how to discuss the issues with each individual faculty. While time consuming, we built on our relationships to tailor each interaction to the specific needs of the faculty member, allowing us to better explain and recommend options for their UMW Blog sites.

Explaining that our goal is, in fact, to preserve these websites in a more sustainable format, in order to celebrate and highlight their importance and significance to faculty, is key. We also want faculty to take more control over their data and their sites, understanding better how WordPress works and how the archival process will be of benefit to them. No technology, no matter how advanced, can survive this long without a lot of help, a lot of work, and some hard decisions about how we are going to invest our time, energy, and monetary resources.

We worked with faculty, then, to create a list of sites on UMW Blogs and categorized them based on how they wanted them to be preserved. Once that list was created and finalized, we passed the information along to the relevant people, including DTLT and UMW Archives staff, to make sure that all sites ended up in working order where they were supposed to be. When moving sites to Domain of One’s Own, we often had to replace themes and plugins, so that while the site might not look the way it did when initially created, we tried to ensure it would still retain its original functionality. The static library archive preserved the original link and function of the site in a static file.

The Process, UMW Libraries

UMW Libraries has been archiving the University’s web presence for several years now, primarily with established, automated web crawls and the occasional manual crawl to capture historical context during a special event, such as a university presidential inauguration. Our focus has been on archiving institutional sites, such as the main website, social media, UMW Athletics, or UMW News. Despite this effort, we were often missing the individual stories of the campus community.

We have a fantastic scrapbook collection in the University Archives. Stories from UMW (or MWC) students across the decades. Though students are still creating and donating scrapbooks, many are recording their college experience online, through Domain of One’s Own or UMW Blogs, rather than on paper. We also have detailed records of university business, such as meeting minutes, correspondence, and publications. The vast majority of this information is online today, with blogs or other platforms used to keep notes on committee work or to provide transparency on important campus issues, such as faculty governance or strategic planning. We must be proactive in not only preserving but providing access to these records for future students and researchers.

The UMW Archives appraisal process is an important step in beginning to archive this material. We not only need to make sure that the websites and digital projects we collect fit within our collection development policies, but we must also be confident in our abilities, through both technology and staff power, to preserve and provide access to the material we agree to accept. To help us with this process, we developed a set of criteria for appraisal:

  1. Scholarship that is new and impactful in its field.
  2. Highly innovative technical and/or creative aspects.
  3. Content that complements existing archival collections and subject areas of emphasis.
  4. Content that documents the history, administration, and/or culture of the University.
  5. Unique content that supports the research and curriculum needs of faculty.
  6. Content created, owned, or used by university departments, faculty, or students in carrying out university-related business, functions, or activities.
  7. Compatibility with SCUA’s preservation software.
  8. A faculty member’s statement of support for student-created websites.

This set of criteria will help us work through lists of current websites to determine what would be best suited for the UMW Archives. It is also published on the library website so that faculty, staff, and students can read through the list and determine if their website will be a good fit for the library’s collections. However, even if a UMW community member is unsure of where their website belongs, our hope is that the broad guidelines will encourage them to contact us and start a conversation. Even if a suggested website is not acquired by the archives, DTLT and UMW Archives staff will work with the creator to find other alternatives for migrating or archiving their content.

The lists of current websites that we are combing through and appraising do not contain the thousands of websites that DTLT started with on this project. For example, we removed from consideration sites that were created but never built out, don’t have any content, haven’t been accessed, etc. Other websites were also included because they were listed in previous university publications or suggested by a colleague. Our initial list of potential websites to archive is not all-inclusive, and it will be a continuous process as more URLs are recommended or discovered.

After websites are selected for archiving, the very important step of requesting permission follows. While the University Archives actively archives institutional websites, such as UMW Athletics or UMW Social Media, we feel strongly that we must receive permission before archiving individual blogs, websites, and other digital projects. DTLT and UMW Archives work together to reach out to the community to request permission from all creators and contributors of items that we want to archive. For those submitting archive requests, the copyright permission statement is published on the library’s website so that anyone can read and understand the terms before submission. Even if a faculty member recommends a website for archiving, the student still must provide permission before archiving takes place.

If permission is received to archive a website, the crawling can begin! UMW uses three tools for archiving websites: Preservica, Archive-It, and Webrecorder. Each web crawl is manually initiated by staff and student aides, as well as checked over for quality control after the crawl is complete. The crawl creates a WARC file, which is uploaded in the library’s digital preservation system. A metadata record in the form of Dublin Core is created for each WARC file, which includes creator(s), contributor(s), and two to three subject headings. Library staff used “Descriptive Metadata for Web Archiving: Recommendations of the OCLC Research Library Partnership Web Archiving Metadata Working Group” to help determine metadata guidelines, in addition to local, unique needs (Dooley and Bowers 2018).

The final component to the archiving process is making the archived websites accessible. Once a WARC file is created and metadata is applied, the archival item is published in Digital Collections, the library’s digital preservation and access platform. Users of the platform are able to locate archived websites through search functions that use both metadata and full-text. The websites render within the browser itself, so users can navigate the website as it existed at the time of capture.

Conclusion: Further Challenges, looking forward, plan for it

This is only the beginning of a long process of preserving and protecting our legacy platform, UMW Blogs. The platform was a launch pad for Domain of One’s Own and put UMW on the map for innovative digital learning. At the time, there was no precedent, no best practices, no road map, no rules. Now, we hope the lessons shared in this essay help schools trying to maintain their own legacy, open, digital learning platforms.

Moving forward, we will likely confront similar issues with Domain of One’s Own, particularly concerning what we should preserve in our library archives. We are developing a process for students, faculty, and staff to submit a site for preservation consideration. But given the ethos of DoOO—that the work done on users’ website is theirs to do with as they like—we know there have already been some potentially important sites deleted, as is the prerogative of the user.

How, then do you balance the imperative to save, preserve, and keep digital artifacts of (potential) historical significance with the need for agency, privacy, and freedom of the student, staff, or faculty member to delete, let die, or decay? These are the questions we are now collectively grappling with, and will continue to moving forward.

Notes

[1] Much like this project itself is trying to illustrate in the preserving of historic or significant materials that lived online, the original links to these policies and information are broken and the original information is all but inaccessible.

Bibliography

Campbell, Gardner. 2009. “UMWeb 2.0: University of Mary Washington Webifies Its World.” University of Mary Washington Magazine, Fall/Winter 2017. https://archive.org/details/universityofmary33fwuniv.

Dooley, Jackie, and Kate Bowers. 2018. Descriptive Metadata for Web Archiving: Recommendations of the OCLC Research Library Partnership Web Archiving Metadata Working Group. Dublin, OH: OCLC Research. https://doi.org/10.25333/C3005C.

Mason, Paul. 2015. Postcapitalism: A Guide to Our Future. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.

About the Authors

Angie Kemp is the Digital Resources Librarian at the University of Mary Washington. She works in Special Collections and University Archives, focusing on maintaining and expanding the university’s digital archives. She also oversees the Digital Archiving Lab, where campus and community members go to collaborate on digital collection projects and preservation. Her research interests include ethics and privacy in digital archives, as well as the long-term sustainability of digital projects.

Lee Skallerup Bessette is a Learning Design Specialist at the Center for New Designs in Learning and Scholarship (CNDLS) at Georgetown University. Previously, she was a Instructional Technology Specialist at DTLT at UMW working digital literacy and Domain of One’s Own. Her research interests include the intersections of technology and pedagogy, affect, and staff labor issues. Her writing has appeared in Hybrid Pedagogy, Inside Higher Ed, ProfHacker, Women in Higher Education, and Popula. You can find her talking about everything on Twitter as @readywriting.

Kris Shaffer is a data scientist and Senior Computational Disinformation Analyst for New Knowledge. His book, Data versus Democracy: How Big Data Algorithms Shape Opinions and Alter the Course of History, will be published Spring 2019 by Apress. Kris also coauthored “The Tactics and Tropes of the Internet Research Agency,” a report prepared for the United States Senate Select Committee on Intelligence about Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election on social media. A former academic, Kris has worked as an instructional technologist at the University of Mary Washington and has taught courses in music theory and cognition, computer science, and digital studies at Yale University, the University of Colorado–Boulder, the University of Mary Washington, and Charleston Southern University. He holds a PhD from Yale University.

A scan and transcription of a letter from Christopher Town.
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Digital Paxton: Collaborative Construction with Eighteenth-Century Manuscript Collections

Abstract

Digital Paxton is a digital collection, scholarly edition, and, most crucially for this issue, a burgeoning teaching platform devoted to the archives of Pennsylvania’s first major pamphlet war. In this co-authored piece, Will Fenton will introduce the massacre that sparked that debate, the limitations of the existing approach, and the affordances of his digital humanities project. Following Fenton’s comments on collaboration and acknowledgement, Kate Johnson and Kelly Schmidt will provide a case study in digital humanities pedagogy, demonstrating how they used a class transcription assignment as an opportunity to improve and expand the educational offerings of Digital Paxton. Through their analyses, Fenton, Johnson, and Schmidt will show how their collaboration demonstrates the value of digital projects and transcription assignments for students’ critical thinking and media literacy.

The Paxton Massacre

In December 1763, following years of backcountry warfare, a mob of settlers in the Paxton Township—just outside what is today Harrisburg—murdered twenty unarmed Conestoga Indians along the Pennsylvania frontier. Soon after, hundreds of these “Paxton Boys” marched on Philadelphia to menace a group of Moravian Indians who had, in response to the violence, been placed under government protection. Although the confrontation was diffused through the diplomacy of Benjamin Franklin, the incident ventilated long-festering religious and ethnic grievances, pitting the colony’s German and Scots-Irish Presbyterian frontiersmen against Philadelphia’s English Quakers and their Susquehannock trading partners.

Supporters and critics of the Paxton Boys spent the next year battling in print: the resulting public debate constituted one-fifth of the Pennsylvania’s printed material in 1764 (Olson 1999, 31). Pamphlets, which were inexpensive and quick to produce, were the medium of choice—hence the debate is often called the Paxton pamphlet war. But many other printed and unprinted materials circulated simultaneously, including broadsides, political cartoons, letters, diaries, and treaty minutes. Although this debate was ostensibly about the conduct of the Paxton vigilantes, it quickly migrated to other issues facing colonial Pennsylvania, including suspicions of native others, anxieties about porous borders, a yawning divide between urban and rural populations, and the proliferation of what we might today call “fake news.”

While most researchers explore the pamphlet war through John Raine Dunbar’s scholarly edition, The Paxton Papers (1957), much of the debate cannot be found in Dunbar’s edition.[1] There are dozens of alternate editions, answers, and responses to the pamphlets identified by Dunbar, and, if one examines the originals, one uncovers engravings, artworks, and other forms of materiality that could not be examined through textual transcriptions alone. Perhaps most importantly, the current approach to the Paxton debate, which prioritizes printed materials—namely pamphlets, broadsides, and political cartoons— inadvertently reinforces colonial and cosmopolitan biases. That is, much of the Paxton debate happened outside Philadelphia printers. If researchers are to reckon with the massacre’s geographic, ethnic, and class complexities, they ought to consider manuscript collections that give voice to backcountry settlers and the indigenous peoples at the center of this tragic episode.

Digital Paxton

Digital Paxton seeks to expand awareness of and access to such heterogeneous records. The project began as a digital collection of pamphlets available through the Library Company of Philadelphia and Historical Society of Pennsylvania. As partners in the project, those institutions are responsible for digitizing at their own expense more than half of the records available in Digital Paxton. Subsequent partnerships have brought scans of contemporaneous Pennsylvania Gazette issues at the American Antiquarian Society; Friendly Association correspondence from the Haverford College Quaker and Special Collections; letters from the John Elder and Timothy Horsfield Papers at the American Philosophical Society; and congregational diaries from the Moravian Archives of Bethlehem. Each expansion has underscored that the 1764 pamphlet war included much more than pamphlets.[2]

As important as the diversity of materials is the structure of the collection. The design of online publishing platform Scalar encourages researchers to draw connections between and across collections. Specifically, Scalar’s flat ontology enables all objects (images, transcriptions, sequences of images) to occupy the same hierarchy: no object is more of a subject than another object. In practical terms, this means that researchers encounter Governor Penn’s letters in the same pathway as they do letters between Quaker leaders and native partners, accounts of diplomatic conferences, and the writings of Wyalusing leaders. At a technical level, then, the platform supports the philosophical goals articulated by the editors of the Yale Indian Papers Project: the digital collection as a common pot, a “shared history, a kind of communal liminal space, neither solely Euro-American nor completely Native” (Grant-Costa, Glaza, and Sletcher 2012, 2). This is the allure of the digital edition: when thoughtfully structured, digital editions better accommodate a constellation of material forms, voices, and perspectives than traditional print editions.

Although Digital Paxton is foremost a digital collection, the project includes a scholarly apparatus similar to Dunbar’s Paxton Papers. However, whereas Dunbar’s introduction is singular and possesses the patina of definitiveness, this project is multi-authored, interdisciplinary, and less didactic. Practically speaking, each of the project’s twelve historical overviews, lesson plans, and conceptual keyword essays serve as freestanding entry points to the digital collection. That is, if a history student were interested in Conestoga Indiantown, she might choose to read Darvin Martin’s essay, “A History of Conestoga Indiantown,” use its links to explore the digital collection, and perform additional research using the various linked resources listed below further reading. Or, if a literature student wanted to think more carefully about what “elites” meant in the eighteenth-century, she might begin with Scott Paul Gordon’s essay, “Elites.”

Students may use the project’s introduction or interpretative pathways to traverse the project; however, rather than promoting a singular, definitive approach to the massacre and pamphlet war, Digital Paxton embraces what Adele Perry (2005) and others have called polyvocality. By layering materials and contexts, each is made less definitive, more partial, contingent, and subject to scrutiny. This approach guards against rote thinking: the Paxton massacre is a story of genocidal violence and indigenous dispossession, but it is also a story of identity politics, self-governance, resistance, and active peace-making.

As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie argued in a famous TED talk, narrative multiplicity acknowledges the complexity and dignity of human experience. “Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity,” explained Adichie. “[W]hen we reject the single story, when we realize that there is never a single story about any place, we regain a kind of paradise” (Adichie 2009). While regaining paradise is well beyond the scope of this project, grappling with the complexities, erasures, and ambiguities of historical memory falls within its purview, thanks to the generous contributions of scholarly and archival collaborators.

Collaboration and Acknowledgement

Given that Digital Paxton is very much a bootstrap operation—cobbled together without any significant external funding—recognition of labor is the least that can be offered collaborators. To this point, the first two points of the “Collaborators’ Bill of Rights” have informed the project’s approach to collaboration and acknowledgement:

1) All kinds of work on a project are equally deserving of credit (though the amount of work and expression of credit may differ). And all collaborators should be empowered to take credit for their work.

2a) Descriptive Papers & Project reports: Anyone who collaborated on the project should be listed as author in a fair ordering based on emerging community conventions.

2b) Websites: There should be a prominent ‘credits’ link on the main page with primary investigators (PIs) or project leads listed first. This should include current staff as well as past staff with their dates of employment (Clement, Croxall, et al. 2011).

Digital Paxton is the fruition—however nascent—of contributions from dozens of archivists, curators, scholars, and technologists, whose labor is subsidized by archives, cultural institutions, research libraries, and universities. Although this project was sparked by personal research interests, little would be available today without the resources, labor, and expertise of those individuals and institutions. Acknowledgement, on the project’s Credits page and in the publications and talks, is one form of (admittedly paltry) recompense.

Collaborators take many forms, and there is perhaps no cohort more vital to this project’s future—and that of the humanities more broadly—than that of student-collaborators. This project embraces Mark Sample’s notion of “collaborative construction,” through which students produce new knowledge in concert with one another, their professor, and the project, broadly conceived. “A key point of collaborative construction is that the students are not merely making something for themselves or their professor,” explains Sample. “They are making it for each other, and in the best scenarios, for the outside world” (Sample 2011).

The second half of this article seeks to put this philosophy into practice using a case study. In the spring 2017, two faculty members, Benjamin Bankhurst (Shepherd University) and Kyle Roberts (Loyola University Chicago), who were co-teaching an undergraduate history course, “Digitizing the American Revolution,” sought to introduce students to digital humanities tools and methods. They opted to create an assignment through which students would learn to transcribe eighteenth-century letters using scanned manuscript materials from Digital Paxton. Each student was responsible for transcribing a page of manuscript. After Bankhurst or Roberts vetted students’ work, transcriptions were loaded into Digital Paxton, with a credit to each student-transcriber.[3]

The project was successful on several accounts. First, it expanded the number of transcribed (and searchable) resources in Digital Paxton. Second, it required teaching materials that can be repurposed in future transcription assignments. And third, it attracted a new community of researchers to the site. This interest is certainly measurable in the students who participated in the assignment, many of whom now regularly share Digital Paxton updates on social media platforms. Perhaps most importantly, Roberts’s graduate students—Kate Johnson, Marie Pellissier, and Kelly Schmidt—took ownership of the project in ways that made it both more effective and more scalable. Using their experience within the classroom and reviews of transcription pedagogy best practices, they offered recommendations on how to modify the Digital Paxton site to facilitate easier transcription, created documents guiding students through some of the hurdles in the transcription process, and offered feedback on improving the exercise as a classroom assignment. Johnson and Schmidt will now describe their experience with the transcription project, and the challenges and opportunities it provided.

A Case Study in Digital Pedagogy

As members of Roberts’s class, we were asked to transcribe a page from Digital Paxton’s digital collection. We enjoyed the process of learning how to identify and transcribe unfamiliar eighteenth-century characters consistently, as well as the sense that we were contributing to a larger project of significant historical value to scholars and the general public. However, along with our undergraduate classmates, we encountered challenges as we struggled to interpret the manuscripts. We felt that we could help expand the project by creating a guide for people planning to transcribe individually or in a crowdsourced or classroom setting.

The assignment began with an introduction to Digital Paxton from its creator, Will Fenton (via Skype). As a class we explored the site together and received a contextual overview of the Paxton pamphlet war. The contextual information helped us better understand the significance of our assignment in relation both to our course and to the work of historians more broadly. Moreover, the personal touch of talking to the website’s creator cultivated greater interest in the project.

The directions for the assignment were simple: transcribe one page assigned from the Friendly Association manuscripts (Haverford College Quaker and Special Collections) and write a three-paragraph essay about what the page contained, whose voice it was written in, and who it excluded, and how it felt to participate in this transcription process as a historian. Students did not use any transcription aids. We each viewed the manuscript page in a web browser (or printed it out), then typed transcriptions using a word processor. However, these seemingly simple directions proved more complicated to students who were uncertain how to format their transcription consistently or account for peculiar eighteenth-century abbreviations. Some students opted to peer-review one another’s assignments before turning them in, which helped improve consistency and their understanding of the materials with which they were working.

For some students, the public nature of the transcription increased their commitment to the assignment. In her essay on “Teaching the Digital Caribbean,” Kelly Baker Josephs discusses how adding the public as an audience for coursework creates a “performance” aspect that changes the course experience (Josephs 2018). We saw this with our class, as several students put more time and effort into the assignment, such as peer reviewing each others transcriptions, expressly because it would be shared publicly on a website.

Student Responses

Each student turned in a short essay detailing the content of their transcription, its biases, and their experience transcribing it. In addition, we had a class discussion on the greatest challenges in transcribing and practices that might improve the transcription process and make the final product more useful. One student, who described working with the source as both “tedious and exciting,” encapsulated the gist of most anonymous student responses to the assignment.[4] The most frequent obstacles identified were difficulty reading the handwriting, deciphering inconsistent capitalization and spelling, differentiating between vowels as well as lowercase “L’s” and “F’s,” and unfamiliarity with the long “S.” While the scans were clear, some students had trouble reading their assigned text because authors often used both sides of the page, the ink bleeding through from one side to the other. One student suggested that reading the text and then rereading it before transcribing made it easier to understand the content. Others said that they needed more knowledge not only of paleography and period syntax, but also context about the history of the time period, region, and specific event in which these papers were situated. Without such broader knowledge, students sometimes struggled to transcribe local place names, like “Minisinks,” and the names of subjects in the documents, especially Native Americans, such as “Scarroyada.”

Nevertheless, many of the same students who struggled to decipher the eighteenth-century English and handwriting still expressed an appreciation for, and a better understanding of, the work of historians. One student wrote, “I’m quite honored and impressed that I had the opportunity to participate in the understanding and detailing of history, especially in the turn of the Revolution.” Several others professed a “newfound respect for historians” and claimed that they felt like they were “doing the work of a real historian.”

Most of the students were not history majors, and for many, this was the first time they had engaged with primary sources. Most of their previous coursework in history had focused on secondary source readings about big ideas and events, which students assessed through essay-writing assignments. One respondent noted that, “working with primary sources feels much more immersive and enlightening, in terms of being able to see a glimpse of what their life was like and the issues they dealt with in their time.”

While the process of transcribing manuscripts was monotonous, students said that work with handwritten letters changed the way they engaged with materials. One student said, “It felt good to work with a primary source such as this letter, and be able to see the firsthand view of the writer and a glimpse of their world.” Several students also welcomed access to Native American voices, who are often silenced in settlement narratives. This recognition encouraged them to grapple with the possibility that some of these documents may not have been telling the whole truth about the event. One student even mused that soon historians might have to decipher audio sources rather than interpret handwriting.

These student responses align with pedagogical scholarship. Notably, William Kashatus posits that close analysis of primary sources gives students a more personal understanding of history. Because primary sources can “evoke emotional responses,” students are better able to “identify with the human factor in history, including the risks, frailties, courage, and contradictions of those who shaped the past” (2002, 7). According to Kashatus, students are better able to recognize the biases in historical records and assess their own contemporary biases, and those of modern-day media, when they have engaged with close-readings of historical sources in the classroom (2002, 7–8). Student feedback from our classroom assignment reflects that students felt they gained a sense of intimacy with historical writers. Avishag Reisman and Sam Wineburg, writing about the new common core standards, have argued that working with primary source materials challenges students to think carefully about what does and does not count as evidence. Reisman and Wineburg argue that primary source materials compel students to “interrogate the reliability and truth claims” rather than to simply “cull” evidence (2012, 25-26). Through transcription work, students must read the text word-for-word, compelling them to think more critically about what is being expressed and not to take a document’s message at face value.

Gathering Survey Data

Although the students’ comments were helpful, we realized we needed more feedback before we pursued any future crowdsourced transcription projects. To that end, we administered an anonymous one-page survey to the participants of a transcribe-a-thon event at Loyola organized by the Center for Textual Studies and Digital Humanities in conjunction with a nationwide event. Approximately 70 students, staff, and faculty attended, 43 of whom elected to complete the survey. Additionally, we administered the survey to 21 students enrolled in a 100-level “Interpreting Literature” class. For the transcribe-a-thon, participants used a subscription-based transcription program called FromThePage.

The survey consisted of nine total questions, with six multiple choice and three open-ended questions. Questions solicited feedback on the ease of participants’ use of the transcription program and the experience of transcribing itself. Two questions asked about the participants’ perceived value of the experience of transcribing. At the end, participants were asked to provide an email if interested in future transcription projects. The anonymous survey results highlighted what elements of transcription work most engaged participants and what challenges or barriers thwarted their participation. Thus, the survey offered concrete data to support ideas that emerged from student feedback in the Loyola/Shepherd assignment. From these conclusions we gained insights into what would make a successful transcription project for interacting with digitized early American documents, and those insights informed the guides we created for Digital Paxton.

One key difference was experiential: students preferred the communal work of a transcribe-a-thon to the solitary work of a for-credit assignment. While the majority of both sets of students said that they found the experience valuable, more transcribe-a-thon participants recorded satisfaction. Additionally, a much higher percentage of transcribe-a-thon participants expressed interest in future transcription projects (82% of event participants compared to 38% of classroom participants).

We evaluated these discrepancies using responses to the open-ended questions, which included a question about what was the most valuable part of the experience. The classroom included some but not all of the additional contextualizing elements that were included in the event, such as the talks and recitations of historical speeches and songs. These elements, combined with the celebratory atmosphere of the event (held as a birthday celebration for Frederick Douglass), helped to affirm the sense that participants were both learning and contributing to a living project. The survey results and our experience with the transcribe-a-thon show us that transcription projects not only get students working with primary materials, contributing to scholarly work, and learning to use digital tools, but they also inspire students to participate in future projects.

Translating Feedback into Practice

Student feedback and survey responses provided some clear takeaways for Digital Paxton. Although incorporating a transcription project into a class’s curriculum and awarding class credit and public access incentivized students’ contributions, assignments needed to be structured to foreground both historical and logistical context for transcriptions. Additionally, assignments needed to emphasize the importance of student transcriptions to the long-term goals of the project. When we began contributing transcriptions to Digital Paxton, the project did not have guidelines for transcriptions or a built-in transcription platform.

We developed a “Transcription Best Practices” guide for Digital Paxton, now available in both the Transcription and Pedagogy sections of the site for educators who want to introduce similar assignments in their classrooms. In it, we attempted to anticipate contextual questions that might arise during an assignment. We used the feedback from the Loyola/Shepherd assignment to pinpoint the most important contextual clues needed. We included images of eighteenth century writing conventions, such as the elongated “s” and the shortening of common words like “which” to “w/ch.”By equipping potential transcribers with the materials they need to understand the papers in their historical and cultural context—the guidelines, site introduction, and historical overviews—we met a need expressed in our survey results.

Digital Paxton’s overview of the conflict provides contexts for an event with which students are only vaguely familiar, but it does not necessarily supply students with definitive answers. Students build intimacy with the text by describing it, having to assess as they go along the choice of language and style used. Writing out the text seemed to improve students’ reading comprehension. By adding transcription guidelines, we further sought to help students avoid getting bogged down by the complication of language or handwriting. In their response essays, students use the text they transcribed as “evidence” about where the author stood ideologically within the conflict and how the conflict unfolded. As one student described, the source was a piece to their understanding of the larger puzzle.

Selecting a platform and developing a process through which future cohorts could contribute to the project were more complicated. After all, our approach—toggling between a web browser and word processor—would not work well for larger classes or transcription projects. We had three key stipulations for a prospective transcription platform: it had to be easily accessible to and usable for transcribers, well-supported, and interoperable with Scalar. We identified two platforms that met most of our requirements: Scripto and FromThePage. Both enabled users to record transcriptions alongside scanned pages, a priority, for students in the “Digitizing the Revolution” course. Scripto offered a free, open-source transcription tool, but it was not being fully supported by the developers, and we did not know if it would continue to be supported in the future. Moreover, Scripto required scanned pages to be migrated from Scalar to Omeka. We selected FromThePage because it was well-supported, did not require an Omeka installation, and Fenton could use his university library’s subscription (Fordham University).

On a logistical side, the survey responses also helped us understand the barriers to using online transcription tools. The most prevalent issue was readability of the scanned text, followed by challenges navigating the transcription platform. While there are limitations to how much can be done to address manuscript readability, especially when it comes to eighteenth-century manuscript material, we took the latter concern into account when we created “Using FromThePage.” In that documentation we sought to create clear, concise instructions on how to use FromThePage in conjunction with Digital Paxton. This effort included screenshots illustrating how to register as a user and how to locate pages available for transcribing, a key issue for participants at the transcribe-a-thon. By anticipating user experience issues, we hope to enable students to lose themselves in the rich texts and contexts on Digital Paxton, rather than spend valuable time and energy troubleshooting the mechanics of the process.

Future Collaborations

While our experiment in student manuscript transcription was not without its limitations, the process of pursuing student involvement and recording student feedback have made Digital Paxton a more effective teaching tool. Thanks to the labors of Kate Johnson, Kelly Schmidt, and Marie Pellissier, the project now includes best practices for transcribing eighteenth-century manuscripts (Transcription Best Practices), an assignment for integrating a similar exercise into a university classroom (Transcription Assignment), and a platform through which any educator may bring Friendly Association manuscripts into her classroom (Transcriptions).

From our research and practical experience, we have found that transcription of primary sources encourages students to read texts more closely, to view writers as human beings (rather than detached historical figures), to confront archival gaps, silences, and erasures, and to view their work as contributory to a collaborative project. In her recent post at the National Archives, Meredith Doviak wrote that with increased digital access to collections, students now have more opportunity to become “active critics and curators of those literary productions rather than mere explicators of them” (2017). Transcription projects can serve as vehicles through which students act as participants in knowledge creation, honing valuable critical thinking skills and a historically-informed sense of media literacy that will serve them well inside and outside the classroom.

Notes

[1] Nearly every study of the Paxton crisis cites Dunbar’s 60-year-old edition, and for good reason: it collects 28 noteworthy pamphlets and provides a useful introduction to the debate. Time has, however, revealed the edition’s limitations, foremost, its narrow selection of materials. Alison Gilbert Olson (1999) has since identified at least 63 pamphlets and 10 cartoons, and the distinction between pamphlets and political cartoons is itself ambiguous, given that many cartoons were nested inside of pamphlets, many of which circulated in multiple editions.
[2] Students can surface new perspectives from indigenous peoples and backcountry settlers by attending to a diverse set of records, all of which are available as open-access, print-quality images. Today, the project features more than 2,500 images, including 16 artworks, three books, 17 broadsides, 128 manuscripts, 26 newspaper and periodical issues, 69 pamphlets, and nine political cartoons, many of which have never before been digitized.
[3] For example, visitors will find a credit to Emina Hadzic at the bottom of her transcription of “Various Memoranda” (http://digitalpaxton.org/works/digital-paxton/various-memoranda-1760—1-1). She was also acknowledged (and tagged) in social media posts on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
[4] Quotations in this section come from anonymous student answers to a course survey and are reproduced with names withheld by mutual agreement. “Explore Common Sense Survey,” administered by Kate Johnson, Marie Pellissier, and Kelly Schmidt. February 1, 2018.

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http://journalofdigitalhumanities.org/1-1/building-and-sharing-when-youre-supposed-to-be-teaching-by-mark-sample.

About the Authors

Will Fenton is the Director of Scholarly Innovation at the Library Company of Philadelphia, the Creative Director of Redrawing History: Indigenous Perspectives on Colonial America, funded by The Pew Center for Arts and Heritage, and the founder and editor of Digital Paxton. Will earned his Ph.D. at Fordham University, where he specialized in early American literature and the digital humanities. He is the recipient of prestigious fellowships from the American Philosophical Society; Haverford College Quaker and Special Collections; the Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Alliance and Collaboratory; the Library Company of Philadelphia; the Modern Language Association; and the Omohundro Institute of Early American History & Culture. His writings have appeared in American QuarterlyCommon-Place, and ESQ and in numerous public platforms, including Inside Higher Ed, Slate, and PC Magazine.

Kelly Schmidt, co-creator of ExploreCommonSense.comis Research Coordinator for the Slavery, History, Memory, and Reconciliation Project, co-sponsored by Saint Louis University and the Jesuits of the Central and Southern United States. She is a PhD candidate at Loyola University Chicago, where her research focuses on slavery, race, and abolition. Kelly has pursued her interests in museum work, public history, and digital humanities at several institutions, including the Heritage Village Museum, Cincinnati Museum Center, National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, and the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.

Kate Johnson is an archival assistant at the University of Northern Colorado’s Archives and Special Collections. She earned her M.A. in Public History from Loyola University Chicago, and her B.A. in History and German from the University of Northern Colorado. Her research interests are in women’s history, cultural history, and early America. She has worked in museums and public history institutions for over ten years, including holding positions at the Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, The Women and Leadership Archives, and the Frances Willard House Museum. She is a co-creator of the site, ExploreCommonSense.com and also currently serves as an appointed member of the National Council on Public History’s Digital Media Group.

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