Tagged collaboration

Conference attendees are pictured from the side, under dramatic Russian Orthodox church windows.
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A Conversation on International Collaboration in Digital Scholarship

Translations

Russian translation by Kseniia Tereshchenko | Russian Translation (PDF).
Arabic translation forthcoming.

Introduction

The conversation published here among three “bridge” figures in global digital humanities took place on January 25, 2021, over Zoom as part of the program of Saint Petersburg Digital Humanities Week (SPbDH) 2021. Each of the speakers has each been instrumental in organizing digital humanities events in their respective communities: NYCDH Week, SPbDH Week and the NYU Abu Dhabi Winter Institute in Digital Humanities (WIDH). They have also cooperated with each other in sharing experiences, expertise, and in some cases programming. They all met in person at a NYCDH Week event hosted in early 2020 by the NYU Abu Dhabi Institute entitled “International and Interdisciplinary: Collaborations in DH Research.” SPbDH week has traditionally been a place-based event, as has the NYCDH Week; both events even carry the name of the city in their title. Over time, these events (along with the WIDH in Abu Dhabi) have served a community-building function, making them all the more meaningful. In 2020–2021, the pandemic put this focus on place under a significant amount of stress, making it impossible to convene in person. Yet, as difficult as this period has been, we do believe that it offered a unique opportunity to reflect on questions of international, institutional cooperation among like-minded colleagues, thinking particularly about how dialogue about the internationalization of DH ultimately feeds back to our local communities. The moderator of the panel was Lada Zimina.

Dialogue

Lada: Hello, dear guests and colleagues! I am very happy to welcome you to the opening panel for the third annual Saint Petersburg Digital Humanities (SPbDH) Week. The topic of our discussion today is Think digitally, act humanely: building DH communities locally and globally.” Our speakers are Kimon Keramidas, Associate Professor at Experimental Humanities and Social Engagement, NYU and also co-director of the International DHLab at Informational Technology, Mechanics, and Optics University (ITMO University); David Joseph Wrisley, Associate Professor of Digital Humanities at NYU Abu Dhabi; and Antonina Puchkovskaia, a director of the DH Center at ITMO University and the founder of SBbDH Week. To begin today, Antonina, I would like to ask you to tell us a bit about your experience in the global DH community and your work consolidating the local DH community in Saint Petersburg? How do DH weeks, both NYC and SPb, fit into your story with DH?

Antonina: Thanks for a very good question. I suppose everyone who is doing DH has their own story about how everything started. With a Ph.D. in Cultural Studies, I ended up teaching at a very STEM-based University like ITMO (Information Technology, Mechanics and Optics), and I’d started to think about how I may bridge two different universes—Humanities and Computer Sciences. I did some research and discovered a pretty promising co-location known as Digital Humanities. I dug deeper and was nicely surprised and excited about the manifesto, agenda, and most importantly the community, which from the onset seemed quite open and friendly. I started looking for events that gather DH people together. Within the first lines of my Google search was NYCDH week, the event which later became a model for our SPb DH week. I proposed a workshop on how to turn your Humanities course into a digital one. Not only was I accepted and got to run my very first DH workshop, but I met all those wonderful people (among them was Kimon) who were very supportive and helpful, answering all my questions about the fundamentals of DH.

When I returned to Saint Petersburg, the first thing I did was to talk to our first vice rector about launching a DH lab. Being a great supporter of different interdisciplinary initiatives at the university, she gave the green light to establish a small DH research lab, and Kimon continued to advise me through the whole process. A bit later, our DH lab team was awarded a grant from our university for developing an interactive map of Saint Petersburg with a specific focus on relations between the landmarks and famous people associated with them. This project now exists as a web and mobile application, and it also contributed to building a DH community in Saint Petersburg, especially by integrating the local into the international.

In four years, we have succeeded in launching a Master’s program in Data, Culture, and Visualization (DCV)  with a track in Digital Humanities, and the DH lab grew into an International DH Center co-directed by Kimon. Still having great support from our university, we are now more focused on community development and recruitment for our Master’s program at the intersection of Humanities and Computer Science. We have run the annual SPbDH Week for three years now and the trend is quite convincing: we tripled the number of workshops, lectures and lightning talks within the week (despite the global pandemic) and, most importantly, increased our community fivefold. The geography of the participants is also very impressive: people come from Moscow, Perm, Vladivostok, and other Russian cities either to give or attend a workshop. This year, we went even further and organized an international panel. The DH community is very helpful and friendly and that is why we will continue to develop our local community hand in hand with the international community, dedicating our resources and energy to make more DH projects collaboratively, making more data available, open, and shareable, and creating more interesting discourses around it.

Lada: Thank you, Antonina! Talking about SPbDH Week, I would like to add a small personal observation of my own. As a member of the organizing committee, I noticed that in Russia quite often people who use digital methods in their own area of expertise and who are willing to offer a workshop are not really familiar with the term “DH.” In that perspective, the event is really about community building, because it shows the researchers that they are not alone and that what they do actually has a name and a community behind it. Moreover, we have many cases when speakers or guests stay in touch with the Center or even work with us as lecturers.

Kimon, can you tell us how and why DH week started in New York? What was your motivation as an organizer? And how’s it going?

Kimon: Within New York there are many large institutions: Columbia, NYU, the City University of New York (CUNY) Graduate Center, Fordham University, Hofstra University, and Pace University, and all of the cultural heritage organizations as well. Unfortunately, what happens is that these places are big enough to become insular. With NYCDH, we’re trying to foster a really open community outside of those bounds. NYCDH is a non-institutional, inter-institutional organization, so we’re not reliant on any single university or organization as a center. Running NYCDH in this way is based on the recognition that good work in DH often necessitates collaboration between different types of people. David, Antonina, and I all are used to collaborations, whether those collaborations are with other professors, data services, or librarians, and the events we organize are an opening for these kinds of collaborations.

NYCDH Week started because we wanted to share existing workshops at different institutions, but it was complicated by different curricula. So, we decided to create a structure completely outside of that. It began small, but has grown beyond our wildest expectations. In 2020, we had more than forty sessions and over 800 registrations. This year we only had thirty-two sessions—because of COVID—but we ended up with more than 1500 registrations, and included sessions being run both through NYCDH in New York and others organized at NYU Abu Dhabi. We were even thinking of aligning with Saint Petersburg DH Week to create an even greater sense of global simultaneity. People are starving for these kinds of gatherings and look forward to NYCDH week every year.

NYCDH Week is a movement based on the idea that we can change DH work within the academy by developing a community of people who are willing to give their time, be open with their work, share information, and create networks of participation. I know of an enormous amount of connections between colleagues that have been created through NYCDH Week, our graduate student awards, and web platforms.

The next step is figuring out how you manifest those experiences and interests into programmatic changes back at your institution. At ITMO, we’ve made a significant amount of progress, going from virtually nothing to having a successful Master’s program in just a few years. There are further possibilities in Moscow and in Perm to expand this in Russia, and David has been doing this work in the Middle East for twenty years in both Abu Dhabi and Beirut. Our hope is that we can bring together these three places that aren’t often in collaboration in Russia, the Middle East, and in the US or New York.

Lada: Thank you, Kimon! Do you have something to add, David?

David: Thank you for the invitation to join the conversation. As I listen to the two of you speak about the way the community is emerging in Russia, and particularly in the context of ITMO, I am really pleased to see what you have achieved. It’s quite remarkable that the institutionalization of DH has taken place so quickly. It is a testament to the passion and focus with which you have worked, but also to the openness of the future-oriented approach of your institution. In many places in the world, there’s a lot of interest in digital research in the humanities, but not a lot of action. It can be, for many people, a scary jump.

I remember some ten years ago when we had our first event in the Middle East, in Beirut, and then participating in some of the different community models that Kimon brought up: the Digital Humanities Summer Institute (DHSI) (University of Victoria, Canada), the European Summer University of Digital Humanities (ESUDH) ( Germany), NYCDHweek, and then returning home to think about how to adapt those community models to our local environment. Localization is not an easy process.

You’ll have lots of eyes on Russian DH this year with the European Association of Digital Humanities (EADH) annual conference. So, congratulations on getting this going!

Lada: Thank you, David! We are actually really excited about the upcoming conference in Krasnoyarsk, as our DH Center together with the colleagues from the State Hermitage Museum, the Institute of Russian Literature, and the Museum of the History of Religion are organizing a panel aimed at community building, entitled “Digital Humanities Researchers and Cultural Institutions: Towards Productive Interaction” (see Puchkovskaia et al. 2021). We think it’s important to connect DH researchers from academia and specialists from the Galleries, Libraries, Archives, and Museums (GLAM) sector. I really hope the panel will help to consolidate the local DH community and maybe even some collaborative projects.

David, do you think DH brings people together, or does it create new forms of isolation and specialization? Could you also tell us more about your personal experience with DH research in the field of medieval studies and if the digital methods are welcome in that community?

David: My research interests have been diverse. First, I am trained as a comparative medievalist, but I have also lived and worked in Arab countries for most of my career. In the last decade, it’s not surprising that I have been working on new ways to bring the digital to those two communities: medieval studies and the Arabic-speaking world. Sometimes they overlap for me, but for the most part they do not.

I have experienced both an expansion of my community and some forms of isolation in my career. Integrating the digital into one’s speciality subfields is an entirely different endeavor than working to build a transdisciplinary DH community. There is a vibrant community of digital medievalists in the world, but they are still somewhat marginalized within medieval studies. I believe that the situation is slowly changing, and we may be less isolated post-pandemic, but it is fair to say that most medievalists are not involved in digital research. In specific specializations—say, digital medieval studies in Arabic, French, or Latin—the percentage drops significantly. What this means is that if you are doing digital humanities community building aimed at a larger audience, then your audience is much wider than it would be in a specialized field.

Shared methodologies most certainly bring people together. Imagine that a medievalist’s daily interlocutors could be Americanists, art historians, computer scientists, or linguists working in entirely different languages. It is often said that in universities, the digital is increasingly providing common vocabularies for a wide variety of research and community building amongst researchers. There’s a commonality in the challenges that we face—in the ways we produce our data and manage our research—which is becoming increasingly difficult to ignore.

Working simultaneously in a transdisciplinary space, where our colleagues have very different ways of working, and in a specialist subdomain, interacting with domains close to us in the organization of knowledge, can be both challenging and very rewarding.

Lada: Thank you, David, for setting such an encouraging tone to the discussion. As for Saint Petersburg, and maybe even Russia in general, I feel that we are not quite there either. Hopefully big events, like EADH2021, will promote DH in Russia and boost the community-building process. Kimon, being a New Yorker, what are your thoughts on the same question? Does DH unite us, or does it separate us?

Kimon: I’ve learned a lot watching David because he has reached out internationally, building coalitions and relationships in what can sometimes be a provincial community. New York is large enough that people can often find enough relationships to stay working within that community. The same can be said for DH communities around Washington, D.C., and Virginia, and Southern California, where there are enough people that a kind of regional DH identity even begins to take shape. But as you begin looking at the situation globally, with DHSI in Canada, in Leipzig in Germany, and of course David’s work across the Middle East, you realize that it takes different textures of collaboration to work with different people in different communities. This is particularly important in this continuing period of transition, as people doing DH are still facing resistance in traditional disciplinary environments. That’s where occasions like SPbDH Week, NYCDH Week, and WIDH are so valuable, because they highlight that there are networks you can tap into to find like-minded people.

One thing Antonina and I talk a lot about with regards to ITMO is that the path to growth here is from the technical to the humanities. It’s the reverse from how it occurs predominantly in the US at least, and it is an intriguing challenge as you determine how best to transmit these ideas to an unfamiliar audience and how to engineer these collaborations.

What I appreciate about DH communities is how different people can come together and look for balance. You can engage with someone and say, “You do something completely different than I do but we probably have some common thoughts and make each other’s work better.” I think that that eagerness is probably a global trend that still benefits a lot of people. And the people who are eager to put that foot forward tend to be slightly more gregarious and open to the conversation rather than resisting. It takes that kind of nature, so it creates a good community right now.

Antonina: I would like to add something about how at ITMO we are trying to complement our skillset with the competencies we lack. Our institution is very STEM-based and we lack a strong Humanities faculty, so our way of bridging the gap between Humanities and digital technologies was to engage with the GLAM sector in Saint Petersburg. Luckily, we have plenty of cultural institutions in our city and they have shown a willingness to collaborate on questions of common interest, such as database architecture for collecting and storing data, building user-friendly interfaces, expanding a user base through digital storytelling, etc. The additional benefit is that we have also found a great number of people who are motivated and encouraged to learn more and to collaborate on DH projects. I would also like to highlight that establishing these relationships is an ongoing process, and it is very time- and energy-consuming. But it is really worth it. And in our case, working with such wonderful institutions as the Museum of the History of Religion, Mayakovsky Central Public Library, the Institute of Russian Literature, and many others, helps us both to build and develop the DH community and to represent cultural heritage and memory in digital environments. Furthermore, these cultural institutions become places for our students to do internships. It is a win-win for both academia and the GLAM sector.

Lada: Antonina, you mentioned the Master’s program that you run at ITMO. What are the challenges that you face while designing and running a Master’s program in DH? How do you explain digital humanities to your administration and other faculty at ITMO and how do you teach the field to students who may be completely unfamiliar with its methodologies and terminology?

Antonina: That’s a very good question and I believe an open one. I would like to answer it from two perspectives, both from the position of an academic leader of our Master’s program in Data, Culture, and Visualization and from the role of a DH educator. Designing a two-year Master’s program at the intersection of Humanities and Computer Sciences, I had to take a lot into consideration. First of all, I meant to build such a program for students with various backgrounds. So, developing a curriculum I focused on including more project-based modules, which allow students to work collaboratively and complement each other’s skill sets. Second of all, I tried to design a curriculum around fundamentals of digital technologies adapted to students’ varied skill levels, such as the most popular programming languages (Python and R), database development, data mining, UX/UI, visualization, text analysis, project management, etc. Moreover, I always wanted to introduce our students to a vibrant, multidimensional, and multilingual world of DH, by regularly inviting colleagues to participate in various hands-on workshops, guest lectures, reading groups, and summer schools.

Starting from the second semester, our students choose from two tracks provided at the program: one is in Digital Humanities taught in Russian, and the other is Cultural Analytics taught in English. Beyond the difference in the language of instruction, these two tracks also differ given the nature of the data students work with. In the first case, it is digitized data and in the second, born-digital data. So, choosing from these two options students are basically choosing between working with cultural heritage or digitized literary texts, in the former, or content found in the media, in the latter. Depending on the track, students are likely to learn about OCR (optical character recognition) and NLP (natural language processing), or digital storytelling and network analysis. As an academic leader of the DCV program I do believe that diversity is key, but this is especially true with DH education. So, my goal is to provide as many options as possible, so every student will be able to build an individualized educational trajectory, thereby fully realizing their potential. Teaching and co-teaching various DH courses at ITMO and Tartu University and giving lots of guest lecturers has allowed me to expand my teaching philosophy in DH. Most of my teaching has been focused around developing and curating DH projects. This includes not only acquiring necessary practical skills in data mining, data analysis, and visualization, but also in building a strong argument by asking research questions and analyzing what particular digital technologies are needed in each case and why. I call it “critical DH thinking” and usually highlight that, even though the applied skills are also very important, developing critical thinking will help to build more sustainable DH projects. To sum it up, the more I teach or do DH, the more I discover what is still to be learned and redesigned.

Lada: Thank you, Antonina! It is, indeed, so wonderful that we have three professional educators in DH at the table today. David, what are your thoughts on how to teach DH?

David: I love the topic of how the digital is changing the way that we teach and learn! One answer to your question of how to teach DH lies in the values embraced by your institution and how they are evolving. To give you an example from my own position: I arrived at NYU Abu Dhabi having worked for a long time in relative isolation on my digital projects at my previous institution, the American University of Beirut. There wasn’t institutional momentum there to create new courses and to imagine teaching as integrative and connected to faculty research. In my current position, there are multiple stimuli that have encouraged me to bring my research into the classroom. I have benefitted from the presence of an Arabic natural language processing (NLP) group, a vibrant Art Center with projects and commissions in digital or data-driven art, an active interactive media program, as well as the research center of the nearby Louvre Abu Dhabi. Those partners in and around my institution have most definitely contributed to my growth as a teacher-scholar.

There are lots of DH syllabi that you can find on the web and copy, and there are lots of methods that can be transferred to most parts of the world. I certainly did this for a certain phase of my teaching. But teaching DH has become less of a methodological checklist and more of an engagement with the common values of my institution and communities as they grow. When your DH courses align with those higher goals, there is much more room for DH to contribute, and to be valued, at home.

Antonina: I totally agree with that point that cooperation with other departments at ITMO, in particular Computer Science, helps us a lot, not only in teaching various courses at the DCV program but also working together on projects. We also collaborate and co-teach some DH courses together with colleagues from other DH centres in Russia bringing together students and cherishing diversity and openness. Moreover, as I have mentioned previously, we are closely connected with our partners from cultural institutions in Saint Petersburg and these collaborations have resulted in student internships, paid internships, and the expansion of student portfolios. This enlarging network is what makes us a community and allows us to make DH projects more meaningful and widely publicly available.

Lada: I would also like to jump in and add a little from the perspective of both a student and aspiring young researcher who is making her first steps in the field. First, when it comes to collaboration and education in DH, I think that in the program my fellow students and I have a lot to teach each other. Given that we come from different backgrounds, some of us are better at coding and others are better at finding good research questions and have a deeper understanding of cultural data. DH taught me that it’s ok not to know something—and for someone with an A-student complex, that was quite a discovery. I really love how helpful the community is, because really when you dive into DH, you push yourself far out of your comfort zone, no matter what background you come from.

And Kimon, I suspect you have something to add to this discussion.

Kimon: I’ve been working on these questions since I started my PhD program at the City University of New York in 2001, before the term “digital humanities” entered popular use. As a theater history PhD candidate, I noticed that we were for the most part studying play scripts because that’s what’s left from a production, and this ephemerality is one of the reasons it is hard to study the history of theatre. I began working in CUNY’s Interactive Technology and Pedagogy Certificate program to consider ways to gather all the artifacts from a performance to bring them to public history. Many of the faculty in that program were involved in creating the textbook Who Built America, which tracks the history of America from a labor perspective, rather than following the traditional “great white men” narrative. Along with the printed book version, this textbook was available as an interactive CD-ROM in the late 80s. So here we can see—decades before we even started using the term DH—that academics were doing work  driven by the idea of expanding education and the reach of academic discourse.

So my perspective has always been to get information into people’s hands, using the new media we have to best contextualize the knowledge we produce. In building my DH syllabi, I wanted to avoid saying, “Here are the big names and tools in DH that you have to learn about,” and instead focus on how living in a complex world is intrinsically affected by the digital, and how do we understand that through method. So every time we talk about databases for the humanities, we also consider that our personal and health records are also somewhere in a database—and what does that structure mean to the way you are viewed by systems as a series of data points? How does the setup of that information affect you in your daily life? The goal therefore is to continually keep everything in a larger context and perspective.

Lada: Thank you, it’s really fascinating to follow your discussion, so let’s keep on talking about education and dissemination of DH. In light of the digital having become an integral part of our everyday lives, how do mixed methodologies in DH open the possibilities for scholarship that are more public, open, and designed to engage with the larger audiences?

Kimon: In the last decade in the US, we’ve seen how profoundly digital media can affect daily life, as social media has expanded and everything has been consumed by the internet. In my teaching and research I have been trying to figure out how the digital landscape affects us daily, how it affects the culture of consumerism, and how as academics and producers of knowledge we can bring all those points together. To these conceptual methodologies I would add visualization and website development, to reveal the potential of design in creating more engaging modes of narrative and storytelling. Because, in the end, we are all living some part of our lives in these public digital spaces, which, despite the problems they are creating, massively open up our ability to create innovative teaching platforms, share information, and build communities.

My connection with the theater, material culture, and web design has put me in a place where I want students to know how they can reach audiences through web development and design, which has arguably a lower threshold than more complicated analytical techniques. To do very advanced text analysis you really need to understand the fundamentals of statistics and the algorithms, but to do web development, you start to understand the discursive and aesthetic challenges and possibilities that come into play for presenting your work for a broader range of audiences. I teach a course on the American Hardcore Punk movement, and we focus on understanding one particular cultural moment to better understand how we use different modes of expression to generate activism, critique society, and carve out a space for our voices today. With that kind of platform, we can then look at subsequent related movements like Queercore and Riot Grrrl as well as reflecting on current flows in art and activism to understand their historical progenitors and the uniqueness of movements of the moment.

I ask students to think about how they can use the ethos of Hardcore to reach out and tell their own story. The most recent iteration of the course developed an amazing website, which was an experimental product of creative ingenuity that far exceeded what a stack of research papers alone would have accomplished.

Lada: We have a little bit of time to talk about our current concerns, and I would like to address the next question to David. So, David, how did the pandemic influence the global academic community and what perspectives do you see for international collaboration under the current circumstances?

David: Thank you for the question. Pre-pandemic, there were many DH events taking place in local environments around the world. An example of one such event we have heard about is NYCDH Week. Now, in New York it’s easy enough to move around the city from institution to institution for a week to experience this co-learning, co-teaching event. Not all cities have such a large community, however. In places like the UAE or Lebanon, where I have spent the majority of my professional life, the number of DH practitioners is very limited and we often rely upon international relationships to grow our projects and our community. The advice that I got a decade ago from a senior practitioner in the field when I asked how to start working in DH was to do three things: attend a THATCamp, enroll in a DH summer school like DHSI, and attend the Association of Digital Humanities Organizations (ADHO) annual conference. Back then, to attend such a faraway event required many months of advance planning. I imagine that we could do oral histories about the DH week-like events that have taken place around the world, focusing on how they played a transformative role in introducing researchers to digital methods.

The pandemic did not bring about a total shift in the ways that people have accessed training in digital methods—there were certainly some events taking place online before—but it has accelerated the process, and there has been a marked increase in people who want to engage in such learning. Over the course of 2020, with the large-scale adoption of remotely broadcasted events, I have witnessed a rapid opening up of local environments to global audiences. There have been all kinds of opportunities to listen in on many different conversations in different parts of the world now —far too many for a single person to follow. An interesting question to ask ourselves is which of these learning opportunities will remain virtual and which will pivot back to in person meetings? I believe that a professor of digital humanities should not only do research of their own, but also model new forms of research for their local environment, and in this respect, like Antonina, I spend quite a lot of time learning about what is going on in the world of DH in order to bring it back home. In 2020, the sheer abundance of conversations going on in digital humanities research and their connectedness has been challenging, but also exciting, to follow. As I do so, I am always asking myself how to match what a growing local community wants and needs and how to match it with global research trends. It’s a process of connecting the dots.

Another interesting question for me is what will a world of scholarly communication look like post-pandemic? There are so many people envisaging, and even prototyping, different modes of communicating or different modes of scholarly dissemination and communication. Even if we have not been traveling for this last year, we will no doubt get back on planes to go to professional meetings. I do wonder how we are going to spend our time and how we are going to manage the very new kinds of access that we have experienced. I think there’s a lot to be said about this last topic of post-pandemic scholarly communication, which stretches beyond the topic of today’s panel, but which will impact the ways that international collaborations continue to be founded and sustained. I guess that the way forward for research that I imagine, especially in remote places where there are smaller numbers of local researchers, will be fewer in-person conferences and meetings, replaced instead by longer stays or exchanges abroad for teaching, team building, or intensive exchange. Synchronous video conversation platforms like Zoom are, after all, great for exchanging ideas, in pick-up conversations with people you already know, coming to consensus through team discussion, or for certain kinds of scholarly dissemination, but what about all the other ways we communicate and do scholarship?

I don’t think we have fully considered what it will mean to be in person anymore, what the added value of being in the same space will be, let alone how connected to the rest of the world we will be when we are back in person in our local environments. I’m sure that there will continue to be great value in teaching in person, but for research, we still have to figure that out. Will we be able to have hackathons and sprints online with the same results? Will we meet in person for more reflective activities, such as ideation, planning, and writing? Or simply to foster the social bonds that support collaboration? What will happen to our colleagues who joined in the conversation during the pandemic for whom passport privilege and crossing borders are not a given?

During the pandemic I experienced so many interesting new kinds of interactions and experimental engagements. Obviously, not all of them will continue as we transition back to our offices and campuses. It is worth thinking, however, about how we will do digital humanities when we are together as opposed to when we are apart, as well as the role of the international collaborator in the local area. New forms of hybrid collaboration are certainly on the horizon beyond our current circumstances.

Kimon: I think the sprints are a good point. Sometimes when you really want to accomplish a significant amount, you need to be around your colleagues for three days in a row, eight hours a day working, including in-person time over dinners. So it’ll be interesting to see now that we’ve had this extended experience with telecommuting, how we will move forward. We haven’t gone through something like this trauma in the world for over a hundred years and we’re going through it now in a very different kind of time with specific technical, socio-economic, and pedagogical challenges. There has been a lot gained from this period in getting things working in a short timeframe, but we also need to sit back and consider which changes have been for the better and which really shouldn’t be repeated.

It’s hard to teach workshops in general using teleconferencing tools; some such as photogrammetry were extremely difficult to do. When I teach a workshop I move a lot around the room. I’m looking at everyone’s screens troubleshooting problems, showing students what they might have in common and how they can share knowledge, and making the learning environment engaged and participatory. On the flip side, while we had fewer sessions for NYCDH Week 2021, we had hundreds of more people register for workshops. So there is a new interesting mix of variables that we have to consider and that we will have to adapt to. Hopefully, we’ll find a really fruitful middle ground that balances all of these things. As David notes, a lot of us are thinking about it already: what’s the best way to transition things. We are fortunate in our positions that we have already looked to transcend geographical challenges, and now we are armed with better tools and more familiarity with approaches to closing the gap between these three locations: Saint Petersburg, Abu Dhabi, and New York. So trying to find ways to mitigate those distances while remembering the benefits of locality and presence is going to be the trick.

Antonina: Yeah, and I would like to add a little on that topic. I agree completely that professional networking is the most valuable thing that happens at a conference. In the end, this scholarly network is the most valuable thing you have. What you pay for when you travel is to build these relationships, and from there you can develop them through these digital tools and means like email and Zoom, but it’s really hard to establish strong relationships and community by only communicating online.

You can just work using emails, Zooms, Microsoft Teams, but I think that this is a very good lesson the pandemic taught us, that not all the things can be shifted online. We still have this “humanities” impact. We even have in Russia this funny word for “madness”— безумие/безZOOMие (a madness created by Zoom)—which has been in the media for a while. That’s true, it’s madness, it’s too many Zooms, all the calendars are packed, and people can call you at nine in the morning and that’s fine because they live far away.

I like that we’re finishing up this discussion before we move on to questions thinking about the future because DH is also about the future. We try to preserve things, we try to make them available and that’s an important part of our work as well. We want to preserve our community and chart a path for the future as well.

Lada: Dear colleagues, thank you so much for such an interesting and insightful discussion—we covered some perennial issues of DH as well as some current challenges and concerns. Now we have a little bit of time left to open our discussion and attend some questions from the audience.

Question from Nadezhda Povroznik, Head of the Center for Digital Humanities, Perm State University: When it comes to DH, is it possible to be only a medieval scholar or just a historian focusing on a narrow topic, or is it more encouraged to find the solutions for a wider range of questions? If so, how does this impact the way that we think about the focus on tools? 

David: Your question reminds me of the question I received earlier where I was asked to reflect on how DH supports either integration or isolation, or perhaps both, in scholarship, and whether it only makes an intervention in a field of speciality or instead it builds some kind of larger community. For me, the way that I responded to a changing world of digital humanities around me depended on the moment of my career (I am currently Associate Professor). When I launched my first independent digital research, I made the strategic decision to work on a project on my own. I wanted to build my skills, make a first foray into digital humanities, and to be able to link the conclusions to the scholarly field that I knew so well. I started in digital humanities without an active community in my immediate surroundings; my collaborative research began with faraway scholars. There’s this very interesting shift in my publications that took place around 2013/2014 when I began to co-publish. It’s not that I abandoned single-authored research, but since this particular work was collective, it made sense to publish together. With colleagues in computer science we now tend to publish a variety of articles on the same project for different audiences, highlighting the multidisciplinary contribution that our work makes. It’s tricky to straddle knowledge cultures, but it has become the way that I balance my career now. You can do that when you’re a little bit more advanced in your career. When you’re younger, it’s harder to do, for sure.

In the end, it is about taking risks that your institution is willing to support. One of the key things in North America we have been witnessing is how, increasingly, professional organizations are creating guidelines for review that include digital scholarship in the evaluation process. This effort really relies on senior colleagues, because they sit on the boards of those professional organizations and on the editorial boards of journals. Mid-career faculty who value digital scholarship have an important role to play also in mentorship and advocacy.

Question from Larisa Krayeva, PhD, Assistant Professor at the faculty of Technological Management and Innovation, ITMO University: It’s more of an observation than a question and I’m not sure if it’s relevant…. Well, you see, I teach philosophy to students from all sorts of technical backgrounds at ITMO, and during your discussion it occured to me how my personal experience applying different approaches teaching philosophy to different groups of students—like engineers, chemists, medical student etc.—can be similar to your experience, finding the common ground with scholars from other humanities backgrounds in DH.

David: I have something to say about the different kinds of students who are not necessarily specialized in questions of the humanities. I am lucky to have my position in the Arts and Humanities Division, but I don’t teach students exclusively who are concentrating in topics in the humanities. There is definitely an advantage to this model, namely that you are able as you say to “build common ground” across disciplines and tap into very different interests and skillsets for a truly interdisciplinary experience. In fact, I have heard over and over from students who are not majoring in humanities subjects that they never knew that such a field of inquiry existed, and that it was amazing to be able to think across and between fields. Of course, one of the minor disadvantages of having only individual courses offered in a “standalone” fashion is that they are not developmental or sequential, allowing students to build skills over time as you would want if you had students specializing in the domain.

Question from the audience: What is the most important thing when you get into the DH? What should you focus on first?

Kimon: It’s very important to inspect the tools and to critically evaluate the methodologies before starting. Many of these tools have hidden processes that you need to understand the implications of in order to do competent research. You can’t just download an NLP package and start throwing stuff into it. You can download topic modeling tools and you can run them over the web or locally and then you can start trying to figure out what those words mean, but topic modeling is a complex statistical process that does very specific things to text to create a certain kind of output. If you don’t know what it does to create that output, you may arrive at incorrect or ill-informed conclusions. That’s why it doesn’t hurt to have technical knowledge. It doesn’t hurt to understand what an algorithm is; it doesn’t hurt to have some programming language. We don’t just start using a database. So becoming aware of the texture of the tools and methodologies and establishing a critical sensibility is the strongest foundation you can have.

David: Working with data, and working with the digital more generally, takes us outside of our comfort zone. So my suggestion might be to work to create some data about something that you know well and do so in familiar surroundings, and then try to evaluate as a group how well those data represent the thing that you think you know. It’s important to recognize that in the digital world we necessarily distort things by representing them as abstraction or by formalization. So I think it’s worth thinking at that level about the relationship between the digital objects that we’re creating and that which we know.

Afterword

The ongoing phases of the pandemic have affected different parts of the world in different ways and at different times, exposing inequalities and different states of readiness and ability for communities to mobilize in moments of crisis and necessity. In the digital humanities, we have also listened with a critical ear to changes discussed within the academy: maintaining certain types of hybrid learning, alternative delivery of content, and even remote education as a means of expanding markets for higher education. These proposed initiatives suggest both change and instability in the years to come.

Our conversation about the practice of international collaboration was carried out in a period of flux where there was not as much time for reflection as we would have liked. Obvious points of discussion arising from this roundtable discussion which deserve further attention include the future of the digital humanities community event as national or regional scholarly cultures expand from basic training toward more specialized work, as well as the potential of hybridization of in-person events both to increase access in the scholarly community and to reduce the carbon footprint of our academic endeavors. On the other hand, we feel that it would be unfortunate if local digital scholarship were the only sort to prevail in the coming years. We hope that our thoughts published here will keep the discussion of international collaboration in digital scholarship moving forward, encouraging others to explore what kinds of new roles it might play.

We recognize that collaborative international dialogue takes a lot of energy and labor, as well as a certain kind of personality and commitment which the academy does not often support. The speakers at this panel are quite proud of their cooperation, and of how their efforts have influenced communities of practice far away from the location of their academic positions. For this reason, we have decided to publish the text of this conversation along with Arabic and Russian translations of it to foster critical discussion with JITP’s readership and the new worlds of digital scholarship coming into focus in these languages and cultures. We trust that this translingual initiative will further the goal of transnational dialogue in global digital humanities and will inspire others to build such bridges.

References

Puchkovskaia, Antonina, Lada Zimina, Pavel Aleksandrovich Tugarinov, and Maria Sergeevna Bakhteeva. 2021. “Digital Humanists and Cultural Institutions: Achieving Efficient Collaboration.” Panel session. European Association of Digital Humanities 2021, Krasnoyarsk, 23 September 2021.

About the Authors

Antonina Puchkovskaia is an Associate Professor of Digital Humanities at ITMO University (Saint Petersburg, Russia), where she teaches various Digital Humanities courses. Her research interests include cultural heritage representation and visualization, spatial humanities, and digital infrastructures. She is a director of the International Digital Humanities Center and also a program leader of ITMO’s MSc in Digital Humanities, which aims at creating well-rounded data professionals who have strong statistical and technical skills combined with strengths in research, communication, and design. Antonina is one of the 2018–2019 Willard McCarty Fellowship holders at the DH Department at King’s College London. She is a founder of Saint Petersburg DH week and has been organizing it for four years.

Kimon Keramidas is Clinical Associate Professor of Experimental Humanities and Social Engagement and Affiliated Faculty in International Relations at New York University. He is also Co-Director of the International Digital Humanities Center at ITMO University. Kimon’s research and pedagogy take place at the intersection of media and technology studies, cultural history, sociology of culture, and experimental humanities. Kimon’s work includes cultural heritage and public history initiatives with international organizations such as the Smithsonian Institution, the State Hermitage, Rubin Museum, Zayed University in Dubai, and the University of Leicester. He is a co-founder of New York City Digital Humanities (NYCDH) and has been organizing NYCDH Week for eight years.

David Joseph Wrisley is Associate Professor of Digital Humanities at NYU Abu Dhabi. His research interests include comparative approaches to medieval literature in European languages and Arabic, digital spatial approaches to corpora, neural methods for handwritten text recognition across writing systems, and open knowledge community building in the Middle East, where he has lived and researched since 2002. He co-founded the Arab world’s first two digital humanities training events: the Digital Humanities Institute Beirut (dhibeirut.wordpress.com) in Beirut in 2015 and the NYU Abu Dhabi Winter Institute in Digital Humanities (wp.nyu.edu/widh) in Abu Dhabi in 2020.

Lada Zimina is an Assistant Professor at the International DH Center at ITMO University (Saint Petersburg, Russia). She has recently graduated from the masters program in Digital Humanities that enabled her to apply IT onto her Bachelor background in Museology and Heritage Management. Her research interests include memory studies, cultural heritage representation, and digital collections. She is a co-founder of a biennial conference on Digital Local Studies.

Logo for CLE teaching collaborative, featuring four squares with circles that resemble students or teachers, themselves arranged facing each other in a square.
1

Collaboration, Risk, and Pedagogies of Care: Looking to a Postpandemic Future

Abstract

Teaching through the COVID-19 pandemic has been a catalyst for many important, and often long overdue conversations in education and, hopefully, longstanding changes in how we design classrooms for meaningful, connected, and innovative learning. In May 2020, Dr. Molly Buckley-Marudas and Dr. Shelley Rose, Associate Professors at Cleveland State University, founded the Cleveland Teaching Collaborative (CTC). This interdisciplinary group of instructors and instructional support professionals from Pre-Kindergarten to Higher Education emerged as a critical rehearsal space for the future. Through case studies of teaching, monthly discussions, and curation of resources, members of Cleveland Teaching Collaborative have developed a collection of pandemic pedagogies that serve as a rehearsal for the future. This article articulates three main areas of pandemic pedagogy and our vision for critical changes in education: cross-collaboration that honors distributed expertise, prioritization of people that enacts pedagogies of care, and risk-taking that sets the stage for the #postpandemicteacher.

Introduction

With the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in spring of 2020, higher education and PK–12 schools abruptly transitioned to remote teaching and learning. In a matter of days, teachers at all levels of education were required to move face-to-face classes to remote, web-based contexts. Although instructors drew on their knowledge of the expansive existing body of research on remote teaching and learning, as well as a diverse range of educational resources, the spring 2020 transition to a remote context occurred without the benefit of additional time, training, or reflection. Without a blueprint for teaching and learning in a pandemic, teachers at all levels and in different institutional contexts hustled to find new and innovative ways to provide accessible, high-quality learning opportunities for all students. Like the Cleveland Teaching Collaborative (CTC) educators, all teachers imagined and enacted a still-evolving collection of pandemic pedagogies. Charged with tending to the pressing needs of their students, their communities, and their own families, our work with the Cleveland Teaching Collaborative has revealed that educators at all levels cultivated pedagogies of care and a culture of risk taking in their classrooms. The realities of the pandemic, from illness, death, and social isolation to increased unemployment, housing instability, and food insecurity, suggest that educators are teaching in an emergency.

We approach our work with the belief that what educators are learning during the COVID-19 era is useful for teaching and learning in this immediate moment, yet we also believe that what we learn during this crisis is critical to the future of education. In keeping with the call for this special issue, we consider: “How do we use what we’ve learned from teaching in and through an ‘emergency’ as a rehearsal for the future?” This network, the Cleveland Teaching Collaborative, was designed to bring together PK–university educators in Northeast Ohio to reflect on, write about, and discuss their individual experiences in these times. This work has implications for how educators and school administrators could create more connected, innovative, and humanizing spaces of learning in the future by normalizing pedagogies of care and supporting instructors to implement new strategies to enhance learning for all students.

Pandemic Pedagogies

In the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, we are living in a state of uncertainty and, according to Sharon Ravitch, “an indefinite state of flux.”  In this moment of uncertainty, both relational and educational, Ravitch calls for “flux pedagogy” (Ravitch 2020). Flux pedagogy answers the urgent need for a flexible and humanizing approach to education. Flux pedagogy integrates critical relational frameworks into a complex adaptive pedagogical approach that identifies and addresses lived problems as a form of radical action.” We have also seen increased attention to and extension of prepandemic scholarship on critical pedagogy and humanizing pedagogy frameworks. Both traditions center students’ lives and histories and emphasize the significance of social and cultural contexts. Likewise, scholars and practitioners have emphasized the need for culturally sustaining pedagogies (Paris 2012; Paris and Alim 2020), culturally responsive pedagogies (Ladson-Billings 1995), and trauma-informed pedagogies, all of which aim to honor and be responsive to students’ lived realities. Critical educational technology scholars (Mehta and Aguilera 2020; Shelton, Aguilera, Gleason, and Mehta 2020, 125–129) have conceptualized a “critical humanizing pedagogies” framework to center pedagogies of care and decenter educational technology. Pandemic era teaching has raised attention around pedagogies of care (Rolon-Dow 2005) that tend to the examination of power, social location and access to any other resources in a relational context and recognize that learning happens in the context of relationships.

We have also seen a call for educators to cultivate what Michael Nakkula and Andy Danilchick refer to as an “uncertainty mindset” (2020, 14–33). According to their guide, “Planning for Uncertainty: An Educator’s guide to Navigating the COVID-19 Era” an uncertainty mindset is, “a stance that encourages embracing the unknown in order to remain responsive to the needs and opportunities as they emerge” (Nakkula and Danilchick 2020, 7). The growing body of pandemic pedagogies is both necessary and helpful to educators as they work to navigate this time. With the belief that the pandemic as we currently know it will end, we wonder: what are the characteristics of a postpandemic pedagogy? What are the key attributes of what we refer to as the #postpandemicteacher? Some of the answers are found in the pandemic experiences of the CTC. Specifically, cultivating pedagogies of care and normalizing the risks we take when instructors center students and implement new strategies for remote, hybrid, and in-person learning.

The Cleveland Teaching Collaborative

With inspiration from NYU Shanghai’s Digital Teaching Toolkit (2020) and the understanding that the summer of 2020 would be a critical time for educators to reflect on, evaluate, and develop remote learning opportunities and pandemic pedagogies, we (Buckley-Marudas and Rose) launched the Cleveland Teaching Collaborative. We collected and published a diverse collection of educator-authored case studies of remote teaching and learning during the pandemic. A core aim was to provide meaningful and timely support and tools for critical, accessible, and high-quality learning opportunities for students living and learning in a highly imperfect time. We hoped that the project would provide educators at all levels, within and across different institutional contexts, the space and time necessary to reflect as a community and to make recommendations and suggestions for future teaching and learning. More than static case-studies, however, the CTC also had the goal of fostering ongoing partnerships between university and PK–12 educators.

The first cohort of authors in summer 2020 included twenty-three educators, twenty-two from the greater Cleveland area and one from Los Angeles, CA. The California-based educator came to the collaborative as a result of an existing professional relationship with a Cleveland-based educator. The content and emergence of their co-authored piece reflects the potential of cross-country collaborations and partnerships for teaching and learning. The summer 2020 cohort included a combination of elementary, secondary, and university instructors and reflected a wide range of disciplines. The cohort also included educators who teach in a mix of public, private, and parochial institutions and from urban, suburban, and rural contexts. Every educator authored a case study about their transition to pandemic era teaching and learning, focusing on the pedagogical approaches, tools, and principles they used to make their decisions, the challenges they experienced, and what lessons they learned for the future. All the case studies were reviewed by the CTC leadership team and then published to CTC’s WordPress site. The platform was chosen because it is user-friendly and able to accommodate multiple contributing authors.

A unique component of this collaborative is the living, growing “resource referatory.” The referatory is a curated collection of educational resources. It is a crowdsourced, open access collection that began with materials cited by CTC contributors. By the end of fall 2020, the referatory had grown to over two hundred entries and at the time of writing, the referatory has increased to over eight hundred entries. With the third cohort of authors preparing to submit their case studies by the end of May 2021, we know this number will continue to grow. In addition to the written case studies and growing referatory, another component of the CTC is the opportunity for contributors to participate in video-based discussion groups. We held three discussion groups during the summer of 2020 and, on request, have continued to host discussions at least once a month. In addition to the shared home of the WordPress site, we have a space in Microsoft Teams for questions, announcements, idea exchange, and shared files, and in November 2020 launched the Assignment Design Café for instructors as an informal drop-in space staffed by CTC members and campus partners via Zoom for instructors to support learning along the way.

Rehearsal for the #Postpandemicteacher

In the spirit of the call for this issue, we believe that what we learn when teaching in an emergency is critical to navigating and surviving the emergency, yet these learnings are also a rehearsal for the future. Drawing on our work with the Cleveland Teaching Collaborative, we share the ways in which we have observed how the COVID-19 pandemic has limited some of the possibilities for educator growth and reflection, and how teaching in the COVID-19 pandemic has created space for educators’ individual and collective reflection, revision, and re-imagination. In the sections that follow, we will focus on the key lessons and insights that should be leveraged for future educational work and what we refer to as the #postpandemicteacher.

Crisis scenarios tend to surface existing problems or inequities and serve as a catalyst for critical changes. Teaching through this crisis has been a catalyst for many important conversations in education and, hopefully, several longstanding changes in how we design classrooms for meaningful, connected, and innovative learning. The collective space of the CTC emerged as a critical rehearsal space for the future. By this we mean that the collective, in concept and action, became a catalyst for new ways of operating, interacting, writing, and imagining regarding what learning might look like. The collaborative was conceptualized as a space that aimed to cultivate new patterns and forms of interaction and participation and a space for expanding, not narrowing, the possibilities of when and why we interact with other educators. In the remainder of this article, we will share three specific ways that teaching in an emergency has contributed to a collection of pandemic pedagogies that serve as a rehearsal for the future and setting the stage for the #postpandemicteacher. The three ideas we offer are cross-collaboration, prioritization of people, and risk-taking.

Cross-collaboration: honor distributed expertise

One of the goals of the collaborative was to create spaces for educators to come together to connect, share, reflect, and enhance their teaching practice. Given the required social distancing and physical isolation that are part of the COVID-19 pandemic, we saw a need for teachers to be together and try to learn together, particularly during such an intense and demanding time. The conditions of this emergency precipitated the shift to online spaces and video calls. With this, some of the constraints tied to physical barriers, such as geographical location, buildings, and walls as well as social barriers, such as departments, roles, and affiliations were lifted. Consistent with the title of CTC members Charles Ellenbogen and Jason White’s case study, education has gained “moving walls.” For Ellenbogen and White, this meant a sustained cross-country collaboration around writing, with Ellenbogen in Cleveland and White in Los Angeles. Yet, the concept of the moving walls is similarly powerful for breaking down other walls or borders that have become deeply ingrained in the ways in which schools are organized and how ideas and information are exchanged. With the ease and accessibility of video calls, this moment could help to chip away at the existing walls dividing PK–12 educators and university educators, divisions such as discipline, department, or college affiliation within an institution, and borders we have created between different institutional roles or functions. Learning design specialist Lee Skallerup Bessette argues in her recent scholarship, the divides between instructors and instructional support staff at our institutions are both tacit, such as staff not receiving invitations to events like commencement, and explicit, like title policing (Bessette 2020; 2021; Perry 2020). The collaborative allowed university and PK–12 teachers ongoing opportunities to exchange ideas across disciplines and rank. For example, two CTC collaborators, one a part-time university instructor and one a high school teacher developed the idea for non-evaluative peer visitations.

At the institutional level, we have seen more instances of cross-functional collaboration. For example, for the first time in either of our experience at our university, we attended a meeting that included participation from tenure track faculty, part-time faculty, the instructional design center, the library, e-learning office, Blackboard support office, and our university’s center for faculty excellence in teaching. The meeting centered around a new outgrowth of the CTC called the “Assignment Design Café.” The café is structured as a drop-in opportunity for instructors, yet our staff facilitators also appreciate the space, which recognizes that regardless of position “it takes a village” to support digital teaching and learning (Bessette 2020). The café takes place on Zoom and is framed as an opportunity for participants to drop-in with an assignment, a challenge, or an idea related to their remote or web-based teaching. Although not required, all the centers and offices expressed an interest in supporting and facilitating the café. At a December session, it was powerful to listen to the range of perspectives in response to one instructor’s question about Google Forms and Microsoft Forms. Distributed expertise exists in a community in which levels of expertise vary and there is a willingness to both share and learn from that existing expertise. We benefited from the distributed expertise in the room and that many people knew different things about the platforms. Instead of one “expert” we had many knowledgeable and skilled users. In our March meeting we shared perspectives on different virtual conference platforms and started to name items that all fit on what we refer to as our “Awareness List.”  This list includes oversights, habits, and structural barriers that we, individually and collectively, have come to learn in the process of doing this work. For example, who is notified or and included in professional development opportunities and how information is distributed. This has emphasized the need to strengthen relationships between existing programs, centers, and IT personnel. The centers and supports are established on our campuses, yet they are not necessarily as integrated as possible with departments or instructors.

Instead of seeing Zoom meetings like this as an opportunity and privilege of the pandemic moment, we see this as an important lesson for the future. We know that teaching and learning improves when we can access and draw on a range and variation of diverse perspectives. When school buildings re-open, educators need to challenge and interrupt the instinct to return to the taken-for-granted ways of operating. We have seen the need to reimagine some of the systems and structures that consistently divide, rank, and sort, and, in the process, limit the benefits of cross-collaboration and distributed knowledge generation and distributions. We have used this chance as an opportunity to collaborate and work with individuals that we do not consistently see or come together with on a regular basis, yet the cross-collaborations create new opportunities for growth. How do we continue to create opportunities for educators to cross the boundaries constructed around variables including discipline, grade level, department, and teaching rank? How do we continue the practice of moving walls beyond the circumstances created by the pandemic?

Prioritization of people: enacting pedagogies of care

Pandemic teaching has reminded all of us—educators, students, parents, school leaders—that teaching and learning are deeply relational processes. One of the most critical lessons to carry forward from teaching in this global health crisis is a renewed commitment to understanding and enacting education as a human endeavor. The quality and depth of relationships with students has surfaced as an essential element of teaching in the pandemic, yet it is evident that the relational work of teaching and learning is something that must be prioritized in a postpandemic era. A theme that surfaced in nearly every CTC case study and discussion group was the pressing need to focus on relationships with students. Educators at all levels and across disciplines and institutional contexts emphasized the need to center on the students and to meet students where they were. Relatedly, many educators spoke about listening to, and regularly soliciting feedback from students outside of institutional evaluations as an important element of their pandemic teaching. Although this finding will sound familiar and may seem obvious, it became clear that these practices may not have been prioritized as much as we hoped in our prepandemic pedagogies.

Every CTC case study offered specific instructional approaches that drew on a pedagogy of care. For example, most CTC authors shared that they developed and distributed a student survey to guide their instructional approaches. According to Sophia Higginbottom, tenth-grade Language and Literature teacher and CTC author, “The first necessity was to ask students to complete a survey, which was posted into their Google Classrooms and sent via email to everyone enrolled in the course.” In Higginbottom’s essay, “Simultaneously Stimulating Autonomy and Global Citizenship: A Case Study on Education Through the COVID-19 Pandemic,” she explains that her survey focused on three areas: student access to internet and digital tools, availability for live class sessions, and students’ reflections on how they could “best learn in this new distance-learning world.”  Similarly, Lana Mobydeen, a university-based part-time instructor of political science, writes in her case study: “Once I decided to use Blackboard Collaborate, I sent a twelve-question survey via Microsoft Forms to my students regarding their internet access, preference for live or pre-recorded lectures, availability, and opinion on discussion boards. I received responses from twenty-three out of the twenty-nine students enrolled with examples of some of the responses included.”

Importantly, Mobydeen explains how she used the information from students’ responses to guide her pedagogical decisions. For example, based on preferences for live or recorded lectures, Mobydeen writes: “I decided to do live sessions and record them for students that wished to view them later. This would allow the best of both worlds for students. Whoever wanted live instruction could join via Blackboard Collaborate during our normal course time and those who could not join could view the recordings at their own pace. I did not require attendance for live sessions. I made them optional because of the impact that the pandemic had on students who might have been sick, caring for others, working, or had other issues.” This illustrates how this outreach offers an opportunity to connect with students and understand where they are. Mobydeen can then be responsive to the collected information. Mobydeen draws on a pedagogy of care in her decision-making in that she offers multiple ways to access the material and succeed in the class. John Dutton, high school science and computer science teacher, offers additional support for the value of student feedback. In “From the Tech Teacher Perspective: Distance Learning for Science, Computer Science and Fellow Educators,” Dutton writes: “Ultimately, using student feedback to consistently tailor the student experience led to improved student attitudes towards online learning.” Teachers know that student-responsive curricula improve engagement, and given that the body of evidence for effective all-school distance learning is slim, then it is critical that teachers seek student feedback on a regular basis. The parameters of this health crisis are changing daily; we must be flexible and proactive enough to seek out and respond to these rapidly evolving challenges.” The challenges of the pandemic, including the magnitude of uncertainty and unease, prompted many educators to embrace more flexibility and more care in their pedagogical approach.

Although the surveys ranged in format and frequency, the CTC authors spoke positively about what they gained from this decision. As illustrated in the examples above, authors highlighted the value of the student surveys for connecting with students in relationship to their well-being and for gaining insight into their students’ experiences in the class. Although this was not a new practice for everyone, this level and frequency of personalized, class-specific survey was new for many.

Many of the challenges that surfaced are not necessarily new, and we know that they will not go away when the pandemic ends, yet they became more challenging, more problematic, and/or more exposed during this era. For example, regarding technology, many PK–12 schools and districts were operating without a shared learning management system, making simple communication efforts and the transition to remote teaching incredibly difficult and time consuming. The moment of crisis forced us to confront what we knew, yet overlooked, about access to technology and the digital divide. At the beginning of the pandemic, many students, at all levels, lacked access to appropriate hardware for learning and reliable internet. Districts and our university scrambled to distribute laptops and hot spots to students.

In addition to individual educators adopting a humanizing pedagogy, we also noticed decisions at the institutional level that reflected a pedagogy of care. For example, offering students at the university a choice between a letter grade or pass/fail, recommendations to be flexible on deadlines, and a willingness to offer students an incomplete with additional time to complete the course. Instead of seeing these options as “easy” or “soft,” pandemic pedagogies recognize these modifications as responsive, attentive, and humanizing. They reflect an ethos of care and flexibility. Care and flexibility are imperative for teaching in a pandemic, yet these characteristics will enhance nearly any teaching and learning moment such as increasing attention to practices like ungrading (Blum 2021).

In the case of students with documented special needs, teaching in this crisis amplified the lack of existing flexibility, resources, and innovation to prioritize and support some of our state’s most vulnerable students. As Allison Welch, high school Intervention Specialist and Spanish teacher, shared in her case study, the specialized services and support for students with special needs came to a standstill and the state had no legal obligation to provide for many of the young people’s needs, exposing gaps and inequities in our current capacity to support young people in the face of disruption or extenuating circumstances. One lesson to carry forward is the recognition that many of the prepandemic teaching and learning approaches and systems were too rigid. The existing models for supporting students with special needs are not adequate for the pandemic era or, looking forward, the postpandemic era. This case highlights how existing teaching practices, along with district efforts to rely on old strategies failed students, families, and teachers. These failures exposed systemic barriers and institutional inflexibility, forcing changes in practice and increased risk taking to amend the issues.

Risk taking: setting the stage for the #postpandemicteacher

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected all instructors, regardless of discipline, expertise, and experience-level. As Ravitch argues, educators transitioned courses from “specialized teaching and learning to more broadly solutionary and connective” practices (2020). All educators have content expertise, but the pandemic serves as a stark reminder of the fact that we are all experts in learning. It is as learners that educators have excelled in this moment of flux pedagogy, and it is as learners that instructors have taken risks in their pedagogies that would have seemed unimaginable prior to March 2020.

In many classrooms, remote or otherwise, a key aspect of pandemic teaching and learning is that instructors and students find themselves in an environment where the boundaries between teaching and learning blur. This is where Davidson’s call for instructors to be “human first, professor second” is an invitation to take a risk (2020). The risk is to position yourself as part of the community of learners in your course, be transparent, and share your experiences of success and failure. Instructors may not be able to understand the specific experiences of students, but we can acknowledge pandemic learning is a new environment for us as well as students. Everyone is learning something during the pandemic, from new technologies to time management, to caring for family members while teaching and learning. Systems administrator Angela Andrews articulates how instructors and instructional support staff are already equipped to teach new concepts without the traditional mantle of expertise: “We’re always explaining things to other people. This is just an extension of it.” Andrews elaborates, “It is taking a topic that we know something about. We may not be masters in it, but at least we can speak the language, and we feel comfortable enough trying to explain it” (Andrews 2018, 00:08:41). This language of pandemic teaching includes words like equity, flexibility, and experiment.

In fact, this language is a product of digital pedagogy communities of practice which have expanded exponentially during the COVID-19 crisis. Educators who were not in the habit of thinking deeply about remote or hybrid teaching found themselves thrust into a situation where they had to grapple with new practices, often those they had been exposed to in professional development sessions prior to the pandemic but never implemented, to continue as effective educators. “Diary of a Quarantined Teacher: A Seasoned Spanish Teacher Confronts a Whole New Way of Teaching” by world language teacher Sarah Schwab, and “Converse to Learn: Online Discussions to Engage Students in Remote Learning” by sociologist Marnie S. Rodriguez, both members of the CTC, reveal the commonalities in experiences between PK–12 and higher education instructors. Everyone is involved in learning. Educators are learning new communication and facilitation technologies in order to create equitable, accessible, and meaningful classroom experiences. Students are learning new modes of communication (often across several platforms) and new content related to their course and chosen academic path.

One important aspect of pandemic teaching and learning is the recognition that the world is in flux, not just for students, but for educators as well. The CTC is just one example of how the pandemic has expanded the communities of practice of educators engaged with digital pedagogy. Indeed, many educators are engaging in new practices with students that seemed untenable prior to COVID-19. As historian J. Mark Souther reflected, pandemic remote learning has the potential to be “A Bridge to Better Teaching.” Curriculum ideas and innovation that instructors have put off due to lack of development time or technology resources in past semesters now seem possible in part due to the need for alternative delivery methods and institutional investments in licenses for key applications.

The pandemic has enabled educators from diverse backgrounds, disciplines, and levels to practice taking risks in our classrooms. As instructors begin to acknowledge classrooms as filled with communities of learners and not hierarchies of expertise the future is rife with opportunity. COVID-19 has added urgency to our academic courage, yet it has also normalized trusting oneself and one’s students enough to take regular risks. Not every new idea or assignment works. In fact, this journal has an excellent section on teaching fails that began normalizing risks and their range of outcomes even before the current crisis. Now is the time for all educators to look to the future and reflect on this experience.

Thoughts Moving Forward

As the COVID-19 virus surges, teachers will continue to navigate an uncertain present and uncertain future. There is little doubt that teachers will continue to imagine innovative and humanizing ways to teach in this prolonged state of uncertainty and that the repertoire of pandemic pedagogies will keep evolving. Although it is impossible to imagine exactly what teaching and learning will look like in a postpandemic era, we believe that the success of the future requires that we pay attention to the lessons and questions in the three areas of cross-collaboration, pedagogies of care, and risk taking. From insight on promising pedagogical practices to the radical exposure of deep educational inequities, postpandemic classrooms and schools must look different than pre-pandemic classrooms. Although we may miss many aspects of school before the COVID-19 outbreak, this crisis has reminded us that pre-pandemic school was not adequate or meaningful for far too many students. It spurred instructors and staff to work through issues previously seen as too embedded in our institutions to question. Teaching through this unprecedented and unsettling time offers educators a unique opportunity to challenge some of the time-honored approaches to teaching and learning and the taken-for-granted ways of engaging students in traditional classrooms.

For us, teaching in this emergency was a catalyst to create the Cleveland Teaching Collaborative. Although we imagined that the collaborative would be a place to support the exchange and expansion of ideas, it was impossible to know exactly how the network would unfold. With the benefit of time and reflection, we now see that one of the most critical lessons to carry forward is the role and power of the collective. More specifically, the CTC opened an important space for what we have come to refer to as collective care. The collaborative prompted dialogue between and among a range of educators, instructors, instructional designers, technologists, and administrators, most of whom do not typically interact or spend professional time with one another. This created the potential for a new space and, we observed, a new version of distributed expertise and shared knowledge generation and dissemination, all with an ethos of care. In this unprecedented moment, the silos started to break down and conversations began.

For us, collective care is an emergent concept that refracts care in three ways: (1) caring for one another (e.g., as professionals, educators, humans) by being engaged in the writing, talking, thinking of this group, (2) a group that supports and works to develop pedagogies of care, and (3) a group that believes educators and educational institutions are better off when we do this work together.  While the institutional barriers between instructors, staff, and administrators remain, and will remain, after the pandemic, the conversations will continue. They are a critical step to reimagining teaching and learning in a postpandemic classroom.

As vaccines arrive and we look toward a transition from emergency pandemic teaching and learning to a new phase of education, we are reflecting on the origins of the collaborative, analyzing what we have learned from the most recent cohort of collaborators, and planning for the future of the CTC and the #postpandemicteacher. In May 2020 we received institutional support to launch and facilitate the first cohort of authors. We used these funds to purchase three years of web hosting services and pay authors an honorarium to reflect on their experiences with remote teaching and learning. Buckley-Marudas drew on existing professional networks, including her work with the Cleveland Metropolitan School District, to recruit PK–12 educators. Both of us also reached out through personalized emails to invite reflections from a range of PK–12 and university collaborators. We chose to develop the blog on WordPress based on Rose’s previous experience with the platform and its ability to handle multiple authors. Designed as a collaborative, it was important that the host site could support all participants as named authors. As we began documenting open-access and crowdsourced educational resources for our members on a blog page, it quickly became clear that we needed a more robust solution to enable educators to search our links. Rose drew on her experience leading a digital humanities referatory project in her courses to build a resource referatory for our growing collection and train team members in curation of these items. Institutional support for the CTC was renewed at the start of the fall semester and we now have an institutional commitment to support new and existing CTC activities through the end of 2021. Recognizing that the collaborative was evolving from a support network for pandemic teaching to a network of dynamic educators committed to change beyond the scope of COVID-19, we applied for multiyear external funding to gather data from educators at this critical crossroads, make technical upgrades to our resource referatory, and use pandemic experiences to promote changes in education for Cleveland-area students and beyond.

We recognize that we do not yet know the implications of this prolonged time of social distancing and stay-at-home orders for students’ learning or for students’ and teachers’ social and emotional health and well-being. Yet, we close here with a few thoughts on what we think a post pandemic pedagogy and #postpandemicteacher might look like. The postpandemic teacher will be more comfortable taking risks and assuming the role of learner, see collaboration as a privilege and an opportunity for growth, and operate with the belief that teaching and learning are deeply relational processes that must be rooted in collective care. Focusing on these areas, the Cleveland Teaching Collaborative has not just become a space for reflection and support, but also a catalyst for change.

Bibliography

Andrews, Angela. 2018. “How to Teach When You’re Not an Expert.” Interviewed by Saron Yitbarek. CODENewbie, Season 4, Episode 7, June 4, 2018. Audio, 38.27. https://www.codenewbie.org/podcast/how-to-teach-when-youre-not-an-expert

Bessette, Lee Skallerup. 2020. “It Takes a Village: The Importance of Staff for Digital Learning.” The National Teaching and Learning Forum 29, no. 5. https://doi.org/10.1002/ntlf.30247

———. 2021. “Stop Ignoring Microaggressions Against Your Staff.” The Chronicle of Higher Education, March 8, 2021. https://www.chronicle.com/article/stop-ignoring-microaggressions-against-your-staff.

Blum, Susan D. 2021. “A Year of Pandemic Teaching: The Good List (Part I).” Susan D. Blum (blog). Accessed March 12, 2021. http://www.susanblum.com/blog/a-year-of-pandemic-teaching-the-good-list-part-1.

Davidson, Cathy. 2020. “The Single Most Essential Requirement in Designing a Fall Online Course.” Hastac. Accessed December 8, 2020. https://www.hastac.org/blogs/cathy-davidson/2020/05/11/single-most-essential-requirement-designing-fall-online-course.

Ladson-Billings, Gloria. 1995. “Toward a Theory of Culturally Relevant Pedagogy.” American Educational Research Journal 32: 465–491. https://doi.org/10.3102/00028312032003465.

Mehta, Rohit and Earl Aguilera. 2020. “A Critical Approach to Humanizing Pedagogies in Online Teaching and Learning.” The International Journal of Information and Learning Technology 37, no. 3: 109–120. https://doi.org/10.1108/IJILT-10-2019-0099.

Nakkula, Michael and Andy Danilchick. 2020. Planning for Uncertainty: An Educator’s Guide to Navigating the COVID-19 Era. Penn GSE. University of Pennsylvania. Accessed December 8, 2020. https://www.gse.upenn.edu/system/files/Planning-for-Uncertainty-Guide.pdf.

Perry, David. 2020. “Title Policing and Other Ways Professors Bully the Academic Staff.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. Accessed March 12, 2021. https://www.chronicle.com/article/title-policing-and-other-ways-professors-bully-the-academic-staff/.

Ravitch, Sharon. 2020. “FLUX Pedagogy: Transforming Teaching and Learning during Coronavirus.” Methodspace. Accessed December 8, 2020. https://www.methodspace.com/flux-pedagogy-transforming-teaching-learning-during-coronavirus/.

Research and Instructional Technology Services, NYU Shanghai Library. 2020. Digital Teaching Toolkit. Accessed March 12, 2021. https://wp.nyu.edu/shanghai-online_teaching/.

Rolón-Dow, Rosalie. 2005. “Critical Care: A Color(full) Analysis of Care Narratives in the Schooling Experiences of Puerto Rican Girls.” American Educational Research Journal 42, no. 1: 77–111. https://doi.org/10.3102/00028312042001077.

Shelton, Catharyn, Earl Aguilera, Benjamin Gleason, and Rohit Mehta. 2020. “Resisting dehumanizing assessments: Enacting critical humanizing pedagogies in online teacher education.” In Teaching, Technology, and Teacher Education During the COVID-19 Pandemic: Stories from the Field, edited by Richard E. Ferdig, Emily Baumgartner, Richard Hartshorne, Regina Kaplan-Rakowski, and Chrystalla Mouza, 125–129. Association for the Advancement of Computing in Education (AACE). https://www.learntechlib.org/p/216903/.

About the Authors

Mary Frances (Molly) Buckley-Marudas is Associate Professor of Adolescent and Young Adult English Education at Cleveland State University. Buckley-Marudas teaches courses in English Education, content area literacy, and Young Adult literature and is professor-in-residence at Campus International High School. Buckley-Marudas’s research focuses on adolescent literacies, youth-led research, and teacher education. She is currently PI on a LRNG Innovator Challenge grant and Co-PI on a multi-year IES grant, both of which focus on youth participatory action research. She has published articles in Contemporary Issues in Technology and Teacher Education (CITE), Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, and is a founder of the Cleveland Teaching Collaborative and recipient of the 2022 Divergent Award for Excellence in Implementation of Literacy in a Digital Age with Shelley E. Rose.

Shelley E. Rose is Associate Professor of History and Director of Social Studies at Cleveland State University. Rose teaches a range of topics from geography to world history, gender studies to European history. Her research and professional activities focus on the topics of digital humanities, protest history, European history, and gender history. She has published articles in Peace & Change and The Journal of Urban History, leads the Gender Studies Resources database project, and is a founder of the Cleveland Teaching Collaborative and recipient of the 2022 Divergent Award for Excellence in Implementation of Literacy in a Digital Age with Molly Buckley-Marudas.

A sepia-toned stereoscopic image from the turn of the twentieth century depicts a woman in a drawing room, herself looking into a stereoscope.
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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.

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