Integrating Digital Media at the Programmatic and Institutional Level: Building a Humane Cyberinfrastructure at the Bard Graduate Center
Kimon Keramidas, Bard Graduate Center
AbstractLiving during a time of profound change can be at once exhilarating, inspiring, alienating, and frightening. With the new comes possibility, but also uncertainty. That is the reality of the information age and the increasing presence of digital media and interactive technology in our daily lives. It is even more so the reality in educational institutions where experimental, innovative thought often makes strange bedfellows with disciplinary orthodoxy and tradition-bound deliberateness. This article is a discussion of how we balanced these tensions in the process of implementing digital media at the Bard Graduate Center1 (BGC).
Guiding Principles and Institutional Specificity
At the BGC, our integration of digital technology has focused on the evolving demands and interests of our community. Rather than equip a lab that was aimed at certain predetermined digital practices, such as data mining, geospatial mapping, or textual analysis, we envisioned the Digital Media Lab2 (DML) as a space that would provide resources, knowledge, and support for technological experiments that would emerge from research projects and pedagogical practice already in development at the BGC. We focused on working with faculty and students to determine how digital media could best enhance their existing projects rather than initiating unprecedented and perhaps unwelcome projects. We did this by using successful projects as models to hold up as proof of concept to the uninitiated and uncertain members of our institution. This approach has made the work coming out of the lab more relatable and accessible to the community as a whole, and as a result has increased the rate of adoption of digital practice throughout the institution.
From laying the foundation for our digital media initiatives to equipping our lab and working with our institution’s different constituencies, we have learned a number of important lessons about simplifying an institution-wide transition to new digital technologies. As I detail how we went about establishing the DML, I will reiterate that understanding the community’s needs and providing the software, hardware, and human resources necessary to allow those projects to flourish, has been key to our successful integration of digital media throughout the BGC. From the beginning we have endeavored to develop a more humane cyberinfrastructure, one that provides our institution’s humanistic scholars with the technology, knowledge, and support to rethink their projects and experiment with new approaches.
A humane cyberinfrastructure
What exactly do I mean by a humane cyberinfrastructure? Let’s start with the term cyberinfrastructure. The final report of a National Science Foundation (NSF)-funded workshop on the incorporation of cyberinfrastructures in social sciences defined the term as “the coordinated aggregate of software, hardware and other technologies, as well as human expertise, required to support current and future discoveries in science and engineering.”3 In this sense, cyberinfrastructure is compelling as it implies the thoughtful aggregation of cutting-edge technology with human expertise, clearly paralleling our goals in the DML.
But as Patrik Svensson points out, “much discussion of cyberinfrastructure is technology-driven, data-driven and structural-level.”4 Svensson is wary of adopting a science-and-engineering mindset in the consideration of a possible humanities cyberinfrastructure, warning that mapping structural and epistemic modes from these fields misses the point of the specific type of work done by humanists.5 We therefore expanded our research infrastructure cautiously as we kept in mind this disconnect between the possibilities of cyberinfrastructure and the manner in which it is implemented, and the danger of mapping cyberinfrastructures onto humanities research in a way that simply mimics work done in the sciences and engineering.
This brings us to the notion of a humane cyberinfrastructure. At one level the term “humane” evokes the humanities and distinguishes the specific humanistic approach we have taken in the DML. However, in the case of the DML, “humane” additionally connotes the sensibility that determined not only the design of the space and the technological capabilities of the lab, but also our approach to people as they experienced those technologies.
The use of the word humane comes from Jef Raskin, one of the creators of the original Apple Macintosh, and his play on the concept of human interface design in The Humane Interface. Raskin says that that “if a system’s one-on-one interaction with its human user is not pleasant and facile, the resulting deficiency will poison the performance of the entire system, however fine that system might be in other aspects.”6 While Raskin is specifically calling for a corrective in the design of human-computer interfaces in software and hardware, his notion of what deficiencies will cause a software or hardware system to fail also hold true for the development of cyberinfrastructure, whether it is in the sciences, social sciences, or humanities. For Raskin, successful interactive systems pay heed to the human factors of user experience, and he states that “an interface is humane [Raskin’s bold] if it is responsive to human needs and considerate of human frailties.”7 It is this humane sensibility and focus on responding to human needs that we have kept as the core of our methodology in establishing the DML.
Making sure that we have been humane in establishing the Digital Media Lab as the hub of our new cyberinfrastructure has allowed us to provide both a space for experimentation and innovation and one that welcomes equally eager early adopters and those with apprehension over the changing role of technology in the academy. Such a consideration of the gamut of potential users is particularly important in attempts to encourage work with digital media throughout an institution. Skill levels, commitments, and even insecurities can vary greatly across a community, and these factors strongly influence who chooses to participate and who does not. The more humane the system, the more readily it can respond to those frailties, and the less likely it is to poison the project throughout an institution.
Laying a foundation
At this point some specific institutional background would help. The BGC is a research institute in New York City that is home to a graduate program in Decorative Arts, Design History, and Material Culture. The four-story BGC Gallery puts on approximately four exhibitions every year. Additionally, the BGC publishes a wide range of texts including exhibition catalogs, a scholarly journal, and a book series. As the range of possible experimentations with new media across all three areas of the institution—academic programs, exhibitions, and publications—has became more apparent, the BGC determined to create a dedicated space to promote and support new initiatives in digital media across the institution. I was hired as a full-time staff member to conceptualize and implement these initiatives.
In 2009, the BGC opened the Digital Media Lab to provide a place where students, faculty, and staff could come for assistance in incorporating digital media into research projects and course work. That first year was critical in establishing the lab within the culture of the BGC and setting the tone for generating interest among both the most eager and most skeptical audiences in the institution. During that time, we carefully considered the role of institutional history in shaping how the DML would function.
We made sure to situate the DML within the preexisting programmatic structure—and culture—of the BGC as we planned how best to incorporate digital media throughout the institution. We knew that it would be important to have a well-defined understanding of why and how we wanted digital media implemented into our curriculum, and this understanding continues to affect our approach a day-to-day basis. At the BGC, our goal is to train future scholars, curators, collections managers, etc., and that education takes priority over the training of our students as filmmakers, web designers, or database programmers. While we wanted to open up the possibilities of digital media to the community, at the same time we wanted to keep our focus on the content and methodologies of our field and not aim to provide the type of education one would be more likely to find in a media arts program.
To this end the new technologies we made available in the lab were meant to support and enhance the institution’s preexisting missions. Software packages such as the Adobe Creative Suite appealed to our focus on material and visual culture as well as design history, while the integration of platforms such as Omeka and the wiki hosting service Wikidot.com allowed us to experiment with digital publication and collections management practices relevant to our focus in museum studies. Prezi allowed for new modes of classroom presentation, and when paired with Google SketchUp, it provided students, faculty, and staff with a new set of tools for experimentation with visual prototyping and spatial design for projects in our galleries. These tools were all chosen to emphasize preexisting modes of practice from across the institution to ensure their relevance was apparent.
The Assistant Director for the Digital Media Lab, along with two work studies, is readily available to answer questions throughout the week, and the lab is open whenever the building is. The lab was designed to mirror BGC’s core pedagogical values: small classes, readily available faculty (achieved through a 50:15 student:teacher ratio), and intimate educational structure. The staffing and availability of resources in the DML reflect these values. This accessibility and support has made the lab a familiar place, allowing students the freedom to experiment and feel comfortable taking risks with new technologies.
In addition to fostering an intimate academic experience, the BGC is heavily invested in academic rigor and intellectual depth. We therefore take a highly critical stance toward the integration of digital media to ensure that the technology and media support that rigor and depth rather than replace it. We encourage the use of tools such as Prezi and wikis for student projects, but only inasmuch as they add to the quality of work and are able to provide analogues for traditional armatures of scholarship (such as footnotes and bibliographies). While we are excited about the possibilities that digital media provide for the expansion of scholarly practice, we discourage the use of these new media for the sake of surface-level aesthetic enhancements to traditional modes, such as the research paper. That being said, we understand the potential for new tools to enable new modes of interpretation and presentation that in fact expand the rigor and depth of work being done. To that end, the lab encourages students to experiment with different technologies and to develop a digital information fluency that is both relevant to their specific projects and applicable to the myriad materials, applications, and platforms now available to help them find information.
Staying within our academic mission, encouraging a sense of institutional intimacy, and maintaining high academic standards are not particularly unique positions, nor are they so outlandish as to provoke much discussion. But they are the kind of positions that provide us with a healthy critical stance and programmatic self-awareness to make informed, appropriate decisions in developing our cyberinfrastructure. Working from a foundation such as this is critical for any institution considering how to integrate digital media successfully into its curriculum. Unless the use of media is fundamentally tied to faculty goals for the program and clearly defined to students as a logical extension of the core tenets of institutional practice, the integration of digital media has the potential to cause disillusionment, alienation, resistance, and fragmentation within the institution’s population. It becomes inhumane and prone to failure. Digital media are new, and with newness comes apprehension. That apprehension is best treated with conceptual clarity and the language of logical evolution rather than revolutionary calls to arms and disparagements of traditional practice. Clearly and repeatedly communicating an understanding of programmatic foundations can do much to assuage apprehension and uncertainty.
Determining Resources, Developing Strategies, Working with Users, and Enacting a Humane Approach
Having laid out the history of the BGC and our general attitudes toward digital media, we can now get to some of the specific strategies we employ at the BGC in order to ease faculty, students, and curators into the use of digital media. The challenge for us with the introduction of the Digital Media Lab was to implement digital media into the curriculum quickly and pervasively but at the same time organically and voluntarily. The BGC, despite an inherent interdisciplinarity and investment in experimentation and innovation, in general remains a relatively traditional and conservative institution in research and pedagogical practice. That is of course changing with our new publications, faculty-led focus galleries, and digital initiatives, but when the project began three years ago, Photoshop, Powerpoint, and Word—hardly cutting edge technologies—were the primary digital tools in use. There had been only a few experiments with course software (Moodle, a blog or two, and a few custom-made HTML course sites) and very little use of social media, digital design, or video/audio editing tools anywhere in the institution. This provided us with an opportunity to start virtually from scratch, but also meant that we had to earn buy-in from faculty and provide entry points for a student body not necessarily armed with technical proficiency or expertise.
Equipping a digital media initiative
While it is important to plan and think about approach, personalities, and implementation methodology, there comes a point where one needs to make real, strategic decisions about the resources required to successfully equip a digital media initiative. At the BGC, we have approached our acquisition of both hardware and software with very clear goals that would allow us to provide a flexible and powerful computing environment without spending wastefully. By coupling a successful project with a sensible approach to resource acquisition and allocation, we hoped to be more secure in continued funding and openness to expansion into more initiatives in the future.
One way we have found a focus for equipping our digital media initiatives is to allow the intellectual questions asked by our community to drive our tool acquisition. We began by complementing more expensive foundational software suites, such as Microsoft Office and the Adobe Creative Suite, with a range of inexpensive entry-level tools and platforms, such as WordPress blogs, Wikidot.com wikis, Omeka, Google SketchUp, Prezi, and iLife. This range has allowed us to provide options and examples without committing to expensive systems that can require extensive external support, such as Blackboard. Additionally, it allows our students and professors to freely experiment with different tools and find what is right for their project. Furthermore, we have focused on using Internet-accessible tools that allow faculty and students to complete work from virtually anywhere so that they are not tied down to the lab and can collaborate asynchronously and remotely. In this sense, the DML is not a physical space, but rather extends out to these networked platforms and allows for online and hybrid activity. From these initial starting points, we can decide to spend more money on more elaborate software if projects demand, and be better equipped to make the right purchasing decision when the moment arises.
In addition to providing this range of software, we wanted to make sure that the hardware we put in the DML was powerful enough that the only limitation new users would face would be their knowledge of the tool and not the capabilities of the computers being used. We aimed at relatively high-end computers so that there was less likely to be frustration with the speed of processes or their ability to run resource-demanding software, such as the applications in Adobe’s Creative Suite, smoothly.
We purchased primarily iMac and Mac Pro computers8 with robust processors, large screens, and extensive memory. Macintoshes were chosen for a number of reasons: (1) they were the only computers that could easily run all three major operating systems (OS X, Windows, and Linux); (2) the majority of our students had familiarity with OS X and Apples in their personal computing life; and (3) while anecdotally more expensive, they actually provide higher performance over a longer period at an equivalent price to computers with similar capabilities, making them a cost-conscious choice. The Macintoshes have suited our needs well, as they have reliably handled a wide range of use and provide sufficient processing power so that the students rarely if ever voice frustration with their functionality. All software is updated approximately once a monthly to ensure that bug fixes and optimizations are applied, and when a machine is acting peculiar or sluggish we correct the problem as soon as possible to maintain the DML’s reputation as a reliable computing space. These specific hardware choices and maintenance practices reinforce our humane approach, as we limit the possibilities for the system to fail through neglect or lack of attention to user experience.
As the DML has matured and the projects increased in scope, ambition, and specificity, we have made purchases that respond to specific project needs and provided new platforms to support experimentation related to our program. We purchased a NextEngine 3D scanner and a Makerbot Replicator for investigations into digital materiality and acquired lab licenses for Google Earth Pro and Oxygen XML Editor to prepare for future projects involving geospatial mapping, interactive timelines, and textual encoding. In addition, we have expanded our web hosting capabilities to respond to a number of projects across the institution and are for the first time working with an outside developer in our focus galleries who will work with students and faculty to actualize projects currently beyond the technological scope of the DML. All of these steps forward are meant to enhance our cyberinfrastructure in a way that responds to immediate needs and future possibilities and to help reinforce a sense of security that the lab will develop in accordance with the cumulative interests of the community.
Along with computing power, platform flexibility, and infrastructure responsiveness, it is important in the early stages of a digital media initiative to consider the relative comfort level of different communities in your institution and pay heed to the needs of the learning community. Not all affordances can be made for every student or faculty member, but providing comfortable spaces and modes for people to work within is crucial to building up institutional momentum and encouraging individuals to take the bold step of going beyond their comfort zone and experimenting. If provided with options for experimentation, sufficient computing resources with which to work, and support for both technical and conceptual questions, the end result is often work that goes beyond what you may have even imagined their projects could become. Stay prepared and nimble for the inevitable technological change, and remember that while frugality is important one also mustn’t skimp on functionality as you risk limiting experimentation, creativity, and innovation.
Strategies for encouraging digital work
Faced with this newly equipped cyberinfrastructure, we adopted a few specific strategies for encouraging use of the lab and expanding the range of tools support. As mentioned above, our selection of digital tools was to be determined by the needs of the community. We eagerly sought out and looked to respond to faculty who wanted to try new research and pedagogical methods that took advantage of the resources provided by the lab, but the institution was not intent on mandating the use of any particular tools or even promoting a preference for particular platforms.
At the outset we were uncertain as to how much participation we would get from faculty and students, but fortunately nearly a third of our faculty expressed some interest right off the bat and we were quickly using blogs, wikis, audio/video editing suites, new presentation software, and even computer-aided design tools in course work and in the development of long-term research projects.
During these initial migrations by our community toward certain types of digital tools, we generated two doctrines for the DML. The first doctrine is: scholarly and pedagogical questions should determine what tools are used and not vice versa. The work at the BGC remains grounded in a humanistic approach to the asking and answering of questions. While the tools that we use enable us to answer questions differently, they should not predetermine the types of questions we ask. The digital is only a new approach to our discipline and not a new discipline in and of itself.
When students or faculty come to me or Professor David Jaffee, our Head of New Media Research, with an interest in digital media, the first thing we ask them is what questions are they asking and how do they envision their teaching or research project. By listening closely at this stage, visualizing ideas through pen and paper mock ups, and talking through work flows and types of materials, we find digital solutions with no predispositions as to what tools are best suited to each project.
A research project may work best on FileMaker Pro to allow for customization and robust searching or it may be best handled using a wiki so that many people can easily access and contribute information. A digital exhibition may be best designed using a database-driven platform such as Omeka or a bespoke HTML site may allow for easier introduction of multimedia and customization of presentation and style. A course site may work best as a wiki for the collection of files, images, and collaborative compositions, or it may work best as a group-authored blog with students crafting a voice and contributing at regular intervals over the course of a semester. Whatever the situation, the question comes first and the tool second.
The second doctrine we have adopted applies to the types of tools that we choose: tools should have low barriers of entry and shallow learning curves. This mentality was born out of (a) our desire to not be a media arts program, and (b) the fact that the majority of our students are with us for only two years. It has however proved essential to our understanding of how to generate interest quickly and make digital media pervasive across our institution. One undeniable reality of working with academics and digital media is the general apprehension caused by not understanding how to use a tool. The best advice I received at the beginning of my time at the BGC was that, in general, professors are used to being “the smartest person in the room.” Learning a new tool can be extremely disempowering to people accustomed to this position, and if the introduction to a new tool is not handled properly the resulting alienation from digital media can be very difficult to repair. So the tools we choose have been purposely selected for their low barriers to entry—meaning that they are relatively accessible and somewhat familiar upon a user’s first experience—and shallow learning curves so that the user can notice marked improvements in their skill early and often enough that they feel comfortable and capable using that tool.
These two doctrines, which put institutional imperatives and user experience first in our digital media practice, are representative of the strategies we employ to establish a humane cyberinfrastructure. They ensure that the DML responds to the demands of the scholarship throughout the institution, and that the intellectual priorities of the lab are aligned with those of our community. They also allow people working in the lab to feel like capable contributors to the evolution of the lab and its increasingly important role in the life of the institution.
Working with your constituents
Outreach and communication are crucial to making headway across a broad range of institutional constituencies, no matter what the size of that institution. Students and faculty with packed schedules might be reluctant to put learning new and unfamiliar digital technologies on their daily radar. Understanding the varying conditions that members of your community operate within is particularly important as you try to generate interest and enthusiasm in experimentation. Most of the work of integrating digital media successfully into curricula is done in managing institutional politics, nurturing individual projects, and assuaging fears and apprehensions. Acting humanely and approaching your community as a collection of individuals each working with technology differently rather than as a homogenous group of digital media users will ultimately prove to be more important than the choice of tools and methods of implementation.
One of the best ways to plan for how people will take to digital media is to consider what their expectations of the academic experience are. Often there is a preconceived notion that younger faculty will be more eager to work with digital media than older faculty because of the assumption that they are more likely to have used digital media in their personal lives. But what often turns out to be the case is that faculty who are comfortably tenured are more likely to take the risk of doing their work in a digital format, meaning that many junior faculty are loath to experiment in their research, publication, and pedagogy.
There is also a misconception that students, who are increasingly immersed in a media culture at a young age, will eagerly embrace digital projects. In fact, many students are tied to a relatively orthodox view of what is expected of a student. In our program this means being able to use a word processor to write papers and Powerpoint to create presentations of images. The prospect of working outside of that framework, especially when the digital is considered above and beyond an already rigorous course of study, frightens many students away.
Overcoming these attitudes requires a careful demystification of technology, an active support program, and a clear explication of the added value of using digital media in scholarly work. When developing new projects, create parameters that are achievable for the students, but that still show off the value of using media. Ensure that the faculty see experimentations with digital media as a logical progression in their research and pedagogy and not an external imposition they are being forced to cope with. In order to accomplish these goals, we work closely with our community from both the top down, getting the faculty on board creating assignments and projects that require digital media, and the bottom up, getting students excited about digital media so they will encourage faculty to allow them to integrate digital media into their course work.
Getting the faculty on board is of particular importance because they can set expectations for digital media projects and determine the standards for successful digital work. This lends credibility to the projects and shows that the work being done is sanctioned and promoted by those in positions of authority. As more faculty have used wikis and blogs in their courses, we have seen those tools become considered standards rather than outliers in the practice of the institution, which lowers the barriers to entry for integrating other tools that are more creative and expressive. Our dean has also paved the way by encouraging faculty to work with digital media, making digital formats an important part of our journal and book series, and even experimenting with digital formats in his own research and publication.9
Just as the faculty and administration can set standards and provide validation for the use of digital media across a curriculum, students can provide impetus from below by finding new uses for tools and sometimes making unexpected steps forward in integrating digital media. Three encouraging developments from our second year came out student enthusiasm for using digital tools. The first development was the use of wikis for thesis research by a number of students. Rather than use traditional notebooks and Word documents, these students had begun tracking materials and research information on their own wikis because it made it easier to show their work to librarians, because they were more confident their material was backed up and secure, and because the wikis ensured that their work would be accessible via the Internet when they did not have their own computers handy.
The second development began when one of our particularly digitally fluent students who had dabbled with Prezi began to show the tool to a number of students during classes and in the lab. Another student picked up the tool and became the on-campus guru, showing it to other students and creating rich Prezis full of audio and video for a number of our more digitally notable classes. These Prezis made their way into a number of our salons (which I will describe later), and as a result of the students’ interest in the tool, Prezi is now more readily accepted as a viable option for the many projects that require the presentation of visual materials.
The third development has been the increasing use of wikis as courseware. Early on, the wikis had been successful in a number of classes, but during our second year there was a sudden surge of interest from the faculty, most notably from a number of faculty who had been uncertain about using digital media in any fashion. We discovered that the students had come to prefer the wikis as method of accessing readings and receiving course communication, and they were asking professors who did not have course wikis to set them up. The combination of a grassroots request from students and a willing faculty response is ideal in integrating digital media into curricula. It represents a shift away from the external impetus digital media initiatives usually hinge on and shows that once tools have penetrated the community enough, they come to be viewed as valuable in and of themselves and not because a particular individual is encouraging people to use them.
However, all this institutional and grassroots interest is for naught if systems are not easy to use and supported properly. By monitoring challenging projects and tending to the most tentative individuals you can solve problems before they generate dissatisfaction and become deterrents to further digital work. Projects should be well supported and platforms should be well explained. I can’t say enough about the value of offering workshops and taking the time to provide individual training and advisement to faculty and students before, during, and after projects. It may seem an obvious statement, but many institutions choose to implement tools and then provide insufficient or poor support, dooming the tool to failure and creating resentment that takes a long time to repair.
Along with supporting those projects that come about on their own, it also helps to stay one step ahead of your community’s interest in digital media. Waiting for people to come up with projects on their own will slow the process of integration. Seek out those individuals who may not necessarily be thinking about using digital media in a course or project, and talk to them about their options. Also identify students and faculty with media experience or interest in digital design and encourage them to think about alternative approaches to their work that take advantage of these interests. These individuals are important in setting precedents for adoption by the community as a whole. As their interests and skills become known in the community, these early adopters will also help make digital media a standard rather than an exception within the institution.
Objects of Exchange: Putting a humane approach into action
For an example of all these strategies and mindsets in action, let us look at the digital media tool most used across the BGC, wikis on the Wikidot.com hosting service. As we considered how to support courses with digital media, we knew for certain that we were not interested in, nor were we big enough to require, a large learning management system such as Blackboard or Moodle. Systems such as these were too expensive and/or too wedded to pedagogical approaches that were not being practiced at the BGC.
Initially some of the professors at the BGC expressed an interest in using WordPress for course blogs, but after some initial attempts were not happy with the interface or with an information management system that did not align with the way they approached their small, seminar-style courses. I had dealt with similar questions and concerns as an adjunct teacher prior to working at the BGC and had found the Wikidot wikis a useful solution because they allowed me to (a) build a course site without the restrictions of a learning management system, (b) avoid the management issues of a self-hosted MediaWiki installation, and (c) not have to do the work necessary to custom-build an HTML site for every course. So, as more professors expressed an interest in digital course sites, more of them were willing to experiment with the wikis, and I was able to provide them with examples of my own work and pedagogical strategies for implementing the wikis to the specific needs of their courses.
The most successful implementation, and the project that really convinced the BGC community of the viability and relevance of digital media, was a course and exhibition development site for one of our focus gallery courses. Focus galleries are single-room, faculty-led exhibitions that develop mostly out of faculty research but also through course work completed by students. The wiki for this particular exhibition, Objects of Exchange: Social and Material Transformation on the Late Nineteenth-Century Northwest Coast, used the wiki both to organize course materials and student work and as a makeshift database for the catalog material and wall labels that the students were composing. Syllabus materials, along with audio files, images, and videos were all hosted on the wiki for the students to access. In addition, each in the exhibition (of which there were approximately thirty) had its own page with an image and a fillable text template included wall label information, bibliographic references, links to other relevant objects in the exhibition, tags, and a comment section for the student and professor to communicate with one another.
To our good fortune, the impact of the wikis on Objects of Exchange went beyond simply providing a platform for collaborative communication and resource gathering. Professor Aaron Glass, who led the project, found that the wiki’s tagging system revealed unexpected new connections between the objects. Since these types of connections were the focus of the exhibition, Professor Glass was struck by the similarity between the logic of the database underlying the wikis and the logic of exhibitions themselves. The tagging taxonomy allowed us to add a tag-based interactive touch display to the exhibition, and Professor Glass and I co-authored a chapter of the exhibition catalog that discussed the emerging place of digital media in exhibition development and the role of the DML and its resources in changing exhibition practice at the BGC.10
The success of the Objects of Exchange wiki provided an example of how digital tools can be valuable as both pedagogical platforms and as tools for organizing resources. This project was critical to the uptake of the wikis and the initial successes of the DML because it provided a model created by a faculty member and used by students, and because it was not directly related to a course about digital media or led by one of the previously recognized digitally savvy members of the community. It made using the wikis seem within reach of anyone at the BGC, and as more people saw the potential of these tools, more of them began to ask about using the wikis as courseware, to organize research, or to plan an exhibition.
One of the reasons that everyone at the BGC was able to see the value of the Objects of Exchange wiki was because of our deliberate effort to show as many people in the institution as possible how the tool helped with the process of research and teaching. In a discussion that parallels Raskin’s, Donald Norman in his book The Invisible Computer writes that “human-centered development requires three equal partners, three legs to the triad of product development: technology, marketing, and user experience.”11 If the DML is in a sense a new product that we are trying to convince a community to use, then after setting up the lab (technology) and endeavoring to be humane (user experience), the next step was to publicize our successes (marketing). We aimed to make the lab and its potential more familiar to our community. The newness of digital media means that for the most part people either will not seek out tools on their own or are unsure where to start looking for new ideas. This is especially true for students and faculty who are often overwhelmed with the projects they are working on as it is. Therefore, we have made a concerted effort to make visible to our community those projects that most successfully represent the scope of work that can be accomplished by integrating digital media into work across our institution.
Along with my constant proselytizing, orientations, and frequent spontaneous conversations, an important way that we have increased visibility has been through salons that we hold at the beginning of each semester to present successful digital works. These presentations have included course and exhibition wikis, student use of databases and wikis for thesis research, short films and Prezis made by students to present materials gathered from field trips, digital exhibitions designed in Omeka, and three-dimensional virtual galleries created for an exhibition design course. For one project, an HTML website entitled Visualizing Nineteenth-Century New York12 that was produced almost entirely by ten students with little previous web experience, we even had a launch party to highlight not only the final product, but also the work the students did while developing the site and the experience they gained in the process.
These showcases have been most important in bridging the gap between those who know the tools but don’t know specifically how the tools would fit into other people’s work and those who know they want to explore the digital but don’t know what tools are out there or how they could use them. In order to bridge this gap, people must be shown projects that they can understand that showcase how successful projects make use of different tools. In this way they can both better understand how the tools work and imagine how they might expand their work into the digital realm using those tools.
Where We Have Arrived and What This Can All Mean
Prezi has also become highly visible as its ease of use in positioning textual, visual, and even multimedia materials in an easily editable and navigable infinite two-dimensional canvas has suited many different types of work done at the BGC. Students use Prezi most obviously as an alternative platform to Powerpoint to create class presentations, but the tool has also found uses as a thought mapping tool and an image management platform, in the creation of a collaboratively edited visual syllabus, and in the prototyping of interactive media meant for viewing both online (websites and student digital projects) and in our galleries.
Along with Prezi and the wikis, the general activity in the DML includes a wide array of projects and applications. Video projects have become increasingly popular as students look for new modes of expressing themselves and faculty challenge them to consider how digital media are best suited to presenting their scholarly work. Two courses have approached these videos differently, one using them as thought essays and the other encouraging a more documentary style, but both produced excellent results that left students eager to engage with video as a medium. FileMaker Pro is used by many people looking to build custom databases for their research, especially Ph.D. students with slower–paced, long-term projects. Omeka, which students use in classes and for individual projects, has become an increasingly important tool and is the platform we are using for an archive of digital student work that is currently in development. This archive will be a place where we can catalog and store the variety of different digital projects done at the BGC, while also creating a repository upon which professors can build websites and presentations when showcasing their pedagogical practice.
Our first digital-born qualifying project
Perhaps the most significant achievement of the past year was the completion of our first digital-born qualifying paper.13 This project put many of the strategies, doctrines, and methodologies we had developed to their most extreme test, and posed a challenge to the synthesis of technology and human factors. Most other work done through the DML had been related to individual research or coursework as special projects, and not tied so directly to the mandatory qualifications of our degree. But in the case of a qualifying project (QP), we knew that it was of the utmost importance that the first digital-born project meet a few conditions.
First of all, while the student would have to be digitally capable, she would most importantly need to demonstrate the ability to produce highly rigorous academic work. Professor Jaffee and I were keenly aware that if this project failed academically it could set a bad precedent and discourage future digital projects. Secondly, the student needed to understand that the completion of this project would require work above and beyond the level expected for a traditional QP. Introducing digital features would not reduce the expected page count of the project, and those digital features would necessarily require more labor and design concerns than traditional QPs. Finally, she needed to ensure that the digital aspects would be perceived as necessary to the project, not as frivolous and cosmetic. It needed to be digital-born and constructed in a manner that was irreproducible in non-digital media.
We were fortunate to have a student, Caitlin Dover, come to us whose project not only met all those conditions, but who had also been involved in a number of our most developed digital projects, including the Visualizing Nineteenth-Century New York site and the video documentaries produced in Professor Jaffee’s course on twentieth-century material culture of New York. Caitlin created an interactive Flash project14 about the design and culture of telephony in the United State in the first half of the twentieth century. Her project integrated a gallery of navigable images and films with relevant essays. There were multiple points of entry to each media object that allowed for a nonlinear experience of all the materials, and animations that highlighted and connected different relationships between each of the media objects.
The final product was of the highest quality and is something that we are proud to show. But the challenges of such a project ended up being very real. Caitlin exerted an enormous amount of effort in learning Flash from scratch while simultaneously researching and conceiving of the project, and the quality and amount of work she accomplished was not something that many of our students could have duplicated. I was also able to dedicate more time to helping Cailtin than would have been possible if multiple students had been working at the same scale. Lastly, the project did raise questions about the assessment of digital versus non-digital QPs. The work was of high enough quality that there was no question that Caitlin would receive a passing grade. But it did raise questions among the faculty as to the how to compare such a work to a twenty-five-page printed document. It really was a question of apples and oranges that we were not completely prepared to handle, and if the quality of the work had been more suspect could have caused tension within the institution.
In a sense, Caitlin’s QP is a clear example of how far we have come, but also how far we have to go. On the one hand, there was little faculty resistance to the possibility of a digital-born QP, and they were interested in Caitlin’s endeavor, eager to see what her work would look like, and in the end impressed by its design, functionality, and academic content. On the other hand, there remained this question of assessment that reinforced the strong sense that we as an institution and across the academy are in the midst of a contested transition. They want to participate in that transition and for change to happen at the BGC to occur on their terms. For this reason, we continue to proceed with caution in these more sensitive areas, tempering excitement and possibility with carefully planned strategic decisions that consider the human factors that come into play when trying to institute such cultural change. It sounds cliché, but good things can come to those who wait, and considering the rapid developments that our humane approach has engendered so far, we are willing to allow those more difficult transitions to happen on a timescale that more healthily matches our community’s needs.
Our methods of integrating digital media into the curriculum at the BGC have worked in a specific place at a specific time and in that respect they are unlikely to be completely effective in all circumstances. Questions of scale, resources, and personalities make each institution unique, and that uniqueness always plays a significant role in transitional periods as a community reacts, resituates itself, and prepares to move forward under a new set of conditions. So perhaps the most important lesson that this article can convey is that no matter how much planning you do, it is always prudent to allow the community to find its own way through the transition period.
For those of us who are excited by and look to engage with digital technologies, it seems almost a fait accompli that these tools have value and should quickly find their way into pedagogical practice. But, as mentioned above, educational institutions are often full of very smart people who may not necessarily share that opinion wholeheartedly. The real challenge in digital media initiatives, therefore, does not lie in the implementation of the right software or the purchasing of the right hardware, it consists of creating an environment where the apparent value of these technologies can become known, accepted, and embraced.
As you think about your own plans for integrating digital media at the programmatic and institutional level, remember that programs and institutions are made up of people, and it is ultimately their enthusiasm for these new tools that will lead to their successful adoption and integration. That is why it is important to focus on human expertise and to adopt humane practice, because it is the people in your institution who need to be convinced that this is a project that is relevant to them and to their work, and is ultimately in their best interests.
Boyer, Mark, Caitlin Dover, Aislinn Hyde, Matthew Keagle, Michelle Messer, Rebecca Mir, Ruth Osborne, and Miranda Peters. n.d. Visualizing Nineteenth-Century New York: A BGC-NYPL Digital Student Exhibit. http://resources-bgc.bard.edu/19thcNYC/.
Dover, Caitlin. 2012. “Making Connections: Visualizations of American Telephony, 1900–1949.” New York: Bard Graduate Center: Decorative Arts, Design History, Material Culture.
Glass, Aaron, and Kimon Keramidas. 2011. “On the Relational Exhibit in Analog and Digital Media.” In Objects of Exchange: Social and Material Transformation on the Late Nineteenth-Century Northwest Coast: Selections from the American Museum of Natural History, edited by Aaron Glass, 215-225. New York: Bard Graduate Center: Decorative Arts, Design History, Material Culture. ISBN: 9780300174427.
Miller, Peter 2011. Miller’s Peiresc Research, February 14. http://peiresc.wikis.bgc.bard.edu/.
Norman, Donald A. 1998. The Invisible Computer: Why Good Products Can Fail, the Personal Computer Is so Complex, and Information Appliances Are the Solution. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. ISBN: 0262140659
Raskin, Jef. 2000. The Humane Interface: New Directions for Designing Interactive Systems. Reading, MA: Addison Wesley. ISBN: 0201379376.
San Diego Supercomputer Center. 2006. “NSF Workshop on Cyberinfrastructure for the Social Sciences, 2005 — About,” 2006. http://web.archive.org/web/20060105171914/http://vis.sdsc.edu/sbe/.
Schnapp, Jeffrey, Peter Lunenfeld, Todd Presner, and et.al. 2009. “The Digital Humanities Manifesto 2.0,” June 22. http://www.humanitiesblast.com/manifesto/Manifesto_V2.pdf.
Smith, Kathleen. 2009. “Q&A with Brett Bobley, Director of the NEH’s Office of Digital Humanities (ODH) | HASTAC.” HASTAC, February 1. http://hastac.org/node/1934.
Spiro, Lisa. 2012. “Getting Started in Digital Humanities.” Journal of Digital Humanities, March 10. http://journalofdigitalhumanities.org/1-1/getting-started-in-digital-humanities-by-lisa-spiro/. ISSN: 2165-6673.
———. “‘This Is Why We Fight’: Defining the Values of the Digital Humanities.” In Debates in the Digital Humanities, edited by Matthew K. Gold, 16-35. Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 2012. ISBN: 9780816677948.
Svensson, Patrik. 2011. “From Optical Fiber To Conceptual Cyberinfrastructure.” Digital Humanities Quarterly 5 (1). http://www.digitalhumanities.org/dhq/vol/5/1/000090/000090.html. ISSN: 1938-4122.
———. 2010. “The Landscape of Digital Humanities.” Digital Humanities Quarterly 4 (1). http://www.digitalhumanities.org/dhq/vol/4/1/000080/000080.html. ISSN: 1938-4122
About the Author
Kimon Keramidas is Assistant Director for the Digital Media Lab at the Bard Graduate Center where he is responsible for the development and implementation of digital media practices across academic programs. His research focuses on digital media through the lenses of political economy and sociology of culture, and he is currently working on a book project about contemporary corporate theatrical production and a gallery project on the materiality of computer interface design. Kimon received his PhD in Theatre from the CUNY Graduate Center where he also completed the CUNY Graduate Center’s Certificate in Interactive Technology and Pedagogy.
- Bard Graduate Center: Decorative Arts, Design History, Material Culture site, http://bgc.bard.edu. ↩
- Bard Graduate Center Digital Media Lab wiki, http://dml.wikis.bgc.bard.edu. ↩
- San Diego Supercomputer Center, “NSF Workshop on Cyberinfrastructure for the Social Sciences, 2005 — About”, January 5, 2006, http://web.archive.org/web/20060105171914/http://vis.sdsc.edu/sbe/. ↩
- Patrik Svensson, “From Optical Fiber To Conceptual Cyberinfrastructure,” Digital Humanities Quarterly 5, no. 1 (2011), http://www.digitalhumanities.org/dhq/vol/5/1/000090/000090.html. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Jef Raskin, The Humane Interface: New Directions for Designing Interactive Systems (Reading, Mass: Addison Wesley, 2000), xix. ↩
- Ibid., 6. ↩
- We have one Dell workstation to run Windows-only hardware and to provide a station for those people who feel most comfortable with a PC. ↩
- Peter Miller, Miller’s Peiresc Research, February 14, 2011, http://peiresc.wikis.bgc.bard.edu/. ↩
- Aaron Glass and Kimon Keramidas, “On the Relational Exhibit in Analog and Digital Media,” in Objects of Exchange: Social and Material Transformation on the Late Nineteenth-Century Northwest Coast: Selections from the American Museum of Natural History, ed. Aaron Glass (New York : Bard Graduate Center: Decorative Arts, Design History, Material Culture, 2011), 215-225. ↩
- Donald A. Norman, The Invisible Computer: Why Good Products Can Fail, the Personal Computer Is so Complex, and Information Appliances Are the Solution (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 1998), 40. ↩
- Mark Boyer et al., Visualizing Nineteenth-Century New York: A BGC-NYPL Digital Student Exhibit, n.d., http://resources-bgc.bard.edu/19thcNYC/. ↩
- At the BGC, students submit a qualifying paper as one of the requirements for the MA degree. This paper is approximately 25-35 pages in length and is developed out of a paper previously completed for a course. Most qualifying papers are still submitted as printed documents. ↩
- Caitlin Dover, “Making Connections: Visualizations of American Telephony, 1900–1949” (New York: Bard Graduate Center: Decorative Arts, Design History, Material Culture, 2012). ↩