3 things I learned at a liberal arts college

Thirty years ago I was nearing the end of my freshman year at a small liberal arts college. I often recall those days with fondness. An excitement for the future filled me. I have credited my undergraduate education for the person I have become (for better and worse). This evening I challenged myself to list the three most significant things I learned in college.

Immediately, I discarded knowledge of specific subjects. My memory for facts has never been good, though I do appreciate the extensive exposure to Western knowledge that the liberal arts provided me. That foundation has enriched my life immensely. Certainly this familiarity with the arts, history, literature, and the sciences should be one of the significant outcomes of a liberal arts education. But I’m seeking more structural forces that have factored into my life.

The first that comes to mind is that I learned how to write. (Of course,  someone out there will nitpick every flaw of this post.) I never planned on being an English major. Indeed, I struggled through most of those courses. And my interest in literature was never as strong as my love of history or current events. My freshman English teacher would call me into her office for much needed corrections on my grammar.  My notebooks from college are long gone, so I cannot easily reconstruct the amount or type of writing assignments. Yet, the quantity of essays required semester after semester provided intense practice in the skills of writing.

Writing is not just grammar but includes the critical thinking of peering through the layers of a text and then setting out a logical argument to form a finished composition. (I would only learn the real value of editing and revision much later.) Sewanee in the mid-1980s had a very writing intensive curriculum. Written essays also were emphasized in other disciplines. At times it seems like I had an essay due every week in one or the other of the five courses I took each semester. Practice may not make perfect, but it certainly improves one’s skills. But rarely do I remember the term papers. It’s the short and medium length essays that stand out, those assignments that called for either 500 words or 1,000-1,250 words. (In a sense, I learned to write blog postings before the medium existed.) All these writing assignments were reinforced by essay exams, which might be no more than an hour in class writing on one of three topics. It was the structure of the writing rather than the content that I have retained over the years. 

I already mentioned the second thing I learned, which falls under the often vague heading of critical thinking. Educators toss that term around as a desired learning outcome for just about anything, but often without specifying how to achieve it. I view critical thought as thinking beyond the surface to raise questions about why as much as how, especially when such questions are uncomfortable and challenge our beliefs and values.

The Sewanee English department of the 1980s focused on teaching a close reading of texts.  This heavy influence of New Criticism spread to the way I read works in other disciplines. It was only later, in graduate school and elsewhere, that I gained a real understanding of secondary literature. People often seem astounded when I remark that I never used a secondary source in any of the essays for my English courses. I can’t recall if secondary sources were forbidden but English professors certainly didn’t encourage undergrads to research the relevant scholarly literature. At that time, before the age of full-text databases and e-journals, access to a broad range of literary scholarship was limited. Perhaps lack of access necessitated the close reading assignments. But, when you must write a thousand words on a short story, then the result is that you really read that story.

The third thing: confidence in tackling challenging topics. A third-year foreign language requirement was the challenge for me, particularly since I was the odd student who never took a foreign language course in high school. So in my first semester of college I enrolled in Russian 101. That might have been idiotic of me to tackle the most challenging language taught there at the time. I ended up taking 8 courses in Russian. It’s a shame I’ve not made any use of it since graduating. But it’s there in the back of my mind, and I know I could essily brush up on the language and get back into Russian without a problem.

Yet, upon graduation with a superb liberal arts college I could not get a job. I recall a rejection letter from an employer that actually stated I had no skills. That was a bitter experience, particularly since 25% of my undergraduate education was financed through student loans and the payments were looming as I search for a job that was not in retail sales or some other barely above minimum wage position. After two years I was looking at the option of either the military or grad school.

My graduate school education as a librarian coincided with the popular emergence of the Internet. I had always considered myself a typical humanities person dragged kicking and screaming to the computer. It wasn’t an easy transition but I realized that I could develop marketable skills based on the Internet. I’ve had a good career as a librarian focused on Internet technologies. During a career change I even did well as a software developer despite never having taken a course in computer science.

It was those three things that I learned through the liberal arts that has enabled me to do so well with information technology, an area seemingly so far removed from the worlds of Faulkner and Tolstoy. 

TimelineJS & undergrad assignments

Timelines are popular among faculty as fairly simple to do assignments that start students down the path of understanding digital approaches to thinking about a subject. At Washington and Lee we have two timeline tools that we support. One is a locally developed timeline based on the open-source SIMILE Timeline. This is the simplest choice since a developer in the university’s IT division created a Web-based form that drives the data entry. However, the appearance of the published timeline still lacks some polish.

A slightly more advanced approach is the use of TimelineJS developed by the Knight Lab at Northwestern. TimelineJS offers a much richer visual display of the data. We have a tutorial on the use of TimelineJS on our DH website.

Timelines & DH Learning Outcomes

The goal of DH in undergraduate pedagogy is not about the students learning a specific tool. We want to show students how a tool or an information platform can aid in conceptualizing, interpreting, and analyzing research questions in the humanities. A timeline forces students to think about the organization and structure of information in ways that a short essay does not.

Preparing research for embedding in a timeline requires knowing how specific parts of that research maps to the areas displayed on a timeline. For example, TimelineJS has very specific fields like headline, text, and media caption that may not be entirely clear to a student until viewing example timelines. The SIMILE timeline uses different fields. At the core, though, students should understand that structured data provide the foundation for the visual display of information offered by the timeline.

Since TimelineJS is based on a Google spreadsheet, the tool forces students to organize each part of their research into categories. Students with good graphic design skills could certainly create static timelines in much nicer ways with Adobe Illustrator. However, the data in that case would not need to be structured. Either way, though, would present the student with opportunities for thinking about headlines, text, captions, etc.

The spreadsheet-oriented approach is a good time to introduce students to the concept that vast amounts of information can be organized into tables or fields. One can point out that such information structures form the basis for databases and digital tools.

While the process of writing a timeline is different than writing an essay, the student is required to compose explanatory prose for aspects of the timeline. The design of TimelineJS easily allows for 150-250 words or more on a single frame of the timeline. The challenge of writing small chunks of text for the Web is an essential communication skill that students need to master.

A timeline itself is unlikely to be an entire term project but makes for a suitable assignment that can be done either individually or in groups. Keep in mind that a TimelineJS needs to published on a web site that supports the embedding of iframes. That means a WordPress.com site, such as this blog, is not an option. Self-hosted WordPress sites can use TimelineJS, and there’s also a TimelineJS plugin for WP.

Update: Here’s an article I just posted on the university’s DH site about an undergrad British history class creating a timeline of the British Reformations in context.

Game Studies: Background on an academic debate

For much of the early 2000s I was very interested in Game Studies, partly due to a new fascination with my Xbox as well as a strong invovlement with digital media.  Recently I’ve started collaborating with a professor in the English department here at W&L on creating a game version of Milton’s Paradise Lost. Now I’m going back and updating my readings on game studies. But first I wanted to find a few readings suitable for upper-level English majors.

In approaching Game Studies from a literary perspective one should be careful not to get pulled into the perception that an academic debate exists regarding the role of narratology in how games work. Much of the fuel for this supposed conflict rises from an essay that characterizes the issue as a “divisive question” and even a potential “blood feud.” (Jenkins, Henry. “Game Design as Narrative Architecture” in Wardrip-Fruin, Noah, and Pat Harrigan. First Person: New Media as Story, Performance, and Game. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2004. 118-130.) Despite the contentious start, the essay by Jenkins is worth reading (a version exists online) and appears in an excellent series of monographs titled First Person: New Media as Story, Performance, and Game; Second Person: Role-playing and Story in Games and Playable Media; and Third Person: Authoring and Exploring Vast Narratives.

A trait of that series is that the essays often include responses by other scholars. These responses are in the print version of the book as well as online. Read the Jenkins essay then the responses by Markku Eskelinen and Jon McKenzie, and then the response by Jenkins. Note that Jenkins argues that his essay rose from conversations with game designers and not with academics studying games, which may not always be the same audience. Two useful essays place this discussion in context and attempt to put the matter to rest:

Frasca, Gonzalo. “Ludologists love stories, too: notes from a debate that never took place.” [PDF] DiGRA Conf. 2003. [DiGRA is the Digital Games Research Association conference.]

Murray, Janet H. “The last word on ludology v narratology in game studies.”DiGRA 2005 Conference: Changing views of worlds in play. 2005. (View the slides for that talk.)

These works use the term ludology, which is another way of describing Game Studies or  the academic study of games. Ludology is based on the Latin word ludus (game).

Okay, now that the ludology vs narratology issue is out of the way, we can move onto readings about game studies. A place to start is Jesper Juul’s “Games Telling Stories: A brief note on games and narratives“. The landmark book is Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature (1997) by Espen Aarseth.

Any examination of games and narratives is going to bring up a large set of articles and books by Marie-Laure Ryan, who has dozens of writings on narrative applied to a variety of aspects of digital media. A sample is “Fictional Worlds in the Digital Age” in A Companion to Digital Literary Studies.

In updating my readings I’ve been searching for scholarly articles written since 2010. In another post I’ll describe what I’ve found, but it’s raising the question: has game studies frizzled out as an academic discipline?

Quiet holidays with The English Patient

For years I spent the Thanksgiving holidays alone. Solitude always has been a great comfort for me, a form of re-energizing. Thanksgiving weekend 1996 stands out and I oddly comeback to it year after year.

I usually avoided telling people I was alone on Thanksgiving in order to avoid the awkward invitation to the festivities of other families. In 1996 I lived in Norfolk, Virginia. The weather was a cool, damp, gray autumn (or so I recall). That Wednesday night before Thanksgiving I wanted to go to the movies, which I did quite often in that stage of my life. A movie starting that night was The English Patient. I drove out to the Regal Cinema in the suburban city known as Virginia Beach. I always arrive almost anyplace far too early. I sat in the parking lot in my Honda Accord, waiting an appropriate amount of time, probably fifteen to twenty minutes, which is why I remember the weather that evening, though I could very well be confusing it with some other evening in the cinema parking lot.

A few years before when I lived in Knoxville I had read Ondaatje’s novel The English Patient, which I enjoyed immensely despite the complicated plot structure. Upon completing the novel I remarked to myself, “This book can never be filmed.” Obviously I was wrong. But I did not have high expectations for the movie. And it seems on that first night few people did.

In those years I regularly read a glossy movie magazine that highlighted current films. A special edition highlighted movies coming out during the holidays. The English Patient was given small mention but greater attention was given to another period piece starring Chris O’Donnell and Sandra Bullock. I recall the magazine touting that The English Patient had little chance competing at the box office against the O’Donnell/Bullock In Love and War. Perhaps that was a fair assertion, though it seems ludicrous in hindsight. But In Love and War was directed by the acclaimed Richard Attenborough, based on writings by Hemingway, and starred two popular names at the time.

It must be pointed out that I avoid reading reviews of a movie until after I’ve seen the film. Movie reviews just reveal too much. At the Regal Cinema that night, only a small auditorium was allotted to The English Patient, again another hint that large crowds were not expected. But the tiny theater was packed. And now whenever I see that movie again, as the opening credits play, followed by the tinkling sounds of the bottles, I find myself mentally transported back to that night. Almost three hours later I left the theater, having stayed seated through the final credits. I walked out to my car alone and drove back to my apartment in Norfolk.

I would go see that movie again before the weekend was over. During the Christmas holiday I went home to Tennessee and took my mother to see the movie at the old Belcourt theater in Nashville. Back in Virginia I would see the movie even more. I never watch a movie more than once on my own, but that fall and winter I went to see The English Patient at least a half-dozen times. Maybe I had fallen in love with Juliette Binoche.

A more personal turn

I keep wanting this blog to have a focus, but there are too many varied thoughts in my head. So I’m opening this blogging space up to myself, which is appropriate since I write as much for myself as for anyone. Actually, I write mostly for my daughter Mila so that she might find these posts someday and learn more about the ideas that excited me.

For those of you out there following along, I promise to, at least, mark my posts in relevant categories so that you can choose what to ignore.

My first friend

Earlier in the week I learned of the death of Van Perdue at the age of 51, a man from my hometown, a guy I’ve not seen in decades. Yet, he appears in so many of my early childhood memories. We lived around the corner from each other. Our parents were friends. As the case in a small Tennessee town our families knew each other, and their parents and grandparents.

I have a young daughter approaching her fourth birthday, which has caused me to think a lot about myself at that young age. Over the past year those memories have been much in my mind. Of course, the memories are just fragments. And there has been Van in those memories of when my family lived on Lee Street. After we moved to the other side of town when I was in the 2nd grade I lost touch with him since he was a few years ahead of me in school. But he was my first friend and will always be there in my mind.

Planning for DH in the liberal arts

One of the exicting areas I’m involved in at Washington & Lee is the digital humanities initiative. I recently co-authored a case study that describes the first two years of DH at this liberal arts college: Launching the Digital Humanities Movement at Washington and Lee University: A Case Study.

A lot of really great DH activities are in the pipeline here. I’m quite amazed at where this small liberal arts college is heading with DH over the next few years.

Talking to humanists about GIS

Mapping is forming a large part of our digital humanities initiative. Through an excellent in-house tool that layers over the Google Maps API we have students engaged in building thematically content rich maps. A course in Classics maps aspects of the ancient world. An English class pinpoints locations in London from contemporary novels that the students are reading. An art history class examines Rome during the high renaissance and realizes through overlays of historic maps that the Rome of that period was a desolate shell of the imperial Rome that existed hundreds of years prior.

We know maps as visual representations that identify locations in a geographic space. Mapping is easy to grasp. GIS is not. While an annotated Google Map that pulls data via an API from a Google Docs spreadsheet or another source is a rudimentary Geographic Information System, the automated task of enabling pin placement on a map merely scratches the surface of geospatial visualization in the huamnities.

Is GIS even the right term within the humanities? With its basis in the sciences and social sciences and the need for exact precision of data, GIS presents an intimidating learning curve before a potential user even realizes the possibilities of the software. And that’s the key: understanding the possibilities of thinking in terms of place, the spaces that comprise a location, the attributes distinguishing each spot, and the relationship among those elements as they consist in a neighborhood, a city, or a broader area.


A non-academic approach to writing

A wonderful essay in A List Apart titled Writing Is Thinking highlights the importance of understanding what you read.

Because writing—that first leap into taking your idea and making it a Thing People Read—isn’t really about wording. It’s about thinking. And if you can tell the difference between an article that knows what it’s about and one that exists purely to sell ad space, then you’re pretty good at that already.

Understanding what you read…That’s the core of information literacy. Pleasant surprise to reach the end of this article published in a Web design journal to see that it was written by someone with a background in librarianship.