Monthly Archives: November 2012

Clio Wired: Week 14 Reflection

What I thought of the readings:

This week’s readings introduced a new tool to the historical teaching/learning arsenal: games.  The topic of historical games ties in well with the readings from last week which dealt with teaching history in the classroom or elsewhere.  As a way to critically engage with historical learning, rather than simply memorizing and regurgitating names and dates, gaming offers a novel way for teachers/developers to get students/users to engage in critical thinking.  Of course, (although this wasn’t really addressed in the readings) the idea of video games as a teaching tool might rub some scholars and teachers the wrong way.  The stereotype associated with video games is that they involve hours of mindless droning in front of a computer or TV screen, during which valuable time exercising, reading, or interacting with IRL human beings is sacrificed.  While I can’t say I’ve been totally disabused of this stereotype through my own interactions with games, gamers, and this week’s readings, I will say that I can appreciate gaming as teaching/learning tool.

I really enjoyed the article about the game Pox and the City which was the recipient of an NEH grant.  The authors describe how they worked through various ideas for teaching players about medical history–specifically the disease smallpox.  It was useful to read about the authors’ debate between creating a game which recreates a real historical event (the discovery of the smallpox vaccine) or a fictional scenario based on historical research.  The game creators came to the conclusion that games work best when are they open ended; a game about a specific historical event would have a predetermined outcome and not many choices to make.  Instead, an immersive world in which users could act out various roles (doctor, ordinary citizen, and even disease) turned out to be be a much richer venue in which to experience the medical culture of the 19th century.

Although at first glance it would seem that students/players would only be able to learn a precise set of facts or concepts pre-loaded into the game, the fact that students have agency in experiencing the game-world could, according to the authors, lead students to novel ideas or theories about the past.  They would then be able to use primary sources provided by the game to support those ideas.  I think this seems like a great learning tool, though I also wonder how much guidance the game would offer in terms of learning to read primary sources carefully, a la Historical Thinking Matters.

Lastly, I liked how the article goes into the art and graphics for the game and how that would influence its message and teaching efficacy.  For example, they decided that a 3rd person perspective and stylized or cartoony graphics would allow for maximum immersion in the game environment and concepts.  This reminds me of our discussion in other weeks about how the design of a digital tool should actively contribute to its thesis.

James Paul Gee’s “Good Video Games and Good Learning” does not necessarily advocate using games as a teaching tool, but rather as a model for teaching in the classroom.  He points to a long list of factors that characterize video games, such as players’ sense of agency, customization of difficulty, and problems being ordered in a progressively more difficult way, that could improve teaching and learning.  I bought many of the parallels and the efficacy of implementing many of the concepts into teaching.  However, (and I realize this wasn’t in the scope of a short article) Gee did not really offer ways in which this could actually be accomplished.  I am wondering if any of you who have been teachers in former lives have any comments on this.

While most of the readings focused on video gaming, am I much more of a tabletop gamer myself (think Small World, Bohnanza, or Dominion, not Monopoly), so I was really looking for some insight into board games and learning.  I liked that that Jeremy Antley gave a shout-out to board gaming in Going Beyond the Textual in History and how he differentiated the modes of learning that take place in the two types of gaming.  Essentially, he says that while in video games the player constantly goes through periods of discovery about how the game works and how to proceed, in a board game, the rules and mechanics are all laid out and should be understood ahead of time.  Then, players can move “straight to analysis and interpretation.”

Because I was interested in reading more about tabletop games for teaching history, I searched Play the Past for articles about board games.  To my delight I found an article by Trevor Owens about a game called “The New Science.”  Owens interviews the game creator, Dirk Kneymeyer about the goals and mechanics of the game.  The game is about the scientific revolution, and players get to take on roles of various scientists from that era.  Each scientist has unique “powers,” which emphasize the differing personalities, skills, and beliefs of the historical figures.  Throughout the game you research, experiment, and either publish on a discovery or hoard your knowledge.  The player has to balance gaining “prestige” points for publishing or getting ahead by hoarding knowledge.  Players also have to deal with societal forces such as the the Church or the king.  Knemeyer is not a historian, but he has clearly put a lot of thought into creating an immersive theme which communicates interesting and educational information about the time period in question.  Knemeyer was able to get his game off the ground through donations from Kickstarter (yay crowdsourcing!), and it should be on sale to the public next month.  Sign me up!

Trying it out myself:

Browsing through Playing History to find a game to play, I was mostly looking for a time period that I would be interested in.  I finally decided upon the BBC game “Muck and Brass” which is about English towns during the Industrial Revolution.  The game isn’t really immersive in style; it doesn’t have many moving graphics or a world that you can explore.  Rather you click though a series of screens that ask you to make various decisions, such as whether to replace the sewage system in your town or try to improve the air quality.  The decisions you make either deplete or increase your town’s funds, represented by coins.  The decisions you make may also improve or fail to improve the lives of your townspeople, whose misfortune is represented in coffins (ew?).  The game is quite short, but I still think I got a bit of knowledge out of it.  For example, my attempts to clean up the sewage system improved the people’s lives, but when I tried to clean up the air the game told me that my progressive policies were before my time.  Improving the air met too much resistance from factory owners, so I spend tons of money, but the coffins piled up anyway. It would’ve been great if this game were a full-length, fully immersive game like Pox and City.  That way the player could truly experience the poor living conditions the townspeople faced during the Industrial Revolution.

Muck and Brass

The bodies pile up if you don’t improve the sewage system in “Muck and Brass.”

If I were to plan a historical learning game, I would create a multi-player scenario around the art market in the 17th century Netherlands.  Players could choose the roles of various historical painters, such as Vermeer, Rembrandt, or Jan Steen, and dealers such as Gerrit or Hendrick van Uylenburgh.  Each role would have different strengths and weaknesses.  For example, Vermeer works extremely slowly, but his paintings sell for a high price.  Steen works quickly, but is sometimes out of commission because he’s a drunk.  The points scheme would largely be money-based, with painters having to buy materials and sell their works to dealers, and dealers having to buy and sell paintings.  Both painters and dealers would have to contend with fluctuating costs of painting materials, the whims of the buying public, and disasters such as plague, harsh winters, or wars which tamp down commerce.  There would be an auction component to the game as well, using both Dutch and English auctioning structures, as historically appropriate.  The game would be year-based, so every so often, the end of the year would come and whoever couldn’t pay their debts or rent would be penalized.  There would be a finite amount of years in the whole game to limit the length of each game.

Pigments similar to those used in the 17th century.

Pigments similar to those used in the 17th century.

The game would have the benefit of teaching students about 17th century Dutch life in general, and about the unique open art market which existed in the Netherlands at that time (in countries like Italy, art was mostly commissioned by wealthy patrons or the Church).  They would learn about painting materials (all the pigments were hand ground and some colors were made of wildly expensive materials), the historical figures themselves, and about events and natural disasters that occurred at the time.  They would also learn about how to navigate different auction systems and how to balance their character’s budget.  It would also be nice to populate the game with really great images of the artist’s paintings, adding to the player’s art historical knowledge.


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Clio Wired: Week 13 Reflection

This week’s readings focus on innovative techniques for teaching history, emphasizing students’ (lack of) ability to critically evaluate primary and secondary sources.  Sam Wineburg’s piece “Thinking Like a Historian” sets the stage for the rest of the readings, exploring the reasons for that lack of interest and ability in performing historical study.  Often, this stems from prior emphasis on memorization of facts and dates rather than thinking.  Students can’t begin to imagine that doing history actually involves critical thinking, discovery, and uncertainty, because their only exposure to the field involves regurgitating bullet points.

Wineburg and Daisy Martin explore how the site Historical Thinking Matters guides students through modules on a certain event in history, while teaching them to critically interpret primary sources from various sides of the issue.  The site not only tells students about the importance of sourcing, contextualizing, close reading, using background knowledge, etc., it actually shows historians thinking out loud as they encounter a new document.  By showing rather than simply telling, the site allows students to understand how history is done.

When I went through the HTM module on the Scopes trial as part of the practicum, I felt that the site was very effective.  It definitely deepened my understanding of the various viewpoints involved in the trial.  I really liked how the first page of the module provided background for the event.  Then I was able to see an example of a historian working through a document, which I was then encouraged to do with the rest of the series of primary sources.  I liked that each primary source came with a brief introduction and questions which could be revealed after analyzing the source on your own.  I also liked how the overall question or thesis of the module asked the student to complicate or problematize the notion that the Scopes trial was simply a battle between creationists and evolutionists.  As the rest of the readings showed, one of the most difficult obstacles students face when learning history is understanding that ambiguity and uncertainty are often history’s results.  After spending years reading from what seem like authoritative textbooks, it is quite difficult for students to understand that history is not about find the answer.

Mills Kelly certainly brought innovative history teaching to a new level with his course “Lying About the Past.”  I was fascinated by Kelly’s description of his course and the fallout it caused in the scholarly community.  It was shocking that a course which was able to teach students real research skills and the highly important ability to detect unreliable sources would end up being so vilified.  Although the students did produce a few hoaxes online, they were careful to reveal the hoax fairly quickly; in fact, the public revelation of the hoax was a chance for those who hadn’t taken the course to sharpen their critical thinking skills by learning to question what they read on the internet (or anywhere else).  That Kelly was banned from Wikipedia and treated like a criminal by many in the scholarly community actually serves to prove his point about jumping to conclusions without weighing all of the facts of the situation. I think if the people attacking Kelly with such vitriol had actually understood his goals and the success of his students, they would have moderated their views.  It’s a shame that someone who took the lead in truly innovating history teaching ended up being pilloried rather than emulated or praised, especially in light of the difficulties of getting students truly involved in critical history work.

My lesson for this week’s practicum is inspired by the case studies in “Ways of Seeing: Evidence and Learning in the History Classroom”.  I particularly latched onto Jaffee’s, Felton’s, and Wies’s explorations of how students’ ability to analyze primary sources seems to evaporate when they are faced with images.  As an art historian, I found this particularly worrisome, but also not especially surprising, as historians often ignore their counterparts in the art history field (there, I said it!).  Why these professors did not consult with their colleagues in art history was puzzling, to be honest.  While it’s true that art historians often have the same issues when trying to get students to analyze artworks, clearly they have more ironed-out techniques for getting students to think about images.  Even the introductory chapter in the survey textbook Gardner’s Art through the Ages gives an overview of how students should be prompted to think about art, with questions like “how old is it?”, “what is its style?”, “what is its subject?”, “who made it?” and “who paid for it?”.  It also directs students to think about various types of evidence: documentary, visual, stylistic, physical.

I have never made a lesson plan before, but my idea centers around images of leadership and power.  I would split students into groups and assign each group an image of a leader chosen from various time periods.  Examples could include the Egyptian pharaoh Menkaure, the Roman emperor Augustus, Justinian, Louis XIV, Medici Pope Leo X, and George Washington.

I would give the students some background information on each leader and society.  I would then ask students to prepare a short PowerPoint or Prezi presentation, using the image as its main focus and using comparison images if necessary.  In the presentation they would have to answer how the image communicates the leader’s power, leadership style, type of government, etc.  The students would need to point to specific elements such as material, audience, style, location of the image (if known), accessories, dress, expression, other figures, etc.  They would also present further background information they had researched in order to substantiate their claims.  Further background might include textual primary sources or secondary sources.  The goal of the lesson would be to show how images of power are constructed, and would hopefully teach students to question the imagery they see in their everyday lives.


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Clio Wired: Week 12 Reflection

What I thought of the readings:

Being a wanna-be art historian and librarian, I was admittedly more interested in the open access (rather than open source) portion of the readings this week.  However, some of the same issues clearly come up in both realms–the questions of ownership of “intellectual property”, free knowledge exchange, the overreach of copyright or patents, and the role of for-profit companies in IP law, etc.

I enjoyed Lawrence Lessig’s Free Culture which argues that our once free culture is rapidly becoming a “permission culture.”  The exchange of ideas  which used to be part and parcel of the way we communicate, share, and generate culture is threatened by powerful companies whose commercial interests run counter to this model.  Lessig asserts that because this cultural exchange is now more public, recordable, and effortless due to the advent of the internet, companies have severely ramped up their efforts to  strengthen laws which protect so-called intellectual property. He points out that copyright trolls like Disney–by pushing for ever longer and more stringent copyright protection–not only affect their own proprietary works, but all works that fall under copyright legislation, in essence, affecting all cultural objects.  The original intent of copyright–to ensure that the creator could make a reasonable profit for a few years, and then, by design, open the work up for the public’s benefit–has essentially been thrashed by these companies.  Fair use, which is extremely ill-defined anyway, does not seem to be a sufficient defense.

Scary disclaimer about using a picture of M!ckey Mouse

Scary disclaimer about using a picture of M!ckey Mouse

Veering slightly (and delightfully) into hyperbole, Lessig compares the ever-more extremist copyright climate to the system of feudalism, in which a relatively small number of individuals or entities own all property, and which depends on maximum control and little freedom.  He implores government to resist the pull of large corporations and to preserve the tradition of free culture.  He advocates a “middle way” between “all rights reserved” and “no rights reserved” which gives creators freedom to distribute their works as they see fit.  Implied in Lessig’s title Free Culture is not just the adjective free as in “free speech, not free beer”, but also the verb “to free.”  Lessig wants us to unshackle our cultural objects and traditions.

Steering clear of the thorny territory of for-profit content, Elena Giglia and Peter Suber explore the meaning and implications of Open Access (OA) in the scholarly world. OA literature is “digital, online, free of charge, and free of most copyright and licensing restrictions.”  Importantly, however, OA does not give a free pass to plagiarism–in this model, the author is always credited for his or her work.  Suber (whose book is ironically not totally open as of yet), argues that OA is basically a no-brainer for the scholarly arena. He asserts that scholars are uniquely situated to benefit from open access, as their work model has never rested upon being paid for selling content; rather, they are paid a salary by universities or grant-funders to research, peer review, and publish in the normal course of their work.  Scholars benefit in their careers when their works have maximum impact and citations; the larger audience and heightened visibility facilitated by the OA model, then, greatly benefits them.

My one question about this model (which is perhaps answered in one of Suber’s chapters that is not currently open access), is whether this would affect the ability for researchers to use the highly effective search tools provided by databases.  If libraries no longer had to pay for access to journals through various databases, how would researchers comb through vast amounts of material without being able to search by keyword, subject, or any number of highly effective limiters?  How would they search many works at one time, rather than hunting through each title?  Even if every journal I ever wanted to read was freely open on the web, I know I wouldn’t want to be limited to Google or to painstakingly combing through tables of contents.  Perhaps someone would make a highly sophisticated (to a higher degree than GoogleScholar) search engine for scholarly research.

Although one would probably have to be an actual programmer to fully appreciate Karl Fogel’s book on avoiding failure in open source projects, I did appreciate his history of open source.  The anecdote about disenchanted open-sourcer Richard Stallman creating GNU’s General Public License (GPL) explicitly to stick it to the man was quite entertaining.  The GPL asserts that code may be copied or modified without restriction, and that both copies and derivative works must be distributed under the license with no additional restrictions.  This license provides protection for free software and disallows the “enemy”–propriety software–from benefiting from it.  I also appreciated Fogel’s exploration of the the evolution of the term open source from the formerly used “free software.”  Fogel explains that free is a tricky word in English, having no Romantic distinction between gratis and libre; programmers were always having to explain “think free as in freedom – think free speech, not free beer.”  More importantly, however, the term open source was easier to pitch to the corporate world, which didn’t associate it with free’s implication of theft, piracy, or not-for-profit.

Trying it out for myself

The Creative Commons licenses are flexible and relatively easy to implement, though I did have to Google how to attach one to my WordPress blog.  You can create a CC license similar to the GNU GPL, which allows only open access works to use your work, or simply block commercial users.  Importantly, you can also specify who and how to credit. The fact that CC creates a tidy block of code which is easy to copy and paste is convenient, and I of course enjoy the little emblem it creates as well.


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Clio Wired: Week 11 Reflection

This week’s readings on preservation of digital materials seem to speak more to the concerns of librarians and archivists than humanities scholars themselves.  They reminded me a lot of the discussions I had while studying for my master’s in library science, during which I also focused on archival work.  What really struck me during those studies, and from the readings this week, is the sheer amount and ephemeral quality of born-digital materials.  Despite that fact that we all mostly acknowledge the superior capabilities for creating data, projects, etc. in digital formats, it is also true that we have not come up with a better medium than paper for long term storage.  Not only does paper not need an appropriate “reader”, such as a CD-drive, floppy disc drive, VCR, etc., it is also highly stable in most cases, and is also still readable after sustaining some damage.  Moreover, preservation of paper is mostly passive (keeping it out of the way of water, fire, acid, etc.), while preservation of digital materials requires constant recopying to either of the same type of media (CDs begin to deteriorate after about 10-15 years) or to a completely new media (if we aren’t going to keep a museum’s worth of old readers, we need to eliminate data storage on old media-types).  This requires tons of human-power, funding, time, planning, etc.  Of course, paper isn’t a cure-all either, especially for born-digital projects.  Obviously, no one is going to print out every single one of their thousands of emails for posterity, and there are many digital works that aren’t simply text, so they cannot feasibly be stored in paper format.  In some ways, it feels like we’ve opened a Pandora’s box with the creation of such an overwhelming amount of born-digital material, but of course all we can do is adapt and try to intelligently create best practices as we go along.

The authors this week have obviously thought a great deal about these issues, but certainly don’t offer a cure-all for these problems; it is heartening, however, that they have offered plans for a way forward.  I especially like the goals or steps laid out by the The NINCH Guide to Good Practice in the Digital Representation and Management of Cultural Heritage Materials:

  • Identifying the data to be preserved
  • Adopting standards for file formats
  • Adopting standards for storage media
  • Storing data on and off site in environmentally secure locations
  • Migrating data
  • Refreshing data
  • Putting organizational policy and procedures in place

The ethical and technological issues raised by Matthew G. Kirschenbaum in “Digital Forensics and Born Digital Content in Cultural Heritage Collections” in terms of mining a donor or subject’s computer to find historically pertinent information shows that librarians, archivists, and scholars will not only need the technological capabilities to engage in this activity, but will also need to seriously consider the ramifications of having access  to data that may not have been intended for public view.  Of course, this is not necessarily a new problem; as we have seen in recent years with revelations about Thomas Jefferson’s dealings with slaves, for example, even manuscript or printed materials created during a person’s life do not necessarily leave the legacy he or she always intended.  Issues of provenance or authenticity when it comes to born-digital data also have a basis in the techniques and policies of dealing with physical media; however, while techniques such as materials analysis, handwriting analysis, etc. may not be applicable, chain of ownership, word-usage analysis, etc. will still be valuable tools in the arsenal.  In fact, text mining techniques that we have discussed in other weeks could be an increasingly valuable tool for analyzing and determining authenticity of bodies of writing.

As for concerns about terminology for collections of online scholarship or documents discussed by Kenneth M. Price in “Edition, Project, Database, Archive, Thematic Research Collection: What is in a Name?” and Kate Theimer in “The Problem with the Scholar as ‘Archivist,’ or is there a Problem,” and “Archives in Context and as Context,” I think it is both important to acknowledge the correct usage of terms, and also acknowledge that the nature of language is that words evolve and change meaning over time.  However, as a librarian, I also fully understand Theimer’s concern about the implicit disregard for her profession when using the term “archive” very loosely.  Librarians and archivists both have a lot of trouble communicating their worth and professional status to the outside world–even to scholars.  It would be ideal if the scholarly community banded together with librarians and archivists to express the worth of our collective field in the face of ever-increasing budget cuts and disparaging of the worth of cultural institutions and academia in society.


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