News | 28 March 2013

Modeling a 21st Century Humanities Center


UWHC-QuiltI am thinking through this blog post while sitting in the audience at UC Berkeley’s Critical Issues in Online Education  2-day conference. It is a gathering of edtech leaders, computer scientists and nervous professors. The humanities and our professors seem to pose a big problem for some of these thinkers, as they don’t know how to mass-produce the courses we teach, nor to they know how to streamline our assessment strategies. They say they can grade our papers with a machine but haven’t figured out how to give feedback. Phew—for now, I guess. The changes, though, are coming—and fast.  California public education recently made a huge partnership with Coursera, and we can expect to see the results of this soon.  I am excited about the innovative possibilities digital technology and online education can give the world of higher education.  But, I am thinking that there should be more humanists here (something Cathy Davidson has already articulated, and, something I’ve already re-blogged, but here  it is again, because I really think we all need to be passionate about what is happening in online ed, it is not going to go away) to talk through these issues in collaborative course design, digital technology, and learning outcomes. There are a few—in fact one of the organizers claims to be a literary critic and he’s already asked some good questions.

One word I keep hearing here is team, and it is often followed by collaboration.  And, since the scientists have already worked with industry, their conversations here are impressively convincing, utilizing business diction, speaking to efficiency, common core requirements, learning objectives—it is clear they’ve been working outside their own disciplines. It makes me think about the spaces occupied by the traditional professor of humanities: the office, the lecture hall, the library, the classroom. All with walls for privacy, for solitary thought. As Peter Norvig takes the stage for the keynote, I think about my friends that work for startups—in big rooms and warehouses configured for conversation, collaboration, problem solving, and sharing ideas.  As Norvig describes his vision for what he terms “courseware engineering” teams, I think that if we as professors and thinkers want to be a part of the conversation about online education, we are going to need to get out of those offices, and into a larger space to talk–to each other and also to people like Norvig, like Coursera, like Kahn Academy, etc.

The University of Washington’s Simpson Center for the Humanities has just announced plans to begin work on a space like this. They are calling it a Collaboration Space, and to me, the name is everything. We have seminar rooms, classrooms, maybe lounges or working spaces for faculty and graduate students. But a space born with the capacity for meeting and sharing ideas and a name that encourages such activity seems ripe to foster real collaboration in the humanities. Offices were dismantled for this space–walls literally torn down. The center’s website explains that the space will have furniture that is easy to move around, mobile whiteboards, and a LCD presentation screen. The space will be home to the Simpson Center’s new project, the Digital Humanities Commons—a fellowship opportunity for faculty and graduate students at UW that will put out its first call in Fall 2013 and have its first cohort of 8 fellows in the summer of 2014. This fellowship also encourages collaboration amongst humanities scholars, and it encourages collaboration between humanities scholars and technology experts, librarians and designers–not only via the space, but also in the form of a research stipend that can be used to pay these experts for their work on digital projects.

The Simpson Center’s logo of arrows pointing both inward and outward works as an apt description of what the center is poised to do with their programming. Their Public Scholarship Program is working to train graduate students in areas that put their excellent critical thinking, research, writing and organizational skills to work in areas outside of the traditional tenure track job. The program began in 2003 as the Institute on the Public Humanities for Doctoral Students. This program ran until 2008 with this format, taking around 20 doctoral students through week-long intensive training in “community based teaching, research and engagement.” The program was intended for graduate students considering what we now consider alternative academic tracks, and gave students training in negotiating the transition from graduate school. The next iteration of UW public humanities came in 2010 with the Certificate in Public Scholarship program. This version gives students a 15 unit course load, as well as a portfolio, portfolio advisor and a practicum project. Students and faculty who are interested in a wide range of alternative academic careers are given the training and experience outside of the classroom and library to confidently pursue these tracks. Theirprojects page outlines their many amazing initiatives, including the Women Who Rock Project, which is building a digital archive documenting the role of women in music and social justice movements.

The center has an impressive fundraising initiative as well, a recent story boasting that a massive 2.5 million dollars has been raised for their Digital Commons project. Raising 2.5 million raised in a recession, in a time when humanities courses and departments are facing massive cuts is impressive and a testament to what a driven, efficient, successful humanities center can accomplish. The Simpson Center’s priorities seem set to meet the demands of a changing institution, a changing doctoral student job market and shifting educational technologies. They are opening spaces and tracks for faculty and grad students to actively engage these issues and providing them with the resources to not only get involved in the debate, but hopefully contribute to how things change.