Monthly Archives: September 2012

#MOOCMOOCbar Google+ Hangout Notes & Thoughts

I love that we are still staying in touch and keeping the dialogue going after MOOCMOOC ended. I tweet with several people pretty regularly and have G-chatted with Rosemary several times. They Google+ hang outs — we have become known as the #MOOCMOOCbar– are the best though. We had our second one on Friday and here are some thoughts and notes that I wrote down (strangely, on actual paper). You can also see some other stuff from the hangout on this Google Doc. 


What is learning? Who defines it? Is it students/teachers/institutions?
Does what we “learn” versus what we “teach” matter?
There sometimes seems to be more concern for jumping hurdles than indulging in a learning atmosphere, why? Does this come from the institution, society’s use/value of education, or the students? Perhaps jumping hurdles is an important skill to learn?
Are we innately born as learners? Is learning a social construct? Can/are both true? How/why does this affect our methods?

What is the difference between critical thinking and skepticism? Can radical skepticism (conspiracy theorist types) also be considered as critical thinkers? Does too much skepticism cause everything to fall apart (e.g. the social trust of knowledge/veracity)? Is causing this trust to fall apart good or bad? What role does digital publishing, the internet, and easier access to information play in this?

There seems to be an epistemological shift with digital culture that the above questions sort of hint at. This leads to more questions about memory and the nature of knowledge as well as teaching and sharing knowledge. There are three or four different terms that are distinct but very interrelated: knowledge of; information; knowledge about; and content. The very etymology of “information” implies that it forms us and changes us. How does this happen? We need more research into these things from a variety of perspectives including the psychological, physiological, and, of course, the pedagogical — especially with the rise of digital culture. Here we have questions about the relativity and physicality of knowledge. Do we have more knowledge than people can can handle or process?

We got a little bit more in-depth on the question of “is knowledge physical.” We agreed that it is, both in spatial terms as far as books/texts/etc but also temporally. To a certain extent knowledge is “what we can remember at a certain time” more than what we can reference or research. Thus, knowledge is, to a large degree, relative (answering the question above). This is an important sort of pedagogical reminder, perhaps tests/quizzes/conversations are important for this reason because they show the internalizing and forming of the information/lessons/knowledge. This is why ultimately teaching methods really do matter. We sometimes need a guide or curator as we explore the vast expanses of information. This must be more than just posting a bunch of links or assigning texts. At the same time, we must return to our first questions about learning and recall that our choice of texts/links/lessons/content become a construct of our own. How/why we construct things is a part of our position and is imbued with power to a certain extent. Does the digital world change or alter this power? I think so, but I’m not sure how. This is something I’d like to explore in the future because I think it is at the heart of a lot of contention within various definitions of the word “open” in setting such at MOOCs and publishing.

Thinking of knowledge as a construct, I suggested that knowledge is a series of previous conversations — we call this historiography in history. I was taught in ed. school that we much activate prior knowledge in our students — somehow — for a lesson to connect/stick. These are essentially points of references within previous conversations. A good example of these is the Beloit College Mindset List, which tracks events/things that college freshman have either experienced or not experienced so we can better understand them. It’s usually pretty entertaining, but I think it matters. When you teach and talk about knowledge you need common thought points. It allows us as teachers to connect dots. In this way we can access and explain the series of previous conversations that lay the foundation for the present as well as answer larger epistemological questions. I think those previous conversations do matter (not everyone agrees). That’s why need to maintain knowledge and information about things even though those conversations might have ended or evolved. In some ways I see some similarity to “scaffolding” in the education literature and the previous conversations idea, but I don’t think it’s quite the same (I could be wrong and would enjoy more discussion here). Past conversations still form us and we share in their story. Thought points matter, they affect how we teach, who we are, and what we know, but at the same time just like knowledge itself, those thought points are also relative — particularly among generations. However, we must ask is the teacher a necessity in finding and connecting thought points?


I hope these notes make sense and don’t seem too confusing. They’re mostly questions. Based on them, it seems that in some places we may have spun circles around ideas/issues. We probably did (it’d be interesting to see a chart of our discussion). I admit there are no real conclusions or lessons here. Our hangout may have ended but the discussion has not. Feel free to add your thoughts/questions/reflections/links in the comments or to the linked Google doc above. Also, let me know if you want to join in the next Google+ hangout. I really enjoy these conversations because they challenge a lot of my own thoughts and make me think more critically about teaching and the digital world.

Labor Conflict Observations: Referees VS Teachers

It’s been really interesting to watch the two parallel labor conflicts going on right now. On one side we have the National Football League’s referees. A group of gentlemen who work roughly four to six hours per weekend for five months. According to ESPN, the average NFL refereer is paid $149,000. Referees are part-time employees in the NLF’s eyes and many do have other jobs. Compare that to the teachers who are striking in Chicago. Teachers have the summers off, we are frequently reminded, so they work about 10 months a year. According to Ezra Klein and the Washington Post,  the average salary of a Chicago teacher is between $56,720 and $74,839 (depending which side you ask).

The strikes are vastly different. Teachers, yanno, teach kids and prepare them for the future. While NFL referees enforce rules and do their best to guarantee fair-play for the United States’ most popular professional sport. The demands of both groups are interesting. The referees are seeking more league contributions for their retirement benefits and a bigger piece of the growing NFL revenue pie. While the Chicago teachers are also bargaining for better retirement benefits and compensation, one of their chief concerns is the new longer school day advocated by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel. It effectively adds 5 3/4 to 7 1/2 to teachers’ work week (depending if they are elementary or high school). So, by not giving them more money the city is actually cutting their pay.

Beyond this simple explanation, I’m not well-versed in the demands of the referees or the teachers. I admittedly pieced this together based on relatively limited research. The point I find more interesting here is the reactions both sides have been receiving from the general public, particularly on social media. Based on my unscientific and informal observations that last week or so, the referees are receiving much more attention that the teachers. Of course, the teachers strike is limited to just Chicago while the NFL referees have a nationwide audience. But while the amount of attention differs, so too does the support.

NFL fans HATE the replacement “scab” referees. They’re messing up the game and affecting the outcomes. They’re being bullied by veteran players. Fans worry about potential injuries to star players. They worry about their bets and playoff chances being affected by poor calls. While they are not directly offering support for the the unionized NFL officials, they are indirectly through their criticism of the replacements. What we have learned is the American public supports unions if their collective bargaining gets in the way of their sports bets, fantasy teams, and fanatic sports culture. We’ll back you as long as you keep things running smoothly.

When it comes to teachers’ unions, well Americans think they need to be fired and broken up. How dare they deprive kids of their education. I’ve seen several comments suggesting there are enough unemployed teachers that they could fire most of them and hire new ones. I do understand the concern for the children. Indeed, many states prevent teachers from striking for just this reason, but at the same time there is some hypocrisy in expecting the best education for children but refusing to pay for it.

What a world we live in. We demand the best officials possible for our sports teams but refuse to negotiate and budge when it comes to teachers for our children. Chuck Rybak responded to some of my observations about this issue on Twitter:

While he is right, in this particular instance the scapegoating and hatred is actually working in advantage of the unionized referees. I bet if the teachers were in the same position no one would second-guess or question the quality of their replacements.

Richard White’s Railroaded and Contingent History

I read Richard White’s Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America (2012) this summer (which means instead of gutting it, I read nearly every word). It’s a fantastic book that, at times, reads like a novel. White does a tremendous job of exploring the personalities and interactions between politicians, robber barons, reformers, and railroad workers. His breadth of research is on display as in one chapter he discusses the schemes of Leland Stanford and Collis Huntington with their “friends” and then offers an in-depth and personal character sketch of “A Railroad Life” that shows the plans in action through the lens of a railroad worker. These snapshots illustrate White’s extensive research. He condenses years of personal letters and journal entries into short 10-15 page sketches that recognize the agency of individuals, the sweeping influence of monolithic railroad companies, and unforgiving environmental conditions.

White’s central argument is that the railroads were as much a product of failure as they were success. He describes a world of corruption and greed that haphazardly built railroads as a way to fleece the government and accumulate wealth instead of meeting market demands. For him, the interesting story of the Gilded Age and railroad construction is the ineptness of politicians and railroad magnates. While they were given sweetheart deals, lavish land grants, and subsidies, they also experimented in insider trading and corporate money laundering that threatened their very existence. Through their failures, they managed to become more powerful by lobbying for even more subsidies, which put more of the U.S. economy in their hands. The book illustrates the ridiculous mismanagement and greed of the robber barons and explains how and why railroads in the U.S. West took the shape they did. He counters the traditional Gilded Age narratives of the competent businessman who rises to the top because of his acumen, asserting, “it was the triumph of the unfit, whose survival demanded the intervention of the state, which the corporations themselves corrupted” (509).

The book is fits a variety of history subfields including business, political, transnational, environmental, and the U.S. West. White shows that the transcontinental idea was not unique to the United States. Mexico and Canada also constructed their own lines often relied on funding schemes and faced problems similar to the United States. Likewise, robber barons crossed national boundaries in search of wealth and opportunity. He contends that railroads and railroad building shaped the North American West and played a significant role in (re)defining space and place by dictating both the cost of shipping and travel, and which cities became desirable destinations.

I realize my praise for White’s book is maybe a bit too effusive. The worst criticism I can offer is that the book is 500-plus pages, even though it is a quick read. The honest truth is I have a bit of a history crush on Richard White. He’s someone I aspire to emulate in my scholarship. I based one of the major themes of my master’s thesis on his concept of the “middle ground” and have always considered myself somewhat of a U.S. West historian. Railroaded is just the latest in his string of excellent scholarship on the American West, and I think it offers a lot of lessons on how to do history in the 21st century.

As I noted above, it crosses subfield boundaries and attempts to integrate a variety of approaches. White admits that he aspired to write more of a transnational and comparative history of railroads in the U.S., Mexico, and Canada at the outset, but the sources led him a different direction. This confession is important because emphasizes the role of sources in determining our outcome not our initial questions and goals. It is too easy, especially for us younger historians, to forget this and try to shove our metaphorically square sources into the round questions we are asking. Beyond this, much has been made of the immense time White spent researching the book: twelve years. As a reader this shows in important ways. The research packed into each of the “railroad life” sketches is tremendous. Each life helps move the narrative forward and balances the larger narrative about the robber barons with on-the-ground-stories of ordinary people. The juxtaposition of these lives teamed with the political and environmental conditions of the day provides a comprehensive view of the time period. And within that view, it becomes evident that nothing was predestined.

In his last few concluding pages, White makes a big deal about the idea the contingency of history. “Contingency –the idea that what happens in the world is often a result or the unexpected combination of quite particular circumstances– is the mark of history as a discipline…” he writes, “To say that choices are not limitless, that we always act within constraints imposed by the past, is not the same thing as saying there were, or are, no choices. A belief in contingency has as its corollary an obligation to imagine alternatives” (516). Of course, contingency is nothing new. The focus on rooting out teleological and Whiggish history is rabid among my graduate students peers in our historiography seminars.

The idea of imagining alternatives is one that I haven’t really thought much about. For White, however, this is part of avoiding Whiggish history. “Contingency,” he writes, “ demands hypotheticals about what might have happened. They are fictions, but necessary fictions. It is only by conceiving of alternative worlds that people in the past themselves imagined that we can begin to think historically, to escape the inevitability of the present, and get another perspective on issues that concern us still” (517). Thinking this way does several things for us as historians. First, its helps us isolate the significance of the events we are studying. By suggesting alternative outcomes we can isolate the impact of actions, decision, events, etc. Second, considering alternatives forces us to write a much more comprehensive history where we look more deeply into the larger debates, conditions, and contexts of events. By presenting various options we can better understand the motives and rationale for decisions, which might offer further insight into the priorities of individuals and/or cultures.

Considering alternatives and admitting that history is contingent requires us to take a step back as well as get inside of the head of our actors. To be sure, many of us already do this, at least partially. I often think about decisions and options from the perspective of my human actors. I’m uncertain, however, of how I would do it with non-human actors. It seems possible to do with institutions and organizations, but the environment seems trickier. This is why taking a step back is important. Environmental alternatives seem like they are easier to consider on a macro level. For example, let’s consider the Dust Bowl. We may start with the following question: would the Depression have been less severe without the Dust Bowl? Which then leads us to questions about if and how we could have prevented the Dust Bowl until we’ve constructed an alternative. This alternative then gives multiple perspectives to think about the history of the Dust Bowl and reduces our reliance on inevitability.

I admitted earlier that I haven’t thought too much about the idea of constructing alternatives, but that many of us historians do it naturally, at least at the individual level. Thinking about alternatives at all levels is important because it forces us to find each point of historical contingency. Crooked lines connect these points and texture our narratives with a lush understanding of the “what-ifs” of the past that make the reality more meaningful.

White ends his book with one last “what-if.”  What if the transcontinentals were never built, what would the American West be like, he wonders. He imagines a different world with fewer booms and busts, more land for Native Americans, and less environmental degradation and waste. There might be railroads, too. But he sees fewer of them that cost less and run more efficiently. This counterfactual hints at causation and connects the past to the conditions of the present. It is both a judgment and an eye-opener. He confirms that the railroads and robber barons played a significant role in shaping modern America, but suggests that it is in ways readers may not have previously considered.

Dream Research Project #1: A Jazz, Sports, and Urban History of Kansas City’s African American Community

I watched the short documentary above this evening. I love anything Kansas City and Negro Leagues related. Because it’s my hometown, I have an irrational love and passion for KC. I grew up hearing apocryphal  stories about it’s heyday. Many of them centered on the historic 18th and Vine neighborhood. The city was an African American cultural mecca, as the story goes, famous for its jazz, baseball, and barbeque. This clip alludes to these facts as well, yet I have never found a good historical study to back it up.

Scholars have observed Kansas City as an the important symbol of African American culture and community during the 1920s and 1930s. They often point to the city’s jazz and baseball history. Although reality was likely much different than the perceptions, for many the city served as center for black culture in the Midwest and gained a national reputation for its lively community situated around jazz and baseball. Yet there are relatively few scholarly books on KC. Two studies of note are Kevin Fox Gotham’s Race, Real Estate, and Uneven Development: The Kansas City Experience, 1900-2000 published in 2002 and Frank Diggs’ Kansas City Jazz: From Ragtime to Bebop–A History from 2006. Gotham’s book focuses more on the city as a whole and it’s reorientation via white-flight in the real-estate market, the Federal Housing Administration along with highway construction. Diggs’ study gets more at my interest area. He mentions baseball, but focuses primarily on jazz. There are a few others books on the Kansas City Monarch Negro Leagues team but they mostly focus on individual players or games instead of the team’s connection to Black culture and the city.

In the back of my mind, I’ve always wanted to connect these themes. I’ve envisioned an urban, cultural history of African Americans that focuses on jazz and baseball in KC, but links it to other cities too. Something similar to Lewis Erenberg’s Steppin’ Out that also invokes Delores Hayden’s the Power of Place and has a public (and digital) history component. A book that provides a glimpse of what the thriving neighborhood was like and anchors it to the city as well as the region and the nation. I’ve always been curious about how and why Kansas City became an African American center for jazz and baseball, and what led to its demise. Too often it’s assumed that it was the integration of Major League Baseball, but I’m not convinced that was the sole reason. Were there other political factors, migratory trends, jobs issues? Or maybe World World II played an important role. I’m positive there is are a lot more to the story.

As a fourth generation Kansas Citian, I’ve heard bits and pieces. My Grandmother was born in 1923 in KC and her father, who was a doctor, lived in there long before that. My grandfather was also born and raised in KC. and his Dad owned a grocery store on the Kansas side. I’ve deep roots in the community, but they never shared their knowledge of the cities racial and urban history. And perhaps, as middle class white, they simply didn’t know much of it. They moved around from 1940-1960 as a Navy couple and missed a lot of the period I’m interested in.

Growing up in KC the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum and the American Jazz Museum were the best sources of information. They opened in the mid-1990s and are helping to share much of this story. The historic 18th and Vine district is trying to help too. Buck O’Neil spent the last two-decades of his life at the NLBM sharing his memories. The old Paseo YMCA, where the Negro Leagues were founded, is also in the process of being renovated and preserved. It will join the NLBM as a site for research, cultural preservation, and a community center. I’d like to see more done, however. I’ve written in other places about the potential for cultural heritage tourism that could make the area a real tourist destination. Public historians have increasingly become more interested in these types of projects. Cities are interested in them too for their economic impact. Studies have shown that cultural heritage travelers stay longer and spend more money than other kinds of travelers.

For me, such a project would be a fun opportunity to blend all of my academic interest: sports, race, public history, and digital scholarship. I’m not sure why I haven’t considered it more seriously for a potential dissertation project. It’s something that I’m passionate about, I have family in the area so going to KC to do research would be a easy, and would make me very marketable when looking for jobs. Of course, there are some drawbacks. It’s a complete 180 from my previous work on Native Americans, the Olympics, and football. While I do know a fair amount about the Negro Leagues, it’d take me a bit to get caught up. Likewise, though I’ve read a lot of the public and urban history literature most of that is from a later era, and I feel like I’m a ways behind on the African American component too.

Perhaps someday in the future I can shift that direction. As a KC native, I’d love to see Kansas City leaders combine their existing resources and sites with new research to build a thriving heritage area. Few Kansas Citians venture to the east side of downtown so such a project would revitalize that area and connect it to the rest of the city while emphasizing its remarkable history. Success hinges on strong leaderships and the willingness of researchers, museums, politicians, and community leaders to work together.

This morning I came across this and thought it would be worthwhile to share it. I’m definitely going to explore the readings on this list.

Rebecca Frost Davis

I often field questions about what to read to get to know digital humanities, e.g., for introductory workshops, from faculty members who’ve heard about it but don’t know what it is, from campuses who think they need to do something about it.  Here’s the list I sent off in response to the most recent query:

General Introduction to what is digital humanities:

You might also have those interested watch any of these videos:

For those who want to get a sense…

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