Google Street View as time travel

I admit it–I’ve used Google Street View to revisit places I used to live, and it’s fun to see our cars still parked in the driveway or on the street.  The views will be updated eventually, of course, but I enjoy the feeling of being transported into the past when it’s presented by Google as if it’s the present.

Even more fun is when I happen onto a seam in the space-time fabric.  On Harrison Boulevard in Boise, for example, there’s a moment when the seasons suddenly change if you shift your view to the other side of the street:

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And at the corner of University and Capitol in Boise, taking one virtual step to the right jumps you back in time a few years, but it seems like a decade or more:

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Even better would be if Google made it possible to dive down through the different “layers” of its Street View drive-bys when they’re updated, instead of just overwriting the virtual landscape with the new images.  Google Earth already does have this capacity for some places, and third-party services like WhatWasThere and HistoryPin allow users to “pin” historical photos to specific locations on Google Maps.

What spatiotemporal quirks have you found in Street View?

“Big tent” technology

Let’s begin with a few U.S. maps published recently.

Here’s one, built at the National Day of Civic Hacking, of every public library branch (and a few bookmobiles) in the contiguous U.S.:

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And here’s a similar map of every museum in the lower 48:

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Note the dearth of such cultural institutions in large swaths of the western U.S.  Yes, some of that cultural hole can be attributed to less dense population patterns in the West, but it’s not as if there’s no one living in, working in, or visiting those areas.  Perhaps it’s not surprising that less dense, conservative states might not allocate sufficient funding to sustain cultural institutions. Indeed, even where museums do exist in the relatively sparsely populated Intermountain West and Great Basin, they are, with a few notable exceptions, not exactly distinguished institutions.

Even more significant is the giant western hole in the map of cities participating in the National Day of Civic Hacking:

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Now that I’ve spent three years in that region and have become familiar with its technological deficit—in terms of professional development but also of basic connectivity (in parts of Idaho, bears can take down the internet, and as recently as 2011, Idaho had the slowest internet speed in the nation)—I’m not surprised to see a complete lack of participation in the day of civic hacking.  Rather than advocating for public investment in educational and technological infrastructure—which might both make Idaho’s workforce more attractive to high tech companies and inspire individual Idahoans to launch start-ups and tech businesses—political “leaders” in Idaho are focusing on abolishing minimum wage laws and other government regulations that allegedly inhibit the growth of low-paying industries.

Let’s look beyond my current region, however. Imagine overlaying that civic hacking participation onto a map of the results of the last presidential election returns, especially one that represents results by county:

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It’s no wonder the Obama campaign was able to mobilize social media, big data, and related technologies so well in 2008 and 2012.  Republicans have taken notice, and cultural observers like Markos Moulitsas are pointing out that the Republican failure to take advantage of technology and data is less about “a lack of organization” than it is about “a lack of talent.”  Worse, as Moulitsas uses several examples to illustrate, when conservatives do engage with technology, they may be more likely to use it to close down access to information rather than open it up.

Big tent technology

As someone on the left side of the political spectrum, it would be easy for me to sit back, smirk, and enjoy watching conservatives’ lack of technological skill help to drive the Republican party into oblivion. Alas, this technological divide between red states and blue states has repercussions beyond who holds political office.  Of particular concern to me as a professor and a parent are career opportunities, particularly since my current state of residence appears to be putting more stock in attracting arms manufacturers and call centers than in cultivating a generation of civic-minded, technologically savvy workers.

I’ve said it here before, and I’m sure I’ll say it again: being a progressive means “big tent” thinking.  It means seeking justice and fairness and uplift for all people—even those who have political views I find repugnant. And so I’m saying those of us who have any tech savvy at all who live in red states need to help conservatives (and others) get their technological house in order.

Over the past 30 years, conservatives have ridden a wave of fundamentalist Christian indignation over demographic shifts and changing social mores. Accordingly, conservative political operatives have—at least in the public eye—invested more time and energy in developing rhetorical flourishes that manipulate feeling than they have in collecting, analyzing, and interpreting data. I’m not the first progressive to observe that conservatives are not interested in reliable evidence or carefully interpreting data. Both conservatives and liberals participate in social and mainstream media echo chambers that amplify and reinforce our beliefs, but in my experience, liberals are more likely to read widely, learning from a broad spectrum of voices in the humanities, social sciences, sciences, and arts.  That learning, I’ve observed, often includes a depth and breadth of knowledge about technology.

People from all over the political spectrum ought to be interested in hearing all voices, in having more conversations, in increasing the quality and quantity of civic discourse.  In the 21st century, that discourse involves a good deal of digital, networked technology.  We connect and communicate with it, and we wade into its ever-flowing streams of data, news, and information.  Again, in my experience (and as suggested by the maps above), those who identify with the political left are more likely to swim boldly into and try to make sense of—or even shape—these currents.

(It was at this point in my discussing this idea with her that a good friend pointed out I’m setting up a positivist narrative, one in which technological enlightenment leads to intellectual and political enlightenment of a group of people who can cling stubbornly to outdated ideals and dangerous cultural and economic practices. I don’t believe in technology as redemptive in and of itself, but I think in the case of Idaho and other conservative regions, a good dose of training in technological tools and languages–in the digital humanities–couldn’t hurt.)

In local practice

Let’s look at an example of this thinking in action.  Already my minor infusion of digital humanities practice into my classroom has revolutionized many students’ relationships with technology.  They write in their end-of-course reflections about how they had seen themselves as technophobic or technologically inept, and now they’re curious about digital tools and willing to experiment.  Of course, learning to use most apps doesn’t involve manipulating and visualizing data or writing code that can change the functionality of an app or website.  But my students’ growing confidence in their technical savvy has led them to  imagine developing apps–and in one assignment I had them write grant proposals to do so.  For some students, this app development plan took the form of investigating software development firms, but other students researched the ways they might build apps themselves.

And yes, at least half of my students from this past year consider themselves to be conservative, many of them profoundly.

How can we grow this kind of energy and curiosity, and teach these kind of tech skills more broadly?  Digital storytelling is a natural fit.  But I think we need to take the next step, too, and engage people who inhabit the vast unhacked spaces on the map in civic hacking, in the languages—rhetorical and computational—of the digital era.

If you have ideas on how to make this happen, especially face-to-face, and how to fund it, leave them in the comments.

(This post was inspired by a session I attended at AdaCamp San Francisco on resources for women new to coding.)


It’s not every day I learn from a local TV station’s website that my university has launched a new college:

Boise State University announced Monday that it is building a “business garden” in the form of a new college in the capital city in hopes of “growing” a better business community in Idaho.

President Bob Kustra made the announcement of BSU’s new Venture College Monday afternoon in front of business leaders and students who are hoping to be accepted.

The idea is to allow students an opportunity to compete for start-up funds for their business idea, and then have local business executives help them get that idea off that ground and into the market.

The goal is to launch a new business from a non-traditional college model.

You’d think the university administration might have mentioned this development to, you know, faculty.  And yet I spoke with a passel of humanities and social sciences faculty today, and no one had heard of it prior to this morning.

The website for the new “college” offers a little more information:

Venture College prepares students to launch businesses. This new, non-credit program is open to all full-time students in any major. Students who successfully complete the program receive the Boise State University Venture College Badge. […]

Is Venture College for you?  Led by business executives, Venture College offers students a customized education plan, individual coaching by experts, internships and invaluable experience to launch their own businesses or nonprofits. Be a part of like-minded, focused group of friends making a difference!

What will you receive? You will be eligible to compete for limited start-up funding.  You will get real world experience. Some students will actually launch their businesses while still students.  All will gain skills valuable to employers.

What’s the commitment? Venture College is a two-semester program. It’s flexible and self-paced, but you must be able to participate in a colloquium each Friday from noon to 2 p.m. Students should plan on about spending 10-15 hours a week on Venture College pursuits.

The leadership of Venture College—an entrepreneur, a former CEO, and a former venture capitalist—will, we are told, report to the VP of Research and Economic Development, who reports directly to the university’s president.  The college “has the highest level of university commitment.” Venture College is free to students enrolled full-time at Boise State.

I might not have the exact same objections to this new, erm, venture that some of my readers have. Indeed, I find parts of the “Why Venture College?” page quite persuasive, its use of buzzwords aside.  (I was surprised not to see “strategic dynamism” appear on that page.)

Other parts are not so persuasive, in part because much of the “why” page is vague, or it outright contradicts other efforts of the university:

  • “Boise State is. . .challenging traditional educational strategies and piloting new methods for superior, relevant education.” Then why is the college offering lecture capture and Blackboard to the rest of the university?
  • “Venture College will provide self-paced, on demand access to knowledge, intensive mentoring and an opportunity to compete for resources needed to start a business.”  Self-paced and on demand suggest the program will be largely online, aside from two-hour colloquia on Friday afternoons.  Who is developing and delivering the online content?  (I also am concerned that students who are working to put themselves through school or who have family to care for won’t be able to commit to 10-15 extracurricular hours each week for two semesters.  This seems like an opportunity only relatively young, unburdened, privileged students might be able to pursue.)
  • A badge is not, to put it mildly, a college.

I appreciate that the university is trying new models and is acknowledging, albeit indirectly, that there aren’t jobs in Idaho for many of our graduates—at least not well-paying ones, as Idaho has the highest percentage of minimum-wage workers of any state. (Three-quarters of the jobs created in Idaho last year were service-sector jobs, which are more likely than most to pay the minimum wage.)  Students do indeed need to develop what the university terms the “4 Cs” of 21st-century skills: communication, collaboration, critical thinking, and creativity.

My question is this: Doesn’t a liberal arts education promote the development of exactly these characteristics? I know I emphasize all four of these in my humanities classroom.  And I’m not just emphasizing these in an abstract way.  In fact, the assignment I handed out to my Master of Applied Historical Research (public history) students last night asks students to demonstrate they possess all these skills.  I’m asking students to write a proposal for the development of a mobile app that would be of use to public history professionals.  (You can download the assignment if you’re curious.)  Following this assignment, students will draft a grant application or—perhaps, I haven’t decided—create a slide-deck and pitch for venture capitalists or a foundation to fund the development of the app.

Undoubtedly this assignment will horrify some of you.  And it’s a far cry from the advice I heard at my first NCPH conference a few years ago that the introductory graduate course in public history should cover the basics of museum exhibition development, archival management, and historic preservation practice.  Museum stuff is close to my heart, so I do introduce current issues in the field, and I also provide students with an overview of challenges in historic preservation, but from there, my curriculum deviates sharply from the traditional seminar. If you view the syllabus for the course, you’ll see I have recommended Grantwriting for Dummies and I require students to read The $100 Startup because, regardless of whether they want to start their own consulting firms (and some students do indeed have that goal), students need to think creatively, resourcefully, and entrepreneurially, even if they’re employed by state agency or a nonprofit.

Why has my teaching and mentoring taken this turn? There aren’t many good jobs for public historians in Idaho; the best places to work are already populated by young, bright people who plan to stick around for a while, and many of the state’s museums and historical organizations are atrophying rather than moving forward; my first-year students already have figured out they don’t want to work for them.  My students want to be freelance grantwriters, historical consultants, documentary filmmakers, and museum technologists, and it’s my job to help them along on their individual journeys. Hence my interest in introducing them to MVPs rather than the MRM5.

Frankly, I also am not certain for how long I can tolerate living on a faculty salary that is lower than average, and I’m increasingly aware my spouse labors in a dying industry. Some might argue that traditional higher ed and tenure-line jobs are also going the way of hoop skirt makers. So I’ve spent the past several years studying entrepreneurship, keeping abreast of advances in technology, staying informed about developments in a couple of industries that interest me and in which I suspect I could consult successfully, and generally trying to be ready to “innovate” myself into an entirely new venture on very short notice. (Do I love my job and do I want tenure? Yes. Do I think my current career track is sustainable for the 25-30 years until my retirement? Nope!)

My main objection to Venture College, then, is that my university’s leadership doesn’t acknowledge, and perhaps doesn’t even realize, that faculty are already innovating, already teaching students to be innovative, creative, collaborative, and entrepreneurial—and not just through very “real-world” projects like the one I assigned, but through a carefully crafted combination of readings, viewings, discussions, activities, writing assignments, and presentations.  You know: a liberal arts education with an eye toward 21st-century ways of engaging with the world.


Just wanted to highlight a couple of things that have been keeping me busy.

First, there’s a post for the Western Museums Association blog on developing museum professionals in the Intermountain West.

Second, I’m soft-launching the Boise Wiki next week by giving a talk about it. I’ll post more about the wiki once I’ve figured out what I’m going to say at the presentation.  :)


Hey, look over there

I have a piece up at The Blue Review on Wikipedia,, and the gendering of digital public history.  Here’s an excerpt:

Engendering Online History

Wikipedia vs. Historianship at a crossroads

Businessweek reports that “genealogy ranks second only to porn as the most searched topic online.” It’s no wonder, then, that, which for a monthly fee lets anyone search and browse its more than 10 million digitized records of births, marriages, censuses, ships’ passenger lists and more has become a destination for anyone interested in trying her hand at historical research.  I say “her” intentionally, as the majority of users—typically around 65 percent—of genealogical sites are women. is the world’s most-trafficked genealogical site.

Wikipedia, the highly popular online encyclopedia, on the other hand, has a paltry percentage of women actively editing articles—just 8.5 percent by one measure. The sites allow for two different, and sometimes competing, versions of historical practice to emerge. In particular, Wikipedia’s community ethos, although it embraces collaboration and consensus, may actually discourage participation, especially by women—reflecting a problem that also exists in the historical profession.

Read more at The Blue Review.

Busy busy

Intellectual and vocational theme of the semester: Charismatic megafauna, literal and metaphorical 

I haven’t been writing much here, but I’ve been writing elsewhere, and I hope to soon have a few links to share to pieces in a couple of bloggish venues, as well as to a journal article.

So. . . how about an update on my work life instead? Despite my light teaching load this semester, I’m keeping occupied

  • resubmitting a large grant;
  • revising a traditional journal article on the woman who ran the San Diego Zoo for the second quarter of the twentieth century;
  • writing another journal article that’s in danger of becoming a manifesto on human rights museology;
  • thinking about maybe prepping for a local talk I’m giving next month on the Boise Wiki, a project built largely by students in a couple of my classes, but which I’ll launch into the public wilds soon;
  • overseeing a graduate student pulling together sources for Stories of Idaho, a new digital project that I’m supposed to launch in beta by June 1;
  • trying to make sense of those sources and create coherent content for the first Stories of Idaho module, about the history of wolf management in Idaho;
  • working with a WordPress developer on a plugin that lends a new(ish) kind of interactivity to Stories of Idaho;
  • collaborating with other faculty on a new digital humanities initiative;
  • trying to shepherd grad students through their first year, or through their Master’s projects;
  • reviewing applications from prospective grad students;
  • spending (yet also accruing, I think) some political capital on a university-wide issue of importance to me (compensating grad students);
  • and a bunch of other stuff–these bullets are just what’s keeping me active right now.

Burying the lede

There is a bit of good news, however—I’ve been granted a spring 2014 semester free of teaching and service responsibilities; I’ll be Boise State’s inaugural Digital Arts and Humanities Fellow.  I’ll be trying to make sense of the extensive but understudied medical/healthcare collections and share my findings in part through a section of Stories of Idaho.

A small Wikipedia discovery

I’ve spent much of the past several days working on my piece on and  (Many thanks to those of you who commented on my last post.)

I’ve been asked to target that article to an Idaho audience, which means I find myself searching Wikipedia and Ancestry for topics related to Idaho history.  Although I have learned quite a bit about Idaho in my two and a half years here, my knowledge is still patchy at best, so my discoveries have been hit and miss.  I find the draft littered with such phrases as “potato magnate” and other keywords I’d rather not share here as they would attract the wrong crowd.

Because I’m more interested in process than product on each of the sites, I’m exploring the sites’ user guides, Ancestry’s message boards, and the “History” and “Talk” pages for individual articles on Wikipedia.  I’m particularly enjoying the parade o’ semiliteracy that is the Aryan Nations talk page.  Especially pleasing is the Aryan Nations guys suggesting the Wikipedians call the FBI to confirm the true leadership of the hate group.  When the Aryan Nations guys are saying you need to use more reputable, government sources, well. . . there’s some kind of lesson in there.  I’m just not sure what it is.

Regardless, I may need to make their discussion required reading in my public history courses.


First thoughts: Wikipedia and

Since I had to take Lucas to school anyway this morning, I decided to stop by the office for some focused time, pneumonia be damned.  Unfortunately, 90 minutes into my productive e-mail session, Fang texted to warn me about the newly falling snow and to suggest I get on the roads sooner rather than later.

Fang clears snow from the car

 Every once in a while, I feel really bad for dragging Fang to Boise.  To be honest, this was not one of those moments.

The result was another day on the couch with the laptop, TV playing in the background.  Despite the distracted recuperation, I made some progress on a piece I promised to write.  It’s another reflection on how the public does history, in line with the chapter I wrote last year, only this time I’m looking at how the historical sausage gets made at Wikipedia and As you might imagine, I’m observing that each site’s process and product is inflected by gender. My research into women’s contributions to Wikipedia has uncovered a trove of misogynistic comments about how more extensive participation by women would ruin Wikipedia.  As much as they unsettle me, such sources also warm the cockles of my dark academic heart.

Mostly, I’m interested in how Wikipedians and Ancestry users (Ancestryans?) collaborate or come to consensus, how they perceive and use primary and secondary sources, and how they view and establish expertise within their respective digital communities.

Have you ever contributed to Wikipedia or Ancestry?  If so, I’d love to hear your thoughts on your experience.  If not, I’m curious as to why you haven’t participated on these sites, as they are incredibly popular in the U.S.  (Businessweek reports that “genealogy ranks second only to porn as the most searched topic online.”)

Being Strategic about Whatever Comes Next

(This is another über-post.  I’ve been feeling some bloggers’ block lately, and this is my attempt to just get The Big Issues out there so I can refocus.)

Since I came to Boise, I have thrived professionally.  (This isn’t to say that I’ve garnered major grants or become a publishing machine, but I’m establishing a strong foundation for whatever comes next.  My departmental mentoring committee has assured me that I’ve checked all the key boxes for tenure, though I still have two years left on that clock.)

I can attribute this phenomenon primarily to a few things:

  • A clean slate: I tend to do well with a fresh start; I step up to new challenges.  And switching disciplines (from cultural studies → history) while also starting out on the tenure track has been, well, both mind-boggling and fun.
  • Supportive colleagues: my department is ridiculously collegial. My colleagues are open to my crazy ideas and have encouraged an attitude I might describe as “entrepreneurial.”
  • A spouse who is, for too many reasons to list, the best possible dad to Lucas.
  • My (often naïve) fearlessness in speaking my mind, particularly when it comes to technology.  (Maybe more on this in a future blog post. . .)

I am grateful the stars have aligned in such a way.  I’m involved in all kinds of interesting collaborations and initiatives.  If everything continues as it is now, I’d be content to spend the rest of my career here.


(You knew there was a “but” coming, yes?)

The people I brought with me to Boise are, for reasons I won’t go into here but which aren’t of their own making, not thriving to the same extent I am.  It’s becoming ever clearer that it might be beneficial for us (all of us, not just Fang and Lucas) to be closer to family, which ideally means Southern California, where just about all my family lives in the same zip code, and where a pillar of Fang’s family also resides.

Am I actively searching for a job?  Did I even look at the academic job listings this fall? Have I applied for any jobs?  No.

Consider this post a me-putting-it-out-there-to-the-universe that within the next 5-7 years I might like to relocate.  I have some projects I want to finish, or at least see take on lives of their own, and Lucas has expressed a desire to move to California when he’s finished at his current school.  (Is this an announcement that I’m leaving Boise State? Not at all.  In fact, it’s unlikely I will, as no one in my department has left eagerly (retirees possibly excepted) in living memory.  Still, I’m open to change.)


I landed on the tenure track at a pivotal moment in higher education–by which I mean that I can see many universities, including my institution, beginning to pivot away from an instructional and academic model that interests me to one that decidedly doesn’t.  I feel compelled to stay long enough to discourage such pivoting–or, rather, to encourage the institution to pursue a smarter trajectory.

For example, there’s something chafing about being in a college of social sciences at a moment of where the larger university is emphasizing analytics. Suddenly we’re having to input all our faculty activities into a database that–because it’s called “Digital Measures”–I suspect has some kind of algorithm, programmed by the university, that spits out a quantitative assessment of faculty work.  As a humanist, this is problematic on a number of levels–first, as a junior faculty member doing unconventional work, my efforts are especially resistant to quantification.  I’m having a hell of a time fitting my work into any of the drop-down categories, and I don’t know how to handle the first/second/third author thing on conference panels where everyone contributes equally.  Second, and perhaps more obviously, I have a deep-seated philosophical resistance to such quantifying measures, a resistance that goes way beyond my own puzzling situation.

On the instructional side of this pivot, I’m skeptical, nay critical, of MOOCs—or of any online instructional model that assumes students should sit through lectures to learn content that can be tested using multiple-choice exams.  Universities seeking to scale the delivery of content are headed in the wrong direction; they should be looking instead to both broaden and deepen student participation in critical and creative thinking.  Massive courses, especially those driven by students’ content mastery, are not the way to cultivate an intelligent and engaged citizenry.

Which brings me to a related point. . .

Being a public historian in the academy is a sticky wicket

I have launched myself into a paradoxical career space.  I was hired as a public historian, although I wouldn’t necessarily have considered myself one of that species prior to my arrival here.  The further I explore public history theory and practice, the more I find myself emphasizing a vision of historical practice that pretty much goes against what typically happens in academic history, which suggests maybe the academy isn’t the best place for me, philosophically, though it certain is the best place for me temperamentally.  (Again, a subject for another post.)  In brief, I believe that we’re at a technological and cultural moment when it’s silly to continue teaching (in K-16) the same sweeping courses (the Pleistocene to 1877 survey, for example), and that it’s more important to teach students to be thoughtful citizens of the republic–by which I mean that we should be having students do considerably more primary source discovery and interpretation than I’ve seen in the classroom (here and elsewhere).  (I’ve heard a lot of lip service paid to such pedagogical practice, but have observed insufficient implementation.)

We should be emphasizing the necessity not of knowing history well, but of doing history well.  For me, “public history” comprises not merely history undertaken by professional historians for a public audience, but rather the ways the public undertakes and understands history.  With such a perspective, it’s kind of a no-brainer that I need to teach my students how to do history well–which means more that content mastery or writing a good essay in response to texts we have read in class.

I have colleagues (and readers, I’m certain) who believe doing history well means having a foundation in the facts (for example, the canonical history portrayed in U.S. history survey textbooks).  I have to ask: How’s that model been working out over the past century or so, in terms of the historical and scientific literacy of the American public?

I want to be part of an educational solution, and I’m not certain I can do that most effectively from within the undergraduate (or graduate) history classroom.

My own pivoting (or, too damn many paths before me)

One of my favorite career-finding books, and one I recommend regularly to my students, is Barbara Sher’s Refuse to Choose.  In it, she describes “scanners,” bright people who are simultaneously and/or serially interested in diverse and sometimes divergent subjects and careers.  She categorizes scanners according to their intellectual and behavioral patterns, then details the possibilities and pitfalls that accompany life as a scanner. As someone with an M.A. in writing poetry, a Ph.D. in cultural studies, a tenure-track position in a history department, and a professional background that is a crazy quilt of journalism, educational publishing, arts marketing, development communications, hands-on science learning, exhibition development, museum studies, academic technology, and higher ed pedagogy, I definitely identify with Sher’s taxonomy of scanners.  I see many paths available to me, as an academic, employee, or entrepreneur.

Instead of being excited, however, I feel stuck.  That’s largely because financially, moving to Boise was a mistake.  Not only did I take a big salary hit that wasn’t offset by a diminished cost of living, but Fang also had his hours cut and had to become an independent contractor instead of an employee, which means he both took a pay cut and has to pay self-employment taxes.  We’ve been dipping into our meager reserves more regularly than I’m comfortable admitting.  I’m very conscious, then, that my next move must be financially remunerative in a big way.

That stuckness also comes from being overcommitted (as academics are wont to be, but I’m perhaps more entangled in projects and programs than is considered normal in these parts).  It means I don’t have a lot of spare time to explore reasonable new paths.  I hereby declare 2013, then, as the Year of Letting Things Go.

Unfortunately, “letting things go” doesn’t mean just kicking back–in fact, at first it might mean kicking everything up a notch.  So, what might “letting things go” look like for me?

  • Relinquishing responsibility for or participation in projects and programs that aren’t benefiting significantly from my participation.
  • Saying no to most invitations to contribute or collaborate, even though that might mean not extending my network as broadly or deeply as I’d like.
  • Recommitting to, or doubling down on, projects to see them finished up or launched into other hands.  (I’m looking at you, Boise Wiki.)
  • Getting those various half-finished articles out the door.
  • Helping Fang get to a point in his in-progress and proposed projects so that he feels confident carrying them forward.
  • Handing off potential projects and collaborations to grad students to use as their Master’s theses or projects.
  • Hiring and mentoring interns to tackle things that would help them to develop key skills (e.g., writing for a public audience, archival research, technological savvy).

What are the benefits of letting things go by reinvesting in these projects before divesting myself of them?

  • Seeing my little projects and programs out thriving on their own will give me a sense of satisfaction and raise my profile locally and in the field.
  • Clearing brain space for more strategic thinking about with what kinds of projects and programs I become involved.
  • Allowing more time for my extracurricular writing, including blogging and those essays I’ve been wanting to write.
  • A small corps of undergraduate digital history interns tested and trained by me before they apply (as they tend to do) to our public history M.A.
  • I can focus on projects that, assuming I navigate the university’s sponsored projects and intellectual property officers correctly, might actually bring in a little additional income.

What about you, readers and friends?  What’s keeping you occupied these days, and what are your plans for moving forward, in 2013 and beyond?

Make students curators

This post is a contribution for Hack(ing) School(ing)


What would happen if we made students practice curation—actual curation?

I emphasize actual because “curation” has become a digital buzzword over the past couple years, but it’s been defined pretty consistently to mean not much more than finding, selecting, and sharing resources—mostly online content—with one’s readers. A common objective of this kind of curation, according to content marketing specialists, is to make yourself valuable to consumers who are too busy to find this material, synthesize it, and contextualize it in a way that is useful.

All too often, this kind of curation is driven more by marketing imperatives than intellectual engagement with one’s world and one’s audience. In this essay, then, I’m talking about another whole order of curation, what museum folk might consider “old school” curation. Really, though, I’m advocating bringing together old school curation with digital tools that allow for creation, contextualization, argument, and engagement.

Critical and creative thinking should be prioritized over remembering content


That students should learn to think for themselves may seem like a no-brainer to many readers, but if you look at the textbook packages put out by publishers, you’ll find that the texts and accompanying materials (for both teachers and students) assume students are expected to read and retain content—and then be tested on it.

Instead, between middle school (if not earlier) and college graduation, students should practice—if not master—how to question, critique, research, and construct an argument like an historian.

California’s history and social science content standards for public schools offer a list of “intellectual, reasoning, reflection, and research skills” high school students should develop in conjunction with their content knowledge (40-41). Here, paraphrased and consolidated, are several of those skills:

  • Students analyze how change happens, or fails to happen, over time, and understand that change affects technology, politics, values, and beliefs.
  • Students recognize the complexity, and sometimes indeterminacy, of historical cause and effect.
  • Students use maps and documents to interpret patterns of migration and immigration, environmental impacts, and the diffusion of ideas, technology, and goods.
  • Students connect events to physical and human characteristics of the landscape; analyze how people have altered landscapes; and consider the environmental policy implications of these characteristics and alterations.
  • Students evaluate historians’ arguments; identify bias and prejudice in historical interpretations; and evaluate major debates among historians, analyzing authors’ use of evidence.
  • Students collect, evaluate, and employ information from multiple sources; construct and test hypotheses; and make arguments in oral and written presentations.
  • Students understand past events and issues within the context of the past.

These standards emphasize critical and creative thinking.  They ask students to consider more than just documents, including maps and landscapes; draw on primary and secondary sources; investigate the validity of historians’ arguments; and even to question whether we can determine cause and effect. (Contrast these standards with the latest suggestion by Texas Republicans that the state ought to ban the teaching of critical thinking that “challenges [a] student’s fixed beliefs” in schools.)

We could have students develop many of these skills using pedagogy-as-usual: listening to lectures and reading textbooks, looking at a few primary sources, and writing essays. A few students will indeed develop the skills delineated in the California standards through this method. Many more will, if they go on to college, come to me as undergraduates to confess they have always hated history class because it is so boring.

Alternatively, we could have students engage with artifacts, historic sites, landscapes, photographs, memorials, paintings, political cartoons, and actual people, as well as with more traditional documents. We could have them select a topic or theme to research as a class, and then create an online exhibition featuring these objects, places, documents, and more.

It’s time to do away with content standards in favor of thinking standards


The California historical thinking standards I praised above are only a small part of the history and social science content standards. The state—like many—expects students to graduate from high school with a particular body of knowledge.  California’s standards document, which encompasses social studies and history from grades K through 12, weighs in at 61 pages, most of which outline specific events, legislation, political figures, and political or economy theories students must “describe,” “enumerate” (list!), “understand,” “analyze,” and “evaluate”—though in the standards the meaning of “analyze” and “evaluate” isn’t clear, as they’re used to describe a broad spectrum of tasks.  Here’s a single eighth-grade standard from California:

8.2  Students analyze the political principles underlying the U.S. Constitution and compare the enumerated and implied powers of the federal government.

1.  Discuss the significance of the Magna Carta, the English Bill of Rights, and the Mayflower Compact.

2.  Analyze the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution and the success of each in implementing the ideals of the Declaration of Independence.

3.  Evaluate the major debates that occurred during the development of the Constitution and their ultimate resolutions in such areas as shared power among institutions, divided state-federal power, slavery, the rights of individuals and states (later addressed by the addition of the Bill of Rights), and the status of American Indian nations under the commerce clause.

4.  Describe the political philosophy underpinning the Constitution as specified in the Federalist Papers (authored by James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay) and the role of such leaders as Madison, George Washington, Roger Sherman, Gouverneur Morris, and James Wilson in the writing and ratification of the Constitution.

5.  Understand the significance of Jefferson’s Statute for Religious Freedom as a forerunner of the First Amendment and the origins, purpose, and differing views of the founding fathers on the issue of the separation of church and state.

6.  Enumerate the powers of government set forth in the Constitution and the fundamental liberties ensured by the Bill of Rights.

7.  Describe the principles of federalism, dual sovereignty, separation of powers, checks and balances, the nature and purpose of majority rule, and the ways in which the American idea of constitutionalism preserves individual rights. (33-34)

As we learned (again) in 2010 when Texas revised its content standards, the construction of state standards can be, and often is, a highly politicized process informed less by sound pedagogy and expert testimony than by parents’ and community leaders’ desires to have their students learn and share their views.  (Though once again I’m singling out Texas, both ends of the political spectrum are guilty of this practice throughout the country.) Note, for example, that California’s State Board of Education nominates as founding fathers Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton, Jay, Sherman, Morris, and Wilson. Texas’s state board enumerates as founders “Benjamin Rush, John Hancock, John Jay, John Witherspoon, John Peter Muhlenberg, Charles Carroll, and Jonathan Trumbull Sr.,” and asks students to “explain their contributions” (§113.41.c.1.C).

I suspect most readers of this essay could make their own list of favored founders whose political theories should be on any student’s must-know list—and could make a reasonable argument for their inclusion. Yet even if we could agree on which founders students should know about, we wouldn’t come to any consensus on how they should be represented.  (Sally Hemings and Oney Judge, anyone?)  Furthermore, the depth and breadth of content knowledge called for by some states is astounding; as A Report on the State of History Education points out, state standards documents range from 3 to 580 pages (12).  (I’m rolling my eyes at you, Virginia.)

For grown-ups, the kerfuffle over founders is yet another object lesson in how history—and particularly history as it’s taught to K-12 students—is constructed by humans motivated by all kinds of passions and agendas. Yes, in the case of teaching about the early Republic, Americans might agree that students should study the debates surrounding the nation’s founding documents. Beyond that, we’re not going to get much consensus, and it makes sense not just to “study the controversy” over standards, but also to have students craft their own understanding of the past through engagement with a wide range of primary sources and with each other.

State boards of education need to acknowledge both the advantages and liabilities of establishing or subscribing to a canonical narrative of U.S. history or, worse, a pantheon of historical figures. Standards should call on students to develop skills more than to master specific content.

What if we shifted the standards’ primary emphasis from content, and not to just the development of traditional skills—basic knowledge recall, document interpretation, research, and essay-writing—but to the cultivation of skills that challenge students to make unconventional connections, skills that are essential for thriving in the 21st century? Such skills, according to the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, include, but aren’t limited to:

  • Learn and collaborate in multicultural and multilingual contexts
  • Practice thoughtful and effective civic engagement
  • Understand humans’ complex relationship with the natural world
  • Create, refine, analyze, evaluate, and share new and worthwhile ideas—while understanding the real-world limits on their widespread adoption
  • Demonstrate originality and inventiveness in work
  • View failure as an opportunity to learn
  • Analyze and understand complex systems
  • Identify and ask significant questions that lead to better solutions
  • Exercise flexibility; compromise
  • Assume shared responsibility for collaborative work
  • Evaluate information critically and competently
  • Manage the flow of information from a wide variety of sources
  • Understand the ethical and legal issues surrounding the access and use of information and technology
  • Examine how and why values and points of view are included or excluded
  • Understand and utilize the most appropriate media creation tools, characteristics, and conventions
  • Use digital technologies (computers, PDAs, media players, GPS, etc.)
  • Work effectively in a climate of ambiguity and changing priorities
  • Expand one’s own learning and opportunities to gain expertise and demonstrate initiative to advance skills toward a professional level
  • Reflect critically on past experiences in order to inform future progress
  • Set and meet goals, even in the face of obstacles and competing pressures
  • Leverage strengths of others to accomplish a common goal
  • Act responsibly with the interests of the local and global community in mind

Curation—again, old school curation—allows for these skills to emerge.  Because of declining museum funding, small and mid-sized history museums seem to be hiring fewer curators, instead collapsing curation into the functions of two very different departments: collections management (registration and conservation) and education (programming and exhibition development).  By learning the processes that constitute contemporary curation, then, students will need to consider how and why artifacts and ephemera are valued and preserved as well as how best to interpret such objects for audiences ranging from kindergarteners through senior citizens.  They’ll learn how museums prioritize collections, conservation, exhibition, and educational programming in an age of extremely limited budgets.  They’ll have to consider the perpetual triage of artifact conservation in the worlds of underfunded nonprofits and state agencies charged with cultural resource management.  They’ll have to reflect on how to contextualize sometimes controversial objects for diverse stakeholders and communities.

Again, I want to emphasize that curation—despite its popularity as a term among internet marketers and the digerati—is so much more than selection and sharing.  That doesn’t mean, however, that the digital sphere doesn’t offer marvelous opportunities for research, collaborative writing and editing, publication, and engagement.  There isn’t space here to enumerate all the tools available to students—suffice it to say they are legion and ever-changing.  Some examples include digital audio and video recorders, smartphones, tablet computers, laptops, blog platforms, database management software, spreadsheets, image and video editing suites, word processing software, digitized document repositories like the and, document sharing solutions like Dropbox, social networks that students can use to find and contact experts in any topic, and project management sites.

What specifically might students learn from crafting an online exhibit?  Let’s say, for example—as did my students this past semester*—they draw on the collections of a local museum and build an online exhibition in WordPress.

  • organizing a large research project
  • figuring out what questions they should ask
  • finding, analyzing, and evaluating sources—primary and secondary—on a subject that perhaps has not yet been adequately addressed by scholars or curators (or anyone else)
  • photography, perhaps in the limited light of a collections storage facility, and photo editing
  • ownership of objects and images of them, and securing permission to use them
  • the basics of artifact handling, treatment, research, and care
  • interviewing historians or oral history informants
  • interpreting a large and complex subject for a general audience
  • website planning and deployment
  • collaboration—editing, divvying up work, compromising, and more
  • evaluating the utility of mobile devices for group work and public history applications (Each of my students was loaned an iPad 2 for personal and class use for the semester.)

Training teachers for this new paradigm means new priorities within the history major


Just as teachers-in-training need to learn the best methods to teach content, they need to be taught how to encourage critical and creative thinking in their students.  Of necessity, then, I’ve been approaching my own teaching of the survey courses—required for future history teachers—with a lesser emphasis on dates, events, and individuals (about whom I remember and know very little from my own limited history education) and a greater emphasis on larger trends and the skills used by historians. My students are learning some content—instead of a textbook, I use a primary-source reader in which the sources are accompanied by commentary by historians—but they’re learning it as they perform analysis and synthesis, not before.

So, for example, I don’t have them read them about Puritan conceptions of salvation and then give them photos of headstones and ask them to explain how the headstones reinforce Puritan ideas.  I have them undertake Prownian analysis (description, deduction, speculation, research, and interpretive analysis) of children’s headstones and furniture (e.g,. a walking stool); perform close readings of children’s literature and Puritan poetry, letters, and sermons; and build an argument concerning Puritans’ beliefs about children’s salvation.  As they craft this argument, they must evaluate the usefulness of, as well as synthesize their findings from, these sources, along with earlier ones from the course.  The whole exercise is done in small groups, followed by discussion among the entire class.

In short, if we’re talking about Bloom’s taxonomy, I’m dragging my lower-division students immediately to analysis, synthesis, and evaluation, skipping over basic knowledge acquisition, comprehension, and application.  Furthermore, I’m modeling what I see as best practice in secondary teaching, even though I’m working with first- and second-year undergraduates.

To move beyond the era of content standards, we need to acknowledge—and convey to our teacher candidates—that one need not be an expert in a content area in order to teach it.  We already see this attitude in English classes, where the  literary canon has been in flux for some time. As an English teacher, I wouldn’t need to be an acknowledged expert on, or even a specialist in, Huckleberry Finn to teach it to junior high school students. Instead, I’d need to know how a novel works; I’d need to know how plot, characters, conflict, and other literary devices combine.  Knowing the history is necessary, too, but information about what was going on in the U.S. at the time Twain wrote his novel is only an internet search away.  I need not have learned it at some fixed point way back in tenth grade and filed it away until I required it in my own classroom teaching.

Similarly, as a history teacher, I don’t need to have committed to memory all the players in the nullification crisis of the late 1820s; instead, I need to have a basic grasp of the concept of states’ rights, access to primary sources, and the ability to ask thoughtful questions that connect the primary sources with states’ rights and related concepts. I hand the primary sources (including artifacts, of course) and questions to my students, and if I have taught the students well to examine primary sources, a lively conversation ensues. If students have questions I can’t answer, I ask them where they might research the answers to those questions themselves.

Training teacher candidates how to be curators of digital exhibits on any number of subjects reprioritizes investigation, close reading, analysis, interpretation, and engagement as key skills for a historian—and, I’d argue, for active twenty-first century citizenship.


We must proceed thoughtfully toward digital curation

We have digital tools at hand to effect these changes—and the tools are affordable and multitudinous. That doesn’t mean, however, I’m a cheerleader for the rapid deployment of ed tech-as-usual. As Audrey Watters has highlighted, educational technology is too often perceived by administrators and entrepreneurs as an efficient and low-cost means of content delivery. I’ve been profoundly disappointed in how digital learning has been conceptualized in both higher and K-12 education in my home state of Idaho and beyond, as I suspect it will contribute to declines in cultural literacy and critical thinking and deprofessionalize K-16 faculty in ways that will prove dangerous to civic life.

Teaching both teacher candidates and students the skills essential to curating an excellent digital exhibition—one that provokes as well as explains, and that invites feedback and interaction instead of being unidirectional—might help to reverse the trend toward McEdTech content delivery.

What are the next steps, then?

Teachers can consider whether they’ve put the content cart before the critical-thinking horse. Do their lessons go beyond knowledge acquisition and basic application, instead moving students quickly to higher-order thinking?  Are the lessons, assignments, and activities challenging?  Do they leave room for the teacher to learn something from the students, so that students can see the value of the knowledge they are creating?

Teachers also can work to overcome their own anxieties about not being an expert in whatever technology students will be using. Some teachers believe we need to be experts on any such technology; others of us believe we need to show students how to research their options, pick a software platform, and figure out how to complete their project using it.  I fall squarely into the latter camp.  While middle school students’ digital curation projects might need to be kickstarted with a list of appropriate technologies, high school students and undergraduates should be expected to research, evaluate, and deploy relevant technologies for their historical investigation and interpretation.

Museums can reach out to schools to let them know what artifact collections might be researched and photographed by students. Museum folks, this is a great way to get some of your artifacts interpreted for a much broader audience—particularly those objects that will likely never go on exhibit.

Ed tech entrepreneurs can work with teachers and students to design platforms that allow for critical and creative thinking to emerge from investigations of a broad spectrum of primary sources: architecture, landscape, artifacts, ephemera, audio and video recordings, photos, maps, art, and more.  Such software is going to be much more widely appealing and broadly adopted than publishers’ packages keyed to content standards that remain inconsistent from state to state.

Tech journalists can ask harder questions of anyone responsible for designing or adopting ed tech software platforms.  How is the software allowing for the development of twenty-first-century skills?  How is it inspiring lifelong learning?  In what ways does it allow investigation to proceed from a student’s personal interests, and to what extent does it allow students to reach dynamic conclusions based on a synthesis of new material and a student’s existing knowledge?

When, for their book The Presence of the Past: Popular Uses of History in American Life, Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen interviewed 1,500 Americans about their connections to the past and their uses of history, they found that Americans were not particularly interested in consuming traditional historical narratives.  Instead, Rosenzweig and Thelen write,

They preferred to make their own histories.  When they confronted historical accounts constructed by others, they sought to examine them critically and connect them to their own experiences or those of people close to them.  At the same time, they pointed out, historical presentations that did not give them credit for their critical abilities—commercialized histories on television or textbook-driven high school classes—failed to engage or influence them.  (179)

And, in the end, isn’t that what Americans at all points on the political spectrum ought to want—citizens who are curious and willing to engage with each other over the meaning of the past and its interpretation in the present, rather than those who can list the accomplishments of Benjamin Rush, John Peter Muhlenberg, and Jonathan Trumbull Sr.?  Curatorial skills allow for critical thinking, creative thought, and civic discourse to emerge.


* At the time of posting this essay on my blog, the exhibition site my students built is still under construction because I continue to work with students on additional content.  I expect it to be complete by the end of summer 2012.