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Online publishing and pedagogy: some thoughts from working on NAVSA’s COVE

I have been working on various parts of NAVSA‘s Central Online Victorian Educator (COVE) for six months now, and I thought it would be a good time to reflect on the experience, as well as on how COVE might serve educators in the future.



Are programming languages languages? A question about digital humanities CVs

It’s that time of year, and I’ve been refreshing my academic CV to see how it’s taking shape. Although I’m a part-time PhDder and work full-time in another industry, I try to be as active as I can in academic endeavours, so there’s plenty of updates and tweaks to be made.

Taking a look at some colleagues’ CVs for tips and hints on structure, etc., it began to strike me that those of us who are interested in digital humanities face a challenge: where do our programming skills belong?

Sometimes, it’s easy. There is a role or project that involved particular development work. But increasingly people put HTML, or CSS, or Java alongside French or Japanese, with a “fluent” beside them (I’ve yet to see anyone using an ILR or CEFR scale marking, though). The first time I saw this I smiled a little smile to myself. Well, we’ve got to try to get these things on the CV somehow. But after a while, I started to wonder: when we say this, do we mean it? As a literary scholar, I have strong feelings about the fact that words mean things. And as a spouse of a professional developer, I feel sceptical.

What does it mean when we say we are “fluent” in a programming language? Is coding ever so smooth, graceful and effortless as speaking or writing in a ‘natural’ language? Do we ever code easily and accurately in the same way as we might speak our mother tongue?

The rate of bugs or errors in your average professional code—the type produced by developers at Apple or Google—is about 1 every 10 lines. If one were to have a typo or lexical error in every 10 sentences of written work, one’s supervisor would raise a red flag!

Now, perhaps we may quibble about whether a line of code is equivalent to a sentence (or, indeed, the comparison to a mother tongue), but I think the point stands. The rate of error is much higher in professional “fluent” code than in academic written prose.

Similarly, professional coders do not for the most part store the whole or majority of the language intuitively in their brain in the same way as one’s mother tongue. The reliance on coding reference materials, such as Stack Overflow, is higher than the reliance on linguistic ones, such as dictionaries. Tales of developers finding a perfect and helpful answer on such repositories, only to discover that they themselves submitted it years before, are legion. What would be the equivalent in terms of a ‘natural language’? Stumbling across the idea of using consonance to convey a certain effect, having forgotten that it existed?

All in all, reading “fluent in HTML” on an academic CV strikes me as a category mistake. And it makes me wonder about their French, too…

Running with apps, Mark II

I wrote about running with apps before, when I was still fairly new to running. I’ve also written about the Apple Watch, which has been my companion day-in, day-out since I bought it when it was first released. Yesterday, I had a painful experience with both that left me wondering whether health and training apps, and the gamification of fitness, might have gotten a little bit out of control, at least for me.

I took my iPhone in to have its screen replaced, and aside from hideous customer service (a given at Apple’s Covent Garden store, it seems), the staff were oblivious to the implications of the phone running the iOS beta. The upshot was that, once repaired, the iPhone was running an old iOS and couldn’t restore from my iCloud back-ups. I was left with my iPhone as it was 8 months ago. Eventually, I managed to figure out how to fix this snafu, which the Apple “Geniuses” had mentioned nothing about, but not before I’d almost given up hope and reset my Apple Watch in order to re-pair it.

This meant two things: first, my Apple Watch’s log of my day’s activity was completely wiped; second, the new training app that I’m experimenting with, Fjuul, had logged my morning run (along with Strava) but had completely lost all summary of activity throughout the day. This month I was trying for the first time to achieve Apple’s month-of-activity achievement, and I had just started trying to calibrate Fjuul to my fitness level so that I could use the training function properly, which includes recovery advice and evaluations of the training effect of particular workouts. So aside from the inconvenience and hours lost trying to restore my phone, I really felt as though I had lost some things that were simply irrecoverable.

I felt ridiculous even in the moment when I was feeling furious and frustrated, but I feel even sillier this morning. The health and fitness benefits of the active day I had yesterday, running (if only a little) and wandering around London, weren’t wiped out along with the Watch’s data. I’m not that closely paired with it! One day lost isn’t too much of a delay in training Fjuul to understand my fitness level, and next month will be another month that I can try to reach Apple’s arbitrary achievement. But it was oh-so-easy to lose perspective and feel that the data, the achievements, were the thing that mattered most.

If a run goes unlogged, did it happen at all? If I can’t prove the day’s activity to Apple or Fjuul, did it happen at all?

I think it might be time to start running without my phone now and again….

Teaching without a class


Yesterday, Amazon announced its steps into the online education market with Amazon Inspire. The growing expansion of online education, from the early days of VLEs to MOOCs in all disciplines and languages, has me thinking a lot about teaching and how it is increasingly escaping the physical classroom.

As a PhD student, ordinarily I would be expected to undertake some teaching, in particular if I aim to enter academia after I earn my PhD. As a part-time, long-distance student with a full-time job, however, the reality is that regular teaching isn’t possible, even if my institution’s admin team were working proactively to try to make it happen for students in my situation (spoiler alert: they’re not).

Being a sometime MOOC fan, and now working with Dino Felluga and his team on BRANCH (Britain, Representation, and Nineteenth-Century History), I’ve been thinking about how digital media might make it possible to teach outside the traditional classroom.

Ordinarily, we think of online academic provision from a learner’s perspective: how well are their needs met, how robust is the learning and examining process, how does such an education compare with traditional university experiences? However, what if we diverge for a moment from models of academic provision that remain centred on traditional institutions?

MOOCs mostly follow traditional course structures with weekly homework, readings complemented by video lectures, often delivered with PowerPoint, and forums to replace office hours, where teaching assistants answer queries. Coursera restricts itself to organisational “partners”—for-profits, universities, not-for-profits, etc.—and edX does the same. That means that, for teachers, MOOCs do not remove barriers but reinforce the priority of academic institutions over the individual educators that make them up.  Academics, particularly PhD students and ECRs often talk about blogging, online-only journals, etc., as a way to get our scholarship out there, but what about the opportunities for getting our pedagogy out there too? The articles on BRANCH, for instance, are certainly educative, but they are scholarship, not pedagogy. 

Lots of lecture courses from traditional universities make their way onto YouTube or Udemy as platforms, but it seems that the possibility for cross-fertilisation of ideas—between students, students and lecturer, etc—is limited. Such platforms are “stuck on transmit”. TED Talks, although maligned, feels less staid, but the form is much the same from an online perspective (the live experience may be different). Discussion forums underneath videos are not much different to comments under news article, and we all know what’s said about those.

Teaching online is an increasingly prevalent mode of educating that merits PhD students’ and ECRs’ attention. What is expected of us now as teachers, especially in cases where traditional teaching opportunities might be closed to us because of the changing HE landscape? I don’t have an answer to this, but I do have some more questions:

What are some of the ways that you have seen effective teaching being done outside traditional environments, in particular online? What sort of distinction is there now between online scholarship and online pedagogy? Is the act of making scholarship freely available and accessible—to those who can engage with it—an act of pedagogy? Are attempts at online pedagogy—particularly those that are fairly low-engagement for the teacher, as MOOCs often are—inevitably less effective than classroom-based teaching? Will moves towards more online or open-access teaching detached from ‘real’ (classroom) teaching only exacerbate an attitude in academia of treating PhDs and ECRs as contingent labourers by replacing more of our traditional work? Would promoting one’s ability to teach through, for example, one-off Prezis/YouTube videos or Udemy courses actually be counterproductive for a job candidate?


When tech companies can do good in the world

‘How it Works’, #385 from the brilliant XKCD.com

Tech companies are renowned for eyes-bigger-than-their-belly mission statements. Facebook, no exception, has the mission: “to give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected” (taken from the Investor Relations FAQ section, or you can go to their oddly meta Facebook page…)

I’ve never been quite sure about whether Facebook was doing good with this mission. In the main, it has meant Facebook pushing at the norms of ‘sharing’, seeking to transform sharing — our thoughts, our information, our data, our time — into a default mode of behaviour online. (For more, see my review of José Van Dijck’s Culture of Connectivity).

However, sometimes, making the world more open and connected means working to change norms that really do need to be changed. A few weeks ago, Facebook  made public some of its training videos about an issue that affects everyone’s daily experience and makes some of us less equal than others: unconscious bias. For Facebook, propelled in no small part by Sheryl Sandberg, making the world more open and connected is supported by a subsidiary mission: “building stronger, more diverse and inclusive organisations”. Facebook has always been bold about being the change it wants to see in the world, and often that can come at the expense of individual users, with data being exploited, users tracked wherever they are online, etc. But, in this instance, Facebook is actually trying to do an unequivocally good thing. Let’s suspend speculation about precisely why and take them at their word when they say their goal is “to achieve broader recognition of hidden biases” and offer a “framework for action” by all organisations. 

Tech in general is rightly criticised for drawing the bulk of its staff from certain groups: mainly male, mainly Caucasian or Asian. #ILookLikeAnEngineer, arising out of sexist commentary about software engineer Isis Wenger’s (@IsisAnchalee) appearance in ads for her firm, demonstrates perfectly just how far we still have to come, not only in tech but in society generally. Consequently, Facebook is not the only company looking to tackle this issue. Google has also been striving to tackle unconscious bias in a public way with anti-bias workshops and coaching sessions, as it has repeatedly been called out about its biases, including in the seemingly innocuous Google Doodles: Spark Summit did an interesting report last year about the rate at which Doodles honour white men. Google Ventures even positions itself as leading the research in this field; this is rather cheeky, given that unconscious bias has been studied academically for decades…. It will be very interesting to see whether Alphabet manages to do better at being more diverse and representative across all levels of the organisation(s), at any rate.
Although tech companies might not be breaking new ground, then, they are opening up the issue, popularising initiatives that tackle unconscious bias at organisational level, and making more readily available resources that can help educate and inform everyone. It’s also an interesting corrective to the increasingly pervasive sentiment that being mindful about everything is all we need to make improvements. David Sze at HuffPo wrote recently about the limits of what introspection can achieve. Research challenges our self-images, suggesting that we are poor judges of the sum of our behaviours, and how to correct flawed patterns of thought or behaviour.

As well as large tech firms trying to lead the way in airing these issues, there are start-ups expressly designed to act as correctives. Textio, for example, promises software that will spot gender biases in job adverts. This is an area that lends itself well to the start-up culture because the landscape is constantly changing. As certain biases are exposed — such as male candidates being more likely to apply for a job that requires a “proven track record” — others will take their place. A constant cycle of close observation and innovation are needed, and this is where re-inventive tech companies and new start-ups can offer most hope for keeping up with and tackling new problems. 

For those interested in exploring their own unconscious biases, it’s worth taking a look at Project Implicit, which is a Harvard project founded in 1998 that studies unconscious bias and offers a range of implicit association tests. The tests are completely free online and seek to measure attitudes and beliefs that one wouldn’t consciously express.

Library of Babel: a Borgesian black comedy made real

Borges’ short story ‘The Library of Babel’ was one of my favourite pieces from my sophomore lit-crit tutorial, so I’m weirdly excited by the fact that someone has now devised a website that can make it a “reality”. Programmer and author, Jonathan Basile was stirred by the resonance between Borges’ description and the capabilities of modern technology and surprised to find the code not already written, so he set out to produce a digital version of the library, which re-mediates Borges’ library. Once an imagined place whose literary content could only be inferred by an imaginative reader, it is transformed into an online on-demand production of literary content abstracted from the physical sense of a library. 

On the home page, as soon as one hovers over a link, the ‘counter’ of letters begins to whirr, rendering the word one had chosen quickly gibberish, but also exactly the same (because the ‘About’ page will be the end result of a link, even when the link text itself has been transformed into ‘Abqkj’). The changing digital text oddly offers a more fixed link between the symbolic and the real than the printed text of a short story’s page might.

The LibraryofBabel.info ‘About’ page notes that the site does not, in fact, “contain” the full Library of Babel, but only a small proportion of it (all permutations of 3,200 characters, rather than 1,312,000 characters). The question becomes, however: If the necessary algorithms are already there (as in, they could be written), is the website, in fact, as complete as Borges’ textual library? The website might be said to “contain” the full Library, but render only part of it accessible, without compromising the Library’s integrity. Indeed, the website adopts this claim elsewhere, such as on the ‘Reference Hex’ page: “Borges has set the rule for the universe en abyme contained on our site” (emphasis mine). 

Not content with a digital re-mediation, the website offers helpful suggestions for how readers might engage with the website, including the use of a screen reader. The screen reader itself being programmed with grammatical rules would not offer the same content, however, but a re-mediated version distinct from the version that might result from my reading the text (to myself or to others, aloud or mentally). Engaging us in interpretative activities, LibraryofBabel.info playfully suggests, following Borges, that the website and its forums should be a place for conducting and archiving research: “We encourage those who find strange concatenations among the variations of letters to write about their discoveries in the forum, so future generations may benefit from their research.” These include searches such as “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare”, which the searcher records with “Doesn’t have a ‘Hamlet'” “but it does have a ‘hrlbikst’. Good enough for me!”, or searches for ASCII art, led by Basile himself. 

The forum also contains spontaneous outpourings such as, “I think it’s incredibly important that [the site] never be taken down”, or “So incredibly happy that you brought this into being”.* It is fascinating the sort of emotional response that the promise of comprehensiveness can generate, even when what is on offer is comprehensive gibberish. Borges’ blackly comedic take offers a thought-experiment, but LibraryofBabel.info claims to offer a fully fledged product, monumentalising the Library. Whereas Borges offers an exemplar of how human interpretation might constitute reality, Basile’s website enacts human interpretation in a guided form. “Anglishise” is an option on any page, highlighting English words and drawing (suggestive but meaningless) allusions from the overlapping of words. 

* Luke Chrisinger, 14 May 2015; Christian Arthur, 17 May 2015: http://libraryofbabel.info/forum/?topic=lob.

‘Is the Apple Watch a game-changer?’ It depends which UPBs you’re after…

There are a lot of Apple Watch reviews out there. This is about what the Watch means for someone who relies on mobile devices professionally and personally in equal measure. If you’re interested in the Watch’s hardware, try the ifixit teardown. If you’re interested in more general reviews covering a range of issues, try Engadget’s collation of critics and user reviews.

I was one of the first wave of people receiving watches, so I’ve been wearing mine pretty much constantly for just over three weeks. VentureBeat published some clickbait about the Watch not living up to expectations a few days ago: ’30 days later, I’m returning my Apple Watch’. I say it’s clickbait because it is, but I also have a lot of respect for someone deciding the Watch simply isn’t for them. Sometimes peer pressure encourages us to purchase and be seen to be using tech that doesn’t really offer much utility.* So is the Watch worth it? Can it be a game-changer for some users, even if it is cost:benefit neutral for most users (the cost in £$€ excepted)?

Although there are some obvious places where I can already see Watch 2.0 developments slotting in to improve the Watch’s utility, based on my experience, I think the Watch actually manages to deliver two key unique ‘perceived benefits’ for wearers:

  • A well-spec’ed wearable with perfect iPhone and Health sync
  • A more efficient method for engaging with your calendar/email/messages/Passbook/Apple pay

The Watch as a fitness wearable

I thought I would be sceptical about wearing the Watch, as eighteen months ago I deliberately chose one of the few wearables that wasn’t worn on the arm (the FitBit One), but I find it pretty easy wearing. I wrote about my expectations for the Watch replacing my FitBit a few days before the former came out, but the Watch has already replaced by FitBit completely.

The Watch offers two apps for fitness: Workout, and Activity.

Workout is a pared back offering, with a small number of pre-set exercise types, the option to set a goal (time, distance, calories), and a timer. Activating Workout also ups the frequency of heart-rate monitoring. I use it for runs, and it seems to do a fairly good job of accurately determining the distance, even when I’m not running with my iPhone. The latter is infrequent, though, as the Watch doesn’t offer GPS tracking, so I still use RunKeeper for this purpose.

The snug fit of the Watch makes it ideal for all activities, including yoga, when other wearables might slip up and down the arm. Although I’m slightly sceptical about the calorie-burn calculations, I find the ability to track heart rate during activities like yoga and weights quite interesting. Previously, I owned an iHealth oximeter, which would give heart-rate readings, but hadn’t gone so far as to invest in a heart-rate monitor for running with. Now I don’t have to.

Activity is the shinier of the two apps, and involves the circular gauges for “move” (calorie burn), “exercise” (activity above a certain threshold), and “stand” (regular movement throughout the day).

I appreciate the different focuses here, on weight-management (even though avid calorie-counting is baloney…), exercise, and activity. Trying to fill all three circles every day encourages a multi-pronged approach to fitness that it’s nice to see amongst all of the fads and ‘one simple trick’s. The app is usefully visual (unlike Health, which remains abominable in some of its data-presentation), offering a clear snapshot image of how your day, week, and month has been going. I value the “stand” section most of all: it offers a useful reminder once an hour that I should take a break, move away from the computer/desk, and notice what time it is.

The one thing the Watch cannot do that my FitBit did is sleep tracking. Initially, I kept wearing my FitBit during the night, but having two wearables that I had to think about wasn’t very productive, and I didn’t see the point in keeping the FitBit app around just for the sleep data, which I looked at quite rarely anyway.

The teardown suggests that there might be more health features to come, too, so it’s a case of watch-this-space.

The Watch as an efficiency tool

I am all about efficiency. As much as I can procrastinate like a pro, at heart I love ticking things off the list and feeling that I’ve accomplished something, without any waste of time and energy, and am ready for the next challenge.

Anything that streamlines the process of interacting with apps, particularly email, messages, and calendars, is going to attract my attention, and the Watch is all about processing notifications. I can delete or flag emails quickly, building my to-do list and staying at inbox zero (yes, I am one of the few people who actually lives in that enchanted place). I can tick things off said to-do list (in the Wunderlist app), mark activities as completed (in the Timeful app), and get an overview of the rest of the day’s calendar without going to the effort of using my phone. Once Apple Pay is rolled out here in Blighty, I’ll also be able to go out to get lunch without my wallet, meaning one fewer thing to carry.

Matt Gemmell blogged about how the Watch actually decreases tech-distractions, and I think he’s right, although he gives the Watch slightly too little credit as a means to interaction with notifications. Dictating messages is a little clunky, but it focuses the mind. For important people, I get my phone out. For the less important (or the more casual exchange), the Watch and I can muddle along just fine.

I was initially frustrated by the lack of readable content. The Guardian and Twitter apps are available, but they offer very little by way of interest. Which, after my initial irritation, I decided was a good thing. I can easily lose an hour reading Twitter on my iPhone. Now, I have to make a more active decision to do that, rather than being sucked into it by having the iPhone ready-to-hand.

There is more to come here, too, I think. The Watch’s best feature is that it foregrounds notifications and should — assuming app developers get their acts together — offer a way to interact with them swiftly. A few weeks ago, Anish Acharya wrote about the increasingly privileged status of notifications on mobile devices, moving away from “pull” activities (Google searches, etc.) and towards a range of “pushed” content or services (prompts based on geolocation, etc.). Customisability becomes key when so many more apps are based on pinging the user for attention, and the Watch offers a way to streamline those interactions without needing to take out one’s phone or clear a backlog that prevents you seeing the wood from the trees.

* I have a persistent gripe about FaceTime, which has taken over as the primary means of communication amongst my family members, although it’s glitchy even when one is sitting still using home broadband, never mind wandering around the city on 3G…

Cover image an homage to all the hairy-armed Watch bearers following launch day!