Found History Update

Tom Scheinfeldt's newsletter

During the depths of the lockdown in March, I imagined a course for our times completely free of digital technology. I was frustrated with administrative rhetoric that seemed to put means ahead of ends in stressing how best to "go online" over how best to "deliver a quality distance education," regardless of the tools. Like the workman with a hammer for whom all the world looks like a nail, administration had its WebEx and Blackboard licenses and, by Jove, we would use them! Everyone was just trying to do their best, of course, and many administrators and especially experienced educational technologists, who understand better than anyone that delivering quality education over the Internet isn't just a simple matter of "putting it online," were just as uneasy with the whole conversation as I was.

In my frustration and easy reactionary pose, I thought about what it would look like to "go offline," that is, to deliver a distance learning experience without any digital tools at all. Remembering that the humanities especially have a centuries-long history of scholarly correspondence, of teaching and mentorship using the tools of pen and paper and the networking technology of the post office or courier, I imagined my first-year graduate readings seminar as a correspondence course conducted completely via United States Postal Service. It would be a return to the early-20th century correspondence course, or even the culture of Greek and Roman philosophical letters of Cicero and St. Paul.

In the end, I decided that plan would be untenable. For one thing, it wouldn't have been fair to my new graduate students. One's first semester in grad school is disorienting enough, more so this year, and they didn't deserve being subjects to some kind of retrotech experiment by their professor. It also didn't help that in August it seemed like the President was trying to sink the USPS to aid his re-election. 

But I kept the basics of the idea, and I have been teaching my DMD 5010: Digital Culture readings seminar as a correspondence course of sorts. Each week, the students are assigned a pen-pal and the two spend the week corresponding by email about the assigned reading. Each pair copies me, along with another student who has been picked as the discussion leader, on their emails. In class the next week, the discussion leader summarizes the correspondence and kicks off the class, which takes place by video conference.

Maybe it's the choice of books. Maybe it's just these particular students. But I have never had such engaged, informed, and provocative seminar discussions in my many years of teaching. Here I have a group of students whom I've never met in person, and who, to my knowledge, have never met each other in person, and each week our video sessions run over time with informed, enthusiastic, creative discussion and debate. I barely have to say a word to keep the conversation running.

I suspect this unprecedented (for me) level of engagement is due to what we call our "letter writing." Each student is responsible not to me, but to their pen pal, to do the reading, think hard about its meaning, and to draw new meanings from their pen pal. They ask authentic questions. And in addition to being deeply in conversation with the readings, the students' letters are funny, full of personality, and full of care for their fellow students in these difficult times. The fact that each student has, at some point in the semester, engaged in authentic correspondence with every other student, has created a group dynamic which understands the intellectual strengths and weaknesses of each member of the group and the ups and downs of their work and home life. It's great, and I think it justifies my initial impulse to meet the challenges of distance learning not with more tech, but with less. I may even teach it the same way (hopefully with a few scheduled in-person meet ups along the way) even after COVID-19 is blessedly behind us.

BRIEFLY NOTED

  • I just finished Alan Mikhail's God's Shadow, an excellent history of the Ottoman Empire told through the lens of one of its greatest leaders, the Sultan Selim, who ruled the most powerful empire in the world (outside of China) in the 16th century. It provides a much appreciated rebalancing of early modern European history away from its usual focus on the rise of the West. My only quibble is that it sometimes veers into confusing more important with more good, i.e. of painting the Latin West as racist and imperialist while breezily sidestepping the vigorous, military expansionism of the Ottomans as enlightened, magnanimous, and without ethnic prejudice. Surely there was plenty of cruelty and violence and debasement of "the other" on both sides of the Mediterrean 500 years ago.
  • We have an amazing, talented group of graduate student assistants at Greenhouse Studios this year. Check out their self-authored introductions on the blog.
  • The Sourcery project, in partnership with colleagues at Northeastern University Library, just wrapped up a series of workshops on Remote Access to Archives and Special Collections. These brought together archivists and researchers over five weeks to talk about the challenges and opportunities for remote and electronic access to archival collections presented by the current COVID-19 crisis (and, indeed, before and after it). It was a lively, sometimes contentious set of conversations, which really drove home how little researchers and archivists have done to really understand where each other are coming from. We'll be posting a white paper with findings from the meetings in the coming months. Stay tuned.

POETRY

I write bad poetry from time to time. I'm going to use this spot to record it. I wrote this one in August, when the days were longer, social distancing easy, and online school a fading memory. Feel free to skip it.

Farming in the Suburbs

We got some heirloom kale seeds in March In egg carton planters seedlings stood ten centimeters in April Strong sunlight on the windowsill, water measured in teaspoons

Now, in August, we eat kale salad The kids tried kale chips At home with science and vegetables Science class long forgotten

Welcome back to Found History Update. Today, for new subscribers, I'm reposting something that I wrote for the blog earlier in the month. I'll be following up in the coming weeks with some related thoughts on how we value and talk about the value of higher education and what that means for our teaching and research.

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This semester I’ll be co-chairing our President’s “Life-Transformative Education” task force, a signature initiative to rethink undergraduate education at UConn. Part of a coalition of similar efforts at other universities across the country, the basic idea of LTE is that an undergraduate education should change (or at least actively reconfirm) the worldview and life trajectory of each and every student at UConn. Our work involves a top-to-bottom rethinking of everything from student advising to internship opportunities to capstone experiences for graduating seniors.

Closely tied to our practical efforts at reforming pedagogy and student care at the University is a broader rethinking of the real value of an undergraduate education and the way that value proposition is communicated to students, parents, alums, and in the case of a state institution like UConn, to the taxpayers and legislature of the State of Connecticut. It seems to me that part of that work entails rethinking how value itself is calculated.

Somewhere along the way, universities, like so many other institutions in our culture, began to measure their impact in strictly economic terms. In making our case to stakeholders (especially purse-string holders) we talk about the economic impact of sponsored research, workforce training, and other direct benefits to business. Likewise, at the level of the individual student, there is a strong tendency to assess the value of a college degree in terms of a “wage premium,” or the amount of money a college graduate can expect to make versus a non-graduate (the cover story in this week’s The Economist is case in point.) By this way of thinking, the “return on investment” or ROI of a college education is a simple matter of subtracting tuition costs from the wage premium a student can expect upon graduation.

This is a crude measure of the value of a college degree. Life-Transformative Education suggests that the real value of undergraduate education lies in its capacity to change lives, financially for sure, but in other ways too. Thus Life-Transformative Education demands an accounting beyond the wage premium to determine the true ROI of college.

Trends in macro-economics may provide a guide. Even fairly conservative economists are realizing that simple measures of overall economic growth don’t provide a very useful picture of the success of the overall economy, especially in the face of rising inequality. These economists are moving “Beyond GDP” to count things like people’s health, a clean environment, and unpaid labor like elder care and child rearing, in addition to growth, as a more accurate measure of economic health. New Zealand, for example, now uses a “happiness index,” created from a basket of metrics, to make some policy decisions instead of GDP.

So what should a “Beyond the Wage Premium” calculation of college ROI include? What else should we count? I have a few suggestions, including:

  • the likelihood of finding a job that includes health benefits
  • the likelihood of finding a job that includes parental-leave and childcare benefits
  • future ability to change jobs
  • geographic mobility
  • mental health outcomes
  • domestic abuse rates

What else? I’m sure there’s plenty (on both sides of the ledger) that I’ve left out. Please let me know, and if you’re an economist and would like to work on this, let’s talk.

This is my new newsletter. Please subscribe.

Like so many before me, I've struggled for the past several years to find a productive, supportive medium for online writing. I miss the old days, first of the digital humanities blogosphere, then of Good Twitter. Nobody reads blogs anymore (yesterday's blog post, which I'll republish here shortly, confirmed that), and Twitter is toxic, so I've come late and reluctantly to starting an email newsletter ... like so many before me.

It's not a great solution, but it's the best we have.

Thus, without further lament, and with hope for its bright future, I present Found History Update.

Enjoy!

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