5 #AcWri Tips for Administrators

Now that my latest book is out, people want to know how I found the time to write it. When your days are full of meetings, plus you teach every semester, plus you have a family that includes a tween and a teen, well, you need a plan. I admit that the way I went about producing Race, Place, and Memory differed significantly from the strategy I used for my previous publications, written when I was a tenure-track assistant professor. In fact, my advice won’t work for everyone who holds an administrative role, but I hope these tips prove useful.

  1. Schedule and HONOR Your #AcWri Time. I know, DUH, it seems self-evident, but if you don’t put it in your weekly calendar it won’t happen. Over the last decade, I’ve learned that how you block out time is less important than that you do it and honor that time just as you would your other professional commitments. For years, I resisted this idea because I had always excelled at “binge-writing” whenever and for as long as the spirit moved me. With a busy home-life on top of work, “snack-writing” proved essential because it helped me make progress, even if sometimes I only used my #AcWri time on footnotes (citations), outlining, or reading a journal article I’d found earlier. To be clear, “snack-writing” for me meant blocking out one day each week (Fridays); others use that term to mean an hour every day. Do what fits into YOUR schedule and keep that meeting with yourself.

    “Snacking” on the bibliography. This task I could do at my actual desk when I had fifteen or thirty minutes.

  2. Hide Somewhere. I chose Fridays for my primary (read: scheduled) writing time because there are fewer classes, fewer people around, fewer distractions those days, but even so, I avoided my office. Let’s face it, a closed door doesn’t prevent colleagues from knocking to ask “a quick question.” (I do this to other people all the time, so I know the game.) My hide-out was an empty office in the faculty development center on the opposite side of campus from my office. Your center may have similar spaces, but even if it doesn’t ask around to see where other empty offices may be. I took a laptop, a briefcase of materials, and snacks with me, and I checked email only at lunchtime. Occasionally, I went downstairs on a coffee run, but in the main, I avoided places where I might run into people. That is also why I hid on campus instead of at home or in a local coffee shop. Your #AcWri time is way too precious to risk those 5-minute encounters that morph into an hour of chit-chat or a spontaneous business meeting–even the ones you initiate yourself because you just.can’t.help.it.
    NOTE: I wrote in my regular office when I could, and I spent a lot of time at my dining room table. The interruptions and distractions at these locations were constant. I really wish I had hidden away earlier and more often.
  3. Use All The Technology. A recent survey by the American Historical Association found that historians aren’t using technology as much as they might to facilitate scholarship. That’s a shame because there are so many new tools available. Refworks, for example, enabled me to build a bibliography whenever I was surfing WorldCat, and OneNote helped me keep track of notes from various books and articles over the years (and from writing location to writing location).

    From “Historians and the Technologies of Research,” by Robert B. Townsend, October 2017. Link to the full article, above.

    Because I started work on Race, Place, and Memory nearly two decades ago, much of my research was already complete when I discovered NVivo, a relational database, but I would use it for future projects to cross-reference different kinds of sources. For drafting, writing, and revising all the way through to copyediting the proofs, I relied extensively on Dropbox. Having the app on multiple devices meant I could work at home, in my office, my hideaway location, airports, hotels, wherever I happened to be.

  4. Give Papers at Small, Local or Regional Conferences. If you are a junior professor, presenting at the national conference in your discipline is the gold standard, but as an administrator, your travel budget and out-of-office time have to be used differently. I found that smaller conferences made more sense for these reasons: they were closer to home, often in driving distance, so the cost was less and I didn’t have to be away as long; they put me in contact with people in my area/state that I could network with more readily; and the smaller number of participants meant I received more and better feedback on my work.
  5. Get and Stay Connected. When I was in grad school, a wise person gave me some advice: “Never forget that you are part of a larger field.” What he meant was that academics often get tied up in the nitty-gritty politics of their departments and forget to connect with people doing similar work elsewhere. I think this tendency is even more prevalent among administrators than full-time faculty.That is certainly what happened to me–although I had a small group of colleagues who I could talk to about certain aspects of my research, I felt somewhat isolated as a scholar. So, to get (re)connected, I opened a Twitter account. Now, I know there are lots of reasons to avoid Twitter, but academic Twitter has been a godsend. People share articles, links to collections of primary sources, blog posts, calls for papers, and threaded conversations. Two Twitter colleagues even read and commented on drafts of my work. More that that, other academics offer #AcWri encouragement and support, whether in a few characters or a simple “like” when you vent your frustration. And there many days when I needed that kind of help.

So, there they are, my five tips for writing success. If you need more advice, check out Dr. Raul Pacheco-Vega’s extensive blog at raulpecheco.org. He is the generous genius behind the hashtag #ScholarSunday and a regular contributor to #AcWri and #GetYourManuscriptOut.

Composing a Life

When I first came to JMU, I entered a new phase of life: new job as a dual professor-administrator, mother to a new baby (my second), and a new decade (I turned forty soon after I arrived). A few months in, a colleague gave me a copy of Mary Catherine Bateson’s Composing a Life. I think she knew how much I would appreciate Bateson’s topic:

“This book is about life as an improvisatory art, about the ways we combine familiar and unfamiliar components in response to new situations, following an underlying grammar and an evolving aesthetic.” 

In the decade since, I have changed administrative roles twice, completed a variety of big-multi-year projects, and turned fifty. I picked Bateson’s book up again this spring. It was high time to revisit it, to take my time with it, and mine it for wisdom.

The cover employs Vermeer’s Woman Holding a Balance (ca1662-5) to suggest one of the book’s central themes: how women seek to balance their myriad conflicting roles.

Here is a traditional review; there are many others. Suffice it to say she examines the lives of five remarkable women that illustrate improvisation and its lessons. They are: Joan Erikson, (dancer and jewelry designer), Johnetta Cole (anthropologist and president of Spelman College), Alice d’Entremont (electrical engineer and corporate leader), Ellen Bassuk (psychiatrist and researcher and advocate on homelessness), and Bateson herself (professor and college administrator). The prose is elegant, the stories moving and relevant–especially if you are a woman in higher ed.

The funny thing is that, as I reread it, I realized how much Bateson’s findings and advice resemble what I tell students. Society puts so much pressure on undergraduates. They are expected to choose a major quickly but wisely, as if it will define them forever. (And what do YOU do,  dear?) But we also say “find your passion,” understanding that a job might not be a person’s calling.

Every campus is a place of traditions and continuities yet each is also a place of new beginnings, transitions, and transformations. When I came to JMU, I reinvented myself in important ways—as an employee at a public institution instead of a private college, as a scholar of race and memory instead of class and ethnicity, as mother to a daughter as well as a son, as mentor to faculty much my junior. (Boy, was it a surprise to realize I was no longer “junior.”) Bateson reminds us that life doesn’t follow a clear trajectory, not for most people, not anymore. Nevertheless, American culture (the white, middle-class, urban part anyway) imagines life as a quest. We urge young people to set their goals in childhood. We have them play dress ups as doctors or nurses, princesses and princes, but it isn’t just a game. By middle school they must choose a sport (gymnastics, soccer, basketball, whatever), a particular academic strength (science or math, Lego robotics, preferably something STEMmy), and something creative (violin or piano, art or drama) for well-roundedness. In high school they get pushed into pre-collegiate classes early in hopes that one of them will determine the major to come. And in college they are under similar pressure to get the most of their “college experience,” to join clubs, find internships, and forge new relationships, all while graduating “on time” and with honors.

Bateson gently undermines the whole project. Americans, she observes, view achievement as purposeful, “monolithic,” a relentlessly single-minded pursuit. Popular biographies of exceptionally ambitious people, that is, the successful ones, reinforce the myth. Our cultural aesthetic privileges the struggle to win, to overcome any obstacle, and denigrates those who meander, change course, falter, or lose their way. (p4) I nodded along as I read her words. Most people are not single-minded, not in my experience, not in the past nor in the present. When Bateson’s book came out in 1989, I had just started grad school. Like many of my classmates, I wanted a Ph.D., but I didn’t know if I wanted to teach. And I surely didn’t know if I would find a job. The year I graduated, 1996, turned out to be particular bad, in fact. Every US History position for which I applied had hundreds of applicants! I landed a one-year, visiting position and was damn glad of it. Fortunately, I had worked in the park service before; I had a Plan B and a Plan C, if things didn’t turn out well. And though I soon landed a tenure-track position, I eventually wandered off in a different direction. I am still exploring, in fact.

Improvisation is the metaphor Bateson uses, and I like it. She draws on the musical concept of composition, as well, yet she broadens the term to encompass other arts, such as sculpture, painting, writing, quilting, cooking, dancing, and building. In all these endeavors, the maker chooses from among the various materials and techniques available to her and combines them in a way that makes a unique, coherent, and meaningful whole. The materials and techniques that men and women use to compose lives today deviate sharply from those used by our parents and grandparents. We can’t follow previous generations’ examples. We must make our own music, over and over again.

How the college experience has changed: Remember standing in lines and filling out forms to register? Now students do everything online . Photo courtesy JMU Special Collections.

So, too, college students can’t sing a tune written by others. Much has changed since Bateson’s book appeared in 1989. When I speak to students I cite a startling contemporary statistic: by the age of forty, the average American with a bachelor’s degree will have between ten and fourteen different jobs. Following Bateson, I should perhaps add contemporary statistics on divorce and debt and geographic mobility. “Fluidity and discontinuity are central to reality,” (p13) now more now than ever before. Like Bateson, I celebrate “the creative potential of interrupted and conflicted lives,” and I want young people to have a better sense of what actually awaits them. It’s ok to be undeclared I say. It’s ok to change your major or pick up a second one (or a minor) that speaks to your soul. It’s ok to take electives, and it’s definitely ok to acquire a liberal education along with whatever vocational training one gets. As Bateson concludes, “The compositions we create in these times of change are filled with interlocking messages of our commitments and decisions. Each one is a message of possibility.”

Liberty and Learning at JMU

Here is a guest post I wrote for the American Democracy Project at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, July 2017

The James Madison statue on East Campus (“Big Jimmy”) is a popular spot for photographs, especially on Constitution Day. Photo courtesy JMU Marketing and Communications.

We take civic engagement very seriously at James Madison University. Originally founded as the State Normal and Industrial School for Women in 1908, this institution has been renamed and rebranded multiple times. President Samuel Page Duke proposed the name Madison College in 1938 in part to commemorate the legacy of the nation’s so-called “Forgotten Founder,” and President Ronald Carrier led the transformation of that institution into James Madison University in 1977. Since then, the link to our nation’s fourth president, the Father of the Constitution, has become more intentional with every passing decade. And that is very fitting since Mr. Madison was one of the young republic’s most ardent advocates for higher education. “Learned institutions,” he wrote in an 1822 letter, “throw that light over the public mind which is the best security against crafty & dangerous encroachments on the public liberty. . . . What spectacle can be more edifying or more seasonable than that of liberty and learning, each leaning on the other for their mutual and surest support?”

From the moment they first step on campus, students are exposed to Madison’s political legacy. We aren’t subtle! Madison statues, Madison quotes in public spaces, and Madison logos in university publications complement the classical architecture that defines our historic Quad, the symbolic heart of the institution. As part of Orientation in August, all 4,500+ freshmen participate in a program called “1787,” which includes a 75-minute academic exploration of our ethical reasoning framework, the Madison Collaborative. We annually mark Constitution Day, September 17, with cake, pocket Constitutions from our friends at the Robert H. Smith Center for the Constitution, and a free trip to Montpelier, Madison’s home and estate in nearby Orange County.

More than 300 JMU students turned out for a Presidential Election Returns Watch Party on Nov. 8, 2016. Photo courtesy JMU Marketing and Communications.

Two years ago, in tandem with a successful, student-led effort to establish an on-campus precinct, we launched Dukes Vote, a fall voter registration initiative that combines social media posts and mass emails with links to TurboVote, coordinated tabling at locations across campus, and visits to residence halls and general education classes. Students are also encouraged to explore civic tools like icitizen and BallotReady that provide information about issues of special concern and perspectives on candidates running for different offices.

But civic engagement also runs through the curriculum, especially the General Education Program, The Human Community, which is divided into five areas of learning outcomes called clusters. The American Experience area of Cluster Four: Social and Cultural Processes, for example, especially reflects JMU’s long-standing commitment to prepare undergraduates for citizenship. The area came about in 1998 after the Virginia House passed a joint resolution directing the boards of visitors of the sixteen public colleges and universities to review their general education programs to implement a US History requirement. Today, our nearly 19,000 undergraduates choose among three unique, 4-credit courses, either HIST225: US History, POSC225: US Government, or JUST225: Justice Studies. The common outcomes, designed by our own faculty, state that students will be able to identify, conceptualize and evaluate:

  • Social and political processes and structures using quantitative and qualitative data
    • Key primary sources relating to American history, political institutions and society
    •             The nature and development of the intellectual concepts that structure American political activity
    •             The history and operation of American democratic institutions
    •             The history and development of American society and culture
    •             The history and development of American involvement in world affairs.

Deliberative dialogue techniques are used in curricular and co-curricular spaces to foster civic competence. Feb. 8, 2017 D.E.E.P Impact event.

To measure performance on these outcomes, we use a 40-item instrument delivered during 1787 (Freshman pre-test) and again on our annual Assessment Day (sophomore post-test) to thousands of students each year. We are proud to have decades of data showing the value-added by a JMU course to our students’ acquisition of essential civic knowledge. Further, JMU is one of only three Virginia campuses that require a course focused on America’s democratic political heritage. Other areas of the general education program support civic learning with outcomes related to ethical reasoning, critical thinking, scientific literacy, and diversity. In fall 2017, we are launching an innovative version of our required general education human communication course for 200 Honors College students. Designed to incorporate constructive advocacy and deliberative dialogue, this course builds on faculty work with the Kettering Foundation and serves as a pilot for revisions that may soon impact all undergraduates.

This summer will see the launch of the James Madison Center for Civic Engagement, which is charged with coordinating and promoting civic engagement university-wide. The new center is part of a bold strategic plan that calls us to be the national model of the engaged university. At JMU, we have purposefully divided engagement into three distinct, yet complementary components that reflect our long-standing institutional culture and values:

  • Engaged Learning: Developing deep, purposeful and reflective learning, while uniting campus and community in the pursuit, creation, application and dissemination of knowledge;
  • Community Engagement: Fostering mutually beneficial and reciprocal partnerships, ranging from local to global, that connect learning to practice, address critical societal problems and improve quality of life;
  • and Civic Engagement: Advancing the legacy of James Madison, the Father of the Constitution, by preparing individuals to be active and responsible participants in a representative democracy dedicated to the common good.

While we believe that Madison remains an important role model, we don’t want to see him enshrined on a pedestal. Instead, in partnership with colleagues at Montpelier, we designed a civic framework called “I am Madison’s Legacy” that connects contemporary competencies and dispositions to things the historic Madison actually said or did. In the future, we hope this set of six affirmative statements will help faculty and units and organizations across campus recognize what they are already doing to “throw light on the public mind” and protect “the public liberty.” Like Montpelier, where an exhibit on slavery and racism, “The Mere Distinction of Colour,” opened to acclaim earlier this summer, we want students to have an accurate understanding of who Madison was and what did. Only in this way will they know who they are and what they must do.

Fixing #TradCiz (Traditional Citizenship) with #DigCiz and #Civictech

234329 2017 MLK Celebration Week- March and Speak Out-1047

JMU students hold a commemorative march and speak out every MLK Day. Signs this year featured hashtags, some for actual online conversations, some for imagined ones. Both suggest an emergent mindset regarding social media and political or democratic engagement.

This summer, I have been participating in a #DigCiz conversation that is helping me think more carefully about the relationship between activities in the digital world, especially social media, and activities in the analog world, especially in the American political system. In a recent Tweet, I referred to the nexus between #DigCiz and #TradCiz (Traditional Citizenship) (I think I made #TradCiz up. If not, please let me know). Part of this nexus includes what is called “civictech,” a term used in civic-engagement-in-higher-ed conversations to reference a host of new digital tools designed to boost individuals’ participation in the democratic process. Examples of civic tech that I know are: TurboVote, icitizen, and BallotReady. Organizations promoting these digital tools are many and varied; they range from colleges and universities to community-based non-profits. In From Voice to Influence, ed. by Danielle Allen and Jennifer Light, I read several essays describing the myriad ways in which young Americans are using social media to engage in political acts. What’s fascinating to me is that they often don’t realize that that is what they are doing. Posting a HuffPo piece to a Facebook page, grabbing a digital photo and turning it into a meme, using a hashtag, organizing a demonstration, signing an online petition–these are the sorts of things people do on a regular basis. Yet they don’t think of themselves as political actors capable of effecting change. They have a platform from which to speak individually and collectively (voice), but lack the awareness and ability to act politically (influence).

So this is where I attempt to broaden the #DigCiz conversation from talking about identities and selves and actions in online communities and networks to include more deliberate consideration of identities and selves in face to face political communities and spaces. And actually, this summer’s conversation is already moving in that direction. (It’s just taken me a while to pull together this post.)

There’s a clear thread running through Bonnie Stewart‘s provocative opening salvo (I’m a shit about citizenship); Katia Hildebrandt’s and Alec Couros’s plaintive call for us to move past cybersafety/personal responsibility models of digital citizenship to justice-oriented ones; and this week’s ruminations by Kate Bowles, Maha Bali, Amy Collier, Autumm Caines, Andrew Middleton, Sheila McNeil, and Chuck Pearson, on citizenship and national identity, kith and kin, placemaking and feelings of belonging or alienation. Bali writes:

“I love my country . . . in spite of all that is wrong with it. I just want to fix it.”

What does it take to “fix” a country? Let me be more specific: what does it take to fix a democratic society with a representative government in the digital age?

Sheila McNeil says, “Like Kate, . . . I think of citizenship as a formal, bureaucratic process . . . perhaps because I have never really been in a position where it is threatened or rights taken away from me.” Citizenship is not “benign,” as Amy Collier notes. Historically (and still today), it is defined by geographic borders and boundaries (themselves often arbitrary lines on a map), but especially by a sense of shared ancestry (blood) and cultural heritage (values, religion, folklore, foodways, whatever). Kith and kin, place and shared identity–these words still matter. But citizenship also means membership in the civitas, the polity, an entity marked by the exercise of political rights and responsibilities. Whereas some citizens naturally belong, are born into the polity, others are brought in and Others still are excluded from membership. Citizenship is a spectrum.

In the United States as in other democratic societies, rights inhere in individuals. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, and that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” So many ideas are bound up in this oft-quoted sentence. I like to ponder “unalienable.” I’m convinced that most people don’t fully appreciate what it means. Or if they do, they seek to limit its meaning by narrowing the definition of words like “men,” “equal,” and “creator.” This narrowing started, of course, in 1776, before the ink on the Declaration had even dried, and sadly, persists to the present. (I could write a long post about white Americans’ misguided belief that civil rights were/are gifts they can bestow on African Americans when they feel they deserve them, but I digress.)

It troubles me that so many fully-enfranchised citizens have stopped exercising their rights and responsibilities. I mean, they have opted out of the formal democratic process. That is one of their rights, of course, and it’s mighty ironic. According to public opinion polls, like this one and this one from the Pew Research Center, registered voters are deeply dissatisfied with the party system and deeply distrustful of government, yet another recent poll indicates widespread agreement on certain elements of a strong democracy and a pronounced desire to maintain and preserve them. Meanwhile, the folks at both IDHE (Institute for Democracy and Higher Education) and CIRCLE (Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement) find that Millennials have especially serious doubts about the health of American democracy. So, what does it take to fix a country?

Bottom line, I agree with hundreds if not thousands of other academics in the US that colleges and universities, especially public ones, have a clear responsibility to reverse these trends. From 2008 until now, I have led civic engagement efforts at JMU, and I am proud of the work that faculty, staff, administrators, and students here have accomplished. But we need to do more to reach young citizens where they are.


Image from Quick Meme.

Youth have a long history of activism and digital media offers exciting new possibilities. Despite surveys like the ones cited above, online political activity is actually trending upward and is doing so for both conservatives and liberals. Using Henry Jenkins’ concept of participatory culture, Kahne, Middaugh, and Allen argue in From Voice to Influence (35-55) that interest-driven online networks serve as important pathways into political participation. Though clearly different from face to face networks, online versions often develop in participants similar sets of interactive, peer-based practice: investigation, dialogue & feedback, circulation, production, and mobilization. A blog post cannot capture the scope of their findings or their sources, so suffice it to say that “what appears on the surface to be a matter simply of humor or fun . . . may in fact be an appropriation of pop culture for social change (50).

From clever memes and MoveOn petitions to downloadable hip hop dissents or Teen Vogue articles, digital pop culture intersects with political issues and #DigCiz on a daily basis. The challenge is to connect these new activities and networks to time-honored participatory political practices such as voting, engaging in deliberative dialogue, monitoring elected officials, and even office-holding. Several books on this intersection are on my reading list: Zeynep Tufekci, Twitter and Tear Gas: How Social Media Changed Protest Forever ; Christopher J. LeBron, The Making of Black Lives Matter; and Eric Liu, You’re More Powerful than You Think. The list of such works grows daily.

At JMU, we have used a combination of digital and face to face tools to encourage undergraduates’ civic engagement. Last fall, as the nation geared up for the Presidential election, we sent mass emails on National Voter Registration Day that included a link to TurboVote, a platform that enables out of state students to request paper documents from their home districts and directs Virginians to the state’s online registration system. Either population can elect to receive electronic reminders of deadlines and election day notices delivered right to their phones. Additionally, students with DukesVote manned tables and visited dozens of classes, especially large lectures, to register students using paper forms. Twitter (@JMUDukesVote) enabled us to communicate with other student organizations’ social media accounts to promote local candidate forums, debate watch parties, precinct locations, and return parties (#iVoted16, #DukesVote). Neither icitizen nor BallotReady caught their interest, however, these platforms hold great potential for educating people about public issues and candidate positions. It is slow going. Most Dukes, like most youth, don’t consider themselves political actors, despite their deep and sincere concerns. They feel alienated from their polities, from the civitas. They hunger to make a difference, they are politically active online in their social environments, but lack role models and the political agency needed to effect change in the “real world”. To fix a country founded upon democratic principles, we the people in #highered must develop students’ civic agency and their sense of national belonging. Our kith and kin demand it.

Lee Park

In May 2017, citizens of Charlottesville, VA, home of the University of Virginia, staged a candle-lit vigil to counter an earlier torch-lit rally by white supremacists protesting the removal of a statue memorializing Robert E. Lee. Leaders of both demonstrations used social media, chiefly Facebook and Twitter, to organize their events. Image from The Daily Progress.



Confederate Heritage at JMU


This building commemorates noted 19th century scientist and oceanographer Matthew Fontaine Maury, who resigned his commission in the US Navy in 1861 to serve as a commodore in the Confederate navy. After the Civil War, he briefly lived in Mexico, where he tried to create a slaveholding colony for exiled Confederates. He eventually returned to his home state, Virginia, and accepted a position as professor of meteorology at Virginia Military Institute. A strong advocate for public higher education, he helped create the Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College (now Virginia Tech). Photo by author.

Talk of Confederate heritage seems to be everywhere these days. As a public historian who studies, teaches, and writes about this subject, I find the sudden resurgence fascinating and repellent at the same time. Mitch Landrieu, the mayor of New Orleans, put it well when he said, Confederate statues “are not just innocent remembrances of a benign history. These monuments purposefully celebrate a fictional, sanitized Confederacy; ignoring the death, ignoring the enslavement, and the terror that it actually stood for.” I make a similar point in my forthcoming book, Race, Place, and Memory: Deep Currents in WiImington, NC, which includes an analysis of monuments and memorials in that city. But my interest is more than academic. Every day, I go to work in a building that long served as a Confederate monument. To be clear, my views on renaming/removing/contextualizing such monuments are still evolving—I take no position, not yet. Since few people at JMU know the history of this campus, I offer this post as a starting point for others interested in this topic. My study of this institution’s past is very much a work in progress, and I hope to offer additional information later.

The Lost Cause on Bluestone Hill

Built in 1909, Maury Hall opened just in time to welcome the first class of students enrolled at the State Normal and Industrial School for Women. At that time, the building was called Science Hall and it was the sole academic structure: it held the president’s office, the library, the bookstore, and all of the classrooms. Many of the students came here to become teachers and partake of an innovative curriculum designed to meet a shared standard or ‘norm’. The only other buildings of note at the Normal were a dormitory, which housed a student dining room in the basement and a modest second-floor apartment for the president and his family, and a former farmhouse that accommodated the female faculty.

These buildings were seated on a gentle rise just south of the town of Harrisonburg. The architect, Charles Robinson, stipulated construction with local limestone, a distinctively dark, blue-gray rock that soon gave rise to the campus nickname “Bluestone Hill.” With their white, classical elements and red tile roofs, the structures had an unusual yet striking appearance. As enrollment grew, additional dormitories followed.


“Bluestone Hill” as it appeared ca. 1915. From left to right: Science Hall (Maury), Dormitory 1 (Jackson) and Dormitory 2 (Ashby). JMU Special Collections.

In 1917 the trustees of the Normal approved a recommendation from a faculty member to rename its academic buildings for Confederate heroes. Science Hall was renamed in honor of Matthew Fontaine Maury, a Virginia-born scientist (the “Father of Oceanography” or “Pathfinder of the Seas”) and commander in the Confederate Navy. His biographer John Grady notes that Maury was a controversial figure while alive, but by this date, thanks especially to his daughter’s 1888 memoir, he had become widely romanticized as a “great benefactor if his race.” Similarly, the original dormitory became Jackson Hall in recognition of Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson, the Confederate general who led the 1862 Shenandoah Valley Campaign, and a second dormitory became Ashby Hall in honor of a local Confederate cavalry officer, Turner Ashby, of nearby Port Republic. Together, these structures memorialized not only the specific deeds of these three men, but a particular interpretation of the Civil War—an interpretation that the faculty and administration expected the future teachers to pass on to Virginia schoolchildren.

In a paper called “White and Black and Bluestone: Racing History at the Normal, at Madison, and Beyond,” I explored the emergence of a distinct Bluestone identity that reinforced white privilege by inculcating respect for traditional southern womanhood, pride in Virginia’s unique past, and reverence for the Lost Cause of the Confederacy. Well known to historians, the Lost Cause ideology held that the south had only lost the Civil War because of inadequate manpower: The Confederate cause was just, white southerners were virtuous people, and slavery was a benign institution that benefited an inferior, black race. Like David Gold, who has studied the Lost Cause at several southern women’s colleges, I found at the Normal a strong desire to honor the local Confederate heritage of the Shenandoah Valley as well as that of Virginia and the south, broadly. Campus buildings played a critical role in this effort because of their fixity and permanence. Even so, a pro-Confederate, profoundly racialized attitude informed almost every aspect of daily life at the Normal–from the curriculum to the school song and planned excursions to local battlefields.

The Curriculum

The curriculum offered the most obvious way to promote the Lost Cause, and it did so on multiple levels. Textbooks, for example, became increasingly race conscious during the early 20th century. Fearful of the sudden influx of Eastern and Southern European and Asian immigrants, American textbook authors celebrated the contributions of early settlers from “native stock,” a term meaning chiefly the English but also Germans, Scots, Scot-Irish, Dutch, and sometimes French settlers (but only Protestant Huguenots). These filiopietistic narratives reflected broader shifts in the instruction of history, which under the so-called Progressive school became more “usable,” more practical and civics-oriented, and less academic. At southern colleges, administrators and faculty made an overt effort to link the popular cult of the Anglo-Saxon to the south’s distinctive racial system and culture and thereby restore regional pride.

Operating on a quarter system, the Normal offered a four year high school diploma, plus several two-year, post-secondary, professional tracks. These prepared students for certification as kindergarten, elementary, or high school teachers. All students on the professional track were required to take courses in six core subjects: English, Math, Geography, History and Social Sciences, Foreign Languages, and Natural Sciences. Early bulletins provide course titles, descriptions, and lists of required textbooks.

Within the core subject History-Social Sciences, Normal students had limited options set by the faculty. Each student had to take a two-quarter integrated sequence in ancient, medieval, and modern European history (which only included France and Germany). They also took one quarter of English History, a quarter of US History methods, and one quarter of US History. In the US content course, the emphasis was “industrial, economic, and political progress,” and the assigned texts were John Fiske, US History for Schools (Houghton Mifflin,1895) and Edward Channing and Albert Bushnell Hart, Guide to American History. Fiske’s book was one of the most popular texts in this era: it went through thirteen editions!

A well known public intellectual, Fiske taught philosophy and history at Harvard and was a devotee of Herbert Spencer, whose ideas about the eventual decline of non-white races he spread through his own writing and speaking engagements. While scientific racism did not characterize his textbook, which was geared toward children, his prose did privilege the white perspective in its treatment of actions taken against enslaved persons, freedmen, Native Americans, and Chinese immigrants.

Channing had a similar approach. Also a professor of history at Harvard, he helped develop the idea of an “American” race as a new category. In his works, English colonists were the most important because they contributed so much of the nation’s language, culture, customs, and laws, but he acknowledged other Anglo-Saxons, too, who by “process of assimilation” strengthened the “American” breed. The Guide was a useful companion to the Fiske text because it was a reference work designed to serve the needs of primary and secondary teachers. It listed various topics, offered a summary, and followed each one with a bibliography. Note that these cursory texts did not serve the history methods course, but the content course. At the Normal, all “subjects were taught from the standpoint  of the student being able to teach them, rather than from merely acquiring knowledge.” Apparently, the faculty didn’t want to tax the students’ female minds too much.

Virginia history was a popular elective. Here, the text was Mary Turner Magill’s  History of Virginia for Use in Schools, first published 1881 and extensively reprinted. Magill lived in Winchester, VA, where she and her mother ran a private school after the war. The women were very successful in attracting pupils because they capitalized on their close,personal relationship to Stonewall Jackson. Magill, described by a Winchester historian as a “fierce Confederate,” dedicated fully one-third of her 374 page book to a certain four year period, with the Shenandoah campaign of 1862 receiving its very own chapter. Her goal, simply stated in the preface, was to give Virginia’s children “a record so full of honor … that they may well be proud of it.”


Dr. John Wayland and students gathered at the New Market battlefield in 1912. This site appears to be part of the Bushong farm, where in 1864 teen-aged cadets from the Virginia Military Institute slogged through a field so muddy that it sucked the shoes off their feet. Although many cadets died, the charge succeeded and helped Confederate troops secure a victory that day. JMU Special Collections.

All of these books were chosen by Dr. John Wayland, who directed the history curriculum at the Normal until 1931. A Shenandoah Valley native, he received his doctorate from UVa in 1907 and eventually authored more than thirty books that mainly focused on local and state history. In keeping with his German heritage, his work especially celebrated the German immigrants who helped settle the Virginia backcountry, but he also acknowledged the English and Scots-Irish. A highly influential figure, for whom another dormitory was later named, Wayland also chaired the excursions committee.


Dr. Wayland and students on a 1910 excursion to the Turner Ashby monument. As pilgrimages to sacred sites associated with the Lost Cause, these field trips served an important didactic purpose but they were also opportunities to socialize and build school identity. To commemorate them, Wayland often arranged formally staged photographs that appeared in early yearbooks and personal scrapbooks. JMU Special Collections.

Bulletins and faculty minutes indicate the didactic function of these field trips. Each year, Wayland took students to the “hallowed site where the gallant Ashby fell in 1862” (a monument near the campus), as well as the spot “where the Knights of the Golden Horseshoe crossed Blue Ridge in 1716” (Swift Run Gap). Other popular nearby destinations were the “old home of Abe Lincoln’s ancestors,” which nodded toward the national reconciliation project, and “the place where young Daniel Boone spent a year of his life,” which echoed efforts to celebrate early settlers. Confederate battlefields, however, were paramount, especially Cross Keys,  “where Jackson won an important victory” and the so-called “field of lost shoes” at New Market battlefield.

Student Organizations and Activities.

Like other Normal schools in Virginia, Harrisonburg’s offered students myriad opportunities to socialize. The young women had a German Club, an Arts Club, and a Kindergarten Club, just to name a few. Most organizations had a clear co-curricular function. The Shakespearean theater troupe, for example, reinforced required courses in literature and English History and celebrated an idealized Anglo-Saxon heritage. Similarly, the Normal boasted two literary societies, which students established in the very first quarter session. They named one for Confederate veteran and poet Sidney Lanier, who once spent six weeks at a resort near Harrisonburg, where he wrote one of his early volumes. The other, however, honored General Robert E. Lee.


Hand-lettered and illustrated program for a Lanier Literary Society event in 1918. Besides the Confederate emblems, note the content. JMU Special Collections.

Both literary societies decorated their posters, programs, and yearbook pages with Confederate symbols like battle flags, kepis, and cavalry swords. Beginning in 1910, the Lee Society joined the local chapter of the United Daughters of Confederacy (UDC) for annual receptions. On January 19,1913, the anniversary of Lee’s birth, the ladies of the UDC presented an actual Confederate battle flag to the Normal, care of the Lee Society. To honor the courage and sanctity of Lee was, of course, to honor the courage and sanctity of his “country,” Virginia, the students’ home state. Thus, in 1918 the Lee Society published a special, inspirational poem called “The Spirit of Lee;” it appeared in the yearbook beneath a photo of the famous “Recumbent Lee” memorial sculpture at Washington & Lee and expressly connected Virginia’s call to arms in 1861 to the nation’s call in World War I.

Another popular Lost Cause activity bears noting: each year, the Virginia Military Academy cadets re-enacted a march made in 1864, when a group of young cadets walked from Lexington to New Market, where they aided a stunning Confederate victory in 1864. As the cadets passed the campus, the Normal’s female students lined the main road to wave and cheer them on. (The re-enactment of the march remains a famous custom for modern VMI cadets.) In the Progressive-era reenactments, cadets assumed the role of heroic defenders, while Normal students played their loyal, protected ladies.


An image from the 1917 yearbook, The School Ma’am, showing the Senior Minstrels dressed for one of their skits. JMU Special Collections.

Other activities, like minstrel shows, proclaimed Normal students’ attitudes about white supremacy/black inferiority. The 1917 yearbook featured a multi-page spread on the Senior Minstrels. That year, a group of black-faced white women, some of whom played black men, staged a skit called “A Dark Night at the Normal.” The four featured characters, Sambo, Tambo, Bones, and Fitznoodle, also offered a variety of musical performances as part of the show. Significantly, the young women were invited to perform at the Virginia Theater downtown at a community-wide Lee celebration on January 19 and again on campus on January 22. The following year, the Junior class staged a ‘vaudeville’ featuring a performance by two women in blackface. It was part of a larger skit called “The Booster Club of Blackville.” Characters featured included “Abraham Lincoln Washington, running after chickens,” and “Alexander Thicklips, pork chop inspector.” Minstrelsy deeply permeated popular culture in this era. As scholars like Grace Elizabeth Hale have shown, in consuming caricatured images of blackness, Americans became more self-consciously white.  What’s important to note here is that these students were not merely consuming—they were actively creating minstrel shows which they proudly performed and to which they attached their own names and identities. And minstrel shows remained popular on Bluestone Hill through the 1950s, as yearbooks attest.

Beyond the Normal


The Normal had two school songs: the official one, Bluestone Hill, and the unofficial one, Shendo Land. Written by Dr. John Wayland and set to the tune of Dixie, Shendo Land was fondly remembered by students, who sang it for many decades.Commencement program, 1912, JMU Special Collections.

As I’ve indicated, this study is very much a work in progress. Like other scholars of American higher education, I’m especially interested in how administrators and faculty (past and present) shape an institution’s racial climate by what they explicitly promote and tacitly allow to occur on campus. In the early decades of the 20th century, the Normal’s president, Julian Burruss, its Board of Trustees, and faculty like John Wayland shared a common sensibility that they promoted among their female students through curriculum, student organizations, and even the physical structures. And the women students were not passive recipients of their Bluestone identity. They actively participated in its construction. While there are indications that some pushed back, alumni records indicate that most students then seemed to understand and embrace the Lost Cause and its racialized and gendered hierarchies. Consider that the school’s official alma mater until 1931 was “Bluestone Hill,” but students preferred the unofficial one, called “Shendo Land.” Sung to the tune of Dixie and written in a racist dialect, it began: “Oh, I wish I was at de school in Shendo/ Good times dar don’t seem to end, so/ look away, look away, look away, Shendo Land/.” Together, five verses gently satirize strict rules regarding male “beaux,” the bluestone buildings with their “bumptious” red tile roofs, and the faculty, while celebrating the absence of mosquitos, the noise of the railroads, and the swish of a basketball. I’m still not entirely sure what to make of their ditty, but it clearly seems a form of cultural inversion–through ridicule, the song worked to affirm their racialized, gendered  identity and to ground it a specific geographic place. Their complicity is important to recognize because nearly 500 women had graduated by 1920 and several thousand more after that. From the Normal to Madison College, alumni took their certificates and their Bluestone identity with them as they fanned out across the state, teaching generations of white children who became generations of white parents.

Selected Secondary Sources

Dingledine, Raymond. Madison College, 1908-1958.

Frost, Dan R. Thinking Confederates: Academia and the Idea of Progress in the new South.

Gold, David. Students Writing Race at Southern Public Women’s Colleges.” History of Education Quarterly, 50, no. 2 (May 2010): 184-203.

Graves, Karen. Girls Schooling in the Progressive Era.

Hale, Grace. Making Whiteness: The Culture of Segregation in the South.

McCandless, Amy. The Past in the Present: Women’s Higher Education in the Twentieth Century American South.

Moreau, Joseph. Schoolbook Nation: Conflicts over American History Textbooks from the Civil War to the Present.


Riley, Karen. “Fair and tender ladies v. Jim Crow,” American Educational History Journal, vol 37, issue 1/2 (Sp 2010): 407-417.

Stronger, Patricia A. and Irene Thompson, eds.. Stepping Off the Pedestal: Academic Women in the South.

Mapping My Place in the Open Landscape

Maybe it’s all the cultural geography I’ve read, but I find the idea of mapping my place in the landscape of open learning very intriguing. Am I digital visitor or a resident? In my forthcoming book, I explore (among other things) the way cognitive mapping works to help people navigate their place in the cultural landscape of a community; I’m especially interested in the way that our attachments to physical places serve as mnemonics for experiences or events (both positive and negative) crucial to identity formation, especially civic and racial identities. Among other things, I consider the way parades function—a group of people processing deliberately by iconic buildings and monuments serves to inscribe shared values on the landscape but also works to unite the marchers and the watchers as members of an imagined community. (People can also be excluded from participating and have traumatic memories of events and places.) I wonder if a similar kind of attachment and identity can be formed in online spaces. Seems plausible, right? If I consider the web a place and participate in certain online communities, then I’m having experiences and making relationships that shape my identity as a member of those communities. The piece I’m puzzling out concerns the mnemonic structures. What takes the role of the physical marker, the iconic building or monument or sign? Is it the architecture of a web domain? The WordPress page, the Twitter profile, the Facebook page?

To explore these ideas further, I decided to delve into visitor and resident mapping exercises. Through the Open Learning17 cMOOC, I had already read Laura Gogia’s post on V&R mapping, and she led me to read Donna Lanclos’s keynote on Teaching, Learning, and Vulnerability, which included more on mapping exercises, as well as a Periscope of Bonnie Stewart’s recent presentation at Keene State (slidedeck here) and David White’s various posts and videos at JISC. (These folks all know each other and work together in various ways and so if you follow my trail, you’ll quickly see the interconnectedness of these sources.)


My Visitor/Resident map, April 2017

A mapping exercise is a great way to visualize one’s own practices online and reflect on them. Here’s what mine looks like. It wasn’t difficult to do—the hard part was finding the colored markers (fortunately I have a daughter who’s a tween). It corroborates my approach, which has been to keep most of my personal stuff, well, personal. Note I have almost nothing in the upper-left corner. I don’t do Facebook or Instagram, but I am considering Tumblr as a way to share certain photos and curate digital images and such. I could do more with Twitter: the map shows my personal activity: I also manage two other Twitter accounts, one for an organization and one for a group on campus, but those don’t count because I’m not ‘me’ when I’m tweeting under those handles. Could I do more with LinkedIN? Should I? I am hopeful that my blog will become more ‘residential’ in the future.

Why Twitter? I joined in 2012 and I consciously chose it because I wanted (ok, needed) to connect to other scholars who were working on public history, collective memory, race, and place. It also connected me to a group of administrators in public higher ed who share my concerns about defunding, attacks on liberal education, adjunctification, student debt, inclusivity, and myriad other challenges. Sometimes, the two communities even intersect, as they have in recent conversations about memorials to slaveholders and white supremacy on campuses. And that topic brings me back to physical markers that serve as mnemonics for individual and group identity formation.


Facebook flyer posted on a glass door. Image from Flickr, CC license.

Obviously, there are no physical markers on the Web. But there are visual markers that tell us, whether we are visitors or residents, where we are. There are signposts and trails everywhere. And the current fascination with personal branding, even in the hallowed halls of Academe, reflects the recognition that our digital identities are tied to, derive from, and are shaped by the markers evident in the myriad digital spaces we enter. Having a consistent brand (same color or font, photo, logo) is imperative, it seems, as we travel around the internet. My undergraduate students understand the way visual markers work to create digital identities, but at this stage of their lives they seem more interested in promoting multiple selves than in crafting a coherent persona.


My current Twitter header etc.

My identity on Twitter, the place I reside most, is still evolving. I chose a photo that depicts me talking and gesturing with my hand because I happen to be a talker and gesturer. My profile includes words that chiefly convey my professional identity yet there is a nod to my private self in the references to my coffee addiction. Coffee isn’t unique to me, but it is actually a significant part of who I am and how I spend my time. The photo of the coffee cup I took on a visit to Charleton’s Coffee House in Colonial Williamsburg, so it also serves as a mnemonic for me of that trip and a physical place (Williamsburg) that is crucial to my professional identity since I went to W&M and worked at CW.

When I go to my Twitter site, I see signs of who I am IRL and I assume others see them, too. But I’m not aggressive in promoting my self this way and perhaps other residents will see me as merely a visitor as a result. In her Keene State talk, Bonnie Stewart noted that open citizenship occurs in “quantified” spaces. The number of followers you have, the number of comments posted, these quantities influence how others see you and whether they will interact with you or not. So those numbers serve as visual markers of your identity, except they are created by others.

Something happens when you move out from your own Twitter timeline and enter a communal space like the one defined by #openlearning17. There, I see familiar “faces,” meaning the digital identities of other members of this online community, and I remember who is who by virtue of their profiles and handles. The people in that digital space are different each time, but the place is always the same—the white Twitter boxes, the blue Twitter bar, the navigation buttons, the bird. I see the same thing when I check in over at #twitterstorians or #AACU17 or even #JMU. It’s a corporate space, designed FOR users, not BY users. I can’t get lost in the Twitterverse, not really. The markers always tell me where I am and who.

It’s a Real Thing: Open Pedagogy

About three years ago, I recreated my own domain. I had had a fairly extensive website back in the late 1990s, when Web 1.0 ruled the universe, but when I came to JMU in 2005, I found that faculty overwhelmingly used Blackboard and hid their syllabi and assorted pedagogical aids away from public sight. It has been interesting to watch the shift toward open ed occurring here in the last decade. As more and more faculty, generally the younger ones, experimented more and more with WordPress and Omeka and similar tools, I did, too. And as I added blogging assignments, digital exhibits, and web-based portfolios to my classes, I realized that it was high time to put my own self out there again. How could I ask my students to create their own domains and post their own work under their own names if I was not willing to do the same thing myself?

I admit that I’m still anxious about the kinds of privacy and surveillance issues that Audrey Watters raises in her recent keynote, Ed-tech in a Time of Trump, but that anxiety is now part of my approach to open pedagogy, which I understand to be a real thing, after all:

I love that you’re like ‘I didn’t know there was a name for it.’ There is a name for it, as soon as I pretend there’s a name for it. Open Ped is kind of in a phase where it’s becoming a thing, but it may or may not actually be a thing. I don’t know when you get to say something is a thing. Robin DeRosa

In my Introduction to Public History, students create their own web domains as their semester-long project. I have an undergraduate working with me, Edel Rimando, who is serving this semester as a fellow in the Digital Communication (DigiComm) Center. It’s a sweet deal: she is an effective peer mentor, since she is one of them, and she holds her own consultation hours in addition to leading three (three!) hands’ on workshops in class. The first time I assigned students to create websites I required them to use WordPress, which is my preferred platform, however, I was not comfortable enough with the myriad options to be an effective guide. The second time, I allowed them to choose between WordPress and Wix and Weebly, the drag-and-drop options that DigiComm recommends to first-timers. All of the students in that class chose Wix or Weebly, so this semester, that is what we (Edel and I) went with. I don’t use them and I don’t like them for all the reasons DeRosa notes in her interview, but they are user-friendly, efficient, and get the job done.


Last semester’s Intro to Public History class working on their domain projects.

The students have freedom to design their domains as they want. We discussed professional designs, branding, and so forth. We also discussed some basic ways to protect privacy. Each person has to have a simple resume and a biographical statement that explains what the site’s function will be. Is it merely to fulfill this class’s requirement or will he or she use it to curate excellent work from multiple classes? Many of my students are public history concentrators, so they have required internships for which they have to create a blog, which they can link to their domain. Other students are in the teaching licensure program and create links to lesson plans they have made, while others still are in graphic design and use their domains to showcase their commercial work. I have been amazed at the range of talents and projects that my students showcase on their domains–from photography to music videos to traditional research papers.

To meet the outcomes for public history the students must include two projects specific to this class’s content. The first is an analysis of a city block in downtown Harrisonburg; each student is assigned a section of an historic fire insurance map that documents how a block appeared ca 1960 and then she has to physically walk the block today paying attention to and interpreting changes in the cultural landscape from then to now. Although the students initially produce traditional written essays, they are actually generating content for their individual domains. Transforming that essay, with its written text and digital maps and photographs, into a webpage poses an interesting and instructive challenge that fits the open pedagogy model in the way it employs a learner-driven process and connects to the wider public. The assignment asks them to consider writing for a public audience instead of me, their professor, and to play with design and navigability among other things. By putting their work online they are clearly doing a kind of public history, although they understand that they are not doing digital public history in the sense of inviting the public to participate in the project or comment on their work. The project does not, in other words, involve the community itself, and I can only say “next time” to that criticism.


Rear view of Montpelier showing location of historic slave quarter, which is under reconstruction.

A second project that they must complete offers a different challenge. It involves a field trip to Montpelier, the home of James and Dolley Madision, which serves as a case study for many of the different branches of public history we study: historic preservation, historic house museums, exhibit design, virtual tourism,, archaeology. In effect, they choose a particular aspect of public history that appeals to them and they use their visit as an opportunity to explore how that aspect works at an actual historic site. Of course, they must then figure out to present their analyses on their domains. Although they have examples and a rubric, I try not to direct them too much. They need to feel ownership and have agency for the assignment to succeed.

As they build their sites they work with their fellow classmates, not just me and Edel. I requested and got approval to teach in one of JMU’s EPIC classrooms, which has six tables or pods seating six students each. During the regular class meetings, students plug their laptops into the various outlets and take turns projecting their screens to a wall-mounted monitor. As they work through in-class digital exercises and discuss readings, they have been building a sense of community that will serve them in good stead when they present their domains in the final weeks of class. These days have been scheduled well in advance and serve as design charettes. Each student’s URL will be added to a common Google doc so that the entire audience can navigate along with the presenter and provide feedback to be used prior to final submission for grading.

This assignment, well, this entire class isn’t nearly as open as it could be or I’d like it to be. In other classes I have experimented with different open pedagogical practices, baby-stepping my way toward something more radical. I appreciated reading about Robin DeRosa’s extreme makeover: pedagogy edition and seeing her candid acknowledgement of the time it takes to build your network of outsiders who are willing to participate in the students’ open learning experience. I also found it helpful to think about the tension between content transfer and skill development in many courses, especially upper-level ones in the major, as mine is. Content transfer has definitely taken a back seat to community building and students’ self-efficacy. My role is that of facilitator, and despite my worries about the risks (privacy, surveillance, trolls) associated with open learning, I find the whole open pedagogy thing energizing.


Open Learning, Digital Citizenship, & Political Citizenship

NOTE: For week three of the #OpenLearning17 cMOOC, I was supposed to read Doug Engelbart, Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework (excerpts online). But I got sidetracked, as I often do, by other readings. Imagine my surprise, however, to find Englebart everywhere I looked.

I’ve been recently thinking about the relationship between open learning, digital citizenship, and political citizenship. At JMU, I’ve been leading efforts to advance the civic engagement of our undergraduates and I’ve been involved in digital humanities work in the College of Arts and Letters. These interests grow out of my training in American Studies and public history, both of which are interdisciplinary endeavors that seek to involve ordinary Americans in shaping a more accurate, more sophisticated understanding of our shared past. In case it isn’t evident, American Studies scholars and public historians alike have been actively engaged online, whether digitizing collections, hosting MOOCs, or blogging about their work. In fact, I was motivated to join the #openlearninghub in part because I wanted to learn from academics doing digital work in other fields. How, I wonder, can we leverage the positive human relationships that many people build online to foster effective participation in the traditional modes of politics that undergird our representative democracy?


icitizen swag surrounds my James Madison bobblehead. It’s a real-time, digital polling tool that facilitates open communication and collaboration between citizens and their elected leaders to shape the policies that affect their lives. https://icitizen.com/

The specific prompt was Autumm Caines’ blog post on digital citizenship (#digciz), which led me to her website and course syllabus. She argues that higher ed offers an important opportunity to help young people develop a better sense of their rights and responsibilities in digital environments. Her work put me in mind of another essay I was reading at the time, Joseph Kahne, Ellen Middaugh, and Danielle Allen, “Youth, New Media, and the Rise of Participatory Politics,” in From Voice to Influence (2015). All the evidence points to the growing power of digital networks for political organizing. Groups around the world are using new media, mobilizing applications like Twitter and Facebook to create protests as they did so effectively during the Arab Spring and the Women’s Marches. Evidence also indicates that young people are the ones most effectively using their digital networks for more than mere social interaction. They forward weblinks from Huffington Post, create and circulate political memes, like each others’ Instagram images, contribute to polls at icitizen, and sign online petitions at Move.org. Unfortunately, young people are also the most disengaged from traditional political life, even as they constitute the largest single demographic.

To better understand youth activity online (and my own geezer brand of activity, lol), I have turned to the work of Howard Rheingold, the man who seems to have coined the term virtual communities. In particular, his adaptation of the concept of the panopticon to the digital world affirmed my own concerns about corporate surveillance, but his argument for greater mindfulness in Net Smart is even more intriguing. For Rheingold, online networks are not only essential to our private success (and personal empowerment), but the public good. He says, “I believe that learning to live mindfully in cyberculture is as important to us as a civilization as it is vital to you and me as individuals.” (NetSmart, p1)

For me, the common thread for these writers is connected learning. I wasn’t at all surprised to see that Rheingold cited Doug Engelbart, for example, or to find Henry Jenkins’ work on participatory culture in both Rheingold and Allen et al. Caines, similarly, teaches Rheingold in her #digciz course and is co-director of VConnecting, a global initiative that hosts informal virtual meetings between people attending academic conferences and those who can not attend. I confess I’m still trying to figure out how all these individuals and their ideas and their activities intersect, but so far they have inspired me to put together a draft syllabus for a course called Citizenship in the Digital Age. I’ll put details in a future post. For now, though, here are some of the salient bits:

Potential Readings

Foundational documents like the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, Federalist 10; as well as court cases

American Studies texts like: Crevecoeur, What is an American?; Emerson, The American Scholar;  DuBois

Essays by Danielle Allen, Howard Rheingold

Robert Putnam, Bowling Alone

For several  years now, I’ve had students posting to a common course blog and/or creating their own web domains (Shout out to my fellow Virginians over at University of Mary Washington and the Domain of One’s Own project). So this course also will include social media and new tools associated with “civictech,” such as icitizen and Ballotready and Turbovote.

If you have good ideas for other readings and assignments, please let me know.

Associative trails in the post-notecard age


From Life Magazine, Nov. 11, 1945

Like other scientists involved in producing weapons of mass destruction for WWII, Vannevar Bush eventually issued a clarion call to his colleagues to create “pacific instruments,” namely machines capable of collecting “the inherited knowledge of the ages.” This week I read his famous July 1945 essay, “As We May Think” and immediately recognized his memex as a proto-computer with the ability to create associative trails of information. Unlike the atomic bomb, which Bush oversaw, the memex’s purpose was constructive: by enabling scientists to select, annotate, and associate bits of information from myriad sources, the machine would allow them “to grow in the wisdom of [human] race experience” and “wield that great record [of human knowledge] for his [man’s] true good.” I confess I had to reread the final paragraphs several times to grasp Bush’s meaning; he abruptly shifts from “we” (a pronoun encompassing him and his fellow scientists) to “he” (which references Man or mankind—as in the phrase, “Presumably man’s spirit should be elevated . . . “). Yet, for all his visionary ideas about the future, Bush’s optimism that July was clearly measured. Allied troops had just recently liberated the death camps and he undoubtedly knew more about the genocide than the general public. As director of the Manhattan Project, he also knew that Little Boy was even at that moment being readied for use against Japan. The US was still very much at war. Would mankind “perish in conflict” or “live healthily” ever after?

I found it difficult to read “As We May Think” while questions about our nation’s future are swirling. I live in a blue dot surrounded by a swath of red, an established refugee resettlement community in a historically WASP locale, a college town set in a proud but declining agricultural region. Open learning is central to who I am and what I do here, but many of my neighbors want to close our borders, reject freedom of conscience, and deride long-established scientific and humanistic knowledge. What to do at such a moment? I turn inevitably to my students.

This semester I am teaching Intro to Public History, a survey of the major branches of the field: historic preservation, oral history, museum exhibit design, living history, archives, and so forth. Over the years, I have added a lot of digital content, as well, and once again I am requiring students to create their own websites or portfolios (shoutout to UMW’s Domain of One’s Own for inspiration) as a way to not only acquire new skills but to think carefully about curating their own digital identities. The assignment intersects with Bush’s essay in interesting ways. Besides posting several research projects, they must reflect on the digital traces they have already left behind, the FB likes and Instagram posts, the Amazon purchases and texts and sexts and tweets and all manner of bits and bytes that linger in databases everywhere. The same machines that allow ‘we’ scholars to make associative trails for purposes that serve the public good are also used to data-mine for private profit. There is indeed “a new profession of trailblazers,” as Bush called them, “those who find delight in the task of establishing useful trails through the enormous mass of the common record.” Young people care a great deal about privacy and their personal brands, but they often lack the information or tools they need to protect themselves.

So many new tools exist now. The goal of this week’s openlearninghub exercise was to consider innovative ways of locating, selecting, and processing information. Many years ago when I was dissertating, I relied on two ordinary shoeboxes to hold the hundreds of notecards I needed for my research. The project, a study of cultural identity in a 19thC company town, required me to keep track of thousands of individuals and the million factoids I had gathered about them from census records, parish records, wage records, probate inventories, and oral histories. I also used a relational database called Paradox, which I loaded on a dinosaur of a portable computer, and two file cabinets full of folders containing Xeroxes and pages of longhand notes. But the shoeboxes with their alphabetical dividers were the heart and soul of my “philosophical genealogies.” If I had had a memex, they would have been my code book. Once, my partner-now-husband saw me laying out cards on a table as I struggled to link members of several Dougherty families. He said, “You know, that’s how the Nazis kept track of the Jews. Notecards. I wonder what they would have done with computers.” I think about my notecards a lot these days. The days of notecards are long gone.


Blank notecards with my laptop. Two ways of collecting and associating info.

Parlez-vous open learning?

Way back when I was in my twenties, I traveled to Quebec with some friends. I felt so sophisticated, so grown-up as I tried to use my high-school-plus-one-semester-of-college French language skills. I could order (safely) from a menu; navigate hotel check-in; count money out for a purchase; and interact cordialement with people I met. Of course, it was an illusion–that heady feeling of fluency. I was not then nor have I ever been fluent in French. I wasn’t even proficient. But I tried and it felt good to push myself that way.


So it is with open learning. Over the years I have acquired some of the vocabulary, grammar, and idioms needed to converse in this language, yet I know I am far from proficient.

My goal in joining #OpenLearning17 is simply to become more conversant. At the moment, I have a Twitter account that I use frequently to connect with #twitterstorians, #publichistorians, #genedadministrators (ok, there’s not really a hashtag for that yet, no one wants to admit to being one I guess), and #civicengagement folks as well as a few others. I routinely incorporate digital humanities projects into my classes, and I have a blog that I started one day when I was wondering about my personal brand, whatever that is. Like many academics, I often walk around composing blog posts in my head, but by the time I get in front of my computer, *poof*. Hopefully, this cMOOC will help me find the right words.

How about you? Parlez-vous open learning?