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.

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.

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 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?

Quads as Symbols of Liberal Learning

We recently ended Springboard, a series of thirteen days in June and July that are designed to welcome freshmen to campus and provide a key part of their orientation programming. Organized by our Orientation Office in conjunction with Admissions, the advising centers, the academic colleges, and my unit, University Programs, it affords my colleagues and me an opportunity to talk directly to students and their parents about academic expectations here and the value of a liberal education. I only get ten minutes, so I try to make it count by focusing on a few “mental images” as takeaways.

Here’s what I said:

“Welcome, class of 2019! I’m honored to be here representing the faculty. To give you a sense of scale: there are more than 960 FT instructional faculty here and more than 400 part-time instructors. It’s a big place! And a rich, vibrant academic community. My goal this morning is for you to understand what an academic community is. If you’ll humor me for just a minute, I’d like you picture our beautiful Quad. Go ahead, close your eyes. See the broad expanse of lawn. The bluestone buildings on all four sides (cuz it’s a quadrangle). They house dormitories, classrooms, computer labs, and offices. Once upon a time, the only dining hall was there, the library, too. Now picture other quads you know. Maybe UVa’s Grounds, designed by Thomas Jefferson. My own alma mater, the University of Delaware, has two quadrangles. Think: Harvard yard, Oxford, Hogwarts. Quads are everywhere in the landscape of American higher education because they are deeply symbolic spaces. Tracing back to the medieval period, they are echoes of the great European cloisters and universities, living and learning communities where groups of scholars came together in the spirit of contemplation, study, and research.”


Architect’s conjectural drawing of the quad in 1908. Then, the fourth side was left open following UVAs example in order to signify a welcoming community appropriate for a democracy. Of course it wasn’t really open: only white women could attend then. But that’s another blog post.

“You’re here today because you’ve chosen to join our academic community. Chosen is the operative word. You are not actually required to be here! There are no laws requiring Americans to attend college. No truant officers will show up at your parent’s door if you skip classes for a few weeks. There are no state mandated SOL tests and no single set of subjects that everyone must take. For the first time in your lives, YOU are the sole person responsible for your education.”

“Because you have voluntarily chosen to enroll here, the faculty have high expectations for you. It’s not like high school, even if you have dual enrollment or AP credit, trust me. For one thing, you were ALL tops in your high school classes. We received about 26,000 applications to produce a freshman cohort of about 4300. So congratulations. But now you’ll have to step up your game. For another thing, this is a university. That word has meaning, too–it’s not a synonym for college. By definition a university is a place that grants graduate degrees—we create new knowledge here. That’s why we call ourselves professors–the faculty profess expertise in their research fields; we are scholars as well as dedicated teachers. And we expect you to join us in doing research. Ok, maybe not freshman year, but certainly when you’re in those 300- and 400-level seminars. Our undergraduates are studying everything from nanotechnology to genocide in Bosnia. A university also offers study abroad experiences, internships, and service-learning projects. To succeed, you’ll want be active not passive learners.”


The Quad today.

“In choosing to join this academic community, you have chosen to acquire a liberal education, not job training or a piece of paper. I’m talking now about the stuff that prepares you to be an educated and enlightened citizen, like it says in JMU’s mission statement. Like the Quad, this kind of self-reflective, analytical education has been a hallmark of American colleges and universities since the colonial era. It prepares you to be an effective participant in a free society–and that’s why you can’t get this education in many parts of the world today. Now, here’s another thought exercise for you: it’s 1769; picture a short, skinny, knobby-kneed seventeen-year old boy leaving his home in rural Virginia and traveling by carriage all the way to far off, exotic New Jersey. Talk about culture shock! The boy was James Madison and like some of you he didn’t know exactly what he wanted to be when he grew up. At that time, the College of New Jersey (now Princeton) was known for producing Presbyterian ministers. (Apparently, William and Mary was a party school then.) Fortunately for us, he didn’t follow that path. But he did acquire a liberal education, one that enabled him to become one of the most original political thinkers in the world. JMU provides the same kind of liberal arts and sciences curriculum Madison knew, though can rest easy knowing we’ve updated it for the needs of the 21st century. We call it General Education: The Human Community, and it’s a vital part of your degree, a whopping one-third of it, in fact. It’s that important.”

“Despite what you hear in the media, public opinion research tells us a liberal education is also the best preparation for long-term career success you can get. Here’s a shocking statistic: by age 39, the average American with a BA or BS degree will have held between 10-14 different jobs. You can’t know what those jobs will be. None of us knows what jobs lie ahead, not even employers. In a January 2015, researchers interviewed more than 400 employers across all sectors. Do you know what they said they look for in hiring new employees? A little more than 60% said they valued ‘broad, comparative knowledge’ and ‘cross-cutting skills’ like writing and critical thinking over narrow technical competence, which they intend to teach you themselves. So think about the value of your entire degree. As we like to say here, your major will help you get your first job, but a liberal education equips you for a lifetime of employment.”


Students studying and relaxing on the Quad in front of Wilson Hall.

“But I know you aren’t thinking about the workplace today! You’re ready to meet your Orientation Peer Advisors and get your JAC cards. Just do this one thing for me: when you leave Wilson Hall today, take a good look at that Quad again and remember what it symbolizes–Your academic community!”