15 February 2017

Teaching After Trump: Digital Preservation

I wrote a post last week about how I walked into class with a lecture outline and the plans to talk about sustainability and preservation in digital humanities and found myself speechless as I realized the landscape was shifting under my feet.

The following class meeting was committed to a visit to our library's rare books room; we have a small collection, useful for teaching, of manuscript leaves and early printed books that really helpful to have in conjunction with digital reproductions on Early English Books on Line and the British Library.

But for the next week, I wrote a lecture. After 25 years in the classroom, I usually write an outline, not a lecture. But this one, I needed to get right. Here's a portion of my comments to the class.


I have long had a policy of not talking directly about politics in class. But right now, we're in a situation where what is going on is too important not to talk about. Also, I have tenure, so I can talk about politics. Therefore, it seems to me, in the current situation, I must.

The new administration has removed information on a wide variety of topics from the White House website. The presidential website of the previous administration (archived here, but no longer live) includes sections on civil rights, climate change, education, health care, immigration, disabilities, ethics, equal pay, veterans, and women's issues.

The current site has eliminated all of these sections, leaving references only to energy, foreign policy, jobs and trade, law enforcement, and a strong military (but not veterans).

Meanwhile, the new regime has instructed officials at the National Parks, the Department of Transportation, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Agriculture, the National Institutes of Health, and several other federal organizations to freeze communications: no press releases, no peer-reviewed publications, no tweets, no blog posts, until new policies governing the release of information can be put in place.

That has not happened yet.

Meanwhile, National Parks employees who tweeted climate data were forced to delete those tweets, leading to the creation of rogue accounts like @BadHombreNPS and @AltUSNatParkService. These might be run by parks employees; no one is sure.

The day after the inauguration, Trump’s press secretary went on the news and insisted that the crowds attending the inauguration were “the largest ever” despite aerial photos, Metro statistics about numbers of riders, and police estimates suggesting it wasn’t true. Trump has long been tweeting pretty much whatever he feels like, with little regard for the truth.

Most recently, Trump issued an executive order banning Muslim (but not Christian) people from certain countries from entering the US, even if they held green cards. The US Attorney General, Sally Q. Yates, called this unconstitutional and issued a stay of the order, and Trump fired her.

Trump’s attack on truth is comparable to what has been done under previous totalitarian regimes. A totalitarian government is centralized, controls the flow of information, allows no dissent or criticism of the people in power. Trump’s attempts to discredit legitimate journalism and science are comparable to efforts in other totalitarian regimes of the past to silence anyone with dissenting views.

Trump has appointed Steve Bannon to the National Security Council, a move without precedent but one that gives significant power to the head of Breitbart News, a corporation dedicated to expressing rage against women, people of color, and non-Christians.

Trump’s demands that National Parks employees delete tweets and stop communicating with the public recall book burnings that occurred across German cities in 1933.

Hitler was appointed Chancellor in January and appointed Joseph Goebbels to institute a massive propaganda campaign. In May, across the country, people went into bookstores and libraries and took out books deemed "un-German" -- written by foreigners, Jews, liberals, pacifists -- and burned them.

As I wrote in my last post, teaching just got a lot harder. And teaching students to be critical consumers of on-line information just got a lot more crucial.

26 January 2017

Teaching After Trump: What Is A Book?

When I teach courses on medieval literature and the environment, I know that there are issues that are going to intersect with contemporary politics that I have to navigate with caution. But yesterday, when it dawned on me in the middle of a class meeting that "What Is A Book?" is political, I was pretty well blind-sided.

The course looks at the transitions from manuscript to print and from print to digital, and tries to throw codicology, history of the book, and digital humanities in the air together to see what kinds of configurations stuff drops into. I've taught the course only once before, four years ago, so I'm still in a very fluid period of making stuff up as I go along.

Yesterday we were looking at the Appendix to Cathy Davidson's Now You See It: How Technology and Brain Science Will Transform Schools and Business for the 21st Century. My students all know that technology is terrible because it makes us distracted, but Davidson engages with the prophets of doom and makes a good case that there are also things to value, and rather than rejecting it, we should engage with technology and figure out what it can do.

The Appendix turns out to be a good introduction to the book, and the course, because it lists "Twenty-First Century Literacies" like attention, collaboration, global consciousness, and ethics. It raises good topics for discussion and gets the students and me pretty quickly beyond the problems of how social media and mobile devices are distracting us into other issues involving the ethics and affordances of technology.

The night before class, I'd spent half an hour or so on Twitter following the new president's gag order on US scientific agencies and national parks, the scrubbing of anything that could be interpreted as related to climate science from government websites, the silencing of agencies like the USDA and the CDC. (Salmonella, anyone? Zika?)

Davidson lists sustainability and preservation near the end of the appendix. She uses "sustainability" to refer to environmental issues like the amounts of electricity needed to power computers and servers, but digital humanists use the same word to refer to the creation of digital texts and databases in forms that will outlast current hardware and software configurations and still be readable, decades or hopefully even centuries into the future.

The related issue of "preservation" has to do with keeping copies of things -- archiving materials created digitally, as well as figuring out how to keep copies of things that began their life as material objects. If something originally in book form is preserved in pdf, is that the same as the original? What if there are different copies owned by two different people who made notes in the margins? How important are those notes?

Cotton Vitellius A. xv. is the manuscript that contains the unique copy of Beowulf. It was put together, probably in the seventeenth century, out of two different collections written several hundred years before, but a couple hundred years apart from each other. It contains the Nowell Codex, a late tenth- or early eleventh-century copy manuscript of two poems, including Beowulf, and three prose texts. Is that a book? Or is a medieval collection of materials different than what we think of today as "a book"? Are photographs of the Beowulf manuscript the same as the actual manuscript? What if we could print a 3-dimensional copy, retaining the texture of every page?

People who deal with other media ask related questions. Is a CD version of a song the same as its 45 rpm vinyl original? Is a DVD copy of "Singin' in the Rain" the same as a print of the film on several reels of 35mm film?

Preservation also deals with avoiding loss of data, which was a big problem in the early days of computing but is less acute now, when storage is cheap and it's easy to store redundantly. The issue of data that lasts forever, like social media posts that haunt people hunting for a job, looms larger.

So there I was in class, talking about the relatively long life of manuscripts in comparison to things like punch cards and 5 1/4 inch floppy disks and suddenly I apprehended the enormity of the new administration's deliberate suppression and even destruction of information.

I don't know if this material is being mirrored or archived in some other country that's now freeer than the United States or if, horrifyingly, decades of data that the new regime considers to be "alternative facts" or even "a hoax" will simply be destroyed. I don't know what the consequences might be of stopping research in the sciences and humanities dead, and how quickly it might recover if (when?) we get ourselves back on a course of sanity, four years or more from now.

But there I was talking about issues that, six months ago, seemed to have nothing to do with politics in the United States. Yet even though they have nothing to do with hot-button issues like climate science or women's health care, issues of data preservation and sustainability are completely politicized.

It caught me completely by surprise. I hadn't prepared to teach a class that was politically charged, and I found myself floundering. I said that whatever anyone's politics, our classroom had to remain a space for civil discourse. I said that I grade on how persuasively students organize and present their research, not on what their opinions are, and I hoped that students would feel free to disagree, even with me.

I need to do better, though. I need to make it clear that scrubbing websites is comparable to burning books and neither has a place in democracy.

I'm thankful for tenure. I'm thankful that I teach in a university, and a state, that isn't moving to silence its faculty. And I'm deeply sobered and dismayed by the implications. Teaching with integrity used to mean not smoking or sleeping with the students. It's become far more difficult to navigate the environment of alternative realities, suppression of scientific fact, and abrogation of human rights.

I now feel a grave responsibility to step up and state clearly that these things are not right. But I have to do so in a way that maintains respect for students with different views and allows for an open classroom atmosphere, that keeps the classroom a place of inquiry and the development of critical thinking, not a lecture on the ills of the people currently in power.

Teaching just got a whole lot harder.

20 January 2017

Be the Revolution. For My Mom

Last weekend, I went to the NYPL to a rally with Writers Resist and PEN America. PEN president Andrew Solomon commented that it has been, in the past, PEN's mission to protest restrictions on freedom of speech in other countries, that it's shocking that they're now working on that issue in the US. "We must pledge to remain shocked," he said.

Robert Pinsky read a poem written for the occasion, beginning "We choose our ancestors," and quoting from writers who fought for freedom. Michael Cunningham read from Ursula K. LeGuin's novel, The Dispossessed: "You can not buy the Revolution. You can not make the Revolution. You can only be the Revolution."

We now have a new president. I'll be back on the streets tomorrow, marching from the UN to Trump Tower via 42nd Street and Grand Central, where people can go in and warm up. (Want to join in? Sign up here, information here.) I will march to protest the new regime's position on gay rights, women's rights, health care, climate change, voting rights, police violence, refugees ... pretty much the entire platform.

Last week, The Mate was worried about me going off to protest. This despite the fact that I marched often in the 80s, taking the bus from Philadelphia and, later, New York to Washington DC with the National Organization for Women. He joined me often enough.

Frankly, I was worried too. I now need twice-daily medication, I'm a parent, I'm just older and a little more fragile that I was 30 years ago.

Mate said, "This is your mother's fault."

And he's right, it is her fault. She was born in East Prussia in 1939, fled west with her pregnant mother and two younger siblings in late 1944, lived for a while in a refugee camp. Her father fought for the Germans in WWII. Some day I'll go into the archives and find out what he really did -- the stories vary. He died, according to one of the stories, from a sniper bullet on an otherwise quiet day in 1945.

She couldn't choose her ancestors. I can't choose mine. She gives time and money to libraries and schools, in her community in New Hampshire as well as in other countries. She's active in politics and conservation causes. And she raised me to speak up and speak out against injustice, anywhere, all the time.

She'll be marching tomorrow in New Hampshire, all 78 years and 115 pounds of her, feisty and unstoppable. I will march tomorrow in NYC. This one's for you, mom.

14 December 2016

Aleppo and the Children

I read the news from Aleppo -- residential neighborhoods shelled, civilians shot, women committing suicide rather than be raped -- with a heavy, heavy heart.
New York Times
Because, you see, my mother was born in 1939 in what was then called East Prussia and is now Poland, and in 1944, she and her family fled their home ahead of Russian troops moving across the area.

I've heard the stories so many times. Lying in a horse-drawn wagon covered in blankets looking up at the stars, traveling only at night. Saved by a Polish housekeeper (my mother's family is German) who spoke to a guard and got the family through. Three children climbing into the window of the train headed west by their very pregnant mother, who then persuaded the guards to let her on the train as well: "My children are in there." Life as refugees.

Yes, they were Germans. They were on the wrong side. Had they been Jews, of course, it would have been so much the worse for them. But at the same time, my mother and her two, soon to be three, younger siblings, were children, children who saw too much, suffered too much, had too much responsibility.

And so when I hear the news from Aleppo, I think of the children. Children who, if they survive, will bear psychic scars for the rest of their lives.


Is there anything we can do?

In the UK, The Independent recommends people call their ministers of parliament and ask them to start air drops of supplies, and put pressure on the Russian and Syrian governments to end hostilities, so I would think comparable calls to US senators and representatives would be worthwhile.

HuffPo has a list of organizations attempting to give aid in Syria that are taking donations, though at the moment many of them are hamstrung by the level of violence and chaos on the ground.

Of less immediate impact. scientific consensus is that drought in Syria, and the resulting pressure on food and other resources, is a contributing factor. Drought caused by climate change, that is. Educate people you know about the potentially dire impacts of climate change: in some reasons, considerably more drastic than 70-degree days in New York City in November or a little more rain or snow in the winter.

05 December 2016

Green Your Holiday

'Tis the season... of frantic shopping, and of appeals from "green" companies to shop with them rather than the other companies.

Maybe you want to put the brakes on all that consumption. I'm not suggesting you just say "no" to all gift-giving, but there are ways to make it more productive.

1. Give food that you know the recipient will enjoy that's maybe a little fancier and more environmentally friendly than what they'd have consumed anyway. Organic chocolates, fair-trade coffee or tea, a gift certificate to a farmer's market, a month's pick-up from community supported agriculture, a gift certificate at the neighborhood health food store.

In New York, some greenmarkets sell "wooden nickels." You pay with a credit card (there's a small fee that goes to their overhead) and you can buy wooden tokens worth $5 each to use later or give as gifts. Other cities have similar programs.

2. Give time. Commit to helping a friend or family member with cleaning, maintenance, a special home project, or a home-cooked meal.

3. Give donations in people's names, to charities they (and you!) support. Or commit an amount, and have a conversation about where they'd like it sent.

4. If you want to give material gifts, make them yourself or think hard about where you buy them. As with other purchases throughout the year, try to limit shipping, packaging, and other kinds of waste.

5. Recycle wrapping paper: easiest to do if you use bags and tissue paper with no tape. Or buy or make reusable cloth wrapping bags, or use the comics pages from the newspaper, or re-use cardboard boxes and decorate them.

04 December 2016

How to Eat Less Meat

Last week, I wrote that in order to lower your environmental impact, one thing you can do is eat less meat.

If you're thinking that's a good idea, but you're not sure how or whether it's healthy, I'm going to try to answer some potential questions.

How will I get enough protein?

Research about how much protein we need is on-going. Many nutritionists think that most Americans get more protein than they need. But some scientists think more protein is better, as long as it's not meat protein.

The most recent government nutrition guidelines switched from a pyramid to a plate. Half the plate contains fruit and vegetables, the other half whole grains and protein foods. If you're trying to limit meat, veggie burgers and tofu pups are one option, but it's good to mix them up with less processed foods. In any case, it's easy to get plenty of protein from beans, legumes, and nuts.

Back in the 1970s, people believed that vegans had to combine grains and legumes in carefully complementary proportions at every meal to get "complete" proteins. That idea still floats around, though it's been debunked; what vegans need is to eat a variety of different foods across several days to a week. But that's a good idea for everyone.

If you're cutting back on meat, you should think about what you're replacing those calories with. Switching from bacon and eggs to poptarts for breakfast? Probably not a great idea. A bowl of cereal with dried fruit, nuts, and seeds or a couple of pieces of toast with nut butter and sliced bananas would be healthier options.

I feel best on a diet of beans and legumes with lots of greens, and a little bit of whole grains and fruit. But everyone is different. If you cut back on meat without adding other sources of protein, you might find that you get hungry more often; in that case, you might need to make more of an effort to include plant-based proteins in your diet.

The important thing is to find some options that you like. Google "vegan recipes" and make a commitment to yourself to try out one new recipe a month. Or one a week, if you're feeling energetic about it.

Is it healthy?

It's well established that plant-based diets are healthier than diets heavy in meat, and reduce risk for heart attack and stroke, type 2 diabetes, inflammatory disease, and some cancers.

If you cut back on meat and dairy products, but don't cut them out entirely, and replace them with vegetable proteins and whole grains and vegetables, you don't have to worry about anything else.

If you completely cut out animal products, you need to pay attention to your intake of vitamin B12, because deficiency can lead to anemia or nerve damage. Nutritional yeast is one of the only plant sources. Soy milk and cereal and a lot of other foods are fortified with vitamin B12, so if you're eating plenty of those, you could be fine, but pay attention and consider a supplement.

You might also worry about getting enough calcium. Dairy industry advertising implies that you have to drink milk, but there are plant sources as well. Eating meat seems to increase our need for calcium, so vegans might not need as much.  It's in fortified soy products, collard greens, kale, tofu that's been coagulated with calcium sulfate (check the label), and various other greens and legumes. Or you can cover your bets by taking a supplement.

Iron is another potential concern. Cook in a cast iron pan and you'll be fine.

Will it cost me money?

If you buy a lot of faux meat products, maybe. Non-dairy milk substitutes are often more expensive than regular milk, unless you're buying organic milk. Food prices vary widely depending on seasonal availability and where you live.

But right now, the cheapest ground beef from Fresh Direct (which delivers groceries in New York City) is $3.99 a pound. A pound of pinto beans at $2.39 is good for 12 servings; a 15.5 ounce can of cooked pinto beans (3.5 servings) is 99 cents. You can do the math.

How can you tell if someone is vegan?

They'll tell you.

26 November 2016

Green Your Life

Our president-elect believes that climate change is a hoax. He has appointed, as head of the Environmental Protection Agency, a person with degrees in philosophy and political theory who doesn't believe scientific concensus about climate change. He has announced he is going to eliminate funding to the NASA division that studies earth science and gathers basic data on climate, year to year, decade to decade.

He is planning on reopening coal mining and expanding oil drilling and fracking. Climate groups like Sierra Club, the Union of Concerned Scientists, and Greenpeace will be fighting the new administration's proposals, and one way to fight back is to use your holiday gift-giving budget to make donations in the names of friends and family members. Lists of effective groups are here and here and here.

Meanwhile, you can make changes in your own life to reduce your carbon footprint, and encourage friends and family members to make similar changes. Many people making relatively small changes in housing, mobility and food consumption can have more impact than one person making drastic changes. 

1. Reduce your consumption of beef and dairy.

You don't need to go vegan to have an impact. Americans eat almost 215 pounds of meat per year, on average. That's 9.4 ounces per day: two and a half quarter pounders, four 6" turkey sandwiches from Subway, or nine slices of bacon. Cutting your meat consumption in half would have a significant environmental impact. Since lamb, beef, and cheese have the highest emissions of carbon dioxide and methane per pound, switching from steak to chicken wings has almost as much of an effect as going all the way to tofu-burgers.
Bonus: eating less meat is healthier.

2. Drive less.

Half of the trips people make in their cars are three miles or less; a quarter are less than a mile long. You can choose to make some of these trips by bike or on foot. 
If your community doesn't have safe walking or cycling routes, call up your local elected officials and join with other interested citizens. Transportation Alternatives lobbies for safer streets in New York City, and many other communities have similar groups.

Bonus: getting more exercise is healthier.

3. Downsize your house or apartment.

The smaller your living quarters, the less you need to spend on heat and and light. If you're considering a move, think about downsizing rather than upsizing. Meanwhile, switch from incandescent to LED lightbulbs and turn off anything that's not in use. In the winter, put on a sweater and turn the heat down a couple of degrees; in the summer, close the blinds on the sunny side of the house and sip ice water.

Bonus: You'll save money.

4. Don't buy so much stuff.

The businesses that send us all those catalogues and pop-up internet advertising are banking on making you want seasonally colored towels and placemat, clothing in new colors and designs, and yet another gadget for your kitchen. Just say no. 

But how to get off the buying cycle? Every time a catalogue comes in the house, call up the company and tell them to take you off their mailing list. Only buy things that you love, and that you think will last indefinitely. Make a plan that every time you buy something, you have to get rid of something. Want a new pair of shoes? Which pair are you going to get rid of? Contemplating a fancy new garlic peeler or lemon zester? What kitchen gadget will you take to the thrift shop to make room? 

Bonus: You won't need such a big house.


None of this has to be all-or-nothing. You might consider vegetarian breakfast on weekdays, and save the bacon for a Sunday brunch treat. If cooking is Your Thing, don't sweat the gadgets, but get your books from the library and forego another pair of yoga pants. Commit to one small change at a time. If you hate it, try something else. But do something.