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.

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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.