Friday, February 18, 2011

What is to be Done for (Almost) Historians? Part II

In part I of this series, I discussed the need for Graduate students to have a venue in which their ideas could be displayed.  Current academic journals, while exemplars of quality product, simply cannot accomodate in their limited 'print' space all the potential great/insightful work  produced in programs across the country and even the world.  Since I am a firm believer that information increases in value exponentially when presented with avenues of circulation, it seems appropriate to me to discuss new methods of bringing graduate work into greater recognition.  

In this post, part II, I want to look at the writings of Yocahi Benkler and the Open Bookmark project in order to begin outlining what form this 'Graduate Journal' might take.  Both are concerned with the production of knowledge that can be shared easily across platforms and populations.  To begin, let's look at what Benkler has to say about journals in the current digital ecology.

In his seminal work, The Wealth of Networks, Benkler is concerned with exploring how the ongoing digital revolution is reconfiguring not only methods of knowledge production, but also the means by which this knowledge is certified and shared.  When looking at the traditional model of academic journal publication, Benkler states that the proprietary model used in the past produced excellent, certified works of scholarship, but at the cost of increasing subscriptions rates that, in effect, mean that poorer institutions and libraries are locked out from accessing the knowledge produced.  Here is an article from the F1000 (the Faculty of 1000 Post Publication Review) magazine, The Scientist, discussing how increased costs have driven many libraries to abandon large numbers of their journal subscriptions.  A quote:
The economic downturn is hitting libraries and hitting them hard. A 2009 global survey of 835 libraries in 61 countries found that nearly one-third of academic libraries saw their budgets reduced by 10 percent or more that year. And journal subscriptions are taking the brunt of that loss: The University of California at San Francisco (UCSF) cancelled 118 print and 115 online subscriptions for 2010, as well as several databases (including Faculty of 1000 Medicine, publisher of The Scientist). Last spring, the University of Washington announced cuts of 1,600 print and electronic journals, databases, and microforms. The University of Virginia library sliced 1,169 journals, the University of Arizona downsized by 650 print and electronic titles, and Georgia State University cut 441 and is now considering the fate of another 1,092. The list goes on and on.     
There are alternatives, however, that attempt to escape the proprietary publishing model, and Benkler discusses the two varieties one will encounter.  The first follows a model closely associated with traditional publishing, but with greater emphasis on utilizing online tools to streamline the submissions and editing process.  Yet these publications require a salaried staff, meaning that funds must be solicited from a combination of grants, subscription fees, and even author fees, in order to produce the finished product.  This ensures some degree of financial stability, yet Benkler is quick to point out that these journals suffer from the 'prestige' problem- since advancement in many academic careers is predicated on being published in a reputable journal, these new journal ventures have an uphill battle to wage in terms of being considered an equal to Nature or Science.  Essentially, this is a problem of 'certification' of knowledge, an issue that will have to be addressed with any potential 'graduate journal' program.  

Photo by Tom Magliery
The second variety described by Benkler follows a model more akin to the free software movement and 'peer production', a central concept in Wealth of Nations, with the example being  On, submissions are not reviewed but instead forced to adopt 'standardized' formatting, in order to prevent fragmentation of styles among the various papers.  Reviews are generated by commentators, with authors encouraged to upload updated or revised papers with their own descriptions on changes made.  The key to this model is that serves a small, specialized community of scholars and researchers who are able to discern good arguments from bad.  Certification of knowledge here is produced after the fact, with the 'gatekeepers' being the actual readers themselves.  As noted in Part I of this series, social media tools are making evaluations of papers occur in rapid timeframes on a far quicker pace than traditional journals allow.  Circulation of the information allows for rapid commentary and 'certification' of the argument presented.  Yet the potential audience for historical works is far greater than the typical physics fare found on (or its cousin for the Social Sciences, the SSRN- the Social Science Research Network), thus we need to consider how best to create a certification process that will filter out the bad or mediocre in favor of good papers.

One last comment from Benkler also highlights a current issue surrounding digital knowledge production- that being the issue of 'tagging' uploaded or self-published work.  The sheer volume of work that is produced and displayed online makes searching for relevant works a difficult and sometimes arcane process.  While I would not advocate trying to establish a standard of 'tagging' (many,  many others have spent a long time on this debate, creating solutions that will be reviewed in a future post in this series), I do want to present this quote from Benkler demonstrating the potential benefit standardized tagging could bring to our profession.
"If scientists and other academics adopt this approach of self-archiving coupled with standardized interfaces for global, well-delimited searches, the problem of lack of access to academic publication because of their high-cost publication will be eliminated." (326)
A lofty goal, but one within reach using the variety of digital tools available.  'Tagging' works also finds parallel in another project I'm very interested in- Open Bookmarks.
Open Bookmarks seeks to establish and promote a standard of electronic 'bookmarking' that would work across all digital platforms and devices and also be easily shareable with others.  For History, this would be a very interesting development.  Many times as a graduate student in reading seminars, I would be amazed at how a single text could be interpreted in different ways based upon the experiences brought to the text by the reader.  (That might be a facepalm moment for some of you, but it is worth stating)  Arguments, footnotes, and passages I found interesting were completely different than what my classmates chose to highlight- not to mention the marginalia.  With the rise of the iPad, Kindle, and other very portable media devices, the possibility of sharing ones notes and bookmarks created in a variety of texts promises to dramatically increase the circulation of ideas- so long as there is a coherent system that allows one to cut through the digital 'noise'.  Here are four questions the Open Bookmarks blog believes everyone should ask of new book products or services:
Can I export my bookmarks? If you’ve highlighted or annotated text in an ereader, can you save, email and share these? Can I expose my reading list? If you’ve read a load of books, where can you or other people see these? Where’s the privacy feature? If I’m sharing or saving my bookmarks, who controls who sees them?  Where’s the backup? If this ereader or service tanks tomorrow, what happens to my bookmarks? 
This is an incredibly brief list, which points towards the central question of Open Bookmarks: who owns your bookmarks? The answer should be you, and the questions above help tease out the answer.
Let's summarize what this post covered- we know from part I that graduate students produce a large volume of work, little of which can be shared via traditional academic journals.  There exists other models of publication that circumvent, in varied degrees, the problems encountered in proprietary journals.  Online collaborative tools promise to make this barrier to publication melt away, but only if these same tools allow users to 'certify' the knowledge of the arguments presented, as well as facilitate easy sharing of notes and 'bookmarks' so that others can easily see what specifically drove one users comments or views.    By creating a standardized 'tagging' system, we can ensure that works are easily indexed and shared, increasing the circulation of ideas and dramatically speeding up both innovations and critiques.  

Weekend Reading 18 February 2011

For this installment of Weekend Reading, I present: two blogs, one journal article, and another piece by Amy Knight concerning the recent act of terrorism carried out at Moscow's Domodedovo Airport.  Good stuff all around, so enough dawdling- to the blogs!

One of the most visited set of posts here at Peasant Muse are my explorations on boardgames as complex cultural artifacts.  (Visit Part I and Part II)  Increasingly, I find myself interested in how games allow an individual to create and interpret a view of the past by constructing a narrative through play.  That's why I was excited to come across Play the Past, a collaborative blog that discusses some of the deeper issues encountered in gaming.  One example of the type of material they produce would be "Seeing Like Sim City" by Rob MacDougall, which looks at the issues of reading code and procedure in game simulations and how they produce a 'de-historicizing' effect through their operation.  A very intriguing blog worthy of your attention. 

The other blog I want to talk about is the newly debuted Russian History Blog.

via archer10
When I started Peasant Muse, there were not a lot of good examples of quality blogs covering topics related to Russian history.  I felt that this was a gross oversight by members of my profession, as more and more people are increasingly turning to online sources to acquire their knowledge of the world and its historical events.  Blogs are less stuffy than traditional academic papers or journals- you can receive instand feedback (some would debate the worth of this feature) and the ability to control not only your words, but also the media presentation elements presented, allows historians, among others, to bring their expertise to a wider audience.  In an era of budget cuts and questions on the relevancy of liberal arts education, the more exposure we as historians can bring to our profession the better.  The Russian History Blog promises to do just that, and so far they are doing very well.  Right now, there are posts up discussing 'Atrocities in East Prussia, 1914' by Joshua Sanborn (viewpoint provided by a translation of a Russian soldiers war journal) as well as 'Creating Cover Stories: A National Pastime' by Andrew Jenks, discussing  how Yuri Gagarin's historic space flight revealed a contradiction in Soviet politics in that the absolute secrecy surrounding issues of national defense, then proliferating across both the Soviet Union and the USA, often ran aground the desire to share these accomplishments to the larger world public, albeit in a way that still maintained the secrecy by creating a 'distortion zone' around the subjet in question.  A great blog that will, hopefully, spur the development of greater digital awareness by Russian historians.   

Two blogs down, one journal article and Amy Knight to go.

via Timothy Grieg
Digital Culture and Education is the journal I came across after reading Thomas Apperley's  'Gaming Rhythms: Play and Counterplay from the Situated to the Global'- he is a co-editor of the journal, which covers "the impact of digital culture on identity, education, art, society,  culture and narrative within social, political, economic, cultural and historical contexts."  The article I want to pull out from the latest edition is "Digital Publics and Participatory Education."  Here is a quote from the article:
A key part of the curricular approach, therefore, involved intentional forays into public spaces—both material and digital. While explorations of local publics were crucial to this approach (via activities such as observational note-taking in public spaces), we focus here on the ways that sociotechnical networks enabled student participation in broader digital publics—specifically through continual student engagement and conversation within Google Reader [], our collaborative course blog, 'Repurposed' [], and backchannel interactions on the microblogging site Twitter []. Work on our collaborative course blog was very much structured as a public writing project from the outset—all student work created in conjunction with the blog was and still is fully public and available at any time by anyone. Students were given an opportunity to choose a pseudonym for the public writing they produced, but most chose not to do so.
When I was taking a graduate course on Higher Education Pedagogical Practice, we discussed methods of getting students to participate using digital sources.  With the ubiquitous rise of 'smartphones', students of the future will want to have on-line access to course materials and assignments.  Finding ways to get students more engaged- a constant challenge- involves meeting them on ground of which they are familiar.  This article does a great job describing the digital process of having students engage in 'participatory education'.  Definitely a worthy read.

Last, but not least, is Amy Knights new article in the New York Review of Books Blog, "Why the Kremlin Cain't Fight Terrorism".

Knight addresses the question of why Russia's security forces seem so inept at preventing terror plots from hatching across the nation.  As usual, Knight brings some much needed background to an event that many would be quick to write off as terrorism at its worst- as made clear in the article, the blame lies much more with policies of the FSB than with dedicated terror operatives.  A quote:
This alarming lack of vigilance on the part of the security services is eerily reminiscent of earlier attacks, such as the hostage taking at Moscow’s Dubrovka Theater in 2002 by a group of Chechen terrorists. No one was ever able to explain how the perpetrators, some of whom had earlier been in police custody and then released, managed to gather in Moscow for several months before the attack without attracting the attention of the security services. Similarly, in the case of the terrorist siege of the school in Beslan, North Ossetiya in September 2004, most of the large group of attackers—there were believed to be between thirty and fifty—had been living for several weeks in the woods in the neighboring republic of Ingushetiya without being detected. This, despite the fact that Ingushetiya was on high terrorist alert. The terrorists even managed to conceal a large number of weapons in the school before the attack. It is difficult to explain such incompetence, given the vast investigative and punitive powers of the security services. Whether in some cases the police or security officers are bribed by insurgents or whether they are simply negligent, they are rarely punished.
That's all for this installment of Weekend Reading- those lucky enough to have President's Day (US Holiday) off, take advantage of your three-day weekend.  Maybe by taking some time and reading what I posted above?  Now that's a productive plan.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Wednesday Videos: High Speed and DIY Scanners Edition

I want to say 'hello' to any new viewers of the Muse- I have recently been so honored as to have a link to this blog displayed on the newly debuted '', and traffic here has spiked due to the exposure.  Welcome!  Peasant Muse does indeed talk about Russian history, but also covers subjects like the 'Digital Humanities' and the digital revolution reconfiguring the way we interact and produce knowledge at a fundamental level.  I use this blog to help articulate my ideas on these subjects, so feel free to comment if you have a critique or additional information I should read.  

On (most) Wednesdays, I post videos on a variety of topics.  Today, I've found two good examples for viewing: one uber high-speed camera footage that, run at normal speed of 30-32 fps, brings new meaning to slow motion, the other a great introduction to a DIY project that puts the means, once reserved for the expensive Google Books project, to scan titles within the reach of mere mortals.  

First, Tom Guilmette and his adventures with the new Phantom Flex in a Vegas hotel room. 

Way too cool.  The next video is Daniel Reetz showing off his DIY book scanner design at the Berkman Center at Harvard.  More info can be found at his site, - check it out if you need a fun project that will definitely impress your nerdy friends.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Weekend Reading for 4 February 2011

Friday is here, and for most of you it comes with a douse of super cold air and possible snowflakes aplenty.  Not for me mind you- there are definitely advantages to living in the Columbia Valley, one of them being fairly steady temperatures at around 40 degrees.  Yeah, it rains but not that much (generally) and it definitely makes you appreciate the sun- but it rarely goes below freezing and that is something I can get behind.  (Although the Kansan in me does occasionally miss the cold- but just occasionally)

But on to the Weekend Reading.

via Margo Conner
I really only have one source to point out, but woah it is a doozy!  Jonathan Stray, an editor for the AP who blogs about digital culture issues and journalism, recently put together a reading list for what he terms 'computational journalism'.  Here is a quote from his post, explaining the purpose of pulling together this list:
There is something extraordinarily rich in the intersection of computer science and journalism. It feels like there’s a nascent field in the making, tied to the rise of the internet. The last few years have seen calls for a new class of  “programmer journalist” and the birth of a community of hacks and hackers. Meanwhile, several schools are now offering joint degrees. But we’ll need more than competent programmers in newsrooms. What are the key problems of computational journalism? What other fields can we draw upon for ideas and theory? For that matter, what is it? 
I’d like to propose a working definition of computational journalism as the application of computer science to the problems of public information, knowledge, and belief, by practitioners who see their mission as outside of both commerce and government. This includes the journalistic mainstay of “reporting” — because information not published is information not known — but my definition is intentionally much broader than that. To succeed, this young discipline will need to draw heavily from social science, computer science, public communications, cognitive psychology and other fields, as well as the traditional values and practices of the journalism profession.
I am particularly interested in the 'Vizualization' section, as that directly concerns some of my efforts in bringing the study of Russian peasants to a larger audience through more accessible media than books or lectures.  Lots of good choices here, and definitely something worthy of any historians attention.   

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Android Finally Has Blogger App

I'm typing this post on my Samsung Moment (the slow soldier) using the recently unveiled Blogger app for Android.  Seems a little strange this wasn't done sooner, given the power of cellular mobility- not a lot of options posting-wise.  No choice of font for text- you can add a photo from your mobile camera, or select one from the gallery on your phone. 
Could be cool- just have to wait and see.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Wednesday Videos 2 February 2011

Another Wednesday, another set of *very cool* videos.  By *very cool* I mean one interesting lecture and two interesting 'artsy' selections from my Vimeo account.  First, the lecture.

John Palfrey is the new Henry N. Ess III Professor of Law at Harvard, and this is his opening lecture discussing how he sees the legal practice entering a new digital age, with digital  information techniques reshaping the way the law is carried out.  Obviously, the digital revolution will reconfigure any profession that deals primarily with knowledge or the production of knowledge, and John Palfrey should be commended for his attempt to outline a path towards the future for law across this country.  

And now for something completely different.  

And for an encore, I present such a badass video using scenes from Blade Runner.