It’s that time of year again, when we return to the classroom and try to make old lessons new. At least in history. Fortunately, that isn’t hard when you teach history of technology. There’s nothing like a rapidly changing contemporary landscape to put past technological developments into new perspective on a continual basis.
This year I’m doing a new course, somewhat cheekily titled “Disasters!” It looks at technological change through the lens of regulatory and social paradigm shifts caused by disasters: environmental, organizational, medical and more. It also shows students how to work with historical newspaper sources and databases, because as we discussed in class earlier this week, one of the key defining elements of a disaster is the public perception of an event as such. We are fortunate enough to now have the London Times Digital Archive for this purpose (prior to this year IIT had only very limited newspaper databases–I hope we’ll be able to get the historical New York Times archive sometime soon, despite its expense).
I’m also teaching my History of Computing course (aka Computing in History), revamped with new articles and learning activities that incorporate just-opened primary documents from my summer trip to the UK National Archives. Later in the semester you’ll be seeing some blog commentary from my students as part of their class assignments.
In fact–students–this post would be a great time for you to test out leaving a comment. You don’t have to use your real name if you don’t want to, but be sure to pick one handle and stick with it for the rest of the semester. Answer this: how many unread messages do you currently have in your main email inbox? For me, it’s 9,607. Yikes.
Don’t worry if your comment doesn’t show up immediately: I need to approve them.
This year, I helped set up a digital humanities speaker series for our department, titled Goals and Boundaries in the Digital Humanities. The series will bring in speakers from inside and outside IIT to discuss the current state of the art in digital humanities and explore disciplinary issues associated with the field. The speakers come from many backgrounds–different academic humanities disciplines, library and archive work, computer science, museum studies, design, and public history.
As I was working on it, I ran into some articles that seemed especially apropos given that our speaker series is part of a larger effort to define what we should be aiming for as we try to create a digital humanities program within the department.
The first looks at the implications of tacit knowledge and the “commonsense” divisions thrown up between being, thinking, doing, and discourse. It struck an especial chord with me because of what I work on–in addition to the implications of race and privilege the author points out, there is a subtly gendered order at work here as well. Framing the debate as being between those who do (hackers) and those who can only sit on the sidelines and talk (yackers) implicitly leverages a long history of gendered categories–from those surrounding masculine professional expertise, to those enabling and privileging amateur tinkering.
The second article is a response to the first that hits on many of my concerns, and additionally points out how queer and postmodern analysis may in fact be deprecated by the hack ideal. I like how this piece encourages us to think about the hidden issues at work in the creation of canonical knowledge in the digital humanities: what exactly do we know as we’re trying to create new knowledge? And how does this old knowledge in fact predetermine much of the new?
I’m sure we’ll discuss these issues (and more) as we proceed through our seminar series. Anyone at IIT (and other local universities) is welcome to attend. The first meeting is on September 20th, in Siegel Hall, room 218 conference room.