Calculating the Middle Ages?

Calculating the Middle Ages? The Project "Complexities and Networks in the Medieval Mediterranean and Near East" (COMMED) [1606.03433] by Johannes Preiser-Kapeller (arxiv.org)
The project "Complexities and networks in the Medieval Mediterranean and Near East" (COMMED) at the Division for Byzantine Research of the Institute for Medieval Research (IMAFO) of the Austrian Academy of Sciences focuses on the adaptation and development of concepts and tools of network theory and complexity sciences for the analysis of societies, polities and regions in the medieval world in a comparative perspective. Key elements of its methodological and technological toolkit are applied, for instance, in the new project "Mapping medieval conflicts: a digital approach towards political dynamics in the pre-modern period" (MEDCON), which analyses political networks and conflict among power elites across medieval Europe with five case studies from the 12th to 15th century. For one of these case studies on 14th century Byzantium, the explanatory value of this approach is presented in greater detail. The presented results are integrated in a wider comparison of five late medieval polities across Afro-Eurasia (Byzantium, China, England, Hungary and Mamluk Egypt) against the background of the {\guillemotright}Late Medieval Crisis{\guillemotleft} and its political and environmental turmoil. Finally, further perspectives of COMMED are outlined.

Network and Complexity Theory Applied to History

This interesting paper (summary below) appears to apply network and complexity science to history and is sure to be of interest to those working at the intersection of some of these types of interdisciplinary studies. In particular, I’d be curious to see more coming out of this type of area to support theses written by scholars like Francis Fukuyama in the development of societal structures. Those interested in the emerging area of Big History are sure to enjoy this type of treatment. I’m also curious how researchers in economics (like Cesar Hidalgo) might make use of available(?) historical data in such related analyses. I’m curious if Dave Harris might consider such an analysis in his ancient Near East work?

Those interested in a synopsis of the paper might find some benefit from an overview from MIT Technology Review: How the New Science of Computational History Is Changing the Study of the Past.

Syndicated copies to:

Git and Version Control for Novelists, Screenwriters, Academics, and the General Public

Revision (or version) control is used in tracking changes in computer programs, but it can easily be used for tracking changes in almost any type of writing from novels, short stories, screenplays, legal contracts, or any type of textual documentation.

Marginalia and Revision Control

At the end of April, I read an article entitled “In the Margins” in the Johns Hopkins University Arts & Sciences magazine.  I was particularly struck by the comments of eminent scholar Jacques Neefs on page thirteen (or paragraph 20) about computers making marginalia a thing of the past:

Neefs believes contemporary literature is losing a valuable component in an age when technology often precludes and trumps the need to save manuscripts or rough drafts. But it is not something that keeps him up at night. ‘The modern technique of computers and everything makes [marginalia] a thing of the past,’ he says. ‘There’s a new way of creation. Some would say it’s tragic, but something new has been invented. I don’t consider it tragic. There are still great writers who write and continue to have a way to keep the process.’

Photo looking over the shoulder of Jacques Neefs onto the paper he's been studing on the table in front of him.
Jacques Neefs (Image courtesy of Johns Hopkins University)

I actually think that he may be completely wrong and that current technology actually allows us to keep far more marginalia! (Has anyone heard of digital exhaust?) The bigger issue may be that many writers just don’t know how to keep a better running log of their work to maintain all the relevant marginalia they’re actually producing. (Of course there’s also the subsequent broader librarian’s “digital dilemma” of maintaining formats for the future. As an example, thing about how easy or hard it might be for you to read that ubiquitous 3.5 inch floppy disk you used in 1995.)

A a technologist who has spent many years in the entertainment industry, I feel compelled to point everyone towards the concept of revision control (or version control) within the realm of computer science.  Though it’s primarily used in tracking changes in computer programs and is often a tool used by large teams of programmers, it can very easily be used for tracking changes in almost any type of writing from novels, short stories, screenplays, legal contracts, or any type of textual documentation of nearly any sort.

Example Use Cases for Revision Control

Publishing

As a direct example, I’m using what is known as a Git repository to track every change I make in a textbook I’m currently writing.  I can literally go back and view every change I’ve made since beginning the project, so though I’m directly revising one (or more) text files, all of my “marginalia” and revisions are saved and available.  Currently I’m only doing it for my own reference and for additional backup not supposing that anyone other than myself or an editor possibly may want to ever peruse it.  If I was working in conjunction with otheres, there are ways for me to track the changes, edits, or notes that others (perhaps an editor or collaborator) might make.

In addition to the general back-up of the project (in case of catastrophic computer failure), I also have the ability to go back and find that paragraph (or multiple pages) I deleted last week in haste, but realize that I desperately want them back now instead of having to recreate them de n0vo.

Because it’s all digital, future scholars also won’t have problems parsing my handwriting issues as has occasionally come up in differentiating Mary Shelley’s writing from that of her husband in digital projects like the Shelley Godwin Archive. The fact that all changes are tracked and placed in a tree-like structure will indicate who wrote what and when and will indicate which changes were ultimately accepted and merged into the final version.

Screenplays in Hollywood

One particular use case I can easily see for such technology is tracking changes in screenplays over time.  I’m honestly shocked that every production company or even more likely studios don’t use such technology to follow changes in drafts over time. In the end, doing such tracking will certainly make Writers Guild of America (WGA) arbitrations much easier as literally every contribution to a script can be tracked to give screenwriters appropriate credit. The end results with the easy ability to time-machine one’s way back into older drafts is truly lovely, and the outputs give so much more information about changes in the script compared to the traditional and all-too-simple (*) which screenwriters use to indicate that something/anything changed on a specific line or the different colored pages which are used on scripts during production.

I can also picture future screenwriters using services like GitHub as platforms for storing and distributing their screenplays to potential agents, managers, and producers.

Redlining Legal Documents

Having seen thousands of legal agreements go back and forth over the years, revision control is a natural tool for tracking the redlining and changes of legal documents as they change over time before they are finally (or even never) executed. I have to imagine that being able to abstract out the appropriate metadata in the long run may actually help attorneys, agents, etc. to become better negotiators, but something like this is a project for another day.

Academia

In addition to direct research for projects being undertaken by academics like Neefs, academics should look into using revision control in their own daily work and writings.  While writing a book, paper, journal article, essay, monograph, etc. (or graduate students writing theses) one could use their own Git repository to not only save but to back up all of their own work not only for themselves primarily, but also future scholars who come later who would not otherwise have access to the “marginalia” one creates while manufacturing their written thoughts in digital form.

I can easily picture Git as a very simple “next step” in furthering the concept of the digital humanities as well as in helping to bridge the gap between C.P. Snow’s “two cultures.” (I’d also suggest that revision control is a relatively simple step one could take before learning a particular programming language, which I think should be a mandatory tool in everyone’s daily toolbox regardless of their field(s) of interest.)

Git Logo 

Start Using Revision Control

“But how do I get started?” you ask.

Know going in that it may take parts of a day to get things set up and running, but once you’ve started with the basics, things are actually pretty easy and you can continue to learn the more advanced subtleties as you progress.  Once things are working smoothly, the additional overhead you’ll be expending won’t be too much more than the old method of hitting Alt-S to save one of your old Word documents in the time before auto-save became ubiquitous.

First one should start by choosing one of the myriad revision control systems that exist.  For the sake of brevity in this short introductory post, I’ll simply suggest that users take a very close look at Git because of its ubiquity and popularity in the computer science world and the fact that it includes a tremendously large amount of free information and support from a variety of sites on the internet. Git also has the benefit of having versions for all major operating systems (Windows, MacOS, and Linux). Git also has the benefit of a relatively long and robust life within the computer science community meaning that it’s very stable and has many more resources for the uninitiated to draw upon.

Once one has Git installed on their computer and has begun using it, I’d then recommending linking one’s local copy of the repository to a cloud storage solution like either GitHub or BitBucket.  While GitHub is certainly one of the most popular Git-related services out there (because it acts, in part, as the hub for a large portion of the open internet and thus promotes sharing), I often recommend using BitBucket as it allows free unlimited private but still share-able repositories while GitHub requires a small subscription fee for keeping one’s work private. Having a repository in the cloud will help tremendously in that your work will be available and downloadable from almost anywhere and because it also serves as a de-facto back-up solution for your work.

I’ve recently been playing around with version control to help streamline the writing/editing process for a book I’ve been writing. Though Git and it’s variants probably seem more daunting than they should to the everyday user, they really represent a very powerful tool. I’ve spent less than two days learning the basics of both Git and hosted repositories (GitHub and Bitbucket), and it has been more than well worth the minor effort.

There is a huge wealth of information on revision control in general and on installing and using Git available on the internet, including full textbooks. For the complete beginners, I’d recommend starting with The Chronicle’s “A Gentle Introduction to Version Control.” Keep in mind that though some of these resources look highly technical, it’s because many are trying to enumerate every function one could potentially desire, when even just the basic core functionality is more than enough to begin with. (I could analogize it to learning to drive a car versus actually reading the full manual so that you know how to take the engine apart and put it back together from scratch. To start with revision control, you only need to learn to “drive.”) Professors might also avail themselves of the use of their local institutional libraries which may host small sessions on learning such tools, or they might avail themselves of the help of their colleagues or students in the computer science department. For others, I’d recommend taking a look at Git’s primary website. BitBucket has an excellent step-by-step tutorial (and troubleshooting) for setting up the requisite software and using it.

What do you use for revision control?

I’ll welcome any thoughts, experiences, or additional resources one might want to share with others in the comments.
 

Syndicated copies to:

The Mnemonic Major System and Gregg Shorthand Have the Same Underlying Structure!

I’ve been a proponent and user of a variety of mnemonic systems since I was about eleven years old.  The two biggest and most useful in my mind are commonly known as the “method of loci” and the “major system.” The major system is also variously known as the phonetic number system, the phonetic mnemonic system, or Hergione’s mnemonic system after French mathematician and astronomer Pierre Hérigone (1580-1643) who is thought to have originated its use.

The major system generally works by converting numbers into consonant sounds and then from there into words by adding vowels under the overarching principle that images (of the words) can be remembered more easily than the numbers themselves. For instance, one could memorize one’s grocery list of a hundred items by associating each shopping item on a numbered list with the word associated with the individual number in the list. As an example, if item 22 on the list is lemons, one could translate the number 22 as “nun” within the major system and then associate or picture a nun with lemons – perhaps a nun in full habit taking a bath in lemons to make the image stick in one’s memory better. Then at the grocery store, when going down one’s list, when arriving at number 22 on the list, one automatically translates the number 22 to “nun” which will almost immediately conjure the image of a nun taking a bath in lemons which gives one the item on the list that needed to be remembered.  This comes in handy particularly when one needs to be able to remember large lists of items in and out of order.

The following generalized chart, which can be found in a hoard of books and websites on the topic, is fairly canonical for the overall system:

Numeral IPA Associated Consonants Mnemonic for remembering the numeral and consonant relationship
0 /s/ /z/ s, z, soft c “z” is the first letter of zero; the other letters have a similar sound
1 /t/ /d/ t, d t & d have one downstroke and sound similar (some variant systems include “th”)
2 /n/ n n has two downstrokes
3 /m/ m m has three downstrokes; m looks like a “3” on its side
4 /r/ r last letter of four; 4 and R are almost mirror images of each other
5 /l/ l L is the Roman Numeral for 50
6 /ʃ/ /ʒ/ /tʃ/ /dʒ/ j, sh, soft g, soft “ch” a script j has a lower loop; g is almost a 6 rotated
7 /k/ /ɡ/ k, hard c, hard g, hard “ch”, q, qu capital K “contains” two sevens (some variant systems include “ng”)
8 /f/ /v/ f, v script f resembles a figure-8; v sounds similar (v is a voiced f)
9 /p/ /b/ p, b p is a mirror-image 9; b sounds similar and resembles a 9 rolled around
Unassigned Vowel sounds, w,h,y w and h are considered half-vowels; these can be used anywhere without changing a word’s number value

There are a variety of ways to use the major system as a code in addition to its uses in mnemonic settings.  When I was a youth, I used it to write coded messages and to encrypt a variety of things for personal use. After I had originally read Dr. Bruno Furst’s series of booklets entitled You Can Remember: A Home Study Course in Memory and Concentration [1] , I had always wanted to spend some time creating an alternate method of writing using the method.  Sadly I never made the time to do the project, but yesterday I made a very interesting discovery that, to my knowledge, doesn’t seem to have been previously noticed!

My discovery began last week when I read an article in The Atlantic by journalist Dennis Hollier entitled How to Write 225 Words Per Minute with a Pen: A Lesson in the Lost Technology of Shorthand. [2]  In the article, which starts off with a mention of the Livescribe pen – one of my favorite tools, Mr. Hollier outlines the use of the Gregg System of Shorthand which was invented by John Robert Gregg in 1888. The description of the method was intriguing enough to me that I read a dozen additional general articles on shorthand on the internet and purchased a copy of Louis A. Leslie’s two volume text Gregg Shorthand: Functional Method.  [3]

I was shocked, on page x of the front matter, just before the first page of the text, to find the following “Alphabet of Gregg Shorthand”:

Alphabet of Gregg Shorthand
Alphabet of Gregg Shorthand
Gregg Shorthand is using EXACTLY the same consonant-type breakdown of the alphabet as the major system!

Apparently I wasn’t the first to have the idea to turn the major system into a system of writing. The fact that the consonant breakdowns for the major system coincide almost directly to those for the shorthand method used by Gregg cannot be a coincidence!

The Gregg system works incredibly well precisely because the major system works so well. The biggest difference between the two systems is that Gregg utilizes a series of strokes (circles and semicircles) to indicate particular vowel sounds which allows for better differentiation of words which the major system doesn’t generally take into consideration. From an information theoretic standpoint, this is almost required to make the coding from one alphabet to the other possible, but much like ancient Hebrew, leaving out the vowels doesn’t remove that much information. Gregg, also like Hebrew, also uses dots and dashes above or below certain letters to indicate the precise sound of many of its vowels.

The upside of all of this is that the major system is incredibly easy to learn and use, and from here, learning Gregg shorthand is just a hop, skip , and a jump – heck, it’s really only just a hop because the underlying structure is so similar. Naturally as with the major system, one must commit some time to practicing it to improve on speed and accuracy, but the general learning of the system is incredibly straightforward.

Because the associations between the two systems are so similar, I wasn’t too surprised to find that some of the descriptions of why certain strokes were used for certain letters were very similar to the mnemonics for why certain letters were used for certain numbers in the major system.

From Dr. Bruno Furst's "You Can Remember!" The mnemonic for remembering 6, 7, 8, & 9 in the major system
From Dr. Bruno Furst’s “You Can Remember!”
The mnemonic for remembering 6, 7, 8, & 9 in the major system.
From Louis Leslie's "Gregg Shorthand: Functional Method" The mnemonic for remembering the strokes for k and g.
From Louis Leslie’s “Gregg Shorthand: Functional Method”
The mnemonic for remembering the strokes for k and g.

One thing I have noticed in my studies on these topics is the occasional references to the letter combinations “NG” and “NK”. I’m curious why these are singled out in some of these systems? I have a strong suspicion that their inclusion/exclusion in various incarnations of their respective systems may be helpful in dating the evolution of these systems over time.

I’m aware that various versions of shorthand have appeared over the centuries with the first recorded having been the “Tironian Notes” of Marcus Tullius Tiro (103-4 BCE) who apparently used his system to write down the speeches of his master Cicero. I’m now much more curious at what point the concepts for shorthand and the major system crossed paths or converged? My assumption would be that it happened in the late Renaissance, but it would be nice to have the underlying references and support for such a timeline. Perhaps it was with Timothy Bright’s publication of  Characterie; An Arte of Shorte, Swifte and Secrete Writing by Character (1588) [4] , John Willis’s Art of Stenography (1602) [5] , Edmond Willis’s An abbreviation of writing by character (1618) [6] , or Thomas Shelton’s Short Writing (1626) [7] ? Shelton’s system was certainly very popular and well know because it was used by both Samuel Pepys and Sir Isaac Newton.

Certainly some in-depth research will tell, though if anyone has ideas, please don’t hesitate to indicate your ideas in the comments.

UPDATE on 7/6/14:

I’m adding a new chart making the correspondence between the major system and Gregg Shorthand more explicit.

A chart indicating the correspondences between the major system and Gregg Shorthand.
A chart indicating the correspondences between
the major system and Gregg Shorthand.

References

[1]
B. Furst, You Can Remember: A Home Study Course in Memory and Concentration. Markus-Campbell Co., 1965.
[2]
D. Hollier, “How to Write 225 Words Per Minute With a Pen: A lesson in the lost technology of shorthand,” The Atlantic, 2014. [Online]. Available: http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2014/06/yeah-i-still-use-shorthand-and-a-smartpen/373281/
[3]
L. A. Leslie, Gregg Shorthand: Functional Method. Gregg Publishing Company, 1947.
[4]
T. (1550-1615) Bright, Characterie; An Arte of Shorte, Swifte and Secrete Writing by Character, 1st ed. I. Windet; reprinted by W. Holmes, Ulverstone, 1588 [Online]. Available: https://archive.org/details/characteriearteo00brig
[5]
J. Willis, Art of Stenography. 1602.
[6]
E. Willis, An abbreviation of writing by character. 1618.
[7]
T. Shelton, Short Writing. 1626.
Syndicated copies to:

Reframing What Academic Freedom Means in the Digital Age

Creation of a Task Force on Academic Freedom

Not long ago, my alma mater Johns Hopkins University announced the creation of a task force on Academic Freedom.   Since then, I’ve corresponded with the group on a few occasions and in the spirit of my notes to them, I thought I’d share some of those thoughts with others in the academy, science writers/communicators, and even the general public who may also find them useful.  Toward that end, below is a slightly modified version of my two main emails to the task force. [They’ve been revised marginally for their appearance and readability in this format and now also include section headings.] While I’m generally writing about Johns Hopkins as an example, I’m sure that the majority of it also applies to the rest of the academy.

On a personal note, the first email has some interesting thoughts and background, while the second email has some stronger broader recommendations.

Jacques-Louis David's  (1787) Oil on canvas entitled "The Death of Socrates"
Jacques-Louis David’s “The Death of Socrates” (1787, Oil on canvas)

 

My First Thoughts to the Task Force

Matthew Green’s Blog and Questions of National Security

Early in September 2013, there was a rather large PR nightmare created for the university (especially as it regards poor representation within the blogosphere and social media) when interim Dean of the Whiting School of Engineering Andrew Douglas requested to have professor Matthew Green’s web presence modified in relation to an alleged anti-NSA post on it.  Given the increasing level of NSA related privacy news at the time (and since as relates to the ongoing Edward Snowden case), the case was certainly blown out of proportion.  But the Green/NSA story is also one of the most highlighted cases relating to academic freedom in higher education in the last several years, and I’m sure it may be the motivating force behind why the task force was created in the first place.  (If you or the task force is unaware of the issues in that case you can certainly do a quick web search, though one of the foremost followers of the controversy was ArsTechnica which provided this post with most of the pertinent information; alternately take a look at what journalism professor Jay Rosen had to say on the issue in the Guardian.) I’m sure you can find a wealth of additional reportage from the Hopkins Office of News and Information which maintains its daily digests of “Today’s News” from around that time period.

In my mind, much of the issue and the outpouring of poor publicity, which redounded to the university, resulted from the media getting information about the situation via social media before the internal mechanisms of the university had the chance to look at the issue in detail and provide a more timely resolution. [Rumors via social media will certainly confirm Mark Twain’s aphorism that “A lie can travel half way around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.”]

While you’re mulling over the issue of academic freedom, I would highly suggest you all closely consider the increased impact of the internet and particularly social media with regard to any policies which are proposed going forward.  As the volunteer creator and initial maintainer of much of Hopkins’ social media presence on both Facebook and Twitter as well as many others for their first five years of existence (JHU was the first university in these areas of social media and most other major institutions followed our early lead), I have a keen insight to how these tools impact higher education.  With easy-to-use blogging platforms and social media (Matthew Green had both a personal blog that was hosted outside the University as well as one that was mirrored through the University as well as a Twitter account), professors now have a much larger megaphone and constituency than they’ve had any time in the preceding 450 years of the academy.  This fact creates unique problems as it relates to the university, its image, how it functions, and how its professoriate interact with relation to academic freedom, which is a far different animal than it had been even 17 years ago at the dawn of the internet age. Things can obviously become sticky and quickly as evinced in the Green/APL situation which was exacerbated by the APL’s single source of income at a time when the NSA and privacy were foremost in the public eye.

What are Some of the Issues for Academic Freedom in the Digital Age?

Consider the following:

  • How should/shouldn’t the university regulate the border of social media and internet presence at  the line between personal/private lives and professional lives?
  • How can the university help to promote/facilitate the use of the internet/social media to increase the academic freedom of its professoriate and simultaneously lower the technological hurdles as well as the generational hurdles faced by the academy? (I suspect that few on the task force have personal blogs or twitter accounts, much less professional blogs hosted by the university beyond their simple “business card” information pages through their respective departments.)
  • How should the university handle issues like the Matthew Green/APL case so that comments via social media don’t gain steam and blow up in the media before the university has a chance to handle them internally? (As I recall, there were about two news cycles of JHU saying “no comment” and resulting bad press which reached the level of national attention prior to a resolution.)
  • How can the university help to diffuse the issues which led up to the Green/APL incident before they happen?
  • What type of press policy can the university create to facilitate/further academic freedom? (Here’s a bad example from professor Jonathan Katz/Washington University with some interesting commentary.)

I hope that the task force is able to spend some time with Dr. Green discussing his case and how it was handled.

Personal Reputation on the Internet in a Connected Age

I also suggest that the students on the task force take a peek into the case file of JHU’s Justin Park from 2007, which has become a textbook-case for expression on the internet/in social media and its consequences (while keeping in mind that it was a social/cultural issue which was the root cause of the incident rather than malice or base racism – this aspect of the case wasn’t/isn’t highlighted in extant internet reportage – Susan Boswell [Long-time Dean of Sudent Life] and Student Activities head Robert Turner can shed more light on the situation). Consider what would the university have done if Justin Park had been a professor instead of a student? What role did communication technology and the internet play in how these situations played out now compared to how they would have been handled when Dr. Grossman was a first year professor just starting out? [Editor’s note: Dr. Grossman is an incredible thought leader, but most of his life and academic work occurred prior to the internet age. Though unconfirmed, I suspect that his internet experience or even experience with email is exceedingly limited.]

Academic Samizdat

In a related issue on academic freedom and internet, I also hope you’re addressing or at least touching on the topic of academic samizdat, so that the university can put forward a clear (and thought-leading) policy on where we stand there as well.  I could certainly make a case that the university come out strongly in favor of professors maintaining the ability to more easily self-publish without detriment to their subsequent publication chances in major journals (and resultant potential detriment to the arc of their careers), but the political ramifications in this changing landscape are certainly subtle given that the university deals with both major sides as the employer of the faculty while simultaneously being one of the major customers of the institutionalized research publishing industry.  As I currently view the situation, self-publishing and the internet will likely win the day over the major publishers which puts the university in the position of pressing the issue in a positive light to its own ends and that of increasing knowledge for the world. I’m sure Dean Winston Tabb [Dean of the Sheridan Libraries at Johns Hopkins] and his excellent staff could provide the task force with some useful insight on this topic. Simultaneously, how can the increased areas of academic expression/publication (for example the rapidly growing but still relatively obscure area known as the “Digital Humanities”) be institutionalized such that publication in what have previously been non-traditional areas be included more formally in promotion decisions? If professors can be incentivized to use some of their academic freedom and expanded opportunities to both their and the university’s benefit, then certainly everyone wins. Shouldn’t academic freedom also include the freedom of where/when to publish without detriment to one’s future career – particularly in an increasingly more rapidly shifting landscape of publication choices and outlets?

The Modern Research University is a Content Aggregator and Distributor (and Should Be Thought of as Such)

Taking the topic even further several steps further, given the value of the professoriate and their intellectual creations and content, couldn’t/shouldn’t the university create a customized platform to assist their employees in disseminating and promoting their own work? As an example, consider the volume of work (approximate 16,000-20,000 journal articles/year, as well as thousands of articles written for newspapers (NY Times, Wall Street Journal, etc.), magazines, and other outlets – academic or otherwise) being generated every year by those within the university.  In a time of decreasing cost of content distribution, universities no longer need to rely on major journals, magazines, television stations, cable/satellite television, et al. to distribute their “product”.  To put things in perspective, I can build the infrastructure to start a 24/7 streaming video service equivalent to both a television station and a major newspaper in my garage for the capital cost about $10,000.)  Why not bring it all in-house with the benefit of academic flexibility as an added draw to better support the university and its mission?  (Naturally, this could all be cross-promoted to other outlets after-the-fact for additional publicity.)  At a time when MOOC’s (massively open online courseware) are eroding some of the educational mission within higher education and journals are facing increased financial pressures, perhaps there should be a new model of the university as a massive content/information creation engine and distributor for the betterment of humanity? And isn’t that what Johns Hopkins already is at heart? We’re already one of the largest knowledge creators on the planet, why are we not also simultaneously one of the largest knowledge disseminators – particularly at a time when it is inexpensive to do so, and becoming cheaper by the day?

[Email closing formalities removed]

 

Expanded Thoughts on Proactive Academic Freedom

Reframing What Academic Freedom Means in the Digital Age

[Second email opening removed]

Upon continued thought and reading on the topic of academic freedom as well as the associated areas of technology, I might presuppose (as most probably do) that the committee will be looking more directly at the concept of preventing the university from impeding the freedom of its faculty and what happens in those situations where action ought to be taken for the benefit of the wider community (censure, probation, warnings, etc.).  If it hasn’t been brought up as a point yet, I think one of the most positive things the university could do to improve not only academic freedom, but the university’s position in relation to its competitive peers, is to look at the opposite side of the proverbial coin and actually find a way for the university to PROACTIVELY help promote the voices of its faculty and assist them in broadening their reach.

I touched upon the concept tangentially in my first email (see above), but thought it deserved some additional emphasis, examples to consider, and some possible recommendations. Over the coming decades, the aging professoriate will slowly retire to be replaced with younger faculty who grew up completely within the internet age and who are far more savvy about it as well as the concepts of Web 2.0, the social web and social media. More will be literate in how to shoot and edit short videos and how to post them online to garner attention, readership, and acceptance for their ideas and viewpoints.

The recent PBS Frontline documentary “Generation Like” features a handful of pre-teens and teens who are internet sensations and garnering hundreds of thousands to millions of views of their content online.  But imagine for a minute: a savvy professoriate that could do something similar with their academic thought and engaging hundreds, thousands, or millions on behalf of Johns Hopkins?  Or consider the agency being portrayed in the documentary [about 30 minutes into the documentary] that helps these internet sensations and what would happen if that type of functionality was taken on by the Provost’s office?

I could presuppose that with a cross-collaboration of the Provost’s office, the Sheridan Libraries, the Film & Media Studies Department, the Digital Media Center, and the Communications Office as an institution we should be able to help better train faculty who are not already using these tools to improve their web presences and reach.

What “Reach” Do Academics Really Have?

I’ve always been struck by my conversations with many professors about the reach of their academic work. I can cite the particular experience of Dr. P.M. Forni, in the Department of Romance Languages at Krieger, when he told me that he’s written dozens of academic papers and journal articles, most of which have “at most a [collective] readership of at most 11 people on the planet” – primarily because academic specialties have become so niche. He was completely dumbfounded on the expanded reach he had in not only writing a main-stream book on the topic of civility, which was heavily influenced by his academic research and background, but in the even more drastically expanded reach provided to him by appearing on the Oprah Winfrey show shortly after its release. Certainly his experience is not a common one, but there is a vast area in between that is being lost, not only by individual professors, but by the university by extension.  Since you’re likely aware of the general numbers of people reading academic papers, I won’t bore you, but for the benefit of those on the committee I’ll quote a recent article from Pacific Standard Magazine and provide an additional reference from Physics World, 2007:

A study at Indiana University found that ‘as many as 50% of papers are never read by anyone other than their authors, referees and journal editors.’ That same study concluded that ‘some 90% of papers that have been published in academic journals are never cited.’ That is, nine out of 10 academic papers—which both often take years to research, compile, submit, and get published, and are a major component by which a scholar’s output is measured—contribute little to the academic conversation.

Some Examples of Increased Reach in the Academy

To provide some examples and simple statistics on where something like this might go, allow me to present the following brief references:

As a first example, written by an academic about academia, I suggest you take a look at  a recent blog post “Why academics should blog and an update on readership” by Artem Kaznatcheev, a researcher in computer science and psychology at McGill University, posting on a shared blog named “Theory, Evolution, and Games Group”. He provides a clear and interesting motivation in the first major portion of his essay, and then unwittingly (for my example), he shows some basic statistics indicating a general minimum readership of 2,000 people which occasionally goes as high as 8,000.  (Knowing how his platform operates and provides base-line statistics that he’s using, it’s likely that his readership is actually possibly higher.) If one skims through the blog, it’s obvious that he’s not providing infotainment type of material like one would find on TMZ, Buzzfeed, or major media outlets, but genuine academic thought – AND MANAGING TO REACH A SIZEABLE AUDIENCE! I would posit that even better, that his blog enriching not only himself and his fellow academy colleagues, but a reasonable number of people outside of the academy and therefore the world.

Another example of an even more technical academic blog can be found in that of Dr. Terrence Tao, a Fields Medal winner (the mathematical equivalent of the Nobel prize), and mathematics professor at UCLA. You’ll note that it’s far more technical and rigorous than Dr. Kaznatcheev’s, and though I don’t have direct statistics to back it up, I can posit based on the number of comments his blog has that his active readership is even much higher. Dr. Tao uses his blog to not only expound upon his own work, but uses it to post content for classes, to post portions of a book in process, and to promote the general mathematics research community. (I note that the post he made on 3/19, already within a day has 11 comments by people who’ve read it close enough to suggest typography changes as well as sparked some actual conversation on a topic that requires an education to at least the level of a master’s degree in mathematics.

Business Insider recently featured a list of 50 scientists to follow on social media (Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, YouTube, and blogs amongst others). While there are a handful of celebrities and science journalists, many of those featured are professors or academics of one sort or another and quite a few of them are Ph.D. candidates (the beginning of the upcoming generation of tech-savvy future faculty I mentioned). Why aren’t there any JHU professors amongst those on this list?

As another clear example, consider the recent online video produced by NPR’s “Science Friday” show featuring research about Water flowing uphill via the Leidenfrost Effect. It is not only generally interesting research work, but this particular research is not only a great advertisement for the University of Bath, it’s a great teaching tool for students, and it features the research itself as well as the involvement of undergraduates in the research. Though I’ll admit that producing these types of vignettes is not necessarily simple, imagine the potential effect on the awareness of the university’s output if we could do this with even 10% of the academic research paper output? Imagine these types of videos as inspiring tools to assist in gaining research funding from government agencies or as fundraising tools for Alumni and Development relations? And how much better that they could be easily shared and spread organically on the web, not necessarily by the JHU Corporate Umbrella, but by its faculty, students, alumni, and friends.

How Does the Academy Begin Accomplishing All of This?

To begin, I’ll mention that Keswick’s new video lab or the Digital Media Center at Homewood and a few others like them are a great start, but they are just the tip of the iceberg (and somewhat unfortunate that faculty from any division will have to travel to use the Keswick facility, if they’re even notionally aware of it and its capabilities).

I recall Mary Spiro, a communications specialist/writer with the Institute of NanoBioTechnology, doing a test-pilot Intersession program in January about 4 years ago in which she helped teach a small group of researchers how to shoot and edit their own films about their research or even tours through their lab. Something like this program could be improved, amplified, and rolled out on a much larger basis. It could also be integrated or dovetailed, in part, with the Digital Media Center and the Film and Media Studies program at Krieger to assist researchers in their work.

The Sheridan Libraries provide teaching/training on using academic tools like bibliographic programs Mendeley.com, RefWorks, Zotero, but they could extend them to social media, blogging, or tools like FigShare, GitHub, and others.

Individual departments or divisions could adopt and easily maintain free content management platforms like WordPress and Drupal (I might even specifically look at their pre-configured product for academia known as OpenScholar, for example take a look at Harvard’s version.) This would make it much easier for even non-technicalminded faculty to more easily come up to speed by removing the initial trouble of starting a blog. It also has the side benefit of allowing the university to assist in ongoing maintenance, backup, data maintenance, hosting, as well as look/feel, branding as well as web optimization. (As a simple example, and not meant to embarrass them, but despite the fact that the JHU Math Department may have been one of the first departments in the university to be on the web, it’s a travesty that their website looks almost exactly as it did 20 years ago, and has less content on it than Terrence Tao’s personal blog which he maintains as a one man operation. I’m sure that some of the issue is political in the way the web has grown up over time at Hopkins, but the lion’s share is technology and management based.)

The Provost’s office in conjunction with IT and the Sheridan Libraries could invest some time and energy in to compiling resources and vetting them for ease-of-use, best practices, and use cases and then providing summaries of these tools to the faculty so that each faculty member need not re-invent the wheel each time, but to get up and running more quickly.  This type of resource needs to be better advertised and made idiot-proof (for lack of better terminology) to ease faculty access and adoption. Online resources like the Chronicle of Education’s ProfHacker blog can be mined for interesting tools and use cases, for example.

I know portions of these types of initiatives are already brewing in small individual pockets around the university, but they need to be brought together and better empowered as a group instead of as individuals working separately in a vacuum.  In interacting with people across the institution, this technology area seems to be one of those that has been left behind in the “One Hopkins” initiative.  One of the largest hurdles is the teaching old dogs new tricks to put it colloquially, but the hurdles for understanding and comprehending these new digital tools is coming down drastically by the day. As part of the social contract in the university’s granting and promoting academic freedom, the faculty should be better encouraged (thought certainly not forced) to exercise it.  I’m sure there are mandatory annual seminars on topics like sexual harassment, should there not be mandatory technology trainings as well?

To briefly recap, it would be phenomenal to see the committee make not only their base recommendations on what most consider academic freedom, but to further make a group of strong recommendations about the University proactively teaching, training, and providing a broader array of tools to encourage the active expression of the academic freedom that is provided within Hopkins’ [or even all of the Academy’s] mighty walls.

[Email closing removed]

I certainly welcome any thoughts or comments others may have on these topics. Please feel free to add them in the comments below.

 

Syndicated copies to:

Rap Genius, a Textual Annotation Browser for Education, Digital Humanities, Science, and Publishing

Since the beginning of January, I’ve come back to regularly browsing and using the website Rap GeniusI’m sure that some of the education uses including poetry and annotations of classics had existed the last time I had visited, but I was very interested in seeing some of the scientific journal article uses which I hadn’t seen before. Very quickly browsing around opened up a wealth of ideas for using the platform within the digital humanities as well as for a variety of educational uses.

Rap Genius logo

Overview of Rap Genius

Briefly, the Rap Genius website was originally set up as an innovative lyrics service to allow users to not only upload song lyrics, but to mark them up with annotations as to the meanings of words, phrases, and provide information about the pop-culture references within the lyrics themselves.  (It’s not too terribly different from Google’s now-defunct Sidewicki or the impressive Highbrow, textual annotation browser, but has some subtle differences as well as improvements.)

Users can use not only text, but photos, video, and even audio to supplement the listings. Built-in functionality includes the ability to link the works to popular social media audio services SoundCloud, and Spotify as well as YouTube. Alternately one might think of it as VH1’s “Pop-up Video”, but for text on the Internet. Ultimately the site expanded to include the topics of rock, poetry, and news.  The rock section is fairly straightforward following the format of the rap section while the poetry section includes not only works of poetry (from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner to the King James version of The Bible), but also plays (the works of William Shakespeare) and complete novels (like F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.) News includes articles as well as cultural touchstones like the 2013 White House Correspondents’ Dinner Speech and the recent State of the Union. Ultimately all of the channels within Rap Genius platform share the same types of functionality, but are applied to slightly different categories to help differentiate the content and make things easier to find.  Eventually there may be a specific “Education Genius” (or other) landing page(s) to split out the content in the future depending on user needs.

On even its first blush, I can see this type of website functionality being used in a variety of educational settings including Open Access Journals, classroom use, for close readings, for MOOCs, publishing in general, and even for maintaining simple-to-use websites for classes. The best part is that the ecosystem is very actively growing and expanding with a recent release of an iPhone app and an announcement of a major deal with Universal to license music lyrics.

General Education Use

To begin with, Rap Genius’ YouTube channel includes an excellent short video on how Poetry Genius might be used in a classroom setting for facilitating close-readings. In addition to the ability to make annotations, the site can be used to maintain a class specific website (no need to use other blogging platforms like WordPress or Blogger for things like this anymore) along with nice additions like maintaining a class roster built right in.  Once material begins to be posted, students and teachers alike are given a broad set of tools to add content, make annotations, ask questions, and provide answers in an almost real-time setting.

Screen capture from Poetry Genius featuring The Great Gatsby

MOOC Use Cases

Given the rapid growth of the MOOC-revolution (massively open online courseware) over the past several years, one of the remaining difficulties in administering such a class can hinge not only on being able to easily provide audio visual content to students, but allow them a means of easily interacting with it and each other in the learning process.  Poetry Genius (aka Education Genius) has a very interesting view into solving both of these problems, and, in fact, I can easily see the current version of the platform being used to replace competing platforms like Coursera, EdX, Udacity and others in a whole cloth fashion.

Currently most MOOC’s provide some type of simple topic-based threaded fora in which students post comments and questions as well as answers.  In many MOOCs this format becomes ungainly because of the size of the class (10,000+ students) and the quality of the content which is being placed into it. Many students simply eschew the fora because the time commitment per amount of knowledge/value gained is simply not worth their while. Within the Poetry Genius platform, students can comment directly on the material or ask questions, or even propose improvements, and the administrators (the professor or teaching assistants in this case) can accept, reject or send feedback request to students to amend their work and add it to the larger annotated work.  Fellow classmates can also vote up or down individual comments.

As I was noticing the interesting educational-related functionality of the Rap Genius platform, I ran across what is presumably the first MOOC attempting to integrate the platform into its pedagogical structure. Dr. Laura Nasrallah’s HarvardX course “Early Christianity: The Letters of Paul,” which started in January, asks students to also create Poetry Genius accounts to read and comment on the biblical texts which are a part of the course. The difficult portion of attempting to use Poetry Genius for this course is the thousands of “me-too” posters who are simply making what one might consider to be “throw-away” commentary rather than the intended “close reading” commentary for a more academic environment. (This type of posting is also seen in many of the fora-based online courses.) Not enough students are contributing substantial material, and when they are, it needs to be better and more quickly edited and curated into the main post to provide greater value to students as they’re reading along. Thus when 20,000 students jump into the fray, there’s too much initial chaos and the value that is being extracted out of it upon initial use is fairly limited – particularly if one is browsing through dozens of useless comments. It’s not until after-the-fact – once comments have been accepted/curated – that the real value will emerge. The course staff is going to have to spend more time doing this function in real time to provide greater value to the students in the class, particularly given the high number of people without intense scholarly training just jumping into the system and filling it with generally useless commentary. In internet parlance, the Poetry Genius site is experiencing the “Robert Scoble Effect” which changes the experience on it. (By way of explanation, Robert Scoble is a technology journalist/pundit/early-adopter with a massive follower base.  His power-user approach and his large following can drastically change his experience with web-based technology compared to the  common everyday user. It can also often bring down new services as was common in the early days of the social media movement.)

Typically with the average poem or rap song, the commentary grows slowly/organically and is edited along the way. In a MOOC setting with potentially hundreds of thousands of students, the commentary is like a massive fire-hose which makes it seemingly useless without immediate real-time editing. Poetry Genius may need a slightly different model for using their platform in larger MOOC-style courses versus the smaller classroom settings seen in high school or college (10-100 students). In the particular case for “The Letters of Paul,” if the course staff had gone into the platform first and seeded some of the readings with their own sample commentary to act as a model of what is expected, then the students would be a bit more accepting of what is expected. I understand Dr. Nasrallah and her teaching assistants are in the system and annotating as well, but it should also be more obvious which annotations are hers (or those of teaching assistants) to help better guide the “discussion” and act as a model. Certainly the materials generated on Poetry Genius will be much more useful for future students who take the course in future iterations. Naturally, Poetry Genius exists for the primary use of annotation, while I’m sure that the creators will be tweaking classroom-specific use as the platform grows and user needs/requirements change.

As a contrast to the HarvardX class, and for an additional example, one can also take a peek at Cathy Davidson’s Rap Genius presence for her Coursera class “The History and Future (Mostly) of Higher Education.”

Open Access Journal Use

In my mind, this type of platform can easily and usefully be used for publishing open access journal articles. In fact, one could use the platform to self-publish journal articles and leave them open to ongoing peer review. Sadly at present, there seems to be only a small handful of examples on the site, including a PLOS ONE article, which will give a reasonable example of some of the functionality which is possible.  Any author could annotate and footnote their own article as well as include a wealth of photos, graphs, and tables giving a much more multimedia view into their own work.  Following this any academic with an account could also annotate the text with questions, problems, suggestions and all of these can be voted up or down as well as be remedied within the text itself. Other articles can also have the ability to directly cross-reference specific sections of previously posted articles.

Individual labs or groups with “journal clubs” could certainly join in the larger public commentary and annotation on a particular article, but higher level administrative accounts within the system can also create a proverbial clean slate on an article and allow members to privately post up their thoughts and commentaries which are then closed to the group and not visible to the broader public. (This type of functionality can be useful for Mrs. Smith’s 10th grade class annotating The Great Gatsby so that they’re not too heavily influenced by the hundreds or possibly thousands of prior comments within a given text as they do their own personal close readings.) One may note that some of this type of functionality can already be seen in competitive services like Mendeley, but the Rap Genius platform seems to take the presentation and annotation functionalities to the next level. For those with an interest in these types of uses, I recommend Mendeley’s own group: Reinventing the Scientific Paper.

A Rap Genius representative indicated they were pursuing potential opportunities with JSTOR that might potentially expand on these types of opportunities.

Publishing

Like many social media related sites including platforms like WordPress, Tumblr, and Twitter, Rap Genius gives it’s users the ability to self-publish almost any type of content. I can see some excellent cross-promotional opportunities with large MOOC-type classes and the site. For example, professors/teachers who have written their own custom textbooks for MOOCs (eg. Keith Devlin’s Introduction to Mathematical Thinking course at Stanford via Coursera) could post up the entire text on the Poetry Genius site and use it not only to correct mistakes/typos and make improvements over time, but they can use it to discover things which aren’t clear to students who can make comments, ask questions, etc. There’s also the possibility that advanced students can actively help make portions clear themselves when there are 10,000+ students and just 1-2 professors along with 1-2 teaching assistants. Certainly either within or without the MOOC movement, this type of annotation set up may work well to allow authors to tentatively publish, edit, and modify their textbooks, novels, articles, journal articles, monographs, or even Ph.D. theses. I’m particularly reminded of Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s open writing/editing of her book Planned Obsolescence via Media Commons. Academics could certainly look at the Rap Genius platform as a simpler more user-friendly version of this type of process.

Other Uses

I’m personally interested in being able to annotate science and math related articles and have passed along some tips for the Rap Genius team to include functionality like mathjax to be able to utilize Tex/LaTeX related functionality for typesetting mathematics via the web in the future.

Naturally, there are a myriad of other functionalities that can be built into this type of platform – I’m personally waiting for a way to annotate episodes of “The Simpsons”, so I can explain all of the film references and in-jokes to friends who laugh at their jokes, but never seem to know why – but I can’t write all of them here myself.

Interested users can easily sign up for a general Rap Genius account and dig right into the interface.  Those interested in education-specific functionality can request to be granted an “Educator Account” within the Rap Genius system to play around with the additional functionality available to educators. Every page in the system has an “Education” link at the top for further information and details. There’s also an Educator’s Forum [requires free login] for discussions relating specifically to educational use of the site.

Are there particular (off-label) applications you think you might be able to use the Rap Genius platform for? Please add your comments and thoughts below.

Syndicated copies to: