It’s Not Just Weird Twitter That’s Weird

You’ve heard about (or seen for yourself) the phenomenon known as Weird Twitter (too many NSFW for me to crawl through for an example, so here’s a search that will start getting you there), but it turns out that Twitter itself flies the weird flag as well. A little over a month ago they announced they would stop supporting HTTP plaintext connections to the Twitter 1.1 API, requiring everything to use TLS/SSL. Perhaps since WordPress does not develop Twitter applications as a core part of its operations, this change didn’t get filed in their bugtracker until after the switch had been flipped. Properly, WordPress devs contacted Twitter to ask about things, and a Twitter dev seemed to me to say that they would look into some sort of failover, but as of today the oEmbed provider in 3.5.2 still does not work for tweets.

The weirdness comes because Twitter keeps making changes with little regard for third party developers and even for average users. Remember when they decided to not-block accounts that you had selected for blocking? (Later reversed, yes, but still. And it’s not like 75 million sites run WordPress or anything.) Inarguably, Twitter is a corporation whose primary mission as a capitalist actor is to gain money, not a public commons. But whether they call twitterers customers, clients, users, investors, or people, irritating them (us) enough makes that bottom line hurt, too.

As Arlo said, though, that’s not what I came to tell you about. I’m here to tell you that we’ve updated Academic Commons (in part thanks to an old post at “And now it’s all this”) so that embedded tweet URIs are broken now, but should be fixed by midnight tonight. Let us know in the comments whether your site has broken embeds on or after 25 January 2014. WordPress has implemented a fix on their end, but we likely won’t upgrade to that fixed version until the summertime, at which point we’ll all join hands with WordPress and Twitter and sing a happy song.

I can’t even come up with a good image for weird twitter, but maybe that’s best considering many deny its existence.

Pushing WordPress

Color photograph of a woman pushing a gigantic hay rollSince we are in semester-open mode, I get to do one of the things I really like doing for ITG, which is getting out and talking with/to students and instructors in class. Nearly always — and such is the case right these days — I’m there to talk about Academic Commons.

Once upon a time, ITG had grand visions of building an aggregated source for many tools, documentation, and ideas around key educational technologies such as mapping, wikis, and robust cross-linked annotating. Alas, our eyes were bigger than the increases in our staffing budget, and as everyone knows, people are more important (and expensive, and their [our] importance is indicated in part by the expense) than software to running a good educational technology outfit. Currently, consequently, Academic Commons equates to Yale’s institutional WordPress installation, used respectably across Yale College. Not surprisingly, writing-intensive disciplines and courses make the most use of it. Of these, the Department of English makes the greatest concentrated use, thanks in part to many hours of work by departed ITGer Robin Ladouceur as well as the efforts of former ITG intern Sam Gamer.

Strangely enough, though, I will only visit five class sessions in these first two weeks of classes. On the one hand, I could assume that all the other classes using WordPress sites are comfortable making their site their own in part through shared discovery. On the other, I’m a little worried that courses limit their use of the platform to what’s obvious. Given that only about 25% of students in classes I visit have any experience with WordPress, and only about 50% have experience in any content management system (I ask each time), it’s not unreasonable to think that there are opportunities being missed to use WordPress for something more complex than a shared editable space. (Not that that’s all bad, etc. etc.)

This past term, however, an instructor used WordPress more nearly like an LMS, even assigning grades to student work in the site. This term, one instructor is doing the same, and another course (instructor + TF) will be mounting an online exhibition, following a bit along Charlotte Parker’s excellent model, produced as part of her senior project in American Studies. As well, more instructors in English will use WordPress sites for workshopping texts this term. (Currently we use Digress.it for this, but CommentPress seems to have restarted development and I will be re-evaluating it.) Signs of hope, or continued outliers? I don’t know, but I’m going to keep on trying to get the word out to both students and instructors about the possibilities.

[Creative Commons licensed image via Flickr user BailyRaeWeaver]

We’ve Missed You

Color photo of hand-made origami card reading "welcome back"No, really! It’s been great to take a hiatus from blogging for ITG, but it just isn’t the same without being able to talk to you. Yes, you. And you, and you, and . . . especially you, there, in the back.

What did you do on your winter recess? We all had a mostly restful time. Some of us left the country to visit family, some of us went farther north in this country and ended up needing to replace a chunk of our car’s clutch the day before our birthday. (This second one was not me.) We all disconnected for a little while and are ready to start the term.

What are we seeing on the horizon for this term? For one thing, we’re going to start rolling out in this space more information about what’s happening with Yale Academic Commons. We haven’t done a great job keeping the Yale community using WordPress updated with when we add or retire Themes or Plugins, nor with when we are upgrading the WordPress core and what the major changes are with that core upgrade, and that’s going to get better. For another, we’re undertaking some strengthening of our group’s ability to work in certain areas of contemporary academic technology, most notably GIS. In collaboration with GIS specialist Stacey Maples of the Yale Library, Alina and Trip are going to raise their own skill levels and assemble a small handful of workflow patterns for some kinds of GIS work so that you can incorporate thinking about it more quickly and easily into your pedagogy or coursework. Finally, in March we are planning a showcase for some of the work faculty do in their classrooms with mobile devices, primarily iPads. This event will likely take place toward the end of March in the TEAL classroom at 17 Hillhouse Ave., and will give you a chance not only to talk to peers about how they make the most of mobile affordances, but also to try out some mobile devices and consider whether/how you might integrate them into your teaching.

These are just a few of our undertakings for Spring 2014, but we’ve always got more irons in the fire. We’re also always open to hearing what the Yale community thinks is important. What gaps are there in your pedagogy or coursework that academic technology might address? What great tools or processes do you use now that more people should know about? Tell us in the comments or at itg@yale.edu.

[Creative-Commons Licensed Image via Flickr user joybot]

Twitter API in Academic Commons

Some time ago (in the middle of 2013), Twitter changed how external applications (such as on your mobile phone or, say, your Academic Commons WordPress site) requested and received data. Consequently, your widget may have stopped displaying your tweets. Inexcusably, we have not published a how-to for fixing this until now. The documents for how to get your tweets into your site as well as how to publish your posts out to Twitter may refer to plugins unfamiliar to you; as part of clarifying the situation, we found that at least one of the plugins previously available failed with the new Twitter rules, so we replaced it. We would prefer questions about the instructions mailed to itg@yale.edu, but comments about their content may be left on the pages themselves.

Digital Humanities Summer Institute 2013

Crossposted from my own site. Delayed for no particular reason.

A few weeks ago, I had the good fortune to be able to attend the 2013 edition of the Digital Humanities Summer Institute in at the University of Victoria, in Victoria, British Columbia (w00t! international travel!) and figured I owe the reading public a report.

First of all, this certainly feels like a big event. Once upon a time it wasn’t that many people (the site archive doesn’t list participants until 2004, but we can see that the 2001 edition had 2 courses), but it has grown tremendously over the years, hitting 22 courses and nearly 500 people here in 2013. And that’s not taking into account the three events put on by the institute but not in the summer. Consequently, while I can understand people talking about making lifelong friends at the event, I think these days that’s harder unless you return over multiple years. It was big enough that I didn’t feel bad skipping some of the planned events in order to go out for lunch or just let my brain rest a bit.

Second, I highly encourage anyone considering attending to see whether they can score a seat in Jennifer Guiliano’s course on “Issues in Large Project Planning and Management”. This was what I took, and it may have changed my work life. It would be fair to say that I am a convert to project management thinking and practice, though the former may be more important than the latter. Some of the more important lessons from the course for me:

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Creating and Supporting “Black Acts”

This is the third in a series of three posts on the digital exhibitions I worked on this spring. If you need to, you can jump back to part two or part one.

It’s been a good month and more since I wrote the second of three posts on my springtime of exhibits, and now I’ve managed to find time for the third. In between, among other things, I went to the Digital Humanities Summer Institute 2013 in beautiful Victoria, British Columbia, about which I will add a post here later. More to the point for this, though, is that I’m pretty sure that the learning I did there will be fruitful as I move forward with the work started on Black Acts, an online digital exhibition for Professor Paige McGinley‘s African-American Studies / Theater Studies course from spring 2013.

Professor McGinley came to ITG in January of 2011 with an idea for incorporating building a digital exhibit into this spring’s instance of her course, titled, simply enough, “African American Theater”. As this is Yale’s survey course on the matter, she wanted to structure the term by having students focus on a single performer, deeply research that person in the Beinecke Library’s James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection of African American Arts and Letters, and compose a critical multimedia essay around the objects discovered in the collection and the story they told. In short, the idea was to put the students in the position of a professional scholarly researcher with all the labor and joy that can entail. I represented ITG on the project, whose instructional and support team also included several members of the Beinecke staff, most notably Lisa Conathan, Nancy Kuhl, Susan Brady, and Chris Edwards. (I apologize in advance for not remembering all those at the Beinecke who contributed, as this project would not have been successful without all contributions large and small.)
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Recent NEH/DFG Digital Humanities Awards and the Future of Autonomous Projects

The NEH (National Endowment for the Humanities) and DFG (Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft) have announced another round of awards for their Bilateral Digital Humanities Program. The program provides support for projects that contribute to developing and implementing digital infrastructures and services for humanities research. They are awarded to collaborative projects between at least one partner based in the U.S. and one partner based in Germany.

This round’s awardees were largely focused on digitization projects, especially text encoding, which seem to be indicative of the general field of digital humanities, especially those concerned with “ancient” languages and literatures. The goal of such projects is to create innovative (and hopefully better) ways to present texts in digital format. Part of the innovation is the ability to consider diachronic aspects of literature, especially variant traditions of ancient literature and critical work associated with the text in question. Additionally, these projects provide ready access to literature that had been previously limited to few (and generally quite expensive) volumes from a small group of publishers. The well-known and oft-mentioned Perseus Digital Library and the much less well-known Comprehensive Aramaic Lexicon Project provide numerous examples of the benefits of such projects. I have used a number of similar projects including these two mentioned here during my young academic career, and I can attest to their great benefits.

There are, however, a few drawbacks that seem to accompany these projects. The most central recurring caveat to these programs that I have experienced is the development of the projects seems to stop when the grant funding runs out. While it is certainly understandable why projects cannot continue to develop without funding, this problem is largely the result of the fact that these projects seem to often stand on their own, meaning they are not part of a larger collection to which they contribute. This autonomy creates an environment where the innovative technology developed by each of the individual projects seems to stagnate with the project itself. The arrested development of these individual projects creates a considerable disparity between autonomous projects—especially those that focus on relatively obscure content—and projects that are either paid applications (e.g. Accordance Bible Software) or are developed in collaboration with large tech companies (e.g. Dead Sea Scrolls Digital Project a collaborative effort between the Israel Museum and Google). I am not criticizing these latter projects. On the contrary, I have used both of these example programs with great relish. Rather, I am lamenting the stagnation of many autonomous projects whose subject matter might be more obscure (relatively speaking, of course), but is vital for a number of scholars’ research.

As the process of text encoding becomes more standardized, it would be interesting to see the development of a digital library that could incorporate these autonomous projects into one central location. This may allow for the continued development of autonomous projects whose dwindling funding limits the participation of its original developers. To be sure, there are obstacles to such grand collaborative work, and, ironically, this sort of project may need to begin as an autonomous project. However, the recent launch of the Digital Public Library of America provides a substantial step toward the further development of a central digital library of various digital materials, and may itself be the very project I would like to see.

I congratulate the program awardees, and very much look forward to experiencing the results of their projects.

American Studies Senior Project Exhibit

This is the second in a series of three posts on the digital exhibitions I worked on this spring. If you need to, you can jump back to part one. Part three is up, too.

In April, I gave an update on our Academic Commons in which I referred coyly to a senior project on which I was a technical consultant, and now that it’s up and live, I can talk about it a bit less obliquely. (Yale tends to interpret FERPA fairly conservatively, and until it was clear that the student, Charlotte Parker, was going to finish the project and make it publicly visible, I wanted to maintain her anonymity.)

Humanities students don’t tend to execute digital projects at Yale, especially not for their senior projects. Certainly, they engage in digital scholarship in a consuming sense by reading primary or secondary sources in technology-mediated ways, engaging in online research, or taking in digital media. In some ways, they are producers as well, but generally only in that baseline way we take for granted, that is by typing their essay on a computer. They may even submit their essays for assessment electronically, but my suspicion is that most will (by requirement or choice) at least backstop that submission with a paper copy.

So it was with real excitement that we accepted a request to work with Charlotte Parker ’13 on her senior project for the American Studies major. Charlotte was strongly influenced in her life by family friends who had connections to the Spanish Civil War and to America writers involved in it, and had been working at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library for some time. These factors joined together in an idea for an online exhibit of Beinecke material related to American writers’ search for a way to write the truth(s) that they saw on the ground in Spain as well as related to writing truth in general. As such, Charlotte would have to engage in curation and analysis of a collection of materials and to engage with technological opportunities and restrictions for making her work publicly available.

Our first encounter with Charlotte came as a request for an Academic Commons site and I saw no reason to recapitulate her process of selecting a project environment, so WordPress was our site of investigation. Part of the reason for selecting our Academic Commons as the exhibit tool was that the Beinecke would like to see more student exhibits using their collections (as would many of us), and the existing infrastructure was the easiest slope. As it worked out, it was also a thoroughly appropriate tool, since Charlotte’s focus in her project was going to be less on establishing a metadata-rich repository than on presenting critical writing alongside selected objects. (In the third of this series I’ll relate an investigation into an alternate tool representing the metadata-rich branch of possibility.)

In a couple project meetings, Charlotte and I decided that she would play in an Academic Commons site with the knowledge that I could undo anything she needed undone and that she would do some legwork to figure out how she wanted to theme her site. Fortunately, she was participating in a HackYale course on website UX and bootstrapped her research and learning there. As with Academic Commons for the software, there was an intellectual infrastructure present and growing that meant we could focus in the project work on the questions of scholarship and technological implementation. Naturally, this meant also that we didn’t take the opportunity to walk through a critical examination of the technology qua technology and discuss how the choices being made affected the argument. For this reason alone, the next time we consult on an independent student project I will do my best to have at least one meeting of everyone significantly involved. No Yale student should graduate without critically examining technology at some point.

An interesting aspect of the project was my indirect partnership with Nancy Kuhl (about whom more in a subsequent post) at the Beinecke, who was Charlotte’s work supervisor as well as a mentor for the Beinecke-based research. We never had a team meeting for the project, something that might have been beneficial to Charlotte and something I will agitate for the next time we work similarly with a senior project. At least at some level, I think it would also have benefitted her advisor, me, and Nancy to sit however briefly around a table and have Charlotte walk through the project timeline with us. She was very well organized, as far as I could tell, but even so there was some of the usual flurry of activity hard upon the project submission deadline that would be nice to avoid. (Then again, I tell all students I encounter that a dirty little secret of the work world is that projects are not planned and executed substantially better than college-level projects.)

Springtime Is for Exhibits

This is the first in a series of three posts on the digital exhibitions I worked on this spring. You can jump ahead to part two. Part three is up, too.

Or at least that’s the way it felt for me this spring. For one reason or another, my large projects this term ended up being three different forms of gallery and library exhibits, each filled with undergraduate scholarship. I’ll discuss each in turn, just because they were each interesting enough that they deserve proper space for consideration.

One that I knew coming into the term I would have was the second instance of something I first worked on in the spring of 2012. Professor Laura Wexler (American Studies and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies) is deeply interested in photography and its role in our lives. In particular, she has run since 1999 the Photographic Memory Workshop at Yale and offers a seminar titled “Photography and Memory”. You can read my writeup of last year’s project, but one thing that I neglected to note then was just how excited we were about this: To our knowledge this way of getting student scholarship into the YUAG was entirely novel and this level of public exposure of undergraduate research is rare. Not all the students last year were undergraduates, and possibly even most were not, but even for graduate students at Yale, short-form scholarship for a general audience is uncommon.

Somewhat predictably, this year’s edition was easier in many ways, but because I knew that was likely, I decided to bring things up a bit where I could. Where I noted in last year’s writeup that “This kiosk came together in a flurry of effort and coordination,” I conveniently omitted that the recordings were done very much in a duct-tape-and-gum manner. The recordings were done in a spare room in our offices, in our conference room, and in a spare office at Photo + Design. In each case, I used Audacity, a half-decent microphone we have, and was the sole engineer and producer. There’s a fog of perfection at Yale that makes doing things this way feel illicit, which is of course one of the attractions. But I also didn’t want to bias gallery visitors against the installation just because it wasn’t professionally recorded. Consequently, I skipped all mention of that.

This year, the recording process was also how I wanted to focus on ratcheting up the assignment from our perspective. Surely, Yale of all places has a push-button high-quality recording studio for student work? Alas, no. Some of the residential colleges have studios, and good ones, but they are limited to students in those colleges. Doubtlessly, we could have gotten around that requirement, but I’ve been there and would not have wanted a fellow student using up my college’s resources on the down low. Naturally, the School of Music and the Music Department have their own studios, but there again, they are reserved for students in those units. Enter the Yale Broadcast & Media Center studios. All signs pointed to them as the best place to get this done. The one catch, which wasn’t one, was that the work we were doing there needed to be disseminated in some way, and since we were doing audio work, we needed to make a podcast out of it. I can’t call that a catch, because being pushed to make our work more public is a Good Thing.

This brings me to the major difference from the course side this year, which was that the assignment was baked into the syllabus. Last spring, the assignment was added after the start of the course, and possibly even after registration, which very much threw the students. We can look on the students’ reaction more or less charitably, but possibly the most nearly neutral way to see it is that Yale students are very busy, and bristle when they encounter academic surprises. I mention this change at this point in my recap because I believe it is half of why the recording sessions went so smoothly this year. The other half is that we had a proper studio and a proper engineer in Phil Kearney from Broadcast & Media, and the students knew they needed to perform. (It didn’t hurt that more than one student had some experience with Yale’s student radio outfit, but most did not.) Consequently, most students got their reading done — and done well — in one take. The downside of that was that we spent far too much of the 30-minute slots I had allotted (based on last year’s efforts) with time on our hands. I couldn’t have asked for a better engineer, though, than Phil, as it wasn’t until we had gotten most of the way through the student sessions, with only one reschedule, that he said, “You know, we could just schedule them 5 or 6 at a time and just have the next one go when the previous one is finished.”

So I thank Phil for his skill and his patience, Professor Wexler for doing this assignment again, Davids Odo and Whaples from the YUAG for their work on the image and coordination side, and Thomas Raich of YUAG for going above and beyond in getting this kiosk up and running when driver and OS issues exploded 10 minutes before I was due on a train to Washington, D.C. I look forward to next year and how we can continue to integrate student digital scholarship with cultural institutions on campus.

Postscript

The exhibit is still up in the (gorgeously new) Study Gallery at the YUAG, so if you can, do head over and see it. Neither YUAG IT nor I (nor Professor Wexler) are thrilled with some sloppiness of the touchscreen we needed to use this year, last year’s being already allocated for other needs. But if you do go and find the cursor unresponsive, just touch far away from your target and then try again. We’ve found that tends to be better than repeatedly trying to move the cursor by small increments.

Academic Commons Update for April 8

An undergraduate student and I were discussing her senior project (an online exhibition of items at the Beinecke Library along with short critical essays on them) and noticed that we didn’t have any horizontally-oriented themes for Yale Academic Commons sites. Not a problem any more, as we bought COLr from a freelance developer. I like this theme a lot and hope that some of you will find creative uses for it. Works well on multiple devices, but note that its strengths with media display could become a problem on low-bandwidth connections or could gobble up your data allocations on a cellular network.

Addendum 1: Almost in a procrustean manner, this theme resizes images on the fly to fit the available screen space. Lovely when you have big chunky images, not so great when you have something small. However, I corresponded with the developer and found out that you can prevent this from happening. It’s a workaround for, at minimum, intermediate users. TO prevent resizing, add “noScale” as a style class to the desired image. You’ll have to go into the HTML tab of the editor interface to make this change, and be sure that a) you add the class name to the existing style attribute of the image and b) you enter the class name exactly as written above, as it is case-sensitive.