Theses on the Open Humanities

On 25 and 26 April, Roger Whitson and I had the opportunity to visit the University of Florida on the invitation of Laurie N. Taylor, Digital Humanities Librarian in the George A. Smathers Libraries. We had the opportunity to learn about the work of UF’s Digital Collections and attended UF’s Research Computing Day, where got to see the some of the work done by UF’S High-Performance Computing Center. On the way to the latter, we stopped in at the protest about the proposal to eliminate UF’s Department of Computer and Information Science and Engineering, signed petitions, and offered to take any willing computer scientists back to Emory with us.

The following day, we had the opportunity to attend UF’s Spring 2012 Interface Faculty Seminar and first Digital Humanities Day. We heard about different pedagogical strategies being deployed in courses across the university, including social media, wikis, and resources for sharing pedagogical materials. We also heard from about some innovative and long-running digital humanities initiatives at UF, including the amazing Digital Epigraphy Toolbox, which will allow scholars around the world to preserve epigraphic inscriptions using a simple desktop scanner.

Roger and I were flattered to be asked to deliver the keynote for the Interface + Digital Humanities Day event. Given the theme of the event–Open Resources, Open Possibilities–we decided to be as polemical as we could and titled our talk “Theses on the Open Humanities.” We couldn’t find anything to nail them to, alas.

It was an interesting experience for us to figure out how we would compose and deliver a joint keynote. What we didn’t think would be a problem was the Twitter backchannel. In a desire to make the talk as open as possible, we reached out to colleagues to watch the live stream of the event and to tweet along with the talk and the participants in Florida. Unfortunately, our first hashtag got deluged by spammers. As did the second hashtag. We managed to make it through the rest of the talk on the third hashtag. If you want to see the archived Twitter conversations, Roger captured them (sans spam) via Storify.

Our address has likewise been archived, so you can watch us and our slides. In the interest of making the presentation as accessible as possible, however, we decided to cross-post an approximation of the presentation on our blogs, along with our slides.

Talk title

While the title of our presentation is “Theses on the Open Humanities,” we recognize that not everyone is a humanist. It is just as easy to retitle this, “Theses on Open Teaching.”

An epigraph from Walter Benjamin: Ideas are to objects as constellations are to stars

I thought I’d squeeze Walter Benjamin into the discussion. Apologies to those of you who don’t know who he is. It also gives a sense of what we are trying to do in this talk, and that is to sketch what Benjamin calls a constellation. This means, that when using digital technology, we are still in the experimental phase, so we really don’t know what we are doing yet. We’re doing stuff and seeing what happens. When talking about the future of the University, you don’t really know what the fruit of your efforts is going to be, but we’re forging ahead. The ideas that we have are rough sketches, or a constellation, of what is possible, but obviously there are a lot of other things that you can do too.

Photograph of paper stars connected with popsicle sticks

We’re trying to connect the stars, but we might be a little off.

Thesis #1: Open Source = Open Possibility

We’re structuring this as a series of theses that we’re going to present to you as offerings or arguments about what the open humanities or the Open University can be. Our first thesis is “Open Source equals Open Possibility.”

photograph of open and closed signs

What can open source do? What are the complications? This is a riff on the theme of the conference. “Open Resources, Open Possibilities.”

Logos for Open Source and Open Access

What is open access? What is open source? Is there a difference between the two? What do they really mean? A lot of people throw these terms around without really defining them. There are many ways to talk about free and open resources. There’s the free software movement, the copyleft movement, the creative commons movement. The two we are interested in this talk are open access and open source. There’s a really great definition of open access by Peter Suber in which he says that it literature that “is digital, online, free of charge, and free of most copyright and licensing restrictions.” What’s key here is the idea of digital distribution. The open access movement depends upon digitial distribution because you want to distribute your work to a wide variety of people.

Logos for some digital publishers and libraries, including MediaCommons and Hathi Trust

Fun fact: Peter Suber is a philosophy professor, a copyright lawyer, director of Harvard’s open access project, and a senior researcher at SPARC. What we’re finding, and this is reflected in the career that is coming together for me, is that many of the scholars emerging in this world of digital technology and open access are hybrid scholars. They do a lot of different things. We were talking at the Research Computing Day, and there was this question about tenure. I made a comment that some people are going to be open to the new forms of scholarship emerging now, and some people aren’t. The scholars coming up for tenure in the next few years are probably going to have to do both traditional and digital work. And that sucks, because that means that we are going to have to do double the work. But that’s where we are right now. The type of scholar that’s needed is what Suber exemplifies: the scholar who dips his/her hand into several different places and mashes them together and tries to see what comes out of that.

Different initiatives within the open access movement. One is HathiTrust: a consortium of libraries that emerged after Google started digitizing books. Google would go into these libraries, and offer to digitize books if Google could keep a copy on their network. Libraries jumped at the idea, but didn’t realize that Google wouldn’t digitize multiple copies of the same book. If they digitized Huckleberry Finn at one library, they wouldn’t digitize it at another library. HathiTrust is a collaborative pool of digitized resources, or a gigantic digital library, that emerged due to this problem.

Here is one of the complexities of the emerging digital environment that involves HathiTrust. HathiTrust is currently involved in a lawsuit with the Author’s Guild over so-called orphan works. Orphan works are works still under copyright, but where the owner of the copyright can’t be located. These are works that are not being published, so they are simply unavailable. HathiTrust is trying to make these resources available. The Author’s Guild disagrees. So, navigating this new terrain is difficult sometimes.

Another thing I wanted to show is MediaCommons. It’s run by Katherine Fitzpatrick, author of a powerful book on Open Access and Peer Review called Planned Obsolescence. She’s an advocate of post-publication review, which is about leveraging the resources of the internet to widen the scope of peer review to non-academic audiences. Planned Obsolescencewas reviewed online before it was published. She invited anyone who wanted to comment on her work to do so.

Screenshot of article in In Media Res

One cool publishing platform run by MediaCommonsis In Media Res, in which authors engage in curations. Authors will post a YouTube video, or some form of electronic publication, embed it on their site, and write around 400 words about that media object. The point of this is not to create a finely-crafted argument, but to start a conversation.

Harvard Statement about Library journal subscriptions

Another really cool thing that’s occurring in open access right now is this public statement that Harvard made on April 17th. They said that they can no longer pay the 3.75 million dollars that it costs to buy journals every year. Harvard is saying that instead of paying for these journals, we need to start encouraging our professors to publish in open access venues. On the opposite side, in my own field literary studies, Steven Shaviro has recently blogged about the contract he received from Oxford University Press that wanted to make his most recent book into work-for-hire. This means that Shaviro would have never owned the rights to his work. So, these are the struggles that are occurring now around Open Access. Scholars, especially from the sciences, are refusing to do work for journals run with these kinds of policies. They are saying that until these journals make their resources more open, they aren’t going to work for them.

Logo for Sakai

I wanted to talk about the difference between open access and open source. Open access is really about dissemination of content. Open source is more interesting, at least in the digital humanities where I work. The open source initiative says, that open source is really about promoting “free redistribution and access to an end product’s design and implementation details.” This generally refers to software. So it says “I have this program. I am going to make the code for this program freely available, so you can take parts of it and do interesting things with it.” And, yay, UF for embracing Sakai, which is an open source Learning Management System. There are striking differences between the centralized, proprietary development structure that Blackboard uses. Sakai developed as a group of Universities that got together and collaborated on a piece of software. Sakai has a folksonomic approach to the production of their LMS.

Diagram of LMSes

So this question: “Why Open Source,” is interesting. Currently Blackboard has acquired many of the support companies that work for Sakai. Blackboard says, on their website, that they see that the future is open source, so they want to provide open source and proprietary solutions for different groups of people. Scholars in the DH community are looking at this with skepticism. Blackboard has acquired all sorts of different companies that have provided LMS services, like WebCT for example. So, many people are saying “Really? Do you really care about open source?” Quotation from Audrey Waters: I think there are any number of reasons why we should be deeply suspicious...

Great quote from Audrey Waters, who writes about educational technology. She calls what Blackboard is doing “open washing,” which she defines as “having the appearance of open source and open licensing for marketing purposes while continuing proprietary practices.” It makes you question the reason why Blackboard made this decision. If Blackboard acquires all of the major open source LMSs, what does this mean for the future of open source in the Learning Managment community? There’s a huge question surrounding Blackboard’s intention with this move. I’d like to hand it over to Brian. There’s been a movement in the DH community to use CMSs like WordPress as LMSs to make all of this more open and public.

Thesis 2: Being Open Connects Us to Reality

Our second thesis is that “Being open connects you to reality.”

Image of a blue toy robot

One of the difficulties of academic work is that it can frequently be insular. We write articles or books to a relatively small group of people. We often give conference presentations at the same organization, to the same people, year after year. In a certain sense, our work can become robotic.

Image of an Inside Higher Ed article title A Win for the Robo-Readers

In the last two weeks, the value of academic robots has been debated following an article in Inside Higher Ed. The article reported on a study conducted at the University of Akron on automated essay scoring software. The researchers compared the performance of the software with that of trained human graders on a sample of 22,000 essays.

Image of Rock'em Sock'em Robots

Surprisingly (or not–it is, after all, the 21st century), the Akron team found the differences between computational and human scoring to be minimal.

Image of a Scantron bubble sheet

Of the many responses to this article, the ones that struck me most were the ones that critiqued not the ability of the software but the type of writing that they are asked to grade: standardized exams.

Quotation from Alex Reid

The University at Buffalo’s Alex Reid perhaps put it best, “If computers can read like people it’s because we have trained people to read like computers. […] And FYC essays are perhaps the best real world instantiation of the widget, the fictional product, produced merely as a generic example of production. They never leave the warehouse, never get shipped to market, and are never used for anything except test runs on the factory floor.”

Picture of a walled garden

If we as academics feel like we’re working in a walled garden…

Picture of an ivy-covered doorway

…an ivory tower…

Picture of a castle-shaped ice sculpture

…or fortress of solitude (take your pick), imagine how our students feel. Too often, we ask them to do work that isn’t connected to the outside world. Being open can change this.

Screen shot of course website

In the fall I taught “Introduction to Digital Humanities” in the English Department at Emory. As a class, we read about the history of the field and its current trajectories and we wrote and built together. Rather than funnel the students’ work from them to me and back in a closed loop, however, we decided to be open, and all of the students’ work was posted to the course’s public website.

Old photo of students in school

As I’m sure many of you have found when having your students blog, there is a real change when the students are no longer writing solely to you but instead are writing to one another. Discussions become easier when the students have already started responding to the course materials. The discussion, after all, has begun prior to the beginning of class. When working in the open, student writing also improves because, as studies have shown, students care more about what their peers think than their professors (see Cathy N. Davidson, Now You See It, New York: Viking, 2011, p. 101).

Student blog post, citing Steve Ramsay

But as pedagogically useful as writing to one another was, the students’ experience of the class was transformed when the people they were writing about began writing back to them. We would, for example, read an essay by Stephen Ramsay. The students would blog about it.

Steve Ramsay's response to blog post

And then, lo and behold, Steve would interact with my students. My students got comments from other theorists and critics of the digital humanities, but also from publishers, project managers, and interested members of the public.

Screenshot of a tweet from Alex Gil

It wasn’t simply that my students got to talk with experts either; they became experts themselves. My students gave group presentations about different digital humanities projects and blogged their analyses. A few weeks later, I learned that my students were being cited in other undergrad classes.

Picture of a street performer

The technology matters here. If we’d been using a tool that put us in a walled garden, it wouldn’t have mattered if that tool was open source. Instead, we had to be working visibly and consciously in the public.

Picture of a green field

Being open with our work meant that we were no longer studying something disinterestedly. We weren’t building widgets; we were building a conversation. And by being open, we became connected to reality.

Thesis 3: Openness is Antithetical to Jargon (AKA Openness </3 jargon)

So I want to talk about another way of thinking about openness, and so our third thesis is a little bit of a joke: openness is antithetical to jargon or openness </3 jargon. They’re both jargony, right?

Quotation from Alice Bell article in Times Higher Ed

This is an issue that came to a head with a recent post by Alice Bell. She’s talking about scholarship, but it is connected to what Brian was talking about earlier with his teaching. There are different ways that our gardens become walled. See Bell’s quote. This is really important. I talked with Ryan Cordell on Twitter, and I asked him why public work in the humanities is so important. And he answered, if we are going to be enclosed in our little holes writing our work, why should the public care about funding us?

Illustration of student with head on desk

Similar question, and this is coming off of what Brian said earlier. Who are our students writing for? I love this image, because, this is the image of me grading after a bunch of students have sent in their work. We’ve all had this experience, because we’ve all had the 50 papers at midnight, and we’ve all stared at them, and half of them have horrible thesis statements, and we get more and more aggravated, and who knows how accurate your grading is in these moments? And you really have to question, is this really why your students are writing? Is this their audience?

Image of Omeka's logo

One of the things I’m thinking about doing in the fall, is to create an Omeka assignment. I really want my students to start thinking about what audiences they are writing their work for, and how does their writing reflect that. It’s one thing to do what Brian’s done and make student work accessible on the web. It’s another thing to ask your students about what kinds of audiences they want for their work, and how they are going to edit their work to make it accessible to these different audiences? I’m going to have my students curate their entire course on Omeka. Omeka is a WordPress for museum exhibits and curations. The people at the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University created a museum version of this where you can produce online exhibits. I had my students curate their next class, and then take it to a publisher and see what that means.

Image explaining structure of metadata

A lot of people have used Omeka in the past to teach students about metadata. And metadata is a funny thing. If you ask someone about metadata, their basic response is that it is data about data. That’s true, but it doesn’t tell you anything. Metadata is the way that data is structured in any online program. In the humanities, this leads to many interesting questions. Why, for example, is Churchill seen as an actor in the Battle of Yalta? What does that mean, rhetorically? You could ask questions like that. Quotation from Tonya Howe

By engaging in these questions, Tonya Howe argues that you give students a better understanding and more systematic understanding of how things are categorized. Students become more cognizant of how knowledge is put together. This can change, she argues, how we conduct searches. And I’d argue that it is even more profound than this. From a humanities standpoint it’s really about how we conceptualize what we know. And how can the structure of data change this?

Thesis 4: Openness is not Homogeneous

Our fourth thesis is “Openness is not Homogeneous.”

Image of a child raising his hand

In recent months, you might have read about some interesting experiments in open education. During the Fall 2011 semester, a Stanford computer science professor and a Google Exec offered a free, online version of a course on artificial intelligence.

Image of a child raising his hand, annotated with *times 160,000*

160,000 students enrolled.

logo for Udacity

In January of this year, Sebastian Thrun left his tenured teaching position at Stanford in order to start Udacity, which aims to offer online courses to even larger audiences. (So at least there will be one way left for people at the University of Florida to study Computer Science.)

Photograph of Bill Gates and Salman Khan at a TED Talk, annotated with *144 million views / 3,000 videos*

Udacity isn’t a new idea. MIT has been making its course content available for almost 10 years with OpenCourseWare. There’s Khan Academy, which has amassed more than 144 million views across 3,000 videos. Roger’s Omeka project is similar to these endeavors by taking specialized content and making it available publicly.

Photo of graffiti that reads: Homogenize Milk, Not Austin

This one-to-many approach is one way of making our teaching open. But it’s important to recognize that—again—openness is not homogeneous. Multiple openness can take place within the university and our teaching.

Photograph of the novel, House of Leaves

I want to tell you about another project from my Intro to DH class. One of the novels we read was Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves. House of Leaves is a story about a tattoo shop assistant who finds a manuscript of an academic text written by a blind man about a documentary about a house that’s bigger on the inside than the outside. A film that does not exist.

Photograph of the text of House of Leaves

It’s 700 pages of postmodern, post-print experimental writing. A horror story that literally requires decoding.

Photograph of the dedicatory page of House of Leaves, which reads, This is not for you.

Crucially, it’s a book that’s too hard to read by oneself. You’re not supposed to read it by yourself. That’s one of the reasons it works great in a class. But if it works with one class, I wondered, how would it work with more?

Screenshot of a tweet inviting others to participate in joint assignment about House of Leaves

So I put out a call on Twitter for people to have their classes read along with mine.

List of co-participants in House of Leaves project; Paul Benzon (Temple U); Mark Sample (George Mason U); Erin Templeton (Converse College); Zach Whalen (U of Mary Washington)

And in short order, I had four collaborators from four different institutions; we paired a small liberal arts college for women, a small public institution, and two large public universities with my medium-sized private school.

Screenshot of House of Leaves forums

We tossed around a couple of ideas for assignments, but what we decided upon was a collaborative forum where the students would ask questions and speculate about the text’s many mysteries. Not coincidentally, we designed the forum to resemble the original HoL forums, where people parsed out the text in identical ways following the book’s release in 2000.

Each class had its own schedule, but we generally started reading at the same time so the students would be close to one another and avoid spoilers.

Photograph of a sign that says *Hollywood*

For another twist, three of the courses met in the exact same time slot, so we used Google Hangouts in the three different classrooms to bring all 40+ of our students together for an hour-long discussion. The discussion was guided by questions that had not really had much attention paid them in the forums. We began by discussing why the setting of the novel in Los Angeles mattered.

Photograph of a sign that reads *Welcome to Virginia*

From there, someone asked about the other setting, Virginia. One of my students opined that it didn’t matter like LA, that it had just been picked at random. The students in Zach Whalen’s class at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg Virginia, however, thoughts very different. They helped my class and the other understand portions of the novel in the context of Virginia’s history.

Comment from a student about the House of Leaves project

My students responded really well to this project. One of them wrote, “Several times, I was struck by analysis of a certain character or event on the forums that significantly changed or enhanced my understanding of the novel. I just felt like my understanding of the book would have been much more incomplete had I not had access to the forums.”

Photograph of the dedicatory page of House of Leaves, with the *not* crossed out

The amazing thing about this experiment was that it wasn’t hard at all. We have the tools that make such openness possible: the Internet, free forum software, Google Docs for co-writing assignments, and (fortunately) academic freedom to experiment with how we do our work.

Photograph of a construction crane

While the outcomes of this project are open on the web, the experience of building the forums together was not open. And it was in that experience of making rather than just absorbing where we differed from Khan Academy.

Photograph of a classroom in an old school building

Instead, we opened the classroom in a different way. Udacity might be one way to be open with how we teach in the 21st century. But it’s not the only way. Openness is not homogeneous.

Thesis 5: We can't depend upon other people to be open for us

Brian talked about the fact that there is a lot of software out there that you can use, a lot of it based on Google, a lot of it made by these large corporations. There’s another long term goal that those of us in Universities need to embrace. And this goal is driven by our fifth thesis, “We can’t depend upon other people to be open for us.”

Screenshot of a Twitter stream as an example of a backchannel use scenario

It is exemplified by an experience I had having my students tweet last Spring. I taught a course on William Blake and asked students to tweet three times during class discussions and at least three times outside of class during the week. I found that using a Twitter backchannel really made them engage with the poem in ways that I had never experienced with students before. I did this while teaching at Georgia Tech. Tech has a policy where every student has to have a laptop. So, that made it easier to require them to tweet. So, that’s an inversion in terms of how people usually think of banning – for example – Facebook from the classroom. I say, no, I want you plugged into the web. I just want you to be doing that while achieving course objectives. The amount of material generated by this project is fascinating to me. So, I calculated that, basically, each individual students generated roughly the equivalent of 100 pages of text while tweeting. This blows the Florida State Gordon Rule out of the water, in quantity if not quality. But thinking about quality also, I found that students would retain much more knowledge and become more inquisitive while using Twitter. They engaged the text on a deeper level, and they were constantly asking questions back and forth. Some student would have a question, and another student would answer it before I could even respond. After most of my classes, I’d go on my computer and check out the back channel, and I found that several times, the backchannel conversation was more interesting than the conversation I was leading in class.

Description of Think / Thin Tweets

There’s a question about evaluation, when it comes to Twitter. I don’t want my students saying “I’m thirsty” and having it count for classroom participation. David Silver developed this method of assessment that he calls “thick and thin tweets” and he says that the “I’m thirsty tweets are thin, while tweets that accomplished more were ‘thick.’” I didn’t discourage thin tweets, by the way. Thin tweets are important for building community. You get the sense that the people you are talking to are actually real people, rather than quotes on a screen. You can see that they have children or cats or they had a bad day at work. These are all important insights when building a community on Twitter. Twitter isn’t just talking to each other, it’s about learning about each other. So, I didn’t not want them to post thin tweets, I just didn’t count them toward their requirement. So, here’s an example of a thick tweet by Mark Sample. Kelli Marshall put it on her blog, and she pointed out that there were at least four levels to this tweet. 1) It’s asking a question; 2) it’s referring to an authoritative source (ProfHacker); 3) It’s talking about teaching with Twitter; 4) It mentions that the article on ProfHacker is about teaching with Twitter; 4) And it’s linking to an essay. So, there’s a lot going on here. I want to teach this notion of concision with Twitter. You can do a lot with it.

visualization of Twitter networks from THATCamp CHNM 2010

Here’s a network relational map of different tweets from THATCamp CHNM 2010. It shows the relationships that are formed and the Twitter chatter that goes back and forth between these people. In blue, it’s only a one-way follow. One-way follow means that I may follow you, but you may not follow me. Two-way follow means that we follow each other. And it gives you a sense of how Twitter generates a community. The conversations that occur generate a feedback loop of follows and increasing levels of engagement within conversations.

Two tweets about a Twitter essay assignment

I also wanted to mention Jesse Stommel’s Twitter Essay. Jesse told his students to create an essay in 140 characters. And I want you to say something meaningful in 140 characters. This is a different way to think about language. A lot of people who criticize Twitter argue that nothing meaningful can be said in 140 characters. And I respond, really? Where’s your imagination? Have you read a haiku, or any genre of lyrical poetry? What about Ezra Pound’s Imagist movement? Is that not meaningful? This is a brilliant response from one of Jesse’s students to his mention of doing something with queer theory in a tweet. The student basically queers the word itself. It has this performative aspect to it that you couldn’t really achieve without the limitations imposed by Twitter. It forces these new kinds of ideas to emerge in your students.

Twapper Keeper's logo accompanied by the text RIP Twapper Keeper, 2010-2012

So, this thesis is really about why you can’t allow other people to be open for you. This is especially the case with Twitter, since Tweets are ephemeral. Twapper Keeper was a really awesome online resource designed to archive tweets based on a hashtag. So I thought I’d archive my student tweets, and then use them when I went about writing on my Blake class. Twitter changed its API policy in 2011 so that Twapper Keeper could not archive the tweets.

screenshot from Twapper Keeper's blog

This is from Twapper Keeper’s blog.

Other options for archiving Twitter: The Archivist and Google Docs option

This was a devastating blow to the DH community. Think about how much potential research was lost when the API terms changed. There are other options, like the Archivist, and another from Martin Hawksky which uses Google Docs to archive. But both of these are essentially commercial solutions.

Slide with a post-it note schedule and the text, *The humanities MUST be a community of practice, designing its own OS tools*

This is all to say that the humanities have to be a community of practice. The University has to be a community of practice. It can’t rely upon Google. However cool Google is as a company, it is still not fundamentally interested in the public good. This is precisely what DH and other digital forms of scholarship can contribute that proprietary companies cannot: a public and open source approach to useful tool building. It needs to start developing infrastructure to do that. Universities have started that project, but it really hasn’t trickled down into the disciplines, at least in literary studies.

Letter from Zvi Galil about the problems of University of Florida eliminating its Computer Science program

So this is a quote about the imminent demise of CISE at UF from the Dean of Computing at Georgia Tech. It’s very interesting. I think the quote is absolutely correct. The future of the University, whether we like it or not, will be shaped by digital technology. It’s just the reality that we face. I tend to like it. Obviously there are political issues, in terms of advocating for departments like this, that will help this situation. But we also need to think about the political structures in our departments and what we count as useful and tenurable work. And so I included the bottom quote by Olin Bjork, who works in the digital humanities, because it is ironic and because it underlines the problems we are currently facing in our departments today. It’s stupid that he gets more credit for writing about databases than he does actually building them – especially since we are currently facing a need for building new tools that aren’t reliant upon proprietary models. It is absolutely stupid that it is difficult in a lot of departments to get credit for tenure for designing databases and scholarly tools. That should be front and center. That kind of work should be the priority of our humanities departments.

thesis 6: Be open to others forking with you

As Roger’s just said, we can’t necessarily count on others to be open for us. We need, then, to work to be open, to, perhaps, having others fork with us.

Image of red lockers, with one locker open

Such a stance–a default to openness–need not only be linked to the tools that we are using. It can also be the mode in which we treat our intellectual work.

Photo of the edge of coins, with the words *Standing On* and *Shoulders* visible

We all know what it means to build on the work of those who have come before us. Acknowledging that work and how it has shaped our own research is one of the functions of an article’s lit review. And we expect our own research to be cited in such ways in the future.

Photograph of a chalkboard

But what would it mean for us to think similarly about our teaching?

Photograph of *The Creation of Adam* from the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel

Designing assignments is hard work; creating a new class is even more difficult. If you’re anything like me, when you’ve decided to do one or the other, you don’t work ex nihilo. Instead, I ask friends and colleagues for examples of what they’ve done. I then adapt and build upon their work.

Photograph of three LEGO minifigs dressed as thieves

And in some cases, where their assignments are truly excellent, I just steal–all the best pedagogues do the same.

Why don’t we acknowledge the provenance of these ideas when we’re teaching? We already have a model for recognizing the work of others in our publications, and that might be able to work for our teaching.

Photograph of a forking road

But there’s another model that we can build on, taken from software development, which Trevor Owens recently observed in a Twitter conversation. That model is “forking.”

Screenshot of a tweet about forking syllabi from Trevor Owens

“Forking” takes place when you share your code with someone else, perhaps via a tool like GitHub, a repository for open source code that supports version control. Developers can share code using GitHub and then other developers can add on to that code, with the repository tracking all the changes.

Photograph of a forking bike path

If a developer wants to take a piece of code down a different line of development, she “forks” the code. The fork shows the provenance of the code while still allowing you to adapt it to your own needs.

Screenshot of a post on ProfHacker about forking syllabi

Finding a platform to “fork your syllabus” would not only allow you to give acknowledgments to those whose work you drew on, but it would invite others to make use of your syllabus for their own development. I wrote about these ideas on the Chronicle of Higher Education’s blog, ProfHacker.

Screenshot of a different ProfHacker post, based on the first

And as luck would have it, Lincoln Mullen forked me and posted instructions on ProfHacker for using GitHub to do just this: sharing your syllabi.

Creative Commons BY license logo

When I designed my Intro to DH course, I consulted many friends and colleagues, and I blogged about these inspirations. I also licensed the work on my course website with a Creative Commons license, inviting people to fork with my work. But I’m now building a repository for the same materials in GitHub.

photograph of a footnote

And I wonder: will our students better understand citation if we cited our own sources more regularly in our work?

Photograph of William Faulkner lecturing

Perhaps if I wasn’t so concerned with appearing like my idea of “A Professor” in my classes, perhaps if I told my students that I looked up what I just told them about William Faulkner’s home life in the Wikipedia as I was preparing for our discussion, maybe they would realize that citation is necessary.

photograph of a spork

We’re lucky today that we have so many tools that can assist us to be open. We just have to embrace a shift in perspective. We have to be open to people forking with us.

List of all Theses

These, then, are our six theses for the open humanities, or perhaps Open Teaching. We’ve been interested to see the conversation that’s already happening on Twitter, and we’re excited to hear from you now. Help connect us to reality!



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