I’ve been sneaking away from my actual desk to do work at every and any opportunity this past year. My office has been feeling cluttered, cramped, and… not a space I’ve wanted to be in. Some of that is natural, I think, the usual desire to vary the space in which I’m working. I like to escape to a coffee house, for example, and find the hum of random noise in which to work, and grab a good beverage or snack to accompany the task at hand. Even with the noise, the distractions seem fewer most of the time than when I’m working at home.
But outside escapes also tend to work better for certain kinds of tasks, and with summer’s arrival I’m ready to reclaim my office. And I’ve also decided it’s time for a make-over of my home workspace too.
This year I’m trying a significant experiment: a standing desk setup. I’ve had friends endorse these, and have mostly nodded at the mention of standing desks but kept a distance. This past year, though, I’ve been finding myself with increasing back and shoulder problems. I’ve also seen a plethora of reminders that sedentary professions are unhealthy (e.g., here and here, for starters.) So I’m giving the standing desk a go.
I’m starting it with an inexpensive Ikea hack to see if I like the arrangement first, before investing in something more permanent. I created a standing desk following mods of this model, all for something in the range of about $25-30. I also added a cushioned floormat to help my legs and back, which seemed essential. These go for anywhere from $35-100, good and lasting ones probably about $50-60 and up. I have a monitor on top with a keyboard, and my laptop, peripherals, speakers, scanner, etc. all rigged with a universal docking station.
Also got the rest of the desk in an “L” shape for other kinds of work. My plan is to keep both options open — sitting and standing — and leave it so I can alternate easily. Stand a few hours, mostly for email and lighter tasks, sit for the heavier work of translation or hard-core writing. I’m finding already that this also help separate out distractions: email tasks and the inevitable surfing the ‘net seem further separated, both in time and on separate monitors & spaces. So perhaps this will have multiple payoffs in terms of both health and productivity.
We’ll see how it pans out… In the meantime, here’s an image of my setup. I’ve used plastic cables at the moment (rather than bolts and washers, etc.) to fasten the shelf arms to the desk. I did this in order to keep the height settings flexible for the moment, in case I need to make adjustments (yes, waiting for potential aches and pains, as the old gal I am.) The cables are doing an excellent job of holding things tight, though, which is good to see.
Top image: my favorite spot to escape from work, years ago in Taipei… Image by M.G. Chang, who spent a good deal of time there himself.
Earlier this spring (ages back in late March, my regrets for the belated post) I attended the Association of Asian Studies annual meeting. I had the welcome opportunity to participate in a roundtable on “Charting the Digital in Asian Studies: Promises, Realities, and the Future of Teaching and Research” organized by Amanda Shuman (who is finishing up an excellent dissertation in 20th c. Chinese history at UCSC). We were joined by Japan historian Alan Christy, who is also Co-Director of the Center for the Study of Pacific War Memories at UCSC, along with Maggie Greene (Chinese history, Montana State University), Nick Kapur (post-doctoral fellow, Harvard’s Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies), and Hilde de Weerdt (Chinese history, Leiden), our round-table chair, who is doing some very interesting work in research and teaching with digital tools and mapping of sources in Chinese correspondence of the Song through Yuan period (~10th – 14th c.)
I’ll have more time to meditate on related topics over the summer. But now, in the meantime, some themes and links of note:
1. LANGUAGE. Alan eloquently raised the issue of language, which has been one I’ve been wrestling with greatly amid curriculum design for undergraduates in East Asian history. As he asked (I’m paraphrasing here): how do we begin to get students to negotiate with the texts (and related media) in whose languages they cannot immediately read or function?
As I sit with my colleagues — particularly folks doing very creative work with undergraduates in U.S. history, in English-language literature, in Anthropology and Sociology, and beyond… but most often with students working in their native languages, and we brainstorm curricular approaches that intersect with digital projects, I’ve found myself having major envy (and, at rarer but real moments, flashes of serious frustration) in regard to source availability and linguistic accessibility for my own undergraduate students exploring Chinese history. While I have worked with a few who have acquired enough Chinese to begin to work with primary sources in the original language, these students are very few and far between (I can count them on one hand in my ten year experience at UMW.)
So Alan’s contribution to the discussion was wonderful — as he suggested, rather than dodging the the language barrier, why not meet it head-on? Bringing students to this project seems an excellent curricular endeavor of its own. Don’t flee the barrier, meet it. One of the most important aspects of a college education, done right, is to help students learn the value of risk-taking, and, yes, at times, failure. Of not-getting something quite “correct.” And, most importantly, of learning the value of experiment and invention. Of tackling a learning curve. From Alan’s own testimony regarding work with Santa Cruz undergraduates on projects in Japanese source material, it’s clear that jumping into an opaque language on the page, then transforming parts of it into something intelligible seems an excellent way to work through that kind of skill and confidence-building.
Alan also spoke to the value of multilingual websites in related projects. The use of multilingual tagging systems is particularly valuable, he noted. Seems a great entry point for students who are just climbing into new languages, and new kinds of global consciousness.
2. JAPAN’S 2011 DISASTER ARCHIVE: Community Archives. The Digital Archive of Japan’s 2011 Disasters site, shared by Nick Kapur, who’s done wonderful work on it, also seemed to illustrate many of the themes Alan had raised, while also offering, as Nick shared, some great features to learn from.
This archive is one that places community participation at its center. Its features highlight this aim, as Nick detailed. Tagging is very flexible, with users able to add their own tags to any of the archived data they find relevant. Users can add items to the archive, and also build their own collections, which can be set to public or private status. Essays can be also added and presentations can be created.
Language is also a key aspect of the site. Not only is the site available in both English and Japanese, but translation itself is a feature: any logged-in user can add translations of text on the site. In a sense, all users are authors and translators too at this online archive.
3. RESEARCH, SOURCES, & TOOLS: ACCESSIBILITY. Amanda and Maggie both spoke eloquently on this subject at our panel (from two parts of the globe as it happened, thanks to to digital tools and teleconferencing.) Amanda spoke to the comparative ease by which resources for dissertation research on a range of topics on 20th century China might be obtained via electronic sites (e.g. auction blogs) versus the challenges of library access in China today.
Maggie, meanwhile, raised the issue of scholars losing access to much-needed search engines and online research tools upon leaving the research-focused “R1″ institutions they likely trained at as graduate student before making their way into careers at the majority of mainstream universities and colleges elsewhere that can’t necessarily afford these for their libraries. As she noted, our universities seem to be stuck negotiating contracts for such subscription databases in small groups or as individual institutions. Among other insightful notes, Maggie pointed to the German system, which has allowed members of all universities to have the same database access — for more, see Maggie’s own blogging on the topic here regarding a very important issue of disparity in higher education.
Last fall I taught a new colloquium, History 297, as part of a methods sequence required for all majors. As I’ve detailed in previous posts here and here, our department has recently expanded a single-semester methods course into a 2 course sequence, with one course that focuses on historiography and another that’s research centered. One of the reasons we’ve made this change is to allow for more time for curriculum focused on digital fluencies.
I’m still processing the “take-aways” from my efforts in curriculum development in the first round of this course, particularly in relation to digital projects. At the same time, I’m also looking ahead to next fall’s course and imagining its own thematic design. So a bit on the first here, then I’ll introduce the second…
The aim of the HIST297 “History Colloquium” is to help students become familiar with different sub-fields of history, to gain skills in speaking / writing / secondary research / critical reading & analysis… and, yes, digital fluencies. Main assignments: book review, literature review essay, formal speaking presentations, along with a digital project. Class size is 12-15. Students are usually sophomores or first semester juniors.
Last semester I chose a theme for the course in China’s Taiping Civil War (1850-1864), an event that devastated China, leaving 20 to 30 million dead, and its own complex legacy. For their digital project, my students worked in three groups to build content for a website – TaipingCivilWar.org – that featured an annotated Zotero bibliography & author interview (with Tobie Meyer-Fong, author of What Remains: Coming to Terms with Civil War in 19th Century China), a map with charted entries from primary sources related to the conflict, and an interactive timeline with key dates and similar excerpts from the conflict’s primary sources.
I’ve shared a longer post on this project, noting broader questions and also some of what I saw as the strengths of the project, namely:
– Active learning: In having students exploring primary sources for a map and timeline along a secondary source they were reading on the topic, it led to a more active, not passive read of the scholarly monograph – they were literally, through their simultaneous work in primary sources, reading a secondary source by another historican critically, from the inside out, with engaged discussion.
– Student Authorship: Website design = its own kind of authorship, which itself seemed empowering for those involved. In other words, also another kind of more active learning.
– Collaboration: The digital project was very much collaborative work, which is itself a valuable experience to gain. Challenges exist here too, of course, see the original post linked above for more on this issue, and the others too.
LOOKING AHEAD: BOXERS
This coming fall, I’m introducing a new event as theme for the course: the Boxer Uprising of 1900 (also somewhat inaccurately known as the Boxer Rebellion.) This event occurred during the summer of 1900 when the Qing dynasty’s imperial army along with peasant “Boxer” troops opposed to Westerners and especially missionary presence in China besieged Beijing’s legation quarter. Making world-wide news for fifty-five days until an alliance of international troops stormed the capital city, looting as they went, this conflict has left a rich collection of primary sources for today’s student of global and local history.
It has also recently inspired Gene Luen Yang, author of the award winning graphic novel American Born Chinese, to publish a two-volume graphic novel entitled Boxers & Saints (2013). In this work of historical fiction, Yang tells the story of two lead characters who each portray a side of the struggle, Boxer and Christian. As the book’s own summary lays it out:
In two volumes, Boxers & Saints tells two parallel stories. The first is of Little Bao, a Chinese peasant boy whose village is abused and plundered by Westerners claiming the role of missionaries. Little Bao, inspired by visions of the Chinese gods, joins a violent uprising against the Western interlopers. Against all odds, their grass-roots rebellion is successful.
But in the second volume, Yang lays out the opposite side of the conflict. A girl whose village has no place for her is taken in by Christian missionaries and finds, for the first time, a home with them. As the Boxer Rebellion gains momentum, Vibiana must decide whether to abandon her Christian friends or to commit herself fully to Christianity.
A finalist for the 2013 National Book Award, this graphic novel seems a useful entry point for students who will be investigating academic studies of the Boxer Uprising as an historical event, including ones that Yang himself has cited as influential background reading for his own novel. Prominent among these studies, as it happens, is the award-winning work of my dissertation adviser, Joseph Esherick, whom I consider a leading candidate for this coming year’s scholar-interview for my students… (Sidenote: Joe, 不好意思, I’ll be in touch before long!)
So my students will start with a graphic novel, but they will be reading diverse academic studies as the focus for their literature reviews, debating different approaches, and thus becoming experts on the subject, which should also provide them with a new perspective on a work of very engaging historical fiction as well.
NEXT FALL’S DIGITAL PROJECT
Here’s where my plans get muddier.
Again, I want to have my students working with primary sources alongside the secondary sources that are the core of the colloquium.
There are rich collections of primary sources available online in English (and other languages) thanks in part to the fact that this event happened in 1900 and so many books and newspapers sit available in full-text online, freely available before copyright restrictions fall on them. There are also a fair number of photographs that can be found online in archival collections.
One disadvantage, though, is perspective: the sources my students will be using will be entirely English or European-language based (except in the rare case, my students generally do not have Chinese language capability — and certainly not classical Chinese necessary for documents from 1900.) So they’ll be working exclusively with sources from a certain perspective amid what is in many ways a colonialist conflict… On the other hand, of course, this may make for an excellent teaching point and add plenty to explore.
The more fundamental question is simply what will they be designing?
Here’s what I’m imagining for a digital creation, rough in form so far, suggestions for directions, further fine-tuning, warnings of pit-falls, etc., all welcome:
One of the main audiences for Boxers & Saints is the Young Adult (“YA”) audience. It’s a book that sits in many high school or middle school libraries. My students themselves are only a few years away from those same school libraries and classrooms. At the same time, I have a significant number of students who are also training as dual History and Education majors to return to teach in those schools. Why not embark on a digital project in which students are using their experience studying the Boxer event to create an online curricular resource of their own, openly available for K-12 students and teachers both to use?
I could see the students exploring textual and visual sources, individually having to choose one of each, then writing up their own contextualization — origins, location (again, perhaps mapping these?), authorship, any associated data, and then also composing a set of related questions for discussion to accompany those sources. They could work in groups, providing peer-feedback. Modelling and testing lesson plans? I could also have them do an analytic write-up for me, as background to those questions, as a graded assignment.
Some analytic dynamics that may come into the discussion (and perhaps, or perhaps not, the site?)
– dynamics of only having, it might seem, one side — the Western side – of the story in the dominance of Western sources?
– can one read other sides in the texts and images through missing elements, traces in the pictures? (There are some secondary readings here that may assist with this analysis, incidentally.)
– what’s the relationship between historical fiction and history as written by scholars? Graphic novels and textual scholarship?
Could this, or something related, come together as a website for students in K-12 who might be reading Yang’s graphic novel and want to learn more — and see more — of the actual history? A website with texts and images and Q’s for a class that’s reading the novel to dig into? Would it be something their teachers might find useful?
What digital elements would complement this project? Further it?
Should I be more (or less) ambitious?
Suggestions from any high school or middle school teachers or librarians? I’d love to expand the conversation…
Post-script: Meant to add these links to the original post — for more on Gene Yang’s Boxers & Saints, see his interview at The New Yorker and also Wesley Yang’s review in The New York Times. The video trailer for the work (all our works should have video trailers now, no?) can be found at First Second / Macmillan Publishing here.
Image 1, 2: From Gene Luen Yang, Boxers & Saints (First Second Press, 2013)
Image 3: Boxers, Tianjin, China, 1900. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, LC-USZC4-3917
Now that the snow days have concluded (fingers crossed), I’m joining a group of colleagues in kicking off a collaborative project at the University of Mary Washington titled “DSI” or “Digital Scholars Institute” (any relation to “CSI” purely coincidental…) Working with Mary Kayler, Director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and Innovation at UMW, and Jim Groom, director of our Division of Teaching and Learning Technologies, who together initiated the project, along with my excellent colleague Elizabeth Lewis, we’ve organized two pilot cohorts that began meeting just this week.
The focus is also two-fold at the start, though I’m sure the conversation will develop in more diverse directions. Participants are all veterans of last year’s “Domain of One’s Own” project in which faculty on our campus explored their own digital scholarship and identities through domain creation as part of a university initiative. Now, this semester, we’re building on that experience through a bi-weekly conversation in which participants in small cohorts will be sharing individual projects in digital scholarship for close feedback.
At the same time, we’ll also be engaged in a broader, “meta” conversation about digital scholarship itself. What are the standards by which our diverse fields define it — or are beginning to define it? How does digital scholarship relate to, differ from, or overlap with supposedly more “traditional” forms? How is digital scholarship influencing our work in the classroom and in curricular development? These questions are just starting points, and the conversation will be evolving as the semester continues. I’m very much looking forward to digging into the details…
Image: Skier making a cornice jump near Edith Creek, southeast slope of Mt. Rainier. Photographer: Dwight Watson. N.D. Property of MSCUA, Special Collections, University of Washington Libraries, PH Coll 165. Link: http://content.lib.washington.edu/u?/watson,33.