Author Archives: Julie Fuller

Journalism and COVID-19: The Toll of a Pandemic

ITP student Sandy Mui (MA in Liberal Studies) developed the following independent study project

At the start of the coronavirus pandemic, news publishers were deemed “essential” businesses, underlining the vital role that journalists play in our society. Indeed, journalism is perhaps never more important than at a time of intersecting challenges for the United States with the health crisis and associated economic spiral, a divisive political election and its aftermath, and period of protest and reckoning with systemic racism. And yet, when people most need factual information to counter the deluge of mis- and disinformation, the pandemic has had a damaging impact on journalism in the United States. The pandemic has presented unique opportunities for political forces, following President Donald Trump’s lead, to inhibit and delegitimize the practices of a free press. Even as the demands for newsgathering have grown, newsrooms are facing unprecedented economic challenges, forcing some to shutter and others to face cutbacks in staff and other resources. And, alongside others in their communities, journalists have succumbed to the virus.

Journalism and COVID-19: The Toll of a Pandemic [] aims to humanize and detail the toll of the coronavirus on journalism in the United States. While we will never know the pandemic’s full impact, this project—which examines the first 10 months of the pandemic from March to December 2020—is a start. The project pays tribute to journalists and media professionals whose lives were cut short due to COVID, focuses on five of the U.S. states with among the most negatively affected newsrooms, and highlights incidents of free press threats that have a direct relation to the coronavirus.

This project, published by the literary and free expression group PEN America, was created by Sandy Mui (PEN America’s digital communications assistant) as her independent study project for the Interactive Technology and Pedagogy certificate program at The Graduate Center. Mui also made an appearance on The PEN Pod [], PEN America’s podcast, to talk about the project’s humanized look at the pandemic’s impact on journalism and the process behind executing the project. Ximena Gallardo C. served as advisor in her role at The Graduate Center.

Critical Machine Learning: An Online Resource

ITP student Achim Koh (MA in Liberal Studies) developed the following independent study project

Machine learning algorithms are becoming increasingly important elements of the computational processes operating in the contemporary society. Their influence calls for discussions about the social implications, not only by technology experts but also by a broader range of people which are affected by the technological change. This in turn is helped by both accessible technical knowledge and critical thinking, which complement each other. There are a lot of openly available resources that treat either the technicalities of machine learning or more socio-humanistic critiques of the technology. Efforts to mediate the space in-between are also more and more present, but Achim feels that another such attempt couldn’t hurt—hence this list.

Critical Machine Learning (CML) is an online resource that targets researchers and educators of various backgrounds and attempts to bridge technical understanding and critical discussion surrounding machine learning. CML attempts to encourage interdisciplinary thinking that researchers and educators can apply in their respective disciplines. The non-technical user can use CML to familiarize oneself with fundamental machine learning terms and avoid misconceptions when applying them in one’s respective field; users already familiar with the technology can use the resource to explore diverse perspectives about the field, especially those that come from outside the mainstream industry. The website contains lists of selected material that covers topics such as introductory concepts of machine learning, the black box metaphor, and the potential bias inherent in both data and process; it also serves as a syllabus for pedagogical practices such as workshops. CML aims at providing a middle ground where the user can find resources for both technical understanding of and critical thinking about machine learning.

This online resource contains selected readings that can help understand basic concepts of machine learning/AI, as well as its characteristics as a technology situated within social contexts. It is accompanied by this account on (which is a service you should consider giving a try if you haven’t already). The two resources mostly overlap; the account is updated more frequently, whereas this website is intended to be more stable. Although this whole thing is intended to serve as a temporary meta-resource amidst a rapidly changing socio-technological environment, so may become obsolete very quickly. Achim hopes this is useful in the meantime.

This project was initially conducted as an independent study project for the Interactive Technology and Pedagogy certificate program at the Graduate Center, CUNY where Achim was advised by the super Maura Smale. Project write-up: link

Teaching Bilinguals (Even if You’re Not One!)

ITP student Sara Vogel (Urban Education) developed the following independent study project

Sara produced a video project in conjunction with the CUNY-New York State Initiative for Emergent Bilinguals called “Teaching Bilinguals (Even if You’re Not One!)” The videos take viewers on a journey across New York City and State to learn how teachers draw on their students’ diverse language practices as resources in their learning. The five episode series has been officially launched on the CUNY-NYSIEB Website! Click here to begin your journey:

The videos range from 2-6 minutes each. They feature the work of five teachers from New York City and Westchester who, despite not always sharing their K-12 bilingual students’ language practices, are able to effectively use translanguaging pedagogy to support their learning.

The teachers featured in these videos are impressive problem solvers and risk-takers who build relationships rooted in respect, empathy, and deep understanding of their students’ repertoires. It has been an honor to work with them. Special thanks also to the whole CUNY-NYSIEB team, the videographers Dani Tenenbaum and Yuval Netter, the illustrator Andrew Roberts, the GC’s New Media Lab, the professors and students in the GC’s Interactive Technology and Pedagogy Certificate, and my “creative producer” and sister Jillian Vogel.

Sara aims to have people share these videos with their colleagues and students in bilingual education and beyond. She hopes everyone enjoys the series and finds it useful in their work!

Supporting the Transition to College: Implementation of a Summer Workshop Series for Students with Autism

ITP student Christina Shane-Simpson (Psychology) reflects on her independent study project

Project Summary

Students with autism often experience significant stress when transitioning from a supportive high school setting to the more independent college setting.  Despite high intelligence, high school graduates with autism often fail to enter college or drop out before completing their degrees (Cederlund et al., 2008).  While stress and anxiety have been identified as factors associated with the high student drop-out rate, colleges have not yet created evidence-based intervention programming to support students with autism during this transition.  This study will design, implement, and evaluate a summer training focused on developing classroom readiness, social skills, self-advocacy skills, and computer-mediated communication skills designed to support students with autism as they transition into college.  Twenty students will be recruited to participate in a weeklong workshop.  A five-phase, quasi-experimental pre/post-test design employing focus groups, behavioral assessments, and standardized measures will be used to examine the program’s impact on classroom behaviors, computer-mediated communication skills, self-advocacy skills, anxiety, loneliness, self-esteem, depression, and students’ adaptation to college life.  This study will instruct future programming targeting students with autism as they meet the challenges of an increasingly complex online and offline college social environment.


Increasing numbers of adolescents with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) are entering college (Van Bergeijk, Klin, & Volkmar, 2008), illustrated by an increase from 5 to 82 students registered with ASD at the College of Staten Island (CSI) over a five-year period.  College students with autism often struggle with transitioning from a structured high school environment to the more socially complex college environment (Kapp et al., 2011; Adreon & Durocher, 2007), which can result in students experiencing increased loneliness, depression, anxiety, and stress (Glennon, 2001).

Despite these challenges, limited research has focused on adults with ASD and no studies have focused on interventions to facilitate and support the transition into college for students with autism (Bishop-Fitzpatrick, Minshew, & Eack, 2012).  During late adolescence, individuals with autism often struggle to establish independence, self-advocate, and develop strong social relationships (Kapp et al., 2011).  In college, students can struggle with loneliness, depression, anxiety, atypical sensory processing, problems with planning, and challenges associated with engaging in practices of self-advocacy (Glennon, 2001; White et al., 2011).  Educators have suggested that individuals with autism should begin learning self-advocacy skills in childhood (Shore, 2004), and that these skills can be expanded upon and practiced throughout college.  Even so, there is no research to date that has evaluated self-advocacy interventions specifically for individuals with ASD (Test et al., 2005).  Although each of the aforementioned areas have been identified as areas in need of further research, limited work has addressed how these challenges can be addressed as individuals with autism transition into college.

Few studies have identified specific disruptive behaviors exhibited by students with ASD in college.  However, literature has focused on ameliorating the behavioral challenges younger individuals with ASD often face in general education settings.  Classroom-based interventions including social stories, self-management strategies, peer-mediated interventions, and pre-task sequencing have all targeted young students’ disruptive behaviors (Scattone et al., 2002; Harrower & Dunlap, 2001).  Similar to younger individuals on the spectrum, college students with autism may also engage in disruptive classroom behaviors such as calling out answers during class, difficulty maintaining space boundaries with others, and sudden, unexpected behaviors (standing up and waving ones arms).  While the researchers in the current study have observed students enrolled in our mentorship program engaging in these behaviors, relatively little is known about the specific behaviors college students with autism express in college environments. Thus, a secondary aim of this study is to document potential challenges students on the spectrum may face when transitioning into college.  This study will design and evaluate teaching strategies that potentially help these students to manage these challenges.

Previous Studies at CSI

A current study at CSI is evaluating a mentorship program for college students with ASD and other disabilities.  Preliminary results from this study suggest that students with ASD may struggle in four specific areas related to in-person demands of college:

  1. Limited Self-Advocacy: Student often have limited knowledge of self-advocacy.  For example, few know the distinction between IDEA and the ADA and how this distinction affects them.
  2. Atypical Social Behaviors Outside of Class: Students may struggle to understand how to make friends with peers, may have questions about whether it is soon enough after meeting someone to ask them to be a friend, may develop inappropriate nicknames for potential friends, and/or they may interrupt conversations with peers in order to attempt to establish friendships.
  3. Atypical Social Behaviors in Class: Students may call out in class or sit silently and not interact at all with others. They may stand up suddenly in class and/or walk around the room waving their arms. Students may stare at the professor or peers in a way that makes them uncomfortable, or may stand too close to professors or peers.
  4. Difficulty with Planning/Studying: Student may neglect to consult their syllabi, they may not study until a few hours before a test, they also may experience difficulties related to perseverating on a single study style that has not been successful in the past including difficulty changing that study style.  They also may neglect to write sufficient notes in order to complete assignments successfully outside of class.

Developing Technology Skills

Online environments may be spaces that individuals on the spectrum can use to overcome many of the aforementioned offline social difficulties.  However, online environments may also serve as spaces in which offline challenges are recapitulated.  Limited research has explored how students with autism navigate and manipulate these online environments, in addition to any potential barriers they may encounter within these spaces.  Research suggests that people with ASD may view online environments as liberating spaces where they can interact with others on a more equal basis (Benford, 2008) using “pre-packaged” online social norms.  Through online spaces, individuals with ASD are given opportunities to take sufficient time to think of responses due to the semi-synchronous nature of most forms of online communication (Burke, Kraut, & Williams, 2010).  Consequently, online environments may remedy offline social difficulties.

However, effective use of these online social spaces requires that the individual user understand how to identify and use these pre-packaged social norms, and online social norms may recapitulate some of the offline social difficulties associated with autism.  Research has also suggested that some people with ASD dislike the lack of consistent social feedback online, and the relative absence of intonation and facial cues (Burke et al., 2010), both of which are indications of engagement during social interactions.  Individuals with autism may rely on these nonverbal indicators as red flags to determine how the conversational partner feels about the current conversation and whether to continue speaking about a topic.

Preliminary results from a current study at CSI suggest that freshman students with ASD may struggle in three areas of computer-mediated communication:

  1. Many students struggle to effectively structure email communication towards varying audiences (professor vs. student), a concrete representation of one of the online social norms identified by Benford (2008). Students may need assistance in recognizing how to write an informal email towards a peer, and then re-structure that email towards a professor.  Freshmen students are required to communicate via email with peers during collaborative class projects and also with their professors.  This skillset is applicable not only during the first year of college, but throughout later years in college and the student’s career path.
  2. While some students are able to identify “appropriate” privacy settings for social networking sites (such as Facebook), when asked to show the researcher their privacy settings, many students struggle to locate these settings and effectively modify these settings to reflect their needs/interests. Students seem to specifically lack the “applied” aspect of this social networking skill.
  3. The last area of difficulty most often cited by students on (and off) the spectrum includes the navigation of the Blackboard Learning Management System. Most freshman coursework at CSI (and many other college campuses) requires that students log-on, post, and submit assignments using the Blackboard System.   Students have extensively reported problems with navigating this Learning System, identifying difficulties locating classes, finding the syllabi on the site, using the Discussion Board forum, submitting assignments through SafeAssign, and locating class lecture notes.

Given the range of online and offline challenges students on the spectrum may face when adapting to college, it is highly likely that they would benefit from an intervention designed to help them transition into college.  Programming in this workshop series will be modeled after a research-based, peer-mentor social skills and self-advocacy skills trainings for college students with autism (Project REACH) attending CSI that the researcher is currently involved with as a mentor and group leader.

Using a scaffolding approach to learning (Vygotsky, 1987), each semester-long iteration of Project REACH at CSI has served freshmen through graduate-level students in a collaborative learning environment.  The social skills modules for Project REACH were based on the PEERS Model implemented with teenagers and adults at UCLA, but modified for use with a college student population (i.e. parents were an important part of the PEERS model but were not included in our intervention with college students in order to encourage independence).

Similarly, the self-advocacy modules were adapted from a self-advocacy curriculum developed by an autistic self-advocate, Valerie Paradiz, but modified to address specific self-advocacy challenges that college students face.  The preliminary results from self-reports collected in the spring of 2013 indicate that participation in REACH was associated with decreases in social symptoms and anxiety.  However, freshmen students with ASD in REACH consistently encountered unique challenges, such as difficulties navigating Blackboard and inappropriate behaviors during class such as calling out or walking around unexpectedly and standing too close to professors.

As an extension of the REACH model, the research team will modify the structure of the social skills and self-advocacy interventions to target college freshmen and the skills needed for college.  Computer-mediated communication skills will include the aforementioned modules (email communication, Blackboard, & privacy settings) identified by current participants in Project REACH, as well as additional challenges identified by the incoming 2014 freshman cohort.

Project Timeline and Methods

The aim of this project is to develop, implement, and evaluate an evidence-based computer-mediated training to help incoming freshmen with autism transition successfully into college through the use of supportive summer programming.  Incoming freshmen with autism will participate in a week-long workshop during the summer of 2014, prior to beginning the fall semester at CSI.  This research study will use a parallel sequential, mixed-methods, (Onwuigbuzie & Collins, 2007) quasi-experimental approach as methods to measure the impact of student participation in the summer program.

Phase I:  Recruitment

The research team is recruiting twenty, first year college students with autism from the CSI’s Center for Student Accessibility (CSA) and through informal workshops held at local high schools on Staten Island.  This recruitment phase will continue until the first focus group.

During the recruitment phase, the research team will also design and modify content areas identified in a current study the researcher is conducting at CSI with students on the spectrum, students with other disabilities, and students without a disability.  Preliminary results from this study have determined specific skills surrounding computer-mediated communication that students struggle with.  These computer skills trainings will be combined with previous modules (implemented in Project REACH) focusing on classroom readiness, social skills, and self-advocacy.  Prior to the first round of focus groups, the research team will create workshops designed to enhance skillsets in these content areas.

Phase II:  Workshop Design and Pre-Testing

The first round of focus groups will be held in late-July for 2-hour blocks of time.  Recordings from these preliminary focus groups will be analyzed over the course of one week to identify content areas of interest for the incoming freshman cohort and any potential barriers to success.  All focus groups will be led by the primary researchers (with undergraduate support staff), will be audio-recorded, and will then be transcribed in preparation for the analysis of the focus group content.

Once content areas have been identified, the research team will design/modify content for each workshop session.  Workshop content areas previously identified by Project REACH (class readiness, social skills, & self-advocacy) and by the computer-skills study at CSI (email, Blackboard, social networking) will be used as a set of foundational skills that the research team will build from.  These already-built modules will allow researchers to focus on modifying the skillsets to specifically address the wants and needs of the incoming cohort.

Phase III:  Skills Workshops

There will be two cohorts of incoming students, with ten students each.  Workshops will occur in a series of four weekdays during one week, for 4-hour increments each day.  Prior to beginning workshop instruction, students will be asked to demonstrate their current skillsets in video-taped, role-play environments within the classroom.  Students will also be asked to complete a series of standardized measures (assessing social symptoms, loneliness, self-esteem, depression, and anxiety).  Workshop trainings will be modeled after the Project REACH model and structured with the following components:

  1. Students will be introduced to and will then discuss key ideas related to classroom readiness, social skills, self-advocacy skills, and computer-mediated communication skills.
  2. The workshop facilitator will demonstrate the appropriate use of the skill. Each session will concentrate on at least one “focal” skill in each of the domains of programming, with an example of a “focal” skill from the computer-mediated skills – learning to navigate Blackboard.
  3. Students will practice role-playing both the current and previous target skills. As a core component of the Project REACH model, students will be allowed ample opportunities and will be encouraged to practice all of their focus skills with their peers, undergraduate mentors, and the workshop facilitator.
  4. Students will practice evaluating the current and the previous target skills of other students. The proposed model allows students to “try-out” their skills in an environment designed to be supportive, while also allowing students to receive constructive feedback from their peers and the facilitator for further skill development.

Throughout the skill practice sessions of each workshop, the graduate student instructor, undergraduate mentors, and the student’s peer group will provide immediate constructive feedback to participating students on all aspects of their skill development.

Phase IV:  Post-Testing

At the conclusion of the workshops in August, students will be asked to complete the same videotaped role-plays and standardized measures that they completed before the workshops began.

Phase V:  Program Evaluation

Students will engage in a final round of focus groups in late-August to discuss any barriers during the intervention, and to obtain students’ recommendations for future interventions.  These focus groups will also serve as opportunities for the researchers to modify and/or develop training modules for recommendations of future programming efforts at the CSI and other colleges.  The final evaluation phase of this model will allow researchers to provide recommendations for future programing for freshman students with autism as they meet the challenges of an increasingly complex online and offline college social environment.

Sample Module – Privacy on Facebook

The following module will be implemented during a computer lab session to assist students in locating and manipulating privacy settings on the social networking site, Facebook.  Screenshots have been included in this paper, but during the workshop, the instructor will pull up an actual Facebook account to illustrate how privacy settings can be identified and changed.   The instructor has created a fake Facebook account (and friended someone from her social group through the account) in order to effectively illustrate how to use Facebook’s privacy settings.

Sample dialogue during the lecture component of class will look like the following:

Instructor:  How many of you have an account on Facebook?  That’s great!  It looks like many of you are already very active through online social environments.  Online spaces such as Facebook or Twitter, or even Instagram can provide students with opportunities to interact with each other outside of class.  Does anyone know whether there are privacy settings on these social sites?  Facebook in particular has recently modified their privacy settings to allow the user (all of your) opportunities to select who can and who cannot see our profile, pictures, and messages on the site.  How many of you know how to locate your Facebook privacy settings?  Does someone want to come up and show me where I can locate mine on this Facebook page?

If students don’t volunteer, the instructor will take the students through a tutorial, showing them how to locate privacy settings on Facebook.  The following screenshots illustrate this:

shane simpson 1

Instructor:  Under the “Who Can See My Stuff” tab you can decide who can see your posts, including pictures and comments.  Can anyone think of a situation in which you might want to use or change this setting?

Using the “Who Can Contact Me” tab you can also decide who is allowed to get in touch with you on Facebook.  Can anyone think of a reason why you might want to use this Facebook setting?

shane simpson 2

Instructor:  The last privacy tab on Facebook is called “How do I Stop Someone from Bothering Me?”  Through this tab you can stop people from bothering you in different ways.  These settings allow you to block or de-friend someone to prevent them from viewing what you post (including pictures) or to prevent people from contacting you.  Can anyone think of an example for when you might use this function on Facebook?

shane simpson is project

Instructor:  I’ve already set up this “fake” Facebook account and actually friended someone on it.  Let’s actually change one of our privacy settings to increase my privacy on Facebook.  Which one should we try out?

The instructor will go through the privacy setting the students are most interested in testing out.  The instructor will then instruct students to break up into small groups (3 or so) and will lead a discussion in the computer lab where students will have the opportunity to set and/or change their privacy settings on Facebook.  If students express interest in exploring privacy setting on other social networking sites, the instructor will provide instructions to individual students during this open-lab/skill practice time.

Sample Module – Writing an Email

The following module will be implemented during the workshops to assist students in writing emails towards varying audiences – both peer and professor.  Screenshots have been pulled from a Powerpoint presentation illustrating examples of emails directed towards professors.  Dialogue for this workshop will look like the following:

Instructor:  How many of you have ever emailed your friends?  Of course you all have!  Email is the most common way to communicate with others online.  How many of you have ever emailed your teacher or a school administrator?  Today we’re going to cover how to structure an email towards different audiences.  Throughout your college career you’ll probably need to write an email to a friend and perhaps write an email to a professor.  For most of you, these emails will look very different.  How might an email to your peer/friend be different than an email to your instructor/professor?  Let’s talk about what goes into an email that you want to send to your professor.

The instructor will go through the elements of an email using the following slide. 

shane simpson 3

Instructor:  First, let’s take a look at a strong, well-written email.  What makes this one well-written?

shane simpson 4

Instructor will identify and discuss with the class all of the well-written components:  Subject line, greeting, content is concise, closure, and signature.  The instructor will then post the following Powerpoint screenshots, with each one followed by a brief discussion of the “good” and “bad” elements of the emails.

Instructor:  Now that we know what goes into a great email, let’s look at some examples.  I’d like you to get into groups of 3 with your neighbors.  I’m going to post an email on the screen, and I’d like your group to make two lists.  First, identify what the email sender did well and then what they didn’t do so well.

Instructor:  Here’s your first email.  In your group, can you identify what’s good about this email and what’s not-so-good?

shane simpson 5

Instructor will identify the lack of subject line, informal greeting, content of the email, and lack of closure with signature.

Instructor:  Here’s one more.  Let’s see what another student wrote.

shane simpson 6

Instructor:  In your groups again, decide what you think about this email and then we’ll talk about it as a class.

Instructor and class will identify the good pieces (part of a subject line, greeting, content, closure) and the bad pieces (lack of signature, missing part of the subject line). 

Instructor:  We’ve identified what should and shouldn’t go into an email that you’re sending to a professor.  What about the emails you send to your friends?  How are those different?  What is different about those and why?  I’d like to discuss this within your small groups and then we’ll discuss this as a class.

Instructor and the class will talk about the informality of emails directed towards peers and the more formal emails appropriate for professors/teachers.  The class will be given a homework assignment to send the instructor an email through Blackboard that asks a question about an upcoming workshop. 

Practical Relevance

This study seeks to identify, intervene, support, and evaluate the everyday challenges that students with autism by providing them with the skills necessary for success in life beyond high school.  Although the focal areas have practical application in daily life, they will likely be useful for students after college.  Classroom readiness skills, while applicable to the college classroom, are also skills that extend into the workplace.  Social skills prepare students to engage, further develop, and then maintain meaningful relationships with others. Self-advocacy skills promote independence for individuals, providing them with tools to acquire resources and/or assistance.

Freshmen in college are required to develop and effectively use various computer-mediated communication skills, ranging from formal learning management systems to the less formal social networking sites that students use to connect with peers and organizations on campus.  Student-run organizations are increasingly relying on social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter to communicate information about upcoming meetings and events.  Consequently, freshmen need to learn how to use social networking sites to connect and then maintain connections with these student organizations.  The effective use of modern technologies may also enhance the process of forming strong social connections with peer groups, an essential component of college life.

From an educational standpoint, undergraduate students are increasingly utilizing technologies such as GoogleDoc’s and Skype to collaboratively work on assignments for class.  College campuses are progressively becoming technology-driven and technology-mediated environments evident in the recent explosion of hybrid courses.  Even the more traditional classrooms are increasingly filled with students using “Smart” technologies designed to facilitate and enhance the learning process (i.e. laptops, tablets, and cell phones).  While the addition of these new technologies has resulted in better accessibility for individuals with a range of disabilities, some students may need additional support in order to learn how to manipulate these technologies.  Students with autism will need to effectively learn about and then appropriately use these various forms of technology to be successful in their classrooms during the first year of college and throughout their college education.  Students will likely re-encounter these technologies, as many are also commonly found in professional career settings.

All of the skills workshops will provide students on the spectrum with practical knowledge during a typically stressful, transitional period of time.  Through the summer workshops, students will also be reminded of opportunities, both inside and outside of the classroom, in which they can appropriately use their newly acquired skillsets.


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Baker, R. W., & Siryk, B. (1989). Student Adaptation to College Questionnaire (SACQ): Manual. Los Angeles: Western Psychological Services.

Beck, A. T., Steer, R. A., & Brown, G. K. (1996). Manual for the Beck Depression Inventory-II. San Antonio, TX: Psychological Corporation.

Benford, P. (2008). The use of Internet-based communication by people with autism. PhD Thesis, University of Nottingham. Available at:

Bishop-Fitzpatrick, L., Minshew, N. J., & Eack, S. M. (2012). A systematic review of psychosocial interventions for adults with autism spectrum disorders. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 43 (3), 687-694.

Burke, M., Kraut, R., & Williams, D. (2010). Social use of computer-mediated communication by adults on the autism spectrum. In Proceedings of the 2010 ACM Conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work. ACM, New York, NY, 425-434.

Cederlund, M., Hagberg, B., Billstedt, E., Gillberg, I. C., & Gillberg, C. (2008). Asperger syndrome and autism:  A comparative longitudinal follow-up study more than five years after original diagnosis. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 38(1).

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Glennon, T.J. (2001). The stress of the university experience for students with Asperger syndrome. Work, 17(3), 183-190.

Harrower, J. K. & Dunlap, G. (2001). Including children with autism in general education classrooms:  A review of effective strategies. Behavior Modification, 25, 762.

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Van Bergeijk, E., Klin, A., & Volkmar, F. (2008). Supporting more able students on the autism spectrum: College and beyond. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 38(7), 1359-1370.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1987). Thinking and speech. (N. Minick. Trans.). New York: Plenum Press.

Zimet, G. D., Dahlem, N. W., Zimet, S. G., & Farley, G. K. (1988). The Multidimensional Scale of Perceived Social Support. Journal of Personality Assessment, 52, 30-41.

Languages above the NYC Subway

ITP student Michelle Johnson (Linguistics) reflects on her independent study project 

  1. Introduction

Languages above the NYC Subway, the project I built for the ITP Independent Study (IS) illustrates how languages are distributed along the New York City Subway system. Ultimately, it is a large, interactive infographic where users can explore what languages are living above each subway station. I initially thought I was going to build a website about the population I’m looking at in my dissertation: Long-Term English Language Learners.  I spent my time in Core II exploring ways to make this topic fit within the IS (it’s more of a topic than an idea). At that time, I wanted a digital component to my dissertation and a platform to increase awareness about the population. Once I let go of those external goals, I focused on what I am most interested in: Language and New York City.

Around this time, the New Yorker Magazine put out a very interesting infographic examining income inequality in New York City as viewed along the subway lines (Buchanan, 2013). I immediately wanted make something similar for languages. The things I liked about the New Yorker piece was how simple the idea is. In New York City, the subway defines a second geography. It’s a common sentiment in my part of Brooklyn (Bay Ridge, in the southwest corner) to prefer going to Central Park than the [geographically closer] Williamsburg because it’s a more direct and easier subway ride. The subway system has altered the concept of space in New York City.

Language is also defined by special relationship to space, albeit more abstract. Human language is a unique phenomenon that is separate from human communication1. It is notable that learning a first language is almost exclusively conducted through face-to-face interaction, while additional languages can be learned anywhere. Even today, as we look at digital communication technologies, and globalization, we are witnessing a breaking down of the barriers to communication, but not to how people learn their first language. Communication is not tied to space, but language is. Communication was only removed from space with the advent of writing, but for most of human history, it has been tied to being within a few yards of one’s interlocutor. Language also defines a cultural community. People who speak the same language (at home) usually identify with that language (Bucholtz & Hall, 2004). In many instances2, this corresponds with food people eat, worldview, family structure, how commerce is conducted and other indicators of a cultural group (Bucholtz & Hall, 2004; Gumperz, 1983).

Every language group with significant representation in New York City immigrated3. The languages included in this infographic are those with a significant community in NYC, which means most groups have been represented in New York for at least a generation. Obviously English is the dominant language, and speaking English allows for greater access to opportunity, power, and resources. By looking at languages other than English along the subway lines, it is possible to track which language groups have access to mobility and within that, opportunity (Kim & Garcia, 2014). Almost uniformly, the ends of these maps are more interesting than the middle. Rent gets cheaper at the end, and linguistic minority groups follow cheap rent. This is not to suggest that income and this map have anything to do with each other. That is not what is being represented here, but ultimately, language critically influences education, access to jobs, and economic mobility (and so do a lot of other factors).

  1. Goals

My goal in this project was then to capture the second space of New York City (the subway system) and an element of human communication that is still tied to space: Language. I wanted to show who speaks what where in New York, and by extension, what linguistic neighborhoods are on which transit lines.

My second goal in this project was to show how resources can be distributed with easy transit between them. This is interesting in terms of education because in order to offer dual language education, there must be a high enough population. An alternative to a high population in one particular area is the ability for students and educators to travel between nearby places.

My third goal in this project was to plan and execute a medium sized digital project.  This was also a requirement of the Interactive Technology and Pedagogy Certificate, but equally importantly, I wanted the experience of building something that could be used by non-academics.

  1. Methodology

In this section, I will discuss both how I intended to do the project and how I actually did it. The plan I had would have been more precise, but in the end, I was not actually sure that the greater precision would be more informative than admitting that the data is inherently abstract.

I made one graph for every language that had at least 2 data points above 5% on a given subway line. There was one exception to this rule. With these criteria, Chinese was represented on all graphs except the J. The J is a very short train. I included Chinese on the J in order to represent the 3 most popularly spoken languages in the city on all of the lines. New York City is dominated by English, Spanish and Chinese in a very identifiable way, and I wanted to preserve that information.

3.1   The Data

The data is based on zipcodes from the 2010 U.S. American Community Survey (ACS).  The subway stations were aligned to their zipcodes based on latitude and longitude data.  When a station was on the boundary between one zipcode and another, the number of speakers from those zipcodes were averaged with a simple mean.  Drawing the boundaries based on zipcodes, which are obviously geographically skewed, is meant to represent a community of speakers who share resources (a post office and space) and are vaguely identified by the neighborhood names. This is obviously not an exact measure, but it is, in some way, a cultural measure.  Secondly, in much of the rest of the country, a zipcode represents a town or community, and representing the data this way is meant to parallel that.

The original plan was to organize the language data based on census tract, using QGIS. I worked on this in the New Media Lab for roughly 6 months. I successfully imported the language data, laid the subway lines and station information on top of it and wrote a Python code to calculate distance from a subway point, and figured out an equation to weight the averages.  The basic idea was to take the subway stations and create a circle around them and then take the percent of the circle that each tract represented and weight the number of speakers based on that percentage. I could not figure out how to draw an area around the stations, though. Below is an example of the math for Spanish:


  1. p1 = percent of the circle that made up the tract
  2. t1= total number of speakers in that tract
  3. s1 = number of Spanish speakers in that tract
  4. q1 = p1*s1  (number of Spanish speakers from that tract)
  5. sraw = Σ q1 + q2 … q(the raw number of Spanish speakers within the radius of the subway station)
  6. t= Σ t1 + t2 … tn (total number of people within the radius of the subway station
  7. s = sraw/t (percent Spanish speakers in the radius around the subway station)

After figuring this out, there were still theoretical problems with this equation. First, just like the zipcode data, one side of a tract can have a higher concentration of speakers of one language than another. Secondly, it would still be impossible to determine who is riding the subway because people take the bus, they walk to different stations, they work in different places, they do all kinds of things for different reasons. Therefore, the zipcode and tract data could both only tell the neighborhood one is stepping into.

The real problem with this approach, however was that creating the radiuses around QGIS made it crash for 3 weeks, and after 6 months of investing time into learning QGIS, I gave up and decided to use zipcode data because I was not any closer than I had been 5 months earlier and there were still theoretical problems with the more precise data.

3.2   The platform/interface

Priorities for the interface was to have it hosted on the CUNY Academic Commons (AC) in order to connect it to the rest of the work that I do at the Graduate Center and the mission of the CUNY AC gives me hope for the future of higher education. This priority required me to build it using WordPress. Since I had some familiarity with WordPress, this seemed reasonable.  Ultimately, because of a technical issue, this was not possible with the site I built.  I then made a new site, but did not like how it looks, so I went with external hosting.  More on this technical issue below.

I planned to show the information on line graphs. I wanted to make one line graph for every language/subway line combination that reached the criteria I set out about. After the CUNY AC, my first priority in terms of features was to have hover-over tooltips that would display each station’s exact information. In terms of design, I wanted to make the colors, font and circles invoke a feel for the subway. Finally, I received permission from the MTA to use the subway map, so I wanted to incorporate it in some way to give a sense of place based on a constructed system rather than geography. Ideally, I wanted to keep with a circle theme but was open to navigation buttons being rectangular if need be.

3.3   Graphs

Making the graphs have tooltips was going to be my biggest challenge. The tooltips are dependent upon Javascript, and now does not seem like the time to take learning that on.  Initially, I tried building these graphs with Adobe Illustrator, knowing that it’s good for making graphs and showing relationships. Within this program, I really struggled with getting the tooltips to work, so I tried taking Illustrator images and enhancing them with Muse. I actually had some success with Muse and made 2 graphs. The first one took me 15 hours, which seemed fine for making a template. But, the second one took me 12 hours since everything had to be adjusted. This seemed like a fine solution for one or two graphs without a lot of data, but I was talking about over 100 graphs. It wasn’t going to work (ultimately this was a valuable lesson in “do it without code” style tools). After going around these for about a month, I went back to the one thing that I know well enough to make things quickly and easily: WordPress plugins.

I went looking for a WordPress plugin that I could make the graphs with, but the free and easily integrated ones did not natively support tooltips. I did not want to purchase one because I wanted to still have control to alter the plugin. I considered altering the plugin to make the tooltips work, but then I found Easy Visualization Tools from Code Canyon for $15. This is what I ended up using since it allowed me to do everything I wanted: tooltips were natively supported, I could do custom colors, I could set the CSS for batches of graphs at a time.  Towards the end of the project, I would regret using this plugin as I could have used an open source one that I could have altered with a jquery event. This was probably the most valuable take away from this project: The balance of having control of the project versus getting it done quickly should fall on the side of control.

Once I purchased the Code Canyon plugin, I made a template for each line, set the features each graph would have, loaded all the data from my excel spreadsheets, and cleaned up each graph as needed.

3.4   The site

I wanted the graphs to be viewable by language and by line. To do this, I decided to use the Spun Theme because the homepage allows blog posts to be identified by just a word in a circle and I altered the theme to allow a pages menu as well. I decided that languages would be in blog posts and subway lines in pages so that navigation by line would be visible from every page/post. I decided to prioritize the lines because people are more likely to have a personal connection to more lines rather than more languages, and in my preliminary versions, most people’s first response was to look for lines rather than languages.

I altered the CSS to change the appearance of this theme in a variety of ways. I made small changes to the HTML to change some of the functionality as well, adding a pages menu, changing the navigation, editing a glitch with the tagline, making the title hyperlinked to the homepage. While I was new to the theme, I was familiar enough with the HTML and the CSS from other projects to feel confident in making these changes.

After it was done, I made some changes to make it easier to read, including showing the divisions between one borough and the next. Again, this is a case where I regret using a non-open source plugin since I was not able to include lines on the graphs to show borough boundaries. Ultimately, I decided to add the <Man>, <Bk>, <Bx>, <Qns> tags to each station to indicate the borough. It is not very elegant, but it does display the information without cluttering the graphs.

3.5   Importing

The last stage of this project is to import it to the CUNY AC. Boone Gorges installed the theme for me, and I exported and tried to import my site. They bought the Code Canyon Plugin for me to host this there. I then went to work exporting and uploading the site. There was a problem, though. By building it on my computer, I had created a database for the site that allowed me to title pages with code rather than with just letters and numbers. This made my menu obsolete. On a multisite install, the main WordPress install will always overwrite the  .htaccess/mod_rewrite rules and cause problems. So I remade the site without the menu. But now, too much is lost on that site, so I went with private hosting on a Small Orange. This allows me to have my own site and connect this site to it. For the time being, the Commons site exists, but I will be taking it down shortly and leave the privately hosted site.

  1. Conclusion

As I stated above, the biggest take away from this for me was how limiting a non-open source plugin was. At the point when I bought it, it seemed like a good idea, but was really a quick fix that allowed the project to be completed, but it made some of the goals potentially impossible to achieve. At the same time, I’m not sure I would have understood what needed to be done to make the graphs without using the plugin and trying to alter it the best I was allowed.

Secondly, if I were to do this project again, I would be more explicit with myself about what the end product would look like and what features I would like to have in it. I taught a project based class this semester at Lehman College and getting my students to do any kind of planning was a major challenge. It was very eye opening to see myself doing less than thorough planning in my own project at the same time.

Overall, the information can be understood and seen with the way that I’ve built this project, and I learned a lot about planning and executing digital projects. I’ve used this analogy before, but it is a lot like construction: the plans need to be thorough and detailed before any boards get cut.


Buchanan, L. (2013, April 16). Idea of the Week: Inequality and New York’s Subway. The New Yorker Blogs. Retrieved from

Bucholtz, M., & Hall, K. (2004). Language and identity. A Companion to Linguistic Anthropology, 1, 369–394.

Gumperz, J. J. (Ed.). (1983). Language and Social Identity (2nd ed.). Cambridge University Press.

Kim, W. G., & Garcia, S. B. (2014). Long-Term English Language Learners’ Perceptions of Their Language and Academic Learning Experiences. Remedial and Special Education, 0741932514525047. doi:10.1177/0741932514525047

  1. The last speaker of Birked (extinct, 199*, Nilo-Saharan, Sudan) still spoke his language even when there was no one left to speak it with.
  2. This statement is true for languages like Yiddish, Hebrew, Italian, but not true for languages like English, Spanish or Chinese. The issue is more complicated for dialects such as Puerto Rican or Mexican Spanish, but that complication is not what this paper is about.
  3. Which is to say that Munsee (the language spoken by the Lenape in pre-colonial New York) is all but unrepresented within New York City today.

The Diction Hub

ITP student Chad Cygan (Music-Performance) reflects on his independent study project

Photo by Micah Taylor

Visit the Diction Hub

Upon the completion of my proposed study for the Interactive Technology and Pedagogy Certificate independent study project I have realized my project both failed and succeeded in many ways. Overall the project showed me that large goals can be achieved, but only through a more detailed training regimen. I envisioned an Internet based resource that utilized the power of public domain text, music and media and my students were able to contribute content to a website that fulfilled each of those goals.

My own successes and failures have mostly to do with organizing the user interface of the MediaWiki installation. As a technical novice with this platform I was able to learn how to use a file transfer protocol to add extentions and to facilitate the use of outside media on the Diction Hub. Had my progress in learning how to use MediaWiki been faster I feel the project would have been more successful overall due to a simpler interface for my student-users. Through installing, designing and securing the Diction Hub site I learned a multitude of things that will make future projects more sleek, successful and secure. The learning process of MediaWiki software can be steep for new learners and once I had overcome some basic spam reduction I was able to organize the basic content areas necessary for my study.  I will continue to refine the visual layout of my MediaWiki installation with the hopes of making the Diction Hub both more appealing and accessible to new potential contributors, but I believe these additions were beyond my original scope of work.

During their creation of content on the Diction Hub my Hunter College students encountered three common problems: discomfort working with a MediaWiki interface to format content, a lack of knowledge of the International Phonetic Alphabet symbols and difficulty finding  scores to link to from the International Music Score Library Project (IMSLP). While the students in my study did struggle with these aspects of the project their difficulties have helped me to better design subsequent courses utilizing the Diction Hub.

Despite vocal students’ familiarity with some of the aforementioned resources, in most schools of music students are not offered interactive technology courses to familiarize them with software like MediaWiki, WordPress or Drupal. It was part of my goal to help students learn to navigate a MediaWiki installation as part of this project and in that aspect I do believe I failed. However, after seeing this portion of my project as unrealized I believe it would be ideal to provide this training in a self-contained course within a school of music. At Hunter College the resources to add a course like this are unrealistic at the present time. The creation of content and the implementation of the Diction Hub project was often stalled due to students’ lack of experience and hands-on training using a MediaWiki interface, however beginning a lyric diction course with an introduction to this tool would be an essential part of any subsequent Diction Hub project.

Just as there is no course to train students with MediaWiki at Hunter College, the school also does not currently offer courses on the International Phonetic Alphabet for singers. My project introduced students to both IPA and MediaWiki, but asked too much of them in transcribing complete song-texts at this level of study. In curricula for schools of music an introductory course in the International Phonetic Alphabet is commonly offered as a mandatory course for singers and I believe my proposed study would be more successful in environments with this separate class. In a subsequent version of this project pairing study of IPA with the introduction to MediaWiki should be included as part of the class introduction.

Another issue that arose for my students during this project, the inability to find scores on the International Music Score Library Project, is more puzzling to me. Students were provided with classroom opportunities to navigate IMSLP and each of their respective repertoire selections was already listed on the website before this project began. To address this struggle I will create more assignments as part of a class-blog where students would be required to supply a score-link for assigned repertoire already found on IMSLP. Increasing their familiarity with important online music resources will help students succeed in using these archives.

Each of the issues encountered by my students highlight the critical errors in my project plan: over-planning. Despite the lack of success in realizing these goals each of the problems and solutions listed above could be best addressed in separate courses using the Diction Hub. It is now clear to me that one course, focused solely upon learning to work in a MediaWiki site and introducing students to the International Phonetic Alphabet, would be more successful in both technological training and diction study.

I suspect that I was unsuccessful in motivating some of these students to contribute to “the commons” that Lewis Hyde discusses in his 2010 book Common as Air. Moving forward with the Diction Hub I intend to utilize more concrete examples of Creative Commons and Cultural Commons contributions for my students. Hopefully I will be able to highlight how my students already benefit from these cultural resources and will be able to motivate them to become contributors as well. My students’ unfamiliarity with some of the existing online resources used as models for this project surprised me. In my experience teaching in other schools these websites and tools(IMSLP, The Lieder Archive and the IPA Typekit) are very familiar to most other vocal music students.

In contrast to my original proposal I chose to further limit my project by only allowing access to the Diction Hub to a small class and an extremely select group of outside auditors. This decision caused me to be unable to create “IPA Sprints” or “Translation Sprints” which are both unrealized sections of my original plan. In the future I intend to create these events and use them to further populate the Diction Hub with the type of content it was created to contain. These events will only be successful once the user interface, layout and training videos have been developed.

Despite the shortfalls of this sample run of the Diction Hub project I believe I have created an open resource for the study of lyric diction comprised of written text, scores, audio/video recordings and IPA transcriptions that can be used in college level music classrooms as a primary “textbook”, score library, and media database – albeit a currently limited one.

While many issues arose in the course of my project, several positive aspects of the content creation shone through and clearly displayed successes using the Diction Hub. Most of the students working on this project had not previously been aware of online resources for music including the Lieder, Art Song and Choral Texts Archive, The International Music Score Library Project or the IPA Typekit. Simply making this group of students aware of these important resources can be seen as a success. Many of the students involved in this project have become regular users of each of these tools and their musical abilities have grown as a result.

It was not one of the original goals of my study, however almost every student involved in this project became a regular user (if not a contributor) to one of the important online musical tools (Lieder Archive, IMSLP, IPA Typekit) I used as models of content. Even though content creation was the primary goal of my study my students regularly asked interesting philosophical questions about copyrights and technology design. Despite their lack of sophistication using a MediaWiki site, my students commonly inquired regarding the differences between proprietary content web resources and those with Collective Commons Attributions. The Lieder, Art Song and Choral Texts Archive is not an open framework and my students struggled to understand why someone would make a proprietary claim on materials they did not profit from (translations, in this case). The restrictions on some of this website’s copyrighted translations of ancient texts perturbed many of my students and it was an interesting yet tangential observation that they believed translations of original texts in the public domain should also fall in the public domain.

I had predicted that IPA transcriptions would be the largest area of content creation on the Diction Hub yet they remain the least populated type of information on the site. However, the texts and translations provided by my students have made the Diction Hub into one of only a few completely free online resources for vocal music texts and translations. To my knowledge it is the only dedicated vocal music website with all resources offered as legal, shareable, and open to the public. While I originally predicted that IPA transcriptions would make up the bulk of the posts on the Diction Hub this statement was based within the context of my original intent to implement this project with a class of singers already trained in IPA transcription.

The number of original pages created was roughly in the range of my class’s assigned works, however many of them needed help to post their information from a Microsoft Word document into a MediaWiki page. The level of independence my students were able to demonstrate was disappointing and definitely reflects a failure on my part to provide them with adequate training using a MediaWiki installation. The gap found in my students’ abilities to contribute to the project independently was filled by an unexpected increase in a category of information separate from my initial goals: performance interpretation.

The breadth of interpretive information provided in each of my students’ contributions filled an unanticipated niche for performance training. The Diction Hub was initially created to help build a resource for vocal music with score links, translations, IPA transcriptions and audio/video reference material. Most of the posts created in this initial pilot also include a section of historical background with cultural references for each composer and author of the text. While this wonderful addition of information is a fantastic surprise, many of these entries lack references.  Since including performance interpretation information in entries was not part of my requirement for the students in this course I do not find the lack of citations to be a failure. However, moving forward I intend to adopt an approach similar to that of Wikipedia whose references are added in a footnote fashion with proper credit give through citations.

The Diction Hub utilized many of the benefits of the networked information economy to both draw upon material already existing in the cultural commons, while also building new resources to contribute back to the commons. Despite the use of a MediaWiki installation this project has not yet taken advantage of the asynchronous crowd-sourcing so critical to sites like Wikipedia. After I was able to establish better spam protection my small sample of students was able to work on the site undisturbed. In future projects with the Diction Hub I will open up access to the site to more contributors and continue to expand it as in hopes of attracting a community of system operators and administrators to manage the site with me.

I wanted this project to contribute to the mission of accessible education without the increasing costs of accurate linguistic publications, recordings and scores for singers. From the small sample of students I worked with during my study it became clear that they benefitted from access to free translations, scores and pronunciation guides. With the small group I worked with we were unable to create a product that would substitute for the expensive publications currently used by other singers. However, I intend for the Diction Hub to eventually serve that purpose after it is opened up to a wider audience of contributors who can provide a larger repertoire of resources. It is still my hope that the Diction Hub Project will bring together instructors and students in vocal literature classes from across the globe through online collaboration.

After assessing the successes and failures of my project I have come to the belief that this tool will succeed, but with a pared down plan for student learning. Students using the Diction Hub would benefit from a three-course approach to creating content. In one course students would learn how to work within a MediaWiki installation while adding original texts and translations. In subsequent music courses students would be asked to further their MediaWiki skills and link example videos and score links to pages already populated with texts and translations. Students in an additional course could utilize this same tool to further hone their MediaWiki skills and their IPA transcription skills by adding IPA transcriptions to pages already populated with texts, translations, score links and video links. Not only would students experience more success in a structure like this multi-tiered curriculum, but they would also be able to collaborate on the same pages from different courses simultaneously. The asynchronous creation and interaction so critical to the success of a Wiki would become a social product benefitting students and the Diction Hub itself. My initial foray into a class working with the Diction Hub had some problems, it is clear to me that this tool demonstrates efficacy as a multi-pronged vocal music education tool.

Future Goals

Over the summer I intend to rebuild the navigation structure and to add more visually intuitive guides for this site. In our final discussion of the project Dr. Michael Mandiberg helped me understand how effective screencasts and other video-based media are at helping students learn how to work with technology. The Diction Hub needs these kinds of resources to enable contributors outside the classroom to contribute content without frustration.

While completing this project three universities have offered me positions, based heavily on seeing the Diction Hub as an educational tool they would like to use at their institution. Their support and belief in this tool has helped steel my resolve to update and develop the Diction Hub from it’s current installation. The majority of the aforementioned institutions also inquired as to how ‘proprietary’ I would be able to keep the Diction Hub should I join their faculty. Ironically this viewpoint is at odds with the open format of the Creative Commons philosophy. Finding a way to present this tool to my school and administrators while still employing it as a crowd-sourced project will be a challenge I hope to overcome this summer.

While learning how to add extensions and learning better ways to loop content it has become clear to me that creating an IPA symbol plugin for MediaWiki installations would greatly improve the Diction Hub. Students in my project struggled utilizing phonetic symbols due to their lack of training on the subject, however auditors who contributed to the project suggested integrating the symbols found online, via the separate IPA Typekit, into the text window the Wiki itself.

None of these further courses, nor opening the project up to a wider audience, can be undertaken until a better educational framework is created on the Diction Hub for potential contributors. If the Diction Hub is to continue to be part of a plan for creating an open resource for the field of lyric diction it must be structured more clearly and effectively. Refining a project with goals of pedagogical adaptability, flexibility, and freedom will take many revisions and supplemental material creation to become effective.

Despite the urgings of my future employer the Diction Hub will continue to be licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license. In Lawrence Lessig’s 2004 publication Free Culture: The Nature and Future of Creativity he argues that a free culture allows people to innovate and build upon the works of others without worrying about infringing upon their intellectual property rights. The Diction Hub is certainly a place that follows these principles and I hope it will come to allow students and professionals to draw from its resource library and to innovate and build upon these archived works of others.

In my original proposal for this project I wrote that I did not intend for this project to be assessed as a completed product. Rather, it was my intention that this project be reviewed as a first step in a process of creating a more effective educational and pedagogically sound utility. I do believe the Diction Hub will continue to grow in content, quality and contributors and that my aim of it becoming an educational and pedagogically sound tool will be fulfilled.


Digital Technologies and the Transformation of the Academic Conference: An Experiment

ITP student Benjamin Haber (Sociology) reflects on his independent study project


Visit Animality

With some notable exceptions, academic conferences have remained largely unmoved by the digital technologies of the twenty-first century. PowerPoint feels like the last technology to really disrupt the conference form, and the aesthetics and rhythms of that program have become so pervasive that it can feel more exciting just to hear people read. Of course, livestreaming and video rebroadcasting of conference sessions are becoming more popular, and Twitter seems to play an ever-larger role in conference interaction and communication, but these technologies have largely functioned to expand the audience for academic ideas and conversations (an important goal, of course) while leaving the structural form and affective tone of the conference itself relatively intact. In other words while conferences have slowly begun to utilize digital technologies to bring scholarly research and ideas to new publics, they have largely failed at using these technologies to transform the academic conference itself, a form that is in desperate need of reinvention.

In this paper I explore a project that in its own small way attempts to leverage digital technologies to transform the experience of the conference itself. It is my hope that doing so shows both the potential for networked digital technologies to transform the in-person work of academic life, while also highlighting the challenges of these transformations, both in terms of design and implementation as well as resistance by users to new forms of academic scholarship and unpaid labor.

Theory and Design

For this project, my colleague Christina Nadler and I have designed an interactive online environment to facilitate scholarly communication prior to an in-person seminar meeting. While the typical seminar format involves distributing readings on a topic that then get discussed in person, we thought that an interactive online platform would allow the for a more productive and enjoyable face-to-face meeting by focusing the conversation on the theories and practices that most interest the participants. This is particularly the case because the topic of the seminar we are leading, Animality, is a still emerging, interdisciplinary academic movement whose contours will be in large part defined by the research and theory produced under this banner. Thus, rather than focusing discussion on readings that reflect our interests as seminar leaders, we decided to organize the discussion around a wiki comprised of ten keywords, populated by seminar participants with academic texts, reflections, discussion, media and art that reflect the collective research interests of the group.

Trying to strike a balance between creating a useable structure and keeping discussion open-ended we defined the ten keywords but tried to keep them as expansive as possible: Biopolitics, Slaughter, Race, Civilization, Pedagogy, Bodies & Environment, Domestication, Biotechnology, Digital, Art. We picked words that were major terms in the discourses of animal studies and cultural studies but also words that were of significance in popular culture. Our hope is that the interconnected but divergent applications of these concepts in popular and academic discourses offer productive points of generation. However, the inclusion of these particular ten words is to some extent arbitrary and guided by our own interdisciplinary histories so we fully expect that some words will attract more interest than others. If this project continues after the conference perhaps some words will fall away and others will emerge.

We asked each of the seminar participants to “bottom-line” two of these subtopics, but encouraged them to participate widely by adding content to any of the keywords they felt inspired to take on. We have also enabled CommentPress on the wiki to offer another avenue for participation, for those who may want to comment on certain additions or subtractions from the wiki through marginalia. CommentPress is an open-source project, as well as a WordPress plugin and theme, designed to turn static documents into interactive conversations through in-text commenting.

This ongoing wiki was to form the basis of our in-person conversation at the Cultural Studies Association’s Annual Meeting in late May of this year. A few days prior to the conference, Christina and I would review the wiki and come up with a number of structuring questions, focusing on points of convergence and contention, opportunities for future research and praxis, and interactions between academic research, activism and cultural production. This would allow us to tailor the seminar to the concerns of the participants in a way not possible in a traditional seminar format, but as important it gave participants the opportunity to get familiar with the particular discursive styles and research interests of those who they will be talking with. Our hope was that this would prove to be particularly helpful in an interdisciplinary seminar where differences in the ways of talking and theorizing about similar topics can alienate participants and derail conversations.

In addition to the wiki, our site has a CommentPress enabled blog where participants are able to post their original research for commentary and constructive criticism. This feature foregrounds what is still the most important and often the most alienating part of academia—publishing. A seminar is theoretically a perfect opportunity to make connections with people who are doing similar research as you, but the ephemeral nature of these meetings often prevents this from happening in reality. By stretching the amount of time spent with participants, and adding to the points of interaction, the site perhaps makes the networking benefits of conferences a bit more tangible. The blog itself offers a mechanism for feedback with a built in audience of receptive, knowledgeable scholars who, better than most, can reflect and critique works-in-progress prior to sending them out for publication.

The blog works in tandem with the wiki. While the wiki allows the development of intertwining genealogies of interest and theoretical inspiration, the blog shows the specific work that participants are doing. Participants were asked to initially post their animality-related conference abstracts to the blog, with longer pieces to come later. It is likely that the blog will become more useful as participants use the site more and become more comfortable with other seminar participants. The initial request for abstracts rather than articles was in part in order to create a “safe space” online where participants could get comfortable through a gradual sharing of work and ideas.

CommentPress has been used to tremendous effect in a couple of high-profile cases, perhaps most notably with Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s Planned Obsolescence, whose success as a CommentPress case study was in no small measure due to the subject of the manuscript (the future of academic publishing). Though Fitzpatrick outlines many of the barriers to the mass adoption of the technologies of open peer-review, one of the most significant hindrances to making this work in practice involves finding a scholarly community and creating structures of accountability to other’s work. While Fitzpatrick suggests that the technologies of the internet will facilitate this sorting into communities of interest (2011, 17), it is clear that this remains one of the ideals of digital technologies that at best has only been embryonically realized. By integrating these technologies with in-person conference meetings (for many academics the only opportunity to engage with scholars outside of their university), our hope is that projects like this can speed up the process of academic community making. As the university becomes increasingly interdisciplinary, while still organizationally structured through and around disciplines, the creation of new forms of scholarly community will only increase in importance, especially for graduate students just beginning to find their place in the academy.


Our site was built using WordPress-based plugins and hosted on Our construction decisions were mostly practical, driven by the resources at our disposal and the constraints imposed by the short window of time between our invitation to lead a seminar and the conference itself. It would not be unreasonable to see this as a test-run or a prototype that if successful could be customized and further developed for future conferences. is the student-run, open-source, online community for the CUNY Graduate Center. We looked at variety of platforms, including the CUNY Academic Commons and running WordPress on a privately hosted site, but Opencuny offered both unbeatable affordability (free!) and the versatility afforded by Christina’s position as an administrator. The administrative access proved to be particularly important as it allowed us to install plugins not already approved for general use (like the wiki plugin), and most importantly allowed us to add people to the site who are not academically affiliated with the Graduate Center (only one other seminar participant besides Christina and me are CUNY students).

We decided to use the CommentPress theme to structure our site, reasoning that the ability to comment on blocks of text would be useful for all components of our site. On top of that theme we activated the Wiki plugin in order to support the interactive keywords component of the site. This proved to be a more technically complicated and less elegant solution than we would have hoped. While in theory the wiki plugin works fine with the CommentPress theme, in practice the wiki periodically deactivated itself with compatibility issues. While we have been able to get the site back online, those with less technical skills and administrative access would likely have not. More importantly, as I will discuss later, its ongoing technical glitches undermined participant’s confidence in the site. In addition to technical problems, we ran into the restrictions of working with pre-existing software. For example, the free version of the wiki plugin is not set up to allow easily embedded video, making that portion of the site less aesthetically rich and media diverse. In short, we encountered the common problems of WordPress incompatibilities and the limitations of working with free software.

It was important for us to use already existing WordPress plugins because we wanted to explore the possibilities for creative and transformational digital projects for those with only the most minimal of technical skills. While it would be ideal if many scholars in the humanities and social sciences had the technical skills to build and utilize digital tools, this is unfortunately not yet the case, despite a flood of interest and capital into the Digital Humanities and “big data.” Alongside a new push to give academics outside of the computer sciences the digital literacy needed to be “makers,” should be a concerted effort to highlight the many simple, free and cheap tools that are widely available and can help academics make their work more interesting, more accessible and more interactive.


The most pressing and immediately evident challenge to this project’s success is one shared by many innovations in online communication—the labor problem. It is all well and good for me to write about the potential for this platform to make conferences more interesting and useful, but at the end of the day, this way of running a seminar requires the sustained work of all participants for it to be successful. While you basically can get the work of a traditional seminar done on the plane ride to the conference, this mode of pre-conference engagement requires ongoing intellectual labor, and just as important, the affective labor of making yourself vulnerable to your peers.

The magnitude of this challenge became evident right away. After sending multiple emails asking participants to join the site, we finally managed to get everyone signed up a little more than a week after the site went live. Asking people to post their abstracts and begin to populate the wiki initially was met with a tepid response- two weeks after the site went live only about half of seminar participants had put any content on the site at all. In part this can be explained by the amount of time between site launch and conference. Despite our enthusiasm for this project, academics are asked to manage an increasingly daunting array of projects and contributing to a seminar that is almost two months away is likely not high on that list.

This put Christina and me in the awkward position of having to be enforcers of a certain level of production when paradoxically one of the goals of this project was to decentralize the seminar experience. Indeed, one of the weaknesses of this project is the incompatibility of ownership over the site and the ideas it represents. In other words, the collectivizing intention of this site has been hampered by the centralized way it was conceived and designed. In hindsight, it probably would have been better to have collectively formulated the plans for the design and construction of the site to whatever extent possible. For example, rather than coming up with the ten keywords ourselves, we could have utilized a Doodle poll to both solicit words and vote on which ones to include. More fundamentally we could have proposed this unconventional approach to a seminar and put it up for discussion rather than unilaterally implementing it.

Since perhaps two months is too much time for seminar participants, we decided to wait until May 1st for any further gently prodding emails. Perhaps concentrating the energy of participants into a smaller period of time would prove to be wise. In my experience as both a professor and student I have noticed an increasingly pervasive inability to do work well before a deadline (among both my most and least motivated students and peers) that perhaps is the attention deficient condition of the twenty-first century—the cultural equivalent to just-in-time manufacturing and high-frequency trading (see Randy Martin’s recent article on the “Social Logics of the Derivative” [2013]).

In any case, this project highlights the way that for many academics, digital tools and online interactions feel like unpaid labor and increasingly like very high stakes unpaid labor. While for some Twitter is a fun and casual tool for speaking their mind and engaging with others, for academics it is serious business, yet another space where our already perilous career paths can be made or unmade. The Digital Humanities both relieves and exacerbates this problem. By treating our online activities as labor, Digital Humanities perhaps provides a platform for recognizing and renumerating what is now by and large unpaid labor. But in its larger pull on the academy—by increasing the pressure to engage on ever-multiplying platforms in various ways while teaching loads and adjunct hiring continue to rise in tandem—it can increase the expectations of scholars in an academy in flux.

To return to this project, what I want to emphasize is that getting seminar participants to contribute to this site is exhorting them not only to participate in unremunerated labor, but also a certain kind of digital affective labor that most of us receive no training for. Every academic knows the work of (good) college teaching or presenting at a conference, while often extremely rewarding, is particularly taxing because of the affective labor involved. Getting seminar members to participate is asking them to not only post things to a website, but to subject themselves to scrutiny, to quickly engage with other academics at a high intellectual level, to master the difficult art of gentle critique, among other tasks. How do we convince ourselves and others that the rewards of online engagement are worth the real costs of participation?

In part the answer lies in the gap between the increasingly digital, collaborative and generally non-textual production of academia in the 21st century and the still old school ways of representing our academic accomplishments. Graduate students in particular are forced to straddle an academic hiring system that still relies on the credentialing system of the twentieth century—namely peer-review publishing in print academic journals—while increasingly emphasizing the need to use digital tools to do things in public. Until we find ways to more fully and equitably compensate academics for the new kinds of academic scholarship we are doing, we at least need new ways to get credit for our work. Maybe we need to add new and strange sounding sections to our CV’s (“Digital Collaborative Curation” perhaps?) until they start seeming less new and less strange.

Successes and Failures

While this was certainly a worthwhile experiment on the possibilities of new digitally facilitated collaboration, problems both technical and structural in nature limited the success of this project. Most pressingly perhaps were technical glitches on the site that we were unable to fully resolve and unfamiliarity and uncomfortably with the format both of which limited participant engagement. However, the site was effective in giving seminar members a better sense of the other participants and their work and by providing a novel digital space for informal collaboration that encompassed both academic and popular media. With some technical and organizational modifications, this project could provide a template for using simple digital tools to facilitate more productive and engaging seminars.

While most seminar participants had participated in building the site content by the time of the in-person meeting, the level of engagement did not meet our expectations. While some conversations or discussions did occur on the site—mostly relating to the abstracts posted on the blog—engagement with others work was the exception rather than the norm. More common were posts and comments that made interesting connections or asked compelling questions but did not cohere into a discussion. While this is part reflected the short time period between when people started participating in earnest and the conference itself, there were also concerns both structural and affective that limited sustained engagement.

In the seminar meeting at the conference, some participants expressed a hesitance to post that was part technical and part affective—a waiting to see what others posted, unsure of how this was going to go, unclear if it was worth the effort—kind of reticence.  Because of the novelty of the form it took a while for the particularized style, tone and content of the site to cohere.  While nobody mentioned this in the meeting specifically (we only had time for brief comments at the end of the seminar on the participant’s experience of the site), I suspect some of this hesitance has to do with a general chaffing at the increasing demands that digital participation places on academics, along with a not unreasonable fear that communication on the internet is more likely to be negative and unproductive than in-person conversations. Indeed, in informal conversations many academics have told me they are disengaging from the big two proprietary “social media” platforms at least in part because of the groaningly unpleasant affect that in particular seems to poison conversations between strangers. Now that many of the seminar participants have met and talked in person, I suspect the affective barriers to participation will lessen.

There was also some disappointment that the website and the seminar meeting were not as integrated as they could be. In part this was because while the media posted to the website represented the broad theoretical and thematic interests of the seminar participants, we wanted to focus our in-person conversation on possible common ground—both practical and theoretical—and thus spent a large portion of the conversation discussing what animality is in the context of Cultural Studies and other disciplines. That said, perhaps we were not as successful as we hoped in imbuing the spirit of the site into the conversation.

Also mentioned by participants was a structural problem with the website, by which I mean the lack of a temporal structure of engagement. In other words, many thought the site would be more effective if instead of a nebulous wiki-style slow build of content, we structured it around time sensitive topics. In hindsight, this would have been a far more preferable way to structure the wiki—rather than picking the ten keywords, we could have had participants both pick and bottom line a new word on a weekly basis. That would have defined a more concrete structure of participation and would concentrate most of the labor of posting into one week. Because of the technical glitches of the site—which seem to be a compatibility problem between the CommentPress theme and our plugins—after the conference we changed the theme in order to host future conversations in a more decentralized and time-sensitive manner.

All that said I consider this project to be a success. Most participants liked the idea of the site, and had we been able to work out the technical glitches before the conference, I think participation would have been more robust. Numerous people indicated that it was helpful as a way to get to know the other participants, and that they liked having a centralized space for learning about other people doing similar work.  Seminar participants also highlighted that they particularly liked the opportunities it opened up for humor, non-textual media and non-academic articles. It’s easy to imagine this site as a sort of third-space between the academic and popular worlds of cultural studies, which combines the best aspects of both kinds of communication.

While the failures of this project seem to outnumber the successes on paper, my hope is that the failures are ones of growth, and that this experiment contributes towards conversations about new and better ways of integrating the digital and the fleshy in the service of innovative collaborative academic research. There are always hiccups in major transitions, and academia’s quickening reorganization by the digital will not be smooth or uncomplicated. The more we get comfortable as both participants and creators of digital tools the better they will become, and the quicker we will move from seeing these kinds of projects as novel experiments to seeing them as the new mundane that we then look to overcome.


Integrating digital tools into pedagogical and research practice is not simply a project of acquiring technological skill. The increasing calls to digitize academia come along with a variety of affective, labor and social implications that deserve more attention as money and attention flood to digital initiatives. While this project has shown that technical barriers (both real and perceived) can and do hinder the adoption of digital tools, it also highlights the need to ask new questions about the digital academy: How can we design and utilize the digital in ways that don’t exacerbate (and ideally ameliorate) the labor demands that have been so acutely piling up in late capitalism? What new feelings and capacities do these new technological circuits encourage, and how do we mindfully incorporate these affects into our discussions of the digital academy? What do our in-person academic encounters lack, and what new digital tools can be useful in making meetings, conferences and classrooms more interesting, productive and collaborative? How do academic systems of hiring, promotion and funding stifle experiments in integrating the digital into pedagogy and research?

I hope our project has suggested speculative answers to some of these rhetorical questions. At the core of many of them is the suggestion that more digital tools and projects should emerge from conversations about what is not working about academia. Indeed, framing conversations about “digital making” around the possibilities of a more vibrant and compelling academic life would be an easy way to accelerate the process of interesting those faculty and students whose work does not focus with technology into participating in digital projects. If these kinds of experiments (even failed ones) become more widespread it will go a long ways towards recognizing them as labor (and thus deserving of remuneration and professional acknowledgement) but also recognizing that they can make the in-person experiences of academic life more enjoyable, creative and vibrant.

Works Cited

Fitzpatrick, Kathleen. Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy. New York: New York University Press, 2011. Print.

Martin, Randy. “After Economy?: Social Logics of the Derivative.” Social Text 31.1 114 (2013): 83–106. Print.


Mapping French

ITP student Ashley Williard (French) reflects on her independent study project

Introduction and Pedagogy

Visit Mapping French

Visit Mapping French

This project responds to the need to engage students in communicative and culturally relevant language use from their first semester in French. Beginning students are able to interact with one another in a meaningful and personalized context as they prepare several scaffolded steps (involving research, writing, and speaking) over the course of the semester to produce a final video project in small groups. Mapping technology creates an immersion experience though which students can plan, record, and share a virtual visit to France. Although the project relies heavily on digital media, students are guided step-by-step in the technologies and carry out each collaborative, digital assignment in the lab during class time. In the pilot run during spring 2013, the project helped students improve their language abilities and cultural insights, engaged student interest, and fostered metacognitive skills.

The project was originally inspired by a conversation with Valeria Belmonti, the lab director in the Department of World Languages and Literatures, College of Staten Island, CUNY (CSI), during which we discussed ways to make the final project for beginning French, a virtual trip to Paris, more truly virtual by using new media technologies. The original project, designed by Kathryn Talarico, involves research into sites of Paris for the purpose of planning an imagined five-day visit.1 Students are able to put their basic language skills to use in the real context of discussing their plans and research in final presentations, which consist of conversations accompanied by a slide show of images of the sites and monuments mentioned. The capstone project walks students through a progression of assignments. This structure is integral to the mapping project, which is indebted to Talarico’s model. Put simply, the idea of this project is to create a Web 2.0, interactive version of the virtual visit.2

Language instructors have established a precedent for using Google Maps to carry out digital projects. Fujii, Elwood, and Orr describe an exchange project between a Japanese class in the United States and an English class in Japan, which share content in My Maps, a collaborative feature of Google Maps. Their students exchange cultural knowledge by posting images and captions in their target language on the shared maps of their respective universities and, in so doing, extend mapping beyond the classroom walls for cross-cultural interactions and informal learning. In Paravazian and Marandino’s Review of French Grammar course, students enact virtual tours of Paris using Street View in Google Maps in addition to completing traditional textbook exercises. The project’s learning objectives are threefold: “Simulate the study abroad experience by using technology to interact with course materials; Build linguistic skills and fluency by applying grammar and vocabulary to scenarios in Paris; Apply critical thinking skills to engage in dialogues and cultural experiences” (1). Rather than building toward a single, final video as do the students at CSI, Paravazian and Marandino’s more advanced students create a series of screencast videos, which require increasingly complex language structures, post these videos on YouTube, and collaborate on a Wiki. Their article provides detailed explanations of the tools used and structure implemented, and their project exemplifies the potential for mapping technology to create virtual study abroad experiences for interactive and authentic study of French language and culture.

In addition to these models, CSI’s lab director, Belmonti, was crucial to the project’s development and execution. She is not only informed about current technologies, but also cognizant of Second Language Acquisition research and aware of students’ practical needs and experience. Knowing I am invested in integrating new media in my classes, she first suggested incorporating mapping technology into the French I project. After a brainstorming session, she sent me references and ideas, which provided a jumping off point for our next meeting, where we personalized the project to our environment, a required elementary language class in the CUNY system. Reflecting on Belmonti’s past experiences, we decided it was best to prepare careful scaffolding and schedule all the technology requirements in the language lab during class. She anticipated students’ questions and planned for sufficient time to walk them through the technology. During lab sessions, she presented each step and circulated to assist students. Her support enabled me to focus on preparing materials, communicating with students, evaluating student work, and assessing the project. Collaboration allowed us to benefit from our different experiences as teacher and technologist, in the classroom and in the lab, to successfully integrate technology and pedagogy.

Just as I have learned from previous projects and other educators, I hope to share my project for future collaborations and am invested in the process of reuse and openness made possible by digital platforms. Beyond its application in a first-semester French course, this project has two other motivating factors. First, the general process by which I organize the assignments could be easily repeated not only for other languages, but for other disciplines, such as history, literature, and sociology. Second, the technology used is widely available, free, and simple to use. I hope this will expand the applicability of the project and encourage its adaptation to a range of contexts. The assignments and samples can be accessed at this course template, which I plan to adapt as a resource site, linked to my personal teaching and research web site, in the future.

In its current form, the project proposes an example of how new media technologies can bring together the related goals of culture and communication.3 Students make cultural observations about the city they research based on authentic images of everyday life in Google My Maps, Street View, and other web resources. As Claire Kramsch argues, language is embedded with and expresses cultural meaning, and language instruction should reflect this reality (3–14). On both sides of the Atlantic, language learning standards call for not only cultural knowledge acquisition, but also critical thinking through analysis (“Cultures” and “Comparisons” for the National Standards, “interculturality” for the Common European Framework).4 For this project, students place cultural content in a comparative context through their responses to classmates’ projects and through reflective writing. Responding to the need for students to communicate in authentic ways (Lee and VanPatten 21–35), the final video features an informal dialogue that interacts with the visuals assembled. Although they are limited by their first-semester language abilities, students are grounded in research and guided by a detailed prompt, and even the most basic language structures come to life in the imagined scenario.

This project allows students a hands-on experience of France in the form of a virtual visit. Materials available online provide access to authentic language use and cultural artifacts (Guth and Helm 2011 217-219), which students can investigate as primary sources like they do in disciplines such as history and cultural studies (Bass 7-12). By contextualizing analytic and experiential language learning, “[t]he use of satellite television, Internet resources, and other technological aids to instruction can increase opportunities for meaningful comprehension and production activities” (Omaggio Hadley 143). Klemm and Tuthill stress accessibility as a significant benefit of virtual field trips; new media resources allow students to overcome barriers of distance and economic opportunity (191). Many CSI students may not have the occasion to study abroad, but this project provides them a perspective into life in France from their first semester of French. These assignments could also serve as preparation for a semester overseas. New technologies can play a key role in creating such virtual environments, where students actively engage in experiential learning through collaboration and exploration (187). As recent studies in virtual worlds and language learning have shown, simulated environments can enhance communication skills and cultural awareness (Molka-Danielson et al.; Hislope 51–58; Chen and Su). As they navigate their cities with Street View, students are able to direct their own learning experiences. They not only research French monuments, but also interact with the cultural context: students can choose to go down an unmarked passage, explore a market, or zoom in on a cafe. The wandering that occurs allows them to stumble upon new information and make unexpected observations.

By simultaneously speaking and doing in a virtual space, students connect their language use to their immediate reality, and their movement contributes to fluency (Paravazian and Marandino 2). In the final step of the mapping project, students give directions in French and navigate their city in Street View, making their spoken language meaningful through the live movement of the virtual tour. As one student says “continue tout droit” or “tourne à gauche,” another group member presses the appropriate keyboard arrow to move their perspective through the three-dimensional city view. Students avoid translation as they embody target language meaning in their actions. In the classroom, physical movement and gestures often accompany communicative exercises, and students’ active responses to imperative statements help them gain vocabulary and improve listening competency (Asher; Asher, Kusudo, and de la Torre). Instead of responding to an instructor’s commands, in this project, students create their own directions, which they actualize in their navigation through a virtual space. The result is a communicative and learner-centered interpretation of Asher’s Total Physical Response method.

Project Implementation

We implemented a pilot run of the project with the 20 students in Basic French I, a first-semester language course, during the spring 2013 semester. By pacing the assignments over the second half of the semester, students practiced language skills, gained cultural insights, and improved digital literacy without being overwhelmed or distracted by the new technologies.5 The project took place over the course of two months:

  • Materials distributed to students (week one)
  • Students’ scaffolded work:
  • Preliminary research (due week three)
  • Map of locations (week four, one class in lab)
  • First draft of conversation (due week five)
  • Peer workshop (week five, in class)
  • Final draft of conversation (due week six)
  • Assemble videos (week seven, two classes in lab)
  • Present videos in class (week eight, final week of semester)
  • Submit reflective writing assignment (week eight)

The project involved the following tools:6

  • Google Sites: Students registered for Google accounts and were invited to join the site, where they were able to comment, view content, and add documents. We chose Google Sites for its simple interface, which resembles a word processor in edit mode, but WordPress could also be an effective tool. We limited students’ work on the class site to a minimum so that they could focus their attention on the assignments. Students’ maps, writing, and videos were uploaded to the appropriate pages of the site so that they were able to share their projects with classmates. Instructions for each step, tutorials for digital tools, and models were also available on the site.
  • Google Maps: Students used two features of Google Maps. First, they collaborated to create maps of their cities in My Maps by adding markers, labels, and images of their featured locations and by making observations about the city layout. Second, they used Street View to explore the city and “walk” from one location to the next. Students examined details such as architecture, signs, storefronts, vehicles, and pedestrians in this mode. They practiced giving directions in French while navigating the streets with keyboard and mouse commands. They were able to toggle between the two-dimensional map and the three-dimensional view of their cities.
  • Screencast-O-Matic: Students recorded their maps, images, Street View, and conversations with this simple, free screen-recording software. The advantages of this particular application are its ability to run within a browser without download and its free fifteen minutes of recording. This was an important feature since students’ videos ended up being over ten minutes.
  • YouTube: Once students exported their videos and saved them to CD, we uploaded the videos to YouTube and published them on the class site. The videos were saved as “unlisted” (so that they were available for viewing with the URL but could not be found in a search engine) and projected in class on the final day.

For the first step, students researched their sites of interest and wrote a two-page response paper on their findings in English, as they do in Talarico’s project. They broke into groups and chose a city in France including but not limited to Paris; this variety extended their experiences with French culture and language beyond the capital and allowed students to examine the diversity within France’s borders. Once Street View has expanded to more locations, I would encourage expanding the project to the French-speaking world beyond metropolitan France.Even the simple process of selecting cities revealed an encouraging level of engagement among students. The day I introduced the project, I provided a list of cities that I had reviewed on Google Maps and students quickly sought out cities not on the list I provided. For instance, one group approached me immediately to ask to study Cannes because of their interest in cinema. Students’ eagerness to imagine possibilities beyond those I anticipated revealed a level of motivation that is important, if at times difficult to attain, in a required language course. I took this originality as the first sign of success, which fortunately recurred throughout the project’s realization.

The preliminary research process did not vary greatly from the original project, but supplemental requirements guided students to websites in French about their different cities. For example, students searched specific terms, such as “mairie” and “office de tourisme” and their city name. We had an in-class discussion on the use of as a starting point, where students could locate original references rather than cite Wikipedia directly. One of the objectives of this step, as Talarico notes, is for students to gain research skills in the process of sorting through online information.7 In the individual papers resulting from this research, students showed impressive engagement with academic integrity and creative writing. Rather than quoting long factual passages, they wrote in the first person on the websites’ content and accessibility and commented on issues that interested them personally. One student created a detailed journal containing the narrative of an imagined visit with information on monuments and French phrases throughout. Another student planned a literary tour of Paris based on The Sun Also Rises and included historic context for the sites mentioned. Both students’ writing reveals the personal investment students made in the project, even before we had begun the mapping element.

Once students had individually researched their cities, they came together in their groups of two or three to narrow down and map their sites of interest. Creating a collaborative map in My Maps was the first step to prepare the virtual visit video. Mapping locations was also purposeful in itself since students were able to visualize the layout and transportation options for the city being studied, a theme on which they would comment in their final papers. Future projects might involve a range of mapping resources, such as historical maps, demographic visualizations, or voting breakdowns, to encourage additional analysis. We spent one full period in the language lab to assemble this step. Students came prepared with the list of sites upon which their groups had agreed as well as links to the images they wanted to embed in their maps. These images provided details their maps did not always provide (e.g., the interior of a store, a painting, a table setting, a night view). Some students changed their plans once they realized how distant locations were one from the other, adjustments that point to the tension between structure and improvisation in assignment design. As much as detailed scaffolding guides students through each step of the project, some of the most meaningful learning occurs in the unexpected discoveries. The exploratory nature of mapping and Street View allows students to stumble upon the unexpected. For example, they commented on the narrowness of streets, the distance between locations, and the names of restaurants and stores. These details were memorable and provoked genuine interest and authentic cultural analysis, which was obvious as I observed students carrying on casual comparative discussions in the lab. More than anything, the maps helped students transition from research to a more hands-on interaction with their cities.

Figure 1: Sample Student Map

Figure 1: Sample Student Map

To prepare for the video, students wrote and revised conversation scripts based on the structures we had been using in class. I asked them to imagine that they had just arrived in France for a study abroad and had three days to plan a visit of the city before their classes started. The prompt listed particular communicative structures students needed to include in their conversations (giving directions, making plans, expressing likes/dislikes, etc.) with examples, textbook page references, and a model to guide them. These specifications are important for beginning language-learners because they remind students what they know how to say in French rather than leaving them to translate what they want to say from their higher-level English. Beyond the written prompt, students based their scripts on audio examples we reviewed for comprehension and improvised skits we practiced in class.

Students participated in a guided workshop of their scripts to help their peers in the revision process. Once they exchanged comments with their classmates, I gave them my own feedback, which identified repeated errors and structural issues. Responding to these suggestions, several groups went through three or even four drafts of revisions. In their final drafts, students incorporated annotations that would guide their video recordings. They learned from writing mistakes by actively revising their work and took ownership of the revision process as they improved their texts collaboratively. By working through language errors in their groups, in discussion, and in writing, students externalized the revision process, became more sensitive to common mistakes (e.g., verb agreement, prepositions, question formation), and had the opportunity to notice these issues in their own writing.8

In future implementations of the project, I would like to incorporate as much formal scaffolding in the speaking as currently exists for the writing process. First, I would highlight the importance of the pronunciation of the texts students prepare. Several students rehearsed their lines with me and made pronunciation notes on their copies, but it would be useful to require students to do a practice recording and submit it as homework. Students could also be required to work with the instructor, a tutor, or even pronunciation software to improve their speaking skills. Second, I would place more emphasis on the production of communicative language rather than the production of one “perfect” written script by spending even more class time on sketches based on isolated communication tasks (e.g., deciding on a meeting place and time). By repeatedly practicing the relevant structures in an interactive, low-stakes setting, students become more comfortable improvising with each other.

Following the preparation of scripts, the project culminated in videos of students’ conversations accompanying images of their cities. Once students had created their maps with pegs on their locations of interest, we took a twenty-minute exploration period in the lab to introduce Street View and a screencasting program. They then had two weeks to practice outside the lab and prepare their annotated scripts before our scheduled recording time. Students recorded a combination of visuals to accompany their conversations. They showed panoramic views of streets, architecture, and monuments through Street View. They also used their maps to show the city as a whole and their embedded images to show additional details. Lastly, each student was required to give directions between two locations while navigating through Street View.

Figure 2: Sample Student Video Screenshot

Figure 2: Sample Student Video Screenshot

The lab director walked students through every step and allowed them to record the screencast in the lab over two sessions. One period served as a rehearsal and the other was our recording period. It would have been useful to plan for one longer period during which students would work on the project because some students reported feeling rushed by the time constraints (see the student response section below). The only technical difficulty that arose was students’ confusion about pausing and restarting their recordings, but I was easily able to edit the unintended audio out of the final videos. The project seems to inspire accountability and even perfectionism because students knew that they would have a final product published on the class site and projected during class. One group returned to the lab during their own time to re-record their video and to add graphics and music because they were dissatisfied with the outcome in the lab. Similarly, several students mentioned that they would have liked to be able to use more video editing software with their projects. I am hesitant, however, to place too much emphasis on the final product in this way because I see the value of the project in the process of speaking and virtually visiting the city simultaneously.

Results and Reflection

For the final step in the project, students wrote a reflective paper, as they do in Talarico’s project. They incorporated the research that they had completed earlier in the semester to reflect on what they had learned about their cities and their experience learning French language and culture through the project. Students also responded to an anonymous survey that measured their feedback. Selected comments and survey results (from the 15 students who completed it) are grouped into categories below.9 During the fall 2013 semester, another French instructor at CSI carried out the project with her Basic French I class; her survey and questionnaire results are referenced in the analysis below.10

Figure 3: The technology component was difficult to handle

Figure 3: The technology component was difficult to handle

According to the survey, most students (64.3%) did not think that the technology was difficult to handle, but 35.7% did find the technology challenging. In their final papers, a few students commented that the digital tools were at times overwhelming, especially due to time constraints in the lab:

Various technologies were used to make the experience more realistic, but it was a little confusing on how to use it at first. […] There were times that the technology faltered it made it difficult to achieve the result desired, but there was help to assist in the technical part of the project and also to assist in pronunciations. The one Thing I would suggest is longer lab time. With more lab time, it makes it possible to fix any errors of the project.

The difficult part of the project structure to me was the various technologies (street view) and the time we had in the lab. The street view was difficult for me because of course I’m not use to this city and the streets all started looking the same as I was looking for shopping stores. But the solution to that problem was the mapping which came in handy.

Students found solutions with the help of the lab director, instructor, and staff. Additional lab time would help reduce this stress.  Although some students felt rushed in the lab, others (one-third) felt that there was too much of a focus on the final project, according to the survey. I hope to strike the appropriate balance as the project becomes streamlined over time.

Like some students, the other instructor expressed some frustration with time limitations at the end of the semester and the desire to schedule additional classes in the lab, especially because she had not scheduled as many sessions as I recommended. Although the other instructor claimed that the technology component was easy to handle and that my instructions were “excellent, clear, concise and precise,” she had some concerns with her preparation to introduce the digital tools to students. In particular, she wished she had spent more time acclimating herself with the technology, for example, by creating a sample project “to anticipate the challenges of the students.”  Besides ongoing email correspondence, we had one in-person meeting to review the website and steps together; however, if I were to train instructors in the future, I would create a practice video with them and strongly recommend that they go through each step again before the students.

Beyond these challenges, some students found the technology to be straightforward and even requested more tools to improve their videos: “The technology was self-explanatory, although there could have been more editing tools because with the pausing and navigating throughout the city causes the video to look a bit choppy at times.”  Most students found that the technology enhanced their experience of the project, especially the virtual visit through Street View, as two student comments attest:

The most valuable part was Google maps because we visually saw where we were. Navigating at first was a little confusing but it was never too hard. It was cool that we were able to visit Paris without actually being there.

I also love that technology played a big part of this project and I in particular was amazed of how we could view the city of Paris while at the computer lab […] That I feel was the best part of this research.

While some students appreciated the realistic experience that mapping created, one student commented that the project helped her developing digital literacy: “The new technology was definitely useful for this project and also for future references,” a statement that illustrates the project’s capacity to benefit students outside the language classroom.

Figure 4: I have a better understanding of the French language because of the project

Figure 4: I have a better understanding of the French language because of the project

Most students (86.7%) responded that they have a better understanding of French language because of the project. A few students commented on language difficulties in the research process. As they confronted these challenges, students were able to see their developing French skills in a real-life context, as two of their comments reveal:

The most difficult part of the research was going through so many sites to find them in French, but using my new vocabulary and with the help of the textbook I was able to loosely translate and navigate the sites.

Some of them were translated into English, but others were the genuine French websites (like the Grevin Wax Museum). I enjoyed this challenge because, although I could not understand everything on the site, I could make sense of most of it through context and what I’ve learned in this course. I could not acquire as many details through these sites, but it was a valuable learning experience.

Students thus were able to appreciate the process of deciphering an unfamiliar and difficult text in the context of the project.  Besides reading in the research stage, many students remarked that the dialogue enhanced their speaking skills.  For example, students reported improved pronunciation as a result of the process of repeating and recording their script:

It definitely helped my pronunciation a lot because I was always practicing the pronunciation for the recording of our dialogue.

This project helped me with pronouncing words better because I was able to use Google to listen to these words and pronounce them better when I had to record the video.

This second remark references the use of the audio reading feature on Google translate, a resources with which I recommended students experiment as they prepared their dialogues, although I warned them that the intonation is not very realistic.  This tool is particularly useful for beginning learners practicing isolated words.  Other than pronunciation, the virtual visit contextualized their language use and made their communication meaningful, a key pedagogical goal that they were able to articulate in their comments:.

It also helped with my French language because of the conversation that we had to come up with our partner. The conversation part of the project was a little bit difficult, but then I found it easy along the way because it’s all the basic things we learn in class but just a little more in depth.

This project helped in my learning French experience because we had to communicate with each other in only French while we were traveling around Paris. This helped me remember what certain words were and it gave me a better understanding because it’s like we were in Paris.

The process of preparing a dialogue for a realistic situation bolstered by new media ultimately helped students understand and recall the structures and vocabulary studied in class.

Figure 5: I have a better understanding of French culture because of the project

Figure 5: I have a better understanding of French culture because of the project

All students who chose to respond to the question indicated that the project helped their understanding of French culture. Several commented on the knowledge they gained through research and mapping:

This project helped my knowledge about certain French cultures and how the city of Nice is structured.

Through the process of research I began to uncover all the other festivals that are held and I became even more fascinated by the city.

This virtual trip project to Nice, France really helped me learned a lot about Nice and the famous landmarks the city has to offer.

In their final papers, students reflected a wide range of cultural knowledge and insights about the cities they studied. To advance their cultural analysis, I would encourage students to compare and contrast cultural elements with the support of models and class discussion in future projects.

Although I see some improvements to be made, the other instructor found the project enriching for students’ learning of French language and culture, and she was especially pleased with its integration of course content: “I thought the whole thing was fantastic, especially as it made close use of the language, grammar, and culture students were learning in the French I curriculum.”

Figure 6: I enjoyed the project

Figure 6: I enjoyed the project

 Figure 7: I found the project enriching

Figure 7: I found the project enriching

100% of students who responded reported that they enjoyed the project and found it enriching. They generally had positive comments on the project and their motivation to participate in it.  For example, one student remarked, “The research was fun because I wanted to know more about Paris so it wasn’t really work.”  The interaction with French cities expanded at least one student’s desire to go abroad: “I enjoyed doing this project because it actually heightened my dream of going to France. It’s always been a dream of mine to go to Paris, but now that I’ve done my research on Nice, I have another dream!”  Based on her own positive experience, another student thought the project could benefit other language classes: “Overall I thought the project was an excellent experience and I would recommend that all language teachers implement a project like this one into their planning.”  Students described the process of taking ownership of their projects and reported pride in the final product they completed, as numerous comments attest:

This method of working gave students a sense of being on their own. It makes it possible for them to get the work done in their own way.

We really wanted to make it something we would enjoy watching and I felt we managed to do that to some point.

I felt a sense of pride after completing the project and watching the video, it was nothing like I imagined while planning the virtual trip. Watching the video however helped me realize how much I’ve learned over the course of this semester.

Working on this project was fun and when it was done it gave me a feeling of accomplishment. I was like “wow we actually did it and it came out great.”

Although student feedback may not be the best way to evaluate improvements in students’ cultural knowledge or communication skills,11 these comments do reveal the motivating feelings of curiosity, ownership, and accomplishment that the project inspired.12

In responding to these questions, students articulated the purpose of the assignments for themselves and engaged in active learning. As they specified what they saw as the benefits (technical, cultural, or linguistic), students personalized the project and were able to find purpose for themselves rather than have it assigned to them. In the reflective paper, based on Talarico’s project, students also gave themselves and their partners grades and commented on their performance. As students evaluated themselves, they developed their metacognitive skills. Bransford et al. explain the need for educators to incorporate such activities into their assignments: “The teaching of metacognitive skills should be integrated into the curriculum in a variety of subject areas. Because metacognition often takes the form of an internal dialogue, many students may be unaware of its importance unless the processes are explicitly emphasized by teachers” (21). As a result of assignments such as reflective writing, students develop increased awareness of their learning process, which contributes to students’ ability to adapt their skills to unfamiliar circumstances: “Metacognitive approaches to instruction have been shown to increase the degree to which students will transfer to new situations without the need for explicit prompting” (67). When students become aware of their strengths and weaknesses, they are more able to extend their linguistic skills, cultural knowledge, and critical thinking beyond the French language classroom.


As my observations as well as student and instructor feedback suggest, these assignments provide a means to teach language and culture that could be adapted to a variety of  environments and curricula.  In particular, student responses reveal the potential for virtual visits to add an enriching, experiential element to language learning.  New media can thus not only expose students to foreign artifacts, images, and documents, but also allow them to interact with a culturally-relevant environment in real time and on a personal level.  Dialogue and directions in the target-language add a communicative element that enhances this immersion experience.  The process of creating and sharing a final digital video – of “building something” –  ties the basic language curriculum together in a rewarding manner that moves students’ language-use beyond decontextualized grammar drills, homework, and exams.  Perhaps most valuable, the pilot run of the project motivated students to take ownership of their learning process, which is a promising foundation on which to build in future digital projects.

Works Cited

Asher, James. “Children’s First Language as a Model for Second Language Learning.” Modern Language Journal 56.3 (1972): 133–39.

Asher, James, Jo Anne Kusudo, and Rita de la Torre. “Learning a Second Language through Commands: The Second Field Test.” Modern Language Journal 58.1–2 (1974): 24–32.

Bass, Randall. “Engines of Inquiry: Teaching, Technology, and Learner-Centered Approaches to Culture and History.” Engines of Inquiry: A Practical Guide for Using Technology in Teaching American Culture. 2nd ed. Washington, DC: American Studies Crossroads Project, 2003. 3-26.

Bransford, John et al. How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School. Washington, DC: National Academy, 2000.

Byrd, David R. “Peer Editing: Common Concerns and Applications in the Foreign Language Classroom.” Die Unterrichtspraxis/Teaching German 27.1 (1994): 119–23.

Carpenter Binkley, Susan, and Jennifer E. Hall.  “Sound Pedagogical Practice on the Web.” French Review 76.3 (2003): 564–79.

Chen, Hao-Jan and Cheng-Chao Su.  “Constructing a 3D Virtual World for Foreign Language Learning Based on Open Source Freeware.” Edutainment Technologies: Educational Games and Virtual Reality/Augmented Reality Applications. Ed. Maiga Chang et al. Berlin: Springer, 2011. 46–63.

Common European Framework of Reference for Languages: Learning, Teaching, Assessment. <>.

DiPardo, Anne, and Sarah Warshauer Freedman. “Peer Response Groups in the Writing Classroom: Theoretic Foundations and New Directions.” American Educational Research Association 58.2 (1988): 119–49.

Fujii, Kiyomi, Jim Elwood, and Barron Orr. “Collaborative Mapping: Google Maps for Language Exchange.” Central Association of Teachers of Japanese Annual Conference Proceedings 22 (2012). <,_Elwood,_Orr.pdf>.

—. “Facilitating Informal Language Learning: Google Maps.” ACTFL. Boston. 2010. <>.

Gaudiani, Claire. Teaching Writing in the Foreign Language Curriculum. Washington, DC: Center for Applied Linguistics, 1981.

Guth, Sarah, and Francesca Helm. “Teaching Culture through CALL.” Present and Future Promises of CALL: From Theory and Research to New Directions in Language Teaching. Ed. Nike Arnold and Lara Ducate. San Marcos, TX: Computer Assisted Language Instruction Consortium (2011): 211–56.

Hislope, Kristi. “Language Learning in a Virtual World.” International Journal of Learning 15.11 (2008): 51–58.

Klemm, E. Barbara, and Gail Tuthill. “Virtual Field Trips: Best Practices.” International Journal of Instructional Media 30.2 (2003): 177–193.

Kramsch, Claire. Language and Culture. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1998.

Kramsch, Claire, and Roger W. Andersen. “Teaching Text and Context Through Multimedia.” Language Learning & Technology 2.2 (1999): 31–42.

Lee, James F., and Bill VanPatten. Making Communicative Language Teaching Happen. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 1995.

Molka-Danielson, Judith, et al. “Teaching Languages in a Virtual World.” NOKOBIT Proceedings (2007): 97–109. <>.

Omaggio Hadley, Alice.Teaching Language in Context. 3rd ed. Boston: Heinle & Heinle,2001.

Paravazian, Diane, and Gina Marandino. Transforming Language Learning Textbook into Virtual Travel.”Classroom 2.0 the Book. 2012. <>.

Simon, Edwidge. “Foreign Language Faculty and the Age of Web 2.0.” EdUCAUSE Quarterly 31.3 (2008): 6–7. <>.

Standards for Foreign Language Learning in the 21st Century. <>.

Talarico, Kathryn. <>.


  1. The original project involved research, a slide show, a presentation including a conversation, and a paper. Talarico designed this structure and created materials for students and instructors: <>. In particular, follow the links “Final Project for French 113: Preparation assignment” and “Final Project Une Visite à Paris instructions.”
  2. On Web 2.0 and language learning, see Simon.
  3. On teaching culture with technology, see Kramsch and Anderson; Guth and Helm.
  4. See Standards;Common. See also Guth and Helm 211–13.
  5. On sound assignment design for language learning with digital tools, see Carpenter Binkley and Hall.
  6. On Google Maps Street View, Screencast-O-Matic, and YouTube, see Paravazian and Marandino 3–5; on Google My Maps, see Fujii, Elwood, and Orr, “Collaborative” 46–47.
  7. See “Final Project Une Visite à Paris instructions” (Talarico). When she asks students to evaluate internet sources, Talarico reminds them: “There is an enormous amount of material out there and one of the objectives of this project is to introduce you to learning how to sort through such massive quantities of material in order to zero in on what is important for your specific project.”
  8. See Gaudiani 13–19 for a detailed description of peer editing process in a foreign language composition class; DiPardo and Freedmanon peer editing; Byrd on peer editing ideas for language classes.
  9. All samples of student work, survey responses, and quotes (the language of which was not altered unless indicated) were acquired in accordance to IRB review process.
  10. Please note that only 14 students responded to this question.
  11. Students’ final projects were evaluated based on a rubric that assessed cultural content, organization, language accuracy, oral proficiency, and completion of the requirements.
  12. On intrinsic motivation and learning, see Bransford et al. 60–61.

A Proposal for a Gentle Introduction Resource

ITP student (James) Anderson Evans (MALS) reflects on his independent study project

Visit the Gentle Introduction Resource

Visit the Gentle Introduction Resource

I: Introduction

Addressing the Need for Technical Pedagogy in the Digital Humanities


The purpose of this paper is to address the need for digitally malleable forms of pedagogy, the technical and mechanical forms of scholarship practiced in the Digital Humanities as they might be addressed through “Gentle Introductions.”1 As Digital Humanities becomes a more recognized area of interest within higher education, approaches to its more challenging technical aspects need to be addressed.  This paper will describe the concept of an ideal resource (referred to herein as the Gentle Introduction Resource or simply GIR), critique current resources that demonstrate the need for such a resource,  and describe initial implementation of the GIR’s infrastructure.

What is a Gentle Introduction?

Gentle Introductions vary by author, but they typically provide clear, introductory information on specific technical, scientific, or computational concepts that can be engaging even to an audience that has no prior knowledge of the subject under discussion.  This does not mean they do not provide a roadmap toward experimentation, but they can be key in reaching a place of initiation and understanding as to what specific strengths and weaknesses a complicated method or technique might involve.

Why do we need a Gentle Introduction Resource?

Presently most gentle introductions must be sought out specifically.  For instance, to find a gentle introduction to XSLT transformations one must use specific search queries like “XSLT gentle introductions,” in a search engine.  The foresight to engage this search suggests that one has already moved beyond gentle introductions to be aware of a niche acronym such as XSLT.

II: The Gentle Introduction Resource (GIR)

History of Gentle Introductions

The “Gentle Introduction” moniker for layman introduction to high-level technical concepts is not new, and there is something quietly vintage about it.  This explicit descriptor can be found in academic articles at least as far back as the early-1960s.  In running a Google scholar search the earliest articles I found apply “Gentle introductions” to a range of technical concepts from probability and statistics in the early 1960s2 to programming PASCAL-like languages in the 1980s.3

A particularly deft, and more recent self-proclaimed “Gentle Introduction,” came in University of Pittsburgh Professor David J. Birnbaum’s approach to XML or eXtensible Markup Language.4  Birnbaum takes the time to present a contextual, clear, and engaging discussion about how the markup is used in the context of Digital Humanities, not making the choice so many make and launching right into static, aggressive instruction.  He is able to speak about XML as it relates to other, more conventional topics, such as university departments and foundational uses.  When he does speak of XML in and of itself, he does so with terms that make its definition digestible, not more difficult.

XML is a formal model that is based on an ordered hierarchy, or, in technical

informatic terms, a tree. It consists of a root (which contains everything else), the

components under the root, which contain their own subcomponents, etc. These

components and subcomponents are called nodes. (Birnbaum 2012)

Compare Birnbaum’s quote with the first entry that results when “XML” is queried in Google.

XML stands for eXtensible Markup Language.

XML is designed to transport and store data.

XML is important to know, and very easy to learn.

Start learning XML now!5

This quote from the website is followed immediately with code.  While XML is indeed a form of markup that is very human readable, and in some cases self explanatory, contextually this fast-and-dirty introduction fails the student attempting to engage with foreign subject matter.  This blurb treats XML like a product, something a strong Gentle Introduction like David Birnbaum’s would never do

While I don’t yet have hard data illustrating exactly how many present day graduate-level humanities academics are familiar with “Gentle Introductions,” from my own experience, most are not familiar with it as an over-arching concept.  Even those who have been assigned a “Gentle Introduction” often think this is a clever way to title a tutorial, not realizing that the offering fits into a genre bigger than the concept central to their reading.

In November 1991 the commercial publishing industry came up with a title that proved far more marketable than “Gentle Introduction”: “For Dummies.”6 This moniker is already problematic not just in its tongue-in-cheek insult to its audience, but in its forced separation of the layman from the expert.  Instead of introducing the layman to the infinite progression through a technical topic, it establishes a road block to the depth of understanding a layman should think of himself or herself of being capable.

Even while the first “For Dummies” offering, titled DOS for Dummies was indeed a technical concept exploration, the title proved lucrative enough to effortlessly flow into almost all facets of understanding from quilting to line dancing.  These books, and the channels through which they are distributed, were (and are) often written by academic experts, yet it would be startling to see them assigned in academic syllabi.  The books are typically colloquial to a fault, and in my own experience their quality is low, and they go on at length examining concepts that could be expressed with far greater brevity.

The bulk of technical instruction utilized by both the layman and the expert are now found on the Internet.  While official “Dummies” books are still being written and distributed, these are titles that are still primarily print-based, and the concept, a book “for Dummies,” is now a proprietary concept.  In the world of free and open Creative Commons scholarship distribution this moniker is not available, but I would suggest that this is, in fact, a good thing.

It seems that, at least within the niched community of academia, the “Gentle Introduction” is coming back into vogue. As the scholar’s library becomes increasingly web-based, opportunities for scholars, students, and learners to engage in free and open scholarship have flourished.  Without having to engage in the traditionally slow model of academic publishing, academics themselves can use their computers and personal devices to relay scholarship with immediacy.  Peter Suber writes about the advantages of Open Source and Open Access scholarship in Open Access,7 giving numerous reasons that such models of scholarship are more practical and ethical than outmoded forms still often clung to in the present day academy.  Suber lays out an argument with 15 tenants describing why traditional peer-reviewed publishing model is no longer sustainable (Suber 2012, 29-43), and then at great length describes a system, already in play, that disseminates knowledge far more quickly with legal frameworks protecting content producers intellectual property, but allowing them to share their knowledge quickly and without cost (Suber 2012, 77-147).  Scholars hoping to engage students and the general public with programming competencies, are posting new “Gentle Introductions” at regular intervals.  Schools like MIT are using Open Access models through their OpenCourseware programs, publishing an entire semester’s worth of Gentle Introduction pedagogy.8 If ever there was a prescient time to aggregate as many quality Gentle Introductions into one location, it would seem that time is now.

Doing The Digital Humanities

From beneath the rising umbrella discipline of “Digital Humanities,” in which humanities scholars search for ways to inject digital/computational methodologies into humanities scholarship, the distribution of pedagogically sound introductions has become essential.  Ways of wrangling the vast number of introductions (gentle or otherwise) that could prove useful has been a major handicap to the discipline, leading to more arguments about how essential or necessary specific technical methods are than to paths of artisanal exploration.  This is perhaps best illustrated by the provocative debate that grew from Stephen Ramsay’s insistence during the 2011 MLA Conference that one could not be a digital humanist without sufficient programming knowledge.9  As a Master’s candidate for a degree in this discipline I hope to offer a theoretical solution to gently addressing this problem in ways that I believe others have failed to do.

Critiquing Bamboo DiRT Wiki

In the introductory course to Digital Humanities at CUNY Graduate Center taught by Professor Matt Gold, a DH expert, my fellow graduate students and I were introduced to “Bamboo DiRT Wiki.”  This resource was constructed by a team of more than 16 credentialed university members, overseen by five highly respected institutions, and funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.  The “About” section of the Bamboo DiRT site reads:

Bamboo DiRT is a tool, service, and collection registry of digital research tools for scholarly use. Developed by Project Bamboo, Bamboo DiRT is an evolution of   Lisa Spiro’s DiRT wiki and makes it easy for digital humanists and others conducting digital research to find and compare resources ranging from content management systems to music OCR, statistical analysis packages to mindmapping software.10

The mission of Bamboo DiRT seems to be an admirable one, yet I feel that it illustrates a misstep by the humanities community at large in its attempt to work digitally.  Many humanists currently feel secure beneath a blanket of software packages and suites that seem to remove the necessity of core computational skillsets and many DHers move forward with complete ignorance as to what makes these pieces of software work under the hood.  I am not so bold as to suggest that a digital humanist should have technical expertise that mirrors that of the computer scientist, but without deeper understanding of how utilized software works, there is a damning amount of ignorance that makes its way into the traditional humanities scholarship synthesized with digital components.  The scholarship reveals its flaws in the published online works of insufficiently educated practitioners.  If software contains bugs, or is constructed erroneously, the digital humanist without deep understanding of the  core software processes is taking the dangerous risk of communicating flawed results.  This creaties risk not only in the scholar’s own research, but also for the DH community at large.

The issues with Bamboo DiRT as I see them can be narrowed to three specific complaints:

  1. Filter failure: the pure bulk of software this site attempts to connect its users to becomes more of a hindrance to organization than a help.  Even with use of tagging and metadata, the 30 DH-themed sections prove  to be far too broad to encapsulate the sheer number of offerings.  In many cases, hardly comparable software packages are pushed together without enoughexplanation for the uninitiated to grasp their differences.   This is a problem throughout the internet, often appearing to the less informed as “Information Overload.” Such problems have been more appropriately termed by NYU Professor Clay Shirky issues of “filter failure.”11
  2. Interface: The Bamboo DiRT interface suggests that software does specific things that the software linked to within the resource may or may not do. There is little to no room for users to give feedback and keep the most useful items visible.
  3. Pedagogy: Pedagogical write-ups of the specifically academic/DH software usage are completely ignored.

This critique focuses on Bamboo Dirt Wiki not because it is the only DH Resource suffering from issues in thorough digital pedagogy as utility, but because of the initial attention it has garnered and the fact that it has been generously funded.12

The Gentle Introduction Resource does not look to replace a site like Bamboo DiRT, but rather to serve as a supplement to such digital spaces that offer access to useful tools.  The GIR will give scholars a network in which to share their initial explorations and forays into both digital and humanistic study.

The Gentle Introduction Resource Design (Initial)

The GIR’s design will begin it’s alpha testing as a twitter clone built in Ruby on Rails.  When initially prototyping the early versions I attempted to make a useful site in pure HTML and CSS, but found this approach lacking, especially in terms of expandability and longevity.  In the span of six months I moved through the following frameworks as a higher level solution to basic html:

  1. Flask, PythonAnywhere, and Django – These frameworks are all based on the Python computer language.  In experimenting with these frameworks I made some major strides in my own understanding of how computer language is communicated from the user to the machine and back to the user.  I hit several roadblocks in deploying these frameworks in the public sphere, primarily because of the difficulty in uploading the local SQL database.  The SQL database is the component necessary to allow registered users individualized participation on the site.
  2. Ruby on Rails – I was hesitant to put away the Python and begin working with Ruby, but I was surprised with the relative simplicity of the Ruby on Rails framework.  I don’t believe I would have found it accessible if I had not first labored over several projects using Python.  The Ruby language is an Object Oriented language just like Python, and many of the rules that I learned when implementing Python allowed for a seamless transition into Ruby.  While the differences between Ruby and Python are plentiful, the Ruby language has a supportive online community that has helped me push past the challenges I was unable to overcome with the available Python web frameworks.

As I have indicated, I chose Ruby on Rails as the framework to move forward with and have initiated the design of the GIR to parallel that of the twitter network.  By creating a database more focused on the community invited to use the service, there is a stronger understanding of what the developing needs of the DH community engaged with the GIR actually might be.  By crowd sourcing a list of pedagogical writings on topical tools and methods that explain both the foundations of DH software offerings and higher level academic software packages a digital space can be created showing and telling DH scholars about what is initially foreign and anxiety inducing.

Using the mediaCommons project, InMediaRes, as inspiration, I plan to create a membership system based on academic credentials.13 Members would be able to add Gentle Introductions to their personalized data stream, and moderators would be able to add these introductions to a regularly updated blog featuring the most useful Gentle Intros shared in the universal site’s data stream feed.

Finally it should be said, all linked Gentle Introductions  would be in either the public domain or distributed under a Creative Commons License.

Resource Conclusion

This GIR proposal is not set in stone, and any time proposals meet the realities of implementation there are usually concessions that have to be made.  That said, it is of key importance that in the implementation phase, critiques of projects that have come before are reflected upon.  The most essential aspect of this proposal is the belief that pedagogy should be a stronger focus than tool resources; That a smaller number of tools engaged with through expert pedagogy is an optimal goal.  This project aims to focus on molding the layman into an engaged explorer and eventual expert.  This act is far more valuable than access to an aggregation of resources with which the intended audience does not understand how to comfortably engage.


Canelake, Sarina.  A Gentle Introduction to Programming Using Python. MIT OpenCourseware. January, 2011.

Donadio, Rachel. “Dumbing Up.”  The New York Times Online. September 24, 2006.

Harpold, Terry. “Screw the Grue: Mediality, Metalepsis, Recapture.” Game Studies 7, no. 1 (2007).

Kasten, Eric. 1995. “HTML: A Gentle Introduction.” Linux Journal 1 (15). Online Version (July): 1–5.

mediaCommons. About. inMediaRes. Accessed May 22, 2013.

Mosteller, Frederick. “Continental Classroom’s TV Course in Probability and Statistics.” The American Statistician 16, no. 5 (1962): 20-25.

Pattis, Richard E. Karel the robot: a gentle introduction to the art of programming. John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1981.

Project Bamboo. Bamboo Dirt Wiki. About. Accessed May 20, 2013.

Ramsay, Stephen. “Who’s In and Who’s Out”. Stephen Ramsay Homepage. January 8, 2013.

Shirky, Clay. Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations. Penguin Books, 2008.

Suber, Peter. 2012. Open Access. Vol. 1. Essential Knowledge Series. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press.

Swinehart, Christian.  Samizdat Drafting co. CYOA.

Unknown author. Unknown date. “XML Tutorial”. Instructional.


  1. {exempli gratia}  Birnbaum, David. 2012. “What Is XML and Why Should Humanists Care? An Even Gentler Introduction to XML.” || Canelake, Sarina. 2011. “A Gentle Introduction to Programming Using Python”. MIT Open Courseware MOOC January, Online. || Kasten, Eric. 1995. “HTML: A Gentle Introduction.” Linux Journal 1 (15). Online Version (July): 1–5.
  2. Frederick Mosteller. “Continental Classroom’s TV Course in Probability and Statistics.” The American Statistician 16, no. 5 (1962): 20-25.
  3. Pattis, Richard E. Karel the robot: a gentle introduction to the art of programming. John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1981.
  4. Birnbaum, David. 2012. “What Is XML and Why Should Humanists Care? An Even Gentler Introduction to XML.”
  5. {sic.} Unknown author. Unknown date. “XML Tutorial”. Instructional.
  6. Rachel Donadio. “Dumbing Up.”  The New York Times Online. September 24, 2006.
  7. Suber, Peter. 2012. Open Access. Vol. 1. Essential Knowledge Series. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press.
  8. Sarina Canelake.  A Gentle Introduction to Programming Using Python. MIT OpenCourseware. January, 2011.
  9. Stephen Ramsay. “Who’s In and Who’s Out”. Stephen Ramsay Homepage. January 8, 2013.
  10. Project Bamboo. Bamboo Dirt Wiki. About. Accessed May 20, 2013.
  11. Clay Shirky. Here comes everybody: The power of organizing without organizations. Penguin books, 2008.
  12. I will also note that Bamboo DiRT is still being worked on, and I notice many issues I have criticized are at least slightly improved.
  13. mediaCommons. About. inMediaRes. Accessed May 22, 2013.

Enlightened Educators: Reflections on Pedagogy, Website Development and Collaboration

ITP student Laura Kane (Philosophy) reflects on her independent study project 


Visit Enlightened Educators

Just over a year ago, I set out to create a wiki for philosophers – an online, collaborative resource that would help newer graduate teaching fellows and adjuncts create lesson plans around topics they have never taught before.  I named the wiki Enlightened Educators hoping it would be a space that inspired educators with varying levels of experience to come together and offer suggestions for overcoming many of the obstacles that newer educators face when trying to determine the most effective ways to teach their students.  As I write this report summarizing my work toward this goal, the wiki remains largely unused.  It is not entirely devoid of content and contributions, but it has not taken off with the kind of enthusiasm that I had envisioned it would.  Instead, its current state has served as a reminder to me that it’s very difficult for those of us in academia to break with the traditions we’ve been inculcated with since entering doctoral study.

Academics are often encouraged to work alone and discouraged from introducing any new work until it has already reached a semi-polished state.  We become defensive about sharing our early ideas with others for fear of receiving less credit and prestige when those same ideas finally come together in formal conference presentations and published articles.  This rationale is not only limited to scholarship; the same kind of behavior occurs regularly when we approach teaching undergraduate students.

As many of us have already learned, graduate students are often thrown into the classroom with little to no pedagogical training.  We must create our own guidelines and lesson plans, with very little guidance from our peers or professors.  Expectations are immediately placed upon us to create interesting and comprehensive lesson plans that are informative, engaging and open-ended enough to allow for substantial student participation.  While it is intimidating enough to step in front of the classroom for the first time, it is even more intimidating to do so when our lesson planning is also balanced with the demands of doctoral coursework, effectively limiting the amount of time we have to spend on creative approaches to teaching new material.

Creating a lesson plan for the first time is a time consuming and challenging task.  With no clear indication of how students will engage with our chosen material, we try to determine the best way to teach complex concepts and large quantities of information without overwhelming our students or leaving most of them behind. This raises many questions, including:

  • How much should I rely on the assigned reading to guide classroom discussion?
  • What kinds of questions will best elicit responses from students?
  • Are there any exercises or activities that would help to convey the core ideas in the readings to students?
  • How can I ensure that students will engage with the material and actually understand it?

With little to no empirical evidence available as to what works best, it is often very difficult to answer these questions.

The Internet houses a vast landscape of teaching guides for undergraduate classrooms.  While it’s possible to find a useful guide for how to structure a syllabus or how to keep students awake and paying attention, it is very difficult to find any guidance on how to structure a lesson plan around Book VI of Plato’s Republic.  That’s the result of the fact that guides for teaching undergraduate students are very general and meant to be used by educators from many different academic disciplines.  While they may provide some general answers to the above questions, they don’t necessarily give us the tools we need to plan effective strategies for teaching students specific ideas and concepts.  Moreover, much of the general advice given to new educators is outdated and doesn’t reflect the varying types of education and backgrounds that current undergraduate students come to college with.

My desire to create Enlightened Educators came from reflecting upon these issues as I struggled to create my own effective lesson plans for the first time.  After discussing these issues with my colleagues, I found that I was not alone in wanting some kind of resource that would offer more targeted guidance for teaching concepts and ideas that are specific to my discipline.

Initial Proposal

My initial proposal for Enlightened Educators was largely inspired by my own struggles to come up with the most effective strategies for teaching undergraduate students.  My colleagues and I would discuss at length the types of questions we would ask students and the kinds of exercises we would do in class to encourage student participation, comprehension, and engagement with our chosen material. However, these discussions would only occur after we had already taught our lessons!  We had little or no guidance about how to make our initial lesson plans, and were only able to improve our lesson plans after we had already discovered for ourselves what worked and what didn’t work.

New educators would certainly benefit from hearing about these experiences before they teach material for the first time.  I searched for any type of tool – a blog, a database, an archive – where more experienced educators shared their tested teaching strategies with others, but I came up empty-handed.  I decided to try and build a resource that would be available to all educators who wished to collaborate with one another, building the form of a database of shared experiences related to teaching specific content to students.

There were, however, a few things that I wanted to avoid when creating this kind of resource.  Firstly, it couldn’t be something with a blog-like structure.  A blog-like structure would privilege the first account written – the main blog post – leaving alternative accounts, suggestions, revisions and additions in a comment stream that would not receive nearly as much attention.  Such a structure would ensure that these strategies,despite whatever feedback was given by those who commented, would remain static and unchanging, so that someone stumbling onto the blog for the first time might find a strategy that was posted three years prior that hasn’t been updated or vetted since. Teaching strategies change over time as we repeat lessons over and over again, and this resource needed to reflect the kinds of revisions that we make year after year.  Blog posts are not meant to be revised over and over again, nor are they typically capable of being collaboratively edited to reflect multiple experiences.  The discussions around lesson planning are extremely important for educators as we seek to build off one another’s experiences and suggestions.  A blog would severely limit how much these lesson plans might change over time as compounded experiences are taken into account.

Secondly, the resource needed to be dynamic in terms of navigability.  A blog does not offer the same kind of dynamic environment as a wiki.  While one can tag blog posts so that they can be aggregated in different categories, a wiki provides a user with a fluid searching experience.  Users can search for a topic that directly links to other related topics, and all of these topics are taxonomized as a network instead of a hierarchy.  A network of topics is far easier to navigate than a hierarchy, as no particular topics receive preference over others and no topic is subsumed under another.  Hence, it would be easier to add topics to something based on a wiki.

Thirdly, the resource couldn’t be something that allowed one strategy to become dominant.  A wiki would keep the main content for each post open to revision so that different voices could participate with equal authority in crafting a teaching strategy.  Such openness and equality should encourage any educator to feel comfortable adding their experiences to the database.

With these criteria in mind, I proposed to build a wiki using MediaWiki, a free open source wiki software package, that would be inviting, easy to navigate and easy to contribute to.  My goal was to create a venue for educators to come together and collaborate with one another to develop the most effective lesson strategies for teaching philosophy to undergraduate students.  I emphasized how each page would be modifiable to encourage potential users to generate and edit content, and to collaborate with one another to ensure that each lesson plan was as comprehensive and adaptable as possible.  I also emphasized that the wiki would be open to all so as not to exclude anyone who wishes to participate in discussions around certain topics.  With these goals in mind, I set out to create my wiki, though it was not quite the experience that I had hope it would be.


My initial proposal indicated that it would take about one month to do a complete structural build-out of the site, before user content could be added.  This estimate wound up being fairly accurate.

I had used Wikipedia – a wiki also built using the MediaWiki software package – pretty extensively in the past and was very familiar with how to create and edit content, create pages and participate in discussions.  However, I had no clue how to build my own wiki.  I researched how one would go about creating a wiki using MediaWiki and discovered that MediaWiki has a quick installation option called a “1-Click Installation” – an option allows one to bypass a manual installation of software.  The quick installation option is compatible with several different hosting services, so I set out to find the best one for my purposes.

Initially, I had wanted to host my website on OpenCUNY or the CUNY Academic Commons; however, I also wanted to ensure that my wiki could be used by non-CUNY adjuncts and educators alike.  I discussed what option would be best with my professor, Michael Mandiberg, who had been guiding my progress on the wiki’s development.  He suggested that I host the website on my own so that I would have the option to expand my user base to include non-CUNY members.  He also advised me to limit my initial user base to Graduate Center colleagues only – something he thought would contain any potential scope creep regarding managing users in the site’s earlier phases. Tasked with finding my own hosting service, I asked for recommendations from friends and colleagues and decided to use

Installing the wiki software was very simple (it was designed to be), and soon I was staring at the home screen of my very own blank wiki!  I felt very empowered – this was going to be the start of a new and exciting project! – so I got to work right away putting content on the site.  I created the Main Page with an inviting welcome section and included a mission statement about the intended use of the wiki; I created the main discipline page and an FAQ Page for users who were unfamiliar with wikis; and lastly, I created the first entry on the site: how to teach Kant’s Categorical Imperative.  Everything was going smoothly, and I began to mention the site to my colleagues in the philosophy department.  Given our previous conversations about pedagogy and the dearth of resources to help us with our lesson planning, they all seemed very excited that a new tool might be available soon.  I felt confident that they would be enthusiastic to jump in and start adding their own teaching experiences.

And then the spammers hit.


I had heard from friends who were working on their own wikis that they were having problems with spammers, but I didn’t think much of it.  How would spammers even find my wiki?  It had only been built a month prior and barely had any user activity.  As far as the Internet was concerned, it existed more in potentiality than actuality with its low MB usage.  Much to my surprise, it is exactly these types of websites that spammers attack.

I went to my site one afternoon and thought I had typed in the wrong URL.  The site I had landed on was blank save for some barely comprehensible text about Viagra and life insurance.  My site had been spammed.

WikiSpam, as it is properly called, is perpetrated by owners of different websites who wish to improve their position in Google searches.  They spam wikis with advertisements to their websites, not realizing that these spamming attempts actually have no bearing on Google’s page ranking system.  The way they spam is infuriating; when spammers enter a wiki, they remove all of the original content on the page (in my case, it was my Main Page that kept being spammed) and replace it with their advertisements.

Fortunately, MediaWiki has a failsafe for such situations.  One is able to revert back to earlier edits of a page, essentially erasing any damage to page content that spammers have done.  Unfortunately, the spammers are relentless.  When one spammer finds your wiki, other spammers join in, arriving to your wiki in droves.  Worse still, these spammers “carpet-bag” wikis – they continually edit the same page over and over again, adding one or two new lines of text each time, until your original page is so far back in the history that it is difficult to find.  This process can result in hundreds of edits per day on your wiki, effectively destroying any original purpose the wiki had.  After several months of constant spamming, I decided that I’d had enough and took the site offline.

Eight months later, fueled with a new eagerness to get my wiki up and operational, I brought the site back to life again.  I had restored the wiki back to my original posts and began to research ways to combat spammers.  Soon after I relaunched the site the spammers were back, but I was determined to find a way to beat them.

My original build-out did not take spammers into account; hence, I did not have any protective firewalls to keep them out.  What I needed was a way to put editing obstacles on my site to deter spammers from endlessly posting advertisements without also deterring my intended audience from posting real content to the site.  What I found was a bit of PHP code that would make it mandatory for anyone who wanted to post on the site to create an account before they would be allowed to post.  This seemed like a pretty solid fix; the spambots that were targeting my site might not be able to get past a mandatory account creation and my users would be required to create accounts that would give them a greater sense of responsibility for their content.  I felt confident that I would finally be able to share my site with my colleagues.

Several days after I added the code to my site I noticed that I was receiving the same volume of spam again, only this time my spammers all had random account names.  My “solution” did nothing other than give me a false sense of security for a few days.  Increasingly frustrated, I began to reach out to more experienced wiki builders for their advice and assistance.  I was growing desperate and resigned to the fact that I might never get the wiki to a stable place for users.

I explained my situation to Micki Kaufman, one of my fellow CUNY Graduate Center Digital Fellows, and asked her for any advice she might have.  Micki offered to help me create a stronger barrier for account creation – one that would require an email confirmation from me (acting as the site administrator) for the creation of any new account.  When I went to log into the site to show her what we were up against, I was again surprised at what I had found: my site was gone.  Completely gone.  An error code, “MediaWiki internal error. Exception caught inside exception handler,“was all that existed in place of the entire wiki.

After digging around a bit in PHPMyAdmin, the MYSQL database manager for my wiki, Micki was able to detect what had happened.  One of the spammers had hacked into my site and deleted the database.  The MYSQL database for a website holds all of the content for that website – every bit of site structure, every post, every photo, etc. – and the database for my wiki had been completely wiped out.  I was crushed; why would someone commit such a malicious act against a complete stranger?  My wiki wasn’t political or offensive; it didn’t make any unjustified claims or spread any rumors.  The wantonness of the act made my skin crawl.

Micki was quick to point out that most hosting services back up the data for their users, so there might be a copy of the database on DreamHost’s servers.  After poking around the DreamHost site for a bit, we discovered that it does have a backup service that continually backs up your database for you; however, these backups are only saved for five days and then replaced.  Since I hadn’t been to my wiki in a couple of weeks at that point, the oldest backup contained the already wiped database.  My site was, in fact, totally lost.

Before I could completely give up, Micki assured me that this was a step in the right direction.  We could install a completely new and updated version of MediaWiki that would have the built-in protection needed to defend my wiki against spammers and hackers.  The quick installation options that MediaWiki offered came with various levels of restricted access for unregistered users and had been updated to make it more difficult for hackers to enter the backend of the software.  After discussing some of the positives and negatives of the different builds, we decided upon a type of installation that would mandate that all edits require accounts and that all accounts had to be created by the site administrator.

The downside to this added security is that the wiki would lose the openness that I wanted it to have.  Anyone that wished to contribute an experience to the site would now have to contact me first, and I would have to generate a new username and temporary password before they could log into the site and make a contribution.  I knew that these new restrictions would limit the number of users who would actually make contributions to the site; however, realizing that this was the only option available for a truly secure wiki, I decided that sacrificing this openness was worth it.  After we completed the install, Micki showed me how to make my own backups of the database.  I remade all of my original pages, including a rewrite of all of my original content, and made a database backup.

I finally had a secure wiki with reassuring failsafe measures in place, and finally felt confident about recruiting my first group of contributors.

Site Usage

After securing my site, I crafted an email to my friends in the Philosophy Department that explained my motivation behind making the wiki, a list of potential uses for our PhD program, and a request for contributions to help build the database of teaching resources.  Almost immediately after sending the email off I received several positive responses and offers for contributions.  I was elated!  My colleagues were genuinely into the concept behind the wiki – especially those who were going to be teaching for the first time – and seemed excited to take part as contributors.  Within days after sending my initial email, I had made six new user accounts and was anxiously waiting for the wiki to become a hub for strategizing about the best ways to teach Philosophy students about topics like Compatibilism, Virtue Ethics and Skepticism.  Two contributions were made fairly quickly, sustaining my excitement for the future of the site.  But then the site just sat; no new colleagues offered to participate, and no other contributions had been made in the month following my initial email.

I started to feel defeated again; I had made so much progress battling the technical setbacks I encountered that I assumed my struggles getting the wiki off the ground were over.  I was determined to get eight to ten new contributions on the site, so I decided to send an email to my colleagues again.  However, this time I opted to send individual pleas for participation hoping that a more personal request would motivate some colleagues to make contributions.  As it happened, the individual emails did the trick; within two weeks of sending the personalized pleas I had twelve unique contributions to my site.

The contributions posted to the wiki were very good – they were candid, on point and very informative:

Each contribution reflected a strategy for teaching certain philosophical concepts or articles to undergraduate students – precisely what I had hoped for.  The posts provided secondary source materials, open-ended questions to generate discussion, targeted questions to elicit certain responses, recommended classroom activities and step-by-step guides for clear presentations.

I would love to say that these contributions amounted to “success” for the wiki. However, after the contributions were entered the wiki sat again, and continues to sit with no additional contributions.  There have been no discussions and no collaborations around how to teach certain topics.  There have been no revisions or alternative suggestions made for posted strategies.  Instead, all of the contributions were made in isolation from one another, and logged site activity has plummeted: no users have signed back into the wiki since making their original contribution.  A total failure? No, certainly not.  The wiki has some fantastic content on it that reflects a breadth of the topics that typically fall under an Introduction to Philosophy course.  Hence, the wiki already has the potential to be useful to someone crafting lesson plans for the first time.  Nonetheless, the conceptual impetus behind creating the wiki has yet to be realized.

Upon reading all of the contributions, I noticed that none of them involved the use of digital tools as teaching aids.  I suspect the most plausible explanation behind this observation is that philosophy doesn’t require much beyond the faculties of reason and imagination, at least not in a classroom setting.  We are asking students to apply critical thinking skills to centuries-old problems that have never required digital tools in the first place.  If philosophers aren’t using digital tools within their lessons, then how likely are they to use a digital tool to help them plan lessons?

I’d like to think that these are two disparate issues.  Philosophy graduate students use digital tools all of the time to help them with research, networking, job searches and citation management.  The addition of a digital tool to assist with lesson planning seems par for the course not only for philosophy graduate students, but for graduate students in all disciplines.  That philosophers are not using digital tools as regularly as some of their peers in other disciplines is not a bad omen for Enlightened Educators – it merely reflects the process behind teaching philosophy as one that requires very little beyond an apt mind.

Still, in its current state, the wiki lacks the vibrant discussions and revisions that it was created to foster.  The collaborative structure of the wiki has done little to motivate the contributors to interact with one another through the site.  Instead, it seems to have perpetuated the isolated approach to lesson planning that we’re already familiar with – one that doesn’t require the use of a digital tool like Enlightened Educators.  This result is not necessarily permanent, though, and I haven’t given up on making the site a true success.  Perhaps it’s a matter of involving more individuals with the site by reaching out to a wider audience beyond the Graduate Center, or perhaps it’s a matter of offering alternative suggestions or revisions to the already existing content to motivate those who have already contributed to revisit their strategies. I plan to promote the site throughListservs, the CUNY Academic Commons Philosophy Page, various Philosophy Blogs and Facebook Groups, and I plan to ask faculty members to contribute to the site.  One way or another, I intend to continue recruiting more individuals to the site with the hope that a community of users will eventually emerge.

User Reception and Experience

The user reaction to the wiki was, for the most part, extremely positive.  I received several emails from newer Graduate Teaching Fellows who were excited about the potential of the wiki, and several emails from more experienced Graduate Teaching Fellows who were happy to have a place to share their teaching experiences.  Despite the small number of contributions by friends in my department, there seems to be an acknowledgement that a resource like Enlightened Educators could have a tremendous impact on the way we teach lessons to undergraduate students.

After contributions were made to the site, I sent a questionnaire to those who participated to ask about their experience using the wiki and their assessment for how useful the wiki could be for our department.  I received responses from a third of the contributors, and those responses were relatively similar across the board.

Of those who responded, none had any difficulty logging onto the site for the first time after receiving their accounts from the site administrator.  This was a positive sign for me, as I was worried about how difficult the new login restrictions would be for new users to navigate the site and worried they would deter some from wanting to participate in the first place.  Of those who responded, all agreed that the main Philosophy Menu was easy to navigate, but responses were split about how difficult it was to add content to the site.  Two respondents had difficultly with HTML formatting, adding that they did not feel that they were able to format their contribution as they wanted.  Two respondents mentioned that they had consulted the FAQ to help them with their contributions.  All of the respondents agreed that the information on the site, once entered, was easy to find and easy to access.

I was very happy to receive such positive responses.  Although most people are familiar with wikis like Wikipedia, many have never made a contribution before.  I was worried that this would be an impediment to using my wiki, but I was happy to hear that contributors were able to complete posts on their own or with the assistance of the FAQ.

Lastly, all of the respondents agreed that Enlightened Educators would be a useful resource for our department, and all respondents answered that they would use the site again if it became an official departmental resource.  I was pleasantly surprised by one respondent’s disclosure that they had used an entry on the site to help with a lesson plan!

Concluding Remarks

Despite the myriad difficulties I’ve encountered as I try to build my wiki into a comprehensive database for educators, I’m happy with the way the site has taken shape.  It is far more secure now than it has ever been, and I perform regular backups to ensure that no content is ever lost.  There is a decent amount of content up on the site right now, though it is far sparser than I had envisioned it would be.  This problem, along with the collaboration issue, may be resolved by attracting new users to the site.  While this has proven to be a difficult task, there are steps I can take to try and promote the site as a valuable resource worthy of continued participation.

After sending out both requests for participation – the more general request and the more personal request – I realized that the wiki, as a new, empty database, doesn’t have anything to attract users.  The responses I received after sending out my general request for participation were focused primarily on the concept behind the wiki, and an excitement over what potential it may have once it was full of content.  However, something like a bystander effect occurred among those to whom I sent the email: they all assumed that someone else was going to contribute, so they didn’t have to.  Hence, the site only received a contribution from one person after that initial request.  My more personal pleas for participation were successful at attracting more users to the site because my colleagues are also my friends, and their contributions were made to help me move my project forward.  The next phase of my project must address the issue of how to attract more users to the site on their own terms.  This may be a bit easier now that there is some content up on the site, but I’m sure a bystander effect will still linger among those that visit the site for the first time.  One possible solution involves my department endorsing the site as an official departmental resource.  This is something that I plan to work on in the next year.

My final remarks concern two particular responses I received when I sent out individual requests for participation.  These responses encapsulated for me the main obstacle behind academic and educational collaboration.

Two respondents seemed very interested in contributing to the wiki, mentioning that they had crafted some excellent exercises for specific topics.  Both of these respondents also inquired about what kind of credit they would receive if others used their exercises.

I had gone to great lengths to convey to my colleagues that the wiki was to be a collaborative endeavor, one that encouraged educators to come together to help one another create successful lesson plans for their classes.  The structure of a wiki precludes giving formal credit for contributions; instead, it encourages users to engage with one another over the best way to represent a certain topic or idea.  Unfortunately, this approach is in tension with how academics traditionally do research and, consequently, how they create their lessons.  The responses I received from these two colleagues captured this tension and further exemplified the resistance to change that plagues many of us who wish to receive as much credit as possible for all of our academic pursuits.  Granted, we are all at the beginnings of our careers and receiving credit for our projects and endeavors is an important part of establishing ourselves as scholars.  However, academia is becoming increasingly more collaborative – especially with the recent surge in digital humanities partnerships – and this is a good thing.  Collaboration doesn’t preclude the assignment of credit for work done.  Rather, it has the potential to increase the profile of the projects that we work on and the potential to improve how we begin and sustain our own scholarly pursuits.  My goal for Enlightened Educators is to create a venue for collaboration to take place where individuals are less concerned about the credit they receive for their contributions and more concerned about whether their contributions are improving the type of scholarship that we are all involved with.