FGSDH Meeting, Ramsay Reading Group, 3/6/13

For our next meeting, I will be leading a discussion of Stephen Ramsay’s book, Reading Machines, on Wednesday, March 6 from 2-4PM in Dealy 115. The book offers provocative ideas which challenge how we think of ourselves as readers and interpreters of texts in the digital age.

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Fordham’s Citizen Cartographers

What do you do with a growing collection of international maps that contains over 433,000 sheet maps and 20,000 book atlases, some of which date back to the 15th century? As twelve graduate students and one post-doc from Fordham University recently learned, you digitize it, of course. At the New York Public Library’s Lionel Pincus and Princess Firyal Map Division, that effort has begun with some of its New York City and antiquarian maps. But more than just make high-resolution images of these maps, the library also developed “Map Warper,” a tool which allows anyone with a computer and an internet connection to digitally align (also known as “rectify”) these maps to match today’s precise maps, such as OpenStreetMap and GoogleEarth. The project joins “What’s On the Menu,” another fabulous crowdsourcing project at the library.

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Mishka Vance, a library technical assistant, shows Fordham University graduate students Tara Foley, Christy Potroff, and Melissa Whalen some maps in the NYPL’s collection at the Map Division.

On a grey February day, this group from Fordham assembled at the library to learn how to use MapWarper and become what the library calls “Citizen Cartographers.” The patient and delightful Mishka Vance, a technical assistant at the library, used a digitized, early twentieth-century Bronx fire map to demonstrate how to trace buildings, add information (brick, wood, or stone? residence or business?) about them to the database, and rectify the old map with a contemporary one.

Participants then proceeded to trace and rectify maps of their own choosing from the library’s digitized collection. Among the maps rectified that day were an early postal map from the Midwest, an ancient map of Cyprus, and a 1916 survey of Morningside Heights.

The people who attended this workshop hailed from several departments, including English, Classics, Theology, and Medieval Studies. They came for reasons that ranged from using Map Warper in their research, to using it in their teaching, to simply adding to their knowledge base of digital tools.

This spring, the Fordham Graduate Student Digital Humanities Group continues its efforts to make more opportunities like the Map Warper workshop available. Our next event will be a roundtable organized by Sarah Cornish and Jane Van Slembrouck called “Digital Traces.” It takes place on March 2 at the Graduate Student English Association’s Conference, “Remembering, Forgetting, Imagining: The Practices of Memory.” On March 6, HASTAC Scholar Patrick Burns leads a  discussion of Stephen Ramsay’s Reading Machines. See the Events page for more details on these and other spring programs.

The events sponsored by the FGSDH Group are open to all members of the Fordham community, no matter their level of technological expertise. With limited formal opportunities on campus for humanities students to learn how to incorporate technology with their coursework, research, and teaching, this group aims to at least partially fill that gap by teaching each other and learning together.

Citizen Cartographers are a happy bunch!
Citizen Cartographers are a happy bunch!

ReformationVille: Utilizing Games and Social Media for Historical Role-Playing in the Classroom

When I began teaching as a graduate student at Fordham University, I was not only a first-time teacher with anxiety about the unknown territory that lay ahead, but I was also in the midst of preparing for my comprehensive exams. So I did what I imagine most do… I depended heavily upon the most familiar and “safe” pedagogical method of my own education: the lecture. Admittedly, I had some doubts about the effectiveness of lecture-driven teaching. But looking back, it made sense. Lecturing was what I knew and, while I still risked delivering a bad one, at least I would feel some control over the classroom. Over the past few years, however, I have come to realize that teachers and students alike miss out when multi-faceted learning activities are not utilized and students’ freedom to be creative is restricted. As a result, I have found myself more and more willing to branch out pedagogically-speaking. In particular, I am becoming increasingly interested in utilizing an experiential pedagogy, even though it would require me to relinquish that sense of “control” that I coveted as a first-time teacher. That said, what might this look like in a college course?

As I ponder new opportunities, I have been also reflecting on which creative and experiential activities made the biggest impact on my own education. In doing so, one thing keeps bubbling up to the surface. Role-playing. All these years later, I still vividly remember participating in an American Revolution simulation in 8th grade History. As Sean Devlin, a friendly tavern-keeper, I wrote an autobiography, networked with classmates to win others to our cause, and participated in mock continental congresses. Then again, in high school, my IB History class engaged in a series of trials derived from our study of the Cold War. I served both as a prosecutor in the case against American meddling in Latin America and a defendant (an East German president) in another team’s charges against the Soviet Union for doing likewise in Eastern Europe. Looking back at these experiences, I am convinced that they were invaluable for fostering those higher levels of learning (critical thinking, problem solving, collaboration, etc).

Now, as a historian of Christianity, I have been toying with developing a Reformation role-playing simulation wherein my class would become an “idealized” late medieval town. Not only could I plug this activity into a number of classes, ranging from surveys of Christian history to Reformation specific ones, it could offer unique pedagogical advantages. For example, my students could hopefully experience the important reality, which text-based courses can sometimes struggle to convey – that the Reformation, like most theological disputes, was not simply waged with pen and paper, but dramatically affected families, friendships, the workplace, and the public square. The challenge, of course, is getting students motivated and participating. But it seems to me that I might be able to get the most traction by incorporating some of the ways in which our students interact with games and social media. Using this approach, I could encourage them to invest in developing their persona’s theological convictions and supporting their particular faction by drawing explicitly upon the skills of character development and  alliance building found in games like World of Warcraft as well as the desire to garner comments and “likes” on Facebook status updates.

Admittedly, this is just the beginning. Building on this foundation, I hope to grapple in future posts with which digital tools (e.g., Twitter) and parameters (e.g., various game dynamics) might help realize my goal of role-playing as a way of teaching the history of Christianity. And I’d love to hear your thoughts as well! For instance, what creative and experiential activities were most influential in your own education? Have you tried anything like this in your own classes, and how did it go? Which digital tools have you used or think might work?

*This post has been also cross-posted at hastac.org.