A History of Place 1: Authorship and Teaching

This is the first of a series of posts to follow the recent publication of my book, A History of Place in the Digital Age. My aim with these is to look at various topics on the theme of what it means to write a book in the Digital Humanities (DH) as a means of reflecting on what I got out of the process as (I guess) a “Digital Humanist”, partly to capture such reflections for posterity (whether or not posterity has any interest in them), and also in the hope that they might be of some sort of value to others considering such a course. Here, I look at the links between writing a book at teaching, in both the undergraduate and postgraduate taught classrooms.

A prosaic problem is, of course, accessibility. Even the most committed student would balk at the cover price of a History of Place, and inevitably it takes time for an institutional library to place orders. It is therefore worth exploring in detail what one can and cannot do to make your work available under the terms of one’s contract; and, where possible, expediting library acquisitions by (for example) encouraging purchase of the e-edition. I don’t think I have any searing insights to offer on this subject, rather I see it as part of a much broader and more complex set of issues on Open Access in Higher Education which, I am sure, others are far more qualified to comment on than me.

It’s a tenet of major research universities such as my own, that our teaching should strive to be “research led” (see e.g. Schapper, J. and Mayson, S.E., 2010. Research‐led teaching: Moving from a fractured engagement to a marriage of convenience. Higher Education Research & Development, 29(6), pp.641-651). Most, I guess, would interpret this as meaning that the content delivered in the classroom is sourced from one’s own original research, in the context of one’s Department’s research profile an strands, conveyed via various pedagogical tools and techniques. Most of the latter are based on conventional scholarly publications, notably journals and, of course books. In the future, I would like to consider particularly the implications of writing a book – and thus complicity, for better or for worse, in that environment – for student assessment, and the kind of culture the act of authorship encourages. In this, one needs to bear in mind that the traditional essay is perhaps not best suited to the delivery of all kinds of DH content. To transcend this truth (which I think most DHers would accept) I plan to use some of the cases discussed in my book – for example mapping references to Cypriot places in texts, (the subject of much of Chapter 7) – to encourage students to test and challenge observations I discuss on the construction of imperial identities, for example by using practically the Heritage Gazetteer of Cyprus. Ideally, I would like to accompany this with screencast videos to accompany the institutional lecture capture (the desirability and ethics of this are a story for another day); something I have already started to do to assist students with the Quantum GIS exercise they learn.

The text of my book is structured around a postgraduate module I have taught for three years now, Maps Apps and the GeoWeb: An Introduction to the Spatial Humanities. I think it is fair to say that there has been a great deal of cross-fertilization between the two activities, certainly at the design stage. The chapter structure of the book partly, but not entirely, reflects the weekly lecture programme for Maps and Apps, a conscious decision I made when drawing up the book proposal, figuring that there could be economies of scale in terms of the effort involved in both tasks.

Writing chapters which correspond to classes was a great opportunity – and impetus – to update my own knowledge and scope of understanding of those topics, and numerous new insights have found their way in to the lectures this year as a result. This has also given me a richer context to include, where appropriate, examples from contemporary life, something I feel greatly helps students engage with complex concepts, relating them to their own experience. For example, my class on neogeography, delivered towards the end of the Semester, was updated this year to include a discussion of commercial appropriation of passive neogeographic material by transport service companies, something which I explore at a theoretical level in Chapter 5 in A History of Place; but which (I think) also points students towards much broader contemporary issues which they see in the news, such as the appropriation of user data by platforms such as Facebook. Teaching this class, I have found that students react creatively and imaginatively to a task where they are asked to find actual instances, based on their own local knowledge and spatial experience, of omissions of features in OpenStreetMap, of the kind described by Monica Stephens in her 2013 paper Gender and the GeoWeb: divisions in the production of user-generated cartographic data; an important text both in this class’s reading list and in Chapter 5.

Another thing I found interesting to reflect on is that other chapters, somewhat counter-intuitively, emerge from reading, research and conversations I conducted during the process of setting up other modules I teach, in which I had relatively little previous grounding, and which were seemingly of limited relevance to the topic in hand. Chapter 2, for example, seeks to place the spatial humanities in the context of its long history. This includes the emergence of the Internet and WWW in the twentieth century, and a discussion on how these impacted human perceptions and experience of space and place. As one might expect, I draw heavily on Doreen Massey’s A Global Sense of Place in this section (a core reading for Week 1 of Maps and Apps, as it happens); but much of the literature I use to do so is drawn from my undergraduate History of Network Technology module. This was a course I began teaching in 2015/6, on quite a steep learning curve (if that sounds like a euphemism, that’s because it is). But a couple of years’ reflection on, for example, the work of J. C. R. Licklider, Paul Baran and Vanevar Bush – readings I expanded and consolidated for the book – bought me to realize that one can’t really understand the methodologies which underlie the spatial humanities without reference to the implications of the mid-twentieth century’s struggles with post war information deluge; for example Licklider’s vision, expressed in Man Computer Symbiosis (1960), of

[A] network of “thinking centres”, connected to one another by wide-band communication lines and to individual users by leased-wire services. In such a system, the speed of the computers would be balanced, and the cost of the gigantic memories and the sophisticated programs would be divided by the number of users.

In my view, this expresses a “de-spatialization” of human knowledge that directly foresees the kind of interactions and data transactions now familiar to users of OpenStreetMap, Google Maps, and indeed any other kind of geo platform.   This seems to me to be fundamental to the epistemology of the spatial humanities, helping to explain the emergence of the GeoWeb in the broader context of the information age. I therefore have to admit – with a little trepidation – that as well as my teaching being research-led, my research is, to an extent, teaching-led. This is of course before I factor in discussions with the students themselves, in tutorials, seminars and questions after lectures (which do happen occasionally); and more than once my mind has been changed on a particular issue by an excellent student paper.

Of course, it depends on what kind of book you’re writing. A History of Place is quite a broad-brush consideration of the history and impact of GIS, and related technologies on the humanities, which is analogous to the module design and learning outcomes of Maps and Apps. It is therefore logical to expect a rough, although not necessarily comprehensive (see above) correlation between the class topics and chapters. It would of course be different in the case of a highly specialized book dealing with a particular topic in depth. But even then, I feel sure there would be similar crossovers even in such cases.

So, to summarize: Obviously we must aim to pass on our original insights as scholars to students. However, it is also very well worth considering, in as detached a manner as possible, what new insights your teaching might contribute to your book. This, in turn, will help you to strengthen and improve our teaching, and the curricula of your courses – especially when (as many Digital Humanists do) you teach courses across disparate subject areas. A careful mapping of course reading lists to your own bibliography can be very helpful for the same reason.

 

Author: stuartdunn

I do various things, but mainly I am a Senior Lecturer in Digital Humanities at King's College London's . My interests include things computational, cartographic and archaeological.

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