Infrastructural Tourism

“Infrastructural Tourism,” Places (July 1, 2013)

on multisensorial means of “experiencing” infrastructure


Infrastructural Tourism Article Published in Places Journal

Tourists at the Hoover Dam, 1940; via  Wikimedia Commons
Tourists at the Hoover Dam, 1940; via Wikimedia Commons  

My article on “infrastructural tourism” — pedagogical and artistic projects for visiting, sensing, and critically engaging with infrastructure, from the interstate to the Internet — was just published in Places journal.

I’ve worked with Places on two other projects — a survey of “little libraries” and a study of South Korea’s Paju Bookcity — and have found the experience to be among the most rewarding experiences of my writing career. Unlike with traditional academic publishing, I can see the fruits of my labor within a matter of a few months, rather than years; and I have the pleasure of working with two outstanding editors, Nancy Levinson and Josh Wallaert, who are concerned not only with the soundness of my argument (which, in academia, is often equated with citing the right names), but also with the quality of my writing. I really appreciate their continued support and interest in my work.


Archiving Learning as a Messy, Partial, and Political Process (2013)

I joined Kimon Keramidas (Bard Graduate Center); Micki McGee (Sociology, Fordham University); Trevor Owens (National Digital Information Infrastructure and Preservation Program, Library of Congress); Ethan Watrall (Anthropology and MATRIX Center for Humane Arts, Letters and Social Sciences Online, Michigan State University); and Catherine Whalen (Bard Graduate Center) at the Bard Graduate Center on April 5, 2013, to talk about “Digital Pedagogy and Material Archives.” Here are the text and slides from my talk.

As the digital era influences the academic realm more and more profoundly, the possibilities and pursuant complexities of new technologies in the classroom create a compelling yet equally vexing environment. Perhaps one of the most challenging questions concerns what to do with the array of digital projects and materials being produced by students and faculty. Whereas in the past paper—both as a medium and as a format for research output—defined the processes of storage and archiving of this scholarly work, the wide variety of output formats generated by the tools and platforms of the digital age create a much more heterogeneous and difficult-to-manage collection of works. This condition is particularly true with regard to the study of material culture, as objects in the material world tend to suffer from a loss of resolution and fidelity when converted to the digital medium, exacerbating the questions of conservation and preservation that are critical to archival practice. With the aim of better preparing the Bard Graduate Center for the development of its own archive of student and faculty work, this conference aims to examine how digital pedagogues currently consider questions of preservation and archiving, and to reimagine what resources, practices, and structures would be deemed necessary to develop an ideal archive of digital pedagogical materials.


Platform Shift: Teaching on (Intentionally) Shaky Ground

Lebbeus Woods, Terrain, project, 1999; via MoMA
Lebbeus Woods, Terrain, project, 1999; via MoMA

What follows is my presentation for the “Making, Playing, Knowing: New Designs for Teaching and Learning in a Digital Age” discussion — with Ann Pendleton-Jullian, Kimon Keramidas, and Micki McGee — at Fordham tonight. Scribd screwed up my fonts.

I often try to kick off my presentations with a timely, topical image – so I asked myself, where have we seen “platform shift” in current events or recent popular culture?

This [SLIDE 2] was initially my introductory image. I’m sure we’ve all heard of Florida’s tragic sinkhole affliction (this particular image happens to show a 30-story-deep sinkhole in Guatemala in 2010, but it illustrates the potential severity of the issue particularly well). I eventually recognized that this is hardly an appropriately confidence-inspiring image with which to begin an uplifting talk about the potential of digital pedagogy. But it’s not an entirely inappropriate visual metaphor, either. It’ll return a bit later.

[SLIDE 3] For now, we’ll start again, here: Over a decade ago I finished my dissertation on the Seattle Public Library, whose form, consisting of platforms of disparate activities stacked precariously and wrapped in a metal mesh, was described by architect Rem Koolhaas as “pre-quaked.” This building, in an earthquake-prone region, would bravely face up to, and thereby gird itself for, seismic damage.

[SLIDE 4] In a way, a similar strategy informed the programming inside. When design began in 1999, the architects were aware that they were creating a building for media objects and media uses that would change dramatically between then and when the library would open five years later. So, they planned for platform shift, building in space for managed growth and allowing for flexibility.

Perhaps we need to “pre-quake” our pedagogy, too. In my remaining time I’ll address how I try to plan for platform-shift in three of the classes I teach.  [SLIDE 5] But before I begin, I want to point out that all of my teaching material – including syllabi, links to course websites, documentation of student work, etc. – is available on my website. [SLIDE 6] These are the courses that I’ve taught at The New School over the past eight years, and nearly all of them have involved some form of digital pedagogy. [SLIDE 7] But these three are in current rotation, and they all reflect what I’ve learned over the past decade about what we can reasonably expect digital technologies to do in the classroom, and about how to balance the forward-thinking with historical-mindedness, how to integrate contemporary skills with enduring sensibilities.

[SLIDE 8] In my Media and Materiality course, a semi-traditional seminar that I began teaching in 2010, we examine “media as material objects, as things, as symbolically charged artifacts, as physical supports for communication.” Much of our work questions the virtuality, the universally distributed nature, and even the newness of new media. [SLIDE 9] We begin by exploring various theoretical frameworks and methodologies – from “thing theory,” to material culture studies, to media archaeology – that can be useful in studying media. [SLIDE 10] The second third of the semester is dedicated to custom-designed “plug-ins” that pertain to students’ individual research interests. [SLIDE 11] And in the final third, we work on the creation of online exhibitions of material media – an endeavor we approach as a form of “multimodal scholarship,” an alternative means of performing and publicizing academic work. The particular formats of the students’ projects offer them an opportunity to think through the central concepts of our class: what does it mean to mediate the materiality of media objects, and to create a virtual exhibition that addresses their material natures

[SLIDE 12] Over the course of the semester, everyone does an exhibition review – of an on-site or online exhibition – to allow them to identify best practices, to develop criteria for evaluation, and to introduce them to the various platforms they could use in their own project. [SLIDE 13] Most students have chosen to make WordPress blogs or Tumblrs, while some have created Pinterest collections, designed e-books-as-exhibitions, [SLIDE 14] or custom-designed their own sites. We always encourage students to choose platforms that match their skill sets, and I always work with a student technical associate – someone who has a broad set of design skills that cross many platforms – to organize outside-of-class tutorials to help those students who perhaps aren’t as technically confident, or who want to hack or customize their chosen platforms

[SLIDE 15] One fashion student even re-purposed the Facebook page – detourning the real estate of the profile page, using it in a way it wasn’t meant to be used – to create an exhibition about fashion and mediated identity. Unfortunately, this fabulous project is no longer alive online – and this isn’t the only one that’s disappeared. Because students choose their own platforms, which is an integral part of the design process; because they sometimes make use of platforms that fold or evolve in such ways as to compromise their designs; and because students sometimes elect to host their projects on their own webspace in order to add them to their personal portfolios – I have little control over what happens to them after the semester’s over.

[SLIDE 16] Digital death and disappearance shouldn’t come as a surprise. As a few of my 2010 students learned the hard way, we can’t even count on our platforms being available to us the week before finals. A few students elected to use a platform called Vuvox to create “multimedia collages.” [SLIDE 17] Vuvox, it so happens, is owned by ebay, which also owns PayPal – and PayPal’s servers were attacked in early December 2010, right before finals, in retaliation for the company’s decision to cut funding to WikiLeaks. Hence, no VuVox, and no work on final projects, for nearly a week. Thus, while my students probably weren’t the hackers’ intended targets, WikiLeaks’s quakes shook them. [SLIDE 18] And the students learned a difficult, although valuable, lesson about Internet infrastructure, and how platform shifts have the potential to rattle all layers of the network stack.

[SLIDE 19] At the end of each class each semester, I create a blog post (2010, 2012), recapitulating what we’ve learned, identifying what we might want to do differently next time, and documenting the students’ work. In some cases, this post is the only trace that remains of a project, like the Facebook exhibition. I have mixed feelings about the ephemerality of this student work, and the issue of archiving of digital pedagogical projects is something we’ll be discussing at a workshop at the Bard Graduate Center this coming Friday.

[SLIDE 20] The impact of digital technologies on archiving is also one of many issues we address in another of my classes, a seminar on Archives, Libraries, and Databases. For the sake of time, I’ll say only a few words about this class, and, in the interest of laziness, I’ll draw those words from the course description: “There has been more information produced in the last 30 years than during the previous 5000.” We’ve all heard some variation on this maxim. As U.S. publishers add 250,000 printed books and close to 300,000 print-on-demand books to our libraries each year; as we find ourselves wading through over 200 million websites; as we continue to add new media – from Tweets to Apps to geo-tagged maps – to our everyday media repertoires, we continually search for new ways to navigate this ever more treacherous sea of information. Throughout human history we have relied on various institutions and politico-intellectual architectures to organize, index, preserve, make sense of, and facilitate or control access to our stores of knowledge, our assemblages of media, our collections of information. This seminar looks at the past, present, and future of the library, the archive, and the database, and considers what logics, politics, audiences, contents, aesthetics, physical forms, etc., ally and differentiate these institutions. We examine what roles the library, archive, and the database play in democracy, in education, in everyday life, and in art. Throughout the semester we examine myriad analog and digital artworks that make use of library/archival material, or take the library, archive, or database as their subject.”

[SLIDE 21] And as a follow-up to this class, which I’ll be teaching again this coming fall, I’ll be collaborating with The New School’s Libraries and Archives to create a “Digital Archives and Institutional Memory” studio, a chance for students to put into practice some of the theories we address in the seminar. The New School’s digital archiving efforts are relatively recent, so it’ll give students a chance to shape the direction of future archival work and create new opportunities for future pedagogical uses of the archives.

[SLIDE 22] My final example is a class I’ll be teaching for the fourth time this coming fall. [SLIDE 23] In Urban Media Archaeology, we investigate historical urban media infrastructures – from newspaper delivery to the use of carrier pigeons, from telephone switching stations to independent bookstores, from video game arcades to the evolution of New York’s street signs. [SLIDE 24] The students conduct archival research – what you see here is a list of just a few of the archival collections they’ve used – and produce their own primary documents: oral histories, ethnographic videos, field recordings, etc. [SLIDE 25] And these materials are woven into arguments they make on a map – a map we’ve been collaboratively developing with programmers and designers at Parsons the New School for Design for the past five years.

[SLIDE 26] Our platform for this class is thus constantly shifting. Intentionally. It’s a living platform – one that’s always evolving in response to students’ methodological needs. We use Open Street Map – a collaboratively developed, open-source map – rather than relying on proprietary platforms like Google. [SLIDE 27] Many students recognized the rhetorical value of the map’s aesthetics – so they requested that our programmers and designers make it possible to integrate different tiles created by stamen, a design firm globally renowned for data visualization and mapping. You saw some of those tiles on previous projects, and [SLIDE 28] this project, which is based on stamen’s high-contrast “toner” design, uses the metaphor of the oyster to explore the evolution of New York’s docks – and how they served as a hinge, or mediator, between land and sea. 

With the terrain constantly moving beneath their feet, students have predictably encountered a few bugs. [SLIDE 29] By accessing and participating in the software development process, however, they can develop insight into where bugs “come from,” and eventually learn not to fear those moments when they feel the platform shifting. [SLIDE 30] As I wrote in a “recap” post from a few semesters ago,

Opening the black box…requires that we test its limits, that we often push the system until it breaks. And when we do break something — when we encounter one of those ugly “TemplateSyntaxError” messages — rather than panic or give up, we can actually learn to hear what the system is telling us, and work with others in class — most likely those with a different set of technical skills than our own — to fix the problem. These small defeats and victories tell us a lot about how a system works. And ultimately we learn more from these error-pitted processes, uncomfortable though they might be, than from those that proceed perfectly smoothly.

[SLIDE 31] Learning this agility and resilience translates to many other contexts. Technological change certainly doesn’t happen only when we choose to effect it ourselves, as is the case in my mapping class. Others shift the platforms on us all the time; they create technological sinkholes that we have to crawl out of – and we have less and less control over these shifts as our institutions outsource many of their technical services to Google, and as we turn over our data to commercial services. [SLIDE 32] These are the choices we’ve made, and we need to learn to roll with the inevitable punches, to brace ourselves for seismic shifts – like when our favorite bookmarking service is rendered totally useless by some inane redesign and the needless integration of stupid social-media functions. [SLIDE 33] Or when the days are numbered for a perfectly functional RSS reader, because its parent corporation has priorities that are quite different from ours.

[SLIDE 34] Adaptability is an inherent and integral part of digital learning—indeed, all learning. It requires that we accept the inevitability of change and, yes, even obsolescence; that we acknowledge the potential capriciousness of commercial platforms and start-ups; and that we regard these experiences not as obstacles or dead-ends to be avoided, but as inevitable components of any learning process that we need not work around, but work with.

By planning for platform shift, by building seismically-sound pedagogical infrastructures – and preparing our students to handle the shock when it hits – we develop more resilient learners – learners who can think beyond the particularities of a specific program to understand larger principles and broader sensibilities. We develop learners who know how to survey the shifting terrain, to identify – and perhaps intercept – the forces effecting those shifts, and, when necessary, to engineer scaffoldings (intellectual, technical and otherwise) for adaptation.


Platform Shift: Teaching on (Intentionally) Shaky Ground (2013)

I joined Ann Pendleton-Jullian, Kimon Keramidas, and Micki McGee at Fordham University on April 2, 2013, to discuss “Making, Playing, Knowing: New Designs for Teaching and Learning in a Digital Age.” I spoke about decay, link-rot, obsolescence, and disrepair. You can find my slides and notes here.


THATCamp Theory Presentation

This past weekend I led a workshop at THATCamp Theory, at Rutgers, on evaluating and critiquing multimodal projects.I must admit, my talk was kind-of a mash-up of two older projects: my CUNY DHI talk from last October (video here) and this post. Above are my slides, and below are my notes.

I unfortunately was able to attend only Day One of the two-day conference (Rory said Day Two was quite the brain-bender). Yet I thoroughly enjoyed the sessions I was able to take part in!


This workshop will focus on developing a critical vocabulary for responding to DH and systems for providing meaningful evaluative feedback, including 1) developing critical evaluative criteria for various formats of multimodal work and 2) identifying theoretical frameworks that inform those criteria. We’ll consider both professional and student projects and spend some time considering how to make project evaluation an integral part of the DH classroom. Depending on the interests of the group, our case studies might include data visualizations, map-based projects, crowdsourced archival projects, and other interactive publications.

  • Recognize that there’s a history of considering “multimodal evaluation” in composition

[SLIDE 2] I’m not fully ensconced in the DH community – sympathetic to their interest in different forms, practices, praxes, of scholarship.

  • Craft as a useful model for considering how similar intellectual values and practices span domains – reading, writing, making in various modalities
  • But not all making is scholarship

[SLIDES 3-4] McPherson article: Multimodal Humanist – this term, still a mouthful, resonated more with me

[SLIDE 5] Scrivener on when production is research

[SLIDE 6] Question about Feedback & Evaluation — not simply so I could assign a grade, but so we could provide meaningful feedback

  • Work – particularly technical skills – were sometimes outside my area of expertise
  • How to balance weighting of form and content – “rigor” in concept or execution?
  • Individual vs. Group Accountability

[SLIDE 7] Revisited the list of criteria two years later

[SLIDES 8-10] Fall 2010 / 2011 / 2012 : Urban Media Archaeology

  • [SLIDE 11] Semester Schedule – discuss theories representing each unit
  • [SLIDE 12] PROJECT PROPOSALS – not different from trendy “contracts”
    • Justify choice of “genre” and format – use of media tools as method
  • [SLIDES 13-14] Student Proposed Projects
    • Carrier pigeons, electrification of lower Manhattan, video game arcades, newspaper company headquarters, “media actors” in Atlantic Yards using actor-network theory, etc.
    • I provide individual feedback; students post to blogs and classmates comment
    • This semester’s class hasn’t yet posted their proposals online
  • [SLIDE 15] Learn Data Modeling (interface now looks a bit different)
  • [SLIDE 16] User Scenarios
  • [SLIDE 17] Look inside Black Box – Software Development
  • [SLIDE 18] Pecha Kucha
    • DH projects inherently collaborative – need experts from multiple fields
  • [SLIDE 19] All the while, we’re collectively developing criteria for evaluation:
    • [SLIDE 20] By working in small groups and as a class to evaluate other “multimodal projects” + Hypercities
    • [SLIDE 21] Through individual map critiques
    • Thru Peer Review of one another’s projects
  • [SLIDE 22] Process Blogs – Self-Evaluation
    • Make public their process
      • [SLIDE 23] Discuss work w/ other public/cultural institutions – e.g., archives
    • [SLIDES 24-26] Practice “critical self-consciousness” – about their work processes, choice of methods, media formats, etc.
    • Hold themselves accountable for their choices
  • [SLIDE 27] Peer Evaluation: Paper Prototypes
  • Final Presentation: [SLIDE 28] My Feedback + [SLIDE 29] Students’ Peer Reviews

[SLIDE 30] Where was theory throughout?

  • Underlying the entire project, informing their understanding of the way cities work, informing their understanding of how maps work as media, informing how they design their data models, which are in shaped by how they want their projects to look for users – thus, theories about the visualization of data mix in with their theories about how databases work
  • And in order for students to know how we were going to evaluate success, these theories had to be made an integral part of our development process

[SLIDE 31] Through critique, we’ll reverse-engineer student and professional projects and find the theory that informed it

  • [SLIDE 32] From my list of evaluative criteria – Concept + Content; Concept-/Content-Driven Design + Technique; Documentation and Transparent, Collaborative Development; Academic Integrity and Openness; Review and Critique – are backed by theories: theories central to the project’s content, theories of design, theories of knowledge production, theories of labor, etc.
  • [CLICK] But we’ll focus on the few dimensions that are overtly theoretical, and that we can potentially discern in a quick review, in the short time we have here
  • [SLIDE 33] Break up into groups and assess the Concept + Content and Concept-Content-Driven Design + Technique of a few sample DH project and reverse-engineer that theories that might’ve informed their creation

[SLIDE 34] Case Studies:

  • These are the cases we choose from in my UMA class.
  • Solicit ideas for classes of projects to critique (e.g., data visualizations, map-based projects, crowd-sourced archival project, interactive publications)
  • Solicit ideas for specific projects groups can collaborative assess






Evaluating Multimodal Work, Revisited

“Evaluating Multimodal Work, Revisited,” Journal of Digital Humanities 1:4 (Fall 2012).


Beyond the Seminar Paper @ CUNY Grad Center (2011)

I spoke with Mark Sample at the CUNY Grad Center about means of assessing non-traditional classroom assignments.

Tuesday October 18, 2011, 6:30-8:30pm, Room 6496, CUNY Graduate Center

By exploring how new technologies might function as teaching tools or platforms on which students can demonstrate their learning, we expand the means and ends of education. With this increasing openness of pedagogical forms comes the responsibility to justify our choices and develop new forms of criticism and modes of assessment. Using several of my own courses as examples, I’ll address the challenges and potential benefits of holding students, and ourselves, accountable for the choices we make in our classrooms and advising relationships. I’ll focus on the value of (1) student documentation of their learning process, and in particular (2) students’ justification of their chosen methods and modes of presentation; (3) collaborative development of criteria for evaluation; and (4) connecting our work in the classroom to larger public problems and public institutions. Here are my slides, and here’s a video of my talk.


Libraries + DIY Learning (2011)

I organized a panel on library tech developments for the Mobility Shifts conference at The New School, and I was fortunate to gather a fantastic group of experts — Kim Dulin from the Harvard Library Innovation Lab; Deanna Lee, VP of Communication at the NYPL; and Linda E. Johnson, Interim Director of the Brooklyn Public Library — to take part. Here’s an audio recording of our conversation.

The panel took place on Friday, October 13, from 4 to 6pm in the Theresa Lang Center, on the 2nd floor at 55 West 13th Street.

Here’s our abstract:

America’s public libraries, as the dominant narrative goes, afforded all people “the means of acquiring knowledge, self-education, [and] culture” (Oscar Bluemner, 1898). Libraries, in their dual – and often precariously balanced – commitments to cultural uplift and cultural outreach, have long been, at least in theory, places of self-directed, DIY learning. As materials once available only in the stacks have become ever more accessible in people’s homes and in their pockets, libraries’ strategies for cultural outreach, and for supporting patrons’ self-education, have evolved. Libraries are developing new ways for patrons to access their collections; drawing attention to underutilized collections; and helping users filter and contextualize material. Meanwhile, international organizations are using technology to bring libraries to regions of the world where they’d been scarce. And many of these initiatives are creating new opportunities for patrons to do things with or contribute to material in libraries’ collections.

Recent library-led technology development projects have attracted attention. As Alexis Madrigal wrote on The Atlantic’s website in June 2011, the New York Public Library “has reevaluated its role within the Internet information ecosystem and found a set of new identities” – as a “social network with three million active users” and as a “media outfit,” a “beacon in the carcass-strewn content landscape.” This panel examines how three different institutions – two public libraries and an academic library research unit – are helping to reshape the information ecosystem and creating new roles for themselves within it. Kim Dulin from the Harvard Library Innovation Lab will discuss their work in developing a front-end web application, a “virtual front door,” for the proposed Digital Public Library of America (DPLA). As Dulin notes, this interface will allow the DPLA to become more than “just a collection”; it will be “a place users can go to discover works, engage with them, engage with one another, and share what they learn, know, and care about.” Deanna Lee, of the New York Public Library, will address several recent digital initiatives – the Biblion application, a John Cage “living archive,” a crowdsourced historical menu transcription project, and a new, more interactive library catalogue – that likewise change the ways and places in which patrons can access, experience, organize, and contribute to the collections. Linda E. Johnson will address the Brooklyn Public Library’s Broadband Technology and Opportunities Program and other of the library’s digital literacy initiatives. Finally, Shannon Mattern will identify common threads in the panelists’ presentations and offer prompts for discussion, which will address (1) how these projects provide opportunities for self-directed learning in new contexts; (2) how they evidence new thinking about pedagogy and epistemology; and (3) what the challenges and limitations of these projects might be, particularly as we attempt to implement them among traditionally underserviced populations and in the developing world.


Urban Research Mobile Media

Here’s my presentation for the Urban Research & Mobile Media panel at Mobility Shifts: