Category Archives: Yale Projects

Modlab at Yale and a voyage to Italy

It’s day 1 of the ModLab Workshop at Yale with Dean Irvine, Matt Huculak, Kirsta Stapelfeldt, and Alan Stanley.  We have great group of participants from across the disciplines – from anthropology to East Asian studies and from English to film studies. Several participants have DH projects under their belts, but many are just starting out.

I handed over my files to Dean yesterday, newly digitized reproductions of glass lantern slides from the early 20th century. They gathered dust for decades in a black box forgotten in the corner of a campus office, their technology obsolete.  I took this photowhile I was still trying to find someone to fund digitizing the box’s fragile contents. Fortunately, the Instructional Technology Group stepped in with the necessary funds and ITS Academic Technologies provided the expertise.

The collection is a valuable visual archive in multiple respects. The photographs were taken during several grand tours of Italy between 1904 and 1912 and provide a unique perspective on the history of Anglophone tourism in Italy. They also provide precious historical documentation of cultural heritage sites in cities such as Florence, Venice, Assisi and Rome. Finally, the technology employed to reproduce these photographs indicates that their use was a public one: whether in the classroom for the undergraduates of Yale College or at public lectures, the lantern slide was the technology of choice for projecting images for a large audience.

In 1903, at a meeting of the New Haven Medical Association at the medical school, Dr. Robert Osgoode, greatly impressed his audience with a splendidly illustrated lecture on “The Interpretation of X-ray findings in suspected diseases of the bone or soft parts” with an assortment of lantern slides.   Their extensive use in education at the turn of the 19th century is also evinced by the large number of lantern slides found in a number of repositories at Yale.

Beyond those found in the Harvey Cushing/ John Hay Whitney Medical Historical Library (including Dr. Osgoode’s), the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library houses William McClintock’s 1500 hand colored lantern slides of the Blackfoot Indians in the Yale Collection of Western Americana. The Yale Peabody Museum’s Division of Historical Scientific Instruments also has over 800 lantern slides, many of which contain material for physics lectures.

While I still don’t know exactly in what context these slides were used, I could turn to the  extensive William Inglis Morse lantern slide collection found  in the Visual Resource Collection at the Robert B. Haas Family Library. While not as meticulously annotated as our mysterious black box, this collection also documents the Grand Tour in Italy and was probably used as an instructional technology tool for Yale College courses.  The images collected by Morse, a philanthropist, historian, and clergyman are a particularly appropriate point of reference in this case given that Morse, like our instructors, came to Yale from Nova Scotia. In fact, Dalhousie University also houses Morse’s  ‘scholar’s library‘ which, as he noted, “if properly selected and studied, is one’s best monument.” (from his Preface, Catalogue of the William Inglis Morse Collection at Dalhousie University Library (London: Curwen Press, 1938).

Let’s hope Day 2 provides some valuable digital tools to better understanding and disseminating this unique visual archive which also serves as a valuable reminder of technological obsolescence.

cross posted at [archive]

Floating Universities

In late September 1926, the SS Ryndam departed Hoboken, New Jersey, on a journey around the world. Dubbed the “Floating University,” she housed about 500 students, representing almost 150 different colleges, and dozens of professors and administrators.  Among the world-class faculty were representatives from Clark University and Williams College, the universities of Michigan, Missouri, New York, Texas, Washington, Turin, and Vienna, and the former governor of Kansas. Almost one third of the students were freshmen, who would earn “[f]ull credit for courses passed” when they returned “to stationary education.” The brainchild of New York University psychology professor James Lough, the charmingly-named “University World Cruise” “visited 35 countries and more than 90 cities,” from Shanghai to Oslo, before returning in May 1927. A precursor of modern study abroad programs, the cruise marked a turning point in the globalization of American education. The goal, as Lough put it, was “to train students to think in world terms.” Within months of its return, educators started formulating a floating high school to supplement the curriculum.

The new Floating University, launched in Fall 2011, does not literally float, but it is no less ambitious. Its signature course, entitled “Great Big Ideas,” purports to offer “the key takeaways of an entire undergraduate education.” In a series of twelve video lectures, students receive “a survey of twelve major fields delivered by their most important thinkers and practitioners.” Topics range from physics to philosophy and feature an all-star cast of instructors from Columbia, Harvard, Yale, and the University of Chicago. Lawrence Summers, the former president of Harvard, offers his thoughts on education. Dean of Yale Admissions Jeffrey Brenzel recommends his “Top 10 Classics” in high definition video “featuring Hollywood production values.” There is even a lecture on investment strategy by superstar hedge fund manager William Ackman. Students at Harvard, Yale, and Bard College can enroll in the course for credit. Others can buy a six-month subscription for the low, low price of $199 (Ackman’s video, “Who Wants to Be a Billionaire?” is available in “enhanced stand-alone format” for $59.99).

Unlike the original Floating University, this most recent iteration has only one course and is not focused on world experience. Instead, it brings the world to you. Although students taking the course for credit meet in person for a weekly seminar, for the most part it is an experiment in structured independent learning. The motive force behind this latest floater is not a professor. Rather, it is real estate mogul Adam Glick. The university is, in fact, a for-profit venture of Glick’s Jack Parker Corporation and Big Think (a website that aggregates what it deems “the most important ideas” of today). While James Lough dreamed of educating global citizens, Glick’s concerns are much more prosaic. “[I]n my business, I was having difficulty hiring generalists,” he said in an interview last year. “Most people had graduated college in the silos of particular majors. They were very, very smart, but didn’t have a lot of perspective.”

I have mixed feelings about Glick’s university. On the one hand, it embodies a collaborative, interdisciplinary spirit that is in great demand these days. Despite the hype, it does make important topics and world-class intellectuals available to almost anyone. Certainly, its broad scope and accessible format will encourage students “to think in world terms.” On the other hand, I am skeptical of running essential public services (such as higher education) as for-profit industries. The inclusion of hedge fund manager Ackman, for example, smacks of a tacky infomercial. There are digital alternatives that offer similar content for no cost whatsoever. Academic Earth, to which Yale contributes, hosts dozens of world-class courses, including a blockbuster series on the Civil War by my adviser. (Learn about the election of 1860 while munching a bowl of popcorn; ponder the shortcomings of the Freedmen’s Bureau while waiting for the bus!) The famous Khan Academy offers a plethora of lectures and tutorials that are like watching a filmed version of Wikipedia. Of course, as every digital humanist knows, “lectures are bullshit.”

Perhaps the most troubling oddity about “Great Big Ideas” is that it has no content in history. Zero. Zilch. Nada. Nothing. Not even close. Is history not a “major field” with “important thinkers?” Even more baffling, history instruction provides exactly the kind of big-picture-oriented, theoretically-grounded, interdisciplinary knowledge to which “Big Ideas” aspires. History is a discipline of disciplines; in their attempts to make sense of the past, historians draw on anthropology, archeology, computer science, demography, economics, film studies, geography, linguistics, literature, musicology, philosophy, physical and natural science, psychology, social theory, and statistics.

History is a vast laboratory of humanity; it illuminates the present by tracing the trajectories of the past. It is, as Robert Penn Warren put it, “always a rebuke to the present.” It tells us that the original Floating University had difficulty raising funds after its maiden voyage, and that it floundered in the wake of the 1929 market crash. If the new Floating University is to avoid a similar fate, it might do with a lesson in history.

Yale Slavery and Abolition Portal

It is my pleasure to announce the launch of the Yale Slavery and Abolition Portal ( Sponsored by the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition and the Instructional Technology Group, this site is designed to help researchers and Yale students find primary source material related to slavery and its legacies within the university’s many libraries and galleries. Users can browse a small catalog of noteworthy collections, learn how to search for additional material, or explore a growing list of external resources. The portal is still in its early stages, and we welcome input and suggestions from researchers, students, and staff. Future improvements will include an interactive teaching component, dynamic tags, user-submitted material, and more.

Our objective was to create a simple yet robust interface that would be flexible and expandable for use in both classroom and research environments. In keeping with the project’s collaborative nature, faculty, students, and staff will be able to add, edit, or annotate collections without the need for technical expertise. Although this model is far from perfect, it shows great potential. During the design phase, collaborators were given the option of uploading and curating their own content, while others provided suggestions and advice. Archivists, curators, and librarians from almost a dozen different institutions and departments were crucial partners at all stages of the project.

The portal took about one year to complete, from conception to launch, and I think it offers something more than a run-of-the-mill research guide. In addition to archive and rare book blogs (for example, at the Beinecke and Law Library), I think the Slavery Portal is a unique and dynamic tool that will have a deep impact on both research and teaching.

Full disclosure: I am a project manager and the primary web designer for this portal.