As my academic department considers how to widen our outreach to undergrads with the proposed introduction in 2011 of a major in the history of science, technology, and medicine, I've been trying to work out ways to open up connections on our campus between the world we study and students from any background. I want to downplay bureaucratic brochureware in our online presence in favor of highlighting ways that anyone can enter the conversation about the constellation of ideas, issues, events, people, and consequences that make up hsci/med/tech -- entry points that could end up in direct connections with our department, but that could also foster other, user-directed connections just as easily. In thinking this through I'm working with a web 2.0 ethic in prototyping a set of loosely joined projects with digital components: think of it as roughing in the outlines of a dept. 2.0 identity, which opens up the possibility of changed relationships among those who make a learning community a learning community.
A web 2.0 attitude entails a shift from relying on default communication norms on our dept. website that focus on presentation (of "us" faculty and the dept. we have made -- "our" degrees, "our" research, "our" teaching, "our" priorities -- with pix of students sprinkled throughout, to be sure, to show we are student-friendly) to communication norms that facilitate participation: enabling our departmental digital presence to serve as a conduit for students themselves to experiment with defining what it means to engage in "exploring science : technology : medicine : past to present" in terms of their own experiences, their own connections, and their own pathways -- whether as majors, as minors, as individuals who might take a class or two with us, or just as someone who is curious enough about the area to find us on the internet. (Previous posts in this series can be found here and here.) This digital presence would also enable engagement by students with a wide array of others, both similar to and different than themselves, both on-campus and from beyond our hallowed prairie-ivy walls. How to start?
My primary effort has been aimed at creating an Undergraduate Portal for hsci/med/tech that will have its foothold on our department website, but will effectively be its own "start" page: a launch point for visitors to "do" things, rather than be told things. At the Undergrad Portal -- which will begin being phased in this fall, once our newly designed main website is functional -- the doing can run from obvious housekeeping matters such as finding out what next semester's classes will be or how you can declare a minor, to more expansive activities such as engaging in undergraduate humanities research (particularly by making use of digital resources -- in fact, the topic of digital hsci/med/tech research for undergrads will branch off into a companion website, hosted off the university server, because it is meant to be more than an institution-bound effort). A related, similar offshoot that I began piecing together first is "Undergrads at the Collections," which introduces possibilities for undergrad research using rotating themes, set up both as physical exhibits at OU's History of Science Collections at Bizzell Library and in a digital format via blog entries and supporting pages at the Undergrads at the Collections weblog site. The idea is that each version of the exhibit can stand alone, allowing for different forms of outreach, but that they can also be melded together, as discussed below. Our first exhibit is "The Children's Darwin," a display of children's picture books on the 19th-century naturalist, many of them published in 2009 with the peg of the celebrations marking the 150th anniversary of the publication of Origin of Species on which to hang their own appearance. The books are interesting artifacts for looking at how history of science is portrayed to a culture's youngest members.
The Curators of OU's History of Science Collections are genuinely welcoming of the public and all members of the university community, including students -- see their blog, for example -- but the Collections' space itself is nevertheless somewhat intimidating, what with visitors having to be buzzed in at the front doors, and with the books shelved away in stacks that need to be accessed by staff members, and with the items that are out front in the display cases being rare, fragile, and treated with reverence. On the other hand, the physical version of the Undergrad Exhibit, for which we've been allowed to homestead a small portion of the Collections' public reading room, is purposefully casual: the books aren't so valuable that they need to be housed behind glass, precisely so anyone can walk over, pick them up and literally hold them and browse through them, just as you would at your local library or bookstore. There is comfortable seating and tables that you can use to spend whatever time you'd like -- long or short -- with the books. There's an info sheet describing the exhibit, along with a discussion of how this kind of topic lends itself to research questions that connect up with real world issues, and suggests how the topic -- and offshoots from it -- offers useful starting points for user-generated content, if you will.
By adding a digital version of the exhibit, we can multiply its presence in several ways: by providing the ability for users to offer comments at the blog (our goal is to have an available laptop with the books so that visitors can add comments then and there via wifi) -- comments that live on the open web as contributions that make them more than a mere academic exercise (as with a typical class assignment one turns in to the instructor). Being on the open web, comments and queries from others anywhere at all with an interest in the topic or approach can also weigh in, adding to the interactive possibilities; and a digital version can also help to give members of the general public the same opportunity as the students to see what historical research can look like, demystified -- and comment themselves, if they'd like, and join the conversation, or use it to think with for their own purposes. Digitizing the exhibit also allows us to provide further links to research resources appropriate for undergrads or others interested in starting out on exploring the topic; and with digital versions, each successive exhibit can be layered on to the previous ones in an incremental fashion, creating a multi-dimensional archive that highlights the possibilities of humanities research by students, available to anyone brainstorming instructional projects.
This first display -- "The Children's Darwin" -- along with the next one or two Undergrad Exhibits, are occurring during what might be called the "silent phase" of our "academic department as web 2.0 campaign" -- rather like the early non-publicized period in a fundraising effort that quietly solicits donations so that the goals are already half-way met by the time that the endowment campaign is formally announced to the public. We hope to build up awareness bit by bit as we prototype, display, refine, and improvise on our way to providing working examples of how an interactive presence with undergrads and others can work -- so that when our department gets its window of greater visibility that will come with rolling out the major in a year or so we can already be experimenting in interactive terms, offering participatory possibilities in many forms, rethinking the variability and lability of what "open courseware" can be when the faculty, students, and members of the public create it together.
In dedicating a physical space specifically for undergrads at the Collections -- which is our department's "humanities laboratory" -- we want to literally demonstrate that, yes, you belong here; in choosing books that can be placed out for handling and interactive use, that are meant as starting points that can tell multiple stories simultaneously, depending on the individual pathways one chooses, we want to emphasize that humanities are for everybody; and by offering examples of research topics that demonstrate you don't have to be a faculty member to do history, we hope to make our discipline, and our research home itself, less intimidating to students, creating a space that facilitates the use of all kinds of media as social media. We often have our students visit the Collections and bring out treasures to show them, and some of us have even devised exercises that allow our students to use Collections' volumes as part of our class projects. But it is very rare that students come back on their own, or feel confident that they truly can be part of the research community, no matter how heartily we invite them to do so. Thinking in web 2.0 terms can change this, because our invitations will be more believable, visualizable, and doable, for students from any major. There's no reason not to think that in the near future we can have undergrads curating their own exhibits, sending their own queries and examples out onto the web, cultivating conversations among a diverse array of participants, and being members of a shape-shifting collective that helps us think of history as public history, belonging to all.
So that's some of the rationale as to the "why" of our Undergrad Exhibits prototype, "The Children's Darwin." There'll be a new exhibit for Fall 2010, so more on that to come; but how about the "what" of "The Children's Darwin" itself? You didn't think I could leave that topic before making an observation or two of my own, did you? That's coming!