Why STEM can’t answer today’s hard questions

I recently relistened an interview Ezra Klein did with Danielle Allen (Harvard Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics) in 2019, in which they discuss how science, technology, and business differ fundamentally from politics because the former disciplines assume a set of values that are already ordered by priority (efficiency, profit, etc.) but politics is essentially all about the setting and the reordering of those values. That’s why engineering and STEM have a hard time “fixing” politics and a hard time “solving” more human questions (and perhaps even why STEM majors vote in much smaller numbers than humanities majors).

This is something the pandemic has thrown into sharp relief in the years since Klein and Allen’s conversation. On one level, STEM can “fix” the pandemic by giving us miracle vaccines. But that’s only if we assume a set of values that are held in common by the populace (the health of the community, safety, trust in expertise, etc.) If the values themselves are at issue, as they are surrounding COVID-19, then STEM doesn’t have much to offer, at least for those communities (red state voters, anti-vaxxers) whose values diverge from those assumed by STEM.

This suggests, as Allen argues, that we need to rebalance the school curriculum in favor of humanities education, including paying a greater attention to language (the primary toolkit of politics) and civics. It also suggests the need for more humanities within the STEM curriculum—not just the three-credit add-on ethics courses that characterize engineering programs and medical school, but a real integration of humanities topics, methods, and thinking as part of what it means to “know” about STEM.

This is, of course, something that’s especially appealing to me as a historian of science, but it’s something that should be just as appealing to engineers, who like to frame their work as “problem solving.” If STEM really wants to solve the big problems facing us today, it is going to have to start further back, to solve for more than just technical questions, but also for the values questions that increasingly precede them.

Rethinking ROI

This semester I’ll be co-chairing our President’s “Life-Transformative Education” task force, a signature initiative to rethink undergraduate education at UConn. Part of a coalition of similar efforts at other universities across the country, the basic idea of LTE is that an undergraduate education should change (or at least actively reconfirm) the worldview and life trajectory of each and every student at UConn. Our work involves a top-to-bottom rethinking of everything from student advising to internship opportunities to capstone experiences for graduating seniors.

Closely tied to our practical efforts at reforming pedagogy and student care at the University is a broader rethinking of the real value of an undergraduate education and the way that value proposition is communicated to students, parents, alums, and in the case of a state institution like UConn, to the taxpayers and legislature of the State of Connecticut. It seems to me that part of that work entails rethinking how value itself is calculated.

Somewhere along the way, universities, like so many other institutions in our culture, began to measure their impact in strictly economic terms. In making our case to stakeholders (especially purse-string holders) we talk about the economic impact of sponsored research, work force training, and other direct benefits to business. Likewise, at the level of the individual student, there is a strong tendency to assess the value of a college degree in terms of a “wage premium,” or the amount of money a college graduate can expect to make versus a non-graduate (the cover story in this week’s The Economist is case in point.) By this way of thinking, the “return on investment” or ROI of a college education is a simple matter of subtracting tuition costs from the wage premium a student can expect upon graduation.

This is a crude measure of the value of a college degree. Life-Transformative Education suggests that the real value of undergraduate education lies in its capacity to change lives, financially for sure, but in other ways too. Thus Life-Transformative Education demands an accounting beyond the wage premium to determine the true ROI of college.

Trends in macro-economics may provide a guide. Even fairly conservative economists are realizing that simple measures of overall economic growth don’t provide a very useful picture of the success of the overall economy, especially in the face of rising inequality. These economists are moving “Beyond GDP” to count things like people’s health, a clean environment, and unpaid labor like elder care and child rearing, in addition to growth, as a more accurate measure of economic health. New Zealand, for example, now uses a “happiness index,” created from a basket of metrics, to make some policy decisions instead of GDP.

So what should a “Beyond the Wage Premium” calculation of college ROI include? What else should we count? I have a few suggestions, including:

  • the likelihood of finding a job that includes health benefits
  • the likelihood of finding a job that includes parental-leave and childcare benefits
  • future ability to change jobs
  • geographic mobility
  • mental health outcomes
  • domestic abuse rates

What else? I’m sure there’s plenty (on both sides of the ledger) that I’ve left out. Please let me know in comments, and if you’re an economist and would like to work on this, let’s talk.

Digital History and the Public History Curriculum

A knowledge of digital history theories and methods is quickly becoming essential for public historians. More and more, digital history is a required part of the public history graduate curriculum. A panel at the (now-not-so-recent) meeting of the National Council on Public History featured public history students engaged in this new digitally-infused curriculum.

Organized and chaired by our very own Jeremy Boggs, the panel included one student from American University’s M.A. Concentration in Public History, Leah Suhrstedt, and two students from New York University’s M.A. in Archives and Public History program, Adina Langer and Lauren Gutterman. I was lucky to be asked at the last minute to provide a brief comment on what turned out to be three inspiring presentations. Two things stood out in each talk, both of them relatively simple but important insights for faculty and administrators organizing public history courses or programs.

First, it was clear from the students’ experiences that teaching and learning digital history involve good measures of risk and trust on the part of both faculty and students. In teaching something as new, changeable, and diverse as digital history, faculty have to give students freedom to try new things and make mistakes, to challenge traditional modes of work, and experiment with new kinds of knowledge creation and dissemination. At the same time, students have to accept this risk and trust themselves and their potential to engage new technologies and master new skills. To paraphrase Langer’s presentation, “Its about leaving the gate open, about teaching students how to teach themselves.” In fact, this should be a comfortable role for seasoned public history instructors. As Suhrstedt suggested in her presentation, as professionals working in mostly small and underfunded organizations, we have all been asked at some point in our careers to do something for which we were completely unprepared by our graduate training. Public historians are already scholars, public intellectuals, fundraisers, teachers, community activists, therapists, and on and on. Becoming a digital public historian is really just adding another hat to the rack.

Second, teaching digital history is not just about teaching students how to build websites. New modes of publishing and the technologies and programming languages required to mount history on the web are important parts of the digital history curriculum. But teaching students to be digital public historians means teaching them when and how best to use digital technologies in all aspects of public historical work. It’s about teaching new pathways for the entire public historical endeavor, including exhibiting history online, but also how to use digital media for community outreach, fundraising, project management, and even advocacy, something Suhrstedt demonstrated in presenting her work with the National Trust’s social media campaign. Tellingly, Gutterman’s presentation of her work with OutHistory.org was almost exclusively about outreach. The lesson of these projects is that the digital should be taught not just as new mode of dissemination, but a new mode of engagement.

Both of these thoughts have rattled around in my brain for some time, but it was only with the help of Langer, Gutterman, and Suhrstedt that I can put them to paper (or pixels, as is really the case). Fortunately for public history faculty faced with incorporating digital history into their public history curricula, both insights point to digital history not being all that different from traditional public history. Risk, trust, and engagement are all very familiar concepts to veteran public historians, something that should give us confidence in weaving the new digital history more tightly into our programs.

Picking on someone our own size

Friends of the blog will know that I have long been skeptical of historical video game projects. One of several critiques is that our budgets are just too small to compete in the cultural marketplace with the likes of EA and Activision. I understand that we’re not in direct and open competition with those companies for our students’ attention and that, if necessary, we have other means of compelling attention, especially in the context of the classroom. I’m also not saying anything about the pedagogical value of those games once students are made to play them, nor am I talking about casual games for Facebook and other platforms, which I’ll admit present a more level playing field for digital humanities. Caveats aside, I still see no getting around the fact that when students and others look at the video games and virtual environments we develop, they can’t help but compare the production values and game play to things they’re seeing on Xbox.

Consider these figures:

How can we possibly keep up?

Now consider that Foursquare, the wildly popular place-based social network has to date received a total of $1.35 million in venture funding. Again, Foursquare built a thriving social network, one of Silicon Valley’s hottest companies, for little more than what’s available to individual applicants through IMLS’s National Leadership Grants program. Try building a top video game for $1.35M.

That’s a number we can match, and the reason why, for my money, I’ll be sticking to the web and mobile space and giving history video games a pass.

[Thanks to Leslie Madsen-Brooks for the email that inspired this rant.]

iPads and irResponsibility

Seton Hill University in Pennsylvania has announced it will give every full-time student a new Apple iPad upon arrival in the fall. This seems remarkably irresponsible to me. In a time of scant resources, does it really make sense to commit hundreds of thousands of dollars to a device very few people have ever even touched and for which not a single device-specific educational application has been built and tested with real students? With a total enrollment of approximately 2000, and a per-iPad cost of approximately $500, Seton Hill could spend $1,000,000 on this experiment.

The iPad may very well turn out to be an excellent, maybe even game-changing, device. But let’s at least give it a test drive. If the iPad proves a flop—Steve Jobs is not without his failures; remember the Lisa, the Cube, and the Apple TV?—Seton Hill will have spent an awful lot of money simply to (and I hate to put it this way) tie itself to the Apple hype machine for a day or two.

Things of History, History of Things

I have just started listening to an new podcast from the BBC, A History of the World in 100 Objects, written and narrated by Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum. Aside from the obvious reductionism and the occasionally irritating interstitials (lots of ambient chanting and pan flute music), the show is excellent, taking one hundred objects from the British Museum’s collections to tell the history of the world from the point of view of its material culture. MacGregor is a natural, and his guests—fellow curators, historians, archaeologists, anthropologists, and others—are engaging story tellers.

Yet even more interesting from an educational point of view are the live “readings” of artifacts these scholars provide, demonstrating to the audience just how experts tease knowledge from primary source objects. This is much the lesson we at CHNM attempted in our Object of History collaboration with the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. The focus was narrower—six iconic objects in U.S. History—but the idea was the same: objects have histories and their curators very particular expertise in bringing those histories to light.

Briefly Noted: Universal Museum APIs; Raw Data Now!; Publish or Perish

Mia Ridge, Lead Web Developer at the Science Museum, London (where I’m a research fellow, incidentally) points to Museums and the machine-processable web, a new wiki “for sharing, discussing, arguing over and hopefully coming to some common agreements on APIs and data schemas for museum collections.”

Following closely on that, Tim Berners-Lee calls for “Raw Data Now!” at the TED Conference, suggesting that linked raw data may be poised to displace more finished works (journal articles, websites) as the main unit of scientific production. Interesting, provocative parallels to the digital humanities.

And not entirely unrelated, Mark Bauerlein considers the problems of “publish or perish” in Professors on the Production Line, Students on Their Own [.pdf]. Asking “Do any major works or authors lack editors, interpreters, theorists, reviewers, and teachers?” Bauerlein answers “the ‘coverage’ project is complete” and suggests departments turn back to teaching. “We need honest and open public acknowledgment that the scholarly enterprise has lost its rationale,” he concludes, “that central parts of the humanities are in real trouble, and that the surest way to restoration lies in a renewed commitment to the undergraduate student.” I can’t say I always agree with Bauerlein (see, for example, www.dumbestgeneration.com) but he’s invariably worth reading.

Tragedy at the Commons

Nat Torkington at the O’Reilly Radar blog has news this morning that George Oates, Senior Program Manager in charge of Flickr Commons and an original member of the Flickr design team, has been laid off by Flickr’s parent company Yahoo! As the person at Yahoo! responsible for bringing together the energy and cultural resources of the Smithsonian Institution, the Library of Congress, the Powerhouse Museum, the National Library of New Zealand, the Library of Virginia, the Imperial War Museum, and, most recently, the New York Public Library, Oates has quietly done as much as anyone in the past several years to increase and improve online access to cultural heritage collections around the world. It’s sad enough just at that. But Oates’ layoff also raises some larger questions. Is this just one of those things we see in a bad economy, or is it a reason why cultural organizations should roll their own rather than using commercial services for online work?

Torkington believes that the enthusiasm and community Flickr Commons has attracted will sustain the project through the economic downturn and what at best is likely to be a period of neglect by Flickr and its parent. Let’s hope so. A less rosy scenario is that Yahoo! decides that in tough economic times the goodwill and visibility generated by hosting the educational and cultural heritage materials of public institutions isn’t worth the cost of bandwidth.

This story drove home to me a contradiction in my own rhetoric that I hadn’t noticed before. On the one hand I have been a proponent of Flickr Commons, university channels on Google’s YouTube, and the like, recommending them to partners and colleagues as an easy way to reach out to new audiences, build communities around content, and basically just get your stuff up without the hassle of software and sys admin. On the other hand, I have repeatedly criticized the enthusiasm some digital humanists have shown for Second Life, in large part on the basis of the fact that Linden Lab (SL’s parent company) could at any moment go under or simply decide to take another business direction—and in doing so take with them all the hard, largely publicly-funded work museums, libraries, and digital humanists have put into the platform. Only today, when I read of George Oates’ sacking, did I realize that what’s good for the goose should be good for the gander. While the long term prospects of Yahoo! and especially Google may be brighter than those of Linden Lab, nevertheless they are still big companies whose first responsibility is to their shareholders and the bottom line, not to cultural heritage, education, or the work of digital humanities.

My guess is that Flickr Commons will be just fine, and I still believe there is a lot of good in the idea. But the news about George Oates, someone who was universally well-regarded in our business and in the web business more generally, should give all of us pause. Specifically, it should let us ask again whether the benefits in ease, reach, and community of using commercial services for presenting cultural heritage collections and educational resources really outweigh the costs in storage, systems administration, and content segregation of rolling your own.

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Briefly Noted for December 19, 2008

Ahoy, Mateys! Mills Kelly’s fall semester course “Lying about the Past” was revealed today in The Chronicle of Higher Education. Read how Mills and his students perpetrated an internet hoax about “the last American pirate” and what they learned in the process. The Chronicle is, unfortunately, gated, but you can read more on Mills’ fantastic blog, edwired.

I’m sure many of you have encountered NITLE’s prediction markets, but a recent presentation at CNI by NITLE’s Director of Research Bryan Alexander reminded me I haven’t blogged it yet. As I told Bryan recently, the prediction markets are a great example of form (crowdsourcing educational technology intelligence) fitting function (NITLE’s mission to advise member schools on emergent practices) in the digital humanities.

Sadly, The Times of London recently reported a raid on the offices of Memorial, a human rights and educational organization that seeks to document the abuses of the Soviet Gulag prison camp system. Memorial was a key partner on CHNM’s Gulag: Many Days, Many Lives, and its generous research assistance and loan of documents, images, and other artifacts was essential to our successful completion of the project. It is very sad to see this brave and worthy organization suffering the same abuses in Putin’s Russia that it has worked so hard to expose in Stalin’s.

Last month the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History (NMAH) celebrated its grand reopening after an extended closure for major renovations. Meanwhile, in the web space, NMAH launched its History Explorer, which aggregates and categorizes online educational content from across the museum. Worth a look.

WordCamp Ed

2931907945_7410a7350f_m.jpg Let me join the choruses celebrating WordCamp Ed, which makes its debut in Fairfax on November 22, 2008. Organized by CHNM and the Center for New Designs in Learning and Scholarship at Georgetown (but mainly by our own Dave Lester), WordCamp Ed will bring together teachers of all stripes to talk about educational uses for the WordPress blogging platform. Building on the success of last spring’s THATCamp, the one-day event will feature a morning of pre-planned speakers and a barcamp-style afternoon of smaller discussion sessions. Registration is free at the WordCamp Ed blog. We only have space for about 100, so get your name in early.

[Image credit: Tom Woodward]