Hacking: WYSIWYG

Two weeks ago I noted that someone had recently tried to get into my WordPress server. My firewall traced the query back to an IP in China, though I don’t have the ability to figure out where it originated from initially. I linked it to news of escalating activity from abroad; it seems that attempts to get into academic networks are sharply on the rise.

Then a week ago my server collapsed under what seemed to be a DDOS attack. I tried to restart it several times, but everytime I got the server back up it was swamped with traffic. I’ve spent a good eight hours now launching a new server and migrating over content from a backup. Most of my posts are back, but I lost the last year’s worth of images. I’ve only been able to recreate or restore about half.

It’s all kind of creepy. And it may be beyond my capacity to try and stay on top of escalating security problems on a private blog. Apparently there’s a botnet that’s been hacking WordPress servers generally for the last several months. I like having my own site; I like the ability to post whatever content I want and try out different kinds of server technologies; my Omeka-based class last year depended on this capacity. But the bar is getting higher.

Machine Grading

A friend of mine drew my attention to the NYTimes’ recent article on advanced in essay-grading software. It’s technology that will raise hackles at campuses around the country. The claim is that such programs are becoming sophisticated enough to grade college-level writing. Of course, their effectiveness is widely debated. The article helpfully includes a link to a study by Les Perelman which critiques the data being used to support such claims (he argues that sample size problems, confusion between distinct kinds of essays and grading systems, and loose assertions undermine the argument). The software is getting better, but it still doesn’t look like it can quite replicate the scores produced by human graders.

But such criticism is an argument at the margins. There is now clearly room for debate on both sides. Machines are comparable on standardized tests. The long-term trajectory is evident: if machines are roughly as effective as a force of part-time human graders, standardized tests will end up using the software to save money. They’ll keep some humans in the loop cross checking and validating, but the key incentives all point in the direction of greater automization. The reductive structures and simplistic arguments which we train students to replicate for these tests has laid the groundwork. We’ve already whittled essay writing into an algorithm.
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Peries Project Archive

The annual NSSE benchmark study of universities is out and it has a handy “Report Builder” that allows you to generate reports drawn from their broad survey of freshman and senior undergraduates at a huge range of institutions in the US and Canada. I decided to play around with it a bit, and generated these two models of student opinions about their major at competitive research universities in the US:

Freshman Responses by Major

Freshman Responses by Major
Freshman responses by Major


Senior Responses by Major

Senior Responses by Major
Senior Responses by Major



This seems to confirm the counterintuitive reaction I get when I tell people outside the university that I’m an English professor. 9 times out of 10, they tell me how *hard* they found their English courses in college. Continue reading

ICR2012: Zombies, Climate Change, and the End of the Two Cultures

Just got back from ICR 2012 in Tempe, AZ. Huge thanks to Ron Broglio and Mark Lussier for hosting (and to my friend Michael Gamer for organizing my panel). I made some new friends and had a hell of a time — too much fun, really. If you’re interested, I’ve put the talk I gave up here.

But I wanted to quickly jot down some take-aways. First, climate events had a much larger impact on the Romantic period than I’d understood — perhaps even helping catalyze the French Revolution. Second, in an era of climate worries and Zombie apocalypse obsessions, Mary Shelley’s The Last Man may end up having a larger influence than Frankenstein:

Finally, the marvelous Marilyn Gaull gave a talk on Romantic science that was an inspiring opener. Her main point: that the “two cultures” are never so far apart as they seem. But as I was mulling it over later, I realized that institutionally, it feels like the two culture divide is collapsing. At universities, the humanities and sciences are increasingly fighting a joint rear-guard action against the expansion of professional schools into their curriculum. After mulling this over with some others at the conference, I’m pretty sure this trend isn’t particular to the schools I’ve worked at.

Damning Study of For-Profit Colleges

It is probably a little self-serving for me to criticize for-profit colleges, but the report put out by the Senate’s Health, Labor, and Education committee is withering.  Among the findings:

Well over 50% of the students who begin an associates or bachelor’s degree curriculum withdraw without receiving a degree.

For-profit colleges average a 19.2% profit on their revenue, spend 22.7% of their revenue on marketing, and only 17.2% on instruction.  Notable, the figures for publicly-traded schools were worse than privately held for-profit colleges.

A big driver: Federal aid.

Credit: Paso Robles Winery

In 2009-2010 alone, fully a quarter of Department of Education funding (which only discriminated between colleges on the basis of accreditation) went to for-profit colleges.  For-profit schools, unlike community colleges, have substantial financial aid offices that are adept at matching eligible students with federal student aid. The inquiry had been running for two years now, yielding testimony to extensive fraud and an industry that consistently places profit above education and student outcomes.

For me there are two key take-aways. First, for-profit colleges are profitable because they are serving a huge portion of the underrepresented, economically disadvantaged, and minority students who are eligible for various federal aid programs. It would be tremendously valuable public service if they did this while providing a solid education and finished degrees (and the committee singled out schools like Strayer, Walden, and National American University that are doing just that).

Second, the findings should amplify criticism of the trend to model higher-ed’s administrative structures on corporate governance. For-profit colleges should be seen as a test case for whether market forces and the profit motive can serve the public good more efficiently. The committee has found repeatedly that raises in tuition are considered with a view toward profit rather than the cost of instruction. Right now, the primary service of for-profit colleges is to siphon federal funding to shareholders while burying disadvantaged citizens under mountains of debt.


Student Debt Headlines and the Humanities Degree

The New York Times and the Chronicle have mounted a one-two this week to publicize the problem of student debt (something I’ve posted on previously here and here and here).  In an extensive front-page story from Sunday, the Times lays out the problem from the perspective of undergraduates, and the Chronicle followed up today with an analysis of graduate recipients, particularly Ph.D.s working as adjunct faculty, that need welfare and other public-service benefits to make ends meet.  Both provide extensive analysis; the Times piece in particular leverages an extraordinary amount of statistical support.

The implications of the problem are broad, now that more than half of graduating seniors are going to college.  If college is fast becoming a prerequisite of stable middle-class employment, it seems clear we need policies that provide education without burying the students under a lifetime of debt.  I was fortunate enough to attend a state school on scholarship; many of my colleagues won’t finish paying off their educational loans for a decade or two.

One place where the Times piece suffers is in its analysis of the sources of the problem.   Continue reading

Teaching with Omeka: Presenting the Peries Project

Yesterday the seminar I’ve been teaching at Penn finished their digital project: an online edition of John Leyden’s “Tales of the Peries,” a handwritten manuscript in the archives of the National Library of Scotland. Leyden was a romantic poet as well as close collaborator of Walter Scott’s, before traveling to Southeast Asia as a functionary of the East India Company. Once there, Leyden established himself as an Orientalist and specialist in Asian languages, and the Tales of the Peries is an example from this fruitful period before his early death in 1811.

As part of a larger class on historical fiction, fantasy, and the influence of empire, my students built an Omeka site that includes digital facsimiles of the manuscript, transcriptions using Scripto, a plugin for Omeka, and a “readerly edition” that incorporates their research into editorial practices and critical editions and links to supporting materials and entries in the Omeka collection and on the wiki. In addition, they built a host of supporting materials for the site, from critical evaluations of the Tales, its verse, and the influence of Urdu and Arabic literature, to information about Leyden, his involvement with the EIC, even an animated Flash map that walks the reader through the geography of the tale and details the main transformations of Melech Mahommed, the main character, over the course of the narrative.

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The David Livingstone Spectral Imaging Project, I Presume?

Yes, groan. But I spent this morning looking through the beautiful online collection produced by the David Livingstone Spectral Imaging Project. Livingstone’s 1871 field diary, from the months leading up to his ‘discovery’ by Morton Stanley, was written in a berry-based natural ink across the pages of newsprint, and has faded to near invisibility. Using spectral imaging (which images at distinct spectra and then recombines them), the team has managed to reveal the journal entries and strip out the original newsprint. The results are simply amazing — it reminds me of looking at Hubble images of distant nebula. Gorgeous, strange, new. In addition the the extensive documentation and supporting bibliographic and historical materials, the snazzy interface, which allows you to coordinate scrolling across the color and spectral facsimiles (as in the above image), is just stunning.

On the one hand, it’s a case of an extraordinary archival find (Adrian Wisnicki and Anne Martin’s recovery and reassembly of the often uncatalogued portions of the journal across several distinct accessions at the David Livingstone Center) combined with an ideal technology (the Archimedes Palimsest team brought their expertise to bear). But when you look at the extensive documentation provided, it’s also a window into the extraordinary challenge of producing collaborative, trans-Atlantic research in the digital humanities.
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ThatCampPenn 2012

I spent Wednesday on campus at Penn’s inaugural ThatCamp. It was set up by the Penn Library and the Penn Humanities Forum, and showed the promise and possibility of the “unconference” format, particularly when applied to something as tentative and collaborative as the digital humanities.

Amanda French, who came up from house THATCamp at George Mason and the Center for History and New Media. She set precisely the right open, collaborative, free-wheeling tone at the opening session, and it carried through. The thing that struck me most forcefully is that the open formatting creates environments that are extraordinarily friendly to non-specialists. Continue reading

Westward, Ho!

It’s been a few months since I’ve updated the site. I spent part of this morning beefing up the security (again), and updating. And I’ve been busy over the last months trying to find a permanent position, sharing some work at MLA, working to wrap up the first year of Integrated Studies at Penn, attending Penn’s inaugural THATCamp, and helping my historical fiction and fantasy seminar produce an Omeka collection. More on all of these heads shortly.

But I wanted to announce that I’ll be heading to Los Angeles to take up a AP position in the English department at USC. I can’t figure out the trumpeting voice I need to communicate how excited/relieved/sapped I feel in joining the faculty there (and rejoining some old friends). It feels like the culmination of decades of work. Sure, it marks another stage, but reaching this place has often seemed not only elusive but impossible.

I have too many people to thank for the care that helped me get here. I’ve been thinking about all of the big and little things people have done for me, taught to me, fixed for me. The workshops, seminars, hours of critique and late night commiserations given by friends and colleagues at Rutgers. The years my committee spent with my work. The chance to come to Penn and soak up a new intellectual climate and make a whole new set of friends and colleagues. These things change the course of your professional life. And now I get to head west to join a campus that’s crackling with energy and innovation. The future is filled with possibility. And in the path-dependent way of all living systems, those possibilities are firmly grounded in the chances and opportunities I’ve been given by others. Happy to be in a place where I can start to do the same for others.