Thinking Outside the Box: Crafting a Culture of Library Collaboration at The Collective

This post originally appeared on the CLIR Re:Thinking blog.

Ten hamsters pile on top of each other. As one hamster on the third row of this unusual pyramid smiles out at us, another boosts the topmost hamster up. It starts to peek up and out of their cage…

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The Collective conference bad. Author’s photograph.

This whimsical image appeared on each of the bags piled behind the registration desk of The Collective, a conference held March 2-3, 2017 in Knoxville, TN. A little absurd and absolutely unexpected, the hamsters were the sole feature on the conference swag-bag and instantly set the tone of the conference. This initial impression suggested that The Collective would not offer a typical conference experience and was quickly confirmed— when I sat at a table topped with crayons and paper ready for the keynote activity.

According to their website, The Collective is “geared towards librarians, archivists, and library staff at academic libraries…and brings together next-generation practitioners who wish to learn from and collaborate with one another.” This message resonates deeply with my own experience as a CLIR postdoctoral fellow and embraces the interdisciplinary, collaborative, and technologically proactive problem-solving necessary for libraries in the 21st century. Still, I am not sure I was prepared for the overwhelming sense of community and support, both informal and professional, the conference projected. To help achieve their mission, the conference organizers announced three goals: make it affordable, make it useful, make it fun. Indeed, the sum of these three parts fostered a collaborative environment embracing the perspectives not only of a wide range of library staff, but also of their institutional stakeholders.

The first point, make it affordable, was fairly straightforward—though with surprising results. Without a doubt, the $80 registration fee was nominal compared to other conferences, and yet there was no loss in the quality of sessions, activities, or amenities. Entirely non-profit and volunteer run, the registration did not even cover the total cost of food. Rather, fundraising and new sponsor partnerships (fostering “real discussion rather than sales pitches”) kept costs low so more people from diverse institutional backgrounds could participate. While I often skip isolated vendor areas at other conferences, the inclusion of vendors as attendees in the conference sessions and at the social events ensured varied, inclusive discussions. At the dinner and reception, for example, I discovered that I was sitting with the representatives of two academic publishers. There were no sales pitches or exchange of marketing material. Rather, our conversation migrated from the sessions we attended to the role of open access from publisher and library perspectives. While vendors like these help to keep costs down, within this context, they also provided unexpected insight into faculty-press-library relationships I never had the opportunity to consider. As we continue to tackle problems of rising publication costs, open access movements, and preservation, it seems all the more pertinent that all stakeholders of all levels are represented in these conversations.

In terms of being useful, the schedule included something for everyone: diverse social activities, hands-on workshops, interactive panels, group discussions, and pop-up activities to encourage skill development and an exchange of ideas not only between presenters and attendees, but also among attendees themselves. The Maker Talk panel I was on, for example, was guided by the results of a survey sent out a few weeks earlier and developed organically into a discussion about library makerspace resources and services. The aim of the session was to provide practical models and solutions for those interested in setting up a makerspace in their library; yet, an additional effect was a dialogue across institutions hinting at best practices and the establishment of a new professional community/listserv. Still, in addition to this collaborative networking, I gained practical experience with tools relevant to new-generation library concerns: github/Jekyll, Trello workflows, Digital Humanities project support, and littleBits electronic components. Each session was interactive and encouraged conversation, with many presenters making their slides and materials available for us to bring back and share within our own institutions.

The third point, making it fun, was not as straightforward as I expected. True, the schedule included a number of engaging social opportunities: small pre- and post- workshops, informal “dine arounds” in Knoxville, and the (absolutely remarkable) dinner and reception at the Mill & Mine. Still, while enjoyable, I would not say that any one event generated “fun” in and of itself. Rather, I keep thinking of the swag-bag hamsters. As I sat at a table waiting for the keynote, I jokingly asked others at my table what they thought the hamsters signify. Without missing a beat, a librarian to my left suggested it is a representation of thinking outside the box. Yes! We laughed and pushed the interpretation further— to think outside the box, to meet the unknown future needs of libraries and patrons, we need to work together, to bolster each other up, to collaborate. This message could have been communicated in any number of ways; yet, like the wink of an inside joke, we realized the hamsters are us. This humor—encapsulated by the graphic, by the presence of a tech-free “shhh room,” by the play and discovery encouraged in the popup makerspace—was silly, but self-aware. And it only worked because the organizers, volunteers, and presenters so wholeheartedly embraced the mission of collaboration and the values of dialogue and professional support that they generated a shared sense of purpose and community that extended to all participants.

Libraries and universities are so easily segmented and siloed into different departments, and it is often too easy to get stuck in the cages of our own focused perspectives. This conference (and hopefully more like it) are starting to break down those cages to initiate the conversations necessary for a more collaborative professional culture.

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The Architectural Visibility of St. Magnus Cathedral with GIS Viewshed Analysis (Part I)

Cross-posted on the Digital Scholarship Center blog.

In architectural history and archaeology, geographic information system (GIS) programs are useful for mapping sites, geo-referencing plans, and analyzing data. Inspired by the work of Edward Triplett,  I used ArcGIS to map the viewshed for St. Magnus Cathedral (c. 1137). Viewshed is the area that is visible to a person or agent from a plotted point, and the resultant data shows what is (or would have been) visible from a given location. Visibility and inter-visibility between sites are important themes in landscape and architecture studies, especially as they pertain to spatial orientation and organization, territory and resource control, and symbolic and physical relationships. Combined with architectural and literary information, viewshed analysis offers a way to reevaluate and even hypothesize historical landscapes. The application and theory of viewshed have been developed for decades, especially in archaeology, and has been explored extensively elsewhere; the point of this two part blog is to 1) outline how I generated my viewshed and 2) discuss how it informed my research on St. Magnus Cathedral and the medieval landscape of Orkney, Scotland.

St. Magnus Cathedral, c. 1137

Viewshed analysis should be the start of critical inquiry, an additional piece of evidence to study rather than an end in itself. The accuracy of viewshed analysis can be limited by the quality of data provided by the digital elevation model (DEM) and personal measurements used, and the resultant data does not take into account possible obstacles that can inhibit views, including trees, human-built constructions, and atmospheric conditions. The Orkney Islands—where St. Magnus Cathedral is located—offers its own unique disadvantages and advantages for viewshed analysis. On one hand, Orkney’s weather and atmospheric conditions are rarely clear, and coastal erosion/reclamation efforts have undoubtedly changed the islands over the past 1000 years. On the other hand, the islands lack forest cover, and the many surviving ruins in the landscape from Neolithic to modern age suggest little alteration to the interior of the islands. The software does not recognize the analysis as a subjective point of view within a three-dimensional landscape. Rather, it uses an algorithm and elevation data in the DEM cells to determine which other cells/elevation heights would and would not be visible from a particular place and height. It is therefore important that you understand the landscape, your sources, and what the viewshed analysis can and can’t tell you when working with this data. I began experimenting with viewshed analysis before I had the chance to travel to Orkney myself, and my initial research question was open ended: what is visible to a person standing on the crossing tower of St. Magnus Cathedral?

Viewshed analysis of St. Magnus Cathedral, which is located near the center and marked with a small red dot.

My DEM files derive from Advanced Spaceborne Emission and Reflection Radiometer (ASTER) and are divided into pixels of raster data representing elevation. The data for Orkney was particularly problematic because it was spread across four separate data grids. With the help of a GIS specialist, I was able to download these four separate grids and mosaic them into one layer to ensure an accurate viewshed. Next, I used a satellite basemap to find the location of St. Magnus Cathedral’s crossing tower and added a second layer consisting of a single point over it. This point determines the point and elevation data used for the viewshed. Without any adjustment, however, the point will generate a viewshed at ground level. To account for the height of the tower, I changed the point’s Offset A attribute to the approximate height of the tower.

The height of St. Magnus Cathedral varies in secondary literature, so I selected the measurement (and Offset A) of 133 feet (roughly 40 meters) from the nineteenth-century work of Sir Henry Dryden, who visited and sketched the cathedral before a new, taller spire was added. The generated viewshed appears in pink on the viewshed to the left, visualizing not only what is visible from that point at that height, but also from where the tower itself could be seen.

(left) The northwestern view from the tower of St. Magnus Cathedral; (right) St. Magnus Cathedral from the Pentland Firth to the south.

I later tested the validity of the data on the ground by tracking when the cathedral became visible from multiple locations and recording the view from the tower myself. St. Magnus Cathedral’s viewshed orientation toward the sea helped to narrow my research question and prompted my second viewshed analysis, which I will discuss in a second blog post.

Teaching Cultural Heritage through Critical Making

Cross-posted on the Digital Scholarship Center blog

Over the past year, I’ve been following the use of digital tools to reconstruct destroyed or politically charged monuments. Blog posts concerning my own experiments and those of my collaborators can be found on my personal blog or the Scholars’ Lab blog. While the crowd sourced site Rekrei and artist Morehshin Allahyari have focused on how these technologies can reconstruct and preserve these monuments and their data, the Nefertiti Hack and traveling Palmyra Arch (now in New York City) indicate how ideologically charged these ‘copies’ can be. The potential to use new technology to share and preserve monuments is well attested, but there has been growing concern for its uncritical application. While discussing the ethics of digital preservation efforts in Syria, Sarah Bond noted that the decontextulization of such monuments may in fact engage in a type of digital colonialism, especially when the reconstruction process is not transparent and the data itself is not shared. Yet, another symptom of colonialism is cultural collecting; exotic artifacts and plaster casts have made up the collections of powerful western individuals and institutions for centuries. Today, however, we can capture, reconstruct, and share these monuments with increasing ease and speed as more individuals and institutions make their models available for download and 3D printing. On one hand, the accessibility of these collections is fantastic and provides new ways for scholars, students, and enthusiasts to experience and handle replicas of distant artworks. On the other hand, the isolation of these prints from the original and its context, as well as the limitation of printing size and materials, can encourage new cabinet of curiosity mentalities (more than once I’ve heard people refer to these prints as ‘toys’). Regardless where the artworks come from—on my desk alone I have an odd miniature collection consisting of a red St. Basil’s Cathedral, an iron Viking-Age axe, and a gray bust of Caesar—the accessibility of these works is changing how we encounter, engage with, and collect works of cultural heritage.

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3D printed ax (by Snorri), cathedral (by Olooki3D), and bust (by The British Museum).

While I continue to experiment with materials and scale to enhance the value of these 3D prints as educational tools, I increasingly value opportunities to collaborate with instructors to develop authentic learning experiences and relevant assignments that prompt critical thinking about the production and consumption of this surplus of 3D cultural data. Last year, for example, I worked with a Slavic course to design a 3D printing assignment that questioned the relationship between icon and object (the instructors wrote three blog posts outlining, evaluating, and reflecting on their experiences). During the assignment, the cultural weight of one particular object—a bust of Stalin—caused controversy within the department. The bust was small, poorly printed, and made of plastic—so decontextualized from its original function and meaning that the students thought nothing of it. Nevertheless, the presentation of the model within the students’ exhibition prompted backlash due to Stalin’s atrocities. While we removed the bust at that time, the experience provided a relevant teaching moment for the students to consider not only the reproduction and interpretation of such monuments, but also how the meaning of these copies can change based on the background, experiences, and interaction of their audience.

Building on that experience, I collaborated with Nicholas Genau this past summer to design a course on cultural heritage and technology for the Curry School of Education’s Summer Enrichment Program. Our course, entitled “3D Monumental!: Preserving the Past With Technology,” was designed for high school students and was taught three times during three separate two-week sessions. The goal of the course was to introduce the students to the necessary skills to produce their own models and think critically about the context, function, and biases of their models. In addition to learning photogrammetry, basic 3D modeling, and 3D printing, the students engaged throughout the course with three “big ideas” that would help them engage critically with their own models and apply their experiences to other digital preservation and reconstruction efforts: (1) how technology helps to map, reconstruct, and share cultural heritage, (2) how technology continues to affect issues of accessibility, ownership, and experience, and (3) how technology makes preservation of cultural heritage a global/political issue. We originally intended to concentrate on the destruction of monuments in the Middle East by contributing to Rekrei, but we discovered that this project was not intuitive enough and did not have enough resources for us to meet our objectives on such a tight time-frame. As a result, the students worked within the context of our own immediate landscape, using monuments and objects located on campus for their models and applying key concerns and themes to Syrian examples. Using the students’ immediate surroundings provided an added benefit: students were able to compare more critically the real-world spatial experience with their object and their interaction with the 3D model and print of that object.

The students quickly grasped the basic theory and practice of photography and photogrammetry. We started by taking photos of objects on SEP’s campus, such as trees, cars, and wheelbarrows—whatever was in the immediate vicinity. The students’ excitement when the point clouds appeared in PhotoScan was palpable; they immediately appreciated their role in making the model, the ability to study and manipulate something familiar to them within a new context. The students also grasped the workflow easily: taking photos (using a painter’s pole for larger objects), uploading and masking photos, generating point clouds and texture, and uploading finished models onto the course Sketchfab site, where they could share their work with their families and friends back home.

The highlight of the course was a visit to the University of Virginia, where the students generated models of campus monuments and visited the Scholars’ Lab to edit and 3D print the results. Students used Meshmixer to reorient their models (or models of other artifacts they found online), fix any holes in the mesh, and generate supports. We introduced the 3D printers and talked about 3D printing King Uthal from the Mosul Museum, the Temple of Baal, and the Palmyra Arch of Triumph, all examples they studied in the classroom. Although the students couldn’t stay for the entire time their models printed, we brought in the finished prints on the final day of class to compare and discuss.

On a pedagogical level, the students engaged in critical making, experimented with new technology, shared their efforts with a broader community, and applied their new skills and knowledge to evaluate cultural heritage developments in the world. While the technology and project enhanced our course content and objectives, we were thrilled that they also contributed to the students’ positive experiences. Still, it was impossible to evaluate how critically the students approached 3D models and printing after the course. While our aim was to teach the students to consider the potentials and limitations of their models as they made them, their delight at the transformation from model to print reminded us how effectively 3D printing engages viewers, especially when watching one’s own creation come to life. We’d like to think, however, that introducing the issues and encouraging personal experimentation will empower these future students and scholars to continue questioning how technology affects the world around them. Moving forward, Nicholas looks forward to developing similar courses for university students, thinking critically himself about how he can better evaluate the projects and improve the students’ own engagement with the course material.

Whether we can compare the act of choosing, constructing, and printing a 3D model of Thomas Jefferson to the similar process of printing a miniature bust of Stalin or the Palmyra Arch is debatable (and involves a deeper political argument). Nonetheless, the new speed, ease, and accessibility of 3D printed reproductions has serious implications for scholars and instructors. As 3D printing becomes cheaper, faster, and more ubiquitous, the conversation will need to shift from if or how we can 3D print cultural objects to why would we want to.

3D Printing in the Classroom: Outcomes and Reflections on a Slavic Course Experiment (2/2)

Cross-Posted on the Scholars’ Lab blog. 

UVA’s Slavic Librarian, Kathleen Thompson, and Slavic Lecturer, Jill Martiniuk, conclude their two-part evaluation of the 3D printing assignment for Yuri Urbanovich’s ‘Understanding Russia’ course. Considering both student and professor feedback, Kathleen and Jill offer suggestions to continue and improve this interactive assignment in future courses:

Since this project was an experiment, some parts of it were bound to work better than others, and while we can say that this has generally been a positive experience for both students and instructors, both we and Prof. Urbanovich have several ideas on what could be improved for future iterations of a similar assignment.

Overall, we think that this experiment was a success. It achieved its initial goals of getting students to think differently about symbols and their power and use, and the reaction to the one particular object almost certainly would not have been so strong if the depiction of that particular concept had not been in 3D.  We base this conclusion on both instructor and student evaluations of both the course and the project, and the ways in which the project was integrated into the course.

Students were given two evaluation forms to fill out at the end of the semester: one was the standard online evaluation through UVaCollab, and the other was a written evaluation handed out during the final exam. Not surprisingly, participation in the written evaluation was stronger than the online evaluation; only 12 of the 35 students filled out the online evaluation, and only one of those mentioned the 3D project. That comment suggested more class time to discuss the project in the week leading to the final presentation. Overall, however, students rated the course as worthwhile (81% said that they “strongly agreed” with that sentiment, and 9% “agreed”), and felt that they had learned a great deal in the course (66% said that they “strongly agreed” with that sentiment, and 33% “agreed”).

We were more interested to see the written course evaluations because Prof. Urbanovich emphasized that students should mention the 3D projects as part of their evaluation. 31 of the 35 students submitted those written evaluations during the final exam! Of those, 17 mentioned the 3D project. Of the 17 that mentioned the 3D project, the average score for the course was 4.941 (out of 5); the overall average for the course was 4.548, so the evaluations that mentioned the project gave the course a higher rating than evaluations that did not. Course ratings remained high even among students who did not find the project very meaningful.

Common negative reactions touched upon one of our biggest concerns, which was the integration of the project into the course: “a bit irrelevant”; “seemed unnecessary”; and “it was interesting but maybe didn’t fit well with this course” were a few notes of feedback. Most responses were quite positive, with students citing the project’s ability to spur creative thinking about Russian identity as a plus: “It was good to see how my perspective of Russia changed over the course of [the project]”; “[It] provided a more open ended approach to my exploration and learning about Russia”; and “I liked it in terms of analyzing preconceived notions and then applying model to material learned throughout the semester” were a few notes of feedback in this case. A couple of students made suggestions for improving the project in the future, such as making the groups smaller and providing clearer expectations of the final presentation. Finally, one student offered this advice: “Keep the 3D project, we all love it!”

With this last note come two caveats: one, we realize that one student’s positive feedback about the project does not a collective opinion make. Two, these evaluations were written in the context of a final examination for which the professor was present, which, although anonymous, may not lend itself to the most honest criticism. Online evaluations are completely anonymous and not compulsory, so their efficacy as true measures of a group’s feeling about a course remains questionable.

What worked: Discussions generated by the objects were thought-provoking, and making the students’ work public compelled them to do a good job of selecting and justifying their objects. Having the students curate their own exhibit gave them ownership of the project. Not forcing them to discuss their objects every class session probably helped them not feel burned out by the project, too. Even the backlash from that one object was a valuable learning experience, as it gave students some insight on how symbols are perceived by certain groups of people, and how powerful even the smallest or most innocently-intended representations can be.

What didn’t work: The 3-minute presentation was supposed to be a soundbite, but the extra work created by having students record and re-record their presentations proved too cumbersome. General student reaction to the idea of a soundbite was negative, whereas reaction to a brief presentation was more positive (and, we think, more inclusive – it allows students to listen to one another in real time, rather than after the fact).

We had originally thought about having students curate an online exhibit of their objects to explore how (if at all) digital exhibits reflect meaning in ways different from physical exhibits, using the Tumblr platform. Student reaction to this idea was lukewarm at best; after setting up the Tumblr account for the class, we abandoned the idea partially due to this reaction, and partially because we could not assign any tangible pedagogical value to the blog. We’re still mulling over whether or not Tumblr is a viable pedagogical tool; it may be, but perhaps not for a project like this, where the 3D component of the exhibit is vital to understanding how perceptions of objects as symbols change according to the medium.

Curating a second exhibit in Alderman Library was neither useful nor interesting to the students or to us, since they – and we – did not see any value in putting up another display in an area with light foot traffic in which attention is not directed at the space in which the display would have been.

Since this wasn’t our own class, it felt a little odd popping in to Prof. Urbanovich’s class once a week, or every couple of weeks, to talk to students about project components and issues that arose along the way. We wonder if students took us, and the project, as seriously as they might have if Prof. Urbanovich had been the sole conductor of the experiment, because some students may have perceived that they were test subjects (for lack of a better term), even though we were careful to explain early on that this was an experimental project.

A few days after Part I of this blogpost went live, I (Kat) spoke to Prof. Urbanovich about his thoughts on the scholarly value of the project, and whether or not he would continue to include the project in future iterations of this course. He said that he would absolutely keep the project as part of the course, and suggested the following changes to it:

– A more detailed explanation of the goals and aims of the project, and more discussion of the groups’ presentations and final papers.

– In general, more in-class discussion of the symbols that students chose; Prof. Urbanovich noted that the most useful class meetings were the ones driven by student discussion, rather than instructor lecturing.

– Pursuant to that, a teaching assistant or “project leader” who would not only introduce the project and work with students to print the models, and guide them through the exhibit-building and presentations, but would also facilitate bi-weekly in-class discussions relating symbols to that week’s topics.

– Possibly leave room for comparison of U.S. and Russian symbols expressing a particular idea, and greater room for discussion of how Russians symbolize the U.S.

– More discussion of the various meanings conveyed by 2D symbols, as opposed to 3D symbols.

One major change that Prof. Urbanovich suggested would be to delay the initial printing of 3D objects in favor of showing symbols that already exist in Russia, and asking students to discuss their perceptions of those symbols. He gave the example of the Allies Monument that stands in Moscow’s Victory Park. He finds that students are usually shocked by the idea of a monument portraying soldiers from France, the U.S., the U.K., and the U.S.S.R. as allies, because they do not immediately make the connection between them as the group united against Hitler in World War II. Even more surprising to students is the fact that this monument was erected in 2005, some sixty years after the war ended!

Giving students an idea of what symbols already exist, and then asking them to devise their own, might help give students new theoretical approaches to inform their choices, and lend increased significance to their cultural interactions.

Finally, concerning the scholarly value of such a project, Prof. Urbanovich said that this project was very timely given the current tenuous state of U.S.-Russian relations, which he does not necessarily foresee stabilizing in the near future. For that reason alone, this project is worthwhile, because he has repeatedly and enthusiastically supported the facilitation of open discussion about the ways in which cultures perceive one another as a way of coming to a mutual understanding. Those who might question the need for a 3D project when a 2D project might suffice need only examine what happened when the bust of Stalin was printed – in a sense, “came to life” – to understand that such a project has fairly deep implications indeed.  

For now, we continue to process our thoughts on this project, and will work to improve its structure and implementation for a more robust classroom experience. We will be participating in a roundtable, “Digital Humanities In and Out of the Classroom” at the Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies (ASEEES) Annual Convention in Washington, D.C., in November 2016 to discuss this project with Slavic scholars working in the digital realm. We are also developing a 2-week undergraduate course called “Making a Digital Museum”, using online museum collections as a basis for creation of physical and virtual Russian-culture exhibit. We hope to tie this course to the return of the Fabergé eggs to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond, Va., in late October, for which the museum is preparing a renovated and expanded exhibit space. 

3D Printing in the Classroom: Outcomes and Reflections on a Slavic Course Experiment (1/2)

Cross-posted on the Scholars’ Lab blog.

In a previous post, UVA’s Slavic Librarian, Kathleen Thompson, and Slavic Lecturer, Jill Martiniuk, outlined the early stages of a 3D printing assignment for Yuri Urbanovich’s ‘Understanding Russia: Symbols, Myths, and Archetypes of Identity’ course. Kathleen and Jill now describe the unexpected obstacles and opportunities of this assignment in a two part blog post:

If we had to describe this project in two words or fewer, we would definitely do so using the phrase “learning process”. Two days after the original blog post about the project and the accompanying exhibit went live, we had students curate the exhibit of their objects in the hallway of the Slavic Department, on the second floor of Cabell Hall. We had arranged for use of half of a display case that had been occupied by faculty books and items of Slavic ephemera, which we had permission to remove and re-arrange as needed.

3D-exhibit-curating
Students putting the final touches on their exhibit.

The exhibit curation coincided with the Slavic Department’s biweekly Russian Tea & Conversation event, in which students, faculty, staff, and community members interested in speaking Russian or learning about Russian culture gather to eat, drink tea, converse, and occasionally listen to speakers on special topics. The 2470 students brought their objects to this event, and after a brief introduction to the project from us, they presented their objects to the group and explained why they chose the objects they did. The students then took their objects to the display case and set up the exhibit (for which we had printed a brief blurb and some attributive text).

 

General response to the project, and the objects, at this event seemed positive, which is why we were quite surprised the next day to hear that one faculty member had a very strong negative reaction to one of the objects in the display case. After some deliberation, we decided to remove the object from the exhibit, and a few weeks later (due to class not meeting because of Spring Break) we discussed this reaction with the students in class.The exhibit curation coincided with the Slavic Department’s biweekly Russian Tea & Conversation event, in which students, faculty, staff, and community members interested in speaking Russian or learning about Russian culture gather to eat, drink tea, converse, and occasionally listen to speakers on special topics. The 2470 students brought their objects to this event, and after a brief introduction to the project from us, they presented their objects to the group and explained why they chose the objects they did. The students then took their objects to the display case and set up the exhibit (for which we had printed a brief blurb and some attributive text).

The object in question was a bust of Joseph Stalin, which the group printed in red. The faculty member who raised the objection is well-known for his work on Stalin’s system of forced labor camps, known as the Gulag. His most recent book on the topic features an image of Stalin on the front cover, which was displayed in the same case in which the students’ exhibition was curated. For an American student whose only experience of Stalin comes from textbooks, using this bust to represent Russia was a positive choice, because Stalin is seen in the U.S. as a strong leader who helped defeat Hitler during World War II. For the objecting faculty member, whose family has personal experience with the effects of Stalin’s policies, the bust carries entirely different connotations: genocide, violence, and turbulence. When we shared this with the entire class, the group that printed the Stalin bust maintained that they stood by their choice, and some of their classmates expressed the common sentiment that Germany is not usually characterized only by Hitler’s negative aspects, so why should Russia be characterized only by Stalin’s? We wanted to emphasize that the students were not in trouble, nor were their project grades affected, and we led them through a discussion of the ways in which their objects can be interpreted as symbols by different groups with various degrees of distance from those symbols. This discussion raised some salient points about the effect of a two-dimensional representation versus a three-dimensional representation, and (for us, at least) really drove home the point that 3D objects absolutely can bring symbols to life in new and unexpected ways.

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The finished product. Note the placement of the Stalin bust next to the book at the left.

About a month after that discussion, towards the end of the semester, we gave students the option to re-print their objects if they wished, since at least one group had expressed interest in doing so – the group that printed the Rubik’s cube, for example, had thought about re-making their object to have movable parts. None of the groups chose this option, and headed into the work of their final projects with their original objects intact.The final project asked groups to complete two assignments. First was a 1,000-word essay addressing the ways in which the group’s view of their object changed, highlighting the following questions: In what ways does your object serve (or no longer serve) as a symbol of Russia? What might better symbolize Russia, or how could your symbol be improved? Did you have any misconceptions in your initial plan to work with this object? What were they? Where did they come from? Is this object ‘loaded’ with any preconceived notions from a Western perspective? From a Russian perspective? The second assignment was to create and give a 3-minute presentation addressing the following questions: What do the objects chosen by the entire class, and the ways the class arranged those objects, say about how we view Russia? What do these objects have in common? How do you think Russians might symbolically represent their views of the United States?

Generally, student groups were satisfied with their objects as symbols of Russia, though each group recognized shortcomings in their initial conceptions of their objects and was able to articulate ways to make their object a stronger symbol. The Stalin group, for example, would have printed a figure of Stalin to represent him as a human being, rather than as a figurehead or an icon on a pedestal, based on the visceral reaction to the bust that could be seen as “glorifying” a figure whose history is murky at best. The group that printed St. Basil’s cathedral felt that their object lacked political symbolism, which they would have changed by adding a 3D model of the Kremlin to surround the church. The onion dome group offered two ideas for improvement: first, making their onion dome a dynamic object with multi-colored layers that represent what they call “the multiple forces at work in Russian society”, or second, printing a model of a nesting doll (matryoshka) to represent the seemingly outwardly-united Russia that depends on one leader at its core. The group with the Soyuz rocket would have changed the color of their object; rather than the white that represents Russia’s multicultural identity, they would have printed a red rocket to emphasize the importance of Communism and revolutions in Russia’s history. They might also have added an astronaut to the rocket, or adorned it with embellishments, to portray Russian opulence created by human hands. The Rubik’s cube group had initially expressed a desire to enhance their object with moving parts; this desire still held true at the end of the semester, though an acceptable compromise would have been to scatter the colors throughout the cube so that it did not have a uniform appearance and could thus express their claim that the puzzle that is Russia has not yet been “solved” in their lifetimes. Finally, the group that printed the scales stated that their object could have been more meaningful if the scales had been movable, rather than fixed, and if each side had had multiple boxes that could be moved to portray the fluctuating power balance between the U.S. and Russia.

As a final note, a few days after classes ended for the semester, I (Kathleen) came across a link on my Twitter feed to a story about upcoming Victory Day celebrations in the Siberian city of Novosibirsk. (Russians celebrate Victory Day every May 9 to commemorate the end of World War II, which they refer to as “The Great Patriotic War”). The story focused on a set of billboards being erected in the city for the celebrations, all of which prominently featured images of Joseph Stalin. This story adds another twist to our discussion of the use of Stalin as a symbol of Russia; for many Russians, he is still seen as a positive figure in the country, despite his treatment of Soviet citizens during his rule. Like the Russian matryoshka doll, the use of Stalin as a representation of Russia is complex and multi-layered, and can be unpacked and re-arranged in a myriad of ways.

In our next post, we will address which parts of this project worked and which did not, students’ and the instructor’s final thoughts on the project, and ideas for improving the implementation of such a project in the future.

Teaching Archaeology of the Middle East in the Time of Daesh: the Merits of Incorporating Allahyari’s “Material Speculation” with 3D Printing

Cross-posted on the Scholars’ Lab blog.

Anthropology Ph.D. Candidate Sue Ann McCarty frequently visits the Makerspace to print archaeological artifacts. Over multiple conversations, we’ve discovered that we share a similar passion for 3D modeling and printing in the classroom. Sue Ann recently applied her research to a course she taught at James Madison University, and I asked her to share more about the benefits and challenges of integrating digitally-oriented assignments and methods in the classroom:

The adjoining regions of southeastern Turkey, northern Syria and northern Iraq—in which my dissertation research is focused—share a rich musical tradition of lamentations within a genre known in Turkish as the uzun hava: long, winding melodic meditations on suffering and loss that express pain as a heartfelt wail of mourning that nevertheless remains beautiful. This musical tradition has never been more apt than in 2015 when the Islamic State (better known under the acronyms ISIS, ISIL or, as used here, Daesh) systematically targeted the region’s cultural heritage sites for destruction and broadcast their actions globally as a form of promotional propaganda. Archaeological sites that were first excavated in the 1870s such as the Assyrian cities of Nimrud and Nineveh, the Mosul Museum and more recent religious shrines from both the Muslim and Syriac Christian traditions have all been looted, severely damaged or destroyed.

Given these recent events, I found myself faced with a challenge during the Fall 2015 semester: how do you engage students in an emotionally wrenching topic…particularly when the subjects of study stand a decent chance of being destroyed before your eyes during the semester? How do you teach a class focused on the archaeology of a region where—just before the beginning of the semester—the elderly archaeologist of Palmyra Khaled al-Asaad was publicly beheaded by Daesh; how can you best honor his memory and the memory of all the other lives lost in the current regional conflict? Should the on-going destruction even be discussed in a class focused on the ancient world, and, if so, how? These were the questions I faced while re-writing the syllabus for my Fall 2015 Archaeology of the Middle East class.

I discovered that destruction of memory is one of the key themes underlying these acts—and the one that ultimately provided a lifeline for my class. While planning my syllabus I encountered the “Material Speculation” project of artist Morehshin Allahyari. Ms. Allahyari’s creative and insightful approach to the topic uses photogrammetry—reconstructed 3D scans of photos and objects—as well as 3D printing to reproduce artifacts destroyed by Daesh in the Mosul Museum and at archaeological sites like Palmyra, Hatra, Nineveh and Nimrud. Each 3D printed reproduction is embedded with a memory card that contains information about the original context of the artifact. In an ironic and clever twist, Ms. Allahyari notes that the plastic from which each new reproduction is printed is a petroleum product and that control of petroleum resources is one of the main sources of conflict in the region. (It’s worth noting that the PLA—Polylactic Acid—plastic that is used in many small-scale 3D printers is eco-friendly and made of cornstarch.) Ms. Allahyari plans to make public the materials necessary for anyone who can gain access to a 3D printer to create, re-create and remember the lost cultural heritage of Syria and Iraq; she posted her first public plan in February 2016. With “Material Speculation” the artifacts destroyed by Daesh are detached from their original material boundaries; they become infinitely reproducible, capable of being distributed globally and accessed across cultural, linguistic and economic strata. In an age of refugees, the destroyed art itself has become detached from its homeland. Printing is an empowering but also peaceful response to violent acts of intolerance.

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Peyton Fitzgerald and Emilie Gregory learn how to use the printing software.

Ms. Allahyari’s work inspired me to incorporate a 3D printing project into my class. At the end of the semester—by which time, I grimly assumed, more sites would probably have been destroyed by Daesh—student “excavation teams” would each be responsible for printing objects from a specific damaged site and would present an “excavation report” in the style of a conference paper describing its history and damage. How were we going to do the 3D printing, though?

Although I am a doctoral candidate in the University of Virignia’s Department of Anthropology—working with Pati Wattenmaker at the UVA excavations at Kazane Höyük in Şanlıiurfa, Turkey, 30 miles from the Syrian border post at Akçakale/Sabi Abyad—I was teaching my Archaeology of the Middle East class as an adjunct instructor at James Madison University in Harrisonburg. This presented a unique opportunity to observe the pedagogical benefits and problems associated with two very different ways of incorporating 3D printing into student life as well as two different 3D printing labs: UVA’s Makerspace in Alderman Library’s Scholar’s Lab and James Madison University’s 3Space Lab, each of which generously contributed to my efforts. I realized throughout the semester that each school’s 3D printing approach has its benefits and challenges.

At both schools 3D printers are located in a number of different nodes around their respective campuses—most notably, in their engineering schools, their health sciences departments and in a facility accessible to undergraduate College of Arts and Sciences (UVA) or General Education (JMU) students. There is no single resource at either school for finding out where 3D printers are located, to whom they are accessible or how to access them.

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Front row: Dominic Traver, Alexandra Bowen, Brianna McDonald, Samantha Hill and Megan Walmsley plan their printing projects; back left, standing Center for Instructional Technology Instructional Designer Jamie Calcagno-Roach trains Emilie Gregory and Peyton Fitzgerald how to use the printing software. Also pictured, Hannah Sullivan, Chris Molloy, Carlisa Childress and Colton Wells talking about their printing plans.

The accessibility and security of the 3D printers are approached very differently at UVA and JMU. At UVA, the most easily-accessible printers are located in the Alderman Library Scholar’s Lab Makerspace under the wider umbrella of the Digital Humanities. Because it is part of a publically-accessible research library, the Makerspace ethos encourages casual experimentation and creativity. It is accessible for drop-in users or by appointment as part of the regular services provided by the library. At the moment, it contains one Ultimaker and 2 Makerbot printers (with more varieties on the way) and individuals using them can book printers for multiple days to print if needed. (This is useful because complex 3D printing projects can take a day or more to print fully.) All 3D printers at the current stage in their technological development are glitchy; being able to monitor whether they’re working and fix printing errors or problems encourages a successful print. One of the wildly knowledgeable and friendly Makerspace staff members is always present to answer questions and fix the machines if necessary. The open access to the Makerspace means that students can drop by at their convenience between 1:00 and 5:00 (or by appointment at other times).

By contrast, JMU’s printing lab—located in Burruss Hall in the center of campus—is locked when not in use and is only accessible during scheduled classes, by special appointment when an attendant is present or during 3D printing club weekend hours. This is partly a product of security concerns due to the number of computers and printers present in the room. It is also a product of safety concerns, because printer users are required to be formally trained by someone who can inform them of the hazards associated with the machines (like the very hot printing tips). Unlike the Makerspace, JMU’s printing lab is designed for entire classes of students to use the printers simultaneously in a classroom setting; it includes nine Apple computers attached to Affinia printers and another printer for more detailed varieties of printing. (My class really had the maximum number of people possible present in the lab with 3-4 students at each printer for our training session.) All users must receive at least one class session of formal training in machine function and safety before using the printers. This classroom space can accommodate a larger number of students at the same time than the Makerspace is able to handle; however, printing projects can only be created during the hours when the lab is open. This limits users to projects that can be printed in an hour or two unless someone is available to unlock the lab at a later time. The amount of PLA printing filament used in the 3Space lab is also more tightly controlled than the Makerspace; students are required to weigh their projects and report the weight of the plastic used after each session so that the cost of supplies can be accounted for due, in part, to the higher volume of students using the machines. Large or detailed individual projects that aren’t for specific classroom purposes might involve a fee; semester-long classes in the lab include a lab materials fee for spools of PLA filament.

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Front to back on right: David Szady, Ximena Calvo and Catherine Grimes wait for their first prints to start in the JMU 3Space Lab.

From a pedagogical perspective, the differences between these print labs presented both opportunities and challenges—and I made a number of very significant mistakes of my own along the way. Chief among the latter was the assumption when I designed the course syllabus that students would have easy access outside of classroom hours to JMU’s 3Space printers in order to print their projects, particularly if the individual object was complicated and would take a long time to print. I incorrectly assumed that they had the same relatively open-access policy that the UVA Makerspace applied to its printers. This meant that I had to schedule extra hours—as it turned out, on a Sunday—for the students to print their group projects. I also had to scale down the requirements for the final group printing project as a result. The size of my class and its need for extended formal training were also issues that I should have anticipated through better coordination with the friendly and helpful people at JMU’s very interesting and supportive Center for Instructional Technology, which runs the 3Space Lab. I am grateful for the patience, enthusiasm and dedication of the staff members in both the Center for Instructional Technology and in the Scholar’s Lab, especially Jamie Calcagno-Roach, Jennifer Grayburn and Shane Lin.

From the students’ perspectives, how did the 3D printing project turn out? From the first class, a number of skeptical students stayed enrolled specifically in order to learn 3D printing. One of the great joys of the semester was listening to their excitement during our first 3Space training session as they talked with one another about plans for their own future projects, dreaming up new ideas for fun things they could print, both personal and academic. Students were actively dreaming of new ways that 3D printing might be beneficial for archaeological use such as creating new comparative collections of animal bones for zooarchaeologists, making artifacts from museum collections more widely available for indigenous peoples who approve their distribution, teaching stratigraphy by printing each layer of an excavation separately, reconstructing features or just simply allowing the public to inspect a reproduction of an artifact up close in a way that might damage the original.

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Carlisa Childress shows off her first 3D printed object, a JMU logo.

The final student projects focused on the badly damaged ancient cities of Dura Europos, Nineveh, Nimrud, and Palmyra. I had hoped originally for students to print objects derived from these specific sites. However, Ms. Allahyari’s “Material Speculation” plans were still unavailable and there are relatively few other 3D printing plans for relevant objects or buildings published. In the last weeks we had to generalize and print whatever was available (for example, the Temple of Baalshamin and the Temple of Baal from Palmyra courtesy  of Thingiverse, as well as a winged human-headed lion lamassu sculpture from the British Museum’s 3D printing collection). The students were frustrated that they didn’t get more time in the lab. (At the end of the semester we only managed to have two printing sessions, one of which had to be scheduled for a Sunday morning so not everyone could come.) We were also unable to print individual objects for each student by the end of the semester. (Due to our final time and space limitations, I required one print per “excavation team”.)

Perhaps the most important question is—was there an actual educational benefit to incorporating 3D printing into the class (other than that it was fun)? Did the students understand the intellectual connection between 3D printing, Daesh’s cultural heritage destruction and the reproduction of memory? As the museum exhibition artist Gary Staab recently said in a Smithsonian Magazine article that described an exhibition model in which he combined his own sculpting with 3D printing to recreate the Neolithic mummy known as Ötzi, “I also find the physical act of making stuff is such a great memory aid. If you want to learn something, you draw it. If you want to know it, you sculpt it. If you have to physically make it in three-dimensions, that burns it into your memory and those facts stay hard and fast,” (Wei-Haas 2016). Three-D printable objects are mneumonic devices, acting as tactile, visceral, ontological connections to their progenitors while also incorporating something new: the labor of the student who reproduces, remembers, touches and observes these objects, physical phantoms of their former selves. The student physically contributes to their memory and reproduction, and it is this, I think, that makes them powerful tools not only in the classroom but as a global tool for fighting the kind of destruction promulgated by Daesh. With 3D printing, memory of sites and objects isn’t just widely distributed, observed, studied and remembered; it has to be actively physically reproduced with time, materials and labor. Each act of reproduction individually chips away just a tiny bit at the destructive force that obliterated Version 1.0, empowering the maker, the memory and the other globally-distributed reproducers. Ömür Harmanşah (2015) points out that Daesh’s destruction isn’t just iconoclasm; it is more like reality TV, an ever-escalating attempt to grab the world’s attention by enacting The Unthinkable. This also humiliates populations whose pride is intertwined with protecting and remembering local monuments in front of a global audience, like schoolyard bullies who tease those they perceive as weak in front of their peers. Like schoolyard bullies, the best way to shut down aggressors is for everyone, united, to join together in opposition, to respect and remember the individuals, sites and objects they attempt to desecrate, both ancient and modern. Obviously our priorities today must fall firmly on the living people who are suffering the deprivations of warfare and occupation; but it’s important, too, to remember that the value of these sites and objects doesn’t really lie in their physical remains. It lies in the fact that this is all we have to remember the dead, to remember the acts of past peoples—workers and kings, everyday families, mothers and children, farmers, travelers and priests—real human beings whose lives are commemorated only by the tactile remains they crafted. Daesh attempts to destroy the honor of the living and the memory of the dead through these acts but the resilience, persistence and memory of the living people of Syria and Iraq is stronger than their oppressors.

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James Madison University Anth 395 Archaeology of the Middle East Class Photo: the students are holding their 3D printed objects related to material destroyed at Palmyra, Nimrud, Nineveh and Dura Europos after their final presentations. Pictured, front row l-r: Erin Woods, Rani Bertram, Carlisa Childress, Peyton Fitzgerald, Catherine Grimes, Alexandra Bowen, Brianna McDonald, Jaime Lantzy, Courtney Bryce, Haile Bennett, Ximena Calvo; Middle Row l-r: Patrick Jones, Lauryn Poe, Timmis Maddox, Samantha Hill, David Szady; Back row l-r: Dylan Hickey, Dominic Traver, Haile Bennett, Colton Wells. Not pictured: Connor Amano, Emily Gregory, Chris Molloy, Hannah Sullivan

References Cited

Allahyari, Morehshin. “Material Speculation: ISIS (Work in Progress).” 2015. Accessed 02/22/2016. http://www.morehshin.com/2015/05/25/material-speculation-isis/.

Harmanşah, Ömür. “ISIS, Heritage, and the Spectacles of Destruction in the Global Media.” Near Eastern Archaeology, Vol. 78, No. 3, Special Issue: The Cultural Heritage Crisis in the Middle East (September 2015): 170-177.

Wei-Haas, Maya. “An Artist Creates a Detailed Replica of Ötzi, the 5,300-Year-Old ‘Iceman’.” Smithsonian Magazine, February 17, 2016. Accessed 02/22/2016. http://po.st/gy5vhe.

 

3D Printing in the Classroom: Course Assignments and the Makerspace

Cross-posted on the Scholars’ Lab blog.

During the first week of the spring semester, the Makerspace was a flurry of activity, our Ultimaker 2 printing feverishly throughout the day. Groups of students came in and out, selecting and slicing models, checking on their 3D prints, and assembling different components. This week marked the beginning of a new semester-long assignment created by Slavic Librarian Kathleen Thompson, Slavic Lecturer Jill Martiniuk, and myself to better integrate 3D fabrication and physical computing resources in the classroom. After months of discussing course objectives and possible digital components, including website creation, Arduino programming, and 3D printing, Kathleen and Jill determined that 3D printing would allow students to engage physically with ‘icons’ of Russian identity for Yuri Urbanovich’s ‘Understanding Russia: Symbols, Myths, and Archetypes of Identity’ course and to think critically about how such icons are made, circulated, and contextualized/decontextualized.

Logistically, this assignment only required that we block off enough time for the students to stop by and print their selected models (mostly selected from Thingiverse). Most the students had never been to the Makerspace before and this offered a great opportunity to introduce the equipment and resources to a new audience. It was clear that the process and time required to make these objects encouraged the students to think critically about their objects, with some questioning whether or not an object was “too negative” or even if certain models they selected would print properly. The students were able to control various aspects of their prints, including filament color, print scale, and assembly options, and many students took this opportunity to think symbolically about what and how their object communicated. As students have the opportunity to change or modify their prints later in the semester, they will again be confronted with how these features contribute to its message. I asked Kathleen to share more about her assignment, the implementation of this first phase, and how the students applied their interpretations in the classroom:

“Bringing Symbols to Life” is intended to provide students with new ways of examining and expressing the symbolic world of Russian self-identification. Symbols take on new meaning when we can actually manipulate and interact with them, rather than simply seeing them on a page. Interacting with an object allows us to differentiate between ‘symbol’ as an abstract and ‘object’ as a thing; if an object is decontextualized and recontextualized, is it still a symbol of Russianness? What assumptions do we make about symbols of Russianness, and how can we challenge those assumptions?

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The ‘scales of justice’ as it prints. The students also printed two cubes–one white, one red–to represent conflicting forces on each side of the scale.

To answer these questions, groups of 6-7 students collaborated to choose and print a 3D object that, to them, represents Russia. We chose to have students print 3D objects, rather than simply view photographs or slides, because we suspected that having a tangible physical object that they would have to create and then handle would give them a new perspective on how Russians think of themselves. They presented their objects during the second week of class, along with a brief justification of the object they chose and its usefulness as a symbol of Russian identity. The six groups chose the following objects: a bust of Joseph Stalin, a Rubik’scube, the onion dome of an Orthodox cathedral, a Soyuz rocket, St. Basil’s cathedral, and a set of unbalanced scales containing a white box and a red box on each side. Having the items present in class, and able to be touched and passed around, fostered what we think was a more robust discussion of identity than a set of images on a page — for example, being able to see up close the many intricate parts of St. Basil’s cathedral that make what one group called it a symbol of “chaotic Russia”, where cultures and traditions coexist yet also clash, seemed more meaningful than simply looking at it on a screen. The Rubik’s cube and the scales spurred the most discussion, as students noted not only the scale’s metaphorical representation of a power imbalance between Russia and the West, but also its literal imbalance and fragility as a model (it had to be handled very carefully due to its delicate construction). The Rubik’s cube, which was meant to represent what its group called the “polyperipheral” environment, history, and geography, inspired students to discuss scientific and mathematical components of Russian identity and the ever-present Russian fear of feeling “left behind” in technological advancements.

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St. Basil’s Cathedral, iconic landmark in Moscow.
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The onion dome of St. Basil’s Cathedral before assembly.

Students are currently designing and curating two physical exhibits of their objects: one in the Makerspace in Alderman Library, and another in the Slavic Department’s hallway on the second floor of New Cabell Hall. Since creating two exhibits means that objects have to be printed twice, students may alter (or switch entirely) their objects if they choose, provided they give justification. The Rubik’s cube group, for example, expressed interest in re-printing their cube to make the parts movable, which they said would better reflect the changes that “polyperipheral” Russia has experienced especially in the last twenty years. Throughout the semester, students will also revisit their objects to examine how they might function as expressions of Russian identity in various contexts, and at the end of the semester, they will write and present longer reflections on their objects as useful symbols.

Starting February 25th, all printed icons of the “Bringing Symbols to Life” exhibition will be on display in the Slavic Department display case, located outside the Slavic Department offices in 258 New Cabell Hall.