the pleasure of a late afternoon conversation

We have had quite a few visitors in HUMlab over the last week: a group from Newcastle University, a Second Life language education group (from Sweden, Norway and Italy), an internationally acknowledged media producer and an archivist from the Swedish National Archive. Later this week we will have a prominent visitor from Stanford University.This is one of the things I like about HUMlab: the influx of people and mix between planned and unplanned meetings. Having people “available” in the lab makes a big difference, and often help extend discussions and work beyond what was intended or planned.

Currently quite a few HUMlab workers are working hard on the final reporting of a fairly large EU project. Others are preparing an ‘image’ for the upcoming upgrade of workstations in the lab. This is also a big job. There are also a great many other things going on. One thread concerns finishing the installations in the new part of the lab. We hope that everything will be ready by the end of October 2008.

Sometimes it really nice just to spend some time in the lab, and late this afternoon i had a low-key, inspiring conversation with two students from one of the educational programs we are involved in (in one of the couches). They spend quite a lot of time in the lab, and we talked for at least 30 minutes about the lab, their program, and what is important to them (and me) about the lab.  They are working on a project that involves some desktop publishing/design, and they told me about the process. For instance, they have received help in doing this work (which is not a core element of their program) from people employed in the lab, but also from a very good photographer and student, who frequently spends time in the lab. When the resolution of the students’ camera did not suffice, this photographer went to the building in question and took high-resolution photos (with a very professional-looking camera – worth as much as my car according to one of the students). We also discussed the affordances of a relatively open space like HUMlab, and they seemed to enjoy being ‘dragged into’ events like last week’s excellent short course on children and what they do online with Elza Dunkels. And when they said that they were interested in having a stronger typography element in their program, I asked another HUMlab user present in the lab – he happens to be a very good designer with professional experience from an ad/design agency.

SLanguages Conference 2008

Over the weekend I managed to spend some hours taking in the SLanguages Conference 2008 on EduNation in Second Life. I had attended seminars and meetings in Second Life, but this was the first conference I have managed to get to in the online virtual world. I was impressed by the sentiment of those sessions I attended, and the seriousness of the tone that the conference often managed to project. Among the presenters there were four universities represented at SLanguages 2008, Murdoch University of Western Australia, The Charles University, Prague, Penn State, Michigan State, a few smaller collages and the rest were private consultancy, business training or language providers.
SLanguages 2008 ran all night on Friday 23rd May and Saturday 24th, so as to maximise the potential of the many time zones in Second Life usage (which runs on PST). This was even thought many of the organisers are based in European zones.
My introduction to SLanguages 2008 was the ‘mingle’, a strange importation into the SL world of the pre-conference meeting, drinks and so on. It does not really work so well in a virtual world were newbies are trying to work out how to dress themselves and sit down (not often encountered at academic conferences). I would have like to have seen smaller groups doing peer introductions or Q&As on the software. We had a DJ and some avatars were even dancing:

My avatar seems somehow preoccupied as the conference participants attempt to introduce themselves.

The first session I attended had an audience of 88 avatars. Iffaf Khan a teacher from The Language Lab took us through her experiences in teaching online conversational languages at a school working entirely in Second Life. Iffaf’s presentation was fairly good although the lag created by the numbers attending effected the presentation. Key points I noted from the at times rambling presentation were the importance of clear benchmarks for students, choose your participants (difficult in a non-commercial college situation) and the problems experienced by The Language Lab in regards to high levels of student number attrition.

Clicking on avatars and looking for links and interesting groups was a major activity at SLanguages 2008. Last year the first Slanguages 2007 had five presenters (??) and forty participants. This year it had three hundred registered participants and nineteen presenters. Next year is sure to be larger.

Dudeney Ge or Gavin Dudeney (one of the organisers of the event) was the presenter I listened to next. Teaching Tools for Second Life Language Education provided information on some of the tools Gavin recommends after two years of working in distance education using among other things Second Life. There were lots of freebies at Gavin’s presentation, with him giving out a box of PowerPoint screens, HUDs (Head Up Device), Instant Meeting Circles and other useful objects for delivering education in Second Life.

The final session I attended was by Dongping Zheng or MinnSU Koga in Second Life. MinnSU teaches at the Confucious Institute at Michigan State University teaching Chinese language. MinnSu spoke about Quest Design in Second Life Chinese School. I was very impressed by MinnSU’s quotes from her own students regarding their impressions of learning in Second Life. I took screenshots of two of the slides from the presentation:

I would have liked to have attended more of the SLanguages 2008 sessions but the times they were held and the state of health in my own family (a sick child) I could not. I did meet one avatar who told me he was getting time off work to attend the conference. As a means to cutting down on air travel and a way of bringing people together the format adopted by SLanguages 2008 was effective and inspiring. As a way of developing the critical and functional aspects of education in Second Life it remains a ‘preaching to the converted’ scenario. There were basic building classes at the conference and many relative newbies indicate that the use of virtual worlds in education is spreading but it is the students that need to be exposed to such situations. I have found the broad range of technicities (the ways in which our tastes, preferences, affinities and aptitudes towards technology shape and inform our identity) in a classroom is often as much of a hindrance to the utilisation of technology such as virtual worlds as any perceived reluctance on the part of administration or teachers themselves. I am not sure Slanguages is going to change this, but it may just help.
The people running it hinted that lots of archive content from SLanguages 2008 will be put up on the website soon. I look forward to it and to next year’s conference.

New international postdoc and digital art fellowships available (4 positions)

Two postdoctoral positions in the digital humanities and two fellowship positions in digital art are available at HUMlab, Umeå University, Sweden from August 1, 2008 (the actual start date may be later).

The postdoctoral fellowships are for one year, with a possible extension of one year. The digital art fellowships are one-year positions. For the postdoc positions, applicants will be expected to have a Ph.D. in a humanities discipline (from a non-Swedish university) and a specialty in any of these five research areas: participatory media, digital cultural heritage, digital art and architecture, electronic literature, and critical perspectives. For the digital art fellowships, applicants will be expected to have an M.F.A or the equivalent (from a non-Swedish institute/school). In exceptional cases, other areas and backgrounds can be of interest as well.

Read more here, and make sure to apply if you are qualified and interested in becoming a part of HUMlab and Umeå University! We are committed to taking good very care of visiting fellows. HUMlab is an exciting place and there is a great deal going on. Fellows will normally have a double affiliation to the lab and to a suitable department/school and discipline.

Deadline for applications: June 12, 2008.

Almila Akdag in HUMlab

This coming week we have the pleasure of having Almila Akdag from UCLA visit. Here visit to Umeå University is a joint venture with History and Theory of Art at the faculty.

[May 15 at 10:15 am CET]
Art History and Computer Art: Exploring arts-sciences-technology interrelations through Leonardo
Almila Akdag, University of California at Los Angeles

The following is an excerpt from my email discussion with Almila – a kind of abstract:

When I applied for Digital Humanities Fellowship, I had in mind to use citation networks to map out the birth of Visual Cultural Studies. I was especially interested in Visual Culture Studies’ engagement with the “digital”, i.e. digital art. However, to build such a huge citation network out of undigitized/and or poorly digitized data turned out to be a big hassle, and impossible to finish in the time limit of the fellowship period, during which I received technical support. This experience greatly helped me to fine-tune my questions, reduce the amount of data, and focus on a smaller project.

For my dissertation I investigated the relation of Computer Art with the agenda of art history. This is a topic that inevitably touches upon the interaction between Arts and Sciences, and one of my chapters is devoted how this topic is covered in Leonardo, an art journal with the aim of bridging arts, sciences and technology. A close inspection shows that Leonardo emphasized the importance of scientific standards in its way of offering a confluence to these three cultures. Tilting the balance heavily to one cultures has its sacrifices: one clear outcome of this is related to Computer Art, which is heavily criticized on the grounds of lacking critical content. In my study of Leonardo I have delved many papers which define art in a shallow way, disregarding its emotional and conceptual depth, cutting it from its historical, social and cultural roots, erasing its connection to the tradition. All this is done just to strengthen arts parallelism with sciences.

At HumLab, I would also enjoy showing the different digital humanities tools I might/should have been used to enhance my research. I’d also like to talk about my personal experience as a digital humanities fellow, and how I tried to combine my interest and wish in using digital tools with the prevailing methodologies of my own discipline. Digital Humanities as a methodology is not the norm in art history; far from it, it is rather regarded as a scientific approach to art historical problems, and as a potential threat to the theory infused perspective of the discipline. Here I see a parallelism with the intrinsic problems of Computer Art. As a movement, it is associated heavily with sciences, an association that resulted in staying at the peripheries of the art world for almost 40 years. For a traditional humanities scholar, digital humanities presents similar negative associations with sciences. This position poses vital questions about the nature/future of digital humanities: Should digital humanities aim to become a new culture, or just a space for humanities scholars to develop digital tools? Should the existing humanities research methodology updated/enhanced to incorporate digital tools, or should humanities take on a new role in the face of 21st century’s digital world by developing digital methodologies?

All welcome! The seminar will also be live streamed from here.