In common this week: Collaborative Writing with Social Paper (a.k.a. Words with Friends)

Hi folks,

I’m in the process of writing my dissertation which means much of my time is spent doing the solitary work of writing. It can get lonely. I look forward to the communal work of revising–sharing writing, soliciting feedback, discussion, argument. Invariably, the dense, obtuse writing I produce when I’m on my own opens up through the process, is enriched and finally starts to look like the type of scholarly writing I admire. So this week I want to highlight collaborative writing Commons community members have been doing on using the tool Social Paper.

Social Paper is an experiment to develop a non-proprietary collaborative writing tool; an environment in which folks can offer their writing up for comments. It’s the brainchild of two Graduate Center students, Erin Glass (English) and Jennifer Stoops (Urban Education). You post your writing and either an invited group or the general public can comment on it by responding to the whole piece or in response to specific paragraphs. The tool is similar to Google Docs, but developed and managed by students and scholars. Google doesn’t own the data that’s there.

The list below is hardly an extensive run down, but it is inspirational. You can see all the publicly available papers on the Recent Papers thread on the Commons (check back regularly since it’s a live feed). Below are particularly interesting papers that demonstrate the benefits of the tool and the exciting possibilities that can be explored using it. Read them and be enriched by the content, see the vibrant discussion they are provoking, and (if you’re so inclined) chime in!

  • Erin Glass, a student in the English program at the Graduate Center (now working at UC San Diego), and one of Social Paper’s creators, wrote up this essay about why tool like it are important. She highlights that classroom writing is rarely read by anyone other than the professor; the grading process is helpful but not really a model of positive collaboration (it’s punitive, anxiety-ridden, and is high stakes).
  • Erin is also using Social Paper as part of her dissertation project on collaborative writing. She’s released her introduction here. The comments really stand out in this document, they add to and enrich the text she provides.
  • Karl Steel, Professor in the English program at the Graduate Center, is using Social paper as he works on his new book. The chapter he’s offered for comment most recently is the last in his book–apparently he works backwards. It’s a fascinating read about the symbolic importance of oysters in medieval and early modern philosophy. The benefits of collaborative writing environments like Social Paper don’t only go in one direction. Making scholarship that is in process available for comment not only provides the writer with feedback but also models research processes and methodologies for the readers.
  • A number of people use Social Paper to write grant proposals and project proposals. The grant application is a peculiar genre and getting a handle on it is easiest when you have a few other sets of eyes on it. Browsing through some of the recent proposals (20th Century Women Scientists Database,   Visual Archive of WWII Fashions) gives you a glimpse at some interesting ideas and a collaborative community being inspired by helping each other.

Get out there and get writing and commenting!


In common this week: Spring (break) into programming!

It has been fascinating to watch the activity on the Commons steadily over this semester as part of my work on this blog. In spite of the gravatars and the fact that many of the people who show up on the colleagues are colleagues, digital interfaces sometimes disguise the human work that’s being done here. Watching every week for what’s new and what people are doing has given me a sense of the way the Commons breathes, in a way. Right now it’s Spring Break at CUNY, so since mid-week or so last week, there’s been a slowing of work published. But we’re starting to see more, as people publish larger projects they’ve been pulling together over the break. It’s one of the many signs that social networks are, in fact, made up of people.

Perhaps in preparation for this week off, I noticed that quite a few people were talking about programming. Breaks are ideal times to work on that project that takes more time than is available during the relentless regular schedule. And, it makes sense that on a platform with the digital humanities in its ideological DNA, you’d have many participants interested in programming.

So this week, take a look at some of the programming resources folks are making available on the Commons (maybe you should try learning some code this week?) and also take a look at an easy, but effective, tool put together by one of the GC digital fellows using some simple code (inspiration!).

  • Rachel Rakov, a Computational Linguistics PhD student here at the GC, penned a wonderful and personal essay about how the perceptions of learning a program language are significant barriers to people learning.
  • The GC Digital Fellows as a program have been particularly supportive of people using Python, a language well suited to helping researchers parse data and create visualizations (good for STEM and the digital humanities). They routinely have events to introduce folks to Python but also have created an easy guide, in the tone Rakov suggests, for people who want to just dip a toe in the water for programming.
  • They’ve also compiled good lists of resources for those who are hoping to use their Spring Break (or any time) to learn to bend computational power to their will…
  • But what’s the use of all this without a flashy example? Patrick Smyth, a Digital Fellow, has put together a small app that allows you to see the impact of NEH grants in your neighborhood. Enter your zip code and adjust the distance radius to see grants in the neighborhood you select. It’s a good example of a way that data from a giant set can be quickly personalized for people. It makes a strong argument for the benefits of NEH grants while actually saying very little. It’s a personalized anecdote machine and has the side benefit of telling you about interesting projects in your neighborhood with which you can get involved or check out.

That’s all for this week. Next week I’ll be writing about Social Paper, the collaborative writing software developed for the Commons. We’ll have links to interesting in-process writing, but also discussion about how to use collaborative documents in class.

Until then,


In Common this week: Getting Access

Hi folks,

There has been a lot of activity on the Commons recently as a result of people thinking about what it means for material, spaces, nations and organizations to be accessible. It’s not just the Commons, either. The New York Times published an article this week about wheelchair access on NYC subways. There’s even a related, and effective, interactive video ride-along with a subway rider in a wheelchair. So this week I figured I’d give a shout out to some of the folks working on this important issue here on the Commons.

    OA HULK BORN THAT DAY.” The interview dramatizes (in all caps!) the issues of open access for scholarly publications, but also blends social mediums an interesting way. The interview, posted on the Commons, makes use of twitter and Storify, a tool to cultivate narratives using social media posts. So the interview is interesting both because of its content and the way it makes use of the different social networks people use to share content.
  • Jenifer Polish penned a a thought-provoking piece on the importance of anti-ablest pedagogy and the types of questions thinking about dis/ability raise. She says that it’s the first in a series, so I’ll be on the look out for more.
  • The Open@CUNY blog posts about open access issues regularly (they also hosted the Open Access Hulk Interview mentioned above) and recently re-posted reports about the consequences of textbook marketers moving to access codes. Among other things, access codes work to prevent students from doing simple things like sharing textbooks and making photocopies–or these days, taking digital photos with their phones. This reduces accessibility to those without the ready cash to pay for expensive textbooks and requires they have internet connections to access the information.
  • Professor Janet Calvo at the CUNY Law school makes public an article she wrote in 2008 about the negative consequences of restricting immigrants’ access to health care. She argues how such restrictions negatively affect U.S. population broadly and the article is timely in the wake of the recent failure of the Republican Authored American Health Care Act. It is also a potent reminder that issues of immigrant’s access is not restricted to borders.

That’s it from me for this week.

All the best,


In Common this week: (Re)envisioning the Data

Hi folks,

I’m an English student, so it’s not surprising that most of the time I’m reading texts. I love texts. For the past few months I’ve been visiting museums and archives to reads nineteenth-century sailor’s journals as part of my dissertation research. Recently, I came across a journal with vividly painted watercolors, fragments of (poorly written) original love poetry, and collages of articles from periodicals. It is a text, for sure. But it’s not a straightforward narrative and requires a different sort of reading that I would do of a more conventional textual narrative.

So it’s with questions about how works can be read in new ways on my mind that I call attention this week to two recent posts on the Commons about visualizing unique data sets.

  • Jacob Cohen posts to his Commons site on Affective Music Theory and Exploration about “Phishmaps,” visual schematics of songs created by Mike Hamad of the Hartford Courant. The maps chart what Hamad is hearing as he listens to the song and, fascinatingly, they are to scale. So if you look at the maps in the middle, you’re looking at what Hamad is hearing at roughly the midway point in the song. It’s a remarkable (and low-tech) way to “see” sound and Cohen’s gallery well curated. The site is a companion to a poster presentation for a poster Cohen presented at the 2017 Society for American Music conference.
  • Beyond the Vale: Visualizing Slave Life in Craven County is a project by a CUNY Graduate Center student inspired by the student’s own discovered history. Filling in information on slavery on North Carolina, which is underrepresented in the literature, the project aims to make the local history of slavery, in one small county, visible. There are charts and graphs, each made with Google sheets which show how even with simple, freely available tools, important scholarly work can be done to reinterpret and re-envision the historical archive.

Well that’s it for this week.

All the best,


In Common this Week: Dipping a Toe in Open [Source] Waters

Hi folks–

One of the ideas, embedded in the name of the CUNY Commons, is the idea of shared resources. It’s also a simple idea that is important to a public research institution such as the CUNY Graduate Center and should have profound impact on the way each of us situates our own research.

Of course, a “digital commons” can also seem contradictory when you consider issues of open access. Not everyone has access to fast internet, unlimited data, or significant computing power. It remains, in some sense, a goal rather than an achievement. OpenCUNY, another CUNY WordPress community, has published remarks from Dr. Scott Dexter who spoke last semester about issues at the center of movements driving digital commons and open source communities. It’s a helpful introduction to the politics behind these issues and why projects like the Commons matter.

In this weekly round-up, I want to draw attention to three open-source initiatives and tools that have their roots here in the Commons. They’re each simple and offer opportunities for even the least technically inclined to get involved in “open” activities. You’re already participating in an open source community if you’re reading this blog. You’re already a contributing member if you’re running you’re own blog here, helping to edit one, or even if you’re commenting. These projects and initiatives are routes to be more involved and which may change your perception about what goes into such work.

  • The Visible Pedagogy blog has a wonderful new post titled “Steal this Book” in which Jesse Rappaport discusses the ideas animating his plan to write a textbook for his upcoming Logic course that he’ll offer to his class for free. There is a detailed but well-written discussion of the ethos of “Open Source.” It’s an ambitious project that not everyone has the time to take up. But his work can be used by others, especially the students in his classes who will not have the fork over the $80 for a traditional textbook. At public institutions like CUNY, that can be a significant burden for our students. This is a great example of a type of project that “lives” in the Commons.
  • Doc-A-Thon for Better Docs was a past event, but I think it merits discussion. Doc-a-thon was a movement to increase and improve documentation for free and open source tools (read “Help” and “FAQ” pages). The GC organized a doc-a-thon here at the GC for projects such as DH Box and Omeka. Free to use tools, put together to solve local problems or with limited resources usually have the least amount of documentation. There just isn’t always time for coders to create comprehensive instructions (and really, sometimes they’re not so good at doing it anyway!). The idea behind a doc-a-thon is that the communities that use a tool can help create the documentation. People who have solved problems can write a paragraph for an FAQ. People who are good communicators can read over and introduction and clean it up, clarify and simplify. These types of small, manageable changes ultimately make a tool more accessible and potentially increase the user base. It’s the type of project that can also be used in other contexts. What would happen, for example, if you had a doc-a-thon in your program? Student and faculty created guides to update resources on the first and second exam, methodologies for dissertations, FAQs for navigating the challenges of archival research, etc. Doc-a-thons highlight that we each have knowledge–something that we acknowledge as CUNY scholars–but that even what we imagine as mundane knowledge is still important to document.
  • A GC Digital Initiative long in the process has been the creation of a Maker Space. Last week the Digital Initiatives Commons site sent out the invitation to all to make use of the GC’s new maker space. Maker Spaces are all different, but they are under-girded by the same ethos as the Commons–shared resources enable us all to enrich our shared knowledge. A 3D-printer, computers, pod-casting equipment, audio production equipment, and more are all available so that people can.make.things! If you stop by during the open hours, a GC Digital Fellow will be there to help you explore the equipment and see what you can do.

That’s all for now. Happy sharing.

Until next week,


In common this week: Taking Your Class Online

Welcome back folks–

The main goal of the CUNY Commons is to “build community through the use(s) of technology in teaching and learning.” So it is not surprising that there is a lot of discussion going on all the time on the Commons about how to use technology in the classroom (and by technology I don’t mean the slide projectors and overhead projectors that teachers used when I was in high school). The philosophy of the Commons is to encourage tools that enable collaboration and not the use of technology for its own sake. So this week I’m taking a look at a few sites that have published new articles and posts recently that delve into making the most out of digital tools but also aim to be resources for the community of teachers at CUNY and elsewhere.

  • Annotation Tools is a very narrowly focused blog on the Commons, but one that is likely to be helpful for nearly everyone. I teach literature and I’m always looking for better tools that allow my students to annotate a text such as a chapter in a novel, a theoretical excerpt, or a journal article. having students add glosses to a text encourages active reading, as does recording questions as they arise. I can ask students to come to class with one or two scenes they found particularly interesting, but it is another if we can look at a collaborative document in which we can see immediately the passages to which most students are responding. Annotation Tools collects and reviews (or at least gives in depth explanation of) various annotation tools as they are developed. The most recent post details a new project by MIT that looks promising.
  • The Journal of Interactive Technology and Pedagogy (JITP) was one of the first publications on the Commons so it’s an oldie-but-goody. In the most recent post in their “Assignments” section,  Karla Fuller of Guttman Community College makes use of image galleries in ePortfolios to visualize scientific concepts. The post is interesting because, in a way, it’s a “hack” of ePortfolios. ePortfolios suggest a very particular purpose but Fuller uses them in a new way that, I think, make the widely available tool adaptable for many classes–not just STEM classes.
  • The CUNY School of Professional Studies Writing Fellows blog just updated its Commons site to include articles specifically geared towards online courses. However, many of these techniques work if you’re adding a digital component to your typical class. If you’re using blogs for example, how to you encourage students to use that digital space to share rather than just to write in a private journal? It’s definitely worth taking a look.

Until next week–


What’s in common this week?…Art

Thinking of a theme for this week, it occurred to me that I may be forcing myself to get very creative in the future if I decide that I can’t repeat themes. But, perhaps that defeats the purpose of letting these themes emerge from the weekly stream of public posts on the Commons, anyway. I guess it’s something I’ll have to work out along the way.

Anyway, this week I noticed a lot of posts responding to music and film,  or presenting digital art.

  • Net Art is a gallery of sorts of animated graphics created by Ryan Seslow. They are often mesmerizing as a result of their looping pattern. I’m quite fond of the most recent, the endless A-train that reminds all at once of ride I once had, the view of an oncoming train when you’re at the front of a station, and the cheesy PowerPoint transitions we all like to use between slides.
  • Phillip Weiss has been setting up sites with dozens and dozens of pictures of sites around the U.S., each site has its own digital site. The most recent site is the Eastern State Penitentiary, subtitled “Pictures of an American Ruin.” Interesting if you want to glipse Al Capone’s cell…
  • Many classes make use of the Commons and as a result you get to see students working on some fascinating projects. In this example, David, a student in a Music since 1945 class blogs about the Latin Jazz song “Spain,” by Chick Corea.  Listen to the music while you read. It’s worth it.
  • The Queens Community College Documentary Film class has been featuring student responses to weekly documentary films. At the very least the site offers a pretty remarkable list of films to go out and stream (if you can’t see them live at QCC, of course) but also recreates, in a way, the shared experience of viewing a movie in a theater. Reading how others respond to films is to have a shared experience.

Until next week,


In Common this Week: Activism

Here we are with our first weekly round of interesting sites from across the Commons. It’s not surprising that U.S. presidential politics and activism in general are common themes among a lot of the posts going out into the digital world this week and especially so at CUNY.

  • Activism in Academia, an interdisciplinary project and symposium (scheduled for April 7) went live on the Commons this week. Asking the vital questions “How do we incorporate activism in our classrooms, on our campuses, and in our scholarship?” The site promises debate on religion and secularism in the classroom, syllabuses and canon construction, training students for careers in social justice, as well as the growing role of ethnic studies and disabilities studies in the curriculum. As someone who helps organizations create websites all the time as part of work here with the Commons, I have to say, the site looks pretty snazzy with eye-catching graphics, photo galleries, and use of Twitter. It’s a good inspiration for conference sites that will become important archives for material after a conference is complete (something for which the Commons is a particularly good tool!).
  • The Murphy Institute, part of the CUNY school of Professional Studies hosts a journal on the Commons called the New Labor Forum. Their recent post on the protests yesterday in Washington DC draws attention to a video of the protests. It’s a good example of one of the benefits of an online journal–the ability to use rich media (photos, videos, sounds, games, etc).
  • A reminder of some of the unique prospectives people on the Commons have to offer, Life Long Learner (“65 and back in school; observations and perceptions” his blog promises) started his blog this week with a post on Political Correctness.
  • In perhaps the most traditional example of public scholarship this week, John Jay Office for the Advancement of Research published the third part in a series of “local law enforcement agencies in immigration enforcement under the Trump Administration’s January 25th executive orders.” The post breaks down language used in public statements by law enforcement officials and then presents specific cases of jurisdictions and how these orders were interpreted (identified as “templates”).
  • Rounding out the in-common list today is what I see as a good example of a public archive where people are collaborating to aggregate materials on a single subject: in this around Sanctuary campuses. The site is updated as folks find relevant material to what CUNY campuses are doing to protect undocumented students, what other campuses across the country are doing, helpful information from across the web and more. It was a posting of an article on from Truthout that helped the site pop-up on my radar screen this week. Again, looking at the site as someone who works with organizations frequently, I think it’s a good model for a site that does good by simply existing. There’s no need for frequent updates and the work can be done by many people (“many hands make light work,” as they say). Sometimes just getting information together is important.

That’s it for this week. Until next time…

All the best,

Hello World!

Welcome folks–

I’ve never used the default WordPress title on a blog before and its exciting to be starting a project for which it seems appropriate. After five years as a PhD student in the English program here at the CUNY Graduate Center, this is my first blog!

First a little about myself and what I expect this blog to be about. The usual questions PhD students have to answer are about their research. I’m currently writing my dissertation on trans-Atlantic nineteenth century maritime literature (think Moby-Dick or The Pilot, or Lord Jim). I teach American literature and literary theory at Queens College, CUNY. In addition to my academic work, I’m involved in numerous digital communities here at the GC. In addition to the Commons, I work the Program Social Media Fellows and OpenCUNY. The general idea behind all of these projects is that scholarly and student-run communities at public colleges and universities have a responsibility to share their scholarship and work with the public and to engage the public in discussions of their work. In the real world, we achieve this by inviting the public to our programs and conferences and in the digital world we achieve this through platforms like the Commons.

The idea driving this particular blog is that Commons is filled with interesting things if you only knew where to look. So each week I’ll be sifting through the the recently published posts and pages from all corners of the Commons and coming up with a short, curated list of links to examples of interesting ideas, tools, projects, posts, artwork, whatever is catches my eye. I’ll be trying to see if I can come up with a theme that brings these interesting tidbits from the Commons and that’s why this blog is title “In Common”–these sites will all be from the Commons but they’ll all have something in common. That’s the plan anyway. We’ll see how it works. But the spirit behind the project is really to draw attention to the innovative work being done on the commons and to help us make connections in this little community. You know, find something in common.

The first round-up will be next week, so look out!