Blog Post

Digital Collection: Teaching Machines

I hope your semesters are wrapping up as unstressfully as possible. I look forward to seeing your collections and thoughts popping up on the forum over the break and as we enter the spring semester. For now, I’m still thinking through my own digital collection and I appreciate the space to be able to write up some of my current questions and ideas.

One of the wonderful byproducts of the kind of scholarship I do (history, tech, higher ed, composition and rhetoric) is that I'm regularly the recipient of historical tech treasures. I've been given everything from mundane artifacts like textbooks to a set of unlabeled hot pink LPs that turned out to be recordings of a local writers' conference in the 1950s. I have instructional board games, correspondence courses, tin toys . . . 

I'd like to digitize parts of this collection (out of print books, how-to guides, ads, etc.) and represent other parts through photographs and written histories. But, as I travel home to photograph these artifacts, I’m wondering where to begin.

Should I make a stand-alone site or use a platform like Tumblr, which would allow me to trace the reception and circulation of my posts?

Should I also record and represent the process of collecting, curating, and sharing my collection? (I often wonder about how certain collections came to be and some collections, although not interesting to me in content, are interesting to me because of their genesis or their curation or marketing.) 

What are the audiences for this collection? I’m trying to envision some of the ways I’d like my collection to be used and to design with those uses in mind. 

I imagine my collection as a pedagogical tool. I think about the times I’ve shared parts of my collection with my students. In one instance, when I played part of the 1955 writing conference recording, several students commented that they felt lucky that they hadn’t been born in an era when teachers “sounded like that.” This made me pause. I had experienced something much closer to nostalgia than repulsion at hearing the voices of these midcentury professors and writers. It made me think a lot about how these seemingly small characteristics—inflection, dialect, tone—are heightened when they’re disconnected from a body and how those characteristics change students’ perception of the usefulness or appropriateness of a teachers’ claims or the instructional situation. 

This is a pretty commonsense observation, but what’s most striking to me is how students’ perceptions change across time. Broadly, I wonder if we can use media (old media, old tech as well as new) to compose instructional clashes—sites with human, partly human, and nonhuman teachers working together. 

Sometimes, I think even the presence of some old ed tech can be a worthwhile experience for students and instructors, as it causes us to quickly see the unraveling of this or that vision of education. (Is there anything like this artifact around today? Why or why not? How has it changed? Who is it for? What is the pedagogy, the notion of the learning human, the economics behind this?)

Finally, I wonder about other, similar projects. Have you seen anything like this or do you have resources that I might enjoy or that might help me think through some of these questions? Let me know. I’d also be interested to hear your ideas or comments about how this might be useful for you.



Lauren - I'm really excited to see your collection come to (digital) life. Your questions about whether to do a standalone site or use a pre-existing platform bring up all sorts of questions. One thing to consider: how much time do you want to spend developing the platform rather than organizing the collection itself? Even something like Wordpress can take quite a bit of time to get organized properly, but it might have more flexibility down the line to export/reorganize in a different format. 

I'd also love to hear from other collection developers/designers about the choice in platform. I admit there is a part of me that would love to see this on Tumblr, if only because judicious tagging and linking would ensure a certain kind of circulation within the Tumblr ecosystem. 

Have you seen any collections like this on Tumblr? I'd love to see how they've organized and designed a site like this. 


This sounds really exciting, Lauren! I'd love to see an archive of your teaching materials online. 

It would be nice for the circulation though I'd be leery of trusting it to a site like Tumblr. You'll have little control over what's done with the collection in the future, and it would be difficult to scale up or transition to some other form of organization. I think something like Omeka or Wordpress on a site you host and own might give you more control, although of course, it would also be more work! You could try to circulate word about the site through your network on Twitter, or the professional organizations you belong to. NCTE might find it an interest feature for their inbox mailing, for instance. 

Your observations about student reactions to the material are fascinating. It makes me think that these materials would be of much broader interest than just English teachers, as they could help students to contextualize their education in larger historical trends. Anything that helps students understand that what their teachers do isn't a default can help them more critically engage with what and why and how they're learning, which strikes me as a good thing. 



Hi Lauren,

Your project sounds very interesting - what a fascinating collection! It reminds me a bit of a side project I started a couple of years ago, making a timeline of the history of Technology-Enhanced Learning - online here (works best in Firefox; hasn't been updated for a long time though). For this, I used the Simile toolkit . Looking forward to seeing your digital collection as it develops :-)


Thanks, all, for your feedback and for circulating this post! I’m beyond grateful. 

Fiona—I haven’t seen any collections like this on Tumblr, although I’m keeping an eye out for them. They must exist, right?!  (One could argue that Tumblr is actually just a set of curated collections.) It seems to me that the appeal of my personal collection for a user base like Tumblr's is the kitsch factor. This is certainly one of the reasons I began this collection. I love weird, old things. 

However, I wonder if Tumblr would allow for the kind of critical engagement and wider public-ness that I’m after here. (A big question for me is: What publics am I looking to tap into?) Tumblr commenting is brief and sporadic and publicizing happens almost entirely in Tumblr itself--unless a Buzzfeed writer finds something on Tumblr funny. Finally, as you and Annette note, site flexibility and personal time constraints are an issue here.  

Annette—I’m looking at Omeka now and, although it’s a little pricey, I’m a fan of the examples. I also have some experience with Wordpress. As a recovering control freak, I’d like to say that I’m just hung up on getting the interface “just right,” but I’m also obsessing over descriptions, photo angles, etc. 

Right now, I’m thinking I’m going to design something off of my central site (also an unlaunched work-in-progress) using Wordpress or perhaps even Weebly, which is quick and easy and offers unlimited storage, just so I can get something up and running.

Thank you for your thoughts on the pedagogical uses of this. You’re right. Very well-put.

Katy—Wow. Your timeline is awesome. Thank you for creating this great resource—and for introducing me to the SIMILE widgets. :)