Blog Post

HASTAC Conference Notes: Keynote by Cathy N. Davidson


“Now You See It: The Future of Learning in a Digital Age”

Cathy N. Davidson, Duke University

This is pretty long, so I've bolded a few highlights for your reading ease. also, any comments in italics are my own random thoughts. As with all blog posts from the confernece, there are likely many typos due to haste--please forgive those errors.

We’re in Rackham’s “Green Symphony” room. A lovely, circular space, stadium style plush seating in a semicircle around the podium.  Filled to capacity, though you’ll still see a few people putting their coats on seats (rather than under seats).  Let’s ponder that for a moment…


Daniel Herwitz offers an introduction

U of Michigan has come late to digital technologies—but entered with a bang

            Book is being declared an anachronism.  New forms of publishing are incipient.  Map of new types of scholarly publication is just being formed—this is an early moment, which makes it an interesting moment.

            Difficult to distinguish analysis from prognostication… (the rest of this line was awesome, but couldn’t catch it all—5 points to the HASTAC scholar who got it all)

            Structure of experience with digital technologies is changed 

                        In the past, we were taught to slow time down, immense attention, close reading, years or archival research, mastery of material

                        Digital technologies make that possible but also change experience in ways that modulate it.

                                    Now we move laterally rather than inside (not necessarily a loss)

For this conference, they have commissioned experiments with 3-D, digital art

How 3-D abstract expression inhabits space

Important—human factor remains a crucial one (this is how he leads into Davidson)


Cathy Davidson

 (bio: English Prof, Institute of Humanities Prof, over 20 books. Among other subjects, has written about the history of technology)

as I sit here, it occurs to me that listing the schools represented here (with presenters) may be instructive for readers, so I’ll list that in a separate blog) (he is still introducing her, btw…she’s done a lot, including founding HASTAC)

she blogs as "Cat in the Stack" for HASTAC

Davidson donates royalties from book signings to grass roots cause—so today it will go to “Greening of Detroit” (spontaneous applause from green-happy professors in the room)

Interesting point—distinction between succeeding and failure schools is a garden


Her argument—there is a relationship btw how we think about cognition and information and how willing we are to make institutional change

            The punditry about how internet is damaging our brain, making us lose attention, making us shallow, making us lonely

                        Availability heuristics—measure present by that which is really proximate (often the closest thing is your prejudices)


You can quibble with the chronology, but she likes idea that we’re in fourth information age (Darton’s research is being referenced)

  • 400 BC—Socrates—formalization of Greek alphabet and invention of diacritical mark (conceptually a huge leap to a written signification of an oral transcription).
    • Socrates protested against the first information age—thought writing was a perversion and dimunition of mental capacities (ruined memory), harmed dialogic
    • so Plato wrote down what Socrates would not


  • Second Great Information Age—10th century China and 15th Century Renaissance Europe
    • In China—movealbe type invented
    • In Europe—printing press
    • People didn’t like this either—what did it mean when authority of print from scriptorium is reproducible from those who aren’t priests or gov’t authorities


  • Third Great Information Age—steam-drive publishing
    • Makes possible mass book
    • She researched cheap, nasty, terrible books—that were cheap enough that anyone could buy (for her consideration of material culture—that which is not considered history)
    • This is the video game of the 18th century (ruining morals, destroying brains, etc), so the young people hid these cheap books in slits of their clothes


Virtually every institution of work and school was conceived at least in part to control attention, knowledge, learning for that generation of readers that didn’t need a preacher or gov’t authority to tell them how to understand a text

  • They were reading in groups and a lot
    • Our arguments for public education—need teach a trained attention to counter these abundant reading materials


  • Fourth Great Information Age
    • April 1993: Mosiac browser becomes available (enabling access to WWW to many)
      • This becomes YouTube, Wikipedia, Facebook, etc
  • So her talk is about how we can shape institutions
    • What kind of institutions do we need now to better serve world we inherited
    • We have great institutions that prepare us for 20th century, but needs be prepared for 21st
      • A world without editor where we think and create together
  • She has asked us to write down what are the skills we think students needs to prepare them for the 21st century—timed us, gave out pencil and notecard
  • Then asked us to talk with neighbor for 30 seconds about what we wrote down
    • She could end talk here—the difference btw first and second moment is point of the talk
      • When she gave us the first command (with pencil and timer), she didn’t say we had to work alone
        • Yet we all worked silently until she told us to talk with others
        • We were taught this
  • More likely to retain information we develop collaboratively
  • We did a multitasking exercise there—loud room, talking, explaining (and no brain was damaged)
    • Why do we think of brain as being fragile thing? So easily damaged?
    • Horrible to say the era (the now) has damaged us—only say this when baseline is nostalgia


Shows us an image of a video—three people in white shirts, three in black shirts, tossing a basketball.  Asks viewer to count the tosses only among figures in black.  When a person dressed as gorilla appears in video and beats chest, 60% of viewers do not see the gorilla

  • Point of these experiments is that you cannot se what you cannot see
    • Working alone, we can’t see our own ways of paying attention
      • Infants have to be taught to what it is important to pay attention
  • When you have swift pathway (habit, routine), you miss things, even the gorilla


First lesson of institutional change, if in a room where 98% of people do not see the gorilla, don’t dismiss person who does see it

  • “HASTAC is not only collaboration by difference.  Difference isn’t our deficit, it is our operation system”—she quotes Fiona Barnett
    • techniques that allow difference to be articulated


History of Attention: Schooling Attention for the Industrial Workplace (this is the heart of the talk--you may want to read all of it, cause it is fascinating)

  • now she is beginning a powerpoint
    • institutions we have inherited were trying to solve the following problems: attention, timeliness, standardization, hierarchy, specialization (expertise), metrics, “two cultures” (dividing of humanities from sciences)
  • looks at two scholars—William James and Frederick Winslow Taylor
    • James—Principles of Psychology (1890)
      • How to minimize what the French call ‘distraction’
    • Taylor—Principles of Scientific Management (1911)
      • Wanted to think scientifically about what was a factory
      • “How long does it take a laborer with a wheelbarrow full of loose dirt to wheel it approximately one hundred feet exactly 240 times in a ten-hour day?
        • He wanted to standardize despite fact that humans get tired, slow, lose efficiency
        • Standardized labor theory not based on bodies
      • Taylor’s book above becomes learning management
        • Compulsory public education movement (1852-1918)
          • Standards include one hour for math, kids start school at age 6, etc
          • This is peculiar but not to use because it is habit, natural now
      • More about term she uses is apparatus of scientific learning management
        • Grades (ABCD)
          • Mt. Holyoke is first to adopt
          • Second is American Meat Packers Institute
            • Need to realize grading is a system that was invented, relatively recently
        • Bubble tests, standardized tests
          • i.e. No Child Left Behind
          • Frederick J. Kelly invented the bubble test in 1914
            • When population in schools went from 800K to 2M
            • When men were at war and women were in factories (teacher shortage)
            • He looked to Henry Ford and assembly line as inspiration
              • Need process lower order thinking for the lower orders (direct quote from Kelly)
              • “which of these animals is a farm animal?” (cow, dinosaur, crocodile, dog)—note: a farm kid would pick “dog” often, but that’s wrong answer
                • not teaching logic, association thinking—you are teaching how to get the right answer on a bubble test
                • an extremely narrow (but efficient) way of teaching kids
            • by 1917, Kelly was an educator and developed radical learning techniques
              • shocked later when bubble test has been adopted by scholastic aptitude test
                • only meant it to be used during crisis
                • uses U of Idaho as test against his own theory and fired (faculty wanted to be modern)
      • what happens if your most vital production can’t be measured?  Can’t be standardized?
        • We don’t have any standards to measure that productivity but have to undo a lot of institutionalization


We’re teaching our kids that there are correct, narrow answers.  Teaching our scholars that quantity measures excellence.  In world where excellence is combinatory, global, complex.


Future of 21st century education—reading writing, arithmetic, and algorithms?


She is a lovely speaker.  Her talk provided the kind of history that really gets me excited.  She’s refusing to take for granted, well, anything. History shows us how we got here.  It denaturalizes.  It envisions possibilities.  Exposes roads not taken. 


Now, is the next step discussing how formidable is the institutionalization that works against the type of education that would better prepare our students for the possibilities of technologies today?  Of course, technologies do tend to be appropriated to advance structures of power, so how brief is this moment of possible challenge and contestation?  What is best method to question these structures, models, theories?  What is the role of the typical educator in this challenge?


She hopes we don’t just talk about digitizing the status quo.  If this group can’t do it, no one can.


1 comment

Wish I could have been there in person.