Digital culture and Cuba’s alternative Internet, student research at Swarthmore

Graffiti of national hero José Martí at a wifi hotspot (Photo Credit: D. Wertheimer)

By Daniela Wertheimer, Swarthmore College ’17

Wireless internet, or WiFi, arrived for the Cuban public as recently as 2015, and exists still in limited capacities for the regular public in 2016. The Internet and the concept of “networks” have become an important facet of economic, social, political and daily life for people globally. I conducted research on Internet and digital culture in the summer of 2016 in Havana, which is the metropolitan, political and economic center of the Caribbean island country. I spoke to a sample of young people living in Havana (millennials, considered those aged 18-35 for the purposes of this research) about their experiences with the Internet, and learned that there is a relationship between this group, the Cuban state, the city of Havana and “the globalized Internet.” More specially, I argue that

the Cuban state and its millennial demographic negotiate their values and needs by way of the urban internet geography of Havana. Through these spaces and relationships of negotiation, questions of urban and national identity are worked out.

My study aims to find new dimensionalities to the body of information available about digital and Internet culture in Havana, while giving weight to the idea of the city space of Havana. Cuba’s alternative Internet demonstrates that the line between physical and cyber worlds is entirely artificial, and perhaps offers a lesson in how technology advances public, private and political development. I hope to tell an important story about the surprising nature of a technology’s adaptation, generally speaking, as well as an important story about the relationship between the city of Havana and that which exceeds its physical limits. Perhaps most importantly, however, I hope that my research is able to illuminate certain characteristics of the Internet – its media, its content, and its materiality. (more…)

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Exploration of Blended Course Offerings for Upper Level Mathematics

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Prof. Stephan Garcia, Pomona College
Assoc. Prof. Stephan Garcia, Pomona College, co-lead of the LACOL ‘Upper Level Math’ project
(with Assoc. Prof. Steven Miller of Williams College, pictured above)

Steven Miller’s talk at LACOL 2017:
Update on Phase II:

In September 2016, a team of mathematics faculty, technologists and instructional designers from six leading liberal arts colleges (LACOL member schools Amherst, Haverford, Pomona, Swarthmore, Vassar and Williams) are launching a new collaboration to explore blended course sharing for select topics in advanced mathematics. The goal of the project is to experiment with models for shared course delivery which can supplement residential classroom learning and expand curricular offerings for math majors. Inspired by some independent experimentation and brainstorming between faculty team leads, Assoc. Prof. Steven Miller at Williams College (pictured above) and Assoc. Prof. Stephan Ramon Garcia (pictured at right), a group of six mathematicians from across LACOL began talking about possibilities for a multi-campus collaboration in early 2016. These conversations eventually led to a full project proposal which gained strong support from LACOL’s Faculty and Administrative Advisory Councils. The project was officially approved in July 2016 as a two-phased initiative. In the first phase (academic year 2016/2017), a feasibility study is planned which will execute several experiments and “proofs of concept” involving online/blended course elements such as lecture capture, online coaching and problem solving sessions (synchronous and asynchronous) and peer mentoring. With support from the multi-campus project team, these efforts will be spearheaded by Miller at Williams College in connection with his Spring 2017 ‘Problem Solving’ course. In phase two (academic year 2017/2018), findings from phase one will be brought to bear in a pilot course offering, ‘Real and Functional Analysis’, taught by Garcia. In a fully realized vision, the course would be offered both face to face at Pomona, and also opened virtually to interested students at all LACOL campuses. Local faculty and support contacts at each campus would help ensure students experience the best aspects of on-campus and on-line liberal arts learning.

Since mathematics faculty at all LACOL schools already teach a variety of advanced topics, this project will investigate how online/blended sharing may expand access to a richer array of options to meet student interests.  Miller notes:

While liberal arts colleges excel in engaged faculty and personal interactions with students, we do not always have the course offerings available at larger institutions with graduate programs. Though often our students are ready for such classes, at each institution there are practical limits to offering them every year. Our goal is to increase the wealth and frequency of the advanced classes our students need, both for graduate study and to delve deeply in the subject.

Launch of the ‘Upper Level Math’ project has stirred excitement across the Consortium.  The math team’s work is seen as an opportunity to collaboratively experiment with emerging online/blended pedagogies that might be useful in a variety of disciplines. It is also a chance for the schools to explore related policy issues of faculty and student credit in the context of online/blended course delivery and consortial partnerships.  In considering these issues, the team will draw on experiences from peer institutions and other consortia who have been investigating these new models in a variety of ways.  Swarthmore College Professor of Cell Biology Liz Vallen, who evaluated the project in-depth as a member of LACOL’s Faculty Advisory Council, commented:

This [project] seems exactly aligned with LACOL’s goals as it is leveraging the consortium to increase course offerings and availability at partner institutions. The other big benefit of this work is that it is a concrete example that will be a great pilot experiment to see if this is something feasible and beneficial within the LACOL framework.


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Faux Epistolary Travel Novels: summer in Philadelphia with the Early Novels Database

The Early Novels Database (END) Project creates super-rich metadata to help researchers imagine new histories for the novel.
Early Novels Database metadata helps researchers imagine new histories for the novel.

by Caroline McArdle, Williams College ’18

I learned about The Early Novels Database when my English professor, Emily Vasiliauskas, told me about a joint END/LACOL effort to include more undergraduate students through summer internships. The project offered a unique combination of scholarly research available to undergraduates in the humanities with an introduction to a rapidly emerging sector of my own field I knew very little about. Throughout the summer, I worked with peers and mentors from Swarthmore College, University of Pennsylvania’s Van Pelt Library, Haverford College, and the Tri-College Digital Humanities initiative to gather metadata on early English novels. The experience acquainted me with the breadth and depth of works beyond the traditional literary canon. It also provided me with a rare opportunity to learn unfamiliar skills in the digital humanities in the context of my own discipline.

The daily routine of paging through dozens of never before cataloged early modern novels might seem repetitive on the surface. In practice it acquainted me with a new way of close reading distinct from what I was accustomed to in my academic courses. I learned about preservation and handling techniques essential to maintaining special collections and preserving aging works. I became fascinated with the question of the book as object. Specifically, I was interested in books which had been physically torn, annotated, or stitched together, and books which comprised edited compilations of other works. One of the most interesting examples of alteration to the book as object is the popular 18th century practice of binding together periodicals received over a subscription period to form one larger volume. Certainly, there is a sense of continuity or comprehensiveness, even status, that comes with a complete set of matching volumes, a gilt-edged collection of encyclopedias. I wonder whether at least a portion of the appeal of this completeness might have been the pretense of omniscience, or appearance of omniscience, it conferred on the owner.

At one time, owning a complete set of encyclopedias might have connoted possession of nearly all officially recorded, general knowledge—a possession that, in the digital age, is simultaneously impossible in physical form as information is constantly generated, and accessible to everyone via the Internet.

The practice of interacting constantly with dozens of rare books gave rise to my final project, Imagined Distance: Visualizing Place and Space in Faux Epistolary Travel Novels. I had the opportunity to peruse a variety of epistolary novels. Many of the characters wrote to one another across divides of cultural and physical geography, age, gender, and class background. My project focused on how epistolary novels ignore, honor, or attempt to collapse those distances: geographical, emotional, or even spiritual. I sought to contrast and quantitate, when or if possible, the various types of distances in a novel as the author conceived of them with the distances I could map through various digital tools that use a standard Mercator projection. I used a corpus of literature that eventually organized itself around a particular subgenre, one both oddly specific and widely published in the 18th century.

This genre, faux epistolary travel fiction, emerged as a way for Europeans to read about the adventures of primarily non-white travelers–except those travelers were actually white British writers impersonating people of color.

What I found so interesting, even alarming, about the faux travel fiction trend in particular is that it creates and then purports to collapse a fictional distance from the dominant culture that the writer does not actually have to negotiate in the first place.

I used the intentionally blunt tool of mapping out locations I noted in the novels, noticing which details fell off the page. I was particularly interested in those distances that defied my attempts at modelling. After completing close readings, I used the Stanford Name Entity Recognizer tool to identify locations in the novels I’d selected. I created in Google My Maps a map of each of the novels, with their geographical references displayed on a standard Mercator projection map, and I used Google Fusion Tables as a further tool for exploration. I brought together my newfound facility with digital tools and my love for geography in literature in a final public presentation supported by faculty and my peers. Examples of the maps I created can be found at the top of this post and below.

Figure 2: Visualization of place names from faux epistolary novels.
Figure 1 (top) and Figure 2 (above): Visualizations of place names from faux epistolary novels.


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Swarthmore professor extends his Latin classroom far beyond the boundaries of campus


A creative Latin professor at Swarthmore College has been using technology to extend informal learning beyond the boundaries of Swarthmore. For the last three summers, Prof. William Turpin has hosted a free, public, online course on Medieval Latin translation. He has been assisted by colleagues Bruce Venarde (University of Pittsburgh), Carin Ruff (Hill Museum & Manuscript Library) and Jen Faulkner (East Longmeadow High School, MA), who helped him to facilitate the weekly sessions. According to Prof. Turpin:

The intention of this course is to replicate to the extent possible the experience of a student in (say) a college Latin class at the early intermediate level, minus the quizzes, tests, and continuing assessment, there is no mechanism for awarding credit or certificates of attendance.  The most immediate model, in fact, may be an informal reading group devoted to a particular ancient or medieval text.  The basic premise is that a small community of interested participants can both encourage and enhance what is essentially a private encounter with a text.


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Building a Borderless Class at Swarthmore College

Sunka Simon Swarthmore College associate professor of German studies

At Swarthmore College, Associate Provost and Professor of German and Film and Media Studies Sunka Simon and Associate Professor of French Carina Yervasi, collaborated with Ashesi University Professor Mikelle Antoine to create an interactive online course that examines questions of nationality, globalization, race and ethnicity, and gender and sexuality through the lens of global diasporic communities. Using a “globally-networked learning environment,” the course entitled Re-Envisioning Diasporas was the first synchronous, hybrid course taught between Swarthmore College and Ashesi University in Ghana. The classes worked in joint video-conferenced sessions twice a week to explore how displaced peoples worldwide address these challenging questions while living in a perpetual state of “elsewhere.”

Simon and Yervasi recently co-authored an article about their experience with building a borderless class which appears in the new volume, Globally Networked Teaching in the Humanities: Theories and Practices, co-edited by Simon. Participants from both continents shared their reflections on the course experience.   Yervasi notes:

Carina Yervasi Swarthmore College associate professor of French and Francophone studies

What I’m discovering is that our model of learning is very different from the traditional model of distance learning. Our model is collaborative; it’s not student-professor online learning where the students are interacting with just the professor. [ … ] The students have to write and interact with each other. We’ve used writing, blogs, forums, Youtube, Skype and VoiceThread … I like that we’re using these technologies to connect in new ways.

Plans are in progress to offer an updated version of the course next year.  With a grant from SUNY COIL, the team is supported by course designer Michael Jones, director of the Swarthmore Language Resource Center, who manages the technology resources that keep the groups in close contact.  Both Simon and Jones are actively involved with LACOL’s Language Instruction Working Group. (more…)

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About Swarthmore College

swarthmore_logoSince its founding in 1864, Swarthmore College has given students the knowledge, insight, skills, and experience to become leaders for the common good. Offering a liberal arts and engineering curriculum, the College is private, yet open to all regardless of financial need. It is also decidedly global in outlook, drawing students from around the world and all 50 states. The diversity of perspectives represented by Swarthmore students, faculty, and staff – including different viewpoints, identities, and histories – contributes to the community’s strong sense of open dialogue and engagement with ideas and issues.

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