Umeå University Research Blogger

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I am blogging at Umeå University’s official Researcher Blog this and next week. The university has been running this blog as an experiment the last half year, and will evaluate the experiment soon. Every other week, a new blogger takes over, rotating between the four Faculties at the university. Most of the bloggers have posted three times a week, giving readers a glimpse into their everyday work and the fields they work within.

I have decided to focus on exploring the idea of the Anthropocene in my posts, seen mostly from the perspective of the environmental humanities. Here are links to my post (will be updated):

25.03.13: The Anthropocene by candlelight.
27.03.13: “Try this, it’s natural”: On eating in the Anthropocene.
31.03.13: The new natures of the Anthropocene.
03.04.13: The digital natures of the Anthropocene.
05.04.13: Neanderthal nostalgia.

A new The Atlantic piece!


I wrote another article for The Atlantic this week, on the historical background of the New York bottle deposit, and of course based on my book. I used the Academy Award nominated documentary short Redemption as my starting point here – see the trailer below. It didn’t take long to get the article published this time – I discovered the documentary on Saturday, wrote up the text in the mornings in San Francisco and at Stanford (while still sick), and sent it in.

Read more

Suddenly, reviews!

My book, Making a Green Machine: The Infrastructure of Beverage Container Recycling, came out in June 2011. Upon publication, Rutgers University Press, sent out review copies to all the main academic journals in history of technology, business, and environment. It took more than a year and a half before anything more happened – after all, academic publication moves at glacial speed, and so do reviews. But suddenly, a whole lot of book reviews showed up.

In Environmental History, J. F. M. Clark from University of St. Andrews called my book “an engaging business history”, but argues that I do not engage with the history of environmentalism and make no effort to “assess the broader environmental economics behind glass, aluminum, and plastic.”

In Technology and Culture, Stephen Sambrook at the Centre for Business History at the University of Glasgow characterized my book as a “blending of technological and cultural history with a leavening of business history, … providing insight into the complex relationships between the evolution of national environmental policies and the nexus of business interests, technological development, and everyday environmentalism.”

Most interesting, however, were the four reviews in the H-Environment Roundtable organized by Jake Hamblin. Tim Cooper, Peter Thorsheim, Heike Weber, Carl Zimring provided respectively one scathingly negative and three generally positive reviews. The roundtable format allowed me to write a response to the reviews, which is what generally makes the roundtables so interesting to read. If you want to find out why the one review was so negative, you should read the review – and my response! I can highly recommend not just the review of my book, but also all the other ones (there’s thirteen so far).


A tour of UCLA’s digital humanities spaces

The UCLA Campus has a surprising amount of large trees
The UCLA Campus has a surprising amount of large trees

I’m visiting UCLA this week, meeting with people and discussing projects as part of my global digital environmental humanities tour (which started at University of Virginia in September last year). I arrived late Sunday night after 21 hours of traveling and was very happy to crawl into bed at the UCLA Guest House Hotel, on the north-east side of campus. It turns out that the university was closed on Monday since it was President’s Day, a holiday I had never heard about before. This made for a great opportunity to do some sightseeing (after waking up at 3am and spending some hours finishing and submitting a revised article). I took the bus through Beverly Hills and down to the Miracle Mile district to visit the fantastic Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the La Brea Tar Pits. The museum had a great special exhibit on Stanley Kubrick that was well worth the trip. The tar pits were also fascinating, and the adjoining Page Museum is small, but good. After a short nap I headed over to Ursula Heise and Jon Christensen‘s house in Venice for dinner with some of their colleagues. Wonderful people and nice conversation, though I had reached a jetlag-induced zombie-like state and wasn’t exactly talkative…

Spaceship from 2001 at the LACMA Stanley Kubrick exhibit
Spaceship from 2001 at the LACMA Stanley Kubrick exhibit
La Brea Tar Pits. I love the smell of tar!
La Brea Tar Pits. I love the smell of tar!

On Tuesday I got the chance to explore campus some more. I had lunch in the Faculty Club, with Todd Presner, Annelie Rugg, Willeke Wendrich, and Dave Shepard, who are all affiliated with the UCLA Center for Digital Humanities. Annelie was nice enough to gave me a tour of all the different digital humanities-related spaces and labs on campus, including the Library Research Commons, the Laboratory for Digital Cultural Heritage, the UCLA Game Lab, the newly redone Visualization Portal (which doesn’t really have a current webpage), the Sandbox, and the new CDH Learning Lab. I find it fascinating to see the many different versions and interpretations of technology-enabled labs and spaces, especially in light of the recent discussions at Umeå University about what the planned interactive learning environments in the Humanities building can and should be.

UCLA Library Research Commons
UCLA Library Research Commons
UCLA Laboratory for Digital Cultural Heritage
UCLA Laboratory for Digital Cultural Heritage
UCLA Game Lab - a very nice studio space
UCLA Game Lab – a very nice studio space

I still have more meetings and events this week before heading up to San Francisco for the weekend and then to Palo Alto and Stanford University all next week. Expect more posts!

Assignments and activities in online courses?

I’m working on another syllabus at the moment, this time for an introductory course on the history of technology for undergraduate students. I’m not so concerned about the course literature this time, but since the course will be taught online, I’m wondering what experiences people have with designing such courses centered on student activities and active learning processes. I know that I do not want to simply record lectures and put them online. I plan to do short (10-minute) video introductions to each week’s theme The course will have about 30 students and will run over 9 weeks at “half speed” (it will be half the total course load for the students for these weeks). By default we have access to the university’s customized Sakai LMS installation – it’s quite minimalistic, and I’m not particularly impressed by it. I can ask for my own Moodle installation, which I’m tempted to try out, but the university does not offer support here, so I’d have to do all that myself.

The big challenge, as I see it, will be to design a set of activities that:

a) require and encourage the students to explore and learn the course literature
b) foster collaboration, interaction, and creativity in ways that I as instructor can observe and evaluate on an individual level
c) make sense to the students.

I would also like the activities to feel integrated – in other words, I do not want to randomly jump from one type of assignments to another without any idea of how they fit together. My current plan is to have the students work in groups to create a website based on a combination of a tiny bit of primary research (online sources) and secondary literature discussions. I’d need to break this down into smaller assignments, of course, but the goal would be for all the assignments to support this final project, as well as integrate the project with the course literature.

So – what are good examples of activities and assignments that works in an online course setting?