Bethany Nowviskie

  • Published: Jan 26th, 2013
  • Category: documents

the evaluation

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(Update, Winter 2015: Chad has re-posted The Evaluation on Medium, along with another piece of whistle-blowing futurism entitled “We will all be illiterate soon.” Messy and recommended.)

The next time Chad Sansing tells me he’s written a short story, I think I’ll read it immediately. You can skip my preamble, too, and download a PDF version of this sobering, dystopian near-future meditation on American education gone awry, right now. Other formats, below.

theevaluationvariant3Several months ago, my husband posted a brief, sci-fi vignette to the Cooperative Catalyst, tagging it with phrases like “merit pay,” “standardized testing,” and “school discipline.” I didn’t realize he had continued the story until a couple of weeks ago (a grim Saturday we spent in our pajamas, mourning Aaron Swartz), when he made a CC-licensed version of the full thing available online.

Still, I didn’t read it — at least, not all of it. Just enough to know I wanted to wait for a quiet moment. Tonight, I was reminded of “The Evaluation” by this report of brave teachers at three Seattle public schools whose act of civil disobedience is to refuse to administer and to be judged by deeply flawed standardized tests. So I returned to Chad’s story, and was struck enough by it to interrupt his dinner at Educon 2.5, to insist that he send me a plain-text version, for dolling up and posting in multiple formats, right away. You can read it here:

PDF (prettiest)
EPUB (for iBooks and various readers)
MOBI (for the Kindle)
TXT (for remixing)

or, newly, on Medium.

Chad teaches middle school humanities at a grassroots, teacher-led (ie. not corporate-run), arts-infused charter school in Albemarle County, Virginia — the Community Public Charter, which he helped to found. (Update: he’s now a technology teacher at the BETA Academy — “build, experiment, tinker, apply” — hosted within a public middle school in Staunton, Virginia.) Chad writes and speaks frequently about redeeming what he calls an “authentic and democratic” education, for teachers and students alike, from a culture driven by dehumanizing standardized assessment and punitive notions of discipline. You can find him on Twitter at @chadsansing. He’s the teacher you wish your kids had, every year.

resistance in the materials

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[This is the text of an invited talk I gave at the 2013 MLA Convention, as part of Michael Bérubé’s presidential forum on “Avenues of Access.” The session also featured Matthew Kirschenbaum and Cathy Davidson, and was subtitled “Digital Humanities and the Future of Scholarly Communication.” My slides are available here, and if you like this talk, you may also be interested in my RBMS keynote, Reality Bytes.]

Most mornings, these days—especially when I’m the first to arrive at the Scholars’ Lab—I’ll start a little something printing on our Replicator. I do this before I dive into my email, head off for consultations and meetings, or (more rarely) settle in to write. There’s a grinding whirr as the machine revs up. A harsh, lilac-colored light clicks on above the golden Kapton tape on the platform. Things become hot to the touch, and I walk away. I don’t even bother to stay, now, to see the mechanized arms begin a musical slide along paths I’ve programmed for them, or to watch how the fine filament gets pushed out, melted and microns-thin—additive, architectural—building up, from the bottom, the objects of my command.

I’m a lapsed Victorianist and book historian who also trained in archaeology, before gravitating toward the most concrete aspects of digital humanities production—the design of tools and online environments that emphasize the inevitable materiality of texts, and the specific physicality of our every interaction with them. I suppose I print to feel productive, on days when I know I’ll otherwise generate more words than things at the digital humanities center I direct at UVa Library. Art objects, little mechanisms and technical experiments, cultural artifacts reproduced for teaching or research—cheap 3d-printing is one affirmation that words (those lines of computer code that speak each shape) always readily become things. That they kind of… want to. It’s like when I learned to set filthy lead type and push the heavy, rolling arm of a Vandercook press, when I should have been writing my dissertation.

I peek in as I can, over the course of a morning. And when the extruders stop extruding, and the whole beast cools down, I’ll crack something solid and new off the platform—if a colleague in the lab hasn’t done that for me already. (It’s a satisfying moment in the process.)

Sometimes, though, I’ll come back to a mess—a failed print, looking like a ball of string or a blob of wax. Maybe something was crooked, by a millimeter. Maybe the structure contracted and cracked, no match for a cooling breeze from the open door. Or maybe it’s that my code was poor, and the image in my mind and on my screen failed to make contact with the Replicator’s sizzling build-plate—so the plastic filament that should have stuck like coral instead spiraled out into the air, and cooled and curled around nothing. Those are the mornings I think about William Morris. Read the rest of this entry »

Creative Commons License This site uses a heavily modified version of Bryan Helmig's Magatheme. Work at by Bethany Nowviskie is always CC-BY. Want to know why? The falling letters are by Wayne Graham. He kindly made them to replace a set I designed in Flash in the late 1990s and had in place for more than 17 years. Not a bad run! Ave atque vale.