Today I’ll be joining a roundtable discussion hosted by the New York Council for the Humanities for its incoming class of public humanities fellows. I was asked to prepare a “top-ten list” for public humanists looking to get started in digtial humanities, and with the help of friends on Twitter, I came up with the following:
10) Enter the circle (read, tweet, blog)
9) Start with partners
8) Attend THATCamp
7) Write grants, not papers
6) Release early and often
5) Stop worrying about the definition of DH
4) Digital is always public
3) Must. Try. New. Things.
2) Break something
1) Lather, rinse, repeat
Instead of explaining this advice in prose, I decided to put together a video. Here it is.
N.B. As my mother always told me, “do as I say, not as I do.”
I’m pleased to be offering a workshop at “Digital Pedagogy and the Undergraduate Experience: An Institute,” hosted by the University of Toronto Scarborough. My presentation, “Shaping (Digital) Scholars: Design Principles for Digital Pedagogy” [pdf], offers a framework for designing assignments and other learning activities that help students develop digital fluencies and cultivate expertise in digital scholarship. I sketch out on three principles for digital pedagogy: hands-on/minds-on learning; networked, collaborative learning; and play. To make the principles concrete and furnish inspiration, I offer a couple of examples under category (including some of my favorites from previous talks). I also look at some of the challenges facing this approach to teaching, such as evaluating student work and helping students develop technology skills. The workshop concludes with a hands-on, collaborative activity to design an assignment that realizes at least one of the principles of digital pedagogy.
When creating the concept for the exhibition Under the Skin, I investigated the use of human tissue in medicine from 19th century pathological museums to today’s biobanks containing small samples of frozen tissue. On the surface the museum and the biobank are very different kinds of places. But on closer inspection? We are easily led by images, metaphors and rhetoric. To start with the imagery, it could hardly be more different. The medical museum with its Victorian display in wooden vitrines and the recognizable body parts carrying a mixed sense of humanity and death. Contrast that with the blue lit, clean surfaces and robotic handling of unrecognizable samples depicted on the websites of the recently founded national biobanks.Museums and Banks
Also the metaphors of “museum” and “bank” indicate different functions. Museums are associated with the past and their role is to study and conserve old materials. The bank is a place for safeguarding resources for the future, growing them and returning them with interest. This image is supported by the rhetoric surrounding large national biobank projects. For instance, at the opening of the Danish National Biobank the minister of research stated that ‘The currency of this bank is biological samples and the return is research results that will benefit the whole population’. But what happens if we look more closely at the practices in biobanks. During a recent visit to the new Danish National Biobank on entering a top modern lab equipment I saw a group of lab assistants working with a pile of old, black
boxes full of cards and large books with hand-written registrations. They were pulling out staples and registering information on computer. At the same time old blood samples from cardboard boxes were transported in from storage and repacked. The activities looked exactly like repacking and registering historical collections in museums. And indeed this was what was taking place. The Danish National Biobank holds several highly valuable collections of older diagnostic samples, which together with the comprehensive registration of health data in Denmark provides unique possibilities for associating biomarkers and genetic profiles with the disease history of the sampled persons. My claim is thus that the seeming differences between collections in medical museums and those in biobanks are misleading. That although the laboratory revolution has changed medicine immeasurably, it has not changed the fact that medicine is a collection science. And although medicine is not normally regarded as a collection science – in the way of natural history – collecting is a continuous and ongoing part of generating medical knowledge.Collecting in Pathological and Anatomical Museums
To start with the pathological collections in the medical museums, these were collected with a view to categorizing and thereby understanding disease. With the rise of hospital medicine in the 19th century patients were gathered in wards and it became possible to compare cases. When the outcome was bad patients were often dissected and it was thereby possible to document the lesions in the organs together with the case history containing symptoms of the living patient. The collections thereby served a way to accumulate medical experience in material form, which could be studied away from the chaos of the clinic. The cases from the past could thereby be used to improve and sharpen new diagnoses because both the physical symptoms, the internal lesions and the final diagnosis were known. This materialized experience was carefully registered and stored in pathological collections.Collecting in Biobanks
As medical interest shifted towards the cellular level and later to molecular biology, the collections contained smaller and smaller samples of tissue. Microscope slides were kept in archives and investigated through microscopes, and samples of blood and other tissue preserved in freezers and analysed biochemically. Starting with small collections of individual researchers, collections grew along the same pattern as the anatomical and pathological collections to large institutional collections. National biobanks took off in the early 21st century with the aim to gather collections capable of representing a whole population. A main aim is to collect samples from citizens and then follow the development of their health and disease. The data and samples collected allow researchers to match diseases with particular biomarkers and thus make diagnostic predictions both earlier and more precise, and to choose the best treatment for patients once diagnosed. In this way it is only when collections becomes “historical” will they become truly useful as the full case history has infolded. One valuable collection of this sort is the collection of blood samples taken at neonatal screeningin Denmark where health data and genetic analyses of blood samples from 1982 and onwards can be matched to develop better diagnostic techniques.
On the surface there appears to be a change from the museum where specimens are investigated with sight and scalpel to the biobank where samples are investigated in the laboratory. This fits well with the story of laboratory revolution that changed biology and medicine into lab sciences. It is, however, possible to nuance this story and show that collection did not disappear in biomedicine.Medicine as a Collection Science
If we broaden out the notion of scientific methods drawing on John Pickstone’s Ways of Knowing (2010) we can distinguish a number of scientific “ways of knowing” such as reading, collecting, analyzing, experimenting. Pickstone sees a historical development through the different practices, but emphasizes that they can coexist. And this is what I believe is the case in the biobank, where museum-style collection practices coexist with experimental laboratory techniques. The importance of collection practices in laboratory science has also been noted by the historian of modern biology, Bruno Strasser. He has drawn an analogy between collection in natural history museums and various forms of collection in molecular biology such as proteins, serum and genetic data. The connection is, I argu e, even stronger in the case of medicine where we can trace a continuous and ongoing focus on collection in medical research. Neither of these two authors, however, focus on the materiality, but it is exactly the fact that collections contain actual physical samples that is central in collection sciences. Physical specimens and samples contain latent knowledge i.e. it will be possible to uncover new knowledge from the sample as questions and methods change. Physical specimens are, of course, also formed by specific interests at the time of collection, but they are amenable to new questions in the future. To sum up, pathological collections and biobanks resemble each other in the following significant ways.
The ongoing importance of collections and collection practices thus means that:
Comparing the two institutions also bring out important aspects in both. Modern biomedicine is often characterized as disembodied because tissue culture and data crunching seems to be removing it from real bodies. The biobank collections, however, show how the physical samples of particular patients are regarded as essential. As for pathological museum collections, these have been shown in recent years to be less rigid in the categorisations than has previously been assumed. So instead of museums being of the past and biobanks for the future, both may be seen to use the past to answer future questions. This material was presented as a paper at the British Society of History of Science Annual Meeting 2014 in St. Andrews. It will also appear in a slightly different form in the volume: Tybjerg, K. (forthcoming in 2014) “From Bottled Babies to Biobanks: Anatomical Collections in the 21st Century” in The Fate of Anatomical Collections, R. Knoeff & R. Zwijnenberg (eds). Ashgate Press.
While Google has been doing a great job of their front page animations (today's is very nice, illustrating how Brazil and The Netherlands are on their way to Russia for 2018), Bing appears to be far more attentive to actually answering questions about the competition. For example:
Compared to Bing's
Google's answer brings up some interesting news articles, but Bing brings up stats on the teams and even a prediction of who will win (Cortana - which is driving these predictions - has been doing a perfect job of predicting game outcomes).
The forthcoming exhibition Under the Skin will display the heart blood of the medical museum – the anatomical and pathological specimens – as part of a longer history on the uses of human material in medicine leading up the biopsies and blood samples in biobanks.
The main exhibition principle is simple, instantly graspable and captures essential features of the historical development of medicine. Objects in the exhibition will be ordered according to scale ranging from the whole body to its molecules: Full skeletons and embryos, organs in glasses, biopsies, slices of tissue on slides, blood samples and DNA snips. The principle of scale draws on the materiality of the objects, but at the same time mirrors a shift in medical interest towards smaller and smaller units. Scale is:
The point of departure of the exhibition is the whole body, which was the main unit of medical investigation up to the 18th century. The whole body is, however, only present in the exhibition in the shape of the bodies of the visitors. The first objects exhibited are skeletons and foetuses. Although they are clearly recognizable to us as individuals, they already show the body as opened and divided.
Next step on the scale are the preserved organs. Anatomizing the body was the prevalent mode of investigation in the expanding pathological collections of the 19th century. Diseased organs were cut out and displayed together to form a new whole. They mapped out a landscape of malady where the individual body disappears. Disease was identified with the lesion and the preparations highlight it by isolating it from the rest of the body.
As microscopes allowed tissue and even cells to be studied we move from visible to invisible structures. Small lumps of tissue are prepared, sliced finely stained and studied through microscopes to show the cells of the body and possibly diseased changes. The exhibition shows both the biopsies and the structures revealed by the microscope thus bridging between the visible and invisible.
Research in the latter half of the 20th and into the 21st century has focused on the molecular level – the next level down the scale. Today large amounts of tissue and blood are gathered and stored in biobanks for investigations into the biochemistry of the body. Tiny blood samples taken from new-borns make it possible to investigate genetic and biochemical processes that make disease likely, and to diagnose before any symptoms appear.
At the end of the exhibition the individual body has been not just anatomized but atomized. Divided into immateriality and stored as information. In the code for DNA our individuality may be seen to re-emerge. The mapping of the genome in 2003 did not, however, provide a single key to understanding the body. Medical science still needs to investigate at the whole scale of the body as well as its interaction with the surrounding world. At the end, the visitor is – together with biomedical science – sent back through the scale in the never-ending process of understanding the human body.
The concept poses important questions: