Applied Media Studies: An Edited Collection

The Time and Structure of Cross-College Collaboration: Developing a Shared Vocabulary and Practice

Heidi Rae Cooley

In fall 2012, my collaborator and I created our team-taught course, newly named “Critical Interactives,” focused on the development of a location-based proof-of-concept application for iPad, Ghosts of the Horseshoe (Ghosts), which presents the history of slavery that made physically possible the historic Horseshoe, formerly the grounds of South Carolina College (est. 1801) and currently the “heart” of the University of South Carolina’s Columbia campus.[i]

Subsequent versions of the course have allowed us to hone our method, which at a very fundamental level aspires to cultivate habit-change in students, colleagues, and citizens of Columbia, SC. Broadly speaking, habit-change refers to shifts in how groups of people make sense of things.[i] Unlike feats of persuasion by means of argument or the attempt to change individual minds, habit-change is social and occurs over time. In the context of the Critical Interactives class, habit-change transpires as students wrestle with conventional disciplinary thinking that defines them as majors, serves as a measure of their disciplinary proficiency, and arms them with a sense of confidence (e.g., mastery) that can also—and frequently does—serve to limit or interfere with their ability to communicate with people trained in other fields. The class asks students to develop a new way of thinking and speaking together. In other words, we ask students to join us in acquiring a shared language, one that has been evolving since Duncan Buell and I first began collaborating. In what follows, I offer a descriptive account of this process, which has involved colleagues from various disciplines and now includes collaboration with and feedback from Ward One Organization members. Evidence suggests that this process has indeed produced habit-change that is beginning to foster cultural renewal in Columbia, South Carolina.

Our goal is to scaffold students’ entry into active cross-disciplinary conversation that readily translates into doing and making. While we might start any particular discussion seated in a circular formation, we frequently transition into active mappings of central concepts, key words, themes, etc. Quite literally, on white/chalkboard or poster-sized post-its, we draw lines of connection between keywords and phrases, talking through how and why certain relations are more obvious or subtle, more or less significant or central than others to our continuing conversation. The resulting diagrams represent degrees, hierarchies, and trajectories of relation that also reveal “sites” of contestation or disjunction, which opens onto further discussion and negotiation. Sometimes the process happens in small interdisciplinary groups, where students grapple with an isolated set of concepts.
Later, we will use this same process to discuss matters of design and refinement of user interface (UI) and user experience (UX), as well as how we think about “users” (whom we have come to refer to instead as “interactors”). We find these humanistic modes of thinking useful because they are recognizable to computer scientists who regularly brain-storm and create wire-frame maps. 

Humanists get a similarly friendly process-oriented introduction to programming as agile development. A volunteer advanced computer scientist leads the class through several programming exercises (e.g., “hello world,” building a clickable button, changing font color and size, etc.); the other computer scientists, including Duncan, sit beside the humanists—like me—and serve as guides. Humanists quickly learn how unforgiving code can be: a rogue brace or a mistyped Class name, for example, result in software that just won’t run. The exercise also underscores the quantity of time and the kind of attention to detail programmers invest in writing code and, therefore, emphasizes the absolute necessity for timely delivery of humanist-produced content.

During the course of a semester, students become increasingly engaged with—and committed to—the project and its development. Their discussions about content and its method of delivery to the mobile touchscreen device communicate a common [to the group] concern for and a responsibility to the histories being presented. For example, in the most recent iteration of the course (spring 2016), students interacted with and recorded the personal stories of individuals who had lived as children in Ward One in the 1950s and 1960s. They took great care to ensure that each individual who shared his or her stories had his or her voice included in the app.[i] Their exchanges, both in class and via the team-messaging tool Slack, about content, app functionality, and interface design readily crossed disciplinary domains: computer scientists edited moving image materials to produce thematic compilations of archival footage and interview materials; humanists actively contributed to conceptualizing the user interface for uploading assets to the content management system. Students applauded individual and team accomplishments and respectfully pushed their colleagues when rate of production proved slower than desired. And they navigated frustrations tactfully when others failed to meet deadlines. One of the lessons they learn, in this regard, is that assuming responsibility for the completion of a task to which someone else had committed him/herself is an unfortunate—albeit infrequent (hopefully)—aspect of collaboration.

Watch Cooley's Demos Here:

The documentary, Ward One: Reconstructing Memory,[i] presents an example of what the Ward One app aspires to elicit in its interactors: the “ah-ha” of connection—between a here-and-now and the past as conveyed through the language of those who lived back then.​
[i] In the 2014 course, which focused on Ghosts of the Horseshoe, students spent weeks struggling to devise a means of representation for enslaved labor, for which no photographic evidence or identifying personal traces exist—only paper records documenting the “hiring” or sale of enslaved persons. They decided on an image of a thumbprint, evocative of the hand impressions found on bricks that are the building components for the historic structures standing on the historic Horseshoe grounds and which were hand-molded and laid by enslaved labor.

[i] American pragmatist Charles Sanders Peirce informs how I frame the kinds of habit-change we hope to inspire. Film and media studies scholars are familiar with Peirce’s semiotic, which posits a triadic structure of the sign (icon, index, symbol). Importantly, for Peirce, semiosis is social, belonging to a “community of interpreters”—also “community of inquirers” or “community of investigators”—whose shared habits of meaning-making are relative and subject to the influences of context—historical, social, political. As such, habit and habit-change are inextricably linked. That this is the case is the condition of possibility for evolving a shared language across conventions of disciplinary thinking. 
[i] Ghosts of the Horseshoe draws on the work of graduate students enrolled in historian Robert Weyeneth’s spring 2011 public history seminar on historic site interpretation. The product of their research is a robust scholarly website, Slavery at South Carolina College, 1801-1865: The Foundations of the University of South Carolina

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