20% Project

This class covers an enormous span of time–roughly half a millennium. I cannot possibly claim mastery concerning such a swath of material.  In that sense, this course is, for me, an experiment: I’ve never taught anything remotely like it, and many of the texts are new to me.  I want to share the risks and rewards of what we might think of as a kind of intellectual entrepreneurship. To that end, I am borrowing a strategy from some of the foremost entrepreneurial minds around–the founders of Google–to inaugurate The 20% Project, a version of what they call “innovation time off.”  Thanks to Dr. Sean O’Brien (University of Notre Dame) who talked with me about his own successful attempts at instituting such a project in the classroom.

At Google, employees are allowed to spend 20% of their time doing whatever they want as long as it is legal and ethical.  This is time that their manager does not own or overtly direct: the employees themselves own it.  It turns out that when individuals are unbound from very immediate concerns, their vision expands, their mind is free to wander.  Employees sometimes work in teams, sometimes alone.  But regardless of the path they take, the results speak for themselves. By inaugurating a more academic version of Google’s innovation time off, I am giving you time to develop a project of your own–to make something new. I don’t want you to simply write something or analyze something; I want you to make something, to discover something.  Our emphasis at first will be on various ways you can use various digital research tools available on the web to help you discover  new ways of looking at or presenting things.  But if you choose to go unplugged, that would be great as well–your choice!

Perhaps the most significant challenge here is also your greatest asset: you are independent.  You choose whether to work individually or join a group, and you choose what your project will entail.  I’m available as a consultant, and I’ll be here to point you towards particular resources, but this is in your hands. Thus, roughly 20% of your course time after Spring Break (most Fridays) will be devoted to meeting in groups, working individually on your project, or conferencing with me.  You won’t have any additional assigned reading on those 20% days.  Needless to say, there will be certain signposts along the way to keep you on track–including group brainstorming sessions, presentations on various research tools, and formal project proposals.

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