Cathy Davidson

Cathy Davidson headshot

Cathy served from 1998 until 2006 as the first Vice Provost for Interdisciplinary Studies at Duke University, where she worked with faculty to help create many programs, including the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience and the program in Information Science + Information Studies (ISIS). Along with David Theo Goldberg and fifteen scholars from many fields, in 2002 she co-founded Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Advanced Collaboratory, HASTAC (“haystack”), a network of innovators dedicated to new forms of learning for the digital age. With Goldberg and HASTAC teams at UCHRI and Duke, she co-directs the $2 million annual HASTAC/John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Digital Media and Learning Competitions.

At Duke University, Cathy holds two distinguished chairs, Ruth F. DeVarney Professor of English and the John Hope Franklin Humanities Institute Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies. She has published more than twenty books, including Revolution and the Word: The Rise of the Novel in America; Closing: The Life and Death of an American Factory (with photographer Bill Bamberger); and The Future of Thinking: Learning Institutions in a Digital Age (with David Theo Goldberg). She blogs regularly on new media, learning, and innovation on the www.hastac.org website as “Cat in the Stack” as well as on dmlcentral.net and PsychologyToday.com. Her most recent book, Now You See It: How Technology and Brain Science Will Transform Schools and Business for the 21st Century, is now available in paperback. Her author blog, including the schedule of upcoming appearances on her extended book tour, is at www.nowyouseeit.net. In December 2010, President Obama nominated her to the National Council on the Humanities. You can follow her on Twitter at @catinstack.


Blogs (27)


The Crisis in the Humanities and STEM – and Why We Must Recreate Higher Education

Monday, November 25, 2013

packed college lecture hall of students with laptops Here’s the punchline: The humanities in the U.S. are in crisis for the same reason that STEM is in crisis – not because of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics).  And vice versa.  The crisis comes from declining or at least stagnant numbers of students in these areas.  Faculty members are panicking and making snide, demeaning, and sometimes insulting comments about one another instead of coming to terms with the basic issue of why students today aren’t flocking to these subject areas.  To my mind, therein lies one of academe’s biggest problems.  We’re better at defensively placing


Re-Designing Learning For Democracy

Thursday, March 14, 2013

john dewey quote democracy must be born anew within each new generation Ann Pendleton-Jullian, the architect and educational redesigner, notes that:  “Design has the capacity to shape contexts as frames for things to happen.”  My excitement at being part of the connected learning movement and the Digital Media and Learning initiative sponsored by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation is that, together, thousands of us are thinking and working and making in order to design new ecosystems for learning in which the democratic, egalitarian, and innovative can thrive and flourish. If you think you hear a critique of the status quo in that sentence, you are


Why We Need Badges Now: A Bibliography of Resources in Historical Perspective

Friday, March 01, 2013

poster of different badges icons explaining badges are visual representations of skill or achievement It was something over a year ago when we first began talking about badges as a powerful new tool for identifying and validating the rich array of people’s skills, knowledge, accomplishments, and competencies that happens everywhere and at every age.  That’s when we decided that this year the Digital Media and Learning Competition would be dedicated to an array of competitions on badging.  I remember when we started writing, blogging, talking, speaking, and in other ways trying to create a conversation around badges as an alternative mode of assessment, people would look at me like I


Standardizing Human Ability

Monday, July 30, 2012

education sign on red brick wall Here’s a thought experiment.  Let’s try to imagine a society (there were lots of them before modernity) where there is no interest in measuring educational success.  Let’s imagine a society where the only goal of teaching (it’s a high bar) is to help every child master what they need in order to lead the most fulfilling life they are capable of leading—productive, creative, responsible, contributing to their own well-being and that of their society.  No grades.  No tests.  Just an educational system based on helping each child to find her or his potential for leading the


How and Why to Make Your Digital Publications Matter

Monday, May 21, 2012

infographic showing digital publications and outcomes I don’t have the metrics, but I’ll stake my professional reputation on the following  statement:  In the last one or two years, there has been a seachange in how even the most traditional academic, nonprofit, or corporation values, respects, and “counts” relevant, professional online publication and interactivity.  The keywords are “relevant” and “professional” and how you present your digital contributions is not only key to your success, but also itself contributes to the larger culture of peer learning. This year, as I’ve been on leave and been on what is turning into a never-ending lecture tour


A Collaborative Guide to Best Digital Learning Practices for K-12

Monday, April 09, 2012

picture taken through a window of teacher helping student with work Below you will find a collaboratively written document produced in Bangkok, Thailand, at the March 28-31 teacher’s meeting of EARCOS, the East Asia Regional Council of Schools.  EARCOS is an organization of 130 primary and secondary schools that primarily use English as the language of instruction.  These include AP and IB schools and a number of other private schools.  We produced the document below on a public Google doc at a workshop, which I structured on the model of an “innovation challenge” of the kind that web developers use to bring together communities to complete a


The Ethics and Responsibilities of the 21st Century Classroom: Part One

Monday, April 02, 2012

lecture hall full of students When I think about the “ethics and responsibilities of the 21st century classroom,” I think not only about our ethical responsibilities toward students but about our ethical responsibilities toward teachers.  I am very concerned that the drop-out rate of K-12 teachers is even higher than the drop-out rate of K-12 students in the U.S. and in many other countries around the world.  As I’ve gone around the U.S. and abroad talking with teachers, I’ve seen over and over how beleaguered they are: by (a) too many rules, (b) too many constantly-changing systems and theories, by (c)


Can Badging Be the Zipcar of Testing and Assessment?

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

drawing of lightbulbs on craft paper I’m excited that next week the judges will be listening to the “pitches” and then determining the winners of the Badges for Lifelong Learning Competition.  Immediately after, will be the opening of what promises to be the best Digital Media and Learning Conference yet, “Beyond Educational Technology: Learning Innovations in a Connected World” (to be held in San Francisco, March 1-3, 2012).  I’m thrilled about both of these showcases for new learning innovation.  But I have a confession to make: when I first began learning about badges, I was skeptical.  I was afraid that, rather than


Why We Need a 4th R: Reading, wRiting, aRithmetic, algoRithms

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

2 young girls sitting in grass woods outside reading school books When Frederick J. Kelly invented the Kansas Silent Reading Test, now known as the “multiple-choice test” or the “bubble test,” he was looking for an efficient way to pass students through the U.S. public education system during the teacher shortage of 1914.  With the advent of World War I, men were off to the frontlines in Europe, women were working in war-time factories, and there was a population boom of new immigrants flooding into the schools.  Taking his inspiration from Henry Ford’s assembly line, Kelly came up with a way to standardize learning and assessment for


No Child Left Behind: The Economic Motive of National Education Policy

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

blurry photo of student sitting outside in the dark on his phone I’ve often thought about how our national educational policy of No Child Left Behind, passed in 2002, reinforces and connects to the increasing income disparity in the United States.  Some of the economic implications of NCLB are obvious, such as the privatizing of the multi-million dollar standardized testing industry or the threat that, if a public school is still failing (as measured by those end-of-grade tests) in 2014, it will either be shut down or privatized.  Even with President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s temporary “reprieve” from this frightening deadline, announced this summer, NCLB


First Person: The Book Tour in the Age of the Internet

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

woman reading a book waiting for a subway Note: We asked tech-savvy scholar Cathy Davidson to reflect on the realities of an author’s tour in the digital age.  Her new book, “Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn” explores whether our brains are cut out for the age of ubiquitous connection.  I’m just back from Washington, DC, where I gave talks at the Howard Hughes Janelia Research Center and at the NEH Start-Up Grant Conference.  I signed books supplied by Politics and Prose Independent Bookstore, as organized by Perry Pidgeon Hooks, and


Going Interactive in a Big Way: How Can We Transform the Lecture Class?

Monday, May 16, 2011

man sitting in shared work space working on laptop sitting on beanbag chair This is the last in a three-part “end of term” series of blog posts on “Doing Better by Gen Y.”  In the first post, one of my students spoke about the paucity of opportunities to actually think critically about the role of digital media in society, in learning, in global relations, in local and global inequalities, and in the workplace.  In the second post, “What Are Digital Literacies:  Let’s Ask the Students,” both of my classes, “This Is Your Brain on the Internet” and “Twenty-First Century Literacies,” helped us understand what about my peer-led, peer-assessed, peer-designed


What Are Digital Literacies? Let’s Ask the Students

Thursday, April 21, 2011

student playing game on the screen of a control room Two weeks ago I blogged on DML Central on “Doing Better by Generation Y” and the tendency for pundits to criticize Gen Y’s absorption with new media, critique how little they know, blame their lack of attention, and castigate their inability to sustain real friendships (rather than “superficial” social networks).  I argued that, even if this point of view were correct, it neither helps young people by providing them with better ways of understanding the social imperatives of the Internet culture into which they were born, nor does it recognize the social media skills students do


Doing Better By Generation Y

Monday, April 04, 2011

braille graffiti on glass window When Lauren Sanders concentrates on her childhood memories, she can recall “the fuzzy sounds of dial-up Internet and the generic female voice cheerfully state, ‘You’ve Got Mail.’” Born in 1990, Lauren is an official member of “Generation Y,” defined by Wikipedia as “marked by an increased use and familiarity with communications, media, and digital technologies.” She notes that’s she’s grown up “around computers and other forms of technology” so, when she registered for my class, “This Is Your Brain on the Internet,” she was sure she “knew everything about the World Wide Web, and its use


Designing Learning From “End to End”

Friday, March 04, 2011

close up of a dandelion When Tim Berners-Lee and a handful of colleagues began developing the World Wide Web, they did so without a blueprint but with something better:  a principle.  What if all the world’s knowledge could easily be transferred between us without going through a central node controlling the shape of that information?  What if my computer could abide by certain kinds of communication protocols, could send out packets of information, and then any other computer in the world set up to understand those protocols could receive it?  What if we all, the human community, could exchange our ideas


Why Teach?

Monday, January 31, 2011

colorful graffiti written on brick wall There are as many reasons to teach as there are reasons to learn.  One reason item-response testing (the twentieth-century’s dominant method of testing) is so deficient is that it tends to reduce what we teach to content (especially in the human, social, and natural sciences) or calculation (in the computational sciences).  Think of the myriad ways of knowing, making, playing, imagining, and thinking that are not encompassed by content or calculation.  This semester, I’ve moved over to highly experimental, collaborative, peer-led methods in my two undergraduate classes, “This Is Your Brain on the Internet,” comprised largely


Peer Learning Isn’t Easy (But Some Days It’s Amazing)

Monday, December 20, 2010

students sitting on couches working on laptops together

I’m not teaching a class this term.  I’m doing something lots harder.  I am making a collaborative, peer-led experience available to students.  There are six of them: three graduate students, two undergraduate students, and one recent alum.  There is no syllabus.  As part of HASTAC and the Digital Media and Learning Competition, my semester has been full of exciting opportunities so I wrote an open letter to Duke students inviting anyone daring enough to join me for a peer-created collaboration to build projects around these events.  I wanted to share the wealth and turn it into pedagogy.  I’ve never done anything like this before so I wanted to handpick the participants in what I call a “Tutorial in Collaborative Thinking.”  I had about two dozen inquiries; if the word “grade” or “requirements” came up in the email to me, I knew the student was wrong for this experiment in independent, self-guided group learning-by-doing.  The six who were bold enough to join have dubbed themselves FutureClass.  They created a class website and even co-created their own logo.  If you’ve never co-designed a logo with six people you don’t know, from different backgrounds, different ages, different kinds of expertise, well, let me just tell you it isn’t easy.  They pulled it off, too. Nothing about FutureClass has been easy.  To begin with, Duke doesn’t really have an institutional category for a six-person group independent study that crosses graduates and undergraduates and alums (including a doctoral student at UNC too), and in the humanities, social sciences, and sciences.  After an exchange of something on the order of a gazillion emails, a department chair (name omitted to protect the implicated) went out on a limb and just signed the form making this anomaly a reality.


Why Is Everyone Worried About Attention Now?

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

a child sitting in front of a radio with bright lights and bubbles representing imagination If you read the newspapers of the early twentieth century, you realize that everyone was fretting then about the “horseless carriage.”  They were positive that the new technology of an automobile that drove itself would push humans beyond their natural, God-given, biological limits.  They worried it would not be safe because human attention and reflexes were not created to handle so much information flying past the windshield.  That debate reached a crescendo in 1904 when the Hollywood film director, Harry Myers, received the world’s first speeding ticket for rushing down the streets of Dayton, Ohio, at


Becoming a Master in Knowledge and Networks

Thursday, October 07, 2010

students connected together by colorful strings of yarn Last December, deans from the Graduate School and the College of Arts and Sciences at Duke University came to me and asked if I and the team at the Humanities, Arts, Sciences, and Technology Advanced Collaboratory (HASTAC) team based at Duke would assess the need and opportunity and then propose a multi-disciplinary Master’s Degree that would help its graduates be prepared for communication, interaction, commerce, and other features of a digital age.  We began work, putting calls out to the HASTAC and Digital Media and Learning community, soliciting feedback on our way to drafting a proposal


Education: Time to experiment, learn, share, mobilize

Monday, July 26, 2010

group of college girls working on outdoor steps At HASTAC, we’ve been very excited this month to be one of the “community partners” for the upcoming Mozilla Drumbeat Festival: Learning, Freedom and the Open Web taking place in Barcelona, Nov. 3-5. The MacArthur Foundation is one of the sponsors of the event and the linkage between the Digital Media and Learning initiative and the Mozilla Drumbeat Festival promises to be exactly the right convergence of people, place, method, and timing to inspire new ways of thinking and learning together. No talking heads, but tents and self-organizing sessions, and real work plans and lesson plans for


Lessons From Sweden

Thursday, June 24, 2010

HUM lab light banner This month I had the pleasure to spend time in Sweden, hosted by Patrik Svensson, Director of the HUMlab at Umea University in northern Sweden, and then with Göran Blomqvist, CEO of Riksbankens Jubileumsfond as well as Arne Jarrick, a prominent historian as well as the Secretary General for the Humanities and Social Sciences at the Swedish Research Council.  It was a fascinating trip but it was especially exciting to talk with these leaders in the world of academe and philanthropy about digital media and learning.  Most interesting to the DMLcentral community were discussions about the


In Praise of Mo’ Better Grading

Monday, May 10, 2010

street sign steep grades sharp curves Meanwhile, back at the pedagogical ranch…You may remember that back in November I reported on my experiment in grading, combining the long tradition of contract grading with what I call “crowdsourced grading.”  Since I was already constructing “This Is Your Brain on the Internet” (ISIS 120) as a peer-taught course, I decided that the students responsible for team-leading each class would also be responsible for determining if that week’s required blogs on their reading assignments measured up to the contract standard.  It didn’t seem like such a radical idea.  This is a course on cognition and


“Scaling John Seely Brown” and the “End of Endism”

Monday, April 05, 2010

teacher staring at chalk board equations I recently had occasion to talk on the phone with someone whose posts on education and social media I follow with interest on Twitter.  ToughLoveforX (his Twitter name) is a retired printer whose scan of the educational horizon in the digital age is as eagle-eyed as that of anyone I know.  I follow him on Twitter because I know that, if I click through to one of the url’s he posts, I’m bound to find something good.  When I asked him what he would do, if he could make one monumental change that would have an


A Thought Experiment: Why grade? Why test? What if?

Monday, February 08, 2010

outside building sign 21st century Let’s try a thought experiment.   Let’s assume we live in a culture where all forms of educational achievement tests have been banned and no one is allowed to assign a letter or numerical grade for anything.   How would we evaluate what students are learning?  How would we decide which teachers were doing their job effectively or how they could be more effective?  Would there be objective (i.e. impartial, unbiased) ways of determining who was the smartest student and who needed help?   And why would we want or need to know that?  Without testing, would being the


Educating for the Future, Not the Past

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Einstein writing on chalk board quote Historian Robert Darnton has argued that we are currently in the fourth great Information Age in all human history.  The first information revolution came with the development of writing in 4000 B.C. Mesopotamia.  The second was facilitated by the invention of movable type (in 10th Century China and 15th Century Europe).  The third was marked by the advent of mass printing (presses, cheap ink and paper, mass distribution systems, and mass literacy) in late 18th Century Europe and America. The current Information Age is the fourth such era, marked by the development of the Internet and,


When Is an Art Museum a Workshop? A Field Report from Korea

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

outdoor art museum installation Earlier this month, I participated in the Digital Natives Workshop hosted by KAIST, the MIT of Korea, and attended by researchers from the U.S. and across the Pacific Rim. My talk on adolescence and the science of attention (entitled “The Kids Are All Right”) has been recorded along with the other presentations and posted on Google Wave by Dave Sonntag, one of the organizers. I also live-blogged at www.hastac.org. After the workshop, we took the three-hour bus trip from Daejeon to Seoul where we had a field day at the Samsung D’Light interactive showcase and then,


Crowdsourcing Authority in the Classroom

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

art work of colorful people assigning student work “A wacko holding forth on a soapbox.  If Ms. Davidson just wants to yammer and lead discussions, she should resign her position and head for a park or subway platform, and pass a hat for donations.” That is an example of some of the negative comments I received when I wrote a blog on grading in my “Cat in the Stack” column on a website for the Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Advanced Collaboratory( HASTAC). I titled the post How To Crowdsource Grading and its premise grew out of a course I taught last year at