I’m not trying to raise your consciousness. . .

I was reading this recent article from Science Magazine (abstract in link) and feeling wildly unprepared to apply the most recent scholarship from behavioral economics or from psychology to creating my anti-poverty course design principles. Not that the principles couldn’t benefit from such insights. For example, in the linked article above, the authors argue that “poverty may favor behaviors that make it more difficult to escape poverty,” such as privileging short term gains over long term returns (what academics call the discount rate) or avoiding risk (risk aversion). The negative feedback loop identified in the article is that poverty creates certain mentalities which then influence poor people’s decisions making capabilities in ways that only serve to reinforce actions that keep those same poor people poor.

Some might see this feedback loop as crushing, but I (and the authors), see the possibility for psychological interventions that break the risk aversion and time discounting behavior at strategic points in people’s lives. A little bit of help can go a long way. I’m reminded of an ongoing assessment project our psychology dept. is doing in coordination with a professor from the University of Minnesota. In short, there is some evidence that short interventions can reduce students overall stress rates. Watch a 15 minute video, report lower stress at the end of the semester (I’m way oversimplyfying). Put another way, well-placed mental and emotional windows that give students the view and breathing space they need to continue through what seems like a dark tunnel. 

As I considered the options for interventions, and reviewed recent tweets from other professors working on poverty, I realize there is one thing this project is not: consciousness raising. I’m not trying to get people to pay attention to poor people or to rethink what it means to be poor in MN. I start from the premise that we have poor students who need better classes, and everything organizes teleologically behind that implicit goal. I keep seeing statistics about the number of kids in poverty (approximately 1 in 5) or the growing inequality between the top 20% and the bottom 20%. And those numbers matter, but I’m not trying to make a case for the poor. I’m not working from some a priori logic that if I can get people to notice poverty, they’ll want to do something about it. 

I don’t know if the architects who built wheel-chair ramps and 36″ wide doorways (both important innovations in Universal Design) went around trying to convince people of the importance of treating disabled individuals as full human beings. Or if the architects just built what would allow everyone to have access to buildings, and let the consciousness rise as it would. Maybe it’s a bit of both. Still, there aren’t going to be protest songs, placards, or satirical cartoons coming out of this project to jar academics to recognize poverty in some new way. New thinking would be great, but also great would be just new action; a faculty member who looks at my list of things to do to help poor students and says “Yeah, that’s easy, I can do those.”  

How to teach Digital History at the introductory level.

One of the aims of my course design is to introduce digital history tools at the introductory level. At Normandale Community College, these are our 1000 courses. Let’s dispense with the nonsense about digital natives being better with technology than digital immigrants. I fall squarely in the middle of these groups, graduating from my undergraduate in 1997, and I know retired folks with strong tech skills and teenagers for whom the world wide web is very small world. I like to say that all students have uneven penetrations of technological knowledge, which means teaching a class of 30-45 involves significant differentiation of instructions, both in content delivery and skill development.

I’ve taught my students to research, write, and record podcasts for 6 years or so. The research and writing is pretty standard stuff for history courses, but the recording requires a small degree of technical confidence, if not technical skill. From my podcast lesson plan, I’ve come to appreciate the need for scaffolding assignments both based on content and on skills.

One person who scaffolds digital history lesson plans beautifully is Michelle Moravec. Her lesson plan on data mining a text (known as distant reading) is a picture of clarity. In two months I will have a distant reading lesson plan that looks remarkably like this one (with attribution of course). I’m thinking the work of Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq, a 16th c. ambassador of the Holy Roman Empire to the Ottoman Sultan, would be brilliant for this sort of thing.

Speaking of attributions, I finally bothered to figure out how to use Getty Images for free. You need to hover over you chosen image, which brings up a </> tag in the lower right that allows you to embed with appropriate attribution. Posting historical images is now crazy cheap (free). Thanks Getty!


Walking before I run: a basic outline of tools for my course.

I’ve decided on the categories of tools around which I’ll build my course. I’m trying to think like a student, so I’ve put everything into simple terms. In eight, two week lesson plans we’ll cover:

  1. History bootcamp: what are primary and secondary sources, how do historians use evidence and language. 
  2. Words: Analyzing texts with both close and distant reading (Voyant, Ngrams).
  3. Pictures: How to locate, evaluate, and analyze images on the web.
  4. Timelines: How to build robust, explanatory web-timelines (Timeline JS, Dipity)
  5. Exhibits: How to curate an web-exhibit (wordpress or omeka)
  6. Numbers: How to work with numbers to understand the past (IPUMS, Gapminder, Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database)
  7. Conversations: How does social media shape how understanding of the past?
  8. Maps: Using GIS to plot the past (MapStory or Harvard’s Worldmap project). 

Likely not in that order. 

Going down the GIS rabbit hole. . . with data viz on the side.

I decided to go with MapStory over Google’s MapsEngine for teaching introductory GIS to my students. Maps Engine is stupid-easy to use, but lacks the MapStory’s change over time features. The disadvantage of MapStory is that I need to learn QGIS and possibly teach it to my students for them to get the most benefit from it. 

MapStory facilitates learning QGIS with strong links to lesson plans scattered about the web on using QGIS. Still, as I’m already on the hook to teach myself R and statistics with SwirlStats, I jump into yet another subject matter with some trepidation. 

On a non-digital note, I just got The Book of Trees: Visualizing Branches of Knowledge by Manuel Lima out of Hennepin County Library. As I think about how to train my students in visualizing the past, it’s useful for me to look to those more expert than me in the visual world. I’ve only played with the book, but can already draw some preliminary conclusions, none of which I suspect are original but are nonetheless necessary to developing future lesson plans: 

  • Representing data in visual formats that explain or enhance our understanding of the past depends on the quality of the data. For example, most of the trees in this book are from Europe or the U.S., great but insufficient for a full understanding of how tree visualizations have been used in world history. The graphics of the trees are stunning with even medieval manuscripts in HD picture quality. Still, I’ll need to be clear to students that the seductive beauty of data visualizations shouldn’t be taken as enhanced accuracy. Pretty isn’t better, necessarily. 
  • Much of understanding historical data visualizations relies on an understanding of symbolism. Everyone can understand a family tree is not literally a tree. Yet, moving beyond that minor example to how the symbolism of data visualizations constrains and illustrates causal relationships will require some thought. Data, even prettily displayed in familiar metaphorical representations still requires a robust understanding of what we often associate with more literature-based concepts: metaphor, simile, and allegory.
  • Data visualization holds the promise of showing historical connections heretofore buried in spreadsheets or narrative notes. We can actually understand the past in a fundamentally different way now. How to convey the idea to students that what we know about the past may radically shift as we apply digital tools to history requires further thought. 

Safe home. 

Not the musical montage, high action part of teaching.

Today I worked on learning the programming language R in SwirlStats a bit more. 

I pondered if I need to get institutional review board permission to talk to students about the antipoverty pedagogy. 

I committed to attending a Poverty Institute (weirdest pairing of nouns I’ve seen in a while) that will be two days in October at a Twin Cities university. 

I thought more about what digital history tools (mapstory or google mapsengine, wordpress or omeka site) I want to focus developing lesson plans on. 

There are days when teaching flashes, thunder rolls back the ignorance, apathy, and fear that stalks our students, and the vanguard’s call leads us all to a better tomorrow. Today was not that. But still, I count it a win. 

Safe home. 

Should sites about poverty be well-designed?

A reading day.

A recent report on developmental education in MN that has a bit of data on poverty.

Also, these videos that address interventions faculty use to help first-generation students at Heritage University in Washington.

And I’m bouncing around an ancient site, Communication Across Barriers, that has wonderful information hidden behind a 10-year old site design and slow server.

Just starting to think about the info from these sources, but right now I’m contemplating website design and poverty. To the extent that people take web design as a proxy for intelligence, seriousness, credibility, or resource abundance (of the organization) to what degree do old or ill-designed website shape the reception of the information contained in them? Communication Across Barriers is a great example: smart people posting valuable resources, but the site looks largely as it may have in 2007 when it was copyrighted.

(Oh, I just used the waybackmachine of the Internet Archive: I was right, exact same site design).

A silly and petty thing to notice, really, but I’ve been thinking about how design and data visualizations shapes our reception of information and perception of its importance.

Safe home.

In which technology opens doors and wastes time.

Because I know that a big project requires organization, I’ve put together a project management document using Zoho (and Indian web service with email, CRM, project management, etc. . . patterned on google but paid and without advertising). The project management document in zoho is not shareable, so I’ve exported it to google docs as an spreadsheet. See it here.

A colleague told me yesterday, “You’re trying to cram a sabbatical into a summer, good luck.” She was sincere, both in her work estimation and encouragement, yet it reminded how much workflow and efficiency will matter for this project. 

For example, I’m trying to decide if this blog is better on wordrpess.com, which has limited functionality but no upkeep, or if I should host it myself, allowing me to use all sorts of plugins but also requiring maintenance. As I compile resources, often links to web pages or documents I create, should I embed those documents here, or share their origin database, say in Zotero? I follow digital historians on twitter and across the blogosphere, and there appears to be no common or best practice. So, I’m going to do what takes the least time, a practice that will likely be less elegant but leaving more time for other things. 

Next up, reviewing some of the literature on poverty and pedagogy I’ve already compiled, and reviewing the digital history tools I know exist.

Safe home. 

The danger of big projects. . .

So my previous posts have sketched my summer project as a narrative. But I can’t work based on paragraphs, so I’m using a project management tool from zoho.com. For those who don’t know, project management is one system for ensuring any project gets done. It breaks down the project into categories based on what needs to be done, when, by whom, and in what order. Any organized mind would define the same categories, project management just gives you a format, and perhaps more usefully, well-designed software, to make the organizing easier.

 A staffer at Normandale’s institutional research office trained me on project management in a couple, short sessions, and I immediately saw the value for my scholarship, teaching, and service work. Much of project management gets used on huge projects, like building university parking ramps, but the basic ideas inform any project. 

I find that using project management software helps me sequence what I need to do, and keeps me realistic in my timeline goals. For example, I can’t create tests for me course until I’ve first researched the sources, developed my digital history skills, and created the course design principles. If I’d known about project management in grad school, I dare say I would’ve complete my dissertation faster and with less static with my advisor. 

I’ll try to share the spreadsheet version of my project later. I don’t think zoho allows for linking to their website to share that way. 



Free is better. Why I’m giving away my course.

Part 4 of this project isn’t terribly exciting, but it holds the most promise. After I’ve created anti-poverty-course design principles, built a course based on those principles using free primary and secondary historical sources, and incorporated a panoply of digital history tools into the course lesson plans, I want to bundle this course and give it away under some type of create commons licensing. There have been a variety of efforts to collect and publish syllabi, which might help researchers and intrepid faculty willing to mine others’ syllabi for nuggets of androgogical gold.

I’m not interested in mining syllabi for research, Continue reading “Free is better. Why I’m giving away my course.”