And now it’s your turn: help fix my course.

So, I’ve been talking with many about what I could do to help my poor students succeed in my courses. I’m at the point that I want broad feedback, so this post invites all to offer suggestions for how to improve my courses.

[Addition] You can leave a comment, or use the hashtag #fixmycourse on Twitter with your suggestions.

Before you click on “Leave a reply” to offer a suggestion, please read both what I already do and what I can’t do.

Things I already do:

  • Highlight resources at Normandale poor students might use, such as our food shelf.
  • Keep food and toiletries in my office for any student who needs a snack or mess kit.
  • Maintain a small lending library of textbooks for short loans, free of charge.
  • Put copies of all books I use on reserve in the library.
  • Use only free software or websites when assigning digital history work.

Things I can’t do:

  • Offer students any significant resources (snacks I can manage, paying for tuition I can’t).
  • Offer poor students options that differ from the rest of the class. For example, poor students can’t get extra time to work on projects.
  • Lower academic standards.
  • Restructure the institution at which I work or the funding received from the state. I can structure my class: that’s it. I don’t get to hire, fire, build, fund, or defund.

What I’m looking for are endings to the following statements from poor students:

I wish my professor would have done X, that would have allowed me to succeed in this course.
I wish I had known X about college or this course before I started.

All of the things I do already were suggested by students. In keeping with Freire’s notion that any good pedagogy should be with its students, I’m emailing as many of my former students as possible. Comments will be moderated, but I will post all that aren’t spam or vulgar.

Give me your best ideas. If I ever write up anything beyond this blog, I’ll credit everyone who posts with their legal names. One student in Spring 2013 gave me one idea about loaner textbooks and that idea directly helped a student pass my course this semester.

Poverty is not easy.

My recent work has been away from the tech parts of my project, focussing instead on the literature on poverty and teaching. Surprising to me, most work on how to address poverty in the classroom comes out of k-12 research. For example, Paul Gorski’s approach in this article comes closest to the “get it done now and in the classroom” approach that I’m advocating.

Most of the research on poverty in higher ed focusses on student aid (restructuring Pell Grants, for example), support services (early intervention instruments) or psychological interventions to bolster student confidence. All approaches are worthy, though not exactly what I’m doing.

I did reach out to Sara Goldrick-Rab to ask if she’d heard of anyone else working on something like my anti-poverty pedagogy course design principles. Kindly, she responded quickly, noting she wasn’t familiar with any similar projects and offering her encouragement and possible assistance down the line. The kindness of strangers . . . .

I did find one though-provoking model of a course-design document titled ” Check List for Class Bias and Some Recommended Books” (referenced in Gorski’s article above). Published in 1982, the document betrays much of the early culture wars, seeking to root out rather than unpack racist, classist, and sexist texts. Still, the list is structured as a series of open-ended questions, which I like, rather than a bulleted “did you do this” check list. So, if I put my course principles in this format, they’d read something like:

1. What steps have you taken to ensure your electronic resources are available to poor students with uneven access to high-speed internet?

And then I could link examples of responses to this issue. It feels more respectful of the reader to ask a question than to offer an imperative, especially as I won’t be able to test if my ideas work until after I’ve published the course principles. I realized after communicating with Goldrick-Rab that I should be thinking about testing these anti-poverty course design principles, otherwise I’m just working for self-validation, rather than my students’ success. The idea that my education ideas could be tested (and found wanting!), well, that bedevils me emotionally. Still, if what I do doesn’t work, but to fail fast and move on.

As for poverty and ease, well, there’s a special little hell for rich people who read and work on poverty while slurping $4 coffees. Real poverty is harder, I’m not comparing, only pointing out the incongruity I face sometimes. Still, I suppose my analogous life is the one I want my student to have the opportunity to live.

Safe home.


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.