Not sure where I’m going with this. . .

I’ve concluded, as so many others have, that the Learning Management System at my school does more harm than good to student learning. Not that the LMS is useless: I like the centralized grading, quizzing, and file system- all nicely FERPA compliant. But that’s it. For everything else, I want to use the public web, if possible.

So, imitating much smarter people, I’m putting my course on the open web. I don’t have the time to teach myself how to create static pages using jekyll and github, so I’m just going to run two installations of a wordpress on my own server. I’m toying with just linking to github pages for all the assignments and readings, gathering than posting them as HTML in wordpress, but that feels like I’m asking a bit much of my students, to learn to navigate two new interfaces.

One of my frustrations is that I have few to no resources at my school to help me work through these issues. IT and our instructional technologist are great, but with skills very different than what I’m working on right now. Plenty of historians around the country teach on the open web, and many post their syllabi and assignments to github for others to use. I met some of these amazing folks at the Digital Humanities Summer Institute , but their new colleagues, not the kind you can ding with newbie questions on workflow.

Curiously, for all the tech getting-up-to-speed I’ve been doing, the mindlessness of it has allowed me to reconsider more teacherly aspects of my courses, such as assignment design and how to promote historical thinking in a scaffolded way. I want my assignments to ask more open-ended questions that inspire curiosity, rather than settle for mastery of a timeline.

If you think this post is wandering, I did warn you in the title. . .

Safe home.

What do you value?- [Updated post] #budsc15

What do you value? [

I’ve had an itch all weekend long I couldn’t scratch until this morning. Session after digital humanities session highlighted the possibilities offered by new (mostly software) tools for understanding our world. Questions that might once have been improbably hard to answer (how often does a historical figure mention the ten cities closest to her home city in a work of 10,000 words) can no be dispatched with the flick of mouse. Particularly impressive have been the the two ends of the spectrum, field defining scholarship and more limited yet nonetheless fascinating undergraduate projects.

Yet, for all the brilliance of the technology, methodology, and–at times–andragogy of the presentations, I missed something. Rather, I saw it in asides, tangents, dry humor, and apologetic caveats: why does DH matter? I heard about the ability to access knowledge in new ways (digital vs analog, dynamic vs. static), new ways of analyzing established sources (distant reading, GIS, computer mediated transcription), and new ways of displaying existing information (student exhibits, DH research websites), but I didn’t hear a lot of why are we doing this.

Yes, we can. We can plot locations, parse data, and generally code the sum of human of existence into submission, making it bow to our technological prowess. Should we, and if so how should we? What do we value, as individuals, as educators, as scholars, as community members? One participant asked why I taught DH at the survey level and I said to get my students jobs. And while that was honest, I didn’t highlight the value behind that answer, that skilled paid work gives students options for a better life. Like you, I want to improve my students’ lives. And I don’t want to hide that, nor should you.

If you teach DH because you want to make the world a better place, say just that. If you don’t care about the world and just want to advance your career, say that. If you’re a nihilist who believes DH is just as useless as any other pursuit so why not do it rather than bake bagels, say that.

My point isn’t to superimpose my values on other’s andragogy, only to call for greater attention to the values embedded, explicitly and implicitly, in our DH work. As Vance Ricks, a philosophy professor at Guilford College, noted to me during a coffee break, if we fail to articulate our own values, the values of our work will be shaped by others. Knowledge creation is not neutral, even if combinations of 0 and 1s appear so.

To give relief to these general musings, consider the use of GIS to chart the ancient world. Some of the most prominent projects take well-know texts and geolocate references in the texts. In short, take famous text (Herodutus) add GIS and stir. It’s fantastic, truly. At the same time, historians have worked for half a century to expand what we know about the past beyond the elites that created most of our primary sources. For example, understanding women in ancient Greece requires reading “across the grain,” looking for the gender dynamics of ancient Greece in close readings of texts that are references against scant other sources, such as art, poetry or financial records. In short, our source record speaks directly to the immediate experience of maybe 5% of the ancient Greek world and historians have found creative ways to learn more about the other 95%.

If we go back and simply apply DH tools to existing sources, we risk reproducing the blindspots of historians 50 years ago. Or worse, we risk re-articulating the value that only the elite males of the past made history worth studying. As I reconsider my thoughts, I think it important to distinguish between undergraduate projects–which should be first to teach and second to advance scholarship–and more advanced work–which should know better.

I also want to acknowledge the folks I saw who presented work that both “liberates data” and “liberates people.” Matthew Cisk is working on mapping the South Bend community so that the city and the community can improve their neighborhoods. Sabina Deitrick and Abigael Wolensky went into Homestead and West Homestead and worked to make digital technology serve the people of those communities. And many people shared stories with me about how important using DH to improve society was to them. Miriam Neptune noted that technology can separate or unite students of color with their classmates, depending on how its deployed. I am hopeful these efforts continue, even flourish.

That’s a lot of words for this idea: why do you do DH?


The best of intentions, the brightest of minds.

Today I attempted to attend a conference being held at Stanford called the Digital Learning Research Network (dLRN) 2015 – Making Sense of Higher Education 2015. I couldn’t attend because my youngest turned 2 today.

Part of the conference included virtual chats with presenters conducted through Google Hangouts. If I can’t attend a conference I often follow the conference hashtag, and have learned much from that practice. The promise of the virtual chats, which the conference organizers called Virtually Connecting, was to “enliven virtual participation in academic conferences, widening access to a fuller conference experience for those who cannot be physically present at conferences.

I participated in two and half sessions. The first proved the promise of this type of conference outreach. Adam Croon and Jim Groom offered a quick comparison between punk music and education technology (edTech for the uninitiated) and pondered the counter-narratives created in both music and edTech. A couple of remote folks asked questions, which Adam and Jim answered. It wasn’t long, half hour or so. Still the energetic engagement of the presenters gave such energy to the discussion I wish I could bottle it and sprinkle a little around every academic conference I attend.

The second session was to be an introduction to Virtually Connecting and that’s when the wheels started to come off the cart. First, we didn’t start on time. If you’re at a conference and it starts late, it doesn’t matter much. The nature of the conference is that you likely don’t have to get back to work or family. When remote, lateness means you’re not doing something else you need to. Then, a couple of brilliant folks (sincerely, the presenters were all smart, engaged education professionals I respect)  came on to explain Virtually Connecting with a Power Point that tried to make the case that Virtually Connecting sought to expand the participation beyond the local conference.

In my world, “Power Point” and “participation” should not be used in the same sentence. I couldn’t even tell who was talking as only the remote participants had their cameras on: the local presenters kept the Ppt slides in their window.

After 10 minutes of waiting for the presentation and then 10 minutes of people talking to me about participation, I switched to the Hangout I was most interested in: a discussion with Bonnie Stewart on the sociocultural implications of digital learning. I waited for the introduction to Virtually Connecting to finish. It did and Stewart began the chat. We introduced ourselves and Stewart tried to summarize the session that was held just prior, and then asked George Station to recap a little of what he had presented.

And then she apologized and said the session needed to end as the next session was starting. That was it.

I felt sad, and a bit angry, especially given the promise of the first session.

So what lessons did I take from my Virtually Connecting?

  1. I’d define a focus for the Hangouts beyond just inclusion. Technology offers access, but the success of a virtual discussion requires an objective (or multiple ones). I’m reminded of this access vs. success conundrum as I pour over my college’s graduation and placement data. We’ve done a great job getting people to show up- and then. . . (Bali blogged on a similar subject on October 7th, which may be why this distinction is stuck in my head.)
  2. Introductions should be short. Discussants matter, but not as much as the discussion. Afterwards I realized I included three titles, my school name and the location of my college relative to the nearest large city. Yeah, I’m windy.
  3. Andragogy is not just for the classroom. I got to meet two of the teaching rock stars today (Groom who runs Reclaim Hosting and Maja Bali whose writings on teaching I’ve taken to heart for at least a year). These are folks I admire deeply for their creative approaches to digital learning. And yet, the intro to Virtually Connecting and the Hangouts demonstrated more technological prowess than teacherly planning. That’s a hard thing to write given my admiration for the folks running dLRN and Virtually Connecting, and I speak as an ally, not a critic.
  4. Setting expectations is important. I think I expected too much of these Hangouts. They couldn’t replicate or even offer a fraction of the value of the conversation that happened at the associated conference sessions. My let down was partly of my own making. Following the conference hashtag or reviewing video from the event could’ve given me what I wanted.
  5. Meeting people face-to-face, even virtually, is a thrill. That I got to say hi to Bali and ask Groom a question makes me feel like I’ve more digital humanities nerd cred and motivation than I had this morning. As educators fighting a rearguard action against fear, ignorance, and apathy, anything that motivates, matters. I even got to meet another digital humanities scholar in Minnesota- which really made me feel like I’m less alone in my work.
  6. The power to create quick, weak, networks that could expand into stronger relationships seems the great potential of the Hangouts (as the organizers hoped “It is our hope that through this experiment, people will not only make new connections, but they will also make weak connections stronger.”)

These are just some thoughts, and not terribly well-organized. Still, I want to offer something other than a quick Dickensian, best of times, worst of times, comment while my memory is firm.

Safe home.

Running with students.

5:30 am

I’m sitting in a hotel room in St. Charles, IL, just outside Chicago and I’m about to do a hard thing: run a marathon.

This exists to chronicle the challenges of leveling the playing field for poor students in my history courses, so running may seem far afield. Even so, it feels dishonest to not note something so prominent in my life. On runs I craft lessons, puzzle out how to reach students, despair and revel in recent classes, and sometimes just forget I teach and mind the glory of the state of Minnesota.

Perhaps the most important intersection between my running and my students is the strength I draw from them. So many faces challenges far beyond those I’ve faced, or challenges I faced with 15 years more experience. Running a marathon is not easy, but for many of my students, life is harder. It’s harder for the recovering heroin addict who shared his recovery story with me in the fall of 2009 when I came to Normandale. It’s harder for the student of mine who works overnight-shifts at a factory so she can send money home to her father in E. Africa. It’s harder for my student who is 19 and raising a child alone. Their stories are theirs and I don’t wish to co-opt that power, but I will run on it. I run inspired by a decade of students, every one with a story.

I need to run now. I do not run alone.

Safe home.

On incivility in the face of failure (@neatline, @omeka)

I’m trying to use Omeka and Neatline to help my students think about history as something we make, not that we receive. Omeka and the plugin Neatline make hosting online exhibits fairly easy, and hugely easier than coding your own CMS with a GPS interface.

Still, there are things that aren’t obvious, especially to a neophyte. There’s a bunch of technical rubbish that amounts to one-part niggling user interface quibble and one part shame of the “my students need to learn 21st century skills and I’m failing them” variety that erupted in some Beetle Bailey cursing on twitter today. That was low on my part.

Neatline and Omeka twitter handlers kindly declined to #@$% back, which makes them the better people and better educators.

And I learned a lesson in what some of my students must feel when having reviewed all the documentation I’ve given them, they still can’t get something to work.

Humbling, but I’m going to fail this lesson fast and get back to teaching.

Safe home.

Trying to avoid the LMS sandbox

There’s an old joke that when an old man is asked directions by a passing motorist about how to get to the next town, the man answers “you can’t get there from here.” That story encapsulates my feelings for much software, especially our LMS. Witness my latest efforts:

I’m writing all my posts in Markdown so that I can publish them in multiple formats using Marked. The original txt files then aren’t subject to weird formatting errors that happen with MS Word or bad html conversions. As a historian I also like the future-proof element of writing in plain text.

So I wrote up a citations page for the readings for week of my class, exported it as a PDF, and saved the PDF to our LMS. But the LMS likes to open pdf’s in its own viewer, and that viewer doesn’t always recognize links. Also, the viewer shrinks a full page to 1/3 of the computer screen, which makes reading a document an absurd exercise in magnifying and scrolling. Students can download the pdf, but it’s an extra step. I’m looking for one-click usability. So, I switched the file to an HTML file that opens a new tab.

In other efforts, I realized the get-to-know-you quizzes I had in the LMS were cumbersome and wanted something more concise. So I thought, “I can export the quizzes as a CSV file right, and then build a google form?” Nope, I could only export xml, which would’ve required significant cleanup. For 35 questions, it turns out retyping was faster than actually using the LMS.

Increasingly I’m coming to value the flexibility and usability of tools outside our LMS and am thinking about how to offer these things to my students without turning my classes into an website account-creation hackathon. Single sign-in is important, but how important? If you can’t get there from here, why stay here?

Just a few technical details. . . on the imaginary “time off” for teachers.

I’m redesigning my World History 1 course around digital history projects with texts that are free to my students. So that my students have access to the sources I selected five sources from one of our college libraries databases, downloaded those sources as pdfs, stitched the pdfs together using Acrobat Pro, wrote up citations for the sources in Markdown (recall I want to be able to give this course away so documenting everything in a format that others can easily play with is important) and . . .  then, uploaded the sources to a third-party clearinghouse (SIPX) that will ensure our use of the databases clears Title XVII of the U.S. Code on copyrights. That last part requires minor navigation of our college’s learning management system so that students don’t have to sign in to our library or another website to do their readings.

Citations in code.
Citations written in markdown.

Now, if you teach, I’d wager that little in the above paragraph impresses you. You probably do similar electronic jumping jacks all the time. But if you don’t teach, please note my activity was for one week’s worth of reading. I still need to design the quizzes and the digital history assignments around the readings. I’m on summer “break.” This is what we do- a highly-skilled and time-consuming dance that requires time away from face-to-face contact in order to continuously improve our teaching.

So tonight, if one presidential candidate makes a snide comment about educators, I’m going to roll my eyes. Congress may not have its eye on our students’ futures, but I do. . . you too I bet.

Safe home.


New format and the absence of values in e-Learning.

To the five people who read this blog: I’m playing with themes. I’ll find one that works soon and stick with it.

In the mean time, consider the distant reading I did of the entire program of the recent e-Learning conference put on by the University of Minnesota and the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities. I the plugged the text of the entire program in Voyant, and searched for words that address poverty. You can see what I found.

To be fair, there were a couple of presentation about open education resources, but those focused on books, not students.  Next time you attend a conference, scrape the entire program into Voyant and see what it tells you.

Graphic of voyant.
What words were missing from the program of the conference? See the graph on the right of the image for the words I queried.

What is a better train wreck.

When I originally conceived of the title for this blog, I was stealing a phrase used about patients who have myriads of medical problems. Colloquially and away from patients, doctors call these patients train wrecks, everything is wrong. There may be mental, congenital, and emergency health problems confounding a team of physicians working like mad to put out one fire after another. When I asked what do you do when faced with such a disastrous coalition of ailments, how can doctors cope, my wife replied: “you can always make a train wreck better.”

I thought the same thinking applied to many of my students. Many students have poor to no family support, medical and mental health problems, food and housing insecurity and full-time jobs. One friend pointed out that calling students train wrecks wasn’t terribly respectful even if it was honestly expressed.

I’ve come to realize that there is a train wreck, but it’s not my students. It’s the world around them. How is that our country lacks paid time off for parents like every other western democracy? How is it that someone working minimum wage can still not earn a living wage? How can racism continue to shape our lives in such pervasive ways? How do women still only earn a percentage of the wage men earn?

What I find energizing about the train wreck analogy is that it highlights the scope of the problems my students face. I’m realizing that I’ve been working with a misplaced focus. It’s not about making the train wreck that is society a little better, it’s about helping students survive the train wreck successfully. Read that again, survive a train wreck successfully. That’s mine and every other community college teacher’s charge.

Safe home.