Unforeseen consequences.

I use a great many websites to teach. I do so as  I’m focussed on preparing my students to think critically in a world that finds content everywhere, digital, experiential, even emotional. There is no analog vs. digital, just life, in all its messy glory.

Still, I always imagine my digital tools are going to organize themselves in ways I find useful. Hubris, my friends.

Two quick examples: TurnItIn let’s me set up Peer Reviews, which offers marked improvement over the “everyone bring 3 copies, one for me and two for your review partners” days of yore. In that world, only one copy would show, students would spend 5 days emailing back and forth, and I’d be referring grades for non-compliance. Now, the student finishes the draft, uploads it once, and the exchange part is taken care of. Except, when, say I tell the software to automatically assign two papers to each student to review and it only assigns one. Or I want to modify the peer review and I can’t because the assignment date I set has passed. Some of these issues are technical and some user error, but all of them have yet another learning curve for effective teaching.

Another learning curve is happening right now with my world 2 class. They’re building exhibits using Omeke.net. I’m proud of the work they’re doing. However, a minor technical issue results in students who want to modify the site to make it better, but can’t because I can’t give them permission to do so without letting them also delete other student’s work. TurnItIn and Omeka are teaching me that the only way to actually have a community of learners is to have a community first, built on trust, and not on a benevolent digital dictator. I’m not going to go soft, start passing out gold stars and hugs for rubbish work. But the more structured learning software gets, the more I’m convinced that “open” isn’t just a technical feature, it’s a philosophy that takes time to consider and apply.

Safe home.


New technology vs new pedagogy.

One of my struggles has been helping students learn digital historical tools when I have only recently taught myself those same tools. For example, I’ve designed or modified others’ lesson plans using voyant tools for distant reading or ArcGIS for historical mapping. I had a google maps engine lesson plan that I’d used for a while. . . and then google tweaked its interface and my lesson plan went down the toilet. So I learned ArcGIS instead.

None of these technologies are difficult to learn and all of them have a huge skills/jobs/I can do something amazing! payout. Still, if it takes me an hour to learn a digital tool, that’s an hour I’m not grading, or participating in a discussion, or thinking about how to improve a lesson plan. Teachers, like creative types everywhere, must balance the acquisition and mastery of skills with the practice of those skills (for which we are paid).

In short, any minor, new technical skill I must acquire pulls me away from teaching, and that has meant long nights, and frequent moments of “this lesson plan is good-enough technologically” reflection. This pull between learning the new and relying on the old is a constant for professors, but I feel it more acutely as I’m trying to embrace digital history as a pedagogy.

Courage and time.

I’ve been off this blog since late July, which is both total cowardice and the nature of privileging actual teaching over writing about teaching. To the three folks who follow me, sorry.

To begin again, I’m still working on my four-part project, a world history course that:

  1. uses an anti-poverty course design principles I’m creating (current iteration is here)
  2. uses digital history so that students might learn both history and job skills at the introductory level
  3. uses only sources that are already free to students, such as OER or library databases for which they have access.
  4. bundle the course and give it away under a creative common license.

I’m succeeding in getting students to use digital history tools, but I’m concerned that my formative assessment is so poor or the bar is so low that I’m not optimizing their learning.

I’m only partly successful in my online classes with my anti-poverty course design principles, largely because I haven’t figured out good workflows for closed captioning and I’m making up lessons as I teach. For most teachers that’s fine, including me, but I know that poor students can’t offramp and onramp for lessons as easily, so just-in-time teaching isn’t optimal.

I have stuck with nothing but free resources, but connecting students to those resources has proven a challenge (future post alert).

I’m nowhere close to bundling this course. This summer is realistic.

I’ll be posting more courageously again, sharing what’s working and what’s not.

On how I’ll give away my course (and keep it from publishers).

Some faculty share their syllabi freely, others are niggardly with them. As I’ve noted, this project will share not just the syllabus but the lesson plans and sources for the entire course. I still haven’t figured out how to bundle the materials (or created the materials – gasp). But I have figured out the correct type of Creative Commons license I’ll be using. It’s call an Attribution-NonCommercial copyright and will allow anyone to “remix, tweak, and build upon your work non-commercially, and although their new works must also acknowledge you and be non-commercial, they don’t have to license their derivative works on the same terms.” I’m wondering if there’s a GitHub of pedagogy? 

I’m grateful today for two former students who shared by email and in person suggestions for how to improve my course for poor students. Their insight is invaluable: thank you Phil and Grant. 

Does poverty matter more than race and gender?

From Mary Hermes writing in the Spring 2005 issue of Critical Inquiry, I note her analysis that “poverty and socioeconomic oppression are larger day-to-day factors in students’ ability to concentrate and succeed in school than are the differences between Native American and white cultures.” Hermes wrote about secondary level Native-American kids and their white instructors. This idea that poverty dominates over other identities reminded me of Studs Terkel quipped that Hyde Park was the one neighborhood in Chicago where Black and White lived united against the poor. I’m also put in mind of Sancho Panza’s pithy counsel to Don Quijote that hunger is the best sauce in the world, making all foods tasty. Trained in the analytical trinity of history (race, class, gender), my response to these insights are less scholarly and more visceral. If a student is hungry, what matters their race or gender? How that student experiences hunger may be situated in identity, but poverty seems the greater uniter than the divider of human cultural constructions.  Mulling that one today. 

Safe home. 


I’m a big all over the map right now, but mostly it’s all small ball.

I know I’m behind in my project, especially in talking with folks about suggestions. I got 0 comments on my last post, leading me to think I’ve either a hidden-setting blocking comments, or this blog is read even less than I thought (hard to conceive as I can see the single-digit stats). 

Still, as much as this blog records process, I should note that I’ve been reading both poverty and digital history works lately. Bejamin Levin has perhaps the best quote of the week in his article an Educational Responses to Poverty” from the Spring ’95 Canadian Journal of Education. He wrote “Schools cannot solve problems of poverty, and should say so publicly.” Writing about K-12 education, Levin nonetheless reminds me that any attempt to address poverty in education is a question of percentages, not totalities. For Normandale, I’d like to see our Pell-eligible students succeed at the same rate as our non-Pell-eligible students. That’s not a cure, more of a palliative measure, but way better than a placebo.  

Better than a medical reference, I think a better symbolic representation of an anti-poverty pedagogy  is what’s called small ball in baseball. Small ball in baseballs trying to get runners on base, and then driving them in with base hits. Small ball is not swinging-for-the-fences heroics. It is knowing that a ball hit between 1st and 2nd has a better chance of scoring a runner on third base. Small ball isn’t sexy and it can make the game slow, but it works for many situations. Community College is one of those situations. We aren’t looking to place as many students as possible at an Ivy League school (while then neglecting everyone else). We aren’t looking for glory, MVP awards, or titles. What we want is for the students to score, to get their degrees, transfer, and get “home.” So, what I’m looking for are little things that advance my students, consistently. The Gates Foundation is the epitome of a home-run education philosophy, one big idea that can reform higher ed. My aims are much smaller, but also with less risk for my students. 

Safe home

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.