Archives for August 2011

Cultural and geographical illiteracy ahoy

Pop quiz!

Where, even though both the primary- and secondary-source readings for my U.S. history survey repeatedly used the word “Virginia,” did my students today think the Chesapeake is located?  (And no, I don’t have any international students in this class.)

Leave your answers, as well as your favorite student geography blunders, in the comments.

(I’m going to have to start every class meeting this year with a geography lesson, yes?  I feel really bad for my colleagues who teach non-U.S. history.)

Cookie blogging

It ends up my grandmother’s memorial/family reunion is scheduled for the day we’re having Lucas’s birthday party.  We won’t, therefore, be attending.

Accordingly, I’m memorializing my grandmother in other small ways.

When I was a kid, she and I used to make cookies together–and even once I was an adult, when she knew I was visiting Long Beach she’d make a big batch of frosted sugar cookies for me.  (They were so addictive–I swear she slipped nicotine in them.)

Anyway, I secured the recipe from her years ago, and Lucas and I are making them today as both a way to remember my grandmother* and as a treat to take to this evening’s picnic at his new school.

The cookies are so tasty** that I thought I’d share the recipe here.  (Pictures coming once they’re frosted. . .)

These a simple cookies, but they do take many hours to make.

You will need:

  • 2 c flour
  • 1/2 tsp baking powder
  • 1/8 tsp salt
  • 1 c sugar
  • 1 c butter, softened (room temp)
  • 1 egg
  • 1 tsp vanilla

To make the dough:

  • Beat the sugar and butter until creamy.
  • Add egg and vanilla.
  • Add flour, salt, and baking powder as one.
  • Add a bit more flour if you’re planning to cut the cookies into shapes.  (Dammit–I forgot this step today!)

Chill the dough for at least an hour in the fridge.  I like to divide it into a couple of batches, wrapped in plastic wrap, so that I can pull out one batch at a time when I’m rolling out the dough and cutting it into shapes.

Preheat the oven to 375°.

Flour the surface on which you’ll be rolling the cookies.  (I use a large wooden cutting board, and I always put down more flour than I think I’m going to need; this dough gets sticky.)

Roll the dough out in small batches–I usually roll it to be between 1/4″ and 3/8″ thick–and cut into shapes using cookie cutters or, if you’re really artistic, freehand with a sharp knife.

Grandma instructed me to place the cookies on the bottom rack of the oven first, and move them to the top rack after five minutes.  I usually just leave them on one rack, but you do need to keep an eye on them so that they don’t brown too much.

Let the cookies cool.

To make frosting:

Beat together half a cube of melted butter (note: if you like lots of frosting, use a whole cube) with powdered sugar until it forms a thick paste.  Add warm milk slowly until you reach a consistency you like.  Add vanilla or mint extract, or fresh-squeezed orange or lemon juice (and zest), depending on your flavor preferences.  Add food coloring if you’d like.

Spread frosting on cookies.  Add sprinkles if you party that way; these cookies are really tasty with a few of those red hots (cinnamon candy dots) on top.

Let the cookies sit out for a while to let the frosting dry a bit; if you stack them up too soon, they’ll stick together and make a mess.

Keep in an airtight container.  I’m guessing these will last about a week in a sealed container, but usually we eat them all within a few days.  :)

* Grandmother + cookies = cliché, I know, but it rings true in this case.  She was an awesome baker of treats.

** especially to grad students, I’ve found. . .

In memory of my grandmother, who passed today

Carmel Point

The extraordinary patience of things!
This beautiful place defaced with a crop of surburban houses–
How beautiful when we first beheld it,
Unbroken field of poppy and lupin walled with clean cliffs;
No intrusion but two or three horses pasturing,
Or a few milch cows rubbing their flanks on the outcrop rockheads–
Now the spoiler has come: does it care?
Not faintly. It has all time. It knows the people are a tide
That swells and in time will ebb, and all
Their works dissolve. Meanwhile the image of the pristine beauty
Lives in the very grain of the granite,
Safe as the endless ocean that climbs our cliff.-As for us:
We must uncenter our minds from ourselves;
We must unhumanize our views a little, and become confident
As the rock and ocean that we were made from.

— Robinson Jeffers

This poem is packed with comforting metaphors for me today, but also my grandfather was for a time a lighthouse keeper at Pigeon Point, just a bit up the coast from Carmel. Grandma had prints of the lighthouse in her home, and she had as well a model lighthouse with one little light burning, so I know it meant a lot to her.

Fresnel Lighting of Pigeon Point Lighthouse by Sudheendra Vijayakumar, and used under a Creative Commons license.

It’s the first day of classes

. . .so this is all I got.  I suspect I’m going to need a few laughs this week.  You?

“Interning” as a teaching assistant

Let me throw out a (ahem) hypothetical situation. . .

Say (again, just for the sake of this entirely hypothetical situation) that this week I took over the department’s internship program.  Pretend I have the power to approve or reject any internship that would earn a student academic credit from the history department.

Say a Master’s student contacts me and says she wants to “do an internship in” a colleague’s large-enrollment class.  By which she means basically be a TA, do grading, etc.  (We don’t have Ph.D. students, nor do we have standard TAships; grad students pretty much just work as readers/graders in my department, and we only have a handful of those positions each year.)

The student would not, I imagine, be paid for this “internship.”  In fact, she’d be paying for the internship credits.

My questions:

  • Should students “pay to play” as TAs?*
  • What does the willingness of both professor and student to set up this “internship” say about the present and future of our department, especially considering many prospective grad students already turn us down for schools with better offers?
  • Is this really a history internship?  That is–is this historical practice?  Would such an internship be better run through the education department? If so, should we be letting other departments oversee internships in our classrooms?
  • Should an M.A. student earn graduate-level academic credit for grading papers?
  • If the student has done this same “internship” before, should the student be able to repeat it for academic credit?
  • If it came out that this internship-supervising professor is on the student’s thesis committee, and has done this before, and has worked this same student way beyond the internship’s allotted hours, what would you do when the student contacted you for internship approval?  (Remember–you’re a very junior professor.  Imagine, too, that you’ve talked with other colleagues about this, and they’re divided about this internship’s appropriateness.)
  • What if, hypothetically speaking, it emerged that these large-enrollment classes supported by “interning” TAs allowed all the tenure-line folks in the department to teach fewer classes each year?  Would that affect how you approached your colleagues, if you were going to do so?

Your (hypothetical) thoughts?


*I think you know my answer to this question. After all, I received medical and dental insurance, tuition/fee remission, and a salary as a TA at both institutions where I was a graduate student.  Still, I’d like to hear your opinion.

When difficult letters become easy

It may not always be apparent from this blog, but when I put my mind and heart to it, I can write quite well.  I usually overcome writer’s block pretty quickly, too.

But not this time.

I’ve been trying for months to write a letter to my grandmother because I want to thank her for everything she’s done for me.  (I did tell her last time I saw her how grateful I am for her love and support, but I wanted to put something in writing so that she can refer to it when she’s feeling down.)  I wrote countless drafts of this letter but never sent one.

Until tonight.  I learned that she has very little time left—days or weeks—and that she’s so weak that she can’t sit up to read, and probably can’t even hold a letter. She isn’t taking phone calls. I asked my mom if she would read something aloud to her, and Mom agreed.

So I had to keep it short. I was amazed, really, that when it really counted, I was able to finish the note.  I’m pretty satisfied with it for now, but doubtless in a few weeks I’ll think of something else I should have said.

The letter is just over one page, and it comprises paragraphs of gratitude and bullet points of happy memories.

As I wrote the letter, I realized a couple of things.

I wrote to her,

I have pinned up on my bulletin board at work the photo of you that was printed in the newspaper—the one where you’re emptying sand from your shoes. It makes me smile every day. I wish I could have known you then as well as now; how fun it would have been to be young together!

And I do wish such a thing. Over the past decade, Grandma has been telling me she’s been seeing long-dead friends and relatives in her dreams, and that while she finds the experience a bit unsettling, she enjoys spending time with them again. I hope I get dream visitations not only from Grandma as I know and knew her, but from young Dorothy as well.  She looks fun, no?

The other thing I realized is that I need to get back to reading poetry regularly again, as of course even lines I thought I knew well shift and deepen as I age.  I was looking for some scrap of poetry that spoke to the way I feel, and I found it in Walt Whitman’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry.”  I included these lines from it in my letter to my grandmother.  She’s taken to praying lately—even though I never knew her to be a religious person—so I hope she finds in them some little bit of happy eternity, some understanding that she has had an enduring influence on me.

We use you, and do not cast you aside—we plant you permanently within us;
We fathom you not—we love you—there is perfection in you also;
You furnish your parts toward eternity;
Great or small, you furnish your parts toward the soul.

Whatever you believe, I’d appreciate it if you’d send some kind thoughts in her direction.  She could use some relief, some peace.

Grandma and her most recent great-granddaughter, a few months back.

Love this

Regular readers know I’m not a big fan of shows of patriotism and that I’m uneasy about certain kinds of Christianity in public contexts, but I found this really touching:


On Lecture Capture

This past week I received an e-mail alerting me that, because I teach in a particular classroom, I can have access to lecture capture this fall.  The e-mail, from the campus’s tech folks, reported that of students with access to this technology, 70 percent watched at least one capture per week, and 78 percent of students said they would like more classes to use lecture capture.  The lectures get posted to iTunesU and also to Blackboard.

Those of you who know me well know that I have been an evangelist for the use of certain kinds of technology in higher ed–particularly blogs, wikis, c0llaborative mapping, and certain uses of mobile devices–but I’m deeply uneasy with lecture capture technology because I think it’s a step backward from the best uses of technology for instruction.*

Lecturing and lecture capture are by their nature unidirectional. Yes, both lecturing and lecture capture could be made interactive–lecturing by peppering the class period with questions and activities, and lecture capture by adding some kind of commenting or discussion function wherever the audio and video are posted.  I have yet to see anyone use institutionally sponsored lecture capture in this way.

The lectures can be shared most easily within corporate repositories–Blackboard and iTunesU–rather than to open-source, not-for-profit educational repositories.  Yes, iTunesU has some fabulous stuff on it, but I’m not ready to share there.

It’s also too easy for the university to repurpose content in online courses that could be adjunctified. I’m not sure what the policy is at my current institution, but I signed away a lot of intellectual property rights at my last one.  In an age where people seem to think that education is just a matter of “delivering content” that translates into mad workplace skillz, I’m uneasy about providing the university with any multimedia content that could be aggregated into a enormous-enrollment course taught by a grossly underpaid and underinsured Ph.D.

There also may be a misunderstanding or miscommunication on the part of tech folks and their student workers that faculty should be driving this bus. A colleague was teaching in a classroom where a student was in charge of running the technology. She was going to review answers to a quiz they had taken in class, and she asked the student worker to turn off the lecture capture for that time period.  The student refused, saying she’d need to check with her boss.  Because the lectures can be posted automatically, the instructor wasn’t certain she’d have the opportunity to edit out that portion of the class (nor should she have to, I might add–the lecture capture should be at the instructor’s request).

There definitely was a gap in understanding between me and the technologist with whom I communicated about lecture capture. I asked if the system could capture students’ portions of class discussion, and I was told that the system captures only the instructor’s audio, and thus–and I’m quoting here–“we train faculty to REPEAT all questions before answering them, so that they are on the capture.”

This assumes, of course, that students–and not instructors–are asking the majority of the questions.  (It also assumes instructors can be “trained,” which made me LOL, since one of my previous job titles–one I don’t think I’ve ever admitted to–was actually “faculty technology trainer” and even then I knew going in that faculty are not easily housebroken.  This faculty member, I assure you, does not sit. lie down. roll over.)

Lecture capture is about delivering content

I do understand the utility of lecture capture.  As faculty are asked to teach increasingly larger courses, lecturing seems more “natural”–because how could one have a live conversation with 200+ students? (Trust me–it can be done!)  As more courses offer online sections, it’s efficient for faculty members to repurpose in-class lectures for their online students–and it ensures all students receive the same content.

But again, this entire form of course presentation is predicated on a belief that higher education is about acquiring content knowledge and not about encouraging critical or creative thinking.  See, in my Women and the West course I could in a lecture repeat and reinforce what my students have already read in some textbook about 19th-century women’s contributions to, for example, early business development in California (they ran boardinghouses during the Gold Rush–surprise!)–and then test students on that knowledge. . .

What were the three most common forms of women’s entrepreneurship in mid-nineteenth-century California?

. . .Or I could provide them with primary-source materials by, say, Theodosia Burr Shepherd and her daughter Myrtle Shepherd Francis–pioneers of horticultural entrepreneurship in California and cultivators of plants that students likely have growing in their neighbors’ yards or have seen at Home Depot**–and ask them larger historiographical questions.

  • Why might women have been early pioneers of California’s floricultural and horticultural industries?
  • What challenges do you think faced women entrepreneurs between 1865 and 1900?
  • Why, in “The Woman in Floral Culture,” does Shepherd suggest women’s clothing is the greatest encumbrance to their entrepreneurial success in floriculture? Based on your knowledge of the era, do you concur? Why or why not?
  • Why might have nineteenth-century California provided more fertile ground for women entrepreneurs (and scientists!) than states east of the Mississippi?
  • Why are early women entrepreneurs not better represented in today’s history textbooks, especially considering we live in an era that celebrates the entrepreneurial spirit?

The answers to those kinds of questions are unlikely to be cleanly and clearly articulated, either by me or by my students.  And lecture capture is, it seems, all about decisive articulation of disciplinary facts.  (And I so do not do disciplinary facts.)

Lecture capture wish list

I do occasionally “lecture” in five- to seven-minute chunks that students might find useful to revisit.  So. . . What would have to be in place for me to use lecture capture?  (Maybe some of these options exist, but I’m sure others do not.)

1.) Ways to record multiple, simultaneous small-group discussion by students–and a simple way for me to provide some kind of feedback on those discussions, perhaps using video or audio.  (The name of the lecture capture system–Echo360–would imply that technology exists to capture and play back all audio in the classroom, yes? Alas, not yet.)

2.) Ways to annotate the classroom-generated audio and video with text, so that if I wanted to share a link related to a certain moment in the video, I could.

3.) Fully accessible–the software should generate an automatic transcript that I can edit when I find transcription errors.

4.) Video and audio must be fully, and easily, editable by me.

5.) A setting that ensures only I, and no one else, can upload the videos.

6.) A choice of how open I’d like to make the videos–that is, I’d like to make them easy to upload to YouTube so that I can embed them on a (publicly accessible) class blog.  Other instructors would likely prefer Blackboard, but since I only use Blackboard to calculate grades (and I hope to use Excel for that in the future, but I’m innumerate, so I rely on an LMS) and share an occasional document, I don’t want any of my content uploaded to Blackboard.

What about you?

Have you found a satisfactory way to use lecture capture–one that is more about achieving your desired learning objectives rather than student convenience and efficiency of content delivery?  I’d love to hear about it. . .

* Granted, my unease with lecture capture is rooted in a deep distrust of lecturing as a teaching tool.  A select few do it well, and a select few students learn best from lectures–but after working as a teaching consultant for a few years, I observed that most people don’t lecture well, and most students retain next to nothing from the average lecture.

** Doubled, fluted, frilled, ruffled, and pinked petunias! Blue morning glory (Ipomoea ‘Heavenly Blue’)!  Eschscholzia californica ‘Golden West’!