Archives for December 2011

Silent retreating

With all my references to Havi Brooks’s practices, sometimes I worry about coming across as a Fluent Self cultist, but the second half of 2011 has been challenging for me in a number of ways, and I find myself reaching deep into Havi’s wide-ranging toolkit of emergency calming techniques, reflective writing prompts, and sovereignty-preservation exercises. I’ve been doing more reflecting and journaling, taking a quasi Havi-style silent retreat from certain topics on the blog.  I can credit a pretty crazy fall semester, the illness and death of my grandmother in late summer, and a tough year in just about every way for Fang.

I ended the year on a sad note, as I learned that my grandmother’s house is in escrow, so I paid my last visit to it during my annual holiday trip to Long Beach.  The house has been in the family since 1920, so it’s a pretty special place to me.  I took some snapshots of the house from the angles I most want to remember it.  It has a different energy now since it had been staged for viewing by potential buyers, but the house is so thick with memories that I couldn’t help but have a good cry in every room.

Here, then, without comment are a few of the photos from that visit.

Grandma gave me her original wedding ring when I married Fang.

Here’s to a better new year, for us and all Clutter Museum readers.  Thanks for sticking around.

Random bullets of updates

. . . aaaaaand scene!  I’ve turned in my grades for the semester, so now I can focus on grant proposals that are due waaaay too soon.  (Someday I’m gonna get me some of that big humanities money, folks.)

So. . .where have I been lately?

I’ve been serving hard time in solitary in Grading Jail, with occasional time off to work as a plagiarism prosecutor.  For the first time ever, I had a student plagiarize an in-class, handwritten final exam.  That’s dedication, my friends.  Tip for future undergraduates: if we don’t discuss Montesquieu in class, it’s probably best to leave him out of your final.  BWOOP! BWOOP! <—-the sound of my plagiarism alarm being triggered.

I went to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History to check out a couple new-to-me exhibits. Unfortunately, after 10 years of trying to photograph museum exhibits, I’m still crappy at it, but here’s a glimpse of the newish ocean hall:

There’s also a good new human evolution exhibit, as well as a thoughtful one about race in America.  But many other exhibits are in need of updating; for example, 1965 called, and it wants its diorama dinosaurs back:

As my crappy museum photos suggest, I took a lightning trip during finals week to D.C.  Tip for D.C. travelers: Don’t stay in a hotel on a traffic circle, and especially not this one.  I had forgotten how much drivers in D.C. like to honk.  Side note: my room had an exterior door to a shared, hotel-long walkway. It didn’t have a lock on it, and it could be opened from the outside wide enough for someone to peek into the room and possibly throw the improperly installed swing-bar “door guard.” Look, I took a crappy picture of it with my phone one night:

After Christmas, much of my energy will go into planning for my spring course, Women in the American West.  Every student in the 40-person course will be loaned an iPad2, and we’ll be building an online exhibit? presence? experience? about the history of Idaho women’s arts and crafts. I’m talking plein air painting, needlework, Victorian ornaments made of human hair, and taxidermy. Yes–taxidermy! I’m tossing aside the traditional, individually authored research paper for this class in favor of one enormous final digital humanities project co-authored by 40 undergrads.  It could be a total nightmare, but I think my nefarious plans will work.

Intellectually, the end of the summer and first part of the fall was tough, but in the past week I received two invitations to revise and resubmit, one of them relatively simple.  Yay for that.  I also have fellowship funding to travel to archives during both spring and summer breaks, and my teaching schedule in the spring is only two days a week.  This fall it was four days a week, and it ends up such a schedule makes it hard to find time to write.  Who knew?

In family news:

I’m watching my child grow like a weed.  At his last doctor’s visit, he was in the 97th percentile for height, and today we measured him: 4 feet, 3 inches at 6 years, 3 months.  He’s enjoying kindergarten and is becoming totally obsessed with birds and crafting objects out of recycled materials.  Today I taught him how to do running and whip stitches, and he was all about the sewing.  He also seems to be finally catching on to this whole “literacy” thing.  Thank you, Dr. Seuss!

Fang normally does not look forward to the holidays–too much travel, too many obligations–but has been surprisingly chipper this week.

Our 100-pound Lab/Golden Retriever mix–he’ll be 2 years old in February–remains hilariously dumb and blocks our paths through the house most of the time, but is exceptionally sweet and enthusiastic.  His head is so large and cinderblock-esque that he has taken to resting it awkwardly on horizontal surfaces around the house. He keeps us laughing.  Here he is next to the boy, for scale:

What’s going on in your neck of the woods?

Ice Cube salutes the Eames

Although I very much appreciate his comments on the character of L.A. freeways, my fave moment comes at 1:46.

An experiment in online course evaluation

Back when I was in the cube farm of academic technology, we tried an experiment within our then-new course management system: we had a large class (hundreds upon hundreds of students) pilot a mid-semester evaluation.  The instructor emphasized the importance of the evaluation and reminded students to take it, but our return rate was still only 8 percent.  It pretty much soured me on online evaluations, as such a low return rate renders the evals useless.  (At UC Davis at the time, veterinary students did get an invitation to chat with the dean personally if they didn’t fill out their course evals. Otherwise, there wasn’t any institutional effort to “incentivize”* students–that is, the registrar wouldn’t withhold a student’s grades until she had filled out her course evals.)

Fast forward to today. Boise State is offering online course evaluations, but recently the university announced that whether or not a course participates is not up to the instructor; each department either has to stick with in-class, paper-based evaluations or go all in with the online evals.  In the department meeting where we discussed the issue, we were leaning toward paper, and then one colleague said he had piloted online evals and was getting response rates of 90 percent.  I’d like to see the evidence of that, but whatever. . . it was persuasive enough that the sense of the meeting shifted toward a semester trial of online evaluations.

We’ve been told we should “incentivize” student participation in online evaluations, for example by offering perks (e.g. students could bring a 3″ x 5″ note card with them to the final exam or we’d drop the lowest quiz grade) if the class return rate reached, say, 80 percent.  And yes–those are the actual suggestions from the administration.  Never mind that I don’t give quizzes, and my students already can bring essay outlines on notecards to the final–I’m not going to reward students for doing something that I see as part of fulfilling the social and intellectual contract for the course.

So instead of offering to bribe my survey students, I spent an entire class talking (as I often do, but this time more frankly and comprehensively) about why I’ve taught History 111–U.S. history to 1877–the way I have.

Topics covered, and student reactions to each one:

  • memories of high school history, what they learned, and what they’ve used since then: mostly not good, dates and events, and not much, respectively.
  • experiences with, and feelings about, lectures in college, regardless of discipline: mostly bad, crappy PowerPoint presentations; suspicions that a professor or two is bullshitting them full-time.
  • political versus social and cultural history: prior to college, students haven’t been exposed, by and large, to social and cultural histories, except in very small amounts; they find it refreshing, particularly if we’re doing “history from below.”
  • students as vessels to be filled with “content”**  and the relation of this approach to online courses and pedagogies of scale: resentment, boredom, disbelief.
  • survey textbooks***: expensive, unreadable, useless–pretty much unadulterated loathing.

Our conversation lasted 45 minutes, and at the end I made another pitch for them to fill out course evaluations, saying that their feedback is not only valuable to me individually, but it also allows instructors to make a case to deans and provosts and beyond that customers students do think about learning in ways that should matter to us.  I then reiterated to them that I really do make changes in my course structure and teaching style based on student feedback, and that since I may have 30 more years (!!!!) in the classroom, they have the opportunity to make a big impact on future students’ learning experiences.  I encouraged them to take ten minutes or so to fill out the evaluation as soon as possible.

This class’s online response rate thus far, more than halfway through the response window? Twenty-one percent.  Anyone care to guess how little that number will rise, even with repeated urgings, by the time the survey closes on Friday evening?  Leave your bets in the comments.

* Worst word ever?  Possibly.

** Remember when we used to say “knowledge” instead of “content”?

*** For the record, I used  Major Problems in American History, Volume I by Elizabeth Cobbs Hoffman et. al.; Abraham in Arms by Ann Little; Mongrel Nation by Clarence Walker; and They Saw the Elephant by Joann Levy.  Each book takes a very different approach to history, with Little’s being the most traditional (yet also very readable!), Walker’s serving as a witty and searing examination of why different American demographic groups view the Jefferson-Hemings liaison in divergent ways, Levy’s book offering thematic chapters but not footnotes or endnotes, and Major Problems bringing together eight to ten primary sources in each chapter with two essays usually excerpted from books by academic historians.  My students found Little’s book challenging at first but conceded they enjoyed each chapter more than the previous ones.  Walker’s book was puzzling but made for the best class discussion because it was the most explicitly provocative. Levy’s book was the most accessible, and my Idaho students seemed to appreciate its focus on western women’s history, as their exposure to regional women’s history (or, actually, any women’s history) previously was via pioneer wives and Sacajawea.  I suspect most students stopped reading the essays in Major Problems as early as a third of the way into the semester, and many students needed a great deal of guidance in interpreting primary sources.

Whiteboard image by Skye Christensen, and used under a Creative Commons license.

Public history Ryan Gosling

As a follow-up to Feminist Ryan Gosling, someone has created Public History Ryan Gosling.

Check it out.

Comments and advice for students, please?

Hey, I wrote a post over on my other blog about finding a public history or museum studies graduate program that’s a good fit.  Since I know many of my readers have been to grad school, and especially grad school in the humanities and social sciences, if you have a moment, I’d appreciate it if you’d click over there and leave a comment for students who are looking to make what is traditionally a historian’s Plan B into their Plan A.

Many thanks!