Archives for January 2012

All manifestoed out, part I

I was just reading about how young Assistant Professor Newt Gingrich was booted from his History department and dumped unceremoniously on Geography because he was thinking too much about the future for a professor of history.  I fear I may be coming across as a bit Gingrinchy this week, as I just realized it’s only Wednesday and I’ve already written three mini-rants about the future directions of the department and university.*

I’m going to share versions of them here, as each really raises more questions than it answers, and I know my wise and worldly readers may have some wisdom to share in the comments.

Rant the first: On teaching and learning with technology

A senior colleague said The Powers That Be were looking to completely remake the university’s ways of teaching undergraduates within six years, and that this revolution would be brought to us by online courses delivered (I suspect) through Everyone’s Favorite Learning Management System. Online courses, it was suggested, would automagically improve the university’s ridiculously dismal graduation rates.

I couldn’t help but put on my Critical Thinking Cap** and ask these questions:

1. Does the data show whether taking online courses makes it easier for the demographic of students who enroll at Our Fair University to graduate in 4 to 6 years?
2. What are the completion rates of online courses vs. face-to-face courses vs. hybrid courses?
3. Is there a tipping point at which online courses become detrimental to a student’s ability to graduate?  So, for example, I know there are students who have overwhelmingly taken face-to-face courses, but who pursue their last course or two online in order to graduate. The availability of such courses, I imagine, increases the graduation rate for some students. There are also students who would prefer to enroll in a course of study that is predominantly online. Are students who take two courses online more or less likely to graduate than students who take eight or ten courses online?  How do the statistics at Our Fair University  stack up against other Idaho institutions and against peer institutions outside our state?  How does Our Fair University plan to identify those students who would genuinely benefit from online learning–and separate them from students who would likely abandon their courses and force the university’s graduation rate to decline further?
4. Are employers more or less likely to hire graduates of online or predominantly online programs?  Does willingness or hesitation to hire such graduates vary by discipline, geographical region, and/or the institution issuing the degree?
5. As a new faculty member, I’m also confused about the differing narratives about teaching and learning I’m hearing from various offices at Our Fair U. On the one hand, we’re told by Office 1 and Office 2 that we should be “guides on the side” rather than “sages on the stage.” On the other hand, I’m encouraged by Office 3 to take advantage of lecture capture technologies. Such audio capture technologies can’t record the discussions generated by students when I’m being a “guide on the side.” (Nor, by the way, can the videos generated by Echo360 be easily captioned or transcribed for deaf students or described for blind students.) Similarly, I’m hearing how easy and beneficial it is to place “content” into learning “management” systems like Blackboard. A “guide on the side,” however, wouldn’t view students as vessels into whom content should be poured/downloaded, nor would she see student learning as something that should be “managed” with technology. I’ve been involved in teaching with technology, as well as teaching faculty to use technology in their teaching of undergraduates, for many years, so I want to emphasize that this issue isn’t merely rhetorical dissonance between campus offices. There seems to be a deep and profound divide between what we’re told are best pedagogical practices and the technology we’re being provided to help students learn. The university needs to figure this out before we advance further.
Honestly, I’m agnostic about online learning.  I think online learning can be done well, but that it is too often (usually?) done poorly.  If Our Fair University provided instructors with software like MediaWiki, WordPress, VoiceThread, and game development platforms rather than Blackboard and Echo360, I might be tempted to develop online courses. As it is, I don’t feel the university is currently providing me with the tools I’d need to meet the university’s own set of best practices in undergraduate pedagogy.
Academic readers, how are your institutions addressing these issues? Is anyone actually crunching the data to determine the relationship between online learning and graduation rates at regional public universities (or elsewhere, for that matter)?

*To be fair, all three were solicited, rather than imposed in a fit of manic delusion.

**Yes, humanists–even those of us with cultural studies degrees–do have access to such things.

Because we don’t already have enough to do or worry about

The boy has become an even bigger target for bullies, and it has moved into physical altercation territory.  Fang explains.

Feel free to return here to The Clutter Museum to offer suggestions based on your own experiences as a child or parent.  Your stories and solutions are appreciated!


Image by Barnaby Wasson, and used under a Creative Commons license

One junior historian’s to-do list

Thanks in part to the Modern Language Association and American Historical Association conferences, there’s a lot of talk in the blogosphere and on Twitter right now about what university faculty work should look like, public perceptions of faculty work, and how humanists and historians might think more broadly about how their research and careers intersect with public life.

I have more to say about these topics in a broad, waxing-philosophical sort of way, but for now I thought I’d just share a list of my current projects. Consider it one more data point in describing the workload and work life of a faculty member in history, in my case a junior, tenure-track one at a regional public university.

Please do share your own work.  I’d love to hear what’s keeping you occupied, and I suspect I’m not the only one who would appreciate the opportunity to compare and contrast workloads and projects.

Here’s what I’m doing for the next couple weeks:

  • Collaborating with a colleague on a proposal for an NEH summer institute
  • Collaborating with an interdisciplinary team on an NSF grant proposal to produce a monologue-based play about historical women in science
  • Writing a couple short articles  for an informal science wiki designed to inform applicants for NSF grants in informal science education. Topics:  “In what ways have citizen science programs advanced the public understanding of science and influenced public attitudes about scientific issues?” and “To what extent have humanities content, theory, and methods been incorporated successfully into informal science education, why, and to what end?”
  • Revising a chapter on the myth of Black Confederate soldiers for the book Writing History in a Digital Age
  • Planning for my ambitious spring course
  • Filling out IRB forms so I can later publish research about my spring course
  • Peeking at two journal articles that need extensive revision before resubmission
  • Continuing to shepherd The Boise Wiki I founded last spring, at this moment by applying for a small grant
  • Recruiting history majors to present papers at the regional Phi Alpha Theta conference (I’m the faculty adviser for our local chapter)
  • Mentoring my graduate students, two of whom are presenting their museum exhibits—one on Prohibition in Idaho and one on the Idaho boxcar of the Merci Train—this spring
  • Planning two trips to archives, funded by a research fellowship from my college
  • Preparing a proposal for the Western Museums Association conference
  • Playing matchmaker for history interns and organizations
  • Planning for my one-credit spring workshop “Rethinking Museums”

When I look at this list, it’s kind of crazy-making, especially since it comes on the heels of an exceptionally busy December. I have a mentoring committee that meets infrequently, and the folks on it do know about these activities. At our last meeting, their biggest suggestion for improvement in my progress toward tenure was “publish book reviews.” While I understand the utility of book reviews as a form of service to the profession, I didn’t know whether to roll my eyes or giggle, as I think I really have enough other stuff on my plate that might trump book reviews in my tenure case a few years hence.  (Full disclosure: I’m not sure if I’ve ever read a book review in an academic journal.) So I suppose I should add to my list:

  • Contacting journal editors re: book reviews

What’s keeping you busy at the beginning of 2012?

Awesome image by Chris Scott, and used under a Creative Commons license

Trying not to freak out: spring course edition

What do you get when you mix iPads, old taxidermy, hair ornaments, and a near-complete disregard for one’s own pedagogical tradition?

My spring course, History 346: Women in the American West.

It’s the first time I’ve taught the course, and I’ve decided to throw caution to the wind.


40 students, upper-division History, cross-listed with Gender Studies. Books by and about women.


Squatters on Mexican land grants in California. Women Zoot suiters. Manzanar. Dorothea Lange. A hundred years of Chinese Americans. Native American activism. Museum artifacts, some made from human hair. Also probably some taxidermy. Plus: an iPad2 on loan to each student. Several one-page reflection papers. One giant group project.


Covered wagons, bonneted pioneers, Sacajawea, Oregon Trail, Donner party.  Individually authored, end-of-course research essays.

The project I suspect makes some of my colleagues think I’m not playing with a full deck

My students are going to construct an online experience (I’m looking for a better word–exhibit doesn’t quite do it for me) about the history of Idaho women’s amateur arts and crafts. They’ll be drawing on frequently uninterpreted objects from the collection of the state historical society: needlework, ornaments made from human hair, quilting, beading, plein air painting, taxidermy, sewing (clothing), and whatever else we find in storage or on exhibit. They’ll have to research and document these artifacts, take and edit photos, correspond with experts, write essays about women’s participation in each kind of arts and craft practice, determine on what platform they’d like to build this project (I’m guessing WordPress or Omeka, but maybe they’ll surprise me), break down the work across several smaller groups of students, create a timeline to ensure the exhibit is complete, build the damn thing, and put in place quality assurance protocols.

Each student is being loaned an iPad2 for the semester by the university’s academic technologies office, under the auspices of its Mobile Learning Scholars program.  This is my second year as an m-learning scholar.

But basically, yeah, I’m giving the students shiny new devices and asking them to engage in a 40-person, high-stakes group project.

Hey look—I have research questions

1. In what ways does the student practice and presentation of western U.S. women’s history—often represented in its raw form through sometimes difficult-to-interpret everyday objects and letters rather than through political and business documents—benefit from an approach that emphasizes collaborative research and interpretation; technology that allows for a media-rich interpretive experience (including, for example, a closer, relatively three-dimensional examination of artifacts than is afforded by a museum exhibit); and an engagement with potential audience members through social media from the moment of a project’s conception?

2. How does the use of tablet computers influence the depth and breadth of student collaborations and the quality of the work resulting from these collaborations?


  • Frustration with how I’ve evaluated student work in the past (so much grading, and What Really Matters gets thrown into question)—and solutions brought to me in part by thinking about the fox in the video game.
  • Martha Burtis and Jim Groom of ds106 fame. This project is far less ambitious and considerably less wacky than their grand and highly successful experiments, but it has its creative roots and insistence on student responsibility and ownership of learning technologies in the experiments going on at the University of Mary Washington these last several years.
  • Also: Alan Levine‘s insistence on constantly creating, iterating, and sharing.

Anticipated challenges

  • Persuading students not to jump ship or panic when I tell them a good deal of their grade is based on the Mother Of All Group Work.
  • Convincing students, once and for all, not to form their smaller groups with the people who happen to be sitting next to them that day.  (Will they never learn, despite my repeated warnings?)
  • Showing students that there are indeed connections between the readings and the Mother Of All Group Work.
  • Getting students to be reflective about women’s history, public history, and their anxieties about creating stuff with technology—without sounding all touchy-feely.  (“Get in touch with your inner PHP learner. . . What is she afraid of? What can you do to help her?”)
  • Not overwhelming the museum’s fabulous curatorial registrar, who is also one of my grad students, and who is also trying to mount her own exhibit and graduate this spring.
  • Getting IRB approval to study my students’ collaborations and publish the results.  (In progress. . . The paperwork is a headache and a half, as it forces me to be all social-sciencey in a way with which I’m not comfortable.)

I’m at once excited about the course possibilities and dreading finding out the multiple small ways in which it will inevitably go off the rails.  Wheeeeeee!

Assuming the semester doesn’t get too busy and stressful (ha!), I’ll blog about the course here at The Clutter Museum.

What are you looking forward to (or dreading) about your projects or classes over the next several months?