Archives for October 2013

Theodosia Burr Shepherd

For Ada Lovelace Day


It’s been ten years since I first visited an archive and flipped through the papers of a woman who practiced science, and since then I’ve had the pleasure of “meeting” many women who inhabited the margins of professional scientific practice, including some who expanded the boundaries of their fields.  One such woman was Theodosia Burr Shepherd.

Shepherd, who lived from 1845 to 1906, was a seedswoman and hybridizer of flowers who was generous with her knowledge and encouraging of other women interested in trying their hand at floriculture.  She may have established the first wholesale seed business in California, and she became known for her many successful experiments with petunias, poppies, and morning glories. The papers of the day called her “the woman Burbank,” and she was an authority on cactus before it was cool.  She was the cultivator of the famous blue morning glory Ipomoea ‘Heavenly Blue,’ which she described in 1892 as a cross of  Ipomoea learii and Mina lobata, and she created the popular California poppy cultivar Eschscholzia Californica ‘Golden West.’)  She and her daughter, Myrtle Shepherd Francis, created many multicolor, double, and ruffled petunias; Francis even published some of their results in the Journal of Heredity.

Screen shot 2013-10-14 at 9.03.46 PM

Tucked into the Shepherd collection at UCLA, there’s a clipping from a 1905 Pittsburg (Calif.) Dispatch that includes a quote from Shepherd:

I sometimes think that we do not always choose our work, but are chosen, or called to it.  It has always seemed to me that I was called into the field of flowers with a special mission for them: to grow and disseminate them, where they are loved; to write about them; to talk about them, and, most of all, to create new varieties.

And talk about them she did.  Like many of her peers, she lectured to men and women alike about her specialty, but she also wrote more broadly about floriculture and women’s place in it.  A typescript titled “The Woman in Floral Culture” makes clear she was a fan of outdoor recreation for women and an advocate of dress reform, as long skirts got in the way of real gardening work.  She declares the field of horticultural hybridizing wide open to sensibly dressed women, and she encourages them to cultivate hardy flowers whose seeds may be sold to novelty-hungry gardeners on the East Coast.

Her writing was highly accessible; she took pains to bolster her readers’ confidence in their existing botanical knowledge and their potential to learn more through extrapolating from other biological knowledge and hands-on experimentation.  For example, she writes,

“People have been taught so long to depend upon authority to learn things to which they have not given especial attention, that they fail to realize that they have a fund of general knowledge within that will help them out.”

. . .and of floriculture specifically:

I have heard people say, “I love flowers, but do not know anything about them,” or “I love them but I never have any success with them; they will not grow for me.”  Now we all do know something about flowers, and we all may have success with them, if we only apply the knowledge that our experience has given us, regarding other living organisms to plant life.

She romanticizes (in every sense of the word) her experiments to make them comprehensible to others, calling the flowers “lovers” among whom the hybridizer makes felicitous matches.  “Think of the happiness of becoming foster mother to myriads of seed children,” she wrote, christening them, and sending them out into the world to “receive a glad welcome and give happiness wherever they go.”

And they do—at least from me.  Whenever I see a “Golden West” poppy, a ridiculously ruffled double petunia, or “Heavenly Blue” morning glory, I give a little nod of familiarity to Theodosia’s children.

I hope others will join me in recognizing and remembering Theodosia Shepherd for her promiscuous gardening and her generosity in sharing her methods, even with potential competitors.  Have you hugged her morning glory today?  (She would have.)


Morning glory photo by rachelgreenbelt, and used under a Creative Commons license

Catalogue image from the Biodiversity Library

Some serious Dorothy Wordsworth shit


To make it clear that Lucas is not their cause, Fang and I try to explain our occasional bouts of depression to him as “bad brain chemicals.”

It’s been a week of bad brain chemicals for me, with the situation becoming critical on Friday, Saturday, and today. I alternated rest with long walks, conversation with inner monologues. These things usually help, but the bad chemicals persisted.

A revelation startled me from my nap this afternoon; I fetched the pill bottle from the bathroom and realized I had accidentally consolidated two different kinds of visually similar pills into the same bottle.  I typed the imprint number of one of them into a web-based pill identifier and realized I’d been taking an anti-nausea drug (prescribed to me during my epic bout with pneumonia early this year) instead of an antidepressant.  Worse, the anti-nausea pills tempered the first and most obvious withdrawal symptom I experience when I forget to take an antidepressant: nausea.

I popped a generic Prozac into my mouth at 3 p.m. today, my first dose in two weeks.


Tonight I began reading, for the first time—I begin teaching it in my history survey tomorrow—Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s A Midwife’s Tale.  Ulrich interprets the life of Martha Ballard, a New England midwife who kept a journal from 1789 to 1812.  Ulrich uses additional sources to enrich and extrapolate from Ballard’s journal.

It’s one thing, I imagine, to read Ulrich’s book, and Ballard’s entries quoted within it, when one is healthy.

It’s another experience entirely when one is ill.  I’ve been feeling quiet gratitude all evening for the accident of being born into an era of antibiotics, vaccines, and—yes—pharmacological mental health care.


Ballard’s diary features an extensive cast of characters, but we only ever get fleeting glimpses of them. Undoubtedly Ballard knew her neighbors well—she delivered more than 800 of their children—but I can’t claim the same about my own neighborhood.  A casual 21st-century reader of Ballard’s diary probably learns more about her neighbors than I know of mine.


One of the things I worried about when I first started taking antidepressants more than a dozen years ago was that the remnant darknesses in my brain were the source of my creative writing.  I worried that if I messed with the serotonin bouncing between receptors, I’d be disinclined to write.  My therapist poo-pooed this fear.

But I was correct.  My creative output dropped immediately and precipitously when I started taking the pills.

I’m amused, therefore, that despite the irritability and impaired function that marked the past several days, while I’ve been off my prescription my brain has, unbidden by any conscious desire on my part, been formulating scraps of poetry, little scenes, and character sketches.


When alienated suburbanites discover their neighbors have committed some horrifying crime, a common response is, “but he seemed like such a nice man, quiet. . .kept to himself.”  If such were the case with one of my neighbors—he keeps to himself, so I don’t know his name, but let’s go with John—my reaction would be different.

Perhaps: He seemed like such a fastidious man. Not only did he mow his lawn more than once each week, but he used a leaf blower to chase off any stray cut blades that hid in the monotonous green expanse.  When he finally committed to the potential messiness of a narrow garden along the foundation of the house, he spent four days arranging and rearranging topiary and potted ornamental grasses before planting them in the completely level ground.

It would be easy to dismiss him, I suppose, as a shallow suburbanite.  After all, John looks the part; at a glance, he reminds me of one of the brunette men Fang found interchangeable on Battlestar Gallactica. And his choice of plantings is predictable.

Still, I’m sure the other neighbors appreciate his zen-like dedication to removing the tiniest weeds from the sidewalk cracks, his careful stacking of gray pavers to create a tiny retaining wall at the corner of his yard.

I pretend that because of my generosity of interpretation—John’s behavior is zen, not obsessive-compulsive; he is fastidious rather than shallow—he looks across the street at our yard, shakes his head, and instead of calling our lawn—uneven in grass color, species, and length, and bordered by an untamed profusion of perennials of questionable appeal—trashy, he mutters, That is some serious Dorothy Wordsworth shit.

On professional development

In my post earlier this week, I wrote,

Recently, my university revised its general ed requirements, and in order for a course to count toward those requirements, we had to send department faculty to a course design institute to ensure the courses met university-wide learning outcomes. I was actually fine with that, as we were allowed to be pretty damn vague about what would go on in each section of a course–e.g., “assessments may include, but are not limited to, essays, exams, and group presentations.”

Jonathan Rees commented,

I find mandatory administration-imposed course design institutes absolutely terrifying. You’re the expert on how to design a successful history course, not some “learning scientist” or, even worse, a Deanlet. Professors are trained professionals. We should be allowed to do our jobs however we see fit. Allowing vagueness is just the first salvo in a campaign that will end with complete deprofessionalization if all of us aren’t careful.

I have mixed feelings about mandatory professional development exercises around teaching.

On the one hand, I certainly don’t like being told I have to go to them.  Like most faculty, I chafe at the idea of any kind of mandatory “training,” especially since so much training at universities leaves something to be desired.

On the other hand, having worked in a teaching center, I definitely see the utility to some faculty of course design tutorials.  While those of us in the humanities usually have had plenty of hands-on experience in teaching and even course development by the time we hit the post-Ph.D. adjunct or tenure-track (I designed and taught my first course in 1999, and started on the tenure track in 2010, for example), faculty in the sciences often have had no experience in the classroom.  Junior science faculty often arrive on campus after years of lab- or fieldwork, and they were hired—at least at universities with particular kinds of aspirations—because of their research experience.  At UC Davis, I regularly had tenure-line science faculty approach me in their third quarter (after two quarters of course releases), asking me how to teach all kinds of courses or manage TAs.  Our semester-long Seminar in College Teaching was always packed with science grad students and postdocs.

However, we weren’t reaching all the science faculty with our various offerings, and I know there were many who would have benefited from even the briefest orientation to college teaching.

So do I think teaching workshops should be required for some faculty?  Yes.  (In an ideal world, departments would be the ones insisting on such training and ensuring people are teaching well.) I think faculty who haven’t acquired teaching experience during grad school, when they have access to mentors or supervisors, need to be introduced to basic concepts in teaching, such as the relationship of course objectives to activities to assessment. Should the university be deciding for faculty what those objectives, activities, and assessments should be?  No.  But from talking to new science faculty and interviewing their undergraduate students (at the faculty’s request), I learned there needs to be some kind of professional development for teaching.  I’m sure there are some social scientists, artists, and humanists who have also managed to dodge teaching prior to being hired to a full-time job.

I’ve noticed that at many campuses, there’s a good deal of ill will toward the “center for excellence in teaching and learning” or whatever the fashionable name for such centers is these days.  I think a lot of that ill will comes from the teaching centers colluding with administrators on professional development opportunities that are mandatory for all faculty regardless of the individual instructors’ experiences.  At UC Davis, we tried to steer clear of such mandates, and we tried our damnedest to make ourselves useful to the local faculty rather than just preach best practices based on what we read in some journal.

A survey of what?

As my university goes through program prioritization and redesigns its undergraduate core curriculum to feature all the right buzzwords, I’m once again reminded of how broken the history survey course has become.  I’m not the first to say it, nor will I be the last, but the thought woke me up again at 3:30 this morning, so I’m writing about it here.

English departments figured this out a while ago.  They wrestled with the canon, yet–in my experience at least, as an English major and a former lit and comp instructor–they settled on a wide variety of representative works in their lower-division survey courses rather than pretending to cover literature comprehensively. In the broadest surveys that serve more non-majors than majors, there’s some poetry, drama (often Shakespeare), short fiction, and a novel or two.  Maybe some creative nonfiction.  But no one is pretending to offer any kind of coverage beyond “hey, here are some samples of a few genres that have proven particularly significant over time.”

I’m noticing the opposite is the case in many history surveys.  Textbooks purport to share a comprehensive narrative. Publishers’ supplementary materials (ugh) offer quizzes that are more about fact acquisition than any skills listed on the top half of Bloom’s taxonomy–as if the point of the history survey is to ensure students know what caused the Panic of 1837, or what happened during the Salem witch trials, or that Gettysburg is often seen as the turning point of the Civil War.

Recently, my university revised its general ed requirements, and in order for a course to count toward those requirements, we had to send department faculty to a course design institute to ensure the courses met university-wide learning outcomes. I was actually fine with that, as we were allowed to be pretty damn vague about what would go on in each section of a course–e.g., “assessments may include, but are not limited to, essays, exams, and group presentations.” Recently, however, the people who run that program appear to have added another wrinkle: formative and summative assessments.  Quantitative formative and summative assessments, across course sections.

And so one of my colleagues took the initiative to develop a proposed assessment for one of the survey courses we moved into the new core.  It was a 10- to 15-question quiz that asked students to demonstrate some basic knowledge that any eighth grader who has just finished a (very) traditional Western Civ class should be able to pass.  The idea is that students would take the exact same multiple-choice quiz at the beginning and end of the course, and voilà! We can measure and document learning with the quiz scores.


The gap between the university’s assumptions about teaching and what I think works grows ever wider.

I’m teaching the first “half” (Pleistocene to 1877) of the U.S. history survey this semester.  It’s my third time teaching this course, and I struggle with it every damn time, particularly in the first six weeks or so of the semester, when I’m trying to adjust students’ expectations of what a history course is and their understanding of what a history course does.

The course schedule looks fairly traditional: readings from a textbook (I know, I know–I vacillate on this; I didn’t use one last time, and next time I’ll drop it again), punctuated by fairly formal writing assignments, a midterm (an in-class essay), and final exam (also an essay).  But a glance at the syllabus does not reveal at all–at all–what happens in class.

So, for example, for yesterday’s class, we read Chapter 5 of Foner’s Give Me Liberty.  It’s dry, it’s boring–think Stamp Act–but when I ask students here what most interests them about history, the Revolutionary War ranks right up there with the Civil War, so I feel compelled to give a nominal nod toward coverage of the subject.

Once we were in class, I asked students to summarize what the colonists who were protesting the various British acts wanted.  After the students discussed this briefly in small groups, we made a list on the board.

I passed out a press release on the current-day Tea Party’s platform, and I thumbnailed for students Tea Party demographics.

I then asked students if today’s Tea Party adherents, who claim the Revolutionary era as their intellectual and political legacy, are actually in line, ideologically speaking, with the original Tea Party.  My students agreed that, at first glance and even with some reflection, they did, if we’re looking at their political planks. We also discussed what today’s Tea Partiers find attractive, politically and culturally, in that historical moment, at least as it’s traditionally chronicled.

But, as I said to my students, “If there’s one thing you take away from this course, I hope it’s that when someone is drawing conclusions from history for political ends, you say, ‘It’s actually more complicated than that.'”

So, my next question for students was, “How does today’s Tea Party perceive and use Revolutionary-era history? And why does it matter how Tea Partiers represent history?”

We watched two videos that feature history as told by Tea Party darlings Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck:


The first is an easy one for students to analyze, Colbert’s enjoyable theatrics aside: Sarah Palin is a big Second Amendment rights advocate, and she tells a popular story in a way that emphasizes her concerns and inflates their importance.

The second is more complicated. Glenn Beck talking about black history in early America? And taking a vaguely art historical approach?  What the hell rabbit hole have we fallen into here? On the surface, he’s asking for the same thing Clarence Walker does in Mongrel Nation, which we read last week: that Africans and African Americans be fully integrated into our stories of the founding of the American republic because it will change how we understand American history and race relations.

I encourage you to watch the video; it’s a very rich text that, on close reading, yields all kinds of insights into the hopes and fears–but mostly fears–of the Tea Party.

The first thing I highlight for students is that Beck is arguing for less emphasis on slavery as central to the black experience in the United States. As he explicates various paintings, Beck (along with everyone’s favorite early American historian, David Barton) names the African-American men depicted in them, then asks why we focus so much on slavery in telling the stories of black lives.

(Hint: Every single African American Beck names in that clip was a slave.)

My students and I talked about why Beck wants to downplay slavery, why Beck might believe the Tea Party should take an interest in black history at this time, and why this black history instead of the history Beck dismisses rather casually (Rosa Parks and the Civil Rights movement). It was a lively discussion among students from a broad political spectrum.

If this course were in the university’s new core–which many are arguing it should be, if only to keep enrollment up–how would we assess these students, formatively and summatively, in a quantitative way?  Hell, I struggle to assess such learning qualitatively.

I feel just as some of us were beginning to push back successfully against the content coverage model that keeps student learning low–very low–on Bloom’s taxonomy, university administrators and the state board of ed (which, alas, controls all public education in Idaho, not just K-12) once again demonstrate they have no idea whatsoever what the humanities are or what they do for students.

Idaho in particular needs students who can engage in informed, reflective civic discourse, not students who can parrot information from a textbook or lecture. (Our statehouse is filled with party-line parrots.) My students would do miserably on formative and summative assessments like those proposed by my colleague.  But which kind of person would you rather have participating in our democracy–a student who shows one-semester improvement on a quiz, or one who can thoughtfully evaluate politicians’ and pundits’ motivations for deploying history in political discourse?