Reclaiming my voice


For twenty-five years, I have been treated for asthma. I’ve lost count of the inhalers, nebulizers, prednisone, and various other pills I’ve tried.

None of them worked. I wheeze all the time. Perfume, scented products, hairspray, smoke, and air pollution trigger attacks. On multiple occasions, I’ve landed in the emergency room with chest pain and breathing issues. At one urgent care visit this spring, I was prescribed prednisone, which led to a long night of vomiting and dehydration, and then yet another trip to the ER.

All of my adult life, my health and fitness narrative has centered around the limitations imposed by uncontrolled asthma.

That story is wildly inaccurate.



If you’ve met me in person in the past 15 or so years, you may have found me disarmingly, and perhaps even hilariously, transparent. In conjunction with deep listening, it’s my strategy for connecting with people, making them laugh by revealing bits of the “real” me—and thereby, I hope, putting them at ease.

In fact, there’s very little space between the person I present to the world and my authentic self. And yet, although I’m extroverted and talkative among people, I’ve become much more circumspect about what I write.

Some of this caginess emerges from my day-to-day work as director of a campus unit that sits at the intersection of academic technology and faculty development. That kind of work requires a good deal of authenticity, yes—but also tact, persuasion, and political savvy. I need to work with faculty and staff from across the university; I dread having something I wrote be misinterpreted and lead to tension or misunderstanding.

Sometimes I convince myself I don’t have anything useful to say; I tell myself everything has already been said, or I let myself succumb to impostor syndrome. There are so many brilliant historians and insightful academic technologists—what can I contribute?

And then—I suspect like most humans—there are things I’d like to say but can’t. It’s not that I have a dark hoard of secrets. It’s simply that I don’t want to hurt anyone or injure friendships by speaking or writing with imprecision.

Sometimes I can’t put these things in writing, lest they be stumbled across. But these days I can’t even speak them aloud when I’m alone. At such moments, thoughts catch in my throat—literally.



You see, in recent months, I’ve become aware of a tightness in my neck, a painful constriction of my throat. My larynx feels swollen shut, and sometimes I have difficulty getting words out. My voice can get downright gravelly; I’m hoarse for at least part of every day.

I’ve always been a terrible singer—I’m probably tone deaf—but I used to enjoy singing when I’m alone. That’s not the case now. My current vocal range is approximately half an octave. I can’t sing “Happy Birthday.”



My son’s Taekwondo studio teaches its students their voices are their most powerful weapon.

It was at the studio, during a game to see whether parents or kids could demonstrate greater enthusiasm through achieving greater volume, that I realized I had lost control of that weapon, that most important tool.

I could no longer shout.



Late this spring, after a quarter-century of medical professionals not asking quite the right questions about my wheezing, my current doctor asked, “What if it isn’t asthma?”



My new asthma and allergy specialist tells me that in the early 1980s, at National Jewish Hospital in Denver, a multidisciplinary team of medical professionals brought together a group of patients whose asthma didn’t respond to treatment.

They named, and crafted a treatment regimen for, the condition they discovered these patients shared: vocal cord dysfunction (VCD). (Other things VCD patients were likely to have in common: depression and anxiety.)

My specialist happens to have done his residency at National Jewish.



In a few weeks, I’ll see a speech therapist who specializes in getting stubbornly closed vocal cords to unclench. Meanwhile, I’m hyper aware of my inspiratory wheeze, how difficult it can be to begin talking, how awful I sound when I attempt to sing along with even the simplest songs playing on the car stereo.



Many times on this blog, I’ve deployed metaphors to illustrate some of my (mostly mild) existential angst. At first, I thought my VCD was a perfect, if almost too literal, allegory for my inability to blog, and for the glacial pace of my scholarly writing the past few years.

But the VCD isn’t metaphorical. I refine my ideas through conversation, and conversation has come to be painful. It wears down my (literal) voice. A limited physical voice has led to a similarly constricted writing practice.



Through talk therapy, meditative walking and gardening, and reading, I try to demystify the cause-and-effect of my depression. As in my throat, I find a constricted tangle. I’m grateful I’m an exceptionally high-functioning depressive, though I confess the effort that takes can be exhausting and painful.

Writing has always eased that effort. And just as I now know the cause of 25 years of physical suffering and have committed to pursuing therapy for it, I’m recommitting to my writing practice. There’s a practical aspect of this, yes—I need to be assembling a portfolio of meaningful scholarship so I can apply for full professor in a few years. But I’ve always found writing restorative and cathartic; it’s a way to blow the gunk out of my mind and clarify ideas.

I’m calendaring defensively to ensure I have time to write at work and at home. I’ve set up my home office to be more conducive to writing. I’m reading more poetry. I’ve set deadlines for myself.

I’m doing all the things I can do ensure I use my voice, and use it well. Expect to see more of my writing, then, here and elsewhere.

This election, choose your own adventure—or Trump will choose Westworld for you

You can have Trump’s Old West fun times or Clinton’s new frontier. Spoiler alert: One ends badly for most of us.

I’ve become an avid watcher of the new HBO series Westworld. The show takes place in a “Wild West” theme park that sprawls across miles of what appears to be the American southwest. Wealthy guests visit the park to live out their fantasies — from sex to bounty hunting to murder — with the “hosts,” cyborgs who have largely moved beyond the uncanny valley and seem genuinely human.

Westworld’s viewers become acquainted not only with the hosts and guests, but also with the people who run the park — the programmers, roboticists, scriptwriters, management, and one of its founders. The park’s staff craft intricate, interwoven story loops through which the hosts run; the rancher’s daughter, for example, visits town each morning, interacts with guests and hosts, and returns each night to almost inevitably fall prey, with her family, to homicidal rapists. The prostitutes in the saloon charm guests until they die in an armed robbery.

Guests insert themselves into these stories, as literal black- or white-hat characters, saving hosts’ lives or taking them. As the guests sleep each night, the park staff repair the hosts and wipe their memory before setting them back on their narrative loops.

Every once in a while, however, through a glitch (or feature?) in her programming, hosts flash back to previous trauma. Sometimes these memories manifest as nightmares, but increasingly the hosts’ flashbacks happen during the day. Occasionally an external stimulus causes the hosts to short-circuit; in one case, a rancher finds, half-buried in the dirt, a photo of a woman on the street of a modern city. He cannot comprehend this woman.

Throughout Westworld, we see men gaslighting women: the park’s programmers ensure the cyborg women question their own memories, and men on the staff try to persuade two human women that their perspectives — including things they have observed — are not valid. According to these men, the explanatory narratives the women employees have crafted for themselves as they seek to understand the park and its hosts lack the proper perspective.

Read the rest of this post at Medium.

Applying critical instructional design

This is the final assignment for Critical Instructional Design. The prompt:

How do you design an exercise, create content, open a discussion, or build an assessment that is truly critically pedagogical in its design?

What you create as your final project is up to you. But some guidelines include:

  • Create something practical, something that can actually be used in an online or hybrid course;
  • Build into the work a space for reflection, or a space for learning to happen, whatever that looks like to you;
  • Make the work reflective somehow of your thoughts about critical instructional design.

The assignment

In this course, we have broadened our definition of what “counts” as public history, emphasizing collaboration with the public rather than more traditional forms of public history in which professionals “do history” for a public audience. You need to keep this distinction in mind for your final digital project, which calls for you to engage with stakeholders.

This final digital project has three parts:

  1. A wireframe, mock-up, minimum viable product, or other proof of concept of a digital public history project (explained in detail below).
  2. A mock NEH grant application (or other proposal of similar scope) to support the project.
  3. A reflection on the project and mock grant.

The digital project (submitted as a group)

In a group of no more than four people, you will plan, and then begin to build, a digital public history project that serves an underrepresented or underserved audience.

The topic is up to you, but I recommend selecting a topic:

  • that is underexplored;
  • that is of interest to a large number of people;
  • has existing, readily available primary-source images or texts or has informants you can interview easily; and
  • about which you have some background knowledge, or about which you can acquire knowledge quickly.

If you’re casting about for Idaho topics, I encourage you to explore the finding aids for collections in Albertsons Library Special Collections, the Idaho State Archives, or the archives of local corporations.

In the past, for assignments similar to this one, students have proposed or created:

  • a retrofitted bus that visits neighborhoods to help residents collect oral histories, scan photos, and begin a neighborhood history site;
  • an app template for local historical sites to promote their programs and services to tourists;
  • an on-site, augmented reality tour of the Morris Hill Cemetery, with “pop-up” names over graves, biographies of Boise’s notable dead—some in video form that incorporated audio from oral history projects;
  • an educational app for Idaho fourth and fifth graders that dives into the history of Idaho’s diverse native peoples;
  • self-guided walking tours of Boise’s disappeared Chinatown and the African-American River Street neighborhood, complete with QR codes posted on today’s buildings that allow tourists to see what sites looked like in the past.

You will undoubtedly wonder what project scope will allow you to succeed in this assignment. I don’t have a single answer, as my response will vary with group size, topic, audience, and proposed tools; your group should come to me to determine a reasonable project scope.

You will turn in all work and/or documentation of work to the instructor, and you will present your project to the class.

A few things to consider


We have spent a good deal of time in this class considering public reaction to public history projects and programs and to thinking about who the stakeholders of a particular project are and how best to work with them. (Recall in particular Tom King’s Our Unprotected Heritage and its case studies illustrating how stakeholders too often are underconsulted.) In the early stages of your project, you need to figure out who its stakeholders are; these likely will include the audience for the project as well as people connected to its subject (or their descendants), but may comprise other groups as well. How do you plan to identify stakeholders, approach them, recruit them, process their contributions, and maintain their enthusiasm for the project?


You need to be sure you have access to the materials you need and will have permission to share them via your digital project. Figure out the rules for things such as archives’ digital permissions, reproduction fees, and contracts (for archives or oral histories, for example) early in your project planning.


Consider your digital toolbox, or proposed digital toolbox, carefully. Some questions to consider:

  • Will the platform you are using or proposing to use be around in another year or two, or is it the product of a brand new startup? (Funders want to see stability.)
  • Is the tool electronically accessible to people with disabilities? What steps will you take to ensure your project is accessible?
  • Does accessing the project require broadband access?
  • If you are proposing building a digital tool that requires programming or other development skills beyond your expertise, what kind of developers will you propose hiring? How will you find them and vet them, and what will their services cost?

The grant (submitted as a group)

You will write a grant application in response to a call for proposals for a program of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Unless I tell your group otherwise, you will need to complete all parts of the proposal, with two exceptions: You need to merely tell me from whom you would secure letters of reference rather than having them actually written, and you can use a simple spreadsheet for your budget rather than using the forms the NEH provides.

We will discuss in class how to identify grant opportunities and craft a proposal narrative.

The reflection (submitted individually)

Your reflection should be at least 750 words. (Some of you will barely break 750 words, while others will write 3,000. I will read whatever your submit.) It should address at least some of these questions:

  • Why did you choose your subject?
  • Why is this project needed at this time, and why did you choose to serve your particular audience?
  • Are there audiences who will find your project controversial, offensive, or otherwise challenging? Explain. Did you intentionally exclude anyone from your audience, or design “against the grain” to provoke a particular audience or type of viewer/user? If so, why and how?
  • How did you go about selecting your particular methods and tools?
  • What challenges did your subject or sources present?
  • What challenges did your research and content creation present?
  • What challenges did your collaboration (in your group or with stakeholders) present?
  • What would you do differently next time?


  • Sketchy project proposal and work plan: TBD
  • Polished project/project proposal: TBD
  • Group presentation: TBD
  • Mock grant proposal: TBD
  • Individual reflections: TBD

My reflection on the assignment

This assignment is designed for my graduate seminar in applied historical research, which I teach as a public history seminar with an emphasis on what it means to “do history” in a digital age. The assignment, however, could be adapted for an an upper-division undergraduate course.

In this course and in all my courses, I aim to increase students’ digital savvy by an order of magnitude. For some, this means collaborating via Google Drive or simple video editors for the first time. For others, it means learning some PHP as they tweak a WordPress site the class is building. While it may appear this project tosses them into the deep end, so to speak, the course assignments scaffold students’ digital skills—though there still is for many students a considerable gap between where they are and where they want the project to end up. The group nature of the project helps to quell anxiety over technology, as students work together to solve technical challenges before coming to me for help; only very rarely do students come to me for technical support.

Idaho’s past has been underexamined by professional and public historians, at least in ways that challenge the traditional narrative that begins with Lewis and Clark and white contact with Native Americans, then continues through fur traders, mining, logging, pioneers, and farmers. There are plenty of opportunities for students to interpret the state’s past, as there are two easily accessed, large public troves of primary sources here in Boise. Despite such archives, I did not require students to focus on Idaho history exclusively, for two reasons: First and most obviously, students may have their own interests outside Idaho history. Second, I’m hoping some students will opt to serve underrepresented audiences that are not well represented in the local historical record; many of my students have not considered race in any substantive way, yet I’ve found some are eager to tackle the subject. (In the past, students have begun to address the historical Chinese and African American presence in Boise, but the primary sources for these communities are largely inaccessible to our graduate students, either because they are not well-catalogued in local collections or because they are in Chinese, and many of the secondary sources are of questionable value.)

As I scan the field of local and regional public history, I’m frustrated by the very traditional nature of many projects and programs. The social web makes it easy to make friendly first contact with strangers and even recruit participants without even leaving one’s desk. I teach my students that consultation with stakeholders is an essential part of any project. Designing an app for fourth grade history? Talk to fourth-grade teachers. Talk to fourth graders. Is the app about historic Native peoples? Consult their descendants.

My insistence on consultation with public stakeholders isn’t just to promote ethical standards or inclusive excellence, though those would be sufficient reasons in themselves. In addition to helping my students to be thoughtful and inclusive, this requirement may increase the quality of historical practice among amateurs and laypeople. The public is already trying to make sense of the past on sites like Ancestry, Wikipedia, countless blogs, and HistoryPin. A well-developed digital public history project that solicits public participation may help the public better understand both the past and what historians do.

At the same time as I try to build my students’ digital skills, I also caution them to keep in mind the relative lack of broadband internet in Idaho and other remote rural regions of the U.S. Idaho has the slowest internet in the 50 states, and even some of my faculty colleagues don’t have broadband or wifi in their homes here in Boise. If they are assuming an Idahoan or rural audience for their project, students need to balance any newfound enthusiasm for a new technology with its accessibility to rural users or users with disabilities.

This class assignment is not an entirely new one, though I have made more explicit here my own commitment to inclusive design. I believe all public history is pedagogical, and I’ve designed the assignment itself to be a critical pedagogical project.  In On Critical Pedagogy, Henry Giroux writes,

Critical pedagogy is not about an a priori method that simply can be applied regardless of context. It is the outcome of particular struggles and is always related to the specificity of particular contexts, students, communities, and available resources. It draws attention to the ways in which knowledge, power, desire, and experience are produced under specific basic conditions of learning and illuminates the role that pedagogy plays as part of a struggle over assigned meanings, modes of expression, and directions of desire, particularly as these bear on the formation of the multiple and ever-contradictory versions of the self and its relationship to the larger society. (4)

Giroux might as well be talking about the kinds of projects my students will be asked to create and manage during their careers. It makes sense, then, to infuse this final class project with principles of critical instructional design.

Bloom’s Taxonomy

This post is another response to an assignment in Critical Instructional Design. This week’s prompt:

This week your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to dismantle and re-mantle one common assumption about instructional design. We encourage you to tackle one of those assumptions that you hold most closely—because discomfort can often be terrifically productive.

I’m tackling Bloom’s taxonomy.

Why? I find I refer to it often, but I realize I’m frequently using it as shorthand for something else.

Bloom’s taxonomy emerged from a series of educational conferences in the late 1940s and early 1950s, but ended up being named after Benjamin Bloom, who served as chair of the committee of educators that formulated the taxonomy. Those of you who are teachers or professors very likely will have seen this diagram or one like it:

This is actually one of three taxonomies and represents what the committee termed “the cognitive domain.” It’s the part of the taxonomy that remains most popular in higher education. The way I’ve seen Bloom’s taxonomy described—and honestly, how I usually explain it—is that these cognitive skills build on one another as they grow increasingly complex. The common implication, then, is that these skills need to be scaffolded—though I confess in my classes I’m not particularly good about careful scaffolding. In my courses I try to get students into application, analysis, and synthesis almost immediately.

In the 1990s, some of Bloom’s students revised the taxonomy so that it looks more like this:

Lorin Anderson, one of the authors of the revised taxonomy, described the process and previewed the changes in a 1999 paper; Anderson explained that the next taxonomy emphasized the contexts in which cognitive processes take place and acknowledged more than the academic context—the authors added two additional knowledge categories or dimensions: the “strategic/motivational” and “social/cultural.” Anderson writes,

The first, strategic/motivational, recognizes the importance of knowing as a legitimate educational goal. This category contains what has been termed metacognition and includes the learning strategies students employ, the links they make between their efforts and their accomplishments, and their perceptions of themselves as people and as learners. The addition of the second category, social/cultural, reflects our appreciation of the cultural-specificity of knowledge. It also recognizes the role of social learning theory in explaining how students learn.

The revision, therefore, infused the original taxonomy with additional complexity and nuance. Whereas the original taxonomy suggested students should be climbing ever upward on the chart, another of the creators of the revised taxonomy, David Krathwohl, made clear that students may more freely move up and down the chart:

Like the original taxonomy, the revision is a hierarchy in the sense that the six major categories of the Cognitive Process dimension are believed to differ in their complexity, with remember being less complex than understand, which is less complex than apply, and so on. However, because the revision gives much greater weight to teacher usage, the requirement of a strict hierarchy has been relaxed to allow the categories to overlap one another.

Krathwohl implies, then, that the skills don’t necessarily need to be scaffolded. This freedom from moving systematically up the taxonomy frees up faculty to take risks as they pose greater challenges to their students, asking them to take cognitive leaps rather than plodding steps.

Krathwohl added an additional layer to the revised taxonomy by suggesting the cognitive skills be used as column heads across the top of a table, with different varieties of knowledge—factual, conceptual, procedural, and metacognitive—forming the row headers. Instructors could place their individual learning objectives in the table’s cells, mapping in one visual what kinds of cognitive skills and knowledge a course aimed to develop in students. While filling out this taxonomic table may feel a bit mechanical to some instructors (myself included), the completed table makes transparent what kinds of knowledge and skills will be cultivated in a course. Should all of these skills and knowledge be grouped into a single area of the table—say, the upper-left quadrant, which focuses on remembering, understanding, and applying factual and conceptual knowledge—the instructor may want to reconsider the course objectives. Some instructors may be comfortable conducting a 100-level course in this quadrant of the table, but uncomfortable if their upper-division courses also fell there.


Bloom’s taxonomy in both its forms has been both popular and influential, but it has not been free of criticism. As Robert Marzano and John Kendall note in The New Taxonomy of Educational ObjectivesBloom’s original taxonomy has proven especially useful in evaluation, though less influential in curriculum design. In particular, Marzano and Kendall write, developers of the standardized state tests that arose in the 1970s leaned on Bloom’s, sometimes heavily, to define skill levels. In the past few decades, such tests have come increasingly under attack from parents and teachers alike. Anderson acknowledges Bloom’s utility in and application to such evaluation, but defends the new taxonomy from critics who might say the original taxonomy lends itself to oversimplified assessments: “We believe that the diversity of cognitive processes represented in the taxonomy requires a comparable diversity of assessment strategies and techniques.”

That’s an important acknowledgement and correction, as one of the biggest criticisms of the original Bloom’s taxonomy is that it’s unscientific and out of step with current theories of learning. In particular, the levels, which Bloom et. al. claimed were hierarchical, are actually quite muzzy. Drawing on others’ criticisms of Bloom’s, Marzano and Kendall point out that higher-order skills can be prerequisite to allegedly lower-level ones. For example, they write, analysis of a subject can be central to comprehending it.

Syntheses of Bloom’s

Those who criticize the original taxonomy’s embrace of hierarchical levels of cognitive skills can indeed hold the original taxonomy responsible, but the synthesis of Bloom’s with other learning theories strengthened this hierarchy. Take, for example, the three theorists perhaps best known for their uses of various kinds of scaffolding: Vygotsky, Bruner, and Rogoff. Each scaffolding theory holds that learners need assistance, usually from other people, in moving to higher orders of thinking and understanding.

These theories emphasized the social aspects of learning: people learn in community, whether it be in a formal classroom or in an informal setting. And once we introduce the social component, the multitudinous learning scenarios become impossible to track. As our networked, digital age has increasingly made clear, knowledge lives and thrives in networks, and it’s situated in bodies (h/t Donna Haraway). Depending on which nodes (people, learning artifacts, contexts) are connected and activated at any given time, different kinds of learning take place and different knowledges are created. As John Spencer suggests in a blog post, the original taxonomy’s clean modernism does not stand up in a postmodern age. That said, the modernist tendencies of Bloom’s are written right into the model’s name: it is a taxonomy; it names, classifies, and orders.

Even in the midst of this analytical chaos, however, Bloom’s remains useful as a shorthand in introducing learning theory to faculty who have never considered the subject. I frequently refer to “pushing students up the pyramid.” On the one hand, the metaphor is a bit coercive. On the other hand, it suggests we have students’ backs and are trying to support them in their journey. I’ve used the expression with students as well as faculty, and it seems to help students understand what’s going on in my (to them) unconventional online course. I even used Bloom’s to explain my course’s activities in a recent wrap-up post in the online course I taught in the spring.

Bloom’s, scaffolding, and employability

I want to take a look at that same closing post from my online course, as it captures a moment when I was trying to make sense of the first course I’d taught fully online, and it references Bloom’s, then immediately swoops into a discussion of career outcomes.

That course, HIST 100: Themes in World History — Engineering the Past, is meant to serve primarily as a general education course for non-majors and secondarily as a place where we might recruit majors. It was my first time teaching online and my first time teaching world history (which I last took in eighth grade), and I complicated the semester by using WordPress as an institutionally unsupported LMS and by trying to use as much free course material as possible. It was messy and not too far beyond what Silicon Valley types might call a Minimum Viable Product. When I teach it again, it will look very, very different.

I’m fortunate to be at an institution where we aren’t mandated to use the supported LMS, Blackboard, though I did use Blackboard’s gradebook because students like to have a place to track their grades, and I didn’t trust any gradebook I could set up in WordPress would be compliant with FERPA.

There are many benefits to working outside the institution’s LMS—benefits I’ll try to remember to elaborate in another post—but one disadvantage in teaching a 100-level online course on a platform that’s new to students is that it requires a good deal of technological scaffolding and hand-holding. I’ve used WordPress in my face-to-face courses, where students can easily help one another with technical questions before, during, or after each class meeting. In an entirely online general education course, however, there doesn’t tend to be the same sense of community because, at least at my institution, many of the students sign up for online courses hoping they’re a smaller time commitment than face-to-face courses. Students enter the semester, then, already reticent to invest time, let alone emotional energy, into such a course.

Accordingly, I found I needed to show students how to do simple technological tasks, such as logging into WordPress, writing and publishing a post, adding visual or audio media to a post, collaborating via Google docs, or finding a journal article in the library’s databases. As the semester progressed, I expected students to remember what I had already showed them how to do, then apply those patterns to other technological challenges in the course—e.g., finding other library resources or collaborating digitally on a much less structured group project.

It was clear to me some students felt more than a little lost during the course, and for every student who gave polite voice to their frustrations or confusion, I suspect two or three remained silent. At the end of the course, then, I felt the need to tie everything up with a neat bow, explaining that what may have seemed like a scattershot approach to world history was actually (somewhat) carefully planned to provide students with a lower-division course experience that expected more of them than a typical 100-level course.

Furthermore, although I had not done so intentionally, I realized many of the course activities and outcomes aligned with an entirely different but relevant taxonomy: my university’s “Make College Count” initiative, which encourages students to find opportunities to practice the skills employers most seek:

  • analyzing, evaluating, and interpreting information;
  • thinking critically;
  • solving problems;
  • taking initiative;
  • contributing to a team;
  • managing time and priorities;
  • performing with integrity;
  • effectively communicating orally;
  • building and sustaining working professional relationships.

I don’t like to think of higher education as vocational training, but when I view many of my courses from my students’ perspective, I understand students see college as key to developing the knowledge and skills that will let them earn a better living in a state that ranks first in the nation for minimum-wage jobs per capita. Student can develop these skills in any number of disciplines, but as an advocate for the humanities, I try to ensure students practice such skills while coming to appreciate the value and utility of the humanities in everyday life.

And so, yes, I practice scaffolding in some of my courses, and I found it to be especially valuable in my online course. I scaffold skills—from collaborating with others in a digital environment to analyzing material culture to better understand the habits, beliefs, and values of artifacts’ users—more than I do content. Content is just a way for students to get to the skills. And so I tend to skip very quickly over remembering and understanding in favor of emphasizing application and analysis through the act of creating a digital project that synthesizes text and multimedia elements.

Looking forward

So. . . What will I change in my courses and my instructional design practice now that I’ve taken a closer look at Bloom’s taxonomy and its critics?

Honestly, not much. Bloom’s remains a useful tool for me in my current context. Were I teaching at a selective small liberal arts college or an R1 university, both of which often have more middle-class and wealthy students than my institution does, I might not have to think as explicitly about how the skills we use in class affect students’ immediate career prospects. Like the educators who reformulated Bloom’s Taxonomy in the 1990s, I’m compelled to take the learning context into account.

Still, I appreciate the opportunity to reconsider, and then defend, one of my core ways of thinking about skills and outcomes in my courses.

Is instructional design activism?

I wrote a long post for a discussion forum for the online course I’m taking in Critical Instructional Design, and I thought I’d share/archive it here as well. The prompt asked:

  • Is instructional design a form of activism?
  • How does what we think about what we do can influence how learning happens across our institutions?
  • What do Audre Lorde’s words (master’s tools, master’s house) mean for you—personally, professionally, pedagogically? How do you think they might influence your use of digital tools? Do they spur you to consider a different dialogue with tools and toolmakers than the one you participate in now (and what does that dialogue look like now? what might it look like)?
  • Why or why not is a discussion about Audre Lorde’s statement relevant to our contemplation of critical instructional design?

I’d love to hear readers’ thoughts, of course, in the comments or elsewhere.


I hadn’t thought of instructional design as a form of activism in itself, even though it’s an integral part of teaching, which definitely can be (and often should be) a form of activism. I had been thinking of instructional design as planning for the real activism; thank you for tweaking my thinking.

As for Lorde’s comments on the master’s tools and the master’s house, we may need to pull back a bit to consider context. In the essay, she is asking why white women were sequestering black women into a single panel, and uses that event to question why heterosexuality is privileged over homosexuality, why middle-class is privileged over poor, why the developed world is privileged over the developing world, and more. When white, straight, middle-class women protest they are unaware of the dialogues taking place in spaces they themselves don’t occupy, Lorde tells them it’s their job to listen for those voices.

Today, fortunately, it’s not difficult to eavesdrop on conversations from communities to which we don’t belong. Just last night I finally joined Periscope, zoomed in on my parents’ neighborhood in Long Beach, California, and watched a gay black man talk about how he’s struggling to write his book because it brings up past trauma, and it drives him to drink (he was broadcasting while holding a large glass of white wine), and his partner thinks he’s drinking too much. On the surface, he and I share nothing in common, except that I once lived in the same zip code, but I quickly empathized with his plight as a blocked writer. I can listen in on Black Twitter and its hashtags. I can watch and learn from friends of all ethnicities, sexualities, gender identities, religions, socioeconomic classes, political commitments, etc. on Facebook. And then of course there are a ton of books I could (and have) read that allow me to better understand inequality and inequity at various cultural, political, and economic intersections.

Just because it’s easy for instructional designers to glean some tiny understanding from social media and publications, however, doesn’t mean it’s simple to translate this learning into course design—particularly if the instructional designer isn’t the instructor for the course. If you don’t have security of employment, it can be awkward and a bit intimidating to point out to a senior professor (or, say, a vice provost who happens to be teaching a course) that there isn’t a single author of color on his syllabus and that’s problematic. It’s a brave instructional designer indeed who would point out to a senior prof the importance of Lorde’s exhortation in “The Master’s Tools”:

Advocating the mere tolerance of difference. . .is the grossest reformism. It is a total denial of the creative function of difference in our lives. For difference must be not merely tolerated, but seen as a fund of necessary polarities between which our creativity can spark like a dialectic. Only then does the necessity for interdependency become unthreatening. Only within that interdependency of different strengths, acknowledged and equal, can the power to seek new ways to actively ‘be’ in the world generate, as well as the courage and sustenance to act where there are no charters.

At the same time, gently pointing out the narrowness of perspective represented in course readings can be a productive starting point. Finding the language to express that narrowness without introducing a good deal of discomfort into the interaction is, however, difficult. (And yes, I know discomfort is a useful tool in teaching and learning. In this case, the power structure–tenured faculty over staff–could escalate to the point where the instructional designer’s employment is at risk.)

At our next staff meeting, I’m going to have a conversation with my instructional designers about how they navigate such minefields. I confess to strategically (and explicitly) deploying an instructional designer to a straight white male professor’s course when I saw its syllabus would benefit from her perspective as a woman of color and immigrant from the developing world.

As for tools: I’m fortunate to direct a unit that’s charged with looking at and supporting emerging technologies, though sometimes things are handed to us (e.g., a clunky e-portfolio platform chosen by the people running our core courses program) that we have to support for a while. I tend to lean toward open source tools because we can tinker with them more, but I’m certainly not against someone making a profit when they develop a really great, useful tool that advances learning. I recently saw a post decrying Lumen making a modest profit by helping to bring OER to universities, for example; if Lumen can bring high-quality, free or exceptionally low-cost materials to students and help faculty construct active learning around that content, I’m fine with that. (I’ve been in a Lumen workshop and thought it was based on sound pedagogical principles.)

I also realize that while I’m not a super early adopter, I’m a bit farther ahead of the curve than most faculty, and I’m willing to take more technological risks in front of and with students than are many of my colleagues. Some of my colleagues believe they need to be masters of a technology before using it with students, whereas I tend to shrug and tell the students they need to puzzle their way through the challenges the technology poses—and embrace that process as a core piece of the learning in the course. I’m wondering if more faculty would be willing to experiment with unsupported (at least by the university) tools if we framed them as part of an insurgent, progressive agenda.

Critical, Instructional, Design?

I’m taking a brief online course, Critical Instructional Design, through Digital Pedagogy Lab. This blog post constitutes my response to the first assignment. Here’s the prompt:

For this assignment, consider the problem of the definition of critical instructional design. What do you think critical means? What does instructional mean to you? What is design? What do these words in combination with each other mean? And, more than definitional meaning, what does critical instructional design look like in practice?

Answering these questions is going to require more than a little divagation into autobiography—particularly the first one: “What do you think critical means?”


When I was an undergraduate at a small liberal arts college, the English and American Studies departments where I undertook a good deal of my coursework were, while politically progressive and eager to incorporate diverse artifacts, texts, and perspectives, relatively free of explicit theoretical practice. (There was a junior seminar on literary theory, but I didn’t take it.) Instead, students participated in relatively free-wheeling discussions of texts and other cultural phenomena. (Helen Vendler’s latest book, The Ocean, The Bird and the Scholar is a fine, albeit higher order approximation of how we explicated and interpreted poems.) Never did I have to think, “But what would Derrida—or Marx, Foucault, Saussure, Althusser, or Deleuze and Guattari— say about this text?” At age 20, I didn’t experience the anxiety of applying someone else’s lens to, say, literature or architecture that was, at least for me, already sufficiently complex.

This doesn’t mean we were solipsistic in our readings. We considered the cultural moments in which these works came into being. We applied existing theories and combinations of theories, certainly, but we didn’t necessarily know they emerged from named schools of thought.

When I went to grad school to get an M.A. in writing poetry, my program required us to take a certain number of literature seminars—something to which I initially looked forward. However, soon I realized many of the literature Ph.D. students believed their task for our weekly seminars was to force whatever work we were reading—Thomas More‘s Utopia, for example, or Sutton Griggs‘s Imperium in Imperiothrough the disfiguring filters of their favorite critical theory, then attempt to glean brilliant observations from the pulverized parts, as if reading entrails.

At the time, I found the whole process distasteful. I had planned to move from the creative writing M.A. to a Ph.D. in literature, but my forays into graduate literature seminars turned me off that path.

Instead, I started a Ph.D. in a relatively old-school American studies program that embraced the roots of that interdiscipline—history and literature—while broadly defining what counts as “literature.” I enjoyed it, but for nonacademic reasons, I felt the pull of my home state of California, and I opted instead to enroll in a brand-new cultural studies Ph.D. program, naïvely thinking that “cultural studies” merely meant “American studies methods and interests, broadened to a global scale.”

Long story short: I struggled. There were a few theories I found super useful, particularly those of Sandra Harding, Donna Haraway, Patricia Hill Collins, and some cultural theorists working within museum studies and material culture. Many others—I’m looking at you, Judith Butler, Jacques Derrida, Haraway, and Gayatri Spivak—I understood and found interesting, but I was put off by how the density of their language took their work in a direction opposite from the democratizing, liberatory projects they wanted to construct. It was just too difficult for most people to read and understand, let alone translate into their own lives and work.

Perhaps not surprisingly, in my own work I took a vow of comprehensibility. I wrote a dissertation that would not be out of place in a graduate history program. I drew on the work of a couple of theorists and curtsied in the direction of others, but for the most part, I tried to be more pragmatic in the everyday sense of that term: I wanted my work to be useful to other people. For that to happen, it had to be accessible.

I suppose the tl;dr for this section is: Because of my academic experiences with cultural studies and critical theory, I struggle with the meaning of the word “critical” in an educational or academic context. So much of this particular kind of thinking ends up being intellectual for the sake of being intellectual—for getting tenure, maybe?—rather than lending itself to practical application in the lives of the people where it could effect the greatest change.


In my thinking and, I like to imagine, my own work, “instructional” slides very quickly from its traditional definition in higher ed—the one-to-many models of the lecture or instructor-moderated class discussion—to questions of how I can make a course meaningful to students in their own context while also revealing the narrowness of that context and challenging its constructs. To instruct, for me, means to create a space for learning. That space will vary widely, depending on discipline, students’ preparation (or lack thereof) for collegiate work, and the instructor’s philosophy of teaching and learning.


Last fall I had the opportunity to consider the process of design thinking as practiced by IDEO. Of all the steps in the process, I most appreciated the first: empathize. While I was uneasy with some of the ways the IDEO team recommended practicing empathy, particularly regarding understanding the needs of people with disabilities (e.g., smearing petroleum jelly on one’s glasses to simulate poor vision or binding one’s joints to better understand a user with arthritis), I appreciate that empathy is the very first step.

Empathy has emerged as a driving force in my course design. When I’m crafting learning outcomes, for example, I don’t begin with the knowledge or skills I want students to develop. Rather, I try to get a very specific sense of which students will be in the course. Sometimes this is easy—students have already registered for the course and I can ask them questions. Other times, a course’s future enrollment is less transparent and I have to design the course based on a set of common characteristics among my university’s students. I try to find ways to triangulate among these students’ likely knowledge and skills, the discipline’s expectations of course content, and what might benefit students in their lives beyond and after the course.

So, for example, if I’m teaching a graduate seminar that serves as an introduction to public history, I consider where my students have studied previously and what their expectations of such a course might be. At many universities, this course comprises an introduction to designing museum exhibits, organizing archival or museum collections, interpreting historical sites, and preserving architecture and artifacts. However, in talking with people who work in the field, I’ve learned that while there are industry standards for each of these practices, individual sites of public historical practice are sufficiently idiosyncratic in their approach, methods, and digital tools that many students will have to unlearn their textbook understandings of public history to do their jobs well. There’s also a big push to incorporate more diverse perspectives at historical sites, in collections, and in exhibitions. At the same time, laws regarding collections and preservation have grown increasingly complex.

Accordingly, I’ve shifted my public history courses to emphasize digital savvy, user experience (broadly defined), the realities of federal and municipal bureaucracies, entrepreneurial thinking (even in nonprofits, though also in the conventional definition), and the perspectives of marginalized peoples. Students are often surprised by, and frankly often a bit cranky about, the course’s focus, but once they’re on the job market and in their first career positions, they admit they’re fairly well-prepared.

In this sense, I’m not designing based on the content students say they want (because, honestly, their understanding about what they need to know is often naïve), but rather on deeper needs I’ve identified.

For me, the process of design is inextricably tangled with empathy. I can’t imagine good design that doesn’t take into account users’ everyday experiences and bigger desires.

Critical instructional design

Honestly, I’m not yet sure how the “critical” fits with instructional design. Some first thoughts and hypotheses on what it means in practice:

  • reading against the grain of canonical instructional design theory and practice
  • taking a social justice approach to crafting learning experiences
  • creating learning experiences that make a difference in students’ lives and in the world, in part by making the familiar strange*

I’m looking forward to learning more.


* Here I’m alluding in particular to Elizabeth Walker Mechling and Jay Mechling’s essay “American Cultural Criticism in the Pragmatic Attitude” in the book At the Intersection: Cultural Studies and Rhetorical Studies. Among their seven “working assumptions” about pragmatic criticism, Mechling and Mechling emphasize that “the pragmatic critic wants to make a difference in the world,” in large part by “making the familiar strange,” “a profoundly radical political act” that can, in the words of C. Wright Mills, “connect private troubles with public issues.” (p. 148) Pragmatism, in this sense, does not mean taking the conventionally sensible path, but rather understanding that radical approaches and marginalized perspectives, while often difficult politically, may offer the best lenses on a subject.

Founding fathers poem, draft 2

Let’s begin today with Robert Penn Warren‘s poem “Founding Fathers, Early-Nineteenth-Century Style, Southeast U.S.A.” It begins,

They were human, they suffered, wore long black coat and gold watch chain.
They stare from daguerreotype with severe reprehension,
Or from genuine oil, and you’d never guess any pain
In those merciless eyes that now remark our own time’s sad declension.

Warren then shares a sampling of their characters and struggles. His is not a complimentary retrospective. Of one of his own ancestors, the speaker writes, allegedly quoting a book, “‘Little learning but shrewd, not well trusted.’ Rides thus out of history, neck fat and napeless.”

Still, the poem’s speaker suggests, we can glean some of their wisdom by acknowledging both their faults and their small victories. (Of course, Warren being a Southerner of a particular age who was age partial to both New Criticism and Jefferson’s agrarian middle landscape, he and I likely would learn different lessons from these ancestors.)

So let us bend ear to them in this hour of lateness,
And what they are trying to say, try to understand,
And try to forgive them their defects, even their greatness,
For we are their children in the light of humanness, and under the shadow of God’s closing hand.

But on to yesterday’s sonnet.

Founders, early 21st-century-style, U.S.A.

Penn Warren lent them black coats, shining chains,
the Lord. He reminded us they suffered.
An alabaster Washington was framed
by Williams: “Too powerful for comfort”

of women or his slaves. Yet some had gleaned
equality was not impossible.
Emancipated thinking led to dreams
of coalitions grown unstoppable.

Miranda’s crafted more than pop lyrics—
gave immigrants their due. He made us woke.
We question narratives, why stories stick,
why textbooks pacify more than provoke.

His music’s paradoxical and sage:
Brown founders sing their new selves on the stage.

I like sonnets because they’re constrained, but the writer can subvert the relentless iambs for subtle (or not so subtle) effect. So, for example, that last couplet can scan as iambs, but the last line opens itself to alternative stresses. It should be “Brown FOUNDers SING their NEW selves ON the STAGE,” but if you read it aloud, you more likely placed the stresses something like this: “BROWN FOUNDers sing their NEW SELVES on the STAGE.”

I also like sonnets because their brevity requires me to focus on a single idea, which has never been a strength of mine in conversation, poetry, or prose. I also like the “turn” at the end of the English sonnet; many of my favorite poems, sonnets or not, end with such a turn.

However, I’m dissatisfied with the unfocused nature of the ideas in yesterday’s sonnet. The lines seem blunted.

What if I took an opposite approach today, letting the lines grow as Warren’s do—or stretch with abandon (at least relative to the sonnet), in the style of, say, Jorie Graham? (For example, from “Covenant”: “. . .Who could have known a glance could be / so plastic. Rubbery and pushing-down on all the tiny hissing overbright greens.”)


They were human, they suffered, they scratched
at mosquito bites until they bled. They bore small scars,
some visible, some not. These crowded rooms,
inspired declarations, thickened manifestos’ ink.

Their insecurity soaked linen collars and wool frocks.
Men of many words marinated privately in fear.
(Hamilton’s nib audible in the wee hours of July 4:
“Nor could I dwell on the topic lest it should unman me.”)

Women, too, felt it. They wrestled, one wrote,
with “a mortifying consciousness of inferiority,”
The self-taught essayist cajoled,
threatened: “the same breath of God animates us.”

Late at night, which foundered founders more?
The king, slaves, God, the suppressed
collective intelligence of women? Perhaps John Adams
heard whispers, woke to night terrors: “Remember the ladies.”

Abigail pretended to sleep.

Welcome to my brain gym. Today’s exercise: a sonnet.

Background: I’m finding poetry—reading and writing it, mulling it over—helps with the brain fuzz. I’m going to keep myself accountable for this particular variety of brain exercise by posting here about what I’m reading and writing.

What follows is a very rough first draft of a poem inspired by my recent obsessive listening to the soundtrack of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical Hamilton. Hip hop isn’t my genre, but I like Hamilton’s driving beats and brilliant rhymes (e.g., “a bunch of revolutionary manumission abolitionists? / Give me a position, show me where the ammunition is”). I’m also impressed how much history the lyrics fit into a small space.

Today, therefore, I started with a simple beat and a small space: the iamb and the constraints of the English sonnet. It’s unlikely this poem’s final form will be a sonnet, but it’s as good a place as any to begin.


Founders, early 21st-century-style, U.S.A.

Penn Warren lent them black coats, shining chains,
the Lord. He reminded us they suffered.
An alabaster Washington was framed
by Williams: “Too powerful for comfort”

of women or his slaves. Yet some had gleaned
equality was not impossible.
Emancipated thinking led to dreams
of coalitions grown unstoppable.

Miranda’s crafted more than pop lyrics—
gave immigrants their due. He made us woke.
We question narratives, why stories stick,
why textbooks pacify more than provoke.

His music’s paradoxical and sage:
Brown founders sing their new selves on the stage.

Lyrical delight in an elegiac moment



I recently happened again upon W. H. Auden’s poem “In Memory of W. B. Yeats.” It’s been a favorite of mine since high school, but somehow it had fallen off my radar. No matter what one thinks of Yeats—I happen to be a fan of his poetry, but not his later politics—Auden’s poem is a tremendous elegy for a poet (any poet). It begins

He disappeared in the dead of winter:
The brooks were frozen, the airports almost deserted,
And snow disfigured the public statues;
The mercury sank in the mouth of the dying day.
What instruments we have agree
The day of his death was a dark cold day.

Far from his illness
The wolves ran on through the evergreen forests,
The peasant river was untempted by the fashionable quays;
By mourning tongues
The death of the poet was kept from his poems.

In its third section, “In Memory” lapses into the distinctive meter Yeats uses in “Under Ben Bulben” (“Irish poets learn your trade/sing whatever well is made”), a poem in which Yeats imagines his own grave. Here are the final three trochaic stanzas of Auden’s work:

Follow, poet, follow right
To the bottom of the night,
With your unconstraining voice
Still persuade us to rejoice;

With the farming of a verse
Make a vineyard of the curse,
Sing of human unsuccess
In a rapture of distress;

In the deserts of the heart
Let the healing fountain start,
In the prison of his days
Teach the free man how to praise.


Auden’s poem delights me for so many reasons, from the monosyllabic “The day of his death was a dark cold day,” which hearkens back to ancient Anglo Saxon verse with its stressed alliteration, to the smooth, almost conversational rhythms of “the wolves ran on through the evergreen forests.” We move from the chilly, industrial gray concrete of the airport to the wildness of the mossy forest. And then suddenly we’re in Yeats’s own meter and imperative verse, at once dark and uplifting. Plus, we get the thrill of two neologisms, or at the very least unfamiliar words, each of them in the third line of a stanza: unconstraining, unsuccess. We expect the same in the third line of the final stanza, but instead the unconventional un is implied: we’re stuck in the prison of our days, but then—then!—the release in the turn: Teach the free man how to praise.

If the man is free, whom or what is he praising? A god? Or human unsuccess?

I am reminded, in my own reading of this poem, that we are allowed to celebrate failure. Failure means a new beginning.


It’s these little turns—of meter, of phrase, of meaning—that drew me to poetry, my first academic love.

(I apologize in advance for being so canonical in my allusions here, but my brain is fuzzy, and I’m drawing here on what I know well, hoping it will launch me into a new and much-needed period of intellectual playfulness.)

I’ve long looked for these little turns in life as well, moments of unexpected delight of a species that appears so often in poetry:

Elizabeth Bishop’s beautiful, battle-scarred fish, or her moose “on the moonlit macadam.”

The “red wine, / artichokes, and California / politics” Amy Clampitt had for dinner in “Portola Valley.”

Eugenio Montale’s gray city and the peeking beyond “a half-shut gate / among the leafage of a court”—through which “the yellows of the lemon blaze,” opening the heart with “golden trumpets of solarity.”

Garrett Hongo’s Mendocino rose that comes “erupting out of pastureland” and how “the roses seemed everywhere around me then” on a California highway.

These are phenomena that happen all the time, but for each of us perhaps only once. And then there are the sweeping pronouncements that come couched in the specificity of place:

Also within sight of Highway 1 lies Robinson Jeffers’s Carmel Point, where the suburbs run up against “the pristine beauty” that “lives in the very grain of the granite.” Jeffers reminds us to “uncenter our minds from ourselves” and “unhumanize our views a little, and become confident / as the rock and ocean that we were made from.”

Adrienne Rich’s adrenaline-inducing cautions as she goes “picking mushrooms on the edge of dread” at the “ghost-ridden crossroads, leafmold paradise” in  “What Kind of Times Are These.”

Robert Penn Warren’s reminder that a drive across the Great Plains is “one way to write the history of America.”

Larkin’s “London spread out in the sun/ Its postal districts packed like squares of wheat.”

Sometimes the lyrical crosses into another realm entirely.

Take, for example, Seamus Heaney meeting the ghost of James Joyce after passing through the stations of the cross. Here’s Joyce’s advice to the poet:

‘You are fasted now, light-headed, dangerous.
Take off from here. And don’t be so earnest,

so ready for the sackcloth and the ashes.
Let go, let fly, forget.
You’ve listened long enough. Now strike your note.’


I’m trying to read more old-school literary criticism and analysis of poetry. The genre scratches a particular intellectual and artistic itch that cultural studies never could because there’s too much at stake in that interdiscipline’s social justice imperatives. Poetry is important, but the reading of it is rarely urgent. The writing of it? Yes, definitely urgent. But I can read poetry and the literary deconstruction of it and pretend I am an old-school intellectual with plenty of leisure. (Instead of me sitting in a clean but messy kitchen, imagine me sitting in a comfortable chair on the garden patio, my view of the roses half-obscured by vines.)

Meanwhile, each weekday morning I check in with a friend before sitting down to two hours of writing. This past month I’ve been reworking an article that returns from journals with excellent suggestions and even praise from reviewers, but which remains without a home. It falls in the cracks between disciplines. If it had a narrative, it would be charming. Instead, it’s analytical, and it’s trying to balance a big picture of women in science with the minutiae of a tapir’s sticky snout against a woman’s face. It’s history and American studies and feminist theory and science studies, and yes—poetry.

Sitting next to me on the kitchen table—we’ve lived in this house for ten months, but my home office remains largely unassembled, aside from my bookshelves, so I write in the kitchen—is Helen Vendler’s The Ocean, The Bird, and the Scholar: Essays on Poets & Poetry.

Vendler opens chapter 2, an essay on the poetry of Yeats and Jorie Graham, with this insight:

Fin-de-siècle writing suggests seriousness and flamboyance, hyperbole and arbitrariness. The notion of fin de siècle presents itself to reflection as unsuitable for lyric, since it derives from the time span of epic narration, and lyric generally prefers the brief moment to the narrative span. The primary formal problem for the writer of lyric who wishes to invoke the notion of history is how to tuck such a panoramic concept into a short-breathed poem.

Vendler captures my current quandary.


Meanwhile, the brain fog persists. I test my blood pressure several times a day. (153/108.) I’ve been through two medications. Neither worked. I allow myself to be optimistic when the numbers decline after hours of work in the garden. But in such cases the decline in pressure persists for less than an hour.

And so I meet many technicians.

Today, for example, I saw my heart on a screen. I was hoping for some mad, au début du siècle visualization, my heart scanned and spinning on a screen, but instead the ultrasound looked very much like it did when I last saw my heart on a screen, in 1994, when I was nineteen years old.

It was disappointing. There were no answers, revelations, or delightful turns. I had already seen, decades ago, the grainy clapping frog legs of the mitral valve.

Next week I go in for another scan. And then I get a new -ologist.

I’m confident it’s a genetic issue, the longue durée of maternal ancestry running up against cytosine, guanine, adenine, and thymine. The clash of history with a lyrical moment, expressed in a particular pattern of DNA, the iambs of a heartbeat.


I lost an IT coworker yesterday, on my birthday. He had a heart attack upon receiving some bad news about a loved one, and then he lingered in the ICU for a week before dying. He and I weren’t close, but we crossed paths several times a week, and he always had a smile for me. He attended the same Long Beach high schools as my Dad and I did (though years before me and years after my dad) and we reminisced and joked about that. His family—kids and grandkids in a big, blended family—know he loved them, and he knew they loved him.

I have, of course, my own stubborn cardiac issues on my mind. I intend to stick around for a long time, but I want to say I value every one of you in my life. Thanks for being here. You’re a fabulous bunch.

Meanwhile, hold your loved ones tight. Let them feel the patter of your heartbeat.

Finding and Using Open Educational Resources

[With some of my staff in the IDEA Shop, I’ve organized a one-day institute on using Open Educational Resources in higher ed. I compiled this resource for the institute, and I thought it would be of use to some of this blog’s readers. You can also view it in Google Drive, download it, and revise it for your own use.]


Compiled by the IDEA Shop in the Center for Teaching and Learning at Boise State University.

Getting started

Backward design

It’s best not to start with a search for open educational content. Instead, use with the backward design process:

  1. Determine what you expect students to be able to do at the end of the lesson, module/unit, or course. These are your learning outcomes.
  2. Articulate how students will demonstrate they have achieved these learning outcomes. These are your assessments.
  3. Plan how students will engage with learning materials to prepare for the assessments.

When you’re ready to look for content and other learning materials

There are three primary ways to use existing OER:

  • Find a piece of OER and use it as-is.
  • Take a piece of OER and trim or revise it to meet your needs.
  • Take several pieces of OER and aggregate or synthesize them (“remix” them) into a new compilation, using them either as they are or with revisions.

You can also, of course, create your own materials and release them under an open license.

Be sure to keep your eye on licenses. Some resources, for example, permit you to share them, but not revise or remix them.


OER textbooks

Many authors and organizations have released open textbooks. Some of these you need to share with students as-is; with others, you can select chapters from multiple sources, remixing them into a new textbook.

You can search for open textbooks at the following places:

Open textbook library

Supported by the Center for Open Education and the Open Textbook Network, this collection includes books that have been reviewed by faculty from a variety of colleges and universities to assess their quality. These books can be downloaded for no cost, or printed at low cost. All textbooks are either used at multiple higher education institutions; or affiliated with an institution, scholarly society, or professional organization.


OpenStax makes it easy for faculty to review and adopt OER textbooks. OpenStax also offers additional free instructor-only resources like test banks and solution manuals to help plan a course. The textbooks have been peer-reviewed and are available in multiple formats, including low-cost print versions.

OpenStax CNX

OpenStax CNX is a non-profit digital ecosystem containing tens of thousands of learning objects organized into thousands of textbook-style books in a host of disciplines, all easily accessible online and downloadable to almost any device, anywhere, anytime.

Textbook Revolution

Textbook Revolution is a student-run site dedicated to increasing the use of free educational materials by teachers and professors. On this site you’ll find links and reviews of textbooks and select educational resources. Some of the books are PDF files, others are viewable online as ebooks, or some are simply web sites containing course or multimedia content. (Not all content is OER; check licenses carefully.)

The Teaching Commons

The Teaching Commons brings together high-quality open educational resources from leading colleges and universities. Curated by librarians and their institutions, the Teaching Commons includes open access textbooks, course materials, syllabi, lesson plans, multimedia, and more.

Open courses from Lumen Learning

Lumen offers online textbooks in several disciplines. The textbooks are free to use, and you can customize their textbooks for your classroom. If you would like to have Lumen package up one of their textbooks (edited by you or not) for integration with your Blackboard site, there is a small per-student fee (around $5).

The College Open Textbooks Collaborative

This collection of 29 educational non-profit and for-profit organizations affiliated with more than 200 colleges encourages the adoption of open textbooks, particularly at the community college level. This may be a good resource for your lower-division courses. Some of the textbooks are presented in the form of online courses, and some of these—such as this 12-hour-long Holocaust course from The Open University—can be downloaded as a Creative Commons-licensed ebook.

Community College Open Textbook Collaborative, on MERLOT II

A list of 180 textbooks from many disciplines, covering topics as diverse as linear algebra, epidemiology, African American studies, and marketing.

The OER Commons

A large collection of all kinds of educational resources, from audio to textbooks to full courses and case studies. Be sure to select the appropriate educational level (lower division, upper division, graduate/professional) from the drop-down menu at the left of the screen.

MIT Open Courseware

Teaching materials from MIT, licensed under a Creative Commons license (license details).

Open Course Library

The Open Course Library (OCL) is a collection of shareable course materials, including syllabi, course activities, readings, and assessments designed by teams of college faculty, instructional designers, librarians, and other experts. Some of our materials (also called open educational resources, or OER) are paired with low cost textbooks ($30 or less). Many of the courses can be taught at no cost to students. Unless otherwise noted, all materials are shared under a Creative Commons (CC BY) license. OCL courses and materials have undergone testing for accessibility and have been designed using the industry-standard Quality Matters (QM) rubric for assessing the quality of online courses.

The Open Learning Initiative (OLI)

OLI offers online courses faculty can use or adapt on the OLI platform or in Blackboard and other learning management systems. OLI is a grant-funded group at Carnegie Mellon University, offering innovative online courses to anyone who wants to learn or teach. Its aim is to create high-quality courses and contribute original research to improve learning and transform higher education.

Open SUNY Textbooks

Open SUNY Textbooks is an open access textbook publishing initiative established by State University of New York libraries and supported by SUNY Innovative Instruction Technology Grants. This pilot initiative publishes high-quality, cost-effective course resources by engaging faculty as authors and peer-reviewers, and libraries as publishing service and infrastructure.

College Open Textbooks

This repository contains a large number of textbooks across a wide swath of disciplines. The site includes content reviews and accessibility reviews of several textbooks.

BC Open Textbook Project

Open textbooks licensed using a Creative Commons license and offered in various ebook formats free of charge, or print on demand books available at cost.


Beyond textbooks: Sources of public domain and Creative Commons-licensed content

Find OER

Offers annotated links to various public domain and Creative Commons-licensed search engines. (OER = open educational resources)

Creative Commons search

Provides several places to search for Creative Commons-licensed material.

Searches across government websites for images and video. Select from “images” or “video” tabs above the search box to refine your search.

The Internet Archive

A non-profit library of millions of free books, movies, software, music, and more. Check licenses carefully.

Library of Congress digital collections

Some, but not all, of the Library of Congress’s digital collections are in the public domain.

Digital Public Library of America

Aggregates digitized resources from library collections. (Creative-Commons BY 3.0 license:

Flickr Commons

(note: this is different from Flickr Creative Commons)

In the Flickr Commons, museums and libraries around the world release images that anyone can use.

Harvard Law Library, “Finding Public Domain and Creative Commons Media”

An explanation of the public domain and Creative Commons, as well as a compilation of places to find public domain and Creative Commons-licensed materials.

Public Domain Review, “Guide to Finding Interesting Public Domain Works Online”

A compilation of sources of public domain material, as well as an explanation of Creative Commons and the public domain.

The Getty’s Open Content Program

Nearly 100,000 images in the J. Paul Getty Collection are available for download and open use.

SoundBible, “Royalty Free Sounds”

A compilation of free sounds released under various licenses.

NASA audio collection in the Internet Archive

Sounds from NASA, in the public domain.

NASA on SoundCloud

Sounds from NASA, in the public domain.

The Public Domain Project

Thousands of historical media files for your creative projects.

Public Domain Sherpa

This site helps you determine whether something is in the public domain and thus available for your use.

Public Domain Sherpa, “Where can you find public domain recordings?”

A list of sites where you can find audio to remix or use as-is.


Volunteers record and share sounds.

Vimeo Music Store

Has free music tracks available through Creative Commons, as well as tracks you can purchase for use in film projects. You must have/create a Vimeo account to access this.

YouTube Audio Library

Free and ad-supported music you can download through YouTube. You must have a Google email account to access this.

The Orange Grove

A broad range of OER materials for higher education, including recorded lectures, syllabi, and activities.

Project Gutenberg

Offers more than 50,000 free ebooks; some may not be openly licensed.


Learn more about OER or get involved in an OER project

Open Education Resource Foundation

The Open Education Resource (OER) Foundation is an independent, not-for-profit organization that provides leadership, international networking and support for educators and educational institutions to achieve their objectives through Open Education.

Edutopia’s Open Educational Resources Roundup

Explore this educator’s guide to open educational resources for information about online repositories, fair use, curriculum-sharing websites, sources for lesson plans and activities, and open alternatives to textbooks.

Rubrics for evaluating OER resources

An evaluation system for objects found within Open Education Resources. (An object might include images, applets, lessons, units, assessments, and more.) For the purpose of this evaluation, any component that can exist as a stand-alone qualifies as an object. The rubrics in this digital packet may be applied across content areas and object types.

Kirkwood Community College OER Resources

This site is packed with resources on OER, including where to find and how to use OER, fair use guidelines, and OER projects at colleges and universities.

Active Learning and OER

Some examples of how to use active learning with OER materials in an online course.

Creative Commons License
Finding and Using Open Educational Resources by The IDEA Shop, Center for Teaching and Learning, Boise State University is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.