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.

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.

Criticisms

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.

Lyrical delight in an elegiac moment

 

I.

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.

II.

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.’

III.

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.

IV.

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.

V.

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.

When the brain skips a beat

I have much to say about this article on being a “slow professor,” but first I want to explain my absence from this blog for four and a half months.

I haven’t been well. You wouldn’t know my secret if you saw me on the street or on campus. However, if you talked to me, you might note I sometimes grasp for words and names that should come easily. I’ve also been sleeping poorly, thrashing so badly that poor Fang has to leave the room. I’m wheezing enough that my doctor is ready to prescribe two more asthma medications (on top of the two I already take) once my other symptoms settle. Depression also curled its tendrils around the edges of my life during the winter months.

I tackled the depression directly. I joined an amazingly raw and yet optimistic online fitness group of Grinnell alumni. I took to walking 10,000-12,000 steps each day, doing cardio videos, and even running occasionally. I lost ten pounds and kept them off.

Photo, from the head up, of the blogger, sweaty and smiling. She is wearing a red and white shirt.

Grinnellians don’t mess around. Does your online fitness cult have custom t-shirts?

When these tactics weren’t keeping the darkness at bay, I went to the doctor to ask her what to do. She added a second antidepressant. So far, so good.

And yet the brain fog, which started in the late fall, persisted. I thought I could chalk it up to depression, seasonal affective disorder, and having too much on my plate at work—or maybe it was just another symptom in my premature perimenopausal mélange.

It wasn’t that I wasn’t writing at all. I wrote for work—reports and e-mails galore, an exhaustively updated and (very) long encyclopedia article, and a ton of text for my online course. I reached out to an old friend and enjoyed a long and productive e-mail exchange. I went on a writing retreat a couple weekends ago with several English professors and linguists, and while they helped me find words over hors d’oeuvres, I managed to rethink a long-suffering article.

Such tasks took up most of my brainpower and intellectual energy. I didn’t have anything left over for the evenings and weekends when I used to write extracurricularly.

So I went back to the doctor to ask what might be messing with my brain and my sleep. The nurse took my blood pressure—150/90—and asked if it was typically that high. I explained it had been creeping up, but I couldn’t remember seeing such high readings. A few minutes later, the doctor came in with a worried look on her face, listened to my heart and lungs, said simply, “It’s time,” then sent a prescription to the pharmacy and told me to monitor my blood pressure.

A photo of a blood pressure monitor and the book "Heart Disease for Dummies"

My cholesterol is high, too. I can, at least in part, blame my genes for both of those. (Thanks, Mom!)

It ends up high blood pressure can damage the brain in both the short and long term. As reported in Psychology Today:

It’s becoming increasingly clear that high blood pressure, or hypertension, is at the root of much cognitive decline that has previously been attributed to aging. The more that scientists scrutinize brain function, and especially memory, the more they conclude that we have the ability to keep our memory and spirit strong well into old age. But it depends on how well we nourish our brain throughout life.

While I’ve been remiss in my blogging and have never been much for journaling, I’m creating a new kind of archive:

Image of handwritten blood-pressure readings, all of them high, in a journal

Will my brain fog clear, or is the damage done? Time will tell.

Let me be absolutely clear: as an academic, this sucks. My ability to think critically and creatively, in the moment and in the long term, is everything.

Remembering Joan Van Blom

Bad things, I’ve been reminded by several people lately, come in threes. The threats, the heart attack scare. And now a death in the family.

On Friday, physical education and women’s sports lost a huge champion—in every sense of the word—in the passing of my aunt, Joan Van Blom. Joan’s life and career illustrate why it’s wise to invest in women’s sports; she took full advantage of the opportunities available to her under Title IX, blazing a path through doors that weren’t previously open to women in rowing, including the Olympics. As a teacher, coach, athlete, and PE curriculum coordinator, she inspired at least two generations of athletes (and others!) of all genders.

From an album on Joan's Facebook page. Her caption: "just after the finish of the 1976 Olympic finals race in Montreal, July 24, 1976, smiling at the realization that I'd won silver and almost gold. Photo by John Van Blom who was alongside the course, riding in the back of a stationwagon. John still had his own Olympic finals race within days, stroking the US quad, in the first time men raced the quad in the Olympics. (1976 was John's 3rd of 4 Olympic teams (1968, 1972, 1976, 1980) all as a sculler. His 5th Olympic team  would be coaching our women's US quad to silver in 1984. — at Montreal, Canada - 1976 Olympics and other locations."

From an album on Joan’s Facebook page. Her caption: “just after the finish of the 1976 Olympic finals race in Montreal, July 24, 1976, smiling at the realization that I’d won silver and almost gold. Photo by John Van Blom who was alongside the course, riding in the back of a stationwagon. John still had his own Olympic finals race within days, stroking the US quad, in the first time men raced the quad in the Olympics. (1976 was John’s 3rd of 4 Olympic teams (1968, 1972, 1976, 1980) all as a sculler. His 5th Olympic team would be coaching our women’s US quad to silver in 1984. — at Montreal, Canada – 1976 Olympics and other locations.”

We all thought Joan would live forever, but she spent the past two years living with glioblastoma multiforme—and did so, at least as far as I saw, with verve and elegance. She kept rowing for as long as she could–and, being Joan, continued to take home the gold.

Despite all of her accomplishments and my great admiration for her, I’ll miss her laughter the most. Any dinner with Joan and her sisters, however informal, was always a party.

Jean Strauss has been crafting a documentary about Joan. Here’s a taste:

Joan Lind – America’s Sculler from Jean A. S. Strauss on Vimeo.

And here’s Joan’s own perspective:

An Island With Joan from Jean A. S. Strauss on Vimeo.

Some obituaries:

“In Memory of Joan Lind Van Blom” by US Rowing— including an especially thoughtful tribute by the women’s double at the World Championships on the day of Joan’s death

“Two-Time Olympic Medalist Joan Lind Van Blom Passes” at Row2k

From the Cal State Long Beach student rowing team: “Remembering Joan Lind Van Blom”

And, from the front page of the daily Long Beach paper, “Long Beach’s Joan Van Blom, rowing legend, dies of brain cancer at 62”

Pain and suffering

I’m not prone to anxiety, but the social media threats from the gun extremists have kept me awake in the middle of the night since I received them. Last Wednesday night, I woke up every hour with increasing chest pain. I assumed it was a combination of my asthma and the bad air—though the air has actually been improving as the wildfires move elsewhere. My inhaler didn’t do anything for the pain, so I decided to go to the ER in hopes of getting a stronger inhaler or some kind of breathing treatment.

Unfortunately, the symptoms and kind of chest pain I described made the doctor think I might have had a heart attack. He immediately ruled out pneumonia (chest x-ray) and moved on to blood tests (for cardiac enzymes) and an EKG. Because the EKG showed “nonspecific abnormalities,” he kept me several hours for observation, hooking me up to machines to monitor my heart rate and blood pressure, and inserting an intravenous cannula so the techs could take blood easily.

redlight

The next EKG came back with a different nonspecific abnormality, but the cardiac enzyme tests were within a normal range. He consulted with a cardiologist. The doctor let me go after a breathing treatment, handing me an inhaler and prescribing medicines for my heart and lungs. He told me I needed to see my own doctor that day.

I followed up with my own doctor, who suggested that, while my asthma could be better controlled during the wildfires—she said her clinic had been seeing many new patients with breathing issues—the real issue was anxiety. She sent me on my way with a prescription for a serious anxiety medication.

I have never in my life experienced anxiety on this level. I can’t sleep well. I’m distracted at work. I’m looking over my shoulder everywhere I go. The ER costs are going, I imagine, to be substantial.

Still, I’ve had tremendous support, and I’ll seek out even more going forward.

Thank you to everyone for your kindness in the face of this ugliness.

(Redacted)

(Trigger warning: This post contains references to sexual assault, as well as epithets related to the female anatomy.)

So. . . It’s been an interesting summer. Alas, I cannot tell you about most of it because last week I was singled out by an, ahem, Second Amendment enthusiasts’ group, which posted on its Facebook page (with my photo) that I am Michael Bloomberg’s minion because I am a lead volunteer for [Redacted Organization Trying to Reduce Gun Violence By and Against Children] and thus Enemy #1 of [Second Amendment Group That Shall Not Be Named Because I Don’t Want to Give it Attention Here]. A member of [Redacted Second Amendment Group] found my name on a press release on the national [Redacted Organization]’s website.

Of course, the very first comment on the post looked like this:

Screen Shot 2015-08-25 at 7.55.41 PM

 

Sexual assault promoter’s name intentionally not redacted. Please do not engage with anyone related to this incident.

The group’s moderator responded with a “watch your language–there are children watching!”-type comment, but didn’t remove the offensive comment. Neither would Facebook, as even though I and many others reported it, it apparently doesn’t violate Facebook’s Community Standards.

Anyhoo, because the post focused on my status as a Boise State professor and because that wasn’t the only troubling comment (just my favorite!), I called the campus police, who transferred me to a very nice municipal police officer in a patrol car, who immediately offered to start driving by the house. He walked me through how to file a report and said that if necessary, the police would work with social media analytics experts, the Counter-Terrorism Task Force, and the FBI. He called back after I filed the report to emphasize all the resources at my disposal. At some point—it’s a blur now—the officer and/or campus security offered me a special parking space near my office, escorts wherever I went, officers patrolling my building, and even someone posted outside my door. The police officer also called the next day, when he came back on shift, to check on me. Law enforcement took these threats very seriously.

And hey, I learned a few things:

  • You never know which of your colleagues has received death threats and thus has the cell and desk phone numbers for a local FBI agent.
  • If Facebook doesn’t remove an offensive comment, sometimes an ally can leave a comment that prompts the moderator to remove the original comment within minutes:

"The fact that you left that up demonstrates perfectly the unhinged nature of your organization. Thanks. This will be shared with the legislators you seek to persuade."

 

Be an ally, folks. I <3 James.

Readers, here’s what you should know: I’m fine. I’m safe. I have an amazing community of people from all over the political spectrum looking out for me. Friends offered alternate housing. The police and campus security were amazing, and I have not yet exhausted my security options. One gun-loving, [Redacted]-degree black belt offered to bring her AR and stand guard in front of my house all night. [Redacted] sent a posse my way, in the form of new Facebook friends, to read through my own reporting of the incident on Facebook and consider how best to approach the situation, and he suggested some legal routes I might take, depending on how things develop.

I attended a [Session of Redacted Spiritual Group], reintroduced myself to its community, and they, like good adherents of [Redacted Theology], offered me tea and clucked over me in a most [Redactedly] way.

So, what about the rest of the summer? Here’s some other news I can’t fully report because there have been threats to me:

  • [Redacted] is getting ready to advance to [Redacted Level in Redacted Sport]. We are very proud of [Redacted].
  • The [Redacted Home Security Measures] are working as expected.
  • I’m not teaching this semester, but I’m loving [Redacted Other Things I Do When I’m Not Teaching]–especially the [Redacted People with Whom I Often Work].
  • I’m planning an online course for the spring. It’s a ton of work, but kind of fun.
  • Although I wasn’t planning it, I accomplished [Redacted Thing on Bucket List that I Did Not Realize Was on My Bucket List Until I Did It]. Ends up that, with the threats, [Redacted Thing] was fortuitous. I really wish I could gush about [Redacted Thing’s Details], but now I can’t.
  • [Redacted Large Male Person with Whom I Live] is feeling [Redacted] about the gun kerfuffle, which [Redacted].
  • I went with [Redacted] to visit [Redacted] in [Redacted], and I had the opportunity to chat briefly with [Redacted Relative] shortly before she went on hospice. [Redacted] has lived much longer than expected, and has enjoyed tremendous support from her community at [Redacted]. Her decline came amazingly quickly, and it was hard talking to her because of [Redacted] and [Redacted]. Still, because [Redacted] lives next door to [Redacted], it’s been very hard on [Redacted], who is in the unenviable position of [Redacted]. I wrote a poem—the first in a long while—related to [Redacted], but I can’t share it here because [Redacted].

It’s going to be an interesting academic year. I’ll share as much of it as I can, but I must heed the words on this family crest:

Family crest depicting a white woman holding an anchor in one hand and the decapitated head of a white man in the other

Honestly, we’ve never been gun people.

“Idaho Citizens”

15535882211_7a91024dde_zImage by Thomas Hawk, and used under a Creative Commons license

 

When I listen to testimony before Idaho’s state legislative committees, I invariably hear—mostly from conservative speakers, but not exclusively—multiple people mention how many years they have been “citizens of Idaho.”

I thought this was an interesting slip of the tongue. After all, those testifying were residents of Idaho and likely citizens of the United States. I don’t recall ever hearing anyone call herself a “California citizen” or a “citizen of Iowa” (or Virginia or D.C.) when I lived in those places.

Still, I wasn’t sure whether to be amused (was the use of “citizen” ignorant or accidental?) or infuriated (was it intentional?).

And then I came across these passages in the Idaho state GOP platform:

“We believe that Idaho Citizens should not and or shall not be taxed for federally mandated health care.”

“The Idaho Republican Party recognizes that the future of this great state lies with our faith and reliance on God our Creator, in our strong efforts to uphold family values, and in the quality of education provided for its citizens.”

“The benefits of hydroelectric power should be retained for the citizens of Idaho.”

“We encourage all Idaho citizens, and their religious, civic, and community organizations, to be actively engaged in this effort.”

Argh.

This explains why the state GOP has made sure we’ll soon need passports to leave the state on an airplane—or, really, to fly anywhere in the U.S.

This state really is another country.

Little boxes

There’s a green one and a pink one
And a blue one and a yellow one,
And they’re all made out of ticky tacky
And they all look just the same.

(Would it be heavy-handed to quote the next verse?)

I haven’t blogged for a while because the new job (director of instructional design and educational assessment), which I’ve been doing on top of being a history professor, has used up all my brain space. The position encompasses even more than I thought it would. (Anyone here ever been responsible for an online testing center before, or merged two testing centers into one? Me neither.) Toss in a mandate for electronic accessibility, a need to represent students’ achievement of university learning outcomes both quantitatively and qualitatively to accreditors, a small staff of bright people who are already pulled in too many directions, software the university adopted that may or may not work as advertised (but which I’m responsible for making sure gets used as it was marketed), an expectation we’ll find a way to lower course resource costs for students, a relationship to be (re)built with the campus’s rapidly expanding online learning unit, and much more. . . and I barely have time to think about anything else.

I really do enjoy the work because I get to think about big-picture things and have interesting conversations with all kinds of people, but it seems every day some issue emerges that causes me some cognitive dissonance or, at the very least, pedagogical discomfort.

Right now I’m stuck on the imperative to be “entrepreneurial” within the context of the university.

I’m torn. On the one hand, I’m all for finding new and interesting sources of funding—by which I mean grants and community partnerships—for scholarly and creative work that might otherwise be impossible. On the other hand, there’s a renewed attention to the bottom line that makes the humanist in me deeply uncomfortable. (I feel compelled to preemptively mention the History department is profitable; it brings in more money to the university than it costs, especially now that we are—to borrow terminology from those darling Silicon Valley start-ups—leaner and therefore more agile unit.)

But, it ends up, there’s profitable and then there’s profitable. In the new cult of entrepreneurialism, the History department’s metrics make our entire endeavor—our research, courses, and public service—appear, in the eyes of some administrators, barely sustainable. When the provost came to talk to the History department, he recommended we spawn some “self-supporting” degrees or programs that would help to fund our bread-and-butter bachelor’s degree programs.

So, what is a self-supporting program? In my local context, a self-supporting program does not receive any funds appropriated from the state. (This is important because state appropriations to Idaho’s universities fell when the recession began, and have yet to return to 2008 levels. In addition, the state board of education provides Boise State only 2/3 the amount per student as it does the University of Idaho.) In return for not costing the university much, each self-supporting program (I’m told) gets to keep upwards of 90 percent of its revenue, out of which it pays faculty salaries and all its other costs.

There is a tremendous incentive in self-supporting programs, then, to reduce costs incurred by the department and to have students bear as many of these costs as possible.

As any academic knows, one way to reduce costs to the department is to hire very few tenure-line faculty and to farm out teaching to lecturers or, better yet, adjuncts. And there is a widespread belief—which I’m guessing is a myth—that online programs save the university money because they don’t place a burden on the university’s physical plant. In this paradigm, the most economical courses are those offered online and taught by adjuncts. (Of course, it’s not really economical, as there’s a huge support infrastructure in place—from servers and the people who maintain them, to expensive enterprise software and the people who maintain it, to instructional designers, help desk staff, admissions recruiters, the registrar, and all kinds of other units that don’t get reimbursed in any meaningful way by these self-supporting programs.)

But who has time to ensure all those online adjuncts are adhering to best practices in instructional design? A university can moderate such concerns by having “subject-matter experts”—who may or may not be tenure-line faculty—provide the content for each course. Then, in concert with specialists in instructional design, the subject-matter expert develops a course, populating, for example, discussion boards with prompts and exams with questions and answers. This course is then cloned within the university’s learning management system (e.g., Blackboard) and handed off to adjuncts whose teaching experience and subject matter expertise fall all over the spectrum. For purposes of quality control and discipline-specific accreditation (for example, in engineering or the health sciences), the adjuncts typically lack opportunities to make their course their own. The course becomes, for all intents and purposes, a less-than-open xMOOC with better-staffed sections.

On my least cynical, most optimistic days, I can see how this process might work for, say, Boise State’s nursing program, which offers a bachelor’s degree completion program for RNs, for a relatively cookie-cutter MBA program, or for any number of programs that offer continuing education to professionals in fields that require formal accreditations beyond degrees.

It’s going to be a screaming failure in the humanities, however. In some cases, the one thing humanities adjuncts have going for them is a sense of autonomy in designing their courses and agency in teaching them. This paradigm takes away that autonomy, in the name of cost-cutting and quality control. If you think humanities adjuncts are agitated now, wait until universities ask them to teach courses out of a box.

In addition, the humanities typically don’t scale well. Done well, the humanities require significant time for research, reflection, discernment, and revision. When he met with the History department, our provost recommended, for example, we bring in 30 new grad students each year and graduate 11 of them. (As I understand it, we typically bring in 10 students in a good year, and offer support to fewer than half those students. Eleven students is a lot. Because history student projects necessitate many, many drafts and we require a high standard of student work, I had three grad students file to graduate this spring, but only one did.) We have 14 tenure-line faculty in the department, and most of them don’t serve on more than two graduate students’ committees at any one time, but if we’re to keep our graduate programs, our tenure-line faculty are expected to ramp those numbers up considerably while teaching a 3/3 load, plus doing enough research to keep us off a 4/4 load.

Yes, there are examples of individual instructors teaching humanities concepts well online for a large audience of enrolled or open students—I’m thinking in particular of DS 106 in its various permutations—but in every case I can think of, their success relies on connectivism rather than content delivery, and they teach outside of a traditional LMS. The scale derives from an instructor’s generosity with his or her time, and from students’ willingness to expand their personal learning networks, rather than from a widgetizing of course production.

In a climate that favors entrepreneurialism and self-supporting programs, the problem is that the humanities—and increasingly so, when we teach them well—are about building community, about collaboration and connection—not about sharing content in a way that can be measured by exams. The learning management platforms on which universities offer online courses are optimized for sharing content and quizzing students on their knowledge of that content, not for genuine connection and community-building.

But back to the provost’s recommendation that the History department develop some self-supporting programs: what kind of student is going to pay premium rates for a humanities degree? Humanities degrees do indeed provide a significant financial return on their investment by mid-career but our students don’t usually understand that, focused as they are on getting that first post-baccalaureate job. In the cold calculus of universities with dwindling state support, the humanities may slip from being the bread-and-butter liberal arts courses at the heart of a quality undergraduate education, becoming instead a luxury for those who can afford higher tuition for History courses one administration here dubbed “boutique.”

Meanwhile, of course, employers are asking for students who can think critically and creatively, synthesize complex information from multiple sources, and write well. I can’t wait to see how universities get remote nursing or business adjuncts to teach those skills online.

Mass firing in the History department at Boise State

This past week, the History department chair sent out an e-mail with the subject line “Grim News.” In the e-mail, she detailed extensive cuts to the History department’s funding, apparently emerging from the Provost’s office. Among the cuts are:

  • The Public History faculty line I recently vacated
  • 2/3 of the funds we use to support graduate assistants
  • Two lecturerships
  • A visiting lecturership
  • All adjunct funding

I’ll have something more substantive to say about this soon, but right now I’m grief-stricken.

In the meantime, you can read this Idaho Statesman article to get a sense of the university’s party line. As you might imagine, though, “declining enrollment” is not the whole story.

I’ll leave you with these tidbits, calculated by one of our endangered lecturers, who used to work in college finance and administration:

The department offered 49 full-semester 3-credit courses with 1,385 students total in Spring 2015. Of these:

  • 17 classes with 556 students were taught by tenure/tenure-track faculty (41%)
  • 15 classes with 449 students were taught by 3.5 lecturers (33%)
  • 14 classes with 340 students were taught by 8 adjuncts (24%)
  • 3 classes with 40 students were taught by full-time faculty not housed entirely in the history department (2%)

The lecturer estimates the department’s instructional expenses constitute less than 45% of the revenue it brings in through teaching alone, and that there’s no way the now diminished tenure-line faculty can accommodate all of the students currently being taught by lecturers and adjuncts. Even trying to accommodate them will mean History faculty won’t have time to do research during the academic year. Currently we have two NEH fellows, an NSF fellow, a Fulbright scholar, and the editor of a top journal—as well as everyone else’s research agendas—so our department isn’t exactly shirking its research responsibilities. Many of us have also service commitments that already are untenable.