An American historian in England: Blenheim

Blenheim Palace was where I learned to hate Capability Brown, and the aristocracy generally.

I never meant to have a bias against the aristocracy. I am a firm supporter of King Charles I, and have little tolerance for Roundheads. I have friends who are republicans, but I’ve never overcome my fascination with royalty. Those times when the royalty and aristocrats join forces with the lowest social groups are some of the most interesting in history. We’re seeing it again now in the U.S….but I digress.

A day out from Oxford to somewhere with gardens – that was my goal. And I’m a fan of Winston Churchill and his American mother, so I thought it would be nice to see his house. And of course everyone said it was so beautiful, you must go. So I got on a bus heading north and I went.

They were setting up for some huge event when I got there. The path from the bus stop was hugely long, and obviously intended for vehicles. I had to insert myself bodily in front of a car to purchase a ticket at the booth. Then more walking across crunchy gravel, but there was no entry on that side, so pedestrians had to walk around. The gardens were open first (I’d tried to get there first thing in the morning – I despise crowds), so I went for a walk.

It all seemed more than ridiculously grand. The palace from the courtyard looked like a classical temple, built to the Gods of Marlborough. It wasn’t just fancy or large or ostentatious or bold. It was religious. The columns, the pediments, the statuary – all seemed to portray worship rather than just grandeur and wealth. And they’d built it themselves, of course. The land and its ruined manor may have been a gift for services rendered by the 1st Duke, but the money Queen Anne gave him went to Sir John Vanbrugh to build this monstrosity, presumably approved by the Duke himself.

I stood in the short line to enter the gardens, then tried to enjoy the lovely boathouse by the lake, the gentle creaking of the boats. “George Charles and Lily Warren Duke and Duchess of Marlborough” was actually carved onto the building, as if they didn’t already own the whole lake and everything you could see. Did they think someone would stumble upon it and wonder who built it?

The long walk from the bus stop The Temple of the Marlboroughs

I continued through the grounds, which were huge. I came upon The Cascade, with an explanatory sign saying that Capability Brown had been commissioned to build it in 1764 by the 4th Duke. He had dammed the river to created the lake, and wanted an audible water feature to conceal the dam and give pleasure to the family, because they could hear it before they got there to see it. It was unsafe enough that in 2009 it had to be restored to meet the requirement of the Reservoirs Act.

The Duck of Marlborough The Cascade

Capability Brown is known throughout England for his landscapes, which were supposedly designed to look “natural”. Naturalism was a trend in which Brown was a bit ahead of his time – the Romantics would pick it up in the 19th century. I understand that an extraordinary amount of artificiality is necessary to make something look natural, but miles of rolling green landscape punctuated by a Cascade that would obviously not occur in the landscape by itself didn’t seem natural. Nor did the circular rose garden I walked even longer to find, placed to be discovered among the trees. The sheer amount of work to mow the lawns must be amazing. I was impressed by the amount of funding required to both do this and keep it like this, but I was unimpressed by the design. In its sheer immensity it was as classical and formal as many places with which the landscaper hoped to avoid comparison. Or perhaps I’ve been reading too much Ruskin…

I went into the house, but was not about to buy a ticket to see certain rooms, and many of the ground floor exhibit rooms were mobbed with people. The indoor statuary, the large collection of Chinese knick-knacks, the furnishings, seemed inelegant and overblown, but by then my attitude may have affected what I was seeing. I stopped by the gift shop on my way out and was surprised, oddly, that it was full of overpriced garden goods and pillows and things to make your home look like Blenheim.

The Foyer The Gift Shop

I have, romantically, always appreciated the faded grandeur of the aristocracy, and felt sorry for them, saddled with grand houses that can not make money in an age without landed wealth. Blenheim wasn’t like that, or was frantically trying to avoid it by hiring itself out for events (not only was the entire courtyard filled with chairs by the time I left, but there was a film crew interviewing someone on the terrace). But as I wandered the grounds I kept thinking, wouldn’t it be nice if this were available to the people? For everyone (especially those who actually like Capability Brown) to enjoy as part of the community? Shouldn’t this much ostentation be critiqued rather than celebrated? Perhaps I’m turning into a republican after all.

Calendrically speaking

I have always been a big fan of paper calendars. But when it comes to teaching, there are many things I need to put on a calendar that are the same from semester to semester. My solution recently has been creating a spreadsheet calendar, putting in these recurring items (grade primary sources, grade Writing Assignment III, etc), then printing it out and writing in the dates.

After almost three decades working with Microsoft products, I could not figure out how to get the pages to print correctly.

Why do I need such a calendar, when the LMS has its own calendar? For the first time since Blackboard days, I will be teaching in three different systems: MiraCosta’s Canvas (two classes), MiraCosta’s Moodle (four classes), and free Canvas (one class). This is how I will transition from Moodle to Canvas over the next 18 months.

The Canvas and Moodle calendars, plus my own grading calendar, would need to be in the same place to do this electronically. So today I used the URL from the Canvas and Moodle calendars, and put them into Google’s calendar, then added my grading tasks.

Both LMSs, unfortunately, export the full calendar (all classes), not each class – this is a problem because Google imports them all as one calendar, with all tasks in the same color regardless of which class it is. I wanted a separate Google calendar for each class. Luckily, I was able to solve this for Canvas by exporting each course’s calendar from Student View, as recommended by Chris Long in the Canvas Community. There is no way to do this for Moodle, but it didn’t matter, because both sections are of the same class and on the same calendar.

Now I have all tasks in one place, accessible on my phone or on computer.

I’ve never not used a paper calendar of some kind (yes, I know, call me steampunky), so we’ll see how it goes.

Canvas But Cool: Embedding Announcements

I hope to start a series of posts here on things I’m doing in Canvas, but that are cool anyway. Some will be workarounds, some ideas for making things look better, some techniques born out of utter frustration.

None will be as brilliant as what Laura Gibbs is doing at the University of Oklahoma  – she’s got LOL Cats rotating through her Canvas pages using a cool javascript. But her work inspires me and encourages me to find things that are Canvas…But Cool.

My first concerns Announcements. In Moodle (many of my posts will start “In Moodle”, an approach dreaded by many in the Canvas Community) I could just paste Announcements in at the top of the main page, and copy or adapt them into Latest News for instant emailing to all. In Canvas, the Announcements page is decidedly a separate thing. If I don’t want announcements to be the main Home page, they won’t be obvious except by email or other notifications.

But I don’t want to post twice, once in Announcements and once by editing the Home Page. I want the Announcements to dynamically appear on the Home page, where I want them to. So I followed the wonderful instructions posted halfway down this page at the Canvas Community (I’d love to link directly to the post, but you can’t do that there), posted by Sharmaine Regisford with thanks to others.


1. First, post an Announcement in your class (I just did a welcome message).

2. Grab the feed URL for the announcements by going to the Announcements page and right-clicking on the RSS symbol (it won’t be there if you didn’t post a first Announcement).

The URL should end with .atom.

3. Go to FeedWind at

4. In the spot, paste in the feed URL.

5. Choose your settings. I like 1 feed height, scrollbar on, autoscroll off, text-only, max length 132 characters.

6. Grab the regular code from the right side, not the iframe code.

7. Start a new text document on your computer and paste the code.

8. Save the file as .html.  

9. Go to Canvas and open Files. Upload the .html file you just created to your Canvas course files. Once it’s there, mouse over the name of it to find the document number – write it down somewhere.

10. Go to the page where you want the Announcements to appear. Switch to HTML editor.

11. Paste this in:

<iframe title=”Course Announcements” src=”/courses/#######/files/#########/download” width=”100%” height=”112″></iframe>

In this example the first ####### is your course number and the second ######### is the file number.

The course number is in the URL of your Canvas course:

So for this example, that would be:

<iframe title=”Course Announcements” src=”/courses/6660/files/57294/download” width=”100%” height=”112″></iframe>

The result is an iframe on your page that will always show the most recent announcement (so long as you chose that on the settings at FeedWind).

Update: As of this week, Canvas provides the option to add announcements to the top of your home page. Not as pretty, but it works:

You know you’re working in Canvas when…

You start changing the names of assignmentcanvaspss to things like “L1” so you can squeeze the column smaller in the gradebook.

You keep looking for the arrow button on the toolbar because there’s so little available.

You just lost 95% of the custom class syllabus page because you tried to comment out everything after the first week.

You check the boxes on the Import Content page in slow motion because last time you wiped out the whole course.

You search all over the site for the section that lets you allow students to upload files, then find it as an inconspicuous link at the very bottom of the main Settings page.

You look for published images to steal instead of uploading your own because putting in a URL is so much easier than trying to upload, find and embed an image file.canvaslinks

Your idea of hell becomes a place where you’re faced with a list of dark green hyperlinks.

You stop allowing revisions of anything in a forum because SpeedGrader makes finding them impossible.

You give up on the idea of trying to link to a specific post in a forum because it’s too complicated.

You get an eye doctor appointment to deal with not being able to see the blue “unread” dots in the forums.

You spend time on support with your ISP trying to figure out how to create secure web pages so they can be embedded, only to find that the javascript you have on that page won’t work when embedded anyway.

You give up trying to embed SSL web pages and let everything link out.

You get a bad sprain from overusing the scroll wheel.

You start creating things inside the system even though you know better.

You think of the tasks of your life in terms of “Previous” and “Next”.


Workflow control, guidance, or punishment?

Yes, I’m practicing using the Oxford comma. But I’m also practicing guided pathways for student work.

In the LMS, you can restrict access to one assignment until another assignment has been done.


Having completed well-designed Learning Units to prepare students for their writing assignments, I added them to all my classes. Then I made the writing assignment unavailable until they took the Learning Unit. I was nice, demanding only a score of 1% before they could submit it and access the writing assignment — I just wanted to be sure they opened it and went through it, practicing the skills they’d need with instant

Having done that, I waited for next semester. But it kept eating at me. Why was I insisting they do this task before another, forcing them to do it, forcing them into what I was sure would be the last-minute opening of a writing assignment due that night, and the angst when they realized they couldn’t just write it and get it over with?

It seemed to violate my willingness to let them fail.

Fact is, when I started developing these units this semester, I posted a few as extra credit, just to see if they helped the writing. Why wouldn’t a student do the unit for extra credit, especially if it was designed to help them get a better score on the assignment. Yet 2/3 didn’t do it.

So I should force them? To what end? Better assignments? Doesn’t seem likely. Because not all of them care about feedback, or about their grade, or about doing well. Those who do will do the unit anyway. Those who don’t will be mad, or frustrated, or annoyed. Not good for getting work done. It feels…punitive. Rush your work in my class, will you? Well here — splat — take that!

So I went back and removed all restrictions, and replaced them with a request. The writing assignmets now say “please do the Learning Unit first!” That’s it. Asking nicely. Feels more respectful of all their needs, not just the need to do good work. We’ll see what happens.

OER and the Powers that Be

Me: Gosh, I love Open Educational Resources. I hate those high textbook prices, because they’re high for no reason. Plus a lot of them aren’t very good, and go in directions I don’t want. Luckily, there’s a lot available on the web.

Powers that Be (15 years later): Wow, we want to get into OERs! We just discovered we can save students money and achieve local, state and national political kudos for doing this. We’ll have grants!

Me: That’s great! I want to apply. I created two of my own textbooks out of Wikipedia articles that I edited. Then I edited a bunch of primary sources and added them to the books. They’re in pdf. Students just print them if they want to, or read them online – saves tons of money! Where do I sign?

Powers that Be: Oh, no, we don’t want you to create the OERs. Look at all the stuff out there! We’ve got textbooks and materials, not very well organized and into multiple places. Go search those. Adopt one of those. Then you can have the grant.

Me: Oh, well there are some classes I teach where I haven’t done my own books. American History, for example. Hmmm…not much good stuff, though there are quite a few texts available. Here’s one that will do – I just need to annotate it in an accessible way – it doesn’t seem to have the Salem Witch Trials and other important things. It’ll be quite a bit of work. But that’s OK — where do I sign for a grant?

Powers that Be: Oh, well you have to show that you’re saving students money from the previous semester.

Me: But the previous semesters I’ve been using either open resources or my own edited books and materials. I haven’t used a commercial textbook in some of these classes for several years.

Powers that Be: Then you get no grant. You have to show a difference between what your students spent last semester and what they’ll spend with your newly adopted OER.

Me: But I’ve been giving my students OERs for years! I’ve been in the vanguard! A trendsetter! Without people like me you wouldn’t even know what OERs are!

Powers that Be: You’re misunderstanding the goal here. We need to show we are saving students money after we became involved.  That’s what the grant is for. Then we need to show exactly how much we’ve saved. What’s happened over previous years doesn’t matter.

Me: You know, it seems like it’s more important to you to take credit for OERs than to expand their use, or to assist people like me who have been developing, revising and using OERs without compensation for the last two decades or so. Perhaps those who claim that the real purpose behind institutional OER adoption is to allow states to reduce funding to public schools are correct. Is my taxpayer money going to grants like this?

Powers that Be: You bet! Be proud to be a part of such educational innovation. 🙂