Steampunk pedagogy

I’m watching rather horrified as faculty try desperately to replicate their classroom experience online, and plan to require students to do things they might not be able to manage, even while keeping grading structures in place.

Steampunk is an art form, one that takes the technologies of the Victorian era and combines them with a contemporary sensibility.

I am sending out the following to my students tomorrow (all students, including those who’ve already completed the first half of their fully online class):

This week we restart in earnest. If you have internet and can access everything in Canvas, just follow the instructions and deadlines and let me know using the Canvas “Message Lisa” or Inbox if you have any questions (and it’s ok to have lots of questions!).

If you got this email but cannot do the work because you lack internet access or a device that can do Canvas, please email me at and we’ll figure out something together. No need to drop the class if you don’t want to.

The thing is, just because a student had good computer access before, it doesn’t mean they do now. Some never did. I had students who were already sleeping in their cars and using their phone to do the class. Some of them are now called in for extended shift duty in hospitals and as first responders.

In addition to extending deadlines, eliminating timed tests, and easing grading practices, I am willing to go backward in time. The first correspondence courses were papers and assignments mailed back and forth. The first online classes were the same, but with email. We can copy web page text (well, any text) into an email. We can accept emailed work, emailed photos of handwritten work. Even those of us who have hundreds of students can handle this for the few who need it.

I realize I will lose the students who don’t want to do this, or try but can’t manage. I don’t want to lose those who want to continue, but don’t have all the 21st century tools. While I don’t see a need to go back to mailing things with so many people owning a cell phone, steampunk pedagogy should be our fallback.



Crash Course in moving a class online

The recommendations I’m seeing for faculty are overly complex. So here’s some completely unofficial advice for faculty as we all scramble to move on-site class sections into the Canvas online environment.

What to do first

Send a Canvas announcement out from inside the class letting students know this is where the class will be and that you are creating all the resources they will need there. Assure them you are on the job and in control!

Three things to know about going completely online:

1) The process by which you inform students is diluted in the online environment. Thus reminders and deadlines should appear in multiple places.

2) Students will access the class in different ways. Some will struggle to access a computer. Others will attempt to use their phone and the Canvas app. Simplicity of tasks helps everyone.

3) Students who choose on-site classes sometimes do so because they cannot stay motivated on their own or need personal help. Individual contact with these students may be important.

Here are some basic steps for moving your classes:

Determine priorities
Set up the Canvas shell
Set up Readings
Create Discussion
Adapt Assessment
Be kind

Determine priorities

1) Students

Keeping in touch with students might seem to be a first priority, but colleges are already sending out many emails, and many students don’t use email. Use the Announcements and the Inbox in Canvas to contact students, but keep in mind:

Announcements by default go to student email, so they could miss them. You might recommend that students go into their Profile and change their Notifications if they want to receive class communications another way (such as by text).

The Inbox is tricky to use. You might consider sharing your email directly with students in several places on the site.

For students who do check email, they read the subject line, not the email. So be sure your Announcements have a subject line that contains the main point (for example, “mid-term due Sunday!”).

2) Technology

Many of us know that each class has a Canvas shell already. Perhaps we’re using it for the gradebook or to post readings. In this case, students are accustomed to going there, which helps.

The key with an emergency situation is to keep things as simple as possible. Since each class has a Canvas shell, use the Announcements feature to tell students this is where the class will be. That way, the link is included already in the email.

3) Pedagogy

There are basically three aspects to what we do (yes, I think in threes!): Presentation through readings and/or lectures, discussion, and assessment.

In Canvas, presentation elements can go on Pages. The syllabus can go in Syllabus. Discussion is in Discussions boards. Assessment is in Quizzes.

What to work on first:
If you have a big test coming up at the start of the transition, work on Quizzes first. If you have readings they must do, work on getting them uploaded using Pages and Files. If the whole format of the class is having to change (new deadlines, etc), do the Syllabus first. If you promised a discussion right away, set up a Discussion forum first.

Setting up Canvas

We refer to each instance of Canvas for an individual course as a “shell”. Shells all contain the things in the menu items. Here’s the order I recommend for set-up (adapt as needed!):


Unless you are in a hurry to start a discussion or get readings uploaded, I recommend starting with your syllabus. You have two options:

1) Upload. If you already have it in a .doc, keep in mind that not all students have Microsoft Word. You might want to save it as a pdf first. To upload, go to Files, +Upload a new file, select it on your computer, and upload. It will then appear in the Files list for you to link.

2) Create it on the Syllabus page. You can copy all the text from your word file, then click Edit on the syllabus page, and paste.


The Assignments page is what determines how much each of your syllabus items counts for a grade. Quizzes are also assignments. Anything that gets graded is an assignment.

If you have standard percentages:
First we need to set up assignment categories, called “groups”. So let’s say you have a standard 10% for each of 5 quizzes, 20% for the midterm, 20% for the final, 10% for participation.

Using the plus sign, create an assignment group for each of these, indicating the percentage. You can come back later and put in the actual assignments.

Doing this does two things: makes a category in the gradebook, and makes a list for students on the Syllabus page.

If you do cumulative grading, ungrading, points based grading:
Do not set up Assignment Groups. If you have a highly complex grading system, or one which adds points as you go, you don’t want to use the categories. You’ll want to spend more time directly with the Gradebook. But consider using the simplest system you can.

Course settings

Go to Settings at the bottom of the near left menu. It will open in the Course Details tab. We’re only going to change the important stuff.

Make sure the dates match your course dates, and that all the availability boxes are unchecked so your class is fully open.
If you are using standard grading (A, B, C, D, F) be sure to check the Grading Scheme box.

Click More Options at the bottom. This is the important list. I recommend showing the Announcements at the top of the Home page. Choose how many Announcements you want showing all the time (I prefer one!). Decide what permissions to give students, for uploading files, starting discussions, etc. Decide whether you want them to see the total of their grade all the time (I do and check), and whether you want them to know the grade distribution of the class (I uncheck).

Menu Items

Each Canvas class has two menus. The blue on on the far left is the Canvas menu, and you can’t change it. The one with a white background, on the near left, is your class menu.

There are too many menu items. Do you want students directly looking at your list of Files, or do you prefer they only access them from the pages you create? Do you want them jumping around the Quizzes in any old order? Are you even using Conferences, UDOIT, Outcomes? Let’s simplify the menu.

Go to Settings at the bottom of that menu. Click on the Navigation “tab” at the top. Drag and drop anything off the menu you don’t want to be seen by students. Then click Save below.

Students can still get to all these places. For example, if they take a Quiz, they will still see the Quizzes link (a breadcrumb) at the top, and can go to a list of all the quizzes. But removing Quizzes makes it invisible on the main menu, where they don’t need it and can get confused.


If you have a textbook, or are using a course cartridge or system, you may already be set up.

Posted readings

If you have already posted readings in Canvas, it may just be a matter of linking them to a Page with assignments.

Uploading readings

If you have readings you want to upload, go to Files, +Upload a new file, select it on your computer, and upload. It will then appear in the Files list for you to link from Pages or the Syllabus.


Lectures online may be written out (in which case they are like Readings), delivered in real time, or recorded.

Real Time (synchronous) Lectures

If your college requires real time lectures to comply with student contact hours requirements, the tool to use is Zoom. Zoom is a videoconferencing program. It downloads a version to your computer, and when you enter a Zoom meeting it loads that program. Participants can communicate through video, audio, and text chat.

A lecture can be just you talking on video, or you can use the screen sharing function to show slides while you talk.

If you lecture to slides in the classroom, this may be the best option. [Since you are sharing your screen, be sure nothing is showing on your screen that you wouldn’t want students to see. Some faculty use a separate browser for this purpose, so their bookmark bar doesn’t show.]

Students may be shy about using video or audio, so many faculty allow the chat to be an option for participating. It’s very hard to watch the chat window while you are lecturing. Be sure to pause every so often to read the chat. Narrate what you’re doing (“now I’m going over to read the chat…”).

Zoom lecture meetings can be recorded for later viewing by students.

Naturally, learning to use Zoom may require more time than anything else you need to do! That’s why colleges are offering workshops.

Asynchronous Lectures

Lectures that are recorded or written or can be accessed any time are called “asynchronous”.

Recording lectures can be very time consuming, as can writing them out if you haven’t already. But basically, there are a few ways to do it:

1) Audio record (podcast) yourself talking the lecture, then post the recording.
2) Video record yourself talking, create a screencast using your slides, or do both together.
3) Write out the lecture like a book chapter.

There are many complex ways to do these, too many to go over for an emergency situation. But Canvas Studio (inside Canvas) can be used to record audio and video the quick way. I’d advise keeping individual recordings short (15-20 minutes or so).


There are two kinds of discussion: synchronous (real time) and asynchronous (anytime).

Synchronous discussion: real time

This can be achieved during real time lecture (see above), or as a separate meeting. As always, if assigning any real-time activity outside of class, we need to be sensitive to student schedules. For this reason, I recommend against synchronous activity outside of regular class time when doing an emergency shift.

Asynchronous discussion: forums

Canvas discussion forums are simple, and resemble Facebook forums. Students will likely be accustomed to using them from other classes.

The most important thing to determine is how many Discussions you need. Each one needs to be fairly focused, particularly if you have a large class. Canvas’s design means that individuals posts take up a lot of space, so much scrolling is involved. It is difficult to follow a highly complex conversation.

A weekly discussion forum is traditional. You can set dates for participation when you add a new Discussion.

The simplest form of online discussion just asks a question or set of questions in the initial prompt, then asks students to reply a certain number of times.

There is a lot of literature on how to set up effective online discussions, but here are just a few tips:

1) Ask open questions
If the first one or two students answers the question(s), what’s the point for the other students? Open-ended questions, ones that require exploration but don’t necessarily have a certain answer, can be more useful.

2) Make expectations clear
If you want a particular word count, or a number of replies to other students, or a new term introduced in each post, or a picture posted, say so in the instructions.

3) Choose your own participation level
You may choose to stay out of discussion, but if you’re accustomed to guiding in-class discussion, you likely won’t. Participating occasionally can be better to encourage conversation among the students, while participating frequently can guide the discussion more directly.

4) Consider projects
Discussion forums are the only place in Canvas where students can see each others work. You can even set up forums for groups of students. Canvas also allows implementation of Google Docs for this, if you’re comfortable learning about that. But for quick group work or projects, forums may be used.

5) Consider using the discussion forum as an assignment board
Discussion forums can be set so that students cannot see what is on the forum until they post. Keep in mind, of course, that students may work together on forums. Even so, this may be a good way to turn in assignments where you want students to see what each other has done, or you want to use the initial post as a jumping off point.


We all have our own ways of doing assessment. Quizzes/tests and Zoom lectures will be the biggest technical challenges for moving a class online.


Assignments can be submitted online, uploaded, even automatically graded. Setting this up requires spending some time in the Assignments category.

Multiple-choice questions

If you do Windows, the program Respondus can help create your quizzes into a format that Canvas can use and adapt. See your campus resources.


Essays can be Assignments turned in just to you, or they can be questions on a regular Quiz. They can even be items posted in a forum. In all cases, essay questions may need to be copied and pasted into the system.

Be kind

An emergency is not the time to worry about strict deadlines, gate-keeping, or “no exceptions” policies. It is an exceptional time. Students are not just sitting at home, eager to participate. Some have jobs that are now demanding overtime, family members to care for, and concerns about feeding their families when people have been thrown out of their jobs. Do not demand doctor’s notes or “proof” of inability to finish work. The least we can do in a time like this is trust our students and help each other. We should be providing the opportunity to go to class, not increasing the stress.

Consider some symbols of online class kindness: deadlines without late penalties, retakes on exams, quizzes graded by the system, and more.

Checklist for moving a class online

____ Send a reassuring Announcement from inside Canvas to all students
____ Determine priorities: syllabus, readings, assignments/quizzes, discussion
____ Post or create the Syllabus
____ Set up Assignment Groups if using standard percentage grading
____ Select Course Settings
____ Remove unused menu items
____ Decide about lecture / learn Zoom if doing real time
____ Set up Discussion as appropriate
____ Create assessments
____ Be kind

A historian’s tools

I love computers, but sometimes it’s gotta be tape, scissors, and crayons.

Going online the 19th-20th century way

Given current discussions about moving on-site classes into an online environment as an emergency response, I’m going to go out on a limb and say: don’t worry about pedagogy.

Current Learning Management Systems have simplified online instruction to an extreme degree. Despite decades of research and experience in various active learning online techniques, our current systems still encourage the basic triumvirate: reading/information, discussion, and assessment.

An on-site class already has assigned reading, so these can be moved online if necessary. Discussion that took place in class can be placed on a discussion board if desired, or one can easily just answer questions through messaging or email. And assessment can be moved online using the built-in quizzes. The fact is that most on-site teachers moving online will focus on these three things. They will need to learn how to upload their readings, set up a discussion board, and retype their assessments into the system if they don’t know how to use a tool like Respondus (or are on a Mac). The fourth big task will be learning to use the gradebook, which is more difficult than handing back a piece of paper with a grade and comments.

These preparations will take far more time than classroom teaching, and will already cause massive workload issues. These concerns will be added to student confusion on assignments and grades, basic worry about managing ones professional tasks in isolation, and trying to ensure enough income and food to keep ones family comfortable.

In other words, pedagogy, universal design, student equity, and other considerations will become instantly irrelevant.

Synchronous lectures, especially at a college without teaching assistants, may be well beyond instructors’ capabilities, and if not, the stress of doing it may be overwhelming. Even discussion boards, which require design of some sort, may be beyond the abilities of many instructors while everything else is going on. That would leave us with: read the textbook, take the test.

This might sound terrible, but it isn’t. It’s the way distance learning was done in its earliest incarnations, through the mail and televised courses. It is the way the earliest online classes were conducted, over email. In other words, read/inform and test was considered adequate for education for many years, particularly for subjects not requiring laboratory work. And it’s the pattern for every publisher’s course cartridge I’ve ever seen.

Certainly it’s ironic that after so many decades of active learning, student-centered techniques, just-in-time education, constructivism, and inquiry-based models, a single emergency would mean a return to the old style.

If this emergency goes on for a long time, several things could happen. The following could well drop out of college: students who only have their phone for a computer, students who cannot motivate themselves and stay on task, students who require personal contact with others in order to learn, students who require that teachers take a deep personal interest in their lives, students who can only learn in groups of other students, and students who are unprepared for college work. While all of these problems can be dealt with effectively in the online environment, there will be no time to work on the methods for doing so. This is particularly the case for faculty who’ve never taught online, or posted more than a minimum of resources in an LMS.

The remaining students, those who can do well under these read-and-test conditions, will be more similar to students of the 19th and 20th centuries. During these years, educational reformers were striving to make sure there were spots available for students who were capable but financially disadvantaged. The ability to read and test, and ask good questions, was essential to student success. It might prove interesting if it were that way again.


St Thomas’s Hospital at the Zoo

The cholera ward, of course, was in the giraffe house…

In my recent researches of St. Thomas’s Hospital, Southwark, I have discovered an unusual episode, a time when the hospital went to the zoo.

St. Thomas’s Hospital was located on Borough Street in Southwark from the medieval period until 1862. (What remains of it, the Old Operating Theatre Museum and Herb Garret, is my all-time favourite museum in London.) At that time, the railway was forcing itself through the area as companies competed with each other. The proposed railway went right through the heart of the hospital grounds. So in 1862 the hospital was sold to the railway company, for £296,000, according to this.

Guy’s and St. Thomas’ Hospitals shown on “Improved map of London for 1833, from Actual Survey. Engraved by W. Schmollinger, 27 Goswell Terrace”

‘St Thomas’s Hospital 1860’, aerial view. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images, Roberts, G.Q., A brief history of St Thomas’s Hospital (1920)

A new hospital site was arranged to be built where most of it still stands, in Lambeth, across from the Houses of Parliament. But this site wasn’t complete until 1871.

View of St Thomas’s Hospital with plan taken from Henry Currey’s, St. Thomas’s Hospital, London. [London] : [Royal Institute of British Architects], 1871 [St Thomas’s Historical Books Collection PAMPH. BOX RA988.L8 T1 CUR]

Most sources skip over this gap. Where did the hospital go in the meantime, for nine years?

It went to Surrey Gardens, in Newington, Walworth, in September 1862. Surrey Gardens had been a pleasure garden, like Vauxhall. It had a zoo. But as business declined, the animals were sold off to build a huge music hall. The hall was gutted by fire in 1861, which coincidentally led to a court case that determined you cannot hold someone to a contract when it’s impossible to fulfill it (in this case, a concert reserved for a burnt-out hall).

St. Thomas’s Hospital decided to lease the whole property, repaired the building, and repurposed some of the zoo.

I’ve been looking for histories and records of St. Thomas’ Hospital to learn more about the situation at Surrey Gardens. The St Thomas’s Hospital Report of 1867 is available, for some reason, at Google Books. Amputation fatalities, I discovered, were lower at the new location.

[Aside: there were also some figures in the Report tables that seem odd to me. How could the average stay in hospital for an ankle sprain be 11 days (p602)? This made me wonder whether one had to stay in hospital to be allowed off work, or whether people really had no one at home to take care of them (or no home — quite possible in a poor neighborhood), or whether ankle sprains were for some reason more serious then? Four men and four women had sprained their ankle that year, and the average stay was 11 days? Perhaps they had more wrong with them than a sprained ankle.]

The giraffe house really was the cholera ward, and the old elephant house was used for dissections. That piece of information comes from a book about Florence Nightingale, who was a big part of all this. She had opened her first nursing school at Old St. Thomas’ only two years before the move, and helped provide for room and board for nurses at the hospital. She also helped design the new Lambeth hospital for maximum light, ventilation, and separation of patients into pavilions. [And she promoted hand-washing as the best anti-infective, as true now as it was in 1860.]

The Illustrated London News of December 1862 (copy available at HathiTrust) features a quick column on how the facilities at Surrey Gardens boasted the “rapid and complete conversion of the old buildings to their new and beneficent uses”, and imagined the gardens would provide a unique opportunity for medical students to stroll and contemplate. Nightingale, who believed in patient access to the outdoors, would have approved this. She wrote a letter to Henry Bonham Carter (her cousin and the Secretary of the Nightingale Fund) on the advantages of temporary buildings for hospitals, but it isn’t available online.

The 9-year relocation gets only a single-sentence mention in Wikipedia. That’s a shame. It seems like such an interesting interlude.

Log books and protest

As part of an unenthusiastic effort to flesh out a paper that I gave at a conference last fall, I have been doing some research. I ordered a book titled “Teaching Britain” by Christopher Bischof through our Interlibrary Loan service. I sat down to start reading it, and the introduction sounded eerily familiar. Then I remembered — I’d heard Bischof give a presentation on his book at the conference!

In one chapter he discusses one of the sources he used, a type of source that’s neglected. I’m a huge fan of neglected sources: that treasure trove of diaries found in the attic, the sketches from the police journal nobody’s looked at, the stockpile of manuscripts left in an obscure archive. On my next trip to London, I’ll be looking at menus for the restaurants in the South Kensington Museum. Love this stuff.

His seldom-consulted items are log books. How could I not have known that the Revised Code of 1862 forced headmasters to keep daily logs of their school, reporting anything that might be a challenge to educating the children according to the code? According to Bischof, these schoolmasters immediately began using the books to not only record events, but opine about their educational woes. The officials tried to ban such personal opinions, but to no avail. The log books are thus a rich source of information, and not just that Mrs Smith was out ill for a whole week. Masters wrote about the rules they didn’t like, and how they were hampering education.

One of the things they were unhappy about, Bischof considers in a separate chapter: “over-pressure”. The Revised Code introduced “payment-by-results”, where schools earned grants based on their pupils’ performance on the big examination. Some children felt so much pressure they had emotional problems. One young lady committed suicide by jumping off a bridge.

I know a bit about the exams: H. G. Wells passed many of them, and was glad to do it. Not only did he earn grant money for the school, but he got himself a scholarship. The purpose of the exams was not only to exert pressure on schoolmasters to do better. It was to allow those capable of good scholarship, even at the poorest schools, to earn places at advanced secondary schools and colleges. This was a ticket to a better future. Wells’s scholarship took him to the Normal School of Science, where he studied under T. H. Huxley. Such an opportunity would never have been presented to a lower-middle class boy without the examination system.

There are obvious parallels to today’s arguments about student pressure and standardized testing. But Bischof also argues that the log books show a self-identification of teachers as professionals. They felt they had a right to complain, that they were the arbiters of what made for good education. This is also a parallel. While professors at big universities may get social respect, school teachers, and those of us at community colleges, do not. We are often not treated like professionals. So I feel a certain kinship with the schoolmasters using the logs to protest. I’ve done as much myself in program reviews and other forms I’ve been forced to complete. At least the Inspectors in 1862 were required to read them.

Catching up in World History

Back in the day (like, 1989) I was hired to teach World History. When I first arrived at the college, I was given the syllabus.

Now, I had been trained to teach Western Civ. I was a Europeanist, with an emphasis in medieval technology and a secondary field of early U.S. History. My graduate school language had been French (no, I don’t speak a word of it now — don’t ask me to order for you). But even I, with my Eurocentric background, could see that the syllabus was not World History. It was what I later learned would be called “The West and the Rest”, a condensed Western Civ class with a unit on India, a unit on China…you get the idea.

So I resolved to reform the curriculum and make the course truly global. I didn’t realize I was wading into a whole intellectual swamp about the history of the world, but I did know I needed help. So I founded the North County Global History Project, in collaboration with historians from other community colleges, and even National University. We created several annual conferences, inviting experts in global history to come speak. We also shared internally, with all the world historians working together, bringing in our various areas of expertise. It worked. The curriculum was revised and approved, and all our instructors have been teaching global history for years.

That included me, until about 2004. At that time, our Western Civ classes were expanding, and I was eager to teach them. Online classes were expanding, and I was learning to teach them. The following year I founded the Program for Online Teaching, and my focus for the next 12 years or so was on online pedagogy, and the creation of new class in the History of Technology.

Well, time’s a funny thing. I now have an opportunity, next fall, to teach World History again. So suddenly I am embarked on examining what’s happened in the discipline, what’s up in the scholarship, and what’s available as far as resources. I’ve been reading the current textbooks, and articles on the last dozen years of the field. Although I had belonged to the World History Association, my membership had lapsed as they priced me out of their conferences (they took place in Italy and on cruise ships). So I don’t exactly have an insider view.

If you read my blog, you know what I think of textbooks. But really, I’d like to start with one, and there are no Open Educational Resources for world history that cover the entire course. I assumed I could find a newer textbook with a solid thematic structure, since that’s where the field was heading back in 2004. It turns out there have been some efforts at thematic global history in recent years, including The Origins of the Modern World by Robert B. Marks, and Forging the Modern World by Carter and Warren. I have just finished reading the latter, except for the last chapter, because by then I was too depressed to continue to the end. A reasonably-priced, readable, book of a good length for students, it has themes that carry through. That’s what I’m looking for, a thematic framework to make history truly global, rather than just bouncing from region to region for each chapter (“Meanwhile, in China…”) But Carter and Warren’s themes have to do with the lengths to which states will go to establish legitimacy (think blowing things up and killing lots of natives) and the difficulty in resisting this. The losers lose horribly. There are names in the book (emperors and such), but you never see the real people, the people on the ground. They just seem to be buffeted by forces beyond their control. There’s no agency, no hope. Yes, I could add that in when I lecture. But I’d feel bad assigning such misery and helplessness.

When evaluating textbooks, I also like to “spot check” content– look in the index for certain things to determine how they’re covered. So since I want to be global, I looked for global things. For commodities, gold or silver work — so does cloth. For food, sugar or chocolate are good (and aren’t they?). I look for coverage of people like the Arabs, the Jesuits, and the Jews, people who didn’t necessarily fit evolving concepts of the nation and tend to operate globally.

And I look for women. Not necessarily individual Great Women, but rather women in groups, acting with agency and purpose. Great Men tend to be individualized as historical actors, even though none of them would have achieved anything without a network supporting them. Women may have to form groups just to be heard. Such groups have fought not only for suffrage, but for things like laws, peace, fair prices, and education. (I look for “peace” also.)

Looking at the books so far, those that have these people as actors tend to have a regional focus rather than a global, thematic focus. That includes Bulliet’s The Earth and Its Peoples (the current edition of the book I used in 2004) and the newer Smith’s World in the Making. The McNeills’ The Human Web and Morillo’s Frameworks of World History are more thematic, but I believe conceptually too difficult for community college students. It’s becoming pretty clear that I have to decide between a global focus without the real human experience, and the real human experience without a global framework. That sucks. You would think the field would have moved further in the time I haven’t been paying attention. I envision a book with global themes and flyovers, but with little boxes that telescope in on an event as an example, and sample those from around the globe.

And no, I’m not gonna write one.

Rigor or workload?

It appears as though next summer, our 8-week classes will all be offered in a 6-week format. I am in favor of this. At first this seems like a good idea: students finish faster, faculty are done sooner (avoiding the problem of immediately starting fall afterword). Until one thinks about rigor.

Rigor is a word frequently argued about in academia but rarely defined. It has something to do with the academic integrity of a course. If, for example, it is a college class but one assigned a third-grade textbook, there would be a problem with rigor. Our course approval process requires a list of possible textbooks and possible assignments, ostensibly to ensure appropriate rigor.

Years ago, our historians were asked to offer 4-week intersession classes in winter, and we said no. Our senior historian at the time went in with the dean to argue that rigor could not be maintained. Our classes, as approved for transfer to university, were 16 weeks long. We could not maintain standards, particularly with students rushing through reading and writing at 4 times the speed. It’s a community college. Some students had trouble reading college-level work. Forcing them to do it faster would be disastrous for their success and our teaching. We won the argument, because at the time there seemed to be a general understanding that History requires extensive reading and writing, and by extension considerable thought. This requires more time.

As time has passed, however, the expectations for the level of student achievement have changed. The emphasis on “student success” has led not only to a natural and predictable inflation of grades, but a much broader acceptance of less rigor. The available textbooks for a college course are written at a much lower level, and have many needlessly large illustrative images and lots of white space. Courses are approved for General Education transfer that are more “fun” and have significantly lower expectations of learning ability. The push for what is called “equity” has led to an utter rejection of everything from the Western canon to any novel written by a white male, with the result that many longer works with universal themes are no longer considered appropriate for assignment.

So in a sense all rigor, in the sense of expectations of the level of the work completed, has declined. But rigor is not necessarily workload. When I was at university, lower-division courses required a full textbook, and several ancillary texts. When I was a teaching assistant at the University of California, Santa Barbara, only one ancillary text was required, but it was an extensive secondary book. Students chose the shortest one, of course. All the same, the workload (number of pages to read, number of papers to write, length of those papers) was significantly higher.

If rigor is being decreased, but achievement in the discipline continues to be expected, then workload should increase. If the level of what one is being given, and is expected to perform, is lower, then increased quantity would provide more opportunities for practice. Increasing workload thus implies a dedication to higher rigor, even if the standard is not obtained.

But we must also consider the contemporary dedication to the affective well-being of the student. This dovetails with the culture at large. It is accepted that people who are distressed cannot study well. Mental illness, overloaded schedules, job and family demands are seen as reasonable justifications for being unable to perform what could have been considered university-level work a generation ago. Before, they would have been encouraged to leave university and find a job for which they were suitable. Now they are held onto like precious gems, who without university have no chance in life. It’s our fault, not theirs, if they don’t succeed.

The university transfer approval process requires that community college rigor matches that of university. This has not been a major issue. University rigor has also declined. No one checks very carefully, anyway. But approval also requires that the same rigor and workload approved at the course level apply to every class section that is offered. So if I offer a 16-week class that normally required a full textbook, five primary source readings each week, and two assignments per week, the expectation is that this will be compressed but identical in shorter-term formats.

While this may seem to be a way to maintain rigor while increasing workload in the short term, it doesn’t actually work that way. I have adapted several of my classes to the 8-week (double-speed) format already for summer classes, and to provide a “back-to-back” single semester option to complete a two-course sequence. Enrollment in these is excellent — students do indeed appreciate completing the course faster, and they drop less often. I have long felt that 16 weeks is too long anyway. But I do not demand exactly the same number of assignments for my 16-week students. The primary source boards dropped from 16 to 8 to keep their focus on the weekly unit. Everything else, however, I simply doubled up: textbook readings are two chapters a week, primary sources are ten instead of five.

Six weeks presents a slightly different challenge. I cannot simply eliminate the Age of Discovery, or the American Empire. These are required to be “covered” to be approved for university transfer. Thus the workload must increase. I suspect that the transition from eight weeks to six may be a tipping point for rigor and workload.

What happens when one increases the workload beyond the expectations and desires of the students? First, they just don’t do it. They simply won’t be exposed to the facts, interpretations or ideas. They’ll skip the Age of Discovery. Second, they will not enroll in the first place, or drop the class in favor of classes with lighter workloads. Our History department has seen a consistent slide in enrollments over the last few years. While we know that this is partly because the national reputation for disciplines like History is on the decline (as it is for intellectualism in general), there is also a greater dedication to rigor in our discipline, a dedication often misinterpreted as “white” and elitist. (In truth, historiography has been foregrounded the agency and obstacles for people challenged by mainstream culture since the 1940s.) The college now offers far easier course in “culture” that count for the same requirement, and thus compete directly for enrollment.

Simply compressing my 8-week classes into 6 weeks, I fear, won’t work. The workload will be well beyond the expectations of students, and they will leave, drop or fail. While failing used to be acceptable, we are now expected to prevent this at all costs. So some tasks need to be removed. It cannot be topics or “coverage”, so it must be reading, assessment, and writing. I am leaning toward removing the textbook reading, because it could be considered “boring”, they have more difficulty reading, and the facts are not as important as them “doing history” (my lectures may have all the facts they need). Removing textbook reading also reduces the number of quiz questions, or perhaps eliminates the quizzes themselves. The writing assignments should be given a few days without anything else due, so they focus on them — those I am unwilling to change, but I want to provide them with space and time.

The grading weights would change accordingly, so that each of the remaining tasks would be worth substantially more. That is unfortunate, because my usual method is to have many little assignments, so that no one assignment is worth a lot. That way students can learn, practice, improve. So in addition to impacting rigor and workload, my pedagogy will also be affected. I do not, however, see another way.

A free textbook experiment

For some time, I have been creating free textbooks for students. In my online classes, these take the form of a pdf file, containing edited selections from Wikipedia followed by my own edited selection of primary sources.

In online classes, students rarely print the book, although they are invited to if they wish. In on-site classes, printing is an issue. We reference the book frequently in class, and they read aloud from documents. The continual searching required by an e-book or online version wastes a lot of time compared to “see page 76”.

Few students want to print the textbook on their printer or use the library printer, because it’s about 170 sides of print. Since they do not understand the printer interface on computers, when they do obediently print the book themselves it comes out as 170 single-sided pages on 8.5 x 11 paper (that’s about A4 size). So over the past few years I’ve tried various things. The most successful has been having them bring the file to Staples or Office Depot with syllabus instructions of what to ask for.

When students asked why they must go to all this trouble, I explained. I could have the books printed by the on-campus bookstore. This is actually a corporate conglomerate, Follett, which in addition to enforcing copyright clearance that violates the TEACH Act, insists on marking the book up 26%. When I complained to Follett that I wrote it, they only printed it, and 26% was excessive, I was told that I can ask to receive my own percentage in royalties added into the price. They couldn’t see this made the problem worse, not better. Students nodded appreciatively when they understood I was trying to save them money. Then half got the book printed the first week, a quarter in the first few weeks after being reminded, and a quarter not at all.

Our college has promoted Open Educational Resources for some time. There is even a state-wide grant that faculty can get to adopt them. People like me should get these grants, but can’t for two reasons. First, the grants are for adopting OERs, not creating them. This is despite the fact that it takes over a hundred hours to create a resource, and about six to select one from the very few on offer. Second, the grants are only available to those who can demonstrate a savings over the previous semester, meaning those of us who have been offering free textbooks for years aren’t eligible.

So last term, given all these limitations and the execrable quality of open access textbooks in History, I asked the department for some printing funds. Since I teach so many classes online, I do not use much printing money each term. With this money I was able to have printed enough textbooks for the whole class (much easier in a time of declining enrollments). I did it half size and spiral bound, making a rather attractive if thick booklet.

(The “15th edition” gives you an idea of how long I’ve been creating these.)

I handed them out the second day of class, and told them to feel free to highlight or write in them. I told them what I had done and why, and that essentially these were paid for by taxpayer dollars. When I handed them out, they accepted them in an entirely different way than a handout or assignment. Each student took the booklet from me carefully, placing it on their desk. Some squared the corners with the desk. They turned the pages somewhat gingerly.

This pattern, of treating the book as a gift rather than a task continued through the semester. It was rather as if I’d given them their own chemistry set. After 12 weeks, I noticed that many of the booklets were still in mint condition.

Now we know that students don’t tend to highlight and take notes in their books anymore, unless it’s part of a specific assignment or one makes a point of insisting on it. At the end of the term, only two or three had been marked in. The rest looked perfect. None were grubby or torn. So I asked if anyone might be willing to turn in their book to pass on to the next group of students. Over half did so.

Although it may have been just a very considerate class of students, I’d like to think there’s something else at work here. I had been concerned about doing this because I thought the book would be devalued, since they hadn’t paid for it. But the opposite happened. Giving them the book seemed to tap into the affective domain. They cared that I gave it to them. They seemed to see it as a sign of me caring about them. And they cared for the object. The attitude was such that if there was no department money, I might well pay for doing it myself. I’m certainly going to do it again this term.



The Bradlaugh-Besant Trial

As a historian who teaches many “fly over” survey classes, I think my story of birth control activism is probably the same story told in many American classrooms. Margaret Sanger* takes center stage, and the years of focus are around 1913 or so.

This is despite the fact that birth control has been around for as long as people have been in a position to think about whether they want more children. I am familiar with the Ancient Egyptian sponge (soaked in the juice of the tips of acacia trees for spermicide), the medieval use of pennyroyal as an abortificant, and the efforts of professional doctors to make midwifery illegal for their own ends (always, of course, with the excuse of fighting quackery).

But here I am, studying the young H. G. Wells, and I’m reading the sections of his autobiography when he’s in Midhurst at the age of 18 or so, and he writes:

The Bradlaugh Besant trial had occurred in 1876 and the light of sanity was gradually breaking into the dark places of English sexual life. There was perhaps a stronger belief current then that births were completely controllable than the actual facts warranted. Now under the stimulus of Plato’s Utopianism and my quickening desires I began to ask my imagination what it was I desired in women.

What is the Bradlaugh Besant trial? I am ashamed to say I have no idea. So I Google it, of course. Apparently, a book by Charles Knowlton had been around for decades, but around 1876 the Society for the Suppression of Vice seems to have encouraged the prosecution of its publisher, Henry Cook, for obscene pictures. Cook spent two years at hard labor, and another publisher pleaded guilty in a similar case.

So National Reformer journalists Charles Bradlaugh and Annie Besant republished Knowlton’s book (Fruits of Philosophy, or the Private Companion of Young Married People) on purpose, as an act of civil disobedience. The courts were willing to let them off if they stopped printing and selling it, but they refused and suffered fines and imprisonment.

Naturally the next step here is to find the book, which I did at Internet Archive. This version is 1845, but it was originally published in 1831. There’s quite a bit about sex in there, and for those who make jokes about Victorians not knowing about the clitoris, well obviously some of them did:

A number of issues are dealt with fully, with marriage as the solution for all elements of natural desire:

Notice how this also does not fit our, um, preconceptions. But I was seeking the contraceptive information, which was nearer to the end. Knowlton mentions the “baudruche”, or condom, as useful in “checking” conception. He’s also discusses the sponge:

He recommends using the sponge with “some liquid that acts chemically upon the semen”. He follows with a long section on thorough douching within five minutes of congress, also with some alum or chemical agent.

Fantastically modern, useful, and effective information, this. When I had some people read this section and guess what era the book was written, invariably they thought the 1910s. I would have thought so too. But no, it’s 80 years before that. Other sports fans have known about this stuff for years.

But it was news to me. I do explain to my students, who tend to see history as the story of inevitable and consistent progress, that knowledge, excuse the expression, comes and goes. In some ways, less is commonly known about birth control now than in the 1970s or, in this case, the 1830s (and revived in the 1870s thanks to the Bradlaugh-Besant Trial). For the difficulties of the most recent generations, I blame the pill. Unlike the brilliant cervical cap (just try to get fitted for, or even find, one of those), or even the diaphragm, the pill requires absolutely no knowledge of ones body whatsoever. Use the knowledge or lose it. My first thought was that Fruits of Philosophy might be pretty useful to some of my students. And heck, it’s less than 40 pages long.

A couple of facts needed checking. Despite the court case charges, there do not appear to be any pictures (at least in the 1845 version), and Wells meant 1877 for the trial instead of 1876. Good stuff all the same.


[*Margaret Sanger and H. G. Wells had a sexual relationship when he was older, and no child seems to have resulted, which is more than one can say of a couple of his other encounters.]