The refusal of the gatekeeper

It’s nearing the end of the semester, so like all professors I start getting the pleading emails. Students who have not submitted work want to know if there’s extra credit. Students who had a crisis in the middle of the semester and said nothing then now want consideration. So many family responsibilities, funerals, justifications…

It’s an open secret that I’m actually a very nice person — I deliberately come off as being no-nonsense, no exceptions. But I do assist students as individuals, as anyone knows who reads this blog (and as any crisis-prone student of mine knows).

This semester I had one of those students, writing me last week to say he’s lost his home and has been living rough and just got a sofa at a friend’s place, and he’d missed all that work, and if he doesn’t get a C he’ll lose his financial aid for summer and have to drop out of college.

Now the one thing I really hate about this job is the idea that I’m supposed to adjudicate crises. I’m expected to somehow weigh, like a professorial Solomon, dead aunts and foreclosures and parental neglect and (increasingly) emotional problems complicated by (or being treated with) various pharmaceuticals. I have neither the training nor the interest to judge people’s lives. I only judge their work.

So even though I’ve been doing this for thirty years, a request like this one can still throw me. I happened to be in a meeting with an education professional a few days ago, so I asked what he would do. He gave me the party line: it was on the syllabus, it wouldn’t be fair to others to make an exception, I’m sorry but the answer is no.

Keeping in mind that as a Teaching Assistant back in the 80s I got both the Cream Puff Award (for cushiest grader) and the Iron Balls Award (for harshest grader) in the same year, I know that student success is up to them, not me. But I don’t like being what one colleague called “gatekeeper”, the troll guarding the path with gates made of rules. So before the pro had done speaking, I knew I wasn’t going to follow his advice.

The student had missed the document annotation for 12 weeks. These are the Perusall assignments, where I don’t allow late work because we’ve moved on to the next unit. It would have been a royal pain to both reopen all these assignments for him, and to go back to each one and grade them. So instead, for 90% of the points available in that category, I made sure he was stable on that sofa with an internet connection (he said yes) and offered to have him turn in the answers to all the questions he’d missed on all the documents he’d missed for all the weeks he’d missed. I gave him five days.

It came out to eight pages, but I could scroll and write comments in SpeedGrader at the same time, checking everything at once and assigning points. He had told me he had done the reading, just hadn’t posted, and his work showed that was true. I assigned a grade, and it looks like he’ll get that C if he does the last couple of weeks of regular work, and does it well.

Because really, the point is learning. The rules are there to make it possible to grade the work of 40 students per class, about 30 of whom are underprepared for the work, without a T.A., while giving meaningful feedback and opportunities to practice historical skills. His work showed his learning – does it really matter that he did that at the end?

I don’t know. And maybe I was wrong. But I don’t think so.

The hour before the deadline

We all have stories, usually told while shaking ones head, of how students do things at the last minute.

Long ago, the deadlines for my online classes were set at 5 pm on the day something was due. But “everyone else” (the dozen or so others teaching online) set theirs at Sunday midnight. I would receive panicked emails between 5 pm and midnight, or after an assignment was graded late. So my nicely planned evenings of sitting and marking papers didn’t work. I changed my deadlines to Sunday midnight.

So when I began using Perusall for annotations, I asked, repeatedly, for students to participate beginning on Tuesday and ending Sunday midnight. Some do so. But many try to read five documents and cram in all the annotations on Sunday. This prevents the close reading I had intended by assigning annotations in the first place, an issue for another post. But it also provides a bizarre opportunity.

Perusall emails me when a student answers a question I’ve posted.  It also emails when a student tags me with an @. Throughout each Sunday, these emails increase, with a flood of them in the last hour: 11 pm to midnight.

If I go into Perusall on Sunday night between 11 pm and midnight, I can participate in the discussion, adding questions and using @ to reply to individual students, and I’ll get a response. It becomes almost synchronous.

I’m not saying I do this every week and every class, but if I’ve assigned a particularly difficult document (last week’s Henry Miller: Tropic of Cancer comes to mind), I can engage a great deal of the class at that hour.

No, I’m not recommending this. But it does seem to open potential for the last hour before the deadline. I have a colleague who uses Google Docs and notices that same activity shortly before the deadline — he sees the number of participant bubbles at the top increase as he watches.

So I wonder two things. First, is it safe now that we have many online classes to change deadlines to a more reasonable hour? And is the last hour before the deadline an opportunity to teach that we should be using?

Orders for The British Library

If all goes well, I’ll be returning to England in a few weeks (yay!), to try to finish the research for what I’m calling “Book 1”.

I need quite a few things from the British Library, which as a Reader with a card, I can order online in advance. About half of what I need has a 48-hour delivery time. When you click on the link to order, the system tells you that you are limited to 10 “items” per day, and that consecutive “issues” count as one item.

So I tried to start with the journal The University Correspondent. I need several articles in several different volumes (years) 1891-1893. But what constitutes an “issue”? The online catalog doesn’t say how many issues are in a volume, but I’m pretty sure it’s too many to make all three years one “item”. So I wrote to the helpful people at the Library, who emailed back next day to tell me that since this journal’s volumes are half a year, the “issues” would be six for January-June, and six more for July-December, in each volume. So that’s six “items”, even though I only need a few short articles from specific issues.

I’ve ended up ordering 20 items from the British Library, so they must be parceled over two days.

I know the drill. First through security with all the tourists coming to see the exhibitions, then downstairs to the lockers. Put my Readers Card, passport, papers, notebook, mobile phone, pencil, laptop, cord, and wallet in the clear plastic bag. Everything else in the purse. Find a locker where I can actually turn the lock (about half the lockers have their lock stuck closed although the door hangs open). Put my purse and water bottle in, then close and latch the door. Remember to put my code in twice, not once (last time I had to get a guard to open my locker at the end of the day). Upstairs to Humanities 1 Reading Room. Show plastic bag and Readers Card to guards. Find a table first, put something there to hold it (this is the tough part – what to leave on the table?), note the number of the table in the notebook, then go to the desk, show my card, say my name, tell them my table number, and chew off my nails as I wait to see whether what I ordered is actually there (that runs about 80% after three previous visits).

This trip, though, I have a backup plan. I will stay in London first, and go to the Library my first two days there (jet-lag city). Then later in the trip I’ll stay at Wetherby, near the Boston Spa location of the British Library. And I’ll have a few days in between, so I can request things that have a 48 hour tag. That gives me two chances to get everything I need.

Working in the reading rooms is both good and bad. Good is that there is plenty of space to work, a free scanning machine to scan pages and email yourself the scans, and helpful people at the desks. Bad is that you can’t take in water or food, so it’s easy to get hungry and thirsty. The chairs are just chairs, not comfortable. It’s so much trouble to exit the building and return (replay the paragraph above with the bag and lockers) that the tendency is to do whatever you can to stay till you’re done. This includes eating at the Library, where the nicest place to eat is quite expensive, and the least expensive place has nowhere to sit. On many days I’ve been there, every available desk or chair that isn’t in a reading room is occupied.

This time I’ll also need some items on microfilm, from the Pall Mall Gazette. I shouldn’t need them. The library has digitized these, and one can access them free on machines in the Newsroom, which I have done, but several words in the articles could not be seen clearly on the screen or the resulting printout. Plus, printing is a difficult process that involves going to the Newsroom desk, showing your card, getting into the computer system to access the card settings, getting help because it never works the first time, taking out a credit card to add money to the reader card, then going back to the printer to insert the card and print one page at a time after carefully lining things up on the difficult-to-use reading machine. I even paid £12.95 in March for a month’s access to British Newspaper Archive, so I could see if they had a better copy – it was a bit better but I’m still missing words (I’m transcribing, so missed words are important).

It’s the sort of thing one doesn’t so much look forward to doing, as to being done. But heck, I don’t care, because I’ll be in England, my favorite place. And when I’m done starving and getting dehydrated and stiff in the reading room, I’ll have days of train rides and unpredictable weather that everyone talks about. I’ll have a few days of international accents all around me, followed by more days of English accents all around me. I’ll be there for the European Parliament elections, because the UK can’t do anything politically important without me there. I’ll go to Evensong and art galleries and see my friend Jenny. And when I return to teach my summer classes, I’ll finish the book somehow and do the proposal, and move on to more work with Mr. Wells.

The placement of things

Where’s my stuff?

The placement of things is important. As with medieval manuscripts, what is not stored properly is essentially lost to all humanity. After 20 years working online, I here report on where I keep things at present.

Public ok or intended: Google

My syllabuses are on Google Docs anyone can view, department business and drafts are Docs for others to share and edit, student surveys are in Google Forms. My slide presentations for class are Google Slides (it’s a damn shame you can’t do music easily on the slideshows – they really are letting it, um, slide). My talking head videos are on YouTube with captions.

MiraCosta College only: Canvas

As all our college’s instructors move to the Canvas LMS (more’s the pity), this becomes the default. Of course, once everyone has 143 course cards showing on their main screen, scroll weariness is bound to set in and many won’t be accessed. The extremely limited discussion functionality of the system will also discourage open discussion (as will the fact that admins can access it on request at any time). Nevertheless, campus projects as well as courses are popping up like so many daisies. I remember this happening with Blackboard. The college has a server where I kept my home page, but they declared these are being deleted due to security issues (which my pages didn’t have, BTW).

The only LTI I use in Canvas consistently is Perusall, where I have uploaded the primary sources for students to read and discuss. is always on the back burner, as I wait for automatic group logins and an easier interface.

Stuff I want to control: Reclaim

My shared hosted account at Reclaim Hosting is where I am moving (or have moved) everything which I want control, including privacy settings. This blog is there.

It also serves my zillions of web pages that make up my class content (lectures, information pages, etc.) which I embed or link to from Canvas. I have left Dropbox and use Owncloud via the Reclaim server installation; I have left Netvibes and use TinyTinyRSS via the Reclaim server. I am still seeking a substitute for Diigo (which will import it as well).

Mail: Various + Gmail aggregation

MiraCosta has its own mail server, which uses Outlook, a system I find needlessly cumbersome and relatively feature-free. I POP that into Gmail — it’s only inconvenient when people use the Outlook groups. I have two Gmail accounts, one personal and one professional, inside Google, so that’s obviously Gmail. My main personal email is run from Reclaim with my domain, and IMAP’d into Gmail. All mail comes in with tags so I know what’s what. I also back up my Gmail to Apple Mail (which I don’t otherwise use).


After much flailing around, it’s Zotero for gathering resources and bibliographical entries, and (at last) Scrivener for drafting. Manual backups to hard drives. Diigo still for gathering web resources (I’m still working on that – any suggestions for self-hosted?).

Things That Mustn’t Get Lost

Everything crucial is on hard drives: one for work, one for household, one for work media files, one that backs up the others. Dreamweaver to ftp back and forth to the Reclaim servers.

Bric a brac around the web

I’ve had more services close down on me than most people ever used, which helped foster my natural cynicism about web services. I still have a Tumblr account with things I have stored, though I rarely access it – it’s like a time capsule now. I have zillions of accounts (Slideshare, Blabber, things you’ve never heard of going back to the beginning of the millennium) that won’t let me delete them.

Videos that YouTube won’t serve, or for which I want excellent quality, are on Vimeo. I have a Pinterest account I sometimes use for collecting web images, and once used for an Honors class. I have a Flickr account that won’t be used anymore as they have created limits and pricing and I’m not sure why I need it, so it’s a time capsule too. I’d rather sort out how to do galleries on this blog.

Phones and downgrading

In several areas, I have remained static while others have moved on, because some things just work: Microsoft Word and Excel, Dreamweaver. The changeover to Canvas LMS left me unlikely to jump at new shiny technologies for teaching.

Privacy issues play havoc with my calendar. For decades I carried a paper calendar, first small, then large, then small again. Now I use the Calendar on my mobile phone, which is Google and Android, so it tries to force everything into the first category: Public. I don’t want my Calendar public. After trying to make different apps and reminders work on my phone, and being encouraged by this recent NY Times article, I am about to downgrade back to paper. I carry a paper notebook anyway, after (again) trying to use my phone. For notifications, I’ll set them manually — it’s a lot easier to do that for a few things than adjust them all for the rest of the crap.

Ethical issues are a problem with Facebook, where I belong to several groups and run the Online Teaching Group. For the latter, I have people asking to join for purposes that have nothing to do with sharing online teaching problems and solutions: I get requests from highly questionable “education” organizations, people who want to advertise, people soliciting sex or money. Combine this with Facebook’s privacy problems (I stopped using it for student groups long ago), and I am encouraged to downgrade (thus the new listserv).

Since I’m sure I’ve forgotten things here, I have not solved the medieval manuscript problem. But the things I need on a daily basis are much fewer than they used to be, when I spent much of my time exploring tools on the web. Call it the downgrading of my time, if you will.

Thus my best tech winner for 2019: the MUJI double-ring A6 notebook.

CE History

I’ve spent the morning following references related to the Rebel Wisdom Summit, posted by Jenny Mackness, exploring the war between what’s being called the “authoritarian left” and “safe conversations” about racism and equity (rather than invoking them as weapons). I’ve been learning about Ian McGilchrist’s update on the bicameral mind in a pleasing RSA format, the case of Brett Weinstein and Heather Heyling at Evergreen College, the issues surrounding their pedagogy, Jordan Greenhall’s Medium article from 2017, and Heyling’s own post on Grievance Studies. All together, quite an education for a morning when I’m supposed to be marking papers and reading discussion posts!

But the notes I took weren’t directly about any of them. I began to think (as I am wont to do): “all of this has a history — I wonder what would happen if we studied it”. It seemed to me it would be interesting for all parties to step back and examine in historical perspective the issues they were fighting about in real-time. Because that’s what’s missing, of course — perspective.

I am teaching an on-site modern US History class in Fall, and if I’m lucky I’ll have an intern. This will be a new experience, teaching someone to teach while I’m teaching. I expect it to be quite wonderful, and educational (especially for me). I naturally feel a responsibility to improve my ability to articulate my pedagogy. At the same time, I’m hoping to do some workshops on equity and history in my department. Combining that with all this “rebel wisdom”, what I began to do is map out class potentials.

                                                                                      From Historical Association

At first I thought, I’ll gather resources appropriate to demonstrating the national social conversation from 1865 to the present: what the issues are, what arguments were used, where violence ensued and why, etc. Then I realized, of course, I already have this, in my set of primary sources (mentioned in my analysis of the “new agenda”). So it becomes a matter of reframing, of making the resources a conscious set, rather than a collection students later realize were “activist”.

For now I’m calling this Conscious Equity, an effort to showcase the discipline of History, privileging the underprivileged not just because that’s what we do,  but saying that we’re doing it. Whatever rules the “authoritarian left” wants to make to control the conversation, it must still take place, in classrooms and in a spirit of inquiry rather than fear and personal emotion. We still set the tone in our classroom. We can try to establish an environment that demonstrates the peaceful sharing of ideas, concern for each other’s learning and the opening of minds, and privileges modernist scientific rationality as a method for developing individual interpretations. Every historical document is a fact, and we can use the advantage of time to step back and use perspective as a tool.

So onward to read some research and develop some methods for Conscious Equity as a tool for US History.



Houses without plaques

There are many plaques around boasting a building’s association with H. G. Wells. The seventeen noted here include ones I’ve seen personally (Midhurst, Chiltern Court in London), and the site even includes the very strange sign on the pub in Petersfield, where I can’t determine when Wells would have “regularly dined and wrote here”. Some of the plaques, though, aren’t on the Wells page, so it’s more than seventeen.

For example, Woking. I did try to get to the house in Woking when I was between trains, but I was unable to lug my suitcase up the road a sufficient distance to get to 141 Maybury Road, where Wells and Amy moved in May 1895 (this site says they married there, but the Mackenzie biography says they married at the Mornington Road house discussed below). I have also not seen the plaque at the house everyone associates with Wells, because he died there: 13 Hanover Terrace.

I am, however, investigating his younger years. I know that a number of places with which he was associated have been destroyed, or are repurposed (such as Henley House School in Kilburn, which is now a housing development — it has a plaque for A.A. Milne, but not Wells). But today I was writing introductions for a book, and I began updating my biographical material.

That’s how I discovered how many existing buildings in London associated with Wells’ early life appear to be still standing, but don’t have plaques. It doesn’t really make sense, particularly when there are (obviously unofficial) plaques at places like William Burton’s house in Stoke-on-Trent, Basford, where Wells spent a mere three months recuperating from illness in 1888.

1859 ad for Morley’s Academy

Things start of well, biographically. The dame school he attended as a child, at 8 South Street in Bromley, has a plaque. The house where he lived with his family (Atlas House, 47 High Street), unfortunately, has been destroyed, and the site is now a commercial property in the high street. Along the same street was Morley’s Academy, where Wells learned book-keeping and other subjects. The numbering on the street has changed, but this site also appears to also be gone.  Things improve in Midhurst, where Wells was a chemist’s apprentice and attended grammar school. Midhurst has a number of plaques: on the place where he lived above a sweet shop (now the Olive and Vine — I recommend the King Prawns), the chemist’s shop (now a dentist), and the grammar school (now the South Downs Center). The house Uppark, where Wells’ mother worked and where he returned frequently, doesn’t need a plaque, since the house is preserved, rebuilt after fire, and can be visited (get there in the morning in case the cellars where Sarah Wells worked close early because of a lack of volunteers — better yet, volunteer!) There is a plaque in Windsor, at the drapers where he was an apprentice.

But London, where blue plaques pop up like pimples, there’s an issue. In 1885, Wells resided at 181 Euston Road, walking across the part every day to attend classes at the Normal School of Science (now Imperial College). That house doesn’t exist, because the railroad was extended — the side of the street it would be on is now a drop onto the tracks. Fitzroy Road in Primrose Hill, however, does exist, and Wells lived at two different houses there. His aunt and cousin Isabel (later his wife) lived at 12 Fitzroy Road, and he moved in with them in 1888 (right after those three months in Batsford). In May of 1889 they all moved to a bigger house at 46 Fitzroy Road. Now I know, because of Bromley, that street numbers can change. But if they haven’t, and I’m using Google Maps correctly, those houses are there:


12 Fitzroy Road

46 Fitzroy Road

Lovely houses, but no plaques. And it’s not really near Wells’ job at Henley House School, so I’ll have to investigate streetcars, but that’s a task for another time…

In October of 1891 Wells and Isabel married, and they moved to 28 Haldon Road in Wandsworth. It seems to be still there:

28 Haldon Road, Wandsworth

Hmmm…no plaque. Wells wss 25 years old by then, and lived here several years. His mother Sarah visited him here, he had a bout of illness in May 1893 and was confined to bed here, writing like a maniac, but no plaque. He’d be commuting from here to Red Lion Square, where he taught biology. Streetcar? Later, later…

Wells also fell in love with another woman at the biology labs, Amy Catherine. He left his wife and moved in with Amy, to 7 Mornington Place, in Camden Town. Uncomfortable with the landlady (who was uncomfortable with them), two months later they moved to 12 Mornington Road. Mornington Road is now Mornington Terrace, so again, if the numbering is OK and Google streetview is correct, both these houses are also there:

7 Mornington Place, Camden

12 Mornington Terrace

No plaque (that one on the right is an alarm thing).

So let’s review. Up-and-coming famous person, writing a biology text-book and something that will later be called The Time Machine, and no plaque? After this, we’re on to Maybury Road in Woking, Sandhurst, other places that do have plaques.

It does make me wonder.


Update: Having received a question about this from my colleague Rob Bond, I looked up the rules (first at Wikipedia, then properly at at English Heritage Trust). For London, a person may only have one blue plaque. The one for Wells at Hanover Terrace is blue. The one at Chiltern Court is brown. So the others I’m proposing should likely be from one of the other schemes, which English Heritage mentions on their page, at the bottom.

Footnote number 24

You know how it is. I had to order H. G. Wells in Nature 1893-1946: A Reception Reader, edited by John S. Partington, from interlibrary own for the fourth time because I kept needing stuff I didn’t scan last time, and damn the book’s expensive on the secondary market. How can they ask $90 for an old collection with such a small audience?

Then I come upon footnote number 24 on page 32, in an article by a Henry Armstrong on “Scientific Method in Board Schools” from 1894: it says “this article has not been traced”. What? That’s all I’ve been doing, tracing articles. It even says the journal and edition:


The game is afoot! I set a timer. Educational Times in May of 1891. Well, that’s a Wellsian publication year, of course.

So it must be available at Hathi Trust, I think knowingly to myself. They don’t call it the Educational Times there, I remember. For some reason it’s indexed as Education Outlook, except the Search box doesn’t recognize that name. Had to deal with that little diversion two years ago while searching for this stuff the first time. Just a matter of tracing through….wait a minute. I’d have that, wouldn’t I? 1891 is a year that Wells published a number of articles. If I’d found the whole volume somewhere, I would have downloaded it. Search the hard drive, not the web. Find the ET for 1891…nope, don’t have it.

Back to Hathi. Volume is here…May…got it! in ET the important stuff is usually at the beginning. Yes, this must be it — lectures on teaching chemistry.


14.5 minutes. Nailed it.


The new “work ethic”

“And,” said my coffee partner, who had not actually ordered any coffee, “another problem is the work ethic.”

“What do you mean?” I said, sipping my rooibos.

“They just don’t work that hard.”

Over the course of the conversation, we combined our collective experience with our newer colleagues, and our students, with recent discussions of the work ethic of Millennials, and other more recent generations.

As a historian, I am very wary of even naming “generations”, much less ascribing to them similar goals and values. But in testing any theoretical construct, it is tempting to “try it on for size”, and see if it fits ones anecdotal evidence. Then, of course, one can blog about it.

First, the faculty. Groups who worked hard for faculty primacy over curriculum, scheduling, and working conditions are seeing their achievements die. More and more control of the college classroom is being handed over to administrators because faculty are too distracted by social issues and their own agendas (personal and global) to defend them. I assumed this was because those achievements were being taken for granted, in the same way that feminist gains are going backward. I confess it didn’t occur to me that many faculty don’t care or consider them unimportant. Indeed, some want administrators to take over the curriculum, because they have other priorities.

The fact that some of these priorities are socially nationalistic (the agenda-bearers discussed in my last post) and some are personal (quality time with friends and family) doesn’t seem to matter. If one considers the “work ethic” to have declined in favor of such priorities, then I can see the point of those worried about hard-earned rights and slides in productivity.

Then, the students. Faculty have been complaining that students don’t work hard enough for so long, I expect that if Socrates had liked writing, he would have written something about it. So I don’t take that complaint very seriously. But, anecdotally, I have noticed that the reasons my students give for not doing their work has shifted. It may be because something serious happened (illness, family responsibilities), but I’m seeing more of the “I just didn’t get around to it” and “I had to do something else” and “I have family in town” reasons, despite my generous late policies and extensions. I trust students. I never ask for doctors’ notes or that sort of thing to “prove” they couldn’t do something. So they’re pretty open with me and I know what they’re up to.

Curious, I went into the document discussion in one of my online classes (Engels and some child labor testimony from Victorian England) and asked what students thought of this idea. Did they think they had a declining work ethic? Two of them replied, one a part-time clerk and the other a warehouse worker. The clerk said she was tired of her bosses expecting her to work so hard and not have enough breaks, calling it “workaholic culture”. The warehouse worker said that he used to think that if he worked hard, rewards would come, but all that came was physical pain. If he works less hard, he gets the same amount of money for less pain. No rewards have ever come, so his priorities have shifted from work to his friends and family.

It would be too easy to say, yeah, but that’s working in a store or a warehouse. If these two had more meaningful work, maybe they’d see it differently. I don’t think so. I had a student once who didn’t do well in class. He came to my office to beg that I pass him through, because his mother was forcing him to go to college. As we talked, I discovered he worked in a warehouse and absolutely loved it. He had all these ideas for how to organize it better, do things more efficiently. Left to his own devices, he would have become a manager, maybe even a business owner, and been perfectly happy. But his mother insisted he had to go to college to have a future.

It’s not the type of work.

So just for the sake of argument, let’s assume it’s true: our students have a less-strenuous work ethic. They’re not going to put the hours in. What does that mean for pedagogy?

Some of it has already had an impact, but we’ve blamed shorter “attention spans” and the “hyperlinked mind”. Google has made us stupid, we’ve been sucked into our screens, the internet ate our brains. It’s true to an extent (you can read any of my posts here from 2012 or so). But what if the digital dog didn’t eat our homework — instead we decided to go walk the real dog?

From the Sadler Report (1832):

State the conditions of the children toward the latter part of the day, who have thus to keep up with the machinery. — It is as much as they can do when they are not very much fatigued to keep up with their work, and toward the close of the day, when they come to be more fatigued, they cannot keep up with it very well, and the consequence is that they are beaten to spur them on.

Were you beaten under those circumstances? — Yes.

Frequently? — Very frequently.

And principally at the latter end of the day? — Yes.

And is it your belief that if you had not been so beaten, you should not have got through the work? — I should not if I had not been kept up to it by some means.

Taking a college class is intellectual work, assigned through various tasks that together (if the class is well-designed) help engender mental habits useful for all intellectual work. So we’re assigning work to teach how to work. There are a couple of rewards. One might be a degree and a good job, which is what many students focus on (and have done for centuries). This reward has to wait till you graduate. The other is the joy of the work of learning, which is more immediate, but I’m not sure can really be taught. And we certainly don’t want to beat people to get them to do the work.

The solution for student “success” has been to make it all easier, less work. We have pathways to a degree that have fewer classes (less work). We have course material “chunked” into smaller pieces (less work). We have blog posts or mini-theses instead of 20-page research papers, excerpts instead of novels, brief textbooks. We become concerned for their personal life, their challenges at home, their disadvantages. We make accommodations, so the work is easier. If we demand more work, they go take other classes instead (it’s easier to find which ones are easier).

I don’t think it’s necessarily bad if the work ethic has declined. Everyone knows that U.S. workers get fewer time-based benefits than other workers. We have long work days, long school days, shorter vacations. If the younger folks are turning this around, placing higher value on friends and family, I like the idea. I just can’t figure out how to teach to it while being loyal to my discipline and the rigor of a college education. So now that’s my work.

The new agenda — isn’t

Jean-François Millet, The Gleaners, 1857

The new agenda, offered through workshops and eventually (I’m quite sure) to be required at “cultural competency” training, seems quite new. It isn’t new, of course, as any historian knows. The vocabulary has changed. We now talk of equity, cultural awareness, and social justice, instead of equality, multiculturalism, and civil rights. But many of us have been on a mission to tell the stories of all, especially those whose voices weren’t heard, for a very long time.

Even before the critiques and student activism of the 1960s, when a “relevant” curriculum was demanded, there has been a desire to have the curriculum reflect the interests, contributions, and stories of non-elites. What we have called these groups varies: disenfranchised, minority, ethnic, immigrant, underserved, disadvantaged — all these point to those who had little power under the dominant or mainstream system.

The approach to history has been to gather as many voices as possible, and to share perspectives of different groups. Those of us who read Howard Zinn, or studied Marxist historians, were tuned in early in our careers to the non-elite views, and the ways in which such people were taken advantage of and deliberately excluded from the rest of “western” and American history. Social history, which looked closely at the lives of those who weren’t elite, didn’t write, or left little behind but the fruits of their labor, began as a formal sub-discipline in the 1940s. Textbooks have taken account of non-elites for some time.

Eyre Crowe, Slaves Waiting for Sale, Richmond, Virginia, 1861.

By criticizing the actions of our nations (or even the idea of nation itself), and critiquing their values, historians could be revolutionary. Anyone with even a smattering of the Hegelian dialectic knows that forces arise, other forces arise to oppose them, and both sides change as a result of the conflict, creating a different force to also be opposed in its turn. In grad school, I studied Christopher Hill and Eric Hobsbawm. Even in the medieval studies program, I was looking at the lives and conflicts of craftsmen and merchants, not the kings and military leaders.

When I first began putting together a primary source book for my American history class in the early 1990s, I didn’t consciously think about creating a particular type of book. I just wanted to assign the documents that I thought were pertinent to studying the modern era of the United States. I’m not sure I could explain why I felt that I didn’t just need Martin Luther King and Gloria Steinem, but also Carey McWilliams and Lois Gibbs.

Teaching one of my early classes, a student asked me on the first day, “what will you do to make this class interesting to me?” And I thought for a moment and said, “it won’t be me — it will be the sources I give you”. He looked doubtful, and on the last day of class he said, “you were right that first day!”  Another student told me my documents workbook was an “activist document”, saying that every primary source I’d assigned was somehow about non-elite people fighting to make the country better, to right its wrongs. I hadn’t realized I’d done that.

Geronimo (Goyaałé), a Bedonkohe Apache; kneeling with rifle, 1887

So now all we have to do is be conscious about it. Those of us doing it for decades need to be aware that the new agenda folks see it differently, as equity instead of equality, and often, as something that can be legislated from the “new” top down (i.e. sensitivity training) rather than something that must, by its very nature, bubble up from the grass roots.

And one way to do that is to respect the traditions of historical scholarship, not fly off into post-modernist revisionism in order to make the narrative fit our views. It has to be the other way around.

Most curricular standards today have at their foundation two things: method and content. Method is the traditional historiographic method, based on the modernist principles of the past being knowable (although never completely knowable) through existing sources and their reinterpretation. Content is the list of “events” and other facts that are forced upon us by those who want us to teach certain “things”.

The way to change the elitist perspective, now as then, is to focus on the examples, the primary sources. There were times when, teaching about abolitionism in antebellum America, the words of William Lloyd Garrison were studied more often than those of Frederick Douglass. That changed because teachers assigned Frederick Douglass as an example of abolitionist thought. Instead of teaching from secondary sources, where educated voices interpreted the lives of the uneducated, one could read the words of ordinary people. Yesterday, for example, I had the pleasure of substituting for a class in European History, and the students had been assigned Roman graffiti from Pompeii, and Tacitus’ Germania. They like the graffiti better, because it was more immediate, it was about ordinary people by those people, rather than an outsider looking at them.

Lois Gibbs at work

Primary sources are so important because interpretations in secondary sources (such as articles and textbooks) can turn all the “disenfranchised” people into one-dimensional victims of the “system”. The difficulty with application of the “systematic racism” viewpoint isn’t the facts (it does exist) but in its misuse, where the interpreter portrays people as powerless, without agency. I have encountered this many times in works on American Indians, where the author is so eager to assuage national guilt that the Indians are portrayed as defenseless, weak, child-like people, lacking agency, philosophy, or any motivation beyond defense.

To recover the stories of the disenfranchised is to recover their entire humanity, what they could and did achieve in spite of systematic attack or neglect. That’s why my workbook is, as my student said, an “activist document”, because understanding the thinking and actions of such people creates a better kind of heroism, as valuable as anything Homer gave us, people to admire and emulate because they got women the vote, or got Love Canal cleaned up.  Ultimately, such heroism made people acknowledge that the “other” was not so other after all.

Dan Wynn, Gloria Steinem and Dorothy Pitman-Hughes, 1971

That’s why it is particularly inappropriate that in some places, history is under attack, and colleges are decreasing the number of history classes needed for a degree. We’re taking away the best tools when people need them most.

So for teachers (instructors, professors) the implementation of the new agenda should not be a call to change our methods, rather (if we are deficient in them) to add more voices. We should ignore those agenda-bearers who claim that history itself is a culprit, a tool for removing agency and equity. Those of us who have worked for decades on these issues, we know the sources are there. Those who haven’t need to assign the voices that let the larger past speak.



Continual feedback on my work

Recently, I added a new assignment to my online classes, called Lecture Notes.

It’s just a one-screen write-in-the-box assignment, with the following instructions:


It automatically scores credit when they submit it. This is for two reasons: immediate feedback/acknowledgement of the submission, and so I don’t have to rush to grade anything. I can stop by and enjoy them all, reading through, at my leisure.

My original intention was just to make sure they were somehow responsible for the lectures, into which I’ve put a huge amount of work. These lectures are written out, with audio of me reading the lecture, illustrations, iframes with the assigned readings, embedded video, music snippets, and quite a bit of my own personality and interpretation. I’ve created them for all six of my classes, 15-16 lectures each (one per week). I don’t want them ignored!

But what’s happened is even better, thanks to the first and last bits of my instructions.

The “implied thesis” has told me a lot about whether my interpretation is getting through. Fact is, most students don’t get this idea, and just tell me what the lecture was about: “You talked about immigrants coming over from other countries and the impact of industrialization”. But some students comprehend that this is interpretation: “You implied that the capitalist system made it difficult for labor unions to succeed”.

Even better is the “brief response” I’ve requested. This has given me a chance to talk with students directly.

Those who don’t understand that I’m an interpreter of history write things like, “I don’t agree that the Romans should have invaded Gaul”, so I get that they’re responding to certain events. But often they tell me things like, “I was surprised that the new household technologies made more work for women” or “I didn’t know that Augustus Caesar was a title instead of a name” or “it made me really sad to learn how immigrants were treated in the factories” or “this seems just like today”.  Sometimes they ask questions like, “why did Cleopatra kill herself instead of just sending a big army against Octavian?”

I can respond to each student privately, which often opens an ongoing dialogue. And the cool thing is: it’s always about the material, never about the grades/assessment/navigation. They’re real conversations, about history.

It’s like ongoing feedback for me – it tells me what’s getting through, how I’m doing, and what they think.

It’s entirely possible that it’s all there, and could replace stultifying assessments like quizzes, or (shock!) papers. We’ll see. For now, it’s just great.