Mobs at the Capitol

The press has been looking through the past for previous examples of what happened in the Capitol last week, partly to see if they can justify using the word “unprecedented.”

It depends on the sort of precedent one is looking for. Are we looking for times when a violent group forced their way into the building? If so, it may be technically correct that a mob has not stormed the Capitol since the War of 1812, but even then, it was in a time of war, and the mob was the enemy.

Are we looking at violence in the Capitol building? There are many examples of that, including the stick fight that almost killed Senator Charles Sumner in 1856. Are we looking for times where groups of unthinking people have tried to “tear down democracy”? We can find quite a few of those too.

To understand an event deemed “historic,” it is helpful to place it into a context of similar events. Too many events and the analysis is useless — it’s just something that happens a lot. Too few, and there is no context to examine.

For example, is there a precedent for a large group of unhappy Americans letting their displeasure at Congress be known through massive, disruptive action at the Capitol that led to violence?

One possibility is June-July 1932, when the “Bonus Army” came, and stayed, in Washington, DC.

They came in desperation. In 1924, a few years after the Great War, Congress passed a measure granting veterans a special service bonus, to be paid in 1945. June 1932 was at the height of the Great Depression when many were jobless and could not feed their families. It was the time of the Dust Bowl (14 dust storms would happen that year), and astonishing want in the wake of the Stock Market Crash.

Marchers on Pennsylvania Avenue, June 1932 (Library of Congress

The Bonus marchers came to persuade Congress to give the service bonus early, now, when they needed it, rather than wait until 1945. Some had begun the trip to Washington in late May. Quite a few brought their families and set up houses of cardboard or lived in their cars once in the city. Ultimately, many camped out in Anacostia flats, across the river from the city. At its height, to Bonus Army was over 40,000 people. Over 15,000 were veterans from World War I.

The Bonus Army did not invade the Capitol building itself, nor did they try. They did ask to meet with Congress, and a Congressional delegation was sent out to meet with them. A Bonus Bill had been presented.

July 2, 1932 — marchers at the Capitol, unaware that Congress had adjourned for the holiday (Library of Congress)

During the deliberations in Congress, the President authorized police to distribute leftover food from restaurants and medical aid to the veterans. They were even allowed to occupy abandoned warehouses in the city. The DC police superintendent asked Congress for money to feed them but was rejected.

On June 15, the House passed a Bonus Bill, allowing them the money. One representative, Representative Edward Eslick of Tennessee, had died of a heart attack on the House floor the day before, giving a speech in favor of the bill. There were parties in the streets.

Then the Senate voted it down. The country’s representatives were so afraid of their reception by the veterans that they snuck out of the Capitol using the underground tunnels. The police urged the veterans to leave the city, now that they had nothing to gain since Congress had adjourned for the year after the Bonus Bill’s defeat. Besides, President Hoover had said he would veto it anyway.

But the veterans stayed, deflated and unsure what to do. They continued to surround the Capitol and continued living in their camps. What had been cardboard boxes were now houses made of tin or wood, some with fences and little vegetable gardens.

Bonus Army camp in Anacostia, 1932 (Library of Congress)

General Douglas MacArthur was called on to run them out. First, he used mounted troops to remove the veterans from the city itself. His orders were to push the crowd away from the Capitol and let the veterans retreat to their camps at Anacostia. He later claimed he had the authorization to clear the camps.

MacArthur directing the evacuation (Library of Congress)

MacArthur crossed the bridge into Anacostia and burned the camps. Some of the marchers were killed, and many wounded. Several civilians were tear-gassed.

It would be fair to conclude that in 1932, the nation’s leaders could not handle a group of citizens who were peacefully demanding assistance. They met these demands with military violence. Later views considered that the government overestimated the mob’s threat, but others claimed there were communists and rabble-rousers in the crowd, fomenting revolution. The entire incident left questions about the government’s responsibility when its most worthy citizens are in trouble.

With armed members and forcing its way into the Capitol, a group trying to stop certification of a presidential election is unprecedented. It is also very specific. Are there lessons to be learned from 1932?

Also published in Medium: Frame of Reference

Was the first female doctor in England a man?

Whenever historians discuss the “first” of anything, they use qualifiers. In the case of the first female doctor in the UK, there might be several candidates, depending on how one qualifies the word “doctor.” The innumerable wise women and healers who made diagnoses and prescribed treatment for centuries may be unknown to history. So we define “doctor” in terms of official qualification and credentials.

The honor of being the first female doctor in the UK thus goes to an extraordinary person, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson. Although she had been refused admissions to the College of Surgeons and Physicians because of her sex, she was admitted to the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries because their rules stated nothing forbidding women (an oversight they remedied shortly afterward). The University of Paris then admitted her to the examination necessary to certify her as a medical doctor in the 1860s.

Before her, one might argue, was Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman on the UK Medical Register as a practicing physician. She would not have been able to obtain a medical degree but was grandfathered into the Medical Act of 1858.

But there is an even more startling possibility. Dr. James Barry was a famous figure in nineteenth-century military circles. He obtained his medical degree from the University of Edinburgh and might have been prevented from sitting his exams due to his youthful appearance but for the intervention of the Earl of Buchan, who was friends with his tutor.

 Portrait of James Barry, Wellcome Collection

Dr. Barry was a good physician, known for an excellent bedside manner, and he became a talented surgeon in the army. He served in South Africa and the Caribbean and performed the first successful European caesarean section in Africa. He became Inspector General in 1857 and traveled the British Empire enforcing sanitation in hospitals.

There is much evidence of Dr. Barry’s personality. He was known for his squeaky voice and violent temper. Florence Nightingale, whom he met in the Crimea, hated him, even though his emphasis on hygiene was as energetic as her own. Others reported that he was quarrelsome in the extreme.

He also never undressed in front of other people. This, and his clean-shaven face, curly hair, and short stature do not appear to have caused much comment among most of his colleagues. Later, however, there were rumors of duels caused by insults about his appearance and the expected posthumous claims that “I always suspected” or “I always knew.”

When he died in 1865 of dysentery, a charwoman named Sophia Bishop laid out his body. This action was against Barry’s known wishes that under no circumstances should his body be disrobed in death. The woman claimed that his body had full female genitalia and stretch marks, indicating a possible pregnancy. Barry’s own doctor, Major D.R. McKinnon, simply refused to care about his patient’s sex, having been called upon to identify the body and sign the death certificate. He had written the sex as male on the certificate. When Bishop told him her observations and tried to get him to pay for her silence, McKinnon famously reported to George Graham of the General Register Office:

The woman seems to think that she had become acquainted with a great secret and wished to be paid for keeping it. I informed her that all Dr Barry’s relatives were dead, and that it was no secret of mine, and that my own impression was that Dr Barry was a Hermaphrodite. But whether Dr Barry was a male, female, or hermaphrodite I do not know, nor had I any purpose in making the discovery as I could positively swear to the identity of the body as being that of a person whom I had been acquainted with as Inspector-General of Hospitals for a period of years.

The army sealed the records, supposedly for a hundred years. Isobel Rae’s 1958 book The Strange Story of Dr. James Barry, based on access to those papers, broke the story in the subtitle: Army Surgeon, Inspector General of Hospitals, discovered on death to be a woman. The only evidence, despite the new batch of papers, was the word of the woman preparing the body.

James Barry qualified as a doctor in 1812, so if one says he was female, then he would be the first woman doctor by several decades. The story has fascinated many, and more documents have since been uncovered demonstrating that Barry was Margaret Ann Bulkley in his earlier life. (This includes items like a letter from young Barry to a family solicitor where the recipient wrote “Miss Bulkley” on the outside of the envelope.*) The current wisdom that James Barry was, in fact, a woman, is happily disseminated in more recent books, both for adults and children.

It is natural that current discussions of gender would play into how we interpret James Barry today. Did he simply dress as a man to have a career not open to women? Is it right to call him the “first female medical doctor” if we believe he identified as male? Should we call him a transgender man? Or is it best to respect his own view of himself?

Even if we accept the report of the avaricious charwoman and the handwriting analysis of Margaret Bulkley, we have no way of knowing whether Dr. Barry actually identified as male or would simply be labeled a cross-dresser hiding his female identity. His last wish that he not be undressed for burial seems to speak to something deeper. But here, we are certainly engaging in supposition unsupported by the sources. Instead, it might be best to celebrate an extraordinary career, acknowledge the good he did with his medical skills, and enjoy critiques of his explosive personality from a safe distance.

*see Pain, Stephanie. “The Extraordinary Dr. James Barry.” New Scientist, vol. 197, no. 2646, Mar. 2008, pp. 46–47.

Also published in Medium: Frame of Reference

Making online teaching less painful

So many people have been thrown into online teaching and learning, and the most conscientious professors want to do a good job. And yet, as the holidays approach, many are weary of the online grind, and looking to make some changes for next time.

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Photo by engin akyurt on Unsplash

Care for students, and professors, is different in a pandemic. Changes to online teaching methods can reflect that. This fall, teachers reported spending quite a bit of time soothing fears, making exceptions, and being kind. Many found that sticking to the syllabus and insisting on strict deadlines became too hard on them and on their students. So how can we build in the kindness that makes things less painful while still encouraging learning?

Keep the deadlines but remove the penalties

Deadlines have a number of purposes. They organize workflow to make it more reasonable and logical, set a pattern of expectations, and project an aura of professionalism. One would not expect a doctor or lawyer to wait for us because their time is valuable, and teaching professionals should not be kept waiting either.

Getting rid of all deadlines would cause chaos. Work couldn’t be assessed in a timely manner, sequential learning would be delayed, and teacher burnout would result from the crush at the end of the term. Besides, most students want deadlines to keep themselves on track.

The penalties for late work, however, serve a different purpose. They punish the student for wasting our time and making us wait, for delaying the steps in the learning pathway we laid out for them. But delay does not change the path, only the timing. In emergency circumstances, eliminating penalties does no harm: students who would ordinarily do good work will simply do it later, while those who do poor work will have a chance to do better.

Consider eliminating timed assignments

Assignments have a time limit for a number of reasons. We may want students to remember something instead of looking it up, or prove they can do a task at a particular speed, or not overthink their writing.

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If we want students to remember something in a short period of time, a pandemic is not a good time to do this. Mental capacity is reduced and tempers are frayed. If we’re concerned about them looking up the answer, it might be a good idea to consider whether there’s an alternative that would allow them to do so. Can an essay prompt be adapted so it is more individualized as a response, and thus unlikely to be mindlessly copied from somewhere? Can their process be graded instead of their product?

In general, timed assignments can seem punitive, especially for students who do not have set times and places where they can be alone or concentrate. This has always been true, but is a particular problem during a pandemic. Setting the timer may just add to unreasonable levels of stress, preventing learning and leading to more pleas for exceptions, which take up teacher time.

Treat cheating differently

Academic integrity is a serious thing, and no one wants to enable student cheating. There are many ways, however, to make academic honesty more likely and dishonesty less painful.

Consider the structure of the assignment. If there is concern that students will work together and cheat, can the assignment be rewritten so that such collaborations are assumed or acceptable? Can a self-assessment or review be added, so that the student is responsible for explaining the process they engaged?

In written assignments, phrases can be spot-checked for plagiarism using quotation marks in Google. If students are not supposed to lift phrases from the internet, or are supposed to cite them and don’t, it is a teaching opportunity. An instructor can prepare a short video talking about what plagiarism is, and give the student an opportunity to view and discuss the implications before giving a grade, then give an opportunity to do that assignment again or do another.

And for the humanities and social sciences, can the written assignment be revised so that the response is individualized and thus difficult to find elsewhere?

Convert some assignments to automatic points

Assignments that students turn in may include a review or recitation of facts. These can be graded immediately and automatically in a quiz or by assigning a set number of points to an assignment or forum post. An immediate grade lets the student know the task is complete and they can move forward.

Similarly, homework, journaling, and other work that calls for reflection can be automatically scored.

Automatic scoring does not mean permanent scoring. Giving points upon submission makes it possible for the professor to go back through the work after the student has received the grade, and request any changes necessary, such as expanding an entry to cover a particular topic. The pressure is off, and students who have the time will often be happy to make the changes. Up-front grading also gives the professor more time to go through everyone’s work, or to decide to accept the work as is.

Be available but ease off the synchronous stuff

If there was ever a time to be at the computer continually, or get a second cell phone or a Google Voice phone number, it is now. Student questions may be urgent or not, but they will feel urgent. The deadline is still there, and a student may need to ask for an exception to it (the answer is always yes unless it’s the end of the term).

If there is an open forum for the class, or students message the instructor, an encouraging response is crucial. All questions should be received in an appreciative tone (“I’m glad you wrote!”) and answered as kindly as possible. We have students who are ill, who are caring for others, who are overloaded, who are in unsafe situations. Simply writing in an announcement “office hours MW 11–12” or even “contact me any time” is not enough.

For students who are in unsafe living situations or who have job requirements they did not have when they enrolled, synchronous sessions are an added stressor. Likewise with students who have social anxiety, are unaccustomed to online interaction, or are experiencing Zoom fatigue. Lectures, required discussions, or calling out students to participate may not be necessary or desirable. Instead, synchronous sessions can be used to work on homework in each other’s presence, with cameras on or off, to provide support to each other, to discuss the social changes happening around us all, to exchange ideas. The sessions may be required by faculty contracts, but student attendance may be optional or made up in an easier way.

Tame the Learning Management System

Many Learning Management Systems are overly complicated. Most, for example, have too many default items in the menu (Canvas has 18). Any that aren’t being used (that can be most of them) should be made invisible to students.

Clear navigation is more important than ever before. Whether the system uses modules or pages or assignment numbers, the sequence of tasks should be obvious. It is important to keep in mind that in many learning management systems, the student calendar or to-do list mixes together all their tasks from all their classes. Naming assignments clearly (“HUM101 Quiz 1”) can make things easier for everyone.

More often than we think, missed assignments are the result of students not seeing them or knowing they are there. Continual reminders will be of little use when all classes are sending them, not only because they go into Spam folders and students rarely use email but because the mind cannot process all of that and organize it, especially in a crisis.

And, as the saying goes, if you have to write lengthy instructions, the task is not clear enough. When the mind is overloaded, excessive direction cannot be taken in. It’s better to have a brief description of the task, and more lenience with the result.

Don’t expect close reading

This one is tough. Professionals expect their every word to be understood, and their every instruction to be retained. “Read the syllabus” is all too often the response to student questions that are, clearly, answered in the syllabus. That response, however, is unkind when the questioner is frazzled. Simply quoting the pertinent passage from the syllabus takes little time and answers the question.

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When people are struggling to make ends meet, take care of people who are ill, work double shifts at work, it is important to ask whether the workload is reasonable enough that it is possible to learn what is being taught. This is particularly true of readings, which take time and concentration as well as literacy skills. Can less reading be assigned, but more importance put on that which remains? That would create less breadth but more depth, which could reinforce concepts rather than continually introducing new ones.

Is everything we’re assigning truly necessary to learning the skills and content when students are unable to absorb as much as they usually do? If not, it’s time for some pruning.

Caring more may mean doing less

All of these recommendations involve, to a certain extent, doing less, except helping students individually. While it may feel like professors are doing more counseling than teaching, that just could be the appropriate response during these difficult times, and may teach lessons beyond the academic subjects.

It is natural in a crisis to streamline ones workload, to focus only on that which is important. Students and professors alike are trying to reduce the load to make things less painful. To the extent that professors can help students stay organized but build in flexibility, the stress can be eased and learning can happen more readily.

Also published on Medium

Canvas is not your friend

Instructure’s Canvas continues to gain market share as the Learning Management System in colleges and universities, despite limitations which have become more apparent as more faculty teach online. Want to assign extra credit? That’s really hard. Want students to maintain individual graded journals? Super difficult. Want to use the shell to create student-led learning? Forget about it.

And yet schools have been overjoyed to adopt Canvas as the new friend who will help with everything while not having too many needs. It’s so easy to use, everyone says. It looks so simple and clean and Google-y. Students like how all their classes look the same, reducing their cognitive load.

But for the more creative teacher or professor, those interacting with it intensely rather than casually, associating with Canvas exposes its shortcomings and begins to cause frustration. Faculty who have had more useful relationships with other systems know exactly what’s missing, but even those new to the playground are stymied when trying to get a simple friendly response.

The fact is, Canvas is not our friend. That’s because its design forces us to engage with its emotional problems.

Navigating like it’s 2005

Canvas is stuck in old patterns of thinking, even when those patterns cause problems again and again.

Learning Management Systems appear to be innocent shells into which teachers load “content”, but in reality they each have their own built-in pedagogy. Canvas’s pedagogy (like its other market leader, Blackboard) is based on outdated norms of information organization. In the 1990s, LMSs imitated the folder-style structure of Mac and PC (Windows) operating systems. They were really just places to upload content items (usually Word files) and perhaps run a single discussion board (by 2005 or so).

Surprisingly, even when LMSs added more and more features to enable greater interaction and activity, they retained the old structure. It is designed to present material by type: Pages, Lectures, Discussion, Grades, etc. You can see this in the way the Canvas menu is constructed.

Menu on left, and text saying “friends don’t let friends have eighteen menu items”

Most teachers do not think in terms of “type”. We think in terms of weeks, or units, or modules. We section the learning, combining various elements to cover a particular subject, assigning a reading, practice test, discussion, and exam all on the same topic. Separating those resources by type makes no sense when one is creating a learning pathway for students to follow, and can undermine the organizational integrity of the course.

Trying to help

But Canvas promises an alternative navigation for the students: Modules. You can put all your tasks in the correct order under headings. The “Back” and “Next” buttons, which automatically follow your sequence, will ensure that students stay within their lane.

                                    Exciting Modules page for Chapter 4

Unfortunately, this doesn’t solve the problem. Canvas’s Modules page is a list of links, with every item listed in the same size and color. But the menu items, ever visible even on the Modules page, will still say Pages, Assignments, Discussion, etc.

One can try to break this framework. Since we can add, delete, or hide menu items, it is possible to make new pages which link to the whole pattern of information. It may be possible, for example, to have the menu say Module 1, Module 2, etc., instead of Announcements, Syllabus, Pages, Discussion, Quizzes.

You could use the Modules pages as a home page, even though it’s ugly. Or you could make all the menu items for types invisible, and build a Home page with a schedule or grid, and each unit could be a list of links. Students can then see how everything fits together for that week.

But no…

Both solutions will be undermined by Canvas’s internal navigation. Even if you set up Page-based or Modules navigation, the “breadcrumbs” will show everything by type anyway. Any student going from your Week 2 page of links to Quiz 2 will see a breadcrumb in the upper left saying “Quizzes”. It they click it, the full list of all the quizzes in the class appear. Ditto with Discussion 2 — the full list of discussions will be there, and students will start jumping around and get lost.

Canvas provides the way to make things right, then undermines its own good intentions.

Working in five classes at once

Canvas wants everything combined for convenience, ignoring all your plans.

Let’s say you create a learning pathway through the content, considering the holistic nature of your course, using Modules or Pages. The Calendar and the To Do list will immediately come along and destroy your careful course structure, by disaggregating all the tasks in all your students’ various classes and lumping them together into a giant list.

For students, as a convenience, the Calendar lists everything from all their classes in order of due date. When they look at the month’s or week’s tasks, everything from all their classes is listed, making it difficult to see the order of anything for one particular class. Your “Discussion 2” which you carefully designed to follow Reading 2 has another class’s “Discussion 4″ in between.

The To Do list does the same thing in an even simpler list that appears on the Dashboard and every course home page.

In addition, both the Calendar and the To Do list don’t include anything that isn’t graded. That might include the week’s main page, the discussion students are supposed to return to on two different dates, or a required reading. Students will miss ungraded assignments entirely as they innocently follow these helpful lists.

What to do?

Because the Calendar and To Do features are controlled above the course level, there is no way to make them invisible or change them, except by adding more items from your class. There is limited space in the title, especially when the Calendar or To-Do List is seen on a phone, so we cannot put “Eng101” as the first word to help. But we can add additional Calendar items for things that aren’t connected to a graded item: “Week 2 starts today”, or “Return to discussion”, or “essay corrections due”. When we make an ungraded assignments, we can check the “Add to To Do list” box. Adding more things to do may be, strangely, the best way to help students.

Relying on others for basic functions

Canvas has no inner reserves of strength, and relies on outsiders.

It is a truth generally acknowledged that Canvas’s discussion boards are the most troublesome element of the LMS. Conversation is not its strong suit. Canvas requires an administrative setting to do things like make the barely nested posts obvious in a threaded discussion. There is so much white space that one scrolls until one forgets the topic — it isn’t practical to engage in extended, much less semester-long, discussions. There is no distinction between instructor posts and student posts. The toolbar cannot be customized, so it has become bloated and even more difficult to use than when it had fewer features. There is no @ feature or notification sent to students to let them know someone has responded to their post, unless they subscribe to all posts on all boards in the class.

Canvas is very instructor-focused, making student-led learning difficult to design. There are no collaborative or whiteboard spaces built in. Extending Canvas means using LTI (Learning Tools Interoperability) apps, or what used to be called “plug-ins”. These are made by external providers, and vary widely in cost and ease of use. Some integrate better than others, passing grades back into the Canvas Gradebook with ease. Others force students to create external accounts.

Given these difficulties, it is often easiest for faculty to succumb to the temptation of using a big stick: the textbook publisher package. The big companies offer full packages that can plug in to a Canvas course, essentially connecting their own learning management system to Canvas. This adds another layer and another (sometimes more than one) menu item as a “type”. Then it becomes necessary to spend much time learning the publisher’s complicated system as well as Canvas.

Less may be more

The only solution here is to limit oneself to one LTI. If it’s the publisher package, all the time will be spent learning and dealing with that. If it’s Google Docs, that will have a learning curve too, and possibly external accounts. If group annotation is desired, that can be the only extension.

Being honest with each other

These three big flaws don’t even include the many inconsistencies and gaps that Canvas has had since the beginning. There is no way to change things in bulk, like assignment due dates or quiz instructions. There is no pop-up to alert students that a message awaits from their teacher. There is no font customization on the Modules page, which flattens everything and makes it look like a two-minute video is equivalent to a twenty-page chapter. The drag-and-drop Calendar won’t let you drag-and-drop items from one month to another.*

One should not expect a friend, especially a troublesome friend, to change. Until 2015 there was a chance the relationship would improve. Indeed, things had been improving with help from the Canvas Community, a rich resource of teachers and expert users. But once Instructure went public, they became answerable to shareholders, just like Blackboard. Their “open source” street cred died, as did their need to respond to users.

It may be be best to consider Canvas as a flawed, if necessary, companion. It has its own desires and needs, which will often be counter to yours. But its unreliability means it’s best not to get too dependent.


*Update: Kona Jones has pointed out to me a couple of revisions. One can drag-and-drop to a different month if you start with an undated item from the list, and a recent update now means that Canvas includes bulk editing of Assignment dates only.

The increasingly possible: online labs

Ever since I discovered the back pages in H. G. Wells’s Text-book of Biology, (1893),  I’ve known a bit about scientific work being done at home. Doing “practical work” at home was important for correspondence education at the end of the 19th century, so that students could study for examinations even if they didn’t have access to a laboratory.

When online teaching started at our college, back in 1998, and began to grow, a number of science instructors were concerned. You could do a lecture online, fine, but you couldn’t do a lab. Simulations weren’t enough, they said. You need real materials. Wells’s students, of course, had real materials. They ordered them by mail or, in the case of frogs, went and caught them.

So here we are in 2020, with online labs foisted onto unsuspecting faculty, and they’ve done brilliantly. I attended this session, where four professors, from auto shop to biotechnology, showed how they do labs online. For inspiration alone it’s worth the 50+ minutes.

MiraCosta College: Hands-On Labs in an Online World on Vimeo.

It’s an odd feeling for me, a promoter and practitioner of online education since the 1990s, to see that the materials (lab kits, go-pro cameras, etc) have come so far. But it’s even more thrilling to see the new attitudes, confidence, and willingness to serve students this way. It feels (finally!) like the new world we were hoping for.

As I watched, I thought like a student. In-person education isn’t always the best way to learn. When I was 19, if I’d had a way to learn about cars without having  to show my ignorance to the guys in auto shop, I might know how to fix my car today. I was shy, and had already been subject to sexism in art class — I certainly wouldn’t walk into a guy-dominated shop. I was also clumsy, but if I’d been able to make mistakes with those test tubes at home, I might have given it a try in high school or college. (I actually had a chemistry set as a child, and created something so horrid the chemistry prof at the local university had to be called so we knew how to dispose of it.)

At any rate, I think H. G. Wells would be proud. I’m delighted.

The strange feminism of Colonel March

I confess, I watch a lot of British television. In fact, I almost exclusively watch British television these days, given the choice: Inspector Morse, Miss Marple, Poirot, Scott and Bailey, Hinterland, Jonathan Creek, etc etc etc.

I usually don’t find older programs, but I came upon Colonel March of Scotland Yard with Boris Karloff, made in 1955-6, and have been watching its one season of 26 episodes.

It was made in the early days of ITV, when the new station was trying to promote itself, and has been roundly criticized for having very little intellectual content. It is based on the John Dickson Carr book The Department of Queer Complaints, which I would love to read but which costs a ridiculous amount of money when one searches for a copy.

I’m terrible at figuring out whodunnit. I always have been, which makes mysteries wonderful for me. I also forget whodunnit immediately afterwards, making it possible for me to see The Mousetrap in London four times before I could remember. I have solved only one Midsomer Murder out of 21 seasons of the show, though I have done two of Death in Paradise.

Which means that Colonel March is excellent entertainment for me. I don’t need to follow it closely, and March always wraps things up quickly at the end. But I’ve noticed something odd, something I didn’t expect.

Frances Rowe in At Night All Cats are Grey (yes, that’s Christopher Lee)

The women. Despite an occasional “because she’s female” line, the female characters seem pretty equal to the male in terms of agency, career, ambition, intelligence, and cunning. They are business owners, scientists, research assistants, intrepid explorers. They don’t usually commit the crime, and sometimes there is jealousy between men over a woman, but they aren’t in the background either. Their motives and actions are as complex as the male characters.

It’s a decade after the war, so I would assume that women in public roles was fairly common, but if one watches The Bletchley Circle, one would get the impression that the problem with the “Back to Home” women was the same in Britain as in America. Perhaps it was, but even “mindless” television may have been comfortable with the idea that not all women belonged at home, cooking and having babies.

         Elspet Gray in Murder is Permanent

In “Murder is Permanent”, Elspet Gray plays the daughter-in-law of the woman who owns a beauty salon, and is into shady dealings. In “The Abominable Snowman” a somewhat ridiculous premise is saved by Doris Nolan as Mary Grey, a mountain climber who isn’t allowed to be in the Himalayan Mountaineers’ club because she’s female (which Colonel March finds absurd). She led a major climb and it’s the film she made on that adventure that helps solve the mystery. Of course at the end she’s in the club, and will clearly be leading it.

So one has to be careful. Any number of 1950s films and television, on both sides of the pond, have surprised me by either confronting the very issues that supposedly restricted them, or by portraying certain types of people with a different sensibility than I was led to expect. I’ve seen so many now that I’m wondering whether the exceptions to the rule are so numerous that the rule is the exception. . . .

Victorian high tech: the pneumatic railway

I was tracing one of my character’s walks through Holborn, using Google street view and walking my little man along, when I noticed the street name changed to “Holborn Viaduct” and then I came upon structures that looked Victorian and bridge-like. Turned out I was on top of this:

Photo by Matt Brown, Wikipedia

So I looked it up. There wasn’t much at the Wikipedia page, but I found much more at this engineering site. According to this:

Holborn Viaduct is 427m long and 24.4m wide, and is a complex structure mainly of masonry. It incorporated subways for a sewer, a gas main, telegraph wires, the pneumatic despatch railway used by Royal Mail and an Edison electric power station.

What the heck is a “pneumatic despatch railway”? So I went down that rabbit hole for an afternoon.

Way back in 2013 the New Statesman published an article about what they call the “Victorian hyperloop”, a pneumatic railway for the mail in London.

It was a fascinating technology, essentially an underground tube with cars that carried the mail across town. It was tested above ground at Battersea.

The first one was inaugurated at Holborn (did it go through the viaduct? no, it went under it, but not till 1865, two years too late for my character).

People could fit in it.

And they experienced “no ill effect”.

Illustrated London News, 7 February 1863 p. 135.

It was so exciting that it appeared on a cigarette card:

A human-sized line was run from Crystal Palace in Sydenham so people could try it and see how it worked.

It worked very well. You put your mail (or busybody investor) into the car, and sealed up the end, forming a vacuum. One direction pushed, the other sucked. The first section was supposed to be a straight shot from the Euston Station packages depot to Holborn, but the Duke of Bedford didn’t want the digging, so it had to have a turn. They ran another from the General Post Office. Telegraph wires ran alongside for signalling. Some reports said it got up to 60 miles per hour; other estimates were more modest. Either way it got the mail there in minutes, and avoided the streets above, which were overcrowded with unregulated traffic, including carts, horses, pedestrians, cabs, etc.

Illustrated London News, 28 February 1863

There were approvals for more branches, but not enough money. A few technical problems, yes, and it didn’t save as much time as hoped, but the main problem was cash.

The New Statesman was using the pneumatic railway (also known as an “atmospheric railway”) to tease Elon Musk, and rightly so. This thing was planned to run all over London, underground. Infrastructure was part of the plan. Even though it ran out of money, and was left derelict, pneumatic tubes for papers would become part of businesses and banks (the bank up the street has one, and I remember the thrill of using one at the drive-through bank when I was a child).

I think it’s a shame that the reporting of new hyperloops is so ahistorical. Even this criticism of Virgin Hyperloop only cites the TGV and a similar Chinese line from seventeen years ago. I would have loved to know about this Victorian model before.

Do I have to grade everything?

Why a bit of auto-grading is helpful rather than harmful

Certainly it was overwhelming to bring home an intimidating stack of exam books or papers. But it isn’t any better online. In fact, a notification that there are 173 things to grade can make you want to close your laptop and walk away.

Learning Management Systems offer to grade things for us. Set up a quiz and students can get instant results. Count participation in a forum for three points automatically. Create one rubric for all the papers.

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As professors we hesitate. This seems like cheating. And it’s letting a machine do our job, the job of assessing student work. No computer, we know, can grade an essay or walk through a science or math problem. It requires expert knowledge. Our expert knowledge.

Those lucky enough to have Teaching Assistants can, with only a few pangs of conscience, leave the grading to them. But the rest of us, at community colleges and small universities, can’t dump the responsibility on someone else. And if we’re new to the online environment, between setting up classes online and answering endless queries, our grading can get sloppy. Or it gets done very late. Or both.

Automatic grading, we know, is antithetical to good teaching. Every student’s work deserves our time and attention. Studies show that individual feedback provides instructor presence and encourages a direct relationship with the student. They will care, we are told, if they know you care. And you care because you read each and every word.

At the same time, we strive for interesting and media-rich lectures, free or low-cost reading materials, meaningful online discussions, and speedy, friendly answers to student questions. It is simply not possible to do it all.

We’ve heard about ungrading, of course. Don’t grade anything; give feedback instead. Have them set up blogs and just do work. Or, if that’s too scary, implement contract grading. Here’s what the student has to do to get this grade. They agree to do it, and you agree to give the grade. This makes it possible to focus on the feedback and the relationship.

And that’s the point. For those of us who believe that grading is necessary at some level, that we must rank work in order for education to be meaningful, we need the time for the feedback and the relationship. Grading robs us of this focus, especially online. We grade all the time, and when we finish we’re too exhausted to do anything else.

The instructor’s pedagogy should determine where individual feedback is most useful to the student. If they are engaged in factual retention, grading can be automatic — the answer is right or wrong. They memorized it, or looked it up, or they didn’t. If most of the focus is on constructivism, creating and sharing, we can give set points for doing it, without the need to assess at a granular level. If the students are writing extensively or solving complex multi-step problems or creating legal briefs, individual feedback is needed and we want to have time for that, with or without a set grade.

So no, we don’t have to grade everything ourselves. Taking advantage of the Learning Management System’s ability to give points automatically does not mean we are shirking. Rather it means that we are willing to have the machine do that which is best done by machine, leaving time for us to engage the teaching aspect of our job.

Also posted in Medium

Midhurst Mystery Solved!

For those who have been following my two “Midhurst Mysteries” about H. G. Wells — Which house was Horace Byatt’s? (2017 and 2018) and Did Mrs Allin help Wells? — I am excited to report that the latter was actually solved in August 2019, although I didn’t know it. (Bad researcher — no book orders for you!)

I only discovered this because of my Midhurst “connection”, Simon Wheeler of Wheeler’s Bookshop. He wrote to tell me that the Midhurst Society had a new website, with a page about South Street that could possibly help solve the mystery of Horace Byatt’s house. This page, part of a wonderful series of pages by the Society, surmised that the house was likely South Pond House, while I believe it was the house next door. But no matter! I was able to reach the Society through the new and beautifully designed website.

And that’s how I found about about Midhurst Magazine #30, published a year ago August. It contains an article by Mrs Allin’s great-granddaughter, Jennifer Chevis.

For those who don’t keep track of this stuff, the mystery was that Vic and Barbara Mitchell’s book, Midhurst Town: Then & Now, mentioned that Mrs Allin, the ironmonger’s wife, helped get Wells his job at Midhurst Grammar School as an assistant teacher. Mr Mitchell was wonderfully kind in responding to my query, but couldn’t recall where he obtained that information.

Who cares? Why is that even important? Because it’s one of the major turning points in Wells’s life. It would be his studies with Byatt, undertaken as independent study, that would enable his scholarship to the Normal School of Science in London. And that would lead to many, many other things.

In the meantime, I had surmised in my novel (fiction, but based on what I know) that Mrs Allin, being a motherly woman, would have taken Wells under her wing and convinced Horace Byatt to hire him with pay and let him return to Midhurst after having been a pupil-teacher at the school. Wells had attended briefly before his mother indentured him to a draper’s in Southsea, where he was miserable.

And now I find that I was absolutely right. Ms Chevis reports that Mrs Allin did indeed do this, taking an active interest in the young man’s life and persuading Byatt to pay him.

I’m delighted with all of this: the Midhurst Society’s accessible content and amiable people, and the generosity of Mrs Allin, and the potential for greater connection to a wonderful local history society. They have even graciously added a link to my Wells studies on their publications page.

Now, about Byatt’s house. . .

Breaking Writing Rules

As I’ve spent the last year or so discovering the various rules for writing fiction, I can now say which ones I’ll break.

1. Start with a hook

I did try this. Well, not for my first novel, but for the Victorian mystery and its sequel. The hooks sit there, dangling themselves to interest the reader. They’re not brilliant, I don’t think they’re necessary, and if I were the reader I’d want to skip them.

2. Just write — don’t edit as you go

I recently read this advice in a writers’ group, and I’ve seen it before in a number of books. Just let it flow, they say. Turn on your writer brain and turn off your editor brain.

Trouble is, after a few pages of writing, my sensible brain says I’d better go back and take a look and make sure it’s not crap. Or I need to go back and say where the door is located in the room. Or I need to go back and mention her hair is red. I gotta do it now or I’ll forget. Once I do, I can move forward writing again.

It’s said that you can’t write with a (self) critic looking over your shoulder. But I need mine. She’s good at it and I like to keep her close. Plus, when I’m really too tired to write, we can go back a few scenes and do editing instead.

3. Keep your reader in mind

Who is my reader? The Amazon customer who needs $1 more in his cart to get free shipping? The reader of 425 Victorian murder mysteries who wants a fix? I have no delusions that Simon and Schuster will call to say they want to publish my work, and are bringing over those wealthy educated readers who’ll pay $34.95 for the hardback.

Really, there are two problems with keeping the reader in mind. One is that every reader is different. This is why writing groups are so fascinating and so frustrating. Everyone has a different idea of what should be changed, improved, kept. The other is that I am the reader.  If I have to engage in Brown-like and Grisham-like formulaic writing, I’ll stop writing all together. (The one bit of advice I will follow is that you should write the book you want to read.)

4. Use the pattern of rising action, climax, denouement

In my first mystery, the dead body refused to make its appearance until the end of chapter three. I do sort of have a rising action, as people work around trying to figure out whodunnit. And I did manage to contrive a threatening scene to expose the murderer.

But in the sequel, the body falls in somewhere around chapter five, and I keep adding stuff before it. Then after that body, a couple of other things happen, including an attack in a park. And the police are on a different track than our detective, who doesn’t even know she’s the detective yet although I’m over half-way through the book. The murder, rather than being central to the story, seems to be only one of several factors contributing to the overall story. Which causes the problem of. . .

5. Write in one genre

I can say my first novel is literary fiction, but it doesn’t really fit that genre because the prose is not celestial by any means. While it is not impossible to describe the story, there is neither a typical plot nor a traditional character arc for the protagonist. The Victorian mystery should be easier — it’s a mystery. Well, a historical mystery. Except the sequel, as noted above, seems to be more like an historical novel with a mysterious element.

The other problem I have with genre is that I don’t like crime novels. I only read historical mysteries, and my historical era has contracted until it’s just the Victorian. And just England. Should I join the Mystery Writers of America? Facebook groups of crime writers? I tried that and I now receive countless posts promoting crime books I’d never, ever read (I’m really rather squeamish about violence, and I cannot tolerate cruelty). I am not even interested in modern-day cozies anymore (I have read all the Rita Mae Browns, but that was a long time ago). You shouldn’t join groups whose work you don’t want to read. That’s . . . anti-social networking.

6. Plot out mysteries carefully

As I’ve indicated, I tried very hard to do become a plotter. I mapped out the sequel to my Victorian mystery in the assignments for the mystery writing class I took. Yes, it was a fine plot. But as I started writing, I resisted it. Now I have quite the mess to write my way out of, trusting the process instead.

Is it wrong to plot? Not at all. But if I do it, it becomes like an outline for an academic paper. I feel like I have to fill it in. I’m writing fiction to get away from that.

7. Make sure the main character experiences a threatening challenge to which s/he responds by overcoming an embedded weakness

My literary novel features a decidedly more passive MC (main character) than some might like. That is part of her personality, and it is important that the other central character moves more and faster than she does. My MC’s threatening challenge is only mildly apparent until the end, when it overcomes her. The other character’s weakness is only apparent in retrospect, if at all.

But surely in mysteries this should be easier? Nope. My Victorian mysteries feature an inspector who loves books and a female illustrator as the “detectives”. Neither has much of a weakness, and certainly not a fatal flaw like alcoholism or the pain of a spouse’s unsolved death (a seemingly popular motif these days). Readers tell me they like them anyway. And even more importantly, I like them.

8. Don’t use too much dialogue

Last year I realized I had trouble writing dialogue, so I worked on it. Now I write too much. Most of the scenes I write are dialogue-based. I have read that this is wrong, so I tried to change it. But then I happened to start reading Thomas Hardy’s Under the Greenwood Tree, which contains many pages of continuous dialogue. If it’s good enough for Hardy, it’s good enough for me. While I will add more descriptions to such scenes, the conversations will remain central.

9. Have good “comps”

This is the idea that your query to agents and publishers must compare your book to others which are known. I have tried this with my literary novel (“kind of like Rachel Cusk”) and my Victorian mystery (“such as Anne Perry”). But lately I have been thinking it is more important to note what I am not doing. I am not, like other authors I could name, simply using the era as a setting in which characters do their thing. That seems to be a trend now. Pick an era (the American West, medieval Germany), do a bit of research so you have the clothes and vehicles right, then write a tale that could take place absolutely anywhere and be exactly the same. I’m a historian. Universal stories are all very well, but historical fiction should not only be embedded in its time, but should give us some insight into the period.

Another issue about “comps” is that although I consider myself “well-read”, I don’t read much contemporary fiction. I do read Cusk, Sarah Perry, Alexander McCall Smith, and Kate Morton. But I don’t read a lot of the super-popular formulaic stuff. So when I see an author’s posting saying “my book is the next x“, most of the time I have no idea what x is. And I can’t go around saying my comps are Wilkie Collins, Charles Dickens, and H. G. Wells because they aren’t.

10. Engage professional services

Assuming you don’t need actual paid help learning to write, or get picked up by one of the “big five” publishing houses, then we’re talking $875 to publish with a bit of help from a hybrid publisher. Plus $600 for a developmental editor. $300 for a book cover designer. And this is after that $50 class in how to write a query and get an agent. Then you need a line editor, a publicity person, a proofreader, beta readers. Not happening, say I.

Combine these with the rest:

  • always write mysteries as a series
  • spend three times as much time editing as you did writing
  • slash and burn pages when your editor tells you to
  • “kill your darlings” (Stephen King) because if they mean that much to you they’re personal and won’t sell
  • be aware of the market
  • write what you know
  • novels are 70,000 words

and we may have good advice, but not necessarily for my work. I could renege on my rebellion tomorrow and do what I’ve learned I should do, but I doubt I will.