Lecture: recorded, zoomed, or what?

The word “lecture” conjures an idealized image of students listening attentively as a professor relays knowledge. Almost all of the lectures I enjoyed at university were in this format, and when I began teaching I lectured this way too.

With this year’s quick and unexpected transition to online teaching, many professors assumed that online lecture meant reproducing what they do in class. Zoom.com was grateful for this assumption, even as they struggled to accommodate the massive numbers holding live lectures. Almost immediately, however, there were complaints and problems.

Professors whined that students weren’t paying attention, or didn’t want to turn on their cameras. They couldn’t see the facial expressions and body language indicating comprehension (or lack thereof). Students complained about boring, wandering lectures, and they felt exposed. You can’t sit at the back in an online classroom, and they didn’t want thirty strangers to see the trailer they lived in. Many decided they would watch the recording instead.

The problem? Zoom provided the platform, but the pedagogy was still based in the classroom. This worked better for some professors than others. At our college, they let us choose before this fall whether we wanted our classes scheduled and in Zoom, or “online only” (meaning asynchronous, with no live meetings), or a mix. Many professors regretted their choice.  Those in Zoom wished they hadn’t, and those who chose asynchronous were sorry they’d done that.

For two decades, I’ve been pushing the idea that the technology should follow the pedagogy. Your preferred teaching method should dominate. In the rush, there had been no connection between a professor’s pedagogy and their choice of format.

So, assuming you lecture, what kind of lecturer are you?

Interactive lecturers count on student participation. They ask questions during lecture, or survey the mood, or set tasks for students during the lecture.

Interactive lecturers should consider live (synchronous) lecturing in Zoom or another webconferencing program. The live approach online, however, works best for the simple lecture, on one topic. Shortening lecture time by about 2/3 is also a good idea for live session lectures, but they can be immediately followed by breakout room activity.

Traditional lecturers are those who lecture to an audience, and don’t expect, need, or want the lecture to be interactive. They relay a lot of information, framed by their own interpretation from their professional experience.

Traditional lecturers should record these lectures, and students can view them in an asynchronous way. Students particularly appreciate recorded lectures when the topic is complex, so they can go back and review without being on the spot.

Online lecturers, long ago, were all using dial-up modems and there wasn’t much bandwidth. A lecture quickly became a typed out version of ones lecture notes. As bandwidth expanded, these written lectures could be enhanced with images, then audio, then video. Written lectures can be more like reading, or they can be multi-media experiences, but they’re based on the web page or blog. They may include recorded mini-lectures. Like traditional lectures, they tend to be asynchronous.

So, planning to offer a 90-minute lecture on the historiography of the fall of ancient Rome? Go ahead, but considering recording it with images or video clips rather than doing it live. Want to lecture on solving a quadratic equation, using a whiteboard and asking students to help as you go? Consider a live lecture. Already wrote a great article that covers everything that would be in this week’s lecture? Record your voice reading it, and add some pictures or video clips.

But we don’t all have a choice. Have you been told you have to fill 75 minutes of scheduled class time? Consider creating interactive lectures and activities that require working together. Or have students view a recorded lecture, then come to the synchronous class to work out problems or just do their homework together. I would consider this a flipped online classroom, a model that understands that absorbing information may be best done on ones own but applying it should be done together.

So as we approach spring, let’s consider.

Why discussion sucks (and what to do about it)

Students at colleges around the country are told to participate, but why?

Since the dawn of online classes, the goal of college professors has been to somehow duplicate the excitement of classroom discussion. With the advent of the Read-Write Web (Web 2.0) fifteen years ago, the threaded discussion forum became popular, and immediately the pattern was set.

We do what we’ve been told to do: create a great prompt, not a yes-no question or something too shallow. We want everyone to respond to it, reinforcing readings or other learning in the class. Then, because we want student-student interaction, each student is required to reply to at least two of their colleagues. The prompt-post-reply model has held.

Never mind that this is not the way discussion happens in a classroom. There may be a prompt thrown out by the professor, but only a few students answer, and only if their answers can be different. We might set up small groups to get students to talk, but if we’re experienced we know better than to just say “discuss”. And we usually intervene to advance the discussion or take it in another direction.

Never mind that we haven’t bothered to ask why we’re doing online discussion at all. It’s discussion. You’re supposed to do it. Or you have to do something. Many colleges require “student to student interaction” for all online classes. But no one explains why. It’s just assumed to be a Good Thing.

And yet the result is often appalling.

The problem

Most online discussions are absolutely worthless to read (from an instructor perspective) and worthless to do (from a student perspective). The eager students answer the questions first and fully. The others trail along just to finish and get the points. Every student knows the drill: post once, reply twice. Then leave as quickly as you can and do not return.

If the prompt is a question, however intricate, or a specific task (“post your thesis”), then once their first post is done, the student’s task has been completed. The only reason to reply to anyone else’s post is because the prof told you to. That’s not interaction. It’s mandatory politeness, like saying “how are you?” when you don’t really care.

“I agree, James,” they write, “I also think that slavery was bad.” Nothing really happening there mentally, I don’t think. And James likely won’t return to see the reply anyway. Why should he?

A twist on traditional discussion

I went as far as I could with the method, in an effort to increase participation. I achieved discussion somewhat successfully with my two-step approach. This involved starting with a prompt that did not require previous knowledge, and set up some kind of moral judgement to get people engaged. Questions like “was it right to drop the bomb on Hiroshima?” or “did the Confederacy have a point about states rights?” or “was slavery essential to the growth of the United States?” got students started.

After they had all emoted about the topic for the first half of the week, I posted “Take discussion from here”. I used big font and a color for my post, and it summarized what they’d said so far, naming names of students who had made good points. Then I asked different questions that seemed to follow from what they’d said, questions that relied on their reading and used reason (rather than emotion) to deal with the main issues. Their second post was a reply to mine and/or to each other, to conclude that week.

It worked, in a way. But many students, having given ill-informed opinions to start, didn’t bother to return for the real work in the second half.

Designing for necessity

Sometimes, there’s simply no need for conversation. You read (or look, or listen), you do the work, and you’re done. Discussion should only take place when it is necessary, whether in the classroom or online. There are two things that can make discussion necessary:

  1. If talking together is essential to work something out or to complete a task.
  2. If the product of the conversation is going to be used, applied, or figured out.

So we could design for necessity. Let’s say I’m teaching design, and I demand on the discussion board that each student design and post a different carnival ride. Once they have posted, they seem to have finished the task. There could be no reason to ask them to comment on two other students’ designs. But if the next task is to write a short paper contrasting three designs (yours and those of two other students), then the comments become preparatory for creating something.

Or we could do role play. The class is to be considered a committee-as-a-whole for determining which route across campus would be best for the architects to create as a footpath. What information should be gathered, and how? Once results have come in, how will the data inform the decision? The deadline is Thursday, because the architects need to break ground.

Or let’s take my two-step discussion technique, where I start with something ill-informed and emotional, and then we get informed in the second step. I could have made it better by making sure that the discussion was used somehow, through a formal assignment such as a paper or quiz. The conclusions we developed could have been summarized and used to inform individual work.

The rules

So my new rules for discussion would be:

  1. ensure that conversation is inherently necessary to the task or subject
  2. design so that each student would naturally post something different
  3. create something that applies or uses the results of the discussion

Otherwise, I’d say there’s no point.


Two Characters in Search of their Teaching Author

“Excuse me,” said Jo, from inside the computer. “Lisa? I’m sorry to bother you, but I’m afraid we need some attention here.”

“I know, I’m sorry,” I said. “But I have a lot of grading to do.”

“You always do,” said Jo. “And we understand. But you’ve left us hanging around here in Chapter 3 for almost six weeks.”

“Yes, yes,” I said, trying not to sound exasperated. “But we are in a pandemic, you know, and I’ve had a death in the family, and I’m behind on my teaching work.”

“But we’re losing the thread here,” said Jo, “and I’m afraid Rossetti is getting impatient.”

“Hmmm,” I said, trying to grade just one more set of student lecture notes.

“Lisa?” This was Rossetti now. “Trouble is, I’m an actual historical character.”

“Unlike me,” added Jo.

“Unlike Jo,” agreed Rossetti, “And I’m known for my impetuous nature.”

“And your charm,” said Jo.

“And my charm,” conceded Rossetti, “And my brilliance and talent and vivacity. You can’t leave us sitting here in the chapter like this. We must shine.”

“We need to know where things are going,” said Jo.

“Well,” I said, “You know where things are going. There’s the outline.”

Jo laughed. “You said you weren’t going to use the outline. Right after you took that Mystery Writing class. I can’t do all this planning, you said, and bought a book about writing in the dark, or something about the seat of your pants.”

“Yes, I know,” I said, “But you can use the outline to know what’s going to happen.”

“But I don’t know,” said Jo. “We’ve only just discovered the body of Mr Pratchett. I’m supposed to be the lady detective this time, aren’t I?”

“Yes, you are. The Inspector did all the work in the first mystery, but this time it’s you.”

“I cannot detect without having something to detect with. A plot or a clue or something. If I don’t have it, I can’t share it with Rossetti.”

“And we’re becoming such good friends,” added Rossetti.

“Yes, we’re becoming such good friends,” said Jo.

“Which you hadn’t planned,” added Rossetti.

“Which I hadn’t planned,” I said, “because Rossetti was a rather famous lover of women, and you, Jo, are a lesbian.”

“She’s a lesbian?” asked Rossetti.

“Yes,” said Jo, “Didn’t you know about my lover Nan, the one who died?”

“No,” said Rossetti quietly.

“She was in the first book.”

“I didn’t read the first book,” said Rossetti, “I wasn’t in the first book. Why would I read a book I’m not in?”

“Oh,” said Jo.

“Look, you two,” I said, “Maybe you’ll become close friends because there’s no sexual tension. Or maybe you’ll both just get excited about the case and enjoy joining forces. You’ve already joined forces really. You’ve already taken Jo to see the wombats.”

“I did,” said Rossetti proudly, “and she’s to be my very dear friend. If you write it that way.” There was a pause. “Are you going to write it that way?”

“I think so,” I said, “But it’s been awhile. I was having trouble with the plot.”

“Well,” said Jo, “you need to write us more, give us more things to do. We can’t just sit here waiting for you to finish your grading. It’ll be all term. We won’t move till winter break at this rate. And all the time, the killer is getting away.”

“How can he be getting away, if I haven’t written about him either?” I asked, reasonably.

“Maybe he’s planning another murder. Maybe the head of the National Gallery is involved. Maybe he’ll start killing artists!” She sounded afraid.

“Or Bridget,” said Rossetti, “He might kill Bridget. Bridget is Mr Pratchett’s assistant, isn’t she?”

“And a very dear friend of mine,” said Jo.

“And a very dear friend of yours. What if she’s in danger? How would we know?”

“She’s already been locked in the darkroom once. And somewhere back here,” Jo paused. She must be searching the previous chapters, I thought. “Somewhere back here there’s a Millicent somebody, who comes to the photographer’s studio.”

“I didn’t know that,” said Rossetti.

“I haven’t been written to tell you yet,” said Jo, “but maybe she’s involved? She’s in the same philanthropy group as I am.”

I shook my head, “I’m not sure what to do with her yet. I thought someone could blackmail her about her hair color. Or a forgery of a painting she owns.”

“Yes! Forgery!” said Jo, “You were going to do something with forgery. And that character, the Italian who knows all about art. He could identify the forger.”

“Besides,” said Rossetti, grumbling, “You’re leaving us here in 1863, while you sit comfortably in 2020.”

“I’m not comfortable,” I said, “Did you hear what I said about a pandemic?”

“More time to write,” said Rossetti. “The fact is, a story about me should be an inspiration, should override all need for mundane work. I want to inspire you! I want to be your muse!”

“It’s not a story about you,” I said, “I am fascinated by you, of course. Who wouldn’t be? But the story is about Jo solving the murder. You’re a side character. You’re her foil.”

“Oh,” said Rossetti, quiet again. “I thought you cared. At one point you had a scene with all of us, with Christina and mother. And Mr Dodgson.”

“I did have,” I said, “I wasn’t sure what to do with it.”

“And now it’s in a file marked ‘not used’,” said Rossetti, sadly. “My family. Not used.”

“Really, Rossetti,” said Jo, “You’re being too sensitive.”

“Am I?” cried Rossetti, “Am I? What if she starts slaughtering the Pre-Raphaelites? What if I’m the next victim? What if poor Lizzie didn’t kill herself, if this murderer gave her an overdose of laudanum? We need this thing written. I deserve to know where I stand!” He was getting very upset.

“Please don’t worry,” I said. “I won’t kill off the Pre-Raphaelites, and you and Jo won’t be harmed.”

“Bridget?” said Jo nervously, “You won’t kill off Bridget?”

“I hadn’t planned to,” I said. “But I really don’t have time to get back to this right now.”

“Hah! You always say that time is made, not found,” said Jo. “So make some time for us and get us to where we can find the forgery and do some detecting.”

“Yes, dear,” I said, and sighed. “I honestly had no idea you characters were so demanding.”

“I’m sorry,” said Jo.

“I am too,” said Rossetti, “but please don’t abandon us.”

“I won’t,” I said. “But do let me grade another set of lecture notes.”



Opportunities in the pandemic

I hear people moaning about being bored and isolated. On the contrary, I have been able to participate in activities I never would have had access to. A great many groups and institutions have put meetings and events online. I’ve had a unique chance to attend the following in the past few months:

Age of Victoria is a collection of scholars who meet as the Victorian Britain group in Facebook to give and attend lectures. I’ve been attending every Thursday since June, and have been invited to give a talk on H.G. Wells. Would that have happened but for the pandemic? I think not.

The H. G. Wells Society meets in London each June, and I’ve been lucky enough to have been there for one of the meetings. But the fun stuff happens in September, around Wells’s birthday. This year I was able to attend not only the general meeting, but also the September event, where Sarah Cole was interviewed by Simon James from the University of Durham about her book Inventing Tomorrow. Again, only because the the pandemic.

The Research Society for Victorian Periodicals has an annual conference, but I’m only given enough money to attend one conference a year, and that’s usually the North American Conference on British Studies. This year RSVP went online as a Digital Salon with a session on Digital Humanities, and I learned a lot about how such projects work and obtain grants, which may be an option for my collection of Wells’ science writings.

The Institute for Historical Research at the University of London has been offering a conference series. I attended one on Victorian Bloomsbury once when I was there. This year I’ll be attending two in October, one on touring Bloomsbury and the other on doing research online. And I’ve signed up for one in November, on the notebook of a policeman in late 19th century Lambeth. All because they’re online in Zoom.

MiraCosta College’s Writing Group usually meets a 45-minute drive away from the campus where I work, and a time where there’s heavy rush-hour traffic. Now they meet online in Zoom every two weeks at 4 pm. I have finally joined the group, and am sharing my fiction and peer reviewing the work of others.

I’ve also been able to attend a Stanford University lecture on historical monuments, and of course I’ve already blogged about attending writers’ conferences. Plus I’ve attended sessions on cultural competency and community college planning. On Wednesday I’m going on a tour of the Oxford Science Museum, one of my favorite places.

And it’s only October.

So yes, it’s horrid out there, and I can’t go to complete the research I began for my H.G. Wells book, or get access to the newspapers I need through the British Library newsroom.  But I can certainly take advantage of what’s available, and I’m delighted to do so.

What about Ann Little Ingram?

While I will again emphasize that I am not a women’s historian, or a feminist historian, I must say that tracking down a historic woman has again proven extraordinarily difficult.

This time the story revolves around the Illustrated London News, a highly popular periodical in Victorian England. While not the only newspaper to use illustrations, the ILN was known for the quality and quantity of its images. This is why the character in my novel, Jo Harris, wants to be an artist for the ILN.

Knowing this was unlikely for a young-ish woman with no connections, I had her doing odd illustrating jobs in the first novel, for lesser periodicals like the Penny Illustrated Paper. But in the sequel, she has become more skilled, and is ready for the big time.

Wanting to create another character based on an actual person (I did this throughout the first mystery), I looked up who the proprietor was of the ILN in 1863.

Ann Ingram. Prounouns would be she/her, as they say. I confess I didn’t expect that. But apparently her husband, Herbert Ingram, founded the Illustrated London News, with a loan from Anne’s brother, who would also be publisher. But in 1860, Herbert took a holiday with his teenage eldest son, and they died in a massive boating accident on Lake Michigan aboard the cursed steamer Lady Elgin. So Ann took over the paper.

She is mentioned briefly in several sources, who essentially say she took over as editor only until her sons became old enough to do it. I think this is unlikely, since she was proprietor for eleven years from 1860-1871. The Waterloo Directory (the bible of Victorian periodical research) fails to list her name as editor. A Google Search, with either spelling of Ann or Anne, is unprofitable.  So I posted on the Facebook group for the Research Society for Victorian Periodicals, and the venerable Patrick Leary responded that she has indeed been neglected. He mentioned her in this history of the ILN written for Gale, and called her “a woman of considerable business acumen”.

What a possibly fascinating person. Leary has suggested that Isabel Bailey, who wrote a book on Herbert, might know something, having accessed their unpublished papers. If only I could find her.

But the point is, I shouldn’t have to. How can a woman who managed a paper which sold 250,000 copies for its special issues, not be more well-known? He certainly was — he became an MP, and there is a statue of him in the marketplace in old Boston. His life is chronicled. His picture is right here. –>

She bore him ten children, then ran his business, and her name isn’t even on his Wikipedia page. Was she photographed or engraved? Did she keep a diary? Was she written about in other people’s letters?

I sense yet another rabbit hole, dark with the story of another ignored woman.

It Never Goes Back the Way it Was Before

I hear people say things like “when things go back to normal” or “after the pandemic” or just “afterwards”.

That might have worked for something that lasted a few weeks. Or for a hurricane or fire that destroys your home, then you have to rebuild. We can’t do that yet — this is the classic slow-motion train wreck. And anyone who’s rebuilt, had tragedy strike, knows that nothing is ever the same again.

Because we cannot go backward. Trust me on this — I’m a historian. I know backward. We only go forward.

The articles talking about the way in which the pandemic is changing business, or is changing the way we do things, are closer to the mark than the ones talking about going back to the way things were before. Will we have a time when we shake hands again, and hug our grandchildren? Very likely. Will we ever shake hands the same way again, not thinking anything of it? No.

Even when we’re not actively afraid anymore, we will be more aware. More aware of how quickly things can change, how people can treat each other differently, suddenly. How protestors can take to the streets even when they might get infected. How people can lose their jobs, lots and lots of jobs. How government support can happen, and how it can disappear. How the economy is based on the spending of extra cash. How people can be treated like disposable commodities. How those without money are exposed to danger. How science cannot stand against unreasoned anger.

We already watch old movies, or at least I do, and think, “they’re not wearing masks”. It will still jar us later. We’ll tell our grandchildren, we learned to smile differently then. With our eyes. We waved more with our hands. We learned to speak more clearly.

The international embarrassment will take years to fade. Luckily, Americans have dealt with this before. A number of our military operations have been embarrassing, for example. But the usual admiration for our brashness and our money won’t hold up as well this time. American brashness is killing people, a lot of people. Our money has failed to provide even a minimum number of virus testing kits for us, much less the world.

So let’s not make assumptions about the After Times yet. Let’s focus on now a bit more. What are we gaining now, and what are we losing? How can we help others? How can we support people in trouble? Shouldn’t people with a lot be providing for those with less?

This summer the best web browser ever, Cliqz, closed down. The German designers made it as a model for open source browsers that protect privacy and operate quickly. They intended European countries to adopt it with public support. But the pandemic, they said, had left no room to even talk about a browser for the people. Everyone is focusing on Covid.

Well if that’s the case, if that’s what we’re doing, perhaps we could do a better job of it. Fight the fires, but also do some introspection. And some planning. And some spending. Heal some rifts. And start getting it right. Because there really is no going back.

The Formula, or What I Learned in Mystery-Writing Class

I just completed a class in writing mysteries. I took it because I wanted a bit of training, having completed my first Victorian mystery and started a second. The first one I wrote as a “pantser”, working an hour at midnight every night, just writing. I had no idea where the story was going until I wrote it. My characters developed as I went along. This, I had learned, was wrong. Particularly with mysteries, one must plot and outline. I purchased two books on how to plot fiction, and signed up for the class.

My second mystery would not be so slipshod. I would plan it out in this class, and it would be even better than the first. Ready, steady, go!

Problem 1: the protagonist’s flaw

We were taught that all mysteries must have a protagonist who has a flaw. This flaw must block the protagonist from solving the crime right away. There should also be an antagonist whose flaw is fatal, and will be exploited by the protagonist once s/he has an epiphany and realizes their own flaw is preventing their progress.

I am a fan of Agatha Christie and Anne Perry. If you know Agatha Christie, you know Hercules Poirot and Miss Marple. I could not find a flaw in either one that was so big it carried across their stories. Certainly Poirot has peculiarities, like fastidiousness. Miss Marple is somewhat cloistered in her village. In Anne Perry’s Pitt mysteries, the Inspector is rumpled and has pockets full of stuff. These are simply traits, not deep flaws. But the instructor didn’t like Agatha Christie, saying her protagonists are too perfect.

My protagonist in the first book was an Inspector whose only flaw is a penchant for buying and reading books. In the second, my protagonist is an artist for the magazines. So I created her flaw, a difficulty with her not seeing below the surface to understand people’s duplicity. Naïvete, if you like. I didn’t really want her to have a flaw. She’s forthright and talented and smart. I kind of wanted her to solve the mystery by being forthright and talented and smart. But I’m a good student. I then made up an antagonist. I didn’t want her to be the murderer, though. But she also had to have a flaw. OK, cynicism. Or maybe pride. How do I know? I haven’t met her yet.

Problem 2: The Hook

The mystery must start with a hook, something to pull the reader in and make them want to read on. I hadn’t devised one of these. There wasn’t one in my first mystery either, which I was trying to get an agent to read. So I added one to each story: a body! in a mysterious place! what could it mean?

Yeah, ok. But why do readers need a hook? I don’t need a hook. Just give me an interesting character and/or setting in Chapter 1. I’m in. I’ll trust the author until they prove unworthy of trust. We had been encouraged to look at examples from mysteries we love. I looked. The hooks, such as they were, were too long to qualify or not exciting. The ones I liked best start slowly, with character and setting. Ugh, I thought. If you don’t want to read my book, then don’t read it. I want to start with the Inspector coming home after a lecture. Sigh.

Problem 3: The Map

This all-important Hook is followed by Backstory and Trigger for Act I. Crisis, Struggle, and Epiphany are Act II. Plan, Climax, and Ending are Act III. We had to map those out. Before writing.

I did it.

Hook: A body is found at the Exhibition.
Backstory: Jo is an artist whose flaw is that she assumes that people are as they appear to be. Several scenes take place which establish the main characters, especially the protagonist: their goals, activities, location in the city, connections to each other.
Trigger: Jo’s best friend Bridget, a photographer’s assistant, is kidnapped.

Crisis: Jo is unsure how to find the kidnapped Bridget, police aren’t helpful, and she can’t think of what to do.
Struggle: Using deduction, Jo finds Bridget safe, but then Mr Pratchett is found dead, and Jo has to untangle the mystery with witnesses who all seem nice and personable.
Epiphany: Jo realizes she’s been naive to assume that people are, like her, what they appear to be. As with art, she needs to think in terms of creativity, imagination, and duplicity to devise a plan to find the perpetrator of both crimes.

Plan: Jo devises a plan that involves a disguise, to pretend to be in the market for a forged painting.
Climax: She discovers that Cecil is the forger, and that his father is the killer.
Ending: James Robson is arrested for the murder and kidnapping.

In the first book, my backstory was the entire first third of the book. Very bad, that. As I wrote out these elements, my phrases got shorter and shorter. I had no place to put Rossetti, and I wanted Rossetti. Why hadn’t he showed up? I started to realize I’d stopped actually writing in my midnight sessions. Instead I was plotting. I thought it would be like non-fiction, that I’d have a great outline I just had to fill in. Yet I didn’t feel like I was accomplishing anything.

Problem 4: The Scenes

Then we worked on scene structure. Another formula: Goal, Conflict, Disaster, followed by Emotion, Thought, Decision, Action.

I like my scenes. They wrap. They have a beginning, middle, and end. They either move the plot (events) or the story (character) along. I didn’t want to do Goal, Conflict, Disaster, followed by Emotion, Thought, Decision, Action.

I had just written a scene. If all scenes are like this, as I was taught, I should be able to take any scene from my book, and if I was doing it right, it would work. I broke down the scene to show these elements. It didn’t work because it had two points of view.

Problem 5: Points of View

Apparently, most mysteries should be in the first person. I didn’t want mine in the first person. Pros and cons were presented for each point of view.

Third person has both limited and omniscient. This was helpful. Omniscient you don’t use much because that would tell the reader everything as it happens, which you never do in a mystery. So I chose limited. But my scene had two characters walking together, and I showed what each of them was thinking. Not ok. Too confusing; it should be one point of view per scene. So I showed the scene to a couple of friends. Not confusing at all, they said. It’s kind of cute to know that both characters secretly like each other.

But at least I know I’m writing in first person limited. Next step would be to plan out which characters would have their thoughts revealed, and which didn’t. Sounds like a lot of work.


As the course went on, I lost interest in writing my story. I felt like I already knew the ending, like I peeked at the last page, so why bother? The characters weren’t developed as I went, so I didn’t even know them, and here I was at the end, knowing whodunnit. The topic of forgery got stuck on like a plaster rather then evolving organically within the plot. I didn’t even want to read this, much less write it.

This is not to say that the class was bad. It was great. Beautifully organized, very clear, the instructor always on hand to answer questions. He was very helpful and funny and wise. And I’d read some of his work before I signed up, and he’s a good writer.

But before this class, I wrote in the dark, with no outline, looking up research as I went. It was always exciting. I never knew exactly what was going to happen. My characters did all the work, and even though I was writing I was also just watching as they did their thing. And you know, I’m not writing to feed my family. I don’t need to pump out six formulaic best-sellers a year. I’m writing for the joy of writing, the thrill of historical discovery, the transportation away from our current “challenging times”.

That’s it then. I’ve put the books on plotting in the garage and bought one on being a brilliant pantser. I am going to embrace this rather than trying to change it.

That decided, it’s hard to put aside the plot I already developed. Maybe it’s just one possible way the story could go?

So late last night, Bridget was locked in the dark-room by an unseen intruder, rather than kidnapped. She was only trapped for one day, because she was missed at dinner and Jo went to find her and rescued her. She’d had to pee in the developing pan. I had no idea that would happen. . .





A story published

I’ve had my first short story published, in The Secret Attic. Entries were competitive, so it’s real, but I’ve had to pay £7.99 plus shipping to America to see it in print. They didn’t tell me my story got in — I had to return to the website to see if I won the contest or got published or neither. An interesting process, publishing, but I’m grateful for the opportunity.

I read the submission rules, and copyright is mine with right to publish elsewhere. No one else will publish it, of course, but it does mean I can publish it here. Enjoy.

The Online Death of Gerald Thorne
by Lisa M. Lane

Practical and equity-minded class changes

As I finish preparing my classes for Fall in a time of plague and social distress, I’m making several changes with contemporary practical/pedagogical issues and equity issues in mind.

Make textbook reading optional

My textbooks were already free and included as part of the class, and were well-balanced in terms of coverage of events and social groups. Most I edited myself, and they took a lot of time and thought.

Practical/pedagogical: They don’t have time to read everything, and reading blocks of text on a phone is wearying. This stuff simply won’t be remembered. I want to focus on process and skills instead, doing things rather than reading. I made textbook reading optional during the summer, and had several students contact me about items in the textbook anyway.

Equity-minded: Even the textbooks I edited myself are still “traditional”, focusing on facts and tending to ignore the thinking shaped by the last ten years of scholarship, particularly on race and gender issues. Textbooks themselves are increasingly seen as tools of the elite, creating a narrative that keeps social hierarchies intact. The diverse voices of the past are more significant than the interpretation of those voices in a secondary text, particularly since my lectures already contain a secondary synthesis.

Eliminate content quizzes

I have set up the quizzes to be as fair as possible, with no time limit. All are open textbook (see above) and have been rigorously tested by students in other classes. They are multiple-choice and score immediately, providing instant feedback. They took much time to create.

Practical/pedagogical: Since the first part of each week already features lecture, and the whole week may be needed for annotating primary documents, the quiz is shoved to the end of the week. That’s too much to do in a time of plague, and it divides the mental tasks too much. If the textbook is optional, such quizzes are unnecessary.

Equity-minded: Quizzes are intimidating, and present themselves as being objective when they really aren’t. Such assessment tools have built-in barriers. These are technological (it’s not easy to take a Canvas quiz on your phone), emotional (quizzes cause stress even when you have multiple tries), and cultural (they privilege those individuals trained to answer factual questions quickly and confidently). Like textbooks, “objective” tests in general are viewed as enforcing social hierarchies. Instead, I have students turning in lecture notes, annotating primary sources, and writing on their own subjects, all of which can be informed by what they bring to the class from their own experience.

Beef up Learning Units

There are five Learning Units: two about primary sources, and one each for the three Writing Assignments. They are designed to teach students the skills before they engage the practice. Each features a written and illustrated lesson, followed by a quiz that has drop-down and matching choices.

Practical/pedagogical: I had a comment on a summer evaluation that Learning Units should be longer and more detailed. Students realize these are helpful to doing well on assignments, but need more.

Equity-minded: Not everyone comes to college prepared to do college-level work, and preparatory low-stakes exercises help such students gain confidence as they earn points for learning the ropes. But more hands-on help may be needed. Even though my classes are asynchronous, I am considering Zoom sessions that would take students not only through the unit but through the quiz together.

Emphasize annotating primary sources

My primary sources are carefully selected — I once had a student call them an “activist workbook”. They are a mix of political documents, cultural expressions, and on-the-spot journalism. We annotate using Perusall.

Practical/pedagogical: Reading things written long ago takes more time and energy, as does interacting with ones colleagues. Annotating primary documents combines social interaction and helping each other with deep reading of the sources. In a time of plague, I want students to focus their attention on fewer items, and those items must be significant.

Equity-minded: The primary documents I have students annotate are the voices of the actual people who experienced their time, and their voices are diverse. If we want students to “see themselves” in their work, they need to hear from history’s people.

Remind about individualization

In all my classes, students find and post visual primary sources for the era being studied. Then all writing assignments are based on the collections of sources all students have created. I tell them they can follow their own interests, posting sources that fit their topic and writing all three assignments, each building on the last, about their topic. They don’t have to do this if they wish to just put together papers using available sources, but they can.

Practical/pedagogical: I want to continue to offer a choice, but some students simply do not believe that they can follow their own interests, and assume I secretly want papers on “The Impact of Andrew Jackson on the Cherokee” or “Should We Have Dropped the Bomb”. I don’t. I want original theses the students create themselves. It makes plagiarism a non-issue and creates papers that are so much more interesting to read. Since some students don’t figure out that they can do this until the last assignment, I want to remind, remind, remind. With examples.

Equity-minded: Some of the very best papers I have read resulted from a student following her own complaint or perspective about society’s ills. Supporting ones own view, informed by ones own circumstances, with historical evidence makes for much stronger arguments against racism, oppression, classicism, sexism, etc. Intellectually and methodologically solid argumentation is a major tool in the fight for social change.

There are other issues to address, of course, that may not be seen as either pedagogical or related to equity in the current sense. Most of those will be in the practice of teaching: kindness as a default, for example. And I went at this backwards. I’ve attended numerous workshops and read many blog posts and articles on equity-minded practice, but it seemed like I was already doing everything I could while being true to my own belief in equality of opportunity. I change some of what I do every semester. But it only occurred to me as I was making these changes I innately felt were necessary why I was making them. Perhaps others will go about this in a more forthright way, but I think the result will be helpful to students on a number of levels.

Just Be Kind

I’ve been attending the Humanizing Challenge offered by Michelle Pacansky-Brock at @ONE here in California. For years, Michelle has been encouraging faculty to put themselves into their courses, continuing a tradition begun by Pat James.

The tone has shifted to humanizing online instruction through equity and empathy. Unlike many programs using the word “equity”, here it is in its fullest sense of caring for everyone and treating differences with understanding. During the pandemic, I have tried hard to push back against approaches that simply ignore the situation. It is deeply unfair and inhumane to continue as if nothing is happening.

The response of some professors, unfortunately, has been to double-down on enforcing their own rules and regulations. Psychologically, this provides a feeling of control. New instructors do this a lot. I recall when I was a new professor being very concerned that I have authority in the classroom. I was 25 and anxious that students wouldn’t respect me or do what I needed them to do. When they didn’t come on time, I locked the door.

Over the first year or two I relaxed, established the minimal authority necessary for classroom functioning in my tone and personality. I changed, students changed. I put more responsibility for learning on them, and removed elements that caused me the stress of adjudication and enforcement.

The many profs new to teaching online are reacting like I did when I was 25. They have been thrown into an environment they cannot control, and they are as frightened as I was. Training has not been helpful, emphasizing regulations and technology: FERPA, how to upload things into the LMS, how to use Zoom. “We are here 24/7 to help you” does nothing when you don’t know what to ask. It’s as useless as “Hope you are doing well in this challenging time.”

The approach of the Humanizing Challenge reverses this to acknowledge the affective domain of teaching online, to put kindness toward ourselves and our students at the top of the agenda, not an afterthought at the bottom. Because basically it all comes down to Just Be Kind.

We should always have been kind. Students have always faced challenges, not just of the financial kind. They have always had a husband dying of leukemia in the next room, a severely autistic child, an environment too dangerous to learn in. They have had these individually, and we should never have responded with “it’s due Sunday or else”.

Yes, there will be a conflict between academic standards and kindness. The Humanizing Challenge has focused on empathy and teaching from a place of love, and asks faculty to reveal their vulnerability. I have seen this go too far (I know a faculty member who teaches drunk, and one who overshares about her life, burdening the students). While I do not agree with the current article in the Chronicle of Higher Education (they say a Zoom background is necessary to be professional), we do need to be models of how to handle adversity while learning.

I recall 1991, when I was teaching during the Kuwait war. My classroom filled with military wives who desperately needed to be somewhere at a particular time. I was teaching US History, but the subject didn’t matter. They told me they needed the class time to focus on something else, to not think about their husbands deployed overseas. When I missed a day, they were distressed because that day they had nowhere to be. It is our job to provide stability in a crisis, a chance to focus on something else.

But while being professional, there are so many ways to be kind. Deadlines are the perfect example. Why are your deadlines important? Mind are important for establishing rhythm. I have lots of small-stakes assignments. A student who misses a deadline knows they’re off the rhythm. If I individually say it’s ok, let’s try to get this in a few days late, no penalty, it’s just basic kindness. It doesn’t mess up my life to the extent it’s worth harming theirs. For first responders, students working in health care or working extra shifts, deadlines are removed as soon as they contact me.  The only real deadline is the end of the class. Will they get as good an education doing things late? My answer used to be equivocal. Now its “We’re in a plague, people!”

It’s taken a pandemic for more people to realize the extent of human suffering. You don’t lock the door — you open it wider. It’s a shame that it takes a program like the Humanizing Challenge to give such a basic message: Just Be Kind. But with hundreds of faculty attending the sessions, I’m very glad it’s there.