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.

Notes on Publishing

Today was Day 4 of the San Diego Writers Conference, but instead of detailing the sessions, I will instead relay what I learned about publishing. (Warning: if you are considering publishing your well-written but ordinary novel, you may find this depressing.)

As I understand it, there are three tiers of publishing: Traditional, Hybrid, and Self (or Indie).

Traditional means one must get an agent, who peddles your book to a major publisher, costing the agent’s commission on each sale of your book. Finding an agent is an entire industry in itself — instead of agents seeking writers, writers these days seek agents, begging them to read even a query letter much less an entire manuscript. Advisors make money helping people write good query letters to try to grab an agent’s attention. It seems backward to me. The agent’s commission (usually 15-20%) comes from the author’s work, but the author needs the agent to get the attention of a publisher. Many publishers won’t accept “unagented” submissions.

Hybrid publishing means one submits to a company that might help prepare the work a bit, but their main role is to professionally publish and distribute it. I learned about author-led (the writer controls the cover design, for example) and publisher-led (the company takes care of everything) models. I learned that these companies charge about $6500-7500 per book for their services. I have a friend who went this route. She’s happy with her decision, and I hope she’s sold at least $7500 worth of books. I can’t even conceive of doing that.

Another speaker said that really, you should be ready to spend $20,000 to publish a book, what with editing and production costs. But if I had $20,000, I would go back and get my PhD, not spend it on someone publishing my book. (I found it interesting that my automatic translation of cost was how much education it would get me.)

The third tier used to be called self-publishing, but is now called “indie” (independent) publishing because no one really does it by him/herself, I was told. It was pointed out that one still would pay for beta readers, editing services, design help for pages and cover, etc. So these are all professional services that cost money. But, of course, one doesn’t have to use them. You can just throw crap up on Amazon and see if anyone buys it.

This was all very disheartening. I did manage to obtain a pitch session with an agent (7 minutes, and I had to grab the slot right when the window opened a week ago — they filled all slots in the first 13 minutes). She was interested and asked me to send a query and two chapters, which I have. We’ll see what happens.

But I realized that the middle fell out of my plans. I had thought I’d try awhile to get an agent, if I could do so without spending money. But it was advised in many places to join sites like Publishers Marketplace ($25/month) to find an agent. I even found writing groups that cost money to join. There are also entire (paid) courses one can take, at varying prices, to learn the tricks. My thought was if no agent were interested, I could do hybrid publishing, then if that didn’t work, self-publish. But clearly hybrid publishing is beyond my reach financially.

Luckily I have two or three wonderful friends who read my work, give me feedback, and have even done editing. So it may be better to consider submitting directly to small presses as the middle option. I have done so to one press, but never heard back. (At the conference one speaker noted that not all agents or publishers write you back, or even acknowledge your submission. Or they have form letters of rejection. I’ve gotten a few of those already from agents for my first novel, so instead I’ve been shopping for an agent for the second.)

The plague was not a factor when I began writing fiction, but it is now. Everyone who isn’t baking bread (and some who are) is writing their first novel. And publishers are under pressure to sign “diverse” authors (I was at one time considered diverse, but am not now with current trends). My timing is unfortunate. And, speaking of timing, a traditional publishing timeline can be anywhere from a year to five years. Not great for those of us autumn chickens.

So I’ve learned that the path from writer to author is quite expensive. Perhaps this will be a dream deferred (and we know what happens to those), or perhaps it will work out somehow. But it’s an enormous distraction from writing. I can’t imagine how Hemingway managed it.

Well, yes, I can. But I have no idea how to roast a pigeon.



Tearing down the past

History as a discipline is always subject to revision. In fact, historians have a name for history as it changes over time: historiography.

Let’s say a historian writes about the American founders during an era of oligarchy and great concentration of wealth, and his interpretation focuses on how the founders were all wealthy. That’s not a coincidence. Another writing at the end of second-wave feminism crafts a history of women in colonial New England. Also not a coincidence. History is a living discipline. It changes according to the needs of the time.

So now anti-racists are tearing down statues, and others are saying that’s tearing down history. I’ve already chimed in on taking down the statues of people who did both good and ill during their life. But doing so isn’t “tearing down history”. The removal of a monument is part of history, just as commissioning and building it was. The needs of society change.

The question is why, and to what end, destruction is necessary. There seems to be a huge amount of righteous pleasure involved in tearing things down, even more so than in putting them up. And at the moment, the focus on race is leading to everyone from Woodrow Wilson to Charles Dickens being attacked. Instead of creating better models for our present and future, which takes deep thought and compromise, people really like the idea of destroying something, some hypocrisy or ideal they see violated. It’s like a sport — they’re more interested in seeing the other team lose than in seeing theirs win.

And that’s where I get concerned, when the destructive tendency seems to cause more enthusiasm than the desire to build something better. Instead of creating poetry, songs, monuments, novels that reflect a new sensibility, it seems more satisfying to not only tear down the previous models, but to consider them inappropriate enough that they should be banned.

And when we start banning things, we’d better be careful. Not only will we lose Thomas Jefferson, who promulgated many of the energetic freedoms being used to react against previous wrongs, but we could lose our moorings. We could detach from our cultural foundation and start burning books. Doing it in the name of freedom will be the ultimate Orwellian irony.

So I’m cheering a little more quietly than some as the statues come down and names are changed, even while I applaud the names put in their place. I suspect it’s an easier way out than actually building a better world.

Notes on writing: San Diego Writers’ Festival

I recently enjoyed Day 2 of the San Diego Writers’ Festival. I have never attended a writing conference of any kind before, and it was interesting to do so when it’s on Facebook rather than in person. I live and work quite a ways north of the city, so I’ve never really connected with anyone there although I’m in the same county.

Although I’ve recently completed writing my second novel, and have spent years writing articles and lectures, I still have some reluctance considering myself a writer. This is despite the fact that I do it all the time, and am now just doing it for fiction. So I was there strictly to learn. I’m recording here the best parts, just as I do when I go to a history conference.

Writing the Page Turning Novel

This was a panel moderated by Rich Farrell, and including Tammy Greenwood, Neal Griffin, Joe Ide, and R.D. Kardon. They’re all novelists and at least two teach writing. Good writing, they said, has to come from something that haunts you, something that just won’t leave you alone, the “hot embers”. The story is sustained by the characters and the world that you build for them.

In each session there would be one writer who definitely spoke to my methods of working. For this one, it was Tammy Greenwood. The start of each chapter should be like the start of a book, for one thing. But it isn’t necessary for the writer to know everything, or to even have an outline. In fact, if you know too much, then the writing is just reverse engineering. This viewpoint made me feel a lot better, since on both books I have been a “pantser”, writing by the seat of my pants (although the conference speakers also used the term “Blank Page writer”). It’s authentic to just write, and to be surprised by what we write — it gives us a reason to keep writing.

Another useful point was that writing a book was about writing, not publishing. The only important thing, said Joe Ide, is to write a good book. And the advice from several was to just keep writing — don’t stop.

Interactive Workshop: John Vorhaus

This speaker was a revelation, with a presentation on what I can only call Writer Psychology. It was the sort of session where everyone taps their feet and comes out dancing.

Vorhaus gave four aspects of writing, but really they could be for anything:

  • Passion: what you love
  • Purpose: the reason you do what you do
  • Path: the process of development and self awareness as you combine Passion and Purpose
  • Practice: what you do, using your capability and skills

If you’re doing what you love, and you’re doing it for a purpose, then the path you’re on is right and being in your practice is all you have to do.

He had each of the attendees list several passions, so we didn’t get hung up on the idea there had to be just one. Then we listed several purposes, then determined where our passions and purposes intersect.

He also talked about fear, the fear of failure, and said it comes from having expectations that are too high. High expectations leads to stress and thus poorer performance. Lower expectations leads to less angst and therefore better performance. One is not afraid to fail, because being in your practice is what you’re supposed to be doing; indeed, it is all you need to do. Forget about the outcomes. Growth comes from continual practice and reflection.

People asked, but how do I know if my work is good? When you decide it’s good, set it aside and move on, and begin to trust that you know when it’s good. Someone asked if rewards were a good idea (like I write 10 pages and I get a cup of coffee), and Vorhaus pointed out that if you’re combining your passion and purpose, rewards are unnecessary. You only need a reward for doing something you don’t like doing. You want a reward if the creative act is painful, and it’s only painful if you’re afraid of failing.

Feeling like you’re not worthy is for those dependent on external validation. None of us are really worthy, but we’ve been given gifts and purpose, and we’re using them. Needing others to tell you that you’re doing it well is a trap.

The last thing he said that I really liked was that you should find a level of success you’re comfortable with. That took the pressure off me to get on the best-seller list or try to become famous. Those goals fit neither my passion nor my purpose.

Unwinding the Mystery of Writing Mysteries

Since I’m starting my second mystery, this was the session I really wanted to learn from, and I wasn’t disappointed. Moderated by Matt Coyle, the panel included Lisa Brackman, Kathy Krevat, David Putnam, and Carl Vonderau. Several write crime novels, and Krevat writes cozies. Each had a completely different approach to writing.

The necessary ingredients for a good mystery included interesting characters, something to hold attention, a story that makes sense. Each character has to want something, and the protagonist must be motivated by something in order the justify the book itself (one example here was Jessica Fletcher in Murder, She Wrote, who is always motivated by a member of her family being in trouble).

Each author had patterns they liked. Putnam uses conflict-complication-crisis-conclusion, and said his writing improved when he made the conflict more brief. Krevat said the hero, villian, and victim always create a triangle. Vondereau focuses on the premise, then characters and their family. Each also shared their stories of how long it took them to get published, and for most it was many books and many years. But there was also serendipity. Vondereau shared how he had just learned at a conference how to create an “elevator pitch” for his book, and at the same conference was asked by an agent, delivered his pitch, and got the agent. I’ll work on my pitch!

I asked about reintroducing characters in a sequel, since that’s what I’m working on, and was advised to do it briefly, in a sentence or two rather than an information dump. Considering each book as stand-alone meant treating the reintroduction like the introduction of any other character.

Another question was about clues, how to seed them without ruining the big reveal. The suggestions were wonderfully specific. Have something exciting or funny happen right after you reveal a clue, as a distraction. Put the clue in a list of things that aren’t clues. Make the clue seem to apply to just one character, when it will really apply to more. But again, there was also serendipity — several authors had the experience of not realizing they had clues in what they’d already written, and later discovered them. More support for my pantsing!

So I learned a lot, and gained confidence that my work methods are not completely bizarre. I’m starting a mystery writing class, because I need to learn more. But I don’t want to get too organized!

Behind the scenes?

We’re nearing the end of summer term, so I get two different kinds of emails: one asking for an extension on the final essay, and the other thanking me for the class.

I’m happy to deal with both (yes, you may have an extension — we’re in a plague, dammit). But the emails thanking me are so nice. One of my top students wrote me that even though they unfortunately could not see or meet me, she always knew I was behind the scenes, helping them through it.

Gratifying, certainly. I love that they know I’m there for them. On my student survey, I have a question on the Lickert scale: “I felt that Lisa was really present and visible during this class.” I get extremely high marks on this, which makes me proud. But last spring, they were a little lower. And now, a student feels I was “behind the scenes”.

                                  CC Flickr Osman Kalkavan

I used to work in theatre. A lot. I was a lighting designer, sound board operator, props person, stage manager, and I even directed once. I know “behind the scenes”.

But my online class? I have all of these roles, plus I am the actor on the stage. My lectures are written out, and they are original. They can click a button and hear me reading them. I have video recordings of me talking to them for each unit. The whole production is mine. I’ve even put together the textbook. I am the show. I’m not just behind the scenes.

So why do they think so? Because I’m not doing synchronous. I’m not using Zoom.

Thank you, pandemic, for making people think that the only way to teach, the only way to get to know your professor, is live on camera. It isn’t. Asynchronous education is brilliant. It allows people to learn when they can, from anywhere. For the past 20 years of asynchronous teaching, I’ve developed solid relationships and firm friendships, students who write from wherever they are to keep in touch years later. None of them have ever said it was unfortunate we never “met”, because we meet all the time.

But within the span of a few short months, even students who don’t want to be on camera think that’s how it’s supposed to be. Administrators have cleverly figured out that this is the way to make sure faculty are doing the work. They have always suspected that, even though studies show that teaching online takes more hours than classroom teaching, we’re all here shirking in our summer shorts. Now they can track camera time.

As videoconferencing company shares go through the roof, I’m here to tell you: it’s only one method. It can be used effectively, for getting a group or class together to do something meaningful that requires being together. It can be used badly, for watching students take an exam or for enforcing attendance.

And you’d think the plague would have demonstrated the limitations of synchronous learning. I don’t just mean the frozen frames students have on Zoom so they can do something else. I mean the students who are first responders, whose parents are dying in hospitals while they sit and cry in their car in the parking lot, the ones doing double shifts at the food bank. They want to go to school, and they can’t be online every Tuesday and Thursday from 10-11:50 am. That was the whole idea of online education in the first place: to accommodate those who couldn’t do the butts-in-seats thing.

So I’m thrilled the student knew I was there. I really am. I have spent many hours this summer conversing with individual students through messages and emails, often responding minutes after they write me. It’s real. It is the scene, not just behind the scenes.


The Awakening What?

In doing some research for a possible next mystery novel, I am looking into the Pre-Raphaelites, one of the few sets of people that still has the power to surprise me. I came upon this article: Edouard Rod, “The English Pre-Raphaelites“, The Connoisseur (June 1888).

It references several paintings I have seen. In discussing Holman Hunt’s Christianity, Rod mentions his painting, The Awakening Conscience (1853). He notes:

According to the explanatory catalogue, “The Awakening of Conscience” represents a young woman led into evil by a shallow and frivolous man, and installed by him in a little English cottage; her conscience is awakened by the refrain of an old song, “Oft in the Stilly Night,” played by her lover upon the piano, and which recalls to her the time before her fall. If you look at the picture without reference to the catalogue, and endeavor to seize the moral, you will notice that painful thought is indicated by the tension of the features; the young woman is depicted as leaning back in a hopeless attitude against the easy-chair in which she is seated; you will also infer from the indifferent and smiling air of the man, whose fingers are wandering over the keys, that her disturbed feeling is not produced by the simple music; you will still further see that the man is thoroughly commonplace, while the woman is of finer fibre, but nothing more.

That’s funny, I didn’t remember her being seated, but rather him being seated and her rising. And when I saw it in person I questioned the whole idea of her entering some stage of repentance anyway. So I thought I’d have another look:

OK, so maybe he had been playing the piano, but he certainly isn’t now, and she is not lounging hopelessly in the easy chair — he is, like I remembered, and she seems to be rising from sitting on his lap. And is that a cottage? It looks like an urban flat to me, but what do I know? Anyway, his fingers are not wandering over the keys, but resting on them.

Sometimes, this sort of incongruity happens because there were different versions of the painting. But I looked and there doesn’t seem to be another one. Had Rod really not seen the work? Or did he see a different scene than was painted? The rest of the article was good, but marred for me by this inaccuracy.

One does hope, of course, that one can at least trust the facts in a secondary source, if not the interpretation. If I lived in pre-internet times, I wouldn’t have been able to look and check the work itself without going to a library. But here I go blithely sending students to J-STOR, telling them to do their research. Better check our facts, even in 1888.

On Victorian female painters

I have been notoriously lax in my advancement of the feminist cause. I just assume that women were far more active historically than they have been portrayed. Those who control the media control the message. But at the same time I do notice when women have important public roles to play, and in writing fiction I have made sure that my Victorian females have a great deal of agency.

That’s not wishful thinking. It’s simply that the ordinary academic practice of history tends to believe its sources, without looking at all of them. That’s human. So I just want to say up front, it takes quite a bit to get my feminist hackles up. I’m a humanist.

But as I look into the Pre-Raphaelites, I have found myself getting annoyed with the focus on the men. Rossetti, Burne-Jones, Millais — there are women who took their names, but they are seen as muses alone. No one says “Rossetti” and means Christina, Dante Gabriel’s highly published and respected poet sister. No one says Millais and means Lady Millais, or “Burne-Jones” and means Georgina, an accomplished artist, or “Morris” and means Jane, a talented embroiderer. Why, when most of them published or exhibited their own work? I’m not even sure the men themselves saw them as sidelines — there is much evidence of respect and collaboration. And yet in most of the books, the men’s work is emphasized, and the women’s downgraded. Most of the explorations of the women’s work are recent, like Jan Marsh’s Pre-Raphaelite Sisters, or the National Portrait Gallery exhibit.

For inspiration and pandemic-driven amusement, I’ve been looking at the portrayal of the Pre-Raphaelites in cinema and television, so I’m watching Desperate Romantics. It was made in 2009, not exactly a bad time for feminism. But even there, little mention is made of anything the women themselves created or exhibited. I realize it’s set early (1850s), but the writer didn’t even imbue them with any ambition.

Jane Morris embroidery

by Georgiana Burne-Jones

Clerk Saunders, by Elizabeth Siddall

I thought perhaps I’d look into their lives a bit, see whether they would make good characters in my book, or whether the tale I’ll tell could be through their eyes, instead of the men’s. I don’t know much about the art history of this period, so I’m investigating. My book is set in 1863, so I thought I’d see what the Royal Academy of Arts was doing then. I found The Royal Summer Exhibition: A Chronicle, a great resource that for 1863 discussed several of the key works including Millais, comparing his dark work in The Eve of St Anges to the lightness of a painting by Edward Matthew Ward. And then I saw in the Context section:

For some critics, Henrietta Ward’s picture of Mary Queen of Scots surpassed her husband’s efforts, and the Mutrie sisters were described as “still supreme among flower-painters”.

Who’s Henrietta Ward? I tried to search her by name and “Mary Queen of Scots”. I found an engraving from the Illustrated London News of it, but not the painting. So then I found the Royal Academy of Arts catalogue for that exhibition on HathiTrust. I wondered whether she’d be listed like the male painters, as “H. Ward”. I found the work, and her name as “Mrs. E. M. Ward”, and she had half a dozen works in the exhibition. I looked her up at the NPG, but there’s not a lot there. I found a review in the Athaeneum, which said:

They used “Mrs.” but referred to the artist as a male. How strange.

I thought I’d pick at random another female, since they are so clever indicated with “Miss” and “Mrs.” Item 571, Always welcome, by Mrs. J. F. Pasmore. Started searching on Google. “Mrs. J. F. Passmore painting 1863”. Very frustrating. I had spelled the name wrong. Then I stumbled on this at an antiques dealer site:

And here’s the description:

Middle initial and last name spelling confusion aside, she “also exhibited paintings”? Hers is in the Royal Academy exhibition, but I can’t find a copy of Always welcome online (there are plenty of paintings around by John F., mostly for sale). And this website attributes the above painting to him anyway, not her. So now I don’t know what to think. Maybe this is just a picture of her.

I don’t like to class everyone together: all women, all men. Some women had extraordinary power, both in the home and out of it. Others were taken advantage of. This sort of problem makes one wonder whether it’s the sources or the perception. Looking at the sources, I find more and more evidence of women’s agency. But finding those sources seems inordinately difficult.



Research and wombats

Occasionally I write a post about some research I’m doing, to document or demonstrate the historical process. Or just to express the madness of historical research. Probably the latter, in this case.

Today I am working on my second mystery novel, and if you know me it won’t surprise you that I became enamored of finding One Particular Thing. In this case, it was the exact date in 1863 on which newly acquired wombats were available to view at the Regent’s Park Zoo in London.

The idea began with an article from Public Domain Review, detailing Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s wombat fascination. I was wondering whether I could have a scene where Rossetti drags his PræRaphaelite friends to the zoo to see the wombats and, if so, when that would be. According to the article:

In this period a number of new wombats arrived at the Regent’s Park Zoo: a rare, hairy-nosed wombat on July 24, 1862, and two common wombats despatched from the Melbourne Zoo on March 18, 1863.

The novel will be set in 1863, so I was interested in the two common wombats. Well, “despatched from” does not mean “arrived at”. So I wanted to find out when they arrived.

drawn at the zoo by Christina Rossetti

Now here’s where search terms become terribly important, and the lack of creativity in this regard most obvious. I used “regents park zoo wombats 1863”.

Since the Public Domain Review is, naturally, in the public domain, I mostly found the exact same phrase above on a bunch of web pages. So I tried searching for a book about the history of the London Zoo, both on Google Books and Amazon. I did find a book, for $25 with no preview. No can do, and no way to go to a library.

I began searching for records. Surely the Zoo has records. Eventually I found the Proceedings of the Zoological Society at Google Books, but of course they had every possible year but 1863. When this happens, I go immediately to HathiTrust.

And there I found it, after the usual search involving several identical options that actually aren’t identical records, the Proceedings for 1863, searching the word “wombat”.


March 18, 1863. So it turns out the article in the Public Domain Review (and all the items that plagiarized it) is wrong. The wombats weren’t despatched then; they arrived. And there were three wombats, one Common, one Hairy-nosed, and one Black. Another Common wombat did arrive, but on June 6. I also looked up the Acclimatization Society. Apparently they’re the ones responsible for introducing plagues of rabbits into Australia, and pesky sparrows that ate the fruit crop. Their work would eventually found the Melbourne Zoo, but it didn’t exist in 1863, so that’s wrong too.

So as yet I have no plot, no outline, and no idea where my story is going. I do, however, have wombats.


Modified Ungrading

I have written a lot on this blog about grading, about my longing for “ungrading”, my qualms about heading that direction, and the things I’ve decided to do instead. This is a more specific post about the latter, and my gradual shift in emphasis I’m calling “Modified Ungrading”.

We know the arguments against A-F grades. They encourage a focus on marks rather than learning, and they can be discouraging. We know there are also arguments in favor. They rank performance against a standard, they inform the student of their level of success, and they mark improvement. (Many years ago I heard a speaker say he did not want to drive across a bridge built by someone who got a C in engineering, or be operating on by someone who got Cs in medical school. I get that.)

This is an area where faculty workload and student desires can profitably intersect. Most of us teach large groups of students, and at community college we do it without teaching assistants. The big argument in favor of ungrading is that students benefit more from individualized feedback than from grades. But in this environment, tutorial-style feedback and individualized learning isn’t possible. Auto-grading, with current technology, is possible, and helps fill the gap between grading and ungrading.

In most learning management systems, when a student submits something, a certain number of points can be automatically assigned. The arguments for and against doing this are the same as those for grading in general. But in addition, auto-grading provides immediate marking and a sense of completion, two factors which are often ignored in discussions of grades vs feedback.

So far, I’ve implemented auto-grading for two types of assignments, both of which are submitted only to me: lecture notes, and document paragraphs. What this enables me to do is have 2 points automatically assigned, then go back and look at the work itself. Sure, I could assign the points when I look, but auto-grading instead changes things, for me and for the students.

For the students, they get their two points immediately, so it’s confirming they did it. For me, I then have ample time to go back and peruse their work. And with the points already given, I can pay more attention to my Assignment Comments (feedback). The tendency is to talk to them first, then think about the grade, instead of the reverse.

I’ve had to change the grade sometimes, but I’ve had the chance to explain individually before doing that, and to give an opportunity for corrections.

This shift to Modified Ungrading may seem ridiculously subtle, but it’s quite real. Mentally I can shift from “processing” the work of 40 students per section, to responding to it personally.

In fall, I intend to apply this to discussion forums, which we use for posting primary sources. Ultimately, I would like everything auto-scored except writing assignments, on which I can spend more individual time.

This way, I can focus my work more on communication than grading. And when students see their points immediately, and rarely changed, I’m hoping they will do the same.

We who work among the (long) dead

Historians, when you meet them, often have an other-wordly air about them. They’re not much fun at parties, as they appear to be thinking about things other than what they’re doing. Few move through the world with grace. There are exceptions, of course. But friendships are made now in the awareness that most of the interesting people have already passed through.

Historians live among the dead. Not just the personal dead that everyone lives among, but a much larger community. There are, as I’ve said before, networks of dead people. All of us are inheritors of the knowledge of the past. Its errors and victories are ours. So many different narratives of the past, and so much historical evidence, is now so easily available to us. The historian’s confusion is in wondering why everyone doesn’t realize this, why people do not bother to access the wisdom that is already there.

I discovered a wonderful poem recently, one I can’t believe I didn’t know, by Romantic poet Robert Southey.

My days among the Dead are past;
    Around me I behold,
Where’er these casual eyes are cast,
    The mighty minds of old;
My never-failing friends are they,
With whom I converse day by day.
With them I take delight in weal,
    And seek relief in woe;
And while I understand and feel
    How much to them I owe,
My cheeks have often been bedew’d
With tears of thoughtful gratitude.
My thoughts are with the Dead, with them
    I live in long-past years,
Their virtues love, their faults condemn,
    Partake their hopes and fears,
And from their lessons seek and find
Instruction with an humble mind.
My hopes are with the Dead, anon
    My place with them will be,
And I with them shall travel on
    Through all Futurity;
Yet leaving here a name, I trust,
That will not perish in the dust.

I was recently turned down, for the third time, for a grant by the National Endowment of the Humanities. I am still working unfunded on my very large research project on the young H. G. Wells. None of the three reviewers liked my proposal for editing and reprinting his early works on science education. The publisher who had initially indicated interest in the book has also declined for now.

Rejection hurts, of course, but what grieves me is that one of the NEH reviewers said my work was “antiquarian”. Antiquarians are lay people fascinated with something particular in the past. They are not trained historians. (Despite lacking the laurel of a PhD, I am a trained historian. My MA included a dissertation-length thesis under supervision, and took three years.)

Ettore Forti (b. 1893), The Antiquarian

Antiquarians do not live among the dead — they scour the past like an antique shop for the things that interest them. They may select one “friend” from history, but do not see the larger scope of humanity embedded within it. They eschew frameworks of understanding, and focus on the material. Historians study the networks.

In times of strife, it’s the historians who know we’ve been here before. Sometimes the journalists ask them about it. Looking for that second spike? It’s in the 1918-19 flu epidemic, in the fall. Wondering how people can march in the streets when there’s a pandemic going on? Ask the suffragettes in that same flu epidemic, the soldiers in the Anglo-Dutch war that took place during the 1666 plague in London, or the merchant families fighting each other in the street (and the promulgators of the Hundred Years War) during the 1347-48 Black Death. War, protest, tyranny — these flourish in times of confusion and disaster.

All these dead people provide perspective. Indeed, it becomes their purpose, the reason we seek them. So let’s be sure to listen, even if our own names will perish in the dust.