The other time machine

On my travel iBook I have a sticker of a TARDIS, because my computer is a time machine (it’s also bigger on the inside than the outside).

I’ve been doing more reading in the book Culture and Education (1990), and found a paper that explored the topic of student tutors in the 19th century, and their similarity to student assistants in modern American graduate schools. I was delighted, since my own work is somewhat similar in methodology and theme.

It was written by a Myron Tuman. Since I don’t find many scholars to talk with about my work, I thought I’d look him up on the web. What happened was a time machine journey. took me to his work going back to at least 1988, although it didn’t list this article I’d been reading. I discovered he had published also about online and computer issues as we both entered the increasingly online world of education. I tried to find him at the University of Alabama website, but he isn’t listed now.

I found him at RateMyProfessors, where some students laid into him back in 2006. Last month the Tuscaloosa News published a retrospective that mentioned him earning an Outstanding Professor award 25 years ago (that would be about the same time I was awarded mine). I found him on Facebook, where he posted up to the end of last year, mostly family stuff. And finally, Constant Contact took me to his retirement party (looks like about two years ago), with photos of Myron enjoying the celebration.

In other words, I went through someone’s whole career in 15 minutes, a career that ran parallel to mine in several respects. Given the recent “radio silence”, I don’t know whether I would contact him now, but in some ways it feels like I already have. That’s disorienting, to say the least.

A Californian back east

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Too Wilde

I usually don’t do theatre reviews, but since I’m studying the Victorian era it seems appropriate to do so for a play by Oscar Wilde.

The Importance of Being Earnest, reputed to be Wilde’s funniest play and certainly his most performed, is now playing at the Vaudeville in London. Some interesting interpretive decisions have been made.

One of the main characters, Algernon, plays piano in the opening scene and gets a kiss from a character who looks like Wilde, who then dashes off-stage. No problem there. Wilde sometimes spoke at the end of his plays, and it was charming to have him appear, just for a moment. But then, throughout the first section, Algernon flirts with, touches, and shares cigarettes with his manservant, as if the two are in an intimate relationship.

I have no objection at all to gay relationships. I do object when class lines are crossed in a play which makes fun of such class distinctions, most often by having its central elitist characters make ongoing references to the unsuitability of the lower orders. It is not unlikely that Algernon would sleep with men. However, despite the fact that this sort of thing occasionally occurred, it is unlikely that he’d sleep with his own servant.

Wilde himself, of course, was the lower class participant in his love affair with Lord Alfred Douglas. I know some of Wilde’s history and sympathized with the director’s efforts to get his story and his sexuality into the play. The problem is that it isn’t there. Even though “Earnest” was his last play before he was arrested for sodomy, and Alfred’s father was angry with him, the play is devoid of anything pertaining to his personal life. It is a brutal, straightforward critique of late Victorian class and manners, not gender or sexuality.

So it was disconcerting to have Algernon pinching Jack on the behind, or everyone engaging in stolen kisses (making sure to show two female servants doing so).

Even if one could find gaity within the subtext, a director trying to demonstrate it should bring it out in the text. Instead, the actors all spoke their lines at breakneck speed — the humor was there (Wilde will out) but the lines were declared loudly. There was no slyness or subtlety to the delivery. Algernon was consistently declaratory, Jack was consistently perturbed. It reminded me of Bialystock and Bloom in The Producers, but had less warmth to the relationship.

There are sexually-tinged moments in the text. The female characters clearly have sexual desires for their “Earnest” men, and both were delightful in this regard.

I understand that we live in a time when gender and sexuality are top political and social issues, and I also understand that plays need to be updated to appeal to contemporary audiences. But with this one, the central conflict is still very much present in today’s society. People still look down on others for various reasons, and Wilde’s wit about pretentiousness still applies. There is no need for an update.

The actors did a wonderful job with the direction they’d been given. Perhaps the director could have listened more to Wilde.

The balcony at the Vaudeville is called the “Grand Circle” — it’s still way up there

(not) getting organized

In recently submitting an article for publication, and in writing my paper for presentation in October, I am reminded of the importance of organization, and the ways in which I am clumsily trying to accomplish it.

The article I submitted was missing various parts in the footnotes, as was noted by the editor. Several were lacking the volume number of the journal. I have been using Paperpile as my bibliographic program, but I knew this was not the program’s fault. Being sloppy, I had only entered the volume number for items where I had held an actual volume in my hand, issues bound together into a book. The ones obtained from Hathi and Internet Archive and elsewhere, being separate pieces, did not usually include the volume number. Luckily, these were the easy ones to find again.

Clearly, this is an organization problem. As noted when I set up my system for this project, Paperpile is extraordinarily useful for storing books and articles, and for tagging and organizing them. Of the system I originally set up, I have ditched the wiki, using Google Docs (linked to each other) instead. It is functioning, but barely. I still can’t find things or figure out exactly where/how to write. I’m not sure where it’s best to store images, nor how to retrieve them.

Mid-17th century commonplace book

It was nice to discover I am absolutely not alone, and that historians have always had issues with organizing notes and evidence. I enjoyed Keith Thomas’ diary from 2010, which points out several methods that have been used, including a 17th century version of sticky notes. I do always carry a notebook (my commonplace book), but am never sure how to create proper entries for it; my current notebook has a page for each day I’m in the UK, with handy things like where I’m staying and which museums are open late. But after those date pages I just dog-eared a page, and beyond that dog ear is a mish-mash of pages of notes. I’ll likely not be able to find these notes again. I can’t imagine tracking a double-note system like the one Francesco Sacchini developed – taking notes in notebook and again on slips of paper, so they can be reorganized. But I’d like to read him – is his Ratione Libros Cum Profectu Legendi Libellus available in English?

I also get impatient with handwriting notes when I know I could type them faster, but don’t have the means (that flat thing they have on my mobile phone is NOT a keyboard, no matter what they claim). Electronic annotation of articles, a feature of Paperpile, didn’t work for me. And when I take clear photos of documents in a library, many times Optical Character Recognition programs can’t translate them into usable text. Then I can’t copy a phrase easily to comment on, or use in my work. Google Keep looks nice, but it’s hard to find things. It would be better to store articles and images (Paperpile isn’t good at the latter) somehow within a program wherein I can also write. Instead I’m going back and forth between tabs.

I crash my computer with so many tabs open (well, OK, watching the Dodgers while I work doesn’t help), and I keep getting the strong sense that I don’t know where my notes are. My best results have been achieved by downloading articles, putting them in Paperpile, printing out pages, marking them up, and putting them in file folders. Hardly ideal for the 21st century, and useless for traveling.

Going back a few hundred years I find that the difficulties are quite the same, but the indexing systems were better. I had never heard of cards with holes that, if you put a knitting needle through, shakes out the ones you’re looking for (the notched edge card system). While I don’t want to go back to 4×6 notecards, I do see the advantage.


A boring education

A recent story about college students in the San Diego Union Tribune was pretty interesting. Here’s an example:

Students want schools to adjust to their needs, interests and lifestyles, and to do so quickly.

“I’m always having to adapt to education rather than having education adapt to me,” said Ella Chen, a sophomore at UC San Diego.

The restlessness is widespread. Nearly 40 percent of the freshmen surveyed by the university in 2016 said they were frequently bored in class.

The article goes on to say that students want “more hands-on, experiential learning”. (I have this for history: my students interpret primary source documents like historians do. But I think what they mean here would require a TARDIS.)

One of the main purposes of education, especially the education of young people, is to acculturate the student into the broader society. You can change the processes of formal education, but the motive for these systems is the same. In the case of university, there is an additional set of purposes having to do with the development of the intellect, particularly in connecting fields of knowledge (à la Cardinal Newman).

I was bored in a number of my classes, at all levels of my education. The solution was to extract from the class what I could, and supplement its content on my own. That’s a life skill. I was also in a number of classes where I wasn’t bored, but other students were. An old saying goes, “this isn’t boring — you are bored”.

While I spend a whole lot of energy making history exciting for students, but the fact is, some are bored. I share my passion for the subject, but that isn’t enough for some to get engaged. Once could understand this through research on student character traits (persistence, resilience, grit), and respond appropriately. But it is so much easier to blame teachers, and the system. I recently saw this dissertation online: Understanding Disinterest: How Online Undergraduate Students Perceive And Respond To Disengaged Faculty Members. Setting aside the improper use of the word “disinterest” (it means lack of bias), here is another low-sample study (N=8) claiming a larger significance. It assumes a gap in research on how students perceive online teachers (a gap I believe is filled by faculty evaluations). The study uses transactional distance theory, or rather the parts of it that fit the argument, to conflate teaching skill with enthusiasm. It shows low student success for professors who don’t demonstrate the kind of actions that will motivate students.

It is obvious that the problems of the customer-service model of education continue to expand. The larger question is how it has become accepted wisdom that students require motivation in the form of entertaining behaviors on the part of instructors, that not to do so means being boring, and that boring is not OK and needs to be fixed. Regardless of what a student may need in terms of acculturation, self-direction, and scholarship, it has become more important that they be entertained into learning, then get a degree as quickly as possible to avoid wasting public monies.

Education should not adapt to such support goals, nor adapt to fit what students say they want.

Many years ago I was in a group of “stakeholders” choosing among Course Management Systems for the college. We had a student contingent, and they were most insistent that they wanted just one thing. They wanted all their professors to input all the deadlines for all assignments into one central calendar system, so they could stay on task. At the time, this would have been daunting for faculty, and would have massively increased their workload. Nowadays, the adoption of the college-wide (state-wide if you’re a community college) LMS insists that this be done, and professors do it. And yet, despite answering what students said they needed to be successful, so many are not successful that we need massive state-wide student success initiatives.

While I have no problem adjusting to student needs (cogent information, skill-building assignments, fair grading, access to help) I do have a problem adjusting to their wants. Diagnosing their desires as a social problem that needs to be solved degrades the purpose of college.




The nostalgia of moving . . . hosts

Yes, it’s finally time to move. No, not my real-world house, but my server. Yes, I know it’s a rental, but…

I’ve been at Lunarpages since 2004. That’s a long time. And in that time, Lunarpages has gone from a groovy startup where you could call and get a person, to a business-centered company where they give you grief about SSL. And yell at you when someone hacks your blog. It got so bad I had to move to, so that tells you something.

In the meantime, my online colleagues Jim Groom and Tim Owens (I think I met them online back in the early CCK08 and first-run ds106 days?) started Reclaim Hosting. Faculty and student focused, Reclaim has provided excellent service to many, but I couldn’t move until I knew for sure that my students wouldn’t need access during the changeover. My sabbatical starts Friday – the time is now.

What do I use rented space on a server for? Well, everything, judging by my account stats. I have 31 MySQL databases, 6 subdomains, 5 FTP accounts. I’ve downloaded dozens of scripts, and many versions of Moodle, and run them. Not to mention the 23 GB of files. But this is exactly what needs mentioning.

You know how people downsize their dwelling as they get older? Time to downsize. The web has matured, not always in ways I approve of. And my college had gone over to Canvas, which I don’t approve of either. As the world cares less about creative ways to do things, I find that most of my files are no longer used. Broadband speeds have increased so much that my zillions of .mov files, painstakingly compressed to make them work on dialup modems, then digitized, then ripped from digital, then compressed more mildly – this has left trails of media files. Do I use any of them? No – everything now streams from YouTube or Vimeo.

Here’s a sample of just one lecture file from just one class of my six classes:

This is a lecture on the High Middle Ages (a great era for technology – come take my class!). The top file is the online lecture. The second one is text for a page that opens with a mouseover image, the manor map .png. Then there are my original audio files of me reading this lecture, recorded long ago as aiff and compressed through some antique application that no longer exists to make them .mov. There’s a poster image for a media file (took hours to make in my old freeware gif program) that now plays on YouTube, and then the most nostalgic item of all: the file. It’s a button that when you press it, the lecture audio file plays. I have red ones for this class, blue ones for others, and I made them myself by stealing a graphic and using code I learned from a book called Quicktime for the Web. (You can also see .mp3 files I made later, but my old Mac was acting up and used the origin dates.)

Good times, man. The old days, when I was up half the night learning media compression and stealing bits of code from various places, including printed books. When my HTML for Dummies book got worn out from use. Before Google, before learning management systems. Back when on the internet no one could tell you were a woman, or a non-coder, or just a historian who never really liked computers but was determined to teach online and do it well, reducing the “distance”. A time when I’d install programs from Fantastico to try polls and self-grading quizzes, when I could learn just enough Javascript to make stuff happen, cobbled together my own web pages with cool embedded stuff, having no idea what the hell I was doing, and later when I hacked Dreamweaver and WordPress. When students said, “wow! this is a cool class! all my others are just text”.

Nowadays, the databases don’t operate anymore because most of them were Moodle and Lunarpages gave me so much grief about Chinese hackers that I disabled them all. I no longer use all the cool apps I can run on the server, because Canvas won’t serve scripts that are inside of html pages. After two years trying to hack Canvas, I know what can be done, and none of it requires programs I run on my own.

So although Reclaim can migrate all my stuff over, for free, I’m saying no thanks. I’ve got only 10 GB on the Reclaim plan, but these days that should be plenty. So I’m spending a few days moving those old files out of the folders, and I’ll get it all under 10 GB (8 really) or bust. It’s an opportunity to pack up the stuff and put it in storage on a hard drive, upload everything and check it, decide whether I want to start up databases to run old stuff or just let my work (POT certificate classes, Moodle classes, old web pages) just fall off the Internet. It’s all backed up. I think I’ll let it stay that way.

You know you’ve been to Britain a lot when…

You automatically look the correct way first before crossing the street.

You are told your room is on the first floor, and you don’t have to think about it before you get in the lift.

You get out correct change from your wallet without having to translate the currency in your head (you also stop looking in your wallet for £1 notes).

You get on the hiking boots for what locals describe as “a short walk”.

You chat about the weather immediately.

You say hello first, rather make a request.

You start thinking of the sidewalk as the pavement, the chip as the crisp, the sparking water as the fizzy water, the arugula as rocket, and the “pausta” as “paasta”.

You don’t expect Mexican food to taste like food from Mexico.

You say “sorry” every time you ask for something.

You are happy to take advice on visiting California sights from a London cabbie.

You are SO grateful for a cup of tea (actually, I do that at home, too!).


The ed tech dream is dead

As if regular old political news weren’t bad enough, we must make connections between the behemoths of technology and the decline of enthusiasm for web-based educational technology and online learning in general. The conclusions are not inspiring.

As you know if you read my blog, I essentially gave up on web-based apps for my students a couple of years ago, and have moved all my class activity to the Canvas system or a Canvas-based LTI within that system (with the exception of one Honors blog).

As the author of Insidious Pedagogy, this has been a painful, soul-searching path leading to closing my classes. Since the beginnings (I started teaching online in 1998), I have encouraged faculty to put their pedagogy first, to find ways to force the technologies to do what you want. As an early fan of pedagogies that emphasize constructivism and connectivism, I have experimented with many formats (contract grading, connectivist learning, open blogging). If you’ve heard of Ning, Glogster, Dellicious, Blip,tv, Blabberize, Elgg, Eyejot, GoAnimate, Lingr, Mind42, MyPlick, Overstream, Plotagon, Plupper, Screenr, Slideshare, Trialmeme, and Posterous, you have some idea of what I’ve tried.

My college went over to Canvas in the wave of California Community Colleges who’d been made an offer we couldn’t refuse. As California began to standardize its online college education, mass media began to cover the concerns I’d had all along about student privacy and exposure in online environments. I no longer had any arguments to answer those who objected to students working on the open web, even as the web was closing.

So whatever else Facebook and Google have done (and none of it struck me as exceptional or unusual), they have underlined my concerns about students working openly, and undermined public confidence in living portions of our lives on the web. We were so concerned about not being sold by Learning Management Systems that we were sold by the very providers who gave us freedom.

Educators who persist in using social media for the classes are not just outliers in ed tech anymore – they are now collaborators in the dissemination and sale of student information and data. Stalwarts who object to online teaching and web-based learning can now say, “see? it isn’t safe!” Anything not in a protected, encrypted, controlled system is rightly suspect.

We’ve lost, and to me that has meant not only abandoning my own open classwork and my own research in educational trends but a return to subversion inside the system.

My pedagogical focus now is creating encouraging environments and meaningful tasks for students that take advantage of system-based automation while allowing for freedom of pursuits. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done in ed tech — Canvas forces me to take my place as a nobody functionary, a foot soldier following orders, with limited creativity and continual frustration. It’s one of the worst LMSs ever created, with a “community” deluded into thinking we help improve it. When my head is flat from pounding it against Canvas walls, I try to remind myself it’s like making a movie during the Hays Code.

But doing anything else isn’t moving forward.

Why journalists write such good history books

In an only slightly different life, I would have been a journalist. As a significantly younger person, I followed Watergate closely, reading All The President’s Men (as well as Haldeman’s The Ends of Power), and attending a lecture by John Dean given at my college. I saved all the Newsweek articles on Patty Hearst, and all my newspaper clippings of the 1975 World Series, in a laundry basket. I became copy editor and then editor of my high school newspaper, writing articles and proofing galleys and protesting the truancy laws. I majored in English at UCLA.

I switched to History due to an odd series of events involving a high school counselor who didn’t tell me when the AP English test was offered, a fascination with the musical 1776, and a brilliant course I took with historian Joyce Appleby. I never took a journalism class after high school, but instead trained as a historian. My degrees are in History, and my certificates are in Education.

For the past decade or so, I’ve studied the evolution of the web as a teaching tool, and in particular online pedagogy. I’ve experienced the typewriter, the internet, the web, as customer and creator. I’ve used rotary dial phones, dial-up modems, and cell phones. Even as I experienced digital history unfolding (or perhaps because I experienced it), I have “reported” my findings rather than studying the phenomena as a historian. After years of being the person in the room saying “but this has all happened before”, I have recently returned to the study of history as my primary task. And yet, the history books I most enjoy reading now are not written by historians. They’re written by journalists.

Most of these works are about the history of technology, which was my specialty in grad school (although I studied medieval, not modern, technology). Tom Standage (The Guardian, The Economist) published his brilliant The Victorian Internet in 1998, the same year I began teaching online. The book became a reference for me, a way to connect the present (in which I was frantically operating) with the past I understood. In 2003, a student gave me a copy of Empires of Light, by Jill Jonnes (New York Times), about Tesla, Edison, and Westinghouse. It was another reminder that so many things (commercial competition, technological advancement, bloody-minded geniuses) are not new. Atlantic and NY Times writer Nicholas Carr’s The Big Switch: Rewiring the World, from Edison to Google (2008) was a delight, part of a body of his work that supported my gut instinct that the web was making us stupid and that our dependency on computers had a serious dark side (that was the same year that saw the rise of MOOCs).

Steven Johnson (Wired, NY Times) wrote The Ghost Map, a 2006 book so clear and brilliant in its discussion of the cholera epidemic in London that I assigned both the book and his TED talk to students.

Few of these people have history degrees. Johnson’s are in semiotics and English lit. Carr, also literature. Standage has a degree in engineering and computer science from Oxford. Interestingly for those looking at women writers, Jonnes is the only one with a PhD in history, obtained after she was a published writer for the New York Times.

They don’t pretend to be historians. Standage notes his specialty is “the use of historical analogy in science, technology and business writing”. Johnson just calls himself a writer, and Wikipedia says the same about Carr.  Jonnes uses no noun to describe herself despite her degree.

With such a trend in evidence, it didn’t surprise me to read in Bloomberg Businessweek that New York Times reporter Cade Metz is writing a history of artificial intelligence.

Normally I’m quite the snob about non-historians doing history. For example, we have a number of departments at the college who offer classes with the word “history” in the title, but are taught by language or music instructors. The individuals teaching them are quite wonderful, but they aren’t doing history. They’re teaching cultural heritage, typically without reference to historical methodology. Their technique is usually narrative, rather than the development of a thesis to be proven with evidence. Similarly, the profusion of “history” days and months for groups of subcultures (women, African Americans, etc.) are all heritage-based, although they claim to be doing history in order to show they are on the right side of history, which is another thing entirely.

Such storytelling, however uncomfortable I may be with it as a historian, has always been important to human beings. It has become increasingly significant in recent years, as competing narratives are created to defend particular points of view. To the agggrieved, for example, all of human history may be a story of grievances. Historians study historiography, the “schools” of history formed by different viewpoints (such as Marxist history, or the Annales school, or the New Left). Historians tend to recognize these varying perspectives, though not always. Competing perspectives are inherent in the discipline. They’re a feature, not a bug. Historians know there is no “one” history, but rather histories told for varied reasons. That’s why historical evidence is so important — it is needed to support ones perspective, to ground it in fact.

Neither historian nor journalist, English prof Marshall McLuhan provided the foundation for many of the works mentioned here in his The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962)

So what do journalists and historians have in common? Both observe the world carefully, and note patterns. Both access the past for context. Both rely on sources, tell stories, create narrative, highlight key people and events. But they divide on method. A journalist may consult only a few sources, or a very broad selection of sources, and need not engage in exhaustive research among scholarly articles or primary documents. They may rely on scholars’ interpretations, since they themselves are not engaging in scholarship. Journalists may use more literary techniques to draw the reader in, to make clever connections. (These techniques have actually changed the way history is written by historians, as publishers now seek a broader audience for history books in an age where fewer people purchase books at all.)

Most importantly, journalists need not provide a new perspective beyond the telling of an interesting story. The originality lies in the creative telling of a tale, rather than in the development of an argument that must be proven with facts. Perhaps this is why the articles on Patty Hearst did not lead me to research the Hearst family, or terrorism, or cults. I never got into the history of baseball. I watched Watergate happening but did not feel an urge to research previous presidential scandals, or violations of the constitution, or the composition of the White House staff. The stories were complete in themselves.

So when a journalist turns a hand to history, it has the potential to be more lively, and more immediate. Liberties are taken (almost into “creative non-fiction”) with personalities, like those of Tesla or John Snow. “Bringing history alive” (a phrase that makes me cringe, with its implication of imposed drama) need not involve engaging in historical scholarship, but it does create the all-important analogies that Tom Standage mentions. These books bring facts to light, and connections between past and present. Without the work of writers like Standage and Johnson, it is unlikely I would have found the connections between what I was doing with my teaching, and what others have done in the past. Even if I discovered these connections while defending history in the various MOOCs in which I was enrolled, I might not have realized my own potential to write about them.

Skilled journalists make the reader feel engaged in the story, even if their thesis is nothing more than, “look at this cool series of events that happened”. Because they live in our time, their reasons for looking into the past are the same as those of historians: to find insights about ourselves in the present. With such similar goals, it isn’t surprising that so many good books featuring history are written by journalists.

Quotation for today

All teaching in big classes must necessarily make against originality

H.G. Wells, The Saturday Review, 14 December 1895