College, a holiday post

Looking through my inbox at my Google alerts for pedagogy, I often come upon wonderful, uplifting pieces like this one on creative pedagogy. The goal is expressed as lighting “a fire and a passion for learning” in our students.

I’m going to go all Grinch and Ebenezer on this idea, in the spirit of the season. Those who’ve read my blog for a long time will understand that I do believe in inspiring students with my own modeling and trying a multiplicity of cool learning activities, but that I also face reality squarely.

So much literature on pedagogy the last decade has promoted the idea of opening curriculum to allow students to pursue their own interests. I do this, of course, when I have students choose their own topics for posting weekly evidence and writing papers. But the push goes beyond what I do, to allow students to determine their own direction for all their work. In my class, then, those who are fascinated by World War II could study only that the entire term, or pursue only the history of skateboarding, or trace only their own interests and determine their own reading.

This approach is bolstered by those trying to correct the presumably “industrial” model of teaching. Haunted by straight rows of desks and raised hands, reformers want to create a more open environment for discovery. This view manifests in the disdain of lecture, the promotion of active learning, and the idea of the teacher being “the guide on the side” or (even better) discovering together with students.

We flip classrooms, we engage in social equity pedagogy, we bring in amazing things, we guide discovery. Sometimes students respond with enthusiasm, but when we get down to those exams, they do the same or worse than students did when we used the “old” method. So the utopians say, “the exams are bad! down with exams!” But most of us have to assign a grade, and even more we feel an obligation to assign this grade to the work produced. Not to enthusiasm. Or participation. Or the socio-economic status of the student. And when the exams come back and we see that we’ve failed, we cannot admit it and just raise all the grades.

Another approach is more like marketing: give the customer what they want. This method focuses on what students say they want in class: an enthusiastic teacher, more study guides, fewer large-stake assignments, inspiration to become involved. Student evaluations complain: “he won’t tell us what’s on the test”, “he docked me 3 points for being late”, “I have eight classes and three children to take care of, and this class assigned too much work”, “she’s boring”.

What no one wants to talk about is that what many students really want is college as adult day care. They want class to be like a fancy retirement community, where the teacher tries really hard but they can choose to participate in the fun activities or just knit in the corner. They also want to be reminded continually of anything they’re expected to do, as I’ve seen over two decades of student demands that the LMS tell them when everything is due. In this model, it is easy for students consider themselves as guests, not the inmates of an industrial penitentiary (as assumed by reformers) nor participating contributors. They wish to be entertained into being interested, and individually counseled into being motivated, assuming they need bring neither of these to the table.

I’ve been researching 19th century education, which was not as “industrial” as we like to think, and where teachers were just as concerned about pedagogy as we are. But they saw college differently from my colleagues. It was a place where talented scholars deserved to go, and where those who weren’t scholastic were naturally excluded. The meritocracy (a term coined by Michael Young in 1958) was designed to be real, including those who had scholastic talent but would otherwise be socially excluded due to their background, race, income, or class. Victorian educational reformers wanted the examinations to be open to all comers, even before the University of London did so a hundred years before Young named the system. The idea was that the degree was awarded on ability, and ability alone to the extent possible. Those without money would be paid for. Status, gender, race would be ignored. It was a given that scholastic achievement was not for everyone. The methods used would be those that worked for talented people to pass the examinations and earn a degree.

The goals, designed to promote opportunity for those whom society left out, have evolved into something entirely different. Now we believe that college is something everyone ought to be able to attend, regardless of scholastic merit, and more, that they should be able to get a degree. I struggle to find reasons why we want people to attend college who don’t want to be there, and are not interested in the development of the mind, only the goal of a degree with its presumed connection to a good job and a nicer living than others have access to.

The scholarly diamonds in the rough are worthy of all the care, attention, and sound pedagogy we can offer. Those who struggle because their life circumstances make things difficult deserve even more — they deserve a public-funded system that understands that it’s in the public interest to help them. Even if their skills aren’t there yet when they come to us, it is our task to help them develop. At community college, sometimes we need to feed them — literally, so that they can think.

The unmotivated, the lazy, the ones who only want to study World War II, the students who want young adult day care? My sympathy and care with them is bounded by the attention they give to the work I assign, the work designed to help them develop historical skills. If I inspire them, it will be because they want to be inspired, not because I’m particularly inspirational.

I wanted to end this post with a critique of the Yeats’ quotation that began the uplifting article I linked at the top, about education being the lighting of a fire rather than the filling of a pail. But I can’t, because it looks like it isn’t even Yeats. I refuse to go all post-modern and say that doesn’t matter, since it’s the idea that counts. It does matter, and is yet another argument for a good, rather than an easy, education.


Historical beachcombing

Watching Coastal Railways with Julie Walters, I was struck by the northeast England episode, which featured (among other things like a brilliant bookstore in Alnwick) a couple who collect things they find on the beach, clean them up, and display them on a table in their home. Walters then reads a bit from a 1956 poem by e e cummings, which ends:

may came home with a smooth round stone
as small as a world and as large as alone.

For whatever we lose(like a you or a me)
it’s always ourselves we find in the sea

The beachcombers were finding that which had been lost. So does the protagonist in the book I’ve just started, Ruth Hogan’s The Keeper of Lost Things. He takes things left on railway carriages and park benches, tries to find the owner, then carefully saves them. The behavior is partly explained by having lost his wife when they’d only been married a short time, but the meaning is bigger than that.

When I wrote my most recent course, History of Technology, it had a theme from the start: that whatever the extraordinary technological advances of an era, something is also lost. Throughout my lectures I ask students to consider technological change from this perspective, not just what technology was new and what problems it solved, not just what new problems the thing created, but what was lost in the advent of the new technology.

I soon return to teaching after a short sabbatical, with the country’s morale, and society’s confusions, in an even worse state than when my most recent class concluded last August. In planning for spring semester, I have written a completely new closing lecture for American history (having been shamed by The Onion’s “High School History Textbook Concludes with Little Blurb about Last 40 Years“). I made connections to the past, but I also added current material that followed those threads. I needed additional readings, and one of these is Eli Saslow’s recent article in the Washington Post, “‘Nothing on this page is true’: How lies become truth in online America“.

I follow Twitter enough to be appalled by both the far-right and the far-left, and I’ve read enough post-modern historiography now to become completely disheartened. Princeton historian Kevin Kruse seems to be almost single-handedly defending my discipline in the context of continual assaults on basic facts. This, combined with the current historians’ angst about the AHA report on the decline of history majors, makes it a difficult time to return to the classroom. Perhaps if I had not had a few months without teaching, it wouldn’t have hit me as hard.

So what has all this to do with beachcombing?

This fall my friend Jane went on a Thames Discovery adventure to find cool things in the mud next to the Thames. Not my type of thing, of course (wet, mud, dirty hands), but she brought me old clay pipes and showed me other artifacts she had discovered, some quite ancient. Uncovering things is what archaeologists do.

And as I tied all this together, I remembered that historians uncover things too. That’s very basic to understanding history teaching — we often talk about trying not to cover material, but rather uncover and have students discover. And this is what Kevin Kruse is doing: he is uncovering the history that remains hidden to most people, who will believe the stupidest things because they don’t know what’s happened in the past. These days, when it’s not only possible but relatively easy to look up the truth (it takes minutes online rather than a trip to the library to fact-check something), I get impatient and think, “why don’t they just look up the facts?”

But as Saslow’s piece demonstrates, they don’t look it up. Some are intellectually lazy, and some think there’s an educated elite conspiring to lie to them. I cannot convince those who insist, like the woman in his article, that regardless of the facts something ridiculous is true enough because it fits with previously ill-informed beliefs. But it is my job to uncover and share that which should be shared.

Could it be as simple as a student thinking people didn’t smoke in the 17th century, or that they crafted things to last and weren’t wasteful way back then, and me taking out the clay pipe Jane gave me to show that 17th century people both smoked and made disposable pipes that they threw in the trash? Probably not.

What has been lost, of course, is much more than bits of facts from the past, much more than discarded clay pipes. It’s the whole perspective that the past is significant, that it can be known and interpreted in ways that are based on the facts, and that these interpretations can and should inform our decisions and perspectives. Also fading is the idea that these interpretations can be developed within an ethical system designed to increase knowledge, rather than prune it to particular ends.

Like the protagonist in Hogan’s book, I can collect these lost things and try to find their owners, or at least students who might care about them. I can display them on my pedagogical table. Rather than seeing myself as shaping or changing minds, I could be the beachcomber sharing my finds.  It would certainly be a better mindset entering the new term.


Surf report

If you’re from around here, you know what a surf report it: “moderate waves today, let’s call it waist-high” a la Scott Bass on KPBS radio.

This is a report of today’s web-surfing, which is kinda different. Sometimes it’s piled a lot higher than my waist, but today I learned a lot, much of it triggered by Twitter posts. I don’t think I’m the only one who uses the “like” heart to file things for later, so I could find these again.

History Assessments

Except the first one. Somehow I found the Stanford History Education Group, and their Beyond the Bubble assessments. I’m not sure why I’ve never heard of this, but it’s a collection of items for teaching U.S. History. While geared toward the high school AP crowd, the method here is quite useful for college history. The primary source is embedded into the assessment. So for example, there would be a newspaper engraving of a protest from Harper’s Weekly, then a short list of facts related to that engraving, then open short answer questions. Sometimes these asked students to assess the veracity of the document itself in light of the other facts, or they might ask the student to say what the source tells us about the era.

These are short (usually just two short answers) and there’s a rubric with each one, indicating the level (proficient, emergent, basic) of various student responses. Some even include sample student answers that one is likely to see. Although undoubtedly intended to be used solely by the instructor, it might be interesting to give the rubric to students and have them analyze their own work!

The site has many assessments that a teacher could download, but it was their design that gave me ideas, because I could create my own assessments for any primary source I have.

And it was kind of eerie that I had just changed all my Learning Units to be inside the assessments. I must be very trendy in terms of design!


Next, I found a serious gap in my knowledge about the history of media. A tweet by Civil War historian Lisa Tendrich Frank led me to a Smithsonian Magazine article on the restoration of the cylcorama in Atlanta. Apparently, during the 1880s, cycloramas were a huge draw as entertainment. Painters created 360-degree paints, attached to the walls of a circular building, and people would come to experience it. The article notes a scene might have a dirt floor and some trees to add a reality-inducing effect.

Beginning in the 1880s, these completely circular paintings started appearing from half a dozen companies, such as the American Panorama Company in Milwaukee, where Atlanta’s canvas was conceived. APC employed more than a dozen German painters, led by a Leipzig native named Friedrich Heine.

Half a dozen companies? How could I not have known about this? This isn’t just virtual reality, it’s late 19th century entertainment for the people. The closest I’ve gotten to in-the-round entertainment was the film they used to have at Disneyland, America the Beautiful, a movie made with multiple cameras that surrounded you. Yeah, I know, in days where the Google truck drives through your neighborhood, this may seem archaic, but it was very cool.

So now I have a whole research area to discover.


Can I use this word in a sentence? It shouldn’t be new to me: it’s a word I keep bumping into, but somehow it never entered my thinking as something I could use.

A tweet by early Americanist Michelle Orihel sent me to Digital Paxton, and reading the post I had an Aha! moment. Advertising and editors’ notes and issue numbers, as included in Victorian periodicals, would be paratext! I may not have a theory, but I at least have a structure, an interpretation, a word I can use for what these types of things are.

Some days it’s enough to learn one new useful word.


The last item for today was a piece of email spam. Yes, I know you’re not supposed to open these, but there was no attachment and I decided to read it. I found it fascinating.

The title was:

Security Alert. was compromised. Password must be changed.

The email went on to explain that my account had been hacked, my information and surfing habits downloaded, and they wanted money, paid in Bitcoin. The blackmailer explained how s/he got access:

How I made it:
In the software of the router, through which you went online, was a vulnerability.
I just hacked this router and placed my malicious code on it.
When you went online, my trojan was installed on the OS of your device.

I noticed that there aren’t any contractions where you’d expect, indicating this person does not speak English natively. The OS of my device?

They also claimed to know that I have pornographic habits:

A month ago, I wanted to lock your device and ask for a not big amount of btc to unlock.
But I looked at the sites that you regularly visit, and I was shocked by what I saw!!!
I’m talk you about sites for adults.

I want to say – you are a BIG pervert. Your fantasy is shifted far away from the normal course!

There’s a normal course for the viewing of pornography online? I had no idea. But that explains why so much money was being requested.

I’m know that you would not like to show these screenshots to your friends, relatives or colleagues.
I think $701 is a very, very small amount for my silence.
Besides, I have been spying on you for so long, having spent a lot of time!

Wait, $701? Cheap at twice the price!

After payment, my virus and dirty screenshots with your enjoys will be self-destruct automatically.
If I do not receive from you the specified amount, then your device will be locked, and all your contacts will receive a screenshots with your “enjoys”.

I guess we’ll see…

(Discovered after posting: turns out this is a known spam thing and I should dedicate as much worry about it as I have already done. So that’s five things learned online today!)


I struggle with textbooks, yet I need a form of context that students understand intuitively. In my rejection of traditional texts, I have been exploring both the new online pathways-though-text offered by publishers like Cengage and Pearson. My experiment with Pearson went badly, and reminded me that the answer is still open resources, free if possible.

Right now all my classes have these elements:

  • Textbook or context reading, sometimes with quiz questions (about 15% of student time)
  • Lectures I’ve written and recorded, with quiz questions I wrote (about 20% of student time)
  • Primary sources inside those lecture, and that used to be in my printed workbook (about 10% if they read them)
  • Constructivist primary source collection creation and writing (about 40%)
  • Writing on those collected primary sources (about 15%)

The main challenge is how to balance the textbook reading, and any accountability via quizzes, with the rest of the workload, particularly the primary sources inside the lecture.

US History II

Open Education Resources include history textbooks, but there are very few. OpenStax_US-History_700x906After much searching, I have discovered one I like for US History II, even though it is left-leaning (a whole chapter on the New Deal? really?) and needs some reorganizing. Unlike most of the OER history texts, it has review questions, is written and peer-reviewed by historians, and comes out of a respected university (Rice). It even looks like a textbook. OpenStax’s system allows a somewhat cumbersome but handy way to reorganized the sections and chapters. I can even rename them. After about 24 hours, it creates a solid PDF version of the book, with a table of contents, repaging and automatic transferring of questions and terms to the appropriate section. While it will take time to extract the questions for quizzes, I think it’s worth it given the quality of the text. I will likely lose the focus on the primary sources inside the lecture – the textbook is too large. But since my US students tend to be at a lower level than my other classes, they likely need both the security of an ordinary-looking textbook and the information it provides. I am testing chapters this semester in all three online sections, even without quiz questions.

But US is it. There are no similar quality resources available for Western Civ, World History, History of England, or History of Technology (my new class!).

History of Technology
BookCreatorSo for Western Civ I tried to create a book from Wikpedia articles, using Wikipedia’s Book Creator. This has not gone well. Wikipedia is for the most part fine from a factual perspective for common areas of history, but some sections are written in too much detail by total fanatics of that particular era or subject. I have spend many hours trying to make it work. For History of Technology, however, I might just need a basic Western Civ overview as background – all else would be articles and primary sources, in addition to lectures. I have created a book from a single overview article. I can add my own stuff with PDF using Preview, perhaps, or just have it online.

Western Civ

103bookFrustrated with the Wikipedia book, I began copying Wikipedia text of the sections I liked into a Word document, and editing. For Western Civ I, I have finished. I have a complete textbook of Wikipedia text edited carefully by me, with main terms in bold, the primary source documents from within the lecture included at the end of every chapter, and quiz questions I wrote from the resulting book. I am using it for the first time this semester in both the online and on-site sections of the class.

It will take time, but it looks like I’ll be doing the same for Western Civ II.

History of England

It is the only class with a published item students much purchase. I wrote my own quiz questions out of it. When they stop publishing The Penguin Illustrated History of England and Ireland, I’m in trouble.


I have had to take open resources in hand myself – I have found nothing that can be adopted wholesale, like a traditional texts. But traditional texts have their own problems, of coverage, rigidity, poor supplements, bad quiz questions, etc. And history texts are costing over $100 now, which wouldn’t be so bad except they aren’t good enough for that kind of money. And my own texts I can edit, re-edit – they can evolve over time at no cost to the student except for printing if they’d like to print.

I’d like to share all this. The Wikipedia books aren’t mine – I’ve done the editing but only written some of the text, and adding documents I have been using for years, most of which have passed copyright clearance on more than one occasion when custom published in previous book efforts. If I do construct quiz banks out of the OpenStax chapters, I’d like them to be available for others to use (my created book already is, inside the OpenStax CNX system). OER should be, well, O.

But it looks like it’s not enough to do OER. Looks like you have to create Build-Your-Own OER.

Grades: the low-down on the drop-downs

In addition to submitting a grade for each student, and a last date of attendance of they failed, we are now asked to assess the level of learning outcomes for each student for two elements: critical thinking and global awareness.

Our grade sheet is starting to look like a data entry form.

I have heard faculty complain that this is ridiculous and impossible – it would take far too much time to reassess each student’s class performance in outcome areas (last year it was just one) as well as their final grade.

I don’t think so.

I remember many, many years ago, we had a full faculty meeting about developing and tracking our first Student Learning Outcomes. It was the third or fourth iteration of this idea, and we were all sick of it – sick of hearing about this stuff that had clearly come in from the outside, through administrative fiat. And one of my favorite colleagues stood up and said, “Don’t we already have this? It’s called GRADES.”

I’ve never forgotten that. The grade I give means something. I spend a lot of time determining what percentage of the final grade counts for each assignment and skill. So does my grade now mean nothing when set up against outcomes? Do I really have to reassess each student for their demonstration of critical thinking and global awareness?

No, because these are built into the Course of Study, the class design, and my pedagogy. When I give that final grade, it says something already about the student’s achievement in critical thinking and global awareness.

The drop-downs have levels of achievement on these:

My default for a real passing grade (A, B or C) is “Practitioner – Met”. If they hadn’t met my standard for critical thinking and global awareness, they wouldn’t have passed the course.

My default for a D or F is “Apprentice- Not Met” if the student finished the class. If they stopped attending, it’s “Novice-Not Met”.

If I recall their work as being excellent, Critical Thinking jumps to “Expert – Exceeded”. Few get this designation – I am the expert, and few excel in either critical thinking or global awareness. But if they did, I remember it – I don’t have to look anything up.

Similarly, I recall other details leading to exceptions: the brilliant expert student who got a D for not turning stuff in, the B student who didn’t know where China was, etc. Again, no need to look those up.

So even though it seems burdensome, the process goes pretty quickly. Because I trust my grades.

Co-posted at MiraCosta’s Reflections on Practice blog

Textbooks (yes, again)

Well, we all know how I feel about textbooks, the adoption of which seems much more necessary for on-site classes (they basically refuse to read them online). I have dumped textbooks for my US History classes, which I teach online. I have an atlas (out of print – the next problem) for History of England. For modern Western Civ, I took the lectures I have online (which are lengthy) and adapted them with my set of primary sources to make a makeshift text, but that didn’t work well.

This semester I’m teaching early Western Civ in the classroom. I have used three texts in three years for early Western Civ. I didn’t want to do it, but this semester I went ahead and used a text I’d used before that wasn’t too bad, and refurbished a full set of 16 quizzes for them. I had tried to create my own out of Wikipedia, but had run out of time and was unable to deal with problems of the granularity of content.

nobleadvantagearoowsWe started the semester on Monday. By Wednesday I couldn’t stand the textbook and was standing in my office, hating it, at 10 minutes before class. The bookstore had neglected to purchase the text back in April, and had to rush copies to campus. I had visited the bookstore and couldn’t find them – they were turned sideways about 12 feet from their shelf tag, under another class’s tag. I counted 14 of them. I have 32 students. The universe was trying to tell me something.

I wondered what would happen if I dumped the text right then. Bad timing, I know. I decided to ask the students whether anyone had bought it, then see if those who had were ok with dumping it. We could write our own. Maybe we could put together the Wikipedia version I’d failed to create. Something. Anything.

So I went in and asked how many students had bought the text, since they were required to do so by that day. Three. Well, four if you count the one who had it on his Kindle. So I presented them with my problem, and my hatred of textbooks, and quickly discovered they basically felt the same way.

Then I told them the real problem behind the textbook issue, writing it on the board. I explained that there are three levels to my pedagogy:

  • Facts – the building blocks of history. We don’t have to memorize them but we must have familiarity with quite a few.
  • Interpretation – the use of those facts to support arguments, which I want them doing right away in their primary source work.
  • Themes – which require analysis on a larger scale than interpretation, and where they get to choose their own path.

The difficulty was only with the Facts. How do we get them? What possible use is there for a textbook if it’s only for facts, when we can find those facts elsewhere?

When I presented my idea for creating our own textbook somehow, from open and available sources, half a dozen students got all excited and participated in a lively discussion of how that might work. One student asked if they were really qualified to do this. I told them of my failed Wikipedia effort.

How, I asked, should we decide what to do with the idea? Not all students were into doing it. Some might be happier with the same old thing. One of the excited students said we should vote. I explained that I was concerned about the minority, who would get overrun. Between their mumblings that majority rule was what democracy was all about, and mine about my experiences being in the minority on many votes, we decided we should somehow have choice. I explained the quizzes were written already, and they were based on the book. How about if I gave them the question bank in advance and they can decide whether to buy the book, use it in the library, or just look up answers online to study? How about if those who wanted to edit the new textbook didn’t have to deal with any of that, but would have more work out of class?

By the third class meeting, 14 students had gone ahead and bought the book anyway, I assume to preserve comfort and predictability. It didn’t work – most students did poorly on the first quiz. I’m hoping that’s a separate problem.

The editor students so far seem to want to use Google Docs instead of a Moodle wiki to put together the book. I think it’s a bad idea because I can’t fix anything in a Doc really (no HTML toggle), but they essentially told me that making it look good was my problem. And I want them to work where they’re comfortable and have a sense of ownership. Today I created the file in Google Drive, like they told me to.

So we’ll try it. It might succeed, it might fail.

It’s hard to be dictatorial about these things when I know that there is no best way to do this stuff.

Ludlow Massacre

<![CDATA[I have my students listen to the song, but the textbook I relied on to teach them about the Ludlow Massacre doesn't anymore. What do you know about it?


Politics and Culture After the Great War slideshow

<![CDATA[I created this in Zoho Show, and gave the lecture in class today.]]>

Profs and Opinions

For many years, I’ve tried to provide a balanced perspective in teaching history. I’ve tried to achieve the scientific ideal of being objective, always exploring the many other sides of any issue. I valued, as do some of my colleagues, that my students couldn’t tell where I stood politically. Over the last several years, I have been questioning this approach.

A couple of years ago, I was starting the first week of class, and a student said, “well, obviously you’re a liberal”. I asked him why he thought that, and he said, “your shoes”. At that time, I wore Birkenstocks in class (my feet are size 8 wide). I laughed and pointed out that I was actually a radical. As I teach my Western Civ class:

Conservatives value stability at the expense of liberty and equality.
Liberals value liberty at the expense of stability and equality.
Radicals value equality at the expense of liberty and stability.

I am a radical on most issues, although my biggest issue (the environment) is hard to categorize with this system, since I favor rather draconian measures if they force people to reduce, re-use, recycle.

About the same time, I listened to a Howard Zinn CD a friend gave me. In it, he said that professors are doing students a disservice when they do not share their point of view. After all, we are highly educated people, and if in our studies we have come to a particular perspective, it should be shared. There is an ethical responsibility that we need to fulfill.

Then today, I read this post from one of my favorite online people, Stephen Downes. Responding to whining that more college professors should be conservatives, Downes wrote:

If people want more right-wing teachers, there’s a really simple way to do it: pay them more.

That way, you’ll get teachers who are motivated by the money passing on capitalist values rather than people who are motivated by social service talking about cooperating and sharing, about rights and diversity.

So I am again rethinking my objective goals. I have been more open with students about my views, and have been clear indicating that they are my views, and that any stance supported by evidence is valued in my class. But what I do not know is whether that has made any difference, since the students themselves seem to have become more “left” in the past several years. Perhaps the extremes of our current executive have done that to them.

But knee-jerk liberalism is just as bad as knee-jerk conservatism. A student who nods in agreement with a leftist opinion, but doesn’t understand its foundation, is just as uneducated as someone nodding conservatively.

Perhaps my role should not be so much sharing my perspective, as sharing my intellectual process so students know how I got to my view. Intellectualism, I’m thinking, not political affiliation, should be the point in education. I plan to keep that in mind.