Grousable Books

Published January 2022 Published March 2022 coming soon coming soon

Six degrees of Wells

It’s odd how even when one avoids H. G. Wells, it’s hard to get too far. Here’s an obscure connection, just for fun.

I was listening to a half-hour BBC documentary program on the Hollywood Cricket Club, mostly because it mentioned David Niven and Errol Flynn, but also because Jim Carter narrated. It had nothing at all to do with H.G. Wells. I have been taking a break, the pandemic having curtailed much of my research.

Apparently the club was founded by Charles Aubrey Smith, and actor I’ve seen in many movies but whose name I didn’t know.

Look familiar? He was in such films as The Prisoner of Zenda, The Four Feathers, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and And Then There Were None. Plus dozens more.

Now take a look at him in 1895:

Aha, a cricketer! And this was the year he started acting.

So it turns out it’s less than six degrees of separation to Wells.

He was a bowler for Sussex County between 1882 and 1892, 20 years after Joseph Wells (H.G.’s father) had done his double hat trick for Kent (4 wickets in 4 balls). It’s a small world, cricket — he would have know who Joseph Wells was.

And according to Wikipedia, in 1920 Smith was in a British film called The Bump. It was written by A. A. Milne. If you read this blog, you know that H.G. Wells was Milne’s teacher at Henley House School, which was run by A.A.’s father.

So it could be serendipity. Or perhaps more things are connected to Wells than one would expect.


2 comments to Six degrees of Wells

  • Eric Kuniholm

    Years ago I became enamored of Patrick O’Brian’s adventures of Napoleonic era sail. Coincidentally, last year I happened to be Googling one of my old British schoolteachers (Eton House School, 1967), a Nikolai Tolstoy, nephew of Leo, himself a sometime novelist and historian, and what did I find but that Nikolai Tolstoy had been Patrick O’Brian’s step son, and had written a tell-all biography of his stepfather–two degrees of separation therefore from one of my favorite historical novelists. My takeaway from both our examples is that the such coincidences are rendered inevitable by the restricted world of the British upper class and all who come into contact with them.

    • Lisa M Lane

      LOL with the exception that Wells was lower-middle class, I’m with you. Perhaps it’s just in who is connected to them.

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

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

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

Problem 1: the protagonist’s flaw

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

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

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

Problem 2: The Hook

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

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

Problem 3: The Map

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

I did it.

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

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

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

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

Problem 4: The Scenes

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

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

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

Problem 5: Points of View

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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





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

  • Jmm

    You probably figured this out already, but: you were getting a template to crank out genre fiction. This is What Sells.
    It’s interesting to me because I spend lots of time deprogramming students who were taught the 5 paragraph essay template and can’t imagine writing anything else.(And, unsurprisingly, can’t write anything else.)

    • Lisa M Lane

      The word “template” helps my understanding a lot. It was also obvious in one of the plotting books I got, which used “fast” and “efficient” and talked about cranking them out.

      And I am guilty of helping them use the 5-paragraph format, as you know. Because they’ve experienced it, they can focus on the history. Sorry. 🙁

  • Steve Gossard

    I like your organic approach; letting the plot grow as you write.
    I think too many people write to a formula for success. They write because they want to BE a writer, not because they have something to say. I like your approach. If it keeps you interested it should keep the reader interested as well.

    • Lisa M Lane

      Hi Steve! Yes, I figure I’m a very picky reader, so if I find it interesting maybe others will too. 🙂

  • John Mackness

    I don’t know what the five paragraph essay template is but in general I like templates – not to follow blindly but to think about and prompt ideas – positive and negative. And deprogramming students? What’s this all about? Teach them templates by means but use them wisely

    • Lisa M Lane

      Certainly knowing what the template IS can be helpful. Perhaps there’s a point where a “template” becomes a “norm”, and then a “norm” becomes the only way to do it?

  • Erika

    And there you have it, my lovely. Follow your heart and your gut. Haven’t I been saying that all along? 😉❤️😘

  • Dakin

    The template is useful because we can break it. It is good to understand the expected pattern, but that hook? That hook can be the inspector coming back from a lecture, because it is unexpected. Stories should never be predictable. As soon as I feel one is, I put it down and never read it again. Even a hero who is a Mary Jane can be enticing if we like them enough. Or if they are quirky enough. And those are often the same thing.

    • Lisa M Lane

      I do like the idea that templates are there, in a sense, to be broken. Perhaps it’s like abstract artists knowing the academy rules, and deciding to eschew them. I also like your thinking that anything unexpected can be a hook. My books have a lot of unexpected elements. So thank you!

  • I agree Lisa. Templates could only be OK if you are aware that they can and perhaps should be broken. The problem with any sort of model/template is that it determines what you see and stops you from even being aware of what you can’t see, what is beyond the model/template. I think we should always be prepared to go beyond the model/template. I thought you might like this. Philip Pullman’s writing tips – 🙂

    • Lisa M Lane

      Thank you – I like your idea that a template can stop you from being aware of what you’re not seeing. I do think the template is acting as a blindfold of sorts. Now, how to shake it? Pullman’s writing tips are great. I need total silence too, but my typing fingers couldn’t possibly hold anything as archaic as a pen for more than 10 minutes. 🙂 I’m going to keep repeating in my mind that the characters can take the lead, and it’s great to see a writer of his stature encourage doing that and dealing with structure later. Thanks again.

Victorian Studies

To begin my work on Victorian England, I need to examine the field of Victorian Studies. Unlike History, area studies of all kinds are newer disciplines, and I often have difficulty figuring out what they’re trying to do. Every discipline has its own methodology and its own literature – that’s what makes it a discipline. Now that I’m moving away from working with online pedagogy and educational technology, it’s necessary to make sure I am aware of the milieu in which I’m operating.

Although by no means intended as an introduction to the subject, Martin Hewitt’s “Victorian Studies; problems and prospects?” from 2001 has nevertheless provided me a good entrée. Noting the expansion of books and graduate programs in Victorian Studies, the article nevertheless critiques the lack of interdisciplinarity on which the field is supposedly based. Hewitt notes several other concerns, including historians uncomfortable with the word “Victorian” and the dominance of presentist topics (gender, women, imperialism) that use the Victorian era just for examples. But a bigger issue is the fact that historians and literary studies have not really combined in an interdisciplinary way, even while conference panels may be multi-disciplinary. Apparently the most comfortable and useful pathway for Victorian Studies has been the “cultural history” of the 1980s and 90s, although it took awhile to shake off the perception that it was elitist. This was interdisciplinary because it used methods like Foucault’s analysis of culture (p. 141). 

But cultural history does not create a disciplinary field that is consistent and has an “agreed focus” (p. 142). The result is that there is no common scholarship, and Hewitt notes a lack of “key texts” (p. 144). This helps me because I couldn’t figure out what those key texts were when I was looking for a way into the historiography of Victorian Studies. Hewitt sees the historiography as fragmented, limiting the impact of important works. Previous historical works also tend to limit biography to a few “semi-canonical” men, such as Carlyle, Mill, and Ruskin (p. 145).

In literary studies, Victorian Studies has become a “sub-field”, and the many journals of Victorian Studies tend to be dominated by literary analysis . When I subscribed to Victorian Studies journal and Nineteenth-Century Studies, I noticed immediately that the editors were almost all from university English departments. As I read the articles, I kept rolling my eyes as the authors seem to plumb the text of Victorian novels for meanings that were obscure, presentist, imaginative, or all three. I found most striking Hewitt’s point that such studies focus on the reading as it takes place in the current reader’s timeframe (ours). The articles use the present tense, as if the characters in the novels are here with us now, while a historical article would use past tense (p. 148).

History, Hewitt notes, is constructive and materialistic, while literary and cultural studies are idealistic and interpretive (p. 149) – I would say “imaginative”. Focusing on the text ignores the history. This is why I dissuade students from constructing theses that seem to show the text as possessing causation (“propaganda led people to hate the enemy”) – we cannot prove such a thesis historically, although it is possible to prove that the text might have been meant to do something, or that something might have caused (or influenced, more likely) a work to be written.  

Hewitt’s agenda includes developing a solid historiography, and creating new research based on larger ideas. His prescription for historians (he’s one too) is to broaden the field to include more ideas and their production, combining more approaches. Since the context and environment of the era is embedded in the text, the process is one of sense-making. At least, I think that’s what he’s saying – he loses me when he talks about “syncretic hermenuetics” (p. 153). His focus seems to be on creating intertwinings of text and practices to create something truly interdisciplinary, where the “text becomes means rather than object” and the focus is on the impact (and reproduction) of the text (p. 154).

In determining which texts have been underutilized, Hewitt notes many that I am engaged with, including essays, lectures, and newspapers – forms of communication not intended to be high culture. His ideal Victorianist study combines elements from history, anthropology, ethnography, literary criticism, sociology, and art history (p. 155).

I believe that the goal here is to provide a more well-rounded, thorough, and (by implication) realistic understanding of the Victorian era. I am at a loss, however, to explain why it is necessary to do this through the methodologies of disciplines other than history. I don’t think I realized that I am a history snob until I began reading Victorian Studies journal, and finding myself enjoying it while at the same time becoming exasperated with the lack of evidence beyond popular texts. The field strikes me as similar to steampunk: an enjoyable romp through Victoriana to fulfill present (and presentist) needs by drawing imaginative connections. (I feel the same way about the new genre of “creative non-fiction”, about which I will write more later.) I in no way believe that the historical method can provide as accurate a portrayal as going back in a time machine, but history is adaptable enough to take on the perspectives, if not the methods, of other disciplines and use them effectively. I think I would have understood a plan for a new Victorian History better than I understand a plan for a more cogent Victorian Studies. 


Hewitt, M. (2001). “Victorian Studies: problems and prospects?” Journal of Victorian Culture6(1), 137–161.

Transferring the burden of learning

As you may know if you follow me, I am edging closer to a methodology based on the self-assessment for student work. There are a number of reasons for this. This post will focus on just one: I am concerned about the increasing dependency on the instructor, especially in online classes. As students have adjusted to learning in online environments, as they become more comfortable with the technology, I’ve seen the reverse of what I anticipated. While I expected increased familiarity with learning technologies to increase self-direction, it has instead increased communication with the instructor in a manner designed to, shall we say, selectively individualize a student’s experience.

While I am sympathetic to the ongoing need to experience contact with the instructor on an individual level, I am less enthusiastic about answering multiple messages and emails asking for a repetition of feedback I’ve already given through multiple means, both individual and class-wide. There seems to be difficulty applying public or general feedback to ones own work, even when that feedback (like a rubric) is attached to an individual assignment. It is easier to just contact the instructor and ask, “why did I get this grade?”.

For those of us who provide extensive examples, clear directions, detailed rubrics, and continual feedback to the entire class, this insistence on individual comments which (most of the time) simply repeat what’s been already provided, takes up valuable time that is better spent interacting about the subject matter and the discipline.

In my syllabus, I have a list of expectations, which include:

Students should respond to guidance from the instructor, learn from full-group (rather than individual) feedback, and get help from the Help page and college resources as needed.

The ability to apply generalized feedback to ones own work is an important life skill, and yet I often succumb to the quick email or message response. This is because it is easier (and seems nicer) for me to just say, “oh, you just need to cite correctly as noted in the instructions” or “be sure to use only primary sources” than to encourage their independence in a helpful way. I never want to be the type of prof who barks, “read the syllabus!” Providing the information and pointing to it is one way to encourage some independence, I suppose, but it’s still telling, directing, prescribing. I want a slightly different tone.

So today I got a message:

Hello Professor, I do not understand what I am doing wrong on the essay prompts. Can you help me?

Normally I’d go look again at the student’s assignment and my rubric, and answer specifically. But this time, I wrote back:

Sure! First, take a look at the rubric, to see the areas that need improvement.

Then, take a look at the list in my Announcement – do any of those items apply? If so, how might you fix it?

Then, take a look at the work of your colleagues (especially those I put a “Like” on) – notice any differences from your own work.

Then, go to the Help page and look at the samples.

Let me know what you think as you compare your Writing Assignment, and what ideas you might have for what to do for the Final Essay. Happy to provide feedback!

Certainly there is a chance this will be interpreted as “she refused to tell me”, but I hope not. Instead, I hope that I’m teaching how to do what I’ve told them I expect them to do, and in a friendly way.

The burden of learning, you see, shouldn’t be on me – it should be on them. These days I am taking ever more to heart Stephen Downes’ idea that the professor’s job is to model and demonstrate, and the student’s is to practice and reflect. How can they practice if I do it for them? How can they be encouraged to reflect on their own work?

When students write or rewrite something, and send me, say, their new thesis, I am always happy to provide specific feedback, and they really appreciate that. But I’d like to have a better response to the more general “I just don’t get it” message, so we’ll see what happens.

4 comments to Transferring the burden of learning

  • My courses are not content / domain specific, more process-oriented, but I do almost no “assessment of” – no quizzes or exams. My students are responsible for providing evidence of their work, which comes through links to blog posts, their place in our twitter hashtag community, web annotation activity, all things where their work is visible via a link (I imagine this approach need not be all open stuff, just that students have to show me the learning).

    I’ve also taking to having them pick a grade to aim for based on a loose rubric, the grade contract approach, and have them revisit and self assess mid-term and end of term, and justify/explain their own self assessment.

    I recently came across the works of photography teacher Bill Jay, who write an essay “Pointing t the Moon” about his teaching practice (

    “The teacher points toward the moon. The student must first learn to look at the moon, not at the finger.”

    I bailed out of a large project of certification, which whether by badging (which I loathe) or by portfolio review, is a passive tense activity. A learner is “certified by” or “assessed by” an institution/teacher/ I tried advocating for a system of self assertion. Alas, they are badging.

    Keep on, I so enjoy how you share your evolving practices.

    • Lisa M Lane

      Hi Alan,

      I love that analogy. It’s so apt, that often we are looking at the finger. I suppose that isn’t bad if one is trying to learn how to point, but otherwise…

      I always felt that the certification we had for the POT program got in the way of learning, ultimately attracting those who just needed certification and did the tasks in an unthinking way. But I try to have sympathy for that, even though I can no longer design to it as an unpaid activity. In fact, my current historical research is related to the opening of education for adults in the 19th century, many of whom were seeking exactly that – a marker to help them move up in the world. While I try to grade more in order to teach than to judge, I don’t want to lose sight of the larger social demand for credentials — I still feel a responsibility to distinguish among those who don’t see the finger at all, see only the finger, see just a moon, or can assess the moon themselves. It holds back my process and so I keep working on it. Because the success in learning, in the 19th century as now, is achieved by self-direction. Where I differ from my more courageous and utopian colleagues is that I still believe this can be done within the system somehow.

      • jennymackness

        Hi Lisa, This is an interesting post. Like Alan, I really enjoy the way you openly share your practice.

        I don’t teach any more but have a lot of online teaching experience and I recognise the problem that you have with dependency on the instructor. My colleagues and I used to spend quite a bit of time trying to reduce this dependency and came up with as many strategies as we could to do this, mainly strategies that involved speaking directly and explicitly to students about this problem, as you have done.

        On the other hand, as long as we have education systems that make students jump through hoops to meet externally imposed assessment goals, I have quite a bit of sympathy for the students, especially those who want to do really well on their assessments and aren’t necessarily lazy.

        Perhaps one way we can address this is to establish a community of practice for the course, where students will support each other and their first port of call will be another student rather than the tutor. I think quite a bit of work on this needs to be done at the beginning of the course, to establish the expectations and ethos, just as in a classroom of young children I used to spend the first two weeks of the school year simply establishing how I wanted the class to learn and behave. It was worth the time spent.

        I agree with you that the burden of learning should fall on the learner, but I also agree with Biesta’s criticism of a culture of learnification, which I interpret to mean abdication of the role of the teacher in favour of students teaching each other. I find Biesta helpful in confirming the importance of the role of the teacher; e.g. he writes:

        “Teaching ‘works’ with something that is strange from the perspective of the student, not because what is given/received is necessarily incomprehensible, but because it is something that comes from the outside or the ‘exterior’ (Levinas, 1969). From the perspective of the student teaching thus brings something that is strange, something that is not a projection of the student’s own mind, but something that is radically and fundamentally other.” P.42


        “… for teachers to be able to teach they need to be able to make judgements about what is educationally desirable, and the fact that what is at stake in such judgements is the question of desirability, highlights that such judgements are not merely technical judgements—not merely judgements about the ‘how’ of teaching—but ultimately always normative judgements, that is judgements about the ‘why’ of teaching.” P.45

        Biesta, G. (2013). Giving teaching back to education: Responding to the disappearance of the teacher. Phenomenology & Practice, 6(2)

        So I wonder whether it is the teacher who needs to find independence from the system
        more than the student from the teacher? Just thinking aloud here.

        Thanks for your thought-provoking post.

        • Lisa M Lane

          Jenny, I love how you always give me so much to think on!

          I do have a great deal of sympathy for students, whom I know have been trained to jump through hoops. Perhaps I am romanticising the transition from high school to college, but I do want there to be an expectation of students helping themselves.

          I admit I am wary of what I see to be artificial “communities”, of practice or otherwise. My class is only one of many the students have, and they are usually overloading their schedules. From a visual perspective, the transition to a common LMS means that my class is literally just a link on their Canvas page. My struggles to create community and student interdependence are well-documented; it might just be me but I cannot recreate the friendly (or unfriendly) aspects of Facebook-style social media into my classes. My FAQs, coffee houses, pubs, etc (all just separate, top-level discussion forums) either saw little participation or just provided yet another space for them to ask me questions answered elsewhere.

          I do indeed, as the teacher, struggle to be independent from the system, since the entire environment is now structured in such a limiting way. Creative approaches that necessitate linking out from the system are no longer worth the risk to student privacy nor the necessary deep instruction about how to use the open web safely.

          Instead, I am working with the idea that students can assess/mark their own work, but be responsible for correcting it and helping each other do so. Even today I sent a message to students self-grading their primary sources to be sure to go back to the board, read my comments, and help each other complete their work as needed. I very much like the idea of inviting them to watch each other’s backs, as it were.

          Much of what I do could be interpreted either way. I could be seen as abrogating my responsibility as a teacher by enabling self-assessment and encouraging them to use resources I’ve provided rather than just using me personally. I could also be seen as being too involved as a teacher or being too much the “other”, too interfering with their learning, by determining and providing content, having grades at all, or making weekly announcements judging their work (I do say things like, “some of the sources posted don’t seem to related to the history”, etc.).

          I think what I’m doing here is separating student contact about the structure and content of the course from student contact designed to get a quick and convenient response. Gaining understanding from the materials provided is the main skill in learning the content and habits of practice in the class – I’d like that skill applied to their own work, by them, if that makes sense.

          Thanks as always for helping me thing this through!

Classroom use of student-posted primary sources (and some dissing of Andrew Jackson)

In my on-site classes, I have students do what my online students do – post a visual primary source in a discussion board each week. The post includes the image, then citation, like this:

Artist: Lydia Dickman
Title: Sampler
Date: 1735
Source: National Museum of American History Sampler Collection

Commentary: According to the source, Lydia Dickman was about 13 years old when she did this. Young ladies will learn needlework and reading at the same time doing samplers. The description tells of the very complex work this is, which to me says that the work expected of colonial women could be very difficult in terms of technical skill. Work in the home could be arduous, but also something of which a person could be proud. (Lydia, unfortunately, died only a year after her first son was born, in 1745. She would have been 24 years old.)

They then use these sources (everyone’s – not just their own) as the basis for all writing assignments.

But in my on-site class, I also bring them up on the screen each Wednesday, and ask students to talk about what they posted. While not “discussion”, I’ve found that students are less afraid to talk to the whole class when:

  • they’re seated in a darkened room,
  • everyone is looking at the screen rather than them, and
  • they are talking about their own work and what they found.

Until today, I’ve left it at that (though I do interject connections to lecture or textbook, or ask questions). But today I had a goal in mind: avoiding President Jackson.

Andrew Jackson is my least favorite president, due to all the reasons everyone cites who dislike him: his personality (common, boorish, and obnoxious), the Bank Veto (which he said was anti-elitist but made it hard for ordinary people to get loans), the spoils system in his cabinet (where he appointed his friends instead of people who knew what they were doing), and Indian Removal (deportation in the name of protection). The commonalities with President Trump are so easy it’s like shooting fish in a barrel.

So today I was going to have students present their primary sources, then do a discussion comparing Jackson and Trump, but I’d already short-circuited that by talking about it on Monday, accompanied by this Washington Post article. So instead, I kept a list of non-Jackson topics as they presented their sources (I erased the one about presidents):

So when they got into groups, we did a Jackson thing (deciding a verdict based on this video). Then I asked them whether they kept up daily with the actions of President Trump. They told me that was impossible anyway, and that no, they just lead their daily lives. I said that was the same in the 1820s and 30s – people were concerned with things like we had on the board, other topics and events.

So I asked them to:

1) Select one event or situation between 1824 and 1832 that was not directly associated with President Jackson, and explain why it should have gotten more attention.

2) Do the same for 2016-2018.

Just so you know, they decided that the issues of today not receiving enough attention are:

Global warming/environment
Gun law reforms/shootings
Military conflicts/increased military budges/drone use
Protests like Standing Rock that are soon forgotten

And one group wrote: “couldn’t choose – Trump affects everything”.

For the future, what I liked about this is that it considered a student-created set of primary sources as representing larger topics or issues. I can see how doing that, just deciding on topics based on their sources, can create a set of ideas for them to work with. Even if it’s not in a Jacksonian or Trumpist way.

More joys of Google Street view

I just enjoyed reading a book at the Internet Archive by checking it out, like an online library.

A Midhurst Lad: a Sussex childhood by Ronald E. Boxall .

And in that book there was an image of the street, Duck Street, where Boxall grew up in the 1920s and 30s:

book image

And I thought, I wonder if it still looks the same. Thanks, Google Street view.

1 comment to More joys of Google Street view

  • JMM

    That’s wonderful, and a much-needed break from American politics. Thanks for posting!

From the introduction of Gryll Grange

by Thomas Love Peacock (1896):

In the following pages the New Forest is always mentioned as if it were still unenclosed. This is the only state in which the Author has been acquainted with it. Since its enclosure, he has never seen it, and purposes never to do so.

A notice to the reader and political protest together.

Full text of the novel available at

Grading and plagiarism goes boink

As I go through routine grading of primary sources (marking rubrics for six criteria for each assignment), I often think about Laura Gibbs’ non-grading routines at the University of Oklahoma.  Her grading system is explained to students here, and I have looked at it periodically for many years, like a diabetic outside a bakery, wishing, wishing…

My primary justification/excuse for not going into an honor grading system has been the number of students I teach. To fabulous profs like Laura, the grading is secondary to the ongoing feedback provided to each individual student. That level of granularity is impossible for my classes of 40 students each. I have also always felt the system would be difficult for the community college level of work.

At the same time, I have worked hard, using Canvas’ rubrics, to establish grading norms that are easy for students to understand, making the feedback, if not fully individualized, at least in-depth and helpful.

Now the overall objection to “declarations” or honors grading, where students declare their work as complete, I hear from many people, as I’m sure Laura has as well. The big one is: “students will cheat”. They will say they are done when they’re not. They will say they covered all the criteria when they didn’t. They will say they wrote all this themselves when they didn’t.

I worry about that too. But my view is changing, oddly enough because my view on plagiarism has evolved over the last 30 years of teaching.

Here’s where I am at the moment. I have students who plagiarize passages out of the book or off the internet. They put them in primary source commentary, discussions, and writing assignments. I catch a lot of these, eventually. I don’t use TurnItIn, because it steals the students’ intellectual property. Rather I rely on my experience reading student work, and Google’s search for phrases I find suspicious. I am almost always right when I suspect plagiarism.

When I find it, I inform the student privately that it’s not OK, to see the syllabus and catalog about plagiarism. The last few years I’ve asked them to discuss with me what plagiarism is, and to promise not to do it again. This last may seem strange, but it’s been helpful. And this term I’ve been asking those who want a regrade to not only tell me what plagiarism is, but to rewrite their work by messaging me with their original work with all the plagiarized passages in parentheses, followed by their revision.

But there’s the larger context. A number of years ago, we were told that we cannot kick a student out of a course for plagiarism. Then we were told we cannot give them an F in the course either. All we can do is give them an F on the assignment they plagiarized. This implied a new view of cheating at the state level. It also reinforced the idea that I am the police officer, responsible for finding plagiarists and catching them. But the punishment is to be limited.

I find that I no longer accept any of this. Plagiarism is cheating – it is an academic crime, yes, but more importantly it is dishonesty, which is a moral crime. It is very difficult to legislate against a moral crime. This country has extreme problems today with the whole issue of cheating and dishonesty. More and more it is seen as OK so long as you don’t get caught. That’s not morality. That doesn’t teach anything at all. I catch you, I give you an F. So you don’t do it in my class anymore. That’s the lesson: not that it’s wrong, but that it’s forbidden.  By some teachers. Sometimes.

At Laura’s institution, there is a group that deals with academic integrity, and states its intention to foster such integrity, inside and outside the classroom. At my institution, the page on academic integrity seems more concerned with the student right to protest an instructor’s punishment.

The moral responsibility for student plagiarism and cheating should not be on me. It should be on the student.  I have become, in today’s world, much more concerned that the student understand the unethical nature of plagiarism and other forms of cheating. I want them to feel it inside, but I have not the time, skill, or knowledge to Socratically take them individually through their own beliefs to guide them toward a universal morality. Instead, I take the approach I’ve mentioned when I catch it. But there must be many, many plagiarized passages I miss. Why? Because if they’re really good at it, I won’t catch it. So I’m only catching the students who aren’t very good at it. Perhaps someday those students will change their minds. But the habitual, hard-core offenders are just proving they’re right to cheat, because they get away with it.

I can’t work in that world anymore. I would like to move to a system where I ask them to promise honesty at the start, and declare that they have completed their work as best they can. Then, if they cheat or plagiarize, I’ve done my best to ensure that they know that what they are doing is cheating and lying. The moral burden is on them.

Being less brave than Laura Gibbs, and subjected to different conditions, I will be adapting her method. My whole class won’t be honor-graded. I am keeping the quizzes and the writing assignments as is. I am keeping the reading annotations in Perusall, because I’ve seen it helps students complete and grapple with the reading. But today I have designed a short quiz for each primary source assignment, and I plan to do it for each homework. The single question asks them to check off criteria on a list. These are the same criteria I currently use on my rubric. As a Canvas quiz question, this is “multiple answer”. All the checkboxes checked will lead to 100% for that assignment in the gradebook, or fractions thereof if not all boxes are checked. It’s up to them to be honest.

I plan to roll this out with my two mid-semester start classes, after spring break. But the idea may be bigger than a self-graded quiz. If I do this for both primary sources and homework, the emphasis of the course will shift toward their own work, and their own assessment of that work. In classes where I don’t have homework, I may well add it, in this self-evaluative format.

So, does all this mean I won’t engage their work, won’t read it all, because they’re doing the “grading”? On the contrary. It will make it possible for me to focus on their work better, to discern patterns, to help the students individually who need help. And when I do catch cheating, it will enable me to place the responsibility where it belongs.

2 comments to Grading and plagiarism goes boink

  • JMM

    This is such a beast of an issue.

    The wise and beloved Kathleen Rippberger used to tell me not to bother with plagiarism, reasoning that the action does its own harm to the person doing it. Like smoking cigarettes or living on cheeseburgers, plagiarism pretty much guarantees the person’s future suffering; we don’t need to do anything more.

    But I had problems with this attitude, because it seemed to belong to an ideal universe where karma is inevitable. Too, I felt responsible to my profession: writers should respect each other’s work, not steal it; that is part of what I teach. (I can hear my mother’s voice: “how would you like it if someone took *your* bicycle?”)

    So there will be no honors system for me, because some students will cheat if they can and I feel obligated to stomp on that behavior. Recent research (within 5 years or so) revealed that something like 80% of high school students cheat more or less routinely. I don’t see this in my classes–it’s more like 2 out of 25, which is…hmmm. I have no idea. Not a lot. (10%? My poor math teachers must be rolling in their graves.) So it’s not much effort for me to monitor, and it’s important enough that I’m willing to do it.

    It’s discouraging to see that the college I work for is more concerned with student rights than with other people’s rights, but I can’t change that; I think it’s part of the infantilization of Americans generally. When I see, around campus, preschool mottoes like “2 teach is 2 touch lives 4 ever” (with a cartoon drawing of an apple! How adorable!) I feel vaguely nauseous. But that’s a grousing for another time.

    • Lisa M Lane

      Aw, grouse here anytime!

      I have no intention, though, of abrogating my right to stomp. I like how Laura has put in her honors system exactly that, a punishment for violating the honors system. I could be fooling myself thinking I’m adding a layer of moral responsibility, but at the same time I want to do it. It’s the routine-ness that bothers me.

Classroom discussion MY way

After years of advocating that professors teach their own way, in a manner that suits they own pedagogy and talents, I still find myself avoiding the big one…discussion.

And yet, this term I’m teaching an early American history class, one I have not taught for many years, in which I have perversely planned a discussion every week.

So now, I’d better figure out how to do it. Yes, I have read many books, articles, and blog posts on creating good discussions. I’ve even done it with one of my classes online, after years of having discussion boards feature anything but discussion. And I’ve seen many wonderful instructors do a great job in the classroom. But in many ways, it isn’t ME.

It’s not only that I’m a classic lecturer. It’s that I tend to interrupt people (a major failing), and nod when a student says something cool in such a way that they tend to stop talking. I talk about openness and academic freedom and freedom of speech, and how I want them to talk openly. Then I keep talking.

So the question is how to change the format without changing my personality. Recently, planning the first big class discussion, I may have stumbled on to something. A step-by-step format that brings in ideas without it being me bringing them in. A process that keeps things focused enough that I can step back.

I have assigned an article for students to read for tomorrow: Why Study History? by Peter Stearns. It’s fairly straightforward, but I want to get at the deeper aspects. I’ve prepared one page to put on the screen and guide me through:


Stearns outlines several justifications for studying  history.

What does he mean by:

  • Understanding peoples and societies?

  • Understanding change?

  • Moral understanding?

  • Identity?

  • Citizenship?

  • The ability to assess?

Application: which elements are a factor in this case?

Confederate monuments (5:53)

This case:

AP history class protests of 2014 (3:24)

and this case?

Howard Zinn (3:06)

Weekly Write:

What’s the main reason you think we should study history? Use one point from each of the three cases to support your main point.

I’m hoping this heavily guided path will help keep me on track and allow for responses, by providing particular things to respond to as applications of a larger set of ideas they’ve discussed. We’ll see what happens…

4 comments to Classroom discussion MY way

  • jennymackness

    Hi Lisa – I’ve been finding your posts about your approach to teaching your class very interesting.

    You haven’t said whether this is face-to-face class discussion or online class discussion. To begin with I thought you were talking about online discussion, but perhaps you mean face-to-face.

    For me discussion works best when there’s no right answer, i.e. a response is required to open questions as opposed to closed questions. It can also work well when the topic is controversial, so that participants feel strongly about it.

    Why study history seems like a great question to me. Looking forward to hearing how it goes.

    • Lisa M Lane

      Ah, yes – this is in the classroom. (They say “on ground” but I much prefer “on-site” to avoid images of me prone on the carpet at the front of the room.) I’m gonna change the title to “Classroom”.

      I’m hoping that the “application” angle will lead to multiple perspectives – there are no correct answers here. Applying values to specifics can have many different interpretations.

  • jennymackness

    I also wanted to comment on your post ‘How do I get students to …?’ but there is no comment box so I’ll comment here.

    I think quizzes are extremely difficult to create so that they are effective. They often seem to be used in xMOOCs. I have a terrible memory, but I also can’t see a lot of point in trying to simply remember facts. What I usually do is have the quiz open in one monitor, and the course content in another monitor, and simply look up the answer! Yes – a waste of time – except that it allows me to get the tick that I have completed the unit.

    The quizzes that I think are most effective are those that give you a number of possible plausible answers to a question, where the answer is not within the text provided by the course, i.e. a question that is based on the course content but makes you think and apply what you have learned.

    I also noted that you summarise discussions. Gilly Salmon highlights this as being a very important aspect to moderating online discussion. She also highlights weaving which I have found to be a very useful technique, i.e. your response as the tutor to the discussion pulls in a number of participants comments, naming and quoting them and synthesising them.

    There’s lots to think about in your posts.

  • Lisa M Lane

    Thank you! I’m sorry there wasn’t a box for that post – I think it’s closing comments quickly to avoid spam. I confess to finding difficult because there are so many limitations compared to running my own installation.

    I wonder about the “look it up” aspect to quizzes. I assume that everyone would do that with online quizzes, which is why I never time them. I don’t want anyone to memorize. Rather I want the quiz to remind them of a factual connection I’d like them to know. I hope, in this sense, it isn’t a waste of time for them to look something up, just reinforcement.