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.

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.

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 Gutenberg.org.

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.

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:

Ideas

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…

Canvas and Lunarpages: A Cautionary Tale

It seems like such a good idea to embed things in Canvas. All those wonderful iframes. You can embed anything you like!

Well, no you can’t. You can only embed secure (https://) web pages and files. But that’s OK! Your host, Lunarpages, like many others, offers free shared SSL. All you have to do is change all your URLs. I did this with not only Hypothes.is, but many other things: lectures? embedded! pdfs of textbook pages? embedded! pages with cool stuff? embedded! images on my home pages? embedded! Canvas and an external host, BFF!

Until today. I log in to Canvas and all my images are gone. Ditto all my embedded syllabi and pages. I try the SSL URLs in my browser. None work. I contact my host, Lunarpages.

Google ChromeScreenSnapz002

Excuse me? I knew the Fand server was being upgraded today, but was told it wouldn’t change anything. Now they want $109 to keep the functionality I had yesterday. Bluehost has free shared SSL. Reclaim Hosting has free shared SSL. I found out today that even my college’s home folders have free shared SSL. According to Lunarpages’ own pages, so do they. But not as of today, with no notification, nothing.

This is not the first time Lunarpages has made me crazy. For years they pestered me periodically about “high CPU usage” and shut down my pages. Last time it was hackers from Mars or something. I am not a company, I sell nothing, all I have are 19 years worth of teaching pages, images, videos. I had to take down my decade-old WordPress blog, because it was being hacked. I had to move it here, to WordPress.com, the island without a salad bar. Isn’t that punishment enough?

Evidently not. Now I have to spend the week before the term starts manually changing URLs back and unembedding pages in Canvas. Now everything will be linked out and ugly. This morning I was surprised by a recent Canvas Community post asking whether anyone was simplifying their courses. I had no idea I’d be spending days doing just that.

Thanks, Canvas and Lunarpages. You’re making the web what it is today.

How do I get students to…?

…do the reading?

…participate in discussion?

Well, I don’t know. But here’s what I’ve been doing, and I’m pretty happy with it.

Getting students to do the reading

Here’s where the rubber hits the road on accountability. Like most people, I assign quizzes designed to make sure they “do the reading”. But unless you have 100 questions on the weekly quiz, or get draconian about quiz timing (I don’t time any quizzes – I think it’s rude in an online class), they can skip to answer the questions.

Besides, I don’t really want them to do the reading – I want them to engage it, as scholars do all texts. I want them to observe, note, ask questions. So, since few of my classes have discussions, I’ve combined reading and discussing using group annotation, originally in Hypothes.is and now using Perusall in Canvas.

I call each week’s reading “Read and discuss the chapter and documents”. The only link to the reading for the week is that one – they cannot access the reading without being inside the annotation program. Reading and discussing is 20% of the grade. I suggest in the first week what they might do to appropriately discuss, and set auto-grading accordingly. My student surveys suggest it worked well, though some balked at having to do it since the grade percentage was so high. To me, that means it’s working!

Getting students to participate in discussion

This may be the longest-standing concern about online classes, especially if you naturally encourage and enjoy discussion in the classroom. I enjoy it, but have trouble getting it to happen naturally, so perhaps that’s why I have spent more time trying to make it happen using technology!

This last year, I had a new class in early American history, and I didn’t want to write quizzes (laziness is actually the mother of invention). So I designed discussion boards around a short video prompt from a series on controversies in American history. These are simple, and just present a couple of sides on an issue. Using my patented two-step discussion process (well, ok, it’s not patented, but I did do a presentation on it in 2010), I allowed the first half of the week for responses (often emotional and immediate, since here I wasn’t tracking their reading). Then I came into the discussion on Thursday for my “Take discussion from here!” post. This post, in a different colored text, summarized the discussion they’d had so far, mentioning students by name, then suggested a different (deeper) direction for the second half of the week, based on their responses.

Takediscussionfromhere

Discussion was worth (you guessed it) 20% of the grade, given in two 10% grades, one a mid-point and one at the end, with feedback. Student survey responses at the end of the class featured rave reviews:

I absolutely love the interaction from the discussion boards. There is a lot of reading but it is not difficult. I also loved Lisa’s constant interaction and getting the second part of the discussion board going by setting up a prompt. I loved this class!

The discussions were very engaging and forced students to really think about and consider the topics, not just memorize dates and events.

I really liked the discussions because it’s not an online class where we just take quizzes every week, but we get to form arguments and change our perspectives by our classmates.

Make it important: the magic 20% (or more)

I’ve come to the conclusion that whatever important thing we want them to do, it must be worth at least 20% of the grade. If I really want them to read, our grade percentage should say so. If the goal is discussion, ditto. 20% is a serious grade swing. The only complaints I got from students on either of these techniques was that they wished it wasn’t 20% or didn’t realize until late that it was 20%. They owned that this was their problem, not mine.

If I’m going to dedicate hours and hours to designing discussions, and creating second posts, it can’t be a 10% assignment (to me, 10% says “optional”). I’d be comfortable, if I didn’t also have them doing primary source posts, at 30% for either of these.

This post was inspired by the wonderful faculty at Yavapai college, and their posts  about professorial participation in discussion and getting students to read.

Recent articles indicate…

I am catching up on some recent readings in online teaching:

Scarpin, Mondini & Scarpin, Technology and Student Retention in Online Courses
Study indicates that student motivation and quality of information in the class are important to student retention in online classes, but that social influence on the student (from peers, fellow students, family), self-efficacy, and the quality of the system don’t matter much to retention.

Annette Backs, Promoting Online Learner Self-Efficacy through Instructional Strategies and Course Supports
Not too surprising that self-efficacy for online students means asking their profs and peers, not using the available systems of the library, counseling, or LMS support.

Melanie Shotter, Exploring the use of workshops to encourage educators to use online learning platforms
Workshops get educators interesting in making greater use of the LMS.

Kirsty McClain, The Satisfaction and Success of Students Enrolled in Online Education at Mississippi Community Colleges
Students completing an orientation are more satisfied with their online course experience.

Research Center for Digital Learning and Leadership at OLC, Online Faculty Professional Development Framework
Yet another stifling list of “best practices” designed to privilege the research findings of people who rarely teach and still talk about “adapting” pedagogy to online while writing their dissertations using a research method originally intended to determine the impact of technology on warfare, all to add to the already bloated pool of Ed.D.s . (Oh, did I say that out loud?)