A great schoolmaster

I have recently read, pretty much in one sitting, The Story of a Great Schoolmaster, by (you guessed) H.G. Wells.

(For those of you thinking I’m sitting a lot on my sabbatical, well, that’s by design. And sometimes I lie down instead, because I know sitting a lot is bad for you.)

Published in 1924, it is the story of F.W. Sanderson, and his role as headmaster at Oundle School, Northamptonshire, which he reformed in the 1890s:

The world is changing so rapidly that it may be well to say a few words about the type of school Sanderson was destined to renovate. Even in the seventies and eighties these smaller ‘classical’ schools had a quaint old-fashioned air amidst the surrounding landscape. They were staffed by the less vigorous men of the university-scholar type; men of the poorer educated classes in origin, not able enough to secure any of the prizes reserved for university successes, and not courageous enough to strike out into the great world on their own account. (p28)

(I know it’s presumptuous of me to mention it, but Wells seems to be sporting a superior attitude here, having himself won some scholarships and prizes in the 1880s, and being courageous enough to strike out on his own as soon as he could during his early years. By 1924, however, he was a successful author of fiction rather than a successful headmaster, so I find his approach here a bit condescending.)

Wells met Sanderson in 1914, when he was looking at Oundle School as a possibility for his own sons George Phillip (“Gip”) and Francis (known as Frank, I assume after H.G.’s brother). According to Wikipedia, Gip did attend Oundle, so I assume Frank did also. Certainly it’s evident that once their father saw what Sanderson had done with the school, he was filled with admiration for his modern views and methods. It was these methods I found most interesting (and also Sanderson’s death, which I’ll get to in a minute).

Sanderson developed what we would today call “active learning”, and group active learning at that. Most of it is described in Chapter III: The Replacement of Competition by Group Work. Having noted that Sanderson believed that boys should be doing active scientific work, and that they were more involved and interested when they did, Wells then shared a mini history of education. He claimed that “there have been three chief phases in the history of educational method in the past five centuries, the phase of compulsion, the phase of competition, and the phase of natural interest” (p46). These aren’t necessarily discrete, but he sees medieval teaching as motivated largely by compulsion, and balancing rote learning with corporal punishment. The second phase was the age of the class-list (that is, the lists of students passing exams — or not). He referred to this era as “slightly more enlightened” (p46):

The school of the rod gave place to the school of the class-list. An aristocracy of leading boys made the pace and the rest of the school found its compensation in games or misbehaviour. (pp46-47)

He noted that during this time the curriculum was Greek, Latin, and formal mathematics, none of which were of any intrinsic interest to a boy. By the end of the 18th century, there was a shift, and attention to subjects that were more interesting. He briefly mentions Pestalozzi and Froebel as pioneers of the third phase. Wells had written an essay on Froebel, which I have been unable to find, to earn the Doreck Prize, so he did know about these things. He had himself been a product of the class-list phase. Both the thrills and sorrows of competition, as he saw it at the Normal School of Science, appear in several of his novels.

Sanderson began his career at Oundle using the old class-list methods, but in mathematics he started to create instead “clusters of boys surrounding an attractive problem” (p48). A “Science Conversazione” developed of small groups of pupils working on a particular problem, at first in their free time. A surprisingly large number of students joined voluntarily, in focus groups of various scientific subjects. Experiments were assigned or developed, and as the “Speech Day” approached, class time was replaced by work time on the projects. The school would look chaotic at such times, but all the pupils were completely engaged in developing solutions to the problems emerging in their work:

Concurrently with this steady replacement of the instructional-exercise system by the group-activity system, the mathematical work became less and less a series of exercises in style and more and more an attack upon problems needing solution in the workshops and laboratories, with the solution as the real incentive to the work. (p52)

What do we call this now? Applied learning, constructivism, cooperative learning, maker spaces, design thinking, flipped classroom, growth mindset, scaffolding — it’s all there in 1898.

Sanderson’s success in science led to his application of the technique to literature and history, doing away with

…the lesson that was a third-rate lecture, the note-taking, the rehearsal of silly opinions about books unread and authors unknown, the horrible annotated editions, the still more horrible text-books of literature

and replacing them with plays, with the boys taking the parts, to teach literature, to bring the pupils “into the most active contact possible with the reality of the work they studied” (p54). For history the school library was the laboratory, with content divided among the groups, who prepared maps and quotations for presentation and argued with each other about historical approaches (pp54-55). (This all sounded so exciting that I began to mourn our old college library, with its many shelves of books that could be physically browsed. Now the books are in a small section, with most of the room taken over by computers. More information? Yes, indeed. A space for enthusiastic searching for information in noisy groups? No.)

Today Oundle School still exists (with boys and girls), and Sanderson is mentioned here as its most famous headmaster. It is now primarily a boarding school, although it has day students, with ages starting as young as 11 years old, although the usual is 13. I’m sure it’s a wonderful school, but I must admit to queasiness at the very idea of having a child that age live at a school. But that is neither here nor there.

I am these days wrestling with the idea of biography as history, and it helps that Wells didn’t mean to just write a biography — his work makes a point about Sanderson:

To tell his story is to reflect upon all the main educational ideas of the last half-century, and to revise our conception of the process and purpose of the modern community in relation to education. (p2)

Sounds like a good idea now as well as then.

I noted in the book a natural sympathy, as there often is between a biographer and his subject. Apparently, like Wells, Sanderson went round on a bicycle, but wasn’t great at outdoor games (Wells was asked to participate on cricket teams, but wouldn’t play even when he agreed to sign up). As a young man, like Wells, Sanderson was slender and serious. And he always went his own way.

Sanderson died in 1922 after completing a lecture where he was introduced by Wells. He suffered a heart attack during the Q&A which followed the talk, and Wells had to go tell his widow. Wells tells the story, and reprints the lecture in its entirety, for the last chapter.

A review of the book from the Journal of Education* claimed that Sanderson being the first subject to stir Wells into writing a biography would make “The Story of a Great Schoolmaster the most famous educational book of the decade, probably of a quarter of a century”. More effusiveness followed: “We have seen no book on education from Solomon, Socrates and Comenius to Edward Eggleston and William Hawley Smith whose every paragraph has a human touch that throbs.” I think that is perhaps overdoing it, but it’s a very good book, especially for those looking to support efforts toward enlivening curriculum.

 

*The Journal of Education, Vol. 99, No. 18 (2478) (May 1, 1924), p. 499, retrieved via JSTOR 15 Nov 2018.

(Clever readers will notice that I’ve counted this small review as Student Learning Outcome 5: cultural expression as evidence of a historical theme. This is because the book is a literary work, even though it is non-fiction, and such a book is a cultural expression of its time: 1924. It could be used to represent the interest in education, and/or the popularity of Wells’ writings, during that era. It isn’t as popular now, I think, since I purchased at good price what I just realized is a first edition.)

 

 

About Carlyle

In the mid-1880s, during his time at South Kensington, when he was supposed to be studying for his science examinations, H.G. Wells was instead educating himself. In his autobiography, he noted Thomas Carlyle as part of his self-required reading:

I was reading not only a voluminous literature of propaganda but discursively in history, sociology and economics. I was doing my best to find out what such exalted names as Goethe and Carlyle, Shelley and Tennyson, Shakespeare, Dryden, Milton, Pope—or again Buddha, Mahomet and Confucius—had had to say about the world and what they mattered to me. I was learning the use of English prose and sharpening my mind against anyone’s with whom I could start a discussion.

Wells considered it a treat to read Carlyle’s book on the French Revolution, a break from his other reading. He also noted that England as a whole was influenced by Carlyle in a nationalism that was “consciously Teutonic”. Later on in the 1890s, Wells claimed, every writer was considered to be a “second” someone, and that at one time Wells himself was called a second Carlyle.

Although Wells was about twenty then and I am, shall we say, at least twice as old, I am also educating myself, in Victorian culture and literature as well as education. I cannot read all the things Wells read, but I did want to take a look at Carlyle, since I had only read Signs of the Times (then, in a move I have regretted more than once,  I assigned it to students). I bought a copy of Past and Present a couple of years ago, and tried to read it. I say “tried” because I never made it through – the prose seemed awful, like a combination of Wordsworth on drugs and Kipling on a very bad day (one more exclamation point and I would have crawled under the sofa).

So shopping at Skoob on my last trip to the UK, I picked up a short biography on Ruskin (for obvious reasons – readers know how much I both dislike him and am trying to understand his influence). Next to it, in the same paperbound series (Past Masters, by Oxford University Press), was one on Carlyle, by A.L. LeQuesne. I read the whole thing in one day (I won’t say “in one sitting” because I had to get up for tea and chocolate…ok, more than once).

It was brilliantly written. I’m not sure why I didn’t expect that. Biography can be quite dull, and Carlyle himself was hardly exciting. LeQuesne’s thesis (I didn’t expect a clear thesis either) was that Carlyle’s best work took place in only a few years of his very long career: 1837-1848. Before this, Carlyle wrote poorly (I am apparently not the only one to notice this), and afterward he was behind in worldview and no longer speaking to the current generation.

I do not like biographies that explain in detail the personal lives and clinical ailments of their subjects. Some things seem relevant to me (like Holmes’ noting in his biography of Wellington that the Duke put bars on the windows of Apsley House because he feared the rabble) and others do not (like the many biographies detailing Wells’ sexual proclivities, either known or imagined). LeQuesne had just the right amount of personal detail. It was important to know how witty and endearing Carlyle’s wife was, and how charming their marriage (at least to outsiders), to help explain why their house on Cheyne Walk in Chelsea was appealing to many intellectuals as a place to meet and converse.  His dyspepsia and sensitivity to noise was mentioned a few times, mostly as a distraction to his writing that needed to be overcome, but not, thank goodness, in detail. Similarly, his religion was discussed only as it influenced his work.

Robert Tait, A Chelsea Interior (The Carlyles at Home with their Dog Nero at 5/24 Great Cheyne Row, London), 1857-58

 

Carlyle had roots in an agricultural family in Scotland, and lost some of his youthful religious beliefs when he left. As a young man, he wrote many reviews of books, and since Wells did some of this too it helped me understand the culture that had writers enter the market by writing such reviews. Rebelling against the Enlightenment emphasis, philosophically and intellectually, at university in Edinburgh, Carlyle began studying German romanticism. His Sartor Resartus is described as “a weird Romantic masterpiece which defies either classification or summary” (p19). His style was sometimes “rambling, turbulent, ejaculatory, vastly self-indulgent and metaphorical” (p21). In this work, he apparently developed a theme of the material expression of life requiring a spiritual or super-natural foundation. Earnest work, he thought, made possible the glimpsing of the spiritual beneath the material (Ruskin would have understood this, I think). The book apparently fit the Romantic idea, common among people like Wordsworth (duh) of the superiority of the imagination over the dullness of cold rationality.

Reading this sort of thing now, when rationality is so sorely missing in our culture, and imagination has gone awry into nightmares of duplicity and cruelty, is difficult. But as he continued, Carlyle turned himself into a historian, using that imagination to enliven deep primary research into the past, particularly the French Revolution and the English Civil War. LeQuesne claims he replaced a faith in religion with a faith in history (p33). This was not a faith in materialism, like that of Karl Marx, but of providential judgement. The horrors of the French Revolution seemed to be divine punishment of some sort, revealing God’s purpose. Carlyle thus opposed previous historians of the 1830s, who looked back on the revolution as a horrible deviation from the natural order and a warning about a possible uprising. Carlyle’s analysis instead provided a “cause of hope rather than fear; for it was a sentence of divine justice on a corrupt society” (p35, a page dog-eared by a previous reader of my copy).

Of even more interest to me was the analysis of Carlyle as a historian in professional terms. According to LeQuesne:

Carlyle did not believe that the historian’s function was to provide a smoothly flowing narrative for the entertainment of his readers, nor that history could be treated as an experimental science from which inductive laws of human behaviour could be derived, nor that rigid objectivity and detachment were either possible or desirable qualities in a historian.

This seems similar to the re-emergence in recent years of imaginative historical writing. Under what circumstances, I wonder, do historians appear who value the imaginative over the rational? Despite the rejection of narrative noted by LeQuesne, the passages quoted from Carlyle’s books show, as with Dickens, a deep-seated sympathy for the poor and downtrodden. And he showed it in such a way as to condemn beourgeois complacency, often in stirring prose (and prose that I could actually read). In one passage he makes the reader grieve for the dying Dauphin in prison, then jabs at a conscience which can lament this but ignore the conditions of “poor Factory Children” that perish while no one cares (p43).

The difference between mid-19th century social reformers and Carlyle was that as Carlyle’s career continued, he saw the answer to social inequities to be the rise of heroes, and sometimes a heroic nation-state. LeQuesne says several times in the book that Carlyle was “no democrat”. He claims that Carlyle’s work on the French Revolution won the “ears of a generation”, but that his work after 1850 lost it (p55). LeQuesne calls him a “prophet” (and spends a chapter or two attempting to prove that this title is appropriate) but his work became preachy and grumpy. By then people were actively involved in reform acts of many kinds, and Carlyle’s vision of providentially-guided history and heroic leadership seemed out of place. Moreover, his work began treating the downtrodden soldiers, colonials, and workers with derision rather than understanding. LeQuesne claims this transition is masked by his focus on hero-worship (p85), but the hero is needed to guide people precisely because people are so inadequate to the task.

Thus Carlyle lost his readership, and certainly my interest — it was this sort of writing I encountered in Past and Present. LeQuesne sees his later approach as a rejection of humanity and an increase in impatience with slow progress, but it also seems to me a good foundation for dictatorship and all sorts of other nasty mechanisms that don’t trust people even with a republican system, much less a democratic one.

So in this biography, if not in Carlyle’s own works, I have gotten an idea of what Carlyle had to say and why it mattered — the goals of H.G. Wells’ own reading of him. Unfortunately, I have found myself with little sympathy for any of his ideas except those designed to help readers understand the lives of those less fortunate. Much of the rest (including anti-rationalism, imaginative historical writing, and hero-worship) I find to be at the foundation of much that is wrong with society now, as well as then.

 

Honors Contracts in Canvas

Yes, it’s another how-to-so-I-don’t-forget post! (Sorry, I would much rather being doing England travelogues.)

Background

So… I have a stand-alone Honors section this semester, with 25 students of varied abilities, some Honors students and others not, some just desperate to grab a seat in an online US History because we never offer enough. This stand-alone section is online and in Canvas. I have created weekly research tasks for this class, each in a forum so all can share their work as their project progresses. You can see these tasks together here on this Google Doc.

Honors Contracts, however, are the mechanism by which individual students in non-Honors (regular) classes can take the class officially for Honors. This is typically done by working on research individually with the instructor.

I have strived to create community among my Honors Contract students, but with little success. One of the issues is numbers: I am only allowed to teach 5 contracts per term. Since Honors Contracts are fairly new, I usually only get 4-5 requests anyway, but they are from different classes. Excluding 8-week classes for European History and U.S., this leaves my History of England and History of Technology classes for Honors Contracts.

I have struggled with student self-direction with the Contracts, and many of my Contract students don’t complete, for various reasons (mostly personal rather than academic). The problem is that when they get into trouble, the system does not allow them back into the “regular” course – they do the Honors work or they fail.

So last year I had this great idea to combine the Honors Contracts students from these two classes, and have them work on this blog, with set readings and curriculum. The two students that finished did great. But there were problems with the technology (or rather, problems with me and the technology – if I hadn’t insisted the college connect WordPress to the enrollment system, they would not have happened).

The Plan

Since community is not working (for me or for the students),  I will be returning to the original intention of Contracts: individual research projects.

This does not mean I think my set course in “Victorian Science and Science Fiction” wasn’t wonderful (it was effing brilliant) or that everyone shouldn’t study Frankenstein, watch The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen or read Arabella of Mars (they should). It just isn’t sustainable at this time.

Since I have already created weekly research forums for my stand-alone US History class, I will simply import these into my History of England and History of Technology Canvas shells. But they will only be assigned to one group, which I’ll name Honors Contracts (I supposed I could amuse myself by calling it Unicorns or something, but I might get confused.)

The way it works at my college, Contract students are “in class” with the regular section, but just do some different, more advanced work. In order to provide time for their research, I have my Contract students stop taking quizzes and stop uploading lecture notes after the first two weeks of class, so long as their grades are OK. But I don’t want to keep a separate grade tally (you know, on a piece of paper, God forbid). I just found out that it’s easy to Excuse students from taking particular assignments, right in the gradebook, as shown here:

I got this from this Canvas help page. So I’ll do that for all their quizzes and lecture notes.

Since the research forums are forums, if I have more than one Contract student in a class, they can work together, but I’ll change the instructions to remove required interaction. I’ll be their buddy in the forum, just like an individual tutor (I would like to furnish my online office like an Oxford don, but that might be too much — oh, wait, I could Voki!).  If I want to get Contract students together, we can use social media (Facebook group) and/or real-life meetings at Peet’s Coffee.

Ideally, it would be nice to have a separate Canvas course that would integrate all the Contract students from my various classes, but Canvas cannot do that and keep it connected to the regular class site. (I’ll be lucky if it does this properly.)

And yes, it will take awhile to set up, particularly since Canvas will want to do stupid things, like put all forums on the Calendar so all students can see, or include it in the Syllabus Assignments list even when they aren’t assigned to everyone.

But I think it’s more likely that students will stick with their Contract if it’s easier, and if their Honors work is integrated with their regular coursework, at the same online site as their regular work.

Or at least, that’s what I’m telling myself as I continue down this road, paved with good intentions, of bowing to our Canvas overlords.

 


*After writing this, I renewed my Voki account. First week in the research forums will start something like this:

The other time machine

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

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

It was written by a Myron Tuman. Since I don’t find many scholars to talk with about my work, I thought I’d look him up on the web. What happened was a time machine journey.

Academia.edu took me to his work going back to at least 1988, although it didn’t list this article I’d been reading. I discovered he had published also about online and computer issues as we both entered the increasingly online world of education. I tried to find him at the University of Alabama website, but he isn’t listed now.

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

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

Mass producing instructions

One of the most annoying things about teaching many sections using an LMS is that instructions must be repeated in so many places. Partly this is because people forget from one week to the next what the instructions are, so proximity of instructions to a specific task is necessary. And we all know that students do better when instructions are repeated and reminded in at least three places.

But what happens when you want to change instructions for a particular kind of assignment?

For example, I have a set of writing instructions, one each for Writing Assignments I, II, and III. When I want to change instructions for these, I have to go into Canvas and change them one at a time. Well, that’s only three sets of instructions each for five classes, and I can cut and paste.

But I realized I wanted to change instructions for a weekly assignment, my annotation discussion. That’s 16 times for each class. I wanted all of them changed to say:

Let’s add depth to our sources, and help everyone understand them. Some ideas for how to do this:

  • at least one person should highlight the thesis or main point of each document, or speculate on what it might be if it isn’t obvious
  • post a question or two where appropriate in the document (use the question mark on your comment, or use @ to get someone’s attention)
  • answer the questions of others
  • select something you found confusing or fascinating, look it up, and tell us about what you found
  • find aspects of the primary source that seem to connect to the textbook and lecture, and tell us how they connect
  • use the picture tool to add visual sources or illustrate a point

Since this is a discussion, entries which respond, enlighten, or clarify earn more points (the phrase “I agree” is specifically disallowed!).

Comments need not be long – it’s more important to annotate throughout the document (with comments in many different areas throughout the various documents), discuss with colleagues, and make connections.

So I started doing that for 16 weeks of discussion in a course, copying and pasting for each instance. When I was done, I had to do it for the next class, and suddenly I thought, wait a minute. Why not use a web page and embed it? So I made a web page with the instructions in Dreamweaver. Then I pasted this code in the Canvas assignment:

<p><iframe src=”https://lisahistory.net/pages/docdisc.htm” width=”90%” height=”360px”></iframe></p>

I can embed it anywhere, even here:

The reason to do this isn’t just to save pasting something 16 times, since I still have to paste this 16 times. But I only have to change it 16 times once, if you follow me. If my instructions change next semester (or if I decide I forgot to add something now), I just change it on the web page, and it changes everywhere. So I’m doing it for all instructions for all assignments.

*Now, to do this sort of thing exactly as I did, you need to make a web page and serve it. But you could do it in a Google Doc, and have Google serve it for you, by sharing your Doc and using the code I shared in my recent post, which looks the same but with a Google Doc URL, like this:

<iframe src=”https://docs.google.com/document/d/1VPObOkwoBVM5GVXgXCbdKU48Cs_ZRnS-ZJLIpZYMNJE/edit?usp=sharing?embedded=true&rm=minimal&headers=false” width=”99%” height=”360px”></iframe>

I just don’t like it because you can’t really prevent scrolling easily.

Published — Cram and Criticism: H.G. Wells and Late Victorian Education

My journal article “Cram and Criticism: H.G. Wells and Late Victorian Education” has just been published in the Fall 2018 issue of The Wellsian, the peer-reviewed journal of the H.G. Wells Society in the UK.

My pre-publication paper is here, and further info on The Wellsian (including how to obtain copies and back issues, and to join the society) is here at the society’s website. Citation information:

Lisa M. Lane, “Cram and Criticism: H.G. Wells and Late Victorian Education”, The Wellsian, 40 (2018) pp. 28-42.

Enjoy!

Embedding Google Doc in Canvas with extras

Last year I began creating all my syllabuses in Google Docs and embedding them in Canvas.

It was possible then to just take the URL of your Doc, and put it into an iframe, with any extras you like. I liked to remove the ruler and navigation at the top of the Doc (rm=minimal), remove the headers (headers=false) and set the width and height (width 99%, height 1200px). It was working fine, and looked like this:

<iframe src="https://docs.google.com/document/d/165o30E5jiFE2zUBecH6kZL3D3eTs3Dnmal8K80P8bvY/edit?rm=minimal&headers=false" width="99%" height="1200px"></iframe>

Well, now something (Canvas or Google) won’t let that happen, and you must follow the instructions for publishing your Doc to the web. Here are instructions from Tufts. Trouble is, that gives you the set iframe code to paste in, but you don’t have the extras. So here’s how I added them.

What Google publishing gave me was this:

<iframe src="https://docs.google.com/document/d/e/2PACX-1vSpS0g-4SIpMzCvSRpukiKFPX5T5PDh9Xv9uo_8d3bNyBQ5ZodmqnYoRKjTFIaZQpqr8F9yJbnVlaj-/pub?embedded=true"></iframe>

Here are the changes I made:

<iframe src="https://docs.google.com/document/d/e/2PACX-1vSpS0g-4SIpMzCvSRpukiKFPX5T5PDh9Xv9uo_8d3bNyBQ5ZodmqnYoRKjTFIaZQpqr8F9yJbnVlaj-/pub?embedded=true&rm=minimal&headers=false" width="99%" height="1200px"></iframe>

Unfortunately, this wasn’t good because “publishing” a Doc in Google freezes it somehow, and doesn’t always include the images or proper formatting. Also, I couldn’t edit the Doc from inside Canvas, which is nice to be able to do.

The better solution was to use Share rather than Publish. In the Doc, click on Share, and copy the “get shareable link” URL. Then put it into the iframe code:

<iframe src="https://docs.google.com/document/d/1MN8nGYzZvXOmOmfAPvfkAzPTm82bz1VFVpUiiI55xlc/edit?usp=sharing?embedded=true&rm=minimal&headers=false" width="99%" height="1200px"></iframe>

 

 

I also provide a link, of course, for easier printing.

 

(Updated post)

 

Dipping a toe into Digital Humanities: word clouds

The term “digital humanities” has always confused me. When I first heard it, I assumed it was what I was already doing – applying digital approaches to humanities research and teaching.

But no. Digital Humanities seems to be about applying certain elements of computer science to the humanities, with emphasis on quantification. At least, that’s how I’d put it. Wikipedia says, “the systematic use of digital resources in the humanities, as well as the reflection on their application”. Stanford University says, “Digital humanities foster collaboration and traverse disciplines and methodological orientations, with projects to digitize archival materials for posterity, to map the exchange and transmission of ideas in history, and to study the evolution of common words over the centuries.”

[I am treading carefully here, since the term is now used by people who have professionalized the subject. Like most new disciplines, it’s already questioning itself.]

When I come across the term, it usually involves word counts, tallying the number of times a word or words is used in a text. I think that makes Wordle one of the first digital humanities tools. Wordle was an applet created by Jonathan Feinberg ten years ago. It counted the number of times a word appeared in a text, and created a tag cloud, with more frequent terms in larger text.

So using another progam, Jason Davies’ Word Cloud Generator, let’s see what happens.

For example, here’s the Declaration of Independence using 400 most-used words:

 

There are many uses for such an approach. I can compare it, for example, to Magna Carta.

where there is far less about the people.

Even without a word cloud, one can use a basic word search of one can get a whole document in a browser window. So if I have the declaration here, and I do a “find” for the word people, it tells me it’s there 10 times.

So today (stand back!) I’m going to apply this method to HG Wells’ autobiography.

The 19,332 words that result after removing the table of contents and the index took 7 minutes to process (with all words counted):

Hmmm. “Peace” is big, and “Nazi” is small. “Work”, “world”, “now”, “man” “life” are all big. “New” and “still” are the same size. There is no representation of the personality of the piece, which is part of the purpose, except in the words themselves. But really, not very helpful. What if I limit results to the top 25 words?

A little better, but hardly revealing.

Fiction, however, often fares better. That’s why it’s digital humanities, not digital biography. Taking The Sea Raiders by HG Wells at 25 words, we get:

Tentacles! Creatures! Well, that’s more fun, anyway.

Given the current environment in social discourse, digital humanities techniques are being used to ferret out trends in speeches, maps, and censuses, to demonstrate sexism or racism. So the use goes far beyond word clouds.

But I’m still sad. No digital humanities grants for me.

Standardizing what’s good

Every October, I work on my classes for next term. Partly this is because the spring schedule comes out the third week of the month, and partly because October has always been particularly difficult for morale and motivation (mine as well as the students’). I’m not sure why. Could be the lack of any real holiday except Halloween (Columbus Day is tainted and it was never a day off anyway), or just mid-term blues.

That’s my excuse anyway, since I’m not supposed to be doing this till after my sabbatical is over. But I am still doing my reading and research. Prepping is more like a break, because mostly what I’m doing is changing settings rather than creating things. It turns me into a non-thinking machine, changing hundreds of due dates and adding lots of links (why aren’t we at a place where I can assign this to someone?). Definitely mindless.

I’ve decided I like the sources and readings for my classes, I like my lectures, so no changes are needed. But at the end of last term, I added two elements to my weekly coursework for two of my classes, then tested again for three this summer. These elements are “Check primary source for points” and “Submit lecture notes”.

So once I’m done, the weekly tasks for each class I teach online will be this:

  • Due Wednesday:
    • Read the textbook
    • Read/listen to lecture
    • Research and post primary source
    • Check primary source for points
  • Due Sunday:
    • Read and discuss the documents
    • Submit lecture notes
    • Quiz

In addition, for the first two weeks there are multi-pages quizzed Learning Units about primary sources. And, three times during the semester, there are Learning Units for the next writing assignment followed by the assignment itself. Writing Assignments are based only on the sources that have been posted in the Boards by the class, and have a scaffolded format that I created myself, so they are difficult if not impossible to purchase or plagiarize. The Final Essay, for the full-term sessions, is based on the third writing assignment, and folds into the grading for Writing Assignments.

“Read the textbook” is linked to the actual textbook pages, except for the one class where I’m still using a purchased book.

“Read/listen to lecture” is linked to my online lectures, hosted on my rented server, which contain audio of me reading the lecture, video clips, etc.

“Research and post primary source” is the laboratory type posting, on a discussion board, of visual primary sources students find on the web, with citations and student commentary.

“Check primary source for points” is a one-question quiz checklist of all the things required for full points on a primary source (image, author, title, date, live link, commentary), so it’s a self-evaluation of their own source, instantly graded.

“Read and discuss the documents” is annotating the assigned textual sources using Perusall inside Canvas as an LTI, which assigns points automatically but I do have to check through all of them and make sure they’re right.

“Submit lecture notes” automatically assigns 2 points when they submit them, and they can be in any format, including images of handwritten notes.

“Quiz” is a multiple-choice quiz based on lecture, documents, and textbook readings.

The grading breakdown is:

Read and discuss the documents 20%
Quizzes 20%
Primary Sources 20%
Lecture Notes 10%
Learning Units 10%
Writing Assignments 20%

Right now, the only class that varies from this is the one US History where I have full discussion. In that class, it’s:

Homework 20%
Lecture notes 20%
Writing Assignments 20%
Discussion 20%
Constitution exercise 10%
Final Essay 10%

The pedagogy, briefly, is based on emphasizing task completion, with grading considerations as secondary. Each individual assignment is low stakes, though with only three or four writing assignments, the stakes are higher for putting all the knowledge together. Assignments that can be graded immediately (quizzes, learning unit knowledge checks self-assessed primary source points, lecture notes) are, so that students can get immediate feedback (yes, I reserve the right to change points if there are inaccuracies or instructions aren’t followed). The addition of lecture notes and self-assessed primary source points adds a metacognitive learning aspect. The work of doing history is engaged in multiple ways, including reading, writing, discovery, sharing, and visual analysis.

Student choice is built in, in several ways. Students choose their own primary sources to post, and their own topics for writing assignments. They can choose which days they work, so long as deadlines are met (each unit opens a week in advance). Lecture note format is up to them, to meet their own note-taking style. Since each individual item is low points, they can choose to miss one or two without it doing serious grade damage. Two attempts are given for self-graded items, so they can go back and correct something without penalty.

My role is guide on the side, in the middle, at the front, and in the end. Instead of grading constantly, I spend my time reading their notes, viewing their posted primary sources, answering questions, writing weekly or twice-weekly communications, conversing with students in the Perusall annotations, and yes, grading their writing assignments. I have had no complaints about how much work the courses are, since most of the things I’m requesting (like lecture notes) are common to on-site classes. Some students appreciate the trust, and the autodidactic opportunities. Others appreciate that I’m there for them, and respond quickly to their individual messages. (On this, I’ve decided that students want the individual approach, but not necessarily for class content – rather they want it for their individual problems and issues, most of which have nothing to do with the subject. My method leaves time for that.) And I can grade more generously, because the point is to do the work, be the historian, rather than show me you’re good enough to do history without me.

There is also something interesting about having the courses this structured. The course itself seems to be its own entity, has its own trajectory and completeness. It is almost like it’s me, the students, and the course. The students and I interact with the course together, instead of the course acting as a weapon with which I beat students using grades. This goes along with the LMS (Canvas – blech), which the students and I can work in (and on, when things go wrong) together — it’s them and me against the system.

So although on the one hand I don’t like the idea of standardizing courses, in this case I’m standardizing what’s good, what works, what meets my pedagogical goals. I am free to change readings, lectures, materials, instructions, at any time. After 20 years of building these courses, I think I’m onto something less subject to the vagaries of passing fads (personalized learning, individual learning styles), dangerous web spaces (MOOCs, open education), and changing jargon (student learning outcomes, guided pathways), and more founded in solid pedagogy.

 

 

NACBS sessions

More session reports! (I know, you’ve been waiting — but I do this so I remember the sessions.)

Petitioning and the Politics of Nation, Gender, and Empire shows the problems with titling panels, as it was really more about the process of petititoning the government, not so much politics or any of the sub-factors.

Laura Stewart’s “Petitioning Practices in Early Modern Scotland” looked at how political petitioning (petitioning in order to criticize the government) and ordinary supplications interact, in this case as regards the Covenanter government of Scotland in the 1640s, an era surrounding the English Civil War. Although it’s hard to quantify the total number of petitions, case studies provide a variety of significances, including whether a petition can be considered libel, what language supplicants used in their petitions, and how government critiques can provide a foundation for a petition.

Richard Huzzy and Henry Miller’s “The Rise and Fall of Petitions to the House of Commons, 1780-1918” was a good example of the kind of research you can do with a grant, in this case from the Leverhulme Trust. They were able to sort and recategorize thousands of petitions and numbers of signatures. Between 1833 and 1918 Parliament received 950,000 public petitions on 29,500 different issues, and their charts showed spikes in certain years. The categories included colonies, ecclesiastic, economic, infrastructure, legal, social, taxes, war. They had broken down colonies but I was sad to see that “education” wasn’t its own category, as that might have been helpful for my work. They noted certain politically organized pushes for petitions, which were clearly used to mobilize support on certain issues.

Ciara Stewart’s “Petitioning against the Contagious Diseases Acts in Britain and Ireland: A Comparative Perspective” helped me understand the foundational idea of many papers. It’s important to narrow the focus to a single argument with depth of sources. To me, petitioning against the CDA would have been its own paper, but it’s clear now that I’ve attended the conference that this is not the best way. By focusing closely on the Ladies National Association in Ireland and its composition, then comparing it favorably to the English LNA, Stewart was able to prove that the Irish branch should be taken more seriously. The paper avoided the usual discussion of whether the CDA was a good idea or not, though it did mention the reasons for supporting petitioning against it: the double standard it promoted by not examining men, the fact that the examinations were forced, and the arguments about the likelihood of police grabbing women to examine even if they had committed no crime (“protect your wife and daughters”). Previous historiography had sidelined the Irish LNA, and I recalled that the purpose of most papers is to oppose previous historiography. I tell students that this is an “although” thesis (“although we’ve been told that the Irish LNA was just a side branch, it was actually significant”).

In my case, then, an example might be “although the focus of historical study for higher education in the Victorian age has been on universities, extension courses, and the examination system itself, correspondence courses for degree exams were a significant means of advancing education among the lower middle classes…”

The session I was looking forward to the most was next: The Educational Institution as a Category of Analysis in Modern British History. The chair, Peter Mandler, noted that education has been a missing element, long neglected in British social history, although it is well-served now. Emily Rutherford’s “Opposition to Coeducation in British Universities 1880-1939” had a thesis that I would summarize as “although the historical focus of gender in universities is based on women trying to gain access to higher education, there are important elements in resistance to it, particularly personal comfort levels and administrative constraints”, including the role of donors. The wishes of donors (she cited donors who wanted to support single-sex institutions) could be at odds with the wishes of administrations. In some cases, like that of Queen Margaret College at the University of Glasgow, it was wasteful to teach women-only classes, and the argument was made that biases against women would mean lower marks for them than if their exams were mixed with men’s. (Later in the Q&A a concern was raised about the cost to working-class boys of middle-class girls dominating classes.) The speaker also introduced the interesting case of Edward Perry Warren, an art collector and scholar of the idealized male Greek life cycle of homosexuality, who funded a male lectureship on the condition that the lecturer live at the college and there be a passage between his house and the boys’ lodgings.

Laura Carter’s “Locating Self and Experience in the History of Secondary Education in the UK: The View from 1968” discussed a project that followed baby boomers and their perceptions about their education into adulthood, and meant to extract education from the history of social change. Many of the students, as adults, regretted missing opportunities while they were in school, but none regretted attending a modern secondary school. Although when asked about moving up socially, those from manual worker families cited money and luck as primary factors, and non-manual labor families cited education, all named education as the key to self-improvement. Also interesting was that among those who didn’t go to university, men cited external reasons (like jobs), while women cited family responsibilities which prevented them.

Sussex University Chapel

William White’s “‘A Symbol of all this University Doesn’t Stand for’? The Place of Religion in Post-war University Life” had an implied thesis, of course: “although historians cite the removal of religion from student life during the 1960s, conflicts over chapels and religious buildings on campus show much student interest in Christianity”. We should be asking why new chapels were being built all over if religion was in a downturn. White wisely printed out his slides, rather than projecting them, to demonstrate the modernist architecture to which many students objected on aesthetic grounds. He also noted that the student body was changing in the 1960s from more local attendance to students who were more mobile, national in their  perspective, and residential since they came from elsewhere. Thus residence halls were another architectural feature of the era. The new welfare state was, in effect, taking over from local churches, with chaplains in the NHS and religious programming on the BBC. Christianity saw a resurgence after the war, and there was an ecumenical movement.

Commentator Laura Tisdall noted that we need to take school out of the “history of education”. The history of education is not seen a real history, and needs to be integrated into modern history. It’s been neglected, she said, because the subject is embedded in teaching training colleges and departments of Education rather than History, that there’s a sense that we know it already since we’ve all been to school, and that it is associated mostly with the history of childhood (which has seen a proper resurgence). University history is even more neglected, and further education is positively marginalized. So although I enjoyed the papers, the commentary was even more important in sorting out where my work fits in History as a discipline. I have struggled with History of Education societies, which seem to be composed of educators who dabble in history. What I’m doing, as I’ve mentioned, is more traditional history — education just happens to be the subject.

Dorothy L. Sayers by Granger

The last session I attended (other than my own) was just for fun: Aspiring Writer and Aristocrats: Renegotiations of Elite and Mass Cultures, 1890-1940. Abigail Sage’s “Print Media and the Aspiring Writer in the Late 19th and Early 20th Centuries” examined periodicals like Young Man and Young Woman which encouraged potential fiction writers with advice columns. She even quoted HG Wells as saying he was  part of a whole generation of aspiring writers. Mo Moulton’s “Murder Mysteries, Socialist-Utopian Science Fiction, and the Mediation of Elite and Popular Cultures in the 1920s-1930s” looked at Dorothy L. Sayers and Muriel Yeager as representative of conservative modernity, both reflecting pessimism about human nature. I learned a lot about the character of Lord Peter Wimsey (whom I’ve seen on TV but never read), and about Yeager’s relationship with Sayers, and about Sayers’ interest in Christianity. Wells was mentioned here too, as a utopian author, with Yeager saying she opposed his views, but certainly The Time Machine is as dystopian as anything she wrote, so she must have meant his later work on socialism. I am, however, beginning to wonder whether one can present a paper on writing during the 1890s without mentioning Wells!

The very last session (last session, last day, and I was the last speaker) was the one I was in: Popular Culture and Popular Education in Victorian England. Anne Rodrick’s “‘Lectures Both Scientific and Literary’: Organizing Mid-19th-Century Lecture Culture” discussed the General Union of Literary, Scientific, and Mechanic’s’ Institutes and how they debated the best ways to provide lectures to the public. She compared their efforts unfavorably to the American Lyceum system, and showed how particularism and provincial concerns prevented a well-organized lecture culture. Martin Hewitt’s “Providing Science for the People: The Gilchrist Turst 1878-1914” explored how the Trust developed and promoted popular science lectures, and also noted some problems with development. While the lectures were highly successful due to their high quality, low ticket price, friendly connections with local authorities, and massive advertising campaigns (even door-to-door) to get people to attend, in the long run it was difficult to sustain. There was also some question as to how many attendees were actual rural or manual laborers, and complaints that the low cost made it difficult for other lectures to get an audience. My own paper, “‘Preposterous and Necessary’: H.G. Wells, William Briggs, and the University Correspondence College” focused on the development of the UCC as a viable method for lower-middle-class people to study for the University of London examinations and earn their degrees. I argued that distance education like that offered by the UCC was essential to the success of the examination system, although I need to work further on that approach. I was asked no questions, and got the sense that my paper was too broad, more like a class lecture rather than a research report (I had, in fact, written it for presentation rather than publication). I made slides but there was no adapter for my iBook to connect to HDMI, and tech support didn’t show, so I was glad I’d made sure my visuals were illustrative rather than essential. I came out feeling I have a great deal of work to do to get close to the quality of the other papers I saw, but that’s a good reason for going, yes?