Behind the scenes?

We’re nearing the end of summer term, so I get two different kinds of emails: one asking for an extension on the final essay, and the other thanking me for the class.

I’m happy to deal with both (yes, you may have an extension — we’re in a plague, dammit). But the emails thanking me are so nice. One of my top students wrote me that even though they unfortunately could not see or meet me, she always knew I was behind the scenes, helping them through it.

Gratifying, certainly. I love that they know I’m there for them. On my student survey, I have a question on the Lickert scale: “I felt that Lisa was really present and visible during this class.” I get extremely high marks on this, which makes me proud. But last spring, they were a little lower. And now, a student feels I was “behind the scenes”.

                                  CC Flickr Osman Kalkavan

I used to work in theatre. A lot. I was a lighting designer, sound board operator, props person, stage manager, and I even directed once. I know “behind the scenes”.

But my online class? I have all of these roles, plus I am the actor on the stage. My lectures are written out, and they are original. They can click a button and hear me reading them. I have video recordings of me talking to them for each unit. The whole production is mine. I’ve even put together the textbook. I am the show. I’m not just behind the scenes.

So why do they think so? Because I’m not doing synchronous. I’m not using Zoom.

Thank you, pandemic, for making people think that the only way to teach, the only way to get to know your professor, is live on camera. It isn’t. Asynchronous education is brilliant. It allows people to learn when they can, from anywhere. For the past 20 years of asynchronous teaching, I’ve developed solid relationships and firm friendships, students who write from wherever they are to keep in touch years later. None of them have ever said it was unfortunate we never “met”, because we meet all the time.

But within the span of a few short months, even students who don’t want to be on camera think that’s how it’s supposed to be. Administrators have cleverly figured out that this is the way to make sure faculty are doing the work. They have always suspected that, even though studies show that teaching online takes more hours than classroom teaching, we’re all here shirking in our summer shorts. Now they can track camera time.

As videoconferencing company shares go through the roof, I’m here to tell you: it’s only one method. It can be used effectively, for getting a group or class together to do something meaningful that requires being together. It can be used badly, for watching students take an exam or for enforcing attendance.

And you’d think the plague would have demonstrated the limitations of synchronous learning. I don’t just mean the frozen frames students have on Zoom so they can do something else. I mean the students who are first responders, whose parents are dying in hospitals while they sit and cry in their car in the parking lot, the ones doing double shifts at the food bank. They want to go to school, and they can’t be online every Tuesday and Thursday from 10-11:50 am. That was the whole idea of online education in the first place: to accommodate those who couldn’t do the butts-in-seats thing.

So I’m thrilled the student knew I was there. I really am. I have spent many hours this summer conversing with individual students through messages and emails, often responding minutes after they write me. It’s real. It is the scene, not just behind the scenes.


Modified Ungrading

I have written a lot on this blog about grading, about my longing for “ungrading”, my qualms about heading that direction, and the things I’ve decided to do instead. This is a more specific post about the latter, and my gradual shift in emphasis I’m calling “Modified Ungrading”.

We know the arguments against A-F grades. They encourage a focus on marks rather than learning, and they can be discouraging. We know there are also arguments in favor. They rank performance against a standard, they inform the student of their level of success, and they mark improvement. (Many years ago I heard a speaker say he did not want to drive across a bridge built by someone who got a C in engineering, or be operating on by someone who got Cs in medical school. I get that.)

This is an area where faculty workload and student desires can profitably intersect. Most of us teach large groups of students, and at community college we do it without teaching assistants. The big argument in favor of ungrading is that students benefit more from individualized feedback than from grades. But in this environment, tutorial-style feedback and individualized learning isn’t possible. Auto-grading, with current technology, is possible, and helps fill the gap between grading and ungrading.

In most learning management systems, when a student submits something, a certain number of points can be automatically assigned. The arguments for and against doing this are the same as those for grading in general. But in addition, auto-grading provides immediate marking and a sense of completion, two factors which are often ignored in discussions of grades vs feedback.

So far, I’ve implemented auto-grading for two types of assignments, both of which are submitted only to me: lecture notes, and document paragraphs. What this enables me to do is have 2 points automatically assigned, then go back and look at the work itself. Sure, I could assign the points when I look, but auto-grading instead changes things, for me and for the students.

For the students, they get their two points immediately, so it’s confirming they did it. For me, I then have ample time to go back and peruse their work. And with the points already given, I can pay more attention to my Assignment Comments (feedback). The tendency is to talk to them first, then think about the grade, instead of the reverse.

I’ve had to change the grade sometimes, but I’ve had the chance to explain individually before doing that, and to give an opportunity for corrections.

This shift to Modified Ungrading may seem ridiculously subtle, but it’s quite real. Mentally I can shift from “processing” the work of 40 students per section, to responding to it personally.

In fall, I intend to apply this to discussion forums, which we use for posting primary sources. Ultimately, I would like everything auto-scored except writing assignments, on which I can spend more individual time.

This way, I can focus my work more on communication than grading. And when students see their points immediately, and rarely changed, I’m hoping they will do the same.

Working against Canvas: three tips

So many instructors, some of whom have used Canvas as their LMS for their on-site classes, are now encountering the system’s complexities and limitations. Teaching fully online is different from posting ones class resources online, or at least it should be.

My advice has changed from three years ago, because Canvas itself has changed.  My reasoning, however, has not changed from eleven years ago. My article on Insidious Pedagogy: How course management systems affect teaching (2009) explained how the designs of learning management system tend to control pedagogy, especially among novice users. We need to spend some time working against the system.

So I’ve reduced my top ten tips to three. And they may well be suitable for LMSs and VLEs other than Canvas.

1) Create full navigation using Pages

As with LMSs of old, Canvas continues to default to grouping content and assignments by type. This is a holdover from Blackboard, which relied on the early computer analogies of “files and folders” to imitate paper filing systems. So “Lectures” can be a folder, “Discussions”, “Quizzes”, etc.

But for most of us, learning is time-oriented, or theme-oriented, not type-oriented. We tend to have units with multiple types of content and activities. Many of these are organized by unit or week. There is no way to express this to students without making a page of links.

Canvas, of course, has a Modules page with a list of links. On the Modules page, you can load in everything, and have students do things in sequence, or with prerequisites, or both. The Modules page is, and has always been, ugly. The most you can do is add emojis to the headings, if you know how. And every item listed on the Modules page is the same size and color, creating the impression that everything listed has the same worth. All you can do is indent, or use caps.

The best Canvas classes I’ve seen have a schedule or grid on the main page:

Each of the links goes to a Canvas page, which has links of the activities and content:

One can of course put all these in the Modules page also, which will enable the “Back” and “Next” buttons for those into sequences and control. Then it’s up to you whether to show that Modules page, because you also ought to. . .

2) Hide menu items

This has not changed from earlier advice: features we are not using, or that we don’t want students accessing from the menu, should not appear on the menu.

For Canvas, this involves going to Settings – Navigation and dragging the items you don’t want visible down to the inactive area. It used to be that when you did this and saved, neither you nor the students saw these items on the menu, and the look was clean. Recently, Canvas changed this so that the instructor sees them all, but with the hidden items indicated by a crossed-out eye.

Well, at least students don’t see them.

3) Do low-stakes stuff anyway

Here working against Canvas means working with it. Students need reasons to work on your class, and to get immediate feedback. This is difficult in Canvas. Doing extra credit, creating short quizzes, using test question banks, all are ridiculously complicated. And there is still no easy way to just copy a quiz.

Canvas will also passively prevent what you want to do. Want to create a discussion forum where everyone who posts twice gets 3 points? Can’t do it. Want to have 20 questions on a 10-point quiz, so each question is worth half a point? No can do. Want to rename an assignment and have all the internal links still work? Good luck. Want to change all 28 due dates to a week later? It’s a one-at-a-time job. (At least there’s a hack for this one.)

It pays to spend some time seeing what can be done with zero-point assignments, and complete/incomplete grades, and the default grade feature in the Gradebook. Students learn from short, formative assessments.

Working against the LMS has always been required for us to teach the way we want to. More and more, I see LMS trainings covering these problems, and teaching the workarounds, which is great. Particularly when your LMS is owned by an equity firm, after going public and answering to shareholders, we can be sure that improvement is unlikely (most Canvas problems have been around since its inception). We must be willing to work against the system.



Simplifying a class

I think now is a good time to simplify our online classes. So while everyone is giving advice on how to add things, I figured I’d do the opposite.

Students are overwhelmed, by everything. So are we.

Faculty who have had only a half-semester teaching online are trying to prepare their classes for fall. Some of these classes will be simple, and effective. Others will be cluttered with features, or try to do too much, or not follow basic principles for student ease of use.

I’ve been doing this for awhile, and I already responded this summer by reducing the workload in my classes. But for fall I had considered keeping things the same as before, the same pattern of activities and readings.

Instead I am considering some ways to simplify.

I’m stuck using Canvas so these ideas relate to that LMS, but apply to others as well:

1. Remove “Until” dates

I have always had assignments close a week after the due date, and have told students that between the due date and “until” date they’ll get half points. I’ve never enforced the point reduction — it was just to help keep students on track. It was always inconvenient for me to re-open assignments for individual students anyway, so I’m going to remove all the “Until” dates (a batching process only possible with James Jones’ brilliant hack) on everything except the one assignment I really need to close on time. It’s been pretty clear that students appreciate the extended time.

2. Convert self-assessments to automatic points

For my primary sources, I have students post in a discussion board, then take a one-question checklist quiz to check their work. They often don’t check anything but the boxes! And this summer, I’ve had a student not submit anything, but do the checklist anyway just to get the points. The exercise isn’t working. It would be better to just give them the points when they post, then spot-check myself if certain work needs improvement, and request such improvement with no point reduction.

3. Be more available for immediate response and encourage communication

I have always been good about responding to students when they message me, but over the summer I’ve gotten even better, checking my messages continually. Students have said they really appreciate a quick response, especially since the class is only six weeks long. I intend to keep this up for fall. In addition, I have adopted some new habits designed to encourage students to contact me individually, including inviting them to “keep those questions coming!” when they contact me with a question, however simple it is.

4. Remove unnecessary assignments from the system

This is a Canvas thing. When I change what I’m doing, and no longer use an assignment, I used to just “unpublish” it. But if you do that, and it has a due date or until date attached to it, it still shows to students in various places unless you chase it down and undo that. It’s too automatic. So now I will delete them, confident that if I need them back I can import them from a previous course iteration (I already download classes when they’re finished, just in case).

I’m sure there will be more, but it’s a start.





Thoughts on art and windows

Some of the best things happening at the moment are related to art.

Not being an Instagram aficionado, I read in 1843 magazine that Instagram is the place for art and artists. So I signed on and followed my favorite museums: The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Uffizi, the Getty, the Ashmolean, the Fitzwilliam, the Victoria and Albert, the National Gallery in London, the National Portrait Gallery, and the Bodleian Library (yes, I know it’s not an art museum).

Each are posting an artwork a day, and most are responding to questions. It’s a delight.

Most of these works, like most of my recent blog posts, are not directly about the current situation. And yet they touch upon the values, knowledge, and sympathies that inform our response to it. So for example, Antonella da Massina’s “St Jerome in His Study” (c. 1474-75), from the National Gallery:



This has been one of my favorite works since I first saw it. I can see myself there at the desk, reading and writing. (This is despite the fact that Jerome would not have liked me at all, and that if you look at it realistically the place would be awfully drafty.)

On Instagram, people replied to this post asking about the birds in front and the lion in the back hall, and National Gallery staff explained about peacocks and wisdom and the story of Jerome and the lion’s thorn. It had over 23,000 views in 13 hours. It’s learning, without a class, but with guidance and expertise, in an interactive environment, with object-based instruction and student-based inquiry. A perfect lesson.

When I first saw the work of Vanessa Bell, it was in an exhibit where the curator, Laura Smith, pointed out how views out of windows relate to women’s experiences. An example is “Interior with a Table” (1921 © Tate):

Some would say that women’s domestic lives are often more isolated than men’s, that over time many have seen the world from behind a window. Given a choice, I often prefer life through a window, but that’s because nature and I have an enigmatic relationship. I want her protected, unpolluted by my footprints. I prefer the idea of wilderness to the idea of conserving nature for human use. But I’ve also been teased, having been camping only twice and told that my idea of “roughing it” is a hotel without room service. Looking out a window, one has the illusion that one is in control of what is behind it. The wildness and beauty of nature is beyond, seen through glass. It can do its own thing, while inside I do mine. A Room of Ones Own must be a Room with a View.

Nowadays many people are supposed to be inside for awhile. There have even been art jokes about this self-isolating, and the tongue-in-cheek adapting of artworks. A copywriter named Peter Breuer in Germany posted this in Twitter:

Art can show, articulate, or contrast reality. A person can be put inside, or the outside can be swept of people. The work of Jose Manuel Ballester, which removes the people from art masterpieces, has a new resonance these days. For example, the Hieronymus Bosch’s “Garden of Earthly Delights” becomes “El jardín deshabitado” (2007).

I do miss the guy with the flowers.

Art appreciation can also be personal and timely — the Getty has people recreating art masterpieces all over the world. The idea of people using things they already have, to recreate great works, and create new things, shows the best of humanity. And yes, some people are working extra hours in dangerous conditions, while others are unemployed and too worried to create, but it is often at the busiest and worst times that art provides some comfort.

One of my Honors students just finished her final paper for this term. At the beginning, in January, she wanted to write about the history of social media. I assigned her Tom Standage’s Writing on the Wall. As the term progressed, her topic gradually changed. Her paper is titled “Art and Technology as a Mechanism for the Reduction of Isolation”. And it’s quite wonderful.

It is said that the pandemic has proven the necessity of the arts and humanities. It’s true, and not just for the comfort they provide, but for the reminders. How to take the familiar and make it intriguing. How to hold an object in your hand so people see it and ask questions. How to change your perspective by changing your window. How to teach by showing instead of telling.

With the arts and humanities, we are part of a larger experience. We can be inside looking out, instead of outside looking in.

A Bit of Pedagogy: between remote emergency learning and online teaching

Quite a few colleges are putting their classes for summer, and many for fall, online. So many faculty who had never taught in the online environment before this term will be doing it again.

What might they do differently?

The hope of many admins and techno-utopians is that the newbies will have time now to take online pedagogy seriously, perhaps learn how to use the LMS more effectively, or read up on online pedagogy. But the hope of many newbies is that they can just do what they did again, while reducing their cognitive load.

There is a middle ground.

Emergency remote instruction

What just happened did not, in most cases, cause newbie online faculty to create a pedagogical plan based on their own teaching. There wasn’t time. So it wasn’t normal “online instruction”. It’s been emergency remote instruction, often instituted in the middle of the class. See, for example:

Of course, what one does in an emergency couldn’t be the same as what one would normally do.

Pressure from above

Distance learning is different. It’s an entire field of knowledge. They give PhDs in this stuff. So now there may be a demand (mostly from those PhDs) that all faculty must up their game. Now. In the middle of the pandemic (yup, sorry, I think we’re still in the middle for summer and fall, but that’s only because I know about 1918-19).

And commercial pressure? I’m sure you’ve seen it all ready. Faculty mailboxes have been jammed with “we’re here for you” emails from every conceivable online learning product, textbook, and service. All free! Well, for now, anyway. They advertise like old 50s commercials. Got a problem? We understand! Our product will solve it for you! Try now with no obligation to buy!

We don’t want to do this

Increasing instructor dependence on the LMS, adding various products and materials from publishers, will not turn newbies into online instructors. It’s better to face the fact that those who were not teaching online before the pandemic were resisting because they didn’t want to do it. It wasn’t their thing. They didn’t care for the online environment. They were forced into this, and are still being forced. Maybe now they can use their LMS better. But they’re not happy.

Yes, there’s plenty of training out there, but they don’t want to be doing any of this. I don’t blame them.

A Bit of Pedagogy

What’s the middle ground? A Bit of Pedagogy. Bring ourselves back into our teaching, even though we must do it online. Change things? Sure. Not everything went well this time around. Good faculty will want to make changes. What they won’t want to do is become online teachers. And that’s ok.

A bit of pedagogy would consist of doing some thinking, on ones own or with others, about how we can adapt to work with our strengths. If I fell in love with Zoom, and it was effective for my students, I should use it again. If I wasn’t, I should look at different ways to do things.

Some ideas for the in between, the middle ground, a bit of pedagogy:

1. Work to your strengths.
What did you do this term online that you liked, or seemed to work for both you and your students? That should be the central guiding idea for summer or fall.

2. Decrease areas of weakness.
What didn’t work? Can you get rid of it? For some, synchronous (Zoom) meetings were horrible. Students wouldn’t show their face (why should they?) and you didn’t want to show yours. Are you required to do synchronous sessions? Then think of ways around the worst parts of it. For example, show slides, narrate, and record the session. Require students to view if they don’t attend, and submit questions to a discussion board. During the session, have a student monitor the chat for questions. Make it “present and chat”, not the Brady Bunch. Don’t expect enthusiastic participation if Zoom isn’t your strength. And if you aren’t required to have synchronous sessions, consider how to teach without it.

3. Pull in your pedagogy.
What do you like best about your pedagogy in the classroom? If  you are a lecturer, get better at online lecture. If you like discussion, work more with the discussion board, and do some database searches for how to create good online discussions. If you like student-led inquiry, think about how to do that online. A set of collaborative documents, maybe. If you like creating an environment with rich resources, then leaving students to it, do that.

4. Be kind.
It’s tempting to think that this time around, students will know what they’re getting into. They may, but that doesn’t mean they like it any better than you do. In fact, those students who were hoping to celebrate a big life change (entering or transferring to university) may well be angry about this. So the same advice is as true now as it was for emergency instruction. Don’t expect too much. Lower the bar a little, but keep the challenge. The good students want to do well. Some will depend on your class to be a distraction from the real world. Some will need to feel they can reach out to you, and get that deadline extended. Do it for them. Consider how you’ll answer the question, “how did you help students get through the plague year?”

For more than bits

For those who want to get group-y about this and work together, or follow a more structured path, you’re welcome to use or steal my open access Canvas course in Practical Online Pedagogy. It’s more than a Bit of Pedagogy, but it’s not a full course, nor is it LMS training. Rather it’s an expansion of the first three points above, and has some useful handouts, worksheets and reflection exercises. It’s available to all (the download link is on the main page) for free use only — no one may be charged for using it, no matter who’s leading the group.




Perusing pictures

I almost forgot, in all the madness, that I am trying an experiment in my History of Technology class. I detailed the idea in my post from July. But I hadn’t implemented it till this semester.

First a review: in every class I teach online, instead of a traditional discussion board, I assign a set of primary source documents. I put these in Perusall (using the LTI in Canvas), uploaded as a pdf. Students then can select parts of the text, and annotate it. They can respond to each others annotations, and add images or video to help each other read the material.

This semester I’ve tried it with images. I put together two sets of images in Microsoft Word, one for images from the Book of Hours of the Duc de Berry (for the Middle Ages), and one for a collection of postcards from the early 20th century imagining the world in 2000 (for the turn of the 20th century). I then saved each collection as a pdf, and uploading them into Perusall.

I’ve just been reviewing the latter. The History of Technology class is always difficult to get talking. The class attracts a wonderful assortment of students, particularly those in computer science or who already work in information technology. They don’t tend to be much for chit-chat, and some of the written articles on technological history don’t interest them. The pictures, however, have created much more participation.

You can see here that not only did they comment on the images, but that they also replied a lot to each other (the bubble with the number is replies to the comment showing).

So I’m calling this one a success, and plan to do more!

Steampunk pedagogy

I’m watching rather horrified as faculty try desperately to replicate their classroom experience online, and plan to require students to do things they might not be able to manage, even while keeping grading structures in place.

Steampunk is an art form, one that takes the technologies of the Victorian era and combines them with a contemporary sensibility.

I am sending out the following to my students tomorrow (all students, including those who’ve already completed the first half of their fully online class):

This week we restart in earnest. If you have internet and can access everything in Canvas, just follow the instructions and deadlines and let me know using the Canvas “Message Lisa” or Inbox if you have any questions (and it’s ok to have lots of questions!).

If you got this email but cannot do the work because you lack internet access or a device that can do Canvas, please email me at and we’ll figure out something together. No need to drop the class if you don’t want to.

The thing is, just because a student had good computer access before, it doesn’t mean they do now. Some never did. I had students who were already sleeping in their cars and using their phone to do the class. Some of them are now called in for extended shift duty in hospitals and as first responders.

In addition to extending deadlines, eliminating timed tests, and easing grading practices, I am willing to go backward in time. The first correspondence courses were papers and assignments mailed back and forth. The first online classes were the same, but with email. We can copy web page text (well, any text) into an email. We can accept emailed work, emailed photos of handwritten work. Even those of us who have hundreds of students can handle this for the few who need it.

I realize I will lose the students who don’t want to do this, or try but can’t manage. I don’t want to lose those who want to continue, but don’t have all the 21st century tools. While I don’t see a need to go back to mailing things with so many people owning a cell phone, steampunk pedagogy should be our fallback.



Catching up in World History

Back in the day (like, 1989) I was hired to teach World History. When I first arrived at the college, I was given the syllabus.

Now, I had been trained to teach Western Civ. I was a Europeanist, with an emphasis in medieval technology and a secondary field of early U.S. History. My graduate school language had been French (no, I don’t speak a word of it now — don’t ask me to order for you). But even I, with my Eurocentric background, could see that the syllabus was not World History. It was what I later learned would be called “The West and the Rest”, a condensed Western Civ class with a unit on India, a unit on China…you get the idea.

So I resolved to reform the curriculum and make the course truly global. I didn’t realize I was wading into a whole intellectual swamp about the history of the world, but I did know I needed help. So I founded the North County Global History Project, in collaboration with historians from other community colleges, and even National University. We created several annual conferences, inviting experts in global history to come speak. We also shared internally, with all the world historians working together, bringing in our various areas of expertise. It worked. The curriculum was revised and approved, and all our instructors have been teaching global history for years.

That included me, until about 2004. At that time, our Western Civ classes were expanding, and I was eager to teach them. Online classes were expanding, and I was learning to teach them. The following year I founded the Program for Online Teaching, and my focus for the next 12 years or so was on online pedagogy, and the creation of new class in the History of Technology.

Well, time’s a funny thing. I now have an opportunity, next fall, to teach World History again. So suddenly I am embarked on examining what’s happened in the discipline, what’s up in the scholarship, and what’s available as far as resources. I’ve been reading the current textbooks, and articles on the last dozen years of the field. Although I had belonged to the World History Association, my membership had lapsed as they priced me out of their conferences (they took place in Italy and on cruise ships). So I don’t exactly have an insider view.

If you read my blog, you know what I think of textbooks. But really, I’d like to start with one, and there are no Open Educational Resources for world history that cover the entire course. I assumed I could find a newer textbook with a solid thematic structure, since that’s where the field was heading back in 2004. It turns out there have been some efforts at thematic global history in recent years, including The Origins of the Modern World by Robert B. Marks, and Forging the Modern World by Carter and Warren. I have just finished reading the latter, except for the last chapter, because by then I was too depressed to continue to the end. A reasonably-priced, readable, book of a good length for students, it has themes that carry through. That’s what I’m looking for, a thematic framework to make history truly global, rather than just bouncing from region to region for each chapter (“Meanwhile, in China…”) But Carter and Warren’s themes have to do with the lengths to which states will go to establish legitimacy (think blowing things up and killing lots of natives) and the difficulty in resisting this. The losers lose horribly. There are names in the book (emperors and such), but you never see the real people, the people on the ground. They just seem to be buffeted by forces beyond their control. There’s no agency, no hope. Yes, I could add that in when I lecture. But I’d feel bad assigning such misery and helplessness.

When evaluating textbooks, I also like to “spot check” content– look in the index for certain things to determine how they’re covered. So since I want to be global, I looked for global things. For commodities, gold or silver work — so does cloth. For food, sugar or chocolate are good (and aren’t they?). I look for coverage of people like the Arabs, the Jesuits, and the Jews, people who didn’t necessarily fit evolving concepts of the nation and tend to operate globally.

And I look for women. Not necessarily individual Great Women, but rather women in groups, acting with agency and purpose. Great Men tend to be individualized as historical actors, even though none of them would have achieved anything without a network supporting them. Women may have to form groups just to be heard. Such groups have fought not only for suffrage, but for things like laws, peace, fair prices, and education. (I look for “peace” also.)

Looking at the books so far, those that have these people as actors tend to have a regional focus rather than a global, thematic focus. That includes Bulliet’s The Earth and Its Peoples (the current edition of the book I used in 2004) and the newer Smith’s World in the Making. The McNeills’ The Human Web and Morillo’s Frameworks of World History are more thematic, but I believe conceptually too difficult for community college students. It’s becoming pretty clear that I have to decide between a global focus without the real human experience, and the real human experience without a global framework. That sucks. You would think the field would have moved further in the time I haven’t been paying attention. I envision a book with global themes and flyovers, but with little boxes that telescope in on an event as an example, and sample those from around the globe.

And no, I’m not gonna write one.

Rigor or workload?

It appears as though next summer, our 8-week classes will all be offered in a 6-week format. I am in favor of this. At first this seems like a good idea: students finish faster, faculty are done sooner (avoiding the problem of immediately starting fall afterword). Until one thinks about rigor.

Rigor is a word frequently argued about in academia but rarely defined. It has something to do with the academic integrity of a course. If, for example, it is a college class but one assigned a third-grade textbook, there would be a problem with rigor. Our course approval process requires a list of possible textbooks and possible assignments, ostensibly to ensure appropriate rigor.

Years ago, our historians were asked to offer 4-week intersession classes in winter, and we said no. Our senior historian at the time went in with the dean to argue that rigor could not be maintained. Our classes, as approved for transfer to university, were 16 weeks long. We could not maintain standards, particularly with students rushing through reading and writing at 4 times the speed. It’s a community college. Some students had trouble reading college-level work. Forcing them to do it faster would be disastrous for their success and our teaching. We won the argument, because at the time there seemed to be a general understanding that History requires extensive reading and writing, and by extension considerable thought. This requires more time.

As time has passed, however, the expectations for the level of student achievement have changed. The emphasis on “student success” has led not only to a natural and predictable inflation of grades, but a much broader acceptance of less rigor. The available textbooks for a college course are written at a much lower level, and have many needlessly large illustrative images and lots of white space. Courses are approved for General Education transfer that are more “fun” and have significantly lower expectations of learning ability. The push for what is called “equity” has led to an utter rejection of everything from the Western canon to any novel written by a white male, with the result that many longer works with universal themes are no longer considered appropriate for assignment.

So in a sense all rigor, in the sense of expectations of the level of the work completed, has declined. But rigor is not necessarily workload. When I was at university, lower-division courses required a full textbook, and several ancillary texts. When I was a teaching assistant at the University of California, Santa Barbara, only one ancillary text was required, but it was an extensive secondary book. Students chose the shortest one, of course. All the same, the workload (number of pages to read, number of papers to write, length of those papers) was significantly higher.

If rigor is being decreased, but achievement in the discipline continues to be expected, then workload should increase. If the level of what one is being given, and is expected to perform, is lower, then increased quantity would provide more opportunities for practice. Increasing workload thus implies a dedication to higher rigor, even if the standard is not obtained.

But we must also consider the contemporary dedication to the affective well-being of the student. This dovetails with the culture at large. It is accepted that people who are distressed cannot study well. Mental illness, overloaded schedules, job and family demands are seen as reasonable justifications for being unable to perform what could have been considered university-level work a generation ago. Before, they would have been encouraged to leave university and find a job for which they were suitable. Now they are held onto like precious gems, who without university have no chance in life. It’s our fault, not theirs, if they don’t succeed.

The university transfer approval process requires that community college rigor matches that of university. This has not been a major issue. University rigor has also declined. No one checks very carefully, anyway. But approval also requires that the same rigor and workload approved at the course level apply to every class section that is offered. So if I offer a 16-week class that normally required a full textbook, five primary source readings each week, and two assignments per week, the expectation is that this will be compressed but identical in shorter-term formats.

While this may seem to be a way to maintain rigor while increasing workload in the short term, it doesn’t actually work that way. I have adapted several of my classes to the 8-week (double-speed) format already for summer classes, and to provide a “back-to-back” single semester option to complete a two-course sequence. Enrollment in these is excellent — students do indeed appreciate completing the course faster, and they drop less often. I have long felt that 16 weeks is too long anyway. But I do not demand exactly the same number of assignments for my 16-week students. The primary source boards dropped from 16 to 8 to keep their focus on the weekly unit. Everything else, however, I simply doubled up: textbook readings are two chapters a week, primary sources are ten instead of five.

Six weeks presents a slightly different challenge. I cannot simply eliminate the Age of Discovery, or the American Empire. These are required to be “covered” to be approved for university transfer. Thus the workload must increase. I suspect that the transition from eight weeks to six may be a tipping point for rigor and workload.

What happens when one increases the workload beyond the expectations and desires of the students? First, they just don’t do it. They simply won’t be exposed to the facts, interpretations or ideas. They’ll skip the Age of Discovery. Second, they will not enroll in the first place, or drop the class in favor of classes with lighter workloads. Our History department has seen a consistent slide in enrollments over the last few years. While we know that this is partly because the national reputation for disciplines like History is on the decline (as it is for intellectualism in general), there is also a greater dedication to rigor in our discipline, a dedication often misinterpreted as “white” and elitist. (In truth, historiography has been foregrounded the agency and obstacles for people challenged by mainstream culture since the 1940s.) The college now offers far easier course in “culture” that count for the same requirement, and thus compete directly for enrollment.

Simply compressing my 8-week classes into 6 weeks, I fear, won’t work. The workload will be well beyond the expectations of students, and they will leave, drop or fail. While failing used to be acceptable, we are now expected to prevent this at all costs. So some tasks need to be removed. It cannot be topics or “coverage”, so it must be reading, assessment, and writing. I am leaning toward removing the textbook reading, because it could be considered “boring”, they have more difficulty reading, and the facts are not as important as them “doing history” (my lectures may have all the facts they need). Removing textbook reading also reduces the number of quiz questions, or perhaps eliminates the quizzes themselves. The writing assignments should be given a few days without anything else due, so they focus on them — those I am unwilling to change, but I want to provide them with space and time.

The grading weights would change accordingly, so that each of the remaining tasks would be worth substantially more. That is unfortunate, because my usual method is to have many little assignments, so that no one assignment is worth a lot. That way students can learn, practice, improve. So in addition to impacting rigor and workload, my pedagogy will also be affected. I do not, however, see another way.