Scholarship Applications due April 2

Don’t forget to apply for the department’s scholarships for the following academic year (2010-2011).  Links to information about the scholarships and the online application form are below.  Applications must be received by Friday, April 2 to be considered.  Awards will be announced at the department’s banquet on Friday, April 23.

Details about the Vance, Darter, Farmer, Caldwell, and Crawley scholarships and their requirements are located here:

Note that the department encourages people to apply for ALL scholarships for which they are eligible.   Frankly, the more you apply for, the more likely your chances are.

Go to to apply.   [Each scholarship application requires a brief (250 word) essay explaining why you fit the criteria for that scholarship.]

Questions?  Contact Dr. McClurken

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Professor’s work mentioned in Huffington Post

The work of the department’s own Dr. Susan Fernsebner was highlighted in this recent Huffington Post column discussing an upcoming conference:

She’s the author of a very fine dissertation (soon to be a book) on the history of China’s participation in World’s Fairs and smaller scale World’s Fair-like events, has blogged about the Shanghai Expo, and will be revisiting that topic in an “Asia Beyond the Headlines” essay that will be the lead article in a forum on 2010 mega-events slated to appear in the August issue of the Journal of Asian Studies, the flagship publication of the AAS.

Congratulations Dr. Fernsebner on this recognition of your work!

Where’s the Prof?: Twitter Feeds for Your Office Door

The Problem: I schedule at least five office hours per week. [I'm there a LOT more, but these are scheduled hours, the same from week to week throughout a given semester, when people can more or less count on me to be there.]

The problem is that as chair of my department, I’m involved in a number of on and off-campus committees, many of which, of necessity, conflict with those office hours.  Although I try to let students and department faculty know about these changes in advance, the fact is that sometimes these meetings are scheduled at the last minute, sometimes they just run late, and sometimes  I just don’t want to overwhelm my students and colleagues with a torrent of emails about my office hours that the vast majority will just delete and don’t need.

Also, as chair, there are a number of people who stop by my office, expecting me to be there, regardless of scheduled office hours (needing forms signed, questions answered, advice given, complaints heard, or just to hang out).

The Plan

So, early in 2008, after a year of having been on Twitter, I began to wonder if there was some way to use an account to update where I was.  Then, via my spouse, I ran across this post by an assistant principal who figured out how to keep a monitor in his office that he could update from elsewhere to let his staff and students know where he was.  So, I grabbed the Twitter handle, wheresthechair, as a test account until I could figure out how to do it.  The problem was one of hardware and location.  I didn’t want to leave my door open all the time (as the school principal did), but I also couldn’t figure out how to get a monitor outside the office without just leaving a laptop outside the door.

I played around with the idea of taking an old laptop and converting it to a digital picture frame that I could mount outside, but frankly I’m just not that handy.

So, I mostly played around with various ideas and kept looking for a solution that would meet my needs and my skill level.  And then I ran across this Samsung series of picture frames.   Like many other digital frames, they can play slideshows of images from internal memory (1 GB) or from SD or other memory cards.  Unlike most other frames, however, they also have a mini-monitor function which allows you to hook them up directly to a computer just using a USB port.  The frame then becomes an extension of your desktop.  [As far as I know, it's Windows only at this point, even in Samsung's newer models.]

The Project

Last summer, I got one of the 8-inch frames (SPF-85H) and set it up outside my office.  I needed to do the following to make it work:

1) Install the frame’s drivers (I used the updated ones from the Samsung site).

2a) Install Tweetdeck.  Although text layout on it isn’t quite as flexible as I’d like, the software automatically refreshes on a fixed schedule, and has been easy to set up and forget.

2b) I’ve also played around with using the Firefox add-on ReloadEvery so that my home Twitter page will refresh itself, but that setup was less reliable.

3) I used a 16-ft USB repeater cable and a 10-ft USB extension since the computer I’m using is nowhere near the door.  I also needed a power extension cord since the included one was not long enough. I was fortunate enough to have a door on my office that has plenty of room under the door for the power and USB cable to fit.  [Note that in at least one of the newer models from Samsung the frame can draw its power from the USB cable alone.]

4) I tucked the cables under the rug, along the wall and under the door.

5) I attached the monitor to the wall outside my door

6) I placed the URL for the wheresthechair account on my syllabi and office door.

Samsung frame as mini-monitorDynamic Office Hours Monitor

The Results: Each morning I post to the account when I’m going to be in my office.  But, I am also able update my status on the fly. I can tweet from my computer or iPod Touch in meetings that I’ll be late and it will show up on the monitor outside my door.  [I could also set up updating of the Twitter account via SMS from my cell phone, though I haven't done that yet.]

After nearly a semester and a half of this setup, I’ve found that although ~30 people (mostly colleagues) follow the Twitter account online, the vast majority of students and others use the device outside my office to check and see if I’m going to be available.  Even if new visitors don’t know what to make of it, my colleagues know to tell people to check the monitor or my twitter account for updates of where I am.  The one drawback I’ve found is that the screen occasionally freezes and the computer has to be reset.  Still, this setup has become a valuable way to remain accessible to my students and colleagues despite my busy schedule.

Thoughts? Comments? Suggestions?

[Images are my own; the title is from Brian Croxall; an earlier version of this article was posted here.]


Maps and Interactivity

I asked our good friends at DTLT to look into the notion of interactive maps.  They suggested the following:

We think that MapLib might be a really good solution for this ( Essentially, it lets you use the Google Maps user interface (annotating, editing, sharing) on any image.

It looks like you can take the map image created by Dr. Hanna’s class and then tag them and embed them.  I suggest you play around a bit with the interface and see if it does what your group is looking to do.

Student Contracts for Digital Projects

Like many ProfHackers, I’m constantly tinkering with my syllabi and assignments, looking to improve the experience for the students (and for myself).  For many of my writing assignments, this tinkering has meant that the guidelines have grown longer and longer (as I address specific issues that have come up in previous iterations).  However, in my senior undergraduate seminar, Adventures in Digital History, I’ve taken the opposite approach, giving students the broadest of guidelines and providing them with the opportunity to create their own assignments for their group digital history projects.

[A note about the course [2008 and 2010 iterations] and my goals for it:  it is focused on digital history concepts and methods, and explicitly offers an alternative to the semester-long research paper that allows students to create something fun, interesting, lasting, and important, while engaging history majors in something substantively different (both in terms of technology and in terms of working with others) than the discipline as a whole.  It is intended to push students out of their comfort zones, and, hopefully, provide them with some marketable skills.]

Overview of the Process
I give each group a broad topic, expose them to a variety of digital tools, and then have them write a contract (4-5 weeks into a 15 week semester) explaining what their plans are for the project, what tools they will use, and what their calendar is.

The four or five members of each group work on a particular project all semester.  They begin with a broad topical direction from me (e.g., “do something on the history of our school”) and they begin doing research for themselves, working with me and various resources (sources and people) to come up with their own direction for the content of their project.  At the same time (in those first four weeks), they are introduced to a variety of open-source/freely available tools for online discussion, content creation, and presentation, including Omeka, GoogleDocsSIMILE/TimelineWordPress (via UMW Blogs WPMU), WindowsMovieMaker/iMovie, and Zotero.  The goal of these early semester sessions is not mastery of all these tools, but rather a brief introduction to the capabilities, strengths, and weaknesses of each so that the students can evaluate them for their own needs.  If a tool looks like it might be useful, then they play around with it more to see 1) if it will meet their vision for their project and 2) if the learning curve is one they can manage in the course of the semester.

After weeks of playing, researching, exploring, and talking about their projects, each group uses Google Docs to write their contract and submit it to me, including the following:

  • Mission statement, including a full description of the project, with its goals and audience(s)
  • List of tools/software, with an explanation of how they will be used.
  • Schedule of milestones (when critical pieces are ready to present)

I comment on the draft, addressing issues (most often with practicality of the time line, or clarity of goals); the group rewrites their contract and then they are posted to the course website (see here and here) so that we all agree what it is each group is working on.  At the end of the semester, the groups are graded on how well they have met the contract that we agreed upon.

Three relevant points here:

  • Each group can revise the contract as the semester goes on, though only with good reasons.  [For example, good reasons include serious technological problems or issues with access to sources.  They do not include problems related to poor effort or planning.]
  • At the end of the semester, each student writes a brief explanation of how their group met their contract. [See here and here for examples.]
  • I recommend an interim evaluation of the project at roughly 2/3 of the way through the semester (week 10 for our 15 week semester) so that students have some sense of your sense of how they’re doing.

Results of the open-ended contract
1) In my experience, the proposed projects are more ambitious than those I would have assigned had I been very precise about what I wanted.  Although each time one or two of the groups may have to ultimately scale back their goals a little bit, thinking big is what I want them to be doing.  [Scaling down is easier than scaling up, especially later in the semester.]

2) In most cases, the students come up with significantly more creative projects than I would have been able to design, and the projects are much better for it.

3) Students who have finished these group projects based on their contracts have an incredible sense of accomplishment, as well as skills in a variety of areas not traditionally taught to them in my discipline (project management, tool evaluation and selection, and group work, just to name the most obvious).

What experience have you had with having students write their own contracts?  What advice do you have for those looking to do so?


[The image in this post is of one of UMW's seminar rooms from my flickr account.  Based on my experience you'll have better results if you add students.]