On Not Banning Laptops in the Classroom

This post has been percolating for a while as a series of op-ed pieces and studies announcing that handwriting is better for learning or that laptops or other devices are ineffective or that tech shouldn’t be used in the classroom continue to emerge.  I know I’ll get push back about this response, but I’ve needed to sit down and write this for a while now (and it’s easier to have these responses collected together so I can point to them later when these studies and think-pieces continue to emerge).   [Apologies for the listicle approach to this post.]

1) Those studies about the wonders of handwriting all suffer from the same set of flaws, namely, a) that they don’t actually work with students who have been taught to use their laptops or devices for taking notes. That is, they all hand students devices and tell them to take notes in the same way they would in written form. In some cases those devices don’t have keyboards; in some cases they don’t provide software tools to use (there are some great ones, but doing it in say, Word, isn’t going to maximize the options digital spaces allow), in some cases the devices are not ones the students use themselves and with which they are comfortable. And b) the studies are almost always focused on learning in large lecture classes or classes in which the assessment of success is performance on a standardized (typically multiple-choice) test, not in the ways that many, many classes operate, and not a measure that many of us use in our own classes. And c) they don’t actually attempt to integrate the devices into the classes in question, a point that Kevin Gannon makes in his excellent post on the subject.  [It’s possible I have missed one of these studies that actually addresses all of these things and builds in training for students (and faculty) in integrating devices, or maybe works with a population of students that has had access to a robust, integrated (not nominal) 1:1 laptop program for an extended period of time before the study.  If I have missed it, I’m sure someone will let me know.]

2) Banning laptops is going to be a big problem when increasingly you have students like those in my local middle school who are exclusively using laptops in all of their classes to great effect and success. More and more students in K-12 are going to be doing that and a ban will be telling at least some students who are used to taking notes that way (who are actually BETTER at taking notes that way), that they can’t use the tools for which they have developed a process.

3) Banning laptops is also going to be a problem because of the trend toward digitized sources:  more and more campus bookstores are offering readings and interactive activities in digital form, sometimes because it’s cheaper, but often because it’s easier for them to manage, and because some students want them in that form. Some texts are ONLY being offered in digital form going forward, and many of the ancillary materials publishers are offering only work in digital form. Plus, increasingly faculty (like me, but many others) are assigning readings that are only online or in JSTOR or other online collections. That’s both because of access, but also because of economic fairness. And then, I want them to have copies of the readings with them and it’s not economically or ecologically fair to ask them to print those copies out and bring them with them to class.  [In fact, having students collectively or individually annotate class readings with a tool such as Hypothes.is is a powerful way to improve classroom discussion that would be much more difficult without devices.]

4) Let’s be honest with ourselves and acknowledge that banning technology from our classrooms does not help with the general perception in the public that universities, faculty, and the education we offer is not relevant or adaptable to the modern age.  [There are obviously many other reasons we seem to be losing this argument about the value of traditional education that have nothing to do with the laptop ban discussion, but my point here is simply that blanket bans on technology do not help the larger perception of academics.  I won’t use the L-word, but you know that others do when they see op-eds from teachers about banning tech from classrooms.]

5) I’ve seen faculty suggest that laptop bans just results in students using smart phones more, even when there is a ban on that as well. So then someone suggests (usually jokingly, sometimes not) jamming cell phones. Jamming cell phones violates federal law, so, um, good luck with that.

6) On the point of incorporating these devices into our pedagogy: I want students to be able to integrate the wide array of other sources available to them with what they are learning in my class, and I often ask them to go out and find good sources to answer questions that emerge during class lecture, discussion, and group work.  In other words, I work to integrate those tools and their connections to that larger array of information into the class.  [Admittedly, it also means that sometimes students will say, “but this other source says something different.”  That’s a terrific learning opportunity for us to talk as a class about sources, interpretation, and authority.]

6a) We should be working with students to meaningfully incorporate these devices into their learning.  I have no doubt that adding devices that students use in a wide variety of non-scholarly ways outside of class without attempts to integrate them into classes or to teach students to use those devices in academic ways risks ineffective uses of them.  I have plenty of conversations with students about how to take notes already. Most of the time their problem isn’t which device (pencil, laptop, phone, quill) they use to take those notes, but how to take them and how to use them to learn based on their own experiences, learning styles, and discipline.

6b) Incorporating devices into teaching will require faculty training and support.  I suspect that some (though certainly not all) of the support for these bans stems from the fact that many faculty don’t feel confident in using technology broadly and in particular for academic purposes (for note-taking, for social media, for research and analysis, for blogging, etc.) themselves and so don’t feel confident in having their students use those tools in and out of class.    [One answer to that at UMW is our Division of Teaching and Learning Technologies, our Center for Teaching Excellence and Innovation, and our student-centered Digital Knowledge Center, as well as the week-long Digital Pedagogy Lab institute. But there are more and more options out there to get faculty members the development they need to become more comfortable with digitally enabled pedagogy.]

7) Other critiques of laptop/device bans include: accessibility issues for studies with accommodations, the argument that bans are more about professors’ egos, the notion that bans demonstrate an inflexibility of approach, and the point that other distractions exist too.

8) Caveat: It’s the blanket ban with which I have such issues. I don’t have a problem with faculty asking students at certain points to close their laptops or put away their devices because the type of engagement at that moment is changing.

9) Caveat #2: When there are devices in the classroom, especially larger ones, a few students will use them in ways that will be distracting.  I’m not opposed to strategies or explicit conversations about reducing that problem.  It’s the throwing-the-baby-out-with-the-bathwater approach of blanket bans that are the issue here.

10) Finally, having conversations with students about how they use devices more generally and laptops in particular for academic success is important, as well as how best to take notes. I do it with students in my First-Year Seminar in detail, and in other classes in general. My school is working to develop these practices more generally and to support faculty as they incorporate technology into their classes.

Encouraging good learning practices among students (and faculty) is a terrific thing to do. I’m just not convinced that entirely banning one set of those practices and the tools used to engage in them is the way to get either group to develop those practices more generally.

 

[Thanks to Sue Fernsebner for pointing out the appropriateness of this discussion in the wake of the many pieces reflecting on Seymour Papert‘s life and work.]

An Amazing Life

The last few days have been very difficult for the UMW community.  It’s been a turbulent semester, but the news late last week that one of our students had been murdered in an event that remains tragic and largely unexplained has rocked our worlds.

I didn’t know Grace Mann well, but I knew of her from many people who I respect and trust, students, faculty, and staff.  I knew of her activism, I knew of her passionate defenses of others, I knew of her energy and enthusiasm, and I knew that I was glad that she had been appointed to serve on the President’s Task Force on Sexual Assault.  I knew that Grace, an American Studies major, had, even as a junior, already been involved at a high level in independent studies and presentations at scholarly conferences.  I knew that she had a reputation for engaging, challenging, and inspiring those who taught her.  I knew that I was looking forward to having her in my US Women’s History course in the fall (especially because I was going to have to bring my “A game” to keep up with her).

My heart aches for her parents and her family, for her fellow activists, for her friends, for her teachers, for her communities in Fredericksburg, Northern Virginia, and beyond.  I cried with so, so many of them today as we attended her funeral at Temple Rodef Shalom, and the grave-side burial at King David Memorial Gardens.  I won’t try to summarize the funeral (which can be seen here by clicking on the On-Demand Viewer on that page) beyond noting that the speakers–Cedric Rucker, Leah Cox, her roommates and best friends, and her amazing parents–depicted a life of light, passion, energy, deep friendship, inspiration, activism, and love–deep, giving, encompassing love–that defies simple categorization but included many, many hugs.  The sadness at her death and the inspiration of her life battled within me all day and I suspect within the many others around me.

It’s painful to imagine what we have all lost, what the world has lost, from her life being abruptly shortened in this way.  Given what Grace had already accomplished, the good she had already done, the people she had already inspired, we are poorer today to not have her among us.  Yet the incredible woman her parents brought up will continue to inspire all who knew her, and as long as her story continues to be told, she will inspire others as well.

Her parents have requested that in lieu of flowers, donations be made to RCASA, the Rappahannock Council Against Sexual Assault. Having watched RCASA provide essential support as far back as my own undergraduate days at Mary Washington in the early-1990s, I know it is a great organization doing incredibly important work and donations to it are a fitting tribute to much of Grace’s work on and off campus.  There will also be a memorial fund established at UMW in her honor.

There were many hugs today as we mourned our loss and celebrated Grace’s life.

Why I Teach

Let’s get something clear from the start: I love teaching. I love teaching history. I love teaching students at a school that prioritizes teaching. I love walking in to a classroom with historical documents and scholarly readings and images and strategies for how I’m going to talk with students about the past (and often the present and the future).  I love that I walk out from that same classroom an hour or so later simultaneously exhausted and exhilarated, having learned as much as the students have in our give and take of learning about the past.  I love seeing what students can do if you push them out of their comfort zone while also providing them with support and opportunities to approach, both creatively and rigorously, the study of history.  I love my job.

My approach to teaching is grounded in the importance of historical inquiry, the multidisciplinary nature of the liberal arts, and five key related beliefs.  First, I believe that students are at the center of teaching.  I work to involve students in classes as participants, leaders, and fellow learners.  In exchange, I expect students to take responsibility for their education in and out of my classes.

Second, I believe that technology can play a key role in enhancing traditional pedagogical practices.  I integrate WordPress, Omeka, Facebook, Twitter, wikis, and web-based discussions, online research, multimedia content, digital history projects, electronic editing of papers, and image and video creation into my classes.  All of these aspects of technology are used to vary and improve communication, offer alternative forms of discussion or presentation, or broaden the academic experience in and out of the classroom, while holding on to scholarly and intellectual rigor.

Third, I believe in the importance of teaching students to be critical consumers of knowledge.  I have a responsibility to teach students to approach all primary and secondary content with a skeptical eye, not just historical sources or scholarly books and articles, though grappling with these remain essential to the discipline.  For example, in my courses on US History in Film, American Technology and Culture, Civil War and Memory, History of the Information Age, and Digital History, I work with students to analyze critically what have become the key popular sources of information about the past, namely movies and the Internet.  In all my classes I work with students to explore what it means to be skeptical about all sources of knowledge.

Fourth, I believe in the need to teach students to be rigorous yet creative and adaptable producers of knowledge.  This skill links closely with the previous notion.  Understanding how knowledge is produced makes one a better consumer, but being skeptical about one’s sources also makes one a better writer and speaker.  In my classes students are encouraged to express themselves in various ways: formal and informal, written and oral, online and in person. I teach a number of different skill sets related to exchanging and expressing information in my classes, from basic writing to oral presentations to working with groups to digital project design to the creation of infographics, images & documentaries, yet all stem from one’s ability to convey content, concepts and ideas in the best possible way.

Fifth, I believe in students being “uncomfortable, but not paralyzed” in their learning. A student walked into my office several years ago and said to me, “Dr. McClurken, I’m really struggling with all this online stuff,” referring to the projects I had assigned to the students in my American Technology and Culture course. She explained that digital projects were unfamiliar to her and that she was uncomfortable with her ability to do the assignment. She was surprised when my response to her discomfort was, “Good.” I went on to explain that I wanted her and her classmates to push the boundaries of what they understood about the conceptualization and presentation of historical information beyond papers and tests. Though she struggled a bit learning the tools we were using that semester, she later sent an email thanking me for introducing her to new methods of approaching history with the subject heading, “From Antipathy to Appreciation.” Note the last part of my initial phrase—“not paralyzed”—because it’s equally important.  I want students to move out of their comfort zones because that is where deep learning occurs, but I don’t want them to be so uncomfortable they can’t get anything done.  To keep them from paralysis we discuss potential resources to which they can turn (including their fellow students), we talk extensively about what constitutes successful work (even to the point in some classes of collectively constructing the rubrics with which I assess their papers and projects), and I tell them that they can always come to me if truly stumped.  The results of a semester’s worth of student discomfort is worth it to me, and more importantly to them, as I see their pride in the work that they’ve created and shared not only with me or with their class, but with the wider world.

This post is part of a Connected Courses assignment, and is a revised version of a piece I’ve written in various forms for various submissions.

Co-creating a syllabus with students

I’m teaching my History of the Information Age course again this fall.  This is the course where I send the students a skeleton syllabus and we fill it in together.  We will work together to pick the topics to focus on, many of the readings to complete, and the digitally rich assignments by which we will explore the history of broadly defined Information Age (cave paintings to today).

We will also get to do so in the soon-to-be completed Information and Technology Convergence Center‘s Active-Learning Classroom.  We also will be able to take advantage of the building’s green-screen-equipped recording studio, the audio booth, the editing computer stations, and the other cameras and recording equipment that can be checked out and used.

ITCC Active Learning

From http://provost.umw.edu/teaching-spaces-in-the-convergence-center/

I’d welcome any suggestions of assignment ideas, discussion starters, readings/videos that I can bring to the class.  Other comments, including smart remarks, are welcome as well.


 

VERSION 0.9

HIST 471D7: History of the Information Age
Fall 2014
ITCC 237
11-12:15 TR
http://infoage2014.umwblogs.org/

Jeffrey McClurken
E-mail:  jmcclurk@umw.edu
Twitter (@wheresthechair/@jmcclurken)

Course Description

This readings seminar will explore the history of communication, media, new media, and the digital age.  We will begin with an investigation of the various definitions of the Information Age, then move into a discussion of the historical & technological foundations of information production, computing devices, and communication and networking tools.  We will explore the social and cultural history of information production and consumption from cave paintings to the Internet, from analog computational machines to handheld computers.  The course will generally be based in the history of the US, but, given the transfer of technology and the increasing ability of these technologies to transcend geographic regions, it will logically range more widely as appropriate.

 

Departmental Course Goals and Objectives

This course will help students build upon a range of skills, including the ability to make discipline-specific oral presentations to groups; the ability to utilize technological resources in research, data analysis, and presentation; the ability to communicate in a group setting; and the ability to read critically primary sources and modern authorities.  This course also counts in the History Major and the Digital Studies Minor.

 

Honors Program Objectives

As part of the Honors Program, this course also will help students to formulate an academic argument with appropriate research documentation; articulate the value of the goals of the honors program as it relates to the liberal arts as an multidisciplinary, systematic approach to knowledge; apply specific academic solutions to broader, interdisciplinary fields of study; integrate multiple viewpoints involving different cultures and/or perspectives.

 

Course Requirements

What should these be?

Non-negotiable parts include: Students are expected to attend all classes, read all assigned texts, post regularly to the individual blogs, participate in class, and help lead two weeks of class discussions.  Students are also expected to contribute to the creation of a public, digital timeline/database of popular representations of the information age and add materials to it all semester.

However, negotiable is whether or not we should also do formal presentations of projects, what student contributions to the timeline/database might be, even other ideas for assignments we might come up with.

In my initial brainstorming, the timeline/database components, additions, projects potentially included:

 

 

 

Obligatory turn things in on time notice: Projects are due at the start of class on the day they are due.  Projects are considered late if turned in anytime after the start of class on the day they are due.  Late items will be penalized one full letter grade or, after 24 hours, not accepted.

Texts/Sources

In the Bookstore – 4 Core texts are in the bookstore

  • Downey, Gregory John, American Historical Association, and Society for the History of Technology. Technology and Communication in American History. Washington, DC: American Historical Association, 2011.
  • Gleick, James. The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood. New York: Pantheon, 2011.
  • Rosenzweig, Roy. Clio Wired: The Future of the Past in the Digital Age. New York: Columbia University Press, 2011.
  • Winston, Brian. Media Technology and Society: A History From the Telegraph to the Internet. Re-issue. London: Routledge, 1998.

Other Readings as determined by class, at least some of which are online

Discussions

Students are expected to attend all classes having read the material.  Class participation includes actively participating in these daily discussions.[1]  Each of you will also be expected to co-lead group discussion with another person (or persons) during two weeks, including opening discussion activities.  THAT MAY MEAN HELPING TO CHOOSE (ADDITIONAL) READINGS FOR THOSE WEEKS.  I encourage those leaders to meet with me ahead of time to talk about how to choose readings and/or facilitate discussion for their particular week.

Blogging

Create a new (or use a preexisting) UMWblog/Domain of One’s Own WordPress site by Sept. 1. Narrating your reactions to the reading, your experiences planning, researching, and implementing your projects as part of the class timeline/database via your blogs is a central part of the class and a way for me to measure your effort, your creativity, and your progress as digital scholars. Blog about your problems as well as your successes. Be sure to comment on each other’s blogs and help each other out. This is a community of people going through similar efforts that you can tap into, so do so. Weekly posts & comments are a minimum expectation of the class.

Final Grades

Final grades will be determined based on a combination of factors, some determined by me and some determined by the class as a whole at the start of the semester.  The non-negotiable parts are class participation (including two weeks of co-leading discussion) worth 40% and on performance on blog posts worth (at least) 10%.

The other 50% of the grade will be divided (as decided by the class) between projects added to the timeline, formal presentations of projects, or other items as suggested by the class.

[Unsatisfactory mid-semester reports will be reported for anyone with a grade of D+ or below at that time.]

Grading Scale

A Unusual Excellence 93 or higher=A; 90-92=A-
B Distinctly Above Average 87-89=B+; 83-86=B; 80-82=B-
C Average Quality 77-79=C+; 73-76=C; 70-72=C-
D Below Average Quality 67-69=D+; 60-66=D
F Failure, No Credit 0-59=F

 

Accommodations

The Office of Disability Resources has been designated by the University as the primary office to guide, counsel, and assist students with disabilities. If you receive services through the Office of Disability Resources and require accommodations for this class, make an appointment with me as soon as possible to discuss your approved accommodation needs. Bring your accommodation letter with you to the appointment. I will hold any information you share with me in strictest confidence unless you give me permission to do otherwise. If you have not made contact with the Office of Disability Resources (540-654-1266) and need accommodations, I will be happy to refer you. The office will require appropriate documentation of disability.

Honor Code

I believe in the Honor Code as an essential, positive component of the Mary Washington experience.  You should know that if you cheat or plagiarize in this class, you will fail, and I will take you to the Honor Council, so do not do it.  On the other hand, I also believe that having friends or family read and comment on your writing can be extremely helpful and falls within the bounds of the Honor Code (assuming the writing itself remains yours).  If you have questions about these issues, then you should talk to me sooner rather than later.

Topics & Readings

Class Calendar

Week 1 — Introduction — Week of August 25

— What is the Information Age?

— Planning the semester – What topics will we focus on? What assignments will we complete?

By the weekend:

  • – Set up a Twitter account (or use an existing one) and follow me (@jmcclurken) and/or your classmates and/or some of the scholars from the DH Compendium.  When you tweet about our class use the hashtag #InfoAge14.
  • – Install a WordPress blog on your Domain of One’s Own account or UMWblogs.
  • – Add your blog to the class blogroll using the add link widget on this blog.  [Use Twitter to ask Dr. McClurken or a classmate for the password.]
  • – Write and publish first blog post on why you’re taking the class and what topics/assignments you want this semester.

 

Week 2 — Introducing New Media tools and an overview of the history of information/communication — Week of September 1

Tuesday:  DTLT visit and start of timeline/database project

Reading –Thursday:  Downey, all; Winston, Intro

 

Part I – Print (and its predecessors)

 

Potential topics:  Cave paintings, African Drums, art, written language, coffee houses and print culture, universities, printing press, newspapers, oral tradition, plagiarism/citation/rise of the footnote; photography

 

Week 3 — Week of September 8

— Topics:  Newspapers, Magazine, Books

Reading — Tuesday:   Appleby, Inheriting the Revolution, Chapter 4

            Thursday: 

 

Part II – Early Networked Communication 

Potential topics:  Postal Service, Telegraph/telephone, rise of modern journalism

 

Week 4 — Week of September 15

— Topics:

Reading — Tuesday:  Winston, 19-66

            Thursday:

 

PROPOSALS FOR TIMELINE/DATABASE PROJECTS DUE TO ME BY SEPTEMBER 22

 

Part III—Broadcasting 

Potential Topics: technological, cultural histories of Film/Radio/TV; advertising, rise of mass media; propaganda

 

Week 5 — Week of September 22

— Topics:

Reading — Tuesday: Winston, 67-146

            Thursday:

 

Week 6 — Week of September 29

— Topics:

Reading — Tuesday: 

            Thursday: 

 

 

 

 

Part IV – Information in the Digital Age

Potential topics:  Early Computers (Human Computers, Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace); Role of war/military in creation and spread of information/computing technology (WWII, Cold War, ARPANet); Rise of the mainframe and then personal computers; Doug Engelbert and the Mouse; the creation/expansion/commercialization of the Internet; Women and Computing; Pop Culture treatment of the digital age; Hackers and Hacking Culture; Video Games; cell phones/smart phones/tablets; the wiki phenomenon; Coding/Programming; images/video in era of access to creation tools; Information Theory; Information Overload; Satellites/cable/fiber optics; identity in the digital age

 

Week 7 — Week of October 6

—    Topics: Early Computers

Reading — Tuesday: Vannevar Bush, As We May Think”; Winston, 147-242

Thursday:

 

Week 8 — Week of October 13

— Fall Break — No class Tuesday, October 14

— Topics: Networks and the Internet

Reading — Thursday: Winston, 243-336; Rosenzweig, 179-202

 

Week 9 — Week of October 20

— Topics:

Reading — Tuesday:

            Thursday: 

 

Week 10 — Week of October 27

—    Topics: Web 2.0/3.0/18.0

—    Reading — Tuesday: Rosenzweig, 85-91 (CD-ROMs and textbooks)

            Thursday:

 

Week 11 — Week of November 3

— Topics:  Trust, Citations, “truth” in the Digital Age

Reading — Tuesday:  Rosenzweig, 28-50 (Historical Knowledge online); 51-82 (Wikipedia & History); 155-178

            Thursday:

 

Week 12 —Week of November 10

— Topics:

Reading — Tuesday:

            Thursday:

 

Part V – Looking forward

Potential topics: Copyright/open source/intellectual property; History in the digital age; Infographics; social networks in the age of Facebook; search in the age of Google; Artificial Intelligence; Crowdsourcing; Digital divide;

Week 13  — Week of November 17

— Topics:  History of Digital History and Its Future

Reading — Tuesday: Rosenzweig, xxi-xxiv, 3-27, 92-153, 203-236

            Thursday: Winston, 337-342

 

Week 14  — Week of November 24

— Topics:  Infographics and the Rise of Visual Literacy

Reading – Tuesday:

— Thursday — Thanksgiving — No Class

 

ALL PROJECTS DUE BY DECEMBER 1

 

Week 15  — Week of December 1

— Presentations?

Reading — Tuesday:

            Thursday:

Exam Period – Discussion of the semester – what worked and what didn’t.

 

Inspirations for this class and syllabus include:

 

 

Questions for students [These will guide our initial discussion as we fill in the syllabus together.]

1)     Which topics are you particularly interested in studying this semester?

2)     What sources would you add to the class resource bibliography (http://www.zotero.org/groups/infoage/items )?  [Note: we’re not going to read all of these.  This bibliography is a resource to draw from and contribute to all semester.]

3)     The central work of the class for the semester will be the creation of a digital timeline/database of popular representations of the Information Age and add materials to it all semester.  We’ll generate the list of dates/items together and then you’ll be creating additional pieces (either as individuals or in groups) that will be added to the timeline database.  So, what types of assignments/projects would you be interested in working on/doing?   What alternative ways might we use to construct/present what we’ve learned in and out of the class about the history of information? 

  1. I want to take advantage of the digital media resources on campus.  In particular, there are two resource-rich locations we should be thinking about.

                                                    i.     The Digital Media Lab in the History/American Studies department in Monroe.  We’ll have 3 iMacs and two Windows computer, with scanners, digital cameras, as well as basic and advanced image, video, and audio editing software.  What kinds of projects could we do with those tools? 

                                                  ii.     What projects relevant to our subject could we create with the full resources of the new IT Convergence Center?  [At a minimum, cameras, audio booth, video recording and editing suites.  What could we create for the digital signage in the building?  For the digital library gallery?  For the giant video wall?]

  1. What percentage of course grade should those assignments be valued at?

4)     I want to take advantage of the classroom we’ll be in.

  1. The new active-learning classroom in the ITCC that we will be in is built around the idea of group work.  In addition to the standard projector and screen, it will have LCD panels at small group tables around the room so students will be able to hook up their laptops and work collaboratively.  I’ve been thinking about having some discussion days start by splitting up into groups with a small topic assignment, giving you 15-45 minutes to work in groups, then asking you to present your results to the rest of the class. What classroom small group projects would you like to try?

5)     What do you think of the layout of the course schedule?  Do you want to spend more or less time on certain broad topics?

 

[1] To that end, for each class students should also prepare some notes on the reading (parallels, problems, factual questions, reminders of past readings, connections to ideas from other classes or from “real life”) so that they have those points in front of them for the discussion.  Although I have no current plan to collect these comments, I reserve the right to do so at some point during the semester.

 

Graduation: Reflecting on Arcs

UMW’s graduation was last weekend and with it came my department’s reception for graduating seniors and their families.  Now, I’ve been clear about my affection for graduation itself:

And, frankly, the department reception is even better.  It’s low key, everyone’s happy, even relaxed.  I really enjoy talking to the parents and students.  It’s a chance to brag about our great students to an audience who is thrilled to hear about it.

This year, though, I had three conversations that I’ve never had before.  First, I talked with two parents that I had met four years ago on the day they first brought their son to school.  We had a wonderful conversation about history, about the liberal arts, about their son’s academic interests, and about my own research (which overlapped with his own interests).  He wasn’t part of that initial conversation four years ago, but his younger sister was. Instead, his parents told him about the conversation and he contacted me about getting in to my First-Year Seminar on returning American veterans throughout history, which we were able to do.  Since then, he took another class of mine and just completed his senior thesis with me on the relationship between Grant and Meade during the Overland Campaign.  [Plus his sister ended up coming to UMW and taking my women’s history course last fall.]  So, the conversation I had at the senior reception with their parents brought us all back full circle.  We had the chance to talk on the first day they left their son at UMW and on the last day before his graduation.  There was an arc to that relationship that felt so right for all of us.  Frankly, I wish there were more of these stories of having four years to know students and their parents, to follow the arc of a student’s career in a way that doesn’t happen often enough.  I wonder if there are ways we might engineer more of these longer connections.

The second conversation was with parents who I’d never met before, but my mother had.  Earlier this semester, my mother, an elementary school teacher in Albemarle County, and I realized that I was teaching a student that she had taught in Kindergarten.  So, at the senior reception, I had the chance to meet this student’s parents and we had a wonderful conversation about the arc of that story as well.  As the student said when she first found out, “That’s amazing! My education begins and ends with McClurkens!”  It was a lovely reminder that we get students who are products of 13 years of contact with earlier teachers, of the many ways that those previous experiences affect them, and of the ways that parents remember those teachers too, sometimes more clearly than the students do.

The third conversation was with a student who was graduating just two years after he graduated high school.  I met him at a banquet for prospective students 6 months before he started at UMW and have been his adviser for two years.  Not surprisingly, a student who manages to finish a college degree in two years (with one of those semesters spent abroad) doesn’t need much advising, but it has been a pleasure to work with him and to meet his family.  Even in those two years he has grown immensely as a scholar and a person, something I was able to see as he was incredibly successful in a class with me this semester.  Meeting his family I could talk about that transformation and how glad I was to be some small part of his experience at UMW.

All three of these conversations at the receptions were good reminders that strong connections with students can (and maybe should) begin before they start here, of the role that parents can play in supporting their students, and of the many longer arcs of relationships that exist in our worlds that seem to be typically defined by the year or even semester.

 

 

 

Sharing my teaching and learning

I’ve been fortunate lately to have a number of things come out recently featuring my teaching and research.

1) In October my US History in Film class was recorded by C-SPAN’s American History TV as we discussed the 1939 movie Gone with the Wind.  It was a wide-ranging discussion of the movie as a flawed secondary source about the Antebellum, Civil War, Reconstruction eras in the South, as well as its role as a primary source for the 1930s perspectives on that past.  

I did an introduction and conclusion, but the bulk of the class was the students delving deeply into the interpretations, implications, and lessons of the film.  They did a terrific job.

[I've gotten a number of nice responses from people who watched it, but the best was from an 87-year old Holocaust survivor who wrote me that GWTW had been her first exposure to American History.  She then told me that she was inspired to learn about the actual historical background of the time.]

You can watch the whole class here.

2) A couple weeks later, I did a talk for the Fredericksburg Area Museum on the Coming of the Battle of Fredericksburg as part of the celebration   C-SPAN came to that as well and you can see that talk here.

3) A few weeks after that, I was the moderator for a great series of talks about the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Fredericksburg by George Rable, Susannah Ural, and Frank O’Reilly.  They put up with my unorthodox introductions and gave great talks which can be found here.

4) Finally, UMW did a nice profile of me and my teaching for the main page of the website.  It’s overly generous, but I appreciate it just the same.

Sharing my teaching and learning

I've been fortunate lately to have a number of things come out recently featuring my teaching and research.

1) In October my US History in Film class was recorded by C-SPAN's American History TV as we discussed the 1939 movie Gone with the Wind.  It was a wide-ranging discussion of the movie as a flawed secondary source about the Antebellum, Civil War, Reconstruction eras in the South, as well as its role as a primary source for the 1930s perspectives on that past.  

I did an introduction and conclusion, but the bulk of the class was the students delving deeply into the interpretations, implications, and lessons of the film.  They did a terrific job.

[I've gotten a number of nice responses from people who watched it, but the best was from an 87-year old Holocaust survivor who wrote me that GWTW had been her first exposure to American History.  She then told me that she was inspired to learn about the actual historical background of the time.]

You can watch the whole class here.


2) A couple weeks later, I did a talk for the Fredericksburg Area Museum on the Coming of the Battle of Fredericksburg as part of the celebration   C-SPAN came to that as well and you can see that talk here.

3) A few weeks after that, I was the moderator for a great series of talks about the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Fredericksburg by George Rable, Susannah Ural, and Frank O'Reilly.  They put up with my unorthodox introductions and gave great talks which can be found here.

4) Finally, UMW did a nice profile of me and my teaching for the main page of the website.  It's overly generous, but I appreciate it just the same.

Confirmation for “Uncomfortable, but Not Paralyzed”?

Since my first Digital History class in 2008, I’ve been telling students that I wanted them to be “uncomfortable, but not paralyzed” based on my sense that it was only when one struggled a bit that deep  learning occurred.  The concept has explicitly shaped much of my teaching since then.  Now the Mindshift blog at KQED is reporting that there are several studies that back up my reasoning.

In one study, published in Learning and Instruction, psychologists Sidney D’Mello and Art Graesser found “that even negative emotions can play a productive role in learning.”

Confusion, D’Mello explains, is a state of “cognitive disequilbrium”; we are mentally thrown off balance when we encounter information that doesn’t make sense. This uneasy feeling motivates us to restore our equilibrium through thought, reflection, and problem solving, and deeper learning is the result. According to D’Mello, engaged learners repeatedly experience “two-step episodesalternating between confusion and insight.” Back and forth, between perplexity and understanding: this is how the learning of complex material happens.

In fact, deep learning may be unlikely to happen without the experience of confusion, suggests a study conducted by another researcher, Arizona State’s Kurt VanLehn. The students in his experiment were not able to grasp the physics concepts they were learning until they had encountered, and surmounted, an intellectual “impasse.”

Still another study, this one led by Harvard physicist Eric Mazur, found that students who observed a demonstration in science class understood the relevant concept no better than before—unless the students were asked to predict the outcome of the demonstration in advance. When their predictions turned out to be wrong, the resulting confusion motivated them to consider the concept more deeply, and they learned more.

On a related note, Stephen Ramsey at the University of Nebraska has a wonderful post that eloquently makes the case that attitude is more important than (initial) aptitude in learning programming.

Nearly every programmer I know – and I know some great ones – started out not with a course, or a book, or a teacher, but with a problem that was irritating them. Something in their computational world didn’t seem right. Maybe it was broken, or maybe just missing. But being comfortable with not-knowing-what-the-hell-they’re-doing, they decided that getting a computer to do something new was more-or-less like figuring out how to get the chain back on the bike. They weren’t trying to “be programmers” any more than the parent determined to fix the kid’s bike is trying to be a “bicycle mechanic.”

All of these suggest that cultivating mental habits among our students (and ourselves) where we are okay with being unfamiliar with a subject, okay with struggling to master a concept or tool or problem, okay with working in new formats, okay with failure and trying again is important for intellectual and academic development in school and with the work done outside of school.

Confirmation for "Uncomfortable, but Not Paralyzed"?

Since my first Digital History class in 2008, I've been telling students that I wanted them to be "uncomfortable, but not paralyzed" based on my sense that it was only when one struggled a bit that deep  learning occurred.  The concept has explicitly shaped much of my teaching since then.  Now the Mindshift blog at KQED is reporting that there are several studies that back up my reasoning.

In one study, published in Learning and Instruction, psychologists Sidney D'Mello and Art Graesser found "that even negative emotions can play a productive role in learning."

Confusion, D’Mello explains, is a state of “cognitive disequilbrium”; we are mentally thrown off balance when we encounter information that doesn’t make sense. This uneasy feeling motivates us to restore our equilibrium through thought, reflection, and problem solving, and deeper learning is the result. According to D’Mello, engaged learners repeatedly experience “two-step episodesalternating between confusion and insight.” Back and forth, between perplexity and understanding: this is how the learning of complex material happens.
In fact, deep learning may be unlikely to happen without the experience of confusion, suggests a study conducted by another researcher, Arizona State’s Kurt VanLehn. The students in his experiment were not able to grasp the physics concepts they were learning until they had encountered, and surmounted, an intellectual “impasse.”
Still another study, this one led by Harvard physicist Eric Mazur, found that students who observed a demonstration in science class understood the relevant concept no better than before—unless the students were asked to predict the outcome of the demonstration in advance. When their predictions turned out to be wrong, the resulting confusion motivated them to consider the concept more deeply, and they learned more.


On a related note, Stephen Ramsey at the University of Nebraska has a wonderful post that eloquently makes the case that attitude is more important than (initial) aptitude in learning programming.
Nearly every programmer I know – and I know some great ones – started out not with a course, or a book, or a teacher, but with a problem that was irritating them. Something in their computational world didn’t seem right. Maybe it was broken, or maybe just missing. But being comfortable with not-knowing-what-the-hell-they’re-doing, they decided that getting a computer to do something new was more-or-less like figuring out how to get the chain back on the bike. They weren’t trying to “be programmers” any more than the parent determined to fix the kid’s bike is trying to be a “bicycle mechanic.”
All of these suggest that cultivating mental habits among our students (and ourselves) where we are okay with being unfamiliar with a subject, okay with struggling to master a concept or tool or problem, okay with working in new formats, okay with failure and trying again is important for intellectual and academic development in school and with the work done outside of school.

Confirmation for "Uncomfortable, but Not Paralyzed"?

Since my first Digital History class in 2008, I've been telling students that I wanted them to be "uncomfortable, but not paralyzed" based on my sense that it was only when one struggled a bit that deep  learning occurred.  The concept has explicitly shaped much of my teaching since then.  Now the Mindshift blog at KQED is reporting that there are several studies that back up my reasoning.

In one study, published in Learning and Instruction, psychologists Sidney D'Mello and Art Graesser found "that even negative emotions can play a productive role in learning."

Confusion, D’Mello explains, is a state of “cognitive disequilbrium”; we are mentally thrown off balance when we encounter information that doesn’t make sense. This uneasy feeling motivates us to restore our equilibrium through thought, reflection, and problem solving, and deeper learning is the result. According to D’Mello, engaged learners repeatedly experience “two-step episodesalternating between confusion and insight.” Back and forth, between perplexity and understanding: this is how the learning of complex material happens.
In fact, deep learning may be unlikely to happen without the experience of confusion, suggests a study conducted by another researcher, Arizona State’s Kurt VanLehn. The students in his experiment were not able to grasp the physics concepts they were learning until they had encountered, and surmounted, an intellectual “impasse.”
Still another study, this one led by Harvard physicist Eric Mazur, found that students who observed a demonstration in science class understood the relevant concept no better than before—unless the students were asked to predict the outcome of the demonstration in advance. When their predictions turned out to be wrong, the resulting confusion motivated them to consider the concept more deeply, and they learned more.


On a related note, Stephen Ramsey at the University of Nebraska has a wonderful post that eloquently makes the case that attitude is more important than (initial) aptitude in learning programming.
Nearly every programmer I know – and I know some great ones – started out not with a course, or a book, or a teacher, but with a problem that was irritating them. Something in their computational world didn’t seem right. Maybe it was broken, or maybe just missing. But being comfortable with not-knowing-what-the-hell-they’re-doing, they decided that getting a computer to do something new was more-or-less like figuring out how to get the chain back on the bike. They weren’t trying to “be programmers” any more than the parent determined to fix the kid’s bike is trying to be a “bicycle mechanic.”
All of these suggest that cultivating mental habits among our students (and ourselves) where we are okay with being unfamiliar with a subject, okay with struggling to master a concept or tool or problem, okay with working in new formats, okay with failure and trying again is important for intellectual and academic development in school and with the work done outside of school.