Sunday, August 30, 2009

Choose your own textbook

The New York Times has an article called "The Future of Reading" about an admittedly small trend in middle schools: students picking their own books to read instead of having teachers select the books. They don't all read the same book; they each choose a book, read it, blog about it, present the work to the class, and so on. The idea is to encourage kids to read, regardless of the content.

It's not all about student choice, though. If you read between the lines, it's clear that the class is assigned poems so that they can learn about symbolism, imagery, and so on; also, if the teacher believes that the student has chosen a book that's too far from literature (a Transformers comic, say), she'll recommend that the student move on to something more challenging for the next book. Students who don't choose more challenging books hear about it, although it's not clear if this has an effect on their grades.

I'm intrigued by this idea because, as the article notes, not everyone is able to connect with the classics chosen for the classroom. When I was in school, the principle seemed to be Great Authors' Books That Have No Sex in Them: Silas Marner but not Adam Bede, Death Comes for the Archbishop but not My Antonia, Ethan Frome but not The House of Mirth, and Julius Caesar but not Romeo and Juliet. Those pretty much bored everybody equally (sorry, but back then it was true), but more recently there've been attempts to break it up by gender. Depending on whether the current trend is "OMG! We are leaving behind the boyz" or "OMG! Why should we always read what boys want?" we get either male adolescent adventure or How the Garcia Girls Lost their Accents. Considering the alternatives, the "choose your own book" idea sounds really great.

I'm wondering how this might work in a college classroom, or whether it could work there. (I'm not talking about grad seminars, where it could work very well.) We already give students some choices about what they read, but if students had as a common reading only the poems that were assigned in a survey course, for example, what would we do about discussion?

Could we have a choice of readings from a menu (which would sort of defeat the purpose)? Would you be able to refrain from assigning something that you know "teaches well" and really let the students have a voice?

If you were teaching a class in Chaucer or early American lit, would the students know enough coming into the class to choose their own readings? Do we have any responsibility to introduce students to certain works (the Wife of Bath's tale, for example)?

What would you tell the students who come up with variants of the following: "You're the expert, not me. What do you think we should be reading?"

What's going to happen when students who've had free-range reading through middle and high school get to college and see a book list?

As usual, I have questions. I don't have any answers.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Edupunk: "Classes? We don't need no stinkin' classes!"

Dean Dad has a good post about the Edupunk movement, which, once you get past the bad boy rhetoric of the people talking about it, is about taking free content--a course from M.I.T.'s Open Courseware here, an online lecture from Stanford there--and making your own university program out of it, the better to (1) tap into the insatiable desire for electronic content on the part of today's students and (2) bring down costs.

Here's the part that caught my attention: "While it has yet to get accreditation, the not-for-profit [Peer2Peer University] plans to offer bachelor's degrees in business and computer science using open courseware and volunteer faculty; fees would add up to about $4,000 for a full four-year degree."

Uh-huh. "Volunteer faculty." What's not to love about working for free? I'm waiting breathlessly to see if the M.I.T. faculty who put their courses online will also forgo their magnificent salaries to participate in this model. Of course faculty who have car payments, mortgage payments, and student loans with lenders notoriously uninterested in being told "sorry, I can't pay you--I'm working for free" will be a little skeptical about this model. Western Governors University has a model that's slightly above free: "For every 80 students, a PhD faculty member, certified in the discipline, serves as a full-time mentor."*

Let's skip over the salary issues and look at what actually counts: student learning.

It's possible that students, especially in technical fields, will be able to learn enough to pass the necessary tests. Can this happen in the humanities? I'd like to think that it's possible. Given truly motivated students, a lively online community conducted by wikis or discussion boards or blogs, and interaction with dedicated faculty, the model could work. Some online classes already use the "canned course" model in which everything is put together by a "master teacher" and delivered by someone who's paid to grade papers and deliver the course.

It seems to me that we (traditional faculty) already use a lot of online content in teaching our courses, but we put it together with a lot more of our own content in ways that create a coherent whole. We discuss the material with our classes. We answer questions. We respond to student writing, and we know when to encourage and when to push the student a little harder. We talk to them. They talk to each other. It's a community of learners. I have an investment in seeing that they learn what they need to learn and that there's a depth of understanding as well as of knowledge.

But if someone comes to you and says "I've put together these 56 sites and am ready to be tested in this for credit; I just need you to sign off on the fact that I know what I'm talking about," what's your answer going to be?

*To be fair, WGU isn't working on the same model as P2P, and having 80 students to mentor may work out to the usual courseload that someone in a trad university would carry.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Clearing the decks

It's the academic new year. Notorious Ph.D. has sent off her book manuscript, Bardiac now has a clean desk, Bittersweet Girl has cleaned her office and made discoveries, Dame Eleanor Hull has been excavating and throwing out old PMLA issues, Dr. Crazy is getting into the groove, Fretful Porpentine is outsmarting her smart classroom, Profgrrrrl is contemplating service and has a handy faculty retreat scoreboard, Lesboprof's planning orientation activities and contemplating being a full professor, Ink is feeling first-day stress, and Horace isn't feeling the usual excitement about the start of the new semester.

So it's time to buckle down here at Chez Undine, too. The MPF-Famous Author article has been sent, and I need to tear myself away from the curio cabinet of fascinating distractions (the Whatnot of Wasted Time) from which I procured that and get going on Major Project.
  • The first step is saying no (as Historiann pointed out) to service requests. Others in my position are not showing up on campus, and they're not making excuses for it, either.
  • Saying no includes some other service scholarship requests, including requests for book reviews and maybe some manuscript reviews. I have two new mantras for this: "I can buy the book. I can't buy the time that I spend reviewing it" is one. The second is "Would you rather be reviewing this manuscript for the press or getting your own sent out?"
  • The second step is to stop clearing the decks literally (cleaning my desk) and to start doing this metaphorically, by getting to work on the project. When I clean, I break down the task into smaller pieces so that it seems manageable and I'm not overwhelmed. I need to do the same for the project.
  • The third step is to stop thinking that this is an endless summer just because I'm not showing up at class with a syllabus in my hand on Monday at 8 a.m.
My desk is cleared, and so, in a manner of speaking, are my decks. Time to sail, I think.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

They're playing songs of school . . .

They're playing songs of school . . .
. . . but not for me, because my being on sabbatical.

Or are they?

1. "Hi. I know you're on sabbatical, but we're having this all-day meeting where we'd really like your input because you had so much to do with this project last year."

2. "Could you come in and meet with these students? It'd be great if you could. Of course, you're on sabbatical, but I think it's important."

After reading about faculty shirkers over at Historiann's, I felt guilty, even though I'm not one.

There are lines between really shirking, being perceived as shirking, protecting your time, and learning to say no (one of the Lessons for Girls). On the "perceived as being shirking" front, you can be on campus a lot, but if you don't live close by, you hear things like this:

"You're on campus today?" (Looks like it, doesn't it?)

"Hope you didn't come all the way to campus just for this one meeting." (Yes, I did.)

"I didn't expect to see you here." (Why not? Have I missed one of these meetings/gatherings yet?)

So I said yes to #2. And I found that the only excuse for not doing #1 was to say, truthfully, that I had already arranged to meet with a student elsewhere.

But if this is going to be a real leave with real work accomplished, I have to let the guilt go and learn to say "I can't"--not "I won't," but "I can't." There's a difference.

Edited because every blog post would be better with a soundtrack.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Working as procrastination

It just hit me today that working on this essay about MPF is unfortunately a really stellar means of procrastination.

While I keep reading and looking things up, trying to find out obscure details of an obscure person's life, I keep catching sight of Major Project sitting in the corner.

I'm obsessing about whether MPF ate corn flakes or Cheerios, and in the meantime Major Project is waving at me.

"Helloooo--you there! Look over here! Remember me?"

I catch that set of books out of the corner of my eye, the way a dog looks sideways when it knows it's done something wrong. I can't answer back, because what could I say? "Sorry, but I'm trying to find out whether MPF would have met another equally obscure figure at a party on November 30 of that important year."

I guess there's only one way out of this dilemma: dialing the level of detail back a notch and going not around but through the essay on MPF. In the meantime, Major Project is going to have to wait, but she's looking kind of impatient to me.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Seek and hide

Still working on the puzzle. The published edition of the selected letters of Famous Author has one letter to MPF, but in keeping with some principle entirely unrelated to my convenience or that of other researchers, declines to give the collection name, let alone box or folder numbers, for that letter. The notes indicate only that the letter is in Well-Known Research Library.

Well-Known Research Library's finding aid for the collection on Famous Author has no record of the letter, or indeed of any letters or information relating to MPF under any of his names. WKRL has nothing on MPF in any collection, finding aid, or reference in the catalogue.

The letter's there, along with (probably) others to MPF, but is it really there if it can't be found? If a tree falls in the forest, and no one sees it fall--oh, never mind.

I guess it's time to write to WKRL, and I'm dreading it a little because the research librarians I've written to or had contact with in the past have primarily been of two types: fantastically helpful or eager to snub researchers. Most have been the former, but as someone wrote recently in a blog post about feeling as though she's finally arrived because famously snooty librarian deigned to answer a question for her, that's not a given.

Saturday, August 08, 2009

Crowdsourcing in peer review

Michele's comment in response to the crowdsourcing post made me think again about Kathleen Fitzpatrick's post at Planned Obsolescence on "The Cost of Peer Review." The whole post is worthwhile, but here's the essence of it:
In that case, we’d be much better served, I believe, by eliminating pre-publication peer review. Perhaps the journal’s editorial staff reads everything quickly to be sure it’s in the most basic sense appropriate for the venue (i.e., written in the right language, about a subject in the field, not manifestly insane), but then everything that gets past that most minimal threshold gets made available to readers — and the readers then do the peer review, post-publication.

This is an attractive idea in some ways, but I can also see some problems with it.
  • Especially in the sciences, wouldn't there be a risk of factionalism--that is, supporters of the author giving the article a thumbs-up and those opposed to his or her theories a thumbs-down? I say "the sciences" because I understand that STEM disciplines really place a lot of weight on numbers of citations as well as grants as indicators of professional development.
  • Print publications have only so much space, a limitation that they've carried over to their (subscription) web versions. While this seems to be a bad thing at first--why limit yourself to 5 articles when the server can contain 100 for the same issue?--this could fall prey to the same consumer behavior that happens when people are confronted with too many choices. Recent research suggests that people given a huge number of choices are less likely to buy, say, a jar of jam than those given only 5 or so, because they're overwhelmed by the numbers. If you're confronted with a Table of Contents that's even 50 items long, are you more likely or less likely to read all the articles and vote on them?
  • Let's say that you've decided that you really want to find out about this subject and are going to read some of the articles; wouldn't the arrangement of the articles count? For example, would an essay by Amy Aardvark get read more than one by Zeb Zebra? Would people just go through looking for famous names? Or, if the ratings system made some articles rise to the top of the Table of Contents, wouldn't those lower in the pack get less attention? Would people be tempted to game the ratings system to get their article placed higher? In a perfect world this wouldn't happen, but at Amazon this happens a lot, apparently.
  • Here's another scenario: although the English Romantics aren't your field, you're teaching an entry-level introduction to literature class and you want to find out some of the best current ideas about Coleridge's "Christabel" for Wednesday's class. You go to a special issue on this subject and are confronted with 30-50 essays. You could read them all to decide, but you have to move on to "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" on Friday, and life's too short. What do you do? How do you decide?
  • In keeping with the need for numbers in "crowdsourcing," what about if you're in a small field where only about a dozen of you are really expert enough in the field to judge, but maybe the field is hot or trendy enough (or the author or subject popular enough) to attract a lot of readers/voters who don't know the field as well?

    These are just questions. I don't have any answers.
  • Friday, August 07, 2009

    The plot thickens

    Thinking about the "failure" hypothesis for MPF, here's what I come up with:


  • Hypothesis 1: "Failure"--does that mean simply failure to become as famous as Famous Author? Problem: Like most writers, Famous Author had a lot of friends who hadn't become famous or indeed ever left his home town, but he used the concept of failure primarily for this one. Is it just that MPF didn't live up to Famous Author's expectations? Other references speak of MPF in glowing and affectionate terms.
  • Hypothesis 2: MPF died fairly young and on a significant national holiday. He was a military man, so did he maybe kill himself? Problem: See #3.
  • Hypothesis 3: A letter of condolence to MPF's widow speaks of MPF and his loved ones being "prepared" for his death and his dying in peace (so much for #2). It also speaks of remembering the good parts about MPF and his life. Now, this could mean that he had an illness (TB, cancer, etc.) that led to some kind of physical deterioration. It could also mean something like alcoholism, which could help account for an early (and expected) death. Problem: MPF, as a public figure, apparently gave eloquent speeches, although I haven't found any yet. (That'll have to wait for the microfilm to arrive.) Of course, all the stuff about "peace" could simply be standard condolence rhetoric.

    What's interesting about this, to me at least, is the way in which it affects my reading of the letters. I read a sentence and think, "Is that genuine praise of MPF or the praise of pity?" It's like reading the letters and a negative of the letters in which everything could have two meanings.

    I'll have to receive more documents before I can unravel this.
  • The Puzzle Factor

    Lately I've been trying to find out more about a minor public figure's relationship with a major author.

  • Even Major Author spells MPF's name in various ways, and since it's a common name, it's not easy to distinguish MPF's information from that of others. Sure, Scott Fitzgerald always misspelled his friend's name as "Hemmingway," but we all knew who he was talking about. Think "Smith" and "Smithe" for the names, along with various spellings of the (common) first and middle names (like "John" and "Jon"), and then project that out into looking at census records.
  • Score! Obscure publication from a far-away state with information on MPF is actually in our library.
  • Double-score! An out-of-print regional history has a reference to MPF that links him/her to major author. I love you, Google Books.
  • Helpful transcriber, I appreciate the efforts you made, but in looking at the originals, I can see errors in the transcriptions. I guess that's why we always want to look at the manuscripts ourselves.
  • Definitive Biographer of major author devotes only one passing reference to MPF and then only to quote Famous Author as calling him/her a failure. All the documents I'm seeing show a pattern of success--not earth-shattering fame, but a respectable life. Why is MPF called a failure?

    Now I'm off to the library to pick up more books to keep trying to solve these mysteries. Maybe this is why I don't read murder mysteries. The puzzle factor in this kind of research is enough to keep me going for days.
  • Wednesday, August 05, 2009

    Death of handwriting--really?

    Time Magazine, which I've been checking out of desperation as Newsweek becomes increasingly newsless, has one of its trademark scare articles this week: "Mourning the Death of Handwriting." After the obligatory "here are my fascinating memories" intro by Claire Sudduth,* the writer, there's this little factoid: "And aside from the occasional grocery list or Post-it note, most adults write very little by hand." The article goes on to cite standardized testing, a post-1980s emphasis on learning to write cursive, and computers as major reasons for the decline.

    Is handwriting really declining, and do adults really not use it very much?

    About the "decline": I can see that fewer people write messages by hand, but the poor quality isn't a new thing, is it? All of you who've read handwritten letters from earlier centuries can attest to the fact that some have that whole Palmer Penmanship down to an art form as if Sister Mary Agatha is still watching, and some, well, don't.

    About use: The "decline in use" is probably true, but "write very little by hand"? Is this true in academe? What about essay tests? Annotating books? Taking notes in class? Commenting on papers? I know--it's possible to do all these by typing, but it's actually faster to do some of these by whipping out a pen.

    When I ask students who write poetry how they write it, it's often with a pen. In other words, one kind of writing that means something to them is writing they do with a pen.

    Since Time is happy to provide proof by anecdote, maybe we can follow its lead: Do you think that handwriting is really "dead"? Does most people's yearly output of handwriting consist of a couple of postage notes and a thank-you note or two?

    *Do you really care when she entered third grade? No? I rest my case.

    [Edited to add this, because of Carl's comments: When I was at the archives this summer, one of the librarians said, "Your handwriting is so legible! You must have taken calligraphy!" It isn't usually that legible, but I felt as though she'd given me a gold star. Maybe handwriting instruction went out with gold stars?]

    Update: Sisyphus, in the comments, has a good perspective on the article:
    The article is not about the death of handwriting, which she says is an umbrella category, but of cursive, claiming that people born after a certain point just never stuck with cursive anymore.

    That's totally true in my case ---- I write things out by hand all the time, but I never use cursive. Everyone I know who's roughly my age prints things. And I even had an old-school mother (much older than everyone else's) who decided my cursive was so bad that for an entire school year she fought me by making me practice cursive for hours after school every day.

    I had never thought of this as a generational thing and had conflated the two-- writing = cursive--but Sis is absolutely right.

    Sunday, August 02, 2009

    Crowdsource Grading

    From Cathy Davidson's "How to Crowdsource Grading" at HASTAC via The Chronicle:
    So, this year, when I teach "This Is Your Brain on the Internet," I'm trying out a new point system. Do all the work, you get an A. Don't need an A? Don't have time to do all the work? No problem. You can aim for and earn a B. There will be a chart. You do the assignment satisfactorily, you get the points. Add up the points, there's your grade. Clearcut. No guesswork. No second-guessing 'what the prof wants.' No gaming the system. Clearcut. Student is responsible.

    And how to judge quality, you ask? Crowdsourcing. Since I already have structured my seminar (it worked brilliantly last year) so that two students lead us in every class, they can now also read all the class blogs (as they used to) and pass judgment on whether they are satisfactory. Thumbs up, thumbs down. If not, any student who wishes can revise. If you revise, you get the credit. End of story. Or, if you are too busy and want to skip it, no problem.


    This sounds lovely, in theory. But, as usual, I have a few questions:
    1. Since this is "mastery grading" rather than "quality grading," wouldn't this be one of the cases where A = Adequate rather than excellent? Some professors don't have a problem with that, of course, but it makes me uncomfortable, since the professor is the one ultimately putting the A on the gradesheet.
    2. What about the retro soul who, having paid Duke U's high tuition, wants to know what an outstanding scholar like Cathy Davidson thinks rather than what his or her peers think? One comment that I used to get from time to time if I relied a lot on group work was "I'm paying to see what the experts think, not what my classmates think, about my work," and there's some justice in that position.
    3. As a corollary of the previous point (and this comes up in Jane Tompkins's A Life in School, too, where a similar method is described): do students ever get curious about what exactly the professor is doing to earn her salary? I don't think this is a question that ought to be posed, but I wonder whether students think about it anyway.
    4. So there are no petty jealousies, no cutthroat grad students, and no factions that might influence a student's willingness to make someone rewrite a post? I don't know grad students who would behave this way personally, of course, but there's a lot of trust involved with this system.

    Thoughts?