Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Just an average day: in praise of student interaction

Yesterday was just an average day, and yet it was a good day, too. It was our first day back after Thanksgiving, and there was some small talk before class about how odd it felt to be back.

I made a little joke as I handed out the course evals, and they smiled. You can't comfortably share a space with a group of people for 15 weeks without liking them, and the wrinkles we had early on have been worked out by now. "Well, you can come back in; we've finished shredding you," the student said when he came out to get me after the evals were done, but he smiled and was obviously kidding. Like Sally Field, I hope they "liked me, really liked me," but all I can say for sure is that we are more comfortable with each other.

This may be because they are more comfortable with assuming responsibility for their own learning. This semester I've encouraged more student responsibility than I've done before. Students have researched and presented on things I'd usually lecture on. They've led discussions and asked their classmates questions. They're more comfortable using the board, presenting, working in groups, and saying what they think.

Did we "cover" everything? Maybe yes and maybe no. But did their work take the class in other directions, and did they learn a lot from that? I learned things, and I hope they know that they did, too.

More of them are talking to me after class or in my office about their projects, about what they want to do, or about random things that relate to works we've studied that they'd like to share. Yes, it means a lot of grading, but I'm looking forward to seeing their final projects. (You can tell from this sanguine tone that I haven't been inundated yet.)

Soon it'll be grading time, and it'll be over with, and there'll be the post-semester letdown, which makes absolutely no sense logically but is there nonetheless. Then you get to do the whole thing all over again.

I feel as though I've complained and ranted so much that I just wanted to celebrate what we all take for granted sometimes: nice human interaction with students and a good day.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Last MOOC post until 2013

I promise: no more Cassandra-like questionings of MOOC cheerleading until 2013.  Jonathan Rees at More or Less Bunk has got that covered anyway, and he's actually taking a MOOC class, so his points are more legit than mine.

This piece of MOOC cheerleading--"The End of Higher Education as We Know It?" with an implied "Yesssss! Go, Team!" at the end of it-- is from TheStreet.  It's just as uncritical and glittery as the rest, although you'd think that a publication that thinks it's based in economic reality would ask a few questions.  Here are some excerpts, with a few comments from me:
The economic problem with college, as Shirky notes, is that it's labor-intensive and does not scale. You can push down salaries to an extent [and God knows we've tried], but it still takes a lot of people, many buildings and a lot of land to produce even a mediocre college education. What makes an elite education is the unique talent of its faculty [but not, apparently, the quality of its research, its labs, or the ability to learn from other smart, highly motivated students in person], which can't be discounted because demand for it is so high.

What Udacity does is spread that limited talent across to the broadest possible audience, while doing away with those other costs. [Because developing courses, creating infrastructure, and other costs are nonexistent.] Everything else can be done through one-on-one tutoring. [Paid for by whom? Provided by whom, once local universities are gone?] Standardize on the best courseware, with the best lecturers , and use the Internet to deliver that to the widest possible audience. [See? Easy-peasy once you redefine education as the best courseware and brand-name lecturers.] 
Again, there may be value in MOOCs, and that value may even lie in the quality of education they provide--but nobody's asking the questions. With that, and with apologies to Alexander Pope, I'll shut up about this until the New Year:

Safe in the hand of one disposing Pow'r,
Or in the natal, or the mortal hour.
All MOOCness is but Art, unknown to thee;
All chance, direction, which thou canst not see
All discord, harmony not understood,
All partial evil, universal good:
And, spite of pride, in erring reason's spite,
One truth is clear, whatever MOOCs, is right

Sunday, November 25, 2012

A milestone, of sorts, and the gamification of writing

I keep seeing articles about the gamification of learning or of working, which translates into getting people to do things for rewards such as those in video games--the gold stars of childhood writ large and within a game context.  I believe in that idea, because who didn't want to win a gold star instead of a red one?

That's one of the things that MOOCs and other types of badges-based learning get right. There's a feeling of satisfaction in doing something right and seeing it there on the screen: getting all the answers right in an online quiz that you take for fun, for example, or seeing if you can beat your high score and earn some free rice for another country.

I've been thinking about this, because has a badge system.  My badges haven't changed since I started using it in September 2011, so I usually paid no attention to them, but yesterday two new ones popped up: one for writing 5 days in a row, and the other for writing 100,000 words since I started with the site.

100,000 words? That gave me pause. They weren't all great words or even finished text; if they were, this book would be done. Some were just notes on texts for the book or research brainstorming, but they were all words related to this book project, and the computer had counted them, and now I had a badge to prove it.

Did it motivate me? You bet.  This is one sort of motivation (badges); other sites like give you cute pictures (positive reinforcement) and some, like, terrify you with loud noises if you stop writing (negative reinforcement). The reinforcement is intrinsically meaningless, since you're imposing it on yourself with the aid of technology, and yet it works.

I wonder if we could gamify the teaching of writing in the same way.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Writing Inspiration and Positive Thoughts: Tony Kushner on Writing

From the Fresh Air Interview
DAVIES: I read that when you wrote the screenplay, you gathered just the right fountain pens and notebooks. Is this true? What's the role of that?
 KUSHNER: I write everything with fountain pens. I don't know why. I've done it since I was bar mitzvahed. I was given a fountain pen, a Parker fountain pen, and I loved it, and I've never liked writing anything with pencils or ball-points. I just can't stand it. I love - fountain pens have a very expressive line. When you're upset, and you're writing really, really hard, it gets thicker and darker, and when you're tentative, it's thinner and more spidery, and, you know...
 DAVIES: So it wasn't putting you in the 19th century, you didn't don a wig or anything?

KUSHNER: No, no, I keep notebooks, and I write in - I find it, you know, I'm 56 years old, and I find it easier to write when I'm first pulling things together, with a pen and paper. The computer, the noise of the computer feels like impatience. It's sort of the sound of impatience to me. And I like having a paper trail of what I've crossed out because sometimes I go back and realize that I shouldn't have done that. It's just a more natural way for me to write. I'm sure I'm, you know, of the last generation that will ever say anything like that.
And some other positive thoughts for the end of the semester:

  • Instead of thinking how much you haven't gotten done with only a few weeks left, think about what you have gotten done.  Among other things, you can answer our former president's immortal question "Is our children learning?" with "yes, they are." 
  • Even if the weather is bad, a short walk in the fresh air, even if it's just around the block, will help.
  • It's a time of year when you may feel that you don't have a lot of choices, but you really do.
    • For example, in most meals, there's something you really want to eat (food excitement!) and the rest of it is just food-because-it's-there. Eat the food excitement first--for me this is usually salad, which I love--and refrigerate the rest. Eat it later if you're hungry. Or not.
    • If something makes you unhappy, like checking Facebook, stop checking it even if everyone is pressuring you to do otherwise. 
  • Stop and think about what you're doing before you do it. You may have to check email, but you don't have to do so as a reflexive move first thing in the morning; you can choose not to check it on the weekends and the world will still exist. I think of it this way: why choose to take on someone else's thoughts and problems before you've had a chance to think about your own? 

Happy non-shopping day!

Happy belated Thanksgiving to all and a happy non-shopping day today.  In addition to NOT shopping today, I'm going to try to get out to Small Business Saturday tomorrow and support local stores. Yes, I hate to shop. Yes, I know that this is something being supported by American Express, and yes, I know Consumerism is Bad yadda yadda yadda, but at least it's in the right direction and AmEx deserves some props for it, don't you think?

My desire to support local businesses is inspired by Amazon's evil Judas action last year about turning stores into shopping showrooms and local shoppers into unpaid agents in its quest for world domination so that it can undercut the prices online. I have heard that some people even do this in independent clothing stores: try on clothes and then write down the information so that they can get the clothes online for cheaper.  It's legal, but it's unethical. I'd say it would serve these people right when there are no more stores because they've driven them out of business, but that would be an expensive "I told you so" for the rest of us, since the stores would have to cease to exist for that to happen.

Yes, it's more inconvenient, not to mention expensive, to pay shipping rates and stand in line at the post office for stuff you buy locally, but here's the thing: If we don't support local independent stores, who's going to?

And since this is a MOOC-free post, any parallels you see between this and previous questions raised about MOOCs on this blog are purely coincidental. 

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Why can't they read the book in my mind?

Alfred Hitchcock, who began as an art director and had a famously visual approach to filmmaking, used to plan his movies and storyboard them elaborately well before production.  He didn't direct the actors, per se; most of them reported that he said nothing to them about their performances. When they'd ask him about it, he'd say something along the lines of "you're doing fine.  If you weren't doing it right, I'd tell you."

Indeed, on the set, according to Donald Spoto's The Dark Side of Genius, sometimes they'd look over after a take and see him with his eyes closed.  Sometimes it was clear that he had actually fallen asleep during the take, which can't have been reassuring for actors who wanted a little feedback.  Apparently Jimmy Stewart, Cary Grant, Grace Kelly, and the others who worked with him more than a few times got used to it.

He wasn't bored by their performance. He was bored by the process, because he saw the film so clearly in his mind that it was as if he'd already seen it before.

If you have vivid dreams, you've probably had a similar experience: your brain has programmed the movements and voices of actors, scenes, and basic filmmaking shots, and sometimes you might dream a whole film as if you're watching it. Your brain's got the best CGI equipment around, and a dream is the ideal place to roll that film.

That's where this chapter I'm working on now is in my mind.  It's there in glorious Technicolor and stereophonic sound but buried in my mind. When I try to bring it out in actual words, though, I get overwhelmingly sleepy and disinclined to write.  And when I do write, the result is more like Roundhay Garden Scene than Vertigo. It would be great if I could just publish the book in my mind instead of writing it.
But Hitchcock had to go to the set every day and be paid fabulous amounts of money to create art. I have to get back to writing every day for no money to create something that might make a contribution in some way. The key denominator there is the "work on it every day" part, and that's what counts.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

MOOConomics and the health care model

Over at Inside Higher Ed, Paul Fain reports that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is funding $3 million in new MOOC-related grants.  The idea is that MOOCs with credit attached can replace gen ed courses, thus rendering efficiencies in granting degrees.

Well, maybe, if you leave aside the quality of the education, which seems to be a complete non-issue with those promoting MOOCs, and if you don't think about the other functions of the university. I'm thinking of the economics of the whole thing.

Think about the Affordable Care Act.  The reason given for mandatory signup is that if signing up for health care is voluntary, only the very sickest will sign up for care; healthy people will avoid signing up until they are sick.  That's the principle behind all forms of insurance. The risk and costs are spread across a large population to improve affordability.

Now think about a community college or university with high-cost programs like lab sciences, engineering, or nursing courses--any courses that require intensive training and expensive equipment. Right now, the gen ed courses help to support those courses.  Take away the gen ed courses and the other kinds of support that they provide for the university and leave behind the expensive hands-on lab courses--in Obamacare terms, exempt the healthy people and permit the most expensive patients to join the plan when they feel like it.  How much will tuition, and financial aid, have to rise to cover the costs imposed by the missing gen ed revenue?

I would like to see some analyses that take this into account, but first someone will have to brush away all the confetti made of dollar bills being thrown at MOOCs and look seriously at the implications these proposals.

[Edited to add: Another of my posts on this issue; a post at edwired that does consult the experts.]

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Random discoveries and questions from the week

  • Biggest discovery: that if you have a can of Starbucks Hot Cocoa mix that you haven't been using since you developed a lactose intolerance, you can mix it with just hot water and it is even better than it is with milk. 
  • Second biggest discovery: hearing from a colleague that students really love a class that I have been working very hard at this semester but had worried about.
  • From Vanity Fair, that the New York Public Library has sent/is sending the rest of its books to a storage area in New Jersey "where they would join the two million of the library's books that are already there.  In theory, any book could be retrieved and sent to New York within 24 hours.  A day isn't much if you are working on a two-year research project.  But if you are a student or a visiting scholar who has saved up to come to New York to do research on books you can find only at the New York Public Library, the delay can be critical" (185).  Yes, it could be critical indeed.  
  • That it takes 6.59 minutes for my ancient Vista-based laptop (which I need to use for a specific program for a university function) to boot up and find the wireless but that it has only 7 minutes of battery life if it is not plugged in. For 1 second, it's "Yes! The screen at last!" followed by "Click--battery death." 
  • That I have been totally spoiled by the open-the-lid-and-type speed of the MacBookPro. 
  • That spending 14 hours plus transit time on campus teaching and in meetings makes me fall exhausted into bed where I dream of . .  . teaching and being in meetings.
  • That if your brain is in some sense a production line for writing, the writing part (Production) can't get done until the reading part (Raw Materials) is available.
  • That thinking about a new course and new texts to teach is an enjoyable distraction from thinking about a current course or your writing. 
  • That it's possible to think about adding new texts to a course you've taught before--an online course--until you see all the pages and pages of material, links, and questions you wrote the last time and realize that you would be a total crazy person to reinvent this particular wheel, especially when you realize, after reviewing student feedback, that they really liked the course the way it is. 
  • If a library or archive had a fantastic online archive with great, close scans of the material you needed to see and there was no doubt about the readability of the online text, would you still feel that you needed to go to the archive?
  • Would you think that people might doubt your conclusions if you did so? 
  • Is there a solid reason for reducing the value of results or conclusions based on an online scan of a text, or is it more about "too easy--you have to earn the research results by going to an archive"?
  • Are the answers different for historians and literary scholars? 

Wednesday, November 07, 2012


You know how sometimes you're watching tennis or driving in a car and you move as if your body english would change the outcome because you want so badly for a certain thing to happen?

Yes! Obama body english worked!

And yes for various initiatives and candidates!

And thank you to Historiann and others who were in swing states and not in lefty blue states and waiting in voting lines to make a difference!

I still remember back in 2008 thinking (because I think in cliches) that our long national political nightmare was over, the one where every morning I wondered just how much damage was being done to the country by the people, the deciders, in charge of it.

Now we can have four more years of falling sleep without worrying about that.

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Voting on books

We're watching the election returns, in part to see if Wolf Blitzer actually goes up in flames as a result of excessive excitement, but I held a little poll today about ebooks and textbooks.

One of the classes has an inexpensive coursepack of public domain texts and a number of separate books (no big textbook), but some of the readings I left online rather than including them in the coursepack.  It's a good-sized class for a humanities discipline.

Today I asked them this: "We're told that people under 25 would rather read things online than in paper form. What do you think? Would you rather read X online, or would you have preferred to have it in the course pack?"  Result: 80% voted for coursepack over reading online.  Reasons:
  • Too hard to mark up stuff on a computer.  You have to click, open a text box, maybe click some more to highlight something, etc.  Working with paper is just easier.
  • Hard to find specific spots. 
  • We skip too much when we read on a screen because that's what we're used to from Facebook. 
  • "I just like paper."
The 20% mostly had systems in place for marking things up in downloaded texts, but they didn't have as much to say as the majority.  

And now I have to watch John King wave his arms and work his magic with the fancy maps. 

Sunday, November 04, 2012

WaPo: Things to learn from MOOC pedagogy

Today's MOOC cheerleader is The Washington Post, which crows that the MOOC offers "Elite Education for the Masses!"  The ! is mine, but it might as well be WaPo's, given the tenor of the article.

Some things I learned:
  • Lectures are bad, according to educrat pedagogy of the last decade, and classrooms must be flipped to eliminate them . . . unless the course is a MOOC.  Then lectures are good because they are delivered by "world-class faculty" at "elite institutions."
  • Multiple-choice quizzes are bad, according to educrat pedagogy . . . unless they are inserted into the lecture in a MOOC. Then they are good because they "promote student engagement" and "enhance learning." 
  • A MOOC helps to build the brand, a key purpose of education since its beginnings.
  •  Dropping the name of a MOOC sponsored by an Ivy is okay because attending a MOOC is just like attending an Ivy. Jonathan Rees has a post about Ivy schools (A shares) and Ivy MOOCs (B shares) that seems a little closer to what will happen, but WaPo didn't interview him. 
  • And some people really do find teaching and participating in MOOCs worthwhile.  I'm not being sarcastic about that, and it is inspiring to think that people feel that way, even if they show no interest in the long-term effects of MOOCification. 
This part struck me as sort of sad:
“The real question is, if you start to get very good online MOOCs, why do you need a university?” said Joseph A. Burns, dean of faculty at Cornell University. “And what does an Ivy League university bring to the table? What do you give to students that they can’t get sitting at home and eating potato chips?” The campus ideal, he said, “of a teacher and five students crowded around their feet on a sunny lawn or something like that — that’s gone."
Really? Gone for good, even at Cornell? You're the dean of faculty and you can't articulate what value added Cornell the institution brings to the table as long as its lectures are recorded and put online for free? I can tell you one thing: once there's no more faculty, there won't be a need for a dean of what's not there.

I'd also argue that the "students sitting outside" for class, which I see plenty of at Northern Clime when the weather is nice, isn't something that we ought to give up so easily. Granted, it's not shiny, like an online discussion board or auto-graded quiz in a MOOC, but it signals a different kind of student engagement, one that has a track record of encouraging real learning.

Friday, November 02, 2012

Decision fatigue

Dame Eleanor has a fascinating post and links to good articles about something called "decision fatigue." Put simply, researchers have found that your willpower goes down, as does your ability to make good decisions, when you've had to make a series of decisions over the course of a day.  You'll do anything to make it stop, including compromising in ways that you don't want to do or refusing to make any decision at all. The effect is magnified if your brain is starved of glucose: it needs that energy for willpower, which is in keeping with what other brain researchers found earlier this year.

In personal terms, this makes a stunning amount of sense. All those chirpy self-help fillers in magazines and web sites urge us to "Try something different! Break up your routine! Take a new route home from work! Brush your teeth in a different direction!" as a route to creativity. But if you've ever tried those strategies, you realize that they're only for leisure times when you have no work to do, because they are exhausting.

Think about it.  When you have to shop at a different grocery store, everything is in a different place and finding what you want among innumerable brands is tiring. Unless you have the fashion gene, which I do not, shopping for clothes is exhausting.  Controlled novelty--going to the farmer's market or an art gallery--can be stimulating and get the creative juices flowing, but what allows creativity to survive on a daily basis is the certainty of a physical routine that lets your mind go free. Thoreau had this one right: "Simplify, simplify." So did William James on the value of habit. One person's controlled novelty might be another person's occasion for decision fatigue, but the principle is still there.

The recent Vanity Fair article on President Obama indicated that he's cut his wardrobe down to blue suits and gray suits, or something like that, so that he can cut down on the time spent deciding.  Good call, Mr. President. Don't we do the same kinds of thing when we buy the same pair of pants or sweater in a couple of colors, just so we don't have to go to the department store again for a couple of years (or is that just my strategy)?

According to the researcher quoted in the New York Times article above,  "people with the best self-control are the ones who structure their lives so as to conserve willpower. They don’t schedule endless back-to-back meetings. They avoid temptations like all-you-can-eat buffets, and they establish habits that eliminate the mental effort of making choices. Instead of deciding every morning whether or not to force themselves to exercise, they set up regular appointments to work out with a friend. Instead of counting on willpower to remain robust all day, they conserve it so that it’s available for emergencies and important decisions."

In other words, a regular routine isn't limiting to creativity. It's freeing because it conserves your energy to make the important decisions related to your creative life.

Thursday, November 01, 2012

#AcWriMo, #NaNoWriMo -- it all spells "writing"

George Williams at the Chronicle marks the start of Academic Writing Month, or AcWriMo, from the old NaNoWriMo that some of us have done in previous years. Here are the rules:

  1. Set yourself some crazy goals.
  2. Publicly declare your participation and goals.
  3. Draft a strategy.
  4. Discuss what you’re doing.
  5. Don’t slack off.
  6. Publicly declare your results.
This may help me meet the goals at Dame Eleanor's (after not checking in last week).
So here goes:

1 & 2. Crazy goals and public participation. How much writing is possible, especially if you're teaching and having to research some of the things you're writing about? NaNoWriMo's goal used to be 50,000-80,000 words for the month, which may work for fiction writers  but not for academics.

A thousand words a day would be nice, but there are some more of those 14-hour days coming up when that wouldn't be possible.

I'm going with this one: write every day.  I actually did write every day except for one day in September. If you're kind, please don't ask me about October. Crazy goal: finish this chapter by mid-month (part is already drafted) and get a good way into the next one.

3. Draft a strategy. Since October was such a morass of travel, grading, and service, here's the strategy for this month:

  • keeps me honest, which is how I was able to keep to this in September,  so that will be one strategy.  
  • Writing by hand in a book that I keep with me all the time now, as suggested by Flavia, is another. 
  • Writing first thing in the morning, before "anyone gets up" or "can hurt your feelings," as Francis Ford Coppola suggests, is another. 
  • Strict Pomodoro (for Chrome) helps, too. 
More global strategies:
  • Reverse the order of braintime so that the writing, not the classes, is getting the bulk of the time. 
  • Recognize that the temptation to gild lilies in the classroom is a sign of the brain trying to avoid writing. 
  • Especially don't waste early morning creative time with thinking about classes several days hence.
4-6. Discuss what you're doing, don't slack off, and publicly declare your results.  

Are you in?