Teaching Queer Language/Queer Language Teaching

I have been teaching Italian for nearly ten years now and have never come out to my students. For some reason the words “I’m queer” never seem to come up when we are conjugating verbs or figuring out how to use direct object pronouns with the present perfect of transitive verbs. After class last week a student in my Italian 300 advanced contemporary culture class came up to me and said that he had never been in a class where the students were encouraged to play with the messiness of ideas and language, that especially in his language classes, instructors are quick to fill in the blanks with unknown vocabulary words or spell out “correct” ways of reading and interpreting. I realized that while my sexual and gender identities never necessarily make it to the blackboard, I am attempting to queer the space of the classroom and the approach to self-expression in language learning in a way that acknowledges the power of the form in order to push past it.

On the one hand the “straight” is a strict adherence to semantic and lexical structures and carries, especially among academics, a certain level of moral rectitude.

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The queer, on the other hand, is the messiness of the relationship between the idea and its expression, favors the investigation of possibility within word choice, neologism, structure and gender. Linguistic queerness in thus the spectrum of possible forms of expression that are produced by and through queer as a theoretical concept and not a sexual or gender identity.

While comprehension is always a goal, queer language is most interested in the speaker’s negotiation with the unstable self. From a Lacanian perspective we might say that the child had entered the social linguistic realm of the father (in his primary language) but has pushed passed this realm in search of another secondary language/father. (Does the primary language then become the mother in the triangle of self-formation? Is the symbolic world of the phallus a transsexual woman once the child seeks another phallic signifier? Or is it perhaps that the child has two daddies?) The instability of the self within this new space mirrors the instability of the prelinguistic child. There is no unity of self, there is no participation in the social order; there are ideas, their relationship to structures, and a space for play and experimentation.

This idea of play, of messy self-investigation through uncertain language must of course present itself very differently in an elementary language class where students are just learning the fundamental structures of language. The first step in any good coming out story is recognition, and language queers should be no different. Recognizing how political the gendered nature of the Italian language is (The feminine noun “casalinga” means housewife while the masculine noun “casalingo” means household product and not househusband) creates an awareness of language as a political tool and cultural construct. The errors that students make in elementary classes (“mangio tutti” = I eat everyone ≠ “mangio tutto” = I eat everything) should be discussed and “corrected” in a way that emphasizes the difference between the intention of the speaker and the meaning as perceived by the listener. What I am arguing here is that queer potential exists both in understanding the political constraints of the gendered nature of words and language use, and in refusing to participate in the rigidity of lexical correctness as long as the linguistic work that is done centers around the learner’s use and meaning.

In advanced language and culture classes (conducted entirely in the “target” language) the material is often taken from primary historical sources. At this point the basic and intermediate grammatical structures are taken for granted and most students focus on learning how to communicate their analysis of the texts being discussed. Refusing to be a walking dictionary I often encourage my students to talk through the difficult ideas using the words they have at their disposal. The discomfort is always tangible, but now, halfway through the semester, everyone allows everyone else the time and space to shape ideas and talk through linguistic possibility as they discuss their relationship with the texts.

babI have always been fascinated by the doge meme, reading a post about doge grammar I realized its connection to this queer approach to language. The creator of the doge must have a solid grasp on primary language structures and intentionally mess them up. This “messing up” is actually the creation of a new language, a language based on the relationship between the linguistic and the visual structures within the meme. The social and cultural ideas are expressed through this dynamic relationship that relies primarily on the new language created by the word/image interplay. While I do not encourage my students to match unquantifiable nouns with adjectives of quantity that specify plurality, there is something valuable in the way that the incorrect grammar structures of this meme create new meaning in a new context, something reminiscent of the work being done to understand the self’s relationship to its own self expression when both are constantly and necessarily “works in progress.”

These ideas are very much works in progress. I must confess that I am concerned about the possibility that these ideas support a queer/straight binary that is not my intention in any way. Hopefully this will be the beginning of a conversation (understood as broadly as possible) about language, pedagogy and queerness.
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Seeing Weird Theatre: Analysis of an Assignment

My dissertation is about contemporary experimental performance, what I like to call “weird theatre.” I introduce myself to my students, joking that I write about weird little performances that happen in weird little spaces throughout the city. When I give this introduction, when I write on my blog, www.weirdtheatre.org, when I trudge out to these venues, I reflect upon my commitment to weird theatre. What draws me to these weird performances? How does weird theatre make meaning differently than more traditional theatrical forms?  When I teach weird theatre, I often think about the politics that undergird its weirdness. To whom is this theatre accessible?  Who are its intended audiences—is weird theatre only meaningful to “in the know,” experienced spectators?

Some people find experimental work hard to understand or pretentious, but I love its possibilities. As an actor and a feminist, I always found realistic theatre foreclosing; the possibilities of who I could play and what I could do onstage were limited to the realm of the real, which for me often meant sweet, femme-y ingénue characters, women I was not particularly interested in pretending to be. In college, my professors introduced me to experimental performance and feminist and queer performance art and my understanding of the possibilities of performance was forever altered. I can say with certainty that exposure to this work changed the course of my life.

I hope, in exposing my own students to experimental work, I will have some small effect on their perception of the possibilities of performance. Two summers ago, teaching an Introduction to Theatre course, I took my students to one of these weird little theatre spaces, the now defunct Collapsable Hole (sic) in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, to see a weird little performance called Space//Space by the critically-acclaimed experimental company Banana Bag & Bodice. It was a bit of a risk; in the intro course, many students have never attended live theatre, let alone experimental performance in an off-off-off-Broadway venue. But we had spent the semester defining theatre beyond conventional playtexts, we had discussed devised work, read Godot, and studied non-Western performance traditions. I felt they were prepared for the performance. Company members Jason Craig and Jessica Jelliffe generously agreed to stay afterwards to speak about their process and answer any student questions.

SpaceSpace-11-590x375

Image courtesy of http://bananabagandbodice.org/show/spacespace/

Some students hated the performance. Some loved it. But they all met the challenge of its weirdness.  I had them write reviews of the production, and I was so impressed with their writing, I asked their permission to quote their work in the analysis of the assignment I knew I would someday write. The following are some excerpts from their critiques, all of which demonstrate engaged critical thinking.

Even as a student expresses the ways in which the performance falls short, she still engages critically with it and supports her assertions about its weaknesses:

Sitting through the performance I was puzzled as to what was going on and what was the purpose. Simplistic and often single-worded dialogue left me waiting for that point in which things would make sense. I learned that it wasn’t meant to make sense. . . . Portraying the human mind as it deals with isolation, loneliness, and the downward spin to insanity is hard to achieve. The performance by the actors, I felt, lacked genuineness and therefore evoked feelings of confusion rather than acknowledgement and empathy. There was not enough information to bring the performance together as a whole due to the scattered, simplistic dialogue and limited actions of the performers.

One student, a former professional dancer who felt the performance “penetrated her subconscious,” provides a nuanced reading of Lumus’s transformation from male to female during the course of the play:

By the performance’s conclusion, Jelliffe’s transformation was complete: her pale skin, long hair, and naked, pregnant body, created an angelic, Madonna impression. She finally grew into her namesake, Lumus, similar to luminescence. In physics, luminescence is a form of cold body radiation, which contrasts with incandescence, light emitted as a result of heat. Although Lumus was now physically radiant, she had also undergone a cool emotional transformation. From her initial warm relationship with, and naïve dependence on Penryn (Craig), she evolved into her own entity: standing up to him, questioning him, threatening him, berating him, destroying his life’s work, and ultimately, holding his hand to her pregnant stomach, she cradled him as he died. Her final words, “I have no husband, okay,” completed this transition, and yet, spoken with a note of sadness, they conveyed a hint of regret. Neither completely good nor completely evil, Jelliffe succeeded in portraying the complexity of the human condition . . . Space//Space is a tragicomedy; it portrays man’s limitations and failures, with moments of comedy interspersed. In true Beckettian fashion, it puts its audience through the experience of the characters. We live their waiting and sleeping, we feel their desperation, and we observe their inner struggles, finding ourselves amused by repetitious dialogue, and humbled by the futility of life.

Another, a psychology major, who changed her minor to theatre after taking my class, offers a beautiful analysis of a musical moment in the show:

 . . . the performers used melody and rhythm to express their emotion. Jessica’s character sang a song about being a “space girl in space” when s/he finally accepted the change from a man to a woman. Her voice singing this song still remains in my mind as a very strong moment. I associate it with the feeling of embracing who we are for whoever we are and living with what we have.

Another reads the performance in a larger socio/political context:

Visual metaphors brilliantly included in the play emphasize the power of control the government, society, religion has upon humans. Depending on perspective the spectator takes, it can be interpreted as control of the market, power of surveillance, restricted liberty, the power of the law. For instance, “emergency sandwiches” that come from mysterious hatch, and blue liquid supply (must be water) available for the characters in “spaceship” (which looks more like a laboratory hamster cage), signify that humans throughout their lives are nothing but test subjects.  Human life is represented by the roll of tape that records every step we make, and every word we say. And what we have at the end? Just a broken record . . .

The performance led a pre-med student to reflect on existential questions:

Time and time again, Lumus would ask “Where are we?” and “Why are we here?” and Penrym  would respond with some frustration “We are in Space. We are doing our job.” What their job is exactly is left up to interpretation by the spectators themselves: is it to maintain society’s morals and values in space? Is it to test the effect of being in isolation from the rest of humanity? Are they supposed to give in to their natural instincts? Is their job to ponder their existence or simply just to carry out normal every day functions (such as eating and sleeping) without exercising their brain at all? . . . Space//Space brings to our consciousness the idea of how society have and will continue to shape our perspective of our existence. What the characters suffer from while isolated in space is choosing between living deliberately or serving society and it’s never ending expectations of proper conduct by doing their ‘job’ . . . Social norms and roles may appear restrictive but we now depend on them to give our lives superficial meaning by having us go to school, get educated, and create a career. These things keep us busy in the everyday, material world, but once left alone with just our thoughts our human minds seem to be vulnerable to despair and hopelessness. Space//Space showed us how outside of society, Penrym and Lumus were at a lost as to what they should do with themselves, resulting in both of them undergoing great turmoil that we don’t see get resolved by the conclusion of the performance.

My students’ inspired analyses and astute critiques confirm that spectatorship of experimental work encourages deep critical thinking and creative analysis. Their writing shows that weird theatre is not necessarily esoteric, that spectators of all sorts can find meaning in it.  In fact, the variety of students’ interpretations of the piece leads me to wonder if—because of the openness of the texts—weird theatre is actually more accessible, in some ways, than realistic work.  Regardless, their responses—positive and negative—reaffirm my commitment to weird theatre, and especially to making it available to all audiences of all experience levels.

What I learned in my international archival research

This break, I spent time in Moscow, conducting dissertation research. This archival trip has been useful, not only for my dissertation research, but in a way I never expected: helping my pedagogy seemingly unrelated to my research topic.

(requisite image of St. Basil's for any post about Moscow)

(requisite image of St. Basil’s for any post about Moscow)

As a foreigner in Russian archives and libraries, I expected some bureaucratic red tape, therefore I planned ahead. However, no matter how much you try, bureaucracy will always find a way. Even with very helpful librarians and archival specialists, I faced multiple forms, access requests, and unexpected hurdles. This post is an attempt to record my experience.

I won’t go into the forms needed just to enter Russia, as there are many websites dedicated to helping with that. But I will just say that you must begin preparations months—six months would be ideal—in advance. Once you arrive, make sure that you have all of your documentation: Passport, Visa, Migration card, Visa registration, Letter of introduction from your home institution, Russian phone number, Russian address where you are staying. Got all of those? Good, you are ready to head out to your research site.

Beloved Dostoevsky guarding the entrance to the main Lenin Library in Moscow.

Beloved Dostoevsky guarding the entrance to the main Lenin Library in Moscow.

In a nice bit of Gogolesquery, in order to enter most libraries and archives you will need your propusk [pass]. In order to get this propusk, you have to register with the library past the guard’s station where you need to show this propusk. For some libraries, the process is simple as telling them that you are a new reader and going to register. Other places require calling the librarian on duty to come and escort you to the office where you apply for the propusk. The good news is that the librarians in charge of issuing these propuski are generally very helpful and quick. So it shouldn’t take more than an hour or so to get your privledges.

Despite a national set of “Rules for the Reader,” (a multipaged set of bureaucratic rights and privledges that you either are asked to read or given a copy of at each location), every library or archive has its own system for carrying out those rights, registering its readers, requesting materials, and requesting copies. Since you will be asked to read over these rules so quickly, best to familiarize yourself with them well ahead of time.

Hand over your letter of introduction, printed on official letterhead and specifically stating the subject and dates of your research topic. Turn in your passport, visa, migration card, and visa registration. Fill in the registration form, which could be as simple as a notecard or as long as a couple pages and require an attached photo. And hope you filled everything in correctly. You will then, if all goes well, receive your official propusk with a blue official stamp.

Good to go!
(image by Damian Yerrick cc-by-sa)

Next comes the request for materials. While collections are starting to be indexed on computers, the main way to find documents is still an extensive collection of handwritten and typed (but not digital) indexes (putivoditeli). These are similar to finding aids you will find in US archives, but the yellowing pages and corrections entered in pencil cultivate a sense of history I have rarely felt when working with the more familiar MS Word docs and slick websites or even the physical card catalogues. Each collection (fond) has its own putivoditel or shelf of putivoditeli that indexes the sub-collections (opisi), files (dela), date of deposit (data), and number of pages (listi) in the delo. Some archives vary slightly in what these elements are called, but these are the elements you will need to request a file. Depending on the archive, you may also need the (very lengthy) description of the delo. (In my research, many of the descriptions would not fit in the space provided on the requisition form. We will see if my attempts to abbreviate worked.) Be prepared to fill out the forms multiple times. The smallest mistake can cause you to have to fill out the whole form again. But the archivists are very helpful in checking for you and will let you know if anything is out of order on your request. Turn in your requisition form, and then wait. Anywhere from one to three days. According to law, they aren’t supposed to make you wait longer than three days, but I have heard stories of requests that took longer because the files had been sent into storage outside of the city.

Remember how I mentioned the date of deposit? This seemingly unimportant piece of archival trivia is indispensable for researchers hoping to access “personal files” (lichniye dela). Personal files and files containing potential state secrets have been sealed for a period of 75 years from the date of deposit. This is something that is not well publicized on the websites of the collections, but which the archivist at RGALI was very helpful in pointing out. Supposedly, you can request access earlier than this date with the permission of the subject or the subject’s family.

When you finally receive the files, personal photography (a real time- and money-saver in my previous archival research) is usually prohibited. So be prepared to take your copious and extremely detailed notes or cough up for the $1-$3 per page copying service.

No cameras

After this experience, I definitely have a greater understanding of what my students must feel going through a completely new bureaucratic system like our libraries here in the US. I knew that I needed to provide support to my students when requiring research for class projects, otherwise I would just get a lot of Google-search-based papers. But I thought providing links to the helpful guides already provided by our libraries would be sufficient. However, my experience attempting to navigate an unfamiliar library system showed me how beguiling (and contradictory) mere documentation can be when encountering a new library for the first time. My contextual knowledge of how to navigate US libraries and archives was of limited use. My ability to “speak library” stopped at the border, and I had to learn a new way of maneuvering through these collections.

[Navigating library catalogues doesn't have to be scary]

Rather than merely pointing my students to online resources that outline what services our libraries provide, scheduling a class period to meet with the subject area librarian no longer seemed like pedantic overkill. For students who are not used to navigating the idiosyncrasies of multiple databases, physical and digital collections, as well as the technology resources available in our libraries, just learning where to start can be confusing. And this is without the hurdles due to class, linguistic, and past educational background biases faced by many of our students.

Interns! Know your rights!

Source: OWS artsandlabor.org

Source: OWS artsandlabor.org

 

A few weeks ago I met with other fellows and our mentors at the BLSCI to talk over the semester so far.  Before the meeting began, we celebrated the awesome achievements of two of my cohort, one a Marketing Ph.D and the other an Accounting Ph.D, who have been snapped up by top universities for tenure track positions.  This is the kind of news I like to hear—it’s the antithesis of what’s happening right now in the Humanities, if we believe the hype and the headlines.  Contrary to this doom and gloom, my two newly-minted Ph.D colleagues said that, in their fields, hiring was strong and opportunities pretty plentiful.  This discovery—job prospects do exist for some at the end of the Ph.D!—has coincided with me writing a short op-ed for Museum 2.0 on the issues surrounding unpaid (and, in my view, unethical) internships in the arts.*  For, unlike those in Accounting and Marketing fields, students of art history and in other non-profit areas have rather grim job prospects.  What does that mean for those of us advising them, and writing their letters of recommendation?

Is it ethical to recommend our (humanities) students undertake unpaid internships? In my field, art history, the road to career success is paved on free labor.  This means that to gain experience students are often asked to undertake hundreds of hours of unpaid work experience at museums and nonprofits in order to stand a chance of securing even the most meager entry-level position upon graduation from either undergraduate or graduate programs.**  (Yes.  You read that correctly.  Ph.D students with a TON of experience are still solicited for unpaid internships.  It makes me very angry that these types of job descriptions still get posted and forwarded.)  One of the most poignant signs I saw during the Occupy Wall Street movement was a young woman holding a placard that read “F**k your free internships.”  Quite.

As an emerging teacher, I am now often asked for recommendation letters by students who are applying for unpaid internships or, worse in my eyes, internships that “give” college credit (you cannot “give” something to someone that they have already paid for themselves, but hey…).  This particularly cruel invention was one I discovered only when I came to America.  The thought that someone would pay tuition fees to their academic institution for the privilege of working unpaid and often full time at another institution or corporation in order to gain college credit is positively medieval.  Given we’re a city college with students who often have two or three jobs outside school and family commitments, we have a duty to agitate to change this system.  Instead, we are actively complicit, playing our students into it and hoping they make it.   (I keep feeling I’m missing some vital piece of background on the “for credit college internship” – I just can’t see how it is an equitable solution for students!)  I’m from Glasgow and at least when I was a student, union organization and labor rights groups would have had a field day if the suggestion had been made that someone would have to pay their university in order to work somewhere else for free in order to complete their degree.  There are a few rather choice Glaswegian “responses” to that kind of suggestion, none of which I can share with you in print here.

So what is our ethical duty as (humanities) teachers when we’re asked for a recommendation letter, or to “circulate widely” an unpaid internship?  Do we write the recommendation letter and tell the students to look for alternative paid opportunities if possible?  Do we refuse to support the culture of unpaid internships and refuse the recommendation letter?  Should we be refusing to circulate unpaid internships?  I’m genuinely interested in how others think about this issue, and how they approach it with solutions.

I have taken to hitting the reply button and telling the sender that it is my policy not to circulate unpaid internships.  Am I doing my students a disservice?  It is possible to ask a larger body like the AAM (American Association of Museums) to institute a policy that demands at least a modest stipend for all internships?  If one’s internship wage is $0, then the entry-level wage in the first and second jobs don’t have to be much higher to supersede the previous salary of $0.  Agitating for a basic compensation foundation would therefore benefit all (what’s the reverse of “trickle-down economics,” because that’s what I’m describing here. Does it work?)

It’s a complex issue, but one thing is very, very clear: it is an issue.  As teachers, we’re not just offering academic knowledge, but professional advice.  We also have greater possibility to shape our fields that we did when we were unpaid interns.  What can we do?  What is already being done?

 *For full disclosure on my past involvement with arts internships, please see my Museum 2.0 post. 

** FYI, an entry level museum salary is c. $32,000 – 40,000, and an adjunct lecturer is probably hovering around the same if they’re one of the lucky ones who get paid decently. 

Innovative Writing Pedagogies Beyond the Humanities: Following up on a faculty development workshop

I recently had the opportunity to co-facilitate, with Professor David Gruber, a roundtable based on David’s experiences incorporating writing activities and communication-intensive practices in his natural sciences courses. He worked intensively on these assignments with another Schwartz Institute fellow, Priya Chandrasekaran. All of what follows comes directly out of the work that David and Priya did together.*

I am posting this piece to make information on Writing Beyond the Humanities available, both to those who came and to those who weren’t able to make it. Hopefully this can serve as an open educational resource, something our institute thinks about a lot, and which has been written about quite a bit on this blog, including this recent, eloquent, and thought-provoking piece by Michelle Fisher.
Our roundtable was intended to do three main things:

  1. Describe “Writing to Learn” and “Writing Across the Curriculum” practices and rationale.
  2. Give specific examples of writing to learn practices. Many of these examples were based on David and Priya’s assignments.
  3. Give the attendees an opportunity to describe their own classroom objectives and brainstorm with the rest of us on ways they might incorporate writing to learn strategies.  Our attendees were professors teaching a wide range of courses (psychology, information systems, statistics, and computer ethics to name a few) and all of them left the roundtable with strategies in mind for using writing in their classrooms to achieve their specific learning goals.

I made a PowerPoint for the presentation which covers a lot of the conceptual ideas we discussed, and I’ll embed that here:

  • Many of these writing activities work best when done frequently. Free-writing once can be strange and might not be productive. Doing it regularly, though, can be very productive. Once your students are used to it, they can really begin to use and respond to the exercise well.
  • Many of these writing activities work best when they are part of scaffolded assignments. For example: free writing at all stages of an assignments, reflections after learning about the assignment, reflections after doing a draft, writing as part of the assignment itself, and writing in response to the assignment once completed. David’s assignments are really nicely scaffolded and include writing at all stages.
  • Doing some of these writing activities in a non-humanities class can feel odd. Asking students to free write in a statistics class, for example, will seem strange at first to professor and students alike. Being clear about your goals, and being willing to go through some strangeness at first is part of the process. Students respond really well, especially when they see how much they’re improving, but as an instructor you have to be willing to take some risks.
  • Assignments like a written reflection on a difficult reading will give you insight into what’s going on with your students. It gives you an opportunity to troubleshoot in a more personal way and at your leisure, either in office hours or in a written response to your students’ writing, rather than during class time. It also gives students more self-awareness of what they are understanding and what they need to work on.
  • A lot of these writing practices ask students to display mastery of material by expressing course content in lay terms, a skill many of the professors in attendance considered one of their biggest challenges.
  • One concern is that assigning writing gives the professor more work (reading and responding to the writing). First, many of these activities can be done without your needing to read the writing. Free-writing, for example, is not collected (though it can form the basis of a class discussion, especially focused free-writing). Second, a reflection can be turned in, or it can read by a peer who might respond to their peer’s reflection. This might generate a lot of discussion, and a more satisfying class dynamic. Third, in cases where you do read their writing, it will ideally save time and effort in other areas of your teaching. For example, since they will gain understanding and mastery through the practice of writing, their work will be stronger and will ideally require less correction. Fourth, grading lab reports, for example, can be boring after a while if they’re all the same. Assigning a digital lab report that incorporates writing and creativity, though, can be a more fulfilling grading experience.

Please let me know if you have any questions about this roundtable. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

*David and Priya’s work was developed over several semesters of collaboration. The work they did together has really inspired me. Priya’s eloquent and thoughtful writing on this collaboration can be read on this website: here and here and here and here. Our roundtable was based in part on their collaboration, and so reading Priya’s posts will provide a lot of the context behind what we discussed in our roundtable. You should especially look at her post on David’s “Mutualism” lab assignment (which is one of the links above, but for ease of access, here it is again), as it goes through the whole process of doing one assignment, and includes many writing to learn components they used to teach the lab, such as free writing, reflecting, and writing/producing a digital lab report. The timeline she created is pretty rad. You can also look at the timeline here.

Once Upon a Time: Web-based Timelines in the Classroom

Last week, Dana Milstein and I led a faculty-development roundtable on the online timeline design app Tiki-Toki. The app has become popular in academia over the past year or two because it provides a simple, user-friendly way to create professional-looking, interactive timelines. While a timeline-building app might have obvious applications for a history class, we used the roundtable to explore ways to adapt it to literature and writing classes. I’ll explore some of those here.

First, a bit on how it works. A free Tiki-Toki account allows you to create one timeline site (though there’s nothing stopping you from creating multiple accounts with different email addresses). You set the time scale for your timeline — which, depending on your topic, could be centuries, years, days, hours. You populate the timeline with “stories,” which are essentially micro blog posts that you identify with a time marker, placing them chronologically on your timeline. These stories can contain a range of multimedia including text, images, video, PDFs, and hyperlinks to external websites. They can also be sorted into various categories you invent for your timeline. So, if you’re creating a timeline of — say — the Harlem Renaissance, you might have different category tags for key people, works of visual art, music, literature, or political events.

This screenshot comes from one of the model timelines Tiki-Toki provides on their website. Moments from 2010 - 2011 political uprisings in the Middle East are sorted into categories by country. The bottom shows the slider bar that allows users to scroll chronologically through the timeline. Full timeline: http://www.tiki-toki.com/timeline/entry/55/The-Fight-for-Democracy-in-the-Middle-East/

This screenshot comes from one of the model timelines Tiki-Toki provides on their website. The background image shows a political rally. Five text boxed show stories on the timeline. Moments from 2010 – 2011 political uprisings in the Middle East are sorted into categories by country. The bottom shows the slider bar that allows users to scroll chronologically through the timeline. Full timeline: http://www.tiki-toki.com/timeline/entry/55/The-Fight-for-Democracy-in-the-Middle-East/

There are a few clear reasons why Tiki-Toki has caught on in the academy over the past few years. For one, it provides a dynamic alternative for assignments that ask students to represent historical research. Unlike a static, text-based researched report, the digital timelines students design allow users to explore the content in a way better suited to the digital age: while users might choose to move through the timeline chronologically, they also have the option to jump around, to navigate by theme or category, to interact with the content in original ways. Likewise, because the multimedia format allows for hyperlinking and embedding multimedia in the stories, users can dive deep into the moments that interest them most, leading outward into further resources on the web.

It seems obvious that a tool like this — and similar open-source apps — should find a natural home in the history classroom. But what about literature and writing classes? Dana and I asked the participants in our roundtable, who were all Great Works of Literature instructors, to imagine possible applications for timeline-building within their own contexts. We asked them to consider how timeline-ing could add to their classes. A few speculative answers:

  • Students could create timelines about characters in literary works to better understand their trajectory, especially in works that have non-linear chronology (i.e. a timeline of Odysseus’s journey or one character’s trajectory through the single-day novel Mrs Dalloway)
  • Students — or groups — could create timelines of cultural movements from which works emerged (i.e. timeline of the Harlem Renaissance or western Women’s Rights movements)
  • A whole class could create timelines tracking the influences of key ideas or key works up to the present day (i.e. a timeline of works responding to Sophocles’ Oedipus plays)

For those who are interested in getting students to represent their knowledge and analysis in ways that go beyond the straightforward prose essay, these kinds of projects offer something new and exciting. They lend themselves to extreme creativity, collaborative knowledge-making, and the incorporation of contemporary digital composing skills within the study of classic literary texts. Of course, they also raise new challenges for assessment, but that’s a topic for another post.

I want to close by speculating on a few possibilities for how Tiki-Toki could be used in a different context: self reflection on learning. In a history class or a literature class, timelines allow students to represent their research and analysis skills. What would happen if we asked students to timeline their own experiences as learners? How could they use their digital literacy skills and the adaptive possibilities of Tiki-Toki to better understand themselves as developing writers and learners?

Many freshman composition courses include some sort of literacy narrative assignment. Typically, these projects ask students to reflect on their past lives as a reader or a writer, often asking them to show through storytelling one important factor that has made them the literate person they are today. Many composition courses begin with such a project. At the beginning of a course in college-level reading and writing, a project like this allows students to gain confidence, both by asking them reflect on the complex literacy skills they already possess, and by allowing them permission to write confidently about something they know well, their own biography. 

Rather than asking students to reflect on a single moment from their literacy past, Dana and I have both started asking them to create digital projects that put these moments into the broader context of their literacy development. (Dana calls her version of this assignment a Literary Autobiography.) Some students choose to use the timeline to represent the various influences on their reading lives — everything from family influences to literature and pop culture touchstones. By contrast, some students use the timeline format to explore their lives as writers, presenting excerpts from important creative and school-sponsored writing projects they’ve done throughout their lives. For example, one student chose to reflect on her history writing and giving speeches, and using the multimedia capabilities of Tiki-Toki, was able to include actual video clips of her public speeches as the basis for her reflection.

Whenever I have my students create something experimental or creative like this, I always ask them to reflect on the experience in a more straightforward essay that accompanies the assignment. Since the overall project is about literacy, students often make compelling analogies between the digital literacy skills they had to employ in this project and the overall literacy history they were trying to represent. The experimentation, in essence, supports their discovery of what, exactly, literacy means to them.

The second example of a reflective timeline-based assignment comes out of my work this semester with George DeFeis’s Business Policy 5100 capstone course. All BPL5100 courses require students to work in groups on a large-scale business simulation called Glo-Bus. In the Glo-Bus simulation, students design a business strategy for a fictional company, and through the accelerated time of the simulation (1 week for the student equals one year of  the business), they compete with rival teams to see who can make the most profitable company through 15 years of business strategy.

At the end of the semester, Professor DeFeis asks his students to prepare an oral presentation in which they explain how they approached the simulation, pointing out their key decisions as a company, and explaining what they ultimately learned about business in the “real world” through this experiment. As a teacher, I have a lot of respect for this kind of assignment. The simulation gives students a rich and complex experience that they can then analyze and synthesize in their final presentation. Unlike oral presentation projects that ask students to base their content purely on external research (say, a presentation on Dell Computers), this project asks them to present on their own experience over the semester — something about which we can reasonably expect them to have authentic expertise. To create a convincing presentation, students must take ownership of what they learned in the course by critically reflecting on both their successes and their mistakes.

This assignment seems perfectly suited to Tiki-Toki. Groups could construct timelines of their own business, making separate stories for the key decisions they made. In each story, they could embed images from the simulation interface to show the data they consulted, while in the text of the story itself they could reflect on the way they reasoned through the choice. Not only would building the timeline allow students to examine the decisions they made in more concrete detail than they usually achieve in the abstract through their oral presentations, they would also leave the project with a professional-quality archive of their simulated business experience.

Obviously, I see many intriguing possibilities for incorporating timeline-based projects into college classrooms. I could go on. Dana Milstein and I are hoping to host another roundtable workshop in the spring that would take a more interdisciplinary focus, including ways that the software could be used in non-humanities courses. Keep tuned to the Schwartz Institute workshop page for more details as they develop. To access the materials we distributed at the November 18 workshop, click here.

The Cohort System

Recently, Josh wrote a post about TBL (team-based learning), in which he highlighted the number 1 design principle of successful team-based learning: a strategically-formed, permanent team.  The idea is that team-based learning is most effective when teams are formed strategically in size (5-7 members) and makeup (allocating the class’s strengths and weaknesses evenly among the teams).  This type of model involves placing students into teams at the beginning of the semester based on their backgrounds (e.g. one quant-heavy person per group, one humanities background, etc.).  The groups then work together for the entire semester on various assignments.  I wanted to expand upon this topic to discuss semi-permanent groups in particular and the cohort system more generally.

groupwork

I did my MBA as a part of Baruch’s full-time honors MBA program, class of 2009.  While Baruch has a particularly large MBA program overall, the full-time honors program was developed for students seeking to complete an MBA on a full-time basis in about 22 months, and in a small cohort group.  The cohort is generally about 60-90 students with whom an MBA candidate takes all of her core curriculum classes over the four semesters.  In addition, in the first two semesters of the MBA, when most core curriculum classes are taken, each cohort is put into a semi-permanent group of 5 students each.  This group works together for projects across all core classes (typically 5 classes in the first semester).  Especially in the first semester, a common joke is that this group ends up being your family: you work together for 15-20 hours per week on assignments across the curriculum.

The philosophy behind team-based learning in a semi-permanent group is the same philosophy behind the cohort system.  For group-based learning to be most effective, the group must foster “co-creation of knowledge through collaborative learning and experiential knowing.”  Pivotal to this experience is the group’s acting as a sort of community for the participant.  A group or a cohort becomes a community through sustained long-term communication, commitment, and interaction.  As group members get to know one another and develop an appreciation for each member’s strengths and weaknesses through work on a variety of projects, that group becomes a community that each member can learn from and rely on.  This is only possible through long-term interaction on multiple diverse projects.  This is the educational philosophy behind the cohort system.  Especially popular in adult education settings, the cohort system has the ability to create an educational community where team-based learning can be extremely effective.

As a professor, I ask how I can best implement this model in my classroom.  The cohort model is often impossible to replicate when you teach an undergraduate class in a large university.  These are students who have usually never met one another, and will never see each other again, except in passing around campus.  Our students also tend to be extremely busy:  they take 4-5 classes per semester, work outside of school, and live a great distance from campus and from one another.  The only possibility of sustained work in a semi-permanent team would be to assign multiple small projects over the semester that comprise a substantial percentage of each student’s grade.  Then, if you can form a team at the beginning of the semester, the students will at best have a few opportunities to work together and gain mutual respect and trust.

In addition, as Josh pointed out, the type of assignment matters.  It may not be appropriate to team-based learning to simply take an individual assignment (e.g. a traditional essay assignment) and force students to do the assignment as a group.  In my own experience as an MBA team member, team work tended to produce the best learning outcome in case studies or creative project assignments.  Students collaborating on these types of projects will learn to work as a group and build on each member’s strengths to produce the best creative or strategic outcome.

As an instructor, I still struggle to see how writing skills can be improved in a group assignment.  In my MBA experience with group work, 95% of the time a “group” writing assignment meant that each teammate would separately research a specific area and one teammate would be responsible for the actual writing by synthesizing each member’s input.  In some cases, each team member would write a separate portion of a paper, a process that almost invariably yielded a poor outcome in terms of writing quality.  Would peer review help in this setting?  I open this up to other educators and students.

Takin’ Care of Business and Working Overtime: Understanding Assignments and Content

In my role as organizer/coordinator of a series of Faculty Development Workshops for the Schwartz Institute, I’ve had many discussions with faculty about how hard it can be to find time in a content-intensive class for discussions during class time about the assignments we expect our students to complete. But it’s often the case, as our many presenters at these Faculty Development Workshops have meaningfully reminded us, that taking time to explain and discuss our assignments (whether it’s to address what kind of research we’re looking for and how to do it, or to address what makes a strong argument for a compare/contrast paper) makes a huge difference in the quality of the work we get back from our students. And furthermore, as I’ve been discovering, setting aside that time in class doesn’t have to mean putting aside content for the day, and it always means better work.So here’s my modest proposal. In order to get better student work (whatever the assignment), set aside time to discuss the assignment, but in that discussion about the assignment, find a way to incorporate the course content. Put conversely, in order to get students to achieve stronger mastery of course content, find ways to address the course content in terms of the assignments they’ll be doing with that content.
Here’s the doodle I just made to wrap my head around that proposal:
doodle
An example: In a course that requires a research paper, hold a workshop in class (perhaps with a research librarian from the Newman Library who is an expert in your course content)  in which you a.) showcase the research skills you want demonstrated in the assignment and b.) model research by actually conducting research on a topic that relates to the course content. (Professor Allison Lehr Samuels gave a great example of this in the Faculty Development Workshop she led earlier this week). So, rather than just go through the motions of showing the research skills you expect your students to demonstrate in their assignments, model research by actually doing research that is relevant to the assignment. Not only will students come away from this understanding more about how to research, they will also internalize the content from that day’s course since it was made relevant to them in terms of actual work they will be doing with it.
In my own class, Great Works of Literature, a survey of literature written from the beginning of time to around 1650, I just tested this theory out this week. I held a workshop that took an entire class period in which we went over, in great depth and in many ways, a compare/contrast paper assignment. My main objective was to have the students understand what an argument looks like for this kind of paper. If, at the end of the workshop, the students fully comprehended that an argument is not simply a statement of facts (i.e. Antigone and Medea are both female characters who do things that are out of the ordinary) but a controversial, debatable argument about those facts (i.e. and this is interesting/surprising/unexpected because…) then I would be a happy teacher.
So I did two things.

  1. I brought 3 carefully selected and abridged (anonymous) examples of student papers from past semesters and had the students read them, looking for the arguments. Then we went over each example as a class, with the relevant section of the paper projected on the white board so that I or another student could mark it up as we discussed. Then, we debated about whether we agreed or disagreed with that student’s argument, thereby addressing the course content (i.e. having a discussion about the texts that make up our course content) and addressing my assignment (i.e. if we can have an argument about it, then it’s an argument for the purposes of a compare/contrast paper).
  2. Then I had them break into groups and create arguments about a specific comparison: Sophocles’s Antigone, which we had read in class, and an adaptation of this play, Jean Anouilh’s Antigone, which we had just seen performed at the Baruch Performing Arts Center. This allowed them to discuss the course content (the two versions of Antigone) but within the context of the assignment (the compare/contrast paper).

I have yet to receive these papers, so we’ll see if they have stronger arguments than in past semesters, but I do want to list a few observations from that class:

  • Several students who almost never participate participated.
  • Students were able to critique each other’s work respectfully and productively after having seen anonymous papers critiqued.
  • By the end of the class, when broken up into groups to create arguments about the two versions of Antigone, I overheard several students using the language about arguments that I was trying to drive home (“statement of fact vs. debatable argument”).
  • The students had spirited, in-depth conversations about many of the texts that make up our course content, under the guise of or in service to understanding the assignment.

I-Phone, I-Pad, I-DontRemember

More research is coming out that suggests that new technologies may impact the way people remember and process information. Technology is moving at a rapid pace with more and more students owning a smartphone, a tablet, or both, and almost everyone connected to the internet.

Electronic book readers have got immensely popular in the last few years and many think that they will become the main way people read text in the future, whether for school, work or pleasure. However, research suggests that on-screen reading is actually measurably slower than reading on paper. The study conducted at the University of Leicester finds that people who read on paper develop an understanding of the material significantly faster and in greater depth than e-readers users. Also, tablet users need to re-read the same paragraph more often. The researchers concluded that associations, such as positioning of the information on the page, whether top or bottom, left or right, or near the graphic, so called “spatial context”, plays a role in remembering and understanding the material. What is more, they find that the smaller the screen, the less associations can be made. For example, reading on a smartphone results in the loss of most of the context and therefore brings the least value.

Moreover, new technologies seem to make writing by hand outdated. Anna, in her recent blog entry, stresses the importance of handwriting. Research suggests that handwriting is important to the learning process beyond the “writing” itself. Handwriting facilitates learning since the movements involved leave a motor memory in the sensorimotor part of the brain. By writing by hand, we stimulate the part of our brains responsible for abstract thinking and visual perception. Nevertheless, when I taught courses at Baruch College, I noticed that many students prefer to take notes on their laptop in class. This practice seems to be becoming the new norm, since more and more elementary school students are currently being introduced to tablets and computers for everyday use in school. There is an ongoing debate among educators whether teaching cursive should be made obsolete and some states are removing cursive instruction from curricula and focus on typing instead. Needless to say, this research weighs heavily in favor of continuing to teach cursive handwriting.

Admissions officials at Waterloo University, Canada, have attributed a recent increase in the failure rates of a standard English language exam to students’ use of electronic social media. The university has seen an increase in the use of emoticons, truncated or abbreviated words in formal exams and applications. This suggests that people who text and tweet extensively are more likely to overlook the misspellings, punctuation and grammatical errors in their professional correspondence.

Another study, conducted by a researcher at Columbia University explores how the internet changes the way we handle information. The study finds that we treat internet search engines like our own instant external memory system. The researcher, Betsy Sparrow, explains this phenomenon using the rather old concept of transactive memory. In any long-term relationship or team, people typically develop a group, or transactive, memory. This is the combination of information held directly by individuals and information can access because they know someone who knows that information. Therefore, people are less likely to remember what they read online, but they could remember where they read it. This sounds efficient – as long as we have access to Google. However, the question remains whether the educational system and the economy will evolve to deemphasize the importance of the personal retention of information, or whether these young people will find themselves disadvantaged in a society with higher expectations with respect to their knowledge base.

Writing Longhand?

handwriting

Society of late has been racing full steam ahead toward the ever-increasing domination of technology over our lives and over our classrooms.  Higher education is moving toward online and hybrid courses over traditional classrooms, not to mention MOOCs.  I tend to be the personality type (perhaps a bit too nostalgic?) that avoids new technologies and sticks to my old ways.  I have resisted the smart phone movement after a temporary stint with an iphone convinced me that it was turning me into a zombie.  I still make to-do lists on pen and paper, even though my computer frequently reminds me that it can display virtual post-it notes on the desktop.

But lest I get too heavy handed (I am, after all, typing away at a blog), I will narrow my focus to one particular area where I believe a return to the old fashioned, even if only occasionally, may do our brain some good:  Writing!

My obsession with writing longhand instead of typing is long ingrained as a strategy of graduate school.  I have always thought intuitively that when I write something out with a pen and paper, I tend to remember it better than if I type it.  In fact, my primary study technique for Econometrics classes was usually to recopy and synthesize my notes over and over and over again.  There is something about writing that seems to stick better than typing.  And recently I came across several studies which confirmed my longstanding beliefs.  A Wall Street Journal article from 2010 focused on the cognitive benefits of handwriting, arguing that writing by hand engages the brain in learning in a way that typing does not.  The article touts the benefits of handwriting practice for children learning new shapes and letters, for adults learning new information, and even for aging adults looking to keep their cognitive skills sharp.  University of Washington professor Virginia Berninger found that children in her study wrote better essays (writing more, better, and more complete sentences) when they wrote with a pen and paper than when they typed.  Still other studies emphasize the benefits of writing down goals, finding that people who write down their goals are more likely to accomplish them.

So why would writing by hand offer an advantage over typing?  Dr. Berninger argues that when you actually use your hand to form letters, your brain in more engaged in the writing process than simply pressing keys.  Other studies have referenced a bunch of cells at the base of the brain called the reticular activating system (RAS).  The RAS filters and processes our activities and stimuli, and gives greater attention and focus to activities we are actively engaged in.  Scientists argue that writing stimulates the RAS by bringing the physical act of writing to the forefront and forcing our brain to give the utmost attention to our writing.  Basically, writing on paper forces us to concentrate more, even without accounting for all the other distractions available on our computer screen.

I’ve also come across this idea working with faculty.  Some of the best professors I have known in the CUNY system still teach by writing things out on the blackboard/whiteboard, eschewing power point slides.  They tell me that the act of writing things out on the board, while students (hopefully) do the same, engages students more than power point presentations.

So I leave this an open-ended proposal to all readers.  Do you still do any longhand writing in your life?  Maybe for to-do lists, or thank you notes?  Will you try any longhand writing in classroom activities?