An Amateur’s Guide to Creating Audio Projects in Audacity (captured by Camtasia) – Part I

Hello, my name is Josh and I’m an addict of public radio. I get my morning fix from the BBC. When I ride the subway, I keep my dosage steady with podcasts from the CBC. Over lunch and in the evenings, it’s news and talk from WNYC. Weekends, I binge on flagship programming from NPR and PRI.

I’ve tried to infect my students with this affliction by replacing at least one reading assignment every semester with take-home listening questions on a particularly good radio program relating to the topic we’re studying. While I don’t think I’ve attracted many converts, many students have at the very least said: “I thought it was going to be really boring… but it wasn’t.”

I think there’s plenty of pedagogical value to be harnessed from listening to public radio, but students could also benefit from creating their own audio projects modeled on public radio formats. A few years ago, I enjoyed having the opportunity to present my research for a graduate course in public anthropology in the format of a radio documentary. I’d done a bit of audio editing using the digital recording software ProTools before, but for that project I used GarageBand, which comes with every Mac and is much more user friendly.

Since I’ve mainly computed on PCs for a few years now, I figured it was time to try out Audacity, the free audio editing software for PC (and Mac) I’ve often heard about. After the workshop on Camtasia screen capture software at the BLSCI a few weeks ago, I decided to try to make a little video with some ideas about making audio projects using Audacity. You can watch it below.

DISCLAIMERS:

  1. As per the title of the video, I am a TOTAL AMATEUR at audio and video editing. I embarked on this project in the spirit of play mentioned by Suzanne at the last BLSCI meeting. I would feel vindicated if this prompted some of the experts in our midst to share some of their ideas about creating audio projects (and, ahem, what I could do better)!
  2. Yes, that’s right, there’s several shots of me surfing the web in there. Have you ever watched the linkbait videos on weather.com? Filming the internet is totally legit.

TEASER:

Features a cameo from a true expert in communications!

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.

Screen Shot 2014-03-10 at 11.05.29 AM

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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Speak to Learn: faculty speak their mind in video on oral communication

The classroom is abuzz with students jotting down notes and eagerly inserting themselves into a fast-paced full-class discussion.  Observant comments from every member of the class forward the conversation towards a collective higher understanding of the topic at hand.

This is my go-to vision of ideal classroom discussion.  But as I have immersed myself in conversations about communication across the curriculum here at the Schwartz Communication Institute, I have come to realize that A) this vision is sometimes hard to achieve, and B) it is only one of many models for meaningful oral communication in the classroom.

Why do we urge students to speak in class?  What does success look like when they do so?  What unique roles does oral communication play in the many diverse disciplines that Baruch students study?  These questions are at the center of two projects I’ve been working on this year at BLSCI.

The first is a short video that speaks to the role of spoken communication across the disciplines.  I interviewed three professors here at Baruch: Mathematics professor Peter Gregory, Business Management professor Ed Kurpis, and English professor Cheryl Smith.  I asked them about the role of spoken communication in their disciplines and in their classrooms.  While their responses reflect the particular demands of their disciplines, they all highlight the centrality of speaking to developing ideas and mastering knowledge in the classroom, and to communicating authentically and effectively in the outside world.  See what they have to say here:

The second project is a faculty development workshop that I am leading later this week (Thursday, February 27, 12:45-2:15pm) with Law professor Valerie Watnick.  We’ll be covering a wide variety of strategies for facilitating meaningful, focused and lively discussion in the classroom.  You can find details about this workshop, and all BLSCI workshops and roundtables, here.

Dear Students,

[In honor of 50 years of Beatlemania]

Dear Students, open up your eyes

Dear Students, see the sunny skies

The wind is low, the birds will sing

That you are part of everything

Dear Students, won’t you open up your eyes?

 

Look around round

Look around round round

Look around

The word “theatre” comes from theatron, the Greek word for “seeing place.” Actors ask audiences to look at them. As instructors, we ask students to look at the world… as it was, is, and could be. It often helps to ask students to begin by looking at themselves.

I start the semester with a letter to students that I project onto the screen and read out loud. I then ask the students to write me a letter about their understanding of contemporary theatre and any prior performance experience –including sports, debate team, dance, and singing. I also ask them to identify two learning goals for the semester.

Sometimes I feel awkward doing this classic WAC tool. Do the students think it’s hokey? A handwritten letter; what is this, a Jane Austen novel? But, I love the students’ responses so much that I keep returning to it.

This semester I am teaching a weekly three-hour night class, which means almost all of my students work full-time and this Intro to Theatre course is being squeezed into very packed lives. I started my letter with “Welcome to the Spring 2014 semester. Although you may have signed up for this class to fulfill a requirement and because it fits your busy schedule, I am convinced you will get a great deal out of our exploration of Western theatrical conventions.”

A fake letter that I wrote to myself.

A fake letter that I wrote to myself.

Perhaps it seems too self-deprecating to begin the semester assuming that most of the students have not chosen to be there. However, many of the students referred to this opening line, acknowledging that this was an accurate description of their situation and, in so doing, expressed relief that they did not have to perform enthusiasm.

At the same time, most students let me know they were hoping enthusiasm would develop throughout the semester and they were looking forward to our many class theatre outings and guest speakers. They also shared wonderful biographical details that I don’t think would have come out in the classroom. It turns out there are four competitive  ballroom dancers and former ballerinas in the class.

Also a fake. But you get the idea.

Also a fake. But you get the idea.

I was surprised by the number of students who wanted to work on their public speaking skills and even try some acting. This was very valuable information for me and I am tweaking my assignments and classroom activities to respond to these goals.

As an aside, in this digital age, it is fun to sift through a stack of (yes, sloppy) handwritten letters. –Fun because I don’t have to grade them and look for strong arguments and mastery of content. I just have to take in how the students have chosen to express themselves. I enjoy looking at the ink looped and scratched across the paper. I note who covered the page with ideas and memories and who wrote just a few sentences. The welcome letter is an ideal low-stakes / high-impact tool.

The Complexities of Creative Projects

Honing my teaching philosophy statement last year, I measured the lofty ideals I express there against my actual teaching practice.  I assert that “theatre classes provide an opportunity for an insistent merging of theory and practice, and for a blending of the creative and the critical,” and I write that “I always ask students to engage artistically as well as intellectually with the course material.”  It is true that, over the past few years, I developed a scaffolded writing assignment with my theatre history students called the “dramaturgical notebook,” a semester-long, multi-part project that asks students to imagine a contemporary production of a play, and requires a number of different modes of analysis, types of research, and styles of writing.  But the assignment is, in essence, a series of papers.  If I really believe that “embodiment is epistemology,” that “creativity is a form of knowledge,” then why do I hesitate to ask students in my advanced theatre courses to do creative projects (but feel fine about it in my intro classes)?  When I do assign creative projects, why do I fail to give them the same weight as critical analyses?

My ambivalence stems in part from the long-standing divide that exists in many college theatre departments between the “practical” and the “academic” classes.[1]  Creative projects are often reserved for acting and directing classes, while the “real” critical work is done in the theatre history or the dramatic literature courses.  My first semester teaching at CUNY, I was advised against assigning a creative group project in a theatre history course.  I was told that the students in the course should focus on writing rather than performance, and that creative projects of that sort were for the intro classes. Afraid of making waves, I abandoned the idea and hewed to the syllabi used in previous years, teaching the same plays, using the same textbooks, and giving similar assignments.

I am now in my fourth year there, and, armed with experience and a record of good observations and student evaluations, I felt comfortable taking some calculated pedagogical risks. Assigned to teach an upper-level writing intensive required course for theatre majors, I set up a number challenges for myself this semester: to put the Writing in the Disciplines (WID) strategies I studied last year into practice, to use technology to improve student writing, and to merge theatre theory and performance practice in a real way in the classroom.  I was fortunate enough to have a remarkable group of students—smart, engaged, and hardworking—who were up for helping me to accomplish this.

Meeting the first of my two challenges, I had students set up and maintain their own WordPress blogs, posting responses to prompts that I provided for each of the plays we studied during the semester. The blog posts were practice for the semester’s major writing assignment: a 2,000 – 2,500 word critical analysis of a play, chosen from a list of five. I used the blog prompts to encourage both critical and creative thought.  For example, to prime students for the creative project, I asked them to describe and justify a set design for Chekhov’s The Seagull, to write about how they would direct the bear scene in The Winter’s Tale, and to analyze a character from The Glass Menagerie as if they were cast in a production of the play.  For the creative project then, I asked students to respond creatively to the play they were analyzing in their critical essays and to present this response to the class.  I suggested that they might, for instance, create and present a set, lighting, projection, or costume design, perform a monologue or scene, describe a directorial vision, or compose and perform music for their play.  An “A” project, I told them, will demonstrate a clear connection between the critical analysis and the creative project, provide a compelling creative interpretation of the play, and be well-planned and rehearsed.  The critical analysis and the creative project would count as the same percentage of their final grade.

During the three days of presentations, there were some truly stand out projects, but watching my students read monologues, show drawings, and present video clips and audio tracks, I had moments of doubt: Were these projects really worth the same weight as the paper?  Would my colleagues deem them silly, the results of an inappropriate assignment for an upper-level class?  Did the students learn anything from them or were they a waste of valuable class time?

But when I asked my students how they felt about the experience of doing the projects, they unanimously expressed that they were valuable.  One student pointed out that she has difficulty with the linear thought and argumentation required in papers; she found it liberating to be able to express her ideas creatively instead. I realized that my feelings of doubt were rooted in a lingering bias about what constitutes academic rigor.  I thought about one of my mentors and a model of exemplary teaching, Omi Osun Olomo, whom I had the pleasure and privilege of assisting during my Master’s program at the University of Texas.  She writes in a piece about her performance “Sista Docta,”

“Performance is a form of embodied knowledge and theorizing that challenges the academy’s print bias. While intellectual rigor has long been measured in terms of linguistic acuity and print productivity that reinforces the dominant culture’s deep meanings, performance is suspect because of its ephemeral, emotional, and physical nature.”[2]

And later, “Performance is theory.  It need not be written about in order for its theory to be present.”[3]  Her words remind me that creative engagement is deceptively demanding, inherently theoretical, and always instructive.

Of course, there were some very thoughtful projects and some less thoughtful—just as there would be with any assignment, creative or critical.  But the fact is that each and every creative project demonstrated a level of engagement with the play text that rivals that presented in the papers. A student, whose paper compared Sam Shepard’s Buried Child to classical Greek tragedy, wrote an eloquent and illuminating monologue for one of the play’s main characters in the style of Sophocles and presented it to the class.  One student did a projection design of an imagined production of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler, creating a series of abstract paintings that express the title character’s confinement in her class and gender roles.  An aspiring makeup artist presented detailed face charts for all the characters in Maria Irene Fornes’s Mud.  She presented three different designs that moved from realistic to very distorted and expressionist. (Her paper discusses the expressionist techniques used in the play.) An actor/director filmed a trailer for Buried Child, carefully selecting the moments from the play that best show his paper’s argument that the characters are haunted by their past. The students who performed monologues in essence performed close readings of passages from their plays, embodying for the class the evidence that supports their theses, rather than writing about it.  Those who designed costumes engaged deeply with the play’s characters—analyzing them in terms of both their literal and symbolic functions within the play—but the work manifested itself in images rather than text.

I remain committed to giving creative projects and critical analyses equal weight in my theatre classes, but I see now that still have a way to go to overcome my own prejudices, before I can assert that  “embodiment is epistemology,” that “creativity is a form of knowledge,” and really mean it.  I realize in retrospect that, despite my best efforts, I still privileged the critical analysis over the creative project.  I conceived of the creative projects as coming out of the students’ papers when, in fact, it might be useful to imagine it the other way around; perhaps a creative response to a particular play could lead to a strong thesis about its content or form.  In the future I will adjust the assignment, asking students to start generating ideas for the project earlier in the semester, to work on them alongside their papers, rather than as an afterthought.  As I grade my students’ final papers this week, I will be thinking about what the experience of assessing the creative projects might have to teach me about assessing critical writing.  Through the process of developing and implementing the creative project, I learned that, while students have an easy time moving between critical and creative analysis, bridging the gap between my pedagogical theories and practice is not always so easy.


[1] See Shannon Jackson’s book Professing Performance for a history of Theatre Studies in the academy.

[2] Joni L. Jones. “’Sista Docta’: Performance as Critique of the Academy.” TDR, Vol. 41, No. 2 (Summer, 1997), pp. 51-67. 53.

[3] Ibid., 55.


It’s a pity that kids these days are all getting involved with ____.

Sexting? Catapults? That thing that electrocutes your abs? All-you-can-eat shrimp for $4.99? Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II? (Come on, guys, clearly a throw-away.) The miracle of childbirth? Hmmm.

Some people seem to be natural joke tellers. They have mastered the genre. They know how to draw attention from a crowded room. They know how to set up expectations and develop a story. And, most importantly, they know how to surprise expectations with an unexpected punchline. They can tell when to go silly or ironic or vulgar; they can read an audience. They are, in fact, they’re expert rhetoricians, who can use these varied sensitivities to touch their audience’s funny bone. For the rest of us, there’s Cards Against Humanity.

Image shows a raucous gathering between White house including then-president Ronald Reagan and veep George HW Bush. Caption reads “. . . and then we announced trickle down economics and they swallowed it without any questions”. Credit for this meme goes to blogger charlesfrith.blogspot.com

Cards Against Humanity is a party game modeled after the award winning Apples to Apples. It works on the same basic principle. Every round one person plays judge, drawing a card with a prompt that the other players will respond to. In Apples to Apples, prompts are an adjective, like “melodramatic” or “spiritual,” while in Cards Against Humanity they are fill-in-the-blank sentences. All players have a hand with random nouns, potential answers to the prompt the judge exposes each round. (The full starter pack of Cards Against Humanitiy is available for free download at http://cardsagainsthumanity.com/ )

Image shows two Cards Against Humanity cards: the black “prompt” card reads “In his newest and most difficult stunt, David Blaine must escape from __.” The white “punchline” card reads “My inner demons.”

These games remove most of the tricky bits of joke telling and reduce it down to pure, specific rhetorical savvy: know what will make a specific audience laugh. No more worries about delivery, pacing, set-up–just deliver the perfect punch line to suite one audience-member’s taste: no need to worry about pleasing the whole room, either–you just need to size up one person’s taste and craft the perfect joke. Does this judge like irony? Is he cued in to pop culture enough to get this celebrity reference? Is she old enough to remember Shaquille O’Neal’s acting career, or is it safer to go with a sex joke? Does he like his punchlines silly, vulgar, dark, sly, clever? The only “right” answer is the one that wins over the judge, that earns the point. All other answers, no matter how thoughtful or clever, are wrong. The more rounds you play, the better you get to know each judge’s taste. And if you pay close attention, soon you’re pitching each judge the perfect joke.

Recently, at a game night with friends, I got to thinking about how games like these could be used in a writing classroom to teach students some important lessons about rhetoric and persuasion. One of my advisors, Mark McBeth, plays a game with his students to teach them about classical means of persuasion–ethos, pathos, logos. He puts his students in a scenario where one has a dollar and another student tries to come up with the right argument that will convince the first student to hand over the dollar. Will it be a sob story, a reasoned argument, a claim to honesty, a song and dance . . . what interaction will lead to the desired result?  After a few rounds of the panhandling game, students go away to read and write about rhetoric with a newfound understanding of the practical challenges of knowing your audience and the tactical advantages of planning your argument with savvy and skill.

Like Cards Against Humanity, Mark’s panhandling game removes many of the tricky bits of real-life rhetorical situations, allowing players to focus on their choices as rhetors, rather than on, say, the pressure of initiating an encounter or the fear of rejection. It’s just a game, after all. But unlike Mark’s game, these rhetorical party games, because they’re about telling jokes and making people laugh, allow players to get to know one another as people with complex and idiosyncratic sensibilities–a great bonding experience in a writing classroom. It gives players a concrete understanding of what it means to appeal to an audience–often a difficult concept for students to grasp in the abstract or on such high-stakes tasks as essay writing.

So, could games like Apples to Apples and Cards Against Humanities be used in the writing classroom? I think so. I’d have to be careful, of course, about designing the activity and an appropriate followup writing project to build on the experience. I think it’s certainly worth a try. Let’s play! Might be funny.

A resolution and a note on rubrics

I always wish I had a habit of writing down teaching realizations immediately after every class. I do it sometimes but not systematically, and I’ve lost some good ideas and observations as a result. Starting this semester, I resolve to annotate my syllabus after every class and keep a running document that includes notes ranging from things I noticed about my assignments to things that happened in class that confused students or stimulated a good conversation.

Even though I kept forgetting to write it down, I miraculously remembered one realization I had last semester about my final paper rubric, and so I’m making a note of it now as I plan for next semester. The categories for that rubric (for a compare/contrast paper) were: Thesis; Evidence and Quotation; Progress of Ideas and Paragraphs; Grammar and Spelling; and Clarity. I realized while grading the papers that I wished I had a category that assesses to what degree the students understood the texts. I had assumed that all the categories together would address that question, but I discovered that I wanted a category dedicated entirely to that question.

The rubric in question.

The rubric in question.

One of my students, for example, wrote a thesis that made some kind of coherent sense but depended on many misreadings of the texts. According to the way he was reading the texts, his thesis worked. But, his thesis was nonsense because he misunderstood the texts. I wanted to be able to applaud his understanding of what a thesis does (he had made a controversial, interesting argument that was text-specific and somewhat complex) but I didn’t feel I had enough room on my rubric to show him that his misreading of the text was a significant problem even though he had understood what I wanted from a thesis. I think I circled the “B” column for “Thesis” and the “C” or “D” column for “Evidence and Quotation” (even though he had used many quotes as evidence, quotes he misunderstood and therefore mishandled) but that didn’t seem to sufficiently describe the problem I found in his paper. I explained it in depth in my comments to him, but the circled assessment categories didn’t really match the comments closely enough.

So, next semester, in addition to the categories I already have on the rubric, I will add a category that assesses the degree to which a student has shown mastery of the text. A simple adjustment, and one of many I could make if I systematically noted my observations.

While I’m on the topic of rubrics, I would like to ask any readers for their feedback on a question I ask myself every time I make a new rubric. The categories on my rubrics aren’t weighted. No category officially counts for more or less of the total grade. I tell the students that if I had to choose, the “Thesis” and “Evidence and Quotation” categories count the most (without them, there’s no hope of getting a good grade) but do people assign actual numerical values to their categories (i.e. “Thesis” counts for 30% of the paper grade)? And if you do that, do you find it useful or too constraining? I kind of like the wiggle room that not assigning weights to each category gives me, and that’s why I continue to keep it unweighted, but sometimes I feel like I’m not being clear enough with my expectations. Any thoughts or experiences would be really appreciated!

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.

Power Pointers

Power Point slides are omnipresent in today’s college classroom. Most textbooks in my field – I have been teaching introductory economics and finance – come with a set of PowerPoint slides prepared by the textbook publisher that feature content, examples and graphs from the textbook. These ready-made slides save a ton of time. Many instructors use them as they are, others personalize them to a varying degree. Instead of having to plan the class one can conveniently follow the slides along. However, although slides make teaching easier, they do not necessarily make it better.

We have all sat through countless lectures where the instructor merely displayed dense slides and even read their content out loud word for word. This is exactly the opposite of what we are trying to teach the students in presentation rehearsals at the Schwartz Institute. We encourage students to keep their slides brief and deliver the bulk of the information verbally.
I feel that slides tend to bore the students, and merely encourage them to copy and memorize as opposed to understand and analyze. Some students actually love the detailed, overloaded slides because they feel like they do not have to take any (or many) notes. However, as research suggests, this does not help their learning process. At the Schwartz Institute, we also encourage presenters to try to limit the number of slides in their presentations.

Excessive use of slides turns the attention away from the speaker and makes it harder to create an active interaction with students. Therefore, in my own teaching, I tend to use PowerPoint sparingly. Teaching microeconomics which is very graph-intensive, I have found that graphs are much better understood by students if I draw them on the board myself, as opposed to using the publisher’s animated slides that show the graphing procedure step by step. Slides also make it harder to pace yourself, and you are more likely to present faster than you probably should be when you are using slides.

However, the problem is not the tool itself, it is how you use it. Power Point can be an immensely useful tool in teaching, if used properly and limited to situations where the visual representation of an idea or concept increases comprehension. Here are a few ideas of how to avoid boring students to death with the slides.

  1.  Use the slide as a prompt, to bring focus to a discussion of the information. Go light on text, use images, statistics or charts.
  2.  Use the slide as the vehicle to deliver a question, problem, or example, not as a tool to deliver information.
  3. Consider not handing out print-outs of your slides. By summarizing the slides in their notes the students’ comprehension and retention may be enhanced. Writing things down facilitates learning.
  4. Turn off the projector to focus attention back on you, when necessary. Alternatively, if you press the letter B on your keyboard, it makes the screen go black. Pressing it again brings the screen back. Similarly, pressing W will make the screen white.
  5. Finally, when using a screen, if possible, try to position yourself near the screen, so you keep the focus on people’s attention and eyes in the same place. This also allows you to quickly place yourself in front of the screen during discussion when the screen may be black or white. Positioning yourself too far from the screen is distracting and force you to compete with the screen for the audience’s attention. In other words, do not make your listeners feeling like they are watching a tennis match.

Writing Assignments and the Business Curriculum: A Laboratory of Ideas Gets Underway at Zicklin

This semester, as a postdoctoral fellow at the Bernard L. Schwartz Communication Institute, I have begun working with the Zicklin School of Business on the development of its Writing Initiative, which aims to strengthen students’ writing and critical thinking skills across the undergraduate business disciplines. Part of this collective effort is driven by the realization that, in an increasingly competitive labor market, our students need to become proficient writers, whether their major is Finance or Marketing. In her recent piece for CNBC, business journalist Kelley Holland notes that “many employers complain that they can’t find qualified candidates.” One reason, they cite, is “candidates’ inability …to write clearly.” Whether it is a one-page office memorandum, a three-page executive summary, a business proposal, or a letter to investors, a piece of writing needs to state its main points and do so in lucid, persuasive language. To this end, the Initiative also focuses on genre and audience.

Although writing assignments are already an integral part of many courses at Zicklin, the need to meet the demands of an increasingly competitive and complex job market means that we have to refine, and in some instances rethink, current writing projects. A foray into this Initiative was an intensive workshop last spring in which Zicklin faculty from various disciplines met with staff from the Schwartz Communication Institute. They discussed objectives, shared concerns such as how to structure, implement and grade writing projects, and drafted assignments. All of these elements are part of our “laboratory,” as we begin putting ideas into practice and immerse ourselves in this joint venture. In supporting faculty efforts to make writing an important feature of their courses, I also am addressing an understandable concern: how to include writing assignments in courses that focus on financial analysis or operations management. Where can one create room for writing assignments in courses that are already filled with lectures and projects specifically related to Accounting or Management topics? Discovering how writing is elemental to a business course’s learning outcomes begins to address some of these concerns.

Of course, in order for any writing assignment to be effective, it must be clearly linked to overall course objectives and worded so that students understand precisely what is expected of them—and why. Clearly expressed prompts are essential to both students’ comprehension of an assignment’s details, and their understanding of how the assignment relates to the material being studied in a given course. Thus, part of my effort in assignment (re)design is to help faculty formulate clear descriptions of assignments within the context of learning goals and course content. We are also developing grading rubrics for these assignments—rubrics that not only offer a framework for grading a project, but also provide a springboard towards assessment for a given assignment and course. I call upon my background as a Writing-across-the-Curriculum and Communication Fellow, and my experience teaching English composition and literature, when I sit down with faculty to design and pilot assignments, give in-class presentations, work one-on-one with students in reviewing their drafts, and plan faculty roundtables that will support these initiatives. One of our long-term goals is to draw business faculty together in an ongoing, shared praxis.

The Writing Initiative is also guided by the desire to ask business students to think of themselves as writers, as well as accountants, managers, or entrepreneurs. The Writing Center and the Student Academic Consulting Center are partners in this Initiative. Their one-on-one and group tutorials provide invaluable support for all students at Baruch, and they offer sessions tailored for ESL and nonnative learners. Through this Initiative, we want students to see proficient writing as essential to their professional lives and their broader roles as critical thinkers and engaged citizens. Thus, we are working to incorporate not only well-developed writing assignments into business courses, but also a culture of writing into the curriculum at Zicklin. In other words, the goal of helping Zicklin’s students produce strong writing for school and workplace is connected with the belief that writing is essential to their lives as thoughtful leaders and productive members of their communities.