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.


  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 Filming the internet is totally legit.


Features a cameo from a true expert in communications!

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.

Dodging the Drafts

I just submitted the first full draft of a dissertation chapter to my adviser.  Producing it was a painful process—I missed the first deadline we set, just before Thanksgiving.  But a major reason I got my chapter in by the new deadline is the fact that I had a commitment to get a draft to my writing partner last week.  Her feedback and encouragement motivated me to get the draft in better shape and in to my adviser on time.

Letting someone read your drafts can be intimidating. I don’t recall sharing writing very often in college. I proofread my best friend’s thesis the spring of our senior year, and, although we had collaborated closely on numerous creative projects, it was the first time I had read a draft of something he had written.  I have been required to give presentations on my research-in-progress in a number of my graduate classes, but only once have I been asked to share drafts of work with classmates, in a Research and Bibliography course during my first semester of my Master’s degree at UT.

Keeping our drafts private stokes anxieties and mystifies the writing process.  It perpetuates the notion that “good” writers create perfect papers, fully-formed with very little effort while “bad” writers struggle.  It masks the truth that writing is a skill that must be practiced to improve, that even great writers grapple with organization and argumentation in early drafts, and it de-emphasizes the importance of editing and revising.

This semester I required my students to partner up and workshop drafts of their final papers.  I had one student tell me she was too embarrassed about her writing to participate in the workshop.  In my experience, I assured her, once I push past that initial nervousness, sharing drafts actually helps to relieve my anxieties about my writing, and giving feedback on others’ drafts always teaches me something I can apply to my own work.

Here some thoughts on sharing drafts with writing partners:

  • Pick your partners carefully. Do you want to work with someone who is close to your topic or removed from it? Someone in your field or outside of it? Someone at the same stage as you in his or her career or someone farther along?  In general, I have preferred to work with colleagues who are in my discipline, but who are not in my current PhD program.  Now that I am at the dissertation stage, I feel it is important to work with a partner who is also writing her dissertation, so that the stakes of our work are similar.  Make sure that you trust the person you are working with, and that he or she is a good balance of critical and kind.  You don’t want someone who is going to tear your drafts apart and completely drain your motivation, but you don’t want someone who will uncritically praise your work either.
  • Know your partner’s strengths and draw on them. I have a list of friends whose feedback I solicit depending of the piece of writing and the kind of help I want and need on my draft. My former English teacher mother is an eagle-eyed grammar editor.  A friend who is a journalist as well as an academic never fails to make my prose pithier. Another, who works at a university writing center, pushes me to think about structure and organization.  A poet friend helps me to uncover more interesting connections and make more meaningful arguments in my work.  A grant-writer friend is amazing at editing drafts of cover letters.
  • Set parameters for your feedback.  Are you going to use Track Changes to line edit each other’s drafts or simply make comments on them?  Will you send each other your thoughts in writing, meet in person, or Skype to discuss them?  I find it useful to send a few questions to my partner along with my draft to guide her reading.  If I want nitty-gritty grammar feedback (for instance, on a later draft of a paper), I say that. If I want big picture comments about the strengths of my arguments or structure of my paper (as I did with this very drafty first draft of my dissertation chapter), ignoring smaller errors, I say that too.  I let her know the sections with which I am struggling, especially in a longer piece, so she can focus her attention there. I often ask her to tell me in her own words what she sees as the argument in each paragraph of my paper, which helps me to judge what changes I need to make for the next draft.  I always ask my partner what kind of feedback she wants on her draft, so that my comments are as useful as possible for her.
  • Set reasonable, frequent deadlines and stick to them. A big part of a successful writing partnership is accountability. Make deadlines for sharing your drafts and giving feedback. Take the deadlines you set seriously.  And be sure that you allow yourself enough time to thoroughly read and comment on your partner’s work.


I’ve never given birth before.  Why birth? In the past I’ve heard writing a dissertation is a lot like giving birth, but since I haven’t birthed any babies, I figured, well that was a wasted analogy on me, then again maybe not.  I’m under an extremely tight deadline to finish, with a first draft meeting in 5 weeks.  When I got the email about the posting schedule for Cacophony and saw that my name was listed under January 10th.  I muttered aloud to my iPhone: “Damn you David Parsons, Damn You! The day before my birthday, really?”  This exclamation of frustration must be said in an Elizabethan tone, I’m Jamaican and a lover of Masterpiece Theater, so really embody the vexation as I’m damning David Parsons (the post doc fellow in charge of Cacophony) and because most Jamaicans love drama.

Let’s return to the foreign birthing process that seems to mimic my dissertation writing process.  After I got the drama out of my system, I quickly shifted to my analytical brain, and thought “well, just because the post is due on the 10th doesn’t mean you have to submit it then. You have a dissertation to write, so just submit it early”.   I realized that with writing small or big projects, one has to complete them in ways that is conducive to one’s own process.  Before attending The Graduate Center’s Wellness Center’s Dissertation Completion Now workshops, I would just be stuck in the drama.  Now I’ve learned that I can experience the emotions of the drama, because I need to express my frustration, but I also need to call on the resources that will help me write, hence—the analysis.  As an anthropologist from CUNY I’ve been trained to examine the value in things, it’s the political economic vein of our department, so analysis is key.

I’ve been around 3 women shortly after they gave birth.  The first was my oldest sister, who almost died giving birth to my nephew, the horrible first draft college essay writer, who just got accepted into his 1st choice college.  Follow the firsts, there’s a pattern.  His birth was via C-section and I was at the hospital when he was born and I remember visiting my sister a week later, and she literally dropped 60lbs.  You wouldn’t have known she was pregnant.  She lost so much water weight she literally lost a 4th grader.  My best friend said that because she had walked so much during her pregnancy, that after several pushes, her first daughter plopped out.  My older sister had an epidural with her first daughter, and had a natural birth with her second, recalled telling the nurse, that it couldn’t be too late for an epidural because she had a VERY low tolerance for pain.  Painful as it was she had a 1st and last natural birth.  My 3rd godchild’s mother describes her labor as “a reenactment of the exorcist” picture projectile vomit with limited head spinning.  Another good friend of mine who gave birth recently said, “it was really transformative” it changes you.  She had her partner, 2 doulas, and a birthing assistant.

While this dissertation has put me through changes, I’ve been fortunate to not have an exorcist moment although there are many days that writing feels soul wrenching.  So I guess, like birth this dissertation is transformative.  After complaining about how hard it is to write my dissertation, My best friend told me that although she’s never written a dissertation, that it MUST be like birth.  She said “there’s a time when you’re pushing and pushing and feel like you cannot push anymore or else you’re gonna die, and the nurse says ‘just 1 more’ and you feel like you’ve got nothing left, but somehow you do, you pull that strength from somewhere, and next thing you know the baby’s here.”  Well, I feel like I’m pushing and pushing and pushing and I’m calling on every ounce of strength within me to finish writing this dissertation.  Even though, I have a flair for drama, yes I really do feel like I’m gonna die, because this is taking some warrior-goddess-slave insurrection-Herculean strength to push this thing out.  Some days like today I haven’t written much, but on other days I’m writing a lot.  My advisor told me that I “have to live eat, drink, sleep the diss until it’s done.”   I do that now, waking up with my own labor pains, frantically reaching for my iPhone to write in my notes section, sometimes for an hour or more.  At 3 am when you’re flowing it’s kind of exciting writing and hoping that this burst of creativity or analysis is going to produce a healthy, pretty baby (dissertation).

While parenting can be great at times, the reality is that being a parent is a huge sacrifice and it’s hard.  I’ve decided to start sacrificing from now so my baby can be healthy, declining holiday parties, and even my own tradition of a New Year’s Day brunch-come-dinner for 30 that I usually host and do most of the cooking for.  I realized that I can’t be present at every holiday event and be with my baby.  I told my family: “don’t ask me to bake anything, because we won’t be celebrating over cake next spring, if I don’t get this dissertation out.”  Earlier today I had a huge panic attack because I did an honest assessment and realized I will miss a deadline for submitting two chapters.   As my panic attack continued I remembered that I had to write this post, then I had a revelation.  I recognized that non-dissertation writing actually relaxes me to write my dissertation, more than any episode of Downton Abbey, or Poirot.  For me, that’s saying a lot.  I will not attempt to look at last season’s True Blood, Luther, Game of Thrones or Sherlock until it is DONE.  Scandal will be my only guilty pleasure.  Tonight, as I sat and watched HGTV and The Sing Off I was thinking about my dissertation the entire time, and which interviews I needed to include next.  There’s a book titled Eat, Pray, Love, my autobiography right now is “Eat, Drink, Sleep, Diss.”

A dear friend and colleague currently doing fieldwork in South Africa sent me a wonderful detailed outline to help me finish.  I appreciated the structure to help me think about my process of writing, even though it is not how I generally write.  His was neat and orderly, with page numbers and page limits for each section.  I’m more of a butcher paper on the wall kinda gal.  I need some disorganization and mild chaos to function, like amidst the excitement of the baby crowning, a labor and delivery nurse hunting for another blanket because the mother may have chills after birth.

Oh, I forgot about the damn placenta and afterbirth.  I think as long as they get all of it out, I’ll refer to those as the minor revisions, if any after the defense.  The hard part will have already been done.  I look forward to dropping that 4th grader that I’ve been carrying around these past 8 years. My late mother always said that “labor and delivery was a forgetful experience, because any woman who remembered her labor would never go back again, yet they do.”   I will most likely go through this again when I publish, begin new research, and hopefully I will appreciate those labor pains I’m experiencing now because I will have passed through it before.  I’m now more relaxed and not quite ready for sleep. I still haven’t birthed my BABY, but this preemie of a blog post will suffice.  I will most likely spend no more than an hour editing it, and unfortunately will not include some cool picture of an ultrasound, it will just be text and your imagination will have to do the rest.  I must focus my energies.  Thank You David Parsons, this post rotation has me in the mood to work tonight towards another birth—my dissertation.

Preferred Gender Pronouns

Two years ago I joined a musical project whose meetings begin with participants sharing their names and preferred gender pronouns (PGPs). PGPs are terms like “she/her,” “he/him,” “they/their,” and “ze/hir”—gender identifiers many people don’t spend much time thinking about. One of the ideas behind having people introduce their PGPs is to create as inclusive and welcoming a space as possible for all members of the group, and especially for transgender and genderqueer folks—those who do not identify with the gender they were assigned at birth and which much of society expects and sometimes forces them to embrace.   Activist and Seattle University law Professor Dean Spade has argued that the frequent use of pronouns associated with trans people’s birth genders, birth names, and surgical statuses is a manifestation of transphobia. (On the other hand, cisgender people—those who present as and identify with the gender they were assigned at birth—usually have the privilege of being referred to by the gender pronouns with which they identify.) The members of the group I’m involved with try to avoid making assumptions about other people’s gender identities and ensure respect for all by allowing each person to name their preferred, rather than assumed or assigned, pronouns.

If making space for PGP introductions can be a tool for fighting transphobia, how can such practices—and the ideas upon which they are based—be brought to the attention of students and faculty in higher education? What would it look like for students in small classes to share their PGPs at the beginning of the semester? (Well, actually, it might look like this.) Just last week a number of newspapers picked up on an Associated Press report about PGP usage on American college campuses. The version published in The Sacramento Bee (“Redefining gender: ‘Preferred’ pronouns gain traction at US colleges”) opens with a profile of a PGP go-around at meetings for an LGBT group at Mills College. Despite the fact that only women are admitted as undergraduates at Mills, many of the group’s members prefer to be identified by gender-neutral pronouns like third-person singular “they” and “ze.” Besides for the role that PGP awareness can play in complicating gender binaries, as we see in the Mills case, the article makes clear that the issue of pronouns ties in to other fronts on which transphobia and cis-centrism can be fought at universities:

At the University of Vermont, students who elect to change their names and/or pronouns on class rosters now can choose from she, he and ze, as well as the option of being referred to by only their names. Hampshire College in Massachusetts advertises its inclusiveness by listing the gender pronouns of its tour guides on the school’s web site. And intake forms at the University of California, Berkeley’s student health center include spaces for male, female or other.

But here at CUNY, a friend who has taken several courses on gender and sexuality at the Graduate Center (GC) told me that instructors in those seminars have never asked students if they wished to state their PGPs. As far I know a Doctoral Student’s Council (DSC) proposal to provide gender-neutral bathrooms at the GC—an effort intended to reduce discrimination of gender non-conforming and transgender students, faculty, and staff—has been sidelined. (The DSC resolution for this proposal does state that other CUNY colleges have created gender-neutral bathrooms and mentions relevant policies at other universities.)

Of course, the issue of pronoun usage is also central to student writing. This is a can of worms worthy of a separate entry, so I’ll just say here that it seems like writing support programs and faculty should be thinking about it systematically. As described in the above-mentioned AP article and is evident from other online forums, many professors are grappling with how to deal with the growing presence of gender-neutral pronoun “neologisms” in student papers, but they seem to be dealing with them in mostly ad-hoc ways. Furthermore, comments responding to web postings about this issue (as well as articles about PGP usage in journalistic writing) betray a fair amount of cis privilege. Clearly, deeper discussions about “trans-anxieties”—the kind of discussions driven by queer and critical pedagogies that have been advocated for over a decade—are still needed throughout the academy.

Some Resources (most already linked to above)

Team-Based Learning… and Teaching Communication Skills: Incompatible?

Last spring, while serving in my last semester as a Graduate Teaching Fellow at Brooklyn College, I attended a workshop introducing faculty to Team-Based Learning (TBL), a pedagogical approach that has been gaining steam in the academy over the last couple of decades. I had just completed my first few years of university teaching, during which I had tried—drawing on piecemeal sources and largely following my own intuition—to find alternatives to the “sage on stage” teaching model with which I was most familiar. Although I thought that I had had some successes in restructuring many components of my courses to promote a more participatory environment, I still felt frustrated by the concentration of participation among a relatively small number of students, and by the haphazard-seeming quality of some of my group activities (not to mention the outright hostility with which some students reacted to group projects).

Kasia’s recent post discussed the concept of “flipped” classrooms, in which students get their initial dosage of “content” outside of class and then spend in-class time doing the higher-order cognitive work of applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and discussing the material. The same basic philosophy underpins TBL, although the touted benefits of highly structured teamwork are obviously a key aspect of the latter. According to the TBL literature, the worst teams typically outperform the top students in TBL classes.

There are four key design principles to TBL:

  1. Strategically formed, permanent teams: Instructors form teams of five to seven students and distribute the class’s strengths and weaknesses evenly among them. This can be achieved by administering a survey early in the course that asks about work experience, previous course work, number of credits being taken concurrently, intercultural experience, etc. Groups work together for the remainder of the course.
  2. Readiness Assurance Process: As with the “flipped” approach, students are expected to acquire the foundational knowledge for each class unit before it starts, usually through readings. Students’ preparation to engage closely with the content in subsequent activities is tested at the beginning of each unit. First, students do a short multiple-choice test individually; they then do the same test in teams with the Immediate Feedback Assessment Technique—a type of “scratch-and-win” card where students keep trying until they uncover the correct answer. Teams are then encouraged to appeal some of their wrong answers with evidence from the readings. The process concludes with a mini-lecture by the instructor to review particularly difficult concepts.
  3. Application Activities: Activities in which the course content is applied are supposed to take up the majority of class time in TBL courses. Application activities are guided by the “4 S’s” principle: they should heighten student interest by focussing on a significant problem; promote inter-team discussion by assigning all teams to the same problem; ensure comparability between team answers by requiring a specific choice; and require simultaneous reporting of answers by all teams—this can be done with voting cards, or now with numerous technological aids—as a way for both the instructor and students to gauge contrasts in student thinking and use them as starting points for discussion.
  4. Peer Evaluation: One of the most significant drawbacks to group work is that one or two better-qualified students often end up carrying the group while others get a “free ride.” While the collaborative structure of TBL application activities is supposed to eliminate the possibility for individuals to do all of the work, integrating peer evaluation into the grading scheme will also help motivate students to contribute to their team.

My main concern with TBL at this point is about how to include an emphasis on developing communication and writing skills in the course structure. The FAQ on the Team-Based Learning Collaborative site is unequivocal in its stance on group writing and presentation projects:

In many ways using “good” in relation to “writing assignments for groups” is an oxymoron.

It goes on to say that while group presentations might be somewhat beneficial to the groups doing the presenting, they don’t foster dynamic learning for the whole class the way “4-S” activities do, and are therefore, it is implied, out of step with the overall approach. I agree with TBL advocates that much of the group work we assign students is little more than individual assignments requiring minimal student coordination. But surely there is educational value in having students build “lengthy products,” something TBL philosophy proscribes. Of course, it’s not like entire departments are switching over to TBL en masse, so plenty of opportunities remain for implementing writing and communication strategies in other courses. But are substantial written assignments and oral presentations really incompatible with teamwork, as TBL guidelines would have us believe? Is the only way to include these important educational aspects in a TBL course to disrupt the conventional course design—and potentially compromise its pedagogical benefits—to make room for them? Learning about TBL made me look forward to getting back into the classroom to try it out, but working in a communication institute makes me wonder if TBL needs to be adjusted to meet broader academic goals.

Interdisciplinarity in the Arts: Teaching others to teach with images

I was lucky enough to be asked to lead a roundtable a few weeks ago instigated by the English department at Baruch. English department faculty were interested in learning about strategies to incorporate images into their classroom lectures, in particular the required freshman seminar survey titled “Great Works” that works very much like the “Prehistory – Present” art history survey. The English textbooks that faculty ask their students to buy come with illustrations, but many instructors felt hesitant about adding artworks into their lesson plan, or interested in ways to deepen engagement with the visuals they already use. The hesitation (their own and/or their students’, depending on the instructor) seemed very close to how students feel when they enter an art history classroom for the first time, or museum visitors to a new museum or exhibition – or, perhaps more aptly, how I feel when I am asked to really analyze a poem nowadays, with my Eng Lit 101 days far behind me: nervous, worried I don’t have the right vocabulary to undertake the task, or to facilitate for my students.

As the idea for the roundtable was fleshed out, it became clear that the conversation had to be a two way street – I felt art historians had as much to learn about how to incorporate texts further into their classrooms (or at least new strategies for doing so) as vice versa.

What followed was a really fruitful discussion, and a body of resources I am going to document here in order to share them with the participants who attended the roundtable – and those who couldn’t make it at my college, and beyond – in hopes that they could be added to.


Screen Shot 2013-10-25 at 2.49.13 PM

I began the roundtable by sharing the way I often present learning with images to my students (almost always business students or studio art majors in my required survey classes). I offer the art history survey class, when appropriate, as an extended exercise in developing visual literacy skills that will be transferable assets when students reach the job market or undertake other academic pursuits. I show my students the results from the Guggenheim’s Learning Through Art studies that demonstrate how looking closely at artworks using open-ended questions increases literacy and problem solving in many other areas. I also tell them about Columbia University’s Arts in Medicine Narrative Medicine program, where med students develop the close observational skills they’ll need in the doctor’s office or in the surgery theater through “long looks” with Rika Burnham at the Frick or the Met museum. What’s good practice for med students is also good practice for my survey students too. I don’t need to justify why we are looking per se, but it can help to persuade the reluctant at the beginning of the semester.


I’ve linked to my Prezi above which explains the rough outline of the presentation, and offers a list of resources (below) as well as two concrete examples of how to tie images into a discussion of a Great Works text. I chose to connect the British Museum’s beer counting tablet (so well explained by Neil MacGregor in A History of the World in 100 Objects) to the Epic of Gilgamesh, and Pablo Neruda’s poem I’m Explaining a Few Things (introduced to me by one of the roundtable instigators, Prof. Cheryl Smith) with Picasso’s Moulin de la Galette and Guernica. I have handouts for both, which describe my logic and basic lesson plan structure (I hope) here and here.

Lesson Outlines:

Victory_stele_of_Naram_Sin_9068 (1)

In short, in the first exercise, I suggested that asking students to look at the “Beer Tablet,” and then at a statue of Gudea and the famed Stele of Naram-sin, starts a discussion about how cuneiform was a trading tool, and then a political propaganda tool, before it was a tool of imagination and literature. This offers the development of the apparatus of culture and civilization – what was needed as the basic foundations for survival and evolution – before looking at its further fruits in the form of the tablet that contains the epic (which MacGregor also handily covers).

The comparison of Picasso’s Moulin de la Galette vs. Guernica is all about context. To anyone not pre-prepped, it’s very possible not to have a clue who painted Moulin. It doesn’t display Picasso’s “signature Cubist style” (a myth – he was a chameleon – but whatever). It was painted by him aged 19, when he first came to Paris to visit the World’s Fair and the sites of his artist-heroes. He was an unknown when he painted this. Viewing it, I think you can almost taste the teenage excitement at seeing Parisian nightlife for the first time. Guernica is, of course, quite different. At the roundtable, we compared and contrasted the works through a partner exercise I learned at the Guggenheim – one person describes to the other who is unable to see the image, and who draws it based on the partner’s description (full set-up directions are in the Prezi). The exercise gets students talking about the images in front of them, demonstrating that they don’t need any “special” vocabulary to do so. The deeper comparison between the two images and Neruda’s text came in understanding how the social, historical, political and economic context for both the poet and the painter fundamentally affected their creative output. As I say above, take a look at the lesson plan PDFs for the types of questions and discussion points that shaped our roundtable investigation.

We finished by talking about how to engage students in front of objects at the museum, and I shared the Museum Observation Prompts sheet that I have crowdsourced from others over the years.

Resource list:

Neil MacGregor’s “A History of the World in 100 Objects”

The Met Museum’s Timeline of Art History

The Met Museum’s 82nd and Fifth series

AHTR’s museum videos

AHTR’s online syllabi – match images here to texts on your English syllabi

I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on other combinations of images and texts that you have had success with, or want to workshop further in the comments below.

[A version of this post was also shared on]

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.

TLHUB: It’s Better When It’s Messy

If the world is becoming more and more dependent on technology it is imperative that we (read: intellectuals, scholars, academics, literary peoples, translators) create our own place in it; a place not dictated by the motivations of Silicone Valley.

That is a paraphrase of the words of French translator and member of the ESA (European Society of Authors) Camille de Toledo (otherwise known as Alexis Mital; heir to the Dannon Yogurt empire). I met de Toledo several weeks ago when he was presenting at the Walls and Bridges: Found In Translation conference at NYU. De Toledo was workshopping a new online platform called TLHUB (Translation and Literary HUB) that will go live in late fall. Initially the HUB will serve as a platform for translators or groups of translators to work together on various projects. They can work together to create drafts, comment on each other’s word choices, and access all the same material at the same time no matter where they are in the world.

Screen Shot 2013-10-28 at 4.56.48 PMIt will also allow Spanish, French, Arabic and even Yiddish translators to have access to the linguistic decisions of translators working on the same project but in other languages. While all of this is an important step in bursting open the humanness of literary translations, the part that got me most excited was the digital archive that will be created for each project. It will be an exportable archive of the methods of translation, linguistic decisions, and catalogue the etymological and social factors behind the cultural exchange of language and ideas. The notion of process is one that too often gets lost when people read translations or believe that translations can or should be done by computers; if we archive the steps of translation, the discussions, and the various versions of texts we can bring to light the sense of creation and continual becoming that is inherent not only in translation but in communication more generally.


In a previous panel during that same conference the presenters spoke about translation as a dangerous tool, one that has significant cultural and political residue both on the original language and on the language of translation. Many translators consider themselves writers as they engage in the critical, cultural and linguistic factors, the literary nuance and the close-reading investigations at play in their work. To translate is to communicate not just the words of the text but the emotion, tone, rhythm, structure, cultural history and class implications (… I could keep going) of a syllable, word, sentence, or work as a whole. To get it “wrong” can be trouble, but to get it “right” can be just as much trouble. Understanding the process of cultural exchange at play in the translation of a text is something that leads to a better understanding of the cultures on both sides of the translation coin. Isn’t really good communication about the messiness of it all, about the complicated and dynamic structures behind ideas?

When Howard M. Parshley, a retired zoologist was asked to translate The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir  he created a text that feminists and de Beauvoir scholars have been criticizing for the last sixty years. The new unabridged translation by Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier in many ways revives the previously muffled voice of de Beauvoir. If Borde and Malovany-Chevallier had used TLHUB for their new translation we, as the English speaking public, would not only have a new de Beauvoir but new access into the subtleties at play in communicating ideas; we would see their process in deciding to change the quintessential phrase:“On ne naît pas femme: on le devient” from ”one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman” to “one is not born, but rather becomes, woman.” It would create a transparency that renders the myth of transparency in translation obsolete.

I think that de Toledo is on to something when he says that we need to build technologies that center around our ideas of translation, communication and pedagogy because while effective communication is essential for product marketing (I still remember nearly all of the commercial jingles popular during my childhood) I don’t know that I can stand behind a marketing of communication-as-product.