Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Enough About Me: What is True Commitment?

Me expressing my enthusiasm for my TU MA in history by reading my thesis atop the sign, 2014.
Photo by Arley Ward.

If you know me very well, you may know of my extreme affinity for my alma mater. I spent five years there, entering as a freshman who thought I might "want to write, maybe;" who had no idea what the difference between a master's and a PhD was; who struggled to afford application and test fees to get into college in the first place. I left Tulsa with bachelor's and master's degrees in history and admission to a PhD program at an R1 university. I say this not to brag but rather to give a sense of how the experience changed the possibilities I had-- how it allowed me to envision myself as a person and a scholar.

As I've gone along the path to PhD, I've often envisioned returning to the University of Tulsa or someplace like it. I loved the small department, the dedication to teaching, and the support I received from faculty and fellow students while I was there (did you know my advisor met with me every week during the last year of my masters and read whatever I was working on?) Every department has its conflicts, of course, but I admired my professors at TU for the passion they brought to their research and teaching, and I wanted one day to be their colleague.

So it hit me hard when, on April 11, TU announced a restructuring they're calling "True Commitment" (insider tip: they love starting things with the word "True"; it's part of their "brand.") The proposed plan, which you can read all about in the administration's words here and in more critical words here, basically involves cutting a bunch of programs and smooshing departments into interdisciplinary megaglobs in support of the "professional super college" the administration wants to create. Closer to home, among the programs slated to be cut is the History MA, without which my life would look very different. The program not only set me on a course I'd never anticipated; it also served as a powerful symbol of my achievement. The degree was meaningful to me and to my colleagues-- so much so that I and my friend Arley Ward, fellow MA graduate and Doctoral Candidate at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, did a photo shoot around campus with our master's theses.
Duncan and Ward having one last coffee in the library cafe, 2014. Photo by Arley Ward. 
There's a lot of useful critiques and great organizing going on in opposition to this plan (which could use your help-- see this petition and this list for descriptions of the plan and quick, easy action items). The language in both of the links above notes the lack of transparency and participation of many student and faculty voices (other than a handpicked few) in the process being a problem, which it certainly is; inconsistencies and vagaries in the plans proposed; the speed of the process seeming hasty for the review of as many departments as the committee was tasked with reviewing. However, for this post, I want to pontificate a bit: about the assumptions surrounding first generation students and the pitfalls of the language of "practicality," about the role of larger trends of higher ed being evoked by this, and about my own disappointment with this turn of events. 

In his piece for City Journal, TU philosophy professor Jacob Howland noted that "At his first meeting with TU faculty in late 2016… Clancy announced that he was turning the ship around: we would now focus on recruiting first-generation college students and offering them job-ready programs." Perhaps because of the obvious problems with messaging-- the university is going to make money by recruiting broke students?-- The Academic Strategy for the University of Tulsa brochure announcing True Commitment does not rely on this language, in favor of veiled and value-laden terms-- the new focus is "professional, practical," (3) "high-touch," and involves something unsettlingly referred to as "secret sauce" (5). It's mystifying to this first generation college student, who found in college a way to interpret her experiences as well as simply learning a trade (in my case, research and writing). If this is an attempt to reach out to first generation students, it undersells what we are capable of and what we are interested in. If this is not such an attempt, it leaves us in the lurch anyway. 

So, what is True Commitment? What does it mean? Who is it for? It seems clear that higher education is broadly afflicted by an administrative obsession with simplistic, neoliberal approaches to reforming how we think about and practice "college." Higher education was never perfect, historically dominated by the powerful and privileged, but the modern solutions seem designed not to reform the intellectual system but to further entrench its inequities by claiming that it is not practical for those without money to think deeply; that the study of the arts and humanities is best left to those who are independently wealthy or parentally supported. "True commitment" is what I had to the institution that taught me who I am, and who I could be, in the most significant, shaping five years of my life. True commitment is what every faculty and student org on campus who has taken up the issue has shown when they voted against it. If this reorganization occurs in the way it has been planned, that commitment will be broken-- I'll have no reason to support, speak highly of, or donate to the institution I've cared so deeply for-- all things I've done or aspired to do. I hope that institution remembers the worth of that sort of commitment, and shows the same to all of us. 

Related Links:
Anyone can sign this petition opposing the "True Commitment" changes. Every signature helps!
A useful piece from 2000 on "The Neo-Liberal University" from New Labor Forum, which focuses more on the role of public universities but is interesting nonetheless. An evocative snippet: "the fundamental roles of public higher education, including providing increased upward mobility for underserved populations, have been displaced by the economic role of serving corporations' global competitiveness."

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Reacting to Reacting: Selfish Reasons to Become a Gamemaster

Dice, or, as I like to call them, "contingency enhancers." 

There are some great reasons to teach a Reacting to the Past class. Many are pedagogical-- it awakens students' interests, forces them to exercise unfamiliar skills, and introduces the idea of contingency-- that things could have turned out differently than they did. 

However, there are also a few purely selfish reasons you should consider it. I recently had the opportunity to reflect on these in an effort to encourage interest in an RTTP workshop in our department, so I'll share a few of my favorites: 

1. It is an instructor-friendly way to teach a stand-alone for the first time. You have some built-in scheduling provided; rather than crafting daily plans for an entire semester, your syllabus only has to figure out how to weave together the schedules for the games you've chosen with preparation, reflection, etcetera. This can still be challenging, no question-- but sometimes, a few limits on what you have to fit into a semester can help you prioritize what's remaining, or provide a framework into which you can slot other things in. 

2. It allows you to say while on the job market or applying for teaching-related awards, etc, that you have experimented with innovative pedagogies. Even if you conclude that you don't like the system, you'll come out the other side with plenty of ideas about what sorts of things worked and which didn't-- ideas which will help to inform a teaching philosophy.

3. It develops your teaching abilities in unexpected ways. One example: I became much more comfortable with periodic silences in the classroom. One of the hardest things to learn about teaching is to be comfortable with silence as you wait for student responses to a question or discussion topic. Instructors during an RTTP game often sit in the back of the room as class is run by a student playing the role of an authority. You'll have ample time to develop a relationship with waiting patiently for students to find their own answers. Later, in a more conventionally organized class, I received positive feedback from an observer on my willingness to let silence happen in the classroom. 

If you've used or played Reacting games in your courses, what did you learn from it? If not, what questions do you have about ways it can benefit you personally?

Related Links: 

An explanation of the Reacting to the Past concept, from the Reacting Consortium. 

A few U of I folks (including myself and some of my students) discussing Reacting in a brief video. 

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Plug and Play: My Approach to the Lesson Plan

Here is a confession from me: I am repeatedly skeptical of things and then, eventually, adopt them wholeheartedly. Here is a partial list:
  • Asparagus
  • Exercise
  • Southwest Airlines
  • Budgeting
  • Casual gaming
  • Savings accounts
  • E-books
  • Looking at the weather before you leave the house
  • Bran
  • Going for walks
  • Rubrics (more on this another day)

So it should come as no surprise that I have come to appreciate the wonders of the lesson plan. Because there’s a variety of approaches to lesson planning, I had trouble figuring out what the point was in my early days of teaching, especially while TAing, in which many of the decisions about readings and course structure have already been made for you. So although I dabbled in the creation of lesson plans while I was a teaching assistant, they were generally brief lists of questions and activities scribbled on a piece of scrap paper on the way into my section. We read the reading; now let’s talk about it! Simple.

The year I taught two Reacting to the Past courses was similar in some ways— the structure of the games is either planned for you in the book or run by the students, so there are comparatively few days for which a lesson plan is useful. It wasn’t until my Fiction and the Historical Imagination course that I became infatuated with the lesson plan, and although I fell off the wagon a few times as the semester stretched on, I used a particular strategy to great effect. 

Here’s an example of a week of lesson plans from the middle of this course:

Let's take a walk through their components.

Up top: the week and day, to stay on track. Then, the purpose: what is the goal of the day? I’ll admit to being less than enamored with too much agonizing over long lists of objectives, but I find it really useful to have a straightforward statement of what we should be aiming for by the end of the period.

Then, a time breakdown of each step, beginning always with five minutes at beginning and end for hellos, roll, housekeeping, etcetera. This is great for reminding you that in fact, a fifty minute class often ends up being much less because of the small tasks that have to be done before one can start the film, begin the quizzes, or instigate group discussion. Likewise, it encourages you to think about the real factors that may delay your plans. If you are going from a lecture to assigned groups, how long will it take the class to move from A to B? If you allow for that in your plan you’ll save yourself some grief.

As I lay out each segment of class, I like to include both the length of time allotted to each and the time of day it should be at the beginning and end of that segment. I don’t follow this exactly while in class, of course— there are a million reasons why you might choose to follow a rabbit trail of discussion or allow a bit of time to review a reading that will throw you off of this path. But including both allows you the flexibility to go off path and then to see exactly how far off you are and make quick decisions about how to handle it.

As I mentioned above, I always end with at least five minutes for reminders and other housekeeping. This is useful to both students and instructor because it allows for checking in about ongoing or upcoming assignments; it also encourages you to end class on time, which I consider a mark of respect and professionalism.

Perhaps the most important thing about the lesson plan is that I print the plans for the week — even if unfinished— at the beginning of the week and carry them around. Then as I am leading class, working on other things, or reviewing course readings, I can write in changes or additions to future days. I also sometimes annotate them while class is ongoing, noting how I diverged from the plan. I still have a stack of lesson plans from last semester; I plan at some point to update the files using my annotations to use again for future courses.

Do you lesson plan? What things do you include or leave out?

Related links:

Some other approaches to lesson planning at The Chronicle of Higher Education and Algonquin College.

If you're interested in learning outcomes and objectives, check out the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment.

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Flashback Post: Because You're Mine, I Walk the Line

In honor of the anniversary of the 2018 strike of the Graduate Employees' Organization at UIUC, I'm reposting my piece on it from last year. In the past year, we've seen incredible numbers and incredible results from teachers' strikes, and I continue to believe that one of the best things we can do for education-- no matter what our connection to it-- is to support the labor rights of those who deliver it. Even Miss Othmar agrees. 

Graduate workers marching during strike, surrounded by bubbles. Photo by Jeff Putney.
As you may know, the Graduate Employees' Organization at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is currently on strike (at eight days and counting, the longest in UIUC history). There have been a lot of beautiful letters and posts floating around about the strike, making articulate and reasonable arguments in favor of protecting tuition waivers, raising graduate wages, and making clear to the administration their dissatisfaction with their unwillingness to bargain with graduate employees. I myself did the opposite last week, canceling my usual weekly post both in solidarity with the strike and to give myself more time to participate in pickets and rallies. This week, I want to jot down just a few messy reflections on the possibilities for learning that the strike has presented (while encouraging you to also read some of the cogent arguments in favor of the GEO presented in a variety of places like the Undergraduate-Graduate Alliance and the fine folks on Twitter.)

Most obviously, the GEO strike has presented a lot of opportunities to reevaluate the value of graduate labor for people at all levels, even surprising graduate workers themselves. I know the value of my own labor, but did I know about the ESL courses that every international student is required to take under the guidance of graduate workers? Not before last week. Undergraduate allies of the GEO are reflecting on the role that TAs and GAs have played in their own coursework and highlighting these experiences in letters to the provost.

For me, the strike has also sparked thoughts about labor history and the way we teach it. US history courses often cover the labor movement, and for good reason-- as we are wont to say, their efforts in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries changed the landscape of work in this country (at least, I am wont to say so). An eight hour day, a weekend, restrictions on child labor, a living wage, workplace safety-- all things that the labor movement envisioned and made real. We do a lot of activities designed to highlight this contrast-- reading John Spargo's observations of child laborers and their dismal working conditions. We emphasize the differences in various union ideologies, bringing up a lot of unions with a lot of acronyms, like the IWW and the AFL and the WTUL and maybe even the ILGWU if we get really rowdy.

What most of us haven't explored so fruitfully-- what is hard to approximate in the classroom-- is the mixed emotional bag of labor activism. The strike has brought on for me an appreciation of how complex the decision to strike is-- both dreaded and celebrated. It has highlighted the spirit of joyfulness that the strike brings, and that as it goes on, you become closer to those around you. When teaching strikes and unions, I had been painting a picture of iron-jawed determination, but what I've seen in the past week has been more lighthearted-- a determination to win, yes, but also a celebration of community. I've heard this newfound appreciation of community from many people this week, and I've said it myself-- "This might sounds cheesy, but all that solidarity stuff-- I get it now."

It also takes you outside of yourself a bit. I saw a pretty apt sign last week that said something to the effect of, "Things are so bad even the introverts are out here!" The person that you are on the picket line, shouting chants and encouraging strangers, is not the person that you are every other time of your life, when you fear talking to other people or just wish you could go to your office without seeing anyone. Most weeks, I avoid campus when I don't have to be there-- last week, I was there every day.

I have never been able to get this sort of worldview-altering enthusiasm into my discussions of labor history, because I didn't really know it myself. The discussion is about that iron-jawed determination I mentioned above-- the ideals of Marxism, the rational reasons why one would want to work a manageable number of hours or have their children attend school instead of picking coal. I've never focused on the community building of unions and strikes, the human motivations of union leaders or members. Even the Greenwich Village game, which approximates so many lived experiences and ideas well, also fails to get across this experience of the labor faction-- its focus is on ideals among bohemians, not engagement in actual labor activism. How much more sense do the various enthusiasms of Leah Schwartz, Big Bill Haywood, and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn make when you've actually seen a strike in action?

So, one of the nice things about this strike, in addition to the solidarity it has fostered, is the insight it can offer not only into our present but into labor history for teachers and students alike. I like to think that the next time I walk into a classroom on this campus to talk about unions and labor, there will be a great deal more familiarity with these concepts among my students, and more appreciation of who exactly it is who organizes, strikes, pickets, and makes change throughout history-- people very much like us.

Related Links:

Title Talk-- I Walk the Line
A few links on the GEO strike: News-GazetteSocialist WorkerChicago TribuneDaily Illini.
For the monetarily inclined, a link to the GEO Strike Fund.

Thursday, February 14, 2019

Enough About Me: The Power of Tangents

A winding road. We'll get back to the point eventually!

I found myself on a tangent while teaching last semester. Perhaps it was because the conversation was a little slow to start, but I was talking about something and it made me think of Martin Pernick's work on anesthesia and the debates surrounding its initial use. I mentioned this-- talking about how there were moral concerns about using anesthesia as well as practical safety questions. Was it right for people to avoid god-given pain? Would patients be subjected to immoral treatment from doctors if they were not awake to advocate for themselves?

As I talked about this, it was as if a light went on.  Although everyone hadn't exactly been ignoring me before, they were now attentive in a different way. They laughed a bit at the unfamiliarity of the idea, about its seeming irrationality. 

In that moment, I realized that I tried to rarely diverge from the point. I also realized that perhaps it was a mistake not to diverge a bit more often. With a rush I remembered one of my favorite undergraduate professors throwing out the phrase "if you want to know more" every now and then, when a book came to mind or a topic seemed too big to tackle at the moment. I didn't always follow up on those recommendations, but the moments represented something larger to me-- the excitement of a wider world that I knew of yet. Those divergences didn't just break up the rhythm of a typical class section, although sure, they did that too. They also represented the wealth of knowledge that one could be interested in. It showed my professor's passion for a grand variety of material I had never even begun to consider.

In the past I have avoided digression as much as possible because I have been afraid of totally losing the plot, or of droning on and boring everyone. And that's definitely a potential to worry about-- we only have so much time in a fifty-minute class. But this experience taught me that a well timed, well chosen digression can rejuvenate a class, and perhaps suggest that even if they are not currently consumed by the intellectual debates in front of them, there may be things out there they have never considered being interested by before. 

Do you take tangents? How do you know when to cut them off and when to let them grow? 

Related Links:
Some nitty gritty discussion about digressions in relation to English for Academic Purposes (EAP).

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

What's History: Little Local Sources on Big Cold Days

This is it, the Big Cold Day. We've been talking about it for a week. As predicted, Midwestern temperatures lost so many degrees it seems like sheer irresponsibility; the wind chill has it feeling like -40 F outside in Champaign today (not, of course, that I have felt it for myself, as I'm afraid to let in the cold air and never get warm again). Everyone here is hoping their furnaces keep kicking for the duration and fervently instructing one another to "stay warm." 

In honor of the occasion and because I definitely don't have anything else to do (ha), I thought it might be interesting to do a little investigation into the history of notably cold weather in these parts, using a nifty little database called the Illinois Digital Newspaper Collections. I wanted to see the papers in the immediate vicinity, to link as closely as possible the weather of today to other past Big Cold Days , and see if there was anything useful for a class assignment that might come out of this sort of investigation. The great thing about this collection is that, unlike many library resources I use to do research, it's free to use for anyone without any sort of login, so follow along if you'd like! 

As I settled in I ran into an interesting little research problem. There were four collections involved in this project: the Illinois Digital Newspaper Collection, which has the local papers I was hoping to examine; Farm, Field, and Fireside, which holds agricultural papers from around the country; American Popular Entertainment, full of entertainment industry trade journals; and Collegiate Chronicle, students newspapers from a wide variety of postsecondary institutions. I'm sure these last three all have something to say about weather, but I wanted to know only about the closest regions' papers, so I needed to look only at the first collection. I could browse through titles in each of these collections, but the search didn't seem to let me narrow to a collection-- I could choose to confine the search to one or more paper titles (though only more than one if they were next to each other in the alphabetical list), so I just compared the list from here to the list of options here and searched within a few that looked promising. 

I decided the word "coldest" was the most likely candidate to look for in the papers I examined-- The Champaign Daily News, the Daily Illini, and the Urbana Daily Courier. Below are a few favorites-- all titles link to the originals, with PDFs available of the full issues. 

Amongst two pages of reporting on a tragic 1903 theatre fire in Chicago, this brief article adds a bit of levity. D.C. Long, a local Civil War Veteran who appears a few other times in the Urbana paper, claims that exactly forty years ago was the coldest in the history of the nation, with animals killed by the chill. "I don't know what the thermometer registered, but it was cold, I know that," he concluded. 

"Cold Forty Years Ago Today," Urbana Daily Courier, Jan. 1, 1904.

These stories appeared a page apart in a 1929 issue of the Daily Illini. I like the focus in each on the role of the "weather man"-- the AP reporter accords him a lot of power! 

"Brrr! Thermometer Dropped to 8 Below Yesterday Morning" and
"Weather Man Has Touch of Kindness,
" Daily Illini, Dec. 4, 1929. 

This 1959 report of an unusually cold November features a student giving a far better demonstration of proper scarf usage than her modern counterpart distributed by the University of Illinois yesterday

"Winter Hits Area Before It's Due," Daily Illini, Nov. 18, 1959. 

It was a lot of fun sorting through these sources. I'll likely find a way to incorporate a similar activity into a history course, especially one on media or an intro to historical methods. The benefit is similar to unstructured research time, with more of a defined, if small, endgoal-- to figure out some connection to a modern event in the past. It's a nice practice run before students jump into trying to find sources for a large research project, with lots of directions to run in and few ways to really fail. It could also lead into a discussion of shifts and continuities in how the topic is discussed in the press-- how have we been informed about the current weather as compared to those informed of cold weather in the past, for example? How do the headlines present the story? 

Related Links: 
Some comparisons of recent stories on the Big Cold Day: Daily Illini, News-Gazette. And, if you're hungry, the modern Urbana Daily Courier. 

Some historical Illinois Weather Trivia for January. 

If you'd like to see more old newspapers freely available, check out Chronicling America at the Library of Congress, which features more varieties of newspaper than you can shake a stick at.

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Enough About Me: The Age of Resolutions

Happy New Year, and happy new semester! It's been great to have a little time to reflect on and recuperate from the fall. 

Old-fashioned classroom with wooden desks and attached benches. Teaching goal for a future year: Have a class here.

I'm not teaching this semester, which is a peculiar sort of joy. I love thinking about teaching when I'm not currently doing it, because everything is in the future; I can get any idea or learn about any resource and have the opportunity to put it into a future plan in a way I rarely have time to consider when I'm actually in the midst of a course. It gives me more space to devote to planning and making connections. To fill some part of this space, I have a few teaching-related goals for the year: 

Finish the Graduate Teacher Certificate through the Center for Innovation in Teaching and Learning.

For some time I've been slowly working toward pursuing this certificate. The Graduate Teacher Certificate requires two semesters of teaching, as well as an observation and discussion with a CITL representative or a faculty member, some participation in teaching workshops, and conducting and reflecting on student evaluations. After completing the observation with History's Graduate Teaching Mentor Dana Rabin, and receiving both informal early feedback and end of semester ICES forms from students in fall, all I need to do to complete the first certificate is to fine-tune my written reflections on observation and evaluation of my teaching this semester. 

Start on the Teacher Scholar Certificate. 

The Teacher Scholar Certificate is a step above the Graduate Teacher Certificate, and is available to both graduate and faculty instructors. It requires an extra semester of teaching, some form of departmental or disciplinary service, and more extensive written reflections on pedagogy, service, and teaching philosophy. I'm looking forward to working on this-- it's a nice thing to put on a curriculum vitae, but pursuing these certificates has also given me permission to invest time in learning more about teaching. 

Go to two teaching workshops, lectures, or discussion groups.

I think I've mentioned before that when I'm stuck in my writing, going to a lecture or other event, even if unrelated to what I do, can be hugely helpful. It leads me to consider my own evidence or argument in new ways, learn something about structure from the choices the presenter has made, or just spend an hour learning something without trying to fit it into what I'm currently trying to do. Going to teaching related events could be similarly helpful for current writing and future plans; moreover, it may also allow me to make connections with other folks interested in talking about teaching.

Invest time in current teaching conversations and scholarship.

The other goals are pretty specific; this one is a more general intention to realign some habits of thought around what I read and write. Many of the things I find most helpful when teaching is looking backwards at when I was a student. It's no surprise that my dissertation continually comes back to people acting and forming their priorities out of their own lived experience; I'm already interested in the many ways this can be fruitful in everyday life. As one must be a student before one can be a teacher, it's often a helpful way to think about this relationship. Yet there's also a huge world out there about the scholarship of teaching and learning, and writing about ways to grapple with teaching, and it's wasteful to ignore the resources and strategy it can provide. I want to pick up more books about designing assignments, strategizing objectives, and communicating expectations this year. 

Here's my challenge to you-- are there any teaching or learning related goals that you've wanted an excuse to explore? Consider this an offer of permission to value those things enough to try them this year.