Reworking the Methods Course

January 1st, 2014 § 2 comments § permalink

Well, okay, the typewriters are a bit of an old-fashioned juxtaposition here (and yes, no cigs), but this image is one of many that echo this past semester’s workshop methods course, Hist 297: History Colloquium. Chaos, collaboration, some good communication, an occasional mess, and some real productivity.

Preface…

It was also a first run of a revised methods course for our department. As I’ve previously noted, we’ve just taken a one semester course, required of all History majors, and made it a two-semester sequence.  The one-semester course was ambitious, as most of them are. And we’d decided that it would be more productive to allow the students to work through this curriculum at a more balanced pace. At the same time, having two semesters would also provide us the room for further development of that curriculum and its implementation. A win for all.

The idea has been to leave the the focus for the fall to historiography and literature reviews–a “history colloquium”–with faculty choosing a broad theme for their own courses, while still emphasizing the same fundamental skills in the process. The spring semester course is then be turned over to student research on self-designed projects in primary sources, still in a seminar setting.

One piece of the story…  TaipingCivilWar.org

My colloquium this past fall focused thematically on China’s devastating 19th century Taiping Civil War (1851-1864). One aim of the course was to help students acquire a “digital literacy,” a departmental goal. I incorporated multiple components in this regard, including exercises re: digital identity and digital portfolios (particularly in relation to UMW’s own path-breaking Domain of One’s Own project — “one of the very best things in ed-tech right now” as Audrey Watters has noted.) And simpler, self-intro assignments utilizing digital tools.

The mainstay, however, was my students’ own collaboration in creating an online resource on the Taiping Civil War itself — namely a website entitled TaipingCivilWar.org.

Taiping Civil War  A Record of the Civil War through Primary Sources - Google Chrome 12282013 35730 PM

While I’ve had students create their own blogs, compose for course discussion sites, even edit gifs and tweet for courses before, this is the first time I’ve worked with a class that has created its very own website as a public resource. The process has highlighted some interesting issues:

“Digital Literacy”… I’ve left this one in quotes because it’s often a term associated with an “outcome” to be met, and with a definition that’s not always clear–and sometimes it’s indeed better left that way for the sake of flexibility. Still, we might ask, what are our ambitions in this category? In what ways can or should we incorporate the so-called “digital” to best serve our curriculum? Our students?

A devil’s advocate might say that we’re pouring old wine into new bottles or playing with widgets (figuratively as well as literally.) So, we might ask: what’s pedagogically innovative that’s being added amid instruction in methods and the introduction of digital resources? What’s fermenting here?

How might we constructively, amid the development of a digitally inflected curriculum, change the way we approach a methods course?

Critical Thinking… Ever a challenge, always the aim? How does this ambition relate to our use of digital resources in a history course? The website assignment here offers a case study. In many ways, the project invited students to take an inside-out view of a work of secondary scholarship, in this case, that of Jonathan Spence’s God’s Chinese Son: The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom of Hong Xiuquan (1996)Reading this book as the first assigned text for the class, students then worked extensively with Franz Michael’s epic 3-volume collection of translated Chinese primary sources, The Taiping Rebellion: History and Documents (1971), cited frequently in Spence’s work.

Sifting through the primary sources, and working with excerpts they chose, students worked together in small groups to compose an online map and timeline of the civil war. Another group also composed an annotated bibliography of secondary works utilizing Zotero and interviewed another scholar on the Taiping topic (more below.)

All students also composed blog posts in which they examined Spence’s own use of primary sources from Franz Michael’s collection in his composition of prose for his study. In doing so, they were gaining their own perspective on historical research. Dissecting the way a scholar uses primary sources in all their intricacies and ambiguities, in constructing his own argument from the ground up, students gained a critical understanding of the steps–and occasional educated leaps–a historian makes.

As the students composed their own narratives in timelines and maps, too, they also avoided what can often seem a passive consumption of a secondary text.  Not only did they read Jonathan Spence’s book, but also almost literally took it apart and reconfigured it. They read it from the inside out as they were simultaneously engaged in their own forms of composition–plotting a selection of sources in space and time–from the same primary texts. Online.

Authorship… 

Indeed, in composing their timelines and maps from an overlapping collection of primary sources, students also engaged in a parallel authorship. And, while admittedly less ambitious an undertaking, it was still a very real one. For in fact their website is a text that is openly available and penned with the students’ names, offered for a public audience of other students of the subject.

A nice touch was that students also had the simultaneous opportunity to interview an author of another work on the Taiping conflict, Dr. Tobie Meyer-Fong (Department of History, The Johns Hopkins University), whose recent work What Remains: Coming to Terms with Civil War in 19th Century China (2013), was another monograph we read for the course. A third group of students worked with UMW’s Speaking Center to prepare for their interview with Dr. Meyer-Fong, then conducted the interview and transcribed it for the website. It now accompanies the annotated bibliography on the topic of the Taiping Civil War that students created and have shared via a Zotero group they also created.

The students’ conversation with Tobie Meyer-Fong was wonderfully productive as it offered an account not only of the joys but also the practical challenges of research shared by a scholar fresh from finishing her own excellent study. Next semester, the same students who engaged in this conversation will move to the second half of our methods seminar. They’ll be jumping into the challenges of defining their own research projects and exploring primary sources, of pulling meaning and analysis out of a complex mix in the archive. Hopefully this interview will make a for a good springboard as they head that way…

Collaboration…

Finally, if there’s one thing the website project brought to the curriculum beyond a prescribed digital infusion it’s the creative engagement that comes through collaborative work. For me, this aspect was one of the joys of the course.

Our greatest co-author in this respect was none other than Ryan Brazell, Instructional Technology Specialist at UMW’s Division of Teaching and Learning Technologies, who not only shared his expertise in the design and management of the digital frames for our website this past fall, but also shared his great talent for instruction in the classroom itself. Many people can do tech, many people can communicate, both not many people can truly communicate tech. Ryan can do both, teaching undergrads brilliantly, and do it with a sense of humor & timing that rivals the classic comedians.

Ryan has also composed an excellent post on the design of the website for the course. I highly recommend it. A tweet Ryan shares at the end, a student quote from one of his workshop visits, made my day… I’d point any instructor there amid fears, early in a course, that digital elements are turning into their own jungle gym for students to climb over, or get stuck on permanently. Once the students have made it through the early learning curve (steep though it may seem), the payoff often arrives.

The website project also invited, well, yes, demanded a significant level of student collaboration, as all group projects do. And, as often the case with group work, the results were slightly mixed as there were some who didn’t quite pull their weight (for diverse reasons… )

The incorporation of collaborative assignments seems nevertheless valuable, particularly when one considers a future after the degree is earned. Part of the value of the web project, then, lay in helping students build experience in working in groups, in defining project goals and strategies through shared communication, and in negotiating divisions of labor.

It’s a skill that many professionals (cough, professors?) could probably work on too. And a piece of the pedagogy I’m going to keep developing for next time around. I tried to balance the inevitable challenges of mixed student commitment with differentiated systems of evaluation — i.e., a separate group grade and individual grade, with each reflecting effort toward the website assignment and online work. I’m still looking for better ways to evaluate, guide, and encourage students to build their own skills in group work, however.

Do you have a good strategy or lesson plan for helping students improve their approaches to collaboration or group work? Suggestions, thoughts, and feedback very much welcome on this score, as for any and all of the above…

 

Image credits:

– “Young men and women working on writing for publications at Camp Well-Met, 1948″
National Jewish Welfare Board Records; Photographer: Heinz H. Weissenstein
Center for Jewish History NYC // Flickr Commons – LINK 

– Fu Xinian, ed., Zhongguo meishu quanji, Huihua bian 4: Liang Song huihua, xia (Beijing: Wenwu chubanshe, 1988), pl. 150, p. 204.  Collection of the Freer Gallery of Art. Via link.

 

 

 

Archiving a Tumblr

May 21st, 2013 § 2 comments § permalink

Wrestler, McCreadie (taken for Leichhardt Stadium), 1937 /  Sam HoodSo, the Gulou / Drum Tower site is officially a success (though there are diverse definitions of that word, to be sure.) It’s officially a public success. And yet, that’s happening at the exact same time that Tumblr is being sold, for a great sum of money, to Yahoo.

It’s been an interesting sale to watch so far. Matt Mullenweg, founder and developer of the blogging site WordPress, offered some immediate thoughts at his own site on May 19th, including rough numbers showing a significant spike in the number of imports that were happening as folks moved their material from Tumblr to WordPress. As Mullenweg noted, “normally we import 400-600 posts an hour from Tumblr, last hour it was over 72,000.” For folks who are interested, there’s also a very good discussion of numbers, the sale, and the implications in the comment thread.

Archiving my material from Tumblr has been my plan all along (I’m a historian after all), but Tumblr’s sale has lit a fire–small, but timely–for me.  I have, however, been slightly intimidated by the process, which was seeming, especially amid finals grading, likely to mean wrestling with technical stuff. Caffeine needed.

I jumped in today though and it’s been relatively easy so far. My first step was to use the Tumblr Importer plugin to pull all 387 posts from my Tumblr site over to the new page I’ve set up, using WordPress, on my own domain. Now, no matter what happens in the future with Tumblr, I’ve got the archive set on a domain that’s all my own.

The next step was to setup FeedWordPress and use it to pull in posts via my RSS feed for the Gulou tumblr page. Done. Haven’t tested it with a fresh post, but will report back if things get more complicated.

There is one hitch still to figure out regarding images. The photos did transfer amid the import, but they’re all of a small, thumbnail size that’s only big upon a click. Wonder if there’s a way to resize all, quickly. Doubt it, but then I’m a pessimist.

Image 1: Wrestler, McCreadie (taken for Leichart Stadium), 4 January 1937. Photographer: Sam Hood. From the collection of the State Library of New South Wales, available via Flickr Commons

 

Working on GIFS

March 30th, 2013 § 0 comments § permalink

I was going to write a post on social networking, but I seem to have fallen into a GIF hypnosis (thanks to Jim Groom) and haven’t yet escaped. A few weeks ago I offered students in my Chinese film course the opportunity to earn extra credit for a GIF+film analysis exercise. Andy Rush and Jim subsequently presented a great workshop on the topic for all of us.

I thought I should also try to pick up some of the same digital techniques I’m having my students explore, so I’ve been spending a good deal of time with GIMP and MPEG Streamclip and also at the DS106 wiki. Still getting the hang of it, but having fun with some experiments. The best part so far? Joining the gang that’s putting a dancing Jim at locales around the world, but especially at Fenway

Networks, Webs, and Work, pt. 1

February 17th, 2013 § 0 comments § permalink

In work for the Domain of One’s Own project this past weekend, I’ve read chapters 6-8 of Martin Weller’s The Digital Scholar while also thinking about recent conversations. These have run a gamut of issues related to openness vs. pressures of the P&T and publication climb for academics as well as differences in opportunity (or freedom) determined by one’s location in the machine, e.g., junior vs. tenured faculty (and, importantly, contingent faculty), SLAC vs. R-1 institutions, research field and resources.

Andrea Smith’s recent post provides a very good sense of the concerns that may be raised in regard to sharing work openly online. For myself, as a scholar of Chinese history with research sources that are often a very good distance away (in terms of time, money, travel, and, figuratively speaking, language and, yes, bureaucracy) these issues have resonated.

The next question, though, is what question is next. And getting to that question also seems important. Andrea frames an answer nicely:

 A digital approach won’t be a panacea. Instead, it will be adopted by fields at their own pace and for their own uses. I, for one, don’t think that’s a negative at all. On the contrary, this is quite empowering: in my field, at least, I could encourage new models for research that fit our goals and ideals. It’s still the digital wild west, and that means we can be pioneers instead of just followers.

And her invocation of the wild west rings a bell for me.  It promotes flashbacks, actually, to past conversations about method, theory, and navigation.

One flashback is to the inevitable conversations in graduate school (at least in the humanities or social sciences) about a life beyond Theory—not life without theory, I should note, but analysis that’s not enslaved by a monolithic Critique, as it were.  This may have been a classic crisis moment in the grad school process, of course. Or, more precisely, the desire of a China-specialist to see her non-Western region of specialty complicating the supposedly universal Western models. In any case, I recall reading with great joy Michael Taussig’s invocation,

With good reason postmodernism has relentlessly instructed us that reality is artifice yet, so it seems to me, not enough surprise has been expressed as to how we get on with living, pretending—thanks to mimetic faculty—that we live facts, not fictions. [Taussig 1993: xv]

Leaving the implications of Taussig’s own discussion of mimesis to another day (and about eight liters of espresso), I do recall the freedom that Taussig invoked with a call to move beyond the “meta-commentary” and instead jump into “making-anew” (xvii). 1 The most creative work in digital humanities, whether pedagogy or research (or both) is doing exactly that right now.

—————————–

The other flashback that occurred brings me to conversations with a crowd I haven’t seen since my doctoral days at UC San Diego. This was an informal working group that brought together grad students from Sociology, Communication, Cognitive Science, and History. 2 There was no prep for the weekly meetings, just a page, perhaps two, on a work in progress that’d be distributed at the meeting by one of the group. Or they might introduce a problem in their work verbally. Feedback was instant and thought-in-process. The range of perspectives and critical feedback was invigorating. And the task of having to explain one’s work—in my case, in late Qing dynasty Chinese history—to a group entirely outside one’s own field of expertise was a perfect exercise for a grad student in speaking to a broader audience. 3

Which brings me back to Weller’s own survey of the potential of the digital realm to encourage interdisciplinarity. He cites Wang Shaohui and Ma Lihua (2008) in a listing of three characteristics of “blog culture”:

1. Thought share…

2. Nonlinearity and concentricity — through linking, embedding, within blogs and then aggregation of blogs, there is a nonlinear construction of knowledge

3. Criticalness and multivariate collision — [arising] from a personal, subjective standpoint that attracts varied comments and views.

[Weller 46]

These were much the same strengths of that working group, but now the opportunity for these conversations seems multiplied exponentially via digital tools. Or, at least, the opportunities for building similar working groups and reaping similar rewards seem more readily available. It was so much easier (somewhat) to gather as a crowd of grad students on the same campus. Now, with old intellectual comrades scattered far and wide, and the schedule more packed than ever, the spatial connection and temporal nonlinearity of the blog is very, very helpful.

Which, in turn, brings me from flashbacks to past connections all the way to consideration of current-day webs of communication. I’ll save that for a second post, coming soon. 4

 

  1. Many thanks to Dorothy Ko for assigning Taussig’s work… I still miss those seminars.
  2. And much appreciation to Chandra Mukerji, for founding and hosting the group.
  3. And also listening to that same audience…
  4. Image: “At a kitchen table, Charlie Wells and Mary Ann listen with delight to one of Mickey Spillane’s stories.” Life, May 1952. Photographer: Peter Stackpole

Playing with Ideas for DoOO Project

February 9th, 2013 § 4 comments § permalink

I’m hopping back to the blog (for the first time in a good while) as I join colleagues in the Domain of One’s Own project at UMW, working together with our Division of Teaching and Learning Technologies (DTLT) and Center for Teaching Excellence and Innovation (CTE). The framework and goals of the project are timely:

This initiative is designed explicitly to provide resources and support for all UMW faculty to develop their own domain through an Open Call application. To incentivize this process, DTLT and CTE & I have partnered to provide faculty with their own domain, web hosting, and a stipend (not to mention bi-weekly support) to develop/refine a professional online presence ranging anywhere from an online CV/E-portfolio to a developmental space to explore digital pedagogy and scholarship, to an alternative class space online.

With some great conversation started in meetings this past week or two (many thanks to Jim Groom for getting the ball rolling in our Wednesday group discussions), I’m also thinking more about revising the frame/s of my own online presence. One initial concern may be better integration of the collection of relatively far-flung web spaces that I’ve accumulated the past few years. Here’s a quick run-down of my sites:

1. The Professional I.D. Page…

My first iteration of this (2008 or so) had combined the calling card with a blog format, but after realizing I wasn’t going to be able to keep up with the blog then, I converted it to its current form, more of a simple, online business card, shown in the second image below.

The original frame (ca. 2008, under construction):

Susan R. Fernsebner  - Mozilla Firefox 5122009 82112 PM-001
(Okay, this image is squeezed, but you get the idea. Click image to view original.)

And my current professional page below:

Susan R. Fernsebner - Google Chrome 292013 113308 AM-002

2. Tumblr…  The professional calling card site above is just a starting place though. In addition to that frame, and the more informal blog on which I’m now writing, I’ve also recently set up a tumblr site for sharing news and resources related to my field of specialty, East Asia.

That site is called “gulou” – Chinese for “Drum Tower” (鼓楼). I was inspired to set it up after thinking about all the valuable EA-related links and resources that colleagues and I have been sharing casually over email, almost as a second thought or light distraction amid otherwise busy days, these past few years. Sharing those with others who might be interested seemed like a good idea, especially as I was starting to find myself forwarding emails here and there, or digging for old ones in the messy backlog of correspondence that is my email account. Now I can share links relevant to curriculum with my students, other educators (both university and K-12), and beyond. I’ve also got them tagged and archived (though the dynamics of both are worth further consideration, which I’ll save for a later time.)

鼓楼 - Google Chrome 292013 120312 PM-002
I’m also finding Tumblr to be a very convenient, quick frame for posting and am keeping an eye out for ways to do more with it. One sign of how easy it is: since last October, I’ve done 216 posts on Tumblr compared to exactly zero posts on this blog. But that’s probably a topic for another (yes, really) blog post of its own.

And then there’s a mob of other sites I’m utilizing for teaching (links here), my official faculty page at the department (with an image that actually resembles the one on my drivers license, alas), and other  pedagogical projects sitting in digital dry-dock.

So one of my main ambitions for this semester’s Domain of One’s Own Faculty Initiative is to think about better ways of integrating these sites–and to what extent I might want to. I’m also looking forward to exploring new tools, digging in under the hood with my own domain, and especially joining in on a conversation with others who are exploring similar projects of their own.

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