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Month: October 2010

Well, that went poorly

This week, the lunch session put on by the Learning and Teaching Center was called Harvesting Our Mistakes, and featured frank discussions about courses or parts of courses that had gone wrong, and what the faculty had learned from that. Some learned that even when it’s a bit artificial, there needs to be some coherent thread to a course (the lower the level, the more coherent the thread). Others talked about developing the confidence to make mistakes boldly and in public so that their students could participate in fixing the mistakes and also see that mistakes happen. Many agreed that it takes 3 tries to get a course right: the first time being a grand experiment, the second time overcompensating for the first time’s mistakes, and the third time settling into the right groove. And most people talked about how they exert far greater control over their classes (plan more, talk more, and generally bulldoze information into their students more) when they’re having a bad day, and how it’s a lot easier to go with the flow on a good day. Boy do I ever have that experience!

Well, I had a class go pretty poorly the day before sitting in on this discussion, so I was right there with the group. I was ready for the self-flagellation. I was ready for the moaning and gnashing of teeth. There were a couple of people who were talking about mistakes being good for students, but I figured I could safely skip over those comments as they weren’t really on topic. My topic. My Class Had Failed — I Had Failed. That was the topic.

But I got to wondering why I was having a hard time seeing an up-side to my failure. Maybe it was because it had been of the “I was having a bad day and therefore babbled at the students in incoherent loops, periodically asking them pathetically, hopefully, ‘Does that make sense?’ and taking very little comfort from their dazed head nods” kind of a class. Maybe it was because I was working with a professor I’d never worked with before and therefore left the class pretty sure I’d never hear from him again. Maybe it was because I’m pretty sure that one of my biggest failings (aside from being too tired to cede any control over to the students) was having so little sense of a coherent thread to the session that I’m sure the students had no idea why we were there. Complete failure of learning goals, there, and it was ALL MY FAULT.

But as it turns out, there are a couple of useful things I’ve learned from this and similar experiences. For one thing, I’ve learned that I really should always have the talk I’ve had with a few professors so far, saying up front that this is the first iteration of the class, and that afterward we should talk about what worked and what didn’t so that the next time we work together things go better. I don’t know quite why I get shy about that talk, but it always makes things go better.  I think I also need to think of these classes less as one-shots and more as iterations. That’s how I think of them when they’re going well (one-shot plus follow up with students in my office plus work with the professor to hone the next iteration, etc), so why do I lose sight of that when things go poorly? And finally, I think I need to come up with a plan for what to do when this happens next time. If I were their professor I’d come back the next session and say “So, last time was kind of confusing, and this time I thought we’d go back and untangle some of those threads.” So what can I do if I’m not going back into their classroom? Surely there’s some option.

Of course, all this is complicated by the very real constraints of being a visitor to the class. I don’t get to start fixing my mistakes in the next class session, and since these were first year students it’s possible I soured them on librarians in general. But if there’s one thing that I learned from the lunch session this week, it’s that I’m not the only one who’s failed recently. We’re all human.


Using Learning Outcomes for Inspiration

Back when I attended Immersion many moons ago, they presented me with a formula for a learning outcome: “Students will” + [verb phrase] + “in order to” + [goal]. Then we used action words from Bloom’s Taxonomy [PDF] (the higher order the better, usually) to come up with the verb phrase describing what students would be able to do, and connected that action to a compelling reason for them to know how to do that.  So, for example (and not a great example), “Students will recognize key functions of a database interface in order to navigate unfamiliar databases by making educated guesses about functionality and options.”

In my own practice, two pieces of this are by far the most important. First, the formula puts the emphasis on what students learn, not on what I teach. Second, the “in order to” phrase is what I use to make sure my goals are information literacy goals rather than bibliographic instruction goals. “In order to use Boolean operators correctly” isn’t a good goal. Using Boolean is an action that may result in a goal of getting more relevant results from a variety of search interfaces, or that may help students deal with searches for concepts that don’t have standard vocabulary (very important in the humanities), but it’s not a goal in itself.

When I talk to faculty about the sessions I’m going to teach for them, I start with their goals. What are their learning goals for the course? What are their learning goals for this assignment? And then I match those to my goals for the session. That way we can prioritize what to include in the class, and we can both feel better about why we’re including those things rather than all the rest of everything we could include. And prioritizing is important because 2 goals is quite enough for a session — 3 if we’re feeling really ambitious. (Believe me, I’ve balked against that constraint HARD, but it’s absolutely true.) Whatever I can’t cover in the session, I include on a Subversive Handout.

I rarely write out formal learning outcomes, but I do keep the structure in mind all the time: students learn (not me teach), some learning action (I keep Bloom’s Taxonomy by my computer at all times), some interesting learning goal that’s directly tied to the course and the assignment. And for me, connecting the practical actions of research with the larger goals of being sophisticated scholars is what keeps me engaged and interested in instruction — what keeps me from burning out, or falling back on cookie-cutter classes. Others may have other ways of keeping themselves out of instructional ruts, but this is what does it for me.


I interrupt this program…

… to bring you news about the Thematic WordPress Theme (which I use as my theme base, and which I know is pretty popular). Something’s wonky with the update they just released a few days ago. Not being a very techy sort, I can’t get much more specific than that, but here’s what happened.

I updated the theme yesterday morning and noticed that doing so got rid of the “Home” tab up there next to “About Me.” Poking around on the theme’s website I was reminded that all I need to do is go into the functions.php file and un-comment a few lines of code that the developers put there for those of us that want the Home tab. So I did. And my blog went blank.

Now, some other wonky stuff happened (my browser seemed to hang when I pressed “save” so I didn’t think that had worked at all, and I was in the middle of feeding my cat and eating breakfast and going to work and stuff) so I’m still not 100% sure that that commented-out portion of code is the culpret, but that’s the order of events. Anyway, I had a post set to auto-publish and it didn’t show up in FriendFeed, so I clicked over to the blog only to discover that it was completely blank.

I emailed Blake at LIShost (who is awesome, by the way), and he said there was a bad line of code that he fixed, and wonder of wonders, my blog came back.

Then I got home from work, fired up my computer, which reloaded all my tabs (one of which was the hung functions.php “save” page), and my blog went blank again. All I can think is that the tab reloaded and saved the morning’s actions again, overwriting Blake’s fix. Though who knows, maybe I’m attributing cause where there is none. Anyway, the wonderful Blake fixed it again.

So the moral of the story is that if you use Thematic, don’t try to get the Home tab back unless you know more about this stuff than I do. Admittedly, knowing more than I do wouldn’t take a whole lot of knowledge, but at the very least you’ll want to edit this stuff NOT in the WordPress interface because as soon as you mess it up, you can’t do anything to fix it because your site goes blank (including the back end). Me? I’m waiting for the next update to the theme before trying any funny business.

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Reading Instrumentally

A few years ago at a kind of instruction in-service we held in my department, my coworker Kristin talked about a way of reading that she was beginning to teach in her classes. She called it “reading instrumentally” and talked about how she was trying to get her students to read articles for more than subject comprehension — to read them in order to use them as springboards for finding new material. Since then, I’ve started teaching this, or bits and pieces of it, in more and more of my classes. For me, it’s the best answer I can come up with so far to the problem of the Term Economy.

The idea is that reading for comprehension is good and important and all that, but that the point of the article is only one of many things you can learn by engaging with it. Just reading the first few paragraphs of a work slowly and carefully, you can glean a whole host of names and terms that you can then use when crafting further searches or deciding where to search next. For example, you can note down concept names, other vocabulary, researcher’s names,  relevant institutions that might produce or publish information for the topic, or types of evidence used in this kind of argument. After reading the first few paragraphs of a few likely articles, you can go back and start using these new concepts and terms and research/institution names to craft more focused searches. At this point, you’re more likely to be using vocabulary that a more expert person would have used in the first place.

Here’s one concrete example.

Cooks, Bridget. “Fixing Race: Visual Representations of African Americans at the World’s Columbian Exposition, Chicago, 1893.” Patterns of Prejudice, 41.5 (2007): 435-565.
ABSTRACT Cooks examines the Johnson family cartoon series published in Harper’s Weekly during the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. Her analysis addresses the series’ caricatures of African-American fairgoers in the context of the landmark exposition, a national celebration of America’s cultural leadership and accomplishment since its ‘discovery’ by Christopher Columbus in 1492. The Johnson family cartoons are remarkable because they are the only racist images in the issues of Harper’s Weekly in which they appear, highlighting the importance of their message that African Americans were an unwanted presence at an event that served to solidify America’s national identity. The series provides insight into some of the social anxieties of white Americans regarding the presence of African Americans at the exposition. It also explores white American discomfort with racial and economic diversity through the antics of the imaginary yet symbolically representative Johnson family. Cooks’s discussion includes a visual analysis of the cartoons and comparisons of the Johnson family images with photographs and illustrations of African-American labourers at the fair and with depictions of proper behaviour by white American fairgoers. This examination of the cartoon series questions the roles of race, class and social hierarchy in turn-of-the-century America, and illustrates that acceptable mainstream attitudes clung to ideas of racial prejudice.

Just from this I get a whole bunch of clues about how and where to look for evidence that might reveal attitudes about race in the late 19th century. I might not have thought to page through Harper’s and other magazines at the time. How would I find out which other magazines to look at? I could look at caricatures in general, cartoons (oh, and I bet there were caricatures and cartoons in newspapers at the time, too, so I could look there), advertisements, and anything else that exaggerates normality or abnormality. I could do more research into the World’s Exposition, since it’s positioned as being a representation of America. Terms like “national identity” and “social anxiety” might be useful. The abstract also makes it clear that one great way to build an argument about difference is to make an argument about what the ideal sameness might be. It also compares caricatures to photographs, which is kind of a similar rhetorical move — making arguments about exaggeration by comparing it to its opposite: realism.

If I read a few paragraphs of the article itself, I’m sure there will be useful citations to follow, possibly some argument about why Harper’s is a good source (which might hopefully mention some similar periodicals as part of this argument), certainly other historians who are interested in race in America, possibly some theorists (which would be a jackpot, particularly if this were a literary article, since searching for theorists is one of the hardest things to do), possibly some other types of scholars who might have an interest in this kind of topic, and hopefully some clues about where to go looking for photographs, either from citations for the photographs used or from other context.

Once I realized that this is how I approach most of the searching I do (since I’m almost never searching for topics in fields in which I’m an expert), I decided to back up and start teaching this as a way to read result lists and abstracts, too (part of my exploding the article idea). So now I often have students help me pick relevant terms out of both controlled vocabulary and abstracts, or point out clues hidden in article records that might point us to related genres or topics or avenues into the literature. Then we search again, and then again, usually (hopefully) finding whole pockets of literature that we’d never have stumbled on otherwise.