All posts by A.L.

First-day activities: The Syllabus Scavenger Hunt

I always hated the first days of college courses because they were so boring: professors just read through their syllabi. Blah blah blah you will need to buy this stuff blah blah blah here is how your grade breaks down. I was like, “I can read this myself” (obviously I wouldn’t), and “this is boring” (still true).

As a professor, I have done the thing where I pass out the syllabus and say, in my affected “I’m like you; I’m cool” voice: “I know you guys can read and will do so on your own time.” But then I also spend The Whole Semester, like everyone else in my profession, answering questions that are answered by the syllabus. I will have that annoyed-professor tone that we all get when we do that. There are tons of memes online about this very topic. There are even t-shirts you can get, which I’m actually going to get.

Meme of It's in the Syllabus
Meme of It’s in the Syllabus

So then I did the thing where I read through the syllabus like my own professors did. It was boring and it also did little to relieve me of having to answer questions about things that are already in the syllabus. It felt like I was participating in the cycle-of-abuse thing that academics do when they get a little shred of power. I had promised myself I’d never do that, yet here I am. Though I also inflict vocabulary and pop quizzes and assign reading logs and talk a lot about MLA format too, I try to limit the ways in which I relieve my own suffering by imposing it upon other people. So I’m not going to stage a performance of Milsom Reads Her Own Syllabus with Pauses and a Wagging Finger for Occasional Effect this year (which describes a lot of what I have experienced to be Pedagogical Approaches of Illustrious Academics).

I have been teaching for a decade now (đŸ’„đŸŒˆđŸ„‚), and on that basis I’m going to say that it’s a lost cause: I don’t think there is any way to avoid the fact that you are going to say things and then repeat them to students who will then ask you them again. “It’s in the syllabus” somehow doesn’t mean that anyone is going to know it by heart or even want to reference it. It’s relatable anyway. It’s like when I open the fridge and ask my mom where the mustard is even though I know if I spent more than .3 seconds looking for it, I’d find it on my own, and I also know she’s going to just yell at me to look for it yourself.  Maybe there is something Freudian going on in this after all? Maybe we just want to . . . interact?

Syllabus Scavenger Hunt

When I’m not feeling super overwhelmed at the beginning of a semester (which is hard when you’re in new jobs all the time and don’t really know what is expected and precarity and stress and so forth), I really like to create a “Syllabus Scavenger Hunt.” I did one this year because it’s the first time in a long time where I’m teaching in the same place for a second year in a row! (In case you missed it, this is a real, actual, literal privilege considering the dire state of the profession/the world/English departments.)

My Syllabus Scavenger Hunt is just a list of however many questions I can come up with about information that can be found by looking through the syllabus. It’s a real trick: give a fun name that evokes childhood to something that is really boring and tedious. But still pretend it is fun and reward students for doing it, which basically describes my pedagogy. This year’s Scavenger Hunt has a whopping 34 questions on it. These questions include such highlights as:

If you get a “D” in a course, will that course be transferable to a 4-year college?

and

Can you request an extension the day before something is due?

and

Why does Milsom require you to have a “Calendar” for her course?

Instead of forcing students to answer all 34 questions (yes, what a slog!), I’ll divide them up into groups of 3 or 4 and assign each group to 4-5 questions. After about 20 minutes or so, I’ll have each group present. This sort of low-stakes activity is so great because it forces the students to talk to each other (I always remind them to introduce themselves because if I don’t, they mightn’t), and then it enables me to observe the class dynamics right away: who opts to do the presentation? Who gets left out when the groups self-select? (I always immediately say “Oh you join these people” to make sure that awkward moment ends quickly.) Are there students who already know each other? Are there groups that have suddenly switched into speaking in Spanish? (I encourage that, though I have colleagues who police it–which seems weird to me. It’s cool to hear students explain things to each other in a different language and it also lets me see who needs what sort of assistance. Also I’m learning Spanish so it’s fulfilling on some sort of narcissistic level to hear my own writing translated for free.)

The fact that I will collect this handout and give a grade for doing it ensures that during these presentations, students appear to be scrambling to fill in the answers. This also means that they will interject and ask their classmates to repeat things. I love this set up because the class will usually start to own the progress through the handout. Even though the stakes are so low (this will account for literally .000000000008% of their grades), students will take it seriously. Also the questions are pretty provocative: why do my students need a New York Public Library card this semester? Why is it sometimes better to get an “F” than a “D” on your transcript at our school? đŸ€”

Also, I find that this Scavenger Hunt has been the best way for me to ensure that the students have been held accountable for reading the syllabus, and I find that it does not require me to read it aloud for them.

More Tips:

  • Make them write down what page each answer can be found on.
  • Make the whole group stand and come to the front of the room to present. This tells the students that they will have to get used to moving around in your class. Even the students who don’t plan to speak during the presentation will still feel like part of the group.
  • If the whole thing can’t be finished in one class period, it can be a homework assignment.
  • Include funny questions in the Scavenger Hunt.
  • Give everyone an “A” or 100% on the assignment as long as it is complete. Starting things off with a big win makes even the most vulnerable students feel positive about the class.

Things I do to prepare for the school year

I definitely think about syllabi appearances (at the expense of content, I’ll admit):

While researching the topic of accessibility and syllabi, I learned that the SIZE of the font is more important to the dyslexic reader than the absence of serifs (though serifs are problematic).

I also have been shoring up some memes and quotations to use in opening-day slides:

Libraries are Free
Libraries are Free
Saying "Here" during Attendance
Saying “Here” during Attendance

Here’s the website I found from the University of Michigan that offers learning support to people with dyslexia.

 

Here’s the article I found with information about “Good Fonts for Dyslexia.”

Syllabi & Accessibility

Faced with the happy task of writing some syllabi, I’ve been trolling the webs for information about How To Make A Good Syllabus That Both Satisfies Departmental Requirements And Is Accessible. I was particularly motivated by a Twitter discussion I lurked in on—can’t remember the hashtag now—and want to incorporate some of what I’ve learned.

For instance, making use of “Headings” in Word when I’m creating information hierarchies. This was a practice I developed while formatting my dissertation. Now I’m obsessed with clearing formatting on every document I use and re-ordering everything so I can have a nice Navigation Sidebar for every window. (Google Docs actually does a nice job of this as well—it became more convenient to use while teaching high school for various reasons involving sharing and displaying on my SmartBoard.)

Now in search of some helpful advice online, I am collecting sites and listing them below. I hope to keep track of this in some sort of organized fashion:

Also downloaded the Dyslexie font. MIGHT just go ahead and put everything into this font. Not sure if that is even helpful, but I rather like it. . . Here is the page of those who developed this font.

Found a small, cool database

Looking around at various databases of travel writing as I figure out what sort of format mine should use, and I found this:

“A Database of Women’s Travel Writing, 1780-1840”

Will be exploring what it offers and how it is formatted in more detail.

My own travel writing database is quite specific to the readings I’ve been doing for the past 5 years – whenever I stumble across a reference to a guidebook—sometimes within a guidebook—I put it in my list. My list has grown into a spreadsheet and at the moment, I’m trying to figure out what tags I want to use and how to notate the ways in which travelers used and referenced each others’ writings.

More soon…

You Know, Just a Casual Dissertation Summary

I wrote an email to a friend today in which I summarized my dissertation casually. I am quoting it here because I rarely write about my dissertation in casual email form, and it was fun to summarize it outside the context of a job market letter.

The subject is the evolution of the guidebook genre and how middle class mass tourists liked reading guides that condescended to them – touring as aspirational role-playing. (Tourists liked to think of themselves as Lord Byron.) Also about the way religious politics make their way into the guidebooks – because Anglos loved the exoticism of watching Roman Catholic rituals in Italy and France. I have a chapter on a radical Catholic priest who wrote the first 19th c proto-guidebook – John Chetwode Eustace. Really fascinating weird figure. Then a chapter on Hobhouse (Byron’s best friend) who hated Eustace. A chapter on John Murray III, the publisher and his 1840s guides to Northern Italy. A chapter on Ruskin and Venice. Last is a chapter about this woman from the 1860s who went on Thomas Cook’s first guided tour of the Alps – Jemima Morrell. She wrote a hilarious journal about her trip.

Mapping Morrell – Google Map

While my Storymap version of the Morrell chapter map is still in progress here, I completed a very thorough map using Google Maps of her route.

My goal in this map is to show the form of travel (train/boat/foot) rather than the precise routes and roads taken. Using the rather rough line-drawing tool of the platform was a good way to show the form (using color) – but the lines are rather blunt. The value of showing the type of travel for this chapter is in demonstrating A) how varied the transportation was for members of Morrell’s traveling group and B) just how much ground they covered nearly every single day. And they rose around 4am and fell asleep after 10pm regularly. Such robustness.

I plan to do a separate map to outline their four days in Paris at the tail end of their journey – such running about town on foot and feeling pushed around on omnibuses. (I’d like to find a good image of an 1860s omnibus!)

Teaching Frankenstein

I was recently looking through my teaching materials from semesters of yore and stumbled upon what might be my favorite handouts that I’ve ever made for undergraduates. (I spent a great deal more time making handouts for my high school students in the Bronx… maybe to be shared at a future date; finding them will involve some excavation.) These come from a lecture I gave to a class – English 10B “Literatures in English, 1700-1850” – for which I was a Teaching Assistant for Professor Sarah Kareem. I am particularly amused by these two images, which I passed out and included in the power-point presentation I prepared for this lecture. The first is an image illustrating the “frame narrative” of Shelley’s Frankenstein; the second is the Shelley-Wollstonecraft-Byron-etc family tree. Enjoy!

Milsom Frame Narrative Image Milsom Shelley-Wollstonecraft Tree of Love

Gamboling on the Hampstead Heath with Keats and Lord Mansfield

UCLA awarded me a fellowship to visit the Turner Bequest at the Tate Britain (curated by history’s worst curator, John Ruskin) and the glorious John Murray Archive at the National Library of Scotland. I plan to post more about this luxurious academic adventure – but first to Keats’ house (ok it was closed) and Kenwood House in the Heath.

From a childhood spent reading Victorian novels, I had already concocted some notions about what I believe a “Heath” should look like. I think those notions mainly stem from associations I’ve made with the name “Heathcliff.” In any case, I found myself gamboling around the Hampstead Heath for a few days at the beginning of my trip–and probably to the annoyance of my host, I insisted upon using that phrase to the exclusion of any others that would do the same descriptive job.

I stayed in a flat (Mom, that is what they call apartments there) overlooking the Heath-thankful for the hospitality of a friend from my undergraduate years. She lives across the street from where George Orwell lived and worked for many years and down the road from Keats’ old house. More importantly, she lives around the corner from Benedict Cumberbatch. Unfortunately, despite my repeated truly necessary detours by his street, I failed to spot him.

My friend informed me, to my great delight, that one can simply apply to be the caretaker of these National Trust homes. All you have to do is live upstairs and open the doors a couple times a week for visitors… Can this be true? I could die happy in Keats’ house.

We also paid a visit to Lord Mansfield’s manor right in the Heath: Kenwood House. I kept breathing that air, that air too pure for the lungs of slaves. The house had a few choice Rembrandts and the library was fully furnished with fake books. Just as one can go on Ebay now and buy “old books” to decorate your shelves (see pics), the lower shelves of Mansfield’s library were lined with boxes that had book bindings on the side that faced outwards. I discovered this when I went to touch one of them and the alarm went off. “The alarm goes off when you touch the books,” the guard on duty then informed me. …

Ebay Old Books for Sale
Ebay Old Books for Sale
Ebay Old Books for Sale
Ebay Old Books for Sale

PR 5251. C77 and on…

I finally paid a visit to the Cook & Wedderburn monolith at the Young Research Library. Lo and behold:

IMG_4259

Just an FYI, only 2062 copies of this 39-volume motherlode were printed.

As you can see in the photos, the publisher (London: George Allen and New York: Longmans, Green & Co.) did not skimp: the first image in the first volume is a full-color reproduction of Ruskin’s sketch “End of Market Str Croydon.”

It is with a bit of specialization-chauvanism that I mention that in this particular aisle in the library–the PR 5200s-5400s–one can find some extraordinarily beautiful texts. Here, I’ve snuck in a few pictures from the collected Waverley novels of Sir Walter Scott published in the 1890s and the 1923-24 Tusitala Editions of R.L. Stevenson, with gold-embossed palm trees. I need to find out who bound these!

“Miss Jemima” on the Blogosphere

You may already know that a chapter of my dissertation is about Jemima Morrell’s Swiss Journal, an account of Thomas Cook’s first guided group tour to the Alps. Morrell was one of 63 Britons who bought his 680 Fr. package. She and her six friends set out with Cook in 1863, armed with Murray and Baedeker handbooks, and climbed the Alps in their petticoats.

My paper for Session 670 at the MLA 2015 conference—found here—discusses the ways in which phrases that Morrell had lifted from the pages of her guidebooks found their way into the blogs, news articles, and promotional materials the celebrated the journey’s 150th anniversary in 2013.

A young poet who won a competition to recreate Morrell’s journey blogged (minimally) about her experience. She took down the website shortly thereafter, but I have managed to secure the URL for myself. (You are welcome.) The Wayback Machine has provided us with access to one of its pages. Please click here to check it out.