Category Archives: Instructional Technology

Self-Conscious Online Teaching Considerations

I’m building my online courses for the fall. The fall of 2020. The one wherein we’re still in the midst of the pandemic. I have all these aspirations for my online pedagogy: open pedagogy, OER pedagogy, pedagogy that empowers students to learn how to make online content, pedagogy that inspires students to become readers and writers. And then there’s the fact of the pandemic. I can barely read anything longer than a tweet. I can barely concentrate on anything for more than three minutes. I have a baby. Nearly my entire family just recovered from COVID19. Two of my friends’ parents just died on ventilators.

This is all to say: I can barely put together a regular-degular-schmegular Blackboard site for my students. How am I going to expect students to be more functional than I am? Can I design a course that helps students meet the learning objectives of the courses while accommodating the stress of living in the midst of a pandemic?

I have spent a couple years operating under a philosophy that quantity could lead to quality: get students to read and write a lot, then they’d get better at both. I still believe this, but unfortunately, these activities take time. I read this tweet by Marcos Gonsalez last night:

“more reading/more work is better learning” assumes a universal student, one that has enough time & resources in which to dedicate to the work, & one with a body/mind that can process all that material in short spans of time. More work doesn’t mean better quality of learning.

He emphasizes “method” over “content”. Earlier in the thread, he advocates teaching “fewer texts, carefully selected, paying closer attention to what those texts are doing is more generative for students’ learning & time.” Being more deliberate about the method involves “care,” as he states here. That care takes almost more time than just assigning an entire chapter or article or book does. It means that the instructor has to find the specific bit that generates appropriate student experience.

In mulling over this problem of quality over quantity for the coming semester, culling many of the texts and deliberating deployment, I feel sad. In part because I’m asking myself “Did I make students do a lot of unnecessary work all these years?” (yes). Also because I’m realizing how many of my pedagogical decisions are guided by my ego rather than my consideration of student needs. When I’m planning my courses, I’m always considering what other instructors would think when they look at my materials rather than what students are going to think when they look at them.

Being self-conscious of one’s syllabi and teaching decisions is baked into the cake: we have to submit the syllabi to administrators. They’re evaluated by committees when we’re being promoted. We have to design them for bureaucracy rather than students’ eyes. For instance, how many students spend a great deal of time poring over our learning objectives or boiler-plate course descriptions anyway? I know that I never did much of that – I’d scramble through looking for the number of essays required and the books being taught. I’m also in a position where I collect and glance over faculty syllabi for a particular course every semester to make sure components are not missing and that grading requirements are being followed. The very things students don’t look at are the things I have to assess when I do this.

The issue of “two syllabi”—one for students, one for administration—irks me before the beginning of each semester. This brings me back to the issue I began with: the issue of designing a course on Blackboard versus building one that I would be really proud of. I’m going to fall back on the former this fall because we are still in “emergency mode”. A colleague of mine made a compelling case for this, saying that students already have to learn to use Blackboard for all their courses, and that it’s unfair to force them to learn whole other platforms in addition in times like these. I will reduce reading expectations and make the site as accessible as possible, but maybe along the way I will build a foundation for a more innovative course for the future.

Your Suddenly Online Class Could Actually Be a Relief (from Inside Higher Ed)

In a state of helplessness, I wrote a guest post for John Warner’s blog on Inside Higher Ed. As I’m on parental leave for most of this semester, I have been watching my college “go online” with its instruction from afar, so I thought if I put together some of my thoughts on teaching online, I could be of help.

“Your Suddenly Online Class Could Actually Be a Relief” in Inside Higher Ed

I wrote the post thinking of all the instructors at my college who were posting back and forth on the faculty listserv about their anxieties about using technology. And then there are some emails from folks over in EdTech with links to trainings and tutorials. I’m thinking, “This is all well and good, but how are the servers going to handle all this?” And also, I’m pretty competent with technology, and even I had a lot of technical kinks to work out in the process of deploying my online classes last semester. There’s absolutely no reason to tax everyone further with these ridiculous expectations.

This article by Rebecca Barrett-Fox, which I read right after I wrote mine, gets to the heart of the politics of this suddenly online education crisis:

“Please Do a Bad Job of Putting Your Courses Online”

Barrett-Fox nails it. Especially here:

Ask yourself: Do I really care about this? (Probably not, or else you would have explored it earlier.) Or am I trying to prove that I’m a team player? (You are, and don’t let your university exploit that.) Or I am trying to soothe myself in the face of a pandemic by doing something that makes life feel normal? (If you are, stop and instead put your energy to better use, like by protesting in favor of eviction freezes or packing up sacks of groceries for kids who won’t get meals because public schools are closing.)

I wish I knew how to put my energy to “better use,” but until I figure out what that looks like, I’m hoping that a few people who read my article will ease up a bit on themselves and their students.

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.

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

Omeka presentation for a UCLA Cluster seminar

Just put together this presentation for this Freshman Cluster’s seminar here at UCLA. Their instructor is assigning them this assignment in which they have to curate a collection related to the “history of Los Angeles” using Omeka – a free online curatorial platform. I’m eager to see what they come up with.

I’ve presented on building Omeka sites before (here’s my sample site that I plan to one day turn into something relevant to my dissertation), and the major issues that come up have to do with the relationship between “Collections,” “Exhibits,” “Sections,” “Pages,” and “Items.” Miriam Posner’s great handout is helpful (click here).

Put simply, the best way to use Omeka is to think of it as a museum. Items are your museum’s objects. You upload images (or an image) of them and classify them according to Dublin Core metadata fields. You store them in collections – which I think of shelves or storage rooms in the back of the museum. But just as you wouldn’t be able to store a sculpture in two different rooms at the same time, you also can’t store an Omeka item in two different collections.

Once you have amassed a good number of items (and arranged them into collections – or not), you can then put together an Exhibit. An exhibit in Omeka has sections, just like an exhibit in a museum has different rooms. Pages can be thought of as walls in that room of that exhibition.

Here’s my visualization of this metaphor:

Here's a visual rendering of the relationship between Exhibits, Sections, Pages, and Items in Omeka.
Here’s a visual rendering of the relationship between Exhibits, Sections, Pages, and Items in Omeka.

So for example: let’s say in your exhibit on “British Tourism” (to borrow from my own research), you organize one room for maps and one room for souvenirs. Then you would put all of Byron’s souvenirs on one wall and all of Dickens’ on another one. The room for maps is one section and the wall of Byronic souvenirs would be a page on Omeka.

Does that make sense? I hope so. Omeka is good for making exhibits – but people run into problems when they try to square-peg-round-hole it (like by using it as a blog).

There are some other features worth noting about Omeka – its multi-curator capabilities, its various themes, tagging, making public v. private items, adding simple pages for content, featuring items/collections/exhibits etc – but it’s best, when presenting on it, to start by clarifying the relationship between collections, exhibits, sections, pages, and items (the Omekan macrocosm to the Omekan microcosm!) before delving into too much detail about the other features.