That’s a wrap

I just told a section of introductory World History they were going to make me cry, and let them out a half hour early.

Their second paper is due next week, so this week was for workshopping. My focus was on the analysis rubric: people, events, ideas, structures, dynamics. I had run through this several times over the course of the semester, not expecting them to learn it yet but just to get it familiar. (They don’t learn things until they need them for something. I’ve observed this over and over – we waste so much time teaching out of sequence with tasks! But I learned it first from Dyke the Elder years ago remarking that he’d had Calculus three different times but only learned it the third, because he needed it then for something else he was doing. Feynman says this in his famous lectures on physics, as well.)

Tuesday I asked the students to pull out their devices and look up structure and dynamics. Because the pump was primed, they found the ‘right’ definitions right away. We talked for a second about how these concepts could be helpful in organizing and making sense of the mass of information they’ve accumulated in their research. Then I pulled up one of their draft introductory paragraphs and we walked through it together, finding the people, events, ideas, structures, and dynamics it mentioned or implied. I diagrammed this all simply on the whiteboard as we went, and filled it up easily. I got the sense that this process really opened their eyes to how much was involved in even the simplest analyses.

Today we pulled up another paragraph, and with very little prompting they did the same exercise with it. The topic was Nazi propaganda, and the author had already figured out that their project was more about redirection than persuasion. By the end, we were talking about feed-in and feedback dynamics among citizens, the army, and the party. It was way cool.

I asked the whole group what they were learning for their own work from the discussion of their classmates’. One said it was seeing its research in a whole new light, as a way to figure things out rather than just amass and spout information. Another said it was now seeing a whole series of connections between its research and the rest of the class. A third chimed in that it was like we were writing a textbook together.

I asked if they wanted to workshop another paragraph and they said no, we’re ready. Which I thought was a good place to stop for the day.

A good problem to have

With an election approaching and heated rhetoric swirling in all my social and media feeds, I organized all of my classes this semester around the theme of Godwin’s Law. So that means it’s all Nazis, all the time for me this semester. Which can be wearing. But here’s an email I just got:

Greetings Dr. D,

I am having some trouble with my second paper and thought I’d reach out to you in an effort to sort out my thoughts.  Honestly I’m not even sure exactly what I’m going to be writing about, which I’m sure is 90% of the problem ::insert nervous faced emoji here::.  I know that I want this paper to talk about Hindenburg and others like him fearing Communism so much that Hitler was the “lesser of two evils.”  Those people did not want to lose their power or their property.  It was about their status and social position.  I want to talk about how that is just as important, if not more so, in contributing to Hitler’s rise to power.   I also know they thought they could use Hitler to their advantage, but I’m not quite sure what that advantage was.  Anyway, a lot of what I’ve read talks about these on the surface things, like the Treaty of Versailles, as the reason Hitler came to power (basically all the stuff I wrote in my last paper).  And although those things absolutely contributed, I think there were other things happening “backstage” that got the ball rolling, like the aforementioned power struggle.

Well there’s a good problem to have. I told this student to read back what it just wrote, trust what it had figured out, and go for it. Then, since this is a semester-long research project and I’m gradually nudging them past the people / intentions / events layer of analysis, I suggested that

Going forward, you’re absolutely getting into a complex systems kind of analysis. So the next layer after you get the intentions and trajectories of the various actors sorted is to see how those were emerging from and evolving interactively within the larger settings, at various scales.

I do not expect that to be fully self-explanatory in itself, but this and quite a few other students are getting to where they can collate a remark like this with a lot of other things I’ve showed them and we’ve talked about and practiced in class to scaffold up. Which is way cool.

After years of comprehensive education, these students came in pretty uniformly convinced “Hitler was a bad man” was fully explanatory. (From this starting point, “Hitler had some good ideas but” counts as critical thinking.) Three months of critical discussion, ignorance mapping, recursive primary and secondary research, paper drafting and workshopping, lather rinse repeating later, the puzzles have gotten quite a bit more worthy of human intelligence.

Your attention please!

As part of the department’s ongoing self-assessments, my friend and colleague Rebecca sat in on one of my World History sections yesterday. It was a good experience, and I learned something I might never have noticed about my own teaching otherwise.

We were doing peer review and workshopping of drafts for the second paper. I’ve been working with a rubric of the research and writing process that starts with a topic that is “freaking interesting,” leading to curiosity, leading to questions, leading to research, leading to answers, leading to new questions, leading to evolution of the topic … and so on until it’s time to report something out. So then the paper rubric is TOPIC, QUESTION, RESEARCH, FINDINGS.

Across all my classes this semester, this seems to be doing a particularly good job of lighting the light bulb that these papers are works of curiosity and discovery, not dull exercises mandated by an arbitrary authority. We had some of that in this class too. One of the students reluctantly volunteered its draft, afraid as usual to lose face. We looked it over together; it was a decent data dump (which for this student was a significant improvement). So I started asking questions. What’s your topic? What do you find interesting about it? The student started to explain difficulties it had had in finding direct reference to its area of concern in 1515. It turns out, that’s because it wasn’t something they were concerned about then in the same way we are now. They handled it this other way instead. I said, that’s freaking interesting! You figured something out – maybe that’s the paper! Then Rebecca said, sometimes it’s the holes in the evidence that are interesting – how can we figure out what was in there? Light bulbs all over.

A few other students started to join in the questioning. I made space in the draft document (I was projecting it up front from Dropbox) and wrote three sentences summarizing the topic and question as it had emerged from the discussion. I said, how’s this look? Game changer. I said, isn’t this just what you said? Yep. So I asked the rest of the class, what’s there to learn from this for the rest of your drafts? Get clear on what your topic is. Figure out what you’re curious about. Decide what your research shows you about that. What do you know, and how do you know it. Say those things!

We talked about the linear style of supporting a point with evidence, and the more elliptical style of walking around a topic looking at it from various perspectives, gaining understanding without necessarily bringing it to a particular point. This student’s project seemed to fit the latter style better. Again, light bulbs. Rebecca then picked up a cue the student had dropped in passing that opened up one of those strolls, a dimension of the topic the student had seen and noted without really thinking through. Light bulbs.

Throughout this, several other students were joining in with questions and observations. In a couple of cases I mentioned their topics and asked them what they were getting from the discussion that could help them with their work. We did several mini-versions of the topic / question / research / findings q and a. At the end I said, you can do this, right? And everyone gave a confident nod.

A good day at the office. OK, so what about attention? Well afterwards, Rebecca remarked that sitting in the back of the classroom had allowed her to observe how the students directed their attention, especially what they were doing on their laptops or other devices. She said the class started with only a few of the students apparently paying attention. As it went along, some of those dropped out and others dropped in. All of the class was tuned in at one time or another, but not all at the same time. And she said, I realized Carl doesn’t care about that. He doesn’t need them to pay attention the whole time. He just wants them to pay attention some of the time.

I cracked up, because she’s absolutely right, but I don’t think I’ve ever actually thought that through as an intentional practice. I’ve evolved that from seeing how classrooms work from both the student and teacher perspectives. Rebecca and I talked about the research showing that most people can’t sustain focused attention for more than 10-15 minutes. We can wish otherwise, but it’s never seemed like a hill worth dying on to me. So for important instruction like yesterday’s, I loop back through the same lesson again and again, reframing and retargeting it, calling in attention every once in awhile to bring the key points into focus. As long as the students tune in every so often, they’re going to get at least a corner of the lesson. And as Confucius said, if students can’t find the other three corners for themselves, the lesson isn’t worth teaching.


Here at MU we’ve got a pretty generous student worker policy. Each of us can have one or more student workers if we can produce an explanation of how they’d come in handy. Their compensation is part of the financial aid package.

I’ve had several over the years. Their official title is “Igor,” pronounced eye-gore like the Marty Feldman character in “Young Frankenstein.” They’ve done various things for me, from rearranging my bookshelves by color to peer reviewing all my World History papers to bringing me up to speed on digital resources.

This semester’s Igor is an Albanian guy, which is fun because Gramsci (he tells me we’re spelling it wrong) was Albanian-Italian, and also because when my family lived in Italy in the 70’s we mythologized Albania (then a closed society) as a mysterious land of crazy geniuses. Which has, in fact, pretty much fit the few Albanians I’ve known.

OK, so on to the ‘fun’. Igor has been sitting in on one of my World History sections, to get a feel and make suggestions about how to improve the learning experience for students. He’s prepped me with a lot of great traditional teaching materials about 1914 (our topic at the moment). But it’s become clear that we’re not really on the same page about the project, which is no surprise and a learning opportunity for both of us.

I don’t want to be throwing traditional teaching materials at the students; I want to be guiding them in a process of figuring out how to find stuff for themselves. Igor has been impatient with the chaos of this process; he sees the students spinning their wheels and thinks we’re not really getting anywhere. But he’s very smart, and he pays attention, so he gets that I’m not going to be lecturing. What we need to do, he says, is package up the historical resources so they’re “fun” for the students.

Igor’s so far ahead of the game. It took me until grad school to figure this out. So much better than jamming the porridge down the students’ throats. Then it took me until I’d been teaching on my own for five or six years to become dissatisfied with it. It’s a trap. Yes, you win hearts and minds; you gain a positive relationship and a comradely process. Some learning does happen. But, once you go down the rathole of what students find fun, it’s almost impossible to get out. That fun sticks to what they already know and think like glue. Unless they happen to find learning fun, what they find fun and interesting is itself the cognitive / emotional limitation a higher education is meant to open out into new abilities, possibilities, and perspectives.

What I have to offer is not the laborious translation of history into their existing ludic frames. What I have to offer is whole new ways to have fun. The fun of understanding complex processes; of puzzling through ignorance to knowledge; of knowing what the hell you’re talking about. The fun of belonging in adult conversations, of being taken seriously for the quality of your insight and not just tolerated for the humanity of your personal opinion. The fun of a whole world bursting with interesting things, in which nothing isn’t interesting. Most of them don’t know this stuff is fun yet, because it’s not how education has ever worked for them. For some of them, the fun has been actively sucked out of learning. Trying to make learning fun in the ways they’re used to is not a solution to that problem.

Nowadays I try to make the process quirky and offbeat and informal in ways that are at least intriguing and non-threatening. But the fun doesn’t really start until they’ve hesitantly selected a topic and done some research and actually found something out. It’s then that the magic of education can slide in among the other pleasures of our lives.

Going with the flow

I was about ten minutes late to my “Race and Ethnicity in Global Perspective” class today. I’m doing a study group off-campus with some students who got fascinated by Marx last semester, and because of the way my brain works around time and presence, I lingered too long. From long experience I know I can minimize the consequences of this as long as I deliver robust value in the time remaining, even turning the ethos of the class from a quantitative time-served model to a qualitative work-accomplished model. So although I prefer not to be late, I’m not fretful about it.

The last time I was late, I mentioned that since the class is discovery and discussion oriented, there was in principle no need to wait for me and they could just go ahead and start. I mentioned that my ideal class was one in which the students seized control of their own learning and made the authority position of the teacher obsolete. That little speech is meant to create a fermenting contrast, but it does not usually work any immediate transformation – the habits of passivity are very deep.

But! When I walked into class today, one of the students who hardly ever says anything was presenting information and making an argument from the section of the text we’re working through that his study group was leading discussion on. (The text, btw, is Reilly, Kaufman, and Bodino’s Racism: A Global Reader.) I sat down quietly and the conversation continued for twenty minutes without any input from me. As we had discussed in setting up the order of march, members of other groups regularly chimed in with connections to their own sections of the text. Broadly speaking, they were trying to make sense of the dynamics of ‘internal Othering’, and how groups that were tolerated or even absorbed in one context could be stigmatized and oppressed in another. Eventually they reinvented frame analysis together, and I broke my silence to tell them so.

I am so happy and proud about this group. It certainly matters that there is a focused, disciplined, and motivated knot of military students; I suspect they were the catalysts of self-starting. But all of the students (about 15 today) were engaged when I came in; none of them much noted my entry, or shifted their attention to me as if the class would ‘really start’ now. It probably helped that I just sat down with them and did not make a show of moving to ‘the front’. It probably helped that this was the second run of our discussion format. It probably helped that we had brainstormed and concocted the discussion format together, with them getting the last word on how we would do it. It probably helped that the format engaged all of them by making the ‘leading’ group prompters rather than presenters, and explicitly encouraging connections to all of their centers of expertise.

Would this have happened if I was on time? Obviously not in exactly this way; I think my absence was a productive accelerant. This is a place where INUS conditions apply, which is fun because they reinvented those today, too.

Figuring out figuring it out

(crossposted from Dead Voles)

I’m pretty sold at this point on ‘figuring out’ as a teaching / learning rubric. The idea being that what we’re up to is figuring things out, not being told things. Here’s what that looks like, according to one student in a journal I just read:

I’m really beginning to see how things are connected. There isn’t a piece of history that we have covered that cannot in some aspect be related to something previously discussed and it can be overwhelming, but exhilarating. When you start thinking, it’s like you can’t stop your brain from jumping from one track to another. This class seriously requires an adjustment to how I process information. I realized that I have to literally stop thinking when I go to my next class because that class doesn’t function that way.

I’m a bit embarrassed by the invidious comparison, but the purpose of the journals is for the students to work on their metacognition by tracking their learning process in this and other classes, so it seems to have worked here. That this student has to ‘stop thinking’ in its next class is an amazing observation, and heartbreaking.

Here’s an email exchange with another student, who I’ve mentioned before as an enthusiastic but not-yet-confident newcomer to the concept of figuring things out for itself:

Me: I really like how you’re developing the project. Everything you’re writing is consistent with what I know, and you’re teaching me some new things. I can see that the volume of information you’re working with is overwhelming your sense of how it all goes together a bit, but you’re on the right track. This could be a life’s work. Stay focused on what you want to figure out, and pull it together as best you can.

I’m really looking forward to reading your final paper. ¡Buen trabajo!

Student: Thanks for your guidance, I am really trying to excel in your class. Now that I have gotten your feedback, I am questioning whether or not my final essay topic is the right one for me. I am doing how the new world treasure (gold and silver, etc) ultimately lead to Spain’s financial crisis (due to creation of credit systems, where they would just use treasure as a place holder which accumulated large amounts of debt).

If you think a different topic would be more suitable, I wouldn’t mind starting over on my paper.

Me: Your topic is wonderful! Please continue with what you’re doing!

The point about using the treasure as a place holder seems like a great example of how complex evolutionary systems work, by repurposing and reassembling available resources and relationships for the contingent dynamics, constraints and affordances of the environment. How that happens from case to case depends on initial conditions, as you’ve seen.

So interesting. Again, please continue.

In my experience this is pretty typical once a student begins to see how big a quality analysis is – they worry if they can handle it and how they’ll be judged, and feel like defaulting back to the comfort of pat answers, as represented by some-other-topic-they-don’t-know-as-much-about-yet. I’ve tried to calibrate my response here to be encouraging and collegial, and just far enough out of this student’s reach, yet decodable given what it knows already, to refresh the intrigue of discovery.

And look what this student did – went in one semester from thinking of history as a bunch of dates to memorize and spit back on a test, knowing nothing about Spanish colonial history, to following its curiosity to a weighty question of economic history and putting gems of analysis like “due to creation of credit systems, where they would just use treasure as a place holder which accumulated large amounts of debt” in parentheses. No big deal.

I’m getting more results like this, it seems to me, and as always I’m trying to figure out why what works, works. Part of it, I’m thinking, has to do with my own renewed / intensified relationship to figuring it out. Specifically, I’m sitting working on final grades, which now involves a multitude of technologies and platforms. I’ve got portfolios on Dropbox with drafts, papers, and journals; a Qualtrix data-entry form for the History Department’s evaluation matrix; Evernote windows for email addresses and roundtable grades and data collection from their journals for the teaching / learning complexity project. I’m backchecking citations on the web. I’m working on a laptop, tablet, and smartphone for all of this.

I still remember learning to type on a Selectric. My computer class in high school programmed on punch tape. My own first computer, in grad school, was an Epson XT clone with two 5.25 floppy drives and no hard drive. I think it really helps me be a better teacher that, like the first student with seeing connections and the second with colonial debt systems, I have learning curves in my life that are steep. I am figuring it out.

The usual story about the importance of doing research for teachers is along these lines, but I’m not sure the analogy actually holds. In standard disciplinary research there’s certainly a figuring-it-out element, but that happens around the edges of a whole bunch of embedded expertise. For the students, what we want them to figure out is often almost completely unfamiliar, an ocean in which there may be monsters. Both of the students I’ve quoted here actually have substantial resources of intellectual and scholarly disposition to draw on, as do I when I’m trying to figure out how to get things done with a new app. But the curves have still been very steep for all of us, and I think sharing the excitement and terror and humility of that in some dimension is a very helpful thing.

Fixing a hole

(Crossposted from Dead Voles)

One of the themes of my history classes for the last little while is arrangement and assembly, both in relation to how history works and in relation to how the students work. If the little dinger goes ‘ding’ and they get that they’re part of history (I mean actually get it, not just spout canned homilies about it), so much the better.

I try to work this up into an appropriately complex analysis on the history side, in part by leveraging a more simple version of it on the student side. What’s been missing is a really clean image of the process of accumulation, arrangement, and assemblage that routinely goes into human works like, say, college essays – and their evaluation. You’d think you could just talk this through by direct reference to their own writing, but for reasons that are fairly complicated, many students are not receptive or actively resistant to direct writing instruction. I’ve found that a good metaphor sidesteps the blockage and creates leverage to move it. So, I finally just got around to accumulating and arranging a slideshow ( house presentation ) that I think may do the trick. It’s twelve slides of twelve pictures, which I’ll reproduce and discuss below (and crosspost on Attention Surplus to be part of that archive). The assembly will happen in each class discussion. I expect to take a whole class period with each group on this, timed right before they start producing process work for their first papers. Suggestions welcome.

The metaphor is building a house. First slide:


Easy enough. A plan. What is this, in relation to the assignment? Here I get to call their attention to all of the design guidance in the syllabus. Second slide:

cottage sketch

Is this a house yet? Why not? What is it? Third slide:


Here we’re looking at raw materials. A tidy pile of lumber is obviously not a house yet, just like a pile of facts is not an essay yet. But wait, fourth slide:


Turns out that lumber wasn’t so raw, as materials go. We’re following the history of accumulation and arrangement here. (For me, and sometimes to the students, another image is a story Dyke the Elder tells about ordering a bicycle, ‘some assembly required’, and then having a truck roll up with a drum of raw latex sap, bauxite, petroleum, and so on.) Research; primary sources, secondary sources, interpretation, analysis. Fifth slide:


At this point we can safely say ‘and so on’, perhaps mentioning acorns and the strategies squirrels use to hide them from each other. We can also start to have a little side conversation about what it means to say ‘I built this’, which gets us to slide six:

on the patio

– which affords an opportunity to humanize the discussion, reflect more deeply on the narratives of independence in relation to the realities of massive systems of enabling interdependence, and talk about the relative fungibility of materials – since this is clearly not a house, although it’s made of some of the same things as a house. This is also a place to begin to bring home the connection to authorship and plagiarism. (Speaking of plagiarism, all of the images except this one used in this post and presentation came right up on a google search and represent ‘types’ in a way that makes me feel comfortably fair-usey about them. This is not an official legal opinion. My thanks to all of the creators and rights-holders.) Slide seven:


Well that’s very nice, isn’t it. A finished house, a finished paper. What went into that? Planning, an image, materials, craft, elaborated skill and care. Slide eight:


Oh well hey, that’s nice too, and very different. Now we can talk about style. How would you pick between these too? Matter of taste here, but also who it’s for and what it’s trying to accomplish. Speaking of which, slide nine:


Nothing wrong with this, especially if you’re getting a bit older and the stairs have become a quandary, or if you’re moving up from a single-wide and don’t want your sensibilities too jostled, or you’re a developer looking to make the cheapest possible buck, or you’re a society seeking a kind of material consensus, or etc. So here we get to talk about how styles do things in relation to audiences and agendas. I anticipate this is where the conversation is most likely to get bogged down in defense mechanisms. Slide ten:

grass house

Everyone just relax. Of course people build to suit local purposes and materials. And of course we can read those right back off of what they build. Is the ranch a ‘bad’ house? How about the grass one? How about the victorian? Depends on what you’re trying to accomplish, what resources are available, who’s judging and by what criteria. But that ‘depends’ is not an ‘it’s all good’ depends. Slide eleven:


Most of the papers I get. In some ways an admirable contrivance, but we are still justified in reading a lack of resource, skill, and attention to detail back off of it. Not the sort of thing you’d want from certified accomplished fabricators like college graduates. And now slide twelve:

screwy house

Is this the same as the one before it? Why, or why not?