Feedback and learning from instruction:

It’s been a funny semester. More than usual, it seems to me, there are two groups of students: the ones who worked through the process and are going to do fine; and the ones who didn’t, and won’t. In response I’m drafting a new section for the syllabus, titled ‘feedback and learning from instruction’. Here’s what I’ve got:

I expect, trust, and need you to learn from instruction. We can only go forward if we’re not constantly circling back.

I want you to succeed. I love when you succeed. The whole class is designed to get you to each requirement with the necessary skills and knowledge to succeed. The syllabus addresses all of the fundamentals. Class time will include instruction and practice of historical investigation: topic and question development, research, and analysis. You will get the knowledge you need from your own research. In effect, the whole class is a massively integrated system of feedbacks for you to use to raise your level and succeed.

If you wait to learn until I address you personally, you will have missed out on all that, and you may not succeed. There’s little point in repeating instruction you’ve already ignored once, or in giving you personal new instruction if you have not yet engaged with the instruction you’ve already received. The way to do better is to do what you’re being taught, to grasp the logic of that instruction, and to surpass it creatively. I can help a lot with that if you exert your effort and intelligence to master the basics. If you don’t, my personal feedback to you is this: exert your effort and intelligence to master the basics.

Of course this is a fool’s errand. The students this is aimed at are the ones who aren’t reading the syllabus. If they were, they already wouldn’t be doing the bonehead stuff that stimulates this reply. And making the syllabus longer with more sections and verbiage just makes ignoring it more and more likely.

But as Rachel says, it expresses clearly my thinking about the teaching / learning process and sharing of responsibilities. She thinks I should put it right up front. And a disgruntled student who rolled the dice on ignoring the process and didn’t like the outcome might be pointed at this, at which point Rachel imagines they might actually feel a little sad. Which I certainly do in those cases.

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.

The freedom of speech in the international spectrum

The freedom of speech is one of the most important articles of the constitutions of most countries in the world. The right to freedom of expression is recognized as a human right under Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and recognized in international human rights law in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Furthermore many constitutions are based on the freedom of speech, for instance the Constitution of the United States. According to Oxford Dictionary, freedom of speech means: the political right to express/communicate any opinions, ideas without censorship or restraint. When we talk about the freedom of speech we also talk about the freedom of expression which sometimes is been used synonymously but it includes and an act of seeking receiving and imparting information and ideas. The freedom of speech is the basics of a democratic state, but does the freedom of speech means that you can say anything or share any kind of information that you might poses even if it risks the integrity and the secrets of a country? This essay will focus more on the case of how does the freedom of speech effects the international relations. To be more specific, I will focus more on the case of WikiLeaks and with its founder Julian Assange and Eduard Snowden of the NSA.
WikiLeaks is an international, online and nonprofit organization whose aim is to publish secret information and classified media unknown from the public, from anonymous sources. For instance the website has published valuable information concerning the war in Afghanistan and Iraq. Those articles have made the front page of many newspapers around the world. According to Wikipedia and the Guardian, some of the releases of information included documentation of war expenditures and holdings in the Afghanistan war and also the website has leaked documentation about the corruption in Kenya. You could read more about the amount of the information that WikiLeaks has shared with the public. According to WikiLeaks website, its goal is “to bring important news and information to the public… one of our most important activities is to publish original source material alongside our news stories so readers and historians alike can see evidence of the truth.” The founder of WikiLeaks has seemed asylum to Ecuador and he currently lives at the embassy of Ecuador in London, UK. According to The Independent, Assange is being holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy in an effort to avoid Extradition to sweeden where he is under investigation for alleged sex offences. The reason why Assange is under the diplomatic protection of Ecuador is that he believes that the claims for his extradition to Sweden are a ruse so he can eventually be sent to the US for trail over the leaking of formerly secret US cables. Despite the fact the authorities deny this claim of Assange. The department of the US state was considering a charge under the Espionage act of 1917 says the Washington Post. How can a man who doesn’t hold the U.S citizenship be charged from the department of state and the pentagon for Espionage? Assange released diplomatic cables that offer unvarnished insights into the personal tendencies of world leader. Is the journalists job to share and distribute the news and this right is protected by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Would the state department interfere with the freedom of speech by accusing Assange for Espionage? That’s yet to know because up until now the founder of WikiLeaks is under the diplomatic protection of the Republic of Ecuador.
Now to continue with a recent event of a violation of the freedom of speech, this had a big impact on International Relations. Edward Snowden a former CIA and NSA employee leaked information to the Guardian; the British newspaper published a series of information that revealed programs such as the interception of the U.S. According to the Guardian who published Snowden’s leaks, “the world now has a debate about the dramatic change in the contact between state and citizen”.
Snowden provided proof that the government of the United States is spying on its citizens by putting the entire population under some form of surveillance, then again the government charges him with spying. Now is obvious that everyone with a digital life could be under surveillance. Is it morally correct to spy on your own people and on your allies? The evident ambition is to put entire populations under some form of surveillance, this is what Orwell warned of and we the people should not accept this in a democracy. This for many people brings the bitter memories of the communist rule. It seems like everyone wants to get into the bandwagon and spread the propaganda.
“Even if you’re not doing anything wrong you’re being watched and recorded. And the storage capability of these systems increases every year consistently by orders of magnitude… They can use this system to go back in time and scrutinize every decision you’ve ever made, every friend you’ve ever discussed something with and attack you on that basis… to derive suspicion from an innocent life and paint anyone in the context of a wrongdoer”. – Edward Snowden
Snowden has applied for political asylum over to 20 countries but most of them have refused his application, some of them have said that the applicant must be present in the country he is applying for asylum. The US administration and specially Vice President Joe Biden had pressured the governments of these countries to refuse his petition for asylum. This way the US administration is interfering with basic human rights by pressuring other countries into refuse the asylum applications sent by Snowden. According to ABC News he is currently living in Russia and he is under the Protection of Vladimir Putin, “he claims that Snowden, the alleged leaker of NSA surveillance secrets, can stay in Russia as long as he stop harming American interests”.

A classroom visit, 2/15

One of my colleagues from another department visited my second World History section today. It also teaches large intro sections to mostly non-majors, and was looking for a different perspective on the process.

Other than talking about how odd and sometimes unilluminating a single visit to an active / interactive classroom can be, neither of us made any particular preparation, and I just went ahead with my usual m.o., which is to go in with a rough idea of what I want to get at that day, a couple ideas about how to do that, and a commitment to guiding and prompting rather than dictating.

I opened by asking if they were ready to start talking about the papers they’ll eventually need to be doing. Got a positive on that, so then I asked if they’d rather get in the big discussion circle or stay in rows with me recording the conversation on the board. Even split in those expressing a preference; I broke the tie for circle, because I’d done rows the section before.

The energy was good; we bantered a bit as we rearranged the classroom. Then I asked them what would make an analysis they had to write or read a good one. This got some eyes to glaze over, and some fairly generic responses from others. Hit the high points, truth, create interest, the 5 Ws, that sort of thing. Sadly I noticed that none of our prior conversations, let alone the extensive guidance in the syllabus, were yet processing as available accounts of our project.

Judging the question too abstract and out of context at this stage of their introduction to the standards and practices of quality analysis, I brought up the Super Bowl. What would make an analysis of the game a good one? Instantly, fans expressed their biases. I asked leading questions about whether we could learn much about the game from people committed to one side or the other. (The end-game of this, after a couple turns, was to point out that the problem was not so much the partisanship itself as the way it influenced selection and interpretation of information – making ‘high points’ a tricky standard for good work.)

Somewhere in here, my colleague (who to my delight had jumped right in as a participant) chimed in with the observation that not everyone cared even a little bit about the Super Bowl. So we explored the question of whether ‘interest’ worked well as a reason to learn about something. A silent student I called on turned out to be paying attention, and suggested that a ‘to each his own’ approach might be perfectly alright. So I talked about knowledge silos, and discovered that drawing impromptu silos on the board is tricky business. A couple students studying the history of mathematics and the history of firefighting (in 1915, our focus for the first part of the term) talked through how their projects might actually be of mutual interest, and from this we extracted curiosity and making connections as other reasons to attend to knowledge not otherwise immediately ‘interesting’. We further agreed that just slinging work at a requirement was soul-crushing, and that making the process substantive and meaningful was worth some effort in itself.

I’m compressing a lot of backing, forthing, redirecting, and awkward-silencing into a (semi-)coherent narrative from a particular perspective, or in other words, doing what I was trying to get them to start thinking about.

Eventually I suggested we had most of what we needed to construct an outline of the elements of a good analysis. What I got back this time was a little better albeit still pretty generic: organization, a focused point, cause and effect, credible sources. Credible sources? Judging that this gave the conversation a chance to resolve from frustrating abstraction into satisfying concreteness I pounced, and redirected to a student who hadn’t said anything yet. What’s your topic? Physical education. OK, everyone, what would this writer need to show you to earn your attention and respect? A question; something to be figured out; understanding of the times and their issues. Because another student asked, we talked about whether ‘obesity’ or even weight management was any part of physical training in the early 20th century, and agreed we didn’t know yet.

Are we interested in what we think is important, or what they thought was important? Them, clearly. What would that take? Credible sources. How about some examples? Health journals; medical journals; government policies and standards. Long conversation here about whether historical sources are stably reliable. Files get lost or destroyed, but also interpretations change. Did historians fifteen years ago worry about obesity? Another student who hadn’t spoken yet said, no. People then were just fat, it wasn’t an issue like we know it is now. (We know?) So, interpretations of history also have a history.

Time’s up! Find a primary source for your project, and bring it next time. Some good eye contact from people who seemed to know what I meant, and why, but we’ll see. I don’t expect to get this sorted out all at once.

How did this all look to my colleague? We’ll talk later; I could only guess now. It was typically friendly while running off to its own class, but it’s hard not to worry that the procedings looked like a bunch of talking around in circles with no definite accomplishment. Which, in fact, it was. What I hope, and expect from prior experience, is that a lot of the loopiness comes from this all being a completely foreign mode of engagement with learning for many of the students, and that gradually as they take refuge in the comforting definiteness of their own research projects, they’ll do so with a dawning sense that there’s something of value and unsuspected depth there. Again, we’ll see.

That’s not funny!

In World History class today I brought up their final papers and began the process of brainstorming concept and research strategies. They’ve done two short papers, which I’ve suggested should be thought of as process work toward a more comprehensive final paper. With few exceptions, this way of thinking of research and writing is completely foreign and baffling to them, so in addition to detailing it in the syllabus (which they do not read) I spend quite a lot of class time workshopping it.

One student remarked that it wasn’t sure how to accomplish this mysterious alchemy from the earlier papers it had written. I began the process of pulling out themes and questions that could be linked and developed. Its first paper was on the invention and deployment of the mobile battlefield x-ray by Marie Curie during the Great War. Its second was on the first ‘successful’ plastic surgery in England, in 1814.

The student remarked that it couldn’t see enough meat left on those bones to write a 6 page paper (this is an introductory class, so that’s the ‘big’ final paper). I riffed offhand that someone could write a 6 page paper on the chemistry of snot, so with a little commitment the history of the treatment of traumatic injury would probably work out fine. It replied that my imaginary snot paper was preposterous. So naturally I doubled down, asserting confidently that such a paper had almost certainly already been written, and that a motivated researcher could find it within 5 minutes. (All of this may sound a bit confrontational, but it was actually happening in playful banter.)

I asked a Biology major in the group if my expectation was unreasonable, and it said certainly not. We spent a few moments breaking down the interesting variations on snot this paper might cover, ranging from hydration and texture to origins in atmospheric conditions, emotional states, retrieval trauma, disease, and drug use.

As we wrapped up our hypothesizing, another student chimed in. It had pulled out its personal data assistant and found us the paper we were talking about. I’d guess it took about three minutes. The paper was 5 pages long. Sweeeeeet.

Postscript: On two sides of the board I elicited from the original student the findings of its two papers, drawing lines to make connections. The history of treatment of traumatic injury popped pretty easily as a theme to develop. Somewhat less obvious was the progress bias that might creep into such an account. The soldiers helped by battlefield x-ray were being treated more efficiently and effectively so they could be sent back into battle. The ‘success’ of plastic surgery is debatable. In that first one, a fellow whose nose had been melted off by mercury treatments for a sinus infection had a new nose built by pulling a flap of his forehead down and tacking it in place with tubes through the folds. A hundred years later, these techniques had ‘advanced’ so far that lucky recipients still needed artists to create facelike masks for public wear. I suggested that what we were looking at was a history of trauma being used as an opportunity to conduct extreme experiments on desperate human subjects, with results of dubious value to those particular recipients. This is a place where telling the tale through the magnificent achievements of modern mammoplasty may significantly flatten, erm, our understanding of the historical experience.


Had a good day in the senior seminar today. The class is the capstone for the major, and its major aspiration is for the students to produce a significant work of scholarship, reflecting all they’ve learned about doing the history thing. So thinking backward from that outcome, I suggested to the students that they take a project they’d already worked on and use the class to move it to the next level. We’ve then been workshopping that process in various ways, by finding and examining primary sources, talking about research strategies, brainstorming interpretive approaches, and so on.

I’d become a little concerned about a couple of guys in the class, however. Each time it was their turn to talk about what they were looking at and thinking about, they were producing the same wifty boilerplate accounts that reflected no significant effort to engage with their topics and deepen their knowledge. These things can go in rhythms, but I wanted to see if I could get them more invested in the process.

So today, I asked the group to reflect on what made a work of scholarship good. They’d read a lot of them at this point – what were the characteristics of the ones they liked? Not surprisingly, the engine coughed a bit and we did some sputtering around on movies they had watched, which was where one of them defaulted when it couldn’t connect to the question any other way. So I asked about what was different about a really good movie about history and a really good scholarly study. And they came up with entertainment, and the need to involve the audience emotionally. I added a personal memoir to the mix, and we talked about passion and detachment.

Then somehow one of the worrisome guys brought up a peeve from a previous class. As an African, it had been upset by a source that had lumped together all of Africa under the rubrics of dictatorship and disease. They didn’t even think we had any mathematicians, it said. I pointed out that it seemed to be taking this very personally; that the ignorance of this account felt like an attack. Yes, for sure. So how about if we think about doing history that way, I said – as if we had to face the people we were writing about later and look them in the eye; as if their sense of integrity was at stake in our work? (As if lazy wifty handwaving was a personal insult to an actual person, I didn’t say.)

I mentioned I’d just been having a conversation online with a former student, a Tibetan, about the arrest of Uighur economist and activist Ilham Tohti. My friend remarked that the Chinese really don’t understand the Uighurs or the Tibetans, and in fact have no interest in understanding them. I observed that this is how repression works. People with power don’t need to be curious – they can just plow through and make their world in the image of their prejudices. No one in class wanted to be that guy.

So does that mean we have to commit to omniscience, the view from all perspectives at once? Everyone got how the God’s eye view is not a reasonable standard. But we do have to stay curious, and we do have to be constantly mindful that there’s more to the story than the part we’re able to handle in realtime. At this point one of the students who’s had me before started musing about mobiles, my working pedagogical metaphor for complex systems. So we went out to the lobby and looked at the big mobile I put there. And its lessons about parts and wholes, structures and dynamics clicked instantly for the students who’d never noticed it before.


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.