5 Questions Posed by an Itinerant Professor to the Universe

Ok, I admit it. I’ve been bad and neglecting my blog. In my defense, I’ve moved schools yet again and my schedule has been up in the air. I also took a vacation this year (*gasp*). That’s right, a bone fide, no-laptop, no-work, no-conference vacation. And I don’t even feel bad about it. So there!

Anyway, I hereby pledge to do my best to better maintain this site with my usual balance of sarcasm and the occasional sincere reflection. Today, I’m leaning towards sarcasm, so here it is: the five questions I have for the universe after my first day back.

  1. Why is the computer console in every classroom (not to mention every school) different, and why can I never find the sound?

No, really. WTF? There is absolutely no way not to look like the stereotypical, absent-minded professor on the first day of class unless you have come in the day before, broken into a classroom that should be locked, and dissected the AV equipment while anxiously checking to make sure that security isn’t about to throw you out.

“Where is the remote? Oh wait, this one has no remote! Ok, well, how the hell do I turn the projector on?” These are the words I mumble wildly to myself while randomly pressing buttons, like a group of children who’ve found an unknown object and decide to poke it with a stick. “Oooohhhhh… that’s how it works,” I mutter, until I realize that I still don’t know where the volume is. This scenario inevitably continues to play itself out, until some kind soul in the back row shouts: “the volume is on the wall!” I say “thank you,” humbled, and defeated. So why, dear universe, can you not standardize this things, or at the very least, send me a manual in advance?

  1. Who designed this building, and why do I feel like I’m in a labyrinth about to be eaten by a Minotaur?

Ok, so, technically I already know the answer to this question. In some cases (and I will pretend to be the mature adult and not name names), buildings were actually intentionally designed to confuse people. In the wake of the 1960s, and the eruption of student protests that characterized those years, some campus buildings were actually created with riot control in mind and designed to divide people and keep them disoriented. In other cases, like a medieval cathedral, the school just kept adding more and more wings as they got more money and needed more space… until all hope for sanity or coherence was lost. Either way, every time I start somewhere new I feel hopeless and alone, and I can never find the bathroom.

  1. Why are there so many lost people (other than me, of course)?

Ironically, despite being a teacher and loving my job, I don’t really like other human beings a lot of the time. This is particularly true when I’m already stressed, lost, and seriously under-caffeinated. So tell me, oh powers that be, why there have to be so many other people in my space while I turn in circles trying to distinguish the F-wing from the A-wing and wondering why I can’t find either one.

  1. Is there something special about my clothing on day one that guarantees that I will drop coffee and various foodstuffs all over myself?

Confession time. I’m teaching night school this year, so I have to eat dinner before I run off to class, and I may have eaten the most offensively garlicky meal ever in a small, communal office this evening. My office mates probably didn’t appreciate it, and if I recall, I don’t think I had the forethought to warn them or the grace to apologize. So to anyone else who was in my space at around 6pm today: I’m sorry.

But, just because I am an ignorant sod, with no regard for those working around me, do I really need to wear the remnants of my meal as a badge of my shameful behavior, so that all the world can judge? Granted, I end up dribbling things down the front of white blouses with amazing frequency all the time, but it seems like the odds of me wearing my latte are unusually high on day 1. So, I would like the universe to explain if there is indeed a special magnetic attraction between any outfit worn on the first day of teaching and the food or beverage I am trying to get into my mouth.

  1. Which codes get me into what system, and what am I even doing right now anyway?

This year I have a door code, a computer code, a copy code, and a variety of other numbers attached to my name: significantly fewer codes than normal but enough to drive me insane nonetheless! And since I’m an historian, I simply cannot content myself by putting all these things in a note on my iPhone –let’s face it, I’m never going to remember all that shit – so I have a series of post-it notes attached to my phone, wallet, laptop, binder, and whatever else has a reasonably inviting surface. My things look ruffley, and may even take flight. So really, at this point, all I want to know from the universe is what numbers and letters you would like me to input because I’ve long-since lost track? Well, actually, I also need to know where? And maybe when?

newsactivist.com – A Conversation with Gabriel Flacks about Technology that Could Change Your Classroom

My move into the CEGEP world has exposed me to some really amazing teachers, and I’ve been humbled by the pedagogical commitment I see around me on an almost daily basis. I’ve had English teachers walk me through incredibly thoughtful assignments that teach students to see past the trappings of a book and really get at the guts of a text. I’ve also had a colleague in the Social Sciences department invite me to be a “guest specialist” in her class – she brings faculty members from several different departments into her classroom on a semi-regular basis to offer criticism and support as her students compose their major research papers, which at the college level, are interdisciplinary in nature. Most recently, Gabriel Flacks, who currently serves as the Coordinator of the Humanities Department at Champlain Regional College, St. Lambert, has introduced me to a website that he created. It’s called NewsActivist.com and it has a wide range of applications, but for now, I want to let him introduce it himself via a brief Q&A.

 

1. What is News Activist.com?
NewsActivist is a website built to support courses that are supplemented and enhanced by students writing collaboratively across campuses and borders. Specifically, it was built to support my college-level Humanities course about contemporary issues by getting students to write and think critically about the news through the lens of volunteer work, academic research or entrepreneurial endeavors. The website grew out of a desire to get my students talking with students in a sociology classroom that was run by a colleague who teaches at a university in New York. The idea was to facilitate cross-cultural understanding, to note the effects of “the framing effect” in mass media, and to make writing assignments more meaningful by providing students a broad audience. We therefore organized a set of asynchronous writing assignments that encouraged students to consider how social issues in New York and Quebec are often both similar and dissimilar all at once. However, when we attempted to implement this course work, we had difficulties integrating our classrooms using any and all existing web tools. After our attempts to use numerous sites for cross-border collaboration fell short, I approached the director of Champlain College, who, seeing the value of our cross-border approach, supported my desire to create a website built specifically to help our students collaborate. NewsActivist.com was quickly built from my design, and it went online in 2012. In that first semester, it was used only by my colleague and I to allow our students to dialogue; since then, the website has been attracting new users very quickly. It has been used by over 2000 other students enrolled in over 50 different courses in the disciplines of Humanities, Sociology, English, Psychology, Business, English-as-a-Second-Language (ESL), and more. The teachers using the site have discovered, as I did, that many types of courses can be supplemented, internationalized, and enhanced by using newsactivist.com to support collaborative cross-campus writing.

2. Why does it work better than other technology that allows for long-distance multi-user communication, such as Facebook or Twitter?
Twitter does not encourage academic writing as such; its microblog format is simply too short to help students develop their writing skills or communicate ideas that need more than a few sentences for complete expression. Further, for teachers and students, tracking the work of the students from individual classes is difficult using Twitter.

Facebook is equally non-academic in design and is not a “writing platform” per se. It allows each teacher and student a limited range of options in how each class’s “activity feed” can be presented. More importantly, privacy settings are limited. This lack of control creates limitations in how individual users can exert control over the visibility of submitted content. So, although it appears open, Facebook does not offer a safe, academically-formatted, open exchange across campuses; unlike NewsActivist, it just isn’t designed to facilitate the transmission of academic assignments or submissions between teachers and students, while offering the opportunity for students to have control over these assignments’ visibility across a network.

For teachers, NewsActivist is built to make one’s class easy to manage. It’s easy to find students’ work and it is quick and simple to engage with them. There is also a “Collaboration Planning Forum,” where teachers can find collaborative partners, track their collaborative schedules and share ideas and resources. Approved teachers are able to easily add classes, invite students to these online classes, and make these classes private, public, or semi-private. They can then use the site in many different ways, from a regular ongoing aspect of the course, to a single assignment which moves academic work into an authentic cross-cultural setting; teachers can use the site as it suits the pedagogical goals of the course.

NewsActivist also provides a number of student privacy options, giving students control over who can see each piece of their work. Each student is given the option of making each piece of his or her writing visible only to their teacher, restricting it to members of their class, or electing for it to be fully public and accessible to anyone online. Regardless of what option a student chooses, only approved users – that is, other students participating in an authorized class – can submit or comment on work at NewsActivist. Students therefore have an audience, but are also in a safe academic environment, with complete control over their work.

To give a specific example, this month, my students are using the site for collaborative writing with a Sociology class, an Entrepreneurship class, and a Business Communication class. All four teachers involved use the Collaboration Planning Forum (only teachers who have registered at the site will be able to see this forum) to communicate and are able keep their partner classes apprised of what assignments will be submitted to the site on any given week. This allows other teachers to assign feedback-focused work in their classes; they ask their students to write a specific number of constructive comments under newly posted work that has been created by students in a partner classroom. On NewsActivist, students are always teaching other students and teachers can manage otherwise unwieldy course planning for collaborative coursework using features that facilitate marking and organizing assignments. And all of this happens in an organic way.

3. What have students had to say about the website?
There are several journal articles in press, written by professors who have used the site, attesting to the fact that students love it (see the list below). They learn about issues they wouldn’t have considered before, and start reading, volunteering, and even voting more. One of my students puts it this way:

“I was much more motivated to write my blog posts then my regular essays because I knew some people would actually read it and my opinion could have a voice.  We could also see what other students thought of what we were doing or give our opinion on other people’s posts whether we agreed or disagreed, which motivated me to write better posts.  I got to work on a subject that really matters to me and it made me care about it even more.” – Natalie Geukers

Below are some other anonymous testimonials, and more can be found at the site:

“Getting to choose my own topic and commenting on other people made me feel like a journalist and that my opinion mattered.”

“English is my 2nd language so I liked being able to take my time and come up with an answer.”

“We are a technologically advanced generation and the education system should recognize that”

“I liked seeing what other people thought…  it helped me understand issues in new ways.”

“I took more time thinking about what I was writing because I knew people could check my facts…I don’t usually worry about that.”

I think it is a great way to encourage students to participate since you get lots of comments and feedback. It is also great because you can see others people work!”

4. What is the most unexpected thing that’s happened since launching the site?
The most surprising thing was discovering just how many teachers have been looking for a site like this, and so the process has been very rewarding. Demand has led the site to be translated into French, has allowed me to work on the project as part of an existent Entente Canada Quebec grant that supports cross-campus pedagogy, and allowed me to give my students access to more perspectives than I could ever have hoped. In April 2014, several classes from Japan and Florida will be sharing academic-style writing about current events via NewsActivist, providing my current class a completely new set of peers with whom to exchange information and collaborate on assignments.

5. How do you see the site developing over the coming years?
I try to just go with the flow. I’m doing my best to continue to improve the site by considering both teacher and student feedback. The more teachers and students use the site, the more exciting my classes become – and so, I hope that the network of teachers and students using the site continues to grow. I ask students to comment on writing shared at the site, and as disciplines and institutions multiply, my students are constantly provided with fresh content to interact with. In the process, I’m learning more about my students. One of the great surprise benefits of using the site to support my classes has been that otherwise shy students are often more open and engaged in a safe, academic, social network, and so I’ve found ways to expand use of the site into other classes that I’m teaching. Hopefully, people will continue to see value in the project and it will continue to diversify.

 

NewsActivist has already been used by teachers in a variety of different disciplines. My immediate reaction to hearing about this technology, however, was that someone should use it in a historical context. Being a British historian by training, I thought it would be really exciting to pair an undergad class in North America – studying, say, Tudor-Stuart history – with one in the United Kingdom that was looking at similar material. I would absolutely love to see how students from such different backgrounds could learn from one another. More specifically to the Quebec context, there also seems to be a lot of potential when it comes to teaching either Quebec History, or Canadian history more generally. Given the cultural divide that separates Canada from the “ROC” (that’s “Rest of Canada” for those of you who don’t know the lingo), I thought it would be a great idea to pair a Quebec classroom with a class in Ontario, Alberta, or British Columbia. Sparks may fly, but that would be a conversation worth having!

 

To learn more about NewActivist, click here and check it out.

For academic articles commenting on the project see:

Flacks, G. and Eric Kaldor(in press) “Facilitating Globally Networked Courses with Newsactivist.com: Student Blogs, Social Networks, and Collaborative Pedagogy.” Canadian International Journal of Social Science and Education. June 2014

Thomas, T., Fournier-Sylvester, N., & Venkatesh, V. (in press). “Citizen in/action: Analyzing online forums for pedagogical insight. “In V. Venkatesh, J. Wallin, J. C. Castro, and J. E. Lewis (Eds.), Educational, behavioral, and psychological considerations in niche online communities. Hershey, PA: IGI Global.

Fournier-Sylvester, N. (in press). “From the chat room to the voting booth: The potential of using online discussion forums to develop civic skills”.Citizenship Education Research Network.

Flacks, G and Lynn Reid. (in press) “Blogging Democracy: Reconsidering Community Engagement with Web 2.0.” Fourtheenth International Conference on Education and Social Sciences Conference Proceedings. ISBN: 978-605-64453-0-9

 

Teaching Research Skills to “Generation Tech”

I don’t know about you, but as a historian I’m the first to admit that I have a tendency to get “old school” when it comes to doing my research. I’m not of the recipe card generation, but I do have an embarrassingly large collection of handwritten notebooks. I also still read actual physical books, and carry a notepad to talks. Between this, and the fact that I become more dependent upon urban dictionary when reading blogs, tweets and student emails with every passing year, I hardly consider myself either technical or particularly in touch with youth trends. So why then, am I writing a post that is going to attempt to impart wisdom about how to teach “Generation Tech” how to do research in the information age?

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[Admit it, you had a love-hate relationship with it too]

 

The answer: because you don’t need to be either of those things in order to understand that mainstream technology works very differently than its academic counterparts. Moreover, I may not be as good with a computer as my colleagues doing Digital Humanities, but I’m no technopeasant either. Like the countless other mindless drones whose head is buried in their smartphone while waiting in line at the supermarket, I am guilty of spending too much time on my iPhone reading Reddit or checking Facebook. I am a consumer of technology and I try to make sure that I don’t become a fossil myself while I’m digging through the remnants of the past. And I now have a reasonable amount of experience doing just that, whether it be in the archives, or from the comfort of my own home, thanks to the ever-increasing supply of digitized archives and scholarly databases.

In some ways, my rather antiquated training is an asset when it comes to doing academic research. Yes, there are now a dizzying array of online resources and some mindbogglingly brilliant Digital Humanities projects. But there are also a hell of a lot of piggish, outdated, and downright obnoxious library catalogues, scholarly databases, and academic search tools which require a little more from their users than your average tablet, laptop, or smartphone will ever ask of you. In short, when you’re doing research, you can forget about a bunch of neat little apps or anything that resembles autocomplete. You’ve got to think more like you’re still dealing with those dusty old card catalogues, only now you can’t even have the satisfaction of physically touching them.

In sum, dealing with these tools is not an intuitive process. The first time I tried to research the answer to a complex academic question, I distinctly remember thinking that there was no “obvious” course of action guaranteed to get me the best results, and I didn’t grow up with the ability to “Google that shit.” Thus, if you think about it, it’s completely unreasonable to expect someone who is used to being able to look almost anything up instantaneously via their smartphone – and who doesn’t even have to type to access it, because that’s what Siri is for – to know how to navigate your average piece of academic technology. Google’s autocomplete function is great, as its ability to search for multiple permutations of a word. But it means that those who are used to its brilliance forget that not every search system was created equal.

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[This is how we’re used to accessing information now]

 

After assigning a few independent research projects, I quickly learned that even my smartest students were missing what, to me, seemed like accessible sources. They couldn’t find all the pertinent books on their topic, let alone the journal articles or primary sources they needed. A few of them emailed me to bemoan their plight and this is when I learned that they were hopelessly flustered and more than a little bewildered by the process. For example, I had a student who had originally wanted to write on European women during the cold war. We narrowed down her topic to Alva Myrdal, but then she hit a roadblock. Every time she typed the name into an academic search tool, she found nothing. And so she concluded that nothing had been written. The same thing happened to a student who wanted to write on a topic related to Nazi Germany, and that’s when I realized what was going on. If there is one absolute truth in academia, it’s that there is no such thing as a dearth of material on any subject related to the Nazis.

One cannot simply type a very narrow search parameter into a library catalogue or database of primary sources. Many of these tools only search titles or the brief descriptions that someone has entered into the database about the source. But students don’t automatically know this because you can be that specific with Google and Google does indeed search the whole text. More importantly, you can’t type it in just one way. If “Alva Myrdal” doesn’t work, then perhaps you have to try “women, cold war, Europe” or “nuclear disarmament.”  And as this example demonstrates, depending on the topic, you might need to expand or contract the parameters of your search, trying people’s names, themes, eras, or associated events. It’s true: people should be able to figure this out on their own. But you know what, I have a PhD and I needed some help learning back in the day too. Once a process is habitualized, it can be hard to think outside the box. So, for me, it’s worth taking the 5 minutes to explain that many academic tools lack the refinement that people have come to expect of search engines. It’s also worth mentioning that this can actually lead to the discovery of some pretty amazing information that you would never otherwise have found.

Of course, there are lots of great open-access resources online these days too, and many of them are much more user friendly and easily Googleable. The issue obscuring these sources is that students are so used to being told not to use Wikipedia, blogs, or newsmedia as part of their research that they often don’t realize that some online collections – particularly collections of primary sources – are fair game. Therefore, my final suggestion is to spend a little time talking about useful open-access resources and how they differ from unverifiable accounts and/or opinion pieces when assigning a research project.  Depending on the type of assignment, your definitions for what is and isn’t an acceptable source will shift, so you are probably used to doing this anyway. But, collectively, we need to be a little more explicit and to encourage students to use the photo collections, out-of-copyright libraries, and primary source catalogues they can find online. So much more is available to our students than was available to us, and we do them a disservice if we don’t tell them to go out and read it!