Graduation: Reflecting on Arcs

UMW’s graduation was last weekend and with it came my department’s reception for graduating seniors and their families.  Now, I’ve been clear about my affection for graduation itself:

And, frankly, the department reception is even better.  It’s low key, everyone’s happy, even relaxed.  I really enjoy talking to the parents and students.  It’s a chance to brag about our great students to an audience who is thrilled to hear about it.

This year, though, I had three conversations that I’ve never had before.  First, I talked with two parents that I had met four years ago on the day they first brought their son to school.  We had a wonderful conversation about history, about the liberal arts, about their son’s academic interests, and about my own research (which overlapped with his own interests).  He wasn’t part of that initial conversation four years ago, but his younger sister was. Instead, his parents told him about the conversation and he contacted me about getting in to my First-Year Seminar on returning American veterans throughout history, which we were able to do.  Since then, he took another class of mine and just completed his senior thesis with me on the relationship between Grant and Meade during the Overland Campaign.  [Plus his sister ended up coming to UMW and taking my women’s history course last fall.]  So, the conversation I had at the senior reception with their parents brought us all back full circle.  We had the chance to talk on the first day they left their son at UMW and on the last day before his graduation.  There was an arc to that relationship that felt so right for all of us.  Frankly, I wish there were more of these stories of having four years to know students and their parents, to follow the arc of a student’s career in a way that doesn’t happen often enough.  I wonder if there are ways we might engineer more of these longer connections.

The second conversation was with parents who I’d never met before, but my mother had.  Earlier this semester, my mother, an elementary school teacher in Albemarle County, and I realized that I was teaching a student that she had taught in Kindergarten.  So, at the senior reception, I had the chance to meet this student’s parents and we had a wonderful conversation about the arc of that story as well.  As the student said when she first found out, “That’s amazing! My education begins and ends with McClurkens!”  It was a lovely reminder that we get students who are products of 13 years of contact with earlier teachers, of the many ways that those previous experiences affect them, and of the ways that parents remember those teachers too, sometimes more clearly than the students do.

The third conversation was with a student who was graduating just two years after he graduated high school.  I met him at a banquet for prospective students 6 months before he started at UMW and have been his adviser for two years.  Not surprisingly, a student who manages to finish a college degree in two years (with one of those semesters spent abroad) doesn’t need much advising, but it has been a pleasure to work with him and to meet his family.  Even in those two years he has grown immensely as a scholar and a person, something I was able to see as he was incredibly successful in a class with me this semester.  Meeting his family I could talk about that transformation and how glad I was to be some small part of his experience at UMW.

All three of these conversations at the receptions were good reminders that strong connections with students can (and maybe should) begin before they start here, of the role that parents can play in supporting their students, and of the many longer arcs of relationships that exist in our worlds that seem to be typically defined by the year or even semester.

 

 

 

Changes

tl;dr version: Jeff got a new job.

As of May, I will have been chair of the Department of History and American Studies for six years.  In that time, I’ve published a monograph, been promoted to full professor, published several articles/essays, presented at over 40 conferences and workshops, was a part of the team of professional term paper writers and served on countless committees and review boards on and off campus.

But I am particularly proud of my department over the same time: over 1/3 of my colleagues have been awarded tenure, they have published 5 books (and counting), 35+ scholarly articles & book chapters, & 30 reviews/short essays served on 45 professional organization committees, including as book series editors/members of editorial boards, as conference program or book prize reviewers, & as officers (including two presidents) of professional organizations, they have presented at hundreds of conferences, and served as at least as many committee years. We have established a program that has a two-semester methods class and integrates concepts of digital identity and digital fluency more deeply than any other history and American Studies program I have seen.  We have created 45+ new courses in that time and we contribute to 12 majors and minors, including new programs in Women’s & Gender Studies, Museum Studies, Urban Studies, Social Justice and Digital Studies.  I don’t pretend that my tenure as chair resulted in this amazing productivity of these teacher-scholars, but I do know that I’ve worked as chair to help support and serve them in that mission and I’m proud to call them colleagues.

I am also incredibly proud of our students.  We have an amazing set of History and American Studies students with a track record of creating rich digital projects, a decades-long streak of student winners of the campus writing contest, Phi Beta Kappa membership, earning departmental honors, publishing senior theses, and of students going on to graduate school (70% do within 5-10 years) and finding terrific professional positions.  Perhaps more importantly, they are thoughtful, smart, engaged people, many of whom are already making contributions to their chosen fields.

All of this is to say that I’m in an awesome department, one that I’ve been honored to serve as the chair of for the last six years.  But it’s also time to move on, if not from the department, then from my chairing of it.  If you read my blog or follow me on Facebook or Twitter, then you know that I’ve been particularly passionate about the intersection of teaching and technology for over a decade.  I’ve been offered an opportunity to follow that passion and at the school that I continue to cherish.

As of May, I will step down as department chair and begin my new job as UMW’s Special Assistant to the Provost for Teaching, Technology, and Innovation.  This new position is a half-time teaching position, so I will still get to work with students in my classes each semester.  But the rest of my time will be focused on the ways that technology, teaching, and research intersect and lead to innovation at UMW and beyond.  Specifically, I will be working with the directors of UMW’s terrific Center for Teaching Excellence and Innovation (Mary Kayler) and the Division of Teaching and Learning Technologies (Jim Groom).  [A privilege since both have been making me and many other UMW faculty look cutting-edge for years.]  I’ll also be collaborating with IT, Speaking Center, Writing Center, Library, Events, and Student Affairs to get the new Information Technology Convergence Center up and running.

I’ll also have the following responsibilities*:

  • Lead strategic planning to ensure excellence and impact of innovative use of technology to forward the teaching and learning mission of the University;
  • Partner with faculty and staff to develop and prioritize initiatives;
  • Oversee continuing development of UMW’s distance learning program, with a special charge to help address critical enrollment needs;
  • Serve on the President’s Technology Advisory Committee;
  • Seek out grant and development opportunities for UMW and its partners in these areas.

I am incredibly excited to take on this new position and to be able to build on the excellent work that Mary Washington’s faculty, students, and staff have already done in this area.  Look for more here in the weeks and months to come about the process, potential, and progress in this new position for me.

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*In some ways, I’ll also be expected to talk even more about the work that is happening at UMW and elsewhere in the field of the digital liberal arts and digitally enhanced pedagogy.  So, I plan on taking up my writing for ProfHacker again (that’s a public commitment Jason and George….) and look for more posts here as well.  I also see my service on the new THATCamp Council as fitting in with my new expanded role here at UMW.

Century America: A Course about the Past Done with Tools from the Present (but What’s Its Future?)

http://centuryamerica.org Century America Main Project Site

http://centuryamerica.org
Century America Main Project Site

This post is my contribution to UMW’s Digital Scholarship Institute discussions.

I should start by confessing that I originally proposed four different ideas to talk about for my week: a nascent digital project on a poisoning case in a mental institution with Pinkerton detectives, as well as my courses on Digital History, the History of the Information Age, and this course, Century America.  Mary Kayler wisely advised me to pick just one, and so I chose Century America as the best combination of unique approach and sufficient work done to have something to talk about.

So, what is Century America?  I’ll let Bill Spellman, Director of COPLAC, introduce it. [This is from the Chronicle of Higher Education.]

“Century America,” launched by the Council of Public Liberal Arts Colleges, is a digital-humanities project in which undergraduates on nearly a dozen campuses will produce a website documenting daily life during World War I.

 

The project combines the virtual and the local—engaging students in exploring and mastering digital tools and resources while delving into the histories of their own campuses and communities. By semester’s end, the undergraduate researchers will produce a web-published product that will provide narrative and photographic overviews of campus and community life during World War I. The project will also document the impact of the global influenza epidemic of 1918-19 on those communities. This final product, accessible online, will make contributions to historical understanding locally and nationally.

 

Using distance technology, student researchers on the 11 campuses will collaborate with one another and be guided by academic mentors—Ellen Holmes Pearson, an associate professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Asheville, and Jeffrey McClurken, chair and a professor of history and American studies at the University of Mary Washington.

 

Students enrolled in the online seminar will blog about their progress, learn to create digital maps, integrate timelines into their work, and practice digital presentation. That approach to collaborative learning blends the traditional benefits of a liberal-arts classroom, high-impact undergraduate research, online teaching of digital skills, and the technical proficiency necessary for historians in the digital age.

 

The “Century America” program receives generous support from the Teagle Foundation of New York.

The ultimate goal is to have each student create a site about their own school and that school’s community’s experiences during the Great War and the Influenza epidemic that follows, but within a framework of a larger overarching site (built by the four UMW students who are part of the class).

As you can see from this introduction and from the syllabus (which will give you a good sense of the structure and the assignments), this is an unusual course.  Some have called this a “distance mentoring course,” but I like to think of it as a small, private, online course (especially to contrast it with the Massively Open Online Course).  It is being taught by faculty from two different schools, and with students from nine different public liberal arts colleges. [We began with 14 students from 11 schools, but two students had to drop out because of other commitments.]  It takes advantage of various distance-learning technologies/systems (Skype, Bluejeans, Cisco Movi-Jabber, and MCNC) to enable students in three time zones to have the same kind of powerful interactions with faculty and with each other that UMW and other liberal arts institutions pride themselves on.  Most online course are larger and/or asynchronous.  We meet together as a group in real time, 1-2 times each week, even as we are spread across the country.  I’m not aware of any other course that brings together students from so many different schools to create a digital project together, especially one that provides both support and autonomy to build those projects.

In terms of opportunities for the students, they have access to the expertise of two faculty members not at their institution, as well as many other resources from the various schools (including help from UMW’s DTLT), they have a chance to be part of a project that weaves together nine different local histories of schools and communities during the Great War with an overarching national narrative.  They have the chance to see those different community histories through the eyes of people who are deeply interested in those communities because they are a part of the modern version of that community.

The distance learning aspect represents the biggest change for me, having never taught online before.  In some ways it’s more challenging than face-to-face classes: the video-conferencing technology isn’t perfect and it’s not easy for multiple people to talk without some pauses.  It’s challenging in that it’s hard to read body language or to see people getting ready to talk or any number of cues that can be easily recognized by experienced teachers in the classroom.  It’s also more challenging because the casual conversations that we typically engage in as faculty before and after classes simply aren’t there.  So, getting to know the students as people is more difficult.  Still, Ellen Holmes Pearson and I have worked to engage with students on their blogs and via Twitter (the class hashtag in #HIST1914).

Dealing with students at different schools also has raised other issues, including differing student expectations, differing tech support levels,  and differing research environments.  We’ve tried to address those with clear guidelines, assignments aimed at building tech skills, support from the UMW students in the course (building on the concept of tech mentors), and lots of discussions about archival research, citation, copyright permissions, and many other topics that you can read about in the syllabus.

The finished drafts of the projects are due April 3 and they look like they are going to be phenomenal.  [See links off of here to check them out.] I believe that they will serve as a resource for some time to come for the public to use.

I think that the course has the potential to serve as a model for one way that liberal arts institutions can engage in online learning without giving up the core values at the heart of what we do.  However, I’d like some help in thinking through:

  • How can we replicate this process with other classes?  [In other words, can we scale production of these classes, even if we want to continue to keep them small?]
  • How can we replicate this process without the resources of hire-behinds and/or a technical infrastructure for videoconferencing?
  • Who this approach should be aimed at? [Both in terms of students and in terms of faculty who might be able to participate.]
  • What lessons can be learned from this for hybrid or face-to-face courses?

I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

Moving on Over

Blogger to WordPress

After nine years on Blogger, I’ve ported all my posts to here. I moved because I’m working to consolidate my digital identity at http://mcclurken.org/ (as part of UMW’s Domain of One’s Own project) and because almost all of my blogging in the classroom has been oriented around WordPress.  It was time to move.

So, if you’re still following me on Blogger, please switch your feed to the new site (http://techist.mcclurken.org/feed).  [And look for a new post here with some news in the near future.]

 

 

Moving over

In the near future, this will be the new site for my blog, Techist, which for years has been on Blogger.  Since the rest of my digital world is on WordPress it makes sense to bring that blog over here too.  As soon as I port the posts over to this site, I’ll move to this space.

My Contribution to the James Farmer Lecture Hall Dedication

I was honored to be asked to be part of the dedication of the large lecture room in Monroe Hall at UMW in honor of Civil Rights icon James Farmer, who taught in that room for nearly 15 years.  Here is the text of my remarks with some of the clips I shared with the audience.

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James Farmer Lecture Hall Dedication, November 15, 2013


Thank you all for coming. It is indeed an honor for me to be here today, to be part of this ceremony. And it’s certainly appropriate for me, as chair of UMW’s department of History and American Studies, the department that James Farmer taught in for many years, to say a few words here today.

But I have another perspective on Dr. Farmer as well. Twenty years ago this fall, I was starting my senior year at Mary Washington College, and, once a week, for nearly three hours, I had the privilege of sitting in this very room, listening to James Farmer tell nearly 100 of us about the Civil Rights movement and about his role in it as part of his Introduction to Civil Rights course. As a history major I had heard about the movement in several of my classes, but there was something fundamentally different in hearing those stories come to life from someone who had been there, someone who had physically and emotionally suffered for the cause in which he believed.

As a history major who had every plan of going on to graduate school to become a professor, a scholar, an historian, a teacher there was something deeply powerful about hearing from a living legend who was simultaneously, clearly human as well. He was self-deprecating and open about his personal struggles: discussing, for example, how he dealt with his jealousy of “Martin’s” fame (that first-name reference itself a casual, not ostentatious, but constant reminder to us of his ties to the other leaders of the movement) or his wondering whether he made the right decision to stay in jail with other protesters arrested in Plaquemine, Louisiana instead of paying the fees and being at the 1963 March on Washington.

Even if I hadn’t already been aware of the unique experience that I and my classmates were going through, it would have been brought home to me when I got my paper back with his comments on it. My paper was on Lyndon Johnson’s varied stances on Civil Rights over the years. I won’t bore you with the details now, but I was proud of the nuanced story that I had written, working in many primary sources, but especially using LBJ’s autobiography, written after he had stepped down as president. [In retrospect, given what I know now of primary sources and about Lyndon Johnson, I bought into LBJ’s retellings of his own story more than I should have.] When I got the paper back, Dr. Farmer had simply written, “Interesting. This is not the version President Johnson told me when I was in the Oval Office.” Now, I’d had professors tell me that I needed to think more critically about my sources before, but none of them could cite actual interactions with the people in question to make me do so.

For this and so many other reasons, my time in James Farmer’s class, my time in this very room with him, was transformative, so much so, that when I had the chance to come back to teach at Mary Washington I jumped at the opportunity to find ways to remember and honor him, for his service to the Civil Rights Movement and for his service to nearly a generation of students at this school. I’m not alone in that. Tim O’Donnell taught a First-Year Seminar on James Farmer, as do an interdisciplinary group of faculty led by Craig Vasey; my colleague Jess Rigelhaupt taught an oral history class in which the students interviewed many of Farmer’s colleagues during his time at MWC.

But I’ve been asked to show you a bit of work that students in my digital history courses have done to honor James Farmer. Now, in talking with my students who were working on these projects, I told them about my own experiences in Farmer’s class and about his many gifts as an orator. They decided that they wanted to make it possible for others to not just read Dr. Farmer’s words but to be able to hear him as well. The 2008 iteration of my digital history course found and digitized Farmer’s 1994 appearance before the Federal Election Commission. There are many excerpts of that testimony with him talking about his first exposure to racism in 1923, him discussing his views on affirmative action, him revealing the ways in which Gandhi’s non-violent approach was an inspiration to him. But I want to share this clip of a poem that Farmer himself wrote.

 “When I Stand Tall”

In the mid-1980s television station WNVT came and recorded 13 of James Farmer’s class lectures. In 2012, working with our Division of Teaching and Learning Technologies, students digitized those lectures, transcribed them, and made them available for anyone to see.

I want to share two clips here. The first clip is actually a trailer made for the site by the students in the class to draw people in to watching the full lectures.

In the second clip Farmer talks about what he saw as the successes of the Freedom Summer.

Please check out these two sites for more videos of Dr. Farmer’s FEC testimony and class lectures.

So you can see that through the work of UMW students everyone can hear James Farmer’s words, can hear him tell his stories, can come to understand why we honor James Farmer today with a room in which people will regularly gather to hear from faculty, from guest speakers, from politicians debating the issues of the day, and from students presenting on their own research, perhaps on the Civil Rights Movement.

It is indeed right and appropriate that today we honor James Farmer in this way, in this room in which he touched so many Mary Washington students’ lives.

It is indeed right and appropriate that we designate, that we consecrate this place where the Civil Rights movement came to life through the resonant voice, the wry humor, the deep intelligence, and the raw emotion of a man who had lived through the movement, had changed the movement, and had been changed by it

It is indeed right and appropriate that we celebrate and recognize the life and teaching of James Leonard Farmer, Civil Rights leader, hero, and educator.

Thank you.

C-SPAN Lets Me Talk about My Last Project

C-SPAN’s BookTV did a short interview with me about my book as part of their C-SPAN Cities Tour of Fredericksburg that appears this weekend.

Considering that the book came out four years ago now, I’m glad I remembered as much as I did about it.  The interviewer from C-SPAN, Christy Hinton, did a nice job framing the parts of my office that were clean and the nice cover of my book in the background.  More importantly, she edited my responses down to a reasonable summary of what the book is about.

Sharing my teaching and learning

I’ve been fortunate lately to have a number of things come out recently featuring my teaching and research.

1) In October my US History in Film class was recorded by C-SPAN’s American History TV as we discussed the 1939 movie Gone with the Wind.  It was a wide-ranging discussion of the movie as a flawed secondary source about the Antebellum, Civil War, Reconstruction eras in the South, as well as its role as a primary source for the 1930s perspectives on that past.  

I did an introduction and conclusion, but the bulk of the class was the students delving deeply into the interpretations, implications, and lessons of the film.  They did a terrific job.

[I’ve gotten a number of nice responses from people who watched it, but the best was from an 87-year old Holocaust survivor who wrote me that GWTW had been her first exposure to American History.  She then told me that she was inspired to learn about the actual historical background of the time.]

You can watch the whole class here.

2) A couple weeks later, I did a talk for the Fredericksburg Area Museum on the Coming of the Battle of Fredericksburg as part of the celebration   C-SPAN came to that as well and you can see that talk here.

3) A few weeks after that, I was the moderator for a great series of talks about the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Fredericksburg by George Rable, Susannah Ural, and Frank O’Reilly.  They put up with my unorthodox introductions and gave great talks which can be found here.

4) Finally, UMW did a nice profile of me and my teaching for the main page of the website.  It’s overly generous, but I appreciate it just the same.

Incorporating Digital Literacy into History Methods Courses

In the History and American Studies 2009 Departmental Strategic Plan my department said that, in addition to other skills and literacies, we wanted all majors to develop the following abilities:

n  Digital Literacy
o   The ability to find reliable, scholarly, information on topics:
§  Within gated, subscription databases and in the larger, disorganized online world.
§  In online archives, museums and institutions of higher education.
o   The ability to assess and evaluate the reliability of online sources bringing to this newer source of information the skills of judicious, critical skepticism that have long been an indispensable historical tool.
o   The ability to produce creative, scholarly materials for the digital world that require the same level of rigor historians have applied to writing and publishing traditional papers, presentations, and monographs
When we developed learning outcomes for the history major, we incorporated these concepts into 8 of the 14 objectives, including the most obvious one:
  • Ability to utilize technological resources in research, data analysis, and presentation.
Now, we are looking at revising our department’s long standing methods course, HIST 299, into a two semester class (HIST 297 — Colloquium and HIST 298 — Practicum) for a number of reasons, among them the desire to be able to fully integrate all of the aspects we believe necessary to be a successful history major in our upper-level classes, in graduate school, and beyond.

At our last department meeting, the department agreed to include the following ideas, concepts, and assignments into the two classes:   


HIST 297
n  Finding and evaluating sources online
o   How do we find and evaluate online materials for scholarly uses? How does one begin to sift through the massive content that is available in a systematic and/or creative way? What are the pitfalls and perils, the promises and potentialities of the online information experience?
§  Learn library databases
§  Advanced scholarly searching
§  Evaluating sources online
n  Discuss new forms of scholarly communication and methodology, including digital history projects, collaborative writing, blogs, text-mining/topic modeling, mapping/GIS [1]  
n  Digital identity
o   How should we present ourselves to the online world (personally, professionally, and intellectually)?
n  Potential assignments for HIST 297:
o   E-portfolio/digital resume
o   Website review (e.g, along the lines of the Journal of American History website reviews)
o   Public writing (reflective blogs or individual/group resource sites on historical topics)
o   Some kind of public history assignment
HIST 298


n  Review, as needed, concepts of source location and evaluation (focusing on primary sources), digital identity, and new forms of scholarly methods and communication.
n  Potential assignments
o   Minimum level:
§  Public writing (Research log or resource site on topic)
o   Innovative level:
§  Multimedia version of their research project.
§  Contribute to a larger digital project in a small way
·       Partnered with James Monroe Papers, James Monroe Museum, and/or Library’s Special Collections, students could make small contributions to larger projects, getting a sense for what goes on behind the scenes and contributing to a larger good.
·       Or students could participate in crowd-sourced transcription projects, such as the War Department Papers or Jeremy Bentham’s papers.

We’ll have to see how it actually plays out in classes, but I’m glad to see our department working on practical ways to implement digital fluency into the core classes of our curriculum.



[1]Here I’m talking about, at minimum, exposure to the complex new approaches to research in the some exposure to the complex new approaches to research in the discipline offered by recent advancements in computing, including text-mining or GIS (if only because that those methods are influencing a new generation of scholarship that students will need to understand to assess). As they become more accessible and widely used, there will be more opportunities for students to also engage in the application of these tools in their own work.

Confirmation for “Uncomfortable, but Not Paralyzed”?

Since my first Digital History class in 2008, I’ve been telling students that I wanted them to be “uncomfortable, but not paralyzed” based on my sense that it was only when one struggled a bit that deep  learning occurred.  The concept has explicitly shaped much of my teaching since then.  Now the Mindshift blog at KQED is reporting that there are several studies that back up my reasoning.

In one study, published in Learning and Instruction, psychologists Sidney D’Mello and Art Graesser found “that even negative emotions can play a productive role in learning.”

Confusion, D’Mello explains, is a state of “cognitive disequilbrium”; we are mentally thrown off balance when we encounter information that doesn’t make sense. This uneasy feeling motivates us to restore our equilibrium through thought, reflection, and problem solving, and deeper learning is the result. According to D’Mello, engaged learners repeatedly experience “two-step episodesalternating between confusion and insight.” Back and forth, between perplexity and understanding: this is how the learning of complex material happens.

In fact, deep learning may be unlikely to happen without the experience of confusion, suggests a study conducted by another researcher, Arizona State’s Kurt VanLehn. The students in his experiment were not able to grasp the physics concepts they were learning until they had encountered, and surmounted, an intellectual “impasse.”

Still another study, this one led by Harvard physicist Eric Mazur, found that students who observed a demonstration in science class understood the relevant concept no better than before—unless the students were asked to predict the outcome of the demonstration in advance. When their predictions turned out to be wrong, the resulting confusion motivated them to consider the concept more deeply, and they learned more.

On a related note, Stephen Ramsey at the University of Nebraska has a wonderful post that eloquently makes the case that attitude is more important than (initial) aptitude in learning programming.

Nearly every programmer I know – and I know some great ones – started out not with a course, or a book, or a teacher, but with a problem that was irritating them. Something in their computational world didn’t seem right. Maybe it was broken, or maybe just missing. But being comfortable with not-knowing-what-the-hell-they’re-doing, they decided that getting a computer to do something new was more-or-less like figuring out how to get the chain back on the bike. They weren’t trying to “be programmers” any more than the parent determined to fix the kid’s bike is trying to be a “bicycle mechanic.”

All of these suggest that cultivating mental habits among our students (and ourselves) where we are okay with being unfamiliar with a subject, okay with struggling to master a concept or tool or problem, okay with working in new formats, okay with failure and trying again is important for intellectual and academic development in school and with the work done outside of school.