Small Teaching Online Book Summary

Over the past three weeks I have participated in a Wake Forest Center for the Advancement of Teaching summer reading group led by Director of Educational Development Dr. Kristi Verbeke.

Over 30 faculty (IIRC) read and discussed Small Teaching Online by Flower Darby and James Lang.

What follows is my reading notes and reflections on the book as originally posted in a long thread on Twitter.

This book applies the original “small teaching” insight of James Lang to online teaching. Basic premise: make small, manageable changes based on learning science rather than major but unsustainable overhauls to our teaching.

Ch 1: Surfacing Backward Design

Begin at the end: Where are we going (learning outcomes)? Then ask: How do we know we have arrived (assessment)? And last: What do we need to get there (work)? Useful but common advice.

In online education especially it is important not just to build these connections but to make them very explicit, surfacing not just the what/how of each activity and assignment but the why in relation to learning outcomes. This gives online students understanding, motivation, and direction.

Example of result of backward design from my Introduction to Sociology class

Ch 2: Guiding Learning Through Engagement

Darby highlights how much PROCESS we focus on in face-to-face classes that is harder to convey in online classes. Online we need to be more intentional about how we guide learning.

Breaking down tasks into discrete parts & even (occasionally) conditioning later tasks on completion of earlier ones helps. But my main takeaway from this chapter is that teachers have to make a point of being there for their online students. This takes time/energy. Darby: online teachers need to be attentive to students in forums & discussions, looking for cues that we would normally pick up in class. And responding “early and often.” “Look for every opportunity to help students know how they are doing in the class.”

Ch 3: Using Media & Tech Tools

First tip here echoes 99 Tips for Creating Simple and Sustainable Educational Videos by Karen Costa. Create SHORT lecture videos: <6 mins long and informal (rather than professionally produced) are ideal for student learning.

Because online students are often busy outside of classes, it helps focus their attention & structure their priorities to give short graded assessments after each required video lecture. Don’t look at creating engagement this way as pandering to student “consumers.” Grades help guide priorities.

In addition to video lectures, spontaneous (or planned) video updates can be used to respond to issues emerging from the video lectures & related assignments. At Wake Forest we are transitioning to Canvas LMS which makes it easy to record videos inside the LMS or link to YouTube.

Also, do not feel you are shirking your responsibilities by drawing on other available media resources. Curating course materials is an important part of our job as teachers. E.g., Tanya Golash Boza of UC-Merced has put together some amazing videos on race/racism.

Last, remember the book’s premise: small decisions & actions are key. Don’t swing for the fences and strike out, especially making our students collateral damage by turning our tech struggles into their tech challenges. As Darby writes, “First, do no harm.”

Ch 4: Building Community

Online courses are sometimes treated like old-time “correspondence courses” that each student completes as a solitary individual. But the “Community of Inquiry” model highlights the importance of community for student learning (p. 79).

Of the three “presences” (cognitive, social, teaching) at the core of the Community of Inquiry, the social is the hardest for many to achieve online (p. 80). Darby and Lang argue that teachers can facilitate social presence by helping students see us and each other as human beings.

Strategies for doing this include creating structured opportunities for students to interact with us and others. I.e., “discussions.” I and other faculty dread trying to create discussions online, often only knowing the “post once, comment twice” structure that seems so rote. An alternative is proposed by John Orlando: Require “one or two original thoughts” rather than an original post + replies. After all, a reply could be more substantive, interesting, and productive than an original post. And it encourages group interaction as much as individual action.

A real challenge for faculty teaching online will be requirement that we “show up for class” if we want to build community, because class is no longer clearly delimited in time/space. We can’t treat our online classes like slow cookers (“set & forget”). Rather, we have to be present “on a very regular basis” (p. 87). In a F2F class, we facilitate good conversations. Online teaching arguably requires more facilitation. This may be all the more important for under-resourced and/or underserved students.

Monitoring and being involved in online discussions allows us as teachers to foster cultural inclusion and suppress exclusionary practices. Darby and Lang highlight the Critical Multicultural Pavilion EdChange project as a resource.

Last, it doesn’t hurt to “cultivate and demonstrate genuine caring for your students” (p. 104).

Ch. 5: Giving Feedback

Some good Pedagogy 101 items in this chapter. E.g.,

  • recall the difference between SUMMATIVE and FORMATIVE assessments
  • learning requires assessment with timely feedback
  • focusing on justifying our grades is a “common trap” (pp. 110-11).

We need to give students both summative AND formative assessments. We can use labels like “This Time” and “Next Time” and/or “Strengths” and “For Improvement” (p. 112). These labels don’t just help students, they help US remember what we are giving feedback for.

Giving feedback “face-to-face” can be more effective (& even efficient). Reach out to meet with students who are struggling early. Rebrand the potentially often off-putting and little used “office hours” as “happy hours” or “coffee breaks.” Be inviting!

Ch 6: Fostering Student Persistence & Success

Following the small teaching philosophy, this can be something as simply as a “nudge” – an email to a struggling student with advice/encouragement that can have a big impact.

I think there are some things I may do online that I wouldn’t F2F. Like giving “mastery quizzes” as a prerequisite for moving on in a module. In a F2F class students can better gauge whether they are “getting it”; online a simple, ungraded quiz can give needed feedback & direction.

Scaffolding may be more important online, so thinking about ways of giving students easy wins early on to build their confidence both with the material and the technology/LMS. As always, this will be all the more important for less advantaged students.

Ch 7: Creating Autonomy

This chapter argues that students are more motivated if they have some agency/autonomy in courses. Although “we can’t give people agency” we can “provide the conditions and support for it to flourish.” Online courses require students to take more responsibility. We can facilitate this by taking some responsibility ourselves as teachers for guiding students without becoming dictatorial.

This chapter includes a good discussion of Linda Nilson’s specifications grading as a way to reward students for taking responsibility for doing the work of learning. I do this some, though without appreciating all of the benefits. Will def incorporate more online.

Ch 8: Making Connections

This chapter stresses the importance of helping students connect ideas both within and between classes, as well as connecting class ideas to their own experiences. I do the latter pretty explicitly, but the former varies by the class I am teaching.

We can encourage connections with the abundance of material available in the world outside our classes by, e.g., assigning students to “curate” and evaluate a collection of digital materials that illustrate a particular concept. This type of assignment can be set up in ways that facilitate learner autonomy (recall Ch 7).

Ch 9: Developing as an Online Instructor

This chapter is a bit of preaching to the choir. Anyone who has made it this far in the book is already doing this, though of course more can always be done. The chapter provides some direction on the more that can be done: taking online courses, seeking out exemplars, accessing books/blogs/podcasts.

Suggestions provided in “Small Teaching Online” include (tho not limited to):

Which leads to a final important point: take advantage of your local teaching/learning pros. Teams at WFU CAT and Wake Forest’s Office of Online Education have been working incredibly hard to bring 1,000 teachers at Wake Forest up to speed given the reality of at least some online ed this fall.

Actual final point from “Small Teaching Online”:

“Embrace the challenge of becoming an excellent online instructor. Reflect on the moral obligation to help these learners succeed” (p. 218).

I didn’t sign up for online ed, but neither did my students. Bottom line: do right by them

Choosing Adventure: Safe Travel in Dangerous Places book by Greg Ellifritz

As one of Greg Ellifritz’s Patreon supporters, I received an electronic version of his new book Choose Adventure: Safe Travel in Dangerous Places as a benefit of patronage. But Greg was good enough also to send me a hard copy when it became available recently.

At first glance, I am not the natural audience for a book about traveling in dangerous places. Although I love to travel (I have been to every state in the US except North Dakota and Alaska), I have not traveled outside the United States very often. My few international trips have not been to the kinds of “dangerous” places Ellifritz writes about (i.e., the “third world” or “developing world”).

Having gotten into Choose Adventure over the past week, it is now clear that I am a natural audience for this book. So is anyone who wants to travel safely, whether your destination is Kansas, Korea, Kazakhstan, or Kenya.

I love seeing new places, but I also have a strong aversion to uncertainty. Although a fundamental principle of the book is choosing adventure not routine, going into global travel with my eyes wide open does reduce some of the stress of the unknown.

Choosing Adventure is an amazing guidebook to making good decisions while traveling — or in the case of some topics Greg covers like prostitution and drugs, making better bad decisions. Advice about dealing with scam artists and criminals, surviving natural and human disasters (e.g., riots), and using travel and improvised weapons are applicable in 200 countries on 7 continents from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe.

Even something as basic as food is treated very astutely here. If I had read this book prior to my trip to Mexico, I would have likely avoided getting food poisoning in a restaurant in Mexico City. And if I had read it before going to Ghana, I would have been able to enjoy some of the amazing street food that I assiduously avoided while there.

Photo of Greg Ellifritz courtesy of Greg Ellifritz

Greg Ellifritz is not only a very experienced traveler, he is a student of the magic that the world has to offer. This shines through brightly in Choosing Adventure.

If you want to get a free taste of Greg’s travel insights, he posts occasionally about his travels on his blog. Of the dozens of posts I have read over the years, one of my all-time favorite was the account of his trip to Jordan last year.

Greg Ellifritz at the Temple of Hercules in Jerash. From https://www.activeresponsetraining.net/back-from-jordan

Additional Resources on Japanese-American Internment Camps During World War II

I began this series of posts talking about how little I knew about the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, even when I was an upper-division college student at UC-Berkeley. At the same time I “discovered” the internment, I also discovered resistance within the internment camps.

Almost 30 years later, now, and much more has been done to publicize both the internment and the resistance. In addition to the digital copies of the Japanese American Evacuation and Resettlement Records that I explored in hard copy at UC-Berkeley’s Bancroft Library, there is Densho, a grassroots organization dedicated to preserving, educating, and sharing the story of World War II-era incarceration of Japanese Americans, with its rich and growing online encyclopedia. The Smithsonian National Museum of American History has exhibits online, as does the National Archives. The National Park Service is doing a great job at Manzanar, as I wrote about already. They also published a free on-line book, Confinement and Ethnicity: An Overview of World War II Japanese American Relocation Sites, which I consult often.

In addition, John Okada’s 1956 novel, No-No Boy, is back in print. The first Japanese-American novel, it is a fictional telling of the story of the resistance to the loyalty questions.

I was interested to learn just recently that a documentary called “Resistance at Tule Lake” is just being finished and screened. The trailer is available on YouTube:

The aforementioned Densho site also has made available a number of interviews with individuals who resisted their unjust internment by answering “No-No” on the loyalty questionnaire or otherwise resisting the draft. Here a a few:

***

***

This is obviously just a start. If you know of other resources beyond these, please mention and link to them in the comments.

Trying to Put My Writing on a Diet

Like many academics, I write alot. Books, book chapters, articles, book reviews, lectures and lesson plans, manuscript reviews, letters of recommendation, my blogs (this one less than my Gun Culture 2.0 blog), emails, and more.

Like some academics, I enjoy writing. Although I enjoy writing, it is hard. Or perhaps, I enjoy writing because it is hard. The most rewarding things in life aren’t easy.

As legendary writing teacher William Zinsser puts it, “A clear sentence is no accident. Very few sentences come out right the first time, or even the third time. Remember this in moments of despair. If you find that writing is hard, it’s because it is hard.”

Unlike most academics, I sometimes actually think of myself as a writer. That is, I try to think of myself not as someone who is just reporting research findings, but someone who is trying to present ideas in an clear, interesting, and compelling way.

To that end, I try to read and think about not just the substance of what I am saying but the writing itself. Zinsser’s On Writing Well  is a book I return to often.

Among his advice is to write what you think you want to say, then cut it in half (or something like that). There are so many wasted words in writing, some due to poor mechanics, some due to poor thinking.

Here’s an example I came across recently in my work on concealed carry laws:

BEFORE: What permits are called can sometimes be meaningful.

AFTER: Permit names are sometimes meaningful.

In this case, I am clear about what I want to say but I just say it poorly. Poor mechanics. My work is replete with such problems.

My writing accountability partner recently recommended Helen Sword’s Stylish Academic Writing  to me.

In the “Things to Try” section of her chapter on “Smart Sentencing,” Sword recommends a free diagnostic tool available on a web site she has created called The Writer’s Diet. You cut and paste a section of your writing into the tool and it tells you how “flabby or fit” your writing is.

I put some of the sections of the introduction to my book on Gun Culture 2.0 through the test and here is what I found.

The catchy story that begins the chapter: FIT AND TRIM!!!!

 

The analytical framework, mid-section of the chapter: NEEDS TONING!

 

The descriptive final section of the chapter: FIT AND TRIM!!!!! But needs some work with the prepositions.

This is not to say that I am a good writer, but it is a reflection of the fact that I take writing seriously and try to put in the work to make my writing better. It is an ongoing process.

My Love of Whisk(e)y and the Alcohol Epidemic in the United States

I love whisk(e)y. My love knows almost no boundaries. American, Canadian, Indian, Irish, Japanese, Scotch, Texas. Barley, corn, rye, wheat. Neat, rocks, mixed.

To fuel my love I have been reading Reid Mitenbuler’s recent book, Bourbon Empire: The Past and Future of America’s Whiskey.

cover-image-bourbon-empireEarly on, Mitenbuler introduces the first alcohol distiller among the British colonists, George Thorpe. Around 1620, Thorpe first distilled alcohol from Indian corn mash in the Berkeley settlement near Jamestown, Virginia. (See another account of this here.)

This wasn’t because without the distilled spirit the colonists would be tee-totalers. Nay. Mitenbuler makes clear that the colonists loaded their ships with beer for their trips across the Atlantic and to sustain them in the colonies.

Alcohol, then as now, was part and parcel of the everyday lives of people living on this continent.

Although I am still in the revolutionary era in the book, I expect that Mitenbuler will discuss the many personal and social ills associated with alcohol use. These, of course, led up to the historic and failed experiment with banning alcohol from 1920 (with the ratification of the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution) to 1933 (with the ratification of the 21st Amendment).

Since the repeal of prohibition, public health scholars continue to document the toll that alcohol takes on individual lives and our society as a whole. According to the Centers for Disease Control, among the short-term health risks of inappropriate alcohol use are:

  • Injuries, such as motor vehicle crashes, falls, drownings, and burns.
  • Violence, including homicide, suicide, sexual assault, and intimate partner violence.
  • Alcohol poisoning, a medical emergency that results from high blood alcohol levels.
  • Risky sexual behaviors, including unprotected sex or sex with multiple partners. These behaviors can result in unintended pregnancy or sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV.
  • Miscarriage and stillbirth or fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASDs) among pregnant women.

Long-term health risks include:

  • High blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, liver disease, and digestive problems.
  • Cancer of the breast, mouth, throat, esophagus, liver, and colon.
  • Learning and memory problems, including dementia and poor school performance.
  • Mental health problems, including depression and anxiety.
  • Social problems, including lost productivity, family problems, and unemployment.
  • Alcohol dependence, or alcoholism.

Despite this epidemic of alcohol-related problems in America, any person over 21 years of age can walk into most supermarkets, liquor stores, wine stores, beer stores, bars, or restaurants and buy alcohol. No “prohibited persons,” no permit required, no criminal background check, no mental health assessment, no registration, no additional fee beyond the cost of the product.

To see how easy it is to find alcohol in my quasi-homeland, I asked Google how many liquor stores there are in San Francisco.* Google returned the following map:

liquor stores in san franciscoIt is surprising that given the daily toll taken on individuals and our society as a whole that more people are not up in arms about this alcohol epidemic.

Of course, what could the people possibly do to resist the virtual ownership of the federal government by the alcohol lobby, which according to the Center for Responsive Politics’ opensecrets.org website had 292 lobbyists, $18.9 million in expenditures, and 31 clients in 2015.**

Thankfully, no one holds me — a responsible alcohol user — accountable for the mis-use of alcohol by (many, many thousands of) others. No one looks to me to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem. No one requires me to have a 0.00 blood alcohol content before driving because so many others drink and drive irresponsibly. No one asks me how many more people have to die before I, for the good of my fellow citizens, give up alcohol. (Because if we could prevent even one more death by instituting common sense alcohol laws…)

The problems associated with alcohol in this country also do not prevent me, thanks be to God, from being able to purchase and consume the product.

20151209_215426.jpgI am also extremely fortunate to have very generous friends who share my love of whisk(e)y with me. To wit: Last night my friend offered a bourbon and rye tasting competition between Tennessee-based Prichard’s Distillery and the Buffalo Trace-owned Colonel E.H. Taylor brand.

The clear winner was Prichard’s Double Barreled bourbon, so named because the spirit is aged once at 120 proof in new charred oak barrels (as is required by law to be called a bourbon), then cut to 95 proof and re-aged in new charred oak barrels. The double barreled aging and the relatively moderate alcohol content (in comparison to many craft bourbons today), 90 proof in the bottle, made this an easy-drinking bourbon. And somehow, despite being aged twice in new charred barrels, it was not overly sweet.

The name and label art was also a big winner, in my opinion at least, because I also love a double barreled shotgun.

20151209_215435.jpg*San Francisco, the land of unicorns and rainbows, where the last gun store, High Bridge Arms, was just forced out of business.

**Compared to 55 lobbyists, $8.4M, and 8 clients for the gun rights lobby in 2015.

William Butler Yeats on the Experience of Modernity

I have always invoked Marshall Berman invoking Karl Marx invoking Shakespeare (Prospero in “The Temptest”) to describe the experience of modernity:

“All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned.”

All That is SolidBut I could equally well use Irish poet William Butler Yeats from “The Second Coming” (1919) via African novelist Chinua Achebe:

Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world…

 

ThingsFallApart

William Butler Yeats (1865-1939) by Charles Beresford Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

 

 

Live Tweeting PBS Frontline Episode “Gunned Down: The Power of the NRA”

Thanks to a recommendation from my fellow sociologist of guns, Jennifer Carlson, I was asked by the digital content manager for PBS’s FRONTLINE to participate in live Tweeting before, during, and after the premier of their upcoming episode, “Gunned Down: The Power of the NRA.”

The episode airs at 10:00am Eastern Time on Tuesday, January 6th. I will be Tweeting from @gunculture2pt0 and PBS will be tweeting from @frontlinepbs — using the hashtag #GunnedDown.

Frontline Gunned DownHere is a brief description of the episode by PBS: “How the NRA became a powerful lobbying force. Included: remarks from individuals on both sides of the gun-control debate, including former NRA spokesman John Aquilino; Vice President Joe Biden; and former NRA executive vice president Warren Cassidy.”

A five minute YouTube preview video is also available:

I was also asked to suggest to PBS Frontline some individuals who might live Tweet the episode from a more pro-gun perspective. I will be interested to see who they may have asked and who may have said yes.

Of course, anyone can Tweet the event using the hashtag #GunnedDown, so I will look forward to “seeing” old and new virtual friends/colleagues Tuesday night.

 

Concealed Carry Fun with Google Ngram

My writing accountability partner recently turned me on to Google Ngram. The search engine lets you you electronically comb through millions of books in Google’s database for certain words or phrases. (You can read about the technical details on Google or Wikipedia.)

I searched for the phrase “concealed carry” as a case-insensitive phrase and the engine returned the following chart.

Google NGram Concealed Carry

 

Because the phrase has to appear in 40 or more books per year to register on the chart, the fact that it shows up in 0% of the books before 1980 doesn’t mean the phrase never occurs. But it doesn’t commonly occur through the 1980s, and then starts picking up in the 1990s — surely a lagged effect of Florida passing its concealed carry law in 1997 given the time it takes most people to publish books. The term steadily rises through the 2000s (the Google database ends in 2008). I don’t put much stake in the decline from 2006 to 2008, since we don’t see a big downward trend in either of the other spellings during that time. Without seeing the period from 2008 forward it is hard to know if it is just a blip or if it marks a trend.

It is interesting to note that by 1994 the term “Concealed Carry” — CAPITALIZED to signify it as an entity — begins to appear and remains relatively stead through 2008.

No major insight here. Just some fun with Google Ngram that further documents the rise of concealed carry in American since 1987.

Read Julie Schumacher’s Dear Committee Members: A Novel

Whether you write letters of recommendation or not – but especially if you write letters of recommendation – read Julie Schumacher’s Dear Committee Members. It is a novel written in the form of letters of recommendation by Jason T. Fitger, Professor of Creative Writing and English at Payne University.

Although not a typical narrative, the novel nonetheless tells a funny and at times poignant story of an older professor dealing with changes in himself and in the university, through his many digressions in the letters of recommendation he writes.

I don’t want to give away too much, but some memorable passages from a couple of the letters include:

  • “This letter recommends Melanie deRueda for admission to the law school on the well-heeled side of this campus. I’ve known Ms. deRueda for eleven minutes, ten of which were spent in a fruitless attempt to explain to her that I write letters of recommendation only for students who have signed up for and completed one of my classes.”
  • “Only by rewarding West [a junior colleague up for an award] and others of his happy ilk, and perhaps by killing off senior faculty, myself included, will it be possible for that elusive and almost mythical beast – collegiality – to prevail.”
  • “I have decided to accept a desperate departmental nomination for chair. Janet [his ex-wife who works on campus] will tell you that, throughout this institution, I am widely disliked. (I’m sure you’re shocked at the news.) She has attempted to bolster me, however, by claiming that, though understandably reviled, I am not universally distrusted, and on that basis I should serve out a three-year term.”

It’s a fast read at 180 small pages. I was sorry when it ended.

Official Catholic View of Use of Lethal Force in Self-Defense

Miguel at the Gun Free Zone blog posted recently about a new book by a Texas police officer called Jesus Christ on Killing.

jesus-christ-on-killing-coverI expect to see evangelical Christians taking this position, but Miguel brings to light some interesting passages from the Catechism of the Catholic Church that I had not previously read:

The seldom discussed subject of the legitimate killing of a human being and how does that mixes with Judeo/Christian values.  As a Catholic (although in a long hiatus) I refer to the Catechism regarding the Fifth Commandment

2263 The legitimate defense of persons and societies is not an exception to the prohibition against the murder of the innocent that constitutes intentional killing. “The act of self-defense can have a double effect: the preservation of one’s own life; and the killing of the aggressor. . . . The one is intended, the other is not.”

2264 Love toward oneself remains a fundamental principle of morality. Therefore it is legitimate to insist on respect for one’s own right to life. Someone who defends his life is not guilty of murder even if he is forced to deal his aggressor a lethal blow:

 If a man in self-defense uses more than necessary violence, it will be unlawful: whereas if he repels force with moderation, his defense will be lawful. . . . Nor is it necessary for salvation that a man omit the act of moderate self-defense to avoid killing the other man, since one is bound to take more care of one’s own life than of another’s.

2265 Legitimate defense can be not only a right but a grave duty for one who is responsible for the lives of others. The defense of the common good requires that an unjust aggressor be rendered unable to cause harm. For this reason, those who legitimately hold authority also have the right to use arms to repel aggressors against the civil community entrusted to their responsibility.

A burden we do not seek but we know we might face.

Catechism of the Catholic Church