My baby: the Ancient Goddess (or, why to give creative research assignments)

In ninth grade, my English teacher Del Hayes (who would leave the next year to can fish in Alaska) gave my class an open-ended research assignment and I decided to make my first website. It was, more or less, a Wikipedia page on the Byzantine Empress Theodora, although in 1996 there was no other mention of her online (at least according to AltaVista) and Wikipedia was still a twinkle in someone’s eye. But I threw myself into the basics of HTML so that I could choose just the right shade of Hex Value, and I went to the Library of Congress so that I could learn more about Theodora than my school’s Encyclopedias could offer. It was enormously fun.

SalmacisNavez

The Nymph Salmacis and Hermaphroditus, by Francois Navez (yes, that’s where we got the word from)

Shortly after, I put my feminist interest in Greek myths into code and started work on the opus that would become the website “paleothea.com” (my attempt to translate “ancient goddess” before I knew Greek). For years, it was the first hit on Google if you typed in “Greek Goddess,” and the work that I poured into it led me to major in Ancient Greek Language and Literature at Oberlin College (I had intended a more practical major in psychology). For more than ten years, I stayed up late into the night, posting pre-Raphaelite and WPA-art deco-mural paintings of goddesses that didn’t make the cut to D’Aulaire’s Greek Myths.

Then, as now, my interests were wide-ranging. My fascination with creating a beautiful database of woman-centered Greek myths waned as I became more academically competent in studying them (and I gave away the site), but the research skills I had learned translated easily. The limitations and merits of interpretation were some of the biggest takeaways. The strength of finding my own voice as a researcher was another. I went to work in my own community in the DC area after graduating, and soon the questions I was asking there drove me to graduate school.

Today, I am an anthropologist who does research in Ecuador on how rights and responsibilities change with age, and my love for retelling Hesiod’s myths of gender transformation almost never comes up. But what I know now, that I could not have known then, is that website was as important to my sense of self then as my anthropological work is now. And then as now, it was because of my personal investment and ownership of the work.

cybelemeriaux

Cybele, by Erika Meriaux (seriously, look up the myths about her and Attis, who is lurking in the background)

So now when I teach, I, too, try to include opportunities for my students to come up with their own research projects. I keep adjusting my guidelines because too much latitude is overwhelming for students who are less excited or less confident. Students benefit from having some control over their learning process, but don’t naturally know the critical skills that come with learning how to research. But at the end of the day, my academic journey began the day I came to know myself as a creative contributor of knowledge, and I can think of no greater gift.

tl;dr Inquiry-based learning for the win!

Online Discussion Pedagogy

So if you’ve ever been in an online course – or even a face-to-face course with an online component – you have probably come across some variation of the Online Discussion Board. Modeled on the threaded bulletin boards that once defined internet communication, they are often imagined to replace the kinds of spontaneous conversation that emerge in face-to-face classroom teaching. The most common approach to these “discussions” is to require students to post a thoughtful post of a certain length responding to some sort of weekly prompt, and to read the posts of their peers.

I hate them.

cartoon gif="Thoughtful Discussion on the Internet"

Thoughtful Discussion on the Internet

I do not hate them because such posts are pedagogically useless – they aren’t. But they aren’t the equivalent of an in-class discussion, they’re the equivalent of being handed a worksheet in class with and being asked to write a short answer. There’s value there, particularly in the context of an online class, but its a different value. The problem is when teachers are seduced by the misnomer “discussion” and think that requiring students to read and respond to each others’ replies teaches them something.

The reason I hate them is because I actually think that students CAN get something out of online discussions, but only if teachers stop thinking that the genre accomplishes the same goals as face to face conversation or even open-ended online discussion boards. And that’s not possible if you’re using the space as an easy place to post short answers worksheets.

In case its not as obvious to you as it is to me, here are a few of the differences between the typical online course discussion board and the models it is supposedly built on:

  • Written replies in asynchronous forums, unlike real-time face to face conversations (or online chat), are not spontaneous or easily refined through quick back and forth discussion.
  • If a classroom teacher standing at the front of the room asked the class to respond to a question or idea, and went student by student so everyone could hear all the answers, that would definitely not constitute a discussion.
  • Face to face discussions with students often allow for students to signal their confusion or lack of clarity with nonverbal cues that allow the teacher to redirect in situ.
  • Most non-school online discussion boards have more lurkers (people reading but not participating) than posters, and responders are highly selective about who merits a reply.
  • In some types of non-school online discussion boards (e.g. more anonymous boards with changing groups of commenters), the majority of replies are not discussions of content but ad hominem attacks and critiques of style.
  • In some types of non-school online discussions (e.g. the threaded responses to posts in Livejournal), interlocutors have long-standing relationships that they have been slowly developing over long periods of time, and replies are as much about building and maintaining those relationships as responding to the content.

It follows that many of the things those communicative genres accomplish do not translate into the style of online discussion common to most courses.

But there are ways to run an online class discussion that might actually be a little closer to deserving the label. These maximize what the online discussion board speech genre actually DOES offer, namely:

  • an opportunity for a student to get a survey of their classmates’ ideas on a given issue
  • a space for thoughtfully crafted short replies

I think the key difference that this highlights is that online class discussions are valuable for having students take ownership of the reading by creating well-grounded critical questions. The responses from their peers are still “short answers” for the ones writing them, but when they are actually engaging with their peers’ ideas, there is value for the askers that wouldn’t be otherwise available. In other words, students get value from having other students engage with questions they have, not answers they have.

My approach in an upper level online class I am currently teaching is to have students sign up for a day to lead a discussion on a reading they have all been assigned. Then that student provides their peers with a short summary of what they think the major take-aways of the reading are, and provides a number of critical questions on the reading that the other students then reply to. The Discussion Leaders are given clear guidelines on how to create questions that inspire conversation related to the day’s topical goals, the larger course goals, and the lines of thought that will be useful for other assignments (e.g. papers). In this class I have seen students develop and articulate theoretical questions and lines of inquiry that I have not seen in other assignment formats. And I have seen students who formulated questions that betrayed a lack of reading comprehension get valuable correction from a number of students that addressed the issue more thoroughly than I, as a teacher, could have done in any single response.

While this particular discussion format won’t work for all levels or types of online class, I think that any online class discussion should keep in mind the particularities and differences of the formats – what is does do and what it doesn’t do – when they are designing their course activities.

Scrivener: a grad student review

NSF Word Cloud

Look! I made this from my NSF DDIG application!

I just submitted an application to the NSF DDIG*. It’s a big grant and a big deal and getting it in makes me a very happy camper. I had already done a lot of writing for it in Word, which is where I had done all my grant writing previously. But I was feeling a definite need for a Fresh Start, and so I downloaded a trial version of Scrivener** so I could stare at a new kind of blank page.

I had heard that Scrivener is a pretty impressive writing management system from novelists and other academics. They were correct.

The first awesome thing was that I imported all the grant writing I had already done into folders in the Grant Collection I started. That meant that whenever I wanted to check or copy some previous writing I could zip quickly between a preloaded list, instead of sifting through the eight million heavy, slow Word windows I had been dealing with before. It  reminded me of the light touch and organization of Journler, except with a much more fluid import. It worked so well that I added folders for reference and dumped in a number of grant guidelines from various online sources. Not only were they super easy to navigate, they were also super easy to search from within the application I was writing. Major bonus.

Screenshot of my Grant collection in ScrivenerThe second awesome thing – which Scrivener markets first – is that they have existing templates you can use. These templates are nice in terms of organizing your thoughts and writing and breaking the work ahead of you into a bare bones outline that you can then mess around with so it best suits you. In fact, I found these sub-documents and folders a MUCH more useful way to outline and organize than the more typical outlining within a document. Unfortunately, if you DO want to outline within a doc, Scrivener’s bullet formatting is only mediocre. But if I am really itching for that kind of structure, I prefer to use Opal (which I can later import into Scrivener if I feel like it).

The third awesome thing is that I can highlight and/or compile my different sub-documents in different ways, which I found particularly useful in checking maximum lengths for different sub-sections of my application.

I am not yet writing my dissertation, of course, but I have no doubt that the recommendations I’ve gotten from peers for its utility are not overstated.

The biggest disadvantages I have run into thus far are formatting related. This is true for reference notation (though someone more dedicated than I may have found good work arounds for this), for text-based outlining within a document, and – worst of all – for making tables. The commenting and footnoting features are acceptable (to me) but nothing to write home about.

Overall, I would recommend this to every grad student ever. At a reasonable $45 (or less if you’ve got a coupon from NaNoWriMo like me), it’s a solid investment. There may be a little bit of a learning curve for people intimidated by technology, but I think those people might end up being its biggest fans in the end.

* That’s the National Science Foundation’s Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grant, for those of you not in the loop.
** They give you 30 non-consecutive days of trial with the full program, which I highly recommend taking advantage of.

Comps as Rite of Passage

I was planning on writing a follow up to my last post on comps* preparation tips, but there was really one one thing I wanted to say:

Try not to stress out. 

Of course, I wanted to say it because I was totally failing. Despite efforts to keep up with the basics**, enlisting the help of a caretaker***, and getting other people to help me with my non-comps work****, I was still feeling sick with stress and generally struggling to stay on track because I was psyching myself out. What actually did help was reframing the comps process for myself as a rite of passage.

Maidenhood Ceremony, my favorite rite of passage yet

Maidenhood Ceremony, my favorite rite of passage yet

And, amazingly, it has helped a lot with managing my stress. Whereas I can – and do – always second guess my academic preparedness and the adequacy of my self-discipline, this frame refocused my attention on completely different aspects of the process. I’ve been through a few major rites of passage in my life – I got married in 2006, I had a maidenhood ceremony in 1996, I got baptized in 1994 – and there are commonalities that I found very soothing.

  • You can’t ever really be prepared. That’s kind of the point. You can center and ready yourself, but the rite itself is beyond your control. Since a great deal of my stress around comps comes from trying to control it, I find this to be a major relief.
  • Some challenges aren’t that meaningful. It’s not just about testing your knowledge, the structure of the thing also introduces challenges that have nothing to do with whether you are qualified to be a PhD candidate. Whether it’s 3 weeks of nonstop writing or a day of fasting, some of the challenges are just arbitrary, and for me that provides some respite for feeling intimidated by them.
  • The rite is actually for me. Even though other people are participating, helping, guiding, and ultimately judging me, the point is creating a ritual that marks my transition into another stage. I need to not lose sight of the forest (yes, I’m prepared to be a PhD candidate and do my fieldwork) for the trees (what if I don’t say what this professor expects to hear!?).

One final thing I realized is that, because of my particular background, I have had a lot of agency in the structures and practices of all my rites of passage up until this point – why stop now? Instead of just trying to control myself to meet their expectations, I want to think about how to make this really mine. Maybe I’ll spend some time designing a comps outfit for orals. Maybe I’ll go to happy hour after I finish each question. Maybe I’ll take a ridiculous photo of myself every day of the process and post it. If you have other ideas, please share them! Help me make this a ritual worth loving memory.

* aka the comprehensive exams, aka qualifying exams, aka quals
** exercise, food, and sleep
*** You know what stuff you let drop when you get stressed (in my case, eating healthily and getting exercise), so ask someone else to help you stay on track – maybe even bring you food like you just had a baby. Maybe take regular walks with you.
**** This tip came from my adviser, and she was talking about my TA responsibilities and encouraging me to ask my coworkers to help me with grading and even cover my classes while I’m in comps.

Guerilla Panels at #AAA2012

A lot of people attended talks at the AAAs, but I think I’m one of the few who got to see a guerilla panel. It was awesome.

As I understood it, when the AAAs got more panels than could fit in their massive program, the AALCIG and AAGE’s* sponsored panels got dropped. But, rather than accept the rejection, they opened their Board Meeting with two new scholars’ papers. Three more senior scholars served as discussants for each. And maybe it was because there were more discussants than papers, and maybe it was just ‘cuz those guys were awesome, but it was massively educational. Apart from learning a great deal about what people who really like to work with “life course” care about, here are some other important lessons:

  • the AAAs are an opportunity to do the kind of anthro you care about – you can use other methods to get the word out to people, but take advantage and make it happen, regardless of the institutional support
  • champagne and chocolate chip cookies go fast
  • silent auctions of stuff that people in the group are interested in is a great thing to have happening in the background of a meeting (and my grad student group should totally do something similar)**

In sum, it was pretty great, and maybe I’ll try to be part of making something like that happen again next year. What were your highlights?


* the AAA Aging And Lifecourse Interest Group and the Association of Anthropology and Gerontology
** I won a video called My Name is Julius in the silent auction. Exciting because it’s about life course (my interest) and hearing loss (my husband’s interest, because of his company, Acudora).

Academic Grant Writing Support

Despite my best intentions to have solid drafts of all my grants at least a month before the deadline, I find myself a week before a deadline with a stinky, gloppy mess of a grant started too late and severely lacking in lovability. A big part of that failure was simply part of learning the process that works best for me in writing academic grants*, but thank goodness there were also a couple of people (my adviser, the friends who shared their successful grants with me, my Grant Writing Buddy, and a couple of peers who selflessly pretend to actually want to read and edit my grotesque early efforts) to keep me from wholesale fail.

In addition to those indispensable and wonderful support people, I have also found a number of online resources helpful for staying on track. One I already mentioned, but bears repeating, is Dr. Karen’s Foolproof Grant Template, by Dr. Karen Kelsky of The Professor Is In (http://theprofessorisin.com). Another, too obvious for links, are the guidelines and links provided on each granting agency’s website. The last is the treasure trove of advice on academic grant writing found in The Chronicle of Higher Education:

Academic grant writing resources for all!


* A key turning point was when I realized I shouldn’t try to write lit reviews by starting with the narrative and filling in the citations, but rather making a list of all the people I want to cite, categorizing that list, and then writing a synthesis that ties them all together. My adviser tried to explain this to me previously, but I still needed to learn the hard way for some reason …

Letter of Alienation, er, Recommendation

Socially Awkward Penguin Letter of Recommendation

If I were writing my own letter of recommendation for another professor, here’s what would really come to mind.

To Whom It May Concern,

It is my orgasmic pleasure to recommend Samantha Grace. I know Samantha best in her capacity as house dishwasher, a role clearly well suited to her capabilities and aspirations. I’m sure that families here in the country where she wants to work would love to have her around for that reason, if no other. I can attest to her adaptability and intellectual curiosity based on her ability to take the bus from our house to the downtown mall almost every day.

While I know little to nothing of her research goals, and frankly have no interest in learning more about them, I whole-heartedly suggest that you (who are you again?) give her lots of money. Maybe she’ll mention me in a future publication or something. Oh oh, I thought of something! She totally talked about her work a lot, like she cared about it or something, so that’s probably good. She even sometimes did it in the language we speak in this country, demonstrating a truly basic grasp of a language often described as “one of the easiest to pick up”.

In sum, Samantha is really the best person in the entire world that I haven’t talked to in five years. I’m happy to provide any more details if you want, just give me some notice so I can have her write up some bullet points for me.

Best,

Professor Roped Into This