Sunday, April 27, 2003

Having Gone Off Line
Not for lack of access (I had my laptop with its built in modem and a phone line handy.), I was off line for four whole days. Instead of connecting and keeping my email inbox lean by copiously deleting, or logging in here, I spent a few days hanging out with family, not doing much of nothing except hanging out, playing cards, eating a bunch, running errands here and there. Most of the work I do, and many of my social connections, are conducted by email. So when I was off line, I was gone for three days from the world where I spend most of my working hours.

The fun part of taking a simple break from work, with no planned events or things to do, was in getting away from a job with deadlines to meet, meetings to go to, and other planned events or things to do. I shucked that skin for a while. For a while the prospect of living that way continuously, without having anything in particular that I had to do, seemed appealing.

Of course, if the respite became the routine, appeal would turn to ennui pretty quick. I was reminded especially of that by a piece in today's New York Times that looked at how many people have opted -- or have been forced to opt -- out of the job market. These are people who, unable to find jobs, have decided to stay home, or go back to school, or are living off savings.

One person interviewed remarked on how much he missed work, on having a work life, an office to go to, people to work with, projects to work on, challenges to meet, problems to solve.

The paycheck matters, but so too does the work, the place of work.

As much as I enjoyed, and wouldn't mind a few more days of just hanging out, I'm glad I'm going back to work tomorrow.

Wednesday, April 16, 2003

Flirting With Spring
The cold air's arrived and Boston's flirtation with warm, spring-like weather has ended. Cold tonight, and tomorrow, and perhaps some sleet and freezing rain on into Friday. This after a chilling-to-the-bone snow whipped winter. This after days of nonstop rain and only day or so of ice-cream weather. And you know, I really think that whiplash change of elements is kind of cool, maybe a bit psychically cruel, especially if one leaves the house in warm weather clothing and then has to shiver their way home at night.

As much as I really want to see a string of days where it's possible to walk comfortably barefoot in the squishy-cool damp grass of a newly green spring lawn, the kind you get on that day when suddenly the trees have budded and the crocuses and tulips startle your vision, as much as I want that, I don't mind these flirtations with warmth followed by the return of cold and dreary skys.

Weather should be coy. It's one of New England's charms, that weather changes by the minute.

And too, there's something not-dreary about otherwise dreary weather. There's beauty in the gray and fog of rain, the drenching cold of sleet, especially if you're dressed right for it and are out it in the weather on foot. And really especially if you can walk in the woods, or across an open field, away from sidewalks that hug traffic, away from sidewalks where the pedestrian is so easily beseiged by walls of water when cars speed through those long thick puddles that collect at the road's edge.

Wednesday, April 09, 2003

A Convention of Clowns. Really
I came to St. Louis yesterday afternoon and stopped by my hotel to get check in and eat lunch before heading off to a meeting with members of the Meramec English Department. I was a bit tired, a little groggy, and encumbered of the usual stress that comes from being in airport, where every one is a suspected terrorist and treated accordingly so.

I trudged off the shuttle, but as I made way to the registration desk, I was passed by a clown. A real clown, with baggy clown, a red clown nose, purple fuzzy clown hair and with an oversized clown flower in her oversized clown jacket. And coming towards me, from the opposite directions, were two more clowns, chatting, checking the time. And to my left, seated in the lobby couches, hunched over a something I could see, but conversing away like three business executives planning a presentation, were yet more clowns.

And they all had badges. I'd stumbled into a clown convention.

And just the site it of it all, with the juxtaposition of so much color and clown clothes on people who were being, well, so convention-like, rather than clown like, was better than a seeing a clown in performance mode. It was wonderfully funny.

And so I felt better, just by the sight of it all.

Monday, April 07, 2003

Classic Reader
Here's a pretty cool site, that was passed on to me from a colleague at work. It's an interesting experiment in a (so far) free online reader of classic (aka public domain) texts. Registering at the site is easy; providing email is optional, so you don't have to worry about spam and marketing materials. Registering creates an account on the site so you can write and store annotations on the texts. If you're interested in this kind of stuff for distance education, or computer-based classrooms, or just to see an alternative form that digital publishing might take, give this site a look-see:

----Original Message Follows----

At this site you can read, search, and annotate great works of literature by authors such as Dickens, Tolstoy, Shakespeare, and many others. The collection currently contains 743 books and 1041 short stories by 211 authors. New works are added to the collection on a regular basis, many at the suggestion of readers. The works are split into seven categories: fiction, nonfiction, children, poetry, Shakespeare, short stories and drama.

Saturday, April 05, 2003

Talking to Teachers
I really enjoy talking to teachers. At the OAH conference today I had lunch with a number of historians, good and dedicated scholars who also really cared about teaching history well. I was struck by the amount of though and care they put it into engaging students in history. Their goal, across the board was simply this: to have students do history, not memorize history.

That's such an important distinction. They want students to think about history, about exploring the past, and about learning from it so that they can understand it deeply and relate what they learn to their lives now.

History for these scholars isn't just a list of dates and causes, but rather is, to put it crudely, critcal immersion in the past. The people here that I've met want their students to viscerally experience the past and the struggles, passions, and day to day life of it.

It's all very vibrant and exciting.

Friday, April 04, 2003

Doing History

I'm at the Organization of American Historians conference in Memphis, TN. One of the things I'm hearing in sessions and conversations is the distinction some historians make when they teach. Instead of teaching history --i.e. telling students about history via lectures-- there's an effort to have students do history --having students engage history the way historians do. So there's a growing emphasis on primary documents, on field work, on historical thinking, while at the same time trying to have students read and learn history.


Yesterday I attended an excellent session: "Reaching with Technology: Approaches to Increasing Involvement through Instructional Technology."


The session opened with Bradley Austin, of Salem State College describing a teacher outreach project he worked on while at Ohio State. The Goldberg project is designed to have college historians work collaboratively with high school historians, with an eye toward helping both groups improve the teaching of history. Technology played a role in outreach --a WWW site was used for online meetings, file sharing and so on. What Bradley showed, however, was how things don't always go as planned, and talked about what the Goldberg team learned from the first year to the second of the project. And really it came down to discovering a better model of hybrid teaching -- part face to face and part distance. The first year, there was too much distance and the beginning face to face was overwhelming, with too much technology training. The second year, the program was reorganized, with more face to face, and more direct contact from teacher to teacher in the program. Everything Bradley described as working with colleagues also holds true when teachers work with students, and many of the teachers are taking the kinds of online activities and interactions they had with one another and are doing the same things with their students. So this was a tale of obstacles overcome. The Goldberg project WWW site is at


John Tully from Ohio State described how he uses not only primary documents, but primary artifacts --posters, art, and other images (which are plentiful on the WWW --see for example, that National Archives at Instead of just reading a textbook, and gliding by an image or map that might be in the book, he gives students primary sources and asks that they "read" those, that they think critically about them. He provides them the kinds of questions historians ask. The process has students investigating the images and not passively reading what someone else thinks of the image. John found that this process, which takes advantage of the multimedia age students grow up in, has helped students become interested in history and wanting to read about it. Their questions and thinking about the images spark their interest and curiosity. And their work on the images is part of the course's grading economy; students get tests and assignments where image analysis plays an important role.

David Stricklin of Lyon College described a very neat project where students did fieldwork, interviewed people, did historical research, and then worked together to create a radio documentary. Why that? The idea was to get them to synthesize and present all their data and research in a format that required them to think carefully about how to present the information, to think creatively. But radio was used instead of say a WWW site because they had access to a some cassette editing equipment and some tape recorders, but not a computers for doing a WWW site. It was a great assignment --students produced their show and played it for the community -- and an ingenuous reminder that multimedia doesn't necessarily have to be WWW-based and with images. A lot can be done with just voice, sound, and recording.

Peter Rutkoff lead us on an overview and tour of North by South, an ongoing research project that follows African American migration patterns from south to north. Students visit a southern city, and then the northern city that African Americans migrated to. They do interviews, visit sites, and look to see how the movements affected African American culture. Very cool, very smart. And with a very nice WWW site at Peter focus on the field trips, and he takes students to places he hasn't been, to explore things he doesn't know yet. By doing this, it's clear to student that they're co-investigators, explorers. Peter, like David in his project, are more coach and consultant than fonts of all knowing. But here's the kicker: Peter doesn't know a thing about building WWW sites, HTML, or any of those things. However, his students do. So he comments on the site's design, but the entire site was designed and built by students, who again, like David's students, made very sophisticated and smart decisions about how to organize and integrate and present intelligent very detailed and complicated research.

Wednesday, April 02, 2003

Argument and War
In addition to working as the Director of New Media for a college textbook company, I also teach first year college writing as an adjunct about once a year. I'm not teaching now, but I wonder what I would be teaching about the rhetoric around the war if I were teaching now.

I think the trick would be helping students write persuasively even when I fundamentally disagreed with their positions. And as part of that, sharing my opinions and thoughts during class discussions in a way that doesn't make students believe they have to adopt them. It's a delicate balancing point that I know many teachers are trying to find.

Jonathan Zimmerman had an op. ed. in Sunday's Boston Globe (No point in linking; you have to pay to get it now.) where he pointed out that people tend to believe that if they make a good argument, others, being reasonable, will agree. And when people don't agree, we tend to view them as unreasonable, even suspect, even evil or looney or against us. Both the left and the right in this debate fall into that trap. They forget that reasonable people can disagree, and they see anyone who disagrees with them as defacto unreasonable. So Zimmerman reminds us:

Both sides, then, are operating in profoundly bad faith: they each presume that decent, knowledgeable people will agree with them. But the true democratic faith, the one that John Dewey proclaimed, teaches us that decent people disagree -- often profoundly -- about the same knowledge. Now, more than ever, it's a lesson that all of us need to learn.

I think if I was teaching now, I'd try to teach my students that. So they'd listen to one another, and then discuss differences without attacking motives and personalities.