Technology Bans: Some Thoughts

I don’t have a blanket ban on technology in the classroom.

It would not make sense since I have my syllabus and calendar online—and that can be problematic because of access reasons. Also, I’d send a conflicting and confusing message to students with an outright ban. It would be confusing to students to have a ban when I tell students about the things I find online that have a connection to our class. I’d send a contradictory message every time I encourage them to seek out quality voices and resources online.

I also don’t ban technology in the classroom because of disability issues. In my decade of classroom experience I’ve come to realize that many students that should receive accommodations for technology in the classroom don’t follow through on receiving those accommodations. In the waning weeks of the semester I’ve frequently had conversations with struggling students that reveal they should have had some form of accommodation. In many cases those students didn’t know they should receive an accommodation—or they didn’t know the office responsible for providing those accommodations.

I don’t ban technology in my classroom because I don’t want to set policing students as the tone for the classroom. Students are navigating the transition between the rigidness of high school and the freedom of the college classroom. Students might be afraid to speak or to share what they really think. Students might be afraid to have a snack or to go to the bathroom. Policing the use of technology sends the wrong message when I’m trying to inspire students to act and think on their own.

The reasons I don’t ban technology in the classroom jives with why others don’t ban technology in the classroom. However, it takes a lot of work to create a meaningful integration of technology in the classroom. Still, I haven’t had a meaningful approach to technology in the classroom since I taught my Civil War themed composition class at the University of Missouri. Doing technology takes a lot of work. Doing it right takes planning and significant amount of classroom time. I have not had that luxury of time since I was a graduate student with two classes each semester.

Not to toss out everything I’ve written above, but I have to be blunt: maybe the biggest reason I don’t ban technology is for selfish reasons. I don’t have the energy (mentally or emotionally) to monitor students and their use of technology. It takes a lot of energy to address the use of students’ technology use in 3 or 4 sections of students totally 60+ to 80+ students. All of this isn’t to say that I run a class without any rules or structure. I try to direct my energy to meaningful interactions with students. Making sure students are not shopping online doesn’t seem meaningful to me.

In the end, my policy is really about me. It is meant to help me get through my teaching load.

The meaningful integration of technology in the classroom takes hard work. Using technology isn’t only about a policy. It isn’t only about making effective assignments that draw on and use technology. Teaching with technology isn’t only about scaffolding assignments and making technology an important part of learning and instruction in the physical classroom. It is about all of those things. It takes work, effort, planning, and mental energy—prior to and throughout the entire semester.

This semester I’ve found myself asking where the time goes? I go to campus and work diligently in and outside of the classroom. A lot of time is eaten up by bookkeeping, creating handouts, printing materials for the classroom. There is a great deal of non-classroom work just to make the classroom run. This isn’t new, but I’m conscious of it this semester because I’ve committed to keeping track of my time and not working more than 40 hours a week. A successful use of technology in the classroom would create even more work. Inside of the classroom it would mean taking time away from all of the other outcomes I need to meet. Again- these are all problems that could be addressed with successful course designing—thought the assignments and through the implementation of day-to-day activities in the classroom.

Jeffrey McClurken has a recent blog post on the laptop debate. You can read it here. One small part sticks out to me. McClurken writes “Incorporating devices into teaching will require faculty training and support.” I think it is useful to think broadly about what “support” means, especially in an institutional and structural sense. A meaningful approach to technology needs support—support in the form of workload that allows for creativity and the creation of a sound approach to technology.


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What Links a School to Slavery?

Colleges and universities across the United States are taking a hard look at their connections to the institution of slavery. What does it mean for a school or university to have ties to slavery? What are the catalysts for a school to engage in examining their own connections to slavery? What counts as a tie to slavery?

There seems to be several categories of what fits as a school’s connection to slavery—and many schools fit one or more of the following:

  • The source of a school’s initial funding.
  • The source of a school’s endowment.
  • The connection of a school’s founders or leadership to slavery.
  • The ownership and/or sale of enslaved peoples.
  • Serving a student body derived from families that economically benefited from slavery (directly and indirectly).
  • The presence of slaves owned by students.
  • The land on which a college or university is situated.

I’m sure that additional categories could be added to the above list.

My continued work on the Bethlehem Boarding School has prompted me to think about what it means for a school to have connections to the institution of slavery. Previously I’ve written about how Moravian College has embraced a mythologized Revolutionary past that harkens back to the Bethlehem Boarding School. I’ve touched on how this mythology does a disservice to the history of women’s education in the early United States.

The conventional wisdom regarding the Bethlehem Boarding School is that after the Revolution the elite families of early America began sending their daughters to the school. It is assumed that these families were elite, but no one really asks how these families were part of the economic elite were in the first place. In researching the families that sent their daughters to the Bethlehem Boarding School I’ve seen the commonality of the institution of slavery linking them together.

Here are a few of those links:

  • An enslaved person accompanied Peggy Vriehuis to Bethlehem.
  • Archibald Currie, a New York merchant, participated in the slave trade.
  • Adriana Van Beverhoudt was an early student at the Boarding School. This is the same Beverhoudt family that you might have read about in Rebecca’s Revival.
  • Nathaniel Greene’s daughters attended the Boarding School.
  • Merchants: Various families came from the merchant class of the Northeast. Their goods, like many other merchants, came from the labor of the enslaved.
  • Various leaders in business and commerce from New York.
  • I’ve seen newspaper ads for the runaways and the sale of slaves.
  • The school set up by the Moravians was initially created to serve the children of missionaries. The initial founding of the school can also be problematic given the relationship of the Moravians’ missionaries to slavery.

I wonder about the question of what constitutes a tie to slavery in the context of Moravian College and their embrace of an early American past. Are the following questions enough to prompt introspection regarding slavery?

  • Is it enough that students that come from areas were slavery was practiced?
  • Is it a connection to a merchant and business class that benefited from a trade in commodities touched by slavery?
  • Does it mean a student bringing an enslaved person to the school?

I can point to students that fit each of those criteria- and I left out ones from slave holding families. If Moravian College invokes a revolutionary past- shouldn’t they be asking these questions? My research so far has only focused on the period between 1786 to 1815, and mostly the early 1790s. During this time the majority of the student population came from New England, New York, and Pennsylvania. The demographic of the student body begins to turn southwards after around 1812; I’ve not looked far into those families.

A lot of my ideas are in an early phase. I have more questions than answers. I want to continue exploring these topics. I felt, at this stage, I needed to write something. I’d appreciate hearing your thoughts.

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Creating A Digital Edition: Looking For Ideas

It is the waning days of this semester and I’ve been planning my class for the spring. One of the centerpiece texts we will be reading in the spring is A Narrative of the Sufferings of Massy Harbison. Harbison is somewhat of a local celebrity in these parts of western Pennsylvania. I am hopeful that reading this text resonates with students as they see places mentioned from their neck of the woods. I wasn’t familiar with Harbison’s Narrative until I visited the Fort Pitt Museum’s Captured by Indians exhibit, which recently closed after an extension of several months.

One of the difficulties I had in planning to use Harbison’s Narrative had been finding a suitable edition for the class. By suitable I mean finding an inexpensive text that students could actually read and mark up. A local organization created a reset version of Harbison’s Narrative. However, the text is tiny, the font is small, and the book was expensive. A publisher specializing in Christian subjects had a text that was a reprinting of a digitized version.

And there is the original digital version that the Christian publisher uses. The PDF version of Harbison’s Narrative was digitized by the University of Pittsburgh’s Library System. However, the version online requires users to page through pages of the Narrative one screen at a time; I knew that would potentially be a burden for students. I sent some emails and was fortunate to receive a full PDF that I could use in class.

The difficulties of finding a version of Harbison’s Narrative got me thinking about creating an online edition of the text. The main project we will be working on in class will be the creation of a digital edition of Harbison’s Narrative from 1825. I’ll have around 88 students in the spring. I envision each student being responsible for transcribing one page of the Narrative. There are around 66 pages in the 1825 Narrative. I also plan to incorporate selections from a later version of the Narrative published in 1836 that includes additional materials supplied by an editor. In short, each student will be responsible for transcribing one page of text. My plan is then to have students create annotations for the text either individually or collaboratively. I’d also like students to work collaboratively on a mapping project using Google Maps that highlights locations mentioned in the Narrative. I am also hopeful that students can create mini-essays on certain facets of Harbison’s Narrative.

Things are still in the planning stage, but I am committed to at least having the students create a transcribed version of the Narrative that includes brief annotations. Ideally we get the annotations online this semester. However, I am not sure what I site I should use to make this project happen. A straight-up transcription of the text would be easy to put up on a WordPress site. Omeka, though not ideal of large bodies of text, could also be a potential way to get this text online. I’ve not used it before, but I know Scalar could be an option. [Just poking around with Scalar and that does seem like an option that could work!]

I’m calling on the hivemind to offer suggestions that will allow for easy annotations of the text. I’m not sure what to use or how to go about doing it. I’d like something that allows for the easy showcasing of annotations for users. Ideally it would be something that would be appropriate for first year students to master. I’m happy with something that relies on hyperlinked pieces of text or as bubbles that users could hover their cursor over as they read the text.

I’ll be working with the Heinz History Center on this project. I know that easily accessible online version of the Harbison Narrative is something the folks at the Fort Pitt Museum have been interested in seeing happen. I’m excited about this opportunity. I’ll have a few repeat students from the fall term and I hope they look forward to our continuing work with the Heinz History Center.

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Hamilton (the musical) has a Genius (the website) Problem

If you follow me on Twitter or have read my post over at Pedagogy and American Literary Studies, then you likely know I’ll be incorporating Hamilton: An American Musical in one of my classes this coming semester.

In other words, “if ya don’t know, now ya know.”

In my class I’ll be approaching Hamilton by pairing it with several excellent of examples of public writing written by historians and cultural critics. Additionally, I plan on pairing Hamilton with several online exhibitions from various museums and libraries.

However, I’m on the fence about using the annotations for Hamilton provided by the website, Genius.


Genius is a crowd-sourced and web-based platform that allows users to annotate the lyrics of songs. Genius originally began as a way to annotate the lyrics of rap music, but has since expanded to a variety of other texts, including Hamilton. On the surface, Genius is cool. It allows for crowdsourced knowledge that can be enhanced with links, images, and gifs. It allows for annotations and comments from users. Many works, like Hamilton, can be linked with YouTube or platforms like Spotify that allow for a multimedia experience that echoes the format of VH1’s Pop-Up Video. On first pass, it is a dizzying array of resources presented in a fresh and exiting way. As other people have noted the applications for the classroom are apparent.

check chernow

However, Genius has an authority problem that centers on a veneration of Lin-Manuel Miranda and the musical’s major source material, Ron Chernow’s biography of Hamilton. The community of editors on Genius makes the veneration of both Chernow and Miranda clear in the instructions and advice to new annotators of Hamilton. One of the editors’ stated goals involves Miranda verifying annotations. Another piece of advice extols users to #CheckInWithChernow. Andrew M. Schocket addresses the problems with the history detailed by Chernow, especially in light of the biography’s resurgence in the wake of the musical’s success. And Schocket isn’t alone. William Hogeland, on Twitter and his blog, has critqued the problem of the musical and its main source material. As a teaching tool, the issues with Genius and Hamilton result in a thorny intertext that requires spending extensive time working through issues of the practice of history as a field, dealing with source evaluation, or exposing students to issues of authority.

First year students often have difficulty navigating issues of authority when it comes to evaluating sources. The difficulty of students becoming critical readers and thinkers, especially in their first semester, is one reason that I find myself pondering the authority problem of Hamilton and the Genius annotations. Chernow’s biography has many of the hallmarks that students see as a “good source”: it is big, it has notes, and it has a bibliography. Or, as the Grumpy Historian, pointed out on Twitter, Chernow’s biography is an example of “How biography (and primary sources, and footnotes) can hide #BadHistory.”

I am wavering on my class using the Genius annotations for Hamilton. It is an extensive source that could be used in powerful ways to discuss authority and source evaluation. I’m using Hamilton in the context of a composition class. We will address issues of authority and the evaluation of sources. However, we can’t do everything in as much depth as I would like. My main focus has to be on wiring instruction. There is not enough time in the classroom. I imagine that there would be more time to devote to such issues in an upper-level class.

my edit

Perhaps the solution is to fix the Genius annotations of Hamilton. Extensive revisions could be done in a class focused on public writing or digital writing. I did an experiment. I wanted to see how easily Genius annotations could be revised and updated. I set up an account on Genius. I created a profile in which I leveraged my academic authority. I made a revision to “The Reynolds Pamphlet.” I made a small suggestion. The original annotation links to a full-text version of “The Reynolds Pamphlet” provided by a partisan political website. I altered the link to take users to a full-text version of “The Reynolds Pamphlet” provided on the Founders Online site from the National Archives. I left a comment that I made the change and the reason for the change. Perhaps there is an even better link I could use, but the purpose of my edit was to incorporate a sound source and see if the change would be accepted.

As a result of this experience I learned that revising annotations on Genius is not as easy as revising entries on Wikipedia. I made my edit on June 30th and it is now July 8th. The original annotation for “The Reynolds Pamphlet” has not been updated. If users click on the list of proposed edits, located at the bottom, then they can see my proposed change. In the intervening days between my edit and writing this post, I did receive an upvote on my proposed change. Small victories.

As another experiment, prior to writing this post, I took a look at the annotations for the line “Martha Washington named her feral tomcat after him” from the song “A Winter’s Ball.” I did this in the wake of a recent article that exploring the veracity of this anecdote. As Joanne Freeman noted on Twitter: “Seems like a non-story, folks, as I noted when interviewed yesterday. Story clearly from a 19th c “story” book.” I thought the “tomcat” line could be a quick candidate for an easy revision. Believe it or not, there are extensive annotations to this one line of the song. It was not a candidate for a quick edit and I didn’t make any changes.

one user noted

One user did comment about the partisan nature of a linked site.

I noticed, in reading the annotations of the “tomcat” line, that one of the annotations takes Genius users to a partisan blog on Hamilton and Christianity. An additional link takes users to another partisan political website with an article on Hamilton and John and Abigail Adams. Genius annotations for Hamilton reveal links to similarly partisan websites and blogs. However, making meaningful edits to Genius is not as easy as it appears, as my experience with “The Reynolds Pamphlet” shows. Making revisions isn’t just about changing links. Much of the information from the sites cited by users is extensively embedded in the user-generated content on Genius.

Revisions of Hamilton on Genius are needed if the site has potential uses for the classroom, which makes such a project a seemingly ideal candidate for an upper-division class with a digital humanities or public writing focus. Last summer, I wrote about the potential of a digital humanities project focusing on revising entries of American women writers on Find A Grave. In my post I addressed the potential difficulties of such a project because of the prevalence of entries locked by users, many of whom are no longer active users. Hamilton on Genius has many of the same problems because the entries are a year old and the editors behind the project may no longer be active.

I thought writing this post would help me make a firm decision about using Genius in my classroom. I’m still not sure. One reason I like Genius is because it is a repository of musical and cultural references that I’m not in a position to connect for students. However, if my extra credit assignment on Hamilton is any indication, students are very capable of making the popular cultural connections that I can’t provide for them.

I still have a few weeks to plan my classes. I’ll no doubt continue to waiver on the topic of using Genius in the classroom. In the meantime, I’d love to hear your thoughts!

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Sharing Bad Days in the Classroom

Over on PALS I wrote a short piece on teaching a pairing of Thomas Jefferson and Phillis Wheatley. Each time I write for PALS or I write for my own blog—I’m looking for a chance to write small. The aim: shorter posts, but more frequent posts.

I tried to write small today. For the sake of time, especially for something that wasn’t planned, I tried to write small and I tried hard since I needed to write other bigger things.

I’m always trying to write small when it comes to the blog. I know that is the best blog practice. I know small is good from the blogs I read. I’ve seen the change from longer and in-depth posts to shorter and more frequent posts.

I tried to write small today. It didn’t happen.

Then I thought: maybe it isn’t writing small—maybe it is editing small.

So I tried to edit small.

My post on Wheatley and Jefferson was personal because I shared failure. I didn’t think folks would want to read about my personal experience. Well, at least not in that way. Most things we post to PALS are personal and based on classroom experience. I aimed to cut my story of failure out. However, my bad memory of teaching Jefferson and Wheatley was central to what I had to say. I think. I still waiver on that.

Ultimately, the reason I included my failure was because it was about failure. It is rare that people share failures in the classroom. Social media is awash with awesome, especially when it comes to teaching. We often send out vibes about being awesome teachers and all but scream our students are from Lake Woebegone. People rarely share the bad. You’ve probably read articles about the link between social media and our self-perception changing by reading about every other person’s awesomeness.

I wanted to buck the trend.

I put off writing small or editing small—in order to share the bad. I think that is important. As teachers we need to share more of the bad. You can read about the good and the bad of teaching Jefferson and Wheatley here.

Check out more on #teachingfails with this roundtable post from Pedagogy and American Literary Studies.

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Wigging Out in Class

The semester is drawing to a close. And as it closes, I think about the revising and revamping my courses and the day to day workings of the classroom.

One thing I am working on is trying to make the most of class time, especially when my big plans take less time (for whatever reasons). To this end, I am focusing on developing a stable of activities to use in class when there is still time after whatever major goal is accomplished.

Cue the appropriate mood music

On Thursday the morning class had some extra time. I asked them to use that time to create some wigs using the Design a Wig site from the Victoria and Albert Museum. Now, I didn’t do this just for the sake of fun. It fit in the class. We’ve read some 18C novels. The students have been working on their longer argumentative research papers and are gaining a more nuanced understanding of the time period. Right now- we are reading Royall Tyler’s The Contrast. The edition that I am using features primary materials that deal with fashion and include some cartoons featuring insanely preposterous wigs.

My Wig

Behold: A wig I made

On Thursday morning I asked students to take a look at the wigs featured in the primary sources of our textbook. Then I asked students to visit the Design a Wig site and create their own wigs by collaborating in groups. They were already in groups- so that made sense. The Design a Wig site is fun. It is also educational. It does provide a few snippets of historical information as it walks users through the tutorial for using the site features. Well, if that doesn’t sound like the  kind of video game tutorial that makes a pedagogy of video games appealing to many people?

On the spur of the moment this worked well. If I planned this out I’d make a few changes. Perhaps have students explore a larger sample size of wigs, design a wig, then ask students to write a collaborative group reflection paper. However, there is something to be said against making something fun and creative become an extra piece of work for the students and the instructor.

Just one more thing. This wasn’t completely out of the blue. I knew I wanted to use this site at some point. It had received a lot of attention over the past few months. I also knew that I’d use it with The Contrast because of the primary source materials. I just hadn’t thought of the actual implementation of using the site in class.

I leave you with the wigs from Thursday.





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