Category Archives: teaching

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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Ending 24/7 Finals Culture

Finals time is here again and with it, at many schools, comes 24/7 study culture. Student lounges and campus buildings give up the late regular semester hours and throw the doors open to a 24/7 study atmosphere. The apparatus of the university goes into overdrive as food courts and libraries are kept open. All the while students scramble for space at the various tables across campus.

The 24/7 mode of finals has to stop because it isn’t healthy. And we, of all people, should know better.

As educators, scholars, and researchers we should know that the 24/7 finals culture isn’t good for students. Read Inside Higher Ed and The Chronicle of Higher Education with enough regularity and you’ll see plenty of content focused on work and life balance. As educators in higher education we know that letting our work overrule us is bad for our work, our health (both mental and physical), our relationships, and myriad of other individual factors.

Throughout the semester many of us extol the virtues of working and researching in chunks. Many of us teach writing as a process. Our bible of graduate school was Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day. We subscribe to the slow and steady wins the race pace of Writing Your Journal Article in Twelve Weeks with its methodical chipping away at an article over a period of time. (Side note: Wendy Laura Belcher deserves props for including a section on mental and physical wellbeing in her book.)

Still, we are complicit in the 24/7 finals culture just as much as the midnight-make-your-own-waffle-bars and 24/7 library hours that normalize such a culture. Our courses cram everything into the syllabus. Massive projects, papers, and exams on the last day of class that are then followed by final exams. For some students the message of accepting 24/7 final culture isn’t only codified in the syllabus, but it is made clear in messages that students should work every day of Thanksgiving break, except for the day of the actual day of Thanksgiving. The messaging is the same for fall breaks, Easter Breaks, spring breaks, and so on.

And why shouldn’t they receive that message about working all the time? For every column in an academic newspaper about work and life balance there are pieces extolling the virtues of working on a day off or a holiday. And let’s not even say anything about the comments to such pieces. As humans we should know better and as educators we should know even better. Cramming isn’t learning. The diminishing returns on learning that occur when students cram is steep. All-nighters to finish a paper or a project don’t represent true learning or intellectual pursuit.

While students are bombarded with the messaging of 24/7 finals culture there are voices on many campuses trying to push back. Student health centers, mental health centers, and wellbeing centers share messages of rest, extol the virtues of self-care, and showcase the diminishing returns of cramming. With the increased focus on the role mental and physical health on campuses, we should be mindful of these messages. This is especially the case given the large number of academics that have struggled with depression and mental health issues in graduate school or in their current positions. The connection between physical and health and depression is well known. Sleep deprivation, not eating right, not socializing, and not exercising are triggers to bouts of depression. The 24/7 finals culture is a perfect cocktail to exacerbate the triggers for depression.

As educators we have a great deal of power to shape the approach to work that students develop and within our small circle of control our own syllabi represent a great place to start. We can choose to not have projects due on the last day of class. We can make the decision not to have an exam on the last day of class and a final exam a few days later. We can schedule and stagger heavy reading loads during the semester. We can make substantial changes to our approach and still maintain the academic rigor we desire. We do not have to be beholden to the academic calendar of midterm exam weeks and where school breaks fall. And, at a smaller scale, we don’t have to assign due dates for submission of assignments that cap at 11:59 PM.

In many cases we have little control of shaping the culture of our campus, but when it comes to modeling healthy modes of academic work we do have an opportunity to do so. And we should certainly make use of that opportunity.

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Filed under academia, Education, higher edcuation, pedagogy, teaching

A Novel Approach to Marginal Notes

As an undergraduate when I was given a free choice to write about a work I often wrote about poetry. Writing about poetry was an easy thing because in a time-crunched-world poetry’s brevity allowed for rereading. When it came to novels I often felt I didn’t notice patterns until well into a book and I wasn’t about to reread an entire novel for a five page paper.

I’ve become a better reader over the years. I’ve also figured out my interests and those interests pop a lot more when I read. The rise of searchable online texts also makes the search for evidence a lot easier. What a time to be alive!

While in graduate school I developed a model of reading and note taking that relied heavily on a system of abbreviated tagging. This was a response to the time crunch, reading for specific class themes, reading for comps, and reading for teaching. I eventually codified many of my abbreviations into a handy chart. As my classes changed each semester and my research interests evolved, so too would the chart evolve.

Abbr Chart Sample

Behold! The Chart! Well, one version of the chart from many years ago.

As you can see, it is made up of a lot of scholarly buzzwords and an abbreviation for the words. As I read, I tagged things I see in the text with an abbreviation in the margins. If what I read in the text was an outstanding example, bizarre, or noteworthy in some other way, then I also tagged it with an exclamation point. Regarding characters or plot, I used the blank space on my chart to record page numbers of note corresponding to those folks and/or plot points. If I was inspired to add additional tag to the chart, then I’d also record that, too.

 

After I was done reading, or as a break from

Portion of the chart filled out

A filled out version of the chart.

reading, I’d go through my book’s tags and fill out the chart with the corresponding page numbers. I recommend filling in the chart as you go and not waiting to do an entire novel!

I can see the time crunch and exhaustion of the spring coming down the pike. My thoughts turn to my chart. I’m not one to meticulously plan out every detail of my classes, which are discussion based since I try to keep lecture to a minimum. The chart helps as a reference point in class when it comes to discussing specific topics. If I want an example, then I consult my chart, and refer to the tagged section of the book. No searching through minuscule notes or bookmarks. It saves time in the classroom.

One positive about the chart is that it allows for a safety net when students want to lead discussion to unlikely directions. Like I said, I don’t like planning out my classes in excruciating detail. I’ve had far too many experiences where students became animated about an aspect of the text and want to go in a different direction. The notetaking system I’ve developed, in most cases, allows me to follow my students and have a stable of examples or instances from the text that fit their thrust of discussion.

One notable abbreviation is the “T.” That stands for teaching. Those include passages that offer significant opportunities for the classroom. Those might be substantial moments in the text. They might be unusual. They might fit with the theme. You know these moments when you see them. The nice thing about the chart is that the “T” moments can be easily cross-referenced with other parts of the list since everything is recorded in numerical order.

2015-12-08 09.13.58

Sample pages with abbreviated notes.

Using abbreviations in my reading has many practical aspects beyond the ease of notetaking. First, my handwriting is not very good. It is large and sloppy. The abbreviations can be small and neat. The ease of writing helps with the arthritis in my hands. Additionally, when we read we often read through a particular lens geared towards our class or research interests. The abbreviated note taking allows for a marking of the text that isn’t obtrusive. Because the notes are scant there will be plenty of space remaining for future rereading from different perspectives that geared towards other themes.

Over my scant semester break I’m planning to reread the texts for my classes. I’ll be breaking in new versions of texts I’ve read before for other classes. I want to have good notes and references on these works. This model of note taking may not work for you, but I wanted to offer it since many of us will be pressed for time and will reread works over the break—works we might not get to teach until well into the spring semester. Over the break, I’ll be using my chart to take and organize my notes. I’ll also try working with my phone’s native dictation feature to save some time on notetaking. For a more traditional take on notetaking, but with a technological twist, I recommend reading about the dictation/research/notetaking approach used by Kevin Gannon.

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Some thoughts on my time teaching at #Mizzou

In light of the events happening at the University of Missouri over the past few weeks, and especially this past week, I’ve been thinking a lot about my time there, especially in the classroom.

As many of you know, from the Fall of 2011 until my last teaching semester at Mizzou in Spring of 2014, I taught a composition course themed around the American Civil War. Over that span, I had the opportunity to speak with my students about a variety of issues that related to the legacy of the Civil War. Since we read Tony Horwitz’s Confederates in the Attic and spent much of our time focused on the legacy of the Civil War, we spent much of our time in class discussing contemporary issues affecting the state of Missouri, the city of Columbia, and the University of Missouri campus itself. We talked about incidents of racism on campus, Confederate Rock, race relations on campus, and the advocacy of African American students on campus over the past 50 years. You can find a few reflections on my time teaching the Civil War course here.

Often such discussions were difficult. Often they were wide-ranging.

I wonder if these class discussions mattered. Did they stick? I’m thinking about those discussions now, but are the students that took my classes thinking about those discussions? The first sets of students enrolled in my classes have likely graduated by now. Those that remain are juniors and seniors. How do they process that experience now in the context of what is happening on campus right now?

Prior to my class on the Civil War I taught composition classes themed around campus and places on campus. Students wrote about a variety of locations from the Rec Center to the Art Museum to the Gaines/Oldham Black Culture Center. Students discussed campus places, decorations, and how Mizzou represented the history of the student body. Students talked about the people included and the people left out. The students in these classes on campus places are likely long-gone and hopefully have graduated. Do they think about those times in class? Does how they think about the places that they saw everyday and discussed in class change now that these are also scenes of protest and struggles for recognition?

In addition to teaching composition at Missouri, I taught several introductions to American literature. I’ve been thinking a lot about those courses, too. I think especially about a curious and frequent comment in my course evaluations. I often received comments that my courses were depressing. They were depressing because of the works we read dealing with slavery and the African American experience. I received other comments that my class focused too much on race and African American authors. Now I wonder if those students think back on those classes. Does the story we tried to tell in those classes make sense to them now? I don’t know.

I hope I did the right things in all of my classes. By saying I hope I did the right things I think I mean I’m hopeful that I did things that mattered. We write in our job letters and teaching philosophies about the transformative experiences of our classrooms. We depict our classrooms as places of change and as locations for difficult discussions. In our classes we like to think we are grappling with important issues. Am I really doing that? Are the students doing that? I think we did many of those things in the moment of an individual class. But do those moments come back now?

How much did the experiences of students in my classes matter? Did the conversations matter and did they linger long after the semester ended? Do those conversations awaken now in light of everything that has happened the past few weeks?

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Kicking off Syllabus Week without a Syllabus

I did not email students a syllabus today. Nor did I upload a syllabus to a course management site. And I did not give students a copy of the syllabus in class.

I am struck by the above sentences because they are filled with authority. I made choices. I did things—or in this case I did not do things. I have power, control, and authority to do things in the classroom, like not hand out a syllabus.

My aim in extending this authority to not hand out a syllabus is ultimately to relinquish some of my authority and privilege to my students. I do this in hopes to make a better class through collaboration with my students.

I’m not sure how well it went today by not beginning class and the semester with handing out a syllabus. I tried this very thing last semester on the first day of classes. It did not go so well. I think today went better than the previous semester.

I did tell students that our class would be themed and that the theme would be higher education. I think having that theme gives some structure to the thought-process of students and myself when confronted with a day without out a syllabus. The things we talked and wrote about in class today had a direction to move towards.

Last semester, I learned a great deal about students and myself by not handing out a syllabus. I realized how accustomed I became to the syllabus as a first day crutch. I learned that students do need a certain level of assurance on the first day of classes. They need to leave the class that day with a sense of some expectation and a trajectory for the course. That is only natural. However, it is also a byproduct, and I learned this by teaching dual enrollment courses, of the public school system where everything is spelled out and students are robbed of any agency.

Since students are likely presented with an opportunity to exert their agency in the classroom for the first time in an educational setting, I knew that my first day needed to be planed out in greater detail than I usually do for the first day of the semester. I came with the day mapped out on a piece of paper. I had questions written down to use as writing exercises. The writing exercises, all questions relating to the course, class expectations, and college, too, provide students an avenue to engage their agency. It provides an avenue to create something of their own when they don’t have a document like a syllabus on the first day. These short pieces of writing and the experience of sharing them in class provide students opportunities to engage collaboratively with the purpose and the direction of the course. I think that is important because an on-the-fly discussion can be overwhelming the first day of class. On the first day of class, in time that would have been eaten by going over a syllabus, students created and shared something that did not exist when they entered the classroom. That, I think, is more powerful than reading a syllabus.

There are several immediate benefits to not handing out a syllabus and they have, I think, some profound pedagogical impacts, especially for the composition classroom. In prefacing the brief writing we did today, I encourage students to be themselves, to write what they wanted to write, and to not write a correct answer, or an answer they thought I would like. It seemed, to me at least, that I received some knowing head nodding in response. Hopefully my encouragement worked. Perhaps it didn’t. However, I think such encouragement is more likely to work when it isn’t prefaced by a 10 page document of authority, policies, though shall not and don’t do this. Even the most student centered syllabus, void of language that allows, permits, and gives permission, is still a powerful contract with a great deal of authority. I’m not sure there is a way around that authority of a syllabus, but not giving out a syllabus on the first day of class certainly helps.

Having learned from my experience on the first day of class last semester, I knew that I needed to do something today that would also provide students a level of comfort and expectation for the class. We did two things in class to help address these concerns. First, we briefly looked at the course description and outcomes for class that are hosted on the website of the first-year writing program. I shared with students how to find it and I’ll be emailing the link to them today. I also briefly discussed the requirements for the course that are dictated by the program. I also described some of the areas in the course where we can collaborate on the policies. Second, I invited students to write down any questions or concerns that they had about the course. Those will be useful as the course and the syllabus comes together. I also suspect they will be more honest when not prefaced by an extensive presentation on the rules and regulations contained in the syllabus.

I certainly think today could have been better, but it went okay. My class today was my first 50-minute class in years. I’ve grown accustomed to the pacing of longer classes. I accounted for this in my class preparation notes by triaging certain things that I wanted to do in class. I will follow up with these items on Wednesday. For the longer classes, I suspect we will be able to cover what I did not cover in the class today.

Walking back to my office I had the chance to overhear many instructors handing out their syllabi. The more classes that I passed, the more that I overheard things, the better I felt about not giving out a syllabus today. I overheard one instructor tell their class that they like to go over the syllabus line by line. I certainly did not want to go over a syllabus line by line. While today could have been better, I am hopeful that it was a better experience for the students and myself than going over a syllabus line by line.

Note: My thinking about not handing out a syllabus is largely shaped by following Jesse Stommel and many, many others on Twitter over the past year or so. I’ve also found that reading materials shared on Hybrid Pedagogy has also been helpful, too. I’ve found a great community via Twitter; I’m thankful for that.

I realized in writing this post that I used we a lot—as in we wrote about this and wrote about that. In writing this post I am aware of the fact that I did not write anything in class. For class on Tuesday, I will certainly do my own writing. Not writing today was a mistake on my part.

Yes, there will be a syllabus. I’ll have it posted by the end of the week. It will be crafted based on what comes out of class discussions over the course of the coming days.

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Call me Ambitious: A Composition Class on Moby-Dick and its Contexts

If you’ve seen my Twitter posts the past two weeks, then you know I had the good fortune to attend an NEH Summer Institute hosed by The Rhode Island Historical Society. The Summer Institute was titled “Early American Women’s History: Teaching from within the Archives.” It was awesome and glorious. The institute was under the direction of Elyssa Tardif (Director of the Newell D. Goff Center for Education and Public Programs at the Rhode Island Historical Society) and Suzanne McCormack (Associate Professor of History at the Community College of Rhode Island). Marie Parys, also of the RIHS, was the coordinator of much of the logistics and an awesome contributor to the institute, too. Over the coming weeks, I’ll be revisiting my time at the Summer Institute through blog posts on various outlets.

Whale Swag. The two cds of sea shanties are still in the car.

Whale Swag. The two cds of sea shanties are still in the car.

Intermixed with my Twitter posts over the past two weeks you likely saw a lot of posts about whales, whaling, and Moby-Dick. I didn’t realize until I arrived in Rhode Island that I forgot to account for the weekend in the middle of the institute. We’d have two days off to do as we pleased. I immediately knew I was going to go to Mystic Seaport and to New Bedford. I’d never been to New Bedford and it had been a long time since I’d been to Mystic Seaport. I travel to Cape Cod almost every summer and passed these places. I’ve wanted to stop, but when you travel with shih tzus life is amazing, but travel is difficult.

This was my time to go to these places.

I love New England and that is an understatement. My mom traveled far and wide in New England. Growing up traveling to New England is what we did as a family. While working on my PhD at the University of Missouri, I often found myself homesick for Pennsylvania. That is expected. What I didn’t expect was being homesick for New England. Part of that homesickness grew out of spending so much time with Harriet Beecher Stowe. Stowe loved New England. Again, an understatement. And my intense feeling for New England manifested in strange ways. When cranberry season came along I’d buy the smaller and more delicate looking cranberries from Massachusetts. Not those monster cranberries from Wisconsin. I tracked down Bell’s Seasoning. I started planning for a New England Thanksgiving that acknowledged the various strands of history and culture that infused the foods of New England. I started this planning in October. Eventually, my mind started turning to Thanksgiving once August rolled around. I hunted down beers from New England. If I could have found decent oysters and knew how to shuck them, I’d have done that, too.

If given the opportunity to visit sites related to a quintessential aspect of New England culture, history, and tradition—then I was going to do it. I had a lot to make up for after being in Missouri. Don’t get me wrong—I love Missouri and I don’t have any of the angst that many people feel about the middle of the United States.

The active life of the Summer Institute meant that I didn’t have a lot of time, but I had a lot to do. The folks at the institute kept us busy with lectures, site visits, and welcoming us to the community of the Rhode Island Historical Society and the city of Providence. They also did not overwhelm us with too much and that meant spending a great deal of time with the participants of the institute outside of scheduled meetings and functions. Forming a community with participants is an important aspect of these NEH summer institutes and seminars; it is equally as important as what happens in the classroom. One thing that I needed to do was create / pitch a class to teach this fall. I was already thinking a lot about Moby-Dick. I was thinking a lot about the archives and what we learned about in our workshops. I was beginning to put these things together. My visits to Mystic Seaport and New Bedford helped to make my class idea come together.

Cotton Bale

Cotton Bale

One of the most striking features of the exhibits at Mystic Seaport, NewBedford Whaling Museum, and the New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park is the emphasis on a telling a complete story of whaling in the United States. Each of these institutions emphasized a story of whaling that brought together science, industry, technology, and people both on and off shore. However, what I found fascinating about these exhibits was how they each wove together the story of American whaling with aspects of the story that can easily be forgotten in the wake of the whale hunt. These exhibits told stories that brought together slavery, free African-Americans, the experience of women at home, the immigrant experience, Native Americans and many others. It was a long, rich history of connections that spanned the scope of whaling. I was also overwhelmed by the just how much the whaling industry touched the lives of people as consumers of products. I think all of the exhibits that I saw made it clear that there would be no New England textile mills without the human horror of slavery and the ecological horror of whaling.

Whaling and Textiles

Rise and Fall of Two Interconnected Industries

As I thought more about American whaling and how I would develop this class, I realized that people participating in whaling and its larger cultural influence didn’t need words like hemispheric, transnational, transatlantic, or oceanic studies. I felt that these people knew how much whaling touched their lives and it is manifested in the print and material culture that remains. The way whaling touched the lives of people also shows up in the sea shanties of the time and the numerous variations for many of the songs—and I think that is a powerful aspect of the sea shanties.

A global reach connecting locations around the globe: From New England to the coast of Africa

A global reach connecting locations around the globe: From New England to the coast of Africa

The influence of rhetorical studies on my teaching leads me to see “everything as an argument” and that everything is a text. In the light of my pedagogy, then the industry of whaling struck is a vast intertext— an interconnected world, one saturated with meaning and connections for the whalers, the industries, like textiles, that relied on whaling, and those on shore that were left behind or participated as consumers. The search for that intertext is what would drive the research and writing component of the class I was thinking about developing. Yes, we would read Moby-Dick, but it wouldn’t be about Moby-Dick, it would provide an opportunity for students to follow threads from the book that likely resonated for readers of the novel at the time and those that didn’t read it. Most importantly, I envision this course as an opportunity for students to pursue what resonates with them. I had in mind an opportunity for students to explore this subject of whaling based on their own interests. In this way I’d have the opportunity to draw on the amazing ideas and resources from the Summer Institute to collaborate with students in uncovering connected threads from Moby-Dick.

The Modernist resurrection of Moby-Dick gives it this aura of just floating out there in the world as a piece of art. I think that makes it hard to get to the heart of what resonates culturally with the book’s depiction of whaling. It isn’t Ishmael and the crew floating in the middle of nowhere. Moby-Dick and the whaling industry are tethered to the commerce and culture of the time. There is no escaping it. Even something as simple as a sea shanty is a testament to the same connections and pressures.


Another confluence of whaling and the textile industry occurs in “Johnny Come Down to Hilo.” Johnny is rather taken with a “down east gal with a down east style,” but the song likely originates with African-American work songs from the Gulf Coast. A low stakes digital humanities project in the classroom could map the locations mentioned in different versions of this shanty and others.


One reason that I was also drawn to the idea of class that would provide students the opportunity to explore the intertext and contexts of Moby-Dick is that there is a wealth of digital collections available online. Students wouldn’t have to rely on database access to historical collections. Access to resources is at the heart of how I plan my classes. I want students to have an opportunity to rely on databases and the library, plus other sources. However, as we well know, not all libraries have a wealth of resources. Thankfully American whaling has a robust digital presence thanks to some amazing work by various museums and archives.

At this point a reader of this post might be thinking “You spend all of your time thinking about Harriet Beecher Stowe. Couldn’t you do this with Uncle Tom’s Cabin?” That reader would be right: I could do this with Stowe. I am sure I will at some point. I do have selfish reasons for focusing on Moby-Dick. I do spend a lot time thinking about Stowe. This Moby-Dick class is something different. I think it is healthy for me pedagogically, mentally, and intellectually to do something with Moby-Dick and not Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

My selfish reasons aside, I do have an even bigger reason for pitching a class on Moby-Dick. I’m thinking of this as a course to be used as composition class. Yes, a composition class (and I’ll come back to this in a moment). In developing themed composition classes I’ve tried to create courses that would provide ALL students, regardless of interests and majors, to make their own connections and follow their own path of inquiry through research and writing. This idea of creating a space that empowers students to follow their own path is an important part of my pedagogy. In creating a class on Moby-Dick and not Uncle Tom’s Cabin, I’m thinking about the range of students that I’ll encounter, specifically STEM majors and students not in the humanities. In this regard, my selection of Moby-Dick is inspired by the full story of American whaling as told by the museums that I’ve visited recently. At these museums the story of whaling encompasses hundreds of years and the move towards conservation and the protection of the environment today. The legacy of whaling links biology, science and technology, and environmental activism. Yes, Uncle Tom’s Cabin possesses that same resonance today; however, I’m still thinking about student access. I think it is potentially easier for students to connect with the legacy of whaling today as opposed to the fact that slavery still exists throughout the world today.

Science, Whales, and Museum Advocacy

Science, Whales, and Museum Advocacy

At this point, gentle reader, you might think I am Ahab mad for creating a class like this to run as first-year introductory writing class. I’ve thought a lot about that issue. I know of instances where Moby-Dick has been used successfully as a one-read or in the composition classroom. I take solace in the fact that there are a lot pedagogical resources that I could draw on when implementing this course. Honestly, I don’t think I could have conceived of this class three weeks ago. I owe a great debt to the presentations at the summer institute. I might owe an even greater debt to all the amazing participants that I met. I have such an amazing boost in my confidence as a scholar and teacher since attending this institute. I had the opportunity to pick up so many amazing teaching tools for using the archive and working with difficult texts. I feel confident that I could do this class.

I’ve also thought of this Moby-Dick class as one that could scale based on student need and ability. I envision this course not as being about Moby-Dick, but a course about the connections and knowledge that students create through research and writing. To that end I’ve given thought to the texts I could use. There is of course the excellent Norton Critical Edition of Moby-Dick with a great deal of illustrations and contextual materials. The California Press edition of Moby-Dick is also another choice with its wonderful illustrations. Lastly, there is the option of the abridged (gasp) and illustrated edition of Moby-Dick from Spinner Publications. You can see rather large sample of the Spinner Moby-Dick here. The Spinner Moby-Dick is filled with wonderful primary images, maps, and documents. It isn’t clear from the sample pdf, but these are high quality archival images in color. It is a beautiful text.

I want to create a course that allows students to make their own connections and to explore their ideas based on their own interests. Moby-Dick is a hard text, but I think the way I’m conceiving of this provides students a safe location for the hard and rewarding work of self-discovery and the creation of knowledge through writing and research.

And we could all look forward to a field trip to see this:

Note: I have thought about various assignments for this course. Multisource argumentative essays would be one of the main sets of assignments. A creative multimodal assignment is another option. Lastly, I think a course like this would lend itself well to low stakes digital humanities projects that could be completed individually, as small groups, or as a class. Tools like for distant reading, like Voyant and Wordle, along would mapping tools, like Google Maps, would be just a few things to consider.

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Filed under digital humanities, digital pedagogy, NEH, teaching, whales