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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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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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Reading and Rereading Charlotte Temple

Looking back there are only a few very vivid times that I can remember starting or ending a book. I remember during one Christmas break, after a very trying time as a sophomore, picking up On the Road and starting to read it in the den of the family manse. I tried to read On the Road during high school, but it really wasn’t my thing. This time, however, was very different.

I remember during my junior year of college the moment that I finished reading Charlotte Temple. It was assigned out of the Norton Anthology. That was no small feat reading such a tiny book out of a massive anthology.

But read Charlotte Temple I did.

Wow, did I hate reading Charlotte Temple. All that damn crying. And Charlotte certainly did nothing to help herself out of the situations that she found herself confronting.

I was a good student, not great, but I did my reading and generally I read ahead when I could. I knew that Charlotte Temple was a longish work compared to what we had read so far that semester. I started to read it and I finished it in the early evening.


Title page from an 1814 printing of Charlotte Temple, by Susanna Rowson. Public domain. Source: Wikimedia Commons


When I finished reading Charlotte Temple, the phone rang. A family friend was calling to suggest that I come home because my mom wasn’t feeling great. So I did. My new school was not far from home. It wouldn’t be trouble to come home for the evening and the next day.

Over the next few days my mom’s condition worsened. She was taken to the hospital. She was in septic shock due to an infection in her hip. She was in grave condition and needed immediate emergency surgery. Everything eventually turned out fine. The surgery was successful. She convalesced in the hospital and was eventually moved to a short-term care facility and made a full recovery after many months.

At some point I must have emailed my professors early on during this experience. I was an okay student, like I said. I was probably home for a week or more. Given the circumstances, I didn’t keep up with email, not there was any, and I didn’t keep up with my reading.

Good thing I read Charlotte Temple, right? I would have less reading to catch up with when I returned to school.

When I returned to class I complained to a friend about the injustice of reading Charlotte Temple and missing the class periods devoted to such a wretched book.

It was then, in those moments before class, that I learned my reading Charlotte Temple was all for naught. Alas, poor, Charlotte, was cut from the readings. The announcement was made in class during the early part of my absence.

The first time I read Charlotte Temple, gentle reader, and it turns out that I wasn’t required to read Charlotte Temple.

Six years would pass until a moment arrived when I actually needed to read Charlotte Temple. It was for a book history seminar in early American literature. I knew a lot more about sentimentality and early American literature when I read Charlotte Temple for the second time. It was, of course, a different reading experience.

I thought a lot about Charlotte Temple in the years between my first and second reading of the novel. I do not have anything profound to say about the years between my readings of Charlotte Temple. No deep thoughts in the style of an Umberto Eco or an Alberto Manguel. I cannot say my reading of Charlotte Temple was the germ of what became my interest in American women writers. Charlotte Temple was the bad book I read, but ended up not having to read.

However, I was excited to see an early edition of Charlotte Temple at some point during the semester in which I reread the novel. It was such a tiny thing. It seemed even smaller than the Oxford Press edition we used in class. Of course, that first edition was smaller than the anthology version that I motored through as an undergraduate. It was odd to me that something so tiny took up so much of my thoughts for many years.

I remember vividly another moment of reading Charlotte Temple. I was on the couch in my partner’s apartment. I was, again, rereading Charlotte Temple, but this time it was for my first literature class. Yes, Charlotte Temple was the first novel I assigned in my very first literature class. While I was sitting on the couch, I was trying to figure out the number of times that I read Charlotte Temple. It would be my third reading of the novel. Granted, Charlotte Temple is short, and lends itself to multiple readings, but for someone that really never reread novels, this was a big deal.

Charlotte Temple remains the novel I’ve read the most. I think I’ve read it five or six times now. I will be reading Charlotte Temple again since I’ve assigned the novel for the spring semester.


Susanna Rowson. Public domain. Source: Wikimedia Commons

I don’t have anything profound to say about my experience with Charlotte Temple. Maybe my early and longstanding disdain of the novel makes me better prepared to teach it. I am tuned into the challenges students will face and can be prepared to guide them through it. That, on the surface, seems a positive takeaway, but it is actually negative. It assumes that students will not like it.

I would prefer to believe students have the opportunity, not to be shepherded through a book, but to be challenged and even surprised. Perhaps it will occur over the course of the semester, but maybe it will be delayed, like in my case, for a few years.

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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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So Much Done; Nothing Finished

It is the end of June and I feel like I’ve done nothing. I’m looking at the start of July and behind it looms August. I feel like I’ve done nothing since the end of the spring semester.

I know that is not true, but it is hard to think otherwise. So few projects in academic life can be measured in easily checkmark-able lists of completion; frustration becomes an easy feeling to encounter.

I’ve been to 2 conferences and cobbled together the associated papers for each. I wrote a proposal for a third, doing the required research to cobble that together.

I revamped my CV. I rewrote one version of my job letter, a work in progress, but I’ve used it once already. I applied for a few other jobs and some adjunct work. I applied for two Alt Ac jobs, one of them at a zoo! I wrote new cover letters for those positions and reworked my CV into something that looks sort of like a resume. FYI: Applying to a zoo makes for a wonderful icebreaker at a conference. I’ve revamped my auto-generated emails about jobs from some of the academic job websites.

I revised an article that I’m working on. Revised and revised. Sent it to some peers. I need to keep revising. I’ve tinkered with a second article for revision.

I read a book cover to cover. I’m almost done with another book. I feel like I’ve not really read in a long time. I think I read some journal articles, but I can’t remember. I’ve printed out articles to read. And I will read them.

I spent a day at the Moravian Archives. I spent some time downloading various programs and fiddling with learning code. I’ve fiddled with learning German and trying to figure out how to read gothic German script.

I’ve looked at databases. I’ve figured out how to access databases on the sly. I’ve tweeted and written blog posts.

I’ve thought about what I’ll do in my class this fall. Just one. At the moment. I’m not going to plan it out until I know that I’m actually going to do it.

I’ve networked. And as a result of such networking, I’ve brainstormed a Twitter project on Harriet Beecher Stowe and started a soft rolling out of it. I inquired about the need for a new Stowe bibliography.

I’ve corresponded with a friend about staring an American lit pedagogy blog.

I’ve thought about the fact I’m not being paid to do any of the things listed above.

I’ve worked outside. I’ve planted many, many rose bushes and other plants. Busted sod. Pulled weeds. Cleared brush. A lot of brush. I’m not done with the weeding and brush clearing. I’ll likely never be done with it. However, unlike everything listed above, I can sit back and look at that unfinished brush clearing and think, “I’ve got a lot done!”

Rationally, having listed the above academic work out, I feel a little bit better. Not really. I wish the work we did provided more ocular proof of a path to completion. I wish there was a greater sense of working to a goal being apparent. I wish academic work was like clearing brush.

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