Tag Archives: teaching

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

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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Filed under digital humanities, digital pedagogy, Hamilton, history, pedagogy

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

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.

375px-Rowson_-_Charlotte_Temple__p._001

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.

330px-Susanna_Rowson_crop

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.

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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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Filed under Civil War, Mizzou, pedagogy, teaching