February: SEA 2019

I write from sunny and snowy Eugene, Oregon, where the Society of Early Americanists (SEA) Conference has just wrapped up. When I say snowy, I mean snowy enough that incoming flights were delayed and/or cancelled leading up to the conference start, so many (including myself) slept overnight in airports on the way in. You think that’s gonna stop a bunch of cutthroat early Americanists? Heck no. The conference was a blast, and it was genuinely enjoyable to be in the midst of such a positive and enthusiastic crowd.

My own presentation (on the “Early American Magazine Culture” panel) was on an open-access repository of early African-American periodical literature that I’ve slowly been building over the past few months. To summarize the project/tool, I’ve thus far made accessible 235 of the many literary texts I’ve found published in three African-American-related periodicals from 1825-1831 (Freedom’s JournalThe African Repository, and Garrison’s Liberator). These (mostly unstudied) texts offer new materials for students and researchers to explore issues of race in early American literature and culture. In my own research with many of these texts, I’ve found subliminal and subversive layers of expression that are often unnoted— especially in this period. The repository has considerable pedagogical use as well, giving students the opportunity to transcribe, annotate, study, close-read, and create original research about texts that no scholars have studied before. The tool also raises theoretical questions about how editors influence the way texts are received and about how reprints can acquire different meanings in different venues.

I also went to the following panels: “Circulating Information in the West,” “Models of Intertextuality in Early American Studies” (both of them!), “Early American Periodicals and Genre Experiments,” “Early American Media Ecologies,” “Teaching in the Archives,” and “Teaching Across Periods: Early America to the Present Day.” As I look back through my notes, I want to list a few takeaways for teachers of early & c19 American literature:

  • Using “Antiques Roadshow” to introduce students to early American material culture is a win for everybody
  • The Early American Handwriting tool from Reed College can be a fun way of helping students read old styles of handwriting.
  • Summative, engaging, and authentic assignments for archival/experiential learning courses/units can take many forms, including the following:
    • podcasts, “blessays” (blog essays), social media posts, student-generated fiction, websites, et al.
  • One way to help students learn the value of language and the skill of close reading is to have them create their own “found poems” out of other “found poems.”
  • Similarly, having students creatively turn long poems into concise poems using the same language, but making choices about meter, rhyme, word choice, etc. puts students in the author’s seat, forcing them to confront and understand the importance of these textual features.

Well, it looks like there’s already a zombie-esque crowd of passengers shuffling wide-eyed and grumblingly closer to the boarding gate, so I’d better pack up and join them. Thanks for reading February’s issue of the Monthly Journal- don’t forget to subscribe (see below for subscription rates…but know that I like you so much that your subscription is on the house)

From Freedom's Journal, March 16, 1827, vol. 1, no. 1.

From Freedom’s Journal, March 16, 1827, vol. 1, no. 1.

End of Semester Assignment in Early American Literature

As a teacher during the final days of the semester, how do you help students to circle back around and think globally about the lessons and themes they’ve learned over the past fifteen weeks? You may use final essay assignments or final exams to help students connect the dots, you may close the last class session with a reflective discussion, or maybe you leave it entirely to your students to reexamine the overarching themes of a semester that has left them staring, zombie-like, into the distance.

zombie

That end-of-the-semester look.

 

I’ve tried a variety of strategies for the end-of-term reflection, but often we don’t plan for it until it’s already upon us—until one of the busiest, most hectic times of the semester. This time around, I planned ahead to give my upper-level early American literature class a short, low-stakes, fun assignment that would encourage students to think about the class’ content and about their own, personal takeaways from it. This post will explain the assignment, provide you with its instructions, and show some examples of the work that students produced. I was amazed at the results and at the amount of energy and conviction that students put into their work. It was one of the most enjoyable writing tasks I’ve given, and I’m sharing it with you so that you can incorporate it into your own pedagogy as well.

The class was “Early American Literature: The Individual and the Community in Early America,” and two of its most prevalent themes were rights and equality, specifically regarding race and gender. For anybody who thinks early American literature is boring, irrelevant, etc., guess again. For each class, my students were writing impassioned Blackboard posts about the injustice that figures like William Apess, Margaret Fuller, and Frederick Douglass spoke against. They came to class marveling at Whitman’s writings about sexuality and with their “blood boiling” (as one student often phrased it) at the disparate definitions and administrations of rights and equality for Native-Americans, African-Americans, and women. I didn’t want them to lose these feelings, lessons, and connections, so I modified an assignment that was shared with me at Nassau Community College’s IDEAS Symposium this year: a letter to one’s government representatives.

For a few reasons, I didn’t require the letter to be written to the president, as the original model did. There’s an entire website that publishes open letters to the president, and the teacher who introduced me to this assignment uses the website as a publishing platform for her students’ work. That’s a great idea, and I encourage you to check out the website and consider using it, but I wanted to give students the chance to address not just the national issues occupying the spotlight, but local issues as well.

The assignment directions are as follows:

Think about the foundational values and ideals of early American culture that we’ve been reading about all semester. You’ve had a rare opportunity to closely study the culture, concerns, values, etc. that America was and still is built upon, but many people, including our government representatives, may not have had the same opportunity.

Write a one-page letter to the American representative of your choice, teaching him or her an important lesson that you learned in this course. Structure it like a professional letter:

Include an introduction in which you actually introduce yourself (ex: “My name is X and I’ve been studying early American literature and culture, and I want to share something with you that you might not have known”).

In the body, teach him/her a lesson! Use specific examples (ex: “in Frederick Douglass’ famous ‘What to a Slave Is the Fourth of July’ speech, he states, ‘XYZ’”).

In the conclusion, influence change. Tell the representative what he/she could do better to honor those values (or what he/she is doing correctly). Is there something he/she did that contradicts (or supports) the values we’ve been learning about? Let them know!

This would make for a great longer or more formal writing assignment, but I kept mine low-stakes. Students had about 48 hours to write it, and it was to be graded as the daily Blackboard discussion post that it was replacing (there were about 30 discussion posts throughout the semester, totaling 10% of the students’ final grade, so it was worth very little). Grammar mistakes would not affect their grade, either. In the future, I’d consider making this assignment worth more points, but the products that students turned in were great without the pressure of a significant grade. In fact, I think that the low-stakes element of it was a key factor of its success. I even noticed that students who, in previous assignments, had saturated their writing with misused thesaurus words and illogically complicated sentences, now found a more natural writing voice that was far more effective.

I’m confident that my three goals for the assignment were accomplished:

  • To encourage reflection about the overarching lessons and takeaways from the course.
  • To provide a self-guided (not teacher-regulated) opportunity for students to connect their somewhat abstracted college/Humanities education to the current historical moment that they’re experiencing first-hand. This is one of the most important lessons for all of us to consider as academic professionals: How are we making sure that we’re giving our students a useful and meaningful education? How are we demonstrating to our students, to our administrators, and to the public that the Humanities are effective, important, and worthwhile?
  • To give students a personally meaningful assignment with a useful and concrete result—to give them an authentic writing assignment. They now have letters that they can actually send to their representatives, and hopefully they’ll be more confident about writing for civic engagement in the future. One student, who had been reserved most of the semester, emailed me the following message after the class responded to her letter with overwhelming applause and support: “It sounds silly but I really appreciate the encouragement in class today. It’s been a discouraging few weeks with the work load I have and it put me back the positive mind frame I needed.”

So, here are a few examples of my students’ letters to their government representatives:

Curran

 

McConnellZeldinTrump 2

Trump 1

Teaching Online & Authentic Final Essay Assignment

This winter break, I taught my first online course- EGL 260: World Mythology. In fact, I just finished grading final papers a few hours ago and thought now I don’t need to think about mythology or anything related to this course until I teach it again in the summer! Well, I couldn’t stay away very long at all.

I’ve spent the past few hours reflecting on the course. I’d been told ahead of time that it would feel very different than teaching face-to-face, but it was hard to understand that difference until I was fully immersed in the course. I won’t say that teaching online is better or worse than teaching face-to-face. Each has its own benefits and drawbacks, and you can find tons of discussion about them across the internet and in the pedagogy journals, so I won’t bore you with an exhaustive list or a debate of any sort.

I’ll just say that teaching online made it absolutely necessary to consider different approaches to teaching content and leading a “classroom.” The course was run through BlackBoard, and I found myself extra conscious of scaffolding the posted discussion questions so that students weren’t suddenly slammed with complex questions requiring high levels of thinking. That’s important in a f2f class as well, but as an instructor in a f2f class it’s easy to monitor student levels of comprehension and engagement, and to warm up their minds at an appropriate pace. On a similar note, giving and receiving feedback was a different experience: neither my nor their verbal and kinesic communication was available as a tool (confused looks, “aha” looks, smiles, snoring, “I’m confused,” “That was interesting,” etc.) to help me gauge the success of each lesson or to help them gauge their own success and progress. Giving feedback in an online course is a much more deliberate act, and one that I believe is crucial to retaining student interest, building student confidence, and engaging students with the course materials/content at a higher level.  Now that I think about it, I think that I’ll incorporate regular surveys and progress/performance evaluations into the next rendition of this course

I’ll keep this post brief and conclude with a description of the final paper assignment, which I designed slightly differently than I have done in the past. I gave four topics to choose from: two were more traditional analytical options based on what I found to be issues that students most engaged with; one was a feminist analysis of the ancient myth of each student’s choosing; the fourth was a creative option in which the student would write a semi-autobiographical myth, with him/herself as the myth’s hero. In order to demonstrate their understanding of the stages of the hero’s quest (which was a major topic that we read about throughout the course alongside myths from across the world), the students were required to include each stage in their myth, mark it clearly, and (recommended) provide a metacognitive explanation of the myth- what they were thinking about when they wrote it, why they made the decisions they made, etc. I wasn’t sure what to expect from these essays…I knew there was a possibility that this could be a “cop-out” option for those who didn’t want to write a standard academic essay.

The results, however, were beyond what I could have wished for. About a third of the class chose this option, and each and every student demonstrated not just mastery of the concept of the hero’s journey, but an eagerness to bring the literature that we’d been studying into an even more personal realm. Some students whose other performances in class were “less than enthusiastic” turned in truly remarkable papers. I’ll point out that the instructions made it clear that students did not have to get any more personal than they were comfortable with, but after having read them, I can tell that they wanted to have a personal connection with their work…and the stories were powerful as a result. Students wrote about conquering deeply personal family issues, health issues, immigration issues, political issues, and social issues, and it was obvious in each paper that there was so much more investment in this assignment than would normally come in a standard analytical paper. And yet the essays weren’t simply a creative writing assignment- they were a valid way of assessing a student’s understanding of a critical theory of mythology. So they ended up being a great evaluative tool, an enjoyable and personally meaningful assignment for students, and an incredibly interesting and exciting set of essays to read and grade. I plan to use the assignment option again next time I teach mythology, but I can also see its application in a writing course for learning about how to write in a specific genre.

Most essays that we assign students won’t survive halfway through the next semester. I got the strong impression that these semi-autobiographical myth essays will be saved by each student for years to come.

Organizing Lightning Talks

After going to and presenting at a few different lightning talks events in the past six months or so, I decided to organize a lightning talks event for Stony Brook’s English Department. There were a few strong motivating factors:

1) Lightning talks are a great way for students and faculty to showcase their hard work that often goes so unappreciated and unnoticed.

2) At inter-university lightning talks that I’ve attended, I learned about so many exciting projects and techniques taking place right here in the NYC area that I probably would not have found out about otherwise. I soon realized that there are tons of projects going on in my own department that I don’t about- many of my colleagues don’t know what exactly I’m working on, and I don’t know what exactly many of my colleagues are working on, even though we’re only an office or two apart! Lightning talks provide a fun, relaxed opportunity to learn about the very people/community surrounding us.

3) This new awareness of one’s surrounding academic community often leads to new collaborations and sharing of information and resources!

4) The 3-5 minute time limit is great practice for the loquacious academic (most of us) in focusing talking points and eliminating tangents and unnecessary parts of discussion. It also make one really consider his or her research and writing from new perspective- what are my major arguments, what are my strongest supports for that argument, what did my argument emerge out of, and what is my argument leading toward? After my own lightning talks, I’ve often gone back to my full-length essays and given more attention to points that I realized needed to be stronger and more of a focus, and I’ve also shaved away some of the attention given to points that I found are not as important for my argument.

5) 3-5 minutes also keeps things very relaxed and low-stakes. Rarely have I seen somebody read straight from a paper for a short discussion. Instead, it’s easier to keep things more conversational by talking off the cuff and following a rough outline (maybe 3-6 bullet points is all!). Because it’s such a short amount of time, it might also be a good way for less-experienced presenters to get their feet wet in terms of conference papers.

So on April 19, 2016, I held the SBU English Department’s first ever lightning talks event, featuring about 20 graduate students and faculty members. We also had an awesome and informative presentation from Kate Kasten and Lis Pankl from the SBU library on campus resources for research in the Humanities. I was grateful for funding from both the English Department and the Graduate English Society, which helped make the event a success. The event received an impressive amount of positive and supportive feedback, and I am planning to organize another event this coming spring. Ultimately, I’d like to either open this event up to other departments in the Humanities or create another event for the fall semester through the Humanities Institute.

Time Management

Today, I presented at an event on time management. It was a pretty relaxed event, so we were able to have some good conversations. I’m posting about it for two reasons:

1) To suggest that you pretend that you’re going to give a presentation on time management and go through all the motions of preparing for it. The meta-cognition and reflection that is required can be incredibly productive for- you guessed it- your own time management. Thinking about my own habits and strategies helped me identify my strengths, weaknesses, and work habits. Having that more thorough understanding of myself is helping me develop better strategies.

2) To share my strategies with you. I humbly acknowledge that I am no expert, but I’ve made it to the fourth year of a Ph.D. program after spending six other years in post-secondary education and also working other jobs, managing relationships, trying to keep myself sane while reading for list exams, etc. The way I see it is that we’re all valuable resources existing all around each other but rarely sharing our experiences, strategies, and advice with others, and since I’ve recently gained a deep appreciation for collaboration and mentorship, I’ll share my strategies and issues below:

  1. Develop a positive routine. Routines can be very useful, but I’ve also allowed myself to fall into counterproductive routines. Make sure your routine maximizes efficiency.
  2. Recognize that part of efficiency is down-time / alone time / self-care time. Learn that you deserve breaks and you deserve sanity.
  3. Still, not all breaks need to be unproductive. Sometimes, I feel so burned out from writing all day that I need to quit. But instead of quitting outright, I pick up a book, which then feels enjoyable compared to writing. Or, quit reading and pick up the pen. (or tablet/keyboard/laptop/microphone/etc.)
  4. Mens sana in corpore sano. This is a major part of my perspective. It’s Latin for, “A healthy mind in a healthy body.” Also, if you didn’t know, the athletic shoe brand, Asics, stands for this phrase (slightly different, but same meaning: anima sana in corpore sano). When I’m exercising and healthy, I have better energy and a much more powerful mind, so I can work better for longer.
  5. Be accountable: set yourself written goals- for the day, for the week, for the semester, for the year. Little feels better than crossing a task off a list! Sometimes it helps to set a goal that you must meet but also won’t go beyond. Keep yourself from burning out. And consider keeping a daily journal of what you’ve gotten done each day. Today, a faculty member mentioned the strategy of keeping track of all your day’s work on Toggl in order to visually understand where, when, and on what you are most or least productive.
  6. Be willing to put in the hours. For me, this becomes a problem every now then. But it hasn’t in a long time, probably because I now force myself to come into my office 5-6 days per week and also because I stay busy. It’s easy to not do much work when there isn’t much work pressing you to be done.
  7. Organize (and limit) your time. I noticed a while back that I put way too much time into teaching, and it was hindering my personal work’s progress- it’s easy to get carried away or to use lesson planning as procrastination. Now, I only work on teaching material on teaching days, and I wait until after dinner to answer most emails. Limiting the amount of time I put into lesson plans has been the single biggest breakthrough for me.
  8. Disconnect. Distance yourself from your social media. I deactivated my Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat 367 days ago, and I’ve been happy with decision ever since. If you’re not feeling that extreme, try downloading the Chrome extension, “Stay focused,” which limits the amount of time you can spend on certain websites. Try turning your phone on airplane mode, turning it face-down, and putting it out of your reach and/or line of sight. If I can see a distraction, I’m thinking about that distraction.
  9. Blackout. Do you think I’m crazy yet? I also put taped brown paper over my office door window so that the light that normally permeates through doesn’t invite other bored/procrastinating friends and colleagues from stopping by and shooting the breeze. Now, it looks like my lights are always off and there’s nobody home!
  10. Manage Sounds. My office is right next to two of my building’s major doorways, which means a lot of noise distractions. I keep a pair of industrial hearing protector “ear muffs” at my desk for when the foot traffic is especially bad. I also recently discovered that I can extend my productivity by a few hours if I turn on soothing, quiet, instrumental background music. Looking for recommendations? Pandora’s “Classical Guitar Radio,” “Piano Concerto No. 1 by Tchaikovsky,” “Native Flute Ensemble Radio” stations, or a nice playlist of Jackie Gleason’s orchestra, Celtic tunes, traditional Chinese folk music, or Erik Satie and Claude Debussy. Find whatever sounds work best for you!
  11. Stop writing before you run out of ideas or become exhausted. Write down those ideas so that, when you begin again tomorrow, you have momentum already and don’t feel like you’re running (or slowly crawling) uphill.

I think that’s it for now. Now, it’s back to work for me!

SUNY Sustainability Conference

I’m posting this a few months after the fact, but I think about this project often, so I thought it would be worthwhile to write about. Maybe I’ll even inspire some others to use their digital humanities skills for an immediately meaningful and useful purpose.

I took a course last semester that taught me how to use ARCgis and its online StoryBuilder component to create maps for projects in the humanities. The actual title of the course was “Geospatial Narratives: Deep Mapping for Humanities and Social Sciences.” As a first assignment that would help students learn the basic skills of digital cartography, we were given a handful of research subjects to choose from. I, along with three other students, chose Stony Brook’s sustainability efforts on campus. Our task was to find all the ways that Stony Brook was working to become cleaner and greener. I’m proud to say that the campus does an admirable job at reducing waste, increasing energy efficiency, recycling, and promoting bicycling (among other things). Our team, of which I was the facilitator, then selected the items that were able to be mapped: small recycling bins (with separate units for bottles, cans, paper, printer toner, ink cartridges, batteries, cell phones, and e-waste), large recycling bins (essentially the size of dumpsters), solar powered trash compactors, water bottle refill stations, energy efficient lights, and the new freight farm (a year-round hydroponic vegetable garden).

Only a month into the semester, our map was published. In fact, it was displayed at the SUNY Sustainability Conference on October 6, 2015. It was a great feeling of accomplishment and gratification to see my own work being broadcast before a variety of people from across New York State. This was one of the best projects I’d ever worked on. It was a true “authentic learning experience.” I genuinely cared about my research, composition, and publication. I’ve often thought about this assignment since. When I give my own students assignments, I want them to be just as engaged as I was with my sustainability map. To see the map, follow the link below.

Click here for a link to our map!

Teaching Ancient World Literature

It’s been a few months since I’ve posted last. This semester has been busy and productive. I’ve been teaching EGL 111-02- “World Literature: Ancient to Modern,” which was a challenge at first because, while ancient literature is timeless and still so connected to modern literature in many ways, there is also a difference to it that I find requires a change in pedagogical approach. One significant element of ancient literature is the fact that we are often reading a translation (and sometimes a translation of a translation, or even a translation of a translation of a translation!), and meanings of individual words and phrases carry a different weight than they do in, say, contemporary American literature. There is also the aspect of historical context, a variety of mythological frameworks, and a great distance in time, distance, and intimate understanding from the cultures under inspection.

That being said, the first three weeks or so were an experimental period, playing with different methods of introducing historical context- from watching contextualizing YouTube clips, to giving concise background information that I know from my double-major background in Classics, to relying on the Norton introductions and supplementary material, to challenging students to come in with contextualizing information, to reading certain texts intentionally out of context to think about how we think about the text on its own, how it can transcend contexts, etc.

Some of these approaches worked better than others, and none was unsuccessful. Eventually, I fell into a strong groove, and I’ve have had some of the best classes of my entire teaching career the past few weeks. At the beginning of one class, I offered the students the option to either 1) take the two question quiz on the previous night’s reading for a total of ten points with no extra credit, or 2) elect two classmates to answer the two questions for the class as a whole, and then elect two more classmates for 1 point extra credit questions. I only thought of the idea on the way to class, and I’m glad that I decided to go out on a limb with it. Two of the course’s main themes are leadership and citizenship, so this became a real life exercise in democratically electing leaders, putting your trust and fate in somebody else’s hands, and being either happy or let down with the outcome. As I asked the first elected representative the first of the two quiz questions, the class unanimously voted for the second option, and the students were collectively a visible mix of excitement, nervous anticipation, and supportive cheerleading. She herself was noticeably anxious, but she answered correctly and the class erupted in applause, smiles, and sighs of relief. Then all eyes turned to the second elected representative. The class again was on the edge of their seats. The tension was palpable, which is something that’s hard to achieve in a positive way at 8:35 am in a class full of 18-21 year olds. I asked the student the second question, and he hesitate for a few moments, and then answered. He, also, was correct. The class again roared with approval, and they were clearly happy with their decision to choose an election. One of the two students got the extra credit question right, so the entire class earned 11/10 on the quiz. Immediately after the quiz, we connected this classroom experience to some of the stories we’d read through the previous ten or so weeks- The Odyssey, Pericles’ Funeral Oration, “Oedipus Rex,” “Antigone,” and Aristophanes’ “Acharnians,” to name a few. I could tell that they understood the concepts of leadership, citizenship, and democracy much more deeply after this exercise.

I’ve always thought that the most effective and meaningful way of learning is through one’s own experiences and discovery, and this was a fantastic way of creating an opportunity for that in class. It was an engaging and entertaining, but it was a real-life learning experience. As I continue to teach, I’ve been finding that it’s those authentic experiences that I want to provide for students.

Some other great teaching experiences this semester were:

-Intoducing the concept and practice of close readings through paintings of texts we’ve read (specifically, a painting of “The Belling of the Cat” to lead into close readings of Aesop’s fable, and another painting of Antigone leading a blinded, Christ-like Oedipus out of Thebes).

-Writing about 15 different topical phrases randomly across the board and having students control the direction of our class on the Bible. A student would raise her hand, identify which topic she wanted to discuss, and actually start the conversation by voicing an observation, question, or argument about the topic. Students would then respond and create their own critical conversation. I wasn’t sure how the experiment would turn out, but it was, without a doubt, one of the best classes of the semester. I think it had a lot to do with giving students a bit of agency and freedom in controlling the flow of class, even if I was still a guiding hand in terms of what the topics were and neutrally moderating the conversation.

-Comparing the decision of the NY Mets’ manager to keep in their pitcher after 8 innings because of the pitcher’s protests and the crowd’s urging (thus losing the World Series) to the actions of Pontius Pilate and a number of other leaders we’ve read about. This was particularly successful because almost all of the students in class are from the NY metropolitan area, so it was a way of bringing real life into our literary discussion.

-Using “Yellow Woman,” a short piece from 1974 by Leslie Marmon Silko, to radically shift the time period of our readings, connect mythology to the present world, and question whether myths have an impact on our current society and day to day lives. This was an incredibly rich discussion that ranged from race and inter-generational transmission of culture to comic strips to Harry Potter to the story of the Pilgrims and the first Thanksgiving to globalization.

-Connecting the achetype of the classical hero to the modern day and asking each student of an example of a type of person or a specific person who our society thinks of as a hero. We came up with a list of movie stars, musicians, politicians, founding fathers, athletes (specifically basketball players and olympians), and literary characters. The class then compared our list to the list of classical heroes we’d been reading about- Oedipus, Odysseus, Gilgamesh, Antigone, Pericles, Shahrazad, etc. How are they similar? How are they different? Why are they different, and what might that say about our culture and its ideals? It was a good exercise that brought what can be a disconnected, abstract topic into the immediate, personal lives of students.

Well, the semester isn’t over yet, so we’ll see what else I can add to this list in the coming three weeks!