Maps, Walls, and Digital Public History

This coming fall I’m teaching a new course: History of the Appalachian Trail. As envisioned, the class is going to be many things at once (which is likely a structural problem). It is a conventional history of one of America’s longest national parks, it is a chance to introduce students to the basics of digital public history, and it is a chance for me to connect my avocation (long distance backpacking) with my vocation (educator, historian).

Today I want to focus on just one part of the course — the part that in some ways I’m the most excited about. Across the hallway from my office is a long, blank, pale blue wall. When I say long, I mean 82 feet long with not one thing on it except a thermostat sort of a small plastic box. This blank wall has bugged me for years, because we’re a university for goodness sake, and such a wall should be covered with student art, or history student research posters, or SOMEthing besides pale blue paint. Now I’m glad no one ever thought to do any of that stuff with what I now think of as “my wall,” because it is going to become the canvas for my students.

For their final projects, students in the class are going to create an Omeka exhibit for the website I’m developing (no formatting yet, so don’t judge) on the history of the Appalachian Trail. But they are also going to paint the Trail onto my wall. And yes, before you ask, I have permission from the powers that be in facilities to do that. Given that the wall is 82 feet long and the Trail is 2,190 miles long (this year), that works out to a scale of around 27 miles: 1 foot. That seems like a reasonable scale to me. Right now. Today.

Once we get the Trail painted on my wall, students will then attach connection points to their own work — images of people, or places, or texts, or whatever, along with QR codes that let passersby dive into the online exhibits themselves.

That’s the plan anyway. From a technological standpoint, it’s not a complicated plan. From a pedagogical standpoint, I have a fair amount of work to do this summer to make sure mys students have all the tools they need to succeed.

And yes, we’ll be doing some hiking…


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Eat Your Brussels Sprouts!

When I was a child, I knew that if a Brussels sprout passed my lips, one of two things would happen — I’d vomit, or I’d die. Unfortunately for me, my mother loved Brussels sprouts and so they showed up on my dinner plate far, far too often. Because she had a “sit at your place until you clean your plate” rule, and our cats wouldn’t eat vegetables I  dropped on the floor, I spent many nights sitting at that damned dinner table until it was time to go to bed.

Spinach? I hated it, but could force it down. Collards? They were worse, but I could force them down too. Limas? Peas? Loved them! But Brussels sprouts was where I drew the line.

Ultimately my mother gave up and just made me peas on the nights she cooked Brussels sprouts for herself and my father (who secretly loathed peas). Sometime in my twenties I had to eat a Brussels sprout and lo and behold, it was delicious. Who knew? We eat them often at my house, but never once have I forced one of my children to eat them. They’ll find there way to Brussels sprouts on their own. Or not. Either way, it will be up to them.

I’m sorry to report that our approach to general education in American higher education is just like my mother’s approach to vegetables at dinner — Eat them, kid. They’re good for you! And you can’t leave the table (graduate) until you DO eat them. Why? Because I’m the Dad and I said so, that’s why.

For years I’ve been railing about the state of general education in American higher education. [See for instance, two of my personal favorites from 2008: Why the Apparatchiks Would Have Loved General Education, and Milo Minderbinder University.] In today’s Chronicle of Higher Education, Jeff Selingo brings a fresh voice to the long simmering and frankly shameful debate about the truly silly ways we force our students to eat their vegetables before they graduate.

Toward the end of his essay, Selingo says, “general education is also meant to equip students with an understanding of the wider world and a sense of civic responsibility. Whether it still does that is debatable.”

I don’t think it’s debatable at all.

I think we force students to eat their vegetables because we’re the adults and we know better.

In fact, at far too many institutions of higher education here in the States, we’ve let our approach to general education ossify to the point that the thing we misleadingly call “general education” has become nothing more than an exercise in box-checking by our students who just want to graduate with the credential everyone tells them they must have to succeed in life.

Rather than cast aspersions on any other institution, I’ll cast them on my own, because George Mason University could be a poster child for the sorts of problems Selingo describes in his essay.

As evidence, let me lay out for you the requirements every student who graduates from Mason must complete (with the add on of additional requirements students in my college–Humanities and Social Sciences–must complete in addition to the already onerous requirements imposed by the university).

In what we recently renamed the “Mason Core,” every student must fulfill the following requirements with the number of credits in parentheses:

Written Communication (3) — English 100 or 101
Oral Communication (3) — Communication 100 or 101
Information Technology (3-7) — One or two courses from a list of 15
Quantitative Reasoning (3) — Math 106 or an advanced class from a list of 10
Arts (3) — One course from a list of 83
Global Understanding (3) — One course from a list of 85
Literature (3) — One course from a list of 29
Natural Science (7) — Two courses, one with a lab, from a list of 41
Social Sciences (3) — One course from a list of 35
Western or World Civilization (3) — History 100 or 125
Advanced Composition (3) — English 302 (writing in the disciplines)
Synthesis [capstone] course (3) — One course from a list of 7

So you don’t have to count up all those credits, I did it for you. That’s either 40 or 44 credits depending on the IT course you select.

Then, my college adds on an additional 18 credits to this list, meaning anyone majoring in the humanities or social sciences must complete between 58-62 credits from a list forced on them by the faculty.

Now here’s the best part. Of all of those courses we require of our students, by my count one — that’s ONE — of them actually connects to any of the others. One. As in less than two. That course is English 302, which is a writing in the disciplines course in which students learn to write in the broad categories  they are studying in — Humanities, Social Sciences, Science, Business, Engineering, etc.

At no other time in all of those 40-62 credits do any of our required courses reach across the disciplinary boundaries to connect to other aspects of the core curriculum, unless it happens by chance (or design) in a particular course because the professor goes out of her or his way to make it happen. The capstone/synthesis courses are really just capstones within majors, not across the curriculum, so even those don’t pretend to be general education courses.

So really, here at George Mason, we don’t have a “core” that is anything more than a list of boxes that students must check.

Or, given how so many of them feel about it, Brussels sprouts they must eat.

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My Students’ Take on PowerPoint

As I do every semester in my course The Digital Past, yesterday I asked my students what drives them crazy about how their faculty members use PowerPoint and other slideware in class. Herewith, their litany of complaint:

  • The inclusion of random slides that don’t seem to pertain to what the professor is discussing
  • Slides with links that then don’t get followed
  • Shared slides with links that are broken
  • Professors standing in front of the screen and reading the text on their slides
  • Graphics that aren’t, or are not sufficiently, explained
  • Graphics that are so small you can’t make sense of the data on them
  • Slides that are out of order and the professor jumps up and down the sequence trying to find the one he/she wants to show
  • Too many slides (One student said she had a one hour lecture with 65 slides. Really?)
  • Too much text on the slides, or alternatively, a slide with just one bullet
  • Bizarre color choices (One student had a class that was all red text on a black background. Yikes!)
  • Bizarre font choices, or fonts that don’t fit with the topic at hand
  • Uncorrected slides — “Oops, I made an error there, let me take a few minutes to fix it while you watch.”
  • Slides that mimic or simply copy what is in the textbook
  • Professors who move way too quickly through their slides, especially at the end of class
  • Slides that are not used to generate discussion or thinking — are seemingly there for informational purposes only
  • Slides that are not posted or shared with students
  • Seemingly random photographs
  • Slides with seemingly random information
  • Slides with typos in the text

So, dear colleague, be warned that if you do any of these things when using slideware in your classes, you are probably annoying the hell out of your students.

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The Reality of College Admissions

Tomorrow is April 1.

How fitting that newspapers across the United States will run stories about Melissa, or Johnny, or Tong, or Razan, getting into some ultra-selective college or other. We’ll hear all about how the “America’s Top Colleges” just keep getting more selective as application numbers soar higher and higher and admit rates fall farther and farther. Relief will be palpable in the homes where a child got that coveted email saying “You’re in!”, and sadness will permeate the homes where all the emails from America’s “best colleges” say something like, “I’m sorry to inform you…”

And these stories will have about as much relevance to college admissions in America as a story about Warren Buffett’s tax bill has to me.

Here’s a fact for you. In 2015 “America’s Top Colleges,” as defined by the top 10 schools in the US News and World Report rankings of universities and of liberals arts colleges, enrolled exactly 0.8% of all undergraduate students in America.

That’s less than 1%. As in such a small number as to have no meaning.

The reality of college admissions in America is that (according to the U.S. Department of Education) there are around 20,000,000  students enrolled attending some college or other and the vast, vast majority of them attend non-selective or barely selective institutions.

Most work more than 20 hours per week to help pay those tuition bills. A substantial fraction have no time for partying on Thursday (or Friday or Saturday) nights, because they have to get home to feed the kids or help them with their homework. An embarrassingly large number skip meals because they have to save money for tuition or are homeless. Far too many take six, seven, or even ten years to graduate because they can only take one or two classes at a time. Many bear the scars of military service in Afghanistan or Iraq. And their average age is well over 22.

That’s the reality of college admissions. Not Johnny getting into Williams. Or Melissa getting into Princeton. Or Razan getting into Stanford. Or Tong getting into Grinnell.

So, newspaper editors of America, how about this year we give stories about who did or did not get into “America’s Top Colleges” a pass. Instead, write us a story about how Johnny is living at home so he can work and go to community college part time? Or about Melissa trying to figure out how she is going to get to her classes on time after work? Or about Razan being trying to decide whether to take 12 credits or 15, when 15 would mean skipping lunch the entire semester? Or about Tong heading off to his local state university after finishing his AA degree when he finishes his AA degree this summer?

Those stories would be anything but an April Fool’s joke.

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