Historical Hoaxes Online

Of late the Internet has spawned some very interesting historical hoaxes. My current favorite is Boilerplate. Mechanical Marvel of the Nineteenth Century. Another recent example is the Old Negro Space Program documentary about America’s now forgotten Blackstronauts.

I think it’s easy to imagine a student finding his or her way to one of these websites and then writing a paper that draws heavily on what he or she found there. After all, the Boilerplate spoof took in comedian Chris Elliot. So if a sophisticated writer for television shows such as David Letterman can be fooled, why not our typical 18 year old freshman?

Rewriting a mission

Here at George Mason University we are in the process of splitting our College of Arts and Sciences in two, thereby creating a College of Mathematics and Science and a College of Liberal Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences (CLAHS). The reasons for this are long and not so interesting. What is interesting is that for each of these colleges the faculty have been charged with developing a new set of academic goals for their college. I sit on the CLAHS academic goals committee.

At a moment like this when all bets are off and everything is on the table, I’m hoping it is the moment to get my colleagues to take seriously the idea that the scholarship of teaching and learning has a place at the core of the new college’s mission.

As the meetings of our committee unfold, it will be interesting to see how they respond to the idea that this domain of scholarship should be valued alongside the scholarship of discovery and the scholarship of integration. No one, I think, will disagree with the fact that our colleagues take their teaching responsibilities very seriously–most of the departments in the new college are known for excellent teaching and the rest must be considered very good. So, if we take teaching seriously, why not take the scholarship of teaching seriously?

Several units within the new college already are deeply immersed in SoTL work. Our Higher Education program places the SoTL at the center of their graduate course sequences and the entire approach of New Century College (a college within the college) is grounded in the SoTL. Many of the projects of the Center for History and New Media also grow from the results of SoTL research.

The direction this discussion takes will say a lot about the future of the scholarship of teaching and learning here. Stay tuned…

Open Classrooms

One of the central tenets of faculty practice is that we generally keep what happens in our classrooms to ourselves. Beyond the occaisonal visit by a colleague and the anecdotes we love to share about our students, only rarely do we open our classrooms up to public inspection. Given our mania for peer reviewed publications, you’d think we would just as anxious to have peer reviewed teaching. It seems to me that the same benefits would accrue. Our colleagues could point out the strengths and weaknesses of what we are doing, could examine the underlying assumptions of our teaching in a particular course, and could comment on the wider significance of the results we are achieving with our students. Of course, for something like this to work, we’ll need the same kind of attention to detail and professionalism that our colleagues devote to reviewing one of our articles or manuscripts. And for that to happen the same sorts of informal rubrics of evaluation that we use when acting as peer reviewers for a journal or a press will need to evolve.

Some historians have caught the open classroom/peer review of teaching bug already. See, for examples, the World History and Age of Reform course portfolios posted by Amy Burnett of the University of Nebraska on the Peer Review of Teaching project website. Or Christopher E. Mauriello’s Transnational History of the 1960s at Salem State University. The American Historical Association posted one by me that I produced in 1999 (hence the frames…frames were cool in 1999) and another by Bill Cutler at Temple University several years ago, but to date there is no central clearing house for examples of course portfolios in history. Would that there were…

Following the publication of my portfolio on the AHA website (which is currently down because their webserver is in South Florida and got whacked by Hurricane Wilma), I wrote a piece for Perspectives on transparency in teaching. The responses I received to this article were fairly evenly divided between those who congratulated me on opening up my classroom and those who chastised me for doing so. The chastisers’ complaints largely focused on what they saw as a bad precedent being set by my willingness to ask for substantive and open peer review of my teaching. These complaints are, it seems to me, an indicator of how far we have to go before we can really expect the kind of peer review of teaching that we demand of our scholarship of discovery.

Visualizing Information

Of late my graduate students have been wrestling with what constitutes “digital scholarship” in history. In our discussion we talked a good bit about how information that is not quantitative can be displayed online in ways that take advantage of the capabilities of digital media. Among the examples I showed them are several that have some real potential for the representation of research in the scholarship of teaching and learning or even for analysis of information gathered in such research.

The first comes from the Moodographer website. If you don’t know Moodographer, their site description explains:

Moodgrapher plots the mood levels reported by LiveJournal users in their posts during the last days, updated every 10 minutes. Two numbers are reported by Moodgrapher: the percentage of posts reporting a certain mood (the dashed, black line below), and the “rate of change” of a mood � the difference between the usual amount of posts with this mood and the amount in a given hour (this is the continuous red line below).

So, an example of a Moodographer graph with historical utility would be:


This graph shows the frequency of “worried” in the LiveJournal.com blogsphere on the days when Katrina roared ashore on the Gulf Coast. It’s possible to imagine using a tool like this to analyze the content of student postings to a class blog, where the researcher would use analytical concepts taught in class or some other such category rather than “worried.” Such an analysis, conducted over the entire semester, could indicate the degree to which such key ideas were being deployed by students in their writing as the semester progressed.

The second example comes from theyrule.net. This is a Flash application that allows you to visualize the relationship between members of the boards of director of the largest companies in the United States. So, for instance, if you wanted to see how the boards of Northrup Grumman and General Dynamics (two defense contracting behemoths) were connected, the visual example would look like this:


You can see that three men link these two boards together. But what about their links to other corporate boards? That graphic looks like this:


Now the interlocking nature of corporate leadership becomes more apparent. It’s possible to imagine using a tool like this to represent individual students in a course (rather than fat cat board members) and to indicate their connection to certain key concepts in the course over time.

The final example has to do with the use of words in the English language. Wordcount.org tracks the usage of words in the English language–written and spoken. Their About page says:

WordCount� is an artistic experiment in the way we use language. It presents the 86,800 most frequently used English words, ranked in order of commonness. Each word is scaled to reflect its frequency relative to the words that precede and follow it, giving a visual barometer of relevance. The larger the word, the more we use it. The smaller the word, the more uncommon it is.

WordCount data currently comes from the British National Corpus�, a 100 million word collection of samples of written and spoken language from a wide range of sources, designed to represent an accurate cross-section of current English usage.

So, my own test was to enter the word Stalin, a word that came up often in my East European history class this afternoon. The result looks like this:


Uncle Joe’s name turns out to be in 9,516th place in terms of usage. I found it somewhat interesting to note that just ahead of “Stalin” in terms of usage was “sexy”. Go figure. And, because inquiring minds want to know, I decided to see if this site has any sort of feature that tracks queries. And, of course, they do. Here is the result of their query tracking. No surprises here! If you are offended by four letter words, stop looking now and hit the back button on your browser.


All humor aside, I think you can see how an historian might use a system like this. Imagine feeding in the 30,000+ personal narratives collected in the September 11 Digital Archive and subjecting them to this kind of analysis. Or, for the purposes of SoTL research, to track student use of words in their papers over the course of a semester.

Representing the results of SoTL research in such a visual way could lead to some very interesting new insights into what was happening in one’s classes.