Interdisciplinary Teaching and the 1 or 2 Rule

From Sharon J. Harris, PhD Candidate in the English Department and HASTAC Scholar.

Interdisciplinary work has a kind of X-factor. Perhaps because it inherently crosses or defies boundaries, we tend to view interdisciplinary work as innovative and insightful. But for all its buzz, we risk underestimating the demands of such work. At the end of the academic year I have reflected on the processes of a newly designed course I taught this semester that made use of several different forms of media. I’ve taught two courses now that blend literature and music, and each time I reach a point in the semester, usually an otherwise nondescript Wednesday, where I am gobsmacked at how much work it takes just to prepare class materials.

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Besides the lesson planning, grading, reading, note-taking, typing, copying, printing, and student-email-responding I expect to do in the workload of teaching a course, I’m also listening, vetting music tracks and YouTube videos, reading three different kinds of background material (because of three different disciplines), scanning readings (because no single textbook has all the material I need), uploading files, figuring out delivery of electronic materials, writing playlist listening guides, researching technology platforms, and on and on. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying interdisciplinary courses aren’t worth it. They’ve been some of my most rewarding teaching experiences. But I do think that we, as teachers, need to approach the demands of designing interdisciplinary courses with our eyes wide open.

ScalarMaybe this is just an old-fashioned question of form vs. content. The content is exciting, full of new connections. But the form is new too. Are we ready for it? When we push and straddle boundaries of various disciplines, we must be accountable to not only the content of more than one field of study but also the form that information takes. For example, I have assigned my students to create annotated playlists. This project helps them to read music closely, using many of the same skills of literary analysis but applied to a different medium. I have to think through the best format for completing and turning in this kind of work. To do the assignment the students need to learn to use music platforms that can create and playlists and then share them. They also then need to annotate those playlists and find a way to turn all of it in together. The software Scalar advertises that “anything can do anything to anything,” meaning that any media format can comment on and annotate any other. I have also considered SoundCloud because it allows users to place a comment at a designated timestamp in the music. Scalar, however, works best with long-form text-based work and has a slightly steep learning curve. And the drawbacks to SoundCloud include limits on how much music a user with a free membership can post, and a comment format that does not lend itself to longer analyses.

The pros and cons that I weigh to determine what form my students’ playlists should take lead me to the 1 or 2 Rule. I have adopted this rule for myself to manage the labor involved in interdisciplinary courses. The Rule is Pick 1 or 2 new aspects to add to or change about your teaching each semester. As you decide what to add or change, consider the following questions:

  • What is new about this semester? Do you already have big changes happening in your personal life?
  • Have you taught this course before? Do you have a textbook/are the materials already gathered, or will you be creating them from scratch?
  • How many other courses are you teaching?
  • How often will assignments and/or lectures and classes require you to curate multidisciplinary material?
  • Do you need to learn a new technology?
  • Will your students need to learn a new technology?

youtubeIn my case with the annotated playlist assignment, I was developing a new course, which already took quite a bit of work. So I decided to have my students create the playlist on Spotify or YouTube, technologies they most likely knew (but I have also learned not to assume that my students know even what seem to be the most common technologies!), and email their annotations typed in Microsoft Word. This system isn’t as compact or seamless as the other technologies might have been, but it had the benefit of being familiar and easy to communicate as they took on the challenge of thinking and writing about a new discipline.

As I develop my courses more fully, I will be in a better position to expand the forms and formats of my interdisciplinary content. This means that it may take a few years to develop these courses in the way that I would like, but it also helps keep me from burning out so that I can continue to create them. It turns out that learning new technologies takes time, both for me and for my students. We shouldn’t be surprised though: These new technologies are new forms of literacy, and becoming literate takes time. Literacy is worth it though. Twenty-first-century literacy can build skills and knowledge with new content and new forms through interdisciplinary teaching.

Five Digital Tools for Pedagogy and Research

As the academic year tumbles to a close, I would like to use my final blog post to discuss five tools that have made the past semester a little less precarious. Certainly, there are more advanced tools available, and I hope you will share them via the Comments thread. However, for this post, I simply want to focus on tools that I regularly use and rely upon to save time and frustration (if only a little).


ImageA no-nonsense shortcut utility for the Mac, TextExpander ($25 edu) has taught me the virtues of automation. Designed around shortcuts (Abbreviations) and the texts they expand (Snippets), TextExpander allows you to supplement your desktop’s keyboard shortcuts and to build forms using a bevvy of customizable templates. These templates can be as simple as custom email signatures (available system-wide), tools for validating and truncating URLs (Internet Productivity Snippets), or, my favorite, Fill-ins, with which you can create forms around predefined selections (Popups) and open fields (Fill-ins). Fill-ins have already saved me hours in writing midterm and final grade reports. (Thanks to TextExpander’s Statistics feature, which tracks and visualizes usage, I can report that the utility has saved me more than a dozen hours this semester). Once I started thinking about my reports in terms of what could and could not be automated, I realized that much of what I write in my headers and footers can be accomplished using three or four different forms. By creating several such forms, I allow myself more time for rigorous reflections on student work.

ImageWhen it comes to managing that work, TurnItIn (pricing depends upon your institution) has changed the way I evaluate research papers. After discovering that Fordham offers a free license for educators, I decided to use it for my students’ first batch of longer essays. I had noticed that despite our conversations about integrating and introducing research, many of my students were playing it fast and lose with outside sources, and I feared that there might be instances of academic dishonesty. Previously, when I harbored such concerns, I manually searched for phrases that sounded misplaced, a time-consuming and incomplete process. With TurnItIn, you can either ask your students to submit papers through the website or you manually upload files. After a couple of minutes per paper, the site calculates the essay’s originality, providing a deceptively specific percentage of that paper’s derivation (given that it doesn’t parse quotations, it’s advisable that you not take the score too seriously and comb through the document yourself). I found that I could open each essay and see where it might be derivative. TurnItIn annotates the document and provides access to the sources of those annotations. (If the source isn’t available publically, TurnItIn allows you to request access). This semester TurnItIn helped me identify two instances of academic dishonesty, which, on my own, would have required hours of additional searching

ImageMy biggest time saving tool, however, has nothing to do with my teaching. When it comes to tracking, managing, and sharing citations, I cannot sing more loudly my praises of Zotero (free). Zotero lives where most of us begin our research: the web browser. While it was originally designed for Mozilla FireFox (where it still works best), you can also download the standalone application, connectors for Google Chrome and Apple Safari, and word processor plugins (for Microsoft Office and LibreOffice/OpenOffice). With JSTOR and WorldCat, Zotero boasts particularly thorough integration; of search results you can tick off articles whose bibliographic information and content (such as full-text PDFs) you want to save. You can access citations via the Zotero button in your browser, where you can create folder hierarchies, export citations in just about any style, or view downloaded PDFs. If you register for Zotero’s free synchronization service (Zotero Sync), you can even access your citations on other computers. By default, you’ll get one hundred megabytes of storage, more than enough for citations alone, but somewhat miserly for PDFs. (After archiving twenty journal articles with PDFs, I exhausted more than a third of the allotted storage). If, however, you intend to conduct your research from one desktop, however, your machine’s hard drive is your only limitation.

ImageFor stubbornly material resources, the latest version of Delicious Library ($25) tidies up everything on your bookshelf, including books, movies, albums, software, and gadgets. Adding items is easy. If it has a barcode, you can scan it using your desktop’s iSight camera or a barcode reader. I added the vast majority of my books using my MacBook’s webcam, but for editions that predate barcodes, I found that I could add them using keywords, authors, and titles. In addition to acting as my iTunes for everything outside iTunes, Delicious includes a particularly dulcet feature: Loans. You can check out books (or anything else) to anyone in your Contacts, and thanks to the software’s interoperation with Apple Calendar, you set and track due dates. Given that I’m constantly swapping books with friends, this feature applies as much to me as it does my peers. (You don’t keep friends by absconding with their books).

ImageI’ve saved my final tool until the end because it is a summer project unto itself. If Apple’s Pages is Microsoft Word with a fresh coat of paint, Literature & Latte’s Scrivener ($45 with a 15% edu) is a gut renovation. Based on the premise that long texts (e.g., chapters, dissertations, monographs) are comprised of short texts, Scrivener allows writers to collect research, write in smaller, modular texts, and to compile fragments into cohesive manuscripts that can be outputted in just about any imaginable format (form Word docs to ePubs). Whether you’re working on a novel or a recipe collection, Scrivener offers a template; alternatively, you can start Blank, just as you would a Word doc. The interface has three main components: the document at the center (Editor); metadata to the right (Inspector); and text hierarchy to the left (Binder). In the Binder, you can store drafts or just about any kind of research (PDFs, images, documents). Everything in Scrivener can be manipulated using drag and drop operations and a host of different views and layouts. What I like about Scrivener is that is meets me where I am. Although my diss chapter will become a single, continuous text (fingers crossed), it doesn’t start that way. Instead, Scrivener allows me to work in small chunks of text (paragraphs, sometimes more), and to synthetize them into a Word doc suitable for my readers.

Presentation on “Digital Humanities” Graduate Course at Pratt) – 12/4/13

Last week, I presented to the Fordham Graduate Student Digital Humanities Group on the course I have been taking during the Fall 2013 semester at the Pratt Institute. While the class is taught in a Library Science Masters program, the professor (Chris Sula) and the bulk of readings and discussion are not library-specific. Below is a link to my presentation, which includes hyperlinks to several of the resources used in the class:Image of first slide of PresentationMy part of the discussion was to show how a graduate level course specifically on Digital Humanities can be structured. The benefit to the way this class was laid out (as well as the assignments required) has been the focus on learning about how this emerging field works socially, theoretically, and practically. This means that we did not focus on learning specific tools, although we were briefly introduced to and encouraged to play with several. Instead, we focused on what Digital Humanities research looks like; how is DH being adopted within/across the humanities; how to start, manage, and preserve projects; and, how to integrate thinking about the user into a project’s development.

After laying out this model, the group discussed whether such a course would be possible or appropriate to initiate at Fordham. Our discussion brought up a variety of concerns and ideas of how DH fits into the Fordham graduate experience – with respect to both research and teaching. There was enthusiasm for creating a Research Methods course for humanists (ex: for English and History students) to teach and discuss both traditional and DH methods of research. The thirst for integrating DH methods and traditional research was a promising result of this meeting.

Thanks to everyone who attended. We look forward to hosting some great events in Spring 2014!

Photo of Kristen Mapes– Kristen Mapes

Tomorrow (Dec. 4), 12:30-2:00pm, Dealy 115 – Talk & Discussion led by Kristen Mapes on Digital Humanities Class

Please join us tomorrow, Dec. 4, from 12:30-2:00pm in Dealy 115. Kristen Mapes willl speak about taking “Digital Humanities” as a graduate level course at the Pratt Institute.

Topics to be discussed: What topics are covered? How are they addressed? What is the value of taking a DH-specific class rather than simply incorporating DH into pre-existing classes?

This will be an informal conversation about Digital Humanities as a course topic and  the graduate student perspective on learning about DH in a formal way. Come to hear and discuss (and eat cookies) tomorrow at 12:30 in Dealy 115!

See you there!

ReformationVille: Utilizing Games and Social Media for Historical Role-Playing in the Classroom

When I began teaching as a graduate student at Fordham University, I was not only a first-time teacher with anxiety about the unknown territory that lay ahead, but I was also in the midst of preparing for my comprehensive exams. So I did what I imagine most do… I depended heavily upon the most familiar and “safe” pedagogical method of my own education: the lecture. Admittedly, I had some doubts about the effectiveness of lecture-driven teaching. But looking back, it made sense. Lecturing was what I knew and, while I still risked delivering a bad one, at least I would feel some control over the classroom. Over the past few years, however, I have come to realize that teachers and students alike miss out when multi-faceted learning activities are not utilized and students’ freedom to be creative is restricted. As a result, I have found myself more and more willing to branch out pedagogically-speaking. In particular, I am becoming increasingly interested in utilizing an experiential pedagogy, even though it would require me to relinquish that sense of “control” that I coveted as a first-time teacher. That said, what might this look like in a college course?

As I ponder new opportunities, I have been also reflecting on which creative and experiential activities made the biggest impact on my own education. In doing so, one thing keeps bubbling up to the surface. Role-playing. All these years later, I still vividly remember participating in an American Revolution simulation in 8th grade History. As Sean Devlin, a friendly tavern-keeper, I wrote an autobiography, networked with classmates to win others to our cause, and participated in mock continental congresses. Then again, in high school, my IB History class engaged in a series of trials derived from our study of the Cold War. I served both as a prosecutor in the case against American meddling in Latin America and a defendant (an East German president) in another team’s charges against the Soviet Union for doing likewise in Eastern Europe. Looking back at these experiences, I am convinced that they were invaluable for fostering those higher levels of learning (critical thinking, problem solving, collaboration, etc).

Now, as a historian of Christianity, I have been toying with developing a Reformation role-playing simulation wherein my class would become an “idealized” late medieval town. Not only could I plug this activity into a number of classes, ranging from surveys of Christian history to Reformation specific ones, it could offer unique pedagogical advantages. For example, my students could hopefully experience the important reality, which text-based courses can sometimes struggle to convey – that the Reformation, like most theological disputes, was not simply waged with pen and paper, but dramatically affected families, friendships, the workplace, and the public square. The challenge, of course, is getting students motivated and participating. But it seems to me that I might be able to get the most traction by incorporating some of the ways in which our students interact with games and social media. Using this approach, I could encourage them to invest in developing their persona’s theological convictions and supporting their particular faction by drawing explicitly upon the skills of character development and  alliance building found in games like World of Warcraft as well as the desire to garner comments and “likes” on Facebook status updates.

Admittedly, this is just the beginning. Building on this foundation, I hope to grapple in future posts with which digital tools (e.g., Twitter) and parameters (e.g., various game dynamics) might help realize my goal of role-playing as a way of teaching the history of Christianity. And I’d love to hear your thoughts as well! For instance, what creative and experiential activities were most influential in your own education? Have you tried anything like this in your own classes, and how did it go? Which digital tools have you used or think might work?

*This post has been also cross-posted at hastac.org.

 

Introducing: The Jesuit Hacker

“The world is full of fascinating problems waiting to be solved.”

E. S. Raymond’s insight kept popping into my head this past Wednesday when I had an opportunity to sit in on the most recent Jesuit Pedagogy Lunchtime Discussion. It was an opportunity for faculty and graduate student instructors to talk about effective practices for teaching in a Jesuit environment. Among the many threads in the discussion was the role of creativity as a pedagogical tool. Participants offered examples of creative projects being used to great success in the classroom. My mind, however, wandered very easily from creativity to creation. I can appreciate the mental exercise at work in imaginative assignments, but what are we building from them? What will we do with them? One of the participants at the discussion expressed dissatisfaction with “research qua research” in the classroom. I’m not sure I’m more satisfied with creativity qua creativity. Look at how much talent we have in the classroom. Let’s use this creativity to make something. Let’s work together to solve some “fascinating problems.”

Solving fascinating problems is the first element of the “hacker attitude” as defined by Raymond in his essay “How to Be a Hacker.” The essay is freely available (not an unimportant point, as we will see in future posts) online at: http://www.catb.org/esr/faqs/hacker-howto.html. Raymond’s essay contains practical wisdom for coders and people interested in computer work. It also has much practical wisdom for graduate students and instructors, particularly, I would argue, those of us in Jesuit surroundings.

For the moment, I will simply introduce Raymond’s five aspects of the “Hacker attitude.” Before I explain what each of these has meant to me in a Jesuit context, I think it would be a good idea for readers to reflect on whether or not these ideas readily map onto whatever they think the corresponding “Jesuit attitude” would look like.

Raymond describes the aspects of the “Hacker attitude” as follows:

  1. The world is full of fascinating problems waiting to be solved.
  2. No problem should ever have to be solved twice.
  3. Boredom and drudgery are evil.
  4. Freedom is good.
  5. Attitude is no substitute for competence.

The required reading for you—and only a blog post on Jesuit pedagogy would begin with required reading—is Raymond’s essay. Over the next few posts, I plan to explain what we, as graduate students and educators at a Jesuit institution, can learn from computing culture and I will start by elaborating on each of the five points above. I think there will be real benefits from us all adopting, at least in some part, the role of “Jesuit hacker.” It is my suspicion that Raymond’s essay, in addition to other foundational works on hacker culture which I plan to discuss in future posts, will be unfamiliar to average graduate student in the humanities. I hope that this interdisciplinary clash inspire new ideas and approaches and lead to a deeper understanding of the “digital” side of digital humanities.