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Transformative Learning in the Humanities

Waiting for the last of the semester’s assignments to come in before my real feedback marathon begins, I’ve finally completed my part of Cohort 4, Group 2’s public knowledge project for the Transformative Learning in the Humanities Fellowship I was lucky enough to hold this fall.  The fellowship was extremely cool- we got a big stack of inspiring books (that I’m still working through!), were invited to workshops and lectures from the authors of those inspiring books, who were somehow even more amazing in (virtual) person than on their pages, and participated in fellowship workshops that modelled different tools and practices we could then use in our own classes.  I am super excited to play with padlet for in-class collaboration, especially in online classes (I had used it previously in face-to-face classes, but moved away- now it may be time to explore it again).  The different tactics to achieve 100% participation were especially appealing- I expect I’ll be using the write-read-tag in all of my classes going forward.  The fellowship was a brightspot in a very challenging semester, and I’m extremely grateful to have been involved.

I’m extremely proud of my group’s public knowledge project, Writing the World.  We decided to create a Manifold project to share some of what we each do in our classes, along with student samples.  Although I have some experience working in Manifold and probably could’ve done the ingest alone, group members Kate Culkin (BCC) and Yan Yang (BMCC) were interested in learning the platform, so we did a collaborative ingest over zoom.  Kate was more successful than I have ever been at getting a YAML file to work beautifully the first time!  It was very meta to create a project using a process where we focused on building our skills since that was such a focus of discussions during the fellowship and in each of our chapters.  

While I’ve given workshops and talks about aspects of my slightly peculiar pedagogy before (at CUNY Teaching Matters and Open Ed 2022), this is the first time I’ve sat down and wrote it all out in once place.  I am happy to have it to refer students and colleagues to, and to be able to look back at it after a few years, so see how I evolve in the time to come.  Though I wish I had made more time to work on my chapter, and there are already many revisions I’d love to make to my own writing, I’m incredibly proud to be in a collection with my awesome group members, Kate, Yan, and Dino Sossi (SPS).  The project is worth checking out for their class projects alone, so do head over and have a look

I taught! In a classroom! And it was AWESOME!!!!

This week, I had nerves like I haven’t had in years- back to school nerves!  I’ll be teaching four classes at Doshisha University this semester.  The course load is very similar to what I’m used to at home (the Fulbright representative I met in 2019 had said they were looking to expand their outreach to community college faculty for exactly this reason- we are very comfortable teaching a lot!).  In some ways, Doshisha is very different from my usual campus- it’s an elite private university, as opposed to my public community college, so I’m teaching 2 graduate seminars as well as 2 introductory level undergraduate classes, which I don’t often get to do at home (but boy do I love when I can).  Japanese universities in general, and Doshisha specifically, still tend towards the “professor lectures/high stakes midterm and final exams” model.  Between Doshisha’s status as a private (expensive by Japanese standards) institution and location in Japan, a rich country with a very high standard of living, the parts of my teaching approach that evolved to attempt to address basic needs insecurity are not really necessary here.*  

Yet, I am hopeful that the pedagogy I have been developing at CUNY will actually transfer quite well.  For one, a lot of the changes I’ve made to my classes, inspired by a pedagogy of care, of starting from a position of trusting students, and of adopting more open educational practices are beneficial not just to students facing basic needs security, but also to students who have complex lives (other courses, caring responsibilities, stress, disabilities, etc.) and need to be able to personalize their learning.  My Doshisha students might have been able to afford expensive American government textbooks, but they would have been blocked from easily using digital tools to translate that textbook (either because it was a paper book, or because of digital rights management from the publisher).  The openly licensed materials I am using this semester are available for free, are customized to our course, and are easier to plug in to whatever tools students may find helpful (digital translators, screen readers, etc).  

One of the great joys of teaching at CUNY is the diversity in my classes each semester- the varied perspectives and experiences of students make every class a new adventure.  KCC has almost two hundred languages represented on campus among its student body, so I am very used to teaching students who are taking college classes in their second (or third, or fourth) language.  At KCC, I keep a full CUNY Academic Commons site for each of my classes with all of the information for the course, readings, and slides available for students to review as and when they need to, and I’ve done the same for my Doshisha classes (special thanks to the CUNY Academic Commons for being the absolute best!!!)  At KCC, I always incorporate in-class free-writing and small group discussions to build community and get students comfortable talking in class (or on their blogs), and I have been experimenting with Google Docs more and more as collaborative spaces to record our class thoughts.  These techniques have already been helpful in getting my Doshisha students comfortable talking (and stopping me from talking so much!).  Because most of the students are fluent in Japanese, I am encouraging them to do their in-class writing and small group discussions in whatever language (or combination of languages) that they are most comfortable in.  I asked students in my introduction to American Government class to share everything they knew or had heard about American Government to a Google Doc, which we will revisit throughout the semester.  I won’t share their responses because it’s not my work, but believe me when I say we’re going to have a great time.   

I am a little afraid going forward that I might default to lecturing- as a high school theatre geek, and graduate of  two decades of Catholic school, talking at a room comes very easily to me and it tends to be what I do if I get nervous.  I’m going to try to plan some discreet activities for each class session to prevent that default from poking out too much.  

But really, it was just SO good to get back in a classroom, live with students, and to feel safe doing it!!!**  I am so excited for Week 2!!!

* There are likely more unhoused CUNY students (on the 2018 CUNY #RealCollege Survey, 3% of respondents self-identified as homeless) than there are unhoused people in all of Japan (2020’s count was 3,992).  

** There is no way I would feel safe about teaching in Brooklyn this semester and then returning to my still-too-young-to-be-vaccinated children, but the safety precautions and infection numbers here are exponentially better. 

Digital Pedagogy 2: Too OER, Too Curious*

So, this past semester, I had the great privilege of teaching a class in the CUNY Graduate Center’s Digital Humanities MA Program.  Not only that, but I got to design the whole thing, from top to bottom, with no example or prior syllabus to go on.  It was my first time teaching at the graduate level, developing a seminar, and teaching a class about teaching or OER- lots of firsts.  




Color photo of word bubble that has the word "Awesome" written in it.
“Awesome” by Sam Howzit is licensed under CC BY 2.0

We decided as a group that our class website and discussions would be a walled garden, just for us, so I won’t tell you about how A-MAZ-ING these students were or the awesome work they did.  If they ever choose to share it publicly, I’ll be first in line to amplify, but that day may never come, and that’s okay.  I was incredibly privileged to see such awesome work develop, and for that I will be forever grateful to the students and to the DH Program for having me.  You can, however, see (and copy/adapt) the syllabus here if you’re interested.  

When I got the gig, I was extremely nervous, having never taught a grad class, and having been out of graduate school for quite some time.  The last time I took a formal class on teaching was during the first George W. Bush administration; the class covered none of what I know and value about teaching now and none of the educational technologies I regularly use existed then (with the notable exception of Blackboard, which worked then about the same as it does now, which is to say, worked-ish).  

Screenshot of a Blackboard interface from 2007.
“Integration of Webfuse and Blackboard” by David T Jones is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 If you can believe it, my first BB experience was several years before this. And not all that different from the BB I was working in an hour ago.

Given that it was a graduate class with a much smaller size than I am used to, I took it as a chance to really put my open pedagogy where my mouth was.  I planned readings for most of the weeks, but left three as TBD, which we voted on as a class.  We co-created our own loose “rules of the game” document, for what our expectations for class behavior and interactions should be.  The final project was completely open and each student developed their own, leading to more interesting and creative work than I could ever have planned out myself.  

As a class on OER, it seemed only right to have all of the readings be open.  There was so much good stuff to consider that I actually put too much on the syllabus.  Spring 2021 was very much still a pandemic semester- still meeting only by zoom and not online by choice, still everyone stressed by the ongoing pandemic, etc.  Exhaustion and burn out came up frequently in our discussions, and I tried to lighten the reading load as much as possible (I failed in several places, but luckily my students were able to tell me that I needed to scale it back.  The “suggested readings” section for each week is my new favorite spot- all of the things that we should read, if we could read, but we can’t, so come back to it when you can if you like.  It is a bit funny to me that having too much reading became an issue, as not finding enough reading or the right reading was my primary worry as I designed the syllabus- classic first-time-with-a-new-prep stuff, which I responded to with the equally classic assign-way-too-much-reading.  

In a future semester, I would move up multimedia OER, and add a “Convert-A-Thing (Course/Assignment/Module) to OER” workshop where we work hands-on together to do OER, as a bit of doing-OER would have clarified a lot of the reading-and-talking-about-OER work we did.  I should also add more podcasts to the possible readings/viewings/listenings- there are so many good ones!  The focus on text-based materials really shows my own biases (I have a thing about talk radio and podcasts- I may be the only academic you’ve ever met who doesn’t listen to NPR.  This is all probably linked to a childhood of involuntary exposure to blaring sports talk radio, but I digress).  

While I greatly enjoyed the experience of teaching and learning with graduate students, I want to reiterate that I do not believe that graduate students are any smarter or better than community college students; they’re just different, and benefit from a different approach, as they’ve had more experience in academia than the first and second year students it is my usual joy to learn with.  Having a class that was ⅓ of my usual section was arguably a much bigger difference than the level of the class- it’s amazing how much easier it is to build community with 10-14 people than it is with 30 or 45, especially online.  Moving forward, I’ll definitely be fighting to decrease class sizes on my home campus.  Many of the things that made teaching this grad class fun- treating my students like adults with complex lives, valuing the interesting perspectives and experiences they bring to the class, making space for students to do the thinking and talking in class and out of it, allowing students to choice the work that is most useful to them- are all things I’ve been trying to incorporate in my introductory level classes.  The grad class experience was a nice reminder to keep going and do more.  

*I wanted to call the class DigPed2: OER Boogaloo, as an homage to the classic film, but since these jerks have coopted the word, I had to settle for a reference to a slightly less dance-y franchise

I made a book!

On the fifth day of #OEWeek, I have a present for you! 

a color photo of a car wrapped in gold paper with a gigantic red bow
What’s inside the Wrapped Gift Present? by daveynin

But first, a very long story about how I came to be in possession of this present.  2 years ago, I saw a demo of this amazing platform for scholarly publishing, CUNY Manifold.  And of course, I wanted to play with it right away because it looked amazing, and had really inspiring projects on it, but I hit little stumbling blocks that stopped me.  Mainly, the one thing Manifold can’t ingest is PDFs, which are the one thing the books I use in my classes come in.  Although that’s not really what stopped me- that was a relatively minor technical problem that I could have worked around, if my perpetual procrastination and permanent last-minute Sallyness  did not always have me leaving class prep until the last minute.  However, with the announcement that Openstax would be releasing Google Docs versions of their textbooks, and the switch to emergency distance learning due to COVID-19 that left me seeking ways to streamline the work for my students while increasing the possible ways for students to interact with our materials, I decided that I would finally sit down and get my POL 51 class materials set up on Manifold for the Spring 2021 semester (KCC has a very late start, which is also the reason I don’t usually plan any events for Open Education Week- it’s either the first week of classes or the last week before the first week of classes, and either way, faculty are not in the space to attend events at that time!)  

So just in time for the end of Open Education Week,  I am very proud to announce the launch of my American Government textbook on Manifold!!!  I love this project, even though it is very much a rough start.  The platform is extremely easy to use, and the documentation and help available are top-notch.  The most time-intensive work was document preparation (not Manifold’s fault at all)- I had to stitch together individual chapter segments, and copy the alt-text descriptions from the online version of the book over, as the google docs provided did not have them.  I even ended up doing the slightly-more-complicated-but-not-actually-that-hard YAML ingestion, so I could have individual chapters as links, and it really wasn’t that hard!!  (I may have rejoiced loudly when I got it to work, but that says more about my limited coding skills than the difficulty of the platform).  And now I have a very cool, streamlined, just-what-I-want book that is easy for students to access.  I can’t wait for students to start using it!  Some things I’m really excited about:  

  1. I set up a private annotation group, so my class can share marginalia and hopefully get a little asynchronous discussion going on the text itself.  This is available to anyone else who wants to use this too (even outside of CUNY)
  2. I can integrate additional resources, like the Crash Course American Government series I really like, right into the text where it is relevant.  Previously, I linked the chapter and the videos to an outline on my syllabus, but now they’re right next to each other.  (okay, so I’ve only go through Chapter 2, but it will all be finished soon!)
  3. I cut out the stuff that made the chapters seem extra long, but added them as resource cubes- Chapter Summary and Key Terms are now at the front of the chapter (which is how I tell my pressed-for-time students to use the book anyway)
  4. Manifold makes it very easy to share multiple versions of the text.  While I hope many students will read the book online and annotate in our group, I know from past research and experience that some students will face bandwidth challenges, or prefer to print out their readings, so I stitched up a pdf of all of the chapters that students can download once and read offline.  

I am extremely grateful to the nice folks at Openstax who sent me all of the chapters I requested.  I even got extra lucky when I accidentally requested one I don’t usually use (the bureaucracy) instead of one I do (domestic policy).  In going over the two chapters, I decided to keep the bureaucracy chapter, because I liked it more than I remember, and to use domestic policy as the basis for a new open pedagogy assignment/project/experiment- “Can you write a chapter in 2 sentences?” as I don’t love the way the topic is covered in the book, and I want to see what we as a class come up with.  

I feel very full-circle at this moment, since the first open education project I did (before I knew what an OER was) was a (very bad) attempt at a book for American Government (How bad was it? I wrote an article about how bad it was). This one is SOOO much better and I couldn’t be happier about how OER have developed over time or about the progress I have made as an instructor.

But none of that is a present.  The present is saving you the time of requesting and alt-texting these chapters from Openstax- download all of the word files here!  You can download the files sent by openstax (individual chapter sections, without alt-text on images) or the chapters and supplementary pieces I stitched together, renumbered, and alt-texted.  I can imagine lots of different ways to use these files- translation, editing, who knows what?  So if you do use them, drop me line or a tweet, please!  Also if you have any thoughts about my Manifold project, I’d love to hear them too- it is very much a work in progress.

Happy New Year!

Color photo of fireworks with text that says "Happy New Year."
“Happy New Year” by Beegee49 is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

One of my favorite things about academia is we get extra New Years- every time a semester ends is an opportunity to reflect on how things went, and think about how to improve in the future. (my long winter & summer breaks mean I usually do this at the starts of things too. I like celebrating, don’t @ me).

So how did this very unusual semester of Spring 2020 go?  I set out from the beginning, and reaffirmed when we switched to emergency distance learning, that I didn’t want to lose anyone- we would get through this together.  On this measure, I was not wholly successful- in my early (9:10am!) class, 20 students dropped or never submitted even a single assignment, while  in my 10:20am class there were 13 (incidentally, what a difference that early hour makes- attendance for our 5 in-person sessions before the emergency switch really helped lay the groundwork, and the earlier class was more sparsely attended then, so the difference is less surprising).  Under ordinary circumstances, this would be not great, but given that New York has been and continues to be battered by COVID-19, which has been disproportionately dangerous to essential workers and ethnic and racial minority groups, which make up a large part of the students at my campus, I think we did as well as we could possibly have done.  No student signed up for trying to juggle all of their courses online, possibly having to share devices with family that also needed to work or do school work from home, while facing economic strife, during a global pandemic.  As I repeatedly told my students, my class is not your first priority and that’s okay.  

And that’s one of the lessons I’ll take into next semester.  In the fall, my students will be facing the psychological and economic fallout of the pandemic, and the likelihood of a resurgence is high.  CUNY has yet to make a formal announcement for the fall, but my department has declared all of our classes online for Fall 2020, and  I am really glad about this decision, because it seems like the only right one- my class is not worth anyone dying for.  It’s not worth anyone getting really sick over, whether it’s a student, their family member, or someone they sit near on mass transit.  That doesn’t mean I don’t think my class is important (I do!) or that my students’ education is not important (it really is!), it just means that it’s not worth dying for.  In all of the discussions circulating in higher ed about whether to open, how to open, we need to open!!!, I think this is the big thing missing.  I won’t try to argue that half-assed emergency distance learning is better than non-pandemic teaching.  But NON-PANDEMIC TEACHING IS NOT AN OPTION RIGHT NOW!!!  And it won’t be in the fall, either. So what changes to our classes can we make now to give us the best possible courses next term?

Things that worked extremely well for me this semester were flexible deadlines, students getting to choose their own assignments, modified self-grading and open-book unlimited-time tests.  I’ll never go back to using closed-book or timed tests online- this reduced stress for students (essential during a pandemic, but a good goal during any time) and let them focus on learning, without me having to manage some surveillance technology or gatekeeping to control them.  Our use of self-grading also reduced stress, because students were not as worried about their grade (since they were grading each assignment themselves), and the assignments were much better, because students were more familiar with the requirements of each assignment, since they had to assess themselves.  Not only did students appreciate these things (I got many, many emails thanking me), it was actually much easier to manage administratively.  I got to focus on giving useful feedback, not justifying the grades I assigned (since I didn’t assign them ;o).  Whenever a student would send a worried email that they were going to be late, or needed more time, instead of wasting time demanding and verifying proof of their need, I got to quickly reply that they are the experts in what they need, and that the deadlines are flexible for this reason.  Students who had problems at one or more points in the semester were able to catch up and complete their work- and isn’t that what we want, instead of nailing students on deadlines we impose?  I also got to read really interesting projects, because students got to choose learning activities that were interesting to them, instead of slogging through what I required.  

Of course, there are areas where I want to improve.  I opted to go wholly asynchronous when we switched to distance learning, for practical and equity reasons.  But I ended up missing the personal connection with students and we were never really able to develop a community of learners.  Creating that sense of community is my main area for improvement in the fall.  My campus is allowing us to indicate whether our fall classes will be synchronous or asynchronous, so I’m requesting synchronous (at least students will know what they are signing up for in advance), but I’m going to be a bit sneaky- each student will only be synchronous for 1 hour per week.  I plan on dividing each class into 6 groups (or squads, or pods, or teams?), and I’ll meet with 2 groups during each class time- that way we’re never more than a group of 8 or 9, and we can actually talk with each other.  This should hopefully balance the desire for facetime with limited device/bandwidth access, as well as give students dedicated time (the other 2 class hours) during the week to work on our class work (either individually or with their team).  I’ll also tell each day’s group of two teams that if they can unanimously decide on a better hour to meet, we can move the session.  I’ll encourage groups to develop their own norms and means of communicating, so they can help each other along (instead of having to depend on me).  I’ll offer group versions of some assignment options, and most of our synchronous sessions will be planned/led by one of the groups.  

Because of the emergency switch after the semester started, I offered students the option to blog in Blackboard (our LMS, which I hate) or on the CUNY Academic Commons (on our class site or their own).  Most students opted for Blackboard, and I can’t say I blame them- it was already set up, and their other classes were likely using Blackboard too.  But it’s a lost opportunity- knowing how to use Blackboard is only useful to use Blackboard- it’s not a transferable skill.  Building out a website on the CUNY Academic Commons, however, means students have to figure out WordPress, which is a completely transferable skill that is actually not that hard to master.  Next semester, I’ll require students to make their own sites which will contain all of their work for the semester (they’ll get to choose the sharing level of their site, as students have different preferences about privacy that must be respected).  To support them, however, I’ll spend a chunk of this summer making how-to guides and videos for getting started, using as many different devices as I can find in my family (phone, laptop, tablet, etc), since I know students have different devices and bandwidths available.  This will also ensure that I understand the fullness of what I’m asking them to do- i.e. I think it’s probably not that hard to run a WordPress site on a smartphone, but after this summer, I’ll know exactly how hard it is and how to do it, so I can help students who have trouble.

Finally, I am planning to change my slides.  American Government is constantly changing, so I update them every semester, but these are really designed for use in-class.  Without me guiding the class through them, they’re not that useful.  Recording me going through them is extremely boring (not just for me- for any poor soul forced to listen or watch!)- there is a magic that happens in the classroom with these slides that doesn’t translate to online.  So new slides are in order- I’m trying to think of ways to make them more self-guided and interactive, such as directing students out to data sources and government websites so they can play with them directly, instead of looking at the pieces I pulled in.  

So that’s a lot for just one summer!  And I’ve got a paper and a book to write, as well as some big family projects, so that’s a lot.  On the brightside, we are committed to staying very close to home, so I’ve got some time.  I’ll check back in as the summer progresses, and see how many of these words I’ll have to eat.  

Open Educational Resources for Political Science

This Image is a Concept Map on Open educational Resources
OER Concept Map by M.U. Paily licensed under
the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

So, I’ve gained a bit of reputation for myself as being an OER person for Political Science, which makes sense, because I’m constantly banging on about it to anyone who will listen- on Twitter, at conferences, on my campus, and now on this blog.  I’ve been working on teaching with OER (Open Educational Resources) for 5 over five years now, and in that time, I’ve seriously fallen in love.  It hasn’t always been smooth (the first OER I tried to author is so bad, I won’t even link to it, but you can read all about just how bad it was here), but it has led me to a much-needed (r)evolution of my approach to teaching, which is still ongoing.  It’s made me a better researcher, too- I would likely not have stumbled into the worlds of Open Access and Open Data without exploring OER, nor would I have published research on it (it’s solidly half of my research agenda now).  And that’s all in addition to the fact that I know my students all have zero-cost access to the materials they need to learn in my classes.  

So I’m clearly hooked, and now it’s your turn.  I’ll list my favorite resources for the courses I teach, as well as places you can find others.  I’m only one person, and what I’ve found works for my specific approach to teaching my students at my institution.  For reference, I teach introductory level classes with no prerequisites at a community college. Your mileage will certainly vary, so feel free to adapt to your own needs and preferences. Also, these are the courses I most frequently teach- I know there are loads more courses, so I’ve also included some places to look for more openly licensed materials.

For Introduction to American Government, which is the bulk of my teaching these days, the OpenStax textbook can’t be beat (in my opinion- but please note, I’m not an Americanist by training).  For those interested in editing the text (which is perfectly allowed under the terms of its Creative Commons license), Openstax will be releasing all of their textbooks as google docs for easier editing in the fall.  I will be offering students the option to edit the text, individually or collaboratively, for class credit starting next semester. I also use the Crash Course in US Government and Politics series on YouTube.  While it is not an OER (since you can’t retain it or remix it), it is free for students to access, aligns really nicely with the topics I like to cover in the course, and is captioned and subtitled in a bunch of languages.  I also have heard very good things about The Civics 101 Podcast, but have not taught with it myself.  

For Introduction to International Relations, I really like the International Relations and International Relations Theory books from E-International Relations, paired with journal articles (some available openly, some through our library’s database subscriptions), and video and data from lots of different places.  There’s a working outline of the materials here if you’re looking for a starting point for how a course might be laid out, but fair warning- it definitely needs work.  

For both of these courses, I use the OER textbooks in a fairly traditional manner, because that works for me.  Of course, since the texts are free, I could just as easily mix in selected chapters or papers from other sources.  And there are plenty of places to find other sources, and plenty of material for courses besides the three I discuss here. There are reviews of several open political science textbooks at the Open Textbook Library, listings of fully open access journals and books at the Directory of Open Access Journals and the Directory of Open Access Books, 607 openly licensed Political Science books at The Open Research Library, 6 different Political Science courses at The Saylor Academy, and entire repositories to search through at OER Commons and MERLOT.  

For Introduction to Comparative Politics, there isn’t a really great basic OER textbook (or at least there wasn’t the last time I taught the course), so I used library subscription resources, and made students comparativists- we did a draft of countries on the first day. When I get to teach it again, we’ll collect student cases into a book, which subsequent semesters of students will learn from, supplement, and revise.  

It’s been a dream of mine to help coordinate an open comparative textbook, but so far, I’ve not found the time.  More accurately, it’s a dream of mine that someone else will make a great open comparative textbook that I can just adopt.  If anyone reading this teaches graduate foundational seminars in comparative politics and is looking for an excellent authentic assignment, having students make an openly licensed introductory textbook would be an awesome service to the discipline as well as a great way for graduate students to prepare both for their comprehensive exams and for teaching undergraduate students.  If you don’t feel like publishing it yourself, the folks at Rebus Community offer a platform and model for collaborative book-building that could be adapted by a group of political scientists.  E-IR also takes submissions.  

The more of us that publish open access, whether our scholarly work or our teaching materials, the more that there is for others to adopt and adapt from.  So the next time you’re preparing a course (or a scholarly article), I dare you to think open first. You’ll be surprised by what you might find, and where it might lead you.