To The Graduates…

Yesterday, I addressed this year’s graduates from the American Culture program (where I did my undergraduate work) at the University of Michigan and their families. My remarks are below.


University of Michigan
American Culture Graduation Luncheon
April 27, 2018

It’s my honor and pleasure to join you today to celebrate this year’s graduates from the American Culture program. I’d like to thank the program for giving me this opportunity to reflect upon my time here and how it has influenced the path I’ve traveled over the past twenty years. This has been a welcome experience, though it has also made me feel decidedly middle-aged.

To the graduates: congratulations on your accomplishments, and welcome to the next phase of your journey! An exhilarating future awaits each of you. I want to acknowledge and celebrate your friends and families for the love and support they’ve provided you during your time in Ann Arbor. The networks of support that have helped you get to this moment will continue to be crucial and sustaining as you move forward in your lives.

Ultimately, though, it’s your own internal momentum, values, and curiosity that will be most responsible for propelling you forward.

I remember getting the question that many of you have probably been fielding for at least a couple of months now:

What can you do with a degree in American Culture?

There’s no single answer to that question. There’s no wrong answer to that question. There’s no easy answer to that question.

Perhaps as much if not more than any other course of study that you may have chosen to pursue here, a degree in American Culture is a reflection of your distinct qualities. It’s a sign that you’re curious. It’s a sign that you seek to engage with rather than shirk from complexity. It’s a sign that you’re attuned to questions of power, and of representation. It’s a sign that you have a politics. And it’s proof that that you are deeply committed to understanding how community and society function in this deeply flawed country.

These qualities — the qualities that drove you to select this major, which is at its core an interdisciplinary one — are the qualities that will carry you forward in your lives and in your careers. This is not a utilitarian major, designed to prepare you for a specific outcome or path. Rather, this major has been designed to ground you in a set of questions and methodologies that can shape how you understand and engage with the world around you.

So, my answer to that question, which is often presented with no small amount of skepticism, is: what can’t you do with an American Culture major?

Of course I didn’t know any of this when I chose to study American Culture, or when I sat in your chairs as a graduate twenty years ago. I landed in the major after wandering intellectually and socially for my first couple of years in Ann Arbor. My freshman year I had attended the Residential College, which I had selected for the sense of community it fostered and its small class sizes. I didn’t connect, however, either with the curriculum — which was built entirely around foreign language study — or with my classmates, and drifted out of the RC.

Over the next two semesters I explored several disciplines. Anthropology. Linguistics. Sociology. Literature. I took introductory courses in each of these fields, but nothing sustained my interest or tapped into my passions. My sophomore year I felt somewhat alienated by the culture on campus. I was bored with frat parties, and not interested in attending football games. I didn’t really have the sense of belonging that I had expected to develop in college.

I spent that time reading and listening to music and watching movies and arguing with friends about ideas. And playing basketball. My sophomore year I joined an intramural basketball team of guys who shared my interests. We called ourselves “Bad Street.” We were more than the sum of our scruffy parts, and were doing well in our lower-tier division in the Intramural Rec League until… until… by a glitch in the scheduling, we somehow got matched up with the football team’s intramural basketball team. It did not go well. I think one of our players is still in the hospital. While we had been spending our time reading and arguing and partying, these guys had been running wind sprints and lifting.

We took our lumps and got through it, and were proud that we had a story. Personally, that team was the most connected to a community I had felt since I had arrived on campus, and I wondered if I might also be able to find that kind of connection intellectually and academically.

I started taking courses in American Culture my sophomore year. I was interested in history, but my experience with history to that point had been through courses that explored the past almost entirely for its own sake, focusing on political history and elites. This history lacked the vibrancy and connectedness to the world that I wanted to better understand and engage with.

I then took Kristen Hass’s American Values course at the same time as a modern US History Survey taught by Andy Achenbaum, and began to see in new ways how history was constructed and contested, the ways in which it was both accessible and unknowable. I wanted to spend more time thinking about these questions, about social and cultural history, about history from the bottom up.

I became an American Culture major though because I had support from two American Culture graduate students, who were program advisors in the program at that time — Ariella Zeller and Chris Bass. They helped me envision what the next two years would look like if I selected the major, how I might synthesize my various interests into a coherent course of study. Most importantly, they made me feel comfortable and supported in ways that I hadn’t felt up until that point.

In my junior year I took June Howard’s methods course, the first time I experienced what a graduate seminar looked like. There were ten of us — including a woman named Paula, who refused to date me, but who later became my beautiful and amazing wife (and who edited these remarks) — and we read and developed research papers together, with June guiding and pushing us with supportive skepticism. I took film and immigration and literature and ethnic studies courses, and found work as a researcher outside of school that made visible to me a potential future exploring creative approaches to the past.

In the winter of my junior year I met Matthew Countryman in a course he taught on the 1960s, and he became a mentor. Under his supervision, I wrote a senior honors thesis on the role of sportswriters in the integration of baseball, and won a research grant to spend a week digging through the archives at the Baseball Hall of Fame. For two years I had been engaging with scholarly ideas through my reading and classes, but not until I was sitting surrounded by boxes in Cooperstown did it dawn upon me just exactly what scholars could get away with, if they played their cards right.

That experience encouraged me to think about a career inside the university, which I’ve made, though I’ve traveled a nontraditional route— we call it “alt-ac,” or an “alternative academic career.” My experience in the American Culture program helped me do this, not by giving me a specific set of skills that I’ve applied, but rather by offering the opportunity to synthesize the things I was deeply interested in with the things I was deeply committed to. This program exposed me to interdisciplinarity. American culture heightened my skepticism of power, and introduced me to the tools necessary to understand and unmask it.

After graduating from Michigan and moving to New York, I worked as a consultant on digital history projects for textbook publishers and documentary film makers. After a couple of years, I entered graduate school at The Graduate Center at the City University of New York— CUNY — pursuing a Ph.D. in History, studying post-World War II American youth culture and policy. I was also drawn to opportunities to think about the ways that new digital tools were changing how we researched, taught, and communicated in the academy.

These opportunities were becoming more plentiful 10-15 years ago, and the digital work supported me as I taught history and wrote a dissertation. I completed my degree in 2008, just as the economy tanked. Faculty positions in history were even harder to find than usual— there were 4 jobs in 20th Century US History the year I graduated.

I had realized in graduate school that, though I loved history, I wasn’t willing or capable of moving my family anywhere for the opportunity to do it. It had become much more important for me to find meaningful work where I could act with a community of educators who shared my values, and where I could help an institution ethically and responsibly engage with the communities that it served.

At CUNY, this work is done in conversations about teaching and learning; about curriculum; about how we teach writing. And it’s also central to how we develop, deploy, and support the technology that we and our students use.

Work I had begun as a graduate student led to a position at Baruch College, also within the CUNY system, first as an educational technologist and then as an administrator. There, I directed two open source software development projects. One was a publishing platform built on WordPress where faculty and students could easily build course and other project sites on the open web. That platform is still going strong, a decade after we launched it, and has served approximately 30,000 students. The other project is media evaluation and assessment platform that allows faculty members to give students detailed feedback on presentation and other media content. Both these tools appealed to faculty who wanted to do their work on the open web, who wanted to control their data and for their students to be able to do the same, and who were skeptical of tools being pushed on universities by large software companies.

Eventually, I helped the college establish the infrastructure and policies to increase the amount of online and blended instruction it offered. Our strategy was built around making sure that faculty and students had the support they needed to pursue their teaching and learning goals as purposefully as they possibly could.

In 2015 I returned to the Graduate Center to found its Teaching and Learning Center, and where I am also on the faculty of the Interactive Technology and Pedagogy and Digital Humanities programs. My Center supports more than 3500 graduate students from more than 30 disciplines who teach 180,000 undergraduate students throughout the CUNY system each year. We think about how our programs can best prepare students for the world that awaits them. We think about how the teaching that our students do as they pursue their degrees prepares them — as it did me — for flexible work opportunities in their careers. We think about how to use digital tools to connect a university that spreads across five boroughs and 25 colleges. And we think about how we, as an institution central to the social, economic, and intellectual life of New York, can best serve the New Yorkers who look to our university as an engine of opportunity.

When looking back upon this path it’s clear to me that the same set of values, concerns, desires, and politics that drew me to major in American Culture at Michigan informed my choices. I continue to explore how power works in institutions, and wonder how that power might be redistributed to those whose lives are most impacted by the way the institutions function. I continue to revel in exploring ideas from multiple disciplinary perspectives, and seeking to integrate what’s most useful for my work about those methodologies. And I continue to think that playing basketball is a terrific conduit to community.

And so, to the class of 2018, I again say: what can’t you do with an American Culture degree? You’ve spent the past few years working with the faculty in this program and other students exploring questions that are fundamental for understanding how our nation works, and where and how it is does not. At this stage in your life you should have a billion questions that you want to answer, and untapped reserves of energy to start doing so. Some of you may have a clear sense of where you’re going, and some of you may need time to figure it out. Two decades from now, though, when you look upon that path you’ve traveled, I’m quite certain that you’ll see that the seeds of who you’ve become did indeed sprout during your time in Ann Arbor, and that this program helped to cultivate them.

Congratulations to you all. Enjoy this weekend, and enjoy your journey.

March 14, 2018

After weeks of deliberation, meetings with students, and public hearings over what strategies the Springfield Public Schools would take on March 14th as students prepare for the National School Walkout, two memos were emailed to families who have kids at my daughter’s middle school in the past 24 hours. The first, from the schools superintendent, came on March 12; the second, from the middle school principal, came this morning.

In both memos, I fear school administrators have abdicated their responsibilities as educators. They’ve thrown their hands up in frustration in the face of student expressions of agency, and have shown limited empathy, imagination, and recognition of the weight of our moment. The schools have approached this moment as one to manage and to get through, rather than one for us all to learn from.

Both memos start with sympathy for the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Both memos express appreciation for the desire of students to have a voice. Both memos note that schools:

will provide several options on March 14, 2018 for the students to express their views with a level of safety that we can feel confident in embracing. The auditorium will be available for students to express their sympathy, solidarity with the victims of the Parkland and other mass shootings, as well as their right to have safe and secure schools. The students organizing that effort will be providing information, including voter registration information for those of age to make their views known at the ballot box. Provisions are also in place for those already impacted and fearful, as well as those who choose not to participate in any way. As stated previously, this will be a regular school day and the “student code of conduct” will be operational as it always is and will be applied to those who choose to leave the building without authorization.

Both memos fail to acknowledge that at the heart of the national walk-out movement is the demand that Congress strengthen our gun laws. Neither memo includes the word “gun,” and do the disservice to our community of misrepresenting what young people across the nation will be demanding tomorrow. By asserting control over student actions, administrators are inviting chaos, diluting what impact these students might have on their communities and, most importantly, failing to value and honor the voices of the young people who have surged to the forefront of our political consciousness at this moment.

The memos reference “solidarity,” but their authors don’t seem to understand what that word means.

The educator Paulo Freire once wrote, “solidarity requires that one enter into the situation of those with whom one is solidary; it is a radical posture… true solidarity with the oppressed means fighting at their side to transform the objective reality which has made them these ‘beings for another.'” (Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 1970, p. 31. (h/t to Thomas Nikundiwe for this quote)). It is not nearly sufficient to express grief and sorrow, or to send thoughts and prayers to those in Parkland. The young people around this nation who will stand up and walk out tomorrow sense this fundamental truth about our discourse, and are preparing to take risks to build the world in which they want to live.    

Concerns about safety are legitimate and important, and we appreciate the difficult position administrators are in. But we never hear these concerns during football games. We never hear them during Field Days. We never hear them when students are dismissed at 2:30 and flood the streets of our town. In fact, students who are still considering walking out tomorrow have no idea what will be waiting for them, other than punishment under the school code of conduct. Will the doors be locked? Will police be present? Will press be allowed on school property? Will administrators block the exits? We don’t know.

Yes, it is the job of our schools to keep our kids safe. But it is equally important that the schools educate them. To effectively educate young people, the schools must hear young people, not prioritize controlling them.

I hope that as 10 am approaches tomorrow, Springfield’s school administrators will have their listening ears on.

On Congressman Leonard Lance’s Town Hall, February 22, 2017

Last night I attended my congressional representative Leonard Lance’s town hall at Raritan Valley Community College You can read coverage of the event in the Washington Post, Politico, and NJ.com.

The crowd was riled up, polite but reasonable. There was heckling, but only one extended chant (for less than a minute), and Lance had plenty of time to talk. He seized every opportunity to take questions into the weeds, hiding behind policy details and congressional procedure when pressed on the extent to which he supported holding the Trump administration’s feet to the fire. In over ninety minutes, faced with a crowd of his own constituents expressing their deep alarm over Trump, Lance didn’t offer a single substantial criticism of Trump. For anyone who’s followed his career, his performance was as expected. He talked much, but said little.     

To his credit, he’s holding a second town hall on Saturday at the same location. Lance’s biggest weakness, the trait that I believe makes him most vulnerable in 2018, is his reluctance to speak boldly about anything in particular. He can’t and won’t operate outside of the narrow respectability politics that for years has prevailed among New Jersey’s political establishment. But Trump has killed respectability politics, and those of us who want to resist must not allow ourselves to be duped into operating in that space.

We must make sure Leonard Lance is chained to the inhumane, illiberal, anti-democratic, neo-fascistic politics of the Trump regime. He endorsed Trump, and has not challenged him in any meaningful way. Trump presides over his party. NJ 7th constituents who want to resist must press him either to move closer to Trump, or to distance himself from the administration in explicit ways— and not in the milquetoast ways represented here. In the rare occasions when he faces us, we must make him uncomfortable about his relationship to the head of his party, to his leader. He seems to think he can skate through these next two years untainted by Trumpism, but we cannot let that be the case.  

Two questions seemed to rattle him a bit last night, towards the end of the evening. The first was a pointed question from Joe Girvan about Trump’s tax returns. Girvan framed the question as a yes or no question — “will you support Representative Pascrell’s efforts and those of the majority of the citizens of this country and the constituents in this room to get your president or the IRS to turn over his tax returns to the House Ways and Means Committee.” Lance’s response to this question exemplified his weakness and ultimately his vulnerability. Lance urged Trump to release his tax returns, but argued that Pascrell’s bill goes “too far”: “I think the Ways and Means Committee shouldn’t be investigating the returns of a private individual.” The crowd erupted against Lance’s claim that our president was a private individual, and he recoiled at the reaction.

The second question was the last of the evening, from Annette Cordasco, who asked “how will you mobilize the other Republicans to push back against this man when he makes delusional statements?” The crowd erupted in chants of “push back! push back!” as Lance offered a careful statement about support for a free and unfettered press, but no commentary on the role his party has played in delegitimizing that institution as a pillar of American democracy.

I urge my fellow constituents who attend the Town Hall on Saturday to ask questions that do not have easy answers, and that either force Lance to take a stance in opposition to his party and to Trump or that reveal his unwillingness to do so. I was prepared to ask such a question, though did not have the opportunity. My question is below, if anyone wants to use it or riff of it:

Mr. Lance: thank you for holding these town halls. My question is less about policy and more about rhetoric. You made your reputation in this state as someone who was willing to challenge the orthodoxy of his own party, and who comes out of a tradition of capable, serious, professional public servants. The candidate who now presides over your party, who you endorsed, and who you have refrained from criticizing in any direct way, is on the record bragging about sexual assault. He has made fun of people with physical disabilities. He has ogled and said he was going to date a 10 year-old girl in ten years. As president he has installed an avowed white supremacist, Steve Bannon, in the White House. He has appointed an Attorney General who has expressed sympathy for the Ku Klux Klan. He has filled his cabinet with individuals who are hostile to the very notion of capable governance. He lied about voter fraud in the election, and the size of his victory. Since his election, we have seen an explosion of anti-Semitic incidents. We have seen our LGBT brothers and sisters live in increasing fear for their rights and lives, and our Muslim and Latino brothers and sisters are terrified for their future in this country, worried they will be harassed, rounded up, or deported.

My questions to you are these: given that you have endorsed President Trump and refrain from forcefully condemning anything he does, why should your constituents think you have a problem with any one of these indisputable facts? What exactly are you prepared and willing to do to oppose Trump’s rhetoric?

#resist

Reflections on Ken’s Big Bash

This weekend James Madison College at Michigan State sponsored a celebration of my father’s retirement after 43 years of teaching, research, and service at the university. It was a remarkable event, evidence of a special community and a transcendent academic career. Students who Ken taught in his first few years at Madison in the early 1970, and who had been back to East Lansing no more than a couple of times since, came to thank him for his influence. Wallace Jefferson, the former Chief Justice of the Texas Supreme Court, spoke of how my father’s course on public affairs and social policy challenged and refined his understanding of compassion, righteous and actionable anger, and truth, and how he’s carried that understanding forward in a stellar legal career. Adam Wright, a federal prosecutor in the Northern District of California, spoke of how my father influenced his historical imagination and drew him into a community that demanded much of him and propelled him to Harvard Law School and into practice. Dick Zinman, Ron Dorr, and Katie See spoke of building (and saving) a college with my father, of how they synthesized their disciplinary differences into a curriculum that structured student’s engagement with the world in a way that offered them a variety of paths to purposeful work. Sherman Garnett, the current dean of Madison and a former student, spoke of the enormous impact this generation of teacher-scholars had on the life of the college, and with admiration for the research on the Holocaust my father’s done over the past decade. Connie Hunt organized and presided over the weekend with great cheer and a steady watch; our family is deeply appreciative. Former student after student shared stories of Ken Waltzer’s classes, his feedback, his counseling and mentoring, and his impact.

Saturday was structured around three panels featuring former students discussing topics drawn from different areas of my father’s focus during his career at MSU. The first was on “Urban America Today,” and was convened by Dayne Walling, a Madison graduate, currently the mayor of Flint. The panel was first-rate. We heard about gentrification in Detroit, the evolving role of the Catholic church in Michigan’s cities, strategies for urban renewal around education, and the challenges of education reform in the current political and economic climate in the state. The third panel, convened by the political scientist Carrie Booth Walling, explored “History, Memoir, Testimonies, and Human Rights,” and we heard eloquent presentations of the research four students of my father’s have done on the Holocaust. We heard how he cultivated their work, and how he’s inspired a new generation of students to continue to look for and struggle with meaning in the Holocaust.

The presentations across each session were exactly what you hope for when you attend an academic conference: thoughtful, probing, contextualized, mixing reflections on process and product, generous, open to dialogue. There was pontification, but it was purposeful. Questions were answered and raised, and you got the sense of a community around Madison College, Jewish Studies at MSU (now in the able hands of Yael Aronoff), and my father’s work in the university as profoundly serious, committed, and engaged. This is something I always knew to be true, and yet seeing and participating in it congealed that knowledge in ways I’ll be chewing on for some time.

I was lucky to join three former Madison students on the second panel, which offered reflections on teaching and learning in a changing university. Deb Meizlish, the associate director of the Center for Research on Teaching and Learning at Michigan, presided over presentations from Cheryl Maranto of Marquette University, Randy Magen of the University of Alaska-Anchorage, and myself, and we shared concerns about declining rhetorical and material support for higher education, technology, strategies to invigorate classroom instruction, and how being in the orbit of Madison College has shaped our particular approaches to these questions. Below are my remarks.

What a great weekend, what a great career, and what a tremendous way for Michigan State and James Madison College to celebrate it.


Remarks on Teaching and Learning in the University

My father’s career at Michigan State and James Madison College in particular have had a significant impact on my sense of the university, its purposes, and the role that an engaged academic can play in shaping how an institution functions.

My work at CUNY involves fostering conversations and experimentation about teaching, learning, and using technology within the university. I think with faculty on my campus at the level of the individual assignment, and I think with administrators about policy, resources, best practices, and emerging trends in higher education at the level of a 26 campus, 500,000 student university. I also spend much time in the spaces in-between, working with faculty and students on conceptualizing and implementing projects, courses, curricula, and strategies that create new opportunities for students to explore ideas or express themselves, and chances for faculty to experiment and evolve their pedagogical practices with and without technology.

One of the most exciting aspects of this work is that I get to do it in dialogue and concert with a cohort of folks who all consider themselves part of a broad “open education” movement, and who are deeply aware and protective of the historic role of CUNY in the life of the city and in the imagination of New York City’s working class. There’s a direct parallel between those folks and the interdisciplinary cohort of scholar teachers who formed the core of Madison, who we’ve been hearing about all weekend.

Open education, for those who aren’t familiar with the term, holds at its core the idea that access to education and educational resources should constantly be broadened, opened up. Among other things, that means pushing back against notions of artificial scarcity in certain realms of academic publishing. It means embracing open source technologies because of the freedoms they allow their users. It means embracing pedagogical practices that open curricula to interdisciplinary and experiential practices. And it means seeking and seizing moments of connection between what students are learning and the worlds around them.

Our work at CUNY and my place within that work is resonant with many of the ideas, values, and goals that have been at the heart of my father’s career at Michigan State. James Madison College in particular has played an outsized and perhaps a bit distorting role in my perception of what university life should be.

  • I grew up thinking faculty members everywhere had deep, sustained ties with their undergraduates, so it’s still a bit jarring to me to encounter faculty members who know little about their students and students who at the end of a semester don’t know the name of the person teaching their class.
  • I grew up taking for granted that everyone wrote a lot in college and took writing seriously, so when I work with faculty members who refuse to assign writing because of fear that they can’t possible read it all, or that students will simply plagiarize, or that “it’s the English department’s job to teach writing, not mine,” I cringe.
  • I grew up thinking that teaching and learning, that a liberal education, happened outside of and around the classroom as much as it did inside the classroom.
  • I grew up thinking faculty offices everywhere were converted dorm rooms.

Growing up in the orbit of James Madison College also gave me a strong sense of how community and a sense of belonging can intensify and contextualize the teaching and learning that happens in a large, public university. Building community at CUNY, where the vast majority of students commute to campus, is something that we constantly struggle with, and which requires ongoing care and attention, and technology is regularly implicated in that work.

  • Blogs@Baruch is an open source publishing platform I launched at Baruch in 2009. Based in WordPress, it’s a flexible space that has been integrated into a range of courses and co-curricular activities and provided a structure for a culture of writing, and dozens of communities of writers, to emerge on our campus.
  • Our largest community on Blogs@Baruch is around Freshman Seminar, where 1200 incoming students are blogging in a networked space in response to three prompts which ask them to reflect critically and creatively on their transitions to college.
  • Learning communities are connected to the Freshman Seminar experience, creating clusters of students who move together through several courses in their first year. Though they are not a replacement for the residential experience, learning communities address some of the disconnection that happens on a commuter campus. They can give student cohorts from which to explore course material, and they foster collaboration between faculty members and across disciplines in potentially exciting ways.
  • Faculty development seminars bring faculty members together into communities that reflect dialogically on pedagogy and classroom praxis. We’ve been working on developing hybrid courses across the discipline for the past year, and our process has been to carve out space for faculty members to articulate the risks and opportunities they see in changing their instructional modes, to construct assignments and assessment plans connected to specific learning goals, and to explore, select, and deploy the technologies they’ll be using in their courses. The communities that are forming in and across these seminars will become resources for the college as it determines how to go forward in the distance and blended learning space.

Another core component of my father’s career that is at the heart of my work at CUNY’s identity as a working-class, immigrant institution. Our mission is to serve the social (though not actual) descendants of the people who my father has spent much of his career studying. CUNY is very much the “people’s university,” one whose structures and values are grounded in the history of working class New York, and whose politics often revolve around how to protect or update that identity given swiftly changing political, economic, and cultural contexts.

Since I started at CUNY in 1999 the university has changed immensely. There have been concerted efforts to recruit accomplished researchers, to unify administrative and business process across the system, to raise the university’s public profile, to align the general education experience of students across the university, to address the implications of reducing state aid, and to sort through what it means that increasing numbers of our courses being taught by contingent faculty who are members of the same union as the tenure faculty members whose work they subsidize.

Each of these questions are huge, important and complicated, just like CUNY, and they each in their own way require reassessment and reassertion of the core values of the institution. We are going through trying times in public higher education. Scott Walker is attempting to eviscerate the Wisconsin system. Governors like Daniel Malloy in Connecticut who just a few years ago pushed significant investment in higher education is now taking some of that back. Next week NY state’s budget will be set, and CUNY is preparing for significant cuts to its base operating budget even though we’re at the end of a five year process of gradual tuition hikes. The ebbs and flows are dizzying, and those of us who support teaching and learning are constantly assessing the impact of these trends on the pedagogical opportunities in our communities.

My father’s involvement in academic administration and the conversations we’ve had over the years remind me that these ebbs and flows are not new. But one of ways this moment is different is in how technology is implicated. Those of us who are working in open education feel a particular burden because our machinery is also the machinery of “the barbarians at the gates”; our language and tools and methods are easily co-optable by forces who do not share our values. For instance, Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) were first invented as connectivist spaces that sought to harness for the purposes of experiential and experimental pedagogy what was truly empowering about the World Wide Web as a network. When Sebastian Thrun and Daphne Koller at Stanford got ahold of the idea, they transformed MOOCs into massive information delivery systemz that, for the most part, construct students as vessels into which knowledge can be transmitted. Here’s an idea, the MOOC, that began as a complex, messy, provisional space for experimentation, from which much could be learned. But it was quickly snapped up, its history erased, its coming hegemony proclaimed.

Now, more than ever, those of us who care deeply about our institutions must use history and our values as guides as we assess the rhetoric around the changing university. We must ask how emerging trends and initiatives impact pedagogical spaces, and we must defend those spaces. As I go forward, Ken Waltzer’s career and the ethos of James Madison College will be invaluable guides.


Finally, here are some photos we put together for the toast roast:


Created with flickr slideshow.

Assessing Coursera, the LMS

Coursera announced last week that it will be partnering with ten state university systems to “explore MOOC-based learning and collaboration on campus.” The news revealed what many of us who have been working in this field for some time have known since about when non-Canadians started talking about MOOCs: grand proclamations about the inevitable revolution coming to higher education via Silicon Valley are being propelled by a significant amount of hot air. Eduprenuers interested in changing higher education by developing new technological tools and curricula are going to have to do the same thing that a lot of us have been doing already for years: experimenting, failing better, iterating, scaling, dreaming, scratching and clawing within/against existing institutional frameworks, and persisting.

The most troubling aspect of the MOOC hype has been how quickly this approach to teaching and learning with technology has been seen by a variety of constituencies as a tool/excuse for slashing public funding for higher education, for “doing more with less,” and (in the spirit of capital accumulation) for proclaiming that only the elite universities can lead us through contemporary communicative changes. The MOOC hype has somehow squeezed another tier of employment into the system — “course guiders” — who will sit below adjuncts and slightly above peer mentors on the hierarchy of academic labor (and will displace both in some spaces). Proponents and detractors of xMOOCs agree on one thing: the primary goal of all this is “disruption.” The proponents are certain that whatever replaces the status quo in higher education will be better, while the detractors see such thinking as reckless academic planning at best, and mendacious privatization at worst.

The second most troubling aspect of the hype is how poorly informed by the scholarship of teaching and learning so much of what’s happening in the xMOOCeshpere has been. In announcing their partnerships, Coursera noted that “studies have shown many benefits to blended learning.” They tried to link the word “benefits” to this study but screwed up the html in the post so that the link is dead (it’s still dead nearly a week after first posted). The study they failed to link to is focused primarily on K-12 instruction, and its citation evidences a sloppiness and a carelessness about this stuff. It suggests either they don’t know what they’re doing or they don’t care what anyone else thinks about what they’re doing. It’s actually kind of edupunk, if you convince yourself to think that way about it.

Much of the same sloppiness is embedded in the design of the Coursera learning platform. As Alex Usher and others have noted, Coursera just announced to the world their service is essentially an LMS. If you’ve not taking a Coursera course, I encourage you to do so — with a pseudonym, if you like — because it becomes clear that absent the hype and praise from the New York Times op-ed page, Coursera is Blackboard with a hipper stylesheet and a slightly enhanced feature set.

Which is to say, Coursera is pretty meh as a space for teaching and learning. Online courses take place in spaces, and just as the physical environment in which we teach impacts the ways we communicate with our students, virtual environments can be structured to make certain things possible and other things difficult. The design of Coursera as an LMS reinforces traditional notions of the “class” and the classroom, and makes it difficult, if not impossible, to think about and experiment with new structures. Just like Blackboard.

It also makes clear the idea that effective teaching online requires experienced, thoughtful, and engaged teachers. There’s a lot of bad models out there, which, when combined with bluster and grand proclamations, has led to some deliciously loud failures this year. If you look at the primary modes of interaction that Coursera affords, you see a platform that, just like other LMSs, places significant barriers before the instructor who wants to do something new, something open, or something connected.

What follows is based on a review of 8-10 Coursera courses that ran in Spring 2013.

The 15 Minute Video Lecture
Students, we’re told, need to have lecture content broken down into digestible chunks, and these chunks must be less than 15 minutes. Universities that partner with Coursera have to bear their own costs for producing the courses, and much of the investment (which tends to be around $50k a course) goes into high definition video content. Coursera will help you integrate a quiz into your video lecture, which in theory isn’t a bad way to make a lecture more interactive. Courses provide a transcription of the lectures (which are often sloppy), but do not offer audio files, which makes listening to them on the go quite difficult. Coursera tells you when your account has viewed a lecture, but it’s up to university partners to name the lectures, sometimes leading to titles like Rousseau 1, Rousseau 2, Marx 1, and Marx 2. University partners can also annotate lectures, but rarely do (it happens more in the math classes than others). In many cases you wonder where that $50k is going.

I don’t really have a problem with the idea of the chunked lecture, as long as it’s by a seasoned lecturer. If I were ever to teach a course on the American Civil War, I’d draw heavily upon David Blight’s work, and would extract specific segments to combine with other texts. I do though have a problem with the fact that within Coursera these bits of content are usually locked into specific courses run during specific time periods on a specific service that requires a specific log in. It’s clear that most Coursera courses view video content as the sine qua non of instructional modes. So did the Sunrise Semester.

A recommendation to colleges producing content for Coursera: make sure your video content lands in your institutional repository, and consult the librarians (always consult the librarians!) on ways to make this content discoverable and reusable. And, make it truly open.

Forums
Most student activity is located within the Forum area of a Coursera course, which, again, is planned, organized, and supported by each university partner. The faculty and/or course assistants must establish and name subforums in a way that fits the structure of the class. In any course this is a pedagogical process, where teachers first imagine what conversations they would like to nurture and then adapt the structure of the space to fit the dialogues that are actually emerging. In a fully online course, the stakes of instructional design are heightened. There’s a lot of room for error within this process, and it requires experienced, adaptive teachers.

The forums for each course are sortable by creation date, activity date, level of activity, and threads to which you’re subscribed to; you can also see “top forum posters,” who are awarded points and ranked “based on the sum of the square root of all the votes received for each post.” (I don’t know, either). There are many paths to interact with the content, but if you dig down there’s very little sustained dialogue actually happening within the forums. Good ideas are raised and responded to once or twice, and then things tend to peter out. There’s little to no remix and iteration — which are central modes in innovative digital pedagogy — in part because the forums make it difficult to do this type of work. Technical questions are mixed with task-oriented ones; content-based questions often go without response; students get anxious.

Fine. This stuff happens in all classes. But a good teacher anticipates concerns and confusion and corrals it towards productivity. In the Coursera courses I participated in, very little to none of this redirection happened. Posts in forums can be tagged, but rarely are. Useful tagging requires instruction, and instruction on tagging requires a sense of how to structure taxonomies. (Consult the librarians!).

Until recently, Coursera didn’t support permalinks in the forums, which made it very difficult to find your way around. Permalink functionality is now present, which allows email subscriptions to include anchors to specific comments in a thread, and for each member of a course to see a compiled stream of their forum posts from within that course. This is a massive improvement in the platform over what it was just a few months ago. At this moment, however, the activity stream is not extracted to the platform level; it’s only available within a course, and that course must be currently active or archived in order for you to access your posts, which you can only do by clicking into the course. Each course is atomized, just like in Blackboard, and thus there is no space currently on the platform for thinking about or working at the level of curricula.

Forums behind logins that are not permanently available are not open.

Assessments
There’s basically two modes of assessment within a Coursera course: quizzes and short peer-evaluated essays. There’s some space here for thoughtful pedagogical work that reinforces certain ideas from course content (quizzes can be useful). The prompts for the essays however are widely varied: in one class I “took” the same prompt was used for every reading in the course:

Please write an essay that aims to enrich the reading of a fellow student who is both intelligent and attentive to the readings and to the course. Each essay should be between 270 and 320 words.

The essay should focus on this unit’s reading and the subject may be any literary matter that you studied in that reading: plot, style, theme, structure, imagery, allusion, narrator reliability, and so on. Such matters are discussed in the video clips.

This is a terrible prompt for many reasons: the target essay size is incredibly small and distracting, not even enough space for a blessay. And the focus — “any literary matter that you studied” — is far from what my comp/rhet friends would call an “enabling constraint.” Other prompts I’ve seen are stronger; one asks students to hone in on a text’s arguments, exposition, and use of evidence, and then provides a detailed rubric that defines what it means to do that well.

The peer assessments are double-blind, and there’s no quality control or opportunity for continued exchange after the review phase is over. Students often create a forum thread to solicit more dialogue about what they’ve written. This is a microcosm of one of the overall structural problems with Coursera: the inflexibility of the platform locks communication into specific spaces, which poses significant challenges to iteration. What about making rubrics available outside of the assignment, or even outside of the course? What about allowing students to know whose work they’re reading, and who’s reading their work, to force more honest dialogue and accountability?

Openness on the web requires the flexibility to loosely join small pieces, and to directly engage whomever is engaging you. Coursera fails on this count. Not open.

Data Lock
Coursera students have no way to extract their content (other than to copy and paste) or to delete their account, and the only way to delete previously published content is to navigate to it individually and delete comments one by one. Users retain “ownership” over their content, but grant Coursera the right to do whatever it wants to do with it. What kind of ownership is that?

This data lock-in, more than any of the other structures, makes clear the level of concern Coursera has for students who use its platform. Disallowing a user from deleting their account and extracting their data? Not. Open.

MOCs

We’ve established that these are most definitely massive online courses. There’s a specific set of pedagogical benefits that truly open education offers students and the world: it foregrounds connectivity and puts the student at the center of his or her own learning; it prioritizes the generative iteration that is central to the evolution of ideas; it is skeptical of expertise; and it posits that learning is not limited to specific spaces but instead flows across them.

The design of Coursera as an LMS makes those learning goals very difficult to integrate. A good teacher can teach well using any set of tools, and it’s certainly possible to have “good” courses inside of Coursera. But the structures and design of these platforms matter, their settings and capabilities are ideological, and the notion that an institution can simply choose to scale up without experimentation, trial, and error is foolhardy. Spending $50k to do so is an outrageous waste of resources. Maybe Coursera is realizing all this and has determined that there’s more potential profit in changing their mission and competing against Blackboard under some perverted notion of “openness.” They’ll probably have a better chance of making a buck there than if they try to go toe-to-toe with the Canadians.

Baruch Status, Post-Sandy

Hi All:

As you may have noticed, the Baruch College website and all web services, including Blogs@Baruch and VOCAT, are not available. Baruch is without power, and though backup power kept things running through Tuesday night, they ran out of fuel. CUNY will re-open tomorrow except for Kingsborough, BMCC, CSI, and Baruch. CON ED claims all in Manhattan will have power back tomorrow or Saturday, so assume information and access will increase then.

Hope you’re all weathering the storm well. As far as I know, I’m the only member of the f/t staff who currently has power, as I’ve fled NJ for family near Philly. You can email me at lwaltzer at gmail.com, or call my cell (in the sig of the emails you’ve gotten from me) if you need anything. Mikhail and Tom are without power in NJ, though occasionally charging… you can reach them at mikhailgershovich at gmail.com and thomasharbison at gmail.com. Suzanne is in the city, and I’m not sure if her power situation, but her non-Baruch email is suzaep at gmail.com.

Hang in there folks. Looking forward to us all getting back to our work soon.

Pastor McRemus’ Sermon on Academics, ctd.

At the request of the author, we have unpublished “Pastor McRemus’ Sermon on Academics.” All of the comments were unpublished with the post.

The author writes:

It was only speech. It caused no actual harm.

To be clear, this was the author’s decision and the author’s alone. We will be deliberating internally about any changes in policy to come about as a result of this episode.

Posts and Comments Together, Oh My!

A few days ago, Captain Primate asked:

WordPress doesn’t have something like this built-in I guess because of the different ways that posts and comments are managed and have metadata attached to them. But, if users are logged in when they comment (which you can require in the Settings -> Discussion page) then comments are affiliated with the accounts of anyone who is logged into your site when they comment. The trick is then to display that information.

I did something like this for a jumbo psychology course where the faculty member wanted to get quick summary information of the work students had contributed to the site. I had originally tied the process to the plugin WP-Stats because we were looking at lots of other data (WP-Stats allows you to generate all sorts of stuff… I think D’Arcy Norman originally turned me onto it). But when looking at it today I realized those are separable processes, and it’s really pretty straightforward. I’ve thrown together a child theme of Twenty Eleven that includes the following additions to the author.php file (wrap them in php open and close tags):

At line 29 I added this code which generates a numerical summary of posts and comments by the user whose author archive you’re visiting:

							global $wpdb;
							$user_id = $post->post_author;  //change this if not in a std post loop
							$where = 'WHERE comment_approved = 1 AND user_id = ' . $user_id ;
							$comment_count = $wpdb->get_var(
    						"SELECT COUNT( * ) AS total
							FROM {$wpdb->comments}
							{$where}
							");
							$user = get_userdata($user_id);
							$post_count = get_usernumposts($user->ID);
							echo '<p><h1 class="entry-title">Summary of Activity on this Site</h1></strong><br />Number of Posts: ' . $post_count .' <br/> Number of Comments: ' . $comment_count . '</p>';

At line 71 I added an echo to mark off the POSTS section.

And at line 84 I added this code which pulls and displays a list of comments by that author with a link to the post they commented upon:

				echo '<h1 class="entry-title"><em>Comments:</em></h1>';
				$comment_author = get_the_author_id();
				$comments = get_comments(array(user_id=>$comment_author));
				foreach($comments as $comment) :
				$url = '<a href="' . get_permalink($comment->comment_post_ID) . '">' . get_the_title($comment->comment_post_ID) .'</a>';
				echo ('"' . $comment->comment_content . '" <br><em> posted on ' . get_comment_date('M j, Y') . ', on the post ' . $url .  '</em><br /><br>');
				endforeach;

It is helpful also to be able to generate a list of authors so you can navigate easily to their author archives… the plugin we were using to enable this widget for the past few years — Authors Widget (no longer in the repository) — was ferkakte, so for that function I started using a Samsarin PHP Widget with the following code in it:

function ListTheAuthors() 
{
wp_list_authors('optioncount=1&orderby=name&show_fullname=true');
}
 
function widget_ListAuthors($args) {
  extract($args);
  echo $before_widget;
  echo $before_title;?>Site Authors<?php echo $after_title;
  ListTheAuthors();
  echo $after_widget;
}

A couple months ago Jason Parkhill threw that code into a little plugin to make a very basic List Authors widget (thanks Jason!). You can play with the line ‘optioncount=1&orderby=name&show_fullname=true’ to get the configuration you want for your site. Use this as a guide to making modifications.

Here’s Jason’s List-Authors plugin.

And here’s the TwentyEleven child theme I threw together that displays posts and comments together on an author’s archive page (remember… authors must be logged in when they comment or their comments will not appear on their archive pages; and, of course, you must have Twenty Eleven in your wp-content/themes folder). It’s not elegant (if there are no comments, you just get a blank space below “Comments”), but, it gets the job done. Please hack it and share it to your heart’s content!

FRO12: Now Much Artier

This summer Mikhail Gershovich and I re-wrote the three blog prompts required of all Baruch College students taking Freshman Seminar. The previous prompts, which we wrote a few years ago, were way too formulaic. When crafting assignments, you get what you ask for. We had asked students to tell us “this,” and they responded by writing “this.”

One of the goals of the freshman blogging initiative was to get a sense of who our students are. Instead, we were getting a sense of who our students felt we wanted them to tell us they were. Very few posts integrated media, and students responded to them as though they were a burden rather than an opportunity.

We feel these new prompts are much improved:

Post One, due by mid-September Create a two minute video, an eight image slideshow, or a ten song musical playlist that represents who you think you are to your classmates. Embed your creation in a blog post and then write no more than 500 words that explains how what you’ve created speaks to who you are.

Post Two, due by mid-October For this assignment, you must 1) post the self-reflective monologue you’ve developed in your seminar workshop AND 2) embed a self-portrait, which can be a photograph, an image, a cartoon, a drawing, or some other depiction of how you see yourself.

Post Three, due by early December Create or find a photograph or some other image (a meme, an animated GIF, etc.) that represents in some way your experience at Baruch thus far. Embed your image in a blog post in which you reflect, in no more than 500 words, on your impressions of your first three months at Baruch. Your response should be personal and creative. If you use an image that you did not create yourself, be sure to credit the source with a name, if possible, and a URL!

We trained the Peer Mentors who run Freshman Seminar in how to guide students through producing these posts, and gave them a range of tools that students can use. We also talked to them about the “why” behind these assignments. Each creates an opportunity to talk with students about intellectual property issues, about citation, about public and private publishing (students can password-protect their posts if they want), and about the network of publishers that’s emerging on our campus. In their coursework, we ultimately want students to break down artificial boundaries between the tools and ideas they use and engage outside of their schoolwork and what happens in school. We want to give them permission to apply the skills that power their hobbies to their academic pursuits. We want them to make some art, dammit. And we want them to learn how to do all this in a way that generates both specific expertise and “generalizable knowledge.” Doing so in a low-pressure setting like Freshman Seminar is a crucial first step.

We’re already seeing the fruits of this change in the first six hundred + posts that have come in. Want to see what college freshmen at public, urban university are listening to these days, and how they write about those tastes? Want to see New York City through the eyes of 18 year-olds? Want to see our students’ facility with the moving image (only a few have used video so far, but, this is great)? Then check out the 2012 Baruch Freshman Seminar Motherblog. This space aggregates feeds from around fifty individual sections of the course powered by the work of over a thousand students. That space will be filling up with work over the next few months, and we’re excited to keep looking at, listening to, and watching what our first year students come up with.

————————————————————

Originally posted on my personal blog

Collaboratin’

By far the best component of my current career path is that I get to spend a significant amount of time collaborating with really cool and smart people. These collaborations have been particularly fruitful over the past year, and it all starts with Tom Harbison and Mikhail Gershovich. When Mikhail hired me full-time at the Schwartz Institute and stuffed me into a windowless back corner office with Tom I warned him that if you put two historians together in a room for long enough, no matter how many bits you ask them to push, eventually they’re going to end up doing some history.

We’ve finally gotten around to it. We’re now on our second collaborative history project in the past year. The first was an essay we co-wrote for Jack Dougherty and Kristen Nawrotzki’s Writing History in the Digital Age about lessons we learned while Tom was teaching a series of introductory history courses on Blogs@Baruch. The vast majority of the work we were examining was Tom’s and Tom’s alone, and I’m grateful that he let me glom on and add my two cents in assessing the fruits of his significant labor. Ultimately, we argued that taking advantage of the variety of modes of writing allowed by a flexible publishing platform like B@B encourages an approach to the introductory history survey that focuses more on methods than coverage. Tom’s notion of a “micro-monograph” introduces students to the work that a professional historian does in a way that allows him or her to see the transferable value of those skills. Being a detective who can nimbly sift through a variety of information sources, learning how to construct meaning in the form of a narrative, and figuring out how to assess and measure the quality of argumentation: these are the generalizable skills that introductory history should foster. Of course knowing about the Pentagon Papers is important. But knowing why you should know about the Pentagon Papers is even more so.

Watching Tom teach those classes and then crafting this essay with him taught me tons about teaching history and writing. The collaboration was unquestionably positive. Writing a dissertation, or a journal article, or book chapter… these are lonely, isolating pursuits. I’ll confess that the isolation got to me pretty hard as I was writing my dissertation, and made me far less enthusiastic about pursuing a career that was dependent upon my producing books. I simply didn’t want my head to be in that space for large chunks of my life.

Co-authoring eases that feeling significantly. Those moments where you’re stuck on an idea or a phrase or an organizational conundrum cease to be internal recursive loops and instead become opportunities for dialogue and collective knowledge making. Sometimes the mere act of verbalizing the problem to a sensitive and familiar ear helped solve it. Other times we more explicitly addressed each others’ lack of clarity or precision. We ultimately had no choice but to push each other. We began writing different sections, then would trade until, over time, our voice organically emerged. We now can’t look at the essay and tell which one of us wrote what.

We’re currently testing that dynamic in the classroom, and I’m finding it just as rewarding. We’re team teaching a Digital History class, and collaborated in its design in much the same way as we did on the essay. We steal moments out of busy workdays to trade class prep ideas, articulate problems with our course structure, and plan time to plan. Most ultimately happens on email during our commutes, and in the 45 minutes before our class meets. During that time we co-author notes to guide us through our class meetings, and also an “assignments” post that lays out the work we expect of students before the next session. We then head to class, and one of us gets things sets up while the other answers questions or kibitzes (we take turns doing both), and then we proceed without really knowing which one of us will cover which bits of the class. Wednesday, for instance, Tom slipped into a really nice contextualization of how Sam Wineburg (who we’ve learned a lot from about pedagogy and “thinking historically”) does his work, and I discovered that the students weren’t familiar with the notion of historical “agency,” so did a five-minute lecture on the idea. It seems like our students appreciate having multiple voices — one noted that having two historians guiding them lent instruction in the class more authority because we check and verify each others ideas.

The alignment of personality, skills, and intellectual goals obviously play a significant role in the success or failure of a collaboration. Tom’s awesome, so it’s easy. In the spring I collaborated with Cheryl Smith and Mikhail (both awesome too) in helping Cheryl’s Advanced Essay Writing course craft audio stories along the lines of what you might hear on This American Life. Mikhail and I pushed into Cheryl’s class several times over three or four weeks to help students work through, shape, and ultimately put to audio their story ideas. Cheryl spoke to them about voice, narrative, and about how to draw lessons about writing from the act of composing for radio. Mikhail lent considerable expertise about producing audio and imagining an audience. And I was able to speak with students about scaffolding their projects, planning for technological contingency, and seeing parallels between each segment of the process — from planning through production to post-production to performance — and the acts of writing and editing. Ultimately, the projects would not have been as rich as they turned out without our unique combination of voices guiding students through. We all shared the goal of experimenting with this type of project, helping students find and capture their voices, and learning from one another.

Working on these projects (and watching others emerge over the years in the same spirit) has gotten me very interested in the curricular possibilities of collaborations that push back against the confines of the single class with a single instructor taught within a single semester. That structure is implicitly hostile to the collaboration our students will need to be able to do in the workplace. Frankly, there’s no reason we have to accept it.

The fact that collaborating with another scholar might keep one from going insane is just an added bonus.