Even art critics need fact checkers; or, how ahead of his time *was* Darwin?

In this morning’s Times, at least in the CT editions, Benjamin Genocchio reviews Endless Forms: Darwin, Natural Science, and the Visual Arts, an exciting show at the Yale Center for British Art.  By way of setting the exhibit up, however, he wanders off the path:

Darwin is to biology as Einstein is to physics, a towering genius so far in advance of his time that people thought he was out of his mind. His theory of evolution, the foundation of modern biology, was largely rejected and ignored when it was first published in 1859. And for decades scientists were skeptical about natural selection, the process that Darwin proposed to account for evolutionary changes.

Of course Darwin deserves all manner of credit, and I’ve no real objection to the comparison to Einstein.

Having said that, almost everything else in this paragraph is wrong.  Alfred Russel Wallace, for instance, would be very much surprised to hear that Darwin was so very far ahead of his time, and the vigorous debate over the Origin of Species, and its several editions, suggests that the idea was not “ignored.”

As to whether it was rejected, Michael Ruse, in the “Prologue” to the second edition of The Darwinian Revolution, notes one circumstantial, but telling, detail:

But if we want to draw our boundaries more closely and consider the main question to be the theory of evolution–When and how did people get converted to the idea of evolution?–we can narrow our study to about a twenty-five year span.  Consider: In 1851, when Cambridge University first offered exams in science, one question was as follows.  “Reviewing the whole fossil evidence, shew that it does not lead to a theory of natural development through a natural transmutation of species” (Cambridge University 1851, p. 416).  By 1873, however, a question told students to assume “the truth of the hypothesis that that the existing species of plants and animals have been derived by generation from others widely different” and to get on with discussing the causes (Cambridge University 1875, qu. 162).  If one makes the reasonable assumption that by the time something gets into undergraduate examinations it is fairly noncontroversial, it follows that in no more than a quarter of a century the scientific establishment had made a complete about-face on the question of evolution. (xi-xii)

Genocchio is right to state that the mechanism of Darwin’s theory was poorly understood until the 20thC, but it’s wrong to imply that the Victorians were just dismissive of evolutionary ideas.  Even Wikipedia gets this right:

The fact that evolution occurs became accepted by the scientific community and much of the general public in his lifetime, while his theory of natural selection came to be widely seen as the primary explanation of the process of evolution in the 1930s, and now forms the basis of modern evolutionary theory.

Posted in darwin, things I love, things that should stop, Victorian literature | Leave a comment

Online quizzes for lit classes

A couple of years ago, I began requiring online reading quizzes in my 200-level lit classes (Brit Lit II, plus topics-based courses for nonmajors).  This year, I’ve extended it to any class where there’s assigned reading.  As usual, there are some gains and losses.

Here’s a sample question:

According to Keats, a poet is:

  1. A man speaking to men
  2. A chai-drinking beret-wearer
  3. An unacknowledged legislator of the world
  4. The most unpoetical thing in existence
  5.  An eolian harp

People who’ve read their Keats letters recently will recognize the answer as #4, though 1, 3, and 5 are definitions offered by other romantic poets we’d read earlier in the semester.

15/51 students who took this quiz (out of 59 enrolled), or ~29%, missed it.   Of these, 10 picked Wordsworth’s “a man speaking to men,” and 5 chose “an unacknowledged legislator of the world.”  The rest got it right, which isn’t surprising because the question uses verbatim language from the assigned reading.

Here are the gains:

  • When there’s a quiz, more students do at least some of the reading, or at least it seems that way based on class discussion.
  • The frequency of the quizzes reinforces my general shift toward assignments that are more frequent, but with lower stakes.
  • The course management system does the grading automagically, so no grading for me!  (Because, like all sane people, I hate the current version of Blackboard/Vista, I use Moodle to do this.)

Here are the losses:

  • Wow, is writing quiz questions a pain in the ass!
  • Course management systems excel at grading defined-answer questions, such as multiple choice; I would have to review or manually grade any other kind of answer.  So all the questions are multiple-choice.
  • Not that this ever happens, but if I get behind, then I have to figure out a way to account for that in a fair way.  Usually what I do is assume that I gave a quiz, and students all got the questions right.  (Because I don’t like to punish students for my own failings.)
  • The quizzes are supposed to be easy, to compensate for other assignments that are harder.  The idea is to offer a carrot for doing the reading.  Nevertheless, a lot of people will miss any given question.  This is depressing.
  • I tend to ask questions that don’t require much interpretation, because I started this in classes that weren’t necessarily for majors.

Apparently people in other disciplines have quiz questions that they can simply download from the publisher and plug into their course management system.  If a similar solution exists for a literature anthology, I’ve yet to see it.  (I use Broadview, and they offer multiple choice questions for students to review, but they’re in PDF format, and they give the answers.  Similarly, Norton offers a quiz students can actually take, but it’s pegged to a period as a whole, not individual authors.)

And there’s no bank of questions, at least not that I’m aware of, for all the myriad texts one might teach.  (E.g., all of Trollope, or Kathy Acker, or whatever.)

Someone who developed such a bank–or, that is, someone who coordinated such a bank of questions, able to be plugged in to Vista, Moodle, & Sakai–would be a hero.  It could just be a site where people upload questions from their various courses, and other faculty could download them and manipulate them as they see fit.

Posted in higher education, teaching | 8 Comments

About online grading

Katy asked for a post about grading with the computer, and I always try to honor requests, so here goes:

Online grading doesn’t save me any time, although that’s probably because I do it badly.  The main benefits I get from grading this way are two: Students can read my comments, and I get sick less frequently during the semester.

Some crucial points:

  • I take files in just about all formats.  This is probably a mistake, for two reasons: First, as far as I can tell, no one application opens all file types, and so I’m always switching  apps.  Second, I have to adapt my grading based on the file type.  For example, between 10-20% of the papers in any section arrive in Microsoft Works format.  With documents in Word (or Pages, or Open Office, etc.), I can grade using the “Track Changes” functionality.  But not with Works.  That makes things slower.  It’s my understanding that other faculty specify a file format.
  • I both use a rubric and offer copious marginal comments.  This only gets worse when I get behind, because then I feel as if I have to justify taking so long by offering super-detailed marginal commentary.  This is stupid.
  • I don’t have any macros, templates, or text expanders set up to automate stuff I type all the time.  This is stupid.
  • I used to have a somewhat complicated rubric that depended on math. This turned out to be counterproductive, because, instead of grading faster, I spent more time trying to game the rubric so it matched my judgment of what the paper should get.  But I liked the categories and descriptions, so I’ve kept the rubric as a checkbox, and just assign the grade the paper should get.
  • All told, it probably takes me about 30 minutes a paper for short ones, and as much as an hour for longer ones.

So, to recap.  If you would do online grading successfully, do it as differently from me as possible:

  • Be strict about file formats.  Even naming conventions end up making a difference–I’m *always* spending a few minutes going through and changing all the files named “Paper1.doc” to something more helpful.
  • I’d use a rubric, or something comparable, but if you do, minimize interlineal comments.
  • Help your word processor help you: Figure out what comments you write over and over again, and set up a macro of some sort to insert that text automagically.

Here’s an annotated list of links with more information about various approaches. If anyone has shortcuts or tips, I’d be glad to hear them!

Update the next morning: I woke up with the same thought Tom had (in comments): monitors matter.  I’m a *lot* more efficient on campus, with my dual 24″ monitors, than at home, on my MacBook.

Posted in higher education, teaching | 9 Comments

Modernists think they’re so great

The 2nd-most irritating thing* about being a Victorianist is having to deal with our modernist colleagues who appear to believe that modernist claims about Victorian culture were simply true, and not at all artifacts of generational conflict or artistic brand-building.   I’m happy to admit that, say, James Joyce or Virginia Woolf could write a hell of a sentence, and that the kind of psychological realism they could achieve is incredibly valuable.

But that doesn’t make claims like this–found in The Cambridge Companion to the Modernist Novel–any truer:

For Portrait announces from its first page Joyce’s radical break with the conventions of the ninteenth-century realist novel.  There is no omniscient narrator here, who directs the reader’s response.  Instead the narrative focuses on a particular consciousness, and is articulated through the kind of language such a consciousness would use.  If we compare the passage with the opening lines of Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations (1861), another novel concerning a young man’s coming of age, the difference is striking.  Great Expectations begins: “My father’s family name being Pirrip, and my Christian name Philip, my infant tongue could make of both names nothing longer or more explicit than Pip.”  The sentence immediately announces that this is not the voice of a child; the grammatical complexity of the opening clause, the use of the distinctively adult words “infant tongue” and “explicit,” tell us that the narrator is an older man looking back at his childhood, not a child telling his own story.  In contrast, Joyce’s use of simple words, baby-talk, and childish diction erases this overseeing, distancing narrative presence from the text, leaving us in intimate relation to Stephen’s consciousness alone.

Joyce was not the first writer to move from omniscient narration to a narrative style shaped by the interior life of his character . . . .  (102-03)

Is there any way of construing this paragraph that doesn’t imply, first, that Great Expectations is a realist novel, and second, that it has an omniscient narrator?  And does anyone who actually teaches this novel agree with either implication?

Of course it’s true that the opening page of Portrait seems more like a child’s perspective than Great Expectations‘s does. (Although is that a Dante allusion I see near the end of that page? My five year old’s read the Iliad and the Odyssey, both more than once, but I’m not sure I’ve ever heard him quote them.)

But it simply cannot be true that the point of the adult narrator’s recollection in this novel is oversight and distance, any more than it is in, say, Jane Eyre or Villette . . . or even David Copperfield.  Victorian literary culture was capable of playing complex games with self-presentation, as the dramatic monologue ought to make clear, and these and other first-person novels probably deserve to be read with some care.  In *none* of these novels does the narrator act like an omniscient one–instead, fictional autobiographies tend formally to point up the limits of one’s insight into one’s own life.

Great Expectations is a novel of adulthood, written from someone who is trying to make sense of his life, and trying desperately to convince us that things will work out for the best.  He returns to his past, neither because he is distanced from it nor to demonstrate his mastery of it, but precisely because he is not distanced at all, not a master at all.  That’s the rush of the book–and it’s a rush that most fictional auobiographies deliver in spades.

*The most irritating thing is having, every single semester, to explain, “Yes, we’re going to read the whole book.  I know it’s 1000 pages.”

Posted in Dickens, fictional autobiography, teaching, things that should stop, Victorian literature | 11 Comments

My current tech crush: Dropbox

Anyone who regularly accesses multiple computers knows how hard it is to keep track of files.  That’s why Zotero now offers online syncing & backup, why MobileMe offers Back To My Mac, why flash drives are so popular, and why, in general, cloud computing has become such a buzzword.

I do ok managing my research files, but managing teaching and committee-related files has been an increasing problem, especially after I moved to electronic-only paper submission a couple of years ago.  I’d save student papers to a folder on one computer and start grading.  I probably could’ve put the folder on a flash drive, but my experience with flash drives is spotty–usually I fail to have it at the right place.  Typically what I do is zip the folder when I’m done on a particular computer and then e-mail the file to myself.  During a semester, I’ll accumulate scores of folders and zips with helpful names like Paper 1 grading, Paper 1 grading 1, Paper 1 grading 2, etc.  And sometimes, as I start grading, I’ll realize I need to tweak a rubric.  Great–which folder, on which computer, is it in?

Madness.  But I know I’m not the only one who does the e-mail-it-to-myself thing.  My wife does it. My students do it.  I’ve seen colleagues do it, here and at other institutions.  I’m happy to tell you that there’s a better way: Dropbox.

Dropbox does something amazing: It sets up a folder on your machine, a folder apparently like any other, except with magical powers: Whatever you put into it is automatically backed up into the cloud, and is accessible by you from any computer with a web browser, immediately and without any fussing.  If you make changes to the file, the Dropbox servers maintain previous versions.  If you install the Dropbox software on, for instance, your work and your home computers, then the Dropbox folder on both computers is always synced.  With no worries, no settings, no configuring–easy.  So, for example, to grade a recent set of papers, I set up my folder in a dropbox, and–there it was.  At home and at work.  Always the same.  I accessed it from another computer through the web interface–no sweat.  I accessed it from my iPhone.  Dropbox works on multiple platforms, and it makes syncing and backup impossibly easy. (Watch Jason Snell explain it here.)

What’s also great about it is that you can specify sharing on particular folders.  For example, at the risk of name-dropping a bit, I was invited to join Dropbox by this guy so that he could share some information with me about an upcoming visit to our campus.  So, we have a folder that we can both access, although we can’t see the rest of our respective folders.  You can also make a public folder, so that you can share pictures and such with anyone.

2GB are free, and then you can pay for more.

There are a lot of web services I like (delicious, 30boxes, pbwiki, twitter, gmail, flickr), but Dropbox is the most intuitive and gamechanging one. You should try it.

*Local readers will say, “but you could just use your M:\ drive,” which is true, but it’s irritating to use with a Mac, and you can’t do–as far as I know–the nifty sharing-with-other-people trick.  What I value in services is how painfree they make my life.

Posted in productivity, software, things I love | 12 Comments

Take attendance with your phone

I have a review of the iPhone app Attendance up at Macworld, which is pretty cool.  (More to come, too!)

A taste:

Ever since I moved to an electronic gradebook, keeping track of attendance has been a nagging problem. Usually I circulate a sign-in sheet—but sometimes I forget, or let them accumulate before updating my spreadsheet. I’ve even misplaced one or two.

David M. Reed Software’s Attendance is designed—by a professor—for people like me, or even more organized people who teach or run meetings.

Read the whole thing (and enjoy the Green Lantern screen grab)!

Posted in gadgets, iphone, review | 3 Comments

A miracle of the Force

I was gobsmacked on Friday when something happened for the first time in 10+ years of teaching: A student produced a reasonable definition of the word canonical.  It was a first-year student, in a composition class.

And how did the young scholar know this term?  Through the concept of canon in the Star Wars universe.

All of a sudden the 5-yr-old’s action figures, DVR-ed Clone Wars episodes, and novelizations were redeemed–a little–in A’s eyes.

Posted in family, higher education, star wars, teaching | 1 Comment

An offer to UConn

Readers outside CT may not be aware that there is currently a mini-scandal in the state about retired employees, including faculty members, who keep working and are thus drawing both pension and pay from the state.  Sometimes this is fairly innocuous–some poor soul keeping her hand in by teaching the odd section of composition, but sometimes, well, sometimes it is a little outrageous:

One retired professor, [name snipped, since it’s not really about him, and I’m sure he’s a fine person who doesn’t deserve to be subjected to all this at the end of his career], teaches two introductory accounting classes each semester and is paid $81,650 per year in salary and more than $174,000 in pension, according to public records.

Regarding the salary of more than $81,000, Hogan said, “That’s what the market is” before adding that the market is even higher. UConn, he said, would need to spend $110,000 to hire an accounting professor as a replacement, and that professor would not teach the 800 students that [snip] currently teaches.

So, as I understand it, the offer is $81,000 for 2 intro classes?

As a service to the state, and as a way to get you off the front pages of the Courant,  I will teach two intro classes per year for $81,000.  Why stop at 800 students?  I will teach 1000 students in the two sections.

Now, you will perhaps object, “but you are a Victorianist, not an accounting professor, and can barely keep up with your checkbook and your (fairly simple) taxes,” which is a fair point.  But I have sabbatical coming up in the fall, and I could use that time to re-train.  Plus, let’s be honest: You don’t *really* care about pedagogy, or you wouldn’t  pack 800 kids into two classes.  Give me a few months with an intro to accounting textbook, and some publisher-supplied online/multimedia content, and everything would work out fine. I’m a good teacher: a two-time excellence-in-teaching award finalist, and a semi-finalist another time.  You can trust me!

(Somewhat more seriously, I’m bemused that the UConn union tolerates this: Unions should attend more to pay equity within the university.  When accounting professors earn $81K/yr, while English and history adjuncts earn pennies per hour . . . something’s badly broken.)

Posted in connecticut, education, higher education, silliness | 7 Comments

Stanley Fish is irritating, and not in a good way

Today’s Stanley Fish column about academic freedom & fantasies of academic exceptionalism offers a good example of his strengths and his considerable weaknesses as a columnist.

For example, I think this is both true and too-infrequently said:

But this is what many (not all) academics believe, and if pressed they will support their belief by invoking a form of academic exceptionalism, the idea that while colleges and universities may bear some of the marks of places of employment — work-days, promotions, salaries, vacations, meetings, etc. — they are really places in which something much more rarified than a mere job goes on.

As Fish implies, this seems nuts.  I think we can all agree that educational moments are special ones–the delight of seeing someone grasp hold of something in a difficult poem is a precious thing, for instance.  But there’s nothing “special” about the conversion of those moments into credit hours (for the students) and biweekly paychecks with benefits (for the lucky few, the tenure-track faculty).  It doesn’t sully the former to note the latter.

So far, so good.  But then he starts trolling indiscriminately through the case law to disprove the academic exceptionalism thesis, and he does so utterly without reference to the question of the decisions’ validity or merit.  I mean, he cites approvingly  Urofsky v. Gilmore, a 2000 case from Virginia, in which a the court upheld–as applying to professors–“a law requiring state employers to gain permission from a supervisor before accessing sexually explicit materials on state-owned computers.”

The point here is surely not that professors should be allowed randomly to surf porn sites.  The point is that the VA law was bad law: Overbroad and vague in its definitions, it puts up stupid impediments in the way of professorial work, and the work of other state employees, as well:

Virginia Code ¤2.1-804-806 (the Act) bans state employees’ use of state computers to access any “sexually explicit content,” broadly defined to include descriptions or depictions of “sexual excitement” or “sexual conduct” of virtually any sort. There is no requirement that the banned communications lack serious value, be “patently offensive,” or appeal to prurient inte-rests. The Act affects approximately 101,000 state employees, including thousands of professors, librarians, and other researchers at 39 institutions of higher education. It also affects museum curators, physicians and their staffs at the Commonwealth’s two medical colleges and their associated hospitals and clinics, and social service and health workers researching, investigating, and communicating with colleagues and the public about child abuse, sexually transmitted diseases, sexual dysfunction, and sexual crimes. 

In other words, in this case the professors did *not* claim academic exceptionalism–they merely pointed out that the law is an ass.  (Full disclosure: I’m pleased to have been, years ago, the student of one of the professors involved in that case–Terry Meyers–whose interest in Swinburne would lead him, as we’ll see below, continuously afoul of such a law.)

In general, I sort of agree with Fish that academic freedom is a good thing, and we should argue for extending it to all, not ritualistically defend it for ourselves only.  But his argument ends up confusing two pretty different points: the idea that professors should exercise academic freedom with regard to the interests of their institution (a more defensible claim) and that, at least at public universities, they should exercise academic freedom with regard to the interests of the state.  That’s a less defensible claim because, as the Urofsky case suggests, frequently the state and the institution will be at loggerheads. Public higher education is a curious thing–we love it (said the professor at a public university) for providing access, but the expectation that faculty will do research and will teach according to disciplinary norms frequently leads to difficulties. It’s good for William & Mary to have a prominent Swinburne scholar on the faculty, and it’s counterproductive to that interest to make him beg for approval to call up Pre-Raphaelite material on his computer.

Professor Meyers has an entertaining/maddening column on his experiences with the case here.  It’s really unbelievable that Fish cites it:

The law leads to some curious situations. For example, as a state employee, I cannot (without permission) use a public-access computer in the university library to read Swinburne’s “The Leper” (which deals with necrophilia), although it is available from the University of Virginia by way of the Virtual Library of Virginia (VIVA). But without having to seek permission, I can go to the stacks and read the poem in a book owned by the state. And the law does not apply to students, unless they work for a faculty member as state-paid research assistants. Nor does the law apply to members of the public who might want to read Swinburne—or even view virtual child pornography—on the library’s computers.

The whole thing’s worth reading.

(Posted, of course, from my home computer.)

Posted in academic freedom, education, first amendment, higher education, Victorian literature | 3 Comments

Should MLA members be experts in electronic environments?

Alex Reid has a typically thoughtful post this morning on the MLA’s recent white paper on the undergraduate major in language and literature.  There is something a bit embarrassing about the MLA’s assertion that competencies in reading and writing translate easily across different media and domains of discourse, and Reid does a good job unpacking this without devolving into snark.

I do think he lets MLA members off too easily, though:

And I don’t think there’s necessarily anything wrong with the fact that MLA members are not experts in electronic environments. MLA members don’t need to have a special interest or facility with electronic environments. That’s not what we hire them for and it’s not what we educate them to do in graduate school. Some might have these interests; obviously I think the study of media networks ought to be a part of English studies; but it ought not to be a requirement of everyone! Nor should every MLA scholar or MLA in general necessarily think that their work needs to meet this goal of networked media literacy.

It is true that it would be overkill for everyone to take media networks as the object of their research.  And it’s also true that, right now, we don’t train people to do this in graduate school.  But I think it would also be fair to say faculty members and graduate students need to be far more adept than they generally are at using networked media as part of their research and teaching.  Jo Guldi’s recent meditations on what a networked scholarly journal might look like are relevant:

In going web 2.0, journals have the ability to mesh their publications with tools that will allow readers to better integrate journal essays with the rest of their research. A scholar using zotero and jstor can download the article pdf and the citation, ready for use in footnote. Web 2.0 journals will go further into this zone: a scholar using zotero, jstor, google scholar, and delicious can instantaneously find other scholars’ opinions of a particular article, the names of the disciplines and sub-disciplines they think it applies to best, and other articles of similar note to that particular scholar.

Think about how far we still have to go to get a critical mass of faculty and graduate students who can read this paragraph.  Zotero and delicious are well beyond the range of reference of most people I talk to, for instance. And yet, I would argue that if one’s not familiar with tools such as these, then it will only get harder to do research–no matter what your area of expertise. It’s not that I think everyone must use *these* tools in particular (maybe you’re all about Diigo), but the process of figuring out what they offer, and whether you can better achieve those goals with something else, seems critical.

Likewise with teaching.  I don’t think every single class *must* have a wiki, blog, and SIMILE-backed timeline–if they did, for instance, I’d have to find a different way to differentiate myself, which would seem like work.  But I do think that faculty should be rejecting these tools, when they do, for reasons other than, “oh, I don’t understand that.”  Or, “that’s not supported in Blackboard.”  Pedagogical literacy anymore demands that faculty have a certain expertise with technology so that they can make informed decisions about how best to organize and run their classes–even when those classes don’t have a technology component.

People are busy, so I’m not really suggesting that faculty members should retrain.  (Although maybe they should!  It’s not hard to learn Zotero, or wikis, or whatever.)  But looking forward, it seems clear that both undergraduate and graduate education need to reflect in a more sophisticated way about the varying kinds of technologies we use (or don’t).

Posted in education, English major, higher education, mla, teaching | Leave a comment