Going online

I’ve spent a lot of time staring at a blank page on this blog, wondering what was left to say. The job market is non-existent, the university where I adjuncted is downsizing due to lowered enrollment, and I’m facing the very real possibility of unemployment when my postdoc ends. I’ll admit that the idea of encouraging people to go through graduate school just kind of lost its lustre a bit.

That was depressing. Here’s a photo of a beach that I took this weekend in Holbox (an island about two hours away from Cancun).

Before I was allowed to check in at Cancun airport, I was questioned about my recent travel–specifically whether I had been to the People’s Republic of China or the Islamic Republic of Iran in the past 14 days.

South Korea and Italy, both of whom have higher numbers of cases of coronavirus (COVID-19) than Iran, were not on the list because, of course, the need for checks came out of the Oval Office, and we’re only concerned about countries we don’t like.

This brings me to the big topic of today’s post, which is that universities around the world are suddenly cancelling face-to-face classes and “going online,” and this is something that I know a little bit about.

There was, as you may be wondering, a tweetstorm about this earlier.

You’d think I’ve have learned my lesson the first time.

The problem with “just teaching online instead”

The problem with “just teaching online instead” is that you can’t take an in-person lecture course and teach it online. The entire dynamic of the course is shifted. Assignments and activities that work in person tend to work because you’re doing them in person — doing them remotely doesn’t have the same impact.

For two semesters, I was a TA for a large online class (in Texas, all undergraduate students, regardless of major, are required to take an American history course and Texas government).

Here’s the first thing to know about it: it worked, pretty well, in fact.

Here’s the second thing to know about it: there were at least 15 people helping with every class, over ten of whom were handling the technical aspect. (I don’t even know how many people were actually involved because they weren’t in the room with us).

The third thing is that our class only worked well because of the first two things combined.

Can you hear me now?

The first issue, as many, many people have recognized out there on the Twitter, is that the students need to have the requisite tech to go online from wherever they are in the first place. This means computers, access to internet with a high enough bandwidth. If students are going to need to speak to the professor they might need a webcam and/or microphone (and, in my experience, the earbuds-with-microphone that come with cellphones don’t tend to work well.)

Invariably, there will be students who have trouble getting their equipment to work–and, sometimes, this may happen in multiple class sessions. It is completely unreasonable to expect the professor to troubleshoot every student in their class who’s having problems, but will students know who to contact? Are there enough technical support people to deal with all the students who need help fast enough so that they don’t miss the class session?

There is also another issue which is…

How many fingers do you see?

Congratulations! You have a virtual classroom up and running. So, uh, now what?

Our class had four teaching assistants (one of whom was assigned to handle students who came to the studio in person, as the class wasn’t meant for remote attendance).

The first TA monitored the class chatroom. We had one of those so that the students could communicate with each other. The TA answered simple questions, and nudged the class back on topic if things got a little off. Again, if you’re the professor, this isn’t something you can do while lecturing.

The second TA monitored a feature called “Ask the Professor.” This could probably be replicated by e-mail (but, again, it’s a lot for someone handing the class on their own to do while also lecturing). It allowed students to directly pose a question to the prof; the TA would read the question out, and the professor would answer it on the livestream.

The third TA sent out “pings.” These were randomly timed questions meant to ensure that students were actually paying attention, and hadn’t just logged on and then wandered off so that their attendance would be recorded even though they weren’t really there. The questions were based on something that had just happened. “What did the professor say he did this weekend?” or “What did the professor just drop?” (Questions like “What color is the professor’s shirt?” are bad because of colorblindness.)

Transforming class time and assignments

Unfortunately, this one is the hardest.

Let’s look at the class I’m teaching this semester. I generally lecture for about 20-30 minutes, and then we turn to the topic of the article that we read for today’s class. Sometimes we have a large group discussion, sometimes I pose questions and have them talk to each other.

Large group discussions online are nearly impossible in a class the size of the one I’m teaching (30). If you turn on everyone’s mic, no one will be able to hear anyone else, and it’s a fair certainty that any discussion will be awkward chaos.

A number of platforms allow you to divide a large group up into smaller conversation groups and navigate between them, but depending on the size of the class, it may practically be very difficult to get to all of them before conversation starts to wander off.

Other issues arise if students are being discouraged from coming to campus (or, say, being told not to come back from spring break). If you have readings on reserve at the library, for example–sure, you can scan them … if you have the time, since your TA or RA will be one of the students impacted by the closure.

Similarly, my class involves a research assignment. Most of the grade comes from the research assignment–if my campus closes (and it is being discussed)–I’ll have to throw that out and come up with something else. My students won’t be able to do that kind of work at the public library (assuming those stay open).

At the same time, I designed this class to culminate in an independent research assignment, so this would mean a drastic restructuring of the second half of the course.

The research assignment makes up 40% of the student’s grade (or will, as the proposal is due this week and I’ll still count that.) Replacing it with a final essay based on the course readings that carries the same grade weight seems unfair, as does re-weighting assignments they’ve already turned in to make them worth a higher percentage. (I’m currently employing the technique I mastered as a very closeted teenager and not thinking about it until I need to.)

Other tactics

There are a number of other potential techniques that can be used online: asynchronous lecture (recording a lecture in advance for students to watch on their own time, and having shorter online meetings in which these are discussed), discussion boards, short writing assignments, etc., but–again–these need time to be planned out, and if you’re teaching multiple classes at a university that announces it’s going online today, it can be difficult to think them through all at once.

There’s some great ideas here:

None of this is to suggest that we shouldn’t be taking COVID-19 seriously. However, at the same time, universities that decide to shift their education online need to think beyond the mere question of what platform they’re going to use, but also provide guidance to faculty on how to teach effectively online.

Unfortunately, from what I can tell from colleagues and friends at various institutions, this doesn’t seem to be happening. A lot of instructors seem confused, anxious, and upset (heck, I’m all of those just thinking about it).

Hopefully the coming days will provide some clarity, both about how to better provide education online, as well as on how to deal with the outbreak more effectively so that we can safely resume normal life.

Planning a Research Year: Part Two

Well! Yesterday’s post on Planning a Research Year got a little bit of traction, which also gave me a bit of material to work with for a second part right away.

More than one Tweep made a comment about something I wrote that I hadn’t even thought twice about when I wrote it:

She’s right, y’all. My bad.

First off, let me explain what in the world I was thinking when I wrote this:

I had one archive tell me point blank that they had nothing useful for me — disappointing, but far less disappointing that it would have been had I spend time and money going out there to get the same answer.

This happened, and I have no reason to suspect the archivists were lying to me. That said, the reason I feel comfortable saying this is that the archive in question belongs to an organization that was founded during my research period, and seemed, from its website and catalog, to only hold the international organizational files, whereas what I really wanted was reports from the Egyptian branch.

Knowing this to be the case, I reached out by e-mail to ask if they had anything from my target dates pertaining to the eastern Mediterranean region, and they responded that they did not. It was the answer I somewhat expected, confirmed.

That said, Ms. Hawkins is absolutely correct, especially when it comes to larger archives. The archivists at smaller, specialized institution know their collections pretty well. However, at the U.S. or British (or French or so on) national archival collections, where the material is so vast and covers so much time and space temporally, the likelihood is that, unless they have specialized archivists covering your specific interest/time/place, you’ll be dealing with people who want to be helpful but may not necessarily have the familiarity to assist you with your specific search.

After she tweeted me, I immediately thought of a conversation I’d had at the help desk at the British National Archives, wherein I pointed out that I had correspondence from one side of a conversation, and asked where I might find the other half. The very well-meaning archivist thought for a second and then asked if I’d considered trying the Egyptian National Archives in Cairo, since colonial correspondence that was kept in former colonies usually got transferred to the national archives after independence.

She’s probably right. At the same time, travel to Egypt for research was impossible at the time, which is why I was in London in the first place, and not in Cairo.

In short, if your gut feeling is telling you that there might be something there that’s useful to you, especially if you’re still at the point where articulation of your project involves a lot of handwaving and drawing diagrams on napkins (guilty!), by all means follow your instinct.

For example, as someone whose project morphed from the history of epidemics to the social history of disease, I’d often have to clarify that I wasn’t looking for medical reports, which is what most people assumed I wanted. You are, ultimately, the judge of what constitutes “useful” in the context of your own research.

 

Another excellent set of points from Dr. Zarrow.

The best advice is going to be from someone who has been there before.

Unfortunately, one of the best resources out there — the Archives Wiki that the American Historical Association used to run — has been taken down; a lot of it was out of date, but it did at least give a starting point on what to expect (helping a lot with number 2).

There was a short-lived project called World History Archives (I contributed several entries myself) but it seems to have been abandoned.

If you work on the Middle East or North Africa, Hazine is a good starting point.

The issue of <polite cough> “gifts” is one that you should be aware of. In smaller archives, in out of the way places, this is where having some recent local expertise is going to come in very handy.

I have heard, for example, stories about how flowers or the head curator’s favorite sweets from a particular bakery will start things off on a good note.

Remember that in a lot of places, the people who work at archives are going to be poorly paid public servants, and you’re asking them to do things for you. I don’t like using the word “bribe” here because it has such a negative connotation (if ‘gift giving’ becomes a daily practice, then we can call it bribery). Think of it as a token of your appreciation, expressed in advance.

I never got into the Egyptian National Archives to put any of that advice to practice, but in the days when I used to run study abroad programs in Egypt, my first visit on arrival in Cairo was usually to the supermarket near my hotel to pick up provisions–one of which was always a carton of Marlboro Red cigarettes. Each morning, I’d toss a few packs into my backpack and use them to earn the loyalty of our assigned tour guard, or help the door keeper at an out of the way museum suddenly remember where he left the key, and various and sundry things like that. (Cash can be so gauche to hand off in a crowd.)

Also…and this is key, especially for Americans who are seen as brash and rude…remember to start every conversation with a smile, a “Good morning. How are you?” before getting into what you need.

Every new person you talk to is a new person — a simple statement, really, but remember that even though you’ve told the same story sixteen times, you haven’t told it to this person. Patience is a virtue, often rewarded.

Next up

In another post, I will address another question that came up — how to reconcile all the funding applications with what you actually want to do during your research year. It’s not as complicated as you’re afraid it might be.

You’re Teaching WHAT?

It’s the beginning of another semester, and I am teaching a new class this fall.

Ladies and Gentleman, I give you … Terrorism and Extremist Movements. Ta-Da!

The reaction that this has caused in a few people has been … well, probably predictable.

“You’re teaching WHAT?”
“Oh, for God’s sake, Chris.”
“What does this have to do with your dissertation?” (I particularly like this question, as if any of the other courses I’ve ever taught have anything to do with my dissertation. In fact, I should like to meet anyone who teaches an undergraduate class on the topic of their dissertation.)

If there were one thing I would say that I didn’t think through on this one, it’s that maybe the semester I’m trying to finish writing and start revising my dissertation wasn’t the best time to also try and teach a brand-new class on material that I am not intimately familiar with.

I can do 20th century Middle East or the Rise of Islam in my sleep. However, that’s also the reason why I didn’t want to teach either of those courses again.

As an adjunct, I don’t get to innovate. I actually wouldn’t mind coming up with a class on The Middle Eastern Front in World War I, for example. There’s a lot of stuff to unpack there.

The issue is that I’m teaching a general education course under the topic “Challenges of Globalization.” For two semesters I taught a course on the 20th century Middle East in which I framed the topic question of whether it’s fair to blame the Skyes-Picot Treaty and European imperialism for the state of the region today (in two semesters, my students never quite figured out that this question…printed front, center, and top on the syllabus…would also be their final exam prompt).

However, it was the aforementioned ability to recite this material in my sleep that, it turned out, was the problem. I realized about four weeks into my first semester of teaching that the problem wasn’t my students, it was me. I assumed a lot of background knowledge. Way too much background knowledge.

Here I was talking about the inner workings of the Ottoman Empire when I knew from years of experience that the Texas world history curriculum barely mentioned the Ottoman Empire…at all. (Trust me, I know.) I was speaking in shorthand and my students didn’t have the answer key.

I quickly went into revision mode, changing my approach for the rest of the semester. The next semester, I revised the curriculum further, tightening the focus and narrowing the amount of material covered.

I also realized that it might be best to get away from the material for a bit. After two semesters of teaching it (and the extra hours both doing prep work as well as writing a dissertation), I was bored with the material and recognized the dangers of what this might mean in terms of my attention to the class and my propensity to shorthand.

What might help, I thought, would be a new subject entirely.

First, I dumped the long academic course name with the colon (yes, I did that. Rookie mistake).

Then, I decided to focus on student expectations. My university has a strong criminology program, as well as a strong political science program. How do I appeal to those majors?

So … the idea of doing a course on terrorism sprang to mind. (I honestly don’t remember why). It would be comparative; after all, despite popular memes to the contrary, terrorism is not just a Middle Eastern phenomenon. I wanted it to be global in focus. But, other than South Asia, in which I do (terrifyingly) have the requisite number of credit hours to pass myself off as an expert … was I qualified to teach a globally focused class?

Then I had an idea: what if I didn’t teach the entire class? What if the class, working in groups, each took responsibility for a particular movement in a particular global region, and contributed to the learning environment? The more I thought about this, the more I liked it; and others that I shared the idea with were enthusiastic.

So, I put a proposal together and it went on the course schedule and I did what pretty much everyone does: I forgot about it until about two months beforehand when the campus bookstore started prodding me for my textbook choice.

Despite what seemed like insurmountable odds and a few nights of lost sleep, I produced a syllabus and guidelines for a class that I hope will be not only be successful but also interesting to my students.

I was honest with my students the first day: this is an experiment, and if this isn’t what you’re looking for in a course and you’re not on my roster at the end of the week, no hard feelings. I lost a couple, but the vast majority stayed put.

So, here’s to an experiment. I look forward to sharing how it goes.

Why It’s Important for My Classroom to be a Safe Space

No, not that kind of safe space. Well, maybe not that kind of safe space.

Let me begin at the beginning. Hello! I teach classes about the Middle East to undergraduates who often have taken few, if any courses on the region.

For the last two years, I’ve taught a required junior-level elective (the course number is required; my particular course is one of around 16 offered under said course number), and on the first day of class, I’ve asked the students to tell me why they’ve enrolled (“because I have to in order to graduate” not being an option). Most of them tell me that they know little to nothing about the region, and that’s whey they’re there. (The second time I offered this course, I also took that explanation off the table, although it was not as satisfactory an exercise as I wanted it to be).

Then I go into my rules for class, and the first thing I say is, simply this: this is a safe space.

What do I mean by that?

I did public scholarship–the term we used was “outreach” but nowadays we’d call it public scholarship–for 18 years as a full time job, based out of a university, traveling around the state of Texas, working with teachers who wanted to know more about the Middle East — usually so that they felt smarter than their students. The textbooks that the state assigns are pretty bad, and when it comes to describing the browner, non-Christian parts of the world, some of them are downright awful.

I’d been doing this for a couple of years when I noticed that, at these sessions, there was always a group of people who would prevent me from running to the bathroom at breaks because they had lots of questions. Questions are good.

As any professor, lecturer, TA, teacher, trainer, or educator of any variety quickly learns, the questions are what keeps the job interesting. I have literally found myself compiling grocery lists and writing emails in my head while talking out loud, so checked out am I from the content I’m giving. The questions are what change every time, what keeps me on my toes. What keeps it interesting for me after I have delivered the joke about taking the water buffalo out for a walk for what seems like the four hundredth time in a given week (from a lecture about the geography of Egypt).

And, honestly, a lot of these inter-session questions were good. Insightful. Well thought out.

“Why,” I asked one day, “didn’t you ask this in front of everyone? In fact, when we come back to session, I’d like you to ask it and then we can talk about it.”

“Well,” came the sheepish response, “I didn’t know if it was an offensive question.”

Aha. There it is.

I didn’t ask because I was afraid my question would be offensive.

I get it. No one wants to have a room full of people turn to them with hot eyes and tight lips and facial expressions that ask, How dare you?

On the other hand, I’ve noticed that people who aren’t concerned about being offensive have no such qualms. Like the day I asked a group if they knew what defines someone as an Arab, and one participant responded, “They’re ragheads.” (For the record: the answer I was looking for is their first language is Arabic because Arab as an ethnicity is actually defined culturo-linguistically).

That one…took me a moment to recover from.

So, my question then became How do I get these questions out in front of anyone? Even the “Ragheads” comment had its value. Okay, now we have a base level of understanding in the group … in this case, one that’s fairly low … that we can begin to build on. If I had blathered on about cultural-linguistic identities and not engaged with the remark (“Where do stereotypes come from?”) I would have lost the audience entirely because I was operating on a completely different level than they were. (And, yes, for the record, the fact that I was in a room full of teachers who are educating the next generation was not lost on me. Some things you just can’t let bother you in the moment or you’ll freeze up, or at least that’s what my therapist told me at our following session).

This is why I decided that, when I went into the college classroom and found myself on the other side of the podium, that I had to encourage such questions. The painful ones. The ones that students are struggling to address. The ones that they don’t want to ask because they’re not sure if it might be offensive, or that they’re using the right word, or name, or whatever else. This sets the pace for me as an educator. Where do I need to start? What expectations or stereotypes do I need to address? If the question isn’t asked, I assume they know. And experience has shown me I’m usually wrong.

So, I start off by explaining that the classroom is a safe space. I ask students not to rush to judgement when questions are asked. Let’s hear our colleagues out. A question asked from a place of honesty needs to be addressed in a like fashion–without fear that classmates are going to jump on you if you don’t phrase it in just the right way.

This extends to me as well. I admit, I’ve had a couple of students whose English is weak who have made comments in class and actually been saying the opposite of what I thought. This happened just last semester, and, when I realized I was having a negative reaction to a comment from a student that I had misunderstood, I actually stopped myself and told the class what was happening.

“I’m having a strong reaction because I misunderstood what [x] was saying. Remember when I said this class was a safe space? Well, that applies to me, too.” And I took a beat, refocused, and continued by addressing what the student had actually said.

Part of this arrangement, I tell students, is that if they are offended by something a classmate says, is that I want them to bring it to my attention – it doesn’t have to be in front of everyone, they can stop me after class, or send me an e-mail.

Every campus has an office that exists to deal with student concerns–and I’m certainly not trying to circumvent that established process if the situation calls for it.

I think here of a colleague who taught a course on Modern Egypt, who assigned as one of his texts The Yacoubian Building, an Egyptian novel by Alaa Al-Aswany that became the Peyton Place of early 2000s Egypt. The book is notable in that it was a bestseller in Egypt–and it includes a gay character. The characterization is clunky (al-Aswany was a dentist before taking up writing; the novel isn’t exactly fine literature), and he meets a bad end at the end of the book – but the point is that even this was revolutionary for Egypt, something my colleague wanted to discuss. However, a student, on reading the novel, reported my colleague for assigning homophobic material.

Hence, my plea was: if there is an issue about the suitability of course material or course discussion, please bring it to my attention first. After all, I do occasionally assign problematic material because I want students to appreciate why it’s problematic.

My first actual test of this policy was, perhaps not unpredictably, during one of our discussions on the Israel/Palestine conflict. One student was a bit uncomfortable because he felt that another student–of Arab descent–was using the word “Jew” just a little too broadly in some of their comments, when they should have been using “Israeli,” or, even more accurately, “Israeli military forces.”

In this case, the student making the observation did have a point. Rather than singling out the other student, I made an announcement at the beginning of the next class, not as a reprimand, but just a clarification that terms are important, and, now that we were discussing post-1948 Israel, when discussing Israeli actions and policies, students should distinguish between “Israeli” and “Jewish” in order to clarify their meaning. This worked: in class that day the student corrected themself in mid sentence, and that was that.

As an educator, I can’t help students learn or grow if they don’t trust me. And I have to learn to trust them (which, believe me, is harder than I expected). It’s a work in progress that I refine a little bit each semester.

After all, even though I’m (probably) months away from having those coveted initials after my name … I’m still learning, too.