Creating a culture of learning

I had a sad moment when the students in my upper-level Elizabeth literature class whom I had taught in Greek & Roman literature last spring all failed to spot an allusion to Catullus’ famous kissing poem (“Vivamus, mea Lesbia, atque Amemus”). On a lark, I asked students  whether they would like to be asked questions in one class that drew on material they (should have) learned in other English classes (these are mostly majors). I thought the idea would be greeted with horror, but most seemed quite positive, saying that this would ensure they “actually learned something” (Gosh, doesn’t that make me feel good!).  Many commented that they forget quickly what they learn in one class unless they’re using it directly in another. Actually implementing cross-curricular responsibility like this is feasible, but it requires technology if it isn’t to prove unwieldy.  I’ll have to think more about it.

generation gap

I took my students to see Dan Okrent’s talk on the death of the book at the University of Michigan yesterday. Okrent’s claim, that we should celebrate the possibilities of the e-book rather than lament the end of the book, was fairly simply and straightforward. What was more interesting were the follow-up questions. The room was dominated by some fairly elderly folks, all of whom were eager to ask questions.  Most of them were plaintive. “Will we have no more first editions?” one woman asked. “How will we know an author is special?” My students, and the other younger audience members, were upset. One asked her neighbor, “Do you have to be over 45 to ask a question?” Afterwards there was a lot of grumbling about older people. Okrent had commented on a school in Ghana that used Kindles to the apparent delight of the children. One my students said that in her experience in an African school, tribal leaders resisted technology.  “More old people,” someone muttered. It’s rare these days to encounter the generation gap as anything more than a opportunity for charming jokes.  But there was real frustration in the younger members of this audience, all of whom were the writers of the future. They wanted to talk about information in the marketplace, about readership, about jobs. And they weren’t pleased.

Beyond the e-textbook

Just came back from a conference presentation at the Campus Technology Forum in Long Beach, CA. Lisa Lewis, Aaron Miller, and I argued that current models for mobile learning and e-books are not well-suited to the liberal arts classroom. We previewed work we’ve done that tries to fix some of the problems we see in emerging mobile applications. Here’s our Prezi:

As I mentioned during the conference, large parts of my project are an attempt to do, in mobile form, what paper and pencil always did quite well. The trouble is that my students are not writing in their books as they used to, and in some cases they aren’t bringing the books to class. I think this is a change in reading habits that may get worse as more people move to an e-book format. Another problem is that poetry is typically carefully formatted for things like size and line breaks, all of which carry meaning, while e-books are generally built around an adjustable model. This is more suited to trade publications than to poetry or even to more serious fiction.

Video documentary assignment

We just finished watching the documentaries produced by our first-year seminar students in the Equus class I’m co-teaching with Bille Wickre (Art History), and we’re very happy with the results. There were some technical problems, but far fewer than there would have been a few years ago, and the outcomes are far superior to the usual run of PowerPoint projects. Students had to think in terms of visual argument, something they don’t always remember when coming up with often text-heavy PowerPoint slides, and many presentations were extremely creative and touching. Here are two representative pieces, one from each section:

Marissa Cloutier: YouTube Preview Image

Peter Blair: YouTube Preview Image

Bleats, not tweets

For the most part, Twitter seems to me a sometimes amusing but mostly useless tool.  Following people’s tweets gives the impression of being in a large sheep herd with a lot of bleating. Mostly the bleats boil down to “I am here.”  However, I’m nevertheless thinking of ways to use Twitter in teaching.  It could either be a writing exercise for students (they tweet) or a you-should-always-be-thinking-about-the-course-material tool (I tweet).  Either way, unless there’s significant penetration of Twitter among students, I can’t see using it for any all-class assignments. Given my experience with blogs, online forums, etc. asking students to express themselves through an unfamiliar medium is unlikely to have a lasting effect. The trick is to keep it optional but useful enough that students will come to it on their own.