Distracted: Why Students Can’t Focus and What You Can Do About It

Tell me if this sounds familiar.

You have just spent the last ten minutes doomscrolling through Twitter. Some of the posts made you laugh. Some made you anxious over the state of the world. Some made you insecure about what you are or are not doing. A couple made you think. Maybe you responded, but probably not. You might have clicked through a link, but, again, probably not. It is time to work. You close the Twitter app. Then, without so much as putting your phone down, you reflexively open the Twitter app and check out what is happening — if you’re anything like me, you didn’t even open another app in between.

Or maybe you went from the Twitter app on your phone to Twitter on a browser, or vice-versa.

Or, maybe, TikTok or Facebook are more your speed. Or maybe snapchat or a game. The specifics don’t matter because the end result is the same: people flit from one thing to another drawn like moths to a flame to advertisements, social media, and a host of other distractors carefully designed to harvest our attention.

This ubiquitous feature of modern life, naturally, leads to waves of hand-writing over the pace of life and how modern technology has entirely ruined the ability of people, but particularly young people, to focus for any length of time.

In an educational context, these fears has led to the question of how to best eliminate distractions from the classroom, whether through draconian technology bans or trying to convince students to treat class like a sanctuary where they should leave their concerns at the door for the duration. According to James Lang, however, these well-meaning impulses are asking the wrong questions. We can never eliminate distractions. Beyond the simple fact that our monkey minds are calibrated to look for distractions, it is too much to expect that students will be able to put out of mind a sick loved one, or a relationship problem, or a bodily pain, or any of an infinite variety of other concerns for a class that may or may not be all that important for them. If this wasn’t obvious before, it should be now given the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

That’s the bad news. The good news, as James Lang points out in the first chapter, is that latest round of laments for the prelapsarian days before distraction are strikingly myopic. That is, there was never a golden age when people were free from distraction and laments about its loss merely get updated to account for technology. In his posthumous novel “The City and the Mountains” (A Cidade e as Serras) from 1901, the Portuguese novelist José Maria de Eça de Queirós includes a dream sequence where the narrator is appalled by the frivolity of modern life:

“Leaning in His super-divine forehead which conceived the world, on the super-powerful han which created it—the Creator was reading and smiling. I dared, shivering with sacred horror, to peep over His radiant shoulder. The book was a popular edition, paper-covered. The Eternal was reading Voltaire in the new, three-franc, cheap edition, and smiling.”

Or one could look to the collection of quotes on the subject collected by Randall Munroe in XKCD:

In other words, to be distracted is to be human. Even as I write this, I am distracted by a kitten who doesn’t understand it is a problem for her to repeatedly leap onto my desk, chew on books, papers, and pens, and nuzzle my hands while I type. She is also fascinated by my fingers when I am touch-typing.

Lang’s thesis in Distracted is thus that we should not pursue the quixotic aim of eliminating distraction, but that we should be leaning in to strategies that cultivate attention. Sometimes this requires temporarily eliminating distractions — when I am doing my academic writing, for instance, I set a length of time during which I turn off my email and won’t check social media —but, more frequently, the strategies involve finding ways to redirect and renew attention when it flags over the course of a class and a semester. Learning is hard work and if you’re anything like me your attention span dips precipitously when you’re tired. The same thing applies to students.

This thesis might be simplicity itself, but actually pulling it off in a classroom setting requires practice and attention.

Like his earlier book Small Teaching, Distracted is not prescriptive. Lang mentions several times that he is generally agnostic about a lot of teaching methods because good teaching can take many forms. What works for one teacher — or student — won’t necessarily work for another. Rather, he lays out current research into the science of attention and uses numerous examples of activities and practices to establish principles that any teacher can adapt to their class.

I concluded of Small Teaching that its simplicity was the greatest sign of its success. Distracted tackles thornier issues and Lang dedicates the entire third chapter (~35 pages) to the tech ban debate that couches his suggestions in the awareness that his own policies have changed quite dramatically over the years. This and other portions of the book take a more process-oriented approach that encourage the teacher to be conscientious of how the policies affect the classroom atmosphere.

Other portions of Distracted are more like Small Teaching. The book’s second part offers six “practices” of attention and how they can help draw students toward the material you have to offer. These range from the simple — cultivating a community through the use of names and modeling the behavior you want to see by leaving your phone in your office — to engaging student curiosity to techniques for focusing attention by switching between activities or with quick attention renewal devices in which he gave the example of a preacher asking an audience for an “amen” when they start to drift. Lang also makes the case that assessments are a critical component of attention because they work to direct students toward the material that you believe is important in the course. Sometimes this means crafting assessments with attention in mind since many students will never be more focused on your material than when writing a big test, but other times it involves no- or minimal-grading on repeated assignments that ask the students to connect what they’re learning in the class to life today. Students might find the practices unfamiliar at first, but with practice and attention on the part of the teacher they can pay dividends in the classroom.

Much of what Lang writes in Distracted echoes the direction I have been moving my courses over the past few years in terms of building community and keeping the classroom fresh, particularly on low energy days. It doesn’t always work, of course, but each of the chapters in Part 2 offers a wealth of ideas to help draw students back in. For this reason I fully expect that I will return to Distracted for inspiration and found that it was an ideal book to read while putting together my courses for the semester. In fact, I often would read something that inspired me to put down the book mid-chapter to modify language in a syllabus or tweak an assignment. It is possible to quibble with a small individual observation or policy or suggestion, and I did at times, but for every one where that happens two more will land home.

Distracted is not necessarily where I would start for a new teacher looking for tips on teaching (my current recommendation is David Gooblar’s The Missing Course), but it is both one of the two books I would suggest after that (along with Jay Howard’s Discussion in the College Classroom) and a book with a lot worth considering for even the most experienced teachers.

Teaching to the Style Guide

One of my most vivid memories from my middle school days involve my keyboarding class (or whatever it was called). Somewhere along the way, and probably in at least some small part in that class, I did learn how to touch-type, but I clashed with the teacher on a number of points. For one, we had to type from a script, but that sheet had to be kept so that we could not look at the monitor. Even now, at a time when I sometimes type with my eyes closed or while staring off into space, I prefer to be able to see the screen. For another, this teacher demanded that we had to include two spaces after periods.

This might have made sense with the specific program we used in the class, which may have not had proportional fonts, but she justified the demand by insisting that every business manual would require double spaces after periods. This is of course nonsense. Most manuals regard the convention as a relic of the typewriter-era, which is something my father, a printing and graphic design teacher, pointed out, before offering me the sage advice of doing what she asked for the class grade and then ignore it going forward.

Admittedly, this teacher was close to retirement and I could not have been an easy student since I’ve always had a hard time bending when the instructions ask me to do something that I know is wrong — this difficulty reared its head again in another context when I was a senior and the two principals called me into their office to question me about some award essay where I had asserted that Bill Clinton had been impeached (he was; I didn’t get the award). However, I thought about this keyboarding teacher again when I saw a teacher on Twitter give his policy about spaces after periods.

Tweet that reads: "If my students don't use two spaces after a period, then they lose a letter grade on their essays for MLA formatting. It's my policy."

Setting aside that his assertion doesn’t even hold up according to MLA standards, I can’t imagine having a policy that is this punitive over something so small. I can understand why some professors want to be demanding when it comes to grammar and syntax since those are elements that can (sometimes) have a direct impact on the clarity of a student’s argument. By contrast, this is a severe penalty for a formatting error.

Since I am starting to get prepare for this fall semester, though, his (bad) policy has me thinking again about my own policies when it comes to written work. I have always followed two guiding principles:

  1. I care about students developing as thinkers. Writing, as John Warner explains, is thinking. This means helping students develop as writers.
  2. I’m somewhat ambivalent about grades because I think that they often warp incentives, but it is my obligation as an educator to give students the tools and opportunities to earn the grade that they want.

Toward these ends, the details of my assessments have evolved to reflect what I want students to take away from the class. Since writing is fundamentally iterative, for instance, I added optional revisions that allowed students to earn higher grades on their written work. The most recent versions of these assignments include a small portion of the grade dedicated to “Grammar, Syntax, and Style” in order to provide a measure of accountability, but an equal portion of the grade is wrapped up in a metacognitive reflection paper about the process of completing the assignment. The single biggest component of the grade comes from the argument, and every assignment guide for prompt-driven papers comes with this advice:

You are not expected to answer every part of the prompt since these are questions that you could write an entire book about. The best papers take ownership of the prompt in order to make an argument based on information that includes, but goes beyond, the material assigned for the class. Since there is no “right” answer, I will be looking to see how you approach the question and how you use the sources to defend your argument.

Although I have gradually added guidelines and suggestions on the assignment sheet, my assignments are, if anything, still too open ended. When it comes to citations, for instance, I have traditionally told students:

There is no assigned citation style guide, but you must cite all relevant information, following a citation style of your choice (I prefer Harvard or Chicago, personally, but you can follow MLA or APA). Please include a works cited page for all citations.

While I should be clearer about what information is relevant, this particular policy reflects my own ambivalence about citation styles (my personal house style is a slightly modified Harvard system) and a conviction that policing the format of a citation distracts students from content. And yet, my laissez faire attitude toward style might be equally problematic, both creating unintentional anxiety created by a lack of guidance and leading some students to not follow a style at all.

By contrast, I am reminded of a policy of one of my college professors: your citations must be in Chicago citation style and failure to do so will result in a penalty. I found this assignment frustrating at the time, but I see some wisdom in it now. The penalty sounds severe, but she laid out the expectations from the start, explaining that it wasn’t that Chicago was the best style but that Chicago was a style and part of the assignment was to turn in work that followed that style.

I am not sure that I want to go quite this far in my courses, if only because doing so would make grading papers even more like copy-editing than it already is and I’m not sure that that is in anyone’s interest. However, I am strongly considering choosing a “house” style guide (with a handout) that I can point students to as a default option. My thought here is that having a house style might provide some guardrails that remove the pressure of choosing “the right” style, thereby allowing students to focus again on the content.

At the same time, my inclination is to still allow students to follow other style guides if they so desire but ask that those who do reflect on the choice in the metacognitive portion of the assignment. The trick will be crafting a policy that provides flexibility and student agency while also putting in place limits that guide students to spend their energies on the parts of the assignment that matter most.

When students write down what I say…

The semester just ended, which means it is time to review course evaluations. These feedback forms are notoriously problematic, but I encourage students to give me feedback and take what they say seriously. More than just that what students write can end up in a document I use for job applications, these are formative evaluations that can help me refine my practice. That is probably why a single negative review can cause such a sharp sting.

http://deathbulge.com/comics/155

Reader: I got one of those this semester.

But I don’t want to write about that. Instead, I want to share something that happened this semester: a student wrote down what I said. Not note-taking during a lecture, but writing down specific things that I said and then handing me a copy of this list on the final day.

Here’s a taste:

“If a monster’s just out there fishing or something, is it a monster?”

“Moose are big and scary as opposed to brown bears who are big and stupid.”

“Remember people: only barbarians wear pants.”

“Cassandra’s curse is that she’ll never be believed. I’m sure many ladies can relate.”

[speaking of Theseus] “He prays to Big Ocean Daddy.”

Sometimes discussions turn into improv and I say things specifically to prompt a response, here in a seminar on monsters, monstrosity, and classical mythology. Given that this is the sort of thing I did in classes with my favorite professors in college, this was immensely flattering — if also momentarily terrifying.

An Ending: Spring 2021

Here are two things that are true:

  1. My problems this school year were mild when compared to most people.
  2. I felt like a zombie for much of the last month because of the grind.

The spring semester felt a little easier in some ways. I mostly adhered to my resolution to KISS, which led to a more regular schedule and had noticeable benefits, particularly in my online class. I was also doing much less course building than in the fall, which allowed to focus more on best practices and maintain flexibility without the course devolving into a haphazard mess.

At the same time, a lot of these improvements were offset by the simple fact that both I and my students came into the semester already battered by an exhausting fall. Right around the time when we would have received our usual spring break I noticed a dip in everyone’s energy levels. I prescribed several “mental health days” late in the semester to try to account for this, but they were just a drop in the bucket. We kept going because that is what we had been told had to happen, but more than one student explained to me that whatever work they were giving me was perfunctory because they just needed the semester to be over.

I had a lot of sympathy for that position.

But I also had a ton of students who kicked ass this semester. Grades are in no way a reflection of personal worth — a good friend of mine aptly describes them as a professional evaluation of performance within a narrowly circumscribed realm — but I had some students earn among the highest grades I have ever seen by embracing not merely the grade rubric, but also the spirit of a class. Some really improved their writing over the course of the semester while also thriving in the open-ended discussion boards. Some threw themselves into their unEssay projects, like the student who melded the topic of my monsters course with the scientific literature review of her own major and produced a 17-page review of representations of mental illness as monstrosity in popular media, even turning the project in early. Others did really excellent work while parenting in a pandemic. I was disappointed that some students got lost along the way, but am unspeakably proud of everyone for making it to the finish line.

In light of these challenges, I have been wrestling with what, if anything, I want to carry forward from this year. The problem I have been facing is that most of what worked well were things that I had already incorporated into my courses. I am endlessly tinkering with tools and ideas to increase engagement and reduce cost. I was already using OER platforms and distributing my materials through the learning management system. I experimented with Discord without much success, but is something I would have done under other circumstances anyway (and probably will again).

Other changes, like going to entirely paperless grading, I abhor. There are no words to express how much I hate grading online. Quick quizzes where most of the work can be automated are one thing, but I struggle to give papers I grade on screen the attention they deserve. Using an Apple Pen on the iPad was, in theory, a step closer, but my clumsy hand-writing just got messier when the platform would even save what I wrote. Then there were the times when the platform refused to load documents. I understand the accessibility issues with asking students to provide hard-copies of their work, but I see enough advantages that I am going to return to grading on paper as soon as safely possible.

I have only been able to come up with two pandemic changes that I want to make permanent.

First, Zoom options office hours. Unlike my aversion to digital submissions described above, I only see advantages to having virtual options for office hours. This is not to say that I’ll eliminate the in-person sessions, but also having virtual options opens up possibilities for students who have other demands on their time and builds in flexibility that just doesn’t exist otherwise. This one will just require some thought as to the logistics (what happens when someone gets stuck in the virtual waiting room while I’m working with someone in person?) and boundaries.

Second, flex deadlines. This one is more of a work in progress based on the approach that I developed for deadlines this year. Basically, a course needs to have specific deadlines so that work is spaced out over the course of the semester and everyone roughly stays on track without falling too far behind.

In past years, I included on my syllabus a draconian late penalty not because I wanted to enforce it but because it used fear to get students to turn work in on time. In recent years I kept that policy, but added a once-per-semester freebie three-day extension. With the pandemic this year, I didn’t feel comfortable limiting that extension to a one-off and felt obliged to accept all late work. This meant significantly more book-keeping on my end, but worked in general.

What I want to do going forward is formalize a policy that was ad hoc this semester. My rough draft:

This course uses flex-deadlines for all assignments except presentations or those due on a weekly, recurring schedule (e.g. not quizzes). All major assignments (papers, take-home exams, projects) have a checkpoint in the syllabus. This date reflects where the assignments should fall in the semester based on the material we cover in class and giving adequate space between this and other assignments. By the time of this checkpoint you must either a) turn in the assignment, or b) requested an extension of e.g. 3- or 5- days. Longer extensions are possible on a case-by-case basis.

Submitting late assignments without communication with receive the following deductions: 0–24 hours late: 0%; 25–48 hours: -5%; an additional 5% reduction for each subsequent 24-hours, to a maximum of 50% off at 11+ days late.

There are some wrinkles I need to iron out here. This policy is harder to enforce with physical assignments (in the past, I have counted it complete with an emailed copy while requesting a hard copy for grading), for instance, and I’m not in love with the percent deductions (I like the 24-hour grace period and capping how much a student can lose for late work — if I give an assignment, I think there is value in the student completing it). I also ran into a problem where students were surprised when the end of the semester introduced a hard deadline. This one may be as simple as setting an earlier due-date for the final submission so that there is a cushion before I am up against the date I have to turn in grades.

However, I see four major advantages to this policy or something like it.

  1. It gives students more agency over their schedules. If college ought to be treated as a job (an unrealistic standard, in my opinion), it is better described as students managing four, five, or six (or more) part-time jobs simultaneously. Time management skills are important to cultivate, but I could say as much for myself.
  2. These are not open-ended extensions, but function something like a contract in that the students have to look at their schedule and tell me how long it will take them to get the work done.
  3. I am not putting any burden of proof on the student. I don’t need a doctor’s note/notarized letter/obituary. You need more time, I give you more time. The only requirement is communication, which, I hope, will improve outcomes overall by making other communication more likely.
  4. It better corresponds to how I grade than insisting that student must have their work in on time. I rarely sit down to grade bit assignments assignment as soon as they come in, so short extensions still mean that everything comes in before I have finished.

The best thing I can say about the 2020–2021 school year is that it is over. I am excited to start the next chapter of my career at Truman State University in August, but a part of me is going to miss these students with whom I went through so much. Now we get to celebrate:

The fall semester feels like it is right around the corner and I predictably have a lot I’m hoping to get done this summer. But, first, let’s all get some rest. We earned it.

Fall 2020: A Lost Semester

I came into this semester with the best of intentions. I knew this semester would be tough, so my courses were going to be characterized by flexibility, compassion, and doubling down on practices I adopted in the past such as allowing revisions.

My best-laid plans blew up in my face.

  • Flexible deadlines and giving students options of which papers to write led to students shooting through checkpoints and an end-of-semester rush to turn in work, including revisions that tended to address superficial rather than substantive issues.
  • Technology problems and a flexible attendance policy for coming in virtually led to lengthy awkward silences as I tried to bring people into the class discussion.
  • A COVID-safe classroom blew up my tried and true teaching strategies and masks blocked the visual feedback I rely on to guide classes.
  • A schedule without breaks caused burn out despite building in planned days off because a lack of coordination meant those weren’t actually days off.

I tried.

My students tried.

There were even individual bright spots that I’m clinging to, such as the most active participants in my online class who really threw themselves into their assignments.

But this was also the hardest semester I have ever experienced in a college setting. Many of my difficulties were predictable: needing to take a certification course in the middle of a semester during which I taught five classes (three of them new) at three different institutions, for instance, was always going to be a tough row to hoe. What I could only grasp in the abstract though was how teaching in a pandemic would exponentially increase the ancillary stressors of teaching, from the rituals of getting a classroom set up before beginning class to the moment-to-moment decisions during a class period to keep the class engaging. Teaching a fully asynchronous class, a week-by-week asynchronous class, a synchronous online class, and two theoretically-in-person-but-effectively-hybrid classes also didn’t help because I never had the luxury of settling into and attempting to perfect a single modality.

I hope my students learned something. For as much as I despair, some seemed to have, but what we just went through is not a sustainable model of education for anyone.

Now, I am someone who finds teaching to be quite draining even when things are going well, but I usually find that fatigue to be akin to the sort I feel after a good workout or writing session. This semester was different. Taken each on their own, I can’t complain about any of the individual components. Wiping down the teaching station before and after every class, for instance, became a ritual offering to the little voice in my head wailing in disbelief that we were teaching in person during a pandemic. The problem is that these little pieces accumulated by a magnitude. By about the midpoint of the semester I was a wreck. When the adrenaline faded from class, I would be left hollow and despairing of needing to teach again in roughly an hour. On days when I had to rush home to teach virtually I usually had just enough time to close my eyes for ten minutes before class started. Unless I was working with a student, I would spend office hours sitting on Zoom with a thousand-yard stare, knowing that the drive home and whatever time I spent making dinner were a brief respite before I had to go back to prepping for class for the next day.

Reading back over that last paragraph, I am exaggerating, but just a little bit. I didn’t teach on Fridays, went for long walks almost every morning, and was mostly successful at preserving my Saturdays off. I also stuck to a writing routine, unlike last fall, which meant that some of my busyness was self-imposed (writing is not in any of my contracts). And yet, I spent a good part of this semester not at my best. I could feel my patience rapidly fading and felt guilty for not being able to give as much to each class as I thought they deserved—for reasons of time, if nothing else. Even more telling, though, is that the semester passed as a blur that spit me out into an exhausted puddle on the other end. Three of my classes finished before Thanksgiving and only now, several weeks later as my final class for the term wraps up, am I feeling up to processing what I learned.

In my haste to build flexible courses for this semester, I inadvertently made my courses more complex. Perhaps the most extreme example of this came in the form of my papers where my giving the students choice in which assignments to complete gave the simultaneous appearance of too many assignments and a lack of structure—no matter how many times I reminded students.

My mantra for next semester is going to be KISS: keep it simple stupid. I intend to go back to basics, paring back the number of assignments such that the students will all write papers at the same time even as they will get the same amount of choice about what to write about. This will also let me better schedule the assignments to prevent quite the same end-of-semester rush. Similarly, I think small tweaks to online discussion formats, grading expectations for participation, and to what counts as “present” if attending a hybrid class could pay large dividends in terms of engagement, which, hopefully, will reduce some of the students’ confusion and my frustration. I can offer flexibility and generosity to students in how I treat them without making a hash out of my syllabus.

The best laid plans may only survive first contact, but that’s all the more reason to keep it simple. Thinking about how I can improve my courses for next semester while still recovering from the previous one and being not at all sure that it won’t be my last semester of teaching is a funny place to be in, but here we are. I have a few more weeks to rest, recover, and write that I fully intend to take advantage of, but I also started prepping for next semester last night because whatever I prepare now is something I don’t have to pull together at the last minute later. If I learned anything from this semester, those small tasks add up in a hurry when working under these conditions.

Evidence, Please

I have said and written a number of dumb things over the years, but the worst statement of mine to appear in print came after the 2016 primary. I vote early in the morning and, if I remember correctly, voted on my way home from the gym at maybe 7 AM. On the way out, a journalist stopped me to ask for a comment. I growled something about my frustration with the “dangerous rhetoric” on both sides.

This milquetoast comment appeared in the paper the next day.

I stand by the first part of the statement, but regret qualifying it with “both sides.” The tenor of political advertising has reached the point that some of the races in Missouri feature virtually identical attack ads against each candidate, but in the aggregate there is no comparing the political rhetoric being put out by the two major political parties. Both sides use rhetoric; one side is actively undermining the legitimacy of the US government and stoking fear and hatred. And yet, in that moment, I contracted a case of bothsiderism that is rampant in political journalism.

Already as I drove away from the polling location I regretted what I had said. I had been thinking about Trump et al. when I said it and yet I not only softened my specific opinion but also suggested that this was a pervasive problem across the aisle. So why did I equivocate even though I have strong, clear political opinions?

It was early and I was asked for an opinion on the spot, but the explanation goes deeper.

In part, I don’t like painting with too broad a brush. I am not a fan of the Democratic Party as an institution and the nature of regional politics has sometimes resulted in Republican candidates in other parts of the country holding political opinions closer to my own than the Democratic candidates I have on my ballot. Similarly, I am seriously alarmed at the amount and types of money that gets spent in US politics, regardless of party, and am happy to give credit to the handful of Republican office holders more committed to taking the necessary steps during the pandemic than they are to playing partisan politics with it, even if I also think they are elsewhere complicit in enabling an administration run amock.

Just this weekend I read an article about how one of those Republican governors, Mike DeWine, was the target of a conspiracy to effect a citizen’s arrest because he listened to the scientists about public safety measures, making this at least the second plot after the conspiracy against Gretchen Whitmer in Michigan.

Another part, I think, was conditioned behavior. I was talking to a complete stranger who was looking for quotes that he could publish and I didn’t want to give him the sense that I had a bias. Is this not also the opinion I, a normal person, am supposed to have with the political elite—that is, sullen disenchantment with a system that largely doesn’t work for me? Certainly, that is what all of the political advertising around here is telling me.

The third part of this triptych is a learned behavior through years of teaching. It has been a right-wing talking point at least since the 1950s that higher education is filled with liberal professors determined to indoctrinate young people into whatever is the cause of the day. Professors often clap back that they need the students to do the reading before they can make any headway on the indoctrination program.

Jokes aside, a several of things seem to generally hold true:

Teaching is a political act. I make political decisions when determining what content we cover, what order we cover them, and what readings we use in class. In my classes we talk about issues like slavery, colonization, and wealth inequality (to name a few), but I usually moderate my political opinions order to focus on the evidence.

Some of this is practical. I’d rather not end up in a position where students send video of my class to a right-wing Facebook group, particularly while I’m working as a contingent faculty member on semester-by-semester contracts.

But some of this is also philosophical. I see my job as a professor as teaching students how to think historically and critically about the world around them. There are things I will not tolerate in my classroom: ad hominem attacks, for instance, or bigotry of any stripe, but these have nothing to do with whether the opinion being expressed is liberal or conservative (which, note, is not equivalent of Republican or Democratic).

“What is the evidence for this?” is one of the most common comments I make on papers, regardless of whether I agree or disagree with the politics of the opinion being expressed. In discussion when I ask questions, students often act like they’re repeating the rote answer they’re supposed to have learned at some point in their lives or that they’re looking for the answer that will please me and end the debate. Those answers get much more difficult when I follow up their statement with “why do you say that?” or “what evidence leads you to that conclusion?”

As I tell my students who often seem like they’re fishing for the specific answer that will please me, everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but that opinion must be grounded in evidence.

These days this isn’t easy. People are increasingly living in two different media ecosystems, neither of which offers a whole lot in the way of evidence, even if media typically decried as “liberal” does a somewhat better job. When opinion and anecdote substitute for substance, evidence loses out and the result is the sort of gulf in a recent poll between 92% of Democrats believing that African Americans face a lot of discrimination compared to 52% of Republicans who agree with the statement—when asked about whether white people face a lot of discrimination, 13% of Democrats agreed, while 57% of Republicans did. The gulf was similarly striking when asked questions about protests in the abstract versus when the question specifically mentioned African Americans.

Of course, opinion polls are exactly that: opinion. They do not require the respondent to offer evidence or reflect on where that opinion comes from. No one likes to be wrong and having your beliefs challenged is uncomfortable; there is comfort in media that confirms what you think you know about the world. (Un)fortunately, there is a whole smorgasbord of options with authoritative-sounding voices or names that will offer you talking points for whatever political position is! Some of them might even be based on evidence after a sort! Consuming these neatly-packaged bites is easy; learning to verify, confirm, and evaluate them is harder because it requires both effort and time.

Four years after I made my original comment, I remain concerned about tone of political rhetoric, but I now see that tone as inseparable from these other issues. This is a country where one imperfect party seems interest in governing for all Americans while the other seems largely interested in ruling for a few with many of their candidates denying science, trading in conspiracy theories, and interpreting the Constitution to suit their purposes regardless of what it actually says. Evidence exists only insofar as they are advantageous.

I recently characterized this political cycle as insulting to my intelligence exactly because of its aversion to evidence. Take Missouri’s Amendment 3. This measure marginally changes the rules about lobbyists, but is primarily an underhanded attempt to hand districting power back to the party in power and un-do a non-partisan measure that passed with 62% of the vote in 2018. Naturally, the advertising in favor of Amendment 3 is mostly scare-mongering about how the (new) regulations handed power to groups outside Missouri.

This past week I encouraged all of my students to vote. I still don’t see it as my place to preach a particular candidate or platform, but suggested that they look beyond the advertising, consider their own values, and learn about the candidates before deciding who to vote for. The most political statement I made was to suggest that they should be deeply suspicious of anyone who wants to make it harder for them to participate.

Encouraging people to vote is one thing; endorsing particular political platforms is another. Maybe I’m naive, and certainly I have some privileges that other professors don’t have, but I can’t do my job if I directly engage in politics in the classroom. I am just also keenly aware that I don’t want to repeat my mistake of four years ago of being so carefully moderated that I slip into the sort of misleading talking points not supported by the evidence.

First Day Fragments: reflections on ZoomU 2.0

The title is a little bit misleading since I actually started teaching on August 12, but my final class started this week, so, in a sense, my semester is now fully underway.

Despite cultural narratives about getting the summers off and short working hours, neither of which are actually true, teaching has a way of taking up every moment that you give to it. I often tell my students that wise teachers don’t give busy-work because that work redoubles back on the teacher when it comes time to grade. Teaching is a time-intensive job.

My experience as an adjunct instructor teaching classes at multiple institutions simultaneously over the past few years has me again reflecting on time. There are obvious constraints here: multiple commutes and teaching above what most universities count as “full” employment without full-time pay, benefits, or the advantage of teaching multiple sections of the same class.

But there are also other considerations. Monitoring three separate email accounts and course management systems takes more time than tracking just one professional email, even if the total volume of emails that need to be actively responded to is only marginally higher.

I have also started to believe that teaching on multiple different academic calendars is a hidden time cost because mismatched breaks erase most of the intended rest and recovery. COVID threw academic calendars even further into flux, and one of my calendars moved up the start date and eliminated all breaks in order to fit the entire semester in before Thanksgiving and minimize the exposure of students leaving campus.

I’m already exhausted.

Reflecting on how the start to the semester has me feeling sped up beyond my comfort level has me thinking back to a lecture Randy Pausch, better known for his “Last Lecture,” gave on time management in which he talked about creating a time budget. Easier said than done, but he was on to something.

ΔΔΔ

Part of the reason I feel sped up right now is that I did not feel prepared for the semester. In part, I spent the last set of months as a knot of anxiety. After the start of the pandemic, I watched the jobs I had applied for evaporate before my eyes. I spent most of the summer facing unemployment, excited about the possibility of time to write and terrified of what came next, all the while going into hustle mode to see if there were any places I could pick up classes for the fall.

At first the answer was no, but then I got one course, then an offer for another, and then, less than a month before the start of the semester, I was offered three more courses. The final tally is that I’m teaching five courses, three of which are entirely new to me. For two of those three I only collected the books about two weeks before the start of the semester, leaving me in scramble mode to offer my students the best experience I can under the circumstances.

I still don’t know what the future is going to bring. I am still only on one-semester contracts and while I have been fortunate thus far the constant uncertainty and last-minute contracts, to say nothing of the amount of energy that has gone into applying to full-time jobs, limits the attention I can give to the semester currently in progress.

All I know is that I am going to be exceedingly busy at least through Thanksgiving.

ΔΔΔ

There is something comfortable about being in a classroom in person, but find the emotional drain of teaching to a room full of masks exhausting. Beyond adding one more thing to police in the classroom and general muffling of voices, the masks make it hard to read facial expressions that offer real-time feedback to what is going on in class. Then add in the anxiety of face to face contact, classrooms that give more “six feet” than six feet of distance between attendees, the challenges of facilitating small group discussion at a distance, and the juggling act of teaching to a room full of people and a set of people dropping into the classroom on Zoom. We’re making it work, but it is both less effective and more exhausting than usual.

Online asynchronous classes, by contrast, keep everyone on the same level, but have always had challenges in building a community of learners. Discussion boards can be great, but are only as effective as the participants make them. Certainly, there are things the instructor can do to encourage engagement, but they put a lot on the learner. I remember this being the case too when I did one of the more popular MOOCs a few years ago, Programming for Everybody’s Python course. The professor was an effective communicator and had many office hours and meetups to go along with the various assignments. The course had an incredibly active discussion board and yet I only ever went to it when I needed help with a specific question.

Then there is ZoomU 2.0, the online, synchronous class. This keeps everyone the safest, but exposes the whole class to technological issues and internet inequality. I am teaching an intro survey course in this modality, but the prospect of delivering 80-minute lectures to my computer fills me with dread. My aim is to break up the class into smaller chunks with lectures interspersed with discussions, break out rooms and in-class writing assignments to break up the monotony.

I don’t love any of these modalities, to say the least. Right now my fear is that whatever is gained by the intimacy of online video classes and then some will be given back by making it easier for people to get lost in the wash. I think there is virtue in keeping the classes at least partly synchronous, but prefer shorter and/or more infrequent virtual meetings because the costs of staring at a webcam for hours on end are real.

ΔΔΔ

The fountain of words bubbling beneath the surface back in May trickled away once I had to go into overdrive to prepare for the semester and I’m currently being reminded of why I had to abandon writing almost altogether last fall. Preparing for class will take up every last minute that you are willing to give to it, so they tell young academics to jealously guard their writing time.

I can find time to write most days. What I lose during the semester is the time to read. Writing is, in a sense, a meditative activity where I can shut down Twitter, email, and other distractions in order to play with words for a while. But those words don’t just magically appear. They develop through reading and research, both of which I find harder to carve time out for during the semester both because it requires a different type of focus and because if I’m reading scholarship, a little voice is whispering to me that I should be reading for class.

I’m still writing, just not as swiftly as I perhaps hoped. I finished a book review over the summer, as well as an article that I’m currently shopping and have begun work on roughly eight other projects of various size and imagined outputs. Focus is not necessarily my strength.

ΔΔΔ

Despite concerns over COVID and everything else that is going on, I must say that playoff basketball in August has been quite the treat to have on while working on classes. I don’t always love watching NBA basketball stylistically, but some of the offense are simply spectacular and the games have been a lot of fun.

And yet, before I finished this post, the NBA postponed games after a wildcat strike by the Milwaukee Bucks after yet another police shooting and subsequent violence against protesters. I love basketball, but my favorite thing about the NBA is the number of prominent socially-conscious people who play and coach in the league. They aren’t perfect, to be sure, but I fully endorse prominent individuals leveraging their positions for good causes. I hope it works.

What does it mean to learn from history?

George Floyd’s murder hit me hard on a number of levels. On a personal level, Minneapolis is my favorite US city, and one where I have both friends and family. On a philosophical one, I am a humanist numb from the colossal disregard for human life in that moment and all that came before. On a political one, the instinct from some circles, including the police and some elected officials, to crush protestors with an iron fist smacks of a turn toward totalitarianism.

My training and background as a historian informs my response on each level. Although my work does not focus on this hemisphere, let alone the past century, I read and teach widely and am always struck both by the historical roots of the systemic problems that surround race-constructs in the United States. This means, among others, the racist roots of policing, the artificial, racist origins of segregated neighborhoods through policies such as redlining, and how the construct of who gets to be white evolved to conscript white-skinned immigrants into the cause of institutional white supremacy.

The first two are obvious, the third is more insidious and leads, in my opinion, to internal contradictions such as many Jews benefitting from White Supremacy and some seeking to reinforce it even while torch-lit marchers chant “Jews will not replace us.”

History is not static, consisting of statues or events frozen in amber with a clear, unambiguous meaning. For one thing, the meaning of both statues and events are contingent, and claims to the contrary are meant to delegitimize challenges to the political status quo. But my assertion that history is not static goes beyond the simple fact that history lives and gets revivified in memory. Rather, history consists of dynamic processes and developments. Named people and events offer concrete case studies that illuminate developments and dates give context, but neither are an end in their own right, whatever the caricatures of history class might suggest.

No class, and certainly no survey class, has time to exhaustively cover every civil rights incident, so teachers choose a few incidents to highlight as representative—the lynching of Emmett Till, the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Brown vs the Board of Education, the Little Rock Nine, Freedom Summer, Selma, the March on Washington, the assassinations of Medgar Evers and Martin Luther King Jr., maybe having students read Anne Moody’s Coming of Age in Mississippi—before moving on to the next topic.

In my US History courses I also spend time looking at propaganda with students that includes a Soviet cartoon from 1930 with a black man lynched from the Statue of Liberty and a white Jesus figure depicted with what looks like a swastika in his halo, talk about the Tulsa massacre of 1921, and explore COINTELPRO, the FBI program that targeted, among others, Martin Luther King Jr.

We also spend time dealing with the history of immigration to the US, charting how immigrant food became mainstream and reading documents like a NY Times op-ed from Senator David A. Reed defending the implementation of the Johnson-Reed Act that cut off immigration from Eastern and Southern Europe on the grounds that they needed to defend America for their grandchildren from those non-white people thought to be flooding into the country. Today, of course, the descendants of many of those immigrants are counted as White Americans and have been co-opted into defending that privilege.

Teaching history comes down to political choices, no matter how it is taught. Historical examples drained of their vitality and set on a pedestal can be deployed to defend all sorts of malicious programs, which is one of the insidious problems behind the trope that we need to learn from history so as to not make the mistakes of the past. Even supposedly a-political history is laden with baggage that generally supports comfort and the status quo at the expense of justice.

Take a seemingly innocuous example: The Plessy v. Ferguson supreme court case in 1896 legalized Jim Crow segregation laws and is generally considered a bad decision, but if your story then charts a trajectory of progress that includes Truman desegregating the military in 1948, Brown v Board of Education desegregating schools in 1954, and the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965 as accomplished through the non-violent protests of Martin Luther King Jr. and co., never mind that King advocated confrontation and law-breaking, before drifting away until the election of an African-American president, then you offer a falsely triumphalist version of US history without dabbling in explicitly White Supremacist ideas.

Now, the example above is deliberately over-simplified and every version of this course I have seen at least punctuates the narrative with struggle (Rosa Parks), White opposition (Bull Connor; George Wallace), and murder (Emmett Till; King).

At the same time, there often seems to be reassuring triumphalism baked into how we sometimes talk about US history, as though the United States is obviously the greatest country on earth, so we should look to its earliest history for why that has always been true. The rest of its history, warts and all, simply explains how the US became even better, all the while leaving most of these terms undefined, thereby allowing for the doublethink assertion that the US now is the best country to ever exist and that it was better sometime in the past. This is a facile interpretation, but the US is hardly the only state afflicted by its circular logic. Johanna Hanink offers a really interesting discussion of how a similar process took hold in Ancient Athens in her book The Classical Debt.

I am not particularly interested in debating US greatness. In principle I’m onboard, in execution not so much. However, these triumphal versions of American history belie the processes at work such that every decade or two people can be once again shocked by a George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Michael Brown, Rodney King, Marquette Frye and Emmett Till, only to reach the same conclusions about what should be done before reverting to comfortable complacency and bigotry that puts the responsibility for civil rights on African Americans or blames them for conditions created by a history of racist institutions.

My courses are far from perfect and evolve as I develop as a historian, teacher, and person. I am currently listening to the audiobook of Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped From the Beginning, which I hope will help me develop better vocabulary to express these different types of racism for if or when I am back in the classroom.

I hope this moment results in meaningful change, and certainly there seems like a groundswell of momentum, but when I watch institutions long steeped in both overt and covert racism resist accountability for their actions, corporations offer empty platitudes so that people will continue to buy their baubles often made and transported in exploitative conditions, and people continue to defend White Supremacy under various guises, I see the deep historical roots.

Learning history to avoid making the mistakes of the past is nice and all, but it is an empty sentiment. Hitler is bad and we shouldn’t try that experiment again, but too narrow a focus on Hitler and the death camps obscures centuries of anti-Semitism in Europe, the complicity of the German population, how many Americans were outright sympathetic to the Nazi Regime, and how Adolf Hitler actively praised and emulated the Jim Crow regime . I think history is endlessly interesting and teaches skills like how to analyze sources, but, more immediately, learning to think historically means learning to think intersectionally in order to see how these interwoven threads create a larger tapestry.

Lessons from history are not the result of simple equations like [Adolf Hitler] + [wrote Mein Kampf] + [Nazi Party] = [don’t vote for him]. Rather, they force us to look at where and how White Supremacy has entrenched itself because the failure to grapple with and resolve those underlying processes creates the cycle where history appears to be repeating itself.

ΔΔΔ

I am not as well read on Civil Rights as many people, but here are a few books that have particularly informed how I think about these issues. Nancy Isenberg is the only white author on this list, but her thesis about the perpetually unresolved issue of poor and marginalized whites has had tragic consequences for minorities, so I think it is worth considering here as well.

Notes from Corona Campus

When I received the news that I had the weekend to take my classes online, I started out reading the tidal wave of well-meaning advice for teaching online and then promptly sat on my hands other than to complete step one below. I went to the grocery store to buy cheese and flour and alcohol. Then I went again to get beans and pasta. Then I baked bread and decided that I should probably stock up on more flour, so I went back, by which time the flour shelves were empty and I resigned myself to the fifteen pounds already on my shelves.

After a few days of doing nothing, I settled down and started prepping. Work with a clear purpose calms me, so I let myself get lost in the cycle of filming, emailing, teaching, and grading until getting caught up last night. Somewhere in this process I think I found a replicable routine to carry us through the rest of the semester. Research comes next.

These are not recommendations, but documentation of the steps I took for my classes at the two institutions where I work, each with slightly different mandates and instructions.

First, I contacted my students in every class, letting them know a few pieces of information: 1) that these are extraordinary circumstances and I will be as flexible as possible so that they can both take care of themselves and complete the class; 2) establishing a timeline for additional updates and expectations; 3) letting them know that I am available to talk, including about non-class things. Then I sent them a cat picture.

This is a step I have repeated frequently since, giving updates and reiterating that I am aiming to be as flexible and present as possible and that I have an unending stream of cat pictures. One of the problems with online education is that students do not feel connected to the class and lose motivation to keep up with the work, which is one reason that communication is so important. Consider this one a recommendation.

Second, I prepared my materials to go online. My classes are reasonably well set up for a digital transformation in that I already make extensive use of LMS platforms to distribute everything from assignments to handouts to readings to collecting assignments and use OER readings to reduce the cost to students. In some courses my students keep a blog. In other words, my usual workflow for the course made this part of the transition basically painless, though I have also been building up discussion boards and other functionality for asynchronous aspects of the course.

Third, I started filming. Until a few weeks ago my Twitter bio read “eagerly awaiting the pivot past video,” and while I still hold to this sentiment, I am learning to love looking at my face on the screen because any information I would provide in a lecture is being delivered by videos that the students can watch when they have time. My videos are still on the long side, usually running in the 20–25 minute range, with two videos roughly covering the material from one lecture class, and they are very much an emergency measure: aside from checking clarity I am not editing these at all and have barely modified content to allow activities in the middle of the lecture.

There are lots of tools available for making videos and I know some intrepid professors who have made Youtube channels for their classes. For my part, I am just recording a Zoom meeting with the slides shared, saving the video to my computer, and uploading it with the slide show and supplemental readings to the course site.

Fourth, I am still holding synchronous classes. I say this with some trepidation given the wisdom of the best practices pedagogy people online, but I am doing it anyway––and only in part because one of the schools where I teach asked me to do so. (I should also note that my largest class this semester is c.25.) Here is my rationale: my students didn’t sign up to take an online class and given the very real concerns about motivation to stay engaged, some of which my students brought to me, I think there is value in continuing to hold synchronous sessions for anyone able to make it. Keeping a regular routine is something that I know helps me.

However, these synchronous sessions are not the same as normal class. As noted above, I am pre-recording any and all lectures, because I cannot think of anything more boring than asking students to tune in to watch my face talk at them real-time and, as I said, my primary concern here is engagement. Instead, I am adding a couple slides to my presentations, one that has some discussion questions for the students to prepare and another with an activity with “big scavenger hunt energy” (with apologies to the person on Twitter who framed online courses that way).

In the synchronous sessions I can answer questions about the lecture, engage students with the discussion questions, and talk about what they found or created. In other classes I have been able to use a Zoom function (that is apparently not available for all accounts) of breakout rooms to let the students do activities in small groups before coming back to the main room to share what they came up with. In another instance, I was able to invite a guest speaker whose book the students read to come in and talk to them about writing, the book, and related issues, and I rather hope that I can do something like that again.

Is any of this ideal? Absolutely not, but I am hoping that for some students our time can serve as a pocket of normalcy amid the storm and allow them to feel connected to the course. Equally, if not more, important, this change to the workflow of the course gives clear pathways to alternate participation through submitting me their answers to the questions and their activities or participation on discussion boards. in the spirit of flexibility, I am aiming for a blended synchronous/asynchronous course with the purpose of maximizing engagement while not leaving anyone behind.

Fifth, and finally, although I am adding activities and supplemental material like videos, documents, and podcasts, I am not adding new assignments. (I have heard of professors doing this, presumably in a panic-move to “encourage” engagement.) Like holding the usual class sessions, my goal is to keep to syllabus while retooling the assignments to account for the changed circumstance (e.g. no access to library books). Once again, this is made easier because of the structure of my courses where I use regular, low-stakes, online, at-home quizzes where I encourage students to do retake the assessment until they are satisfied with their grades (which also means learning the material) and assign take-home rather than in-class exams. To account for the new circumstances, I am also maintaining maximum flexibility, turning due dates into suggested benchmarks rather deadlines and giving students until the end of the class to turn in any revised material.

None of this is perfect: these are emergency measures and many of the particulars are still in flux as I respond to requests and suggestions from students. That said, one week in, I am satisfied that I now have a viable workflow on my end that will help me meet my course goals and maximize student engagement under the circumstances.

Course Reflection: Fall 2019

The end of the semester always hits me as a sudden stop. I go from the constant, frenetic scramble to prepare for class and grade assignments to few imminent deadlines and fewer set schedules. Work still looms and I still have jobs to apply for, but I find the schedule change abrupt and disorienting—particularly when the first involved teaching five classes and the second includes a snow-day and an imminent winter holiday.

Still, it occurs to me that I have fewer than three weeks until the cycle starts up again, and reflecting on what just happened is the first step in preparing for what comes next.

My reflection from this semester is simple: five classes are too many. That’s it, that’s the Tweet.

For no other reason than hoping to earn something that resembled a reasonable salary, I picked up one bit of teaching after another until I was teaching distinct five classes, three of which were functionally new, grading for another, and grading for an online class. I taught five days a week at two campuses a half an hour drive apart and basically gave most of my evenings and weekends to keep up with the prep and grading and, even then, needing to cut corners and falling behind in every class. In short, I taught none of these courses to my satisfaction.

This is not to say that these courses were catastrophes. They weren’t. Each had bright spots — an exercise, a reading, a class discussion — just that I was stretched too thin to give each class the attention it deserved.

Discussion of individual classes after the jump