Engaging Long-Distance Learners: Personalization, Communication, and Application Integration

This is my second presentation at the upcoming MLA convention. Enjoy!

If we can ground ourselves in the hopes that we can be the superhero educators of our dreams,
then our fear of dealing with the minutia that zaps our energy
 and robs us of precious classroom time will easily subside and melt away.
Only the product of our hope, and engaged classroom
of personalized learning, will remain. – John Hardison

While my title is quite the mouthful, to be sure, the question at the heart of my presentation, and indeed at the heart of each paper on this panel, is, at its root, the same: How can online educators most effectively “reach” their students? What does “reaching” an online student mean, anyway? And how can an online teacher combat the tendency for their students to “check out” of their courses? I place all of these inquiries under the umbrella of student engagement, an alchemical and mysterious thing which is indelibly linked to increasing student reward, or benefits, by highlighting 1) what students value (per Mary Bucy, “Engaging Students: Lessons from the Leisure Industry”); 2) teaching “to the man on the street,” so that every student, no matter of background or intellectual capacity, can learn (Walter Lewin); 3) emphasizing the application of material in students’ lives and the judgment making process (College Study of Engagement); 4) asking intriguing questions and posing problems that inspire students (Ken Bain); 5) establishing strong instructor presence through multiple modalities of communication (Marcia D. Dixson); 6) making an investment in your students (Ken Bain again); 7) not boring our students (Grant Wiggins); 8) asking the students themselves what engages them (John Hardison); and 9) investing in active teaching (Joel Shapiro)—which understands the specific needs of each individual student, and tweaks the course accordingly. Whew!

So. Based on three years of teaching online, seven in the face-to-face classroom, and 10 years of pedagogical research, today I want to explain three primary ways I employ technology to create a sense of “presence” (employing Lehman and Conceição, 2010), and to connect with my students. Personalized and consistent connection is the primary way that we as educators can combat the MOOC mentality (if there is such a thing) of quick and easy access to information without the hard and rewarding work of forming human relationships. I consistently seek to forge with my students an “intercorporeal narrative” (to borrow Laura Doyle’s term from Woolf studies). I encourage you all to do the same.

First, let’s define our key terms. “Engagement” is defined as “something that serves to engage; a pledge”; a “promise or agreement”; while “engaged” means “employed, occupied, busy”; “committed, as to a cause”; “meshed”; “built in, or attached to another part.” I especially like this last image, because it gives us our identity as online educators, our task and our goal all at once: we are builders, and we are to build something. We are to take each isolated individual and, from the singular, create a whole, create a new artifact. Choose your metaphor: we are building a wall, and every student therein is a brick. We are weaving a tapestry, and every student therein is a thread. And every semester, we get the honor and the challenge of building, and weaving, afresh.

So, how to write your own intercorporeal narrative? First, perhaps the most essential aspect of student engagement is course Personalization: to personalize an online course, it is crucial that students learn about one another. This is obvious, but making this connection rewarding enough so that the students will consistently engage in connection on their own all semester long is extremely challenging in the online classroom, where we are all hiding behind our respective computer screens. There are applications one can integrate to assist in speaking with one another—Google Chat, for example, VoiceThread, or Second Life. I will get to application integration in a few minutes, but first I want to share a few personalization tricks I’ve found successful over the years. 1) My students post lengthy personal introductions, and I respond to each one (if I have time; sometimes, the semester will just not allow this). I also ask students to respond to one message that is not their own. I ask students to comment on everything from their favorite movie to their favorite book, any hobbies or pastimes to clubs, sports, and organizations they are involved with, majors to hometowns, dream jobs to what they did over the last break. Cast the net wide. Beginning connections are primarily formed through shared interests. You want each student to see his or her peers as not names, but individualized people.

2) I rotate the picture on the home page, once a week or once every 2-3 days, using student pictures of pets, family members, or travels. My original request is for a “class mascot,” for I have found that nothing brings out the class love and adoration, and the sense of being united in a common cause, more than sharing the love of our animals. I ask for quirky, I ask for inspiring. I always ask for permission to post the photos, and to include the student name. I have had students report that they log in to the class sometimes just to see if there is a new picture posted; then once they are there, they end up resuming their work. The trick is to try as many different approaches as humanly possible, in an attempt to reach every unique student in your class in his or her preferred way. Make each student feel as if he or she is an integral part of the whole.

3) I employ a “Chit-Chat” forum designed for informal conversations, and as part of their participation grade, I ask students to post in this forum at least once a week. Students can also make informal class posts to Twitter as well, using the class hashtag provided that semester. (Connecting with students via Twitter is a topic for another day, but I strongly recommend you all try it! It’s great fun!) As always, I find that specific prompts work best when luring students to post on an informal forum; therefore, I ask a different question depending on the day of the week (this specificity works well with Twitter also). Monday: what did you do over the weekend? Give me one specific story. Tuesday: share one favorite quote from the reading this week. Wednesday: what is one specific thing you learned from class lecture this week, or something that surprised you? Thursday: tell the class about one of your favorite books and explain why we must read it. Persuade us. Friday: grab-bag. My “grab-bag” questions I pull from the wonderful cube of questions, Table Topics ($25 from Amazon) and range from “What view would you most like to have from your front porch?” to “What do you think is the optimal age?” These questions also work amazingly well in the classroom as small group activities and ice breakers.

Don’t be afraid to veer off-topic to engage your students. Your class may be chemistry or biology, but your students will always remember you for asking about their dog, including his picture on the homepage, and asking you fun questions that get them to think. Quite possibly they will discuss these questions with their friends or parents later! Don’t be afraid to have a little fun. (Note: all of these asides only work well if the content of the course is absolutely sound. Students will resent an online course if it does not challenge them and ask them to work hard.)

Next, Communication: begin communicating early, and engage in it often. 1) Send out an early “hello” email one week before the semester begins. Include your syllabus, the required texts, and your contact information. Be warm and welcoming, and enthusiastic; or, as Mary Bucy puts it, “make it worthwhile, make it inviting.” Some of my students have reported that they have taken online classes in the past wherein they received ZERO emails from their instructor all semester long.

2) I also individually email each student several times a semester, beginning with the first conversation surrounding their Individual Learning Contract: an assignment in the first week of class that asks the students to fill in bullet points answering the following questions.

  • I, [name], agree to carry out my responsibilities as a student in Modern and Contemporary Literature to the best of my ability. I understand these responsibilities to be, primarily: [leave 3-4 bullet points blank for the student to fill in]
  • Specifically, I intend to do the following things or take advantage of the following resources to maximize my learning and my performance in this course:
  • To assist me in these endeavors, I expect my instructor to do the following:
  • To be a successful student, I agree to commit to the following work, reading or study habits this semester:
  • I agree to abide by the CU Honor Code, which states that I will not cheat, plagiarize, or accept unauthorized assistance in this course: http://honorcode.colorado.edu/. Please type your name here to sign this statement:

I also ask for their alternate email address and phone number in this contract, because I have had problems contacting students in the past. This document works to establish a habit of clear communication from the get-go. I articulate what I expect from my students in my syllabus; now this is the chance for the student to articulate what he/she expects from me. If our expectations are widely disjunctive, it is essential to rectify this as soon as possible. Embarking on a long-distance learning journey can only be successful if both parties understand their joint responsibilities and expectations, and if the path of communication between them is secured. This personalized, one-on-one correspondence begins early and continues throughout the semester, setting up both a pattern of connectivity and an expectation of prompt and familiar communication.

3) Write your students a letter after each assignment, beginning with their name: “Hi, Jacob—you did an excellent job with this small paper.” For their large final papers, I ask my students to close with a “Writer’s Epilogue,” a letter at the end of their paper addressed to me, reflecting on their performance all semester long, their writerly journey, and their anticipated grade. I write back. We are like pen pals.

4) Employ “Intelligent Agents.” These are great. Depending on the Learning Management System your institution employs (mine is Desire2Learn), you can set up specific messages that will be sent to the student’s inbox, triggered by a specific action. For example, a student submits an assignment at 3am, and at 3:01am, “you” automatically send them an email: “Hi <username>, I’m thrilled to see you have completed and submitted Small Paper 3. Congratulations! I will have your grade finished by the end of the week. Great job!” Or, if a student has not logged in in a set amount of time: “Hi <username>, I’m sorry to see that you have not logged in to your online class, ENGL 3060, in over one week. It is crucial that you do so.” Employ the humble email: it is your friend! I email students if they have skipped work, or if they have done an exceptionally great job that week. (Yes, this is time consuming, but think of all the time you are saving by not doing lesson plans or holding class regularly or commuting to campus or holding office hours!)

5) Experiment with small groups. I keep my groups of 5-6 students all semester long, so that the students get to know each other by responding to each others’ discussion posts all semester long. I pair students up to work on paper drafts and writing workshops at the end of the semester. You could even do something like pair up two students for the entire semester: “John, you and Mary are study buddies. Respond to each other’s posts if no one else has yet. Ask each other first if you have any questions.” You could complete these pairs based on student interests as articulated in the introductory posts: “John and Mary, I’m pairing you up because you are both biology majors who love to ski.” It’s important in an online class that the student does not feel alone, or left out.

6) Keep notes on your students. I do this in my gradebook in Excel, in a “Notes” tab. Jot down where they are from, so if a hurricane hits New Jersey, you can email Daniel to see if his family is okay. If the mountains got a lot of snow over the weekend, you can give a shout-out to all your skiers in the Chit-Chat forum. I had a student who was a huge fan of Orlando Bloom last semester, and when I saw he was in a new production of Romeo and Juliet on Broadway, I forwarded her the article from the New York Times. It’s the little things that count.

7) Inspire passion, and invite relationship. At the end of the semester, I email out a thank you, including an inspiring poem and my “For Future Reading” list, a seven-page list of my favorite books, books I’ve taught in past classes, and books that are essential to the major. There is also a section for “Student Favorites” that I ask students to email me to contribute to. Students can “friend” me on Facebook (my teacher account set up for this purpose), follow me on Twitter, read my blog. I ask students to send me postcards in 10 years to let me know where they are and what they have done with their lives. I tell them I will help them in the future, to look me up if they ever need advice, a letter of recommendation, or just a good beach read for their next vacation. Again, yes, I know this is opening up the door to a lot of work, but what is teaching without relationship, and without helping our students? I know I would not be here today without the efforts of my hard-working teachers who were always willing to help me.

Finally, Application Integration: 1) I have tried everything from Facebook to Twitter to blogs to HootCourse with varying success. Commit yourself to trying one new application each semester. Here are a few that have worked especially well for me:

2) I assign a creative project, and ask students to do something digital, or write a creative paper: it can be fiction, or something like a Reader’s Guide. I had a dancer stage a ballet based on Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale, and I have also had students transmute fiction into graphic narratives. Students can use the website Storify, which jointly engages the student’s outside interests and their creative impulses. Storify is all about “content curation” – “the act of discovering, gathering, and presenting digital content that surrounds specific subject matter” (Eileen Mulan, EcontentMag.com, Nov. 30, 2011). Think of it as a museum full of digital artifacts gathered across the internet about a specific topic. It is up to you as the “curator” of this museum of artifacts to present, frame, and explain the artifacts that you exhibit in your Storify page. Storify also allows you to be multi-modal, including audio clips, videos, and text. These multi-modal “stories” are then shared with the class, which leads to vibrant discussion of the intersections between student interests, modern technology, and the literature.

3) Encourage meta-analysis with sites like Voyant, which allows you to create word clouds and see which words are most prevalent in any given chunk of text. I have had students analyze the letters in Pride and Prejudice, noticing, for example, that Mr. Collins most likes to talk about his benefactress, Lady Katherine, and is therefore most invested in prestige, upholding class divides, and appearances. I have had students analyze each book in Paradise Lost, finding to their amazement that the words Satan uses most are “Heaven” and “God,” perhaps revealing what he most longs for.

4) Encourage students to approach the literature from an interdisciplinary point of view. They can create maps and new visualizations using Gephi, create movies using http://www.masher.com/, create digital stories in PowerPoint, or begin a database using Omeka.

5) You can integrate Twitter, as I previously mentioned, and post the class Twitter feed on your home page.

6) Students can animate a novel, or turn it into a graphic novel online, using sites like ZooBurst (which allows you to create a digital 3D pop-up book), ComicMaster.org, where you can create a digital comic book.

7) Students can annotate a text using a digital annotation tool like Bounce, Diigo, or SharedCopy. This exercise works wonderfully for team building and for generating conversations about what is essential to know when approaching a text for the first time. There are several excellent resources available online which outline specific class exercises using digital annotation.

8) Make a digital collage using Glogster (Glogster.com)

There are many, many avenues to explore with Web 2.0 application integration, and much of this gets into the field of digital humanities. For more information on any of these, you can check out Hybrid Pedagogy, an excellent online journal, or my blog, http://www.erinkingsley.Wordpress.com.

I know this was a lot, but these three areas: Personalization, Communication, and Application Integration are guaranteed to spice up even the most unenthusiastic online teacher and mundane online class. In the words of educator Mary Bucy, “create experiences that intrigue and inspire so that [students] will choose to engage” (Hybrid Pedagogy.com). It’s really quite simple: show the students that you are a human being, that you know that they are human beings, and that you care about their existence in the world. Go about this process systematically, and relentlessly.

Sources:

Bain, Ken. What the Best College Teachers Do. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2004.

Bucy, Mary. “Engaging Students: Lessons from the Leisure Industry.” http://www.hybridpedagogy.com/Journal/files/Engaging_Students.html

College Study of Engagement. As cited in Wiggins.

Dixson, Marcia D. “Creating Effective Student Engagement in Online Courses:  What Do Students Find Engaging?” Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning 10.2 (June 2010): 1-13. http://online.sjsu.edu/docs/dixon_paper_engagement.pdf

Hardison, John. “Ordering a Teacher: Suggestions from Students (Part 1).” http://gettingsmart.com/2013/08/ordering-a-teacher-suggestions-from-students-part-1/

Lehman, Rosemary M. and Simone C. O. Conceição. Creating a Sense of Presence in Online Teaching: How to “Be There” for Distance Learners. http://books.google.com/books?id=Bff3GYtfd4YC&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false

Lewin, Walter. Link to a YouTube video as found in the below blog post by Wiggins.

Shapiro, Joel. “3 Must-Knows on Distance Ed.” http://www.insidehighered.com/views/2013/09/10/essay-three-key-facts-distance-education

Wiggins, Grant. “Bored? Tough.” http://grantwiggins.wordpress.com/2013/08/12/bored-tough-hard-to-believe-this-is-published-in-a-major-ed-publication/

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Filed under Conferences, Digital Humanities, Teaching

Flesh and Steel: Conceiving a Scientific and Literary Praxis of Pregnancy

For those of you unable to make it, I wanted to share my two upcoming conference presentations at MLA (Modern Language Association) in Chicago, Jan. 9-12, 2014. Here’s my first presentation, in draft form. Enjoy!

Flesh and Steel: Conceiving a Scientific and Literary Praxis of Pregnancy

“She was a woman with a young body whose knowledge, biological and intellectual, was defined in clearly marked periods, menstrual, domestic, academic, rounds of flesh, blood, rites, qualifications.  The pregnancy was another such, with its set term.” – A.S. Byatt, Still Life

“I know of no woman […] for whom her body is not a fundamental problem:
 its clouded meaning, its fertility, its desire, its so-called frigidity, its bloody speech,  its silences, its changes and mutilations, its rapes and ripenings.”
~ Adrienne Rich, Of Woman Born

On October 4, 2010, Time magazine chose a provocative cover for an article on fetal origins entitled “How the First Nine Months Shape the Rest of Your Life”: a pregnant woman, naked and sprawling, her legs akimbo, her belly unfurled, her gaze turned away, fixed as a still life for the viewer to inspect and decode (“How the First Nine Months”). This arresting image is important for three main reasons: first, as an apt illustration of the multitude of narratives placed on and around the reproducing female form; second, as a marker of how much Western cultural conditions surrounding birth have changed, rapidly, in the past 30 years; and, third, as an example of how much more the image of the pregnant and birthing woman still needs to develop to achieve full subjectivity in the glaring camera lens of the media-saturated twenty-first century. For, while the pregnant form here is on full display, its curves and recesses celebrated, it is also subjected to extreme normative conditioning: the woman here is thin, white, young, and sexually attractive. Further, her averted gaze brings to mind Iris Marion Young’s argument about growing up as a female: “one will be gazed upon as a mere body, as shape and flesh that presents itself as the potential object of another subject’s intentions and manipulations, rather than as a living manifestation of action and intention” (44). Indeed, the woman here is exhibited as a female work of art, a startling embodiment of shape and form, a testimony to physical beauty even as the body undergoes a shocking metamorphosis many people would concede borders on the grotesque. This picture celebrates this border, and gleefully toes the line between a culturally-acceptable image and an offensive one. It’s up to you, the picture’s audience, to decide if you think the picture performs this tightrope walk successfully, or not.

Using this picture as a jumping-off point for my discussion of the bioethics of birth in today’s wonderful panel, I am going to be showing you a variety of images of the reproductive female body. I ask you to be critical of the subterranean messages that are being conveyed through these images. Because this talk of mine is so invested in the appropriation of the female birthing form, I am especially interested in the way this form is portrayed in popular culture, the arts, and literature. Is birth a process of empowerment? Does the woman achieve full agency, express a voice, as a “becoming-mother” figure? These questions, and many more, should be foremost in our minds when we consider any image of the female body, but especially the image of the female reproductive form.

So, we have our first picture, and our first representation of the border of pregnancy: physical beauty versus the grotesque, empowerment versus subjectification.  However, another set of narratives surrounding this image of reproduction can be read as quite positive. Many critics argue that after the 1980s, a new emphasis was placed on the fetus due to technological developments enabling one to see what was previously unseen—most notably, rapid advances in ultrasound technology and, more recently, 3D imaging that offers to record a video of the baby in the womb. Since the advent of such interior imaging, critics such as Susan Bordo, Rebecca Kukla, Emily Clark, Margrit Schildrick, and Barbara Duden, among others, argue that the pregnant woman consequently became displaced as a mere “fetal container” (in the words of Susan Bordo). The advent of the ultrasound means that the pregnant woman is “simply not a part of anything,” argues Ann Kaplan, specifically referencing pictures portraying the fetus blown up to larger-than-life size, floating in a cosmos seemingly of its own making. Here I am of course referencing the famous fetal photos by Lennart Nilsson which appeared in the 1965 issue of Time, photos which purported to celebrate the miracle of fetal life but in reality, most photos in the collection were taken of dead fetuses.

Leaving the story of the pregnant woman behind, then, the story of the fetus seemed to be the only narrative the public wanted to read. To return to my original picture of the pregnant woman in Time, then, it is significant that this photo is very unlike the fetus-only photos which, as Kaplan claims, work to “write the mother out of the story … or to marginalize and negate her subjectivity.” No, this photo places the woman-in-the-body squarely in the birthing story as the key and central figure, emphasizing her: her body, her subjectivity, her needs, her desires, her decisions. In this regard, the cover can be read as a positive advancement for women’s studies, reproductive studies, and women’s rights, or, in the words of Margrit Schildrick, rather than positing “transcendent disembodiment [as] a condition of agency,” this picture instead “reinscribes the bodies of women.” While this picture symbolizes the myriad ways Western media has progressed when it considers the pregnant woman and the female form (it’s okay to celebrate her! Uncover her! Show her for what she is: a mere human being, not a goddess!), it also conversely emphasizes that women are very much in the same position they were in 100 years ago: fixed, silent, awaiting decoding by the patriarchal gaze. This woman, this body, is not figured as a powerful form with control of its situation and surroundings. Who, then, has the power and control?

I obviously don’t have all the answers, and today I am not going to try to solve a problem that has been brewing since Plato, Aristotle, and, indeed, since Adam and Eve as well. But I think I can offer a stab at a beginning praxis of pregnancy from a bioethical point of view, a praxis that draws on both scientific and literary viewpoints. I will be drawing from the considerable body of research I amassed as I worked on dissertation, which considers female reproduction in the British modernist era, but today, I will consider the specific intersections between literature, science, and the pregnant body. Because these three fields are quite large (to put it mildly), I limit my inquiry to only two Anglophone novels: The Birth Machine by the British Elizabeth Baines (published in 1982), and the more recent “multi-cultural” Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese (published in 2009). Verghese was born in Ethiopia to Indian parents, and he now resides in America, and the main character in his novel, Marion, ascribes to this same cultural and ethnic heritage. [As a sidenote, I collect birthing literature, so at the end of the presentation, please let me know if you have any more sources I can add to my library!] Out of all the books—mostly novels, memoirs, critical works, and collections of poetry, and most dating from the early 20th century and beyond—that figure pregnancy and childbirth in any profundity, why choose these two works specifically? Well, simply put, they offer an extremely wide spectrum: one British, the other “transnational,” one by a “white” female author, the other by a multicultural Indian-Ethiopian-American male physician (here the labels we so love to use get a little tricky), one figuring childbirth as an event that must be mapped and planned and must take place employing all the latest and most cutting-edge devices, the other figuring childbirth as a possibly catastrophic event that will “naturally” come to the body whether one is prepared for it or not. Both have specific things to say about the role of the female body versus the role of the doctor, the doctor’s tools, and the role of medicine in birthgiving. Both also feature childbirth as a predominant aspect of the plot: The Birth Machine is completely about birth, and Cutting For Stone narrates the events of a pivotal and catastrophic childbirth scene that lasts, due to interwoven stories and flashbacks, for no less than nine chapters—over 100 pages! For a pregnancy scholar like myself, this is like striking gold. Using these two texts as landmarks of sorts, then, we can attempt to begin to navigate the treacherous landscape that is female reproduction, both reproduction as it exists in “reality” (or “lived, phenomenological experience,” to draw on both Merleau-Ponty and Toril Moi) and as it exists in its fictional counterpart. Finally, I want to leave you today with three main ideas to keep in mind as you go about your lives, lives that will inevitably come up against female reproduction in one form or another, at one point or another.

So, just to reiterate, I am dealing with two bodies: the enfleshed or “lived body” existing in the “real” or the “now,” versus the literary body, a set of codes, a congealing of ink and paper, a cloud of signals operating on several different levels at once, a web of competing discourses jockeying for position yet remaining mostly unseen. I am also grappling with two bodies of critical thought: scientific and literary. In the intersections of these four areas, then, lies my three main ideas surrounding a working praxis of pregnancy, childbirth, and reproduction.

But first: the relevant criticism. Criticism focusing on the technologization of birth in literary texts predominately argues that Western models of control serve to colonize birthing women, rendering them passive, without subjectivity, and at the mercy of, to quote Adrienne Rich, “men and their tools.” (Beyond Rich’s seminal Of Woman Born, see Ann Kaplan, Motherhood and Representation, Helen Sterk, et al., Who’s Having This Baby?, Iris Marion Young, On Female Body Experience and Margrit Schildrick, Leaky Bodies and Boundaries). Further, feminist criticism often calls for the need for holistic new models of birth which are predicated on flux, ambiguity, and change (both/and) rather than upon an either/or model of the body as broken machine (see Emily Martin’s The Woman in the Body: A Cultural Analysis of Reproduction, and Tess Cosslett, Women Writing Childbirth: Modern Discourses of Motherhood). Additionally, Susan Squier offers a foundational argument in Babies in Bottles (1994) that literature is an excellent conduit of bioethical matters, and she interviews scientific, cultural and literary discourses to navigate the waters of “RT,” reproductive technologies, which she signifies in the image of the baby in the bottle (one immediately thinks of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and the trauma of “decanting”).

Employing these criticisms, then, I would like to interrogate how the texts by Baines and Verghese configure a bioethics of birth, precariously placed as it is between the steel of masculine science and the flesh of the feminine body.

My first point: Differences in Tools. [Pulling from Verghese, all tools are not the same: the hand is a tool, after all, and used properly, tools are the most meaningful aspect of life, as they are intimately linked to ritual, to passage, and to transformation.] In The Birth Machine, Zelda discovers that her pregnancy and birth have been the subject of research by her husband (a famous doctor). She is admitted to a hospital a week early and subjected to a demoralizing induction process that results in a stalled labor and eventual C‑section. After the horrific process, she finds, scrawled on her chart: “Clinical Trial: Convenience Induction” (116). Yes, she is delivered from the chaos of the birthing process by “men and their tools,” it is true, but the novel makes it clear that it is these men and these improper tools, used improperly, that got her there in the first place.

Verghese’s Cutting for Stone presents the opposite stance. The female body therein is frequently portrayed as being one with the machinery surrounding it, machinery which assists the birthing body in completing its parturition. Hema, a main character in the novel, is an “expert” at using forceps, visualizing the hidden interiority of the female body and then “articulating the two handles and confidently extracting the baby” (58). But the knowledge that Hema carries of the female birthing anatomy and of appropriate tools to employ (and appropriate times in which to employ them) is based on a fundamental respect for the birthing process, and for her role in it. Hema realizes she is an aid—an important aid, it is true, but an aid nonetheless. She is a help-meet, a vital assistant to the birthing process. Her use of tools is judicious and justified in the text: “Hema wielded her scalpel like a woman on fire” (114) — while the indiscriminate, reckless use of tools is again linked to the male physician. In the book, that male physician is epitomized by the odd, somewhat removed Thomas Stone, a renowned surgeon who considers the “Five Fs” of things “better out than in” to be “Flatus, Fluid, Feces, Foreign Body and Fetus” (73). Faced with obstructed labor of his dying love, Sister Mary Joseph Praise, he immediately goes directly to the most sinister tool of all, the “cephalotribe” or “skull crusher” (75). Because he has never performed a C-section, much less an emergency one, he would prefer to kill the infant, or “intruder,” and remove it piece-meal to save his loved one. When Hema bursts in on the scene, “she pointed at the bloody trephine and the open textbook… ‘Books and whatnots?’ She swiped them aside, and they clattered to the floor… She reassured herself that she had no part in the books and whatnots” (99-100).

From these literary snapshots, then, we can see that the problem of parsing out a bioethical birth is most definitely linked to tools and those who wield them, but we must remember that not all tools are the same (consider the hand versus the scalpel versus the trephine and cephalotribe), and not all physicians who employ them are the same as well. The importance, the life and death importance, lies in the difference.

This brings me to my Important Point number two: Information versus Intuition. Verghese, in his 2011 TED Talk (viewable here—highly recommended!: http://www.ted.com/talks/abraham_verghese_a_doctor_s_touch.html) argues for the undeniable and irreplaceable importance of what he figures as “a doctor’s touch,” or, in Cutting for Stone, what is called “Sound Nursing Sense”: sitting and talking to the patient, doing an “old-fashioned” and quite slow and unwieldy physical examination rather than ordering a barrage of disembodied and highly ineffectual tests and scans. His novel quotes a textbook that explains “sound nursing sense” as:

…more important than knowledge, though knowledge only enhances it.
Sound Nursing Sense is a quality that cannot be defined, yet is invaluable when present and noticeable when absent. […] a nurse with book knowledge but without Sound Nursing Sense is like a sailor at sea in a seaworthy vessel but without map, sextant, or compass. (Of course, the nurse without book knowledge has not gone to sea at all!). (41)

There is obviously a significant difference between bodies of knowledge, especially whenever bodies are concerned. There is knowing versus experiencing, seeing versus being, and there is information versus intuition. The physician can know everything in the world about the process of pregnancy, labor and childbirth, but if he or she does not know the woman involved, or if he doesn’t have intuition, the knowledge and science is worthless.

One immediately thinks: okay, to conceive a proper bioethical praxis of birth, then, one needs to ensure that the doctor knows the patient. But it’s not so simple: in Birth Machine, the hapless Zelda is at the mercy of her doctor-husband (arguably the person who knows her best in the world), and in Cutting for Stone, Sister Mary Joseph Praise lies dying at the mercy of the hands of her purported lover. Both these doctors have the required relationship with their patients, but what they lack is the all-important intuition. Intuition is defined as “the ability to understand something immediately, without the need for conscious reasoning,” “a feeling that guides a person to act a certain way without fully understanding why,” going with the gut. As in, not scientific (rational) at all. Intuition can therefore be linked to a feminine modality of knowledge, knowing through the body, versus a traditionally masculine modality, knowing through the mind (to employ problematic divisions). Another way of spinning this knowledge divide is via Plato’s categories of episteme, “pure, or theoretical knowledge, the stuff proper to philosophy which is produced in critical dialogue” over techne, “practical knowledge emanating from skill, art, and practice” (drawing from Mark Cote).

Okay: then we need female doctors who establish ongoing relationships with their clients, a doula-midwife-obstetrician. Perhaps this is close, for it brings me to my Third Important Point: Relationship Yielding Empowerment. Tools, as we have seen, are problematic. Relationship alone doesn’t solve all our problems. But somewhere in the nexus of the two lies the appropriate physician-patient relationship that is rooted in dialectic not dichotomy, founded in becoming not in stasis, and at any given moment, strives to find the middle ground between what is best for the physician (so hampered by the omnipresent threat of litigation) and the patient, whose body lies in the balance.

In The Birth Machine, Zelda finds this fundamental, life-giving relationship with herself at the end, as she escapes the apparatus of the hospital and technologization of birth. She takes the power back by moving her body and making her own decisions; she “names herself: Teacher, Scientist. The words taste. At last they have texture. At last, to acknowledge her own insights, to be her own author” (122). This relationship and fellowship with herself, so long denied by the alienation of medicalization, foreshadows the relationship-to-come with her infant son, who looks at her trustingly as she carries him away from the hospital, away from her husband and towards a new matriarchal life: “He doesn’t cry…his eyes are wide open, waiting for her, waiting for images” (123).  Women, Elizabeth Baines seems to be shouting, take the power, for it will not be given to you. Create your new names, your true names, and, perhaps most importantly, teach your daughters and sons to do the same. We must take back bodily intuition and agency, or, as Margrit Schildrick calls it, “moral agency,” “the sense in which an individual can be said to be in control of and responsible for choices made and acted on within the moral sphere” (6). We must find ways to reacquaint ourselves with the morals and ethics of our body space once more.

Verghese’s Cutting for Stone is a 600-plus love-letter to the art, science, and lifestyle of practicing medicine. The characters in this novel (for the most part) are truly devoted to their craft and devoted to saving and bettering lives. Verghese, in his TED talk, explains that there is no “magic doctor” or “magic treatment,” just a “journey towards wellness.” Physicians need to earn the right to come alongside their patients and lead them towards wellness with such in-depth, personalized, bodily care. He explains that culturally we need to reestablish the ritual of caring for our bodies. “Rituals are all about transformation,” he explains: think of weddings, funerals, they are “terribly important.” The ritual in the patient/doctor relationship, disrobing and allowing touch, is of “exceeding importance, and if you short-change that ritual by not undressing the patient,” it is at the peril of our entire society. With the “explosion of knowledge,” we are “lulled into inattention, forgetting that the ritual is cathartic to the physician, necessary for the patient,” that it has “meaning, and a singular message to convey to the patient… I will always, always, always be there. I will see you through this. I will never abandon you. I will be with you through the end.”

How many of us can say we enjoy this kind of intimate and balanced relationship with our physician? While a relationship like this may border on the hyperbolic, I also think it can offer a useful model when considering a bioethical praxis of a scientific and medicalized pregnancy and childbirth. I propose that a bioethical consideration of the permutations of a woman’s body in gestation and parturition should encompass her complete subjectivity. Marsden Wagner calls this “humanized birth,” or “understanding that the woman giving birth is a human being, not a machine and not just a container for making babies.” In other words, a nuanced understanding of both the benefits and the shortcomings of science in the birthing chamber can lead to a balanced and bioethical birthing process, giving women the critical power over her corporeal, the “principle of personal liberty” (Schildrick 68), the space in which to choose.

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No, My Blog Is Not Dead, Thanks Very Much.

Okay, well, once again, I have found that I have over-committed. This semester was (and is) like a roller coaster that has whisked me on down the track. If I want 30 minutes with my husband on the couch in the evenings, if I want to be able to see my children in any capacity beyond providing for their immediate basic bodily needs, then I have had to jettison “extras” like this blog, like submitting an article for publication, like writing new abstracts for CFPs. I am well aware that academia does not see these activities as “extras” at all and instead finds them integral to a well-rounded candidate. I guess a well-rounded candidate I am not. I have tried, and tried, and I am now reaching the end of my rope. Here’s why.

  • I’m teaching three classes right now: one online, and two face-to-face. The grading, prep, commute, lecture, and communication time with my almost 100 students is, quite simply, astronomical.
  • I’m serving as a Curator for Lori Emerson’s fabulous Media Archeology Lab: http://mediaarchaeologylab.com/. In this capacity, as often as possible, I need to sort through and properly label museum artifacts. I’m working on computer monitors and TVs now.
  • I’m finishing up my dissertation. I have three chapters of revisions waiting on my desk to finish, and I’m awaiting revisions (two rounds of them) on a fourth chapter. I need to draft (and submit for revisions) my Introduction and Coda ASAP.
  • I’m on the job market – ha ha! Yes, I thought I’d just add to the chaos and try to find a job amidst all this bustle. I’m extremely ambivalent about the entire process, from application to job and the hours all of this will entail. I hope that I’m not alone, that every job candidate feels this ambivalence. While I’m applying for jobs all around the country and even in Canada, I’m becoming more and more unsure about uprooting the family for a job that will probably be far from any pre-conceived “dream job” of mine. I’m extremely interested in online adjunct work, but the major downside to that is the adjunct part. I’ll be trading in my PhD for a lifetime of low wages and no benefits. The upside to this is a more flexible schedule, being home with my kids for the long-term, and not uprooting the family from the state and community that we love. Anyway, every single weekend is spent searching and applying for jobs.
  • I’m scheduled to deliver not one but TWO presentations at the upcoming MLA convention in January. I haven’t even completely read the book that one proposal is based on. I have to completely draft, edit, create visually-appealing presentations, and be ready to roll by January 8th. I was going to do this over Christmas break, but now it appears…
  • I may be teaching two separate sections of upper-division online literature classes in the spring, which means I will need to completely design and upload both classes over Christmas break.

This might sound like a typical workload for graduate school, and indeed it is, but don’t forget that I’m a full-time stay-at-home mom to a five-year-old and a two-year-old. Yes, my husband helps out a lot, but I have no nanny, no housekeeper. There is currently a hamster on the loose in my house, and piles of laundry in the basement. I need to get the kids’ Halloween costumes, and go buy candy. My ten year wedding anniversary is coming up next weekend, so no working that weekend.

Suffice it to say that if you want to have a “balanced” life between academia and your family, perhaps see your friends every once in awhile (this I have not been able to do) and go to church (I’m hanging on to God until the bitter end), it all results in a puzzle that is impossible to solve. Impossible.

Just now, my daughter ran into my room and started jabbering at me. I said, “Sylvia!,” sternly, and she responded, “Skedaddle!” and ran out. Yes, my daughter instantly knows to leave me alone. Oh, the parental guilt.

(And yes, I know I need to add a picture to make this blog visually appealing. I just don’t have the time.)

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COLTT 2013: “The Digital Dossier”

The following is a list of links from my 2013 COLTT (Colorado Learning and Teaching with Technology) presentation, entitled: “The Digital Dossier: Combining Effective Digital Pedagogy and Scholarship.” See http://coltt2013.pbworks.com/w/page/66184504/The%20Digital%20Dossier%3A%20Combining%20Effective%20Digital%20Pedagogy%20and%20Scholarship

The link to my Prezi presentation, for those of you unable to attend my workshop, can be found here: http://prezi.com/ysoc2yugal97/?utm_campaign=share&utm_medium=copy&rc=ex0share (why this is not showing as a clickable link, I have no idea)

And now, without further ado, my library of links from my recent foray into digital scholarship and pedagogy. (Apologies for the exceedingly long post!)

Educate Yourself! Otherwise known as: Where to begin??

Learn Specific DH Skills:

Digital Humanities and Undergrads:

Digital Evaluation:

Online DH Communities:

Digital Archives:

Example Projects:

Digital Book Projects:

Blogs:

Conferences:

Journals:

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On Over-Committing

This year, 2013, my last full year as a graduate student, hopefully for all of eternity, I deemed “The Year of Showing Up.” In an effort to—I don’t know, make myself miserable? Destroy my family and my marriage? Increase my output of tears?, I decided to do it all, apply for it all, BE IT ALL this year. Again, why? Will all of this get me a better job? (I doubt). Does all of this make me significantly more happy? (This is debatable). So: why?

Many blogs and articles frequently discuss the difficulty of finding balance in graduate school, especially when you have a family and outside commitments:

http://www.gradhacker.org/2013/01/30/a-personal-experiment-in-happiness/ – I especially love this quote: “I realized I didn’t want to keep living like this, spending all of my energy working and thinking that it was ok because someday I’d be able to enjoy myself. I realized that I wanted to enjoy life now.” Amen, Katy!

http://www.insidehighered.com/blogs/mama-phd – this blog, one of my favorites, even posts as its byline “Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.”

http://www.gradhacker.org/2012/03/26/grad-school-guilt/ – favorite quote here: “It’s not a particularly healthy way to go through life, and it places a great deal of stress on every moment of the day, since even when I’m trying to relax, I know I could be working.” This is my life, in a nutshell.

One blog post even argues that the whole point of graduate school is a long journey to teach you how to say no:

http://chronicle.com/blogs/profhacker/the-point-of-grad-school-is-to-learn-to-say-no/49385

And for added effect:

 http://www.gradhacker.org/2013/05/08/saying-no/

The short version for me is, it’s summertime. I have always bragged that I am the kind of academic who truly takes summer off. I know this practice isn’t always feasible, and this is a special year: one isn’t always finishing up a six-year PhD program. But yes, back to that short version: I need to slow down a bit, say “no” to a few more things, guard my time more jealously, be a bit more wise (read: sparing) with my commitments.

I may put this blog on hiatus all summer, and make it more of an academic school-year thing, much like the brilliant folks at GradHacker do: http://www.gradhacker.org/2013/06/18/gradhacker-summer-hiatus/.

I may slow down and post once a month, or only when I have something very important to say.

I will most likely post when my course for Le Cordon Bleu is up and running (it begins July 8th) and I find myself teaching a combined three online courses for two different institutions at the same time, for the first time.

I will definitely post when I attend COLTT, the Colorado Learning and Teaching with Technology conference, held every year in Boulder: https://www.cusys.edu/coltt/2013/index.html. I’m presenting for the second time this year, a workshop called “The Digital Dossier: Combining Effective Digital Pedagogy and Scholarship,” that I need to put together from scratch next month. I’m looking forward to tweeting from this conference for the first time.

I am very interested in the animal that is the academic blog, and I am not giving up. I am just stepping back a little. Not even that; I am just taking a much needed breath. The crunch of writing that last dissertation chapter, revising previous chapters and preparing them for publication, anticipating three conference presentations at two upcoming conferences, teaching a combined three courses online (one of them brand new to me: new platform, new institution, new rules, new pedagogy, new everything), and trying to show up in my own life and be a good mother, wife, sister, member of my church and community, etc., has all proved to be more than even I can handle. Can you see how shredded the syntax of this blog post is? As shredded as my mind, my friend; as frayed as my wee shuddering brain cells.

Pray for me. And, God bless you, GradHacker.

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On Milestones

This coming week my daughter turns five.

Erin and Sylvia May 2008

Erin and Sylvia, May 2008

 

As I’ve mentioned before, I got pregnant with her during my first few weeks as a PhD student (oh, the tears!) and had her during the summer break between my first and second year. So, now I look back on the last five years and celebrate (or acknowledge, as the case may be), the many milestones in my academic life:

  • I have five solid years of the PhD program under my belt—well, six, actually (as I started fall 2007).
  • My student ID has expired, as it automatically does this five years after it has been issued. Why? Who made this crazy rule? Now I have to hike across campus to some crazy building and jump through a gazillion hoops to get an ID for two measly semesters.
  • I have taught approx. 20 courses as an Instructor of Record, both face-to-face and online, designing them and implementing them all myself. What I have learned in this capacity could fill an entire blogosphere. Stay tuned for more pedagogy posts.
  • I have learned how to speak up in intimidating situations, and what’s more, I’ve learned that I enjoy doing so. My brain doesn’t always cooperate with the words I want to speak (thanks, forever post-pregnant and frazzled mind), but I have learned oral expression and assertion techniques.
  • I have read something like 1000 books and articles. Maybe more. I’ve lost count.
  • I have learned the tremendously complex navigational techniques of the CU library system, Norlin, the online database system, and a myriad of research institutions in between. Most importantly, living an hour away from campus, I’ve learned that I can order in all the books I need through the fabulous Arapahoe Library District, where they will appear, magically, on a shelf for me, five miles from my home. Oh, blessed technology!
  • I’ve learned the best places to park in Boulder, for free.
  • I’ve learned where most of the buildings are on the expansive CU campus.
  • I’ve learned lots of really fabulous big words.
  • I’ve learned how best I learn: lots of repetition, and writing things down, and then doing it myself.
  • I’ve taken over 1000 pages of single-spaced notes on the texts I’ve read, workshops I’ve attended, etc.
  • I’ve learned how to teach—when I entered the program in 2007, I had never taught at the college level, and had only ever taught Sunday School, and technology classes at the law firm where I used to work.
  • I’ve learned how to teach online using Blackboard, Desire2Learn, and MyCampus Learning Management Systems (LMS).
  • I’ve learned how to judiciously incorporate technology into my classroom: HootCourse, Facebook, Twitter, digital texts and projects (digital humanities), etc.
  • I’ve learned how to write a darn good conference proposal, and then I’ve learned how to show up and give a non-deadly conference presentation.
  • I’ve learned how to revise my own work without getting overwhelmed or bitter, or dissolving into tears.
  • I’ve learned that I love academia, and that being a teacher is my dream job. So while I know the job market is murky at best, I hold out hope that I can find a teaching position somewhere, anywhere. While I also love to research and am very good at it, my heart is in teaching.

I could go on. But one of the things I love about academia is its endless opportunities for personal and professional growth, how you can hit the “reset” button every six months and head off into an entirely new and uncharted direction, if you’d like. I’ve learned that I thrive on this untrammeled and uncharted growth, this limitless body of knowledge lying out there ripe for the picking. This life as an academic is sometimes heavy and often frustrating (as are all good things in life), but it feels clean, crisp, and forever remade, always becoming, never stagnant or stale. And for that I’m so very, very grateful.

Erin and Sylvia, May 2013

Erin and Sylvia, May 2013

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What Makes a Good Teacher?

Yes, I use the terribly inefficient word “good” purposely, for to define what makes a teacher “good,” you will first have to define your idea of “good,” and six years teaching at the college level has taught me nothing if not that if you ask 100 different students about a good teacher they’ve had, you’ll receive 100 different notions of good.

All this being said. I received my Faculty Course Questionnaires (FCQs) last week, from two years of teaching online. Students fill out FCQs at the end of the course; remember, those little bubble sheets, and the crummy little pencils that were never sharp? Anyway, my FCQ feedback was glowing, amazing, truly incredible. Suffice it to say that I have come to the conclusion that I am a better teacher online than I am face-to-face. Don’t get me wrong; because my passion is teaching, students pick up on that, and I have my fair share of very positive FCQs and feedback in the face-to-face classroom as well. But across the board, scores for what students have learned, teacher effectiveness, course overall, etc, are higher when I teach online.

Why might this be? What makes me so “good” online? Here’s a quick of my thoughts on the matter (oh, how I love bullet points):

  • Students expect less of their instructor online, therefore they are thrilled when you respond to them positively, enthusiastically, and quickly.
  • Students get lost easily, so they appreciate having lots of info online. In an online course, everything you need to know about the course is at their fingertips, and they can access it 24/7, including lectures. Having this library of knowledge is extremely useful for some students and the key to other students’ success. It’s all in the learning style.
  • Students expect no personalization online, so they are intrigued when you take the time to learn about them and post pictures they have taken on the course home page. I used to call this the “class mascots” and asked for solely pet pics, but now I accept pics of my students’ kids, travels, backyards, etc. I change up this photo on my course home page once a week. A silly thing to do, perhaps, but I think students really love seeing their photo on the course page, and love contributing in this way.
  • There’s no sense of me as the instructor wasting their time. In a classroom, students get bored easily. If it’s not digital or not sheer entertainment, most students zone out quickly, and resent the lectures (“too tedious”), the group work (“merely busy work”), the activities (“a waste of time”). In the online classroom, there’s the material, and the assignment, boom-boom. The instructor is removed, as it were, to let students tackle the course as they best see fit. I don’t get in their way as a disembodied and enthusiastic online presence.
  • I also don’t say stupid sh*t online. In the classroom, discussions can get touchy (literature is about every aspect of life, after all, from sexuality to religion to politics to gender to every touchy subject you can think of), and no matter if I try to play devil’s advocate or simply moderate, chances are something I will say will offend someone at some time. Online, I have the chance to double- and triple-think about what I should type and how it should be communicated. I try to email and post nothing but predominately positive things. The chances to step on toes are extremely limited.

Speaking of learning styles (see bullet point 2), I recently came across some great websites to test your aptitude for digital learning, and to evaluate your learning style. It’s crucial that all of us, as lifetime learners, know how we learn. Enjoy!

Learning Style Assessment – http://marciaconner.com/assess/

How are you Smart? – http://www.literacyworks.org/mi/intro/index.html

How do I Learn Best? – http://www.vark-learn.com/english/page.asp?p=questionnaire

What do you think makes a good teacher? Are you a better teacher online or face-to-face?

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