A murmur of voices

A murmur of voices from stylish young men in silly hats kept intruding on his thoughts. Not that his thoughts mattered much except to keep his synapses oiled and sparking on this day. Bad music played too, barely heard beyond the human noise. Good Friday. Once, long ago he had looked up why it was called that but he had forgotten and it was lost somewhere in the jumble of broken boxes and spilled things and cobwebs. He watched a couple leaving with food from a Chinese restaurant, rebels ignoring the fish & chip place two doors down. He decided to rebel too and put two typist spaces after each sentence despite the article saying woe processors no longer required that, but he felt daring anyway. He only remembered this because part of that article was visible under a torn paper with a poem just peeking out of the half opened box on the floor. Peaking maybe. He noticed the typo now woe processor but decided to leave it as writing was his woe processor.

He began to feel silly and satisfied now at his cleverness and wondered how to stop that bit of nonsense. He frowned, annoyed at his conceit. Suddenly the murmuring hats didn’t seem so silly.

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the book?

Initially this blog was to be just that, a blog. After attending (virtually) a session in a past Alliance of Independent Authors’ online conference that said those challenged for time could use a blog as a first draft for a book, I turned this blog into just that.

I am nearing that point now. I scrolled through the blog posts and discovered that  first is dated March 29, 2012, almost seven years ago to the day.  For some odd reason, the blog counter off to the side puts this March 2012 blog post into 2011. Well, cyber space is an odd place. Nonetheless, now is the time to start turning this long running blog into a book. The session I attended suggested one year of weekly blog posts would be enough. I haven’t posted weekly here, but seven years is more than enough to produce a decent book.

I will continue to post here as ideas and observations occur to me, but it is time!

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teaching History to the pragmatic

I was taking an afternoon nap when my brain finally kicked into gear. I say finally because I have felt rather dull lately – probably too many cookies and candies and the long term impact of Christmas lingering and raising my blood sugars.  Which is probably why I wrote this off topic first paragraph!

Today, one of my more contentious students asked me why he needs to have a thesis driven essay. ‘Why’ he asked, couldn’t he just write an essay telling me what happened. His chosen topic is the Social Gospel in Canada. This university has no History department and no Humanities faculty other than in training for art, writing, journalism and so on:  but no History, no Philosophy, no English literature, etc. Most of my students are in training for business, work in Day Cares, elementary school teaching, media studies or  hoping to be police officers in a program called Justice Studies. They are focussed on a pragmatic career path. We historians are part of an amorphous group labelled ‘Electives’.

Here is my answer, slightly edited:

What impact did the social gospel have? Was the impact lasting? If so why? If not, why not? What cultural forces caused it to come into being? Why were only certain churches proponents of the social gospel? Why did social gospellers in Canada go into politics and form a political party? These are all possible questions you could ask ( theses) and use evidence to answer. It isn’t enough to just give a list of events and describe the social gospel – ask questions about it.

This exchange (one of several with this student via email) sharpened my thinking about how to get ideas across to students online. What do I say to make assignments clearer? What, especially do I say to make the usefulness of the study of history apparent? Students in High School in Ontario, Canada rarely study history anymore. When I was a High School student back in the 1960s, History was a required course in Grades 9, 11 and 12. We also studied history in elementary grades 7 and 8. We had Grade 13 in those days, which was a university prep year, equivalent to the now abandoned Sixth Form in English Grammar schools.

In a face to face classroom, questions such as these arise naturally in the course of talking to students, teaching, that is, and in breaks and immediately after class. Online, they occur mostly through email. The course design used by my university has an ‘Ask the Instructor’ forum but most students avoid this in favour of sending an email question directly to me.

This reinforces the necessity of answering emails promptly, in the same day certainly and even more often if possible.

One problem that can arise, grows out of the lack of body language when communicating with a student. Last semester in my student evaluations one student claimed I was extremely rude to her. I don’t recall being rude to anyone (though I have thought rude things, but keep those to myself). This reinforces the need to be clear and friendly in your language used with students, no matter what. This is a technique that should be used in social media, but is quite rare there, where bad manners and open insults are the order of the day.

Teaching online is not social media; it is not a place to provoke battles. It is a place to work against the culture war raging today in the English-speaking world.

The study of History online is a good place to start this amelioration of anger.

Finally, I hope that training these pragmatic students to ask the question, why, and to look for balanced evidence in answer to this question, is a pragmatic reason to study History.

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After the Storm

Another term has vanished. Though there is the possibility that complaints will arrive and re-grading and deep sighs as debate over a just grade ensues. I find this more common than it ever was when I taught in class. Students would write their exams in paper booklets in an examination room or hall – usually in a gym, (which seems somehow appropriate – but that might make another post, another day). They would hand them in early, or just as the invigilator/proctor called TIME… or keep scribbling frantically until I or someone paid to do this stood over them, waiting, foot tapping to take the examination paper.

That would be that. The papers collected, graded, final grades calculated and entered into the gradebook.

But today, a certain percentage of students in online courses send emails insisting they could not have done so badly on the final examination as they knew they wrote incisive analysis, or at least did better than the grade they received. Please would I, could I, read it over again and change their grade to the proper A that they know they earned. Universities being what they are today allow a formal appeal and a committee of mysterious assemblage then takes the work and does some sleight of hand to mollify the consumer (aka student).  I don’t know if this is common for ‘in class’ courses now. Maybe the problem is general. I only know I would hate to be an employer or a colleague of someone who constantly complained that their less than satisfactory work was somehow someone else’s doing. I worked in the head office of a major corporation for twenty years and cannot quite wrap my head around, or imagine even, someone like that lasting more than a week in employment. But, perhaps as we graduate more and more, this will become a problem for the business world too.

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random thoughts while working

I am marking (grading) student assignments today (and yesterday and the day before that….). This assignment is a group assignment. I divided the class of about 200 into groups of about five to six people each and they were required to organize themselves within each group to create a photo essay. They were to produce a single document containing one image at least per group member, an agreed theme that reflected the underlying themes of the course and have it submitted by a due date. Some groups managed to meet in person in the university library, but most worked together online, using Google docs, a forum set up on the course web site, email, Skype and so on.

A number of groups had great difficulty getting others to contribute. They learned what all instructors know, that some students do nothing until panic sets in at the last possible moment. I, myself, as an undergraduate pulled a  number of all nighters to get an essay finished by the deadlline, but I was working alone.

What I found surpising was something else entirely. The groups were formed randomly by dividing the alphabetic class list into groups of six in a rote fashion.  Thus a group would have six with last names beginning with ‘S’ for example. Yet this random group formation resulted in some groups producing very sophisticated images and analyses from every group member, and a nuanced thematic overview. Other groups produced work that was shall we say, lacking in nuance.

Perhaps some whiz of a statistician in psychology or sociology has a theory as to why this should occur. As for me, I wrote a blog post mentioning the phenomenon.

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Budgets and Inflexibility

A new semester has begun at my university, where I teach as a Sessional Lecturer (Adjunct to my American friends). Mind you this sort of academic labour is somewhat better than in the United States. I earn enough from my five courses a year to live, if not well, at least to pay bills for a roof over my head and food on the table. Anyway, I don’t want to go off topic as I am wont.  I am teaching two courses this Fall term, both originating from the same source, but one has been extensively redesigned and rewritten to the point it is really a different course.  It is the process of redesign, but more importantly, repair and renovation while on the go I want to look at here.

When I taught in the classroom, I had an officially vetted, one short paragraph course description that students used to decide whether to spend time in my classroom or not. This was the only restriction, along of course with normal things such as the number of weeks, regulations over examination times and so on. But the content was entirely up to me. I could wholly rewrite the content each time the course was presented if I so wished. I could rewrite a section or a sentence. In any case, lecture notes were mine, or I could put a version online for students, or not. Once I stood in front of the class and started to talk, I usually had an outline for the students to see, but the words I spoke centred on these outline points could change on the spot in response to reactions from the students, or in response to some idea that popped into my head as I was talking that helped make a point clearer.

I will give an example of what I mean. I teach the History of Religion. Most of my students then and now were not History majors, but students from all areas of the university who had an interest in religion. Sometimes this meant getting across points that were not obvious to those outside this field. I recall in one semester, explaining that religion was not only, or perhaps even primarily for believers about the institution, the church, the building, the hierarchy, whether complex or simple. That there was a yin/yang aspect of the institution and the spirituality of the people. It popped into my head to give  labels to two fundamental aspects: religio  and spiritus.  These are indeed Latin words, but not used normally to mean what I wanted to get across on this occasion. I wrote them on the board (green, chalkboard, old classroom, no white board) and said, religio I will use in this class to refer to the instituional aspect of religion. The most complex in Christianity would be the Roman Catholic church, the least an independent evangelical church with one building, a pastor, people and some kind of Board made up of elected followers. The Catholic church as  we all know has a complex interntional hierachy and hierarchies, and buildings of all shapes and sizes, mostly large, all over the world. Spiritus I told them, writing that on the board, is the spirit of belief, the sense of community, the intense personal spirituality of the people. This could be evangelicals belting out Christian Rock in a service, or monks chanting in a whitewashed room, or a giant pipe organ blasting out Christian heavy metal. Or it could be a person alone in their bedroom at night praying. I tried not to make these seem separate as they are not, but as two aspects of the same thing. These two Latin-like words popped into my head that day in class as an aid to get this point across.

When I came to prepare this same course for an online version, I transferred those words in text to the course. I also transferred  most of my lecture notes, though this time rewritten to look like a textbook. Originally I wrote my lecture notes, taking a page from Winston Churchill’s playbook, with notes on where to pause, where to speak loudly, where to speak quietly, like an actor’s script for a Play rehearsal.  This was the first thing I lost. The spontaneity  that makes a classroom lecture succeed began to leave. Over time, however, I managed to reinject spontaneity using tools such as YouTube videos posted to the course site – videos that I recorded with the use of minimal notes as I had in lecturing, then posted immediately after recording. I also used Discussion fora to interact with students, albeit by typing. But today most students are used to this sort of interaction from their various social media platforms.

The problem of design remained. In my earlier days teaching online, my university had a large and well-funded online teaching department staffed with technical experts and Distance Learning Specialists. If I wanted to change a sentence or paragraph, I had only to send a note to the Distance Learning Specialist attached to my course. Or even a whole paragraph, or to add a new link, or most often to repair a dead link. But the course as a whole had to stay as it was designed unless funds became available to do a complete redesign. This did happen every few years, especially for my first such course, which had been built before there were many online, academically rigorous sources.

But budget cut backs – never spoken of as such, but having worked in big business for 20 years prior to entering academia, I heard  the off key recessional of money right away. Now if even a link breaks mid way through a term, the smaller Distance Education department that replaced three former university teaching support units, will not correct the problem – I have to wait for the period of time before the next term the course is offered, to have the link replaced. This, of course, means that places where I have new evidence, or a new perspective and wish to rewrite a page or a paragraph must wait also.

I get around this problem by linking a Prezi where I can write what I want or by annoncing the change in the Announcements area, and by talking to the students in the YouTube videos I put on the announcements section of the course site. But, the original text remains in place until the next offering.

Being a Sessional/Adjunct means I have no access to the thinking of those in the university hierarchy to suggest changes, or find new ways to improve this situation.  I could, if given temporary access to the HTML, rewrite sections – I did so one term when by accident they gave me access. I am no expert in HTML, but I knew enough to find the URL I wanted to change, and cut and past a new link into the correct place. I could too, replace a word, or add a comma. But that was an error on their part.

Budget constraints make an already barely flexible teaching form inflexible. But that is the world in which we teach now. There is money for capital expenditures, but rarely for operating expenses. I shall continue to apply bubble gum, bandages and  to glue bits and pieces to the body of my courses each term.

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Online teaching in the academic world requires access to online journals and eBooks.

When I began teaching online in 2004, there were very few eBooks available but almost all journals I needed were accessible through the university library website.  Most journals are deep dives into a topic and rarely suitable for students early in their university path or for those taking a course as an elective. Most of my students fall into those categories. I teach History courses that are slotted at the first or second year level (freshman and sophomore) and I get mostly non-History majors signing up for these courses. In those early years I had to provide links to websites that provided general overview information rather than the deep dives found in journal articles. This was not adequate as there were very few academically sound websites at that time. Mostly I relied on my own course notes, with illustrations that were copyright free and suggestions to the few journal articles that might provide a degree of overview or which were less abstruse than some.

As eBooks became more available and as good, scholarly websites began to appear, I updated my courses to reflect these changes. One problem with updating is my university’s policy of only allowing tech specialists access to the HTML behind the scenes. I can understand why, but one glorious semester, they gave me full access by accident. When a link was broken, I went into the HTML, found the broken link and cut and pasted a functioning URL in its place. I am far from expert on HTML, but I knew enough to be able to replace a link, or change the wording of a sentence without destroying the page.

Even without this happy accident, this was not too great a problem for some time, until the cutbacks came. Just this past year  (2018) I was told that no changes could be made to correct problems after the initial start of the course. Apparently they no  longer have the staff to do this. Now errors must remain until a few weeks before the next time the course is offered and I can give them a list of corrections. In the past, if I discovered a link that had gone dead in the last week of a course, I could simply send an email to the techies and it would be repaired in a day or so. But not now.

One method I use as a work round for this deficiency is to have a Prezi link. In the Prezi I can add corrections and supplementary information without dealing with the understaffed tech department. Not entirely satisfactorally because students have a habit of never looking anywhere except for the course notes. They ignore announcements and links to supplementary material even that which is coded into the main course.

This is a problem I have to think about. But I recall similar problems when I taught in class. You could announce something until you were blue in the face; put it on the white board or chalk board; on hand outs and on the in-class web site and there were always students who claimed never to have heard the message.

Another problem is the growing number of journals, newspaper articles, videos, etc. now lodged in university libraries that are not scholarly or peer reviewed. Along with this is the obscene cost to universities of subscribing to journals which have very little cost to the subscription services. They are online and therefore incur no added print costs; scholars who write the articles are not paid, nor are the editors.

This growing expense has impelled the scholarly community to begin tentatively to search for alternatives.

Listed below are a few free sites that might one day supplant this system and in any case provide access for independent scholars, or for part time faculty who have no access in between teaching jobs.  So far I have been lucky in that I have worked every semester since 2004, but that cannot last forever. The sites listed below are only a selection to give a sense of what is available now (July 2018).

Scholarly publishing is broken. Here’s how to fix it

This article mostly discusses published research in the sciences. I do know, however, that university libraries must spend horrendous amounts to subscribe to journal services.


The Directory of Open Access Journals






FREE Resources: 3 articles every 2 weeks (Register and Read Program, archived journals). Also, early journals (prior to 1923 in US, 1870 elsewhere) free, no registry necessary.

I didn’t include a URL here as Jstor is normally only available through a university library.

Open Edition:

This portal lists mostly journals and books in French, but has an English language site:




Philpapers  – open access philosophy papers



Digital Archive in the UK now archived at the Internet Archive



British History Online



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