Technology, Attention and Communication

I found it interesting that this week’s readings were listed under the heading of Attention/multitasking, but the central theme running through all of them seemed to be technology. I think this speaks both to our current obsession with technology and the reality that technology shapes how we live our lives in profound ways. Clive Thomson argued that humans have been using technology to supplement the human thought process since virtually the beginning of time. Meanwhile, Jason Farman argued that technology (especially cell phones) has allowed for new forms of intimate connection even as it has limited face to face communication. On the other hand, Darren Rosenblum argued that technology can distract students and prevent them from interacting when he explained his reasoning for not allowing computers in the classroom. How, as teachers, should we respond to the new opportunities and challenges afforded by technology, particularly in regards to attention?

I think the first step is to recognize the rapid pace of changes in technology. I like to think of myself as a relatively young person, but the environment that I grew up learning in is significantly different than the environment that my students are growing up in. I got my first cell phone when I was a sophomore in high school (this was around 2003) and I could probably count on my hands the number of times that I actually used it. If my friends wanted to talk to me they would call me on my home phone or, more likely, they would just wait to talk to me at school the next day. This really didn’t change all that much early on in college. I always turned my phone off during class and it wouldn’t be uncommon for me to just accidentally leave it off for the rest of the day. As college went on, my phone use became more frequent, since that was my job’s primary way of contacting me. I didn’t send my first text message until years after college (probably around 2012), and then I only started texting because I had a friend that was uncomfortable with talking on the phone because of a stutter. Now, however, that’s how virtually all of my contact with classmates and church groups is conducted. Moreover, phones have become multi-functionary tools, serving as the platform for multiple forms of communication, our gateway to a global web of information, and a veritable Swiss army knife of miscellaneous virtual gadgetry. In high school, if I forgot my cell phone at home my first reaction would be that I hope I don’t get into a wreck today. Now, I would be asking myself how I’m going to get anything accomplished today (especially since Virginia Tech’s Central Authentication System is built under the assumption that everyone has constant access to a cell phone.)

How does all of this relate back to the classroom?

First of all, I think this reflection suggests that we cannot assume that what worked for us as learners thirty, ten, or even five years ago will work for our students today. Moreover, I don’t think that we can assume that what worked one semester will continue to work in the next. Constant change suggests the need for constant flexibility. Perhaps instead of having technology policies in our syllabuses, we should treat those policies as an evolving contract with the class, one that may require renegotiation as the semester progresses. This sort of open-ended policy would allow us to adapt to meet the needs of our class and even to tailor the learning environment to meet specific learning goals on a class by class basis.

I also think that the ever increasing pace of change requires us to constantly refocus ourselves on our core values and goals. When I worked as a sound and lighting technician at the student center, my boss would often ask us what the most important piece of equipment was. The new digital sound boards? The sturdy, reliable microphones? No. The most import equipment was ourselves. Usually this conversation was designed to remind us to always put our personal safety first, but I believe it also held a deeper meaning. Technology is ultimately a tool and a tool is defined by how its user chooses to utilize it. A cutting edge sound board can still sound like crap if the person using it doesn’t know to operate the equipment or doesn’t care enough to try to create the best possible mix. A hammer can enhance our ability to build, but we can also use it to destroy.

In the end, our classrooms our defined not by the technology that is used or the technology that is banned, but by the values that we and are students bring with us. If we want our students to pay attention, then we first need to make sure that we are teaching them things that we genuinely believe are worth learning. More than that, we need to be willing to honestly but passionately articulate why we think these things are important and we also need to listen to students and let their goals influence our classrooms as well. I can’t force my students to care about my class but it’s also utterly unreasonable for me to expect them to if I don’t prove that I care about the class and about them.

Therapy Time

A quick disclaimer: This week’s readings and prompt hit me at an interesting time. Beginning the second and final year of my MA program, I am beginning to seriously think about what life will be like after grad school. Do I still want teaching to be an important part of my future and if so, what will that teaching look like? Needless to say, a prompt about finding my authentic teaching self really struck a chord and got me thinking about my future and myself. A wise individual once told me that some writing is for others and some writing is for you. Sometimes writing winds up being a way of essentially saying your thoughts out loud to make sense of them rather than conveying ideas to a reader. I think that this piece of writing is really more for me than for others, but I decided to post it anyway because I think that it is a good example of the process that we all go through when we start to think about our authentic teaching selves. With that said, on with the post…


This week we are talking about finding your authentic teaching self. In other words, its therapy time. Once upon a time, many years ago, undergraduate me didn’t understand why education programs were so focused on touchy feely stuff. Then I started to actually teach at the middle/high school level and I understood why – because teaching requires an emotional commitment, both towards your content and your students and because teaching will bring every ounce of your self-doubt and insecurity to the surface, regardless of how deep you thought you had buried it. I believe that teaching is an incredibly intense and personal act and thinking about how you teach inherently involves thinking about yourself as a person. In “Finding My Teaching Voice,” Sarah Deel stresses the importance of basing your teaching style on your personality, rather than trying to copy what other “successful” teachers do. This idea meshed with what I have already been told about teaching. During my internships for my MAED degree, teachers would always remind me that I had to find what worked for me, rather than copying what worked for someone else. Having said all that, I’m not sure that I’ve ever really spent much time thinking about my authentic teaching self, probably because to do so, I would first have to approach a much more intimidating question…

So who am I?

That’s a complicated question. Who I am sitting in a classroom of relative strangers is not the same thing as who I am when I’m with my family or my friends. Around strangers I am quiet, passive, calm reluctant to talk, (but willing when the time is right), careful with my words, not standoffish but also not engaging, humble and reserved. Around people I have known for a long time I am still humble, but also stubborn when I know (or think) I’m right. I am calm, but also passionate about people and ideas. Often times I’m still quite, but I’m also prone to be blunt, almost unreasonably argumentative, and frequently sarcastic, although also loyal and caring.

Which is the real me? Is my public persona just some front because I’m afraid that people won’t like me if I’m more open with them? Or is that quiet, reserved, guy just another facet of my personality, one that’s every bit as genuine as the one I wear around the people that I’m close with? More to the point, which persona is appropriate for my authentic teaching self? Sherri Fowler stresses the importance of being genuine and I know that my reserved self has a tendency to be superficially cool and reserved, regardless of how I actually feel.   I think that sometimes this leads me to hide my passion, especially in front of students, for fear of appearing weird. Sherri Fowler also talks about the importance of being attentive to your student’s needs.  My less reserved self is a lot more likely to accidentally say something stupid that could perpetually wreck my relationship with students or even, depending on the circumstance, cause them some level of emotional harm. On the other hand, my reserved self is a lot less likely to convey that I care about my students.

Maybe I’m oversimplifying all of this. One of the reoccurring themes from my readings and research in history is that binaries tend to oversimplify and obscure. In reality, my self is probably a shifting continuum, changing with each circumstance. The question then, is where I need to fall on that continuum when I’m in the classroom and how to go about making sure that I wind up where I need to be. I know that I will be humble, calm, and a little bit reserved, because quite frankly I think I’m incapable of anything else. I know that I will need to embrace my social awkwardness so that I can be genuine and engaging with my students, while still retaining enough social anxiety to keep me from saying something that I shouldn’t say. I also know that I will need to convey my passion, both for history and for my students, but I also know that I will convey this passion in a calm, reserved way. Moving beyond the touchy-feely aspects of my teaching self, I know that discussion will be a major part of my classroom time, because I don’t have the speaking chops to consistently pull off an engaging lecture. Moreover, I know that my classes will have a heavy focus on concepts and critical thinking, because I tend to think analytically, but also because I believe this will help my students develop skills that will hopefully make them better citizens, and, God willing, make this world a better place.

Of course, finding my authentic teaching self is only half the battle. The other half is actually making this self a reality in the classroom. Theory is inherently simpler than practice and I believe the next step will be to determine the routines, both inside and outside of the classroom, that will help me make my teaching self a reality.

Grading and Society

Grading: it’s probably the aspect of educating that all teachers (from elementary strait through university) like the least. Yet at the same time we all seem to assume that grading is both essential and inevitable, even as we may question our ability to reduce our understanding of a student’s learning into an easily quantifiable number, letter or rank. Virtually all of this week’s readings challenged the assumption that grades are essential for student learning, and in fact, many of the readings argued that grades are not only inaccurate, prone to bias and generally unhelpful, but also actively toxic to the learning process. I can’t say that I found any of this all that surprising. I already knew that it is difficult to assess the kind of higher order thinking which should be an important part of a college education (or any education really). I’ve also already seen how a focus on grades often keeps students from engaging in the material at a deeper level. As a matter of fact, every week as we talk about innovate learning techniques that can help our students think at a deeper level, I can’t help but think of that student on the front row raising their hand and asking if this is going to be on the test.

In a lot of ways, our students are even more attached to the system of grades than we are. Some of them, like Lisa Simpson, have their sense of self-worth tied up in these powerful little letters and others are simply acting on a rational calculation of their self-interest based on everything everyone has told them about how the world works. Get good grades in high school to get into a good college, get good grades in college to get a good job (or, just as often these days, get into a good grad school). On and on it goes. We can talk about innovate teaching all we want, but the fact of the matter is that for many of our students, all this learning stuff is just a way to get that fancy piece of paper that is supposed to open the door to the rest of their lives. Of course, reality is a lot more complicated. That little piece of paper might open some doors (although on its own it doesn’t open nearly as many as I expected it to when I graduated the first time around), but by itself, without the capacity for critical thought, introspection and other higher order thinking, it is unlikely to bring success and even less likely to bring any sense of happiness or fulfillment.

We might hope that the ‘real world’ would see the value of higher level thinking and actually encourage us to change the way that we assess, but unfortunately the ‘real world’ is often every bit as obsessed with measurable outcomes and simple systems of reward and punishment. I really enjoyed Dan Pink’s video, because he addressed the issue of assessment not in terms of education but in terms of business. I think this video points to a reality that debates in education often fail to consider, the reality that our obsession with overly simplistic measurable results is not an education problem, but a society problem. I can’t help but think about Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, where he essentially argues that modern institutions (be they factories, prisons, armies or schools) are based upon the concept of control through constant observation. One important part of observation is breaking tasks down into simple steps that can be standardized, taught, observed and enforced (Foucault, 157). Perhaps grades are just a manifestation of this unseen force that underlays the fabric of modern society.

Wow. Now I’m starting to get depressed. Sometimes all of this feels like it’s beyond my control, like I’m just a cog in this unceasing machine. Alfie Cohn talks about this sentiment in “The Case Against Grades,” referring to it as the “better get used to it” philosophy. (Kohn) Cohn argues that the prevalence of grades throughout a student’s life is no reason to give in to bad policy. Instead, Cohn suggests that teachers seek out ways to minimize the impact of grades on student learning through alternative forms of assessment. Similarly, in “Ranking, Evaluating, and Liking: Sorting out Three Forms of Judgment,” Peter Elbow gives several suggestions for ways that an individual professor can limit the harmful aspects of grades. For example, he talks about creating “Evaluation-Free Zones” by having periods where there are only ungraded assignments (197). These articles do give me some hope that I can help my students move beyond a focus on grades and begin to appreciate learning in its own right. I’ll be interested to see what the rest of this class thought when we discuss some of these ideas in class this week.


P.S.: Michel Foucault discusses education extensively in Discipline and Punish and I’ve only just scratched the surface of his analysis.  He gives an interesting (although also depressing) analysis of the role of education in modern society.

Mindful Learning and History

Reading Ellen Langer’s The Power of Mindful Learning, I couldn’t help but notice that the characteristics she described as central to mindfulness were similar to the characteristics that I see as being at the root of historical research. Just as mindfulness is based on “the continuous creation of new categories; openness to new information; and implicit awareness of more than one perspective,” historical research is based on the continual questioning of preexisting narratives about the past. (Langer, 4) Historians are taught to consider whether the documents and artifacts we explore are littered with either explicit or implicit bias and we also tend to question whether the narratives constructed by previous historians are accurate reflections of the past. (Indeed, we pretty well have to question the narratives of previous historians, because if we took them at their word then there wouldn’t be enough research to keep us all busy.) This line of thought got me thinking about how we teach history.


In popular culture history classes tend to be portrayed as an endless stream of people, places and dates. This might be a gross oversimplification but maybe the teachers of history are partially to blame. Outside of methods courses (and graduate school) how often do we acknowledge the contested nature of the narratives that we give our students? How often do we expose our students to conflicting viewpoints about the past and how often do we admit that it is entirely possible that the facts and interpretations we give them may subsequently be proven to be misguided? By taking a mindful approach to teaching history, historians can help students understand the complicated and contested nature of the past. I believe this philosophy of instruction can be useful on a number of levels. First of all, it is a more honest approach than presenting one specific narrative as if it were the only narrative. Second of all, the mindful approach to history can also be applied outside of the classroom. The mindful approach will allow students to look critically at people who use historical narratives to justify current policy and, more generally, it will hopefully help students to think critically about rhetorical arguments in general.


I believe that the mindful approach can also help students think about how their own backgrounds and beliefs influence the way that they approach history. For example, my thesis research focuses on how British officials in Iraq developed their ideas about Shi’i Iraqis. Looking critically at British sources, I discovered that officials tended to explain the beliefs and actions of the Shi’i religious leadership in terms of the officials’ own understanding of Christianity, often borrowing terms from Christianity and making comparisons between church-state relations in Europe and church-state relations in Iraq. Naturally, I began to look into the religious backgrounds of the officials I was studying. As I attempted to get a grasp of what these officials believed, I forced myself to step back and I realized that I was thinking about their beliefs and experiences in terms of my own background. Hopefully, this moment of self-reflection will help me to avoid reading my own experiences into the subjects that I am studying. By encouraging my students to develop this sort of meta-cognitive process, I can hopefully help them to see how their own influences shape the way that they view both history and the world. I am curious to see what students from other disciplines had to say about mindful learning and the rest of this week’s reading.

Networked Learning and the Training of Future Historians

This week we are talking about networked learning. The first thing I thought when I began going over the readings for this week was “what in the world is networked learning?” It has the sound of one of those education buzz words that everyone talks about, even though no one actually does it, or even really understands what it is. As I got into the readings I discovered that it was actually a lot simpler than I expected. As far as I can tell, ‘networked learning’ basically refers to creating learning situations where students interact in creative ways, both with each other and with a broader community. Now this is something I can apply to my own teaching methods and teaching philosophy.

As a historian, I think that networked learning could be especially useful in helping students to understand the nature of the historical discipline. At one point in his article, “Networked Learning as Experiential Learning,” Gardner Campbell describes books as a pre-internet form of networked learning, referring to a walk through the stacks as “tracing nodes and connections.” (Campbell) This reminded me of a lot of the discussions in my graduate seminars, where professors have encouraged me to see history books not as individual works, but as pieces of an ongoing historical conversation and to see my own research not as a task to be completed, but as another piece in this network of ideas. Tim Hitchcock’s article, “Twitter and blogs are not just add-ons to academic research, but a simple reflection of the passion underpinning it.” also helped me to see the connection between networked learning and the concept of the historical conversation. Hitchcock argued that humanist scholars should see platforms like blogs and Twitter as a logical extension of more traditional forms of publication. Furthermore, he argued that engaging in these platforms can help scholars to maintain a focus on the communal aspect of their work, as posting on these platforms forces scholars to remain reader-focused through various stages of their work. (Hitchcock)

Working as a graduate editor for my department’s undergraduate research journal, I can definitely see that undergraduates struggle with the concept of a “community of scholars.” (Hitchcock) The most consistent advice that I have to give to undergraduates submitting their work is that they need to help the reader understand how their research contributes to the broader historical conversation in a novel way. I believe that by using internet-driven methods of networked-learning, teachers of history can help their students begin to see their work as a piece in a broader conversation rather than an individual assignment.

Blogging is a good example of this method in action. Last semester, I participated in an environmental history seminar where each student blogged about the weekly readings. Over the course of the semester, I found that each student approached the material based on their own area of focus. As a result, every week we would all see the same reading analyzed and discussed in a number of different ways, leading to a multifaceted understanding of the reading and its place in the field. This collaborative approach to learning took place via classroom discussions as well, but reading the blogs and comments really drove home the collaborative nature of our class. I believe this approach can be especially beneficial for undergraduates. Helping students understand historical conversations is difficult, especially since an undergraduate workload does not allow for the amount of reading that is required to begin to see conversations unfold. However, by creating a mini-conversation via a class blog, students can begin to see how each other’s work relates and to think about how this process plays out on a larger scale.

Blogging might be the most obvious instance of networked learning, but I think that there are several technologies and approaches that lend themselves to this process. Something as simple as collaborating on a google doc for a class project forces students to think about their individual tasks in light of a broader context and it also gives students experience with trying to integrate different perspectives and approaches. In addition, this sort of project also has the potential to force students to learn to have a robust but civil conversation about the merits of conflicting perspectives and methodologies.

I began this week questioning the relevance of ‘networked learning’ but after reading this week’s articles and thinking about how this concept could apply to my field, I find myself seeing networked learning as not only useful, but ultimately essential to training young scholars.  I have a feeling that this will be a common theme throughout the semester.