After over three years at wordpress.com, I’ve decided to get my own domain for my sites. I’m still using a wordpress platform but having my own domain and working with a hosting company gives me a bit more flexibility. This blog has now moved to http://guerson.com/blog/
Thanks for visiting. I’ll work on redirecting it soon.

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As most historians, I have thousands of images of documents that I use on my research. Some are photographs of manuscripts and others are scans of photocopies that I made from a microfilm at the archives. As I collected my documents, I entered information about them on a FileMaker Pro database so that in the future I could search for either a person or a keyword. I collected thousands of royal letters at the archives in Barcelona and my plan was to work on each chapter thematically. When I wrote a paper on conversion from Judaism to Christianity last summer, all I had to do was search for “converso” in my database. That gave me a list of the documents I had on that topic, I pulled them out or printed them, and used them for my paper. So the idea was to make a list of documents related to the larger theme of each chapter, pull all of the documents out (most I have in photocopies and I was willing to print the ones I had only in digital photographs), put them in a separate folder, and work on them. But once it was clear that the list of documents for my current chapter was in the hundreds and that with each document possibly reaching five pages, I needed a better system that didn’t involve shuffling around massive amounts of loose paper. That’s where Adobe Bridge comes in.

Since we have a 24″ iMac, I thought I could simply go through the documents on the screen and take notes on my laptop. My favourite way to browse through images is to use Bridge, which allows me to easily mark files, move them, rename them, etc. It soon became clear that I could be using Bridge for more than simply displaying the images and perhaps moving them to a separate folder dedicated to the theme of the chapter. You see, Bridge allows for tagging. You can add keywords to any file through it. Better yet, you don’t need Bridge to access those keywords. They get embedded onto the file itself so I can actually search for keywords on Spotlight on Mac OS X and the images would come up. Within a folder, it gives me a list of the all th keywords I have assigned in that folder, which allows me to quickly get to the document I want by clicking on the keyword.

Here’s the setup (click on the images for larger size):

Working

These are some of my Bridge Screen shots, notice the keywords on the left bottom side:

Bridge

Bridge

Another neat thing about Bridge. Notice the film strip on the bottom of the page where it displays the images I’m working on. You’ll notice on the picture above that some of them have a number “2” superimposed. Those are two-documents. I can select all the pages that go together and group them. They still display the same way but it means they don’t get separated and count only as one file on Bridge, which gives me a more accurate sense of how many documents I’m dealing with and how many documents relate to a specific keyword.

For my notes, I’ve been using DevonThink Pro, which is simple, allows you to create files of all kinds within it and has very powerful searching capabilities:

DT_screen

You’ll notice that some files are labeled green and some are yellow. Since one of the objectives is to compare Catalunya with Aragon, I decided to assign a colour to each. Catalunya is yellow and Aragon is green. Looks like this might be a system that will work for me. By the way, for those of you who need printed notes to be able to write, DevonThink allows for easy export of all the files you select as word documents or text files (or even PDF). But I think I’ll try to minimize the printing. When it comes time to write, I’ll go to my carrel, where I have a second monitor (just a 17″ flat screen, those can be had for very little money these days) and I can display the notes on one screen while I write on the other.

It looks like I’ll be teaching my very first course next summer. This will be my chance to experiment a bit and get some practice on what kind of teacher I want to become. I have my role models but ultimately, to be successful, our teaching has to agree with our personalities. I have an inclusive personality so I tend to focus on giving everybody a chance to participate and get engaged. The key is to get students to participate. And as I’ve mentioned before, this is where I think blogging can be useful. Blogging has made me not only more aware of my surroundings but also more politically and socially engaged. If that sort of dynamics can be reproduced in the classroom some real learning can be achieved.

But how to do that? How exactly do I get 45 students to actively participate in a course blog? Do I make it an assignment? Do each student has to post something? How often? Under what criteria? How do I integrate it to the curriculum and what goes on in the classroom?

In order to get some ideas, I registered to a workshop last week on blogging offered by the Resource Centre of Academic Techonology, at U of T. I was very excited but unfortunately, unable to attend. A more urgent academic engagement came up and I had to miss it. So today I went by RCAT to ask if there were any handouts from the talk. They gave me not only a copy of the ppt presentation but also the presenter’s blog address where I could find further resources.

Her name is Michelle Mazar and her blog is subtitled Diary of a Subversive Librarian, which I think it’s quite brilliant. She wrote a very inspiring reflection about blogging and academia on the day of the workshop.In it she says:

(…)Which leads me to something that bonked me on the head yesterday while reviewing for Learning Inquiry. I read this fantastic article that used some extremely bang-on terminology: productive failure, and unproductive success.

Here’s what I’m currently considering: we tend to reward unproductive success more than anything. If a student walks into a class knowing the subject material, that student will probably do extremely well. If a student spends 3/4ths of the class struggling with the material and getting things wrong, not understanding, struggling with concepts, and then really gets it, that student will probably not do as well. But that student is actually learning, and demonstrating learning. We don’t have an effective way of rewarding real learning.

Which is the key reason why I object to switching out the word “student” with the word “learner”, though I know it’s trying to get at the same idea. We don’t know whether we have “learners” or not, on a grand scale. Often we have a group of already-knowledgeable students who will unproductively get As and we feel good about it the learning experience. How do we measure learning? Real learning? Going from confusion to understanding? How do we even see it when undergrads often don’t even open their mouths in class? Do we really have a “Learning Management System”? Really? How do we really support and reward learning rather than merely unproductive success?

So I think blogging done well, set up with good expectations and with a fostered honesty, can reveal the actual learning going on, and can give students the option of displaying the learning they’re doing. And we can reward it that way. If a student struggles for the first half of the course and demonstrates that struggle, and then suddenly GETS IT, you’ll have evidence of their learning. You can reward that, you can grade them according to how they learned and how articulate they can be about the way in which they learned and why. At the moment we grade them based on whether or not they get it fast enough, for the most part. So you can use these tools to support and encourage productive failure as a means toward productive success. I’m not saying it’s enough to just try. Unproductive failure isn’t the goal either. Failure that builds into understanding is productive.

I’ve began to consider this very process lately. I’ve had students who have clearly benefited from the class and through informal interaction with me showed me they “got it” at the end of the course. Yet, I could not reward their learning since these didn’t translate into their first assignments. I think there should be some room for that.

In her powerpoint presentation, Michelle gives some useful tips on using blogs effectively. My favourites are blogs as reflection paper and blogging as conversation. She suggests four possible ways to use a blog as a reflection paper:

  • Pick a quotation from the reading and relate it to the lecture
  • Pick a CC-licensed picture from flickr and relate it to the readings, lecture
  • Pick a comment from a fellow student, agree or disagree with its content
  • Ask a question that remains after the lecture and the reading

I think these could be easy to implement and would create a connection between readings and lecture as well as conversation among the students.

Her powerpoint doesn’t specify what she means by blogging as conversation but I’ll definitely ask her directly. This is very exciting stuff.

David Aaronovitch wrote a recent article about the way the internet and sites like Wikipedia can normalize controversial ideas or mislead the unitiated student. You can find the full text here but here’s the practical example:

At the weekend I was tidying up some footnotes for my book on conspiracy theories, which is to be published next spring. In one chapter I deal fleetingly with a dead American conspiracist called Harry Elmer Barnes, and mention his affinity with/for a French Holocaust denier called Paul Rassinier. I was after a date and found it after a quick Google, but not before noticing that the Rassinier biography on Wikipedia, the online encyclopaedia, was a little bit odd. I let it go. Then, yesterday, I read Berners-Lee’s comments and returned to the site.

I was right – righter, in fact, than I had realised. The biography begins with what seems to be a neutral introduction, but is in fact a selective description of Rassinier as a pacifist, activist, as anti-Nazi, a former concentration camp prisoner, and then, at the end of the introduction, comments that Rassinier has “come to be remembered for his views on the Holocaust, which have caused some to call him the ‘father of Holocaust Denial’”. Note that “some”, as opposed to the positive things – pacifist, activist, prisoner – that Rassinier can be called without qualification.

What then happens is a process whereby the entry’s authors suggest a scholarly neutrality while, at the same time, normalising Rassinier’s easily refutable views on the Holocaust. For example, Rassinier believed there was no deliberate Nazi policy of extermination of the Jews and no gas chambers. And we find, in the text, some support for this view cited in the works of “Princeton historian, Arno J. Mayer”. There is a short extract from Mayer’s own book, warning readers that “sources for the study of the gas chambers are at once rare and unreliable”, that “there is no denying the many contradictions, ambiguities, and errors in the existing sources” and that “most of what is known is based on the deposition of Nazi officials and executioners at postwar trials and on the memory of survivors and bystanders”.

It’s pretty clear what you’re supposed to take from this: that Rassinier’s argument about there being no gas chambers should be taken seriously. So I then Googled Mayer. The first thing I discovered was that exactly this selection of quotes from Mayer’s work appeared on Holocaust-denial and neo-Nazi websites. The next thing I found out was that Mayer himself is a deeply controversial historian of the period, having argued that more Jews died of diseases in the camps than were murdered, and that the extermination was more a consequence of Nazi anti-Bolshevism than of anti-Semitism. The first contention is unsupported, the second is ludicrous.

But even given that, the Mayer quote was doctored. Mayer certainly believed that the gas chambers were real and that untold thousands had been killed in the death camps, but the nature of Mayer’s qualification was withheld from Wikipedia readers. As was the fact that Rassinier’s biographer, Jean Plantin, whose work was used for much of the Wikipedia entry, was fined and given a suspended prison sentence in Lyons in 1999 for Holocaust denial. You have to go to the French edition of Wikipedia to find that out.

So it took me an instinct, one morning, three hours, and a background in this material, to realise that the Rassinier Wikipedia biography – the first item on Rassinier that appears when you search for his name – had probably been written by someone with sympathies for the Holocaust denial camp of David Irving. The uninitiated, however, would never know, for not once does this poisonous bias break cover.

The university where I teach uses Blackboard as their main course management/website platform. This year will be my first year using it but after taking a couple of workshops, it doesn’t look bad at all. In fact, it looks sleek and has lots of potential useful tools.

Browsing through some of the documentation, I came across an optional tool that might be useful. It’s called EduBlogger and once enabled, seems to all each student in the course to have a blog and the instructor to track it all. Blackboard also has a forum, of course, so it got me thinking about what would be the pros and cons of using a blog vs a forum to encourage either student participation outside of the classroom or allow the students to engage with the material in a media other than essays/exams.

I was thinking of using the discussion board feature of blackboard this term. I’d perhaps post some questions about the readings ahead of time and invite students to respond to them or post reactions of their own to the readings before the class. They could earn extra points for doing so, particularly if they engage in fruitful discussion with their classmates. The bonus would be to get them thinking before class and to allow shy students to get some extra marks.

In future, when I design the course myself (currently I’m just a TA), I’d create a class blog and make it more of an assignment. For this term, I might stick to the discussion board.

As an aside, I found this post on education blogs that was interesting and had many useful links. A lot of resources on using blogs on education seem to be related or geared towards primary and secondary school. Let me know if you find any discussions of it in a university context.

Chatting with one of my profs the other day, I realized that to finish my dissertation this year and do all the other things I want to do (i.e. teach, organize events, work on crrs website, committee work, go to the gym, socialize, learn Hebrew, etc), I’ll need to start getting up at 4 in the morning. I can see myself waking up that early and working only on my dissertation before the day begins. I’ll start with 5 am this coming week and see how it goes.

I’ve just finished reading Margaret MacMillan’s The uses and abuses of history (2008), based on the lecture series she delivered recently at the University of Western Ontario. The book makes a strong case for handling history with care. As MacMillan points out in her opening paragraph, “history is something we all do, even if, like the man who discovered he was writing prose, we do not always realize it.” We use it to understand who we are (who are my parents? where does my family come from?), and we use our knowledge or ignorance of it to win arguments (you always do that! or you never told me that! I never knew that about you!). Often our memory of history is selective or we choose to ignore the lessons we might be able to draw from it. The same applies to communities, cities, nations, peoples to increasingly momentous consequences.

MacMillan’s surveys the uses and abuses of history in many significant events in the past century as well as the way nations choose to portray its own history and the pitfalls of how it chooses to commemorate events in its past and the debates these commemorations spark. The veritable wars over commemorations and remembrance make a very fascinating part of the book. An example close to home was the fierce debate caused by the decision of the Canadian War Museum to have a plaque on an exhibition on the bombing campaign against Germany during World War II entitled “An Enduring Controversy” presenting current debates among scholars on the efficacy and the morality of the strategy to bring Germany down by carpet bombing civilian targets. Since about 20,000 Canadians flew with the RAF’s Bomber Command, the veterans’ associations in Canada went up in arms protesting that they found the plaque offensive because it led people to question the morality of what they did. MacMillan was one of four historians invited to give their opinion on the exhibit. She concluded, quite rightfully in my opinion, that “history should not be written to make the present generation feel good but to remind us that human affairs are complicated.” The panel, nevertheless, remained divided and the public outcry was such that the museum announced it would revise the wording on the plaque in consultation with the veterans.

That was only one of many examples of disputes and controversies that can arise out of the use of history. Others include the role of history, or its manipulation, in the formation (and defense) of Israeli and Palestinian identities and claims over land, over the origins of the Second World War, current disputes between China and Japan, the Cold War, to cite only a few. In the end, MacMillan asks the important question: “history, as we have seen, is much used, but is it much use?” After citing a few notable historians who sceptical of how much we can learn from history, she enumerates strong points for its importance. For once, it helps us to understand not only ourselves but those we have to deal with and, as she put so eloquently, “if you do not know the history of another people, you will not understand their values, their fears, and their hopes or how they are likely to react to something you do.” That was certainly one of the things that struck me when I lived in Barcelona. I was much less likely to get annoyed at Catalan attitudes and values than foreigners that simply expected them to be the same as what they conceived as “Spanish”. Other positive effects include avoiding “lazy generalizations” and helping in our “self-knowledge” (it would do us good to remember not only our moments of glory but also our more shady past). In the end, if it teaches us some humility and scepticism, as MacMillan concludes, it does a good thing.

I’ll be giving a workshop on El Cid next week and while working on it I found he is in a videogame – The Age of Empires II, Conquerors Expansion. I thought that was neat and included images from the videogame in the powerpoint lecture I prepared. During a practice-run of the lecture to a group of friends, one faculty member asked about the context in the videogame. We were discussing how later legends about El Cid refashion him as the ultimate Christian Knight whose mission it was to fight the Muslim hordes when in fact, he was a mercenary ready to fight for anyone willing to pay, whether Christian or Muslim. So the question came up the angle taken in the videogame – who is the enemy in the game? Does the player have a choice? Or is the enemy always Muslim? Not having played the game myself, I wasn’t sure but the question got me thinking about how popular videogames with a historical component are these days and how little historians have paid attention to them.

As videogames become more and more sophisticated, there’s increasingly more room for narrative within the game. I wonder who writes those and what role these narratives play in popular perception of historical events and characters. On the videogame Total War: Medieval II, the synopsis is telling: “Leadership on and off the battlefield is paramount. With the turn-based campaign map, you’ll control everything from building and improving cities to recruiting and training armies. Employ diplomacy to manipulate allies and enemies, outsmart the dreaded Inquisition, and influence the Pope. Lead the fight in the Crusades and bring victory to Islam or Christianity in the Holy War.”

As historians, we are always discussing the extent to which historical films shape popular perceptions and there is a huge scholarly literature on the topic of film & history. I have found nothing comparable that discusses videogames & history.

In The Age of Empires III, the focus switches from the Crusades in the previous installment of the game to Native Americans. In an interview, Sandy Peterson, the lead designer, argues that their aim was to focus on the Native point of view: ” In effect we are now giving the native nations full control of history. So in some ways we’re empowering them.” In other words, these games are also seen as venues in which history can be not only reshaped but to some extent, rebalanced. In that interview she also mentions that in the Crusades segment of the videogame, they aimed to show it from Saladin’s point of view. It would be interesting to see how that is done.

I’m going to start collecting these snapshots. It might be worth engaging with students about these issues…

Like most TAs, I tell my students to stay away from Wikipedia when writing their essays. To be fair, I don’t simply condemn it as the source of all evil, I merely point out how problematic it is to rely on information posted anonymously unless it can be checked elsewhere and that encyclopedias and dictionaries, while very useful to get started, do not provide enough information to support the kind of essays they need to write in history courses.

A friend of mine argues that better than blankly forbidding the use of Wikipedia, we would do the students a better service by teaching them how to use Wikipedia effectively. She talks about creating an assignment that would require the students to do extensive research on a given topic and either create a Wikipedia entry for it, if that doesn’t exist, or edit the existing entry with the information they gathered. That would teach them that anybody can create a Wikipedia entry and perhaps help them use it more critically in the future.

While Wikipedia has a big no-no in many academic circles – and historians are perhaps the most critical of it – some articles suggest it’s not all bad:

David Parry, “Wikipedia and the new curriculum: digital literacy is knowing how we store what we know” in Science Progress, 11 Feb 2008.

Nicholson Baker, “The Charms of Wikipedia,” review of Wikipedia: The Missing Journal by  John Broughton, in The New York Review of Books, 55 (4), published 20 March 2008.

Michael Booth, “Grading Wikipedia“, in The Dever Post, 30 March 2007.

All the articles above suggest we need not dismiss Wikipedia completely, that it can be very useful and its dynamic nature means that many subjects in it reflect some of the latest developments in a given field. An example is the entry on global warming, considered by specialists in the field to be “a great primer on the subject, suitable for just the kinds of use one might put to a traditional encyclopedia. Following the links takes the interested reader into greater and greater depth, probably further than any traditional encyclopedia…”(Scott Denning, Monfort Professor of Atomespheric Science).

I confess I have no prejudice against Wikipedia as I often find myself using it for general information and if I tell my students no to use it, it is simply because I don’t want them relying on either encyclopedias or textbooks to write their essays. But maybe we need to discuss more the reasons behind that.

Wow, I knew I had neglected this blog but not quite this long! The previous post was about getting ready for my first day leading tutorials and today’s post is about my teaching evaluation results. But before I get into that maybe I should say a few words about my general experience last term.

I had five groups, totaling about 60 students, and there were enough keen students in each group to make all of them enjoyable in their own way. I started each meeting by going around the room and having each student say what they liked/disliked about the readings, what baffled them, what was interesting and I took note of their main points. I felt the exercise to be very helpful for me since it gave me a good glimpse of their reactions and the kinds of issues they had trouble with and what interested them. It also put on the spot those who hadn’t read anything but gave an occasion for the shy ones to participate. That was my impression of the whole thing but I had no idea whether the students liked it or felt it was a pain. The evaluations definitely validated the approach. Nobody said anything negative about it; in fact a lot of students mentioned it as a really good way of starting the tutorial.

The comments were all similar and positive and I won’t go into details here because I want to spare you too much self-congratulations. The only thing semi-negative that they mentioned was my soft-spokenness. Some mentioned it casually, as a positive thing, others mentioned it as something I should work on. I do feel I need some lessons on voice-projection. I can project but often I’m not aware when I’m not doing it.

Since these will be the only teaching evaluations I’ll have if I go on the market next year, I’m very happy that the comments are consistent, deal with various elements of teaching, and are positive. What a relief!!