Under Construction

The picture at the top of this page is my kitchen floor, where the pine board half of my floor meets the oak board half of my floor in front of where the old dishwasher used to be. If you know me or have seen me in person during the last several weeks, you know that I have been working to renovate my kitchen, and as most renovation projects go, this renovation has been fun, hard, exhausting, frustrating, and expensive. As I sit down to write this post, we just have to:

  • Finish the floors
  • Install some countertop brackets
  • Wait for the countertop guys to install the countertop

We’ll deal with the walls, backsplash and lighting some time later, I think. (My wife, the project manager, has a better sense of this timeline.)


Normally on this website (although “normal” implies a consistent routine of posting which is not something I’ve ever done), I post about things I’ve been working on, conference papers and presentations, or things related to my classes. I don’t use this space very rigorously or vigorously, and I don’t think I’ve written about my home improvement projects before.


I do want to use this space more and better as part of my professional profile, so I use the metaphor of construction as a way into introducing several interesting and exciting things that are in progress right now and about which I plan to post more and more frequently.

Back when I was first learning web design, I remember the argument about avoiding the “Under Construction” signage: If it’s not all the way done, just don’t post it. The advent of blogging, though, shifted that logic into the perpetual beta limbo of works in progress, such that a single post is more about the present time and state of things as they are, and not always the announcement of a thing already done, a freshly delineated facet of the jewel that is a digital identity.

Nova1466underconstructionThis practice is something I’m trying to learn, for a variety of things. One is that I want to encourage my students to narrate their own learning processes, and if I’m asking them to do it, I should be able to model that. More than anything, then, this blog post is about embracing the messiness of now and resisting that unattainable perfection of “eventually.” So here, briefly, are some things in my life besides my kitchen that are currently “Under Construction.”


TTI Fellowship

TTI stands for “Teaching Technology and Innovation,” and it describes the unit at UMW that encompasses the CTE&I (Center for Teaching Excellence and Innovation), DTLT (the Division of Teaching and Learning Technology), and the DKC (Digital Knowledge Center). This year, DTLT is undergoing some major changes. We are sad that some people will be leaving UMW’s community, but excited about what the future may hold with some new people joining us.

My role in this time of transition is to server as a “TTI Fellow” for the 2015-16 year. This is a new opportunity Jeff McClurken created this year to help faculty development and to support some other TTI initiatives. I think this is a good idea anyway, since it puts another faculty voice at the table in DTLT and on the other side, it helps me support my colleagues — e.g. if someone has a tech question, they can now ask and I can try to help without it being just a “favor” they’re asking. It’s actually part of my job now to help figure this stuff out.

There are two of us this year, and each of us came up with a specific proposal for how we would help support TTI. My co-fellow, Roberta Gentry, will be working out some initiatives and programming around distance and online learning, and I’ll basically be hanging out in DTLT and helping support whatever I can. I will also be overseeing and steering the pile of interesting, obsolete technology currently residing on the fourth floor of the ITCC. More on that below.



As I mentioned above, DTLT is undergoing some major changes in personnel. Tim Owens sort of left last year but is sort of still around, Ryan Brazell left in the Spring, Andy Rush is leaving (today, as I write this, is his last day), and Jim Groom is headed to Italy any day now. If you’re counting, that just leaves Lisa Ames and Martha Burtis as the only two long term DTLT staff remaining. That’s a lot! Looking on from the outside, one might well wonder what sort of terrible workplace environment would precipitate such a mass exodus, but while I won’t and can’t speak for everyone, I know that each has independent and good reasons for pursuing other opportunities.

I will definitely miss my friends. I’ve been hanging out in DTLT a lot over the last year, and the sense of community around DTLT was a big part of just making it through last year — by all accounts the worst school year in recent memory with tragedy upon tragedy.

But DTLT will survive. What Jim, Andy, and Ryan are leaving behind is a sense of energy and innovation, and programs built to live on without them. And we’re building that new program with some exciting new hires. We already have Jessica Reingold onboard as an Instructional Technology Specialist; she’s a former student and she’s great! We also can now officially share the other two hires, Lee Skallerup Bessette as another ITS, and Jesse Stommel as our new Director of DTLT.

We often talk about DTLT as the ed tech dream team, and it really has been, but I’m starting to see another dream team coming together and it’s very exciting. I’m still sad, though.


The “Console Living Room”

Now this! This is something I’m excited about. This past year, Jim Groom and I put together a technology exhibit on the fourth floor of the ITCC. We called it the “Console Living Room” (not realizing that that phrase was already exclusively associated with an Archive.org initiative), and we built it out as a re-creation of a media-saturated living room circa 1985. We built wood paneled walls, stocked it with furniture from UMW’s surplus warehouse, and acquired as many TVs, game consoles and games as we could. It’s pretty great. We’ve received coverage in the school newspaper, UMW public relations, and we briefly made the front page of r/gaming.

We held several events and teaching sessions around the material in the living room, and we invited Michael Branson-Smith as a guest artist who set us up with over the air 80s’ TV broadcasting. Jim has done a great job blogging about it, which is awesome, and a great demonstration of how Jim’s enthusiasm for this project is really what got it off the ground and really brought a lot of people on board.

Now that Jim is leaving, it falls on me to steer this thing on my own, and I have ideas. For one, it needs a new name, so after considering and rejecting many alternatives, I’m resigned to calling it simply the “Digital Anachronism Project,” or DAP for short. I will hopefully have much more to say about this soon, but one thing I’m planning is a 90’s focus for Spring 2016, which should be fun. It’ll be interesting to see how our students, most of whom were born in the mid-90s, think about their relationship to that decade’s media.


This Website

The space where you’re reading this — what I think of as “my website” — is also undergoing a significant change, and like everything else in this blog post, it’s a work in progress. The main thing is I have finally given in and crossed over to WordPress. If I remember correctly, the journey that brought me here has gone something like this: Static HTML -> Blosxom -> Blosxom / Apache SSI hybrid -> Drupal -> Anchor -> WordPress. I never fully “moved in” to my Anchor site for various reasons. Mostly, it was just that as lightweight as Anchor is, pretty much any time you want to do anything at all complicated, you pretty much have to code it yourself. Generally speaking, I’m OK with that, but at the same time, there are other systems that have already invented those wheels, and taking advantage of those existing systems lets me focus on other things.

I once wrote a post about why I liked Drupal and why I didn’t trust the WYSIWYG assumptions of WordPress, but hey, I can evolve. Moreover, it’s not like having an easy place to write prevents me from also hand-coding HTML when I feel like it, and, naturally, I’ve already hacked around on this WordPress installation with a plugin of PHP tweaks and a custom child theme. Ultimately, though, WordPress is great at getting people from nothing to something, and that’s something I need for my students to experience. Likewise, it makes sense for me to use the same tools so I can offer better support and modeling. I’m also working on a super-stripped down WP theme designed just for maintaining and updating a CV, so that’s fun.

Besides blogging, the other two big things I want to document and archive on this WP site are my projects and my courses, both of which I’m doing with Custom Types. Much work left to do there.



I enjoy running, so much so that I frequently resort to thinking or speaking of myself as “a runner” when I think about my persona and identity. Lately, though — as in, since 2012 — I’ve been in and out of consistent running because of various things, mostly injuries. At the moment, I’m pretty sure I’ve gotten past a case of plantar fasciitis (wearing a night split has made a big difference), and now I’m trying to get a handle on my running and exercise so I can re-start the slow process of getting in shape. I know from past experience that it’s dangerous to set performance goals at this stage of recovery, so while my ultimate goal is to get back to the point where I can shoot for a Boston-qualifying marathon, my midterm and shortterm goals are just to return to the habit of running.

Consistency is always hard for me, unless it’s absolute consistency. Thus, while I’ve had successful run-streaks of 100+ days (averaging around 4 miles a day for one of those streaks), maintaining a MWF schedule is much harder. It would be unwise to attempt a new #runstreak yet, so as an alternative, I’m going to try for a different kind of daily commitment with a #corestreak. I’ll log this on Strava and see how long I can keep a streak of doing some kind of core exercise every day.

I realize, by the way, that no one at all cares how many crunches I can do or how long I can hold a plank. By discussing this here in a place that is technically public, I’m committing myself to this in a way that, theoretically, someone could call me on it later if I fail to maintain consistently.


The Kitchen

Finally (because holy crap this post is long), my kitchen remains a major work in progress. When I started writing this post, we hadn’t yet finished the floors, installed the brackets or the countertops. Since this has taken me so long to finish this post, I’m pleased to report that our floor is sort of done (we don’t like it, so it’s not “really” done), the brackets went in pretty easily with just some minor last minute carpentry, and the countertops are firmly in place on top. There’s some trim work left, but the major remaining issue is the backsplash. I’m looking forward to getting that done and not thinking about the kitchen for a while. It’s been fun acquiring the tools, skills, and knowledge necessary to get this kitchen sorted, but we’re definitely feeling the DIY burnout.


And that’s a lot of works in progress. I write all this not because I think it’s interesting, by the way, but really to clear the log jam of other things that I’ve wanted to post on this blog. I’ve got like 6 draft posts started, but I felt like I couldn’t post them until I had sort of introduced this new space and transitioned into a different mindset with regard to what this blog is for. This post is my attempt to do that, so hopefully this will free me up to actually finish those other posts.



All the GIFs in this post are from Jason Scott’s archive of Under Construction GIFs rescued from GeoCities.

Terrific News for UMW’s Division of Teaching and Learning Technologies

I am so excited to have been able to send the following announcement to the UMW community.

It is with great pleasure that I announce the hiring of Dr. Lee Skallerup Bessette as an Instructional Technology Specialist and of Dr. Jesse Stommel as the Executive Director of DTLT.

Lee Skallerup Bessette is coming to us from the University of Kentucky, where she worked as a Faculty Instructional Consultant at the Center for the Enhancement of Learning and Teaching. Previous to her time at UK, she had taught at various regional, public institutions in three different states. Originally from Montreal, Canada, she holds a PhD in Comparative Literature, where her research interests include translation and canon formation, but her first love has always been teaching. She blogs and writes about teaching, pedagogy, technology, and higher education more generally on her blog, College Ready Writing, which is housed at Insidehighered.com. She also is a contributor at ProfHacker, and has written for Hybrid Pedagogy, Women in Higher Education, and Educating Modern Learners. You can also find her on Twitter as @readywriting. Currently, Lee is interested in networked learning and student-centered pedagogy, which includes the unconference format for learning and professional development, as well as technology enhanced collaborative spaces.  She will start November 10.

Jesse Stommel is Founding Director of Hybrid Pedagogy: a digital journal of learning, teaching, and technology and Co-founder of Digital Pedagogy Lab. He is an advocate for pedagogy and the public digital humanities. He has worked in faculty development in various ways since 2003. He has held faculty positions at University of Wisconsin-Madison and Marylhurst University, a liberal arts institution in Portland, OR. Jesse is also a documentary filmmaker and has taught courses about American literature, film, and new media. He experiments relentlessly with learning interfaces, both digital and analog, and works in his research and teaching to emphasize new forms of collaboration. He’s got a rascal pup, Emily, and two clever cats, Loki and Odin. He can be found online at www.jessestommel.com and on Twitter @Jessifer. He will start October 12.

Please welcome them to the UMW community.

Jesse and Lee join Martha Burtis and Lisa Ames, as well as another recent (and terrific) hire, Jess Reingold, to form a powerful team to work with students and faculty at Mary Washington in integrating technology into teaching and learning.  They join the other members of the Teaching, Technology, and Innovation Unit (CTE&I‘s Mary Kayler, the ITCC‘s Cartland Berge, and Leah Tams, as well as Faculty Fellows Roberta Gentry and Zach Whalen) in a group that makes me excited and proud to come to work each day.


Changes and New Opportunities for UMW’s DTLT

Changes are often hard, but they can also be opportunities for an academic unit to grow and develop in new ways.  That’s the case for UMW’s Division of Teaching and Learning Technologies right now.  Tim Owens and Jim Groom will be leaving DTLT this summer (Tim) and fall (Jim) to pursue Reclaim Hosting, their company that provides hosting services to the academic market. Ryan Brazell just left to take a position at the University of Richmond.  We will miss all of them greatly (though it looks like Jim and Tim may continue to be affiliated with UMW in other ways going forward).

While it will be impossible to replace exactly what these three have brought to UMW and DTLT in particular and ed-tech at the higher-ed level in general, we are fortunate to be able to announce three position openings at DTLT to join Lisa Ames, Martha Burtis, and Andy Rush, as well as the other members of UMW’s Teaching, Technology, and Innovation Unit (of which DTLT is a part).

1) Executive Director of DTLT — [Full posting and application information: https://careers.umw.edu/postings/2950 ]

The Director of the Division of Teaching and Learning Technologies leads DTLT, supports and partners with faculty and colleagues in the Division of Teaching and Learning Technologies (DTLT), the Center for Teaching Excellence & Innovation, the Department of Information Technology (DoIT), and the University Libraries in the integration of information technologies and digital media into the teaching and learning environment, and provides leadership for the effective and innovative use of information technologies and digital media to the larger University community, particularly within academic and research contexts. [This position reports to the Special Assistant to the Provost for Teaching, Technology, and Innovation (me).]

2) Instructional Technology Specialist — [Full posting and application information: http://careers.umw.edu/postings/2980 — This link is correct, though this job won’t be posted until later this week.  UPDATE: This job is now posted too.]

The Instructional Technology Specialist (ITS) will work closely with faculty and colleagues in the Division of Teaching and Learning Technologies (DTLT), the Center for Teaching Excellence & Innovation, the Department of Information Technology (DoIT), and the University Libraries to explore the use of information technologies to augment teaching, learning, and research at the University, with a particular focus on designing, developing, and managing projects growing out of UMW’s academic departments and programs. The ITS will also contribute tactical and strategic perspective to the development of the University’s vision of effective use of technologies in teaching and learning. [This position reports to the Executive Director of DTLT and is intended for someone with a fair amount of experience in education technology and faculty development.]

3) Entry-Level Instructional Technology Specialist — [Full posting and application information: https://careers.umw.edu/postings/2964 ]

The Entry-Level Instructional Technology Specialist position involves the following responsibilities: Collaborate with faculty and colleagues in the Division of Teaching and Learning Technologies (DTLT), the Center for Teaching Excellence & Innovation, the Department of Information Technology (DoIT), and the University Libraries, and assist with the integration of instructional technology and information resources into teaching, learning, and research at the University; assist faculty in the evaluation of discipline-specific software and technologies; engage in individual and collaborative professional research about the general landscape of technology for teaching and learning; assist in exploring new instructional technologies for the UMW campus community; serve as an advocate for the effective and innovative use of information instructional technologies and digital media, particularly within academic and research contexts. [This position reports to the Executive Director of DTLT and is intended for someone with limited–but some–experience in education technology and faculty/student/staff development.  We currently envision this as a position for which recent grads especially might be interested in applying.]

If you or anyone you know is interested in any of these positions, please contact me, or the chairs of the ITS (Martha Burtis) and Entry-Level ITS (Lisa Ames) search committees before the July 1 application deadlines.



Reworking the Methods Course

Well, okay, the typewriters are a bit of an old-fashioned juxtaposition here (and yes, no cigs), but this image is one of many that echo this past semester’s workshop methods course, Hist 297: History Colloquium. Chaos, collaboration, some good communication, an occasional mess, and some real productivity.


It was also a first run of a revised methods course for our department. As I’ve previously noted, we’ve just taken a one semester course, required of all History majors, and made it a two-semester sequence.  The one-semester course was ambitious, as most of them are. And we’d decided that it would be more productive to allow the students to work through this curriculum at a more balanced pace. At the same time, having two semesters would also provide us the room for further development of that curriculum and its implementation. A win for all.

The idea has been to leave the the focus for the fall to historiography and literature reviews–a “history colloquium”–with faculty choosing a broad theme for their own courses, while still emphasizing the same fundamental skills in the process. The spring semester course is then be turned over to student research on self-designed projects in primary sources, still in a seminar setting.

One piece of the story…  TaipingCivilWar.org

My colloquium this past fall focused thematically on China’s devastating 19th century Taiping Civil War (1851-1864). One aim of the course was to help students acquire a “digital literacy,” a departmental goal. I incorporated multiple components in this regard, including exercises re: digital identity and digital portfolios (particularly in relation to UMW’s own path-breaking Domain of One’s Own project — “one of the very best things in ed-tech right now” as Audrey Watters has noted.) And simpler, self-intro assignments utilizing digital tools.

The mainstay, however, was my students’ own collaboration in creating an online resource on the Taiping Civil War itself — namely a website entitled TaipingCivilWar.org.

Taiping Civil War  A Record of the Civil War through Primary Sources - Google Chrome 12282013 35730 PM

While I’ve had students create their own blogs, compose for course discussion sites, even edit gifs and tweet for courses before, this is the first time I’ve worked with a class that has created its very own website as a public resource. The process has highlighted some interesting issues:

“Digital Literacy”… I’ve left this one in quotes because it’s often a term associated with an “outcome” to be met, and with a definition that’s not always clear–and sometimes it’s indeed better left that way for the sake of flexibility. Still, we might ask, what are our ambitions in this category? In what ways can or should we incorporate the so-called “digital” to best serve our curriculum? Our students?

A devil’s advocate might say that we’re pouring old wine into new bottles or playing with widgets (figuratively as well as literally.) So, we might ask: what’s pedagogically innovative that’s being added amid instruction in methods and the introduction of digital resources? What’s fermenting here?

How might we constructively, amid the development of a digitally inflected curriculum, change the way we approach a methods course?

Critical Thinking… Ever a challenge, always the aim? How does this ambition relate to our use of digital resources in a history course? The website assignment here offers a case study. In many ways, the project invited students to take an inside-out view of a work of secondary scholarship, in this case, that of Jonathan Spence’s God’s Chinese Son: The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom of Hong Xiuquan (1996)Reading this book as the first assigned text for the class, students then worked extensively with Franz Michael’s epic 3-volume collection of translated Chinese primary sources, The Taiping Rebellion: History and Documents (1971), cited frequently in Spence’s work.

Sifting through the primary sources, and working with excerpts they chose, students worked together in small groups to compose an online map and timeline of the civil war. Another group also composed an annotated bibliography of secondary works utilizing Zotero and interviewed another scholar on the Taiping topic (more below.)

All students also composed blog posts in which they examined Spence’s own use of primary sources from Franz Michael’s collection in his composition of prose for his study. In doing so, they were gaining their own perspective on historical research. Dissecting the way a scholar uses primary sources in all their intricacies and ambiguities, in constructing his own argument from the ground up, students gained a critical understanding of the steps–and occasional educated leaps–a historian makes.

As the students composed their own narratives in timelines and maps, too, they also avoided what can often seem a passive consumption of a secondary text.  Not only did they read Jonathan Spence’s book, but also almost literally took it apart and reconfigured it. They read it from the inside out as they were simultaneously engaged in their own forms of composition–plotting a selection of sources in space and time–from the same primary texts. Online.


Indeed, in composing their timelines and maps from an overlapping collection of primary sources, students also engaged in a parallel authorship. And, while admittedly less ambitious an undertaking, it was still a very real one. For in fact their website is a text that is openly available and penned with the students’ names, offered for a public audience of other students of the subject.

A nice touch was that students also had the simultaneous opportunity to interview an author of another work on the Taiping conflict, Dr. Tobie Meyer-Fong (Department of History, The Johns Hopkins University), whose recent work What Remains: Coming to Terms with Civil War in 19th Century China (2013), was another monograph we read for the course. A third group of students worked with UMW’s Speaking Center to prepare for their interview with Dr. Meyer-Fong, then conducted the interview and transcribed it for the website. It now accompanies the annotated bibliography on the topic of the Taiping Civil War that students created and have shared via a Zotero group they also created.

The students’ conversation with Tobie Meyer-Fong was wonderfully productive as it offered an account not only of the joys but also the practical challenges of research shared by a scholar fresh from finishing her own excellent study. Next semester, the same students who engaged in this conversation will move to the second half of our methods seminar. They’ll be jumping into the challenges of defining their own research projects and exploring primary sources, of pulling meaning and analysis out of a complex mix in the archive. Hopefully this interview will make a for a good springboard as they head that way…


Finally, if there’s one thing the website project brought to the curriculum beyond a prescribed digital infusion it’s the creative engagement that comes through collaborative work. For me, this aspect was one of the joys of the course.

Our greatest co-author in this respect was none other than Ryan Brazell, Instructional Technology Specialist at UMW’s Division of Teaching and Learning Technologies, who not only shared his expertise in the design and management of the digital frames for our website this past fall, but also shared his great talent for instruction in the classroom itself. Many people can do tech, many people can communicate, both not many people can truly communicate tech. Ryan can do both, teaching undergrads brilliantly, and do it with a sense of humor & timing that rivals the classic comedians.

Ryan has also composed an excellent post on the design of the website for the course. I highly recommend it. A tweet Ryan shares at the end, a student quote from one of his workshop visits, made my day… I’d point any instructor there amid fears, early in a course, that digital elements are turning into their own jungle gym for students to climb over, or get stuck on permanently. Once the students have made it through the early learning curve (steep though it may seem), the payoff often arrives.

The website project also invited, well, yes, demanded a significant level of student collaboration, as all group projects do. And, as often the case with group work, the results were slightly mixed as there were some who didn’t quite pull their weight (for diverse reasons… )

The incorporation of collaborative assignments seems nevertheless valuable, particularly when one considers a future after the degree is earned. Part of the value of the web project, then, lay in helping students build experience in working in groups, in defining project goals and strategies through shared communication, and in negotiating divisions of labor.

It’s a skill that many professionals (cough, professors?) could probably work on too. And a piece of the pedagogy I’m going to keep developing for next time around. I tried to balance the inevitable challenges of mixed student commitment with differentiated systems of evaluation — i.e., a separate group grade and individual grade, with each reflecting effort toward the website assignment and online work. I’m still looking for better ways to evaluate, guide, and encourage students to build their own skills in group work, however.

Do you have a good strategy or lesson plan for helping students improve their approaches to collaboration or group work? Suggestions, thoughts, and feedback very much welcome on this score, as for any and all of the above…


Image credits:

– “Young men and women working on writing for publications at Camp Well-Met, 1948″
National Jewish Welfare Board Records; Photographer: Heinz H. Weissenstein
Center for Jewish History NYC // Flickr Commons – LINK 

– Fu Xinian, ed., Zhongguo meishu quanji, Huihua bian 4: Liang Song huihua, xia (Beijing: Wenwu chubanshe, 1988), pl. 150, p. 204.  Collection of the Freer Gallery of Art. Via link.