Stuff to Consider

I’m wondering how I can work with the new media center in the library to give students a better experience working with sound. I re-learning Audacity today, and I’m thinking we would really benefit from use of some equipment such as:

  • M Audio Fast Track or some
  • Microphones with USB
  • Turntable with USB

Problems I’m having in Audacity:

  • cannot import Mp3. no trouble with itunes file or wav.
  • cannot check or adjust levels of microphone volume on toolbar at top. don’t know if there is anywhere else to do it.


Activity Ideas for Multimodal Writing Class

3 Modes of Sound:

Have students go outside and listen to sounds and write down what they hear. Then they come back in and we write down the sounds on the board. Then ask students to put the sounds in categories, before sharing the 3 modes of sound: casual, semantic and reduced.

Explain that sounds are usually described based on causation: dog barking, car screeching breaks, etc. Ask students to go back outside and record sounds without referring to causation.

Wrapping up: point out that it’s important to think about sound as more than causality because sound is often used in media for their semiotic connotations, affect, timbre, color, etc.

I got this idea from Karen Collins’ amazing article, Sound Design for Media.

Sonic Mood Board

Show students a visual mood board so that they get the gist of what this is and how it works. Then show them where to get free sound effects and ask them to create a sonic mood board. Each student could be assigned an emotion, or choose an emotion, but we wouldn’t want every student doing the same one. Students who present the sound board in any form. I should check and see if they can insert the sounds on their blogs?

In Collins’ piece, she teaches students to create effects before doing this assignment. She has a good example in the piece of a sonic board that seems to portray urgency and fear, like the sound of an ambulance. These sounds are layered. I’m not sure how easy it will be teach students to import the sounds and add effects.

During the next class period, students would have to guess the emotion portrayed.

Story through Sound Effects

This might be going a bit too far for our purposes as it seems like it would take at least a week, but I could ask students to create a story based on one of 5 different narratives (arrive home, dog barking, vase breaks OR walking down street, start to cross, almost hit by a car, etc).

***Need a lesson on creating your own sounds. Need a device that will allow them to record sound accurately and without outside noises…


Enunciation Activity:
To consider tone, pitch, emphasis: read the following sentences emphasizing the underlined word and consider how meaning and tone changes as a result of emphasis.

I didn’t tell her you were stupid.” (Somebody else told her.)
“I didn’t tell her you were stupid.” (I emphatically did not.)
“I didn’t tell her you were stupid.” (I implied it.)
“I didn’t tell her you were stupid.” (I told someone else.)
“I didn’t tell her you were stupid.” (I told her someone else was stupid.)
“I didn’t tell her you were stupid.” (I told her you’re still stupid.)
“I didn’t tell her you were stupid.” (I told her something else about you.)

The following from HERE:

Pitch is the frequency of the sound waves you produce. It is about hitting high or low notes with your voice.

Become aware of pitch and learn to refine it, phrase-by-phrase. Questions, for example, should end on a higher note. Conversely, affirmative statements should end in a level or slightly lower pitch. The ending of statements on a high pitch can create doubt in your listeners.

Timbre is the emotional quality of your voice. It’s the attitude behind a word or a phrase. Listeners perceive a speaker’s attitude and use their perception to build comprehension.

Use timbre to enhance your meaning or express the emotion or attitude you want to create. Choose words and phrases that support that attitude.

NY Times article on voice and pitch and effect on audience. Also listen to short podcast on side of article.


Process Journal (Prompt Ideas)

  1. Sound Journal:

Step 1 (Listen and Record):  Go sit somewhere (outside) for 15 minutes. Write down all the different sounds you hear. You can start just by describing the sounds (“bird chirp”, etc.), but then after a few days, try to re-focus that listening by describing them in terms of their acoustic properties (“short, sharp staccato burst or long echo with static, for example.) If you are having trouble identifying sounds, try closing your eyes for a few minutes and just listening.

Step 2 (Reflection): Think about the sounds in terms of their connotation. What do they signify to you? What might they mean to a listener if taken out of context? (For example, a certain type of bird chirping might signify “morning, daybreak, warmth, sunshine, spring” but another type of bird squawk might connote “danger, fear, warnings, etc.)

From this experience, what you have learned about sound, about yourself and sound, about listening, etc?

Ideas for Multimodal Writing Class

I’m teaching ENG 491: Multimodal Writing for the first time this Spring, and I’m looking for examples of good multimodal compositions and thinking about assignments that might draw on those examples.

Daniel Kolitz’s, The Data Drive

As far as multimodal compositions go, The Data Drive excels as an argument, and its execution is uncomplicated enough not only for students to navigate, but to model their own work on: with some paper, scissors, a scanner and a little bit of html (and yes, ingenuity), any number of webtexts can be parodied, critically dissected and argued in a unique way.

This gives me an idea…I could use this as an example of parodying a website and ask students to then create a parody of a site of their choice and write up an analysis.The problem is that to make it look polished and to be functional, you need HTML knowledge. I don’t think any blog is going to let you create something that looks like this or functions in this way–or in any way that would really look good:(


Paul Ford’s, What is Code?

“What Is Code?” exemplifies the best of webtext capabilities by using a range of textual features—linguistic, visual, interactive, collaborative–to enact the argument that it’s important to understand software code.

An assignment might be: create a webtext where you explain how to do something you (and maybe not many others) know how to do.

This is presented in a blog form, as it was published on and is a journalistic writing. Unlike The Data Drive, the formatting of this could be achieved with a blog. However, what is cool about it is all the animations (I think they are animations) that SHOW how what the author is saying is true. Without these multimodal examples, the piece would be dry–and feel incomplete. So this assignment might end up being a bunch of text with a few still pictures, maybe even a video, or through a series of workshops, it could end up working well…



The Memory Palace
This tells stories about family using varying background music and tones of voice that help convey meaning. Just over 9 minutes long. I found it a little hard to follow, but it’s an interesting piece. I was going to do a literacy narrative and confine the assignment in that way, but perhaps no confines (just tell a personal story in blank amount of time) is a better idea. It could be more interesting.

I wonder, though, if telling a personal story really requires writing a personal story (and workshopping and revising that personal story)–and this one assignment could take the whole semester. Maybe it could take 1/3 of the semester, 4 -5 weeks, and then leave another 7 weeks or so for the video I want to include this semester and that I envision as the main assignment. That would leave some time to intro and conclude the course.


Grammar Girl

While these short podcasts normally stream online really easily and effectively, I can’t get them to stream today at VCU or at Panera on their wifi, which sucks by the way. You can listen to them for free on iTunes or…well it just started streaming. Apparently when you go HERE and click play, you just have to wait a couple minutes, like 2-3 to be exact. This link takes you to one of her podcasts on how to include URLs in sentences in print and online.

There are not a of effects in these short podcasts. They begin and end with her theme music (does it change a little depending on topic?) and it fades in and out, but I think listening to her tone and intonation would be worth considering, not to mention the way she speaks so clearly and the pace at which she speaks, etc.

We could also look at the transcript. Students could be required to create a transcript on their blog and consider the way other transcripts of blogs are created. For example, if you look at hers, she breaks it up into sections with headings and includes some images at times, too. Links are correctly embedded, etc.

She has hundreds of thousands of listeners, so she is doing something right.


99% Invisible

This is a podcast that is described in this way:

The very concept of this show is cool. It is exploring “the 99% invisible activity that shapes our world”. The focus is on how design and technology impact the world around us in ways we don’t even really notice. It is beautifully produced and edited, telling compact and complete stories. The website offers interesting supplementary material to the features. If you like Radiolab this is one to check out. Sadly this lovely show is only between 11-25 minutes in length and comes out every two weeks.

These appear to be produced carefully and professionally, with polished background sounds, great fades and excellent sound as a whole during the interviews. The music is also used to segue between parts, not just as background.

  • Frozen Music This is a podcast about music and how the form of music matters and the importance of freezing music on an album. (10 minutes) Good background sound effects and music. 
  • Episode 152: Guerrilla Public Service: This is about people who see mistakes, like on a road sign, and go out and do public service, even when it’s very dangerous. (15 minutes 51 seconds)
  • Episode 131: Genesis Object: This is about how design is the oldest thing on earth and argues that a particular type of ax is the oldest designed object.
    (13 min 42 sec!!!) Really great sound effects especially at start but throughout.
  • The podcast called The Landlords Game is about how creating games is a type of design. Seems to analyze monopoly in an interesting way. Makes an interesting argument.  (Just over 16 minutes)
  • The one called Bone Music is about getting vinyl into the Soviet Union and the demand for Western goods.  (around 16 minutes)
  • **Milk Carton Kids: Has a really engaging beginning. Sound effects are very effective. It’s about a kid who does the paper route and disappears.  (almost 20 minutes)
  • All in Your Head: this is about how horror movies use scary music. Since its thematically relevant to the course, it would be great (but it’s 32 minutes).
    • This could be one that they listen to for homework and respond to on their own in a blog post?
  • Game Over (#153). This one is (only 11 minutes) and it’s about an online version of Simms, the video game, and how it was about socializing rather than competition. But it also tells the story of a depressed guy who got obsessed with the game and freaks out when the site goes offline permanently. To me this seems kind of boring.



  • Update: New Stu
    This is about the first transgender mayor of a town (near Portland). Good sound effects. It’s an interview.  (about 22 minutes)
  • Patient Zero Extra: Ebola (9 minutes and 21 seconds). This is an interview about the ebola outbreak. Tells the history. Unfortunately the only sound other than narrative is at beginning and end, so not a great example of possibilities.
  • The Living Room: This is way too long but in the beginning, we could just listen to two minutes and hear the background music. As they start to tell the story, they use this music that I can only describe as inciting wonder, but the music is a cross between music and sound effects…

MOST of these seem really long, like 30 minutes or way more.


Science Friday

I read that these are 9-12 minutes, which sounds perfect!

Unfortunately, while these are short, they are mostly boring, at least in my opinion. And they don’t have a lot of multimedia, just talking.


Philosophy Bites

I read that these were interesting short podcasts on philosohpical topics explained in layman’s language, but they are just talk, no interesting media.




AD from assignment:

This is a 60 second story that is actually an ad that uses music effectively and some sound effects. Tells story of guy who was homely and compares to olives…

Could start with Unit called Sound as Evidence and focus on how all different types of sound constitute evidence. Then do the same thing with images as we begin the video project in the second half of the semester: images as evidence. There can be a blurb on the syllabus introducing unit 1: 

Unit 1: Sound as Evidence

When we write traditional researched essays, we know that we must find research that will serve as evidence for our thesis. In order to persuade our audience, we use Aristotle’s three primary modes of persuasion when we argue:

  1. Logos: logical appeals (facts, statistics, some examples)
  2. Pathos: emotional appeals (when evidence is used to generate sympathy–perhaps through a moving story or sad facts)
  3. Ethos: appeals that establish credibility (info used to convince the audience that the speaker has the authority to speak on the topic)

In multimodal compositions, we rely on these same three types of appeals, but our evidence is derived through alternate forms of media, such as sound (the focus on unit 1) and imagery (the focus on unit 2). Sound can come in many forms: vocal delivery, music, special effects and silence. 

In unit one, we will focus on sound as evidence. How can music generate pathos? How can an interview establish logos and/or ethos? What is the function of sound effects–a person crying, a door slamming, the sound of the wind, a bleep rather than a curse word, etc.? How does the intonation in our voice, the varying pitches we use when we speak, affect a listener, and what does it tell us about the attitude and emotion of the speaker?


Unit 1 Project: Podcast

In a 4-5 minute sound file made in Audacity. apply what you have learned about using sound as evidence to create your own polished podcast. There are two options for topics:

  1. Literacy Narrative
  2. Personal Story

If you choose to share a person story, you will want to feature a slice of life, perhaps just a scene from the story that can stand on it’s own. 

Unit 2: Image as Evidence

In the first unit, we considered how sound can be used as evidence. In unit 2, we will continue to use what we learned in unit 1 but turn our attention to how imagery is a form of evidence. 

Since the turn of the century, images have become far more ubiquitous in our lives, and like it or not, we are all influenced by the images to which we are exposed. Imagery comes in many forms: they can be still (like a screenshot or photograph) moving (like a video), or still with an illusion of movement (commonly referred to as animated). In this unit, we will pay attention to how images are used as a form of evidence (both effectively and ineffectively and ethically and unethically), and we will work to use images (as well as sound) to effectively convey our ideas.

Unit 2 Project: Video

In a 4-6 minute file, apply what you have learned about using images as evidence to create your own polished video. Your topic should be nonfiction: either an exploration of a personal story, an investigation of an important issue, or an argument with a main claim and clear use of appeals. Either way, you should show that you understand the power of imagery and that you can apply what you know through construction of your short. 



Unit 2 Ideas:

TED Talk by Talking Heads Singer about connection between music and architecture. Would be good segue between units since we would look at images but he’s talking about sound.



The school of podcasting (most of this is poorly done)

A Brief History of Sound Design: short article that explains how sounds became important and references Luigi Russolo. He says Russolo

“is generally considered to have invented the use of sounds and noise, rather than music, to enhance the emotional impact of a film or image – effectively, what we now call sound design.”

Read more at pair this with The Art of Noise.  This article might be a bit TOO brief though.

The Art of Noise: Luigi Russolo, who is considered the father of sound, wrote this manifesto to explain how since the industrial revolution, sounds have become ubiquitous in our environments.

I wonder if the band Art of Noise is based off Luigi Russolo’s work???


Re-educating the senses: Multimodal Multimodal Listening, Bodily Learning, and the Composition of Bodily Experiences
This is a peer reviewed article aimed at teachers of composition, but the author makes the argument that listening is not just done through the ears but also through the body and explains how this is true. Would not be something to assign students but might learn some activities from it.

Sound matters: Notes toward the analysis and design of sound in multimodal webtexts by Heidi McKee
This is also written to composition teachers, but it starts with a story and seems like an easier read than the previous article. It also seems a bit more applicable to students.

Journal of Sonic Studies
Intro done in sound

It’s Probably Just Me: The Literacies of Pervasive Sound Narratives, by Elisabeth Evans

Voice, Narrative, Place: Listening to Stories
Sound art is rarely associated with storytelling. While it is widely recognised that sound is deeply connected to narrative and imagery (e.g. Emmerson 1986Wishart 1996), it is sound’s relationship to physical space that often defines this medium. While this aspect of sound is important, I argue that the combination of sound and oral storytelling engages the listener’s imagination with the unseen and indefinable qualities of sound through its invisible dialogue with our mind. In addition, when this combination is applied to specific locations or sites, this listening experience profoundly contributes to our construction of ‘place’.


Sound Design for Media: Introducing Students to Sound
This article is awesome and filled with great lessons to actually use in the classroom. 












The Whys

So what is the real “why” of your course? Why should students take it? How will they be changed by it? What is your discipline’s real “why”? Why does it matter that students take __________ courses or become _________ists? How can digital and networked technologies effectively support the real why of your course?

I teach general education courses at VCU called Focused Inquiry. Focused Inquiry is a three-semester sequence–each course is worth three credits–that is housed in the University College. I have been teaching at VCU for 15 years (previously in the English Department), but I never really understood the true value of general education before I began teaching this course 8 years ago.

When the University College first opened its doors, I was one of approximately 40 full-time faculty who were hired. Before the semester began, we were asked to read 10 books about the scholarship of teaching and learning prior to spending one week in intensive faculty development in which we learned the hows and whys of the Focused Inquiry courses. I knew what teaching and learning meant before I was hired for this new position, but what I learned from these readings and during these five days of faculty development changed the way I would teach, and the way I would think about general education, immediately and forever. While I had always tried to be a good teacher and help my students who needed assistance, the expectation in my prior department (where I taught writing) was that unfortunately, some students would fail–as some students simply didn’t have the skills yet to write effectively in college and these students would need to seek help and take these general education courses again. My attitude was that I would help any student who wanted help–but I didn’t try to force students who didn’t request help to get it. I offered it, and if they didn’t take me up on it, that was their choice.

As a result of reading these 10 texts and that intensive faculty development, I stopped thinking that way. I started thinking that I really could help many of those students who we expected to fail, and I wondered if I went really far out of my way to try to help them, would some of them end up excelling or at least doing okay? It turned out I was right, and in the last 8 years, I probably “save” half of those students each semester who would otherwise fail. If you think about it, though, if we all save half, that’s a whole lot of students who would otherwise not make it past their freshman year in college.

In the first video, Mike Wesch introduces purpose-driven courses. This concept is similar to the skills-based courses that I teach in Focused Inquiry. While our classes have themes and we use content related to the theme in our classes, our goal is to teach important skills–written and oral communication, critical thinking, ethical reasoning, collaboration, and quantitative reasoning–not content. Content is used to facilitate practice in these skill areas.

So what is the WHY of my class? The answer is simple: what is more important to learn in college than being able to effectively communicate? Regardless of discipline, don’t we all want our students to think critically and explain their ideas clearly? The courses I teach get to the heart of these issues. Students can’t be “ists” in my field, but that’s okay, because we need all students to be good thinkers and writers in order to become effective “ists” in any field. As I said at the beginning of this post, I didn’t used to really understand the value of general education–I just thought it was providing basic knowledge everyone needed to know–but now I see that it is, or it can be, the most important and fundamental learning that students do in college. After all, without critical thinking and communication skills, students can’t even begin to excel in any of the disciplines that produce the “ists” in higher education. And, as Mike Wesch said at the end of the video in reference to his Anthropology course that is taught to a large group of students who will not go on to be Anthropologists, this type of education is preparing them for “the great initiation ritual of our society, what ultimately makes them great adults who have the capacity to find meaning and happiness and those types of things.”



Thoughts on Diigo and Other cMOOC Things

It’s Sunday morning and I have several student conferences planned for early this afternoon. I am meeting with all my students in the next three days for a slightly early mid-term conference. Although it is not quite midterm, they have posted inquiry proposals and early research questions, and rather than going back and forth via email and blog comments, which takes forever, I think a 15 minute conversation will be far more productive. I’m really looking forward to “meeting” each of them in person. That makes the biggest difference for me, and I assume for them, once I can imagine the person to whom I am speaking and writing.  I think a face-to-face serves to make the experience even more real for them, as well. The first two conferences I had were super productive!

Overall, I think things are going very well in the cMooc. I began with 20 students and retained 15 after add/drop, and that’s very normal based on my experience teaching 200 online for the last few summers. Since then, I have officially lost just one, and I have 1-2 others who may soon be cast into the officially lost realm (but maybe the conference will save them, fingers crossed). Again, that’s all pretty normal though.

In our meeting this past week, I said that I had 5-6 students who were seriously far behind and not really doing the work. Ironically, as soon as I said that, most of them got caught up. As of today, I’ve graded everything for the first three weeks, right up through what was due this past Friday, and I really only have a couple students who just aren’t doing the work. Of course, again just based on my own experience, most students do fine in 200 until the research begins and the hard work starts happening. That phase begins next week for us.

I have to say–I’m really disappointed in Diigo. I use Diigo personally, but I think the annotation function in it are awful, truly pathetic, actually. I mean, it never really works right when I try to annotate. Although I have seen that it is possible to share annotations with others, it very rarely works. In fact, I would liken it to Google Hangout: getting started with it is different every single time and the use of the various apps is 50/50 at best. The worst part of Diigo is trying to use in on an iPad. You have to download the Diigo browser and can only use that browser throughout the process. I realize that is probably an Apple problem as much as a Diigo one, but still, it’s pretty annoying. I won’t use it on the iPad.

I required all my students to do a concept experience last week that involved Diigo. Part of the assignment was to create a library and find and annotate 5 articles related to their topics. I gave concise but explicit instructions (which took me forever to write) explaining how to save each article so that 1) our Diigo group could see it, and 2) the group could see each other’s annotations. When I sat down to assess the students’ work, only 7 had done the assignment–from what I could tell, as they used totally random usernames and didn’t follow my instructions to post their usernames on a Google Doc so I could identify them. Out of those 7, I could only see annotations for 2 students. Later in the day, a student who received a zero, emailed me with screenshots of the five articles inside her Diigo library. I checked again and from my end, her Diigo library is empty. She swears she saved the articles to the Diigo group, so I don’t know what’s wrong. Also, from where I sit, her personal library is empty too. Yet she provided the proof. Now I’m wondering how many of the other 6, who I thought didn’t do the assignment, actually did but Diigo sucks so I can’t tell. I really like what Diigo tries to do, but I think it’s still in the “trying” phase.

I hate micromanaging students’ research. I really do. However, this is an undergraduate class in research writing, and for these students, its the first time (and will probably be the only time) they have learned to do real research. My job is to teach students how to do research; thus, I don’t feel like I can just say “okay, go get your research for your inquiry project.” I wish it was that easy.

Students in this course need a lot of help understanding how to find research and what types of sources to use. It requires a lot of teaching and one-on-one work with students individually. The problem is not with peer reviewed sources; rather, it’s all the other sources, the ones they need to assess for credibility, with which they struggle.


Over the 15 on-and-off years I’ve taught this class, I’ve tried a variety of methods for overseeing students’ research. The method that yields the most success for students and the best student work is undoubtedly the “I oversee ALL your work method.”  It’s not like I read all their research or anything–I’m not doing THAT kind of micromanagement–but I think they need to know that they are accountable for it on a weekly basis or else they fall behind. If they fall behind, meaning they don’t do the research, they are bound to fail, and I can’t let that happen. They need to see that I am looking at their sources and making suggestions about other sources to use. Without that, they will mostly use very short web articles they Googled.  In the end, without a doubt, every semester the students say that the best assignment they do is the synthesis matrix (more about that later) but that what helped them the most when they sat down to write their projects was the “evidence of research process” assignments that I required.

This summer, because there is such a variety of other types of work that the students are doing, I’m using a modified approach for overseeing their research. Rather than doing the standard source analysis assignments that most faculty use, I’m going to try three different assignments, one per week for three weeks, with the goal of teaching them three different ways to do research. Beginning with a version of the nugget assignments we have already been doing, I’m going to develop two other ideas so that they are exposed to different possibilities. Of course, some students would prefer to just do one activity over and over; once they figure it out, they want to continue. On the other hand, I imagine some students find that type of repetition very boring. So we will see how this process goes in the coming weeks.

I’m off to Google Hangout conference-land. Hope that Google Hangout is working today!


One Week in Cuba

Before going on this VCU trip to study Adult Education in Cuba, most of what I knew about Cuba I had learned from negative depictions of the country on the American news, from Telex From Cuba–a novel I read that was a mostly-accurate depiction of the time period in which United Fruit flourished in the country–and from what I had learned in school about the Cuban Missile Crisis. When the plane first touched down, I thought it quite possible that Cuba would resemble the depictions I have heard of Communist China. I thought a government representative might meet us at the airport, accompanying us everywhere we went and telling us what we could and could not see and photograph. I expected to see a lot of police and for people to look and sound oppressed in all the obvious ways. Although the literature that I was given from API said that Cubans were very friendly and talkative with Americans, I harbored a belief that the people would be secretive and not forthcoming. I thought they would hate Americans and be angry at us as individuals coming into their country. I’ve traveled enough to know that a country is not always the way the American news depicts, but as I said above, I had little on which to base my assumptions.

When we got off the plane, I was struck immediately by how small the airport looked. I didn’t expect Chicago’s O’Hare, but I knew Havana was the capital and largest city for a country of eleven million people, so I thought the airport might be larger. After all, I had recently read that most every country other than the U.S. trades with Cuba and that tourism there is a prospering industry. The first Cuban with whom I spoke was the customs official, a man who went out of his way to be exceptionally nice. He asked me why I came to Cuba and thanked me, several times, for visiting. When he asked me if I wanted my passport stamped, I hesitated, although I knew I had a proper visa to enter the country, and he stamped it before I responded. In the end, this was the right choice, as I now have a stamp in my passport by which to fondly recall this trip.

Outside the airport, the first things that caught my eye were the old cars, which I expected, and a huge billboard that said “Revolucion Socialista.”


I wondered why it referred to Socialism. Wasn’t Cuba a Communist country? I’ve been to many socialist countries, and I’ve never seen signs celebrating the system, so this sign both fascinated and confused me–and it was the first of a handful of experiences in Cuba that challenged my thinking about what I knew regarding Cuba as a whole and specifically in terms of their form of government. I found all the discussions about Cuban education engaging and interesting, but during every conversation and lecture, I sensed there was an elephant in the room about which no one was speaking. We were in a communist country and no one was talking about it. Were others as curious about this as me? It didn’t seem any different than any other poor country I’ve visited, and I just couldn’t stop wondering what made Cuba a communist country?

* * *

I’m at El Centro De Estudios Matianos–an organization that does research into the life of Jose Marti, a Cuban national hero, revolutionary thinker, and developer of the respected Cuban education system–where we are attending a series of lectures by Cuban professors throughout the week we are spending in Cuba. I’ve been in Cuba only a few days, but I’ve seen plenty of signs much like the one above that boast pride in socialist values. Today we are attending a lecture by a woman who tells us she has been a professor of political science for 60 years. We are all seated in a room with about 25 chairs and a table with an old computer and projector at the front.


Although the professor  doesn’t speak English, she talks and our guide during the trip, who works for the institute,  repeats what she says in English. Much is lost in translation, literally, but I get the gist of what she tells us. She explains the history of Cuban education, much of which I’ve been reading about in a series of essays over the last couple weeks, describing how before Casto took office, a very high percentage of Cubans were illiterate. She explores how the movement she calls “Popular Education” swept the country, and how Castro rallied the people to participate in a massive literacy campaign. In fact, many thousands of Cubans aged 10-80, volunteered to participate in a little training before they were sent out all over Cuba to teach the illiterate to read and write. I’m very impressed to learn that this movement was so successful, that Cuba claims to have eradicated illiteracy. I’ve read that today, Cuban students score two standard deviations higher than students in other parts of Latin and South America.

Although I’m interested in what I learn about education, a question arises toward the end of this first lecture that fascinates me. Someone asks what it was like in Cuba after the Soviet Union fell. Good question! I know nothing about this. I remember the news around that time covering humanitarian aid given to Russia and to Czechlosovakia, but did we give any help to Cuba? I don’t know. The professor is very honest with us. She speaks with a sincerity that is obvious and true, telling us how the seven years following the fall of the Soviet Union brought starvation to Cuba. Another women who works at the institute chimes in, telling us how she was just a child but remembers having nothing to eat. Lacking the English to explain it, they both keep telling us how it was “a terrible, terrible time.” They say the change happened overnight. One day they had everything they needed shipped in from the Soviet Union on a regular basis, and the next day, they had nothing–no shipments, no food, no supplies–and would have nothing for many years.

Another question is asked that fascinates me: What did Cubans think about America during that time? The professor nods her head. She understands what we want to know. She tells us that Cubans don’t hold anything against us, and there seems like a big BUT is coming, but it never does. She tells us how badly Cubans want to repair relations with America and how most just don’t understand the grudge we hold against them. And then she launches into a story that I doubt I will ever forget. She tells us how her mother was dying and needed a pacemaker for her heart. Health care is free in Cuba, and she was set to have the operation. But then the company was sold to an American company, and all the sudden, her mother could no longer have the operation because they couldn’t obtain the device. Because America would not trade with Cuba, there was no way to purchase the pacemaker. Her mother died, and this could have been prevented. The professor has tears streaming down her face as she concludes the story. There is complete silence in the room. What do you say to that kind of senseless horror that could so easily be rectified but wasn’t? I feel like apologizing but that doesn’t make sense. What can I say? Nothing.

* * *

A day or two later: I’m eating dinner in a fancy restaurant–clearly just for tourists because one dinner here costs more than half of what a Cuban teacher earns each month–with my whole study abroad group and one of the young men who works at the Jose Marti institute.


The young man who works at the institute has just spent the day guiding us around the old city. He looks fashionable and hip in his blue jeans, white shirt and hat:




He happens to be seated next to me at the table and I’m hoping that we get to ask him some good questions. Mid-way through the meal, someone else sparks the conversation, asking him what Cubans think about Americans. Apparently we can’t get enough of this question–our guilt plaguing us throughout the whole week making us search for affirmation that we have personally done nothing wrong.

“We like America,” he says, and he proceeds to tell us how he doesn’t understand why America won’t resume relations with Cuba. And then he says what I’ve been hoping to get at. I want to know more about what makes Cuba a Communist country, and although I have no evidence for this feeling, I sense it’s a taboo question–but one this young man is willing to discuss it. I remember his exact words: ” I could understand if America just wouldn’t trade with communist countries, although I don’t see why they wouldn’t, but what I don’t understand is why America will trade with China and then when asked about Cuba, they say we don’t trade with communist countries.” His facial expression reinforces the sentiment in his voice: he looks totally confused and perplexed. “Why?” he asks. And that is precisely what I’m wondering, and it’s a very good (yet seemingly quite complex) question.  Why won’t we trade with this country? The cuban missile crisis was in 1962. It’s 50 years later, so why can’t we move on? In my opinion, America seems like an angry (and dangerous) old man holding a grudge that he just won’t let go.

* * *

I’m on a bus returning from the literacy museum. I’ve made friends with a teacher and guide who works at the institute, and she has accompanied us to this museum. She sits next to me on the bus, so I decide to ask her the burning question. I want to be subtle, so I try it this way: “I’ve been to many socialist countries in Europe, and they all seem just like this one. What makes Cuba different?” I think my question is clear, but either she doesn’t understand or she doesn’t want to talk about it so pretends not to understand. I try again, this time more direct: “What makes Cuba communist rather than socialist.” She looks at me: “Oh” she says. “I don’t know anything about that.” Ugh. There’s awkward silence. Does she really know nothing about this? Or are people not allowed to discuss this kind of stuff? I’ve been told that in communist countries people can’t criticize the government; however, our whole program at the institute–it’s called The Cuban Education System and it’s Challenges–relies on criticism of the government. Finally she speaks: “Someone else might disagree with me,” she says, “but I don’t think this is a communist country at all. If we were communist, all the people would have the same things, but we don’t. Some have more than others.” I nod my head, wanting to ask more but not sure if I’m being rude. I really don’t want to offend her. I say I’m sorry, intimating that I didn’t mean to offend. She replies that it’s okay, but still I feel like I’ve done something wrong, broken some unspoken rule.

* * *

We visited three museums in Cuba: the Jose Marti Memorial and Museum, the Literacy Museum and the Museum of the Revolution.  As everyone knows, the best museum experiences stem from great tour guides and knowledge of the exhibit. For the three visits to museums in Cuba, I had all of this!

The Jose Marti Memorial was fascinating, mostly because our guide there was awesome!

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This woman could make a pile of dirt seem fascinating. I wish I could have recorded some video so I could share the enthusiasm with which she spoke. She told us all about Jose Marti–I knew some from the readings we had completed and the lectures we had already attended–and gave interesting details of his whole life and work.

The Literacy Museum was also really interesting, especially since I had learned so much about the Cuban literacy movement already. Here, we saw some really interesting artifacts from the literacy movement time period, including an oil lamp that was used to teach people in rural areas without electricity to read. These people often worked all day and came home at night to practice their reading by the light of lamps like this one in the picture below:.

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They used books like one to teach people how to read and wrote notes like this one to Castro thanking him for the gift of literacy:


The Museum of the Revolution was housed in a dilapidated old building that I think was in the process of restoration, although it was hard to tell. Unlike the Jose Marti and Literacy Museums, this one was not climate-controlled. As Americans, we are so used to seeing artifacts that are protected behind infinite levels of security, so it’s surprising to see such important national treasures literally eroding away. A few pics from this museum:

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We also went to Hemingway’s house! My Masters degree is in English Literature, with an emphasis on early twentieth century american lit–so I’ve studied a LOT of Hemingway and love his writing. I was looking forward to this part of the trip the whole time I was there. Needless to say, I took a ridiculous number of photos at Hemingway’s house, and when I got home, these were the first I uploaded. To see a narrated version of the photos, all containing short labels and explanations, and a video of our fabulous tour guide explaining the history of his home, click HERE.


I thoroughly enjoyed my trip to cuba–with the exception of the food–but I spent the whole trip feeling embarrassed and ashamed. I always feel embarassed to be American when I travel internationally, so that is nothing new, but the flood of guilt and sympathy that I felt for Cubans throughout this whole trip is not something I normally experience traveling. Perhaps part of this is due to the study abroad experience; however, I think the vast majority of this feeling is a result of seeing how impoverished these people are and knowing that if they could just trade with America, a country only a 1/2 hour plane ride away, their whole lives would be improved so dramatically. Of course, I know that relations with America would come with a steep price politically and culturally, not to mention that American business men would tackle the ocean-front property that lines that whole country with a vengeance never before seen, and much of Cuban culture would be lost in the aftermath. That said, in my mostly uninformed opinion, in this case, I think the benefits–improved food and nutrition, access to the internet, a massive rise in the standard of living–far outweigh the costs.


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Revision of Stream Assignment Drafts

This is a revision of the stream assignment that I posted on the prior blog. Bonnie is in my office with me and we are writing this together.

Streams 1, 2 and 3: For each assigned reading, course members will complete three streams of responses.

Directions for Stream 1: Find a “nugget” and make it meaningful in your response to it. Your response to the nugget should be relevant and robust.

  • What is a nugget? Something that perplexes you; perhaps you strongly disagree or maybe it captures the essence of something you truly believe. Maybe it’s something you have never considered. Perhaps it is something you have always thought true.  A nugget may generate awe or fascinate you. A nugget elicits a light bulb in your mind.
  • How to make it meaningful?  This is your challenge. Use the tools of the internet to compose and illustrate your response.

Directions for Stream 2: Using three 1/2-1  hour screen shots of the history of your browser, reflect on the associative trails that you made. Explain the ways that the associative trails reflect the way you think and the associations you make.  It may be best to choose periods when you were especially active.

To take a screen shot of your browser history:

  • In Firefox, click on History–Show all History–>Make box bigger–>Take Screen Shot
  • In Chrome and Safari, click History–>Show History–>Take Screen Shot

Directions for Stream 3:  Daily prompts provided?

  • One example for this prompt could be Ballenger’s Interest Inventory.
  • They could do group work with asking questions about mundane or interesting object.
  • Watch videos on youtube and brainstorm. questions about what you watched…
  • Choose your own adventure RQ activity.

We are confused about how stream 3 works.

  1. Is stream 3 synonymous with the “reflective post” that appears to be due every Friday?
  2. How will we help them develop a topic and questions without offering some guided activities, such as those I noted above.

By the time that the groups must be formed (June 20), they will have read only two essays.

We would like to provide several stream 3 activities during the first 10 days leading up to the day that the topic is due–June 20.


We also don’t understand what the “first draft inquiry project” means on June 27.

Are we going to use the language of “stream 1” and “stream 2” etc?

How do you change the color of font in rampages?


Drafting Streams and Questions

I returned from two weeks in Mexico and Cuba just a couple days ago, and yesterday was my first day back at work. Since the MOOC starts in just 12 days, I was anxious to get caught up on what I missed. I spoke with Bonnie at some length over the phone, and I met with all the UNIV instructors teaching the course for well over an hour yesterday morning.

Looking at the draft of the daily schedule for the course, I began to think about week one. What would day one look like? What do we need to do to make day one happen? The schedule says the following: “June 10: BEGIN. Live Hangout, blogging assignment, AWMT.”

I wondered about the live hangout. Would this be WITH students or just for the faculty teaching the course?  This question was clearly answered during our meeting yesterday afternoon. On day one at 8pm, the faculty teaching this course will participate in a Google Hangout and discuss the syllabus, the assignments, and of great importance, the spirit of the course. The session will be live, so that anyone watching can comment through text, and it will be recorded, so that anyone who can’t watch it live CAN watch it later.

I also wondered about the blogging assignment. Is this stream 1 for AWMT? Is this a separate blogging assignment about something totally unrelated? Is the blogging assignment simply to set up a blog? I still don’t have the answer to these questions, but I suspect that a checklist for what students need to do for day one might look something like this:

By 11:59pm on Tuesday, June 10, all course members should complete the following:

  1. Explore the syllabus and daily schedule for the course.
  2. Create a blog. You may use a pre-existing blog, or you can create one wherever you want. We encourage you to use rampages, which is VCU’s version of Wordpress, but with extra functionality.
  3. Email me a link to your blog at
  4. Read As We May Think, by Vannevar Bush
  5. Complete stream 1 on your blog (?).
  6. If you are available, participate in the live Google Hangout session tonight at 8pm!  If you are not available, the session will be recorded and made available to you promptly.

In order to prepare to give these assignments, much work on our part must be done:

  1. Write a syllabus with explanation of the course, policies, and grading.
  2. Write a daily schedule of assignments for students with due dates so they can see and understand the arc of the course.
  3. Write an assignment for stream 1, stream 2 and stream 3
  4. Decide if students will write the streams on their blogs (see question mark above) or in a discussion area where they can vote responses up or down. In my notes, I see that we discussed both options. I really advocate for the discussion area. I think that really gets to the spirit of the course and will encourage the type of participation that we want to see.
  5. Practice Google Hangout (we scheduled a practice session for our meeting next week on Wed, June 4 at 1.)
  6. We need access to the website so that we can create our individual section homepages.


As I write this, I look at my notes and realize I am still very confused about streams 2 and 3. In my notes, I see that I asked if all students would complete streams 1, 2 and 3 for each of the readings, and the answer was yes, definitely. However, when I look at my notes in which I described streams 2 and 3, I am confused. My notes say that stream 2 is characterized as “exercises in habits of mind and shared vocab (from the readings)–an exercise in making, storing or commenting on associative trails from AWMT.” I expanded on this in my notes, citing possibilities for the following:

  • Compile a history of where they were on the internet for the last 30 min. Find the trail and reflect on the pattern, etc.
  • Read the essay, look up online what they don’t already understand or know or find supplementary info there, annotate the essay in diego and explain the history of your internet searching
  • Jason–asked could we use Storify for this?

My notes say that stream 3 is characterized as “What will you build? (Brainstorming Inquiry project).” I wrote that “this is where they will blog from the beginning about how to build, create, compose and imagine.”

Like I said above, my understanding was that they would do all three for each essay, and I think that makes perfect sense. However, I got really confused when yesterday the early morning group was talking about the streams as parts of each unit (that doesn’t make sense if all readings are in unit one) and in the meeting, we talked about individual instructors assigning a daily blogging exercise. Wouldn’t that daily blogging BE stream 3? At any rate, I’m clearly confused about how this will work, and I hope whoever reads this will comment with clarification.
During our meeting with all the UNIV faculty yesterday, Bonnie and I decided to move forward with part of #3 above in the list of what we need to do in the next 12 days. We are meeting today at 12pm to write a draft of stream one assignment and create a quality example. With this in mind, I reread As We May Think this morning in it’s entirety–as it had been more than 6 months since I read it closely–and I’m going to begin a draft of the stream one assignment right here.

Streams 1, 2 and 3: For each assigned reading, course members will complete three streams of writing.

Directions for Stream 1: Find a “nugget” and make it meaningful in your response to it. Your response to the nugget should be relevant and robust.

  • What is a nugget? Something that perplexes you; perhaps you strongly disagree or maybe it captures the essence of something you truly believe. Maybe it’s something you have never considered. Perhaps it is something you have always thought true.  A nugget may generate awe or fascinate you. A nugget elicits a light bulb in your mind.
  • How to make it meaningful?  This is your challenge. Use the tools of the internet to compose and illustrate your response.

My nugget and response for As We May Think:

“Whenever logical processes of thought are employed—that is, whenever thought for a time runs along an accepted groove—there is an opportunity for the machine” (Part 5, Par 1).

It strikes me that the machine always comes after the human thought.  We must always create a groove of our thinking, meaning many people must think the same thing many times, before we can articulate what it is we think clearly enough to create technology to do that thinking for us. This reminds me of how people learn. In Robert Leamnson’s, Thinking about Teaching and Learning, he wrote “A child, trying to make sense of the world, probably gets things wrong more often than not. Each attempt might use new connections that provide a representation of reality. The child’s learning could be considered a matter of testing its representations against real world situations—experimenting, in other words. Several representations might be set up and tested until one works consistently. The pathway gets used repeatedly and becomes hard-wired – a preferred and stabilized path emerging from multiple synapses achieved through budding and made permanent through use (emphasis mine).” Leamnson denotes a “path” that strikes me as much like the “groove” to which Bush refers. In both cases, a thought is internalized to the point that it is understood by the individual and ultimately the group, and this thought can be articulated and re-imagined in a new form. In fact, one might say that the machine, the technology, is really a remediation of the thought or idea that created the groove or path–although that is notedly a stretch.

We think of technology as creating solutions for problems that already exist–but also those that don’t yet exist. Many times I encounter technology, software for example, that does something that I don’t need to do. Why would anyone need this, I ask, but the answer is that it is a solution to someone else’s problem or perhaps to a problem that is yet to emerge. In As We May Think, Bush explains how scientists from many facets of academia were called to “the application of science to warfare,” and he argues that since the war is over, it is time for those scientists to “turn to the massive task of making more accessible our bewildering store of knowledge.” He suggests that we have stored and retrieved knowledge in the same way for too long, and he advocates using the technology created originally for warfare to provide a means for spreading knowledge. It is fascinating that Bush was so clearly able to imagine the future of the computer. What he calls the Memex is clearly an early version of the Personal Computer. Although he imagines all that knowledge stored in something the size of a desk with gears that would manipulate it, what we have today  is really just a miniature version of the Memex that we call the PC or iPhone or Droid.

What is most fascinating about the article, in my opinion, is what he describes as a primary purpose of the “machine” he mentioned in the passage I claimed as my nugget. What will that machine do once it is built?  If it just saved all the images of everything, there would be no way to retrieve the knowledge it stored.  Thus, it is Bush’s notion of “associative trails” that is really the most important concept in this essay. As discussed earlier, learning occurs when our brains create grooves or paths, and the machine that Bush proposes will operate in much the same way. The associative trails are the connections that illustrate the way we think. Thus, when you really think about it, a personal computer is really a mirror of a person’s mind in that it reflects all those “logical processes” and “associative trails.”