morning thoughts


Last night I dreamed about my cat who was dying.  It was my cat, but not my cat (in the ways that dreams work).  She was Toby, but not Toby.  She was curled into a ball on my chest and was shaking and heaving.  And as much as I tried, I could not remember her name.

I woke to the sinus ache of dry hot air, another night of the “Santa Anas,” yesterday’s temps peaking at 104 according to my car’s thermometer.  I immediately stepped outside to check the progress of the garden.  The peas that I planted a few weeks ago are surviving the dryness, thanks to a regular dousing.  The Siberian winter tomato varieties that we planted a few weeks ago are thriving.  We’ve never planted winter tomatoes before, but it seemed worth a try and the horticulturist at our local nursery was insistent that they would set fruit.  I wonder if they are as acclimated to dry desert winds as they are to the shortened days of the season.  They already have several blossoms apiece.

I am barefoot in the garden though I probably should not be.  We’re rebuilding our back house and the ground around the garden is covered in splinters of wood and screws and small sharp things.  But I take my chances anyways, today.

I sit on the pavers in the sun, near the plants, and marvel that it’s fall and yet it’s hotter than the summer.  Though this happens every year, it always feels strange and new when the dry winds blow.

My son moved home this week, for awhile.  It’s a strange thing to have my kids around–it is so easy to share with them, everything.  Yet I struggle with parenting them, as adults, never knowing how much to guide, how much to let them do for themselves.  We went grocery shopping together yesterday afternoon and as he put the shopping cart away he deftly lifted the entire thing over the parking lot median, as if it was as light as a gallon of milk.  I am jealous of his easy strength, and am reminded of my middle age.  The time when I carried him on my hip feeling more than two dozen lifetimes ago.

For lunch he and I have a salad of spicy mesclun lettuce from the garden, picked at midday.  The leaves are wilted and limp, but have so much flavor that they overpower the small grape tomatoes that I’ve added into the mix.

The house is full of the smells of fresh bread, as Stijn is baking his next round of sourdough.  We watched Michael Pollan’s “Air” documentary a few days ago and ever since I have craved bread, remembering all of the dark and rich loaves of Scandinavia.  Little else is as interesting to me right now, as that.

Teacher | Technologist | Traveler

This morning I did my regular WordPress maintenance tasks: upgrading to the latest stable release, updating plugins, clearing out spam comments, etc.  And as I did so I looked at the tagline on my portfolio site and realized that it needed updating.

It was:

tagline photo So now it has a bit more alliteration, and better reflects my current professional identity.  Because while I am a historian, I write and think more about teaching than about history.

So it is now:

new tagline photoThere are so many other things I could put there: Paddler, Reader, Gardener, Friend, etc.  But for right now, these three words seem the best fit.

I am a teacher

photo of a powerpoint slide from a talk by Martha Burtis

Image is from Martha Burtis’ keynote talk at the Digital Pedagogy Institute that I attended earlier this summer. Her full talk is available here.

I am a teacher, and am happiest when I am grappling with how to share what I know and what I think with others.  Thus, I am fortunate that I hold a position where I am teaching nearly everyday–either through technology training or through teaching courses at ChapmanU.

With this new semester, as with each new semester, I am considering how I can improve my teaching skills.  And I’ve determined that incorporating a more regular reflective practice will be the best way that I can improve my teaching.  I’ve written about this a bit before on my blog, but I am now committing to make this a more explicit focus of my blogginb.

So, to start off, I will invoke one of my greatest mentors and fellow Friend, Parker J Palmer, who asks:

“How can I develop the authority to teach, the capacity to stand my ground in the midst of the complex forces of both the classroom and my own life?”

He clarifies, that by “authority” he means:

In a culture of objectification and technique we often confuse authority with power, but the two are not the same. Power works from the outside in, but authority works from the inside out. We are mistaken when we seek “authority” outside ourselves, in sources ranging from the subtle skills of group process to that less-than-subtle method of social control called grading. This view of teaching turns the teacher into the cop on the comer, trying to keep things moving amicably and by consent, but always having recourse to the coercive power of the law.

External tools of power have occasional utility in teaching, but they are no substitute for authority, the authority that comes from the teacher’s inner life. The clue is in the word itself, which has “author” at its core. Authority is granted to people who are perceived as “authoring” their own words, their own actions, their own lives, rather than playing a scripted role at great remove from their own hearts. When teachers depend on the coercive powers of law or technique, they have no authority at all.

I am painfully aware of the times in my own teaching when I lose touch with my inner teacher, and therefore with my own authority. In those times I try to gain power by barricading myself behind the podium and my status while wielding the threat of grades. But when my teaching is authorized by the teacher within me, I need neither weapons nor armor to teach.

Authority comes as I reclaim my identity and integrity, remembering my selfhood and my sense of vocation. Then teaching can come from the depths of my own truth—and the truth that is within my students has a chance to respond in kind.

His words remind me of something that I have grappled with so many times as I’ve stood in front of a classroom:  that feeling of vulnerability and exposure that comes from the unpredictability of human interaction, as well as the actual physical limitations of my own body to enact and enable a teaching experience.

Perhaps I feel this more keenly because of my awareness that my body can be awkward in the physical space of the classroom.  On days when I am using crutches it can be nearly impossible to deftly use the podium computer or to meander around the desks of the classroom.  Or on some days when I am physically spent and need to sit instead of stand, I feel the challenge of engaging students with my less-than-powerful physical presence.  And of course even on days when I am standing confidently there is the sense that my cyborg body is speaking louder than the words that I am sharing with the students.

But then there is the flipside of that, the fact that I am more physically vulnerable can break down the barriers that might be typical between professor and student.  If we all gather our chairs in a circle on a day that I need to sit, the students also move away from the spaces of their desks and the trappings of their classroom role.  On those days there is no barricade of podium and desk.  On those days learning can happen in ways that are quite different from the learning that occurs when I am delivering content from a screen.

Given that I have little control over the days that I can stand in front of my students versus those that I cannot, I try to do the best I can to prepare for whatever might happen when I enter the classroom.  A teaching exercise that I used in the past might have to be altered, or a student might need to run the technology if I cannot.  If nothing else, it keeps the teaching experience varied, fresh, and open to all kinds of learning possibilities.

So, to return to reflection about my teaching experiences this week, here is a list of a few moments that stand out:

  • Creating the class rules in my HIST 233: Disability in American Life course, in a way that fosters a welcoming experience for all class members
  • Giving each of my students in my Introduction to Digital Humanities course, their own WordPress site, as a sandbox domain where they can write/play/experiment and carry out the weekly practicum exercises for our class.
  • Supporting dozens of faculty in using the Chapman ePortfolios platform for creating their T&P dossiers, and in doing so, helping them to create the best-possible digital representations of their scholarly efforts.  The wide gamut of content that faculty can embed and link to from their dossiers is not only remarkable, but represents the best and brightest work done by early-career scholars at our university (and never ceases to inspire me to do better work myself).
  • Leading a workshop on how to use Classroom-Response Systems at a time where we had a major technical snafu that resulted in my presentation being derailed.  Having to accept that the workshop was unrecoverable in that moment (there was no graceful alternative) and not letting my frustration about something that I couldn’t control, completely derail the conversation about how instructors could use technologies for student-response.
  • Allowing students to choose the platform for their collaborative sharing:  one class created a closed Facebook group and the other opted to create a Slack Team.
  • Having my Intro to DH students read the “Letters to a Future Student” from my previous classes.  Seeing that this exercise increased their enthusiasm for what they will learn this semester as well as their sense of courage to try new/hard technologies.

As I think about this list and all that has already happened in this Fall semester thus far, I am feeling pleased about my efforts.  As Palmer reminds us,

Good teachers join self, subject, and students in the fabric of life because they teach from an integral and undivided self; they manifest in their own lives, and evoke in their students, a “capacity for connectedness.” They are able to weave a complex web of connections between themselves, their subjects, and their students, so that students can learn to weave a world for themselves…

Creating an activist Twitter bot

the L Word on TwitterIn my workshop at Digital Pedagogy today, we discussed how and why someone might want to create a twitter bot.  The uses of such bots can vary widely–they can be playful (such as the Billy Joel bot, which tweets out song lyrics) or can expose hidden behavior (such as the Valley Edits bot, which shows edits to wikipedia from Silicon Valley).

I wanted my bot to do something similar to the bot that corrects people who tweet about “illegal immigrants,” offering corrective language.  However, I wanted my bot to call attention to everyday words that denigrate the experience of disabled people.  So I chose to target my bot on people who tweet the word “lame.”  It took about 30 minutes to create the bot, most of which was time spent on signing up for the various services that I would need to create a new Twitter/IFTTT/Buffer accounts.  Here’re the step-by-step instructions if you want to do something similar:

  1. Sign up for a new Twitter account (a few tricks: you can use your regular gmail account by adding +something to your name.  For example, I used janaremy+something@gmail).  Also, you will need a cellphone number when you sign up, but you can recycle your own cell number from your regular twitter account by texting “stop” to 40404, and then re-use your cell number for your new account.
  2. Sign up for Buffer, which can schedule your generated Tweet content.  In Buffer, add your new twitter account and choose the schedule that you want to use for your content.  As an example, I chose to publish my content 8 times per day, and Buffer then selected the appropriate schedule for that frequency. (note: so that Buffer would accept my new twitter account, I had to follow a few people and also gain a few followers–so be prepared to have a few friends who will be willing to follow you):Buffer schedule
  3. Sign up for IFTTT to create a ‘recipe’ to publish your content to Twitter.  In IFTTT, select the option to create a new recipe.  It will then ask you to define the following:
  4. If This: For your This, choose for the trigger to be Twitter, and then select for it to search for usage of the word lame:Trigger screenshot
  5. Then That: Select Buffer at the service, and then edit for the following content to be added to Buffer, to create an at-reply to the users who are using the word lame in their tweets: Buffer instructions
  6. After creating your recipe, select the option in the Upper Right corner to “Check Now” and then toggle over to Buffer and check if your tweets are populating:Buffer schedule
  7. A few other notes:  I linked to a few articles in my new twitter feed account that raise awareness about ableist language.  I am hopeful that this will educate people who receive @replies from my bot.   Also, I’ve already managed to piss off a random person who received a reply from my bot.  I suspect that this will happen fairly often, and I also suspect that Twitter may shut down the account, once it becomes obvious that it’s behaving as a bot and @-replying people that I don’t follow.  I’ll report back if/when it’s shut down…

the first day

old-fashioned classroom with rows of wooden chairsBack when I was a student, I hated the first day of classes (aka Read the Syllabus Day).  One semester I rather snarkily informed each of my professors how much I’d paid for their class that day, and that I didn’t feel as though I was getting my money’s worth when the day consisted of having the prof read the syllabus to me (especially because I had already rather-thoroughly perused the syllabus myself beforehand).

So this article about alternative First Day of Class activities struck a chord with me.

What I intend to do this year, which I am hoping will go over well, is to have students learn from my previous years’ students on the first day of class.  At the end of last semester, I had each student write a letter “To a Future Student” in the class, and I will pass these out and have the students read them and discuss them as a class, which I will then use to launch into a discussion about class norms, expectations, and policies.  I’ll then use that to lead into a brief overview of the class which will cover many of the items in the syllabus.

(Note: this post also appeared on the Chapman University Blogs network)

as powerful and as strong…

Last week we did a fairly strenuous canoe paddle, more than 60km, in a remote northern area of British Columbia.  The paddling wasn’t so daunting (3-4 hours per day of solid work), but it was the portages from lake to lake, the lightning storms, and the persistent pelting rain that quickly dampened my sleeping bag and all of my clothing that took their toll.

Now that it’s over, however, so much of that difficulty is forgotten.  And instead what remains are the gorgeous images imprinted into my memory and onto the roll of film that we shot as we traveled.  Such as this one, taken on the home stretch to Bowron Lake:

glassy waters(Note: the horizon is slightly crooked due to the boat leaning a bit to the right side that morning)

As I was writing in my journal when the journey was completed, the first thing I put on my list of lessons learned was:

I like to do hard things

And it’s true.  The stretch of an ambitious endeavor makes me happy.  Doing the mundane, the repetitive, the easily achieved task…boring.  I thrive when presented with a challenge, which is why the trip to British Columbia was so much more appealing than a resort stay or some other leisure activity.

While on this trip, these two books, Tracks and Paddling My Own Canoe accompanied me everywhere:

two books for my travels later this month…journey narratives ftw #JSLFL #booklover

A photo posted by @janaremy on

I just finished reading Tracks today, which is a book about a woman who walked across the Australian desert with four camels in the 1970s.  At the close of the text, this quotation jumped out at me, as a better expression of my thoughts about hard things, than I expressed myself in my journal (emphasis my own):

As I look back on the trip now, as I try to sort out fact from fiction, try to remember how I felt at that particular time, or during that particular incident, try to relive those memories that have been buried so deep, and distorted so ruthlessly, there is one clear fact that emerges from the quagmire.  The trip was easy.  It was no more dangerous than crossing the street, or driving to the beach, or eating peanuts.  The two important things that I did learn were that you as powerful and as strong as you allow yourself to be, and that the most difficult part of any endeavor is taking the first step, making the first decision.