Last spring I posted briefly about a new multimedia assignment in which students create their own websites that I used with my students in “The Making of California” at UC Santa Cruz. This fall, I tried it again with my “Environmental Inequality” students here at Howard University. I was, for the second time, happy with how the assignment turned out. Since several people have asked for details, I’m posting my assignment prompts and other reflections here. I will also be presenting this assignment at Howard’s first “Teaching With Technology” conference this Friday.
First, let me acknowledge how important it is to have colleagues with whom to discuss these kinds of projects! Rachel Deblinger joined UC Santa Cruz last year as a Postdoctoral Fellow through the Council on Library and Information Resources. Her presence on campus brought those of us doing work in the digital humanities and digital social sciences together for a rich exchange of ideas that prompted me to create this assignment. Rachel also made herself available for one-on-one brainstorming sessions. As a result, I abandoned an overly ambitious assignment idea that used a different website platform and ended up with this one instead, which sets students up for a successful first experience creating a website on which to post their own original research and writing. So, thank you, Rachel!
Here’s the gist of it. The assignment asks students to research and write a multimedia essay on a subject of their choice that is featured on a website of their own design. The purpose is improve students’ content knowledge, research and writing skills while also teaching the following: 1) how to write for a public audience, 2) media literacy, and 3) basic web design. Students do not need any prior technical skills in order to successfully complete the assignment, and are given detailed prompts for small assignments throughout the semester that support step-by-step development of their projects. They also complete in-class activities designed to help them think about how to write for different audiences.
By the end of the course, the students each create a website that includes the following:
- An original essay informed by their research that incorporates relevant YouTube videos
- A curator’s statement that describes why the student chose the YouTube videos that they chose
- An annotated bibliography
- An author’s biography
- A copyright statement
- One other section of content of their own choice
Here are some of my supporting documents that you may find useful as you adapt this assignment to your own purposes:
- Sample syllabi for classes that use the assignment
- Assignment Prompts
- Why did you use Google Sites? I used Google Sites because it was the easiest website creation tool that I could find, and because at both institutions where I tried this assignment, Google already provides the student’s campus e-mail service. So, they all already have Google accounts. For my own websites, I use WordPress. It is free, open-source, and more sophisticated. However, I quickly decided that WordPress was too technically complex for what I had in mind for my students. The point of the assignment isn’t to teach technical skills so much as it is to have students practice all the usual stuff (research and writing), while also having a successful first experience sharing their writing in a website of their own creation. For those who take a liking to the experience, it may serve as a gateway into more complex website creation tools. After conversation with my tech mentor Allen Gunn at Aspiration, I also plan to incorporate a conversation with my students about the risks of relying on for-profit web infrastructure such as Google Sites next time I do this assignment, even while I plan to still use Google Sites.
- This sounds like a lot of work. How many students did you have? I used this assignment for one class of 30 and one class of 6. Though to be fair, when I taught the class of 30 I was teaching a new course for the first time, on the academic job market for the first time, and finishing my dissertation (for the first time). I taught the class of 6 was while teaching two classes (one for the first time), and getting oriented at a new academic institution. If my class size went much over 30, I would probably start requiring this project be done in pairs or small groups to cut down on the time spent grading. You could also try cutting some of the mini-assignments, such as the list of sources or the draft website with written content, though the final projects would be of lesser quality as a result.
- I don’t know anything about creating websites. Can I still use this assignment with my students? Yes, Google Sites are fairly straightforward to create, and my assignment prompts provide step-by-step instructions for how to create them. Literally, the prompts say things like “click the button shaped like a pencil in the upper-right corner of your screen.” However, you do need to be able to do the assignment yourself before you give it to your students, and to be willing to help them with any technical problems they may encounter (in my experience so far, they haven’t had many). It is also worth asking the tech support at your institution if they provide technical support to students with Google Sites, in which case you can hand off all technical questions to someone else. This has not been an option at either of the campuses where I have done the assignment.
- How do you make sure this assignment still works even as Google Sites changes? You need to set aside a half hour to an hour to do the assignment again yourself before the semester starts every time you teach the class, especially when you are teaching it in a new institution. This ensures that the instructions on your assignment prompt are up-to-date even as the technological infrastructure inevitably changes over time (think of all of Facebook’s changes on how to manage your privacy settings). Do not just take my assignment prompts and use them without test-driving them yourself and making corrections! I did almost all of the assignment with my Howard e-mail address before classes began this fall. I found out later that I had neglected one of the steps, the copyright statement, which includes directions for how to import the symbol representing the level of copyright protection the student chooses for their work. It turns out that doing this task through Howard’s Google-provided student e-mail accounts was mysteriously complicated in ways that my UC Santa Cruz students did not experience. If I had known, I would have told them to skip importing the symbol, and just to use the appropriate language without the visual cue. Oh well. I also learned through this process that Howard automatically adds the campus name and logo to Google Sites created by students with their campus e-mail addresses, whereas UC Santa Cruz did not.
- Can I see your students’ final websites? An important part of the assignment, to me, is that it prompts students to set their websites to “private” at the beginning of the class. Some of you may wonder why I do this. After all, isn’t the purpose to get students to practice writing for a public audience, and not just writing for their professor? Well, yes and no. That is the ultimate goal, but the key is that students are practicing this skill, in many cases for the first time. Setting the website visibility to “private” at the beginning of the course means that they can practice this new skill safely in private without any potential negative ramifications from the (sometimes nasty) blogosphere. It also means that you don’t have to worry about whether or not you are running afoul of the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act. All that said, an important part of the assignment is that it is, or at least can be, “real” beyond the classroom. So, I tell students that while the class is in session their websites need to be “private” for all the reasons above, and then after the class ends, it is their decision whether or not to change their work’s status to fully “public” or to limit access to people of their choice. Of the 36 students who have done this assignment with me to date, to my knowledge only one student has made his or her website public. You can see it here. Thanks, Jesse!
- What would you do differently next time? I’ll likely increase the length of the essay that forms the core content of each student’s site. I made it short to begin with, since I was thinking of it as a blog post. But now I might reframe it into something in between a blog post and a digital “long-form essay” instead. Will need to think about that. I also notice that students have a hard time integrating their YouTube videos into their essays – many simply plunk them in the middle of their text with no introduction or analysis. So, I might introduce a lesson in class that addresses this problem, while emphasizing the ability to segway between ideas and content as a transferable skill important to many different kinds of writing. Also, Google Sites makes formatting the annotated bibliographies and citations list difficult, so I’d like to spend some time figuring out how to make them look better and then add those directions to the relevant assignment prompt. Also, I’ll probably have students switch from using parenthetical citations in their essays (standard in my field) to endnotes (visually cleaner for public-facing work).
That’s all for now. I will undoubtedly think of more things that belong here over the next few days, as well as after Friday’s presentation at Howard’s “Teaching With Technology” Conference. I may cheat and add these things to this post later, so check back next week.
This summer I graduated with my Ph.D. from UC Santa Cruz, packed up my home, and drove across the country to Washington DC. Since August 16th I have been working as an Assistant Professor at Howard University‘s Department of Sociology and Anthropology. The department is in developing an area of expertise in environmental justice scholarship, and next year the campus will launch a major in environmental studies. So, it’s an exciting time to join Howard’s faculty. I’m also looking forward to helping to bridge the new emphasis on environmental justice with the department’s existing expertise in medical sociology through research on environmental health. I hope to continue to collaborate with environmental justice/health scholars and activists in California and also make new connections here in Washington D.C.
When I left UC Santa Cruz, the campus was in the final stages of becoming a federally designated “Hispanic Serving Institution.” In the Sociology department, about 65% of the undergraduate majors were part of the first generation to go to college in their family. I enjoyed working with first-generation college students and the campus’s growing population of undocumented students, and am proud to now work at a historically black university also committed to populations underserved by higher education.
This year I am teaching “Introduction to Sociology” and “Environmental Inequality.” Over the next few years I plan to develop new courses in “Sociology of Environmental Health” and “Sociology of Food and Agriculture.” We are in our second week of classes already and the students have been great. But, I’ll miss being able to say that my school mascot is a banana slug!
If you are in the area, drop me a line to say hello!
My new professional home – Frederick Douglass Memorial Hall.
This spring I taught a new class in the Community Studies program at UC Santa Cruz called “Making California.” Overall, the idea was to teach students about key moments in the history of California in order to help them better understand and intervene in current events. I used C. Wright Mills’s concept of the sociological imagination as a foundational theory to help students understand how individual lives are shaped by the broader historical and political context in which they exist. We also paid attention to how social movements have, in turn, helped people to change the political context in which they live. A second key theme of the course was California’s racial history and recent transition to majority people of color state. Finally, we spent a lot of time thinking about California’s role in the nation and world. This meant we read about both how the state has influenced events outside of its borders, as well as been influenced by the broader world.
For the core class assignment, students analyzed a key moment in California’s history by explaining what happened, what led to the events described, and the current relevance of those events. They were tasked with writing for a public audience, and crafting an introduction to capture a reader’s interest and draw them in to reading the rest of their essay. Students presented their work orally, and in historical order, at the end of the course. In this way we created a partial, “People’s History of California.” The written component of the assignment took the form of multi-media essays they wrote on websites of their own design (more on this assignment in my next post). This assignment was inspired by conversations with Ildi Carlisle-Cummins about how we could incorporate her new project, Cal Ag Roots, into the class. The launch event for Cal Ag Roots will involve telling the story of three key moments in the history of California agriculture. So, several of my students chose her stories as their “historical moments” to work on for the purpose of the class assignment. Their work therefore supplemented her own background research on these three key moments.
I drew on syllabi developed by Julie Guthman and Lindsey Dillon to help structure the class. See my own syllabus below.
This post is a continuation of my last post on “The last-day-of-class student conference.” That post provides an overview of the project, in which students participate in a student conference modeled after a poster session at an academic conference. This post gets into the details of how to set up the event.
Few teachers have a lot of extra time to invest in event-planning, so I offer my experience here. The colleagues who guided me in shaping the assignment emphasized that planning the conference can quickly get out of hand and helped me minimize time spent nailing down logistical details. Thanks again, Ariana Kalinic and Christie McCullen!
- Find a location to host the event early. The campus space that I wanted was booked very early in the quarter, and many other campus spaces required use-fees that I could not provide. Sociology staffer Barbara Laurence helped on this front by suggesting, and securing access to, our department lounge. This turned out perfectly, as it made it easy for people from my department to stop by the event without having to leave the building.
- Provide refreshments! Food makes the space more sociable and sets it apart from a regular classroom experience. My department provides $50 of funds for each class to work with. I chipped in an extra $25 so we could have coffee, tea, and snacks provided by the campus coffee-shop downstairs. Barbara Laurence took care of this for me, too. Thank you Barbara!
- Tell guests to arrive 20 minutes or so after the event begins, to give the students time to set up their posters, as well as time for yourself to make any last announcements.
- Make a plan for displaying posters. I told my students that at least some of them should design their posters to be able to stand on their own. These we put on a table. The rest went on a the walls or on a few easels provided by the department (thanks Barbara!). I brought blue, “paint-safe” tape to use on the walls. Unfortunately, it had very little sticking power. Many of the posters drooped or fell down and needed to be reaffixed during the event, oh well.
- Make a plan for presenting the posters. I originally thought I would divide the students into three or four groups and have each group stand next to their poster during a pre-assigned time. This seemed excessively complicated, however, so I instead followed Christie McCullen’s advice and told everyone to spend half the time at their own poster and the other half circulating. That worked just fine.
- How long will the event last? I had a three hour time slot to work with, but chose to use 1.5 – 2 hours instead (I set an explicit time at which the event would end, but have since forgotten exactly how long it was). There was just enough time to evaluate the work of all 40 student, but the event was was also short enough to sustain the group energy for the duration.
Structuring and evaluating the assignment
- Group work or no group work? I had all my students write their papers separately so I wouldn’t have to deal with complaints about anyone not pulling their weight. But, I let students who wanted to team up on their posters do so. I told them that they would both receive the same grade regardless of who did what on the poster, so they should choose their partners carefully. I also told them they could “divorce” their partners if needed. There were no problems.
- Give explicit guidelines about what is required on the poster, as most of the students will not have made one before. If I had more time, I would have liked to require them to turn in draft posters to be improved upon for the event itself in order to help them learn best practices of visual communication. Instead, I required a proposal and draft for the paper, but not the poster. You can see the assignment prompts at the bottom of this post, or download it here.
- How will you grade the posters? On the advice of my colleagues, I graded all the posters during the event itself so I didn’t have to take home a pile of oversize, falling-apart posters and then return them to students. This plan required me to have brief conversations with each student in front of their poster during the event itself. I created a single spreadsheet with each student’s name and a series of criteria on which to judge their work. I quickly abandoned this approach in the chaos of the event and just gave each student a holistic single grade after I looked at their poster and heard them speak about their work. I worked my way around the room systematically, so students could come stand by their work as they saw me approaching. I also quickly figured out that I only had time for short conversations with each student, and in a few case watched them have conversations with others rather than directly interacting with them myself.
Each quarter I try at least one new pedagogical idea in the classroom. Over time, this has given me a wide range of teaching experiences that have helped hone my style and priorities. As I continue this practice into the future, I hope it will also keep my teaching nimble and current.
Last quarter’s “new thing” was the student conference. As is often the case, I looked to my colleagues for inspiration. For this project, I drew on the experience of super-star teachers Ariana Kalinic and Christie McCullen. Thanks, you two! To pay forward their generosity, I share my experience with the assignment here.
The student-conference is modeled after a poster-session at an academic conference. Each student prepares a poster that provides an overview of the work they have conducted for their class research paper. They presents their posters at an end-of-the-quarter event scheduled during the allotted finals period. Students stand by their poster to answer questions for half of the event, and look at their peers’ posters for the other half.
If you’ve been to a million academic conferences already, this may not sound that exciting. But when we tried it in my Nature and Society class last quarter, I loved it! Here’s why.
- Students practice describing their intellectual interests in a semi-formal, semi-social setting. The give and take of the conversations that result introduces students to the pleasures of learning and discussing ideas.
- The event emphasizes active learning by asking students to circulate and ask questions of their peers, rather than passively absorbing information in the form of end-of-the-quarter presentations.
- Students get to learn from each other. This underscores that the teacher is not the source of all knowledge in the world, and conceptualizes all of the class participants as part of a learning community. Hopefully, decentering the teacher as the source of information positions students to become lifelong learners after they are no longer in school.
- Students describe their projects over and over again as new people visit their posters. This improves their ability to concisely describe their work as they try new ways of saying the same thing.
- Our event included not just the students in the class, but a handful of faculty and graduate students as well as some of my students’ friends and significant-others. This helped students meet other people that share their interests. I saw my students engage with these visitors about other writing they might want to read, other classes they could take before graduating, and the political implications of their research.
- Students get to interact with more than one teacher in the same space. This let them have intellectual conversations with faculty and teaching assistants that cut across their experiences in separate, often siloed, classes.
A note on evaluations. At my university, our student evaluations happen at the end of regular class meetings and before the finals period. Because we held the student conference during finals period, this meant that students were not able to reflect on the event in their course evaluations. To get a sense of what they thought in a systematic, anonymous fashion, I sent out a SurveyMonkey online evaluation after the class ended. Unfortunately, I didn’t get around to it until the students had all left campus for vacation. I also never sent out reminder e-mails after the first request to take the survey. So, only five students completed it. For what it’s worth, they all responded “yes” to this statement: “I would recommend the instructor incorporate an end of the quarter student conference into this class again in future.”
To give you a flavor of the event, I’ve posted photos below with the permission of the people depicted. Click on the thumbnails to see enlarged versions. Tomorrow I”ll post more information about how to set up the assignment.
Kristin Carlson discusses her critique of green consumerism as a solution to environmental problems.
Rachel Levy presents her poster on “Diet Related Disease in Food Insecure Communities.”
Ph.D. student Shun-Nan Chiang responds to Amanda Morris’s research on white nativist environmentalism at the US-Mexico border.
Christina Lopez stands by her poster on the environmental and health impacts of medical waste.
Evelyn Torres-Arellano describes her work on the links between environmental justice activism and transportation justice activism.
Carmen Hilldale discusses her research on “Idle No More and the Fight Against Bill C-45.”
Last fall I taught Nature and Society in my Sociology department for the first time. A few people have been asking to see my teaching materials recently, so I’ve embedded my syllabus below. You can also download it here. I’ll post the assignment prompts tomorrow, and perhaps some of the in-class activities soon thereafter.
Overall, I’m pleased with how the course worked out. On the last day of class, I asked the students to do a five minute free-write in which they reflected on what they had learned. I told them to describe what was most interesting, surprising, or memorable about the class. After they had processed their thoughts individually through the free-write, I asked for volunteers to share their thoughts. The group discussion that followed touched on a number of class themes, but two stood out in particular. Students were moved by the realization that human society is dependent on the environment. They also appreciated learning that the environment and environmentalism isn’t just for white people.
At first the simplicity of these realizations startled me, given the wide-ranging and complex topics with which we had grappled all quarter. But on reflection, I was satisfied with these learning outcomes. Indeed, much of the world continues to act as if human society knows no physical restraints. The discipline of sociology (in which most of my students were being trained) is no exception. For the most part, our canonical thinkers treated human society as somehow separate from the environment. The more recent creation of the sub-discipline of environmental sociology is one small exception in a large field. Similarly, national environmental organizations in the US continue to be staffed largely by whites, as a recent report by Dorceta Taylor documents. So, it makes sense that many of my students had not previously given much thought to human dependence on the environment, nor the many links between race and nature.
I hope to teach this class again in future, so please feel free to send your thoughts and reading suggestions.
If you’ve ever been to a workshop on how to write an op-ed, you’ll know that the leaders spend a lot of time talking about the need for your piece to have a “hook.” This usually means finding a way to link what you want to say to some kind of timely news event. Most of these are fairly straightforward. On Mother’s Day, you publish your op-ed about the need for state-sponsored maternity leave. On Valentine’s Day, you write about worker abuses and pesticide poisoning in the international cut-flower industry. Or, for another Valentine’s Day idea, you write about fossil fuels.
Wait, what? How do fossil fuels go together with Valentine’s Day? Well, watch “Breaking Up With Fossil Fuels is Hard to Do” for an example of a masterful, if somewhat unexpected, media “hook.”
Then, use it in your classrooms!
- For media studies classes, use it as an example of a media “hook,” as described above. Or use it after showing this video first. Then use both videos to analyze framing, strategic political communication, and how political actors respond to the messages of their opponents.
- For environmental studies, social movements, or politics classes, use the video above and this video as a way to get students interested in the politics of climate change. Both videos tell simplified, politicized stories. What truth is there in both videos? What are the the different plans that already exist for lowering our use of fossil fuels? What political forces oppose these plans? How likely are the plans to succeed in the contemporary political moment? What would it take for them to succeed?
- For gender classes, watch the first video and ask students, “How is gender being used in this vide? What does it mean that the “fossil fuels” character is female? That the narrator is female? That the story is tied to Valentine’s Day and breaking up? What stereotypes about women are being used to help make the point that we shouldn’t “Break up with fossil fuels?”
Thank you to Jean Boucher and Milton Takei for sharing these videos on the environmental sociology listserve of the American Sociological Association. Happy teaching!