Tuesday, May 5, 2020

Structure Your Course Page. Please.

I've been taking an online class on how to teach online classes. I've definitely learned some things, alas a few of them have been "never, ever do this thing they're doing in the online class".

I'm not an expert on online courses. This is the first time I've taught 100% online. But my normal introductory classes are often hybrid flipped courses, where students do readings/lectures and assessments online, while in-class periods are dedicated to activities. So, I have developed some expertise in creating functional online components to classes. Since many of us are struggling right now, I thought I'd share a few tips.

Today's tip: be deliberate in the way you visually structure your online course page(s)

In the past 13 years at UMN Morris, I have used Blackboard, umnwiki, Google pages, and Canvas. (No, I'm not fickle. The university keeps pulling my damn platforms out from under me.) Here is what I've learned from all of these platforms:

1) Students know how to navigate a standard-looking web page. If your LMS pushes you toward an alternative (I'm looking at you, Canvas Modules), your students will need to learn how to navigate that space, and they may find it confusing. They may not know where they are supposed to start, what activities come next, or when they have completed a full unit. This needs to be made clear, for example, by adding 'START HERE' to the title of the first activity a student should do.

Here's an example of a Canvas landing page:
Even though the page is very simple, it took me a while to realize that there was a slide show that I was supposed to download hidden under the first module heading. I first tried to take the quiz (for which I had no background), failed it because I couldn't figure out where I was supposed to get the background, then clicked on "Completion" to see what it required and accidentally gave myself credit for having completed the course. Um, OK. (I went back and read the slide presentation because I wanted the information.)

I don't assume my students have any more patience than I did to try and decipher this sign. Give me/them a damn sign that says "Do This First".

2) Limiting student choices for navigation can help students understand the structure of the class. LMSs often have bells and whistles that sounds good to professors or administrators (who make the purchasing decisions) but that may not help students. In Canvas, for example, one assignment can be found and/or approached from several different directions/pages. This is touted as 'flexibility' but it tends to create confusion. I disable a lot of the navigation links so when students land on the home page they only have a limited set of choices for moving forward.

For example, here is what a student sees on the Canvas landing page for my summer class:
It's very clear that a new student should click on the "Start Here" link, while students returning to the class can see where to find the Syllabus, FAQ, and the schedules and assignments for each unit. The navigation links on the left have been cleaned out, so only a few are visible (basically, their grades and the list of other students.) This is in contrast to the earlier example that had a long list of navigation links on the left, even though most of them led nowhere and weren't relevant. If a student is not familiar with the LMS, they may get confused by the number of useless links.

For my class, I even removed some navigation links that are relevant. For example, I could have assignments and discussions linked on the left. However, if students followed those navigation links they would get a disembodied list of discussions or assignments that were not contextualized. Yes, you can assign them to units and add dates, but look at the difference between the examples below.

Example 1 is a typical Module in Canvas. I used headings and different types of text to try to make it as readable as possible. (If it's confusing, it's likely because I use a mastery grading system in this class and without an explanation of the system the headings don't make much sense.)


There's nothing wrong with this example, it's just...a list of assignments. That's fine, as long as that's all you want. In this particular class, Intro to Biological Anthropology, I give students a link to this module page because, given the unusual grading system, it's useful to them.

But the second example shows the assignments as they are listed on (part of) the schedule for the unit. For most classes, I prefer students to only be able to access the assignments in this format: contextualized within the overall structure of the class and related to the readings or resources needed to do them. (Yes, they will also show up on their dashboard on a "To Do" list generated by Canvas, as well as on their Canvas calendar, but one can only do so much.)

Setting up the visual structure of my class this way means that students aren't (as I did in the first example) randomly clicking on quizzes they will fail and giving themselves credit for finishing a unit while they're still trying to figure out what they're supposed to do. Students follow the deliberately structured flow of the course, so they understand what they're doing, when, and the correct order of activities.

Because our University system is currently using Canvas (until they pull that out from under me, too), I rely heavily on my basic HTML skills to create Canvas "Pages" that look and act like a standard web page that students know how to navigate. If you don't use HTML and don't want to learn (but, honestly, my skills are very basic, it doesn't take much), I recommend using a wiki or Google pages. You can always use your LMS for grades and have the landing page just be a link to the web page or wiki where you actually maintain your course content.

tl;dr: students are better at navigating standard web pages than LMS-specific structures, and limiting student navigation options makes it easier for you to control the way students interact with and move through your class.

Saturday, November 24, 2018

Sex, Gender, and Sexuality in Intro to BioAnth

My twitter feed has been full of this great post by Holly Dunsworth: "It is unethical to teach evolution without confronting sexism and racism".

I've blogged before about how I teach about race and racism in Intro BioAnth, but I've only added a section on sex, gender, and sexuality in the last couple of years. I dedicate a week of class to the topic, coming at the end of my unit on human diversity in general.

The first day, students read a short post I wrote up just defining the terms sex, gender, sexual orientation, etc., etc. In class, they do an activity that involves graphing multiple types of data that compare males and females. This is one of a number of data-visualization activities that I do over the course of the semester. Overall, the purpose of these activities is to help students learn how to choose the correct chart for different analyses. The students are divided into groups of four. Each group is given four different sets of data and four graphing sheets. Each student in the group chooses one set of data and graphs it using a different type of chart. In the end, they share their charts and answer some discussion questions. In this particular activity, the data sets are: 1) distribution of male and female scores on the Math SAT (histogram; 2) male and female height (box and whisker plot); 3) upper-body muscle mass vs. lower-body muscle mass for males and females (scatterplot); 4) male and female words spoken during a meeting (pie chart).

The discussion questions afterward help students to recognize that many of the stereotypes we have about differences between the sexes or genders are not born out by the data. Furthermore, that most of the "differences" we claim divide the sexes are actually traits that show significant overlap. Finally, that the same data can tell different stories depending on how we present it. For example, just reporting median SAT scores by sex instead of showing the variation can give the mistaken impression that there are significant differences in the scores.

I'm happy to share this activity if anyone wants a copy.

The second day is dedicated to the complexity of human sex and sexuality. The students read the Agustin Fuentes post "Sex Doesn't Have to Make Sense". In class, I do an activity based on this lesson plan at Understanding Prejudice. I also give a lecture with details about the complex genetic/hormonal/fetal/environmental mixture that we try to turn into a sex binary.

The final day we focus on intersex athletes. I assign a recent article about an intersex athlete. Last year, it was "Caster Semenya is at risk..." During class, I use a mixture of lecture and discussion to pull together several concepts in the class as they apply to intersex athletes. We talk about the difference between genotype and phenotype. We talk about genetic and phenotypic variation, and how elite athletes are extreme in genotypes but, more importantly, in the training environment. Finally, we talk about why gender is a salient category, more salient than, say, height or muscle mass, even when making decisions about who can compete against whom in sports. I introduce the history of gender policing and man-woman competitions in the Olympics (and how they have a tendency to end as soon as women start winning gold, even in sports, like shooting, where gender/sex shouldn't really matter.). It's an excellent summary of the material we've already covered in the class, and hopefully leaves the students better able to apply their knowledge to current issues.

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Diversifying Intro to Biological Anthropology

I'm trying to diversify the readings in my Intro to BioAnth class so students get a more complete picture of the field. I hope to provide role models for all students, so they can see themselves as potential anthropologists. Also, since I frequently discuss in the class how the field was affected by (and has inspired) racism, sexism, and other forms of bias, it makes sense to try to raise up marginalized voices.

The class has two textbooks: How Humans Evolved, by Boyd and Silk (or is it Silk and Boyd this year?) and The Alternative Introduction to Biological Anthropology, by Jonathan Marks, but I also assign a number of blog posts or news articles that are easier and more fun to read. I have added the following readings/resources as assigned material for the class:

So, I have a few readings that diversify the course, but I'd like to do a lot more. I'd love your suggestions for readings or activities (in or out of the classroom) that are appropriate to first-year, non-major students and that will introduce them to a wider variety of voices within the field.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

The Past Speaks to the Present

I was the grateful recipient of this year's University of Minnesota Morris Alumni Association Teaching Award, our main campus teaching award. Traditionally, the recipient serves as mace-bearer during commencement (I briefly set my robe on fire when the mace's glass head was hit by direct sunlight), and gives the (blissfully short) main speech at the Honors and Awards Ceremony the night before. The speech was well received, and I did not spontaneously combust even once. Win!

I took the opportunity to say a little about what lessons the deep past may have for students about to embark on the next stage of their lives. I've reproduced my remarks below, but cut off the introduction so the beginning sounds more awkward that it did during the actual event.

I’m an anthropologist, and my specialty is archaeology. I study and teach about the deep past. Like many topics that are part of the Liberal Arts, some may wonder what is the point of studying the deep past? What importance does it have to the present?

Our bodies – yours and mine -- are shaped by the past, through the DNA passed down from the parents here with us tonight, and the countless generations before them. Our communities are shaped by the past, through the history of our families, whether immigrant, indigenous, or carried here against their will. Our nation is shaped by the past, forged through the coming together of people whose struggles, for and against each other, created the institutions we rely upon today. The past, in other words, made us.

As Shakespeare once wrote: “What’s past is prologue.”

We read the prologue to a play to better understand, to better contextualize, the first act. Your first act. I teach about the past because I care about the future, and the future is sitting before me today, and you are about to embark on the great story of your lives. I could not be prouder or more confident of your ability to create a truly epic narrative.

So with that in mind, I want to bring to your attention two important lessons that the deep past can give to you (other than the obvious, like “never poke a sleeping mammoth”, or “a cave painting is worth a thousand words”)

First, the uniqueness of humanity is our ability to cooperate and create community. (No matter what your social media feed might look like). Like humans, gorillas will fight over territory, but even the most cranky preschooler could teach them a thing or two about sharing. Chimpanzees have been documented to commit murder, but never to work together in raising a child. Human cooperation – far more importantly than our technology – cultivated the landscape, raised the pyramids, and took us to the moon. All of human history is the history of community and cooperation, and sometimes, unfortunately, its dissolution. So I ask you to find your community; nurture, organize, and embrace it. United, you will do great things.

Second, we have always been more alike than we are different. Communities around the world have been connected since long before “globalization” became a modern buzz-word. Medieval kings in Zimbabwe traded with China; Arabic inscriptions have been found in Viking sites in Sweden; Midwestern farmers in the 3rd century AD traded for materials from the Rocky Mountains. We have always been interconnected.

Our modern barriers of race, class, nationalism, and religion – even warfare itself – are quite recent in human history, from the perspective of an archaeologist (which, granted, means anytime in the last 10,000 years). When the first cities rose in Mesopotamia 6,000 years ago, Europeans still had dark skin like their cousins in Africa. Two thousand years ago, Rome created a vast empire where people of many ethnicities and religions lived in reasonable peace side by side. The same could be said of ancient empires in India, China, Chile, and Mexico. When Mohammed first preached tolerance for his spiritual cousins, the Jews and the Christians, he laid the foundation for thirteen-hundred years of coexistence in Islamic kingdoms.

So, don’t let anyone convince you that hostility towards those who are different from you is inevitable. Instead, create communities that cross national, class, racial, gendered, and religious boundaries. Make the world safe for human differences by focusing on our commonalities. In doing so, you are calling on the deep history of human connectedness.

I leave you with this final, and most important message about the past: Don’t forget from whence you came. Your family and community shaped you. We count on you to return the favor.

Congratulations, honored students. I can’t wait to see what your first act looks like. I know it will do us proud.

Thank you.

Obviously, I'm focusing on the positive, but it's a graduation speech; it's probably not the best time to dwell on conquest and colonialism. And, yes, one can quibble about details, -- I had five minutes, I didn't have time to give the whole song and dance about alloparenting in chimpanzees! -- but I stand by the general message. 

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Writing Plausible but Incorrect Multiple Choice Answers

It's time to write final exams and many of us are wracking our brains to come up with 3-4 incorrect answers for each multiple choice question. I actually enjoy writing exams, but I've talked to enough faculty who struggle to write plausible incorrect answers that I put together the tips below.

One unrelated suggestion for making multiple choice exams that better reflect your students' learning: if you give an exam on Moodle or some other teaching platforms, you can create multiple choice questions with more than one correct answer. Incorrect answers will lower the point total (otherwise students would just fill in every bubble), but unless students mark all the correct answers they won't get full credit. This gives them less than a 25% shot at guessing the right answer.

Onward to tips for writing plausible but incorrect multiple choice answers:

1) This is obvious, but the first step is to include any common misconceptions. For example, if students frequently confuse evolution in general with the process of natural selection in particular, then include a popular definition of natural selection as one of the options. (If you don't know and are curious, "a" is the correct answer in all of the examples below.)
Which of these is the definition of evolution?
                  a. change through time in allele frequencies in a population
                  b. survival of the fittest 
If there are multiple common misconceptions, include them all:
Which of these is the definition of evolution?
                  a. change through time in allele frequencies in a population
                  b. survival of the fittest 
                  c. progress toward better species
                  d. the improvement of the gene pool

2) Once I've added common misconceptions as answers (or if there aren't any for a particular question), I riff off of the main phrases in the question for plausible-sounding answers that are actually unrelated to the concepts being tested. For example:
What is the Complete Replacement theory of modern human origins?
                  a. Anatomically modern Homo sapiens sapiens originated in East Africa 200,000 years ago, then out-competed all other Middle Pleistocene hominins
                  b. Modern humans originated from the complete (or nearly complete) replacement of chimpanzee genes with new human genes
                  c. Modern humans originated when they exchanged (replaced) a reliance on instincts with learned, cultural behaviors
                 
These answers combine common misconceptions about human evolution (that we have no instincts, that we're 100% different from apes) with plausible meanings of the phrase "complete replacement". Note that the weasel-wording in choice b is what really makes that work. The whole "complete (or nearly complete)" just sounds so plausibly academic.

3) The alternative to #2 (or an addition, I suppose) is to make the wrong answers descriptions of the alternative theories taught. As so:
What is the Complete Replacement theory of modern human origins?
                  a. Anatomically modern Homo sapiens sapiens originated in East Africa 200,000 years ago, then out-competed all other Middle Pleistocene hominins 
                  b. Anatomically modern Homo sapiens sapiens evolved locally throughout the Old World, sharing traits between regions through extensive gene flow 
                  c. Anatomically modern Homo sapiens sapiens originated in East Africa 200,000 years ago, then reproduced with other Middle Pleistocene hominins in the Old World

4) Finally, if all else fails, I include one or more "big word". If a student doesn't really know the material, they may be tempted by an answer that sounds "fancy" or "scienc-y", even if it doesn't make sense. It's best if this is a vocabulary word they're supposed to know (two birds with one stone!) Similarly, a name they don't know (of a person or place) may seem plausible if they're uncertain. Some examples:

Which of these traits was found in Australopithecines compared to modern humans?
                  a. long arms relative to body size
                  b. encephalization 
                  c. holocene adaptations
                  d. reduced prognathism
                  e. glaciation cycles


Denisovans were:
                  a. fossils from the genus Homo found in Denisova, Siberia, whose DNA is found in some  modern humans
                  b. the discoveries of Piotr Denisov, whose research on pre-modern human skulls led to the discovery of Broca's area 
                  c. fossil Homo erectus specimens found at the site of St. Denis in southern France
                  d. a species related to Australopithecus afarensis named for their discoverer, Denis Ovans. 

What tricks do you use? Leave your tips in the comments, please!

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Immigration Teach-In

UMM's Students for a Democratic Society held a Day of Action on immigration this week. One event was a faculty teach-in which brought together a diverse group of disciplines to (briefly!) give their perspective on the issue. Faculty from world languages, history, anthropology, psychology, education, and political science spoke. It was one of the more effective examples of the power of the liberal arts that I've had the privilege of witnessing.

I presented on how anthropologists understand differences between people from different racial or ancestral groups. We only had five minutes to speak. As any faculty member knows, five minutes is only enough time to clear your throat and introduce yourself, so I wrote out my comments and spoke very, very fast. I'm sharing them here:

Our nation has a long history of believing that immigrants – or any people whose ancestry is different from that of the people in charge – have lower intelligence, poorer skill sets, lesser work-ethics, or lower inherent worth. The field of Biological Anthropology developed in the context of studying just this question. In the 18th and 19th century, early Anthropologists were part of society’s elite: mostly male, mostly Anglo-Saxon, mostly Protestant. They used everything from IQ tests to skull measurements to evolutionary theory to “prove” that people of different ancestries were inferior in some inherent way.
 Since then, Anthropology had learned a lot about human differences, so from that perspective I’d like to suggest two things you should keep in mind when you hear blanket pronouncements about the inherent characteristics of people based on their ancestry or nation of origin:
 One, racial categories are reflections of power, not biology. Every one of us is different, genetically and physically. But, our differences are continuous and varied; they don’t fit neatly into discrete categories, but we as a society create racial categories that are artificially discrete. Let’s consider a white woman who has two children. One child’s father is Black, the other child’s father is white. The children are siblings, so they are very close biologically, with a lot more genetic overlap than I have with any other white person in this room. But, socially, one child is Black, the other is White. Race is not a reflection of biology, but a social category.
 These social categories were created to fit social needs, not to reflect human biology. For example, Early Colonial America didn’t use racial categories the way we do. People from Africa and Europe could be free servants; people from Africa and Natives of North America could be enslaved. They weren’t “Black” or “White”. But, (to elide a lot of history) the European colonists couldn’t meet their labor demands with free labor, so they created a harsh system of slavery, different from what had been seen previously in Europe. This was slavery for life, handed down for generations. And because this system didn’t fit with moral precedents, they also created a race-based system to justify it. They invented “Black” and “White” to justify this brutal system based on claimed “inherent differences” between people.
 This isn’t the only time our culture (or others) have created racial categories to reflect or serve the power structure of society. Through history, what our nation has defined as “White” has depended on who was in power. Many European immigrant groups (Irish, Italians, Greeks, and Eastern Europeans) were not considered White. As those immigrants were assimilated into the U.S., their racial status changed.
 The second thing you should keep in mind when you hear blanket pronouncements about the inherent characteristics of people based on their ancestry or nation of origin: everything Anthropologists have learned from the late 1800s until now suggests that environment is far more important than “inherent biological differences” in understanding differences in behavior, skills, and success between groups with different ancestral backgrounds. As I said, early Anthropologists spent a lot of time trying to measure “inferior racial characteristics” in people from different parts of the world, but we modern Anthropologists like to forget those flawed studies and instead date the founding of our field from the work of Franz Boas in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Franz Boas showed that the “racial characteristics” that his fellow anthropologists had measured in immigrant groups, such as differences in skull shape, disappeared in their American-born children. .When immigrant’s children grew up in the U.S., in the same environment as “native-born” Americans, they had the same traits and outcomes. So, the “inherent biological differences” that these scientists thought they were measuring weren’t inherent at all, they were a product of the environment
 We now have more than 100 years of data showing that when people from different ancestral backgrounds are given the same opportunities to succeed, they do. We now know that IQ, SAT-scores, and other standardized tests  -- which are very flawed measure of intelligence -- are a better reflection of socio-economic status than race, for example. We can look at twin studies of genetically identical people raised in different environments which show that environment – particularly socio-economic status – has a major impact on standardized test scores. We can look at standardized tests of Americans from different races who are raised outside the racial caste system of the U.S. and see that, when raised without constant exposure to those biases, racial differences in standardized test-scores disappear. We can look at people of color from different socioeconomic backgrounds. All of these studies show that standardized test scores reflect how many years of good-quality, well-funded schools you attended, not inherent intelligence differences between people.
 Too often, our society hasn’t given different communities the same opportunities to succeed. Our society throws up innumerable barriers in front of African-American, Latino, and Native American Indian people. Individuals in these communities face discrimination, housing segregation, school segregation and underfunding, and fewer professional opportunities and barriers to advancement. To the extent that we, as a society, put similar barriers in front of new immigrants, we can expect similar inequalities in education, wealth, or skill attainment. But, this is a social problem, not an inherent difference in ability between those who were born in this country and those who were not.
 Trust me, I’m an anthropologist. We have tried for hundreds of years to find measurable differences in the intelligence, morality, work-ethic, or inherent worth of different communities. The only differences we’ve found are the ones we’ve created ourselves.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

The Point of the Past

Why do we study the past?

George Santayana is famously quoted as saying "those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." That, of course, is utter bullshit. The world could suffer collective amnesia of the Industrial Revolution, but we wouldn't have to re-invent the combustion engine.

I'm more partial to Marx's contention in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte: "Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce." (Marx forgot to add that in their third iteration they return as blockbuster Broadway musicals.)

Marx goes on to say: 

Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. And just as they seem to be occupied with revolutionizing themselves and things, creating something that did not exist before, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honored disguise and borrowed language. 
Although we may quibble with the darkness of Marx's vision, he raises two important points about the past and why we study it: 

  1. Our present existence and course is contingent upon the past. Today we may call this "path dependency" rather than "the tradition of all dead generations", but the point remains. We are standing on a road created by all the decisions, traditions, and occurrences of the past. Although we can step off of that road, there are immense barriers to doing so. Understanding the world around us -- and what lies ahead -- requires understanding how the road was built.
  2. The past is, always has been, and always will be, a powerful political tool. It can be used to legitimize both revolution and stasis. It can be manipulated to scatter the proud and put down the mighty from their seats, or to justify the basest of injustice. Its lessons change as our society changes, as we forge a useful past for our current circumstances.

Why then do we study the past? 

Because we are the past. In our individual biology, our personalities, our political and social institutions, we are the cumulative effect of all that came before. Granted, we are shaken, stirred, and re-combined into unique constructions, but there is nothing new under the sun; in studying the past, we study ourselves. Our past is an intrinsic part of our identity, present, and future.


Because the past is political. We cannot disconnect politics from the past, but we owe ourselves and our society some veracity. Not Truth-with-a-capital-T. (Truth, as the world's most famous archaeologist once said, belongs to the Philosophy department.) Instead, we must be open to all of the past, to allow the past to speak in the voices of those who may have passed down little to the modern world except the fruits of anonymous labor, fragments of items lost, scraps of DNA. If the past must be political, then let it be democratized. Let it be representative of all.